Text and display by Naomi Patz – Hanukkah 5781
Another name for Hanukkah is JAG URIM, the festival of lights. In the darkest season of the year, virtually every religious tradition includes symbols and ceremonies to offset fears and counter the unnerving absence of light. Obviously, this has been a much less significant feature of the season since the advent of electricity. Yet this year, the gloom and fear associated with the Covid-19 pandemic bring us back again to an atavistic sense of insecurity.
So, being cautious, wearing masks and keeping our distance, let us
The following are photographs of the menorot (aka hanukkiyot) and associated objects for the festival of HANUKKAH now on display in the museum case of Temple Sholom of West Essex, Rabbi Patz’s congregation in New Jersey, which Naomi curates.
The opening picture is an overview of the entire case. Each element (more or less) will follow.
The story of the little cruse of oil, just enough for a single night, which last “miraculously” for eight nights, is the traditional reason given for the celebration of Hanukkah.
The real story is much more complex and involves the political realities that followed the victory of the Maccabees. It’s a fascinating story you should check out, if you don’t know it already. Apart from everything else, it demonstrates powerfully why this is an observance for adults, not just a fairytale with presents for the kids.
Oil lamps are what people used for light. The first slide shows five oil lamps (and a photograph of four others) from ancient Israel. All but one are replicas.
Although candles were first invented some 500 years before the Common Era, as late as the Middle Ages candles were mostly reserved for church ceremonies because they were very expensive. Only the wealthy could afford to burn them in their homes. Almost everyone used oil for lighting; the size, style and efficiency of the lamps determined the amount of light they cast. For most of the history of the observance of Hanukkah, our people used oil to mark the nights of the holiday.
The beautifully designed hanukkiyot in the next two slides (different views of the same objects, some reflected in the mirrored glass back of the case) are replicas of bronze menorot from medieval France and Italy. Their styles are reminiscent of Gothic and Muslim architecture. See the rose window in the triangular menorah in the lower left and the arches on the two replicas behind it.
The little cups at the front were filled with oil, and a small wick then laid on top to be lit from the pointed tip.
There are an incredible number of modern hanukkiyot, ranging from elegant and evocative to whimsical and totally kitschy.
Here is a small sample of the range:
A wooden menorah, painted on both sides with scenes from the story of Noah, the flood and the ark, by the contemporary Israeli artist, Yair Emanuel, a gift from our dear friends Sue and Jimmy Klau (z”l). As we discovered to our horror with the first version of this hanukkiyah we lit, the candles cannot be allowed to burn down by themselves. We have replaced it. Enough said.
This hanukkiyah is a replica of 18th century Dutch menorah featuring hearts and flowering vines, traditional motifs of Dutch Jewish art. Holders for wax candles have been placed into the traditional oil cups (which, on close observation, you will see are just for show).It is amazing how bright the illumination when all of the candles are lit!
This hanukkiyah is Waterford Marquis crystal, the name unfortunately visible on the bottom of each of its nine pieces – one for each night’s candle and the tallest for the shamash, the “helper candle” that is used to light them all. It is designed to be displayed in a triangular shape, as here, or even random, so long as the shamash retains its function.
Please note that in traditional hanukkiyot, all eight candles or oil cups are always at the same height although the height of the shamash may differ. Note too that the candles are placed in the menorah from right (on the first night) to left (when all eight are burning) and lit starting with the newest light (in other words, from left to right).
This heavy glass modern hanukkiyah displays the eight candles at roughly the traditional level with the shamash set to the side. It is an oddly evocative piece designed to look like a block of water in motion.
Called the Wave Menorah by its creators, Joel and Candace Bless, it is made in a unique method the artists have dubbed “drip casting” to describe the hand cast hot glass in this menorah.
Dreidl (or dreidel) is the Yiddish name for the spinning “tops” designed hundreds of years ago in Yiddish-speaking communities in Europe to entertain children (and adults) during the eight nights of Hanukkah. The Hebrew word for dreidl is sevivon.
