Yom Ha’atzmaut 2015 (Israel Independence Day)

rdUTCp30UTC04bUTCThu, 23 Apr 2015 13:59:56 +0000 1, 2008

A Sabbath morning, late
curled in a recliner reading
a book about past lives
around me more books, paintings
stuffed animals and magazines
the room I call
a womb.

Husband on the patio
with coffee cup, ten feet away
through the open door
reading Talmud

And in the silence of the Sabbath
I hear a bird

The same one that is there every morning
but I rarely hear it because I’m

This time
close my eyes and just

She’s somewhere in a tree out there
perhaps in the fir tree
or the one that gives purple flowers
for a few weeks in spring

Perhaps on our neighbor’s cherry tree
or apricot or pear

Or perched on a rooftop
watching hills

And I ask husband
“What’s the name of that bird?
I love the song of that bird
whenever I hear that song
it lifts my heart.”

And he tells me

It is a bird called

— Toby Klein Greenwald


Multi-Ethnic Coffee in Gush Etzion and Crying with Fatima

thUTCp30UTC04bUTCThu, 24 Apr 2014 08:54:36 +0000 1, 2008

Read the rest of this entry »


stUTCp28UTC02bUTCThu, 21 Feb 2013 17:09:01 +0000 1, 2008


Only her lips move, and her voice is not heard. (The Prayer of Chana, Samuel I)

By Toby Klein Greenwald

My mother used to love the bargains offered by cosmetic brands like Estee Lauder and Clinique – Buy an item over a certain price and you receive, as a bonus, a make-up case or tote bag with five or six other small items. Between the two of us, we’d split up the miniature bottles and tubes, but the lipstick was often left over. I use only a touch of gloss, and my mom had a few colors that she used exclusively.

So over the years, the drawer in the bathroom vanity filled with beautiful unused lipsticks – elegant shades of magenta and red, mauves and frosted browns. They had creative names like Taffeta, Coral Blaze, Torrid and Ancient Brick (and it is).

My mom passed away in 2003, just before Purim, the holiday when little girls like to dress up as Queen Esther. (At least when I was a little girl.) The irony wasn’t lost on me, and when I returned to Israel after sitting shiva in Cleveland, I brought with me her cache of lipsticks. A month later our Gush Etzion Raise Your Spirits Summer Stock Company performed its last show of Esther and the Secrets in the King’s Court. We were always running low on lipstick, so I added my mom’s to the stash. Later that year, I used them on our actresses in Pippin, a musical I directed with teens at risk.

I year later, I pulled them out again, this time for a graduation in Efrat of 8th grade girls, performing a musical I wrote, Voices and Dreams (music by Paul Salter), in honor of Efrat’s 20th anniversary. As they swiveled the little gold, blue and white cases open and shut, choosing their colors, I thought how much my mom would have enjoyed knowing that her lipsticks were adorning the mouths of girls who were portraying Sara the matriarch, pioneers from the 40’s, Russian brides, teenagers who made aliya, women working in a hesed storeroom for used clothes for the needy. Her lipsticks enhanced the smiles of actresses who portrayed shopkeepers, teachers, students, soldiers, and Efrat personalities like Rebetzin Vicky Riskin and activist Nadia Matar.

More than that, I thought how much she would have enjoyed watching the excitement of these 13-year-olds, most of whom have jell-less hair, earrings only in their ear lobes and modest clothing. Most of the girls had not yet begun using make-up, and had never worn lipstick. They crowded together before the mirrors in the community center dressing room, experimenting and laughing. Afterwards, they went on stage and bowled the crowd over with their beautiful smiles and their spirit.

The parents who attended the graduation that night had eyes mostly for their own daughters, but I didn’t have a daughter on stage; I was only the playwright. So I looked down at all 44 girls equally, and as I watched them look up at the audience, their eyes bright with the thought that they were finished with elementary school, eagerly anticipating summer and then high school, and happy that they had managed to pull off the play successfully, I imagined my mom’s smile upon their lips.

