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Holocaust Torah Restoration Project: Fact of the Week - 2017

Congregation Beth Israel is honored to have been entrusted with a Holocaust Torah Scroll by the Memorial Scrolls Trust in Westminster England.  The scroll itself is from the town of Prostejov in Czechoslovakia.  We have engaged Rabbi and Sofer Kevin Hale to restore the scroll and we are planning a yearlong series of activities to give this scroll a home in our community.

On May 7, 2017, we had our most recent event to celebrate our Torah: Moving Forward From Never Again. Click on the link to hear a recording of that event. See also, Jewish Questions, below.

Later in September 2017, there was a closing scribing ceremony with Rabbi Kevin Hale. Stay tuned for details and please contact me if you'd like to help with any aspect of this yearlong project.

Thank you,
Richard Remenick


April 28, 1984 dedication of the scroll

To read the dedication of this scroll, held at Beth Israel on April 28, 1984 during the Yom ha-Shoah commemoration, click here to download the PDF.

Table of Contents

  1. Bagels, Wonderful Bagels
  2. Counsel of Four Lands
  3. Now Write This Song For Yourselves
  4. How Our Holocaust Torah Scroll Came To Beth Israel
  5. Roman Vishniac - photographer of shtetl life in Eastern Europe
  6. Klezmer Music
  7. Food and the Divine Presence
  8. Sabbatean Heresy
  9. Dealing Shrewdly
  10. Not A Miracle
  11. Sabbateanism and Women
  12. The Image and Reality of the Shtetl
  13. Nicknames and Community
  14. Intrigue, Violence and Racy Stuff!
  15. Oh, That Corrupt Yiddish!
  16. Leo Pinsker and that "Jewish Ghost"
  17. Birobidzhan
  18. Jewish Questions
  19. A Hidden Power
  20. Vladimir Medem and Prayer
  21. Yishkor-Bikher
  22. The Russian Policy of Conscription
  23. Jews and Post-War Poland
  24. Homeland of the Jews
  25. Shameful Spectacle
  26. Tricksters

Bagels, Wonderful Bagels

(week of August 26, 2016)

Of course we're all familiar with bagels.  They originated in Germany, but came into their own in the Polish shtetl, where they were sold on the streets by vendors in baskets or hanging on sticks. BUT...did you know know that the bagel hawkers had to have a license?  The unlicensed selling of bagels by children who were trying to support their widowed mothers was considered "respectable" by most people, but if they were caught by a policeman, they would be beaten and their bagels taken away.  So, anyone thinking of going into the bagel selling business, please make sure that your license is in order!

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Counsel of Four Lands

(week of September 3, 2016)

Did you know that in the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania from the end of the 16th century through most of the 18th century there was an autonomous Jewish governing body called the Council of the Four Lands?  This council dealt with every area of Jewish life: economic, legal, religious, and cultural.  The rulings of this council could be very specific. For instance the Council prescribed that "Jewish costumes should differ in their cut from those of Christians, and that modesty and moderation be observed in dress..."  (Jewish Encyclopedia, Herman Rosenthal, S.M. Dubnow).

 At our Horah for the Torah Festival on Saturday, December 10, starting at 5:30 PM in the sanctuary at Beth Israel, the dress code will not be as strict.  This is a family celebration of Ashkenazi Jewish culture and will include klezmer music, dancing, and Eastern European food from Nana's Kitchen.  Everyone is invited.  Twenty-first century American attire is acceptable!  Please stay tuned for further information about ticket prices, activities, and specifics about the menu.

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Now Write This Song For Yourselves

(week of Sept 10, 2016)

Did you know that the Torah says (Devarim, 31:19), "So now write this song for yourselves"?  Some sages in the past have taken this to mean that every Jew is commanded to write an entire Torah Scroll!  Oy, entire scroll? Fortunately the Rambam wrote that we can fulfill the 613th mitzvah by writing a single letter of the scroll.  This is good for us at Beth Israel, because we can now "write this song for ourselves" by buying letters and lines to the Torah and thereby financially support the repair and restoration of our own particular Holocaust Torah scroll.  The letters bought by congregants will be inscribed by Sofer Kevin Hale with the assistance of the congregants at the project's closing ceremony (date to be announced).

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How Our Holocaust Torah Scroll Came To Beth Israel

(week of October 25, 2016)

Many of you at BI have been wondering how our Holocaust Torah Scroll (Memorial Scrolls Trust #795) came into the hands of Beth Israel. The one paper trail that is available answers some questions but leaves others open. According to copies of correspondence sent to us by the Memorial Scrolls Trust, Rabbi Dr. Sidney Schwarz of BI wrote a letter dated Nov. 9, 1983 to the Memorial Scrolls Trust in England, inquiring as to how a scroll could be acquired.  There is no indication in this letter of what sparked his or the congregation's interest.

