Monday, May 2, 2011

Judaism and memories from my father

My father sends me emails from time to time with stories and such from his over 8 decades of life and experiences. In this one he started off talking about how out of my siblings, other than my half-brother, I am the only who expressed much interest in Judaism. He does tend to ramble a bit but is full of wonderful stories.
Our home never had any emblems of Judaism but several unmistakable Christian items: a Catholic bible with a cross caarved in its olive wood cover given my mother when she was a student at a Carmelite nunnery near Haifa (she studied piano, French and sewing among other things which proved of lifelong value to her) this was inthe last years of the WWI.  My current original ruminations tell me that if the US hadn't gotten involved in WWI that Germany would not have been so severely beaten or might have won, but in either case the vicious Versailles treaty would not have given rise to Hitler and driven Germany to fight WWII.
Another current original rumination of mine is (I would never dare declare it publicly for fear of being misunderstood) but apart from the fact that (what is the exact figure?) ten or 25 times as many Africans were transported to Central and South America as to N. America.  The point is irrelevant, but considering the plight of most Africans in Africa today with the mass killings of hundreds and thousands and all the hunger and poverty, one might conjure up the notion that most American blacks should consider in balance that perhaps in the end, they were really RESCUED by the slave traders and slave masters in the US.  They were almost invariably in Africa the conquered in battle who by most standards in all parts of the world hacked to death.  Victors in battle instead were able to SELL instead of kill the losers because thee was a market for them abroad.  So by that speculative logic, Ameican Blacks should calculate, along with all the injustice they have and still suffer from in the US that they really were rescued.  Repeat this in the wrong place and at the wrong time and expect to get your head bashed in.
Anyway, Shoah, I went to the museum in Jerusalem several times and it really is a moving experience.  A good book with illustrations on the subject would probably be comparable in power, but the museum is a pretty shaking experience.  Oh, other than an attempt to teach me Hebrew and Spanish just once or twice was given up by my mother without episode or feeling.  I had only one close friend from age 9-12, Seymour Alban who is an MD still practicing in Long Beach, California.  His folks were the poorest of the poor immigrants from Hungary.  His mother couldn't read or write and spoke almost no English, but they had twins who worked their ways through the Depression to become an MD and a dentist, a daughter who became and school teacher and married a very wealthy man and her baby, Seymour. He tried to get me to go to temple with him but I had a scorn for those little Ashkenazi rabbis and their funny little ghetto ways.  Instead, I attended the local Presbyterian church and sang in the choir for at least two years until, I think I may have told y ou this story a couple of times, the minister wanted to go high church at Christmas andkneel. I quit going.  I don't know how many times you and I may have gone to the Catholic church but although I may have appeared to kneel, I always, resolutely refused toactually kneel.  By chance, we had a new neighbor in our building, the Freemans, who offered to take me to their synagogue several miles from our place.  I was dubious at 11 or 12, but went along to their Temple Emanuel presided over by Rabbi Felix A. Levy. I think there is mention of him on google.  It was "love" at first sight. and Iatatended his synagogue for the next two or three years up to "Confirmation" a photo of which shows me sitting next to the Rabbi among the fifteen or so confirmees with my hands showing the then gesture of BS.  I'm not sure why I did that, but my rfelationship with the rabbi was unique.  He had a nephew my age in the group, Arnold Wolf, who eventually became a rababi himself and on the staff of the Yale Divinity School until he retired and led a congregation right across from Obama's home in Chicago.  He is alleged to have said to Obama many years ago that he might be vice president of the US someday whereupon Obama is reported to have said, "Why not President?"

Rabbi Levy was often busy and away addressing various Christian groups and he prepared me to give my own sermons in his absence.  I did this many times and a collection of those semons is somewhere.  I've seen it.  He also wentto great lengths with the assistance of a lawyer congregant who took his customary rest in a hospital to help me with the city wide oratorical contest while in his hospital bed.  I didn't win because I kept on revising it until I didn't have time to memorize it.  That was one of the stipulations, but I got my first real suit out of the experience
from my parents.  Endof story?  No. Twenty years later, at our beach home near Natanya, Israel, who should I see strolling up to our front door but Levy himself.  He had been close friends with the Dushkins in Chicago all those years I was at the temple and often left his coaching time with me to go and have dinner with them, and now he was coming to visit his old friends in Israel.  He told lme that his synagogue, now moved to a more prestigious address, had dropped him after more than 25 years because he"wasn't Jewish enough."  I learned for the first time that actually his mother was a convert from being a Spanish Catholic and that his brother was a Catholic priest!  I knew none of this as a kid, but there was something about him and about me that drew us to each other so strongly!

Anyway, Shoah and family events.  My mother's father, Samuel (Shmuel) Sephardi, was an only son with six sisters of a prosperous Berlin piano manufacturer and distributor of the then mandatory mother of pearl piano keys and decorations.  It was incumbent upon him, prosperous and with only one son to urge him to a life of rabbinic studies as your brother John (Yohanan) has done and several of your nephews are doing (John has seven sons and two daughters).  Grandfather revolted and was far more interested in science and electricity which he studied secretly from books his mother brought him.  His father was so enraged when he discovered the books that he burned them and not long after that Samuel left home.  I have little knowledge of what transpired between that time and his ending up in the Ukraine, but somewhere along the line, he married a Polish woman, perhaps Jewish, and had a son.  For whatever reason, the marriage didn't survive, but my Uncle Jonathan, Grandma's younger brother,
went to Warsaw around 1930 and found his half brother who was named, I believe, Morris Sephardi and was a drama and music critic for one of the Warsaw papers.  Jonathan went back in 1946 and could find no trace of him.  We assume that he was a victim of the Shoah, but I have always wondered what happened to my grandfather's six sisters and their families.  I hope that someday, I shall figure out how to trace them or what happened to them although it doesn't take much imagination.  My grandmother's side of the family, for the most part, left for the US around the time of the US Civil War and established themselves very successfully and affluently in Pasadena, Duluth and Manhattan.  Grandma traced all three families at one time or another. The one notable tragedy on that side of the famly was that of my grandmother's uncle, the famous Mendel Beilis on whose tragedy the novel and the film "The Fixer" was based.  The many pogroms by drunken Cossaks drove most of the family away to the US.
I finish today with the perhaps repeated story that my Grandfather was, like most Gemans, proud of his culture and conversed with his first born, my beloved Aunt Rachel, chiefly in GErman and when she wanted to do her PhD in Germany in 1920's, she was so shocked by the general social turbulence that she alerted my mother and her mother NOT to join her there but that she was going to the US instead.  Her husband had a large middle class family in the Philadelphia area and that's where Nana arrived (at Rhode Island on the SS Oriental in 1922 or 23).  Giving piano lessons, as she did at the time after her four years of piano study in Italy, she met my father in such a home.  He spoke little other than Gallego (the ancient language of Gallicia, Spain) and she was fluent in Gallego from her childhood in Argentina to age eight where their neighbors were mostly Gallego immigrants!  Take care.

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