An Assault on Holocaust Memory

The following was written by Alan Elsner, special advisor to the President of J Street. Alan is a journalist who formerly covered the State Department and the White House for Reuters. In this letter, he writes as a child of survivors.
 
I share Alan’s angst and deep concern about an assault on Holocaust memory.
 
He writes:
 
“Tomorrow, April 24, is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day — and never in my lifetime has it seemed more necessary or more relevant.
 
As the child of a Holocaust survivor, who himself is no longer here to testify, I have always felt a great personal responsibility to bear witness. I spent years collecting, writing and publishing my family’s tragic story.
 
I promoted the construction of memorials, both here in the United States and in Europe. Naively, I thought the battle over the memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II had been won. After all, we succeeded in erecting Holocaust museums and memorials in every major US city — even in places like El Paso, Texas and Terre Haute, Indiana.
 
I watched with satisfaction as the Shoah was deeply ingrained and widely explored in US popular culture with movies like Schindler’s List, The Piano and Life is Beautiful, as well as many others. Several states — including New York, California, Illinois, Florida, New Jersey and Michigan — passed laws mandating that all children learn about the Holocaust in school.
 
The events of the past year have shattered my complacency.
 
First, as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump allowed his campaign to exploit images and memes clearly drawn from the history of anti-Semitism. Then, in February, his White House issued a statement on International Holocaust Memorial Day excluding mention of the Jews as primary target and victims of the historic crime against humanity.
 
Nearly two weeks ago, White House spokesman Sean Spicer outrageously claimed that Syrian President Assad’s use of poison gas against his own people exceeded in horror the Nazis’ industrial-scale use of poison gas to murder millions of people, primarily Jews. Spicer showed his insensitivity and ignorance by coining the cleansing term “Holocaust centers” to describe the Nazi extermination camps.
 
As if this was not enough, we also have the specter of a leading French presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, denying French culpability for the round-up and deportation of thousands of Jews to German camps, where most died during World War II.
 
In our own country and around the world, there seems to be a rising tide of discriminatory and exclusionist nationalism, exploiting fears and demonizing “the other” for political gain. Time and again, leaders of this trend have demonstrated a shocking disregard for the facts, details and lessons of the Holocaust.
 
Apparently, in an age of “fake news,” “alternative facts” and rising xenophobia, we can no longer assume that the facts of the Shoah are widely accepted, or even known. Spicer’s comments are instructive. Given the endless list of movies, books, plays, works of art and even graphic novels with Holocaust themes that have saturated the culture, it must have taken extraordinary efforts for someone like Spicer — an educated and well-informed individual in the thick of US politics — to close his eyes and ears to them.
 
Presumably, the message of the Holocaust is not one that they are much interested in hearing — or understanding.
 
What about the message might they find objectionable? Perhaps the fact that vilifying, demonizing and targeting an entire ethnic or religious group can lead to catastrophe? That refusing aid and refuge to refugees fleeing conflict can doom them to a horrific fate? That such acts of cruelty may begin small but have a terrifying way of expanding?
 
For those of us concerned with preserving Holocaust memory, there are lessons too. We must consider whether we have focused too much on the chronology and mechanics of the Shoah and too little on the universality of its message, on its urgency and continued relevance in our times.
 
I do believe that the Holocaust is a birthright we must handle with care. We cannot allow its lessons to be cheapened by misused or diluted by overuse.
 
But neither is the Shoah an historical artifact to be guarded and preserved in museums and archives. It is a living legacy that summons and challenges us in all of our political work here, in Israel and around the world.
 
It is a touchstone for all we do and all we are. And this year of all years, the challenge is stark and the task is clear.”
 
– Alan Elsner

“Ivanka And Jared Are Spectacularly Unqualified — And Why That Matters” – Jane Eisner, Forward

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov told a story about a kingdom in which the grain harvested in one particular year was so badly tainted that it was unfit to eat. Whoever ate of the grain would become insane.

The King didn’t know what to do. If the people didn’t eat the wheat, they’d starve; but if they ate it they’d go mad. So, he turned to one of his closest advisors and asked what wisdom the advisor had to offer.

At first, his advisor suggested setting aside some untainted grain that the King and his court would eat so, at the least, they could maintain their sanity and lead the kingdom wisely during the time in which the people had sunk into madness.

The King, however, replied that “If we do that, we’ll be considered crazy” by the people and no one will take what we say or do seriously.

