It’s that time of year…chocolates, flowers, jewelry. Sappy advertisements and red and pink store displays. There are reminders everywhere. It’s Valentine’s Day.
Sure, it’s a bit commercial (understatement) but it’s all good. We know that. It’s beautiful to celebrate love.
But what about if you don’t have a special someone or even your favorite chocolate already lined up for a great Thursday night? (Or perhaps you have a loving companion but you’ve somehow lost yourself in the relationship.) Whatever the reason, this day, with its cards and balloons, candy hearts and kitsch, is turning your mood fifty shades of a rather abysmal gray. Instead of bringing you a great sense of joy and intimacy, this so-called celebration feels more about absence or loss. And over the course of a day that seems to have somehow overlooked your very own precious self, you find yourself thinking, “I don’t have a valentine.”
To which we respond, what do you mean you don’t have a valentine?
Of course you have a valentine.
Walk right into the bathroom. Grab a hold of the sink and look up. Yours will be right there waiting, looking you straight in the punim. Continue reading
Soon after learning my late grandmother’s family lived in Nachlaot, I accepted an invitation for Shabbat dinner from sweet friends, Mottle and Batya Wolfe. Spending Shabbat in Nachlaot definitely felt like the most fitting way to honor my newly discovered roots. When I shared how much I wanted to spend more time where my grandmother grew up, the Wolfes seemed to read my mind and invited me to their seder. I was so touched by their invitation, but Passover was four months away. I was still touring for Cool Jew in what was fast becoming the Energizer Bunny of book tours. It just kept going and going… Could I really return so soon?
At my next stop, Limmud UK, the answer effortlessly appeared. Several participants suggested I present at Limmud Berlin and Limmud Amsterdam, both slated for May. I could fly early to Europe, add on a trip to Israel for Passover and return in time for both conferences. I would barely be home between now and then but I was used to that (!) and Passover in Nachlaot was clearly where I was meant to be… It just kept getting validated. Was it the luck of Cool Jew, my grandmother’s orchestrations on high or something else at work?
The time flew by. Finally, I landed at Mottle and Batya’s seder. They urged me to share my story again with their guests. I had long known my grandmother was born in Israel but I didn’t know she grew up in Nachlaot, near Ohel Moshe Street, where it meets Rehov Aryeh Levin, named for the great tzaddik of Jerusalem. The story kept growing… Continue reading
If there is one consistent theme in the ongoing discoveries of my family history it is meaningful coincidence. Some people call this synchronicity. Our sages call it hasgacha pratit, Divine providence.
In 2009, I received an email from David Abitbol, whom I had met the year before when I presented at the Jewlicious Festival he co-founded in Los Angeles. David had made aliyah and spotted a vintage photograph of a Jerusalem couple named Alcalay displayed near his apartment in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot. He asked if they were my relatives. I didn’t know. My mother didn’t know. My grandparents were no longer living so I couldn’t ask them. Months passed and the question lingered. If I could find more details about the image, I might discover how we are related.
If hobbies can be Jewish, genealogy certainly is. It’s a way of reclaiming our past despite centuries of persecution and loss. It’s also popular among “Holocaust families” like mine who dream of discovering a lost relative. Before the proliferation of genealogical sites on the Net, I consulted an Israeli professor of Sefardi history, Yom Tov Assis at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, about my mother’s family. Yom Tov told me all Alcalays are part of a large clan that left Spain at the time of the Inquisition and dispersed across the Mediterranean. While he was still alive, my grandfather, the son of a Jerusalem rabbi, told me we are direct descendants of an early Zionist thinker, Rabbi Yehuda Alcalay, the chief rabbi of Sarajevo. In his writings, Herzl credits Alcalay with many of the ideas for a future Jewish state. To honor that history, I inserted the montage of delegates at the first Zionist Congress held in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland into my first book, Cool Jew. Two delegates were both descendants of Rabbi Alcalay, a granddaughter and a great nephew, who were married. Their names are David and Judith Alcalay; she was one of the relatively few women in attendance.
