Tag Archives: memories

The Imperative of Remembrance

by Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner (New York, NY)

This piece is dedicated to the six million Jews and other innocent victims who perished in the Holocaust and to the beloved families left behind.

Years ago, after visiting my family in Israel, I stopped for several hours in Berlin before a connecting flight back home to the U.S.A. I shall never forget the overwhelming feelings of dread I had when I saw the building that once was the headquarters of Hitler’s Nazi regime. The thought that here I was, standing on the soil where the Final Solution was planned to murder six million Jews and other innocent victims, filled me with anguish. I wept. I could not wait to leave the country and vowed that I would never set foot on German soil again.

Several years after my stop in Berlin, a friend and her husband in Israel called, asking me to join them on an organized tour from Israel to Germany. Initially, I declined the invitation. The thought of being in Germany again made me uneasy. As a child, I had lived through the pain of prejudice and persecution just for being Jewish. I remembered the beatings and every syllable of slurs, a traumatic experience that has been like a shadow accompanying me throughout my life. 

Also, my late husband was a Holocaust survivor. Except for one brother, the rest of his family were all killed in the Holocaust. The atrocities inflicted on him during the years he spent in several labor camps left psychic scars with which he wrestled the rest of his life. The trauma became a silent phantom; during the day, painful memories were locked away, but at night, when the repressed pain became too much to bear, it burdened his dreams with nightmares, awakening him from a storm of grief, as he called out the names of his perished loved ones.  Witnessing his suffering from a wound that would never heal was painful. Many times he expressed the wish that one day he would visit Dachau, the concentration camp from which he was liberated. 

Like other survivors he journeyed from darkness to light, striving toward the birth of a new life. We built a family with two wonderful children, and he lived to enjoy our first three precious grandchildren. Like other survivors, the love and pride he took in his children were deep and truly meaningful. Often, my husband would say: “The revenge is to live a successful, meaningful life.” At the age of 93 after a long illness, Samuel Holzkenner (z’l) passed away. His wish to visit Dachau remained unfulfilled.

So, the question of whether to join my friends in Germany rattled around in my head for weeks.  After some deliberation, I contacted the administrative office in Dachau. Initially I was told they had no record of a Mr. Holzkenner. But after much correspondence, I finally received an email saying that they had found several documents about my late husband. This information was pivotal in helping deal with my emotional turmoil.

I wanted very much to fulfill my husband’s wish to visit Dachau, and I needed that to happen before memory deserted me, before age took me down. Also, I wanted to impart to my children and grandchildren the beauty and tenacity of their Jewish heritage. But being in a country where my people had been systematically annihilated filled me with anxiety, anger, and fears.  My grandfather’s words of wisdom came to mind: “Hate is the seed of evil that tarnishes the soul, while finding creative ways to no longer be a victim is self-healing.” His words inspired me to look into unresolved fears from my past traumatic experiences with prejudice and how they continued coloring my present life.  I realized that I had to cultivate a healthier perspective of life. I said to myself, healing only comes through learning to forgive and making peace with the past, and if a lesson is to be learned, one must never forget.

Yes, I thought, why should the good-hearted young German generation be judged by the sins of their fathers or grandfathers? This rekindled awareness imbued me with the strength to join my friends, tour the country, and visit several Jewish historical sites. And on the day my friends returned home, I took the early train to Munich, arriving in the late afternoon.  I spent a sleepless night in a hotel. In the still of the night, I cried and awakened. The first crimson hues of dawn brought the promise of a new day, a new hope. Early the next morningI took the train to Dachau.

In this cataclysmic landscape, I walked with apprehensive steps over the gravel walkway, thinking this is the same path where prisoners in a human chain of misery were forced to walk as they were brought into the camp to meet their demise. The path led toward the main original gate with its motto in German, “Work Sets You Free.”  I saw a variety of people of all ages strolling in groups in solemn silence. Everything seemed eerie at this site that was once a killing field. I felt the ashes of the perished ones still permeating the airI exhaled a long sigh.

As I had been directed, I went straight to the administrative office that preserved the legacy of the victims. The staff there welcomed me warmly. One administrator guided me to a room and we sat down. He asked me several questions to verify who I was before getting up to go to the archive room. When he came back, he provided me with my husband’s background information – his birthplace, date of birth, a list of names of people who were deported with him on the same train, the names of the camps he was in before Dachau—and the identification card Jews had to carry with them at all times. He gave me copies of all the documents.

I felt overwhelmed with sadness and pain at the images this information conjured up in my mind, imagining my husband and others taken from their homes, their families left behind in anguish and fears, the cries of loved ones being separated from loved ones, and the horror that awaited them all. I felt a lump in my throat and tears sprang from my eyes. When I lifted my gaze to the man in front of me, his eyes seemed rimmed with red, as though he was holding back his tears.

