Tag Archives: Jewish holidays

Chanukah Metaphor

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)





The four faces of the dreidel,

a game learned in childhood,

a metaphor for adults.

Take all, lose everything

put in two, take half.

Fate turns on a spin, 

fortunes flip on a dime, 

a fifty-fifty chance for the dime, 

a one-in-four shot for the dreidel. 

Thus, the questions I’ve wrestled with

ever since childhood:

is it luck, circumstance, or fate,

or are we all part of God’s plan?

Does He spin the dreidel for us?

Does He decide which side turns up?

Or are we subject to twirling all our lives 

and watching where we land?





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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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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Shalach Manot

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

The first time you surprised me with a package
I couldn’t imagine what I’d done
or what special day it was
to inspire the gift.

It contained:
A teeny box of Sun-Maid raisins
Three small hamantashen you’d bought in Brookline
A Baggie of mint lentils (the candy you hoarded, teasing, in a glass jar)
and a few pennies,
and was left, unsigned,
in a brown paper bag.

When you explained it to me
I kept seeing parallels between Purim and Halloween
like dressing up, out of character and into another,
and sweets,
and the flip-flop tension between evil and good.
And then I tried to figure out why you’d given the gift to me
since you only have to present shalach manot of at least
two foods to one person
and I was never sure if I was your favorite;
was it because you knew my other name is Esther
or because you knew what knowledge hadn’t been passed along to me?

So many things I learned from you:
Like wearing white for Yom Kippur, and no leather,
and how to douse the Havdalah candles in wine,
and that people bought Kosher toothpaste for Pesach.
Like how to shuckle with prayer, moving to the rhythm of the words,
and how to invite, then welcome, the white noise of Sabbath,
and dress up Saturday lunch, and elongate it, then nap.

So I want to thank you for the present
and what you taught me in the past
about how to be a Jew
like maybe my grandparents — or before — knew,
and even though I pared back to being me
(then added other layers, slowly, and organically)
I hope someone has given you gifts
that surprise and enrich you
and make you eager to open brown paper bags
which, you’ve learned to imagine,
may well contain something sweet.

Janet Ruth Falon is a writer and writing teacher in Elkins Park, PA.  Her latest book, In the Spirit of the Holidays: Readings to Enrich Every Jewish Holiday, contains 146 poems about the holidays and can be purchased on Amazon at http://a.co/d/5pejb3w, or through Janet at janetfalon@gmail.com.

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Rosh Hashana, 5778

by Richard Epstein (Washington, DC)

It’s Indian Summer.  My Thai wife
brought home matzah ball soup
for the evening meal.  In the morning,
I woke to the aroma of matzah brie
on the kitchen stove.

She knows, with strawberry jam,  I will
eat all she can make.  As I type this,
I hear an interview with Warren Buffett
somewhere in the background.

This year, I have ignored Rosh Hashanah.
At least, I thought I did, until now.
But like Warren Buffett, Rosh Hashana
plays somewhere in the background.

I hear a ram’s horn call out its warning:
Wake up!  Prepare! To clear my thoughts
I went for a walk in the woods along Sligo Creek.

I saw a young man dressed in black standing
in the middle of a narrow footbridge reading
from a prayer book.  As I passed, he dropped
a handful of bread crumbs into the stream.

Long ago, a holy man dressed in white
would lead a goat into the desert to freedom.
A ritual or cure?  But, like wiping chalk writing
from a blackboard, a residue remains.

For Rosh Hashana, I was taught to examine
past actions and deeds. Define the behaviors
that be best cast off and those to save.

With defiance, pye weed, goldenrod and asters
shout a last hurrah. The tall grasses bow
to the shortening of days and impending cold.

Like Indian summer, I prepare myself for change
in this grand parade.  I reflect back, then forward
to another year.

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

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A Miracle In Rhodes

by Helene Kroll Gupp (Sarasota, FL)

It was September, after Rosh Hashanah, and we were on the island of Rhodes searching for a synagogue to spend the most sacred of all our holidays–Yom Kippur.

