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September 25, 2016 / 22 Elul, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘Eastern Europe’

Legends And Fantasies In Jewish Life

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Legends are necessary for nation building and community cohesiveness. Legends of holy and pious people and legends about villains and the wicked are often subject to fabrication and gross exaggeration, but they leave no doubt in the minds of later generations as to who was the holy and pious person and who was the villain.

Midrash is probably the main conveyor of legend to Jews as far as the biblical and Talmudic periods are concerned. However, there is a plethora of legends about great Jews throughout the centuries that exists in an oral and sometimes written fashion. The great rebbe of Kotzk, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (Halperin), said the definitive word about all of these legends and stories: “He who believes all of these tales is a fool and yet he who states that they could not have occurred is a non-believer.”

Many times there are legends that contradict one another. This should not faze us, for again, each legend comes to emphasize a particular insight into an event or a personality trait of a great person and does not declare the statement it makes as fact.

Midrash is full of contradictory statements and opinions about the very same incident or person – but this in no way compromises the value of Midrash to us as a conduit of Jewish values and insights. It is only when Midrashand legends are taught as facts that these problems of contradictions and obvious exaggerations arise.

The Jewish people as a whole possess a strong collective memory. We remember leaving Egypt on a Thursday and standing at Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah on Shabbat. We remember all of the glories of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem as we do the Babylonian exile and the story of Purim. Ezra and the Second Temple, the Hasmoneans and Herod as well are all stored in our genetic memory cells.

The events of the long exile and of our longing to return home to Zion and Jerusalem are a significant part of our memory bank. This memory bank has been fed by stories about great people, significant events and terrible tragedies that have occurred over the millennia of Jewish life. These legends, whether completely accurate or not, help us recall the core event about which they revolve and, in so doing, keep our memory of the past alive enabling us to deal so much better with our present situations and challenges. A people cannot survive for long having lost its memory.

Most of the secular Jewish world today suffers from this type of amnesia regarding its past. There was a Jewish people before 1897 and the Zionist movement, before the Holocaust and before 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel. Ignoring and ridiculing Jewish legend, even when one is seemingly historically or empirically correct in so doing, helps destroy accurate Jewish memory as well.

One must be careful to remove and differentiate legend from fact. But legend should nevertheless be retained, for it casts light and shadow, nuance and insight on the facts that we do know and have at hand. Facts are knowledge while legend often is pure inspiration. It is legend and Midrash that create sermons, dreams, goals and action in the Jewish world. It is legend that has contributed to the revival of Jewish life in individuals and communities over the past decades. Legend is to be treasured.

Nevertheless, the main problem with legend is that it is often translated into reality and fact and replaces the simple understanding of words and events that appear in the Torah. The Talmud was well aware of this tendency and therefore stated: “A verse in the Torah never loses its plain simple meaning.”

Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), the grandson of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) in eleventh-century France, chided his grandfather for wandering too far away from this principle in his immortal commentary to Torah. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra struggled mightily to separate legend from fact in his Torah commentary. So did Don Yitzchak Abrabanel and Rabbi Ovadya Sforno.

Even in the Talmud there is strong criticism of “those who continually distort the plain meaning of the verse” and substitute legend for it. But as any pulpit rabbi having to deliver a sermon every Shabbat to his long-suffering congregation will tell you, it is the stuff of legend that piques the interest of an audience and captivates it.

So the quest for the perfect balance in this matter still continues in the pulpit, the classroom and in the works of commentary to Torah and Judaism. The Talmud has been eminently successful in achieving such a balance when discussing the past of Israel and its biblical heroes and leaders. It records everything, hides nothing and yet preserves legend as the essential understanding of the person and the situation.

* * * * *
There is an admonition in Judaism not to speak ill of the dead. There are also halachic restraints on what can be said about the living. Slander has a very broad definition in Judaism and thus even the “truth” is often prohibited from being said or printed in many circumstances.

All of this naturally creates somewhat of a vacuum regarding the true events and behavior patterns of the lives of famous people and then, inexorably, legend rushes in to fill that vacuum. Thus most biography in the religious world of Judaism is fanciful, hagiographic and laden with anecdotes and stories, some of which are too fantastic and incredible for even to the most na?ve to believe. Yet it is clear that the very existence of a legend can tell us something about the person. Two men once exchanged stories about a great sage for whom fantastic claims of spirituality and piety were being made. One asked, “Do you really believe that story?” The other replied, “No, I do not. But no one tells such stories about the two of us.”

Thus legend does in fact tend to be valuable in assessing the character and achievements of great figures of the Jewish past and present. Again, the caveat in all of this remains the ability to remember it is legend and not necessarily reality one is dealing with in such matters. And the Jewish penchant for legend is so strong that when books of true biography, warts and all, are written about great Jewish figures, these works usually face withering criticism if not outright bans in religious circles.

Many times legend becomes myth. Myth is a sense of human recognition that the story being told is not factual but it nevertheless changes legend from history or biography into literature and philosophy – sometimes sacred holy literature and philosophy.

For instance, there is an opinion in the Talmud that Job as a person never existed, and that the entire book of Job is an allegory introduced into the holy canon of the Bible to teach us the philosophy and worldview of Judaism on the subjects of reward and punishment, man’s travails on earth and the inscrutability of the divine will as reflected in our lives.

Myth is therefore much more philosophical than mere legend. It transcends this “real” world to discuss and teach values and insights that are eternal and almost never changing in the human existence. It provides the background lighting for our brief appearance on the stage of life.

Legend teaches us how to view others and events; myth is meant to teach us how to view ourselves. Legend is often only storytelling. Myth is a psychological counseling session. Great empires – Greece, Rome, China, Japan, Sweden, Germany, and Britain, among others – have been built upon the mythology of the founding tribe of that empire. This strong sense of the founding mythology has remained present, unfortunately often for evil purpose, throughout the centuries of these countries’ existence.

