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Slowly I open one eye to check the digital clock. It still says 6:29 a.m., just like it did 30 seconds ago. The clock and I are in a power struggle. It wants me to stay in bed as long as I can since a good night’s sleep often evades me. Technically, I have no schedule to keep. But another part of me wants to greet the day and connect with G-d, so I open the other eye to make sure I can successfully make my way to my place of prayer; I arrive without incident.
* * *
Prior to my bout with breast cancer, I made time to pray for several months early in the morning in the kitchen. It is a large room, and although my prayers were my conduit to G-d, the tile floors and bright lights were not engaging. Once I had to go through cancer treatment, I was exhausted and didn’t feel invited back into the kitchen. At least that was my excuse, and my prayer practice went on hold.
Right about now, you might be asking yourself, “How bad can things get in this country?” Many of us would agree that the state of the union is not great. But the soul-saving gift of this time of year, which is now the Jewish month of Adar, is that during Adar, we increase our joy.
You may be wishing that you could just snap your fingers and joy shows up. But life doesn’t work that way. Each day, whether we realize it or not, we have a choice about whether we want to be unhappy or joyful: do we see opportunity or desolation? Darkness or light?
Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deut. 30:11) –Moses
Ever since @iwe pointed out this paragraph to me (which I had only glanced over in the past), I have been in love with it. It speaks so much to my own experience, my own realization about my faith, and the accessibility that I feel toward Judaism and G-d, that it resonates in my heart.
It’s not often I claim I’ve read a book that has changed my life. But this one did. And I thank @ontheleftcoast for telling me about it. Although I have studied the Holocaust over the years, I had never read a story about life in the shtetl, a small town with primarily Jewish residents in Eastern Europe.
This book, There Once was a World, was written by Yaffa Eliach, whose parents were Moshe and Zipporah Sonenson. This family, prosperous in Eishyshok terms, was also a pillar of the community, generous, compassionate, learned, and devoted to Judaism. The book also provided stories of individuals and families, and descriptions of Jewish life, from Torah study to the requirements of the faith.
The reason I was moved so deeply by the book was that, unlike many stories I have read about the Holocaust, with all its tragedies, human depravity, and horror, I had never read so many stories of individuals in one community: people with names, personalities, duties, and devotion to the Torah. Their lives, unlike the Jews in other urban cities in Europe, were difficult and demanding.
“Remember for good the man Yehoshua ben Gamla, because were it not for him the Torah would have been forgotten from Israel. At first a child was taught by his father, and as a result orphans were left uneducated. It was then resolved that teachers of children should be appointed in Jerusalem, and a father [who lived outside the city] would bring his child there and have him taught, but the orphan was still left without tuition. Then it was resolved to appoint teachers in each district, and boy of the age of sixteen and seventeen were placed under them; but when the teacher was angry with a pupil, he would rebel and leave. Finally Yehoshua ben Gamla came and instituted that teachers be appointed in every province and every city, and children from the age of six or seven were placed under their charge.”
— From the Talmud, Bava Batra (Yehoshua ben Gamla lived in Jerusalem 1st century CE)
If you’re Jewish, the importance of education is emphasized from a very young age. Our history has taught us about the many benefits of education: maintaining a connection to G-d’s laws; having the tools to function in the greater society; developing a commitment to learning, discipline, and dedication to our roots; and devoting ourselves to the future of the Jewish community.
Other groups, particularly Asian folks, also treasure their education for many of the same reasons. And the commitment to pursuing a secular education is also a priority for Jews. In many ways, however, the commitment to Jewish education, per se, seems to be fading.
Twenty-five years ago, I was invited by a rabbi whom I’d interviewed for a book I was writing, to give a talk to a group of student rabbis and cantors. The students were attending a college in L.A. for their training, and I was invited to speak to them because I was a Jew who had essentially left my religion behind and became a Zen Buddhist. The rabbi who invited me thought I could shed some light on the reasons Jews were abandoning Judaism.
At the end of my talk (where I basically told my own story), we opened the floor for questions. Most people were kind and curious and, of course, disappointed that I wasn’t actively engaged in Judaism. I thought I’d made my own situation clear by explaining that I’d never connected with my heritage in a deep way and found that Zen fulfilled many of my hopes for a spiritual life.
