Tag Archives: mishpacha

Bashert? Who, Me?

by Esther Erman (Mountain View, CA)

Let me tell you a story.

In 1993, I was a 47-year-old divorced mother of two college graduates, getting my doctorate in language education. Despite being that oxymoron – a “mature student” – I was also a “starving student,” financing my degree at Rutgers with a meager teaching assistantship and a couple of other low-paying jobs.

After a period of disillusionment with Judaism, I’d slowly been working my way back. In addition to my work in language education (pedagogy, linguistics, and culture of diversity), I had a strong interest in feminism, which led me to concurrently earn a certificate in women’s studies. That was how I stumbled upon Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb. Her writings exhibited a feminist view of Judaism and included a concept, new to me, of the Shekhinah – the feminine side of the deity. I was inspired to study with her. But (and remember this was long before Zoom) the rabbi lived in New Mexico, which to me, a denizen of New Jersey who’d never been west of Chicago or south of DC, might as well have been the moon.

Then I received a brochure from Elat Chayyim about their upcoming summer Jewish Renewal retreat in Accord, New York. Lo and behold, Rabbi Gottlieb was scheduled to teach during one of the weeks! I applied and, given my starving student status, received a scholarship to enable me to attend.

But just then, my son, who was teaching in Prague, decided to come home for some of the summer. If I went to Elat Chayyim as planned, I’d have had to miss time with him. Although Rabbi Gottlieb would be there for only that week, I figured I’d be despondent after my son returned to Prague, so I changed my retreat week to one that would take place after he left. And I decided I’d even splurge and treat myself to one of the $50 massages being offered at the retreat, which would be only my second-ever massage.

Without Rabbi Gottlieb there, I chose a class in Kabbalah. Spirituality and mysticism have been occasional elements in my life, with me devoting a good amount of energy and attention to them at times. That summer, I felt especially open to and interested in both. The Kabbalah class was taught by Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, then the rabbi of the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley. (For this New Jersey resident, it was hard to say which was more exotic and strange – Berkeley or the Aquarian Minyan.) Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank was possibly the gentlest man I’d ever met. He and his class, his creativity and his energy, were a continuous revelation. I felt ongoing wonder and amazement as we studied and learned and experienced together. Even though this was in 1993, I felt as if I were back in the 60’s – only being a more authentically “young” person than I’d actually been back in the real 60’s. I felt open – and I was amazed to be having these feelings in a Jewish context. (Unfortunately the world lost a great spirit when Rabbi Wolfe-Blank died at a very young age just a few years after that summer.)

I perceived both Rabbi Gottlieb and Rabbi Wolfe-Blank and their teaching as being exotic – so different from my East Coast/Eastern European/Holocaust survivor experience of Judaism. Here I found a place for my creativity and my individuality, a place where my uniqueness (or my oddness) could be not only accepted, but honored and celebrated. Maybe it was this that lowered my barriers and let me be open to what came next…

Each retreat attendee was assigned to a small group mishpocha (family) – kind of like a homeroom – where we met first thing in the morning and then again in the late afternoon, to share our experiences. Lee, one of the few men in my mishpocha, had just completed a course in massage therapy and wanted to practice. He offered a free massage to everyone in the group. Great! I can get the massage and save the $50. 

The time for the massage came. As I was about to get on the table, I looked at Lee – and I saw him surrounded by a golden aura. I caught my breath and was smitten. And then I thought, Oh no! He lives in California. 

At a very few times in my life, I’ve had what I consider “mountain peak” experiences (in which I include rare experiences of visions and voices). I had studied a bit of mysticism and different beliefs. And a lot about astrology because I had a co-worker who was very knowledgeable and generous. I knew a bit about auras, and I had seen one or two, but nothing as startling as the golden aura around Lee. Although gold auras are usually associated with saints and other divine beings, the message I received was Pay attentionthis is a good man, and one who might be very important to you.

I spent much of the rest of the week trying to get Lee’s attention, but, to my increasing dismay, to no avail. At the closing circle of the retreat, I was crying. Lee came over, gave me a hug, which was clearly not meant to offer anything more than kind support. Lee also offered me a full-size box of tissues, saying he didn’t want to pack them for his flight back to California. Being sure I’d never see him again, I made copious use of those tissues on my drive all the way back to New Jersey. 

