<![CDATA[Telling Our Tales with<br /> Ezekiel Nieto Benzion - Blog]]>Wed, 14 Mar 2018 14:28:31 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[Elijah's Empty Seat at Thanksgiving]]>Sun, 19 Nov 2017 18:29:55 GMThttp://tellingourtales.net/blog/elijahs-empty-seat-at-thanksgivingPicture
​'Tis the season of food! And family gatherings around the table.

Starting with the beginning of the harvest season, holidays, both religious and secular, revolve around food traditions. For our family, a highpoint is Thanksgiving, one of the few times a year when my Jewish family can join in a national celebration as American citizens. Our table is laden with the same symbolic foods as all our neighbors', just modified for the laws of Kashrut.

But what if food is not a pleasure to you but a danger to your life.

For my father, Elijah Benzion, eating and drinking are now both life-threatening. All his life he had experienced swallowing difficulties. Now in his nineties, his epiglottis is totally frozen so he can take nothing by mouth. Nothing! No water, no food! He can't even use regular mouthwash intended to be spit out because it triggers choking and gagging. All his nutrition and hydration are delivered through a PEG tube into his stomach. And that is the way it will be for the rest of his life.

There is a blessing to be found in all this. For years, as he said, "Food has not been a pleasure but a challenge." Now he is freed from his previous time-consuming torture of nine hours a day spent at meals slowly trying to swallow small amounts of food with the constant threat of aspirating food into his lungs. On the other hand, he must come to terms with missing out on the pleasures of joining family and friends in the socializing around the table, especially at holiday times.

So for the first time in our lives, he will be absent from our Thanksgiving table. It was his choice. He explained, "It will be too difficult for me. It is too much about food. Everyone brings their best recipes. And the delicious aromas. Can you imagine sitting there smelling all those delicious smells and not being able to take even one bite?" He sighed. "I know it shouldn't be about the food but about family. But they are both wrapped up together. Just tell everyone to come for a visit at their convenience to see me at my apartment. That will be good enough."

After the first shock which generated words of protest from me, I realized how right he was.  Of course it should be about family, not food. About being together in love and caring for each other, not just eating together. But in our tradition, as in most others, food is the symbol of a good life for which we give blessings. Holiday food evokes memories of times and people past and present. It reminds us that life has been good for us while it should also prod us to help those in need of a healthy and steady source of food and family support. It involves all our senses in celebration of all for which we should be thankful.

At the Passover seder and at each brit milah or ritual circumcision in our tradition, there is an empty chair for Elijah the prophet. This year, our Elijah's chair will be empty at Thanksgiving. But our blessing is that our father, grandfather and now, great grand-father, is still alive. We can drop by to visit him as he suggested, in his own place, where he will be freed from the pressure of seeing and smelling all the food he cannot enjoy. And we are reminded to be grateful that, despite all the tsouris, he is still with us to celebrate family.

<![CDATA[May Your Name Be a Blessing]]>Sun, 04 Dec 2016 19:24:39 GMThttp://tellingourtales.net/blog/may-your-name-be-a-blessing
When I began telling my family's stories and helping others preserve their own family's tales, my children asked me to not tell theirs. Not that they were ashamed or shy.  I "schlep nachas" from all the good they do. They just want to keep their lives and the lives of their young families private for now. And after the election of 2016, I empathize with their concerns in a world dominated by social media, hatred espoused as political opinion and the erosion of boundaries of privacy.

However, I can tell some tales reaching into the next generation without breaking my promise to them. And this is one.

I have not blogged for months.  Mostly it was because I was involved in important family developments which many of you will recognize if you are now or have been part of the "sandwich generation,"  wedged between the older generation and the younger one, trying to support each in the way it needs.

Dad has been aging well into his nineties (longevity is a family blessing) but there are perceptible changes in his health and his memory.  Names often elude him now and he tells familiar stories over and over again about relatives I grew up with, whom I know/knew well, and even those whose names I or my children carry. I try to be patient.  I listen as if it is all new to me, realizing he believes he is passing on treasured information so it will not be lost. Those who have read any of the Tales from the Judah Halevi Journals recognize this is another familial trait: the concern that names of family members as well as their good deeds will be lost.

