Tag Archives: Jewish survival

“You Jewish?”

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

“You Jewish?”

At a crowded train hub

a man dressed in a long black robe

pointed at me and repeated, “You Jewish?”

“You, Jew, step out of the line.”

I waved him away.

“Men here, women over there.”

How dare he, out of all the people

rushing for their trains, single me out?

“Achtung, mach schnell.”

Do I have a long nose?

Do I have money pouring out of my pockets?

Do I shuffle along like a prisoner?

Please, God, don’t single me out.

The mournful music of the camps

resonates in my soul.

But then, later, after some thought,

I wondered if I had misread the Chasid.

Maybe he was just offering me

a sweet greeting for the holiday season.

I don’t want to be chosen.

Maybe he was simply saying

we are landsmen, no?

I dismissed him out of hand.

My parents are European.

I could have had numbers on my arm.

Have I been so scarred I may have missed

an opportunity for connection and grace?

You, Jewish? Yes, I am.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and 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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Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

A Proper Home

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

While growing up in a Yiddish speaking home, I was often witness to the respect and adoration given to the Yiddish books that once graced our small bookcase. It goes without saying that prayer books, bibles and other holy texts were held in high esteem, but books written in Yiddish, the mameloshen (mother tongue), came in a close second. Like many Eastern European Jews, my parents had a particularly strong attachment to books written in Yiddish. Whatever the theme or intended message, these books were often afforded special status not only because they were written in Yiddish but because Yiddish utilizes Hebrew script, the very same letters found in all of our sacred texts.

More often than not, many of these Yiddish books were passed on to my parents by either aged or sickly friends and neighbors who simply wanted their treasured books to take up residence in a proper home. Yiddish books, after all, were like beloved relatives who detailed our long and often difficult history. I remember how we always removed and replaced these books with the utmost care so as not to injure their often spindly, dilapidated spines and worn bodies. In our home, we read these books primarily on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays when there was ample opportunity to lay on the couch, close one’s eyes and perhaps take a solemn journey back in time.

History has a way of repeating itself and perhaps is meant to do so. A short while back, I was approached by a few acquaintances and patients asking if I would be willing to take possession of their Yiddish books. Some followed my advice and sent their books to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts while others would not hear of it. This latter group wanted their books to reside in a warm loving home rather than in an “orphanage for Yiddish books”.

I remember an elderly gentleman who, only recently, was seated in my examination room. He began speaking as soon as I entered. “I have to talk to you about my Yiddish books,” he began. “I know you speak and read Yiddish. So, doesn’t it make sense for them to be with you? They mean so much to me. I can’t just throw them out. Please, come to my home. The books will be waiting for you.”

His pleas were repeated with ever increasing urgency. How could I possibly refuse this clearly distraught gentleman? He was concerned about the fate of his beloved Yiddish books now that he had sold his house and was about to move to a small apartment where there was simply no room for his books. Aware of how much this request meant to him, I agreed to come by that very night and take possession of the box of Yiddish books that, I was told, was silently awaiting my arrival. As I left his home carrying the box, I heard a long tremulous sigh follow me to the door. It was an unmistakable declaration of sadness at seeing his beloved friends leave, accompanied by a sense of relief that they would at least have a proper home.

Since then, in addition to a few books that once belonged to my parents, I have accumulated a fair number of Yiddish books as I found it difficult to refuse those pleading on behalf of their loved ones. And so, just about every Sabbath and Jewish holiday, I’ve gotten into the habit of carefully taking one of these aged volumes in hand to reacquaint myself with many of the words and phrases that no longer see the light of day.

Much like aged relatives, these books speak volumes of survival and adaptation and give voice, as well, to immense pride and joy. Each time I’m done and get ready to close one of these books, I start to wonder who will be next in line? Who will be willing to accept books that are written in a strange language dealing with topics that have little or no relevance to most people? I’ll ask around when the time comes, but, apart from the praiseworthy mission of the Yiddish Book Center, I fear there will be no takers.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.



