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September 20, 2014 / 25 Elul, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Rachel’

Why Psychology & Marriage Therapy Fails

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Statistically, about half of all couples marrying this year will see their marriage end in divorce. For couples undergoing marriage therapy, surprisingly or perhaps not surprisingly, the rates of divorce are no different about one-half will suffer divorce.[1]

Does marriage therapy help? Unfortunately, the answer is “Not much.”

Husband and wife arrive at the psychologist (counselor or therapist) for marital therapy. The psychologist attempts to make both happy, a sort of 2 for 1 deal which rarely works. Counseling is individual oriented with the specific objective of helping the individual find happiness. The marital counselor is caught in a Catch-22: facing two dissimilar individuals, suffering together, both seeking to find happiness. Unfortunately, the therapist has no common framework in which to offer help.

In psychology’s happiness-based weltanschauung, marriage is a means, not an end – and, as a result, lacks any valid reason to assume permanence. Marriage may have been the answer for such a couple seeking happiness 4, 5 or 10 years ago, when they were in love and dreamed of spending the rest of their lives together, but what about now? They’re different. People do change after marriage. What guarantees their compatibility or love 5, 10 or 20 years after celebrating their marriage? If marriage will increase their happiness, then, psychology advocates marriage. But if, say, 10 years later, marriage fails to offer them the same happiness, then, psychology may well advocate ending the marriage. Marriage therapy and counseling notoriously fail owning to their explicit “happiness focused” paradigm.

Marriage demands effort; there are no shortcuts. It’s not always easy working on oneself, overcoming personality imperfections and becoming a better person. It’s much easier to blame one’s spouse, indulge one’s failings by quitting and simply trading in the old model for a newer one. And that’s exactly what occurs in half of American marriages today. Marriage has become disposable, expendable; a temporary means serving a goal of individual happiness rather than being a hallowed end, worthy of sacrifice.

This “happiness” malady is well bred into the American psyche. The Declaration of Independence guarantees our “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Beyond the clichés, while the Declaration of Independence guarantees one’s right to the pursuit of happiness, it fails miserably to guarantee finding happiness.

In contradistinction to the American ideal of inalienable rights, self-evident truths, manifest destiny and the pursuit of happiness, the Torah lists 613 commandments. In place of freedoms and rights, the Torah places obligations – lots of them. We eat only kosher, dress modestly, pray three times a day, fast when we want to eat and eat marror when Hashem says to. We refrain from work on Shabbos and live according to the Laws of Family Purity and Chazal state “Only he who submerges himself in Torah is truly free.”

Marriage, according to Judaism, is an end, not a means. Marriage is the ideal state of humankind; human perfection is attained only through marriage. Improving one’s marriage brings him or her closer to Hashem. “It is not good for man to dwell alone. I will create for him a helpmate beside him.” Life challenges. Marriage challenges and people find happiness by overcoming challenges. The Hebrew word nisayon translates, not as difficulty but as challenge – based upon the word nes, which means to elevate.

Marriage succeedswhen it is viewed as permanent and husband and wife are absolutely dedicated to their marriage’s enhancement. The Torah’s many teachings clearly depict marriage’s importance and permanence.

In a Jewish wedding ceremony, the man gives a wedding ring to the woman and through this act consecrates her as his wife. In Jewish Law, the monetary transaction of acquiring a wife is learned out from a monetary transaction in a different Biblical verse with similar syntax; dealing with Avraham’s purchasing Machpela from Ephron the Hittite. It seems odd that acquiring a wife is learned from buying a burial plot for one’s wife who had just died? Death annuls the marriage bond. Avraham’s crying for, eulogizing and burying Sara followed her death when they were no longer married!

This is exactly the lesson! All that Avraham did following Sara’s death showed that their bond continue to exist even after death. Marriage creates a permanent bond between husband and wife, beginning in this world and continuing in the World to Come. Unlike other monetary (chattel) transactions, which are passed on to inheritors, the bonds of marriage are not only in the physical realm but in the binding of the souls – the nefesh, ruach andneshama of husband and wife. This permanence of bonding can be learned specifically from Avraham’s purchasing Machpela – which is where Adam and Chava, Avraham and Sara, Yitzchak and Rivka and Yaakov and Leah are resting. The Talmud shows that the bond created under the chuppah remains forever.

