How to build an American shtetl — See: Bloomingburg, N.Y.


This is how you launch a Hasidic shtetl in 21st-century America.

Step 1. Find a place within reasonable distance of Brooklyn where the land is cheap and underdeveloped.

Step 2. Buy as much property as you can in your target area – if possible, without tipping off locals that you plan to turn it into a Hasidic enclave.

Step 3. Ensure the zoning is suited to Hasidic living: densely clustered homes big enough for large families and within walking distance of the community’s vital infrastructure.

Step 4. Build the infrastructure: Houses, a synagogue and beit midrash study hall, kosher establishments, a mikvah ritual bath. Lay the groundwork for a school. Launch a shuttle service so Hasidim who don’t drive or don’t own cars can get from the new shtetl to shopping outlets and other Hasidic communities in the region.

Step 5. Market to the Hasidic community and turn on the lights.

That, essentially, is the playbook developer Shalom Lamm is following for what is shaping up to be America’s newest Hasidic shtetl — the town of Bloomingburg in upstate New York.

Located in Sullivan County about 80 miles north of Brooklyn, Bloomingburg is a tiny village of 400 people dotted with small farms, run-down homes and a couple of old churches. There’s just one stoplight, and there’s not much to the small businesses clustered around it: a hardware store, bank, tattoo parlor, barbershop and thrift shop.

This is the way things were for decades until Lamm — son of Rabbi Norman Lamm, Yeshiva University’s president from 1976 to 2003 — came to town a few years ago and started snapping up properties like they were sample-sale sweaters.

He bought the white house with blue shutters and a front porch just across from the barbershop. He bought the Hickory apartments just off Main Street, adjacent to a trailer park. He bought the hardware store and a pizza shop. He bought a large warehouse built to house antique cars with the idea of turning it into a girls school.

Lamm didn’t stop there. He bought a group of farms on 200 acres of unincorporated land about half a mile from the stoplight and in 2006 got the village to annex it and rezone it for residential development in exchange for building a new $5 million sewage treatment plant for the area. He bought the airport in the nearby village of Wurtsboro. He bought 635 acres five miles away. He also bought a house for himself in Bloomingburg and moved in (Lamm also lives in West Hempstead, on Long Island).

Soon, changes started happening in the village.

Homes were fixed up and repainted. The Hickory apartments, originally built as a senior housing development, were renovated and turned into 12 units, with a synagogue and study hall built in a basement. Most notably, in 2012 rows of attached five-bedroom townhomes began going up on the 200 acres he had gotten rezoned from agricultural — the first of at least 396 units planned for construction in a development Lamm dubbed Chestnut Ridge.

Meanwhile in Brooklyn, a two-hour drive away, Yiddish-language newspapers began to run advertisements touting a new Hasidic housing development going up in Bloomingburg. The ads noted its location near the Catskill Mountains and just 30 minutes north of the Satmar village of Kiryas Joel, home to more than 20,000 Hasidim.

Once the locals upstate caught onto what was happening — when Chestnut Ridge broke ground in 2012 — opposition materialized almost immediately. Village meetings were organized, accusations flew, angry protesters took to the streets and lawsuits were filed. The Town of Mamakating (pop. 12,000), in which the village of Bloomingburg is located, tried to annex the village so that it could gain zoning power over Bloomingburg and thwart the Hasidic-friendly construction, but the bid failed.

Lamm and his defenders, including the public relations consultant he eventually hired, cast their opponents as anti-Semites or anti-Hasidic, and for some that characterization seemed apt. The window of the kosher grocery was repeatedly shattered, and some early protests outside Shabbat prayer services included anti-Jewish epithets.

But for many locals, it was a case of not-in-my-backyard syndrome: They lived in a quiet, albeit poor, country village, and the dense housing and Hasidic influx would indelibly alter Bloomingburg’s character. They believed Lamm and his investment partner, Kenneth Nakdimen, had hoodwinked the village into annexing and rezoning the agricultural land he was turning into a dense residential development.

Last month, Mamakating and Bloomingburg filed a federal lawsuit against Lamm, accusing him of fraud, bribery, racketeering, voter fraud and corruption of public officials — saying he bribed a former mayor, used a frontman to help mislead the village about his intentions for Chestnut Ridge and engaged in racketeering by promoting an enterprise that was corrupt on multiple levels. Lamm denies the accusations and has filed lawsuits of his own against the town.

Shalom Lamm has completed 51 of 396 planned units in Chestnut Ridge, where the homes are suited to Hasidic needs.

If Bloomingburg was going to look like any of the other Hasidic communities north of New York City – New Square, Kiryas Joel, or the hamlet of Monsey in Ramapo – there were plenty of cautionary tales to give local residents pause. Overcrowding in those places was taxing local infrastructure to the breaking point, and in Ramapo the school board had been taken over by a Hasidic majority that was stripping local public school budgets and selling off public school buildings to yeshivas at cut-rate prices.

For the Hasidim, the appeal of Bloomingburg over Brooklyn was clear. It offered much cheaper living, less congestion and fewer of the sorts of urban temptations that could ensnare a devout Jew. With so few residents, the village also offered the prospect of something else: political power that could give local Hasidim nearly unfettered control over their own destiny.

It wasn’t long before the first Hasidic families began to arrive.

Some were older couples from points south looking for a quiet place near the mountains in which to spend summers or weekends. But soon full-timers started coming, too — mostly young families from Satmar and other Hungarian Hasidic sects looking for more affordable alternatives to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and a quieter lifestyle than that available in Kiryas Joel or in Monsey, the sprawling Orthodox stronghold in Rockland County an hour to the south.

Bloomingburg’s first Hasidic pioneers arrived with almost no Orthodox infrastructure in place. There wasn’t much suitable food available locally — one early newcomer quipped that the only produce available at the local grocery store was two-week-old tomatoes — and kosher food had to be delivered by special order from Kiryas Joel or nearby Middletown. There was no weekday minyan. There was no women’s mikvah (and still isn’t — the zoning appeals board has rejected Lamm’s site for one).

Then, last summer, the city got its first kollel – a Jewish study collective where men learn Torah full time and receive stipends in return from community supporters (in this case, apparently, Lamm). Lamm also bought a 22-seat minibus and a passenger van and began running shuttles to large shopping areas and to Kiryas Joel, where some of Bloomingburg’s adults work and kids go to school.

By fall, there were enough Orthodox families in Bloomingburg to support a daily minyan — the quorum of 10 men needed for public prayer. Weekday services start at 9 a.m.

