ONE MAN’S JOURNEY TO FIND HIS JEWISH IDENTITY by Michael Brassloff

I was born in England during the Second World War. I didn’t know I was Jewish for many years. My parents were refugees from Vienna, Austria. They were friends in Vienna, who like many other young Jews, were influenced by the artistic, cultural and intellectual movements of the times.  Apparently, wanting to assimilate in Vienna, they repudiated their Jewish roots, each in their own way. For example, my father registered with the authorities as an atheist. and my mother told her mother not to speak Yiddish to her in public. And, supposedly they made a point of going to a public cafe during Kol Nidre services.  They were able to escape the Nazis through different routes and were reunited in England in 1940. Had Hitler not come along, they probably would have not been married, since they were from very different backgrounds. However, the war brought them together and they were married in Oxford in 1940. I was born in Birmingham in 1944. A few years later we moved to London.

I was given the name Michael Stephen. When I was older, I was told that I was named Michael after my maternal grandmother, Malka, who was missing during the war and presumed to be dead. However, after the war ended, she was found to be alive in an institution for Jewish seniors in Brussels created by the Belgian Queen Mother Elizabeth. Apparently sometime in 1939 Malka had missed the last boat out of Antwerp and had to fend for herself. At that time, she was already 73 years old. We don’t really know how she survived. She probably gained some survival skills growing up in a shtetl in what is now the Ukraine. When she was found in Brussels, she was brought to England to be reunited with her two daughters and her grandchildren. How often does a Jew see someone who is named after them? Here’s a photo of a family wedding attended by Malka and me after the war. Scan10003She is the little woman wearing a hat and I am the boy, lower left, looking up at the group.

My middle name had been my paternal grandfather’s name. He was an assimilated Jew who taught Roman Law at Vienna University. Although he and his wife had affidavits to come to America, they were unable to leave and they were deported to the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Concentration Camp in what was then Czechoslovakia. They weren’t exterminated, but died of illnesses caused by the deplorable conditions at the camp. My wife and I have visited the site of the camp. I have prepared a video presentation about Terezin (Theresienstadt) and have presented it in Jewish day schools.

At some point during the 1950’s my parents separated and eventually divorced. My mother and I emigrated to the United States where we first lived in Reading, Pennsylvania.  It was there that I started developing a Jewish identity. We joined Kesher Zion Synagogue where I attended Hebrew School and had my Bar Mitzvah. It meant a lot to me that the rabbi, cantor and teachers took an interest in my welfare.

I met my wife at Temple University and once we had children, we became full-fledged members of the Northeast Philadelphia Jewish community. We sent our children to a Jewish nursery school, joined a synagogue and then sent our children to the local Solomon Schechter day school. We became very involved in both institutions, feeling that we should set an example for our children. We practiced many of the Shabbat rituals and had regular Shabbat dinners with friends and their children.

We were very active at Oxford Circle Jewish Community Centre, my wife in the sisterhood and me in the men’s club and congregation. I became men’s club president in the 1983, regional president in 1990 and then held various positions within the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs for over a decade. My experiences within the men’s club movement were significant influences on my journey to finding my Jewish identity. The sense of being part of a dynamic, innovative Jewish organization as well as the camaraderie were very gratifying and fulfilling.

These events and experiences have contributed to the development of my Jewish identity. I have no doubt that I am a Jew and I am proud that I have fulfilled my responsibility as a “link on the chain” of Jewish continuity. Our son and his family belong to a conservative synagogue in Florida and our daughter’s  family is connected to the local orthodox movement.

However, I am still trying to figure out the religious aspect of my Jewish identity. I went to college in the 1960’s where we were taught to not accept anything without questioning its validity. As many others, I am still searching for my place on the religious spectrum.

Everyone has a different journey. Some are straightforward. Others are circuitous. This has been my journey and apparently it’s not completely over!

7 Comments

Filed under Heartfelt Judaism

7 responses to “ONE MAN’S JOURNEY TO FIND HIS JEWISH IDENTITY by Michael Brassloff

  1. Beautiful story.

    As far as the religious aspect of your Jewish identity is concerned, I think the idea of not accepting anything without questioning its validity is not just a 1960’s philosophy; it is a very Jewish way of thinking. The ability to question is a great gift that we humans should make better use of.

    May your journey of learning and life continue for a long, long time!

  2. Dave Tatum

    Mike, Thank you for sharing this with me. Some of us teach history, others live it. The story of your family and journey should be treasured and told for generations by your family. I enjoyed our time together teaching a Torah Academy. Dave

  3. Chaim Steinberger

    I found your story very fascinating. Indeed we are all on a religious journey. Perhaps I will write my story too (which of course will fill in the 2nd part of your father’s life) but my journey may surprise you in some of the details.

    I am most proud of my work and involvement in Darkhei Noam (an independent, Orthodox minyan in NY City) which strives for a beautiful and meaningful davening, and gives women as much ritual participation as possible as per the halachah. It was founded 11 years ago, and we now get about 250 300 people every shabbat morning.

    With best wishes to Mona, I say hi from Thailand (it is a LONG way from home). Chaim

  4. Fred Poritsky

    Great article!

  5. Mike, that’s a wonderful personal history of Holocaust survival! You have roots in the old country – or two, if you count both Austria and England. How or why your mother wound up in Reading PA would be interesting to know. Some of my Hungarian relatives survived and got out in 1956. They wound up in Canada and then Texas, but by that time, their Jewish identities had been lost. Yasher Koach on writing a great piece of testimony.

  6. Jackee Swartz

    I was very touched by this article and the openness of the author. I am grateful that I have read this.

  7. Ed Margolis

    Mike, Thanks for sharing this story in a forum so personal. It may be shared by, oh, a few thousand or million. I am particularly touched by your openness to seek your Jewish identity while maintaining your questioning nature. That takes strength.
    Enough said. I look forward to the rest of the story.

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