Tag Archives: #Jewish

Is This Any Way to Stop Hate?

In 2021, ADL reported 2717 antisemitic incidents throughout the United States, a 34% increase over 2020. The recent mass shooting in Highland Park, Buffalo, Colorado Springs, and Virginia, are deplorable testimonies to the level of hate in this country. More recently, the New York Times YT has reported on the “unsettling stream of anti-semitism. [“Between Kanye and the Midterms, the Unsettling Stream of Antisemitism,” 11/4/2022] More recently, the NYT has reported on the “unsettling stream of anti-semitism].Then why does the online behemoth Amazon continue to sell material that profits from that hate? And more personally, why am I trying to be a David to Amazon’s Goliath?

Much has been written recently about the Kyrie Irving’s eight-game suspension after the Brooklyn Nets’ basketball star tweeted a link to a documentary containing antisemitic messages. Hebrews to Negros: Wake Up, Black America, is based on book of the same name by Ronald Dalton, Jr, which espouses virulent misinformation including Holocaust denial and claims of an international Jewish conspiracy. 

Although too few members of the Nets team spoke out against Irving’s actions citing reasons as insubstantial as “I just want to play basketball,” other notable athletes spoke up.”Charles Barkley said that The National Basketball Association’s (NBA) commissioner, Adam Silver, himself Jewish, “dropped the ball” when the NBA didn’t immediately suspend him. Shaquille O’Neal said “we gotta answer for what this idiot has done.”

The most eloquent quotes came from Kareem Abdul Jabbar. In June 2020, the retired basketball player admonished celebrities who failed speak out against the antisemitic comments by Ice Cube, DeSean Jackson, and Stephen Jackson. “If we are going to be outraged by injustice, let’s be outraged by injustice against anyone.” He reiterated his concerns after what he perceived as a tepid response to the recent anti-Semitic comments by Kayne West and Kyrie Irving. “A number of Blacks expected support from Jews during the Black Lives Matter movement, and they got that help,” he stated. “But when the reverse was necessary, we ended up with silence…for weeks.” He went on to say, “If we don’t protect everyone, we don’t protect anyone. “

What many people, including myself until recently, may not be aware of is that Amazon offers both the book and DVD version movie on its website. The controversy has only caused a massive spike in sales. On November 4, Hebrews was the number one book in Amazon’s Religion and Spirituality and Social Sciences categories. As of Monday, November 28, the book was ranked #1 in the Christian education category in Kindle. What is even more disturbing to me is that Audible, a division of Amazon, is now offering the audio book as one of its free options with a trial membership. 

Requests by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and other groups to stop its sale were first met with deafening silence. In a letter addressed to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL’s CEO, stated, “By platforming this film, and other clearly hateful content, you are knowingly and willingly propagating antisemitism.” 

Other influential groups have also taken on the fight. On November 10, over 200 leaders of the entertainment industry, including Mila Kunis, Debra Messing and Mayim Bialik, released a letter through the non-profit entertainment industry organization Creative Community for Peace urging Amazon and Barnes and Noble to stop its sale. “At a time in America where there are more per capita hate crimes against Jews than any other minority, overwhelmingly more religious-based hate crimes against the Jewish people than any other religion, and more hate crimes against the Jewish people in New York than any other minority, where a majority of American Jews live,” the letter reads, “it is unacceptable to allow this type of hate to foment on your platforms,” Soon after, Barnes and Noble, as well as Apple, removed the material. Amazon, however, had not. 

As I read all this disheartening news on the days leading up to Ere of Yontiff, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the Jewish activist in me kicked in. In the midst of my husband Larry and I prepping a 22-pound turkey, assembling stuffing, and peeling five pounds of potatoes for our eleven guests, I got onto Amazon’s customer service chatline, expressed my concerns, and then was told that my remarks were being forwarded to the business department. I then hammered out a letter to the editor regarding the issue and emailed it my local paper, Orlando Sentinel, who published it on Saturday, December 3, issue with the headline, “Kyrie Irvings hurtful views still spreading.” A victory!

On Cyber-Monday, I upped the ante when, through the same Amazon chatline, I requested a callback from a real person with whom to speak about my concerns. Judging from the typing in the background, the representative took copious notes. After a couple of brief holds, I was told that the issue was passed to the appropriate channels. My comments regarding what I regarded as “offensive” material would be reviewed and someone would be in touch at an indeterminant date. Later that day, I got a follow-up email from the Amazon representative. “I am delighted for the warm and nice approach you gave me on the call,” she wrote. “It was indeed a pleasure helping you.” As gratified as I was by her lovely note, I rightfully held off pressing “Yes” to the “Did I solve your problem?” button. 

I also Googled to find other outlets selling the book or DVD. Only one other retailer, BooksaMillion, has continued the sale. An Etsy seller removed its sale immediately after I wrote him stating that its sale was violating its anti-discrimination policies. Another victory!

Alas, in the end, requests by the Anti-Defamation League and other groups to stop its sale have been rejected. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, himself Jewish, stated on 12/1/2022 that the online retail behemoth has “to allow access to those viewpoints, even if they are ….objectionable and they differ from our particular viewpoints.”

If the ADL and the Creative Community for Peace have not been able to persuade Amazon leadership, why am I entering the fray? I feel as if I am David battling Goliath, ending unknown. But stone by stone, I will keep using my slingshot. Or maybe, during this Hanukkah holiday, I should feel more like the Maccabees, who overcame incredible odds to vanquish a much larger enemy. 

I got encouragement from a fellow SOLWriter and a dear friend, Ginny Campbell, who wrote in response a draft to my Orlando Sentinel submission, stating that my letter and work as a writer was “shining a light in a dark world. ” What a beautiful metaphor for me to contemplate as we celebrate the Festival of Lights! Ginny’s words will add an extra glow to my Hanukkiah candles. 

In the midst of your holiday shopping please do your part to shine a light in a dark world. Please urge Amazon and other retailers to remove these titles and others that profit off attacks on targeted populations. Rather than give more stuff to people who already are overwhelmed with stuff, consider contributions to the ADL, which is fighting anti-Semitism every day. We all need to lessen the fire of hatred, not add to its flames. 

Still seeking the perfect gift: Holiday shopping!

As we gear up for Chanukah and Christmas, I am sharing on my blog a story I wrote for The Jewish World seven years ago.

I have never looked forward to holiday shopping.

It has little to do with spending the money. I don’t even resent the time in the malls with all the Christmas decorations and music and the token Chanukah menorah stuck sadly in a corner. My main problem is that I never feel up to the task of finding the “perfect” gift.

I have a few memories of shopping for the holidays when I was growing up.I had my stand-bys: “Night in Paris” for my mother, a carton of cigarettes and a bar of chocolates for my father. The first year my sister Laura came home from college, she gave me a beautiful cable sweater that I thought was the height of sophistication because it came from my “big sister.” Through my college years, finding funny and appropriate gifts for my suite mates made the days before we left for winter vacation enjoyable. 

