Tag Archives: History

Explaining the Unexplainable in Minsk

sacred books“Yes,” I told the baffled American immigration official, “I was in Belarus for a roots trip.” But this in no way captured my experience of touring in the environs of Minsk with a German speaking group out of Austria.  One of the challenges for me starting the journey in Austria is the automatic connection I feel with the place. I was very close with my grandmother who was born and raised in Vienna. She spoke German, ate Austrian foods, used cosmetics that had a European appeal. As complex as it is, I resonate strongly with the smells, flavors and sounds of Austria. Austria is one of my “homelands.”

By contrast Belarus, which was home to so many many Jews, is completely foreign to me personally. I spent 5 days in Belarus, which was 4 days more than my great grandmother. Reisl Hanni Brody was deported from Vienna, September 14th, 1942.  Four days later she arrived in Minsk, was taken to Maly Trostinec and together with all the other Jews in her transport shot. The language and the culture of Belarus do not resonate with me on an individual level. The only thing that connects me to this place is pain and death. This distinction is profound. When I am in Austria I feel compelled to better understand this culture from which I come, in Belarus I felt largely disconnected. Ironically, this disconnect was part of what made the overwhelming and challenging content of 5 days of Holocaust touring, bearable.

Bearable however, is a relative term. Over the 5 days, I heard so many horrid things that my capacity to distinguish between mass murder, horrid brutality and interesting fact has eroded. For example, from Vienna to Brisk, the urbane Jews of Austria travelled in the relative comfort of passenger trains. This helped Jews buy into the imagined hope that they really were,as the Nazis promised, relocating. Only after days of disorientation and hunger were they transferred to the cattle cars that carried them to their death. By this point they could barely protest. Apparently this ‘interesting fact,’ out of the context of other things I learned (which makes it seem kind of mild), comes across more on the horridly brutal when shared over a cup of tea.

Even the positive day of our trip offered little relief. We saw first hand the 200 meter long tunnel dug in 1943, which allowed 250 Jews to escape from a prison work camp near Novogrudok.  The work, perseverance and imagination this took is astonishing. Miraculously, most made it to the woods and were able to the join Bielski resistance detachment made famous in the movie Defiance. I am inspired by the acts of heroism in face of horrific odds and grateful for every life that was saved, but the suffering and horrific circumstances and that led to the need for heroism cannot be redeemed.

There is so much that will never be recovered. Belarus sits between Ukraine and Poland, in a place where borders were not so fixed. Nearly the entire Jewish population was destroyed. Some of the greatest Yeshivot, such as the Mir Yeshiva and the Brisk Yeshiva were located here. This was the birthplace of Marc Chagall. Historian Lucy Dawidowicz put the number of Jewish dead at 375,000.

The Jewish devastation is an important piece, but nonetheless only one piece, of the destruction that took place in Eastern Europe during WWII. While there is no consensus on the total numbers of the general population that died, it is estimated  one third of the total population-Jews and non-Jews- lost their lives. Those who survived often did so by collaborating. Old ethnic tensions were excuses for violence that the Nazis were all too glad to exploit. The property damage was extensive. Almost nothing remains of pre-war Minsk. It was all destroyed at the start of the war by the Germans. These types of scars do not heal easily. We see them on show today in the Ukraine.

Those of us whose relatives lived in this part of the world, and took the chance emigrating in the 1880 or thereabouts, should be eternally grateful.

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Posted on June 26, 2014

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A Taste of Eternity: Letters from the Front

800px-US_Soldier_with_cattle_dogThe fifth of the Ten Commandments states: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12).

My brother and I decided to spend Mother’s Day with our late parents.

No, we did not visit the cemetery. Instead, we sat on the living room floor, sifting through boxes of memorabilia. Without my brother’s guidance, I would have avoided the memorabilia forever. My parents are present in my thoughts, dreams, and feelings; that bittersweet ethereal presence is enough for me. My brother, however, feels that each photo and letter carries their imprint. To honor them, we must witness each one.

As we witnessed this Mother’s Day, we did discover for ourselves a longer life. Letters written to and from our parents connected us across the generations, and with significant events in Jewish history.

During World War II, we learned, our uncle wrote frequently to his younger sister, our future mother. Uncle H, drafted into the U.S. army, found himself stationed in Africa. To his 18-year old sister, he spoke frankly: I’ve been seeing quite a bit of North Africa…don’t let anybody tell you different, it’s war torn.

In March 1943, he wrote: I saw that article about Hitler’s supposed death. It is strictly a matter of speculation as to whether he is alive or not. If he did die I hope it was in the same manner some of our people were forced to end their existences.

Uncle H hated Hitler, but had compassion for ordinary German soldiers, required to serve a terrible cause. He wrote: I’ve spoken to many Italian and German prisoners already. The are a nice lot generally speaking but apparently misguided. They are as one fellow remarked “typically GI.” You know, that’s the army expression for soldiers. It is just the fact that they’re fighting under another flag and for a cause of hatred and injustice. I thoroughly despise what any German soldier represents.

Uncle H applied those same democratic principles when he gave his sister dating advice: I was surprised to learn that you have discarded your democratic views in regard to Service men. The only difference between officers and enlisted men is rank. Under the skin they are all the same. Personally I have had very little if any respect at all for girls who would only go out with officers. It is against my principles and very anti-democratic.

No surprises here: I know the U.S. army had knowledge of the horrible crimes against European Jewry. I know that Uncle H was opinionated; that he was close with his sister; and that she was a tough-minded future policewoman. But, coming through the letters, this all seems like precious new information.

Uncle H, as I knew him, was funny and sardonic, a commentator on the human condition. And here he suddenly was, dropped into World War II, reporting just as I might expect. And here was my mom, a future student of political science, receiving his reports; pondering world events; bemusedly accepting his dating advice, though all potential dates were serving overseas.

I know Mom and Uncle H; I know how they thought and felt. As I imagine them in this historical situation, I see it through their eyes. My own life becomes longer. It extends backward into events taking place before I was born. I participate in them, borrowing sensibilities already familiar to me.

In the self-reflective journey of counting of the Omer, we pause this week on the quality of Netzach, eternity. The word netzach is used eight times in the Tanakh. In some places it refers to God, the unchanging one; in others, it describes a human experience of enduring long suffering. Netzach expresses a divine quality, a sense of time as it might exist beyond the boundaries of human perception. Netzach also expresses a human quality, the subjective experience of enduring for a really long time.

My uncle’s letters bring me into netzach.  Not the divine kind, eternity beyond the boundaries of human perception, but the human kind, a sense that something endures longer than one might expect. Today, my life seems to extend beyond its boundaries. Events I once thought mythical become a living part of my experience. For me, that’s a very human taste of eternity.

That’s how I feel about being Jewish in general. The sense that I am part of a community whose narrative extends 3,000 years into the past offers me a sense of eternity. This kind of eternity seems attainable. After all, it is only 30 Uncle H’s ago. But it also seems divinely soul-expanding. To reach it, I imaginatively join with with other minds, experiences, and stories. When I honor my ancestors in this way, my own life becomes longer.

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Posted on May 12, 2014

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Our Life: Based on a True Story

argoWhile there were quite a few excellent movies in 2012, my favorite, far and away was “Argo.” I saw it with my wife and another couple, and the film was so well-crafted that my friend was quite literally curled in his seat, covering his eyes and holding his breath during a scene where the only thing happening was the printing of plane tickets.  The whole ending was tense, taut and exciting.

It was also completely fabricated.

Yet when I learned about that, I actually wasn’t all that upset. It was a great movie that prompted me to read Tony Mendez’ personal account how he got six Americans out of Iran, so that I could learn what had been true, what had been adapted, and what had been made up whole cloth.

We know that no movie that is “based on a true story” is ever the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The editors decide what stays in, what gets cut, and what order the story should be told in. What we forget is that our lives are “based on a true story,” as well.

Jonathan Gottschall is the author of the book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, and he reminds us that we all edit our life story. As he describes it:

A life story is a “personal myth” about who we are deep down — where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means….[I]t is not, however, an objective account. A life story is a shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings. (161)

It’s important to remember the real purpose of a story — and it is not simply to relay facts. It’s to put those facts into a meaningful context. A good story doesn’t simply tell us “what happened,” it tells us how and why it happened. In other words, a story — whether that’s a movie like “Argo” or our own personal narrative — is not designed to be a perfectly accurate record of history. Instead, our stories are much more like “memory.”

While history is an attempt to correctly portray past events, memory is a reconstruction of past events, some of which are going to be inherently distorted, overlooked, or even completely rewritten. And for our day-to-day lives, memory is much more important than history — and that’s an idea that resonates with a Jewish perspective.

Avraham Infeld, who served as President of Hillel International, once said that there’s no such things as Jewish history; there is only Jewish memory. What’s the difference? “History means knowing what happened in the past. Memory means asking how what happened in the past influences me, and my life today. It is for that reason that we do not teach our young that our ancestors left Egypt. We teach them that ‘every human being must see him or herself as having left Egypt.’” Memory, in other words, is the driver for the story we tell about ourselves here and now.

So yes, we do need history. We do need accuracy. We do need to make sure that we trying to act with intellectual integrity. But we also shouldn’t conflate history with story. After all, our personal and communal myths are rarely historically accurate, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have value.

Indeed, there’s a line that my friend and colleague Cantor Ellen Dreskin often says that is equally true about “Argo,” our collective Jewish memory, and our own life story: “Something doesn’t have to be factual for it to be true.”

How very true that is.

Posted on February 21, 2013

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Let’s Dance at The Kotel

The recent reports of women being dragged from the Kotel — the Western Wall — while Torah scrolls were ripped from their hands and subjected to other tactics of intimidation and force by the Israeli police are unnerving, to say the least, to read and listen to. Israel is indeed a modern democracy with a state religion, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It is not the only contemporary democratic state with an official religion. Americans unaccustomed to overt state sanctioned religion may find it incomprehensible that instruments of the state would enforce the rules, practices and customs of a religious sect yet this is commonplace in many countries.

David Landau in a Haaretz opinion piece argued that non-Israeli Jewry protesting the enforcement of Israel’s state religion at the Kotel is nothing short of libelous by portraying Israel as a country mired in medieval-isms and religious obscurantism. He asked those who protest Israel’s actions at the Kotel to consider what the state response would be to someone performing non-Catholic worship at the Vatican or Catholic worship at the Diocese of Canterbury in England.

Landau’s argument though only extends to a certain point. Yes, the state would enforce the normative religious practice of the state religion in institutions or buildings that represent that state religion. However, the state would also simultaneously enforce the rights of the protesters acting out in civil disobedience at those sites. The harassment and physical violence inflicted upon the protesters would be prosecuted to at least the same extent as those doing the protesting would be held accountable. It is a basic right of modern democracy to protest and the modern democratic state has as much responsibility to protect the integrity of the legally recognized status quo as it does to protect the well-being of those who disobey it.

This, however, is not the entire point. If we seek to compare and contrast Israel’s treatment of the complex situation at the Kotel with that of other modern polities with a state religion and stop there we will have missed the full picture. Israel is not just a modern democratic state with an official religion, it is also a Jewish state and as such it bears a unique prism by which to view this issue.

Jewish civilization throughout history has not been known for its architecture nor its artwork. Indeed, a traditional Biblical injunction exists proscribing many forms of art. (Nonetheless, Jews throughout history and contemporary times have designed art not conforming to that injunction but a full discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) Jewish civilization is known for two primary contributions to the wealth of human development: a culture of ideas and a society of engagement with the Divine.

Our buildings do not define us. It is our books and our relationship with God that has been the hallmark defining characteristic of the Jewish story. We do not venerate places; we appreciate the potential that a place has for furthering our religious, spiritual and/or intellectual growth. This is true even when it comes to the greatest and most significant Jewish building project ever undertaken, not once but twice, the Temple in Jerusalem, of which the present-day Kotel is but a retaining outer wall of the Second Temple complex. It wasn’t the Temple building that made the Temple holy, it was the profundity of that space and the power of the rituals performed therein that infused it with holiness. When the Temple leadership become corrupt and when the Jewish people drifted far away from the principles and ideals that it represented it was destroyed.

Thus, perhaps the most critical problem that this Kotel quandary presents is that there is a Kotel quandary in the first place. To acknowledge that the Kotel presents the potential for holiness is absolutely clear. Yet, the politics of power and of control and the perspective that the Kotel itself is vested with a singular ability to intensify our prayers and meditations before God is bordering on idolatry. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a seminal Orthodox Israeli public intellectual, declared shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that brought the Temple Mount under Israeli control, that the Kotel should be transformed into a disco or as he called it a Diskotel because he astutely understood the grave possibility that Jews would begin to worship the Kotel instead of God.

So instead of battling for various religious outcomes for the Kotel: status quo, three partitions (men, women and mixed), no partitions, timeshare model, etc., let us throw our hands up in the air and dance. Let us go back to the business of being Jewish: wrestling with ideas and with God and let us stop wrestling over a wall.

Posted on November 2, 2012

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Free Speech vs Good Speech

Women and women’s rights have received a lot of attention in politics and media in recent weeks.  March is Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate the contributions of women in the USA, particularly contributions to social and economic justice, and women’s rights.  How ironic, therefore, that the beginning of March saw a debacle over women’s freedoms to make personal and moral choices about their own bodies.  We saw women being silenced through their absence from important conversations taking place in congressional committees, and we heard Rush Limbaugh using crass language to dismiss the perspective of one young, brave woman who offered her opinion.

