Rabbi John Rosove writes, “Richard was a once-in-a-generation rabbinic leader whose influence cut across denominational lines. His kindness is legion, his joyfulness ever-flowing, and his love for his family, friends, colleagues, the Jewish people and humankind a model for us all.”
[Note: I am a huge fan of Chemi Shalev, and his sensitive and eloquent memorial to Nechama Rivlin below is yet another reason for my deep respect.
May Ruvi Rivlin find a measure of comfort in knowing that the Jewish people honor him as among our greatest leaders and will remember his beloved wife as a true eshet chayil.]
Nechama Rivlin’s graceful tenure as first lady stood in stark contrast to the pathetically pretentious airs of the prime minister’s faux-royal family
Reuven Rivlin’s personal grief over the death of his wife Nechama is truly fathomable for just a part of the Israeli public, mostly older. Only someone who has felt the loss of his or her closest and dearest – cherished parents, beloved offspring or devoted spouse – can conjure the excruciating pain of loss, which never goes away. Rivlin is bound to be inundated with many thousands of condolences, but he will never find consolation – “nechama” in Hebrew.
Rivlin, however, isn’t just a bereaved individual; he is the president of Israel. His Nechama, though she probably abhorred the title, was our first lady.
Formally, her passing is like a death in the wider “family” that is Israel; the grief is undoubtedly shared by one and all, with the despicable exception of depraved right-wing zealots who publicly wished for her to die.
Ironically, while Nechama Rivlin was known for cherishing her privacy, avoiding the limelight and symbolizing the values of the Good Old Israel, she died in an era of a sensationalist and intrusive press and all-pervasive social media, a time in which the personal is on full public display and the mourning is more intense and collective than ever before.
This was true, with all the stark differences, of the global outpouring of grief that followed the death of Princess Diana 22 years ago. The human obsession with the British monarchy, the suspicious circumstances of the Paris car crash in which she died and the tragic romance/soap opera that was her life were certainly prime factors in sparking unprecedented and worldwide mourning for Diana.
Looking back, however, sociological studies found that many of those who felt a personal loss at Diana’s death were most devastated by the symbolism of a beautiful princess cut down in her prime. Her mystical world of good was sullied and tarnished forever. In this regard, Nechama is a princess too.
The sublime union between Reuven and Nechama, a merger of opposites between his exuberant and extroverted personality and her fiery yet subdued artistic passions, was an ode to love itself. The budding romance that led to marriage almost half a century ago was augmented with a deep and caring friendship that sparked envy among married couples everywhere. If Huey Lewis and the News asked in one of their first great hits “Do You Believe in Love?” the Rivlins showed that the only possible response was a proud and presidential “Yes!”
Given that during his five years as President, Rivlin has emerged as the standard-bearer of honesty, integrity, love of fellow man and woman – including Israeli Arabs – as well as selfless devotion to the state, the grief over the death of his life partner is stronger among those who cherish such values and who fear they’re being trampled.
Together with her husband, Nechama Rivlin’s years in the president’s residence in Jerusalem broadcast modesty, propriety and sincere concern for the underprivileged. Those traits shined ever brighter because of their stark contrast with the vulgar pretentiousness of the self-anointed royal couple living in the prime minister’s residence not far away, which only made the Netanyahus hate the Rivlins even more.
Nechama was the solid rock that the President leaned on to avoid the ill fate of so many of his Likud colleagues. Instead of going down in history as yet another hopelessly naive revisionist old-timer nonchalantly sidelined by Netanyahu, Rivlin drew strength from his Nechama to preach for Israel’s increasingly besieged values of decency and democracy.
With Nechama by his side, Rivlin was the beleaguered Dutch boy made famous in U.S. novelist Mary Mapes Dodge’s 1865 best-seller, “Hans Brinker”, frantically trying to stick his fingers into the increasingly numerous holes that Netanyahu is drilling in the dilapidated dike that safeguards Israel’s once cherished liberal values.
Inspired, no doubt, by his partner’s brave endurance of her chronic and debilitating lung disease, Rivlin found his inner steel. He became a one-man resistance movement to Netanyahu’s divisive incitement and anti-democratic impulses without crossing any of the red lines that come with his largely ceremonial role. Empathy with the president’s personal pain is thus accompanied by practical concern that he will be overwhelmed, overpowered and ultimately paralyzed by the grief over his wife’s death.
Many will regret squandering the opportunity to acquaint themselves better with Nechama Rivlin and her stellar qualities during her lifetime. Her death will be necessarily be seen as an omen of bad things to come.
