Another column of mine about Yiddish words/phrases can be read at Tabet Magazine, here.
An article I wrote for the Forward last week about American Jewry’s current and future relationship with Israel can be read here.
Over the years, thanks to some creative, unusual talmidim I was privileged to teach when I was a mesivta Rebbe, I have had an assortment of pets (the animal sort). Each of several Purims, my shiur would give my wife and me, in addition to mishloach manos, a living gift.
We thereby became the proud caretakers, at various points, of a goat, an iguana and a tarantula. In addition to the tropical fish we’ve always kept, and the occasional hamster or mouse one or another of our children cared for.
I honestly appreciated each of the creatures; they evoked in me amazement over the variety and abilities of Hashem’s creations. Likewise, the birds and squirrels outside our dining room window during breakfast are an endless source of beauty (and, even sweeter, needn’t be fed). My wife is particularly partial to the graceful deer that sometimes venture from nearby woods to visit.
But animals are animals. Not, as some increasingly assert, beings less sentient than us but no less worthy of being treated as human.
The more than two thirds of American households that own pets spend more than $60 billion on their care each year, up sharply in recent years. People give dogs birthday presents and have their portraits taken by professional photographers. According to at least one study, many Americans grow more concerned when they see a dog in pain than when they see an adult human suffering.
That’s bad enough, but the law, too, is being enlisted to obscure the bright line between the animal and the human spheres.
Last year, the Illinois legislature passed a law that would force courts to give “parents” joint custody of pets in divorce cases. “It sort of starts treating your animal more like children,” says an unembarrassed Illinois State Senator Linda Holmes, the bill’s sponsor.
The nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project promotes the idea that animals should be entitled to the right to not be unlawfully detained without a judge’s order. Habeas corpus for horses.
New York University law professor Richard Epstein sees the implications, and skeptically observes that “We kill millions of animals a day for food. If they have the right to bodily liberty, it’s basically a holocaust.”
Shades of the 2002 book that made precisely that case. It bears a truly obscene title: “Eternal Treblinka.”
And then there is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals founder and president Ingrid Newkirk’s declaration a few years back that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses,” and her infamous aphorism “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”
We are required by halachah to protect animals from needless harm or unnecessary suffering when they are put to our service or killed for food. But that is a far bark from assigning them “rights.”
We who have been gifted with the Torah, as well as all people who are the product of societies influenced by Torah truths, have no problem distinguishing between animals and human beings.
But some secularists reason that, since animals have mental abilities, if limited ones, they should be treated like human infants.
If such people’s minds are open even a crack, though, they should be able to realize that considering animals qualitatively different from humans isn’t “speciesism” but a truth born of observable facts.
Yes, animals think and communicate. But conceiving or conveying abstract but important concepts like “right” and “wrong” and “responsibility” and “wantonness” – is something quintessentially, and pointedly, human.
Humans, moreover, have what philosophy calls moral agency, the ability to choose to act even against instinct.
And something else.
In a recent conversation with an eldercare professional, I pointed out something she had never considered.
Seen through a secular lens, biological species are “interested” only in preserving their own lives and those of their progeny; their behavior (consciously or not) serves the biological goal of the species’ perseverance. The previous generation has no value; it has served its purpose. Animals care only for their young, not for their parents.
Humans, though, at least in normal circumstances, feel an obligation to care for those to whom they owe their lives.
It will have to be seen whether or not such compelling distinctions will put brakes on the misguided idea of a smooth animal-human continuum. And, if it doesn’t, whether those who see animals as human (and vice versa, the inevitable other side of that counterfeit coin) will be able to enlist lawmakers in their goals.
More than we might imagine will hang on it.
© 2018 Hamodia
Poland has a point.
The country’s legislature passed a controversial bill last week aimed at quashing the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” for Nazi extermination enterprises built and operated by the Third Reich across Poland. The bill, which Polish President Andrzej Duda later signed into law, also bans referring to “the Polish Nation” as “responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes,” on penalty of fines or a maximum three-year jail term.