Months after David Abitbol sent me the image of the unknown Alcalays, I was invited to present at Limmud UK. Since I was traveling all the way from California, I added on a visit to Israel and recruited another friend, Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz, for help unraveling the mystery of the photo. I had met Yitzchak years earlier when we both taught in a Jewish spirituality retreat in Maui. Nachlaot’s labyrinthian streets easily swallow up newcomers but Yitzchak, who studies kabbalah in Nachlaot each night—all night—was happy to help. David had told me the image is one among many historic portraits embedded in Nachlaot’s walls; these displays honor early residents of one of the first neighborhoods outside the Old City with weather-protected photographs that represent a Jewish twist on “Lincoln slept here.” On one wall, there might be the image of Tevyeh the Milkman. On another, Rachel the seamstress.
We wandered the neighborhood in an impromptu tour, carefully reading every caption, enjoying the charming stories, but there was not one Alcalay among them. The sun began to set and soon, Yitzchak had to leave for his evening routine. I asked if we could quickly try just one more street before we gave up. We picked up our pace and turned another corner. There, we discovered a series of about 20 images, the largest yet, but one drew me directly to it and I began to cry. The photo features a family, including one young woman I immediately recognized as my grandmother. She had a stroke early in life and I barely knew her, but I “happened” to have visited her a week before she died and attended her funeral in the same cemetery as the Israelis martyred at the Munich Olympics.
My aunt had given me a copy of her family portrait soon after my grandmother passed away. I love it so much that I keep it on display in my home. By the time I discovered it in Nachlaot, I had already published it in Cool Jew. It accompanies a section on Jewish blood ties.
My grandmother, Yehudit Levy, z’l is shown seated in the far right corner, with her parents, siblings, niece and nephew.
It was only because I was searching that I found what I wasn’t seeking, a bond to Nachlaot I didn’t even know existed. This amazing series of meetings and friendships had led me to an unexpected gift came during Chanukah, when my grandmother was born. Her parents had named her Judith, in honor of one of the heroines of Chanukah, who slew the enemy ruler, Holofernes.
I was due in England soon but hoped to return to Nachlaot for the next major festival, Passover. I dreamt of commemorating our redemption and walking the streets my grandmother had, and where my great grandparents had before her.
It’s clear from the names of my two pop culture humor books, Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, that my Jewish background is a primary force in my writing. What these titles don’t reveal is how much my work is informed by my father’s experiences during the Holocaust.
They say every child of a Holocaust survivor is born with a tear in her eye. This is far from an obvious starting point for cultivating humor. But like many other creatives, my “weighty inheritance” significantly contributes to the overall tenor of my writing about contemporary Jewish life—in both revealed and unrevealed ways.
My first book, Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe (cooljewbook.com), was a 2008 National Jewish Book Awards Finalist and the first humor book honored in the awards’ 50-year-history. My new book, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe (hotmamalah.com), debuted this month. Both books are filled with humorous depictions of Jewish life and practice. They promote learning about your identity and celebrating it with a reverent irreverence…an irreverence based on a real love of being Jewish.
My father, who will b’ezrat Hashem, soon turn 90, is a survivor of Buchenwald. As a child, my father told me his parents died “in the war.” It was only when I turned the age of bat mitzvah that I learned their precise fate. On Yom Kippur 1942, the Nazis deported them and their daughter Rosa to Treblinka. They were never heard from again. That same year, the Nazis murdered my uncle Lipman in the Czestohowa ghetto. Somehow, despite years as a slave laborer in war-time Poland, my father survived. He was near death when General Patton’s Third Army finally liberated Buchenwald. He was furious to miss the oranges and chocolate U.S. liberators fed his fellow captives. As many of them died from complications, my father realized this was one more blessing that saved his life.
One of my father’s mottos is never give up. One day in April 1945 he was a slave. And the next day, suddenly, the skies parted. And he was a free.
Another of my father’s favorite maxims is never, ever be ashamed to be a Jew. My books, Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, turn this injunction into a positive: to know who you are and own it. Little did I know that my own embracing of this teaching would lead me to new revelations about my heritage, including the Sefardi history of my mother’s family. Check back soon for more about them in an upcoming post in this series.