Her passing encapsulates the opening line of a beautiful Hebrew song poignantly performed by singer Chava Alberstein, “One Human Tissue”, whose title can also be translated as “One Human Tapestry”, which, needless to say, Nechama graced and elevated by her very presence: “With her death, something in us has died as well.”
Mark Twain is among my most favorite writers. His wisdom and wit shine a constant light on truth and reveal the absurdities in which we so often find ourselves.
Ken Burns (his documentary on Mark Twain, by the way, is superb and can be found on Netflix) said of him:
“He was the Lincoln of our Literature. He imprinted us with our own identity. He was the original stand-up comic in America. After he lost everything and everyone he held dear [his immediate family all died in his lifetime] he had to be funny. He inspired laughter from a font of sorrow. His work alters our consciousness of the world.”
Mark Twain (i.e. Samuel Clemens) was born on November 30, 1835 and died on April 21, 1910. We are all the richer because of him. Everything he wrote is worth reading over and again.
Here are a few of his words:
“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.”
“A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.”
“A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.”
“A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.”
“All generalizations are false, including this one.”
“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
“Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.”
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
“Clothes make the man [woman]. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
“Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.”
“Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.”
“Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned.”
“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”
“Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”
“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”
“Go to Heaven for the climate; Hell for the company.”
“Golf is a good walk spoiled.”
“Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”
“Humor is humankind’s greatest blessing.”
“I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough.”
“I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time.”
“I make it a rule never to smoke while I’m sleeping.”
“I must have a prodigious quantity of mind; it takes me as much as a week sometimes to make it up.”
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
“When I was younger I could remember anything whether it had happened or not. My faculties are decaying now, and soon I shall be so that I cannot remember things that never happened. It’s sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it.”
“Before 70 we are respected at best and have to behave all the time; after 70 we are respected, esteemed, admired, revered and don’t have to behave unless we want to.”
“I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”
“I was born modest, but it didn’t last.”
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
“It’s like a cow’s tail going down.” (On getting older)
“The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated.”
For the past two years I have experienced, like so many of us, wide mood swings taking me from righteous indignation, disgust and outrage on one side to patience, perseverance and suffering on the other.
As we approach the mid-term elections on November 6, both extremes have filled me up.
On Sunday this past week, my family and I attended a 2000-person packed auditorium at the Culver City High School to hear Pete Souza, the personal photographer of President Obama (he is promoting a new book of photographs of the President called “Shade – A Tale of Two Presidents”). Most everyone in the hall was supportive and relived with sweet nostalgia, joy and longing the eight years of the Obama presidency.
Pete took us down memory lane and showed us many of his memorable candid photos of Obama (he took 1.9 million photographs during Obama’s eight-year term). Taken all together these photos reveal the humanity, grace, intellect, vision, thoughtful and considered brilliance of the 44th President.
Pete contrasted the current occupant of the White House with the man he respects and loves so deeply. Not once, as I can recall, did Pete mention the name of the current White House occupant – he referred to him several times as “that guy.” Only in hindsight did it occur to me that his not saying the President’s name was deliberate, that should he have done so would have dirtied his speech.
As November 6 approaches I have been remarkably impatient, short-tempered and excruciatingly worried. I don’t know the outcome to this crucial mid-term election, whether the Democrats will take back the House of Representatives or not (I don’t expect the Senate to change hands). No one knows what will happen and where we’ll be on November 7.
President Obama was right yesterday when he said to a crowd in Nevada as he campaigned that this is the most important election in our lifetime because it will determine the state of our democracy going forward at least over the next two years. All we can do is to be certain that everyone we know votes, especially in swing House districts and purple states.
Rainer Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist (1875-1926), offered the following wisdom about living patiently:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I hope that on November 7 we will live the answer so many of us yearn to know.
Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., z”l
This weekend, Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, was killed in a plane crash and this tragic death has stunned the Jewish world.
Aaron was a mensch, a scholar, a gentle man, husband, father, son, and brother. At age 53, the words of the Book of Samuel immediately come to mind – “Eich naflu hagiborim – How the mighty has fallen.”
Since becoming President of HUC-JIR four years ago, Aaron carried forward the work of the Reform movement’s starship educational institution with intelligence, gentleness and kindness, and with insight and vision about the future of liberal Judaism in America and Israel. He led the four campuses of HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. In the last year, Aaron ordained the 100th Israeli Reform Rabbi. He was set to ordain the graduating senior class this week at the American campuses.
He is being mourned widely as a scholar, mensch, and friend. His death is a huge loss to the Reform movement and the Jewish people.
