Thursday, January 27, 2005

Korczak’s Children

I just got back from seeing the Jerusalem English-Speaking Theater’s production of “Korczak’s Children.” I’m still too affected to write about it in depth, but I do want to note that it was even more powerful on this, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Remembering the Wannsee Conference and the Liberation of Auschwitz

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This article is posted as part of the January 27, 2005 BlogBurst, coordinated by Joseph Alexander Norland of Israpundit, to commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, sixty years ago, on January 27, 1945. The complete list of participants is here.


The Holocaust, symbolized by Auschwitz, the worst of the death camps, occurred in the wake of consistent, systematic, unrelenting anti-Jewish propaganda campaigns. As a result, the elimination of the Jews from German society was accepted as axiomatic, leaving open only two questions: when and how.

As Germany expanded its domination and occupation of Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, the Low Countries, Yugoslavia, Poland, parts of the USSR, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Italy and others countries, the way was open for Hitler to realize his well-publicized plan of destroying the Jewish people.

After experimentation, the use of Zyklon B on unsuspecting victim was adopted by the Nazis as the means of choice, and Auschwitz was selected as the main factory of death (more accurately, one should refer to the “Auschwitz-Birkenau complex”). The green light for mass annihilation was given at the Wannsee Conference, January 20, 1942.

The Wannsee Conference formalized the “final solution”—the plan to transport Europe’s Jews to eastern labour and death camps. Ever efficient and bureaucratic, the Nazi kept a record of the meeting, which were discovered in 1947 in the files of the German Foreign Office. The record represents a summary made by Adolf Eichmann at the time, even though they are sometimes referred to as “minutes.”

Several of the Conference participants survived the war to be convicted at Nuremberg. One notorious participant, Adolf Eichmann, was tried and convicted in Jerusalem, and executed in 1962 in Ramle prison.

The mass gassings of Europe’s Jews took place in Auschwitz between 1942 and the end of 1944, when the Nazis retreated before the advancing Red Army. Jews were transported to Auschwitz from all over Nazi-occupied or Nazi-dominated Europe and most were slaughtered in Auschwitz upon arrival, sometimes as many as 12,000 in one day. Some victims were selected for slave labour or “medical” experimentation before they were murdered or allowed to die. All were subject to brutal treatment.

In all, between three and four million people, mostly Jews, but also Poles and Red Army POWs, were slaughtered in Auschwitz alone (though some authors put the number at 1.3 million). Other death camps were located at Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec (Belzek), Majdanek and Treblinka. Adding the toll of these and other camps, as well as the mass executions and the starvation im the Ghettos, six million Jews, men, women, the elderly and children lost their lives as a consequence of the Nazi atrocities.

Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945, sixty years ago, after most of the prisoners were forced into a Death March westwards. The Red Army found in Auschwitz about 7,600 survivors, but not all could be saved.

For a long time, the Allies were well aware of the mass murder, but deliberately refused to bomb the camp or the railways leading to it. Ironically, during the Polish uprising, the Allies had no hesitation in flying aid to Warsaw, sometimes flying right over Auschwitz.

There are troubling parallels between the systematic vilification of Jews before the Holocaust and the current vilification of the Jewish people and Israel. Suffice it to note the annual flood of anti-Israel resolutions at the UN; or the public opinion polls taken in Europe, which single out Israel as a danger to world peace; or the divestment campaigns being waged in the US against Israel; or the attempts to delegitimize Israel’s very existence. The complicity of the Allies in World War II is mirrored by the support the PLO has been receiving from Europe, China and Russia to this very day.

If remembering Auschwitz should teach us anything, it is that we must all support Israel and the Jewish people against the vilification and the complicity we are witnessing, knowing where it inevitably leads.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Where Have I Heard That Song Before?

I got quite a start in Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station earlier this week. No, they haven’t added a women’s section to their synagogue. They had “Little Drummer Boy” playing on the piped-in soundtrack, and it wasn’t just an instrumental version, either.

This may sound strange coming from a religious Jew, but I actually don’t mind Christmas carols at all. During my years here I’ve found that many religious English-speaking Israelis actually like them—and I admit that I do, too. I guess we Anglos regard them as part of our shared cultural background. And I suppose that the whole concept of Christmas music is different here in the Jewish state, where we are not bombarded by Christmas advertisements from the beginning of November, Jewish holidays are the norm and the odd Hanukkah song isn’t tacked on to the public-school Christmas concert program as a gesture to the Jewish pupils, as it was in my day.