The Torah does not deal with myth per se. Yet the Flood and Noah’s ark, the Tower of Babel, the centrality of the land of Israel, factual as they all are in the biblical narrative, nevertheless were all combined to create a basis for the holy mythology of the Jewish people. In addition, the idea that the “events of the works and decisions of our founders, the fathers of Israel, are a sure guidepost for their descendants” helped strengthen a mythology that binds the Jewish generations together and gives us insights into the values of Judaism and historical events, past and present.

* * * * *
There are many types of fantasies that exist in Jewish life. There is a natural tendency among all humans to be nostalgic about the past – “the good old days.” The truth of the matter is that “the good old days” may have been old but they rarely were good. Yet this fantasy is still today a major one in the Jewish world, especially in the religiously observant Jewish society.

The portrait of Jewish life that emerges from this oft repeated and taught fantasy is that Jewish life in eastern Europe, difficult as the physical conditions might have been, was spiritually wonderful and that Jews were somehow serene and happy in that time and place. Also part of the fantasy is that in Eastern Europe Torah study was rampant, the Torah scholar was honored and treasured by the community and that almost everyone was observant of Jewish law and halachic ritual.

This fantasy is not only false, it is terribly dangerous. It allows us to currently repeat the errors of the past that led to the secularization of the majority of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe and to the breakdown of rabbinic and Torah authority.

In the nineteenth century, Jews in Eastern Europe became assimilated. They became Marxists and revolutionaries, secular and agnostic if not even atheistic. By the 1930s, seventy percent of all Jewish children in Poland no longer attended Jewish schools of any kind. Urbanization took a tremendous toll on traditional Jewish lifestyle. Terrible working conditions and onerous work hours in the city’s factories destroyed the Sabbath for many. Child labor was common and unemployment in Jewish society reached astronomical figures. Poverty, disease and malnutrition were the lot of most of the Jewish masses. The educational system, the traditional cheder, the one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum and the students, all began to collapse of its own weight.

The breakdown of the traditional Jewish world in the twentieth century, of which the Holocaust was naturally a very strong and dominant contributing factor, nevertheless began in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. It was not a phenomenon caused by America or modern Israel, though that is where the results of this breakdown of Jewish life are currently playing out. And, therefore, portraying and perpetuating the fantasy of Eastern European Jewish life as idyllic is counterproductive to any attempts to build Torah Judaism today in America and Israel.

Other fantasies exist in the Jewish world. Superstitions abound. There are many charlatans who prey on innocent people. Selling fantasies is big business, and it is thriving. The fantasy that such pressing and dangerous problems as sexual deviancy, monetary cheating, criminal behavior, substance abuse, etc., cannot and do not exist in observant Jewish society is perpetuated, all real evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. People always prefer to whistle past the graveyard, and therefore this fantasy of perfection in our society persists.

There is a fantasy that alleged kabbalism-based healing exists and that therefore one should always pursue this type of alternative medicine. Prayer to God certainly helps and works but magical potions of holy water and other such fantasies are the stuff of the gullible and credulous, sold by the exploiters of other people’s troubles, usually for personal monetary gain.

Judaism is a very sophisticated faith. It does not lend itself to fantasies about things that are not real or beneficial. Yet superstitions exist because life itself is irrational and humans find it difficult to deal with. Therefore, fantasies are always with us and part of our psychological makeup. Some are very dangerous. Others are relatively benign. The rabbis of the Talmud always sought to dampen Jewish fantasies, even about the messianic era. But the pattern of recurring fantasies in Jewish life always reemerges in every generation and society. It is part of human nature – it may even be a necessary part – and Jews are no exception to the governing rules of human nature.

Then there exists in Jewish society outright falsifications about the past and the present. I mentioned earlier the falsification of the real situation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Eastern European Jewry. Stories and descriptions about people and events are made up of whole cloth. The ideas and philosophies of great people of the past are twisted to make them conform to modern political correctness in sections of Jewish society. Photographs are doctored, skullcaps are added or removed, unpleasant incidents are sanitized – all in the name of advancing the true faith as it is currently understood to be.

It is this tendency that makes falsification so dangerous for, by perverting history and biography, it robs us of the ability to truly learn valuable lessons from the past and from the great people who lived then. Truth has to win out eventually; it will always find its way, and the more falsifications piled on it only makes its eventual emergence more shocking and traumatic.

So again, separating the wheat from the chaff of Jewish history and biography has been an ongoing pattern throughout Jewish history. We find it in the Talmud and in all later works of Jewish scholarship. Just as the scholars of Israel throughout the ages have labored mightily to present us with a correct text of our holy books, free of emendations and copyist errors, so, too, there should continue to be an effort to present us with a record of Jewish history and biography free from purposeful or negligent falsifications.

We have a great deal to learn from the past. One of those lessons is that a false history is as dangerous as, if not more dangerous than, no history at all.

Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. A pulpit rabbi for decades, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997His latest book is “Patterns in Jewish History” (Koren Publishers), from which this essay is adapted.

Rabbi Berel Wein

It’s My Opinion: Freedom

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

A boat was intercepted in the Florida Straits on July 13. A surveillance plane spotted the vessel and directed the U.S. Coast Guard to intervene. The boat held a passenger who had fled the island of Cuba.He was parched and exhaustedand was said to have been adrift for weeks. Rescuers were shocked to see that the seven-foot craft was made of Styrofoam.

 

Since the Communist takeover of Cuba, thousands of desperate men, woman and children have flocked to the shores of Florida. Often they risk their lives in homemade and rickety crafts. Some are made of inner tubes tied together with rope. Others are makeshift rafts. One amazing “boat” was an old taxicab that incredibly was set afloat. Desperation seems to have inspired ingenuity.

