Tag Archives: Family roots

Memories of My Grandmother Adele

by Christopher Bailey (Geneva, Switzerland)

For two summers I lived in San Francisco with my Grandmother Adele while I was with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.  

Over the meals the two of us shared together, my grandmother often talked about what lore she could remember about the Jewish village in Romania where she was born, or at least the stories told to her, (she couldn’t remember the name of the village), her passage as a little girl in steerage with her sister and their mother to the United States, and their hard life living in tenement housing on the Lower East Side of New York, sharing an apartment and one bathroom with three other families.  

Her last name was Itzkowitz, not her given name, but the name the clerk at Ellis Island gave the entire boatload of Jews as he could not understand Yiddish.  But even seventy years later, my grandmother would tell me how her mother would take her and her sister Tillie up on deck twice a day from the hold for air—women and children were allowed this luxury—and how above them the ‘white people’ (she described their 1908 clothing as white dresses and jackets, like angels…)  would stand on the balcony looking down at them in pity, and toss leftover items from their breakfast to the hungry steerage passengers below.  Her mother would try and catch what she could to give to her young daughters. 

Once she caught an orange for my grandmother.  As she described the sensation a lifetime later, my grandmother told me she had never even seen an orange before and did not know how to eat it.  But it looked like sunshine.  When her mother helped her peel it, she could smell the anticipated taste from the spray of citrus oil released from the torn peel, and her ancient face lit up with the retelling.  

As she described taking her first bite, and feeling the sweet summery juice explode in her mouth and comfort her insides, she exclaimed as if again experiencing it for the very first time, “It was like tasting sunshine…”

Life was not easy on Essex Street.  The women from the earliest ages worked in the garment industry. Her father, who eventually joined them, could not find a job.  She remembers him sitting in a corner, holding up his Yiddish newspaper, looking for news of home, and trying to block out the chaos of the families beyond the wall of his newsprint paper, all the while holding in his regret and anger and sorrow for leaving Romania, anger which planted the seed of the colon cancer which soon would take his life, the same cancer that very nearly took mine a century later.  

My grandmother also described her ‘pet,’ a mouse in the tenement, which she slowly taught to trust her by saving scraps of food furtively stolen from the dinner table and laying them out for the mouse, a little nearer her little hand every day, until the mouse learned to eat right out of her hand, its tiny lungs and heart beating in double time in her tiny palm.  

Eventually, after growing up in the sweatshops, and as a young woman joining the labor movement, she eventually left New York with my drunken hard scrabbling grandfather for California, because in her words, “It’s where oranges come from.” 

Gabriel, my son, last year did a little ancestry research and actually found the village where my grandmother was born, a place called Lasi.  As he read up on it, he discovered that it was the site of the most systematic slaughter of Jews in Romania during the Holocaust.  As far as we know today, only those members of my family that took the boat survived.  

When my grandmother died some years ago, my father and his brother went to clean out the house.  I asked him months later where he kept the boxes of letters and journals she had shown me in her basement.  I mentioned it too late.  He had thrown everything out.  

That Thanksgiving, when he told me that he had emptied the house and kept nothing, I told him some of the stories that his mother had told me.  He knew nothing of them.  As I told them, I felt a chill coming over me as the realization began to sink in. My memories of those conversations were all that was left of that world. 

Christopher Bailey was educated at Columbia and Oxford Universities, as well as at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After a career as a professional actor and playwright, he is now the Arts and Health Lead at the World Health Organization, where he co-founded the Healing Arts Initiative, which looks at the evidence for the health benefits of the arts. As an ambassador for the field, he has performed original pieces such as Stage 4: Global Stories on Empathy and Health, and The Vanishing Point: A journey into Blindness and Perception, in venues around the world, hoping to spread the WHO’s definition of health as not merely the absence of disease and infirmity, but rather the attainment of the highest level of physical, mental and social wellbeing. To view some of his work, visit: The Vanishing Point and Chris Bailey at The Met in NYC

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At the Country Club with Superman 

by Jessica D. Ursell (Campania, Italy)

I’m a person who likes to understand. I like to go back and unravel events and have them make sense. I mean I’m a Jew. It’s practically part of our DNA. We think, we ponder, we discuss, and we try to figure out the why of things. 