She was a Zionist. Even though she never made aliya, she gave me her blessing. She was proud to have Israeli grandchildren. She loved musicals, and I’m happy that a little part of her was there, on the lips of girls in Gush Etzion, singing about faith, about courage, and about building the land of Israel.

The “Diet” Buck Stops Here

thUTCp31UTC07bUTCMon, 25 Jul 2011 05:02:06 +0000 1, 2008

When I woke up in the middle of the night, I did a count, and reached the number 12. Or was it 13? Those are the number of diet/exercise/healthy eating plans I’ve been on, over the last 40 years.

All of them worked — quite well, actually. But then the meetings stopped, or I stopped going, or there was some crisis or other that I could blame for getting myself off course.

About a week ago, I decided that the buck now stops with me. No more meetings, no more writing down calories or foods. No more lectures. It’s all good — every single program worked. Until I stopped it.

For about five years I’ve been walking around saying, “It’s all in four words: Eat less, move more.” I even saw, recently, that another healthy living plan is using those words. More power to them.

I don’t even need to do the math in my head. I know that another piece of bread, another potato, a second piece of cake at Shabbat desert, is not good. It’s not rocket science.

There is (almost) nothing they can tell me that I don’t already know. Moderation is good. Sugar is bad. So is anything artificial. Eat fruit before the meal, not after. Eat lots of veggies. Don’t drink with meals. Try not to mix carbs and proteins. Fruit is good to start the day, and always better than juice. Exercise, exercise, exercise, alternating days between aerobics and muscle-building. Buy the highest quality olive oil. Cut down on milk products and wheat (for me). Eat lots of veggies. Chicken is better that meat and fish used to be better than chicken, though with the high amounts of mercury in it, that’s now in question. (I read that on a site about AD(H)D.) Drink. Did I already say eat lots of veggies?

Since I decided to get a handle on my own eating life, last week, I lost about two pounds. Not much, but I’m doing it my way.

Stay tuned.


Grandmother’s Prayer

thUTCp31UTC07bUTCSun, 24 Jul 2011 01:34:42 +0000 1, 2008

I wrote this in the summer of 2005, days before my daughter’s family was expelled from Atzmona, Gush Katif. It subsequently was published in the book In the Land of Prayer, Personal Tefillot from Israel in Turbulent Times, edited by Daniel Gutenmacher, translated by Toby Klein Greenwald. It can be obtained here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/9655552527/ref=olp_product_details?ie=UTF8&me=&seller= (or from me, if you live nearby!) That’s me and my two oldest granddaughters in the photo, in front of their home in Atzmona, earlier that year. The orange scarf I’m wearing is the one we all wore, who were in the cast of Noah! Ride the Wave!, by the Raise Your Spirits Theatre (www.raiseyourspirits.org) that we performed in Gush Katif that year. (See our show logo on the end of the scarf?)


by Toby Klein Greenwald

Lord on high

Let mychildren be healed

Help them to keep their faith in You

Soothe their pain

Let my grandchildren know no more uprooting

Let them run barefoot and joyful

Once more

In a homeland free of blood-running

Stretch out Your wings over them

Envelope them in Your protection

Enable them to grow and to love

In spite of the evil in the world

And in our land.

Grant our leaders wisdom

And integrity

Bless our people

With peace.

 August, 2005

On the Significance of Names

thUTCp31UTC05bUTCTue, 25 May 2010 04:59:34 +0000 1, 2008

By Toby Klein Greenwald

 Our daughter just called to let us know that the halaka (ufsherin) of their son will be this coming Friday, erev Parshat Beha’alotcha. She said they’ll be making a smaller event this time – cutting his hair at Maarat Hamachpela (Tomb of the Patriarchs) in Hevron, with only close family members present.  She shared with me the fact that she had the fleeting thought that his older brother (the first of their children to have a halaka, born after two sisters) had a larger event at their home, but decided that, at the age of three, he wouldn’t feel short-changed.

