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December 18, 2014 / 26 Kislev, 5775
 
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Posts Tagged ‘Jewish People’

Exacting Vengeance on the Gentiles?

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Once again we are treated to the sight of very religious looking Jews acting like a street gang. A statue of a cross with a figure of Jesus on it was defaced by a group of Breslover Chasidim in Uman. The cross was recently erected opposite the grave of the founder of this Chasidus, Rav Nachman of Breslov – located in the Ukrainian city of Uman. From JTA:

“To exact vengeance on the gentiles,” reads the message, which was scrawled across the torso of a figure of Jesus. A further inscription on Jesus’ leg reads, “Stop desecrating the name of God.”

This kind of thing would not surprise me if it were being done by extremists from a community that embraces an isolationist lifestyle. But although they are hardcore Chasidim who dress and look much the same as Satmar Chasidim – Breslovers do a lot of outreach. I would expect them to know how to behave in a more civilized manner. They must have had a socialization process that taught them that or they could not do outreach. And yet here they have acted in a completely uncivilized way.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise that a Christian symbol near their venerated Rebbe’s grave site was desecrated with graffiti. I guess their socialization process goes just so far. A statue of Jesus so close to their Rebbe’s grave site was too much to handle.

I don’t know why the Ukrainian Government chose that site for its statue. I don’t think it was a wise decision. But at the same time, I don’t think it was necessarily meant to ‘stick it’ to the Breslovers either. It was probably just not a well thought out plan.

I can understand why these Chasidim felt outrage. They consider the Breslover Rebbe’s gravesite to be so holy that make annual pilgrimages to it. Tens of thousands of Jews (mostly Breslover Chasidim) from all over the world visit it during Rosh Hashanah – one of the holiest times of the year. It is almost as though they were making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. Seeing the sight of Jesus on a cross must have made them feel like they were seeing Avodah Zara in the Beis HaMikdash.

The outrage is understandable. But their expression of it is inexcusable. It is the kind of behavior that can bring tragedy upon the Jewish people. Uman is not Jerusalem. R. Nachman’s gravesite is not the Beis HaMikdash. The citizens of Uman are their hosts. Breslovers are guests. And the guests have just defaced the image of the god their hosts worship.

The more responsible Breslover leadership has apologized. Sort of. From JTA:

“We respect other religions, and don’t wish to damage symbols of other religions. But, unfortunately, not all of our coreligionists understand this. They could break or destroy the cross. That would lead to a genuine war between hasidim and Christians. We cannot allow that, so we request that the cross be moved to a different location,” said Shimon Busquila, a representative of the Rabbi Nachman International Fund…

It may have been a legitimate request. But it was made too late. If made at all it should have been made politely before the statue was vandalized. Nonetheless the deputy mayor of Uman agreed with it.

On the other hand the citizens of Uman were so outraged by the vandalism – that they will have no part of moving the statue. They promised retaliation against Rav Nachman’s grave if it is moved. I can’t say that I blame them.

I think the point to be made here is contained in the response made by Shimon Busquila: ‘…not all of our coreligionists understand this’.

That is exactly the problem. Why don’t they understand this? It is not enough for a leader to simply say that some of their co-religionists do not understand the consequences of being uncivilized – thereby damaging the property of their hosts.  Especially their religious symbols. No matter how upsetting it is to them.

The Chasidim who did this are taught to hate non Jewish religious symbols much more than they are taught to behave in civilized ways when encountering them. So when they get upset at the sight of one of those hated symbols, they react in ways that bring ill repute upon – and ill will against – our people. They do so without thinking or perhaps even caring about the consequences.

Tossing a Jewish Lasso over Wyoming’s Wild West

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Originally published at Chabad.org.

By Carin M. Smilk

Summer is winding down in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It’s a short season, weather-wise, but it’s also a season that brings in tourists, lots of them, who come for the mountains and national parks, the outdoor sports and the wide open spaces. They come to make good on the state slogan: “Like No Place on Earth.”

Not long after they leave, winter beckons a slew of other travelers, those lured to the skiing and snow activities. It’s another bustling time; the two seasons bring in about 4 million visitors a year.

And about 1 percent of them—an estimated 40,000 people—are Jewish.

