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October 28, 2016 / 26 Tishri, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘survival’

A Bundle Of Letters: The Women’s Secret Of Survival

Monday, May 9th, 2016

On a Friday afternoon, November 22, 1619, a seemingly trivial event occurred. A messenger carrying fifty-four letters from the Ghetto of Prague to the Ghetto of Vienna was detained on the Austrian border and his consignment confiscated. The letters were held back by the Austrian censor and then dispatched to the Archives of the Imperial Court where they have remained ever since.

The detained letters have become a historical treasure and reveal remarkable insights into the lives of the Jews in the ghettoes of early seventeenth century Prague and Vienna. Thus, the seemingly trivial event that occurred three hundred eighty-three years ago turned into an extraordinary historical episode.

What is the story behind the bundle of letters? The two prominent Jewish centers in Europe, one in Prague in the Kingdom of Bohemia, and the other in Vienna in the Austrian Empire, maintained close contact – a number of Prague Jews had businesses in Vienna and Jews from Vienna as a rule sent their sons to study at the Yeshiva of Prague, generating an intensive correspondence.

The outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618 disrupted official correspondence. Communication between the two ghettoes, however, continued through the clever device of a Prague Jew with business in Vienna, Lob Sarel Gutmans, who hired a messenger to carry the letters of Viennese Jews to his wife in Prague who distributed them and then collected their replies.

As the war was raging on that fateful Friday in 1619, the suspicious Austrian border police held up the package of return mail. Worried Jewish parents, wives, business associates had no way of relieving their anxiety because the replies to their letters never came: they arrived instead into the hands of twenty-first century Jewish historians doing research at the Imperial Archives.

Most of the letters are written by women, revealing the incredible tale of their lives in the Ghetto of Prague. Centuries melt away as one reads mothers’ bits of advice to their daughters married to Viennese businessmen, wives inquiring about the health of their husbands engaged in commerce in Vienna, friends chatting about their daily joys and worries, sisters exchanging little confidences. One can hear echoes of concern about daily fears for life and liberty, the danger of war and fear of an epidemic that had broken out in Vienna, riots against Jews in Prague and imprisonment of innocent Jews for ransom. And yet, in the midst of it all, the Jewish women of Prague managed to retain a mundane yet vital interest in their physical appearance.

The following was written by Freidel Hammerschlag of Prague to Mirel Auerbach of Vienna: “My dear relative and good friend, I let you know that I discharged your commission well, and ordered the coat to be made for you in the best and finest fashion possible in the world. Lining 10 ells double damask, 2 ½ scores for laces, 2 scores for linen cloth, 2 for velvet, 1 score for silk, wages for the tailor 2 scores. Therefore, do not forget to send more money so that I can give it to Abner son of Henoch Schik of blessed memory, that he may buy a beautiful smooth otter fur in Poland; I think if you send me forty gulden more, I will have money for everything. I will buy everything as economically as it were my own. I could buy otter fur here but it is dyed. And I want to have it made from the finest fur. Write me through whom should I send it to you. And so, blessing of the Almighty to you, from your good friend Freidel, daughter of the excellent and learned Israel Hammerschlag.”

Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson

Jewish Survival in the Face of Existential Threats: a Focus on Women

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Women have exercised their inherent gift of intuition and bravery to influence the course of Jewish history from the earliest time recorded.

The dramatic confrontation between Sarah and Avraham over the choice of successor, in effect a struggle over the survival of Judaism, was reenacted a generation later between Rivka and Yitzchak. In the face of his own preference, Rivka, just like Sarah, was intrinsically directed to choose the optimal heir to Yitzchak.

Egyptian Exile and Exodus are pivotal landmarks in the history of our people’s struggle for survival. References to Galut Mitzrayim (Exile in Egypt) and Yetziat Mitzrayim (Exodus from Egypt) are central to the entire corpus of Jewish socio-ethical teaching. Against such background, the rabbinic dictum that “It is to the credit of the righteous women that our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah 11) is quite remarkable. Our rabbis recognized the roles women played in making redemption possible.

The Hebrew midwives, who at the risk of their lives defied the edict of Pharaoh “and let the children live” (Sh’mot 1:17), were rewarded for their great courage, and “G-d granted a bounty for the midwives, and the nation multiplied and grew very mighty” (Sh’mot 1:20). The other women also did their share to ensure survival by keeping their appearance attractive and boosting their husbands’ morale.

Within this context the Midrash focuses on the role of Miriam whose admonishment prompted her own father to resume his marital duty. And so, the birth and survival of Moshe, the Divine instrument of Israel’s redemption, was the consequence of intuitive acts by a number of women which included, besides Miriam and Yocheved, even Pharaoh’s daughter who, by adopting Moshe and providing a Hebrew nurse for him, completed the first phase of Israel’s redemption.

Regarding the next phase of redemption, Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, our rabbis claim that the women were given the Torah first because it is they who teach their children “the ways of the Torah.” The teachers of “the way” to the next generation hold the secret of a people’s survival. They are the bridge to the Jewish future.

The Biblical precedent established a pattern for women of later generations to have a historically defined role as the vanguard in the struggle of Jewish survival. At every crucial juncture women have stepped into the historical vacuum to provide roles as unseen movers based on their prophetic intuition and their ability “to tune into” the existential self of the Jewish people.

From Rebbetzin Recha Freier who spearheaded a movement which evolved into the Youth Aliyah, a major instrument of rescue for Jewish children during the Holocaust, to Rivka Gruber, teacher, librarian, and social worker, who, after her two sons fell in Israel’s War of Independence, became the founder of a string of settlements in the Sharon Valley, women have been silent movers, creating educational, social, health and welfare infrastructures for the Jewish community.

And how about the women in our present situation of surrounding existential threat, the war of terror in Israel?

That chapter is being written even as we speak. Do you remember the name Chava Shatsky? How could you? She is one among innumerable heroines whose children were murdered by Arab terrorists, one name among hundreds. Her 15 year-old daughter Keren was killed by an Arab terrorist in the Karne Shomron mall on Motzei Shabbat, February 16, 2002.

I happen to remember because of a personal connection. Reading in The Jewish Press that Karen and the other casualties were pupils in Kedumim’s Ulpana Lehava, where someone from my family taught English, I immediately contacted her to offer my emotional support. When I started to speak and my words drowned in tears, it was she who comforted me. Yes, Keren was her pupil, she said, and Keren’s mother, Chava Shatsky, was the chairman of the department at Lehava.

“You must speak to Chava,” she advised me. “Chava will give you chizuk, strength… she gave chizuk to all of us. In our grief over Keren, the faith of Keren’s mother gave us all strength,” the young teacher said. When I expressed profound amazement, she continued: “Yes, it is amazing. Yet there are many other women who react similarly. And these women are the guarantee that we will make it,” she said with pride.

The young teacher’s words helped me. They helped me cope with the grief and face the future. Indeed, these heroic mothers, like Jewish women throughout our history of confrontation with existential threats are the guarantee that we will make it.

Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/jewess-press/impact-women-history/jewish-survival-in-the-face-of-existential-threats-a-focus-on-women/2013/08/09/

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