A Passover Meditation from a Shoah Survivor

I was very moved by the following brief speech my friend Tosia Szechter Schneider made at the “Unity Seder” at Atlanta’s leading reform Temple last month. It is really a poem as much as a speech, a poem about hope and memory. It is stunning to remember as we celebrate this feast of liberation, that there are people among us who in their own lifetime have actually gone from being slaves to being free. For more about Tosia, her life, and her remarkable memoir, see this foreword to her book, Someone Must Survive to Tell the World, available here.

Seder: From Tyranny to Freedom  

Invited remarks delivered by Tosia Szechter Schneider at the “Seder of Unity” at The Temple, Atlanta 3/13/2018

Tosia SchneiderIn the days of old, a pillar of smoke led the way for Moses and the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery.

In our time, there were only the smokestacks of Auschwitz.

Unlike our ancestors, who fled their slavery with gold and silver, survivors were stripped of all their possesions, what was left were memories and scars, deep scars that never heal.

Jews lived in Poland for a thousand years.

The 16th century was The Golden Age of Polish Jewry. Poland was then refered to as:“Paradisus Judeorum,” a Jewish paradise. That paradise turned into a raging inferno in our time.

I grew up in a little town in eastern Poland, Horodenka .

30% of the population was Jewish, we lived and worked with our Polish and Ukrainian neighbors most of the time, in peace. Yes, we experienced discrimination and some violence as well.

In 1939 war broke out, and Poland was divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Some of our people were exiled to Siberia; little did we know, that exile to that frozen wasteland of Siberia was much preferable to what awaited us all.

In June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Germans occupied our town and the reign of terror began.

We all know about Auschwitz and Treblinka. Hundreds and thousands of our people were killed in mass shootings, as Father Patrick Desbois describes in his book Holocaust by Bullets.

My family was driven from one ghetto to another, starvation and disease took its toll. Eventually, I found myself in the forced labor camp of Lisowce. We were liberated by the Russian Army in 1944.

When the war ended, 90% of European Jews were no more. European Jewish culture lay in ruins, great institutions of learning, scholars, writers, and artists were lost.

I am the only survivor of 14 members of my immediate family

Yes. There were those who endangered their lives to save Jews, to them we are forever grateful. We honor them at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in israel.

We must be frank as well, about collaboration of some of the local population with the Nazis. No Polish laws, recently passed, can erase history.

It was a long and difficult road to learn to live a normal life again.

When i saw the Statue of Liberty, as I stood at the rail of the S.S. Marine Flasher, in 1949. My hopes was raised for a life of freedom, a life without fear.

For that I am most grateful. We raised a family, in our new country. We have three sons and five grandchildren.

As we celebrate Passover, our celebration is double, the delivery of our ancestors from slavery and thanksgiving for our survival and freedom. 

 

The Life of Isaac

Another D’var Torah I delivered Friday evening at Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta. It touches on the Torah portions Vayera, Chayei Sarah, and Toledot.

To understand Isaac, we have to go back to the beginning, when his mother Sarah laughed at the idea that she could have him—before her pregnancy. She’s too old. She thinks it’s funny. God says, Why did you laugh? I can do it. She lies to God: I didn’t laugh. God says, No; you did laugh.

Then after his birth and bris, she says, “God brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Kol hasomeya yitzchak li. So that’s his name: Yitzchak. You could say that he was conceived in a kind of doubt of God’s power, followed by a silly lie to God. But he was born in joy. How happy she must have been, after a lifetime of wanting to be a mother. How glad to have been proven wrong. How much she must have loved him.

So he grew up with a name that meant something between a joke and a joy.

Fast forward to the Akedah. Dad says, Let’s go up the mountain and make a sacrifice. Isaac says, Okay, where’s the sheep? Dad says, God will provide. Okay, now he’s tying me up. Now he’s holding a knife over me. I think I’m supposed to just lie here quietly.

Isaac lives. But some rabbis think Abraham failed that test. He should at least have challenged God as he did with Sodom and Gomorah. God never speaks directly to Abraham again. Sarah never speaks to him again. So now Isaac grows up with a name that means laughter and the trauma of almost being killed by his father, for God’s sake.

