3

What Fresh Hell Can This Be: Stars

I haven’t been this inspired to write a blog post in a while, but here I am, and surprise, a rant. Well, more like a curiosity. Or a facepalm. You be the judge.

Last night, I was searching for some activities to use with my class today to teach the lesson of the day, humility. So, I do some Googling. Usually when I search for Thursday activities with ethical themes (truth, integrity, patience) I get homeschooling websites and blogs, almost always Christian. Sometimes, the activities are adaptable for a Jewish school, but if they include something from the New Testament, I click away. I came across this interesting website.

At first glance, it didn’t seem so bad. Then I scrolled down to read some of the details of the activity, and here’s an…interesting one.

Wear Humility: Cut a large star out of yellow or gold posterboard and tie yarn on it so it can be placed around a child’s neck. Explain that wearing the yellow star represents being prideful and place it around the child’s neck. Then, take off the yellow star and give the child a small star sticker to wear and explain that the smaller star represents being humble.

Image result for fran drescher

Ummmmmmmmmmm…yeah. About that.

Obviously, Stacy Zeiger, the author of this article, has either never taken a history course or has not spent enough time around Jews. For those of you who are unaware as to why this is a problem (and Ms. Zeiger, if you’re reading this), allow me to explain.

So, one time, there was this thing called World War II. During this time, the Holocaust occurred, and six million European Jews were killed. But before they were sent off to concentration camps, while they were still allowed to live in cities and towns, they were forced to wear identification in the form of a yellow star, usually saying Jude or Juif inside it, depending on the country and its language. They looked like this:

So, fast forward to now, where Stacy Zeiger is living in New Jersey and putting large yellow stars on children, as a negative symbol. If there ever was a time to clap back, it’s now.

Image result for oh no you didn't jewish

This ::clap:: does ::clap:: not ::clap:: fly ::clap::

Especially not in a Jewish school. I can only imagine this lesson being done in the classroom, and then Grandma coming to pick up little Sarah for a dentist appointment, only to see a room full of children wearing yellow stars symbolizing “excessive pride.” I think you’d need a paramedic before a dentist for that reaction.

I’m not saying that gold stars are bad. I have star stickers, some are yellow, and I use them sometimes. On papers, though. Not on humans. A yellow star on an essay says one thing; a yellow star on a person says quite another. I mean, seriously? Really? You thought this was a good idea to publish? On a website? For anyone to read?

I decided to look up a little more on this Stacy character, and I have to say, everything I’ve found is just. so. awful. Not in an evil way, but…she just sounds terrible. She lives in Bridgeton, New Jersey, even though she is originally from Ohio with degrees from Miami University and Ohio State. She’s a Christian, which goes without saying. According to her Twitter, she’s “Mother of the Year.” Her Amazon.com page is full of self-published books with crappily-designed covers.

Humility is an important lesson, but yeah, this is probably one of the dumbest ways anyone’s thought to go about it.

A gold star for you, Stacy.

Image result for fran drescher shade

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That’s SoMG: The Curmudgeon of Liechtenstein

Take two!

That’s So Jacob presents:

That’s SoMG: Scandals, Secrets, and Shockers That Will Make You Slap Your Hand Over Your Mouth

Episode 2: The Curmudgeon of Liechtenstein

Germany, 1930s.

This is the story of my great uncle, whom I’ll call Uncle Herschel. Born and raised in Germany, Herschel trained as a telegraph operator before meeting his wife, a lovely lady otherwise known as Aunt Greta. Before the war, they had two children, Bert, who passed away of meningitis at the age of 13, and Rosalind, whom they called Lindy. (All these names are fake, by the way).

Anyway, when the war came to Europe, they sent Lindy away to live with some uncles in Dijon, France, while they weathered the Nazi storm in one of the most unusual places.

locator map of LiechtensteinZámek Vaduz na pohlednici

Vaduz, Liechtenstein.

Liechtenstein is a principality with only eleven towns. The entire country could fit inside the District of Columbia. It is so small that the Germans were not even interested in getting involved, which was lucky for Uncle Herschel and Aunt Greta.

Fortunately, as it happened, Uncle Herschel and Aunt Greta managed to secure visas for themselves to leave Liechtenstein and immigrate to America. They first tried to get Lindy to Liechtenstein, but apparently she was recognized on the train and had to return to Dijon. They then attempted to have a hearing for her to get an American visa, which did not happen. It is unclear why Lindy was sent to live in Dijon in the first place, but rumor has it she was messing around with a German soldier. Though Herschel and Greta immigrated to Baltimore, Maryland USA, they did not find out until the war was over that Lindy was among the Jews rounded up at the velodrome at Drancy and shipped to their deaths in Auschwitz. She was in her mid-20s.

Meanwhile, in America, Herschel got into business, and Greta was just…a stay-at-home wife. In no photo was Herschel ever smiling, and he treated Greta horribly. He refused to learn English, saying “let the Americans learn German and French.” Yes, he was that guy. They had no more children, mostly due to what happened one day in the 1960s, when my dad was still a kid.

