Tag Archives: Philadelphia

The Baba

by Mark Russ (Larchmont, NY)

The Baba, as she was called, was not my baba, nor was she my bube nor my bobe.  I must have first set eyes on her when I was two and a half on a frigid February day, my first in Philadelphia, having been carried in tow by my parents from Cuba, my birthplace, along with my older sister.  I don’t remember the Baba at that first meeting, but the image of her that grew in my mind in the ensuing years was indelible.  Short, wiry, sporting a stern, weathered face, and piercing green eyes, her gray hair in a bun, she was a force to be reckoned with. A look from her was enough. 

Like I said, she was not my Baba.  She belonged to my six-year-old cousin, or better put, he belonged to her.  She watched over him intently, such that no evil, and, no evil eye, should befall him. Pu pu pu! As doting as she was to him, that’s how nasty she was to me.  Why?  What had I done to deserve such treatment?  For him, she tolerated his fondling her soft dangling earlobes with his fingers.  For me, a cold stare.  The Baba, doubtless, regarded me as an intruder.  Truth be told, my entire family was the intruder.  The four of us moved into my aunt and uncle’s already crowded row house for several months until my father could find work and we could rent a house of our own. Doubling and tripling up in bedrooms, competing for the single bathroom, and accommodating Cuban cuisine, were only some of the tensions. For the Baba, I became the focus of her displeasure.  

The Baba, I later learned, actually had a name.  Khave.  She was the youngest of nineteen children, and the only person of that generation that I had encountered in my early life.  I had assumed all in her generation, the generation of grandparents, had died before the war or were murdered in the calamity.  The Baba, in sharp contrast to my parents, was tied to traditions against which many in my parents’ generation rebelled.  She lit candles on Shabbes, wearing a delicate white lace on her head when she did so, and recited the brokhe in an undertone.  Unlike my parents, aunt and uncle who were “modern” Jews despite their Eastern European roots, she was a relic from the old country.   

She also happened to be a terrific cook and literally made everything from scratch.  No dish more so than the gefilte fish she prepared for Peysakh.  I learned this in dramatic fashion when I wandered into the bathroom of my aunt’s house and saw several very large fish swimming in the bathtub.  They moved in the tub, ever so slightly, suggesting they were not dead, yet.  I was startled, a bit disgusted, but asked no questions.  I imagined the fish ended up in Baba’s kitchen but did not dwell on the thought.  And I certainly never dared poke my head into the Baba’s command center.  Entrance was strictly forbidden, lest I risk meeting the same fate as the fish. 

As may seem obvious by now, I found life with the Baba frightening.  Her demeanor toward me was unkind.  She was harsh and uncaring.  In one instance, she barred me from riding my cousin’s tricycle, even though he was at school.  Of course, I was a bit of an antikl (a rare piece of work, a “pistol”) myself.  Once, when she proclaimed I was not permitted to sit on the sofa in the living room for fear I might soil it, I decided to pee on it out of spite.  To finish the story, my father, in what I still regard as among the greatest acts of kindness I have been blessed to receive, bought me my own tricycle with his very first paycheck.   

These early years in Philadelphia were difficult for my family and I recall them as being somewhat dark.  But Peysakh, and the seders we shared with my aunt and uncle, my cousins, and yes, the Baba, were bright spots of those years.  The Baba would start things off with candle lighting.  My father and uncle, both lifelong Bundists, Jewish socialists who abandoned religion in favor of a Yiddish cultural milieu, took turns chanting from the Haggadah in fluent Hebrew at lightning speed.  They had attended kheyder in Poland as boys, and the words and trops returned each year as reliably as monarch butterflies.  The effect was hypnotic, albeit strange and out of character.  They stopped reading when they got tired, or when the rest of us clamored that it was time to eat.  Whatever commentary accompanied the seder was in Yiddish, the lingua franca of our families.  There were nine of us sitting around the table; five in my aunt and uncle’s family, and four in ours.  These were the survivors, and these were their children.  Except for my father’s sister and her family in New York, there were no others.  As a boy, I was both aware and not aware of the smallness of our group.  They were the only family I knew, and no one spoke of those who were absent.  What was the point? 

But there were other unseen spirits at our seder.  My cousin took pleasure in secretly shaking the table, causing the wine within Eliyohu’s kos to lap the insides of the cup.  This was presented as evidence that the prophet’s spirit was among us.  I was taken in by the deception which made me anxious.  I was already fearful of a prophet-ghost who wandered from seder to seder.   My angst reached a climax when we opened the door to allow him to enter.  I hid, terrified he might actually show up.  

