About Abigail Hirsch

I am a film producer and CEO of AskAbigail Productions. Currently working on a documentary film/musical theatre production about the life and times of Moshe Kraus, a musical child prodigy and a legendary cantor/hazzan/Jewish prayer leader whose life spans the history of Jews in the twentieth century.

The Journey of Redemption: Bogdan’s Journey: Kielce’s Journey

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Yesterday I saw an amazing documentary film about the journey of teshuva – Hebrew for repentance or redemption – of an entire community, led by a Polish born non-Jewish Prophet, named Bogdan Bialek.

 

This last week in synagogue, we read the chapters that speak about Abraham’s encounters with G-d: One of them is the story of how Abraham bargains with G-d to save Sodom and Gomorroh – two cities that have become the symbol of evil that according to G-d require total destruction.

What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorroh? There are several back stories contained in the Jewish books we call “midrash” which many of the commentaries to the bible base their ideas on. I came across this interpretation in Tablet magazine yesterday.

In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah—recounted in the Torah in Parshat Vayera, which will be read this Shabbat—the Bible addresses the question of ethics head-on. These towns represent a human society so thoroughly corrupt that it is beyond the possibility of repair. There are other stories in which God finds human behavior to be abhorrent, but there is usually some redemption (as in the story of Nineveh in the book of Jonah), or a remnant remains that holds the potential to rebuild (like the living things in Noah’s ark). Only here does an entire place get annihilated with fire and brimstone.

What makes this place irredeemable? Some people assume that the biblical narrative is clear: It was “sodomy”—a particular male sex act—that infuriated God. But the oldest interpretations of the story see it very differently.

The prophet Ezekiel brings it up in one of his warnings to the kingdom of Judah in the sixth century BCE:

Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)

Centuries later, the ancient rabbis fleshed out Ezekiel’s charge in a midrash—a snippet of biblical interpretation. Here is a passage from Genesis Rabbah, a collection of commentaries compiled in the third century CE:

There was an incident concerning two young girls who went down to fill pitchers with water from the spring.

One of them said to her friend, “Why is your face so sickly?”

The other said to her, “Our food is all gone and we are about to die.”

What did the first one do? She filled her pitcher with flour and switched the two, each girl taking what was in the hand of the other.

When [the people of Sodom] became aware of this, they took her and burned her.

The Holy Blessed One said, “Even if I wanted to keep silent, the judgment in the case of the young girl does not permit me to keep silent.”

This midrash paints a terrible picture: A young woman burned to death as punishment for an act of compassion. And her burning was not the work of hooligans. God uses legal terminology—“judgment” and “case” —implying that the people of Sodom took the compassionate girl to court for sneaking food to a starving neighbor. She was tried and convicted under the law of the land. In Sodom, feeding a hungry person was a criminal act that carried the death penalty. The act that forced God’s interference was a legal one.

Does not this account of the midrash remind you of the State of Nazi Germany, in our time, where to offer any compassionate help to Jews was a legally criminal act subject to the death penalty!!!!!

The crimes of the Nazi State continue to be an open wound to both Jews and non-Jews.

In this film we see Bogdan and the town of Kielce attempting to come to terms with this open wound and doing a damn good job of it.

It is a must see movie for anyone who has had any connection to the Shoah or indeed to any horrible uncontrollable trauma whether personal or collective.

To buy the movie for institutional or private screening go to Bogdan’s Journey.

You will thank me! And I hope you do.

The story of Jews in the twentieth century and why it matters

The horrors endured by Jews during WWII have often been told, but the deeper questions of how did it happen? Where did this madness come from? and what was the Jewish response? These stories have not been addressed.

In the course of studying and researching the life of Moshe Kraus (1922 – present) for a documentary film project, I came to grapple with the answers to some of these questions.

I have chosen five books that gave me a more nuanced insight into these matters.

1 – Black Earth The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder: This book talks about the grand ideas of the nineteenth and early twentieth century and how they played out in the grand scheme of the nations and their ideologies that resulted in so many deaths, not only of Jews.