The Memorial Scrolls Trust replied that same month and stipulated that a donation from BI would be required to help cover the expense of "housing, examining, and classifying the 1,564 scrolls" held by the trust. On December 16,1983, Rabbi Schwarz sent a donation of $500.00. In January of 1984, the Trust allocated MST #795, and on February 22, 1984, Rabbi Schwarz wrote to say that the scroll had arrived.

One amazing coincidence: the signature at the bottom of the Memorial Scrolls Trust correspondence with BI was that of Ruth Shaffer, the cousin of BI's own Steve Blum! Ruth worked for almost forty years for the Trust, organizing the scrolls database (first on index cards) and then learning how to use a computer in her eighties! Her long service led to her name becoming almost synonymous with the Trust.

In a way, our scroll is a testament,not only to the Jews who died in the Shoah, but to the strenuous efforts of those, like Ruth Shaffer, who worked so hard to recover our tradition from the ashes. The members of BI can continue that work in many ways. One of the more joyful ways is to register for our Horah for the Torah Festival (Saturday, Dec 10, 5:30 pm at BI) which you can now do on the Beth Israel website.

Now write this song and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths.-Deuteronomy 31:19.

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Roman Vishniac - photographer of shtetl life in Eastern Europe

(week of November 2, 2016)

One of the people most responsible for fashioning the popular image of the Eastern European Jewish shtetl was the photographer, Roman Vishniac. Vishniac was commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the late 1930's to take pictures of Jews in cities and shtetlach in Eastern Europe as part of a fundraising initiative.  His pictures were used in books by Irving Howe and Isaac Bashevis Singer about Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.  The nostalgic images of poor peddlers, Talmudic scholars, and rabbis became so influential that Leon Wieseltier, an editor of the New Republic, called him, "the official mortuary photographer of Eastern European Jewry". (as quoted in NY Times Magazine, April 1, 2010, "A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac")

Vishniac has come under fire for limiting his images to the poorest and most victimized of Eastern European Jews, and neglecting the full range of life in their world; the wealthy Jews, the successful professionals, the accomplished actors and journalists, for instance. We ourselves at BI may not be able to answer all the questions raised by this critique, but we can share and celebrate our own connections to that world by enjoying the food, music, schmoozing, and dancing at the Horah for the Torah Festival being held at the BI sanctuary on Saturday, Dec 10 from 5:30 to 9 pm. Please feel free to bring family and friends. You can now register on our website! AND you can contribute to our own record of the European Jewish world by bringing photographs of your relatives, perhaps as they arrived in the United States or before they left the old country.  Your photos will be displayed on the wall opposite the BI offices.  Who knows? Maybe there will be joyful images and stories of that old world that would surprise that "mortuary photographer", Roman Vishniac!

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Klezmer Music

(week of November 13, 2016)

What exactly is Klezmer music? Jack Kessler, who will be playing at our Horah for the Torah Festival with his musical ensemble, Klingon Klezmer, says, "Klezmer musicians took the modality of the synagogue, combined it with other styles with which they had contact (gypsy, balkan, etc.) and flipped the serious chant tradition over to become party music.  One could say that klemer and hazzanut (the chant tradition) are opposite sides of the same coin."

According to Wikipedia, although klezmorim based a lot of their music on the devotional music of the synagogue, they were often looked down upon by the rabbis because of their "secular traveling lifestyle". (Hmm, I wonder why you didn't mention that Jack Kessler?) Furthermore, klezmorim were often restricted by the authorities; in the Ukraine they were banned from playing "loud instruments" until the 19th century.

One characteristic of klezmer is "expressive melodies which are reminiscent of the human voice, complete with laughing and weeping". (Wikipedia)  How appropriate for our own Torah Song Project!  Maybe we can add to the "song" of our tradition and our own congregation, by registering early for the Horah for the Torah Festival on Saturday, December 10 from 5:30 to 9 pm, on our website.

A special bonus for attendance at the event will be the opportunity to ask Jack Kessler about his "secular traveling lifestyle".

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Food and the Divine Presence

(week of November 20, 2016)

We all know that food has a special importance in our Jewish tradition.  What would a visit to a friend or a social occasion be without a nosh? Did you know that food was important enough so that historians of Eastern European Jewry actually divided the geography of Eastern Europe according to distinctions in Jewish cuisine? There was a feature that historians refer to as the "salt line" to the west of which gefilte fish was seasoned with sugar and to the east of which it was seasoned with salt.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to discover where this boundary was, but there is no question that it existed.

But the Hasidic tradition took this to heights that would seem strange and exaggerated to us today.  At the tish (a ritual communal meal at which the rebbe held court) every detail of the food set before the rebbe had some kind of religious significance.  For example, one authority wrote in 1842 that, "the holiest fish of all is lox, since salmon has very large scales: a sign of its kashrut. Another authority recommended mixing onions with fish "so as to spice them with the divine presence".

