WeWriWa—The Smalls’ Shavuot menu


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

This week’s snippet comes from Chapter 19, “Happy Shavuot,” of the book formerly known as The Very Next and published last spring as Movements in the Symphony of 1939. Last week I described the table itself, and now you’ll get to read about all the delicious foods on offer. I know many people really enjoy my food-themed scenes.

Cinnimin Filliard’s father helped to bring a German Jewish family to America from Amsterdam in 1938, and they’ve been living in the guesthouse ever since. Their youngest child, Sparky (real name Katherine, changed from Katharina), shares Cinni’s attic bedroom in the main house, and has become her best friend.

Cinni, who has no love lost for her family’s nominal religion of Methodism and finds Judaism much more fun and colorful, is thrilled to be invited to celebrate Shavuot with the Smalls (originally the Brandts). Her friend Kit’s father is also a guest.

Just prior to this excerpt, Cinni saw strange things that looked like bread doughnuts on a silver platter, and Mrs. Small explained they’re bagels from Philadelphia, to be served with lox, cream cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce.

Cinni hoped her eyes weren’t wider than her stomach as she began heaping her plate high with a little of everything offered. She couldn’t complain for lack of meat when she had salmon broiled in butter, bagels loaded with the promised toppings, plenty of smoked salmon by itself, scalloped potatoes cooked in cheese, mushrooms stuffed with chopped walnuts, garden salad with chunks of goat cheese, fruit salad with shredded coconut flakes, and artichoke quiche. There was so much sumptuous food from which to feast, Cinni hardly cared there were some artichokes in the mix. If only her mother cooked such wonderful food. Mrs. Filliard put in some effort for Christmas and Easter, but didn’t offer anything nearly so grand.

“Which cheesecake would you like to try first?” Sparky asked after the supper plates and silverware were cleared away.

“Which cheesecake? You mean you’ve got more’n one? Lemme have a slice of all of ’em!”

Cinni’s eyes almost fell out of her head as Mrs. Small and Gary brought out cheesecake after cheesecake—the normal plain variety, chocolate, chocolate chip, lemon, orange, strawberry, raspberry, double chocolate.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to complete the scene.

Her mouth watered even more when Mr. Small and Barry lugged out canisters of ice-cream and bowls of toppings, followed by even more desserts upon which to feast.

“My folks never serve nearly so much dessert. I’m gonna weigh twenty more pounds after tonight.”

“We’re having ice-cream sundaes at synagogue after services tomorrow,” Sparky said. “Plus lots more cheesecake.”

“I almost wish I could tag along!”

WeWriWa—The Smalls’ Shavuot table


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

Because the holiday of Shavuot is this weekend, I’m sharing something from Chapter 19, “Happy Shavuot,” of the book formerly known as The Very Next and published last spring as Movements in the Symphony of 1939. It took over a year after the e-book release, but now it’s finally available in print as well.

Cinnimin Filliard’s father helped to bring a German Jewish family to America from Amsterdam in 1938, and they’ve been living in the guesthouse ever since. Their youngest child, Sparky (real name Katherine, changed from Katharina), shares Cinni’s attic bedroom in the main house, and has become her best friend.

Cinni, who has no love lost for her family’s nominal religion of Methodism and finds Judaism much more fun and colorful, is thrilled to be invited to celebrate Shavuot with the Smalls (originally the Brandts). Her friend Kit’s father is also a guest.

The Smalls had set their table as nicely as they’d set it for the other holidays Cinni had joined them for. This time, they had a yellow tablecloth with evergreen-colored embroidery, and white china with green leaves around the perimeter. Cinni also liked their centerpieces, several vases of red and yellow tulips. They were humbler flowers than the roses and baby’s breath they’d had for Rosh Hashanah and Pesach. She didn’t like bouquets all that much, since they seemed such a waste of money when they wilted before long, but if flowers had to be used, she preferred down-to-earth ones like tulips and wildflowers.