That helps make life busy for Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn, co-director of Chabad Jewish Center of Wyoming with his wife, Raizy. Not that it’s so quiet the rest of the year. The couple, based in the town of Jackson—in western Wyoming near the border of Idaho, almost completely surrounded by mountains and in the well-known valley of Jackson Hole—serves the roughly 500 permanent Jewish residents there, out of a general population of nearly 10,000. It’s an interesting mix, says the rabbi, of singles, couples, families, retirees, tourists and those with second homes in the area.

“We have a very small community,” acknowledges Mendelsohn, “but we offer quality services—substantive services. We’re reaching out to individual Jews in a very personal, warm, inviting way.”

Since their official 2008 move to Jackson, they have started all kinds of programs. There’s the annual Jackson Hole Jewish Music Festival, which brings in bands and performers from all over, coupled with Camp Gan Israel, a Jewish women’s circle, a “Mommy & Me” class, Torah study, lectures, “Coffee & Kabbalah,” and Shabbat and Jewish holiday dinners and services. Currently, they rent space for High Holiday services but are looking for a place to buy.

 

Also on tap are lecture series, including one to take place this weekend, Aug. 16-17. The Shabbaton will include services and a Friday-night dinner, then Saturday-morning services and a three-course lunch, with lectures both days by guest speaker David N. Weiss. A Hollywood film writer with several blockbusters to his credit, Weiss has traversed religiously from being a secular Jew to a Christian youth worker, and now follows a life of observant Judaism.

“His story is very compelling,” says Mendelsohn. “He never really had the opportunity to study Judaism in-depth. It shows that you can always start fresh and new, even if you’re very famous or a celebrity. You can always rediscover your roots.”

The series has attracted 50 to 60 people on average, and the rabbi expects a similar turnout for Weiss.

‘Very Much at Home’

 Ben from San Francisco put on tefillin for the first time in his life. Photo credit: Chabad.org

Ben from San Francisco put on tefillin for the first time in his life. Photo credit: Chabad.org

So how has life changed for a couple raised in completely different living environments? The rabbi, in his early 30s, hails from Miami, Fla., and Raizy, in her late 20s, grew up in Israel. What’s it like to live in the least populated state in the nation?

“We felt very much at home right away,” says the rabbi. “People are warm and welcoming; there’sthe renowned Western hospitality. It’s a cowboy town, it’s the Wild West, but people also have a more spiritual character here. And our goal is to introduce a Yiddishkeit element to it.”

That sense of spirituality could have something to do with the physical backdrop. Jackson is a stone’s throw from Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Teton Mountains. The rabbi talks of the everyday appearance of bison, moose, deer, wolves and bears. “There’s wildlife in the streets,” he says, pausing to add that he just saw a herd of elk run up the side of a nearby mountain.

He also notes the atmosphere—both scenically and spiritually—is good for the couple’s four young children. After all, for kids in such a place, aside from their home-schooling time, “life is surrounded by G-d’s great outdoors.”

Of course, it’s not all vales and wild flowers. There’s no kosher food, no Jewish schools, no other Orthodox presence and no mikvah. The closest mikvahs are in Bozeman, Mont., and Salt Lake City, Utah—both a five-hour drive or one-hour flight away.

“Still,” says Mendelsohn, “we have a wonderful community, and we are honored to also accommodate visitors who come through. I travel around the state quarterly visiting Jewish people. We’ve put up about 60 mezuzahs in the last three years all over the state. One by one, we’re connecting Jews with their heritage.”

“That’s the story of Wyoming. We may be one of the most remote Jewish communities in the country, but I want people to know that Yiddishkeit is alive and well and thriving in Jackson Hole.”

Laura Goldstein, 34, can attest to that. Originally from New Jersey, she now lives in Victor, Idaho, which borders Wyoming and is about a 45-minute drive from Jackson. She and her husband Howard, a wildlife biologist, came to live out West in 2009, and she says the rabbi was one of the first people they met.

“We were looking for a way to connect with other Jewish people, and we knew Chabad would be a good way to do that,” says Goldstein, an administrative assistant. “They invited us over for Shabbat dinner, and it was lovely. They were so gracious. They make you want to be part of the community.

“And every opportunity they have of doing a mitzvah, they do. It’s incredible.”

