“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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“Eastern Europe’s outcast, Belarus lies at the edge of the region and seems determined to avoid integration with the rest of the continent at all costs. Taking its lead from the Soviet Union rather than the European Union, this pint-sized dictatorship may seem like a strange choice for travelers.”
- Lonely Planet: Eastern Europe
I am going to Minsk. It is a strange choice indeed. All I keep thinking in my head is, “didn’t our people work hard to get out of there?” More than that, my great grandmother was taken there against her will. Brought by train to a forest and along with thousands of other cultured, educated, Viennese Jews she was shot.
So why the heck would I choose to go there voluntarily?
I keep telling myself it is to honor and support my mother, who wants to honor her grandmother.
All of this is true. I do want to honor and support my mother and honor my great grandmother.
But this still feels a bit crazy.
I grew up breathing the Holocaust. It was a topic spoken of at almost every meal. Hitler’s Mein Kampf sat on the bookshelf right outside my door. For years I suffered from nightmares that I was being deported. I found my own way to deal with the pain in my family and our community. I eschewed all things Holocaust. I did not read books that were not assigned reading. I did not see Schindler’s List. Even as I pursued a PhD. In Jewish history, I chose to focus on the lives of German speaking Jews until 1914. I actively chose to remember those who were murdered as they lived and not only as the victims Hitler wanted them to be.
I am filled with trepidation. Clearly this will not be a fun trip. In addition to the guidebook description, we have been told to bring bug repellant and raingear to manage the swampy conditions we may encounter. One cannot visit Belarus without getting a visa which is obtained through a complex and archaic process.
You have to be part of an organized tour or work program. And very clear limits on the duration must be set in advance. So we are heading on a four day trip that heads out from Austria, my grandmother’s birthplace. The trip is organized by an Austrian woman named Waltraud Barton who is not Jewish. She dedicates her time to placing markers on the graves or former homes of Jews deported from Austria. My mother connected with her last year when she and my children dedicated a tripping stone outside the home from which my great-grandmother was deported. Waltraud is bringing a group of like-minded Austrian with her. My parents and I will be the only non-Europeans. While we will meet briefly with the Reform rabbi of Minsk, we will be the only Jews for most of the journey. I am bringing a tallit and yizkor candles. The entire tour will be conducted in German and my language skills will be stretched to their limits. My borders, rabbinic and otherwise will be pushed.
I do not know what remembering the Holocaust will look like for the coming generations. In my work on global Judaism with Be’chol Lashon I often teach about the expulsion from Spain which like the Holocaust displaced a whole community, destroying physically and spiritually much of the core. Yet centuries later it is often relegated to a footnote in history.
I do not worry that the Holocaust will have the same fate. In our modern era we have done well recording and memorializing the atrocities perpetrated by everyday people against Jews in Europe. But the process of remembering forward the collective loss is a collective responsibility. When I was younger, I was content to leave that responsibility of remembering the horrors to others but now, as my parents age, and the generation that knew the Holocaust first hand is disappearing, my sense of obligation is changing.
I honestly don’t know what that means exactly. I am trained as a historian but there are some things that cannot be reasoned from an armchair. I suspect that going to this place which on so many levels repels me will help me better understand what I think and feel. In general, we are taught to set out expectations and proceed towards goals. But this is different. This trip is an act of faith, faith that it will be all right in the moment, faith that emotionally I will be able to grapple with what I encounter, faith that this is not really a crazy thing to do, faith that meaning will be illuminated. Somewhere beyond reason, I believe that this trip is the right thing to do.
The 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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As a child, the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas noticed that dogs appear in Torah at a crucial moment. On the night of the tenth plague, Torah says, “not a dog was barking” (Ex. 11:7). Young Manny wondered at this. Why do dogs deserve to be mentioned? How could they have known what a momentous night it was for both Israelites and Egyptians? Are dogs really “man’s best friend”? What does the Torah know about this?
Levinas found his answers during World War II. He, a French citizen, was drafted into the French army in 1939. Early in the war, German soldiers captured Levinas along with his regiment, and placed him in a POW camp in a special block for Jewish prisoners. Guards treated the Jews as non-persons, interacting as little as possible, never calling them by name.
One day, as the prisoners were returning from work, a dog came by. They called him “Bobby.” Bobby made friends with the Jewish prisoners. Each time they returned from work, Bobby greeted them with joyous canine passion. Eventually, Bobby moved on in his travels, but he remained a treasure in the hearts of the prisoners. Bobby the dog was the only one who recognized them as human beings.
