Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Beit Shemesh is a town of some 85,000 people at the foot of the Judean Mountains, about a 30 minute drive to Jerusalem. Beit Shemesh means “House of Sun” and it is, appropriately, very hot. But the recent violence and intolerance have turned Beit Shemesh into the House of Darkness. Reports of the assault of a little girl aired on Israeli TV this past Friday (http://www.jpost.com/Features/InThespotlight/Article.aspx?id=250917) have mushroomed and are the subject of a flood of e-mails, a Facebook group organizing a demonstration, and videos being shared to document this offense (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFm1tZkEuxI). Matters got worse this week when an Israeli TV news crew filming in Beit Shemesh was violently assaulted. Sadly, the ideology that has driven these violent assaults is one of fellow Jews, Haredim (ultra-orthodox), which makes the matter worse. Extremist Haredi communities throughout Israel have become increasingly isolationist, and increasingly arrogant in their behavior, not just with the strict interpretation of Jewish law for themselves, but in their imposing their standards on others. It has been long understood that someone driving through a Haredi neighborhood on Shabbat risks having his/her car stoned by men yelling “Shabbes” as if throwing rocks at a moving vehicle is less of a desecration of the sanctity of Shabbat than driving through a Haredi neighborhood, as insensitive as that may be. Sadly, even though we hold the saving of a life to be the highest value, some Haredim would just as soon stone an ambulance en route to saving someone’s life as an errant Mazda. According to Jewish law, in order to be able to throw rocks like this on Shabbat, the rocks have to be set aside before Shabbat in order that they have a purposeful use on Shabbat, and that the rock throwers (God forbid) not violate the sanctity of Shabbat by throwing rocks that have no purpose. Yogi Berra would have a field day with this! Depending on one’s perspective, this amounts to pre-meditated assault, or hyper-holiness. There are no shortage of other absurd examples of false Haredi piety such as segregating buses so men and women should not sit together and have impure thoughts or accidentally bump up against one another, segregating of shopping areas to men and women only areas, having separate sidewalks for men and women during holiday seasons, and more. It’s been said by contrast, that anyone who has such a risk of impure thoughts as a result of sitting next to or brushing up against a member of the opposite sex is a pervert anyway and has problems much deeper than perceived public piety. Given the dynamic of the Haredi community, all this could stop if their Rabbis had the sense and decency to tell their adherents that this behavior is not only NOT a sanctification, but rather a desecration, of God’s name. To their credit, some Haredi leaders have spoken out, and done so harshly, but unless the rabbis of the sects from where the offenders originate do so, not much is likely to change. Among recent accounts of the newest flare up that has garnered so much attention, some have noted that people would look the other way if these stringencies were not pushed on the rest of Israeli society. This is challenging in that it ought to be the right of people to live as they wish, but not to have their ideologies and stringencies imposed on others. In Israel, it is a fine line as to where one’s observance encroaches on the rights of others, not to observe, or to observe differently. There are many areas in which we defer to the “status quo” that has governed interaction among haredim in Israeli society for decades. However, in no case does spitting on and calling a little girl names fit and, at the risk of imposing my standards on others, has no place in our society. More than creating the environment in which gross behavior like this could even be considered acceptable, and the Haredi rabbis not speaking out against it, what’s worse is the overall tarnishing of the essence of Judaism. Liberal/secular inclined Israelis have long had gripes with the imposing of Haredi standards throughout so many facets of Israeli society. Israeli media is not known for its’ general respect for religion, and behavior like this ignites the embers of what, in any other country, could be deemed anti-Semitism. Writing this is challenging in its own right because so as not to be guilty of sinat hinam, baseless hatred, against fellow Jews, as much as their ideology may be distant from mine, and as much as the actions of some may be repugnant. I want to be careful not to project that all Haredim behave this way, or tolerate this behavior. That’s not true. Maybe, somehow, this gross progression of events by an extremist group of Haredim capped by the disgusting behavior that was reported in the Israeli media this week will somehow be a catalyst for their rabbis to take pause and at least stop their adherents from such behaviors if not because they are illegal, maybe because they will realize their behaviors are a desecration of God’s name and the Torah. And while they’re at it, maybe they’ll call upon their adherents to cease all actions that are, or might be, perceived as divisive by the majority of Israelis and, in turn, reach out to share with Israeli society the beauty of Judaism and it’s customs and rituals rather than the polarizing and repulsive behavior that will push Jews further away from Judaism. Maybe. But maybe I’m just spitting in the wind.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Every night, I sit down to watch the world’s newest TV reality show. Unlike a scripted, well choreographed, high priced show, the show I am watching is evolving in real time before our eyes, on the nightly news, “The Bad Boy of the Middle East.” The main difference between a commercial TV reality show and this one is that it’s hard to determine who the winner will be, if there will be a winner at all and, if so, what that winner will get in lieu of the cash prize most commercial shows offer. Who is the Bad Boy of the Middle East? It’s the one who most successfully discriminates against, brutalizes, and slaughters its own citizens. Let’s take a look at some of our contestants. Algeria – to put up a buffer against the wave of protests enveloping North African neighbors Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, Algeria ended its two decade old state of emergency and will try to hold off other protests. Not the worst offender in terms of brutalizing its own citizens, but not a shining light of democracy either. A long shot to win the title, but in changing times, one never knows. Egypt – the Arab spring was highlighted by the toppling of Egypt’s long time, and less than democratic, President Hosni Mubarak. Violence that erupted, then took the summer off, only now to rear its head again with hundreds of thousands protesting in the streets and dozens killed, so far. An Islamist victory will certainly lead to repression, especially among Egypt’s 8 million Christians. Iran – the bad boy of the bad boys. Their President doesn’t even try to lie about what they want to do to