I told her that it was a wise decision and reminded me of the story about how, when our fourth daughter was born, we gave her only one name, even though I wanted to add the name Rachel. Why didn’t we? Because the first two daughters had two names and the third had only one. I didn’t want the third daughter to feel that she was the only one with one name, who got short-changed, if we gave the fourth daughter a second name.

So for years I walked around thinking of our fourth daughter as having the second name of Rachel. And for that matter, I thought of our third daughter as having the second name of Devora. Why hadn’t we given her that second name to begin with? Because I was in a fog when I suggested it to my husband, by phone on a Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours after I gave birth. He was to go up to the Torah the next morning, and he said, “Ah, one name’s enough, no?” and I said, “Okay…” After all, “Devora” was not in memory of anyone; she was just a biblical personality who I greatly admired.

How our intentions come to pass

This is what happened with those two daughters.

The one to whom I wanted to give the second name of “Devora” grew up to be a strong, independent personality, a leader among her peers and at work, and one who is willing to put herself out there and take risks. She is a young woman of great courage and perseverance. There could not be a stronger exemplifier of the name “Devora”.

The one to whom I wanted to give the second name of “Rachel” is one who works in a somewhat secretive, sensitive profession. She is totally dedicated, a young woman of few words, who is admired by all who know her, and strongly devoted to her siblings and others. She also happens to look like a dark, biblical beauty. She conducts herself like a true Rachel.

But that’s not all.

Less than a year ago, our eldest daughter gave birth to their fifth child, and they named her Rachel Emuna. They had always loved the name Rachel, they said, but its special significance was that the beloved aunt of my son-in-law, and her husband, had been murdered by terrorists – the last ones to die that way on the road leaving Gush Katif, in July, 2005. I had also known and loved that Rachel, and was deeply moved that they named a child for her, with the addition of the name Emuna – “faith”.

As for Devora, I am in the process of completing, with a co-author, the writing of our next production for the Raise Your Spirits women’s theater company of Gush Etzion. It is a musical about the emulated prophetess, judge, military strategist and poet. The working name: JUDGE: The Song of Deborah.

I now have a granddaughter named Rachel and a play named for Devora.

And, most significant of all, I have two daughters, for whom I intended those names, who grew up, baruch Hashem, to have those characteristics anyway – the characteristics of two great heroines of Jewish history.

It seems that the hopeful thoughts and intentions we have in our minds and our hearts for our children may find their way into reality, no matter what is written on their birth certificates.

Like self-fulfilling prophecies, it can happen, when we raise them with the right intentions.

And with a lot of help from Heaven.

 The author is a teacher, poet and director of educational theater.

A Day of Covenants

thUTCp31UTC05bUTCSun, 09 May 2010 04:51:01 +0000 1, 2008

By Toby Klein Greenwald

(This appeared in the 5 Towns Jewish Times on May 6, 2010.)

Israel Independence Day is always a time for family and friends, for prayer and parties, but I don’t remember another one that held, for us, so many joyful and meaningful events packed into one day.

Covenant I: Brit Milah in the Rebuilt Hurva Synagogue

Two years ago I wrote about how on Monday, May 4, 2008, halfway between Holocaust Memorial Day and Israel’s Independence Day, the grandchild of my husband’s cousin, Rav Yehezkel Greenwald, entered the covenant of Abraham in Kfar HaTemanim, in the village of Shiloach (Silwan). It was the first time a brit milah had been performed in that neighborhood since 1938, when the British evicted the Jews, following Arab riots. Yehezkel had miraculously survived the stabbing by an Arab while in the Old City, on his way to teach at Ateret Cohanim, only two months before the brit.

This year, on Yom Ha’atzmaut morning, a second grandchild of Yehezkel’s (son to the same young couple) entered into the covenant of Abraham – this time in the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, following a glorious Tefilat Shaharit, complete with Hallel and prayers for the State of Israel and her soldiers.