(That thesis may be a bit difficult to defend these days, with Israeli stores and schools now adopting Christmas symbols. But I believe that is a cultural expression stemming from a desire to emulate the US and has nothing to do with religious belief.)

I wonder what the Central Bus Station’s rabbi—the same man who feels that there is no need to include a women’s section in the bus station’s synagogue—would have done if I had alerted him to the phenomenon. But I was in a hurry and didn’t have time ... and actually, I didn’t mind it all that much. For me it was rather like finding something in a place where one wouldn’t normally look for it—like seeing Christmas decorations adorning sukkot in Me’ah She’arim, or discovering that there are elm trees in Jerusalem.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Turn the Music On

Good news from my old home town (or at least region): Charlie Lang, an old friend of mine from high school, has released his first CD, “Turn the Music On.”

Charlie is one of the most gifted musicians I know and also an excellent singer-songwriter. Most important of all, he is a mensch. He has endured tremendous adversity in his life and triumphed. (Here’s a link to a book about Charlie and his experiences. It is not easy reading, but it is worthwhile.)

Back in high school, Charlie and I had one thing in common: we were both very fond of the music of Billy Joel. But while I contented myself with learning the lyrics and figuring out harmonies to them (where appropriate), Charlie learned every single song Billy Joel had released until that time and played each one—from memory—perfectly and with maturity and soul beyond his years.

In his description of his just-released CD, Charlie mentions his rendition of Billy Joel’s song “Prelude/Angry Young Man.” Even though that performance took place approximately twenty-five years ago, I remember it so well that I could even tell you where I sat, and it is the example I use when I tell my friends about the incredibly gifted musician-songwriter I knew in high school.

One image from Charlie’s performance of Billy Joel’s “Prelude/Angry Young Man” stays with me to this day. Actually it is something I couldn’t see: his wrists.

Billy Joel’s strong background in classical piano is evident in the “Prelude” segment of the song, which begins with an extremely quick and demanding staccato on middle C performed with both hands. A pianist needs incredibly supple wrists to pull it off, and Charlie did it perfectly. As he performed that difficult staccato his wrists blurred in the stage lighting to the point where they became almost completely invisible.

But Charlie’s abilities don’t stop there. He’s been writing songs since he was a kid. Recently he sent me a digital copy of the recording he made at A&R Studios in New York City, backed up by a local band, when he was about seventeen years old. The song, called “Cruisin’,” is his take on high-school life. (I hope he won’t be too embarrassed to read that this recording is one of my most cherished possessions.) And his songs have only gotten better since then.

In a delightful twist, one of the musicians who plays on Charlie’s CD is none other than Richie Cannata, who used to perform and record with Billy Joel and performs the saxophone solos on “Only the Good Die Young” and “New York State of Mind,” to name just a few.

I hope that the release of “Turn the Music On” will be a wonderful beginning and a step on the way to further success for my old friend. Congratulations, Charlie.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

When Bad Behavior is Kosher

“What you’re doing is a sin! If you read the Torah here, God will never forgive you!” The woman’s soft European accent contrasted with the stridency of her tone as she leaned closer to us and added, “When you stand before God eventually and seek forgiveness for your deeds on earth, He will not grant it. Do you understand what I am saying? He will not forgive you!”

I asked her, with a trace of humor, “Are you God, then?”

“Yes!” she shot back, carried away by her own momentum. Catching herself, she tried to amend her answer, but I turned away, not knowing whether to giggle or sigh. I had heard enough.

Jewish tradition speaks of a merciful, compassionate God Who is close to us all our lives and especially near in time of trouble. Yet as the woman in the dark snood continued her warnings of terrible divine punishment I sadly realized that she was describing God as no better than the most vindictive of human beings. And as she and the others continued to shout at us, I also reflected that people who would ordinarily never dream of indulging in bad behavior find it all too easy to do so where women—particularly women who do not stay in their place—are concerned.

My prayer group, Women of the Wall, has been holding women-only prayer services in the women’s section of the Western Wall every Rosh Hodesh—the start of the Hebrew month—since December 1988. Contrary to an oft-cited misconception, we are not members of the Reform movement. (I confess that charge has always stumped me. Why on earth would the Reform movement, which holds mixed prayer services as a matter of course, need to promote women-only ones?) Nor do we pray as a minyan (a quorum of ten men). We define ourselves as a women’s tefilla [prayer] group, of which there are dozens in Israel and throughout the world, and modify our prayer service accordingly. (A number of such groups have rabbinical support and meet in established Orthodox synagogues.) Contrary to what our opponents would like to believe, the majority of our core members are religiously observant—in fact, the group was founded in large part by an Orthodox woman from Brooklyn.

