Tag Archives: immigrant experience

Where Do We Begin?

Elan Barnehama (Boston, MA)

My childhood home in New York City was within walking distance of several congregations, but my parents rarely took us to synagogue. And I was fine with that. And it wasn’t because my father wasn’t within walking distance to anything, what with him being confined to a wheelchair since getting infected by polio in Israel, ten years after his family fled Vienna, and one year after Israel became a state. His polio made mobility difficult, but it had never stopped him and my mother from going anywhere or doing anything.

We did, though, observe the Jewish holidays, rituals, and traditions with as many friends and relatives as could fit around our dining room table. Those who joined us eagerly engaged in robust conversations, lively debates, and detailed storytelling, with thick accents that seamlessly moved between Hebrew, German, and English. 

Later, when I had children of my own, I continued the tradition of skipping synagogue in favor of gatherings around our table which we expanded to capacity. I was, by then, a writer and teacher, so I did my thing which was to choose Biblical tales to retell, discuss, and  analyze the stories. But in order to teach, I had to learn. And that meant re-reading the Torah.

I started at the beginning. Or tried to. As a child, I was confused when I realized that Bereshit wasn’t read during Rosh Hashanah, even though the holiday celebrated the beginning of the year and creation. Also confusing was that Rosh Hashanah fell during the seventh month, and not the first. 

It seemed to me that those early rabbis were comfortable with inconsistencies and contradictions, with nuance and context, and that appealed to me. I mean, they put two different stories of creation right next to each other in the opening chapters of Bereshit. There were valuable lessons to be learned from each version and each sequence of creation.

So, when I began again at the beginning during Simchat Torah, I found a different translation for the beginning for Bereshit. This translation didn’t translate the word Bereshit as “in THE beginning,” but rather “in A beginning.” Several internet searches reveled that the translation of the word Bereshit had been fixed by Rashi and Ibn Ezra about a thousand years earlier, though it had not caught on everywhere. Still, it explained much. Beginnings are a constant. Sometimes they happen by choice. More often they are prompted by, well, life. 

The thing is, I’d been raised on stories of new starts as my parents and their parents had endured several demanding beginnings. And on their belief in that old Jewish proverb that stories are truer than the truth. My parents’ stories brought them to the United States, their third county and their third language, all before the end of their third decade.

My mother’s family-tree chronicled 500 years of German residence before her parents fled Berlin for Jerusalem in the fall of 1933. My father’s family, fortunate to have survived Vienna’s Kristallnacht, made their way to Haifa in the days that followed. While participating in the push to create a Jewish state, my father gave himself a new Hebrew name in honor of this beginning. But polio forced another beginning as doctors sent him to New York City for medical care that was unavailable in Israel at the time.

When I was a kid, I liked to slip out of my bedroom window onto the roof of our house in Queens. Safe in my own fortress of solitude, I replayed my day and planned for the next one with renewed optimism and possibility. 

One thing I learned from my parents’ stories was to trust not knowing. Sure, what’s ahead might be horrible and miserable. But that moment of not knowing also holds the promise of possibility, of a beginning that lies ahead.

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.com and Escape Route, available now

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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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My Father’s Hands

By Elaine Freilich Culbertson (Philadelphia, PA)

My father’s hands were what saved him. He became a shoemaker because his father was one, because his desire to be an engineer would not have helped him stay alive in the concentration camps. Nobody saved theorists, it was manual labor that was valued. It was only that he could watch and quickly imitate what others were doing, his quick mind absorbing and his talented hands obeying. He learned to value the leather and to shape it with reverence. He put aside the pencil and the slide rule for the sake of his life and became expert with a knife and an awl and a needle and thread. Later, after the war, these tools and materials would feed his family in the new land of America. The engineer in his head had to become the shoeman.

