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Anna Olswanger’s Yerusha.com offers resources, forum for childless adults

Author explores idea of ‘Jewish inheritance’

Lois GoldrichLocal | World
Published: 13 August 2010
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Anna Olswanger’s site, yerusha.com, has already had nearly 1,000 hits. Courtesy Anna Olswanger

Almost exactly a year ago, Fair Lawn resident Anna Olswanger was watching the movie “Julie & Julia” when a scene from the film hit so close to home it took her aback.

Olswanger — author, literary agent, and creator of the new website Yerusha, inheritance — described her feelings as she watched actress Meryl Streep, playing Julia Child, read a letter from her sister.

“When she came to the part where her sister said she was pregnant, Julia began to cry, painfully,” Olswanger recalled. “Her husband moved over to her. Julia, through her crying, said, ‘I’m so happy,’ and her husband answered, ‘I know.’ Of course,” said Olswanger, “both he and the audience knew that she was not crying from happiness for her sister, but from her own grief of not having children.”

As she watched, Olswanger came up with a way to reach out to others in her position, envisioning “a worldwide organization for Jewish women like myself, and Jewish men, past normal child-bearing age, who believe they may never have children, either biologically or by adoption.”

“I envisioned Yerusha as a way to bring these Jews together, both online and in the real world, to explore the meaning and experience of being a childless Jewish adult,” she said.

While the site, Yerusha.com, offers a forum for people to share their own stories, so far no one has done so. However, Olswanger has received e-mails following up on her suggestion that there are ways, in addition to having children, that Jews can create an inheritance for future generations.

One writer, perhaps an attorney, she said, noted that “we need to have information on what to do about wills. I’ve taught workshops on writing ethical wills and may offer that information as a future resource on the site.”

Another writer suggested that childless individuals might leave funds to reprint old Jewish documents “as a gift to the Jewish people.”

“We’ve already had 896 hits,” she told The Jewish Standard last week, only one week after launching the site. The website, which she advertised through synagogue listserves and other electronic venues, was designed with the technical assistance of Fair Lawn resident Cheryl Koppel.

“It’s such a sensitive subject,” she said, adding that for some people, “it’s shameful, embarrassing, or too private” to discuss.

Her site, she said, suggests steps people can take in exploring what it means to be childless. For example, they can acknowledge their emotions, make peace with where they are, learn what halacha says about Jews having children, and consider their legacies.

“The whole point is not to dwell on childlessness but on what we can leave to the Jewish people. What’s the inheritance we’re leaving?”

Noting that this is a human concern, rather than just the concern of childless individuals, Olswanger, who married last year and whose husband has three children from a previous marriage, said some childless Jews feel that, in some way, “we didn’t do our part,’ we didn’t step up to the plate. It’s a constant struggle,” she said, “and I have been thinking for a long time about finding ways to leave something.”

Her website targets others on that same journey, offering not only a section on relevant halachic teachings but featuring a list of “some admirable Jews who were childless, role models who did leave something to the Jewish people.”

Included are such notable personalities as Deborah the Prophetess, Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, Henrietta Szold, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and Nechama Leibowitz.

Olswanger said that most of her friends are mothers. At least one, she said, is sometimes cautious in sharing news about her own children, afraid it will somehow hurt her.

“But it doesn’t,” she said. “I enjoy hearing the news,” she added, suggesting that perhaps a future part of her site will explore how to behave around those who are childless.

Olswanger said she hopes people will be encouraged to start local groups, or that an umbrella group such as Jewish Family Service may want to take on such a project.

“I just wanted to start it and see where it would lead,” she said. “I would be happy for others to have a vision” of where they want to take it, she said.

 
 

From children’s book to Passover production

Poppy Seed Players to premiere ‘Shlemiel Crooks,’ the musical

Fair Lawn resident Anna Olswanger believes that any gift she has as a writer is due to her father’s sense of music.

“Words are like music,” she said. “They have to flow.”

Indeed, for the children’s book author, so strong is the connection between words and song that when she discovered a cache of music written by her late father, she set herself the goal of creating a children’s book for each piece.

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Anna Olswanger

Olswanger — whose 2005 “Shlemiel Crooks” became a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, Koret International Jewish Book Award finalist and PJ Library book — told The Jewish Standard that even with that book, “I always thought there could be music.”

Two years ago, she approached Sean Hartley, director of the New York City Kaufman Center’s Poppy Seed Players, suggesting that he consider turning the book into a musical.

“I really liked it and I wanted to find out more about her writings,” said Hartley. “She sent more pieces, including unpublished stories about her father. I loved those too.”

After what Hartley called a “long process,” he was able to commission both scriptwriters and songwriters to create a musical based on several of those works.

“Anna was great and gave us carte blanche to do what we wanted,” he said, noting that she didn’t see the drafts of the script until a reading of the piece last spring.

“I think she was surprised but happy,” he said. “There are so many changes when you turn a book into a piece for the stage.”

The collaboration shows “the creative things that can be done when you let go,” said the author. “It’s not my baby anymore,” added Olswanger, a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates. “It’s our baby. Luckily, being in publishing, I knew that already.”

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A scene from "Shlemiel Crooks."

In addition, she said, working with the scriptwriters was “not really hard. I was lucky. These are good people. The goal is to have a fun musical for kids.”

“Shlemiel Crooks,” the light-hearted story of a robbery gone wrong, is based on a true story, she said. In researching her family history, she came upon a 1919 Yiddish newspaper article detailing the botched robbery of her grandfather’s liquor store. Using a “fun, intimate voice” to tell the story, which is liberally sprinkled with Yiddishisms, Olswanger describes the unsuccessful effort of two crooks — goaded by the ghost of Pharaoh — to steal a community’s Passover wine.

