The ProsenPeople

For the Sake of Unification

Friday, November 02, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Lisa Alcalay Klug wrote about a surprising discovery in Nachlaot and about how her work is informed by her father's experiences during the Holocaust. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Soon after learning my late grandmother’s family lived in Nachlaot, I accepted an invitation for Shabbat dinner from sweet friends, Mottle and Batya Wolfe. Spending Shabbat in Nachlaot definitely felt like the most fitting way to honor my newly discovered roots. When I shared how much I wanted to spend more time where my grandmother grew up, the Wolfes seemed to read my mind and invited me to their seder. I was so touched by their invitation, but Passover was four months away. I was still touring for Cool Jew in what was fast becoming the Energizer Bunny of book tours. It just kept going and going... Could I really return so soon?

At my next stop, Limmud UK, the answer effortlessly appeared. Several participants suggested I present at Limmud Berlin and Limmud Amsterdam, both slated for May. I could fly early to Europe, add on a trip to Israel for Passover and return in time for both conferences. I would barely be home between now and then but I was used to that (!) and Passover in Nachlaot was clearly where I was meant to be... It just kept getting validated. Was it the luck of Cool Jew, my grandmother's orchestrations on high or something else at work?

The time flew by. Finally, I landed at Mottle and Batya’s seder. They urged me to share my story again with their guests. I had long known my grandmother was born in Israel but I didn’t know she grew up in Nachlaot, near Ohel Moshe Street, where it meets Rehov Aryeh Levin, named for the great tzaddik of Jerusalem. The story kept growing...

In two weeks, it would be the 28th of Nissan, designated by the Hebrew letters kaf-chet, which form the word koach/strength. The day is the anniversary of my father’s liberation day from Buchenwald, the yahrzeit of my grandmother whose portrait I found displayed in Nachlaot and my Hebrew birthday. I planned to sponsor a Shabbat kiddush in memory of my grandmother, in honor of my father and as act of gratitude on my birthday. I had no idea where, but the less I planned, it seemed, the more the Universe provided.

One afternoon during Passover, I went to Gan Sacher to meet friends. When they called to cancel, I realized I was so close to Nachlaot, I thought I’d "visit" my family's portrait in the same ways others visit graves. I navigated Nachlaot's twists and turns, delighted when I found it. I stayed for a few moments, marveling, again, over the discovery, realizing she and my great-grandparents and many other relatives had stood here, too, long before images were ever embedded in these stone walls. As I was leaving, I was stunned to find the gate of an adjacent synagogue slightly open. Without hesitation, I wandered through the gate and climbed the stairs, then stood silent on a landing. Through a glass door, I could see a group of men engaged in study. One stood up, approached the door and gave up a thumbs up, motioning me upstairs. I nodded. I wanted to see what I could find out about the portraits, but if mincha, the afternoon prayers, were part of the plan, "Okay," I thought, "I'll roll with it."

We climbed a narrow set of stairs outdoors to a heavy door he unlocked. I continued alone, up another narrow set of stairs indoors to the ezrat nashim. The women’s balcony offered a spectacular view of an elaborate Sefardi sanctuary. The magnificent ceiling was painted blue with gold stars. It was so close I could practically touch it. The imaginary sky met graceful renderings of the twelve tribes. Oriental rugs surrounded a raised bima and variations on an elaborate parochet, an embroidered velvet curtain, covered several spots along the walls. My favorite decoration of all was the large red neon crown adorned with the four letters of the tetragrammaton. I laughed. It was Imperial margarine meets Cool Jew.

Within a few minutes, prayers began in the Mizrachi nusach; eventually two women and young girl joined me. Through the window behind us, the sun set over Jerusalem. Finally, after maariv, I retraced my path downstairs and cautiously waited until someone motioned me through the glass doors. I asked in Hebrew for the rabbi. His name was Rav Moshe and he was delighted to hear I was related to those "embedded in the walls." When I explained I wanted to commemorate my grandmother’s yahrzeit on an upcoming Shabbat, he corrected me with the correct Sefardi terminology. He invited me sponsor the azkara on the appropriate weekday. This charming shul, the Great Synagogue of Ohel Moshe, was the only house of worship with a section for woman during my grandmother’s childhood. So this, he said, was it: her shul. I was so moved and so surprised. Like a new stanza of "Dayenu," I wouldn't have been there if my friends hadn't canceled, or if I hadn't arrived in time for services, or returned for Passover, or gone to Limmud, or found the portrait on display, or opened David's email, or met him at Jewlicious, or written Cool Jew...