I’m not a person who particularly minds feeling angry. It happens. But I’m precise and I value clarity. And I want to understand my emotions — all of them — especially why, after more than three and a half decades, I still have this smoldering anger at what happened and my response to what happened (or should I say my unfortunate, frustrating, and maddening lack of response) when I went to see Superman at the country club in the mid-1980s.

My parents didn’t belong to a country club. Not enough money then and, even if there were, membership in a country club just didn’t fit our European Jewish socialist Bundist ethos. We weren’t elite, even though my parents were elated as they moved us out of the Amalgamated Workmen’s Circle housing in the Bronx to the cushy azalea filled suburbs of Westchester.

Personally, I never expended any brain cells on whether we should try to join one of the several country clubs in our little exclusive enclave edged against the water of the Long Island Sound. These were the same clubs that 50 years earlier had signs saying “no dogs no Jews” or so the talk went. I just didn’t think about it. That is until I heard that Christopher Reeve was going to film a public service announcement for the Special Olympics at one of the country clubs in our town.

I knew this because a friend (and I use the term loosely especially in retrospect) told me about it because her Irish Catholic parents did have a membership at the club. And she asked me if I wanted to join her so that we could see Superman in person. Who knows, maybe we could even talk to him!

Dazzled at the opportunity, and thinking only of Superman with his wavy black hair and chiseled cheekbones, I was thrilled to be her guest. Thinking about it now, I wonder why she chose me and not any of her other friends. She and I weren’t really that close. She never came to my home after school, and I never went to hers. I suppose, despite her family‘s membership at the country club, she didn’t have many close friends. I realize now that she was a bit of a hanger-on and someone who struck me as wanting to impress. Unlike me, she craved approbation whereas I rather rejoiced in the opposite. To be sure I wasn’t a contrarian in the sense that I chose the opposite out of sheer obstinacy. More like I valued the unconventional, and whatever seemed different from the norm automatically held a sort of appeal for me. Conformity was boring, and I never wanted boring.

At home we weren’t religious. Not one bit. I didn’t go to Hebrew school. Nor were there yearly pilgrimages to synagogue on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, let alone on any of the other holidays. Most evenings at our dinner table, my brother, my parents, and I (and on weekends  my grandparents) discussed ideas. Frequent topics included: books (Art Spiegelman‘s Maus); philosophy (Bertrand Russell, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli); art (Picasso’s Guernica); and politics – lots of politics; music, too. Music was always playing…often classical, sometimes Gregorian chants, many times jazz, and those symphonic tangos beloved by my dad. So often our conversations turned to justice. What was right? Was the outcome fair? The Rosenbergs. The Palestinians. What about the other point of view? How can we make things better? For our family? For our community? For the world? In our home lived the very essence of Tikkun Olam.

Our Jewishness, my Jewishness, was not a fancy fur coat pulled out of the closet to wear on the high holy days. It was not something skimming the edges of our skin but bone deep. Automatic and visceral. My Jewish self was not something I ever questioned then or now. 

Every Seder, as I watched my grandmother‘s treasured cousin ladle out the matzoh balls for the chicken soup, I saw the numbers on her arm. A stark, indelible reminder of what we lost, what we had left, and all our hopes for the future.

To paraphrase the brilliant Elie Wiesel, Jews are the only people of antiquity to have survived antiquity as a people. I have always been immensely proud of this, and I feel the sweep of history as I am one part in an unbroken chain going back millennia.

The day finally arrived. Bright and sunny. I don’t remember what I wore, but I know I must have dressed with particular care. 

And then it happened. Just as we were about to enter. The commandment.  “Don’t act too Jewish.” 

Christopher Reeve was inside. Waiting…

Stunned into silence, I failed to respond. Nothing. In that moment I became a bystander in her attempt to have me erase my essence. I was to be an active participant in negating myself.