The Torah perspective on the permanence of marriage even after death leaves no room for doubt. The Torah places special emphasis on spousal burial together after death. When Pharaoh met Yaakov, Pharaoh was astounded at how aged Yaakov looked and asked how old he really was. Yaakov answered Pharaoh that his days were few and troubled. Yaakov suffered greatly during his life: dealing with the treacherous Lavan, the evil Esau, Rachel’s premature death giving birth to Binyamin, his daughter Dina’s abduction and violation by Shechem, Yosef’s disappearance, Shimon and then Binyamin being taken into captivity by the Egyptian viceroy and yet only once does the Torah give witness to Yaakov being driven to tears. When he first met Rachel, he “raised his voice and wept” because he saw prophetically that, while he would marry Rachel, he would not be buried with her.” Only this sorrow broke Yaakov, his inability to spend eternity next to his wife, Rachel.

Lavan merited that the Twelve Tribes trace their lineage to Rachel, Leah, Bilha or Zilpah, all his daughters because he exclaimed “[this match of Rivka to Yitzchak] is from Hashem”. He was the first person to verbalize that matches are the work of Hashem.

Jewish marriage, and by extension, marriage counseling or therapy must be based on the eternity of marriage and the singular unity of husband and wife. The goal is successful marriage; the client is the marriage, not either spouse. Husband and wife must be educated to make their marriage the best possible. When marriage rests on sound footing, both marriage partners find contentment, happiness and joy. For these reasons, I named my first book on marriage, Together We Are One – Making Marriage Work opening with the words of the Ramban, “And they [the children and grandchildren of Yaakov that went down to Egypt] were seventy souls and their wives were not counted [separately], for a man [together] with his wife are one.”

[1]Lee Baucom PhD. “Save the Marriage”

The Portuguese-Jewish Cemetery In Ouderkerk aan de Amstel

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Beth Haim, the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel

Kerkstraat 10, 1191 JB Ouderkerk aan de Amstel

http://www.bethhaim.nl/

 

 

There is something profound and soothing in the ancient Jewish practice of using the euphemism beit chaim, “house of life,” to refer to a cemetery. It is as if the rabbis did not even want to coin the phrase beit mavet, “house of death,” for fear of inviting the evil eye.

 

Walking on a cold and rainy day through the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk, about five-and-a-half miles south of Amsterdam, it was impossible not to appreciate the euphemism on a completely different level. Somehow, the cemetery Beit Haim, which dates back to 1614, is still very much alive.

 

 

 

Most of the 6,000 marble memorials in the oldest part of the cemetery (the full cemetery contains more than 27,500 tombs) have sunk into the ground. Walking through the cemetery and later over tea in a house on the burial grounds, Dennis Moshe Ouderdorp, caretaker of the cemetery, and Jewish tour guide Vera Querido agreed that the 17th century Sephardic Jews who introduced the marble stones must have known they would sink. Perhaps the transience of the heavy stones embedded into the unstable ground even appealed to them, Querido suggested.

 

            What is clear is that the cemetery is home to an impressive group of Dutch Jews, from Menasseh Ben Israel, a diplomat who petitioned Oliver Cromwell to permit Jews to return to England and who was a close friend of Rembrandt’s, to Baruch Spinoza’s parents (Spinoza himself is buried in a church in the Hague) to Eliahu Montalto, French queen Maria de Medici’s doctor.

 

 

 

 

It is common knowledge that several artists, most famously Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682), painted the Jewish cemetery at Ouderkerk. Two pieces by Ruisdael, which are partially imaginative (ruins of a castle in the background are completely manufactured), even include Montalto’s tombstone.  In an interview about five years ago, Ruisdael scholar Seymour Slive, Gleason professor of fine arts emeritus at Harvard University, called Ruisdael’s imagination one of his strengths, adding that his “genius is that he is not an ape of nature.”

 

Slive, who claimed that Ruisdael did not paint the cemetery for Jewish patrons (both Ouderdorp and Querido agreed with that assessment), called the painting an allusion to the “transience of all life, and the ultimate futility of humankind’s endeavors.”

 

Despite puddles of water obscuring the faces of the tombstones, it was easy to see transience everywhere. Several stones contained skeletons (one full skeleton swings a sickle) and hourglasses, often with wings – all symbols borrowed from non-Jewish artistic traditions and adapted to Jewish memorials. The double tombstone of Rebecca Ximenes (died 5453 or 5454) and her daughter Esther features similar iconography.

 

 

 

 

            Rebecca’s stone shows her namesake, the biblical Rebecca drawing water for Eliezer’s camels (Genesis 24), while the stone for Esther, who died a mere 27 days after her mother, shows a pair of arms emerging from the clouds using an axe to chop down a tree. The symbol suggests that just like the tree, Esther’s life has been cut short. Two putti weep at the bottom of Rebecca’s stone; a winged hourglass resting on a skull and cross bones appears at the top of Esther’s stone.