In 2004, Women of the Wall held two prayer services that included a Torah reading in the women’s section of the Western Wall. In contrast to the group’s tumultuous beginnings, these services were completely calm and peaceful. I remember how some of us wept with joy, feeling that our long journey was finally over, that after nearly fifteen years of struggle women could finally pray as a group and read the Torah freely and without disturbance at our holiest accessible site. But at the end of our service a woman—a respected teacher in her community—approached us to express her pain and sorrow over our Torah reading. I felt confused. How could a person who considered herself religious feel pain over Jewish women reading from the Torah? And what, I wondered, did this teacher feel about the pain of women who, for centuries, had been denied the opportunity to learn their own scriptures?

Yet, saddened as I was by her attitude, I had to admit that at least this woman had behaved with civility and courtesy. Many others who have disagreed with us over the years do not feel bound by manners at all, to say nothing of the very religious law and tradition they claim to champion.

In June 2004, as we arrived at the women’s section of the Western Wall to begin the morning service, a long-time opponent of our group approached us. Carrying printed sheets of text in her hand, she tried to persuade us to study the laws of minhag ma-makom [local custom] with her instead of worshipping. When we refused she tried to steal our Torah scroll, which was a gift to us from Jewish women abroad.

In December 1988, opponents of Women of the Wall physically threw the Torah scroll the women had brought with them. A member of the group who was pregnant at the time caught the scroll on her abdomen rather than allow it to be desecrated by falling. Perhaps our opponents believed that a Torah scroll in women’s possession is not truly a Torah scroll and therefore unworthy of the great respect normally accorded such a sacred object. Perhaps this opponent of ours held a similar opinion regarding the theft she was attempting to commit.

If our opponent’s respect for the Torah scroll was lacking, so was her respect for her fellow human beings. As we defended our Torah scroll, she kept shoving one of our members, who was carrying her infant son, even as the young mother begged her to stop for the baby’s sake. Our opponent, who surely regards herself as a devoutly religious woman, ignored the pleas of my colleague, who finally sent the baby away with one of her older children for his own safety.

This woman then began to incite other women present at the Wall, who bombarded us with shouts and taunts. One woman tapped her hand to her lips over and over, hooting in the same way that my classmates and I used to imitate “Indians” when we were small. At one point a red-bearded man stood on a chair in front of us—in the women’s section!—and worked himself up into an inarticulate, hysterical harangue that went on for several minutes. Meanwhile, our opponent retired to a protected spot—away from the rioters she had incited as well as any police who might arrest them—to survey her handiwork from a distance.

We realized right away that the disturbance was a calculated move on our opponent’s part or on the part of whoever had sent her. A governmental delay in carrying out a ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice had temporarily enabled our group to read from a Torah scroll legally in the women’s section of the Western Wall. The two peaceful Torah readings we subsequently held there must have worried our opponent, or those who had sent her, so much that she came all the way from the coastal city where she lives—approximately two hours from Jerusalem by car—to create a disturbance rather than allow us to hold a third one.

As we continued to pray, one of the rioting women slapped one of our members across the face. Another threw a stone. As they shouted and chanted childish slogans, at one point dragging chairs along the ground to drown out the sound of our praying (did they think they would be able to keep God from hearing us?), I couldn’t help imagining a classroom full of unruly first-graders. Apparently the women our opponent incited have no tools beyond that level to deal with ideas different from their own—and besides, the looks on their faces showed how much they were enjoying letting their hair down, so to speak.

It was probably the most fun they’d had in years.

* * * *

Some time ago a local columnist published an article about Women of the Wall, filled with the usual prejudice we’ve sadly come to expect from our opponents. In it, he referred to us as “media darlings.” I found this ironic since most of the time the Israeli media, who have no idea who we are or what we’re about, are usually anything but sympathetic. For example, some time after the disturbance our opponent incited, the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv ran an article describing her as “defender of the simple women,” implying that she had protected the innocent women worshippers at the Western Wall from a bunch of deviously clever interlopers seeking to impose their foreign ways. But the truth is that she did not defend those women at all. On the contrary: she used them. These “simple women” still hold the mistaken belief that Jewish women may not touch a Torah scroll. This highly educated woman, who knows perfectly well that this is not accurate, did not bother to disabuse them. Instead, she exploited their lack of knowledge for her own—or perhaps others’—reasons.