Along with another couple, we had flown to Athens, then to Mykonos, and now we were in hot and blindingly sunny Rhodes.  Somehow, we had located an old synagogue, down a dusty street, practically hidden from view.  Through a series of disjointed verbal expressions and elaborate hand illustrations, we got our message across to some local townspeople that we wanted to pray at the synagogue.

We were directed to the synagogue’s caretaker, an elderly woman with numbers on her arm.  She instructed us to come back the next day for services at 9 a.m.  Obediently, we did just that.  But 9 a.m. Greek time means “whenever!”

The synagogue had a strong Moorish feel to its architecture and an even stronger odor of dust and mold.  When my husband and our friend, Arnie, each put on a tallis belonging to the synagogue, they kept sniffing until they realized that the scent encompassing them was one of layers and layers of dust.  Obviously, a tallis was used but once a year!

Slowly, a few people started drifting into the synagogue.

A young woman, employed by a cruise ship docked at the port, told me she was Jewish on her father’s side but that in her heart she felt Jewish and wanted to be part of this holiday.

A few tourists rudely rushed in, snapped some pictures of the bimah, and ran out as quickly as they came.

Then three Israeli soldiers on holiday strode in.  Young and vibrant, they filled the synagogue with their exuberance.

Since it was an Orthodox service, the women sat on one side.  And because the young men were also Orthodox, they would not consider including women in the minyan that was required to hold a proper service.

One of the soldiers offered to act as rabbi and hazzan, and patiently waited with us for a quorum of ten.

All in all, there were nine men present; not enough for a minyan.  We all sat around in that stuffy synagogue, waiting to start the service.

Suddenly, a tourist, dressed uncomfortably in a suit and tie, rushed into the ancient building and breathlessly asked, “What time does the service start?”

“Now,” we all exclaimed.

He was our tenth man!

In that moment, thousands of miles away from our home and our temple of three thousand people, ten men and four women celebrated Yom Kippur.  We had our minyan. And for another year the Day of Atonement was observed anew in Rhodes.

I will never forget that holiday in Greece.  It taught me how important every Jew is.

Of all the High Holidays I have spent in my hometown synagogue, none will equal that experience of being part of the continuation of an ancient tradition.

And I will always remember that little synagogue and the miracle I witnessed there: the miracle of one minyan that preserved Yom Kippur for another year on the island of Rhodes.

Helene Kroll Gupp came to Sarasota in 1994 from her hometown of Rochester, New York where she enjoyed a thirty-two year career in public relations and development, including stints with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, State of Israel Bonds, Jewish Home and Infirmary, and lastly, Jewish Family Service. A life member of Hadassah, she is active in Women’s American ORT, Gulfside Chapter.

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A Succah in Maine

by Roberta Chester (Bar Harbor, ME)

At the appointed time for Tashlich last year, I gingerly picked my way over the rocks along the stretch of the Atlantic Ocean in front of my home in Bar Harbor, Maine. It’s a ritual I repeat every year, yet somehow due to bad timing–-for which there is no excuse since the local paper publishes the daily tide tables–-it’s always at very low tide when I am perilously stepping over at least 75 feet of additional rocky shoreline.

At each step, as I walk over rocks slippery with seaweed and sharp with broken shells and crustaceans, my Tashlich prayers are preceded by my plea to Hashem to reach the water’s edge in one piece. It is a balancing act as I carry bread and siddur, charting my course along the rocks, and finally arrive at the water’s edge where I read the relevant prayers from my siddur and throw chunks of bread into the water as gulls flap their wings and swoop into the water eagerly devouring “my sins.” When I turn to leave, the tide is already coming in and licking at my feet.

Passersby along the shore stop to stare, wondering not why I am throwing bread to the gulls–that is not uncommon at all-–but why I would be reading at the same time. That exercise–-from which I breathe a sigh of relief after I have crawled on all fours over the sea wall that separates the rocks from the shore path without breaking a limb–-counts for some measure of penance.