She’s also seen Chabad grow as an organization. At Rosh Hashanah, there used to be three men, not even a minyan; now there may be 14. And Shabbat dinners in the summer can draw 40 to 50 people. She even mentions that just this year, she met a Jewish woman from New York who runs a clothing store/jewelry shop in Victor.

Learning by Example

Most of all, Goldstein says she and her husband have modeled their Shabbat observance at home on the Mendelsohns’ example. “Knowing them has been a huge part in that direction. We feel that we’re better Jewish people out here. It probably wouldn’t have been as big a part of our identity” back East.

She adds that Raizy has shown her how to make challah, light Shabbat candles and recite the Havdalah prayers.

“It’s great to see how they bring in what they need,” says Goldstein. “These people are making it work; they’re doing it.” So she figures she can, too.

“Rabbi Zalman,” as Josh Beck and other local residents call him, “is involved in everything. He’s an amazing man.”

“And he’s one of my closest friends here.”

Beck, 41, an orthopedic surgeon from New Jersey, has been living in Wyoming for seven years. He says he considers himself a very big supporter and very active with Chabad there.

He attends Shabbat dinners (the true reason, he says, is because of “Raizy’s fantastic cooking”) and various programs, but admits to preferring “the off-season, when there’s a handful of locals.”

He says that he, his wife and 3-year-old daughter “love living out here.” Beck hunts and fishes and skis; in fact, he notes, he found his job there while on a ski vacation.

A Spiritual Change of Scenery

Cross-country skiing also appeals to Stephen and Linda Melcer from Boca Raton, Fla., who have rented a house in Jackson the last two winters and intend to come again this year.

“It’s a nice change of scenery, of climate,” says Stephen Melcer, a 61-year-old lawyer. “It’s also a nice change religiously and a change in diversity.”

The couple belongs to Boca Raton Synagogue, an Orthodox shul. “Whenever we travel, we look for a place to be for Shabbos, and a good place to start looking is Chabad. We’ve noticed here that a lot of people attending are travelers, and a larger percentage of people are not observant.”

Melcer says he appreciates “going into an environment where a rabbi is focused on the less observant.”

“They are very warm,” he says of the Mendelsohns. “I think they enjoy the challenge of it. And they certainly have a lot of challenges. The incredible thing is that challenges never cross their minds.”

Ken Begelman is glad that’s the case. He and his wife, Helen, helped the Mendelsohns come to town.

Twelve years ago, the Begelmans moved to Teton County, about 8 miles outside Jackson, from Palm Beach County, Fla. When they arrived, they wanted a shul—a congregation of some type. Begelman says he was familiar with Chabad rabbinical students coming to Wyoming temporarily (they have for decades, as part of the “Roving Rabbis” program), and got in touch with people in Brooklyn to work to make it happen permanently.

“He’s a very outgoing guy, very inclusive; he gets along with everybody,” says Begelman, a 66-year-old retired cardiac surgeon, of Mendelsohn.

He notes that there’s a large number of 20-year-olds who come to work during ski season or in the summer who have never had any religious affiliation or education, and “the rabbi has turned a lot of these kids around.”

As for Wyoming, the former Floridian insists that “it’s wonderful here. It’s what America should be. Everybody respects everybody else. You don’t have to lock your house or your car. There’s no crime.”

Sure, the winter temperatures can fall to 20 below and the snow can average 38 feet a year in the mountainous regions, but residents insist that it’s an invigorating experience.

In regards to future expansion, Begelman says that if “one new Jewish family a year comes permanently, that would be a lot.” Population growth is indeed slow; Begelman has seen signs in the state that note there are 10 horses for every one person residing there.

As far as the rabbi and his family go, “I’m very happy that they’ve fit in well in the community and that they like it here. It’s a wonderful place to live.”

Temptations, Tests, and the Search for Spiritual Courage

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

I was recently walking down the street when I smelled one of the most amazing unkosher cuisines I could ever remember smelling. As I stared at my food enemy, I had a thought which I imagine most religious Jews have at one point or another. I wondered: Was God testing me with this great smell? Was this amazing scent a way to bring my downfall?

Pondering this trivial “test” led to a greater philosophical and theological question: What is the religious nature of temptations and tests?

The Torah says, “Remember the entire path along which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the desert, He sent hardships to test you.” (Deut. 8:2). We read that G-d has Bnei Yisrael wander in the desert for 40 years as a test.

