This potpourri of Jewish short stories and essays was diligently amassed for many years by Rabbi Elkins, author and anthologist. He begins his presentation with the mistaken claim that Jews "are the original storytelling people," ignoring that in all societies, a significant way of transmitting culture from one generation to the next is through stories. The 69 stories presented represent Elkins's "passion for uplifting stories." They come from a variety of sources, including books, newspaper articles and journals. The authors are, for the most part, rabbis, doctors, writers and teachers. Their work is sorted by Elkins into nine topical sections, each containing from five to nine stories as well as an introduction by him. Two sections deal with the Holocaust, while the others explore timeless virtues like goodness, hope, endurance, tradition and providence. A final section addresses Israel as a land of miracles. Although they are uneven in quality, the simply written stories testify eloquently to the Jewish capacity for survival despite the long litany of suffering that has dogged the tearful history of Jews through the ages. (Oct.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Jewish Stories from Heaven and Earth: Inspiring Tales to Nourish the Heart and Soulby Dov Peretz Elkins
The Glory and Grief, Humor and Pride of the Human Experience—
Inspiration from a Jewish Perspective
From exile to rebirth, from degradation to renaissance, the Jewish People has undergone every human experience and emotion that God created. In this inspiring/p>/b>
The Glory and Grief, Humor and Pride of the Human Experience—
Inspiration from a Jewish Perspective
From exile to rebirth, from degradation to renaissance, the Jewish People has undergone every human experience and emotion that God created. In this inspiring collection of stories, award-winning anthologist Dov Peretz Elkins captures the best and worst of Jewish experience in these spine-tingling tales of courage, devotion, passion and extraordinary achievement.
Elkins taps the famous and the not-so-famous, world-renowned figures and the little-known “person next door,” for stories that illustrate the wonder, meaning, and purpose of life as viewed through the lens of Judaism’s core values. Though drawn from the Jewish tradition, these universal stories of kindness, hope, faith and discovery will intrigue the minds and warm the hearts of people from all walks of life.
Marci Shimoff, #1 New York Times best-selling author, Happy for No Reason; coauthor, Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul
“This magnificent collection … touches on the soul and secret of Jewish survival. Delves deeply into the very substance of our spirit as individuals and as a unique peoplehood. Essential reading for those who want to understand the Jewish spirit.”
Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland, author, How We Die
“Encircles our hearts with vibrations of what it means to be truly human. I have hungered for such a collection and now I wallow in it!”
Sister Nancy Corcoran, CSJ, author, Secrets of Prayer: A Multifaith Guide to Creating Personal Prayer in Your Life
“Thinking 'I’ll just read one story in this book’ is like thinking ‘I’ll just eat one candy in this bowl.’ It isn’t possible. Each taste of piquancy and sweetness conditions the desire for more.”
Sylvia Boorstein, author, Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life
“Hasidic stories created models of virtue that inspired and opened hearts for transformation to hope and holy behavior. Professor Heschel spoke of them as ‘stories in which the soul surprises the mind.’ This book contains inspiring Hasidic stories in everyday contemporary clothes.”
Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi (z"l), author, Wrapped in a Holy Flame
“This is a lovely book…. These stories are like marrow to the soul. They send us life, and elevate our daily existence.”
Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, author, The Bridge to Forgiveness: Stories and Prayers for Finding God and Restoring Wholeness
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Jewish Stories from Heaven and Earth
Inspiring Tales to Nourish the Heart and Soul
JEWISH LIGHTS Publishing
Copyright © 2008
Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins
All right reserved.
Chapter One Simple Goodness
Some forty years ago, when I was associate rabbi of Har Zion Temple of Philadelphia, the senior rabbi, David A. Goldstein, of blessed memory, officiated at the funeral of a Jewish educator who had devoted his life to the young charges in the religious school. The late teacher never wrote any famous books, never became known nationally or internationally, but carried out his day-to-day tasks with consummate skill and passion. One thing that Rabbi Goldstein said about this kind of unsung hero has stayed with me, and I have referred to his idea in many eulogies I have delivered. He said that the true heroes of the world are not the ones who march to the beat of loud drums and blaring horns, in a great parade, with confetti raining down upon them. True heroism is that of the simple folk who do their daily job without fanfare or fame, but whose influence is like a pebble in a pond that creates ripples that spread far and wide.
