First Jewish Memory Seeks Home

I was sitting on a man’s shoulders. Was the man my father? (Never before and never after did I sit on my father’s shoulders or anyone else’s.) From the view on high I saw crowds of people, circles within circles, singing and dancing. Children waved paper flags. There was music and song but everything was too loud and I didn’t know the words. The noise scared me; I wanted to cover my ears, but I couldn’t let go of the man’s head. I held on for Dear Life, fearing a fall either forwards or backwards, not knowing which was worse.

The noise shocked me because our home was quiet, silent as death.

I felt out of place among the Jewish orphans, for this was a hall in Bellfaire, the Jewish Orphanage in Cleveland,Ohio. I had a mother and father.

My father must have taken me there because his friend from Minneapolis, Harry Fiterman, served on the Board of Trustees of Bellfaire. Whenever Harry came to a board meeting in Cleveland, he stayed at our house. Maybe out of guilt or appreciation to Harry, my father had signed up to be a Big Brother. Once a month  he would take out a little Jewish orphan boy on a Sunday afternoon to see the changing leaves at Horseshoe Lake or play in the snow at CainParkor eat ice cream at Howard Johnson’s.

The dancing-and-singing-with-the-orphans memory must have taken place in October 1951. Probably a week after my Consecration at Temple Emanu El when I received the Torah from Moses via Rabbi Green in the Moreland School gym.

My father took me to this boisterous celebration- were they dancing with a real Torah, a big one, unlike the miniature one I received in the gym? – because Harry was the only friend who knew that my mother had given birth in her eighth month to a vegetable boy. This happened in June of ’49 when Harry was in town. Harry went to the hospital to see the baby. He offered his own shoulders to my father and mother. Harry probably called my father on the December day in 1950 when my father took his first son, at seventeen months, to a home for special babies in Akron, Ohio. Harry no doubt called again in February of ’51 when the baby died.

The least my father could do was lend a hand at the orphanage, take a kid for a dairy queen on a Sunday afternoon, drive an orphan to Chagrin Falls for some pop corn with his two little girls, aged six and eight, while their mother, pregnant again, stayed home.

I often wonder if my falling in love with Israel thirteen years later was part of a search for a context for this first memory, a place that could contain the celebration and sorrow, for this was the kind of memory from a world without words that never rested until it found a Home.

About the Author
Judy Labensohn is a writer and teacher of creative writing in Israel. She leads the Writing Gym on Sunday mornings at Tmol Shilshom in downtown Jerusalem.