I know there are many perspectives on the issues themselves.  But I am deeply concerned by the tone of the conversation, and what appears to be an increasing inability to engage in respectful discourse.

This past week, I was talking with a group of students at my congregation about two different ways of thinking about the power of speech.  On the one hand is the US Constitution, guaranteeing the right to free speech.  This is a core American value, and my students were all able to express the importance of this legal construct intelligently and articulately – our middle schools are teaching them well.

On the other hand, we explored some Jewish values and teachings on the subject of lashon hara.  Literally meaning ‘evil tongue’, the term is often used to talk about the negative impacts of gossip, but the teachings apply to much more than that.  Jewish wisdom sees speech as such a powerful tool that even saying something positive about someone should be done with great care (it may have a negative impact, such as stirring up feelings of jealousy in someone else).  That might seem extreme, but it is indicative of how strongly the tradition feels we should guard our tongue and try to always speak from the highest place possible.

At our Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat at the end of last month, we engaged in an exercise where we took issues in the public realm where we felt strongly one way, and were required to make a persuasive argument for the other side.  It was a powerful exercise in which we were able to see the validity of another perspective.  I highly recommend trying it – it becomes much more difficult to demonize ‘the other side’ when we recognize that they do not come from a place of malice, but have another way of seeing things that also contain some truths.

It is true and important that the first amendment protects the right to free speech.  But just because we can say it, doesn’t mean that we should say it.  Our moral values point to a higher standard, and it is also good and true to hold those who speak in the public arena to this higher standard.  They set the tone for the rest of us.

A version of this article was first published in the Op-Ed pages of The Bridgeport News, Bridgeport CT on March 16, 2012

Posted on March 21, 2012

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Judaism and the Environment: The Time Is Now

It is a tree of life to those who hold it close and all of its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths lead to peace. Proverbs 3:18

This was one of the very first Hebrew songs I learned. Even as a young child, I knew it was special because it was the melody we sang as we ushered the Torah back into the aron hakodesh — the holy ark where it is kept.

The book of Proverbs, attributed to King Solomon, was written during a time when even our royalty was more innately connected to the earth than your average suburban or city-living Jew today. King Solomon — and most who lived in ancient Israel — surely understood the tremendous power of the metaphor associating Torah with a tree. Just as a tree has roots and branches, so too does Torah. Its roots date back some 3,300 years, to the Jewish narrative of Mt. Sinai — and even earlier, to the formative stories of our people that it tells. Its branches stretch well into the future, carrying generations of Jews who have, through the process of intellectual debate and spiritual discovery, enabled Judaism to evolve and continue to speak the language of modern society. Just as a tree produces fruit, so too does Torah. This fruit comes in the form of mitzvot, or commandments — active ingredients in a recipe for purposeful living. As children, we cherish the opportunity to climb a tree.  So too, we strive to ascend Torah, grasping its multiple branches of interpretation and reaching for higher meaning.

Our Rabbis’ decision to celebrate this metaphor offers a good hint not only at how their society felt about the Torah, but also how they related to trees. The Torah is precious. We hold the Torah, kiss it before and after we read from it, and do everything we can to prevent it from falling. So too, we understand that we must care for our trees. We can swing from their branches, but we must be careful not to break them. We can eat from their fruit, but we are forbidden from destroying the forests they comprise.

This past Wednesday, Jews around the world celebrated Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. First documented in the Mishnah in about 200 CE, Tu Bishvat falls in the midst of winter, when trees are bare — not a time when one might expect a holiday that celebrates the glory of nature. And yet, maybe that is the very reason why this date was so aptly picked. It is at this time, when we are not necessarily cognizant of the beauty of the trees around us, that we most need a holiday to remind us of their ultimate potential. In this midway point of winter, the sap begins to travel up the roots, enabling the buds to form and flowers to bloom in the coming months of spring. Once spring arrives, we will likely be more cognizant of our relationship with the natural world, but during the winter we need a nudge to remind us of the glorious process of renewal that lies ahead.

In recent years, Tu Bishvat has been adopted by environmentalists as a Jewish earth day of sorts. Through an effort to combine Jewish spirituality and environmental action, Jewish environmentalists have stood alongside other religious activists in using a sacred voice to advocate for the future of our planet.

The midrash from Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:19 reads, “When God created Adam, God took him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘See how wonderful and praiseworthy all of my creations are. Everything I have created, I created for you. Be careful not to destroy My world; for if you destroy it, there is no one who will fix it after you.’”

This midrash was written 1300 years ago, yet it could not ring more true for us today.  We are in the midst of environmental crisis. We must make thoughtful, resolute steps if we wish to live in a world with clean air, edible and healthful food, and a stable climate.  The vitality of creation depends on our ability to find sustainable ways of stewarding our planet, and this will only come through a combination of personal commitments and governmental legislation.

This year Tu Bishvat fell during the week of the Interfaith Power and Light National Preach-In on Global Warming.  The preach-in is an effort to encourage religious leaders throughout our nation to speak to their communities about the devastating impact we continue to have on our planet.  As we humans engage in the burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and problematic agricultural and industrial activities, we unleash billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the environment.  This carbon dioxide mixes with water vapor and other gasses in the atmosphere, trapping heat like the glass on a greenhouse and creating devastating climate change here on earth.  “The vast majority of scientists now agree that our climate is being threatened in an unprecedented way,” Asserts the Reverend Sally Bingham, Founder and President of IPL, “And we’re already seeing and feeling some of the devastating consequences. I have always maintained that religious people should lead the environmental movement. If we aren’t going to take care of creation, we can’t expect others to. People from all religions have a shared purpose in doing our part to keep God’s earth clean and healthy for the future.”

Congregants in synagogues, churches, and mosques throughout the country will be offered 5×7 postcards at services this weekend that they can mail to their senators, asking them to own their moral responsibility and support the Clean Air Act.

Bingham asserts that religious leaders not only have a responsibility to speak the truth, but also have a unique ability to reach those who have not yet thought deeply about these issues. She tells congregants that the environment is not a political issue, but rather one of theology – “It’s a matter of life and death.”  People often respond by saying: “I’ve just never thought of it like that – this means something to me and is going to make a difference in my life and the way I behave.”

In Judaism, we do a lot of thinking, debating, and reflecting – but the beauty of Judaism is that it is not simply esoteric and spiritual; it is also grounded and practical. Ideally, all of these discussions lead us to action that will improve our communities and our world.  As we move from Tu Bishvat into National Preach-In Shabbat, may we be resolute about turning our intentions into action.  It is time to take an account of our carbon footprint and recommit ourselves to environmental action — both through personal reform and national advocacy — before it’s too late.

Posted on February 10, 2012

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Jewish storytelling: not just at the kitchen table, but about the kitchen table

I was recently sharing my excitement about Bill Bryson’s latest book, At Home, during a Friday night sermon.  The premise of the book is how we can learn so much history from the very ordinary objects in our homes.  He writes:

Looking around my house I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me.  Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to those two.  Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon?  And why do forks have four tines and not three or five?  There must be reasons for these things… I heard a reference on the radio to someone paying for room and board, and realized that when people talk about room and board, I have no idea what the board is that they are talking about.  Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me.

I started to turn these questions in my head, and to think about the Jewish home this way.  A few years ago Vanessa Ochs wrote an article in which she proposed ways of categorizing the things in a Jewish home.  Her categories, I realized, also provide ways that enable us to use our everyday household objects to tell the story and the history of the Jewish people and, more specifically, our personal family histories.  The first category is ‘Articulate objects’.  These are the self-evident items that might tell you that you are in a Jewish home, like a mezuzah on the door, a menorah, a challah cover.   The specific ones that we have may tell a personal story, but the objects themselves tell more of the ‘official’ history of Judaism.

The second category she calls ‘Jewish-Signifying Objects’.  For example, it is not unique to Jewish families to have photographs of the grandchildren in abundance.  However, the university graduation photos of every one of my grandmother’s children and grandchildren all lined up on one wall tells a social history of the first generation of her family to get a college education, and the enormous value that a Jewish parent places on education in general.

The final category is what Ochs labels ‘Ordinary objects transformed.’  These are things that might be found in any household, but in a specific context take on the role of klei kodesh – holy objects that we use for sacred purpose or mitzvot.  An ornate white tablecloth that is wrapped in plastic and taken out once a year is more than just a nice, white tablecloth.  Used on Rosh Hashanah it is being used for the act of hiddur mitzvah – to beautify the mitzvah of making a festive meal.  I use my home computer for all kinds of things, but 99% of the time that I am on Skype, it is to connect with my parents, in part an expression of kabed avicha v’et v’imecha – honor your mother and father.

I can’t wait to read the rest of Bill Bryson’s book so that I can walk from room to room in my home and tell the stories and the history of our society through the ordinary objects that I see.  But it is also great fun, and a great way to do Jewish storytelling, for each of us to look around our homes for ordinary and everyday things that tell our Jewish stories.  Give it a go, and I’d love for you to post some of your personal and family Jewish stories about some of the ordinary things in your home in the comments here.  I’ll cross-post some of the best ones on my personal blog too.

Posted on December 14, 2011

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