Mendel Kritzler, 25, moved to Bloomingburg in mid-April with his wife and three boys from a fourth-floor walkup in Williamsburg. Now he lives in a ground-floor apartment within walking distance of everything he needs: the shul and study hall where he spends his days, the kosher grocery Lamm opened up right before Passover, and the new Hasidic day care that now has 10 kids enrolled between the ages of 3 and 4. He doesn’t own a car.

“I was a little nervous before coming here, but since I moved I’ve really been enjoying it; it’s the Garden of Eden,” Kritzler said. “It’s quiet. There’s peace of mind. It’s much, much cheaper – half the price of Williamsburg.”

Lamm’s rentals begin at $350 per month for small one-bedrooms to $1,200 for large three-bedrooms. One of his tenants noted that, unlike her landlord in Monsey, Lamm isn’t so strict about the rent.

At the now-fully occupied Hickory apartments, young Hasidic women gather in the late afternoons and sit on plastic lawn chairs, rocking infants in their laps and watching their toddlers run around while they chitchat in the springtime sun. Once a month, the Hasidic women in town get together in someone’s house or the local kosher pizza-and-sandwich shop for an evening devoted to bonding, noshing and spiritual inspiration. A recent gathering featured slides on the Jewish value of modesty.

The men studying at the kollel come home in the early afternoon for a break. Some walk up the hill to the small kosher grocery, where the shelves are well stocked but the aisles mostly empty of customers. Those who commute to work in Kiryas Joel are generally home by early evening.

Despite the sleepy feel in town, there’s a sense of excitement among the Hasidim – a feeling that they’re the trailblazers in a noble experiment of establishing a new outpost for Hasidic life in New York State.

“I’m the pioneer, really,” said a young Belgian-born Hasid named Yossele who said his was the second full-time family to move in.

So far, only 27 Hasidic families live full time in the village, according to Yechiel Falkowitz, a 22-year-old Hasid who moved in last summer and compiled a head count of the families in early May. Another 20 or so families live part time in Bloomingburg, he said. Lamm, who is the landlord of all but a handful of the Hasidic families’ homes, says there are 176 Orthodox Jewish residents in Bloomingburg, comprising 40-50 families.

(The true Hasidic population of Bloomingburg is the subject of a legal dispute. Over the winter, the county board of elections challenged the eligibility of more than 150 individuals, almost all of them Hasidim, to vote in local elections, and said it would remove them from voter rolls. Hasidim responded with a civil rights lawsuit against the board.)

The main obstacle to growth at present is the town of Mamakating and the village’s government, which has declined to grant certificates of occupancy for the 51 townhouses at Chestnut Ridge that have been move-in ready for months, according to Lamm. Without those certificates, Lamm can’t close the sales of the homes.

“Almost nothing gets permitted,” Lamm told JTA. “I get the sense that they’d like us to give up, but that’s not in the cards.”

Lawyers for Mamakating and Bloomingburg say modifications are needed to bring the homes up to code first and that the process for evaluating the homes and granting certificates of occupancy is underway.

If Lamm’s vision comes to fruition, there soon will be hundreds more Hasidic families in Bloomingburg – maybe thousands.

At Chestnut Ridge, the newly built 2,800-square-foot attached townhomes look like they’re straight out of a brochure for the American dream, with identical facades, fresh white garages and bright green lawns. Inside, the décor is bright, modern and spacious, with 9-foot ceilings, an upstairs laundry room, and kitchens with granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances.

The houses also have all the accoutrements Hasidim, with their large families and Orthodox practices, might desire. The kitchens feature two stoves, sinks, ovens and microwaves – one each for dairy and meat. There’s an outdoor sukkah deck just off the dining room. Special sinks are located outside the bathrooms for ritual hand-washing, and a small room near the front is designed for a miniature library or study.

The five bedrooms upstairs have sleeping space for up to a dozen. The master bathroom easily fits two full-sized beds – Hasidic couples do not share beds during women’s menstrual periods and for a week afterward – and the walk-in closet in the master bedroom is big enough for a crib, which Lamm doesn’t doubt Hasidic parents will notice when their babies are born.

The homes are priced between $299,000 and $334,000. Once the remaining 350 or so houses are built, there will also be four playgrounds for the kids.

Many longtime Bloomingburg residents say they’re taking a wait-and-see approach even as they’re still stinging from the way Lamm got his housing development approved. They blame Bloomingburg’s former mayor for agreeing to the deal and say the village population was told the site was going to be a golf course surrounded by luxury homes, not dense development suited to Hasidim.

“It was a shady deal. The politicians we had here threw us under the bus,” said Patti, the owner of a thrift shop in the village who, like all the locals interviewed for this story and many of the Hasidim, asked that her last name not be used. After so much conflict and bad press, people here are wary of reporters.

Patti lives across from the Chestnut Ridge development, which she said has dramatically altered the local landscape. “I used to look at farm fields every day, with silos and animals grazing,” she said. Now she looks out at Lamm’s townhouses.

Despite her misgivings, Patti says she’s reserving judgment about what’s to come.

“Things are definitely going to change. Whether it’ll be for the better or worse it’s too soon to tell,” she said. “It’s in limbo right now.”

‘Hava Nagila’ film chronicles song’s journey from shtetl to cliche


You're at a wedding or bar mitzvah, mingling at the bar or catching up with a distant relative, when you hear it — the opening notes of a familiar tune that as if by some invisible force carries you and other guests to the dance floor for the rousing dance circle ritual.

Does “Hava Naglia” work this kind of magic because it was handed down at Sinai and thus encoded in the Jewish DNA? Or is it a tale from the European shtetl, albeit one with a timeless message and an irrepressible melody?

It is these questions that Roberta Grossman addresses in her new film, “Hava Naglia (The Movie),” which will screen at the upcoming New York Jewish Film Festival before hitting theaters nationwide in March. The film, three years in the making, explores the phenomenon behind the iconic folk song and seeks to explain why the melody has been so beloved over the years.

“When I first started doing research for the film, people thought I was crazy and I was worried I wouldn’t find anything substantial enough,” Grossman told JTA. “But what I really found was that this song is a porthole into 200 years of Judaism’s culture and spirituality.”

Grossman’s inspiration for the film came from memories of dancing to the song at family affairs. A product of what she calls a “religiously assimilated but culturally affiliated” background, Grossman said twirling with family members while “Hava Nagila” blared in the background was a tribal moment with spiritual resonance. Part of a generation raised on the 1971 film adaption of “Fiddler on the Roof,” she knew the song cold but understood little about its origins.