But what really confused me was the columnist’s description of how members of Women of the Wall supposedly stood behind the fence at the rear of the men’s section and shouted the morning prayers at the top of their lungs, with the specific intention of disturbing the men. I was there that day, and we did no such thing. Unlike our opponents, we respect all worshippers at the Western Wall, and we would never engage in such atrocious behavior. Why would the columnist write such a thing, then?

I would like to believe that he thought he was telling the truth, that perhaps he encountered a particularly ill-mannered group that day and chose to believe, based on his own prejudices and failure to check his facts, that it was Women of the Wall. Though I would rather believe that than the alternative—that he slandered us for his own purposes—I have difficulty doing so.

Here’s why. Several years ago this columnist founded a group to oppose Women of the Wall. This group sponsored a short film supposedly showing how dangerous our group is to Jewish tradition. I watched this film and was shocked at the lengths to which it went to portray us negatively. At one point it focused on a woman with an unusual hairstyle whom I have never seen with our group. The intended message was, plainly, “Look at the kind of freaks this group attracts. Do you want weirdos like this praying next to you at the Kotel?” At another point the film used misleading editing to give the impression that members of our group wear tefillin at the Western Wall. (The film’s intended audience cannot abide the idea of women wearing tefillin anywhere, and they would certainly be infuriated to see women wearing them at the Western Wall.) Yet we have never worn tefillin there as a group; when we meet at the Western Wall for prayers, those of us who have taken on the mitzvah of tefillin fulfill it elsewhere. But the film did not see fit to make this distinction. It had an agenda to promote, so the facts didn’t matter.

More recently, another opponent of our group wrote a predictably scurrilous attack on us, but from a new angle. Since high-level Jewish study is now available to women (and halakhic sources are readily available on the Internet), these days our opponents are more cautious about asserting that what we do is a violation of Jewish law. Now they say that although our actions may be technically permitted, our motives are impure. This article went even farther, asserting that our group is, knowingly or not, an arm of various movements inimical to traditional Judaism and that the sincere Jews in our group are being manipulated by sinister anti-Jewish forces.

(Well, at least the author admitted that members of Women of the Wall can be sincere Jews. That’s a first.)

As a friend of mine once observed wryly: “If you don’t have facts, there’s always innuendo.” To which I would add: If you don’t have facts, you can always make some up to suit your purpose. As far as I know, none of these columnists has ever bothered to contact a single one of us, yet they claim to have intimate knowledge of our motives. So where are they getting their information from?

* * * *

Our opponent did not come to our next prayer service. For various reasons beyond the scope of this piece, she didn’t know where or when we would be meeting. (For a time, neither did we.) Learning that a filmmaker had captured her bad behavior on camera probably put a damper on her enthusiasm as well. Shortly before our next service, she called one of our members to apologize for that behavior—and in the same phone call asked that all her appearances be edited out of the film.

During our service I rejoiced in the quiet around us, unbroken by any disturbance. Then I noticed a woman regarding us with a sour expression. She listened as one of our members gave a talk on the weekly Torah portion and then approached another member, muttering, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“You can speak here too if you have something pertinent to say,” my colleague offered. “Just bear in mind that everything this woman is saying has a basis in Jewish sources.”

“That doesn’t matter,” the woman said. “I don’t like it.”

And there it is. It doesn’t matter that Jewish law allows women to pray as a group and read from a Torah scroll. It makes no difference that the learned ones among us—and in dozens of women’s tefilla groups throughout the world—can cite chapter and verse to prove it. Some people would simply rather not be bothered with the facts. They don’t like what we’re doing; it makes them feel uncomfortable—and so they believe that this gives them the right to behave in ways that would earn them censure and perhaps even arrest under almost any other circumstances.

I don’t like it. My grandmother never felt the need to do that. (Oh, really? Did you ever ask her? I think you might be surprised.) It’s unfamiliar to me. It makes me feel uncomfortable. Therefore I may steal, shove, shout, slap, stone and slander. Love my neighbor? Judge my fellow human being favorably? Tell the truth? Pursue justice? Only when I agree with you; not otherwise.