Rest assured that at our Horah for the Torah Festival (Saturday, December 10th, 5:30 to 9 pm) we will not go so far!  Between the music, dancing, and great food there will be some sort of presence that we can celebrate (divine or otherwise).  But in order to bring about the "presence", please let us know if you will be "present" by registering online before November 27.

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Sabbatean Heresy

(week of December 16, 2016)

As many of you know, our Suvivor Torah Scroll came from the town of Prostejov, in what is now the Czech Republic.  Disappointingly, Prostejov today does not seem to be a very interesting town. According to one article it is a center for textile manufacture and is also the headquarters of a well-known (not to me) elite special forces military unit. But one fact in its history does stand out and that is that at one time, Prostejov was a center for something called the Sabbatean Heresy, a heresy that arose on the heels of a declaration by one Sabbatai Zvi that he was the messiah.  The spiritual excitement that followed upon this declaration, and its subsequent disappointment, was, according to some scholars, a definitive event in the history of Eastern European Jewry, and of Judaism in general.

If you want to learn more about this intriguing and important event in our history, please look forward to a seminar hosted by Rabbi Helen Plotkin and myself.  Rabbi Helen will talk to us about the Jewish scribal tradition and I will talk about the history of the Jews in the Kingdom of Moravia (and whether or not there are traces of Sabbatean influence in our scroll).  The date of this seminar is to be announced, so please stay tuned.

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Dealing Shrewdly

(week of January 16, 2017)

"Look," Pharaoh said to his people, "the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous..."  (Exodus, Chapter 1, 9-10)

Several centuries after Pharaoh's attempt to control the growth of Hebrew population in Egypt, the Habsburg Monarchy in 1726 took Pharaoh's advice and "dealt shrewdly" with the Jewish population in Moravia (where our Survivor Torah scroll comes from) by imposing the "Familiants Laws" which were intended to regulate the number of Jews who were entitled to found families.  These laws specified that only the eldest son of a Jewish family would be permitted to marry.  A male not fortunate enough to be the eldest son had the options of emigration, conversion, celibacy, or illegal marriage.  Illegal marriages were known as "attic marriages" because they were held in hidden, obscure locations.  Violations of the familiants regulations could be punished with flogging and expulsion, and the children of illegal marriages were considered illegitimate and had to bear their mother's names.

Our Survivor Torah scroll was, we believe, inscribed in the mid 1700's, when the familiants laws were still in effect!  To find out more about the history of our scroll and the region that it came from, please plan on attending a seminar on Saturday, February 25th at 12:30 pm at Beth Israel,where Rabbi Helen Plotkin will present Hasidic commentaries from this time period, and I will talk about the history of Jews in Moravia and the town of Prostejov.

Also, we are still seeking donations for the restoration of our Survivor Torah scroll from Prostejov!  Click here to make a donation.

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It Was (Not) A Miracle!

(week of January 27, 2017)

An outstanding example of the great spiritual turmoil of the 17th century in the Jewish world, and in Moravia and the town of Prostejov (also known as Prossnitz) was an incident involving the famous rabbi, Kabbalist, and Sabbatean, Judah Leib Prossnitz (c. 1670 - c. 1730) who was said to have resided in a haunted shack in Prostejov.  At one point Judah Leib promised to summon the Shekinah to appear at midnight before a large gathering. When the audience gathered - lo and behold! - the Shekinah appeared in the form of a shadowy figure surrounded by light with the letters of the Tetragrammaton glowing on its chest!  It was a miracle! It was a miracle, that is, until someone pulled down a sheet that had been stretched across the room.  There stood Judah Leib in front of an alcohol lamp, wearing a white robe with the same letters emblazoned on his chest.  The rabbi was exposed as a fraud and excommunicated by the leading rabbis of Moravia.

But a small embarrassment like this did not discourage Judah Leib, who continued to preach, gather followers, and attract donations all through Moravia. Eventually he "doubled-down" on his claim to be able to summon the Shekinah by declaring himself the "Messiah ben Joseph" to whom the guidance of the world had been entrusted by God after the death of Sabbatai Zvi.

To learn more about his remarkable period in our history, please plan to attend our seminar at BI on Saturday, February 25th, at 12:30 pm.  Rabbi Helen Plotkin will be offering Hasidic commentary from this time period, and I will be giving a talk on the history of Jews in Moravia entitled "Strange Fire in Prostejov".  Maybe by that time I will have discovered whether there was anything strange in Prostejov's drinking water!