Days later, in nearby Mahane Yehuda, I shopped for traditional items served at an hazkara. Mezonot/grains (crackers and cookies), pri haetz/fruit of the tree (dates), pri haadama/fruit of the ground (peanuts) and sh’hakol, which loosely translates as "everything"not covered by another blessing (drinks). That day, Rav Yitzchak, who searched with me for the image of the unknown Alcalays and many other dear friends showed up.

We davened mincha and maariv and read chapters of the Zohar to elevate the soul of my grandmother, Yehudit bat Yitzchak. Afterwards, the shul regulars and my friends, said blessings over the refreshments and we drank l'chaim to my grandmother's memory, my father's long life, everyone present and my birthday. I retold, once again, the story of discovering my grandmother’s roots in the neighborhood and the unusual unification of my Sefardi grandmother, my Ashkenazi father and my own entry into this world.

I felt then, as now, grateful for the Providence of marking that moment in Jerusalem, for our connections to each other and Above, and by the abundance of personal validation, hasgacha pratit, that continues to unfold... It's there. Always. Sometimes, it is so openly revealed. And sometimes, we see it only when we remember to look.

Lisa Alcalay Klug (lisaklug.com) is an award-winning journalist, author, speaker and media coach. She is currently at work on a memoir. This post is a part of a blog tour celebrating the release of her new book, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe. Learn more about the blog tour at https://www.facebook.com/events/505196389498488/. Join her Smokin' Hot Mamalah Book Launch Giveaway valued at $300 at www.ModernTribe.com/mamalah.

Seeking Connection

Wednesday, October 31, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lisa Alcalay Klug wrote about how her work is informed by her father's experiences during the Holocaust. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

If there is one consistent theme in the ongoing discoveries of my family history it is meaningful coincidence. Some people call this synchronicity. Our sages call it hasgacha pratit, Divine providence.

In 2009, I received an email from David Abitbol, whom I had met the year before when I presented at the Jewlicious Festival he co-founded in Los Angeles. David had made aliyah and spotted a vintage photograph of a Jerusalem couple named Alcalay displayed near his apartment in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot. He asked if they were my relatives. I didn’t know. My mother didn’t know. My grandparents were no longer living so I couldn’t ask them. Months passed and the question lingered. If I could find more details about the image, I might discover how we are related.

If hobbies can be Jewish, genealogy certainly is. It’s a way of reclaiming our past despite centuries of persecution and loss. It’s also popular among “Holocaust families” like mine who dream of discovering a lost relative. Before the proliferation of genealogical sites on the Net, I consulted an Israeli professor of Sefardi history, Yom Tov Assis at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, about my mother's family. Yom Tov told me all Alcalays are part of a large clan that left Spain at the time of the Inquisition and dispersed across the Mediterranean. While he was still alive, my grandfather, the son of a Jerusalem rabbi, told me we are direct descendants of an early Zionist thinker, Rabbi Yehuda Alcalay, the chief rabbi of Sarajevo. In his writings, Herzl credits Alcalay with many of the ideas for a future Jewish state. To honor that history, I inserted the montage of delegates at the first Zionist Congress held in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland into my first book, Cool Jew. Two delegates were both descendants of Rabbi Alcalay, a granddaughter and a great nephew, who were married. Their names are David and Judith Alcalay; she was one of the relatively few women in attendance.