During the High Holy Days, it is the custom to visit family graves, to remember those people who guided us and whose names have been given down the generations.  While the English/American names reflect the fashions of the era into which each person was born,, the shem kadosh (holy name) in Hebrew or Yiddish ties is a link to the previous generations.  My father took me to three different cemeteries, to make sure that I would be able to visit the graves when he could no longer do it. He had no memory that we had done this two years before and that he had taken his grown grandson just last year.

As we stopped at each grave,  my dignified father who has lived a very modern and cosmopolitan life, imbued with the law and with science, spoke to each departed relative as generations had in the old country when the dead were ever present in their daily lives and imaginations.  He also pointed out the symmetry of the names. In the Ashkenazi tradition, a child is named after a deceased forebear and then names his or her own child after another deceased ancestor, usually one generation more recent. Thus, names leapfrogged over each other, alternating generations but not being lost...not entirely.

And then, a few months ago, I was blessed to  become a grandfather.  I was asked, and I declined, being called "Zayde." My grandfather Reuben who was my "zayde" was a towering figure in my life.  No way was I equal to bearing the same affectionate name when the memory of my Zayde was still so potent.

But what would this little boy be called?  The four newly-minted grandparents wondered but we did not ask.  If our traditions held value with our children, the child would be given one or more names of our deceased parents and grandparents. And it is a process fraught with political overtones. Which side of the family would be honored? Who would be disappointed?

The name would not be revealed until the ritual circumcision, the Brit Milah, when the baby was inducted into the community. Eight long days after his birth.

When we stood around the crowded livingroom of my children's Brooklyn apartment, the mohel, a religious man with the extra training needed to make this a safe and beautiful ceremony, intoned the prayers.  He asked who would be the sandek, the father's representative, who would have the honor to hold the child during the procedure. There were other great-grandparents in the room but they stood aside as my father was asked by the baby's parents to have that privilege.  It was unspoken, but all knew, that at his age, this was likely to be both the first and last time he would have the honor.

After the deed was done, a blessing was pronounced, announcing the child's names among the House of Israel. And there it was, the link for this boy to many generations, names that resonated with the memories of those we loved and, respected. And we pledged, as parents and grandparents and great-grandparents to give charity in this child's honor, using our names for two generations with their own chains of continuity. In my own name, Ezekiel ben (son of) Elijah ben Reuben and that of my father, Elijah ben Reuben ben Ezekiel, there was a complete circle of generations from one Ezekiel to me.  And now a new circle that honores my Zayde, Reuben.

I grabbed my father's hand and he smiled. His eyes were glittering with tears.  He saw as I did, the chain across the generations, coiling through repeated names, but moving onward to the future. 

​May the future for this child be one of deeds of honor and justice and may his days be filled with love and peace.  May his name be for a blessing to those who will remember him.
<![CDATA[Sw´╗┐eetness among the Ashes]]>Fri, 25 Mar 2016 20:03:07 GMThttp://tellingourtales.net/blog/sweetness-among-the-ashesTraveling in Europe is often very bittersweet for me. Sometimes bitterness is dominant; sometimes sweetness predominates. Other times, there is a distinctly sour taste left in my mouth, one that haunts me for days and spoils the experience and its memories.

I felt many of those feelings on a trip to Krakow, Poland. Friends who knew my love for Prague had assured me that I would just adore old Krakow. But what I saw there was a rather cynical exploitation of the destroyed Jewish community.  Throughout the small area of Kazimierz (the old Jewish district named after  the king Kasimir the Great who in the 13th century welcomed Jews into Poland), there were Jewish restaurants touting the food of "your grandparents" and featuring Klezmer bands to make the experience authentically Jewish. Menus featured gefilte fish, kreplach, knishes and matzo ball soup. The musicians sang in phonetic Yiddish and offered some empathy for the poets and musicians who had crafted the original lyrics and melodies and been massacred in the Holocaust. But there was not a Jew among them. The audience included German high school students who had made the trip to Auschwitz and were now "learning" more about Jewish culture in a place devoid of Jews.