“What appealed was the unique, colorful voice she used in writing about it,” said Hartley, noting that he was particularly drawn to stories about Berl, Olswanger’s father, narrated by his dog Jerry. Indeed, his production of “Shlemiel Crooks” combines the book with a Berl story, “The Chicken Bone Man,” with Jerry narrating throughout.

“Chicken Bone Man,” which won the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest, is about the author’s father, who dreams of becoming a blues piano player.

“I liked the fact that [the stories] were about real people, her father and grandfather,” he said, noting that the original idea was to incorporate her father’s music. In the end, only one of his songs was used in the production.

The Poppy Seed Players — who recently performed their “Poppy Seed Purim” for the 20th year — will offer Olswanger’s story as their Passover play this year, presenting the first performance on April 10. Hartley said he hopes the show will usher in a “new Passover tradition. It was interesting to do a show about Passover that isn’t just telling story again,” he said, describing the work as “light and sweet, zany but warm.”

The Kaufman Center, founded in 1952, houses Merkin Concert Hall, the Lucy Moses School (a community arts institution), and the Special Music School, a public school for musically gifted children. The Poppy Seed Players, the center’s professional theater troupe in residence, create and perform musical shows about Jewish and American culture for children and their families. The group performs annual shows for Chanukah, Purim, and Passover, as well as additional shows on occasions such as Tu B’Shevat.

Wendy Gross Baker will direct “Shlemiel Crooks,” with musical direction by composer Scott Ethier. Songs are by Clay Zambo and Scott Ethier, and the script by Bob Kolsby and Hartley.

“Shlemiel Crooks” has captured the imagination of other artists as well, said Olswanger, noting that she has been approached by a well-known Bergen County puppeteer interested in creating a show based on the book.

The New York premiere of “Shlemiel Crooks” will take place at 11 a.m. at Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th St. A book signing with Olswanger will follow the performance, and free “Shlemiel Crooks” bookplates will be available for every child who attends.

Tickets for the show, appropriate for children ages 4 to11 and their families, are available by calling (212) 501-3330 or visiting merkinconcerthall.org.

 
 

Surviving a loss, rediscovering joy

Rabbi’s book chronicles a parent’s journey from sorrow to renewal

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Shoshana Grossman died at age 17, leaving her parents immeasurably saddened and shaken — if not in their faith, then in the belief that they would ever be joyful again.

Earlier this month, Shoshana’s father, Rabbi Rafael Grossman, author of “My Shoshana: A Father’s Journey Through Loss” (Eschel Publishing), told an audience in Teaneck that now, some 40 years later, he and his wife Shirley have learned to rejoice in life’s goodness.

He wrote the book “to deliver this message of hope,” said Grossman, “that as excruciating as the pain and grief may be, we honor our deceased love ones by showing the strength to re-emerge into all of life, with its joys and challenges.”

According to Fair Lawn resident and literary agent Anna Olswanger, who is given a credit in the book, after the death of Shoshana, Grossman “was sure that he would never quite have the same faith in God or regain his joy in living. But as the years went by, he appreciated how Jews throughout history had managed to sustain hope in the wake of personal and communal calamities.

“He regained his hope,” said Olswanger. “He wrote the book as an expression of his love and his never-ending sorrow, but also of his sense of renewal.”

Grossman, who lives in Englewood, is a past president of the Beth Din of America and the Rabbinical Council of America.

The rabbi hopes his book, written as a personal letter to his daughter, will help people who are grieving, she said, pointing out that with the recent murder of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky in Brooklyn, “it’s on everybody’s mind.”

“It’s almost an unspeakable thing,” she said. “It brings up guilt in a parent — you didn’t protect your child.”

The recent book launch, held at the home of Grossman’s son Shukie, drew more than 50 well-wishers and friends, including some of Shoshana’s classmates.

“Five of her high school friends came,” said Olswanger, noting that the family had lived in Long Branch when Shoshana died and that she had attended Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth. One friend came all the way from Israel; several others traveled from West Orange, Manhattan, and Princeton.

After remarks by Olswanger as well as by Shoshana’s mother Shirley and sister Aviva, her brother Hillel suggested that Shoshana’s memory would be kept alive through this new publication. After pointing out that he had grown up in houses filled with books, he said, “After all these years, we are gifted with a book about Shoshana that vivifies and reifies our experiences with her…. I thank my father for having torn these emotions from within and putting them on paper.”

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Rabbi Rafael Grossman wrote the book, “My Shoshana,” to deliver a “message of hope.”

Olswanger has known Grossman, senior rabbi emeritus of Baron Hirsch Congregation in Memphis, for many years. After Shoshana died, the Grossmans went from Long Branch to Memphis, where Grossman “buried himself in work,” Olswanger said. A member of the congregation, she was one of his students.

“It took him a long time to articulate what he wanted to say,” she said, explaining why he waited so long to write the book. “His book tells how he lost his joy and his hope but how life goes on and how good things happen as well. It brings back your hope. Look at Jewish history,” she said. “The Jews have always gone on.

“It’s hard to override emotions with an intellectual choice,” she added, “but he saw things in his life and in his world” that lifted his spirits. For example, she said, he remembered how Israel was at a great disadvantage during the Yom Kippur war, yet the country overcame the challenge.

The literary agent said that in the course of working on the book with Grossman, she lost both her parents.

“Having him as a role model and teacher showed that as much as it hurts, you get over it and survive; you become joyful again,” she said. “It’s a very Jewish message. Jews have been through so much but we never give up hope. It’s a mitzvah to be joyful.”

The book, which will officially launch in the fall, is available from the publisher. For further information, visit Grossman’s website, www.rafaelgrossman.com.

 
 
 
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