Poland was indeed an occupied country during that dark time. In addition to murdering 3,000,000 Jews, the Germans also killed between two and three million non-Jewish Polish civilians.
More than 6,700 Poles, moreover – more than citizens of any other nationality – have been honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem for their bravery in resisting the Nazis.
So one can understand how using “Polish” as the adjective modifying “death camps” might rankle Poles today. “Nazi death camps in Poland” is a more accurate description of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.
But Poland, all said and done, was not Denmark. The Danes, whose country was also occupied by the Nazis, famously refused to give up their Jews to the Nazis. When, in 1941, Danish authorities were told by their German overlords that a roundup of the country’s Jews was imminent, they immediately informed the Jewish community and, with the help of the citizenry, hid many Jews and spirited many more to safety in Sweden.
By contrast, and with all due and richly deserved recognition of the risky heroism of thousands of Poles during World War II, Jew-hatred was no German import to their land.
Religion-based anti-Semitism was entrenched in Polish society well before the Nazis invaded Poland. There were blood libels and widespread promotion of the stereotype of Jews as disloyal and worse. By 1939, hostility towards Jews was a mainstay of the country’s popular right-wing political forces.
My father, a”h, recalled being warned by his parents in their Polish town of Ruzhan to not venture outside around Pesach-time. Church sermons, he wrote in his memoir, “spurred our Gentile neighbors to try to kill Jews.” He and his siblings would peek through the window to see angry townspeople marching with banners, looking for victims.
Polish-born historian Jan Grabowski notes that approximately 250,000 Jews fled the liquidated ghettos in 1942 and 1943, yet only 35,000 survived the war. His conclusion: more than 200,000 Polish Jews were betrayed by their countrymen to the Germans or the Polish police beholden to them.
“We will under no circumstances,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in reaction to the new Polish law, “accept any attempt to rewrite history.”
Yad Vashem decried the legislation too, as did a U.S. Congressional taskforce on combatting anti-Semitism, which said that the law “could have a chilling effect on dialogue, scholarship, and accountability in Poland about the Holocaust.”
Polish leaders and media expressed dismay over the Israeli and American reaction. Poles, understandably, don’t like to be tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism, neither in their past nor in their present.
A 2017 survey by the Polish Center for Research on Prejudice showed that more than 55 percent of Poles were “annoyed” by talk of Polish participation in crimes against Jews.
Telling, though, were some expressions of that dismay and annoyance.
Like those on a program that aired last week on a mainstream Polish television channel, TVP2.
The program was hosted by Marcin Jerzy Wolski, and his guest was Polish commentator and author Rafal Aleksander Ziemkiewicz. Shortly before the program, Mr. Ziemkiewicz posted a thought on social media:
“For many years I have convinced my people that we must support Israel. Today, because of a few scabby or greedy people, I feel like an idiot.” “Scab” is a Polish slur for “Jew.”
The posting was later deleted, but first thoughts are often the most revealing ones.
Then, on the program itself, Mr. Ziemkiewicz offered further wisdom.
“If we look at the percentage of involvement of countries that took part,” he suggested, “Jews also were part of their own destruction.”
Mr. Wolski emphatically agreed. “Using this terminology, linguistically,” he offered, “we could say these were not German or Polish camps, but were Jewish camps. After all, who dealt with the crematoria?”
Got that? Since Jews were forced on penalty of death to burn their relatives’ remains, their prisons were “Jewish death camps.”
It has to make one think. What in the world could so pervert a human mind to equate collaborators with victims? To compare those abetting evil with those who suffered its horrible designs?
Only one answer readily comes to mind.
© 2018 Hamodia
February 2, 2018
Statement of Agudath Israel of America on Polish Holocaust Law
The thousands of Polish citizens who courageously hid and aided Jews during the Holocaust are legend, and deserving of the deepest admiration.