But then the owner of the Israel Bookstore in the district leaned closer over the tourist map of Kazimierz that we were purchasing. He said sotto voce that we must visit the Tempel Synagogue, a few streets outside the old district. "Everyone visits these old places," he said, waving his hand over the map. "Few visit the other place. Please don't miss it."

So we walked over, following the arrows he had so carefully drawn on the map. At the Tempel Synagogue, we were greeted by a sign proclaiming  "There is a Jewish community alive in Krakow!" More a cultural and education center than a religious center, it runs a nursery school and hosts events to bring authentic Jewish culture back to Krakow. It has a small but growing congregation of Jews from Israel and other parts of the former Soviet bloc nations. And it connects some Krakow citizens to their almost-forgotten Jewish roots.

One woman pronounced the synagogue "beautiful." She explained that she was now interested in the Jewish side of her family and loved the feeling that she could connect to a living community, not just the gravestones and ashes left by the devastation of the Holocaust. Her sincerity sweetened the visit, leaving a hopeful taste after so much bitterness over the demise of a once-thriving center of Jewish life.
<![CDATA[Reflections on Time Passing]]>Sat, 16 Jan 2016 21:50:54 GMThttp://tellingourtales.net/blog/reflections-on-time-passingPicture
With a birthday, one week after January 1, I ignore the rush to make resolutions. I do it on my birthday as I consider my mortality (a natural pessimist, I watch the sands rush through the hour glass). So I mull over the past year and consider what I wish for the future. I focus on my immediate future so I avoid fixating on world peace, the cure for cancer and end of global warning.  At least for a few days.

But this year, I feel the pressure of time more than usual.

When our friends gathered, as we have for four decades now, to celebrate New Year's together, health issues among us struck home the urgency of dwindling time. Will this be the last year we elebrate with our friend with heart disease or the one with kidney failure? If, as I believe we are meant to use our minds and our hearts to learn from what life hands us, what are the lessons?  

So I have two resolutions this year, just two.

Resolution #1:  Do "it" as soon as possible.

The "it" are those things you have always wanted to do or those things that you know you should do. Do them now.  Many of my friends were planning their futures up to the very moment it disappeared.

For me, "it" is a mixture of simple and significant things. Simple includes sorting through the clutter that multiplies around me. Shedding the stuff I no longer need or want. Making the appointments I have postponed. Returning books back to their owners. Writing that donation check now.

And it includes significant things. Like calling my 91 year old Dad every day despite the fact that we repeat what we have said the day before. Visiting ailing friends. Volunteering to work for that good cause. Going on that long delayed trip this year. Renewing the practice of my faith. And it means "teshuvah"—assessing how I treat people in my life and resolving to repair those relationships.

But those are on my list. You should consider what is on yours.

Resolution #2:  Stop doing those "things" that suck up the time, energy or resources  needed to do #1.

Top of my list is TV. I believe I am a discerning viewer but there are evenings when I fritter away time being pelted by nonsense: repetitive news cycles; mediocre shows that will be discussed at the coffee bar the next day. Meanwhile there are  compelling books waiting to be read and (I flatter myself) waiting to be written.

Trolling through the Internet or Facebook for no purpose is another time and attention waster. I use the Internet regularly for research. (Anyone want a copy of the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as Spoken in the Streets of London? Need to know what day Purim occurred in 1804?) But I admit to getting sucked into divergent pathways that are moderately fascinating but not productive (re-enactors who make authentic 19th century pirate garments? That took an hour I will never get back). I confess: I do click on offers  announcing a limited time only or 50% off just for me. I fill shopping carts I never check out then am hounded by reminders that those items are going fast.

Facebook is the worst of my time wasters! I have watched more cute videos of cats, dogs and babies than any sane man needs to. I have received more rants from more political factions than I knew existed. Sometimes I am frozen into staring at the screen by the hysteria of the coming Armageddon.

Now, as you point out, this blog goes out on the Internet and I announce the new posting on my FB page! Am I really that two-faced?