Gambling traditions associated with dreidls use hanukkah gelt (the coins that were the original gifts given on the festival) or walnuts as the “pot.” Every dreidl has a Hebrew letter on each surface: nun – standing for the word nes, miracle; gimel, for gadol, great; hey, for the word hayah, happened, or was; shin, for sham – there: A Great Miracle Happened There. (In modern Israel, the shin is replaced with the letter pey – for po = here.) Monetary (or walnut) values are assigned to each letter. Every player spins in turn. If the dreidl lands on nun, you get nothing (nichts). Gimel = ganz, winner take all! Hey gives the spinner halb, half of the pot, and poor you, if your dreidl stops on shin because it means you have to schenk your holdings into the pot.
The dreidls here are a wide variety ranging from a Waterford crystal to enameled tops to the Yaakov Greenvurcel six-sided metal in the lower right of the picture – and on to the wind-up little dreidl man behind it.
And now, another hanukkiyah.
This is a modern Israel ceramic piece depicting the stylized side of a Moorish building with an archway, peaked roof and lavish floral motifs. Although it can theoretically be lit with wicks in oil (we’ve tried), it works best – and looks terrific – with (ideally color-coordinated) candles creating a third dimension for the design.
Be sure to note the bird on the branch.
The artist is Shulamit.
Next is a modern interpretation of the medieval European bronze menorot, rather different examples of which are in the first photographs above (and are displayed in the bottom left of the lowest shelf of the museum case). This menorah is definitely designed for wicks in oil.
The final three (top shelf) are contemporary plates for latkes (potato pancakes) or sufganiot (jelly doughnuts) or other “delicacies” of the festival, all of which rely on copious amounts of cooking oil in acknowledgement and celebration of Hanukkah.
The nursery school plate below was made many years ago when our New Jersey congregation had a gan yeladim, a 5-day a week nursery school. We recognize a menorah in the center, dreidls on either side, perhaps a match in turquoise (?), two Jewish stars (one much more recognizable than the other), and an unidentifiable purple object at the bottom. The artist (our younger daughter, Aviva) has no idea what that was meant to be.
The last plate, in the shape of a dreidl, shows the letter shin and part of the letter nun. Provenance: Probably made in China, it was purchased it at Marshalls.
The Talmud instructs us to “publicize the miracle” by displaying the Hanukkah lights in a window where it can be seen by passersby. Electric menorot enable moderns to observe this command safely – and to leave the lights burning, adding a new one each night, for the full week+ of Hanukkah.
JAG URIM SAMEAJ!!
Cómo COVID-19 empujó a una pequeña congregación judía en Puerto Rico mucho más allá de sus fronteras.
Por Judy Maltz
Traducido por Marc Schnitzer de un artículo publicado en la edición inglesa de Haaretz.
Publicado a las 13:48
En una típica mañana de Shabat en estos tiempos no tan típicos, el rabino Roberto Graetz abre su servicio semanal de oración por Zoom a las 8 a.m. Son las 8 a.m. Hora del Pacífico, ya que Graetz no se encuentra en Puerto Rico, donde normalmente estaría en esta época del año, sino en el estudio de su hogar permanente en Lafayette, California.
En San Juan, donde se encuentra físicamente su congregación, el reloj acaba de dar las 11 a.m. Y en Argentina, Brasil y Chile, donde residen los rabinos en formación que lo ayudan a dirigir los servicios, ya es mediodía, es decir, dos horas antes que Guatemala, donde su cantora, su guitarra ya posada en su regazo, ansiosa, espera su señal para empezar.
Encontrar el momento óptimo para celebrar los servicios matutinos de Shabat, dice el rabino reformista nacido en Argentina, puede ser un desafío cuando su congregación está a casi 4,000 millas (casi 6,500 kilómetros) y varias zonas horarias de distancia. No facilita las cosas que algunos de los que comparten las responsabilidades semanales con él estén aún más lejos.
“Ahora que cambiaron los relojes aquí en la costa oeste, mis feligreses me pidieron que comenzara a las 7 a.m. mi tiempo ”, dice en una llamada telefónica desde su casa en California. “Les dije que hay límites en cuanto a qué tan temprano estoy dispuesto a despertarme, y que tendrían que continuar sin mí en los próximos meses hasta que volvamos a la hora normal”.