What is this about? To place a nation (man, woman, and child) through such transient and confused misery for decades as a test? I also often wonder if the Jewish people are being tested today, with our own state in Israel and unprecedented wealth and influence in the US. What will we do with the great blessings we’ve been granted? What does this idea mean that G-d tests us as individuals and as a nation?

It must be more than schar v’onesh (that God is merely keeping our score card) or that G-d is merely flexing power in the world.

I also can’t relate to the cynical answer found in the book of Job, where God tests Job because of a disagreement with Satan. My belief in a benevolent and personal G-d precludes the possibility of random tests.

Still within distance of smelling my temptation of the day, I began to ponder answers:

For years, the most compelling answer to me has been that it is through the struggle of these challenges that we truly grow. These temptations are ways of teaching people about G-d and the incredible human capacity for compassion and spiritual depth. The Ramban argues that this was exactly the purpose of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) for Avraham.

Alternatively, perhaps there is a utilitarian approach that more people can learn from a test than the one having to undergo the discomfort of the test. The Rambam and Radak argue that the purpose of the test at the Akeidah was not for Avraham to learn but for the future adherents of the Abrahamic faith to learn. This sets a gold standard for others to try to follow.

Rav Kook goes even further, arguing that Avraham was being tested in order to “prove” to the pagan religions that monotheism can match the religious passion of pagan worship through the act of inward sacrifice, without the need for savage and barbaric sacrifices. One is being tested in order to teach others through its example.

Another utilitarian approach is that tests can provide opportunities for others to do mitzvot to help when we are struggling. It is for the moral good of the community at large.

These explanations may be true and all of them are worth thinking about but Rav Tzadok teaches that just as a person needs to believe in G-d so too one needs to believe in oneself. These days many of us (including myself) are struggling less with why we are tested by G-d and more with how we can overcome our obstacles and challenges to live a happier, more meaningful, more successful life. Do we believe in our own capacity to overcome in the face of adversity?

One tool that we can all consider experimenting with: The Gemara says that the Torah is the seasoning for the yetzer hara (personal evil inclination). The Maggid of Mezritch offers a beautiful interpretation that since the yetzer hara is the main dish and the Torah is the seasoning, we must serve God with the full ecstasy of the yetzer hara. The purpose is not to destroy or subdue the yetzer hara but rather to spice it up – to access its energy and channel it towards good.

This is to say that when we experience struggle we should use that temptation and channel that new energy towards good rather than attempt to dismiss or remove the temptation. This is why the Midrash explains that without the yetzer hara there would be no business or procreation. In a complex way, we need our desire for self-advancement to further societal goals.

Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

It’s very difficult to ignore what is going on in Egypt. Daily news coverage of the army slaughtering fellow Egyptians easily engenders sympathy for the victims. One can easily conclude that we are witnessing the actions of a vicious military crushing its unarmed protesting population. Indeed the world community including the United States has been condemning the army for that.

Those daily images of the bloody carnage will generate the same attitude in most people. It is difficult to see dead bodies lined up in makeshift morgues, severely wounded bloody victims, and wives and mothers who cry out in pain at the loss of a husband or child.

It is easy to sympathize with them. The reportage is extremely sympathetic to the underdog victims. But as always the case with media reports – rarely do they see context. It’s always about the underdog. In this case the underdog is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Let us take a moment and look at some historical and religious context.

Egypt’s former dictator, President Hosni Mubarak, was ousted from office after a popular uprising by Egyptian citizens . Democracy was their cry. They had apparently had enough of Mubarak. But he fought back. People were killed. Mubarak was eventually overthrown by his own military and arrested. After a brief military rule elections were held and Musilm Brotherhood candidate Muhamed Morsi was (somewhat surprisingly to me) elected by a majority of Egyptian voters.

Mosri pushed through a new constitution that was largely based on Islamic law. In the meantime Egypt’s economy collapsed and is in shambles. People started protesting again. The Egyptian military once again stepped in and quickly removed Morsi from office.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members were outraged seeing themselves robbed of their freely elected leader. They started protesting in huge numbers. The army fought back with live ammunition. The result is what we are now witnessing in the daily news coverage.

The US has wisely not reduced it financial support of Egypt. But it has not been shy about criticizing the Egyptian military’s lethal tactics in trying to suppress Brotherhood protests.