It became more challenging once I married into Larry’s family. Chanukah was a much bigger deal than it had been in my family. My sibling and I had not exchanged Chanukah gifts for years, and here I was looking for presents for ten adults and the seven grandchildren. Even if we weren’t all together on the first night of Chanukah, Larry’s sisters seemed to know what to get everyone and have it delivered by mail if necessary. I just always wondered what to get everyone and second guessed all my choices. 

When gift giving became even more difficult was when, in 2000, I moved from the classroom into an administrative post. When I was teaching, we did a “Secret Santa,” which meant I was only finding little gifts for one person. Once I took on my coordinator position, the number of people to whom I gave gifts grew exponentially.  It would have been simpler if I had been a wonderful baker or a clever seamstress or a skilled woodcrafter. Unfortunately,  I had neither the talent nor the desire to pull together a “one gift fits all” idea and implement it by the time the holiday season arrived. Gifts reflecting my own holiday —sugar cookies in the shapes of menorahs and Star of Davids;  potato pancakes ready to reheat; a Chanukah bag with a dreidel, Chanukah gelt, and instructions on how to play—seemed inappropriate. 

So, I would land up wandering around malls or craft shows the weeks before the holiday searching desperately for gifts. I truly cared about the recipients and wanted to show that caring in appropriate gifts. I just was at a lost to find a “token” present that satisfied me.

Four years before I retired, I decided keep track of the financial impact on spending for just my workplace. I was shocked to realize that I had spent $500 on tchotchkes.* This had to stop.

So the following November, before Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday shopping season, I approached my fellow co-workers and asked if we could forego the gifts and instead make a contribution to a charity. They quickly signed on, and for the next few years, we pooled our gift money and sent a generous check to the Regional Food Bank. Everyone at my agency got a card with a note that said, in the spirit of the season, a gift had been made to the Regional Food Bank. What a relief!

The first December after I retired, the holiday season was mellower. Larry’s family got together for a Chanukah dinner, with all of us agreeing before hand that Chanukah presents would go to the two great-grandchildren but not to each other. We have continued that tradition.

My perspective on gift-giving also changed when Larry and I purchased a fully furnished home in Florida and needed to divest ourselves of thirty-six years of house. Larry took it in stride, but I struggled with the process until I realized much of the stuff we decided to leave behind was someone else’s treasure. The couple that cleaned our house fell in love with a chalk drawing of a draw bridge in Shushan, New York,  that she and her husband drove past every day when they lived in Columbia County. Several of my crewel pieces found their way to relatives’ homes, and a photograph of waves crashing on a New England coastline went to a dear friend whose family has had a summer home near Brunswick, Maine, since 1925. Our Early American deacon’s bench is now situated in our next door neighbor’s sunroom. Moments before we backed out of our driveway on Devon Court for the last time, Blossom took a picture of the two of us on the bench, smiling through our tears.  How I wish I had gifts from the heart to offer to friends and family all the time no matter what the season!

This year will be our first Chanukah with a grandchild. My first inclination is to shop for eight gifts  to be opened each night, but I know at even her very young age, Sylvie Rose doesn’t need more toys or more clothes. I have already promised her that, when she is a LITTLE older,  I will take her to  Disney World and buy her a princess dress. I have children’s books written and signed by a member of my writing group. My journal includes stories of her life, and I hope to share all these stories, some as part of a book,  with her as she grows. Those will be, like those special pictures and that deacon’s bench, gifts from the heart. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the November 12, 2015 issue.

The Lost Mural

My father, Bill Cohen, (Z”L) loved to play Jewish geography, and he proudly shared with us how the  first synagogue in Burlington was founded in his grandfather’s kitchen.  As we lived on the New York side of Lake Champlain, we visited many aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived in the Queen City and the surrounding areas. One was Uncle Paul Pearl (nee Pesach Ossovitz), who learned the peddling trade from his uncle Archic Perelman and went on to oversee 27 Pearl’s department stores in Upstate New York and Vermont. And then there were Uncle Moe Pearl, who owned several businesses in the area, and his wife Bess; Ruth (Pearl) Kropsky and her husband Isidore; and Aunt Ida and her husband Max Ahrens. May their memories be a blessing and live on in Congregation Ohavi Zedek and its beautiful “Lost Mural.”

When the Pels family, my Burlington cousins, attended the High Holy Day services  for the year 5733, Congregation Ohavi Zedek had a welcome new addition: the restored “Lost Mural” in the foyer, completed in June 2022 by the Lost Mural Project. Since the story starts in part with my great grandfather Isaac Perelman, a founding member of this Burlington synagogue, I am happy to share it.

Although Jews had settled in Burlington as early as 1848, the 1880s saw an influx of Eastern European Jews facing persecution by Russians in all phases of their personal, professional and religious lives. One of the early settlers was my great grandfather, Isaac “Itsak” Perelman, who came from Čekiškė, Lithuania.  Others came up from New York City to escape work in the sweat shops; a few migrated from Plattsburgh, New York, as it didn’t have an orthodox shul.  Most became peddlers in northern Vermont, selling their wares from horse or man-drawn carts. 

Initially, a group of ten Jewish men—only two had families with them, met for services in members’ homes, a former coffin shop, or the second floor  of an office building.  By 1885, the Jewish community of Burlington,Vermont, recognized the need to  organize a synagogue. Eighteen men met in Isaac Perelman’s kitchen.Having already procured a layman leader/Kosher butcher, they purchased  a lot for $25, formerly the site of an old stone shed at Hyde and Archibald streets. With $800,  they built a synagogue  building, naming  their new shul Congregation Ohavi Zedek, (“Lovers of Justice.”)

Over the next few years, the Jewish population of Burlington continued to grow.  My own relatives aided in the increased number: Isaac and his wife Sarah alone had six surviving children; his brothers Aaron and Jacob also had large families. By  1906, there were 162 Jewish families. The area in Burlington, dubbed “Little Jerusalem,” was laid out like the shtetls in the residents’ native Lithuania with houses and kosher bakery, kosher dairy, and a kosher butcher. Two more synagogues were built, including Chai Adam (“Life of Man”),  and Ahavath Gerim (“Love of Strangers”). The three synagogues built a Hebrew Free School together in 1910, the Talmud Torah.

In 1910, Chai Adam commissioned a 24-year-old Lithuanian immigrant and professional sign painter named Ben Zion Black to create a mural for $200. The completed project had prayer walls and a painted ceiling. The centerpiece is a 25-foot-wide, 12-foot-high three part panel, created in the vibrant and colorful painted art style present in hundreds of Eastern European wooden synagogue interiors in the 18th and 19th centuries. The mural featured the Ten Commandments in its center, golden Lions of Judah on either side,  with the artist’s rendering of the sun’s rays adding light. Blue and red curtains and pillars filled the side panels, all representing the artist’s interpretation of the Tent of the Tabernacle as described in the Book of Numbers and the Book of Exodus

In 1939, amid a decline in  Jewish population,  Chai Adam synagogue merged with Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. The former Chai Adam building was sold several times after 1952 and later was converted into a carpet store and a warehouse. 