My sympathy extends to his wife, Lisa Messinger, their children Eli and Samantha, his parents Beverly and Peter, his sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken (Glenn Cohen) and their family, his father-in-law Martin E. Messinger, and his sisters-in-law Daryl Messinger (Jim Heeger), Rabbi Sarah Messinger (Rabbi Jeff Eisenstat), and Alice Messinger and their families.
Funeral services will take place on Tuesday, May 8, at 1:00 pm at Westchester Reform Temple, 255 Mamaroneck Road, Scarsdale, NY.
A live webstream of the service will be available on the WRT website at www.wrtemple.org
Even as we mourn the loss of our colleague, teacher, and friend, the vision that Rabbi Aaron Panken brought to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion remains a source of hope and comfort to those who mourn and the Jewish community. Rabbi Panken’s family requests donations in his memory be made to help fulfill Aaron’s vision for his beloved HUC-JIR at huc.edu/memorial or by mail to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, One West Fourth Street, New York, NY 10012.
Messages of condolence to the Panken family may be sent to:
May Rabbi Aaron Panken’s family find comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Seventy years ago today, November 29, 1947, the newly formed United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish state and one Arab state. The Jewish people led by David Ben Gurion accepted the Partition Plan but it was rejected by all Arab States.
Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, a leading American Reform Rabbi and Zionist from Cleveland, and the Director of the Jewish Agency for Israel, spoke to the United Nations. Among other things he said eloquently the following:
“… it is of course appropriate that it be clear – and I am sorry that messages delivered in recent days by certain representatives may confused what ought to be clear – that when we speak of a Jewish state we do not mean a racist or theocratic state; but a state which will be based upon full equality and full rights for all if its inhabitants, without any discrimination between religions or races, and without a take-over or enslavement …”
Rabbi Silver also spoke about the moral and practical necessity in the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) following the horrors of the Holocaust that had ended only two years before. At the same time, he emphasized the human lesson from those years:
“… We are an ancient people, and even though we frequently experienced disappointment in the long and hard road we’ve traveled, our hearts have never dissolved. We have never lost our belief in the superiority and victory of grand moral principles. In the recent tragic years, when the entire house of Israel turned into one big house of torment, we could not build what we have built if we had not placed our safety in true victory…”
Here, Rabbi Silver speaks about the role of American Jewry in the building of the future Jewish state:
“American Jewry is obligated – to itself and to the entire nation – to completely accept upon itself the burden of scripture and the historic future of Judaism. This grand responsibility will have to gain strength from within itself. It cannot once again depend on the table of the old world… to our satisfaction, American Jewry holds great human material, filled with belief and pride and a sense of responsibility… with which we can strengthen the foundation of the central and necessary institution in Jewish community life – the synagogue, which also a school. It is our duty to strongly emphasize the importance of Hebrew language and literature education. Without the study of the Hebrew language, American Jewry will be destined to spiritual infertility…
If Jewish destiny is placed in the hands of Jews for which Judaism is only a result of persecution, chance or a random gesture of kindness, it will surely sink into ignorance and indifference… if the steering wheel is left in the hands of Jews whose Judaism is an inner necessity, a covenant in their soul, who wish to continue to path of Jewish glory – both people and culture – only then can we be sure that the necessary institutions to enrich our lives, most importantly the synagogue and school – and particularly the school – will be established.
This link includes a speech given by Rabbi Silver before the United Nations on November 29, 1947 beginning at two minutes and thirty seconds to nine minutes and forty seconds. You can hear, as well, the roll call vote of the nations voting on the Partition plan beginning at eleven minutes and fifty seconds.
The final vote was 33 to 13 with 10 abstentions in favor. The map as determined by the partition plan can be seen here and there is also a link to what countries voted for, against, and abstained.
The small Torah, known as “The Nussbaum Scroll” (above) written on parchment no more than 12 inches wide in very small but exquisitely beautiful k’tiv (writing) was taken from the Berlin synagogue served by Rabbi Max Nussbaum as it burned on Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938). Max and Ruth smuggled it out of Germany in 1940 as per this account by Ruth Nussbaum. The Torah now occupies an honored place in the Temple Israel of Hollywood Sanctuary Ark.
The following account is that of Ruth Nussbaum, the wife of Rabbi Max Nussbaum, who served as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood from 1942 to 1974. Ruth died in 2009, but she wrote a memoir and her account of of what occurred in Berlin on the 8th, 9th, and 10th of November 1938 during “Kristallnacht” is personal and riveting. It appears in an unpublished memoir in a chapter called “The Fire by Night and the Cloud by Day” (All rights reserved, 1985). The photo of the small Torah is in Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Nussbaum Sanctuary Ark.