The people in this section are such heroes. A woman who decides to "pass on" a coin so a stranger will not be embarrassed; a merchant who empties his cash register and contributes his entire day's earnings to help another human in need; a group of kids who cheer a special-needs child and make him feel great about himself; a Roman Catholic man whose humanity and sense of decency were too strong to comply with anti-Semitic directives; a Jew who helped a drunken Nazi see the humanity of his victims; a former soldier whose life was so turned around that he died a saint instead of a miser; and others like them.
These people are all the simple, unheralded folk whose compassion exemplifies the mitzvah of tikkun olam (repairing the world).
Pass It On
* * *
Several years ago I was shopping at a local grocery store and when my purchases were tallied, I was surprised and embarrassed to discover that I was ten cents short. I quickly surveyed what I had bought to determine what I could leave behind to buy another day. As I was about to make this decision, the woman behind me suddenly offered me ten cents to cover the shortfall. Now I was also humiliated!
I quickly explained that I couldn't accept her money and that I had no problem leaving something behind. "Oh," she exclaimed, "I'm not giving it to you. Just take it and pass it on." That sounded reasonable, so I accepted the ten cents and left the store with all my purchases, inspired by the whole idea.
Exactly two weeks later, I was in the same store and this time I was second in line when the woman in front of me realized that she was ten cents short. The replay of the episode from my previous visit to the grocery store was uncanny. I offered her the ten cents, which she graciously refused. I explained that I was not giving it to her but that she should take it and pass it on, and only then did she agree to accept the money.
I've often wondered how many times that ten cents has traveled the world! The entire experience confirmed for me that even a small gesture of help could have broad consequences. It reinforced the recognition that countless people have assisted me, often in ways unknown to me, and I have an obligation to pass on whatever I can to help others. The Jewish values I learned from my parents and from my Jewish studies have stood me in good stead once again!
* * *
When Pa was about sixteen, his family fled the Russian pogroms and settled in Brooklyn. As a boy in the shtetl, he studied all day, memorizing the Torah and the Talmud. Here in America, Pa had to earn a few dollars working in a sweatshop.
Ma's family had come to Brooklyn from Romania. When she met Pa, she was seventeen and working as a seamstress. Ma was a beauty. Pa loved her, and she loved the gentle scholar. They were married in 1912. I was born in 1913.
Together Ma and Pa worked and scrimped, and saved enough money to buy a knitting machine and start up a business making sweaters. For a few years they were moderately prosperous, lived a bit easier, and along the way had another child, my sister, Shirley. Intent on expansion, Pa went into debt and didn't put aside any reserve funds. Of course, the Depression wiped us out. Pa's spirit broke. I still remember the terrible crying jags. Ma was a constant source of comfort, hope, and love unlimited. Her repeated "It will be all right" kept us intact and gradually healed Pa. Eventually Pa managed to borrow $200 to buy a little candy store. For the rest of their working years, Ma and Pa spent eighteen-hour days, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year (excluding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) in their candy store, sustained only by their hopes for their children's future. From behind his soda fountain, Pa explored the universe. "Ah," he would say, "God created such wonders-the skies, the mountains, the oceans. Such beauty, if only people wouldn't spoil it." And yet to him a human being was the most marvelous creation of all. "I'll never understand how even God could make us."
One morning Pa was at the soda fountain as usual, waiting for the rare customer. I was off in a corner reading a magazine. About ten o'clock a short, thin, middle-aged man came in out of the scorching sun and walked very slowly to the soda fountain. He was neatly dressed in a well-worn blue suit and tie. He asked Pa if he might have a drink of water, apologizing because he didn't have the two cents to pay for a glass of seltzer.
"Here, take the seltzer," said Pa. "You'll owe me two cents." Sipping slowly, the man began to tell Pa in a low, halting voice how he had walked here all the way from the Bronx, hoping to find work in a tailor shop down the street. It was a temporary job, but it paid a full $10 a week. He'd read the advertisement in the evening edition of the paper and had left his home long before dawn. Our store was in a section of Brooklyn close to Coney Island-miles and miles from the Bronx. By the time he got to the tailor shop, the job had been taken. Now he had to walk all the way home to tell his family.
"When will I ever get a job?" he sobbed.
I'll never forget Pa's face as he cried silently with his fellow man. He went to the register, took out $2 and change-the whole morning's receipts-and gave it all away. Afterward, he never said a word about it, never spoke of it at all. It was done. It was gone. To Pa, nothing rare or unusual. It was just Pa.... Now long gone, but still with me today, in all I do.