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Sabbateanism and Women

(week of February 2, 2017)

Sabbateanism was a messianic heresy that rocked the Jewish world down to its foundations beginning in the 1660's.  It was a movement chock full of fraudulent magical spectacles (cited in last week's fact of the week), hysterical prophesying, unrestrained orgiastic rituals, predictions of the imminent redemption not just of the people of Israel, but of the entire cosmos - in short, every primitive absurdity, dark superstition, atavistic belief, and "alternative fact" that we enlightened moderns like to think we've outgrown.

But in the midst of all this darkness, the Sabbateans were paradoxically more "progressive" than anyone else about the role and importance of women! Sabbatai Zvi himself, in 1666 in a synagogue in Smyrna began the unheard of practice of calling up several women to read from the Torah in front of the entire congregation. His third wife, moreover, was "viewed as fully sharing in both the messianic and the divine dimensions of his personality" as were the wives of several other prominent leaders of the movement. In addition, Sabbateans also systematically taught women the elements of Kabbalah and allowed them to read the Zohar, both of which had been the sole province of men up to that point.

Please join us at BI on February 25th at 12:30 where Rabbi Helen Plotkin will be offering Hasidic commentary from this period and I will be talking about the town of Prostejov, the birthplace of our survivor Torah scroll, and also the site of much of these colorful events.

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The Image and Reality of the Shtetl

(week of February 10, 2017)

One of the cultural items that enshrined the image of the shtetl (along with Fiddler on the Roof and the paintings of Marc Chagall) is Mark Zborowski's and Elizabeth Herzog's book, "Life Is With People", published in 1952.  In a beautiful literary style, the book charmingly conveys the concrete daily activities and institutions of the shtetl.  It was a bestseller when it was released and played a large role of cementing a certain image of the shtetl in the Jewish popular imagination.

But by the 1970's, complaints from academic historians began to swarm around the book. These historians said it "romanticized" and "oversimplified", the historical complexities of the shtetl.  Two specific criticisms were the lack of mention of brutal class conflict in some Jewish communities, and the lack of attention to the different characteristics of shtetlach depending on time and place . Some of these historians claim that if there is anything called a shtetl at all, it really has almost no importance for typifying Ashkenazic life!

In the course of our Torah Song Project, it may be helpful for us to wonder what it means to "remember" or "memorialize" our past.  What exactly are we remembering and why?  Is it the empirical "facts" touted to us by dry academic historians?  (No offense intended to our professor congregants!) Is it the nostalgic memory of an idealized folk society as told to us by grandparents?  Does a book like "Life Is With People", with all its inaccuracy, still have value in preserving a sense of Jewish memory and identity?

These questions will be in the background of Torah Song Project's next event on Saturday, February 25th at BI at 12:30 when I will be talking about the "Strange Fire in Prostejov" and Rabbi Helen Plotkin will offer Hasidic commentary from the time when our survivor Torah scroll was inscribed.  Please join us for the next step in the journey of the Torah Song Project!

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Power of Nicknames and Community

(week of February 12, 2017)

Jewish historical memory tends to invest the shtetl with a halo of nostalgia and undoubtedly there were wonderful aspects of shtetl life. In the shtetl, social interaction tended to be between people who knew each other personally or "face to face".  As charming as this sounds, maybe not everything was so wonderful.

For instance, a woman interviewed in the 1930's tells us, "Many in our town had nicknames that were derived either from their occupation, physical appearance, or deformities, such as Chaim the Redhead, Moishe the Icon, Faivel Parch, Eli Puz (big belly), Avrum the Hernia, Meishi Pik (the stutterer)...There was Libitchke the Maiden.  Although she had been married and had children, the townfolks could not forget that Libitchke had married late in life."  In addition, there was "Yosi the Latrine, because he had a disagreeable body odor."

Of course, life for us today is a little more polite and sanitary, but also more anonymous. Maybe the Ashkenazic history that we uncover in our Torah Song Project can help us think about what Jewish identity can look like in the present and future, now that the world of the shtetl is forever gone. How can we build a sustainable Judaism in the modern world of fluid relationships with people we don't even know? Now that the Judaism of the shtetl is gone, can there be a Judaism of the suburban development?

To learn more about past struggles to maintain and define Jewish identity, please come to our seminar on Saturday, February 25th, at BI at 12:30 pm where I will give a talk about the Sabbatean Heresy called "Strange Fire in Prostejov" and Rabbi Helen Plotkin will offer Hasidic commentary from the era in which our Holocaust survivor scroll was inscribed.

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Intrigue, Violence and Racy Stuff

(week of February 24, 2017)

Another character in the rogue's gallery of Jewish heretics, after the false messiah, Sabbatai Zvi, was Jacob Frank, who in fact claimed to be the reincarnation of Sabbatai Zvi!

Frank became intimate with Sabbatian leaders in the 1750's and eventually he and his followers informed a Catholic bishop in Poland that they rejected the Talmud and recognized only the sacred book of the Kabbalah, the Zohar.  They further stated that they believed that the "Messiah-Deliverer" was one aspect of the Christian Trinity.