At one point, a young man made the following statement: “It sounds to me as if you are a self-hating Jew.” He said it calmly with no rancor. I was very surprised at his comment, and responded equally as calmly and said that I thought his observation was incorrect, since I hadn’t left Judaism in anger, but because I hadn’t connected with it in a deep and meaningful way. I blamed no one for that outcome.
The nation of Israel is constantly in the news, a small nation whose very existence attracts a disproportionate interest from the rest of the world. Israel is also a modern creation, whose groundwork was laid in the late 19th century, and whose birth came as a promised land of safety and return after the horrors of WWII. Return from what? From the Diaspora of Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. From Roman Palestine, over the next 1900 years, the Jews spread throughout much of the world. And with the creation of Israel, many did return. But many communities of the Jewish Diaspora either remain where they planted themselves centuries (or even millennia) ago, or have continued to spread into different, and sometimes unlikely places around the world.
Exile, the first published book by an author already known here on Ricochet, Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, is Annika’s investigation into a number of these Diaspora communities. How did they arrive where they are? When did they arrive? And why do they stay, with the promise of a return to Israel beckoning? Over the past several years, Annika has been visiting some of the most unlikely or far-flung Jewish communities around the world, and she presents their stories here in a single volume.
Annika has chosen communities that seem very unlikely — Jewish communities within Muslim-majority nations both liberal and repressive, communities deep within Asia, the last remnants of a Jewish community in Cuba, and several other surprising ones along the way. For instance, the author chose to avoid looking at places like Germany or Poland or France, in no small part because for those places the Holocaust looms ever large. One of the common threads in her selection is instead the study of communities who either were largely sheltered from the Holocaust, or who are peopled by those who managed to stay ahead of it, though she confesses that this was not entirely by design:
Dennis Prager has a really interesting article out, called “What Is Judaism?” Mr. Prager has written and taught on the subject (including two years as a member of the Brooklyn College Department of Judaic Studies). This is how he leads:
If you’ve ever wondered what Judaism is, here is a list of its principal beliefs. This is not an official list, but these beliefs have been widely held by religious Jews for thousands of years.
Holidays were always a fun time as a kid. The ones that we marked, at least. On Thanksgiving, we went around and said what we were grateful for. On Succos (Feast of Tabernacles), my father and brother built our own little temporary hut and I helped string the cranberries to hang from the branches above […]
In the last few years, I’ve written about American Jews and their future, especially regarding their allegiance to the Democrat or Republican parties; recently, the numbers haven’t changed much. Most non-traditional Jews (about 70 percent) identify as Democrats and the remainder of Jews, mostly Orthodox, support Republicans.
Rather than look at party affiliation, however, I’ve become increasingly concerned with the growing emergence of the radical Left and the Jewish affiliation with them. In addition, the efforts to make Judaism more “palatable” to Jews who are not Orthodox is slowly tearing at the fabric of the Jewish faith. Ultimately, my concern is that the existence of the faith could be in jeopardy on two fronts: the growth of anti-Semitism, and the disinterest in continuing the Jewish faith in a form that resembles its roots.
The first front, anti-Semitism, has been of growing concern. The main source for data is the Anti-Defamation League, which has become strongly influenced by the Left. In 2017 the League reported an increase in anti-Semitism of 57 percent, ranging from anti-Semitic tweets to bomb threats sent to Jewish institutions. Our federal government also collects information on anti-Semitism here. At the federal government level, we have also seen a reluctance to hold members of Congress accountable for anti-Semitic rhetoric.
For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as He did in that of your fathers, since you will be heeding the Lord your God and keeping his commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Teaching—once you return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.
Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deuteronomy, 9-14)
Hello Ricochet! The Tikvah Podcast is the latest show to join the Ricochet Audio Network. (If you haven’t listened yet, here it is!) We couldn’t be more excited about it. We want you to be excited as well, so let’s introduce ourselves…
The Tikvah Fund is a think tank, educational institution, and philanthropic foundation committed to supporting the intellectual, religious, and political leaders of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. We do our work through a wide range of venues, from great books-oriented summer programs, to publications like Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books, to online courses and podcasts. Intellectually and politically, we’re broadly center-right, admiring and learning from the likes of Irving Kristol, Leo Strauss, Leon Kass, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Vladimir Jabotinsky.