He got up and showed me around the place. There was a room where paintings of survivors were displayed, a library, and a big archive room that contained films, relics, photos, written documents about the history of what happened in the camp, eye-witness reports, personal narratives of survivors, and scholarly work. I was filled with a sense of gratitude and extended my thanks to all those involved in maintaining this place as a reminder of history, and as a resource for people like myself who wanted to research and learn about their loved ones’ experiences of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. I left the office knowing that the people here were on the right side of history.

I walked along the Path of Remembrance, viewing several Jewish memorial halls and monuments, all of which commemorated the sanctity of those who had perished and solemnly honored the loved ones who survived.  A Jewish menorah on the wall displayed the words “Never Again.” Another memorial sculpture in the yard symbolized the emaciated bodies of the prisoners dangling down; underneath was a placard indicating the dates 1933-1945, the years the camp was in use. Also, there was a big sculpture of a menorah and a lectern engraved with the word “Yizkor,” Hebrew for “to remember”; a museum; and other memorial sites to commemorate non-Jews.  Utterly chilling were the barracks, the gas chamber, and the crematorium building, all too painful to describe. 

As I moved around, I was consumed with grief. How could such a highly cultured nation as Germany descend into such unfathomable depths of barbarism?  The question remained beyond my comprehension. I wanted to be alone in some corner, mourning the martyrs in silence. I asked myself, how does one mourn for six million Jews and all the other innocent victims who perished. What prayer shall I recite?  I shut my eyes and bowed my head low, and cried for the suffering of humanity as I recited a prayer: “May the souls of the six million Jews, and the millions of others who were victims of Nazi persecution, rest in peace, and their sacred memory last forever and ever. Amen.”

When I opened my eyes, tears still dropping down my face, my heart filled with sadness, I was awake, yet felt physically transported to another time and place, I wished that by some miracle I had been disguised as an invisible eagle, with strong wings that soared over the regions of the world in turmoil, to redirect the tide of history. 

I wished that I had been there with the innocent victims yearning to live and be free, to hold their hands as my grandfather held mine once, walking together to the synagogue on Shabbat or the holidays, or to sing to them the first song my mother had sung to me to soothe my fears before bed. Or, that under my wings of love, I could have been their mother, or sister, and together we could have prayed to change the course of the trains and every road that led to their impending doom, and take them to the city of their ancestors that stands on the hill in the Promised Land. Out from the rhythm of my imagination: somehow, I heard voices, I knew they came from a nation in anguish of grief in a prayer asking: “Please, please, never, never again.”

On my way back home, I looked at the gravel paths. Among the stones are the ashes of cremated corpses of which I felt I was a part. Their infinite and indestructible souls are beyond the celestial heavens gazing at us here on earth, reminding us that wherever they are, they will always be part of us, for in the chain of life by many threads we were, we are, and we will always be interconnected, between the land of the dead and the world of the living, ancestors and descendants united. And yes, we must preserve the collective memory and keep truth alive so that these atrocities do not happen again, toward anyone regardless of age, gender, race, color, religion, or creed. 

I looked back one more time. I said to myself, I shall continue to mourn the annihilation of the innocents. And yes, I shall never forget. But I am also thankful for the miracle of survival and for the tremendous power of the human spirit to triumph over the extremes of evil. For I know that these monuments are a precious legacy, commemorating all the victims who perished in the Shoah, a symbol of human tragedy. 

Before reaching the main street, I picked up a stone as big as a coin cut from the evil of time past, a silent witness. I can’t see it, but I know it is there: engraved on it the word Zachor (remember). The clouds moved in wandering shadows, mirroring my emotions — intense and painful in a complex way. Everything here was, is, and will for eternity remain touched by solemnity and sorrow and tears.  Under my breath I said, Hitler did not win; here I am walking out of here as a free Jew, a testament that the Stars of David are not all burned out or destroyed; we still live and shine among the nations of the world. 

Just as I was leaving the camp, I met a group of non-Jewish German boys and girls, high school students with their teacher who — from what I could ascertain — was explaining the history of the camp. I was interested to find out what emotions this place stirred in them, so I approached the group and asked in the few words of German I knew, “Do you speak French or English?” The teacher answered, “Yes, I speak English and some students do as well.” I asked, “How do you feel being here?” One of them responded by asking me, “Why are you here?” I told them that my late husband was liberated in this camp, and briefly related my early childhood experiences of persecution. 

