Category Archives: Holocaust

Govrov Selichos, 1939

This time of year in 1939, in a Polish town called Ruzhan, a 14-year-old boy had his plans rudely interrupted.  The boy, who, fifteen years later, would become my father, had made preparations to travel to the Novhardoker yeshivah in Bialystok, but the German army invaded Poland before he had the chance, and the Second World War began.

My father, shlita, his family and all Ruzhan’s townsfolk fled ahead of the advancing Germans.  That erev Shabbos, they found themselves in a town called Govrov, just before the Germans arrived there.  Motzoei Shabbos was the first night of Selichos.

Several years ago, I helped my father publish his memoirs, about his flight from the Nazis, his yeshivah days, his sojourn in Siberia (as a guest of the Soviet Union), and his subsequent emigration to America and service as a congregational rav in Baltimore for more than 50 years.  He is currently the mazkir of the Baltimore Beis Din and the rav of a Shabbos minyan.

In his book (“Fire, Ice, Air,” available from Amazon), he movingly describes how he insisted on taking leave of his parents to go to yeshivah, his banishment, along with Rav Leib Nekritz, zt”l and a handful of other Novardhoker bachurim to Siberia; and his being shot while being smuggled, after the war, into Berlin’s American sector.

About that Motzoei Shabbos Selichos in Govrov, he writes:

My family and I were lying on the floor of a local Jew’s house when we heard angry banging on the door and the gruff, loud words “Raus Jude!  Raus Jude!” – “Jew, out!”…

The SS men chased us from the houses, prodding us with bayonets to raise our hands and join the town’s other Jews – several hundred people – in the middle of the town’s market area…

Some of the Germans approached the men among us who had beards and cut them off, either entirely or purposely leaving an odd angle of beard, just to humiliate the victims.  One man had a beautiful, long beard.  When he saw what the Germans were doing, he took a towel he had with him and tied it around his beard, in the hope that our tormentors might not see so enticing a target.  But of course, they went right over to him, removed the towel and shaved off what to him and us was a physical symbol of experience, wisdom and holiness.  He wept uncontrollably.

We stood there and the smell of smoke registered in our nostrils, becoming more intense with each minute.  It didn’t take long to realize that the town’s homes had been set aflame.  Later we heard that a German soldier had been discovered killed nearby and that the SS men had assumed that the culprits were Jews… We Jews were ordered into the synagogue… the doors were locked and SS men stood outside to ensure that no one managed to escape …  The town had been set afire, and the Nazis clearly intended to let the flames reach the synagogue.   Houses nearby were already wildly burning…

The scene was a blizzard of shouting and wailing and, above all, praying.   Psalms and lamentations and entreaties blended together, a cacophony of wrenched hearts.  Everyone realized what was in store and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that any of us could possibly do. 

The smell of smoke grew even stronger…  And then, a miracle occurred.

How else to explain what happened?  Those in the synagogue who were standing near the doorway and windows saw a German motorcycle come to a halt in front of the building.  A German officer – apparently of high rank – dismounted from the machine and began to speak with the SS men guarding our intended crematorium.   The officer grew agitated and barked orders at the other Nazis.  After a few minutes, the doors to the synagogue were suddenly opened and, disbelieving our good fortune, we staggered out…

What made the officer order them to release us we did not know and never will.  Some of us suspected he was not a German at all, but Elijah the prophet, who, in Jewish tradition, often appears in disguise.

We were ordered across a nearby brook…  And so there we sat, all through the Sabbath, watching as the synagogue in which we had been imprisoned mere hours earlier was claimed by the flames and, along with all the Torah-scrolls and holy books of both Ruzhan and Govrov, burned to the ground…

That night was the first night of Selichos…

I have often contrasted in my mind my father’s teenage years and my own, during which my biggest worries were lack of air conditioning in my classroom and tests for which I had neglected to study.

And each year at Selichos, I try to visualize that Selichos night in Govrov.

© 2015 Hamodia

Stubborn Spirit

The birthday cake was ablaze with 105 candles, and many among the scores of people present at the Czech embassy in London this past spring for the party would not have been there – or anywhere – had it not been for the man in whose honor they had gathered.

Nicholas Winton, who remains in full possession of his faculties, including his sense of humor, saved the lives of 669 children, mostly Jewish, during the months before the Second World War broke out in 1939.  There are an estimated 6000 people, many of those children, now grown, along with their own descendants, who are alive today because of his efforts, which went unrecognized for decades.

