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The past is getting further and further away...

I remember him so clearly. This older rabbi. Mind you, most of the rabbis in my life are family members but this time it was different. My dad was the rabbi at the Hillel and we were members at Temple Sinai. So for once in my life, "my" rabbi wasn't my dad or grandfather.

If I close my eyes, I can see him. I can see the moment that is seared into my memory. I was only 5. That's how strong of an impression he left.

I remember that he wore suits all the time. I never saw him take his jacket off (at least my child's memory is that I never saw that).

There was one day, specifically that I remember... in fact, it is one of very few memories of have of the two short years my family lived in Illinois.

I was in Sunday school and my favorite place to play was the tables. You know, the water table, the sand table... I was elbows deep in the water table when the rabbi came in to our classroom to say hello. I invited him to play with me at the water table and he obliged.

He took off his jacket and rolled up his dress shirt sleeves. Not unusual in my 5 year old brain. Rabbis  played with me all the time. One of the benefits of being an RK (rabbi's kid)... I met very well known rabbis and they would get on the floor and play dollies with me. But something was different this time.

He put his hands in the water and I saw it.

Holocaust tattoo  thanks to for the image
His number tattoo. (That is not him pictured above)

I don't think I ever said anything to him about that. I don't really think I talked to anyone about it. Even at 5, I got it. The Holocaust was seared into my being at such a young age.

I became haunted by it. Not his tattoo but the Holocaust. I read every book available to me. I looked horrific pictures. I dreamed that I lived it. It was all so real to me. As a tween, I would always be on alert. When I went somewhere new I would look around, trying to figure out how to hide if the Nazis burst in the door. What did I have on me that identified myself as a Jew? Would I have been strong enough to survive, even if my family perished?

I was haunted for years. The Holocaust had become far too real for me. My personal Holocaust experience culminated with me playing Anne Frank in a theatre production in Colorado. I had nightmares every night. I woke up screaming every morning. I lived her life onstage and in my dreams. But that finally broke my obsession with the Holocaust.
Opening of Act II: Margot, Anne, and Mother (Anne Frank, Longmont Theatre Company - 2005)

But Rabbi Neuman's tattoo never left me. There are a few things I always think of when I think back to our short time in Illinois... our wonderful neighbors, Beverly my pretend grandma, the only time in my life when I got grounded (for walking over to Beverly's house without telling my parents... she lived next door), my little brother as a toddler figuring out the latch on the door and locking himself out in the snow in only a diaper, running wild through the halls of the Hillel, and Rabbi Neuman's arm.

Recently, I looked him up again and learned more about the arm I see in my dreams. He was born in Poland in 1922 and studied in three Talmudic academies in three different European cities before the Nazis came. He survived SIX Nazi camps including Auschwitz and Mauthausen. His whole family perished - parents and six sisters and one younger brother. He came to the US in 1950 with nothing. No money, no family, and no English. Thanks to the Jewish community, he went to University of Cincinnati and HUC in Cincinnati. He has done so much over his career but one part I found fascinating was that he marched with the late Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr in 1965... and so did my grandfather.

But there are less and less Rabbi Neuman's out there. We are slowly losing the generation that survived the Holocaust. The personal testimony is getting harder and harder to find. Thankfully we have been recording their stories to share with our children but make no mistake, nothing will get be as impactful as seeing a tattoo on the arm of a sweet and kind rabbi at the water table.



(Here is a link to Rabbi Neuman's book -

(Originally posted at Patheos)

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