Hold It All

Category: Jewish Tradition

Ahavat Israel: Wiesel’s Hasids, Dreamers, and Sages

Elie Wiesel, Sages & Dreamers: Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Portraits and Legends
Summit Books, 1991

This work concludes Wiesel’s collections of portraits and legends of the figures from the Judaic tradition who have helped him reckon with his history:  both the delights of the past now recovered, his own hermeneutics of retrieval, and the traumas of the past, which inform his own hermeneutics of suspicion.  Wiesel holds these two hermeneutics in tension, that of trust (tinged with nostalgia) and suspicion (if not toward the tradition, then toward God, but from within faith, not outside faith; criticism of God on behalf of man).  This collection thus follows Souls on Fire, Four Hasidic Masters, Messengers of God, Somewhere a Master, and Five Biblical portraits.  What’s new in this assemblage is the inclusion of Talmudic sages, surely a product of Wiesel’s own studies with Saul Lieberman. The biblical personages treated include Noah, Jephthah and his daughter, Ruth, Solomon, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Esther.   The Talmudic sages include The Houses of Shammai and Hillel, Hanina Ben Dossa, Eleazar ben Azaryah, Ishmael, Akiba, Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma, Elisha Ben Abouya, Hananiah Ben Teradyon, Meir and Brurya, Shimon Bar Yohai and his son, Zeira, and Rav & Shmuel.  The Hasidic Masters  he explores are the Shpoler Zeide, Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt, Avraham the Angel, Kotzk and Izbitze, and the Ostrowtzer Rabbi.

Three keys to remember from this text.  First,  the adhering — despite the Holocaust — to the tradition, as the tradition helps to shed light on contemporary experiences. Next, Wiesel’s various trumps:  yes, criticize God and tradition– but from within;  yes, offer solidarity to others  — but only as a Jew;  if it’s a matter of choosing God or His suffering people, always choose the suffering people. Third, Wiesel’s own deviation from Orthodoxy — how, I suspect under the influence of Hitler and anti-Semites everywhere, he doesn’t privilege Judaism per se, but rather an all-inclusive Jewishness. 

Five Passages…

“From the wandering Maggidim of my childhood, I learned how to read and interpret a biblical text.  Spellbound, I would listen as they juggled parables and quotations, verses and explanations, trying to extract a hidden meaning, a moral precept:  a lesson.  Then, after the war, in Paris, my strange teacher and master, Harav Shushani, guided me along the same path.”  Read the rest of this entry »

The Imperative To Remember

 

Anyone who does not actively, constantly engage in remembering and in making others remember is an accomplice of the enemy. Conversely, whoever opposes the enemy must take the side of his victims and communicate their tales, tales of solitude and despair, tales of silence and defiance.
–Elie Wiesel, Against Silence, v.2 [1977]

 

… it is still possible by patient reconstruction of the factual record to know the truth about what happened in Gaza. Out of respect for the memory of those who perished during Operation Cast Lead, this truth must be preserved and protected from its assassins.
–Norman Finkelstein, Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom [2018] Read the rest of this entry »

Women in Black by Hedy Epstein

Every second Tuesday of the month, we hold a vigil of Women in Black in University City.  Usually, these are uneventful. People may support us, some take our flyers and say thank you, others refuse to take them, cars may honk once in a while.  Not much else happens. Cars may honk once in a while.

One time, I was handing out fliers, and a man behind me started talking to me.  He asked me, “Do you know how to solve this problem?” 

I said, “Well, if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be standing here.”  

He then responded, “Well, I know the answer: Kill all those criminals, those vermin”—I realized he was Jewish and was talking about the Palestinians.  He went on and said, “Throw them all into the Mediterranean. Get rid of them all!” Then, he left. Read the rest of this entry »

Share the Wealth with Bob Suberi: A Delegation to Palestine

Growing up as a Labor Zionist in the 50’s and 60’s instilled a sense of community and pride in being a Jew. Although I grew up in a predominately white Christian suburb of Los Angeles, I spent my childhood summers at Habonim, a Labor Zionist camp where my mother worked as the camp cook and “mother.” At the tender age of 10 or 11 I was introduced to Socialism, Zionism, liberal politics and the inspiring folk songs of the labor movement and its impact on the settlement of the Jewish homeland. We sang and danced in celebration of the liberation of the Jewish people and the establishment of the State of Israel. Throughout my life I viewed Israel through this lens; a haven for a persecuted people in an otherwise vacant land. The problem, of course, is the fact that the land was not vacant. And the rationale for displacing the Palestinian occupants, a process that continues, has become more difficult to justify. 

Our delegation to Palestine was sponsored by the Center for Jewish Non-Violence, a group of Diaspora Jewish activists committed to defending the human rights of Palestinians. We call it co-resistance and we work at the direction of Palestinians along with other concerned groups within Israel. We also acknowledge the moral injury inflicted by the Israeli government upon its own citizens by their mistreatment of Palestinians. I quote Carlos Mesters, the Carmelite liberation theologian:   “If I hit you, I am dehumanizing you, but much more than that, I’m dehumanizing myself. The moment I mistreat someone I’m hurting myself more.”