Rehashing this incident decades later with my husband, he pointed out that as a non-member of the club the only way I could see Christopher Reeve was if I went with her. I didn’t know any other members. I was, therefore, dependent on her “grace” for a once in a lifetime experience. It wasn’t as though she had given me her edict weeks before so I would have the chance to respond and, hopefully, decide that even Superman wasn’t worth compromising my integrity and my sense of self. In fact, had I had any time to think about it, it would’ve been obvious that acquiescing to her demand would be the very antithesis of everything that Superman represents. It is obvious now. And, in truth, I know that it was obvious even then. 

But I remained silent. And I can’t explain it. Not adequately, anyway. Never before nor since have I remained silent in the face of injustice or aggressions — micro and macro. But I failed here. And that is where my anger comes in.

I should have refused to enter. I should’ve told her then and there the absurdity and ignorance of her demand. Superman — the Superman of Truth Justice and the American way — was Siegel and Shuster’s uniquely Jewish creation, so how could she demand that I suppress my Jewish self? Did she not see the irony? If she viewed me as “the other,” as different, how could she not see that Superman epitomized the concept of “otherness”?

And what did she mean anyway? How much Jew is too much? 

Don’t act too Jewish

Too showy?

Too exuberant?

Too eager?

Too meek?

Too mild?

Too weak?

Too loud?

Too much?

The great irony of all of it is that the only thing I remember from this event is that I stayed silent. I’m so ashamed and angry that my silence constituted a negation of my essence. I would not be me without being Jewish.

We entered the club but, amazingly, I don’t remember seeing Christopher Reeve. I must have seen him. He was there. But I have zero memory of it. 

The only lesson that I can take from this event that still burns on the walls of my consciousness all these years later, the only lesson that I can draw strength from today, is that one must never be a bystander, nor must one ever participate in self erasure.

And I tell myself: Never again. 

Daughter of an immigrant Jewish mother from the foothills of the Himalayas and a South Bronx born Puerto Rican Jewish father, Jessica Ursell is a veteran officer of the United States Air Force, poet, attorney, and progressive political activist. The granddaughter of survivors of the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, and a descendant of a Taíno great-grandma, she understands in her bones what happens when intolerance, indifference, and ignorance take root in society. Jessica lives with her husband in Southern Italy where she writes poetry addressing the complex interplay between trauma, power, love, loss, and madness.

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Bound by stories

Elan Barnehama (Boston, MA)

I am the progeny of refugees with thick accents who passed on a heritage of the gloom of war and the promise of peace. They had the self-assurance that came from having survived and the mistrust of having had to.

My mother’s family fled Berlin for Jerusalem when Hitler came to power. My father’s family escaped Vienna for Haifa in the days following its Kristallnacht. Soon after Israel’s War of Independence, my father contracted polio and was shipped off to New York for medical care. That’s where my mother met him, as she was in New York City visiting friends and relatives. And there they stayed.

And there I grew up, in a place where no one could pronounce my name and no one considered me American. To them, I was Israeli even though I was more focused on why they killed Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I wanted to know why Newark was burning. I was worried that the war in Vietnam would still be going on when I reached draft age.

When it was time for me to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah, I had little interest. Why would I want to celebrate a God who allowed the Holocaust, a God who looked away as my father got polio and became confined to a wheelchair?

The thing is, while we were not remotely observant, my parents were proudly Jewish, and we marked the holidays at home. About our table were family and friends, most of whom also had their own stories of survival and persistence, who came to discuss and debate the meaning of those holy days, and not just recite pages in order to get to the food.

From an early age, Biblical stories drew me in. The writers offered different points of view, were comfortable with contradictions and highlighted that most of life resided in uncertainty. The opening chapters had two very different tellings of creation. It only took a few pages to encounter the first lie, quickly followed by the first murder. Brothers did not fare well. The stories were not simplistic or dogmatic. Context mattered.

The more I read, the more these texts resonated with me and helped me make sense of a senseless world. Increasingly, I felt connected to the Jewish story, if not the Jewish God. And that was how I knew I was going to follow through with my Bar Mitzvah. The Tribe had survived for thousands of years and countless attempts to get rid of it. Who was I to mess with a streak?