Later in the seder, after the meal consisting of kharoyses, an egg with salt water, gefilte fish, with roe, carrots, jellied fish yokh, and khreyn, chicken soup with kneydlekh (the small, hard kind), some version of gray meat, a peysekhdike kugl, and tzimmes, I felt comforted.  This feeling of well-being only increased after we broke out in Yiddish Peysakh songs: Tayere Malke, gezunt zolstu zayn, a Peysakh drinking song.   

As Peysakhs came and went, I grew less afraid of the Baba, and less afraid of Eliyohu.  My fear was replaced by an empty sadness, a yearning for the ghosts who might have distracted me from the smallness of our seder table.  It was a longing, perhaps, for even more than a brand-new tricycle, a Baba of my own.     

Mark Russ is a psychiatrist in Westchester County, New York.  He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Russ was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States at the age of 2 with his parents and sister. He was the first in his family to achieve a baccalaureate degree and attend medical school. Dr. Russ has contributed to the scientific psychiatric literature throughout his career and his short fiction pieces have appeared or will soon appear in The Minison Project, Sortes, Jewishfiction.net and The Concrete Dessert Review.  

Click on the link to read Mark’s previous story on The Jewish Writing Project: https://jewishwritingproject.com/2022/03/07/yosl-and-henekh/


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Lisa and Stanley

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Shortly after the end of World War Two, I received an excited call from my husband’s Aunt Frima. Her voice was shaking with urgency as she told me, “I have a niece in Russia who wants to contact me. I never even knew her.”

The contact was an example of serendipity.  A young Jewish soldier from Brooklyn was determined to reunite as many Jewish families as he could, as passionate to do this as was his mother in Brooklyn. Lisa told him she had an aunt in Philadelphia. She knew her last name but that was all. He sent his mother Lisa’s scant contact information, and his mother placed a notice in a Philadelphia newspaper that served the Jewish community. One of Aunt Frima’s daughters saw the notice and asked her mother, “Do you have a niece in Russia named Lisa? She’s looking for you.” That started the ball rolling

My husband’s Aunt Frima and his Uncle Ben had been in America as immigrants for many years. They had five American born daughters and lived  a normal middle class life. When I was married to their nephew, we became part of each others families. She was particularly fond of me because I could speak Yiddish with her. She and Uncle Ben came often to our home for holiday meals. Aunt Frima was kosher so she brought her own food.  Uncle Ben ate what she brought and also what I made.

Lisa, 32, was widowed and the mother of two small children. She was evacuated from Moscow when the German army invaded Russia. A day after the invasion in 1941, the Soviets established a makeshift evacuation program to move Soviet citizens from major cities and the probabilities of German bombings. Tashkent in Uzbekistan, 1734 miles from Moscow, was targeted as the site. Lisa and her two small children were among the evacuees. Tashkent had become a makeshift refugee center, and Lisa and her family settled in with primitive housekeeping facilities, hoping the city would escape German occupation, and she prayed for peace.

Stanley, a single, unattached male, was also evacuated from Moscow to Tashkent. Stanley was a loner, a quiet intellectual with an absorbing profession. He restrung fine violins with horse tail hair for violinists all over the world. The war halted his business and he, too, wondered what his life would be like after Tashkent. Lisa and Stanley met and a romance developed in the detritus of the camp. They both wanted to emigrate to the States.

As was necessary, Lisa needed a sponsor in America to facilitate immigration. Aunt Frima and Uncle Ben accepted that role, and, with the help of their daughters, the flurry of paper work and bureaucracy began. After about a year, Lisa, Stanley and her children  arrived in West Philadelphia on Aunt Frima’s doorstep. She called me to say, “They’re very tired now but come here tomorrow to meet them.” I did and found Lisa and Stanley sitting stiffly and stone faced on a blue velvet sofa. I could understand their apprehension of this new life. How long could they stay in this house? How would they support themselves? Had they left familiarity for the unknown? Lisa had assured her aunt that she and Stanley had been legitimately married in Tashkent, but Aunt Frima was skeptical. She insisted on taking them to a rabbi to witness an official Jewish wedding.

