Saturday, 31 March 2018

"And You Should Tell Your Son....

Last night Jews around the world celebrated the Pesach meal, called Seder.

“Seder” is the Hebrew word for “order.” Anyone who has ever attended one, would understand why it is called “Seder.” There is a certain order in this ceremony, a logical sequence to each part of this observance. It is lined out for us in the Haggadah, the booklet we use to guide us through it.

It is also apparent to anyone who has ever partaken in a Seder that, during this special meal, unlike any other night, the table is laid out and set with unusual food items and symbols. They are all intended to raise our curiosity and intrigue our inquisitive minds.
Likewise, a bird’s eye view of the Haggadah will reveal that its text is written in a manner that is aimed at prompting us to ask questions. We have the Four Questions which answer the basic query of why this night is different than any other night. We have the segment listing Four Sons, each with their own questions as well as other ones.  

Questions are an important tool along the journey of growth and development of any human being. Questions are also important along the ontogenetic path of a nation. It is curiosity that has triggered human growth and progress throughout the ages.

Our Jewish sages must have known that. And that is where the directive “And you should tell your son” comes into play.
“Those who forget their past,” a wise person once said, “have no future.” This important principle was also known to our wise sages. Teaching and educating about one’s national, cultural and spiritual past is a very important tenet in our Jewish tradition.

There are different ways of teaching, as many would know. The Haggadah, as we saw, uses a common didactic method to achieve that goal, “Questions and Answers.” There is great value in asking questions, as any teacher would tell us. More importantly is the manner in which the questions are formulated. Our sages who wrote the Hagadah were great pedagogues. They framed the questions in a way that helps the readers master core concepts about our Jewish/Zionist past. The method in which the questions in the Haggadah are articulated, the way the facts and ideas are communicated help the listeners and readers develop their critical thinking skills.

Moreover, as one might notice, the Haggadah never asks more than one question at a time. It lets them sink in, one by one. Asking questions throughout the reading of the Haggadah, as during any lesson, not only makes the experience of learning more interesting, it also makes it more interactive.

Questions by themselves, though, are not enough. They need answers in order to complete the cycle of learning, growing, advancing and progressing. Above all, the answers need to provide the links that connect our past learning to our present and future lessons.

The Haggadah writers knew that well. And when the answers come, it is often in the form of a song or a symbolic act. Everyone partakes in them. They engage every participant in this beautiful and heartwarming celebration of Freedom and Jewish Nationhood culminating with the song “L’Shana Ha’Ba’ah Birushalayim,” Next Year in Jerusalem which seals the meal. 

This morning, I am still singing this song as I continue to bask in the greatest lesson of them all, the greatest lesson of our Jewish history - to be a Free Nation in Our Homeland, the Land of Tziyon and Yerushalayim. May we all enjoy this Pesach season of Freedom and live to experience it designed and intended lessons.

Chag Sameach

Thursday, 29 March 2018

The Guilt of Some

I just got back from a seminar on Yiddish literature in Lithuania and Poland.

Needless to say, it was a very difficult trip. The monuments, the memorial sites, the death camps, every place was soaked with painful memories from our Jewish people’s recent sanguine history.

The visit to Poland, naturally, was overshadowed by the recent Polish law which calls for criminalizing some Holocaust speech accusing the Polish state or people of involvement or responsibility for the Nazi occupation during World War II. Punishment for breaking it can range from a fine or up to three years in prison. It went into effect on March 1, 2018.

Those who know me, know that as a daughter of two Shoah survivors, the subject is close to my heart. Some simply did not understand why I even bothered to visit Poland after this law had been enacted. For them such a law is a slap in the face of the victims and chose to ban Poland.

This was not my first visit to Poland. It may not be the last either. Let me make one point clear. I do not go there for cheap shopping or a vacation. I go there to tell the victims that they are not, nor will they ever be forgotten.

The last visit, however, brought about some insights which shed a light on a new reality. That reality, I believe, is not a pleasing one to the eyes, minds and collective subconsciousness of the Polish people.

Based on testimonies of friends and relatives who had visited Poland in the past, mainly before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Poland did not have nearly as many monuments commemorating the Shoah and its Jewish victims as it does now. Most tributes were dedicated to the Polish victims of the Nazi and Soviet occupation. And there is no denial that they were many.

Nowadays, more than ever, though, there are additional and new markers. They were erected to honour the Jewish ones. These are yet another permanent reminder of the extent of the Jewish graveyard that Poland was turned into by the Nazis and their Polish collaborators.

A note of caution is called for. In times of anger and grief, our human nature tends to generalize. One cannot and should never make sweeping statements. There were some Poles who helped Jews. My father was saved by one. I, for one, will never forget that.

