Hanukah – A Major Battleground for the Heart and Soul of the Jewish People

Last week I was invited to speak at Campbell Hall, a large private school in Studio City, Los Angeles, before two hundred and fifty 7th and 8th grade students about the story of Hanukah.

I began by saying that without the success of the Maccabean Revolt in 165 BCE, there would be no Judaism, no Christianity and no Islam today. I then reviewed the traditional story of Hanukah as it comes down to us through Jewish tradition, telling about the heroic battle of the Maccabean family against the Greeks, the Greek desecration of the Temple Mount, the miracle of the oil lasting eight days instead of one, the lighting of the Hanukiah, latkes, and dreidls, and then I said, “Truth to tell, this isn’t the history of this holiday at all. Most of that is story-telling. The real history is far more interesting and important for us today, Jews and peoples of other faith traditions alike.”
Then, as now, the Maccabean Revolt was a battle for the heart and soul of Judaism and the Jewish people. Applied more generally, its themes affirming self-identity and survival are applicable to every ethnicity, religion and nation.

A few years ago Dr. Noam Zion, of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, spoke to the Board of Rabbis of Southern California on the theme: “The Reinvention of Hanukkah in the 20th Century as A Jewish Cultural Civil War between Zionists, Liberal American Judaism and Chabad.”

He offered a comprehensive view of Hanukah from its beginnings 2200 years ago, and how it is understood and celebrated today by Israelis, American liberal non-Hareidi Jews and Chabad Lubatich. Based on Hanukah’s history and the vast corpus of sermons written by rabbis through the centuries, Dr. Zion noted that three questions have been asked consistently through the ages:

‘Who are the children of light and darkness?’

‘Who are our people’s earliest heroes and what made them heroic?’

‘What relevance can we find in Hanukah today?’

Jewish tradition considers Hanukah a “minor holyday,” but Hanukah occupies an important place in the ideologies of the State of Israel, American liberal Judaism and Chabad.

Before and after the establishment of Israel, the Maccabees served as a potent symbol for “Political Zionism” for those laboring to create a modern Jewish state. The early Zionists rejected God’s role in bringing about the miracle of Jewish victory during Hasmonean times. Rather, they emphasized that Jews themselves are the central actors in our people’s restoration of Jewish sovereignty on the ancient land, and not God.

For 20th century liberal American Jews Hanukah came to represent Judaism’s aspirations for religious freedom consistent with the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Even as Hanukah reflects universal aspirations, the Hanukiah remains a particular symbol of Jewish pride and identity for American Jews living in a dominant Christian culture.

For Chabad, Hanukah embodies the essence of religious identity on the one hand, and the mission of Jews on the other. Each Hassid is to be “a streetlamp lighter” who ventures into the public square and kindles the nearly extinguished flame of individual Jewish souls, one soul at a time (per Rebbe Sholom Dov-Ber). This is why Chabad strives to place a Hanukiah in public places. Every fulfilled mitzvah kindles the flame of a soul and restores it to God.

Dr. Zion concluded his talk by noting that the cultural war being played out in contemporary Jewish life is based in the different responses to the central and historic question that has always given context to Hanukah – ‘Which Jews are destroying Jewish life and threatening Judaism itself?’

The Maccabean war was not a war between the Jews and the Greeks, but rather it was a violent civil war between the established radically Hellenized Jews and the besieged village priests outside major urban centers in the land of Israel. The Maccabees won that war only because moderately Hellenized Jews recognized that they would lose their Jewish identity if the radical Hellenizers were victorious. They joined in coalition with the village priests and together retook the Temple and dedicated it. That historic struggle has a parallel today in a raging cultural civil war for the heart and soul of the Jewish people and for the nature of Judaism itself in the state of Israel.

The take-away? There is something of the zealot in each one of us, regardless of our Jewish camp. If we hope to avoid the sin of sinat chinam (baseless hatred between one Jew and another) that the Talmud teaches was the cause of the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 C.E., we need to prepare ourselves to be candles without knives, to bring the love of God and our love for the Jewish people back into our homes and communities. To be successful will take much courage, compassion, knowledge, understanding, faith, and grit. The stakes are high – the future of Israel and the Jewish people.

Is it any wonder that Hanukah, though defined by Judaism as a “minor holiday,” is, in truth, a major battle-ground for the heart and soul of Judaism and the Jewish people?

Inspiring Words and Blessings for Hanukah this Year

I offer these words from a variety of sources for this season of Hanukah and am grateful to the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem for providing them. I  offer my own blessings to be said before the kindling of the Hanukah lights on each night, beginning this next Tuesday evening – the first night of Hanukah.