Turns out, it doesn't go back nearly as far as Sinai. The song originated as a Chasidic niggun, or wordless melody, credited to the Ruzhiner rebbe, Israel Friedman, who lived in the Ukrainian town of Sadagora in the 18th century.

A Jewish shtetl in the Pale of Settlement, Sadagora often was subjected to pogroms, and Chasidic leaders encouraged music as a way to combat the tragedies of everyday life. When a wave of European immigrants moved to Israel in the early 1900s, they took their niggun with them, where it later became representative of Zionist culture.

In 1915, the prominent musicologist Abraham Zevi Idelsohn adapted the song with Hebrew lyrics. Three years later he unveiled his new variation at a Jerusalem concert. “Hava Nagila,” literally “let us rejoice,” went on to hit its peak popularity in the 1950s and '60s, and became a favorite pop tune for American Jews.

“It’s unclear if Idelsohn really knew the extent of how far his song would go, but after that concert celebrating the British victory in Palestine, the streets of Jerusalem erupted and the song took off,” said Mark Kilgman, a professor of Jewish musicology at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who is featured in the film.

“Israel was a vacuum at that point, with immigrants from all over who had very little in common. They were dealing with their identity, and the need for music, and this song unified them,” he said.

Decades later, the same is true. The song is widely covered — Bob Dylan, Ben Folds and Regina Spektor have performed it. Last summer it was the soundtrack for U.S. Olympian Ally Raisman's gold medal-winning performance in the floor exercise at the London Games. And though The Wall Street Journal noted recently that some see it as cliche and avoid having it played it at their affairs — Grossman refers to these folks as “Hava haters” — it may be the most popular Jewish song on the planet.

In the film, which includes a hora dancing tutorial, Grossman journeys to Sadagora as well as other obscure places where the song hit. The film notes how popular “Hava Nagila” became with non-Jewish music lovers, and features interviews with musicians such as Lena Horne, the Cuban-American salsa performer Celia Cruz and the pop singer Connie Francis.

Grossman skillfully portrays “Hava Nagila” as a symbol of American Jewish identity and postulates that future generations will continue to see the song as iconic — with or without the eye rolls. Through the film, she seeks to give the song some depth beyond the overplayed ditty at bar mitzvahs. Viewers must decide if the song can still be redeemed.

“I believe that Hava has actually accrued a great deal of meaning and depth on its long journey from Ukraine to YouTube,” Grossman said. “Hava's journey is our journey. By understanding where Hava has come from, we understand where we have come from and more.”

New York shtetl where arson attack occurred, the rebbe’s word is law


For years, this leafy Chasidic village about an hour north of New York City has been a shtetl-like haven where residents could live their strictly Orthodox lifestyle far from the temptations and bustle of the nation’s largest city.

Out of view of all but very few, life in this community of some 7,000 Skverer Chasidim has revolved around its spiritual leader, the Skverer rebbe, Rabbi David Twersky.

In the wake of a recent arson attack that left a dissident New Square resident in the hospital with third-degree burns over more than half his body—and thrust this community into the harsh glare of media and police investigators—the question is whether the centrality of the rebbe to community life has created an atmosphere of dangerous coercion.

“We cannot encourage theocratic rule,” said Michael Sussman, the civil rights attorney representing the burn victim, Aron Rottenberg. “Yet by tolerating these communities, we’re doing that.”

The incident that has thrust New Square into the spotlight came in the wee hours of May 22, when police say that Rottenberg approached a man carrying a rag soaked with flammable liquid behind his family’s house. In the ensuing altercation, which took place at approximately 4 a.m., Rottenberg and his alleged assailant—Shaul Spitzer, 18—were badly burned. Both remain hospitalized.

The incident appears to be the culmination of a dispute about enforcing the will of the rebbe—something akin to the rule of law in New Square.

The rebbe likes his followers in New Square to pray at his synagogue. But since the fall, Rottenberg and a small group have been making the milelong trek to Friedwald Center, a nursing home in the adjacent village of New Hempstead, for a minyan. That instantly marked Rottenberg, a 43-year-old plumber, as persona non grata in the community.

The campaign of intimidation began soon after.

Rottenberg had stones thrown through his car and home windows, received threatening phone calls late at night and found his children expelled from the village’s religious schools, according to Sussman.

Then came the arson incident involving Spitzer, who had been serving as Twersky’s live-in butler for about a year.

In a letter sent to state and federal judicial officials, Sussman said the campaign of intimidation occurred “under Twersky’s authority” and asked for the arson attack to be classified as a hate crime.

The FBI reportedly has joined forces with the Ramapo Police Department to investigate the attack, according to The New York Times.

Most New Square residents defend Twersky as innocent, according to Yossi Gestetner, a Chasidic journalist and public relations consultant.

“Few people in New Square think that the New Square grand rabbi or anyone in leadership actually ordered or at all wanted this arson attempt to take place,” said Gestetner, who is based in the nearby village of Spring Valley, N.Y. “However, many people living in New Square think that leadership owes responsibility—in a moral, not legal sense—for not coming out strongly against the low-level violence in the past.”

The haredi Orthodox AMI magazine published an interview with Twersky last week in which he condemned “in the strongest possible terms any violence or coercion under any circumstances.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, the magazine’s publisher and editor in chief, said it is unfair to blame Twersky for the actions of one member of his community.

“It’s racism to attack an entire community based upon a lost soul or criminal minds who perpetrate crime against others,” he said. “When we have an attack like that, we don’t go ahead and attack an entire community, and we don’t attack the rebbe, who has never been accused of a crime.”

In communities like New Square, however, where Chasidic leaders influence not just residents’ spiritual lives but their financial and political endeavors as well, little happens without the rebbe’s say-so, says Shmarya Rosenberg, author of Failedmessiah.com, a watchdog blog about the haredi Orthodox community.

“There’s no concept of democracy. There’s no concept of any kind of a civil society at all,” Rosenberg said. “Every institution in the community is completely under the rebbe’s thumb.”

If a New Square resident crosses the rebbe or breaks one of the village’s many unwritten rules, one New Square resident told JTA, his neighbors will treat him “like a goy”—not saying hello in the morning, not answering his questions or acknowledging his presence. The man, who asked to be identified only as Weiss, agreed to talk only if the interview were conducted outside New Square.

Weiss said a dissident faces even more harassment: His house windows might be broken, his car’s tires slashed and his kids expelled from school.

“Everyone’s fighting because they think the rebbe is God,” he said. “I’m not going to fight, even for God. They make sick people because of the rebbe.”

