Thursday, 31 August 2017

Opportunities and Learning Curves

Life presents us with many opportunities. Unfortunately, we miss many. We miss them for various reasons. Fear of change or perhaps the stage that we are at on our Life’s path may not always be timely, are but a couple of the reasons for failing to see the prospects that some events, or experiences hold for us.

When the opportunity that I am about to share with you first presented itself to me, I was least ready for it.
At that time, was living in New Zealand and nearing my 50th birthday. I held a great job as a Hebrew lecturer at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch and lived a quiet, sometimes too quiet, life down under.

I decided to spice up my routine and joined a local gym. That decision has changed my life, enriched it and opened up doors that led me into realms that I could only dream of.

One day while I was training with my personal trainer, I noticed some younger girls standing in front of the mirror and posing in a way that enhanced their muscle tone.

I was intrigued.

“What are they doing?” I asked my personal trainer. “Oh, they are practicing for a body sculpting competition,” she answered casually.
“You mean body building?” I persisted. “No,” she quickly corrected me. “It is a much milder, softer and more delicate field.”

“I would like to try it,” I jumped in excitement.
“Forget it,” came her abrupt response, “ you are forty-nine, fifty, forget about it.”
I was taken back by her discouraging answer but not for long.
“No dear,” I answered in a determined voice, “if anyone is going to forget it, it is you, not me. No one has a right to kill anyone’s dreams.  I am going to start training and aim toward competing. I may not win,” I added before I left the gym, ”but no one could ever stop me from embarking on that journey.”

The following day, I changed personal trainers. Shelly, my new one was wonderful, supportive and encouraging.

The routine I had to go through was harsh. It required an immense amount of self-discipline and will power. The exercise regiment was rigid. I trained for about 2-3 hours per day, walking, weight bearing exercises, practicing my dance routine and posing. The diet was, likewise, strict. I had to weigh every crumb I put into my mouth. No alcohol, no sweets. There were many temptations along the path. And while I resisted them, I knew then that I would do it only once in my life.

In November 2003 as I was standing on stage holding my 1st place trophy, another door opened up for me to reveal another great opportunity. I realized that if I, at almost 50, could reach such an achievement, I can help maturing women such as myself, women after childbirth, during menopause, improve their looks, their self-image and self esteem. I suddenly realized the niche that this experience carved for me. 

Six months later I completed a Personal Training course and received my certificate. It was an immensely rewarding experience and a great learning curve. I have learned about our body, about nutrition and overcoming hurdles to reach what many believe is the impossible. I have trained many women who achieved some wonderful results.

My advice to them all was, “do not let Life go by you, let it go through you!” 

That was, is and always will be the motto of my life.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Survival was my Hope; Celebrating Life is my Victory

That title encapsulates the essence of the story I am about to unfold to you, a moving story of survival, hope and its eventual rewards of success.

Avraham Moshe Minkowski, also known to his friends as Manny, was born in 1926 in the town of Starachowica, in the southern part of Poland.

His religious Jewish family of ten enjoyed the quite life of their shtetel.  Manny belonged to the local chapter of Beitar and lived through a relatively normal childhood until that dreadful day in November 1939 where his world turned upside down as the Nazis marched into their little town.

On that day, at the young age of thirteen, soon before his Bar-Mitzvah, Manny and his father were separated from the rest of their family. That is when his  painful pilgrimage through the inferno of drifting from one Nazi labour camp to another, towards the final destination at Auschwitz, where he was reduced to number A19762 (etched in his brain in German until this very day!), started.

That journey is laced with tales of struggle, pain, humiliation, repeated beating, starvation, theft, death and other horrors which are too harsh and too many for this paper to contain. Manny’s strong spirit, however, overcame them all. He belongs to a very special and exclusive group of Jews who have inspired many of us, Shoah survivors. He is one of the invincible. No power would or could ever extinguish their tiny spark of Hope, a spark that ignited their desire to go on living and pass their legacy to future generations.

Manny’s journey of survival, however, did not end when the Russians liberated Auschwitz. Fortunately, neither had hope left his heart.

Soon thereafter, he realized that his road to freedom was still speckled with many more harsh experiences woven with pain and betrayal, forever testing his resolute Jewish Spirit which eventually prevailed. His wanderings took him to Germany, then back to his home town and after what seemed like an eternity, Manny found his way to a refugee camp in the most southern spot of the Italian boot.

While in Italy, where he spent a year and a half, first in its southern part and later in Arona in the north, Manny joined the Italian branch of the Irgun which had over a thousand members of Beitar who had arrived with the flood of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. It was there that he acquired the skills of mechanics and electricity which would eventually earn him a very important role in the history of the early days of the nascent state, Medinat Yisrael, our Jewish Homeland.

