Category Archives: Personalities

A Lesson About Living

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

Too Many American Jews Still Believe Putin-style Lies

A piece I wrote about how Vladimir Putin’s transparent lies, recognized as such by most Americans, should sensitize all of us to the lies that have been swallowed on the domestic front by all too many of us. It can be read here.

If your access to the Haaretz site is blocked, you can send a request for a PDF of the article to rabbia[email protected] .

Diversity in the Court!

A sour taste was left in some mouths back in January, after Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement from the Court and President Biden pledged to nominate a black woman to assume his seat.

Personally, I don’t care if the president sought a Samoan-born, hard of hearing, left-handed candidate to further diversify the Court. As long as the requisite credentials and talents were there, fine with me.

So, does Ketanji Brown Jackson, the president’s nominee, have what it takes to be a High Court judge?

My thoughts on the matter are here.

The Collision Course

The case of Quintez Brown, the man who entered Louisville, Kentucky mayoral candidate Craig Greenberg’s office and opened fire on Mr. Greenberg and others present with a 9mm Glock handgun re-raises the issue of the nexus that seems to exist between at least some types of mental illness and rabid, violent antisemitism.

My thought on the matter is at https://www.amimagazine.org/2022/02/23/the-collision-course/

Vo’eira – History’s Foundation

It is interesting that the concept of hakaras hatov, “recognition of the good” that one has experienced, appears not only in the parsha, at the beginning of the Sefer Shemos saga whose apogee is the creation of Klal Yisrael, but also at the beginning of human history itself.

It is Aharon, not Moshe, who initiates the makkos that require the Nile to be hit (Rashi, Shemos 7:19), because the river sheltered Moshe when he was a baby. Likewise when, at the makka of kinim, the ground needed to be hit, it was Aharon who did the act, not Moshe, since the ground had helped Moshe hide the body of the Egyptian taskmaster he killed in Mitzrayim (Rashi, Shemos 8:12).

And, back at the beginning of the Torah, it was necessary that the first man be created in order for the already-created vegetation to sprout from the ground, since, until Adam’s arrival, “there was no one to ‘recognize the good’ of rain and pray for it (Rashi, Beraishis, 2:5).

Hashem, of course, didn’t need Adam to bring rain. And Hashem could have had all the makos come about without any hitting of anything. But He chose to have the Nile and the ground be intermediaries of His will – to stress, as per the Midrashim Rashi cites, as above, the critical importance of hakaras hatov. Clearly, it’s a concept fundamental to the evolution of humanity, stressed at the beginning of history and the beginning of Klal Yisrael. 

And while hakaras hatov may be expressed in an action or toward an object, it is always, ultimately, a recognition of the ultimate source of good, Hashem. 

Which is why Jewish days begin with Modeh ani and end with Hamapil, and why they are filled with the recitation of birchos hanehenin and birchos hoda’ah.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Defining Indecency Down

It may have started back in the summer of 2020, when a Kansas Republican county chairman posted a caricature of the state’s Democratic governor Laura Kelly on his newspaper’s Facebook page. Ms. Kelly had issued a public-setting mask mandate, and was depicted wearing a mask with a Magen David on it. In the background was a photograph of European Jews being loaded onto train cars. The caption: “Lockdown Laura says: Put on your mask … and step on to the cattle car.”

The next summer, we were treated to Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene’s criticism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s mask requirement for the chamber, in which Ms. Taylor Greene declared: “You know, we can look back at a time in history where people were told to wear a gold star… were put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany. And this is exactly the type of abuse that Nancy Pelosi is talking about.”  Under pressure from her peers, the congresswoman later apologized; but her point, such as it was, had been made, and likely energized her like-minded supporters.

Then came Oklahoma GOP chairman John Bennett’s comparison of private companies requiring employees to get vaccines to — three guesses — the Nazis’ forcing Jews to wear a yellow star.

The odious comparisons just seemed to pile up, across the country. They were getting attention, after all, and attention is catnip for political felines. Of course, the offensive comments, each in turn, were all roundly condemned by Jewish groups. Wash, rinse and repeat.

Last week, though, may have offered us the Mother Of All Such Slurs, when broadcaster Lara Logan, once a respected CBS News foreign correspondent and now a Fox Nation commentator, appeared on the “Fox News Primetime” program, where she addressed Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recommendation that Americans get fully vaccinated, including  booster shots, in the wake of the appearance of the Omicron COVID variant. Her words:

“This is what people say to me, that he doesn’t represent science to them. He represents Joseph Mengele, the Nazi doctor who did experiments on Jews during the Second World War and in the concentration camps. And I am talking about people all across the world are saying this.”

A cursory search turns up no one but Ms. Logan saying such a thing, but maybe those people all across the world spoke with her privately.

As usual, Jewish groups rightly rushed to condemn her statement. But she was impervious to the criticism, later re-tweeting to her 197,000 Twitter followers a Jewish fan’s comment: “Shame on the Auschwitz Museum for shaming Lara Logan for sharing that Jews like me believe Fauci is a modern day Mengele.” Well, that makes two people, anyway.

This introduction shouldn’t be, and probably isn’t, necessary, but for any readers not fully familiar with Josef Mengele, yimach shemo vizichro: He was a Nazi doctor given the title “Todesengel” — German for malach hamaves. At Auschwitz, he performed deadly experiments on prisoners, selected victims to be killed in the gas chambers and helped administer the Zyklon B, or hydrogen cyanide, gas. 

Mengele was particularly interested in twins, separating them on their arrival at the concentration camp, and performing experiments on them, including infecting them with germs to give them life-threatening diseases, performing operations on them without anesthetics and killing many of them to compare their and their siblings’ internal organs.

As to Dr. Fauci’s sin, it is being cautious — overly so, to his critics — about public health measures.

Aside from the insult and offensiveness of the Holocaust comparisons, the repeated use of the murder of six million Jews as a political tool should bother us for another reason:

With each one, even dutifully followed by condemnations, the memory of Churban Europa is further dulled a bit, the force of its historical reality subtly blunted. The public mind is, slur by slur, lulled into regarding the Holocaust as a mere metaphor. That may be of no concern to the offenders, but it should be to us.  

Because the cascade of casual co-optings of the Holocaust to score political points dovetails grievously with the diminishing number of living links to the events of 1939-1945.

And all the loathsome little Holocaust deniers and revisionists are just licking their lips as they wait in the wings.

© 2021 Ami Magazine