Nueva oportunidad de vida
La pandemia de coronavirus ha obligado a las sinagogas de todo el mundo a adaptarse e improvisar para mantener a sus feligreses comprometidos y mantenerse pertinentes mientras se cumplen los requisitos de distanciamiento social. Para las congregaciones reformistas, que no están sujetas a restricciones halájicas sobre el uso de la electricidad, plataformas como Zoom han hecho posible que se sigan celebrando los servicios de Shabat y festivos de forma remota.
Sin embargo, el Temple Beth Shalom en San Juan es el caso poco común de una congregación que no solo ha mantenido una apariencia de normalidad durante esta crisis, sino que incluso ha encontrado la oportunidad de extenderse más allá de sus fronteras.
“Lo que hemos estado experimentando aquí en las mañanas de Shabat durante los últimos meses es simplemente asombroso”, dice Shula Feldkran, nacida en Israel, quien se mudó a Puerto Rico hace más de 50 años y ha sido durante mucho tiempo miembro activo de Beth Shalom.
“Dada la opción, la mayoría de la gente obviamente preferiría estar en una sinagoga real. Pero para mí, debido a que tengo un poco de sordera, los servicios de Zoom son aún mejores ”, dice la señora de 75 años, bromeando a medias.
Beth Shalom, la única congregación reformista en Puerto Rico, fue fundada en el 1967 por judíos norteamericanos que habían comenzado a mudarse a la isla en busca de oportunidades comerciales. Debido a las disparidades lingüísticas y culturales, no se sentían cómodos ni bienvenidos en la congregación conservadora ya establecida, fundada por judíos que habían huido de Cuba después de que Fidel Castro subiera al poder, por lo que comenzaron su propio lugar de culto.
La mayoría de los hijos de estos judíos de América del Norte finalmente abandonaron Puerto Rico, y solo quedan unos pocos miembros de la generación fundadora de Beth Shalom, la mayoría habiendo muerto o regresado al continente por motivos de salud.
La congregación recibió una nueva y bastante inesperada oportunidad de vida en los últimos años gracias al creciente número de puertorriqueños que han descubierto el judaísmo, algunos de ellos con ascendencia judía, y se están convirtiendo. Hoy en día, los judíos por elección representan más del 90 por ciento de la membresía paga en Beth Shalom.
La congregación ha dependido durante mucho tiempo de rabinos “voluntarios”, por lo general, rabinos jubilados de América del Norte, que pasan algunos meses en la isla. Los servicios de los viernes por la noche se llevan a cabo en inglés, para beneficio de los fundadores restantes y los “pájaros de nieve” [norteamericanos que pasan el invierno en Puerto Rico] , y en la mañana de Shabat en español. Según Graetz, en tiempos previos al coronavirus, los servicios de los viernes por la noche atraían a un promedio de 15 a 20 participantes, mientras que los servicios matutinos de Shabat atraían entre 40 y 50.
Desde que los servicios se pusieron en línea a mediados de marzo después de que el coronavirus azotara a Puerto Rico, las cifras han aumentado constantemente, dice Graetz. Señala que en las últimas semanas, entre 80 y 90 fieles han estado asistiendo al Zoom del sábado por la mañana.
Cuando la pandemia de coronavirus golpeó a Puerto Rico, el rabino que normalmente se ofrece como voluntario durante los meses de invierno acababa de regresar al continente, y los miembros de Beth Shalom se quedaron sin un rabino y sin un lugar para rezar, ya que su sinagoga, como todos los lugares de culto, habían sido ordenados cerrados. “Me ofrecí a ejecutar los servicios matutinos de Shabat de forma remota, y otro colega mío se hizo responsable de los servicios del viernes por la noche”, relata Graetz, de 74 años. “En algún momento me cansé un poco, así que me acerqué a tres de los estudiantes del nuevo centro de formación rabínica en Argentina donde enseño, y les pregunté si les gustaría hacerse cargo, ya que había poco trabajo congregacional real que pudieran hacer en estos días. Les dije que yo los capacitaría y los guiaría, y dijeron que estarían encantados.”