 These skills were first handy when Manny became part of the team that prepared the explosives which were used to bomb the British Embassy in Rome on October 30th, 1946. The explosion which took place in the early hours of the morning, destroyed the central part of the building. Though the planners made every effort to avoid casualties, two Italian civilians were injured.

Then there was the Altalena Affair. Manny was selected to be one of its ten crew members.
The Altalena was an American made war ship, more precisely a landing craft. It was chartered for a twofold purpose, to bring European refugees to Eretz Yisrael and badly needed weapons for both Etzel (Irgun) and Haganah. In addition to the close to 1000 people on board, the ship also carried rifles, rounds of ammunition, Bren guns, armored vehicles and other war equipment.

                                                             Manny on board the Altalena 

                                  Training on board of the Altalena as it was making its way towards Yisrael

 A few precautionary measures were taken in order to assure that hostile powers would not be able to detect the ship. The first, a radio silence was declared and it had been agreed that the Haganah (a Jewish paramilitary organization during the British Mandate era which later became the core of the IDF) would send them a coded message where to land and unload the badly needed weapons.
Another measure was to blur the connection between the ship and the identity of its occupants. Some of the Hebrew names were changed into less sounding “Jewish”. That is when Avraham Moshe became Manny.

Unbeknown to the Altalena crew, a UN brokered truce was accepted by both sides. The first cease fire of Israel’s War of Independence went into effect while it was making its way to Yisrael.

On June 20th, 1948. The Altalena arrived at the shores of Yisrael. No signal was given as to the place of landing, as had been agreed prior to its departure from France. The crew suspected that something was terribly wrong although they could not point their finger to it. They awaited further instructions.

After an unexpected delay, the temporary government instructed it to land in Kfar Vitkin, a small town along the Mediterranean coast half way between Haifa and Tel Aviv. Soon thereafter, the offload of most of the weapons commenced. Most of the refugees were brought to shore.

Menchem Begin came to greet them. Suddenly, some shots were fired at them and they all hurried back into the ship. Begin instructed them not to fire back. “There will be no war between brethren,” were his words. They obeyed him.

From there, they sailed to Tel Aviv, flying a white flag which was visible to all. Their only wish was to negotiate. As they approached Tel-Aviv, heavy shelling of the boat was what welcomed them. The shooting came from what was known as the “Red House” – the headquarters of the Haganah. That is where the Tel Aviv Hilton stands today.

The shelling and shooting never ceased. The wounded were evacuated from the ship under fire and those who could, jumped into the water and swam ashore. Manny was one of them.

Manny pointing at the Altalena as its survivors, himself included, are swimming ashore. Notice his tattooed number A19762

Today, Manny and his beautiful wife, Rachel live a rewarding life here in Yisrael. They are surrounded by the love of their three children and ten grandchildren. His son, Yaron Minkoowski is a world renowned and one of Yisrael’s top fashion designers. Yaron married his beloved wife, Pazit Yaron Minkowski, a well-known Yisraeli actress, in 19.7 (the first three digits of Manny’s Auschwitz number). Their daughter, Ori Minkowski, 16, followed in the footsteps of her father and is now the youngest fashion designer in the world.

Manny (second to Left) in the company of  his three children (two daughters to his right), four of his grandchildren. His son, Yaron in the middle and his granddaughter Ori in front of her father, Yaron. To his left is his beautiful and talented wife Pazit Yaron Minkowski. To the left of Pazit is Rachel, Manny's amazing wife of 60 years.

For Manny, Hope and Survival undoubtedly transformed themselves into one big Celebration of Life. We wish him many more years of Health, Celebrations and sheer Bliss.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Torah, a Contract, a Covenant of a Different Kind

In this week’s Torah portion,  Parshat Ekev, D’varim (Deuteronomy) 7:12-8:10, Moshe continues to remind Am Yisrael of the terms of the Covenant that they had entered with G-d at Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah.

Like any contract, written or oral that is entered into between the parties ,  the Mosaic Covenant specifies obligation, the mitzvot, as well as the rewards that result from fulfillment of all obligations and includes  the adverse results of violating its terms and how to deal with such consequences.

