It really is eerie.
Last week, though it was a “prank” by pro-Russian supporters in the Ukraine, Jews were handed out leaflets that they must register their names and property holdings with the government.
Last week, just as this week, a synagogue in the Ukraine was firebombed. Not just vandalized. Firebombed.
This is why “Never Forget” must not just be uttered or whispered in a prayer but be a call to action.
I am sure that Henry Upfall would agree. Here is his story.
In the weeks leading up to his 101st birthday on April 14, Henry Upfall was hoping to start a men’s poker night at Meer Apartments in West Bloomfield, where he lives. Just returning from spending the winter at his condominium in Florida, he missed his regular poker game at the clubhouse, and the ladies at Meer won’t deal the men into their game.
According to his devoted daughter, Dina Pinsky of Bloomfield Hills, Upfall believes in living in the present by making new friends and maintaining close family ties. Pinsky adorns his apartment with plenty of family photos of Upfall’s late wife, Dora, their children, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
His daughter said living in the present — loving life, surrounding themselves with family, friends and many social gatherings — was the way her parents coped with the very dark past of surviving the Holocaust.
At 101, Upfall is Metro Detroit‘s oldest living Holocaust survivor. Like many children and grandchildren of Holocaust
Like many second and third generation survivors, Pinsky is in a race against time to preserve her loved one’s stories for the coming generations.
“As a kid, my brother Yale and I remember lots of laughter and joking around,” Pinsky said. “We heard stories of Europe in bits and pieces. We knew there were subjects that were off-limits; we just didn’t go there because it caused my parents too much pain.”
Stephen Goldman, executive director at the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) in Farmington Hills, said that in the immediate years after the Holocaust, many parents were afraid to tell and children were afraid to ask about the horrors of the Holocaust. As time passed, more survivors began to tell their stories. They must be told and recorded to preserve their memory, he said. “As survivors age, it becomes more urgent for us to preserve their stories,” Goldman said.
“If we don’t capture their memories now, they will be lost to the ages.”
Upfall’s story, retold here, was pieced together from a recent interview at his apartment and a 2006 video testimony he gave at the HMC. There, Upfall’s account, along with 500 additional area survivors, are recorded with attention to the most accurate detail.
Henry Upfall was born Gedalye Augustowski on April 14, 1913. As a child, he grew up in a comfortable and “cosmopolitan” household in Warsaw with his mother, sister and maternal grandparents. His parents divorced and his father left to settle in Detroit in the 1920s.
He was an athletic teenager and an avid boxer. For a time, he traveled from town to town competing in boxing tournaments, where he eventually suffered an injury to his right eye causing permanent blindness in it. When retelling even a few sentences of his story, that eye swells shut under the weight of its tears.
“We had good lives,” Upfall said. “We were well dressed. My sister never left the apartment without a fine hat on her head.”
In 1938, Upfall met his future wife, Dora Rajf, through one of her six brothers. After a year of courting, the two set a wedding date for Sept. 6, 1939. Through the help of their families, they purchased a small building where they would work as a barber and a beautician and live in the apartment upstairs.
Coming Of War
Then, in September of 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland.
Upfall, like all other able-bodied young Polish men, was ordered at age 26 to the border at Bialystok in an attempt to thwart the Nazi invasion. Two months later, Upfall returned to Warsaw and reunited with Dora.
In just those short months away, Upfall recalls the shock of seeing a change in Dora’s physical state and the destruction in the city.
“I didn’t recognize her,” Upfall said. “In only two months, her face was so drawn, so black from the soot of the bombings.”
On Nov. 6, 1939, Upfall and Dora broke the 7 p.m. curfew imposed on all Warsaw Jews to sneak away to the rabbi’s study at Nozyk Synagogue. There, with no guests or witnesses, a rabbi married them in a secret ceremony. An engagement photo and a ketubah bearing the date and their names, survives to this day, lovingly preserved in a frame in Upfall’s apartment.
“There were just the rabbi, Dora and I,” Upfall tearfully recalled. The two fled that evening from Warsaw and headed back to Bialystok, walking the whole way at night, hiding by day in the woods and in barns. Upfall still has painful regrets about leaving his sister, grandparents and mother. That next year, in the fall of 1940, the Nazis ordered all Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto.
“He just had no idea how bad things were going to get,” Pinsky said.
After making it back to Bialystok, he and Dora were arrested and sent to Posolek, a Russian labor camp near the town of Vologda in White Russia to work harvesting trees in the forest. Conditions were harsh. There was little food and only straw to sleep on in the barracks.