It was not long before Frank took the next logical step by claiming that certain "revelations from heaven" called for the conversion of Frank and his followers to the Christian religion.  The baptism of the Frankists was publicly celebrated in 1759.  Under the influence of the Frankist ideology, by 1790, 26,000 Jews were recorded baptized in Poland!

What on earth was going on that so many Jews wanted to abandon their tradition?  We will be discussing this at our adult education seminar (entitled "Strange Fire in Prostejov") tomorrow, February 24th, at 12:30 after services at BI.  Rabbi Helen and I will guide you through a tour of intrigue, treachery, violence, and racy stuff - everything but who shot JR.

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Oh, That Corrupt Yiddish!

(week of March 5, 2017)

As the modern world began to impinge on the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, Jewish cultural leaders passionately debated the issue of what language would best serve the needs of Jews in a changing world.

For instance, the great advocate of the Jewish enlightenment in Russia, Issac Dov Levensohn (1788-1860), in an article of 1828, wrote contemptously of Yiddish as "completely a consequence of the eclectic nature of the language." He admonished Jews to speak what he called a pure language, "either pure German or pure Russian", but certainly not that ugly hybrid which he called "Judeo-German". On the other hand, the famous author Mendele Moykher Sforim (who could write in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish) in his 1862 article, "My Soul Desired Yiddish", related how he resisted the disdain of many of his colleagues by writing stories in Yiddish, finding this language to be a great source of cultural vitality.

At Torah Song Project's next event, we will be discussing related issues of Jewish identity and responses to recent developments in a modern, post-shtetl world. The event is called "Moving Forward from Never Again" and will be held on Sunday, May 7th at BI. Please stay tuned for further details. Also, there is still time to contribute to the restoration of our Survivor Torah Scroll and educational programming associated with it by purchasing letters, lines, verses, or chapters of Torah at this link:

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Leo Pinsker and the "Jewish Ghost"

(week of March 17, 2017)

The physician Leo Pinsker, a Russian Pole born in 1821, was one of many Jews who initially thought that eventual assimilation was the inevitable solution to the "Jewish question", but he changed his thinking after a wave of pogroms in Russia that occurred from 1881-1884.

After agonizing about the intractability of anti-Semitism, he came up with a physician's diagnosis of "Judeophobia" in his 1882 pamphlet, "Auto-Emancipation". The cause of this Judeophobia was the existence of the Jews in "the uncanny form of one of the dead walking among the living" and he claimed further that, "the ghostlike apparition of a people without unity or organization, without land or other bond of union, no longer alive yet moving about among the living" stimulated a phobic response among the nations, a reaction "handed down and strengthened for generations and centuries". His "prescription" was the "creation of a Jewish nationality, of a people living on their own soil, the auto-emancipation of the Jews; their emancipation as a nation among nations by the acquisition of a home of their own".

Perhaps Jews can now ask themselves, in 2017, how effective has the prescription been, now that it has been adopted in the form of the establishment of the State of Israel?  And if our identity is now more secure and less "ghostlike", how can we combine our concern about our own survival with concern about the welfare of other peoples who are abused and vulnerable? These questions will come into play in Torah Song Project's next event, "Moving Forward from Never Again" which will be held on Sunday, May 7th at BI (further details to be announced).

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(week of April 7, 2017)

Many Jews in the 19th and 20th century saw the acquisition and working of agricultural land as the key to solving the "Jewish question" in Eastern Europe. This notion resulted in the proliferation of many short lived "agricultural colonies" throughout the Pale of Settlement of Russia.

But the biggest such project, proposed by the dictator Josef Stalin in 1931, was called Birobidzhan which was in the far reaches of Siberia next to the border with Manchuria. It was proposed as a Jewish autonomous region, and although Stalin's motives were self-interested (he wanted a buffer against a Japanese invasion from Manchuria), many secular left-wing Jews responded to this proposal with great enthusiasm.  Perhaps as many as 10,000 went there hoping to work the land and thereby cultivate a healthier, more vital Jewish identity.  This hope was similar to the spirit of Jews who emigrated to Eretz Israel to establish kibbutzes.  In the end, this enthusiasm could not withstand the harsh climate, poor soil, clouds of mosquitoes, and remoteness from city life.  A final blow was Stalin's reversal of his policy regarding autonomy for cultural and ethnic minorities.

Not everyone left, however.  Today there are still as many as 3,000 Jews living in this remote outpost that boasts a synagogue and a Yiddish cultural center. According to a recent Wall St. Journal article, a Chabad rabbi is trying to find a way to deliver Kosher food from Russia to this spot.  As it stands now, the closest and only source of Kosher food for Birobidzhan is in Beijing! 