“The glory and the educational value of the Hasmoneans is that their example revived the nation to be its own redeemer and the determiner of its own future…”
-Yitzhak Ben Zvi, 2nd President of the State of Israel

“The Hanukah lights reflect the fire within the Jewish soul, as it is written, The soul of a human being is the lamp of God.’ (Proverbs 20:27) Each person possesses this light within his body. Hanukah teaches how this light must be ignited, …renewed and increased each day. Projecting light to the world at large is the underlying intent of all the mitzvot, as it is written, ‘A mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light.’ (Proverbs 6:23) However, to a greater degree than in other mitzvot, this intent is reflected in the Hanukkah candles, for they produce visible light and they spread that light throughout their surroundings.”
-Rabbi Menachem Schneerson

“When reading the contemporary accounts of the Hasmonean Revolution found in the Books of the Maccabees (c. 165 BCE), the rabbis of later centuries made the observance of the commandment of “pirsum hanes – the public proclamation of this miracle” the centerpiece of the festival thereby emphasizing that the power of the spirit is enduring and not weapons of war, high finance and politics.”
-Professor Shimon Rawidowicz

“Just as the light of a lamp remains undimmed, though myriads of wicks and flames may be lit from it, so the one who gives to a worthy cause does not make a hole in his/her own pocket.”
-Midrash Exodus Rabbah 36:3

The Talmud tells of a great debate about how to light the Hanukiah. Do we start with eight and diminish until the last night. Or do we start with one and build to the eighth night. Beit Hillel says the latter. Beit Shammai says the former. The halacha (Jewish law) follows Beit Hillel. In other words, each day we build on what has taken place.  Each day we add light. Each day we are strengthened in resolve, goodness. Each day we draw closer to God. [The custom is to line up the candles from the right to the left, but to light them from the left to the right – the current day first.]
-Bavli, Shabbat 21b

The Midrash compares a mitzvah to a lamp. The increasing light kindled on Hanukah reminds us that we are not diminished when we give of ourselves to others. The opposite is true. By our kind deeds we increase light and sparks of Divinity into the world.

Suggested Blessings to Say Before Kindling the Lights of Hanukah


With this candle we reaffirm our people’s commitment to the study of our sacred tradition. May the light of this flame cast its warmth and inspire us to be grateful for the blessings of life and health.


On behalf of our people dispersed in the four corners of the world who live in fear, repression and imprisonment, we stand this night in solidarity with them. Our Hanukkah flames are theirs and their hopes are ours. We are one people united by tradition, history and faith in the one God who inspires freedom and liberation.


With this candle we pray that a just and lasting peace may be established between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israel and all Arab and Muslim peoples. May the memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and those who gave their lives for peace be a blessing for our people and all peoples of the Middle East.


With this light we pray that racism, political enmity, gender bias, homophobia, religious hatred, intolerance, and fundamentalist extremism be dispelled, and may all people recognize divinity within all of God’s children.


With this light we recommit ourselves to work on behalf of the poor in our communities and throughout the world. May we be inspired not only to feed the hungry and lift the fallen, but to reorder society’s priorities and  educate all children to be able to sustain themselves with dignity and hope.


With this light may our commitment be renewed to preserve God’s creation, for as the Midrash reminds us, if we destroy it there will come no one after us to make it right.


May the light of this flame cast its warmth upon us and inspire us to be ever grateful for the blessings of life, family, community, and health.


May these lights inspire us always to care, love, and perform deeds of loving-kindness to others. Amen!

The New Republic – Say Kaddish

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, has written a superb “eulogy” for an American institution, The New Republic in The Jewish Daily Forward, that everyone should read. http://forward.com/articles/210524/the-nu-republic-no-more/

As I try and wrap my mind and heart around what The New Republic’s young, arrogant owner Chris Hughes did is difficult to fathom.

For those not following this sad assault on an American intellectual institution, here is the piece in The Washington Post from a few days ago written by Dana Milbank, a former writer at The New Republic, that ought to be read along with Jeffrey’s superb eulogy above – http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dana-milbank-the-new-republic-is-dead-thanks-to-its-owner/2014/12/08/ae80da42-7ee0-11e4-81fd-8c4814dfa9d7_story.html

The sheer arrogance of Hughes is what is most confounding to me – to buy something he clearly did not understand, change its mission unilaterally, fire Franklin Foer, the respected editor without even telling him personally that he was being replaced, and then to justify what he has done, still not understanding the impact of his deed, is the definition of both hubris and stupidity. This is a very sad moment in America’s journalistic history.

