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.

Golda’s Balcony: The Film, 2019

“I begin with the redemption of the human race, and I end up in the munitions business… We intend to live. Our neighbours intend us to die.” Quotes from Golda’s Balcony

Yesterday, LAJ film festival screened, on line, Golda’s Balcony, the one-woman play, which has now become a film. There was also a 90-minute interview by Hilary Helstein with Tovah Feldshuh, the actress who plays Golda.

The play is a tour-de-force exposing Golda Meir’s character as a mother, a wife, and a passionate Zionist, who also happened to be the Prime Minister of Israel during the devastating Yom Kippur war (1973). The crux of the play is the Yom Kippur War and the choices that Golda herself, had to make.

The play exposes the travails of leadership and brings history to life. Will she or won’t she use the secret weapon? What goes through her mind as she faces these agonizing moments? In the interview, Tovah shares her personal history, research, and active participation in the creation of this work of art – the tweaking of the play and the development of the character. Tovah brings it off brilliantly.

This film deserves all of the many awards it has recently garnered. It shares history, not from a linear and intellectual standpoint but as if from the visceral connection of personal memory – the first person singular – memory itself.

Although the film referred to events up to Golda’ Meir’s death in 1973, it is sadly relevant today as it reveals both the birth of the state of Israel and the constant agonizing struggle for its survival, which continues to the present day.

Check out Tovah’s website for purchases, such as a study guide to Golda’s balcony or a DVD The Journey to Golda’s Balcony.

Korach’s Rebellion and the BLM Movement

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A couple of days ago in synagogues, Jews studied the Torah portion on Korach’s rebellion  (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32) about Korach who led 250 of the Israelites’ leaders against the authority of Moses and Aaron in the desert.

In this Torah portion, 250 influential leaders confront  Moses and Aaron, regarding Moses’ leadership. Korach and his followers accuse Moses and Aaron of assuming power at the community’s expense. The commentaries point out that Korach’s challenge to Moses is rooted in personal ambition, rather than legitimate complaints.  (Source: The Power Struggle Moses vs. Korach by Rabbi Rachel Cowan)

Torah Scholars worldwide have reflected on the parallels between Korach’s rebellion and the demonstrations and riots led by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organization happening worldwide.

Lord Rabbi Jonathon Sacks has spelled it out very clearly in his recent publication: How Not to Argue (Korach 5780). He refers to the lies that the BLM organization continues to propagate about Israel and how they continuously cancel any opinions that do not agree with theirs. Below are black scholars who have also spoken up to object to BLM claims and their methods. Candice OwensColeman HughesJohn Mcwhorter, and a video interview with Glenn Loury.

 

The death of George Floyd has flooded the airwaves – the internet, radio, and television. Racism, systemic racism, and police brutality are without doubt of great concern to all of us. However, after studying these issues over the last couple of days, I began to understand how the BLM’s argument against racism is more like the rebellion of Korach, a grab for fame and power – rather than an argument for truth and justice.

The antisemitic bias of BLM, which was exposed by the violent antisemitic riots in Los Angeles and elsewhere, is especially painful to me as a Jew. The Nazi ideology is the idea of the superiority of the Aryan (German) race as opposed to all other groups – Jews, blacks, LGBT, gypsies, Slavs, and it would have moved to Americans if it had been allowed to flourish. That was systemic racism – racism that was legitimized by governmental power and could only be opposed by the destruction of the leaders and their organized followers, the army, and administrations.

The United States, a democracy where free speech enshrined in the law, has made great strides in repudiating slavery and espousing freedom of opportunity for its citizens. Not to deny that prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious, does not exist.

 

Yes, there are problems, but the way to address them is not through violence, but through listening to each other and looking clearly at what can be done by people of goodwill working together.

 

 

 

 

The story of Moshe Kraus

We all know the questions:

Where was G-d?
How was this possible?
How did they survive?

My mother, who herself survived the war in Budapest, by working with fake papers in a small Hungarian beauty shop, used to say that every single person who survived was a total miracle.