And then I wrote to Lee…

Lee and I  have just celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Especially on Shabbat, I remember exactly how much I longed to be with him on that first Shabbat during the week we met. As we celebrate Havdalah at the end of Shabbat with our arms around each other, I glance at that box of tissues in its hallowed spot in our home, and, in wonder, thank the Shekhinah for bringing me together with my bashert.

Like Rebecca, the heroine of her upcoming novel (Rebecca of Salerno: a Novel of Rogue Crusaders, a Jewish Female Physician, and a Murder), Esther Erman was a refugee. The daughter of two survivors of the Shoah from Poland, Esther was born in Germany. A naturalized citizen, she early developed a passion for language. After receiving her BA and MA in French from different divisions of Rutgers University, she returned there for her doctorate in language education. She wrote her dissertation about Yiddish, her first language, which she had abandoned at age five. A multi-published author, Esther now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Lee. When they’re not traveling—especially to be with family in other parts of the US and in England—she loves to bake, quilt, and add to her monumental book collection. Her website is EstherErman.com.


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

Family Feuds

by Cheri Scheff Levitan (Atlanta, GA)

When my father was 15, his father passed away after a long illness. The family – my grandmother, father, and uncle – sat shiva, and extended family members and friends came to pay their respects. Shortly thereafter, as my dad recalls, it seemed as though everyone disappeared and forgot about them. At first, he wondered why his immediate family became the “black sheep” of the larger one. Slowly, but surely, with no answers forthcoming, the clan lost touch. He, in turn, totally put them out of his mind and life. That was over 55 years ago.

I decided to launch an ancestry search two years ago to find those “missing” cousins. I obsessively wondered, where HAD all the cousins gone? Who were they? What had caused them to drift apart? Starting with only a handful of names, and sifting through the databases of ancestry.com, my family tree gradually grew. Throughout the process, I called, networked, emailed, connected via LinkedIn, and “friended” on Facebook dozens of blood-relatives – across generations and family branches – all for the purpose of answering my questions and satisfying my curiosity.

So what did I learn? If we were playing a round of the game show “Family Feud” and had surveyed a hundred people for their responses to the question “What causes family members to stop speaking to each other?”, the top ten answers on the board would reveal:

  1. Death of a parent/inheritance disagreements
  2. Dislike or meddling of spouses
  3. Parental favoritism/sibling rivalries
  4. Educational differences
  5. Religious differences
  6. Political differences
  7. Financial/spending differences
  8. Personal vices (i.e. alcohol or drug abuse)
  9. Career choices
  10. A dark family secret

Unfortunately, these heavy and complex reasons existed and happened in my own family.  And, knowingly or unknowingly, they were passed from generation to generation.

Family feuds are more common and enduring than we realize. Long before the Hatfields and McCoys, the Bible exposed us to some doozies! The book of Genesis, for example, tells about the jealous Cain killing his brother, Abel. Then it moves to Sarah and Hagar, wife and concubine of Abraham, dueling for his affections and battling for their sons’ rightful inheritance. Later, it introduces Jacob and Esau, polar opposites competing for their father’s blessing and birthright. And, from there, Jacob’s family struggles are depicted – conflicts between his wives and between his sons – reading like a soap opera that is complete with rivalries, deceptions, jealousies, and lies. In the majority of these scenarios, conflict resolutions come in the form of the adversaries going separate ways.

I consulted my friend and colleague, Rabbi Lou Feldstein, and asked why the first book of the Bible would share so many examples of flawed people and families right from the get-go.  He simply replied, “If these ‘holy’ families can be so dysfunctional, imagine what our dysfunctional families can achieve.” The patriarchs and matriarchs, with their very human imperfections, suffered from the same relationships challenges that we face today.  But, these trials can be resolved and overcome.

Eighteen months ago, in Boston, my father and I pulled together an impromptu “reunion” of over 30 first and second cousins, between the ages of 60 and 80, most of whom had not seen each other in more than half a century. This past Sunday, he and my mother hosted 5 of his first cousins with spouses in Florida. Between these events, communication between relatives has been ongoing, steady, and positive; new relationships are being formed, and genuine love and affection have bloomed.

My father’s 15-year-old self is gone. His indifference has vanished. His hurts and scars of resentment have healed. His 55-plus years of being disconnected from his family is over. His father, my grandfather, is smiling down upon us and resting in peace.

Cheri Scheff Levitan wrote this piece for her blog, Through Jewish Eyes (http://throughjewisheyes.com), where it first appeared in slightly different form. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Filed under American Jewry