Kindnesses That Last Forever

When I was in Central Europe last month with thirty of my congregants touring formerly great Jewish centers of life in Budapest, Prague and Berlin, the Holocaust was everywhere we went. Memories of the cruelty and brutality so oppressed members of our group that many of us reflected that, despite how worthwhile our tour was, we had never returned from travel feeling as demoralized, depressed and sad as we did from this trip.

Since our return I recalled an act of kindness once shown to me by one of my rabbinical school professors. It took place forty years ago, but his loving concern for me has never faded from my heart and memory. Juxtaposed to what we experienced in Central Europe, what he did for me is a stark contrast to what we witnessed in the cities of our recent travel.

One of my Talmud teachers at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles was Dr. Abraham Zygelboim (z’l). As a rabbinic student in my mid-20s, I had suffered a painful break-up with my then-girlfriend, and I was emotionally devastated. Between classes one day I needed to take a few minutes for myself, so I walked outside, sat against a wall and wept.

Out of nowhere Dr. Zygelboim approached me quietly and kissed my forehead without ever saying a word. His sweetness stays with me and will all the days of my life.

Dr. Zygelboim was a gentle man, a Polish Holocaust survivor whose brother, Szmul Zygelboim, was a political leader in the Jewish community of Warsaw before the Nazi occupation. Szmul managed to escape Poland and advocated on behalf of the persecuted Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe as powerfully as he could in the United States and Great Britain. Deeply frustrated that the allies were neglecting to stop the slaughter of the Jewish people, and as a public act of protest, Szmul set himself on fire in front of the Parliament in London on May 12, 1943.

Szmul’s brother, my teacher, never spoke to us, his students, of his experience in the Shoah or of his brother’s ultimate and courageous act of protest. But we knew of it.

Dr. Zygelboim knew Talmud, and I was lucky to learn with him. But frankly, I do not remember the specifics of any particular lesson he taught me forty years ago, though I remember the sections of Talmud we learned with him – but I do remember his kiss on my forehead.

We are, each of us, powerful beings, and we often underestimate our capacity to touch others. Indeed, how we treat others and the way we speak to them defines not only our relationships with them, but our nature and the measure of our character.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said towards the end of his life: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

It is, of course, not always easy to be kind – especially when confronted by obstinate, difficult and offensive individuals. The moralist and essayist Joseph Joubert offered this in such circumstances, “Kindness is loving people more than they deserve.”

Leo Buscaglia offers this certain truth: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

An Open Letter to Young American Jewish Liberals About Israel

This past month I exchanged emails with a bright, Jewish American rabbinical student living in Jerusalem who grew up in my congregation, whose family are life-long Zionists, and who has become disheartened by recent events and trends in the state.

She rightly perceives a growing corruption of classic liberal Zionist principles, is shocked by growing racism in Israeli society, dismayed by the Israeli government’s conceptualization of the situation with the Palestinians, befuddled by ongoing settlement building and home demolition in East Jerusalem, and horrified that a liberal democracy can tell Israeli Arab citizens that they can no longer work in Israeli Jewish communities because they pose a “security threat.”

She is fearful that demagogic and oppressive forces are gaining popular currency in Israel and that the Israeli government is increasingly intransigent in dealing effectively with its many challenges.

She is disheartened, as well, that the chief rabbinate maintains coercive hegemonic control over religious life in the state, and she wonders whether it would be preferable to give up Israel’s Jewish character for the sake of preserving Israel’s progressive democracy.

All these trends have caused her to emotionally disengage from Israel, and she confides that she feels like a heretic and does not know what to do or how to think about Israel going forward.

In response I am writing this open letter not only to her, but to all American Jewish liberal young people who are feeling this disconnect with the state of Israel.

First, I want you to know that I am proud of you, of your critical thinking, of your commitment to live an enriched Jewish religious and ethical life, to be a learned Jew, and that you yearn to make sense of what Israel means to you.

Second, you are not alone. Shabtai Shavit, a former director general of Mossad, recently wrote about his similar concerns about the “future of the Zionist project” and the threats against it in the region and international community. Shavit harshly criticized Israel’s political leadership’s “…haughtiness and arrogance, together with more than a bit of the messianic thinking that rushes to turn the conflict [Israel-Palestinian] into a holy war.”

Shavit worries that “…large segments of the nation…have forgotten…the original vision of Zionism: to establish a Jewish and democratic state for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel…” and that “the current defiant policy [of settlement building] is working against [this vision].”