“It was 2 o’clock in the morning, and we had piled pillows on top of the phone to muffle the sound, but to the group of people huddled in our quiet Living room it sounded shrill and startling enough.
We let it ring a few times, then I picked up the receiver silently, listening. A voice came over the wire, artificially eerie and hollow, repeating over and over in a slow, droning, melodramatic monotone: “Vorsicht, Vorsicht – caution, careful, watch out, watch out, watch out…”.
…my husband shrugged: “Nothing really, just a crank call.”
It was the night of mass arrests of German Jews, the night of November 10, 1938. The place was our flat in the Lietzenburger Strasse of Berlin – West, and it had been a long day.
It had started with another phone call, at five o’clock in the morning. The Shammess (sexton) of the “Friedenstempel” (Temple of Peace) – the synagogue closest to our home – had awaked us: “Come quickly, Rabbi,” he had whispered breathlessly, “our Temple is burning.”
Rabbi Max Nussbaum was a young assistant to Rabbi Leo Baeck, the titular head of the liberal rabbinic community in Berlin from 1936 to 1940.
“We dressed hurriedly, and rushed through the still dark streets of the quiet Westside of Berlin, down the Kurfeuerstandamm toward the Markgraf-Albrecht Strasse where the Temple was located. The sky seemed to show the first tinge of daylight – so we thought until we realized that the reddish, flickering glow spotting the sky over the city here and there was nothing as innocent as the dawn: it was the reflection of flames.
… we saw the Friedentempel, our Temple of Peace, on fire. Clouds of black smoke fringed with red were billowing from broken windows and from the skeleton of the roof. A cordon of Stormtroopers and firemen were trying to put out the fire? Certainly not. The fire engines were idle, and the water hoses, unused as yet, were trained on the neighboring houses to protect their Aryan roofs from being ignited by a Jewish spark. No, unbelievable as it seemed, they were only trying to hold back the people who had rushed to gawk at the scene.
There were crowds of people, in spite of the early hour. Neighbors, jovial burghers of Berlin, mostly women, wrapped in shawls against the morning chill, many of them holding small children in their arms or by the hand. We stopped among them – there was nowhere else to go – and unthinkingly I said to no one in particular something like “How horrible!” subconsciously expecting to get an echo from whoever was next to me, a normal human reaction to a disaster, like: “Yes isn’t it awful?” Or: “What a crime!” But no, not a word!
Only then did I turn and look into the woman’s face, …; she seemed happy and excited, obviously having the time of her life. Surely this must be a case of singular human callousness.
The expressions I saw in this moment of horror I shall never forget: they were all simply and honestly delighted, full of glee, thrilled by the spectacular entertainment, radiant with a kind of triumphant vengefulness, approving, applauding, lifting up their children so they would not miss this historic occasion: “Look here, Karle, look, they’re burning down that Jew-Church… Wake up. Frieda, come, take a good look, that’s the least you can do since Momma took you specially to see it…”
I didn’t believe it. We had lived under Hitler for five years and not like some other people with our eyes closed or in a fool’s paradise. We had no illusions as to his and his cohorts’ capacity for evil. Nevertheless, I had preserved some of my innate faith in the basic humanness of the average person. Well aware that under terror he might easily turn into a dehumanized fiend I never thought he would do so on his own, by choice, voluntarily as it were. That moment against a background for which a Rembrandt might have mixed the colors out of fire and night with the weird palette of a Hieronymus Bosch supplying the faces, – that brief moment taught me differently, – a lesson never to be forgotten.
“Wait here for me,” my husband said suddenly, very softly, barely moving his lips. “No, better go slowly toward the Kurfeuerstendamm. Wait for me at the corner. I’ll just be a few minutes.” He gave my arm a reassuring squeeze and slowly moved away from me, melting into the crowd. I was apprehensive but knew that any protest would have been futile and dangerous.
After the twenty longest minutes of my life we met at the appointed corner. It was daylight now, the greyish, gloomy light of a November morning in Berlin, – and it was drizzling. We held hands and walked home, without looking back at the fire nor at its admiring audience.
We walked automatically, not thinking, not talking, and only came back to reality when something made a crunching sound underneath our shoes. We were stepping on broken glass. The shops we were just passing were some of the small number still owned by Jews, and sporadic looting had just started, although none of the perpetrators were in sight. Some windows had been smashed, window displays were gone, and shelves and racks inside looked suspiciously empty.