There are other Covenants that G-d has entered with Am Yisrael as as the Abrahamic Covenant and the Davidic Covenant. Unlike the Mosaic Covenant though, those are unconditional. This one is not only conditional, it is one that is not easy to follow. Yet, as we all know, Am Yisrael accepted it verbally and out-rightly when they said,  
   נעשה ונשמע“Naaseh Venishma.” (We shall do and listen).  It is one that is not easy to follow,
A law school professor might tell his students that the Mosaic Covenant is a “CONTRACT OF ADHESION”

A type of Contract, a legally binding agreement between two parties to do a certain thing, in which one side has all the bargaining power and uses it to write the contract primarily to his or her advantage.

That law professor would also possibly ask his students about its validity.  After all, what choice did the people feel they had about accepting such a contract from an all-powerful G-d who had just freed them from slavery in Egypt?   Moreover, they were asked to accept this deal without having really studied it and without benefit of legal counsel to help them understand its implications. 

In retrospect, would they agree that it was a good deal?  Some, like those who erected he Golden Calf or Korach and his congregation, did not and proceeded to violate the contract’s provisions with disastrous effect.
Now, why have we written about this?  

This story teaches something unique about Judaism and Jewish culture and why Torah should have been studied and seen only in the original Hebrew language.
It, also, illustrates something vastly different between traditional Jewish interpretations of Torah and those of others who have adopted Jewish literature and interpreted it to fit their own theologies.

One example where translations of the Torah from Hebrew has erred, innocently or deliberately, is when one refers to the information that was written on the Two Tablets that Moshe brought down from Mount Sinai as “commandments.” What was inscribed on them is described in the Torah asדברות   (Diberot) literally meaning  “pronouncements,” NOT “commandments” as the translation reads. There is a different word in Hebrew for commandments, מצוות (Mitzvot).

Our Torah, literally “instruction” (not law), in Hebrew, describes what happened at Mount Sinai  as ‘giving’ the Torah as a ‘gift’ (giving and gift in Hebrew  are derived from the same root, נ,ת,נ), implying that the giver is benevolent and loving,  like a caring parent,  caring for the welfare and best interests of its children. Therefore, though it may still be a contract of adhesion, it is one provided in love and concern.  It’s the parent who tells his child “look both ways before crossing the street, because the consequences of not doing so could be horrible”, not to set up the child to be fearful and not to be mean to the child, but out of love and care.   That, too, is a ‘contract of adhesion’, but one based on love and concern.

We are troubled by those who teach that all Abrahamic religions are essentially the same, just versions of the same themes and beliefs with little differences here and there.  Some Jews want to believe that as it makes them feel safer to be like everyone else in what they fear as a hostile world.  Christian Missionaries have for a long time preached that line to Jews to encourage them to convert, to just accept a small change, they claim, for salvation.   The problem is that between Judaism and the other “Abrahamic religions,” there is a theologically wide gulf that makes them almost polar opposites.

Christianity sees the establishment of the contract between G-d and Am Yisrael precisely as that definition above of the Contract of Adhesion.  A cruel and demanding G-d imposing harsh rules on the people with a deal they cannot dare refuse without an opportunity to study it.  They combine that with the Hellenistic belief that mankind is helpless and at the whim of the fates and gods, needing a hero to save them.  (according to Christian theologian Fr. Hans Kung). 

In great contrast, Judaism sees that contract more as directions and lessons (Torah, as we mentioned above, means instruction) from a benevolent kind father, who wants the best for his children and from a Benevolent G-d who wants the best for His People, ones who share the desire to set the standards and warn against what will naturally happen if those standards are not kept.  It’s the parent who warns his children to look both ways before crossing the street because he cares for their safety and welfare. 

Thus, for Am Yisrael and Jews, the Covenant is not the kind of one sided deal imposed by the powerful G-d.  It is lessons given as a gift to those who might benefit. In this case, it is Am Yisrael ONLY.

This article was written jointly by Roger Froikin and Bat-Zion Susskind

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Our Resilient Jewish Spirit

This Shabbat is another special day on the Hebrew Calendar. It is שבת נחמו Shabbat Nachamu. 

Shabbat Nachamu ("Shabbath of comfort/ing) takes its name from the Haftarah from the Book of Isaiah 40:1-26. It is called by this name because of the Haftarah’s opening words,נחמו נחמו עמי " “ : Be comforted, be comforted my People.”  It speaks of comforting the Jewish people for their suffering. It the first of seven Haftarot of consolation leading up to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

For me, this National milestone also bears a personal significance. It was on Shabbat Nachamu that my parents were liberated from the Nazi camps, seventy two years ago.

Growing up in the shadow of the Shoah, that is the date my parents always mentioned when asked about their liberation. Some found it strange. Why? You may ask.

