Where did you find faith?
Where did your spiritual journey start?
We’re kicking off what we hope will become a ReadTheSpirit tradition of sharing personal, real-life holiday stories. We’ve already got some gems lined up for the week before Christmas. Today and Friday, we’re sharing Hanukkah stories — personal memoirs by musician and teacher Elaine Greenberg and author Lynne Meredith Schreiber.
Both of these stories are about the often surprising sources of faith — places along our pathways in life where new spiritual energy seems to spring unexpectedly from our religious traditions.
Just in time for New Year’s Resolutions, there’s a terrific new book about this very idea from the creative people at Jewish Lights press, called, “Journeys to a Jewish Life: Inspiring Stories from the Spiritual Journeys of American Jews.” (Click on the cover of the book to jump to our review and buy a copy, if you wish.)
Here’s the Important Point: If you’re not Jewish, you’ll still enjoy Paula Amann’s new book by Jewish Lights, because you’ll discover immediately that the basic idea she describes in her book is a universal principle.
Anyone who has a lively faith — certainly anyone among the thousands of people of faith I’ve interviewed over the past quarter of a century — will tell you that there have been unexpected spiritual connections in their lives. No, not everyone’s connection is as grand as envisioning an angel or experiencing something we might call a miracle.
Our connections are rarely that grand.
Sometimes, connections are as common as pulling out an old scrapbook and suddenly finding yourself warmed by beloved memories — and sometimes connections are as simple as meeting your neighbors and discovering their religious traditions.
In fact, this is what most of us love about our faith: It often surprises us, doesn’t it?
In Amann’s book, she writes about people who found faith through music, the arts, reading, social action, good food and a host of other points along the human journey. Here’s how a typical chapter opens: “Natasha Hirschhorn rediscovered her Jewish heritage in a song, or rather, in 11 of them. Browsing for new material one day, the Ukrainian native, then a musicology student at the Gnesin Music College in Moscow, came across a score that jolted her: ‘From the Jewish Folk Poetry.'”
And the story goes on from that surprising moment of discovery in Moscow. Grab a copy of the book, whatever your faith, and I’ll bet you’ll enjoy Amann’s collection of stories.
Our holiday story today — a mini-memoir really — comes from musician and educator Elaine Greenberg. The connection she describes in this short piece came about through simply meeting her family’s neighbors.
Elaine experienced this kind of connection as a little girl. Then, for many years since then, she has continued to find renewed faith in the act of meeting new people.
Don’t misunderstand what Elaine and I are writing today. Judaism is the spiritual core of her life and, as a cancer survivor who is an accomplished master at summoning the resources of prayer, Elaine has been a personal inspiration to me over the years. She has recommended Jewish prayer books to me and, on Wednesday this week, she emailed me about our story concerning Dinah Berland’s Jewish prayer book.
Elaine wrote: “I read ReadTheSpirit every day, but I knew that I would especially love your Conversation With Dinah Berland. I use her prayer book every evening. It is beautifully written.
“But, I was blown away by the fact that her
Rabbi’s wife’s family came from the same little Czech town that Fanny Neuda was
from. In reading about Edith and the picture she
received from Dinah — a picture that was of her own grandfather’s birthday and all the
relatives — I was thinking about my favorite word ‘bashert,’ which means ‘it was meant to
be.’ God has plans for all of us. Otherwise, why would
the two women have made a connection? Fascinating story.”
Well, the truth is that more than 2 women made a connection through yesterday’s story. Yes, it’s true that there were 2 women described in the story about the photograph that passed from Dinah to Edith. But, Elaine and other readers around the world made connections with that story yesterday.
What’s more — Dinah herself emailed me later yesterday to report that, through one of those helpful readers of yesterday’s story about Fanny Neuda’s prayer book — Dinah received information that pointed her toward a database of family names that she had overlooked. Quickly checking that database online, Dinah discovered fresh linkages to Fanny’s family — and she may now be back on track toward actually meeting some of Fanny’s relatives early next year.
Isn’t that remarkable? We’ll keep you posted in coming months on what happens with Dinah’s search. I know that many of you were moved by yesterday’s story and want to follow Dinah’s progress.
So, TODAY, here is Elaine’s own story.
Sometimes, spiritual connections involve big, international searches like Dinah’s search for Fanny’s family. Sometimes, spiritual connections are as simple as meeting the neighbors.
The photographs at right and below show Elaine as a little girl. The second one shows Elaine posed proudly with some of her relatives.
Also note that, today, we will use Elaine’s preferred spelling of the holiday. (If you want to know more about the various spellings of the holiday, jump back to read our Tuesday Quiz.)