How are we to see what is going on there? How does what is going on in Egypt affect us, the Jewish people? Whose side should we be on… if any?

I think the first thing we have to do is look at what the Egyptian army is really fighting. They are fighting a movement that is extremely anti Semitic as a part of its religious theology. They believe that Israel is a gang, not a country and they will fight it until they destroy it.

The Muslim Brotherhood honors Osama Bin Ladin and condemned his assassination by the United States. Ayman Al Zawahiri the current head of Al Qaida is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood denies the Holocaust while praising Islamic Jihad and martyrdom. They condemn the peace treaty with Israel and they consistently call for the destruction of Israel. In addition, their Arabic website alleges that Jews have created evil in the world throughout history.

It is therefore my view that it does not serve Israel or US interests to support the Muslim Brotherhood – even though the Egyptian military tactic is brutal.

No one supports man’s inhumanity to man which is what it seems like the Egyptian military is doing. But as Chazal tell us – when one is kind to the cruel, they will end up being cruel to the kind. To peace loving democracies like the United States and Israel and to most other Western countries, the Brotherhood should be seen in the same light as Hamas, Hezbollah, and any other Islamist Jihadist group. They should be seen as determined to prevail at all cost. Including at the cost of innocent lives as anyone who lost a loved one on 9/11 can tell you.

What about the Egyptian military? They reflect the will of secular Egypt and have their support. But there is no love lost between Egypt’s secular population and Israel. As Muslims – they are in theory just as opposed to the Jewish State as the Muslim Brotherhood. But they are not in favor of hostilities with the Jewish State and are probably more willing to stand by the peace treaty with Israel as a means of achieving stability in the region. Secular Egyptians are more interested in improving their lives materially and having a government that responds to their needs. Israel’s legitimacy is in their minds a back burner issue for now.

What about the current carnage of Brotherhood members? I’m sorry. I don’t have too much sympathy for religious fanatics whose ultimate goal is to destroy the Jewish State and kill Jews… a movement that has spawned the likes Ayman Zawahiri.

They look like innocent victims in the eye of the camera. They portray themselves as devout Muslims whose only goal is to restore their Islamist leader and live religious lives. And they seem to be systematically slaughtered for simply expressing their protest in large numbers. But that is far from the complete picture – to say the least.

In my view the United States should take a ‘hands off’ approach. Let the Egyptian people fight it out. Let nature take its course. The Egyptian military should not be hampered. Financial aid should not be withheld since it helps ensure the continuance of the peace treaty. The Muslim Brotherhood must be defeated. If we allow them to succeed, we allow religious extremism to succeed and increase. And that is the last thing the world needs right now.

I wonder how many secular Egyptians miss Mubarak right about now? He may have been corrupt. But Egypt was a lot better off when he was around. And the Middle East was a lot more stable. The democracy that was hoped for by the west after he was deposed – never happened. Democracy is not only about having a free election. It is about including free and democratic principles that do not force religious law upon all its citizens. That’s what happened with Morsi. And that is why I’m glad he’s gone.

A word about fighting terrorism as perpetrated by the above-mentioned movements .The world should once and for all realize that what they are really fighting is not terrorism but an ideology. I don’t think they do. This is not about supporting a poor underdog… or a brutal military bent on destroying innocent people. This is a holy war initiated by a militant and fanatic religion that loves death more than we love life. How do you fight an idea? I don’t know. But the more the world realizes this fact, the better prepared they will be to deal with it.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

Henry Shaw & Names

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

What’s in a name? My late father had an only sibling called Henry Shaw. We loved our Uncle Hashy as we called him. He was huge, almost six-and-a-half feet tall, and had to stoop to get through the doors of our house. He had a deep but soft bass voice and a wonderful sense of humor. He was a marvelous raconteur, steeped in Yiddish culture and the intricacies of internal Jewish political warfare in Eastern Europe. His greatest impact on my life was the range of experiences he introduced me to, from Chazanut to Verdi’s Requiem, from Hillel Zeitlin to AJP Taylor, from Martin Buber to Bertrand Russell. He was less charismatic than my father, less combative, but a much more approachable person.