They were curious and articulate, not shy to ask their own questions. I encouraged their curiosity and answered as best I could. The students told me that they were here as part of their school curriculum that prescribed over 14 hours of instruction in National Socialism of WW II, as well as learning about the Holocaust, including a visit to a concentration camp. They also mentioned that they’d seen Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. Some expressed a wish for sympathy for their grandparents’ generation and resented being defined by their grandparents’ genocidal history. The past, they said, had so little connection with their immediate lives; they were no longer willing to bear the weight of historical wrongs. Others maintained that the past was still part of their psyche as they continued to struggle with their ethnic inheritance and national collective guilt, trying to make things right with the world. 

After this emotional discourse, we concurred that each generation must create a new culture of its own humanity by playing a unique role in the moral conscience of the world. Inhuman behavior toward any race, gender, age, creed, color, or religion is simply not acceptable. Every individual must seek insight in order to separate darkness from light, for if we are indifferent to the plight of others’ humanity, we will be neglecting the future and risk repeating the past. Moreover, we must be aware of the importance of participating in whatever minuscule manner we can to build a safe, more humane world. In Hebrew, I told the teens, we say, “Tikkun Olam” — a phrase describing the effort to repair the world. Two of the teens broke down in tears, as did I. In their words, I heard remorse and sadness; in their eyes, I saw hope. 

Among the swirling clouds I thought heard words wrapped in a celestial rhapsody. 

I looked up into the vast sphere, and smiled. I want to believe it was Samuel Holzkenner (z’l), smiling back from above, whispering, “Yes, may the seeds of hope give humankind strength and love to teach them more.”

 Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner is a psychoanalyst and family therapist with extensive clinical experience in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, early childhood development, and couples and family therapy. Born in Morocco, she lived briefly in France and Israel, and has resided in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan for the past 56 years. 

Her poem, “Hidden Identities in Transition,” inspired by the Jews of Belmonte, Portugal, and an essay, “When Understanding Comes,” both appeared in The Jewish Writing Project, and her poems and prose have appeared in such publications as Reflections in Poetry and Prose 2015, HaLapid, Chelsea Now, Chelsea Community News, the Israeli Birding Portal (in both English and Hebrew), and, most recently, she was profiled on Senior Planet- “Poetry, Power and Perseverance.”  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.

She has two children, and  five grandchildren, for whom she writes storybooks and poetry. 

 

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Bone on Bone

by Linda Albert (Sarasota, FL)

I turned my back on some of your skills

before I really learned them—bridge parties,

lemon tarts with whipped cream piped around the edges,

three-layered tea sandwiches without the crusts—

because of all the hours I judged you’d lost there,

the chaotic kitchen, the clean-ups that always fell to me.

I got rid of your impatience

right from the beginning—

the time keeper tyrant

who kept you running until

it seemed to me you missed your life.

In that, I might have gone too far,

and now I want some back.

Your maxims, I weeded out along the way—

though I confess that job took years.

If it’s true that God will only help the ones

who help themselves, then who needs God?

Airing dirty laundry in public is sometimes therapeutic.

The bed I make is not the one I always have to lie in;

There is no actual law.

But I do cherish your English bone china,

that set of thirty two with the gold rim and green border

you bought from Uncle Jack’s jewelry store in Ottawa

and confirmed at the Sweet Sixteen

luncheon you made for me.

In fact, I think it would please you to know

I use that china every day.

Whenever I take a plate from the cupboard

I share the meal with you. It’s easier now

since you’ve become my guest.

An internationally published poet, essayist, and former theater director, Linda Albert is also a certified Jungian Archetypal Pattern Analyst and communication coach with a Master Certification in Neurolinguistics, and in recent years her work has focused on conscious and creative aging. Linda’s poetry is influenced by her interest and academic training in those areas as well as by her Jewish heritage, the changing roles of contemporary women, and her personal joys, struggles, and insights.

Author of Charting the Lost Continent: Poetry and Other Discoveries (https://bit.ly/ChartingtheLostContinent), her awards include the Olivet and Dyer-Ives Foundation Poetry Prizes and the Atlanta Review’s International Merit Award for poetry. For more about her and her work, visit: www.lindaalbert.net.

“Bone on Bone” first appeared in Voices Israel 2015 Anthology and is reprinted here with permission of the author. 

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Ancestral Memory

By Jena Schwartz (Amherst, MA)

You know that feeling when you remember something but you don’t know if it’s because you really remember or if you’ve heard the story so many times, or seen the photo, that maybe your mind thinks it remembers but doesn’t really?

What is “real” memory and what is imprinted on us by exposure or repetition?

My daughter was leaving the house yesterday. As she was passing through the kitchen, I stood to give her a hug, but I stopped short when I reached her, taking in a long look at her face. She looked stunning to me, her beauty timeless. For a moment, I saw so much of my father’s side, and in the very same instant, my mother’s side. It felt uncanny.

This was on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and I thought all day about memory.

