BY PAM MIZRACHI
After a spirited Rhythm and Ruach service on February 8, congregants were treated to an evening of true stories, as told by fellow congregants. For those of you who are unfamiliar with The Moth, it is a weekly one-hour radio program on WNYC devoted to storytelling. Each episode has a theme, and storytellers are required to tell true stories based on that theme. Our first storytelling program was devoted to true stories about Shabbat. Amy Holtzer, Rabbi Yolkut, Frieda Kraft, Victor Badner, Larry Thaler, Diane Holsten, Pam Mizrachi, and Randy Heller all told poignant, touching, and funny stories—each different, but relatable through what we all know and love about Shabbat.
Curious about what you missed? Check out the stories below to read what was shared that evening!
By Pam Mizrachi
Howard and I have many pairs of candlesticks, but the ones that we’ve used every week since 2001 are the ones given to me by my grandmother when she moved into a nursing home.
Those of you who know me well have heard me tell many stories about my grandmother. My grandmother died in 2014 when she was not quite 109! I was her first grandchild, her only granddaughter, and certainly her biggest fan. My grandmother was my first friend. Hers was the first phone number I memorized, her apartment was the first home where I went for sleepovers. Her kitchen was a place where I learned about chicken soup, blechs, and Shabbes candles. It was always clear that my grandmother’s candlesticks were her oldest, and most prized household possession, although it took me a long time to know why.
My grandmother’s father, my great-grandfather, emigrated from Lodz, Poland to Paterson, NJ before the start of WWI in order to find work, make some money, and send for his family when he could. Unfortunately, he remained separated from them for the duration of the war. In 1920, my great-grandmother and her 6 children, including my grandmother, at the age of 14, somehow made their way from Poland, through Germany, France, Belgium, and ultimately to the Netherlands in order to board a ship bound for Ellis Island. My grandmother talked about how beautiful Paris was, but as far as the rest of that trip was concerned, it all seemed pretty awful.
In 1929 my grandmother was persuaded by her mother to go back to Lodz in order to marry a wealthy young man whose family owned a textile mill in Paterson. She was 23 and not yet married, and this was a problem. When she arrived at the Lodz train station she was horrified to see an extremely heavy young man holding a cardboard sign printed with her name. My grandmother was a very kind and caring person, but she was critical about people who were overweight. This man was quite heavy, and she refused to marry someone who looked like that. She walked past him without uttering a word and stayed with her aunt in Lodz who owned a small restaurant.
She helped out in the restaurant and met my grandfather who made daily bread deliveries from his family’s bakery in town. They fell in love, married, and my grandmother brought him back to Paterson along with a few wedding gifts, among them, the brass candlesticks.
Now to be honest, my immediate family was not observant, we never had a traditional Shabbat dinner in my own house, nor did my mother ever light candles. When we would have dinner at my grandparent’s apartment on Friday nights, the candles were lit and pots simmered on a piece of metal placed over a low flame on her stove, that stayed lit until Saturday night, but I never understood why, and I never asked. It wasn’t until I went to Hebrew School that I realized that lighting candles was a thing for all Jews on Friday nights! In fact, I certainly had had my fair share of challah, after all, my grandfather was a kosher bread baker, but we never had challah in my own house on Shabbat.
When my grandmother turned 95 she felt she could no longer live on her own, so she willingly gave up her apartment for a room at the Daughters of Miriam, the local Jewish home in Clifton, New Jersey. Knowing that my mother would have no use for them, my grandmother gave the candlesticks to me since she knew she couldn’t light them in the nursing home. She made me promise to keep them polished, but most importantly, to use them every Friday night.
You see other than her wedding ring, these candlesticks were the only tangible things that remained from her marriage to my grandfather in Poland. When Howard and I would visit her she would often ask about her candlesticks and I would occasionally bring them with me for her to see and give her a chance to touch her past.
My grandmother was crushed by my mother’s death in 2004. Her world shrank and her memories dimmed over the next 10 years. I guess you could say that she had a sweet dementia. Her stories morphed and she created a new narrative. These changed stories became her revised autobiography.