 

Biblical figures and episodes appear in several other stones. A double stone for Mordechai Franco Mendes (died 5448/1687) and his wife Sara Abendana (died 5456/1696) contains four biblical narratives: the binding of Isaac, David playing the harp, Jacob’s dream and Abraham forging a peace treaty with Abimelech’s general Phicol.

 

Four crying putti figure into the double stone of Rachel (died 5455/1695) and Hana Vega (died 5461/1701). Rachel’s stone contains an illustration of the meeting of the biblical Jacob and Rachel, as Rachel tends her father Laban’s sheep. Hana’s stone includes a depiction of the biblical Chana, mother of the prophet Samuel.

 

 

 

 

King David playing his harp appears prominently atop a stone for David Da Rocha (died 5469/1708), and an inscription identifies the deceased as not only someone who shared the biblical king’s given name, but also a fellow musician. The gravestone of Moses de Mordechai Senior (died 5490/1730) might be the most ambitious in its depiction of 11 biblical scenes: Moses with the Ten Commandments, Haman leading Mordechai, David playing the harp, Abraham looking heavenward, Jacob’s dream, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, Judah and Benjamin.

 

Despite all the biblical characters, it was hard not to compare many of the tombstone illustrations with a work displayed at Museum het Rembrandthuis, Rembrandt’s house-turned-museum. Jan Ewoutsz’s 1537 woodblock print, “Allegory of Human Transience,” shows a skeleton with his hand on a man’s shoulder. The man holds an hourglass in one hand, and his other arm is wrapped around a very muscular looking baby. The skeleton points to an inscription: “Nascendo Morimur,” “As we are born, we die.”

 

With minimal rearrangement and massaging, Ewoutsz’s work could look exactly like the tombstones of the cemetery at Ouderkerk some 100 years later. On the one hand, this means that there is nothing unique in the artistic program of the tombstones. Like the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, there are even nudes depicted on the stones, which suggests an open-minded approach to the sacred burial process.

 

But it would also be a mistake to focus exclusively on the derivative nature of the stones. Whether or not their designs and motifs were innovative, the Portuguese Jews of 17th century Holland saw importance in decorating their tombstones lavishly. It should not surprise us that such a burial ground attracted the attention of artists like Ruisdael and Romeyn de Hooghe. And if Querido is right that the use of imported marble might have been some kind of postmodern (or pre-postmodern) attempt to arrange for even the stones themselves to decay and sink into the water, that would be a very interesting artistic approach to their burial program indeed.

 

 

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

 

 

I am indebted to L.A. Vega’s Het Beth Haim van Ouderkerk: The Beth Haim of Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, which provided much of the background on the cemetery. This article is the first in a series on Jewish Amsterdam and The Hague, which is based on a trip sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions.

Learning From ‘Mother’ Rachel

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Throughout the centuries, following the Jewish people’s exile from the land of our forefathers, when the name Rachel was evoked, the word “Imeinu”- our mother -was attached to it.

Traditionally, Jews cry out to “Mother Rachel,” one of the nation’s four matriarchs, asking for her help in alleviating whatever woes we are enduring; beseeching her to petition Hashem on our behalf for relief and succor. Many have risked their lives to visit her burial place, known as Kever Rachel, in Bethlehem.

We are like distressed children who run to their mother for comfort and soothing, knowing that she loves us and that our well being is her all consuming priority.

Mama Rachel, we call her.

Yet ironically, she actually isn’t.

Rachel technically is our step-mother. And aunt.

The Jewish people, as we have been called for thousands of years, are the descendants of Leah, Rachel’s sister. The name “Jew” – Yehudi – in Hebrew is derived from the name Leah gave her son, Yehuda. Those of us who are Leviyim or Kohanim are the offspring of another of Leah’s sons, Levi. There were 10 others tribes, two of which were of Rachel’s seed (Ephraim and Menashe) but they disappeared. These tribes broke away from the kingdom that was headed by the House of David (who was from the tribe of Yehuda) and created their own. The Kingdom of Israel as it was called, was eventually invaded and many of its residents were exiled. With the passing of time, the inhabitants of that break-away kingdom disappeared and are known as “The Ten Lost Tribes.” There are many theories about what happened to them – but the fact is the only recognized descendants of Avraham, Itzchak and Yaacov are Leah’s progeny. (Another tribe that came from Rachel, Benyamin, was almost decimated and its remnants blended into Yehuda.)