Esta es una segunda carrera para los tres estudiantes rabínicos, dice. Edy Huberman, de Buenos Aires, es director ejecutivo de la Fundación Judaica de Argentina (una asociación de sinagogas progresistas); Martín Hirsch, de Concepción, Chile, es profesor de ingeniería; y Pablo Schejtman, un argentino radicado en Fortaleza, Brasil, es ejecutivo de seguros.
Por lo general, Graetz se habría ido para su período anual en Puerto Rico justo antes de los Iamim Noraim, así que cuando llegó septiembre y todavía estaba atrapado en casa, llamó a sus estudiantes y les hizo una oferta. “Dije: hagamos esto juntos”.
Durante Rosh Hashaná, se les unió en sus servicios en línea Adat Israel, una comunidad judía reformista en Guatemala cuyos miembros son todos conversos. Rebecca Orantes, una aspirante a rabina con una hermosa voz, fue inmediatamente reclutada como solista cantorial. *
‘Como presenciar una disputa talmúdica’
Una vez que se abrieron los servicios para los participantes fuera de Puerto Rico, los estudiantes rabínicos de Graetz preguntaron si también podían invitar a miembros de varias pequeñas comunidades judías que conocían en rincones remotos de Argentina y Chile. Graetz estuvo más que feliz de complacerlo. Mientras tanto, algunos de los “pájaros de nieve” regulares, atrapados en casa en el continente, habían comenzado a unirse.
Salatiel Corcos, un contratista de obras de 32 años que es el actual presidente de Beth Shalom, ve una tendencia con un gran potencial. “Ahora estamos empezando a pensar en cómo podemos atraer a otras pequeñas comunidades de habla hispana, comunidades que no tienen sus propios rabinos y no tienen su propio lugar para orar”.
Beth Shalom ya se ha acercado a una pequeña comunidad reformista en México, dice, y espera incorporarla pronto.
Para prepararse para el servicio de una hora y media, Graetz y sus tres estudiantes se reúnen en línea los jueves y dividen las lecturas. Graetz entrega el d’var Torá que se refiere a la lectura de la Torá de la semana, y sus alumnos se turnan para comentarlo. “A veces, es casi como presenciar una disputa talmúdica”, dice Marc Schnitzer, nacido en Estados Unidos, ex presidente de la congregación y profesor retirado de lingüística que lleva viviendo en la isla casi 45 años.
Después de la lectura de la Torá, los rabinos en formación recitan textos judíos, prosa y poesía pertinentes a la lectura semanal. “Esta es mi parte favorita de estos servicios”, dice Feldkran. “Aprendo mucho de eso”.
En las últimas semanas, se han aliviado las restricciones relacionadas con el coronavirus en Guatemala y se ha permitido que los miembros de la congregación local regresen a su sinagoga en cantidades limitadas. Graetz cuenta que era la primera vez en meses que los participantes en el servicio semanal de Zoom había visto un rollo de la Torá. “Todos vimos en línea mientras se sacaba la Torá del arca en la sinagoga de Guatemala, y debo decir que fue una escena muy conmovedora”, recuerda.
Las desventajas de asistir a los servicios en línea superan con creces las ventajas, dice Schnitzer. Pero eso no significa que el nuevo formato no tenga sus ventajas. “Por un lado, nuestros pájaros de nieve pueden sintonizar dondequiera que estén, así que ha sido muy agradable”, dice. “Para mí, personalmente, ha habido otro beneficio. Por lo general, mi esposa y yo íbamos a los servicios del viernes por la noche o del sábado por la mañana. Desde que comenzó la pandemia y los servicios se han movido en línea, asistimos a ambos. Así que se podría decir que ahora somos más activos en la congregación de lo que solíamos ser”.
Cuando la vida vuelva a la normalidad, Graetz confía en que sus feligreses en Puerto Rico elegirán lo real en lugar de Zoom. “Pero lo que hemos descubierto es que hay personas en comunidades aisladas de América del Sur que están hambrientas por este tipo de conexión, y no van a querer renunciar a ella “, dice. “Así que creo que habrá una comunidad virtual que seguirá existiendo incluso cuando esto termine”.