They were quickly integrated into the entire family and turned out to be warm, intelligent and helpful. Although extremely grateful for Aunt Frima’s willingness to sponsor and facilitate their repaired lives, Stanley and Lisa knew they must find ways to take charge of themselves. Stanley got a job selling hot dogs at the Philadelphia baseball park and Lisa worked in a hat factory.  Eventually, Stanley was able to return to his unique profession, and Lisa became a designer in the hat factory.  They prospered and eventually retired to Florida.

I was very fond of them, and we became friends as well as family.  They were so grateful to be given a new chance in America. And I was grateful to have them part of my life.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free-lance writer for national publications.



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It Happened in Venice

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Ahh…Venice.  Canals.  Cobbled streets.  St. Marks Square.  Gondolas with gondoliers rowing and singing “O Solo Mia.”  I had dreamed of this trip and here I was, climbing out of the speedboat that had taken my husband and me from the airport to the foot of our hotel.

The only nagging regret I had was by circumstances of work and schedules we could only make the trip at the beginning of Yom Kippur, and we arrived on the day of Kol Nidrei, causing nagging spurts of guilt I tried to suppress.  I knew there was a historical old ghetto synagogue in Venice, the first ever ghetto, so famous it was almost folklore.  I decided that was where I would hear Kol Nidrei.

A friend who spoke fluent Italian made many phone calls and finally was able to contact the synagogue and arrange for tickets.  I doubted it would work out but when we registered at the hotel we were handed an envelope with two tickets for that evening’s services.  Could it really be that I would be in Venice, Italy, hearing Kol Nidrei?  I was ecstatic with anticipation.  My husband had tripped coming out of the speedboat and was in too much pain to go, but insisted I go alone.

I boarded a vaporetto at the base of our hotel, with not a clue of where to disembark.  A vaporetto stops at the equivalent of every watery corner.  With relief I spotted someone reading the same guide book we had and she helped me find the right stop.

I was the only person who got off at that stop with no idea which street to follow.  By this time dusk had descended and a light rain begun.  Few people passed and none understood me.  Suddenly, pay dirt!  Coming toward me was clearly a family: man, wife, child, older woman, all dressed in holiday clothes.  I approached them and said, already knowing the answer, “Can you direct me to the ghetto synagogue?”  The male responded, in barely accented English, “Please come with us.  That’s where we are going.”  On the short walk, he told me he was a lawyer and his family had lived in Venice for 500 years.  He had visited the States many times,

When I entered the synagogue a guard took my purse and umbrella but left me with the siddur I had brought along, assuming the Hebrew translation would be in Italian.  It was.

I was ushered up a flight of steps and to my surprise the men and women were on the same floor, separated by a mechitza with many openings so nothing of the service was hidden.  Three seats just behind the mechitza were marked “Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia” for their American guests.  Apparently my idea was not so original.  Directly in front of these seats, on the other side of the mechitza, were three marked seats for the husbands of the American women.

I looked around the synagogue.  It was very grand, yet reminded me of the old fashioned shul my grandfather had helped found when he came to America in 1913. He and his fellow emigrants started the Zhitomir Shul at 6th and Dickinson streets in South Philadelphia. Having their own place of worship gave them some sense of familiarity in this new and strange land.

The ghetto synagogue was noisy, children rushing through the aisles to greet the men in the family, going in the back to see their mothers and grandmothers,  The bimah was crowded:  men talking, gesturing, praying.  And then there was a sudden stillness.  The cantor’s voice rang out with the haunting first sounds of Kol Nidrei.  A chill ran through me as I realized, throughout the world, Jews were hearing the same strains of the somber sounds of Kil Nidrei, with me. I felt tied with a rope to Jews throughout the world, a connection that was strong and tight.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free-lance writer for national publications.

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If It’s Friday, It Must Be…

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

If it’s Friday, it must be chicken.  Our family’s Shabbat dinner in South Philadelphia was as ritualistic as Torah law.  The menu was chicken soup, vegetables (cooked in the soup), stewed chicken, challah, and dessert.  The day started with the purchase of the chicken.

The chicken store was one of the many storefronts, often mom and pop shops, that lined several blocks of Seventh Street, the shopping “mall” for South Philadelphia.  The shops on Seventh Street supplied all the necessities of daily living, from hammers to lingerie.  But on Friday morning the chicken store was the busiest, opening at 7 a.m., with some women, early risers, waiting in line for the indoor key to turn.

