Tag Archives: bar mitzvah

An Invitation

by Linda Laderman (Commerce Township, MI)

Invited to a friend’s grandson’s Bar Mitzvah I am divided,

directed to sit behind a gauzy white screen in the balcony.

My Siddur lies on my lap open to a random page.

Ancient words in a language that still feels foreign to me.

Yet I stand on command, a stranger in my old house.

Near the end of a long hardwood pew by the exit

I watch a round-faced woman, young enough to be my

granddaughter, hair hidden under a shiny black sheitel.

A bevy of blue ribboned ponytails nestle their restless bodies

close to her. In a meditative moment she stands and presses

her back against a wall. Eyes closed, she rests her fingers

in the sliver of space between her breasts and burgeoning belly,

then turns and gazes at the five fresh faces looking at her.

Each one returns her gaze, leaning toward her like a chain of flowers.

She pulls a fistful of candy from her pockets & passes pieces

of the sweets down the row, then beckons her girls closer.

Locking arms, they rise and follow her out to begin the long-skirted

walk home. Too late to catch her eye, wishing I could have told her how

I once sat & fished rock candy from my mother’s pockets, my tight

ponytail pulling at my forehead. I think of what it is to want and not want,

to separate from what is given. Boxed & bowed, waiting for me to open

the lid to take what’s there, a package I have been unwilling to unwrap.

After the last prayer is recited, I hurry down the stairs. For a minute,

I imagine I have time to catch up with the mother and her five Shana Maidelas.

 Linda Laderman grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where she has wonderful memories of walking to services and sitting in the balcony with her mother and grandmother at the old B’nai Jacob Synagogue. She earned an undergraduate degree in journalism from the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Her news stories and features have appeared in media outlets and magazines. She returned to school in the 1990’s graduating with a Master’s of Liberal Studies and a Juris Doctor degree from The University of Toledo. Her memoir piece, “Grandmother’s Warning” was published in the summer 2021 edition of the Michigan Jewish Historical Society Journal, and later reprinted in the Detroit Jewish News. Her poetry has appeared in The Jewish Literary Journal, The Bangalore Review and The Sad Girls Literary Blog and is forthcoming this spring in The Scapegoat Review, The Write Launch and Beyond Words Literary Magazine. Linda currently lives in the Detroit area. For the last decade, she has volunteered as a docent at the Zekelman Holocaust Center, where she leads adult discussion tours and is a member of the Docent Advisory Committee. 

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, poetry

Mazal tov, mazal tov!

November 22, 2021

Dear JWP contributors:

We’d like to thank each one of you for helping us reach our thirteenth year—our Bar Mitzvah year—and for trusting us with your work since the day back in 2008 when we opened our doors and invited writers to share your stories and poems with us.

The first JWP story appeared on November 5, 2008, and since then we’ve had the pleasure and good fortune of publishing 465 stories and poems which have come to us from writers spread across the globe (Canada, Israel, France, Australia, Gibraltar, South Africa, Spain, Germany, England, and, of course, the United States) and from 32 states (from Alabama to Wisconsin), all of which have helped us explore what it means to be Jewish.

When we look back at the past thirteen years, we find ourselves amazed (and, quite honestly, inspired) by the way each writer has made such a sincere effort to understand Jewish identity and Jewish life today. The diversity of voices, the depth of insights, and the strong desire–some might call it a compulsion–to explore the many aspects of Jewishness in so many ways, and from so many perspectives, well, it’s quite simply breath-taking.  

So, before this month ends, we’d like to pause for a moment to offer our gratitude to all of the writers who have helped deepen —and expand— our understanding of Judaism over the years. Your stories and poems have provided us with a stunning kaleidoscopic perspective of Jewish life and culture, and, in the process, have made us more sensitive to the multitude of different voices that are part of being Jewish today. 

Each writer has a different voice, of course, a voice that might sound different than those we may be used to hearing. And when we listen closely to each story, each poem, we can hear the sound of a key turning to open a writer’s heart and receive in return a precious gift—a deeply personal understanding of what it means to be Jewish. 

For all that we’ve learned from each other over the past thirteen years, and for all that I hope we’ll continue to learn from each other in the years ahead, thanks to each contributor (and to our readers, as well), for joining us in this project, which was created to help each of us explore the nature of being Jewish. 

May all of you continue to find joy and meaning in the words that appear on your pages each day. 