*Corrección: Adat Israel y el Templo Beth Shalom han tenido servicios de Shabat por Zoom en conjunto desde comienzos del verano, durante los cuales la tarea cantorial se ha alternado entre la soprano Evelyn Vazquez Díaz, del Templo Beth Shalom, acompañada de su esposo Angel Rojas, y Rebecca Orantes de Adat Israel. Sin embargo, tuvieron servicios independientes para los Iamim Noraim, incluyendo el servicio de Rosh Hashaná mencionado, durante los cuales la tarea cantorial para el Templo Beth Shalom fue provista por Evelyn y Angel, tal como han hecho por varios años. El Templo Beth Shalom agradece enormemente su dedicación y compromiso con la congregación. Regresar
What started out as an emergency Zoom Shabbat service in San Juan is now bringing together worshippers across the Americas
On a typical Shabbat morning in these not-so-typical times, Rabbi Roberto Graetz opens his weekly Zoom prayer service at 8 A.M. That’s 8 A.M. Pacific Time, since Graetz is not in Puerto Rico – where he would normally be at this time of year – but in the study of his permanent home in Lafayette, California.
In San Juan, where his congregation is physically located, the clock has just struck 11 A.M. And in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, where the rabbis-in-training who help him lead the services reside, it’s already noon – that’s to say, two hours ahead of Guatemala, where his cantor, her guitar already perched on her lap, eagerly awaits her cue to start.
Finding the optimal time to hold Shabbat morning services, says the Argentinian-born Reform rabbi, can be a challenge when your congregation is nearly 4,000 miles (almost 6,500 kilometers) and several time zones away. It doesn’t make things easier that some of those sharing the weekly responsibilities with him are even further away.
“Now that they’ve changed the clocks back here on the West Coast, my congregants asked me to start at what would be 7 A.M. my time,” he says in a phone call from his California home. “I told them there are limits to how early I’m willing to wake up, and that they’d have to carry on without me in the coming months until we’re back to a normal hour.”
New lease on life
The coronavirus pandemic has forced synagogues around the world to adjust and improvise to keep their congregants engaged and to stay relevant while fulfilling social distancing requirements. For Reform congregations, not bound by halakhic restrictions on electricity use, platforms like Zoom have made it possible to continue holding Shabbat and holiday services remotely.
Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan is the rare case, however, of a congregation that has not only maintained some semblance of normalcy during this crisis, but even found opportunity in it to span out way beyond its borders.
“What we have been experiencing here on Shabbat mornings over the past few months is simply amazing,” says Israeli-born Shula Feldkran, who moved to Puerto Rico more than 50 years ago and has long been an active member of Beth Shalom.
“Given the choice, most people would obviously prefer being in a real synagogue. But for me, because I’m a bit hard of hearing, the Zoom services are even better,” says the 75-year-old, only half-joking.
Beth Shalom, the only Reform congregation in Puerto Rico, was founded in 1967 by North American Jews who had begun moving to the island in search of business opportunities. Because of language and cultural disparities, they didn’t feel comfortable or welcome at the already established Conservative congregation – founded by Jews who had fled Cuba after Fidel Castro rose to power – and so they started their own place of worship.
Most of the children of these North America Jews eventually left Puerto Rico, and only a few members of the founding generation of Beth Shalom are still around – most having died or moved back to the mainland for health reasons.
The congregation received a new, and rather unexpected, lease on life in recent years thanks to growing numbers of Puerto Ricans who have discovered Judaism – some claiming Jewish ancestry – and are converting. Today, Jews by choice account for more than 90 percent of the paid membership at Beth Shalom.
The congregation has long relied on “volunteer” rabbis – typically, retired rabbis from North America – who spend a few months at a stretch on the island. Friday night services are conducted in English, for the benefit of the remaining founders and the snowbirds, and on Shabbat morning in Spanish. According to Graetz, in pre-coronavirus times, Friday night services would draw on average 15 to 20 participants, while Shabbat morning services attracted somewhere between 40 and 50.
Since services went online in mid-March after the coronavirus hit Puerto Rico, the numbers have been growing consistently, Graetz says. He notes that in recent weeks, between 80 and 90 worshippers have been attending the Saturday morning Zoom.
