Yom Yerusahalayim, Jerusalem Day

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May 21st of this year was the 42nd day of the Omer, 9th week post Covid-19 and Jerusalem Day – a Jewish holiday commemorating the recapture of Jerusalem on June 6, 1967 (the 27th of Iyar 5727 on the Hebrew calendar).

On this day, almost 1900 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, Jews regained sovereignty over the temple mount and the entire city of Jerusalem. This was not a war of conquest. For a long month before the war broke out, Israel was being physically threatened by her surrounding Arab neighbours – Egypt to the south, Syria to the north, and Jordan to the west. The outcome was not at all predictable. For a very long month, Egypt was threatening to destroy Israel and was building up military supplies while the UN was turning a blind eye and the US urging against war. Fear was very powerful. The military itself was expecting a possible 100,000 dead and had delegated rabbis to expropriate parks as potential burial places.

I was studying and living in Israel from 1966-1971. I recall the tiny area of Jerusalem that was in Jewish hands before the war – two main streets, Yaffo and King George. I was not listening to the radio, but my parents in Montreal were watching the news carefully. Not accepting my cheerful appraisal that there was nothing to worry about, my father arrived in Jerusalem to bring me home. We travelled to Haifa and stayed at a hotel. They were hanging blackout drapes on all the windows. We seemed to be the only ones there. We then travelled north to a farm settlement to visit my father’s cousin who was digging a ditch as a shelter. I suddenly realized the seriousness of the situation and I flew back to Montreal with my Dad.

The day we arrived in Montreal, the Israelis attacked. They took the initiative and trounced the Egyptian army in the south in six hours, destroying all of their 300 planes on the ground and in the airfields and capturing all of the Sinai. The Jordanians attacked in Jerusalem and this led to the routing of the Jordanian army and the recapture of the Holy City of Jerusalem by Jews after more than 1800 years of foreign occupation. The Syrians also attacked from the north and lost the Golan Heights to Israel.

Now, 52 years later, Jerusalem is a megalopolis with countless residential neighborhoods on all the surrounding hills, schools, museums, courts, government offices and a fast train and highway system connecting Jerusalem to all of Israel.

How did this happen? Over the last few years, I had the tremendous good fortune to delve into the Jewish canon with wonderful teachers in Montreal and Jerusalem. I acquired a new perspective of Jewish history, theology, philosophy, agriculture, civil and criminal law, and government. The Jewish nation exists today because it never let go of its rich cultural heritage. In good times and bad, we continued to study and hand down the legacy from generation to generation. Among the Five Books of Moses, the prophetic scrolls, the Talmud and the commentaries, there is not a subject under the sun that has not been carefully dissected. Somewhere in these texts, the conversation continues into the present.

Rabbi Shlomo Vilk of Jerusalem gave a zoom class on “Why the temple was destroyed”. He shared that according to the Rabbis of the Talmud, the temple was destroyed because there was corruption and dissension among the ruling Jewish priesthood of the time. But, the Jewish canon was preserved via the Rabbis who abandoned Jerusalem and continued to study and to share their legacy via the creation of the Talmud.

The classic statement is that the temple was destroyed because of violence and hatred among brothers (sinat hinam in Hebrew) and the temple will be rebuilt when the Jewish people can bring disparities together and treat every man as a brother.

Last night, I got up at 4 am to watch this amazing video about the miracle of the Six-Day War, and Jerusalem. I urge you to take the time to watch it. I think you will never again think of Jerusalem in quite the same way.

 

Jerusalem, the beating heart of Jewish faith

Jerusalem, the old new city for the old and renewed people. Yom Yerushalayim sameach! Happy Jerusalem Day!

Posted by Rabbi Sacks on Friday, May 22, 2020

 

Below is the Moscow Male Jewish Capella choir singing a traditinal song about Jerusalem “Bring the Sabbath and Bring Peace to Jerusalem”, the prayer of all Israel.

Performed at the European Cantors Convention at Villa Seligman in Hannover Germany on January 26, 2020.

8th Day of Chanuka: Review for 2019 & Prayer for 2020

Today is the 8th day of Chanukah and the 30th of December 2019 – a good time to take stock of the last year and think about the one to come.

For myself, this has been a very fruitful year. In June 2019, I visited Warsaw, Krakow, Tokay, Kereztur, Niregyhaza, Munkacs, and Uzhorod/Ungvar, (Poland, Hungary, and the Ukraine) – part of my research for my current film project regarding Chazzan Moshe Kraus and the experience of Hungarian Jews over the last century. My next stop was Jerusalem, Israel. And, I ended up spending several months learning with Yehudis Golsheveky and others at Shiviti, Yeshiva for women which has greatly enriched my life and my appreciation of Jewish history and Jewish thought.