The King considered the matter and finally decided that everyone, including him and his court, would eat the poisoned wheat, but he and his advisors would put a mark on their foreheads to remind themselves that they had become insane.

Jane Eisner, the Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Forward, wrote this week an op-ed that could well serve as the “mark” we put on our foreheads to remind ourselves of the madness into which we’ve sunk as a nation in this era of President Trump.

Ms. Eisner describes how Jared and Ivanka Trump are perhaps the most unqualified people ever to take on leadership positions in our nation’s history, that their ignorance of what’s required in the work they’ve been assigned by the President is equivalent to  malpractice, and that their hubris is unprecedented in thinking that they can effectively perform in positions that require so much knowledge and experience that they do not have.

Do read Jane Eisner’s piece, save it and return to it from time to time to remind yourself  of the madness to which we’ve sunk in this Trumpian era: http://forward.com/opinion/politics/369414/ivanka-and-jared-are-spectacularly-unqualified-and-why-that-matters/

The 74th Anniversary of the Beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

On April 19, 1943, under the command of SS General Juergen Stroop, Nazi tanks entered what remained of the Warsaw Ghetto to search out, arrest, and send the final 750 Jewish survivors to the death camp at Treblinka. However, the might of the Nazi death machine came up against one of the greatest acts of resistance by the Jewish people during World War II.

It took one month for the Nazis to put down the uprising and completely destroy the Warsaw Ghetto officially ending the uprising on May 16, 1943, though we know that a few Jews escaped to tell the full story through the sewers of the city.

In the history of the Warsaw Ghetto recorded in real time by Emmanuel Ringelblum, we read:

Whomever you talk to, you hear the same cry: The resettlement never should have been permitted. We should have run into the street, set fire to everything in sight, have torn down the walls, and escaped to the Other Side. The Germans would have taken their revenge. It would have cost tens of thousands of lives, but not 300,000. Now we are ashamed of ourselves, disgraced in our own eyes, and in the eyes of the world, where our docility has earned us nothing. This must not be repeated now. We must put up a resistance, defend ourselves against the enemy, man and child.”  (“Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum,” ed. and translated by Joob Solan. NY: Schocken Books, 1958, p. 326.)

Henrich Himmler had ordered the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto on April 19, 1943, one day in advance of Hitler’s birthday. When the Nazis entered the ghetto with their tanks, however, the 750 Jewish resisters attacked and burned their first tank. The Nazi soldiers were stunned and retreated.

I encourage you to read the complete story of the ghetto uprising in David Kopel’s article published on October 10, 2015 in the Washington Post, “The Warsaw ghetto uprising: Armed Jews vs. Nazis” (Opinion).

Temple Israel of Hollywood will commemorate Yom Hashoah this coming Sunday, April 23 from 4:30 PM to 5:45 PM. We welcome two survivors and a college student who grew up in our congregation who together participated in the Los Angeles Bureau of Education’s “March of the Living”.

As part of our commemoration, survivors, children of survivors, and grandchildren of survivors will kindle 6 flames in memory of those who perished.

The community is invited.

 

 

Is it just me?

For months I’ve returned home each day and turned on “Hardball” to hear Chris Matthews aggressively address the latest Trump outrages. I used to listen regularly to David Axelrod on the Axe-Files dissect journalistic and political phenomenon, to Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor on Pod Save America (formerly Saving It 1600 before Hillary lost) give the inside scoop on the most recent DC political machinations, and to NPR report what the Trump administration is doing. I have always read the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Politico, and Huffington Post. But increasingly, I am feeling so listless and deflated that I can’t seem to muster my righteous indignation enough to tune in regularly and read and listen to the news. I do check in from time to time, but not the way I used to.

Is it just me, or are you feeling the same way – exhausted, listless, and perhaps despairing?

We Jews just celebrated Pesach (a needed lift – I have to say), and I was relieved that at our Family Seder we stayed clear of the most contentious political issues because my family and friends feel burnt out as I do.

The larger challenge, of course, is what does this all mean for us and our democracy?

Does it mean that we’ve now left the building and are leaving Trump to do to the country what he has done to so many victims over the years?

I certainly hope not.

I know two things:

First, as the Chinese curse reminds us, we are living in interesting times, and there’s no telling what’s coming next. We have to gird ourselves and toughen up over the long haul.