For many years his hands were stained with the dye that he used to color the shoes ladies bought to match their fancy dresses. His eye for color was amazing, and the potions that he mixed made his store a mecca during those years that everyone had to have shoes dyed to match. He taught himself to embellish the shoes with designs of rhinestones, pearls and lace. Everyone in the city knew where to find the closest match to their outfits. He customized the shoes, cutting the heels, modifying the fit so that even the woman with the biggest bunions and the most foot trouble could feel glamorous when she wore the shoes bought in his store. His hands were steady as he picked up the tiny gems one by one and placed them on the heel or toe of the shoe, not only devising the design but executing it perfectly.

He could tie your shoes so tight that your feet would throb for hours until the laces loosened a bit. He could bend an iron rod with his bare hands, as he did the time some mischievous boys ran away with the wand that raised and lowered the awning in front of the store window and he had to improvise a new one so that customers could see the shoes for sale. He could sketch, he could devise, and he could create almost anything. His grandson still talks about the pair of dice he carved out of blocks of wood, when the original dice were lost that day he was babysitting and the boy was heartbroken that his game was ruined without them. What he couldn’t do with finesse he did with sheer force, willing whatever tools and material he held to do his bidding; to disobey was useless. I remember the time he made wallpaper stick to the wall even after he had run out of glue! Sheer force!

When he shook your hand, he squeezed with intensity. Hugs were bearlike and delicious. Even in his later years, even in his dementia, he retained the strength in his hands. Those fat fingers that we used to laugh at, those huge paws so different from my own elongated fingers (my piano hands, he called them) are so vivid in my mind that I can still see them. He had a strangely misshapen index finger that I wondered about even as a child. The nail did not grow properly on that finger and I was never sure whether it was something he was born with or from an injury he sustained in the camps. If we meet again someday, I will know him not only by his blue eyes, his hair which did not turn gray even into his 80’s, his big nose that I used to tease him about, but by his hands as he grabs mine and pulls me toward him for that hug that I miss so much.

Elaine Culbertson is the chair of the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council, a statewide organization of teachers, survivors, and liberators who volunteer to keep the lessons of the Holocaust alive in the schools of the state. She is a member of the Pennsylvania Act 70 Committee and a convener of the Consortium of Holocaust Educators in the Philadelphia region. Elaine represented the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a Museum Fellow and a Regional Educational Consultant in the Mid-Atlantic. She presently provides professional development for teachers using Echoes and Reflections, a curriculum resource developed by the Shoah Foundation, Yad Vashem and the Anti-Defamation League.

Elaine retired as the director of Curriculum and Instruction in the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, ending a 36-year career in public education. She is the executive director of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. For the past 18 years she has served as program director of the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program, a seminar based in Poland and Germany, that has provided professional development to more than 1100 teachers in its 36-year existence. She works with teachers and students to connect the events of the past with the genocides of the present day. Elaine has written chapters in five different books on Holocaust teaching methods and lectured across the United States, using the story of her own parents’ survival as the basis for her presentations on developmentally appropriate and morally responsible pedagogy. She is working on a memoir that incorporates her mother’s writing with her own reflections on being the daughter of survivors.

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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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My Mother, A Jewish Southern Belle

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

In a Yankee cemetery in 2006, my eulogy for my Atlanta born and bred mom, dead at 82, didn’t do her  justice. I didn’t play Dixie. I had contemplated using Elvis’s version from 1972, but my sense of political correctness trumped my Southern born and raised mom’s legacy.  

While I was growing up in suburban Boston in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Dixie was the only song my Boston born dad and my mom asked orchestras to play.  It was an anthem for mom.

Though mom lived over 5 decades in Massachusetts, and only two decades in Atlanta, she never stirred herself into the clam chowder melting pot.  She may have lost some of her accent over the years, but Atlanta and Georgia were always on her mind.  New England’s climate was always too cold and as were most of its inhabitants. She in turn always had that Southern graciousness so she fielded all her phone calls, from friend or foe, with a warm chatty, “How are you, dear.”  

Her real pet-peeve about Yankee living was the cost of it. She would often tout the cheap household labor in the South, not apologizing for Jim Crow.  Her well-off family always had live-in help and mom would sometimes sadly admit her maids raised her, an only child, as much as her parents did.  She would occasionally strongly suggest to my dad, an only moderately successful dentist, that we hire a maid.