Yet despite the fact that Rachel is not the biological ancestress of the Jewish people, the Torah says Rachel weeps for her children and advocates for them in Shomayim. Why does it not say that she petitions Hashem on behalf of her nieces or nephews, or stepchildren?

From their end, Jews worldwide embrace her as a mother, calling her Rachel Imeinu, instead of Tante Rachel. Why have generations of Jews poured their hearts out to a woman we call mother, rather than qualifying that she is in fact a maternal aunt – and/or a stepmother.

Perhaps it’s to remind us that DNA isn’t the be all and end all; that blood isn’t the only pertinent criteria in defining someone as a mother or father – or a son or daughter. You don’t have to be biologically connected to be someone’s parent – or someone’s child.

In today’s world, death and divorce and second or even third marriages have created what is known as blended families.

In these atypical families, husbands and wives raise their own children, their spouse’s, as well as the offspring they have together. This means that not everyone in the family is actually gene “related.” There are step-siblings whose DNA is completely different; half-siblings with a common parent and full siblings.

In addition to blended families whose members have various degrees of kinship, there are infertile couples unable to conceive or carry a pregnancy who create their family through adoption. In these situations, the parents and children (unless siblings are adopted together) are not “flesh and blood” at all.

Unfortunately, while the various members of these non-traditional families consider each other as one family, some of their relatives do not share these same sentiments.

Over the years I have heard of situations where grandparents favored their “real” grandchildren over those they viewed as being “collateral damage” of a remarriage or adoption. At family gatherings, the “real” grandchildren were showered with expensive gifts while the “not real” ones received a small token gift at best – or nothing at all, at worst.

And it hurts. The children, who no doubt experienced so much pain, turmoil and trauma due to a death or a divorce, must endure even more when they are treated as outsiders by their step-parent’s or adopted parents’ relatives. They feel like outsiders and their inevitable resentment and bitterness can undermine the shalom bayis of the whole family, which already is tentative as each member struggles to adjust to a new reality.

It may be hard for a grandmother to hug her daughter’s adopted son with the same enthusiasm as she hugs her biological grandson. After all, she may see her own face or that of her beloved husband or parents reflected in the features of the tiny face smiling up at her. It is only human to be attracted to or reach out to the familiar (root word is family).

But the Torah teaches us that we are in fact one big family and should treat each other as such. Rachel Imeinu cries for who she views as her children. She doesn’t say, “Hey Jews, children of Judah and Levi, you are Leah’s offspring. Go to Hevron, go to Ma’aras Hamachpeila where your “ema” is buried and cry to her. I’m not interested in your problems.”

A woman I know frequently criss-crosses the United States, often flying off to Israel for a grandchild’s bar or bat-mitzvah celebration, a vort or a wedding. A divorcee with kids, she married a man with several children of his own.

Between the two, there are many simchas to celebrate and she told me that she goes to every one, and will continue to do so if her health allows it. When I commented that it must be difficult to wait in airports, eat airplane food, and endure all the hassles that traveling entails, she told me “They are all my grandchildren, how can I not go?”

Rachel Imeinu couldn’t agree more.

Respecting A Parallel Reality

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

It goes without saying that the process of getting set up on marriage-oriented dates, going out several times and eventually making the decision that “this is the one” is emotionally and even physically taxing. However, as hard as getting to the chuppah may be – being happily and successfully married is even more difficult and challenging. Two diverse individuals with distinctive mindsets, shaped by their unique experiences from the minute they were born, must suddenly mesh their way of looking at things and their way of reacting to them.

To put things in a perspective – if identical twins, who were raised to a great extent in the same environment, have different opinions, attitudes, preferences and points of view – how much more so a young man and a woman who have been strangers for most of their lives.

It is very helpful that the two have similar haskafot in terms of their life’s goals, covering serious matters such as religious observance, child rearing, materialism, etc. However, while this basic compatibility is a necessary component to a successful relationship, it is just one stepping stone on the bridge to marital happiness. What is crucial as well is that each partner in the union have the ability – and willingness – to respect each other’s version of “reality.” Because the fact is no matter how much the two are compatible, and how much they see eye to eye on the bigger issues, there will be situations where they will have a different, even conflicting viewpoint, and each will expect – and need – validation of their feelings and perceptions.

Case in point: Two young women who have been friends “forever” go to exercise at the gym. “Leah,” a recent newlywed, is slim and athletic and goes often to work out. “Rachel” goes only occasionally and still is carrying 20 extra pounds from two pregnancies. Leah decides to try the new high intensity aerobic spinning class, while Rachel heads for a low impact, slow movement class, which is 15 minutes longer.