us. They just lie about making the weapons to use to do it. Iran gets extra credit for lying and making outrageous statements, and getting spineless other states to go along with them. They also get extra points for arming a network of like minded terrorists to destabilize Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, just to name a few. Before any Arab spring, the Iranians put down a post election fraud revolt that was starting. Since then, the winds of summer, fall and winter have not reached the sails of Iranians who would like to live with a sense of freedom and democracy. Definitely a front runner from brutalizing their own citizens and threatening the rest of us. Iraq – depending on what comes, Iraqis may long for the days that their “only” problem was being tortured by their former president Saddam Hussein. Fighting between the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish populations was, and probably always will be. Terrorist attacks by one group to another are common. As soon as US and other troops exit, Iran is sitting next door waiting to pounce and destabilize further. Whether the Iraqis win or not, one thing that’s almost certain is that Iraqis will surely spill one another’s blood for some time to come. Jordan – The Hashemite kingdom deserves credit for hanging on. A real democracy it isn’t, but it certainly isn’t one of the most brutal of Arab states. There’s a healthy struggle between an indigenous population that’s largely Palestinian, and a minority represented by the monarchy. The monarchy hasn’t really brutalized the Palestinians since the later challenged the former in 1970. It’s not certain that if a new challenge were to arise that King Abdullah could get away with a new Black September as his father did. Jordan changes governments as a national past time, and with the heat of the Arab spring, has done so again. For the moment, the King is stable. For the moment. Lebanon – this country gives definition to the word unstable. With a civil war that lasted decades, occupation by Syria, two wars with Israel as a result of the Lebanese firing rockets at Israel and attacking its citizens, murder of their popular Prime Minister, and the destabilizing imposition of Hezbollah as a terrorist entity now occupying seats in their parliament and maintaining their own army within an army, the only thing that makes Lebanon look good today is the horrors taking place next door in Syria. Lebanon is too torn and divided to be The Bad Boy today, but tomorrow is another day. Libya – the dust hasn’t settled since the revolution that ousted, captured and then killed its maniac dictator so it’s unclear what will be. Between Qaddafi the father and Qaddafi the son (Seif), the Libyan people have been terrorized and butchered for decades, and Libya also exported its terror. Extra credit for, while doing this, bullying the Brits to release the mastermind of the Lockerbie terrorist attack, while enabling British companies to sign lucrative oil deals with Qaddafi and company. Morocco – it’s not impossible that the wave of revolutionary fervor sweeping across northern Africa could go as far west as Morocco. But compared to others, Morocco is less at risk, therefore less internal brutalizing of its citizens. What will come of an Islamic party winning the recent elections there and whether it’s a threat to the long term monarchy remains to be seen. Palestinian Authority – Like Alcoholics Anonymous, AA, the PA is governed by a “recovering” terrorist group, the PLO, and one that hasn’t even realized that there’s a problem in being a terrorist organization, Hamas. The internal strife between the two is severe despite the whitewash if “unity” they paint periodically for the world to see, and each targets the others’ supporters, leading to murder and terrorizing of the people they claim to represent in a power struggle that has long term implications. Saudi Arabia – the enlightened oil rich desert kingdom gives women new rights to go out of their homes and go to university, even allowing one woman to represent the Saudis in the upcoming Olympic Games. Maybe the Saudi people will be appeased by this and the wave of unrest hitting the rest of the world will pass by like a desert storm. Saudis still behead people convicted of certain crimes and chop off hands of criminals. Unless there’s a wave of dissent against the well entrenched monarchy, it’s not likely that the Saudis will be serious contenders. Syria – poor Bashar Assad can’t get a break. He wants to unleash the full force of the Syrian military against his people, like the Iranians want him to, and like his father did. But Bashar just can’t fill his father’s big brutal shoes. He’s had more than 3500 people killed this year alone. Even the Arab League suspended and sanctioned Syria. As an assembly of some of the least democratic and most authoritarian countries in the world, their standards are far from western, or enlightened. So when they don’t like what another member is doing and sanction that member, it’s got to be really bad. Tunisia – other than angry fruit vendors setting themselves on fire because of a little police brutality, the protest and violence that enveloped Tunisia has largely passed. They set off a chain reaction that’s not stopped, but Tunisia’s issues are mostly self contained and they don’t pose a great threat to their own people or others. A for Assist, but no real great chance at Tunisia winning the Bad Boy title. Turkey – the Turks might get some sympathy after two serious earthquakes, but the real issue is their on and off cozying/conflicting with Iran and how that plays out domestically. They continue to fight against their own Kurdish population, support terrorist organizations, and have lead the charge against neighbor Syria, while absorbing tens of thousands of refugees. But, if they step too far out of the box, or if the Kurds in Iraq are emboldened in the deterioration of their country, it could create a new challenge for Turkey, one which they might just seek advice on repressing the population from the Syrians they are now sanctioning. Yemen – the country is a vacuum even with its’ hated and brutal dictator who is offering terms to step down that have not been acceptable, all the while breeding a local Al Qaida chapter that’s among the most radical. They may brutalize their own people but as a backwater, like in the movie, most won’t care as “what happens in Yemen stays in Yemen.” While situated in the Middle East, the only thing that makes Israel a contender is the international media and UN taking things that pale by comparison to the brutality of all the rest of the region and making Israel out to be a monster. The truth is that even the “occupied” Palestinians have a better and freer life than most of their Mid Eastern brethren, and this is depicted by protesters throughout the region saying that they want a democracy like Israel on one hand, while calling for destroying Israel on the other. Also, that Arabs and Jews can protest freely in Israel without fear of government or military reprisals make Israel not even qualified to enter for the title. If there’s one thing that these conflicts in the Middle East tell us, that’s Israel is not the root of all the problems, that making peace with the Palestinians won’t begin to make the rest of the problems go away, and that when Arabs kill one another, it’s accepted as the norm, (boys will be boys), and when Israel shoots tear gas or rubber bullets at Palestinians, it’s front page news as “proof” that Israel is anti-democratic, apartheid, or the biggest offender of human rights and perpetrator of “war crimes” in the world. Of course, when these countries and their third world allies stand in judgment, it’s no wonder. Maybe that’s also part of what makes a real Bad Boy the worst, the ability to deflect criticism and blame for their own criminal acts and human rights violations, and point a finger at Israel. 