My Great-Grandfather's Partner
* * *
Like many immigrants, my great-grandfather came to the United States with nothing but hope, faith, and determination. Settling in the Lower East Side, he worked diligently, finally saving enough money to bring his wife and children over from the old country. The family reunited, he and his wife would have one more son; this son, the only child born in the United States, would become my grandfather.
My great-grandfather decided to form a partnership with his best friend. Although times were extremely difficult, they worked hard, combining dedication to their craft with keen insight and intelligence. Encouraging and helping each other, they slowly began to realize financial success in their work; while not accumulating a fortune by any means, they made a fine living, enough to support their families and inspire dreams of still-better times to come.
But all that changed one night. That was the night my great-grandfather's partner disappeared, taking with him all the assets of their business, stealing all the money they had worked so hard to save. I don't know why he left. I don't know why he betrayed his best friend and his best friend's family. I don't think even my great-grandfather ever knew. All he knew was that his partner was gone.
Times were hard again. Money was scarce again. But my great-grandfather refused to give up; he formed a new business, put his heart and his hope into it, rededicated himself to the betterment of his family. And in time, he found success once more; not as much as he had shared with his best friend, perhaps, but enough.
And then his best friend returned.
I don't know the details of the reunion. I imagine a knock at the door in the middle of the night, a cold night, raining. I imagine my great-grandfather opening the door, his sleep-filled eyes widening as he stared at his once-best friend, now thinner, soaking wet, shivering.
What I do know is that my great-grandfather's best friend came back, shamefaced and needy. I know that he looked up at my great grandfather, the man he had cheated, and pleaded for money. I know that my great-grandfather gave him money and asked for nothing in return.
Still a little boy, the man who would become my grandfather watched quietly. He asked his father why he would unquestioningly give money to the man who had betrayed him.
"He must have been in desperate need to return to the friend he had cheated and ask for money," my great-grandfather said. "And you must never turn away a man in desperate need."
My great-grandfather was not a clergyman, but his gravestone bears the title RABBI. It is not hard to understand why.
Rabbi Elaine Rose Glickman
* * *
In Brooklyn, New York, there is a school, Chush, for learning-disabled Jewish children. One evening, at a fund-raising dinner for the school, the father of one of the Chush children stood up, extolled the school and its dedicated staff, and then cried out: "We are taught that God is perfect and all that God does is done with perfection. But what about my son, Shaya? He cannot understand things as other children do. He cannot remember facts and figures as other children do. Where is the divine perfection in Shaya?"
Shocked by the question, pained by the father's anguish, the audience sat in silence as he went on. "Perhaps," he continued, "I have found the answer to my own question." And he told a story:
One Sunday afternoon, Shaya and his father came to the yeshiva where Shaya studies in the morning. The yeshiva boys were playing baseball.
"I would like to be in the game," Shaya whispered to his father. His father was worried-he knew Shaya was not athletic at all, that he didn't even know how to hold a bat properly, let alone hit it-and that most of the boys understandably wouldn't want Shaya on their team.
Nevertheless, he approached one of the boys in the field and asked if Shaya might join them. The boy shrugged. "We're losing by six runs, and we're already in the eighth inning. So I guess it's okay if he joins our team and goes up to bat for us in the ninth."
Shaya and his father were both ecstatic. But by the bottom of the eighth, Shaya's team had managed to hit three runs, and by the bottom of the ninth they scored again. When Shaya's turn at bat came up, there were two outs and the bases were loaded. Would they really let Shaya go to bat in this crucial situation?
They did. The first pitch came in. Shaya swung clumsily and missed. One of the teammates came up to Shaya and helped him hold the bat. The pitcher took a few steps forward. He threw the ball softly-and the two batters together hit a slow grounder.
The pitcher caught the ball and could have easily ended the whole game by throwing it to the first baseman. Instead, he threw it on a high arc to right field, way beyond the first baseman's reach.
"Shaya, run to first! Run to first!" all the boys yelled. Never in his life had Shaya ever had to "run to first." Wide-eyed, startled, he scampered down the baseline. By the time he reached first, the right fielder had the ball. He could have easily thrown it to the second baseman who in turn could have tagged Shaya out ... but instead he threw it far over the third baseman's head.
Everyone started yelling again, "Shaya, run to second! Run to second!"
Shaya ran to second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases toward home. When he got to second base, the other team's shortstop ran up to him, turned him toward third base, and shouted, "Shaya, Shaya, run to third!"