The drizzle turned into light rain, and we walked as fast as we could without actually running. We were out of breath when we finally let ourselves into our flat; I locked the door behind us and leaned against it, exhausted and bewildered.
Hannele, my child, burst out of her room and ran up to us, wanting to know where we had been. Our combination housekeeper – friend – and nanny had taken care of her and was about to take her to nursery school, so we hugged her and promised her a story for later on and sent her off.
There was coffee waiting for us, and we sat down at our breakfast table, going through familiar motions, as if nothing had changed, knowing full well that everything had changed.
Then Max told me: he and the Schammes had managed to rescue the smallest of the Torah scrolls from the Sanctuary. “How did you do it – and where is it?” I was incredulous. “Mr. N. seemed to know the guard at the rear entrance, – that’s how we got in. And he is going to bring it over to us later, for safe keeping…”
It was about 9 o’clock then, and after a few phone calls and having listened to the official radio announcement, the enormousness of what had happened began to dawn on us: most of the synagogues of the German Reich had been burnt down during the preceding night (267 of them)…”due to the people’s indignation at the cold blooded murder on November 7th of a German consular attaché in Paris, a certain Herrn vom Rath, at the hands of a Polish Jew.”
This was the gist of the official version.
Added of course were the standard phrases always used to cover up acts of atrocity…: “Schlagartige Einzelaktion auf Grund der kochenden Volkssseele,” meaning … “Spontaneous, single acts caused by the righteous wrath of the soul of the people,” and not a master plan instigated and mapped out in Dr. Goebbels’ office.
“The fire departments” so we heard on the radio, “had done their best, but alas, had not been able to prevent the partial or total destruction of most synagogues. Regrettably, but understandably of course” – so the radio version continued – “The boiling soul of the German people had then turned against the Jewish-owned shops, and much damage to property and decorum of the city streets had been done – all the direct result of the fiendish deed perpetrated by the Jewish conspiracy in Paris. It was obvious – and the Fuehrer in his wisdom would see to it – that the guilty party, namely the Jews of Germany, would pay in full for the damage done.…”
Synagogues burnt, Jewish shops smashed and looted, and Jews to pay for the damage…It seemed the pinnacle of insanity.
… the Jews of Germany were to pay the German Government immediately the sum of one Billion Riechsmark. … mass arrests were taking place all over the country. Jewish men were seized, rounded up and placed under “Shcutzhfat” – protective custody, a euphemistic term meaning jail or concentration camp.
Now it was night again, and our living room was filled. … my husband was not a German citizen but had a Rumanian passport. Therefore our apartment was something like an asylum, offering just a little bit more security than the homes of most of our German-born friends and colleagues.
About eight or ten of them had come to us that night, some couples who were lucky enough to be still together and at liberty…
Earlier in the evening our good friend Louis Lochner, chief of the Associated Press office in Berlin, had stopped by…to give and get information and to offer help … He was one of those gallant Christians who constantly used whatever influence he had with German or American authorities on behalf of Jews in Germany. He often risked his position and his own safety by befriending us – a man whose courage equaled his kindness.
On that night, our plea to him was mainly to discover the whereabouts of those who had been arrested and to find out, if possible, how much longer this wave of arrests would continue…
I poured coffee. Voices were hushed for the walls had ears and we had good reason to suspect that the telephone was tapped…
Rabbi Leo Baeck had just officiated at the marriage of Rabbi Max and Ruth Nussbaum on July 13, 1938 in Berlin. Ruth told me that the Gestapo had permitted their marriage as a “wedding gift” to them. They are seen leaving the synagogue immediately following their marriage.
We were all tired and enervated…Max stood up, stretched, and yawned. “Time to turn in” he said. “Why don’t’ you all relax and spend the night?”
…an uneasy quiet settled over the makeshift dormitory on the third floor of a quiet apartment house, in the heart of the capital of Nazi Germany.
…the previous nights… proved to be the beginning of the liquidation of German Jewry…
…the following morning…dispelled some of the dread of the night before; fortified by the irresistible combination of fresh coffee and hot crisp “Kneuppel” (“sticks”) as the Berliner calls his famous breakfast rolls…our friends left quickly, one by one, for their homes or offices.
They had not been gone long – I had just bundled up all the linens and, luckily, sent them off to the laundry when the doorbell rang. A look through the peephole revealed an unmistakable Brown uniform.
My husband was at the moment soaking in a hot bath, a therapy prescribed by me as an unfailing cure for a stiff and aching back which was the aftermath of a night spent on or rather between two equally stiff chairs.
