In the 1990s, I made my first trip to Bermuda in fifteen years. My family, once the mainstay of Bermuda Jews, were long gone from the island. The first whiff of salty sea air hasn’t changed but the airport is a jumble of construction. A short jog across the tarmac should end in a hushed wait for the appearance of a customs agent, sitting patiently on the dark wood furniture of the terminal’s old-fashioned waiting room. Today, official greeters wave us through a temporary cordoned maze to a terminal with a second story, a food court, and customs agents encased in glass booths. An electronically-enhanced steel band strikes an earnest rendition of “Island in the Sun” where a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth once hung.
Editor’s note: this article on anti-Semitism was originally published as an op-ed in The Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Russian President Putin got my attention when he suggested that Jews with Russian citizenship might have interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. “Maybe they’re not even Russians,” said Putin. “Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship – even that needs to be checked.” Putin reminded me why my great grandparents made the harrowing journey from Russia and the Ukraine to the United States. My ancestors weren’t the only ones. Between 1881 and 1924, over 2.5 million East European Jews sought to escape the relentless persecution and ghettoization. The slice of history was captured in the movie Fiddler on the Roof, but while Hollywood entertained, it didn’t fully show the history of anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe, or its ongoing ripple effect.
When the Jewish New Year came in September this year, I got many questions about calendars and holy days from Human Resource departments. They wanted to know why the holiday occurs on a different day each year according to our secular calendar. And they asked about food associated with the holiday. Offering the traditional apples and honey for a sweet New Year was the easy part. Explaining the timing was the real challenge.
What should I write about religion and religious calendars in these contentious times? I know that many organizations and companies would prefer that the issue of religious diversity would disappear. But every year, thousands of religion-based lawsuits claiming a “hostile or offensive work environment” are registered with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).
Long before The New York Times had its first woman Executive Editor, Ruth Holmberg was the Editor of The Chattanooga Times. Holmberg is a member of the family that founded both newspapers and she has shared her compelling life story as friends and admirers gathered to hear her speak. Holmberg is a former director of The Associated Press and of The New York Times Company, a former president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and of the Southern Newspaper Publisher Association and a member of the Board of Directors of the Public Education Network (PEN). The petite, soft-voiced woman is also a member of one of the nation’s most prominent publishing families.
Editor’s note: Publishing icon and Chattanooga civic leader Ruth Holmberg passed away at age 96. In her honor, here is the ADR interview with Ms. Holmberg several years ago.
Deborah: Sadly, I’m watching yet another evacuation of a Jewish center on TV. I know what it’s like to oversee an evacuation during a bomb threat. I was in charge of security at a Jewish agency in Chicago, was trained by the FBI in security after the Oklahoma City bombing, and oversaw the design for a secure Jewish Community Center in Chattanooga.
When a birthday fall on the Jewish New Year, thoughts of living and dying take on cosmic proportions. Fortunately, it’s rare for the two milestones to collide given the differences between the secular and Jewish calendars. Both are celebrations, but the New Year begins ten Days of Awe, a sacred time when the celebration of life is combined with contemplation its finite nature. This year, I had a double dose of introspection on living and dying. I celebrated with the traditional New Year’s apples and a piece of gluten-free birthday cake with non-dairy cheese. Still recovering from surgery for a life-long health challenge, I spent the day in silence and solitude. My mind sought the path separating living from dying and wandered from wonder and gratitude to mourning and humility.
The first time that I agreed to serve on the local Holocaust Remembrance Day Committee was painful, even after almost seventy years since the end of World War II. I agreed to assist in promoting the event beyond our Jewish community and I agreed to participate in the reading of the names of the victims. And I resigned myself to being an usher at the event, not my favorite thing. What I didn’t bargain for was a seat on the stage when I offhandedly shared that I was helping in memory of my father who was a U. S. military intelligence officer during World War II. Aaron Levine was an army translator of German and French. And by the way, he was a liberator of a labor camp.
(Conclusion to Bermuda Jews History Series)
In May of 1941, my grandparents sent round-trip tickets to their eldest daughter, Estelle, to bring her young man, Aaron Levine, to visit them in Bermuda. Estelle, my mother, had met Aaron when she was a freshman and he was a sophomore at Harvard University. The trip was a chance for Myer and Ida to check out their prospective son-in-law. A photograph of Aaron and Estelle on a Bermuda beach shows two young college students, a sweet-faced girl and a skinny young man. She’s kneeling in the sand, smiling unguardedly into the camera. Aaron stands behind her looking proud, defiant and possessive: Bermuda Jews in the making.
I sat in a restaurant overlooking Hamilton harbor pondering my morning researching Bermuda Jews in the island’s Archives. I’d spent many hours reviewing Bermuda’s Jewish tourism prior to World War II. Yes, my family had mentioned ‘restricted’ places where no Jews were allowed. But mostly I remembered their stories of Bermuda’s war-time kindness to Jews. Dr. Hollis Hallett, the Archives founder, directed me to documents from the 1930s showing the impact of an increasingly global anti-Semitism on Bermuda tourism. What should I write about this ugly period?
(Part #2 of the Bermuda Jews History Series)
In the early 1900s, Jewish tailors among the Eastern Europeans who arrived in America in droves. Only one tailor, my great grandfather, ended up as one of few Bermuda Jews. Picking up an Americanized version of his Russian last name, he became Axel Malloy passing through Ellis Island in New York City. He was better known by the first name of David, a name change that happened when he seriously ill. The family kept to the Eastern European Jewish tradition changing one’s name to hide from the Angel of Death.