“You ain’t using your other fancy china this time?” Cinni asked as she pulled out a chair between Barry and Sparky. “You’re lucky you had enough money for more’n one set. I don’t think my family had more’n one even when we were rich. One set is all you really need, unless you’re uppity rich snobs like the Hitchcocks or Malspurs.”

“My family has several sets of tableware!” Mr. Green protested.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“I hope you don’t think we’re uppity. Having more than enough money to afford things like that means more to me than you’ll ever know.”

“Oh, no, I wasn’t talking about nice rich people like you. I meant snobs like the Hitchcocks and Unicorn-Mitchells.”

Gary smirked. “I’m glad the Unicorn-Mitchells go to private school, since I’d never be able to keep a straight face if one of them were in my classes. Is the first part of their name really Unicorn, and why did no one ever think to change it in all these years?”

“Part of their family tree must be German, Austrian, or Swiss–German,” Mr. Small said. “Einhorn is a fairly common surname, and means ‘unicorn.’ Or they could be Dutch, since Eenhorn is also a fairly common surname. I assume someone changed it after immigration, though I’m not so keen to blend into the host culture I’d change my name to Unicorn.”

Jewish Ukraine (Єврейська Україна)

Great Choral Synagogue of Kyiv, Copyright Nick Grapsy

There has been a Jewish community in Ukraine since ancient times, starting with people from Hellenized Asia Minor and the Bosporus. Archaeological excavations show evidence dating back to at least the fourth century BCE. Many were traders.

During the Kyivan Rus era (879–1240), communities developed in Kyiv, the Crimea, and the Ukrainian area of the Caucasus. More people arrived as refugees from murderous Crusaders in other parts of Europe. A community in Galicia, in western Ukraine, was first mentioned in 1030.

Because antisemitism is the world’s oldest hatred, there were several violent pogroms in the 12th century. Reportedly, we were kicked out of Kyiv during the reign of Grand Prince Vladimir II, though no documentary evidence survives.

Former Karaite synagogue in Kyiv, Copyright Posterrr

Former synagogue of Kamyanets-Podilskyy, Copyright Neovitaha777

Due to antisemitism, there were many restrictions on employment, residence, finances, housing, land ownership, movement, etc. Trade, handicrafts, and usury were among the few jobs open to us.

The Jewish Ukrainian community suffered equally alongside Christian Ukrainians during the endless reign of terror by the Crimean Tatars. Many were sold into slavery.

Though antisemitism was unfortunately unavoidable, the areas of Ukraine controlled by the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth grew to be one of the world’s largest, most vibrant Jewish communities.

Former synagogue of Vinnytsya, Copyright ЯдвигаВереск (Yadvyha Veresk)

Great Synagogue of Lutsk, Copyright Robert Niedźwiedzki

By the time of the Khmelnytskyy Uprising began in 1648, there were over 50,000 Jews in Ukraine. Though the Cossacks first and foremost wanted to liberate their land from foreign rulers (Tatars, Poles, Lithuanians), they also went on antisemitic rampages during these uprisings. Tens of thousands of Jews, possibly up to 100,000, were murdered, and 300 communities were destroyed.

To avoid attracting antisemitic attention, public merrymaking was banned, and stories about pogroms swept through Europe and created a climate of fear. This gave rise to the Messianic cult of Shabatai Tzvi, and an increased interest in mysticism.

Former synagogue of Hrymayliv, Copyright Влад Гуменюк (Vlad Humenyuk)

The 1649 Treaty of Zboriv forbade Jews to live in Cossack-controlled areas. These cruel restrictions were later upheld by Khmelnytskyy’s son Yuriy and in the first Cossack constitution of 1710.

More pogroms followed during the many other Cossack uprisings of the 17th and 18th centuries. Though most Ukrainian Christians have always viewed Cossacks as great national heroes, the Jewish community feels much differently about them.