He called upon Israel to enter into conversation with moderate Arab nations (i.e. Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and negotiate, based on the Saudi Peace Plan of 2002, a two-states for two peoples resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will augur, as promised in the plan, the complete normalization of relations between Israel and the moderate Arab and Muslim world.

Shavit concluded soberly: “I wrote the above statements because I feel that I owe them to my parents, who devoted their lives to the fulfillment of Zionism; to my children, my grandchildren and to the nation of Israel, which I served for decades.” (Former Mossad Chief: For the first time, I fear for the future of Zionism – Haaretz, November 24, 2014 - http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.628038)

As a rabbi who has served American congregants for 35 years and been an active Reform Zionist all that time, I wish to offer ten additional thoughts to our young liberal American Jewish community, as well as others, if this applies:

1. You are not alone in your worry about the dangers to the Zionist dream;

2. You are not alone in your concerns about the unequal treatment of Arab citizens of Israel;

3. You are not alone in your anger about the hegemony of the chief rabbinate over the lives of all Israelis;

4. Israel is far more than Jerusalem which is becoming increasingly more ultra-Orthodox and right-wing. It is also Tel Aviv, a society that represents modern Israel that can inspire you anew about Israel’s past, present and future;

5. Israel is not a “racist society” though there are Israeli racists, a distinction with a significant difference;

6. Remember to appreciate that Israel remains a vital democracy despite its flaws and its current (but resolvable) status as an occupying force in the West Bank;

7. Don’t be cavalier about Israel’s real security threats, but do not accept at face value that those threats necessarily legitimate every policy executed by this government as smart, right, democratic, and moral;

8. Don’t forget that many Israeli liberal organizations monitor and fight injustice in Israel and the West Bank;

9. You must be able to hold at once your conflicting thoughts and feelings about Israel while maintaining your active engagement with her;

10. Despite your disappointment, anger and frustration, we cannot afford for you to disengage from Israel. Though we are not Israelis and only Israelis can make the decisions vital to their lives and security, we liberal lovers of Israel need you to become our next generation’s leaders in American Zionist organizations that advocate for the democratic, pluralistic, nation state of the entire Jewish people.

Theodor Herzl’s famous statement is still true and instructive – “If you will it, it is no dream.”

We need you to keep the faith, and become the advocates that Israel deserves and we and the Jewish people need.

Note: There is something that you can do from the States to help make the change that we want to see in Israel. We are approaching elections for the World Zionist Congress which is Diaspora Jewry’s only democratic mouthpiece to directly affect what happens in Israel. These elections help fund our movement in Israel, and have significant political and institutional repercussions. This is one easy way to have our voices heard. Go to www.reformjews4israel.org

Gratitude – Gratitude – Gratitude

As so much in our country and world is torn and ugly (e.g. Middle East, Congo, Sudan, Ukraine, North Korea, Iran, American politics, fundamentalist religious and nationalist extremism, Ferguson, prejudice, suspicion, hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, mental illness, societal polarization, etc.), Thanksgiving comes to Americans this week and we ask ourselves – ‘For what are we grateful?’

At our synagogue’s Nursery School Thanksgiving celebration earlier this week, I asked two questions of our children, their parents and grandparents: “Do you wake up each morning feeling mostly ‘grumpy’ or mostly happy?” It’s much easier to be grateful if we are happy as opposed to being grumpy.

Two-thirds said they awake happy, refreshed and raring to go, and the other third said ‘grumpy,’ many (I suspect) with the caveat that it takes them a bit longer to wake up and get into the flow of the day – then, maybe, they feel happy – but maybe not!

I am one who awakens happy, especially after I’ve had my double espresso – my little ‘resurrection’ each morning. Though I awake happy most days, I’m not naive. I am particularly conscious of the world’s troubles, and in my role as a rabbi and pastor, every day people seek me out for counsel, comfort, support, and love. I do the best I can in response, and offer whatever support and comfort I am able. Many, of course, continue to suffer (some for good reason) and they are joined by many in our community and around the world who live in difficult circumstances. When feeling this way, it is  difficult to feel gratitude for anything.

Indeed, most of us are confronted with life-challenges large and small. My question of our Nursery School children, parents and grandparents revealed that, at least, in this group gratitude comes naturally to most even when we feel that we’ve been dealt a bad hand. Little children inspire that kind of joy, love and gratitude.

