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.

What can Purim teach us today?

Last year, the Jewish holiday of Purim, the 14th day of Adar, fell on March 9, and shortly afterward, all of our lives changed as we began to face days filled with uncertainty. This year, Purim will be on February 26, and I am writing to you from Montreal, still under a cloud of Covid-19.

Purim commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from Haman’s attempt at genocide. Haman, the second-in-command to King Ahasuerus of the Persian empire, managed to extract from his king a formal decree to murder all Jews living in the 127 lands of the Persian Empire.

“Does this sound like the recent genocide in Rwanda?” – just a thought!

Esther and Mordechai

However, Haman’s plans were foiled by Mordechai and his cousin Esther, Ahasuerus’ Queen. The whole story is relayed in the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, read annually in homes or synagogues of Jews worldwide.

“When Haman saw that Mordechai would neither kneel nor prostrate himself before him, Haman became full of wrath. But it seemed contemptible to him to lay hands on Mordechai alone, for they had told him Mordechai’s nationality, and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout Ahasuerus’s entire kingdom, Mordechai’s people.”

Haman said to King Ahasuerus:

“There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them be. If it pleases the king, let it be written to destroy them, and I will weigh out ten thousand silver talents into the hands of those who perform the work, to bring [it] into the king’s treasuries.”

The king took the ring off his hand, gave it to Haman, and said to him:

“The silver is given to you, and the people to do to them as it pleases you.”

What do we learn from this?

  1. Prejudice starts in the heart of a single person and is based on personal obsessions and assumptions that are not true. Jews do have a particular culture. However, for over two thousand years, they have lived among other cultures worldwide, and one of their principles is “to obey the law of the land in which they find themselves and to always include a blessing for the governing entities in their daily prayers.”
  2. These hatreds rely on stereotypes that assume that all members of the group share similar characteristics. These ideas are based tangentially on human interaction. Nevertheless, once floated and received as “truth,” they serve to separate and incriminate the hated group, with no recourse to engaging with the truth.
  3. Destroying the Jews has a financial benefit to the destroyer.

Purim celebrates the fate of a minority in a diaspora. It presents us with the first paradigm for antisemitism/racism/persecution of a minority group.

These are the same themes one finds whenever analyzing racism towards Blacks, First Nations, Immigrants, or Ethnic minorities. Every form of discrimination has its “narrative.” As the Rogers and Hammerstein song recount:

“You have got to be taught to hate and fear. You have got to be carefully taught.”

Nazi antisemitism was founded on the notion that Jews were engaged in a deadly conspiracy against the German people. The Nazis charged that the Jews had “stabbed Germany in the back” during the first world war, thereby engineering its loss. The truth is at the start of World War l, 12,000 German Jews volunteered for the German Army. Of the 100,000 Jews who served with the German military – a very high proportion relative to their numbers:

70,000 Jews fought at the front line.

  • Three thousand were promoted to officer ranks.
  • Twelve thousand were killed in action.

Moreover, immediately at the outbreak of the war, the Federation of German Jews requested the introduction of Feldrabbiner (Field Rabbis) – rabbis dedicated to military chaplaincy in the German Army – something that had not existed before in the German Empire. In August 1914, eighty-one German rabbis volunteered to serve as Field Rabbis, and the first seven, among them, Rabbi Leo Baeck, entered service the following month. Rabbi Baeck’s service for Germany did not spare him from being incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp during WWll.

Every act of antisemitism – from wearing a swastika, shoving a Jew on the street, to mass murder – has conspiracy and demonization at its roots. In the middle ages, the common folk believed that their Jewish neighbours had poisoned the wells and were the source of the spread of the Black Death. This prompted massacres and expulsions.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a well-known 19th-century book written by the Czarist government, purports to record a meeting of influential Jews scheming to control the world’s finances. This book continues to prompt libels about the Jewish financier Soros, the Rothschilds, Israel, and a general suspicion that all Jews aim to “control the world.”

Deborah Lipstadt, the genocide/holocaust scholar, points out that demonized groups can be either successful or victimized.

“The racist “punches down” and loathes persons of colour because they are apparently “lesser than” the white person. They are, the racist proclaims, not as smart, industrious, qualified or worthy. In contrast, the antisemite “punches up.” The Jew is supposedly more powerful, ingenious and financially adept than the non-Jew. Neither of these notions is true; they serve to separate and isolate one group from the other.

The Megillah Text

In a recent zoom class on the Megillah, my niece Maya Silverman pointed out that the Megillah text teaches us profound lessons about the social and psychological webs that we are all entangled-in personally and communally. And yet, we are all called upon to place our imprint on our individual story as exemplified by the actions of each of the characters: Haman, Mordechai, Esther, Vashti (The King’s first wife), and Zeresh (Haman’s wife).

