Chanukah – Why do we light those candles? Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il

This morning I was musing about Chanukah and the great unprecedented events of our time, the recent death of Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia and Kim Yong Il of North Korea with my Mormon trainer, Steven. Yes, my trainer Steven, is a committed and practicing Mormon. We train and we talk twice a week. This morning it was about the unexpected death of Kim Yong Il, the North Korean “Great Leader”, the starvation and virtual imprisonment of the North Korean people who are dominated by a well fed and well armed military. North Korea is the world’s most militarized nation, with a total of 9,495,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel. It is a nuclear-weapons state and has an active space program. (wikipedia) and this led us to think about how the few enslave the many via ideology all over the world.

Jonathon Kay writes, Kim Il-sung knew that the only way to legitimize his repressive, impoverished regime was to insulate subjects from the outside world (the dials on North Korean radios are soldered so as to lock them in permanently to the state propaganda network) and to turn himself into an ersatz deity. Over 500 statues of Kim Il-sung dot the North Korean landscape, and a revisionist history of his days as an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter have been embellished to the point that they seem like something out of a 1980s-era Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

It seems the pen is mightier than the sword and both sides know it.

So what does this have to do with Chanukah? I share with you this video that lays out the background of the Chanukah story.

Chanukah is the story of the weak and the few against the strong and the many. However there is another important lesson that we learn from this video and the Chanukah story. The lesson of knowing what to fight for. The Macabees were fighting the ideology of the Greeks which conflicted with the human rights articulated by the torah. This is what gave them the courage to fight because they understood that fighting for these principles was more important than life itself.

Vaclav Havel, who fought against the same kind of enslavement as in North Korea by the former Soviet Union, on the other side of the world, and won, understood both of these issues.

And after he succeeded in freeing his people, he is quoted by Irwin Cotler sharing this important truth, “those who would repress the human rights of their own citizens will threaten the rights of the citizens of other countries.” We are seeing this manifesting all over the world, in Syria, Iran, where tyrants are willing to fight to the death to buttress their own power, they endanger all of us with their power and their arsenals.

None of us have crystal balls regarding the future, but the story of Chanukah reminds us to light the candle, and not give up the struggle. Again I quote Vaclav Havel, the only lost cause is the one we give up on before we enter the struggle.

Let’s light those candles, remind ourselves why we are lighting them, and take courage from the victories of those who have shown the way.

CARING ANGELS/MENTSCHEN IN NEW HAMPSHIRE

Winchester New hampshire
Joel Yan, a Jewish lay spiritual leader and myself, Abigail Hirsch, a filmmaker/blogger from Montreal, were on our way home from a week-long retreat of classes and singing at the biannual Aleph Kallah at Franklin Pierce College. We were sharing with each other the spiritual teachings about the benefits of charity to both the giver and receiver: One teacher shared that the name of G-d is expressed and offers a feedback loop between the giver and the receiver in such a transaction, when the car suddenly simply stopped cold in front of a light at the Winchester crossroad between the town Hall and the gas station.

It was Sunday and both our families were expecting us back that day.  Joel sent me to call the AAA from the gas station and Joel stayed with the car. No sooner had the car stalled than people started stopping, asking if we needed any help, offering to move the car off the road, to diagnose the problem and even to offer us shelter if we needed it.

•    Katherine Stewart (originally from Ontario and a graduate of Joel’s alma mater, University of Toronto) stopped and gave Joel her phone numbers urging him to call if needed

•    A man in a pick-up truck stopped and helped to diagnose the problem saying the same thing had happened to him with his Toyota Camry. – The cable broke disabling the automatic transmission and prompting the car to stop in its tracks. However, he also showed us how to put the car in gear manually from the engine to drive it if need be.)

•    Bruce who lived across the street drove up in his pickup truck with his wife saying we should knock on his door if we needed a drink or somewhere to relax

•    Another person drove up in his jeep  with a small American flag,

 

•    By this time Joel had taken out his music stand and guitar and was playing up a storm in the searing heat.

Joel playing guitar

Joel entertaining us while waiting for the AAA.

•    Norm then drove up on his bike pulling a broken air conditioner and hung out with us for a while.

Scott Norm and Joel

Norm with his broken air conditioner

•    The attendant at Mikes’ Market at the Mobil gas station at the corner allowed me to charge my phone, and use the bathroom saying, it wasn’t normally allowed but she was in charge for the moment.