64 years after the world voted to create a Jewish and an Arab state in British occupied Palestine, if the Arabs would accept the formula of two states for two people, as Israel did then and still does, this would be one of the easiest problems to solve in the Middle East. But based on the ongoing conflicts that are pervasive throughout the region, highlighted by governments discriminating against, repressing, and killing their own citizens almost as an Olympic sport, it’s unlikely that even the long awaited resolution to the challenges Israel faces of being accepted by its neighbors will make any impact on the wider problems. Israel does serve an important role for its’ neighbors, to be the punching bag to deflect domestic issues. Rather than accept responsibility and accountability for their own behavior, they blame Israel for all their problems and use that to leverage support of the people they abuse in their own countries. Your vote for who’s going to win the “Bad Boy of the Middle East” title is welcome on my Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/jonathan.a.feldstein.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Next week, the US Supreme Court will hear a case involving the US government's refusal to list Israel as the place of birth on the passports of American citizens born in Jerusalem. (For information about the case, please visit http://borninjerusalem.org.) I'm sure that numerous Supreme Court decisions have impacted me. But no Court decision has the potential to hit as close to home, literally and figuratively. In 2005, my wife and I were blessed to welcome our sixth child into our family, and the world. Yishai was born at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, the center of Jewish life for more than 3000 years. As proud Americans, we completed the paperwork at the US Consulate to register him as an American born overseas and apply for his US passport. Despite our writing "Jerusalem, Israel" as his place of birth on the application, his passport arrived listing his place of birth only "Jerusalem." No state. Yishai is named for two relatives who were victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Yosef, my father's cousin, was just a child not much older than Yishai is today when the Nazis murdered him and his mother. He probably never even thought about seeing, much less living in, Jerusalem. But it would be hard to imagine that even as a young child, Jerusalem was not part of his consciousness, in prayer, during his last Passover Seders, and as a vision he could never comprehend. Shalom Yakov was my great grandfather. Despite raising several children and running a successful business, his life was cut short by Nazi bullets. As a mature adult, there's no doubt that he knew what Jerusalem meant. My great grandfather knew that the future of Jewish life was in Israel, and lived to see two children settle there. He must have been euphoric to know that he had a grandson (my father) born in Israel. I suspect that he'd have been even more elated to know that his great great grandson, Yishai, who is named for him, was born in Jerusalem seven decades later. Yishai’s birth was no more remarkable than the birth of any child, to the extent that the miracle of bringing a new person into the world is not remarkable. What was remarkable is that he joined tens of thousands of others that year alone who fulfilled the aspirations of millions of Jews throughout the millennia “just” by being born in a place about which they always dreamt. Jewish and Jerusalem are synonymous, and this is underscored by the fact that my son’s name, Yishai, is the Hebrew for Jesse, the father of King David, who established Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel and the Jewish people. I don’t expect the US government to follow Biblical tradition, but I do know that hundreds of millions of Americans, and billions worldwide, know that the link between Jerusalem and the Jewish people was, is and always will be unbreakable. The omission of “Israel” as the country of Yishai’s birth is an offense that we hope the Supreme Court will fix. In no other place in the world is the country of one’s birth omitted from the passport of American citizens born abroad. Imagine the fallout from the US not recognizing Paris as part of France, Moscow as part of Russia, or Beijing as part of China. Don’t Americans born in Kurdistan have Iraq, Syria or Iran listed as the country of birth? Don’t Americans born in Tibet have China listed in their passport? And yet as much as Jerusalem might be in dispute on a diplomatic basis with governments of the world playing politics rather than doing what’s right, it’s high time that these governments stop pandering to Arab and Islamic sensitivities which seek to erase and deny any Jewish historical and religious connection to Jerusalem, and recognize that Jerusalem is an integral part of Israel. Perhaps doing so would force the hands of the Arab and Islamic rejectionists, and bring them to the negotiating table in order to get a piece of the pie. Yet until that happens, there’s no ground for the US to deny the right of an American born in Jerusalem the ability to list “Israel” his or her country of birth. Rubbing salt into the wounds of the inability to list Israel as the country of birth for such people, uniquely, Americans born in Israel have the right to omit Israel from their passport as the country of birth. So an Israeli Arab with dual US citizenship has the ability to OMIT Israel from the place of birth on his passport even if he was born in Jaffa, Haifa, or Ramle. This is a double act of discrimination and a policy that is begging to be fixed. Not only does the US government not allow an American to record his son’s birth as “Jerusalem, Israel,” but the US government does allow an American born in Israel to remove any reference of Israel from their US passport. Sadly, current US policy is not only wrong and illegal, but it also allows people who try to purge the centrality of Jerusalem to Israel the ability deny to Israel’s legitimacy, if not its very existence. The current US policy is discriminatory, contradictory, and I hope the US Supreme Court will affirm that it is illegal. I look forward to taking my son to get his new American passport, proudly registering as an American born in Israel, not a stateless city that just happens to have Jewish historical evidence and religious relics that go back thousands of years.