Yegiye Kapay Synagogue in Yevpatoriya, Copyright Eugenmakh

Merchant Synagogue in Yevpatoriya, Copyright Mitte27

The Second and Third Partitions of Poland in 1793 and 1795 brought a large number of Jews into the Russian Empire. Because she didn’t want us living in her empire, Catherine the Great established the Pale of Settlement, which included all of Ukraine.

Due to many antisemitic restrictions, most people in the Pale were poor, and they were subjected to constant pogroms, esp. after Tsar Aleksandr III came to the throne in 1881. Only conversion to Russian Orthodoxy would end this mistreatment. As a result, a lot of people immigrated to the U.S., pre-State Israel, Canada, and Western Europe.

Entrance gate to former Karaite synagogues in Yevpatoriya, Copyright A.Savin (WikiCommons)

Another unending anguish was, under Tsar Nicholas I, compulsory military service. Many boys were brutally kidnapped, forced to serve in the army for over 20 years, force-converted, made to eat unkosher food, and forbidden contact with their families.

Despite this difficult life, robust social welfare and educational systems arose. Chasidic life also flourished, with many dynasties all across Ukraine.

Tempel Synagogue of Ivano-Frankivsk, Copyright Folkerman

Former Great Synagogue of Sharhorod, Copyright Михайло Потупчик (Mykhaylo Potupchyk)

Pogroms continued under the rule of the inept Nicholas II, in cities including Kishinev (1903 and 1905), Kyiv (1905), and Odesa (1905). These orgies of murder, violence, and rape were led by the Russian ultranationalist Black Hundreds movement. In October 1905 alone, 690 pogroms were carried out.

There were also blood libel cases, most famously the Menahem Mendel Beilis case of 1911–13. Miraculously, Mr. Beilis was acquitted.

Meanwhile, the Jewish community of Galicia, part of Austria–Hungary, fared much more happily during the same period. Though antisemitism still existed, they had legal emancipation and weren’t forced to live in poverty in isolated towns.

Jewish cemetery and funeral chapel in Chernivtsi, Copyright Alfred Löhr

During the Russian Civil War of 1917–21 and its spinoff wars, up to 250,000 Jews in the Russian Empire were murdered, including at least 100,000 in Ukraine. Most of these pogroms were carried out by the radical Directorate, whose ranks included the infamous Symon Petlyura (another historical figure regarded much differently by Jewish and Christian Ukrainians). Many miscellaneous bands also went on violent sprees, as well as the White Army and Red Army.

A different kind of oppression arose during the Soviet era, as all religion was outlawed, and even secular Jewish culture was only allowed for tokenistic reasons and in very limited amounts. Hundreds of thousands of people immigrated to Poland in 1921.

Mikvah of Mikolayiv, Copyright LXNDR

Ukraine lost 70% of her Jewish population, up to 1.6 million people, during the Shoah. Most were murdered by Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads, and never saw the inside of a camp. As in all Nazi-occupied nations, there were local collaborators (like the infamous John Demjanjuk). Some were motivated by antisemitism, while others were coerced, just wanted money to feed their families, or saw the Nazis as liberators after living under Soviet rule for so long.

However, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians (4.5 million) fought against the Nazis, in both the Red Army and as partisans, and as of 1 January 2021, Yad Vashem has recognized 2,673 Ukrainians as Righteous Among the Nations. Ukraine is #4 among most-represented countries.

Memorial park in Khmilnyk, Copyright Posterrr

After WWII, border changes added Galicia and Carpathian Rus to Ukraine’s territory. In 1959, the Jewish population was 840,000, down from 2.7 million in 1941. The population steadily shrank during the Cold War, coupled with continued religious persecution.

Today there are an estimated 200,000 Jews in Ukraine, and centuries of difficult interfaith relations have finally begun to improve. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jewish life has undergone a huge renaissance in Ukraine. The country also has a Jewish president who was elected with 73% of the vote and now has over 90% approval ratings.