This is a second career for all three of the rabbinical students, he says. Edy Huberman, from Buenos Aires, is executive director of Argentina’s Fundación Judaica (an association of progressive synagogues); Martin Hirsch, from Concepción, Chile, is an engineering professor; and Pablo Schejtman, an Argentinian based in Fortaleza, Brazil, is an insurance executive.
Graetz would usually have been taking off for his annual stint in Puerto Rico just before the High Holy Days, so when September rolled around and he was still stuck at home, he called his students and made them an offer. “I said: let’s all do this together.”
Over Rosh Hashanah, they were joined in their online services by Adat Israel, a Reform Jewish community in Guatemala whose members are all converts. Rebecca Orantes, an aspiring rabbi with a beautiful voice, was immediately recruited as a cantorial soloist.
‘Like watching a talmudic dispute’
Once services were opening to participants outside of Puerto Rico, Graetz’s rabbinical students asked if they could also invite members of several tiny Jewish communities they knew in remote corners of Argentina and Chile. Graetz was more than happy to oblige. In the meantime, some of the regular snowbirds, stuck at home on the mainland, had started to join.
Salatiel Corcos, a 32-year-old building contractor who is Beth Shalom’s current president, sees a trend with great potential. “We’re now starting to think about how we can bring in other small Spanish-speaking communities – communities that don’t have their own rabbis and don’t have their own place to pray.”
Beth Shalom has already reached out to a small Reform community in Mexico, he says, and hopes to bring it on board soon.
To prepare for the hour-and-a-half-long service, Graetz and his three students convene online on Thursdays and divide up the readings. Graetz delivers the d’var Torah that addresses the portion of the week, and his students then take turns commenting on it. “Sometimes, it’s almost like watching a talmudic dispute,” says American-born Marc Schnitzer, a past president of the congregation and retired professor of linguistics who’s been living on the island nearly 45 years.
After the Torah reading, the rabbis-in-training recite Jewish texts, prose and poetry of relevance to the weekly portion. “This is my favorite part of these services,” Feldkran says. “I learn so much from it.”
In recent weeks, coronavirus-related restrictions in Guatemala have been eased, and members of the local congregation have been allowed back into their synagogue in limited numbers. It was the first time in months, Graetz recounts, that any of the participants in the weekly Zoom service had come close to seeing a Torah scroll. “We all watched online as they took the Torah out of the ark in the synagogue in Guatemala – and I have to say, it was a very moving scene,” he recalls.
The cons of attending services online far outweigh the pros, Schnitzer says. But that doesn’t mean the new format doesn’t have its advantages. “For one, our snowbirds can tune in wherever they are, so that’s been really nice,” he says. “For me personally, there’s been another benefit. Usually, my wife and I would go either to Friday night or to Saturday morning services. Ever since the pandemic hit and the services have moved online, we go to both. So you could say we’re more active in the congregation now than we used to be.”
When life returns to normal, Graetz is confident his congregants in Puerto Rico will choose the real thing over Zoom. “But what we’ve discovered is that there are people out there in isolated communities around South America who are hungry for this sort of connection, and they’re not going to want to give it up,” he says. “So I believe there will be a virtual community that continues to exist even when this is over.”
This article was originally published in Haaretz.
Eulogy by Rabbi Norman Patz
October 9, 2020 – Tishri 21, 5781
Delivered by Salatiel Corcos, President of Temple Beth Shalom of Puerto Rico
I am Salatiel Corcos, President of Temple Beth Shalom. I have come today to honor the memory of Norma Topp, who was president of Temple Beth Shalom many years ago. I am grateful to Diego Mendelbaum, religious leader of Congregacion Shaare Zedeck, the JCC, for inviting me to present Rabbi Patz’s eulogy, written in Norma’s memory. Rabbi Patz extends condolences to the family and to both congregations, indeed to the entire Jewish community of the island and beyond. He expresses his strong sense of privilege for having been Norma and Bill’s rabbi.
This is a sad day for the Topp family and for the Jewish community or Puerto Rico as well. Norma Topp was one of the last of a generation whose long experience on this island began eight decades ago, just three years after World War II ended. Puerto Rico was very different then. So too was the San Juan to which Norma, a 19 years old Toronto girl, came, with her distant relative Bill, now her new husband.