Months after David Abitbol sent me the image of the unknown Alcalays, I was invited to present at Limmud UK. Since I was traveling all the way from California, I added on a visit to Israel and recruited another friend, Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz, for help unraveling the mystery of the photo. I had met Yitzchak years earlier when we both taught in a Jewish spirituality retreat in Maui. Nachlaot's labyrinthian streets easily swallow up newcomers but Yitzchak, who studies kabbalah in Nachlaot each night—all night—was happy to help. David had told me the image is one among many historic portraits embedded in Nachlaot's walls; these displays honor early residents of one of the first neighborhoods outside the Old City with weather-protected photographs that represent a Jewish twist on “Lincoln slept here.” On one wall, there might be the image of Tevyeh the Milkman. On another, Rachel the seamstress.

We wandered the neighborhood in an impromptu tour, carefully reading every caption, enjoying the charming stories, but there was not one Alcalay among them. The sun began to set and soon, Yitzchak had to leave for his evening routine. I asked if we could quickly try just one more street before we gave up. We picked up our pace and turned another corner. There, we discovered a series of about 20 images, the largest yet, but one drew me directly to it and I began to cry. The photo features a family, including one young woman I immediately recognized as my grandmother. She had a stroke early in life and I barely knew her, but I "happened" to have visited her a week before she died and attended her funeral in the same cemetery as the Israelis martyred at the Munich Olympics.

My aunt had given me a copy of her family portrait soon after my grandmother passed away. I love it so much that I keep it on display in my home. By the time I discovered it in Nachlaot, I had already published it in Cool Jew. It accompanies a section on Jewish blood ties.

 

My grandmother, Yehudit Levy, z'l is shown seated in the far right corner, with her parents,
siblings, niece and nephew.

It was only because I was searching that I found what I wasn't seeking, a bond to Nachlaot I didn't even know existed. This amazing series of meetings and friendships had led me to an unexpected gift during Chanukah, when my grandmother was born. Her parents had named her Judith, in honor of one of the heroines of Chanukah, who slew the enemy ruler, Holofernes.

I was due in England soon but hoped to return to Nachlaot for the next major festival, Passover. I dreamt of commemorating our redemption and walking the streets my grandmother had, and where my great grandparents had before her.

The next installment of this story will appear in a third post in this series.

Read Part 3 of this series: For the Sake of Unification

Lisa Alcalay Klug (lisaklug.com) is an award-winning journalist, author, speaker and media coach. She is currently at work on a memoir. This post is a part of a blog tour celebrating the release of her new book, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe. Learn more about the blog tour at https://www.facebook.com/events/505196389498488/. Join her Smokin' Hot Mamalah Book Launch Giveaway valued at $300 at www.ModernTribe.com/mamalah.

It's Not All in a Name

Monday, October 29, 2012 | Permalink

Lisa Alcalay Klug's most recent book, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe, is now available. She is also the author of Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe, a National Jewish Book Awards Finalist. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It’s clear from the names of my two pop culture humor books, Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, that my Jewish background is a primary force in my writing. What these titles don’t reveal is how much my work is informed by my father’s experiences during the Holocaust.

They say every child of a Holocaust survivor is born with a tear in her eye. This is far from an obvious starting point for cultivating humor. But like many other creatives, my “weighty inheritance” significantly contributes to the overall tenor of my writing about contemporary Jewish lifein both revealed and unrevealed ways.

My first book, Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe (cooljewbook.com), was a 2008 National Jewish Book Awards Finalist and the first humor book honored in the awards’ 50-year-history. My new book, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe (hotmamalah.com), debuted this month. Both books are filled with humorous depictions of Jewish life and practice. They promote learning about your identity and celebrating it with a reverent irreverence...an irreverence based on a real love of being Jewish.

My father, who will b’ezrat Hashem, soon turn 90, is a survivor of Buchenwald. As a child, my father told me his parents died “in the war.” It was only when I turned the age of bat mitzvah that I learned their precise fate. On Yom Kippur 1942, the Nazis deported them and their daughter Rosa to Treblinka. They were never heard from again. That same year, the Nazis murdered my uncle Lipman in the Czestohowa ghetto. Somehow, despite years as a slave laborer in war-time Poland, my father survived. He was near death when General Patton’s Third Army finally liberated Buchenwald. He was furious to miss the oranges and chocolate U.S. liberators fed his fellow captives. As many of them died from complications, my father realized this was one more blessing that saved his life.