Monday, May 9, 2011
The hardest part of telling Daniel’s story is that it is in the past tense. Otherwise, it’s inspiring and uplifting. In April 2006, during the intermediate days of Passover, Daniel Cantor Wultz suffered devastating life threatening injuries to most of his 16 year old body. Standing next to Daniel on an outing with his family during their holiday visit to Israel, Daniel’s father also suffered severe injuries when a suicide bomber detonated the belt full of explosives, killing 11 and injuring 70. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack, Daniel was rushed to the hospital by Magen David Adom. On board the ambulance and at the hospital, EMTs and doctors feverishly tried to do everything they could to keep Daniel alive. In order to sustain his severely damaged body, doctors were challenged to replenish the blood being lost, while at the same time, trying to repair his badly devastated body. In all, Daniel required 80 units of blood just to stay alive in the hours after the terrorist attack. The doctors were able to stop the bleeding, yet Daniel’s life remained in grave danger. For weeks, his family prayed by his bedside, recalling better times and hoping that they would again be able to enjoy these together with Daniel soon. At one point, dozens of students from Daniel’s school in the US arrived to join the family in prayer. As they played for Daniel’s recovery, they recalled how he was a great people person. He loved people, especially his family and friends, and was widely loved as well. Daniel was known for warm embracing hugs which his friends and family longed to have again, as they hugged and comforted one another. Daniel also loved Israel. Upon arriving in Israel at the beginning of the Passover holiday, Daniel told his parents, “I’m glad to be home.” At his young age, Daniel understood the centrality of Israel in Jewish life, and loved the feeling of being there. Daniel loved his Judaism which instilled in him a deep sense of humility and respect for the values and beliefs of others. Daniel’s ability to respect others enabled him to reach out and be accepted by others in turn, young and old, black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish. Daniel never spoke badly of others. This was so important to him that if he heard others speaking negatively about their peers, he would actively reach out to encourage them to stop. As they waited and prayed together in the hospital, Daniel’s friends remembered what a role model he was to them, as well as adults who may have been much older but did not possess his maturity. Daniel loved sports, especially basketball. He looked up to Michael Jordan not only for his incredible athletic gift, but for overcoming many personal challenges as a young man to become “the best basketball player ever.” Daniel respected that Michael Jordan never blamed anyone or felt angry at those who criticized him for not playing well enough. For Daniel, Michael Jordan embodied the ability to overcome severe challenges, and Daniel’s friends and family hoped that somewhere deep inside, Daniel would be able to overcome the life threatening challenges that he faced at the very moment, beseeching God to give Daniel a full recovery. Daniel loved “XBOX,” movies, and had a great sense of humor. Daniel loved flying airplanes, and at 14 ½ flew a jet. Daniel loved life, but two years after the “height” of flying a jet, he lay in grave danger as a result of a terrorist’s hatred. On Mother’s Day that year, all Daniel’s mother wanted was for her son to be well again. But on Mother’s Day, just weeks after sustaining the life threatening injuries, weeks after doctors used every imaginable means at their disposal to keep Daniel alive, Daniel’s body succumbed to his wounds and he died. Today is Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for Israel’s lost soldiers and victims of terrorist attacks. In its own short life, Israel has lost more than 22,000 soldiers defending the Land that Daniel loved, and more than 4000 victims of terrorist’s hatred and intolerance. In Israel, where we celebrate together, we also mourn together and the media is replete with stories of courage, bravery, inspiration, and, sadly, death. This year, I remember Daniel, a young man who I never met, but because the terrorist attack that killed him took place on the day I organized my first blood drive in Israel, he is someone to whom I feel very close. Today Israel mourns its martyrs. Daniel is among them. Sadly, today is Mother’s Day. Daniel’s mother never got her wish in 2006, and since, has only the comfort of the memory of Daniel’s short 16 years. May Daniel’s memory be a blessing for his family and friends, and all of us, and may no more mothers ever have to spend this day mourning their child.