On Sunday, May 7th, from 11:00 to 1:00 BI will be hosting an event called "Moving on From Never Again", in which we will discuss a "Jewish question" for our time.  Rabbi Steve Gutow, a community activist and former president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and Rabbi Joshua Gutoff from Gratz college will address different aspects of how Jews today can navigate the current troubled political and cultural climate.  Please join us for the fourth event in Torah Song Project's journey centered around the restoration of our Holocaust Survivor Torah scroll.

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Jewish Questions

(week of April 16, 2017)

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Eastern Europe, the Jewish world swarmed with answers to the "Jewish question" or maybe we should say Jewish questions. How could Jews remain Jews and yet come to terms with the modern world? Should one even remain a Jew at all?  If yes, what precisely did "remaining a Jew" mean? Different answers to these questions jostled against each other...Zionism, socialism of different stripes (Bolshevism, Menshevism, Bundism), Autonomism (the belief in freely chosen autonomous Jewish cultural zones within European nation-states), Yiddishism and other approaches all merged, separated, and competed with each other in endless combinations. The old adage, "two Jews, three opinions" seems almost to be an understatement. These were desperate times, but they were also culturally and intellectually fertile. (There will be more about these competing "answers" in future Facts of the Week).

Today, the outlook for Jews is perhaps not as dire, but nevertheless we live under the famous curse (or perhaps blessing?) of living in "interesting times". The world faces the erosion of civility, the rise of intolerance, the emergence of fundamentalisms (both right and left wing), environmental degradation, extreme nationalism, anti-semitism and a host of other anti-civilized symptoms.

How are we Jews called to respond?  On Sunday, May 7th from 11:00 to 1:00 at BI, Torah Song Project will present a seminar entitled, "Moving on from Never Again". Our speakers will be: Rabbi Joshua Gutoff from the faculty of Gratz College, and Rabbi Steve Gutow, former President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Rabbi Gutoff has focused, among other things, on the use of Jewish texts to enlarge the moral imagination (something especially required in these polarized times).  Rabbi Gutow has helped build grassroots coalitions on a broad range of issues including hunger, interfaith relations, and the security of Israel. He has also explored in his writing the Jewish spiritual rationale for social justice.  Please join us this May 7th as we explore the possibility of turning the curse of living in "interesting times" into a blessing.

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A Hidden Power

(week of April 28, 2017)

In popular imagination, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is thought of as a series of hopeless clashes between young adults with Molotov cocktails and small arms and the well armed Wehrmacht.  But resistance in Warsaw and other ghettos took many forms other than the military one.

The Jewish community in the Warsaw Ghetto (and ghettos in other cities) energetically built and maintained a complex civic life inspired by the watchword, "Live with honor and die with honor!" For instance, a clandestine cultural network called Jewish Cultural Organization (YIKOR) organized lectures, literary anniversaries, and dramatic programs. Also, a network of underground schools of different ideological trends flourished.  Central archives were accumulated by an organization called Oneg Shabbat under the direction of Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum. Oneg Shabbat gathered crates of documents, memoirs, diaries, and photographs and buried them in three locations. Two of these caches were dug up right after the war, but a third remains to be found.

In a word, Jews did not resist only with guns, but with their insistence on living a civilized Jewish life in spite of the surrounding horror.  In the words of Chaim Kaplan, a Warsaw Ghetto resident, "the Jews of Poland - oppressed and broken, shamed and debased - still love life," and their "will to live amidst terrible suffering is the manifestation of some hidden power whose nature we do not yet know. It is a marvelous, life preserving power that only the most firmly established and strongest of the communities of our people have received as a blessing."

Please join us at BI on Sunday, May7th from 11:00 to 1:00 at our event called "Moving on From Never Again" where Rabbi Joshua Gutoff (from Gratz College) and Rabbi Steve Gutow (former president and CEO of Jewish Council for Public Affairs) will help us to tap into our tradition's "hidden power" that can nourish us as we navigate these difficult times.

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Vladimir Medem and Prayer

(week of May 8, 2017)

Vladimir Medem was born in Minsk in 1879 of assimilated Russian-Jewish parents and baptized (at birth) into the Greek Orthodox Church. By a circuitous route that led through socialism, he found his way to Judaism and became a renowned leader of the Jewish Labor Bund. So great was the reverence for him, that when he died in New York City in 1923, tens of thousands of Jewish laborers joined his funeral procession in a harsh snowstorm and the Jewish workers of Poland let their factories and workshops in the middle of the day to pay tribute.