Once as a precious elementary schooler, I told mom about the amazing Mount Rushmore in the far away   South Dakota with humongous carvings of the presidents.  She countered with Stone Mountain in Atlanta in which Southern heroes Stonewall Jackson. Robert E.  Lee and Jefferson Davis were carved into immortality.  What’s more she had actually seen Stone  Mountain in person. Whereas South Dakota in the early ‘60s might as well have been on the moon.

In the early 1960s, I asked mom about the two senators from Georgia, Richard Russell and Herman Talmadge. This inquiry most likely came after I had devoured the paperback, Meet the Senators, and wanted to get her informed opinion. I remember that mom extolled both legislators as Lions of The Senate types, ignoring their arch-segregationist credentials. 

Occasionally, her Yankee family would take a gentle swipe at her beloved South. Mom would then sometimes counter with “The South Shall Rise Again,” mostly joking.

Of course, I am raising the point that my mother sounded more like a Daughter of the Confederacy, than the grand-daughter of Russian empire Jewish immigrants, who arrived in Atlanta about 25 years after it burned down. Mom’s paternal Jewish family was large and well-known. Her father was one of 11 Bresslers and the spot of his department store in Atlanta is a registered neighborhood historic site.  Her uncle was president of Atlanta’s conservative synagogue. My mother, Irma Bressler, immersed herself in the clannish world of Atlanta’s Jewish population.  This world of temple, Jewish social events, Jewish organizations dances was the impetus for her happy teen years. She didn’t date Rhett Butler types, but was instead very happy to be popular with the boys at Georgia Tech’s Jewish frat. 

Her Jewish insularity most likely softened the antisemitism of 1920s and 1930s Georgia.  Mom was born in Atlanta in 1924, just 9 years after the infamous lynching of the Jewish pencil factory manager, Leo Frank, wrongly convicted, due to antisemitism, of murdering a young girl employee.  The Frank Case drove 3,000 worried Jews out of Georgia, though mom’s future parents were not among them.  When mom turned 1 in 1925, there were more Klansmen than Jews in the US.  The New Georgia Encyclopedia says about the post Frank trial years in Georgia, “During the succeeding decades Jews were attacked by the Klan, the Columbians, and other right-wing groups. They were tolerated but also singled out as different.”

It does seem ironic then that mom, a Southern outsider, embraced the Southern culture’s uber-maxim of “The Lost Cause” that emphasized the honor of the valor of a Confederacy fighting for states rights and home-turf protection and not slavery.  But though her innermost concentric cultural circles were Jewish, the larger, peripheral concentric circles advocating the Lost Cause were hard to ignore. Most likely she first learned of the War of Northern Aggression in the textbooks at the historic Spring Street school in the early 1930s.  From then there was Confederate Memorial Day, the statues of Civil War heroes, and social norms to reinforce her regional pride.

My mother’s racial biases were more societal than personal. Thus, she was easily awakened to the Civil Rights movement’s goals, I remember her being excited to attend a lecture by a Southern civil rights journalist in the late 1960s.  She always voted Democratic, as the South moved Republican after 1960. Most tellingly, I don’t know of any band playing Dixie for her, after a Bar Mitzvah my family attended in 1964.

Before Alzheimer’s locked down mom’s brain when she was 75, she understood that “Dixie” had become an anthem with many negative connotations. My sister and I also understood this, but we also understood that Dixie was a short-cut to her treasured Southern identity.  In 2014, we unveiled my dad’s grave marker.  Dad and Mom are buried in the same plot.  The gathering was just my son and I, and my sister and her two kids   We recited a few required prayers. Then we added our own flourish. My nephew, amped by his IPOD and Elvis, sang a few bars of his version of “Dixie.” To our family  this memorial requiem was not Lost Cause specific, or callously played.  The song just defined who mom was, a Jewish Southern Belle, for better or worse.  

Bill Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont  MA.  He still prefers pecan pie to  Boston creme. 