Most people would remember and mark the Gregorian Calendar date as their anniversary of such an important event in their lives. Strangely enough, I never knew it by any other date other than “Shabbat Nachamu.” I doubt my parents ever remembered or at least did know the Gregorian date at some stage. Now, more than ever, I find it odd that they never remembered their Hebrew birth date, yet remembered the Hebrew date of their rescue from the inferno. That oddity is woven with bright coloured threads that send shivers through my spine each time that I stop to think about it.

It is only this year that I finally realized the significance or the symbolism of this date.

Firstly, for Jews to remember, observe and commemorate Jewish holidays and events, while being inmates of death camps in a hostile environment that tried to erase every connection to their essence as Jews, is commendable. As the years go by, I learn and read more and more stories of how some Jews risked their lives during those years to hang on to every possible shred of Jewish tradition. That is truly inspiring.
Clinging to their wonderful tradition, the customs, the celebrations at least through remembering them, infused in them the hope for better days and the firm belief that the “Eternal of Yisrael shall Never Lie.” What a fountain of optimism and courage it must have unfrozen in them. Their resilience was second to none.

Moreover, in Yiddish, the lingua franca of most European Jews upon whom the Shoah was brought, this disastrous event in Jewish history has come to be known as “Der Churben” דער חורבן  (The Destruction). This is the same name that was given by Jews to the destruction of both Temples, which according to tradition were both destroyed on Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av,  חורבן בית המקדש (the Destruction of the Temple).

How appropriate, then, that the Liberation of these Jews, who did all they could to cling to their Judaism, took place on the very day we console Am Yisrael on all of its sufferings.

And the parallel between their survival and that of Am Yisrael goes further than that. Like Am Yisrael, my parents and many other Jews were liberated to see the resurrection and the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. They came out of the Abyss, collected the broken pieces of their shattered lives and built a bigger and stronger tabernacle out of it in Eretz Yisrael.

May Am Yisrael continue to thrive on our Promised Land and make our Jewish Homeland go from strength to strength for ever and ever.


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Be the Change.......

“It is not incumbent of you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it…” Pirkei Avot 2:16
Being Jewish makes every day special and meaningful. Today, Tisha B’Av, is even more so.
Tisha B’Av is the saddest day in the Hebrew Calendar. According to tradition, many tragic events are said to have happened on this solemn day over the centuries. Both Temples were destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans respectively. On this day, the last stronghold of Bar Kochba was captured and his rebellion against the Romans was finally defeated. On the ninth of Av in 1290, King Edward I signed an edict compelling the Jews of England to leave the country. It was also on this day, according to tradition that the Jews were expelled out of Spain in 1492, and the day World War I broke out in 1914.
Naturally, we cannot change the events of our history. Can we, though, affect, influence or change its future course?
The question of whether events and circumstances control people or whether people control them, has long occupied the human mind. I am a firm believer in the latter. The optimist in me subscribes to Virginia Woolf’s belief of “forever altering one's aspect to the sun.” It is also known as adaptation.
The world we live in is far from perfect. It may never be that way but what is to stop us from striving towards that goal?
When it comes to affecting events in our lives and our world, I tend to distinguish between Fate and Destiny.
We cannot change fate. Fate is the common denominator all humans share. We are all born at some stage and will eventually die sooner or later. Destiny, however, that which takes place between the time of our birth and time of our death, is what we, as thinking creatures, Homo Sapiens, are capable of shaping and molding with change being its end result. “The measure of Intelligence is the Ability to change,” thus told us Albert Einstein. That includes our actions and the events that they produce (excluding, of course, natural occurrences over which none of us have any control).
The ability to affect and shape one’s destiny has been one of the prominent features of our Jewish People. It is not limited to individuals, though. It can also happen on the national realm. National survival or existence does not occur on its own. It needs to start with the smallest unit of that entity, the individual. In our case, it is you and me.
As a Jew, especially on this grim day of national mourning, I seek that change for our People. Jewish history is soaked with rivers of blood and a sea of tears. Why would we, or anyone want to repeat that? We need to understand, however, that it is the task of every Jew to be the change that they wish to see in our People. Learning and internalizing past lessons is the key and precursor to that change. On this day, I ask every Jew to stop and ask themselves, what have we learned from our People’s past so that we can change and improve in our Jewish future?
On Tisha B’Av, more than ever, the Jewish World must realize that it cannot afford to repeat past mistakes. Neither are we free to absolve ourselves from the duty and the task that G-d has entrusted us with, through the Covenant we entered with Him at Mount Sinai. We were ordered to choose Life and we agreed. Life, as we Jews know, is not always easy for us, if ever.
It is during such times that the wise words of Victor Frankl should light our path, “When we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”