So the new story about the candlesticks went like this: Pamela, I saw these beautiful candlesticks in Paris and bought them for you because your mother died and you have to know how to make shabbes. No, Grandma, I said. You got these in Lodz when you married grandpa and took them back to Paterson on the ship. She wouldn’t have any of that story. This was now the story about the candlesticks, and one that I hold dear to this day.
Many years ago, Marla Segelman shared with me that when she lights the Shabbes candles, she closes her eyes, and thinks about her children, and prays for their good fortune. I really loved that idea, and have incorporated that into my own practice ever since. When I light candles now, not only do I think about my family, but I think about the journey these candlesticks have taken, and what they have represented to me and my grandmother, real and imagined.
By Amy Holtzer
When our children were young, from an early age we would put them in the car and travel. At first, the trips were short, to New Jersey or Massachusetts to see family. One night out and then back home. As they got a little older, the trips got longer, and often I would take them myself on these “adventures”. That brings me to the memory that is the beginning of this story.
When my children were 12, 10, 9, and almost 4, I took them on the road in the summer for almost two weeks. We left on a Wednesday and headed to Massachusetts and Vermont, and made it to Montreal by Friday afternoon. A family at work had given me a tip about ordering chicken and salads in advance from a Montreal kosher deli, to be picked up Friday afternoon.
After checking into the hotel, I decided that I would take only Noah, the youngest, with me to pick up the food, so that the others would not have to be cooped up in the car any longer.
The deli was only about 15 minutes away, so I should have been able to get there and back in under 45 minutes. Or so I thought.
There was traffic. There were no parking spots anywhere near the deli. When I finally parked about a quarter of a mile away, and pushed Noah back to the deli in his stroller, the line to pick up food was out the door.
I returned to the hotel about 2 hours after I left my three children there, in a foreign country, all too young to be responsible for each other, without cell phones to reach me. As I opened the door to our room, I was ready to find crying, tempers flaring, something broken, Canadian police.
What I found was a blanket taken from a closet, spread on the floor. On top were 5 paper plates and plastic silverware we had taken from home, and 5 hot cups ready for the Cup of Soup chicken soup they had heated in the room’s microwave. 2 candles wedged into travel candlesticks, and a cup of grape juice. And in the middle of the blanket, covered with tissues, were the 2 challahs I had baked at home and brought with us.
My children created a Shabbat picnic dinner, ready and waiting for the chicken and salads I bought. I thought to myself, this is the essence of home, of family, of love, my children putting together their version of their favorite meal of the week.
Flash forward about 15 years to now.
We haven’t had a Shabbat picnic dinner in a long time. Our children don’t live at home, and their visits have become rarer as their own lives become fuller with their friends and their work and their interests. But when they do visit, their preferred time is for Friday night dinner.
“Can we come this Friday for dinner, Mom?” is my favorite question. “And will you please make one cinnamon and one chocolate chip challah?”
It’s the challah that is the centerpiece of that long-ago memory, because it’s challah that is the centerpiece of our Shabbat experience. Since that Montreal trip, I’ve made challahs braided straight and braided round, in number shapes to celebrate birthdays and high school graduations, in letter shapes to celebrate college admissions, in orange and blue to celebrate a certain World Series contender, large loaves and small, and tiny delicate challah knots. We cook challah French toast with leftovers, or my children take some home for their freezer to be defrosted and warmed at a later date. I’ve shipped challah to Massachusetts and Delaware, and more recently to Philadelphia and Maryland.
Our lives are twisted around each other’s the way the strands are twisted in the braid. We start with three strands, or four, or some of us with six, and by weaving them in and out, over and under each other, we form an intricately entwined whole. That is our hope for our families, to exist as separate strands and also to come together, when we can, to wrap our arms and our lives around each other, to celebrate what is good in the world and in our worlds, to share challah.
Sarah asked me last week for my challah recipe and tried her hand at baking some for a friends’ Shabbat dinner. Her dough didn’t rise much, but the taste was there. I’m hoping to be able to teach my other children, when they are ready, how to bake their own challah to share with their families. For now, I’m happiest when we say hamotzi together and the scent and taste of the dough bring decades of memories back to us, and promise us happy times ahead.