He grows up to be the kind of man who walks out in the field to meditate in the evening. One night, in the sunset, he sees his bride coming toward him on a camel. She alights, and Eliezer explains who she is. We are told: And Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah—who has recently died. Vayikach et Rivka vat’hi lo l’isha. And he took Rebecca for a wife. Vayeh’eh’havehah. And he loved her. And Isaac found comfort after his mother. Acharei imo. We already know that Isaac’s story is one of the great loves between mother and child. Now it’s also one of the great romantic love stories. Vayeh’eh’havehah. Acharei imo.

There are other reasons to understand it as a love story. Of the patriarchs, only Isaac has just one wife. Only Isaac does not struggle with God. Isaac makes peace, not war. Unlike his father and his son, his name never changes. And Isaac stays home.

He and Rebecca do go as far as the land of the Philistines, but God—speaking to him directly—tells him not to go to Egypt. Still, he imitates his father in another way. He lies to the king of the Philistines and says that Rebecca is his sister.

The parallels between this lie and the one his father told about his mother in the same place are stunning. Sarah and Rebecca are so beautiful that their husbands fear they will be killed for them. But the resolution of the lie is significantly different.

One day the king of the Philistines is looking out the window. What does he see? V’hiney Yitzchak m’tzachek et Rivka ishto. And behold, Isaac was playing with his wife. Yitzchak m’tzachek. Some translations say “sporting with,” or “fondling.” Either way the king knows immediately, as we all do in such a case, that this is not the love between brother and sister.

You could also say, “Isaac laughed” with her. It’s the same word as his name. Yitzchak m’tzachek. The love between them is a mirror of his name. It is the essence of Isaac.

Now we fast-forward again to the end of his life. He is old and blind in more ways than one. He is about to make the worst mistake of his life. And Rebecca, the love of his life, knows it. Jacob, the son she loves the way Sarah loved Isaac, must be the one to get the blessing, not Esau. And so there is another lie, the biggest one of all. Rebecca’s love for Jacob triumphs even over her love for Isaac.

Or does it? We could say instead that she lies to Isaac because she loves him, and because at this point in his life her judgment is better than his. She saves him from himself. Isaac accepts this in the end because he has no choice, just as he had no choice when his father bound him on the mountain. But it is also perhaps because he knows she loves him.

Isaac is a lover, not a fighter. He is faithful, not lustful or ambitious. He chooses a good wife who comforts him after his mother’s death, and who in the end in a way becomes his mother. He is in his second childhood. She makes the judgment he is too old and blind to make.

Isaac, of all the patriarchs, is my hero, and I think he is a hero for our time. Terrible things happen to him, but he survives and transcends them. Wonderful things happen to him too, and God speaks to him and blesses him the same way God blessed his father. He has a great life and leaves a great legacy.

See also my previous post on the matter of Isaac, Esau, the birthright, and the blessing, complete with more authoritative (rabbinical) opinions than mine.

Toldot

A d’var Torah I delivered last year at Congregation Shearith Israel, Atlanta, on the Friday evening of the Sabbath when the portion known as Toldot is read:

Toldot, it seems, is a hard word to translate. Sometimes it’s given as “generations,” but that’s not right; sometimes as “story,” but those who know say it’s more than that. Toldot Yitzkhak means something like “the accomplishments of Isaac.” It’s his resumé. It’s what you need to know about him. But is it really about Isaac?

As I hope you know I am no expert on the Torah, but fortunately I did not have to do this on my own. Rabbi Bernard Berzon, the beloved spiritual leader of my childhood, left a book of sermons, and the one on Toldot has this message: Choose the right grandfather. Each of us has two. Of the twins, Esau chose Bethuel, an ordinary man at best; but Jacob chose Avraham.

I like to think I have chosen the right rabbis. Rabbi [Mel] Sirner suggested that I talk about Rebecca, which was fine with me. She is everywhere in Toldot—from the time she feels the twins contending in her womb—sh’nay goyim—two nations—to the time when she overturns the prescribed succession in the lineage, and to top it off tells Isaac that Jacob must marry one of her own relatives.