The Hurva synagogue was built by the disciples of Rav Yehuda Hahasid in the 1700’s, destroyed in 1721, rebuilt in the mid 19th century, and reduced to rubble by Jordan’s Arab Legion on May 25, 1948, along with the rest of the Jewish Quarter.  In 1977 one of its arches was reconstructed. Recently it was rebuilt in the original neo-Byzantine style of the original and in March of this year it was rededicated.

The magnificently reconstructed Hurva has a ceiling that seems to reach the clouds, painted scenes of Jerusalem, Hevron, Bethlehem, and Tiberias, delicately painted flowers decorating high arches, a mural with the verse from Tehilim “By the shores of Babylon…”, an aron kodesh bordered and crowned with gold and a bima with an open gold-filigreed frame around the top. Only a piece of the east wall was left unrenovated, in memory of the destruction of the original Hurva.

The parents named the child “Shmuel”. When I asked Yehezkel why, he said, “Because of leadership, given the juxtaposition with Yom Ha’atzmaut. Shmuel the prophet anointed King Saul, who was the leader of the moment, but he also anointed King David, who was the leader of the future. In the same way we are aware of both the need for leadership today, and for the future.”

The brit milah was performed by the same mohel as two years ago, Rav Tzemach Hirshfeld, a man of great piety and the father of Yonadav Haim Hirshfeld, one of the eight young students of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav who was murdered on March 6, 2008. As with every brit, the cries of the child meshed with the sighs of joy and thanksgiving on this special day, in this special place – a new birth in a historic synagogue reborn.

Covenant II: A Walk Down Memory Lane

Shevet Gilboa at Neot Kedumim

From the Old City we turned our car westward to Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, where B’nei Akiva and the Camp Moshavas of North America organized a reunion of its thousands of “graduates”. The oldest Moshava was the one celebrating its 75th anniversary (for the New York area) with Wild Rose, Wisconsin (for us Midwesterners) a close second with a 72nd year reunion. Other Moshavas represented were Camp Stone (Ohio-Pennsylvania), Ennismore (Canada) and Big Bear (California).

Neot Kedumim is a recreation of the physical settings of the Tanach. It combines a plethora of rich and detailed landscapes. Among its features are the Forest of Milk and Honey, the Dale of the Song of Songs and Isaiah’s Vineyard.

In this bounteous setting, with a tent set up, Moshava-style, as a Beit Midrash, a band, memorabilia, hiking trails, picnic areas, a bazaar of offerings by artisans of Gush Katif and others, and of course food, several thousand campers of all ages and their families gathered to reminisce and catch up. Graduates of Moshava living in Israel today fill roles in educational institutions, the rabbinate, governmental agencies, the hi-tech sector, the business world and the professional arenas of medicine, law, social work and the arts.

My husband, and other non-Moshava spouses, accompanied us as good sports, and were amazed to discover how many people they knew, as colleagues or neighbors, whose Religious Zionist roots were planted at Moshava. What we acquired in those dusty summers went beyond pledges of friendship; it was a covenant between each of us and the Jewish people.

Covenant III: New Home in View of the Herodion

The name of the newborn Shmuel echoed as we turned back east and headed in the direction of Tekoa, in eastern Gush Etzion, birthplace of the prophet Amos, and home of the “wise woman” depicted in the book of Samual, who was sent by Yoav to King David (Shmuel 2, Ch. 14, 4-9). Our nephew and his wife, Nitzan and Orit Rubenstein, were hosting a chanukat habayit (home dedication) barbeque in their new home.

Nitzan, a law student and Orit, a first grade teacher in the Tekoa school, have two young children, Yotam and Tamar. Nitzan says, “We decided to live in Tekoa because of the diverse human ‘landscape’, and you can’t ignore the magnificent geographical scenery as well. The people here are calm, unhurried, nothing seems to fluster them. They are tolerant and don’t mind the business of others. There is an atmosphere of individualism.”