Aunt Greta was found dead.

One day, she was found outside their home, and no one ever found out how she died. Though it is possible that she fell out of an open third-story window or was pushed, she most likely committed suicide by jumping. Nobody was close with her, not even my grandmother, who got along with pretty much everybody. My dad remembers very little of her, other than the fact that she was quiet and enjoyed knitting.

Uncle Herschel lived until the mid 1970s, and died at a ripe old age.

But mostly, he is remembered for always being grouchy.

The story was much better when my father told it, and we had photographs, postcards, letters from Lindy to her parents in Liechtenstein, including one where she describes wanting to go swimming in the river, but she knows that everyone will watch her and go “who’s that’s crazy person swimming in the river?” (Lindy’s words, not mine). The most unique object in this particular collection was Aunt Greta’s passport. Unlike everything else – the letters, the visas, the photos – for some reason, Aunt Greta’s passport was preserved remarkably well. We passed it around the seder table and marveled; it was as crisp and clean as the day she got it. It looked like it had just come out of the printer, aside from the outdated Nazi stamps and visas for Germany, Liechtenstein, and the USA.

And that’s my one connection to the nation of Liechtenstein.

In other news, the sign I have on my door saying “No Advertisements Please” worked for the first time today, as I came home to find pizza menus sticking out of every door but mine.

And although no Africans came to visit today, cheers to a five continent day: North America (Canada, USA, and Mexico), South America (Brazil), Europe (UK, Belgium, and Germany), Asia (Israel, India and Taiwan), and Oceania (Australia and Papua New Guinea).

1

אין סוף (Without End)

I normally wouldn’t do something like this, but something recently made me want to reread a book I’ve already read. I originally read it for a project for which I didn’t even end up using it, but it stuck in my mind all the same. I haven’t thought about this book for awhile, but when I remembered it, I knew I had to get a copy and read it again. Astonishingly, the library didn’t have it so I had to order it through ILL, and since it’s due tomorrow, I should probably write something about it now. It’s one of those hidden gems of literature that says little (90 pages, exactly) but says a whole lot. It’s a novella entitled Bubbeh by Sabina Berman.

I continued eating grapes and talking, mocking the congregation and their Amens, while laughing with amusement at my own cleverness, all with the same mouth, a mouth that was very big indeed that day. And my grandmother, absorbed in her own thoughts, continued putting the pieces of the broken plate together.

Suddenly I felt sad. I stopped talking. The water continued running out of the tap into the sink.

Finally my grandmother said: “Close your eyes.” I squeezed my lids shut.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing.”

“And in that nothing, do you see a light?”

I concentrated. Beneath my eyelids in that darkness something like a yellow and white dust shimmered, a light.

“Yes,” I said. “But I always see that.”

“Always?”

I thought. That light didn’t seem extraordinary in any way.

“Yes,” I said, “always.”

“Always,” my grandmother repeated. “Well, that light is God, and it has many names.”

– Sabina Berman, Bubbeh, page 30

Bubbehor La bobe in Spanish, is a first-person account of the author’s relationship with her grandmother, “bubbeh” (which means “grandmother” in Yiddish). This true story takes place in Mexico City in the 1960s, but Berman’s grandmother comes from the “old world” of WWII-era Eastern Europe.

We are introduced to the grandmother as a woman who “lived tidily,” in Berman’s words. So tidy, in fact, that she has committed suicide by drowning herself in the bathtub, thereby eliminating the need for a traditional body-washing. Backtracking, we see the author as a little girl, moving into her grandparents’ house alongside her newly-divorced mother. Berman uses this opportunity to uncover the secrets of this mysterious, ladylike woman, with a faith in God that is foreign to her. The generation gap between mother and daughter is quite clear, with Berman’s mother’s aggressive and abrasive nature clashing with the grandmother’s more reserved and traditional ways. The more time that Berman (and the reader) spends with her grandmother, the more and more we see the beauty of the grandmother’s reticence and her unshakable faith in God despite having survived the horrors of war alongside her husband. The grandmother says very little herself, preferring to be dutiful to her husband yet maintaining a queenly presence as she introduces the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays to the author. After the author describes her grandmother’s funeral, she returns to the opening image of her grandmother’s death, which takes the reader by surprise even though it was revealed at the very beginning.

What really moves me about Bubbeh is Sabina Berman’s style of writing. The text is translated from Spanish to English but the words are so smooth, you’d never know. The way that Berman catches every detail, all the colors of the room, each crease in her grandmother’s wrinkled face, provides a rich context and a place where you can settle in and embrace the simplicity of faith and familial love. The undertone of her grandfather’s taste for secrets and Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed adds a nice through-line that brings the story together, especially for the grandmother; although grandmother does not read and study like her husband does, she has some secrets of her own.

This story reminds me of my own mother’s mother, my grandmother Mimi. She was also a woman who spoke very little, especially in her Alzheimer’s-ridden final decade, in contrast to her own mother, who died shortly before I was born, whose outspoken nature made her the very image of a family matriarch. In contrast, my grandmother ruled with a different sort of nature; it would be incorrect to say “ruled,” as her equanimity (and unfortunately, failing mental state towards the end) kept her a silent queen, always present but not needing to make her presence known.