Born in 1909 in West Hampstead, England, Mr. Winton was baptized as a member of the Anglican Church and became a successful stockbroker.  He lived a carefree life until December 1938, when a friend, Martin Blake, asked him to forgo a ski vacation and visit him in Czechoslovakia, where Mr. Blake had traveled in his capacity as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, a group that was providing assistance to refugees created by the German annexation of the Sudetenland regions of the country. Together, the two men visited refugee camps filled to capacity with Jews and political opponents of the Nazis.

Mr. Winton was moved by the refugees’ plight. Knowing, too, about the violence that had been unleashed against the Jewish community in Germany and Austria during the Kristallnacht riots a mere month earlier, he resolved to do for children from Sudetenland what British Jewish agencies were doing to rescue German and Austrian Jewish children.

Audaciously (and illegally) “borrowing” the name of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, he began taking applications from parents, first at a hotel room and then from an office in central Prague. Thousands lined up to try to save their children’s lives.

(When an interviewer recently remarked to Mr. Winton that his actions “required quite a bit of ingenuity,” the interviewee responded, “No, it just required a printing press to get the notepaper printed.”  And asked about travel documents he had forged and the “bit of blackmail” that he had employed to save children, Winton, seemingly amused, just replied, “It worked.  That’s the main thing.”)

Returning to London, Mr. Winton raised money to fund the children transports, including funds demanded by the British government to bankroll the children’s eventual departure from Britain; and he found foster homes for the refugee children.

The first transport organized by Mr. Winton left Prague by plane for London on March 14, 1939, the day before the Germans occupied the Czech lands. After the Germans established a Protectorate in the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, Winton organized seven further transports that departed by rail out of Prague and across Germany to the Atlantic Coast, then traveled by ship across the English Channel to Britain. At the train station in London, British foster parents waited to collect the children. The last trainload of children left Prague on August 2, 1939, and the rescue activities ceased when Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany at the beginning of September 1939

During the war, Mr. Winton volunteered for an ambulance unit for the Red Cross, then trained pilots for the Royal Air Force. He married, raised a family and earned a comfortable living. For 50 years, his rescue efforts remained virtually unknown until 1988, when his wife found a scrapbook from 1939 with all the children’s photos and names.  (Asked why he kept his secret so long, he explained, “I didn’t really keep it secret, I just didn’t talk about it.”)

Once his story got out, Mr. Winton received a letter of thanks from the late former Israeli president Ezer Weizman, was made an honorary citizen of Prague and, in 2002, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his service to humanity.  His recent projects include providing help to the mentally handicapped people and building homes for the elderly.

It would be easy to place Nicholas Winton’s story securely in the “Righteous Gentiles” file, along with the accounts of other non-Jews who proved themselves exemplars of humanity.   But his life, as it happens, is not that simple.  It may speak less to the greatness of chassidei umos ha’olam and more to the pinteleh Yid.

For the bittersweet fact is that Nicholas Winton was born Nicholas Wertheimer, and was baptized and raised Christian on the decision of his parents, assimilated German Jews.

© 2014 Hamodia

Of Peoples… and People

Commuting to and from Manhattan daily on the Staten Island Ferry brings me into the vicinity of many a tourist. The boat sometimes resembles a United Nations General Assembly debate, without the translators.

When I hear German or a Slavic language spoken, I can’t help but recall the wry words of the late New York City mayor Ed Koch as he led the Ukrainian Day parade one year. He told the parade’s grand marshal: “You know, if this were the old country this wouldn’t be a parade, it would be a pogrom. I wouldn’t be walking down Fifth Avenue; I would be running… and you would be running after me.”

And I’m reminded, too, of the sentiment of my dear father, may he be well, who spent the war years first fleeing the Nazis and then in a Soviet Siberian labor camp. When I asked him many years ago how he feels when he meets a German non-Jew, he told me that any German “has to prove himself” to be free of the Jew-hatred that came to define his people. My father’s “default” view of a German (or, for that matter, Pole or Ukrainian or Romanian…) is “guilty,” or at least “suspect.”

And yet, he continued, if a German clearly disavows his elder countrymen’s embrace of evil, then he deserves to be seen and treated as just another human being. I imagine others might not be so willing to accept even the apparent good will of someone from the land and stock of those who unleashed the murder of millions of Jews (including my father’s parents and many of his siblings and other relatives). But that is how my father approaches things. And how I do, too.

All of which I shared with two German filmmakers a year or two ago. They had requested an interview, to be used in a documentary for broadcast in Germany that would focus on how Jews regard Germans today. I consented, if only because I had no reason to say no.