Here is a beautiful paragraph that he wrote describing one episode in his journey back to Judaism:

"First we went to the large synagogue and immediately I felt the presence of a new, hitherto unknown atmosphere in all its uniqueness and magic.  It was different from the Russian church. There, the large mass of people stood quiet, grave, and silent, and only the priest and the choir spoke and sang on behalf of the congregation, spoke and sang in lovely, carefully harmonic and measured tones. But here, it was as though I had fallen among torrential waves. Hundreds upon hundreds of worshipers - each one taking his own case to God, each in a loud voice with passionate eagerness. Hundreds of voices ascended to the heavens, each for himself, without concord, without harmony, yet all joining together in one tremendous clamorous sound. No matter how strange to the Western ear, it makes a deep impression and has a great beauty derived from the passion of mass feeling."

This Thursday, May 11th at 7:30 pm at BI, Rabbi Linda will lead the second of Adult Education's three classes on Reconstructionism. This one will be about Reconstructionism and Prayer.  Please join us - maybe we can find our own "passion of feeling" and possibly generate some "waves" (torrential or otherwise) of our own.

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The Yishkor-Bikher

(week of May 17, 2017)

The term Yiskhor-Bikher refers to memorial books commemorating the Jewish communities destroyed in the Shoah. According to Jonathon Boyarin's article on the YIVO website, the Yizkhor-Bikher are understood as "substitute gravestones for martyrs who never received proper Jewish burial". 
These books most often were written by former inhabitants of the communities and shetlach that had been destroyed, rather than by professional historians. Many of these people had never written before in their lives.  The books contain accounts and descriptions of people and events which are often more like personal anecdotes rather than systematic histories (although there are exceptions).

Here is a plea from a Jewish organization for contributions to one of these projects:
                  "You may write in any language and you need not be frightened if you cannot write stylistically, we will improve and restyle - the main issue is the content. Everything will be published in the name of the author.
                  Please write clearly (preferably on a typewriter) and on one side of the page.  Dear Friend! The undertaking that we have assumed is not an easy one, and only with the co-operation and effort of all of our citizens will we bring this to reality. We therefore await your contribution."

The fact that these books are the product of testimony by members of these communities, and not professional historians, in my opinion only adds to their beauty and power. Professional historians now use these as primary source materials in their own reconstruction of Jewish life before and during the Shoah.
Like the Yizkhor Bikher, our Torah Song Project is the product of our entire BI community.  Please be on the lookout for details of our closing ceremony on September 10, details to be announced.

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The Russian Policy of Conscription

(week of May 26, 2017)

Unlike the nobility of the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania (where Jews had found a precarious haven for hundreds of years), the government of Tsarist Russia sought to break up the unity and autonomy of the Jewish community and extract its "human resources" for the benefit of the Russian economy. One tactic in this project was Tsar Nicholas' adoption of a policy of separating Jewish boys as young as twelve from their families, sending them to military prep schools and then conscripting them into the military for a period of twenty-five years. The hope was that the separation of these conscripts from their Jewish communities would lead to their thorough Russification and conversion to Christianity. Furthermore, (according to "The Illustrated History of the Jewish People" ed. Nicholas De Lange) Jewish communities themselves were tasked with fulfilling the quota for conscription and the rich and powerful used their advantaged position to ensure that the children of the poor were conscripted, rather than their own. Communities actually appointed kidnappers (khappers) to seize eligible youths from other communities. The end result was the almost complete erosion of community solidarity and the development of severe enmity between the Jewish masses and the traditional religious authorities.But despite this policy and all the other pressures of history, Judaism survived.  On Sunday, September 10, we will be having the closing ceremony of our Torah Song Project, a project of celebration of this very survival.  Our sofer, Rabbi Kevin Hale, will inscribe the final letters in our Holocaust Survivor scroll.  Please stay tuned for the details of this closing ceremony in the weeks to come.

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Jews and Post-war Poland

(week of June 9, 2017) 

Our current political climate is testament to the fact that the veil of civilized behavior is always very thin. The political environment of postwar Poland points to the same sad truth. Even though the Nazi machine had been obliterated by the Allied victory (although too late to save the Yiddish civilization historically centered in Poland), and even though there were very few Jews left in Poland, a virulent antisemitism persisted.

Polish/Jewish survivors returned from the camps or from the Soviet Union to find their homes occupied and their businesses taken over by ethnic Poles who resisted any attempt to dislodge them. There were even several pogroms, the worst of which occurred in the town of Kielce, when occupants of a hostel for survivors were pulled out onto the street. Forty-six Jews were murdered and scores injured.
Why did antisemitism persist in a world where Nazis were no longer fanning its flames? Because the process of turning Poland into a Soviet satellite, a process overseen by the Soviet Red Army, deeply threatened and irritated Polish national sentiment. The lack of a large indigenous communist movement that had accumulated credit (as in other Balkan countries) for fighting Nazism meant that Communism was seen as a truly alien imposition.  What does the population of a nation state do when it feels that its integrity is in some way threatened? Blame the Jews of course.  And true to the formula, Jews and Communists became the same thing in the eyes of Poles, and soon all Jews were seen as agents in Stalin's mission to take over Poland.Perhaps the current upsurge of antisemitism has similar causes. Flows of immigrants across borders that seem to be dissolving, the increasing control exercised by huge corporation that span continents, and rapid technological changes all conspire to make some people feel helpless and therefore seek someone to blame. A good question to ask ourselves as Jews is: how we can cultivate a rational and civilized environment so that this doesn't us, or anyone else?