He qualified in social studies at London University and spent his life devoted to the Jewish Community, first in London in the Association of Jewish Youth, then running Hillel House in Endsleigh Street, London. He and his devoted wife, Sybil, provided a home from home for thousands of Jewish students from around the world for over twenty years. I saw most of him in my own student years and he was very supportive and encouraging. But then they ‘disappeared’ from my life and went off to Australia to take over the Hillel Foundation of Victoria which involved the Melbourne and Monash Universities. Five years later Henry switched to academia to help establish a Jewish studies program at Prahran College. His work eventually morphed into the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilization at Monash. Sybil died in 1978, but Henry flourished until 1996.

I am writing this piece because this week is his Yahrzeit. But also because I am embarrassed to admit that I never found out why he adopted the surname Shaw. Which leads me to the issue of Jewish surnames. We Jews never really took them very seriously. Napoleon’s civil reforms insisted that everyone had to have a surname. Previously non-Jews had Christian names (yes, that’s what first names were called in Britain until the sixties) and Jews had Jewish names on to which occasionally one added a location or a profession. When the law of the land insisted on surnames Jews usually took their profession, the town they came from, or a Latin version of a Hebrew word like Benedict or Priest. Amongst themselves they invariably used only Hebrew names, until the process of acculturation took hold. This explains why Jews tended to be rather cavalier about changing their civil names or having them changed by others.

My paternal grandparents came from Radomsk. My grandmother was a Bialystock, the name of a Polish town. My grandfather’s family name was a more Russian, Rozrasowski . During the great migrations of over a hundred years ago, lots of migrants took or had simpler or more western names given to them as they came through immigration. You have heard of the old Jewish gentleman called, improbably, Shawn Fergusson because when he arrived at immigration in a state of exhaustion and shock and was asked his name he said in Yiddish, “Shoyn Fergessen“ (“I forgotten.”). Or the Chinese man called Moishe Greenberg because as he came through after a Jewish migrant and gave his name as Sam Ting, they thought he meant “the same thing”.

Seriously, when the Rozrasowskis came to London in the early part of the twentieth century the family simplified its name to Rosen. They must have thought it would sound more English! There were five girls and four boys. The boys decided that they’d rather be known by their first names, so as to differentiate themselves. That was how my Grandfather Shlomo came to be known as Mr. Solomons. Indeed his tombstone in Dublin (where he moved during the Depression) gives his name as “Mr. Sydney Solomons (Rosen)”.

My father was always known as Rosen, but his elder brother Hashy became Shaw. Was it to sound more English, or actually Irish? Shaw is a popular Irish name. When his parents moved to Ireland this was an era in which when getting a job or an apartment with a Jewish name was as difficult as getting one with an African name fifty years later. Or was it just a play on Henry’s nickname Hashy? One family tradition had it that he had lost his papers and got an Irish passport on the black market. The most improbable was that he had accidentally killed an anti-Semitic drunk in a fight and carried his name as a penance. Who knows? He never gave me a straight answer.

But if you think this story strange, let me tell you about my maternal grandfather, Moishe Yaakov Cohen, known as MJ. He was born Moishe Shumacher in Uman in the Ukraine. As a boy he emigrated to Tredegar in Wales. There he was taken under the wing of a relative whose name was Cohen, who had become the godfather of Jewish peddlers servicing the isolated Welsh mining villages of the Rhonda with haberdashery and other supplies that the miners paid for in installments. The peddlers went out on foot on a Sunday with goods provided by Mr. Cohen and did not come back till Friday to spend Shabbes together and make up the minyan. It was suggested to Moishe that if he had the same name as the boss it would inspire confidence. So Moishe Shumacher, the Levi from Uman, became MJ Cohen. Soon he did well enough to set himself up in business on his own in Manchester as MJ Cohen, General Draper (a fancy name for selling odds and ends). Later he transferred to Cardiff. One day he sent a letter back home on his notepaper inviting relatives to come and join him. When they read the invitation they had no idea who MJ Cohen was, but they did recognize the word “General” and assumed he’d been promoted in the army and had changed his name to Draper. Which explains why we once had relatives in Manchester called Draper.

All these people I have mentioned here only had one Hebrew name from the beginning to the end, names that linked them directly to their heritage of millennia. Their surnames were secondary, like a chameleon’s skin. But they, like my Uncle Hashy, were and are all proud and contributing members of the Jewish people. As far as I am concerned that’s what counts.

