When I accepted the invitation to spend 10 weeks in Germany this fall, it was with a sense of joyful anticipation. As the summer of Gaza unfolded, the resurgence of anti-Semitism across Europe tempered my joy but never weakened my resolve.
Leipzig was a flourishing German city before World War II. In 1964, as part of communist East Germany, it was a desolate place, bomb damage still not repaired, store shelves bare and streets dimly lit. It was not a tourist destination.
The first I’d ever heard of 137 E. Houston St., on the Lower East Side, was when I went to the Ellis Island website recently to search for information about my grandparents coming to America. It was the address listed for Sam Bloomfield, the first name on the manifest of the SS New York when it arrived at Ellis Island on Oct. 14, 1906, from Southampton, England.
It was supposed to have been a father-son getaway, a long-awaited retreat of five days of golf and bonding. While many would guess Myrtle Beach, in coastal South Carolina, or the more-exotic Scotland, our destination was actually Israel. As unusual as that may sound, it is because my son Max currently lives there and serves as a platoon sergeant in the IDF’s Golani Brigade.
To the well-trained eye, the dollar store is a potential treasure trove. I have stumbled upon some real gems among the chazarei. But even I was shocked to discover a cache of coveted Panini soccer albums randomly shelved with the party favors on the eve of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Chaim Potok captured the strain of transition from religious traditionalism to artistic expression in his fictional character Asher Lev. As a young boy, Asher, a painter prodigy and the son of a chasidic luminary, is drawn to a Brooklyn museum where he surreptitiously views crucifixions and nudes. He subsequently paints such scenes.
The mere mention of the place conjures images of frozen tundra, extreme hardship and of course, the horrors of the gulag. But for me, my husband Phil, and the seven other intrepid travelers who recently journeyed with us, Siberia is a surprising Jewish oasis, even at 30 below.
The Jewish Theological Seminary professors who signed my diploma 50 years ago were names for the ages: Heschel, Kaplan, Lieberman, Finkelstein. As a student, I also studied with the likes of Baron, Scholem and notable junior profs. They all decided that I had learned enough to be called “rabbi, teacher and preacher.” I was skeptical. How did I ever pass their muster? In retrospect, I’m grateful that their greatest generosity was in allowing me to study not only with great scholars but also with great Jews.
For as long as I can remember, Pesach has conjured up the image of a mound of whole walnuts on a white kitchen table. My mother, grandmother, sister and I encircled it, as if sitting around a campfire telling tales. We dismantled the shells with unwieldy nutcrackers, filling three bowls: one with the shards, another with the meats, and the last, with the mortar wrought by a hand-cranked nut grinder.
A few months ago I reunited with a stranger who was an important part of my life more than three decades ago. For a few years in the late 1970s, while I was working as editor of Buffalo’s weekly Jewish newspaper, I decided I wanted to personalize the plight of Russia’s imprisoned refuseniks, the Jews who lacked the freedom to live as Jews in their homeland, or leave for freedom elsewhere.