 

What could drive an individual to make such a perilous journey? What could motivate a human being to put himself through such danger? The answer is compelling.

 

The quest for freedom is a powerful motivator. It can cause people to act in remarkable ways. Throughout the course of time, revolutions and uprisings, revolts and freedom movements have been sparked by this desire.

 

The United States of America was created as a bastion of freedom. The Founding Fathers understood how precious this concept really was. Cubans, as well as people from around the world, are aware of this and that is why they flock to our shores.

 

My family escaped the tyranny of Eastern Europe to come to America in the beginning of the 1900s. They came from shteiblach in Poland and Jewish enclaves in Russian cities. They suffered from state-sanctioned anti-Semitism and stifling government control. They had no prospects of improving their lot. They sought freedom from these injustices. They prospered in this country. Their story is the quintessential American tale.

 

It is quite ironic that without a fight, war or declaration of intent, America’s citizens have given up many of their hard-won freedoms. Without even noticing, freedoms of choice, finances, business and privacy have been compromised, many within the last year-and-a-half.

 

The idea of an all-knowing big government (that caused so many to run away from other countries) has incrementally been introduced here. We have exchanged the American idea of free enterprise, that gave us prosperity, for a bail-out mentality that has never worked in any of the places and times that it has been tried.

 

This seems to be an age that rewards incompetence. The same federal bureaucracy that faces a failing Medicare and Medicaid system has now taken on national health care. The same federal bureaucracy that suffered the debacle of an embarrassing “cash for clunkers” car exchange, now heads General Motors. The same federal bureaucracy that has suffered many breaches of security on its most sensitive computer data has now exposed all Americans to have their most personal and private medical records on a national data bank.

 

It is time to wake up. Freedom is a priceless commodity. The American people need to be aware of how easily it can be lost.

Shelley Benveniste

Title: The Bugs Are Burning: The Role of Eastern Europeans in the Exploitation, Subjugation and Murder of Their Jewish Neighbors

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Title: THE BUGS ARE BURNING: The Role of Eastern Europeans in the Exploitation, Subjugation and Murder of Their Jewish Neighbors During the Holocaust

Authors: Dr. Sheldon Hersh and Dr. Robert Wolf

Publisher: Devora Publishing 

 

 

In this meticulously documented treatise of centuries old European anti-Semitism, authors Drs. Sheldon Hersh and Robert Wolf graphically depict the hellacious barbarism and heinous atrocities committed against the Jewish people throughout Eastern Europe before, during and after the Holocaust by those they believed to be their close neighbors and friends.

 

        They painstakingly take us through a nightmarish odyssey of the toxic manifestations of deeply entrenched anti-Semitism in such countries as Lithuania, Latvia, the Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Croatia and Poland in the decades preceding the Holocaust. Quoting from a litany of respected books on the history of pre-Holocaust Jew-hatred, they impart unique perspective on the nihilistic philosophies that proliferated throughout Europe in the early 20th century and offer, as well, a salient exploration of the genesis of bellicosity towards Jews and the ramifications thereof. 

 

Lusting for Jewish blood, the indigenous gentile population of Eastern Europe, the authors inform us, rapidly morphed into unabashed miscreants. Gladly becoming more than “willing participants” in the wholesale slaughter of the Jews when their respective countries were occupied by Nazi forces, these Eastern Europeans   possessed no compunction about liquidating Jewish assets and property, or for that matter, engaging in the most horrific forms of sadistic mass murder of their Jewish neighbors.  

 

        Clearly, rabid Jew-hatred was endemic to Eastern Europe since the influx of Jewish immigrants centuries before. Aided and abetted by the insidious dogma of the Church and the hateful rhetoric against Jews in the media and the government, resentments of the Jews grew exponentially as the continent stood poised to explode like a powder keg. One need only read of the wanton murder of Jews prior to the   advent of Nazism throughout Europe to gain a cogent understanding of why   Hitler’s manifesto held sway in these countries – they were already soaked with Jewish blood and tears.

 

In June of 1941, when German forces occupied a town called Jedwabne, the Polish residents held a town meeting in which they decided that the Jewish residents be annihilated. One can only recoil in horror as the authors tell us, “Hooks and wooden clubs were the murderers’ instruments of choice. Jews were set upon; their heads severed from their bodies and kicked about like soccer balls. To escape the killers, women fled to a nearby pond and drowned themselves along with their babies. Those who survived were brought to the town square, where they were beaten with clubs and stones, and herded into a barn that was set ablaze by their Polish neighbors. As for the younger children, they were roped together by their legs, carried on the executioners’ backs to be impaled on pitchforks, and thrown onto the smoldering coals of the burning barn.”

 

        Other such depraved stories of mass murder of Jews in other countries are also told here in chilling detail. The authors give us something to reflect upon as it pertains to the scourge of modern day anti-Semitism when they quote Deborah Lipstadt in her book, Witnesses to the Holocaust. She writes, “The Holocaust was not committed by a cadre of sadistic beasts. Before the war these people were doctors, lawyers, architects, teachers, clerks, farmers and students…It means that it takes relatively little to turn ‘normal’ humans into creatures capable of the most sadistic acts.”

 

        Eastern European collaborators murdered well over a million Jews sans the assistance of the Nazi death machine while the world stood in abject silence.  They had interpreted the world’s reluctance to voice objections to such acts as tacit imprimatur to continue their rampages. 

 

This book is replete with a plethora of profound lessons on the vituperative and lethal nature of unchecked anti-Semitism, but its most paramount insights relate to the existential perils that the Jews of today’s world confront.