No, there is quality in everything so I resolve to be more deliberate in discerning it. I have friends who post thought-provoking articles and comment thoughtfully on what I hope are my interesting posts. But I have other "friends" who post every meal they eat and every place they visit. They are free to do so and I am free to not spend time there.

There are other time wasters that need be curbed. Junk mail that I bring into the house and move around and around until I finally chuck it out. Magazines that accumulate because I am compulsive about reading every "interesting" article, even two years later. Books I start and force myself to finish. (I was proud when I decided to stop reading "The Goldfinch" despite the rave reviews of people I respect. Think of all the time I saved to read something else I really enjoyed.)

That's it: only two resolutions I can remember. Either do it now or stop doing it now!

I'll let you know how long it takes before I revert back to past habits. I will probably post it on Facebook so you can watch for it there.

<![CDATA[Freyd (Joy) in Budapest]]>Sun, 06 Dec 2015 18:56:23 GMThttp://tellingourtales.net/blog/freyd-joy-in-budapestPicture

I was reminded of this wonderful event by the news recently of the discovery of hidden Holocaust documents in Budapest.

We had just toured the magnificent Dohany Street Synagogue, the Great Synagogue of Budapest, and had almost decided to go to dinner. It was near closing time for the sights anyway.

But I urged my wife, "Let's continue on to the Jewish Museum. We have an hour. How long would it take us to run through yet another Jewish museum? We had been to so many so we can 'do' this one quickly."

At the ticket counter, a diminutive old man was speaking in Hungarian to a young bearded man tuning a balalaika. The old gent halted his conversation to greet us. "Would you like a tour?" he asked in heavily-accented English. 

I looked at my wife. She gave me one of those shrugs which mean, "It is up to you but I reserve my right to complain about your decision."  I turned back to the gentleman. "We would enjoy a 'quick' tour but we are Jewish so you need not explain the religion or the holidays.  We would like to learn about the community here in Budapest, in Hungary."

He introduced himself as Mr. Aron Blau, " Ikh farshteyn!  I understand.  All the Jews from America want a quick tour. I will tell you our story, the story of the Jews who have lived here for hundreds of years--but quickly for you."  He winked.

We started in the Judaica section where he pointed out the unique works of art. We admired an unusual seder plate, unlike any we had ever seen before, with small figurines holding dishes for the holy day's symbolic foods. Then we moved into the historical exhibit which told the story of the Hungarian Jewish community, century after century, for the many hundreds of years the community had survived and sometimes thrived . As we were about to begin the twentieth century, Mr. Blau  pointed to a poignant photo of Jews being rounded up by Nazis and Hungarian Silver Arrow members. He asked, "Have you heard of Raoul Wallenberg?"

"Of course," I said. "The great Swedish hero who saved thousands of Jews right here in Budapest."

He smiled. "Yes, and I am one of them, a rescued Jew who survived. Wallenberg saved me and my mother." He sighed. "My father had already been deported. 'For work,' they said but it was right to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We never saw him again. He was just thirty years old.

"I was seven. Day after day, my mother and I would go to the Swedish embassy and wait with all the others, hoping we would get a paper to save us. Finally Wallenberg came right up to us, as close as you are to me now, and he handed a paper to my mother. 'You and your son are now protected by the Swedish government. This paper says you are a Swedish citizen waiting to be repatriated,' he said. He pointed across the street. 'Go to that building with the big Swedish flag. It is now called the Swedish Library. Stay there until you are told it is safe for you to leave. Do not go back to your apartment. You are being watched right now and this paper might not save you if you leave this street.'

So we went across the street and through the gates. It was already crowded with people but it was organized to help us.  My mother worked in the  kitchen. Other people ran a school. Another group organized cultural events. We stayed there for six months until the Soviets came and 'liberated' Hungary."

"And after that, why did you stay in Budapest?" I asked, knowing many had fled to other countries as soon as they could after the War.

He looked at me, his jaw set tightly, "My mother said, 'We are proud Hungarians and we are Jews. And because we survived, we must help the Jews of Hungary survive.' So we stayed. It was hard under the Soviets who were not interested in keeping the Jews of Hungary alive but now they are gone too." Then his voice became sharp, "But why didn't FDR bomb the train tracks? We all knew what was happening. Why didn't he bomb the tracks to stop the deportations?" 