How we approach the world determines not just whether we are grateful for our many gifts, but also whether we exhibit the virtue of humility, and whether we are generous people or tight-fisted including what we give of ourselves and resources to others. In this way, the virtues of gratitude, humility and generosity are inter-related. If these virtues are highly developed, people are more likely to discover deeper meaning and happiness in their lives.

What follows are thoughts on the virtue of gratitude as drawn from Jewish tradition and world literature. You might consider sharing these quotations around the Thanksgiving table this year as you share with each other, as my family does annually, what we feel gratitude for in our lives.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

“How strange we are in the world, and how presumptuous our doings! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.”
-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, 20th century philosopher, theologian, activist

“I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.”
-William Shakespeare

“If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘Thank you,’ that will suffice.”
-Meister Echkart, 13th century German theologian and philosopher

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”
-William Arthur Ward, 20th century pastor and teacher

“Gratitude, not understanding, is the secret to joy and equanimity.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

“Ingratitude to a human being is ingratitude to God.”
-Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid, 10th century Spanish sage

“When you arise in the morning give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”
-Native American Prayer – Tecumseh Tribe

“I offer thanks to You, Sovereign Source and Sustainer of life, Who returns to me my soul each morning faithfully and with gracious love.”
-Morning Liturgy

“Thank everyone who calls out your faults, your anger, your impatience, your egotism; do this consciously, voluntarily.”
-Jean Toomer, 20th century American poet and novelist

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
– Marcus Tillius Cicero, 1st Century BCE Roman Philosopher

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.”
-Melodie Beattie, contemporary author

“We don’t express gratitude in order to repay debts or balance ledgers but rather to strengthen relationships (learned from Sara Algoe)….feelings of gratitude make us want to praise the other person publicly, to bring him or her honor.”
-Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership, NYU

“What have you done for me lately is the ingrate’s question.”
-Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, lecturer and author

“If you have done a big kindness for your neighbor, let it be in your eyes a small matter. If your friend did you a small favor, let it be in your eyes a big favor.”
-Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 41:11, 9th century CE, Babylonia

“A person must be grateful to a place [e.g. synagogue, school, college, hospital, etc.] where he derived some benefit.”
-B’reishit Rabbah 79:6, 5th Century CE, Palestine

“If you cannot be grateful for what you have received, then be thankful for what you have been spared.”
-Yiddish proverb

“The highest tribute to the dead is not grief, but gratitude.”
-Thorton Wilder, 20th century playwrite and novelist

What Really Happened at Lydda in 1948? Ari Shavit and His Critics

Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land” is arguably the most important book to come out of Israel in the last twenty-five years (see my review from January 14, 2014 – http://rabbijohnrosove.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/the-most-important-book-to-come-out-of-israel-in-years-my-promised-land-the-triumph-and-tragedy-of-israel-by-ari-shavit/.

A number of Israeli scholars, however, have questioned Shavit’s characterization of what happened at Lydda during the 1948 War of Independence. Based on interviews Shavit conducted with the brigade commander and other eye-witnesses, the author concludes that the killing of 250 Palestinian men, women and children by Zionist troops was a necessary tragedy in the young state of Israel’s history:

“Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning there was a substantial contact between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be.” (p. 108)

Many of Shavit’s critics disagree. After reading the articles below (I am grateful to my friend Rabbi Uri Regev in Jerusalem for forwarding them to me), I am left with significant questions: Was Lydda really a “massacre” or a tragedy of war?” Were there 250 dead, or was the number closer to 100, or even less? What actually happened at Lydda and why?

The historian Benny Morris says that many Arabs were compelled by Israeli troops to flee their homes and villages, and many others fled from fear of what their own leaders claimed would happen to them should Jews take over their villages. He says that the evidence does not show the intentional creation of a massive refugee problem designed ahead of time by Israeli leadership, but rather a spontaneous response to military conditions by low-level commanders in the field.

The massive flight of Arabs from Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, the Jewish Coastal Plain, and the Upper Jordan Valley began even before a formal outbreak of war, soon after the 1947 UN Partition plan (1948, by Benny Morris, p. 94). He writes that Ben Gurion considered Ramle and Lydda in particular as dangerous “thorns” in Israel’s side  threatening Tel Aviv. He called for them to be “destroyed” (Ibid. p. 286).

The Israeli poet Natan Alterman published his poem “Al Zot” (Davar, November 1948) describing the Lydda battle soon after the event occurred thus providing context and a sense of immediacy after the fact.

