Balak and Balaam in India

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, has new meaning for me since our recent trip to India. We visited two synagogues in Kochi (Cochin) that are not currently active and two in Mumbai (Bombay) that still are, and these visits were deeply moving. But it was a museum visit in Kochi that made me see this week’s parshah in a different way.

We followed a guide through the Hill Palace, the royal seat of the kings of Kochi for centuries. The Palace crowns a hill with a long wide terraced flight of steps through exquisite gardens. The museum within has scores of valuable artifacts, but my attention was arrested in a semi-darkened room by what turned out to be a six century old Torah scroll.

The parchment too was darkened, and there were only four columns visible, the remainder rolled into a pair of carved hemicylinders typical of the way Torahs are kept in Sephardi synagogues. I began studying the text as best I could—I would miss a lot of the scribe’s work in the best conditions—and read some of it aloud, trying to identify the portion.

A museum guard behind me said something to our guide in Malayalam, the language of Kerala state, and the guide said the guard wanted to know if the text was oriented properly—if it read from right to left, if it might be upside down. I reassured the guard, and meanwhile I saw the names Balaam and Balak in the text.

But what jumped out at me was, Ma tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishkenotekha Yisrael, words I had said every day in my morning prayers in childhood and adolescence: How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwelling places O Israel! These are the words of Balaam after God opens his eyes. Ironically, Balak, the Moabite king the Torah portion is named for, has brought Balaam to curse Israel, but Balaam would not do it for Balak’s “house full of silver and gold.”

I don’t know what motivated the museum officials to keep the glass-enclosed Torah open to this portion, but I like to think that the ancient Jewish community of Kochi donated it and suggested the arrangement. It seems somehow fitting that these words would be displayed to commemorate the admiration of Kochi’s kings for the Jews who settled in his domain, and even symbolic of the larger tolerance of India for its Jews.

This tolerance, in its duration and quality, has never been matched by any other diaspora country throughout the history of the Jews. It was as if India’s kings followed Balaam, while others followed Balak. Perhaps it is also meaningful that God speaks to Balaam through the mouth of a donkey he is riding and beating, symbolic of the Hindu reverence for life. Yet, inspired by Zionism, almost all the Jews of Kochi left India for Israel after both gained their independence from Britain in the late 1940s. Most were gone by 1955.

The next day, we walked into one of the two well-kept synagogues on the other side of Kochi, in “Jew Town,” and met the now-famous caretaker Elias “Babu” Josephai, who had his bris and bar mitzvah there. We had had to follow our (very knowledgeable) Christian guide Thomas through Babu’s pet fish shop, which allows him to maintain the shul.

Babu was davening in tefilin before the Aron Kodesh, the holy ark—facing West toward Jerusalem, not East—which now contains a recently donated Torah. Beside him was a much younger man in tefilin, who offered to lend them to me after he finished. So I put them on for the first time in years (see photo), and said the Shema, the Amidah, and the Aleynu in this centuries old synagogue in India.

The young man who helped me, Ofer, turned out to be an Israeli of Yemeni descent, while his wife (far left) was the daughter of two Indian-Israelis who had made aliya from Kochi with their families when they were around ten years old. She had been back once or twice before, but this was the first time she brought her husband and children.

The girl, around twelve, wore a t-shirt saying in English, “Girls can do anything.” I read it out loud and then said to the slightly older son, “Boys can too.” The claim is as Israeli as it is American—and in future time, Indian too.

Thanks to Ofer’s thoughtfulness, I found myself saying the words, m’arba kanfot haaretz—from the four corners of the earth—and v’tekhezena eyneynu b’shuv’kha l’Tzion b’rakhamim—may our eyes behold your return to Zion in mercy—with a poignancy I could not have imagined. Here was a family formed in Israel from roots in 1500 or 2000 years of honored and honorable Indian diaspora, now reduced to a carefully kept but little-used synagogue behind a pet-fish store.

The tents of Jacob may have been admired in Kochi, but they were almost all taken down and re-erected in Zion. Even now the exodus continues. We saw the empty home of a schoolmate of one of our guides; he checked for the mezuzah, which was gone. His friend and her mother had finally moved to Israel three months ago.

 

Tamar and Judah: A #MeToo Moment?

My D’var Torah on Vayeyshev, Congregation Shearith Israel, Atlanta, November 30, 2018:

Plunked into the middle of the story of Joseph, we have one of the strangest episodes in the Jewish Bible, and one which would surely be censored in an expurgated edition. Joseph’s brothers have sold him down the river, and Jacob is in mourning because they’ve showed him Joseph’s coat soaked in a baby goat’s blood.

Suddenly we are out of the life of Joseph and in the life of his elder brother Judah—Yehuda—who ultimately would give his name to our religion and our people. Judah takes a Canaanite wife and has three sons with her.

When the first one, Er, grows up, Judah makes a shidduch for him with Tamar. But Er displeases God and dies childless, so—following Torah law—Judah calls on his second son, Onan, to do his duty and father children with Tamar.

But Onan spoils his seed on the ground, a slap in the face to his brother, father, and God, so he dies too— Continue reading

A Shoah Survivor on the Pittsburgh Synagogue Attack

With Tosia Szechter Schneider‘s gracious permission, I am posting her very moving remarks on the synagogue attack this fall in Pittsburgh:

tosia1My name is Tosia Schneider, after losing my whole family in the in the Shoah, in that whirlwind of hate, that engulfed Europe, I remember standing on the deck of  the SS Marine Flasher in 1949 ,  as  we passed the Statue of Liberty,  I thought, that this is   indeed a new world, a world without hate,  a world where anti Semitism  will never raise its ugly head again.

What naïve and wishful thinking! A world without anti-Semitism… Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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