What Does It Mean to Be Jewish?

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

The question “What does it mean to be Jewish?” has often been asked. I suppose you could invoke the old joke “Ask two Jews a question and you’ll get three opinions” to better comprehend how different Jews would respond to this question, so when I weigh in here, I hope readers will forgive me if my opinions don’t always accord with theirs.

But the question is legitimate and should be asked. Jewish people share a common heritage and are affected by many of the same issues today. They face a world in which their religion is part of their identity; no matter how far apart they are on the religious and political spectrums (not to mention any others), they share a common bond that unites them in terms of how they relate to each other and to the outside world.

So what does it mean to be Jewish? To me, it means the following:

● To believe in God. Divine affirmation is the foundation of Judaism. Everything else comes after.

● To observe Shabbat and the various yom tovim. What could be more meaningful, spiritual, and fulfilling – more Jewish – than practicing the religious aspects of Judaism?

● To lead an honorable life. Shouldn’t we all aspire to become tzaddikim, righteous people?

● To keep kosher. Certain things just seem to go together, like lox and bagels, gefilte fish and horseradish – and being Jewish and keeping kosher.

● To do mitzvot. There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah, including the above. Carrying out mitzvot is part of our code.

● To carry on Jewish traditions. There’s life after davening, and it’s called Jewish culture. Chanukah gifts, hamantashen, and singing niggunim on Shabbat are just a few of the wonderful customs that have evolved from the religion and its people.

● To be proud of your Jewish heritage. Wear it on your sleeve – you’re a member of a tribe that has nearly 6,000 years of history.

● To feel an immediate bond with fellow Jews. Have you ever felt like you can be anywhere in the world and if you find a fellow Jew, you feel an immediate kinship?

● To involve yourself in a community of Jews. As birds of a feather flock together, it’s only natural for Jews to be immersed in a Jewish world – having Jewish friends, engaging in Jewish activities, living in Jewish neighborhoods.

● To feel a Jewish identity. Even if you’re not as religious as you could or should be, what could possibly make you more Jewish than feeling Judaism is an indelible part of your soul, or that being Jewish is simply who you are?

● To feel a special connection to Jewish history. Who can feel the pain of Jewish persecutions, expulsions, and genocides more than a Jew? Who can feel the catastrophe of the Holocaust more deeply than a Jew?

● To take great pride in Israel. Do you get the chills when you hear “Hatikvah”? After 2,000 years of Jews living in the Diaspora as a weak, defenseless, persecuted people, what greater modern miracle could there be than the resurrection of the Jewish homeland?

● To place an emphasis on education. Jewish parents may be the original “tiger moms and dads.” Perhaps that is why some professions are disproportionately populated by Jews.

● To feel empathy for the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden. You only have to consider how much we’ve suffered as a people to understand how this got into our DNA.

● To have a Jewish funny bone. You can relate to Jewish humor because you’re laughing at yourself and other Jewish people you know – and, nu, do you think there’s any shortage of Jewish foibles?

● To think in “Jewish ways.” How do Jews think? Oy vey iz mir. We think the number 18 brings good luck, so we sometimes give gifts in denominations of 18, like $36 or $180. We try to ward off the evil eye after hearing compliments or wonderful news by saying “kenohora” or mimicking spitting by going “pooh-pooh-pooh.” Oh, and there’s the proverbial Jewish guilt, as well as our inimitable designation of “mishagas” to explain a panoply of crazy behavior with a Jewish edge. Is there such a thing as a Yiddishe kop? Suffice it to say that when you do something stupid, you’re not using it.

Stop Deriding Black Hatters!

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

One of my many goals in life as a Jew is to contribute to the unity of the Jewish people. All Jews share the heritage of the Torah which is what defines us as Jews. That heritage belongs to all of us as was so eloquently stated by newly elected Knesset member Ruth Calderon when speaking about her love of the Talmud. For those who choose not to follow all – or even any Halacha they are nevertheless fully Jewish – af al pi she chotah, Yisroel hu (even though he sinned, he is still a Jew).

Among those of us who are observant – unity should be natural. There should be a very strong common bond no matter what our differing hashkafos are. I often say that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. We are all shomer Shabbos and Yom Tov. We all keep Kosher. And we all eat matzah and do not eat hametz on Pesach.

