Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category

Reparations in Exodus: Parshat Bo

January 24, 2021

It was my turn to give the D’var Torah (commentary on the weekly reading) for my Torah study group at Temple Sinai. This week’s parsha (portion) covered Exodus 10:1 through 13:16. The most prominent parts of Parshat Bo are the dramatic final plagues of darkness and death of the Egyptians’ first-born, and God’s instructions to Moses on how Passover is to be celebrated through the coming generations. But I chose instead to focus on a small part: The Israelites taking valuable items from the Egyptians as they prepare to flee Egypt.

One reference occurs in Exodus 11:1: 

And the Lord said unto Moses… Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver and jewels of gold. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharoah’s servants, and in the sight of the people. 

The other occurs slightly into next week’s reading, Parshat B’shalach, in Exodus 13:35:

And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver and jewels of gold and raiment. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And they despoiled the Egyptians.

There is ambiguity in the Hebrew about whether the Israelites are asking to be given or to borrow all this wealth. Robert Alter and JPS translate it as “borrow,” while Soncino translates it as “ask.”  The medieval commentator Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, interpreted the word as a gift, not a loan.

The Israelites taking the Egyptians’ gold and silver, The Golden Haggadah, f. 13, 1325–1349.

Personally I prefer the translation as “ask,” since it avoids the morally uncomfortable situation of requesting to “borrow” things that were never intended to be returned. So for now let’s assume it is an ask and a gift, not borrowing or a loan.

How then should we understand the decision of the Egyptians to give so many of their valuables to the Hebrews, who until then had been slaves, the lowest of the low?

One likely motivation might have been sheer terror. The Egyptians had just suffered the ten plagues; in the final plague, their oldest sons had been killed. In fact, the Torah tells us that “the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste, for they said, ‘We are all dead men.'” So possibly the Egyptians may have been thinking, “Here, take whatever you want, take everything, just get out the Hell of here before your God does something even worse to us.”

Yet the verses talk about the Israelites finding favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, which seems to be something positive rather than the negative motivation of terror. It implies a relationship of friendship between at least some Egyptians and some Israelites: “every man ask of his neighbor and every woman ask of her neighbor.” It implies a relationship where they lived close to each other: I imagine a Jewish woman crossing her yard to borrow salt or olive oil from the Egyptian woman next door, or an Egyptian man knocking on the door of his Jewish friend for help patching a hole in the roof. 

In this case, perhaps the valuables were given out of personal affection, the way many of us would chip in to help a neighbor whose house had just burned down. Yet that personal connection doesn’t quite seem to cover this situation, since so many Egyptians gave so much—not just blankets or food or even an extra donkey or two, but vast amounts of gold and silver. 

So perhaps the valuable were given because of something broader than personal friendship. The verses talk about Moses being “very great” in the eyes of Pharoah’s advisers and the Egyptian people. That leads me to picture a person with the status of a Martin Luther King Jr., a Nelson Mandela, or a Mahatma Gandhi—a liberator of the oppressed whose integrity, perseverance, and eloquence won the respect even of many who had benefitted from that oppression. The verses talk about “the people finding favor” with the Egyptians, which could imply that the Egyptians understood the Israelites’ collective suffering as slaves and wanted to help them as a group, not just as an individual helping out a neighbor.

Which bring us to the modern-day issue of reparations for slavery and oppression. Could we view the Egyptians’ donations of valuables as a form of reparations for 400 years of unpaid servitude?

There’s a story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91A) that indirectly supports such a view.

This story says that in the time of Alexander the Great, the Egyptians summoned the Israelites before Alexander, demanding that they repay the gold and silver that the Israelites had “borrowed” when they fled Egypt many centuries earlier. The sages granted a prominent Jew named Gebiah ben Pesisa permission to advocate for the people of Israel.

Gebiah asked the Egyptians what the evidence was for their claim, and the Egyptians answered that the Torah itself provided their evidence. 

Gebiah responded that he would also bring evidence from the Torah in Israel’s defense. He quoted the sections that talk about the Hebrews’ 430 years of enslavement, and how they left Egypt with 600,000 men, and he demanded back wages from the Egyptians for 600,000 men working for 430 years—which would have been a staggering amount of money.

Alexander turned to the Egyptians for a proper answer. The Egyptians said they’d respond in three days but couldn’t find a satisfactory answer and fled.

Today we as Americans have an opportunity to address the damage caused by 401 years of slavery and its aftermath of systemic racism. The first African slaves were brought here in 1619. Their forced labor didn’t just make individual white landowners rich; they provided the basis for the cotton and textile industry that built and underpinned the economy of our young country. In that sense, we all benefited, even if our ancestors never set foot in the south or owned a slave. 

The abolition of slavery in 1863 didn’t end the inequality and exploitation of Black Americans. Jim Crow laws in the south and discriminatory policies and culture in the north meant that whites have had unfair advantages throughout the past century, up through the present day. 

Many of us who are Jews of European descent have traditionally taken moral comfort in thinking, “My ancestors were poor immigrants who came here in 1880, or 1920, or 1950. I never benefited from slavery or racism.” But in fact, white Jews—even those who came as poor immigrants to the tenements of the Lower East Side—HAVE benefited from what journalist Isabel Wilkerson describes in her recent book as a caste system. 

Because blacks were defined as the “other”—the lowest caste—European Jewish immigrants could define themselves as white. Yes, we faced anti-Semitism but we could also fit under the umbrella of being white. We were allowed to join labor unions, enter elite colleges (albeit with quotas), enter professions, obtain government-backed loans and mortgages, buy homes in many (though not all) white neighborhoods. 

Our immigrant grandparents, just a week off the boat, could apply for entry-level jobs that were not open to Black Americans who had been in this country for 300 years. 

Yes, we were poor immigrants, but we were also white, which gave us privilege. It allowed our grandparents and parents to start accumulating generational wealth—owning a home, building up savings accounts, perhaps investing in stocks—that they could pass on to our generation, either directly or through financing the education that allowed us to become doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.

So even if our ancestors didn’t arrive here until 1920 or 1950, we benefited from these four centuries of subjugation of Black people. We have a moral obligation to take part in repairing that damage: The word “reparations” comes from the word “repair.”

There has been so much written on this in the past few years, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal 2014 essay in The Atlantic. I can’t possibly do it justice in a short commentary. If you’d like to learn more about the history of systemic racism and the idea of reparations, there are many resources including Coates’ essay, Wilkerson’s Caste, and Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law.

There was also a terrific d’var Torah on reparations in this week’s email from the Union of Reform Judaism. Or see the URJ’s 2019 statement on reparations.

Over the past four years, we watched a presidential administration try to turn back the clock on civil rights. My hope with this week’s new administration is that, instead, we can enter into a national discussion of how to repair the economic and social damage done by slavery and institutionalized racism. 

It’s not just about giving people money. It’s not about expiating guilt. The gold and silver given by the Egyptians to the freed Israelites ended up providing the building materials for the tabernacle. So those Egyptian treasures were a kind of capital used to launch a new society—they helped take the Hebrews further than they’d ever been before—beyond that single family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, beyond twelves tribes—into the creation of an actual nation with a distinct and revolutionary monotheism and culture. Those Egyptian reparations helped build a new and better society. 

Similarly, a plan for American reparations should be something that acknowledges past oppression and uses that understanding to build something new and larger and better. Something that will provide more opportunity, dignity, and security for the broad community of Black Americans, and in so doing a better and more inspiring country for white Americans too. 

Let us move from a shehecheyanu for reaching this inaugural week, to a yihi ratzon for racial justice:

May it be God’s will. 

Dreams and Stories: Parshat Vayeishev

December 14, 2020

This past weekend it was my turn to deliver the D’var Torah (commentary on Torah, like a sermon) at Temple Sinai’s Zoom Shabbat service. The weekly Torah portion covered Genesis 37:1−40:23. Here’s what I wrote.

This week we begin the saga of Joseph, whose brothers bitterly called him “the master of dreams.” This will be a drash about dreams and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

But this week also happens to be Chanukah, which gives us the opportunity to compare two very different set of brothers in Jewish history. 

The Maccabees were five brothers—sons of a Jewish priest—who with their father led a revolt against the Greek rulers of Judaea in the second century BCE; the success of their revolt is commemorated by Chanukah. We don’t have details about how those Maccabee brothers got along with each other. But to win a guerrilla war against such a powerful establishment they would have had to work together very well, to communicate with each other—in short to be unified.  

Joseph and his 11 brothers are a different matter. 

Rather than standing behind his father, one son, Reuben, sleeps with his father’s concubine. The sons identify themselves in factions based on their four different mothers—for instance, one verse tells us how Joseph worked as a helper “to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah.” And the brothers are in conflict with Joseph from the very start of the story, partly due to Jacob favoring Joseph.

“And when [Joseph’s] brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.”

The brothers hate Joseph so much they decide to kill him—then with a slight change in plans sell him into slavery—and lie to their father about his fate.

Given a choice, of course we would all want our children to be Maccabee siblings rather than Joseph’s siblings. 

So this is another way to think about the Chanukah miracle—not just the oil burning miraculously for eight days, not just feisty farmers miraculously defeating an imperial power—but five siblings who miraculously manage to respect each other and work together and learn from each other. 

In the unhappier story of Joseph, one of the things that turns his brothers against him are two dreams that he recounts to them—one where they’re all gathering wheat, and the brothers’ sheaves bow down to Joseph’s sheaves, and the other where the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. 

“His brothers answered, ‘Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?’ And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams.”

Dreams are perplexing. From the beginning of humankind, we’ve been mystified and terrified and inspired by dreams, and have struggled to understand where they come from and what they mean. 

One of the oldest ways of making sense of dreams is to view them as direct messages from a supernatural being. We see that earlier in the Torah, when we are told that God came to King Abimelech in a dream and ordered him not to marry Sarah. 

Another approach is to view dreams as portents of the future—not as direct as Abimelech’s “phone call” from God, but something that, if interpreted properly, lets you know in advance what will happen. Joseph does this kind of interpreting in Egypt when he says that Pharoah’s dream of seven fat cows followed by seven gaunt cows is a prediction of good harvests followed by famine. 

More than a century ago, Freud suggested that dreams are the upwelling of uncomfortable or taboo thoughts that we shut out from our conscious minds. 

Neuroscientists today would give us an explanation based on brain circuitry. Our Aunt Sadie might say bad dreams are a result of too many latkes and sufganiot. The Talmud suggests that a dream is 1/60th of a prophecy…. and these are just some of the different ways that people have to tried make sense of the phenomenon of dreaming. 