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What My American Grandmother Said

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

That she had come to this country from the Austro-Hungarian empire at age two,

that her mother ‘s Viennese relatives were cousins of Theodor Herzl,

that her step-mother felt jealous of her good looks,

that she had become a Suffragette at age sixteen and raised money for the cause selling flowers on the Boston Common,

that the grandson of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had been smitten with her appearance as Isaiah’s wife at a play at the West End YMHA,

that he had asked her to marry him on the spot, saying “my grandfather the poet loved your people,”

that she had replied, “Well my father doesn’t love yours,” 

that she married an American-born man twelve years her senior,

that she and her husband embraced whenever they met one another in whatever room of the house it was,

that it took her seven years after she married at nineteen to realize that she could get on top,

that she had gone every Sunday night to the Ford Hall Forum to hear visiting intellectuals who lectured on every topic under the sun,

that she had practiced saying, “every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better,” as one of them had advised,

that her sister who lived upstairs once said, “Rosie, what are you constipating to do?”

that there was nothing more beautiful than the sunset seen through her kitchen window,

that she lived as a widow forty-two years after Hyman‘s death, half of those working for the Federal government,

that the buses she took to work were designed for making friends with her neighbors,

that if you don’t own a car, it’s very important to befriend people who do,

that rush tickets at Symphony Hall were half-price for Friday afternoon rehearsals,

that there was nothing better for the spirit when visiting historic sites than saying “I love America!”

that it was important for young people to cultivate a sense of intimacy – she had been reading Erik Erikson at the time –

that she would never live long enough to use that bottle of one thousand buffered aspirin that I bought her,

that she left to her children and grandchildren her love of the sun and the moon and the stars and the sky

that she would spend her money before she died, which she did not, 

that I should say at her funeral that every morning she recited the Twenty-Third Psalm, but not until after she had eaten her bagel.

Herbert Levine is the author of two books of bi-lingual poetry, Words for Blessing the World (2017) and An Added Soul: Poems for a New Old Religion (2020). He is currently working on a humanist and earth-based prayer book: Blessed Are You, World: A Siddur for our Time. This is the fifth of his family portraits shared on the Jewish Writing Project. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

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Yosl and Henekh

by Mark Russ (Larchmont, NY)

My father, Yosl Russ, was born in 1907 in a shtetl 30 miles southeast of Warsaw called Kaluszyn (Kal-u-sheen).   Kaluszyn, the Poles corrected my pronunciation to Kal-oo-shyn (I explained mine was the Jewish pronunciation), was a midsize commercial town that was on a major trade route between Warsaw and eastern Poland and Russia. My father was one of six children born to a poor family that dealt in the beer distributing business; they had a small tavern connected to their home.  The family was observant like all others in the shtetl.  Crisis struck the family when my father’s father suddenly passed away in 1917, one of millions of victims of the Spanish flu pandemic.  With no means of support, the family moved to Warsaw.  My father was sent to live with an aunt at the age of 10 and spent his teenage years performing housework and eventually learning to work in the knitting trade.  He, like so many others in his poverty-stricken, working class generation in Poland became radicalized, gave up religious observance, embraced a Jewish brand of socialism and internationalism, and went on to organize like-minded Jewish youth in Warsaw.  He became active in the Jewish Labor Bund, the principal Jewish political party of his time and place, a Yiddishist, consistent with the Bund’s tenets, and a leader in the party-affiliated sports and outdoors organization, Morgenshtern.  The latter provided organized physical activity and an appreciation of the natural world to slum-bound, impoverished Jewish working youth.  He led “ski trips,” hikes and other expeditions in the Carpathian Mountains and environs of Warsaw.   It was in this context that he met my mother. 

My parents never wanted to return to Poland after the war.  They had escaped east to Bialystok and the Soviet Union in 1939, one step ahead of the German advance into Poland.   They spent the next 18 months in a forced labor camp in Siberia cutting timber.  The Sikorski-Mayski Agreement was struck in 1941 between the Soviet Union and Polish Government in exile in London, effectively liberating all Polish citizens held captive by the Soviets.   My parents, like tens of thousands of other Polish Jews who had taken the same path, made their way south in a harrowing journey through the Soviet heartland.  They spent the remaining war years in Uzbekistan.   After the war they briefly returned to Poland to see who had survived; all but one sibling on each side of the family perished.  They lived in a German DP camp for a time, Paris for a year, and eventually immigrated to Cuba (where my sister and I were born), and finally, to Philadelphia. 