The chickens were also waiting, clucking nervously and pacing back and forth in their cages, as if they knew their final day had come.  The object of the buyers was to find the chicken with the fullest breasts, meaty thighs, and no visible flaws.  The women went to the cages and pushed their hands into the openings to find the chicken that met these requirements. I wondered how they could find what they were looking for through the flurry of feathers and bouncing chickens.  I was sure these fowls were insulted by this invasion of their privacy.

When the ladies found the chicken they wanted, they held onto its feet so it wouldn’t disappear into the crowd of identical looking poultry.   My mother was not among the early risers, so she had a harder time finding the appropriate bird. I started to accompany her for the chicken-choosing expedition when I was about ten, during school holidays and summers.  I worried that I might have to repeat this ritual when I was a grown-up with a family to feed.

The owner approached the cage, removed the chosen chicken, and handed it to the schochet (ritual slaughterer) for kosher decapitation.  This was done in a back room out of sight of the customers.  I thought about what my school friends said—headless chickens could still walk around—but I left that for myth and never tested it.

The headless chicken was then handed to a woman whose job was to remove the feathers and pinfeathers.  My cousin and I called her “the chicken flicker.”  The now decapitated, feather-free chicken found its way into a brown paper bag and was on its last journey.  The destination, our kitchen sink, then became a hub of activity.   My mother, who always found the flicking inadequate, used a tweezers to remove stubborn pinfeathers.  Although she asked me to help, I usually found an excuse to do something else.

The first task to cleaning the chicken, I knew, was to get out the insides.  I visualized this process on our walk home with distaste and averted my eyes at this surgery.  I marveled that my mother didn’t mind doing it.  I suppose she had no choice, but I never liked taking part in that process. The liver was turned into chopped liver which my father enjoyed the next day for lunch.  The chicken was then submerged in a pot of boiling water, accompanied by companions of carrots and celery, which hours later was transformed into our dinner soup.  Sometimes I watched the soup as it cooked, peering into the steaming pot.  The bright pieces of orange carrots seemed to dance toward each other like goldfish in a fountain.

When there was a non-fertilized egg inside the chicken, it was awarded to me at dinner as the older child. The tiny yellow ball was fuzzy like a miniature baseball. I had no idea of its abbreviated destiny.  The chicken parts were apportioned to the family according to seniority.  My father got the breast, my mother the thighs, my brother the wings and drumsticks, and I shared the thighs with my mother.   At the dinner table, the chicken had the company of the very soft carrots and celery and a boiled potato.  If my mother were ambitious that day, sometimes a kugel substituted for the potato.

Dessert was predictable: one week applesauce, the next week Jello.  Sometimes leftover chicken was transformed into chicken salad for a sandwich lunch the next day. But that wasn’t as absolute as chicken for dinner on Friday night for Shabbat.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free-lance writer for national publications.


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A Paris Odyssey


by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Suzanne’s parents had moved to Paris in the 1930s as a young married couple from Ukraine.  Mr. P. was a barber and opened a shop on a busy Paris street.  They wanted to start a new life away from the anti-Semitic fears in Ukraine.  Two daughters were born and the family lived in an apartment on the floor above the shop.

And then came the rise and popularity of Hitler.  And then the war.  And then the occupation of Paris by Germany.  The barber shop was shuttered and the family stayed in their apartment clandestinely to see if they could outlive the occupation.  Sarah, the younger daughter, then about to become a teenager, blonde and blue-eyed, became Suzanne as a way to fool anyone who stopped her as she was the one sent out to forage for food.

For four years they were able to avoid detection.  When Paris was freed, Mr. P.  decided not to attempt to reopen his shop, fearing that vestiges of the Vichy anti-Semitic regime remained.  Instead the family made plans to emigrate to the United States where Mrs. P. had cousins in Philadelphia.

My father was a barber and had operated his own shop for many years.  We lived behind the store in a two-story house.  When he needed another barber to work “the second chair,” the Barbers’ Union sent Mr. P, whose languages were French and Yiddish, but not English.  However, the South Philadelphia neighborhood where we lived was still primarily Jewish at that time, peopled with many immigrants, so speaking Yiddish worked fine.  After a few weeks Mr. P. said to my father, “I have a daughter exactly your daughter’s age.  She is miserable.  She won’t go to school until the fall and she doesn’t know any English or have any friends.  May I bring her to meet your daughter?”