I remain strengthened by listening to and retelling these stories, even when they are not easy to hear or easy to repeat. And I am proud to add my story to our shared history.

_ _ _

Elan Barnehama’s new novel, Escape Route, is set in NYC during the 1960s and is told by teenager, Zach, a first-generation son of Holocaust survivors, and NY Mets fan, who becomes obsessed with the Vietnam War and with finding an escape route for his family for when he believes the US will round up and incarcerate its Jews. Elan is a New Yorker by geography. A Mets fan by default. More info at elanbarnehama.comEscape Route, available now

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The truth is not always easy to find: discovering my family’s Jewish roots

by Cathy A. Lewis (Nashville, Tennessee)

In 1963, my thirteen-year-old brother Jeffrey left our home in Pittsford, New York, to travel by plane to Mexico.  I had no inkling he’d return to us changed after spending six weeks there.

My mom’s family lived in Mexico City, which was beyond my comprehension at age six. While I was growing up, there was always a shroud of mystery around Mom and her familial origins.

Mom would tell me, “I’m not Latin, nor is our family. Circumstances caused me to be born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, while my brothers and sisters were born in Lima, Peru.”

My parents met in Colon, Panama, where Dad was stationed during WWII. Mom worked on the US army base as a translator. Their worlds collided, and it was kismet. They married six months later. I wondered at the brevity of their relationship. Mom would explain, “Back then, you didn’t waste any time. You never knew from one day to the next whether or not the world would implode.”

It was a year after Jeffrey returned from Mexico when my sister, at age ten, two years my senior, broke the news to me. She said as a matter of fact, “Jeff Lewis is Jewish.”

Puzzled, I asked, “What? What is Jewish?”

At that point, Mom sat me down and explained that my grandparents, who were named Silverstone and had changed the name from Zilberstein, were Jewish. “So that makes me Jewish, and my children Jewish. You are Jewish.”

My brain felt like it could burst by the sheer force of questions popping into my prefrontal cortex. One question dominated all others. “But how did your parents get to Mexico?”

Exasperated by my barrage of questions, Mom answered, “They had to leave South America due to the economic issues plaguing that country. Mexico at that time seemed like a land of opportunity. Plus, there was an already established sizable Jewish community.”

I still had questions. The thing about my mother, though, was once she finished discussing a subject, that was it. No further interrogations could continue. Much of my childhood was like that—no resolution to my unending queries.

In eighth grade, a history project was assigned. We were told to pick a country we’d like to live and work in. Much to Mom’s chagrin, I proclaimed, “My project will be about Israel and a kibbutz!”

My father became involved in my research, helping me put historical events in chronological order. I read an article Dad gave me about David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and the founding of Israel. It inspired me even further to communicate the empowering story of survival and conviction. 

My project was one of three picked to present at a school event, with parents invited to attend. At the end of my presentation, I concluded that “Moving to Israel was on my radar, and kibbutz living was the life for me!” With my parents sitting in the audience, I saw the color drain from my mother’s face.

On the ride home, Mom explained how she came to the US in 1944 after marrying my dad. She faced so much anti-Semitism. Mom had a great desire to protect her children from the hatred she experienced. As it turns out, my mom’s parents had fled Baranovichi, Poland (now Belarus) when WWI ended, to start a new life in Buenos Aires after marrying.  The Nazis murdered their extended family members who had stayed behind. 

Many years later, after Mom passed, I completed an ancestry search and found out that Mom’s family all had come from Israel at the start of the first century, fleeing to Eastern Europe after the Romans conquered Jerusalem, Israel. 

Now I embrace my birthright with pride and joy. Through my newfound connection to Judaism, I’ve formed a meaningful relationship with my Creator. And I’ve found while researching my genealogy over 100 relatives living in Tel Aviv, all Orthodox Jews. I’ve also connected with my cousins who immigrated to the US from Mexico, some of them Reform Jews, some Orthodox living in Lakewood, NJ. 

They have all welcomed me into the family with a full embrace, disregarding our differences, while focusing on the mutual affection and pleasure we derive from being one big family.

