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September 26, 2016 / 23 Elul, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘Interview’

Fighting Israel’s Battle Online An Interview with Influential Blogger: ‘Elder of Ziyon’

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

On March 1, “Elder of Ziyon” – the anonymous author behind www.ElderofZiyon.blogspot.com – posted a map from a McGraw Hill college textbook purporting to show “Palestinian loss of land 1946 to 2000.” Considering that Jews were often called “Palestinians” before 1948, and that Palestinian Arabs – as a “nation” – never owned any territory until Israel carved out autonomous regions for them in 1993, the map was highly misleading.

Elder of Ziyon demanded that McGraw Hill “be held accountable for pushing such propaganda in college classrooms” and called on his readers to e-mail the publisher. Remarkably, within a week, McGraw Hill had removed the book from circulation and promised to destroy all remaining copies.

It is victories like these, and many smaller ones, that motivate Elder of Ziyon – the name is “meant to be ironic,” he says – to continue blogging daily, as he has for over 12 years.

 

The Jewish Press: Why do you blog under an alias?

Elder of Ziyon: I’m not worried about death threats or anything like that. The main reason is professional. I work in a high-tech industry and it doesn’t help my career potential to use my real name. For any future jobs, people would see my name and think I’m not doing any work – that I blog all day.

Do you?

No. I blog early in the morning, on the train to work, and often before I go to bed.

There is no shortage of pro-Israel websites and blogs. Why the need for your site?

A lot of the analysis I do, I don’t see anybody else doing. For example, there was a report the other week that 51 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution. Instead of just reading the news story, though, I took the time to look up the actual questions of the survey and noticed one of the questions they didn’t report on. The question was: Would you support a two-state solution if it meant the conflict was completely over and no more claims could be made?

To that question, the vast majority of Palestinians said “No.” And I was able to relate that to an earlier survey that showed that when Palestinians say they want a two-state solution, they only mean that as a stage to the entire destruction of Israel.

How many readers do you have?

I get about 250,000 readers, or hits, a month. And I have influential readers too. Sometimes, for example, Tablet magazine or Commentary will see my stories and run with them.

Where do you get your news stories?

Many of them come from Arabic sites. Every day I look for certain key words in Arab media that might indicate an interesting story. I don’t know Arabic, but I use Google Translate – which I’ve gotten good at over the years – and I’ll [confirm translations] with experts in Arabic if the story looks very important.

Occasionally I just post material that other people might not have seen. For example, the other night I posted a link to the Israel Air Force website, which had a piece on the 50th anniversary of Operation Yahalom in which the Mossad helped an Iraqi defect to Israel with a Soviet MiG-21 fighter jet [an operation that eventually helped Israel win the Six-Day War]. It was on the IAF site for two weeks, but I didn’t see anybody else cover it.

Many of these stories I find on my own, but others come from fans of the site. When they see something unusual, they’ll send it to me. That’s how I got the story of the [anti-Israel map in the] McGraw Hill textbook. One of my contacts saw it over somebody’s shoulder on the subway and told me about it.

What would you say are some of the highlights of your 12-year blogging career?

One of them came during the 2012 war Operation Pillar of Defense. Two times during that war there were stories of children killed by Israeli rockets and both of those times I was able to prove, with the help of military experts, that it was actually Hamas rockets that killed them. One of the children was actually the kid of a BBC reporter.

Another highlight was revealing that Human Rights Watch researcher Marc Garlasco was actually a connoisseur and collector of Nazi memorabilia. It was a joint effort of several bloggers but I got the original tip. And once we started publicizing the news, Human Rights Watch, in its attempt to defend him, ended up doing what’s called “sock puppetry,” which means they started commenting on all these blogs pretending to be ordinary people even though we saw that the IP address was coming from Human Rights Watch. That of course made the story additionally interesting. In the end, Garlasco had to resign.

Probably the biggest story I broke, though, was about an NGO called MIFTAH founded by Hanan Ashrawi, who’s always on TV blasting Israel as a representative of the PLO. Her organization had articles in Arabic supporting terrorism and claiming that Jews were killing Christian children to use their blood for matzah. This is a well-known Western human rights organization – an NGO – that gets money from major Western governments. So the story became very big, and in the end they had to apologize.

What’s next for you?

I would love to make the stuff I write more permanent. I want to put together more of a reference-type website; there’s a lot of information on my site, but I need to make it easier for people to find things and use it as a resource.

I also started writing a book about the supposed Palestinian right of return. I was doing an analysis – both historic and legal – to see if there’s any merit whatsoever to the claim because I’m very concerned that even if there’s a peace plan one day, people will use this right of return as their next step in delegitimizing Israel. So I want to make sure all the history and legal arguments about it are known ahead of time.