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Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

A Poem for the Jews of Belmonte in Portugal

by Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner (New York, NY)

During my visit to Belmonte, Portugal, I met people whose families for centuries have hidden their Jewish heritage and who are finally free to reclaim their roots. Their stories moved and inspired me to write A Poem for the Jews of Belmonte in Portugal

It was while writing this poem that I became aware that I was still struggling with unresolved issues of early childhood experiences with prejudice and persecution. From an early age I learned to hide my identity as a Jew.  Numerous times I was humiliated, beaten up, and, worse yet, afraid of being killed. You see, I was born in Casablanca, Morocco, to loving parents, where both my maternal and paternal grandparents, of noble spirit, were revered in their Jewish community. 

As a child, while spending a week of summer vacation with my maternal grandparents, I saw my grandfather, Moshe Abuhatziera (Zechrono Lebracha), returning home from the synagogue after an incident of persecution, an experience which left me even more traumatized.

On a Sabbath day, on his way home from the synagogue, he was beaten up. His white beard was pulled. Blood was all over his white Shabbat clothes. Seeing my beloved grandfather this way, I felt a specific rage, which as a child I never experienced before. Yet no words of anger or revenge ever came from my grandfather’s mouth. Instead, he addressed my anger with the following, and with a gentle pat on my head: “Dear child, don’t hate. Muslims are our brothers and Gentiles are our cousins. These people didn’t know what they were doing.” 

These words from my grandfather have inspired me on both personal and professional levels in the way I view the world.

Eventually, my family fled Casablanca in the dark of night, with only the clothes on our backs, to France and then, finally, to Israel. For the past 50 years, I have lived in the United States.

Because of the people of Belmonte, I have had a chance to face my past.

I have an affinity with the people of Belmonte and genuine respect for their tenacity in overcoming the obstacles they faced over 500 years in order to preserve their identities as Jews. Finally, they are free to practice their Jewish heritage.

Their story saddened me and their tenacity inspired me. This poem is my effort to pay homage to them and for me to master my own early trauma of persecution:

More than 500 years ago
Jews lived and died resisting conversion.
Here, hidden in the antiquity of Belmonte,
I find an authentic living miracle.
I walk through the labyrinth of the city,
With its ancient steep maze of alleyways,
Among the narrow streets, houses from a bygone era,
Colorful flowers like gems bestowing
Their beauty upon their surrounding.
Some people look out their windows
While others sit on wooden benches in front of their homes
Gazing at strangers passing by.

As we reach our destination, before our eyes is a placard saying,
“Museum Judaico De Belmonte.”
We are welcomed by Mr. Levy, our guide.
With sadness I learn about the atrocities
Inflicted on the Jews during the Portuguese Inquisition,
Heart wrenching stories that
My emotions can no longer absorb,
My mind can’t comprehend.

In 1453 King Manuel l, the Church
And Isabella, the Queen of Spain,
Co-opted God’s final authority on human destiny.
The Jews once again became sacrificial lambs.
A royal decree was issued.
In droves, from all over, Jews came to Lisbon Port.
They were given an ultimatum:
Convert to Christianity
Or death will be your fate.
Those who held onto their Jewish beliefs
Were burned alive.
Children were snatched from their families,
Breaking their parents’ hearts and souls,
Taken on a journey unknown
Never to be seen again.
Some parents, who did not want
Their children apostatized,
With a bleeding heart and tears in their eyes
Threw their young into wells.
Innocent children who died in vain
Forever in the memory of their people will remain.

Manuel, in league with the Church,
Starved the Jews nearly to death.
Dirty holy water fraught with malevolent intent
Splashed on helpless faces.
Mass coerced conversion took place.
As the darkness on earth and heaven loomed over the Jews,
With half-frozen tongues
They prayed in a silent scream.
With copious tears, their eyes sought heaven,
Their words piercing through celestial doors
Tightly closed against the
Agonizing Chosen ones.
The stars and clouds seemed to bleed,
Heaven above remained silent.
The Jews had their doubts,
Yet tenaciously believed
God was not dead, only ominously mute.