In 2015, while I was screening my documentary film Yiddish: A Tale of Survival in Ottawa, I happened to meet Chazzan Moshe Kraus and his wife, Rivka.

In their home, I noticed a framed black and white photograph of a handsome man in a long black coat, black hat, and long side curls. And standing next to him was a little boy dressed in the same way. Tucked into the side of the frame was a small picture of the long-deceased miracle worker, Reb Shayele of Keresztur.

Reb Shayele was part of my mother’s memories of her home town of Tokay. Everyone in Hungary knew about Reb Shayele because he was such a legendary force for caring, feeding, sheltering, and advising anyone who came to his door – Jew or gentile.

When I asked why the picture was there, Moshe explained that the figures in the photograph were of himself and his father taken before the war and that Reb Shayele was his grandfather.

Reading Moshe’s memoir The Life of Moshele Der Zinger: How My Singing Saved My Life and other historical testimonies, I realized that Moshe’s life is indicative of a much larger story. The story of how ordinary people faced the storm. The story of the spiritual resilience of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. These are the stories I want to tell.

Born into a European Chassidic environment, Moshe Kraus was a musical child prodigy, trained as a Chazzan – a musical synagogue prayer leader – from the age of nine. A resourceful and clever man, Moshe faced many challenges and lived to tell the tale.

Cantor Moshe Kraus’ story can be told in several formats:

  • A documentary film with musical theatre that recounts specific episodes in Moshe’s life
  • A musical theatre production
  • A historical drama TV series focusing on his life (1922 – present)

Moshe’s life from birth to the present included survival of Nazi death camps, serving in the first Israeli army as a Chazzan, and leading services, performing in concerts, and speaking engagements all over the world. Here are notable episodes in Moshe’s life:

  • Moshe’s voice and musical abilities lifted the prisoners’ spirits in Bergen Belson concentration camp in the darkest times.
  • Kramer, the commandant of Auschwitz and Bergen Belson, also enlisted Moshe to sing him German opera. After the war, when Kramer was sentenced to death by hanging, he asked for Moshe to be present.
  • While serving with the Rabbinic services in displaced person camps, Moshe found himself officiating at many marriages. He met the Klausenberger Rebbe, who insisted he lead the prayers. Moshe recovered his faith and, through strenuous efforts, managed to reconnect with some siblings who survived.
  • In 1948, Moshe enlisted in the nascent Israeli army, and as chief cantor, he often sang on Kol Yisrael radio station. He brought hope and encouragement to the Israeli people. Moshe also sang at their weddings and the funerals of fallen soldiers.

If you have a story to share and wish to participate in this project, get in touch with me: askabigail@me.com.

Rabbi Lew: Comparing Buddhism and Judaism

In January 2012, I attended the naming ceremony of my niece, Shefa Rachel, at the Stanford Hillel House in Palo Alto, California. I noticed that Rabbi Lew was to give a talk during the coming week. I’m familiar with his books, which were profound meditations of Jewish practice from a Zen point of view.

I extended my stay to hear him speak and film his talk, a part of which appears below. He did not disappoint. His lecture was a comparison of Judaism and Zen Buddhism and how each tradition deals with suffering.
The Fourth Noble truths expound the Buddhist philosophy of existence and the attainment of nirvana, which overcomes everyday suffering. In the first two Noble Truths, the Buddha diagnoses the problem – universal suffering is the natural state of affairs – and he also identifies its cause – craving or wanting what you do not have. The other two Noble Truths are the prescriptions for the cure of suffering, mostly finding ways to let go of cravings.

Rabbi Lew mentions that when he shares the First Noble Truth – that everybody suffers – with Jewish audiences, he always hears a big sigh of relief “You mean it’s not just us!”