I opened the door and faced not one but two brown uniforms. Two young guys, probably not much older than me, Hiel Hitlered me smartly and one of them, studying a paper in his hand, asked: “Is Mr. Nussbaum at home?” I smiled my best drama-school-smile, thinking very very fast ‘this is no good, – how do I handle this?” trying to look honest but a little bit honestly confused – so I blushed – I know I blushed, I did it easily – and said: “Frankly I’m not sure. He may have gone out while I was out taking my little girl to nursery school.”
…I saw they had their feet already in the door, so I smiled again and said: “Why don’t you come in?” figuring by invitation was better than by invasion.
They seemed a bit perplexed – this …was not in their script – but after wiping their shoes carefully on the doormat they followed me into the living room. I left them there, while I aimlessly pretended to search the apartment, opening doors, closing doors, all the while talking very loud – so my husband could hear me and understand – “No, he is not here, I hope he’ll be back soon” – which on that day, when thousands of men had been rounded up and taken to concentration camps – might have been understood by them as the devout wish of a Jewish wife – – or not.
…I had asked them to sit down…with this nice looking young woman who could have been a schoolmate of theirs a few years ago. I had gone to the kitchen and came back with some coffee and coffeecake.
“These are some schnecken, my Mom baked them yesterday.”
“O your Mom makes them too?”
“Aren’t they delicious?” They were obviously bewildered, but they went for it.
[Ruth then took the SS soldiers on a tour of her apartment avoiding the bathroom where Max was hiding and deeply afraid that Max would burst out “to rescue me.”]
“Na, alright Frau Doktor,” one of the guys finally said in his best Berliner accent, “must have been a false alarm.”
They clicked their heels and clattered down the stairs.
“I have a gambler for a wife,” said my husband. “How did you dare do it?”
I denied it. We actually had nothing to lose, nor did I have any choice. Had they found him, all hell would have broken loose, so my way was our only chance. And it worked because I knew these kinds of boys. I knew how their dirty little minds worked; I spoke their language and could act the role of the “girl next door”, so yes, maybe it was a gamble, but a small investment for very high stakes!
It had been an inconsequential incident, compared to the massive historic tragedy of taking place around us at the same time. But then our life under the Nazis was a succession of such insignificant incidents; fate did not deal us only the unspeakable and deadly blows which have become synonymous with the Third Reich but also aimed a steady barrage of tiny poisoned arrows at us – the pinpricks of destiny, the thousand-and-one chicaneries that beset us in every phase of our daily lives in those years.”
Postscript – Rabbi Max and Ruth Nussbaum remained in Berlin to assist the members of their synagogue community in attaining visas until 1940 when they got word that the Gestapo was coming to arrest them. In the middle of the night, Ruth and Max left their young daughter Hannah with Ruth’s parents (they had no visas so they could not leave all together), took the small Torah that Max had saved from his burning synagogue ark on the night of Kristallnacht, and fled to Amsterdam. From there they journeyed to New York. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise had secured a position as rabbi for Max in a small synagogue in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Before going there, Rabbi Wise had arranged an interview for them with the New York Times to describe the situation in Germany. Ruth spoke English. Max would learn the language in Oklahoma. They met as well with Secretary of the Treasury Hans Morgenthau in Washington, D.C. who arranged passage for Hannah and Ruth’s parents who would join Ruth and Max in Oklahoma six months later.
In 1942, Temple Israel of Hollywood invited Rabbi Max Nussbaum to be its rabbi and he happily accepted bringing distinction to our congregation for the next 32 years. The small “Nussbaum Torah” (as we affectionately call it) remains in our Sanctuary ark, an icon of a memory of a story that can never be forgotten, thanks to Ruth.
Bea Wain was the mother of one of my wife’s and my dearest friends, Wayne Baruch and his wife Shelley. Bea is an American musical cultural icon, and she died earlier this week at age 100.
One reviewer described her this way:
“Bea is considered by many to be one of the best female vocalists of her era, possessing a natural feel for swing-music rhythms not often found among white singers of the day. She excelled in pitch and subtle utilization of dynamics. She also communicated a feminine sensuality and sang with conviction in an unforced manner.”
Bea’s obituary in the Washington Post had a few inaccuracies, so Wayne, her son, edited it, as follows:
“Bea Wain, who started singing on the radio at age six, became a hit-making pop vocalist in the late 1930s, and performed into her ninth decade as one of the last surviving singers from the big-band era, died August 19 in Beverly Hills, CA.
