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With the Songs of the Sabbath Echoing
by Vilunya Diskin
My Jewish journey begins in the small village of Przemyslany, Poland, in 1942. My grandfather owned and operated a textile mill. My parents were professionals, mother a lawyer and father a chemist. I had an identical twin who died at birth. Soon after my birth, the ghetto was created in Przemyslany. My parents could not know in what ways this would affect their lives, but they knew it would not be a good place for a child. They made arrangements with the Catholic maid who worked for our family to take me to her village and keep me as part of her family until the end of the war.
I lived with her and her family for the next two years, until the Soviets liberated the Lvov district in which Przemyslany was located. This woman then brought me to the one synagogue that was allowed to open in Lvov, and told the young rabbi and his wife my story. “I know you people don’t like your children to be raised in Christian homes,” she said, “so I bring you this Jewish child, whose parents have not returned.” She gave the young couple as much family history as she knew and left. I never saw her again, and don’t even know her name, which by rights belongs on the avenue of righteous gentiles in Israel.
Israel Leiter was the young rabbi, from a long line of Orthodox rabbis. Esther Leiter, his wife, was also from a lineage of rabbis. They had escaped from a concentration camp into the woods and joined a group of partisans. They took me into their home as their daughter. I always thought I was their first child, but found out many years later that they had lost their first, a daughter, in the camps.
I have no actual memories of this early part of my history, which was told to me by the Leiters. My first actual memories begin with our escape from Lvov. Rabbi Leiter was part of a group of rabbis and sympathizers who were kidnapping Jewish children from Catholic orphanages and sending them to Israel. They were determined not to lose another generation of Jewish children. A member of the police who was a friend of the rabbi’s warned him that the authorities were coming to arrest him. We fled in the night. I remember a train, and being told to be very quiet. We traveled to Czechoslovakia, where we stayed a while before slowly making our way to Hamburg, Germany. We lived in Hamburg for two years before we were able to get on a Swedish ship (the Gripsholm) and make our way to New York in 1947.
There we were put up in an apartment through HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). I remember it as a third floor walk-up with a refrigerator. I remember having salami for breakfast, a big treat. It was there I got bitten by a rat and formed a lifelong aversion to rodents. (I was a mother who would not allow guinea pigs in our house.)
Life settled into a pattern. Our household had expanded and now held three children. I was the oldest at 6, Aviva (born in Hamburg) was next at 4, and Shulamit, the baby, was 3 months old, born in the U.S. I went to a Jewish day school; Esther took care of us and our home, and Rabbi Leiter looked for work.
What I remember most about that time were our erev Shabbat dinners. These always included extra people, other Jewish refugees. There was the table set specially with candles. There was delicious food and prayers. But the best part came after dinner, when the adults would sit and sing zmirot. They sat for hours, and I felt the joy and longing in their singing. This generation of parents did not speak to their children about their feelings. They did not talk about what they had experienced in the Holocaust. Each had lost entire extended families, yet at this table, every week, there was an outpouring of love for God, for family, for life. I was a witness to a profound example of survivors integrating their excruciating losses, as these wounded people, who had lived the unimaginable, found the capacity to create a haven of warmth, love, and safety for their children.
I felt cherished and enveloped in that love. It formed the emotional core of Judaism for me. Their faith in God was palpable. It wasn’t rational (after what they had endured?), but there it was, present and vibrant, week after week. I don’t pretend to understand this faith, nor do I share it — but I respect it. It guided the Leiters’ lives and continues to guide the lives of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who still adhere to the Orthodox tradition today.
I left the Leiters when I was legally adopted by an American Jewish family in 1947. In those years, HIAS had a policy of placing refugee children with American families. I was a candidate for adoption, since I had no biological family. My parting was very emotional, but I also remember my excitement at this new adventure.