Cathy A. Lewis’ novel, The Road We Took—Four Days in Germany, 1933, is partially based on a true story of her father’s sojourn through Europe as a sixteen-year-old in 1933 and the four days he spent in Germany.  The book’s main objective, she writes, is to honor her relatives and those who perished in the Holocaust and express how quickly hatred can destroy our world. “It is a critical imperative,” Cathy says, “to remember history to ensure such events like the Holocaust never happen again.” To learn more about Cathy and her book, visit: https://cathyalewis.com

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On Watching “Fiddler” Once Again

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Like a petulant child,
I have spent much of my life
railing against the constraints,
as I saw them, of Jewish practices,
advanced by my father who came
from an Orthodox upbringing.

I protested vigorously against
Hebrew school interfering with
afternoon baseball games with friends,
the getting-up-and-sitting-down
for long hours on important holidays, 
and most notably, that my Bar-Mitzvah
was less for me than my extended family.

Yet, despite all those objections,
I am drawn back to my roots by the
familiar opening strains of “Tradition”
in “Fiddler” in a PBS special
on the making of the musical.

I have seen “Fiddler” many times, even in Yiddish,
and each time it brings me back to Anatevka,
a village not unlike my father’s birth place,
which makes me believe I still hang on to
an emotional lifeline to my father, to his faith.

I may have spent years running, but
a simple score I know so well, brings me,
with tears in my eyes, back into the fold.

And I’ve come to realize I am never that far away from the village, 
never that far way away from my father 
and from my own faith.

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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A Return to Hannover

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

I was in a taxi en route to the Hannover Airport on a bright, chilly April morning in the 1990s, looking forward to a relaxing flight home to the United States after a brief unpleasant visit to Germany.

Suddenly, while still within the Hannover city limits, a street address popped into my head as if it had just waited to emerge. I had a change of heart and asked the driver to take me there. Perhaps I sensed that we were in the right area. More likely, I did not want to leave Hannover without paying a visit to a house I had heard about all my life.

Im Moore 21 turned out to be right within the vicinity. The taxi stopped across the street and I walked over to the dilapidated grey apartment house. Despite a fresh coat of paint, some of its bricks still flaked. They were heavily damaged by Allied bombers during World War II. I had once seen a photo of the building taken right after the war, so I knew repairs had been made to it in the intervening years. It looked genteelly shabby, but judging by the geranium pots on all of its balconies, it was apparently fully occupied.

I paced up and down on the sidewalk and looked up to its four floors. How I longed for a glimpse inside. Of course, there was no such chance. Its main door was locked and no one was around to let me in. But suppose someone had come along with a key? Possibly a current tenant returning home early to find a strange woman standing in the street, staring at the building. What would I have said?

“Excuse me, but my family once lived here. I was born in this building. Now I have come back on a nostalgic visit. Could you please let me in?”

I stood on that sidewalk a little while longer wishing I could unlock the whole era of my family. I needed to have a peek at life before my time. There were so many things I wanted to understand. What were the family’s idiosyncrasies? How did the various members relate to one another? Perhaps understanding would also allow me to know myself. But I will never have the answers I need. None of the people who could give them to me are still alive.

I saw the taxi driver look in my direction. I had told him my plane would leave within two hours. Now was the time to go. Caught up in the present again, I suddenly remembered what day it was. April 12. My father’s birthday. What a co-incidence that I should stand on this spot this day. Here where my father had started his family. In a house to which most likely I would never return. 

Perhaps it was my imagination. Did the driver look at me strangely when I climbed back into his taxi? I did not owe him an explanation but I said it anyway. “I was born in that house.” Let him figure it out for himself, I thought, as he took me to the airport.

Now, many years later, I believe that brief trip to my birth house may have given me the impetus to record my past in order to preserve it for the future.

So often I feel my childhood has been stolen from me. In comparison to the early days of my children and grandchildren, very little about my childhood days was normal.

I am not an important person, but I was born into and have lived through some remarkable historical times. As the years go by, I feel the urge to document what I have witnessed. Perhaps rediscovering my early life will help me to understand myself better. And surely I owe those who preceded me a telling of their story.