The trolley from Old San Juan came only to the edge of Condado and turned around on Del Parque. Nearly all of Isla Verde was a forest of palm trees. Adult women, in Norma’s telling, wouldn’t leave their homes unless they wore hat, gloves and stockings. What a shock it was for her – weather and culture both. Fortunately, Norma was up to the challenge.
She was a class act in every aspect of her life. Norma Topp exuded quality. “She was the kindest person and the most caring,” in Debbie’s words, “above and beyond and unmatched” all through the years. When Debbie told her brother Robert that their mother had died, he cried bitterly. His tears reflect the grief of Norma’s survivors: Norma’s daughter Debbie and her husband Gary, Norma’s daughter Carol and Norma’s son Robert; Norma’s grandchildren Sarah and Daniel, Anna and Dov, Alejandro, Enrique, and Annibal; and her great grandchildren Oliver, Sadie, Charlie and the newborn, Harry, just three months old. Robert’s tears reflect the grief we all feel at Norma’s death.
She was 91 years old, well beyond the age that Pirke Avot, the post biblical book called Sayings of the Fathers, Dichos de los Padres, describes as the age of gevurah, strong old age. Throughout all of her 91 years, some of which were not easy, she had been a tower of strength for everyone whose lives she touched.
Among the many wonderful things that happened to Naomi and me in coming to Temple Beth Shalom nearly 14 years ago, was meeting Norma and Bill and becoming friends with them. We immediately saw in Norma what everyone who knew her saw: a woman of grace, warmth, dignity, openness and intelligence. Our admiration and respect for her only deepened over the years. Norma and Bill were founding members of the congregation. Both were presidents of the congregation, and their presence was so vivid that after Bill’s death the second floor of Temple Beth Shalom, where the office, the library and the classrooms are located, was named “the Topp Floor.”
After Norma moved to Naples, Florida, I was able to speak with her by telephone from time to time. I treasured those conversations. Norma was still eager to be part of life. Just recently, she renewed her membership in our congregation, and she proudly cast her vote in the U.S. national election.
Throughout her life, Norma displayed her love of life, for her husband of 66 joyous years, for her children and for her community. She was what is called in Yiddish, a gute neshoma, a good soul, a real personality.
The traditional words of praise for a Jewish woman come from chapter 31 of the biblical Book of Proverbs, Mishlei in Hebrew, El Libro de Proverbios in Spanish. In that chapter are 21 verses of praise, arranged in alphabetical order. The verses start with the assertion “What a rare find is a capable wife” and go on to describe the amazing range of qualities and activities of such a woman. The world of the 1940s was an age when it was usual for most women of her station to be defined by their role as homemakers. But Norma was much more.
Yes, she was Bill’s loving partner for 66 years, and a wise counselor to him as well.
And yes, she was a caring and devoted mother to Carol and Debbie and Robert, and grandmother and great grandmother.
And most definitely, she was very much a person in her own right. She was a strongly motivated teacher of developmentally disabled children. She was an active member of the temple board and the temple’s first woman president. She was a voracious reader, an alert citizen, a caring and loyal friend.
She was also a collector of beautiful teapots – teteras. Norma insisted that Naomi and I choose one during the shivah for Bill. We display it in our home, where we see it every day. It reminds us of this remarkable woman whom we loved.
Norma’s was a lifetime of distinguished service worthy of the highest praise. The verses in Proverbs honoring the ayshet hayyil, the woman of valor, conclude with this commendation: “T’nu la mi-pri yadeha ve-y’hallelu-ha ba-shearim ma-a-seh-ha. Extol her for the results of her efforts, and let her achievements praise her in the gates.” (Proverbs 31:31)
Zekher tzadikkah l’v’rakhah. May her memory be a blessing for us all.
Que su memoria sea una bendicion para todos nosotros.
Sua alma goze da gloria!
