Author Archives: Lindsey Bridwell

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A Love of Israel, Inside and Out

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Aaron Leibel
(David Holzel)

Aaron Leibel is Washington Jewish Week’s copy editor and former arts editor. Copy editing is a job that requires him to confine himself to the minutiae of writing — syntax, spelling and the errant double space. But two years ago, Leibel decided to open himself up and let his imagination roam across the long span of Jewish history.

The result is “Generations, The Story of a Jewish Family” (Create Space, 2014, $12.95), a novel that encompasses 1,500 years of exile and return by following the fortunes of one Jewish family. Leibel self-published the novel after a year of trying to interest publishers in his three-part story — the first set in seventh-century Israel on the eve of the Arab conquest; the second amid a blood libel in 17th-century Poland; and the last part in the 20th century, when a young couple from Baltimore makes aliyah.

Leibel says he always wanted to tell the story of the Jews, in particular “the Jewish people’s closeness to the land of Israel.”

The reason, he says, is more than because it makes a good story.

“The vast majority of Muslims do not accept the Jews’ right to the land of Israel — some Christians don’t either,” he said. “But what really disturbs me is that some Jews, especially some young Jews, don’t seem to understand the connection between Jews and the land of Israel.”

Leibel makes the connections clear, as he places his seventh-century and 20th-century protagonists on nearly the same hillside west of Jerusalem. In 639, Meir ben Aryeh is a member of a family of successful vintners in the village of Elim. The family receives top prices for its wines, thanks to Meir’s father, whose gift it is to know precisely when to harvest the grapes.

The Arab conquest of the Middle East — unseen but anticipated — threatens to overturn the uneasy peace the Jews have made with their Byzantine Christian rulers. Will the new conquerors treat the Jews better than the Christians? Or will they be crueler and impose an alcohol ban, fulfilling Muslim observance but depriving the Jewish family of its livelihood?

Meir leaves, taking his wife and small children to Constantinople but not before unlocking a family secret that makes facing the unknown in exile preferable for his wife to the unknowns that await the Jews in Israel.

In the 20th century, Meir’s descendant Alan Sacks, a Baltimore native, falls in love with Miriam from Silver Spring. She agrees to marry him only if he will make aliyah with her. Miriam is a committed Zionist. Alan has no Israel background at all. But he agrees to her conditions, and in 1974, after the Yom Kippur War, they make Israel their home.

072514_liebel2So Is Alan Sacks really Aaron Leibel?

“Well, when you describe him like that, Alan is me,” Leibel said.

Like Alan, Leibel was born and raised in Baltimore and attended the University of Maryland, where he received his Ph.D. in government and politics. He and his wife, Bonnie, made aliyah in 1972 and raised their family there. They lived in Israel for 16 years, where Leibel worked as a journalist. Back in the Washington area, he joined the staff of Washington Jewish Week in 1997.

And while Alan Sachs is more gregarious than his creator, Leibel says they share some of the same adventures. One is a soldiers’ strike while Alan is on basic training in the Israeli army. When soldiers from Soviet Georgia are threatened with having their leave canceled for their perpetual lateness, they announce to Alan and the rest of the unit that from now on, no one will follow their officers’ orders.

One of the men reacts with an incredulous, “We can’t do that,” and a Georgian responds by running his finger slowly across his throat. Message received: When an officer orders “right face,” no one moves.

In these two segments, Leibel exiled his characters from Israel and returned them there. That just left the 1,500 years in between.

Leibel found his middle section in the true story of a blood libel in the Polish town of Ruzhany. In 1657 a Christian boy was found dead, and the town’s Jews were accused of committing the murder and using the boy’s blood to make matzah.

The town’s Roman Catholic priest wants to punish the Jewish community collectively. The local duke tries to mediate. The presence of the Jewish community is good for the local economy and for his bottom line.

Knowing that innocence or guilt is immaterial, the town’s two rabbis, Tuvia ben Yosef and Yisrael ben Shalom, agree to undergo a sham trial after the duke promises the rest of the community will be spared.

Leibel calls this “the best part of the book.” In “Generations,” Rabbi Yisrael is a descendant of Meir the vintner and an ancestor of Alan Sacks. The rabbi, if one genealogist is correct, is Aaron Leibel’s ancestor as well. There are Sackses in Leibel’s family tree, and they are thought to be descended from the rabbi executed for the crime of being a Jew.

Perhaps the family line can also be traced back to a hillside near Jerusalem.

“Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family” is available at createspace.com, at amazon.com and in Kindle format.

dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com

Honored!