Some day my descendants may even want to know more about their roots. I want to share with them whatever I do know and remember.

Born in Germany, Ellen Norman Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weill.

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The Genuine Article

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

My father’s grandfather, in photographs always an old man wearing a long black coat, his white beard gathered in two points, was the genuine article, the Jew who had never passed through Western Europe’s ordeals of civility. Because he loomed large in his grandchildren’s life, Peretz Satran of Sered, Romania and Winthrop, Mass. became the stuff of family legend, as exotic to me as his one-foot-high silver-covered spice box, which he, a dealer in scrap metal, had assembled out of the base of a lamp and other metal odds and ends and decorated with little copper bells hanging from the bottom of the two silvered tiers. At the top there was room for three small glasses–– for a l’chaim toast, I suppose, at the end of Havdalah. 

Sitting atop that huge spice box, engraved in Hebrew with the names of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the twelve tribes, he had placed an American Marine Corps eagle, for after all, had not God carried our ancestors on eagle’s wings out of their slavery in Egypt, and here was Peretz in yet another exile, where the trolley conductor sent him to Arlington Heights, seven, eight miles away, when he had plainly asked, so he supposed, for Orient Heights. After this misadventure, his grandchildren sought to correct his pronunciation to save him from getting lost again, but he said back to them in his best King’s English, “kiss mine hass, did I said it right?” 

In his synagogue, he may have been the only mystic. The story goes that he was so deep in the Shmoneh Esreh prayer each Shabbat, that he never noticed the little boys throwing sticky, purple cockle burrs into his beard, which they had collected from bushes growing just outside. A parallel story is that the birds wouldn’t leave him alone either, but this time he took action, tying tin cans on a rope hung in his beloved cherry tree; morning and evening, he would go out to shake the cans and scare them away from the maturing fruit. 

When this eccentric patriarch announced in 1928 that he was leaving America and going to the Holy Land to die, no one was surprised; the surprise came when he returned two years later in the midst of Arab rioting, saying, “you can get killed over there.” So he chose America after all, where I see him standing in his sunflower-covered booth on the eve of the Sukkot holiday, surrounded by two daughters and their children, holding the brimming wine cup that he is about to bless. The intensity of his gaze is not lost on me, even knowing that this image was posed by a photographer from the Boston Record American to show that some Jews in America still observed the ancient customs they had brought with them from over there. 

When his Hasidic rebbe was moving from the West End to East Boston and needed to set up a mikveh, the ritual bath collected from flowing waters that women use after their periods so they can resume having sex with their husbands, Peretz Satran traveled in his cart and horse to Walden Pond and there collected a large block of ice. I like to see him in that cart on the long road from Concord, transporting the frozen water of Walden Pond––which our transcendentalist sage, Henry Thoreau, likened to the eye of all the world, as sacred in its own right as the waters of the Ganges––and delivering that small block of eternity to a narrow house in East Boston, where it would be placed in a room dug out of the earth, melt into purifying water and set the stage for still another sacred rite, bringing husbands and wives together to produce new generations of Americans like you and me. 

Herbert J. Levine published his first book of poetry, Words for Blessing the World, at the age of 67. His previous books were scholarly treatments of Yeats and Psalms. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

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Names Matter

by Marden Paru (Sarasota, FL)

All my life I’ve faced two commonly asked questions about the origin of my unusual names: What kind of names are Marden and Paru? And what are their nationality and/or derivation?

Believe it or not, the name Paru came from my Zayde Shlomo, who was a tailor by profession. He was given the concession to custom-make the first fliers’ uniforms—fleece-lined leather jackets and caps. You may have seen them in depictions of dogfights in movies about the early history of aviation and during WWI.

Zayde Shlomo worked outside of Vilna at the first Lithuanian airdrome in a town called Parubanic. When in the early part of the 20th century Jews were still adopting surnames, my paternal grandfather took on the name of the airport site, Parubanic, and added the Polish-Russian “sky.” 

My father was a mohel and, therefore, compelled to circumcise his old European, Polish-Russian-sounding surname from Parubansky to Paru.