The discussion among Israeli critics raises a number of questions that have special resonance today: What should be the status of Israel’s Arab citizens? Are Arab citizens of Israel treated equally to Israeli Jews as Israel’s Declaration of Independence promised? What is the future of Arab-Jewish co-existence in Israel in light of our seminal sacred moral texts:

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens. You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am Adonai your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

The following link will take you to the articles listed below. It is a lengthy read (40-50 pages) but for those seriously interested in the meaning of Lydda in the history of the War of Independence, it is a necessary read – http://njbrepository.blogspot.co.il/2014/08/what-happened-at-lydda-by-martin-kramer.html

What Happened at Lydda. By Martin Kramer. Mosaic, July 2014. In his celebrated new book, Ari Shavit claims that “Zionism” committed a massacre in July 1948. Can the claim withstand scrutiny?

The Meaning of “Massacre.” By Benny Morris and Martin Kramer. Mosaic, July 2014. The debate between Benny Morris and Martin Kramer over Israel’s wartime conduct enters its second round.

Distortion and Defamation. By Martin Kramer. Mosaic, July 2014. The treatment of Lydda by Ari Shavit and my respondent Benny Morris has consequences even they didn’t intend.

Zionism’s Black Boxes. By Benny Morris. Mosaic, July 2014. Martin Kramer shows how Ari Shavit manipulates and distorts Israeli history; but Kramer has an agenda of his own. 

The Uses of Lydda. By Efraim Karsh. Mosaic, July 2014. How a confusing urban battle between two sides was transformed into a one-sided massacre of helpless victims.

Lydda, 1948: A City, a Massacre, and the Middle East Today. By Ari Shavit. The New Yorker, October 21, 2013.

What Primary Sources Tell Us About Lydda 1948. By Naomi Friedman. NJBR, February 19, 2014.

Myths and Historiography of the 1948 Palestine War Revisited: The Case of Lydda. By Alon Kadish and Avraham Sela. The Middle East Journal, Vol. 59, No. 4 (Autumn 2005).

Operation Dani and the Palestinian Exodus from Lydda and Ramle in 1948. By Benny Morris. The Middle East Journal, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Winter 1986).

Ari Shavit with David Remnick: The Tragedy and Triumph of Israel. Video. 92nd Street Y, November 26, 2013. YouTube. https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?shva=1#inbox/14986978be7120d8?projector=1


Jewish Prague is Now Little More Than Memory – Last in a Series

If there is to be any renewal of Jewish life in Prague today, according to Prague’s Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon of the Beit Praha (“House of Prague”) congregation, it will be due to foreign expatriates (“The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe,” by Eli Valley, p. 278).

This is not to say that some young Czech Jews are not trying to create community. Those who remain in Prague – a small number – have divided into two congregations, Beit Praha (Orthodox) and Beit Simcha (“House of Joy” – Reform/Conservative) and are doing the very best they can.

Prague is an exciting city by any standard. A feast for the eyes, the city’s multiple architectural styles and beautiful buildings, narrow streets, restaurants, shops, and magnificent churches, its burgeoning economy, and the past 25 years of Czech freedom make it a welcome residence and an exciting destination for visitors.

For the Jewish traveler there are many sites of interest including the Altneuschul (“The Old New”), Spanish, and Pinchas Synagogues, several Jewish museums, the Holocaust Memorial, and the Jewish quarter’s cemetery with graves of significant rabbis including Rabbi Judah Loew (the MAHARAL) of Golem fame.

Despite the long and rich history of the Prague Jewish community, it has suffered a fate similar to that of other Central European Jewish communities decimated by genocide, assimilation and immigration.

Over the last 800 years, the fate of the Moravian and Bohemian Jewish communities in this region was dependent on the largess of the king, and though at times Jews thrived, Prague suffered the entire list of classic anti-Semitic decrees at one time or another, including the prohibition against Jews owning land, living among Christians, belonging to guilds, and holding public office. At times Jews were forced to wear identification marks on their clothing, were restricted to peddling or money lending, paid high taxes, and were compelled to make “loans” to the royal treasury.

In good times, Jews held the status of “servi camerae – servants of the king” in which they were defended against pogroms provoked by the infamous blood libel accusation.

By the beginning of World War I, Jewish assimilation was so widespread that Judaism was all but gone from Prague though such luminaries as Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka were born and raised there. By 1940, the Prague Jewish population had swelled to 55,000 to include refugees escaping the Nazis from the Sudetenland, Austria and elsewhere. After the Germans occupied Prague on March 15, 1939, Jews were expelled from all facets of the economy. Their property and belongings were stolen, and they were excluded from schools, trams, parks, and restaurants. Most of Prague’s Jews were eventually deported to Terezin, of which only 7500 survived.