Even the AAA truck driver who arrived after a two hour wait was especially kind,
explaining the car could be driven safely once it was in gear, and we really did not need to be towed to a garage.

But our very special mentsch/angel was Ralph Scott Britton. He had been directly behind us on a motorbike when the car broke down. First, he helped diagnose the problem, and push the car off the road. Then he stayed with us helping total strangers for over 3.5 hours. He waited with us for the AAA to come, advising us all along, and then escorted us to Keene behind his motorbike while we looked for a place to stay and a solution to the car problem. In the end, Scott trained Joel how to switch the gears manually under the hood and then watched and tested him making sure he could do it himself. Then, only when he was sure we were safe he sent us on our way. He refused any compensation for all his help and suggested only that we pass his good deeds along to others who were in need.

And thanks to Scott and all the other kind people we met, we made it safely with the broken cable, first to our friends in Vermont who put us up for the night, and the next day to Montreal and Ottawa to our respective families.

We feel that sharing these stories is a way of passing on the power of good will that we experienced in the tiny hamlet of Winchester. Thank you to all of you. You are clearly a community that cares.

“mentsch” a Yiddish word that means “a human being, a person who does the right thing when he sees what needs to be done, and brings honor to what is truly human.” sometimes known as an “angel”.

Joel Yan is a lay leader in the Ottawa Jewish community.
joelyan@rogers.com

Abigail Hirsch is a documentary filmmaker who has just completed the film, Yiddish: a tale of survival which will be screened at the Montreal World film Festival: 2013.
askabigail@me.com

 

 

 

 

Happy Mothers Day to All of Us

ask abigail

I think we all deserve a Mother’s Day greeting even those of us who don’t have biological children, as myself: I know many of you, some of you have biological children and some of you don’t, but you are all Amazing Mothers to untold numbers of people. And we all have or have had Mothers in our lives. Thinking about that complicated relationship called Mother/daughter, I know that this can be a bittersweet day.

Here is a video, I dedicate to you, to honor this special day, for the child in all of us.

 

Happy Mothers Day to you from me.

G-d Bless you all, and keep you safe, now and forever.

PS I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings about how this day impacts you.

Best regards,

Abigail

Purim Today – 2012

Esther ScrollToday I attended the CIJR Colloquium on the Iranian question. Three professors, Prof. Frederick Krantz, Chair (Concordia University), Prof. Harold Waller (McGill University),
and Prof. Norrin Ripsman (Concordia University) all spoke on the topic of Syria, Egypt and the “Arab Spring”: Israel’s Security Situation, following an introduction by  Rabbi Yonah Rosner.

The Rabbi spoke using the drama of the Purim story as a backdrop. (This week will host the Jewish celebration of Purim, March 7th & 8th). Yesterday, in synagogues, in Israel and all over the world, Jews participated in Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath before Purim which each year reminds us of the injunction “to remember and not to forget” those who have attacked our innocents in the past, (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) or the dangers that these kinds of enemies pose at any time. In my own synagogue Rabbi Aigin also spoke about these issues.

Iran has made open and clear threats to annihilate the Jewish people, to wipe Israel off the map. Both Rabbis reminded us of Queen Esther’s injunction, and the importance of Jewish unity in the face of these kinds of threats. Our history reminds us that threats are serious. And as Prof. Krantz (a historian), pointed out, the only difference between pre Holocaust times and post Holocuast times is that the Jewish people now have a state, the independent State of Israel, and a well trained army and armaments to address these kinds of threats.

However, we are also reminded that the Book of Esther, never mentions G-d, but only the acts and foibles of men and women, some ordinary and some in authority, Kings and Ministers. Tomorrow President Obama addresses AIPAC, (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) the annual gathering of heads of American Jewish institutions and ordinary folk. We will all have to judge, is Obama Ahashverosh – the weak and easily influenced vacillating King described in the Purim Story who first has his Queen Vashti killed for insubordination, i.e. refusing to appear before his party in the nude, and then gives Haman permission to murder all Jews in his Kingdom on a certain day in spring, the day we celebrate as Purim, in exchange for ten thousand ducats. – not a very wise or compassionate King, although in the end he sees the error of his ways. But rulers are not always wise or compassionate. This we see clearly in our our own time. Most of them seem to be focused clearly on acquiring wealth and retaining power at any cost.