This background is necessary to explain what happened when my wife  and two adolescent children decided to visit Poland.  Initially, the trip was planned as part of a larger Bar Mitzvah journey for my nephew’s son that was to begin in Poland and end in Israel.  Timing was such that we could only join my sister’s family for the first part of the trip.  I shared my parents’ reservations with respect to visiting Poland.  I imagined a land full of anti-Semites, denigrating me and insulting me on the streets of Warsaw.   Although I had powerful trepidations about the trip, I remained curious about what it would be like.  Part of me was drawn to travel there.   

My father had a younger brother, Henekh.  Growing up, I heard bits and pieces about his life.  I heard that he was smart, quick-witted, passionate, and very energetic and capable.  I also knew that he was very well thought of.  My parents’ friends, all Holocaust survivors, many of whom were bona fide heroes in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and partisans in the Polish forests, all knew him and held him in high esteem.  He was one of them.   As I grew older I read some the biographical sketches that had been written about him in Yiddish texts.  Before the war he had been a leader in the young adult section of the Jewish Labor Bund, the Tsukunft, and served on the Bund’s Warsaw central committee, a major achievement for someone so young.  With the advent of the Internet and newly discovered references to him in a variety of books and documents, I learned more about him over the years.   I learned that he had been an active member of the Jewish underground in the Warsaw Ghetto, and that he had been the co-editor of one the underground newspapers, Yugnt Shtime, preserved as part of Emanuel Ringelblum’s Oneg Shabbat archives.  He also authored a “diary” consisting of the proceedings of meetings and historical events related to the Bund in the Warsaw Ghetto, preserved in the YIVO Archives in New York.  I learned that his infant son was killed during a bombardment in the Ghetto.  According to Marek Edelman, the leader of the Bund fighting organization in the Ghetto, Henekh’s vote broke a deadlock resulting in the decision to create the Jewish Combat Organization (the Bund’s military group) in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Henekh and his wife were captured and sent to the Majdanek death camp near Lublin for four months.  I read that he had engaged in acts of heroism while incarcerated.  He and his wife were ultimately sent to Werk Tze, the section of the notorious munitions factory commandeered by the Germans in the town of Skarzysko-Kamienna midway between Krakow and Warsaw.  This factory had three sections, the third, Werk Tse, a combination factory and concentration camp, was reserved for Jews.  The work in this part of the factory was so dangerous and toxic (they used picric acid as part of the munitions processing that literally turned the skin yellow) that the life expectancy of Jews in this setting was 3 months. 

And I knew two more things.  I knew that my uncle and his wife, along with others, were shot in the forest outside this camp in a failed attempt to escape following a rumor that the camp would be liquidated the following day.  And I knew from the time I was a small boy that my father had always said:  “If I knew where my brother Henekh was buried, I would bring flowers to his grave every day.”  These were words I never forgot, words that expressed both a connection and a loss too intense to comprehend.   I had always imagined a “grave” waiting for flowers that would never come.   

Mixed feelings regarding our trip to Poland gave way to clarity of purpose.  I did not know where or how my family perished.  Only Henekh’s journey could be traced, and, with the help of my research efforts, Internet and modern technology, I was intent on addressing my father’s wish.  I found a map of the factory where my uncle and aunt had been incarcerated in Felicia Karay’s book about the Skarzysko camp, Death Comes in Yellow.  With the help of Google Earth, I was able to superimpose that map on the current map of Skarzysko.  I contacted the local historical museum in the town and was informed that parts of the factory still exist, that it is still a munitions plant, but that it makes classified weapons (many of which, ironically, it sells to Israel), and that I would need permission to visit.  My goals were to visit the ruins of Werk Tse if they were to be found and the forest where my uncle was murdered.  With this information in hand, I was able to surmise the approximate location of where Werk Tse stood and that a forest still exists outside the factory complex.  As expected, it was to the east, precisely the direction they would have gone in 1944 to reach the advancing Soviet army.  With help from the local museum staff I was able to contact the factory administrator and set a date for a visit for my wife, my children and me.  We arranged to have a guide as well who would drive us from Krakow to Skarzysko and on to Warsaw, our final destination.  My plan was simple; lay flowers at the ruins of Werk Tse