Bruce Black

Editorial Director (and Founder)

The Jewish Writing Project



Filed under Jewish, Jewish writing

Born in America

by Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

As a boy I learned Hebrew while sitting in
a cramped, stifling second-floor classroom
on Wednesday afternoons and on Sunday
mornings, chalk dust in the air and cigarette
smoke mixed with sweat and the stale smell
of ink and old paper, reading Bible stories
from ancient books with dusty yellow pages
and the smell of an exotic, sun-drenched land
rising from between the lines.

The land was called Israel—Eretz Yisrael
in Hebrew—and I was told to call it home,
even though home for me was a split-level
house in northern New Jersey within sight
of the tall spires of Manhattan where my
father worked, and all I knew about Israel
was that it was hot and dusty, a dry land
covered in sand, a place where refugees with
numbers tattooed on their arms came from
Europe’s death camps to build new lives.

I remember how the Hebrew letters felt so
strange on the tip of my tongue and made
the back of my throat swell so that I nearly
choked on the words, and I remember how
I turned the pages hoping my teacher wouldn’t
call on me to read, afraid I’d stumble and trip
in front of my friends over the unfamiliar words.

In the end I learned what I had to learn for
my bar mitzvah, no more, no less, and memorized
all the Hebrew words and how they were supposed
to sound by listening to a record the rabbi had
made, and I repeated the words over and over again
until they sounded like words that came from my
heart, words that I had absorbed in my mother’s
milk as an infant nursing at her breast.

Only I could never convince myself that Hebrew
was really my language. I always felt like an
imposter reading the words, as if the odd-shaped
letters and words belonged to someone else. I was
an American Jew, after all, and, like most Americans,
I spoke English, not Hebrew. And when I walked down
the streets of my suburban town in northern New Jersey,
I foolishly thought that my friends and I were safe
forever from the horrors of the past, and that Israel
served as a haven for others, not for Jews like us
who had been born in America.

How my friends and I had laughed at the idea that
we needed to learn Hebrew. Instead, we dreamed of
playing basketball and throwing a football in a high
spiral on a perfect autumn afternoon and sneaked
peeks across the aisle at the girls, their heads bent
over their books, pretending that we weren’t there,
intent on learning the Hebrew words that all of us
might need one day to strengthen our bonds as Jews.

Bruce Black is is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, poetry

A Lasting Snapshot

By Bill Levine (Belmont, MA)

Every 50 years or so, my dad hosted a Bar Mitzvah celebration. The first was my own Bar Mitzvah in 1964, and then a belated celebration for my 20-year old nephew in 2013.  I appreciated my dad’s second celebration of Judaism much more than the first as it was an event that sealed off the fallout from sibling toxicity—at least for a day.

When my father first announced his intention to stage this rite of passage, I was skeptical.  I couldn’t envision my sister’s son, Gabe, adding to his Brandeis academics with Bar Mitzvah lessons.  I worried that dad at 94 didn’t have the wherewithal and energy to transform this bucket list item to reality.  Then there was the problem of my sister and I.  Could we collaborate instead of fight over our object of estrangement, namely dad’s checkbook?

On a Sunday afternoon in April it really did happen.  At my sister’s request, I had agreed to cut dad’s checks for Bar Mitzvah shoes for Gabe and floral flourishes instead of just flowers. With our help, Dad was able to shepherd in his last hurrah, and my nephew dedicated himself to learning Torah.  As the cantor warmed up the guests by extoling the virtues of my nephew, I surveyed the makeshift sanctuary.  The buffet table was packed with eating contests portions of deli. No one would leave hungry unless they were vegan.

The Senior Life residence function room filled with odd demographics—mostly under 21 Brandeis students; aging baby boomers; and the over 85 crowd.  It was an advertiser’s nightmare: no one 25-54. What resonated with me the most, though, was that my dad, my nuclear family, and my sister’s brood were all in the  same room for the first time since my dad’s 90th birthday party was held four years ago.

Later in the service I was called up for an aliyah to close the portable ark  in tandem with my sister.  Due to our recent turbulent relationship, I was disarmed when she gave me this procedural honor.  But it occurred to me that maybe closing the ark curtains could start to close the curtains on several years of friction between us.

