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April 27, 2015 / 8 Iyar, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Jewish History’

Purim of Yesteryear: Celebrations in TLV 1932-34 (Video)

Monday, February 25th, 2013

The “Adloyada” Celebrations in Tel Aviv in 1932-34.

Particularly interesting are the floats mocking the Nazis, complete with giant swastikas, and warning of the impending disaster in Europe.

Happy Shushan Purim!

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Why Don’t We Celebrate Two Days of Purim in Jerusalem?

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

While the rest of Israel celebrates Purim this Sunday (the 14th of Adar), Jerusalem celebrates on Monday (the 15th of Adar).

Why?

Well, the easy answer is “because Jerusalem is a walled city from the time of Joshua.”

Which is partially right.  Jerusalem was a walled city in the time of Joshua, but the walls we see today were built in the 1500s, in the Ottoman Era.  From the early 13th century and until the mid-16th century, Jerusalem was not a walled city at all.  And indeed, it was unclear to the Jews of that time when they should celebrate Purim.

Rabbi Eshtori Ha-Parchi of the 14th century tells us that when he came to Israel, he was told that in Jerusalem they celebrated on both the 14th and 15th of Adar, as they were uncertain which one they were obligated to keep.  Rabbi Eshtori brings an entire Halachic discussion about what should be done, and adds that he wrote his rabbi, Rabbi Matityah in Bet-Shean, to ask him what he should do.

Rabbi Matityah wrote him back: If I would be in Jerusalem on the 14th of Adar, and they would read the Megillah, I would leave the synagogue.  Otherwise they could say about me “The fool walketh in darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2, 14).  And the same is true for Tiberias.

Rabbi Eshtori finished by saying that Rabbi Matityah is right.

We don’t know what changed the minds of the Jews of Jerusalem, but today there is no doubt – and we celebrate Purim in Jerusalem on the 15th of Adar.

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Purim and the Right to Bear Arms

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

On February 8, Rabbi Dovid Bendory spoke at the New Jersey statehouse about the right to bear arms. The Rabbinic Director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, Rabbi Bendory stated with reference to chapter 22 of Sefer Shemot:

God has given us the right to self-defense. We have not only a God-given right to defend ourselves and to protect our families; but we have a God -commanded responsibility to do so.

Soon we will celebrate Purim. Last year I interviewed Rabbi Bendory about these themes in relation to the festival. He observed:

Purim is a story in gun control and its impact on a nation. It’s because of the gun control of Achashverosh’s reign that the Jews had no right to defend themselves, that they were so vulnerable to being wiped out by the decree of one lunatic. The government has taken away from the people the God-given right to self-defense. So Achashverosh magnanimously grants them that right back—you  can now defend yourselves against the people who attack you—and the result is of course the celebration of Purim.

Rabbi Bendory further noted regarding Shmuel I 13:19, that

The first historically recorded incident of gun control—and when I use the term gun control, of course in this context it means weapons control—the  first historic use of gun control was against the Jews. Today in Israel, these lessons are more urgent than ever.

Four Jews who will not celebrate Purim this year are Yitzhak Ames, Talia Ames, Kochava Even-Haim, and Avishai Schindler. On August 31, 2010, Hamas murdered them on Route 60 near Kiryat Arba. (May the Almighty avenge their blood).

The government had disarmed Yitzhak before the massacre because of he and his wife’s activism in defense of Gush Katif. A family friend stated, “There are four bodies today because the government, instead of fighting terrorism, is fighting citizens. They put settlers in situations where their hands are tied.”

As the civil rights organization Honenu noted in a report last November on the government’s broader disarmament of citizens, “If Ames’s weapon had been in his possession, perhaps the incident would have ended differently.”

The grandson of the owner of the Lahav gun store in Tel Aviv similarly remarked in December on Israel’s repressive gun policies:

The problem is that the law makes it very difficult for the good people to get guns. The number of legal guns in recent years has gone to around 170,000, but there are a half a million illegal guns floating around the Arab sector, no one knows how many.

On illegal guns in the Arab sector, Dr. Guy Bechor of the Interdisciplinary Studies Center in Herzliya wrote in November concerning the terror attack on a bus in Tel Aviv:

Arab villages in Israel are flooded with illegal aliens—and the weapons they bring along. The Israel Police are well aware of this problem and of its extent, but for some reason are doing almost nothing to stop it. This is understandable.