After WWII, 20,000 Jews moved to Prague from the east thus making it a center of Jewish life in central Europe for a brief while. In 1948, large numbers made aliyah to Israel. After the communists came to power in 1950, 26,000 more Jews left as life became precipitously worse for those who remained.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, Judaism experienced a kind of revival and became fashionable for the small remnant of young Jews whose survivor parents had remained, but assimilation and intermarriage had a continuing deleterious effect.

Today, Prague claims only 1350 registered Jews, half of whom are over the age of 70, though unofficial estimates range from between 5,000 and 20,000 of Jewish lineage.

The chronicler of Central European Jewish history, Eli Valley, blames the current Jewish leadership of Prague for its lack of organized, serious and sustained outreach to those of Jewish heritage living in the city, and he despairs of Prague’s Jewish future (Ibid, p. 26-27).

My synagogue group celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat with the Reform Beit Simcha in the magnificent Spanish Synagogue. Beit Simcha has no rabbi, and so services that evening were led by a brilliant young woman who works as a professional translator. Our group of 30 dwarfed the number of locals present. The prayer leader and the Orthodox son of the Executive Director of the organized Prague Jewish community joined us later for dinner and conversation.

Though these two young Jews were upbeat about what is happening in their respective congregations, I was not persuaded that the seeds for renewal were there. Though there is a kosher restaurant in the city, the Jewish communal organization oversees and maintains all Jewish sites, and Shabbat and holiday services are held, little else seems to be going on.

My own sense of this very small community is that it will remain small. Anti-Semitism in Prague is currently insignificant, but the history and state of the community does not suggest that a large scale revival is imminent. Indeed, despite the magnificence of Prague, the rich history of Jewish life there reaching back a millennium, the beauty of its synagogues, and the material wealth of many Prague Jews, Judaism in Prague is now little more than memory.

This is the fourth and last in a series of blogs on Central European Jewish communities – see:

Only the Guilty are Guilty – Reflections About Germany Then and Now on Kristallnacht – Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Dark and Heavy Cloud of Memory Hovering Over Budapest’s Jews – Sunday, November 16, 2014

Pavel Stransky – Terezin, Auschwitz and the Death March of a Survivor – Tuesday, November 18, 2014

BDS Is Not The Way at UCLA – Statement by Assembly Member Richard Bloom

What is needed today vis a vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not BDS votes against Israel or Israeli collective punishment against innocent Palestinian families who happen to be related to terrorists (i.e. illegal and proven ineffective home demolitions). What is needed are Israeli and Palestinian statesmen whose cool heads, calming rhetoric, condemnation of violence, and commitment to return to serious negotiations to achieve a two state solution to this conflict before more blood is shed and suffering is experienced.

I wish to commend California State Assembly member Richard Bloom who released a Statement on UCLA’s student government’s endorsement of divestment policy against Israel yesterday. Here it is in full:

“I am outraged by the decision of the UCLA student government to pass a resolution supporting the divestment of University funds from American companies lawfully doing business in the Israeli-controlled West Bank. Ironically, this vote – targeting only Jews and Israelis – takes place while Palestinians have been openly celebrating the vicious murder of five innocent individuals in Jerusalem.

The supporters of the UCLA student government measure claim it is in the interest of promoting human rights. Yet, there are no human rights concerns voiced about the indiscriminate shelling of Israeli civilians by Hamas this past summer. Nor is there thought given to human rights violated by the premeditated, Hamas-led murders of three young men that preceded that shelling. The hypocrisy is undeniable.

Fortunately, a vote of eight student leaders does not represent, in any way, the majority of UCLA students, 2,000 of whom were brave enough to sign a petition opposing the short-sighted and polarizing resolution. I am gratified by Chancellor Block’s statement that “The Board of Regents does not support divestment in companies that engage in business with Israel and UCLA agrees with that position.

The press release notes that This action is contradictory to U.S. and California economic policy.  In fact, just this year, Governor Jerry Brown signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to increase business between California and Israeli-based companies. This MOU recognizes that Israel and California house many top environmental and technology businesses specializing in areas like water efficiency and renewable energy.

Sadly, this action only increases the already hostile campus climate for Jewish students at UCLA and directs undue anger towards the Jewish community as a whole.  Instead of focusing on promoting conflict, the student government should be enacting on constructive policies that have real objective and positive goals and that don’t endorse vitriol and alienate their fellow students.”