After the service, my dad’s “greatest generation” crowd headed right for the buffet table, happy to be partaking of a spread that wasn’t punctuated by the sadness of a shiva.  Our extended family—consisting of dad, my son Matt, my sister, my niece Molly, myself and my wife Lesley—all sat together for the first time since mom’s funeral six years before. Our table talk was a triumph based on the low expectation threshold of no put-downs or arguments.  Meanwhile, a sprinkling of long-time connections paid their respects to my wheel-chair bound dad, introducing themselves with a hopeful “Remember me…”

Later came the shared  “what a family moment.” My fellow boomer cousin, Johnny, took out his iPhone, and my family huddled around to view a series of standard old relative shots featuring great-aunts in voluminous bathing suits on long demolished boardwalks.  Then Johnny showed us a picture of three well-dressed men in a 1940s swank nightclub. One was my great-uncle, one a cousin, and, unbelievably, the third man was Joe DiMaggio, The Yankee Clipper.  Right then I thought, Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? To hang out with my family, obviously.  Our family was blessed with a TMZ (a celebrity gossip TV show and website) moment.

When the guests left, they took with them large Styrofoam containers of deli, enough for several brunches. My sister had ordered too much food at my dad’s expense.  I was irked. But I understood there was a truce on sibling rancor. Besides, I thought dad might have preferred the gluttony because at his Depression-era Bar Mitzvah his monetary gifts had doubled as the payments to the caterer.

A year after the Bar Mitzvah, dad was dead, and my sister and I were dueling heirs yet again. But dad had given me that day a lasting snapshot of a functioning, reasonably  happy birth family. It is still a vision to shoot for.

Bill Levine is a semi-retired IT professional, aspiring humorist, and freelance writer residing in Belmont, MA.

NoteA Lasting Snapshot” was published previously as “The Bar Mitzvah Gift” in the Jewish Advocate and also on a senior’s web-site, GO60.US. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

My First Aliyah

by Judith Rosner (Sarasota, FL) 

I sat between my husband and brother and watched the snow falling through the stained glass windows of the synagogue as I folded and unfolded the piece of paper in my hands that held the prayers said before and after a Torah portion is read.  My cousin Walter sent them to me in the mail, written in Hebrew along with the English pronunciation.  I practiced saying them on and off during the two-hour drive from our home to Princeton, New Jersey where the synagogue was located and where his son, David, was to be bar mitzvahed.  I was both nervous and excited to be called to the bimah for an aliyah with my brother.  It was my first time.

Expecting a Reform service, since that’s how I remembered Walter being raised and where I feel most comfortable, I was surprised to find myself surrounded instead by the songs and prayers of my childhood—the cadence of a Conservative Jewish upbringing I long ago left behind. 

While my brother and all the boys went to Hebrew School preparing for their bar mitzvahs, I was sent to Sunday School with the other girls.  Our teacher, Mrs. Sands, was a beautiful, young Israeli.  She exuded class and charm and had a figure we adolescents dreamed of having as adults.  Full of life and ready with a smile, she had short, blonde, wavy hair.  Her dangling earrings would catch the light and brighten the glow about her.  Mrs. Sands had us mesmerized as we learned how to read Hebrew from a book similar to the English reader, “Dick and Jane.”   She taught us how to speak conversational Hebrew and to write in Hebrew script.  She led us in Israeli folk dances and taught us Israeli songs. 

Then one Sunday when we arrived for class, Mrs. Sands wasn’t there and we were told she wasn’t coming back.  Most of us figured she was let go because we were having too much fun and the Rabbi wasn’t happy about that.  Another theory was that she pronounced Hebrew words in the more modern, Israeli way.  In the end, all we knew was that the Rabbi fired her.  We never found out why.  And the injustice of his act led to an act of my own.

I decided I was done—done with Sunday School, done with the synagogue and its sexist rituals, done feeling warmly toward the religious teachings of my youth.  If Mrs. Sands wasn’t welcome, I didn’t want to be part of the establishment that didn’t want her.

I was pulled from my childhood memories as I heard the Cantor call my name along with my brother’s.  The English “Judy Rosner” sounded out of place, but then the Cantor used my Hebrew name, Y’hudite.  It rang true and sounded just right.  I was shaking as I took my place before the Torah scroll open on the reading table.  I felt a catch in my chest that made me worried I might cry.  Somehow I managed to say the prayers I had practiced along with my brother.  My daughter told me later she could barely hear me over my brother’s boom.  My husband was kinder and told me my voice complemented my brother’s nicely.

