Mourning for a World Lost

    June 2001            
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The Schtetl in the New Home

by Moises Kijak


On a New York street, a group of newly-arrived Jewish immigrants shuffled along. Their distressing appearance spoke of the heavy burden of suffering they were carrying, a product of the persecution they had suffered where they came from. This was happening at the turn of the century, in the era of the great immigration. People stopped to stare at them, drawn by their clothes, their strange way of examining everything, their exotic language and the bulky knots of belongings they shouldered. Some of the people made sympathetic remarks to each other, others made fun of them, and most expressed a mixture of both. Then something happened: one of those bundles slipped out of its owner's hands and fell open onto the pavement, its contents scattered about. Of all those things, what riveted the people's attention was an old book, its cover worn out by constant use. It was a Bible.

This episode was described by the poet, Moris Rosenfeld (1862-1923), in his poem, "Di historische peklekh" ["The historical bundles"] (9). The author's conclusion is that these Jewish immigrants should be neither pitied nor much less made fun of. They are people who can take pride in their baggage, and who deserve others' respect. We consider that this message was addressed both to the native-born or residents of the new land, as well as to the immigrants themselves. The author invites the former to take a more respectful attitude towards the newly arrived. At the same time, he is reminding the latter of their spiritual treasures, and also of the importance of preventing others' prejudices from damaging their self-esteem.

Their cultural belongings, symbolized in the poem by the Bible, were certainly in no way inferior to those of the native population. And this unhospitable treatment by the local population was not the only painful situation they had to endure as immigrants.

Most of them came from shtetlekh (small villages) in Eastern Europe. Centuries of life in those very special communities had forged a socio-cultural organization with characteristics of its own. They were a part of their inhabitants' identity. This included a particular philosophy of life, and the way they interacted was regulated by that identity.

Having emigrated from the shtetlekh to a very different environment involved a number of changes. Some were akin to those experienced by all people who move from one home to a new one. Other variations were associated with the singular nature of these immigrants and the specific circumstances surrounding their migration.

The main features emphasized in descriptions of these immigrants have been the depreciative term: "small shtetlmentality" and their exaggerated nostalgia for their home, left behind forever. It is easy to detect a prejudiced attitude in this appraisal. What has been omitted are the other aspects connected with the deep mark engraved in them by the shtetl, which was essential for the way they organized their new lives.

Emigration involves a massive loss to which the psyche responds by setting a mourning process in motion. Those who emigrated from the shtetl were at a disadvantage, in that the changes were very great. The traumatic situations these immigrants had to face when they arrived in the New World, one of which Rosenfeld described in the poem above, were many. But they were part of a series that started long before their arrival there, and continued for a long time afterwards. Of all those traumatic situations, the total and permanent destruction of their shtetlekhl and the extermination of most of their families, friends and the world they belonged to, was so terrible that it is impossible to compare it to any tragedy ever experienced before.

People overcome grave loss by means of a mourning process. All mourning can be assisted or aggravated by many circumstances. The preservation of important aspects of their identity achieved by many immigrants in their new place of residence helped them to overcome the losses they had suffered. Together with the Bible, the portable homeland of the Jews as Heinrich Heine called it, these immigrants also brought along their portable shtetl, in a way; it was evidenced particularly in the maintenance of strong emotional ties amongst them and also in the establishment of institutions that gathered them together: the residents' societies or landslayt-fareynenl .

In this paper, I will try to describe the mark left on the identity of the Jews of the shtetlekh by their residence there, and the consequences of that imprint in the reorganization of their lives in their new homes. I will focus on the role of the landslayt-fareynen , both in the attenuation of the pain for the loss of their place of origin motivated by migration, and also in their efforts to bear up under the terrible traumatic situation caused by the Shoa (holocaust) .

I will do this by discussing, from the pscyhoanalytic perspective, the social component of identity, some psychic consequences of migrations, and the special characteristics of the mourning process in the face of a social catastrophe of the magnitude of the Shoa . I've written this paper for the conference, "The Shtetl, Image and Reality" . Many aspects relating to the shtetl, indispensable for understanding it, will be brought up during this conference. My contribution will be restricted to the topics mentioned above.