As it turns out, Paru is the first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve—“Be Fruitful and multiply—Paru Urvoo”—in the opening chapters of the Bible.

So, it was always easy to spell my legally-changed last name.

My name, Marden, came to me in a slightly different way. When Mom was pregnant with me, she passed a large neon sign on the Palisades of New Jersey—Ben Marden’s Riviera—the famous night club where the “mob” allegedly hung out in the 30s and 40s. 

As it turned out, Marden is an old English surname. 

Mother reasoned that if I were to be born a male, I would be given the name of my maternal great grandfather—her Zayde Mordechai. But being a young American, she considered English “M’ names such as Martin or Maurice, and finally settled on Marden as an unusual appellation for her first-born male child.

So, in answer to those two questions, I’m named after an airport and a nightclub. That is the emes—Hebrew for the naked truth!

But the story about my name continues. As a boy growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, I answered to a front porch geshrei (a yell) of “Mordechai”—my Hebrew name and the hero of the Purim story in Megillat Esther. When Mom would call me home for dinner (I was playing ball across the street at my new school), the kids heard “motorcar,” and that became my playground handle. “Motorcar” was not far-fetched since Phoenix had trolleys or street cars running on 5th Avenue perpendicular to our street in those days.

And when Dad called me Mordechai, some kids heard “Mortify” and that became my nickname on the block. 

I finally settled on Mordy, which I used until I met my future father-in-law—Milton Milan Kemeny—who took a liking to me and my legal name, Marden. 

Upon his advice—and for professional reasons—I have gone by the name Marden ever since, with the exception of my family and friends from my childhood who still refer to me as Mordy.

Marden Paru is currently the Dean, Rosh Yeshiva and co-founder of the Sarasota Liberal Yeshiva, an adult Jewish studies institute, and a  former instructor at the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation’s Melton Adult Mini-School. He attended Yeshiva University, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Chicago, and was a doctoral fellow and faculty member at Brandeis University. Marden and his wife Joan are members of Temple Beth Sholom and Congregation Kol HaNeshama. To read more about Marden and Joan, visit: https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/news/newsletter/Hornstein-alumni-articles/My-1966-Computer-Arranged-Jewish-Marriage-by-Marden-Paru.html

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Family Gathering

by Carol Westreich Solomon (Montgomery Village, MD)

Past Pennsylvania farms, harvest-bare,
I drive to the cemetery
Where my uncle waits for my aunt
Beneath a half-empty headstone.
Next to me, Aunt Dellie rambles
About Yiddish class
Until crackling gravel announces our arrival.

“Come, so many to visit,” she says,
Scooping stones into my cupped hands.
She dips beneath the gate chain
Protecting the dead.
By height, tilt, shade,
She navigates the headstones
To those she’s come to see.

Her aunts.
Her sister.
Her father.
Her mother.
Plop go the stones, our calling cards.

Tucked among thinning headstones
Her grandmother’s grave.
Faint numbers record the length of her years
But not her strength
When a husband wanders.

Near my uncle’s grave, an alabaster headstone
Straight and proud,
Not yet buffeted by winter winds
Or chipped by mower-churned stones.
Cousin Linda.
“So young.  See all the stones.  They all came for Linda.”

“Who will come for me?”
She brushes dead grass from her husband’s headstone,
The ground uneven,
The marker leaning in.
No family gathering in granite awaits the rest of us.
Planes, schools, jobs
Have scattered us all.

Her reunion done,
Aunt Dellie washes death from her hands,
Then dips beneath the chain
Separating her from her loved ones.
Still, she invites them into my car
And they travel with us
For the rest of the day.

Carol Westreich Solomon has returned to her first love–creative writing–after exploring literature and writing with high school students in Maryland.  As the lead consultant of Carol Solomon and Associates, she previously taught writing to adults in corporations and government agencies.  Her YA novel Imagining Katherin was designated a 2016 Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries.  Her work has also appeared in Lilith,  JewishFiction.net, Persimmon Tree, Poetica, Little Patuxent Review, Pen and Ink, The English Journal, and The Washington Post.

