With Yom Kippur approaching, I used my Ami column to share a cherished erev Yom Kippur interaction I had a number of years ago with my dear father, a”h. You can read it here.
After disembarking from the SS Ernie Pyle, the transport ship that brought World War II refugees from Europe to the United States in the late 1940s, my father used the $75 dollars provided him by the social service Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to buy a pair of tefillin.
Those are the small black leather boxes containing verses from the Torah that observant Jewish men don on their arms and head daily. The pair he had with him, from his bar mitzvah in the shtetl, had not fared well over the war years.
Simcha Bunim Szafranowicz was in his early 20s when he arrived, and had spent the war years, first, as a young teen, fleeing the Nazis when they invaded his native Poland; and later, after being captured in Russian-controlled territory, banished along with a group of his fellow yeshiva friends and their teacher to a work camp in Siberia.
For many years, he didn’t speak about his wartime experiences to his three children, I being the middle one. When we became adults, we urged him to recount the experiences of his own young adulthood.
Once our father began to share his recollections, they came out in a torrent.
He told us about how, when the Nazis invaded Poland and his entire town fled the approaching troops, he, a 14-year-old, and his fellow shtetl-folk, were captured in a nearby town where they had sought refuge. The group of refugees was crowded and locked in a synagogue. Then, nearby houses were set aflame. The boy, like the others, expected to die there.
But they were saved, at the last moment, incredibly, by a passing Nazi officer, who berated the soldiers who had acted without orders. My father and the others suspected the officer was Elijah the prophet in disguise.
Shortly thereafter, he told us, the “stubborn boy,” as our father described his younger self, took leave of his parents – whom he would never see again – to board a train to a city with a yeshiva. He had always wanted to study in one.
But the yeshiva he managed to get to, in Vilna, Lithuania, was overtaken by the Russians, and its Polish students and faculty were given a choice: become Russian citizens or be banished, as foreign nationals, to a work camp in Siberia.
They chose the latter. After a weeks-long, packed cattle-car train journey to the far east of the continent, he and his fellow yeshiva boys and their teacher were put to work chopping down trees in temperatures that reached 40 degrees below zero. Once he became seriously ill there and almost died.
After the war, he and the others made their way to the Soviet sector of Berlin, from which they were smuggled to the American section — during which dangerous trip my father was shot in the upper arm. He showed us the scar, which we had never noticed before.
The boys and their teacher re-established their yeshiva in an Austrian city called Salzburg, where they prayed and studied until they could find ways to leave the blood-soaked soil of Europe for faraway lands like Palestine or the U.S.
My father managed to contact a distant relative in America, who sponsored his immigration to the country he would come to cherish. He shortened his surname and met our mother, who had arrived from Poland herself but before the war. Their dates in New York consisted of riding the subway together, and his singing Hebrew and Yiddish songs – he had a keen sense of music and a sweet voice – for her.
The couple moved to Baltimore and my father, with my mother’s tutoring him in English (which he mastered perfectly), eventually became the beloved rabbi of an Orthodox congregation that he ended up serving for more than a half century. To make ends meet, he attended the University of Baltimore and received a degree in accounting, which served him well as he juggled his synagogue duties, his family and his job as an auditor for the city.
There are stories galore I can tell about the impact he made as a rabbi on countless Jewish men and women, boys and girls. Not to mention about the veneration he came to receive from his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — and countless people who just happened to cross paths with him.
He was called to heaven six years ago, when he was 91. As he breathed his last breaths in my brother’s home, where he had been living for a number of months, he mustered the energy to quietly ask the family members around him for something. It wasn’t clear what.
But my sister-in-law deciphered his request and told my brother, who took my father’s tefillin and placed them lovingly on our father’s arm and head.
© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran
At 14 years of age, my mother assumed that “sitting shiva,” the Jewish week-long observance of mourning for a close relative, was just part of the regular Jewish year-cycle.
That was because, after immigrating as a young child with her parents and maternal grandmother to Baltimore from a shtetl in Poland not long before World War II, within three years she lost her grandmother, her 20-year-old brother, who took suddenly ill and died while studying in a New York yeshiva, and then, shortly thereafter, her father, who perished, they said, of a broken heart. He was 48.
I never met my mother’s father, who served as a respected rabbi of a small Baltimore synagogue; I was born some 16 years after his death. But a photograph of him, dark-eyed, long-bearded and in rabbinic cap and garb, looks down at me from within a cherry-wood frame over the desk where I write.
After his death, his widow, a quiet, calm and determined woman, finding herself suddenly on her own, summoned the energy to open a small Jewish bookstore, and the strength to make it a small success.
My mother’s mother was successful, too, with the help of a Brooklyn rabbi, in finding a suitable husband for her daughter.
He was also a Polish immigrant, a yeshiva boy who had spent the war years in a Siberian work camp, courtesy of the Soviet Union. Essentially penniless, he courted my mother by quietly singing songs to her in his sweet voice as they rode the subways in New York where she had a secretarial job.
Like his bride’s father, he became the rabbi of a congregation, but in his case, happily, serving it for more than a half-century. My mother, though, was his partner in full, befriending and counselling the shul’s congregants, and running its youth program. My parents had three children, a girl and then two boys. I am the older boy, though I haven’t been a boy for more than 50 years.
My mother’s only other sibling, a brother, was studying in a Baltimore yeshiva when the U.S. entered World War II. He left the study hall to join the military and, after serving honorably in the South Pacific, returned to Baltimore and married. He and his wife, though, were childless.
And so it was my mother alone who was left to carry on her parents’ line.
I often marvel at how, throughout my youth, her young experience of repeated loss never registered on her face or in her demeanor. It never occurred to me that she had had so wrenching a childhood; it was only long into my own adulthood that I heard her mention, en passant, her mistaken notion that shiva was just part of the Jewish year
It became obvious to me in adulthood that my mother didn’t want to burden her own children with the pain she had borne in her younger days. She was constantly upbeat, optimistic, nurturing and encouraging. Everything anyone could ask for in a mother. And it was real. She didn’t muffle the sadness of her youth; she overcame it.
Today, surveying a world so rife with anger at fate, so full of self-centered gripes about slights and harms, real or imagined, I regularly conjure the image of my mother. And the knowledge of what her youth was like, and how she transcended the personal tragedies she endured at a tender age, how she never allowed self-pity to embitter her, how her sights were only on joys of the present and hopes for the future, not on the hardships of the past.
And, as it happens, her hopes were realized. Although she died more than thirty years ago when she was only 65, she lived to see many grandchildren. And were she alive today, she could smile at triple-digit progeny, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of them living vibrant Jewish lives.
And I am quite sure that the very last thing she would be thinking about was her fourteenth year.
© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran
A piece I wrote for the newly revitalized New York Sun about yeshiva education and the New York State Education Department’s decision to make specific demands on all yeshivos is here.
You never know what sets some people off. Back in 2015, when I dared to write that the U.S. remaining as a partner in the Iran Deal might be better than what might happen if we withdrew from it (how’d that work out?), I received a bit of pushback. But it was nothing like the raw outrage that was expressed in the wake of my recent Ami Magazine piece about, of all things, the Ottawa trucker protest.
Letters emailed to Ami and me were strikingly strident. They included comments like “How can Ami write such a false liberal article?”; “I was horrified”; “First they came for the Truckers….”; “Omg. I just read this article. What a pack of lies!!!!!”; “I’m shocked Ami would post this without fact checking. Shame on you!”; “Does Avi Shafran work as Justin Trudeau’s press secretary? Did he actually do any research or did he just copy paste from the msm news?”; “I have never experienced such straight out propaganda”; and “If the AMI [sic] cannot have the moral courage to remove Mr. Shafran from the pages then I will have no choice but to not bring it into my home.” (Talk about cancel culture.)
Accelerating Godwin’s Law, which only expects Nazi accusations to be the eventual yield of electronic discussions, one writer wasted no time in immediately raising the Third Reich: “Avi my friend, you are this generations [sic] Joseph Goebbels.”
Needless (I hope) to say, my article was entirely factual. Unlike a number of the letters, which made demonstrably false assertions (some of which will be debunked in a response to them planned for Ami’s next issue).
All that I had dared to reveal in my Ami piece was that there were people in the truckers protest movement (including the person who conceived it) with unsavory backgrounds; that a Nazi flag and Confederate flags had appeared over the weeks when truckers snarled downtown Ottawa; and that some protesters had engaged in rather ugly acts. I thought that such facts were worthy of readers’ consideration.
I conceded in the piece that “It isn’t hard, at least in theory, to summon some understanding of, if not quite sympathy for, the protesters, who don’t want to be made to vaccinate against their will.”
But, I continued, “it must be conceded, ‘freedom’ has morphed considerably from when it meant the desire of slaves to live normal lives or the goal of colonists to throw off the yoke of King George III to… the refusal to help stem the spread of a disease.”
That really riled up some people – vaccine skeptics, conspiracy theory adherents and one apparent racist, who took umbrage at my mention of slavery.
I’ve written in public forums for many years, and have grown a thick skin. I am amused, not bothered, by verbal brickbats, especially when they are hurled by people who are clearly uninformed, filled with fury but short on facts.
But what does concern me, and deeply, is how part of the Orthodox world has not only become unhinged from reality, choosing to glom on to certain media and personalities to the exclusion of all others, but has also adopted the “outside world”’s enthusiastic embrace of outrage and acrimony over rational discussion.
Anyone, of course, can disagree with me on anything, including my take on the protests. One can reasonably contend that the majority of the protesters were good people, that those who abused national monuments or called for violence against the government were outliers, that the right to protest a vaccine requirement for travel outweighs the effect of snarled traffic and noise.
But there is a civilized way, not to mention a Jewish way, to take issue with something. And, distressingly, it seems that there are otherwise observant Jews who seem unable to digest that most important fact.
I offer no solutions to that unfortunate development. I just hope that more people, especially those infected with the vehemence virus, come to recognize it for the plague it is. That will be a vital first step to curing it.
© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran
My father, a”h’s, fifth yahrtzeit is tomorrow. Several years before he passed away, he and I collaborated on a book about his experiences in Poland, Siberia and Baltimore. It is titled: “Fire, Ice, Air” and can be obtained here.
Some people, like pollster James Zogby, see Israeli offerings of hummus and babaganoush as a form of “cultural genocide.” And cookbook author Reem Kassis says that the marketing of hummus as an Israeli food makes her feel that she doesn’t exist.
I can’t say whether hummus was originally an Arab or Israeli delicacy, only that I enjoy it with a bit of olive oil and paprika on a pita. But I have what to say about Jewish cuisine and what it teaches us. You can read what here.
Pesach Sheni is a special day in my family, because in 1945, on that day of the Jewish calendar, my father-in-law, who passed away earlier this year, was liberated from Dachau by American soldiers.
You can read about his last days in the concentration camp, and about his family’s marking of that day each year, here.
(Photo is of my father-in-law and one of his orphan charges in France.)
A piece I wrote for Forward about my late father-in-law’s friendship with the celebrated novelist Herman Wouk — whose second yahrtzeit was last Shabbos — can be read here.
An oldie but (I think!) goodie from nearly 15 years ago, about education, but Torah education in particular, can be read here.