When we finished reciting the prayer after the Torah reading, the Cantor began moving me to the other side of the reading table.  I wasn’t tuned into the choreography of Torah reading, which he soon realized as he muttered somewhat annoyed under his breath, “No one seems to know where to go.” 

Rather boldly, I whispered back, “That’s because it’s my first time.”

“Your first time?” the Cantor asked incredulously.  “We’ll have to do something about that.”

And then came the best part.  The Rabbi rolled the Torah together and put a cloth on top as if to say, “Well get back to you in a moment,” and then he and the Cantor sang a special prayer just for me because it was my first aliyah.  Then the whole congregation sang the congratulatory song “Siman Tov! Mazal Tov! In effect, I was becoming bat mitzvahed, Conservative-style.  I felt proud, beautiful, and very special.  Mrs. Sands would have approved.

This wasn’t just a religious coming of age moment for me.   It was a political one as well.  Here I was, a woman in a Conservative synagogue, permitted to stand at the bimah and given an honor.  The synagogue of my youth would stand for no such thing.  Women took no part in the service, were not bat mitzvahed, and were never called up to the ark.

So now that G-d’s house has accepted me—on some of my terms, anyway—I feel better able to open my sanctuary, my heart, to G-d.  I still haven’t forgiven my childhood Rabbi for firing Mrs. Sands, and I still feel a bit like a foreigner in a Conservative synagogue, but I’m delighted that women now play a greater part in the service and that female rabbis have made their way to the bimah. 

I’ve been honored with an aliyah a number of times with my husband in recent years, most notably at the bat mitzvah of our daughter.  And each time I’ve been nervous and excited when singing the prayers.  However, none has had the emotional impact of my first time before the Torah at the Conservative synagogue in Princeton, New Jersey at the bar mitzvah of my young cousin, David.

Judith Rosner is a sociologist, leadership trainer, and executive coach.  She has published articles in the areas of leadership and management, stress and health, and women in the professions.  Her primary focus now is memoir.

For more information about Judy, you can visit her websitewww.therosnergroup.com.


Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

Growing Up Jewish in the South

by Jerome Massey (Fairfax , VA)

Interviewed by Rick Black (Arlington, VA)

(Rick Black and Jerome Massey met through Olam Tikvah, their shul in Fairfax, Virginia. This is the first of a two-part interview.)

RB: What was your bringing up like being Jewish in the South?

JM: I was born in Norfolk, VA, 27th of July 1922. My mother, Mollie Leibowitz, came from Latvia when she was maybe 10 years old. My father was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1900 and they got married in Norfolk, Virginia, probably around 1918-1919.

My Dad was apprenticed to a tinsmith when he was, I think, maybe 12,13,14 years old and when he was 16 years old, he finished his apprenticeship and was considered a mechanic. He claimed that he was the youngest tinsmith-mechanic on the Atlantic coast. He stayed in that kind of work til the 1920s and then he went to several other businesses.

The economic times in the early 1920s – things were good and things were bad; people made fortunes and lost fortunes. He ended up in the shoe business and worked for Hofeimer’s – that was a chain of shoe stores. He worked for them for a while and then he came up to Washington and worked for Hahn’s Shoe Company and another shoe company and then he went into business for himself.

My mother and he broke up, he remarried to Henrietta Driefus over in Alexandria, and my sister and I spent part of the year in Alexandria and part of the year in Norfolk – that went on for quite a few years. My mother remarried to Joseph Hecht, who was a watchmaker and jeweler, so I was raised by several different families. I was raised by an Orthodox family, a Conservative family and a German Jewish family.

RB: Was your mother the Orthodox side of the family?

JM: Yes, my mother came from an Orthodox family and my father’s family was Conservative. But I guess I might be what they call a universalist. I believe that all religions are basically the same and they all teach you to be a good person. And if you follow the Bible, the Pentateuch or the Koran, they are all teaching tools to teach you to be a good person. And to teach you that we’re all human. We all make mistakes but we’re all human and God put us on the earth to take care of it and make it a better place.

RB: Did being in the military influence your faith at all?

JM: I guess so. You have some very, very bad experiences and then you wonder why you’re still here and then you finally come to one conclusion: that God puts everybody on earth for a reason, to accomplish something, and when you’ve accomplished that, it’ll just be time for you to leave. That’s more or less my thoughts on that.

RB: Did you used to have family seders?

