“It was the day before Passover, and our Division Chaplain, of the 42nd Rainbow Division sent out a notice that we were going to have Passover Services. I got two other Jewish GIs and went, joining about 100 other GIs, and to my amazement out came dozens of Jewish civilians who had been in hiding and were crying with joy. For the first time in a few years to be free to have Passover, it really touched me and made me feel I was very sad and yet happy that we were helping. Fellow Jewish GIs back at our base continued to celebrate our own Passover with some Kosher Salami and Matzos that my wife Sophie sent to me the day before Passover started. Plus very delicious French wine I had learned to acquire.”
This was the story that Isaac S. Morhaime, would tell every Passover. He did not need to live Passover “as though” he had come out of Egypt. He had seen liberation with his own eyes. 70 years ago, as part of the 42nd Rainbow Division, Morhaime had helped to liberate Dachau outside of Munich just a month after the celebration of that modest but poignant Seder.
“Going on we pushed ahead and finally got to Munich. A beautiful city but half bombed out. While I was up front with the infantry, we moved ahead and liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp. I was right up front as we rushed the gates. Just then we saw a Kraut on an open boxcar firing his rifle into the railcar, and we all opened fire and shot him. I jumped up and with my little camera took pictures of the prisoners. Most were dead, and the few still alive were mostly skin and bones in the boxcars. Meanwhile in the prison, there were a lot of various people: some American Soldiers, some Air Force, a lot of captured civilian Jews, a few French – all half starved. The following day I went and took more pictures of the prison camp. There were the cremating ovens, there was a 7-foot wall that the prisoners would scale to try to escape, and on the other side about a dozen Great Dane dogs were set loose to kill the Jewish prisoners. There were various other sickening things and tortures.”
Morhaime was an American Jew of Turkish ancestry. His parents, like so many Greek/Turkish Jews were in the fish business. Their grocery and fish shop in Seattle did well and in 1942, Ike, as he was known, married Sophie, a Greek Jew, who he had known from childhood. Ike, who had joined the National Guard in high school, was already active army in 1942 and the wedding took place on a three-day pass. Still stateside in 1943, baby Stan was born but when Ike shipped out in January of 1945 Sophie was left on her own to care for the baby. After the war, Ike returned to Seattle, where he was very involved in the Sephardic Bikur Holim congregation where he had been raised and where he and Sophie would raise Stan and later Sue Ann.
Ike passed away in 2011 and was buried just hours before the family Seder. The Morhaime family committed to carrying on Ike’s tradition of telling the stories of WWII. So that evening, as Ike’s son Stan tells it, still grieving they gathered to celebrate Passover and commemorate the ancient Exodus and the life of their beloved Ike who had played a part in the modern Exodus. This story telling, according to Stan, is a tradition they continue to this day.
“He was a tall man with broad shoulders, the type we used to call ‘a real goliath,’ powerful and with an unusual personality to boot. Unlike most of the Jews, he had no problem walking to his work, upright and with confidence. Instead of leading the line from the barracks, he insisted on bringing up the rear, and the whole way he would support the backs of those who had trouble walking. Avrum deh pusher (Avram the pusher), Avram deh Shtipper (Avram the booster), they used to call him in Yiddish. With his right hand, he picked up the weak, with his left he straightened the bent, and with his chest he pushed them forward. If he saw one of fellow Jews sway and fall, he would grab him quickly and give him a push so that the man could continue walking on his own. Everyone thought of him as a remarkable figure.”
This story is the eyewitness account of Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and the youngest survivor of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. It was he, like Judah the Macabbee in ancient time, who helped save lives in the camp with courage and love. During one of the darkest moments in Jewish history, Avram helped those along the way by instilling belief and hope that light can not only be found, but created, in the darkest of times.
When I light my menorah, I let the whole world know that sometimes I cannot see, and I really need you, my fellow-being, to show me the way, to lift me up, to push me forward and to enrouage me to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The curse of exile and the dread of being lost and confused, “like a blind man,” leaves me not knowing where to go, how to live–even on a day with the clearest skies.
“Rabbi Yosee said: ‘All my life I was unable to understand the verse (Deuteronomy 28:29) that says: ‘And you will fumble in the afternoon just as a blind man gropes during in the darkness’ (he asks) why should it make a difference whether the blind walks in darkness or light?! But then this one time I was walking in the pitch black of night and darkness, and I saw a blind man, and he was walking on the way with a torch in his hand. I said to him ‘my son, this torch, what is its purpose for you?’ and the blind man responded ‘whenever I have this torch in my hand, other people can see me, and rescue me from the openings, thorns and lightning. Talmud: Tractate-Megillah 24b
The blind man engages in the seemingly unnecessary act of holding a candle in the dark, so the rest of the world could support him At times we get caught up in our daily activities and our own misfortunes that I may pass someone who is holding a flame, and be so consumed, to never even see the menorah burning on the windowsill. As our sages tell us (Orach Chayim 672:1-2) that the time to light the menorah is when most people leave the market place to go home at the day’s end so that all can see the light permeating from your home.
In the words of Shlomo Carlebach, when we light the candles, I may be saying: “I don’t know where You are, but You better come get me.” We see a tremendous need today for light, but we must begin to realize, that if I don’t help my brother or sister stand, death would be imminent, if I don’t stop to appreciate the light in someone else’s home, then I’ll be afraid to admit that I sometimes am in need of light. Like Avrum deh shtipper, he lifted up those in need, because if he didn’t, no one else would.
I became Bar Mitzvah on April 20th, 2002, the 130th anniversary of Hitler’s birth. My dad’s side of the family wore West African dashikis. The only other time my temple had held that many Black people was Bingo night. We did not have the money to rent a hotel or hire a live band like many of my Jewish classmates, but the small venue where we hosted my after party happened to be directly across the street from Brown University’s spring weekend concert. I became a man in my Jewish community while my family wore dashikis on Hitler’s birthday and inhaled second-hand weed smoke while watching The Roots (arguably the best hip hop band of all time) play a concert 100 feet away.
Sixty years prior, the world watched as my mother’s ancestors were shuffled into train cars and transported to their deaths. My father’s great-grandmother was born a slave and died a free woman. My truth is that for as much of history as I know, people have been inventing ways to enslave, manipulate, and exterminate my family. And yet I am privileged to have lived a life of Bar Mitzvahs and rap concerts. I exist because of a series of improbable survivals and I believe that, as part of a legacy of both Black writers and Jewish writers, I am compelled to tell my story.
I am a poet. I am a story teller. I am part of a legacy of survivors. As a writer, I believe I am at its best when I am telling the truth. I think this is because when I express my own lived experience, it is so ridiculous and so specific that it reads as an untruth, a history so unfathomable it must be a lie. I think that is what it means to be Jewish; I think that is what it means to be black—to know the truth so well, even when the rest of the world denies its existence. And yet, we still find time to celebrate. We find time to dance, and drink, and love, even when we are surrounded by a vortex of impossible.
For me the processes of writing and identity exploration are inseparable, just as my journey to understand Blackness will always be inextricably tied to my journey to understand my Jewishness. Writing poetry is what helps me tell my story, to dive into the tangle of truth and untruth and suffering and magic and ridiculous improbability that is the bricolage of my history.
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