How can we possibly remember what we did not experience firsthand? It does not make sense from a logical standpoint. But I believe in my bones, quite literally, that such memories are real.

I remember the Holocaust and the Inquisition just as I remember lighting Shabbat candles at a table in Romania, in Macedonia, in Poland, just as I remember that I, too, was a slave in Egypt.

I remember nursing babies in the red tent, long days of walking.

I remember running through the forest barefoot in terror.

I remember the smell of soup on the stove and challah in the oven.

I remember weddings, the drinking, and how the girls were not allowed to daven.

I remember fathers teaching daughters and daughters screaming as fathers were hauled away, so many fathers, and brothers, sons.

I remember. I remember the sound of glass shattering, I remember huddling, I remember waiting it out, holding our breath, afraid of every floorboard, every footstep.

I remember the songs and the spices of Saturday at sundown, wishing each other a sweet week, a week of peace, even after, even then.

I remember it all.

Jena Schwartz is a promptress and coach who offers fierce encouragement for writing and life. She lives in Amherst, MA with her wife and two children, ages 13 and 17. Her poetry and personal essays have previously appeared in On Being, Mamalode, Sliver of Stone, and Manifest Station, among other places. She is studying to become a bat mitzvah in May, 2020, at the age of 46. Visit her online home at www.jenaschwartz.com.

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“Give, You Shall Give”

by Dobra Levitt (Jerusalem, Israel)

Two memories lodged in my past seem to have waited years for my Talmud Torah class to reveal their true value.  We have been learning the laws worded as double expressions in the Torah such as: give, you shall give; lend, you shall lend; load up, you shall load up your neighbor’s fallen donkey. The law of restoring a pledge, “restore, you shall restore,” requires a lender to return the garment of a poor person who has given it as security for a loan. Since his garment is most likely the only covering he has, Torah law made it obligatory to return it to him each day before sunset for as long as it’s held as security. The first memory from my working years in Philadelphia brings this law out of the pages of the Gemarah into living reality.

After university and before I found my first teaching position, I worked for a short time at the Department of Public Assistance.  My job was to visit people receiving financial assistance, lend a sympathetic ear to their cares and concerns, and send in a standardized form recording my observations. The people I visited were humble folk, grateful to the powers-that-be for the help they got and for the “nice miss” who listened to their troubles.

The job took me into neighborhoods I never knew existed. One place was a single room apartment in a building “somewhere near the railroad tracks.”  Its occupant was a small, elderly Afro-American man. By now he’s just a memory of a memory, but for many years he was a living person in my heart.  His slight form, his politeness and gentleness were not abstractions describing him but qualities inseparable from what endeared him to me.  Except for a plain wood bureau and maybe a few items he kept in a closet, the only things he possessed in this world were literally a table, two chairs, and a cot that served as his bed.  Lined up on the bureau top were framed photos of loved ones “from the South.” They were all that really mattered to him. I can’t recall his talking about anything else. I remember standing beside him as he showed me each one, telling me who they were and how they were related to him.

At the bottom of his bed, folded up very neatly, was a khaki overcoat he may have bought at one time from an army and navy store. As sure as I stood there, I knew that coat was what he used to cover himself at night. I may have asked him or found out from my supervisor that a blanket had been ordered for him—it troubled me so that he still had not received it. I must have sent in the visiting form with an urgent request for its immediate delivery, but I was scheduled to leave the Department shortly after my visit, so I never knew the outcome of my gentleman’s story. I always hoped that someone broke through the bureaucratic red tape and got his blanket to him without a minute’s further delay.

Talmudic scenarios, at least literally, are not common anymore. It’s unlikely that when we step out the door we’ll encounter a lost sheep we should exert ourselves to return to its owner or help a neighbor unload his fallen donkey, but there are rare exceptions. With my own eyes I saw how a frail mortal could have nothing to his name in this world but one garment to cover himself at night—and if he had to give it as security, his very life could be endangered if it wasn’t returned on time.  “If you take thy neighbor’s garment to pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; it is his only garment, his covering for his skin; wherein shall he sleep?”

Reading this passage from the Torah, I felt the incredible closeness and immediacy of Hashem in every situation and far more deeply felt the line from tehillim that came to me: “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies extend to all His works.

Years later, and on a lighter note, the second memory is a perfect embodiment of the doubled expression, “give, you shall give.” One of the meanings the sages derived from the repetition was that it was better to give multiple times – giving smaller sums to several charities rather than a lump sum to only one or giving to three poor people five shekels each for a coffee rather than fifteen to one person. Little did I know at the time that I was fulfilling a law of the Torah in this ideal way.

