Art unveils the shared threads of our human experience, transcending individual narratives. After immersing myself in Piya Chattopadhyay‘s Sunday Magazine on CBC Radio, a compelling urge to correspond with her arose. Each segment stood out independently, yet collectively, they wove a captivating dialogue.
In her latest literary masterpiece, “To Paradise,” Hanya Yanagihara, deeply rooted in Hawaii, discusses profoundly with Piya. The novel explores themes of freedom, utopia, borders, and disease across three centuries, viewed through three distinct reimagined American histories embodied by couples from diverse backgrounds. Yanagihara also delves into the societal impact on males, compelling them to suppress emotions. Yanagihara also reflects on the detrimental effects of societal expectations on males, forcing them to hide their feelings.
Piya’s subsequent guest, John Koenig, author of the “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” explained his creation of words for previously unnamed feelings. By combining elements from various languages, Koenig demonstrates how each language contributes a unique perspective, enriching our understanding of the world.
Following this, Piya conversed with Stephen Marche, author of “The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future.” March, aiming to illuminate the current state of US politics, analyzes data and consults experts, emphasizing the speculative nature of his non-fiction work. This mirrors the imaginative fiction of Yanagihara, both rooted in reality yet acknowledging the inability to predict the future.
Yanagihara’s exploration of the pursuit of “paradise” and the symbolism of the United States as its embodiment is akin to the universal human quest for a world free from violence, war, and disease—the ultimate paradise. Reflecting on the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Yanagihara suggests that despite earthly challenges, each individual has the potential to rediscover paradise. This sentiment echoes in the weekly Sabbath ritual, temporarily escaping daily concerns and creating a momentary paradise.
On a larger scale, the collective human desire for a world free from violence, war, and disease persists as the ultimate paradise—an earnest prayer and pursuit shared by humanity.
In the second installment of the CNN series, “Jerusalem: the City of Faith,” titled “39 BC: The Rise and Fall of Herod the Great,” the narrative unfolds through the lens of the reigning monarchs of the era. The episode delves into the intricate web of ambitions and rivalries among critical figures, including Herod, the King of Israel; Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt; Mark Antony, the Emperor of Western Rome; and the ambitious Octavius.
The captivating program vividly depicts dramatic stories and intense battles for supremacy among Egypt, Israel, and Rome, narrated by accomplished contemporary historians.
Herod marries the Hasmonean princess Mariamne in his quest for acceptance among the Israelites. However, his love for her does not deter him from committing heinous acts, including the murder of Mariamne, their five children, and suspected rivals. As a critical player in the intricate global power dynamics, Herod aligns himself with Marc Antony of Rome while harbouring a deep hostility towards Cleopatra—relationships intricately detailed in the CNN narrative.
To overcome personal struggles, Herod embarks on ambitious construction projects. However, despite his achievements, the series emphasizes how his unchecked ambition and envy negatively impact his public and private life, eventually leading to madness during his long reign.
Following Herod’s demise, Roman colonial ambitions led to the invasion and military occupation of Israel, then known as Judea. This occupation culminated in the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple, a structure Herod had significantly enhanced, following the grand tradition of Roman edifices.
The series intriguingly mirrors the well-known “Game of Thrones” TV series. However, it laments the absence of the traditional Jewish perspective found in texts such as the Torah and Talmud, which provide insights into the narrative of Jewish Kingship. The ancient roadmap for Jewish governance and Kingship, as laid out by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, remains a missing element in the CNN portrayal.
If, after you have entered the land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the LORD your God. Be sure to put as King over yourself one of your people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your relative. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”
And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart goes astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. (Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:14-17 *2)
The blueprint for a Jewish king, mentioned in later historical accounts like Samuel 1 and 2, Judges, and Kings, is transparent in canonical Jewish texts. These texts provide insights into different situations, characters, motivations, and outcomes, including the triumphs and tribulations of mighty and ordinary individuals. The narratives document a King’s ” sins ” from Saul to Herod with meticulous detail.
Leadership transgressions during this period can be traced back to the Hasmoneans, who liberated Israel from Greek dominance a century and a half earlier. Initially from the priestly caste, they took on both the Kingship and the High Priest office after their victory, going against Mosaic law. They forcefully converted neighbouring tribes to Judaism, contrary to Moses’ teachings. King Herod, from one of these converted tribes, also sought to be both the High Priest and King without consulting sacred texts or priestly advisors.
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik discusses leadership in podcast episode #32, “Kohen vs. King.” He highlights the inevitability of errors by both priests and kings, noting a distinction in the biblical text. Leviticus uses “if” for potential transgressions by priests and “when” for kings, reflecting detailed guidelines for priests and acknowledging rulers’ unavoidable mistakes. The contrast suggests that priests follow strict rules in worship, while rulers must independently assess and make decisions.
