There’s a concept called pintele Yid — it loosely translates into a spark of Jewishness — Yiddish for that feeling that some people can’t escape, that unshakable feeling of being a Jew, that invisible cord that binds them to the Jewish people.
Some people can nurture that spark, keep it cradled for a span of a lifetime. If they are lucky, they are born Jewish, so they always know about that spark, grow up with it, are heated by it always.
And some people are not born to it but find it deep within themselves, and when they acknowledge it, when the world acknowledges it, they find joy, comfort, belonging, and family.
That’s what happened to Siobhan Barry-Bratcher of West New York.
Yes, she was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, then as now very Jewish, but then as now there were many non-Jews there as well. Like the Bratcher family.
Siobhan’s father, James Bratcher, is mainly Irish — that explains her first name, which more or less is pronounced Sha-van — but his family had lived in Florida for generations, and there are some Seminole Indians on his family tree. Her mother, Rosa Iacobuzio, was Italian. (Yes, there seems to be Jacob in that name; it’s certainly not impossible that there were some Jews in the family, their stories lost to time.)
In 1954, when Siobhan was born, the Holocaust was still a vivid scar, not a terrifying but dimming memory, outside the Jewish world as well as inside it, at least in Brooklyn. “Our fathers and grandfathers had fought in World War II,” she said. “And we saw many people with tattoos on their arms. We heard the whispers. Even as a little girl, I knew that something really terrible had happened to those people. Whisper whisper whisper.
“And people always thought I was a Jew.”
She wasn’t sure why people thought that, but she knew that she was attracted to Jews, even that far back. Some of it was the kind of bagels-and-lox Judaism that we identify as fading, content-free, just feel-good, non-sustainable, but for some reason little Siobhan “loved lox and fresh cream cheese in Jewish appetizing stores. People always assumed that my father was Jewish because he was there all the time, buying it for me.
“Once he asked for gefilte fish, and he didn’t know what it was called, just pointed. No one knew why he was doing that, and he had to say ‘I don’t know what it’s called. I’m not Jewish!’”
He looked Jewish, his daughter reported — it was the Seminole cast to his features, which say native American to her now, but who knew from Indians then and there? And although he held a number of jobs, many of them simultaneously, to make ends meet, one of the jobs was as a bartender at catered parties at the Midwood Jewish Center. “He had quite a collection of yarmulkes,” his daughter said.
Rosa and James Bratcher were Catholic, but “religion didn’t come up at home,” Siobhan said. They sent their daughter to Catholic school. She hated it.
“My mother insisted that I would get a better education and be safer there,” she said. Wrong.
She felt deeply alienated. “Church was an hour-long service.” You had to go; “you went and sat with your class. You sat there and didn’t even take your coat off. And the God I heard about in school and in church wasn’t a happy one.”
Until she was 10 years old, the Mass was said in Latin, and she couldn’t understand any of it. How is that unlike a synagogue service, in Hebrew? In many ways, she answers. First, “because this time I made the choice, and I know most of what’s being said.” But also “because the missal had only the Gospel and epistle readings.” It did not include any translations of the liturgy, and the priests had their backs turned to the congregation.
She had to learn the Baltimore Catechism, something else she hated. “You have to memorize a question every week,” she said. “It started off simple — Who made you? God made me. You had to rattle off these answers every week, and you could never deviate. You were not to change anything.”
Siobhan never was big on not deviating ever, on doing exactly as she was told, and in believing on demand.
“It wasn’t an environment for learning,” Siobhan continued. Part of it was the place, and part of it was the time. It was during the Cold War; children were taught that the godless Soviet Union could bomb them at any time, and the only way to protect themselves was to duck and cover. During alarms, “they had us run down to the basement in the dark, line up against the wall, with our faces against the wall, praying. ‘Pray for us now in the hour of our death,’ we had to say.
“I said please if it happens, let it happen when I’m home. I didn’t want to die there. I wanted to die at home, with my family.
“They told us how those Godless communists treated children,” she added. “‘Castro burns little kids like you.’ It scared the you-know-what out of me. Is there any wonder that there was a cultural revolution? This is what we grew up with. We were lied to about everything imaginable.”