All my senses are overwhelmed with anguish.
Tears cascade down my face,
Knots in my throat.
I shake with intense rage,
Like a leaf on a tree shivering from cold drops of rain,
Mourning the decimation of innocent Jewish souls
Whose only crime was being Jews.
I want to scream so loud,
Let the reverberation
Reach the bottom of the sea,
The sky’s infinity.
Words congeal on my tongue,
I can’t find words
To piece together a fractured world.
I want to forget but I cannot forget,
The mantra goes on in my mind.
The past always intrudes on the present.
I will no longer numb my psyche,
But face the past in service of the future.
I must remember, everything must be told.
Like an embryo, slowly, words come to life.
I move on to see the rest of the exhibition.

A memorial plaque hangs on the wall
Dedicated to the victims who perished in the Portuguese Inquisition,
Their names engraved for eternity on a dark stone.
Among many other precious artifacts
I see several stones engraved with Hebrew letters
Dating back to the 13th Century, indicating that Jews had lived in Portugal
Hundreds of years before the Inquisition.
Beautiful mezuzot which Jews, devoured by fears,
Never hung on their doors.
In pockets they remained hidden,
To be kissed only in secrecy.
I find paintings depicting daily rituals of Jewish life,
The rite of passage from birth to death:
A wedding under a chupa,
A table embellished
With challah, a cup of wine for Kiddush,
And Shabbat candles
Reminding the Jews in hiding
To strive against the darkness,
Bring into balance the
Frailty and beauty of their lives.
These artifacts in the museum are testimonial evidence that
Despite appalling atrocities and waves of tyranny that tried
To obliterate Jewish culture and spirit,
The Jews maintained their tradition.
For five fear–ridden centuries
In hiding, they clung with passion to their roots.
On the mountain of Belmonte.

After leaving the museum, on our way to the synagogue,
My heart beats with pride when I see in the midst of town
A menorah standing proud and tall,
A living testimony that despite the forces of evil,
The Jewish tenacity for survival triumphed once again.
The Menorah, once in the Holy Temple,
Represents eternal light, wisdom, and divine inspiration
To spread the light the of godliness to the entire world.
But this menorah,
This menorah in front of me, commemorates
The calamities that befell the Jewish people
Before, during, and after the Portuguese Inquisition
And, still raw in memory, the systematic annihilation
Of my people during the Holocaust.
This menorah carries the legacy to bear witness
To all the Jews who perished in anguish,
Whose voices were never heard.
And with love and pride it salutes those who survived,
A menorah for future generations,
Affirming human values in a disintegrated world.

Questions run through my mind,
No answers to be found, only more questions.
How will humanity learn to sublimate
The thanatos, the death instinct, that leads to fear, hate, and war
And to nourish the eros, the life instinct, which will create
A new culture that strives for world peace?
If we don’t, the human race will cease.

Once in the synagogue
I could envision how the Jews in Belmonte
In hiding, quietly prayed to God
With sadness beyond words,
And with genetic memory
Imagined that they were present at the Wailing Wall,
Praying for freedom and triumph over evil,
Breaking the chains enslaving their souls,
Striving to regain their humanity.

Today, a renaissance flowers in Belmonte.
The perennial fear of being a Jew is slowly diminishing.
Jews can exercise their freedom of choice.

Dear Jews of Belmonte,
This is what I dream for you:
Today, when you pray, whether in the synagogue
or in your own hearts,
Let your prayers be loud and clear,
Let your voices in unison vibrate, reach
Ears and hearts far and near.

On your way home after synagogue
As you stroll the streets,
Fearlessly greet each other
With the ancient and precious words,
“Shabbat Shalom ”or “Shalom Aleichem.”

Never again should any group of people
Regardless of the color of their skin,
Religion, race, age, gender or creed
Suffer malevolence from their own kin.
May our way of life always echo the precious words,
Shalom, Salama, Peace.

Born in Morocco and raised in France and Israel, Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner has lived in Manhattan for 50 years. She is a psychoanalyst with extensive clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and family therapy. A member of the New York City Audubon Society, she loves photographing birds, flowers, and anything visual that creates nostalgia for what we were, what we are, and what we always will be: part of nature.  Her photographs have appeared in Dance Studio Life, the Audubon Society newsletter, and Persimmon Tree, as well in a traveling exhibition on the life of Bayard Rustin.


Filed under Family history, Jewish identity, poetry, Portuguese Jewry