First, Chaya Steinberg saved herself. She packed up three heavy brass candlesticks, a mortar and pestle, and a samovar, tied her babushka, and fled her little shtetl in Holynka, Russia. The year was 1910, and my grandmother arrived in America when she was 20 years old. She was an orphan, carrying the Shabbos candlesticks her mother lit before she died of cholera when my grandmother was only 6.
Twenty years later, in the 1930‘s, my grandmother – now married and with three grown boys – began saving other Jews. She remembered what it was like to be an orphan, and became a “mother” to Jewish orphans in Rochester, N.Y. Those were Depression years, my Grandpa Sam was often laid off as a carpenter building radio cabinets, and my Bubbe earned money from a Jewish orphanage taking care of children in their home. If you knew my Bubbe, you knew that the money she earned was incidental. My grandmother was a strong, blustery woman with a huge, warm heart, and she loved those boys just as if they were her own. My grandmother also joined Pioneer Women, the Zionist women’s organization that helped women and children in Palestine. She raised money for the chalutzim and would go on to visit Israel after the dream of 2,000 years became a reality.
When the Second World War ended and thousands of Holocaust survivors fled displaced persons camps and shtetl ghost towns, Chaya Steinberg (now Ida Goldstein) welcomed them into her home. As a little girl, I watched my grandmother set the table for two men with dark numbers tatooed on their forearms and serve them steaming bowls of lokshen soup. The names of the two survivors were Joseph Rechner and David Ring, and my grandmother took care of them until she was no longer able to care for herself. When she was around 90, my father moved her into Rochester’s Jewish Home.
I never forgot what my Bubbe did for other Jews, and when she was dying in the Jewish Home, I asked my father if I could have my grandmother’s Shabbos candlesticks, for they represented more than just candlesticks to me. They represented a link not only to my grandmother and her grandmother, but to my Jewish heritage. And, it was a rich legacy I yearned to pass down to my children and all the children I teach in Jewish day schools or Hebrew schools every year. It is a legacy not only of struggle against pogroms and anti-Semitism from one generation to the next, or of wandering from one country to another in search of a better life for one’s self and one’s children. It is also the story of triumph, against all odds. For instance, a Jewish immigrant named Albert Sabin was born in Bialystok, Poland, not far from my grandmother’s shtetl. If it hadn’t been for Sabin and another son of Jewish immigrants, Jonas Salk, we would not have a cure for polio, and children would still be waking up to find out that they can no longer walk.
My grandmother’s candlesticks stand proudly in the center of my kitchen, and I have never forgotten what they represent to me. Three days a week, I teach Hebrew school at local synagogues. I have been teaching for over thirty years, and I don’t think I will ever stop.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus, on the Statue of Liberty
At 3:30 or 4:00 p.m., I welcome students of any age into my classroom. I try to be there with a smile, and talk to them about their day or week as they straggle in. I buy cookies or candy along the way to school, and I try to feed the hungry masses who set down their backbacks and settle into desks in front of me. I try to go beyond what is taught in text books and present what is there in a more interesting and exciting way. My students are too tired to sit quietly and read from yet another textbook after a full day of school. I need to do something more engaging, and I do. Instead of reading a Torah story, for example, I turn that story into a play. I spend hours writing it so the children can stand up and act it out in class.
Instead of just asking the children to recite line after line of Hebrew prayer, I might delve into the beauty of the language and remind the children of the importance of that prayer.
I teach my students about Emunah in Israel, and help them write letters to the children from dysfunctional families who live at the Sarah Herzog Children’s Center in Afula. If only my American students could make friends in Israel, and one day visit there. I plan Judaic crafts and Jewish games for my kids, such as Jewish Jeopardy. (The categories might be “Hebrew words, Jewish prayers, Jewish history and Jewish holidays.”) I am always hunting for new and fun ways to teach.
Why do I do it?
Because, just like my grandmother before me, I want to save Jews. I want every Jewish child I meet to be proud of their Jewish heritage and to hold it dear. Or, more simply, I just want my students to like Hebrew school and to want to come back next week, next year, and even after their bar or bat mitzvah. I want them to want to be part of a Jewish community and to value a connection to a synagogue and their Jewish homeland throughout their lives.
I hope my grandmother is proud of me, because I know I am proud of her. And, I have never forgotten her legacy.
She saved Jews in her way, and I am saving them in mine.
Darice Goldstein Bailer is a children’s book author and has been a Hebrew school teacher since 1980. She currently teaches fifth and seventh grade at Temple Israel in Westport, CT, and second grade at Congregation Shir Ami in Greenwich, CT.