 

Jew hatred has become a fashionable and “politically correct” phenomenon in the spheres of the Western academy, but this time around it is couched in semantics. While classical Jew-hatred is dismissed by intellectuals as blatantly racist, the very same menacing sentiments have been summarily replaced by the en vogue terminology better known as “anti-Zionism”. Much more than a cut and dry history book, The Bugs Are Burning teaches that the brand of Jew-hatred we are now witnessing must be accorded intellectual and emotional gravitas and addressed in the strongest of terms. Now, before it is too late.

Fern Sidman

Title: The Bugs Are Burning: The Role of Eastern Europeans in the Exploitation, Subjugation and Murder of Their Jewish Neighbors During the Holocaust

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Title: THE BUGS ARE BURNING: The Role of Eastern Europeans in the Exploitation, Subjugation and Murder of Their Jewish Neighbors During the Holocaust


Authors: Dr. Sheldon Hersh and Dr. Robert Wolf


Publisher: Devora Publishing 

 

 


In this meticulously documented treatise of centuries old European anti-Semitism, authors Drs. Sheldon Hersh and Robert Wolf graphically depict the hellacious barbarism and heinous atrocities committed against the Jewish people throughout Eastern Europe before, during and after the Holocaust by those they believed to be their close neighbors and friends.

 

        They painstakingly take us through a nightmarish odyssey of the toxic manifestations of deeply entrenched anti-Semitism in such countries as Lithuania, Latvia, the Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Croatia and Poland in the decades preceding the Holocaust. Quoting from a litany of respected books on the history of pre-Holocaust Jew-hatred, they impart unique perspective on the nihilistic philosophies that proliferated throughout Europe in the early 20th century and offer, as well, a salient exploration of the genesis of bellicosity towards Jews and the ramifications thereof. 

 

Lusting for Jewish blood, the indigenous gentile population of Eastern Europe, the authors inform us, rapidly morphed into unabashed miscreants. Gladly becoming more than “willing participants” in the wholesale slaughter of the Jews when their respective countries were occupied by Nazi forces, these Eastern Europeans   possessed no compunction about liquidating Jewish assets and property, or for that matter, engaging in the most horrific forms of sadistic mass murder of their Jewish neighbors.  

 

        Clearly, rabid Jew-hatred was endemic to Eastern Europe since the influx of Jewish immigrants centuries before. Aided and abetted by the insidious dogma of the Church and the hateful rhetoric against Jews in the media and the government, resentments of the Jews grew exponentially as the continent stood poised to explode like a powder keg. One need only read of the wanton murder of Jews prior to the   advent of Nazism throughout Europe to gain a cogent understanding of why   Hitler’s manifesto held sway in these countries – they were already soaked with Jewish blood and tears.

 

In June of 1941, when German forces occupied a town called Jedwabne, the Polish residents held a town meeting in which they decided that the Jewish residents be annihilated. One can only recoil in horror as the authors tell us, “Hooks and wooden clubs were the murderers’ instruments of choice. Jews were set upon; their heads severed from their bodies and kicked about like soccer balls. To escape the killers, women fled to a nearby pond and drowned themselves along with their babies. Those who survived were brought to the town square, where they were beaten with clubs and stones, and herded into a barn that was set ablaze by their Polish neighbors. As for the younger children, they were roped together by their legs, carried on the executioners’ backs to be impaled on pitchforks, and thrown onto the smoldering coals of the burning barn.”

 

        Other such depraved stories of mass murder of Jews in other countries are also told here in chilling detail. The authors give us something to reflect upon as it pertains to the scourge of modern day anti-Semitism when they quote Deborah Lipstadt in her book, Witnesses to the Holocaust. She writes, “The Holocaust was not committed by a cadre of sadistic beasts. Before the war these people were doctors, lawyers, architects, teachers, clerks, farmers and students…It means that it takes relatively little to turn ‘normal’ humans into creatures capable of the most sadistic acts.”

 

        Eastern European collaborators murdered well over a million Jews sans the assistance of the Nazi death machine while the world stood in abject silence.  They had interpreted the world’s reluctance to voice objections to such acts as tacit imprimatur to continue their rampages. 

 

This book is replete with a plethora of profound lessons on the vituperative and lethal nature of unchecked anti-Semitism, but its most paramount insights relate to the existential perils that the Jews of today’s world confront.

 

Jew hatred has become a fashionable and “politically correct” phenomenon in the spheres of the Western academy, but this time around it is couched in semantics. While classical Jew-hatred is dismissed by intellectuals as blatantly racist, the very same menacing sentiments have been summarily replaced by the en vogue terminology better known as “anti-Zionism”. Much more than a cut and dry history book, The Bugs Are Burning teaches that the brand of Jew-hatred we are now witnessing must be accorded intellectual and emotional gravitas and addressed in the strongest of terms. Now, before it is too late.

Fern Sidman

‘That’s How I Was Raised And I Turned Out Okay!’ (Conclusion)

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

“What do you mean, ‘controlling’? This is called parenting! I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. I’m being responsible. I’m parenting my children the same way my parents parented me. If it worked then, there’s nothing to question; it’ll work now. Besides, look at me; I turned out okay!”

Some people emulate their parents’ controlling behaviors such as yelling, criticizing, threatening and/or putting down their child. Their reaction is usually rapid and their reasoning is often rather simple. They are responding to an automatic program in their brain, an emblazoned imprint of instructions. Unfortunately, such parents may not necessarily realize that, in the process of using such conduct, there may be adverse effects on one or any number of their children. In the long run, they may be losing a great deal more than they perceive they are gaining (in the present), that is, a loving relationship.

That leads me to the following questions: “Why do so many parents use external control and why is it so difficult for them to break away from that approach?

Of course there are many possible answers and they vary. In Part I, we touched upon one issue: beliefs that are associated with Eastern European authoritarian parenting (although these beliefs are not exclusive to this one culture). In this concluding segment, other factors will be presented.