The Megilla text continues to tease young and old and inspire as satire, character study, politics, and offers important messages for all of us, perhaps, especially for our times. But when all is said and done, it inspires one of the most joyous days of the Jewish year: we are encouraged to dress up in costume, drink hard stuff till we can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, exchange gifts of sweets with our neighbours, give money to the poor, have a shared feast and above all enjoy the moment with singing, dancing and homegrown plays.

This is a lot to unpack – Happy Purim!

Creating satirical theatre is one of the traditions of the Purim celebration.

Here is one I discovered on YouTube: An original play By Itzik Manger, the Yiddish playwright with subtitles: a takeoff on the Purim Megillah.

A retelling of the Purim tale:

 

 

 

 

 

January 27: An International Day of Remembrance

January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was designated by the United Nations General Assembly, on November 1, 2005, as an international memorial day to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. January 27 is significant because the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz concentration camp on this day in 1945.

Since both of my parents lived through the Nazi period in Hungary and three of my grandparents, along with uncles, aunts and cousins, were murdered in Auschwitz, the Holocaust/shoah was something I had been aware of and struggled to comprehend from a very young age.Parents of Abigail Hirsch (Montreal) Unlike some families, there were no secrets regarding the war in my family. My sister Anita and I were both born after the war in Hungary, but my parents and uncle fled, escaped Communist Hungary in 1949 and arrived in Montreal in 1951. I was five years old at the time. There was quite a sizeable community of Hungarian-speaking survivors in Montreal at the time. They arrived as immigrants and, with the help of Jewish community resources, used their skills and worked hard to get started.

Both of my parents worked while I was growing up. My Mother paid a teenager to walk me to school, and I came home to an empty house.

My parents and our surviving relatives and friends in Montreal formed a close-knit community and spoke openly about their experiences whenever they got together on weekends and holidays. There was no way I could escape wondering about the Holocaust. Why? Who? How?

My search and struggles continue to this day. As a retired psychotherapist, I have come to realize that none of us escape the inherited bonds of our particular family history, whether it be the sequelae of slavery, or residential school, or the predatory governments of Africa or the Middle East, or merely the fault lines of poverty, all of us must wrestle with how these legacies impact us, even across generations.

However, we are also members of our contemporary local and international environments. Holocaust Remembrance Day is significant because it creates an opportunity for governments and institutions, locally and worldwide, to reflect upon the choices of individuals and governments that allowed this genocide to unfold and to remember, to honour the victims, and to commit to educating about the root causes of hatred to prevent future atrocities from happening.

Cover photo: Survivors from Poland disembark the US Military Ship
"S. S. General Sturgis" as they arrived in Canada on March 28, 1949.
Photo courtesy of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, Montreal)

 

Living with Two Calendars

Jews don’t have a double identity, but they live with two calendars – the secular, solar or Julian calendar, and the Jewish calendar based on the moon’s cycles.

The Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE recognized the need for a universal calendar. Before that date, the national calendar was influenced by Rome’s political leader’s whims, and no one could ever be sure of what the date was or would be anywhere in the world. The Julian calendar was designed to resolve this dilemma and align with the year’s seasons. It was adopted first by the Roman Empire and later by the rest of the world.

On the other hand, the Jewish calendar was initiated by Moses as described in the Torah while the Jews were still in Egypt and continues to rule the Jewish year.

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, This month shall be for you the head of the months; for you, it shall be the first of the months of the year.” (Exodus 12:2)

According to the Jewish historical timeline, that date would be 2448 on the Jewish calendar or 1313 BCE. Similar to the Julian calendar, this calendar also aligns with the natural seasons of the year. So it can be relied on for agricultural events and holidays and commemorations. In this way, everyone knows when the different plantings and harvests occur and how they correspond with various pilgrimage holidays, Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot and all other dates.

The Jewish Calendar

The Jewish calendar has four different New Years, each with a purpose. While this may seem strange at first glance, it is not so different when you consider that the modern American calendar may have a traditional New Year (the first of January), an additional new year for taxes, yet another new year for the Government’s fiscal year (in October), and another day that marks the start of the public school year (in September).

The first new year, the month of Nissan noted above, is connected to the holiday of Passover, which marks the redemption of Israel from the slavery of Egypt in the spring of the year.

The second new year is Elul, the sixth lunar month after Passover. It usually falls in late summer and legislates economic issues such as the tithes (taxes) of animals and vegetables. It also calculates the start of the Sabbatical year (7th) when all the land in Israel was to be left fallow, and the Jubilee year (50th) when the land was again required to be left fallow, and also, all monetary debts and mortgaged land was to be rescinded. Since these practices have been defunct since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, these dates have little current consequences but continue to be noted by Rabbis and halachic authorities.

The third new year is the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month. This is the month most Jews recognize and call their New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

The fourth New Year, Tu B’Shvat, the fifteenth day of the month of Shvat, usually falling between January and February, is considered the new year for trees. Tu B’Shvat was the starting date for determining the age of trees planted in the land of Israel since, according to the Torah, Jews are forbidden to consume the fruit of a tree growing in Israel that is less than three years old. Unlike the first of Nisan and the first of Elul, Tu B’Shvat is still widely observed worldwide as a minor Jewish holiday, and in the land of Israel, it does mark the beginning of the new sap, the budding of flowering spring trees.

