Category Archive: Jewish

Remembering a Teacher

At the academy (Ida Crown), there were all kinds of kids, some more, some less observant,” Averick says. “Everyone there, whether or not they were observant, had an instinctive respect for him. They understood he represented something that was holy. There were kids who were not so interested in learning, but for him they would stand up. He really was a Talmid chachem (Torah scholar). He sort of radiated from high, but it was not something he demanded from people.

From Chain of Miracles, by Pauline Dubkin Yearwood

I just got this article in the mail from my dad, and it certainly took me right back to the teenage days. The quote above is from an article about Rabbi Meyer Juzint Z”L, an incredibly beloved teacher from my high school. It also perfectly captures how we all felt about him. Coming from a liberal Jewish family into an Orthodox high school, I fell into the category of “less observant” by a certain standard. Talmud study was a real challenge for me back then compared to my classmates who had grown up with it (real talk: still a challenge for me), so at times I was one of those kids who was less interested in learning. But we all loved Rebbe Juzint; and everyone stood up when he entered the room. It wasn’t out of a sense of formality and decorum; that was simply how much we all respected him.

I was lucky enough to go to his home with some friends on a Sunday morning or two to learn privately with him. It was considered a privilege, and I’ll hold it dearly with me forever. My sophomore or junior year, I was put into one of his classes and it felt like the honor of a lifetime, even though I struggled through the whole year. I was sort of a weird kid in high school (still am), and I sense that perhaps Rebbe Juzint didn’t entirely know what to make of me. But he taught me with the same quiet love that he brought to all of his students.

We did have our moments, though. A story:

While in many ways my high school wasn’t like most others, we still had seniors pulling pranks on an annual basis. The best one I ever saw was my sophomore year, when a bunch of guys filled the school with live chickens. They were running around a maze of benches in the atrium on the top floor, they were all over the place. I salute whoever was behind it to this day.

I was on my way to morning prayers in the auditorium when all of  sudden I heard Rebbe Juzint calling me from down the hall, “Dovid! Dovid! Come here! You have to see this!” I ran over to him, thinking that something was wrong, only to find him standing in front of what was usually the school’s trophy case. But there weren’t any trophies because the thing was filled with chickens.

“Chickens, Dovid! Look at the chickens!”

Rebbe Juzint was giggling hysterically at the whole thing, and I’d never seen anything like it from him. Laughing with this sacred man was beautiful as any moment I ever had at that school. I’d like to think that he was instinctively appealing to the oddball in me by calling me over to see the chickens.

His memory is nothing but a blessing for all of those who were lucky enough to learn with him. I’ll never forget that I got to laugh with him, too. Wherever he is, I hope he’s found the peace that he so richly deserved.

And to this day, I still don’t know the fate of the chickens.

Welcome to Rosie’s Basement

Exactly ten years ago, I came to New York planning to find an apartment for my new life here. Instead, I spent the better part of two weeks in Long Island helping my mom and my aunt clean out my grandparents’ house. By that time, their health had declined and they had permanently settled in Boca like…well, like a lot of Jews of their time and place in this world. And I joined my mom and Aunt Linda as we sorted through some 40 years of memories and personal history.

I was 22 at the time, somewhat lacking the maturity to appreciate the gravity of the situation and probably too focused on my own transition out of college to process what was happening around me. Then again, maybe it was a coping mechanism. My mother and aunt felt the pain of having to sift through their respective childhoods and their parents lives, having to decide over and over what could or should be saved, and what must be sold through a cousin’s business. Meanwhile, I found myself shopping in a hybrid between a thrift shop and the world’s coolest museum.

There’s no blame to be laid, but as a kid I didn’t ask the right questions, and I suppose that my grandparents weren’t always the world’s biggest storytellers. Humble to a fault, my grandfather would only ever tell me that he was an architect. In truth, he was a Jewish communal professional, helping U.S. servicemen get kosher meals on holidays with the Jewish Welfare Board. At some point, he helped to design the interiors of JCC’s across the country. I didn’t know any of this until I went into the basement with mom and Linda, and by then it was too late to ask him about it.

My grandfather was also one hell of a natty dresser, and I ended up taking more than a few items of clothing with me from that house. There’s a linen shirt that I still wear every Passover that I’m convinced is infused with magic; I’ve spilled everything from red wine to apple cobbler on it and it still comes out clean every time. More than any standard Jewish ritual object, that shirt holds a spiritual importance for me that I still can’t quite define. When I wear it, I think of my grandfather praying on his own in my parents’ living room every morning as the sunlight washed over him, of sitting next to him at the synagogue as he passionately crooned the prayers with his almost comically deep voice. He was the Jewish role model to our family, and he remains so to this day. Every year as my father presides over high holiday services at his synagogue, he proudly wears the same tallit that my grandfather wore when he was a chaplain in WWII.

My grandfather never got to discover that I’d committed my career to serving in the Jewish community. While I wonder just what he’d make of this thing that I do called Limmud NY, I suspect that he would have enjoyed it quite a bit.