Prof Krantz reminded us of the heavy responsibility that Prime Minister Netanyahu now carries on his shoulders, the responsibility of guarding over six million Jews in Israel and the fate of their brethren in the Diaspora as well. For our fates have and always will be linked. Esther in the Purim story reminds us that if Jews have any hope for redemption they must be united, especially in times of crisis.



The Purim scroll is called the Megillah, and it is a tradition to have fun and to put on satirical plays on Purim, they are called Purimshpiels in Yiddish. Another Yiddish expression is “man tracht und G-t lacht.”  Man works and G-d laughs or the English idiomatic equivalent is “Man proposes G-d disposes”.

This article: Remember: The Answer to Terrorism has a deep message regarding how to respond in the face of threats.

Happy Purim to all.

Religion and Politics, Shmuely Boteach and Yehuda Amital

This morning, a Mormon friend shared with me a post by Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, Are Mormons any weirder than the rest of us? The article artfully analyzes all religions and how to evaluate them. I quote from his article:

Hence, our concern need not be with a person’s faith in public office. It does not matter if he or she is Jewish, Evangelical, Mormon or Muslim. What does matter is whether the person’s faith is focused on relating to God and, by extension, caring for God’s children, or whether that person sees the purpose of his or her high station to promote a particular religion.

By their works ye shall know them.

 

I believe that is from the Christian scriptures but it is the essence of the Boteach article and the standard by which all people, religious or not, should be judged.

So is religion important or valuable. Can religions be judged? I would like to share with you in this context a review of the life of Rabbi Yehuda Amital. His biography was just published in Israel. BY FAITH ALONE: THE STORY OF RABBI YEHUDA AMITAL by Elyashiv Reichner, translated by Elli Fischer (Maggid/Koren Publishers, 377 pp, $29.95)

If you are not going to go out and read the book, this review by Yehudah Mirsky is a powerful description of the interplay between the Jewish religion and how it affected the life and thought of Rabbi Yehuda Amital and how he in turn educated a generation of religious Israelis.

By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital, Elyashiv Reichner’s newly translated biography, is an attempt to understand an extraordinary man and his long, arduous path from a simple Jewish life in prewar Hungary to a unique and controversial place in Israeli religious and political life.

 

Amital was born Yehuda Klein in 1924, in the Transylvanian city of Grosswardein (Oradea), home to Hasidim, acculturated and assimilated Jews, Jewish-Hungarian nationalists, and a large concentration of Hungary’s Religious Zionists. After rudimentary schooling, he spent his childhood and adolescence in yeshiva… His father was a tailor and he might well have become one too, had he not been forced to witness the murder of his culture. In May 1944, he was taken away to a brutal forced labor camp, but managed to sneak in an anthology of Kook’s writings with him. His family was sent to Auschwitz. Having twice sworn during his time in the camp that if he survived he would study Torah in Jerusalem, home to his grandparents and two uncles, he made his way there after his liberation. He threw himself into his studies at the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, acquiring a reputation for fervent, independent-minded spirituality, and for his mastery of halakhic literature…The day after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, a Shabbat, Amital enlisted in the IDF. He fought in Latrun and in the Galilee in 1948, and founded a journal in which he published perhaps the first programmatic essay by anyone on being a Jewish soldier in a Jewish army. While savoring Jewish national self-defense in the wake of the Holocaust, he also projected Jewish law and values as a defense against the dehumanization and brutalization of wartime…

He went on to marry and to lead a Hesder Yeshiva in Israel for many years. Hesder is the term for Yeshivas (religious schools) that believe in Israeli army service along with Jewish religious study.

He was also major original political thinker, drawing on his religious study.

Even on the Left, he was as unconventional, unpredictable, and free of clichés as he had been on the Right. In December 1982, he addressed the founding meeting of Netivot Shalom, a religious peace movement (fledgling, then and now) and inveighed against what he said were the three false messianisms stalking the land: Gush Emunim, Peace Now, and that of  Ariel Sharon. Each, he said, presumed to solve complex questions with a single simple answer, respectively: faith, good intentions, and force. But, he said, we need all three, and the wisdom of balance….

 

The yearning for redemption is rooted not in the [Jewish] people’s terrible suffering, rather the desire to do good for humanity is the essence of its soul.