I was at the time learning in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, occasionally making forays into Boro Park for shopping or meeting friends. Leaving Boro Park one early afternoon to catch my bus, I was accosted (if I can use that word for such a diminutive crowd) by a class of very young yeshivah boys in the fourth or fifth grade asking for a donation. It seems they were collecting for some charitable cause that their school turned into a class competition. There may even have been a run-off among individual boys to decide the Supreme Collector of the whole yeshivah.

Good fortune went round that day. For some reason I had a lot of small change in my bag and on the spot became a dispenser of charity coins to maybe twelve very happy boys. You would think a windfall of immense worth fell into their hands as each one walked away, shouting and jubilant, with his nickel or dime. When just two or three boys were left and I had come almost to the end of my change, I began thinking I should hold on to what was left for the bus fare or something else I might need. Walking towards my bus stop, I explained to the boys why I was “closing up shop.” Having done so well as a group, they accepted the decision with a good grace and went their boyish way – except for one unappeased boy. I can almost see him as he stood his ground. He was smaller than the rest and just as it was undeniable that he wore glasses, so was it absolutely clear he wore intelligence. It was written, as they say, all over him. He persisted at my side, backing away with me as I walked. “But I gave to the whole class,” I told him. “Yes, but I’m a different person,” he answered. And to whatever I said that I thought bolstered my argument, he answered in his childish voice, never changing his tone or showing the least irresolution: “Yes, but I’m a different person.”

Of course I gave him. How could I not! He was so preciously unique and his ingenuous logic was unassailable. It was my logic that was below the mark. Surely I must have had a few bills in my purse so I could have gotten change for the bus, and what could I possibly have suddenly needed in the minutes it took to walk to the station that twenty-five cents would help pay for? When I look back, I think I was acting on the not uncommon instinct to preserve my money lest – who knows? – I might go penniless!

I treasure the  memory of my little yeshivah boy. I can’t begin to count how many times his innocent “Yes, but I’m a different person” has sounded in my heart, making me smile and, on occasion, even admonishing me. Sometimes I am unexpectedly approached by a group of needy people here in Jerusalem where, unfortunately, the poor abound. This often happens before the festivals when poor men and women with needy families ask for help. I have to remind myself: true, nowhere does halacha require me to give away all my money, but I won’t fall below the poverty line if I give more than I regularly give to people who are asking.  Each one has a just claim; each one is a different person.

Dobra Levitt lives in Jerusalem where she writes and teaches creative writing.  She published a memoir called The Fish in the Yellow Paper, a collection of essays describing her childhood and high school teaching years in Philadelphia. Here’s a link to her book if you’d like to take a look: https://amzn.to/2ukRsMG

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My Mother’s First Chanukah in the Nursing Home

By Madlynn Haber (Northampton, MA)

Today, I arrive at the nursing home with two bags of Chanukah presents.  It is my mother’s first Chanukah in the beginning stages of dementia. I smile at the ladies in wheelchairs lining the hallway on the way to her room. One has no leg, some have no voices, several have no minds left. I smile with sweetness and kindness. I have respect for them knowing they once had  moments of passion and joy. They don’t have those anymore, and neither, it seems, do I.

In the bags, there are five presents for Mom: hand lotion, an artificial plant, a crossword puzzle book, a back scratcher, and a mechanical rabbi that dances to the tune of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” I have two presents for her roommate, and my daughter’s first night present. 

My mother tries to open them before we light the candles. I have to stop her like I did with my daughter when she was one and two. By the time she was three, she figured out that you have to wait for the candles to be lit, for the blessings to be said, for the story of the holiday miracle to be told and remembered before you get to open the presents.

My mother has forgotten all this, if she ever knew. We did light candles when I was a child, but eight presents, one for each night, was too extravagant for us.  We got a quarter some nights, some candy or a piece of fruit and one real present on the first night. Now, my mother saves the quarters she wins in bingo games at the nursing home for my daughter who has always gotten a special present each night.

I bring a present for myself to the nursing home as well since there is no one to buy one for me. I wrap it in Chanukah paper and open it with delight. It is a CD that I have wanted to hear.  It is by a young singer songwriter. She sings about her loves and passions, adventures, travels, and mysterious encounters. I used to know about such things, too. I used to light Chanukah candles with an expectation that small miracles would happen easily and a large one might actually be possible. I used to have a wide view on the world. Now I can only see one small task at a time: take Mom to the doctor; attend her care meeting; replace her slippers; bring her more powder; reset the remote for her TV, again.

My daughter and I help my mother into her wheel chair and then into my car and we go to Pizza Hut, one of Mom’s favorites. She reads the placemat. On it there are questions for discussion. What would you do with a million dollars?  What would you do if you were president for one day? What would you ask for if a genie came out of a bottle and gave you a wish? Oddly, they are questions about miracles, so appropriate for our Chanukah meal.