In Krakow, we stayed in what had been the Jewish quarter, on the block lined with “Jewish” restaurants, each with its own ensemble playing Yiddish folks tunes and klezmer music into the night.  Initially odd and off-putting, there was an air of respectfulness among the locals we met, and, for me, a kind of strange familiarity that counterbalanced an otherwise bizarre and awkward scene.  We visited Auschwitz and toured Krakow, including the site where the Krakow Ghetto had stood.  On July 30th, coincident with the exact day that my uncle and aunt were killed (this was not planned), we bought a bouquet of flowers, and were off to do what we set out to do.  That very morning, however, I received an email from an administrator at the munitions factory stating that he regretted to inform me that the factory was about to start its annual two week summer holiday and that our visit could not take place.  I asked our guide for advice.  He said we should not respond, check in with the museum staff first, and then make our way to the factory and “play dumb.”  If asked, I was to lie about getting the email that morning.  This made me very anxious (I am not a good liar), but fittingly seemed to evoke the uncertainty and tension of an earlier time.   We followed his instructions.  The museum staff could not have been friendlier or more welcoming, and, in a show of support and enthusiasm, two of them piled into our van in a scene reminiscent of “Little Miss Sunshine,” and we were off to the factory.  Our guide took the lead, spoke with Security, and after what seemed like an eternity, arranged an impromptu meeting with a plant administrator.  A long and tense discussion took place in Polish in the parking lot of a surviving factory building.  I was not called upon to lie, but did learn during the negotiations that Werk Tse no longer stood.  However, there was a memorial at the site of Werk Tse, which they referred to as the “Patelnye,” which was absolutely off limits for a visit.  The word “patelnye” was instantly recognizable to me as it was one of the many Polish words that made its way into Yiddish vernacular and my family’s kitchen.  It is the word for frying pan, and came to epitomize the horrifying conditions of the labor camp in the most grotesque terms imaginable.  I also learned that the larger factory complex had its own memorial.  It was located in the surviving and refurbished building immediately in front of us.  They called it the Room of Remembrance and it was dedicated to all those who had perished in the era, Poles and Jews alike.  After what seemed like endless negotiations, we were informed, begrudgingly, that the administrator could take me alone into that room, and just for a minute.  Realizing this was the best I could do, I took my flowers and followed her to the room.  Among the various military artifacts and other memorabilia in the room was a simple stone memorial dedicated to the Jews who had perished.  In an experience that was robbed of meaning and emotion, I lay the flowers down in a perfunctory manner, and left.   

But my real goal, to honor my father’s wish to visit my uncle’s “grave,” was not yet realized.  Naturally, there was no grave, but there was the expanse of forest immediately adjacent to the site where the camp had stood.  I knew that somewhere in that forest, my uncle, aunt and others had been shot.  After dropping our new friends at the museum, I instructed our guide to drive down the road that bordered the forest.  At a small dirt road, which I found on Google Earth, I asked him to stop.  My wife, daughter, son and I walked down the road to a small clearing in the forest.  This was certainly not the spot where Henekh perished, but it would have to do.   We read my uncle’s biography.  My son chanted El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the dead.  We hugged and shed some tears.  I suddenly felt this pang in my heart; I had used the flowers to support our ill-fated visit to the factory, and could therefore not fulfill my father’s wish to lay flowers on Henekh’s “grave.”  And just as suddenly, I had this epiphany.  I had, in fact, fulfilled his wish.  My children and my family were his flowers.  We had done what we set out to do. 