I have lots of ideas and lots of things I’d love to do, but it requires more resources, more funding, and partnership. I’m really hoping to be able to take this to the next level.

Elliot Resnick

150,000 Jewish Books In 50 Languages: An Interview with Bibliophile Israel Mizrahi

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

For some, he evokes a bygone age – when sefarim store owners lived and breathed books and could direct customers to (and discuss) a rare Yiddish work just as easily as the latest ArtScroll title.

Israel Mizrahi, though, is a young man of 29. And, unlike sefarim store owners of yore, he earns half his profits online where patrons can view and buy any one of 36,000 volumes, ranging in price from $2.99 to $3,299.99. (He carries a total of 150,000 works in his Flatbush store.)

The scion of several rabbinic families – he is named after the Baba Sali, his grandfather’s uncle – Mizrahi lives with his wife and three children in Brooklyn.

 

The Jewish Press: What’s your background?

Mizrahi: I grew up locally in Brooklyn, went to community schools, learned in yeshiva in Chevron for three years, and got married while I was in Israel. Six days later, I was back in the United States and soon found myself with some bills to pay. I owned a lot of books, so I sold a few. But it’s always easier to buy than to sell and before I knew it I had 20,000 books. So I was stuck.

Can you talk a bit about your rabbinic family background?

My mother is part of the Abuhatzeira family, so that sort of speaks for itself, and my father comes from rabbinic families in Syria and Yerushalayim.

It’s a bit of a conflicting background in the sense that my mother’s side was more of the kabbalistic, pious type and my father’s side was more of the rationalist, Maimonidean type. My great great-grandfather, for example, wrote a classic book called Kenesiya L’shem Shamayim, which is a treatise against belief in superstition, magic, sheidim – things like that. Jews in Syria at the time were following Muslim practices and basically makrivim to avoda zara, so the book is a very strong attack against any such beliefs.

Your store carries books in how many languages, would you say?

Probably around 50, but I try to focus on about 10 of them: Hebrew, English, Yiddish, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic.

I also have a very large collection of books in Judeo-Marathi, which is the language of the Bnei Israel community in India; I have quite a few books in Judeo-Persian; and I even have a book in Judeo-Tatar, which is the language the Jews of Crimea spoke.

What are some of the most interesting books you’ve sold over the years?

Books that interest me the most are ones that tell a story. So, for example, I have an old selichos volume printed in Germany in which somebody handwrote a very long kinah about a pogrom that happened in Poland in the 1620s. He describes in detail how the children were killed, the women raped, etc. If you look in the history books, though, there’s no record of this specific pogrom. The only source we have for it is this sefer, which happened to survive and end up in my hands.

You apparently used to also carry the Koran in Hebrew.

Israeli President Rivlin’s grandfather did the first translation. There are seven of them in total. You also have a fellow, Professor Abraham Katsch, who did a translation. He was a grandson of the Maskil L’Eitan, and his father was Rav Reuven Katz, the rav of Petach Tikva. They both came from rabbinic backgrounds and ended up professors.

What other interesting books do you carry?

When you acquire 100,000 books a year, everything shows up eventually. I just acquired an old yearbook from the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School and found among the students a smiling Sheldon Silver.

Elliot Resnick

God, Evolution, And Darwin: An Interview with Molecular Biologist Douglas Axe

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016

“Religion vs. science” conflicts are generally depicted in popular culture as battles between narrow-minded bigots and tolerant truth-seekers. From the Galileo Affair to the Scopes Monkey Trial, religious authoritarians are cast as the force of darkness attempting to stifle the light of science.

In recent decades, though, this narrative has arguably been turned on its head. Instead of religious authorities persecuting free thinkers, today, more often than not, it is “free” thinkers who persecute believers who dare challenge the popular consensus on such hot-button issues as evolution or global warming.

Douglas Axe, director of the Biologic Institute in Seattle, knows this first-hand. As a post-doctoral researcher at the prestigious Medical Research Council Centre in Cambridge in 2002, he was experimenting on protein structures when his superiors discovered that his research was being funded in part by an intelligent design organization. The science was solid – he later published his findings in a prestigious journal – but his association with intelligent design was considered unacceptable. He was asked to leave.

In his first book, “Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed” (HarperOne) – published two weeks ago – Axe recounts his experiences at the Medical Research Council Centre and presents his objections to the theory of evolution as it currently stands.