My mother says she would wish for a long life! I am stunned into silence. I am grateful that I don’t blurt out the words, “Haven’t you lived long enough already?”

It is a miracle that I have chosen to make her happy. I think I can do it for maybe a year. I can bring her cake and balloons on her birthday. I can take her on a picnic for Labor Day, to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. I can cook her Thanksgiving dinner, bring her presents on Chanukah, take her to a movie on New Year’s Day, a lecture on Martin Luther King Day. I can make a Seder for Passover and a basket for Easter. I can do that for one year. 

But what if her wish comes true? What if she lives a longer life? We will need, I am sure, to be blessed with miracles for all the future years she may be granted.

Madlynn Haber is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in the anthologies Letters to Father from Daughters and Word of Mouth, Volume Two, in Anchor Magazine and on the websites A Gathering of the Tribes,  BoomSpeak and The Voices Project.

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Unexpected Chesed

by Michael J. Weinstein (Syosset, NY)

“On three things the world depends: Torah study, the service of G-d, and bestowing kindness.”— from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers

I was not brought up very observant, but after a family trip to Israel in 2011, I started to return to Judaism. I have worked as an Investment Advisor for over 20 years and after the financial crisis, I became a survivor of sorts. I found a refuge in learning Torah, particularly the works of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, zt”l, who taught “Never Give Up” and to always look for the good in others and in ourselves. I was told that if Rabbi Akiva could learn after age 40, it was not too late for me.

I knew my great-grandparents were from Pinsk, part of the Pale of Settlement in Russia, and like so many they left to escape the pogroms, the persecutions, the poverty, and the laws separating the Jews from religious freedom. It was my great-grandfather, Meir, who came alone in 1896 and later sent for his wife, Nachama, and their three children in 1900. Meir “Americanized” his name to Morris, and Nechama became Anna. I later learned that Meir had a pushcart, a beard, and a kippah, and davened with the Stoliner shul on the Lower East Side. A few years later, my great-grandparents moved to Brooklyn. It was there that my Grandmother Belle and her sister Dorothy were born. Years later the family was able to afford a two bedroom apartment on Ocean Parkway, and the family stayed in Brooklyn until 1976, just after my bar mitzvah, when they left for the Sunshine State of Florida.

It was the memories of my family living in Brooklyn, particularly the Passover seders at 101 Ocean Parkway, that never left my mind. And so after the trip to Israel, I started to learn Torah, to reconnect with the ways of my grandparents and great-grandparents, and the generations before them. I wanted to do something positive but did not know what to do, but prayed to Hashem: “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the World, help me help others.”

Somehow, I turned to Google and typed two words, “Mitzvah” and “Brooklyn,” and pressed the enter key. That’s how I found the Brooklyn “Mitzvah Man,” Michael Cohen, who had produced a video about the importance of mitzvah and helping others. “Providing Chesed to those in need” was his motto, and I volunteered to help.

I didn’t know how a guy like me with a full time job as an investment advisor, living and working about an hour away on Long Island, could help anyone in Brooklyn, but Michael suggested I start by visiting one Holocaust survivor, Ludwig Katzenstein. Michael’s suggestion turned out to be a real blessing, and one mitzvah led to another mitzvah as I volunteered at Friendly Visiting For Holocaust Survivors, a program of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island.  Also, on Thursday nights for almost six months, I volunteered at Aishel Shabbat by delivering boxes of food for Shabbat to needy families, but it became too difficult for me to drive from Long Island during the winter months.

Instead, I decided to step up my visits to the Holocaust Survivors, later meeting over 23 Holocaust survivors, mostly on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings. At some point, I visited not only the Holocaust Survivors but nearby Orthodox synagogues all over Brooklyn, in neighborhoods such as Borough Park, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Flatbush, and Midwood, and I started taking photos, first with my Samsung Galaxy phone and later with a Nikon camera, intending to someday make a book of 100 Orthodox synagogues of Brooklyn.

I thought about it and realized that my great-grandparents started on the Lower East Side, and later moved to Brooklyn. My grandfather was born in a tenement on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side, lost his mother when he was 7, and was sent to live with his older Sister in the Bronx and became a lifetime New York Yankees fan.  My father married and moved from Brooklyn to Briarwood, Queens, where I was born and lived until age 3. I later learned that my great-grandparents are at rest at the United Hebrew Cemetery in Staten Island. So I actually have roots in all 5 boroughs and decided, with Hashem’s help, to make a book, “Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City,” a coffee table style photo book with 613 color photos of existing Orthodox synagogues.

At some point, I decided to talk to congregations about my visits with the Holocaust Survivors, my journeys into over 60 neighborhoods in the 5 boroughs, and discuss some of the architectural beauty and history of many of these synagogues. Nothing led me to believe that my book would change anything until a few months ago.