My new family moved from New York to Los Angeles, where we joined a Conservative congregation and for some years went to services every week on Saturday mornings. Friday nights we had the traditional dinner with company, but it wasn’t the same: There was no joyous singing, no lingering over prayers, no emotional attachment to God. I remember feeling smug that I seemed to know more about the prayers and Judaism than my adoptive parents, but really it was a cultural chasm I was experiencing. Moving from a European Orthodox household to an American Conservative household was like leaping centuries. In the Leiters’ home, God was the life force. All our actions, thoughts, and desires were focused on obeying biblical rules and regulations, because this was the ethical code for living a worthwhile life. At the Firstenbergs’, God was a once-a-week and holiday presence.
At first this felt confusing to me, but gradually I adjusted. Religion became a series of rituals to perform, which ceased to transport me to that joyous emotional level I had experienced before. I began to transfer my visceral feelings of connection to God to a cultural identification with Judaism, which later morphed into activism and politics. I began to feel that being Jewish didn’t necessarily mean a belief in God, but it did mean living according to the prescribed code of Jewish ethics. Being Jewish meant making a commitment to recognize discrimination and prejudice, to fight against it, and to be vigilant against another Holocaust. In the American context, this meant organizing and advocating for equal rights and opportunities for all.
In elementary, junior high, and high school, I identified as Jewish, but lightly so. It didn’t figure much in my consciousness. For two summers I attended Camp Alonim, the Brandeis Jewish Camp in Los Angeles. When we celebrated Shabbat by dressing in white and praying and singing together, it felt familiar and warm. There were kids from all over the U.S., and it was fun being Jewish as part of a big crowd.
In college, I became active in the civil rights movement, as did every other Jewish person in my crowd. I was at UCLA when the first Freedom Riders came to campus and told us about their experiences. There was a tremendous outpouring of support among the students. I identified with Blacks and felt that we shared a common history because Jews had been slaves in Egypt. Blacks were treated as less than human in the American South; Jews had been treated with suspicion and prejudice throughout Europe, culminating in the Holocaust. Standing in solidarity with the civil rights movement felt familiar, the right place to be.
My activism continued with participation in the anti-war and women’s liberation movements. I was a founding member and author of Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book that focuses on women’s empowerment around their bodies and their lives.
I married a progressive, intellectual, culturally-identified but non-practicing Jew. We both studied anthropology and moved to Mexico in our second year of marriage to do research. All our friends were non-Jewish Mexicans, and as we worked in villages with indigenous peoples, our Judaism never surfaced. We never even celebrated the Jewish holidays.
It wasn’t until we got pregnant that I began to think about Judaism again. Would we have a bris if it was a boy? No, because there was no corresponding celebration for a girl. Should we join a synagogue? No, because we weren’t religious. Martin was at MIT, and we were part of a secular, politically active community with lots of Jewish friends who were, like us, culturally identified but not practicing. At some point, however, I decided that we would celebrate the holidays and try to recreate that warm Jewish presence I remembered from my childhood. We invited guests for Shabbat, often strangers who were away from home. Our focus at these dinners was on our guests, and on good food and conversation. No prayers were said, no Jewish songs were sung. These efforts at Jewish practice felt good, but I was still left with some feelings of loss.
We muddled along with our Jewish identity, had a second child, and then spent a two-year sabbatical in Mexico. Our children were 12 and 6 when we returned to the States. On the trip home (literally, in the car) our 12-year-old daughter announced, “Well, now that I know so much about Catholicism, maybe I should learn a little more about Judaism; I want a bat mitzvah.”
We were surprised yet glad about her declaration. We shopped around for a comfortable place, and found a Hillel group in Cambridge, headed, to our good fortune, by Cherie Koller-Fox and Everett Fox. It was a small, multicultural, non-hierarchical, and non-sexist group with progressive politics. Our kids engaged in Jewish learning and bonded with their group.
When they went off to college, we once again pretty much ignored the holidays. At one point, Martin asked why we weren’t attending Yom Kippur services, and I said, “No one’s here.” He countered, rather plaintively, “We’re here.” It was the first time he had expressed an active desire to attend services.