 There was no  answer I could give. "Politics got in the way of he righteous act as it often does. I cannot excuse it."

He stared back at me as if he wanted to argue the point but we both recognized that it would not change the tragic history of that period. Then he smiled, "But we are still here and last year, my grandson, named for my father, was bar mitzvahed in the Great Synagogue. So after all that, life is better. It was a good time; we danced and sang as Hungarian Jews do." Then he said urgently, "Come with me! It is almost closing time and you are probably thinking about where to go for dinner."

We arrived back at the ticket counter where he introduced us to the young man still plucking the balalaika. "Tell them," he ordered.

The man blushed but he told us in hesitant English that he was performing in a klezmer band that very evening at a local cafe. For the price of admission, we could have a typical Hungarian-Jewish dinner and a klezmer music show performed by six young Jewish musicians. The old man's eyes shone with excitement. "See, we are here, still alive and celebrating! You must go to celebrate with us."

How could anyone say 'no' to such an offer?

When we arrived, we talked to the others already seated at tables near us. They spoke of the little old man at the Jewish Museum who wanted them to celebrate with Jews who were still alive and here in Budapest...after all that. I smiled at the power of the story he had told each of us.

Thank you, Aron Blau, for showing us where to find the freyd, the joy, in Budapest.

<![CDATA[My Name tells My Story]]>Sun, 08 Nov 2015 22:52:27 GMThttp://tellingourtales.net/blog/my-name-tells-my-storyPictureSir Moses Montefiore, proud Englishman of Sephardic descent
An English friend of mine, traveling throughout the US for business, was often surprised when he would ask an American, "Where are you from?" He had assumed they would name the city or the region of the US where they had been born or where they lived now, such as "I grew up in Chicago.  I was born in the Bronx...I live in Dallas." But the answer often was something like "My family is from Poland...Germany...Italy...Brazil."

But here is the difference. He can trace his yeoman family in an old Yorkshire church's book of records back to the 1400s. Most Americans cannot go back more than three or four generations in this country (except of course the Native Americans but that is a whole other story). For many of us, our sense of where we come from is still tied to the places where our families lived prior to immigrating to the US. And such sense of history is often imbedded in our names.

This is not a new way to identify one's family nor is it unique to Jews. Other people were proudly identified with their native cities, cities where their families had lived for as long as anyone can remember. But Benzion C. Kaganoff says in A Dictionary of Jewish Names and their History, after the Order of Expulsion of 1492, virtually every Sephardic Jew one met was from someplace else because of the forced exile. And they often decided to commemorate their origins in their names.

In this post-Holocaust era, it is hard to imagine any horror as catastrophic as the Shoah. However, for the Sephardim or Jews of Spain, the Order of Expulsion in 1492 was as traumatic and devastating. Families who had lived in Spain or its colonies in Europe (such as southern Italy or France) for more than 500 years, achieving prominence in commerce, science, medicine, philosophy and education, were stripped of their rights, their dignity and their freedom. Thousands of Jews were burned at the stake, others were forcibly converted to Catholicism, others left literally with whatever they could carry, running for their lives, streaming east to northern, central and eastern Europe, to Muslim-controlled lands around the Mediterranean, or west, across the Atlantic to distant colonies.

So which David did you meet on the street in Salonica, Greece? David from Belmonte, Italy? Or David from Porto, Portugal? Each became known by where they were from: David Belmonte or David Porto. Many Sephardic families' names are from places in Spain, Italy and southern France: Alcalay (from Alcola), Spinoza (from Espinoza), Trani and Montefiore (Italy), to name a few among many. 

Writers and scholars among the Sephardim were very inventive in commemorating their family history. They translated their places of origin into Hebrew then back into the language of their new country. A Jew from Argentière in France ('argent' is silver in French) became Kaspi from the Hebrew word for silver, 'kesef.' A Jewish writer from Florenza in Spain ('flor' is flower in Spanish) became Parchi from the Hebrew word for flower ('perah'). 

