Posts Tagged 'Oma'

Sharing the Cookies: Joy of a Nation

I feel tremendous gratitude to part of the Schusterman Fellowship. I am honored to be a part of such a remarkable cohort. In preparation for the first session of the program each of us was asked to describe our Jewish story in 3-5 vignettes from our lives. In preparing to share my Jewish narrative with my peers I recalled what must be one of my earliest memories.

I must have been in Kindergarten. I remember going in the required blue pants and white shirt. I also have a vague memory of some construction paper thing on my head. My local Jewish Day school went to a nearby Jewish old age home on Yom HaAtzmaut to sing for them.  After we finished singing two older women with thick German accents  singled me out of the crowd and pulled me aside. They told me how they were friends with my Oma, herself a German immigrant. And just like that they handed me two big bags of home-made cookies. While so many details have washed away over the years I can recall it as just yesterday the joy of sharing those cookies with my classmates on the bus.

These two women were strangers in a strange land, but they made me feel special and at home by connecting with me. Since that day I feel a responsibility to share the experience of belonging with my fellow Jews. As part of the Schusterman Fellowship I also have the good fortune of having regular meetings with a personal coach. In conversation with him I got to realized that in retrospect that experience really defines the work that I have been striving to do in the Jewish communities in Belarus, Washington University in St. Louis, and camps across North America for over 25 years.

Recently I went to suburban Philadelphia to visit my mother for Mother’s day.  When I came, having no idea I had been thinking about this story, my mother shared that she recently found picture that I might life.

I was blown away. There I am on the right with my blue pants, white shirt,  and construction paper thing on my head celebrating Israel at 30. All of these years later I recognize the significance of having a State of Israel. With a rebirth of our national homeland we would never really be alone again. Instead of a life of paranoia fearing what might be coming for us living as strangers in a strange lands, Israel would always be there to have our backs. In many ways my life’s work is helping people experience pronoia, the sense that people are conspiring to help them, by joyfully sharing the cookies.

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Always End It

A few days before Passover I was talking with Yadid and Yishama at dinner about school.  I am not sure how it came up or even what it means for a 5-year-0ld, but it became apparent that Yishama had been fighting on the bus.  I immediately launch into one of  my Opa‘s maxims. As my grandfather Alfred Katz was reported to say, ” You never start a fight, but you always end it.” This was a conversation I have had a number of times with Yadid, but I realized that I had not yet shared this pearl of wisdom with Yishama. So I went on to explain who my mother’s father was. I tread carefully in that I have not wanted to tell my children too much about the Holocaust. I tell Yishama, that as the story goes, during WWII my Opa bought a farm in Venlo just across the German boarder in the Netherlands. He would drive a wagon back and forth over the boarder smuggling Jewish children under the hay out of German to  safety. As I am telling the story Yadid and I trade knowing glances teeming with pride of our lineage.

I want my children to understand that we never start fights. It is just something we do not do. But that does not mean that we are to be treated as a shmata– rag.  We cannot let ourselves get pushed around. Jews are not destined to be the doormat of history. When the situation calls for it we need to be ready to risk our own safety and security to stand up for those who need our help. We must be brave enough to end fights. But even in those situations we need to know when to call it quits and move on.

I have very few memories of my Opa. I think I was about Yadid’s age when he passed away. From every thing I have ever learned about him Alfred  Katz was a noble, wise,  and loved man. I would have loved to learn about the children he saved. I would have loved to hear from him what compelled him to be so brave. I also would have loved to learn when he knew that it was time to move on.  I feel that much of my life I have spent striving to live up to his example.  I also know that I would not be alive if he had not made that choice to leave when he did.

So a few days later we were at the Seder.  With a little help from me and his cousins Yishama got up and asked the Four Questions. And then with a little push from me he asked his Oma a fifth question. What did his great-grandfather do during the War? On Passover we commemorate the redemption of our people from Slavery. We were led to freedom by a man (Moses) who had escaped being killed as a child because his sister (Miriam) hid  him away in an ark of hay. There we were, descendents of Alfred Katz, realizing our own redemption by paying tribute to a man who quietly saved children’s lives.

Tonight we  commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For most of us this is a commemoration of the horror of the Nazi effort to exterminate 12 million people. Or worse it is day in which we are reminded how our people were led like lambs to slaughter. But that is not the real story of the day. This day is the 69th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Today’s story is the story of our standing up for ourselves. Freedom will never be given, it needs to be taken. In the spirit of Mordechai Anielewicz and in words of my Opa today we can say, “You never start a fight, but you always end it.” Over the course of my children’s lives I look forward to see where they take today’s and my Opa’s  lesson.


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