When the visitors, young people who clearly disavowed anti-Semitism, arrived at Agudath Israel of America’s offices and turned on their camera, I explained that there were Jews, of both my father’s generation and mine, who would always see Germans as evil; but others who would choose to judge an individual, in the end, no matter his genealogical or national baggage, as an individual.

What became of my comments, or the program, I can’t say. I don’t know anyone in Germany who saw the broadcast.

The interview comes to mind because of a recent Agence France-Presse report about Rainer Hoess, the grandson of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess, yimach shemo, who estimated that he was responsible for the deaths of two and a half million people, including at least a million Jews. He was found guilty of war crimes by Polish authorities and hanged near Auschwitz’s crematorium in 1947.

As a 12-year-old growing up in post-war Germany, Rainer was puzzled by negative feelings toward him that he sensed in his school gardener, a Holocaust survivor. A teacher revealed the truth about his infamous forebear.

Now 48, Rainer Hoess seeks to deal with that awful discovery by devoting his life to fighting the rise of neo-Nazi movements across Europe. At first sought out by such hate groups to join them as a “high profile” member, he turned the tables and condemned them unequivocally.

“Every time I have the chance to work against them,” he says, “I will do that.” And he has devoted the past four years to educating schoolchildren about the dangers of right-wing extremism, sadly on the rise in Europe. Last year alone, he addressed students in more than 70 schools in Germany, and has visited Israel.

There’s food for thought here, because it seems inevitable that people will generalize about groups, be they ethnic, national or even professional, whether the justification is conceived as based on genetics, environment or culture.

But our generalizations, however justified they may seem to us, should not figure in our judgments of the individual who has just introduced himself. That fellow might end up adding fodder to our assumption. But he might do just the opposite, and should be given the chance.

After all, there are generalizations, too, that others make about us Jews qua Jews, sadly; and about us Orthodox Jews as Orthodox Jews, sadder still. And, whether those generalizations are based on isolated, unrepresentative facts or pure fantasy, we want others to regard us not in their shadow, but in the revealing light of who we are. And we should give others the same courtesy.

© Hamodia 2014

Children’s Programming

“Nahoul” is a giant bee, or, better, a man in a furry bee costume.  He is one of the intended-to-be-lovable characters on “Pioneers of Tomorrow,” a children’s television program produced in Gaza.

In a recent episode, Nahoul encourages a boy from Jenin to attack his Jewish neighbors.  “Punch them,” he advises.  “Turn their faces into tomatoes.”

“If his neighbors are Jewish or Zionist,” Rawan, the little girl host of the show adds helpfully, “that goes without saying.”  Nahoul then advises throwing stones at “the Jews.”

A bit later in the program, another little girl shares her hope to become a policewoman, so that she can “shoot the Jews.”

“All of them?” the host asks with a smile.

“Yes,” the other girl replies.

“Good.”

Nahoul is likely to meet the fate of other cuddly animals – like Farfour the Mouse, a rabbit and a bear – that were previously featured on the program only to suddenly disappear, the show’s little viewers being informed that each character had been “martyred” by Israelis.

The airwaves in Gaza are tightly controlled by Hamas, the de facto government, and “Pioneers of Tomorrow” is part of that violent and hateful group’s effort to educate the region’s children about what Hamas considers their civic and religious duties.

They educate and we educate.

It might seem a novel thought, but it’s really an obvious one: The surest way to understand a society lies in the entertainment it offers its young.

American culture qua culture is largely aimless.  If it has ideals, they are high-sounding ones like “freedom” and “individuality” but which generally translate as “do what you will” and “I’m okay, you’re okay.”  Reportedly, much of the programming aimed at American children pays homage to the same.

Children’s fare in the Orthodox Jewish world is also telling.  And although it does not use television as a medium, it’s voluminous.  Whether in the form of books, compact discs, MP3s or cassette tapes, there is an astounding array of memorable musical offerings, characters, stories and performances that convey the ideas and ideals that inform the community, and that reflect its essence.  Jewish children are taught about Jewish history, about love for other Jews and for Eretz Yisroel, about the beauty of Shabbos and the meanings of yomim tovim, and about the performance of mitzvos; about the evils of jealousy and loshon hora and about the importance of Torah-study.

And then we have Hamas.