After all, police apparently have more urgent priorities like raiding a beit midrash and beating people therein.

The Israeli government and it seems much of the citizenry have learned neither from Tanach nor history. The American jurist St. George Tucker had more wisdom and sense of survival than many Jews today when he wrote in 1803: “Wherever…the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”

Torah and the Secular Jew

Monday, February 18th, 2013

I’m not sure what a secular-traditional-religious home is – but that is the way Ruth Calderon describes the home in which she was raised. Although I think that could describe a modern Orthodox observant Jew too, I think it can easily describe a non observant cultural Jew. Which is what I think Ruth Calderon is.

Dr. Calderon is one of Yesh Atid’s newly elected members of the Kenesset. By her own words she is not observant. If I understand correctly her education was that of the typical secular Israeli where Tanach (bible) is taught as literature and history and not as holy writ. And yet she has done something amazing. She has founded a secular Yeshiva. I suppose that means that her school is geared towards non observant Jews who want to learn Torah similar to the way observant Yeshiva students do.

As a youth, Dr. Calderon was not satisfied with the secular treatment of Judaism she got in Israeli schools. She knew instinctively that something was missing. Mainly the entire corpus of oral law as recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud. To put it the way she did in her inaugural speech before the Kenesset (as translated from the Hebrew in The Jewish Week):

I missed depth; I lacked words for my vocabulary; a past, epics, heroes, places, drama, stories – were missing… for me, this contained – I contained – a void. I did not know how to fill that void. The Talmud is not only the source of Halacha, it is many other things as well. It rich with culture, history, humor, ethics… and much more. She goes on to tell an inspiring story about her discovery of the richness and fullness of the Talmud and described the virtual love affair she has with it to this day. That love affair led her to pursue its study – at least on a secular level and she eventually earned a doctorate in Talmudic Literature.

Because of her love of learning, her Talmud study did not end there. She learns Daf Yomi with a Chavrusa (study partner). And as mentioned she founded a secular yeshiva. She is convinced that studying the Talmud is a vital aspect of being Jewish – even if only culturally – that is missing for the secular Israeli student… lamenting the fact that the founding fathers of Zionism abandoned its study. Again, to quote Dr. Calderon:

It is impossible to stride toward the future without knowing where we came from and who we are, without knowing, intimately and in every particular, the sublime as well as the outrageous and the ridiculous. The Torah is not the property of one movement or another. It is a gift that every one of us received, and we have all been granted the opportunity to meditate upon it a we create the realities of our lives. Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important and urgent: building a state, raising an army, developing agriculture and industry, etc. The time has come to reappropriate what is ours, to delight in the cultural riches that wait for us, for our eyes, our imaginations, our creativity. This is a truly profound and inspiring statement. She concludes her Knesset speech with a beautiful drasha – an exposition from the Talmud (Kesubos 62a) that demonstrates the kind of ethics authentic Judaism is all about… and finally ends with a prayer that is said upon entering the Knesset:

May it be Your will, Lord our God, God of our fathers and mothers, that I leave this house as is entered it – at peace with myself and with others. May my actions benefit all residents of the State of Israel. May I work to improve the society that sent me to this chamber and cause a just peace to dwell among us and with our neighbors. May I always remember that I am a messenger of the public and that I must take care to keep my integrity and innocence intact. May I, and we, succeed in all our endeavors. How beautiful it is to see a cultural -and yet still non observant Jew – extol the virtues of Judaism as expressed by our sages. There are some people who might object to a woman citing passages from the Gemarah. They might feel that it is inappropriate for a woman to even speak in public – let alone teach Torah to men. Or even learn Torah for that matter. I am not one of those people. I am on the opposite end of that spectrum. I fully support Torah study by every Jew – man or woman – who desires to do so.

