Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Atonement Among the Christians: Becoming Jewish in America

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 2:26 pm on Monday, September 13, 2021

By Robert M. Katzman September 13, 2021

I am the grandson of Jacob Katzman, an immigrant from Megilev on the Dneper River in Byelorussia. A socialist and skilled carpenter who felt all religion was bunk, his son–my Father Israel–told me. He was thin, strong and about five-foot-eight, like me. My father told me he came home with bloody shirts from fighting at a Chicago Carpenter’s Hall, where there were battles about creating the first unions. He was a warm man, nice to me, had a strong Yiddish accent which I can evoke at any time.

He mysteriously influenced me, spiritually, even after his death, and though he then had five children and seven grandchildren, for reasons I don’t know, I inherited his incredibly heavy handmade wooden toolbox. Jacob was the first of my immigrant Grandparents to die, at 78 in 1961 when I was eleven. What will I do with it, in the future, I wonder:  Who will care?

Four years later, I built a small wooden newsstand out of scraps of wood in my backyard which was hauled to Hyde Park in Chicago and stayed there for twenty years. I used his hammer to build it.  It became Bob’s Newsstand, remaining wooden for ten of those years, constantly growing.

So, yes, I too, became a carpenter; eventually building all the shelves in my various bookstores. I am retired from building anymore, my lower back now fragile and frozen. But my house and yard are filled with fanciful creations –- driftwood, glass and brick — I imagined and constructed when my stores were gone. The desire to construct things is an intangible force.

My now old but still strong hands wonder what they should do next. Typing my stories and poetry on a silent keyboard is an insufficient replacement. But doing so resurrects so many people from my life, now all dead. I feel them all around me, watching. Silent, invisible, but watching.

Jacob’s wife Rose Gahn from Lithuania never spoke about religion to me; but she radiated something intangible about being a Jewish woman, mother and wife, and her gentle kindness.  She was an amazing cook and had this something about her which wasn’t judgmental. Her warmth has remained with me over the decades. She was my second Grandparent to die at 94 in 1979 when I was 29. 

My Grandfather Nathan Warman, one of ten children, from Minsk, Byelorussia, was a businessman selling a range of small items in other immigrant-settled places near Chicago. He worked endlessly, staying away from his wife Celia as much as possible, it seemed to me. He had three children, one my Mother, Anne. Though he died a millionaire, his family, my family was distant, violent and terrifying to be part of when I was a child. 

From him, perhaps in some contrary way, I absorbed a disassociation with money as something valuable. It became a thing to me, not to desire, not to cherish, but a sort of scoreboard to keep track of whether something I was trying to create was working. 

Big numbers? Good. Small numbers? Bad. 

But regardless, a remoteness about it.

Very observant, Nathan ruled the table on major holidays, but was very quiet, except when angry and then he thundered at the mischievous person, often me. He was a short man, perhaps five-foot-four, barrel-chested and with an impish sense of humor, and was a man who planted many trees, especially his beloved lemon tree in his basement. I watched him do this.

Later, in my own life, I have planted more than 70 trees: 64 in America and six in Israel. 

Not just purchased, but planted by my own hands, my fingers deep in the moist rich black earth surrounding the tree’s roots, the tree’s fragrance an aroma filling my head, a sensual and life-giving experience for me.

Nathan’s trees? Perhaps. Bob’s trees? I don’t know.

But trees remain compelling to me.

Nathan was the last in his family of ten to die, and my third grandparent to die at 94, in 1985, when I was 35.

My Grandmother Celia Baumwohl, from Poland, one of ten children, was forever frozen by watching her Father Moshe beheaded by a Cossack in an attack, a Pogram, against her Jewish Shtetl. Smartest person in my family, longest lived, 96, she was cynical about, well, everything, telling me when I was a child in Hebrew School that she felt Jews went to a synagogue on High Holidays so the women could show off their furs and jewels. I never noticed furs and jewels. There was something coldly empty about her. She was a hollow woman.

An excellent cook, making everything by herself, the host of all Jewish holiday dinners for decades; but when she quit, the family fell apart. She was about four-foot-ten or so, with eyes like black marbles.  Her voice was never approving. There was no attaining success for me — in her eyes — as my career went its various ways. When frustrated with me, often, she accused me of not being a “Warman” (her last name), but dismissively, a “Katzman”, (my Father’s last name, and of course, one of lessor achievement.) 

When I watched her take her last breath in a hospital, her eyes alert, fearful, present, she seemed to rise up off of her bed, then fall back and shrink: dead. The image, the moment, the death of her dynamic presence, remains with me.