The arrangement was made. I was not consulted, which increased my anxiety of meeting a girl my age who had undergone life experiences I could not imagine. The next day Mr. P. arrived with a pretty 17 year old who looked visibly intimidated.  We introduced ourselves and tried to find a way to talk.  My high school French had taught me “Open the window” and “The pen of my aunt.”  I didn’t think either phrase would help us communicate, but we discovered we were both fluent in Yiddish and that was our method of conversation for the next few months until Suzanne began her halting study of English.

Eventually, Suzanne married and moved to the suburbs with her family.  I did the same.  We lost touch but sometimes met at a Jewish film festival and were always glad to see each other.

Many years later I was a volunteer interviewer for the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Project.  I decided to interview Suzanne, and in the intimacy of a two hour conversation I learned more about her years barricaded in the family apartment.  She shared emotions I had not heard before: the daily apprehension of being discovered, her inner trembling when she walked on the street to buy food, the tensions, even in a loving family, of spending four years locked together in one space, never knowing what had happened to their extended family.

I suddenly understood the seclusion and safety of the Jewish life I had led living in a Jewish neighborhood and the false sense of security this evoked in me.  The war had not been threatening to us and it was a while before we heard about the horror and devastation of concentration camps and could begin to understand the attempt to exterminate our people.  Leaving Suzanne’s house that day, I felt for myself the wrenching internal anxiety Jews had always felt throughout the world, throughout eternity.

Some time after that experience I wrote a memoir about growing up in Jewish South Philadelphia and sent it to Suzanne, certain it would evoke many shared memories.  She, in turn, sent me her memoir of those parallel years which she spent hidden in the Paris apartment and told of the loss of dear cousins and friends.  She thought she was lucky; I thought she was incredibly brave. It was not until I read her poignant memoir that I learned Suzanne had been Sarah.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free lance writer for national publications.

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Hebrew School Memories

by Jan Booker (Malibu, CA)

School meant public school.  Private school was for rich kids and we didn’t know any.  For South Philadelphia Jewish families, Hebrew School equaled in importance our secular education.

We didn’t go to Sunday School or religious school once or twice a week. Hebrew school was serious business: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, after regular school, for two and one half hours, plus the same amount of time on Sunday mornings.  If you subtract recess, assemblies, art, gym and music, the time spent in Hebrew School equaled our daily secular school time.

We had several subjects: Hebrew, of course, where we learned to read and write using the first five books of the Bible as our text. But this was before the establishment of the State  of Israel when Hebrew was rarely used as a conversational language, so to this day I can read Hebrew, but my conversational skills are limited to about thirty unconnected words.  Then there was literature, where we studied the literature of the Jews, concentrating on writers like Sholom Aleichem and Peretz.  History was as expected, a history of the Jewish people, from Biblical times through the Diaspora, up to what was the  present for us.  In the days before and during World War11, we studied shtetl life and European migrations of the Jews.  For those who went to Hebrew school after the war, studies must have had a very different focus.  We had written  tests and oral exams and homework.  Probably our classes in Hebrew school plus our secular school education equaled what is taught in any Jewish day school, except we spent double the time in classrooms combining public school and Hebrew school.

I attended JEC2, which meant Jewish Educational Center #2, part of a network of independent schools called, usually, a “Talmud Torah” or referred to in Yiddish as “Cheder.”  This institution was not synagogue- affiliated but part of a central education system.  Classes and offices were housed in a building at Marshall and Porter Streets, a typical school building with three floors and a wonderful auditorium.  The building was a kind of art deco- style.  Wide front steps led to a center hall and then to the large auditorium, where typical school-wide events were held: plays and holiday celebrations, religious observances and special events. Many years later, the building was utilized as a senior center operated by Philadelphia Jewish Community Centers.

Attendance at this Hebrew school almost mitigated the necessity of belonging to a synagogue.  There was no need for additional opportunity for worship.  We celebrated all holidays through the school, and the entire family was welcome to join any event.  The children were involved in all aspects of presentation or observance.

When I was about eight, studying Bible stories, I asked my teacher a question:  “Why,” I said, “if God knows everything, did He permit Eve to eat the apple.”  A curious look passed over the teacher’s face.  “Ask your mother,” was her answer.  It took quite a few years for me to understand why she didn’t want to deal with a reply.

