Thursday, November 11, 2010

Presentation at "Darkness into Life" Opening Reception

Here is the text of my presentation at the opening reception for the Darkness into Life Holocaust education exhibit at Parnell Memorial Library in Montevallo, Alabama on Nov. 7, 2010:

I grew up Jewish in New York City, and my own back ground is Ashkenazic -- Eastern European. My grandparents grew up in shtetls -- little villages -- in Poland. They came to this country in the early 1900's, so they were safe during the Holocaust. My family never spoke of the ones who stayed behind and I don't know their stories. I wish I did.

The culture I was raised in was the culture of the Eastern European Jews. It's a passionate culture that traveled with us to Ellis Island and to cities around the globe, and it took root wherever we were planted. I'd like to share a little bit of that culture with you today.

My grandparents spoke Yiddish, a richly idiomatic language with elements of both German and Hebrew. Yiddish words like chutzpah, glitch, shmooze and oy vay have worked their way into the American vernacular, so most of us speak a little Yiddish without even realizing it. I never really learned the language as a child, except for what I picked up around the dinner table. My parents both spoke Yiddish, but usually when they didn't want the kinderlach -- the children -- to understand what they were saying.

The music of the shtetls was Klezmer, a style that is distinctive in its upbeat wildness, yet the songs are almost always in a minor key. It's folk music that borders on jazz in its spirit, and it always makes us want to dance. You'll experience Klezmer music this afternoon, thanks to our band led by Alan Goldspiel. By the way, Alan is open to suggestions for a name for this new band. The current frontrunner is "Goldspiel and the Gefilte Fishes." You can see why he needs some input.

Gefilte Fish, by the way, is fish cakes cooked in broth and served with horseradish. It's a standard on Jewish holidays.

What can I say about Jewish food? It's made with the simplest ingredients -- a chicken, a carrot, a potato, an onion -- the foods that were available in the shtetls. Savory dishes that are slow-cooked to bring out all the goodness. Rich pastry doughs filled with fruit and nuts. Oh, the flavors! Smoked whitefish. Pickled herring. Golden braided loaves of challah on Shabbos - the Sabbath. And you haven't had brisket until you've had Jewish-style brisket.

Today we'll have some nosharei -- little snacks -- so you can get a taste of Jewish cooking. You'll sample mandelbrot -- almond bread (my mother's recipe), rugelach --- little pastry rolls with sweet fillings (a friend's recipe), and apple kuchen -- apple cake squares (my grandmother's recipe) -- all prepared for us today with a little help from my friends. And no, I'm not planning to open a Jewish bakery in Montevallo, but would it be such a bad idea?

Humor is one of the things that gets us through the hard times, and we've had some hard times. But we can still laugh, and we often laugh at ourselves. For a wonderful overview of Jewish humor and the Yiddish language, I recommend the book The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten. He uses classic Jewish jokes and anecdotes to illustrate the meanings of Yiddish words. It's very entertaining!

And while you're at the library -- the wonderful stories of 19th century writer Sholom Aleichem tell the tales of life in the shtetls. One of his stories, "Tevye the Milkman," became Fiddler on the Roof. His stories about the town of Chelm -- a shtetl populated entirely by fools -- are classics of Jewish folklore. Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer also told the tales of the shtetls in his short stories. One of his stories, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy," became the movie Yentl.

Learning was a priority for my family and for all the Jewish families we knew. The educational accomplishments of our children make Jewish parents and grandparents kvell -- be filled with pride, and Jewish children take on the mantle of learning with enthusiasm and dedication. We like to make our elders kvell.

In talking about Jewish culture, I've saved Jewish mothers for last because I could write a book, and someday I probably will. I am a Jewish mother and -- what can I say? Everything you've heard -- it's all true. We're so passionate about our children that it sometimes makes us -- and them -- a little neurotic. But at the heart of the Jewish mother is a woman who just wants all good things for her children, and like the writer Elizabeth Stone, feels that becoming a mother means having your heart walking around outside your body.

A friend of mine pointed out to me that it's a trait shared by all mothers. Yes, I agree, but I think we're just more vocal about it. My own sons can fill you in if you want details. Of course, they have a wonderful Gentile father who helped balance some of the mishegas - the craziness -- and I think they've turned out OK.

I know some of you had Jewish mothers. And I know some of you are Jewish mothers. You know who you are. And here in Alabama there's another category -- the honorary Jewish mother. And you know who you are.

Our Jewish mothers sang Yiddish lullabies to us, they fed us chicken soup with matzoh balls floating like clouds on golden broth, they told us to study hard and stand up straight and wear a sweater. They kvelled over us and they blessed us. I'd like to dedicate this occasion to the memory of my own mother and to the Jewish mothers who were lost in the Holocaust. Zichronam l'vracha -- May their remembrance be for a blessing.

And I hope you'll feel at home in our celebration of Jewish culture this afternoon. You're certainly welcome to partake.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, I know first hand what it is to be the son of a Jewish mother.
    Growing up in NY was a wonderful experience and you hit the family life perfectly, the drive to do well, the love and unqualified acceptance of your family and the time spent with grandparents.