Posts Tagged 'Holocaust'



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.

Purim: Blessing and Curse

Our oldest child has reached the age where he is eligible to go to overnight camp for the first time, and we have been giving a lot of thought as to when would be the right time for a child to leave home.  We know firsthand that camp is an amazing utopia where 24/7 joyous Judaism is the expectation, but it is normal to think about when the right age to expose our children to a new loving community outside their home and family is.

aviConversely, I’ve found we are not as thorough when it comes to judging when to expose our children to some other important life lessons and experiences.  Like many other children, my kids learned about the story of Esther in preparation for Purim.  A few years ago, when my eldest was in kindergarten, he shared with me what he had learned about this ancient holiday.  Haman’s punishment for attempting genocide was to walk behind Mordechai, who was riding on the royal horse, and pick up the poop.  He added with a smile that this was his favorite part of the story.

This year on Purim, like every other year, I will try to fulfill the commandment to mistake the blessing of Mordechai with the curse of Haman – the only day of the year on which we are commanded to not differentiate between good and evil.  But truthfully, while Purim is clearly a story of survival and joy, it is told against the backdrop of hate and anti-Semitism.  Unfortunately in our society, a presence of “evil” or hate is expected; Haman is a stock character in our history.  As the adage goes, “What is the definition of an anti-Semite? It is someone who hates Jews more than they are supposed to.”  It is astounding to realize that the expectation of anti-Semitism has made us fulfill the commandment of mixing up Mordechai and Haman all year-long.

I am thankful that my young son was not yet taught of Haman and his sons being put to death.  But, what is the right age to tell your child about the history and existence of anti-Semitism?  It is a curse to think that anti-Semitism is a normal part of our world.  It is a blessing to live in an environment like Jewish camp that loves you and cherishes and celebrates your identity.  It’s common to sit down to discuss the appropriate age to send one’s child to summer camp for the first time.  But if we are willing to put such thought into whether they are ready to enter a new community- a community that will provide them with love, independence, pride, skills, and fun- shouldn’t we give at least as much thought to when and how to expose our children to the reality of and presence of anti-Semitism in our history?

We live in a time of freedom, but we can never forget that this freedom comes at a price.  We need to make sure the confusion of Purim is the exception and not the rule.  It scares me to think that my children might grow up without strong memories of knowing a survivor of the Shoah, (Holocaust).  How will they understand the horrors of anti-Semitism without trivializing it?  We need to confront the idea of evil with our children beyond making bad people ”pick up the poop.”

– Cross posted from The Canteen

Listening for Silence

Just a few days 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 a song. 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. By implication this Gemara is teaching us a lesson in compassion. There seems to be moments for silence, or at the least not singing. If this is true for our enemy, we can only imagine the response for a friend of a loved one.

As a parent 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 forget or deny history for a moment. The opposite is true. There is a certain urgency now more than ever to tell the story. We are in the waning years of keeping the holy company of survivors in our community. We need them to share their stories before they are gone. The only things I wanted ask is what do they the survivors want? 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 their presence. We are here to listen to anything the survivors want to tell us. We need to need to  give them that time and space, even if they like Aaron want to be quiet. We can try to drown our sorrows, but never our memories.

Always End It

A few days before Passover I was talking with Yadid and Yishama at dinner about school.  I am not sure how it came up or even what it means for a 5-year-0ld, but it became apparent that Yishama had been fighting on the bus.  I immediately launch into one of  my Opa‘s maxims. As my grandfather Alfred Katz was reported to say, ” You never start a fight, but you always end it.” This was a conversation I have had a number of times with Yadid, but I realized that I had not yet shared this pearl of wisdom with Yishama. So I went on to explain who my mother’s father was. I tread carefully in that I have not wanted to tell my children too much about the Holocaust. I tell Yishama, that as the story goes, during WWII my Opa bought a farm in Venlo just across the German boarder in the Netherlands. He would drive a wagon back and forth over the boarder smuggling Jewish children under the hay out of German to  safety. As I am telling the story Yadid and I trade knowing glances teeming with pride of our lineage.

I want my children to understand that we never start fights. It is just something we do not do. But that does not mean that we are to be treated as a shmata– rag.  We cannot let ourselves get pushed around. Jews are not destined to be the doormat of history. When the situation calls for it we need to be ready to risk our own safety and security to stand up for those who need our help. We must be brave enough to end fights. But even in those situations we need to know when to call it quits and move on.

I have very few memories of my Opa. I think I was about Yadid’s age when he passed away. From every thing I have ever learned about him Alfred  Katz was a noble, wise,  and loved man. I would have loved to learn about the children he saved. I would have loved to hear from him what compelled him to be so brave. I also would have loved to learn when he knew that it was time to move on.  I feel that much of my life I have spent striving to live up to his example.  I also know that I would not be alive if he had not made that choice to leave when he did.