I was contacting various synagogues and synagogue presidents and rabbis to see if there was any interest in having me do a free book talk. Upon contacting the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates in Queens, I contacted the synagogue president, Avram Blumenthal, and I was told “we’ll get back to you” more than once. I started to question myself. Who was I? Why was I trying to share my story? Why couldn’t I just thank Hashem for the book, etc? After about two months, I called Avram and was told, “Before you say anything, let me tell you what happened.”

I was told that Avram and members of the synagogue were planning a 30th anniversary event to honor the original founders of the congregation and those who designed the sanctuary in 1987. Avram was too busy to buy the book and went on a trip to Israel, where he saw my book on a friend’s coffee table in Jerusalem. When he returned to New York, Avram learned that one of the synagogue’s founders, Lucille Rosenberg (Liebeh Tziviyeh bat Shmuel) who served as the chairperson of the Interior Design Committee and who was battling cancer, was now in a hospice. Lucille was an artist, had a Masters degree in art, and had taught art at Solomon Schechter schools. Avram bought a copy of the book, personally inscribed it to Lucille, and gave it to Lucille’s husband, Abe Rosenberg, who brought it to Lucille.

By the time the book was brought to the hospice, Lucille was non-communicative. Lucille’s loving husband Abe gave the book to Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg and Rebbetzin Karen Hochberg of Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, who were trying to comfort Lucille, talking about Lucille’s accomplishments and showing her the photos of her work. With help from Hashem, Lucille opened her eyes for about a minute and smiled in appreciation. All those present told Lucille that her work was a vital part of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates more than 30 years after its founding. Lucille was also told that her designs are now part of a book that is seen by people in Israel and throughout the world. Abe later told me that Lucille’s smile showed that “she knew the good that she had accomplished.” Lucille was aware of the tremendous chesed, the kindness of others, and Abe expressed his gratitude to all involved.

I am thankful to Hashem that there are good people like Avram Blumenthal, Rabbi & Rebbetzin Hochberg, and of course Abe Rosenberg, Lucille’s loving husband, their friends and family, as well as the staff at the hospice who cared for Lucille in her last days of life. Everyone’s kindness confirmed how important it is, as Pirkei Avot reminds us, to bestow chesed for the world to become whole.

Michael J. Weinstein, grew up in Jericho, Long Island, New York, attending a Conservative Synagogue, the Jericho Jewish Center, and had his Bar Mitzvah in 1976, with his blue velvet leisure suit.  He graduated from Cornell University in 1985 and has had a career as a financial advisor, starting with Merrill Lynch and currently serving as a Director – Investments with Oppenheimer & Co. He continues visiting Holocaust Survivors as a Volunteer.

For more information about Michael Cohen’s project, The Mitzvah Man, in Brooklyn, visit: http://www.themitzvahman.org/

For more information about Friendly Visiting for Holocaust Survivors, visit:  http://www.connect2ny.org/

For more information about Michael J. Weinstein’s book of photographs, Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City, visit:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1612549268/ref=cm_sw_r_em_apa_HhsyBbCEEB794

And to read more of his work, visit: https://www.jewishlinknj.com/features/21952-ten-times-chai-takes-readers-on-a-pictorial-tour-of-the-shuls-of-nyc

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The Ring

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

I will never forget Thursday, May 26, 1938, the day my mother, our beloved Scottish Terrier named Peeps, and I stood on the pier of the North German Lloyd shipping company in Bremerhaven, waiting to board the ocean liner SS Europa for our departure to the United States. The Europa was the largest ship built in Germany during the 1930s.

Prior to forever leaving German soil, we were required to undergo a final physical examination; Germany had to ensure that emigrants were not taking valuables out of the country. My mother carried only the maximum amount allowed: a ten-mark note, worth about $2.50 at the time. Being eleven years old, I was not permitted to leave with any funds. It was late afternoon when we were ordered into a tent that stood only a few feet away from where the Europa was moored. Those travelers who were not emigrating did not enter the tent nor endure its indignities. Inside, two elderly white-clad matrons with gray braids and large swastikas prominently pinned to their ample bosoms, ordered us to undress from the waist down. Then, as we were bent over two chairs, the attendants inspected our orifices for hidden treasures. Finding nothing, they instructed us to get dressed. As we prepared to exit, one of the grumpy ogres pointed to my mother’s left hand with its plain gold wedding band and commanded, “Hand it over!”

It took only a second for my mother to slip the ring from her finger. What she did after that, shocked not only me, but even more so, the matrons. Thinking, but not vocalizing, “If I can’t have it, neither will you. I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow you to take my wedding ring!”