Completely self-taught, Wain had an expressive but understated swing style that propelled her career. She performed in nightclubs and on radio programs before her breakthrough in 1937 [at the age of 20] when arranger Larry Clinton selected her as the thrush for a band he was starting. Clinton’s orchestra never achieved the enduring recognition of groups led by Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, or Benny Goodman. But with superb arrangements, a tightknit group of players, and Wain out front, the ensemble had a solid commercial run with jukebox favorites such as “Deep Purple” and “Heart and Soul.” The band made its biggest impression adapting classical compositions into popular swing numbers featuring Wain’s interpretations, notably “My Reverie” from the Claude Debussy piano piece “Rêverie,” and “Martha,” from the Friedrich von Flotow opera of the same name.
In a 2007 radio interview, Wain said the Debussy estate in France initially balked when Clinton put words to the composer’s melody and no amount of money could change its mind. The band recorded the number anyway and shipped a copy to the estate. A message came back, “If this girl sings it, okay.”
Wain’s negligible pay of $30 per recording session began to grate on her. At the peak of her fame, she left Clinton and became a headliner on the college and theatre circuit. She also appeared regularly on the popular radio program “Your Hit Parade” where she became a friend of another guest, Frank Sinatra. Wain’s many and varied recordings from that period include the romantic “You Go To My Head,” the flirty “Kiss the Boys Goodbye,” the bawdy Andy Razaf/Eubie Blake number “My Man is a Handy Man,” and touching ballads “God Bless the Child,” and “My Sister And I,” a heartbreaker about war refugee children. She was also the first to record the classic “Over The Rainbow,”  but MGM prohibited its release until “The Wizard of Oz” came out.
In 1939, a Billboard Magazine poll named her the year’s most popular female band vocalist. She ranked alongside the country’s most popular singers, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Mildred Bailey, and Helen Forrest. She was in demand as a singer on radio shows hosted by Kate Smith, Fred Waring, and Kay Thompson.
Along with her husband of 53 years, radio announcer and commentator André Baruch, she co-hosted a series called Mr. and Mrs. Music on New York radio station WMCA in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They were the first husband and wife dee-jay team on the air. The show eventually migrated to ABC and NBC radio networks and included live musical performances by Wain. Later, they anchored a radio talk show in Palm Beach, FL, before settling in Beverly Hills, CA.”
Because Wayne was one of the producers of the Three Tenors concerts at Dodger Stadium and many other concerts and telecasts featuring opera luminaries Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, Wayne invited his mother to attend a master class with Pavarotti in Los Angeles. Afterward she found herself alone with the maestro.
“My son told him I was a wonderful singer,” Bea told Christopher Popa, a Chicago music librarian who runs the website bigbandlibrary.com . “So he said, ‘Oh, I’d love to hear you.’ I said, ‘Well, as a matter of fact, I recorded one of the songs that you sing, that was ‘Martha’ … I said I did a swing version of it. And he said, ‘Show me, show me.’
“And I started to sing it. And he joined in — it was adorable — and he pretended he was a trombone player, and I’d sing la-la-la-la” to his trombone sounds. “And we had a lovely time.”
Bea never stopped singing. I remember recently Wayne telling me that someone met his mother at her assisted living home and told her that he heard that that she was once a singer. Indignant, she retorted “I AM a singer!”
Indeed she was.
Listen to her beautiful voice in these You Tube recordings. You can see her sing “Heart and Soul” which she made popular in the United States.
Google “Bea Wain” and you can listen to your singing on YouTube.
Nico (Nick) Linesch, son of Debra and Steve Linesch, brother of Julia, and life-partner of Gene, was only 31-years old when he died suddenly in an accident last week.
In my nearly forty years serving as a congregational rabbi, few deaths have shaken me and my community as this one has.
I’ve known Nico since he was very small. He was the friend to many people of all ages, including my son, and he and his family are as beloved and admired as anyone in our community.
We rabbis face special challenges in helping people who suffer the enormity of the loss of a young person. This is why I am writing this blog – to offer some thoughts about how best to do this even if we feel completely inadequate for the task.
As I prepared to lead Nick’s memorial service, I struggled to choose the right prayers and poetry, the right words and music sufficient to comfort the nearly 600 broken-hearted young and old who convened at our synagogue to mourn Nico’s death.
Every rabbi I know faces this terrible challenge. We begin by recognizing and accepting our inadequacy to do what the moment requires and that we will likely fail because there is no comfort in a time such as this. Yet, we hope that something we say will enter the hearts of the bereft and provide a measure of comfort.
I began Nico’s memorial service by reciting from the prophet Jeremiah (48:17):
“Bemoan him, all you round about him
And all you that know his name;
Say: ‘How is the strong staff broken,
The beautiful rod!”