But if one were to look at the enmity between religious Jews of differing hashkafos one would think we live on different planets the residents of which are enemy alien creatures. Unity is the furthest thing from our minds.

Which brings me to a very poignant article by Yael Farzan published yesterday in The Observer – Yeshiva University’s student newspaper. Let me say at the outset that I agree with her. She laments the fact that there is so much bias against the “Black Hat” (Haredi) community by members of her own Modern Orthodox community.

What precipitated her article is an experience she had on a recent Friday night. During a conversation with a group of friends someone slipped a derogatory comment about Haredim that generated derisive laughter from the other members of the group. She cringed!

I for one am happy to see a natural reflex like that from a Modern Orthodox Jew. It shows me that there are people who indeed believe that what unites us is greater than what divides us. The laughter from others in her group is unfortunately a more common reaction. If not overtly then covertly. This is nothing but pure prejudice for no reason. Laughter is not criticism. It is a form of expressing one’s feeling of superiority over others. And it shows an attitude that is so ingrained that no one there – other than the author of this article – gave it a second thought. It is just a given – natural part of their worldview to look down at the Haredi world.

This is wrong. It is as biased as is being anti-black. Which as Ms. Farzan points out is the furthest thing from a Modern Orthodox Jew’s worldview. The typical Modern Orthodox Jew would be appalled (rightly so) if someone used a racial epithet against a black person. If a crude racist joke were made there would very likely be no laughter – but righteous indignation. As there should be.

But when it comes to one of our own, there is no such thing. Laughter is the appropriate response (unfortunately) to an anti-Haredi or anti-Hasid joke.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being Haredi or Hasidic. We can disagree with them on hashkafic issues or be critical of some of their choices. But we must never deride them or think less of them as human beings or Jews just because of hashkafic differences.

I criticize the Haredi and Hasdic world all the time. But it is not a criticism of their lifestyles or their Hashkafos. Even as I believe that my worldview is the correct one, I concede that there are others who see things differently than I do… seeing their own worldview as the correct one. In the spirit of “elu v’elu” (“these and those”) we should just agree to disagree and respect each other’s views and lifestyles as long as they do not impinge on the rights of others.

So if a Haredi has a large family, or wears a black hat, or sees the goal of Jewry expressed only in terms of Torah study, or does not see any value in the study of mada (secular studies), or even chooses to live his life in isolation, sheltered from all outside influences – that is his right. It should not detract from the sense of unity that observant Jews have. We are all believers in the Torah and the obligation to follow Halacha. And we all fail sometimes in those goals, whether it is bein adam l’makom (between man and God) or bein adam l’havero (between man and his fellow). Our commonality should supersede any differences between us. We should respect those differences even as we disagree with them.

Anyone of us who therefore smirks at derogatory Haredi or Hasidic comment or laughs at a derisive joke ought to be ashamed of themselves.

The only legitimate criticism of anyone should be in behavior that is a hilul HaShem (desecration of God’s name). It doesn’t matter what the hashkafa of that person is. Even if we speculate – as I sometimes do – about the reasons for some bad behavior stemming from what is perceived as a flaw in the way some hashkafos are carried out – that does not mean that an entire group should be looked down upon or that the entire hashkafa is wrong. Criticism should be looked at as a means of trying to rectify a flaw, not as a put-down of the entire group.

To the extent that some of my more critical posts generate comments that are sarcastic and contemptuous toward the entirety of Haredim or Hasidim I apologize. It has never been my intent to do that. My intent is to improve, not to deride. And yet some of those posts bring out the worst in us.

I should add that is not a one way street. The behavior of many Haredim and Hasidim towards Modern Orthodox Jews is just as bad. The exact same essay in The Observer could have been written about a group of Haredim in the ‘back of the Beis HaMedrash mocking Modern Orthodox Jews. The things being pointed to are different. As are the reasons for their sense of superiority. But the attitude is the same. And my critique would be exactly the same.

But I fault Modern Orthodox Jews more than I do Haredim. Not because our jokes are meaner. I have heard equally scornful comments from both groups about the other – albeit in different ways. But as Ms. Farzan points out – Modern Orthodox Jews are supposed to be the open minded ones. The tolerant ones. The ones who try and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. It’s time we acted like that about our own.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

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