Established in 1977, Tekoa is home to religious and secular, Israelis and olim from a variety of countries, including many from the former Soviet Union. With a new road, it is only six miles south-west of Jerusalem, yet is at the edge of the expansive Judean Desert.

Rising above Tekoa, in the distance, is the Herodion mountain fortress, built by King Herod and destroyed by the Romans in 71 CE. The mountain contains tunnels, an underground water system, mikvaot and archeological remains of elaborate living areas. The administrative center of the Bar Kochba revolt was in the fortress, and it is said that from the Herodion, people could see the burning of the Temple.

A renewed covenant with the land.

Covenant IV: New Sefer Torah Dedicated

Exhausted, we returned to Efrat for a hachnasat Sefer Torah. It was dedicated by our friends, Eudice and Menachem Spitz, in memory of their parents. The final writing, in the Spitz home, was followed by dancing and singing through the streets of Efrat, culminating in a ceremony in the shul and a festive dinner.

Eudice’s comments in her speech at the dinner resonated with anyone familiar with the story of the Jewish people: “I always thought that Menachem and I came from very different backgrounds. His parents were European; mine were American…My in-laws were the first Holocaust survivors I ever met, and Menachem grew up thinking that anyone with American-born parents must not be religious.

“But this year on Pesach it struck me: we all do have the same background. That background is yetziat Mitzraim (the exodus from Egypt) and matan Torah (the giving of the Torah)… I often say, ‘Do you know what it means if you meet a fellow Jew, talk for five minutes and don’t find out that you’re related? It means you haven’t been talking long enough.’…We are all the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak & Yaakov. Dispersed over the centuries perhaps, but together again now as one family, here in our land. How fitting that we dedicate a new sefer Torah on the very day that celebrates the re-birth of our nation-family in Eretz Yisrael.”

So there you have it – our Yom Ha’atzmaut, one in which we joined in the covenants of Avraham with G-d, of Am Yisrael, of the land of Israel and of the Torah – all of them intertwined.

A day of covenants, and of blessings.

Rooms of the Heart

thUTCp30UTC04bUTCTue, 20 Apr 2010 04:11:05 +0000 1, 2008

The bridge between Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron

By Toby Klein Greenwald

(This appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal  and in the San Diego Jewish World )

In his official Memorial Day speech at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu described how, as a young soldier, two of his fellow soldiers, 19 years old, were killed during a lethal military operation, and how one of them, David Ben Hamu, died in his arms in the army car on the way to the closest hospital. The Prime Minister had been a member of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, the same unit which his brother Yonatan, led during the Entebbe rescue, during which Yonatan died.

Netanyahu described how, years later, when he went to visit Ben Hamu’s parents in Beer Sheva, his mother showed him David’s room. It was exactly how it looked the day he fell in battle, she said. Not one detail had been changed, not one item moved.

I remember once staying overnight at the home of a friend in another town, a friend whose son had also died in a battle against terrorists. She now uses his bedroom as the guest room. Her hospitality was effusive and generous, but I hardly slept all night. I was surrounded by army medals, photographs, items that had belonged to the courageous young soldier.

As I heard Netanyahu speak, and as I remembered the room of the son of my friend, and the rooms of so many other soldiers who die in battle and whose families maintain their bedrooms as shrines, where they are young forever, all I could think of were the words, “rooms of the heart”.

In English, the four different parts of the heart are called “chambers”. In Hebrew, they are called simply “rooms”.

The week that is, every year

Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, and for those who have died at the hands of terrorists, come exactly one week apart. It is a week fraught with emotion and a deep clutching at the internal and collective spirit of the Jewish people in Israel. The two days are inexorably linked, for the event of the first day reminds us why we must have an army of our own, so a shoah will never happen again.

