Tuesday, 28 November 2017

A Vanished World

Yesterday, I posted a video of a rare footage that captured Jewish life and culture in the Shtetl before WWII. I am a product of that culture. I am grateful that I am.

Now, I cannot expect everyone to share my sentiments on this. However, I am dumbfounded at some of the reactions that somehow projected a negative attitude and somewhat contempt towards that chapter in our Jewish history. Yes, there were pogroms, yes there was persecution and yes, there was poverty. But is that all that people see and remember of it?

How sad!

Life in the Shtetl was very hard and often dangerous, no doubt about that. It was particularly true during the end of 19th and early 20th centuries when persecution, economic restrictions and outbreaks of violence pressed increasingly on the socioeconomic foundations of the shtetl.

But it was the culture that helped overcome some of those difficulties, I believe, 
 create a wonderful resilient Jewish spirit. 

I personally was always captivated by the stories that I heard about the shtetl. I was enchanted particularly by the values of Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) and Menshlikhkeyt (humanness) around which the shtetl's life revolved. The traditional ideals of piety, learning and scholarship, communal justice, and charity were integrated in the warm and intimate life style of the shtetl.

As a child, I would always want to hear more about the life that had become a graveyard.

"Bobe, dartziel mir a maise fun amolike yorn (Grandma, tell me a story from the old days)," I would constantly beg of my grandmother in Yiddish. 

Those were some of the happiest moments in my childhood. The stories told by my grandmother mirrored a life of substance and meaning that could not and would never be duplicated. They had a hidden glow about them, always threaded with humour, wisdom and wit.

One person asked, after watching that video, “Where were the women in that video?” “They were at home,” answered another. I will tell you where the women were. They, the Yiddishe Momas, were at home raising some of the finest Jewish kids, giving them all the love and warmth that no nanny or living in maid could ever.  The home was the basic unit in the culture and life of the shtetl; it was founded on a patriarchal and closely- knit structure on traditional lines. The Jewish mother oversaw the Home. And thank G-d for that.

If you really wish to know what the women did, let me invite you to read the lyrics of "My Yiddishe Mommee." It will tell you where women were in that video. I know what it means, I had such one “woman” as mother. Mine was not only at home, she was also out working hard helping my father create a fine Jewish Home. She was one who is described in these few lines:
"How few were her pleasures, she never cared for fashion's style 
Her jewels and treasures she found them in her baby's smile 
Oh I know that I owe what I am today 
To that dear little lady to old and gray 
To that wonderful Yiddishe Momme of mine."

The synagogue, Beit Hamidrash, was the house of prayer, the house of study and the house of assembly combined. It was the place that preserved the Great Spirit of the Jewish people in its purest form. It was the compassionate, old, loving and loyal mother who, in her graciousness gathered the tears of her lost sons and daughters constantly sheltering and consoling yet at the same time granting them the iron will for an eternal spiritual survival. 

Has anyone ever read Bialik?

Bialik, the greatest Jewish poet, in my humble view, was a product of that culture. His poetry mirrored the suffering, but it also reflected the Jewish Spirit that this culture produced and preserved. He was the bridge between that culture and our modern Jewish state. So were Sha”i Agnon, Natan Alterman and many others who were  reared in that culture. I cannot brush it off as insignificant, dear readers.

The hardest blow, however, came in the form of a private message from a person who shall remain nameless. That person could not understand how I felt the way I did about this chapter in our history. That nameless person went on to suggest that those Jews of the shtetle, my people were “whimps and went like a lamb to the slaughterhouse.”

To that nameless person and all those other nameless who feel “machoisticly” superior to the millions who died in the Shoah, let me say this.

What did you expect of 1.5 million children that were mercilessly murdered in the Shoah, resistance? How about the frail elderly, women, and disabled ones? Had you been in their place, would you have believed then that the human mind could have conceived of putting people in ovens??? Would you not have jumped into a shower after several days of being in a cattle train surrounded by the smell death, urine and facies? Would you, yes YOU, have thought that instead of water, you would be showered with Zyklon B?