Fears and Anxieties; Second-Guessing, Projections and Future-Tripping:

In the past 10 years or so, fears and anxieties related to parenting have taken on a new dimension. With a rise in adolescents who are living emotionally unhealthy lifestyles, and who are veering from their family’s religious orientation, many parents have been beset with fears and anxieties as early as their children’s pre-school years. With the proliferation of community awareness, some parents have become overly concerned with what they perceive as early warning signs for teenage at-risk behavior. This concern often leads to the creation of assumptions and presumptions and a great deal of second-guessing.

Future-tripping is often also an accompaniment as parents begin to worry about their children’s future, based on little or no information. And with the purpose of preventing their children from moving toward future unwanted negative behaviors, some parents may use a tough and controlling approach, believing that control will head off an unwanted outcome. Their logic is noble and replete with positive intentions. However, their desire to provide self-assurance can easily lead them to a belief that they have the power to “fix” their children.

Expectations and Loss of Parents’ Dreams:

From the time a child is born, parents envision their child’s future where all their expectations and dreams are met. However, when a child does not follow in the path of the family’s religious ways and/or is not living as a productive member of society, the original dreams come to a full stop, often referred to as a lost dream. Some of the teen’s lifestyle choices intensify the parents’ feelings of grief. Concurrent feelings of disappointment, frustration, impatience and intolerance further reinforce the parents’ feelings of loss. At various points throughout the child’s struggles, parents may try to halt their child’s negative lifestyle choices by using various elements of external control. Thinking they can stop this downward spiral, the use of control usually intensifies the process. And ironically, the teen’s fall often progresses more rapidly.

Note: The majority of parents I have worked with have admitted to a belief that using external control will bring their child back on course and into the mainstream of “normal” religious society. With that achieved, their original expectations and dreams will have returned.

Standardization:

Many people have a need to conform to what identifies them in their society. This translates into: “My child has to be, act and dress in the same way as my neighbors and community people in order that we fit in. Keeping up with the Joneses is important if we are to belong and be accepted within our community.” They believe using external control will guarantee achieving these results.

Comparing One’s Family to Other Family Members, Friends and Neighbors:

When parents are not seeing the desired results in their child, and they observe seemingly successful families, there is a tendency for them to believe they are doing something wrong in their parenting approach. Observing another family who is achieving success with the use of external control easily generates self-doubt. The self-doubt can influence parents to emulate a controlling approach which may be a far cry from that which is applicable and appropriate for their family situation.

Keep in mind: It is easy for forget that every child is different, as is every family dynamic.

Habit and Comfort:

For those who are using a more empowering approach, positive results may not necessarily be apparent immediately. At such a point, due to frustration and possible impatience, there is a tendency to revert automatically to previous behaviors and parenting methodologies (i.e. control). After all, old ways are familiar and easy, and since we human beings have a need to be doing ‘something,’ it makes sense to attach ourselves to that ‘something’ that will provide us with comfort and security. Besides, a part of us believes the old way worked. And perhaps it did. However, either we did not pay attention to the repercussions or we forgot how our behaviors impacted negatively on ourselves and our family.

A controlling (tough) approach may have been suitable at a time and place referred to as Eastern Europe, before and after the turn of the 20th century. With a new land on the horizon, there was no reason to believe the same methodology would not work. And generations later, still there was no reason to believe the same approach would be ineffective.

That was then and this is now.

“Z’chor yemos olam, binu shnos dor v’dor…(Devarim 32:7) (Remember world history, understand the generational epochs).” Rashi interprets the word, “shnos” as generations; however, the word can also be derived from shinuy, which is change. With this different explanation, the following perspective can shed light on the theme of this article.

The Torah suggests we look back into out history. Study the changes and the differences that existed in the previous generation. Human interaction has similarities and differences in each generation. And the changes that must be made in each generation in order to effectively live within that time are specific and may not necessarily relate to the previous period. Therefore the application of techniques used in a previous time may be totally inappropriate for the current time.

Today’s society would greatly benefit by making adjustments, reassessing and re-evaluating its current systems and approaches in both the educational and parenting realms. The effect of world societal issues on our culture must be taken into consideration in order to understand and implement more effective parenting approaches that would suit current challenges.

Remember, external control may have worked in the previous generation in its cultural context. This does not necessarily follow that this approach would work for all families in our current period of history.

Debbie Brown is a certified life coach specializing in parent coaching. She is available for private, confidential phone coaching sessions as well as lectures and group workshops. For further information or to express feelings regarding the Parental Perspective topic, Debbie may be contacted at lovetoughcoach@aol.com. If you would like to read Debbie’s archived articles, log on to www.jewishpress.com, and in the search box on the home page, type in Debbie Brown.

Debbie Brown

The Founding Of Yeshiva Etz Chaim

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

      Note: Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from Jewish Education in New York Cityby Alexander M. Dushkin, The Bureau of Jewish Education, New York, 1918
 
      Between 1881 and 1924 approximately two million Jews immigrated to the United States, primarily from Eastern Europe and Russia. The great majority of them came as a result of the intensified Russian pogroms following the vicious discriminatory May Laws of 1881. Another factor was the belief that America was “die goldene medina” – the golden country, where economic opportunities were endless.
 
      In addition to the formidable challenge of earning a livelihood, these immigrants soon found that there were few established religious institutions where their children could receive a decent Jewish education. This vacuum was initially filled by the cheder and Talmud Torah.
 
      The cheder more often than not was run as private enterprise. Any person, qualified or not, who wished to supplement his income could open a school without hindrance. In short, while there certainly were cheders run by devoted and qualified teachers, there were many others in which the level of teaching was substandard at best. The result was that the cheder experience for many boys not only failed to give them a basic knowledge of Judaism, it left them with a very negative attitude toward the religion of their parents.
 