We celebrated every holiday with a play to which parents and grandparents proudly lent their presence.  In my first year of Hebrew school I was in a Chanukah play.  Because so many of the parents, and all the grandparents, were immigrants whose English language skills were modest,  plays were presented in English and Yiddish.  My part was to run across the stage, stopping front and center, to announce in Yiddish, “Hannah is dead, Hannah has died, threw herself over the wharf and lies there with her seven children.”

When I think back to my seven years of Hebrew School, I am full of wonder at the quality of the teachers.  Mr. Blank taught Hebrew, a brilliant man who wrote fourteen novels in a language not yet used other than for worship.   Mr. Sankowsky taught us history.  I learned  years later that he was an accomplished artist whose work was exhibited throughout the city.  Dr. Levitsky, the principal, had a PhD, an impressive accomplishment in those days.  His wife, a striking exotic- looking brunette, taught us music and directed our dramatic productions.

We had no confirmation, no bat-mitzvah.  Those ceremonies were for more upscale neighborhoods.  Our parents thought them frivolous; it was the learning that mattered. In our South Philadelphia culture, boys were bar-mitzvahed but girls were also educated in Hebrew school in coed classes.

My memory is that there were no bar-mitzvah classes for the boys, who had to study with a Rabbi or Melamed (teacher.)  My brother was tutored by a special bar-mitzvah teacher who came to our house several days a week for a year.  My father, who lost no opportunity to increase the educational opportunities of his children, had Mr. Shafritz stay a little longer each session to teach me to read and write Yiddish.  So long as I knew the basic  Hebrew alphabet (Yiddish uses the same alphabet but substitutes letter vowels for the symbols used as vowels in Hebrew) he argued, it would be a simple matter.  It wasn’t, yet I can still work my way around large print in a Yiddish newspaper.  Book texts are somewhat harder and I give up easily.

Some families, eager to pass on their Socialist political leanings to their children, sent them to Jewish schools that de-emphasized the religious aspects of Judaism and focused on political and cultural issues.  I met many graduates of these schools several years later when I joined the Zionist youth group.

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, Philly Firsts, and Across from the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, from which this reminiscence is excerpted with permission of the authorFor more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E

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Remembering Chanukah

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA )

I grew up in Philadelphia in the days preceding World War II when Chanukah was not nearly the celebration it is today.

The holiday was never mentioned in public school, despite the fact that the population of my elementary and junior high school was predominantly Jewish.

There was no expectation of equal coverage. Christmas was celebrated in the schools with a tree in every classroom and in assemblies where we sang Christmas carols weeks before the holiday.

An unwritten, unspoken agreement among the Jewish kids was that when we sang the carols, lustily and with pleasure, we kept our lips sealed when the name of Jesus Christ was mentioned. To my knowledge, no parent ever asked for this and no one discussed it; it just was.

I don’t remember feeling cheated or inferior. Christmas just didn’t belong to me, and Chanukah was no substitute. There were no decorations and no expectations of eight gifts.

Sometimes friends of my parents or relatives gave Chanukah “gelt,” a small offering of cash. A quarter was considered a windfall.

We did buy chocolate “coins,” but Chanukah was treated as a minor holiday, which it realistically is.

As Christmas has become the shopping extravaganza it is today, so Chanukah celebrations have proliferated proportionally.

I succumbed when my children were young and went into the one gift per night routine, which I still do with my grandchildren.

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, Philly Firsts, and Across from the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, from which this reminiscence is excerpted with permission of the author. For more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E

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The Sabbath

by Sandra Yoffee (Sarasota, FL)

My visits with my grandparents were always treasured times, especially when it included the Sabbath.

This was a day joyfully observed each week since my Grandmother, Bubbe, and Grandfather, Zedeh, were devout Orthodox Jews.

On Friday evening before sunset, Zedeh would change from his shabby work clothes into his steel-grey wool suit and snowy white shirt accented with a muted maroon tie.  In his weathered black shoes, he then walked to the nearby synagogue to welcome the Sabbath with prayers.

Bubbe, who remained at home, would light the Sabbath candles and put the finishing touches on her day-long task of preparing the Sabbath meal.

“Come here, my child, and watch as I welcome the Sabbath by lighting the candles,” she said.

I watched as she circled her wrinkled hands around the flames of the candles. With her hands placed over her closed eyes, she sang the blessings for lighting the candles. The beautiful candelabra, etched in silver, resembled a small tree with branches that held six candles. When all the candles were lit, the room was bathed in the glow of their flames.