Upfall, raised in an Orthodox home, recalls feigning illness and fever with some other men in the camp so they would not have to work on Yom Kippur. Though they were under the watchful eye of Russian guards, somehow Henry and Dora escaped through a passage in the forest. After traveling, they were reunited with Dora’s parents in Vitebsk in Belarus.
For a while, they lived in relative peace. Henry worked as a barber and the couple had a child, Yale, born in 1941. Shortly after Yale was born, Upfall’s family again uprooted as Soviet forces evacuated civilians to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. Here Soviet authorities demanded that civilians acquire Russian passports. Refusing to get a passport because he knew it meant he would be forced into the army, Upfall was imprisoned. Dora begged for his release under the condition that he would take a passport.
Sure enough, within days of accepting a Russian passport, Upfall was drafted into the army and put onto a train headed for the frontline of the war.
“I remember sitting next to another Jewish guy named Moskowitz,” Upfall said. “In Yiddish, he joked with me, ‘They are sending us to the slaughterhouse.’ So, when the train stopped at a station, I said I was getting off to get a hot drink. At the station, there was stopped another train going west. I got on it and deserted the Russian army. I never saw Moskowitz again.”
Somehow, he made his way to Jambul, Kazakhstan, where he was reunited with his family. They remained there until the end of the war.
When the war ended, Upfall, his wife and son went back to Poland, first to Kracow, then Warsaw, where they were spirited out of Poland by Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, and taken to Vienna, Austria. Dina was born in Vienna in 1947. From there they went to a displaced persons camp, Munchenberg, in Germany.
In 1949, the family immigrated to the United States, joining his father in Detroit. After receiving his license, he operated a barber shop. He became a U.S. citizen and changed his name to Henry in 1954. Upfall said it is important to tell stories like his for the future because “people who are free do not understand how we endured what we went through during the Holocaust.”
“The Jewish nation is strong,” Upfall said. “We have to stick together no matter what. As long as we have places like America and Israel, a Jew will never have to ask again ‘vu ahin zol ikh geyn’ (Where can I go?)”
This week’s WordPress Photo Challenge is Patterns.
Patterns are found in nature. And in turn, we foolish humans try to mimic the majesty of nature’s patterns in the man-made world. . I photographed two examples of patterns I found this year in Rochester, N.Y.
While one is a pattern only nature could create (well, maybe man helped it along with a bit of hybridization), one is a pattern created by man, or a woman, in hopes of preserving nature.
The first is a lilac. But these are not your ordinary lilacs.
This week is Rochester’s Lilac festival, an event that draws thousands to the area for music, great food, and of course, to inhale the fragrance from the city that can boast the nation’s largest collection of lilac bushes in Highland Park.
While white lilacs are the most fragrant, photogenically, my mom and I like this striped variety the best. I give full credit to her photographic wizardry here. I also learned from the blog, eattheweeds, that lilacs are from the edible olive family. In addition to their intoxicating fragrance, lilac blossoms and seeds can be used in cooking and wine making.
The next photo is a pattern that struck my eye at Rochester’s Greentopia Festival, held every September. As much as I searched and searched on the Internet, I could not find a link to this artist/vendor, so if you know who makes these, leave me a comment and I will certainly give the artist a little link love:
I teach Hebrew school in the afternoons to sixth graders.
As a teacher, my greatest wish is for my students, my budding Jewish scholars, to ask deep meaningful questions about God, Judaism and our 5,000 year old tradition.
Can you guess what their most asked question is when their hands go up in my class, after being in public school all day?
If you guessed: “Can I go to the bathroom?” or “Can I get a drink of water,” or “Are we going to get a chance to play?” you would be on the right track; except my students need to pose their question in Hebrew.
But today, when they asked me, I turned their questions back on them: Are you really thirsty? How badly do you need that drink? And … what if there was just nowhere to go to the bathroom?
This week, as in Israel, Jews have come off the sorrow of observing Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It will be a challenge for these kids — the last generation to have any access to the first-account testimony from survivors — to get a comprehension of the enormity of the loss and the depths of cruelty suffered by the Jews who endured and who did not endure through the Holocaust.
But perhaps they could understand it through their own most basic needs, the needs of kids just like them during the darkest years of humanity. They looked at pictures of kids starving on the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto, asking for food when there was none. They read an account of a girl who “stole” an icicle to get water to drink when there was none. They read about kids in hiding who asked for a bathroom but there was none; too risky.
Of course I let my students go get a drink of water and go to the bathroom, but when posed with these questions about survival and enduring the unendurable, they thought twice today before they asked.
Over the last week, Israelis have been on an emotional roller coaster ride: They observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, then Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, then move right into the triumph and joy (and yes, barbecues) of Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel Independence Day. But how to convey these emotions to Jewish American kids who are tired after a long day of school on a rainy and cold April Day?