In 1986, the former Chai Adam synagogue was  purchased by a developer with plans to renovate the building into multiple apartments. Recognizing that the future of the mural was in jeopardy, Aaron Goldberg,  the archivist for Ohavi Zedek Synagogue and a descendant of Ohavi Zedek’s  founding immigrants, persuaded the new owner to seal the mural behind a false wall, in 1986. Archivist Jeff Potash, Shelburne Museum’s Curator of Collections Richard Kershner, and architect Marcel Beaudin worked with Goldberg, all hoping it might be reclaimed at some later date.

Before being hidden, archival quality photographs of the Lost Mural were taken and paid for by Ben Zion Black’s daughters. Much of the painting was destroyed during the renovation but the mural over the ark was covered by a wall.  It remained hidden until 2012 when the former Chai Adam building again changed hands. 

In 2010,  Goldberg partnered with his childhood friend and former Trinity College of Vermont history professor Jeff Potash to establish The Lost Mural Project with plans to establish a new home for the Lost Mural and restore the work to its original glory. They reached an agreement with the next owner of the Chai Adam building, the Offenhartz family, that the mural would be uncovered and donated to the Lost Mural Project. This was done with the understanding that the Lost Mural Project would be solely responsible for all costs of stabilizing, moving, cleaning and restoring the Lost Mural. 

In 2012, after more than two decades, the false wall was removed to examine the Lost Mural. According to one of the curators involved in the project, Black’s creation had sustained extensive damage with “the painting hanging off its plaster base like cornflakes.” Over the next three years, the Lost Mural Project raised substantial funds from individuals, businesses and foundations for the mural’s paint to be stabilized.  In May 2015, the mural, encased in steel and weighing approximately 7.500 pounds, was moved to Ohavi Zedek in a marvelous feat of conservators, construction and engineering. 

Following the mural’s move, the Lost Mural incorporated, rebranded and tirelessly sought funding for the mural’s cleaning and full restoration with the help of its board and Madeleine May Kunin,  the former Vermont Governor and US Ambassador to Switzerland. By 2022, they had raised over one million dollars from local, state, national and international donors.

During 2021 two conservators hired by The Lost Mural Project began the painstaking task of cleaning the mural. Using the archival photos taken in 1985, they used a gel solvent and cotton swabs to remove  the darkened varnish, dirt and grime from the painting’s surface. During the 2022 year, a second team of conservators from Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts began the infill, coloring and final restorations. According to Goldberg, the pandemic was in this case a blessing as it gave the team of workers the space and quiet needed to complete the project in the shuttered shul. 

“So many things could have gone wrong with the mural, but it survived through fate and circumstance,” says Goldberg. “It’s not just a surviving remnant. It’s a surviving piece with an astonishing history.” 

Ohavi Zedek’s Senior Rabbi Amy Small, who saw the 2022 restoration step by step, views the Lost Mural  Project as a universal immigrant story. “It’s significant not only to the Jewish community and the descendants of those early settlers of Burlington, but also to other immigrants in the United States, which offered safety for Jewish and other families fleeing from many parts of the world.”

The Friends of the Lost Mural were presented with a 2022 Preservation Award by the Preservation Trust of Vermont. “The Lost Mural…not only exemplifies the rich history of creativity and resilience in Burlington’s Jewish community,” stated Ben Doyle, its president. “ It inspires all of us to remember that the Vermont identity is dynamic and diverse.”

The completed project was unveiled amid much fanfare in June 2022. Governor Kunin was honored for her contributions, and a Vermont Klezmer band provided the music. Dignitaries both in attendance and through Zoom highlighted the importance of the project. Joshua Perelman, Chief Curator & Director Of Exhibitions And Collections, National Museum Of American Jewish History called the mural  “a treasure and also a significant work, both in American Jewish religious life and the world of art in this country.”

Many of the descendants of the original Lithuanian Jews who settled in Burlington over one hundred and fifty years earlier were present, including descendants of Isaac and Aaron Perelman.

“[The mural] tells us a remarkable story of a thriving Jewish immigrant community from Lithuania and the successful efforts of their descendants to preserve their cultural legacy today,” H.E. Audra Plepyte, the ambassador of Lithuania to the United States stated in remarks shared with Ohavi Zedek. “The Lost Mural is not lost anymore.”

The Lost Mural Project, an independent secular nonprofit, is seeking donations to replicate the green corridors on the original painting that did not survive. Its educational mission is to share the story of the Lost Mural and the lost genre of the East European wooden painted synagogues with people and facilities around the world.More information, including details of the Mural’s miraculous journey, can be found at https://www.lostmural.org/donate.

SOURCES

Thanks to Aaron Goldberg , Jay Cohen, Janet Leader, Rob Pels, and Rosie Pels for their contributions to this article. 

Rathke, Lisa. “Long-hidden synagogue mural gets rehabbed.” August 17, 2022. AP Wire story; numerous sources.

Sproston, Betty. Burlington Free Press. February 22, 1995.

https://lostmural.squarespace.com/ekik-lithuania

https://www.news4jax.com/entertainment/2022/08/16/long-hidden-synagogue-mural-gets-rehabbed-relocated/

https://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/burlingtons-lost-mural-is-restored-to-its-original-glory/Content?oid=35853053

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/synagogue-mural-restoration-vermont-apartment-180980614/

My cousins Rosie, Robert, and Molly Pels stand in front of completed Lost Mural

You can go home again!

Thomas Wolfe famously stated, “You can never go home again.”  Larry’s sister and brother-in-law are living proof that one should never say never.

When he returned from military service after the Korean War, Larry’s father Ernie collected Doris and their two children Anita and Larry from Bubbie Rose’s house in Syracuse, and they moved into an older house on Avery Street in Saratoga Springs. By the mid-sixties, the family had expanded with the birth of Marilyn Pearl and Carole. Mom and Dad decided to build a new house less than a mile away, on the corner of Lake and Iroquois Drive.

When construction was finished in July 1964, Anita was already away at college in Rochester, and Larry, who missed the old house and neighborhood, would live in the new house for only eighteen months before he headed to college in Boston. Marilyn Pearl and Carole were young enough to adjust quickly to the move and, in retrospect, to live enough years  at Iroquois Drive to create many happy childhood memories. Dad loved the oversized two car garage that held his tools, a large workbench, and his golf club, and the family room that had a section for a regulation sized pool table. 

It was Mom, however, who was most excited about her “dream” house. She loved the new kitchen with its ample cabinets, and, as she hated the heat, appreciated the central air conditioning. Her mahogany table and buffet, which barely squeezed into the house on Avery Street, worked well in the new dining room. A large china cabinet displayed her crystal and china, and the living room was large enough to hold an oversized couch, several chairs, tables, and a piano. Mom took a great deal of pride in her new home, and it showed. She was  a meticulous housekeeper, and it was rare to see anything out of place or cluttered.  Every tabletop shined, the floors were polished, the carpets were vacuumed, the closets and drawers were organized, the bathrooms gleamed; even the laundry and storage rooms were spotless. Even though she employed outside help, she  was known to clean before and after the cleaners. As a matter of fact, one of our  favorite ‘Doris’  stories is that Mom scrubbed her kitchen sink  so vigorously that she literally wore a hole through the porcelain.