But the story does not end there.  There is a postscript.  Part of our itinerary in Warsaw included a visit to the museum, POLIN, dedicated to the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland.  It is a magical place, first rate, detailed, comprehensive, and beautiful.  After wandering through centuries in the galleries, we walk into a gallery devoted to the history of Jewish political movements between the two World Wars.  We approach the section devoted to the Jewish Labor Bund.  The exhibit includes several “Ken Burns style” slide shows depicting photographs of the era.  As I watched one of these slide shows I gazed upon a photograph of a large group of young people in boats on a lake.  To the right in the photograph was a handsome man, bare-chested, wearing sunglasses.  I swear it is my father.  But I am very familiar with how the unconscious desire to see things can influence what you see.  I call my wife and ask her, without preparation or warning, to watch the slide show.  “Oh my G-d, it’s your father!”  I break down.  She then goes to a second slide show in the exhibit.  She says, “Quick, come here.  It’s a picture of Henekh.”  He is marching in a parade, his clear and piercing eyes evident, dressed in the uniform of his party.  The poignancy of the moment does not escape me.  For however long this museum will stand, my father and his beloved brother will be together.  And, perhaps for at least a brief moment in time, one brother’s wish will have been honored, bringing a modicum of peace to another brother’s soul.

Mark Russ is a psychiatrist in Westchester County, New York.  He is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and Vice Chair of Clinical Programs and Medical Director at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Behavioral Health Center in White Plains, New York.  Dr. Russ was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States at the age of 2 with his parents and sister.  He was the first in his family to achieve a baccalaureate degree and attend medical school.   Dr. Russ has contributed to the scientific psychiatric literature and is beginning to publish fiction and non-fiction pieces.

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After school refuge – 1963

by Annette Friend (Del Mar, CA)

Leaving behind
the petty fights and fires
taunts and turmoil
of 7th grade in Newark, N.J.
I’d set my walking compass
to Linda Telesco’s house.

A large oak towered over
the rickety porch, roots
eating into the sidewalk.
Furniture too large for the living room.
A gold brocade couch covered in plastic.
Jesus hung from a cross
directly over a scratched dining table.

We were best friends.
Craved the same crazy TV shows.
Reading was the outer limits of joy.
Gossiped about boys whose hair
seemed to grow longer each day,
and our teacher Mr. Ransom
who sneered at our grim pronunciation
of his beloved French.

I was only a generation from my parents’
Yiddish accents, wallet was “Vallet”
Vacuum cleaner, “wacuum cleaner”
Linda still salty sweet
from the oceans her parents
crossed from Sicily
before World War II.

We pulled out the Ouji board
clandestine in her closet
to connect to the spirit world.
Mainly the actors from our favorite
TV show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Her crush the exotic Ilya Kuriakin.
Mine the suave Napoleon Solo.
The pointer would glide
letter to letter guided by our fingers
or perhaps the spirits
while we inquired about their favorite colors
flavors of ice cream
when and where we could possibly meet.

Sometimes she’d cry afterwards
as she stared at Jesus on the cross.
Scared she was doomed to the fires of Hell
because she contacted spirits
and liked boys way too much.

I never wanted to go home
where the fires from the Holocaust
still burned every night in my parents’ eyes.                   

Annette Friend, a retired occupational therapist and elementary school teacher, taught both Hebrew and Judaica to a wide range of students. In 2008, she was honored as the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Jewish Educator of the Year from San Diego. Her work has been published in The California Quarterly, Tidepools, Summation, and The San Diego Poetry Annual.

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An encounter with holiness

By Adrienne Raymer Hutt (Sarasota, FL)

At a recent Torah study, we talked about holy experiences that we felt we’ve had and what made these experiences feel holy. I did not respond during the study session as I could not remember an experience that I would describe as holy, except for the extraordinary gift of my children. Afterwards, a long forgotten memory popped into my consciousness, and I was reminded of an encounter that I had at a swimming pool on the east coast of Florida  years ago. 

When I had young children, we would go to Florida to visit my parents, and I would take along a knitting project. On one particular visit, when my children were about three and four, we all went to the community pool, and I brought my latest knitting project with me.  As my parents played with and watched over my children, I took the opportunity to relax and knit.