Arnold Goodman was my rabbi for many years, and in one of four sermons of his on Toldot that I’ve read, he distinguished between “Isaac love” and “Rebecca love.” We read that “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” V’Rivka ohevet et Ya’akov. Isaac loved Esau in return for something. Rebecca just loved Jacob, period. Rabbi Goodman also quoted the poet Goethe: What you have inherited from your ancestors, take hold of it in order to make it your own.

Today I had lunch with Rabbi [Emanuel] Feldman the elder, for four decades the leader of Congregation Beth Jacob, and of course I asked him about Toldot. He agreed with a very secular critic, Harold Bloom, that here as in many places throughout the Tanakh, the pivotal character is a woman. Rebecca makes the choice that determines the future.

I pressed him on the trickery—some might say treachery—which Rebecca perpetrates on the dying Isaac, carried out almost too well by Jacob. I also pressed him on the anguish felt by Esau, and shared by his father, when they realize what has been done to them.

He pointed out that earlier, when Esau trades his birthright for pottage, he barely misses a beat. “He ate, he drank, he got up, he went away.” Vay’khol, vayeysht, vayakam, vayeylakh. That’s it. In this way, the Torah says, he belittled his birthright. By the way, there are proverbs in both Yiddish and Ladino that make reference to Esau in making fun of a stupid businessman.

Rabbi Feldman also said something we all intuit: Isaac is the most passive of all the patriarchs. After the akeda, when he is almost sacrificed, he seems to belong to another world. But Rebecca understands this world and all its flaws. She knows she is breaking the rules. But she knows too that it is Jacob who has chosen Avraham as his grandfather, and that he is the one who will carry the legacy forward into the future.

We hear that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. I think men are from Mars and women are from Earth. On the one hand, Isaac has his head in the clouds, but on the other hand he cares too much about the taste of hunted meat. Rebecca, meanwhile, has her eye and her mind on the heritage of the past and on all the generations to come.

Purim, America, and the Jews

            “The posts went forth in haste by the king’s commandment, and the decree was given out in Shushan the castle; and the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Shushan was perplexed.”

JewishsurveyPromo_639x300On the eve of Purim I always think about this passage in the Book of Esther—”the Megillah”—which will be chanted aloud tonight in synagogues circling the planet. Haman’s name —he was the Hitler of ancient Persia—will provoke a deafening stamping of feet and crackling of groggers, little noisemakers that children twirl with a big ratchety sound, or shaking of boxes of macaroni and cheese destined for charity. Since the silence is rarely restored promptly, the last phrase may be drowned out: “But the city of Shushan was perplexed.” It’s interesting.

 
Haman decides to murder all the Jews, the decree goes out, the messengers do their duty, but the capital city of the empire is perplexed. I can only think this means that the people more or less said, “Huh? Kill the Jews? Why?” That Jews were well enough woven into the fabric of Persian life so that despite their customs, which had to seem strange to their neighbors, people viewed them with respect, or at least with a big dose of “live and let live.”

Quite different from the reactions of Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and others to Hitler’s decrees, as I was reminded last Saturday when my Holocaust (Shoah) survivor friends were musing on that disturbing history. Not so many of those peoples were perplexed. They just said, Sure, let’s kill the Jews. Shushan’s response was, perhaps, reflective of something like the broad acceptance Jews enjoy today in the United States.

A new Pew study of Jews here and in Israel updates the famous one in 2013 (see below), which showed a decline in American Jewish identity, especially in the young. This one shows a slight increase in religiousness. But when comparing us to Israeli Jews, Pew found stark contrasts. We are more liberal, better educated, much less religious, and by various measures much less Jewish than our Israeli brethren—with whom we disagree on many things. They are much more divided among themselves, and of course they are surrounded by hostility and chaos, while we are safely dispersed among peaceful and often admiring American neighbors.

