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WHEN MEDIA BECOMES MALIGNANT
Rabbi Avi Shafran
It is now well known that the bloodied and dazed "Palestinian" depicted in the Associated Press photograph published in The New York Times and other major papers on the first day of Rosh Hashana was in reality a yeshiva boy from Chicago. And that Tuvia Grossman's assailants were not Israelis but members of a Palestinian mob who dragged the young man out, beat and stabbed him. And that the infuriated Israeli policeman with a baton in the background was shouting not at the bloodied youth but at the Palestinians who brutally attacked him.
The correction the Times ran several days later was anemic, almost rivaling the outrageousness of the original caption. It identified the wounded man as Mr. Grossman, described him as "an American student in Israel" - but made no mention of his religion, no mention of how he suffered his injuries, and no mention of the Israeli policeman's actual role in the incident.
There are more subtle biases to be perceived by readers of The Times - and other media as well. Take the Temple Mount, which unbiased historians have always described precisely as what its name represents -the site of the two Holy Jewish Temples, the second of which was destroyed by the Roman army nearly two thousand years ago. Of late, in apparent deference to Palestinian leaders who claim that no Jewish Temple ever stood on the Jerusalem hill toward which Jews have prayed for millennia, The Times has appended the phrase "which the Arabs call the Haram al Sharif."
More recently, the same influential paper referred to "the Temple Mount, which Israel claims to have been the site of the First and Second Temple." No longer established historical tradition but a mere "claim."
A day later, the paper described Israeli troops as having "stormed the Haram, holiest Muslim site in Jerusalem, where hundreds of people were at worship." No mention whatsoever in that article of any "Temple Mount."
When baseless biases are openly voiced, they are seen for what they are: ugly, evil, human faults. When subtly layered, though, into journalistic products - choices of photographs, captions, turns of phrase, stories' spins - they often slip by unnoticed, and proceed to infect and deform countless hearts and minds.
All who understand the seemingly self-evident fact that the ongoing rioting is the fault of... the rioters should have no problem seeing the sad bias in much of the recent reportage on events in Israel. But the Middle East conflict is hardly the only context in which media bias should be obvious to objective observers.
I have often been a public critic of the press - both general and Jewish - for misportraying the Orthodox Jewish community. Whether it has been the repeated focus on individual rowdies responding to pointedly non-traditional services at the Kotel or shameless exaggerations of such confrontations (excrement was never - repeat, never - thrown at worshippers); whether it was calling Israel's carefully crafted balance between synagogue and state a "theocracy", or the characterization of the Rabbinate's jurisdiction over matters of personal status - designed, in David Ben-Gurion's words, "to avoid, G-d forbid, the splitting of the Jewish people" - as an "Orthodox monopoly"; whether it was misrepresenting the words of Torah-scholars or spreading baseless stories about Orthodox Jews' practices - the media's demonization of Orthodox Jews is an all too common feature of what passes today for objective journalism.
Perhaps the silver lining in The Times' cloudy reportage on the Middle East is that now it should be clear to all caring Jews, of whatever religious or cultural persuasion, that the media can, simply put, be dreadfully irresponsible - and that when it is, it is not a vital "fourth estate" but a clear and present danger to Jews.
What a timely and proper resolution we might all consider at the start of this new Jewish year to unabashedly doubt the media when it paints Jews - Orthodox or any of us - with a tar-loaded brush.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America and Am Echad's American director.]
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A FLICKER OF HOPE
For a few hours last week, I felt a flicker of optimism about Israel's future. Such moments are rare - even my friends have begun to call me the prince of darkness. So I'd like to savor them a bit.
The occasion was a two-day conference under the auspices of the National Consensus, bringing together over 200 religious and non-religious Jews, to discuss Shabbat in Israel. I gained from the conference a greater recognition of the importance that many non-religious Israelis attach to Shabbat, even if their Shabbat differs radically from mine.
In the roundtable discussions, many expressed anxiety about the loss of any sense of Shabbat in the public arena and a desire for a deeper experience of Shabbat in their private lives. Speaking of his support for a ban on commercial activity on Shabbat, one non-religious speaker emphasized, "This has nothing to do with concessions to the religious, this is for me."
Support for an end to commercial (as opposed to cultural) activity on Shabbat was widespread. Ra'anana Mayor Ze'ev Bielski pointed out that the opening of kibbutz shopping centers, for instance, has ramifications extending far beyond the centers themselves and the interurban highways bringing shoppers to them. When Kibbutz Ga'ash opens a shopping center outside of Netanya, every shopkeeper in Netanya finds himself faced with the choice of opening on Shabbat or going broke. Netanya Mayor Miriam Feierberg, in turn, finds herself under overwhelming pressure to permit full-scale shopping downtown. And if downtown Netanya opens up, so eventually will every nearby city.
In this fashion, the people who gave the world the idea of man as something more than a more sophisticated beast of burden, one whose whole life revolves around earning money, are producing one of the most frenetic, commercially based societies in the world. As Rabbi Ya'acov Meidan put it at the conference, "Thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, drawn from the weakest economic strata of society will be forced to work on Shabbat so that residents of North Tel Aviv will be able to go to the grocery store on Shabbat morning for fresh milk."
Ironically it is the Meretz party, whose members see themselves as avatars of the life of the mind, which is the most fervent advocate of this rampant commercialization. For Meretz and its rival Shinui, wiping out Judaism takes precedence over all other values. (The announcement this week of a Meretz-inspired boycott of products bearing a Haredi kashrut certification and the stores that sell them is a case in point.)
The National Consensus gathering last week was the polar opposite of Meretz-Shinui's incitement to religious war. More inspiring even than the specific discussion of Shabbat was the underlying commitment of everyone present to dialogue and the oft-repeated sentiment that we must find a way to live here together.
Accommodation, Prof. Ruth Gavison pointed out, requires that we eschew the search for an unattainable consensus on ultimate issues in favor of practical initiatives that do not necessarily implicate larger philosophical issues.
One such initiative that generated widespread enthusiasm was Natan Sharansky's call for a five-day work week. The institution of Sunday (or perhaps Friday) as a second day of rest could go a long way to lessening tensions surrounding Shabbat. Except for the small percentage who want to shop specifically on Shabbat, the availability of a day for shopping would remove the pressure to open shopping malls on Shabbat. It would also allow for more contact between different sectors of the population. Those who currently cannot attend soccer games because they are played on Shabbat, for instance, would be able to do so.
During the discussion of this proposal at my roundtable, a number of the non-Orthodox participants commented that without the pressure to cram everything into Shabbat, they would like to go to synagogue and otherwise introduce more of a Shabbat atmosphere into their homes. Though Sharansky was not present, it was fitting that his proposal should have generated so much discussion. More than any other politician on the scene today, he exemplifies the quest for Jewish unity that brought the National Consensus participants together.
Israel today is the only country in which school children are asked: Which groups in society do you hate most? Children imbibe at an early age the message that the willingness to compromise makes you a freier, or sucker - the worst insult in the national lexicon. The goal is winning, and when you have won - even if the margin of victory is 50% plus a Mitsubishi - to stuff your values down your opponent's throat while you are still on top.
An acquaintance commented recently that after years here, he has yet to meet five liberals in the Voltarian sense: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." We are much more inclined to shout down ideas we do not like and to prevent their broadcast or publication.
Sharansky stands apart from all that. His slogan, if he were to head a truly national party, might well be, "All who want to win, all who are stuck in zero-sum mindsets, vote for the other guy." Compromise, for him, is a desideratum, not a sign of weakness. That attitude underlies his frequently repeated view that an end-of-conflict agreement, even one that leaves Israel strategically vulnerable but which commands widespread national support, is preferable to a better agreement supported by a narrow majority. Our most precious and irreplaceable national asset remains, in his eyes, Jewish unity.
Our current cultural wars here in Israel give little reason for cheer about the state of Jewish unity. Yet if the 200 Jews at last week's gathering represent a real current in Israeli society - and are not just soon to be extinct artifacts of bygone days, soon to be as extinct as the dodo - and if the seekers of rapprochement prevail over the sowers of hatred, there may still be hope for us.
[Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and Israeli director of Am Echad]
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"Last week," reported The New York Times four days after Palestinian rioters decided to use Ariel Sharon's pre-Rosh Hashana stroll along the Temple Mount as an excuse to push the Middle East to the brink of war, "Israelis were debating the pros and cons of allowing public buses to run to the beaches on
"This week, needless to say, they're not."
Perhaps, though, the debates of the previous week were not so irrelevant after all. Those debates centered on a proposal to create what many commentators referred to as a "secular revolution" in Israel through such "innovations" as sanctioning public desecration of the Sabbath and establishing a secular civil alternative to the Rabbinate-controlled institutions of marriage and divorce. It is certainly presumptuous to draw any definitive conclusion, but would it be outlandish for all of us Jews to consider whether there might be some connection between Prime Minister Barak's efforts to radically redefine the religious character of the Jewish State and Chairman Arafat's efforts to radically redefine the physical boundaries of the Jewish State?
A few weeks earlier, in what would have been an unthinkable concession just a short while ago, Israel offered to yield significant portions of Jerusalem to Palestinian control, with nary a thought about the inherent sanctity of the Holy City entering the bargaining equation. Might one perceive some linkage between the negotiating sessions at Camp David and the violent rampages in the City of David?
A few months before that, in a ruling that is currently under appeal, a panel of Israel's Supreme Court authorized provocative non-traditional prayer services at the Western Wall. Might there be some relation between battles to erode what the Jewish religious tradition considers modest behavior at the holiest site on the Jewish map and the battles that forced that site's closing on the holiest days of the Jewish calendar?
The Council of Torah Sages, a group of venerable rabbinic authorities to whom Agudath Israel of America looks for guidance, recently noted in a statement calling on the Jewish community to pray for the security of Jews in Israel and around the world, that "the physical security of our people is based on the well-being of the Jewish soul." One need not be an Agudath Israel constituent to recognize the profound truth of this formula; commentator upon commentator have noted that the identity crisis in modern-day "post-Zionist" Israel presents a clear and present danger to the security and well-being of the State.
For when our enemies perceive weakness in our commitment to the essential Jewish character of the Holy Land, they perceive a concomitant weakness in our desire and ability to make the difficult sacrifices necessary to defend the Holy Land. And when our enemies see the movement to recreate Israel as simply a "nation of all its citizens", and to redefine the "Jewish State" as simply a "democratic state", they see a country that is squandering its historical moorings - and is thus vulnerable in its geographical moorings.
Those who fail to grasp the connection between Israel's physical security and its spiritual well-being are misguided. The rest of us, though, are burdened - with the responsibility to do all that we can in this time of crisis to strengthen the soul of the Jewish people in its land.
We in the Diaspora need to realize that Israel is helped when we help it retain its Jewish essence: when we encourage, not fear, the strong wave of "returnees" to the fullness of the Jewish tradition in Israeli society; when we empower, not bemoan, the proliferation and growth of yeshivot in Israel; when we champion, not decry, the Jewish State's high standards - those of the religious tradition of all Jews - for defining Jewish personal identity. For Israel's safety and her Jewish nature are inextricably intertwined.
Physical siege is a symptom of spiritual malaise; and refuas ha'nefesh (healing of the soul), as we say in the "Mi Sheberach" prayer, goes hand-in-hand with refuas ha'guf, healing of the body.
[David Zwiebel is executive vice president of government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]
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THE RABBIS' SECRET
Last night, for the first time ever, I studied Torah with my son.
For years I had dreamed of the moment. I was helping my seven-year-old, Joshua with his second-grade homework, and, together, we read and translated the Hebrew words from his Chumash, or Bible.
Both Josh and I only started learning Hebrew about a year ago, and the dream that come true last night was not only mine but one of his too.
Ever since we started attending synagogue on a regular basis, Josh has been fascinated with "reading from the Torah." And ever since some relatives gave him a paper replica of a Torah-scroll, my son has longed to be able to read it.
As a surprise, when his homework was done, I brought him the scroll, rolled it to the verses we had been studying, and asked him to read from it and translate what he had read. He did, and with such excitement he could barely contain himself. As a parent, I felt his joy vicariously - and, I think, even more intensely.
My daughter Eliana, in kindergarten, is in many ways already ahead of me. She reported to my wife and me that she had learned in school about the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah - she was kind enough to translate the term for us ("returning lost objects" to their owners). She's learning not only mitzvot but middot (proper behavior) from each weekly Torah portion, things like the importance of being thankful, respecting one's parents - in general, precisely the kind of values that we do teach at home, but which need reinforcing at school. The kind that we can only wish our public schools can teach.
And, for both of them, reading Hebrew is as easy as reading English. And why shouldn't it be? They were taught a "B" and a "Bet" at the same time. A new letter is a new letter, and, at that young age, everything is new. In one year, my son, academically average, learned four alphabets (upper and lower case English, Hebrew block, and Hebrew script) without problem and now reads them all just as well as any average seven-year-old can read English.
So what is someone like me, a person who, for most of his life, has wavered between being staunchly Reform, and staunchly secular/ethnic Jew, doing sending my kids to an Orthodox Jewish day school?
Well, for one, I am determined that they get the Jewish education I never received. Secondly, I am determined that they learn values and ethics that they won't likely learn in a public school. Thirdly, I am determined that they not get "burned out" on Judaism by having to spend precious play time in a Sunday school or in an after-school Hebrew program.
Many of my friends and relatives wonder if my kids are being deprived of a "multi-cultural" consciousness, and if, as they get older, they will be able to "fit in" to the larger American society. My answer to them is quite simple: hey, if you live in America, you are exposed to American culture, whether you like it or not. My children hardly lead insulated lives; they learned to skateboard from the Catholic kid next door. My son's into The Phantom Menace; my daughter, Toy Story (I and II) and both are avid fans of A Bug's Life, among other contemporary offerings.
But any loss born of lack of exposure to all that American society has to offer (much of it, in any event, hardly healthful) is more than outweighed in my mind with what my children have to gain from receiving a strong Jewish education. I often think about how many Jewish adults today feel reluctant to go to a synagogue because of the hard time they have figuring out what's going on. Until two years ago, that huge group included me (and I still get lost occasionally!). One of the reasons I never once visited the Hillel at my college was that I feared my lack of Jewish knowledge would be exposed. That four-year separation from my Jewish religious heritage all too easily stretched into 10 years, and I was ever-so-close to dropping out of Jewish identity completely. I don't want that to happen to my kids. No way.
An extra bonus of my children's Jewish education is that, by playing my parent's role as homework-helper, I myself am getting the Jewish education I never had. In two years Joshua will be reading Mishna in the original Hebrew -- and I hope I will be doing the same.
And then there are the ethics. Even if responsible Jewish parents teach their children the Jewish way -- that "returning lost objects" is a mitzvah, that "lashon hara", even truthful hurtful speech, is a sin -- how great can their influence be when their kids spend most of their waking hours at school (where the ethical model considers "finders keepers" and "dissing" an acceptable social convention)?
Josh is blessed, moreover, with a fabulous Jewish studies teacher. This young dynamic, enthusiastic "rebbe" thinks nothing of standing on his desk to make a point, or pacing off 300 "arm-breadths" at recess to demonstrate how long Noah's ark was. He pointedly plays with the kids during recess in order to use the playground to inculcate Jewish ethics and values in his charges. It's all part of the Jewish educational process, he says.
And as far as the school's secular studies are concerned, not only did my careful comparison with the public school curriculum show them to be right on grade level but the yeshiva high school into which the day school "feeds" offers a broad assortment of impressive advanced placement secular studies courses. I now understand why Jewish day school graduates seem to succeed in such high proportions in higher secular education.
Some of my friends chide me for my educational choice, and claim that they send their own children to public schools in order to "support public education." But my tax dollars support public education as much as theirs do. As a matter of fact, since I'm not utilizing the public school system's services, my support of the system is arguably even greater. The point, in the end, though, is moot. I would never sacrifice what I consider the best interests of my children in order to make a political statement -- and doubt that my friends would either. They just don't realize how much a Jewish education could benefit their kids.
Why so many Jews think that Jewish day school is only for the Orthodox is beyond me. If non-Orthodox Jews care so much about "informed choice", isn't providing their young with a Jewish education the best way to keep them informed, to be in a position to make rational choices about their Jewish futures? As the wife of a local Conservative Rabbi put it at a board meeting, if we want our kids to be seriously knowledgeable about their Jewish heritage, they have to at very least be able to read Jewish texts in their original language, because all translation is interpretation. And in any event, well over 90% of the important Jewish texts have never even been translated out of Hebrew.
Where I live, in Northern Virginia, it seems that almost every Orthodox child attends a Jewish day school, but no more than 5% of children from Conservative families, and only a handful of children from Reform backgrounds.
What is interesting, though, is that the overwhelming majority of local rabbis -- and that includes the two Orthodox rabbis, and many more Conservative and Reform rabbis, even the rabbi of a non-denominational gay and lesbian synagogue -- do send their children to Day School .
Do they know something most other Jews don't?
[Eric Simon, who served as a UAHC Regional Board member and as a member of the Executive Committee of the UAHC Commission on Synagogue Affiliation, is currently active in Jewish outreach and educational activities in Northern Virginia.]
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HISTORY HAS SPOKEN, WILL WE LISTEN?
Rarely does history render a final verdict on the great issues of past.
Still it would be hard to find any takers today for a debate on whether Israel should have allied in the 50s with the Soviet bloc or with the United States, even though that issue once tore apart the Israeli kibbutz movement.
On those infrequent occasions when subsequent events settle an issue, what happens to those proven wrong? After Stalin's doctors' plot was revealed and the Soviet Union had become the principal arms supplier of all the Arab countries bent on our destruction, did those who had seen Stalin as the great father figure beg forgiveness from all the friends and colleagues with whom they had ceased speaking? Or did they find new ways to justify themselves?
Today history is rendering an equally definitive judgment on the central question that has convulsed Israelis for the last seven years: Do the Palestinians seek the destruction of Israel or have they made a historical decision to live in peaceful coexistence with the Jewish state? And once again, once wonders how those who plighted their troth to the wrong side in that debate will deal with their past illusions.
It would be hard to overstate the trauma of past weeks on those who had convinced themselves that peace in our times was close at hand. In the October 10 edition of The Jerusalem Report, lead columnist Hirsch Goodman confidently stated that peace had already been achieved, with only a few technical details to be worked out. The interpersonal relationships between Jews and Palestinians developed over the preceding seven years assured, according to Goodman, that another intifada was no longer a possibility.
By the time that column appeared another intifada was fully under way, trapping Jews both within and without the Green Line in their homes for days. Within days we witnessed two reservists literally pulled apart limb by limb by Palestinian mobs, and other mobs destroying Joseph's Tomb and the ancient synagogue of Jericho with vicious glee. Palestinian attacks on both soldiers and civilians have become tragically commonplace. The army is now predicting continuation of the current fighting for the foreseeable future. Such is the chasm of perception Israelis have been forced to traverse in a matter of days.
The trauma of dashed hopes is exacerbated by the almost messianic longings invested in the Oslo process. Messianic movements develop out of intense despair with the present situation. To escape that despair, the movement's followers convince themselves that history has entered a new period in which all the former rules no longer apply.
The Oslo process can only be understood against the backdrop of the first intifada. From the beginning, its supporters convinced themselves that it would work because they could not contemplate a continuation of the current situation. They treated the question, "What is the alternative?" as if it constituted some kind of proof that Oslo was a viable alternative. Facts that conflicted with that messianic vision were willfully suppressed. We did not want to know about Arafat's speeches in Arabic, in which he spoke openly of the Oslo process as just a step towards reconquest of all of Palestine, or of the ongoing incitement in the official Palestinian media, or of paramilitary summer camps for Palestinian teenagers, and so those stories were consigned to the back pages.
The only thing shocking about the recent broadcast of a Gaza imam's call for the slaughter of the Jews was the public's shock itself. Palestinian Media Watch and MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) have been publishing reams of such material for years.
Journalists who viewed themselves as salesmen for Oslo chose not to confront the evidence that Arafat has done nothing to prepare the Palestinian street or the next generation for peace with Israel. (To the contrary, in his speeches and in the Palestinian Authority textbooks, he has fanned their dreams of ruling all of Palestine and of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians returning to our borders.) They preferred instead to spend weeks mocking Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef's views on the transmigration of souls, a subject of no immediate practical consequence to a single Israeli. Those who believed that the mastermind of the Ma'a lot and Coastal Highway massacres had magically changed his spots, and that history had entered a new era, now find themselves in the same position as the followers of the famous false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi after his conversion to Islam.
Yet even after Shabbetai Tzvi's apostasy, there were those who developed elaborate theological doctrines to reconcile that apostasy with his messianic mission. And today there are many whose entire identity is so entwined with Oslo that they too cannot recognize what has happened. For them, the "peace process" is some disembodied god, only tangentially related to peace itself.
Thus we once heard terrorist victims described as "sacrifices for peace", as if Oslo were an angry Moloch demanding human offerings. And today, Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin angrily accuse Prime Minister Barak of taking unilateral steps to kill the "peace process." One wants to shout, "Have you noticed that we are at war? They are shooting at us as in fall, 1996 and last spring. Don't acts of war terminate the peace process?"
The greatest danger ahead, however, does not come from the unshakable messianists. It is rather that those who today claim to have had their eyes opened wide will quickly revert to previous casts of mind.
If we can muster no new sources of national will, and in short order, we will find ourselves in the same situation that gave rise to Oslo in the first place. As the fighting drags on, month after month, we will go back to asking, "What's the alternative?" and force ourselves to forget once again all that we have learned about our erstwhile "peace partners'' since Camp David.
[Jonathan Rosenblum is a Jerusalem Post columnist and Israeli director of Am Echad]
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WHAT I LEARNED FROM MY RUN-IN WITH ARAB HATRED
Our "Palestinian" Yeshiva Boy Reflects on His Near-Death Experience
[One of the most riveting - and controversial - photographs to have emerged from the recent weeks of violence in Israel was that of a bloodied and dazed young man with an angry Israeli policeman standing behind him shouting. While the young man was first identified by the Associated Press, the photo's source, as a Palestinian, it soon became clear that he was an American studying in an Israeli yeshiva - a victim of Palestinians, who had dragged him from a car, beaten and stabbed him; the policeman had been shouting at the Arab assailants. The New York Times, which ran the photo and mistaken caption, published a subsequent correction and follow-up article. Mr. Grossman, who is recuperating and undergoing physical therapy for his wounds, feels not only blessed to have escaped his would-be murderers, but richer in a sense for his harrowing experience. He penned the piece below for Am Echad.]
As the violence in the Middle East continues, we all have our opinions about the Arab uprising, the peace process and what might be done to halt the bloodshed. There are many lessons we might learn from the events of the past weeks but an important one is the one I personally learned in a rather unwelcome way.
Shortly after the violence first broke out, I happened to be traveling in a taxi in Jerusalem with two friends when our car was attacked by a mob of Arabs who stoned it, forcing us to stop. The crazed mob then dragged us out of the vehicle and proceeded to severely beat and stab us. Somehow - miraculously is the only way I can understand it - we were able to break away and escape to an Israeli Army position down the road.
As a Jewish American student studying in a Jerusalem yeshiva, I had little experience with the hatred that so many Arabs seem to have for Jews. Indeed, I had conflicted feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict. But none of that would have made any difference to those who assaulted me and my friends. They wanted, to put it simply, to kill Jews. What they ended up doing, though, was to put me on the path to a lesson I will never forget.
The first indication of the lesson came as I lay in my hospital bed, recovering from a stab wound in my thigh, multiple gashes to my head, and a broken nose. I started receiving phone calls from Jews all over the world, each offering support and compassion. Total strangers showed up at the hospital to visit me and asked what they could do to help me. What I began to realize then is what it is that characterizes us Jews as a nation. The Hebrew word is "achdut", which translates as "unity": a connection that binds us all. As I learned in yeshiva, the sages of the Talmud teach that "kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh," - all Jews are "intertwined" each with every other.
That concept includes not only all Jews alive today, but all who ever lived, a thought central to the holidays we Jews celebrate. On Passover we are required to imagine ourselves as redeemed from Egypt along with our forefathers; the matzos and bitter herbs we eat connect us - and have connected every Jewish generation - to the Jews who actually labored in and escaped ancient Egypt. On Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, we rejoice with the same happiness as if we ourselves were standing at Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah today.
When my picture was published in The New York Times and countless other newspapers and magazines with the distorted caption identifying me as a Palestinian being beaten by the soldier who had actually saved my life, a powerful outpouring of complaints from Jews around the world compelled many of those papers, including The Times, to republish the photograph with a corrected caption and accurate story.
I feel that the overwhelming response to the photo that led to that correction was born of the very aspect of "achdut" that I first realized in my hospital bed. Jews around the world felt that the bond holding us together had been somehow violated by the misidentification of one of our people, and simply refused to allow it to go unchallenged. It was as if the misrepresentation of any Jew was the misrepresentation of every Jew.
That is the lesson I learned, the lesson I am still learning, the lesson all we Jews so need to learn. Even if we feel somewhat removed from the situation in Israel, we must all realize that the suffering of any Jew is the suffering of us all. The whole Jewish nation felt assaulted by my assault, and all of us must feel that we, not just our brothers and sisters in Israel, are under siege, threatened and despised. It is not, in other words, "what goes on in Israel"; it is what goes on in all of our hearts.
And as we share in each other's suffering, may we merit to share in common rejoicing as well.
Courtesy of AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Tuvia Grossman lives in Chicago and is planning to return to his studies in a Jerusalem yeshiva shortly]
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Asher V. Finn
"The bestial drive to knead Passover matzahs with the blood of non-Jews is [confirmed] in the records of the Palestinian police where there are many recorded cases of the bodies [of] Arab children who had disappeared being found torn to pieces without a single drop of blood [left in them]. The most reasonable explanation is that the blood was taken to be kneaded into the dough of extremist Jews to be used in matzahs to be devoured during Passover."
Many of Israel's leaders, including her Prime Minister, seem anxious to return to the peace table to negotiate with Palestinian leaders despite the events of past weeks. Some regard that willingness as a sign of reason, others as one of madness. Some see the determination to pursue peace even at this stage as the product of a rational conviction that good will must surely prevail; others view it as a sign of an addiction every bit as consuming and destructive as any drug's, a crazed pining for an ultimately impossible comfort.
Opening a periodical like the current issue of the Jerusalem Report, a magazine produced by Israeli Jews for Jews around the world, one readily sees the yearning for peace, even in the advertisements. One portrays an Arab and Israeli boy with their arms around each other's shoulders; another touts "working to close socio-economic gaps between Israeli Jews and Arabs"; yet another is pledged to "the advancement of civic equality between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel"; another still "promotes partnership and dialogue" between Israelis and Palestinians. And there are several more of similar bent.
Those of us, though, who regard recent events as evidence that peace with the Palestinians is a dangerous illusion cannot be blamed for asking a simple question: where in the Arab press do any similar sentiments reside?
And that's if we're polite. If we're more inclined to bluntness, we ask no question at all, instead simply point to what that Arab press indeed offers. Like the tidbit at the start of this column. It appeared on October 28 in Egypt's leading paper, the official government organ Al-Ahram, as part of a full-page article that was translated and distributed recently by Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI).
There's plenty more in the informative piece, too. Like how the Jewish blood-lust "explains what we see on TV screens, where Israeli occupation armies kill children mercilessly while chewing gum as if they are on a trip... not as if they kill human beings, rather as if they were killing stray animals, in accordance with the religious law set forth in the Talmud." And more still, in that article and dozens like it in other organs of the Arab press.
We American Jews have every right to speak up here. The peace process in its immediate sense may (or may not) be largely an Israeli issue, but the hateful rhetoric and animus of the Arab world - and not an insignificant part of its violence - are clearly aimed at all Jews everywhere.
There may well be strategic reasons for Israel to disengage from the Palestinians, for her relinquishing to them land for a state of their own. There may well be moral grounds for Israel to treat the Arabs who live within her borders as full citizens of the Jewish State. There may even be an argument for negotiating again with Palestinian leaders. But no grounds whatsoever for trusting them or their compatriots in Arab countries in the least.
For the "true peace" for which so many of Israel's leaders pine simply does not exist, other than as a dream of their own, unshared and ridiculed by their adversaries. What exists in all too much of the Arab world today are lies, disdain and utter hatred for Jews. And they don't merely exist; they thrive.
Those who are psychologically dependent on the dream of a true peace between Jews and those who are their sworn enemies in the Middle East need to confront the fact that their addiction, if accommodated, is a potentially fatal one. Ironically, the beginning of their detoxification process may just lie in their forcing themselves to deeply inhale the toxic waste that passes for information in much of the Arab press.
[Asher V. Finn, who lives in Manhattan, is part of Am Echad's writing team.]
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NOT ANY BOOK, NOT ANY COVENANT
Here in Washington, not far from the White House, stands a Jewish landmark: B'nai B'rith International headquarters. It has been here for decades, and Jewish visitors to the nation's capital rightfully regard the building with pride.
For me, the building holds warm memories. My mother began working for B'nai B'rith in the early 1940s. For over a period of 30 years - between children - she was employed by the fraternal group in various departments and in various capacities. As a child, on days off from school, I would accompany her to the office. I was given my own "special desk," complete with pen and paper with which to entertain myself. I was drafted, during those frequent mass mailings, to help with the never-ending stapling, folding and stuffing. I knew everyone - from the top executives to the custodial staff - and relished being given the mission of taking the elevator downstairs to fill the daily vending machine order. I loved exploring the stairwells and never failed to visit the museum.
But now, as I walk past the building each day, this warm feeling is tinged with sadness, even pain. Not because I harbor any negative feelings toward B'nai B'rith - the unique organization does important work and is deeply committed to the welfare of our brothers and sisters around the world. No, it is not the organization; it is, quite literally, the building.
You see, as the pedestrian nears the edifice, something catches the eye - a quote from Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) prominently inscribed on its façade. In Hebrew: "Al shelosha devarim haolam omed: al haTorah, v'al ha'avodah, v'al gemilut chasadim." And, beneath it, a translation: "The World Stands Upon Three Foundations: on study, on service and on benevolence."
And it is the translation of this noble Jewish credo - one that would normally bring such profound pride - that I find so disheartening. For Torah, of course, does not mean "study." It refers not to some general appreciation of "knowledge." It is not a euphemism for some generic form of "wisdom."
Torah is Torah. Commandments, morals, ethics. Divinely-revealed. Holy. The foundation and keystone of our faith and peoplehood. Timeless and enduring.
The inscription recalls to mind an incident related to me by my father, of blessed memory. Over twenty years ago, he had attended university commencement exercises that began with a "benediction" by the campus rabbi. She opened with the traditional Birchat haTorah: "Baruch attah ... la'asok bedivrei Torah (Blessed are You... Who has commanded us to be engaged in the words of Torah)." Which the rabbi translated: "...Who has commanded us to study in institutions of higher learning." Everyone listened politely, earnestly answered "amen," and the program proceeded.
I have always been amused by the account. I cannot help but imagine how impressed the University president must have been discovering that Judaism commands the pursuit of a college education, that "Torah study" is apparently fulfilled by English 101. But, alas, the story also hurts to the core. For however important one views the arts and sciences, whatever value they might have, they are decidedly not Torah.
Can it be that the People of the Book have become the People of any Book? That we, the People of the Covenant have become the People of any Covenant?
I suppose that these sentiments, expressed more than a generation ago by those who lived in a very different Jewish world, might still today reflect the desire of some of us to make Torah something "universal," possessive of values that transcend its parochialism. To declare, in such a public manner, Jewish religious tradition's essential belief that the creation, the continuing existence and the very purpose of the world as revolving around the study and observance of Torah, might simply be too "chauvinistic", too embarrassing to broadcast to our non-Jewish neighbors.
Affirming that Torah is more catholic, if you will, perhaps makes us more comfortable, and feel more accepted, in Western civilization.
But there is an ultimate tragedy in this "defining down" of what Torah is, namely what happens to Torah itself. When Torah becomes any and all things, when it is tossed about in the changing winds of modern day culture and the turbulent seas of contemporary society, it becomes ripe for distortion and abuse. It can then be used to promote ideas and actions that are inimical to its values. It can be twisted and turned to reject and deny its millennia-old teachings. At that point, "Torah" becomes an amorphous concept, a mere sham - no longer the " blueprint of creation."
When we forget that Torah is separate and distinct from all else - indeed, that it is above all else - then we have seriously lost our moorings. And it is that reality that is most painful of all.
But as we approach Chanukah 5761, there are hopeful signs. Today's Jewish leadership has zeroed in on the "continuity" imperative. It rests, to be sure, at the top of every community's list of priorities. Most importantly, while there is inevitable dissension over particulars, there seems to be universal agreement that "Jewish education is the key to Jewish survival."
This is, after all, Chanukah's unique lesson. Our history teaches that it was not physical annihilation that threatened our people during pre-Hasmonean times. Rather, it was the insistence by our Syrian-Greek adversaries that Jews incorporate into their lives practices and ideas foreign to our Torah. Indeed, the great menace facing our ancestors was the dilution of the Torah and its way of life.
This Chanukah, as we gaze upon the flickering flames - holy and pure - let us rededicate ourselves to maintaining our Torah - holy and pure.
Abba Cohen is Washington Director and Counsel for Agudath Israel of America
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Among the lessons lying in the recent Middle East unrest is the powerful connection between the Jewish past and current events. The prospects for peace have been torn asunder on the rocks of the Temple Mount, a piece of land Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has refused to concede to his erstwhile peace partners. As part of their efforts to sway world opinion, the Palestinians have taken to denying the existence of any Jewish religious or national claim to the Temple Mount and, by extension, to Jerusalem as a whole.
The chorus of Arab revisionism includes the Palestinian Authority's top Moslem cleric, declaring that "the Wailing Wall is not a holy place of the Jews," as well as Yassir Arafat himself, who asserts that the status of Jerusalem "is a Palestinian, Arab, Islamic, and Christian issue," but not a Jewish one, because the First and Second Holy Temples are just so much myth. Indeed, Palestinian spokesmen have gone so far as to write off huge portions of early Jewish history - including the Patriarchal period and the Davidic dynasty - as mere legends.
These pronouncements are designed, of course, to undermine Jewry's reliance on the Torah as a divine deed to the Land of Israel, an argument no less an arch-secularist than Ben Gurion made before the United Nations. And so, as the question of the Torah's historical accuracy takes on a heightened immediacy, the revelation at Mount Sinai has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight.
Judging from surveys, however, the question of the Torah's veracity does not rank very high on most American Jews' list of important issues. It seems, at least to them, to lack the relevance of other concerns - like Jewish cooking, which ranked first in a recent Jewish Theological Seminary survey of American Jews' study interests.
The relative disinterest in the issue of the Torah's authenticity extends even to some who profess to live the life of the mind. In the introduction to his book Permission To Receive: Four Rational Approaches to the Torah's Divine Origin, Lawrence Kelemen writes that he had sent a review copy of his work for critique to a colleague, a brilliant academician with wide-ranging intellectual interests. To his surprise, the colleague declined to read the manuscript, because he "was never bothered by the question" of the Torah's authorship. How was it possible, Kelemen wondered aloud, "that such an inquisitive scholar could approach the origin of humankind's most read, most published, and once most influential text with such unabashed apathy?"
In truth, most of the prosaic practicalities that fill our lives are actually based on abstract concepts from theoretical realms like physics, chemistry and physiology. While we may not always be fully conscious of or knowledgeable about these natural laws, we certainly acknowledge their relevance.
Yet the question of whether the Jewish people possess an accurate record of God's will for humanity is consigned by many to the same mental compartment that houses ruminations about pinhead-dancing angels. In truth, though, the facts of the Torah's origins hold the most profound sort of relevance imaginable for every area of human experience.
A letter writer to Reform Judaism magazine, writing to support that movement's recent turn towards tradition, succinctly described what's at stake: "It all comes down to this: Either God gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai or He didn't. If He did, then we need to accept it and study it in order to gain meaning in our lives, not just dismiss it as myth or drone on about the J, E, P, or D editors. If G-d did not give us the Torah on Mount Sinai, then who cares what it says?" Or, as the writer David Klinghoffer put it: "It's hard to see why anyone would embrace a religion if it comes down to us ultimately not from God but from some long-dead Middle Eastern guys."
There are, of course, some who do recognize the far-reaching ramifications of the Torah's origins but automatically dismiss the issue as a non-starter, having, in Kelemen's words, "internalized [the 18th century Enlightenment's] secular creed that revelation is necessarily irrational." Yet, as the late Professor Leo Strauss trenchantly observed, the savants of the Enlightenment, in their onslaught against religion and biblical historicity, never truly engaged the entire concept of revelation. They merely posited its non-existence, elevated that assumption to the status of fact and proceeded from there.
The point, in essence, is elementary: irrespective of how one, after careful investigation, may ultimately conclude on the question of whether the Jewish people experienced a national revelation at Sinai, common sense dictates that it be pondered and studied rather than dismissed as irrelevant or irrational. After all, there are only a very few questions with powerful implications for every aspect of our lives - and this is certainly one of them.
It is a crucial question because truth matters. It is a crucial question because so many contemporary Jews are faced with a competition for their loyalties between Judaism and the enticements of a fiercely secular and pluralistic American society.
And it is a crucial question because Israel's very claim to legitimacy depends upon it.
[Eytan Kobre is a lawyer residing in Queens and part of Am Echad's pool of writers]
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BLAME IT ON THE JEWS
As America labored through the birth pangs of a new presidency, much of the world laughed. Compared to our difficulties, even mad-cow disease became sufferable. Contemplating the political shenanigans that might block Benjamin Netanyahu's attempt to unseat Ehud Barak, a veteran Israeli columnist wrote, "What are we, America?"
If the world hasn't changed much, sooner or later someone will argue that all this mess was the fault of the Jews. When this happens, we should accept responsibility, rather than issue shocked denials.
What others mocked and derided, America should consider her proudest moment. When the chad dust settled, America had a new president-elect. Troops were not necessary to maintain order. The market did not plummet. The basic features and structures of government survived unchanged. Stand-up comics were the ones most impacted by the waiting and indecision, their repertoires greatly enriched.
It wasn't always this way. The bloodiest battle of the eighteenth century took place during eleven years of mutual slaughter, as Europe sought to name a leader for one of its least important members, in the War of the Spanish Succession. France's five Republics lurched between unwieldy and unworkable constitutions, even when it wasn't beheading its monarchs. Modern Italy has changed governments more often than calls for a recount in Miami-Dade.
Americans voted twice. On Election Day, they went to the polls to choose a president. In the weeks that followed, they voted for the manner in which to resolve painful national differences. The first balloting may have been inconclusive; the second was a resounding victory for Law as the Great Decisor.
The epilogue to Paul Johnson's History of the Jews is an encomium to the gifts we bestowed upon humanity. "To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human."
No one was above the scrutiny of the ancient Jewish law - not nations, not kings, not Moses himself. This notion alone was a sea change for civilization. There were more gifts waiting in the full flowering of Jewish law in the millennia that followed.
Jewish law embraced every area of human interest. There were no questions that the Law could not ask, and it unfailingly yielded answers.
The answers did not always have immediate and compelling appeal to every citizen. But every individual understood that the system of Law was the most trusted way to navigate a world that would always include uncertainty and ambiguity. "Let the law pierce the mountain!" thundered the Talmud. Jews learned that only G-d could know what "really" happened, who "really" was liable or innocent. A kosher diner could usually not know what "really" had gone into the dish before him. The law determined whether the contents were permissible or not. Who could tell which of two litigants, each pressing a claim without accompanying evidence, was "really" correct? The law taught people that carefully reasoned mechanisms of presumption and procedure could disentangle the two sides. Mortals would have to satisfy themselves - whether in religious law, business practice, or interpersonal relationships - with legal, rather than factual, realities. The law showed itself capable to protecting both principle and practicality.
The law not only provided answers to specific questions, but afforded a place of refuge when there were no answers.
Americans did not riot in the streets demanding an unobtainable "fairness" and the sanctity of every vote. They understood that human effort is forever flawed, and that the Law must decide how much error can be tolerated. They had little problem accepting that an indeterminate election should be decided by either a Florida legislature or a Florida judiciary, and patiently waited for the US Supreme Court to choose between two competing readings of the Law. They understood that the law was binding even when it seemed vague, or even undiscovered. The system of Law itself could be relied upon to provide a path to a final resolution.
The whole drama might have been called "Abaye and Rava Go to Washington," starring the two paradigmatic Talmudic sparring champions. For millennia, Jews sought the counsel of Jewish legal experts for every personal and communal concern. They asked all kinds of questions, but they rarely sought out merely the personal wisdom of the one they queried. Instead, they wanted to know what the Law said. No matter that there was much truth to the old saw, "two rabbis, three opinions." The Law could tolerate different readings within its chambers. Jews understood that personal, domestic, and national tranquility depended upon listening to its many voices, rather than the meretricious song wafting from other precincts.
With no country of her own and almost always lacking the methods of enforcement available to agencies of government, the Jewish nation found loyalty to the Law within her soul, maintaining discipline and creating common purpose that knew no geographical boundaries. It took the rest of the world a long time to catch up. Perhaps, during the hard centuries of her exile, more of her neighbors were watching and learning than she thought.
So make my day. Blame it on the Jews. I, for one, will not protest.
[Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein directs Project Next Step, a project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School]
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DEAR SEAN: A FATHER WRITES TO HIS SON ABOUT INTERMARRIAGE
ITEM: A recent American Jewish Committee survey reports that 56% of the respondents said they would not be pained if their child married a non-Jew. A mere 12% "strongly disapproved" of mixed marriages. Fully half the respondents consider it "racist" to oppose Jewish-Gentile marriages.
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I know this might sound strange coming from a father who's far from a religious Jew, but now that you're dating, there's something I need you to understand.
The single most important decision you'll ever make in life will not be about your education or career. It will be whom you marry.
Because who your wife will be will determine, more than anything else in your adult life, the person you become, the family you'll raise, what you'll leave on earth when it will be time to go. I know the end of life isn't something you probably give much thought to. Not many of us do, at least not until we became sick or old enough to see it hovering on the horizon. But a final day does arrive, sooner or later, for each of us. And when it comes, very few of the things we thought made such a big difference will seem to matter at all. And other things we didn't bother to give much thought will suddenly loom very large. We'll want to look back at our lives and feel that, in those areas, we pretty much did the right thing.
Sean, the right thing for a Jewish person is to marry another Jew. Not only because our religion requires it, which it does. But when Jews "marry out," they disrespect who they are, they are disloyal to the Jewish past and they chip away at the Jewish future.
Whether or not our family kept strictly kosher or observed the Sabbath or attended services often enough is all one thing. But the thought of bringing about the end of a proud Jewish line stretching back in time for centuries is another. It's more than a religious transgression. It's a betrayal.
You never asked to be a Jew, that's true. You were born one. But that identity is not a burden. It's a gift. It means you are part of something bigger, much bigger than yourself.
Each of us Jews is the culmination of the hopes of hundreds of Jewish ancestors. Don't forget, you're not just Sean, you're Shmuel. And even if you only use your Jewish name when you get called to the Torah, it is still who you really are, an inheritance from your grandfather, and to him from an ancestor of his. You can't just ignore the meaning of something like that. It's a deep responsibility. All of my ancestors and your mother's, all those Jews who came before us, lived their lives - and sometimes willingly gave them up - to preserve their Jewish identity and heritage.
Yes, I know, love is a powerful emotion. That's exactly why I'm writing this as you begin to date. The young women you become close to will form the pool from which you will choose a life-mate. Don't give yourself the opportunity to fall in love with someone you cannot, as a Jew in good conscience, marry. And never forget that what the world calls "love" is not all there is to a successful and happy life. Every marriage that ended in divorce or worse, after all, was born in a rush of love. For a marriage to truly work, there must be not only attraction and mutual care but shared ideals and goals. And part of a Jewish man or woman's goals should be an embrace of their Jewish identity, and the instilling of that identity into their children.
I don't care whether the girl you marry is white, black or yellow, or if she speaks English, Hebrew, Yiddish or Swahili. I don't care if she was born a Jew or became one, legally, properly, and out of sincere conviction. But if she isn't Jewish, I know there will be tears, in your mother's eyes and mine - and also in heaven.
They say these days that most Jewish parents in America don't care if their children marry other Jews or not. I hope it's not true but even if it is, remember what I always told you: Being a Jew means being ready to buck the tide, to say no to others - even to many others - when something important is at stake. Sean, you're my legacy to the future. May you always have the courage and the strength to do the right thing.
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Unlike today's vista of decrepit buildings, dilapidated housing and rusting junked cars, the South Bronx in 1950 was the home of a large and thriving community, one that was predominantly Jewish. Today a mere remnant of this once- vibrant community survives, but in the 1950's the Bronx offered synagogues, mikvas, kosher bakeries, and kosher butchers - all the comforts one would expect from an observant Orthodox Jewish community.
The baby boom of the post-war years happily resulted in many new young parents. As a matter of course, the South Bronx had its own baby equipment store. Sickser's was located on the corner of Westchester and Fox, and specialized in "everything for the baby," as its slogan ran. The inventory began with cribs, baby carriages, playpens, high chairs, "changing tables", and toys. It went way beyond these to everything a baby could want or need. Mr. Sickser, assisted by his son-in-law Lou Kirshner, ran a profitable business out of the needs of the rapidly-expanding child population. The language of the store was primarily Yiddish, but Sickser's was a place where not only Jewish families but also many non-Jewish ones could acquire the necessary paraphernalia for their newly-arrived bundles of joy.
Business was particularly busy one spring day, so much so that Mr. Sickser and his son-in-law could not handle the unexpected throng of customers. Desperate for help, Mr. Sickser ran out of the store and stopped the first youth he spotted on the street.
"Young man," he panted, "how would you like to make a little extra money? I need some help in the store. You want to work a little?"
The tall, lanky African-American boy flashed a toothy smile back. "Yes, sir, I'd like some work."
"Well then, let's get started." The boy followed his new employer into the store.
Mr. Sickser was immediately impressed with the boy's good manners and demeanor. As the days went by and he came again and again to lend his help, Mr. Sickser and Lou both became increasingly impressed with the youth's diligence, punctuality and readiness to learn. Eventually Mr. Sickser made him a regular employee at the store. It was gratifying to find an employee with an almost soldier-like willingness to perform even the most menial of tasks, and to perform them well.
From the age of thirteen until his sophomore year in college, the young man put in from twelve to fifteen hours a week, at 50 to 75 cents an hour. Mostly, he performed general labor: assembling merchandise, unloading trucks and preparing items for shipments. He seemed, in his quiet way, to appreciate not only the steady employment but the friendly atmosphere Mr. Sickser's store offered. Mr. Sickser and Lou learned in time about their helper's Jamaican origins, and he in turn picked up a good deal of Yiddish. In time young Colin was able to converse fairly well with his employers, and more importantly, with a number of the Jewish customers whose English was not fluent.
At the age of seventeen, the young man, while still working part-time at Sickser's, began his first semester at City College of New York. He fit in just fine with his, for the most part Jewish, classmates -- hardly surprising, considering that he already knew their ways and their language. But the heavy studying in the engineering and later geology courses he chose proved quite challenging. Colin would later recall that Sickser's offered the one stable point in his life those days.
In 1993, in his position as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - two years after he guided the American victory over Iraq in the Gulf War -- Colin Powell visited the Holy Land. Upon meeting Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Jerusalem, he greeted the Israeli with the words "Men kent reden Yiddish" (We can speak Yiddish). As Shamir, stunned, tried to pull himself together, the current Secretary of State-designate continued chatting in his second-favorite language. He had never forgotten his early days in the Bronx.
[Zev Roth is an author living in Israel. The above is excerpted from his book "The Monsey-Kiryat Sefer Express: True Tales from Two Cities" (Targum Press, 200)]
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A LEVEL PRAYING FIELD
Prayer is an utterly intriguing endeavor. It plays an integral role in many people's lives, a significant role in the lives of countless others - and is instinctive to all people in the face of trying circumstances.
I remember the first time I really prayed, as a young child. I had a significant speech impediment that I became more conscious of as I grew and would often ask God to help me speak more fluently. "Please let me have an easier time," I would ask, "participating in class and conversing with friends."
The Torah relates that three of our Four Matriarchs were unable to bear children. The sages of the Talmud explain that God purposely created them so, since "God desires the prayers of the righteous." It was because God wanted the Matriarchs to ask Him to fulfill their desire for children, in other words, that He created them with this profound lack. Indeed, the sages continue, special people are often handed special challenges as a means of fostering their relationship with God.
Admittedly, a difficult concept to understand.
Indeed, it goes to the very essence of Jewish belief, that God is one and that He is infinite, unlimited and omnipotent, empowered in every way. Nothing can occur beyond His control, because, quite simply, there is nothing that can exist independent of Him.
Like most of us, I have always had a difficult time comprehending the concept of "the infinite." In the world around us, everything takes on definite dimensions, both in time and space. It is difficult to understand a realm in which such barriers do not exist.
However, although my mind had a difficult time understanding it, my soul understood it instinctively. All souls do.
For a soul is, in essence, a spark of the Divine. It can never be satisfied by the pleasures offered by the physical world. It always wants more, desires something greater. It yearns for an experience that is unlimited, an experience that is "complete." It yearns to touch the infinite, to touch God Himself.
Part of the expression of that yearning is prayer. And yet the endeavor remains baffling. If an infinite and omniscient God knows exactly what we need and want, and has chosen not to give that particular thing to us, how can asking Him for it possibly have any value?
In "The Art of Jewish Prayer," Rabbi Yizchok Kirzner, of blessed memory, conveys the traditional Jewish understanding: "The purpose of prayer is not to change God. God does not change... [Rather, prayer is an opportunity] to transform ourselves into more developed people through having to ask God to fulfill our physical and material needs. Prayer is a vehicle through which we can forge a relationship with God and make Him a reality in our lives rather than an abstract concept."
And by creating a world in which every individual has unfulfilled needs God has created the opportunity for human beings to relate to Him.
Our infertile Matriarchs were spurred by their conditions to create that relationship through continuous, soul-searching prayer. And when they achieved their incredible closeness with God, as it happened, children followed. God's purpose in making them unable to conceive had been achieved.
Yet not all prayers are answered in the affirmative like those of our Matriarchs. There are times when the wish we express in our prayers is not granted. In those cases, God simply deems it better for us to not have what we desire. Our prayers in such cases are no less meaningful, no less creative of a relationship with the Divine, and, if we are sufficiently sensitive, we come away from the experience able to view the things we lack in a new light. No longer do we experience our deficit as arbitrary but rather as something God has decided to withhold, for our ultimate good.
And so, prayer is always beneficial, whether our prayers effect the hopes they contain or not. The "praying field" is a level one; and everyone always wins.
Jews are commanded to pray, to connect with the Infinite, each day (Jewish men thrice daily). By doing so, we become better able to place the challenges of the day into perspective.
I personally pray at a local synagogue not far from my home. It's a wonderful congregation with a very special atmosphere. Morning prayers usually take 50 minutes, and the afternoon/evening prayers about half an hour.
When I lead the service, though, it sometimes takes a little longer.
Because, you see, I still have my speech impediment.
[Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt, a member of the faculty of the Dallas Area Torah Association, is the author of All I Need to Know, I Learned in Yeshiva, (Targum Press, 1995) and Maharal for the Layman (soon to be published by Feldheim Publishers).]
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BOOK REVIEW: "Go, My Son", by Chaim Shapiro (Feldheim, 1999)
AN UPLIFTING HOLOCAUST MEMOIR
Most Holocaust memoirs are painful and difficult to read. While "Go, My Son," by Chaim Shapiro, certainly has its heavy parts, the book is ultimately inspiring and uplifting; a page-turner from beginning to end.
In his newly republished book, Shapiro, who survived to raise a family in Baltimore before passing away just this fall, chronicles his flee from the Nazis and Russians as a young rabbinical student in Poland. His harrowing, five-year journey takes him across Europe, from Vilna to the isolated desert village of KuzarPash in Asiatic Russia.
The book begins with Shapiro's description of his close-knit family - his parents and three brothers - in the small eastern-Polish town of Lomza. The start of the Second World War brings the Russian's occupying arm into Lomza, disbanding Jewish institutions. Shapiro's parents insist that the 17-year-old rabbinical student "Go, my son," to join his Yeshiva in Lithuania. As much as Shapiro fights the idea of deserting his family and his town, he nevertheless honors his parents' wishes, and leaves - never again to see his family.
As Shapiro travels from occupied Europe across the vast stretches of Asiatic Russia, he suffers hunger, fear, desperation and solitude - but he never loses his belief in God, his devotion to Judaism or his determination to survive. Indeed, the countless examples of "luck" and quick thinking that save Shapiro time and again from close calls of capture and certain death are simply mind-boggling.
The book is written with vivid detail, describing the young yeshiva student's many and varied experiences. He lives on a Soviet commune, where he is befriended by Russian farmers - and goes from a yeshiva boy who had never before seen a tractor to a skilled agricultural machinist. He is accepted by primitive Kazakh tribesmen and sits alongside them at their campfires, sharing their food and enjoying their camaraderie. In the Siberian Urals he joins a Soviet work battalion and works on a railroad construction gang. And, finally, Shapiro achieves his goal of joining the Red Army to fight the Nazi scourge.
Throughout his ordeals, Shapiro shows true heroism, a sharp mind and daring. Indeed, in these dramatic, moving, sometimes humorous encounters, Shapiro not only learns to strengthen his own faith, he discovers that, despite their vast differences, all people - Polish soldiers, Russian peasants, Oriental nomads - yearn for a life of honor and respect. For Shapiro, this means upholding his faith and commitment to Judaism, even in the most difficult conditions, and avenging the deaths of his beloved family and fellow Jews. The book's climax, in which Chaim escapes to the West, is more exciting than any Spielberg spectacular.
May Chaim Shapiro's memory be an inspiration to us all.
[Andrea Kahn is a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She currently lives in New York, where she freelances for a variety of publications.]
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ENDING THE ASSAULT ON HISTORY
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Among the casualties of the ongoing Arab uprising against Israel has been something very dear to all cultivated people, and to cultivated Jews in particular: History.
Whether out of cowardice or something darker, a number of journalists have lately come to refer to Jerusalem's Temple Mount by its Islamic name, despite the fact that the site was where Solomon's temple stood more than a thousand years before Islam's founder's grandparents were even glints in their own parents' eyes.
It is not only the antiquity of the Mount's connection to the Jewish people that is trenchant here, but its intensity as well. Even after the Temple and its successor had been destroyed by foreign armies, Jews the world over continued - and continue - to venerate the significance of the site, praying in its direction and (at least the Orthodox among us) for the Temple's restoration by the hand of God.
The Islamic bond to the Mount is of much more recent appearance and fairly newfound intensity. Over the many years Jerusalem was in Arab hands, no major Arab leader ever saw fit to even visit her, much less proclaim her a central spot in the collective Arab heart.
Yet much of the press feels compelled to treat the Mount's Jewish roots and Islamic ones as equally deep and equally real. A recent example was The New York Times' correspondent Joel Greenberg's characterization of the site as that "of the First and Second Temples of the ancient Jews, sacred to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, where Muhammad ascended to Heaven."
A subtle but astounding indignity lies in that clumsy attempt at political correctness. That Jewish Holy Temples stood on the spot in question is historical fact, part of the unbroken millennia-old historical tradition of the Jewish people and corroborated by historians ancient and modern alike. To equate that historical truth with a fanciful myth is simply beyond bizarre.