The two friends meet up in the changing room, both drenched in sweat. “What a hard workout,” exclaims Rachel as she tries to catch her breath.

“Not as hard as mine,” declares Leah, as she checks her pulse.

“What are you talking about, my workout was so much longer than yours! I’m totally wiped,” insists Rachel, who is still breathing heavily.

“How can you compare your workout to mine,” Leah says condescendingly, “mine was a killer. I almost quit half-way through it. But I pushed myself to finish.”

“So did I. I thought I would have a heart attack.” Rachel counters, her voice sounding miffed. “You’re used to this kind of stuff. It’s easier for you. I’m going to be sore for days.”

It is pointless for these friends to argue about who had the harder workout. Each feels theirs was the more physically demanding one. Each wants validation or recognition of this fact. The truth of the matter is – they are both right – based on where they are coming from. They have parallel realities that are not in sync with the other.

Trying to convince the other person that their perception is flawed or inaccurate is an exercise in futility. No one gets into a debate thinking they are in the wrong. Quite the opposite, a person in a dispute or on a larger scale, a nation that is at war, is convinced that they are in the right. They even insist that G-d is on their side. It is clear that they have conflicting “realities,” and what is so “obvious and evident” to one makes no sense or is “out of left field” to the other.

In a marriage, husband and wife will face situations in which each will insist that their assessment or version is the valid one. A husband, for example, comes home very late and expects some pampering and sympathy – because he had a very stressful day at the office. He is an accountant and it is tax season. His wife on the other hand shares her litany of woes as she tells him what her day was like: a colicky baby, a toddler who loves throwing his food up in the air and a four-year-old who threw-up twice.

This couple can do one of two things – argue over who had it worse and walk away feeling frustrated or resentful or they can respect and acknowledge each other’s reality and each say something that translates to, “I recognize your misiras nefesh on behalf of the family, and I ‘m sorry you had such a difficult day. I hope tomorrow will be better for you.”

The ability to validate that which you might not necessarily agree with will cement a marriage more than yichus, money or looks and is a quality that every person dating for tachlis should look for in a potential spouse.

It is important to remember that all human beings have a deep-seated need to have their “realities” recognized and corroborated. A child who loses his adored stuffed “teddy” – no matter how torn and ratty looking it may be, is as devastated by his loss as would be a woman whose favorite pearl bracelet went missing – the one her beloved Bubbi gave her when she turned bat mitzvah.

Perhaps in his parents’ eyes, the teddy bear is worthless and easily replaceable -not remotely close to being on the same level as the missing jewelry, but in the child’s reality, he has lost something priceless and his grief is very real.

That his parents acknowledge this, that they respect and validate his parallel reality – is crucial in building his self-confidence. In terms of a married couple, it is the direct path to shalom bayis.

Communicating With A Teenager

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

For both parents and teenagers alike, adolescence can be a very hard time. Unfortunately, when family life gets rough, communication tends to break down. And when it does, parents need to restore their ability to relate to their teenagers by learning about the rules of communication.

 

Without question, parents find it hard to deal with teenagers who are unpleasant to talk to or who limit their communication to grunts or short answers that stop abruptly at “yes” or “no.”

 

One of the most difficult breakdowns in communication I have ever seen was between a twelfth grade student, Rachel, and her parents. When Rachel came home after school and walked through the door, terror entered with her.  Her parents explained to me that Rachel often avoided communicating with them altogether, but when she did speak, she was insulting and would respond rudely to innocent questions such as, “How was your day?” or “What would you like for dinner?”  This pattern of behavior would enrage Rachel’s parents so much that they found themselves constantly screaming at and insulting their daughter. Unfortunately the situation got so bad that lately Rachel was staying in her room, locking her door and screaming at her parents when they tried to enter.

 

When I first saw Rachel’s parents, they were very pessimistic about their daughter’s future. For years they had tried to calm her anger by buying her presents and clothing.  They even offered her rewards just for talking to them, but nothing seemed to work.

 

Clearly this serious communication problem needed to be resolved. After finding out more about Rachel’s background and relationships, I began to speak to her parents about some of the key principles of relationships and I suggested that they begin to practice the Ten Commandments of Communication.

 

The Ten Commandments of Communication

Although they are not etched in stone, the Ten Commandments of Communication form the basis of relationship-centered communication with a teenager.

 

This is how it works. On one tablet are five “Thou Shalt Nots,” and on the other tablet, five “Thou Shalts.”Both sides are equally important.  The Thou Shalt Nots represent the types of words that tend to destroy a relationship, whereas the Thou Shalts can improve the relationship and bring teenagers and parents closer together.

