Posts Tagged 'Holocaust'

The Painted Bird

In Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read various stories regarding animals.   Long before we get to the climax of this story where Bilaam’s donkey talks to him, we meet Balak. There we read:

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. (Numbers 22:2)

Balak the king of Moav was afraid of the Israelites and  he sent messengers to Balaam. We wants this prophet to curse the Israelites.  But what is his name? Balak the son of Zippor- Balak the son of Bird. And of course this story of animals fits into the larger context of the book of Numbers where the people of Israel are acting like animals. We saw this last week from when they were being struck down by snakes and at the end of this week’s Torah portion when they succumb to animal-like sexual promiscuity. What do we make of all of this “parshamenagerie“? Why does Balak hate the Israelite people?

This animalistic vision of Balak the son of Bird’s hate evokes for me images from the cover of  Jerzy Kosinski‘s  book the Painted Bird.

Image result for painted bird jerzy

In this controversial 1965 novel by Kosinski describes World War II as seen by a boy wandering about small villages scattered around an unspecified country in Eastern Europe. Like the book of Numbers, this book describes the boy’s encounter with peasants engaged in all forms of sexual and social deviance such as incest, bestiality and rape, and in a huge amount of violence – often at the expense of the child. While the book has been said to depict peasants in a derogatory fashion, some argue that it was not a particular social group, but all people, who are viewed as inherently predisposed to cruelty.

The title is drawn from an analogy to human life, described within the book. The boy finds himself in the company of a professional bird catcher. There we read:

One day he trapped a large raven, whose wings he painted red, the breast green, and the tail blue. When a flock of ravens appeared over our hut, Lekh freed the painted bird. As soon as it joined the flock a desperate battle began. The changeling was attacked from all sides. Black, red, green, blue feathers began to drop at our feet. The ravens ran amuck in the skies, and suddenly the painted raven plummeted to the freshly-plowed soil. It was still alive, opening its beak and vainly trying to move its wings. Its eyes had been pecked out, and fresh blood streamed over its painted feathers. It made yet another attempt to flutter up from the sticky earth, but its strength was gone. (Jerzy Kosiński, The Painted Bird)

When the man is particularly upset or bored, he takes one of his captured birds and paints it several colors. Then he watches the bird fly through the air in search of a flock of its kin. When it comes upon them, they see it as an intruder and tear at the bird until it dies, falling from the sky.

Back to Balak, what separated the Israelites from other nations? There was no biological difference. The soul difference was their faith and practice. But if they lost their faith or stopped their practice, what separated the Israelites? There in the story of their Exodus we read:

You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight.They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it. ( Exodus 12:6-7)

We separated from our neighbors by painting our door posts. The book of Numbers is the story of the nation of Israel wandering in the desert after having been liberated from their slavery in Egypt. Like the Painted Bird, we see the Israelites being sent back to interact with the flock of humanity after having been painted as different and their struggle to keep their faith and practice. While the authorship or authenticity of the book might be suspect, for me the Painted Bird has always been a haunting portrayal of what happens when humanity gives into hate and scorn, we are all but savage animals ripping apart what we perceive as a threat. Sadly we have to ask if  anything has really changed?

 

Listening To Survivors: Shemini and Yom HaShoa

Just about a week ago we celebrated our salvation at the division of the Red Sea with the concluding days of Passover. There we were witness to God’s miracles and the death of other people’s children. Our response was to sing songs. The Gemara says:

The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?’ (Sanhedrin 37)

Here we see God silencing the angels for their callous behavior. The death of the Egyptians seems to be a moment for silence, or at the least not a time for singing. By implication this Gemara is teaching us a lesson of compassion. If this is true for our enemy, we can only imagine the appropriate response for  the death of a friend or a loved one.

As a parent the voice of God admonishing the angels stings. It is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:

Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. What can we learn from Aaron’s deafening silence?

With Yom HaShoa being commemorated this past week, I am shocked as to the tremendous amount of literature still being written about the Holocaust. All of these years later, we cannot even imagine slowing down on that topic. I am not saying we should silence, forget, or deny history for a moment the atrocities of the Holocaust. The opposite is true. There is a certain urgency now more than ever to tell those stories. Sadly we are in the waning years of having survivors in our community. We need them to share their stories before they are gone.

While we need to hear their stories about how they survived near death, it is even more important to learn how they lived. My friend Rav Josh Feigelson recently pointed out:

The 2013 Pew Research Center survey of American Jews found that 73 percent of respondents said that “remembering the Holocaust” was “essential to being Jewish,” the highest item on a list that included “leading an ethical/moral life,” “caring about Israel,” “observing Jewish law,” and “eating traditional Jewish foods,” among others.

If we are blessed to hear their stories we need to hear their whole story. As Rav Josh pointed out we, “unwittingly brought about a Jewish self-image in which Auschwitz is not just on par with Sinai, but comes to displace it.”  We need humility and inner fortitude to hear the faint voice of Sinai. It takes a moment to learn how Jews have died, it takes a lifetime to learn how we should live.