Axe holds a PhD from Caltech and has published in such scientific journals as Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Journal of Molecular Biology. He recently spoke with The Jewish Press.

The Jewish Press: You write in Undeniable that you harbored doubts about evolution even as a college student. What were those doubts?

Axe: I perceived there to be a deep contradiction between the materialist worldview – which is the idea that everything is matter and energy – and our notion of human free will. If we are nothing but large machines made out of atoms and molecules, all of which are slaves to the laws of physics, how is it that we can decide to do this or do that?

You write that you were convinced at the time that if you could prove the evolutionary theory was flawed, scientists would be forced to agree since they value truth above all. You now say you were naïve to believe this. Please explain.

It’s a utopian view of science. It’s this idea that although scientists have their own personal preferences, when they put on their white lab coats they’re ultimately about the truth – and nothing else – and if their theories are proven wrong they will concede. But scientists are 100 percent human, and all the things that other humans find hard – like admitting you’re wrong – are hard for scientists. Also, scientists survive in their profession by getting the approval of other scientists, so that gives rise to peer pressure.

You write that philosophical hindrances might also be holding scientists back from acknowledging the flaws with evolution.

Yes. I start the book with the question “Where did we come from?” and lay out the two possibilities: Either we’re cosmic accidents or we’re the product of purpose. If we’re cosmic accidents, we basically end up with this nihilistic position – that there is no moral right and wrong and we’re here today and gone tomorrow, so live how you want to live. But if that’s false and instead we’re a product of purpose and intent [conceived by a Creator], then you have a completely different view of who we are as human beings and how we ought to live our lives.

Elliot Resnick

‘At The End Of The Day, We Only Have Each Other’: An Interview with Israeli Consulate Spokesperson Shimon Mercer-Wood

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

Shimon Mercer-Wood is the spokesperson and consul for media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Manhattan. A product of the London School of Economics and Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa, Mercer-Wood previously served as political officer at Israel’s embassy in New Delhi and press officer at Israel’s embassy in London. 

The Jewish Press: What’s your background?

Mercer-Wood: My mother’s family is from Transylvania, which is Hungarian-speaking Romania, and my father’s family is from Ghana in West Africa. My father’s uncle was the ambassador of Ghana to Israel in the 1960s, and he brought along my father with him.

Why did he bring your father?

They were very close. Also, in that part of Ghana, it’s actually a matrilineal society, which means the person you inherit is not your father, but your mother’s brother. So as part of his being groomed to take over from his uncle, he went with him and was kind of like his protégé.

And then your father stayed in Israel?

In 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day war, Ghana’s embassy was ordered to evacuate because everyone was sure Israel was going to be destroyed. In Israel they were preparing mass graves in the public parks because they thought there would be, chas v’shalom, many casualties, and in Holland they were preparing refugee camps.

But my father had developed an interest in Judaism and felt it was disloyal to abandon the Jewish people in a time of danger, so he stayed in Israel. And then my father got swept up by the very obvious miracle of Israel going from the brink of peril to unprecedented victory in such a short time. So my father stayed in Israel, converted, joined the army, and has basically been in Israel ever since.

It’s quite a story.

Apart from it being my personal family story, though, it also speaks to Israel’s relationship with Africa in that time. Israel was a huge player in the African continent in the 1960s. This was part of Golda Meir’s policy to find friends around the world and to fulfill the aspiration of being an ohr la’goyim. So Israel was very active in introducing modern agriculture to Africa. In fact, Israel at that time had more embassies in Africa than any other non-African country. The relationship was so close that when my uncle was shifted from the Ghana Embassy in China to the Ghana Embassy in Israel, it was considered a major promotion.

What do you do at the Israeli consulate in Manhattan?

We try to introduce positive material about Israel into the media output, and I would divide that into three “battles.” The first battle is to engage with those journalists who write primarily about the Israeli-Arab conflict and provide them with information that may help them be more sympathetic to the Israeli position.

The second battle is to provide stories to journalists who are interested in writing about Israel. So, for example, we met a producer at one of the news channels who said, “I want stories about Israeli startups. Please feed me with stories.” Our job then is to seek out such stories – be in touch with relevant authorities and hubs in Israel – and build up story pitches.

The third battle, which is the most interesting, is to reach those journalists who don’t even think about writing about Israel, and introduce Israel to them. Recently, for example, we sent a journalist to Israel to cover a conference on accessibility – especially how to make tourism more accessible for people with disabilities. This is a writer to whom it would never have occurred to write a story about Israel. But she came back from that conference very enthusiastic, and it was a huge success. It’s very gratifying to find someone like that and put Israel on their radar in such a positive context.