In the 1990s, Martin became ill and our lives changed dramatically. There followed the better part of a decade with bouts of cancer, remissions, hospitalizations, surgeries, chemo, radiation, a bone-marrow transplant, three years of calm and gratitude, then another cancer, and finally his death in 1997 at age 62. It was a wrenching time, yet it brought us an amazing outpouring of support, love, and friendship. Martin received hundreds of letters and cards from students, colleagues, friends. and family, affirming their love for him and their admiration for his work. I’m sure it helped prolong his life — and allowed him, in a sense, to attend his own memorial service.
We didn’t turn toward Judaism for solace or comfort. Friends prayed for us in their churches, sanghas, and synagogues, and we were grateful and appreciative, but we didn’t turn to Judaism ourselves. In fact, after Martin’s death, I turned toward Buddhism and meditation for comfort and calm. I meditated seriously for the next three years, took classes and read masses of books about Buddhism to try to make sense of my enormous loss. The literature was intellectually stimulating and deeply comforting to my wounded self. Meditation focused my mind and taught me to breathe deeply and consciously, which calmed me. In the end, however, it wasn’t my tradition, and it didn’t provide me with the joyous feelings of completeness that Hebrew prayers gave me. My emotional core still resided in my memories of those Jewish prayers sung with reverence, longing and joy at the Leiters’ table so long ago. These moments are imprinted on my mind and body, and call me back to Judaism whenever I think I’ve outgrown my past.
When I hear the Hebrew prayers, I feel a bond to the generations of Jews who came before me. Although I never knew my parents, grandparents, or any of my genetic line, we are bound together by our Judaism. They said the same prayers and were taught the same values that I was taught and have taught my own children and grandchildren. L’dor vador — “from generation to generation” -— is a concept that holds for me an enormous well of sadness and longing, tinged with hope. It is through this imperative that even I, a child of the Holocaust with no first-hand knowledge of my family of origin, can nevertheless feel a connection to them.
My Jewish journey has included two parallel paths. The first is my intense emotional connection to Judaism, which I identify with the Leiters. The second path is my secular identification, which emerged from my adoption into my new American household.
In the past, these paths felt contradictory to me. Religious identity meant a belief in God, something I was adamantly against; to believe in God after what I had seen and experienced seemed totally irrational. The universe is random, sometimes wonderful and beautiful, other times dangerous and full of horror, both natural and human-made. What sentient person could believe in a God, especially a God of goodness, in the face of this real evidence? Not I.
Over the years, however, I learned the value of holding two opposing truths and knowing both to be accurate, at least in part. Yes, the world is random, but there are many variables that make up the good and bad, and many examples of good behavior in terrible circumstances. We are all capable of enormous kindness and wretched meanness. No group has a monopoly on grace or solidarity. My absolutes seem to have dissolved slowly over the years, and I now see my separate threads, interwoven, rather like the khallah we eat on Friday nights.
In a sense, I’ve come full circle. I’m in a Reconstructionist Jewish community. I’m interested again in studying Hebrew and the Bible. I want my grandchildren to learn Jewish values: the importance of education, critical thinking, compassion for those different and poorer than ourselves and to act in the world to leave it a better place.
L’dor vador: Let us maintain and add to the traditions we all share.
Vilunya Diskin co-founded the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (BWHBC) and is a co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves. She focused upon international women’s issues and later served on the BWHBC Board. She has traveled extensively, promoting women’s health ventures, especially in Mexico and India. She created “Vilunya Folk Art,” a folk art gallery and shop that thrived in Lexington and Cambridge for many years. She continues consulting on textile projects and hosts a travel-vest show twice a year. She recently returned from Japan, where she hosted textile shows in Tokyo. This piece was written in a class called “Spiritual Autobiography,” led by Rabbi Toba Spitzer, in 2011 at Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, Newton, Massachusetts.