Those who could resist, did resist.

My father was one of them. He had a choice. He escaped and joined the partisans. That is how he earned 71% disability from the Nazis.

That culture cradled, developed and shaped others like him. It also produced Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion, Begin and many other giants, lest you forget. Those ended up being the leaders of our Great Home, Medinat Yisrael.

That is how I prefer to remember that Vanished world. That is the way, I always will.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Am Segulah

Some words contain an idea, a concept and sometimes a whole universe. They simply cannot be translated into any language or transferred to another sphere of a national or cultural experience lest they lose their linguistic sensitivity.

The Hebrew word “Segulah” is one of them. “Am Segulah” is what G-d refers to Am Yisrael as and on several occasions in the Torah. " "וְעַתָּה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ" )Exodus 19:5) (Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine).
Am, as many of us know, is a nation, a people. Am Segulah is a unique, a very distinct and rare nation. Segulah סגולהstems from the Hebrew root, ,סגל the same root of the word, purple סגול . What then, may some of you ask, is the relationship between Am Yisrael and the colour purple?
It is not a secret that purple is the colour of royalty and has been for thousands of years. There is a reason.
The production of the colour purple in ancient times was costly. Hence, it was rare and accessible only to kings and rulers who could afford purple fabrics. The dye that was used to produce the colour purple originally came from the city of Tyre, ruled then by the ancient Phoenicians. It was extracted from the Mollusk which according to the Online Oxford Dictionary is “An invertebrate of a large phylum which includes snails, slugs, mussels and octopuses. They have a soft unsegmented body and live in aquatic or damp habitats.” It took thousands of mollusks to create just a tiny quantity of the dye.
It follows then that since it was exclusive to kings and rulers, the ones who could afford to purchase fabrics of that colour, purple became linked with the ruling classes of ancient empires. The colour was also associated with holiness and wisdom as those who wore it were regarded by many as descendant of gods.
Though not all members of Am Yisrael are part of the imperial classes, our nation, just like any other, each in their own way, is unique. Am Segulah, though, is what G-d named and referred to our People as the quote from Exodus above points. It is not a title that, one bright day and out of nowhere, we chose to adorn ourselves with.
What many Jews, however, fail to understand is that this title, associated with once a very rare and unique colour, is not merely a label one can wear as a feather in their hat or let it serve as the laurel leaves upon which they can rest and enjoy that title. To be a chosen, chosen to carry a unique mission, role or destiny, requires constant work and toil. It bears high responsibility and demands repeated and concerted efforts to prove, time and again that the title and the awards attached to it are well deserved and well earned.
Nowadays, as the colour purple has become more widely accessible, I pray and wish that this new reality does not dilute the significance of our People’s role in history. I implore every Jew to remember who we are, where we came from and prepare ourselves to our destined purpose on the timeline of history. Only a close familiarity with these will ensure that for us and our relationship with G-d, we will forever remain as rare, precious and unique as the ancient purple dye, an Am Segulah.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The importance of reporting all the facts

 This article was written jointly with Roger Froikin

Our dear friend Sheri Oz recently published a series of articles on the Jordan Option conference that was held in Jerusalem on October 17.

She was among those who attended the conference. Her articles were based on her personal impressions of the conference and its speakers. While Sheri's articles contained important information, perhaps they could have provided a wider perspective of the conference and its organizers. On initial impression, Sheri’s articles seemed objective as she reported the events and quoted, mostly verbatim, the person(s) she interviewed leaving the readers to draw their own conclusion.

However, a second and more careful reading of the articles seems to reflect merely one side of the issue, the one she heard at the conference and those she spoke to wished her to share with her readers.

First, contrary to what is mentioned in Sheri's articles, there was no "controversy" between the London based Jordanian asylum seeker, Mudar Zahran and the highly respected Yisraeli Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. In fact, Mudar has been waging a smear campaign against Khaled Abu Toameh for several years. Second, we need to understand that such a report, as this article clearly was meant to be, will always be more influenced by those interviewed than it will be objective on an issue.