Youtube, of course!
Here are three videos I showed my students today. The first shows Israeli soldiers, strong, young and proud, singing Ani Ma’amin – I believe. A song that was sung as an act of spiritual resistance by the Jews in the concentration camps even as they faced death:
One of my students said, this song makes me want to cry. Crying about the Holocaust is okay, I said. It’s part of the learning.
This video shows how Israelis honor their fallen soldiers, by observing a complete two minutes of stillness by the sound of a siren. Even cars on the highway stop:
After seeing this, one of my students said “This is how we should honor Memorial Day in America!”
Finally, the singing of Hatikvah (The Hope), the Israeli National Anthem, and this is not your typical Hatikvah:
Funny, but when watching these videos, not a single hand went up to ask to go to the bathroom.
Happy Birthday, Israel!
Since I’ve returned from Israel with my family, friends and acquaintances stop and ask me:”So, how was your trip?”
As much as I like talking about the trip, it is just so hard to sum up Israel in a quick conversation in the produce aisle. My husband is also experiencing the same when asked this question at work. How was the trip? Well, in a word: life-altering? Or, how about, transformative?
To start retelling a multi-generation trip of a lifetime to Israel, unfortunately one has to start with the hard things first. It is only from these low points: visiting the Har Herzl National cemetery, and then the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, can one only understand the miracle that is Israel and how hard we have to work to never, ever take for granted the existence of this tiny country.
Before I take you to the heights of happiness of three generations celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, drinking fresh pomegranate juice, dancing on the beaches of Tel Aviv, or welcoming Shabbbat with thousands of Jews at the Western Wall, I must take you to the depths of sorrow.
It was a very hard first day. We first toured Mt. Herzl cemetery, Israel’s equivalent of Arlington National cemetery. Among Israel’s deceased prime ministers and other dignitaries lie the graves of the many fallen soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice during Israel’s wars.
Here, there is no rank. Privates are not separated from generals. The word “Nofel” – to fall – appears next to ages: 18, 22, 23, 25, young people cut down serving their country in the prime of life. The freedom to walk casually in Israel’s city streets or flowering mountainsides, we owe to them.
As part of officer training, it is common to see Israel Defense Force soldiers coming to pay their respects to those who served:
After this visit, we toured Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust.
The imposing concrete triangular prism architecture of the museum adds to the physical experience of the museum.
This is the central hallway: grey, dark, lit only by overhead skylights. On the sides of this triangular structure is the progression of evidence of the annihilation of 6 million Jews. How the Holocaust was engineered through cultivating a centuries-long culture of hate against European Jewry that culminated with the Nazis war against the Jews from 1939-1945. In this short amount of time, the Nazis murdered six million Jews, one-third of European Jewry.
The viewer zigs and zags through each exhibit. There is no cutting straight through to that light at the end. One must enter each gallery. And with each turn, you know the story will just get worse.
Sometimes, one can just get numb to the enormity of the Holocaust. The numbers of vicitms. How many were murdered from this shtetl or how many were deported from this city. Especially if you have seen the photos, confronted the numbers, and heard the testimonies of survivors for the better part of your life.
That is why within this exhibit, the story of one voice, of one victim, is powerful enough to shatter the anonymity of the number 6,000,000 and bring the narrative to one person, one name, who was lost.
On a wall was a small framed poem of a boy, age 14. He wrote: When I grow up to be 20, I will fly free away from here like a bird. I want to travel all over the world and cruise over the seas, and just be free.
The boy was murdered at Auschwitz at age 17.
Then, another voice, the voice of my daughter, who made her own discovery.
She was chanting Torah. Her Torah portion. From a battered, water-stained Torah robbed by the Nazis, to be used one day in a museum Hitler intended to create for an extinct people.
She said, this is my Torah portion, I can totally read it and make out the letters. It was also to be the same reading we would in a few days chant for the Jerusalem celebration of my son’s Bar Mitzvah, just days later.
What were the odds that this tarnished, damaged Torah scroll would be open to this very passage? How many kids in that dark time did not live to see their own Bnei Mitzvah? The tears refused to keep flowing.
So, you see, the Nazis did not fulfill their final solution. We are still here. We still live. We got through the darkness and made it into the light to behold the view of Jerusalem on a clear sunny day:
What a challenging day to make a first impression. On the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, right around the time when the towers crumbled, I will be standing before my class of newly minted seventh graders. I will have to save face and cheerfully smile at my new students and welcome them to a new year of Jewish learning.
All the while, I know at this time I would usually be crying. All the while, I know, in truth, my students would rather be sleeping in on a Sunday morning. I’m wondering if any other Jewish educators of middle school aged children and older are feeling the way I do; about how to get through this first day.