      The Talmud Torah was, in contrast to the cheder, a communal school under the direction of a board of directors. One of the best known of these was the Machzike Talmud Torah, which was reorganized in 1883. For a long time it was the pride of the Eastern European Jews who resided on the Lower East Side.

 

            The instruction during this period [1883-1902] was carried on daily from 4 to 8 o’clock every afternoon of the week except Fridays, also from 2 to 5 on Saturdays, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. Besides the afternoon classes, there were “day” classes, from 9 to 12 every morning, for young children below public school age. These classes were for the purpose of teaching young children the elements of Hebrew reading and some of the prayers.
 

            The curriculum of the Talmud Torah during this period was as follows: (a) reading of Hebrew, beginning from A B C up to fluent reading, in accordance with the rules of Hebrew grammar; (b) holy Scriptures and grammar; (c) benedictions and prayers, and translation of same; (f) meaning of holidays; (g) reading of the portion of the week (in the Bible) and the Haftorah (prophetic portion), according to the accentual marks and notes, also the benedictions pertaining thereto; (h) Shulchan Aruch and Orach Chayim; (i) decrees of the Jewish faith, and Jewish history.

 

      It’s interesting to note that in 1892, shortly after becoming a director of the Machzike Talmud Torah, Harry Fischel1 proposed to the board of directors a school for girls be opened under the direction of a young woman who had recently arrived from Eretz Yisrael. This was considered a revolutionary idea in 1892, and was bitterly opposed by some.
 
      One must keep in mind that in the nineteenth century formal Jewish education for girls was virtually unknown throughout the world, except for a few schools in Germany modeled after the Realschule founded by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch shortly after his arrival in Frankfurt in 1851. In spite of the opposition, Mr. Fischel prevailed. The result was that within a year the school had more applications from the parents of girls between the ages of 10 and 12 than it could accommodate.
 

Some Parents Want More

 

            But the Talmud Torah was not sufficient for the demands of some of the Eastern European Jews, because it failed to make proper provision for the study of the Talmud. Talmud had formed a very important element in their Jewish curriculum, in many cases the only element. It stressed the development of the “intellect,” and this intellectual ideal the Jews from Eastern Europe retained here also. Because the shorter time at the disposal of the Talmud Torah made it very difficult to meet this demand for instruction in Talmud, except to a limited extent, the most orthodox of the Eastern European Jews began to turn their attention to the third of their educational institutions, the Yeshibah.

 

      The result was that in 1886 Yeshiva Etz Chaim was incorporated as The Etz Chaim Talmudical Academy. The school was an intermediate Talmud Cheder, rather than an elementary school, and was modeled after it European counterparts.

 

            The early days of the institution are well characterized in the words of one of its founders. “A few of us Jews wanted that the Machzike Talmud Torah should teach Talmud, but they refused to do so. And so we went out into the street and picked up some boys, nine and ten years old, who knew the Bible with Rashi from ‘home,’ and began to teach them Talmud. We rented a room at 47 East Broadway. But our financial condition was so poor that we had no money with which to buy books. So we bought one Gemarah (Talmud) for 90 cents, and tore it into three parts, giving one part to each of the three Melammedim (teachers). To start our Yeshibah, the directors went about the neighborhood collecting nickels and dimes, which were given to us. In order to maintain the Yeshibah, the directors had to post up boxes in private homes and in synagogues, and then go personally to collect the money which good people deposited in them for our Yeshibah.”
 

            The aim of the institution was “to give instruction to poor Hebrew children in the Hebrew language and the Jewish religion – Talmud, Bible and Shulchan Aruch, during the whole day from 9:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon; also from 4:00 in the afternoon two hours shall be devoted to teaching the native language, English, and one hour to teaching Hebrew, Loschon Hakodesh, (holy language), and to read and write Jargon (Yiddish).”

 

      From the amount of time allocated to secular subjects, it is clear that the directors of the yeshiva considered these far less important than the students’ limudei kodesh studies. Abraham Cahan, who would eventually become the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward and a prominent figure in the Socialist movement in America, became one of the first teachers in the English department in 1887.

 

            Cahan records that the curriculum was loosely drawn to provide for the study of grammar, arithmetic, reading, and spelling – all within the “English Department.” But because the directors of the school had no clear idea of what should be taught, the English Department functioned haphazardly, more out of a perfunctory acknowledgement for these subjects than a sincere desire to “provide the children with a modern education.”
 
            The English Department was divided into two classes. The first was taught by a boy about fourteen, who had just graduated from public school and the second was taught by Cahan, who was a little less than twenty-eight years old. The students ranged from the ages of nine or ten to fifteen and many were exposed to the formal study of secular subjects for the first time. One of the native students received his first lessons in the English language when he entered the Yeshiva after passing his thirteenth birthday.
 

            The young immigrants presented an immense challenge to their devoted teachers. The students drank up the instruction with a thirst centuries old. Cahan frequently remained long after the prescribed teaching hours to tutor his pupils, who were uniformly poor in reading and mathematics and who regarded grammar as an exquisite form of torture. On these occasions, the directors would ask Cahan why he “worked so hard,” saying that the students “already knew enough English.”

 

      In 1912 Yeshiva Etz Chaim and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) merged. Etz Chaim became a preparatory school for RIETS. “In this way a self-contained and integrated Jewish educational unit, ranging through the highest level of Talmudic scholarship, was established for the first time on American soil.”2
 
        1 For information about the life of Harry Fischel, see “The Multimillionaire Who Remained True to Orthodoxy, Jewish Press, April 18, 2006, page 1; “Harry Fischel (1865-1948) Orthodox Jewish Philanthropist Par Excellence – I” Jewish Press, May 3, 2006, page 36 (Glimpses into American Jewish History) and “Harry Fischel (1865-1948) Orthodox Jewish Philanthropist Par Excellence – II” Jewish Press, June 2, 2006, page 70 (Glimpses into American Jewish History).
 