Second, our democratic institutions are still strong, despite what Trump, Mitchell, Ryan, and many right-wing extremists are attempting to do, and there are many inspired servant-leaders in politics who are taking on Trump and Co.

In the meantime, we who are so exhausted need to remember that voting matters, supporting candidates we believe in matters and advocating for social justice reform, the environment, human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, diplomacy, reason, and common decency matter.

“Is Passover Broken Beyond Repair?” A conversation with a Friendly Critic

On March 26, I posted a blog announcing the publication of a new Haggadah “A Jubilee Haggadah Marking the 50th Year Since the 1967 War  that brought together thirty Israeli and American Jewish peace activists (including me) who offered commentaries on aspects of the traditional Haggadah. See https://rabbijohnrosove.wordpress.com/2017/03/26/a-jubilee-haggadah-marking-the-50th-year-since-the-1967-war/

I opened the blog announcing that

“A new Haggadah has just been published by SISO (“Save Israel – Stop the Occupation”). It is called the Jubilee Haggadah because it marks the 50th year since the 1967 War, a turning point in the history of the modern State of Israel that the writers and editors conjoin with the biblical Jubilee commandment – “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…” (Leviticus 25:10) – and with the celebration of Passover, the festival of liberty.

The Haggadah is part of a new initiative begun by prominent Israeli individuals and organizations in partnership with Jewish leaders around the world who believe that the prolonged Israeli military occupation poses a very real threat to Israel’s safety and well-being, and undermines the moral and democratic fabric of Israel and its standing in the community of nations. See SISO’s website – https://www.siso.org.il.”

I received a thoughtful and friendly reply in Hebrew from Dr. Zioni Ben Yair (I do not know him) that said (translation is mine):

“I certainly sympathize with the need to break free from the corruption of the occupation [of the West Bank] because it contradicts the Torah and Haggadah and it’s making us an undemocratic apartheid state. Nevertheless, I believe we must continue to use the Haggadah as it is without changing even a single letter. The Haggadah has been read during all 82 years of my life, in different situations, in different countries and under different and unique circumstances, and in many cases, there are no proper reasons for change and new formulations….We need to be able to continue to read the Haggadah literally as we are used to doing from time immemorial.” (See Dr. Ben Yair’s original Hebrew letter: https://rabbijohnrosove.wordpress.com/2017/03/26/a-jubilee-haggadah-marking-the-50th-year-since-the-1967-war/#comments

This past week in The Forward, J.J. Goldberg wrote a piece he called “Is Passover Broken Beyond Repair?” in which he discusses a plethora of new Haggadot written over the decades that is a fitting response to Dr. Ben Yair’s comments – see http://forward.com/opinion/israel/368555/is-passover-broken-beyond-repair/?attribution=author-article-listing-2-headline.

Once you read JJ’s article, I suggest asking who is right – The traditionalists who wish not to change a word of the traditional Haggadah, or the innovators of new Haggadot who seek to apply the historic Jewish experience of victimization and liberation to others?

In my response to Dr. Ben Yair, I noted that the traditional Haggadah is a compilation of Midrashim, commentaries, stories, rituals, and symbols that entered the Haggadah over the centuries for specific reasons. A prime example is the custom of opening the door for Elijah, a relatively “recent” addition to the Seder (500-600 years ago) that was introduced during times of anti-Semitic persecution and violence provoked by the blood libel accusation.

Jews opened their doors to show Christians who were sensitive to the New Testament’s deicide accusation against the Jews who happened to be passing by that nothing horrific and sacrilegious was taking place in Jewish homes.

I suggested to Dr. Ben Yair, whose letter shows his concern about the corrupting effect of the occupation on West Bank Palestinians, on the soul of the Jewish people and State of Israel that for the Seder to remain meaningful today, in our generation, its themes of liberation, justice, and compassion must be applied not only to our own Jewish conditions but to the injustices suffered by peoples everywhere.

What do you think?

Love, Sweet Love!

The world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”

So said Rabbi Akiva (2nd century Palestine), who believed that The Song of Songs, a love poem in the Hebrew Bible, traditionally attributed to King Solomon as a young man, is an allegory between two lovers, God and Israel.

The allegorical interpretation of The Song of Songs is why The Song of Songs is read each year on the Shabbat during Pesach, this Shabbat, for it’s then that we celebrate our people’s redemption and liberation from bondage on the one hand and the Kabbalistic idea of the hoped-for-redemption of God within God’s Divine Self on the other.