 

This, from a Holocaust survivor, was astounding. Promoting a universal ethical vision, he said, must be of the essence of Zionism, not only to save it from the moral hazards of violent chauvinism, but precisely because the ethical message is itself the divine word that Israel is charged with spreading. As he later explained to an interviewer, the difference between his vision of Israel as “a light unto the nations” and Ben-Gurion’s, was rooted in the fact that without a divine foundation, ethical universalism would not survive.

Rochel Steinmetz, Zichrona l’ivracha, the blessing of her memory


Many of you know Rabbi Chaim Stenimetz and the great work that he does through the videos that we have been posting in collaboration with AskAbigail Productions. He is always witty and wise and speaks to the issues of the moment.

This last week, his mother, Rochel Steinmetz, passed away without warning. I visited him with the rest of the community according to Jewish mourning practices of comforting the mourner. He shared with all of us her story. Rochel Steinmetz, was born a Hungarian Jew. A survivor of the Holocaust, she and two of her sisters survived the death march from Auschwitz. Rochel Steinmetz, survived and lived to immigrate to the US and marry an American college graduate in Chicago. She and her husband moved to Monsey, a suburban New York community that was then starting a Jewish community. Rochel gave birth to three children and was one month away from giving birth to her fourth child, (Rabbi Steinmetz), when she lost her husband in a car crash. She did not give up. She went on to raise her four children, in the same house and the same community, as a single mother; with courage, perseverance and optimism. She devoted herself to the task with grace and courage. Aside from Rabbi Steinmetz’s memorable stories of his mother’s patience and wisdom, a member of the community came out of the woodwork to acknowledge her spirit in a eulogy.

When she passed away, last week, at the age of 83, she had 18 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren. She is remembered for her resilience, optimism, and faith, which carried her through many challenges in life. Her memory survives as a beacon of courage for all of us.

11/25/2012

Rabbi Steinmetz wrote this at the time of unveiling the gravestone for his mother in Jerusalem. It is a moving and deep meditation on the process of mourning. (published in the Washington Post)

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/canadian-rabbi-on-a-mothers-unveiling-the-undoing-of-closure/2012/11/13/9ed992f6-2dc9-11e2-89d4-040c9330702a_blog.html

 

 

 

Tatiana de Rosnay, Author of Sarah’s Key, in Montreal


Last week I had the opportunity to see Tatiana De Rosnay speak at the Jewish Public Library about her newest book, Rose. The room was full as the audience eagerly anticipated her talk. Many in attendance are fans of Tatiana’s previous book Sarah’s Key, and have also seen the movie, which tells the story of a family in France during the Holocaust. Tatiana de Rosnay, born in Paris, is not Jewish but researched the story that she depicts. She shared that two survivors of the val d’hiv round up became her dear friends. One of them said to her, “How did you know that that’s exactly how I felt?”

The book focuses on the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. In 1942, French police in Paris, rounded up 13,152 Jewish emigres and refugees and their French-born children and grandchildren, who were then shipped to Auschwitz where most of them perished). Sarah’s Key focuses on a young girl during and after the war. The book vividly illustrates the willingness of French soldiers and the French government in helping the Nazis in their mission to eliminate the Jews. Only recently have the French come to grips with this shameful episode of the French government’s collaboration with the Nazi extermination of Jews during WW II. The book also tells the story of a farmer’s family and their efforts to help Jews by hiding them from the authorities.

The talk by the author, Tatiana de Rosnay, is part of a series of events planned this month at the Jewish Public Library as part of Jewish Book Month which occurs every year. This month features authors such as Aubrey Davis (In a Nutshell: The Worlds of Maurice Sendak), Deborah Lipstadt (The Eichmann Trial), Kim Echlin (The Disappeared), Rebecca Margolis (Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil: Yiddish Culture in Montreal, 1905-1945) and others. Check out the Jewish Book Month Events Calendar.

 

Rabbi Steinmetz

Rabbi Steinmetz
More information and video about Rabbi Steinmetz coming up soon on AskAbigail Productions.com, but in the meantime, check out Rabbi’s blog…

Useful links:

“Aleph – CSUQ
 Sonia Sarah Lipsyc, Director
A full year of programming of Jewish education for adults of all backgrounds in the French language,
including cafe litteraire, cafe theatrale, and courses and symposia.