Guest Letter from Jill: Thank You, Christianity

Hey Josep! Been a while since we’ve had a guest letter, eh? This one is from a long-time reader, and someone I’ve known… since the womb, actually.

This was entirely her initiative! Don’t look at me!!! 😉

But while I’m here, I shall take the opportunity to brag about her shamelessly. You said once that I’m one of the most empowered women you know, and if you want to know why, it’s because this woman is my mother.

My mom, Jill Baker Shames, was raised in a secular Jewish family in New York and became religious in college, as she will describe below. But she’s always insisted on doing everything her own way! When she was pregnant with me, she woke up one day with a sudden urge to study a martial art. My dad thought it was one of her crazy pregnant lady things and that it would pass. Well, it’s been 31 years and it still hasn’t passed! 😉 She is currently a fifth-degree black belt in Shorin-Ryu Matsubayashi karate; one of the most experienced and celebrated empowerment self-defense instructors in the country; and a martial arts therapist (and licensed social worker) who works with kids with terminal illnesses and their families, teaching them to use tools from the martial arts to help them cope with pain and stress. She serves as coordinator for Kids Kicking Cancer Israel, an organization that trains and employs martial arts therapists to work in Israeli hospitals. And because clearly she has so much free time on her hands (…) she also volunteers for her local Psychotrauma & Crisis Response Unit, whose personnel arrive at the scene of a traumatic situation (sudden death, car accident, etc.) and work with the witnesses and bystanders at the scene to help them process what they saw and prevent them from developing PTSD.  Did I mention also that she co-founded the Israeli national women’s martial arts organization, which she and I left last year for reasons I won’t elaborate on here, and helped establish a chapter of the Guardian Angels–an organization of volunteer citizen patrols for tough neighborhoods–in Israel? Oh and yes, this is the same mother who donated her kidney to a distant cousin two years ago. (And yeah, she’s a writer too–that link is from her Times of Israel blog!)

In summary, I may have followed in her footsteps in some ways–learning karate and self-defense from her and becoming an instructor under her tutelage–but I will never be as awesome as she is and we all know it 😛

I vaguely recall that you and her may have corresponded at some point many years ago, probably on something to do with Casa Shalom. In any case, she decided to write you a guest letter from her characteristically out-of-the-box perspective. 😉 Without further ado:


Dear Josep,

Your online Jewish Education has given me a great deal of hope and satisfaction. After all, what dedicated Jewish woman would miss the opportunity to be a Yiddishe fly-on-the-wall kvelling1 about all the things the world–particularly the Christian world–owes to its Jewish roots?

However, I am going to do something that is at once incredibly Jewish and… incredibly not. And that is to express my gratitude to Christianity for what it taught me about being Jewish.

Expressing gratitude is quintessentially Jewish.2 HaKarat HaTov, literally “acknowledging the good,” is an axiom of Jewish life. On the other hand, given the amount of suffering that Jews have endured in the name of Christianity over the millennia, having anything nice to say about That Religion is an anomaly at best.

But I never claimed to be normal.3

I was raised in a family with a powerful ethnic Jewish identity but received an extremely limited Jewish education. As a child, what I knew about being Jewish was pretty much limited to a handful of holidays (Chanukah and Pesach being the biggies), not going to school on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Bar Mitzvah parties, a few Yiddish phrases (not for polite company), chicken soup, bagels, and lox [smoked salmon–DL]. My family gave me a strong sense of loyalty and belonging to the Tribe intellectually, ethically, and ethnically, but spiritually? If Judaism had a spiritual side, I knew little or nothing about it.

Yet, even as a young child, I had a strong connection to Gd. My parents tell me that at the age of 3, I used to stand in the middle of the living room speaking aloud to Gd. I decided to fast on Yom Kippur at a young age. I fasted even when no one else in my family fasted. I wanted to go to synagogue even when no one else wanted to go. As I grew older, I felt my family members saw me as a strange bird in the flock. I was alternately praised and teased for my interest in things Jewish. I did not feel comfortable talking about my spiritual longings. I developed my own rituals and prayer practices. And I started going to church.

Mostly it was something I did on sleepovers. I was at my Catholic or Lutheran or Methodist or Episcopalian friends’ houses over the weekend, so why not join the family in church? I loved the mammoth stone buildings echoing songs and prayers. I loved the light pouring through the stained glass windows, the pageantry of the services, and the fellowship of the participants. I watched and rewatched classic movies like Ben-Hur, The Robe and all those films in which kindly priests stepped in to help young toughs move toward healthy adulthood.

Looking back, I wonder that my parents were able to see going to church as some kind of cultural experiment without worrying that I would be lured away by “the love of Jesus”, the material splendor of Christmas or the ease of assimilating into the majority culture. And they were right. Even when I joined the Methodist youth group, the token Jew arguing with Christian Youth Leaders about the prophecies of the End of Days, even when I watched Christian TV or listened to Christian music radio or sang Latin Mass in school choir, I was never tempted to stray. Rather, I was comforted by finding others in the world longing for Gd. I was filled with awe by the beauty, the faith and the compassion I found in Christianity in all its many forms. I found a fellowship of the spirit and a love and clinging to Gd that I could not find at home. I experienced awe that I had never experienced in the rituals of my own faith. After all, it was easier to get lost in the forest of Judaism’s rules and rituals than to delve into its deep and complex spiritual roots.

It was only when I went to college and could finally access Jewish living and learning by myself that I was able to take all the devotion that Christian institutions had kept warm and flowing for me for 18 years, and plug them into my spiritual path.