Shavuos approaches.  My wife and I will miss having our children with us.   (They’re all either married or in yeshiva –yes, the marrieds invited us to join them, but their father is a hopeless homebody.)  But when I go to the beis medrash on Shavuos night, I’ll remember all the Shavuos nights spent learning Torah with the little boys, later young men, whom we were privileged to raise, and all the subtle teaching of both them and their sisters that went on around the Shabbos table, and throughout the weeks and years.

And I will remember one Shavuos in particular, quite a few years back, when I was learning in a nearby shul – packed with others, many of them fathers and sons too – with one of our sons, then a 12-year-old.

We spent most of the night engrossed in Gemara.  We began with the sugya of tzaar ba’alei chayim in Bava Metzia, which he was studying in yeshiva, and then continued with the sugya of Yerushalayim nischalka l’shvotim in Yoma, which he and I were learning regularly together.

Dovie seemed entirely awake throughout it all, and asked the perceptive questions I had come to expect from him.

The experience was enthralling, as it always was, and while it was a challenge to concentrate (at times even to keep my eyes from closing) during Shacharis, Dovie and I both “made it” and then, hand in hand, walked home, where we promptly crashed.  But before my head touched my pillow (a millisecond or two before I entered REM sleep), I summoned the energy to thank HaKodosh Boruch Hu for sharing His Torah with us.

That silent prayer came back to me like a thunderclap a few days later, when I caught up on some reading I had missed (in the word’s most simple sense) over Yomtov.  Apparently, while Dovie and I were learning Torah, the presses at The Washington Times were printing a story datelined Gaza City.

It began with a description of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Abu Ali, being “lovingly dress[ed] by his mother in a costume of a suicide bomber, complete with small kaffiyeh, a belt of electrical tape and fake explosives made of plywood.”

“I encourage him, and he should do this,” said his mother; and Abu Ali himself apparently agreed. “I hope to be a martyr,” he said.  “I hope when I get to 14 or 15 to explode myself.”

My thoughts flashed back to Shavuos and to my own son, and I thanked Hashem again.

© Hamodia 2014

POSTSCRIPT:  It turns out that we will indeed be away from home for Shavuos, in Israel, for the bris of Dovie’s and his wife Devorah Rivkah’s  firstborn .  May we all know only happy occasions!

 

Retroactive Prophecy Redux

As I expected, my critique of some recent writing of Rabbi Berel Wein has generated many comments and communications.  There were, also as expected, yeas and nays

The nays focused on either or both of two complaints.  Paraphrased loosely: 1) How DARE you criticize an elder statesman of the Orthodox Jewish world?  (And a sub-complaint: How DARE you not refer to Rabbi Wein as a Rosh Yeshiva?)

And 2) But Rabbi Wein is right! Gedolim have erred in the past!  So what bothers you about what Rabbi Wein wrote?

The first thing first.  I have great respect for Rabbi Wein as a person and a scholar, and feel enormous personal hakaras hatov to him for several things, among them his wonderful history tapes, which I used back in the 1980s to create a syllabus for a high school Jewish history course I taught then; and his mentorship of, and Torah-study with, a cherished son-in law of mine, who remains close to, and works with, Rabbi Wein to this day.

I meant no insult, chalilah, by not referring to Rabbi Wein as a Rosh Yeshiva (he led Yeshivas Shaarei Torah in Monsey for 20 years).  He has not, however, served in that position since 1997, and his rightful claims to fame are his great knowledge of Jewish history and his writings.  The Wikipedia entry for Rabbi Wein, in fact and accurately, identifies him as “an American-born Orthodox rabbi, scholar, lecturer, and writer… regarded as an expert on Jewish history…”

As to the reason I felt it was acceptable, even required, to publicly criticize his recent essays, I can only say that there are times that “ein cholkin kavod lirav” – “we do not defer to even great men”  This, I felt and feel, was such a time.

As to the second complaint, the complainers need only read – this time, carefully – what Rabbi Wein wrote, and – just as carefully – what I did.

I did not contest the assertion that the religious leaders of Klal Yisrael can err; in fact the Gemara says so, in many places; to the contrary, I clearly stated the fact.

What I contested was the attitude that any of us can be sure, based only on our own lights, that great men in fact erred in specific cases; and – most egregiously – that those judgments allow us to cavalierly reject the current guidance of our own generation’s religious leadership.

To wit, Rabbi Wein insinuates that the Gedolim of today, who are looked to for guidance by the majority of yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and Jewish day schools, are limited by  “a mindset that hunkers back to an idyllic Eastern European world of fantasy that is portrayed falsely in fictional stories.”  That jaundiced judgment is used by Rabbi Wein to explain why those Gedolim don’t endorse the celebration of Yom Ha’atzma’ut or the commemoration of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah (but rather, instead, in other ways and at times like Tisha B’Av).