The Holocaust began in a dark but accessible place, in Hitler’s mind, with the thought that the elimination of Jews would restore balance to the planet and allow Germans to win the resources they desperately needed. Such a worldview could be realized only if Germany destroyed other states, so Hitler’s aim was a colonial war in Europe itself. In the zones of statelessness, almost all Jews died. A few people, the righteous few, aided them, without support from institutions. Much of the new research in this book is devoted to understanding these extraordinary individuals. The almost insurmountable difficulties they faced only confirm the dangers of state destruction and ecological panic. These men and women should be emulated, but in similar circumstances few of us would do so.

By overlooking the lessons of the Holocaust, Snyder concludes, we have misunderstood modernity and endangered the future. The early twenty-first century is coming to resemble the early twentieth, as growing preoccupations with food and water accompany ideological challenges to global order. Our world is closer to Hitler’s than we like to admit, and saving it requires us to see the Holocaust as it was — and ourselves as we are.

2 – The Pity of it All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933, by Amos Elon, shows us the Jewish panorama before the war. Writing with a novelist’s eye, Alon peoples his account with dramatic figures: Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, and Hannah Arendt among many others. The Pity of It All summons up a splendid world of Jews amidst Germans, a dream of integration and tolerance – liberté, égalité, fraternité – that fueled liberal dreams for world brotherhood in the nineteenth century.

2 – Deadly Carousel, by Monica porter:  In March 1944, eleven divisions of German troops marched into Hungary. Thousands of Jews were rounded up and deported to death camps. Desperately, they sought foreign diplomatic relations, false identity papers, and hiding places. Vali Racz was a successful singer and film actress, the darling of the Hungarian public. Since she was young, beautiful, and safely Aryan, the Nazis represented no particular threat to her, but she was horrified by the persecution of the Jews, many of whom were friends and mentors. Risking her own life, she turned her villa in Buda into a secret refuge. Monica Porter traces both the life of her remarkable and courageous mother and a fascinating period in Hungarian history. This book is a wonderful portrayal of the intertwined lives of Jews and non-Jews in pre-war Hungary and wartime Budapest. It is an excellent live action history of what actually was going on in Budapest before, during and after the war to 1956 as told by Vali Racz,herself a non-Jewish participant observer to her daughter Monica Porter. Vali Racz has the distinction of having sheltered Jews, Hungarians, and Russians, during the war in her garden home in Pest.

4 – A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion by Rabbi Jonathon Sacks

Rabbi Sacks claims, for too long, Jews have defined themselves in light of the bad things that have happened to them. And it is true that, many times in the course of history, they have been nearly decimated: when the First and Second Temples were destroyed, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, when Hitler proposed his Final Solution. Astoundingly, the Jewish people have survived catastrophe after catastrophe and remained a thriving and vibrant community. The question Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks is, quite simply: How? How, in the face of such adversity, has Judaism remained and flourished, making a mark on human history out of all proportion to its numbers?

This book, written as a letter to Rabbi Sacks’ daughter on her wedding day, traces the revolutionary series of philosophical and theological ideas that Judaism created – from the idea of covenant (contract) to sabbath and human rights, to the power of early education – and shows us how they remain compellingly relevant in our time.

5. With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps by Eliezer Berkovits

This book answered many questions for me. It describes the spiritual resistance that enabled Jews to maintain their integrity in the face of cruelty and brutality and to come out whole on the other side. In this fascinating book, Eliezer Berkovitz  tells us the stories of Jews, who stuck by their faith in the camps, and analyses the strength of Jewish observance. Only thus, he suggests, can we gain an understanding of the power of the Jewish religion, and an insight into the great historic destiny of the Jewish Nation.

Their behavior demanded a courage no less great than that of armed resistance.
He gives real case histories of courageous Jews, who gave up all to observe Judaism, and also discusses the dynamics of life and death and the holocaust according to halacha – (Jewish law). He shares how Jews sacrificed to say early morning prayers, to acquire tefillin, and a shofar: to keep holidays – even difficult ones like Sukkot and Passover: and to continue to consult with their rabbis on ethical questions such as: is it permissible for me to save my son from execution if I know that someone else will then die in his place? Would I then be an accessory to murder? The Rebbe declined to give a ruling saying this was beyond his expertise…but the chassid who asked it, said if you are not answering it’s a “yes” and he did not save his son…

And another chassid asked is it permissible to say the morning blessing thanking G-d for making us free men under these circumstances when one is a slave. The Rebbe answered yes – since we are free in our spirit – it is our captors  who are the slaves, They are slaves to the German Reich, but we Jews remain free spirits, servants of G-d alone.

Berkovits finally refers to the hope of redemption for the Jewish people, by victims of the holocaust, such as the young Jewish boy hiding in Belgium who wrote in his Hebrew diary:

  • “My brothers! Do not misunderstand me. As I speak to you about vengeance I want you to pay attention to it’s positive side. Our revenge for present suffering and for all our sufferings during these two millennia of galut/exile, will be the restoration of our land; it’s settlement by its people; the return of our beloved people to it’s inheritance. This will be the greatest revenge that is in our hand to achieve. For this we ask first of all for the help of our G-D , of the G-D of Israel, who has protected us from extinction during our entire exile. He is sure to help us and and to guide us anew to the land of our inheritance, to our holy land, the land of Israel.”

 

 

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about the Shofar, but Were Afraid to Ask

At this time of year you are probably getting used to hearing Happy New Year, Shana tova, and the words Rosh Hashanah bandied about and wondering what is this exactly.

Rosh Hashana is a combination of penance and joy. Here’s a video I recently discovered that explains this holiday, and also contains the blowing of the shofar – the ram’s horn.

Now you are probably wondering what is the meaning of the shofar? The shofar is a ram’s horn which is reminiscent of human vocal expression and is supposed to awaken us to do the work of self-evaluation and introspection regarding the world and our place in it during the month prior to Rosh Hashanah, and also integral to the High Holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) services. And by the way it’s harder to get a sound out of it than it looks. (Yes I tried and failed). But here are some examples of people who succeeded.

The longest shofar blast.

And a totally new initiative, the shofar flash mob, groups who got together at different places in the world to blow shofar together.

And last but not least, here is an adorable video of my nieces and nephew wishing you all a happy Rosh Hashanah. Shana Tova!

 

 

My observations of Passover in Israel

I grew up from the age of five in Canada, and lived in Israel as a student at the Hebrew University, many years ago and then in the US. More recently over the last year, I have been living in Israel while studying at a Women’s Jewish studies program called Shviti in Jerusalem.

The Jewish calendar is an education in itself – And living in Israel one gets to experience it as a living thing. So our school is on recess for the month of Nissan, the month of Passover to allow both students and teachers to fulfill the obligations of Passover towards, self, family and community. And this goes on in the whole country. As preparation for Pesach, some people seek to examine their personal state of servitude, their personal slavery, and explore how to be released from it. But as much as Pesach can be a personal stocktaking, it is also very much a communal  endeavor.

From the beginning of the month of Nissan, the month of the Passover/Pesach, every Jewish person and Jewish community begins preparations for the holiday, by:

  1. cleaning and getting rid of leavened bread and leavened bread products from every personal habitation – home workplace community center
  2. by studying the story of the exodus from Egypt and preparing for the seder night by studying the Torah portions pertaining to the exodus story and also reviewing the mitzvot/obigations. i.e. What to do and what not to do during this period in order to be able to have a fulfilling and “kosher” Passover/Pesach with family and friends. During this month we greet each other with the Hebrew words, “hag kasher vesameach” – May you have a kosher and joyous hag.

My own family history is intimately connected to the Exodus story – a going out from slavery to freedom. In 1949, when I was three years old and my dear sister Anita, was only one year old, my mother and her brother Tibi, set out on the last night of Passover, after having set the holiday table – so that no suspicions would be aroused – at the family home in Tokay, Hungary.

They left the house to cross the border by foot during the night from Hungary into Czechoslovakia, and from there secretly to Vienna, Austria – gateway to the free world of the West at the time. They succeeded and that is why I am here today to tell the tale. This is my story, but it is also the story of all of the Jewish people as it says in the Haggada – the prescribed book which details all of the story and traditions practiced at  the seder table on the Eve of Peasach.

Everyone in the community, in Israel and anywhere in the world, needs to be provided for, both for the seder and for the holiday, with matzoh and all Passover foods. Leket is an organization in Israel dedicated to collecting food and distributing it to the needy, all year round, and especially on Passover. Leket relies year around on volunteers and donations. “Leket” is a Hebrew word from the Torah. It refers to a practice prescribed by our Torah of leaving the corners of the agricultural fields to be harvested by whoever wants to or needs to – so that there be no one who goes hungry in the land of Israel.