Though the article mentioned the other side, Khaled, Sheri never contacted him or gave him the right of response.

The campaign began after Zahran was booted out of Gatestone Institute. Two people who, according to Khaled Abu Toameh, have been involved in the smear campaign, Ted Belman and Rachel Avraham, are currently facing legal proceedings by law firms hired by Gatestone Institute and Khaled Abu Toameh.

It needs to be noted that Sheri's articles, though no fault of her own, were not inclusive of important information published recently about the conference and its organizers. Take, for example, the recent disclosure by Varda Epstein on Elder of Ziyon website that one of the keynote speakers, Michael Ross, is a lobbyist for the adult entertainment industry in California. Sheri's articles quote Ross, but do not make any reference to his work in the porn industry. Granted, the disclosure and exposure of Ross’s involvement in the pornography industry came out AFTER Sheri published her articles. Were Sheri to write today, however, now that Sheri knows the truth about Ross, she might want to ask herself what is the connection between porn and the conference she and others paid money to attend.

Sheri was aware of the public controversy surrounding the conference and Mudar as she has read Varda Epstein’s articles prior to writing her articles. Though I personally never detected any support of either Mudar or Belman in her article, the two twitted it as if the article praised them and their venture. Is it possible that either they or some of us might have grossly misunderstood Sheri’s intentions behind writing the article?

Recently, the Gatestone Institute issued the following Notice. Sheri was aware of it as well. Here it is:

It is important for all of us that these matters be looked at carefully and fairly and without providing half the story, half the facts. The best results come when we have all the facts with which to judge.

Saturday, 11 November 2017


Last Sunday night, while many of you were sound asleep, my students and I made our way to the top of Mount Metzada (Massada). It was a bright night with a full moon shining above lighting our path as we climbed this significant milestone in our Jewish people’s history. We were on our way to experience the place where members of our great Jewish nation remained faithful to their chosen destiny. We were on our way to keep our promise to them, to vow that we would never forget them and remind them and ourselves that their untimely death was not in vain.

I had been to Metzada many times before.  Something draws me personally to this place. I was one of them. I am one of them. Their blood runs through my veins. To walk again and again in the footsteps of the Zealots who were determined to keep their faith and remain defiant for as long as they could, makes my heart flutter. To roam along this flat top mountain, close my eyes and imagine myself as one of them, fills me with great pride. To share their joy of planting crops, educating the young ones about our Jewish history and to breath the air of freedom of being Jewish for as long as one could, is the fulfillment of the ancient and eternal promise of G-d to Am Yisrael. To stand there and look in the direction of Yerushalayim as we were sadly watching the clouds of smoke rising from the destroyed city of G-d yet knowing that the Eternal of Yisrael shall never lie, always filled my palate with that bittersweet taste that has ceaselessly been coating our Jewish essence.

On each visit to Metzada, I look down at the site of the Roman camps and wonder what it must have been like to watch them from above, try and guess their next moves and plans in their efforts to annihilate us. I imagine observing them and their thousands of slaves toiling to build the ramp alongside the western part of the mountain while worrying about our old and young frail ones and what fate awaits 

Never, however, had I visited Metzada at night. 

When we reached the top, I faced our ancient fortress under the moonlight. I was awestruck. The desert night had always bewitched me. Now, I was surrounded by its magnificence. Its recollections echoed against the walls of my beings.The cool air caressed my face. It soothed and cradled my soul in its ancient music.

As the first rays of the morning sun kissed the horizon, I sat on a rock as I had done in times gone by and counted my blessings. And there are many countless ones.

To be able to stand on top of Metzada as a Jew, as an Yisraeli Jew, in our Ancient/Modern Home and pledge our loyalty to our People and our Jewish heritage, to be able to vow "Again Metzada Shall Never Fall," however, is by far one of the greatest blessing of them all.

Wishing all of you Shabbat Shalom and Shavua tov.