I learned to knit from my mother most likely when I was old enough to be able to manipulate the needles and yarn. She and my sister were extremely fine knitters, I … well,  I tried my best. My mother taught me to knit in the Eastern European fashion.  Using this method, I wound the yarn to be knitted around the second finger of my non-dominant hand, and then, with a slight twist of  that finger, I released the yarn as it was needed to knit. This was how everyone I knew knit.  I did not know it had a name, or that  there was any other way.  

I understood that this way of  knitting was a part of my heritage, my Jewish  heritage, brought to this country by women who had emigrated from Eastern European countries. As they learned the ways of their new country, they retained ties to their European culture, and, by doing so, ensured that it was passed on to future generations.  I don’t believe that was their motivation; however, it was the result, and I liked this connection to generations past and present. So, I gladly learned how to knit.

Much later on, as I observed others knitting differently than me, I learned that there was another way of knitting, an English method.  No yarn was wrapped around your finger. Rather, it was manipulated by your dominant hand.  It was a method that always looked cumbersome to me. The way I knit seemed to be concise and precise in its movements. And so, I continued to knit in the manner that I was taught.

At the pool that day there were neighbors socializing and swimming.  A woman, who I did not recognize as a friend of my parents but who seemed to be a contemporary, approached me and said that seeing me knit in this way brought her back to the shelters in England during the bombing in WWII.  She explained that she was in England during this time, having emigrated there from Russia some years before the war began.

When in the shelters, she recalled, women would knit to ease their tension and fear.  Those of her community were mostly Jewish from Eastern Europe and knit using this method.  She learned to knit in this way, she told me, from her mother when she was a young girl. 

As a result of seeing me knit in the Eastern European manner, she expressed a sense of connection to her roots and to her frightening experiences during the times she had to take shelter. Observing me knit brought her back in time, and, feeling this connection to her past, she felt compelled to bring this connection into the present.

As she spoke, I had a deep sense of connection to this woman. I visualized all of these women sitting together, knitting. Maybe they spoke and maybe they did not; however, the rhythmic movement of the needles does have a calming effect, and so I could understand why these women grabbed their knitting before running for cover. I did not ask many questions. Instead, I let her recall whatever memories of knitting and shelters and bombing she needed to recall. Listening to her, I felt the ties to my heritage and ancestral geography.  I truly marveled at how such powerful emotions—felt by me, and expressed by her—could be conveyed through the simple act of knitting.  

I never saw this woman again during that visit or on subsequent visits. I do not remember her name or what she looked like.  What I do remember is her gift of sharing our heritage and her memories. In walking those few steps at the pool to where I was sitting, she gave me extraordinary insight into how I feel about being Jewish and my connection to my heritage.

During our moments together, I was transfixed and transported to a holy place via her need to share some of her most poignant memories. It was holy because in that brief period I was no longer sitting at the pool. She and I were somewhere else, together. Time was meaningless. We were in the past. In her past and in our collective present. This stranger and I were in a holy space.  

Until now, I was unable to understand this encounter. I now recognize that this experience has stayed with me in such detail because it was holy. I have encountered many people at a pool or elsewhere and have forgotten those experiences.  This one, this holy encounter, has been patiently resting in  my memory, waiting for me to identify and acknowledge it.

Now I look at knitting and at the Eastern European method that was used by our ancestors, used in shelters, used when sitting by a pool in Florida, and I can see how this particular way of wrapping the yarn around my finger stitches us all together into a  tightly knit, beautiful, and holy Jewish community.

Adrienne Raymer Hutt was born and raised in Brooklyn New York.  She attended Brooklyn College, graduating with a B.A. degree, and received her Masters degree from Southern Connecticut State College in Counseling, as well as a post-Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.  Adrienne and her husband Phil lived in Old Saybrook, Ct, where she worked as a speech pathologist, a teacher of the deaf, and, finally, as a  marriage and family therapist. They are now full-time residents of Sarasota.

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