Let us also not forget that many Poles were themselves victims of the Nazis. However, anyone who denies the collaboration between Poles and the Nazis verges on Shoah denial. That includes some of my Jewish friends who have suddenly become bleeding hearts for Poles.

Many Poles did assist the Nazi killing machine as it ploughed through their country in an effort to make Europe “Judenrein.” My parents lived through that. They, other members of my family and their close friends were my most reliable and trusted witnesses for what happened during those times.

No one, be it an individual or a nation, likes to be constantly reminded of or hammered about their past transgressions.

That is precisely what the many monuments with Hebrew and Yiddish epitaphs inscribed on them, which have sprung since the end of the Cold War and which are strewn all over Poland, do. They put a permanent mirror to the face of a nation that was turned into a killing field pushing many of its members to becoming willing and in some cases unwilling collaborators.

And that, in my view, that constant reminder of past transgressions prompted the Polish Law which I mentioned above. It is, I believe, part of the Polish nation’s way to help its members overcome a hard, and unfortunately for them, a dark and uncomfortable chapter in their nation’s history. It is their defense mechanism, one means to cleanse and wash off their guilt especially when it is sprinkled with small doses of projection as reflected in the words of its Prime Minister who claimed that the Shoah had not only Polish, German or Ukrainian perpetrators, but Jewish ones as well.

It may help the Poles. As far as I am concerned, though, “Never Again” is as vibrant in me as ever before. Am Yisrael Chai!

May we all have a meaningful Pesach.

Saturday, 17 March 2018


As Jews around the world prepare for the Pesach Holy Day, perhaps it is time to rethink the message and lessons of this very significant and meaningful celebration in our history.

The Hebrew word Pesach means “Pass over.” It is derived from the Book of Shemot (Exodus), 12:7 where the Torah recounts the story of the ten plagues brought upon the Egyptians following Pharaoh’s refusal to “let my people go.”

When G-d was about to inflict the Egyptians with the tenth plague, smiting their first born sons, He told Moses to instruct the Congregation of Yisrael to mark their doorposts with lamb’s blood so that G-d could “pass over” their homes and spare them.

Subsequent to G-d’s wonderous work,  the Congregation of Yisrael was finally freed from slavery, at least the physical kind. Freedom and liberation, however,  as we all know, is not confined merely to unshackling the corporeal chains of bondage. It also involves ridding oneself of the obsequious and submissive mindset so emblematic to those who have been oppressed for a long period of time.

In order to better understand this point, allow me to go back to that verse in Shemot where Moses pleads with Pharaoh to “let my people go.”

That Hebrew verse, to be precise, does not use the term “let” or “free.” Rather, it says “send my people.” (Another unfortunate result of the disastrous mistranslation of our Tanach!) For me, the verb “send” implies a deliberate act with a specific destination, a much more powerful and calculated design by G-d. It was the first step towards becoming a free people, physically, spiritually, culturally and nationally. Not an easy mission for a nation that had been suppressed, abused, isolated and on the verge of eradication, considering Pharoah’s own version of a “final solution” to the Hebrews.

Any slave, be it an individual, a group or a People would have welcomed with open arms such a ploy, it would seem. For who enjoys the status of slavery?

I can almost feel the excitement of Benei Yisrael as they rush to bake their Matzah, pack their belongings, and prepare themselves for their destiny. I can see them gathering their flocks, children and preparing for the great occasion, their deliverance.
Unfortunately, the excitement seemed to have worn off rather fast. Once they realized the hardships ahead of them, they began to miss the slavery routine in Egypt.

Suddenly, the “house of Bondage” did not seem that bad. Moreover, it had swiftly turned into a house of luxury and plentiful, the idyllic place. “If only we had died by G-d’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and fish and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Shemot 16: 2-4)

The Yisraelites may have been freed from physical bondage. They were still, however, inflicted with an emotional and spiritual one, one that had been imposed upon them and their forefathers for a few hundred years.

G-d had, naturally, expected it. He knew that one cannot become free merely by removing physical shackles.  It is, therefore, I believe, that He instructed Moses to wander in the desert for forty years, when a brief overview of the map of the region shows that the route to the Promised Land could have been cut shorter.  Forty years is the approximate life span of a generation.

The slavery generation had to die off, it had to remain in the desert before Am Yisrael could live a free and fulfilling life in its ancestral Homeland. The younger generation had to be coached and prepared to run and oversee its own life without the daily pressure of persecutors.

Fast forward to our times. Has much changed?

It is only seventy years ago, with the establishment of the state of Yisrael, when the Jewish people were liberated from the House of Bondage called Galut (Diaspora). The Galut and its reality indoctrinated Jews to a submissive mentality, the kind that forced us to seek the approval and love of others. Jews were mental slaves.