Judaism according to Hollywood and Netflix

Ever since I reclaimed my spiritual birthright as a teenager, I’ve been very annoyed (to say the least!) at how Jewish characters and Judaism are depicted on the vast majority of TV shows and films. Historically, it’s pretty rare for a film not about the Shoah to depict the religious side of Judaism as The Jazz Singer (seen above) does. While the film clearly champions a secular identity over a religious one, it doesn’t denigrate religiosity as 100% incompatible with modern life either.

Jewish subjects on film in the silent era frequently played on ugly antisemitic stereotypes, but there were occasional positive depictions, such as Hungry Hearts (1922), based on Anzia Yezierska’s stories about Lower East Side Jewish women’s lives; a few early D.W. Griffith shorts; and the German Golem trilogy (of which only the last installment is known to survive in full).

Unfortunately, many Jewish characters are played by non-Jews, and 99.9% of the time they’re Ashkenazic (of Central and Eastern European descent) and therefore white-presenting. This feeds harmful stereotypes and disgusting slanders, like claiming we just Magically appeared out of thin air in 18th century Poland and later immigrated en masse to the Middle East as part of a white supremacist, colonialist project.

No acknowledgment at all of how we’re an ethnoreligious tribe indigenous to Israel, with a continual presence tracing back thousands of years! Nor do these Ashkenazocentric portrayals depict the full rainbow of Jewish peoplehood. Eighty percent of Israeli Jews are Mizrachim, from North Africa and the Middle East. And even white-skinned Ashkenazim aren’t ethnically European.

There are also Sephardim, of Spanish and Portuguese descent, as well as Italians, Romaniotes (Greeks), Ethiopians (who completely disprove the racist lie that all Jews are white!), Persians, Indians, and so many other Diaspora communities.

It’s not as though there are barely any Jewish actors, the way it’s difficult to find real disabled people to play disabled roles. But more often than not, a Jewish character is played by yet another Gentile actor.

Fictional Jewish families are also almost always intermarried, secular, and assimilated, unless the film is about the Shoah. Then it’s okay, because most of them will be dead by the end anyway. There’s a reason Dara Horn titled her 2021 essay collection People Love Dead Jews.

Nowhere in the majority of Hollywood and Netflix productions do we find a warm, accurate, nuanced, sensitive depiction of Jewish life. People are either secular and assimilated or cartoonishly stereotyped members of an ultra-Orthodox enclave, from which some poor oppressed woman is desperate to escape so she can achieve liberation with bikinis, high heels, crotch-high skirts, and lots of casual sex.

Never mind the fact that many women have made the conscious, educated choice to leave the secular world for Orthodoxy! I’ve known so many Orthodox women, and they’re not at all oppressed, unhappy, or abused. There are legit criticisms of the more extreme corners of the Orthodox world, but even the fanatics who do things like throw rocks at men and women praying together at the Western Wall are NOT representative of the majority of people in those communities.

If there is an Orthodox character in a non-Shoah story, odds are s/he’s portrayed as an out of touch bigot who needs to learn a lesson and become dutifully secular and assimilated, or accept intermarriage as the modern American way. The world Jewish population still hasn’t recovered from the Shoah, due in huge part to intermarriage and assimilation!

And speaking of intermarriage, the real-life statistic is only about 33%, NOT the constantly bandied about 52% figure. There were significant flaws in the data collection of that survey. But according to Hollywood, it’s 99%! There’s also the storyline that makes me cringe every time, “Ooh, I’m getting married, I have to convert!” Cue a quicky, insincere conversion and Judaism never being mentioned again in any serious way.

The obligatory Chanukah episode falsely portrays this holiday as a Jewish Christmas, though it’s a minor holiday and only rose to prominence as a way for people to demonstrate they were just as American as their neighbors in postwar suburbia. There might be an episode with a Pesach Seder or mention of the High Holidays, but never will you find holidays like Shavuot, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, or Purim, let alone fast days like Tisha B’Av.