Shulem Deen, a former New Square resident whose ex-wife and five children still live in the village, said dissent is not tolerated and leaving is extremely difficult. Deen himself faced harsh resistance from the village’s rabbinic court before he eventually left the village about six years ago.

“New Square is not an organization, it’s not a private club where you join, pay dues and then you can cancel your membership,” he said. “Their entire life is in that community.”

Deen recalled an incident about seven or eight years ago when a family chose to circumcise their son in Brooklyn rather than New Square. Their tires were slashed and their house was vandalized, he said.

“This is definitely a sea change,” Deen said of the arson attack. “This is not new, but it’s never been anything quite like this.”

Nomi Stolzenberg, a University of Southern California Law School professor and an expert on haredi Orthodox Jewish communities, says internal divisions often arise in the successor generations following the death of the Chasidic rebbe who founded the community.

In New Square, Twersky, 70, took over in 1968 after the death of his father, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twesky, who founded the community in 1954. Twersky lives in a mansion and is treated like royalty by community members—as are most Chasidic rebbes by their followers.

“Competing factions arise,” said Stolzenberg, also the co-author of the forthcoming book “American Shtetl.” “Even if there hadn’t been an outside world looking on, it’s inevitable that schisms and factions and divisions within the community were going to develop.”

Still, most Skverer Chasidim remain loyal to Twersky and believe the incident is being unfairly magnified by secular authorities, Deen said.

“I think they primarily see it as a public relations issue. I would be very surprised if there are discussions going on there that are about actual change,” said Deen, who runs Unpious.com, a blog about the haredi Orthodox world. “Most of the discussion there is now is how do we respond to the world as opposed to how do we be reflective about what we’ve been doing wrong.”

New Square resident Meyer Knoloch said the Rottenberg story has been blown out of proportion by outsiders and anti-Semites.

“Most of the population living here is very satisfied with the village—just a few people not so satisfied who make the trouble,” Knoloch said. “People live here peacefully. There’s no fighting, no drugs, no weapons. There’s no break-ins in houses. But there are rules.”

Hank Sheinkopf, a public relations consultant hired shortly after the attack by “a group of concerned citizens,” says New Square’s peaceful and philanthropic past should prompt outsiders to think twice before lambasting the village.

“Nonsense, untrue, inaccurate,” Sheinkopf said of the rumors of a campaign of intimidation against Rottenberg. “The rebbe’s been very clear about this.”

Still, there are certain rules that come with living in a 0.4-square-mile modern-day shtetl, and Sheinkopf said residents know what they’ve signed up for.

“They know what community they live in,” he said. “There’s a rebbe, there’s a way of life, it’s worked for 60 years and it will go forward.”

Shtetl engagement custom makes modern comeback


When it comes to Jewish wedding customs, one could say everything old is new again.

According to numerous how-to-plan-your-Jewish-wedding Web sites, modern couples have resurrected tenaim (a 12th- century Ashkenazic tradition) and — after retrofitting the ritual — eagerly add the ceremony to their Big Day.

You’re invited to embrace this custom, too. But first, some backstory.

In European shtetls, tenaim (conditions) was a formal engagement ceremony at which parents of the girl and parents of the boy agreed to betroth their two children. During the celebration, a contract was signed, witnessed and read to the assemblage. This document set the date and time of the wedding — typically many months off — and outlined prenuptial obligations of each family regarding the dowry, a gift for the groom, plus other financial and logistical matters.

The contract included a proviso that the party who breaks the agreement before the wedding (p’tui, p’tui) must pay a stiff fine to the injured party. To seal the bargain, the future mothers-in-law smashed a dish. Some authorities say this symbolizes the impending breaks in their relationships with their children while recognizing that a new family is created — a family with lives of their own who now are responsible for taking care of and feeding each other.

Although the tenaim document — unlike the ketubah — is not a Jewish legal requirement for marriage, the tenaim had clout. In fact, the 18th century leader of Lithuanian Jewry, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (aka the Vilna Gaon), maintained that breaking the obligations of the agreement — backing down on one’s word — is reprehensible, far worse than divorce.

The Gaon also weighed in on tenaim plates and demanded they be ceramic, since “just as a ceramic plate cannot be repaired, so the families should be warned not to renege on their commitments.” (Word has it that unmarried women will trample over one another for a piece of the broken crockery, because it’s considered a talisman that leads to romance and chuppah. Could be….)

While modern tenaim ceremonies are based on the old model, today’s couples usually shift the focus from traditional legal formalities to personal conditions and concerns — both current and future — that express their love, trust, shared values and commitment to the covenant of marriage.

These conditions often include:

  • To create a Jewish home where Shabbat and holidays are celebrated, and where Jewish tradition is part of everyday life.
  • To create an open home where family, friends, community and strangers feel welcome.
  • To undertake tikkun olam (repair of the world), support social justice and give tzedakah (philanthropy) regularly.
  • To affirm the importance of diversity and equality in their community and in the world.
  • To work together as equal partners through life’s challenges.
  • To listen. To empathize with each other.
  • To support each other in their careers, while making time together their top priority.
  • To share financial and home responsibilities fairly.
  • To, God willing, be blessed with children and to raise them in a home filled with love for one another, dedication to Judaism and commitment to inclusiveness.

Some couples still plan tenaim as an anticipatory celebration well in advance of the nuptials. Others choose the weekend of the wedding, often at Havdalah, since the separation made between Shabbat and the rest of the week can also mark the distinction between “single” and “married.” Many brides and grooms schedule tenaim on the wedding day itself, an hour or so before the actual marriage ceremony. Any option works.

Clearly, modern tenaim celebrations can be original — even improvisational — while still including meaningful family traditions that link past, present and future. Additional proof that with Jewish wedding customs, what goes around comes around — in more ways than just circling the groom.

Ozzie Nogg is a freelance writer who takes a slightly offbeat look at the history and observance of Jewish holidays, festivals and life-cycle events. Her Web site is www.rabbisdaughter.com.

Books: The anti-Chagall offers a field guide to the shtetl


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“They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust” by Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (University of California Press, $39.95).

Mayer Kirshenblatt was born in 1916 in the Polish town of Apt. In 1934, when he was 17, Mayer, his mother and his three siblings immigrated to Toronto to join his father, who had made the trip six years prior. The family ran a paint and wallpaper store. In 1990, after a lifetime of selling paints, Kirshenblatt, retired and at loose ends, decided to pick up a paintbrush himself, and from its tip the world of his youth poured forth.