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The Fate of Cousins Who I Never Knew

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

On July 1, 1941 my mother was a popular 17-year-old girl in the insular world of Atlanta’s Jewish community. No doubt she was looking forward to being pursued by her favorite crushes from Georgia Tech’s Jewish frat in the carefree summer of 1941. Mom had also assimilated enough of Dixie culture to be a true Southern Belle, helped by her enrollment in the prestigious citywide Girls High School. Most likely on July 4th, Mom took in the pyrotechnics show in Atlanta that ushered in the day as a Federal holiday.

On July 1, 1941, my mother’s 2nd through 4th cousins, twice removed, the Seligson family of Riga, Latvia, were doomed as the Nazis occupied Latvia’s capital city and rained down hell on its Jews. The Seligsons also most likely witnessed a fiery display on the 4th of July as fellow Latvians burned down Riga’s Chor Synagogue.

On December 8, 1941 my mom most likely listened to President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech via a handsome radio in her well-appointed living room in the affluent Ansley Park section of Atlanta.

December 8th was also a “day of infamy” for the Seligson family, if they were still alive. On that day they may have been among the thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis in the Rumbula Forest just outside of Riga. If so, their last seconds on earth were spent lying in an open pit atop dead Jews and bracing to be shot in the back of the head. By the end of the day the three generations of Seligsons in Riga were gone, murdered on either November 30th or December 8th 1941.

Mom died in 2006 without knowing that she had relatives who had died in the Holocaust.   Of course, I also did not know either, as I relied on her for family history. We had discussed her family and WW II casualties, and Mom said that a distant cousin in the Navy had been killed in action. But she had no inkling of any Holocaust victims.  In 2016, however, my view of a family luckily unscathed by genocide changed.

I received an e-mail from a reader who had viewed my piece in Family Tree magazine describing how a distant minor-celebrity cousin, the late Bert Parks, had led me to my previously unknown Latvian ancestry via a notation in his Wikipedia page. Cousin Bert, the late host of the Miss America pageant, had not given me an introduction to a beauty wearing a tiara, but rather had given me a something better: a clue to my family’s history.

My token fan, Jan, said that she too was related to Bert Parks, so we might be distant cousins.   Shortly after hearing from her, I learned that Jan was my fifth cousin, a discovery based on her family tree spanning eight generations on my mother’s maternal side. I spent several hours perusing the tree’s numerous branches. It seemed like I was related to half the Jews in Atlanta. But a few perusals later I found that I was also distantly related to eight Seligsons, with the notations by their names: murdered by Nazis or died 1941.  This realization added personal sadness to the horror, outrage and revulsion that I felt when I thought about so many Jews who had been swept up in the evil of the Holocaust and strengthened my need to honor their memory.

My eight Seligson cousins personalize the Holocaust for me. Now that I know about the fate of my Latvian cousins, I am more profoundly saddened and thus more connected to the river of blood that flowed into the death pit outside Riga in the Fall of 1941, where, presumably, an iota of DNA found in the pit would match mine.

But thank goodness there is a counter-balance to the sadness that came with my discovery of the Seligson’s slaughter. It comes with the discovery of hundreds of living relatives (family tree verified) descended from these eight Holocaust victims. As a lucky American, I have the opportunity to make sure that future generations remember my Riga relatives who got caught in a cyclone of hate. This past year at Yad Vashem, I felt writing a check in memory of my relatives who died in the Holocaust was more meaningful than previous perfunctory donations. Next year my pledge will honor all my cousins by name, including my nine year-old cousin, Miriam Seligson (1932-1941).

I now want to visit Riga. Should I get there, I will first visit the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. This museum is laid out within the confines of the Riga ghetto, which was the way station for the Seligsons for five months before they were herded into the pit in the forest to be murdered. Then I would like to go to the Jewish Memorial at Rumbula. This is where the Seligsons’ bodies lie trashed in a pit. I will pay my respects, as well as the respects from my mom, the happy go lucky Georgia girl of 1941.

William Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont, MA.  He  has a growing interest in genealogy.

 

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