Siobhan always was drawn to music, and she wanted to study guitar. No, her parents said. “They didn’t have the money, and the arts weren’t important to them.” And no, she couldn’t go to public school. So she applied to a few Catholic schools, was accepted, and chose one of them. St. Joseph’s Commercial High School. “One school was as good as another,” she said. Her school “turned out secretaries and teachers.”
In fact, St. Joseph’s did encourage her to go to college, but by that point Siobhan could see no point to it. “If only I had known,” she said. “If only I had known that there really was something there for me. But I didn’t go to college.”
Instead, she got married. “I met my son’s father the summer before my senior year, and I got married a few months after I graduated from high school,” she said. “I was 18 when I got married, and 19 when I had my son, Clarence Ferrari.
“If I had any question about the Catholic religion, I was done with it after the experience of being in hospital when I had my son.
“They gave you a form to fill out, and it asked my religion. I said Catholic. The day my son was born a priest came into my room, for a normal chaplain visit, and I said that I didn’t really want to talk to him. I said that I didn’t know why I put Catholic on the form, that I really didn’t believe in it. ‘I know I put it down on the form, but I’m not into it any more,’ I told him.
“The priest was apoplectic. He said that I had no right bringing my son into the world. No right to bring my son into the world.
“That’s when I turned away.”
Siobhan and her husband moved to Nashville — only about 900 miles but a huge culture gap away. “In the 1970s, it wasn’t so good in Brooklyn,” she said. But she got divorced, and she and her son, then 6, returned to Brooklyn and lived with her parents as she figured out her next move.
“I ended up working in a fast-food joint,” she said; it was in Bensonhurst, which then was so dangerous that “people would chain down the plants in the window, so no one would steal them.” She got a job by dressing as she had in Nashville, playing up the Southern accent she’d learned, and in general acting the rube. “When the manager asked me if I’d ever worked in New York, I said no,” she said, and she got the job. Some batting of innocent big eyes may have helped…
“I was going nowhere, and I had a friend in Nashville who was a practical nurse and doing very well for herself,” Siobhan said. She started night courses to be a practical nurse, but soon, at the prodding of a teacher who told her that she was smart enough for regular nursing school, at 26, she went to Kingsborough Community College. The two-year associate’s degree she earned was enough to allow her to pass the boards and to get steady work as a nurse.
“I always wanted to be a musician, and I loved to write — but I had a child,” she said.
Siobhan did not love nursing, but she loved the freedom and stability it gave her. “There was a nursing shortage then, so if you would leave one job one day you’d get another one the next day,” she said. She worked at St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village, in lower Manhattan, from 1986 until it closed in 2010.
Now, Siobhan is getting the other half of her degree. This time, she is doing it online. “I want to concentrate in medical writing or community health,” she said. “The trend is going out of hospital into the community anyway.”
She’s always had other interests — she’s a poet, a good one (see below), a prose writer, and a musician. Her son, Clarence, though, “is the artist in the family,” she said. He “started playing the fiddle when he was 5, won a contest with it when he was 6. When he was a little boy he said he wanted a fiddle, and I didn’t know if he really meant it, but I gave it to him because I wasn’t allowed it — and he meant it.
“He is now a professional musician and a music teacher.”
It’s because her son is a musician that Siobhan is now a Jew.
Clarence Ferrari has his own bluegrass group, Blue Harvest, and through it he met Noah Solomon, who is half of the popular Jewish duo called Soulfarm. Siobhan always is interested in what Clarence is up to; “I asked about Soulfarm, and thought it sounded interesting,” she said.
In 2010, after St. Vincent’s closed, she still worked, but through an agency, so her work was not as steady and she had more time to pursue other interests. Including music. Including Soulfarm. And then Moshav, another Jewish band; both incorporate broad musical influences but are specifically Jewish in their words, their music, and their souls.
When she heard the music, something shifted inside her.
“Oh,” she said. “I listened, and I cried, listening to them. I go see Moshav a number of times, and when I stand in line people always ask if I’m Jewish, and it breaks my heart to say no. And I look into this religion, and there is nothing I see that I don’t agree with.
“One time I was at a Moshav show and they were singing Eliyahu Hanavi” — a song about the prophet Elijah, who appears at liminal times and gestures toward salvation. “I realize that it’s not just the music I’m in love with,” she said.
Now, she had to decide what to do.