In addition to major organizations like Leket in Israel, every Rabbi and Jewish congregation anywhere in the world, will have its own private collections for providing for those in need in their particular community. Passover is expensive and it tests our relationship with material things.

After the recitation of the story in the Haggada on Seder night and after the festive meal comes the reciting of the traditional prayers of gratitude to the Creator and Sustainer, the Hallel service and then the traditional songs – Dayeinu, Ehad mi Yodaya and Had Gadya.

Wishing you all a hag kasher vesameach.

Why does Israel observe Tisha b’Av every year?

Tisha b’Av is a Jewish fast day which has been commemorated annually on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. by Jews wherever they lived, for over two thousand years.

It commemorates the destruction of the two Jewish temples built in Jerusalem: the destruction of the first temple, Solomon’s Temple, destroyed in 423 BC by the Babylonians, and the destruction of the rebuilt second temple by the Romans in 70 Ad. Both events symbolized the end of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel in those times, and both entailed exile of the Jewish people from their native land.

Today happens to be Tisha B’Av, and while normally I commemorate this day outside of the modern State of Israel, this year I am fortunate to be spending it in Jerusalem.

In fact, I can tell you that this is no minor fast. In addition to a full day of fasting and prayer, many institutions sponsor talks and film screenings relevant to the theme of the destruction of the temple and the exile of the Jewish people.

Why do we continue to observe this National Day of Mourning?

One answer from the religious community – the community which regulates these religious rituals – is that although we now have political sovereignty, we have not yet achieved spiritual sovereignty in which all peoples respect each other and work together for the common good.

In Jerusalem, on Tish b’Av, I participated in a film festival called “The Earth Trembles”: Contemporary Israeli films on contemporary social and political subjects were screened in the presence of the producers and actors.

The strength of the Jewish people is in its capacity to remember, not to forget, and to learn from the past. Education for all, starting at birth, is a very large part of the Jewish endeavor.

I believe that this is why we continue to observe the fast of T’isha b’Av – because we have so much to learn from both the heroes and villains of the past.

Cantor Moshe Kraus Speaks in Winnipeg

Pastor Rudy Fidel and his wife Gina were so impressed with Cantor Kraus’ memoir of his life experiences “Moshele: Der Zinger: How My Singing Saved My Life”, that they organized a week of events for Cantor Moshe Kraus and his wife to speak in Winnipeg.

I accompanied them on this trip as part of my work to create a documentary featuring Cantor Kraus’ life story which has many twists and turns. On Wednesday, September 12, 2017, Cantor Moshe Kraus, age 95, spoke to a gym full of students at Shaftesbury Public High School. The event was followed and broadcast on the CBC evening news that same evening.

On Sunday morning Cantor Kraus was welcomed at Faith Temple by Pastor Rudy, Indian Chief Baird and Chief of Chiefs, Jerry Daniels, and a klezmer band. At 10:35 min into the event seen below, Cantor Kraus shares another one of his many stories – this one about a Hungarian Bishop who came to visit him during the German occupation of Hungary during WWll.

Day of remembrance

Today is Yom Hashoah ve Hagvura. The day Jews both mourn and celebrate. They mourn the destruction of more than six million innocent men, women, and children. They celebrate the courage of all those who fought to survive. This day always comes shortly after celebration of the Passover holiday.

Last night, I attended the annual Shoa (Holocaust in Hebrew) commemoration project of the Montreal community. Every year, six families who survived the Holocaust are chosen to light a candle and to share their story via video. No matter how often one attends these programs, one is consistently awed by these stories of survival and redemption.

Here is a post which I discovered today illustrating the “gvura” heroism (source: With Eternity in their Hearts, Daniel Seaman)

The story of young women at the outset of their lives who, when challenged by history, responded with remarkable courage. The Jewish “Couriers” who were real life “Wonder Women”.

The three couriers (from the left) – Tema Sznajderman, Bella Chazan, Lonka Korzybrodska (Photo – Ghetto Fighters House Archives)

During the Holocaust, Jewish resistance groups employed women as messengers to communicate with the world outside the ghettos. Daniel Seaman tells the story of three daring young women — Tema Schneiderman, Lonka Kozybrodska, and Bella Chazan— who risked their lives to help their people.