To most people, a person who prefers to keep things to herself is perceived as anti-social, cold, afflicted by either a deep sorrow or a negative attitude. But my grandmother was none of those things; she let her love for her children, grandchildren, and religion speak for her. In her younger days, she was a red-headed firecracker from New York City who traveled across the country between the wars to seek her fortune as an accountant in California, who always knew what she wanted and went for it. Upon marrying my grandfather and having children, this chapter of her life was completely shuttered; a locked file cabinet, never to be spoken of again. Even though she never lost her gleam, her luster, her zest for life, she concentrated all of her efforts on being a dutiful wife and mother. Like Berman’s grandmother, my own grandmother had a vast trove of secrets, some of which came out to my mother, and some only to me. Although after her death we found many artifacts of this life, we were unable to piece together a narrative; there were so many missing pieces. Some of my grandmother’s secrets are lost forever. I guess, in a way, by doing this, she cemented her reign in our lives and in our minds. She wanted us to have pleasant memories of her, as sweet, caring, and kind without fault. Without raising her voice or speaking her mind, she got her way, even after death.

My favorite passage is this one, on page 33-34.

I’m in the big bed, as fluffy as a cloud. A long, white bed. My grandmother covers me up to my chin with the goose-down comforter, and she sits down on the edge of the bed. The bedroom is in shadows.

My grandmother leans over to peer into my eyes. It’s an ageless moment. I’m eight years old, perhaps six or even four. Once more my grandmother becomes that tall woman whose profile extends upward, covering the cathedral’s golden clock. Her black eyes penetrating my eyes. Her face, as white as the moon’s reflection in a pond. The pond, my face, illuminated by her own. She passes her hand from my forehead down to my cheeks, half-closing my eyelids.

Her measured voice, distant and close at the same time: “Do you see that light?”

With her index and ring fingers, she taps the comforter on my chest. I hardly feel the pressure.

Yes, that greenish-white light, inside me.

Ayn sof,” she says, scarcely breathing the words.

Everything is like a secret. What my grandmother is now entrusting to me is, in face, a secret.

Ayn sof,” I reply very quietly.

Years later I will learn that Ayn sof means without end in Hebrew. It will take me even longer to fully comprehend that this is one of the names of God. I will be astonished at the simplicity with which my grandmother has asked me if I see that light and at the ingenuousness with which I answer simply, yes.

I will forever be curious about the things she didn’t tell us, things she didn’t leave clues to, and things she didn’t want us to know. Maybe someday, something will surface, but for now, these things – people, places, events, and how she really felt about them – are hers alone, her travel companions in the next stage. Sabina Berman’s Bubbeh is a testament to those lost memories and is something that should be treasured and read by anyone who is need of a reason to believe.

La bobe

This book review has been brought to you by the library of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the scary heavy winds outside.

0

Inspirational People: Alice Herz-Sommer

Once in awhile, a true inspiration of a person will come along. We lost Nelson Mandela recently, but there’s someone who’s possibly even more of an inspiration (at least to me) who’s still around…after 110 years. As she recently turned 110 and is in her 111th year, I dedicate this post to the truly inspirational but relatively unknown Alice Herz-Sommer, also known as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor.

Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice Herz-Sommer was born in Prague in 1903. 1903 is also the year of the Wright brothers’ first flight, and the creation of the teddy bear,  Crayola crayons, and the nation of Panama.

The flag of Panama.

 

Teddy bear, born in Germany about 1954

 

English: Photograph of the first successful fl...

 

English: The first version of the Crayola No.6...

 

Alice’s story is one of courage, love and music. As a Jewish woman in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, she was inevitably targeted by the Nazis and sent off to the concentration camps. However, due to her incredible talent on the piano, she was not killed but sent to live at Theresienstadt, a “model concentration camp” constructed by Hitler to be a “city for the Jews.” She spent the war years performing in an ensemble consisting of other Jewish musicians. They played for the Red Cross, Nazi soldiers, and Hitler as well. She literally “played for her life” as the Nazis deemed her as one of the few Jews worthy to stay alive – as long as she kept at the piano, she was safe.

One of her greatest pleasures in life is laughing, and she’s having the last one right now, having outlived most of the others of her generation. She lives in London, where she is adored by her family and the world for her indomitable spirit and for still possessing a sharp mind, a sense of humor, and a penchant for playing the piano, which she does every day. Every time I see her face, whether old or young, or hear her voice, I just feel so warm inside, like she’s my wise old grandmother. Alice Herz-Sommer is a true testament to the power of the performing arts, the will to celebrate life, and the beauty of the human experience. A true inspiration in every sense of the world. She’s had so much life experience and she’s still around to share it with the world.

To quote Ms. Herz-Sommer herself, “Music is beautiful…life is a beautiful thing.”

But don’t take my word for it, take hers.

Keep living the dream, Alice.