I’d like to go in a slightly different direction. Let’s set aside the biological or mystical reasons Joseph had those dreams, and not worry about whether they came from God or from a latke overdose. 

Let’s think about Joseph’s dreams as stories. And let’s look at the function that those dreams—or stories—played within his already-conflicted family.

Here we have a family riven by power inequity. As the late-in-life child of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, Joseph came into the world with an advantage over his brothers. He was Jacob’s favorite from the start, even though the others were older. Jacob showed his favoritism with the gift of that famous, beautiful, many-colored coat. You might say Joseph was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. You might say he was born with privilege.

His brothers didn’t like that. Joseph must surely have been aware of their resentment.

And so—here we are getting away from text and into speculation, but bear with me—perhaps these stories of the sheaves and the stars were intended to justify his privilege

Perhaps Joseph shared those dreams of the bowing sheaves and stars to explain why he deserved his special status within the family:

“See? Dad was right to give me that coat—Dad is right to single me out—because I’m special! These dreams say so, and dreams don’t lie!” 

Even if Joseph didn’t intend it that way, that could easily have been the message that his brothers took from those dreams. 

The dreams were stories that filled a function—rightly or wrongly—of justifying Joseph’s status as the privileged, favorite child. 

The dreams provided a rationale for injustice in the small, intimate world of Jacob’s family.

Similarly, societies create stories to rationalize their injustices. This can happen through scientific and historic myth-making—for instance, when 19th century white male scientists claimed that women and black people were naturally inferior because they supposedly had smaller skull sizes. 

Today we live in a society that, like Joseph’s family, is riven by power inequity. Whatever metric you choose—money, housing, healthy food, good medical care, job options, a sense of physical safety, connections to people who run our institutions—some people have a lot and others have very little. 

The people who have a lot often tell stories that explain why they deserve it. Like Joseph’s dream, their stories paint their privilege as part of the natural order—logical, unarguable, even just.

“I came up with a better idea.” “I’m smarter than those other guys.” “I worked my butt off, and they’re just plain lazy.” “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.” 

Parts of those stories may be true. But there’s usually more to it than that.

Most of us in this Zoom service benefit from some kind of privilege. You don’t have to be Bill Gates or live in a mansion to benefit from privilege. We can be powerful in one facet of our lives, yet vulnerable in other facets. 

For instance, as a white person I feel a sense of physical safety around police officers that many people of color wouldn’t feel. That’s privilege. Yet as a woman, I feel vulnerable walking past a construction site of cat-calling men. Powerful in one area; not so powerful in the other. 

As a child, I grew up with immense class and race privilege that I took for granted. I never noticed it because it seemed so normal to me. I had a father who earned enough money that my mother could stay home and give us huge amounts of attention. A public school that was wealthy enough to have an orchestra and lend us violins to take home! Streets that were safe and stores that welcomed our teenage browsing, even if we didn’t buy anything. Relatives who were lawyers and doctors and so made the question for me not IF I would go to college but WHERE I would go to college….

Put that all together, and I grew up with a sense that the world valued me and was safe for me. A belief that I could go out into that world and use my voice and take risks and succeed.  

That all seemed as natural as air to me, just as Jacob’s preferential love must have seemed as natural as air to Joseph.

And yet so many people don’t have all or even a part of that.

In telling the story of our own successes, honesty requires us to acknowledge our privilege—the places where we’ve benefitted from an uneven playing field. 

Jewish ethics then requires us to seek ways to even out that playing field. 

I invite you to take a minute now to think about your own life. In what ways, are you privileged? 

Have you benefited from advantages of economic class, race, gender, sexual orientation? From being part of a religious or ethnic majority? From birth order? From other kinds of privilege? 

Now consider the stories that you use to explain your own successes—to yourself, and also to others.  How honest are your stories? Do they acknowledge the role of privilege as well as personal initiative? Do your stories provide room for other people to succeed too? 

Do your stories build other people up or tear them down?

Imagine, for a moment, if Joseph had dreamed a different dream and told his brothers a different story. Say it was a story that instead of aggrandizing his own success, showed how he was connected with his brothers. That acknowledged his privilege, but showed how he could use it to elevate all of them. Perhaps:

I dreamed that twelve sheaves of wheat stood in a circle, side by side. One sheaf was taller since those stalks had received a lot more water. Its height attracted the notice of the king’s steward, who bought all twelve sheaves for a very high price and had them milled into flour for the most exquisite cakes—cakes whose recipes have been passed down through 4000 years of history.

With such a story, Joseph might not have ended up in a pit. He and his siblings might have been a family of Maccabees after all. 

Shabbat shalom.

Parshat Eikev

August 10, 2020

For the past couple of years, I’ve been taking part in my synagogue’s weekly Torah study group. We read the weekly parshah—portion of Torah—and discuss it. After the group discussion, one person delivers a short talk on the week’s portion. This past week it was my turn to speak about the portion called Eikev, which covers Deuteronomy 7:12 to 11:25.

(The book of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of Torah, consists of Moses’ instructions to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land without him, after 40 years in the desert.)

After writing and sharing my Eikev comments, it occurred to me that they might also be of interest to some of my blog followers. If that’s you, here you go! And if you’re not interested, please skip this. Either way, have a good week, stay masked, and stay healthy.

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This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, along with last week’s portion, are the source of much of the language of the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism. But while we in Reform Judaism include the language from last week’s portion in our recitation of the shma, our prayerbooks don’t include the language from Eikev.

Because I’m always interested in the source and evolution of our rituals, I’m going to talk about the origins of the Shema, what the different sections of the­ Shema say, why Reform Judaism dropped the wording that came from Eikev, and what Eikev tells us about divine reward and punishment. 

I suspect the history of the shema may be old hat to some of you, but it will be new to others of us, so please bear with me if some of this feels familiar.

You all probably know the first two lines of the shema by heart: Shema Yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad. Baruch shem k’vod malchuto, l’olam va’ed. 

We say these lines every Shabbat when we take the Torah from the ark, as well as at the climax of Yom Kippur services; if we were Orthodox Jews, we would say them twice daily in morning and evening prayers. They are supposed to be the last words we speak before death, and throughout history Jewish martyrs have died with the shema on their lips.

The first line comes from last week’s Torah portion, Deuteronomy 6:4. It is often translated as Hear, o Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. But it can also be translated as Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone. How you choose to translate it makes for a subtle but meaningful difference – one of them emphasizes the unified nature of God, while the other emphasizes that we worship only one God. Take a moment and think about which translate resonates and is more meaningful for you – or perhaps a combination of both of them: Adonai is my God, Adonai is one. Or: Adonai is my God, Adonai alone.

That line was recited by the priests in the days of the Temple, and the assembled worshippers answered back with the second line: Baruch shem k’vod malchuto, l’olam va’ed. Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever. That line is the only one in the shema that doesn’t come from Torah, which may be why we recite it quietly. 

Since it’s not from the Torah, it’s not clear where that second line came from. The Talmud makes up a story about Jacob and his sons to explain its origins: On his deathbed, Jacob was worried that his sons might stray and worship other gods, so he asked them about their beliefs, and they said Shma Yisrael adonai eloheinu, adonai echad. And Jacob was relieved and responded, Baruch shem k’vod malchuto, l’olam va’ed.

Jacob and his sons

That second line evolved historically, though. At one point in ancient times, it was simply Baruch shem kvod olam, Blessed be his glorious name forever, which was the response whenever the name of God was mentioned. The phrase malchutohis kingdom, was added during Roman times to emphasize that God, not Rome, was the true ruler. The phrase va’ed, emphasizing eternity, was added during the Second Temple period to counter the view of some Jews that there was no life after death. So that second line evolved to meet the political and cultural challenges of the day – changing from Blessed be his glorious name forever to Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.

But back to our Torah portion, Eikev, and its role in the shema. So far we’ve talked about the opening two lines, which is what we commonly think of as the shema.  But the full shema actually includes an additional three long paragraphs, two from Deuteronomy and one from Numbers.

The first paragraph is what we recite as the Ve’ahavta. It comes from last week’s Torah portion, Deuteronomy 6:5-9. 

And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thy house, and upon thy gates. 

The second paragraph is from Eikev, and we Reform Jews don’t recite it. It’s Deuteronomy 11:13-21, if any of you want to follow along. I’ll read it. 

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving Adonai your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil— I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For God’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that God is assigning to you. Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates— to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that God swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.

This second section of the shema repeats some elements of the first paragraph, such as the injunction to take God’s words into our hearts, and teach our children, and recite them when we get up and when we lie down, and inscribe them on the doorposts of our house and on the gates.

But what it also has – which makes up a central part of the Eikev portion – is a system of material rewards and punishments for our religious behavior. If we are good, then God will make it rain for our crops and give us enough food. If we are bad, God will cause drought and we will be killed or exiled. 

Worship idols, suffer from drought? / Photo by CSIRO

The 19th century Reform movement was uncomfortable with this, for reasons that make a lot of sense to me. We live in an era of science, where we understand that droughts and crop failures are due to weather patterns like El Nino, not whether we have been worshipping idols. In addition, we have seen enough injustice – the Holocaust is only the most obvious example – to know that bad things happen to even the most pious and virtuous people. 

Rabbi Audrey Korotkin wrote, “We Reform Jews have trouble praying what we do not believe. And our experience tells us not to believe in Deuteronomic theology.”

So the Reform movement kept the commandments in the shema but removed the promises of material bliss for the virtuous and the threats of death and destruction for sinners.

Our Reform predecessors may have updated the shema, but we still face this dilemma when reading Eikev and Deuteronomy.

Moses tells us that if we obey the rules, God will multiply us, bless the issue from our wombs and the produce of our grain and wine and oil, our calves and lambs. God will ward off sickness and infertility, and will inflict diseases on our enemies. But if we follow other gods or intermarry with other peoples, God will wipe us out. 

What are we to make of this? I can’t believe that God rewards the virtuous with material wealth and health. There are so many instances of mass injustice that wiped out both the pious and impious, from the Holocaust to American slavery to the genocide of native American peoples. On an individual level, all of us know good people who have died untimely deaths or faced terrible traumas or financial reversals. My mother would have died of ovarian cancer at age 54 even if she were the most devout Lubavitcher. 

I also can’t respect any religion that in today’s world relies on supernatural threats to get people to comply with moral teachings. Preschoolers may need the threat of a time-out to learn to share their toys, but I believe adults should do the right thing because it is right, not because God will give us bountiful herds of cattle or a FedEx box full of bitcoins.

It is possible to step back from the actual words and take these kinds of rewards and punishments on a symbolic level. We can interpret it as, “A society that treats people morally and ethically will flourish.” Or on an environmental level, “If we aren’t careful stewards of the land, the land will cease to be fruitful.” 

Another way to look at these rewards and threats is to consider whether they are coming from God or from Moses. Here is Moses, nearing the end of his life, knowing the Israelites will continue into the promised land without him, wanting them to succeed but also knowing how easily they backslide into idolatry and nostalgia for Egypt. Maybe he doesn’t know how they will manage without him. Maybe he’s worried that they will fail. He’s wracking his brain trying to figure out what he can say that will persuade them – over a future of years, decades, centuries – to fulfill the commandments he delivered from God. Desperate, he turns to wild promises – follow the commandments and you’ll never get sick! You’ll be rich! Your enemies will perish! as well as threats of destruction. In that case, the warnings of material reward and punishment are Moses’s, not God’s.

But those are rationalizations – my effort as a liberal, science-based 21st century Jew to find a way to live with yet another part of the Torah that I can’t accept on its face value.

I don’t have an answer here, so I’m going to leave you with some open-ended questions. 

How do you feel about a theology of material rewards and punishments by God? 

Do you think God materially punishes those who don’t obey the commandments, and rewards those who do? 

Do you think rewards and punishments are good reasons to follow the commandments? 

And if not – and say you were in Moses’s shoes, delivering a farewell address to a stiff-necked people who have backslid over and over — what arguments would you make to convince them to follow the moral and ethical commandments laid out by a distant God?

Shabbat shalom. Have a good week. Stay masked, stay safe, stay hopeful.

Parshat Bamidbar

June 13, 2019

One of my favorite Jewish activities is delivering a d’var Torah — commentary on the weekly Torah portion read at Shabbat services. Here’s one I wrote last week for the Bamidbar portion (or parsha in Hebrew), the opening section of the book of Numbers. I start with a basic summary of the section and then go on to some reflections about it.


Bamidbar is the first parsha in the book also named Bamidbar, or in English, Numbers. Bamidbar means “in the desert:” It speaks broadly to both the geographic status and spiritual status of the Israelites as they continue their journey from Egypt to the promised land. “Numbers” – from the Greek translation of the Bible — is a narrower title, and refers to the census that takes up the bulk of this parsha and to another census at the end of the book as the Israelites prepare to enter the promised land.

In this week’s parsha, God commands Moses to take a census of the Israelites, by tribe, which he does with the help of a designated leader from each tribe. The parsha reports the number of adult men (aged 20 through 60, basically men capable of fighting in battle) in each tribe, which adds up to a total of 603,550 adult men. The community as a whole – adding in women, children, and the elderly – probably adds up to at least 1.5 million.

Moses-census

A 19th century imagining of the census: Engraving by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815–1884)

God assigns specific campsites to each tribe on the four sides of the tent of meeting, where God abides while the Israelites travel through the desert. God also assigns them specific marching spots.

God excludes the Levites from the census and gives them a special status of being in charge of setting up, dismantling and carrying all the equipment for the tent of meeting. The Levites receive this special designation as a follow-up to a condition that God set back in Egypt. When God killed all the first-born of the Egyptians, s/he told Moses that the first-born sons and cattle of the Israelites should be consecrated  to God in recompense. Here God tells Moses to have the Levites stand in as replacements for all those Jewish first-born.

Stepping back to think about this parsha, why all this attention to numbers and to organizational structure?

One way to view this census is creating order out of chaos. As the Israelites travel through the silent, empty desert, they find it a place of reflection, for hearing the voice of God, and purging old, unwanted slave ways of being, but they also find it a place of confusion, anarchy, and despair. (As we see in their frequent wails to return to Egypt and in the chaotic episode of the Golden Calf.)

It’s a place of silence and emptiness. But as humans, we need structure and order in our lives.

We need a structure to our time. Those of us with children in their 20s – or those of us who can remember our own 20s – know how disorienting it can be to finish college, the first time in our lives we are without the structure of classes and homework.

Or looking at the other end of the age spectrum, retirement. It can be disorienting, even depressing, to suddenly find oneself without the familiar structure and demands of paid work. One response is to seek out new structures – volunteer commitments, weekly babysitting for grandchildren, adult ed classes or gym routines, as a way to provide structure to all that open time.

Think about the Israelites. They came from an even more structured world than we live in — a world of slavery, where every aspect of their time and life was determined by others. And suddenly they are in the desert, no hierarchy, no structure, no knowledge of where exactly they are going or how long it will take to get there. We can only imagine how disoriented they felt, and how reassuring it must have been to know at least where in the line they were supposed to march and where they were to set up camp.

Along with the structure of time, we also crave the structure of community – feeling that we belong to something more intimate than “homo sapiens.”

On the most intimate level, that means being part of a family, a couple, or a close friendship circle. Many of us, including myself, take pleasure these days in trying to deepen our knowledge of our families through genealogy. We are doing our own kind of census, but one that goes back in time – identifying as many great-great-great grandparents and far-flung cousins as we can.

Then there are the less intimate ways that we sort ourselves into communities – we’re Jews, or Democrats and Republicans, or Warriors fans, or Grateful Dead heads, or African-Americans, or yoga practitioners, or Oakland Tech parents, or Star Trek fans.

Being part of a tribe helps us feel rooted and less alone in the desert. It gives us a sense of connection with others — shared joy at successes, shared sorrow at setbacks.

But it also has its risks. Today, our modern version of tribalism has run amok. People from the coasts talk contemptuously about flyover country. (Guilty!) People who watch Fox News disregard anything that challenges their world-view as “fake news.” Many white people refuse to acknowledge the historical pain of African-Americans. A vicious nationalism that targets minority groups like Jews and Muslims is spreading in Europe. The president of the United States reduces everything to an “us versus them” smackdown with taunts and bullying. And I don’t even want to start about the damage done by “tribal” identities in today’s Middle East. These things all represent the dark side of tribal identity.

In Bamidbar, Moses takes a census by tribe but he also records the names of each individual person.

“On the first day of the second month, they convoked the whole company, who were registered by the clans of their ancestral houses – the names of those aged twenty and over being listed head by head. As the Eternal had commanded Moses, so he listed them in the wilderness of Sinai.”

Yes, the census records just the adult men: This is yet another place in the Bible where we have to sigh and make allowances for it as a historical text from a time of unquestioned patriarchy. (I don’t quite know how Moses could have managed to record 603,000 names, but we can let that go too.)

The key thing is that in addition to recognizing tribes, he is recognizing individuals.

Think about how validating this must have been for those Israelite men – former slaves, with no rights to own property or enter legal contracts or even determine what they were going to do when they woke up in the morning, now being asked to step forward and state their name for God and the world to hear. It sent a message to the Israelites that each individual was important and autonomous and valued.

To us, it also sends a message of diversity within community. They are part of a tribe, but they are also individuals.

Take a moment and think about the tribal boxes that you mentally put people in. Nearly all of us do it – I certainly do, even if I don’t do it intentionally.

“All those Trump voters.”

“All those cops.”

“All those Arabs.”

“All those tech bro’s.”

“All those gun owners.”

Let’s stop here and think. What boxes do you lump people into?

The next time you are tempted to do that, remember they are individuals. Part of a tribe, yes, but also an individual name. Each with her or his own story – their own aspirations and loves and hidden wounds. With individual reasons for the choices they make and lives they lead.

Think of them as individuals like yourself. Don’t do this just because it’s the warm and fuzzy thing to do, but because it’s true. And it will determine the success of your interactions with others, whether those are individual conversations or political campaign strategies.

It’s how God and Moses viewed the Israelites – members of tribes but also unique individuals. Each of us should aim to do the same.

Shabbat shalom.

 

Visiting Jebenhausen and its Jewish Museum

May 13, 2019

My mother’s family came from Germany in the mid-1800s.  In the course of pursuing my genealogy addiction – oops, I mean research — I’ve identified three of their villages of origin. 

For two of those villages, Markt Erlbach and Mitwitz, I’ve found little or no information about the historic Jewish community. 

The third village – Jebenhausen, about 27 miles east of Stuttgart – is a jackpot.

Scholars have written articles and books on the Jews of Jebenhausen. The Jewish cemetery there is well preserved and documented. There is even a museum devoted to the Jews of Jebenhausen!

These resources were all easily accessible to me. I didn’t have to learn German or spend weeks sifting through dusty, hard-to-decipher handwritten archives. There are many people to thank for this, including other Jewish descendants who’ve shared their knowledge, Christian residents who restored the town’s Jewish cemetery after the Holocaust, and more. 

But the wealth of information is mostly due to the work of two men – Rabbi Aron Tänzer and Dr. Karl-Heinz Ruess.

Tänzer (1871-1937) was the last rabbi in Göppingen, a larger neighboring town that eventually subsumed the village of Jebenhausen.  Among his  many accomplishments was a 662-page history of the Jews of Jebenhausen and Göppingen, which included family trees. It’s because of Rabbi Tänzer’s charts that I’m able to trace my Jebenhausen family line back to the 1700s.

Portrait of Rabbi Aron Tänzer in the Jewish Museum

Dr. Ruess is the museum director for Göppingen, who decided to create a Jewish museum there in 1985 – a time when even big cities like Berlin and Munich didn’t yet have a Jewish museum. 

Because of Dr. Ruess’s efforts, the life and eventual destruction of Jebenhausen’s Jewish community is documented far beyond what one might expect for a town whose Jewish population never passed 600. 

Last month, my husband Sam and I traveled to Germany to visit our daughter, who was doing an artist’s residency in Berlin. It was our first time in Germany. Ten years ago, before I started doing genealogy, I’d never even heard of Jebenhausen. Now, I eagerly arranged a rental car for the day-long drive south to visit it.

Our first stop was the museum, located in a decommissioned one-room Protestant church.

The museum’s location in the church is part of its story. 

In 1777, the barons who controlled the village of Jebenhausen agreed in writing to allow a small number of Jews – initially just 20 families – to move there. In return, the Jews paid them annual “protection fees.” Over the next fifty years, the Jewish community grew to a peak of 550 people, about equal to the Christian population of 600. 

Exhibit in the Göppingen Jewish Museum showing the 1777 document that allowed Jews to settle in Jebenhausen. Note the Hebrew signatures on the right.

Then in the mid-1800s, Jews started moving out of Jebenhausen – many to America, like my ancestors, and others to larger German towns that offered more industrial infrastructure and economic opportunity. By 1900, there were so few Jews left that the synagogue was closed and the chandeliers and pews were donated to the local church.

By the 1980s, that church had also been closed and turned over to the city of Göppingen. Dr. Ruess realized that the state of Baden-Württemburg had over 1,000 museums but not a single one focused on Judaism. With the synagogue’s furnishings already in the church, he convinced city officials to turn it into the Gföppingen Jewish Museum, which opened in 1992.

Dr. Ruess met us at the museum and guided us through, which was helpful since the labels for the exhibits don’t – yet – have English translations. It includes sections on Jewish holidays and rituals, the growth of the Jebenhausen and Göppingen Jewish communities, and their destruction under Nazism, told movingly through stories and photos of some of the individuals who were killed or displaced. 

The synagogue chandeliers and pews are still there, along with portraits of the barons who first opened Jebenhausen to Jews. Among the artifacts is a colorful hanging sign of King David with a lyre that marked the King David Inn, the first of several Jebenhausen inns serving Jewish travelers in the 1800s.

Me with the King David Inn sign in the Göppingen Jewish Museum

After touring the museum, Dr. Ruess led us on a walk through what used to be the Jewish section of the village. The main street still exists – now paved and busy with automobiles, while back then it would have been dirt and horse carts. Many of the original houses still line it, although most have been updated with third floors, modern windows, new siding, etc. 

The main street of the onetime Jewish section of Jebenhausen / Photo by Ilana DeBare

To be honest, it felt less like a historic street than a modest, nondescript European suburb. It would be easy to drive down the street and not be aware of its past. But Dr. Ruess pointed out where the Jewish communal institutions used to stand – the synagogue, the school, the large house built by the Jewish community to accommodate families who were too poor to build their own houses.

The rabbi’s residence was still standing. And next door to it – also still standing, although a victim of some unfortunate remodel decisions – was the house that belonged to my ancestors.

The rabbi’s house (yellow) and the house that belonged to my Einstein ancestors (brown/grey) / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Community housing for poor families, around 1870-80
Jebenhausen synagogue, around 1890

My great-great grandparents Rosa Einstein and Salomon Wormser – the ones who brought those two silver kiddush cups with them to the U.S. – met and married in Jebenhausen in 1866. According to Tänzer’s book, the house at Poststrasse 103 was occupied by Rosa’s family members from 1842 through 1865. Rosa would probably have grown up there. 

Some of Jebenhausen’s Jewish residents took advantage of opportunities created by the start of industrial development in the early 1800s. Rosa’s family, like many others, became involved in the new, growing textile industry. Her father, Salomon Einstein, started a weaving mill together with his brother Joseph Leopold Einstein in 1842, and in 1852 the brothers opened another factory that manufactured corsets.  

Salomon Wormser wasn’t from Jebenhausen, but Tänzer says he was a partner in the corset factory. He was much younger than the Einstein brothers: In 1860, he would have been 23, while the brothers were around 60. Perhaps he boarded with the Einsteins. 

Did Salomon and Rosa fall in love in the Einstein home while he learned the corset business from her father and uncle? Or was their marriage a calculated economic move – partners cementing a business relationship, or an ambitious young man angling to marry the boss’s daughter? 

We’ll never know. But an unpublished memoir by my uncle Ira Skutch offers a glimpse of Rosa and Salomon’s relationship decades later in New York, where he became a corset importer. (Presumably developing a new market for the family business.)

As my grandmother told Ira:

“Grandma and Grandpa used to fight and bicker all the time. She didn’t use his first name or ‘Mister’ – she never called him anything but ‘Wormser.’ He had a pair of old brown shoes that he wore all the time because they were comfortable. Grandma kept at him constantly to get a new pair, until he finally couldn’t stand the nagging any more. When he returned from the store he said to Grandma, ‘All right. I have new shoes. But I’m going to keep these old ones, and I’m going to wear them to your funeral.’ And he did.”

Rosa and Salomon were hardly the only young Jews to leave Jebenhausen. Neighboring Göppingen had a river, which made it a better site for manufacturing. And America offered an escape from the anti-Semitism that was deeply ingrained in German society. 

Between 1830 and 1870, 300 Jews from Jebenhausen emigrated to the U.S. – such a dramatic exodus that one scholar wrote an article titled “From Württemburg to America: A Nineteenth Century German-Jewish Village on its Way to the New World.”

Dr. Ruess shows a chart tracking the rise and decline of the Jewish populations of Jebenhausen (left) and Goppingen / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Today the only Jewish denizens of Jebenhausen are the ones resting underground. We followed Dr. Ruess up the street, about ten minutes past the Einstein home, to the Jewish cemetery. There he directed us to the graves of Salomon and Babette Gutmann Einstein, Rosa’s parents. We also found the grave of my oldest known Jebenhausen foremother – Rifke Einstein, who was Rosa’s great-grandmother and thus my 5th great-grandmother (my great-great-great-great-great grandmother). 

Rifke was born in 1733 and died in 1817, part of the first generation of Jews to move to Jebenhausen. We don’t know her maiden name or anything else about her. She may mark the outer limits of how far I can trace my family, at least with the currently available digital resources.

One of the striking things about my Jebenhausen family history is how it mirrors the broader trends in German Jewish history, as described in Amos Elon’s excellent book, The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933.

Placing my family’s story within these broad brush strokes:

Before Napoleon’s conquest of Germany in the early 1800s, Jews were completely excluded from German society. They were barred from owning land and from entering skilled trades and professions. They were prohibited from living in many cities.

The first Jewish families who settled in Jebenhausen were cattle traders and peddlers, two of the few occupations open to Jews. Their houses were built by local Christian craftsmen, since Jews were not allowed to practice trades such as carpentry.

Until the 19thcentury, German Jews often did not have surnames and were known simply as “Isaac son of David” or “David son of Salomon.” (This poses obvious challenges for tracing family history.)

In Jebenhausen, Jews made an active decision to adopt surnames around 1818-20, earlier than in some other parts of Germany. Tänzer quotes an 1818 letter from two Jewish leaders to local officials: 

“Royal esteemed district office: There are several family fathers (heads of household) without a family surname and that has caused many disputes, and also created difficulties in recording the Jewish families in the noble books. We therefore have initiated that every Jewish Family should establish a permanent family surname. We therefore request to publicly distribute the following list of newly adopted surnames, so the nuisance of having two or three of the same name will finally stop.” 

As German Jews won more economic and social freedom through the 1800s, they increasingly identified with and assimilated into German culture. 

The gravestones of the Jebenhausen cemetery reflect this gradual assimilation of Jews into German society. The oldest stones like Rifke’s are entirely in Hebrew. Salomon Einstein’s mid-century stone is mostly Hebrew, but his name is also written in German letters. Then there are stones from the early 1900s that are entirely in German, like Christian gravestones of that time. 

The exodus of Jews from Jebenhausen to Göppingen and Stuttgart reflected the larger movement of Jews to urban areas through the 19th century, as Germany industrialized and cities dropped their restrictions on Jewish residency.

And of course the decimation of the Göppingen Jewish community during the Holocaust mirrored the fate of German Jewry overall.  Although Rosa Einstein moved to America, several of her siblings stayed behind. Some of their descendants – my distant cousins – died in concentration camps. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, one of them was Fritz Elsas, a former mayor of Berlin and part of the liberal opposition to Hitler. 

No one in my family was aware of these distant relations. I never knew until exploring my Jebenhausen roots that we had relatives who died in the Holocaust. 

There are so many factors that shape our lives – our parents’ economic class and social milieu, the values with which they raise us, the schools we attend and the friends we make. If any of those were different, I would be a different person.

But sometimes I feel that all those factors are dwarfed by a single decision made 150 years ago by people I never knew – the decision by Salomon Wormser and Rosa Einstein to move from Jebenhausen to America.

Postscript: In my last blog post, I promised to disclose my connection to that other Einstein — the one who didn’t sell corsets. Albert, who was born 38 miles away from Jebenhausen in Ulm, is apparently my fifth cousin, three times removed. Don’t ask me to detail the path. My head will explode.


IMG_3139

My daughter, me, and Dr. Ruess in front of the Göppingen Jewish Museum

I’d like to express my deep thanks to Dr. Ruess for his work on the museum and on the history of Jebenhausen’s Jews, and to other Jebenhausen descendants who have helped piece together the community’s story. 

In particular, thank you to Stephen Weil of Chicago – a descendant of Rosa Einstein’s sister Ricke and thus my fourth cousin – who recently commissioned an English translation of Rabbi Tanzer’s book that is available for free online through the Leo Baeck Institute.

Resources on the Jews of Jebenhausen

Jews in Jebenhausen and Göppingen– short online article with pictures on Edjewnet.com

History of the Jews Residing in Jebenhausen and Goppingen– English translation of the 1927 book by Rabbi Aaron Tanzer, in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute.

From Württemburg to America: A German-Jewish Village on its Way to the New World– 1989 article by Stefan Rohrbacher in American Jewish Archives.

Göppingen Jewish Museum – hours of operation and contact information (in German)

Next blog post: The stories of some of my other recently-discovered German ancestors. They include two New World tragedies.

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A Tale of Two Kiddish Cups

April 15, 2019

Each Passover, I polish two silver kiddish cups from my mother’s family for our Seder table.

As a child, I never paid the cups any attention: They were just part of the fancy silverware that my mom kept in the dining room credenza. As an adult, I knew they were heirlooms but had no idea where they came from. The cups were engraved, but no one knew what the inscriptions and initials meant.

Our two heirloom kiddish cups / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Then, over the past five years, I started exploring my family history through online resources like Ancestry.com and Jewishgen.org. I discovered that the kiddush cups – and part of my family – have their roots in the Bavarian towns of Jebenhausen and Goppingen.

One line of my mother’s family – my Wormser and Einstein ancestors – emigrated from Jebenhausen to the United States in 1868.  They brought the cups with them.

Here’s what I know about their story:

On June 10, 1868, a young family made up of Salomon Wormser, Rosa (Rachle) Einstein Wormser, and their one-year-old son Max sailed out of Hamburg on a ship called the Holsatia. 

Salomon was 31 years old and Rosa was 23. They had been married two years earlier in Jebenhausen, then moved to Stuttgart where they had Max before departing for America. 

The taller silver cup bears the initials SW – which presumably refers to Salomon Wormser. I suspect it was a wedding present when he and Rosa were married. 

The smaller cup bears the inscription “Zum andenken von S. Landauer,” which is German for “a souvenir of S. Lindauer.” As I learned more about my family tree, I saw that Rosa had a sister – Sara Einstein – who married a man named Salomon Lindauer in 1861 in Jebenhausen. My guess is that this cup was a memento from that wedding: Perhaps the couple or their parents gave commemorative cups to the people closest to them.

Our Lindauer kiddush cup / Photo by Ilana DeBare

But back to the story of Salomon Wormser, Rosa, and Max. Twelve days after they set sail from Hamburg, they arrived in New York.  On July 23, 1869, they had a second son – Louis Wormser, who ultimately became my great grandfather.

In New York, Salomon ran a corset importing business – probably buying inventory from family and friends in Jebenhausen, which had an active corset manufacturing industry. He was not wealthy but not poor either. The fact that his family could buy silver kiddush cups as wedding gifts indicates they had some resources, as does the fact that Salomon emigrated together with his wife and baby son. (German Jewish men from poor families typically emigrated alone, and married or sent for their wives only after they had established some financial security in America.)

Census records list the occupation of Louis Wormser, my great grandfather, as a manufacturer of children’s clothing.  My mother knew him as “Papa Lou,” but he died long before I was born. Lou’s daughter was my grandmother Ethel. When she died, the cups were passed on to my mother and then, with my mother’s death, to me.

My great-great grandmother Rosa Wormser’s grave marker in Westchester County, New York

When Salomon and Rosa traveled across the ocean to start a new life in America, these cups must have been a precious reminder of home and the loved ones they left behind.

The tall SW cup is interesting in that the pictures encircling it are not traditional Jewish religious images. Cherubs and dragons, they’re more typical of German Romantic imagery. To me, they indicate how German Jews of the mid-1800s identified with German culture and aspired to be part of German society. They held the same ideas about beauty and art as their Christian neighbors. Yet Jewish efforts to assimilate into German society in the 19th century were consistently rebuffed: Even if they converted to Christianity, even if they served in the German military, they were not accepted as “real” Germans.

(For a masterful and readable history of German Jewry during this era, see The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933, by Amos Elon.)

Just last week, noodling around with my online family tree, I started wondering about the line of the family that stayed behind — in particular, the descendants of the “S. Lindauer” on my cup.

It turns out that Salomon Lindauer and Sara Einstein had a daughter Bertha, who married a man named Julius Elsas. They in turn had a son named Fritz Julius Elsas. Born in 1890 in Stuttgart, Fritz converted to Christianity like many Jews of that era who aspired to acceptance in Germany society. He studied politics and law and married a Christian woman of Jewish descent.

Elsas entered politics – running briefly for mayor of Stuttgart but then withdrawing because of anti-Semitic attacks. In 1931 he was elected mayor of Berlin by the city council there, but had to resign his position when the Nazis took power.

Because of his “privileged mixed marriage,” Elsas didn’t face the same persecution as other German Jews, according to an informative biographical article in Ha’aretz. He became involved in the liberal resistance to Hitler, writing secret position papers to help plan for a post-Hitler Germany.

In the wake of the 1944 failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, Elsas was rounded up with many others in the German resistance. He was executed in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in December 1945.

Elsas would have been my grandmother’s second cousin — thus my second cousin twice removed. He and my grandmother shared the same great-grandparents. But my American branch of the family long ago lost touch with the German branches. Until delving into genealogy, I never knew we had relatives who remained in Germany or who died in the Holocaust.

This spring, my daughter Becca is living in Berlin and working on a creative project that involves our family history. I polished the kiddish cups early this year, so I could send photos of them to a small Jewish museum in Jebenhausen, which we will visit when we go see her.

This Friday evening, the cups will again be placed on our Seder table — but with more levels of meaning than before. Initially a memento of my childhood, they’ve also become a connection with my German Jewish origins, with those 1860s ancestors who decided to move to America, and with the distant branch of the family that did not make such a fortunate decision.

The Seder Table: A Short Story

March 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, I had a short story about Passover published in the J, the weekly Jewish newspaper for Northern California. Because this is Passover week, I figured I’d share it with you here. One of my goals when I set out to write it was to fit the tight 800-word limit of the J’s fiction section. Happy Passover!

The Seder Table

By Ilana DeBare

Normally she would be thrilled to have the twins flying home at the last minute for seder, but this year Robin wanted to bar the door. She reached for the big silver platter that had been in her family since the 1800s and attacked it with her square of chamois like a siege army. She didn’t want Jen and Maia leaving school, a vicious reminder of all that was wrong, like her friends’ solicitous phone calls asking if they could make the matzah balls this year, or the fatigue that set in around noon, or the goddamned bald head in the mirror.

Robin set the big silver platter aside, shiny as a new morning, and reached for the ceramic seder plate. It was a junky piece of kitsch, but it was her kitsch. She’d bought it in the Old City on her junior year abroad and used it every Passover since then. It had been through ramshackle seders on the living room floor in group households when she was single, seders that careened on fast-forward when everyone had squirming toddlers, decades of seders in which friends arrived with new husbands and then no husbands and then second husbands.

Robin was wiping down the plate when her cell rang. Dan. Checking in on her, no doubt. Which was sweet and considerate and loving and made her even more furious.

“Everything’s fine,” she answered curtly. “I’m doing the platters.”

“Well, hi-it’s-nice-to-hear-from-you too.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve just got my hands full. I can’t talk now.”

“No prob. How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

“Tired?”

“No.”

“Do you want–”

“I said I was fine. Look, sweetie, just get the girls at the airport, okay?”

When she reached to return the phone to her purse, a wave of exhaustion nearly brought her to her knees. Pacing. She had learned to pace herself in this new, hopefully-temporary metabolism. In past years, she tore through seder preparations in three intense days. Now, like a taffy pull without the sweetness, Robin had stretched those three days of work into a week. She had graciously agreed to let friends make the desserts and the charoset; she had even condescended to order the gefilte fish from a deli. All she had to do today – all – was polish the silver and glassware. Of course she could handle that.

After a nap.

It was four in the afternoon when Robin woke. She had never been a napper, and she planned on rejoining the ranks of the joyously, obliviously non-napping sometime soon. This round of chemo was working. The doctors were uniformly encouraging. Next Passover she would make the gefilte fish again. To hell with “next year in Jerusalem”; next year in normalcy would be just fine with her.

Robin reached for some crystal wine glasses that had belonged to her mother. Like everything else, they were dusty. She grasped multiple stems in each hand, like squawking chickens held upside-down by their feet, and padded toward the sink. And then it happened – who knew why, just a click of the front door like any other day, Dan arriving with the girls, but it spooked her and she twitched and the flock of crystal chickens flew out of her hands and smashed on the floor.

My mother’s crystal; what will she say? she thought, and then She can’t say anything, she’s been dead for 15 years, and then At least it wasn’t my seder plate and then Oh God, why do they have to see me this way because tears were running down her face and she had slumped onto the floor amidst the shattered glass.

“Mom!” called Jen, and they were suddenly around her, hugging her, so eager to make it all right. But it would not be all right, Robin knew, even if the chemo worked and her hair grew back and the gefilte fish swam back to her stove. If not this, it would be something else – the stroke that took her mother, the “female problems” that took her grandmother. It felt like only yesterday that she was triumphantly bargaining a few shekels off the price of an already-dirt-cheap seder plate, yesterday that she was inhaling sweet talcum powder from plump baby bodies. But the girls were grown; their childhood was gone; her own youth was even longer gone; and now her mother’s crystal was gone too. It was just a matter of time until all that remained of their cherished lives would be brittle heirlooms on someone else’s seder table.

Robin reached one arm around each girl. “Careful,” she managed to say. “The glass. Don’t cut yourself.” But what she was thinking was: We are always leaving Egypt, Pharoah’s chariots are always at our heels, and there will never be enough time for the matzah to rise.        

I’m running for Congress!

January 14, 2015

I’m running for Congress!

The World Zionist Congress, that is.

“Huh?” you may ask. “What World Zionist Congress? I never heard of such a thing. And how the heck is Ilana involved with it?” 

Patience. All will be explained.

The WZC, for starters.

The World Zionist Congress

Founded in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, the WZC started out as a global gathering of Jews devoted to creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It met every few years to elect officers of the World Zionist Organization, which functioned as a kind of state-in-formation during the years of the British Mandate.

21st Zionist Congress in 1939 / Photo from Wikipedia

21st Zionist Congress in 1939 / Photo from Wikipedia

After creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the WZO’s focus shifted to promoting immigration to Israel and connecting Jews around the world – particularly young people – with Israel. Today it oversees a budget of about $30 million, and has joint authority over the $475 million budget of the Jewish Agency.

Leadership and focus of the WZO is decided every few years at a World Zionist Congress, with the next Congress scheduled for Jerusalem in October 2015.

Participation in the Congress is divided up by country, based on the size of the Jewish population in each country. So Israel gets 38 percent of the seats, the U.S. gets 29 percent, and other Diaspora countries get 33 percent. We’re a Big Kahuna!

The U.S. delegation in turn is determined by elections, with different movements within American Judaism fielding slates of candidates.

American Slates in the WZC

The slate that won the most votes in the last WZC in 2008 was from ARZA, representing Reform Judaism. This makes sense since, numerically, more American Jews are affiliated with Reform synagogues than any other set of institutions.

The overall breakdown of the American delegation in 2006 was:

  • ARZA (Reform Judaism) – 55
  • Religious Zionist Slate (Orthodox Judaism) – 35
  • Mercaz (Conservative Judaism) – 32
  • Zionist Organization of America (right of center) – 5
  • Hatikvah (left-of-center coalition supporting the Israeli Labor and Meretz parties) – 5
  • Likud (right of center)– 3
  • Green Zionist Alliance – 2
  • Herut USA (right of center) – 2
  • Reconstructionist Judaism – 2
  • Other – 4

So what about Ilana?

All very interesting, but you are probably still wondering what I’m doing in the middle of this.

I was approached in late 2014 by by an old friend from Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist youth movement that was such a key part of my teenage years and formed the base for much of my Jewish and political identity.

At Hashomer Hatzair's Camp Shomria in the mid-70s. I am in the second row, third from right. Photo by Yonit Brownstein.

At Hashomer Hatzair’s Camp Shomria in the mid-70s. I am in the second row, second from right. Photo by Maria Kontos Barrett.

She asked if I would serve as a delegate for Hatikvah – the Progressive Zionist slate.

Hatikvah represents folks who support the left-of-center Labor and Meretz parties in Israel. It also includes alumni of Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim-Dror, the kibbutz-related youth movements. And this year it has added leaders of the New Israel Fund, J Street, and Americans for Peace Now.

In short, it’s the central gathering spot for American Jews who share a vision of Israel as a socially just, democratic Jewish state that is committed to a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.

The name “Hatikvah” (hope) is fitting. We carry on the founders’ hope that Israel will be a just and ethical light among the nations. We persist in our own hope – despite more setbacks than anyone can count — that Israel can reach a negotiated peace agreement with security for its own residents and self-determination for the Palestinians.

How could I say no?

Not quite like student council

I haven’t run in any kind of election since 6th grade student council, when I campaigned via “win with Wendy” posters in magic marker. And these days people spend tens of millions of dollars to get elected to the U.S. Congress.

Hatikvah

I was a little worried about what might be involved in being on the Hatikvah slate.

In reality, though, I don’t have to do much. (Except spread the word like I’m doing here!) The slate is headed by big names like folk singer Theodor Bikel, J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, New Israel Fund Executive Director Daniel Sokatch, Princeton political scientist Michael Walzer, and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers. There are about a hundred people on the slate in total. I am WAAAAY down at the bottom.

So unless the slate goes as viral as a stupid-cat-tricks video, there is no way it will win enough spots for me to be seated. It’s not likely I will have to go to Jerusalem to take part in the Congress next October.

My role is less like Hillary Clinton than like a neighborhood precinct captain trying to get out the vote.

So… I’m asking you to vote!

Why vote?

Yes, you can probably vote, even if you never heard of the WZC before this blog post. Here’s what’s required:

  • You need to be Jewish.
  • You need to pay $10 to cover the cost of the election, or $5 if you are under age 30.
  • You need to be at least 18 years old and a citizen or resident of the US.
  • You need to support the Jerusalem Program, a basic set of principles about Israel being the homeland of the Jewish people. You can read the principles here.

In the last set of elections, only 80,000 American Jews voted. So in fact, this is a situation where a relatively small number of votes can have a big impact. YOUR vote can have an impact.

American Jews – especially those of us on the left side of the spectrum – complain a lot about Israeli policies. We complain about the Israeli government not listening to us.

Here is a chance where we are being invited to make our opinions heard!

Granted, the WZC is not going to determine the future of the Middle East. The upcoming Israeli elections will determine who runs Israel for the next few years — much more important than the WZC. But the WZC does have a say over those $400-500 million that are spent on education and settlement.

And the composition of the WZC sends an important message to Israeli policymakers about what American Jews think.

Do you believe that funds for new housing should go to needy areas inside Israel proper, rather than to settlements on the West Bank? 

Peace Now demonstration in Israel

Peace Now demonstration in Israel

Do you believe that Israel should remain a democratic society that respects the civil rights of its minority populations? 

Do you believe that the Israeli government should provide equal status to all streams of religious Judaism, and not treat Orthodox Judaism as the one “official” Judaism? 

Do you believe that Israeli women should have equal rights to travel, dress, work, and pray as they want? 

Do you believe that Israeli should do more to provide economic opportunity and a safety net for its poorest citizens? 

Do you believe that Israel needs a two-state solution for its survival as a Jewish and democratic state? And that it desperately needs leaders with the courage to pursue that goal? 

The Hatikvah slate in the WZC election is a way to make your voice heard on all these points.

I’d love it if you choose to vote for Hatikvah – the slate representing the values of historic Labor Party leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, the legacy of the kibbutz movement, the energy of progressive American Jews.

But it’s also fine if, as a Reform Jew, you prefer to support the ARZA slate. (Our rabbi at Temple Sinai, Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, is a delegate with ARZA.)

ARZA and Hatikvah share a commitment to religious pluralism and women’s rights in Israel, and to a two-state solution. In fact, Hatikvah formed a working coalition with the Reform and Conservative slates during the 2006 Congress.

Here’s how I personally might decide between those two slates: If my primary concern were religious pluralism within Israel, I would vote for ARZA. If my primary concern were reaching a secure two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians, I would vote for Hatikvah.

How to vote

Voting takes place online. It starts on January 14, 2014 and goes through April 30.

Still not convinced? Here’s a column by Sue Fishkoff, editor of the J newspaper, talking about why you should vote in the WZC election. It’s got the great title, “Time to stop whining and start voting.”

Click here to register, view a list of the various slates, and then vote.

Click here to learn about the Hatikvah slate and its platform.

Click here to read about ARZA, the Reform Zionist slate.

I know, our lives our very busy. Take five minutes and vote right now before you forget!

Then please share this post – or the slate of your choice – with your friends.

In Conversation: Rabbi Yoni Regev

December 28, 2014

One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the fifth in an occasional series of interviews with the clergy of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif. 

Rabbi Yoni Regev

Rabbi Yoni Regev

Rabbi Yoni Regev started serving as Interim Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sinai in summer 2014, his first pulpit after ordination.

At age 31, Rabbi Regev is older than many new rabbis since he is Israeli and served in the Israeli army before enrolling in college and rabbinical school. His wife, Lara Pullan Regev, is also studying to become a rabbi and serves as Director of Jewish Living and Learning at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. It’s unusual to have an Israeli-born rabbi serving an American congregation, so I asked a lot of questions about that!


Q: How did you decide to become a rabbi? Your father is a rabbi in Israel. How did that influence your decision?

A: My father was a rabbi and we were overtly Reform, which was unusual in Israel. I grew up going to the Reform movement’s kindergarten and then the early TALI schools as they were developing. (TALI is a Hebrew acronym for public schools that have Jewish enrichment, which were run by the Reform and Conservative movements.) My mom was a teacher in one of them, so it was an all-encompassing experience for us.

A lot of my parents’ friends were also rabbis and professionals in the Jewish community. In a lot of ways, it was all I knew. We had guests every Friday night. I remember the lively discussions around the table – politics of the day, politics of the Jewish world. My mom is a great cook and has kept a book since before my parents were married of every person they’ve hosted in our house, cross-indexed with what she prepared and what they like to eat and what they don’t like to eat.

Q: It sounds like she is not just a great cook, she is an obsessive-compulsive cook!

A: No, she is a hostess who takes things seriously. She cares about people feeling welcome. She would know that if someone last came to dinner in 1999, and enjoyed a particular rice dish, they might enjoy that rice dish again.

Q: Did your dad lead a congregation?

A: When I was first growing up, he was on the faculty at at Hebrew Union College [the Reform rabbinical school]. Born and raised in Tel Aviv, he was raised completely secular and first became exposed to Judaism through the Reform movement as part of a U.S.-Israel student exchange.

He was selected by his high school principal for an exchange program that involved going to Camp Swig in 1968, which was a transformative time for him. He became very involved with the nascent Reform movement in Israel when he came back. He became a youth group leader, and later decided to follow that up with rabbinical school.

I always enjoyed going to services with him. He would sometimes lead services at HUC. In 1989, he founded the Israel Religious Action Center, which is the Israeli counterpart of the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C., and which served as the legal arm of the Reform movement in Israel and in many ways its social advocacy arm as well. He served as its founding director through my years in high school and then was appointed as president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism in 2001.

Q: Quite a pedigree! It’s like being the son of a Chasidic rebbe.

A: It was all very natural for me. That said, my sister – who grew up in the very same house – couldn’t care less and was never excited about attending services. She’s a musician and now a pastry chef professionally. So that did not rub off at all on her.

Q: What was it that appealed to you?

A: It wasn’t just my father. The issues he was involved in – battles over “who is a Jew,” battles for conversion recognition, battles for freedom of religion in Israel – were things that were in the press and were hot topics all the time.

At the end of the day, I realized that being a rabbi combines all the things I feel passionate about – work with a community, daily study, and bending your mind in new directions. And I always loved the stage and being in front of people.

What I was drawn to as I was ending my army service was music. I had imagined I would follow the path to cantorial school. But almost as soon as I came to the States [for university] and started being involved in the Reform movement, I realized I loved singing but it wasn’t what I wanted to do full time.

Rabbi Yoni Regev considered becoming a cantor before he became a rabbi.

Rabbi Yoni Regev considered becoming a cantor before he became a rabbi.

Q: I was surprised to hear your dad is a sabra, because you have no Israeli accent. You have an American accent.

A: I always had that. My mom is American. She made aliyah in 1978. My sister and I were raised bilingual at home, speaking Hebrew with my father and English with my mom. My sister speaks English fluently but doesn’t sound American. So you could attribute it to my singer’s ear, but I have a suspicion it was influenced more by watching a lot of TV, because I don’t have my mom’s accent.

Q: In one of your high holiday sermons, you mentioned your decision to become a Reform rabbi in America rather than Israel. There is such a need in Israel for for an alternative to the poles of completely secular or completely Orthodox. It seems like it would be a very attractive place to be a Reform rabbi. What made you come to the U.S. to work?

A: As someone who related in the American vernacular, I felt I could explain the realities of life in Israel in a way that people could hear them. Also, I always felt I would do better working in a team and being part of an established institution. In Israel, it’s still very much a start-up kind of approach [in the Reform movement].

One interesting thing is that since I started school, the interest within Israel in becoming a Reform rabbi has spiked incredibly. Ordination classes of one or two were common in the 1990s, and four was considered a big class. Now they are ordaining much bigger classes. This is coinciding with a deep need within Israel for rediscovering authentic Jewish roots. For a long time, the notion was that … religion was really reserved for the Orthodox. If you weren’t Orthodox, you shouldn’t touch it. But we’ve started seeing people in Israel coming to the Reform movement for b’nei mitzvah and wedding services. Even though there is no legal recognition for [non-Orthodox] weddings, people are yearning for egalitarian, meaningful services.

The other part of [how I chose to work in the Untied States] was that I ended up meeting my wife Lara. She’s from L.A. and she was also applying to rabbinical school. At that point we decided our path would have us here.

Q: What’s it like to experience our liturgy in a language that you understand fluently? I know enough Hebrew to recognize most of the words, but it’s still not comfortable for me. I have to puzzle out the words.

A: For me as a Hebrew speaker, on the one hand, it’s so much clearer. But as I learn about the history of the liturgy, I realize how much I’ve glossed over because it’s so easy to understand. I’ve sometimes failed to see the liturgical work that went into structuring it. Reading it in English, I rediscover some of what the Hebrew means.

Q: Is it less mystical when you understand it and it seems part of daily conversation?

A: So much of popular culture and music in Israel comes from liturgy. Part of it is an earlier generation of people trying to reclaim ownership of the traditional Jewish sources by popularizing them, like psalms that made it on the pop charts.

Think about the Shma that we sing anytime we’re not using the organ. Tzvika Pik, who is sort of a Bob Dylan in Israel, wrote that melody for a festival. He also wrote the melody for Adon Olam that we use today, which was played on the radio in Israel.

So what’s it like to understand it? In some ways, it may breed a little bit of contempt or lack of attention. But I always try when I pray to find at least one thing that I haven’t noticed before.

Q: One question I ask all the rabbis I interview: What is your personal view of God?