One of my father’s mottos is never give up. One day in April 1945 he was a slave. And the next day, suddenly, the skies parted. And he was a free.

Another of my father's favorite maxims is never, ever be ashamed to be a Jew. My books, Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, turn this injunction into a positive: to know who you are and own it. Little did I know that my own embracing of this teaching would lead me to new revelations about my heritage, including the Sefardi history of my mother’s family. Check back soon for more about them in an upcoming post in this series.

Read Part 2 of this series: Seeking Connection

Read Part 3 of this series: For the Sake of Unification

Lisa Alcalay Klug (lisaklug.com) is an award-winning journalist, author, speaker and media coach. She is currently at work on a memoir. This post is one in series in a blog tour celebrating the release of her new book, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe. Learn more about the blog tour at https://www.facebook.com/events/505196389498488/. Join her Smokin' Hot Mamalah Book Launch Giveaway valued at $300 at www.ModernTribe.com/mamalah.

New Reviews

Friday, October 26, 2012 | Permalink
This week's reviews:





 

JBC Bookshelf: War and Extremism in Fiction

Thursday, October 25, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

We've begun to notice a pattern in the newest fiction titles to cross our desk: the theme of war and extremism. Each of the following works of fiction explore the realities of war, resistance, dictatorship, and extremism across the globe and time. They present the philosophical and physical struggles of individuals caught up in conflict throughout different points in history. Written over the past hundred years, the trend begs the question: Will we ever learn? 

Judith: A Novel, Lawrence Durrell (November 2012, Open Road Media)

Released one hundred years after the author's birth, Judith is set in Palestine in the 1940s on the eve of Britain's withdrawal. Find out more about Durrell here

Ignorance: A NovelMichèle Roberts (January 2013, Bloomsbury USA)
Roberts, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, tells the story of two women in wartime France, as they struggle with guilt, faith, and desire. 

The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga, Moyshe Kulbak; Hillel Halkin, trans. (January 2013, Yale University Press)
Written in Yiddish between 1929 and 1935, Kulbak tells the story of a Jewish family in Minsk as they cope with the new Soviet reality. This title is a part of Yale University Press's New Yiddish Library Series.

The Fall of the Stone City, Ismail Kadare (February 2013, Grove Press)
Set in Albania in 1943, Gjirokastër is the first town in the warpath of Nazi troops invading Albania. Intermingling Balkan legend with recent Albania history, Kadare tells a tale of dictatorship, resistance, and magic. 

The Wanting: A Novel, Michael Lavigne (February 2013, Schocken Books)
The long-awaited second novel from Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award recipient Michael Lavigne. Michael's new novel follows Roman Guttman, a Russian-born postmodern architect who is injured in a bus bombing, as he journeys into Palestinian territory. Roman's story alternates with the diary of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Anyusha, and is enriched by flashbacks of Anyusha's mother's life, a famous Russian refusenik who died for her beliefs.  




The Hare With Amber Eyes: The Illustrated Edition

Thursday, October 25, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

For those who haven't jumped on the Edmund de Waal train yet, here's your chance! Farrar, Straus and Giroux will be publishing the Illustrated Edition of The Hare with Amber Eyes in November. This beautiful edition features 100 previously unseen images, including photographs of the netsuke collection and full-color images from de Waal’s family archive. 

Book Clubs will be happy to know that de Waal has a handy reader's guide available on his website here

One Book, One Community: Spertus

Wednesday, October 24, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Last year, Spertus planned a fantastic line-up around Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum's A Day of Small Beginnings for their One Book, One Community program, featured during Jewish Book Month. This year, Spertus's One Book, One Community program will feature National Jewish Book Award finalist Mary Glickman's One More River

Events include a kick-off screening of Shalom Ya'll on November 10th, a book discussion on November 29th, and three presentations by Mary at locations across the area. You can find information about all of the One Book, One Community events here. And, don't forget to download Spertus's reader's guide for One More River here, which includes discussion questions, an interview, Southern Jewish recipes, historical bites about Jews in the South, and more.

