Back 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, while an older woman looks over her shoulder. The caption says that five American women, all in their seventies, traveled to Israel to mark the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization. Each woman celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel, the Western Wall. They celebrated, that is, until some taking part were arrested. It is against the law for women to perform certain observances at the Wall, even in the women’s section. The women becoming Bat Mitzvah did this in collaboration with “Women of the Wall”—”Froyen bei der Vand” in Yiddish, “Nashot Hakotel” in Hebrew—who have been repeatedly arrested there, often for saying the Shema, Judaism’s holiest prayer, loud enough for nearby men to hear them. Other offenses that can lead or have led to arrests include wearing a talit or tefillin and carrying a Torah. The authorities policing the Kotel have wide authority to determine what is offensive to others under the law.
Anat Hoffman and two others were arrested that day, while 250 onlookers tried to celebrate the anniversary of a great organization and the chance for five women to have a Bat Mitzvah, something that in their long lives they made happen for their daughters and granddaughters but not, because of when they grew up, for themselves. Hoffman, by the way, has at times been strip-searched, dragged along a jailhouse floor, and thrown into a cell with a prostitute, all for praying.
I wonder what Grandpa would have thought. Growing up in Brooklyn, we lived with him and my grandmother until their deaths, a year apart, when I was eight and nine. They had been born in Grodno and Kovno in around 1870, and by the time I knew them had lived in America for over half a century. Our home was chosen based on easy walking distance to the Orthodox shul, and I remember watching Grandpa stand in the sunlight of the apartment’s parlor in tallis and tefillin, swaying and chanting in prayer every morning. I wanted to be like him, and eventually for years I was. Because of him I was to be in that shul for school or services every day from around age 8 to 17.
But perhaps my most vivid memory is of sitting in his lap in the big winged armchair while he taught me the alef-bes from the Forverts headlines. It was a daily then, and had since the early twentieth century brought the news to millions of Jews. It was progressive—still is—and intensely pro-Israel. As it says below the bold print of the word Forvertz in Hebrew letters,
Der “Forverts” iz far: Frayhayt far alle mentshen; Frayhayt far Yidn tzu firen a Yiddish laybn; A gezikherter Medinat-Yisroel; A frayer arbeter-bavaygung—“The Forverts is for: Freedom for all people; Freedom for Jews to live a Jewish life; A secure State of Israel; A free workers’ movement.”
My grandfather was Orthodox, but also a lifelong Democrat. Although he might initially have been disturbed by that photo of the Bat Mitzvah at the Wall, I like to think he would have come around. Frayhayt far alle mentshen does mean freedom for all people.
I struggle to read the Forverts, dictionary close at hand, but it’s a tribute to my grandparents and to a huge part of the Jewish past. I used to buy it a few times a year at a newsstand on Lexington Avenue during visits to New York, but one day it was gone; whoever had been buying it had moved or passed on. So after a year or two of procrastinating—I get way too many periodicals—I subscribed. Now I get to feel guilty about the Forverts, vying for my attention with an edition of Yediot Aharonot in “easy” Hebrew—the two languages are competing on my nightstand as they once did for the attention of the entire Jewish people. But Hebrew won, and so in my nostalgic way, not least as a tribute to Grandpa, I often pick up the Forverts.
Among other recent headlines:
Yidn Laydn Groysn Hizk fun Shturm (“Jews Suffer Great Loss from Storm”), about superstorm Sandy;
Barack Obama—Vider Dervaylt Vi Prezident (“Barack Obama—Again Elected President”);
Islamistn in Alzhir Farkhapn Tzendliker Oyslender (“Islamists in Algeria Seize Tens of Foreigners”); and
Netanyahu Bazorgt fun Nayem Rekht-Linik Firer (“Netanyahu Worried About New Right-Leaning Leader”), a reference to Naftali Bennett, who later did very well in the recent election.
By the way, every issue contains, among much cultural and political commentary, a long column called Funem Eyviker Kval—“From the Eternal Spring”—an explication of the week’s Torah portion. I wonder if Grandpa read that first.
Note: You can subscribe to the Yiddish-language weekly Forverts here: http://yiddish2.forward.com/oldarchive/rightside/subscribe.html/