This year, on Yom Hashoah, I invited Mr. Mendel Flaster of San Diego, who was visiting in Israel, to speak to the 9th grade class I teach in Yeshivat Makor Chaim in Gush Etzion. Many of the students have brothers who have been in the army, or fathers or grandfathers who have fought in Israel’s wars, or family members who endured the Shoah, or grandfathers who fought with the Allies during WWII.

Mendel, who is 90 years old, is lucid and articulate. He described how, as a 19-year-old, in 1939, he was taken to a Nazi labor camp in Poland. He eventually endured 14 camps in six years, the last one being Auschwitz-Birkenau.

When he was liberated, he was recruited by the American army to work for the CIC and the CID, organizations that tracked down and gathered information to prosecute Nazi war criminals. Mendel helped send 30 Nazi war criminals to prison. Twelve hours of his testimony were recorded for the project of Steven Spielberg, who also wrote him several personal letters.

Mendel’s scores of stories are replete with descriptions of the camps – onerous labor, hunger, filth, cruel punishments, debasement and death, and what the inmates did, not only to survive, but to maintain their personal dignity. The stories are numerous, chilling and inspiring, and hopefully one day will fill a book.

He told five especially mesmerizing stories that I’d like to relate, as they seem so unbelievable, given the context in which they occurred.

One was how Mendel galvanized around him a group of young men in one of the labor camps who, with him, went “on strike” and refused to work after their shoes had fallen apart and they had no other shoes to wear. They stroke for several weeks, in spite of severe deprivations and punishments, knowing that they could be executed for their rebellion. Yet they held out, and eventually a truck arrived full of shoes, and they returned to work.

A second story was about how he did everything to keep a modicum of religious observance. He befriended and made deals with one camp cook so that, on Pesach, he could trade the portions of bread for potatoes, for himself and others. He described how he led the davening of Kol Nidre in their “barracks”, with the participation of all of the inmates, even though they knew that if the Nazi guards chose that moment to walk in, they would all be killed.

In a third story, he described how they would do anything in order to see their families, who were hours away. He used to sneak out and walk seven hours each way each week, through forests and over mountains, in order to – surrealistically – spend Shabbat at home. Every time he reported back to the camp for work, he received 25 lashes, but he bore them bravely each week in order to see his family. When he was in yet another camp, several years later, and the time came that he and the other inmates knew the villages of the area would be sent away to their death, he arranged with a somewhat sympathetic Nazi guard that he and a group of his friends be allowed to visit their families one last time. He had to explain to the men that if any of them used the opportunity to escape, all the rest would be executed.

He worked out a schedule, and the guard arranged it so that trucks that delivered goods in the area would take detours in order to drop the men off for short visits with their families, who were subsequently sent to their deaths. He left his own visit for the end. “As the leader,” he said, “I wanted to go last.” But there were no more deliveries, so he snuck out. When he arrived at his family’s home, at 1 o’clock in the morning, he didn’t want to knock on the locked door, so as not to awaken neighbors who might report him; rather, he just touched a window and his mother opened it immediately. “I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, and took him immediately into the home. An hour and a half later he left to return to the camp. He never saw anyone in his family again.

In a fourth story, Mendel described how the first two fingers of his left hand got caught in a machine and the tips were cut off. When he recuperated in the infirmary, he did everything to help people who were in a worse state than himself. When Mengele sent everyone from the infirmary to the gas chambers, the staff asked that Mendel be spared, as they needed his help.

Lastly, when Mendel was in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, he was asked to stay behind and help close the camp when all the others were sent on the infamous death march. But he refused to leave his comrades, even though he knew it could mean almost certain death. “Wherever they go,” he said, “I will go with them.”

Those who stayed behind were eventually shot. Mendel survived.

“All I did,” he told my students, “was try to help others, to not be selfish.”

“Be kind to each other.”