JM: Oh, of course, we had seders all of Pesach, the first and second seder and the last seder at my grandfather’s house. All the big family was there, all my aunts and uncles and all their children. It went on from sunset to midnight. And my grandfather made his own wine. He had two kinds: he had some for the children and women and he had some for the men. I don’t know what he put in the men’s but it was much stronger than what he gave the children and the women.

RB: Did you ever help him make the wine?

JM: A little bit. He had these five gallon jugs – you know, these big five gallon jugs? – he used them. But there was never a shortage of bronfen at my grandfather’s house.

RB: What’s bronfen?

JM: You don’t know what bronfen is?

RB: No. Is that Yiddish?

JM: Bronfen is . . .

RB: Liquor?

JM: Yes.

RB: I never heard that term.

JM: It’s rye. Rye whiskey. There was never a shortage. When I was little I lived across the street from my grandmother and grandfather, so I would go across the street to their apartment and go with him to shul and he was the hazzan at the shul. I was the only grandson that went with him to shul. The other grandchildren didn’t live close by. Every Shabbas I went with him – Friday night, Saturday morning. I’d spend Friday night with him and then at the services on Saturday morning, they called him in, he would sit at this long table and discuss – I guess they were discussing the parsha of the week – I don’t know; I didn’t understand what they were talking about.

RB: In Yiddish or English?

JM: Yiddish.

RB: Did you understand Yiddish?

JM: Yes. It’s mostly gone now but at sundown, well, after services you would go back home and rest, and after sundown we would walk down to his store which was maybe eight blocks away, and open up his store, his grocery store. And he would keep that open, I guess, til 10 o’clock at night.

RB: On Saturday?

JM: Yes. You know, after sundown you can open . . .

RB: Yes.

JM: He sold live chickens and he had a shochet in the back – you know, to kill the chickens – and he had people in the back to take the feathers and everything off the chickens. You know, it smelled bad back there. And the shochet, I don’t know, I think the shochet charged him twenty-five cents or whatever it was. But that was normal in those days.

And my mother remarried to Joseph Hecht – a fine gentleman, my stepfather. He was very mechanically inclined and so he taught me how to use all kinds of tools. He said, ‘You could do anything you want to do and if you don’t do it right the first time, do it over again and eventually you’ll do it right.’ So, he would work on automobile engines or a watch – it didn’t make any difference, he could work on anything – and I learned how to do all these things. So, I was spending part of my time in Norfolk – my sister and I – we spent part of our time in Norfolk and part of our time in Alexandria.

RB: Was it much different up in Alexandria?

JM: It was entirely different because you went from more or less Ashkenazic, Russian or Latvian Jews to German Jews who had been in this country since, oh, some of ’em prior to the Civil War and right after the Civil War. So, you had – I think the word is nouveau riche – you had the rich German Jews and you had the people that had just come over from Russia. I guess just like the wetbacks who come up from Mexico, just finding their way around. So, you had two different civilizations, you might say. When you had dinner with the people up in Alexandria, always white linen tablecloths, white linen napkins, beautiful silverware, glassware and someone to serve the food to you. And your table manners had to be perfect; everything had to be perfect cause that’s the way they were. While the people down South – you might say almost, well, they weren’t peasants but there was a difference in their whole outlook. The people up in Alexandria were bridge players; the people in Norfolk were poker players. I mean, you’ve got different stratums of society.

RB: Would you go to shul up in Alexandria, too?

JM: In Alexandria, we went to the Beth El Temple. They had a rabbi that they had brought over from Germany while in Norfolk we had both the Conservative and the Orthodox shuls. We went to both of them, or all of them, and it was strange. When I went up to Alexandria, I’d never tasted bacon. I didn’t know what bacon was. Didn’t know from pork or bacon or anything like that. And they served bacon for breakfast. I didn’t even know what it was. It was an entirely different lifestyle.

RB: Did you like it?

JM: No. But it was just an illustration.

RB: But, I mean, were you aware it was kosher or not?

JM: I didn’t know. You take a six or seven year old boy and you don’t know. It was just a whole different culture. So, as I said, I grew up and eventually I went to grammar and junior high school in Norfolk, and then my father bought a house over in Chevy Chase, DC, and my sister and I came up here and we went to high school here.

We went to the best high school in the Washington area. In those days – in the 30s and 40s – people in Virginia and Maryland, a lot of them sent their children to school over in Washington because the schools in the District of Columbia were way superior to those in Virginia or Maryland. So, my sister Shirley and I both graduated high school in Washington, DC.