The psychic effects of migration

Migration is generally defined as the process by which people leave their usual place of residence and must adapt to a new habitat ("the act or an instance of moving from one country, region or place in order to settle in another") (9). The reasons for which so many Jews left their homes in Eastern Europe, from the end of the last century up to the eve of the Second World War, were multiple. Situations of severe political, social and economic crisis were accompanied by open discrimination, which made their life very difficult. The anti-Jewish campaigns often culminated in expulsions from their places of residence and physical attacks that frequently turned into massacres. Many inhabitants of the shtetlekh decided to seek refuge in safer and more promising places.

The losses caused by the migration were immense: place of residence; separation from relatives and friends; socio-economic status, were only a few. To these were added uncertainty concerning the fate of their loved ones from whom they were separating and the responsibility they had to help them, so that they could survive and also escape from those conditions. The psychic repercussions that came as a resulut of all this involved were huge.

The changes they had to experience once they arrived in the new land were immense: nearly eveything was strange to them: the language; the environment; the social organization. The new place was not always welcoming and tolerant. They had to adapt to conditions in the new home at a dizzying pace. In order to do it, they generally had to make a radical change in what had always been their way of life until then.

The human psyche is relatively capable of tolerating situations of change, especially when they are painful. This tolerance varies from one person to another and depends on the particular and general circumstances surrounding it. An emigration undertaken in an organized way, without the intrusion of any situation of dire crisis, with the support of a specialized organization, in which the family group does not have to be separated, guided to places where the attitude of the local population is not hostile, is always better tolerated than those that take place in the opposite circumstances. However, and even in the most favorable conditions, the changes motivated by the migration and the immense losses it produces, overwhelm the psyche's capacity for dealing with them adequately. When that situation occurs, the result is what psychoanalysis calls a traumatic situation. The most common manifestations characterizing those situations are anxiety and depression. When they cannot be kept within certain limits, other clinical manifestations appear. Nostalgia or grief for being far away from home, is a normal sentiment; but adverse situations provoked either by greater individual fragility or by antagonistic external reasons, can produce pathological nostalgia, characterized by intense depression. This is one of the symptoms most frequently observed in immigrants, though it is neither the only one nor even the most severe.

When the psyche, overwhelmed by a traumatic situation, endeavors to regain its balance, it resorts to a series of tactics called defense mechanisms. They are resources that the unconscious part of the personality sets in motion to try to attenuate its suffering. The loss of the lands of their birth, felt to be permanent by the immigrants, associated with their separation from their friends and relatives, their physical surroundings, their language and their traditions, is not easy to deal with. Some mechanisms frequently used lead them to denigrate everything they left behind, to idealize everything new, and to try to mimetize with the natives. The last alternative also helps them to attenuate the fear inspired by the new place of residence. In other cases, when adaptation is experienced as being difficult for real or subjective reasons, they may resort to the opposite: the old home is remembered as paradise lost and the new place of residence is felt to be an unbearable place. Idealization and denigration are the mechanisms used for these purposes. Denial is another defense mechanism, an attempt to ignore negative aspects of reality. Pretending to be like the natives, who are consciously or unconsciously feared, leads to the use of the mechanism called "identification with the aggressor" and is evidenced by a feeling of hate toward themselves, their origin, their own language and anybody who reminds them of their original identity.

Of the most dramatic losses experienced by immigrants, a special position should be reserved for those relating to very important aspects of their sense of identity. This feeling enables the individual to recognize him or herself. Its simplest expression is the affirmation: "I am me." Identity is the result of a lengthy process involving a multiplicity of factors. From the psychoanalytic perspective, it has been described as the result of a process of interrelation between three integration links: spatial, temporal and social. (1). The first involves the link between individuals and their own body, and allows them to compare themselves with and differentiate themselves from others, permitting them to recognize themselves as themselves, different from others. The temporal link enables them to establish a feeling of continuity: "I am me, in spite of changes of all kinds that occur in the course of time."

The third link, that of social integration, refers to the social connotation of identity. The individual's intrinsic inclusion in society plays an important part in the shaping of the person's sense of identity. The social connotation is so important that some consider it the central element in the configuration of identity. Kardiner defines it in the following way: "It is a particular psychological configuration, specific for the members of a given society, that is manifested in a certain life style into which the individuals weave their singular variations. Therefore, it is a kind of 'matrix' that constitutes the basis of personality for all the members of the group".

