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Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Good Day

I had a rewarding day today.

Weeks ago my cousin Arlene asked me if I could join her to the New Montefiore Cemetery in Long Island for a memorial ceremony for Radom Jews who perished in the Holocaust. This ceremony takes place every year on the Sunday that falls between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Radom is the Polish town where my father and his siblings and her parents lived (my father and Arlene’s mother were first cousins). But my father left Radom with his family in 1926 when he was fifteen, immigrating to Palestine, whereas Arlene’s parents remained there until after World War II, heroically and miraculously surviving the Holocaust. 

30,000 of the 280,000 Jews who lived in Radom perished in the Holocaust. Among them was my great- grandfather Samuel Bakman, who owned a flour mill, which stood on the shore of the Radomka River that runs through town. He died of hunger either in the large ghetto in the center of Radom, or in the small ghetto in its Glinice suburb, in 1941-1942.  His two sisters were sent with their families to the Auschwitz death camp where they were murdered. 

In 2010 I traveled with my Israeli cousin Anat, to Radom to trace our family history, and to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, where part of our family perished. Nothing that I have studied, read, or seen in films, documentaries or photos; none of the interviews I had watched and the Holocaust museums I had visited, including Yad Vashem; not even my previous visit to the Terezienstadt concentration camp near Prague, had prepared me for Birkenau and Auschwitz. What socked me most was the efficiency with which the Nazis ran their oiled death machine and industry. They left nothing, not even the minutest detail to chance: they carefully calculated where the trains carrying their Jewish human transport would first stop, where their victims would initially be selected for immediate death or for forced labor, often by young SS soldiers; where their victims first undressed, where they were first disinfected and shaved, their hair used by the Nazis to manufacture fabric, and where they were disinfected for the second time if they had not been immediately selected for the gas chambers; where their clothing was first fumigated, where their clothing was fumigated for the second time; where their clothing and other belongings were collected, sorted and stored; where they would die by the Zyclon B poisoning gas, and where and how their corpses would be burned. It took merely twenty-five minutes from the time the human cargo arrived to the camps selected to die and turned into ash.
Yet since my arrival in the United States in 1969 I have never been part of the Radom community here, hence I have never participated in the ceremony commemorating Radom Jews, till today.

Since the time I told Arlene that I would join her, both my schedule and my logistics have changed. But because she depended on my driving I had to really maneuver to be able to drive.  And I was glad I did.

There, under the bluest of skies, for the first time I saw the two impressive monuments that commemorate Radom Jews. More importantly, I saw three generations of Holocaust survivors: The first who barely makes it to the cemetery but still comes, aided by their children, some of whom are themselves elderly, and their grandchildren. There were tears and there was laughter, and there was hope that nothing like the Holocaust will never happen again to any minority wherever it lives, and the hope that the gatherers will all be there at the same time next year.

Among the other gatherers I met Millie Werber, whose story was eloquently told by the writer Eve Keller in her recently published book Two Rings, and Millie’s sons, who accompanied her.

After the ceremony I visited my dearest friend Amy, who is buried in the same cemetery after succumbing to cancer eighteen months ago. Then I rushed to Brooklyn to catch what was left of the Brooklyn Book Festival, capturing two panels on subjects that interested me.

A good day indeed.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On the High Holidays

Lately I have been engulfed with a feeling I could not define. Emptiness. I thought, concerned. But I have a life too full and rich to feel empty. I have a job I love; the new semester began with a bang, with my students arguing passionately about Iran, Israel, terrorism, war, peace, the world. And yes, that I still have no publisher for my memoir—a book in which I put my heart and soul, not to mention the time I dedicated to write and rewrite it--is a source of gloom. But after taking most of the summer off I am back contacting literary agents. Besides I have begun writing a new women’s fiction, an activity that has given me new energy and much enthusiasm. I deeply love and I am loved in return. Above and beyond, my seven-and-a-half year old granddaughter wants me to live to be a hundred and work until she can be my student and my four-and-a-half year old grandson wants to marry me. I feel no apathy or loneliness, which are associated with emptiness at least in the western philosophy to which I adhere. 

Depressed?  I question myself. After all I am the daughter of a woman who suffered clinical depressions and relished in her misery. Admittedly, the older I get the more preoccupied I am with the passage of time, sometimes grieving for those moments that will never return. But no. I am not a depressed person. If anything, my life story is testimony to my fervent optimism. 

It’s the Holidays, stupid, I suddenly realized. I feel unsettled every year at the end of the month of Elul, the last month of the Hebrew calendar (which usually corresponds with the month of September). 

For Jews it is a time of self-reflection, individually and collectively. It is also a time Jews think of departed loved ones and their legacies.  But mostly, believing Jews acknowledge it is the period they are being judges by God before God inscribes their fate for the coming year. 

Growing up fearing God I didn’t worry so much about God’s decision, since on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, my mother would stay all day in our neighborhood Shull, or small synagogue, crying and praying to God to inscribe her and her family in the book of life, keeping us safe, I believed. I was certain, too, that my paternal Hasidic grandparents would take care of us in their prayers. My father, I should mention, was not part of that safety net. Averse to religion because it was forced upon him by his father, for him--and for my sister and me --going to Shull during the High Holidays was a social thing. 

The harshest testimony of my father’s antipathy to religion that I can recall was his bringing chspeck (fresh bacon) to our kosher home one day. What made his deed even worse than contaminating our kitchen with forbidden food, was the fact that he did that on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar next to the Sabbath that precedes it. Wrapped in white paper, he hid it in the back of our refrigerator till the following day, when my mother was in the synagogue; my sister probably with her friends, and I at home alone with my father. Frying the chspeck on Yom Kippur, the day of fasting, he made two sandwiches on challah bread, one for him, the other for me, making me promise that I would not tell anyone, particularly my mother, what had occurred in our kitchen. It was a hell of a good sandwich. I was seven or eight.

When I grew older and read in the prayer book the horrible ways in which condemned Jews were inscribed to die in the coming year, I would shiver wondering who would write such horrific descriptions. That no one is presumed innocent made my anxiety worse. To feel safe, I would tell myself that God had no time to follow every person on earth, determining his or her fate. Wait! I would then tremble. God has helpers. Besides He, as we learned, was omnipotent. There was nothing He couldn’t do. 

As a secular yet cultural Jew I still go to temple on the High Holidays, though I do that for shorter periods. Mostly I marvel at the fact that around the world my fellow Jews do the same thing at the same time, bonded by our common tradition. I shudder less when I read those frightening passages, still trying to decide for myself the nature of God. Besides, I am more angered than frightened by those passages, rejecting the notion that religion should instill fear in its followers, while acknowledging that many religious leaders and their adherents would argue that it is the love rather than the fear of God that is intended in the teaching of Judaism, and that my interpretation of the Holiday Prayer Book is distorted. Perhaps. 

Yet still tormented by my childhood fear of God, I am a true follower: In the Book of Leviticus (23:27) God tells Moses that on Yom Kippur Jews must torture their souls. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people (23:29). 

Have a joyful and peaceful New Year. 

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