RB: Did you get Bar Mitzvahed?

JM: No, I never got Bar Mitzvahed. I didn’t but – well, it depends what terminology you mean. I went to Beth El temple and the rabbi handed me a great big Torah on one Sabbath that would have been my Bar Mitzvah Sabbath. He made me hold the Torah for the whole service, which I did. But as far as . . . I can’t remember reading anything. He made me hold the Torah that day, that Sabbath. When I got back home that day, my mother handed me a prayer book, which I still have in my library. She gave me [that prayer book] on my 13th birthday. It’s a little worse for wear, but I still have it.

Lt. Col. U.S. Army (Ret.) Jerome L. Massey won numerous commendations in his service during World War II and in subsequent years. He will be 93-years-old in July.

Rick Black is a prize-winning poet and former journalist for The New York Times who owns a poetry and fine art press in Arlington, VA. You can see his work at www.turtlelightpress.com

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity


by Richard Epstein (Washington, DC)

One syllable at a time
with correct cantillation.
That’s how I learn
the portion of the Torah
I will read on my
bar mitzvah day.

Again and again
I recite one
maybe two
the cantor
the melody
into my small brain.

I’m sorry to say
I never learned
the meaning of
the sacred words
I so carefully sang.

Richard Epstein lives in the Washington DC area and is active in the Warrior Poets sponsored by Walter Reed Medical Center, the Veterans Writing Project and he hosts an open mic venue for veterans and friends of veterans on the National Mall 

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, history, Jewish identity, poetry

The Tapestry of Self

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

The tapestry of my life has always had loose threads, strands that stick out in different directions and seem unlikely candidates for a fine woven print. Sometimes I tuck one of those threads away and get a pass on explaining who I am to the world.  Why share that I am Jewish if I feel more secular than religious? Why tell others that I am a German American Jew who in some ways feels more German than Jewish?  I’ve been living in Berlin, Germany for the past year where my mind has been feverishly at work trying to solve the puzzle of my identity.

The part of me that has always felt German now revels in the daily opportunity for self expression. Each step towards language fluency makes me feel more whole and I am exhilarated on the rare occasions when I meet someone who does not speak English. My taste buds crave a daily käese stange (breaded cheese twist) or kürbiskern brezel (giant soft pretzel with pumpkin seeds) and although I do not eat much meat, I love hearing my kids say “schnitzel!” as a substitute for “shit.” I come close to feeling at home in Germany while sitting for hours at the Rüdisheimer Platz wine garden enjoying the company of family and friends over a picnic dinner.

But there is a deeper significance to my German residency than the opportunities to speak a language I love, enjoy the food, and experience the rich and diverse cultural life of Berlin.  I am coming full circle, returning to the birth place of both my German Jewish parents so that I can integrate the past into the life of my family in a way that the first generation of Holocaust survivors and escapees could not.  This cannot be done from America; one has to be on German soil to experience the past and to grasp that there is a new landscape for Jewish life in Germany today.  Stepping into that landscape and seeing how it feels is a powerful way to pick up some of the loose threads of self that make up my identity.

Our son Avery turned thirteen this year and decided he wanted to become a bar mitzvah in the birthplace of his ancestors.  Our family is not clearly affiliated with any branch of Judaism so it was a bit daunting to find a place for ourselves amongst Berlin ‘s population of approximately 20,000 Jews and nearly a dozen congregations.  We’ve attended Reform, Masorti and Renewal services and are still getting used to reading Hebrew that has been transliterated for Germans (bar mitzwa instead of bar mitzvah) and a host of unfamiliar approaches to songs and rituals.

We will fully experience being Jewish in Germany when Avery becomes a bar mitzvah this October with Ohel Hachidusch, Berlin’s very small Renewal congregation.  The bar mitzvah will take place at the Jüdisches Waisenhaus Berlin (Jewish Orphanage of Berlin). The former orphanage is a historic building that was devoted to the welfare of Jewish children from 1913 to 1940.  After Kristallnacht many of the children were brought to safety via Kindertransport. The Nazis closed the building in 1942 and deported the remaining residents to concentration camps.  This will be the first bar mitzvah held in the Waisenhaus since it was restored and reopened in 2001.  As part of his coming of age, Avery is helping with a memorial project for my Great Aunt Meta Adler who was a Holocaust victim.