 

Thou Shalt Not                                             Thou Shalt

Insult                                                     Compliment

Judge                                                        Accept

Blame                                                     Encourage

Insinuate                                                    Empathize

Embarrass                                                Find the Good

The Ten Commandments Of Communication

 

 

In Rachel’s case, I suggested that her parents work very hard to not use the Thou Shalt Nots.  When they talked to Rachel, they needed to avoid all forms of criticism and control.  The goal was to bring Rachel closer and not push her away through negative language.  Although their daughter may be insulting and often use the ThouShalts Nots, Rachel’s parents should not respond in kind.  Rather, they should focus primarily on the Thou Shalts and try to empathize with her.

 

It’s a fact of life that the Thou Shalt Nots are bound to distance people from one another.  No one enjoys being criticized, blamed or belittled for their behavior.  Worse, parents who rely on pressure tactics to force their teenagers to change often create a negative environment that breeds more mistrust and anger in their teens. However, when parents follow the Thou Shalts and use words that are caring and compassionate, they can create a warmer and friendlier relationship.

 

Take a moment to review your relationship with your teenager.  Are your words accepting, friendly, compassionate and understanding?  Or are they critical, aggressive, insulting or belittling?

 

By looking at the Ten Commandments, you can evaluate whether you are transgressing the Thou Shalt Nots or fulfilling the Thou Shalts of communication. If the content and tone of the conversations you are having are angry, critical and confrontational, then it’s up to you to move over to the positive commandments and to improve the tone and content of your words.  I would suggest that the ratio of positive to negative words should always remain four to one.  As we learned earlier, the relationship parents can build is like a wise investment.  Each positive word is one more coin in a parent’s emotional savings account with their teenager.

 

Also, always measure your words before they are spoken.  Strive to convey this positive inner message: “I love you and care about you and I want to deepen our relationship,” and evaluate whether what you are about to say will push your child further away or bring him or her closer.

 

For about two months, I worked with Rachel’s family to reduce their use of criticism and to have them compliment her whenever they had a chance.  At first, changing their style of communication seem awkward to them, but slowly they began to see that without criticism, Rachel was more willing to talk.

 

Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in marriage counseling and teens at risk. He is the author of “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach” and “First Aid for Jewish Marriages.” To order a copy, visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com. For an appointment call 646-428-4723.

Yiddish Theater Is Alive and Well (at Least in Chicago), But What Does It Have to Say About Religion?

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Jacob and Jack

World Premiere, May 14 – June 20, 2010

By Ensemble Playwright James Sherman, directed by Dennis Zacek

Zacek McVay Theater, Victory Gardens Biograph Theater

2433 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago

http://www.victorygardens.org/onstage/jandj/

 

 

Trying to summarize the plot of  “Jacob and Jack,” currently in its world premier at Victory Gardens in Chicago, is a bit like, well, trying to understand a Yiddish play if you don’t speak Yiddish. The viewer quickly gets the sense that something really interesting is happening in the play’s myriad flashbacks – which are simultaneously redundant and singular – but even after skimming the Jacob and Jack script, I’m still having trouble keeping the narrative and chronology straight.

 

Here’s the gist of it. Pitchman Jack Shore (think Billy Mays if he was the “Flying Carpet Guy”) does his mother Esther a favor by agreeing to play his grandfather, the Yiddish theater star Jacob Shermerinsky, in a performance for Esther’s women’s Yiddish theater group. Jack’s co-stars are his wife Lisa and the ing?nue, Robin. “Jacob and Jack” oscillates between scenes in real time, which play out Jack’s, Lisa’s and Robin’s stage fright, jealousy, longings and insecurities, and flashbacks in the same dressing rooms 75 years earlier, where Shermerinsky, his wife Leah, the actress Rachel and actor Moishe prepare for a Yiddish performance.

 

Janet Ulrich Brooks as Leah Shemerinski, Craig Spidle as Jacob Shemerinski,

Laura Scheinbaum as Rachel. Photo by Liz Lauren.

 

 

To make matters more confusing, Jack and Jacob are played by the same actor (Craig Spidle), as are Lisa and Leah (Janet Ulrich Brooks), Robin and Rachel (Laura Scheinbaum), and three other pairs of characters: Esther and Hannah (Roslyn Alexander), Ted and Abe (Daniel Cantor) and Don and Moishe (Andrew Keltz). When Jack is in costume as Jacob, it gets particularly difficult to tell if one is watching Spindle play Jack, Spindle playing Jacob or Spindle playing Jack playing Jacob.