Out of everything that I found and saved, this is by far my favorite item. It’s an ashtray:

Here’s the back of the thing:

Just so we’re clear, this is an ashtray from a Bar Mitzvah party. Not quite the party favors that you find these days.

Now before we get to the next part of this story, you should know that I found this ashtray in the top drawer of the first piece of furniture that I encountered upon entering the house. So this ashtray could have hypothetically been sitting in the front hall of my grandparents’ home for just over forty years. No one knows for sure.

But here’s the thing: my grandparents were Anne and Murray Rosenberg. I have no idea who Roslyn and Irving Hershkopf were. (As an aside, my grandmother’s nickname for Murray was “Rosie”. She always told me it was because he had rosy cheeks, and for some reason, I always believed her. I’m pretty sure it’s because his last name was Rosenberg.)

No one will ever know the story behind that ashtray, but it does give us some clues about the broader Jewish cultural context of the time, at the very least in terms of the role of smoking and its accessories in Jewish lifecycle events 50 years ago. But in the ten years since I found that ashtray, I’ve developed a fascination with what we choose to save and what we discard, and the stories that are held within the flotsam and jetsam of our lives, Jewish or otherwise.

If I had saved the swag from every Jewish conference I’ve attended in my career and left it in the basement for my own grandchildren to find, what would they conclude about my life? That I loved totebags, t-shirts and water bottles? Or that I loved communal gathering spaces? Would it make any sense to them? I have no idea.

What I know is this: we all have little items like the ashtray that I’ve kept. Sometimes we find them after our loved ones have passed, and sometimes they’re passed onto us. Maybe your grandparents wanted to get rid of that tablecloth because it meant nothing to them, but then it came to mean everything to you. Maybe there’s a story attached to it that you never got to hear, or maybe it’s your favorite story of all.

Everyone’s got something that they found in Rosie’s basement, and I’m really interested in hearing about yours. A few weeks back, I developed a little proposal based on this idea, that someday something like this could have it’s own home. But for now, I just want to see if people have items and stories that they might be willing to share with me, and I’ll host them here.

If you want to play show and tell, you can contact me here.

UPDATE: I have no idea why I waited ten years to do this, but I finally decided to look up Allan Abravanel on google not long after posting this. As it happens, he’s currently a lawyer in D.C., and we’ve been emailing ever since. He may even send me a scan of his Bar Mitzvah picture. Since then, I’ve learned the following:

  • Roslyn was apparently his mother’s first cousin.
  • We continue to have no idea how or why the ashtray ended up with my grandparents.
  • Allan Abravanvel happens to come from a really, really interesting family. In fact, there used to be an Abravanel family newsletter that gathered and shared the many stories of Abravanels throughout history.
  • To those of my friends who read comics, the Abravanels appear to be the real-life equivalent to the Crogans.

There was the famous Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel, whose Biblical commentary I studied in high school

Or…

Moshe ben Raphael Abravanel, born in 17th Century Salonika.  He moved to Istanbul, converted to Islam, and became Hayatizade Mustafa Efendi, a famous physician who is credited with introducing modern Western medical practices to the Ottoman Empire.  One source notes that he was appointed hekimbashi, or chief physician, to the Sultan.  One of his sons became a professor in a medrese, and two of his grandsons followed him as chief physicians to the Sultan, one of them rising to the position of sheyhulislam, head of the Islamic religious hierarchy in the Ottoman Empire.  To say nothing of his encounter with Sabbatai Sevi, the famous Jewish false messiah. (This was quoted directly from an email with Allan)

Allan also shared from this book:

A pirate named David Abrabanel, evidently from the same family as the famous Spanish rabbinic dynasty (which included Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel), joined British privateers after his family was butchered off the South American coast. He used the nom de guerre “Captain Davis” and commanded his own pirate vessel named The Jerusalem. According to at least one report, he was the person who discovered what is now called Easter Island.

So I’ve learned about Jewish pirates, famous rabbis and Muslim doctors in the space of a couple of days or so, simply by googling a name I found on an old ashtray from my grandparents’ house. For me, this has been an incredibly powerful lesson in the infinite connections to be found between people, stories to be told and learned, and the objects that connect us, unexpectedly or otherwise.

In terms of this project, I’ve had a few people already reach out to me to share some items and stories and so I’m collecting them until I can launch this as a tumblr site that I’ve already reserved. Again, if you have something to share, please do be in touch at the contact link earlier in the post.

 UPDATE #2: So Allan did some digging and we’ve pretty much figured out that there never was a “Roslyn and Irving Hershkopf” in the way that the ashtray listed. Our best guess is that my grandmother had the item produced for through a business that she was running back then and as an erroneous item, she ended up holding onto it…for a really long time.

That said, the unexpected connections continue. In researching the names on the ashtray, Allan ended up tracking down his second cousins in here in New York, who he hasn’t seen in 50 years. He also told me that the next time he comes to New York, he’s going to bring along his Bar Mitzvah album and show it to me. A quote from him that I think is quite beautiful:

My daughter Karen thinks the album harkens back to another era.  I think the album is full of ghosts — protective, not threatening — who continue to hover in my consciousness.