Compare the nonsense of Hollywood and Netflix to Israeli shows and films like Shtisel and Srugim, where the full range of Jewish life is depicted honestly instead of being reduced to cheap stereotypes and offensive slander.

A sobering, provocative look at antisemitism

I was alerted to this book by Jewish Twitter soon after its release, and read many positive reviews and impressions. It was also mentioned by one of the rabbis at the synagogue I livestream services from (seeing as how I’ve been unable to go to shul in person since lockdown began in March 2020). Many of these people brought up Ms. Horn’s sobering statement that more people can name three death camps than three Yiddish writers.

The twelve essays in this volume make painfully clear how many Gentiles, often without doing this on purpose or being consciously aware of it, only know about us through the Shoah and visiting heritage sites in places whose Jewish community has long since vanished. In other words, they know a lot about dead Jews, but not living Jews (either past or present).

We also have to contend with Gentiles goysplaining antisemitism to us, lying about Jewish history (particularly our indigenous connection to Eretz Yisrael and the Hebrew language), happily believing any false information they hear because it’s wrapped up in the guise of wokeness, only listening to fringe tokens instead of proud, committed Jews, and trying to gaslight us.

I’m still angry at the fellow writer and former virtual friend who soft-blocked me on Instagram in May because I shared so many stories calling out antisemitism and supporting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland and to defend itself against terrorism. She was sharing stories with the exact opposite message. The end of our virtual friendship isn’t much of a loss, though, since she’s gone full woke over the last few years, and is the kind of clown who gets off on virtue-signalling by putting freaking pronouns in her screen name.

The new woke antisemitism comes straight from the Soviet Union’s playbook.

Ms. Horn’s first chapter, “Everyone’s (Second) Favorite Dead Jew,” opens by talking about how an employee of the Anne Frank House was told not to wear a kipah to work in 2018. The previous year, visitors noticed Hebrew was the only language in the audio-guide displays without a national flag next to it.

The rest of the chapter discusses how Anne’s diary has been so popular and palatable to the masses largely because it’s not about the Shoah at all. Had Anne lived and written about her experience in the camps, it’s doubtful she would’ve found such a receptive audience. She also wrote the famous line about everyone being good at heart before she met people who weren’t good.

The next-best-known Shoah memoir, Elie Wiesel’s Night, is full of rage in the original Yiddish. Only after it was published in French and transformed into a story of theological angst did it gain notice. In other  words, many Gentiles look to Shoah memoirs for feel-good inspiration, and are deeply uncomfortable when they don’t follow that socially-acceptable mold.

Chapter Two, “Frozen Jews,” concerns the history of Harbin, China, which had a large, flourishing Jewish community from 1898 till the 1950s. The last Jewish family left in 1962, and Harbin’s last Jew died in 1985. Though many Harbintsy fondly recall their lives in the city, there were also many pogroms, particularly after White Russian refugees arrived in 1919 and brought their violent antisemitism with them. Among their vile acts was burning a synagogue. The city’s golden age lasted less than one generation. Then came the Japanese occupation, and the situation became even worse. Many people viewed immigration as inevitable because of how difficult life was.

Now Harbin’s remaining synagogue is a typical heritage site paying homage to the former Jewish community, with no mention of just why everyone left. The displays also only have photos of and captions about the minority of rich and bourgeois residents, not the poor and proletarian majority who could only dream of servants and grand society events.

Chapter Four, “Executed Jews,” talks about the Soviet Union’s persecution and eventual purging of Jewish writers, artists, actors, and playwrights. They were allowed to remain at liberty after Stalin’s crackdown on Yiddish only because they served as useful tokens. Basically, classic Chanukah antisemitism as opposed to Purim antisemitism. Chanukah antisemitism purports to like and respect us, but demands we dutifully assimilate and abandon our faith and culture. Purim antisemitism openly declares its belief that we’re inferior and intent to murder us.