Friday, April 15, 2011
It was one of the most uneasy feelings I have ever had when, sometime in the mid 1980s, I made my grandmother sob. I don’t know what we were talking about but I mentioned my interest to go to Poland one day and see the town where she came from. My grandmother, who was born in Poland, moved to Israel as a young woman and left behind her parents, several siblings, tens of nieces and nephews, and everything she knew, not knowing when, or if, she’d ever see them again. “The land there is filled with our blood,” she sobbed, imploring me not to go there, ever. I suspect that as much as I opened a wound that never healed, knowing that almost her entire family was slaughtered by the Nazis and their Polish neighbors, I suspect she also feared for my well being. I don’t know what I responded exactly, but it probably was something to do with my not going there, in order to appease and calm her. Of course, I had no concrete plans to go there then, but I was still curious. In 1990, I was given the opportunity to go to Poland as staff for a UJA young leadership mission. Our time in Poland was filled with highs and lows: the rededication of a synagogue in Krakow, the first direct flight between Krakow and Israel, and other experiences as a group of young, lively, and living American Jews, juxtaposed by the horrors about which we all knew, but to which we had traveled to bear witness. There were many remarkable things that stood out in the brief trip: the colorful and festive Warsaw Yiddish Theater without a single Jewish actor, the “beauty” of the remaining part of Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery, digging in another cemetery where a survivor traveling with us thought he had buried the town’s Torah scrolls so they would not be desecrated by the Nazis or the Poles, bullet holes still in the wall of the synagogue in the same town where Jews had been lined up and shot inside the sanctuary, and Auschwitz with the incomprehensible crematoria still intact, as well as “exhibits” of hair, suitcases, glasses, shoes, and children’s shoes that were taken from the millions of victims who arrived, but never left. Like many trips of tens or hundreds of thousands, since then, our trip continued to Israel, from Jewish destruction to Jewish rebirth. One of the highlights of that trip was the ability to greet a plane load of Soviet Jewish immigrants. Tears and dancing on the tarmac celebrated their arrival in their homeland, a milestone not lost on the elderly immigrants who had to be helped off the plane, some survivors of the Holocaust, others WWII veterans proudly wearing their medals. All were refugees seeking a better life, and Israel was that life affirming place to welcome them all as Jews, even in the twilight of their own lives. If only Israel had existed many decades earlier, our trip to bear witness in Poland might never have been necessary. Before my daughter and her classmates left for Poland two weeks ago, they spent considerable time studying details of the Holocaust, and Jewish life in Poland up until that point. I knew it was critical for her to have this experience, not just to go to Poland, but to go with her class. It’s a class trip of a kind I never imagined growing up in suburban NJ. Yet, in a flashback to my interaction with my grandmother nearly three decades earlier, I felt unease in her going. Part of it was for her physical safety knowing that anti-Semitism is alive and well in Poland and that such groups require armed guards to protect them. More so, I realized that to the extent that my almost 18 year old is still innocent, this would shatter that forever. Balancing protecting one’s kids and sheltering them appropriately, with helping them to grow up with the resources to mature and become independent people, is one of the greatest challenges in parenting, one in which I am sure I made more than my share of mistakes. Sending your child to Poland to witness the destruction of Jews and Jewish life there is one of those difficult parenting moments. Indeed, some parents don’t allow their children to participate. How much more difficult it must have been for my great grandparents to have the opportunity to send four of their children out of Poland in the 1930s and early 40s, selflessly knowing that they were protecting their children, including my grandmother, but never knowing if they would ever see one another again. It’s customary to welcome back Israeli high school groups with formal ceremonies, celebrating their return, and marking the more than symbolic journey from destruction to revival of Jewish life. The truth is, we were initially loathe to have to be there at 6:30, and felt a bit of a reprieve the night before to learn that the girls’ charter flight was delayed and we could meet them at the more human hour of 9:30, eventually moved to even later. The truth is, I didn’t understand the need to make a big deal of their return home. I was looking forward to seeing my daughter and her friends home safely, as if from any trip, but I was worried that in too typical an Israeli manner, the ceremony would be long, drawn out, with dozens of speakers, each one thanking the previous, and subsequent speakers, ad infinitum. The truth is, I was very wrong. On the way to the ceremony welcoming my daughter and her classmates back, I was riding across Jerusalem on the #74 bus. At one point, the bus stopped and I looked up from my work to see that I was literally parallel to the spot where, just two weeks earlier, a terrorist’s bomb exploded, killing one and wounding dozens, including passengers on another #74 bus. How uneasy to be on the way to welcome your child back from Poland where she witnessed the destruction of our people – including dozens of our own relatives – when just outside the window of the bus on which I was riding I was witness to the site where a modern ideological descendant of the Nazis sought to murder and maim Jews, because they were Jews. The irony of course is that this did not occur in Poland where we were helpless victims and objects, but in the capitol of our own country, no more than a mile from our parliament and another few miles from Jerusalem’s Old City, the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall – surviving remnants of Jewish life for thousands of years. I don’t get emotional often, and when I do I try to mask it. However, I was completely overcome by how emotionally charged this ceremony was. Making it more so is that it was not scripted, but it was the natural outgrowth of what our daughters had just experienced. Teachers and special guests spoke, including “Saba Dov” (Grandpa Dov) who spent the week with the girls recounting his own experiences during, and as a survivor of, the Holocaust. Several girls read thoughts they had prepared, interspersed with singing, prayer, and occasional sobbing. One girl was so overcome with emotion that she turned from the group and walked away, only to be followed by another who held her friend and comforted her. I choked back tears more than a little, both because of the reality of what was going on and the awareness of what the girls had all gone through, and in enormous pride that my daughter was part of this experience, and that we are privileged to be raising her in Israel. She even commented how in seeing the different behavior of an American group also visiting Poland, she was grateful that we lived in Israel. Despite many parenting mistakes, that alone was validation of our decision to move here. If we needed a reminder of the reality that anti-Semitism is alive and well, it was hard not to be aware of the fact that one of my daughter’s classmates was not present, and did not make the trip. For her, and consequently her close friends in school, the reality and horrors of anti-Semitism were made far too vivid just a month earlier when her sister, brother in law, infant niece and two nephews were butchered in their own home by an Arab terrorist. This girl did not need to witness Auschwitz. She lived it a month earlier, and will be scarred the rest of her life, perhaps not dissimilar from how my grandmother was scarred, and how that conversation I had with her years before made her sob. As the ceremony drew to a close, the emotional, reflective and sometimes somber nature of the formal proceedings turned to euphoria. Unscripted and unrehearsed, 40 teenage Israeli girls burst into song and dance, in clear sight of Jerusalem’s Old City, the center of Jewish life for millennia, and today. They sang praise to God for protecting them. They sang about the love of the Land which they have the privilege, and responsibility, to inhabit. They sang and danced in a way that would surely have made their forebears in Poland, whose mass murder they were still reeling from trying to comprehend, sob a little too; in pride with the awareness that our future stood before us and that we all are stronger for it. It brings tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat to remember this, and probably always will. I think that despite my grandmother’s anguish some three decades earlier when I mentioned going to Poland, she’d have joined me in shedding a tear or two, yes in grief that will be with us forever as a lingering wound of the destruction of Jewish life and murder of six million Jews including dozens of our own relatives. But also in enormous pride that we have the privilege to live in Israel, raising our family here, and building a Jewish future, ever mindful of our past.