Congregants should read this important statement from the New York Board of Rabbis sent out on Sunday, May 31st, forwarded to us by Rabbi Patz.CORL STATEMENT ON THE DEATH OF GEORGE FLOYD
Remembering Lee Calem
Remarks by Rabbi Norman Patz
Visiting Rabbi, Temple Beth Shalom of Puerto Rico
To be presented by Rabbi Michael Holzman
May 17, 2020 23 Iyar, 5780
The members of Temple Beth Shalom of Puerto Rico receive the news of Lee Calem’s death with heavy hearts. For decades, Lee and her late husband Al were pillars of the congregation. They were members of the small group that founded the synagogue in 1967 and they remained
active for more than forty years, culminating in a co-presidency of the congregation.
I got to know them in 2007 when I first went to San Juan as one of the congregation’s visiting rabbis. Lee and Al welcomed Naomi, my wife, and me and made us feel comfortable. They told us stories about the congregation’s history and describing with their characteristic insightfulness the challenges facing the congregation as it transformed itself from an “Anglo” membership to one composed mostly of native Spanish-speaking Jews by choice, who brought amazing stories of their rediscovered Jewish heritage (or newly discovered love of Judaism),
reenergizing the congregation.
Lee was a good cook and a gracious host in their beautiful, art-filled apartment. Lee loved art and served as a brilliant docent at the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico, in San Juan. We were privileged to have her give us two full days touring the museum’s marvelous collection, regaling
us with fascinating stories and insights. And Lee was passionate about books and about politics.
She was a voracious, perceptive reader and a committed liberal. She was great to talk to – and to argue with! Lee always spoke her mind. You never needed to wonder about her political opinions or cultural tastes. But, to the best of my recollection, she made no enemies in the congregation and people were always eager to “come back for more.”
Although we never got to meet Lee and Al’s family, it was our great pleasure to see the many photographs of them all on display in their apartment on Luchetti Street, and to hear the stories. She was so proud of everyone.
Not long after Al’s death in 2013, Lee left the island to be near her children and grandchildren. She purchased a lovely home in Kensington, Maryland, where she became active in the community doing things she loved. When we visited her there, we saw how well she had made the hard adjustment back to the mainland without losing contact with her dearest friends of many, many years who remained in San Juan.
Lee was terrific. We loved her and were saddened to see how the years sapped her vitality and her vivid personality. On behalf of Temple Beth Shalom, the Reform Congregation of Puerto Rico, and personally, Naomi and I offer condolences to Lee’s children, Andrea, Douglas and Mark, and to their families.
HaMakom y’naheim…. May God console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Board of Directors of Temple Beth Shalom during Lee and Al’s co-presidency
From left to right:
Front row: Belkis Escribano z”l, Lee Calem z”l, Al Calem z”l, Marc Schnitzer
Middle row: Rabbi Norman Patz, Don Friedman Sue Klau, Ada Szeto z”l, George Mark
Back row: Arnold Benus, Arnold Gendelman, Jimmy Klau z”l, Alma Duran, Luis Sanchez
Holocaust survivor Francine Christophe tells a beautiful tale of the power of kindness and generosity in this clip from Human, the Movie.
In French, with subtitles in English and Spanish.
More information about the film can be found on their official website: http://www.human-themovie.org/
Temple Beth Shalom cordially invites you to the screening of The Last Cyclist on Wednesday, February 12, 2020, produced by our very own Rabbi Norman and Naomi Patz! There will be a Q&A with the producers after the film.
Please call or email to make reservations, as spaces are limited!
The Last Cyclist, written in Terezín during the Holocaust, is a daring absurdist comedy in which bicyclists are blamed for all of society’s ills and systematically hunted down and murdered. The Last Cyclist’s anti-Nazi allegory was so overt that it was banned following its dress rehearsal. The script, nearly lost to time, was painstakingly reconstructed and reimagined by the writer and producer Naomi Patz, beginning in 1995
Filmed by Edward Einhorn, who also directed the play, The Last Cyclist allows audiences to bear witness. It is as if we too are attending that fateful dress rehearsal in the concentration camp. Amused, intrigued, distracted and thrilled by the not-so-subtle equation of Nazis with lunatics, we are still terrified victims of the murderous immorality of a lunatic and her followers.
The film is a remarkable new addition to the historical record of Nazi atrocities, as well as a fascinating artifact of Jewish defiance.