Let’s hope I don’t lose it and get all teary-eyed in those first introductory moments about an event that happened when my new students were barely out of diapers. After all, ten years to a 13-year-old is a very long time.
I can hear the conversation in the Hebrew School carpool ride home tomorrow: “…..my new teacher, like, cried on the first day. Ewww.”
For better or worse, time does go on and obligations do not stop just because of a date. Over the years, the date of 9/11 shifted around the days of the week. There have been weddings and homecomings, meetings and business trips. Sometimes, the anniversary falls in the middle of the week. Sometimes it happens on a Tuesday, the very day of the attacks.
What do I usually do between 8:45 and 9:00 a.m. on the anniversary of 9/11? I’m usually alone. Everyone else in the family has left for school and work. I feel as I should watch the real-time replay of those horrible moments, as CNN plays it every year. Sometimes, I watch it. Most years, I hide in my laundry room in the basement and have a good cry. Then I get on with my day.
What do I usually do the first day of a new school year with my new kids? I go over expectations. Together, we make a list of class rules. I review classroom procedures and what we will be learning. Also, we have some ice breaker games to get acquainted.
Can we ignore the events of a decade ago and go on with business as usual? Talking about something as painful as 9/11 on our very first day will be a very difficult thing to do, but just as difficult to ignore. I don’t think crying in front of them, or showing the slightest tear will be an option. Not while we are still strangers.
It’s not that difficult subjects don’t arise in Hebrew school. In fact, it’s these really sensitive topics that have motivated my past students. They really open up and we have amazing conversations. (That’s what I love about the seventh grade, they never cease to surprise you on what they can handle.)
Kids in the seventh grade are ready to not to be kids anymore. After all, it’s the year of their B’nei Mitzvah, their coming of age. They want to talk and they told me last year that sheltering them does them a disservice anyway.
I remember last year, sitting on the floor with my seventh graders, discussing the Holocaust with them and how the lessons they learned from the Shoah still mean something to them today. But that discussion happened on one of the last days of school, not the first.
So, come Sunday, I’ll stick to my plan. Unless the plan needs to change. In the Talmud, the rabbis instruct to “go with the way a child wants to learn.”
So, if the topic comes up, I’ll share. I’ll tell them that a decade ago, I was in the middle of filling out my own Rosh Hashanah cards, wishing friends and family a happy New Year when the planes hit. I’ll tell them that I wrestled with the choice of sending those cards out at all, but in the end I did. Because that Rosh Hashanah, praying for the New Year seemed more important than ever before.
So if I have to scrap my whole lesson so we can gather on the floor, open up and talk about how to approach the madness and the sadness of this day, so be it.
Then, perhaps the next week, they will derive some meaning during Tefilot, or prayers.
They really will thank G-d for sustaining them and giving them the energy for waking to a new day.
They really will thank G-d for making them free and not a slave.
They really thank G-d for strenghening us with courage.
edit: To add some more to this sentiment: My parents this summer visited Germany. My mom was hesitant to go but she went. They took a river cruise on the Rhine and had a wonderful time. And, everywhere they went, there was not a single place visited where their tour guide did NOT make a mention of the atrocities that happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. The tourguide was extremely compassionate as he discussed the plight of the German Jews with my parents. They would certainly recommend a trip to Germany now that they visited.
A few nights ago, I had the pleasure of participating in some intense Jewish study with some very intelligent women in my neighborood. The study session was held in preparation for a nine-day mourning period in Judaism that happens each summer culminating with the fast day of Tish B’Av, or the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av.
During this time, no meat is consumed. Religious women run lots of clothes through the wash before the nine days because no clothing can be laundered in this time period. Swimming is off limits as well.
This time marks some of the saddest occasions in Jewish history, most notable are the destruction of the two Holy Temples – first in 423 B.C.E. and then 70 C.E. – that once stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The destruction of the Temples also marked the Jewish Exile from Israel, which ended only with the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948.
So, why mourn something that happened millenia ago? The issue of how to make that feeling of mourning relevant today was the topic of our study session.
I started to write this post a day before our study, but what gave me the chills is how our moderator opened the talk with another time of destruction in recent Jewish history: the Holocaust. Even if you didn’t have a direct loss in your family, it was a loss for the Jewish family as a whole, a loss that is still viscerally ingrained in the Jewish psyche today. We should also strive as Jews to make the loss of the Temples just as palpable.