The last time my relatives spent Shabbat in Poland was 69 years ago. This Shabbat was recounted in the book “Hidden” by Fay Walker and Leo Rosen, a brother and sister who were neighbors of my relatives who spent their last Shabbat in their hometown as recorded below. The police herded their prisoners past the jeering crowd and on to the synagogue. Our people struggled to stare straight ahead, but, as they trudged the dusty streets, they found themselves peering into the faces they had known all their lived, into the fair features and pale eyes of their closest neighbors, empty and as cold as death. Kanczuga’s newest synagogue was a good quarter mile from the Jewish cemetery on the edge of town. It was not quite completed, but already it was the pride of our community, a spacious sanctuary large enough to seat several hundred. That Shabbos, every inch of the shul was filled for the first time. Yet it was eerily quiet, the low murmurs punctuated only by the occasional barking of a policeman… With so many bodies huddled together, the room was close with the odor of human flesh. People slept standing, straight as sentries; others twisted into unnatural positions on the floor. At some point, rain tapped a somber staccato on the roof and windows. (Two men spoke quietly among the masses) “Do you think they’ll deport us instead of killing us? Maybe send us away and spare our lives, God willing?” “Who is to say. I have heard that families who didn’t come to the square to be picked up were shot in their homes. We can only wait and put our faith in God. God will provide for us. God has never forsaken us.” That Friday night, the crowded room was hushed as (one of the women who had two Shabbat candles) lit the trembling flames. For a moment, her face was illuminated as from within. When she sang the bracha (welcoming Shabbat), her shimmering soprano could scarcely be heard, so quickly did it make its way to God. Shabbos morning arrived warm and bright, but the synagogue was musky with fear. Several men began to daven…swaying back and forth to the familiar chants. The men were still praying when the police ordered them to leave their families and trek the short distance up the hill to the cemetery… They traveled a short distance in wagons. A boy named Yankele Kelstcher jumped out of his wagon and disappeared into the woods before the policemen could fire. (Note: this man later recounted to me that it was at my great grandmother’s insistence that he flee that he did so, saving his life.) Then the men were ordered out of the wagons. Perhaps the thought of Yankele gave the men strength as they climbed in a thin, halting line along the muddy path that wove though a corn field… At the crest of the hill was the tree-lined cemetery, its tombstones swathed in even rows of shrubbery. As if on command, the men paused to catch their breaths and wipe their brows. They gazed over the crest of the hill to the patchwork of the fields below. For a moment they forgot their terror and shook their heads at the lush landscape. It could not be helped; they loved this country. A straight backed officer handed out shovels and told them to dig. “Keep digging,” he said. “We’ll tell you when you’re finished.” Most of the men were spindly and weak with soft palms more used to the Hebrew siddur (prayer book) than to the spade. “Dig, keep digging! Thought you could get away with something, eh? Thought you could hide from us, you filthy Jews?” When at last they were allowed to stop, the men stood in silence beside the freshly dug earth. Their faces slick with tears and sweat, they stared at the raised rifles in astonishment. At eyes opaque as marbles, that didn’t look back. Then they saw the other eyes, those of their neighbors, the customers in their shops, the people to whom they had just last week sold a loaf of bread, who gave them a good price on chicken and eggs. The goyim stood or sat on their haunches in unruly rows alongside the policemen. Whole families with baskets of cheese and bread and homemade wine, little ones scurrying along the fringes of the crowd, hunting down field mice. The chattering spectators were in an edgy, festive mood, the women’s heads bobbing in their colorful scarves. “Zyd!” they cried. “Jew. Out with the Jews!” The policemen raised their rifles. One hundred hearts were broken before a single shot was fired. When it was over, the audience applauded and cheered. The next day, the sunlight was so fierce that the women shielded their eyes when they were led outside. They climbed through the tall grass directly to the pit, as if they had done so many times before, their children sobbing at their skirts. A fetid smell they did not recognize reached their nostrils, and they covered their faces in horror. When the policemen loaded their rifles, (one girl) clutching her mother’s waist (cried out), “I don’t want to die! The sun is shining so brightly, and I am so young. I want to grow up in this beautiful world...” (her mother) could do nothing to help. She could not hold her any closer, she could not love her any more. One policeman who witnessed the scene was so moved that, later, he would recall (the girl’s) words… Then, a bullet shattered (the girl’s) face and she collapsed at (her mother’s) feet, spraying blood on her new white shoes. Next, (the girl’s sister) dropped onto (the girl), her breath a shallow purr. Even before the third shot was fired, the mother fell on them both, trying to protect what no longer was hers. Beside the gunmen, the onlookers, some of whom had tied handkerchiefs over their noses to stave off the scent, clapped and shouted their approval. A burst of laughter skimmed the crowd. Neighbors clapped each other on the back, not quite meeting each other’s gaze. Except for a sole surviving cousin of my father who spent most of the Second World War and the Holocaust in hiding with his father, this was the last time any of my relatives welcomed Shabbat, the Biblically commanded day of rest, in Poland. The men of my family never saw that final Shabbat end. The women and children saw it end to see their lives taken the following day. Short of the personal horrors that befell my own relatives, and the untimely end of a small but vibrant Jewish community that existed in Kanczuga for hundreds of years, I was thinking about Shabbat in Poland this week because, until now, for seven decades, no Feldstein/Birnbach had ever spent Shabbat in Poland. Yet, this Shabbat, my nearly 18 year old daughter is ending a week with her school on a trip to Poland to explore our heritage that thrived there for hundreds of years, and the horrors off the eradication of Jews and Jewish life from the same place. My daughter and her classmates will be spending Shabbat in Lodz, a place made famous for its Jewish Ghetto symbolizing the end of Jewish life that had existed there as well. Unlike my relatives seven decades ago, my daughter