This is the attitude of people who claim to be defending Jewish tradition.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Pet Peeve

Some taxi drivers keep the meter running even after they reach my destination. I really don’t like that, and a few days ago I spoke to the last driver who did it.

“I really don’t like it when taxi drivers let the meter keep on running even after we’ve stopped,” I said.

“Don’t be evil,” the driver answered. “You’re stingy.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m looking out for my own interests, just like you’re looking out for yours. Now please turn off the meter.”


Saturday, January 08, 2005

What My CD Baby Review Should Have Said

And here, ladies and gentlemen, is “Up Yours!” by The Taverners!

“Fantastic! Incredible! Unbelievable! ... What the [assorted noise and kazoo sounds] is it?”

Ladies and gentlemen, “Up Yours!” by The Taverners is a CD that will get you dancing and keep you smiling from the happiest moments to the toughest times. You can hear how much fun the musicians had recording it, and now you can have fun listening! It’s pure joy in a jewel case ...

And you can quote me.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

A Cautious Sigh of Relief

I spoke to Mom today, and she told me that Dad is getting better and will be coming home from the hospital within the next few days.

Thanks again for your prayers and support.

I suppose I could have written a great “This is an olah’s worst nightmare” post (olah=immigrant to Israel), but I just didn’t have the head for it. I still don’t. Right now I’m just breathing a cautious sigh of relief.

My dad’s going to be OK. Right now, that’s all I need to know.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Her Admirer’s Voice

Steve of Blog d’Elisson sent me this wonderful picture of his cat Hakuna listening to clips from my CD, “Day of Rest.”

Hakuna of Blog d’Elisson listens to clips from Day of Rest
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Is this cat gorgeous or what? Steve knows I’m crazy about her—and Matata, too.

And isn’t technology something? Looks like we’re both each other’s fans—a real mutual admiration society from half a world away.

Thank you, Steve! I hope I’ll get to sing to Hakuna and Matata in person one day, and skritch them too.

UPDATE: Here are some more pictures of the lovely ladies.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Please Daven

My mother left a message on my voice-mail a little while ago telling me that she’s taken my father to the emergency room. He had a cold that suddenly got much worse. Actually, both of my parents caught the same bug, but my mother seems to have shaken hers, thank God.

My father’s Hebrew name is Rafael ben Amalia. Please daven for him.

Thanks. May we hear only good news.

UPDATE: Nearly twenty-four hours later: Thanks for your support and prayers. I just spoke to my mom, who said that things look good and it looks like Dad’s going to be fine. Even so, please keep Dad on your davening lists, at least until he gets home from the hospital ... and thanks again, so much.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Catblogging: The Authoritative Meow

Aside from a month I spent catsitting more than a decade ago, I have never lived with a cat. But I’m very fond of them, and as the cat-owners among my friends wryly observe, perhaps the very reason I like cats so much is that I’ve hardly lived with any.

Most cats I’ve met figure out pretty quickly that I’m an excellent source of skritches. What I don’t get, though, is how cats who have never seen me before figure this out before I’ve even managed to see them.

Many Jerusalem streets have stone walls of varying heights from which cats can observe the environment undisturbed. So it sometimes happens that I’m walking down a street, minding my own business (usually obsessively, as I do a lot of thinking and planning as I walk), when I suddenly hear a commanding, authoritative meow from the wall beside me that I can only translate as “Come here and pay attention to me this instant!”

My response is invariably, “I hear and obey,” delivered with the meekness appropriate to a human addressing a cat, followed by the obligatory skritching.

Interestingly, the two cats who did this the most dramatically were, respectively, a Siamese and a Burmese (or Himalayan). I guess cats with points know how to take what they want.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Error in Translation

The Vatican did not slam Israel after all. It slammed Sri Lanka for refusing Israeli aid, and the controversy was caused by a Catholic World News mistranslation of an article in L’Osservatore Romano. Here is the corrected article.

(Personal bit here: I translate news for a living. When I found out that the whole uproar was caused by a mistranslation, I couldn’t help thinking: There but for the grace of God ...)

Meryl has more, ending with this wise observation:

In any case, I see that the false news story is spreading far beyond the original CWN site. I’m doing my part to correct the error and stop people from falsely blaming the Vatican for slamming Israel. Relations between Israel and Rome have been shaky enough over the years. We don’t need to make them worse.

Here’s to better understanding (and translations, including mine) in 2005.