In December 1941, Tema, Lonka, and Bella were…invited to the Christmas party at Gestapo headquarters in the then-Polish city of Grodno, disguised as Polish Catholics…

[Before the war, all three had been] members of their local chapters of the [Zionist-socialist] He-ḥaluts Dror Jewish youth movement. . . . Once the war broke out, the youth movements, with their elaborate network of connections, proved to be an unexpected asset for the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe that were deliberately isolated [from one another] by the Germans.

Tema, Lonka, and Bella, like several other female members of the youth movement, were the natural choice to serve as the link between the communities, known as the “couriers” (k’shariyot in Hebrew). Disguised as non-Jews, they risked their lives to move from ghetto to ghetto, traveling through treacherous territory, transporting documents, papers, money, ammunition, and weapons across borders and into ghettos…

Not long after that evening, the dangers of the tragic era would inevitably catch up with them and their luck would run out. First Lonka, who in June 1942 was caught at the border crossing at Malkinia. She was interrogated as a member of the Polish Underground, [her captors not realizing that she was a Jew], and held in the [notorious] Pawiak prison in Warsaw. When she failed to arrive at her expected destination, Bella set out to look for her. She too was captured at the same border crossing and also sent to Pawiak. Bella and Lonka never revealed their identities, never broke, never exposed secrets though tortured severely. They never broke character either, [maintaining the ruse that they were Polish Gentiles].

Of Tema’s fate, it is known that she was transferred to the Treblinka extermination camp after being captured in the Warsaw Ghetto on January 18, 1943, during one of her many daring excursions to the place. She most likely perished there.

While Lonka died in Auschwitz, Bella survived and lived to the age of eighty-two in Israel.

 

Confronting BDS Today: a conference in Baltimore

In May of this year, with several students, I attended a conference sponsored by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists at the University of Baltimore Law School on Confronting BDS – the radical left wing Palestinian movement to boycott Israel on campus.

Richard Landes, a renowned historian, put forth the ideological underpinnings of BDS as more of a secessionist religion of converts that believe in its mission as an ideological utopia rather than as an intellectual debate.

Alexander Joffe, a scholar and an author spoke about his research regarding the funding networks of the BDS movement and its links to the Muslim Brotherhood and CAIR.

Jeffrey Herf, an intellectual historian, sociologist, political scientist and Professor of Modern European History shared the exact timeline and actions that took place in his fight to lead the members the American Association of Historians to vote “no” regarding  a BDS motion. His talk exposes the nefarious tactics of the people who promote these motions in an attempt to politicize campus academic institutions.

Allan Dershowitz, the renowned lawyer and retired Harvard law professor answered  questions from the audience:

 

Jewish Learning – is it just for Children?

Study is a lifelong aspiration and a primary goal for Jews. Here in Montreal, we are fortunate that classes are held all week and every week at various venues, synagogues and community centers.

Rabbi Steinmetz and Rabbi Jacobsen have been offering a full day of learning to the community every year for the last several years. The most recent day of learning took place last Thursday, June 25th, 2015. This time I recorded their classes and want to share them with you to give you an idea of the nature and scope of what we call Jewish learning.

1) Hachnasat Orchim – Hospitality towards strangers in the Jewish tradition: What is its Source and Why is it Important? (Rabbi Steinmetz)

2) Why are the Jewish people called G-d`s witness. What does this mean and what are we being called upon to  witness or to testify to? (Rabbi Jacobson)

3) Talmudic Study: “acquiring an accidental treasure, when unanticipated value emerges, who owns it?” Rabbis and class sharing one on one discussion. This is typical of the way Jews study texts via inquiry.

4) The Murders in Charleston: Is Forgiveness possible?

5) Quebec’s Bill 52 and the “right to die”: A Jewish perspective on this issue.

Islam, Judaism, Christianity – Then and Now

This year I attended and filmed three lectures by three eminent visiting scholars at McGill University: David Nirenberg “Sibling Rivalries, Scriptural Communities: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam”, Dr.Mordechai Kedar “Antisemitism in Modern Islamic and Arab Discourse”, and Christine Hayes “What is Divine about Divine Law?”.

David Nirenberg is a contemporary scholar fully conversant with Muslim, Jewish and Christian texts.

Dr. Mordechai Kedar, was invited to speak at McGill by ISGAP. He spoke on Antisemitism in Modern Islamic and Arab Discourse.

Christine Hayes, a Yale University biblical scholar, shared her appreciation and comparison of ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish theology and law.