Join us
Sunday 1 March
Potluck dinner begins at 6:00 p.m.
Bob begins sharing at 6:45
At the home of Bill Quick and Dianne Lee
7457 Wise Avenue
Richmond Heights, MO
63117

There is Nothing Jewish That Is Alien to Me

Gershom Scholem, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays
Schocken, 1976

Recently I’ve read works that deal with Jews and Judaism in crisis—those in the Yiddish-speaking world in the first half of the twentieth century. Scholem’s journey was from Germany to Palestine some time before the khurbn. I find the interview and essays in this volume thoroughly stimulating, provocative, and moving. To wit—-

What interested me then was to find a way to the Jewish primary sources. I was not content with reading about things. This has characterized my whole life.
There was not a single observant Jew in my family circle.

Judaism interested me very much, but not the practice of observances.

After four or five years of intensive study I found that it was possible to master Hebrew.

As you know, it isn’t popular to say that Zionism has fascists, too. But I think it does, even in Israel.

A direct nondialectical return to traditional Judaism, is impossible, historically speaking, and even I myself have not accomplished it.

It is noteworthy that the only great Hebrew writer with whom Agnon felt perfectly at ease was the poet Haim Nahman Bialik, who in this respect had the same inclination for creative anthologizing. Read the rest of this entry »

“What Will Become of Yiddish?”

Chava Rosenfarb, Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays Edited by Goldie Morgentaler McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019 Scholar and professor Morgentaler has gathered an impressive collection of writings by her mother, Chava Rosenfarb. A survivor of the the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz death camp, Rosenfarb eventually moved to Canada and spent her adult life practicing remembrance through her novels, stories, and poems. In these personal and literary essays as well as travel writings, Rosenfarb gives us a glimpse of the vicissitudes of the Yiddish world from her youth to the end of her life. Included in this volume are reflections on Sholem Asch, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Paul Celan, as well as explorations of feminism and translation. In what follows, I share passages which reveals this writer’s insight, commitment, and passion, which may lead us to deeper understanding of some of our own contemporary crises.

__________________

[When asked what message she has as a result of her experiences in Poland] The only answer I am capable of giving is to echo the passage in the Passover haggadah, which says that, in every generation, each individual must regard him or herself as having personally come out of Egypt. I would say that, in every generation, each individual must regard him or herself as having personally survived the Holocaust, and each person should transmit this awareness to the sons and daughters of the next generation. 24

The Nazis had not succeeded in wiping out the Jewish people, but the passing of time had made it ever more obvious that they may very well have succeeded in eradicating the Yiddish language and the culture that it nourished. After all, the majority of Jews who perished in the Holocaust had been Yiddish speakers. That generation could not pass on its language to its offspring—and without transmission from parent to child, a language is doomed. 186

[The Yiddish writer] creates in a vacuum, almost without a readership, out of fidelity to a vanished language, as if to prove that Nazism did not succeed in extinguishing that language’s last breath, that it is still alive. Creativity is a life-affirming activity. Lack of response to creativity and being condemned to write for the desk drawer is a stifling, destructive experience. Sandwiched between these two misfortunes struggles the spirit of the contemporary Yiddish writer. 190

I bore witness in the belief that there is no future for mankind if it refuses to face itself in the mirror of the Holocaust, disturbing and horrifying though that mirror may be….if we forget the Holocaust, we deprive ourselves of the knowledge of the human soul, with its hidden resources of love and care, of dignity and courage, for these were in fact the qualities that the humiliated, spat upon, doomed Jews displayed every day of the tortured lives they led between the barbed-wire fences of the ghetto. 21

But I have an account to settle with Germany and with the Germans of my generation. I do not know when my account will be settled. It is my personal account, and not one I propose that anyone else should keep, not even my children. 123 Read the rest of this entry »

The Chasm between Them and Us

Kadya Molodovsky, A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivke Zilberg’s Journal
Translated by Anita Norich

The accomplished Yiddish writer Molodovsky wrote this novel in serialized form in 1940-41, knowing obviously what was happening at the time to her friends and family in Europe. But it was impossible for her to imagine the eventual enactment of a “Final Solution.” We readers in 2019 know what was to happen in the years following Rivke’s arrival and year of adjustments in the U.S. This makes the author’s portrayal of American superficiality even more piercing and jarring. Yet this theme of clueless nonchalance also interrogates also our present: Besides the consistently awful headlines each day, what unimaginable catastrophe is looming around the corner?