Elaine’s story is simple and yet it is a bright holiday light, as well:
I was a young girl, Chanukah was not a big holiday, and gift giving was
not what it is today, so our family (uncles, aunts, grandmother) put
our names in a container, and everyone picked out one name and that was
the person they were to buy a gift for. My Uncle Hy had my name and
bought the complete score (on 78 records) of Walt Disney’s “Snow White
and The Seven Dwarfs.” I think I still have that album.
When our children were small, we still weren’t making a big deal
about Chanukah, but one year decided to give them eight gifts, one for each
night of the holiday. I tried to be very clever and the last night each
one of our children, ages 4 to 10 (well, maybe not the 4 year old) got
a key to the house. They thought that was fabulous! How times have
But my favorite story of all is from the earlier years of my life.
This goes all the way back to 1944, when I was just about to turn 9 years old and my mother and father finally saved enough money to buy our very own home. Such excitement! The house was everything my parents could have asked for with the exception of the outer color of the house, which was dark red, almost brown, and the ceiling in the kitchen, which was a blinding bright red.
We had a fireplace, which wasn’t lit too terribly often. To my father’s delight, we even had a screened-in porch that ran the entire width of the house. My father spent many a hot summer night sleeping on that porch and, since there was no such thing as air conditioning, we all spent many summer days and nights on that front porch.
In the corner of the kitchen, there was a small shelf about chest-high that served as a telephone shelf. On the white walls surrounding that telephone shelf were a ton of telephone numbers. You see, my father would call Information, no charge in those days, and didn’t have paper readily available, so he wrote the numbers on the kitchen walls. I do believe, when we sold that house, the numbers were still on the walls.
On one side of this house, we had what was called a four-flat where four separate families lived. But, on the other side of our house, there was a single-family dwelling that was somewhat smaller than ours. The husband and wife who lived there were Frank and Marie Honel.
Unfortunately, our first encounter with the Honels was not a pleasant one. It involved a lamp that had come with our new home — one of those things the previous owners had left behind.
When Mrs. Honel paid us her very first visit, we found out that she and her husband came from Germany in 1938. When we moved into our home in 1944, the war was still going on in Europe, so here we had a Jewish family and a German family living next door to one another. In itself, this could have caused problems.
But the lamp touched off the conflict. Mrs. Honel came to visit us because she insisted that the previous owners were aware of Mrs. Honel’s affection for this particular lamp — and had promised that it would be given to Mrs. Honel in the transition. When the lamp never made it to Mrs. Honel’s house, she apparently decided she would come over and claim it from the home’s new occupants.
My mother knew nothing about this supposed arrangement. In fact, she rather liked that lamp.
You can imagine the altercation that followed. It ended with our neighbor walking out of our house in a huff, mumbling something about “Jews.” We didn’t speak to them for quite a while. I don’t know how long.
But, eventually, a kind of peace settled in between the two families.
When our neighbors immigrated from Germany, they brought with them a household full of furniture. Their house was cozy and comfortable with antiques and all kinds of other interesting stuff they brought with them from their homeland.
Among their belongings were beautiful Christmas decorations, including heirloom tree ornaments that they used every year.
Mr. and Mrs. Honel had no children. As I recall it, Mrs. Honel seemed almost reluctant one winter when she surprised me by asking if I would like to trim their Christmas tree with them. Their ornaments were beautiful and I wanted to help.
I had to ask for my parents’ permission, of course. They were Orthodox Jews, but my mother gave her permission. And, we hit it off. From then on, the Honel tree wasn’t trimmed until “their girl” — and that was me — was there to help them.
How well I remember those figures under their tree that depicted the birth of Jesus.
Of course, I didn’t know that one day I would visit Israel and, as part of my trip, I would visit Bethlehem and see where Jesus was born.
We even exchanged gifts. The Honels got Christmas gifts from us. We got Chanukah gifts from them.
I treasure those memories of sitting in their home, a young girl sharing with this elderly couple. In their wonderful kitchen, I would talk with Mrs. Honel as I helped her bake goodies in an old-fashioned wood-burning stove.
Why do I cherish this memory?
Because of the love I felt in that connection with the Honels — and the forgiveness that allowed us finally to cross over all that had separated us and finally share that love.
Tell us what you think. Click Here to email me, David Crumm, or leave a Comment for other readers on our site.
COME BACK Tomorrow for author Lynne Meredith Schreiber’s story. If you’d like to read more about the theme of Forgiveness — and missed our story on that theme 2 weeks ago — click here to read that.