People also took the name of the part of the city in which they had lived. The Portoleones came from the "Lion's Gate" section of the Roman ghetto. And sometimes names combined occupation and location. My favorite example is a famous physician (rofa in Hebrew) who was the leader of his community of Porto, Italy. He was known as Rofa di Porto and his descendants are called Rappaports.

Isabella and Ferdinand might have sent the Jews out of Spanish lands, but the Sephardim were determined to keep their incredible history as part of their identities.

Below: in an ironic twist of fate, considering the source of the name, a well-known type of stethoscope bears the patent of one of its inventors: a Rappaport!

<![CDATA[Signs of History]]>Sun, 11 Oct 2015 20:25:33 GMThttp://tellingourtales.net/blog/signs-of-historyPicture
I have just returned from Sicily where I toured with a group of colleagues. Among my friends were archeologists, historians, linguists, and just fellow travelers interested in a complex, beautiful land with layers of history, often marked by the oppression of the native people. Each day was brilliant with sunlight and warm breezes; each meal celebrated the fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, wines, and olives of the abundant fields of Sicily.

Ah, but all is not unalloyed joy, not for me with my distinctly sensitive antennae tuned to the history of lands under the control of Spain and later, the Fascists. Wherever I went, I found the hints of those who had been there before and whose presence is commemorated only by a few street signs and archeological finds.

The Jews of Sicily had arrived in waves when the Greeks first colonized the land centuries BCE, when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and sent Jews in slavery or despair out of their homeland, and when the trade routes included Sicily as a major port within the Mediterranean. Under the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Normans and the Swabians, the Jews of Sicily prospered until they were between 8-10 percent of the population. While they lived in distinct areas of each city, they were not forced into ghettoes and instead mingled freely with their neighbors. The fabrication of coral jewelry and the manufacture of textiles were typical Sicilian Jewish occupations.

Until 1492, that is, when the Order of Expulsion under the Catholic rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, forced Jews if all Spanish-controlled lands, including Sicily at the time, to convert or to leave. Many did convert while still others fled into northern Italy and lands beyond and to the east.

What remains are the signs in virtually every city in Sicily proclaiming Via Giudecca or Porta Giudecca, the pathways and entrances to a vanished community. And the appearance of the Magen David, the six-pointed star on buildings now used as churches and government offices.  When I asked people about the sign, they said it was a "traditional" Sicilian symbol. Ah ha.

Most evocative however is the mikvah, a ritual bath used by a Jewish community for sanctification, not for bathing as we might bathe at home today. It was discovered in the 1980s when a hotel owner in the Ortigia section of the city of Siracusa began renovations. Her contractors had discovered hollow spaces in the sub-basement and unearthed the largest mikvah in Europe with five pools still fed by a fresh water stream as required by religious law. It dates back to the sixth century CE and was continually in use until...1492, when the community filled it in with stones and earth  before they fled, hoping one day to return and use it once again. Their synagogue, right behind it, still remains...as a church.

According to one local scholar, it is used occasionally today for religious purposes by Jews who deliberately seek it out in honor of the community that preserved it in hopes that it would be there for future generations.

For more info on the Ortigia Mikvah
<![CDATA[The Magical Wooden Spoon]]>Thu, 03 Sep 2015 19:10:50 GMThttp://tellingourtales.net/blog/the-magical-wooden-spoonPicture
I love honey cake, called "levach" and often maligned as the fruitcake of Jewish tradition: dismissed as too sweet, too old-fashioned, too heavy. But in many homes, including my own, it would be missed if it did not appear as part of the groaning board of desserts on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. For me, it is not the honey cake but the memory it invokes as soon as I smell its rich spicy odor. It is the memory of my mother's cousin Natalia and her remarkable story. I will tell her story in more detail at another time but here I will focus on her honey cake. Well, not the cake itself but the making of it.

The magic was revealed one evening over glasses of tea in the kitchen of Natalia's and Nathan's Montreal apartment. I was about ten years old and this was my first trip to another country, Quebec, Canada, where my Polish relatives spoke French as well as English. Even back then I reveled in the stories told by the grown-ups gathered around the table.