Mom also loved to entertain.  She was a wonderful cook and baker, and she enjoyed having her children, grandchildren, friends, and out-of-town relatives to her house whenever she had the opportunity. She often spent the weeks before major Jewish holidays planning her menu, cooking, baking, and freezing much of the food in preparation. Once the holiday arrived, she would open up the dining room table to its full length, her china and crystal would be set, and at her dinners the table would be laden with her specialities: brisket on Rosh Hoshanah, tongue and chopped eggplant at the Yom Kippur Break-the Fast, and matzoh ball soup and roasted chicken on Passover. And when the dinner was over, Mom insisted on doing the dishes as “No one can do them as well as I can.” As she got older, we worried that all her cooking and cleaning was too much for her, but she told us that she loved doing it, and we knew better than to argue with Doris Shapiro.

After they retired, Mom and Dad spent part of the winter in Florida in a condo. Dad loved the sunshine, the pool, the golf courses, and the activities, but Mom missed her friends and her home in Saratoga. When I visited her in early April 1994, she was already packing up the apartment and looking forward to returning to Iroquois Drive and her beloved Saratoga Springs and to get ready for the Passover seder.

She never made it home. On the way up North, Mom had a heart attack while visiting Carole in Charleston, South Carolina, and passed away during open heart surgery on April 26, 1994.  Dad was devastated by the loss of his beloved Doris. He himself had to have open heart surgery that summer, but when he died on December 20, the doctor said that Dad had succumbed not from cardiac disease  but from a broken heart.  

After Dad’s funeral, their beautiful home sat empty and quiet. It seemed as if the house, as well as the family, was in mourning. We initially discussed cleaning out the house and putting it up for sale, but the grief was still too raw to do put these thoughts into action.

Fortunately, the house never had to go on the market. After many years of living all over the country, Carole’s husband Bill was to retire from the Navy in June 1996. Throughout the years, they had always said how much they missed being close to the family. With Mom and Dad gone, they were even more certain that their hearts and lives belonged in Saratoga. They had the perfect solution:  They would buy the house from the estate and move from Charleston, South Carolina, to Iroquois Drive.

Eighteen months after Dad’s passing, when the Leakakos family pulled into the driveway on a beautiful June afternoon, even the house seemed to be smiling. That first summer,  the four siblings and their spouses amicably divided up the contents, some as designated by Mom through handwritten notes, some as chosen by each for sentimental reasons. Then it fell to Carole and Bill to figure out what to do with the remainder of the contents Mom and Dad had accumulated over their thirty years in the house. Many of the duplicated and unwanted items were given to local charities; with the help of a rented dumpster, the outdated or unusable were tossed. Within a year, Mom and Dad’s vacant house became the warm, welcoming Leakakos home, and the six people and one dog settled comfortably into their new residence.

We all agreed that Mom must have rolled over in her grave when her house, her pride and joy, changed hands. Mom may have been a meticulous housekeeper, but Carole, by her own admission, did not follow in her footsteps. Her style was more “I have two active boys and a dog that sheds” casual. In addition, despite the effort to merge the two households, Carole and Bill had difficulty parting with many of the duplicates, and the house seemed a little crowded for quite a while.  Carole had also collected crafts and treasures while moving around the country, and many of the items she had collected filled any remaining nooks and crannies. Not surprisingly, no one cared that the house was not up to the old standards as long as the house was again filled with the Shapiro family.

And very often, it was. Carole may not have inherited her mother’s insistence for an immaculately clean home; however, she did inherit her mother’s love of entertaining.  She and  Bill have continued the tradition of having Iroquois Drive be the center for family gatherings, birthday and graduation parties, and holiday dinners.  Their Passover seders are epic: they have had up to thirty-five people in attendance, with people seated not only at the massive dining room table but also at as many extra tables as they could as needed. The china and crystal have been replaced with paper plates and disposable silverware, but it is unimportant to all those who gather around their table.  Everyone who is invited brings their own specialties to share, and we all share in the clean-up. Carole and Bill are excellent hosts: welcoming, relaxed, gracious. 

So, Mr. Wolfe, you can go home again.  And to my dear Carole and Bill, we are glad you did.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the March 14, 2014, issue.

Was teaching high school a good idea?

I realized early in my adult life that there is a big difference between the career I envisioned and the job I actually had.

I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember.  I would set my dolls around my stand up chalk board and teach them the alphabet. By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to go to college for a degree in teaching. My love of reading, combined with my interest in creative writing, made English education the right choice. Keeseville Central had a day every spring called Student Teacher’s Day.  Those of us who were interested and considered responsible were allowed to take over the classes of the teachers for the entire day.  In both my junior and senior years, I had the opportunity to take over for two of my English teachers.  I spent hours preparing lessons  on Greek and Roman mythology, The Outsiders by S. J. Hinton, and vocabulary.  I absolutely loved this opportunity to play “teacher for a day,” and it confirmed my career path. 

For my first two years at Albany State, I fulfilled several credits taking required courses, including American and English literature survey courses as well as biology, French, and music.  By my junior year, however, I was taking classes that allowed me to learn and participate in the classroom. My methods course required our putting together a unit plan on a specific topic, and my submission on the theme of War and Youth, not only received an A but also was used as a model for several years in the English education department. In my senior year, I finally had a chance to actually teach through my student teaching assignment in a high school in Schenectady, New York.

I thrived in front of a class, and I flourished putting together the lesson plans, the quizzes, the tests.  I spent hours planning and producing the necessary paperwork, but it was worth every minute to implement it. I was rewarded in the end with a five plus out of five score for my student teaching, with my advisor writing in his evaluation that I was a born teacher who was a natural in front of the classroom.

As the graduation date grew near, I started applying for a teaching position.  It was a tough time to get a job; there were not very many openings, and despite excellent evaluation, I couldn’t even get an interview.  In late June, however, a month after graduation, a break came through.  A high school English teacher had handed in his resignation the last day of school as he had decided to start a master’s program, and the principal wanted to fill the position before he left for his summer vacation.  I interviewed for the job and was hired on the spot.  

There was only one difficulty: the teacher I was replacing taught very unusual classes. Along with a standard tenth grade English class, he also taught numerous electives on such topics of supernatural fiction, science fiction, the police state in literature, and the American cinema. Because students had already chosen their courses that spring, I would be responsible for developing and implementing the curricula for the classes.  Over that summer, I read the novels and started creating plans.

The tenth grade students I greeted that first day took the change in teachers in stride, but the juniors and seniors who had signed up for the electives were disappointed to find that their anticipated teacher was gone and instead had a new, young teacher with high ideals and higher expectations.

This challenge was even made more difficult by what I learned from the students.  My predecessor had held seances during the supernatural classes, and the students in the cinema had spent time making movies. The initial comments from many entering my classroom were “Who are you? And what happened to the fun guy?”

I was at a complete loss in the Police State in Literature course:  The books ordered for the class included Brave New World, 1984, and Night. Meanwhile, many of the students were reading two or three years below grade level, certainly way below the level of the novels attached to the course. Especially problematic for me was teaching about the Holocaust. I was one of two Jewish teachers in the entire district in a school district with no Jewish students.