Kirshenblatt’s canvasses, together with a stunningly vivid text — the product of four decades’ worth of interviews with his daughter, noted New York University folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett — have now been reproduced in a handsome volume by the University of California Press, and the result is a marvel: With his scrupulously recalled images, Kirshenblatt has managed to do no less than create a new visual language for describing pre-war Eastern European life. In stark contrast to the black-and-white record that has made up our vision heretofore, Kirshenblatt’s paintings are untainted by the horrors to come. They offer a picture not of Polish Jewish life as it was before tragedy struck, but simply as it was. If Chagall was the shtetl’s mythmaker, then Kirshenblatt is his antithesis: a shtetl anthropologist.

The book — the product at once of scholarly rigor and a boy’s sense of wonder, respect for the dead and an even greater respect for the living, ethnographic exactitude and artistic style, a yearning born of loss and a synthesis born of collaboration — is a book like no other.

“They Called Me Mayer July” unfolds not in a grand narrative arc, but in small, bite-size anecdotes, often no longer than a paragraph or two. It is a style, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett writes in the book’s afterward, “more picaresque than bildungsroman.” Like his images, Kirshenblatt’s episodes can stand alone, but they offer more punch when taken together.

While the classic Chagall figure is ever floating skyward, its Kirshenblatt corollary is nothing if not earthbound. The only whitewashing that happens here is literal, as when one of the town’s rabbis repainted the study hall’s walls after a less devout soul had stenciled them with flowers and butterflies. Kirshenblatt’s town, which he often calls by its Polish name, Opatów, is a world of prostitutes and chamber pots, outhouses and broken wind. It’s a world of colorful nicknames: Simkhe the Scab, Avrum the Lump, Yosl the Little Square Noodle and Shmiel the Dog. Sometimes, Kirshenblatt writes, the nicknames sprang from no apparent reality, but in other cases the reason was all too clear. Kirshenblatt tells the story of his poor cousin Malkele, who one day fell into a latrine. Her nickname? Malkele drek.

The book’s title is based on the author’s own nickname, or at least a translation of it.

“Everybody in town had a nickname,” Kirshenblatt writes. “Mine was Mayer tamez, Mayer July, because July was the hottest month of the year. Mayer tamez means Crazy Mayer. People get excited when it is hot, and I was an excitable kid.”

Excitable indeed. Kirshenblatt was someone with his finger in every pie — boundlessly curious, mischievous to the core, a teacher’s nightmare.

“I failed one grade of public school because I played hooky,” he writes. “I was too busy watching everything that was going on in town. I would spend hours observing the blacksmith and the tinsmith, the ropemaker and the cooper, the mills and the carp ponds, and the town square on market day, when all the peasants came to town.”

Given the fact that he’s a painter without formal training, it’s temping to call Kirshenblatt’s work “Outsider Art,” but the label, with its intimations of a life lived on society’s periphery (or maybe even in the loony bin), doesn’t really fit. If anything, he comes across as the consummate “insider.” “He has often said of himself that he is a doer, not a watcher,” his daughter writes, “he likes to be a participant and active observer, not a voyeur.” It is a quality that he took with him across the Atlantic. In his adult life, Kirshenblatt became an enthusiastic camper and sailor, a collector of antique clocks and a restorer of furniture.

This spirit of “active observation” is apparent throughout Kirshenblatt’s book. He explains not only what his townspeople did, but how they did it. Indeed, so keen is his understanding of the inner workings of things that the book at points reads like a “how to” manual. He offers illustrated sections on how to make a dreidel, a whistle, a shoe, a brush, even a shofar from a willow branch.

Which is not to say that Kirshenblatt lacks a storyteller’s gifts. Like all good raconteurs, he is drawn to the bizarre and unusual: those in town who specialized in disabling people so they wouldn’t be drafted (one good at giving hernias; another, a specialist in lopping off trigger fingers) or the wealthy Winona Ryder antecedent who stuffs a live fish down her fancy blouse. But alongside this, Kirshenblatt also displays an understanding of the rhythm and texture of everyday town life: its trades, its politics, its religious diversity, its sounds and its smells.

“They Called Me Mayer July” is a memoir, but this too is a label that fits imperfectly. Kirshenblatt’s telling cannot really be termed a “confession.” As his daughter again helpfully points out, Kirshenblatt’s narrative mode, “because it is more concerned with the palpable world than with interiority,” can best be understood as “extrospective.”

Kirshenblatt will often end his stories with a nice little kicker. Sometimes, these are mournful. Of his uncle Yankl — a handsome ladies’ man who lived in Warsaw — Kirshenblatt writes, he “disappeared like the others.” But more often than not, these little codas are more wry and whimsical than they are elegiac. Never one for organized study, Kirshenblatt suffered in a JCC painting class; the model, he said, moved too quickly from pose to pose.

“My daughter told me to forget about the classes and paint from memory,” he writes. “The teacher also encouraged me to work on my own.”

This article originally appeared in the ” border =0 alt=”Mayer Kirshenblatt painting”>

A journey back to the Shtetl


Finding my grandparents’ native town in Lithuania was not easy. “Litvinovo,” as my grandmother remembered it, appears on no map of Lithuania that I could find.

I had searched large-scale maps over the years on and off but found nothing solid. It was, of course, the Internet that eventually came to my rescue. A Web site, JewishGen, “the home of Jewish genealogy,” has a remarkable utility, the “shtetl seeker.” When I looked there for a Litvinovo in Lithuania, it returned a set of alternate place names – Liudvinavo, Lyudvinov, Lyudvinavas, Lyudvinav, Ludwinów, Ludvinavas, Liudvinavas, in all the old languages my grandmother spoke and more – as corresponding to a village only a few miles from Marijampol. And a map. I could drive there easily.

My grandparents were not Holocaust victims — their families had left for America 100 years ago — so I wasn’t after a tale of the Shoah. I just wanted to trace my roots, find what I could find. I returned with a Jewish story told by non-Jews, one that is not of my own family but rather of my people. It’s also simply a story about people.

My journey took me to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, past a bronze bust of Frank Zappa — perhaps the most singular monument to the fall of communism — to the Vilna Gaon Jewish State museum. It’s known as “the Green House,” a small wooden building uphill from a big busy street, marked by an easily missed, inconspicuous arrow.

Upstairs is the office of Neringa Latvyte-Gustaitevne, a young, energetic historian paid by Lithuania to document the history of that nation’s Jews. Her English is blessedly better than my clumsy Russian. Neringa knows where Liudvinavas is, and she’s prepared to go there with me in my black rented Hyundai.