My mother, with the band tightly clutched in her hand, sprinted toward the water’s edge a few steps away. She tossed the ring into the narrow strip of water separating the ship from the pier. Just as quickly, she zoomed back to scoop up Peeps and me from the tent, dragging us to the queueing spot where other passengers had begun boarding.

After reaching the top of the embarkation ladder, but before taking my first step into the huge vessel’s interior, I turned for a final glimpse backward. The looks of incredulity, frozen on the horrified faces of the two inspectors now standing on the pier outside the tent, were beyond description. Pulling Peeps’ white patent leather leash up the last step behind my mother, I was so overcome by what my mother had done that I slowed to what could have become a fatal stop.

The unbelievable daring and courage she showed by throwing her ring into the harbor still stunned me. We could have easily been caught and then, what would have happened to us? We might have been arrested and prevented from boarding because of her disobedience.

A few hours later, after stowing Peeps into the dog kennel on the top deck and finding our belongings in our cabin, my mother and I went above to witness the ship’s departure. It was getting dark and would soon be time for the Europa’s high-speed steam turbine engines to start up. Simultaneously, we heard the ship’s orchestra begin playing the tear-jerking, traditional German farewell folk song “Muss i denn, muss i denn zum Staedtele hinaus?” (Why must I leave this small town?)

Standing at the railing beside my mother, I saw she had tears running down her face.

“Mom,” I asked, “aren’t you glad we are finally getting out of here?”

“My dear child,” she replied, “I am and we have every reason for being grateful. But you must remember that I have lived through much better times than ours and it is these I am remembering at this moment. The good and happy times. And now I am looking forward to being in the new country and being reunited with your father.”

My mother’s first request after reaching the United States and settling in Louisville was for my father to buy her a new wedding ring. After all, she needed to show she was a married woman. I cherish her replacement ring, and after almost eighty years, I still proudly remember the incredible moment of defiance when my mother tossed her original wedding band into the water to prevent it from falling into Nazi hands.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

Editor’s Note: Ellen Norman Stern shared a different version of this story, “Ring of Defiance,” with The Jewish Writing Project in 2012. We’ve included a link here to show how a writer’s memories can fuel different stories, and how our retelling of these stories can differ from draft to draft over the years, depending on what we find most worth telling at the time: (https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/ring-of-defiance/).

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Manna in the Morning

by Jacqueline Jules (Arlington, VA)

Cook fires,
clothing scraps,
animal dung
have long disappeared
from the desert.
But the story remains:
how the Israelites
fled Pharaoh
under a spiral
of swirling white clouds
as angels swept
stones and snakes
from their path.
For forty years,
Jews followed Moses
with manna-filled bellies,
thirst quenched by
a wondrous wandering well—
the same fountain I sipped
this candle-lit evening
with honeyed challah
and roasted chicken.
Carrying dishes to the sink,
my sandaled feet skip
on a freshly swept  floor,
free of snakes and stones.
Tonight, Pharaoh lies drowned
behind me
and I am traveling to Canaan
under a sheltering white cloud,
certain of manna in the morning.

Jacqueline Jules is a poet and the author of many Jewish children’s books including Never Say a Mean Word Again, The Hardest Word, Once Upon a Shabbos, Sarah Laughs, and Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva. Visit her online at www.jacquelinejules.com

“Manna in the Morning” appears in A Poet’s Siddur: Liturgy Through the Eyes of Poets, edited by Rick Lupert.  It is reprinted here with permission of the author. For more about A Poet’s Siddur, visit: http://poetrysuperhighway.com/agnp/a-poets-siddur-shabbat-evening/

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Family Gathering

by Carol Westreich Solomon (Montgomery Village, MD)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At the Butcher’s

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Take a number please,
the dispenser reads
at the butcher’s.
I take one and wait in line.
It’s before Shabbos, everyone is rushed,
people pushing or being pushed,
trying to get to the counter, to get their food,
someone mutters, “I was ahead of you.”

“Who’s next?” says the butcher,
and panic falls from me like a puzzle
dropped on the floor and I can’t
find all the pieces and the ones I can
pick up don’t fit together anymore and

I want to tell them about my father’s
sister and how her visa number was too
high and there were too many people in
line ahead of her waiting to get out and how
she was deported to
Auschwitz and she didn’t get
a number there and if she had, she
might have survived and

I want to tell them about my friend’s mother, how
she got a number on her forearm in
Auschwitz, and how she got a
visa number after the war and about the
dreams she has every night and

the butcher calls my number, and I
cannot make a sound.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us, poems about her family and the Holocaust.  Her recent work has appeared in The Poet’s Quest for God and is forthcoming in Forgotten Women.  Janet is currently producing AFTER, a cinematic film about Holocaust poetry.  https://www.facebook.com/AfterAPoetryFilm/

Reprinted from Lilith Magazine, where this poem first appeared, with kind permission of the author.

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