I am now in Montreal, January 9th 2020. This holiday period has been marked by serious  antisemitic attacks on Jews in New York and New Jersey and the rocket attack on and death of Quasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds force; uncontrolled fires in South Wales, Australia, and serious flooding in Israel, with some unfortunate deaths along the coast: And some positive events as well: Celebrating Chanukah for one, and also, thousands all over the world got together to celebrate their completing seven years of Talmud study – one page per day over seven years. In Israel, there was even a celebration of thousands of women who had completed the same study!!! Talmud study previously had been relegated to the realm of men in Jewish society.

Since it has been mostly cold and grey here in Montreal, I have been surfing the internet, listening to the CBC and other media, and mulling over what to make of all these competing voices.

Rabbi Jonathon Sacks has a video addressed to the current divisions among Jews called Seven Principles for Maintaining Jewish People hood. These principles if applied to the world would have the potential for “bringing the messiah” which in Jewish thought refers to the condition of peace among all peoples – a time when the “lion will lie down with the lamb” Isaiah 11:6.

The first principle that Rabbi Jonathon Sacks enumerates in his video, and which I think is the most important one in the face of all these events: “Keep Talking – Those who keep talking will eventually make peace, And he notes, “Jews are ferocious arguers, and that’s part of our strength… but it was the inability to keep talking with each other that caused the three exiles of the Jewish people.”

And here are the other six principles which he quotes to guide our talking.

Principal #2: Listen Israel – “Listen to one another, hear what your opponent is saying. We are great arguers but poor listeners. Listening by itself is profoundly therapeutic.”

Principal #3: Work to understand your opponents’ point of view – “Try to understand the people with whom you disagree… This is why in conflicting opinions, in the Talmud, the Talmud always goes according to the opinion of Hillel, because Hillel always presented and studied Shammai’s, his opponent’s argument before his own.”

Principal #4: (This is my favorite) NEVER SEEK VICTORY – “NEVER EVER SEEK TO INFLICT DEFEAT ON YOUR OPPONENTS. IF YOU SEEK TO INFLICT DEFEAT ON YOUR OPPONENTS YOUR OPPONENT MUST, BY HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY, SEEK TO RETALIATE – TO INFLICT DEFEAT ON YOU. THE RESULT IS YOU WIN TODAY, YOU LOSE TOMORROW AND IN THE END EVERYONE LOSES.”

Principal #5: IF YOU SEEK RESPECT GIVE RESPECT – He quotes from the Book of Proverbs: “As water reflects face to face so does the heart of man” – as you behave to others so they will behave to you. If you show contempt for other Jews they will show contempt for you.

Principal #6: It’s not about agreement but caring – “The ultimate rule of Jewish people-hood: when one Jew is injured we all feel the pain. We are a family – if you disagree with a friend today, tomorrow they may not be your friend, but if you disagree with your family today, tomorrow they will still be your family. All Jews are responsible for one another.” (another principal of Torah).

Principal #7: Remember that G-d Chose Us as a People – “God chose us not as individuals but as a people. He didn’t choose only the righteous or only the saints or only the very very holy people – he chose all of us. It is as a people that we stand before G-d and it is as a people that we stand before the world. The world doesn’t make distinctions… anti-semites don’t make distinctions… we are united by a covenant of shared memory, of shared identity and of a shared fate… even if we don’t share a faith… Therefore next time you are tempted to walkaway from some group of Jews you think have offended you, make that effort, that gesture, to stay together, to forgive, to listen, to try and unite, because if G-d loves each of us, can we try, and do anything less…”

Now that you have reviewed these principles, I think you will agree with me that if the world were to take notice of these principles, we could actually come to achieve peace for all mankind, and we could easily solve all the challenges facing us – challenges of poverty, racism, climate change, and anything else that might come up.

And this is my prayer for the coming decade – that we learn to keep talking to each other, to keep listening, even through the most painful events, and to keep trying to understand the other, and to care for the other, and thereby create the one united world that G-d wants us to create.

Happy Chanukah! Happy New Year World!

Five Memoirs: the Jewish Hungarian Shoah/Holocaust Experience

Personal Testimonies: Memoirs

As part of my work for the Moshe Kraus Project, I have come across these amazing first-person accounts of people’s experiences before during and after the Shoah/Holocaust in Hungary.

1. Budapest 44, by Moshe Holczler 

  • The young Slovakian businessman planned to join his wife in London, but the Nazis marched into Austria and life would never be the same. Mandated by his illustrious father to remain in Europe to help his people, R’ Shmuel Binyomin (Wolf) Frey embarked on a saga of rescue and relief that had reverberations beyond his wildest dreams. Who was the mysterious Raoul Wallenberg, and how did R’ Wolf come to work with him? Why did the Hungarian Minister of Defense have such a startling change of heart? Did the gypsies have any redeemable qualities? Would his fellow Jews really turn him over to the Germans? Where was the safest place for a street child to be at night? What were those Nazis doing in that building across the street? A house made entirely of glass? How long could they fool the communists? Were those nuns to be trusted…? Let us follow R’ Wolf to Hungary, and marvel at the incredible hashgachah pratis, the Divine providence, that followed him through one menacing situation after another. With unshakeable faith, with remarkable foresight and bravery, against impossible odds, he resisted Evil incarnate. He never thought of himself as a hero, but his courage and ingenuity will remain with you forever. Budapest ’44, his story, is an unforgettable tribute to the human spirit.