Neringa, from a town about 70 kilometers north of Vilnius, isn’t Jewish. She studied Lithuanian history at the nation’s national university. The popular options for students of history, she says, are to focus on the country’s glory days, which come in long-separated historical epochs: 1,000 years ago when the Lithuanian empire reached all the way to the Black Sea; or the achievements of the Lithuanian state established between the world wars.

It was a charismatic professor, Meyeris Shubas, who guided her to a black hole in the country’s narrative. Shubas, almost 90 at the time, insisted that the real history that needed to be written, the history no one was writing, was of the Jewish community. Neringa followed his advice, though her choice bewildered her friends.

“They think I’m doing it for the money,” she says, adding that there isn’t any.

The next day, on the drive down, Neringa fills me in. Liudvinavas was founded in 1710 and opened to Jews as a shtetl in 1780, one year before the founding of Los Angeles. Jews thrived because they had civil rights that were uncommon for Jews elsewhere. They could sue, for example, and own property. In 1856, the town had 473 Christian inhabitants and 1,055 Jews.

But prosperity and liberality took a downturn, and most Jews gradually left.
The exodus accelerated due to pogroms and political instability before and after World War I. My grandparents left for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they would meet each other and marry. By the end of the 1930s, only 19 Jewish families made the fatal mistake of remaining in the old country.

The town of 1,000 residents dips out of a wide plain onto both sides of a river, with footbridges spanning the river’s wooded ravine. It’s an architectural patchwork, part-19th century timber-frame structures, part-boxy Soviet housing. With a practiced eye, Neringa points out the old houses most likely to have been Jewish — the ones with two doors, one to the house, one to the adjoining shop.

The town’s friendly mayor, Irene Lunskiene, knows someone who can tell us what happened to those 19 families. She leads us to the home of Teresa Vizbariene, a grandmother who has, for two years, been collecting material about these Jewish clans, using photographs and diaries.

Teresa climbs into our car and, as we drive, points out houses and tells us about their former inhabitants.

The Jews of Liudvinas were very much a part of the town. Their children attended school with Christian children. They were observant Jews, but dressed much as others did. The Ginzbergs ran the water-driven flourmill, the only one for miles around — that must be the mill where my grandfather spoke of having worked. The old mill and its waterwheel has long been replaced by a 1950s Soviet-style generic concrete factory building. But fragments of the millrace that once channeled water past the wheel is still visible.

We also pass what’s left of the old dairy — my grandmother must have been a familiar visitor there. The dairy, Teresa says, was a cooperative, with Jews and Lithuanians both participating.

For some of the telling, I must rely on my imagination: There is no synagogue anymore. But I learn that the floor above the sanctuary was occupied by the Drostradanskys, a young and financially struggling couple. Teresa has a picture of a young couple, he in a suit; she in a dress.

The Simons were one of the richest families in town; it tended to be the more prosperous Jews who remained. They’d bought up the farms of some of the émigrés. The Follingers had a leather factory and also a farm. The Hodesh family baked bread. So did Yankel, though he also had a farm, where he raised his own grain for his bakery. His daughter married a Hodesh son. Yankel was, Teresa tells us, the last Jew from Liudvinavas.

The site of his completely vanished farm, far out of town, on the crest of a hill, is “where those bushes are,” Teresa says. When the Russians came in after the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, they took over what had been an independent Lithuanian state, imposing regulations on private farmers and grain sales. Yankel was found guilty of violating these and exiled to Siberia.

His family stayed behind, including his daughter and her children. In 1941, the invading Germans reached Liudvinavas, only a few kilometers from the border, in a matter of hours. And that summer, with the help of Lithuanian partisans, the Ginzbergs, Resnicks, Hodeshes, Follingers, and others were sent to Marijampol. None ever came back.

The tight confines of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State, where Neringa works, are crowded with pictures of old Jewish Vilna, its rabbis — including the great Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797), the Gaon who gives the museum its name — and documentation of the town’s large Jewish population. But the Jews of old share more than half the space Karl Jaeger, the highly efficient leader of Einsatzkommando 3, which during 1941 killed more than 137,300 people, mostly by shooting them and throwing them into pits, each day’s work meticulously documented in records reproduced on the walls.

On August 22, 1941, for example, Jaeger’s men, killed three Russian commandos, five Latvians, one Russian guard, three Poles, three gypsy men, three gypsy woman, one gypsy child, one Jewish man, one Jewish woman and one Armenian. The next day they killed “the mentally sick”: 269 men, 227 women, 48 children.” On a more ordinary day they killed 500 or so Jewish men, women and children. Final score: Lithuania set the national record in Europe for the percentage of its Jewish population that did not survive: More than 90 percent of the more than 200,000 perished.

Jaeger hid out after the war as a farmer, was discovered in 1959 and committed suicide before trial. About 6,000 Jews survived thanks to “the Japanese Schindler,” Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul-general who stamped as many exit visas as he could – a monument to him stands outside the green house.

Sugihara wasn’t able to help the 19 families of Liudvinavas. But one person survived.

In 1957, Teresa’s brother was in Stalingrad (now Volgograd), and heard someone speaking Lithuanian with a recognizable accent. It was Yankel, the baker sent into exile by the Russians. Yankel looked old and battered and would say nothing about himself or his experiences.

“He was only asking about his family,” Teresa recounts. “He wanted to know if maybe someone had managed to survive.”

“He was very disappointed,” is how Neringa translates Teresa words.

Yankel never returned to Liudvinavas.

Teresa has her own memories of the 19 families. She remembers that the Hodesh twin girls were popular, not least because their father owned a bakery that included a candy store. And they had beautiful matching coats, blue and red, like none seen in the town, universally admired and envied. In the summer of 1941, when the time came to send Liudvinavas’ Jews to Jaeger, a local partisan working for the Germans saw the 8-year-old girls, coats in hands, waiting to leave.

“You won’t need the coats,” he snapped at them, seizing the garments. He had four daughters, including twins the same age. His twins wore them.

“Once a classmate of the partisan’s two daughters told them that it is a shame to wear these coats,” Teresa says. “Because everybody knew how the girls got the coats. The girls became very angry … got their sisters. They caught the classmate and beat her up and urinated on her. The girls were savage. All the children were afraid of them.”

In 1944, with the Russians in control, the partisan was arrested and executed.  The four daughters are still alive — “but they do not live in Liudvinavas.”

Nor do any Jews, of course. But there was the practical matter of the homes they left behind.

In 1941, these houses went to Lithuanian collaborators. Some, but by no means all, were turned over to the local government after the war. It resold them, including the Hodesh house, one of Teresa’s daughters now lives there. But some houses, Neringa said, remain in the hands of families who got them from the Nazis.

My hosts couldn’t be friendlier. When we return to Teresa’s apartment, she serves tea and homemade jam. She gives me a jar of her cranberry jam.

Liudvinavas Mayor Lunskiene proudly points out that the former Jewish cemetery is now a city park. The park itself — a lovely spot, on a wooded ravine — shows no evidence of having ever been a cemetery except for a very few gravestone fragments with Yiddish inscriptions that are almost entirely concealed in the undergrowth among the trees. The Christian cemeteries are immaculately tended.

A barn occupies the site of the old synagogue.

The Vilnius “genocide museum,” in a sizeable old KGB headquarters, isn’t about Jews, but a testament to what the Russians did to Lithuanians. But there is the Jewish Gaon museum, crowded into about 2,200 square feet, including Neringa’s upstairs office.

The Lithuanian government supports the museum — pays all the salaries and for building maintenance, says museum director Rachel Kusturian. The facility occupies valuable real estate much coveted by its neighbors. The nation is poor, and still struggling to find its feet, she explains, choosing her words carefully: “No, I do not think they could do more.”

RESOURCES:

Images from the author’s trip: www.well.com/user/stet/liudvinavas.htm
To trace your family history: www.jewishgen.org,
To find your ancestral shtetl, try “shtetl seeker”: www.jewishgen.org/ShtetlSeeker
The Vilna Gaon Jewish State museum: www.jmuseum.lt/index.asp.

TRAVEL TIPS:

A number of airlines, including British Airways, SAS, LOT and Aeroflot offer through flights from Los Angeles to Vilnius for about $1,200-$1500 round trip.  Savvy and patient travelers can almost halve this by flying to Frankfurt or London and then using the European discount carrier Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), which offers cheap flights to Riga, Latvia and Kaunas, Lithuania.

Baltic prices are extremely low by European or American standards; with good accommodations available in Vilnius for less than $100 per night in, for example, an old monastery, the Domus Maria (www.domusmaria.vilnensis.lt,) built into the old city walls. Or pay much more at the luxury hotel Narutis (info@narutis.com). Both are in the heart of the tourist-oriented Old Town district. (We liked the away-from-the-center ambiance of Eguesthouse, which occupies an old factory (www.e-guesthousee.lt/en).

Russian is the most common second language, but English is spoken widely in Old Town. Roads in Lithuania are good and car rental reasonable and not heavily taxed  (a week for less than $150). Only the fearless would want to drive in Vilnius or other Balt city centers.
An extremely useful English source about all three Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) is the free, widely distributed monthly magazine City Paper, published in Talinn, Estonia (www.BalticsWorldwide.com). It has up-to-date tourist information about all three nations that was better than the guidebooks we brought. Easy to remember tip: “Thank you” in Lithuanian sounds exactly like “achoo,” as in a sneeze.

AUTHOR’S LITHUANIAN GENEOLOGY:

Liudvinavas was the hometown of my paternal grandparents, my grandmother Miriam (Mary) Simons and my grandfather, Chaim Mankin, though they came to Pittsburgh separately about 100 years ago. When I was 18, I spent a summer staying with Mary, who spoke Yiddish, Polish, Lithuanian and Russian as a girl, and English as an adult in Pittsburgh. She told that she was from “Litvinovo,” where her family had a farm, whose milk they sold in Mariampol. My grandfather (by then deceased) had been a miller.

The Lost Yiddish World


“In many ways, it was a good world. In many ways, it was a hard world,” observes narrator Elliott Gould in introducing “A Yiddish World Remembered.”

It is not easy to evoke a lost era through television footage, but “Yiddish World” largely overcomes the difficulty.

There are lively interviews with half a dozen elderly men and women who remember the shtetls from their childhoods, vintage photos and some newly discovered archival films, including one showing the bloody aftermath of a 1919 pogrom.

The views of shtetl and city life in the pale of Eastern Europe tend to be more “good” than “hard,” but shade into the sentimental only in the vignettes of childhood life recalled many decades later.

The smells and savors of mama’s heavenly cholent, chicken soup, gefilte fish or even herring and potatoes all but leap off the screen in the ecstatic reminiscences.

“Rockefeller wasn’t as happy as I was on Friday nights when we made ‘Kiddush,'” recalls one former shtetl child.

The vibrant cultural life of the time and place is perhaps familiar , as are the political and religious rivalries among Chasidim, bundists and Zionists. Still, it gives one pause to learn that there were no less than 24 competing Yiddish dailies in Poland at the turn of the century.

In the end, though, it is the language itself that embraces all other aspects of the lost world.

“Yiddish is the soul of the Jewish people, it speaks by itself,” says one old-time immigrant to America. “Sometimes I want to talk in English, but it comes out Yiddish….Even if you don’t know the language — you feel it.”

The one-hour PBS special will premiere Aug. 18 at 5 p.m. on KCET. Formore information, go to www.kcet.org. .

Satan in the Shtetl


“Great-grandma was a naughty girl,” says British filmmaker Ben Hopkins, whose feature debut, “Simon Magus,” is the tale of a Polish shtetl in peril.

The iconoclastic director’s single Jewish ancestor was the Eastern European mistress of an English gentleman in Vienna; in the 1910s, she moved to England to live with him and bear him (and other men) children. Her convent-educated daughter did not learn she was Jewish until she planned to marry. “Great-grandma told her she couldn’t wed in church, because she was Jewish,” says the Oxford graduate, who was raised as an atheist.

Nevertheless, around 1990, Hopkins says, “the Jews sitting around the samovar in our collective DNA came to life.” Grandmother began referring to herself as a Jew; father, an ancient historian, immersed himself in studies about first- and second-century Judaism; and Hopkins made an unexpected entry in his journal: “Make ‘Simon Magus’ a Jewish story.” “It was obviously written when I was drunk, as it is very scribbly,”confides the irreverent, award-winning filmmaker.

“Simon Magus,” the tale of a visionary outcast (Noah Taylor) who becomes a pawn in an anti-Semitic plot against his Jewish community, has an eerie, magical atmosphere reminiscent of the works of Yiddish author I.B. Singer. The movie, which stars Rutger Hauer and Embeth Davidtz (“Schindler’s List”) was inspired by the early Christian legend of Simon Magus, the Samaritan magician who attempted to buy himself a place among Christ’s disciples after Judas’s death. Hopkins, the struggling director, identified with the failed magician: “It quite accurately described my life at the time,” he says.