In conclusion I want to point out the difference between what we want and what they the survivors need. We want them to talk, but do they want to talk? Aaron was silent at the death of his children. Surely we are humbled by the presence of survivors. We are here to listen to anything they want to tell us.  We need to need to  give them that time and space to speak, even if they like Aaron want to be quiet.

From Continuity to Contribution: Beyond Antisemitism

It is astounding to me how much money we spend as a community on Holocaust education. Particularly now with the recent spike in antisemitism in Europe I am sensitive to the need to “never forget”, but do we need to pay for other people to remember?  Let them pay for their own crimes and their feeling of guilt. The Holocaust is clearly part of our memory and history, but so too is the breadth and depth of Jewish literate, art, and culture. No matter what we teach our neighbors they will have to decide for themselves how they want to live. Our primary concern should be how we educate our children. My fear is that we spend more time teaching our children about how we died over and above teaching them how we lived let alone how we might live as Jews. You can disagree with me, but I doubt that a discourse of survival will be compelling to the next generation of North Americans who are growing up in affluence and safely.  So what are we left with?

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we read that God tells Moshe to tell the Israelites, “Let them take for Me a portion, from every man whose heart motivated him you shall take My portion“(Exodus 25:1). The Israelites who had only recently escaped slavery do not limit their expression to preserving the memory of the experience they had in Egypt as we see in the Seder. They communicate their devotion to the Jewish project by making a contribution. Instead of continuity for the sake of continuity they throw themselves into the project of building the Mishkan, Tabernacle. In the contribution we create community. Does God really need a Mishkan? Clearly we did.

There is a certain sanctity in inviting and trusting  people to join the Jewish project. We must throw off the helicopter parent’s urge to prepare the way for the child as compared to preparing the child for the way. Do we trust the next generation to do their part? We need to be open to the fact that there are many ways for people to contribute. While we must stay vigilant about antisemitism we must stay on message and give the next generation the gift of allowing them to contribute in their own way.

 

Hands Up Don’t Shoot

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read one of the many times in the about how we are supposed to treat the stranger. There we read:

And a stranger you shall not wrong, neither shalt you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry– My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:20-23)

We are charged to look out for the needs of the stranger for the very reason that we had the same experience.  On this Rashi commented:

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: If you taunt him, he can also taunt you and say to you, “You too emanate from strangers.” Do not reproach your neighbor with a fault that is also yours (Mechilta, B.M. 59b). Every expression of a stranger (גֵּר) means a person who was not born in that country but has come from another country to sojourn there.

The fact that our national story is born in Diaspora in Egypt means that we have a mandate to relate to other strangers. In light of this I wanted to share these images:

Image result for ferguson hands up boy

We cannot just through our hands up and say that the racial issues in this country are not our problems. We too need to put our hands up and work with those who are estranged by the systems power. We need to do our part to enact a rule of law that treats everyone equally.

In the words of Common in the song Glory from Selma:

Justice for all just ain’t specific enough

That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down” and we stand up

We are either part of the solution or we are part of the problem.

Is He Ready?

Is he ready?Adina and I had a talk this Shabbat regarding Yadid. We want all of our children to grow up with a deep sense of self-worth and knowing that they are loved, but we know that eventually they will need to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust. Joyous Judaism is our purpose for living, but we know that Jewish history has not been all peaches and cream. But when do we tell them?

We both feel that we are witnessing a strange race. Our children are growing up so quickly, but maybe no quickly enough. We know that the number of Holocaust survivors who can share their first hand experience is dwindling, but will our child be old enough to remember the experience of hearing their stories?  Yadid recently turned ten and we know that they started dealing with the Holocaust in his school, so we decided he should go to a community-wide event last night in New Rochelle in commemoration of Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura (the Jewish/Israeli Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day). At first he did not want to go to hear the survivors, but when I woke him on Sunday morning he was resolved to go. Adina took him last night and as of last night I thought it was the right choice.

Later last night he had a nightmare. It made me question our choice. What is the benefit of giving a child a legacy of nightmares? But then with more consideration I still think we were right. Just a few week’s ago we told our children to take drops of wine from our Passover cup to commemorate the plagues. Having his joy limited one day will hopefully make him appreciate the joy he gets to experience all year. Years from now I hope he comes to remember his first hand account of survivors who live with joy  and freedom in the face of the worst the world could offer. There is so much to celebrate.

Maybe I started with the wrong question. It is not if he is ready. I just had him read this post and he told me that nightmares are not always a bad thing. He said, ” Nightmares can help and they cannot not help. They sometimes help you focus on what you should be working on.” Clearly he is ready. The real question is if Adina and I are ready to have him grow up and be a proud Jewish man.