Few modern Persians—today’s Iranians—would be perplexed at the notion of slaughtering Jews, but Americans would be astonished to the point of staunchly defending us. When Joe Lieberman ran for Vice President in 2000, he wore his Jewishness, even his Orthodoxy, on his sleeve. It never became an issue in the campaign, except that religious Christians admired his commitment.

Sixteen years later, a surprisingly successful candidate for President, Bernie Sanders, is much more quietly Jewish—some might say, hardly at all. But no one who matters is accusing him of hiding something, and his Jewishness appears not to matter to other Americans. Asked about it in one debate, he pointed to the Shoah survivors he had known as a child, and explained how that terrible knowledge inspired him to seek social justice. And not just for Jews.

Some of us worry when Shoah remembrance is so central to Jewish identity that it is the first or only thing mentioned, but Jewish commitment to social justice long predates that catastrophe. Among Jews in the U.S., South Africa, and much of the diaspora it has been very important and very non-parochial.

Not so in Israel. Pew found that for more than half of Jewish Americans, social justice is an important part of what it means to be Jewish; only a quarter of Jewish Israelis said the same. And we are far more likely than they are to have non-Jewish friends. Those facts go a long way to explaining why we Jewish Americans are in a Golden Age, greater than any in the past. We are lucky.

And so when President Obama’s new Supreme Court nominee took the podium in the Rose Garden, he emphasized his Jewish origins and identity, despite being named Merrick Garland. His lifelong devotion to justice was not just for Jews. Which is why nobody was perplexed by his nomination. And if he doesn’t reach the Supreme Court, it won’t be because he is Jewish, despite the fact that he would be the fourth out of nine who is.

The Pew Report on Jewish Americans

Red Chart from Free photos ID-100114992

I ‘ve finally been able to read the Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” from cover, as they say, to cover.

First, Jews should be grateful to Pew for shouldering a responsibility abdicated by our own leaders, who decided in 2010 not to conduct the National Jewish Population Survey that had been conducted in 2000 and 1990. There appears to have been a desire not to hear bad news, which earlier surveys had delivered. I call this the Ostrich Syndrome. So, thank you, Pew Charitable Trusts.

What did they find? Continue reading

Israeli Spring 3

DSC_0705 Taj small fileIn a hotel near the Taj Mahal, I thought back on my week in Israel leading into a month in India. The Taj, a marble poem to lost love, was built by the Muslim king Shah Jihan, the “Emperor of the World.” His wife died after nineteen pregnancies during her fourteenth birth and this, perhaps the finest building ever built, became her resting place.

But the Emperor of the World was cast down by one of his sons, who had killed three others, leaving himself the sole heir. Battles had raged among these brothers, just as they had among the sons of King David. Continue reading

Israeli Spring 2

I’m in bed in the early morning in Delhi, with gathering traffic sounds outside and a brace of pigeons fluttering at the white building and grand leafy tree across the way, seen through palm leaves on the porch.

Kineret (Sea of Galilee)

I did get to spend Shavuot eve with my friends the physician and artist. They still seem rather English although in Israel forty years, but they have Israeli children, and grandchildren who struggle with English. They are four generations now, since Elliot’s ninetyish mom, hale, graceful and charming, was there to enliven the dinner conversation. Continue reading

Israeli Spring 1

Cactus flower VHGFrom the balcony of my “suite” in downtown Jerusalem, I see the tattered stripes of an Israeli flag seized by a strong wind, a huge McDonald’s with intact golden arches, and an almost empty street with caged-up stores in advance of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. The Jerusalem Post showed a man in a black kippa—meaning religious but not too—harvesting sheaves in a gold field of wheat. He’ll make matzoh when the time comes. That the flag fragment is allowed to stay where it is may reflect the current level of nationalism here. Continue reading

Forverts

Forverts front pageBack in October, not long after I’d begun subscribing to the great old Yiddish-language newspaper, Forverts—no, this is not the English-language newspaper Forward, which I like to read and occasionally even write for—there was a photo above the fold on the front page that stunned and stayed with me.

The photo shows a pretty middle-aged woman reading from a Torah scroll,   Continue reading