and her friends are traveling as proud Jews, citizens of the State of Israel and will not experience the fear, uncertainty and want that our relatives experienced on their last Shabbat. They will pray together as a community, proud of their identity, and making proud those who preceded them there. They will rest and enjoy one another’s company, fighting the conflicting emotions of the restfulness and spirituality of Shabbat, and the horrors to which they have been made responsible to bear witness. We hope that our daughter misses us, as we miss her, but we look forward to her return in a few short days at a ceremony at the Kotel (Western Wall), the center of Jewish existence. Despite the destruction of the Temple which existed on the plaza above, of which the Kotel is a small remaining piece, we have the privilege of fulfilling the dream of millions who perished to live and build our lives here. As Shabbat enters in Israel, our thoughts will turn to Poland, hopeful that my daughter and her classmates will have a peaceful and restful Shabbat, one that nobody in my family at least has seen in Poland for almost 70 years. And as my wife lights the Shabbat candles in our home, using a candelabra that was given to my grandmother by her parents when she left Poland for the last time in 1933, not knowing if she’d ever see her family again, may we all be reminded how lucky we are that our daughters will leave Poland shortly, to come home to Israel, where we are mindful of the past and the people and horrors that have come before us, but dediated to build our future in our own land. Shabbat shalom.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
I was upset to learn that Facebook decided this week not to remove the page “Third Intifada” (http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/adl-slams-facebook-for-refusing-to-remove-third-intifada-fan-page-1.351881) despite great grassroots volume, as well as numerous high level appeals to do so. It seems that Facebook is more concerned about supposed freedom of speech despite the fact that it’s a private company, not a public institution, despite standards it sets itself opposing hate speech and incitement. Either that, or Facebook is concerned for a Muslim boycott of the web site. It tells me that Facebook is all about making money over morals, so I have decided to find ways I can use Facebook’s expansive reach to make some money from their social network, just as they make money from me via the same means. I am thinking about setting up my own “fan pages” looking for partners, both on the supply and end user side, using Facebook’s international reach to start up and develop businesses in the following areas. I welcome partners and those interested to send me a message via Facebook to this end. Drugs – illegal drugs are crossing international borders all the time anyway. In some countries, the cash crop of choice is the source of these, and to deny the hard working farmers a means to make a living seems wrong. Crops don’t hurt people, people hurt people. Facebook provides the ideal way to connect the farmer and manufacturer with the smuggler, dealer and end user. In fact, using a direct marketing model, we may be able to cut out the middleman and offer drugs at a lower price. Weapons – countries and major multi-national companies deal in arms all the time. I want to ride the wave of this reality and am looking for partners who can supply an array of weapons from light personal arms to tanks and missiles. In light of the nuclear disaster in Japan I’ll stay away from nuclear weapons, unless there’s a proven market and supply line of course. Human trafficking – look, people do it all the time, and for many of those being trafficked, it’s clear that their lives as sex slaves and the like are far better than they were in the hovels from which they come. Opportunity knocks in many ways and as long as there are people willing to be trafficked, and there’s a market for such a product, I can think of lots of places where women are lining up for these opportunities, and other places where men are lining up for the product. Some men are even willing to pay handsomely to marry such women so I look at this as much as a business as a match making opportunity, enabling people to find the love of their life through the magic of Facebook. Slavery – some may say that human trafficking is a form of slavery so this is redundant. But there are people out there looking to own a good, hard worker as much, or even more than those looking for a good time. The problem is that many of these are rural farmers who are not blessed with the dynamic power of Facebook, so I am hitting a dead end as how to market the product to the end user. I’d especially welcome entrepreneurs who have ideas on this because for a little more than a song, there are good people in developing nations who’d be happy to sell off a child or two to give their child better opportunities than they could be given at home, and make a little extra cash on the side to help sustain those not sold off. Pedophilia – this is the one that I am having the hardest time with because as the father of six children I’d hate to have my kids caught up in it, but there’s a supply and there’s a demand and Facebook is a great vehicle to bring together people who share this same interest. I am sure that there are other areas that one can go into and I’d welcome invitations by entrepreneurial people who want to make some money in a way that is either devoid of ethics, or at least pushes the envelope, via Facebook, using Facebook’s devoid-of-morals model of making money from other such ideas, like promoting a third intifada. Of course this is not for real, but what’s most upsetting is that it probably could go on Facebook because they are devoid of morals. Allowing any person to set up a fan page to incite others to violence is unacceptable. Having authority means exercising responsibility and if Facebook cannot do the later, that means they do not have the former. If Facebook is concerned over a Moslem boycott, I’d tell Facebook to say good riddance. I am not a big “fan” of boycotts. But I will be glad to share with the many companies whose ads Facebook bombards me with that by advertising on Facebook, they are guilty of moral transgressions just as Facebook is itself. Yes, we can click through to all the nice ads and rather than buying anything, we can register our complaint. Not everyone needs to agree with everyone all the time, and I am all for free speech even when I disagree. But calls for a third intifada, to use the free speech parallel, are exactly like yelling fire in a crowded theater. Let’s remember what the first two intifadas brought us: thousands killed and tens of thousands injured. It’s time to call Facebook on the carpet and challenge their morality. And if we can’t beat them, anyone want to join me in joining them?