_____________

The women talked a lot about themselves and didn’t give me the slightest opportunity to tell them how I came to be a refugee. 2

When he dances [like Benny Goodman] all I can think about is that my mother was killed by a bomb, and I don’t know what’s happening with my brothers, although I’m sure they’re not dancing now. I have no idea what’s become of my father either. I’d go to the ends of the earth to avoid Marvin’s dancing, but where can I go? 8

I thought they were getting ready for a Purim ball, but they explained that they were planning an event for war victims. I couldn’t believe how happy they were. They joked and talked and ate [cake]. No matter what’s going on, there’s always cake. If they’re having a card party—cake; a birthday—cake; collection for those suffering in the war—more cake. 12

And on top of everything else, I was upset with Red. When he came, I told him about my father’s letter. “You’re here, not there,” he answered. I could see in his face that he wasn’t the least bit concerned. Red saw that it upset me, and so he added, “What can you do?” I don’t know if Americans are heartless or they just pretend to be. I have no idea. They’re probably pretending. 50

“What are relatives nowadays. Once upon a time an aunt was an aunt, I brought everyone of my nieces and nephews to America. So now they make an appearance only if they need something.” 53

I’ve learned at least one thing in America. Whether things are good or bad, the first thing you have to do is smile. 65 Read the rest of this entry »

Oath of Disloyalty by Irwin Keller

Today I received the following in an email from Rabbi Lerner.

I am a disloyal Jew.
I am not loyal to a political party.
Nor will I be loyal to dictators and mad kings.
I am not loyal to walls or cages.
I am not loyal to taunts or tweets.
I am not loyal to hatred, to Jew-baiting, to the gloating connivings of white supremacy.

I am a disloyal Jew.
I am not loyal to any foreign power.
Nor to abuse of power at home.
I am not loyal to a legacy of conquest, erasure and exploitation.
I am not loyal to stories that tell me who I should hate.

I am a loyal Jew.
I am loyal to the inconveniences of kindness.
I am loyal to the dream of justice.
I am loyal to this suffering Earth
And to all life.
I am not loyal to any founding fathers.
But I am loyal to the children who will come
And to the quality of world we leave them.
I am not loyal to what America has become.
But I am loyal to what America could be.
I am loyal to Emma Lazarus. To huddled masses.
To freedom and welcome,
Holiness, hope and love.

Irwin Keller — teacher, writer, reb, hope-monger

Reading Roth on Writing and Reading

George Searles, editor, Conversations with Philip Roth
Literary Conversation Series
University Press of Mississippi
1992

I settled in this morning with a collection of interviews with Philip Roth, from the bright beginning of his career in  1960 t0 1991, just before he produced a steady stream of powerful books (e.g., Operation Shylock, for one), many of which I read with appreciation throughout the 90s. What follows are passages that reveal his reflections on the art of fiction and the practice of readers.

 

My work does not offer answers. I am trying to represent the experience, the confusion and toughness of certain moral problems. People always ask what’s the message. I think the worst books are the ones with messages. My fiction is about people in trouble.  2

For me, one of the strongest motives for continuing to write fiction is an increasing distrust of “positions,” my own included.  60

For everything in my fiction that connects to something I’ve known personally, there are a hundred things that have no connection, or connections of only the roughest and vaguest sort.  103

You should read my books as fiction, demanding the pleasures that fiction can yield. I have nothing to confess and no one I want to confess to. 121

My job in a work of fiction is not to offer consolation to Jewish sufferers or to mount an attack upon their persecutors or to make the Jewish case to the undecided. 129 

The difficulties  of telling a Jewish story—How should it be told? In what tone? To whom should it be told? To what end? Should it be told at all?  183 

Novels provide readers with something to read. At their best writers change the way readers read.  That seems to me the only realistic expectation. It also seems to me quite enough. Reading novels is a deep and singular pleasure, a gripping and mysterious human activity that does not require any more moral or political justification than sex.  186 Read the rest of this entry »

“Born Only Yesterday, and Already She Speaks Like a Perfect Mensch”

12.14.17

Dear Dianne,

I think this is the 4th time I’m reading Meshugah. It was originally serialized in the Yiddish Daily Forward. Because I’m reading it with you, and because Hedy is on our minds, in our hearts, I am paying more attention to the voices, the dialogue this time around. I marked the following passages, see what you think. Imagine twenty-five-year-old Hedy amidst such characters in NYC in 1949!

MA= Max Aberdam
AG = Aaron Greidinger
IS – Irka Shmelkes
M = Miriam
P = Priva

“Don’t be frightened, I haven’t come back from the Great Beyond to strangle you!” MA

“I’m alive, I’m alive.” AG
“You call this living?” MA

“My friend, I may have lost everything, but a bit of sense I still have. Though I’m in debt over my head, I owe nothing to the Almighty: as long as He keeps sending us Hitlers and Stalins, He is their God, not mine.” MA

“Where have you been all during the war?” AG
“Where have I not been? In Bialystok, in Vilna, Kovno, Shanghai, later in San Francisco. I experienced the full range of Jewish woes.” MA

“In all America you cannot get a decent cup of coffee. Hey, waiter! I ordered coffee, not dishwater!” MA

“In New York I found I was home again—they are all here, our people from Lodz and Warsaw.” MA

“I live on pills and faith—but not in God but in my own crazy luck.” MA

“Most of my clients are women, refugees from Poland who haven’t learned to count in dollars. They were driven half-mad in the ghettos and concentration camps.” MA

“The world is turning meshugah. It had to happen.” MA Read the rest of this entry »