The Jewish Cemetery in Saudi Arabia

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

A few years ago, a Saudi friend told me of the existence of a Jewish cemetery, or maqbarat al-yahud in Arabic, in the al-Ihsaa region in the eastern part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  The friend had been surprised to discover it and knew nothing about its history–about how the cemetery came to exist. The mystery was answered with the publication in 2012 of a well-documented work by Yusuf Ali al-Mutairi on al-yahud fi al-khaleej (the Jews in the Gulf). The book provides a balanced and well-documented review of the history of the small Jewish communities in the Gulf region from the start of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th.  The book states the obvious: that, unlike the large Jewish communities in Iraq, Egypt, Yemen and North Africa, the number of Jews in the Gulf countries had never exceeded a few hundreds in any one country.

Most of the Jews who settled in the Gulf countries, primarily in Kuwait and Bahrain, were of Iraqi origin, and many of them were seeking either to escape military conscription under the Ottoman Empire or to explore economic opportunities. Of these Jews, only a few have remained and probably only in the Kingdom of Bahrain, which, in fact, is represented in Washington by Ambassador Houda Ezra Noonoo, a Jew who speaks Iraqi Jewish Arabic dialect quite fluently.

Saudi Arabia was a special case. The Ottoman authorities brought a number of Iraqi Jews to fill administrative and financial posts in the al-Ihsaa region, the key source of its oil. Al-Ihsaa had been incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1871 and governed under the Wilayat of Basra (Iraq) and remained so through 1913. A Saudi royal decree issue in 1956 changed the name of al-Ihsaa Region into the Eastern although local population continues to refer to it as al-Hasa.

In his study on the Jews of the Gulf, Al-Mutairi relates that Jews occupied important positions in al-Ihasaa–notably that of the treasurer (during the Ottoman Empire the post was known in Turkish as sanduq amini). Three successive occupants of the post were Jews–Yacoub Effendi (1878-1879), Daoud bin Shintob (the Arabic version of the Hebrew word Shemtov) (1879-1894), and Haroun Effendi (1895-96). During their tenure, many of the entries into the books were made in Hebrew (most likely in Arabic transliterated in Rashi script).  Al-Mutairi has suggested that keeping the financial records in Hebrew may have been intended to prevent an audit of the accounts possibly to protect their Ottoman superiors. My own grandfather was a sanduq amini in the Province of Basra for more than two decades until the occupation of the city by the British in 1917. Like many people in his generation, he studied Torah and learned to write Hebrew in the old Rashi script.

Jews were also employed in al-Ihsaa as treasurers in the Sunni office or in the court of cassassion of the district (liwaa).  One Jew, known as “Elyahu the Jew,” served as the collector of customs in the port of Oqair, one of the most important ports in al-Ihassa at the time. But perhaps the most significant post held by a Jew was that of Director of Customs for the whole province, a post that was sought after by many individuals both inside and outside al-Ihasaa because it offered the potential for illicit income.

Daoud bin Shintob (Shemtov) is thought by Al-Mutairi to have been the best-known Jew in al-Ihsaa because of the strong relationship he maintained with the Ottoman and local officials–in particular, with Mohammad Sa’id Pasha, the governor of the Liwa (province) of al-Ihsaa, during the latter’s third term as governor, 1896-1900.  Complaints against Sa’id Pasha relating to his special relationship with Shemtov ultimately led to his dismissal despite the absence of any viable evidence of misconduct.

ACCORDING TO our Saudi sources the cemetery is located behind Riyadh Bank main branch and across from Beirut restaurant in the city of Hufuf.  In his book, al-Mutairi includes a photograph of a walled area taken by him on September 29, 2009, which he describes as the Jewish cemetery.

Our Saudi friend in al-Ihsaa suggests that the photo was perhaps of an area known as Koot [in Turkish, it means the fenced area.] which used to be the center of government for the province of al-Ihsaa. The Ottomans built high walls and watch towers to protect the governing bodies located in Koot. Given that only few Jews lived and died in the area the cemetery itself could not have been large. The Saudis have largely dismantled the walls around Koot and the area has become commercialized. The land on which the cemetery was located is largely deserted and our correspondent maintains that no one has made a claim to it although locals continue to refer to it as “maqbarat al-yehud.”

When is a Palestinian Not a Palestinian?

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

I usually write about the Jewish history of Israel.  This time around, a short piece on the flexibility of national identity among our neighbors.  Less than a century ago, the Christian residents of Bethlehem did not identify themselves as Arabs, and even less so as the indigenous peoples.  In welcoming the conquering Anglos, they eagerly associated themselves with the conquering imperial power.