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
The past few months have seen a virtual roller coaster of errors relating to the appointment of Israel’s next Chief of Staff. During the process, scandals and rumors came to light including the leaking of a forged letter discrediting the general who would ultimately be selected. Following his appointment other leading generals who were passed over for the top position resigned. Then, allegations of illegal activities in the form of expropriating state land to expand his private home emerged. This past week, following two state investigations, it was announced that the newly appointed Chief of Staff would not be elevated to this position, causing a national stir as to who would serve until a new Chief of Staff is selected. This drama took place amid barbs about the backward process in making this critical appointment, allegations of favoritism and cronyism, speculation as to who will get the nod to be the new Chief of Staff, fallout for the politicians who were party to all this, as well as charges against both the outgoing Chief of Staff and the sitting Minister of Defense who is responsible for appointing the Chief of Staff. Is your head spinning yet? I haven't even mentioned the other legal scandals surrounding Israel’s recent past president, past prime minister, sitting foreign minister, several recently ousted cabinet members, and others, based on their own political, legal and criminal wrongdoings. To the untrained eye, one would think that it’s time for Israel to reconsider how it selects its local and national civil servants and elected leaders. This week, amid the breaking news regarding the Chief of Staff, the absurdity of it all came to light in a new way. My daughter is finishing high school and is in the process of determining where she'll spend the next two years doing her mandatory national service. Army or national service is compulsory for most Israelis, though there is no shortage of people avoiding military or national service entirely, or young women disgracefully declaring that they are religious, when they are not, to avoid conscription. Generally, young women who declare and demonstrate that they are religiously observant, for whom military service would compromise Jewish standards in modesty and mixing of men and women in uncomfortable settings, can sign up for national service rather than military service, volunteering in one of hundreds of organizations that service the public in many ways. Juxtaposing the absurdity of the Chief of Staff selection process, I am shocked to see, comparatively, how grueling the selection process is for my daughter to serve in a voluntary position-- admittedly one that is among the most coveted– to work with orphans and other at risk youth who have been taken out of their parents’ homes for their own well being. These childrens’ homes are special nurturing places where the staff and volunteers, and dozens of other children of all ages, become the childrens’ family in every sense of the word. Alumni visit there when on leave from the army. They bring their prospective spouses to meet their family there. The childrens' homes even host weddings or other celebration on behalf of their children, as any parent would. Compounding an absurd internet-based lottery to determine which 16 women will even be eligible for an interview, is the process itself, which is exceptionally detailed and arduous for a 17 year old woman from a sheltered environment and a safe and loving family. My daughter was fortunate to get an internet lottery scheduled interview for two of the three positions she wanted. She had to submit an application covering everything imaginable to be accepted for an interview to a third program. Tonight at 6:00, anyone who has at least 5 fingers and a computer will be “clicking” per instructions to get her a final interview at yet another children’s home. However, before the application process began, my daughter was told that under no circumstance would she get accepted to any of these positions without requisite 'Protexia.' Protexia is an Israeli phenomenon that greases the wheels of everything. Since in Israel “three degrees of separation” is the standard, the expectation is that everyone knows someone, who can get them to someone else, who can get pretty much anything done by asking a personal favor. It’s part of the Israeli DNA. As new immigrants, the best Protexia I have is that I can call a particularly busy and popular Jerusalem bakery on a Friday morning and have a box of hot chocolate croissants waiting for me without standing on line. In the case of my daughter applying for national service, we have pulled every string imaginable, and even considered forging our own letter from Israel’s (long deceased) first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, to my grandparents, immigrants from Poland in the 1930s, saying ‘what a privilege it is to write a letter of reference on behalf of their, as yet unborn, first great grandchild.’ While only 16 young women won spots for the respective interviews via the lottery “system,” Protexia was clear from the first moment on interview day, as 30 young women magically appeared for interviews despite spots officially available for only 16. This will occur two more times for a total of just ten spots. To my daughter’s credit, while we have pretty good resources intervening on her behalf, she is appalled by this process and finds it unfair. I admire how straight and honest she is to think that selection should be determined by merit. But it’s my job as her father to make sure that she’s given every 'string-pulling' opportunity possible. I suggested that rather than awkwardly dropping the requisite names that she’s supposed to drop in this process, hoping that these names mean more than the other names that the other young women will drop, she should go into the interviews saying that she was told she needed to drop so and so’s name, but is uneasy doing so because she thinks that she should be evaluated not based on who she knows, but on who she is. Maybe that would make her stand out in a positive way. Coming back to the Chief of Staff and our other leaders, one can’t help but wonder what process vets out these purported leaders on a national stage in anything remotely resembling the selection process that 17 year old women need undergo to work in a home with disadvantaged kids: undergoing formal aptitude tests, handwriting analysis, psychological evaluation, and be able to articulate what they want to do for the rest of their lives. I can’t help but feel that if half this national service process had been applied to our national leaders, we’d have nixed the candidacy of serial liars, a rapist, forger, and petty and not so petty criminals of all sorts who now receive government salaries, or pensions. Service to our country is still an esteemed virtue in Israel—one that we would like to believe the country’s leaders sincerely value. But these leaders would do well to take example from tens of thousands of young women who undergo a grueling process, just to be selected for a job that in many ways will be the hardest thing they do in their lives. Yet, as hard as my daughter and her peers will work, these will be positive, life-changing experiences that will make them better, more dedicated, empathetic adults, and future leaders in whom we can have pride. Oh…and anyone who has any contacts in any of Israel’s most outstanding children’s homes should please e-mail me off line. A father’s got to do what a father’s got to do.