Just before he left the classroom, I photographed him with the boys. He looked them in the eye and said, “You are all good boys. Daven, learn Torah, and be kind to each other, because G-d loves that.”

When I asked the students to write what they received from Mendel’s talk, they wrote about faith, and human dignity, and the importance of not being selfish. One wrote, “Yom Hashoah was always a far nightmare…Mendel made my Yom Hashoah something deeper…Mendel describing his last moments with his family made me cry. Mendel describing Jewish people getting killed, in all kinds of ways, released a rope that was tied to my heart.”

We all hold someone special in the rooms of our heart. And some of those rooms are occupied by holy men and women who died for Kiddush Hashem.

Every year, for one week, in Israel, the entire country allows itself to tiptoe into those rooms, hand in hand, sit down quietly in the corners, weep, and remember.

The writer is a teacher, editor and educational theater director.

Mendel with Makor Haim students

thUTCp30UTC04bUTCMon, 19 Apr 2010 00:21:54 +0000 1, 2008


Winning books are on the Jewish feather trade and the Russian Revolution

 This appeared on April 10, 2010, in the 5 Towns Jewish Times (https://www.5tjt.com/international-news/6712-sami-rohr-prize-for-literature-awarded-in-jerusalem.html).

By Toby Klein Greenwald

I cannot resist opening with a feather anecdote.

In the autumn of 2004, while our Raise Your Spirits theater company was preparing for the production Noah! Ride the Wave!, we discovered that peacock feathers were nowhere to be found in Israel. Mirjam, one of our “peacocks”, asked Tali, a student returning from the U.S., to bring her some. Tali packed them in a long cylindrical cardboard case. As she strode briskly in the vicinity of the Republican National Convention in New York City, where President Bush was scheduled to speak, she suddenly found herself surrounded by policemen. (Remember the final scene in Day of the Jackal?) An officer asked what she had in the package and she said, “If I tell you, you won’t believe me.” “Try me,” he sneered. Tali answered, “Peacock feathers.” Apparently, the annoyed officer grabbed the case from her hand, opened it, and his jaw dropped as he saw – peacock feathers. They let her go. Epilogue: Half a year later Tali became Mirjam’s daughter-in-law.

It was that incident that opened my eyes to the fact that even something as wispy as a feather can reveal stories of a culture and of a people.

 And indeed, the magnetic SARAH ABREVAYA STEIN, in her book Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce (Yale University Press), said in her acceptance speech of the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, “Jewish histories are found in unexpected places.”

 Stein, for Plumes, and Kenneth B. Moss, for his book Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Harvard University Press), were the two recipients of the prestigious award at the recent ceremony in Jerusalem. It was a glittering, international gathering of writers, intellectuals and their patrons that was held at the King David Hotel on March 31st, on chol hamoed Pesach. For those who love Jerusalem, love books and love meeting their authors, the evening was tantalizing. Among those present were Ari Goldman, Yossi Klein Halevi, Yoram Hazony, Jonathan Rosen, and Nessa Rapoport, who read a moving excerpt from Stein’s book. Devorah Menashe, a storyteller who was also an editor and translator for Isaac Bashevis Singer, read an excerpt from one of the books that was researched by Moss.

The Sami Rohr Prize is the largest monetary prize of its kind, awarding $100,000 to its winner, with a $25,000 award given to its first runner-up. This year, for the first time ever, the judges were deadlocked and the prize was split in two. “Actually,” said master of ceremonies Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, renowned author and one of the judges, “the split was four and a half to four and a half.” The year-long review by nine judges was for books published during 2008 and 2009.

Established in 2006, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature recognizes writers who, a spokeswoman says, “have demonstrated a fresh vision and evidence of future potential and whose books show exceptional literary merit and stimulate an interest in themes of Jewish concern.” The alternate year winners (fiction and non-fiction) are chosen by independent panels of judges. This year’s award was for non-fiction. Dore Gold, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1997-99, himself a prolific author, was the guest speaker at the affair. Both the award and the ceremony are administered by the Jewish Book Council.