A: The easiest answer is that I believe in a God that is the source of creation and the source of everything we see around us in the world. At the same time, I struggle with the God of the Bible, who doesn’t pay very good attention, who gets angry too easily, who seems to have created us with all kinds of faults.

The great challenge is that so much of our faith is built around prayer and a kind of immediate personal relationship with God. Our prayers are deeply personal and invoke a centuries-old covenant, which is continually rededicated between us and God. It’s a reciprocal kind of covenant.

If we don’t buy into that kind of relationship, then in some ways prayer becomes an act devoid of meaning. Yet I’m a big believer in prayer – not just because of the kind of transformational power it has on people, but because I believe it does have an effect on God.

Q: So you think there’s a God who listens and responds to prayer?

A: I didn’t say that. I don’t think that’s how it works. And I very much like the framework of Reform theology, which says that waiting around for God to act and for the Messiah to redeem this world is not what God expects of us.

Rather, prayer is in many ways an internal call to action — an understanding that the work of creation is in many ways done, but caring for this world is an imperative left to us.

In some ways it would be so much better if like most Ultra-Orthodox Jews, we could just say “It’s in God’s hands, I’m not in charge, God put down a rule book and I’m just going to follow the rules, and anything that happens is God’s will.” That’s very freeing. But then so much of the exploration and responsibility for what we see in the world around us is taken out of the picture.

I can say with some confidence that there is a God that set the universe in motion. And that in order for life to have meaning, God set the universe in motion with the intent to care for what happened after that. Our work is to reach back and find the connection between us and the God who set it in motion.

In times where people find comfort in another image of God, I don’t deny it. I don’t pretend to have a definitive image of God. When I’m called upon to provide comfort in the name of God, I bring God as close as I can and allow that to mean whatever it means to the individual who needs God. I don’t see a paradox or dishonesty in that, because we don’t have an answer one way or the other.

Rabbi Regev (right) leads a program for the Temple Sinai preschool / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Rabbi Regev (right) leads a program for the Temple Sinai preschool / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Q: How about the other big question. What do you think happens after death?

A: If nothing else, we are at peace. We are relieved of the weight of being alive.

There’s a lot of comfort in the traditional view that we are gathered up with our ancestors, and I try not to make that too literal or embodied. The idea that we are connected to this chain of people who came before us is meaningful. Those who have passed live in our hearts and minds, and thus live in our midst. Honoring our dead and celebrating their lives is one of the things that gives our own lives meaning. We pass that on to the next generation, and thereby matter in some deep and lasting way.

That’s one of the reasons I decided to focus very strongly on re-examining our approach to Jewish burial as part of my senior work [in rabbinical school]. I recently published an article discussing the need to re-examine burial and death — specifically how we have lost touch with the generational connection meant to take place as part of the burial process.

Q: What are we not doing that we used to do?

A: The roots of of Jewish burial have almost nothing to do with how we practice today, which derives from Europe in the middle ages.

At its root [in Biblical times], burial was a family affair. You had a family or clan burial plot – usually a cave. When you died, you were laid to rest in this burial cave for a year. At the end of a year, the family would return for what was the original yahrtzeit and perform the final act of unreturned mercy – gathering up your bones and placing them in an ossuary with your ancestors’ bones, so you would be physically gathered up with them.

As a living person, you had a deep understanding of where you came from and where you were going. Your relationship to the deceased did not end with their death.

Today, my grandparents on one side are buried in Israel and I don’t get to visit them as often as I’d like. My grandparents on the other side are still living, but their parents are buried in Rochester N.Y. and Providence R.I. I’ve been there once or twice. When I have children, I doubt they’ll ever go.

In major metropolitan areas, the ability to bury within an hour of the city has almost completely disappeared. So you are not able to visit, to interact, to be connected with the deceased. Cremation is not any better. It’s much worse for that purpose.

This is a broader question that society is going to have to face. Societies have changed and there are so many more people alive now. There are more people who are going to die in the next century than have died up until now in all of modern history…. The earth can sustain that amount of burial, but not in cities.

Q: Are you suggesting we go back to ossuaries?

A: We have to reimagine what it means to be gathered up to your ancestors. The family unit has become so fluid and so fractured that saying you are going to have a connection with your family burial place is simply unrealistic. But it’s a kind of responsibility that communities can take upon themselves in a way that families cannot.

There are different ways to do that. Temple Beth-El in Boca Raton has a mausoleum on the synagogue premises. They have found that people enjoy making a visit to their loved ones a part of visiting the synagogue. Unlike the rare visits to the cemetery, connecting death with the ongoing cycle of life demystifies it and engenders a better connection through the generations.

Q: I would ask this question of any rabbi. But particularly as an Israeli rabbi working in America, how do you feel American Jews should relate to Israel?

A: That is a question I feel very strongly about. American Jews have been given short shrift as far as their relationship with Israel. For a long time, the paradigm has been that we derive part of our authenticity from Israel, and since we live comfortably here, we owe some sort of tax on our comforts to support our beleaguered brothers in Israel.

Unfortunately, this means we have ceded the kind of responsibility and investment in the fabric of Jewish life that was envisioned in founding the state of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.

One of the great truisms of the Israeli political psyche is, “You don’t live here, you’re not exposed to the terror that we live with, your kids don’t go in the army – so butt out. We know better. This is our life.”

I don’t think that’s extraordinarily wrong. There are security realities that simply can’t be judged from the outside. At the same time, I do believe that Israel is the project of the Jewish people. For us to feel a sense of ownership over that project, we have to be given a bigger stake in the game than being cheerleaders on the sidelines.

Q: Should American Jews be allowed to criticize Israeli policy, particularly around the settlements and the peace process?

A: Up to a point, absolutely. The notion that any criticism from within exposes us to a weakened position facing the outside world is a form of self-delusion. If your positions are so weak that they can’t withstand a real critical debate, then you’re obviously not standing on a very strong foothold. Any political system that rejects dissent out of hand is one that is deeply uncertain of itself.

That said, there is truth to the reality that American Jews – as well as Americans and Europeans in general – do treat Israel with a different set of standards. They apply a standard that is far, far stricter and disproportionate relative to other democracies.

Look at what’s happening right now on border of Turkey and Syria, in Kubani. Thousands of ethnic Palestinians are being put to the sword, but I don’t see demonstrations in San Francisco. I don’t see people in the Port of Oakland blocking Turkish or Syrian ships from coming to port. There have been 160,000 civilians killed in the civil war in Syria, and no one is marching down the street over that.

At the U.N. Human Rights Council, nearly half of all condemnations are against Israel. Is Israel perfect? No. But does it commit half of all human rights violations in the world? No. Is it worse than Sudan? Than Darfur? No. Would I even put it in the same sentence as those countries? No.

Q: I believe that Israel as an issue is going to be increasingly challenging for American synagogues, because Israeli politics keep moving further and further to the right. There will be a schism between Israel and many U.S. Jews if we don’t get any kind of peace settlement and end up with de facto annexation.

A: That’s a true and very challenging perspective. The collapse of the ‘90s peace movement left a vacuum of political aspiration for peace in Israel that has been very hard to replace. The disillusionment has been crippling. When I was growing up, parents would always say, “By the time you grow up, peace will have come and you won’t need to go in the army.” I don’t think anyone says that anymore.

The ingredients [for a peaceful settlement] are there. Everyone knows the basic premises for peace. But it has to become more costly for both sides to go on fighting than to make the sacrifices for peace. So far, it’s been too costly to make the sacrifices for peace.

Any actual peace will require both sides losing significant standing. And since both sides still want to win, we don’t have peace.

Q: As American Jews, what can we do? Do we just have to wait for Israel and the Palestinians to bloody each other enough?

A: Partly, we need to have that conversation – that it’s too costly to not make peace. We need to say, “We believe that peace is necessary, justice is necessary, equality is necessary.”

Carte blanche for the established political system in Israel has not proven successful. But do I think boycotts or divestment are right? No. The solution is not withholding funds but giving funds, in a more directed way. Voting with your pocketbook rather than using it to slap someone down.

Q: So we should fund the institutions of civil society there?

A: Yes, in a non-apologetic way. In a Jewish way. We’re pretty smart people. All we need to do is change the equation a little bit.


This is the fifth in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. Click on these links to read previous interviews with  Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, Rabbi Andrew StrausRabbi Andrea Berlin, and Rabbi Steven Chester

Visiting Auschwitz

August 4, 2014

We took an overnight train with a first-class sleeper compartment from Prague to Krakow. Starched white sheets on the bunk beds; bottles of water by our private sink; the conductor promising a wake-up call and our choice of coffee or tea before we arrived.

I lay in my cozy bunk, feeling the rhythmic rocking of the car, and I kept thinking:

We are Jews on a train to Auschwitz.

Oswiecim – the Polish town that predated the camp and gave the camp its infamous German name – was one of the stops around 4 a.m. on our very-local train route. Of course the contrast couldn’t have been greater. We were American tourists, buoyed by our almighty credit cards, free to move where we chose within the borderless EU, free to fly home to California when we were done.

We were also Jews on a train to Auschwitz.

With help from the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, we had arranged a private tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps for our third day in Krakow. The camps are about a 90-minute drive from the beautiful medieval city center. On our way, we stopped in the town of Oswiecim to visit its fairly new Auschwitz Jewish Center, a museum and education center that preserves the only remaining synagogue in the area.

This was new to me. Like most American Jews, when I hear “Auschwitz,” I think of the death camp that killed over a million Jews from all corners of Europe. What I didn’t know was that before this, there had been a thriving Jewish community within the small town of Oswiecim itself.

Jews arrived in Oswiecim in the 1500s, fleeing persecution in nearby Bohemia and Moravia. They flourished during Poland’s brief window of independence after World War I: By 1939, Jews made up an estimated 50 to 60 percent of Oswiecim’s population of 14,000. There were 20 synagogues in the town!

Like elsewhere, Orthodox and more modern Jews jockeyed for influence. Jews served on the town council, which provided food and other relief to both poor Jews and poor Catholics. The Jews were careful never to court ill-will by serving as mayor, even though they were a numerical majority: They typically served as vice mayor, under a Catholic mayor. Some Jews were successful industrialists. Among the museum items on display that fascinated me were glass bottles and marketing brochures from businessman Jakob Haberfeld’s very successful vodka and liquor factory.

 

Jakob Haberfeld distillery items in the Auschwitz Jewish Museum/ Photo by Ilana DeBare

Jakob Haberfeld distillery items in the Auschwitz Jewish Center/ Photo by Ilana DeBare

Hashomer Hatzair youth group members in Osweicim, Auschwitz Jewish Museum

Hashomer Hatzair youth group members in Osweicim, Auschwitz Jewish Center

But on to the camp.