Celia, last of her ten brothers and sisters to die, last of everyone from Europe to die, was 96 when she died in 1997, when I was 47.  

I spent years parked with my Mother’s parents after school while my she worked as an interior decorator late into the night. The food my Grandmother Celia made was incredible, unforgettable and unreplaceable, but their home was a dangerous place, emotionally. All of Celia’s living room furniture was covered in cold clear plastic.

I absorbed a great deal of what their brand of Jewish-ness was, their European-ness, their Other-ness, their: 

“We are here in this country America, but very separate, still in the Jewish Pale.”

Though a third-generation Jew in America, my connection to the land in Eastern Europe which rejected them remains an active part of me. I contain their now-ancient sense that, at any time, the thundering on horseback Cossacks will be coming to destroy my life. This is not intellectual, but very deep within me, like a pillar of uncertainty. A sense that no matter what I do, the Earth shakes beneath my feet, because being a Jew means any country, at any time, can expel us into nowhere and nothingness.

When I look at maps, my response to bloody Eastern Europe is repellent. Maps are paper, but also vibrant to me. I don’t understand how this can be. Yet, in my career, I created a travel bookstore which carried ten thousand American and European maps of every inch of this planet. 

A room in my home today is covered in maps, wall to wall, floor to ceiling. 

Maybe they are there so I can figure out where I am in the world. 


Not here?

The room is a womb of uncertainty.

I learned nothing in Hebrew School. It was a battleground of personalities, bitter Holocaust survivors as teachers, angry Israeli and American men and women who were frustrated with my difficulty with learning Hebrew and how to speak it. All my classmates were called by their often lovely or musical Hebrew names: 

Naomi, Aaron, Rachael, Moshe, Aviva, Caleb, Esther, Elijah, Hannah, Ezekiel, Leah, David…

I spent nearly five years in my South Side Synagogue endlessly called: Katzman!

That school succeeded in making me feel permanently separate from everyone else.

Five minutes after my Bar Mitzvah in April 1963, I quit the school.

Fourteen months later, I ran away from home.

However, over the next three years, running repeatedly into strangers who were hostile or violent toward me because of my name, my distinctive face, I began sorting out a swirl of ideas, emotions, identity, Jewish mythology, who were we – who was I really? Did I believe in God? 


Why is it people who either call themselves Jews or other people call them that word, are hunted and killed all over Time, all over the world? Why haven’t we disappeared like all those other tribes, like the Medes and the Hittites, in the Old Testament? How can we wander all over everywhere for two thousand years and not evaporate — even after a third of us did — in vast clouds of human dust during the Holocaust?

In Fall, 1967, at 57thStreet and Lake Park, Hyde Park, Chicago, under a dark viaduct next to a dead-end street, when I was seventeen, I chose to be Jewish in all senses.  To teach myself everything I could about Jewishness and seek to understand an endlessly irrational world where strangers in faraway places would kill me for no other reason than because I was a Jew.  

The commitment was to myself, silently; a turning point of donning an identity and educating myself on my own terms, at my own speed and hoping that maybe someday I might gain wisdom.

Fifty-four years later, at 71, the search continues; because the hate continues. But I am higher up the mountain now, seeing more, understanding more, and more than ever I realize that only ideas remain.  So, I write.

Years ago, I decided to write a story called Atonement: Distilledas a slightly bemused way of explaining to Christians what Yom Kippur was to the Jews, why it was so all important.  I wasn’t connected to any synagogue or attached to any rabbi. 

It was: The (Jewish) World According to Bob:

Many people have read it. For some people it has a lot of meaning. Maybe for you, too. 

Here it is:

Atonement: Distilled

by Robert M. Katzman © October 1, 2012

Choosing to be in a small town in Central Illinois, over praying for forgiveness for my sins in a Chicago Synagogue on Yom Kippur–the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is no simple decision

God, may be watching. Possibly, not approving. The risk could be fatal. But then, who knows?

When a person belongs to a group of people whose tiny numbers–less than 2/10ths of 1% of Earth’s entire population of seven billion or so, why worry about God noticing you no matter what you do?

Jews who don’t ever go to temple otherwise, overwhelmingly dogo on Yom Kippur. Because the psychic consequences are impossible to live with.

If there is a God and you don’t go, and he wants you to go, man, you could be in realtrouble. Why live with pressure like that?

Also, there is a part of the text that says on that day:

”It is determined for the coming year:

Who will live and who will die

Who will prosper and who will suffer

Who will find happiness and who will be miserable

(and this is my favorite part):

Who will die by fire, by drowning or be torn apart by wild beasts”

Observant Catholics have to worry about eternal damnation in Hell when they eventually die. Jews have to worry about Lions and Tigers and Bears eatingthem within the next twelve months!