“It’s like loving someone who doesn’t love you back,” Siobhan said. “I heard that they’d reject me” — she was talking about the approach to potential converts that mandates that a rabbi turn them away three times before allowing a course of study and behavior that might lead to conversion eventually. “I have had a enough of rejection in my life. It took me a long time to get enough guts to do it.”
By then, Siobhan had moved from Brooklyn to West New York. She’d learned from musicians who came to New York to make their fortunes but couldn’t afford to live there until they succeeded that New Jersey is far more affordable. She owns a house for less than she could have spent for a fashionable Manhattan studio.
This was not her first experience with New Jersey. Her grandfather, another James Bratcher, lived in Florida but traveled up north as a carnival worker. He ran the bobsled ride in the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, and later he ran the Cyclone at Palisades Amusement Park. “When the park closed, the Cyclone moved to Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, and he also ran the parachute jump there.” (Both rides are still standing, although the parachute jump hasn’t had punters dangling from its arms for a long time now. You can look at both rides during the boring parts of the Cyclones’ minor league baseball games.)
“My grandfather was at Palisades until it closed,” Siobhan said. “We would always go, every summer, and whenever we went we’d go to the Cyclone to get my grandfather, and then we’d go to the office and get a pink pass from Uncle Irv — that’s what we always called Irving Rosenthal.” Mr. Rosenthal owned the park. “All the nice things you ever hear about Uncle Irv are true,” she added. “He was a lovely man.”
Back in West New York, Siobhan embarked on the journey toward Judaism.
First, she bought a Jewish star. “The first one I bought, I thought I had no right to wear it,” she said. “I thought that bells would go off if I would try to buy it. But the man in the store asked me if I wanted to put it on now or put it in the box.”
Giddily, she wore it out of the store. “I was wearing it outside, where anyone could see it,” she said. Still, she was well aware that she was not Jewish. She felt as if she were masquerading, and could get caught.
And then “these two young men in Hoboken, from Chabad, look at me, and one says, ‘Are you Jewish?’ I say no. Then he says ‘Was your mother Jewish?’ It was a code; I had the accent, I looked Jewish. One of them looked at the other one like I was an experiment gone wrong.”
But then they encouraged her to go to a shul.
“I was thinking that I really had to do this,” she said. “And I also thought that there were all sorts of reasons why I couldn’t.” She knew a good deal about the Jewish world already, and she was pretty sure that she wanted a Conservative synagogue. She went to Google. “For the heck of it, I just starting to type in Introduction to Judaism classes Hudson County, and what comes up was a class that was starting at Temple Beth El in North Bergen the next week.
“The rabbi was Ilan Glazer. I looked at a picture of him, and he didn’t look scary and I emailed him, and he was friendly. I decided to go.
“The first night I walked into the synagogue, I was crying. I studied with him for nine months, and it became official on Bob Dylan’s birthday. May 24, 2012.”
As for the conversion itself, “there were no words for it,” Siobhan said. At the mikvah, “when it was official, I burst out laughing. Rabbi Glazer and his wife took me to lunch, and I didn’t lose it until we went back to the shul, and Rabbi Glazer took a Torah scroll out of the ark, put it in my arms, and said ‘This is yours now.’ I held it until I couldn’t any more.
“That’s when I lost it.”
Because she was past childbearing age when she converted, “the rabbis almost didn’t ask me the question about whether, if I would have children, I would raise them as Jews. I said ‘Ask that question!’ Because I hope my being Jewish helps other people.”
Since then, Siobhan has become a dedicated shul-goer. Rabbi Glazer, to whom she remains close, soon moved to a shul in Memphis, Tenn., and Siobhan loved the rabbi who replaced him. Rabbi Sruli Dresdner and his wife, Lisa Mayer, are musicians, joyous, warm, and committed to creating family. “Did we have wonderful times!” Siobhan said.
“We had dinner there, we danced, we sang, we chanted, we sang until all hours of the night,” Siobhan said.
“She had a very powerful feeling of being part of a community, and she embraced it with gusto,” Lisa said. “The Jewish part is very deep. She is unbelievably generous, and she wants to create a Jewish family. We were her Jewish family.
“You know how sometimes Jewish families get together only on Friday nights? We would cook together, and we would sing, and we would talk.
“She would volunteer to make the seder; she would shlep the chairs and the tables and set the tables. She would do everything. She would work like crazy. She loved the ritual, and everything that had to do with the holiday service, with making people happy.