We think politics is important—both in Israel and in America. But Tikvah isn’t fundamentally in the business of commenting on the news cycle. And neither is the Tikvah Podcast. Our podcast is focused on asking big questions about great Jewish and Zionists texts and ideas. We hope that by taking a step back, we can help our listeners think a little more deeply about the most significant issues facing the Jewish people, our Christian friends, the State of Israel, and the United States of America.
They live their lives by a sacred code; it isn’t secret, but few people actually know its inner sanctum. Life entails a commitment to consciousness, discipline and faith, and because of the lure of everyday secular life, many fall away, believing they are not up to the task or are unwilling to comply with the demands. Those who remain are deeply committed to living virtuous lives, to raising loving and principled children, and to following the Law.
They are practicing or Orthodox Jews who embrace Torah, love G-d and revere acts of kindness. I have witnessed these three qualities among my practicing Jewish friends, and I venerate them for the life choices they have made.
In the days following the murder rampage at the Tree of Life synagogue, I received several expressions of grief from friends who are committed Christians. One included in her note a verse from John Donne:
No man is an island entire of itself . . .
any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
This largeness of spirit is what I have come to know and love in America. The incubus of anti-Semitism, so ineradicable and durable everywhere else in the world, has been gloriously and nearly miraculously minimized in the United States. Of course there were episodes. Leo Frank, a young factory manager, was lynched in Georgia in 1915. Henry Ford publicized the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Following Kristallnacht in 1938, radio preacher Father Coughlin told his large audience that the Jews had brought it on themselves. “Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted.” The Ivy League and other institutions maintained Jewish quotas, and country clubs and sometimes whole neighborhoods were “restricted.”
The outpouring of love and support for Jews following the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings has deeply touched me. I’m not surprised by it, but the reminder of the inclusiveness in our community is one more tribute to Ricochet. In one of the many posts I read, someone asked, “Why have the Jews always been treated this way?” It may have been a rhetorical question, but I took it at face value and decided to share my views about the reasons for anti-Semitism.
It’s important to say at the start that there is no way to provide every explanation for anti-Semitism:
Perhaps the most striking facet about Jew-hatred is its irrationality. There are as many reasons for hating Jews as there are people. Everything that upsets, hurts, or displeases people they often attribute to the Jews. Jews have been blamed for manipulating the media to their needs, usury, blood libels of various forms, well poisoning, dominating slave trade, disloyalty to their host countries, organ harvesting and AIDS spreading.
In 66 AD, a group of 960 Jewish Zealots decided they would prefer to commit suicide rather than yield to Roman conquest at Masada:
Masada (‘Metsada’ in Hebrew) is the name of the mountain on which the Masada fortress was built. It is more like a plateau or a table mountain, and quite isolated from its surroundings, as there is only one narrow, winding pathway leading up, fittingly called “the Snake.” According to Josephus Flavius, an ancient historian and the only one to record what happened on Masada, Masada was first built by the Hasmoneans, a Jewish dynasty who ruled Judaea in the years between 140-37 BC. Then, between 37-31 BC, King Herod the Great built two palaces there and further fortified the place as a refuge for himself in case of a revolt. However, it proved to be a refuge for Jewish rebels about 90 years later.
A group of Jewish extremists went to Masada after the destruction of the Second Temple. In response, the Roman governor of Judea conducted a siege there and the Jews tried to hold them off, but finally realized that they would lose. Technically, what they committed was not suicide, which is forbidden by Jewish law; instead, the people drew lots, taking turns in killing each other, so that only one person actually killed himself.
This past week, we witnessed emotional testimony from both Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanugh, and Dr. Christine Blasé-Ford, who alleges a sexual assault by Kavanaugh in high school. Both described vicious attacks from social media on them and their families following these allegations. Ms. Ford has had to move from her home, and Judge […]