 

He then refers to the Jewish discussion about suffering, which occurs very early in the first Massechet of the Talmud Berachot 5B. As is typical of the Talmud, the subject is discussed extensively from many different angles. Is there value in suffering? Is it good to suffer? Is it better to suffer than not to suffer? Is there a reward in suffering? As is typical of Talmudic discourse, the Gemara continues to discuss the issue of suffering and affliction for pages without reaching any conclusion and then ends with the following story:

Rabbi Yoḥanan’s student, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward, as one who welcomes this suffering with love is rewarded. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.

Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.

The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, let Rabbi Yoḥanan stand himself up.

The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.

After the class ended and we were sharing food and conversation, Rabbi Lew revealed that he had been a carefree and happy Zen Buddhist priest in San Francisco until he met his wife and fell in love. It was this experience that prompted him to move from becoming a carefree Buddhist to becoming a husband, father, and practicing Jew.

So what is the essential difference between Judaism and Buddhism? If you look at the third and fourth Noble Truths, you get to the 8-fold path to amend suffering which consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (meditative absorption or union). It seems to enlist the person on a moral path that will amend suffering: and this is the aim of Buddhism to amend suffering.

Rabbi Lew states in the above clip, “it is not the program of Judaism to amend suffering, Judaism is not indifferent to suffering”. He adds, “if I were to stand on one foot and say what the program of Judaism is, it is to realize the sacred in every moment.” And how do you realize the sacred in every moment? Judaism would answer by following the prescriptions regarding ‘How to live at every moment – how to eat how to relate to your wife and children, to your fellow man – these prescription are called the “halacha” the way which include the 613 mitzvot directives for living prescribed in the Jewish Bible.

So in the end, “right living” in Judaism is bringing the holy to every moment and is also the rode to alleviating suffering.

so ultimately although the narrative is very different the underlying them is the same – “right living” is the key to alleviating suffering in this world.

I was to meet Rabbi Lew one more time, at his home, before he passed away, rather suddenly, of a heart attack in 2009. Zichron l’ivracha – May his memory be a blessing.

I hope I have done justice to Rabbi Lew’s message.

Rabbi Lew’s books include:

  • One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi
  • This Is Real, and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation
  • Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life

 

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz was the spiritual leader of Congregation Congrégation Tifereth Beth David Jérusalem (TBDJ), a synagogue in Montreal (1996 to 2016). In January 2016, Rabbi Steinmetz left Montreal to assume the pulpit of a prominent New York synagogue, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

During his time in Montreal, I often volunteered to film short five-minute sermons. I also share nine of Rabbi Steinmetz’s sermons found on the Kehilat Jeshurun (KJ) website. I found each one exceptional.

In Cases of Difficulty

The Yachad Revolution

What if Goliath Had Won?

When a Fossil Comes to Life

Yizkor and Yom HaShoah: Between Past and Present – Pesach 2016

The Jerusalem of the Simple Jew 2016

Never Underestimate Hatred

Between Purim And Passover: Survival and Tolerance

And, here are the 6 minute talks by Rabbi Steinmetz. that I video-recorded over the years

Rosh hashanah and pesach: Can you find the parallels?

A Joke That Has Legs

Are You Addicted to Being Right?

How to Keep Failure from Becoming a Defeat, Rosh Hashanah 2011

Steve Jobs, Noah, and Living Outside the Box

One of the lucky ones – Rabbi Steinmetz Rosh Hashanah

The Power of Questions: Rabbi Steinmetz

Being Selfless – Rabbi Steinmetz

Life has no Easy Button – Rabbi Steinmetz

Teenage Moot Court in Montreal

CHILDREN’S Guilt: Who and Why?

Rabbi Steinmetz: Jewish community being libelled: Ad matai!!!

Prepare Your Heart Before You Prepare your Plans: The Lesson of Bamidbar, The Book of Numbers

Tradition Why?

The High Holidays: The Power of Now: Part Three: RISING TO THE OCCASION

The Power of Now:

Part one: The challenge of Rosh Hashanah

Part Two:The Pull of the Past

Part Three: RISING TO THE OCCASION

Does One Need a Sanctuary

Hamming with the Rabbi

What the Bible says about blaming the Victim