And then as he rounded third, all the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming, "Shaya, run home! Shaya, run home!"
And Shaya ran home. No sooner had he stepped on home plate, than all the boys from both the teams raised him high in the air on their shoulders. He had just hit a "grand slam" and won the game for his team. "That day," said the father, who by now had tears rolling down his face, "I learned about God's perfection. For when God brings a child like Shaya into the world, the perfection God seeks is in how other people treat him."
Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn
Leica Freedom Train
* * *
I carry my Leica camera a bit more proudly these days.
The reason? A story I had never heard before-a tale of courage, integrity, and humility that is only now coming to light, some seventy years after the fact.
The Leica is the pioneer 35mm camera. From a nitpicking point of view, it wasn't the very first still camera to use 35mm movie film, but it was the first to be widely publicized and successfully marketed.
It created the "candid camera" boom of the 1930s.
It is a German product-precise, minimalist, utterly efficient. Behind its worldwide acceptance as a creative tool was a family-owned, socially oriented firm that, during the Nazi era, acted with uncommon grace, generosity, and modesty.
E. Leitz Inc., designer and manufacturer of Germany's most famous photographic product, saved its Jews.
And Ernst Leitz II, the steely-eyed Protestant patriarch who headed the closely held firm as the Holocaust loomed across Europe, acted in such a way as to earn the title, "the photography industry's Schindler."
As George Gilbert, a veteran writer on topics photographic, told the story at a convention of the Leica Historical Society of America in Portland, Oregon, Leitz Inc., founded in Wetzlar in 1869, had a tradition of enlightened behavior toward its workers. Pensions, sick leave, health insurance-all were instituted early on at Leitz, which depended for its workforce upon generations of skilled employees-many of whom were Jewish.
As soon as Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, Ernst Leitz II began receiving frantic calls from Jewish associates, asking for his help in getting them and their families out of the country.
As Christians, Leitz and his family were immune to Nazi Germany's Nuremberg laws, which restricted the movement of Jews and limited their professional activities. To help his Jewish workers and colleagues, Leitz quietly established what has become known among historians of the Holocaust as "Leica Freedom Train," a covert means of allowing Jews to leave Germany in the guise of Leitz employees being assigned overseas.
Employees, retailers, family members, even friends of family members were "assigned" to Leitz sales offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong, and the United States. Leitz's activities intensified after Kristallnacht in November 1938, during which synagogues and Jewish shops were burned across Germany.
Before long, German "employees" were disembarking from the ocean liner Bremen at a New York pier and making their way to the Manhattan office of Leitz Inc., where executives quickly found them jobs in the photographic industry.
Each new arrival had around his or her neck the symbol of freedom-a new Leica. The refugees were paid a stipend until they could find work. Out of this migration came designers, repair technicians, salespeople, marketers, and writers for the photographic press.
Keeping the Story Quiet
The Leica Freedom Train was at its height in 1938 and early 1939, delivering groups of refugees to New York every few weeks. Then, with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Germany closed its borders.
By that time, hundreds of endangered Jews had escaped to America, thanks to the Leitzes' efforts.
How did Ernst Leitz II and his staff get away with it?
Leitz Inc. was an internationally recognized brand that reflected credit on the newly resurgent Reich. The company produced range finders and other optical systems for the German military. Also, the Nazi government desperately needed hard currency from abroad, and Leitz's single biggest market for optical goods was the United States.
Excerpted from Jewish Stories from Heaven and Earth Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, award-winning anthologist, lecturer, educator and author, is co-editor of the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul. Widely published in the Jewish and general press, he is author of The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud (Jewish Lights), and is editor of Yom Kippur Readings: Inspiration, Information and Contemplation; Rosh Hashanah Readings: Inspiration, Information and Contemplation; and Jewish Stories from Heaven and Earth: Inspiring Tales to Nourish the Heart and Soul (all Jewish Lights). He is rabbi emeritus of The Jewish Center of Princeton, New Jersey, and a former member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly and the Council for Jewish Education. Visit his websites—www.wisdomofjudaism.org and www.eco-judaism.org—for more information.
Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins is available to speak on the following topics:
- A Taste of Eco-Judaism
- Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul
- Shabbat: A Day for the Rest of Your Life
- Hasidic Wisdom and Modern Psychology
- A Tale of Two Cities—Jerusalem and Washington DC: The Jewish People's Love Affair with the Holy City
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