So, while it is true that the history of the Jews as a People in Christian lands is a sordid one, my personal history with Christianity remains one of fellowship and gratitude.

So, thank you, Christianity, for giving me the spiritual oxygen I desperately needed until I could learn to “breathe” on my own. In the Jewish Bible, Gd calls us Jews “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”; it entrusts us with helping all the nations of the world find and follow their spiritual paths. Under your spiritual wings, you helped me remember that as long as I had faith in Gd, I was not alone.

In these days of skepticism and anti-theism, I consider it my sacred trust and honor to return the favor.

Jill Baker Shames, MSW
Spiritual Jedi4
[DANIELLA’S AMAZING MOTHER.–DL]
www.paths2power.com


1. A Yiddish verb that means to take great pride in something or someone, usually quite vocally. Related closely to schepping naches, as defined in 10 Essential Words in Judeo-English.

2. The name Judah, from which the word “Judaism” is derived, literally means “giving thanks/expression of gratitude”.

3. Everything makes so much sense now, eh Josep?! 😉

4. In case you haven’t seen any of the Star Wars movies–and since you haven’t read Harry Potter, I wouldn’t be surprised at such grievous cultural delinquency on your part–the Jedi Knights are sort of mystical warriors who fight against forces of evil in the Star Wars universe. In her work with the Guardian Angels, there was a protocol not to use real names in radio transmissions, so all Guardian Angels had to choose a nickname. She chose “Jedi” because, aside from the obvious, it’s a word that has the same meaning in all relevant languages–English, Hebrew, Amharic, and Arabic. Not a lot of words like that!


Would you like to share about your own experiences with religion–another or your own? Write us a guest letter!

Grieving Through Action: A Lesson from Aaron the Priest

I mentioned in a previous post that I had an exchange with one of our readers that I’d wanted to post here. Keith is a reader from the UK who carefully reads the parsha (Torah portion) for each week, and occasionally writes to me to ask questions about issues that come up in the parsha or in general. I want to take this opportunity to remind other readers that you are also welcome to write to me with any questions or comments you may have about topics discussed on this blog or Judaism or Israel in general (and I won’t post about them here without your permission!). You can use the contact form on this blog, or email me at letterstojosep at Gmail. 🙂

This question was about a story in the book of Leviticus about the sudden death of two of Aaron’s sons. Nadav and Avihu brought an offering to God that he hadn’t commanded them, and received a very harsh punishment:

Each of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took his pan and put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and offered before the Lord foreign fire which He had not commanded them. And fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke, when He said, “I will be sanctified through those near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.”‘ And Aaron was silent.

(Leviticus 10:1-3)

A very strange and upsetting episode to be sure, especially when we’re starting with the assumption that God is merciful and kind; why would he kill two priests just for being a little overenthusiastic with their offerings? But we won’t get into the explanations for their deaths here. Keith’s question was about the words, “and Aaron was silent”. We are taught that this means that Aaron didn’t protest or show any sign of mourning for his sons, and the Sages teach us that he was rewarded for his silence, ostensibly for accepting God’s judgment without protest. Keith asked for my thoughts on the matter:


Dear Daniella,

Shabbat Shalom….and I hope you all enjoyed Pesach.

I wonder if I may ask you about Shemini?

When I read it I was shocked by the deaths of Aaron’s sons, and also by his reaction. The command to not mourn seems cruel. I know there have been centuries of debate about why they were killed but I wonder what your thoughts and feelings are please?

Kind regards

Keith


This was my answer:


Hi Keith,

I, too, have always been puzzled by this episode. In general, Jewish tradition condones expressions of grief regardless of the cause of death, even setting up a specific structure for mourners to work through their grief. So why was Aaron rewarded for his silence?

Your question made me revisit some of the sources and I found two interesting ideas.

First of all, why does Rashi [one of the most famous Torah commentators] say that Aaron was rewarded for his silence? The “reward” was that Aaron received directions from God through direct prophecy, and our tradition teaches us that one cannot receive prophecy in sadness. Prophecy is only received when the prophet experiences joy. That means that Aaron couldn’t have been feeling sad at the time, because he received a direct prophecy. So it wasn’t so much a “reward” as a consequence of Aaron’s state of mind.

Another idea I found that I really liked had to do with something the Sages teach us about mourners. There is an idea that someone who is experiencing a major event in his life that would cause him to be too distracted/troubled to focus on performing mitzvot [commandments], is released from his obligation to perform mitzvot–such as a bridegroom on his wedding night. An “onen”, a person whose close relative has died but has not yet been buried, is also considered to be distracted, but he is still obligated to keep all the mitzvot except tefillin, because, the Sages say, his distraction is “optional”. Rashi explains that the “optional” aspect of his distraction is that although he is obligated to keep the outward traditions of mourning, he doesn’t have to feel sadness. The article I was reading went on to explain that in many cases, obviously, losing someone close to you will make you sad; however, some people choose to express their grief not by turning inward and sinking into grief, but by taking action to allow the person who has died to live through us–either through taking over or continuing that person’s work in this world, or through learning from their lives and trying to absorb and apply the positive lessons we can learn from that person to our own lives. This is why the mourner’s prayer is the KaddishMay His great name be magnified and sanctified… every human being is an expression of the Divine presence, and when they die, they leave an absence. We “survive” that person and honor their lives by filling in that absence as best we can with the glory of God, working harder to “magnify” His presence.

So bringing this back to Aaron, this is exactly what Moses said to him: This is what the Lord spoke: I will be sanctified through those near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified. Aaron and his sons chose to express their loss by taking action–continuing with the work of the Tabernacle as God had commanded them, to continue the work of Nadav and Avihu, and help fill the space they left behind with love of God manifested in the rituals of the Tabernacle.

I think this teaches us not that we shouldn’t give space to our sadness and grief when we lose someone–but that we should also use our grief to motivate us to proactively “magnify and sanctify” God’s name in honor of that person’s memory. Action is a common Jewish response to grief. Many people set up charities or host Torah classes to honor the memories of their loved ones. Jewish hospitals and synagogues are full of memorial plaques from people who donated money or items to the institution in memory of someone. Founding new Jewish settlements has been a classic response to Arab terror since before the State of Israel was established. I think these things are an expression of the lesson we learn from Aaron.

I hope that helps!

Shavua tov and chodesh tov,

Daniella

Rabbi Sacks on Friendship and Faith

Dear Josep,

Just a quick note because I came across something that made me think of you and this blog. It’s today’s installment in a series called Covenant & Conversation: Life Changing Ideas in the Parsha [Weekly Torah Portion] with Rabbi Sacks (author of Not in God’s Name, which I reviewed in depth here). You can read the full article, Faith and Friendship (Beha’alotcha 5778), here; but here is the relevant excerpt:

It is part of the intellectual history of the West and the fact that from quite early on, Christianity became more Hellenistic than Hebraic, that people came to think that the main purpose of religion is to convey information (about the origin of the universe, miracles, life after death, and so on). Hence the conflict between religion and science, revelation and reason, faith and demonstration. These are false dichotomies.

Judaism has foundational beliefs, to be sure, but it is fundamentally about something else altogether. For us, faith is the redemption of solitude. It is about relationships – between us and God, us and our family, us and our neighbours, us and our people, us and humankind. Judaism is not about the lonely soul. It is about the bonds that bind us to one another and to the Author of all. It is, in the highest sense, about friendship.

This idea pinpoints something I wasn’t quite able to articulate in a discussion I had recently with one of our readers about the differences between traditional Orthodox Judaism, Karaite Judaism, and Samaritanism. He’s been writing to me for a while asking questions about Judaism and the Torah, and trying to figure out where he fits into all this. (Which reminds me, there was one exchange of ours I thought of posting here, and never did! Hopefully soon!) “In the end though,” he asked, “does all this Karaites v Orthodox v Reform v Masorti v Samaritans v Reconstructionist stuff matter ? I know I need to be a better human being. Does it matter which form of Judaism I choose or Righteous Gentilism?”

This question gave me pause. Sometimes we can get so lost in the details and little quabbles about who is right and what information is correct. How much does all that really matter?

Rabbi Sacks reminds us: the main purpose of Judaism is not to convey information, but to build and nurture our relationships–with ourselves, with our fellow humans, and with God. The Talmud tells us a story about a non-Jew who challenged Hillel the Elder to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” He said “go and learn” because the commentary is important, the details do matter–but they are not the heart of the Torah. Our relationships are.

Shabbat shalom, my friend!

Much love,

Daniella

photo of daniella and josep

GUESS WHOSE BIRTHDAY IT IS

No, I am not referring to Israel’s 70th birthday–that starts tomorrow night! Though I’m sure Josep is pleased about the proximity. 😉

Those of you who have been following the blog for the 3+ years I’ve been writing it may have wondered why I always make such a big deal out of Josep’s birthday.

Well, one reason is obvious: I am his self-appointed Jewish-mother-friend, and as such, it is my obligation and duty to treat him like an exasperated bar mitzvah boy being shuttled around the room to show off to all my friends and relatives. As you have probably noticed, I take this job very seriously.

photo of daniella and josep
I’d grab him by the chin and crow “Such a shayne punim1!” but A) he’s not actually my son (I know, shocking, especially considering he’s 5 years older than me) and B) we’re located 2,000 miles apart at most given moments. This photo was taken in November 2013 on the second of four occasions on which we were in the same country at the same time.

Another reason I do this is that Josep has a very sad history of being forgotten on his birthday or on other occasions. A few months after we first met, shortly before Christmas, he told me some miserable stories about this, including one about being the only one among 25+ cousins not to receive any Christmas presents one year. I felt so sorry for that poor teenage Josep lying on the couch in that story that I couldn’t contain myself and had to send him a present forthwith: a copy of Judaism for Everyone by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. (This was, perhaps, the first symptom of my now-famous compulsion to surprise him with gifts.) And for his birthday that year I made a bunch of my friends and family members email him to wish him a happy birthday, because I never wanted him to feel forgotten on his birthday ever again.

SO YOU SEE, it is a MORAL IMPERATIVE that every last one of you comment on this post to wish him a happy birthday. Those of you receiving the posts via email who haven’t figured out how to comment yet–just scroll down to the bottom of the email until you see the words “Read in browser >>” in blue and click on them (or, click on the title of the post at the top), then scroll down to the bottom until you reach a section that says “Leave a Reply”. (You can also just send your good wishes to me and I’ll pass them on!)

AND AS FOR YOU, my exasperated bar mitzvah boy. (…) Per molts anys! I wish you a year of joy and satisfaction in all areas of life, peace and tranquility, physical and spiritual wealth, good health, and lots and lots of love 🙂 And books. Lots of good books. Only some of which were written to you. 😛 Hopefully some that were written by you! *hint* *hint* *nudge*

(Or maybe I should save that last wish for St. Jordi’s Day next week. Ah well.)


1. “Shayne punim” is Yiddish for “pretty face”, generally said in a high-pitched voice while pinching the cheeks of an uncomfortable child.

Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet, pt. 6!

Ahh yes, greetings, my friends, and happy holidays to all! It is time for another Search Term Q & A session! Aren’t you excited?!

For those of you just tuning in: every once in a while I write a post responding to questions and phrases that people have typed into search engines, which led them to this blog. Hilarity often ensues! You can find links to previous Search Term Q & A’s at the bottom of this post.

Let the madness begin:


“is it fun tk be a jew”

BEST. QUESTION. EVER.

The answer is… yes and no.

The fun things about being a Jew include our gazillion holidays (especially Purim and Simhat Torah!), our lively lifecycle celebrations, Shabbat (hello, it’s a 25-hour party EVERY WEEK), our singing and dancing, our sense of humor, and the general intensity with which we engage with the world and with learning.

The less fun things include… well… our gazillion holidays (see especially: Passover cleaning), antisemitism, the Three Weeks, antisemitism, keeping kosher anywhere except Israel, antisemitism… did I mention antisemitism?

But seriously–I have three kids, and looking a Jewish child in the eye and trying to explain what the Holocaust was, or the Crusades, or the Cossacks, or blood libels, or pogroms–or, more pressing, why we are huddling in the corner taking cover from Hamas rockets?… Not what I’d call “fun.”

But one thing’s for sure: fun or not, being a Jew is meaningful. It gives me a sense of purpose and mission, that I’m here for a reason and that I’m representing something greater than myself.

“orthodoe jews weird”

Orthodoe? Is that like a female deer, but Torah-observant? If so, yes, that is certainly weird.

“what is the most ridiculous jewish rule”

Hmmmmm.

The problem here is the word “ridiculous”. Bizarre or random, I have plenty of contestants for. (How about the one where we’re not allowed to wear a blend of wool and linen (Deuteronomy 22:11)? That one’s pretty random.) We have rules that feel ridiculously complex, or ridiculously specific (like the endless disputes about exactly what time one day ends and the next begins). But just plain old ridiculous? That’s judgy, man. Judgy.

“ridiculous jewish beliefs”

Okay that last one was borderline, but this one is downright rude.

“what are some silly rules in talmud”

Really, Internet? Really?!

“why are jews weird looking”

beg your pardon?!

We look perfectly normal!

Except when my sister and I are in the same room. Then all bets are off.
Um. Same goes for me and my Bubbie.

“josep.com”

Alas, I have not yet convinced Josep to fully embrace his celebrity status and open his own website where his adoring fans can properly venerate him. However, he actually let me post a picture of him wearing his IDF T-shirt on my op-ed about our misadventures with the Spanish postal service on TOI, with a caption reading: “And while we’re here, ladies, did I mention that he’s single?” so we’re getting somewhere 😛 (I think he didn’t actually believe I’d do it when he dared me to add that caption. Clearly he underestimates how much I love to embarrass him…. and that’s… fairly remarkable, considering what I’ve already done to him on this blog.)

“mikveh womb of the world”

…Yes, that’s the general idea. More about that here.

“+asaret hebrew root”

Hmmm. Well, if you mean the word aseret (עשרת), the root would be, of course, a.s.r. (ע.ש.ר) meaning “ten”, which is pretty boring since the word aseret just means “ten” of something (in semikhut form).

“interesting facts about jewish culture and history”

Aha! You have arrived in the right place, my friend! Jewish culture and history are some of the major themes of this blog. You can explore the tags/categories of “Jewish culture” and “Jewish history” for a list of relevant posts.

“what jewish do with their thing”

*cough* Well. That would depend which “thing” you’re referring to.

Perhaps this post on circumcision is what you’re looking for? I should warn you, what we do with that thing is rather disturbing.

“do orthodox jews bury plates”

NO. WE DO NOT. That is a particularly annoying and persistent myth, and I’m glad you found the post in which I refuted it.

“sex through a sheet jewish”

NO. THAT IS ALSO NOT A THING.

“jews can’t do”

YES WE CAN.

(Sorry, some of the previous questions have me in a rather combative mood.)

“เค้กวันเกิดสวยๆ”

Wow. Um.

*muttering to self* What… language is this even… *tiptoes over to Google Translate* THAI! Thai. I knew that. The alphabet that looks like a bunch of dancing snakes. Right. And according to Google Translate this phrase means “beautiful birthday cake.” Aha! Hi person from Thailand! You must have found one of Josep’s birthday posts with pictures of cake.

I do bake cakes now and then, but I don’t know if they would really fall under the category of “beautiful”. You know what, though, an amazing cake decorator is just about to join my family. Meet my future sister-in-law, Bar Malca! She made this:

barcelona fcb soccer birthday cake

It’s the most beautiful birthday cake Josep has ever seen, right Josep?

You can check out more of her magnificent (and delicious) creations on her Facebook page! (Pretty sure she doesn’t ship to Thailand though. Oh well. But if you want to pay her airfare I’m sure she’d be more than happy to come bake you a beautiful birthday cake in the comfort of your home!)

“write a lettre invite your friend to visit morocoo a aid adha”

Dear Josep,

I have been asked by a Random Stranger on the Internet to invite you to visit Morocco, presumably during Eid al-Adha. Of course, “invite” is a kind of strange word to use, since I’ve never been to Morocco in my life, whereas there is a fair chance that you have. (Have you? I feel like you must have been to Morocco.)

Why do all these Muslims keep asking me to write letters to my/their friends? Must be because of those guest letters from Saadia and Yasmina

Love,

Daniella


ANY OTHER QUESTIONS? Feel free to contact me! If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy the previous Search Term Q&A’s:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

I Just Found Out My Relatives Were Murdered by the Nazis

Dear Josep,

I was planning to hold on to this post and write it for Holocaust Memorial Day, but writing is how I process things, and I’m processing, processing, processing.

So, to recap for our blog readers: at the beginning of last week I got an email through the contact form of this blog. It was from a man who introduced himself as a distant cousin. (I’ve since worked out that he’s my second-cousin-once-removed.) He had been looking for information on my grandfather, who had helped him with some details of a family tree years ago, and he came across the tribute to Zadie I wrote after his death last year. He offered to send me some photographs he had of my grandfather as a child, and I asked if I could see the family tree as well. I was excited, because up until that point, the origins of my father’s family were a mystery to me. I knew they were Ashkenazi Jews and that Zadie’s father was an immigrant from somewhere in Eastern Europe, but as I mentioned in that post, Zadie’s mother died when he was young and I knew nothing about her family. I wondered if the family tree would have any information on their origins. Maybe I would finally know what villages in Europe they came from.

I was not disappointed! The family tree indicated that my Zadie’s father, Yacov Shames (after whom my brother is named) was born in Ratno, and his mother, Dina Herman (after whom I am named, in part) was born in Kowel; both were villages with significant Jewish populations in the Volyn Oblast, a region which was then part of Poland and is now in Ukraine. The ancestors I have in common with my second-cousin-once-removed are Zadie’s grandparents, Shmuel and Yenta (yes, I had a great-great-grandmother named Yenta! 😛 ) Herman. Yenta was born in Kowel, too, whereas Shmuel was born in Włodawa, Poland and presumably moved to Kowel, married my great-great-grandmother, and raised eight children there. Shmuel came to America first, and then Yenta followed with her younger children, including Dina, in 1909. They arrived in New York and then moved to Denver, where a significant Jewish community had begun to congregate.

I immediately Googled these villages and consulted maps. I knew, of course, that my ancestors were probably from that general area, but I can’t quite describe the feeling of finally being able to point to one spot on a map and say, “This is where my ancestors lived.”

…And then I started to read about what happened to those villages and why there are no longer any Jews in that area.

I had known, in theory, that I probably had distant family members killed in the Shoah. With origins in Eastern Europe, and 60% of the European Jewish population wiped out during the Holocaust, it’s pretty unlikely for that not to be true. Still, I knew that all my direct ancestors had been safely settled in the USA by 1914. I had grown up with this sense that my family had escaped in time, and that they were safe.

Then, on Monday last week, I look a closer look at that family tree.

Feyga Herman (b. 1883-Kovel, Ukraine (then Russia); d. 1942, Holocaust); sp. Mottel Mordechai Hopen (d. 1942-Holocaust)

The oldest sister, my Zadie’s aunt, had stayed behind in Kowel.

Strongly reminded of Les 7 Caixes1, I slowly typed a phrase into Google I never thought I’d use in the context of my own family: Yad Vashem archives.

And there they were.

My great-great-aunt, Feyga Hopen–probably the seated woman with one of her daughters. Courtesy of Yad Vashem

I immediately found records of my great-great-aunt Feyga, great-great-uncle Mottel, and their two youngest daughters, Hinde and Perel, who all perished at the hands of the Nazis in Kowel. Even worse, I discovered something my second cousin hadn’t seen before: that Hinde was married to Zisia, and they had two sons, Aba and Yosef, aged 10 and 8.

During my previous Googling about the villages, I came across this horrible page: translations of notes that were written on the walls of the Great Synagogue in Kowel, where the Jews were held before being carted out to the forest and shot. I just sat there and cried as I read it, knowing that my own relatives could have written those notes.

Being me, I decided to compile them into a “found poem”–a poem composed of bits of text taken from another source and reworked into something new. So I pored over the notes, reading them in their English translations and then finding the original Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish and going back and forth with Google Translate trying to make sure the translations were as accurate as they could be. (Alas, I can’t read in Yiddish. What kind of Ashkenazi Jew am I that I can read with reasonable comprehension in Spanish, French, and Catalan of all useless languages–what have you done to me?!?!–but not in Yiddish?!?!)

I was putting the finishing touches on the poem, deliberating on what to include in the little “prologue” explaining the source of the phrases, and I decided to read more information about what exactly happened in Kowel.

So I began to read an eyewitness account; the story of a man from Kowel who survived by being mistaken for dead (twice) and then living in a hole in the ground for a year and two months until the liberation. I’m linking to it here, and I don’t think you need this warning, but I’ll give it to you anyway–do not read it. I shouldn’t have. It’s beyond… it’s just beyond. And when I was done I couldn’t bear to look at the poem I’ve been working on because it felt too clean, too neat, too distant from the actual horrors of what happened to the people who wrote those words.

That night I lay down next to Eitan and we heard the sound of joyous singing wafting through our bedroom window. We live near a yeshiva, and they were probably celebrating something–someone got engaged, or whatever. I thought of the description in the eyewitness account of the Jews saying kaddish (the prayer for the dead) together: “All of those being taken to die in that vehicle sobbed brokenheartedly, repeating the words: ‘May his great name be blessed forever and ever’ with the devotion and eagerness of those about to die in the name of the Lord.” We die like we live, I thought–in song and in prayer.

It’s hard to feel connected to the joyousness of Jewish life while mired in memories of our tragedies, though. I feel now as I did emerging from the gas chambers of Majdanek on my trip to Poland 14 years ago, blinking in the sunlight reflecting off the snow, trying to readjust to the fact that there is a world outside those gas chambers and that my place in this story is to live, to thrive, to laugh, to embrace my loved ones, and to take everything God has given me and use it to do good in the world.

The past week’s headlines have not been helping much.

Eitan showed me a little poem he wrote as I was working through all this that I think sums the whole thing up beautifully. (You didn’t know there were two poets in the family, did you?!)


Notes from the Martyrs / Eitan Levy

Scrawled on a synagogue wall in Kovel
They ask to be remembered
and demand vengeance

May my sons be your consolation
May my home in our land be your vengeance
May the Torah I learn move your lips in the grave
and the life that I live be the blood in your veins


Amen, may it be His will.

…I think I need to go back to reading obsessively about the Spanish Inquisition now. 😛

Love,

Daniella


1. A Catalan documentary Josep recommended to me that I watched just one week earlier, about a woman from Barcelona who discovered, upon her mother’s death, that she was Jewish and that her grandparents had died in Auschwitz. Alas, I don’t think it’s available with English subtitles, but here it is in Catalan and Spanish.

Wall painting depicting the Ramban

Ramban (Nachmanides): The Badass Rabbi of Catalonia

Dear Josep,

I don’t know how it took me this long to write a post about Ramban.

Wall painting depicting the Ramban

He happens to be my personal favorite Biblical commentator, because his Hebrew writing is so clear and expressive. When studying his commentary in high school, I got a huge kick out of the fact that he would quote Rashi–Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki of 11th-century Provence, the spiritual father of all Biblical and Talmudic commentary–and then just say “אינו נכון” (“This is incorrect”). About Rashi. That’s like a college freshman standing up in the middle of a lecture by a senior professor at university and saying, “That’s wrong.” What a badass, I thought.

I didn’t know the half of it.

“Ramban” is a Hebrew acronym of his name, which was Rabbi Moshe ben (son of) Nachman. But guess what? He had a Catalan name, too: Bonastruc ça Porta. That’s right: he was born in Girona in 1194, and lived there for most of his life. He is also known as “Moshe ben Nachman Gerondi”–Moses, son of Nachman the Gironan.

Ramban was a central feature of the Golden Age of Sepharad. He was 8 years old when Maimonides died, and Rabbenu Yonah (Jonah Gerondi), a rabbi and moralist most famously known for his ethical work Sha’arei Teshuva (“The Gates of Repentance”), was his cousin. He began his writings on Jewish law at age 16, and soon emerged as a prominent Jewish scholar, eventually being named rabbi of Girona and later, chief rabbi of Catalonia. He was also a doctor, like many other famous Jewish scholars of that age, and aside from the aforementioned Biblical commentary, wrote a number of notable works on Jewish law and philosophy. He seems to have lived most of his years in relative peace–until the event in 1263 that turned his life upside down and secured him a place of honor in the Jewish Hall of Badassery.

The Disputation of Barcelona

Most of what I know about the Disputation I learned from a thorough article on the topic by Rabbi Berel Wein, a well-known Jewish historian, called Ecumenicism and Dialogue 1263 C.E.. I also consulted Ramban’s own account of the debate, Vikuach HaRamban (“The Ramban’s Disputation”), in the original Hebrew.

The debate was initiated–as it often is–by a Jewish convert to Christianity (seriously, we are almost always our own worst enemies) who took the name Pablo Cristiani upon conversion. Cristiani convinced King Jaume I of Aragon to order a public debate between himself and the chief rabbi of Catalonia. The king summoned Ramban to Barcelona for a dialogue that began on the 20th of July, 1263, and continued through four debating sessions, the last of which concluded on July 31st.

Rabbi Wein points out that open interfaith dialogue is a fairly recent phenomenon. During the Middle Ages, the Church got into the habit of holding such public “debates” for the usual reason: to discredit Judaism and persuade more Jews to convert to Christianity. In most cases, it was a bit of a kangaroo court, because whatever poor rabbi was summoned to defend Judaism in these debates was never actually permitted to speak freely. I wonder why the Christian side always won!

The Disputation of Barcelona was different. Before opening the debate, Ramban asked the king for the right to speak freely–and the king granted it. “Because of this right, Ramban at all times spoke boldly, incisively, and openly,” writes Rabbi Wein. “Here, perhaps for the only time in the annals of medieval Christian European history, Jew meets gentile as equal, and for the majority of the debate is not the defendant or apologist but rather presses home his criticism and disbelief of Christian concepts and principles.”

In other words, Ramban got up there and not only effectively defended Judaism against Cristiani’s arguments, he repeatedly set Cristiani and his buddies on the defensive–with epic levels of sarcasm, I might add. When Cristiani quoted passages from the Talmud and Midrashic literature trying to prove that the Jews of Jesus’s time believed he was the Messiah, Ramban easily refuted their interpretations and added, “The prophet says that at the time of the Messiah ‘they shall not teach their friends war, etc.’… and from the days of Jesus until now, the entire world is full of robbery and pillaging, and the Christians have spilled more blood than any of the other nations, and they are also sexually immoral. How hard it would be for you, my great king, and for your knights, to survive if there would be an end to warfare!”

Yeah. He actually said that. To the face of James I the Conqueror.

And if you think that’s chutzpah: “You believe this bitter thing [the Virgin Birth and the concept of the Trinity] because you are born a Christian, the son of Christian parents, and you have been indoctrinated your entire life by priests who have filled your mind and marrow with this belief, and you now accept its truth by basis of habit alone. But the thing you believe, that is the core of your faith, is completely illogical.”

Shockingly, Jaume didn’t order him beheaded on the spot. In fact, he related to Ramban with great admiration and respect, and comes across as a pretty good guy through this ordeal. When the debate was called off (apparently for fear of rioting–it was never formally closed), Jaume said to Ramban, “I have yet to see such a man as you, who, though being wrong, has yet made an excellent presentation of his position.” Ramban also reports that Jaume gave him a gift of three hundred coins and parted with him “with great affection.”

The Dominican priests claimed victory, and Ramban felt obliged to publish his account of the debate to let the public decide who had won. The Dominicans didn’t even try to refute his account–they accused him of blasphemy instead. King Jaume, mistrusting the Dominican court, called a special commission and ordered that the proceedings be conducted in his presence. Ramban’s defense argued that though he had indeed spoken out against Christianity, he had been granted permission to say all these things by the king himself. The king recognized that his case was just, but felt obliged to do something do calm down the Dominicans, so he sentenced Ramban to two years’ exile. The Dominicans felt that this wasn’t enough and appealed to the Pope, who expanded the punishment to permanent banishment.

Ramban Reestablishes a Jewish Presence in Jerusalem

So Ramban was forced to leave his family in Catalonia, and apparently spent the next three years wandering around in Castile or southern France, until he settled in Jerusalem–which, no thanks to the massacres and expulsions courtesy of the recently defeated Crusaders, had only two Jews living in it at the time. So he established the Ramban Synagogue, which still stands in the Old City today–likely not in the original location, but the building it’s currently in is still the oldest synagogue in the Old City. (It’s also, by the way, the first synagogue you ever walked into and prayed in. I know. I was there. 😉 )

Ramban’s reestablished community was the beginning of a 700-year continuous Jewish presence in the Old City of Jerusalem, all the way up until the War of Independence in 1948, when it fell to Jordan. It was in Jerusalem that Ramban wrote his magnum opus: his Biblical commentary. He also maintained a correspondence with his family and community in Sepharad, trying to create a stronger connection between the Jewish communities of Judea and Spain. He died after three years in the Holy Land at the age of 76.

If you want to read Rabbi Wein’s full article about the Disputation that summarizes the main points of the debate, you can find it online here; it was published in a collection of essays of Jewish responses to missionaries called The Real Messiah? (and if that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s mentioned in By Light of Hidden Candles!).

Speaking of awesome Catalans (albeit not Jewish ones), I am still following your news carefully and waiting with bated breath to see what happens next… and for those of our readers who have missed them, I’ve written three Josep-approved op-ed pieces for The Times of Israel on Catalan independence, which you can read here.

Much love,

Daniella


This post is #3 in my Awesome Jews of History series, the previous two being portraits of King David and Don Isaac Abravanel. Are there any awesome Jews of history you’d like me to write about? Let me know!

Are People Who Do Terrible Things Necessarily Terrible People?

Dear Josep,

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a very, very long time, and several half-baked posts on it have been sitting in my drafts folder for months, if not years. Don’t ask me why it finally gelled now, on the sixth day of Chanukah when my kids are on vacation, Eitan is off touring, I’ve been up since 4am for no good reason, I’m still in my PJ’s, I have writing/editing work to do that people actually pay me for due forthwith, and a doctor’s appointment I need to drag the kids to in a couple hours. But then, my muse has a habit of turning up at the strangest times. So here we are.

There were two epic stories that I found irresistibly captivating as a kid. One was the Star Wars trilogy (the original one. I prefer to pretend the so-called “prequels” don’t exist) and one was the Harry Potter series. I get the sense that sci-fi and fantasy are not your thing, but there’s a reason stories like these are so appealing to so many people. Both Star Wars and Harry Potter feature a hero who starts out an orphan living a hard life with his aunt and uncle, and is suddenly swept away to a magical world to discover that he is destined for a mystical and pivotal role in the ultimate redemption of his world. Who doesn’t fantasize at some point or other about discovering that they’re special and destined for greatness, and most importantly,  essential to the world they live in?

There is another thing about stories like these, however, that I think is universally appealing. In both of these stories, and in most other stories, there is a clear division between light and darkness. There are good guys and bad guys. In both Star Wars and Harry Potter, the hero discovers that there is a certain level of darkness within him; but ultimately it is still very clear to us what it takes to cross the line between the two.

Real life is much more complicated.

There’s been a recent wave of allegations against public figures, many of them media personalities, of sexual harassment and assault. Many of these people immediately lost their careers; their life’s work being banned or boycotted in response to the allegations. Which is only what they deserve, right? If you assault a woman, you are a Bad Guy, period, and everything you’ve ever done in your life is now tainted with evil. Right?

…So… that’s the thing.

People Are Complicated

Consider the following TED Talk by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger. They dated as teenagers, until Tom raped Thordis one night. The talk is about their raw and incredible story of shame, responsibility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

There is one line Thordis says in the talk that really struck me: “How will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?”

Before we unpack this, let’s hop over to another case I’ve been thinking about a lot for a long time.

Rabbi Barry Freundel was a community rabbi who helped many people convert to Judaism in Washington D.C. He is currently serving jail time after being found guilty of voyeurism. He had set up a hidden camera in the community mikveh, and videotaped dozens of women as they prepared to immerse (which is done without clothes on). The entire Jewish world was rocked by this scandal. He was a well-loved rabbi who took advantage of the extremely vulnerable position of the women who trusted him. We were shocked and disgusted.