To aid in these decisions, he must:
“Have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus, he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long amid Israel.” *3 (Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:14-20)
Roman colonization and the subsequent governance by Roman officials unfolded in the wake of Herod’s reign. This era marked the tragic demise of Herod’s splendid creation—the Second Temple he had meticulously enhanced—crushed and demolished under Roman rule. Astonishingly, despite this devastation over two millennia ago, Judaism teetered on the edge of extinction but ultimately endured.
A clandestine exodus of scholars and rabbis from Jerusalem sought refuge in Yavneh, a secluded town in Galilee, securing permission from the Roman Emperor to establish their community. In this remote haven, the Talmud—a detailed discussion by Rabbis on all aspects of the Torah, also known as “the oral biblical law”—took shape and was meticulously transcribed over the ensuing six centuries. Today, the Torah and Talmud are the cornerstone of Jewish communal life in Israel and the diaspora. These sacred texts endure daily scrutiny in yeshivas worldwide, synagogue classes, and even academic institutions. They have been the enduring pillars of Jewish communal life, guiding people from all walks of life.
Simply studying these texts isn’t enough; putting their teachings into practice is crucial, as Jewish history emphasizes the far-reaching consequences of the actions of both rulers and ordinary individuals.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks noticed Hebrew lacks a direct word for “history.” The closest term, “Zachor,” emphasizes the duty to remember.
Within the Torah, two commandments are intricately tied to the notion of “Zachor.” The first urges remembrance of the Sabbath Day with the directive “Zachor et Yom haShabbat” – to remember and sanctify the Sabbath Day. The second, “Zachor et Amalek,” underscores the importance of remembering Amalek. Here is the translation of the Torah verses about remembering Amalek.
“You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear G-d. So it will be, when the Lord your G-d grants you respite from all your enemies around you in the land which the Lord, your G-d, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the Heavens. You shall not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19).
These verses are annually recited in synagogues on the Shabbat preceding the Purim holiday. Here is the auditory rendition.
The intricate threads of Jewish history, spanning five millennia, are woven into the fabric of our sacred texts and beloved holidays. Explore a captivating journey through recent global history via enlightening documentaries and talks by modern scholars. Within the pages of this blog, as you immerse yourself, the profound importance of “remembering the past” becomes unmistakable, emphasizing the crucial role of preserving our collective memory.
Stalin’s Ascent to Power: Unraveling the Machinations of a Dictator
Stephen Kotkin‘s meticulous exploration of Josef Stalin’s life, detailed in two volumes and enriched by recently released Soviet archives, unveils a narrative far from the stereotypical tale of an abused upbringing. In contrast, Stalin’s early education in Catholic institutions reveals a path that could have led him to become a Catholic priest. However, captivated by revolutionary Marxist ideology, he transformed into an anti-czarist activist, enduring exile and imprisonment before the overthrow of the czarist regime in 1917.
In the first volume, we learn that Stalin was not the product of an abusive home. He was educated in Catholic elementary and high schools because these were the best schools his parents could afford in his neighbourhood. His path was open to becoming a Catholic priest. But as a young man, he became enamoured with revolutionary Marxist ideology and made a career of being an anti-czarist activist. Before 1917, he was exiled and imprisoned by the Czarist police five times.
With Lenin’s rise to power, Stalin swiftly climbed the political ladder, assuming the role of Secretary-General of the Communist Party. Lenin’s incapacitation provided Stalin with an opportunity to consolidate power ruthlessly. As a workaholic with exceptional people skills and managerial acumen, he employed manipulation, torture, and murder to eliminate rivals, solidifying his autocratic rule. Under the guise of communist ideology, Stalin engineered policies such as collectivization, leading to widespread poverty and starvation known as the Holodomor.
The Nazis’ Ascent: Hitler’s Chilling Path to Totalitarian Rule
The rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany unfolds through a compelling PBS documentary, “Rise of the Nazis.” In 1930, Germany stood as a liberal democracy; within four years, democracy crumbled, and the Nazis, led by Hitler and collaborators like Göring and Himmler, assumed control of all national institutions. Hitler’s autocratic rule, coupled with Göring’s creation of the Gestapo and Himmler’s control over the police, army, and courts, signalled the demise of democracy.