“We would sing ‘Return Again,’ and we would both cry.”
And then there was being in shul with Siobhan.
“I have never seen anyone thrill to be called up to the Torah like ‘Shulamit bat Avraham v’Sarah,’” Lisa said about Siobhan. “Her whole self would float up to the bima, she would touch the parchment with her little tallis fringe, kiss it, and then —pause — for just a moment — before she recited the brachot.
“Siobhan is a brilliant, literary, spiritual, and spiritually hungry Jew-by-choice with a truly authentic chasidic soul,” Lisa’s husband, Rabbi Sruli Dresdner, said. “She has an extreme passion for Jewish prayer, Jewish study, and Jewish song — and also a love for community, helping to turn our small but vibrant shul into a real family. Mostly, Siobhan is a natural giver, selflessly giving of her time, of her talents and of her love.”
“She made all of us jaded Jews by birth pause too, because she reminded us of the value of what we had,” Lisa added.
This is written in the past tense, though, because Sruli and Lisa stayed at Beth El for only two years. They’re now in Maine, at Temple Sholom Synagogue Center in Auburn, ecstatically happy, but they miss Siobhan.
As for Siobhan — “to this day, I walk by that place and I cry.” The shul itself merged with Temple Israel Community Center of Cliffside Park and now, as Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades, meet in Cliffside Park.
Siobhan had to find a new spiritual home. Luckily, that wasn’t hard. United Synagogue of Hoboken beckoned. “The first night, I went to Friday night services there, and I knew that that place was it,” she said.
“Siobhan adds a gentle vibrancy to our congregational life,” United Synagogue of Hoboken’s rabbi, Robert Scheinberg, said. “In general, people who are Jews by choice often play a vital role in Jewish communities by reminding the rest of us of the spiritual depth we have. Many people in the Jewish community can fall back on the ethnic and peoplehood connection, which of course is important, but it is not all there is.
“Jews by choice remind us of how Jewish tradition has a powerful lens for experiencing the totality of life.
Siobhan is devoted to her family — her son, his wife, Kimberlee Piper, who is a photographer, and their daughter, Alice Rose. “My family is cool with my conversion, and my son played at the Chanukah carnival,” she said. “Alice has quite the life. On that Saturday night she was at shul, shooting craps with Jews. The next day she was at a nativity scene.”
Once she finishes her degree and has more time — and even more after her eventual retirement, which she thinks is not decades away, Siobhan will have more time. She wants to use it to make music, to learn Hebrew, to learn to lead services, and in general “to give more time to the synagogue,” she said.
When she thinks about her conversion, Siobhan said, “sometimes I ask myself — why did I wait so long?” She’d been interested in Judaism for as far back as she could remember. “But then I look at people who are Jewish and jaded, and I say that maybe I’m the lucky one.”
ALICE IN WASHINGTON SQAURE
On an autumn day, hugged by humid air
And framed in gray clouds
Impatient with the music, the playground, and the other babies
You found the fountain
And when you tried to climb the shoulder-high stone rim
To see what was inside
I lifted you
And that’s where the day painted us,
Granddaughter almost two, body perfect
Soft feet bursting out of
Worn down pink leather sandals
Grandmother born in a cold war,
My first breath taken during a revolution
My arm around your chest
Was the only thing holding you back
And I felt your heart in my hand
Pounding against my palm
At twice the speed of my own
Then after I had lifted you and invited you to see
You demanded not to be kept from
Stomping and running
Through the two inches of filthy murk green water
Stagnant and growing with God knows what
And I said no
Lowering you back onto the pavement
Countenance screaming, body writhing, and legs kicking
You tried to climb back up into the fountain on your own
And screamed louder when I wouldn’t lift you again
But know, just for that instant
When I felt your excited heart at the ready
As if everything that came after today
Was dangling on the edge
Of what happened at this exact moment
And I almost let you go
– Siobhan Barry-Brachter
BENDING THE BARS
When I was a little girl
I climbed the monkey bars
in a city playground
Weaving in and out of metal mazes
Two hands swinging
Reaching for a higher bar
Until I made it to the top
Where I could distance myself from gravity
For a moment or two
Before easing back down
To the concrete.
Just like the way you play a guitar
– Siobhan Barry-Brachter, for C Lanzbom