The result was an absolute disaster.  Despite a supportive principal and and supportive faculty, I was in over my head.  I spent every minute out of class working on lesson plans, projects, quizzes, including most weekends, but the plans that had served me so well in Methods and student teaching fell flat.  In addition to my difficulty with the implementation, I also was challenged by maintaining discipline. I was twenty-two years old, highly idealistic, and totally out of tune with those students who lacked motivation and any interest in what I was trying to do.  Although the majority of the students were good, a small group made it a point to see if they could disrupt my class. They talked, they threw spitballs, they refused to participate. It was a horrible year. After spending years dreaming about being a teacher, I realized that nothing I had done in college had ever prepared me to handle a real class, a real job.

By June, I was exhausted, stressed, and seriously wondering if I could learn enough from my first year to handle a second year in the classroom.  But the worst moment of that first year was yet to come.  About three weeks before graduation, yearbooks came in, and students were passing around their own copies for signatures from classmates and from teachers.  Two seniors, the children of highly respected members of the community,  came up to me with their yearbooks. With big smiles on their faces, asked me to autograph my picture. When they handed them to me, I was shocked and stunned to see that they had both drawn swastikas around my picture. I slammed the books shut, refusing to sign and making some comment about how some day they would look back on their yearbooks with shame. I told the principal, who called them in, but I don’t remember  the outcome of that discussion.

I did return in September.  I was more confident, more organized, more prepared, but I found teaching high school an uphill battle, a completely different experience than what I had dreamed.  I left in January, eighteen months after I started, enrolled in University of Albany’s master program in reading, and subsequently got a job teaching adult education.  It was in that scenario that I found my niche; classes were small and individualized, low-key, and I found it easy to relate to adult students, many of them highly motivated and focused in their wish to improve their reading and writing skills and obtain their General Equivalency Diploma (GED).

It has been almost fifty years since I walked out of my first teaching position.  I still think back to that experience and wonder if I could have done more to find a way to hold on until I gained enough experience and maturity to handle the real high school classroom.  I also wonder what happened to those two students who got so much pleasure that day from seeing my face when I saw those hated Nazi symbols next to my picture. Did they forget about it as soon as they graduated? Did their yearbooks land up on a dusty shelf, never to be looked at again?  Or do they occasionally pull out that book like I have done with my own high school yearbook, reminisce over pictures of their friends and their club shots.  Or do they come across my picture and felt regret, embarrassment, and shame? 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the February 27, 2014, issue.

My Love Affair with an Old Oak Table by Frances Cohen

My mother Frances Cohen (Z”L) wrote this story for her writing group in Coburg Village, Rexford around 2007.. It is included in the book she and I co-wrote,Fradel’s Story, available on Amazon.

For over fifty years, I’ve had a love affair with my old oak dining room table. Everyone prizes something more in his or her home than others do, and for me it is a 100-year-old piece of furniture.

Our family had recently moved to Keeseville from a tiny house in Potsdam, New York that had little furniture. One day, a customer shopping in our store told us that their parents were giving up their home on the farm and were moving in with them. They asked if we knew anyone who would be interested in buying their parents’ old oak table and chairs.

Bill and I told them that we would love to look at the dining room set. We fell in love with it the minute we saw it. The table was over fifty years old, but it was in good shape, had beautiful lion claws at the end of the legs, and would fit perfectly into the dining room of our old Victorian house. It could seat six, but when the four oak extension leaves were added, there was even more to love! We paid ten dollars for the table and five dollars for each of the six chairs. As soon as the table arrived in our home, it became part of the family.

If the table could talk, it would talk all about the wonderful times it shared with the Cohen family. Birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Passover—all were celebrated around the oak table.

The table would also say that it felt elegant when it was dressed up in a beautiful damask tablecloth and matching napkins, and when the food was served on Bavarian china with sparking silverware and the drinks were served in stem glassware.

Even at more casual times, the table was always laden with tons of food. When anyone asks me if I was a good cook, I always said, “I’m not a gourmet cook. I just cook quantity!” With four growing children, a hungry husband, and lots of company, I had no choice. And the oak table always supported my spreads.

The table was not only for dining. The children preferred doing their homework on the table instead of the desks in their rooms. Sundays through Thursday nights during the school year, the table was buried in schoolbooks and papers. The table was also used as a game table. The children played card games like Fish, War, and Old Maid and board games like Monopoly and Scrabble. They put together 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles and set up toy soldiers in formation on its surface. On rainy days, a double sheet draped over the top turned the table into a tent, a stagecoach, or a playhouse. Bill and I played bridge and card games with couples. Several timesa year, Bill served as host for his poker game. The dining room was filled with smoke as the men drank soda and beer and snacked on Brach bridge mix and peanuts.

Our four children still talk about the birthday parties they celebrated with friends around the oak table. The menu was always the same: hot dogs and rolls, Heinz vegetarian beans, and potato chips for the meal, followed by a homemade birthday cake. The birthday child always got to help bake the cake from scratch or as the years went by, from a mix. Then the child helped frost the cake with confectionary sugar frosting and decorate it with the candies that came on a cardboard sheet that spelled out Happy Birthday and held the candles.

The table had its problems. One day there was a huge crash in the dining room. The old chandelier that hung above the table fell into the middle of the table. We were thankful that no one was hurt and that the table escaped with just a couple more scratches. Within a couple of days, the chandelier was replaced, and the table was back in service.

Time passed, and the table became the gathering place for celebrations of high school and college graduations and engagement parties. The children moved away, and we began spending more time in our cottage on Lake Champlain. In 1982, with retirement looming, we decided to sell the house in Keeseville and split our time between the cottage and Florida. We sold most of our furniture, but the oak table moved with us to the cottage. It fit beautifully in the large dining area. In the summer of 1983, we celebrated our retirement with a party of over fifty people. We set out tables and chairs on the lawn, but everyone came into the cottage for the buffet that was set up on our precious oak table.

Time passed, and grandchildren came to spend time at the cottage. The oak table again became the play table, as they loved to paint, color, and play games on the table.

By the year 2000, Bill and I were in our eighties, and we realized it was getting too much for us to maintain the cottage and decided to spend all our time in Florida. We were delighted when our son Jay and daughter-in-law Leslie opted to buy the cottage and keep it in the family. We could not make it up to the cottage for two summers. When we moved into Coburg Village in 2006, however, we finally had the opportunity to go up to the camp. When we visited, we realized that another generation is now enjoying the table. The top is a bit more worn and scratched, but the lion paws still shine and look like new. And so, our family’s romance with the one-hundred-year-old table continues.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.

Oshinsky Story Published in The Forward

I am proud to announce that my three part story about Harry Oshinsky, a World War I Jewish immigrant, was published in The Forward, one of the most influential American Jewish publications.

Over fifty years ago, the Forverts published a series of stories in Yiddish by Chonie “Harry” Oshinsky, describing his childhood in a shtetl in Lomza Gubernia, his two-year trek to Brooklyn and his life in “di goldene medine,” the golden land. 