Next week, Sarah and Talya and I will be on the road again. This time, it’s a flying adventure instead of one in a car, to visit Noah who is in Italy for the semester. Two freshly baked challahs, one chocolate chip and one cinnamon, will be in my suitcase, to be shared in a hotel room, perhaps sitting around a picnic on the floor.
By Victor Badner
I placed the container of freshly made tabbouleh, in my backpack, put on my scarf and down coat, left my apt. and started my 2.5 mile walk to join the Cambridge-Brookline Chavurah, shabbat morning minyan. I was going to meet a group of between 50-70 young people which met in select homes for a lay-led Shabbat minyan, followed by a vegetarian pot luck, nuts and berries, lunch. We were a really warm and friendly group of 20-30 year olds, mostly graduate students or newly employed people who had joined together to form a really special community.
Over the years, as our group grew, we found fewer and fewer homes that could accommodate us, but we squeezed together and created an atmosphere that, while being quite cramped, was also especially warm, accepting, friendly, open, and spiritual. It was November 1980 and I was going to read the haftorah that morning and be given a special blessing, tifilat haderech, for those about to take a trip. I don’t remember much about that haftorah reading, nor the blessing I received, but I am sure that it was a typical Shabbat service with lots of loud chanting, harmonious singing and spirit and I do know that on that specific Shabbat I was particularly anxious and emotional. You see the next day, another member of our Chavura and I, were going to board an Aeroflot plane and fly to Moscow in the Soviet Union. We were the next pair of emissaries selected by the Israeli government to go to Russia, as part of Israel’s effort to help support Russian refusniks, or those Russian Jews who had declared their intention to emigrate to Israel. Our mission was to meet with them and others committed to that movement; to try to bolster their spirits and resolve, to share stories of Israel and its culture, to conduct some classes in Hebrew, to teach Hebrew songs and perhaps some Israeli dances.
Most importantly, in the days before the internet and in order to ensure security, we were supposed to take names IN of people who were willing to sponsor Russians wanting to leave and take names OUT of people who needed sponsors.
We spent the first week in Moscow, adjusting to the time change, feigning interest in the tourist sites, visiting Red Square, the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb and also meeting fellow Jews, the Refusniks, who longed to be free. At the end of the week we flew to Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and as previously arranged, were to go the GRAND CHORAL Synagogue, the main synagogue in St. Petersburg, on Shabbat morning, to meet our contacts.
On that Shabbat morning as we walked to our destination and turned onto a major street, we came upon a massive, cupola topped, Moorish style very old building, the synagogue, and when we entered, we saw a colannaded interior with three tiers and a seating capacity of over a 1,000. Once inside my partner and I each picked up a siddur and sat down for services. The same Shacharit service we sang back in Cambridge, was methodically being read by one of the 30, mostly elderly people, in attendance (we were later told that half of them were probably KGB agents).
As the Torah reading was half way done, one of the old men approached me with a Chumash in his hand and asked hopefully and expectantly “Maftir?” I responded without hesitation, “Kayn!” Amazingly, I was offered the opportunity to chant the haftorah in this immense, majestic, and awe-inspiring place and as one of the youngest people there, be a testament to the strength and continuity of the Jewish people. Without a doubt as I stood at the lectern in the middle of that room and chanted that Haftorah, I had an out of body experience thinking about my own family’s flight into exile across Russia during the Holocaust, as well as the millions of people who had gone before me.
There I was, staring at the ornate Bimah and Nair Tamid in this vast and nearly empty space, amazed at where I was and what was happening and how different my thoughts were, just one week earlier. The service ended in a blur, but as we exited, it was then that we realized that we were in the right place, as over 100 people were gathered outside, many of whom approached us to “meet the Americans” and as planned, to make appointments for the remainder of the week. After Leningrad, the trip moved on to Kishinev, Moldavia where we continued with our mission but also where we were approached by and eventually placed under house arrest by the KGB, but that is a story for another time.
The following Shabbat I was back in Brookline, once again attending our cramped, crowded, spirited and loud Shabbat service, but it never sounded sweeter, nor felt more welcoming, warm and comforting and I never felt more grateful for the gift of freedom we live with every day and mostly take for granted, but not on that Shabbat.