Getting back to the Holocaust:
A few things I deducted from my Hebrew school education about the Holocaust, as taught by our rabbi, son of Holocaust survivors:
- After the destruction of Jewish life and Jewish culture under the Third Reich, Jews should Never Forget. Therefore, Jews should never again set foot in Germany
- Because of Hitler’s infatuation with composer Richard Wagner, because Wagner’s music was the soundtrack of music played as Jews marched to their deaths in concentration camps, Jews shoud Never listen to or play compositions by Wagner.
- Jews don’t buy BMWs or Volkswagons
- Again, Jews don’t visit Germany
I held onto these notions a for a long time, including during the summer of 1989, when I spent a month in Israel volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel’s northern region. To my surprise, many of the other volunteers were not Jewish kids; most were European. To my further surprise, many of them were German.
I never knew any Germans before this encounter. As I got to know them, I found them to be gentle and kind. They also had a thirst for learning all they could about Jewish culture, Hebrew, Jewish holidays – anything Jewish they could get their hands on, they wanted to learn about.
I asked them – why?
Their explanation: Germans of their generation felt an enormous sense of guilt as to what happened in their country, and that guilt was unjustified. They wanted to learn about Judaism, because, at the time, there were very few Jews in Germany. Still, I expressed my reluctance to ever visit their country.
Instead of being angry with me, their reaction was one of sadness.
Over 20 years have passed and I still struggle with my feelings about contemporary Germany. But just in the last week, there was media coverage about Jews and Germany that is making me reconsider.
The other evening, I listened on NPR the unthinkable: that the Israeli symphony was in Germany playing Wagner compositions.
Former Soviet Jews and young Israelis are settling in Berlin. There, they enjoy a thriving cosmopolitan culture with nighclubs, art galleries and community centers – all with an Israeli twist.
Another one of my brilliant neighbors, Athene Goldstein, returned from a visit to Germany, where her son-in-law, a professor, was delivering a talk on Jewish history in Germany. There, she also visited a museum in Berlin dedicated to Jewish culture. From her working knowledge of German, she could tell that none of the museum’s visitors were Jewish, but again, just as I experienced on that kibbutz, there was that intense curioustiy of wanting to know about Judaism.
“The museum was filled with basic Jewish artifacts: Sabbath candles, Torah Scrolls, a menorah for Chanukkah,” said Athene. “It was Judaism 101. But that is where they are. Germans are very up front about what happened in their country under the Nazis. Now, they just want to know about who their country tried to completely destroy.”
Is the fact that the Jewish population is growing in Germany a sign that Jews are forgetting their past? Or is it perhaps, maybe the best way to deal with the memory of the six million lives lost is to replace what was lost by renewing life there once again?
The other night, I was the featured speaker at the Installation Dinner of the Rochester, NY chapter of Hadassah. For those of you who wanted to know what I spoke about, here it is, all 20 spoken minutes of it, though changed slightly as I had some visual cues for some of the jokes. And some of the jokes, well, it’s a Hadassah thing, so you may not understand. Also, if you are not up on the Jewish faith, there is a LOT of jargon that you may not get, so if you want to skip this post, I will understand. But it was an honor to speak and a great evening I’ll remember for a long time.
Hadassah is an organization known throughout the world for promoting Zionism and Israel, supporting advances in medicine, and advocating Jewish education. Any art lover the world over surely knows about the Marc Chagall stained glass windows that grace the chapel in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital.
But, when I think of the Rochester chapter of Hadassah, the Rochester Hadassah Cookbook immediately comes to mind.
I have to tell you, I got this cookbook by way of Berkeley California. I had just become engaged to my husband, Craig. He was in graduate school. I was – uummmmm, hanging out and enjoying the California scene!
We got the Rochester Hadassah cookbook as an engagement present by way of a grad school friend of Craig’s named Mike. Mike was born and raised in Rochester. Mike came back to California after a trip back East and presented us with this book as an engagement gift from his mother.
And I said “Oh, Rochester. That’s somewhere upstate, like near Poughkeepsie!”
At that point in my life, I had no connection to Rochester outside of this cookbook. Rochester was the furthest thing from my mind. We were living in California but that was temporary for us East Coasters. Craig would finish his PhD, and then we were moving back to New York City, center of the universe!
We did move back to New York City. Well, New Jersey actually. Craig found a job in the suburbs and I also found one – in Manhattan. Complete with a three-hour round trip commute on New Jersey Transit!
I landed this great job at a growing high-tech public relations firm. It was a time when they couldn’t find people fast enough to perform quality account work for the burgeoning, brand-new high-tech industry. Ah, I miss the 90’s!