Many years later, Oshinsky’s son, Lenny Oshins, brought an English translation of the story to me, his friend and  a writer, for a potential article. Using the manuscript as a basis, I retold his story in three chapters, including details I discovered during my own research that help shed light on the history surrounding Harry’s extraordinary life. 

The three articles were originally published in The Jewish World, a bi-weekly subscription based newspaper located in upstate New York. The original article may be found on the web at https://jewishworldnews.org. I appreciate all the support Laurie and Jim Clevenson of The Jewish World has given me and my writing over the years.I also appreciate the help of Rukhl Schaechter, the editor of the Yiddish Forverts, in preparing the story for publication in The Forward.

Here are the links to the article as published in The Forward:

To read Part One: “From Bialystok to Brooklyn: A Jewish immigrant’s trek across three continents,” click here.

To read Part Two: “Two Jewish teenagers escaping Bialystok arrive in Harbin, China,” click here.

To read Part Three: “A Jewish teen from Bialystok lands in a Chinese prison,”  click here.

More about Marilyn:  Since retiring from a career in adult education and relocating with my husband Larry from Upstate NewYork to Solivita, I is now writing down my own family stories as well as the accounts of ordinary people with extraordinary lives. I have been a regular contributor to the bi-weekly publication, The Jewish World (Capital Region, New York), since 2013. My articles have also been published in Heritage Florida Jewish News and several websites including the Union of Reform Judaism, Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, Growing Bolder, the Memorial Scrolls Trust (England), and Jewish Women of Words (Australia). I am the author of two compilations of my stories,There Goes My Heart (2016), Tikkun Olam: Stories of Repairing an Unkind World.(2018), and Fradel’s Story, (2021) a collection of essays co-written with my late mother, Frances Cohen. All three books are available in paperback and e-book format on Amazon. My fourth book, which will be published in late 2022, is entitled Keep Calm and Bake Challah: Surviving the Pandemic, Politics, and Other Life’s Problems. I am also working on a fifth book, Under the Shelter of Butterfly Wings: Stories of Jewish Sacrifice, Survival, and Strength.

More about The Forward: Founded in 1897 as a Yiddish-language daily newspaper, The Forward is considered one of the most influential American Jewish publications. I, along with many of my friends and family with Jewish heritage, remember my own maternal grandparents reading Forverts, the original daily Yiddish paper, when I visited them in Coney Island in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1990, an English-language weekly offshoot began publication; in 2019, it became an online newspaper. A more detailed description of The Forward  may be found on Wikipedia.

We continue and they continue: The Czech Torahs

Each Memorial Scroll is a memory of the past and a messenger for the future” Memorial Scrolls Trust, London, U.K.

They escaped destruction by the Nazis. They survived Communism, They found their ways to new homes around the world. This is a story of three Torahs that had their roots in vanished Czechoslovakian Jewish communities.

Up until World War II, Czechoslovakia had a thriving Jewish population that first reached the area over 1000 years ago. With the rise of Hitler came increased anti-Semitism and eventually The Final Solution. Throughout Europe, synagogues were burned and the vast majority of Jews were murdered. Almost all Jewish artifacts—Torahs, candlesticks, heprayerbooks—were destroyed.

 The one exception was the Bohemia and Moravia, with its population of 115,000 Jews. This area in Czechoslovakia was declared a “German protectorate”. Miraculously, except for the items in Sudetenland, most of the artifacts remained unscathed during the early years of the war.

In 1942, the Nazis ordered all Jewish synagogue possessions in the region to be sent to Prague. The Jewish communities of Prague, believing the Judaica would be safer if stored in one place, worked closely with the Nazis to collect and catalogue over 210,000 items. In the end, it took 40 warehouses to store the treasure. Unfortunately, nearly every Jew who worked on the project were sent to their deaths in the concentration camp. 

The Czech Torahs survived the war but almost did not survive Communism. The Torah and other scrolls, believed to number between 1800 and 2200, lay in a musty, damp warehouse until 1963. At that point, Czech government, in need of foreign currency, sold the scrolls to Ralph Yablon, a philanthropist and founder member of Westminster Synagogue in London. On February 5, 1964,  1564 Torah and other scrolls arrived at the synagogue. They were divided into three categories: those in usable condition, those in need of some repair; and those deemed too far damaged to be restored.

The Memorial Scrolls Trust was then set up to preserve and restore the Czech scrolls. Each one had an identity plaque fixed to  one of the etz chaim, the wooden shafts onto which the Torah is rolled. They were loaned out to Jewish communities and organizations around the world in need of a Torah, with the understanding that the congregation was responsible for the scroll’s upkeep. The Torah, as per stipulations by the MST, were never sold or donated but allocated on loan on the understanding that they would only need to be returned if the synagogue no longer operated. According to Jeffrey Ohrenstein, Chair, MST, 1400 scrolls have been allocated on loan around the world. Approximately 150 scrolls remain in the Memorial Scrolls Trust museum, which also has some 500 binders and wimples.

At least six Czech scrolls are on loan in the Capital District and surrounding areas: Beth Emeth, Congregation Ohav Shalom, Gates of Heaven, Temple Sinai, Congregation Beth Shalom, and Congregation Beth El.

I first had the honor of holding a Holocaust Torah as a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clifton Park, New York. In1981, the synagogue requested from MST a replacement for three that had been stolen. Abbey and Richard Green, CBS congregants, helped fund the costs of shipping the Czech Torah MST#293 (circa1870) from London. A tag, dating back to the dark days of the Shoah, read “The Elders of the Jewish Community in Prague”.

At the time, Beth Shalom was less than ten years old, an irony that was not lost on one of its congregant. Yetta Fox, herself the child of Holocaust survivors, stated that having the Torah at a new congregation was “almost like a second life.”“Having lost one community,” said Yetta, “there is now a new community that can nurture this Torah.”

Early in 2007, the congregation arranged to have needed repairs done on the parchment of the 137-year-old Torah. That June, the congregation held a rededication ceremony, which included a procession from the Clifton Park town hall to the synagogue five minutes up the road. During the march, the scrolls were passed from hand to hand under a chuppah that the children of the Hebrew school had decorated with Stars of David. Upon its arrival, the Torah was wrapped in a wimple, the cloth traditionally used to wrap a boy at his circumcision. “This is our baby,” said Fred Pineau, a former president, “so we’re wrapping it on our Torah.”

David Clayman, the current president, reported that the Torah is still in good condition. To preserve it, however, it is left rolled to Parasah Beshalach, which contains “The Song of the Sea,” gently unrolling it only once a year as prescribed by the MST. Every year, in the month of Shevat, the torah is brought out and Beshalach is chanted. “The scroll is so fragile, we are afraid to roll it to other parashot,”said David. The congregation brings out the Holocaust scroll twice more each year to be ceremonially held: On Kol Nidre, the solemn service commemorated during the opening hours of Yom Kippur; and on Simchas Torah, a holiday that celebrates the completion of the reading of Deuteronomy, and the beginning of Genesis.