“The whole attitude of much of the Orthodox world,” he further writes, “is one of denial of the present fact that the state exists, prospers and is the largest supporter of Torah and Jewish traditional religious lifestyle in the world.” No one, though, denies those facts, only that they somehow mean that opposition to the creation of Israel before the Second World War is, as a result, somehow retroactively rendered erroneous.

Rabbi Wein also writes that “One of the great and holy leaders of Orthodox society in Israel stated in 1950 that the state could not last more than fifteen years. Well, it is obvious that in that assessment he was mistaken. But again it is too painful to admit that he was mistaken…”

Perhaps Rabbi Wein is referring to someone else, but if his reference is to the Chazon Ish, it is a tale widely told in some circles that lacks any basis I have been able to find. On the contrary, the contention has been utterly rejected by someone, a talmid of the Chazon Ish who became an academic, who spoke to the Chazon Ish extensively about Israel.  The godol, the talmid writes, expressed his opinion that time would have to tell whether Israel would develop into a positive or negative thing for Klal Yisrael; but the Godol did not, the talmid stresses, ever opine what he felt the future held, much less offer some timeline.

The issue is not whether Gedolim are Nevi’im (they are not) but whether the Gedolim of each generation are, in the end, those to whom the Torah wishes us to turn for guidance, the “einei ha’eidah,” the “eyes of the people.”  Or just some righteous but out-of-touch ivory tower scholars who cannot be relied upon for anything but issues concerning kashrus or Shabbos.

I make no apologies for standing up for the former conviction.  And I would welcome Rabbi Wein proclaiming a similar stance.  But, alas, words he has written have struck me, and many, many others (including both those upset at those words and others who welcomed them with glee) as implying the latter.

I truly wish I hadn’t felt the need to address those words, but I did.

Retroactive Prophecy

There exists a mentality, even among some who should know better, like the respected popular historian Rabbi Berel Wein, that any one of us can, and even should, second-guess the attitudes and decisions of Torah luminaries of the past.

In that thinking, for instance, the opposition of many Gedolim in the 1930s and 1940s to the establishment of a Jewish state was a regrettable mistake. After all, the cavalier thinking goes, a state was in the end established, and in many ways it flourishes; so the Gedolim who opposed it must have been wrong. And we should acknowledge their error and impress it upon our children with a nationalistic commemoration of the day on which Israel declared her independence.

None of us, however, can possibly know what the world would be like today had Israel not come into being. What would have happened to the European survivors of the Holocaust who moved to Israel?  Would they have languished in the ruins of Europe and eventually disappeared instead? Rebuilt their communities?  Emigrated to the West? Would Eretz Yisrael have remained a British mandate, become a part of Jordan, morphed into a new Arab state? Would Jews have been barred from their homeland, tolerated by those overseeing it, or perhaps welcomed by them to live there in peace? Would there have been more Jewish casualties than the tens of thousands killed in wars and terrorist attacks since Israel’s inception, or fewer? Is the physical danger today to the millions of Jews in their homeland lesser or greater?

Would the widespread anti-Semitism that masquerades as anti-Zionism have asserted itself just as strongly as now? (A recent ADL survey revealed that Jews are hated by 87% to 93% of the populaces of North Africa and Middle East, and that the most widely held stereotype about Jews is that they “are more loyal to Israel” than their own countries.) Or would Jew-hatred have been undermined or attenuated by the lack of a sufficiently “sanitized” mask?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, of course. Neither, though, just as obviously, does anyone else, no matter how wise he may be or conversant with the facts of history. For we are dealing here not with history but with retroactive prophecy. And that’s something no one alive possesses.

Yet some people, understandably uncomfortable with even theoretically imagining an Israel-less world, sermonize as if they do know the unknowable, as if the very fact that a state of Israel exists means that those who opposed its establishment were misguided.

Please don’t misunderstand. Every sane and sensitive Jew today supports Israel’s security needs, and appreciates the fact that we can freely live in or visit our homeland; and that the state and its armed forces seek to protect all within the country’s borders.

And more.

We are makir tov for the good that previous governments in Israel have in fact provided Klal Yisrael, the support it has given its religious communities, yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and mosdos chessed.

None of that, though, need come along with an abandonment of respect for great leaders of Klal Yisrael who felt that a different path to Jewish recovery from the Holocaust would have been wiser. Many of those leaders, of course, once Israel became a reality, “recalculated,” as our GPSs do at times, and accepted the state, even counseled participation in its political process. But they were adjusting to developments, not recanting their judgments, which were based on their perception that a secular state would, at one point or another, seek to adversely affect its religious citizens. A perception, it should be noted, that has been borne out by numerous policies and actions, from yaldei Teiman and yaldei Teheran to the agenda of the Lapids, père et fils.

The Gedolim who lived during the Holocaust, too, have been subjected to retroactive prophets’ harsh judgment.  Those who counseled Jews to remain in Europe, in the hope that political and military developments would take a different turn than they tragically did are blithely second-guessed.  Here, too, none of us can know with surety the “what-ifs?” or even the “whys?”

Not to mention that Gedolim are wise men, not prophets. Their guidance in each generation, which the Torah itself admonishes us to heed, does not assure us of any particular outcome. It is based, though, on their sublime connection to Torah, and thus must be of paramount importance to us. It’s odd how few would think of disparaging an expert doctor or lawyer whose best advice, following the prescribed protocol, led to a place the patient or client didn’t envision. Even if the outcome was unhappy, one would say, the advisors did their job. When it comes to Gedolim, though, some wax judgmental and condescending.

And it’s not an armchair issue. There are implications to disparaging the decisions of the true Jewish leaders of the past. It sets the stage for what, in our contemporary self-centered, blog-sodden and audaciously opinionated world, recalls the true prophet’s phrase “each man acting according to what is right in his own eyes.”

And the prophet is not lauding that state of affairs.

© 2014 Hamodia

The Road to Heil

If ever there were a question to inspire ambivalence it might be whether the current push in Israel to outlaw the word “Nazi” and Holocaust-era German symbols is a good idea.

On the one hand, the word and symbols are often used these days to score political points, to just insult someone with whom the user disagrees or in the ostensible service of humor.  Placards of Yitzchak Rabin’s image in a Nazi uniform were brandished in demonstrations before his assassination; and, more recently, religious Jewish children were dressed in concentration camp garb to protest government budget cuts.  A long-into-reruns popular American television show included a character, the irascible owner of a food stand, who nom de tv was “the soup Nazi.”  Talk about trivialization.

But there’s another hand, too, at least to many minds: Outlawing speech is not something to undertake lightly. And just where does one draw the line between speech that’s just impolite or crude, and speech that is so depraved as to merit being criminalized?  Forbidding the shouting of “fire!” in a crowded theater is understandably worthy of penalization; calling someone a soup Nazi, well, somewhat less so.

And then there is the question of whether criminalizing even clearly outrageous use of words like “Nazi” would in fact in the end help curb the misuse of the metaphor, or, perhaps, empower it, making it even more enticing to those who seek to shock, not enlighten.

The sponsor of the Israeli bill, the Yisrael Beitenu party’s Shimon Ohayon, said that “We want to prevent disrespect of the Holocaust,” and contends that “we have too many freedoms.”  Free speech advocates, as might be expected, do not agree.  (To their credit, though, they seem to have avoided comparing the proposed legislation with the Nuremberg laws.)

The pending bill would impose a fine of 100,000 shekels (nearly $29,000) and six months in jail for anybody using the word or symbols of the Third Reich in a “wrong or inappropriate way.”

Whatever one feels about the wisdom of the legislation, though, what exactly will define “inappropriate”?  Oy, there’s the rub.

Is likening Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the designs Nazi Germany had on the world in the 1930s inappropriate?  Most of us would say it’s no stretch at all.  Dov Hanin, however, a member of an Arab party in the Knesset, feels otherwise, and has suggested that, had the pending law been enacted a year or two ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would deserve jail for having compared former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler.

And what about people who, as has happened in the U.S., falsely accuse a community – say, the charedi one – or one of its organizations of being part of a sordid conspiracy to enable the harming of children? Would it be inappropriate, in light of such a law, to compare the accusers to Nazi propagandists who insinuated that Jews as a group killed Christian children for their blood?  There is certainly a difference between the two propagandas; the contemporary accusers don’t seek (one hopes) to kill their fellow Jews.  Is it a difference, though, that makes a difference?

I recently dared to write an essay that suggested that the animus some Orthodox Jews display toward President Obama is misconceived, and unjustified in light of the facts.  Most of the responses I received were positive ones; there are many observant Jews, it seems, who have harbored that realization quietly and who were happy to see it actually expressed in a public medium.

Then there were responses that took issue with my point, and pointed out things – some of them loosely pertinent to Israel, many of them in entirely unrelated realms – that the writers felt justified their anti-Obama attitudes.  Even though I was unmoved by the arguments, that’s fine.  People don’t see things, or have to see things, the same way.

But then there were the crazed reactions, among them that of a gentleman who posted his take on a blog. I had begun my piece with an anecdote about a Mi Sheberach prayer made for President Obama; the blog-poster, clever fellow that (he thinks) he is, attempted to show how wrongheaded  that was – by suggesting a parallel prayer being made in a German synagogue in 1938 on behalf of… you guessed it, Adolf Hitler.  The rest of his piece was similarly unhinged, reaching far and wide to change the subject, preaching the talk-show tropes of Benghazi and Obamacare, and berating me for my criticism of “Open Orthodoxy.”

In the end, I remain of two minds regarding the proposed Israeli law.  I fully understand the desire to enact such legislation, and recognize the bill’s sponsors’ good intentions; yet part of me feels that things would best be left alone.

For two reasons: First, because legislating civility is likely a futile endeavor.  And, second, because, all said and done, the wild misapplication of words like “Nazi” and “Hitler” ultimately says something only about the person who misuses them.

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Seeing Privilege As A Pain

Sometimes a first-person account is just so sad you could cry. And when the writer seems oblivious to the sadness, well, then it’s sadder still

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently offered a piece written by a Jewish woman explaining her and her husband’s decision to forgo having children.

“As a Conservative Jew raised in the Midwest,” she writes, “I always assumed I’d have kids… In my mind, being a grown-up meant having children.”

During her college days, she stopped in at the Brown University Hillel House and met a young man.  Eventually they began to date.

When marriage came up, they discussed how “religiously” to raise their children, and found that they had different opinions.  Her partner wanted to observe the Sabbath but she did not.  And, if they each did his or her own thing she feared the “inevitable” questions their children would have about their mother’s level of observance.

Then, she writes, “It occurred to me that our potential problems would vanish if we just skipped parenthood.” Problem – at least if she could get her boyfriend on board – solved.

As it happened, after the young man became her husband, he began “losing his religion.” They were busy with their careers and, she writes, “reproducing was the farthest thing from my mind.”  Then she found websites of people who had decided not to have children, and shared them with her husband.  They laughed together “at jokes about sleep-deprived parents and children misbehaving in public.

So other people, too, they realized, “lacked the drive to make and raise babies, and were they ever happy,” the woman recounts. “They described enticing benefits, one of which particularly stood out for me: having their beloved to themselves and cultivating a devoted, satisfying relationship.”

And so she and her husband decided that “life would be better without kids.”

The couple’s mothers were not happy, as one might expect.  His was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and had told her son in his youth that “If you don’t raise Jewish children, you’re letting Hitler win.”

“There is no coming back from aiding Hitler,” observes the writer, and “so we all avoid the topic.”

But, she insists, she and her husband are happy.  They have each other entirely to themselves, without any pesky little people intruding on their relationship. And they owe it all to Judaism, the writer explains, without which she and her husband would never have met at that Hillel House.

“Ironically,” she concludes, “If it weren’t for Judaism… it may never have occurred to me not to have children at all.”

The writer knows, of course, and acknowledges, that Judaism favors children; indeed, she may even know, there is a Torah commandment to be fruitful. But she and her partner have made a conscious decision to reject their religious heritage.

What’s more, the husband and wife are depriving themselves not only of an important mitzvah, and not only of the life beyond death that is a son or daughter, but of the sublime joy of being parents.  Sleepless nights and misbehaved children?  Some of the most difficult or embarrassing parental situations, any parent could tell the writer, morph with time into some of the most meaningful, even wonderful, memories imaginable.

Is it hard?  Of course.  What worthwhile endeavor isn’t?

Do parents experience trying times?  Yes.  Life is trying; that’s its point.

Will it all have been worth it, in fact many millions of times over?  Yes again.

And if the writer and her husband really think that their relationship to each other would suffer, rather than be strengthened, by their sharing the privilege of forging a new generation, they are astoundingly naïve.  The greatest boon for any relationship is not a shared taste in music, nor a shared desire for childlessness; it is a shared challenging but meaningful endeavor.  And when the endeavor is something as momentous as creating and guiding new lives, the bond that can result is most powerful.

Time will tell whether the writer’s and her husband’s bond of mutual desire for childlessness will itself prove sufficiently strong to maintain their relationship.  But one thing is certain.  The couple’s assumption that the mutual nurturing of a new generation is a mere pain rather than an unparalleled privilege is a sad mistake.

Made all the more sad by the couple’s utter unawareness of the fact.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

 (For a decade-old essay about the Jewish choice to have children, please see here.

 

Defining History Down

Under siege by some of his countrymen for seeming to have acknowledged the Holocaust, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tried to walk that Chihuahua back at a forum this week sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society. Asked to clearly state his stand on the issue, he chose to condemn “crimes by the Nazis during World War II [including the killing of] a group of Jewish people.”

Another “defining down” of historical fact also recently appeared, this one emanating from a more respectable source, the New York Times, in a video on its website.  The background clip accompanied a print report about Jews who ascend the Har Habayis, or Temple Mount, thereby passively challenging the Muslim authorities to whom Israel has ceded oversight of the ancient Jewish holy site.  Those overseers forbid Jews from praying openly there; some of the Jewish visitors, apparently, dare to do so silently.

The second of the two holy Jewish national temples that stood on the mount for centuries, of course, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.  It was more than 600 years later, after the Islamic empire spread to the Holy Land, that a small mosque was erected there.  An earthquake destroyed the mosque, and a second one was subsequently built on the spot, although it met the same fate shortly thereafter.  In 1035, the grandiose mosque currently occupying the Temple site was built, and thus far survives.

The Times article itself, as it happens, hinted at something that deserved more prominence in the piece, namely that the most respected Jewish rabbinic authorities have forbidden all Jews, in no uncertain terms, from ascending the Mount, both for halachic reasons and to not give the mosque’s overseers and other Muslims any excuse to engage in violence. Charedi Jews are often the focus of news reports from Israel. In an article presented to millions that speaks of religious Jews doing something that some regard as politically provocative, it would have been proper to point out that the Jews at issue are decidedly not charedim, and that the latter disapprove of their actions.

But what was truly disconcerting was the narration of the Times’ video expanding on the article.  It referred to the Har Habayis as the place “that Jews call the Temple Mount…” and that “Jews widely believe was the site of the Temples.”  Italics, of course, mine.

Such subtle casting of long-accepted historical fact as mere popular Jewish belief is of a sort with the subtle devaluation of “Judaism’s holiest site” the Old Gray Lady has perpetrated in the past – like when it bestowed that honor to the Western Wall rather than to the Temple Mount that lies behind it.

Fact: Objective students of history – of all ethnicities – see no reason to not accept the Bible’s account that, approximately nine centuries before the beginning of the Common Era and nearly 1500 years before Mohammed’s grandmother was born, King Solomon built the first of the two Holy Jewish Temples on that Jerusalem site.  And that sacrificial offerings, as the Talmud and Roman sources alike recount, were brought on the altar there on behalf of both Jews and non-Jewish visitors.

That that history derives mostly from Jewish texts and Jewish tradition is no deficiency.  The meticulous preservation of history is the nuclear strong force of Judaism, and is what has preserved the Jewish nation for millennia. Jews the world over just celebrated, on Sukkos, the collective memory of their ancestors’ Divine protection after the exodus from Egypt; that exodus itself is mentioned hundreds of times each year by every observant Jew in prayers and rites.

He or she recalls the ancient Jewish Temple too, every single day of the year, in each of the silent prayers – recited facing the Temple Mount – that are the backbone of Jewish religious life.

On holidays, moreover, the special Mussaf prayer includes a lengthy bemoaning of the Temples’ destructions.

The words “Jerusalem” and its synonym “Zion,” the city whose holiness derives from that of the Temple Mount, passed my lips at least ten times this morning.  Before breakfast.

And that repast was followed by the grace after meals, which includes an entreaty of G-d to rebuild Jerusalem – meaning the Temple.

That rebuilding, to be sure, isn’t a call to human physical force. The Third Holy Temple will be built by the hand not of man but of G-d, the object of our entreaty.  That is likewise evident in the passive form of our prayer elsewhere: “May it be Your will that the Temple be [re]built.”  But that collective Jewish prayer will be prayed – our spiritual contribution – until its fulfillment.

In the meanwhile, however much mullahs or media may seek to distort inconvenient historical facts, people devoted to truth will continue to know better.  They will know that, just over 60 years ago, millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their friends. And that, over 2000 years ago, a Holy Jewish Temple stood on the hill that still carries its name.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran