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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘David Axelrod’

Next Year In ? – An Open Letter to Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Dear Rahm and David,

I’m writing this as I sit and watch, live via the Internet, the ceremony marking the rededication of the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem, in the area you would classify “east Jerusalem,” or “disputed territory,” or perhaps “occupied territory.”

Before asking a few questions, I’d like to describe to you several men who took part in tonight’s celebration.

First, there is Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin, presently speaker of the Knesset. A seventh generation Jerusalemite, Ruby is a Rivlin from both his mother and father’s side, descended from both the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon.

Rivlin, a seasoned politician, had trouble controlling his voice as he spoke, his words quivering with emotion, as he repeated the words of his great-grandfather, who spoke at the rededication of the destroyed Hurva shul a hundred and fifty years ago.

Also speaking briefly was former Prisoner of Zion and present chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky, who described how, in 1992, he convinced the Israeli government to unanimously approve reconstruction of the Hurva, destroyed by the Jordanians following their occupation of Jerusalem in 1948.

But the man who most impressed me was Vadim Rabinovitch, an Israeli from Russia who contributed heavily to the renovation of the Hurva. Rabinovitch spoke briefly, albeit in Russian, and announced that he and his partners, whose financial fortunes built the Hurva, would participate in rebuilding the nearby Tiferet Yisrael synagogue, also destroyed by the Arabs during the War of Independence. These men, who grew up without any Jewish background, and who today barely speak Hebrew, are investing their life’s fortunes in synagogues in Jerusalem.

And you, Rahm and David, what are you investing your lives in?

Rahm, it is said you are the cornerstone of your boss’s policy toward Israel and the Middle East. Since this administration took office, you have been quoted, time and time again, as pushing a two-state solution. “Israel,” you’ve said, “now faces a moment of truth – it can either acquiesce to international demands and in return have its most serious threats dealt with, or maintain the status quo and have those threats persist.”

In other words, Israel’s future as a state, and in large part the continued existence of the Jewish people, is dependent on Israel acquiescing to the demands of the U.S. and Arab terrorists.

And David, just a few days ago you publicly turned Israel over your knee and paddled it, saying, “What happened there was an affront . It was an insult . This was not the right way to behave.” This, of course, in reference to the announcement that Israel will continue to build in Jerusalem.

Is this the behavior of two good Jewish boys who, it is said, love Israel?

Truthfully, Rahm, it’s very difficult to understand your actions. You belong to an Orthodox synagogue in Chicago. You grew up in a Jewish home, with a strong affinity to Israel. Your father was born in Jerusalem and your uncle, for whom you were named, was killed by Arabs in Jerusalem. And you still support a position forbidding Jewish building in Jerusalem?

And David, you too are no stranger to Judaism. Born on the Lower East Side in New York, you always knew you were Jewish. Yet you see fit to push your own people into security situations that jeopardize the continued existence of the Jewish state.

How is it that men like you, whose lives have always been saturated with Judaism, do not comprehend simple truths understood by others who grew up in Soviet Russia knowing almost nothing about their Jewish roots?

Even your names reflect your Jewish souls: David, dating back to King David, and Rahm, meaning “high,” hinting at the Creator, and in your case a form of the word rachamim, meaning mercy. Upon whom do you have mercy, Mr. Emanuel? Perhaps both of you should repudiate your names, changing them, as did Hellenistic Jews in Israel during the time of the Greek occupation. How can you carry such Jewish names yet at the same time assist in pushing your people to the brink?

I have one other question for both of you. I am writing this on the night that marks the first day of the new month of Nissan, the month of geula, of redemption from Egypt. In exactly two weeks we will begin the Passover holiday, commencing with the Seder, the first Pesach meal, when we relate the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.

What’s New with Prague’s Old-New Synagogue, And Old Jewish Cemetery?

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

House of Life: The Old Jewish

Cemetery in Prague

A film by Allan Miller and Mark Podwal

First Run Features, 52 minutes, $24.95

www.houseoflifefilm.com/

 

Built by Angels: The Story of the

Old-New Synagogue

By Mark Podwal

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 48 pages, $16

www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/

 

 

When on April 5th, First Lady Michelle Obama visited Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod, a senior White House advisor, she expressed particular interest in the synagogue’s collection of drawings by children from the concentration camp of Terez?n, which they created under the tutelage of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944). When the group viewed the Old Jewish Cemetery, they were following in the footsteps of former President Bill Clinton, and the more than half a million tourists who come each year, according to a recent article by Mark Podwal in The Jerusalem Post.

 

Podwal should know, having visited Prague 15 times – often to spend the High Holidays and Passover at the Old-New Synagogue where he has his own seat with a Hebrew-and-English plaque bearing his name. Podwal has designed a poster celebrating 100 years of the Jewish Museum in Prague, and his Hamsa bookmarks and pins were sold in the Metropolitan Museum’s store in conjunction with its exhibit “Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437″ (2005-2006). More recently, he is also the author and illustrator of a new book on the synagogue, and co-producer with Allan Miller of a new documentary on Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, which aired on PBS earlier this month.

 

 

Allan Miller (right) and Mark Podwal

 

 

If the documentary must be summed up in one sentence, it would be Professor Vladim?r Sadek’s statement early on in the film, that Rabbi Judah Loew – the Maharal – was “traditional, ancient, and modern.” Indeed, the city that “House of Life” captures is one of juxtaposed opposites: cars, buses, and McDonalds logos, with tourist shops selling Golem dolls and candles, alternating with camera shots of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, with stones half-blank for Holocaust victims.

 

“House of Life” is no travel agency pitch for Prague, though it is jam-packed with fascinating historical facts and beautiful landscape shots. The first time a Star of David was officially used as an emblem for the Jewish community was on the tombstone of Rabbi David Gans (1541-1613), the author of the “Tzemach David.” On the stone, a goose symbolizes the surname, while the star, allegedly the shape of King David’s shield, reflects the historian and astronomer’s first name.

 

Other decorations on tombstones include: hands arranged a la [Star Trek's] Spock (for a Cohen), a pitcher and washbasin (Levi), scissors (tailor), grapes (fertility), and various animals like lions (for those named Judah) and deer (for someone named Hirsch). There are even human figures (including nudes) on the tombstones, which may surprise some readers. But the film also has a journalistic touch when it interviews people who complain about being forced to pay to visit the cemetery. Some of the most beautiful pieces of art in the film are a series of paintings detailing the activities of the burial society, from preparing the body to the rabbi’s eulogy to washing the hands after leaving the cemetery.

 

The story also addresses the magic surrounding the Maharal, and in so doing overlaps with “Built by Angels.” Both the film and the book tell of white doves miraculously flapping their wings to extinguish fires that threatened the Altneuschul, the Old-New Synagogue. Both also tell of the synagogue’s stones, which were on loan from the Temple and which were to be returned for the next Temple, and of ghosts filling the synagogue after hours to pray when all the people had left. 

 

 

Interior of the Altneuschul

 

 

Podwal explains early on in the book that the Altneuschul, which has “as many stories as stones,” was said to have been constructed by angels, but was later forgotten. A thousand years later, the Jews came to Prague and found a beautiful city with many churches, but no place for them to pray. An angel, posing as a beggar, showed them a hill, and when they dug upon the hill, they uncovered the synagogue – “Although old, it mysteriously looked new.” As the beggar-angel prepared to leave, he told the people that the stones derived from the Temple, and they must not be moved at all, lest the entire structure fall.

 

The synagogue evoked the Temple in other ways too. On the High Holidays, when congregants were so tightly packed in that “no one could force a finger between them,” the stones expanded so there was room for everyone to bow down. This recalls a similar statement about the Temple in Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:5, in which the Temple was said to, have “opened up” on certain holidays (for the “regalim,” or “feet,” when all Jews living in or near Jerusalem flocked to the Temple) so that every person had enough room to bow on the ground.

 

Podwal’s book – which includes a wide range of Jewish and mystical symbols in its drawings, including angel’s wings, Torah pointers (yads), Hebrew letters, and Kabbalistic motifs – details others sorts of miracles that graced the synagogue. Congregants had to bang on the doors in the morning to let the ghosts know it was time to leave, and a piece of matzoh (the Afikomen, in fact) hung in the building all year. With Passover immediately behind us, a year-round matzoh might not sound particularly appetizing or miraculous, but this piece had special powers to protect the Jewish community.

 

 

Praying on the High Holidays. Image from “Built by Angels”

 

 

In many ways, the book makes a good companion guide to the film. The gouache paintings of “Built by Angels” are so bold and playful that they seem to suggest a dream sequence. They are realistic, and yet they also contain abstract elements. In that sense they resemble the most prominent element of “House of Life”: the tombstones in the cemetery. Through rain and snow, light and shadows, the stones seem to be both living things and inanimate objects that only point to people who once lived.

 

 

Old Jewish Cemetery. Still photo from “House of Life”

 

 

I have never been to Prague so I cannot vouch for the authenticity of its representation in the book and in the documentary. But I am fairly certain that if I ever get the chance, I will be well prepared for both the surfaces of the landmarks I encounter, as well as the mystical and magical aspects that lurk beneath.

 

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts//2009/04/29/

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