Chapter Five, “Fictional Dead Jews,” discusses the differences between Jewish and Gentile literature. Traditionally, many Jewish novels end without an uplifting, redemptive happy ending, but instead are morally ambiguous or even depressing. Given Jewish history, it’s easy to see why. I got a lot of great authors and books to add to my TBR list from this chapter.

Chapter Six, “Legends of Dead Jews,” discusses the urban myth about surnames being changed at Ellis Island. A lot of people react with anger and disbelief when they’re presented with undeniable historical and documentary proof that this never happened. They cherish their family stories about stupid clerks changing the spelling or inventing an entirely new name.

What really happened was that many immigrants felt compelled to change their obviously Jewish names due to systemic, institutionalized antisemitism. Other groups of immigrants, like Italians, Greeks, Germans, and Ukrainians, typically kept their names, or at most changed the spelling to make the pronunciation more obvious or look a bit less foreign. Jewish name-changers routinely cited difficulties in finding jobs, being accepted at schools, being allowed to stay at hotels, and housing.

They also claimed their names were unpatriotic, too foreign, uneuphonius, cumbersome, annoying, uncomfortable, hard to spell and pronounce, embarrassing, and a hindrance to employment, education, social acceptance, and housing. Rarely did they cite the clear culprit, antisemitism. The only name-changers who mentioned this were Christians with Jewish-sounding names. Instead of challenging this unfair system, they submitted to it.

Chapter Eight, “On Rescuing Jews and Others,” is by far the longest. I was surprised Ms. Horn believes barely anyone has heard of Varian Fry, one of only five Americans to date honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. I’ve known about him for years, even if I didn’t know so many details until now. Mr. Fry rescued several thousand people from his base of operations in France, including many famous artists, writers, and intellectuals such as Marc Chagall and Franz Werfel.

Chapter Nine, “Dead Jews of the Desert,” discusses Diarna, a virtual museum documenting vanished Jewish communities primarily in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Diarna is a Judeo-Arabic word meaning “our homes.” Some of the synagogues and other places documented have now been destroyed by wars, like the gorgeous 500-year-old synagogue of Damascus. Due to Ashkenazocentrism, many people don’t know what a huge, vibrant Jewish presence there was in this part of the world until the ethnic cleansing following WWII. Jews living in Muslim lands were also subject to dhimmitude, a legal, humiliating second-class status.

Chapter Ten, “Blockbuster Dead Jews,” is about Shoah museums and the travelling exhibit Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away. Ms. Horn was very uncomfortable with this exhibit because it once again ultimately used the Shoah as a lesson about love and feel-good inspiration. All these museums, which do wonderful work, also tend to reduce Jewish history and our people to the Shoah, and leave out testimonies soaked with rage at all the bystanders and collaborators.

Chapter Eleven, “Commuting with Shylock,” is obviously about The Merchant of Venice, and explores the cruel reality of Venetian Jewish history. Ms. Horn found that people who critique the play as irredeemably antisemitic are called whiny, vulgar, censors, and too PC, and of course have antisemitism goysplained to them, while Jewish scholars who declare it nuanced or not at all offensive are lovingly praised.

Chapters Three, Seven, and Twelve discuss the shooting attacks on U.S. synagogues in recent years. The final of these “Dead American Jews” chapters reveals the shocking fact that many news stories about the attack on the Jersey City kosher grocery defended the shooters’ motives. They were just angry and frustrated about gentrification, school zoning, and Chasidic Jews moving in. Yet these news outlets never justify hate crime attacks on Black churches, gay nightclubs, and stores with a big Latino customer base, nor do they show sympathy for the murderers.

Ms. Horn concludes by talking about Daf Yomi, the worldwide Talmud study group that studies one page (back and front) of Talmud every day. When this study cycle ends after seven years, there are huge celebrations, and then it starts all over again. I would love to start participating when the next cycle starts in 2027.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. Many of the insights might make Gentiles uncomfortable, but these are important conversations we need to have for the sake of healthy, positive interfaith relations. Oh, and read more Yiddish and Hebrew literature!

%d bloggers like this: