Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Tales from the Old Country I

My grandmother Sophia has told me many times that she remembers the day of her father's death as vividly as if it were yesterday. It was the day her life changed completely. She remembers being woken up by a knock on the window. "Leah, they've killed your husband! Mord'chai is dead!"

My great grandfather had left the day before to take his brother-in-law to meet his future bride. They were riding through the country on their cart when they were ambushed by a gang of bandits affiliated with Simon Petlyura. The peasant driving the cart was told to hit the road, my great grandfather and his brother-in-law, being Jewish, were shot.

When my great grandmother heard the news, she went into some type of trance. For a year she did not recognize her own family, she had to be fed and taken care of like a child. Every day she would get up and walk in circles around the dining room table. Her mother took care of 5 year old Sophia and her little brother. After a year, my great grandmother was pulled aside by her mother and told that it was time to snap out of it; her children needed her. She also tried to talk her into going to America. But Leah said to her "Why should we go to America? We can build our own America right here!"

It is astonishing in retrospect how a decision can affect the lives of so many people decades down the road. My grandmother's family stayed in the Ukraine and survived the Civil War, the Great Famine, the Stalinist purges, the Second World War, and all the troubles of the 50's, 60's and 70's before ultimately coming to America. What would my life be like if instead they got on that boat in 1918?

Monday, January 30, 2006

The land of the free?

So far I've been trying to steer away from politics on this blog, but I think this warrants some attention. I think that it's hard not to realize that our civil liberties have been under siege under the present administration, but I was truly horrified when I read this story in the Jan/Feb issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

A 24 year veteran of the National Guard, a teacher, decides to take his class to hear the President speak. And I quote - But after they had passed through a metal detector and their tickets and IDs were checked, they were denied admittance and ordered back on the bus. One of the boys had a John Kerry sticker on his wallet.

Indignant, Walz refused. "As a soldier, I told them I had a right to see my commander-in-chief," [...]
His challenge prompted a KGB-style interrogation that was sadly characteristic of the Bush campaign events. Do you support the president? Walz refused to answer. Do you oppose the president? Walz replied that it was no one's business but his own. (He later learned that his wife was informed that the Secret Service might arrest him.) Walz thought for a moment and asked the Bush staffers if they really wanted to arrest a command seargent major who'd just returned from fighting a war on terrorism.

(emphasis is mine)

Of Foxes and Hedgehogs

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. writes Archilochus. But it was Sir Isaiah Berlin that took this verse to the next level and when I read about his interpretation of it, I was hooked.

Berlin posits that there are two kinds of personalities out there. First, there are hedgehogs, who basically believe that there is a unifying theme, or system which governs how the world works. They spend their lifetime trying to figure out this system, and if they think they have figured it out, they will attempt to mold reality to fit their understanding of how the system is supposed to work. Foxes, on the other hand, realize that the system is perhaps too complex to figure out, or perhaps the rules are constantly changing, and so reality, rather than pre-conceived notions tends to provide the feedback they need to steer themselves in life.

I definitely identify with the foxes. And frankly I dis-trust the hedgehog. This is especially true of the fields of politics and economics. Lately, I've been trying to understand the philosophical works of Karl Popper. One of his ideas that I really identify with is the critique of the ideological movements such as fascism and communism, and all the other -isms which is argued very eloquently in his work "The Poverty of Historicism". This is really a more specific case of his general argument that providing positive evidence that prove your theory is not a way to prove its validity. But to me, these are the most poignant examples, remembering the millions of people who were killed to justify the reasoning of some loathsome hedgehog.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The gift of an I

A few days ago, my thoughtful wife, noticing my newly discovered interest in calligraphy and manuscripts, bought me a little present. It consisted of an illuminated capital (majuscule) letter I from a 15th century antiphonal.

The letter is drawn with vermilion and purple dye on vellum, with exquisite artwork surrounding it. However, the most incredible thing about this present is the feeling, the sense of history you get by holding something 500 or 600 years old in your hands.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Remembering Auschwitz

A fellow blogger reminded me that January 27 was the 61st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In spite of myself, I started brooding on the subject of the Holocaust again.

In a bizzare coincidence, a local handiman was at my house on Thursday, and as he was leaving, I was making small talk with him. It was then that he told me that he was a concentration camp survivor - I didn't even know he was Jewish. He and his twin sister were 6 when they were taken. His sister got separated from him during a death march; his mother killed herself in the camp. He was miraculously reunited with his sister something like 40 years after they separated. He was saying this matter of factly, with very little visible emotion. As always, whenever I hear these stories, and I seem to hear them all the time, my heart contacts in pain, and a sickly feeling comes over me.

I've always been puzzled by the fact that growing up in the Ukraine, I had never encountered any concentration camp survivors. It was only when I came to the US that I met Jews from Europe, survivors, with numbers tattood on their arms and stories of their personal hells. I think I have finally figured out the answer - by the time the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, they were no longer interested in putting Jews on trains and sending them to camps in Poland. It was too much work. Instead, their killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen would find a pit or a field, and machine gun the Jews on the spot or perhaps lock them in a building and set them on fire. This happened pretty much in every town and shtetl, culminating of course in the massacre at Babiy Yar.

Words fail me, yet silence is not an option. More needs to be said about the human capacity for evil, and the human capacity for good when surrounded by evil, about hope and despair, and about inaction and hypocrisy, both then and now. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Wonder Rabbi of Sadagora

I am reading short stories by Sholom Aleichem. I am reading them in English, which breaks my heart because I would give anything to read them in Yiddish, because anyone who speaks Yiddish will tell you that these stories cannot be translated.

I came upon a mention of Sadagora Chasidim in one of the stories. It is a dynasty I was not familiar with, and so I went to my friend Google to find out more about them.

It turns out that the Rabbi who founded the dynasty, Rabbi Israel Friedman, was quite a controversial figure. You see, he seemed to be quite fond of material things. Visitors to his court were likely to find him sitting on a throne dressed in a gold-embroidered hat and the fine outfits of a nobleman. Here are some pictures of his residence.

This really bothers me because it seems so removed from the feel of Chasidism, the original message that the Baal Shem Tov was spreading. One of the key points in the Torah deals with the fact that the Israelites insist on building idols to worship. What I can't figure out is who is more at fault, the people for setting a "false god" or the Rabbi for allowing them to do it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A notable quote

Found this here:

But to be truly open-minded, we must attempt to understand even close-mindedness, and admire it for its small elements of beauty in addition to rejecting it for its failures.

Thanks Tobie, that's a heck of a quote.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Chaim Nachman Bialik

The Fountain
translated by P.M. Raskin

And shouldst thou wish to know the Source
from which thy tortured brethren drew
in evil days their strength of soul
to meet their doom, stretch out their necks
to each uplifted knife and axe,
in flames, on stakes to die with joy,
and with a whisper "God is One"
to close their lips?

And shouldst thou wish to find the Spring
from which thy banished brethren drew,
'midst fear of death and fear of life,
their comfort, courage, patience, trust,
an iron will to bear the yoke,
to live bespattered and despised,
and suffer without end?

If thou, my brother, knowest not
this mother, spring and lap and fort,
then enter thou the House of God,
the House of Study old and gray
throughout the sultry summer days,
throughout the gloomy winter nights,
at morning, midday or at eve;
perchance there is a remnant yet,
perchance the eye may still behold
in some dark corner hid from view
a cast-off shadow of the past,
the profile of some pallid face,
upon an ancient folio bent,
who seeks to drown unspoken woes
in the Talmudic boundless waves;
and then thy heart shall guess the truth
that thou hast touched the sacred ground
of thy great nation's House of Life,
and that thy eyes do gaze upon
the treasure of thy nation's soul.

And know that this is but a spark
that by a miracle escaped
of that bright light, that sacred flame
thy forbears kindled long ago
on altars high and pure.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Donuts and Sin Offerings

It is with deep sadness that I must inform you that the Dunkin Donuts in Skokie is no longer kosher effective immediately. It appears that they surreptitiously imported donuts from other un-supervised locations into the store.

Which then raises the question - what happens to all the people that may have been bringing non-kosher donuts into their home, heating them up in their microwaves, putting the dishes in their dishwashers afterwards. Do they need to re-kasher their kitchens or do they just let it slide?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Pre-Shabbos posting

It is pretty amusing to watch the heightened activity of the jewish blogs on Friday as all of the blog-addicts put in their last words before the sun descends.

Good Shabbos everyone!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Maris Ayin

In the great metropolis that is Chicago we have a restaurant named Ken's Diner. Ken's diner serves kosher burgers and fries type comfort food.

About a year ago, they decided to put soy cheese on their burger. However, if you order a cheeseburger, they will politely ask you "Do you mean a burger with pareve cheese?". No, I want a freakin double quarterpounder with cheese and a BigMac for the kinderlach!!!

What's the deal with that? I mean they have a BLT sandwich on the menu (That's beefry, lettuce, and tomato).

Monday, January 16, 2006

A Curious Jew

Meet Chana. She is a curious jew. She's curious as in unusual, different. As in "exciting attention as strange, novel, or unexpected".

Is it because she seems to effortlessly quote Tanach, Talmud, and G'dolim at the age of 17? And mix it up with Ayn Rand or 'Fiddler on the Roof'?

Nope. It is because she seems to want to listen before talking. She seems to want to remain friends in spite of disagreement. She projects love and not condescension. And because of this, she is a rather curious phenomenon. Curious in the world at large, certainly rare in the Jewish world, and damn near a contradiction of the Laws of Nature in the JBlogosphere.

Whatever it is she's got, I hope it's contagious.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Well... It's not exactly forbidden (The Fiddler on the Roof)

A person will be called to account on Judgement Day for every permissible thing he might have enjoyed but did not.

Talmud Yerushalmi

(Can't remember the exact location)

Eine kleine etymology

Orthodox (adj)
Etymology: Middle English orthodoxe, from Middle French or Late Latin; Middle French orthodoxe, from Late Latin orthodoxus, from Late Greek orthodoxos, from Greek orth right, true + doxa opinion, belief

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Another cheer for Artscroll

About a month ago, I developed an interest in Medieval Calligraphy and Illumination. The books I've been reading on the subject underscore the amount of effort and artistry that went into the writing of books prior to a way of mass-producing them. Books were truly treasures, works of art, not something you read on the toilet.

As I came upon this, and a little later this, I thought that one of the things that Artscroll does very well in many of their books is the focus on making the books beautiful. The gilded lettering, the embossing, the vibrant and pleasant color combinations, the quality feel of the book. It really adds a certain amount of Kedushah(holiness) to the experience of prayer or study.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

According to the effort is the reward (Pirkei Avot)

A Simple Jew often puts up short quotes from holy Jews on his blog. Frequently, they inspire me to be a better person. I suspect that like abstract art, their meaning is different for each person who reads them. I hope he won't mind if I adopt his practice and put up some quotes that I've found meaningful.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Trench Warfare

I've been frequenting the "Heresy Blogs" - Gadol Hador, Da'as Hedyot, Hirhurim. I don't mean that the blogs are heresy, just that there are a lot of discussions of topics controversial to Orthodox Judaism.

The field is split into 3 groups: the traditionalists/fundamentalists, the OTD/rationalists/secularists, and the in-betweens. What is amazing to me is that no matter what the departure point of the blogger's post, the discussion always winds up in the same place, i.e. relentless sniping between the fundamentalists and the secularists, with the in-betweens poking their heads up once in a while.

I am almost to the point where I've had enough of reading these exchanges. They remind me of the fields of war on the Western Front of WWI, with the guys shooting at each other across the No Man's Land. Rat-tat-tat, bang, bang. Silence. Bang, bang, bang. Ratatatat.

What is amazing to me is that for all the intelligence on both sides, they fail to realize that they will never come to seeing each other points of view.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Just a little more Faith

Thanks to Mississippi Fred for introducing me to the real Mississippi Fred.


In the wonderful book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker makes an argument that our thoughts are not represented as words inside our head. As evidence, he states:
We have all had the experience of uttering or writing a sentence, then stopping and realizing that it wasn't exactly what we meant to say.

This is how I feel each time I post. Or, to paraphrase Moshe Rabbeinu - I've got uncircumcized lips!


As Jews we tend to use the word "Holy" a lot. There are a lot of things about this that bother me. The original meaning of the word "holy" derives from the notion of separateness, as in dedicated to the service of a deity.

In the days of the Temple, holiness was pretty well delineated by the priestly rituals. Certain objects were holy, certain places were holy, certain parts of the sacrifice were holy. Contrasted with this was the everyday life of the Jews where holiness was not something generally considered.

With the fall of the Temple, the Chazal made a leap of faith to replace the sacrificial cult with the prayer service. Additionally, they imbued a lot of the rituals that we perform today with the concept of "holiness", such as washing our hands prior to eating bread (a commemoration of Temple practices)

Fast forward to today, where the entire goal of Orthodox Judaism is to impart "kedusha" or holiness into every action we perform every day. But by doing this, are we over-doing it? If everything is supposed to be filled with Kedusha, do we not lose the distinction that allows us to separate the holy from the profane?

(In other words, can't a cigar sometimes just be a cigar?)