Richard Bloom chairs the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Transportation.  He represents California’s 50th Assembly District, which comprises the communities of Agoura Hills, Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Hollywood, Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica, Topanga, West Hollywood, and West Los Angeles.


Pavel Stransky – Terezin, Auschwitz and the Death March of a Survivor

As we drove into Terezin where 33,000 Jews died and from which 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz, the place appeared as a charming medieval walled-town graced with a central square beneath gentle-leaved trees.

Terezin, a medieval town constructed by Joseph II for Maria Teresa, was established by the Nazis in 1940 to be a model camp used to persuade the International Red Cross that Jews were there for their protection and led a normal life.

The camp would receive 150,000 Jews including 15,000 children from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Most Jews stayed 6 months before being transported to Auschwitz. The camp crammed 80,000 souls together. Today, 1000 people live there.

Pavel Stransky was one of only 17,247 survivors. At 93, this warm-hearted, articulate and loving grandfather guided us through the camp and shared his story.

He was born in Prague and met the love of his life, Vera, as a young Jewish girl in 1938. They became engaged but before the marriage could occur he was taken to Terezin in 1941. By chance, Vera and her parents were on the next transport.

Vera and Pavel married in Terezin on December 16, 1943 in a non-Jewish ceremony one day before he would be transported to Auschwitz. Not knowing what would meet them there, Vera and her mother (her father had already died) voluntarily joined him. Upon arrival, Vera’s mother was gassed. Pavel and Vera were selected for work and separated.

Pavel lost half his weight by the time he was liberated. At 70 pounds and starving, he was forced on a 150-mile death march from Auschwitz and back to Terezin before Soviet troops liberated him.

Of Auschwitz, Pavel wrote:

Had Dante Alighieri seen the ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the end of the night of December 20, 1943, he probably would have been ashamed of his sober description of Hell.” (Pavel Stransky – “As Messengers for the Victims”, publ. 2000, p. 14).

Before being deported from Prague at the beginning of the war, Pavel had fortuitously taken a teacher training seminar, a role he credits with saving his life.

The Children’s Block [at Auschwitz] was conceived by Fredy Hirsch, a handsome man who … could have been a model in ancient Greece… Fredy loved children and they …worshipped him.”

In October 1943, Fredy asked Dr. Mengele to make a children’s block out of one of the barracks, and Pavel became one of the coordinators.

The Czech Israeli writer, Otto B. Kraus, tells the story of the 500 Jewish children who lived in the Czech Family Camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau in which Fredy and Pavel worked. The children’s instructors organized clandestine lessons, sing-alongs and staged plays and charades (all described in Kraus’ novel “The Painted Wall”).

Mengele sustained The Children’s Block to provide the Nazis with an alibi to refute the rumors of the Final Solution. It became a shelter and haven for the children, who would all eventually perish in the gas chambers. 83% of the 50 Children’s Block coordinators, however, were still alive in May 1945 because they had spent days inside and out of the bad weather. The coordinators’ mission to create a make-believe world for the children, humanize and bring happiness into the last days of life for the most innocent victims also helped sustain them. (Ibid., Stransky, pps. 44-45)

Upon liberation, Pavel returned to Prague and advertised in local papers with the hope that Vera survived. One day she knocked on his door. Ecstatic, they married a second time under a chupah with real wine and a glass for breaking, and they bore and raised four children and six grandchildren. Vera died fifteen years ago.

As we toured Terezin, Pavel told us that the Nazis’ intention wasn’t just to murder Jews, but

…to systematically humiliate people’s human dignity …, until the person had been transformed into a starving skeleton that for days and nights without end longs only for a piece of bread… in order [for the Nazis] to hate and despise the product of their own perversion …No one who has not gone through it … can imagine how hours, days, weeks, and months of an empty stomach can hurt; how it can dominate all the thoughts of someone who is eternally hungry, and how it focuses those thoughts on only one thing: just once to eat one’s fill!” (ibid. p. 37)

Pavel showed us a most remarkable synagogue in the camp, one that was hidden from the Nazis and that he (Pavel) did not know existed when he lived there, a windowless 20 X 20 feet room at the end of a drive. Its interior was painted in beautiful Hebrew calligraphy with passages inscribed from Tanakh and Tahanun prayers. Here is but one inscription from the Shacharit service:

Concerning our brethren from the house of Israel, who in sorrow and in bondage, who between the sea and dry land – May God be merciful to them and deliver them from hardship to ease, from darkness to light, from slavery to redemption, and let it happen speedily.”


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