All that being said, this extraordinarily enriched poetry seems to be a purely secular poem (God’s Name is never mentioned) celebrating young, sensuous and erotic love and the passionate draw of two lovers yearning for relief from their existential loneliness:

For love is strong as death, / Harsh as the grave. / Its tongues are flames, a fierce / And holy blaze”  (Song of Songs 8:6 – Translation by Marcia Falk)

Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook wrote of a higher metaphysical love represented by the Song of Songs in this way (Translation by Ben Zion Bokser):

“Expanses divine my soul craves. / Confine me not in cages, / of substance or of spirit. / I am love-sick / I thirst, / I thirst for God, / as a deer for water brooks.

Alas, who can describe my pain? / Who will be a violin / to express the songs of my grief?

I am bound to the world, / all creatures, / all people are my friends.

Many parts of my soul / are intertwined with them, / But how can I share with them my light.”

Tonight – Friday, April 14 at 6:30 PM,  at Temple Israel of Hollywood, we will be celebrating as part of our Kabbalat Shabbat service the Song of Songs with beautiful music set to its verse. We have invited members of our community who are celebrating milestone wedding anniversaries to join us, and we will offer them a blessing. If you are free and would like to join us, please do come.

Shabbat shalom and Moadim L’simchah!

What keeps your embers burning?

This past week I was invited to speak to fifteen soon-to-be-ordained rabbinic students at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. I was joined by two long-time friends and colleagues on a panel and we were asked to share what has kept us excited, inspired, passionate, and creative in our work as congregational rabbis (I am now in my thirty-eighth year of service).

This question, however, isn’t only a question for rabbis. It’s also for everyone who works hard, takes pride in their work, seeks excellence, wants to make a contribution, and hopes to maintain a healthy balance in their lives.

It so happened that the Torah portion this past week was Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36). At the beginning of the portion there appears a relevant verse to the question we were asked to address:

“The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept burning on it.” (6:2)

The English translation that appears in most editions of the Bible, however, is incorrect. Here is the relevant Hebrew of the final phrase of the verse: “V’esh ha-mis’bei-ach tukad bo  – The fire of the altar burns in it [It does not read “tukad alav – burns on it”].”

Since the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. when all sacrifices ceased, many Jewish commentators have interpreted the sacrifices (korbanot) as metaphors. The altar can refer to the human heart, and the fire that burns in the altar can refer to the fires of excitement and inspiration that burns also in the heart.

We were asked – What keeps our inner fires burning in service to the Jewish people?

I was moved by the question and took it to my congregants who study Torah with me on Friday mornings, and to my family and friends at our Seder. I asked the question more broadly: “What sustains you in your life and in your work?”

Here are some of their responses:

  • Many of the men who learn Torah with me each week say that engaging with the ancient, medieval and modern texts ground them in who they are as Jews, as human and spiritual beings, and as inheritors of 3600 years of Jewish engagement with God, ethics, practice, culture, and history;
  • My Seder family and friends said that whenever they read fine literature and poetry and then write themselves, or when they listen to and play musical instruments, visit museums or galleries and create art, work in their gardens and cook creatively, the embers in their hearts are stoked;
  • Two people mentioned that the mastery they have attained in their work inspires them to learn more, teach others, publish, and carry on the work;
  • A recovering alcoholic said that daily prayer and meditation brings her back to her best and most natural self;
  • Many said that helping others and engaging in social justice work connect them to community and to higher ideals that inspire and sustain them;
  • Several said that sitting quietly in a favorite place renews them;
  • Many spoke of the love they feel for their spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, brothers, sisters, extended family, and friends as the embers that feed their inner flames.

This is a season to ask ourselves this fundamentally important question – What feeds your inner flames?

I wish for you all more inner light that burns from your deepest embers.

Moadim l’simcha.

 

 

Maror-Bitterness

The Haggadah is an exilic document. For Jews, as long as the world is filled with injustice, cruelty, violence, and war, our work is not done.

Judaism teaches that the messianic era will come only when justice, compassion, and peace characterize relationships between individuals, peoples, and nations, when the hearts of parents turn to their children and the hearts of children turn to their parents (Malachi 3:23-24).