So a few days later we were at the Seder.  With a little help from me and his cousins Yishama got up and asked the Four Questions. And then with a little push from me he asked his Oma a fifth question. What did his great-grandfather do during the War? On Passover we commemorate the redemption of our people from Slavery. We were led to freedom by a man (Moses) who had escaped being killed as a child because his sister (Miriam) hid  him away in an ark of hay. There we were, descendents of Alfred Katz, realizing our own redemption by paying tribute to a man who quietly saved children’s lives.

Tonight we  commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For most of us this is a commemoration of the horror of the Nazi effort to exterminate 12 million people. Or worse it is day in which we are reminded how our people were led like lambs to slaughter. But that is not the real story of the day. This day is the 69th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Today’s story is the story of our standing up for ourselves. Freedom will never be given, it needs to be taken. In the spirit of Mordechai Anielewicz and in words of my Opa today we can say, “You never start a fight, but you always end it.” Over the course of my children’s lives I look forward to see where they take today’s and my Opa’s  lesson.

Ultimate Freedom

In parshat Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read a whole litany of rules dealing with slavery. For a group of people who had just been liberated from bondage it is hard to imagine that there would be any sanction for this behavior. How could we ever put a price on another human being? And if we are looking to make Torah relevant today the idea of slavery seems even more absurd. In our age, a time in which we are hell-bent on the idea of personal autonomy and individuality, the idea of owning another person seems totally absurd.

In his Sh”ut Memaamikeem, Responsa of the Holocaust, Rabbi Efrayim Oshry deals with a very interesting question (III: 6). How can a Jew who is subjugated to forced labor in the ghetto say the morning blessing thanking God for not making him/her a slave? Rabbi Oshry responded that despite the fact that the person was actually enslaved physically, according to the Avudraham, the original idea behind the blessing was that we should thank God for not making us spiritual slaves to idolatry. The Torah’s ideal is to be free. Freedom in the Torah is not independence, rather it is recognition of ultimate dependence. Relying on anything other than God would be idolatrous. Rabbi Oshry encouraged the person to continue to say the blessing as testimony of real freedom. In saying the blessing, the slave became liberated.

In our lives it is hard to imagine that we are physically enslaved. But, with so many things making a claim on our time, it is hard to imagine that we are truly the masters of our own time. While we abhor slavery, it seems that we have actually put a price on our own persons.  What are we working for? Are we  selling ourselves short? So stay up late, make more time in your life,  and talk about these questions with people you respect. Who knows? You might even find these conversations redeeming.

A Joyous Mother of Children: Gilad Shalit

Today Gilad Shalit was returned to his family. It has been hard to find words for what I imagine the feelings that Aviva and Noam Shalit had holding their son again. I could not imagine my life without any of our children. It is just crazy to realize that two of them were born during his captivity.

All day I kept coming back to a story told by Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal in his book Eim 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. This story is long, but it is prescient and worth reading. Rabbi Teichtal wrote:

In the year 5702 (1942), before Pesach ( Passover), the cursed oppressors issued the terrible decree to abduct young Jewish maidens in Slovakia, age sixteen and older, and deport them to an uninhabited, unknown land. To this day, the fate of thousand of pure Jewish souls who were transported there is unknown. May HaShem speedily take vengeance on our oppressors, on our behalf. The camp of Israel was in a great state of panic.

I know of an incident in which a certain individual attempted to smuggle his young daughters over the border, to save them from this horrible trap. It was the intermediary days of Pesach, and he promised his wife that he would send a telegraphed message from across the border informing her that he and his children  had arrived safely. The mother sat at home anticipating and longing for the moment what she would receive the good news.  It happened, however, that before they crossed the border, the father and his daughters were seized and transported to a nearby village, where they were placed in prison. There, they remained for the duration of Pesach. They were in great danger of being sent off immediately to an unknown place, for that was the punishment for someone who was  caught attempting to escape; he would be deported to an unknown destination in a harsher manner than the other deportees.

In the meantime, his wife, the mother of the girls, was informed of the situation. We can imagine the bitter emotions which overcame her. Her joy at the prospect of deliverance was transformed into sorrow. Her holiday became a time of mourning for her husband and daughters. The entire holiday she cried endlessly. Her entire world became dark. It is impossible to describe the sorrowful state into which she fell from the time she became aware of her husband and daughters’ fate, for she knew what awaited them.

However, the brilliant, righteous, and pious rabbi, a true self-sacrificing servant of HaShem, our master, Rabbi Shmuel David Unger, the av deit din of Nitra, selflessly and vigilantly endangered his own life and labored until he redeemed these three captives with a large sum of money. May he be remembered for the good. On the last day of Pesach they were set free and permitted to return home, unharmed and in peace. This distraught woman was immediately informed, via telephone, that her husband and daughters were set free and that they would return home the next day, isru chag,unharmed  and in peace. It is needless to describe what sort of effect these good tidings had upon the soul of this unfortunate woman. From that moment on, she waited expectantly for the father and daughters to return home.

The following day, she was unable to restrain herself and wait for them inside the house. Instead, she sat by the entrance of the courtyard and, with great anticipation, awaited the moment of their return. When they arrived, she burst into tears and overwhelmingly poured out all the emotions of her heart. On account of the profuse outpouring  of emotions, she was unable even to utter words of thanks to the Holy One Blessed be God for the great miracle God performed on their behalf. He who did not witness this  reunion – the mother reunited with her daughters after such a dreadful captivity, the tears of the mother when she saw that her daughters had returned to their borders, the joy of the joyous mother of children – has never witnessed true feelings of joy. This is what I know about this incident which transpired in our days.

I imagine that such will be the joy of our mother, Eretz Yisrael, when we all return to her bosom after the horrible captivity we now experience. This is how I picture the wondrous joy that a mother will share with her children, that is, Eretz Yisrael with us and we with her. Hence I entitled this work Eim Habanim Semeichah ( A Joyous Mother of Children). (from  Eim Habanim Semeichah- Translated by Moshe Lichtman)

Completed by 1944, Rabbi Teichtal’s words are hauntingly relevant today. This story transpired exactly 70 years ago this Pesach. In this time we  have realized that dream of Jews from all over the world finding a home in Israel.  In Gilad Shalit’s return home we  reconnect to the ideals of Zionism. The steep cost of his ransom awakens us from the dream of these last 70 years.

Today I got a wonderful e-mail from my sister Arielle Hendel who wrote of her connection as a parent to Gilad Shalit’s return. She wrote:

The joy we feel is tempered by the high price we paid to release him.  All of the relatives of the victims of the released terrorists are reliving their personal nightmares of loss without justice or redemption.  The Knesset’s decision was not easy but it underscores the value that Israel puts on a single life.  Gilad was everyone’s concern – he became our son, his redemption is ours. Finally, I am reminded of Golda Meir’s famous words, ”Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”

Today the joy of Sukkot is overshadowed by the joy of a mother at the return of her captive son. I still believe in my heart that we will only experience sustained joy when the Palestinians love their children as much as we love our own.

End It

My Opa used to say,” Never start a fight, always end it”. Alfred Katz was revered as a regal, wise, and peaceful man. In my memory was a European Solomon, looking for ways out of conflict.

In Matot, this week’s Torah portion we read:

And Moses sent them, a thousand of every tribe, to the war, them and Phinehas the son of Elazar the priest, to the war, with the holy vessels and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand. (Numbers 31:6)

Why did they single Phinehas out? To this question Rashi said that this tells us that Phinehas was as important as all of the rest of them. Rashi goes on to ask why did Phinehas go instead of Elazar the High Priest? Quoting Midrash Tanchuma Rashi wrote:

He who began the commandment, in the that he killed Cozbi  daughter of Zur, let him finish it

Phinehas was a powerful character. He represented a certain zealousness. He seemed to be all too willing to end something that he started.

My Opa was a German ex-pat who evaded the Holocaust by escaping Germany. His oft quoted maxim was often interpreted with less Gandhi and more Phinehas. It was not that you should “turn the other cheek“, rather if need be you should end a fight “with extreme prejudice“.

As I too quote my Opa often to my children I find myself wanting to teach both messages. We are a peaceful people who walk in the ways of Aaron, another Kohen Tzadik, and should pursue the ways of peace. But some times we need to stand up for ourselves and our ideals like Phinehas a different kind of Kohen. Violence is never excused, but being Jewish should not mean being impish. We need to model peace loving embodied Judaism which always stresses follow through.

The Sweetness of Jewish Life

Our 7-year-old son, Yadid, recently went to the dentist who informed us that he has three cavities. My first response to the news was to cut the volume of candy in his diet. But how can I deprive him the experience of getting that lollipop from the “candy man” in our synagogue on Shabbat? The “candy man” is Chaim Ezra.  He is a saintly elderly man who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the forest.

My wife and I have chosen to not tell our children about the Holocaust until they are older. Too often our community has chosen to teach the Holocaust as an expedient educational route.  It takes a lot less time to teach someone how Jews died then how to live Jewishly.  My wife and I choose not to teach the latter partly because we don’t see the added value of educating our young children about anti-Semitism.  Why would I want my children to know anything accept for the sweetness of Jewish life?

For someone like Chaim Ezra who has tasted the bitterness of true hatred in his life, I cannot imagine denying him the joy of bringing joy to the next generation. We live in a time of tremendous freedom. While the Holocaust will always be in our memory, as the years pass there will fewer and fewer survivors. I often worry that our youngest, Emunah, might not have memories of knowing a survivor.

In commemoration of Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Remembrance day, I encourage everyone to introduce their children to a survivor and find a new way to make Jewish life sweet. And it can never hurt to brush.

-From FJC Blog


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