My boss was a stunning, statuesque blonde woman of 35. She had the corner office of our Park Avenue suite. To the north, her view faced uptown to Grand Central Station. To the West, she overlooked Park Avenue. She loved living the life of a single Manhattanite PR executive. However, she would tell us many times that her parents in Florida wished she would marry and give them grandchildren already. When she visited them, she instructed us to call her often on her cell phone, so her parents would see how important she was back at the office.
Sitting in my cube as a lowly – NO rising – account executive, I would imagine what it would be like to live that kind of life. Most of my co-workers were in their 20’s and single. Half their salary went to paying rent.
The other half – alcohol.
At 28, I was already the old married lady of the office, and Craig and I were starting our family.
After a few years and two kids later, we moved up to Rochester for Craig’s employment. It was then I learned that Rochester is waaaay further upstate than Poughkeepsie.
My company back in New York City still wanted me. They even offered to set up a virtual home office. But, reality set in. I was staring down at our first long Rochester winter with a one year-old and a three year-old as my only companions. I didn’t know a soul in town. Virtual office or not, I realized that building my social network here for my family would be more important than racking up more media hits for IBM. So, I politely said thanks but no thanks, and became a stay-at-home full time mom.
Stay-at-home moms rarely stay at home, as you know. Those first few years here, I spent most of my time at Wegmans, the Strong Museum of Play, and the JCC. When you’re the new mommy in town, people are very interested in getting to know you. I realized that the Jewish moms I was meeting were fulfilling the mitzvah to welcome new Jews into the community. We were invited as a family for Shabbat dinners on Friday nights and, during the week, playdates for the kids and I. I’ve heard that this courtship is called “mommy dating.”
More than a few times, I would eat something prepared by a prospective mommy friend and say,
“WOW, this is great, where did you get this recipe?”
And one woman after the next would reply, “I made it from the Rochester Hadassah cook book!”
And I would reply, “OHHHH, I have that cookbook, I’ve had it for YEARS! I think I’ll start using it now.”
The JCC opened up to me a network of great women who believed in giving their kids a Jewish education in early childhood. I’m now over the rainbow from my own kids’ preschool years and teach preschool myself. I am in forever debt to people like Tzippy Kleinberg, Andrea Paprocki and Emily Fishman at the JCC and later, Randi Fox Tabb at Keshet preschool for planting the very first seeds of Jewish knowledge for my kids. Now that I’m a preschool teacher, I see the appreciation parents show when their little ones come home singing “Shabbat Shalom – Hey” or say a bracha every time they put a cookie in their little mouths.
Becoming a new parent can be the road back to Jewish observances. In fact, a 2002 study by the Jewish Early Childhood Education Partnership described Jewish preschools as the Gateways to Jewish Life. The time to get young families rooted back into Jewish community life is when their children are between the ages of birth and three years of age.
I remember when my son Nathan was in his first year of preschool at the JCC. I had an “aha” moment – a moment you knew that the Jewish foundations you lay for your child are really sinking in – in all places but at Michael’s.
Nathan was just 2 ½. I picked him up at the J and we went schmoozing at Michael’s. From his seat in the shopping cart, he spied one of these big fake terra cotta gardening urns.
“Mommy” he said, in an angelic voice that only two and one half year olds have “They have a really big – Kiddush cup!”
By the way, Nathan is now well into his Torah studies as he becomes a Bar Mitzvah this November.
In addition to giving my children a Jewish education in their earliest years, being a stay-at-home mom afforded me the time to continue my own learning. When living in New Jersey, I admired women who could get up and read Torah on Saturday mornings or who were involved with other aspects of Jewish communal life. But my three- hour round trip commute into the city left time for little else during the week.
Why did I decide to learn to read Torah later in life? I have to confess, it’s the rush. I have to get my adrenaline rush somewhere. For one thing, I hate roller coasters. The only time I rode one was on a dare from Craig on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California. Craig jokingly said he would not marry me unless I rode the famed Big Dipper, a classic, rickety wooden roller coaster. As expected, I hated every second of that 60-second ride. But I guess it was a religious experience because I kept praying aloud to God to please get me off!
So, if I want to get my heart pumping, I sign up for a Torah reading.
I encourage more Jewish women to also get on this thrill ride. And don’t think, “I can’t do it because I didn’t grow up reading Torah,” because neither did I!
Growing up within my very Conservative synagogue in Staten Island, New York, boys preparing for their Bar Mitzvah were required to attend services on Saturday morning. Girls were required to go on Friday night. Girls would chant their Haftarah on Friday night and boys would be called to the Torah on Saturday morning. It was never questioned or debated if girls should have a larger role. That’s how it was.
We were taught that after our B’nei Mitzvot, boys were still required to go to shul but girls didn’t have to. Our rabbis, all Orthodox, said that girls were more spiritual by nature, thus relieving them of the obligation to attend services. They said if men were not required to go to shul, they would never go.