I should add that we place a special emphasis on Jewish media, because the most important asset this building is charged with safeguarding is the relationship between Israel and American Jews. I very often meet people who adore Israel but their conception of Israel is kind of what Israel was like in the 1980s. Israel is a very dynamic place – it’s constantly changing – and it’s important for me to make sure people see Israel as it is today.

Why is this important?

Because we’re one nation, we’re one people. At the end of the day, on the face of the planet, we only have each other. And just like you keep in touch with your brother who lives in another city and you want him to know what’s happening in your life and you don’t want his perception of your life to be stuck like when you were in college, it’s important for the different components of the Jewish nation to know what the others are going through. It’s not because you want their “support.” It’s because that’s what it means to be one people.

Those who dislike Israel sometimes call it racist. When you speak to such people, do you find your skin color helpful in combating this argument?

There’s a spectrum of anti-Israel attitudes. On the light side you have ignorance, and in that case perhaps it helps. But further along the spectrum, there is entrenched hostility to Israel, and then nothing helps because they don’t really care. It’s not about knowledge or understanding. It’s an emotional issue. It’s a feeling of commitment to a struggle against Israel. And you can really see it physically when you speak to these people, how much their whole being is fired up with attacking Israel.

So I don’t bother arguing with them, because a) they don’t deserve it and b) it’s completely pointless. We really should focus our efforts on those who don’t have that level of hatred. I often hear people say, “Show them the facts!” They don’t care about the facts. They operate in a cultural sphere in which facts are of no importance. It’s part of a certain brand of post-modern mode of thought that says that everything is subjective and relative, and facts are just not important.

What’s Israel’s opinion of Donald Trump?

It’s important to understand that Israel has a relationship with the United States that exceeds the relationship with the president of the United States. So it sounds like a talking point but it’s actually true: Whoever the American people elect, Israel will be happy to work with because they will be elected by the American people.

What’s very important, though, is that the political relationship between Israel and the United States remain bipartisan. There are people in America – on both sides of the political spectrum – who are trying to undermine the bipartisan nature of this relationship for their own political reasons. These people don’t have Israel’s best interests in mind.

Several media outlets have reported that Bernie Sanders’s supporters hope to amend the Democratic Party’s platform so that it is less pro-Israel or even anti-Israel. Is Israel concerned?

I’m not going to comment on anything a particular politician is doing, but in general the attempt to make Israel a divisive issue is exactly what I was talking about before. Israel shouldn’t be a divisive issue.

I also think that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is not an Israel thing. It’s a Jewish thing. When someone wants to remove reference to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, they are trying to erase one of the most fundamental features of the Jewish heritage. You want to criticize Israel, go ahead. But if you erase reference to Jerusalem as our capital you’re insulting every Jew who has ever lived.

Syria is currently a mess. What are Israel’s hopes for the conclusion of that conflict?

Israel’s policy on Syria is that we don’t care who rules them, how they are ruled, what sort of government they have, etc. It’s none of our business. We just want to be left alone.

But the prime minister has laid down three red lines. First, anyone who shoots at us, we shoot back. Second, we will not allow Syria to become a conduit for advanced weaponry reaching Hizbullah in Lebanon. And third, we’re not going to allow anyone to build an infrastructure that can be used to threaten Israel in the future. So if we see someone building a terrorist network, the purpose of which is to threaten Israel, something may happen to that person. According to certain reports, these things have happened in the past and they will continue to happen so long as there are people who want to use Syria as a base for attacking Israel.

I have to add that on a human level it’s very sad to see such unspeakable suffering, and we try to extend humanitarian aid wherever we can. There’s an Israeli NGO called IsraAID which set up shop on the island of Lesvos in Greece giving medical care to refugees. Other Israeli NGOs are providing food and supplies in refugee camps in Jordan.

How is Israel dealing with Russia’s interests in Syria?

It’s a very complicated issue. Our interests in Syria do not correlate with Russia’s. Russia wants to keep Assad in power. Keeping Assad in power means strengthening Iran’s influence and presence – which is the main threat to us. And the Russians are also fighting shoulder to shoulder with Hizbullah which is one of our main enemies. So our interests do not correlate. Having said that, Israel and Russia share enough interests elsewhere and on other levels that we both have the motivation to make sure the conflicting interest don’t become a direct conflict.

What “other interests” are you referring to?

First of all, it’s interesting to note that Russia sees Israel as a special case on account of its huge population of Russian Jews. I remember meeting the Russian ambassador in Israel, and he said, “Since I’ve come to Israel, my English has deteriorated because from the supermarket to the president, everyone speaks to me in Russian.” So they feel there’s an important link there, and I think that makes for a different attitude.