The documentary delves into Hitler’s early attempts to seize power during the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, his imprisonment, and the subsequent penning of “Mein Kampf.” Hitler’s twisted ideas, promoting racial inequality and the supremacy of the Aryan race, laid the foundation for the horrors that unfolded in Nazi Germany. The series also highlights the courageous efforts of figures like Hans Litten, a German lawyer who exposed Hitler’s violent tendencies in court but eventually suffered imprisonment and torture under the Nazis.
The second episode unfolds the power struggle between Göring and Himmler, leading to the Night of the Long Knives, where Ernst Röhm and his Storm Troopers were systematically murdered. The episode concludes with the lesser-known story of Joseph Hartinger, whose efforts to expose Nazi atrocities were thwarted, providing a sobering glimpse into the morally bankrupt nature of the regime.
China Undercover: Unveiling Oppression and Surveillance
In “China Undercover,” a PBS documentary, FRONTLINE, investigates the oppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. It exposes China’s extensive surveillance, concentration camps, and invasive use of surveillance technology. This has sparked worldwide concerns about the widespread invasion of privacy and human rights abuses by the Chinese regime.
Cameras monitoring citizens, analyzing facial structures, and the invasive measures taken by the Chinese regime paint a dystopian picture reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984.” The documentary sheds light on the systematic oppression faced by the Uyghur minority, emphasizing the urgent need for global awareness and action.
The Call to Remember: Understanding History for a Safer Future
Reflecting on the histories of Hitler and Stalin and current situations highlights the importance of remembering. It’s a clear reminder of the severe outcomes that can result when people or institutions, lacking moral principles and claiming to pursue “social justice,” seize supreme governing authority.
The Torah’s injunction, “Zachor,” emphasizes the ongoing duty to work towards eliminating rulers who threaten justice, not for vengeance but to create a safer world for everyone. By witnessing these historical events, we contribute to the collective responsibility of upholding justice and protecting the vulnerable in our global community.
“I commence with the redemption of the human race and find myself entrenched in the munitions business… We aim to thrive. Our neighbours harbour intentions for our demise.” Quotes from Golda’s Balcony
The LAJ film festival presented an online screening of “Golda’s Balcony,” a compelling one-woman play now transformed into a film. The event included a 90-minute interview by Hilary Helstein with Tovah Feldshuh, the actress portraying Golda.
The play is a powerful exploration of Golda Meir’s multifaceted character—mother, wife, fervent Zionist, and the Prime Minister of Israel during the tumultuous Yom Kippur War in 1973. Central to the narrative is examining the war’s impact and the challenging decisions Golda faced.
Through its portrayal of leadership challenges, the play vividly resurrects history. The pivotal question arises: Will Golda employ the secret weapon, and what internal struggles torment her during these critical moments? In the interview, Tovah delves into her personal history, research, and active role in shaping this artistic endeavour—fine-tuning the play and developing the character with remarkable skill.
The film deserves recent awards because it goes beyond being a straightforward history lesson. Instead, it taps into a personal, emotional connection with memories, capturing the essence of individual experiences.
While the film reflects events up to Golda Meir’s death in 1973, its relevance persists today. It unveils the birth of the state of Israel and the enduring, agonizing struggle for survival that continues into the present day.
Tovah’s website offers various purchases for those intrigued, including a study guide to Golda’s Balcony or a DVD titled The Journey to Golda’s Balcony. Explore more at www.tovahfeldshuh.com.
Recently, I had the privilege of viewing two compelling documentaries featured at the Israel Film Festival in Montreal. One of them, “Mrs. G.,” directed by Dalit Kimor, delves into the remarkable life of Lea Gottlieb, a Hungarian survivor who, post-World War II, migrated to Israel and established the renowned family-operated business, the Gottex swimsuit empire.
The narrative resonated with me personally, mirroring the experiences of my parents—Hungarian Jews who, with limited resources and two young children, immigrated to Montreal. Against the odds, they built a flourishing leather coat factory, supplying high-quality products across Canada and the US for numerous years. This tale reflects the broader narrative of immigrant Jewish families leveraging their craftsmanship and business acumen to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the Shoah/Holocaust. Despite achieving financial success, the scars of the Shoah lingered, a sentiment echoed in Mrs. G.’s story, where her children lamented her lack of maternal instinct despite her prowess as a designer.
The second documentary, “Aulcie” by director Dani Menkin, chronicles the life of Aulcie Perry, an African American from New Jersey drafted to play for Maccabi, the Israeli national basketball league. Perry became a beloved hero in Israel, leading the team to international championship victories.
“Mrs. G.” and “Aulcie” depict individuals confronting formidable challenges, and I won’t divulge more to preserve the film’s impact. What captivated me about these documentaries was the opportunity to glimpse into the lives of real people in Israel, navigating significant challenges over the years.