Meaningful Light

Hanukkah is a time of miracles. But which miracles? Maybe it is the miracle of the Maccabees. How else could we explain a small group of zealots being able to beat the stronger forces and regain control of the Temple? Maybe it is the miracle of the oil. What is the explanation for how a small jar pure oil that was only enough to last for one day could last for eight days? Or maybe the miracle is what I wrote about last week, the miracles that in retelling the story of the second miracle of the oil we were successful in overshadowing the first miracle of a civil war. But maybe there is yet another answer for why Hanukkah is time of miracles. Maybe the essence of Hanukkah is our ability to find meaning in history.

Hanukkah is in the depth of winter when the days are short and  the nights are long. What has all of our work on this world accomplished? It is understandable that we might be afraid of emptiness of the cold night sky. Time might passing us by, but what is our place in the universe? It is easy getting lost in the expanse of stars. Our lives seem infinitesimal in the context of the ever-expanding universe.

In the spirit of the holiday I was up last night I was up late reading as I am up tonight writing.  I had the pleasure of reviewing the end of Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal‘s Em HaBanim Semeichah.  In this amazing book Rabbi Teichtal refutes the anti- Zionism of his Hungarian Orthodox upbringing  and beautifully lays out a vision of redemption realized in a Jewish State of Israel. I have written about this book and Rabbi Teichtal in past posts. There in the conclusion we read:

This printing of this book began on parashat VaEira , 5703[1943], and was completed successfully on Thursday, parashat Miketz, the second day of Hanukkah, 5704 [1943]. May HaShem recall the miracles that God performed for our forefathers in those days and renew them for us today. May the following verses be fulfilled through us, “He puts an end to the darkness” ( Job 28:3) and ” The Jews had light and gladness and joy” ( Esther 8:16). So may it be for us, speedily in our days. Amen.

The project of Rabbi Teichtal’s  book was looking at all of the anti-Zionist sources that he grew up with through the lens of the history.  Every shred of his being was trying to make sense of the horrors of the Holocaust. In the depths of this darkness Rabbi Teichtal was looking for the light of meaning. It has been exactly 70 years since Rabbi Teichtal finished this opus on redemption and return. I was haunting reading these words in the middle of the night on Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is truly a holiday of miracles, but maybe it does not matter which miracles. Maybe the holiday itself is an invitation for us to see world history through the lens that there is meaning in the world. Perhaps the idea of miracles itself is human projection of meaning casting light into the darkness of an otherwise meaningless universe.

Unfortunately Rabbi Teichtal was not able to live out his Zionist dreams. He was murdered on a transport train in 1945 during the closing days of World War II. On this Hanukkah I hope that we are all blessed to be inspired by the memory  of Rabbi Teichtal z”l who’s light continues to shine despite having experienced the darkest era the world has ever known. Perhaps we can be inspired to cultivate in ourselves the curiosity and desire to seek out or project a meaningful light into the depths of our darkness.

Bully Proof

Yesterday I took my boys to an hour and a half class at a local synagogue entitled “Bully Proof”. It was taught by Taekwondo instructor Master Edwards. It was part of whole day Festival of Kindness in commemoration of the Holocaust. Master Edwards started by explaining the basic power dynamics of bullying. He went on to equip the children with some simple techniques to evade getting bullied. He asked them to affirm the comments that people say about them and then leave, laugh it off and leave, and finally to say “ Stop” and leave. To practice their responses Master Edwards brought some 12 year-olds to play the role of the bully. I was listening attentively to what the “bully” said to Yishama. First he commented on his large head of hair, then his large colorful Bukharin Kippah, and then of course his Tzitzit. While Yishama did exactly what he was supposed to do with great aplomb, I was deeply saddened.

What have I done to my children? Bullies feed on difference, singling out people who look or act different from themselves or the larger society. Have I marked my children to be bullied? What have I done to this poor little 6-year-old with a Jew-fro, huge colorful head coverings, and the flowing strings coming out of his pants? And yes, the fact that it is Yom HaShoah was sitting heavy in my consciousness.

Master Edwards ended the session by inviting each child to come up to the front, make a proclamation about themselves, and breaking a board with their fist. Each child came up and affirmed something deep about who they are and who they aspire to be. One said I am important, another said I am extraordinary, another I am significant, and yet another said I am magnificent. When it came time to Yishama to make his affirmation he came up and said, “I am a Robot.” Master Edwards asked him to say something meaningful about himself. Without missing a beat Yishama responded, “I am Jewish” and broke the board.

Blog Yisham Board

On the way home I asked him what it meant to affirm that he is Jewish. Being Jewish did not mean what I had feared it might have meant. Yishama responded, “It means that I have confidence.” Today is not just a day to remember the Holocaust, it is Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”. We should never forget the martyrs and the heroes. It is critical to remember how we lived as Jews with honor and pride, not just how we died. I have confidence that Yishama is “bully proof” and a hero for me.


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