This explains why Jews invented psychiatry and possibly Valium.

In effect, God wants what he wants. Are you in or are you out? Las Vegas would never take those odds, even if the Jews created that, too. More philosophically, on Yom Kippur a person is expected to forgive those who wronged them, wounded them and who caused them great pain, emotionally or otherwise. I can understand why there are so few Jews. If a person really believes, so much is expected.

Even hedge-fund managers, some billionaire, can’t buy their way out of celestial judgment. Or talk their way out. The conversation is both direct and within one’s soul.

Who can you lie to? Yourself?  God? Good luck with that

There is no one to intercede for you unless you admit everything and ask forgiveness for who you are, what you are and how you have conducted yourself for the last twelve months.

And who intercedes for you? Who (possibly) offers mercy to the guilty? Though on this hallowed day, everyoneis considered guilty of something?

God does.

Witness/Prosecutor/Judge and Jury, who long ago warned us:

He was a Jealous God.

Makes one nervous.

Then I thought: What if, in the last year, someone has harmed me? What if they don’t repent? How would I know?

If I did somehow know, should I still forgive them?  Is forgiving unforgivable actions part of the whole cleansing of the detritus of the old year?

Would my kindness go unnoticed?  Would my simmering resentment be impossible to hide from The Creator of the Universe?

Realizing that pretending to forgive is impossible to hide, especially if doing so was self-serving, is cosmic in its incomprehensibility.

No plotting or intrigue would accomplish the goal of starting fresh, wiping the slate clean and allow me to summon the emotional courage necessary to accept blame, even if I felt blameless in harming others.

Because Judaism is not a top-down faith, our religious leaders are seen only as respected teachers who are better informed about the history, customs, traditions and the Hebrew language than the average person. But not in any way considered to be conduits to God.

There is no edict about praying in a building. Wisconsin would do as well as any other place. Judaism is a portable religion by necessity, due to millennia of unpopularity in irrational places. Grab the Torah and run!

To be a “Wandering Jew” would be impossible if dragging a building along with us was essential. We survive, but only just, because we adapted to the world as it was and as it is. Not some unachievable ideal

Or more bluntly, I am a Synagogue.

Wherever I go, the culture, the traditions and the way I treat other people goes with me

Though my exterior surfaces have grayed and chipped, my inner sanctuary remains intact.


Publishing News!

(Currently seeking representation as a speaker/poet for hire)

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: http://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998 (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $29.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1) $3.95; (2) $5.95; (3) $7.95; (4) $8.95 (5) $9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9) $13.95 (10) $15.95 (15) $19.95

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools can call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.


Comment by Brad Dechter

September 13, 2021 @ 2:57 pm

Whether wood or glass or words, you “eek” creativity- it is who you are and why you were an author and an entrepreneur.
I read about your grandparents, and in many ways I see mine. Two grandmas who I thought were the best cooks in the world. One warm and open, the other cold. A grandpa who was rich and mean and dominated (and sucked fish heads because he was poor when he grew up) and a grandpa who was this nice but ineffective man. All from the old country. I could be you!
I too am the man who creates his own synagogue- haven’t been in a Temple in 27+ years (since my youngest was Bar Mitzvah’d.)
Thanks for allowing me a trip down memory lane and revisiting all the thoughts and past memories!

Comment by Don Larson

September 13, 2021 @ 7:34 pm


“ Wherever I go, the culture, the traditions and the way I treat other people goes with me

Though my exterior surfaces have grayed and chipped, my inner sanctuary remains intact.”

These two paragraphs define you.
Let them bring you comfort, my friend.

Comment by Jackie Katzman

September 16, 2021 @ 5:17 pm

Exquisitely written. Your beautiful and soulful writing moves me to tears dear cousin. What a gift to read this today. With huge gratitude, Jackie

Comment by Bernard White

September 16, 2021 @ 5:22 pm

Oh my dear cousin brother Bob,

this writing is exquisite.

your real faith shines bright and clear.

of course you are a carpenter from a line of carpenters!

I am observing faithfully this Yom Kippur.

reading your writing is part of that faithful observance.

I am grateful to attend your Synagogue, today.

yours and Israel’s and Jacob’s.

you are G-d’s beloved and chosen son in whom G-d is well pleased.

thank you for your witness to Love and Life.

with grateful respect,


Comment by Lynda Rosemark

September 17, 2021 @ 7:19 pm

Don’t forget to create a web page
Send info to area synagogues about your speaking engagements.. also, use Facebook
Some synagogues are doing Zoom programs— you could too!

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