I won’t go into too many details, but there are other issues on which Israel and Russia cooperate so that both countries wish to maintain cordial relations.

What’s Israel’s current policy toward Iran? Are we now beyond the point where destroying Iran’s nuclear program is possible?

Israel’s fundamental policy hasn’t changed. We will take every means necessary to make sure Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons. What has happened is that because of the Iran deal, the crunch time – the point at which you have to make a decision – has been pushed off by a few years. But when we reach that crunch time again, I have no doubt that the prime minister of Israel will not hesitate to act.

Elliot Resnick

Living In Terror In The Soviet Union: An Interview With Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

“Persecution of the Jewish people.” When young Orthodox Jews hear these words, they tend to think of events like the Crusades, the Inquisition, or, more recently, the Holocaust. If you were to tell them that the 1950s and ‘60s were also years of dark persecution, many would no doubt regard you with a certain degree of puzzlement.

And yet the fact is that while Jews in postwar America were living in the lap of luxury, their brethren in the Soviet Union were still being terrorized for such “sins” as keeping Shabbos and teaching Torah. In his memoir, “Samarkand: The Underground with a Far-Reaching Impact,” Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman, a 76-year-old Lubavitcher chassid, provides insight into the struggles he and other Jews experienced trying to observe Judaism under a government that considered the practice of religion counter-revolutionary.

Rabbi Zaltzman, who left the USSR in 1971, is currently president of Chamah, an organization devoted to helping Jews from the former Soviet Union. He is being honored this week in Washington, DC, as part of American Jewish Heritage Month.

The Jewish Press: You grew up Samarkand, the third largest city in modern-day Uzbekistan. How did your family wind up there?

Rabbi Zaltzman: I was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, but when the Nazis approached Kharkov in World War II, we were told on the radio that we should escape. So my parents decided to go to Samarkand and Tashkent, which is where many Jews found refuge.

You write that your defiance of the Soviet Union began as a boy when it came time to attend school. How so?

The schools in the Soviet Union wanted to build a personality. They used to call it a “Homo Sovietica,” a Soviet personality. No religion, no beliefs, no parents – if you saw your parents practicing religion, you had to tell to the school. There was no private education. The whole Soviet Union was based on Marxism and Leninism, which is against any religion. So my father was scared I would lose my Yiddishkeit if he enrolled me in school.

He hid me and my brother at home so that the neighbors shouldn’t see us and tell the government. For years, I’d walk out with a school briefcase in the morning and go to a friend’s house and then come back in the afternoon after school.

How long did that last?

Until I was nine. Local school officials used to go from house to house looking for children, and one day the neighbors reported there was a child in our home. The government found out I wasn’t going to school for religious reasons, so they told my father, “We’ll take away your son and send him to a foster home for reeducation.”

My father went to a school in a neighborhood with no Jews and told my teacher, “My son is a sick boy who must relax two days a week – Saturday and Sunday.” He also gave her a gift, and that worked for a year until they realized something was wrong and demanded that I come to school on Shabbos.

Did you?

No, never. My father tried to convince me. He said, “You’re not bar mitzvah yet. They’re going to arrest me and take you to a foster home. It will be much worse. Just go. You won’t be forced to write.”

But I didn’t want to go. I woke up early Shabbos morning and went to my friend’s house. So my father decided to take me to another school. It’s a long story, but after a few years I managed to stop attending school without the government noticing.

Elliot Resnick

Hunting Nazis To Their Dying Day: An Interview with Author Andrew Nagorski

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

Major Wilhelm Trapp, who led of one of the most notorious Nazi killing squads in Poland, once said to his driver, “If this Jewish business is ever avenged on earth, then have mercy on us Germans.”

Most Nazis never did meet justice on this earth. That even a few did is largely thanks to a small group of individuals – both Jews and non-Jews – who refused to forget and forgive. They are the subject of a new book by award-winning journalist and author Andrew Nagorski, “The Nazi Hunters” (Simon & Schuster), available in bookstores on May 10.

The Jewish Press: What was the immediate reaction of Jews to their Nazi tormentors after the Holocaust?

Nagorski: Many people had a natural urge to seek vengeance. One of the characters I interviewed for the book told me he saw a group of concentration camp prisoners who, after their liberation, put an SS officer on a metal tray and fried him alive in the crematorium.

So that was the first impulse. But pretty quickly it transformed into an impulse not for vengeance but for justice. They felt there had to be individual accountability and there had to be a record of what had happened because the greatest fear of many survivors was that the world would quickly forget or even deny its existence.