A sense of identity is acquired gradually. The nucleus of that identity is established in the first years of life and in it, the role of the imprint resulting from contact with all the people who are close and experiences with them, is extremely important. Sensitivity to language, customs and feelings of all kinds leaves an indelible mark on identity (Ostow). The different somatic, psychic, and social modifications that take place throughout life provide a more or less continuous situation of change. As long as it remains within certain boundaries, these changes tend to be well tolerated, and may even enrich the baggage that constitutes identity.

It is easy to understand the magnitude of the impact that emigrating from one's birthplace to another location produces on identity. The residents of the shtetlekh , who were born and raised in such a unique environment, with a particular life style, had to adapt to conditions that were totally different from the ones they were familiar with, when they emigrated to places with such different characteristics. The entire social fabric of the shtetl provided each person with the means for self-recognition, not only on the basis of filiation, but also of occupation, social status, family origin, place of residence, institution they were active in, groups of friends they belonged to, etc. Each member of the shtetl held a certain position in that social fabric, and knew the resprective situation of each of the others. Each one knew all the rest perfectly well, and recognized him or herself in function of the others. The migration upset all that. In the new home, the immigrants changed their occupations, their social roles, the status they had, the close contact with friends and relatives, their geographic surroundings and the neighborhood they had felt a part of. They lost the nearly permanent place they had held in the shul (the synagogue), and in the different political or social organizations. All these elements, whose role in structuring and maintaining their sense of identity was so important, became only memories, and had to be adapted to the new circumstances, generally much faster than the psyche could tolerate.

The mourning process

A migration undertaken voluntarily, e.g., for ideological reasons, free of situations of social crisis, without disgregation of the family, allowing the preservation of connections with the place of origin, with a possibility for going back to it, which only slightly alters socio-economic status, and is unassociated with any great change of language and culture, is tolerated in a way that is quite different from the other type in which the situation is the just the opposite. Those who had to abandon their shtetlekh and settle in the great urban centers of the New World faced the latter type.

Concerning the behavior of these immigrants, we can find all kinds of variations. In each of these types of behavior we detect, to a greater or lesser extent, the work of the defense mechanisms mentioned above, set in motion as an attempt to attenuate the painful mourning process. Many of the immigrants had already imagined making a radical change in their lives. To achieve it, even before leaving or once they were onboard the ships, they changed their appearance by shaving off their beards, changing the type of clothing they wore and leaving aside the habits associated with traditional Jewish life. Once they arrived, they made an effort to mimetize with the natives by changing their names and by trying to make a magical break with anything that might remind them of their past. Others, however, clung to everything about that past and refused to make any change at all, going to the extreme of having to return to their place of origin because they were unable to adapt to the new circumstances. Most of the immigrants took intermediate positions in order to bear up under those dramatic changes.

The defense mechanisms that the psyche sets in motion in traumatic situations like this one, when psychic pain for what has been lost and fear of everything new have a major role, generally fail, so that the psychic pain recurs. Nostalgia is perhaps the most easily detectable feeling that expresses this psychic pain.

The landslayt-fareynen

When the psyche's mechanisms fail, it tends to resort to other defense mechanisms, which also generally collapse in the medium or long range. But many of those who arrived from the shtetlekh , like immigrants of other origins and from other places, used other, more mature resources in order to alleviate psychic suffering. In situations of need, gathering together with others whose characteristics and interests are alike is a tendency that comes up practically spontaneously.

Many reasons inspired the immigrants to unite. Ideology, religion, culture and mutual aid were reasons that led them to form associations. Perhaps the first connection that held them together once they left the old home was the experience of sharing the same ship. The boat brothers or shifbrider kept up their relationships for a long time through a bond that had family-like characteristics.

A large number of them gathered in societies for ex-residents of the shtetlekh from which they came: the landslayt-fareynen . These societies had a special feature that was unlike any other group. Because my time is limited, I cannot describe their structure and functioning. I can only emphasize the extremely important role they had for the immigrants, from the psychological point of view, in the difficult process of adapting to the new home.

Because of the characteristics of the human psyche, many circumstances must be shared. There is no important event that does not require the companionship of other individuals with ties that bind them to us. What anthropologists call the "rites of passage" are an example. Happy situations like birth or marriage, for example, or painful ones like death, lead to gatherings accompanied by rituals of different types. From the psychoanalytic viewpoint, new situations or situations of change are seen as provoking conscious and unconscious feelings that only the group can channel appropriately.

The massive losses mentioned above, suffered by those who came from the shtetlekh , and the persecutory anxiety, the great fears of the new and the unknown that the psyche always experiences as being dangerous, generated the need to create a special environment. The landslayt-fareyn was the place where these immigrants were able to share the vicissitudes of immigration with their friends and acquaintances, who were just like them in so many aspects associated with their identity.

The 3,000 landslayt-fareynen in New York alone, with more than 250,000 members, eloquently demonstrate the importance of these institutions.

These groups had many functions: mutual aid; organized aid for residents who had stayed back in the shtetl; the necessities of traditional Jewish life. But from the psychological perspective, the landslayt-fareyn was the equivalent of the shtetl in the new world, a transitional space without which it would have been much more difficult to endure the psychic pain for the loss of their world and the part of themselves that was linked to it. Without these institutions, their sense of identity would have been much more severely damaged. The immigrant could go on considering him or herself a kutner (a resident of Kutne), not only as something linked to the birthplace lost in the past, but as something present. He or she was still a kutner just then, while at the same time being settled in New York, Chicago or Buenos Aires.

The prominent role of literary production, mostly in Yiddish, created in the new homes, deserves special mention. I won't go deeply into this subject, which will be discussed extensively by other participants in this conference. The preservation of the mother tongue was a fundamental way to shore up group identity and cohesion, and to maintain the bond with what was left behind, by bringing it over to the new home. The world of Yiddish was a territory within a great universe, which preserved what had been lost by including it in the new residence. Proof of this is the rich literature created. Many authors expressed their sentiments regarding the shtetl in memorable works, and enabled their readers to join in with them. The writer Moyshe Nadir (1885-1943), who arrived in New York from the shtetl where he was born, Narayev, when he was 13, described his attachment to it in these poetic words: "Mayn shtetl is mir, vi a getray hintl, nokhgelofn biz aher-o" ("My shtetl, like a faithful dog, came here running after me.") (5) This writer describes the difference between the quality of the social relationships in the shtetl and those in New York, his new home, referring to the former in these terms: "Dortn veynt dos gantse shtetl az men shtarbt oder men fort avek kayn Amerike, un dortn freyt zikh dos gantse shtetl az m'hot khasene oder m'gevint in der loterey". " ("There, the whole shtetl cries if someone dies or leaves for America, and there, the whole shtetl is happy if somebody gets married or wins the lottery.")(6). The landslayt-fareynen took over the role of the shtetlin the new big city, where they could practically continue to preserve their emotional ties and pre-existing identity.

In this paper, I will refer to the mourning that originated in the total destruction of the shtetlekh and the massacre of the greater part of their inhabitants, and the role of the landslayt-fareynen in the nearly impossible endeavor to endure that loss.

Mourning with unique characteristics

What none of the members of the group described by Moris Rosenfeld in the poem quoted at the beginning, nor any other immigrant was able to foresee, is the fate that awaited all European Jewry. Not even the wildest fantasy could contemplate the idea that all of that world, of which the shtetl and the Jew who was part and parcel of it were the clearest exponents, would be annihilated in such a way. The Shoa has no antecedents, nor can it be compared to any other catastrophe that humanity in general or the Jewish people in particular has had to experience.

These immigrants were faced with the impossible task of saying good-bye to loved ones annihilated and the total and absolute loss of the world they came from. How can a catastrophe of such enormity be mourned?

Grieving for the dead is an integral part of civilized life. Anthropologists consider that it is the existence of funeral ceremonies that distinguishes the Neanderthal man from his predecessor. For approximately the last 40,000 years, humankind has been carrying out practices and rituals connected with the loss of beings near them, in which respect and consideration for the cadaver is accepted as a duty. There is no culture, from those considered most primitive to the most developed, in which the death of a loved one is not accompanied by a series of rituals, in which the care and safeguarding of corpse is a central part. An example is that most Biblical biographies end with the story of the death of the person and his or her burial.

Funeral practices, always a community effort, reflect how the psyche has incorporated norms which, beyond individual and collective differences, share the feature that they focus on the way to treat, care for and mourn the dead.

