Tag Archives: rituals

Where Do We Begin?

Elan Barnehama (Boston, MA)

My childhood home in New York City was within walking distance of several congregations, but my parents rarely took us to synagogue. And I was fine with that. And it wasn’t because my father wasn’t within walking distance to anything, what with him being confined to a wheelchair since getting infected by polio in Israel, ten years after his family fled Vienna, and one year after Israel became a state. His polio made mobility difficult, but it had never stopped him and my mother from going anywhere or doing anything.

We did, though, observe the Jewish holidays, rituals, and traditions with as many friends and relatives as could fit around our dining room table. Those who joined us eagerly engaged in robust conversations, lively debates, and detailed storytelling, with thick accents that seamlessly moved between Hebrew, German, and English. 

Later, when I had children of my own, I continued the tradition of skipping synagogue in favor of gatherings around our table which we expanded to capacity. I was, by then, a writer and teacher, so I did my thing which was to choose Biblical tales to retell, discuss, and  analyze the stories. But in order to teach, I had to learn. And that meant re-reading the Torah.

I started at the beginning. Or tried to. As a child, I was confused when I realized that Bereshit wasn’t read during Rosh Hashanah, even though the holiday celebrated the beginning of the year and creation. Also confusing was that Rosh Hashanah fell during the seventh month, and not the first. 

It seemed to me that those early rabbis were comfortable with inconsistencies and contradictions, with nuance and context, and that appealed to me. I mean, they put two different stories of creation right next to each other in the opening chapters of Bereshit. There were valuable lessons to be learned from each version and each sequence of creation.

So, when I began again at the beginning during Simchat Torah, I found a different translation for the beginning for Bereshit. This translation didn’t translate the word Bereshit as “in THE beginning,” but rather “in A beginning.” Several internet searches reveled that the translation of the word Bereshit had been fixed by Rashi and Ibn Ezra about a thousand years earlier, though it had not caught on everywhere. Still, it explained much. Beginnings are a constant. Sometimes they happen by choice. More often they are prompted by, well, life. 

The thing is, I’d been raised on stories of new starts as my parents and their parents had endured several demanding beginnings. And on their belief in that old Jewish proverb that stories are truer than the truth. My parents’ stories brought them to the United States, their third county and their third language, all before the end of their third decade.

My mother’s family-tree chronicled 500 years of German residence before her parents fled Berlin for Jerusalem in the fall of 1933. My father’s family, fortunate to have survived Vienna’s Kristallnacht, made their way to Haifa in the days that followed. While participating in the push to create a Jewish state, my father gave himself a new Hebrew name in honor of this beginning. But polio forced another beginning as doctors sent him to New York City for medical care that was unavailable in Israel at the time.

When I was a kid, I liked to slip out of my bedroom window onto the roof of our house in Queens. Safe in my own fortress of solitude, I replayed my day and planned for the next one with renewed optimism and possibility. 

One thing I learned from my parents’ stories was to trust not knowing. Sure, what’s ahead might be horrible and miserable. But that moment of not knowing also holds the promise of possibility, of a beginning that lies ahead.

Elan Barnehama’s new novel, Escape Route, is set in NYC during the 1960s and is told by teenager, Zach, a first-generation son of Holocaust survivors, and NY Mets fan, who becomes obsessed with the Vietnam War and with finding an escape route for his family for when he believes the US will round up and incarcerate its Jews. Elan is a New Yorker by geography. A Mets fan by default. More info at elanbarnehama.com and Escape Route, available now

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The Blue Mikvah

by Edna Shochat (Boise, ID)

To each his Temple.

My house of worship was established years ago

for young men, Christian.

Today YMCA is simply “The Y”.

Why? Because now everyone is welcome

regardless of age, gender, or faith.

Neither young nor male,

Jewish by birth and atheist by choice,

I attend, religiously, a daily ritual in the pool.

Like joining a Minyan

gathering for morning prayer at the Shul

I dip into the blue mikvah

and under watchful eyes of young lifeguards

swim like a gray-haired mermaid

counting my blessings.

Edna Shochat was born in British Mandate Palestine and grew up in Israel, leaving for the United States to follow career opportunities. Four years ago she and her husband followed their grandkids to Idaho. She discovered poetry at a Writing Through Cancer program while undergoing chemotherapy in 2011, and joined the YMCA to help her recovery. She continues to write poetry “to help carry her on the journey we all share, of aging.