Spring

The Kabbalists of Tzfat started the tradition of having a Tu b’Shvat seder, honouring the seven species of vegetables and fruit native to the land of Israel that are mentioned in the Torah. And more recently, the day has become identified with ecology and agricultural sustainability.

An analysis of the Jewish calendar reveals Jewish time’s interconnectedness, with Jewish holidays, Jewish precepts/mitzvahs and practices, going back five thousand years.

 

The Power of Words, Story, and Prayer

“It was that power of words, the gift of language, that was the greatest gift of all that  G-d gave to Adam and Adam alone.

This then becomes the “Gesher tzar me’od”– the very narrow bridge – that crosses the abyss between finite humanity and the infinity of God.

In short, Judaism is an ongoing conversation between that once-and-once-only divine voice that sounded at Sinai and the human interpretation of those words that has continued in every generation since. It is a great conversation that never ended.

The whole of Judaism is that ongoing “conversation” between Israel and God as to how we understand God’s word for all time to make it God’s word for our time.”

(Rabbi Jonathon Sacks’ speech on the inauguration of the National Library of Israel, May 2014).

The “Torah” is considered to be G-d’s communication with man. Prayer is supposed to be man’s communication with G-d. The Torah and the Jewish prayer book – the siddur – are the source texts for all Jewish culture and civilization.

The Book of Genesis

In the book of Genesis, the Torah documents G-d “speaking” with people. G-d is reported to have “conversations” with Adam in the Garden. He had quite a few conversations with Abraham throughout his life. And, G-d spoke to Rebecca when she asks about the struggling twins in her belly.

And the children struggled within her, and she said, “If [it be] so, why do I live?” And she went to inquire of the Lord.

And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger.” (Toldot verses 22-23)

When it comes to Jacob and Joseph, “communication” comes through dreams. However, Isaac speaks with G-d through a supplicating prayer.

And Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was barren, and the Lord accepted his prayer, and Rebecca, his wife, conceived. (Toldot verse 21)

Is it possible to communicate with G-d?

The Book of Genesis

Some say that all of the Book of Genesis comes to teach us that yes, G-d is available to each of us, individually, in our personal struggles and especially in the intimate struggles of the family.

Yael Zoldan speaking about her children’s’ book on prayer, When I Daven, says that “the very basics of prayer can be shared, even with the very young. By introducing elementary concepts such as acknowledging the gift of life, being in touch with your senses, observing the world around you, thankfulness and gratitude, preschoolers can develop an appreciation of what we do when we pray each day”.

The ongoing conversation, the communication with The Divine is the essence of prayer. And, the Cantor is considered to be the messenger of the people in voicing their thoughts and feelings in the public space.

 

The Cantor’s Prayer

In the Jewish faith, the cantor’s role is to lead communal prayers in the synagogue – to be the congregation’s messenger. He “speaks” to G-d on behalf of those assembled. He “gives voice” to their prayers.

Cantor

The siddur, a Jewish prayer book containing a set order of daily prayers, compiled over millennia, has traditional music attached to each prayer. But, the melodies vary significantly according to each community’s musical tradition. European cantors borrow from the Hasidic tradition and also the European classical and operatic musical modes.

The United States too has a unique tradition of Jewish cantorial services. For instance, I discovered at the convention that Leonard Bernstein and Arnold Schoenberg, each individually, was commissioned to compose for synagogue services in the early 1900s. Since World War ll, the US has created a tradition of participatory singing in the synagogue borrowed from folk-singing, with star names such as Shlomo Carlebach, Debbie Friedman, and Joey Weisenberg.

The video below showcases one of the most familiar prayers in the Jewish canon, sung only once a year on the Jewish New Year, on Rosh Hashannah.

Cantor Paul Heller of Belsize Square Synagogue in London sings the traditional words of Unetaneh Tokef at the European Cantors’ Convention open-mike concert. He begins by saying that this prayer is particularly appropriate to the new year’s beginning (January 2020). In hindsight, it almost seems prescient.

“As a shepherd seeketh out his flock and causeth each one to pass beneath his crook, so dost Thou G-d, review, number, and visit every living soul appointing the measure of every creature’s life and decreeing their destiny.”

On Rosh Hashanah, it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.

“How many will die and how many will be born. Who will live and who will die. Who after a long life and who before his time. Who by fire and who by water. Who by sword and who by beast. Who by famine and who by plague. Who will be impoverished and who will be enriched. Who will be exalted, and who will be degraded…

But teshuva/reconsideration, tefillah/prayer, and tzedaka/righteous actions, have the potential to annul the severity of the decree.”

Note how the audience can’t help but join him in the familiar final refrain of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedaka, which comes to remind us that our future depends not only on G-d but also on our own behaviour – reconsideration, prayer, and acts of righteousness.