Browse JBC's website for more information on Mary and her books:

One More River (review, interview, book club questions)
Home in the Morning (review, book club questions)
Twitter Book Club transcript for Home in the Morning

Find out more about Mary Glickman and One More River here:

Passing on Stories

Wednesday, October 24, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jami Attenberg wrote about growing up Jewish in a small town. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My mother was in town for a few days that summer, babysitting her granddaughter (and my niece), while she had some time off between camp and school starting again.

One day I picked the two of them up and drove them to Brighton Beach, which I prefer over Coney Island mostly because I like being around all the Russians, our people a few generations back, but also because it’s easier to find parking there than Coney Island.

On the beach the man selling sodas from a cooler flirted with my mother. She’s still got it, I thought, which I found encouraging in a narcissistic way. We slathered ourselves with suntan lotion and committed to a time limit of exposing ourselves to cancerous rays. We squinted in the sun.

Whenever I have these moments, when it’s just the three of us, the three generations of women, I like to ask my mother questions about our family history. It’s good to pass on stories. That’s what my whole life is about now, passing on stories to the next person.

That day she told us about a family member that had escaped Russian military service by puncturing his eardrums. This weird tale of cleverness and cowardice did not faze me. In fact, it delighted me. I plucked the detail from the air and put it into the book I was writing the very next day.

My mother and my niece wandered off toward the water and jumped the waves, and then later it was just my niece and myself. The both of us squealed along with the other Brooklynites when the waves crashed around us. My mother watched us. I held my niece’s hand. We were fearless.

Jami's most recent book, The Middlesteins, is now available. Visit her official website here.

Jews and Baseball

Monday, October 22, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Attention World Series fans: Check out our "Jews and Baseball" reading list. Select titles are below, and the full list can be found here.




 

Different, but Special

Monday, October 22, 2012 | Permalink

Jami Attenberg's most recent novel, The Middlesteins, is now available. Her other books include: Instant Love, The Kept Man, and The Melting Season. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I have very distinct memories about growing up as part of what was then a very small Jewish community in Buffalo Grove, IL. Today my hometown has a big Jewish population, as does the rest of the North Shore. But at the time, there was only one other Jewish family on the block, and I don’t recall them being particularly invested in their Judaism. It was on the Attenbergs to represent.

Just what every child wants. To represent their religious differences.

I did get in a few fights in school. Kids threw around anti-Semitic slurs, not knowing necessarily what they meant. It was probably just something they picked up somewhere, as kids do. In third grade a girl called me a kike in gym class, and I challenged her to a fight after school. We met in the soccer field, surrounded by other children. I was chubbier than her, so I just sat on her and sort of slapped her around the head. I was eventually declared the winner. A few years ago she friended me on Facebook, and I declined.

The holiday season was the toughest, I think, because there so many differences between how we celebrated our holidays and everyone else celebrated theirs. I remember being banned from other houses as a younger child during the winter holiday season; I was the only one who didn’t believe in Santa Claus, and I was ruining everyone’s Christmas.

Still, in all of this, I developed a sense of pride in being a Jew. If we were different, weren’t we at least a little bit special?

When my parents first moved to Buffalo Grove, the population was small in general, and while there were plenty of Jews in say, my father’s hometown of Highland Park, about a half hour east of us, they just hadn’t found their way out to us yet.

I called my dad recently and asked him about it.

"There was one other Jewish family on the block, maybe?" I said.

"You have to remember that there were only six to eight thousand people in Buffalo Grove," he said.

"It was very small," I agreed.

"When you consider what percentage of the population is Jewish anyhow, you didn’t have a lot. And we were one of the first forty families in our synagogue – we joined in the second year of the synagogue. Everybody who was in the synagogue at that time was well aware of that particular problem in Buffalo Grove."

I pictured a bunch of Jews in the 1970s gossiping about The Buffalo Grove Problem.

“By the way, Patton Drive has not changed,” he said. “There’s still only two or three Jewish families.”

I don’t know why I find that comforting, but I do.

Visit Jami's official website here.