Psychoanalysis has dedicated many papers to the characteristics of mourning: the long process by which the mourner says goodbye to the person lost. In it, the practice of funeral rites is indispensable.

What happens with mourning in circumstances of social catastrophe or man-made disasters?

Since they are genocides, many people are assassinated, and practically nothing is known about the victims. There is no corpse to honor, nor any exact date to remember. All that is known is the existence of terrible suffering, torture, annihilation and no knowledge whatsoever concerning the fate of the mortal remains.

It is important to point out the differences between this type of catastrophe and those caused by natural disasters or those who die while fighting in a war. In these latter situations, the authorities cooperate as much as possible with information on the death of these people. There are dates and exact details on the painful events, and although the corpses may not be found, there are official ceremonies, memorial monuments are built, and dates established to weep for those who lost their lives.

Different was the fate of those who lost their loved ones during the long night of the Shoa . At that time, and for many years afterwards, the people who were related to the victims, either because of the horrors they had experienced or because of all that they didn't know, were immersed in a situation of panic, impotence and helplessness. Many of them felt excluded by society, which does not always look upon the bearers of bad news with benign eyes.

It was within a community framework that these mourners were able to find a chance to do something, however little it might have been. Huge demonstrations to express their pain and protest were quite frequent. Different organizations to aid the victims and the survivors offered a way to channel their efforts. Many mourners sought a containing function in religious, political and cultural organizations. But it was particularly the landslayt-fareynen that provided an appropriate place where help could be directed during and after the Shoa , especially for the collective expression of the enormous grief that each person was feeling and which, because of the nature of the tragedy, was impossible to express on an individual basis.

I remember that when I was a child, I used to go to these meetings with my parents. Both of them are from Stock, a small shtetl in Poland that is not on any regular map, but which had the tragic privilege of being next door to Treblinka, the death camp where most of my family was massacred. During those frequent meetings, there was no orator who failed to remember the martyrs of the shtetl and the members of his own family. His words were constantly interrupted by racking sobs. These meetings lasted for several hours, and most of the time was spent in weeping. No doubt, each one did it for all the victims and for each one of the loved ones assassinated. Everyone identified with the grief. Years later, I understood that most of the grief had been produced by the internal catastrophe that each one was suffering: together with the loss of the loved ones, they had lost the world to which they still belonged, in spite of the years that had passed since their emigration. The shtetl was part of their identity and it too suffered a terrible commotion.

The human psyche is prepared to weep for the loss of loved ones who have died in the usual circumstances. The mourning rituals, with their stipulated time periods, tally with the time that human beings need in order to say goodbye internally to the person who died, and to recover. But no psyche is prepared to endure catastrophes of this magnitude. In these cases, people need to cry in every possible way for years, and perhaps for more than one generation. The meetings of the landslayt-fareynen went on for decades and, although they are less frequent now, they still exist. In time, reasons for consolation were also found. The survivors were helped to recompose their lives, first in temporary shelters and then in their new homes. Those who arrived were welcomed in meetings, and they went on hoping that more survivors would appear. The creation of the State of Israel was another source of solace and of hope: the illusion that such a tragedy would never occur again. The aid provided to Israel by ex-residents was no small contribution. Much of it consisted in works to immortalize the name of the shtetl.

The literary creations centering on the shtetlekh , which have existed since the beginnings of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature, reached great heights after the Shoa . To the books of tribute that nearly all the authors dedicated to their lost homes were added the testimonial books by survivors. The landslayt-fareynen supported the publication of these works that provided, aside from an informative function, another way to express grief. Many of these books express the quality and depth of the great memorial elegies of the catastrophes suffered by the Jewish people throughout its history, which were praised in their time.

Among the publications, the Yizkor-bikher (Books of Memory) deserve special mention. There is no shtetl that has not received this tribute. These books are generally tri-lingual (Yiddish, Hebrew and English), and were written collectively by the ex-residents of each shtetl scattered throughout the world. These voluminous works contain all the data referring to the lost shtetl: its history, from the beginnings of organized Jewish life to the fate of its population during the Shoa , its religious, political, social and charitable organizations, its cultural life, the eminent figures who came from it, etc. The last part of each of these Yizkor-bikher was dedicated to honoring the memory of the relatives massacred by the Nazis and their collaborators. It is a terrible fact that, of what were once vigorous towns full of life, shtetlekh that produced so many rabbis, scientists, artists and politicians; places where the vanguard of the Zionist and Socialist fighters were shaped, with hopes of making a better world, only commemorative books are left. But it would be far worse if that memory, which will endure for many long years, were also lost.