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Pesach

by Simon Constam (Toronto, Canada)

Who today asks 

down to the last detail,

as the Haggadah wants us to do,

down to the revi’it of wine, 

the kezayit of matzah, 

whether in the absence of children 

the afikoman ought to be hidden? 

And we rush over the business about it being us 

in Mitzraim. 

Our people were slaves in Egypt,

isn’t that enough

someone always asks. 

And someone always says that there are natural explanations 

for all the plagues.

And someone always mentions the Palestinians. 

And at least one kid always asks, aren’t we done yet. 

“Call down thy wrath upon…” begins then

and some of us and always the guests shift uneasily in their chairs. 

And Eliyahu 

disguised as the cat

no longer comes in 

when the door is opened

as he used to when I was young. 

Grandfather (it’s always a surprise to know that is me)

is a baby boomer who’s going to live too long.  

Here it is early April and he’s already been out on his motorcycle.

To some this is mildly embarrassing. 

But he’s still needed, 

the only one with even a smattering of Hebrew, 

one of only several now who can remember 

how Seders used to be. 

Simon Constam is a Toronto poet and aphorist. Since late 2018, he has published and continues to publish, under the moniker Daily Ferocity, on Instagram, a new, original aphorism every day. He also sends them out to an email subscriber list. His first book of poetry, Brought Down a book of Jewish poetry, was just published by Wipf and Stock Publishers. He can be reached at simon.constam@gmail.com

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Missing my synagogue, my shul

by Tania Hassan (Gilbraltar)

I miss the synagogue.  Not my husband’s exquisitely vintage and stunningly intricate synagogue of his childhood but mine–my synagogue, my shul–the one that started out in a basement with doilies and shiny kippas in a basket by the entrance, and a chain across the parking lot (“lichvod Shabbat kodesh”) that forced shul goers to find parking around the corner.

How can I describe to you the ties that bind me to this most simple of communities or the profound love and connection in which the roots of my Avodat Hashem were planted and watered?

From lap to lap I shuffled as a child, gathering candies and friendships.  From wide-eyed babyhood, I grew into a sulky preteen and then a bride, a mother… all within the warm embrace of my parents’ friends and the fellow  members of Tiferet Yisrael Congregation, or “congregatation,” as the shul president sometimes called it – English not being his first or second language.

This shul was not just a place to pray.  It was our favorite playground. During shul hours, the parking lot and the coat room were begging for our imaginations to transform them into dangerous faraway lands. The choicest hiding spot was under Jack Oziel’s lush mink fur coat, which felt like melted butter against our hopelessly chapped and cracked lips. I can still feel it and smell the musty cloves that lingered in old pockets from havdalah to havdalah.

Believe it or not, in our neck of the woods, during “shalushudis” or rather, seudah shelisheet, we kids were sort of allowed to play in the main sanctuary, stomping on the hollow bimah, hiding in the velvet curtains of the Aron, and even peeking at and kissing the precious scrolls.

We were always shooed out by a red-faced, cranky Moroccan, who, with great flourish and a dismissive wave of his hand, locked us out and banished us back to the coat room.

But it was all a show because the next week, for 20 years, they would forget to lock the sanctuary and ignore the sudden disappearance of literally all the kids from the seudah shelisheet kids’ table.

I grew up pecking the men and women once on each cheek until I was bat mitzvah, at which time the men did a sort of slight Shabbat shalom bow, always amused at my adherence to religion despite my very childish appearance and antics. This familial style of greeting and interacting is very telling of the sort of community we grew up in.  One didn’t proceed to the kiddush or the exit without greeting every single shul goer.

Simchat Torah was The Best. No other synagogue with their enormous budgets and catered lunches could compare to the laughter, dancing, and, of course, fried sharmila and spicy orissa of my childhood Simchat Torah’s.

Age was irrelevant in this place. Old men were the coolest dancers and were always the first to whip those candies right back at us, usually resulting in the candy bouncing off the tinted glass that was our mechitza and hitting another horrified octogenarian. These were the days before Sunkist jelly candies. The older I got, the more sophisticated the candies became.  Rumor has it that now they throw whole packs of Twizzlers, O’ Henry’s, and the like.  Believe me when I tell you there’s nothing like a Moroccan shul.

__________

Yom Kippur. Oh, Yom Kippur, I miss you! I miss leaning on all the mollycoddling ladies. I miss the smell of lemons and Heno de Pravia cologne my grandmother would bring to keep her going. I miss the chazzan whose voice is the one I still hear in my head every time I utter a prayer. His strong, zealous service of God in a stunning clear call that still brings in my own Shabbat here across the whole world or wherever I go, whoever is up at the Bimah. In my ears, it’s always him. 