The founder of Islam may or may not have traveled to heaven, or elsewhere, from Jerusalem; but there is certainly no historical evidence that he ever left the Arabian Peninsula, nothing but sectarian legend behind the claim that he did. Why then is Mr. Greenberg speaking of the existence of the Temples and the "night flight" in, so to speak, the same breath?
That Arab and Islamic leaders and writers, sadly, have demonstrated utter contempt for inconvenient facts of history is well documented. They regularly deny the fact of the Holocaust, and assert that Jews murder non-Jews to gather their blood for Passover matzos (a recent such accusation appeared only recently in Al-Ahram, Egypt's leading newspaper and a government organ). It should not surprise anyone that they are now trying to deny the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount. In fact, that assault on history is taking place not only in word but in deed: The Waqf, the Islamic authority that oversees the mosques currently on the Mount, has been reported by archaeologists to be systematically excavating and destroying relics on the Temple Mount, presumably in an attempt to obscure signs of its Jewish character.
But for reporters to join that effort, however good their intentions or subtle their words, is beyond justification and beyond comprehension. Journalism, after all, is supposed to be about presenting objective truths, not abetting malevolent lies.
Jewish tradition teaches that the highest response to personal adversity is the determination to better oneself, and that the highest response to national adversity is a similar determination on a national scale.
As we Jews regard the intensifying assault by our enemies on our history, and its widening acceptance by the larger world, we might do well to ponder whether it may be a message to us that we have not been paying sufficient attention to that history ourselves.
Because our illustrious past, after all, contains not only a historical account of the second and first Temple eras but of the very ground-zero of the Jewish people, God's revelation to us at Sinai. Might not our determined reconnection to that event, our re-embrace of its mandate for our priorities and our lives, be the way to end the ongoing assault on our history?
[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America and as American director of Am Echad]
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Rabbi Avi Shafran
Though we citizens of the new millennium like to think we have rights, we have much to gain from the realization that what we really have are gifts.
To be sure, those of us privileged to live in enlightened democracies are granted an assortment of civil rights by our governments. But those rights, indeed those governments, are not owed us. The vast majority of human beings over the course of history knew nothing of such gifts, and neither, unfortunately, do all too many people today.
That nothing we take for granted deserves to be is a deeply Jewish idea. The word Jew hints as much, derived as it is from the name Judah, which Jewish tradition roots in Judah's mother Leah's declaration that she was the beneficiary of "more than my share."
The understanding that nothing is coming to us is what Jewish tradition calls hakaras hatov, or "acknowledgment of the good". It is a concept much eroded in our times, a casualty of contemporary society's wealth, comfort and culture of rights. We fully expect the freedoms we enjoy, virtually demand shelter, education, a job, health care -- for that matter, health.
The downside of our insensitivity to hakaras hatov is that when the roof is suddenly removed from over our heads or we unexpectedly find a pink slip instead of a paycheck - we feel angry and betrayed.
Disappointment would be understandable, of course (though one Talmudic personality welcomed every turn of fortune, no matter how depressing, with the conviction "This too is for the good!"). But angry? Anger over circumstance can only take root when the ground has been prepared for it by the notion of illusory "rights", when gifts have been taken for granted.
We living organisms are frail creatures. At any given moment our lives depend on thousands of genetically programmed, incredibly complex biological processes.
I remember when, as a younger man and avid motorcyclist, I first realized that all that stood between my skin and the 60-mile-an-hour concrete sandpaper whizzing by below was a flimsy-looking cotter pin, not much thicker than a heavy-duty paper clip. It alone prevented my Honda's rear wheel from going off to explore the world on its own.
That feeling is surely familiar to anyone who has ever been seriously ill. The realization that the presence or absence of a particular blood chemical or protein or electrolyte can make all the difference between health and sickness - or life and death - is a potent eye-opener. And it should yield an incomparable sense of gratitude when everything works as it should, when we are granted the amazing gift - not right - of health.
A young person once asked a rabbi why G-d bothered to create so immense a universe when astronomers have only fairly recently become aware of the extent of its vastness. He replied that only recently has man needed to see the vast expanses of space - for modernity has infected us with a scientific hubris, a sense of omniscience. The sight of distant nebulae and the thought of "thousands of light years," he explained, are precisely what modern man needs - to afford him the same feeling of awe that a simple, unaided gaze at the night sky once easily and effectively provided.
Today's increasingly evident auto-immune diseases might be the biological side of the same coin. Medicine has become so sophisticated that we feel doctors or drugs can do almost anything, as if we truly control our own healths. Such self-assurance takes a considerable toll on our awareness of the miraculous gift of our biology. It dulls our sensitivity to the presence of the divine in our physical lives. We come perilously close to worshipping our achievements rather than our Creator.
Enter diseases that do one simple but horrifically significant thing: ravage the immune system. In other words, they prevent a gift from doing what it regularly and naturally - if miraculously - does. By crippling the body's complex natural ability to ward off myriad unseen but dangerous invaders - routinely repelled by healthy immune systems day in and day out - they wreak terrible havoc.
The diseases that result are tragedies, but priceless lessons too. They remind us that the workings of our bodies are a wondrous gift, and that we owe boundless gratitude to their Source.
Jewish tradition prescribes the recitation of blessings on many occasions: the performance of a commandment, the partaking of food or drink, the enjoyment of a fragrance.
A Jewish blessing, however, that has raised many an eyebrow is the one recited by observant Jews after leaving the bathroom. It expresses gratitude for God's having "formed human beings with wisdom," for the gift of our functioning bodies.
Truly a blessing for our age.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America and American director of Am Echad]
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My mother was four years old when the storm troopers marched into Hungary and shattered her childhood.
The details are familiar in the collective Jewish memory, and form the dark underside to my personal brightly lit, Generation-X American existence. The roundups. The executions. The starvation. The cruelty. And the recurrent leitmotif of gas and barbed wire. Mom doesn't have many clear memories of those harrowing days. Miraculously, her parents and brother were with her throughout, and so her four-year-old world remained largely intact, its edges barely nibbled by the brutal reality outside its windows.
But she does remember the day they threw her out of her house. It was a lovely home, full of beautiful things for the adults, and scads of toys and clothes and jewelry for a pampered little girl. She didn't know where they were going, or why. But she knew that she certainly wasn't going anywhere without her flaxen-haired friend, her treasured doll. And so she snatched it up, and took it with her as they were herded onto the train and into the ghetto.
In the days that followed, as the tornado whirled around her, it was to her doll that she turned for solace and comfort and companionship.
But not for long. Though her memory of the episode is strangely - or perhaps not so strangely - absent, her mother later told her what became of it. "A Hungarian soldier, a collaborator, swaggered up to you and knocked it out of your hand, sneering 'You won't be needing that anymore where you're going.'"
If the twentieth century has bequeathed humanity anything, it has provided the cure to any lingering romanticism any of us might still have clung to about war. It is not a splendid adventure, a glorious proving ground for manhood, a noble exercise in mailed chivalry. War is, truly and like few other things on earth, hell. People are dislocated, killed, left bereft of possessions, family, hopes. But even within hell, it takes a truly twisted and evil mind to smash a jackboot down on the face of a porcelain doll and declare war on a child.
I thought of my mother's doll when I saw a recent newspaper photograph. It showed the twisted remains of a wrecked car, a shattered windshield, and a small body face down, arms and legs wildly akimbo.
For one heart-stopping moment, you think it is a baby. And then the caption clarifies things: "The shattered windshield and a doll lie at the site where Rabbi Binyamin Zeev Kahane and his wife, Talia, were shot dead in a hail of Palestinian gunfire near Ofra Dec. 31."
Sixty bullets were fired at the Jewish family. Which of the five orphaned girls did the doll belong to? Surely not the two-month-old. Maybe the ten-year-old, still grasping for childish comfort on the cusp of teenagehood? Or the two year old, or her sister who is four?
Perhaps it was the companion of the five-year-old, who is now lying, on a respirator, in a hospital's intensive care unit, unaware of the fact that she no longer has a mother to hold her hand?
The doll cannot tell us. She lies on her stomach beside a bullet-riddled car, limbs splayed, blue dress torn, face ground into the blood-soaked earth.
[Sara Cohen is a teacher and writer in New York, part of Am Echad's writers pool.]
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