The Allies tried a number of Nazi leaders after World War II but soon soured on holding trials and even commuted the sentences of some of those who had already been convicted. Why?

At first there was the question: What do you do with these people? Stalin suggested we just take out a whole bunch of them and have them shot. Then there was talk of trials, but Churchill was reluctant because he was afraid they would be show trials. The Americans, though, said we have to show that these people are responsible.

So that was implemented in the Nuremberg and Dachau trials. But with the advent of the Cold War, both the Soviets and the Americans were much more concerned about recruiting German scientists and getting West Germany or East Germany lined up on their side, so there was a lot of pressure to commute some of these sentences and stop some of the trials.

In the book you write about the Adolf Eichmann trial at some length and note that some prominent individuals – Isaiah Berlin and Erich Fromm, for example – were morally opposed to Israel trying him. Why?

Many people said it was going to look like vengeance. But Ben-Gurion’s government felt they needed this for internal consumption as much as anything else. Gabriel Bach, who is the last surviving member of the team that prosecuted Eichmann, told me there was almost a feeling of shame about the Holocaust in Israel, especially among the younger generation. They didn’t understand how Jews could go “like sheep to the slaughter.”

The Eichmann trial gave Israel a chance to educate a whole generation about how the Holocaust transpired – how Jews were deceived at every turn, how it was impossible in most cases to resist, and how when there were possibilities to resist, people did.

Several years after the Eichmann trial, Israel pursued and killed Nazi-collaborator Herbert Cukurs, who was known as the “Butcher of Riga.” Why didn’t they try him like they did Eichmann?

Cukurs had escaped to Latin America, and in 1965 someone posing as an Austrian businessman lured him to a house in Uruguay where a group of Mossad agents standing only in their underwear – so that no blood would get on their clothes – killed him. They then left a note saying this was vengeance for what he did.

This operation has always been cloaked in mystery since this was not the way the Mossad normally operated. When I talked to Rafi Eitan, who was the Mossad agent on the Eichmann case, his only explanation was that it must have been something personal. Maybe the parents of someone high up in the Mossad died at the hands of Cukurs.

After Eichmann, number 1 on the list of many Nazi hunters was Dr. Josef Mengele. He, however, managed to elude their grasp. Can you talk a bit about him and the efforts to find him?

He was known as the “Angel of Death” and was a particularly vicious person who sent countess Jews to their deaths and conducted really horrible experiments on people, especially twins.

After catching Eichmann, the Israelis made some efforts to find Mengele. A couple of agents were on his trail – one of them thinks he may have even seen Mengele walking on a country path – but then they were called away to work on a child custody case [the Yossele Schumacher affair].

Mengele drowned off the coast of Brazil in 1979, and his remains were definitively identified in 1985.

In addition to describing Israel’s forays into Nazi hunting, you profile a number of individual Nazi hunters in your book, including Simon Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal is somewhat of a polarizing figure among Nazi hunters with some regarding him as a hero and others as a publicity-seeking hound. What’s your take?

Even those who quarreled with Wiesenthal – including, most famously, Isser Harel, the head of the Mossad – give him credit for pressuring governments to put Nazi war criminals on trial, especially in the 1950s and ‘60s when most governments were turning away from this whole issue.

He kept up the momentum when it could’ve died and, with it, the whole era of Nazi-hunting. The fact that we have trials of elderly Auschwitz guards in Germany today is to a large extent the product of the early efforts of Nazi hunters – Wiesenthal foremost among them – not to allow the public to forget.

Perhaps the most interesting Nazi hunters featured in your book are Serge and Beate Klarsfeld. Can you talk a bit about them?

They are a fascinating couple. Beate, who isn’t Jewish, was born in Germany. Her father served in the Wehrmacht, and when she was growing up her parents didn’t speak much about the war or the Holocaust. When she about 20, though, she went to Paris to strike out on her own and met her husband Serge whose father had died in Auschwitz. At that point, Beate started discovering what had happened during the war and became this really radical Nazi hunter.

One of her more brazen actions took place in 1968 when she was so outraged that the German chancellor – Kurt Georg Kiesinger – had been a member of the Nazi party that she got a press pass to the Christian Democrats’ convention, walked up to the chancellor, and slapped him in the face.

Later, as a couple, the Klarsfelds went after top Nazis – most prominently Klaus Barbie – who had served in occupied France and were responsible for the murder of [tens of thousands of] Jews. They personally tracked Klaus Barbie down in Latin America and kept up the pressure on the French government to have him extradited and put on trial. He was, in fact, ultimately put on trial and died in prison.