I suggested that what we do now as we confront the world without Nick (I knew him always as Nick – he took the name Nico in recent years but he was accepting of whatever we wished to call him) is our greatest challenge. Thankfully, there is a font of wisdom in Jewish tradition from which we may draw and take sustenance. In addition to the careful selection of Biblical text, I offered this poem by Mary Oliver:
“…when death comes
Like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
…I look upon time as no more than an idea,
And I consider eternity as another possibility,
And I think of each life as a flower, as common
As a field daisy, and as singular,
And each name a comfortable music in the mouth
Tending as all music does, towards silence,
And each body a lion of courage, and something
Precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonderIf I have made of my life something particular,
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
(From New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press)
We sang Leonard Cohen’s Halleluja after Kaddish not only because Cohen was Nico’s poet and songwriter and this song was his most favorite song, but because the family wanted the mourners to leave the memorial service with the feeling of uplift as a tribute to Nico who lived his life so positively, productively, joyfully, and lovingly (he worked for the County of Los Angeles in the transportation department as a civil engineer with special concern for the environment. The photo of Nick was taken this past summer at about 9600 feet in the Sierras, one of his favorite places on earth).
Nico’s family asked me as well to read this poem by Laura Gilpin called “Life After Death.” We read this at Nico’s bar mitzvah eighteen years ago:
“These things I know:
How the living go on living
And how the dead go on living with them
So that in a forest
Even a dead tree casts a shadow
And the leaves fall one by one
And the branches break in the wind
And the bark peels off slowly
And the trunk cracks
And the rain seeps in through the cracks
And the trunk falls to the ground
And the moss covers it
And in the spring the rabbits find it
And build their nest
Inside the dead tree
So that nothing is wasted in nature
Or in love.”
Nick will live on in the hearts of everyone who loved him and who he loved.
Zichrono livracha – May his memory inspire blessing.
Rabbi Richard (Dick) Hirsch turned 90 this past year. One would think that at that age Dick’s physical strength, sharp mind, and passion would be diminished.
Though he has his share of aches and pains, there is nothing diminished about Rabbi Dick Hirsch. He remains after more than half a century of activism the vital Zionist and social justice giant of the American and Israeli Reform movements.
Dick is the founding Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) in Washington, D.C. He is responsible for moving the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) offices from the United States to Jerusalem, raising the money and overseeing the construction of the WUPJ Center and Beit Shmuel that house the central offices of the Israeli Reform movement on King David Street only steps from the King David Hotel. And he is a founder of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the pre-eminent social justice advocacy organization in the State of Israel.
Dick argued before the leaders of American Reform Judaism in the late 1960s and early 1970s that for the Reform movement to earn its rightful place in Jewish history we would have to build an institutional and broadly-based presence in the State of Israel. This would include building synagogue centers all over the state, progressive Jewish schools, a rabbinic and cantorial seminary for Israeli-born leaders, kibbutzim, a youth movement, and a social justice movement that helps to grow and transform not only Israeli society but the character of world Jewry.
Fifty years ago Dick told the Board of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) that for Jews “Jerusalem is Broadway and the United States is off-Broadway.” He also said to them soon after the ’67 war, that “Without Zionism, there is no Judaism!” The reaction of the then American Reform leadership was strong and negative. But, Dick carried on, at times by himself, and succeeded in igniting and inspiring others to join him in transforming progressive Judaism in the State of Israel.
Dick didn’t just talk the talk. In 1972, he and his wife Bella picked up their four children and moved to Israel. I met him for the first time the following year when I was a first-year rabbinic student at HUC in Jerusalem.
Dick is a consummate storyteller, teacher, and Zionist leader. Jews and non-Jews alike are usually riveted when he speaks. Thankfully, earlier this month in a talk he delivered in Florida entitled “My Life and My Beliefs,” Dick was recorded. Now we can watch and listen on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6AsMvUBV-E
Jewish leaders like Rabbi Dick Hirsch come around very infrequently. Many have admired him and called him their friend including Dr. Martin Luther King, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Natan Sharansky.
I urge you to take the hour and watch.
For those who know me, I hope you will sense why Dick has had such a strong impact on me personally.
The acorn does not fall far from the tree. Dick’s son, Rabbi Ammi Hirsch, the Senior Rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on West 68th Street in Manhattan, is among my dearest friends. Ammi and I met when he served as the Executive Director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) in the 1990s. It was Ammi and then his father who drew me to the heart of Reform Zionism, and for that, I am forever in their debt.