When Zedeh returned from shul, we sat down at the dining room table to enjoy a delicious Sabbath meal.

After the blessing over the wine and challah, we would feast on steaming chicken soup with feathery light kneidlach, succulent roast chicken, and luscious kugel.

After dinner Bubbe and I sat in the darkened living room on the brown mohair sofa with only the shimmering light of the Sabbath candles.

She told me stories from the old country, and, while the Yiddish flowed, I listened until my eyelids grew heavy and I fell asleep.

On Sabbath morning, we dressed in our finest clothes and walked to their synagogue, B’nai Moshe, on Fifth Street in South Philadelphia.

The synagogue was a beautiful building with many stained glass windows that, through their pictures, told the history of our Jewish heritage.

Bubbe took me upstairs to the balcony where we sat with all the women.  She introduced me to her friends and told them I was her “shaynah aynecal,” her beautiful granddaughter.

With the sound of the women’s whispered prayers in my ears, I leaned over the railing and watched my Zedeh pray in the sanctuary below.

The men, covered with prayer-shawls, swayed front to back as they prayed.

The melodies of their prayers still linger in my memory.

Whenever I go to synagogue today–if I listen quietly–I can hear echoes of those prayers.

The simplicity of their lives, intertwined with their religious practices, forever remains a beautiful part of my memory of them.

Thus my grandparents instilled in me my pride and joy of being Jewish.

Sandra Yoffee was born in Philadelphia, PA, and moved with her husband, A.G., in 2002 to Sarasota, FL, where she is a member of “The Six Pearls,” a writing group dedicated to memoir-writing.


Filed under American Jewry

The Sacred, Secret World of Women

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

From early childhood, I was my grandmother’s frequent companion at the neighborhood public bath house whose clients were the Jewish immigrant women who had settled with their families in South Philadelphia. The place was known as “the shvitz” (Yiddish for “sweat”), and an evening spent at this working class imitation of today’s spa was comparable to dining out and theater entertainment for that tired, over-worked  community of women.  The baths constituted the Jewish equivalent of a Kiwanis convention, the Union League clubhouse, a beauty salon and an elite get-away spa, all under one roof.

The weary women who spent every Saturday night rejuvenating themselves at the shvitz spoke only in Yiddish, often unaware that I understood them. (Although English was the language of my home, Yiddish somehow imprinted on me, and, from my earliest speech, I was able to communicate with my grandparents in that colloquial and picturesque tongue.)  I was always the only child  at the baths, but it didn’t seem to bother my bubby, and I suppose it didn’t bother me either.

The building which housed the bathhouse was old and shabby on the outside, with faded paint and crumbling bricks, but the interior sparkled with white tile and shiny chrome, the air redolent with the purifying aromas of soap, antiseptics and cheap but powerful perfume.  As a teenager, before I understood the value of sisterhood, I would  recall the conversations that I overheard there as ordinary “woman talk.”  But as a child, barely understanding the references to  husbands and children, daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law, finances and bargains, recipes and illness, pregnancies and miscarriages, and the veiled sexual references that always drew a giggle or a nod, I knew somehow I was privy to information that  ordinarily would have been shielded from my young ears.

Many of the women who were part of this Saturday night at the shvitz were extended family.  Cousin Rose, the manicurist in her husband’s beauty salon, somehow found relaxation doing the same, without charge, for her sisters-in-law and cousins at the shvitz.  Cousin Eta, a diminutive redhead with a fiery personality, came late to the baths because she worked behind the deli counter in the small grocery store she and her husband ran in west Philadelphia.  And cousin Esther, of the same diminutive proportions as Eta, spent the day shampooing customers’ hair in her husband’s salon, but still had the energy to give pedicures to her relatives in the entrance hall of the shvitz.

Some years away from adolescence myself, I was intrigued by the femaleness of the carelessly draped bodies, the loving care of the long, often graying hair, the sighs of relaxation, the unaccustomed self-indulgence. All  hinted at inscrutable puzzles I could not understand.  But I was not upset by my lack of understanding.  I knew these were matters for grownups and my time would come.  It was enough to have been invited into this sacred, secret world of women.