The difference last year, as I walked along the path back to the house, was that I promised (and I spoke the words aloud) to have a succah in the coming year. During all the years I’ve lived here, I’d never performed the mitzvah of having my own succah, so this would truly be a “first,” and the prospect, though I had no idea how I would fulfill that promise, was very exciting.

The months passed, and, almost a whole year later, I had even more reason to have a succah since my daughter Lisabeth and her family, settled temporarily in New Rochelle, New York after leaving Tsfat, were counting on a succah when they came to visit Maine.

“Check out Succahdepot.com,” my daughter advised, and, suddenly, after a few clicks, a succah on the front lawn seemed definitely within the realm of possibility.

The web site gave me several choices, all of them quite expensive and some clearly beyond my means. I settled for one in the middle range that promised it was easy to set up. When I placed my order, I was assured the succah would arrive in two packages within a week, giving me enough time to set it up or find someone to help me.

“Make sure no trees are hanging over it,” my daughter reminded me, “so that it’s out in the open and we can look up and see the stars.”

The only place would be the front lawn, as close to the steps as possible, and near enough to an electrical outlet to have some light at night.

The first package arrived, and I was beginning to get anxious about the second when UPS delivered it to my door. Both cartons were so heavy, though, I couldn’t move them myself, and I sat on the front porch wondering who would set it up.  Finding someone who is handy is impossible here during the tourist season when all the carpenters are “straight out” (a Maine expression for over the top) with work. However, I was very fortunate that just then I had in residence at my Bed & Breakfast a man who assured me he would love to set up the succah. Lucky for me (a dyslexic in this area), his forte was spatial relations, so  I didn’t hesitate to accept his offer.

His wife very kindly indicated she didn’t mind postponing a hike so he could help me, and I looked on with admiration as he tackled the task with skill and determination, and heard him say “it’s like a giant tinker toy.” Mindful of the wind in Maine which can easily undo much sturdier structures than a succah, he suggested that we secure the poles with croquet wickets.

I was so grateful, I deducted $50 from his bill and stood on the porch imagining the decorations my grandchildren could add to beautify our succah. White on three sides and totally open on the fourth, it was too pristine-–perfectly square and uninteresting–-to be  called a work of art like other succahs I had seen. But it looked beautiful to me as I stood on the porch admiring my investment  and not regretting a penny.

“But what about the skach,” my daughter insisted. “That’s the most important part. You need boards, she told me. Order a bunch of 1 x 2’s.”

The local building supply store only had 1 x 3’s, and the clerk was baffled when I explained what it was for. After several rounds with him, my architect daughter came to the rescue and ordered 12 foot lengths which would be just right for my 10’ by 10’ succah.  They arrived in a pile on the lawn, and I knew there was no way I could position them myself.

Fortunately, I received a call from Zachary Davis, a student at the local college whose parents were friends of the man who erected the succah. In no time the boards were up and he was gathering leafy boughs from the woods beside the house. Now it was really looking like a succah. I asked my daughter to bring a supply of crayons and anything else she could think of so my grandchildren could dress up the sides of the succah. The opening seemed too wide, and I thought a curtain would suffice and even provide some insulation from the wind. I had to admit, though, that the shower curtain with pink roses that I hung from the pole looked somewhat silly, so I scrapped that idea. Besides, as soon as Zachary and I moved in a table and chairs, it was beginning to look cozy.

My daughter and family were to arrive from NY late on Thursday, which would give the children time on Friday before Shabbat to work on this project.  I purchased a 100 foot electrical cord so we could have light in the succah. And optimistically hoping we might even be able to sleep in it, I bought a few sleeping bags that promised to keep us warm down to 15 degrees. I had a round brazier which might have kept us warm with a wood fire if we could have kept it in the succah, but I was advised against it for safety reasons. Even if it we couldn’t sleep in it, we certainly could eat in the succah.