 

The Victory Gardens website actually puts it really well in its promotional materials: “As Jacob and Jack frantically rush from room to room, the audience is transported through time with each slam of a dressing room door. In the Yiddish and contemporary theater, one thing remains certain: the show must go on.” The notion of a slamming door representing a time portal is quite compelling when one considers how a slammed door generally refers to a lost (or ruined) opportunity. Although the show must go on the Yiddish show, tried as it did to go on, came to an end.

 

Slamming doors also turn out to be great metaphors for the Yiddish theater which was always about nostalgia for the past and trying to assimilate into the present. There are the prerequisite clich?s about Yiddish theater – like Jack and his manager Ted wondering if English words like “svelte,” “famished” and “tissue” are Yiddish – but the play also addresses sobering truths about Yiddish theater and Hollywood.

 

Craig Spidle as Jack Shore, Janet Ulrich Brooks as Lisa Shore and Roslyn Alexander as Esther. Photo by Liz Lauren.

 

 

Asked if she will change her name from Robin Weinberg, the actress responds by refusing to buy into the assimilationist demands of Hollywood. “Yea,” she says, “to Sophie Rosenschwartzenstein.” Jack’s mother tells him that in his tribute to her father, he gave Jacob Shermerinsky, whose fame corresponded with the decline of Yiddish theater, the respect his work deserved, but never received. “Jacob and Jack” has the insight to bring together two performances, one as Yiddish theater was declining and the other as it is being revived. There is something of a Dybbuk reference, to be sure, in a play that memorializes something even before it is dead.

 

In a talk at Victory Gardens before one of the performances of “Jacob and Jack,” David Chack, president of the Association for Jewish Theatre, put Yiddish theater into proper context. “When Abraham Goldfaden died, it was like when Michael Jackson died,” Chack said. Evidently, Marlon Brando even acted in a play in 1946 to raise money for Jews in Palestine, he added.

 

Craig Spidle as Jack Shore gives Ted (played by Daniel Cantor) and Don (played by Andrew Keltz) a thrill. Courtesy: Victory Gardens. Photo by Liz Lauren.

 

 

According to Chack, Yiddish theater brought not only the best of Eastern European Jewish culture to America but also important Russian theater, like Chekhov’s repertoire. Yiddish theater is still impacting American popular culture today, Chack said, as in Yiddish references in the Coen brothers’ film “A Serious Man” (2009).

 

But however entertaining (or troubling) “A Serious Man” is, the classical Yiddish theater Chack spoke of was the sort of experience where the theater resembled a temple. Yiddish plays wrestled with “hefty subjects,” and theatergoers underwent a “religious experience.”

 

(L-R) Andrew Keltz as Don innocently watches as Ted (played by Daniel Cantor ushers Jack (played by Craig Spidle) out of Robin’s (played by Laura Scheinbaum) dressing room.

Photo by Liz Lauren.

 

 

I asked Chack if he thought a Yiddish revival was underway. Despite a revival of Klezmer music in the 1980s, he said, “we are not seeing that as much these days. We are starting to see a bit of the wane.” Of course, if a revival were underway, Chack confirmed, he would be thrilled to see it.

 

Although “Jacob and Jack” is packed with references to the waning and waxing of Yiddish theater, is does not devote a lot of attention to the Yiddish theater as temple that Chack described or the religious experience of watching a play. To Jacob, Jack, Lisa, Leah, Robin and Rachel, the Yiddish theater is a livelihood and subject material, but not synagogue. If anything, the references to religious values in the play surface in the form of attempts to censor Yiddish theater.

 

Craig Spidle as Jack Shore, Janet Ulrich Brooks as Lisa Shore, Laura Scheinbaum as Robin share a tender moment. Photo by Liz Lauren.

 

 

Though Moishe notes when the group hits bad luck, “Man plans and God laughs,” the characters in both the play and the play within a play give the impression that although God laughs at man’s first plan, it is up to man to make the best of it and come up with a better plan. That second man-made plan, at least within “Jacob and Jack,” seems to be a promising guide to success, which, in the theater world, looks a lot like California.

 

That might be the most interesting question, if a revival is indeed underway or if one looms on the horizon. To what extent, if at all, will the new Yiddish theater retain the religious aspects of the theatrical tradition it is resurrecting? There is surely enough of a trove of references to Jewish and American history and culture to mine for many Yiddish plays without once referring to anything religious, but wouldn’t that be missing a tremendous opportunity?