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Homeland of the Jews

(week of June 19, 2017) 

In today's Jewish world, and particularly in the light of the Shoah, the importance of the state of Israel to world Jewry is practically a given. But we have forgotten that it was not always so. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were tremendous disagreements within the Jewish community about what a Jewish homeland would look like, where it would be located (Argentina was briefly a candidate), or even if there should be a Jewish state at all!

One such disagreement was between Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism and Ahad Ha-am, a proponent of a more cultural/spiritual revival of Judaism. In Ha-am's view, Zionism should not attempt to solve the "physical problem of the Jews" but should take on the "spiritual problem of Judaism". Palestine would therefore not be a container for the oppressed Jewish population of the world, but a center inhabited by a spiritually advanced Jewish elite, a center that would radiate a revitalized Jewish spirituality to the majority of the world's Jews continuing to live in the Diaspora. Herzl on the other hand, in his visionary novel Altneuland, described a liberal utopia that had virtually no characteristics that could be described as Jewish at all!

In our volatile times, with the ground shifting under our feet in so many ways, it is helpful to look at our history in order to learn that things that we take for granted today did not always exist in their present form. As the scribing ceremony for our Holocaust Survivor Scroll approaches on September 10th, maybe we can think about how respect for and preservation of our tradition paradoxically may mean creatively re-imagining it.

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Shameful Spectacle

(week of July 5, 2017)

At the international Evian conference in July 1938, held to consider the problem of German Jewish refugees, the Australian delegate callously remarked that, "Since we have no racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one." A similar attitude drove the policies of the US, France, Holland, and Norway, all of whom restricted the number of German Jewish emigrants they would allow into their countries. The policy of restricted emigration provided fodder for Hitler's sarcasm in a speech delivered to the Reichstag in January 1939 in response to the international outcry against the violence of Kristallnacht. In this speech Hitler said, "It is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing with sympathy for the poor tormented Jewish people, but remains hardhearted and obdurate when it comes to helping them."

How might things have turned out if the democratic powers had lifted the barriers to Jewish emigration? How much was Hitler's rise to power due not only to the anger and credulity of German voters, but to the passive collusion of the international community? Is it enough to criticize the obvious excesses and brutality of a demagogue without criticizing the conditions and policies that fueled the demagogue's rise? It seems that these questions are pertinent to the new crop of demagogues that have arisen today. As Jews we will have to think very deeply about this episode if we want to avoid another "shameful spectacle".

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(week of July 14, 2017)

Avrom Goldfaden (1840-1908), the father of Yiddish theater, seemed to incorporate all the swirling currents of the Jewish world in his own soul, and to combine all those currents into a great (if sometimes low-brow) creative synthesis.  He was a jack-of-all trades, and a failure at most of them until he came to theater. Nahma Sadrow in her book, Vagabond Stars, described him as, "a trouper, an artist, a dreamer, an intellectual, a hustler, a scrapper, a con man, a romantic, a dandy, an optimist, and a one-man band..."

His career covers a period when Jewish folk life was starting to break apart, but when most Jews relied on that life for sustenance. His first experience on the stage was not promising: he attempted to read some elevated poetry he had written about "the eternal Jewish soul" and had to be hustled off the stage. From then on, he gave the audience what it wanted; a pratfall, a slapstick routine, a simple plot with a happy ending. And he was very successful at it, which was amazing considering some of the crude materials he had to work with. His actors were often card-sharps, hustlers, and riffraff that he recruited from local saloons. He personally wrote the plots, designed the sets, directed the actors, and promoted the performances. On one occasion he wrote a play about a flood the day before it was performed in a village that had just suffered from one!

But Goldfaden felt that his stage was not to be merely a "masquerade". He saw himself as a guide to his people in a time of difficult transition: "If I have arrived at having a stage, I want it to be a school for you. In youth, you didn't have time to learn and cutivate yourself...Laugh heartily if I amuse you with my jokes, while I, watching you, feel my heart crying. Then, brothers, I'll give you a drama, a tragedy drawn from life, and you, too, shall cry - while my heart shall be glad."

Who know in what circuitous and unexpected ways our tradition will be preserved, what tricksters will convey our own story to us! Think of the almost miraculous turns of history that allowed our Holocaust Survivor Torah scroll to make its way to Beth Israel! It is not too late to cultivate our own history by purchasing letter for our scribing ceremony on September 10 at 10 am at BI.  You can do so on our website at:

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