Matthew Bernstein, 17, and Theodore Weinberg, 18, both recent graduates of Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, have won National Merit Scholarships funded by the college or university of their choice. They join 44 other teens from schools in the greater Baltimore/Washington, D.C., area who will be enjoying tuition reductions through the National Merit program.

This year’s National Merit Scholarships were awarded based on the 2012 scores of juniors nationwide taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. In September 2013, approximately 16,000 semifinalists were announced as the highest-scoring entrants from each state. Finalists, who were selected after completing a detailed application that included an essay portion, had to participate in community activities, enjoy outstanding academic records, receive an endorsement from a school official and achieve qualifying scores on the SAT test.

Bernstein, son of Eileen and Richard Bernstein, attends the Calah Congregation in Columbia. He’s chosen to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he will study applied physics.

Bernstein said he and classmate Weinberg found out they were chosen as semifinalists for the scholarships in an unusual manner.

“We were called out of English class down to the principal’s office,” recalled Bernstein. “We’d never been called down before, and this was a brand new principal.”

He added they were feeling uncomfortable about it and didn’t really know what was going on as they walked slowly down the hall to the office. Upon seeing the teens, the principal said to them, “Congratulations guys.”

Bernstein credited Donna Ueckermann, a guidance counselor at his school, with helping him navigate the process of submitting subsequent materials to become a finalist.

Upon hearing the news about his award, Bernstein’s mother said, “We were very proud, but we knew he was going to do well no matter what, because he really works hard.” She added that her son prefers smaller colleges and wanted to be near mountains and cooler weather because “he hates hot summers.”

Bernstein recently completed an internship at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics lab and was hired by the lab for the summer. This is a rarity, his mother explained, because typically they only hire students at the college level.

“We keep teasing him that he skipped the Burger King phase” of summer jobs, she said, laughing.

Weinberg, son of Jacquie and Eric Weinberg of Columbia, will attend University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to study computer science.

“It was pretty exciting; we were just really pleased he was named a finalist because we knew he was a good student who has worked really hard for four years,” said his mother. “And the monetary award was appreciated.”

“I had a month to write the [finalist application] essay,” recalled Weinberg. “I ended up writing a lot about a volunteer opportunity” at the Oakland Mills middle school, assisting teachers during summer sessions for elementary and middle school students.

“It was a good time, and I learned a lot from it, he said. “I benefited along with them.”

Weinberg wanted to stay in Maryland for school and said UMBC, where his brother is a student, has one of the best computer science programs in the area. He wasn’t interested in attending University of Maryland, College Park, “which is just too big,” he said.

Weinberg’s mother praised her son’s guidance counselor, Kara Fick, for helping guide the teen.

“All the counselors are outstanding. We have a wonderful administration team and counseling center,” she said. “We’re lucky to have them there, encouraging [students] to apply and helping them in the process.”

Weinberg said winning the scholarship “made the PSAT matter a bit more. A lot of people don’t think that test is important at all, and surprisingly it turned out to be very important.”

This year more than 7,000 merit scholarships were awarded, with funds ranging from $500 to $2,000 annually being applied to tuition for up to four years of undergraduate study, ultimately totaling approximately $33 million.


mgerr@jewishtimes.com

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Words of Wisdom

South African author Nadine Gordimer’s novels and short stories were a lifelong attack on apartheid. (Bengt Oberger/Wikimedia Commons

South African author Nadine Gordimer’s novels and short stories were a lifelong attack on apartheid.
(Bengt Oberger/Wikimedia Commons

South African novelist Nadine Gordimer died July 13, in Johannesburg at the age of 90, Reuters reported. The author of more than 30 books, Gordimer was one of the literary world’s most influential voices against apartheid, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991 for her novels and short stories that echoed life and emotion in a society stained by decades of white-minority rule.

According to The New York Times, Gordimer didn’t choose the subject of apartheid as a young writer, but when Afrikaner nationalists rose to power in 1948, she could no longer ignore the subject; the apartheid system enveloped her. Taking on the subject, she explored all aspects of South African life and society; critics deemed her work a social history told through portraits of her South African characters, many of whom were black.

Gordimer began writing at an early age, publishing her first story, “Come Again Tomorrow,” in a Johannesburg magazine when she was 15. Her book of short stories, “Face to Face,” was published in 1949 and her first novel, “The Lying Days,” in 1953. Between 1948 and 1994, a number of Gordimer’s books were banned in South Africa, including her second novel, 1958’s “A World of Strangers.” The novel centers on a young British man who arrives in South Africa to discover two social factions he cannot unite — the black townships, where one group of his friends lives, and a world of white privilege, where he has friends as well.