 

 

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Chronicles Of Crises In Our Communities – 6/04/10

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Dear Rachel,

Once again, I’ve visited Hell!

I’m sure you will recall that in my previous letters to you I related my having visited “hell-on-earth.” Last week, I was there once again and this most recent visit to geihenom has solidified my view that in many ways this is a man’s world which entitles so many men to be evil. Yet, no matter how one fights against this phenomenon, the ugly problem simply refuses to dissipate and the crime festers and grows.

The hell I visited then and most recently is Miklat – Bat Melech, the only women’s-shelter in Israel organized and created exclusively to house and protect the countless observant women who are abused, beaten and terrorized by their husbands. This is a one of a kind shelter which has the unique and unfortunate distinction of exclusively serving the needs of religious women who would otherwise never be able to escape the daily terror they are experiencing at the hands of sadistic animals.

The time has come, I believe, to expose in minute details the evil of such husbands by prominently advertising their names, addresses and the evil they are committing. It is time to pull back the veil and expose who they are and what they have done. The time has come for rabbonim to sip from the cup of courage and ostracize and ban these murdering husbands from every shul and community. It is time for dayonim to end the bakshish (graft) they receive from sadistic husbands in order to turn a blind eye to reality. They must end their “husband-is-always-right” attitude and get down to the urgent business of freeing our daughters from the clutches of evil husbands.

Ad mosai – how long must this ugly situation continue? Why is my daughter, or yours, or yours, automatically branded by these heartless usurpers of Torah authority as a moredes, unfit mother or mirsha’as, no matter what the true picture is – a truth they refuse to listen to? How much longer must our daughters suffer the abuse and degradation they receive from these corrupt and heartless dayonim who turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to their bitter cries and thus perpetuate the endless abuse by the hands of their husbands? How long?

Last week at the miklat, I met another young woman (20-21 years-old!) with a beautiful one-year-old daughter, whose short twenty-something years are tightly compacted with more beatings, terror and over-all mental abuse than most adults can ever imagine!

Married to a hypocrite (he dresses as a chareidi but keeps absolutely none of the Laws!), this girl became an immediate punching bag and the sponge for every imaginable abuse. Raised in a family where evil is considered a virtue, her pipsqueak husband enslaved his young wife (with his mother’s encouragement!) and turned her life into virtual hell. And it all began almost immediately after the wedding and continued in a non-stop pace for many months. The severe mental-abuse was only topped by the extreme physical cruelty visited on this young and innocent girl whose life quickly evolved into a nightmare – until literally extracted from the clutches of death by Bat-Melech.

I can go on and on, Rachel. I am seething with anger at the knowledge that prominent rabbonim are refusing to help this young child. I am furious in the mere knowledge that her suffering can easily end were some of these so-called rabbis to get up and face the responsibility they were mandated by the Torah they profess to hold.

They are liars, Rachel. They hide behind their mantel of false respectability while young women like this girl are brutally victimized, terrorized and broken.

And I seethe at the knowledge that weaklings like her husband are encouraged by this inaction and thus allowed to walk the streets with impunity and without the fear of retribution.

Rachel, I know you are very careful not to print in any articles any identifying clues that will expose the victims, culprits and those whose hands are muddy with guilt.

However, we should no longer avoid naming names in articles like this. I think it is high time to prominently advertise in details the names of some of these heartless individuals. Let the neighbors know the truth about the innocent looking criminal residing next door. I’m sure that they would be horrified if a known convict were to move next door and be in close proximity to their children. Knowing that the innocent looking, yeshivishe-dressed young-man next door is actually a brutal and sadistic wife beater ought to shake them up too.

Let us also once and for all take off the gloves and expose to the world what goes on between the four walls of many Batei Dinim and the stench that emanates from their distortion of our Torah. Let us once and for all start the ball rolling in exposing those fakes who call themselves rabbis, yet don’t know the meaning of the word.

Where are the strong willed individuals who will take matters into their own hands and do whatever is necessary to “explain” to the errant husband that he must release his prisoner? I will guarantee you, Rachel, that after “explaining” the rules to two or three of these brutes, the rest will fall quickly into line.

So many of our shackled daughters are being destroyed! Enough!

Isaac Kohn

kohnisaac@optonline.net

* * * * *

We encourage women and men of all ages to send in their personal stories via email to rachel@jewishpress.com or by mail to Rachel/Chronicles, c/o The Jewish Press, 338 Third Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11215. If you wish to make a contribution and help agunot, your tax-deductible donation should be sent to The Jewish Press Foundation. Please make sure to specify that it is to help agunot, as the foundation supports many worthwhile causes.

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