My mother loved to swap recipes and soon she and Natalia were sharing their specialties. Nathan boasted in his Polish-Yiddish accent, "No one can make lekach better than Talia!" and his lips smacked at the remembered taste. My mother admitted that her cake was not so wonderful. So what was Natalia's secret?

Natalia brought out her recipe book. The "retsept" she wanted was not in the book itself, but among the old papers tucked into its back cover. She pulled it out, laid it on the table, and tenderly stroked it flat.

My mother leaned over eagerly, then hesitated. "Talia, it is in Polish. Can you translate it? I'll write it down in English."

Natalia recited it in her elegant Polish accent. To my ears it sounded like a strange ritual. "Vell, furst, you find de cake pan, the big one with the dented bottom. And the blue shissel, the bowl big enough for the batter 'cause this vill be a zeyer groys shtikl, a very big cake. And you need the spoon, the burned leffel, the wooden one that Mama used. Start with four glass flour....and add a half shell of...and a shiterein of...." My mother nodded as she wrote all these strange instructions down.

Glass flour? My mother explained it later. Poor people used what was at hand. Yahrzeit candles (memorial candles) came in glasses. When the candles burned down, the glasses were saved and used for drinking and measuring. A glass measured about a cup and was used by all immigrant Jewish cooks. A "half-shell" was half an egg shell, most likely a tablespoon, a handy measuring device when the eggs had already been cracked and stirred into the batter. After all, why spend money on such fancy schmancy things as measuring cups and spoons? And "shiterein"? Not a curse word but a "dash" or the unspecified amount used by a skilled cook who just knew how much was needed.

And the burned spoon? That was the real secret ingredient. It was the one thing that Natalia saved from her home in Warsaw. She and Nathan had heard the rumble of the German tanks approaching. But they had to stay, even as danger grew closer, so she could comfort her dying mother. Then they ran east, into the Soviet Union and imprisonment in a Siberian labor camp.

Why flee with a wooden spoon? Natalia shrugged as she explained, "Wherever we went, I might need to cook something. And wherever I went, I wanted to remember my Mama." Nathan added bitterly, "And wherever she went, she had a weapon. With a zetz, she might be able to escape."

That was why Natalia's lekach was special. It had the honey sweetness of love and the spice of sharp memories stirred with a wooden spoon that symbolized the past as the cakes symbolized her hopes for a better future.

They are all blessed memories now, Natalia and Nathan and my mother. I have no idea where the Polish recipe is or my mother's translation of it. No one I know has the wooden spoon that traveled so far. But most traditional honey cake recipes have enough of the same ingredients so that the magic still happens. The spicy sweet aroma wafts through the kitchen and I remember them all, down to the wooden spoon.

Le-shanah tovah tikkatevu! May you be inscribed for a good year!

When the candle was gone, the glass became the standard measuring cup in immigrant Jewish households.
<![CDATA[Who's your daddy? Names Descending from the Patriarch]]>Thu, 13 Aug 2015 16:37:27 GMThttp://tellingourtales.net/blog/whos-your-daddy-names-descending-from-the-patriarchPicture
In the beginning, when the world was so much smaller, and our stories focused on just a few men and women, first names were all that were needed. Thus, in our Siddur, our prayer book, we pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. No need to ask, "Abraham who? " or "Which Sarah?"

But as the families of the patriarchs swelled into tribes and at the same time began to move around more, patronymics or the names of fathers were used to identify who was meant. Thus, Moses anointed not any old Joshua to lead the Israelites into the land of Canaan but specifically Joshua ben Nun, Joshua the son of Nun.

The custom of using patronymics as surnames persisted in many cultures and is preserved in inherited family names today. In England, the descendants of the son of John might be known now as the Johnson family. In Ireland, Fitzgerald denotes the descendants of the son of Gerald. In Denmark, Sorensøns or Sorensens are descendants of the son of Soren.

