Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Who we are: Simon Gleyzerman

These are notes from a conversation that I had with one of our gabbaiim, Simon Gleyzerman. Simon is known for his dependability and his wonderful smile. He comes Shabbas mornings to open the doors and set up the Torahs. Even when it is raining and his knee is sore, Simon makes his way to shul and then leads the congregation in Psuke d'zimra. Sometimes you can see him coming, walking decidedly from blocks away because of his distinct gray suit and hat. Simon didn't know Hebrew when he came to America in 1990, but now he davens with incredible spirit.

He said, "It was a hard life, we didn't know about the religion. They (the Russians) said that it is not right to believe in Him (he points to the sky). Everything there was athiestic. And they wanted to bring us to communism. But their philosophy was only talk. In theory, it might have been okay, but in practice it was difficult. It seemed that they only wanted us to work for nothing. Doing for nothing, that's what it was like. True, education was free. Anything that I would do, it had to be done for the collective. If I was a communist, I have to be first a communist-- not a Jew. The head of the community kept everything away so you couldn't be rich-- they tried to make everyone equal.

But if you were a Jew they would remind you that you were a Jew. Back then, they meant this as a bad thing, but now I thank them for reminding me.

I was the same people as the other people around. If they hear that I am a Jew they would say, 'You are a Jew, but you're a good man.'

I always though that Jews were smart. They have education. They are patient, polite and intelligent. Jews try and do the right thing.

I was born in Yampol Vinetzia, near the river Dnester on the border of the Ukraine and Moldova. I came to America when I was 53, in 1990. Without language, without any English. No Hebrew. For my grandson, we did a bris. He was 9 or 10 years old. It was one of the best days of my life.

Why did I come to America? My wife has a sister here who came in 1979.

Why I leave Russia? Because at this time everything was perestroika. There used to be incredible planted grapes everywhere and during perestroika, they cut the grapes. All the good things, they broke. Perestroika was breaking my heart.

I learned Hebrew when I came to Boro Park. They educated me at the center to learn English and there was also lessons on Jewish culture. The teacher started to teach us the aleph beis and the brachot of Shabbas. He did Shema Yisrael. He translated into Russian, but it would go in one ear and out the other.

So finally, my wife had a teacher from Russian who knew Hebrew from Leningrad and she had a teacher that would explain Alef Beis to the end. Then I would do birkat hamazon, the whole thing, and that really helped.

I was born in 1937. It was very bad time in Ukraine. A lot of people died. Stalin killed a lot of people. 10,000,000 died. The Ukraine had been the best place to grow up. There was everything good about it. Everything was going good. But Stalin made it so that there was nothing to eat.

I was 4 years old when my parents were killed and my sister was 13. My father and my brother went away when the war started, because they were in the military. My mom and my sister and me tried to go away from the war. The Germans came, they picked up all the Jews that were around-- this was 40 kilometers of my town. We couldn't go away. They put all the people together. 300 or more people, I don't know. They caught us in the middle of the town. They took all the Jews from all the houses. They took us out and my mom pushed us and told us to run away. They started to go to the cemetery. She pushed us and nobody caught us. We were in Tomashpol. She said go away, I go to work. But they killed her. There is a memory stone where my mom was killed. My sister took me to the town I was born, to Yampol, to my aunt. They had 5 children.

My aunt had a smaller one years boy, then me, he was three, and her daughter was-- she was a kamsamol, they said-- and they killed her. She had been married and she had child, but they didn't kill the child. She stayed with my aunt. She had one foot longer than the other. She was eventually married, she had two sons. The sons and her husband are here in Brooklyn, but I don't have contact with them. Riya Brenner, maybe, I don't know. They were Golger family. The father's name was Malamud.

My cousin used to take water from the mountains and he would bring the water. That was how he would make a living. People would pay him for the water. But the anti-semites used to take it.

When I was four, I was with my sister and she would go and work for people for food. She needed more money. I cried for 6 months. And after that I set to work. I would look in the garbage on the sidewalk and I would go and look for food with other kids. They would make potatoes and they would take off the potatoes and I bring the covers (peels) of the potatoes and my aunt she would make soup. Mostly people would throw away everything that is bitter and I would find it, but it was no good.

There were Italian soliders and Romanian soliders in this town where we stayed. The Germans went away. When the Italian soliders would eat, after what was left they would give for the chidlren. We have cans, we make handles and we go and they give us the soup or macaroni.

The soliders would throw cigartte butts and they would teach me to smoke when I was 5 years old. When my daughter was married, I stopped.

Two years, in 1944 the war was away from our town and the schools started working again. I started going to the school from September until when it got cold, when there was the frost from the cold. I didn't go to school, because I didn't have any shoes.

I remember that every once in a while, I would go out without my shoes and skate.

Simon's message for Yom Kippur--

Be patient to each other, forgiving each other and we have to keep in life our Temple. We have to raise the children the right way. And it is hard to bring them to that. I want to see our Temple in life. This is the way. You have to be full with laughing, with happiness and bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah with children. We have to raise a good community.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

An early High Holiday message

Shalom l’chulam,

How tempting it is to feel comfortable at this time, with the year drawing to a close and familiar rituals inching forward—the buying of new notebooks for school, the rushing to get one more day in at a windy beach, the negotiations of where to spend the holidays this year. Even the echo of the shofar from last year reminds us of what is familiar, what brings comfort and order.

But it ought not be entirely that way. Of course, if you do find coming back to shul and hearing Avinu Malkeinu enriching, you have cultivated a religious sensibility that awakens your spiritual self and you should dwell in what you have achieved at this time; but the holidays and these rituals are supposed to also jar you into a kind of self reflection that should be a little uncomfortable—a cheshbon nefesh, a taking account of who you are.

The melody of Avinu Malkeinu is lulling and uplifting, but the words are difficult—Our father our king, have mercy on us and answer us, for we have little merit. In order to be honest about all this and to deserve that tzedakah v’chesed (justice and mercy) you have to take account of what you did this year and realize that as much as you may have improved this year, there is still room for more. Doing so will make singing the words in shul that much more meaningful—like singing God bless America after undergoing a national crisis, or a love song to a new spouse, or a lullaby to a newborn child.

The context and work that needs to be done to understand and feel the tefillot in the holidays is: Were you kind? Were you consistent, or at least coherently inconsistent? Did you keep your word? Did you go out of your way? Were you part of the community? Were you honest? Did you risk?

So this High Holiday season, I wish you a warm, pleasant and productive time with your discomfort and jarring. I hope that it proves invigorating not as a day at a windy beach, but as climbing a mountain and seeing the place from which you came.

Shanah Tova,
Image of mountain taken from: http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://muertoderisa.typepad.com/muerto_de_risa/images/mountain_top_2.jpg&imgrefurl=http://muertoderisa.typepad.com/muerto_de_risa/travel/index.html&h=384&w=512&sz=112&hl=en&start=202&um=1&tbnid=NOssPFN003yb3M:&tbnh=98&tbnw=131&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dmountain%2Btop%26start%3D200%26ndsp%3D20%26svnum%3D10%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26channel%3Ds%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26sa%3DN