In the homes of the immigrants who came from the shtetlekh, or in those of their children or grandchildren, one often sees in the bookcase, displayed in a prominent position, next to the Bible brought over from the old home, like the one described by Moris Rosenfeld in his poem, an Yizkor-bukh that like a monument commemorates the dear, lost shtetl.

Bearing up under the mourning for the annihilated shtetl and for all that crumbled within those who were born and grew up in its bosom is a very heavy task. The landslayt-fareynen provided, and continue to do so to a lesser extent, a chance to make that task, shared the way we have described, a bit less arduous.


Although there are no statistical studies on the subject, we can assume that most of the Jews who arrived in the great urban centers of the New World from the shtetlekh were able to endure adequately the traumatic situations implicit in a change of such magnitude, and to adapt relatively well to their new place of residence, without immediate or eventual marked psychic disturbance as a consequence of the migration. We could say the same for the way in which they bore up under the total and permanent loss of their shtetlekh , of most of their loved ones who lived there, and of the world in which they lived. If we ask what factors intervened so that traumatic situations of such enormity could be endured this way, there is more than one answer. Like all human phenomena, it can only be fully understood by recurring to the contributions of all the humanistic sciences. Any partial answer, however correct it may be, can lead to erroneous conclusions. The sociologists, economists, political scientists, etc. have much to say on this subject. My approach is exclusively psychological. It is a partial contribution; but together with others, it can help to improve our understanding of the topic we are investigating. The structure of the shtetl was quite unique. Its way of life, its institutions, the precise roles of each of its habitants, and the bonds between them, formed a social fabric that was different from those that predominated in other societies. The structure of these towns remained unchanged for many years and even centuries. In spite of modifications that took place in the last decades of the past century and the first of this one, most of the original structure was preserved. The social component of the identity of its inhabitants carries the imprint of the shtetl and, in spite of all the changes stemming from the migration, it is easy to recognize the maintenance of the original identity. These immigrants, though they had to adapt to the new environment, pressured directly or indirectly by the political prevalence of the "melting pot" and by their own needs, were able to preserve many aspects of their identity. This can be seen in many ways and in many aspects of their lives; that they still recognize that they come from their shtetl and partially use their original language with the regionalisms that belong to it, are examples. This persistence can be seen especially well in the maintenance of social ties. The landslayt-fareynen are one of their expressions.


1) Freud, S.: Mourning and Melancholia. (1917) Standard Edition. Vol. XIV. The Hogarth Press. London. 1973.

2) Grinberg, L. and R: Identidad y cambio. Ediciones Kargieman. Buenos Aires. l97l.

3) Kardiner, A.: El indivuiduo y su sociedad. Fondo de cultura económica. México. 1945.

4) Kijak, M. y Pelento, M. L.: Mourning in certain situations of social catastrophe. Int. Rev. Psycho-Anal. 13: 463-472. London. 1986.

5) Kijak, M.: Psikhologye funem imigrant un zayne kinder. Argentiner Yivo shriftn. Buenos Aires, Yiwo. 1974.

6) Nadir, Moyshe; Unter der zun. I. L. Peretz farlag. Tel Aviv. l966.

7) Nadir, Moyshe: Dort vu m'geyt shpatsirn. (quoted in Gennady Estraikh's: "Intensive Yiddish". Oxsforder Yiddish Press. Oxford. l996.

8) Ostow, Mortimer: "The Psychologic determinants of Jewish Identity", in Ostow, Mortimer (ed): Judaism and Psychoanalysis. Ktav Publishing House. New York. l982

9) Rosenfeld, Moris: Oisgeklibene shriftn. Musterverk fun der Yiddisher Literatur. Yiwo. l962. Buenos Aires.

10) Webster's Third New International Dictionary, II, pag 1432. Chicago. 1981.

Moises Kijak is a Psychiatrist practicing in Argentina


from the June 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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