When we moved to Florida, we joined Congregation Shalom Aleichem, which was founded in 1981, ironically the same year Congregation Beth Shalom had received its Czech Torah. Initially, congregants met at the Kissimmee Women’s Club. When Harry Lowenstein, a Holocaust survivor whose parents and sister number among the six million Jews killed during World War II, joined with his wife Carol, he began to press for a building of their own. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Harry, “and I was determined to build another one.” Starting with a $120,000 contributions from Sandor Salmagne, another Holocaust survivor, the Lowensteins through their own and other contributions raised another $60,000 for building expenses.

As the synagogue on Pleasant Hill Road neared completion, the Lowensteins worked to obtain the prayer books for both every day and holy days, the Torah finials, and the Yartzheit (memorial) board. Most important to the congregation, however, was to obtain a Torah.

Lowenstein and other members reached out to the Memorial Scrolls Trust, noting in the correspondence that four of its members were Holocaust survivors. “Our Temple will be dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust,” wrote then president Henry Langer. “We would therefore deem it an honor to have you lend us a Scroll for our Temple.” With the Lowenstein’s financial support, they were able to obtain Scroll MST#408, from Pisek-Strakonice in what was then Czechoslovakia, about 60 miles south of Prague and dated back to circa 1775.

Once they received word that they would indeed be loaned a Czech TorahThe Lowensteins asked British friends who had a vacation home near the synagogue to be responsible for getting it from Heathrow to Orlando International airport. “[Our friend] sat on the plane with the Torah on his lap for 12 hours,” recalled Carol Lowenstein. “He would not let it out of his sight until he could hand the Torah to Harry.”

For those who had miraculously escaped hell, welcoming the Torah was like welcoming another Holocaust survivor. “It’s like holding a piece of history” said Phil Fuerst in a 1993 Orlando Sentinel article. “You feel like you own a piece of a world that survived.”

According to Marilyn Glaser, the congregation president, The congregation is making arrangement for the atzei chayim, which are broken, to be replaced in accordance of the terms of the loan agreement with MST.

In 1982, Sharon and Barry Kaufman, now residents of Kissimmee, obtained a Czech Torah in honor of their daughter Robin’s Bat Mitzvah for their Texas synagogue their congregation in Spring, Texas in honor of their daughter Robin’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah. While awaiting completion of their new building, Jewish Community North, a congregation in Spring Texas, was holding services at Christ the Good Shepherd Catholic Church. Their only torah was on temporary loan from another Houston-area synagogue. The Kaufmans worked with Rabbi Lawrence Jacofsky, the regional director of the United Association of Hebrew Congregations, to obtain Torah Scroll MST#20, written circa 1850.

When their precious cargo arrived at the Houston airport in February 1982, Barry and Sharon immediately brought the Torah to the church to show Father Ed Abell, Good Shepherd’s priest and their good friend. The three of them carefully unrolled the scroll where it had last been read: Yom Kippur 1938. The tenth of Tishri 5699 ( October 4 and 5, 1938.) Shortly after that service, the Jews that had worshipped in the Kostelec/Orlici synagogue were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, most—maybe all— never to return. 

To commemorate the moment and to the shock and awe of the Kaufmans, Father Abell, using the yad (pointer) from the loaner Torah, read from the scroll in flawless Hebrew. That evening, Sharon and Barry brought the Torah home to show Robin. As they slowly unrolled the entire scroll on their pool table to make sure is was undamaged, they found a cardboard tag that had been attached when the scroll was catalogued by Jewish librarians and curators when the scroll arrived at the Central Jewish Museum Prague during the Shoah. Aeltesternrat der Juden Prague, it read in German. Elders of the Jews of Prague. 

At Robin’s bat mitzvah in May 1982, the Torah was dressed in a cover sewn and embroidered by Barry’s mother. In a moving speech to the congregation held at Good Shepherd, Barry spoke eloquently about the Torah’s history.

If this Torah could talk—might it share with us the heart-wrenching knowledge of a prosperous people whose world had suddenly been taken from them, whose home and synagogues were gutted and destroyed for the value of their belongings? Would it tell us of the helpless terror in the fragile hearts of old men and women forced to watch their children brutally slaughtered before their own end was to come?”

After Barry spoke, the Ark was opened, and the Czech Torah was passed from the rabbi to Barry to Sharon to Robin. Clutching it tightly, Robin walked through the congregation. For the first time in two generations, a B’nai Mitzvot carried it with joy and reverence throughout a tearful congregation.

Three Czech Torahs. Three congregations. Thankfully, in the end, the Nazi’s plan to eradicate the Jewish people. As Gloria Kupferman stated in her speech at the rededication of the Congregation Beth Shalom Torah in 2007, “We are by no means extinct. We are alive. We are thriving.”

Special thanks to Jeffrey Ohrenstein, Chair, Memorial Scrolls Trust, London, U.K. Thanks to David Clayman, Yetta Fox, Marilyn Glaser, Frank Gutworth, Harry Lowenstein, Flo Miller, and Sharon and Barry Kaufman for their input.

Published in Jewish World (Capital Region NY), June 9, 2022 and Heritage Jewish News (Orlando, Fl) June 10, 2022

Sources:

https://www.albany.edu/news/releases/2005/nov2005/holocaust_scroll.shtml

www.cjcn.org

http://www.congregationbethshalomcp.webs.com

www.czechtorah.org/thestory.php.

www.memorialscrollstrust.org.

http://www.shalomaleichem.com

I am exactly where I need to be!

Happy Summer!  Have you kept your New Year’s resolution?

Odds are, you haven’t. Each year, Strava, the social network for athletes, predicts the exact day when most people are likely to ditch their annual commitment to themselves. Whether it be the goal to lose weight, exercise more, or stop smoking, the majority throw in the towel (or throw out the scale) on the second Friday in January. A full 80% will have given up on it by mid-February.

If you have made it to the last days of spring, Mazel tov!

Up until this year, my list of resolutions were endless, so reflective of the person I am. On top of my list (for at least six decades) was to lose weight. Along with that annual goal, I have promised myself in the past to exercise more; read more books, watch more movies, play more piano, see more of family and friends, and write more articles, for starters.

But as I head into a third year where pandemic still hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles, I have made peace with myself, My one and only resolution is based on an affirmation I stumbled across this past winter. Drum roll please!

“I am exactly where I need to be.”

These eight words summarize an entire philosophy based on the idea that I can be happy where I am at this very moment. It has grounded me when I find my mind racing with what I need to do next: the challah that needs to be baked, the article I have to get to Laurie Clevenson by the Monday morning deadline; the book I have to finish before it disappears off my Kindle. 

Full disclosure: Knowing myself, I will still working on those same items I have listed in the past. (I am already looking forward to writing several biographies of Holocaust survivors.) But I understand that I can reach those milestones without the help and pressure of resolutions. I can be happy in the “now,” not the future. I have given myself permission to focus on the journey, not some numerical destination.

Since I made this resolution on November 17, I already have over two months of practice behind me. I made a copy of it which I keep on my kitchen window sill When I find myself “falling off the wagon,” I quietly recite it to myself and get grounded again. It has the making of a habit! And speaking of habits…

I cannot remember where I originally saw this quote. Facebook? A friend’s blog? A recent book? It took me a few weeks—and the help from my Catholic friend—to find out my first person quote actually came from a prayer from St. Teresa of Avila, a revered leader of the Discalced Carmelite Sisters in 16th century Spain. The opening lines of her original prayer read, “May today there be peace within you. Trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.”