Budapest 44 by Moshe Holczler gives a wide panorama of all of the rescue efforts organized within Budapest during the Nazi invasion of Hungary, in 1944, including the efforts of Wallenberg, and many Jewish and non-Jewish undercover volunteers. It is a remarkable story that has not been told or shared enough. Much of the detail is astounding, and it is a first person account by Moshe Holczler who is not only a chronicler but also a participant. I found it quite amazing and a must read to understand what actually was happening in Budapest in 1944.

2. Miracle in the Ashes is a first person memoir, by Maurice Lowinger, a Hungarian born Jew from Mezotur in central Hungary, – his valiant efforts to support his family and the Budapest Jewish community. Towards the end of the war, and all through the siege of Budapest, he took over his father-in-law’s position on the committee whose mission was to feed, daily, hundreds, the destitute remnants of Hungarian Jewry via the soup kitchen at the Dohany Synagogue, in Budapest. He and the committee managed to keep it up until the very end of the war – the arrival of the Russian army in 1945.

3. Surviving the hell of Auschwitz and Dachau is Leslie Schwartz’ memoir of his survival as an under-age, under-size, 12 year old. The subtitle is A teenage Struggle Toward Freedom from Hatred, as he recounts his story of the individuals, who came out of the blue, to help him, sometimes with a single glass of milk, or a sandwich, and how he tracked them down one by one, after the war to acknowledge and thank them: And he continues to speak about his experiences both in Germany and the rest of the world.

4. Hassidic Tales of the Holocaustedited by Yaffa Eliach – are first person accounts of Orthodox Jews, as they attempt to flee, and are some times entrapped, and sometimes, miraculously saved, all over Europe.

5. Deadly Carousel, is about Vali Racz, the Hungarian Marlene Dietrich, who during WWII harbored a Jewish family, as well as a Hungarian fascist escapee, and Russian military brass, in her home, in Pest, as told to her daughter, Monica Porter, who is also the author of this book. It’s also a terrific recounting of what actually was going on in Hungary, for both Jews and gentiles, socially and politically, before, during, and after the war, up to 1956 – the Hungarian revolution. The book is written by Vali Racz’ daughter, Monica Porter, who had the opportunity to interview her mother extensively for this book.

Written October 27, 2019 – Parshat Bereshit – which brings the blessing of new beginnings, renewal, starting over – every day of our lives – seeing with fresh eyes.

Written by Abigail Hirsch, social worker, blogger, filmmaker

 

 

 

 

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, Kielce, 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 which was carried out in the Bible.

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 was the sin of Sodom and Gomorroh?

…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 reign of Nazi Germany, in our time, when to offer any compassionate help to Jews was a legally criminal act  liable for instant death!

The crimes of the Nazi State continue to be an open wound to both Jews and non-Jews. However, In this film, Bogdan’s Journey, we see Bogdan and the town of Kielce attempting to come to terms with a massacre of Jews on Polish soil (in Kielce) in 1946.  In spite of almost total denial by almost everyone living in Kielce, Bogdan Bialek, a young man resident of Kielce, initiates and continues his crusade for the townspeople of Kielce to begin to acknowledge the 1946 massacre and in spite of firce resistance ends up with ackowlegdement, healing, and reconciliation, showing that yes, a group, can come to repent, to address these issues voluntarily, and to transform itself into an aware and caring empathetic entity.

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

To watch the movie for institutional or private screening go to Bogdan’s Journey. I believe you will thank me! I look forward to hearing your feedback.

Postscript: After the screening, the producer, director, and several guests from Poland including Bogdan himself met at the Tel Aviv restaurant across the street from the Sherman Oaks Laemmle movie theater. After I wrote this blog I sent him the link and here is what he wrote to me:

On Nov 27, 2019, at 7:19 AM, Bogdan Białek <naczelny@charaktery.com.pl> wrote:
Dear Abigail,
Thank you very much for your beautiful and touched text on your blog. If
you agree, I would like to use it on Jan Karski Society site. The
meeting in the Sherman Oaks was very interesting. For the first time I
was in so great home and so excellent company. I hope that we will have
other possibilities to meet each other. Of course, if you will be in
Poland remember about my the warmest invitation to Kielce.
I will try to buy a book, which you reccomend.
Best regards
Bogdan

Dear Bogdan,

I have been thinking about your response below and would like to add your letter to my post, and to also add a link to your Jan Karski website.
Best regards,

Abigail 

Dear Abigail, I am in Israel now. I’m so sorry for the silence. Of course, you can use anything you want. I am very grateful for your text. It will stay in my heart for a long time.

Regards

Bogdan

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