As it turned out, though, the car my daughter and son-in-law bought (in what they assumed was perfect condition) needed major repairs. They called and said they wouldn’t be able to leave until after Shabbat for the ten hour drive to Maine and would arrive in the wee hours of the morning. My grandchildren would hardly be able to decorate the succah after the long trip, so I would have to do it myself. I enlisted the help of the girl who cleans the guest rooms (preferring to do that myself) and gave her a ladder, tape, scissors, and string to attach some bright, autumn leaves to the walls and hang gourds and squash of various shapes, sizes, and colors from the skach.

My succah still looked a bit barren, but it occurred to me that a grouping of family pictures would be a wonderful addition, All that was needed were some pieces of tape for photos of my grandchildren and their cousins.  Erev Shabbat, the succah was truly a magnificent vision on the lawn beneath the bright orange harvest moon suspended over the bay. I stood on the porch, pleased and grateful that I had been able to fulfill the mitzvah and my promise, and delighted that my family would be here. For the first time in many years I would not be alone here on Succoth. Motzei Shabbat, before I went to bed, I walked out to the head of the driveway and tied a bunch of balloons to the Shorepath Cottage sign.

About 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, my daughter and her family burst through the side door. I’d enjoyed their succah in Tsfat, and, having delighted in its artistry and comfort with couches and carpets, I was very anxious for their approval.  Here in Maine, the elements are definitely less amenable than in Israel; it might rain and even snow at this time of year. But they gave the succah their stamp of approval with the caveat that “this was definitely a Maine succah.”

Two hours later we were happily eating our breakfast in the sukkah, and the guests in the house were taking our pictures. For the next few days, thanks to a good supply of gloves, hats and fleece jackets, we were able to eat all our meals in the succah. Though it was cold, the days were bright and sunny. A reporter for the local newspaper heard about the succah and came to write a story, complete with an explanation of the lulav and etrog, and took our picture.

Like the holiday itself,  the visit was very sweet, but far too short.  My daughter and her family  had to return to their own succah and to visits with other relatives, and I waved goodbye as they pulled out of the driveway to begin their long drive back to New Rochelle. During the next few days, several members of the small Jewish community here in Bar Harbor came to eat gingerbread cookies and cider in the succah, and I managed to eat a few meals there, though it had gotten much colder and felt somewhat lonely.

Then, Thursday evening–-Chol Hamoed Succoth–-we had a huge wind out of the northeast, “a nor’easter.” Half asleep, I heard the doors and windows rattling and the wind chimes clanging on the porch. It was the kind of night that makes you want to bury yourself under the covers, which I did, suspecting that whatever was happening outside was nothing I could do anything about. It would be better not to look, and I was right.

When I awoke and peered out the window through the pouring rain, I saw, much to my dismay, that the wind had totally destroyed my succah. The walls had collapsed, and some of the poles were bent  (those croquet wickets were no match for the wind), and the table and all the chairs were overturned and tossed about like matchsticks. The lamp had fallen; even the glass fixture and the light bulbs were broken. It was as if some giant, willful child had stormed through the succah and stomped on it.

I e-mailed Zachary, who came to the rescue and salvaged what he could. The lamp was a “goner” but luckily nothing had ripped. He indicated there was a chance he could straighten the poles that had been bent out of shape by putting them in a vise and would let me know. It was a dismal morning, made even more so by the rain and the sight of what had been a succah and was now just a tangled mess. Remarkably, the family pictures, though wet, were ok.

Since then, I’m pleased to report, Zachary was able to straighten the poles, and beautiful pictures of the succah have arrived in the mail from the guests who were here during Succoth. The photo and accompanying story appeared in the local paper, and now the population of this little town knows something about our very beautiful and profoundly meaningful holiday, just as I learned the valuable lesson of Sukkoth–how temporary and transient are the works of our hands and how vulnerable.

Roberta Chester, a writer living half the year in Jerusalem and the rest of the year in Bar Harbor, ME, owns and operates The Shorepath Cottage, Maine’s only kosher B&B, which is often the site of writing workshops for women. Her website is www.shorepathcottage.com

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