It took a little more digging to find a Jewish connection (Yes! There IS a Jewish connection!) St. Teresa’s paternal grandfather, a wealthy tax collector, was a Jew who was forced to covert to Christianity. He was condemned by the Spanish Inquisition for allegedly returning to the Jewish faith and was punished by being forced to parade around Toledo for one day a week with other insincere converts. He was later able to assume a Catholic identity. 

St. Teresa, aware of her ancestry, did not acknowledge it publicly because of prejudice in Spain at the time against Jews and Jewish converts. It appeared, however, that her heritage impacted her career in the church. She was recognized for bring a mystical Jewish strain reminiscent of Kabbalah and for giving comfort to many converts from Judaism who struggled to maintain a connection to Jewish belief and practice. As a leader and “doctor,” she directed her convents not to comply with the “statutes of purity of blood” which excluded Jewish converts to Catholicism from most religious orders, from the military, higher education, civil and church offices. 

In the 2012 off-Broadway play, Teresa’s Ecstasy, starring the Columbian playwright Begonya Plaza as well as Linda Larkin and Shawn Elliott, the nun’s Jewish heritage was seen as a driving force in her life and work. Plaza’s character, who in the midst of a divorce, and Larkin’s character, her Jewish lesbian lover, realize how much Teresa has become their role model in her commitment to faith, compassion, and human dignity.Yes, St. Teresa is a nun with a Yiddishkeit neshome, a Jewish soul. 

So now an adaption of a prayer written by a Catholic saint is now part of this Jew’s daily routine. It is the one of last thing I tell myself each night. I follow that with Jewish prayers, positive affirmations, and reflections on things for which I a grateful. I fall back to sleep quickly, and I sleep in peace, knowing I am exactly where I need to be.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.

SOURCES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teresa_of_Ávila

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/quitter-day-coming-not-another-205100681.html?fr=yhssrp_catchall

https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/a-nun-with-a-jewish-touch/

https://news.yahoo.com/news/saint-still-changing-lives-teresas-ecstasy-002524863.html?fr=yhssrp_catchall

https://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/a-study-of-800-million-activities-predicts-most-new-years-resolutions-will-be-abandoned-on-january-19-how-you-cancreate-new-habits-that-actually-stick.html

Keep calm and carry on? A return to tradition

Flashback to March 14, 2020. COVID-19 was the top news story. My daughter Julie and her family were leaving for the Orlando airport after a week’s stay. We had spent a few days on the beach and been delighted  by news of the birth of our grandson in a San Francisco hospital. We had cancelled our planned visit to Magic Kingdom the day before Disney announced it was closing the park that weekend. Instead, we spent hours in a community pool making sure we weren’t too close to anyone else. 

Julie’s last words as she got into her rental car were, “Mom and Dad, promise us you will stay safe!” She begged us to skip our plans to see Death Trap, which was being performed by our local theater group that evening. She must have called her brother, because Adam FaceTimed us an hour before we were to leave for the play. “If you stay home, I will keep the camera on your new grandson for the next hour.” Seeing our grandson won. We had no idea we would be feeling its effects—masks; sheltering in place; cancelled trips; cancelled events; hours of Netflix’s and puzzles; new variants; tragically, loss of friends to the virus—for the next two years.

Within the first month of the pandemic, I decided that celebrating with a Sabbath dinner every Friday would bring some joy. I polished my grandparents’ candlesticks; bought a new Kiddish cup on ebay (I must have lost mine in our move); brought out my embroidered challah cover, and located a friend’s challah recipe I had always meant to try. With some difficulty—the whole world decided along with me to make bread—I purchased flour, yeast, and sugar to make the traditional Shabbat bread. And I mixed and kneaded and braided my first challahs. Delicious! 

The following Friday, I was a little more confident. I made four small ones, and shared one with president of our (closed down) shul and one with a friend whose wife had just been placed in memory care.By April, I had totally embraced not only the baking process but also the spiritual elements. I learned that it was appropriate to say prayers during the kneading process, a way of feeding the body and the soul. I initially prayed for my family as well as our country and for all impacted by the pandemic. But my prayers soon extended to the sick, the grieving, the lonely. I kept a Mi Shebeirach list on my phone as reminders and often played Debbie Friedman’s version of the beautiful prayer as I kneaded the pliant, soft dough.

We developed a rhythm: Every Friday afternoon I baked the challahs, and just before sunset, Larry would head off in our car, delivering two or three still warm fragrant loaves to needy people in our community. When I couldn’t physically share them, I attached pictures of the challah onto an email with a note. “I kneaded prayers of healing into this loaf of bread. Thinking of you. Love, Marilyn.”

By the time Larry and I were finally able to travel to see our children and grandchildren in June 2021, I was a seasoned challah maker—to a point. Baking bread in someone else’s kitchen proved to be a challenge. In San Francisco, I realized the sound of the mixmaster cranking out the initial steps of challah process woke my grandson from his nap. In Colorado, the 9100 foot elevation resulted in loaves that looked more like amoebas. I had to learn to work around nap time and altitude. 

Meanwhile, I was tweaking my technique. I replaced the butter in my friend’s recipe with canola oil, which meant less noise and more kneading time, my favorite party of the process. Rocky Mountain challahs, I learned, needed to go into the oven immediately after braiding to prevent over-rising. A straight egg yolk wash resulted in browner, shinier loaves, which Larry wholeheartedly approved “This is the way challah is supposed to look,” he said, biting into the harder crust.

Over the past two years, I have baked and shared dozens of challahs, many that were appearing on our shul’s Zoom services. As our world finally has begun opening up, however, finding the time to make the challahs on Friday has been more difficult. I “cheat”by making seven or eight loaves and freezing 2-4 braided unbaked challahs, to be defrosted and baked when needed. (I still feel Jewish guilt when I use that shortcut!)

Friends have asked me if they could buy my challahs or even sell them at our Farmer’s Market. I decline, telling them emphatically I am not starting a new career. Instead, I offer them my challah “recipe,” a nearly 3000 word tome with numerous tips. Recently, I even invited two friends over for a “challah workshop.” After we all enjoyed slices oof the warm loaves smothered with butter, they went home with a batch of the still-rising dough they had prepared. They sent me pictures of their finished creations, beautiful in their own right. I am just following an old Yiddish expression: “Give people a challah, and they eat for a day. Give them a recipe, and they become challah bakers!”

Initially, I was hopeful that this would be the last article I would be writing about the pandemic. Two vaccines and two boosters later, Larry and I have pretty much resumed our lives. But there are now disturbing numbers that show another upward trend. Will we have to resume mask wearing? Sheltering in place? Only time will tell. 

When I wrote this mid-April, I was on a challah hiatus. Instead, Larry was enjoying sponge cake, Passover popovers, and matzo brie. But Passover ended next Friday. I soon will be pulling out the ingredients for the challah and donning my special apron. Stay safe, my friends.Better yet, Keep Calm and Bake Challah.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.