Stein gives a scintillating account of how she came to research the ostrich feather trade by accident, while researching an earlier book. She discovered, while in South Africa, that although the only history regarding the ostrich feather trade, whose middle men were predominantly Jewish, had been penned in Yiddish, there was a local museum that had 30 years worth of financial records of a Russian Jewish feather merchant with connections around the globe.

Her research spanned three continents, leading to the descendants of feather families in six countries. The ostrich trade was so lucrative – almost as precious as diamonds — due to the fact that from the 1880’s to the First World War, “ostrich plumes could be found wherever there were arbiters of style: a consignment worth 20,000 Pounds Sterling went down with the Titanic…Astonishingly,” she writes, “in all hubs of the global feather trades – North and South Africa, Yemen, London, Paris and New York – Jews were the principal plume middle-men and women.” Stein calls the resonance of the story to the present time “breathtaking… It suggests… how fallacious is the assumption that things have an enduring and knowable value: how wrong it is to assume that the profits earned in a speculative, volatile and inflated market are guaranteed, even deserved.”

KENNETH B. MOSS, who is raising his children as Yiddish speakers, dove into the Jewish Renaissance during the Russian Revolution. He says he is “fascinated by the drama of the story” and calls his book the first comprehensive history of “this exciting, tragic endeavor” – that endeavor being the Russian Jews’ creation of “modern Hebrew and Yiddish cultures with their own literature, art, music, journals, clubs, publishing houses and schools.” In the eight years that he researched the book, he went from being a young graduate student to a husband and the father of two children. “A great many of the figures I was studying had reached that exact point in their lives – marriage and children – around 1917.” It helped him understand their “paradoxical” ideas, having discovered so much new in western culture, yet wishing to imbue their children with “a substantial, worthwhile Jewish culture”. Moss admits that most of what will be created in Jewish culture in America today will be in English, yet he stresses that dialogue must be sought with Jewish worlds created in Yiddish and Hebrew.

How the award came to be

Rabbi Telushkin told the story of how the award was born. The family wanted it to be in honor of Sami Rohr, but due to his modesty, they could not call it by that name until the winners were announced, so the code name for it, during the first year-long process, was “sode” – Hebrew for “secret”. After spending his early years in post WWII Europe, Sami Rohr moved to Bogota, Colombia, where he was a leading real estate developer for over 30 years. Today he lives in Florida and continues to be active in international business endeavors and in philanthropy to Jewish education and community-building. This prize, his family says, is a gift by them to honor his love of Jewish writing, and to encourage the continuation of the legacy of the People of the Book.

Other finalists for the 2010 Sami Rohr award were Lila Corwin Berman, for Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity (University of California Press), Ari Y. Kelman, who wrote Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radioin the United States (University of California Press) and Danya Ruttenberg, author of Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and
Love Religion
(Beacon Press).

The 2011 award will be presented on May 31 in New York City, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. More information can be found at www.JewishBookCouncil.org.

My Poetry Published

thUTCp31UTC03bUTCMon, 29 Mar 2010 11:36:16 +0000 1, 2008

As some of you know, I returned (after 30 years!) to do a master’s degree at Bar Ilan University in English Literature. This was largely at the encouragement of one of the most amazing women I know — Professor Susan Handelman of Jerusalem.

Even though I was registered in the regular literature program, we were allowed one course in the creative writing department. The poems below were all written during that wonderful course that was taught by poetess/translator/art curator Linda Zisquit.

They were published in the Fall, 2009, issue of the online literary journal, Review Americana. You can read them online at: http://www.americanpopularculture.com/review_americana/fall_2009/greenwald.htm

Poetry is meant to speak for itself, of course, but if you want to read the story behind the poems “Return” and “After Almost Death”, you can find a prose article about it here, called “Sudden Death”: http://www.aish.com/sp/so/48960401.html

May we only share good tidings!