From “The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine” by Charles Guy Powles (1922), quoted in “The Changing Land Between the Jordan and the Sea” by Benjamin Zeev Kedar:

Bethlehem is a Christian city…  The people declare that they are not Arabs, but that they are descendants of the Crusaders.  They certainly are not generally so dark and swarthy as the Arabs.  All the women have colour in their cheeks and many have blue eyes, and their dress is interesting and picturesque.  Apart from its attractive coloring – a sky-blue robe with red girdle and embroidered jacket – they wear a head-dress extraordinarily like that of the ladies of the Crusaders of old…
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Confronting Auschwitz and Birkenau

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

There was a shift in the paradigm of my life after my experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the largest concentration and extermination camps operating during the Holocaust.

The cold, hard facts of the Holocaust are well known, but it is only once you hear a survivor tell you their personal story that it truly strikes you how they now appreciate their lives in a way that not many of us do today; some attribute their survival to God, some to faith, to love, to family, to luck.

We are the most likely the last generation to be able to hear these stories from the survivors of the Holocaust and be able to ask them questions. That is a huge privilege. A privilege which I was able to take part with the ‘Lessons From Auschwitz’ program with the Holocaust Educational Trust.

We had been warned by our team leaders that there was no right or wrong way to feel about the experience, but prior to the trip to Poland in November 2012, some may have had some prior idea as to how they would react – for me, it was numbing, absolutely numbing. Expectations were of misery and sadness; the lessons taught were vital for us as “Holocaust Ambassadors,” but also to absorb and reflect upon as human beings.

In both Auschwitz and Birkenau, the atmosphere was very sombre and we all said little as we walked through the camps, supposedly out of respect, or out of sadness, or shock; there was an almost alien sense of peace, as if the silence that had settled over the camps was still somehow alive, as if the sounds heard all those years ago were still echoing within the brick walls. I’ve never experienced an environment so heavy with sorrow, and it frightened me – it’s almost a warning to us as the new generation about to inherit responsibility of the earth, as it could be seen as a display of the consequences of power being given to the wrong hands.

Such was the melancholy atmosphere. The cold was extraordinary; by the time we had reached the Birkenau camp, the sun had almost set and the bitter cold was starting to seep in through our clothing. We tightened our coats and took the long, mournful walk alongside the train tracks leading into the camp. I was taken aback by the sheer scale of the place; rows and rows of identical empty warehouses. The camp was monstrous and almost mechanical; it had no signs of life, of civilization, just building after empty building. It was difficult to imagine how many men had crossed paths here, young, old, wealthy, poor, doctors, lawyers, laborers, all being given the saddest of all fates.

One of the most startling moments, for me, was one of the very first things we came across; the now iconic “Arbeit Macht Frei” wire sign, which directly translates to “labor makes you free,” referring to the physical labor that the sufferers in the camp were to believe would liberate them. But for the majority of prisoners in the camps, their only liberation was death, many of them dying brutally. One could only imagine the faces of the prisoners who saw this sign and understood their likely fates, or the many young children who could not even imagine what lay ahead.

We learned that very young children were almost always sentenced to death, along with their mothers, to prevent the new generation of Jews from surviving, which was awful to hear; I could not imagine a future so awful in which that could happen, or a man so soulless, who might have even has his own children, that he would give or execute such an order. This impression of this total lack of empathy or compassion on the Nazis’ part was horrifying, because it is hard to understand the circumstances in which this would be considered acceptable. Even now, it is obvious to see that we have moved forward in terms of acceptance of other faiths and races and we must preserve this tolerance in our society, but also promote it all over the world.

It is too late for the victims of the Holocaust, and one of the slightly uplifting things about the visit was the Oshpitztin visit, a graveyard for Jews, which clearly demonstrated to me that there was some respect for the Jews, and I was happy that someone had deemed them worthy to be given the blessing of a gravestone, of a resting place where their loved ones could come to mourn them. As we all know, there were far more victims of the Holocaust that could not be given the privilege of a burial, or a grave, but it gave me hope that even in a situation where so many acted so wrongly, there will be others who will do what is right.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/confronting-auschwitz-and-birkenau/2013/01/27/

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