Most of these women had been left behind when their husbands made the unknown journey to America to seek their fortunes. The women took care of children, parents, in-laws, and assorted relatives in what was to become a matriarchal society for a time, while husbands sought their future in the land of milk and honey, dealt with their disillusionment, sent money back to Eastern European countries to keep the family going in their absence, and then, finally, after reconciling the differences between their expectations and the reality, sent the necessary information for travel documents as well as passage money.

My grandmother was among that group.  She had been left behind with two small children to await her husband’s “success” and summons.  The summons came six years later. When my grandfather finally picked her up at the dock in New York, he discovered a diminished family.  Their daughter had died of an undisclosed ailment a few months before my grandmother and her younger child, my father, were to leave.  She decided to spare her husband this tragic news until their arrival, so he learned this when he greeted his wife and son after a six year separation.

But past lives were seldom the topic of conversation at the shvitz.  The present and future were more relevant.   By Saturday night the tired women were ready for some relaxation.  It was a time for pampering, a rare and unexpected treat.

The entrance hall, in addition to the manicuring facility, acted as gathering place and social hall. The oversized shower and bathing rooms gleamed with white tile, gracing both walls and floors, and randomly placed wooden benches were plentiful.  Drains were positioned along the floor so that when showers and faucets were open, the water ran in rivulets over the tile, negotiating its way to the nearest concave drain.  There were no shower or bath enclosures.  The shvitz was no place for modesty.

The sound of the ubiquitous running water, the smell of perfumed soap and shampoo mingled with lotions–all created a feeling of unfamiliar self-indulgence.  A massage corner baffled me. Why would people permit someone to pummel them mercilessly?  Another thing that puzzled me was the steam room, although I always felt compelled to thrust my face into that hot, humid cauldron for a moment and emerged gasping and ruddy from the steaminess that enveloped me.  I never understood how my grandmother and her friends could sit there for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, absorbing the intensity of the heat, continuing to laugh and talk and take pleasure in each other’s company in the midst of that boiler room.

When the women left the steam room, they stood under a cold shower to soak and refresh themselves.  There were large wooden buckets placed around the room.  My grandmother and I would drag one of them to “our bench.” After she washed my knotted hair with rancid-smelling brown soap, she filled one of the buckets with hot water and poured it over my head for a rinsing.  The soapy water cascaded into my eyes and nose, over my body and into the drain at my feet. No one could have been cleaner than she and I after those hours of soaking, sudsing and rinsing.

The bathing part completed, we were ready for phase two. We covered ourselves with white coarse dressing gowns, scratchy against my softened skin. I can still feel the shock of cold air as we exited through the swinging doors of the bathing room to walk upstairs to the resting room.  This scene–-now that I recall it through the layered backdrop of other experiences–-was more like a hospital recovery room.  We were all exhausted and purified.

This room sported rows of cots with mattresses. No sheets, no bedding–-just mattresses.  Behind each cot was a metal locker which held clothing and other belongings.  All the women lay down on the mattress ticking (without a pillow) and settled themselves for a rest. But first, each would reach into a brown paper bag and pull out an orange to restore the body after the fatigue of the bathing.  Somehow oranges were endowed with magical recuperative powers. They were supposed to replenish whatever nutrients and strength had been washed away with the soap and water. As the oranges were peeled and eaten, I lay on my bare mattress and listened to my grandmother and the other women recapture their week and share plans for the future.

Adjacent to the central gathering hall/pedicure salon was a small tea room furnished with linoleum-topped tables and wooden stools.  When the women felt sufficiently rested, they dressed, and before leaving for home, reluctant to relinquish their closeness and the difference from their daily lives,  they lingered in the tea room where each had a glass of tea and some home baked cookies.  Although there was a serving area that seemed capable of providing meals, I never saw anything eaten other than tea and cookies.

The women drank the tea Russian-style in a glass, swallowed through a sugar cube held in the teeth.  I have never recaptured that melting taste of poppy seed-filled cookies crunching in my mouth, washed down by overly sugared tea, as the women sat and talked, replenished and renewed by their bathing and conversation.

After our snack my grandmother began her protracted goodbyes and, with many pats on the head and blessings for me from her friends, we began our trek back to her house in the dark night.  The stars never seemed so bright, the streets so quiet, the bond so strong between us as we walked home from the shvitz, quietly holding hands.

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths and Philly Firsts. She lives in Malibu, CA. This is an excerpt from her book, Across the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, and it’s reprinted with the kind permission of the author. For more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

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Filed under American Jewry