In the midst of a generally upbeat year of growth and discovery, I have also had some low moments. I never feel isolated but I do at times feel alienated in Germany, especially after encounters with government bureaucrats. It has been well over a year since I applied to have my German citizenship restored and I am still waiting despite the fact that I provided complete records of my German Jewish ancestry to the federal government. My constantly simmering anger at the indifference of the bureaucracy to my meritorious application is matched by my determination to see this process through to a successful conclusion, even if I have to hire an attorney. ( I’ve written about Reclaiming My German Citizenship in a recent essay for The Jewish Writing Project http://tinyurl.com/3ffufg9.)

And then there are those perpetual encounters with Germans whose scrutinizing comments leave a chill in their wake.  I have endured quite a few mini-lectures about what rule my children have broken and how important it is that they “pass auf” (watch out) and modify their behavior.  After silently suffering through too many of these lectures, I recently blew up at a woman on the U-Bahn in my best German for lecturing my daughter about her subway behavior.  These encounters make my skin crawl with their eerie reminders of an era when everyone was under suspicion for conduct that was outside the narrow realm of what the National Socialists deemed permissible. Is there something in the German psyche that propels such finger-wagging behavior?

But as I embark on my second year of living in Germany my paramount feeling is that this is a place where I can be fully German, Jewish and American.  As part of Germany’s growing Jewish population, I want American Jews to understand that there are Jews who do not want to place a strike out line through the German part of their identity.  The German thread does not have to be tucked away but can be woven back into the tapestry of self that represents who we are.

Donna Swarthout moved to Berlin with her family to explore her German Jewish heritage and identity and the nature of Jewish life in Germany today.  You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle: www.dswartho.wordpress.com


Filed under American Jewry, German Jewry, Jewish identity

Growing Up Jewish

An Interview with David B. Black (Yardley, PA)

(interviewed by Rick Black)

Port Chester, NY was a small town, especially the Jewish community.

We went to shul on Lake Street, then on Willett Avenue, and in the Jewish Center. In fact, my father was a founding member of the shul on Willett Avenue – Congregation Knesseth Israel at 249 Willett Avenue. A lot of the Orthodox Jews lived between Travis Avenue and Townsend Street but that was a different group, a religious group, and we had nothing to do with them.

Of course, I went to Hebrew school. The rabbi’s name was Winkler. He was the head and he had a son our age who was part of our gang. At Hebrew school, we were not the greatest kids but I remember the one pleasure that we had was when we left Hebrew school, we would go to the Lifesavers building on Main Street, which was a block away, and there they had three big lifesavers in front of the building – peppermint, wintergreen and I don’t know what the other one was, it might have been orange. We used to play king of the hill and we would run up on the hill and try to hold it, and the other kids would grab our coats and rip our buttons off, and my mother would always wonder how I lost all my buttons – but I never told her.

The other thing at the Lifesavers building was on Saturday morning when the football season was in vogue, they would have a fella from our high school team, Baker – who was the star fullback – giving out samples of lifesavers to all of the automobiles that were passing by. Most of them were on their way to the Yale game and, as they would pass the Lifesavers building, he would drop the lifesavers in their car, and we used to chase after the extra samples that fell in the street.

I was bar mitzvahed in a very small shul – the one on Lake Street. We didn’t make much of it. It was just a small bar mitzvah for our family. I davaned Saturday morning for the service, Shacharis and Musaf, and when they took the Torah out of the ark, I had to sing the “Shema” and my voice broke, and a kid from Hebrew school said, “You alright?”

My father was so proud that I’d be able to davan now. My folks gave me a party for all my friends, all the boys, at my house on Washington Street. We had them over and had a lot of fun. I got a lot of fountain pens. I must have gotten six fountain pens and three didn’t work. I remember the best one that I had was Waterman’s, and that was my favorite.

And, of course, I used to caddie and my mother bought me a set of golf clubs when I was bar mitzvah. I used to make a dollar a round plus a twenty five cent tip, and that allowed you to play on Monday at the course. I played golf at the public courses.

* * *

Before the Jewish Center was built, we would play basketball in barns around town. It was hot but we didn’t care. Even though I was thin, I wouldn’t let that stop me from playing a lot of ball. I went to Hebrew school after my regular classes and then I would spend a lot of time at the Jewish Center, playing basketball and working out.