Unfortunately, some of our people have not yet shed that mindset. They continue to seek endorsement of the nations. They are desperately needy of Love and acceptance and consider the support of strangers the “pots of meat and fish and ate all the food.” Have we forgotten the suffering we endured because of that very long chapter in our history?

My concerns and my questions are, if it took Moses forty years to rid the Yisraelites of a few hundred years old slavish Galut mentality, how long will it take the Jewish state and nation to rid some of its members of a two millennia old one?

How long will it take all of us to Pass Over the threshold from the slave disposition to that of a Free Nation, the kind G-d had intended us to be?

May we all have a meaningful Pesach, full of the celebration of Life and Freedom.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Can a “Good” Gentile Replace a “Not so Good” Jew?

Time and again and more so lately, we have noticed some trying to convince us that a “Christian Zionist” is better than a “non-Zionist Jew.”

We will not tire you, again, with definitions though we believe that such an approach stems from lack of understanding of Jewish terminology. At times, when discussing issues such as “Zionism” and “religion,” it seems as if many are speaking completely different languages and not communicating at all.  We are dealing with Jewish concepts here, concepts that, due to inadequate education and after centuries of being defined by others, are not clear to some Jews, not to mention non-Jews. 

Frankly, we care about Jews knowing Jewish ideas and concept first albeit that we see Gentiles, some utterly disconnected to the Jewish reality, engaging in efforts to define us and invariably falling short.

We also realize that many non-Jews are sincere and genuine about their desire to educate themselves on Jewish subjects, some from sincere interest, others looking for the roots of their own beliefs. Nothing wrong with it. Too often, unfortunately, such interests are in support of an agenda that is not always consistent with Jewish concerns and realities.

Why is it that so many non-Jews, Christians, Muslims and others get offended when we tell them that only Jews can be Zionists and can really understand what Zionism means to Jews since only Jews have practiced Zionism through their hopes and prayers over several millennia?

That is not to say that help and sympathy from Gentiles is unwelcome.  On the contrary, in a smaller and smaller world where we are all more and more interconnected, in a world where there are so many hostilities, interest by non-Jews in the justice of Zionism and the welfare of the Jewish People is most welcome, and those that speak out about the truth for us are most appreciated.

 There is, however, a line that must be drawn.  While support, help, advice of a real friend is always welcome, there is a line not to cross, and that is where non-Jews take it upon themselves to tell Jews what Jews should believe about Jewish issues and concepts.

Why?  Because it is akin to having a Chinese man who has read Shakespeare in Chinese only, thinking about it in terms of Chinese tradition and culture, going to Oxford University and lecturing English Shakespeare experts on what Shakespeare really meant, with the British experts afraid of offending the Chinese enthusiast.  Sounds silly?  Of course, it is. 

 When it comes to Zionism and Judaism, though, we too often see Christians crossing that line, telling Jews what Judaism and Zionism should mean to them, in some cases representing Jewish organizations as paid speakers and lecturers, other times as Missionaries aiming to convert Jews to their faith systems.   In some cases, we have seen Gentile activists from persecuted minority groups themselves, spending their energies telling Jews what to believe, while ignoring the plight of their own peoples.  A shame indeed when their own people need their help and energies.

Try to understand something.  Most Jews would love to see Kurdistan, for instance, as a free, independent and prosperous state.  After all, Kurds are one people among a small number of nations, that were always hospitable to Jews.  But while we support, argue for, and want to help Kurds achieve their freedom, that does not mean that we will ever fully understand what it is like being a Kurd, as we do not have their history, we do not speak their language, and we can’t see the world exactly as they might.  So, while we can be pro-Kurdish nationalism, we cannot be Kurdish nationalists.  We do not find that insulting or offensive if a Kurd says that to us. It is realistic and factual. 
In the same way, Gentiles can support Zionism, can help, and that help is welcome, but they cannot be expected to see and feel Zionism’s ancient historic role, it’s effects and consequences, as Jews experience it and see it.

The same goes when it comes to Judaism.  No one can see Judaism better than through Jewish eyes. No one can replace a Jew no matter how “bad” anyone believes that Jew is and no matter how saintly any non-Jew who wishes to replace them is.   That is why conversion to Judaism is not just a change in theology, but more akin to naturalization into an entire culture.

One more point that we hope will be understood as meant.
Some Jews who see Gentile support for Israel as great flattery and who are afraid of saying something that might offend even missionaries that are trying hard to convert us, how about those gentiles who threaten to stop supporting us if we call them and their agenda out?

Consider this: Friends love you for what you are and who you are.  If they do not, if they are so easily offended, they are not friends and never were.

Let us say it again, this time louder and clearer. If anyone attaches their support for us to being able to appropriate that is which is ours and threaten to cease that support at the drop of a hat if we resist and object to it, then they have never been genuine friends in the first place.

And with friends such as these, who needs enemies?

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

Shabbat Shalom.