Depending on the time and place, some patronymics, even when converted into inherited family names, kept the patterns of the original language. Thus, descendants of the son of a man named Moses (ben Moshe in Hebrew) are the family known as Benmoshe today. And another family descended from a forebear named Jacob are now called Jacobson. And the descendants of the son of Zion (Ben Zion) are proudly called Benzion! Some of my relatives now write the name as Benson, perhaps tired of helping people learn how to pronounce.  I cringe at that change, fearing that soon no one shall know the names of the great man for whom the clan was named!  

The picture is of Rabbi Chaim Ben-Zion Raskin, a Lubavitcher rabbi, born in 1864 in Belarus. He was devout and also veryprolific as were his descendants. Recently, it was discovered that 10% of the students at one seminary in Kiryat Gat in Israel were descendants of this man. A relative of mine? Perhaps, but the convoluted trails of families dispersed throughout a hostile world fleeing from oppression or seeking economic opportunities, often make a definitive answer impossible.

<![CDATA[Holy Promises, New Names]]>Sat, 01 Aug 2015 16:16:18 GMThttp://tellingourtales.net/blog/holy-promises-new-namesPicture
Years ago, I came across a book in a university library titled A Dictionary of Jewish Names and their History. The author's name alone got my attention: Benzion C. Kaganoff (you can guess why!). The book traced the history of the naming customs among Jews from Biblical times to modern times.  It sparked my interest in Jewish names, how they came to be and why people chose to change them at different times. That is one reason I called my first book, You Shall Know Our Names, because when we lose the names of our ancestors, they are truly gone from our memories. And when we learn the story behind their names, we often regain our own history.

Recently, I purchased a used copy of the Kaganoff book and am rediscovering all the "factoids" that continue to fascinate me.  From time to time, I will explore the Jewish naming traditions described by the author and discovered in my own family.

Just to start off: inherited family names are a fairly recent convention, spurred by the bureaucratic need to keep track of people, often for nefarious reasons. In more primitive times, such as in the early Biblical period, Jews, like people in other ancient societies, had no surnames. So in the Torah, we meet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, and Leah, no last names needed. Clans were small in a very small world so people were not confused if someone mentioned he had met Abraham on the road somewhere. No one asked, "Abraham who?"

In the Biblical period, when names changed during a person's life, it signaled a major change in the person's role. Abraham was originally Avram. At the age of ninety, the Lord visited Abram and told him he was to be the father of a great people: Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee (Bereshit 17:5). So a name change was signaled by a spiritual awakening and the appointment to a serious leadership position. 

Not long after in the Torah's verses, but ten years later in the lives of Abraham and his wife Sarai, Hashem announces another name change. Sarai has become despondent.  Abraham's concubine, Hagar, has borne a son, called Ishmael. Since Sarai remains barren, Abraham believes Ishmael will be the son who founds a great nation as foretold in the vision described above. But Hashem now informs him that it was time to change Sarai to Sarah, because " I will bless her, and moreover I will give thee a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.'  100 year old Abraham laughs at the thought but it does come to pass  Their son Isaac (from the Hebrew, "He laughs") is born when his mother is 90!

In the next generation, there is another significant name change. Isaac has twin sons, Esau and Jacob (Yaakov, from the word meaning "heel." Yaakov was the second of the twins to be born. He emerged holding on to the heel of his older brother.) Jacob, as the second born, follows his mother's orders to use trickery to obtain his blind father's blessing as his "heir." But then Jacob must flee since Esau did not take kindly to being cheated out of his birthright (the porridge must not have been that tasty!).

Many years later, in the desert, Jacob has a vision. He is visited by a holy being with whom he wrestles successfully.The vision announces, 'Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men and have prevailed' (Genesis 32:29). Scholars note that this marks another turning point. Up to then, Jacob has followed the orders of others such as his mother, Rebecca, and  his uncle Laban. Now he will be a leader of his people and his new name, Israel, will become the name for their nation.

In a similar fashion, my ancestor, Judah Halevi Hassan, decides to sever his connections with the passivity espoused by his father. He aligns himself with the assertive actions taken by the Nokmim, the Revengers, and in doing so, he accepts a new family name to symbolize his new allegiance. For more of that story, read You Shall Know Our Names.

The family tree pictured here was selected because it shows the old and new names of the figures in this blog.