I miss the unity that I used to feel on Yom Kippur.  I don’t think everyone in that shul was Jewish, but we were One. That night and all the next day, we were shoulder to shoulder, intertwined souls, with the single mission to carry each other to the finish line, supported, cared about, and joyful.

We were happy on Yom Kippur because with all the petty politics of a shul out of the way, we focused on what we liked about each other. We laughed a lot until we elbowed each other or got stern looks from the chazzan or his wife, our eim bayit. We weren’t misbehaving, but we were so happy and united. The little things made us laugh.

We cried too. We knew each other so well—who had lost their mother that year , whose husband was ill, whose conversion was imminent. We prayed for ourselves, but hand in hand.

On this day, the Shabbat drivers put on their leather running shoes to walk home or to the house of a nearby host.  Yom Kippur was sacred to all, and we celebrated that accomplishment of theirs with great pride. To this day I can’t tell you which members were fully Shabbat observant and which weren’t, aside for the obvious ones, such as the chazzan and his family.

The tinkling Spanish of the ladies with their heavy perfumes and broaches, the croaky davening of tone deaf middle-aged men pierced by the melodious honey-like harmony of the chazzanim and their sons, or a delightful guest…the jar of chili peppers in the basement fridge that called our names every Friday night (after which we wiped our lips on Jack Oziel’s mink coat)… the diversity and the oneness… it shaped my entire being beyond the service of Hashem.

The shul shaped my perspective of the world. It helped me understand the world my parents had left behind and tried to recreate on much more frigid, colorless shores. And it embedded itself in the roots of my soul, in that space where self-esteem and formative experiences matter so much as to affect you forever.

People used to make fun of our shul. They saw it as a nebbish smattering of old school Spanish Moroccans, and Israeli and Russian ba’al teshuvas without a grand hall or grand communal accomplishments.  But there were those of us who found the secret to life along with the musty old cloves in deep pockets of simple and happy men.

And if your synagogue held gala dinners, or charged thousands of dollars in annual membership (barring the entry of a poor man longing to connect to His Maker), or catered a five-star kiddush with a VIP table, you just wouldn’t understand.

Tania Hassan is an ABA therapist who lives in Gibraltar, a 2.2 km squared British peninsula that shares a border with Spain.  Her Spanglish is superb, her British accent less so.  When she has spare time, she writes and pines for Canadian winters. 

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As Our Father Neared Death

by Herbert J. Levine (Philadelphia, PA)

As our father neared death, his mind raced
between fantasies and the facts of his life,
his speech like the black box of an airplane that had crashed,
the record of its journey jumbled beyond reconstruction.
My brother and I cared for him, sometimes
feeding, sometimes reading to him
from the Book of Psalms. I led him
beside green pastures and still waters
when he, in a soft voice, as if from far away, blessed me:
May God bless you and keep you. May God shine His Face upon you
until its end. Am I not the brother who wrapped himself in a tallit,
who stood before the congregation on Shabbat and holidays
to lead it in prayer to an improbable God? But all that ritual
razzmatazz fooled my fond old man and me.

After his death, my brother came every Shabbat and holiday
to say Kaddish with our mother.
She said to me every Sunday when I visited her,
“Your father would be so happy
that your brother is saying Kaddish for him.”
Thus my brother received her blessing for the great kindness
he did her, a kindness that only the living can receive.

Herbert J. Levine published his first book of poetry, Words for Blessing the World, at the age of 67. His previous books were scholarly treatments of Yeats and Psalms. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit: https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

Note: “As Our Father Neared Death” was first published in slightly different form in Words for Blessing the World  (Ben Yehuda Press, 2017). The poem is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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Shalach Manot

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday Morning Ritual

by Diana Rosen (Los Angeles, CA)

I am five,
standing eagerly at his side,
my face at my dad’s elbow,
a ready audience for this most
amazing experience: The Shave.

He pulls his nose first right, then left,
his razor whispers scritch-scratch,
edging over his upper lip; then he strokes
down through the shaving cream
leaving even rectangles on his cheeks,
a lawn mower plowing through snow.

Stroke by stroke, vanishing strips of
white foam expose his deeply tanned face.
“Damn,” he swears, as a ribbon of vermilion
winds its way down his deeply-brown chin.

Automatically, I hand him
some toilet paper to sop up
the spoils of the Gillette.
Then comes the part I like best.

He pours into his hands some crackling
cologne from the white crockery bottle
with its tiny neck and the blue sailboat
on the ballooning bottom of the bottle.

The room explodes with the scent
as he slaps it on his face:

Plop!
Plop!
Platt!

And together we say,
“Now that’s a mechayeh.”

[Mechayeh—Yiddish for “a pleasure.”]

Diana Rosen’s flash fiction and poetry have been published in anthologies and journals including, among others, Kiss Me Gooodnight and Altadena Poetry Review, Rattle, Tiferet Journal, Silver Birch Press, Ariel Chart, and Poetic Diversity. She has published thirteen non-fiction books. and teaches freewrite classes at senior citizen centers.

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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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Not That Jewish

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

I constantly debate my Jewishness,
or lack thereof.
Let’s look at the facts:
I don’t know any of the 613 laws,
much less obey them.
I almost never go to shul,
except on the High Holy Days.
(Do not ask me why I go then.)
My mother was not raised Jewish,
even though her mother was.
(Can Jews skip a generation?)
My sons were Bar-Mitzvahed.
(Did that make me or them more Jewish?)
I do not follow the news from Israel,
much less the news from my local synagogue.
I do not keep kosher,
nor do I light Friday night candles.
Yet, despite all of the above,
I still feel Jewish.
I am a Jew, by God, aren’t I?
Only not that much.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Sacred Memory

Martha Hurwitz (Barre, MA)

This past Yom Kippur I was invited by the Rabbi of our synagogue to share memories of someone I loved as a segue into the Yizkor service.  I immediately thought of my mother because my memories of her are happy ones and I credit her for any good and admirable qualities I may have. 

However, I heard an internal nagging voice that said, “What about your father? What memories would you share of him?”  This was not a question that I wanted to hear or to answer.  My father was not an easy man to love or to live with.  Personal relationships and sharing emotions were very difficult for him.  He needed to be the center of attention and the one who was always right.  He believed that women should take a supporting role and made it clear that, while I should aspire to become educated and “polished,” it was in order to become a suitable spouse to a professional and successful husband, not to showcase any accomplishments of my own.

In the 20 years since I became a Jew, I have struggled with the liturgy surrounding memory of loved ones because it seems to be about the excellent examples of those who have died and how their memories are a blessing.  Clearly, memories are not always positive or, at best, may be conflicting and difficult, but in a Jewish context are considered sacred.  How can memory be a blessing or be considered sacred when it still causes sadness and confusion? I waffled back and forth, trying to convince myself that it would be just fine to go with the positive and glowing eulogy that I had prepared when my mother died.  In the end, I gathered my courage and decided to risk being vulnerable and share my struggle with the memories of my father.   I calmed my fears by assuring myself that I certainly could not be the only one who wrestles with this question.

 As the Rabbi prepared the congregation for Yizkor, I sat in a heightened state of nerves, barely able to absorb what he was saying. Fortunately I managed to retain his statement that alav ha-shalom is meant as much (or perhaps even more) for the living than the dead.  With shaking voice and trembling knees, I shared my struggle and memories of my father.

In the end, of course, it was a powerful experience both for me and for the members of my congregation.  It is clear that I am far from the only one who struggles with memory and how to integrate it into the sacred liturgy.  I ended my thoughts with “Dad, I forgive you and I love you.  Alav ha-shalom.” My father died in 2001, but it was not until that day, 14 years later, that I was able to begin to mourn for him. 

Since then I have thought a great deal about the liturgy surrounding memory and what may be the purpose of such ritual. I have begun to see that it is not so much to suggest that memory by itself is sacred or that those who have gone before us were perfect. Rather it is an opportunity to take all memories, difficult or not, and place them into a sacred space.  I know there are some memories that may be too painful and negative to ever be resolved in this way.  But remembering within the context of Jewish ritual and tradition is a way that sadness and confusion can be eased and even those who were flawed and left hurts behind can rest in peace within us.

Martha Hurwitz grew up on a farm in upstate New York and was raised in the Society of Friends (Quakers). She married into a lively Jewish family in 1983, converted to Judaism in 1996, and has enjoyed learning and studying Torah ever since, both in study groups and by reading various sources at home.  Having always enjoyed writing, she recently started a blog called “The Golden Years Revisited,” (www.cultivatingdignity.com) to explore and share the experience of getting older and poke fun at some of the myths and stereotypes regarding old ladies!

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