Also banned was “The Late Bourgeois World” (1966), a story that follows a woman faced with a difficult decision after her ex-husband, an anti-apartheid resistance traitor, commits suicide. “Burger’s Daughter,” widely considered one of her most well-known novels, was published in 1979. The story of a child’s journey after her revolutionary father becomes a martyr to the cause was banned in the country for only a few months, as Gordimer had by then become an internationally known author. “July’s People” (1981) envisioned a violent South African revolution, where black people hunt and murder the white minority, while a black servant protects his white employers by bringing them to the black township of Soweto. Her last novel, “No Time Like the Present” (2012) focused on veterans of the battle against apartheid, as they face issues in modern South Africa.

Gordimer was born in Springs, South Africa, to Jewish immigrant parents in 1923. Her father, Isidore Gordimer, was a Lithuanian watchmaker, and her mother, Nancy, moved to the country from Britain. Gordimer told The Paris Review in 1983 that they had an unhappy marriage, which led to her mother’s possessiveness and controlling demeanor.

Gordimer married twice, wedding dentist Gerald Gavron in 1949. They had a daughter, Oriane, and their marriage ended in divorce in 1952. She then married Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who had fled Nazi Germany, with whom she had a son, Hugo. Cassirer died in 2001.

Gordimer joined the African National Congress when it was still an illegal organization in South Africa during apartheid. As an ANC leader, she fought for the release of Nelson Mandela, whose famous 1962 trial speech, “I Am Prepared To Die,” she edited. “Our country has lost an unmatched literary giant whose life’s work was our mirror and an unending quest for humanity,” the ANC said in a statement.

Gordimer continued to voice her opinions on apartheid and stand for causes in the 21st century. She spoke with Washington Jewish Week editor Geoffrey W. Melada in 2002 for an interview published in the Jewish Exponent on whether Israel was rightly condemned as an apartheid state — a charge that still surfaces today.

“The whole thing is such a tragedy. But what is at issue is territory,” she said. “The conflict is not based on racism. If the Palestinians were some other white race, there would be the same conflict between them.”

Gordimer is survived by her two children. Her family announced that a private memorial service would be held at a later date.

izelaya@washintonjewishweek.com

Camp Judah: Adventures on the Bus

“I can’t believe we’re here!” I exclaimed, looking directly at my best friend, Shoni.

“Camp Judah, here we come!” she yelled back, her voice trailing off and mixing into the rumble of the bus motor.

We were almost at our sleep-away camp — the one that Shoni and I had planned all year long to attend. We would hang out together, be best friends, be in the same bunk and go on sleepovers together. I looked out of my window and smiled happily.

Just then from the back of the bus I heard a scream. “OMG, Shoni, is that really you?”

“Dee! How’d you get here?”

I watched as the two of them giggled and hugged.

What about me? I wanted to jump off the bus and run home. Suddenly, I knew I would hate camp, and I didn’t want to go. Why was this new girl stealing my best friend away from me?

“Hi guys. I’m Sarah.” I said, waiting for Shoni to tell Dee how we were best friends; only that didn’t follow.

“I’ll come back up front soon, Sarah, go and wait.” Shoni said.

As I walked to the front of the bus, I noticed a few other girls had moved closer to Shoni and Dee. They were dressed with matching designer outfits and cute shoes just like Shoni and Dee. I heard laughing from the back of the bus, and I sat alone in my seat and stewed. These girls were perfect, I wasn’t. Dee knew how to talk to my friend, how to dress great and how to attract other girls around her easily. I didn’t. I was plain, boring and simple.

Then I began thinking about last year in school. We had had an art contest to see who could draw the most life-like portrait. My entry won, and everyone was so proud of me. I smiled, thinking about my talent. Just then, I heard the girls talking about that very same art competition.

Shoni blurted out “Sarah won that!” Dee looked at me and said, “I’m also into art, want to see some samples?”

Dee turned around and pulled out a few small cards with designs on them. They were colorful and cute. She handed me one.

“I love it!” I said, looking up.

Shoni looked at me and said, “Sarah, come sit closer.”

As I sat down next to the girls and laughed at their corny jokes, I realized that I had jumped to too many conclusions too quickly about Dee and the girls. And even about myself. I wasn’t a nobody, I had a talent. I smiled to myself happily. I was glad that I was able to see both myself and Dee with a good eye.

Discussion Questions
1. How do we benefit from taking time to see the whole person (with a good eye)?
2. Which way do you chose to look at someone? Do you notice yourself judging them right way?
3. In what way do we write people off quickly or tell ourselves, “Forget about them, they are never going to be my friends?”

Danielle Sarah Storch is a local freelance writer. “Shabbat Table Talk” is a monthly feature synthesizing Torah insights and lessons for children of all ages.