Now here’s the real kicker of this whole thing. His daughter Karen? She was at Limmud NY in 2011, the year I was the Programming Co-Chair!

I’m pretty sure that I officially win Jewish Geography.

It’s Passover, Son!

Yeah, it’s been a while.

I’m sure I’ll write about comics again someday (hahaha no I probably won’t until they make good ones again), but given my professional role in the Jewish community these days, I feel like I’m under some sort of obligation to say something profound about the fact that it’s Passover this week.

AND I HAVE SOMETHING FOR YOU MY FRIENDS!

This is actually my favorite Jewish holiday in terms of ritual. Irrespective of what it’s actually become in a commercial sense (seriously, God doesn’t say anything in the Torah to the effect of “hey, I hope you guys figure out how to make frozen pizza out of this), the notion of changing our lifestyles for a week can make for an interesting shift in perspective .

But I love the Seder most of all. It’s a night of storytelling, a meal combined with an infinitely adaptable open source curriculum, one that we’re empowered to continuously tweak so that our Story of liberation from Egypt then can be made relevant to our Story as both Jews and human beings today. It’s a time when we say “let all who are hungry come and eat,” and if we live that up to it’s truest form, we can feed whoever we want. As far as I’m concerned, the best Seder is one that includes people who do not consider themselves to be Jewish. Better than that is if they feel 100% welcome and comfortable, and even better if they can fully connect to the content of the learning at the meal.

I grew up at my father’s side as he led our family’s Seders for many years and it was one of my favorite things in the world. Every year, he searched for new and relevant content to bring to our experience of eating and celebrating together. When I was 27, I decided to stay here in New York and co-lead a Seder with some dear friends. It lived up to the standard that I listed above, and I was hooked. My parents were lovingly disappointed in their own way.

“Why don’t you come home for Passover anymore?”

“What were you two doing when you were my age?”

“We…oh, we were hosting Seders in our home for our friends.”

“Then it’s my turn. Y’all did a good job.”

I actually went back to Chicago to co-lead with my dad at a Seder last year, and it certainly was quite a wonderful time. The sharing and mixing of two different approaches led to a whole new kind of conversation, and I hope we can do it again someday. Even better: I look forward to hosting him in my own home in the not-too-distant future. But I’m back in Brooklyn this year, and getting ready to co-facilitate with a different friend. I can’t wait.

A couple years back, I did some sharing about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and I also offered a reflection exercise that can be used by anyone, irrespective of faith. Now I’m doing it again. You can use it for your Seder, or you can use it with your friends, depending on the situation. Totally up to you.

I call it The 21 Jump Street. If you’re smart, you’ll figure out why.

The only things you need are people, Post-It notes, pens/pencils and comfort with a writing exercise at your Seder.

The Context: At the Seder, we celebrate our ancestors liberation from slavery in Egypt. Putting aside the debate about the historicity of that particular narrative, it is an essential part of the Jewish Story. One of the most important pieces of the Seder is that we are asked to step into the shoes (sandals?) of our ancestors and view ourselves as if we were also slaves in Egypt. The challenge in our modern lives is that most of us cannot truly relate to this type of experience. We do, however recognize that we have brothers and sisters in this world whose history remains sadly to close to this experience, and we also recognize that there are those in this world who are in fact living as slaves. I’m glad to see that the conversation about fair labor and human trafficking is central to the Passover conversation in my community this year, and I look forward to the day when all people can only think of slavery as a sad memory as opposed to something that still exists in today’s world.

The purpose of this exercise is to address the idea that we all have some version of personal bondage, something that holds us back from being the people that we would fully and truly like to become. (Let me add that I do not intend to diminish actual slavery with this, but it is meant to create a different type of relevant connection to the Seder).

The Exercise: Explain the notion of personal bondage, as I described it above. We all have the thing (or many things) in our lives, whatever it may be. Perhaps it’s an addiction to cigarettes or an overcommitment to our work lives over our personal lives. Everyone’s got something. Pass a Post-It note to everyone in your group, and ask each person to write that thing in a word or two onto their notes, and then to stick the notes to their foreheads. When everyone is done, have the group look around at what everyone has written.

Ask folks to raise their hands if they see at least one other note that they can relate to. Almost everyone will almost always raise their hands. You know why? Because we generally share the same struggles – the only thing is that we don’t speak about them openly as much as we should. Stigma is a silly thing that way.

It’s a common experience. We all have those things that we wish we could change, that hold us back just a little bit. We want to be freed of them. It’s not always easy to do so, but at the Passover Seder, I like to create a moment where we symbolically try to let those things go. And sometimes, just sometimes, you can use that as an opportunity to start fresh from there.

Close the activity by placing a bowl in the center of the table, and asking each person to free themselves just for tonight by tearing up their Post-Its and placing them into the bowl. As an alternative, you can have people tear up the notes of others instead. Leave the bowl at the table as a reminder of those little struggles in our lives and the intention to move past them. Or pour wine on them or something. Totally up to you.

There you go: a thing for your Seder! Use it if you like.

Happy Passover!

Love and kisses,

Wolkin