A coup for the director was casting prominent British thespian Ian Holm as Satan, a part that was relatively simple to write, Hopkins says.

“The devil is a fantastic character,” he explains. “God is a bit boring.”

“Stuart Magus” opens today at the Nuart in Los Angeles.

The Great Mulholland Divide


When I was a UCLA student, some…uh…50 years ago and lived in Hollywood, I thought nothing of picking up a date in Boyle Heights, but I wouldn’t even consider going out with a girl from the San Fernando Valley.

I shared the common Angeleno perception that the Valley was some remote shtetl and that anything north of Mulholland Drive was terra incognita.

In the early 1960s, I returned from a year at the Weizmann Institute in Israel with my wife and two young daughters. We thought it was time to redeem our California birthright and buy our own home.

Thanks to the GI Bill, Cal-Vet loans and a generous subsidy from my mother, we figured that, stretching our limits, we might be able to afford a mortgage on a $30,000 home.

Since my job was at UCLA, our first choice was Westwood, Brentwood or Pacific Palisades. Of course, real estate brokers sneered at our pathetic pretensions and condescendingly advised us to look for a hovel in the…ugh…San Fernando Valley.

We bought a nice, small house in Sepulveda, and I quickly adjusted to the daily drive across the Santa Monica Mountains to Westwood.

But when I invited UCLA colleagues to my home, I sensed their puzzlement, if not outright panic. How in the world would they find Sepulveda? What should they wear for the daring expedition? What language did the natives speak, etc.

For the past 29 years, I have lived in the Sherman Oaks hills, a half mile on the wrong side of Bel Air. But the basic Valley-Los Angeles Basin law still holds:

It’s an easy ride from the Valley to Los Angeles, but the same route in reverse, from Los Angeles to the Valley, presages a torturous excursion.

Admittedly, we San Fernando Valleyites have a similar block about driving to the San Gabriel Valley. I think nothing of going to the downtown Music Center for an evening’s entertainment, but driving the equal distance to the Pasadena Playhouse seems a daunting venture.

Mulholland Drive is the great social divide, the Berlin Wall separating metropolitan Los Angeles.

If you live on the south side of Mulholland, you are a wealthy, liberal and sophisticated resident of Bel Air or Beverly Hills. But move across the street, to the north side, you instantly turn into a redneck, reactionary couch potato, quaffing Bud instead of chardonnay.

Almost half of the metropolitan area’s Jews live in the Valley. Curiously, they are largely unfazed by their “inferior” status and are busy building thriving Jewish community centers, schools and synagogues.

I have a dream that, one day, perhaps when Moshiach comes, the Mulholland Wall will crumble. Then, the sons and daughters of Valleyites will link hands with their brethren in West Los Angeles and Fairfax and become as one people.

Never Forgetting Sarah


I was thinking about my friend Lillian Ross last week as I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge on my way north to an enzyme bath and massage in an outdoor Japanese tea house in Occidental. (I was celebrating freedom after submitting my manuscript for a book on families and family life.) Lillian’s the one who, when asked by her children what she wanted on her 70th birthday, told them that she always had this desire to walk across the bridge with them.

Lillian is a pixie with Jungian wisdom. I wrote a column about her in 1992 for the Los Angeles Times. She began writing children’s books after her 60th birthday, with titles such as “Buba Leah and Her Paper Children” — the tale of an old shtetl woman whose only contact with her children in America were the letters they wrote to her. Every time Buba Leah read a letter, she kissed it and thanked God that her children had not forgotten her.

I thought about Lillian’s Buba Leah character a week later, while I sat on the floor of my kitchen and examined my grandmother’s Passover dishes — the Depression-blue glass dishes and the plain, white Syracuse china plates that I see at the Santa Cruz crafts fair selling for prices my Grandmother Sarah would never pay. I picked up her blue-and-white tea cup, made in Japan, and I can picture her holding it as she sat at her small Formica kitchen table (also on sale at the crafts fair), sipping Lipton’s and eating honey cake. I kissed the cup as Buba Leah kissed her letters, and I thanked God for the memories of Sarah.

Simon & Schuster may have my work, but I am Sarah’s girl, and Passover was our holiday. Pesach was the only time I was allowed to help her in the kitchen — a room entered by family members while looking over their shoulders.

My grandmother was the culinary commander in chief. If I asked her what she made for supper, she’d say, “Supper.” If I asked her what kind of meat, she’d snap, “Meat.” But Passover was different. Together, we scraped the scales off the fish given to my Uncle Al from guys with hooks who worked the docks of New York. We washed the dishes that now decorate my table. We brushed the crumbs out of shelf corners.

Sarah never shared her kitchen with her five daughters or her other granddaughters. Today, 15 years after her death, I am the only one of Sarah’s girls who makes a seder. This year, the California wing of the family decided to have the seder earlier than the rest of the Jewish population so that we could be together. I actually thought, “What would Sarah say about this?” Besides having to eat the bread of affliction for two extra days, would she disapprove? “Whoever enlarges upon the telling of the exodus from Egypt, those persons are praiseworthy.”


Sarah never shared her kitchen with her five daughters or her other granddaughters. Today, 15 years after her death, I am the only one of Sarah’s girls who makes a seder.


Seated at my seder table, drinking wine from the same navy-blue glasses I used to abuse Manischewitz from, were three of Sarah’s grandchildren, their spouses, a great-great-granddaughter (my daughter) and my granddaughter. The youngest who knew Hebrew was Julia, my daughter.

We sang “Hinei Ma Tov,” and everyone sat down. I lit the candles; we told the story of the Exodus. Seventeen years ago, Julia asked why this night was different from any other night, and she asked again. She never hesitated — the words came through her, not with the speed of a 13-year-old anxious to get it over with, but with a joy that made us all feel connected to one another. My brother hid the afikomen, and my granddaughter, Kaya, found it. My cousin Hattie jangled the tambourine I brought back from a trip to Egypt as we sang songs, and my sister-in-law Alana made sure that we didn’t make any mistakes.

When we opened the door for Elijah and Miriam, I read a Chassidic saying: “If you always assume that the person sitting next to you is the Messiah waiting for some simple human kindness, you will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands, and if the Messiah then chooses not to appear in your time, it will not matter.”

Sarah’s children had not forgotten her.


Linda Feldman, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is the co-author of “Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom,” due out this fall from Simon & Schuster.

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