A 94-year-old Auschwitz guard, Reinhold Hanning, is currently being tried in Germany for his role in the Holocaust. Some people wonder if putting such an elderly man on trial for crimes he committed 75 years ago makes sense. How do contemporary Nazi hunters today see it?

Each of these cases is seen as a way to bear witness to what happened. And since there are only a few of these people still left – just as there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors left – these cases become even more important. Individual testimonies are the most powerful tool to educate the world about what happened.

It’s interesting, by the way, that the Germans courts have finally accepted something they did not accept before. Today you no longer have to prove that an individual Nazi killed or tortured a specific person. It is enough just to show that his role was essential for the mass killing. So if you served as a guard in Auschwitz, for example, you were part of the killing machinery and can be held accountable.

Once this legal principle [was accepted in 2011], Germany started looking through the records of Auschwitz guards and other guards to see who was still alive, who was mentally capable, and who was in Germany. That’s where the Reinhold Hanning trial originated.

Elliot Resnick

‘Pop Chassidic Melodies Are Neither Pop Nor Chassidic’: An Interview with Cantor Joseph Malovany

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

Born in 1941, Cantor Joseph Malovany serves as rector of the Institute of Jewish Traditional Liturgical Music in Leipzig, Germany; dean of the Academy of Jewish Music in Moscow; professor of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University in New York; and cantor of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue.

He’s sung with such orchestras as the Israel Philharmonic, the London Classical, the New York Symphony, the Prague Symphony Orchestra, the Russian State Symphony, and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and has received numerous honors, including the Cross of Merit – Commander of the Legion of Honor, which is Poland’s equivalent of knighthood.

He recently spoke with The Jewish Press.

The Jewish Press: Where did you grow up? What’s your early background?

Cantor Malovany: I was born and grew up in Tel Aviv where I went to the Bilu school. It was famous all over the world because of its shul, which had a choir of 40 boys led by Shlomo Ravitz, who was a famous chazzan. When I was eight-and-a-half years old, I was already davening Kabbalas Shabbos [for the amud] accompanied by the choir.

Excluding Barchu, I presume.

No, including Barchu. At the time, Rav Isser Yehuda Unterman was the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and he permitted it as a matter of chinuch. Later there were some halachic objections, so Rav Unterman said our teacher, Shlomo Ravitz, should sing Barchu and Kaddish together with the boy.

If you were already leading the davening at Bilu as an eight-year-old boy, you must have been quite musical.

When I was six years old, my mother sold her wedding ring so she could afford to buy a piano for me. That was the same year I started studying at the Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv.

When did you know you would become a chazzan by profession?

I actually originally wanted to become a conductor and studied classical piano and conducting at the Academy of Music of Tel Aviv.

But I found out that in order to get into the world of symphonic conducting, a very important component is entering international conducting competitions. I applied and was accepted to quite a few, but all of them required [conducting] on Shabbos, and I was not prepared to give up an inch in my frumkeit. As an einekel of Reb Avraham Michael Malovany and Reb Yosef Stein – who learned b’chavrusa with the Satmar Rebbe in Europe – it was out of the question.

So it was at that crucial moment that I decided to apply my knowledge of music to chazzanus and become a chazzan.

So you left the world of classical music behind?

No, I still practice every day for 30-45 minutes. I have a huge grand piano at home, and this morning, for example, I played Brahms’s sonata in F sharp minor and Bach’s chromatic fantasy.

In fact, when I have a concert with an orchestra where I am the only one performing, I insist on conducting one symphonic classical music piece for my own pleasure – “The Barber of Seville” by Rossini, for example, or Verde’s “The Force of Destiny.”

Who were your cantorial “heroes” growing up?

First was my teacher Shlomo Ravitz. Then there was Moshe Koussevitzky and his brother David Koussevitzky, whom I knew very well and loved very much. I knew Moshe too. In fact, I accompanied him on the piano when he gave an outdoor concert for 5,000 Israeli soldiers on a July day in the 1960s.

Of course I also liked Yossele Rosenblatt very much, and Mordechai Hershman too. Hershman was not a composer but he had such a beautiful voice and his interpretation was always so sublime that it got to me.

How do you view your job as a chazzan?

A chazzan first and foremost has to regard himself as a shaliach tzibbur. The prayer “Hineni” on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur says a shaliach tzibbur should have a beard, should have a nice voice, and should be “me’urav bedaas im habriyos,” involved in the life of his community. This is extremely important.

Number two, I always tell my students that before you ever try to be a chazzan, you have to be a baal tefillah. A baal tefillah is someone who is extremely well versed with the nusach, with the musical motifs of davening. Every tefillah – take Yishtabach or Ahavah Rabah for example – has a musical motif and that’s the way to sing it. If you sing a congregational melody, it should be built on this motif; if it isn’t, at least come back to it somehow. If you don’t, you are breaking a traditional chain that goes back a couple of thousand years.

Sometimes I hear a shaliach tzibbur sing a pop chassidic melody – which is not pop and not chassidic. It’s nothing. It has no quality. It comes from the nightclubs. There is nothing Jewish there. I would even venture to say it’s a chillul hakodesh. What right do people have to bring the banging of the disco into the synagogue?

In an interview several years ago, you criticized people who study Gemara during davening.

Yes, I’m very critical because, I think, they have no kavanah in their tefillah. They’re just saying the words to be yotzei and then they’re into the learning. What did Shlomo Hamelech say? There is a time for everything. So there is a time for tefillah and a time for learning. I learn the Daf Yomi every morning at 6:30 in my shul. I love learning, but tefillah is tefillah and learning is learning.

Who are some of the famous personalities you’ve met over the years?

Let’s start with Israel. I’ve been friendly with Israeli prime ministers beginning with Golda Meir, who was very musical. She liked chazzanus, and her son was a cellist.

The highlight among the prime ministers was of course Menachem Begin. I remember when he turned 65 I was invited to sing at his birthday and he told me what chazzanus pieces to sing. I was very close with him.

I was also friendly with Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Arik Sharon. Arik loved chazzanus; he was not a big maven but he loved it.

How about other world leaders?

I’ve met Gorbachev several times. His English is not so great but whenever I see him, I tell him a couple of jokes about himself – which someone translates for him – and he’s on the floor.

I met Putin only once and that was for International Holocaust Day in 2005, 60 years after the liberation of Auschwitz. I was invited to do all the tefillos. I remember I asked the president of Poland, “Can you please introduce me to President Putin?” So he says “Volodya, come here. This is Joseph Malovany. He’s my cantor. He sang in my royal castle, and you have to invite him to sing in the Kremlin.” After that we went aside and chatted for about 5-7 minutes on all kinds of interesting things.

Until recently you used to travel often to Eastern Europe. Why?

When the Soviet Union began to crumble I felt that there was a need to do something for Soviet Jewry. I knew they were musical and I thought chazzanus would do a lot for them. So when I received an invitation to come to Moscow, I went and helped establish the Moscow Academy of Jewish Music and the Moscow Jewish Men’s Choir. Until today this choir travels all over the world. It’s my creation – all the music they sing, all the arrangements, everything.

What was it like traveling to the Soviet Union before the Cold War ended?

I had a run-in with the KGB because in a speech I referred to “St. Petersburg” when the city’s official name was still Leningrad. I remember two guys came Friday night to our hotel room and wanted to give me a hard time. I said to them, “If you arrest me for saying that, within an hour President Reagan is going to be on the phone with Gorbachev and you’ll be in trouble for creating an international crisis.”

So nothing [happened]. But as they were leaving the room, they noticed that my wife had lit Shabbos candles. One of the KGB officials looked and looked and then said, “I remember my grandmother lighting candles like this and she did something with the hands.” I looked at him – I had tears in my eyes – and said, “Was it your mother’s mother?” He said, “Yes.” I said to him, “I have news for you. You’re Jewish. What are you giving me a hard time for?” I gave him a hug and we drank vodka.

Have you had any interactions with famous rabbinic personalities? Chassidic rebbes, for example?

I had three chassidic rebbes. First was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, with whom I had an unbelievable relationship. The second was the Satmar Rebbe, whom I told you learned b’chavrusa with my grandfather in Europe. When I used to go into the Satmar Rebbe, he would stand up and say, “I’m standing up not for you; I’m standing up in honor of your grandfather.”

And the third was the old Bobover Rebbe, Reb Shlomo. He was very musical. I once met him in England, and he asked me for my haskama on a new melody he had composed. His meshorerim sang it for me, and I thought that, musically speaking – for a person who had no knowledge of music to be able to compose such a thing with modulations to different keys – it was genius. When they finished it, the Rebbe said to me, “Nu, what do you say?” I said to him, “A niggun like this can only be composed b’ruach hakodesh.”

He became [a bit startled] and said, “Yossele Rosenblatt once spent Shabbos in Bobov and a similar story happened. My father, Rav Bentzion, asked Reb Yossele for his opinion on a niggun he composed and he said the very same words. ‘Only b’ruach hakodesh.’”

Elliot Resnick

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