In retrospect, I realize that I approached our visit with trepidation. Like most American Jews, I’d heard about the death camps from a young age. I’d read Elie Wiesel’s Night as a teenager; bought Art Spieglelman’s Maus for my own daughter; visited Holocaust museums in Jerusalem and Washington DC; seen Schindler’s List and The Pianist and so on. Although my family came to America in the mid-1800s and I lost no known relatives to the Nazis, the Holocaust was always more real to me than much of American history. Even today, I can name more concentration camps than Civil War battlefields. Many times over the years I had played the mind-game with myself: Of all my non-Jewish friends and co-workers, who are the ones I could truly trust to protect me if something like the Holocaust happened again? 

And Auschwitz represented the dark core of all this to me for 40 years – symbol of what Europe did to Jews, what it would have done to me, the worst that human beings can do to other human beings.

I was worried about what it would be like to visit.

I wasn’t worried that I would be overcome by anguish, but that I would not be overcome enough.

I feared that it would seem mundane. That I would not experience an epiphany worthy of the place. That I would not be changed.

Wouldn’t that be the individual equivalent of the world looking aside as Jews were gassed? To visit Auschwitz and not be changed?

How could the actual Auschwitz live up to everything I’d read and thought about it?

But I wasn’t conscious of this at the time. I only felt a vague nervousness. Thus the dark jokes about Jews on trains.

We met our guide in the parking lot. (Already it felt surreal. I could imagine a short story titled “The Parking Lot at the Death Camp.”)

Our guide was terrific – a youthful non-Jewish Pole in his 40s named Wojtek. He knew the history of the camp inside out. He understood Jewish culture and history. He explained things, but not too much: It would have been horrible to have someone chattering non-stop through the visit, but he knew to leave a lot of silent space.

I asked him what motivated him to choose work as a death camp museum tour guide, and he answered that his parents had both worked at the camp museum since it opened shortly after World War 2, so he grew up around it. I imagined them as nearby residents looking for a paycheck, maybe staffing the ticket booth or maintaining the grounds. Only later did someone tell me that Wojtek’s father had been a prisoner in the camp for five years, and was the first director of the camp museum.

There are two parts to the preserved camp – Auschwitz and Birkenau. We started in Auschwitz, which began its life as a Polish army base and was the earlier and smaller section, where Polish political prisoners were placed after the Nazi invasion. It’s a series of very neat, very rectangular two-story red brick buildings lined by rows of poplar trees. If you disregarded the barbed wire and electric fences, it looked from the outside like a cheery colonial-Williamsburg-style restoration – imagine a 19th century New England textile mill turned into a historical park.

The original section of Auschwitz, formerly Polish military barracks / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The original section of Auschwitz, formerly Polish military barracks / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Inside, the buildings contained some very low-key historical displays. No touch-screens or videos or holographic projections; it was more like a museum presentation from the 1950s. There were historical photos as well as opportunities to walk through cells, barracks, and the camp’s early gas chamber and crematoria. Here’s what struck me the most:

The Relics

One of the brick buildings held a series of large glass display cases, like you might see holding a diorama of stuffed zebras at a natural history museum, only much bigger. They were filled with relics of the dead. One display case was filled with two tons of hair shorn from gassed women, and sold to German industry for 50 Pfennig per kilo.

Hair from Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Hair from Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Another case was filled with tallitot (prayer shawls), and another with eyeglass frames. There was a displaycase the size of a swimming pool filled with metal pitchers and platters – people’s prized household possessions, which they had brought on the train with them to their “new home.”

There was a case filled with crutches and prosthetic limbs. A case filled with women’s shoes. A case filled with baby shoes.

There was a room-sized case filled with suitcases – brown leather mid-century suitcases – all carefully labelled with their owners’ names and addresses so they could reclaim them after their “delousing.”

There were thousands upon thousands of these items. And these were just the remnants that had been recovered after the camp was liberated – the bits that had not been shipped to Germany or destroyed in the bombing. The tip of the iceberg.

Eyeglasses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Eyeglasses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Crutches and prostheses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Crutches and prostheses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Children's shoes in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Children’s shoes in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Suitcases with names and home addresses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Suitcases with names and home addresses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The Photos

Another brick building had a long corridor lined with ID photos of prisoners, from the early days before they started tattooing numbers on arms for identification. Most of the prisoners before 1942 were non-Jewish Poles.

Our guide told us that the photographer was a non-Jewish Pole of Austrian descent. When the Nazis invaded, they offered him German citizenship due to his background. He refused and was imprisoned, where he had to take all the ID pictures. He survived the war but never took photos again.

What struck me were the dates alongside each photo – the date each person entered the camp, and the date s/he died. Three weeks. Five weeks. Two months….. I kept looking at one face after another, and realized that most were dead within three months.

Most of us have learned about the camps from stories and memoirs by survivors – Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel etc. Those memoirs are essential and powerful. But they are by necessity the stories of people who survived. Even if they describe friends, relatives and barrack-mates who died, the focus remains inevitably on the writer, who lived.

The photos and their dates in this corridor brought home to me the reality that most, most, most, most people didn’t survive. They didn’t live a year. They didn’t even live a half year. They arrived, they starved, they sickened, and a few weeks later they were dead.

Photo of twin sisters who died in Auschwitz / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo of 15-year-old twin sisters who died in Auschwitz. They entered the camp on Feb. 5, 1943. Maria died on May 23, and Czeslawa died on July 23.

Practicing for mass extermination

One of the brick barracks included rooms in the basement where the Nazis practiced for mass extermination. They experimented there with Zyklon B to see how much gas, for how long, it would take to kill a room full of people. They tried different doses and different time intervals until they got it right.

That was another of the takeaways from Auschwitz for me – it brought home how methodically, scientifically, the Germans approached their Final Solution. To me, this does set the Holocaust apart from other genocides of the past 150 years. It’s of course terrible to massacre any “other” in a frenzy of religious intolerance, a pogrom, a riot. But there is something worse about the rational, deliberate approach that the Nazis took. No one in Rwanda or Serbia or Turkey/Armenia spent years doing scientific studies of the most efficient way to kill their targets.

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We finished with the brick barracks of the main Auschwitz camp. All three of us felt a little disoriented – it hadn’t looked like we imagined. The barracks were too well-built, too tall, too landscaped, too…. normal. Even the “Arbeit Macht Frei” over the main gate seemed thinner and flimsier than what I had imagined.

It was also a gorgeous summer day outside – grass green, sky blue, jackdaws pecking for snack crumbs in the parking lot.

“People think it’s always winter here,” our guide said. “They see the black and white photos, they think the sun never shined. Of course the sun shined.  I had a survivor on one of my tours who said, ‘You can die in a place of beauty.’ ”

We took the short drive over to Birkenau. This was the larger camp – the one built explicitly for extermination, with gas chambers and crematoria that could kill 525,000 people per year, and barracks that could hold 100,000 people.

This looked more like what we had imagined. Long low buildings, mostly wooden on a treeless field, filled with wooden shelves that slept four people each. This was where the famous photos of emaciated prisoners had been taken upon liberation.

Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Birkenau was sprawling and massive. We started at the back of the camp, with an abstract stone memorial erected in the 1950s or 60s – 22 plaques, one for each of the languages spoken by people killed here. We passed the site of the crematoria and gas chambers, but they had been blown up or bombed toward the end of the war and today are just fields of rubble.

People’s ashes were often sold as fertilizer. Our guide told us that local farmers still find little unburnt body pieces in their fields.

We walked to the debarcation area – where the trains unloaded their passengers, and people were lined up and sorted for immediate death or imprisonment. There was no waiting around, no bureaucratic delays, no grace period. Those chosen for death were taken to the gas within minutes.

Where prisoners were unloaded from the train and selected for the gas chamber or the work camp / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Where prisoners were unloaded from the train and selected for the gas chamber or the work camp – train track on right, front entrance to Birkenau in the distance / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Displays showing the selections by the railroad track / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Displays showing the selections by the railroad track / Photo by Ilana DeBare

In retrospect, I wish we had stayed at the unloading site longer. We saw it, we took photos, we lingered a little, we moved on. It was hard to think at that point in the afternoon. We were all somewhat numb. In retrospect, I’d like to have sat on the grass and reflected quietly or sketched or written poetry or said Kaddish. Something slow and reflective, something that in my non-religious way would acknowledge the sacredness of all those lost lives.

Instead I took notes. Throughout the tour, I jotted notes in my little spiral book. After twenty-plus years of being a reporter, taking notes is like breathing for me. I take notes in meetings even if I’m not the organization’s secretary. And I sort of had a reason, in that I’d been toying with the idea of writing a travel article about our trip to Poland. I asked our guide lots of factual questions and wrote down lots of factual answers.

But really it was a displacement activity. It was a way to keep myself busy in the face of this terrible place. I could take something unmanageable and manage it, treat it like a routine City Council meeting. I processed it into notes. I locked it down on the page, like Harry Potter locking a boggart back into its cupboard.

It’s taken me three weeks to feel ready to write something about visiting Auschwitz. I wasn’t sure what I had to say. All the important things have been said already – the banality of evil, the importance of bearing witness, the systematized, industrial character of Nazi anti-Semitism, etc. And honestly, I’ve learned much more about the Holocaust and the death camps from years of reading than from this three-hour visit.

Auschwitz – together with the rest of our trip to Poland – did spur me to revisit the uncomfortable question of what would have happened to me during the Holocaust. We all like to imagine ourselves as the rare survivor – the one who finagles false papers, who joins the resistance in the woods, who has the luck to survive and even help others.

In reality, I would most likely be dead. I’m not particularly cunning. I’m not particularly strong. I tend to follow rules. I would have ridden the train and, if not sent directly to the gas, would have starved and gotten typhus and died.

And if I’d been a non-Jewish Pole? Would I have risked automatic death for myself and my entire family – the official penalty – for helping a Jew? I don’t know. I hope I would. I fear I wouldn’t.

So…. no great epiphany. No piercing new insights to give the world. Yet I’m glad I was there.

Auschwitz is important as a pilgrimage site, a place to go to honor those who died and to try to take in the sheer scope of their murder.

I do believe that is one of our moral obligations – to try to take in the scope of the Holocaust, to make it as real to ourselves as possible.

And of course to prevent it from happening again.

As strange as it sounds, I would actually like to go back sometime. This initial visit allowed me to see the physical structures, the size, the layout. Now I know what it looks like, I know what is there. I don’t have to get those questions answered.

On the next visit, I would go and reflect. I would skip the tour and just go sit in the field where people disembarked and were sorted, the green summer field where over a million people died in a place of beauty.