Through intention, determination, righteous deeds, and moral activism, our Jewish mission and the essential message of the Passover Seder is, through remembrance that we were once slaves, to address every injustice, every act of cruelty and every insensitivity to bring nearer the day when the prophetic admonishments will no longer be necessary.

My poem “Maror-Bitterness” that follows, is one in a series of d’rashot (commentaries) published this week in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal by a number of Los Angeles rabbis who reflected on the symbols of the Seder (“Rabbis Dish on the Seder Plate – April 7-13, 2017. Pages 36-38 – jewishjournal.com/culture/religion/passover/217641/rabbis-dish-seder-plate/). I recommend them all.

Maror-Bitterness

The Almighty called to the children of Jacob:

“I have taken notice of you / And seen your suffering / And sent to you my prophet / To relieve you of your maror-bitterness.

I carried you on eagles’ wings / And shielded you from the pursuers’ arrows / So that whenever you taste the maror / You will remember / Who I am / And who you are / And why you are free.

As I took notice of your ancestors / I call upon you today / The descendants of slaves / Who know the heart of strangers / And their fear and desperation / And do for them as I have done for you / And liberate them / The oppressed and the tempest-tossed / The poor and the discarded / The old and the lonely / The abused and the addict / The victim of violence and injustice / And everyone who tastes daily the maror-bitterness / That you know so very well.

As you sit around your Seder tables / I call upon you to act / With open, pure and loving hearts / On My behalf / And be My witnesses / And bring healing and peace into the world.”

Poem by John L. Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Los Angeles

“Speak Proudly to Your Children” – Audre Lorde

As we contemplate the massive refugee crisis and the bigotry and fear that Trump has stoked in his efforts to exclude these tempest-tossed human beings from entering the United States, and as we remember that 36 times (double chai) the Hebrew Bible reminds us that we  were strangers in Egypt and therefore (per Jewish tradition) that we must resist becoming cruel, this poem by the African American poet Audre Lorde (1934-1992) speaks powerfully to the heart and soul of every compassionate human being:

Speak proudly to your children / Where ever you may find them / Tell them / You are the offspring of slaves.”

 

A Pre-Pesach Rant!

We are headed into Shabbat Hagadol (the “Great Shabbat”), the Sabbath that always precedes Pesach. It is called “Great” because of the second to last verse in the Haftarah portion Malachi (3:23) where it is written: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the ‘great’ and awe-inspiring day of God.”

On this eve before Pesach, I know I am not alone in my increasing distress and anxiety about President Trump’s and his administration’s utter lack of respect for our democratic institutions, our intelligence agencies, the judicial branch, the fifth estate, the social safety net, the nation’s health care, public education, science, and climate change.

And now there’s more about which to worry in the wake of Trump’s knee-jerk military response yesterday to Assad’s nerve gas attack without informing Congress in advance or seeking its counsel while continuing to refuse to welcome desperate Syrian refugees into America or to provide humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Syrian population.

I keep waiting to hear what Trump’s foreign policy is other than a transactional exercise in which “winning” is the end game. There doesn’t seem to be anything cogent, strategic or visionary about it. His utter disrespect for diplomacy and the nurturing of international alliances, his maddening disregard for facts, his self-centered manipulation of the news cycle to distract the country from the congressional investigation of his campaign’s collusion with Russia, and his massive and obsessive blaming everyone else for everything while never taking responsibility for anything, worries and sickens me about where this country is going, what is happening to our democracy, and what moral standing America will be able to claim when Trump’s term is over or he ends up impeached.

The irony on this Shabbat Hagadol is that Trump has no idea what ‘greatness’ really means. His dominant message has nothing to do with the exceptionalism of America. Rather, it’s about how much better he is than all his predecessors and political adversaries.

Many worry how Trump will handle his first significant crisis. I have comforted myself with the knowledge that he appointed some substantial, seasoned, reasoned, and knowledgeable people to lead the nation’s security and defense establishments. I have taken comfort in the strength of our democratic institutions as well as in many of our political leaders who are as deeply worried as are the rest of us. And I take comfort in the fact that most voters did not vote for Trump so I can’t be in the minority about my worries and concerns. I want to believe, as well, that millions of Trump voters have awoken to how badly they chose on election day, which must be true given his historically low approval ratings.

What makes this holiday of Pesach “great” is its moral and religious vision, the universalism of its message, and its acknowledgment of how inspired leadership and the actions of morally based communities can actually change history for the better.

Shabbat shalom and Hag Pesach Sameach