        2 The Story of Yeshiva University, The First Jewish University in America by Gilbert Klaperman, The Macmillian Company, Collier-Macmillian Limited, London, 1969.
 

 

      Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at  llevine@stevens.edu.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

Gilded Lions And Jeweled Horses: Woodcarving From The Synagogue To The Carousel

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel


American Folk Art Museum


45 West 53rd Street


New York, N.Y. 10019


212-265-1040


www.folkartmuseum.org


Tuesday – Sunday: 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Closed Monday


Admission $9; Students and Seniors, $7; Children under 12, Free


Exhibit Runs Until March 23, 2008


 


 


         Much like the Jewish people themselves, the legacy of Jewish Art has miraculously survived seemingly endless assaults over the past two centuries. In Eastern Europe, the forces of assimilation, cultural denial, and the Holocaust have worked to destroy a vast portion of our cultural birthright. Countless synagogues, along with their prized carved arks, decorated walls, illuminated manuscripts, books, Judaica, and folk art creations have been abandoned and left to decay as traditional communities have withered and died. Those who hate us have purposefully destroyed other synagogues outright.

 

         Nonetheless, a remnant of this precious legacy has endured, and one of the best examples of its glory is currently on view at the American Folk Art Museum. Both the exhibit, “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel,” and the brilliant catalogue are musts for all who cherish our cultural heritage.

 

         Aside from pure artistic pride, we discover another historical gem in this exhibition: the echoes of fantastic 17th century Baroque art as filtered through a Jewish consciousness embedded in woodcarving, stone-cutting, and papercuts. The exhibition charts the art of Jewish craftsmen as they worked in stone, paper, and wood from their origins in Eastern Europe to their subsequent work in American synagogues and the surprising role they played in the burgeoning carousel industry in the early 20th century.

 

         “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” is divided into five chronological sections, starting with photographs and exacting models of Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian wooden synagogues. This introduction sets a tone of architectural and visual opulence more common to 17th and 18th century Baroque Italian churches than our subdued and austere concept of synagogue architecture and interiors. What we forget (and these photographs confirm) is that the excitement and passion of the Baroque-emblematic of the Counter Reformation assault against the Protestant heresy-became a universal visual language for all of Europe, including the Jews, in the early years of the 17th century. While the Renaissance stressed balance and harmony, the Baroque style was exuberant, dramatic, and emotional, reveling in fantastic animals and symbols that expressed a fervent religious experience.

 

 



Ark of the Synagogue in Olkienniki, Lithuania (18th century);


Photo courtesy Polska Akademia Nauk, Instytut Sztuki, Warsaw


 

 

         The salient features of these synagogues were the lavishly painted and decorated interiors and the elaborately carved wooden arks. From these surviving photographs we can make out but a few examples of a flourishing art form: ornately detailed floral designs interspersed with zodiac signs and panels of textural quotes (Chodorow, Ukraine) and a wonderful painted menagerie of winged lions, eagles, and fantastic beasts (Grojec, Poland) that adorn the sacred interiors.

 

         The 18th century Torah ark seen from Olkienniki, Lithuania is a masterpiece of iconography, intricately carved and crowned with a double-headed eagle (representing temporal and celestial power) grasping a shofar and lulav bundle. Below is the ubiquitous blessing of priestly hands that hover over a crowned set of Tablets of the Law flanked by carved griffins, unicorns, and other mythical animals.

 

         Even closer to the viewer is a depiction of the Ouroburos, a serpent swallowing its own tail which represents the Leviathan, emblematic of renewal, eternity, redemption and the source of nourishment in the messianic world to come. Arks like these were often over 30 feet tall and were Baroque masterpieces of wood carving that substituted squirming beasts and vine-like flowers for the flying angels so common in many churches. Of the hundreds of similar wooden synagogues, almost all were destroyed in the Holocaust. All that is left are a dozen or so photographs, many of which can be seen here.

 

         The next section of photographs is of carved gravestones from Eastern Europe, continuing the rich iconography in a decidedly more primitive form. The four animals from Pirke Avot 5:23, “be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven,” are still in evidence, as are the messianic imagery of the Ouroburos and the ever present lions that guard the precious Torah.

 

         The difference is that almost all the renderings in stone are considerably more iconic than the pliable wooden arks. These rich and inventive stone-carved images are trapped in an unforgiving medium. Only the inherent durability of stone and pure chance has allowed many of these tombstones to survive the ravages of time and war.

 

         Papercuts are ultimately the most surprising aspect of this exhibition, which presents 32 brilliant masterpieces in a tour de force of folk art skill. Their creativity and diversity are breathtaking, and the impressive showing amounts to a world-class introduction to this uniquely Jewish art form. Starting in the 19th century, when paper became relatively inexpensive, this delicate and demanding art was practiced primarily by young boys and men. The paper was folded, cut according to an exacting design, and then laid on solid colored background to enhance the image. Some, if not all, of the paper was ornamented with ink and watercolor to create a rich, delicate, and multilayered symmetrical image. Almost half of the papercuts shown here are American, the rest from Eastern Europe. The subjects range from omer calendar, zodiac, sukkah decoration, mizrach (the majority of examples containing the phrase mi tzad ruach chayim, “from [the East] comes the breath of life”), amulets, shiviti, yarhzeit, family memorials and an eruv tavshilin. The richness and complexity of the imagery is breathtaking, one example more stunning than the next. The very nature of the detailed and painstaking medium becomes the message of an intense visual universe brimming with symbols and shared meaning.

 

 



Mizrah by Natan Moshe Brilliant, Lithuania 1877;


Ink, paint and collage; The Gross Family Collection, Tel Aviv;


Photo by Vladimir Naikhin, Jerusalem


 

 

         One especially unusual example of a mizrach is by Natan Moshe Brilliant from Lithuania (1877). It manages to combine not only cut and painted elements but also collages from printed sources, thereby weaving a symbolic and complex narrative. Starting at the bottom, Moshe and Aaron flank a menorah within an evocative architectural space supporting a register of zodiac images that in turn are the foundation for depictions of David playing the harp, Abraham slaughtering the ram, Moses removing his shoes at the Burning Bush and finally, a poetic rendering of Noah and the ark. And this only scratches the surface of the iconographic treasure house that is contained in this large papercut masterpiece.

 

         Just as with the tombstone carvings, the difficulty of the medium itself tends to limit the depth of content available to the craftsman. Complexity made up of stock symbols can only take artistic expression so far. The greater flowering of artistic expression is found in the Torah ark woodcarvings in the next section of the exhibit.

 

         This selection of 32 rampant lions, some with luchos (Decalogue), is the most exciting visual and artistic aspect of “Synagogue to Carousel.” While two actual arks are shown (one from Nova Scotia, Canada and the other from Chelsea, Massachusetts), all the rest of these works are extremely evocative fragments of carved wood arks, the ever-present lions flanking a depiction of the frequently crowned Ten Commandments.

 

         As we see the examples of Torah arks made in America, we recognize that the Baroque elements have been sharply reduced to only a few elements- peripheral ornamentation and the depictions of the rampant lions. From their profiles, the lions look like standardized ferocious beasts. But once they face us a wonderful transformation takes place. The animal face takes on more and more human qualities, rendering the symbolic guardians of the Torah considerably more complex and nuanced. It is here that the artistic genius and genuine passion of these mostly anonymous craftsmen soars.

 

         Three sets of lions on one wall offer instructive distinctions. One, from Newport, Kentucky, presents solemn, Egyptian-style animals; another pair from Kansas City, Missouri, bellows a hysterical unhinged growl with tongues protruding, and finally, a Midwestern pair guards with a set of profiles reminiscent of Chinese images-blood-red eyes, mouth and claws. The diversity of images seems to represent the individuality of both the artist and the congregation in interpreting what guarding the Torah might mean.

 

 



Ark Pediment, artist unknown, Lower East Side;


Collection of Rabbi David A. Whiman;


Photo by August Bandal, New York


 

 

         Three pairs of lions (possibly created by the same artist) and salvaged from New York’s Lower East Side, seem gleeful in their defense of the holy luchos. Another set of rampant lion faces (also from the Lower East Side) remind one of the terribly serious and fearsome elders of those venerable congregations, weathered faces that betray the trials and tribulations these immigrant Jews endured. What comes to mind perusing these sculptures is that each represents a destroyed Torah ark and an abandoned congregation. These are the surviving fragments of the decimation of American Jewish life; their beauty and diversity are the tragic evidence of how much has been lost.

 

         The artisans who labored on the American Torah arks were immigrants from Eastern Europe who had practiced the same skills back in Europe. But once here in America they began to diversify by necessity, many using their skills in furniture, cabinetmaking, woodworking, and carpentry. When they could, they continued in creating Torah arks.  One such artisan was the legendary Samuel Katz from the Ukraine. He arrived in America in 1907 and by 1913 had moved to the Boston area. During the 1920’s and 1930’s he carved at least 23 Torah arks, making him the “most prolific identified ark builder in America.” But not all such artisans were as successful.

 

         America at the turn of the 20th century was a land of opportunity, and the combination of an immigrant urban population, mass transit and the greatest amusement park in the United States, Coney Island, opened doors for Jewish craftsmen to work in what was a booming industry: the carving of horses and other animals for carousels and other amusements. As this exhibition shows, four Jewish carvers, Marcus Charles Illions (whom we know did synagogue carving), Charles Carmel, and the team of Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein, brought to perfection what became known as the Coney Island Style of animal carving. It is characterized by its flamboyant and expressive details and poses of the horses. Manes fly in the air, and horses toss their heads, stomp their hoofs and snort in unbridled passion.

 

 



Standing Horse with Raised Head by Charles Carmel, Coney Island, c.1910;


The Charlotte Dinger Collection; Photo by August Bandal, New York


 

 

         From the examples we have here these artists had clearly different styles. Illions’ animals tended to have a fluid Baroque quality, combining a forceful naturalism with drama. In contrast, Stein and Goldstein (they were a partnership) tended toward a more restrained and medieval image. Finally Carmel, while fluent in more than one style as they all were, seemed to favor the brute passion of a barely tamed beast characterized by an open mouth, lolling tongue, and terrified eyes. It is in his works most of all that the Baroque heritage surfaces in its secular manifestation and is most deeply felt.

 

         The history of the American synagogue since mid-century has been tragic, many, many abandoned and destroyed along with the precious art they contained. So too, the great centers of carousel and amusement park carving, abandoned or updated to machine-made imitations. The guest curator of this exhibition, Murray Zimiles, researched and documented this vast project for the last 20 years, tirelessly collecting material and connections from Europe, America, and Israel. Stacy C. Hollander, the American Folk Art Museum senior curator, coordinated with Zimiles and made this exhibition possible. Together they have managed to “return to the Jewish people, and to world culture, an awareness of and appreciation for a visual tradition of great beauty, vitality, symbolic richness, and decorative complexity that flourished over a period of several centuries in Central and Eastern Europe and flourished briefly in the New World where it underwent a remarkable transformation and secularization.”

 

         The remnants we see here are indicative of what we as a people are capable of creating. We only have to believe in our skills and insights as Jewish artists to allow our art to bloom once again. It is this realization that makes “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” such an inspirational exhibition.

 

         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at  rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Richard McBee

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/gilded-lions-and-jeweled-horses-woodcarving-from-the-synagogue-to-the-carousel/2007/11/28/

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