But, according to eyewitnesses and historians, many thousands of Jews who fled liquidated ghettos in 1942 – 1943 were handed over by other Polish citizens to the Germans or those beholden to them.
To attempt to legislate a ban on speaking that truth is a betrayal, too, of those victims of the Nazis, and of history itself.
# # #
On your next vacation in Pyongyang, be sure to visit the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, formerly known as the USS Pueblo.
The Pueblo is the only American vessel being held by a foreign country. It has been in North Korea for, as of last week, fifty years.
The ship’s story is well recalled by many of us of a certain age – I became bar mitzvah the previous year – but is unknown to many post boomers. It is, however, a saga with significant implications for contemporary geopolitics.
The two separate and very different Koreas emerged from World War II, when the north of the peninsula was occupied by the Soviet Union, and its south by the U.S. North Korea made repeated incursions into South Korea. The North took on a radical Marxist identity; the South, a Western capitalist one.
On January 17, 1968, the North launched what is known as the Blue House Raid, in which a 31-man detachment from the Korean People’s Army snuck across the demilitarized zone between the two countries on a mission to infiltrate the South Korean President’s official residence, the “Blue House,” and to, in the words of the insurgents’ general, “Cut off Park Chung-hee’s head!”
The North Koreans were spotted and a firefight ensued. Most of the North Koreans were killed or captured, but 27 South Koreans and three American soldiers perished and 69, including three Americans, were wounded.
At that same time, the Pueblo, which had been converted to a spy ship, was in international waters off the coast of North Korea. In a communications lapse that today would be unthinkable, the ship’s captain, Lloyd M. Bucher, and his 83-man crew knew nothing of North Korea’s most recent attack on the South.
Less than a week after the Blue House attack, the Pueblo was accosted by North Korean navy vessels and air support. The American vessel was fired upon and one crewman was killed. The vessel was not equipped to respond militarily to such an attack and, on January 23, North Korean forces boarded the Pueblo.
The North Koreans claimed the American ship had violated its territorial waters, and held its captain and crew captive. In order to force “confessions” from the captives, it severely mistreated them as well.
Captain Bucher repeatedly refused to cooperate. But he was beaten and deprived of sleep, and shown the example of a suspected South Korean spy – a unconscious man hanging from the ceiling by his hands and who had been beaten so severely his bones showed through his skin. The torture victim had bitten through his lower lip and one of his eyes had been put out. Captain Bucher was told that his crew would be killed, beginning with the youngest and working up. The captain decided at that point to sign a confession.
The forced confession was signed on February 15 and the humiliation inflicted on the U.S. was exploited for all its worth, complete with propaganda photos of the “repentant” crew. The sham became clear when, in one photo, the crew members displayed a rude gesture (which they told their captors was a Hawaiian “good luck” sign). Captain Bucher also punned on an English word to change a salute to the North Koreans into an insult of them. When the captors realized that their propaganda had been undermined, they beat the captives even more harshly than before.
Eleven months after the Pueblo’s capture, its captain and the surviving members of its crew were freed, when the U.S., after lengthy negotiations with the North Koreans, provided a written apology and admission that the Pueblo had been spying, and an assurance that the U.S. would not spy in the future. The apology, however, was preceded by an oral statement that it was done only to secure the captives’ release.
And so, North Korea’s current animosity toward the U.S. is nothing new; it is, in fact, central to its identity and its leaders’ self-justification. The country’s leader today, Kim Jong-un, needs to stir that cauldron of hatred even more than did his father, Kim Jong-Il, or his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who led North Korea when the Pueblo was captured.
And he has nuclear weapons.
Last week, two days after the 50th anniversary of the Pueblo’s capture and after countless recent provocations of South Korea, the North suddenly announced that “all Koreans at home and abroad” should make a “breakthrough” for unification, “promot[ing] contact, travel, cooperation between North and South Korea.” And it added that Pyongyang will “smash” all challenges to the two Koreas’ reunification.
Nations’ alliances and enmities come and go. Some animosities, though, run so deep they seem immutable.
That’s a lesson to be learned from visiting a ship-turned-museum in Pyongyang.
© 2018 Hamodia
My first earthquake was, as you might imagine, unsettling.
I was part of a yeshivah in Northern California in the 1970s, and my wife and I spent our first five years of marriage there, in the lovely Tanteh Clara Valley (yes, it’s officially “Santa” but we renamed it). Temperate clime, brilliant blue skies, enchanting mountains off in the distance.
It’s hard to convey the helplessness one feels when the very ground beneath slowly shifts this way and that. During that first temblor, we were in our second-story apartment. Strange, I thought, looking out a window, how the framed vista seemed to move up and down repeatedly as the building gently swayed. In a few minutes it was all over, but the feeling of powerlessness remained, and its memory has stayed with me over the decades. There’s nowhere to escape to, after all, when the very earth under one’s feet is expressing discomfort.
We later moved into a rented house, and its back yard abutted a dry gully. Dry, at least, in the summer. In the winter, when the Bay Area weather turns rainy, it morphed into a raging river. I loved listening to its roar, audible even in the house.
Our private river at times seemed poised to overflow its banks and come rushing into our living room but, baruch Hashem, it never did.
I was reminded of it recently, when heavy rains in the south of the state followed terrible wildfires that destroyed ground-stabilizing vegetation. The resulting mudslides – even more horrific to contemplate than earthquakes – devastated the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito, killing at least 20 people. Aged 3 to 89, the victims were buried alive in their homes or carried away by the mud.
Then there were the recent disasters that seemed imminent, but blessedly weren’t.
Like the public alert in Hawaii warning that a ballistic missile was headed toward the islands. The alert, understandably, terrified the state’s residents, especially in the wake of the past months’ chest-thumping and nuclear button braggadocio in Washington and Pyongyang.
“This is not a drill,” the official message misinformed Hawaiians, sending people into closets and basements and prompting countless citizens to write heartfelt goodbye notes to their loved ones. No one died as a result, but one man suffered a heart attack, and a woman became violently ill from shock. Many others feared the worst for the 38 minutes it took for state authorities to retract the public notification.
And then, mere days later, Japan’s public broadcaster accidentally sent its own alert that North Korea had launched a missile its way and that citizens should take shelter.
That panic lasted only five minutes, at which point the station apologized for the false alarm.
But, of course, in August, 1945, even though two initial alerts were followed by “all clear” signals in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all was not clear, and 129,000 people were killed, and countless others poisoned by radiation. Nuclear attacks are not unthinkable today either, and contemporary nuclear weapons are vastly more destructive than those of 1945.
Confronted with disasters, actual or averted, should make us think. We readily recognize the dangers of everyday life, the “kol minei puraniyos” we reference in Tefillas Haderech, the she’im yipaseiach echad meihem of Asher Yatzar.
But a truly sensitive person doesn’t just acknowledge the dangers of travel or the menace of maladies. He takes nothing for granted. Nothing. Not the stability of the earth under his feet, nor the absence of mass destruction raining from the sky.
Jews worry. It’s a stereotype exploited by comedians, impolite pundits, and anti-Semites, but it contains a grain of truth. And it derives from a fundamental Jewish middah, hakaras hatov – in the phrase’s most literal, most fundamental, sense, “recognition of the good” – the good that Hashem bestows on us daily, indeed every hour, every minute, every second the earth stays still and the only clouds on the horizon are made of water droplets.
To be exquisitely makir tov to Hashem for all the brachos from which we constantly benefit requires us, on some level, to realize all that could go wrong. There are people, after all, who are jarred from their sleep by earthquakes or fires or mudslides, or who don’t wake up at all. Only a keen recognition of dire possibilities can lead us to fully appreciate what so many mindlessly take for granted.
Nothing, in truth, can be taken for granted.
And that realization should imbue us with hakaras hatov.
© 2018 Hamodia
Senator Orrin G. Hatch’s announcement of his retirement at the end of the year brought me back to the summer of 1995. That’s when I returned to my family’s former home of Providence, Rhode Island to visit, for the last time, the Utah senator’s former speechwriter, one of the most fascinating people I have had the fortune of knowing.
A scion of the Zhviller Chassidic dynasty, Rabbi Baruch Korff lay on his deathbed.
It was back in the 1970s that the erudite, eloquent Rabbi Korff worked without fanfare for Senator Hatch. To this day, the Mormon lawmaker, whose affinity for the Jewish people and Israel is legend, wears a “mezuzah” necklace given him, I believe, by Rabbi Korff.
Rabbi Korff was best known to the American public as “Nixon’s rabbi” – a title given him by President Richard Nixon himself, with whom Rabbi Korff developed a deep personal relationship. It is widely believed that the rabbi had an influence on Nixon’s strong support for Israel and on efforts to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate.
When the Watergate scandal broke in 1973, Rabbi Korff staunchly defended Mr. Nixon, founding the National Citizens Committee for Fairness for the Presidency. He admitted that Nixon had “misused his power” and that Watergate was “wrong,” but felt that the president hadn’t committed any crime and deserved to remain in office.
But Rabbi Korff’s early years were even more remarkable, bordering on incredible.
In 1919, a pogrom was launched by Christian residents of his birthplace, the Ukrainian city of Novograd Volynsk. Jewish homes were ransacked and Jews killed where they were found. Five-year-old Baruch’s mother Gittel fled with him and three of his siblings.
The little boy watched in horror as a rioter ripped his mother’s earrings from her ears and then murdered her. Writing 75 years later, Rabbi Korff averred that he had branded himself a coward for being too frightened to protect his mother. “My life ever since,” he wrote, “has been a quest for redemption from that charge.”
The activist life he lived reflected that quest.
In 1926, the surviving family members immigrated to the United States but, after becoming bar mitzvah, Baruch journeyed to Poland, where he studied in yeshivos in Korets and then Warsaw. Upon his return to the U.S., he attended Yeshiva Rav Yitzchak Elchanan, where he received semichah.
During World War II, Rabbi Korff, who had become an adviser to the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, and to the U.S. War Refugee Board, petitioned European dignitaries, U.S. congressmen and Supreme Court justices on behalf of Jews in Europe. He even held clandestine negotiations with representatives of Gestapo head Heinrich Himmler, ym”s, about the purchase of Jews from Germany.
One of his wilder exploits took place in 1947, when, working with the militant Lehi group (derisively called the Stern Gang), he plotted to set off bombs in London (placed and timed to prevent human casualties) in protest of British policy in Palestine, and to drop leaflets over the city from a plane.
The leaflets began: “TO THE PEOPLE OF ENGLAND! To the people whose government proclaimed ‘Peace in our time’: This is a warning! Your government had dipped His Majesty’s Crown in Jewish blood and polished it with Arab oil…” The pilot he engaged in Paris, however, tipped off authorities and Rabbi Korff was arrested. After a 17-day hunger strike, he was released, and charges against him were dropped.
After the war ended, Rabbi Korff continued his work on behalf of fellow Jews, presenting a petition with more than 500,000 signatures to the U.S. government, urging that Hungarian Jews be permitted to enter Palestine.
Eventually, he served as a congregational rabbi in several New England cities, and as a chaplain for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. I met him in his retirement, when he employed me to edit one of several books he had written about his experiences.
During that final Providence visit, he lay in bed holding a morphine pump, but was still engaged with the few of us who had gathered to pay our respects. I remember him asking us to sing Adon Olam, and we obliged.
And I remember, too, a phone call he took from Eretz Yisrael, from someone clearly distraught at the rabbi’s dire situation. When the choleh hung up, he explained that the caller was a kollel man whom he had been helping support for a number of years.
So Senator Hatch’s announcement brought me to the brink of a thought that I often think, about how astounding were the lives of some who preceded us.
© 2018 Hamodia
The vandalism of a Fort Smith, Arkansas mosque in 2016 by three young local men wouldn’t seem to have any Jewish connection. But it did. Or, better, it turns out that it does.
The vandalism, which consisted of spray-painted swastikas, obscenities and messages like “Go home” and “We don’t want you here” on the mosque’s doors, came after the two men spent most of a night drinking whiskey and, eventually, railing against the Islamic State. While IS is certainly most worthy for even sober citizens’ excoriation, what Craig Wigginton and Abraham Davis, along with another friend, Ezra Pedraza, did next – drive to the Al Salam mosque and deface it – was mindless. And a crime.
Mr. Davis said that, upon awaking the next day, he already regretted what he had done. His regret gnawed at him and then, four months later, the police, having analyzed security camera footage, arrested him.
Mr. Davis’s impoverished family could not make his bail, and so he was sent to jail. There, he expressed his regret by writing a note of apology to the mosque, which he sent to his mother to have delivered.
Mosque officials were surprised to receive the apology but fully accepted it and told the prosecutor they didn’t want to press charges. But it was out of their hands and the young men found themselves before a judge.
Despite the mosque’s best efforts, Mr. Davis ended up with a felony conviction, and with about $3,200 in fines.
He got a job and began making small court-ordered monthly payments. If he stopped them, he could end up in prison for six years. It was a constant fear.
A reporter for The New York Times went to Arkansas to interview the dramatis personae and, although a mosque official at first suspected her of being an F.B.I. agent trying to spy on the mosque, he came to recognize the legitimacy of her professional claim.
When the reporter’s story was published this past summer (remember summer?), modest donations from readers came in, both to the mosque and to the felon, whose family had received an eviction notice. The gifts allowed the Davises to pay the security deposit and first month’s rent on a new place, and get some used furniture and a bed for their 5-year-old. Someone from Texas paid off their electric bill. Mr. Davis was able to buy a bicycle, so he could bike to work.
He continued to make the monthly payments on his fine and then, one day, he was informed that the balance of his fine had been paid. By the mosque’s social director, Hisham Yasin. Mr. Davis was shocked.
“There’s no words,” he told the reporter, covering his face with his hands.
The Jewish connection?
Well, several weeks earlier, Mr. Yasin had called the reporter to say that the mosque had received a generous donation from the Jay Pritzker Foundation. No one at Al Salam had ever heard of it, and, ever suspicious, thought at first that it was a scam and that the “foundation” would ask for its bank account number to engage in identity theft.
A bit of research, though, yielded the fact that the group was legitimate, and that the late Mr. Pritzker, for whom the foundation is named, was a Chicago Jew with roots in a shtetl near Kiev who ended up owning the Hyatt hotel chain. The Pritzker family members are major philanthropists, and the donation the foundation made to the Al Salam mosque is what inspired it to, in turn, perform its own act of kindness to the man who had been part of the swastika-painting episode.
There are, I think, several lessons in this story. First, that kindness can count. There are hateful people, but also simple-minded misguided ones. And they can change.
Second, that, cognizant as we all are of a major strain of Islam that spawns evil people and evil acts, there is only good will to be gained by establishing appropriate bonds of friendship with receptive Muslims. When, last year, tireless Masbia director Sender Rapaport rallied support within the frum community for fearful Muslim neighbors, a donor to the celebrated soup kitchen withdrew his support of it. Reb Sender did something right; the donor, something wrong.
The third lesson is not from the story itself but how it was rendered in the many publications that covered it. Other than The Times, almost none of the other media reporting the mosque’s laudable deed cared to mention the fact that it had been motivated by the act of a Jewish charity.
© 2018 Hamodia