Category Archives: Personalities

My Father’s First Postwar Purchase and Final Request

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

Patriarchal Patronage

Heard the one about the mysterious $30,000 watch that was digitally removed from a photograph? The one where the photoshopper inadvertently overlooked the timepiece’s reflection on a polished table?

No? Well, please be patient. I’ll get to it.

First, though, some history of Christianity. (Yes, yes,, the watch story is coming.)

In 1054, a complex mix of religious disagreements and political conflicts led to what historians call “The Great Schism,” the splitting of Christendom  into two branches: the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox one, the latter centered in Constantinople, today Istanbul. (As the 1953 song has it: “Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’.”)

Subsequently, a number of Eastern Churches established themselves. Among them are the Russian Orthodox church, one of the largest, some 90 million strong; and the Ukrainian one, with around 30 million adherents.

The current leader of the Russian church was born Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev but is called Patriarch Kirill. He is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, sharing with him the vision of a “Russkiy Mir,” or “Russian World,” linking religious unity and territorial expansion; and he has not been shy about celebrating the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Like practically all elite Russian clerics of the post-World War II era, Kirill is believed to have collaborated with the K.G.B., where Mr. Putin worked as a foreign intelligence officer for 16 years.

But Kirill wasn’t always a Putin minion. 

At the end of 2011, he voiced criticism of fraudulent parliamentary elections. (In Russia, widespread election fraud is a reality.) And he said it would be “a very bad sign” if the Kremlin did not pay attention to the electoral mendacity.

Shortly thereafter, though, Russian media began reporting on luxurious apartments owned by Kirill and his family; as well as on rumors of billions of dollars in secret bank accounts, Swiss chalets and yachts.

And then (thanks for your patience) there was the watch, a Breguet Réveil du Tsar model, a rather high-end item.

A news website dug up a photograph from 2009 in which Kirill wore one. His underlings edited it out of the photo but neglected to edit the watch’s reflection on the highly-polished table on which the patriarchal wrist was resting. 

After the ineffectual airbrushing, Kirill denied ever wearing such a watch, but its reflection on the tabletop ended up eliciting an embarrassed apology from the church.

According to a personal assistant to the patriarch, the orchestrated tarnishing of his reputation was interpreted by Kirill as a message from the Kremlin to behave.

And behave he did, ceasing all criticism of the Kremlin and throwing his full religious weight behind its decisions, including the one about conquering Ukraine. He called on the public to support the war so that Russia can “repel its enemies, both external and internal.”

Needless to say, the Ukrainian church has blasted Kirill, as have other Eastern Orthodox churches. And even the current Roman Catholic pope, Francis, who has made great efforts to bridge the gap between the Eastern and Western churches, tried to get Kirill to stand up to Mr. Putin. To no avail. 

The pontiff reportedly told his Eastern colleague, “Brother, we are not clerics of the state,” but Kirill just read him a Russian claim that the invasion was necessary to protect “the Orthodox faithful” in Ukraine who remain loyal to the Russian church.

The pope later effectively warned Kirill, in a statement in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, not to “transform himself into Putin’s altar boy.”

Sergei Chapnin, a senior fellow in Orthodox Christian studies at Fordham University who actually worked with Kirill in the Moscow Patriarchate, compared the situation to the “mafia,” saying that “If you’re in, you’re in. You can’t get out.”

The Mob really is no place for a monsignor.

Kirill once told Russian state television that his grandfather, a churchman like himself, told him to never “be afraid of anything but G-d.”

It’s time for the grandson to include Putin in that “anything.”

Time, indeed. If he needs to, he can check his watch.

© 2022 Ami Magazine

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 [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