It’s true. Spirituality did come naturally to me. Each Friday night, I followed along with all of the melodies of Kabalat Shabbat. I never thought about the fact that after my Bat Mitzvah, I would not be asked to join a minyan if they needed a tenth, because I was not a man. I would not be asked to read from the Torah or participate in services. It made me feel as though I didn’t count, and on a certain level, as a Jewish woman, I didn’t.
That summer, my parents took our family to Israel, where I was to have a Bat Mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel! Imagine that! In my 13-year-old mind, I envisioned me chanting my Haftarah, the Kotel behind me, and all of Jerusalem listening!
Well, my actual “Bat Mitzvah” ceremony went something like this: I stood in a white blouse and a flowery skirt outside of the Kotel Plaza. I really did have a copy of my haftarah to chant. But a rabbi in a black hat from some agency handed me a siddur, and asked me to read the Shma in English.
“But, I have my Haftarah! And I can chant the Sh’ma in Hebrew,”
“That’s not necessary. You are a girl. Just read it in English.”
Tova Hartman, a lecturer in the department of gender studies and education in Bar Ilan University wrote in her book, Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism, that living in Israel, she “knew there is no recipe or a structure on how to join Orthodoxy with feminism. In her own life, in order to give her daughters a model of religion she could live with, she had to form her own shul with a group of like-minded people, even if that meant she had to leave certain loyalties behind.”
Please don’t misunderstand me. I do have great respect for Orthodox Judaism. I admire their commitment to observing Shabbat, the hospitality they extend to guests on Saturday afternoons for lunch, and their dedication to a Jewish day school education.
I can also understand the values that Orthodoxy places on mothers as the first Jewish educators in a child’s life by being charged with creating a Jewish home. But even Blu Greenberg, author of How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, commented in her book On Women and Judaism that “leaders of Orthodox halacha (law) must recognize that the general effect of exempting women from prayer conditions them to a negative or indifferent attitude toward prayer altogether.”
My feminist notions aside, when I became a mother, I appreciated why it is that women are not obligated to participate in time-bound mitzvot which could interfere with their tasks of mothering. But what I cannot accept is where “not obligated” evolved into “not allowed.”
My horizons on the role of women in synagogue life expanded when I moved out to California. Aside from daring me to ride roller coasters, Craig encouraged and taught me how to lead kabbalat shabbat at the Hillel at Cal Berkeley. There, the rabbi was a woman. For the first time, I heard the matriarchs mentioned next to the patriarchs in the chanting of the Amidah. Women lead services, had aliyot, and read from the Torah. This was so common, in fact, that once, a non-Jew came to our services and quietly asked, “Are men allowed to read from the Torah?”
I learned how to read Torah at age 37 thanks to a six-week adult education class led by Chazzan Martin Leubitz at Temple Beth El. On the first day of class, Chazan Leubitz informed us all that he had signed us up to read Torah in six week. That would be our final exam.
For me, I have come to realize that learning Torah is not an exercise in perfection, rather an act of participation and performing the mitzvah of studying Torah as a full-fledged member of the Jewish community.
Connections in the Jewish community, actually, would you believe a conversation in the women’s locker room at the JCC – led me to landing my column at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. Writing this column has been a return to my first love of newspaper writing. It has also given me a reason to set up a home office, with a corner office in my kitchen. To the south of my lavish two square-foot corner office – I have an excellent view of the piles of laundry that pile up in my family room. To the East, there are dishes in the sink and groceries to put away. Directly before me is my blank computer screen, which I must fill with 600 well written words every week.
Writing my column is like riding a bicycle up and down a series of hills. All year long. On deadline day, I pedal the hardest. I do a lot of the writing – as I did this speech, in my head, long before I sit down to my computer. I think about it at red lights, on walks, on line at Wegman’s. Writing takes a lot of rewriting, moving paragraphs around, weaving and reweaving them until every word fits into place.
It’s like that feeling you get when you untangle a necklace.
Then, I hit send. And I can finally coast downhill, for about a day. I finally pick myself up from my cushy corner office to the mundane never-ending tasks of laundry and dishes. I also take some time to get in a workout. A shabasana, the restive pose at the end of my Wednesday night yoga classes, are divine and well deserved after hitting send on my column.
Then, the search continues again. Because most of my connections are in the Jewish community, lots of people pitch me with Jewish story ideas. But, I’ve had to gently turn a lot of them away. When it comes to my personal identity, I am a Jewish American. But for the sake of the wider audience of the Democrat & Chronicle.
I’m not a Jewish reporter, I’m a reporter who is Jewish.