While at the Center, I played a lot of billiards, I learned how to play pool, I played a lot of ping pong and, later on in life, I was doubles champion for Westchester County in ping pong with Irving Walt as my partner. I was taught boxing and hitting the punching bag. I was pretty good at the punching bag. I had a lot of friends and we played a lot and spent a lot of time at the Jewish Center.

We used to have a good time in the gym. In fact, the fella who had the candy machine in the hall never collected any money because all the guys used to bang the machine against the wall and the candy used to come out. We didn’t feel that was stealing. We felt that he didn’t know his business! We used to have a lot of fun. Many days I would bask in the sun on the roof.

We had a basketball team that was not so hot – but it was pretty good. I was a forward. Our coach used to get the games for us in Stamford and Greenwich and White Plains and New Rochelle and Mamaroneck and Mount Vernon. One day we traveled to Staten Island – we got beat so bad. We used to play in Yonkers – they had a very good team. And some of our boys were on the town team that played for the county championship in White Plains. We lost in the last ten seconds – one of our guards threw the ball to one of the other Yonkers players in error and he made a basket and we lost by one point. We had some good times.

While in junior high school, four friends and myself started a club called the Maccabeans, and we were a very active club. We would run beautiful dances. We would decorate the gym with balloons and confetti and hire a band and the whole town would come and pay tribute to the dance that we would put on. We would take the money that we raised and we would donate it to the Jewish Center for some cause – it might be a new standing radio, it might go for someone to go to camp who couldn’t afford it – but it was a good deed for everyone.

We had about 35 or 40 members after we got started and it was the most popular club in the Jewish Center. We were guided by a young lady who was Ethel Goldman and she saw to it that we ran the club in a constitutional way. I was the president of the club for maybe five sessions. They wouldn’t hear of having another president. They liked the way I conducted the meetings.

The dues were ten cents a week for everybody. If they were behind one month, we looked into the fact to find out whether they had the money or didn’t have the money. And if they didn’t have the money, we used to let them stay in anyway. One of my friends, Joel, though, had a friend who was gentile, and said he would like to put him up for membership in the club. It was a question of letting him in or not, and we took a vote, and voted against it. You had to be of the Jewish faith and connected to the Center to get in – that’s what we figured.

One time our club decided to put on a Broadway musical at the Jewish Center and they hired a director to put on “Loose Change” – that was the name of the musical – and I was one of the chorus. I lost 10 pounds by dancing in this show. It was a very good show; it sold out for three nights. But when we came to the dress rehearsal and the production manager was up front and the curtain went up and he raised his arms to start like a conductor, everybody froze. We didn’t get off the first kick.

So, he said, “I don’t understand you. It’s a good thing that we’re having this rehearsal because if this happened tomorrow night, we would be in dire trouble.”

So they put the curtain back and they started again – and this time it was okay. We were very successful with the play; it was a humdinger.

* * *

My Dad knew we had the club and he used to sell a lot of pants in his store, and when he had to have the pants fixed, he would give the pants to be repaired to a special tailor, and one of the tailors was a Russian. He had his wife and children come over to this country when I was about twelve. And my father said, “You know, this young man has no friends here. Why don’t you introduce him to your friends and get him started?”

So, this fella’s name was Max Bregoff and I met him. He was a tough Russian. I introduced him to a lot of my friends who were members of the club and we made him a member of the club, too. We called him the mad Russian. He used to get very angry. He’d spit at them. He was a tough hombre but he found the American way and he was able to live a good life and enjoy himself. He spent a lot of time at the Jewish Center. Yes, he did find the American way and he became a friend.

After I graduated high school, I still played basketball for the Jewish Center. And then we had a very good ball team that used to play before crowds of two, three, four thousand people. We played other teams within the town – the Don Boscoes, the Holy Name Society, the Catholic organizations, the Y.M.C.A. It used to go on for weeks.

One time we took our team to play against Don Bosco, the Italians, and heard ’em say, “Let’s get the Jews.” But I never really had any trouble with anti-Semitism in Port Chester. We played a lot of teams and used to raise a lot of money for the Jewish Center.

David B. Black, 94, is my father. He was the men’s wear merchandise manager for Alexander’s Department Stores for over thirty years until his retirement in 1978. Over the past two years my brother interviewed Dad weekly to gather material for a family memoir, from which this is an excerpt.

Rick Black, my brother, is a prize-winning poet and former journalist who creates hand-crafted books at Turtle Light Press in Highland Park, NJ. You can see his work at http://www.turtlelightpress.com/abouttlp.shtml


Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity