Category Archives: Personalities

Who We Are

The famous early 20th century German-born American financier Otto Kahn, it is told, was once walking in New York with his friend, the humorist Marshall P. Wilder.  They must have made a strange pair, the poised, dapper Mr. Kahn and the bent-over Mr. Wilder, who suffered from a spinal deformity.

As they passed a shul on Fifth Avenue, Kahn, whose ancestry was Jewish but who had received no Jewish chinuch from his parents, turned to Wilder and said, “You know, I used to be a Jew.”

“Really?” said Wilder, straining his neck to look up at his companion. “And I used to be a hunchback.”

The story is in my head because we’re about to recite Kol Nidrei.

Kol Nidrei’s solemnity and power are known well to every Jew who has ever attended shul on the eve of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.  It is a cold soul that doesn’t send a shudder through a body when Kol Nidrei is intoned in its ancient, evocative melody.  And yet the words of the tefillah – “modaah” would be more accurate – do not overtly speak to the gravity of the day, the last of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

They speak instead to the annulment of nedarim, vows, specifically (according to prevailing Ashkenazi custom) to undermining vows we may inadvertently make in the coming year.

Nedarim, the Torah teaches, have deep power; they truly bind those who utter them.   And so, we rightly take pains to avoid not only solemn vows but any declarative statements of intent that could be construed as vows.  So, that Yom Kippur would be introduced by a nod to the gravity of neder-making isn’t entirely surprising.  But the poignant mournfulness of the moment is harder to understand.

It has been speculated that the somber mood of Kol Nidrei may be a legacy of distant places and times, in which Jews were coerced by social or economic pressures, or worse, to declare affiliations with other religions.  The text, in that theory, took on the cast of an anguished renunciation of any such declarations born of duress.

Most of us today face no such pressures.  To be sure, missionaries of various types seek to exploit the ignorance of some Jews about their religious heritage.  But few if any Jews today feel any compulsion to shed their Jewish identities to live and work in peace.

Still, there are other ways to be unfaithful to one’s essence.  Coercion comes in many colors.

We are all compelled, or at least strongly influenced, by any of a number of factors extrinsic to who we really are.  We make pacts – unspoken, perhaps, but not unimportant – with an assortment of mastinim: self-centeredness, jealousy, anger, desire, laziness…

Such weaknesses, though, are with us but not of us.  The Amora Rav Alexandri, the Gemara teaches (Berachos, 17a), would recite a short tefillah in which, addressing Hashem, he said: “Master of the universe, it is revealed and known to You that our will is to do Your will, and what prevents us? The ‘leaven in the loaf’ [i.e. the yetzer hora] …”  What he was saying is that, stripped of the rust we so easily attract, sanded down to our essences, we want to do and be only good.

Might Kol Nidrei carry that message no less?  Could its declared disassociation from vows reflect a renunciation of the “vows”, the unfortunate connections, we too often take upon ourselves?  If so, it would be no wonder that the recitation moves us so.

Or that it introduces Yom Kippur. 

When the Beis Hamikdosh stood, Yom Kippur saw the kiyum of the mitzvah of the Shnei Se’irim.  The Cohen Gadol would place a lot on the head of each of two goats; one read “to Hashem” and the other “to Azazel” – according to Rashi, the name of a mountain with a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was sacrificed as a korban; the second was taken through the desert to the cliff and cast off.

The Torah refers to “sins and iniquities” being “put upon the head” of the Azazel goat before its dispatch.  The deepest meanings of the chok, like those of all chukim in the end, are beyond human ken.  But, on a simple level, it might not be wrong to see a symbolism here, a reflection of the fact that our aveiros are, in the end, foreign to our essences, extrinsic entities, things to be “sent away,” banished by our sincere repentance.

In 1934, when Otto Kahn died, Time Magazine reported that the magnate, who had been deeply dismayed at the ascension of Hitler, ym”s, had, despite his secularist life, declared: “I was born a Jew, I am a Jew, and I shall die a Jew.”

Mr. Kahn may never have attended shul for Kol Nidrei.  But perhaps a seed planted by a hunchbacked humorist, and nourished with the bitter waters of Nazism, helped him connect to something of the declaration’s deepest meaning. 

© 2019 Hamodia

It’s Not Just ‘Tone’, Mr. Tapper

Are you aware of the connection between the El Paso shooter and Palestinian terrorists?

No, the shooter wasn’t a Palestinian and had no known affiliation with the Palestinian cause. He was apparently an anti-immigrant white nationalist, as indicated in the manifesto he seems to have posted on a shady website shortly before he set out to kill innocent Hispanic people, accomplishing that goal in 22 cases, and failing in 24 others, where the victims were merely wounded.

The Palestinian “connection,” such as it is, is indirect, and involves Jake Tapper, the well-known broadcast journalist and frequent critic of President Trump.

In the wake of the domestic terrorist attack in El Paso, many charged that the president’s rhetoric bore some responsibility for the carnage. Mr. Trump’s repeated characterization of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. as an “invasion,” the critics asserted, echoed the shooter manifesto’s anti-immigrant sentiments and repeated use of the same word in that context. Accused accessories to the president’s alleged crime included various media outlets, primarily Fox News, which used “invaders” or “invasion” to describe migrants or migration in more than 300 broadcasts over the past year alone.

The killer himself acknowledged the likelihood that Mr. Trump would be implicated in the attack. “I know,” he wrote, “that the media will probably call me a white supremacist… and blame Trump’s rhetoric.” Well, yes.

No one needs to convince those of us even rudimentarily informed by Jewish thought that words can be weaponized. Chazal in fact characterized words as capable of “killing.” Whether, though, political rhetoric can be rightly pointed to as a culprit in white nationalist attacks – like the one in El Paso or the 2015 murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina or the Poway, California synagogue shooting this past spring – is arguable.

Mr. Tapper, predictably, leans toward a “yes” vote. But, on a CNN program panel, he also raised an intriguing point. “What’s interesting,” he averred, is that “you hear conservatives all the time, rightly so in my opinion, talk about the tone set by people in the Arab world… Palestinian leaders talking… about Israelis,” claiming there is “no direct link necessarily between what the leader says and violence against some poor Israeli girl in a pizzeria.” Conceding that “you can’t compare the ideology of Hamas with anything else,” he asserted that, “at the same time, either tone matters or it doesn’t.”

Sana Saeed, Al-Jazeera’s online producer, was appalled, calling on CNN to fire Mr. Tapper for achieving “the height of unethical journalism.” BDS proponent and all-purpose Israel-basher Linda Sarsour seconded the motion.

U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib chimed in too, accusing Mr. Tapper of “comparing Palestinian human rights activists to terrorist white nationalists.” (If Ms. Tlaib considers Hamas terrorists to be “human rights activists,” it is she who deserves to lose her job.)

Not one to be left behind, Raouf J. Halaby, Professor Emeritus of English and Art at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas (no, none of that is made up) reacted to Mr. Tapper’s point by calling it “the height of hypocrisy,” and adding, for good measure, that “Israel is led by racist rulers and rabbis egging their citizens to kill Palestinians because (they claim) the Torah sanctions these killings and it is kosher to do so.”

One can only hope that Arkadelphians recognize a madman in their midst when they hear one.

Mr. Tapper’s verbal assailants, of course, grossly misrepresented what he said. He did not compare human rights activists to white nationalists or defend any fictional rabbinical inciters to murder. But the critics are correct in feeling that his comparison was imperfect.

Just not in the way they contend.

The reason Mr. Tapper’s comparison was faulty is because, whatever one may think about the president’s rhetoric or judgment or positions or personality, whatever one may think about whether or not his words inadvertently offer solace or encouragement to evil people, he has never called for attacks on anyone.

Unlike Palestinian leaders, media and schools.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for example, in 2015, after violent riots on the Har HaBayis initiated by Muslim extremists, declared that “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way” to heaven.

Palestinian media regularly laud “the resistance.” Fatah’s “official” Facebook page has featured a knife with a Palestinian flag on its handle stabbing a bearded religious Jew.

And Palestinian educational materials encourage violence against Israelis and Jews. As chronicled last year by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, a nonprofit that aims to do just what its name says, textbooks created as part of the Palestinian Authority’s new K-12 educational curriculum “are teaching Palestinian children that there can be no compromise” and “indoctrinat[e] for death and martyrdom.”

Fourth graders, for example, learn addition, and ninth graders multiplication, by counting the number of Palestinian “martyrs” – terrorists who perished in the course of their murderous acts.

No, it’s not Palestinian authorities’ “tone” that’s at fault.

It’s their promotion of murder.

© 2019 Hamodia (in edited form)

Scrutinizing the ‘Squad’

President Trump’s singling out of four progressive freshman Congresswomen – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – for strong criticism resonated strongly with his supporters, among them many in our own community.

And, at least in part, for good reason.

Ms. Tlaib has denounced what she asserts to be “continued dehumanization and racist policies by the State of Israel that violate international human rights, but also violate my core values of who I am as an American” and compared contemporary Israeli society – citing “different colored license plates if you are Palestinian or Israeli” (gasp) – to the era of segregation in the U.S., when African-Americans had to drink from different water fountains than whites, had to sit in the backs of buses and suffered beatings and lynchings.

(For the record, Ms. Tlaib, the green license plates are for cars registered to holders of Palestinian Authority identity cards. Palestinians with Israeli citizenship or eastern Yerushalayim residency permits have access to regular yellow Israeli ones.)

As to Ms. Omar, she famously tweeted about how “Israel has hypnotized the world” and “the evil doings of Israel.” And, of course, about the “Benjamins” she implied are the reason for Congress’ support for Israel.

Even after apologizing for that canard, she claimed that American elected officials who support Israel are advocating “allegiance to a foreign country.”

Both Congresswomen, moreover, support the BDS movement to boycott Israel.

But the members of “The Squad,” while they may share socially progressive attitudes, are not all the same. And it would be both a mistake and a misstep, I think, to lump them all together as some nefarious “gang of four.”

Yes, in May, 2018, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, moved by images from Gaza, tweeted her chagrin at what she characterized as a “massacre” and referred to the “occupation of Palestine” – both woefully uninformed and ugly statements.

But, to her credit, after being informed of some facts, she quickly acknowledged that she is “not the expert” on the Middle East and promised to “learn and evolve” regarding Middle East affairs. That was no mere perfunctory apology. She hasn’t made any similarly Israel-negative references since, and in fact has strongly declared her affirmation of Israel’s legitimacy as a nation.

Her much-assailed invocation of the term “concentration camp” for border detention centers was also, whether a wise choice of phrase or not (not), the product of the sensitive Congresswoman’s having been moved by disturbing images and reports from the border. In a lengthy radio interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Remnick, she demonstrated intelligence, eloquence and compassion on the topic. And, asked by Mr. Remnick if she had meant to compare the detention centers to Auschwitz, she didn’t hesitate to respond, “Absolutely not.”

More disturbing of late was Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s “no” vote on a resolution condemning the BDS movement. But, from her own words, in which she expresses anti-Likud but not anti-Israel sentiments, she clearly doesn’t understand how BDS stands in stark contrast to her professed support for Israel as a country.

Ms. Pressley, for her part, supports a bill that would prevent Israel from using American military aid for the “military detention, interrogation, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children.” But she strongly opposes BDS, has vocally condemned anti-Semitism and has enjoyed close ties with Jewish leaders in Boston, most of which is included in her district.

This is not meant as an endorsement of either of the latter representatives, only as an attempt to bring a degree of discernment to the members of a foursome who, despite certain similarities, are hardly, ideologically speaking, conjoined quadruplets.

The time-honored and wise approach of Klal Yisrael throughout the ages has been to maintain as good relations as possible with all political leaders and representatives – whether or not they are “on the same page” as us on every issue, even on every important issue. Obviously, when a representative evidences animus for Jews or Israel, such relations may be difficult or impossible.

But one thing is certain. We must be wary about jumping to, and especially voicing, negative conclusions about people in positions of influence based on less- than-justified assumptions or “guilt by association.”

I can’t say that I know what either Ms. Ocasio-Cortez or Ms. Pressley believes deep down in her soul about Jews or Israel. “Man sees what is before his eyes; Hashem alone sees into the heart” (Shmuel I, 16:7).

And maybe one day, chas v’shalom, we’ll witness the two joining their anti-Israel colleagues, supporting BDS and a “one-state solution”. Maybe they’ll appear on the House chamber floor waving Palestinian flags and brandishing copies of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

But nothing in their records leads me personally to the conclusion that either woman deserves our scorn.

And what’s more, attributing abhorrent attitudes to people who haven’t evidenced them is a dangerous habit. Because publicly casting such aspersions is not only wrong, it can lead to their becoming self-fulfilling prophesies.

© 2019 Hamodia

Loony Tooner

Cartoons employing anti-Semitic tropes became a thing again last week.

The memory of the New York Times International Edition’s offering of a Portuguese cartoonist’s depiction of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a dog, magen David around his neck, held on a leash by a blind, be-yarmulked President Trump – had barely begun to fade.

Enter Ben Garrison.

Mr. Garrison’s oeuvre is decidedly anti-establishment, always provocative and often offensive. His favorite targets, in no particular order, have included former President Obama (depicted as a snake), Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve, George Soros (a vulture) Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer (also snakes), international bankers and Hillary Clinton (a mere groundhog – and a kisser of a demon’s ring).

And the cartoonist’s hero, as you might have guessed, is President Trump, whose reciprocal appreciation of the Montanan caricaturist came in the form of an invitation to last week’s White House “Social Media Summit.” The gathering, which took place last Thursday, was billed as a focus on the “opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment.”

“Honored to be invited to the White House! Thank You Mr. President!” Mr. Garrison gushed in a tweet, which, perhaps unexpected by the cartoonist, swiveled the spotlight back in his direction.

“Back,” because the cartoon that became the spotlight’s focus was one the cartoonist drew in 2017 and was denounced at the time by the ADL. The artwork depicted then-U.S. National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and retired General David Petraeus being controlled by strings held by George Soros, who, in turn, is shown suspended from strings held by a hand labeled “Rothschilds.”

Subtlety, as noted, is not Mr. Garrison’s specialty. Presenting “the Rothschilds” as nefarious controllers of the world is one of the oldest and most persistent anti-Semitic themes out there.

That particular piece of artistry was commissioned by another of Mr. Garrison’s admirers, radio host Mike Cernovich. That would be the fellow who helped promote the bizarre “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory about Mrs. Clinton’s purported running of a human trafficking ring, which led to a credulous man firing an assault rifle in the D.C. area pizza parlor ostensibly involved in the criminality.

“The thrust of the cartoon is clear,” the ADL contended at the time. “McMaster is merely a puppet of a Jewish conspiracy.” With the recent resurrection of the cartoon last week, an assortment of commentators called out Mr. Trump for having invited Mr. Garrison to his event.

This is not, of course, the first time the president has been seen by some as coddling people with less-than-kind views about “Jewish influence.” He first fueled such speculation himself when, back in 2015, he told members of the Republican Jewish Coalition: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.”

Then, in 2016, a Trump campaign commercial featured images of Mr. Soros, the object of vehement anti-Semitic scorn in Europe; Ms. Yellen, then Federal Reserve chairwoman; and Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd C. Blankfein – all of them Jews – with the candidate warning about “global special interests” and “people who don’t have your good in mind.”

And then there was the other campaign ad that depicted Hillary Clinton labeled the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” superimposed on piles of money, next to a large six-pointed star.

Then, the following year, after the violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was Mr. Trump’s comment after the mayhem, that there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the Confederate statue issue – although only one side prominently yielded a crowd of marchers chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”

There are many reasons why many people don’t find Mr. Trump to be their cup of tea. Some include on their list of accusations that he harbors, or tries to encourage, anti-Semitism.

Which is nonsense.

His Jewish daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, his full-throated condemnation of anti-Semitism (“Our entire nation… stands in solidarity with the Jewish community,” he said after the Poway shooting, “We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate which must be defeated”) and his unbridled support for Israel’s current government make the thought unthinkable.

As to the “evidence” to the contrary above, none of it is dispositive. Yes, it was all pounced upon by lowlifes like former KKK leader David Duke and Daily Stormer publisher Andrew Anglin to claim the president as one of their own. But, while the neo-Nazis are welcome to their fantasies, each of the instances of Mr. Trump’s alleged anti-Semitism can be regarded as, if somewhat tone-deaf, benign.

There’s no reason, though, to be so understanding about Mr. Garrison. Portraying “Rothschilds” as devious puppet-masters can reflect only one thing, and it’s not something pretty.

And so it was to its credit that, the day before the “Social Media Summit,” the White house rescinded Mr. Garrison’s invitation, thereby denying those who seek to portray the president as insensitive to Jews a new hook on which to hang their hats.

© 2019 Hamodia

A Midrash Comes Alive

At one point in an address to the United Nations Security Council earlier this month, Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., reached for a yarmulke, placed it on his head and read from a Chumash.

A video of what he then said went viral, propelled by supporters of Israel, prominent among them the worldwide Evangelical Christian community. Ambassador Danon’s words were translated into Spanish, Polish, French, Portuguese and even Turkish, and reached many tens of thousands of people. At this writing, the clip continues to gain momentum on social media.

Earlier in his speech, Mr. Danon introduced in brief the “four pillars” that, he said, link the Jewish People to Eretz Yisrael.

The latter three bases for Israel’s legitimacy, Mr. Danon explained, were world history, international law and the pursuit of international peace. He cited the Balfour Declaration, the U.N. Charter and the fact that “a stronger and safer Israel means a stronger and safer world.” Later in his speech, he elaborated on those ideas.

It was the first portion of his explication, though, the one for which he donned the kippah, and that has come to be called his “Biblical Speech,” that captured the attention of so many.

Mr. Danon quoted from Bereishis (17, 7-8), where Hashem appears to Avraham Avinu and promises:

And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a G-d and to your descendants after you. And I will give you and your descendants after you the land of your dwelling, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a G-d.”

“This,” Mr. Danon added, holding the Chumash aloft, “is our deed to our land.”

Of course, that is true. My first reaction, though, was to wonder whether it was proper, from a strategic perspective, considering our place in galus, to proclaim that truth in a most public and important international forum. Maybe, I thought, the lesser “pillars,” rather than the overtly religious one, should alone have been put forth.

But pondering the happening a bit more, it became impossible to not be reminded of the first Rashi in the Chumash (echoing two Midrashim), explaining why the Torah begins with an account of the creation of the world:

“For if the nations of the world should say to Klal Yisrael, ‘You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],’ they will reply, ‘The entire earth belongs to Hashem; He created it and gave it to whomever He deemed proper. When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us’.”

And so, Mr. Danon’s presentation of his “first pillar” would seem, at least to me, to have constituted essentially a contemporary fulfilment of the Midrash’s predicted scenario.

The Palestinian representative, Riyad Mansour, was not present for Mr. Danon’s speech. After making his own presentation moments earlier, in which he condemned the United States for recognizing Yerushalyim as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Mr. Mansour left the room, returning only when the Israeli representative had finished.

But other “nations of the world,” including the Arab ones – and Mr. Mansour himself, no doubt, at least after the fact – did indeed hear Mr. Danon’s words. And the Midrashim came to life.

There is, though, another important, if less enthralling, truth to remember here.

While it is important for the world to recognize the fact that, geopolitics and nationalism aside, Eretz Yisrael the land is indeed bequeathed to Klal Yisrael, we Jews need to remind ourselves of something else: The bequeathal, while eternal, is not unconditional.

This Shabbos in shul, we will read the “tochachah,” or “admonition,” in parashas Bechukosai. For the same reason that it will be read in a low voice and quickly, I will not excerpt it here. But we all know what it says, that it conditions Klal Yisrael’s right to inhabit Eretz Yisrael on our acceptance of Hashem’s laws. And we know, too, that we were expelled en masse from our land twice.

The latter three of the pillars cited by Mr. Danon are unrelated to shemiras hamitzvos. But the first one, the main one, the one that reflected that first Rashi, very much does depend on Jewish behavior.

That most vital point didn’t belong before the Security Council or the world. But it well belongs in every Jewish heart and mind.

© 2019 Hamodia

Make the Kosel Plaza Great Again

An Open Letter to Anat Hoffman

Dear Ms. Hoffman,

Many years ago, we shared a stage for a panel discussion about Israel and Judaism. But you are a well-known public figure and have appeared in countless venues to promote the feminist cause of your group “Women of the Wall,” so I hardly expect you to remember our fleeting interaction.

What you may be more familiar with is my written criticism of your goals and your group, since some of it has appeared in secular media both here in America and in Israel. I want to assure you that it was not intended as a personal attack, but was rather a battle undertaken in the arena of ideas. You have argued that the Kosel Maaravi should be a place where nontraditional public and vocal services should take place, even if such things offend those who most frequent the site.

And I have maintained that the hanhagah in place since the Wall was captured in 1967, effectively enshrining normative Orthodox practice as the standard for congregational prayer at the Kosel, should remain unchanged.

I am writing to you publicly now because of the results of the most recent Israeli elections. As you know, and likely bemoan, the two chareidi parties, Yahadut HaTorah and Shas, made unexpectedly strong showings. Their equally shared 16 Knesset seats represent a nearly 25 percent increase from their previous electoral representation. And together, they now constitute the largest Knesset faction in the government coalition after Likud, with more than three times the seats as the next most successful party.

That being the case, the chareidi parties are virtually assured to be part of Israel’s new government. That observation is not made to rub salt in any wounds, chas v’shalom, but rather as a prelude to a plea.

Realistically speaking, political machinations are not likely to change the longstanding status quo at the Kosel in the foreseeable future. And even if the Israeli courts are successfully enlisted to support the cause of dismantling the traditional public prayer custom at the site, the Knesset may be able to use its legislative power to circumvent such efforts.

In any event, the change for which you advocate is not likely in the cards for now.

And so, my plea:

Might you consider, in light of that reality, “demilitarizing” the Kosel, and putting your formidable talents and energies into truly important feminist causes, things like advocacy on behalf of equal pay for equal work and effective anti-harassment laws?

For, as you know, bringing loud nontraditional services to the revered site, as you have regularly done, only serves to cause strife. I make no excuses for anyone who berates another Jew, or so much as throws a crumpled piece of paper at her or him, much less for someone who assaults another. Hotheads exist in every group and should be tolerated in none.

But you know that your group’s actions will always meet with obnoxious reactions. Indeed, you have counted on it, making sure that when you arrive at the Kosel there are cameras and media in tow to capture whatever ugliness might result.

Provoking another Jew to overreact may not be as wrong as the overreaction itself. But it, too, is wrong.

And so, just think of what it might be like were you to seek changes to truly improve the lot of women in Israel, rather than a crusade whose only ultimate yield is strife.

Think of what it would be like to join the women who daven at the Kosel regularly with the sole goal of pouring out their hearts to Hashem. What an accomplishment it would be to make the Kosel plaza great again. A place of peace again.

You know that no one – traditional or nontraditional, Jew or non-Jew – has ever been prevented from worshipping there as an individual, and that the great majority of those who flock to the site regularly are Orthodox Jews, who want there to be a mechitzah near the Wall, and want audible public tefillah there to respect the norms born of centuries, indeed millennia, of Jewish tradition.

And you know, further, that until you launched your quest, the Kotel plaza was a place of uninterrupted amity – a Jewish societal oasis, probably the only place on earth where Jews of different religious stripes prayed sincerely side by side.

Might you consider returning it to that, every day of the year?

You and your followers can, as always, promote your religious or societal ideals in any private venue. But please give thought to the good will that you would be showing, and inspiring, were you to decide to make the Kosel once again an undisturbed place of Jewish comity and peace.

Thank you,

Avi Shafran

© 2019 Hamodia

All The Days of Your Life

I often feel terribly pampered. Especially when I think of my parents’ generation.

At the age when my father, z”l, and several others from the Novardok Yeshiva in Vilna were captured for being Polish bnei yeshivah and banished by the Soviets to Siberia, I was being captured by a teacher for some prank and banished to the principal’s office. When he was trying to avoid working on Shabbos as his taskmasters demanded, I was busy trying to avoid the homework my teachers demanded.

When he was moser nefesh finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga, my mesirus nefesh consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning for davening. Where he struggled to survive, my only struggle was with the mundane challenges of adolescence. Pondering our respective age-tagged challenges has lent me perspective.

And so, while I help prepare the house for Pesach, pausing to rest each year a bit more frequently than the previous one, thoughts of my father’s first Pesach in Siberia arrive in my head.

In his slim memoir, “Fire, Ice, Air,” he describes how Pesach was on the minds of the young men and their Rebbi, Rav Leib Nekritz, zt”l, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941. While laboring in the fields, they pocketed a few wheat kernels here and there, later placing them in a special bag, which they carefully hid. This was, of course, against the rules and dangerous. But the Communist credo, after all, was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” and so they were really only being good Marxists. They had needs, after all, like matzah shemurah.

Toward the end of the frigid winter, they retrieved their stash and ground the wheat into coarse, dark flour.

They then dismantled a clock and fitted its gears to a whittled piece of wood, fashioning an approximation of the cleated rolling pin traditionally used to perforate matzos to ensure their thorough baking. In the middle of the night, the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which they fired up for two hours to make it kosher l’Pesach before baking their matzos.

And on Pesach night they fulfilled, to the extent they could, the mitzvah of achilas matzah.

Perspective is provided me too by the wartime Pesach experience of, l’havdil bein chaim l’chaim, my wife’s father, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well. In his own memoir, “Destined to Survive,” he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzah. All the same, he was determined to have the Pesach he could. In the dark of the barracks on the leil shimurim, he suggested to a friend that they recite parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted Mah Nishtanah, other inmates protested. “What are you crazy Chassidim doing?” they asked. “Do you have matzos, do you have wine and food for a Seder? Sheer stupidity!”

My shver responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a mitzvah d’Oraysa – and that no one could know if their “Seder” is less meritorious in the eyes of Heaven than those of Jews in places of freedom and plenty.

We in such places can glean much from the Pesachim of those two members – and so many other men and women – of the Jewish “greatest generation.”

A passuk cited in the Haggadah elicited a novel thought from Rav Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim. The Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach, “so that you remember the day of your leaving Mitzrayim all the days of your life.”

Commented the Slonimer Rebbe: “When recounting Yetzias Mitzrayim, one should remember, too, ‘all the days’ of his own life – the miracles and wonders that Hashem performed for him throughout…”

Those who, baruch Hashem, emerged from the Holocaust and merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that. But the rest of us, too, have experienced our own “miracles and wonders.” We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and chassadim with which we were blessed. But that reflects only our obliviousness. At the Seder, when we recount Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the personal gifts we’ve been given.

And should that prove a challenge, we might begin by reflecting on what some Jews a bit older than we had to endure not so very long ago.

© 2019 Hamodia

I’m In!

There’s no point in further delaying the news. I will soon be officially announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Most everyone else has done so and I don’t want to be left out.

The official throwing of my hat (my weekday one, as it needs replacing anyway) into the presidential ring will take place at Hamodia’s sprawling Borough Park offices at a date and time to be announced.

I will be running on the Purim Party ticket, and am currently accepting applications for the position of running mate. My life mate, unfortunately, does not qualify, as she was not born in the U.S.; in fact, she obstinately remains a Canadian citizen, an alien (in more ways, perhaps, than one, since, as numerous immigration officials at Newark airport can attest, she lacks detectable fingerprints).

My personal qualifications are well-known. I was a candle in my kindergarten Chanukah production, and graduated both elementary and high school. And I have no felony convictions.

I have never knowingly employed undocumented domestic help, and have never worn blackface. There was that do-rag a few Purims back, yes, but there are no photos that I know of. (Should you have any, please be in touch with my fixer, the aforementioned Mrs. Shafran.)

My closet, although it’s cluttered, holds no skeletons, only an assortment of old ties biding their time until they are once again of fashionable width.

And so, I feel that I am eminently qualified to occupy the seat once occupied by the venerable likes of Millard Fillmore and Warren Harding.

My platform? Thank you for asking. I support universal health care, universal child care and universal common sense training, something I’ve long felt has been sorely lacking in American society.

I have no position on minimum wage, but support a maximum one.

The Middle East will be one of my top priorities, of course. I have a secret peace plan. No, of course I can’t offer it; if I did, it wouldn’t be secret, would it? (Common sense training would have made that explanation unnecessary.)

I also look forward during my tenure, to appointing Supreme Court justices who are practicing Orthodox Jews, ideally kollel-leit and BJJ graduates.

But my campaign mantra, with which I expect my supporters to drown me out at rallies when I start rambling incoherently, will be “Build the Wall!” No, it has not been copyrighted (I checked), and, in any event, it’s not a southern border wall I will be urging, but a northern one.

Yes, as you know, there is an urgent need for a 3000-mile-long impenetrable barrier between our mainland and Canada, to protect our beloved country from the dire threat poised to invade from the north – the forces of civility and polite discourse.

Now, Canadians are welcome to embrace such un-American practices in their own country if that’s really what they want. Hockey pucks to the head and beer overconsumption take a toll on a society. But the peril posed by an import of politeness to our own political sphere is frightening.

Name-calling and personal insults, after all, are part of the republic’s DNA. We must never forget our twin guiding principles, e pluribus unum and argumentum ad hominem.

When Thomas Jefferson called John Adams a “repulsive pedant” and a “hideous… character,” the gauntlet was thrown, and it was picked up by Mr. Adams, who labeled Mr. Jefferson a “G-dless atheist” and cast crude aspersions on his parentage.

Adams’ son John Quincy played the genealogy card himself, against Andrew Jackson, disparaging the latter’s mother; and Mr. Jackson made sure that the media, which wasn’t yet fake, called JQA’s moral behavior into question.

Memorably, Stephen Douglas’ supporters called Abraham Lincoln a “horrid-looking wretch” who was “sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper, and the nightman.” (“Nutmeg dealer”? I have no idea.) For his part, Honest Abe compared Mr. Douglas to an “obstinate animal.”

Teddy Roosevelt famously referred to William Howard Taft as “a rat in a corner.”

More recent examples of the glorious rudeness that imbues the American political realm from all its corners are readily available from news organizations, Twitter and local bars.

And, so, it is clear that we must do all we can to avoid a slippery slide into civility. Invaders from the north may only be targeting mudslinging today, but tomorrow it will be baseball, and before we know it, they’ll be coming for our guns.

So, if you care about the U.S.A., you know your choice!

© 2019 Hamodia