Sometimes, Levinas concludes, dogs can be more humane than human beings. In the Exodus story, their humanity contrasts with Pharaoh’s hardened, de-humanized heart. Unlike Pharaoh, the dogs responded to human feeling, and sensed the presence of the Infinite God. Unlike the German soldiers who murdered Levinas’ parents and brothers, or the French officials who sought his wife and daughter hiding in a monastery, Bobby saw past ethnicity into a living heart.
Bobby’s visit echoes through Levinas’ mature philosophy. To be alone, writes Levinas, can be terrible. Sometimes it seems that even God has abandoned the world. The way out of this loneliness is to respond to others. Traces of God are found in this response-ability. Some people feel God’s infinity through their infinite sense of social or interpersonal responsibility. They know that responsibility must be taught and modeled at every level of relationship—first at home and then on the world stage—in order to make a lasting difference.
As Bobby’s friendship with the prisoners shows, we do not have to know other people well in order to respond to them. Sometimes, says Levinas, we don’t even know the inner lives of our own family members, yet we reach out to them in love. Good spouses understand they cannot fully know one another, and embrace this interpersonal mystery. Good parents recognize they cannot control or predict their children’s future, and cherish the surprises children bring.
Yes, Passover with all its surprises is upon us this very Monday night. But it is still possible to bring Bobby’s spirit to your Seder, in some small, but emotionally huge, last-minute ways.“Let all who are hungry come in and eat,” says the haggadah. Can you set aside some very real everyday differences to reach out to a last-minute guest? “Originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers,” adds the Haggadah, reminding us that nobody has a perfect history. Can you get beyond habitual negative judgments of the spiritual levels of your least favorite relatives, to greet them with joy?
The more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.
We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.
What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage. I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision. I looked back in history to see how this debate played out at the time of the 1936 Olympic games in Germany. Initially, there was a question of boycotting the games that was perhaps most intensively considered in the USA. According to a review of those events provided by the Holocaust Encyclopedia hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.:
Responding to reports of the persecution of Jewish athletes in 1933, Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC), stated: “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.”
However, Brundage then went on to assert that his investigation led him to believe that German Jewish athletes (and other Jewish athletes) would not be discriminated against at the games. He argued “…that politics had no place in sport. He fought to send a US team to the 1936 Olympics, claiming: “The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.” He wrote in the AOC’s pamphlet “Fair Play for American Athletes” that American athletes should not become involved in the present “Jew-Nazi altercation.” As the Olympics controversy heated up in 1935, Brundage alleged the existence of a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” to keep the United States out of the Games.”
With the benefit of hindsight, would we argue today that a different decision should have been made? I struggle with the answer. I know that one of the things that I most remember from what I have previously learned about the events of that time is the victory of Jesse Owens, winning four gold medals, highlighting the absurdity of Hitler’s belief in the supremacy of the “Aryan race.” Will we loudly celebrate every success of a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender athlete at the Sochi Games?
I hear the perspective that it is the presence of the games in Russia that is heightening media attention on the realities in that country. Attention which, I believe, these horrific laws and actions would most likely not receive to the same degree were it not for the games. I also struggle with the question of what sponsors should be doing. I would like nothing more than to learn that Russia finds itself with a huge bill at the end of these games because international corporate sponsors like Coca Cola were not propping up the games. But I’m not sure how or if this would help any of the citizens of Russia whose lives are being affected by Russian government policies. Is a pro-LGBT Coca Cola ad during the NFL Super Bowl enough to make a different kind of statement?
Ultimately, while I struggle with the question of the Olympic games in Sochi, I am much more certain about what needs to happen after Sochi. The media attention must not go away. The corporate sponsors must not stop demonstrating their explicit support for a diverse and inclusive society. And when, (and I’m sorry that I believe it is more of a when than an if) we hear that LGBT Russians are seeking asylum from prosecution and fear of death in their native land, we must ensure that they have a safe place to go and are welcomed here and in all countries who have declared their support and concern for LGBT lives in Russia while supporting the Sochi games.
Once a month at our family Shabbat service we ask families to submit questions in advance in what, in lieu of a sermon, is our ‘So now you know’ slot. It’s great to see what kinds of questions arise. Sometimes it is seeking explanations for why certain rituals look the way they do; sometimes it is seeking an understanding of how to interpret a particular story or text in our tradition; often it is looking to us as Rabbis to help our congregants navigate between tradition and modernity, especially at times when the logic of one of our traditions seems less clear.
This past month I was asked to address the questions of tattoos in Jewish tradition. This included, of course, the question as to the truth of the myth that a tattoo denies one burial in a Jewish ceremony. While I can’t vouch for the individual policies of specific burial societies and grounds, there is certainly no halachah that denies burial of a Jew in a Jewish cemetery on these grounds. Just as we don’t deny burial to someone for their lack of observing another of the commandments found in the Torah, such as observing Shabbat or refraining from eating non-kosher animals or fish.
I shared the historical evolution of the source and interpretation of the Torah that led to a Jewish ban on tattoos throughout the ages. These are reviewed concisely elsewhere on this site.
But then I raised some contemporary examples that demonstrate the complexities of navigating tradition and modernity in today’s world where, rather than providing answers, I offered my congregants the invitation to discuss as families how they felt about the following examples:
1) A man wishes to honor the memory of his father, a survivor of the Holocaust. Rather than tattooing his father’s number that was permanently inscribed in his skin in the concentration camps, the son chooses to have the number 6,000,000 tattooed on his arm. It is his way of never forgetting.
2) A young adult, as a sign of pride in her Jewish identity, chooses to have the Hebrew letters that spell Chai, meaning ‘life’ tattooed just above her heart. For her, it is a sign of her connection to her people and to the land of Israel – Am Yisrael Chai – the people of Israel still live.
3) A man, upon reconnecting with his sense of Jewish identity, community, and recommitting to Jewish learning, decides to have his Hebrew name tattooed on his shoulder as an outward sign of his return to his faith.
How are we to respond to these stories? Are these well intended but misguided choices? Would not a necklace or a bracelet with the same words have sufficed? Or are we living at a different time? A time when our study of the subject reveals that the origins of the law – a prohibition against idolatry – clearly do not hold in these cases. For those who are not bound by the halachic process, where later rabbinic positions are not regarded as the final word on how we observe today, the landscape of decision-making is clearly different to what it once was. We know that many Jews continue to observe and celebrate based on the additional criteria of personal meaning, and these three examples are saturated with such meaning.
I don’t have easy answers. I believe there are Jewish ways to explore the questions. And, as I reminded those in my congregation last Friday, we can all look back at photos of ourselves from past decades and regret some of the fashion choices we made. The good news is that most of us have the luxury of being able to change our clothes and update our hairstyles quite easily. Removing a tattoo is a much more costly and involved process, so there are still plenty of good reasons to pause for a good, long time before proceeding down that path, even if the threat of banishment from a Jewish cemetery isn’t one of them.
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The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising has created renewed interest in the actions of Polish gentiles who assisted Poland’s Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Some rescuers hid individual Jews who managed to flee the Germans’ murderous “aktions” and ghettos while others joined in the Warsaw ghetto revolt, forged identity papers for Jews and participated in other activities that saved Jewish lives. One rescuer, Irena Sendler, managed to save over 3000 Jewish lives but her activities were almost forgotten until a group of rural Kansas students heard rumors about her wartime endeavors and embarked on a wide-ranging research project to publicize her incredible story.
Irena Sendler was working for the Warsaw Department of Social Work when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. The department’s social workers attempted to help the Jews who were displaced and impoverished under the Nazi rule and Irena participated in these activities, expanding on these pursuits as a member of the underground Zagota anti-Nazi organization.
When the Warsaw ghetto was established Sendler obtained forged documents that identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. With these documents she was able to enter the ghetto and she brought in whatever food and medicines that she could. Sendler quickly realized that she could increase her effectiveness by helping Jews escape and she decided to concentrate on removing children from the ghetto.
Sendler started smuggling street children out of the ghetto but soon expanded as she tried to bring out children whose parents were still alive. She walked through the ghetto and knocked on the doors of families whose children were still alive to convince the parents that their children’s only chance of survival lay with escape.
More than 50 years after the war Sendler described the agony of those days. “I talked the mothers out of their children. Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn’t give me the child. Their first question was, ‘What guarantee is there that the child will live?’ I said, ‘None. I don’t even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.”
Sendler and her Zagota comrades had several modes that they used to smuggle children out of the ghetto. Some children were sedated and hidden under Sendler’s tram seat, in a toolbox or piece of luggage or in a cart under a pile of garbage or barking dogs. Older children were often walked out through the sewer system that ran underneath Warsaw or through a break in the Old Courthouse that sat on the ghetto’s border.
Once a child was smuggled out of the ghetto, finding a secure hiding place for the child was as perilous an activity as the actual act of smuggling the child out of the ghetto. Sendler and her Zagota compatriots forged documents, identified sympathetic Polish families and transported the children to safe hiding places including at the Rodzina Marii Orphanage in Warsaw and at convents in Lublin, Chomotow and Turkowice. Sendler compulsively recorded the children’s names together with their hiding places, hoping that after the war they could be reunited with their families or, at the very least, with their Jewish community. There “records” were stuffed into glass jars and buried in a neighbor’s garden.
The Warsaw Ghetto revolt occurred in April 1943 and within months no Jews remained in the area. Sendler, whose code name for her underground activities was “Jolenta,” was given total responsibility for the welfare of Jewish children by the Zagota underground. She continued to try to find children who had, somehow, been saved from the transports and mass shootings and move them into hiding.
In October 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and was brought to the infamous Pawiak prison where she was tortured, but she did not reveal any information about her Zagota comrades or the children’s whereabouts. The Germans sentenced Sendler to death but Zagota members were able to bribe a German guard and she was released just hours before her scheduled execution.
In 1999 a group of schoolgirls from Uniontown Kansas heard about Sendler and embarked on an extensive research project about her life. They created a play about her which they performed in a number of locations. This performance happened to catch the attention of the LA based, Jewish run Lowell Milken Family Foundation who allotted them a grant allowing them to create the Life in a Jar project. This project dedicated to spreading the tale of Irena Sendler, now containing a website, book, film and continuous presentations that have currently been performed in hundreds of locations worldwide.
This is one remarkable example of the goodness that can transpire when we are able to see beyond the boundaries that we think define us and reach across those lines with an open hand. May Irena’s story and the actions of those Kansas schoolgirls come to inspire us to see beyond our boundaries for the welfare and benefit of all people.
Yom Hasho’ah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, begins tomorrow evening at sundown. Many of us will light a yahrzeit candle and pause to remember. And many memorials will include the singing of Ani Ma’amin — “I believe.”
The text is fairly well-known: “I believe, with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may tarry, I will wait for him.” The context is very well-known. It was this text that some Jews sang on their way to their deaths during the Shoah. The well-known Modzhitzer niggun nearly perfectly captures the longing, the hope, and the horror of those moments on the trains, on the platforms, on the journey to the gas. He tarries…and we wait.
What does it it mean to say “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah” while everything around you suggests otherwise? What does it take to sing it under the most trying of circumstances? Had circumstances been different, were I living there instead of here, then instead of now, would I have been among its singers?
I cannot know, but I can hope. Better yet, I can prepare. I can try to live each moment well, forming habits of the heart and soul that will lead me to do the right thing, instinctively and reflexively, when the chips are down. And as I practice, I come to realize that faith in the Messiah is about having faith in the human capacity to connect to Other, to Self, to God. When we do those things, we bring what our Tradition calls Y’mot Hamashiach that much closer.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz concludes his Faith after the Holocaust with two pieces of testimony from that time and place, seeing in them reason to believe. He tells the story of
Abraham Seidman, the Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, the kind of Jew whom Judaism produced in every generation in tens of thousands, a pious, modest, hardworking pater familias at the same time scholarly, not in a professional sense, but simply because it was the duty of every Jew to study and know the Torah. He had been taken from the Ghetto to the Umschlagplatz to be sent to Auschwitz. There was still some time before the transport was to leave. How did Abraham Seidman spend the few remaining minutes? He wrote a letter to his children taking leave of them forever and asking them for forgiveness should he ever have offended or hurt them.
And Berkowitz also tells this story, first-told in Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel’s Min Hametzar, regarding Itzik Rosensweig:
Itzik was a Jew somewhere in Slovakia, a Jew like Abraham Seidman in Warsaw. He made a living by raising poultry. One day he and his family were squeezed into the cattle cars, in which hundreds of other Jews were pressed to suffocation. In the car there was despair all around him; outside a celebrating population of former neighbors was jeering at him and deriding him. He begged them: Please go to my house and give food and water to the poultry. They had nothing to eat or drink all day.
Where is the Mashiach for whom we wait? He lives in Abraham Seidman, showing himself to be, for one shining moment, a perfect parent. He lives in Itzik Rosensweig, answering baseless hatred with a display of compassion and wholeheartedness for the ages. He lives in those Modzhitzer Hasidim, singing their faith with full hearts, performing the ultimate act of Kiddush Hashem Barabim, sanctifying God’s Name for all the world to see. He is always at hand. When we are be’emunah shleimah, in a place of wholeness and trust, feeling safe and secure no matter what is happening around us, then Mashiach lives in us.
Ani Ma’amin – I believe.
Be’emunah sh’leimah – with a faith that is whole. With a faith that emerges from my own wholeness, the clear sense of just what is, right now.
B’viat hamashiach – I believe with a faith that emerges from the clarity of this moment, that all moments can be this moment. Clear. Perfect. And I believe that the clarity and perfection is precisely what is called mashiach.
V’af al pi sheyitmah’meyah – And though that clarity is fleeting, though the moments of perfection are few and far between…
Im kol “zeh” – With every moment that passes, every “now,” every “this”…
Achakeh lo – I seek to open to that possibility, waiting, and working, and hoping.
B’chol yom, sheyavo — Every day, every moment, let it come to pass.
Last week, while checking in on the latest articles on the Religion page of the Huffington Post, the following headline caught my eye: Proxy Baptism Seekers Eyed Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel For Posthumous Mormon Rite.
For those who might have missed it the details, in summary are as follows: There is apparently a long-standing tradition of Mormons submitting the names of deceased people for a post-humous proxy baptism into the Mormon church. A researcher found among names submitted via an online site that is accessible to Mormons only the name of Elie Wiesel – still very much alive. Among the names submitted for this Mormon ritual has often been those who died in the Holocaust.
In fact, Mormon church rules mean that one is only meant to submit the names of your own direct descendants. After previous examples of famous Jews being included in these proxy baptisms, negotiations between Mormon and Jewish leaders led to an agreement in 1995 for the church to stop the posthumous baptism of all Jews, except in the case of direct ancestors of Mormons. But researchers have demonstrated that the practice did not stop. The church did apologize for these latest events this past Monday, calling them a serious breach of their protocol.
I was going to dismiss the story as just one of those things that often irk us but are so fringe as to be unworthy of great debate, but I was prompted to pause and think about some of the broader questions that arise from this. Before thinking about matters of the soul, I want to first turn to questions of ownership regarding other aspects of our ‘person’, namely our personal data.
In recent weeks there has been a lot of press coverage about the rights we have to our own personal data and information in the era of facebook, twitter, etc. You might have been aware of some black-out days on some services, like Wikipedia, protesting against new proposed legislation that would make it illegal to post any information online without verification that it is yours to post. It would make the sharing that many of us do on facebook of videos that ‘go viral’ or cute cartoons etc. potentially illegal and would hold the services that facilitated this sharing accountable. This, most agree, is taking ownership of data a step too far, bringing the whole online crowd-sourcing, sharing world of cyberspace to a grinding halt.
However, there are also stories of iphone and Android apps that, without your permission, access your address book and collect the data found there. There are questions about the ways that Facebook makes whatever you are posting available as data for their advertisers, which is why ads that might be more pertinent to you pop up on the right side of your Facebook wall. On the one hand, I rather like that the system is smart enough to only show me things that I might actually be interested in rather than the more indiscriminate advertising I am subjected to every day I turn on my TV. On the other hand, I do have concerns about how my data is being stored and who is getting access to it without my knowledge.
How is this relevant to the ‘baptism by proxy’ story? I find it interesting to contemplate whether these debates about who owns some of our essential data in life can also be carried over to thinking about who might make a claim to our essential souls in death.
If we are horrified by the mormon church story, is it because we find the idea that they believe that they are actually doing something of material impact and worth by these rituals utterly preposterous, or is it that we are truly offended that they should claim the rights to any souls that are not their own? If the whole thing is just ridiculous, then perhaps we should all just buy tickets to the Book of Mormon, and have a good laugh at the strange practices of another faith tradition (its not like we don’t have enough of our own, and Purim is coming so we have plenty of opportunity to make fun of some of our own stranger practices).
But I suspect that most of us aren’t finding this a laughing matter. And I think it might be because, whatever we think we believe about what happens to our souls after death, the idea that another faith group has the right to any part of us suggests that we are somehow deficient in their eyes as we are. In their eyes, there is something about our identity, faith tradition, and the way that we are walking through life that is incorrect and, hence, we need to be saved. That they seem to be especially concerned about the souls of those who died or survived the Holocaust just adds to the insult.
There is an old Jewish morality tale, the source of which I haven’t pinned down (but please provide it in the comments if you know it!, but it is the essence of the message that is relevant here:
A story is told about a pious Jew who boasts to his rabbi that he saved another Jew’s soul. A beggar had asked him for a meal and he agreed, but insisted that first they must pray the afternoon minchah prayers. And before serving him a meal, he ordered the beggar to wash his hands and recite the appropriate blessing, and thereafter to recite the motzi prayer over the bread.
The rabbi showed his annoyance with his pious disciple. “There are times, my son, when you must act as if there were no God.”
The disciple, taken aback by this counsel, protested, “How could I, a man of faith, act as if no God existed?”
The rabbi replied, “When someone comes to you in need, as this beggar came, act as if there were no God in the universe, as if you alone are in the world and that there is no one to help him, except yourself.”
The disciple asked aloud, “And have I no responsibility for his soul?” The rabbi replied, “Take care of your soul and his body, not visa versa.”
We are commanded by God to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; to do what we can to make existence for each other better in this life; to alleviate suffering when we have the ability to do so. When we die, many of us believe in a soul that continues into eternity; a soul that is reunited with the Source of all existence. But what actually happens and where we go, we do not know. We leave it in God’s hands. We don’t need any intermediaries and we respectfully ask that, like our personal data online, that others keep their hands off!
The Exodus from Egypt is considered to be the foundational/orienting event for our sacred history. Many commandments are attached to its memory and it can be argued that our experience there is a source for our ethics and morality. “Do not afflict the stranger because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” Morality is not only a product of reason, but of historical experience. Included in our tradition as well is a prohibition to return to Egypt. For some the Biblical source is Exodus 14:13, when just as the People came to the Red Sea and were being pursued by the Egyptians “Moses said to the people, Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today, [but] you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity.”
There are a number of explanations offered for this prohibition, but it does appear that the Torah is wary of our returning to the place of intense degradation and suffering. Egypt is the place we left from in order to become a People. Does returning there somehow undo and reverse our sacred history? Should you return to a place of oppression and suffering? Can it ever be home?
We know that this prohibition was not followed and a Jewish community flourished in Egypt since the time of the Second Temple. Traditional commentaries wrestle with this seeming violation and offer a number of justifications for Jews living in Egypt. Indeed our source of so much knowledge of our history was unearthed in the past century from the riches of the Cairo Genizah.
This particular case of Egypt comes to mind for me because last week I spent two days in Berlin with rabbis from Chicago. Berlin is a magnificent city and while many buildings are new, many damaged during the War have been restored. As Jews, it is a city central to modern Jewish history. Berlin is also a city of over 130 Holocaust memorials, many of which were constructed as grass roots efforts by the residents of the city and are scattered in many neighborhoods. There is the striking Jewish museum visited by mostly non Jews. But the German Jewish community that thrived there is no more.
This is not however, the end of the story. Berlin is a city with a Jewish community that is slowly being reconstituted with Jews from the former Soviet Union. There are two rabbinical seminaries, one Liberal and one Orthodox. They are training rabbis to serve throughout Germany. Chabad is there as well. Yet one wonders: is this the place Jews should return to after the horrors of the Holocaust? Even as Germany has recognized itself as the perpetrator of the crime, should Jewish civilization reconstitute itself here?
In 1961, Gershom Scholem spoke in Israel at a program celebrating Martin Buber’s translation of the Bible into German, a project begun by him and Franz Rosenzweig in Berlin before the War. Scholem ended his speech with: “For many of us the living sound you tried to evoke in the German language has faded away. Will anyone be found to take it up again?” On my recent trip the German born Masorati rabbi in Berlin, when asked what it meant to live in a city and country that sought to annihilate us answered: Where else can you read Zunz, Buber and Rosenzweig in the original? And finally when asked why go into the rabbinate in Germany, one of the rabbis responded that they were engaged in the ultimate rebuttal of Hitler.