Between the lines of my column, however, Jewish themes can still be found. A day devoted to cleaning up our parks or collecting unwanted pharmaceuticals – those are the values of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world. Events that speak on helping care for our seniors or events at a senior center? That is Gimilut Hasadim – acts of kindness.
So I try not to comment or cover too many events or issues that impact the Jewish community.
Except for the recent incident where some teens were caught and charged with the hate crime of burning a swastika in Brighton. On the night before Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Rememberence Day. I had to speak out on that.
After a lot of back and forth with my editors, who questioned if such a heavy topic was the right fit for the Our Towns section, they agreed to keep my words. I thank them immensely for hearing me through on this. As I stated in last week’s column, I love covering the good in our communities. There is so much bad news in our world and I’m honored to be able to bring to readers news on events where they can participate and help out their community. But suddenly, this columnist who is Jewish became a Jewish columnist and I had to speak out. Because, what do we mean, when we are saying “Never Again?”
You have to remember that when the news broke, our community was immersed in daylong Yom Hashoah observances. Included in this was a community wide program for teens: a staging of the play “What Will You Tell Your Children” written by Rochester native Jessie Atkin upon her return from a Journey for Jewish identity trip in 2005, where Jewish teens from the United States and Israel spend time together here, visiting concentration camps in Poland, and finally in Israel. I’d like to thank Jodi Beckwith for directing the play and to our Jewish education leaders for bringing the event to our children.
And how was this play received by our teens, many who never experienced anti-Semitism first hand? To give you an idea – there were about 250 kids in the room to watch the 90 minute performance. Suzie Lyons, the director of Education at Temple Brith Kodesh, noted that only 11 kids got up the whole time to use the bathroom
Have you ever been on the receiving end of hearing a racial or religious joke? Usually, the joker defends his joke by saying – it’s okay, some of my best friends are: Black or Jewish, Chinese, you fill in the ethnic group.
On a positive note, I want to bring to your attention the overwhelming response of coming together in the Jewish and wider community. The morning after the swastika was burned, the Home Acres neighborhood had a vigil attended by Brighton Town Supervisor Sandra Frankel who called it a despicable act. In last week’s editorial page, the hate crime received a “thumbs down” by the D&C. There were several letters to the editor – one jointly written by leaders in the Christian and Muslim communities – condemning the act.
Our Jewish youth, many who know this boy, a student at Brighton High School, are struggling. They are searching for a rationalization why he may have done this, they think – there must be a reason, There’s got to be a reasonable answer.
Seventeen is an extremely vulnerable age where friendships run thick and rule supreme. And the apparent betrayal of a friend at age 17 is painful to accept. I’m sorry, but I don’t think that this young man was considering the feelings the Jewish kids he knew when he allegedly planned to burn a swastika. Or maybe he just thought it would be okay to do this as a joke, because after all, some of his best friends were Jewish!
Both boys have pled not guilty which means that they will have another hearing in town court on May 25. This leaves us with many questions. Was this an isolated event or should we fear a wave of similar copy cat crimes? Did these boys really understand the gravity of the timing of their act or do they truly comprehend what horrors were committed under the symbol of the swastika? And if they didn’t, where are we going wrong, in our school system, in our discussions at home, that we are not telling our youth enough about that very dark chapter in human history.
To leave you on a positive note about this, I want to tell you about the group of seventh graders I had the pleasure of teaching this year at Temple Brith Kodesh. They were absolutely dreamy, I mean it! While they are not exactly enthralled about learning about the minutia of the Hebrew language, the topic of carrying on Jewish identity, especially as they face post Bne’ Mitzvah life, keeps them engaged. On the Macro level, they have a very strong sense of who they are as Jews. After the swastika incident, the debate arose in my class whether middle school trips to Washington D.C. should include a mandatory visit to the US Holocaust memorial. Some students, in light of what just happened, thought it should be a priority to visit the museum for all students – Jewish and non-Jewish. Others thought that the serious theme of this museum would overshadow what may be the first time a young student visits our nation’s capital. But it was good to see my seventh graders debating and discussing, trying to work it out. And again, not one of my students asked to leave the class to go to the bathroom, can you imagine?
So, my advice to you tonight? I guess it is to maintain a focus in your life on Jewish education, from the earliest years of our children and well into our own adulthood. While raising a family, keep a hand in your own profession, however small, and as much as your family and your own sanity can handle. Mothering is the best job of all. But don’t disappear, don’t let your own individuality get folded and lost into the lives of your husband and children, just as egg whites get folded into the batter of a Passover Sponge Cake, which a recipe can be found within the pages of the Rochester Hadassah Cookbook. Thank you for listening.