About two years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend when she mentioned something about trying to give him a call to see if he was all right. It turned out that she had known him fairly well–and that her experiences of him were all positive. She told me a story about him going well out of his way, well above the call of duty, to do an important kindness for her when she was in a vulnerable place. So I asked her how she can reconcile the kind, funny, friendly man she knew with the one who violated women’s privacy in such a despicable way.

I don’t remember her exact wording and who said what in this conversation, but the upshot was that people are complicated. Good people can do really awful things. Rabbi Freundel did some terrible things and he should pay the consequences for those actions. Aside from the damage he did to the sense of security and dignity of these women, he brought shame and dishonor on himself and on Jews as a whole.

But does that mean that the wonderful things he did–such as helping my friend in her hour of need–meant nothing?

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Is Rabbi Freundel a good person because of the good things he did? Or is he a terrible person because of the terrible things he did?

I’ll bring you a more extreme example.

This woman tells the story of how she slowly discovered that her beloved father had committed multiple murders over the course of his life. “Why am I so mad?” she retorts. “Because my mother stayed married to a murderer. Because she let a monster raise her child. But that’s the thing; my father wasn’t a monster. He was the guy who snuck me candy when my mother forbade it. And he was the guy who made up silly songs to sing on the way to school. And he was the guy who was home in time for dinner every single f***ing night. He was a good father to me.

Was he a monster?

Was he a good father?

Yes.

And yes.

In my review of Rabbi Sacks’s Not in God’s Name, I mention a concept he introduces: “moralistic dualism”. People who hold this worldview believe that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, the children of the light and the children of darkness. To a moralistic dualist, what this woman says about her father is an irreconcilable paradox. You can’t be both a monster and a good father. But he was. And he’s not the only one.

Which brings us to the place every single discussion about morality and evil brings everyone these days–the archetype of evil in our age. There’s an incredible German movie about the last hours of Adolf Hitler called Der Untergang, or “Downfall” in English. Some people took issue with the movie because it “humanized” Hitler.

And I must ask:

What was Hitler if not human?

Not only was he human–he was acting out of a belief that he was saving the world.

Does that mean he shouldn’t be held responsible for the choices he made? Of course not. Recognizing someone’s humanity does not and should not mean absolving them of responsibility.

This Is Where It Gets Really Uncomfortable

(Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

You know why I think we do this? Why we believe that people who do terrible things are irredeemable monsters?

Because we want to believe that we could never do it.

Oh yes. I see all you readers there squirming in your seats. “Me? I could never do such a thing. I’m a Good Guy. A child of light. I’m Harry Potter, I’m Luke Skywalker, I would never ever ever do something terrible.”

How true is that really? How different are you from Johnny Mascia and Barry Freundel and Louis C.K.?

This is the thing the world needs to hear and I’m going to do the blogging equivalent of shouting it from the rooftops:

IT IS NOT YOUR INHERENT NATURE THAT MAKES YOU DIFFERENT FROM HITLER.

IT IS YOUR CHOICES.

It is the choices you make every single day about how to wield your power.

We may not be wizards or Jedi knights, but we all have power, whether it’s physical, political, financial, social, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, artistic–what have you. It is how we choose to use our power that determines what we are. That is the ultimate message of both Star Wars and Harry Potter. Good Guy or Bad Guy is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you have to choose–every moment of your life.

On Forgiveness

Shortly before Yom Kippur last year, Rabbi Freundel issued a heartfelt public apology for his actions. “No matter how many times I attempt to apologize, it will never be enough,” he wrote. “I am sorry, beyond measure, for my heinous behavior and the perverse mindset that provoked my actions… as I sat in the courtroom listening the victim impact statements, each felt like a blade entering my gut. The speakers expressed their feelings of rage, hurt, humiliation, vulnerability, and violation. How could I have been so incredibly blind, so unaware of my impact on others? I ask myself that question every day.”

I’m probably going to get all kinds of comments on this post about how Rabbi Freundel doesn’t deserve to be called a rabbi and how could I even suggest that he is anything other than a voyeur, a peeping Tom, an abuser?

Yes, I am suggesting that. I am suggesting that people are bigger than their actions. That people can make bad choices and then genuinely regret them, and go on to become better people who don’t repeat those bad choices. We have a name for this process in Judaism. It’s called teshuva. And we believe it works because we believe that all people are, at their very core, pure goodnessTeshuva means “returning”: returning to your essence, to who you really are. And who you really are is a spark of the Divine–a spark that is always calling you to choose good.

We don’t have to forgive unforgivable acts. But we can forgive the people who commit them.

Obviously, it is not my place to forgive any of these people for what they have done, and I would never say that victims must do so. People need to do what’s right for them and take care of themselves and find their own journey to healing. Thordis found that forgiveness was the right path for her. It helped that her rapist was actually repentant and genuinely regretted what he did; that’s not always true. But it is true sometimes, and in the #MeToo world, I get the sense that people don’t actually believe that.

My editor at the Forward recently wrote a very nuanced piece about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and whether we should still be singing his music in the #MeToo era, given the allegations against him. I sent her an email thanking her for writing it, and I wrote that I wish we lived in a world where people actually believed in repentance and forgiveness. I think we need to start by being more humble; understanding that goodness is not what we are, it’s what we choose; understanding that humans don’t fit neatly into the categories of “good” or “evil”; and having the strength and compassion to believe in forgiveness.

Gotta run and tend to Real Life now. Happy Chanukah and Bon Nadal!

With love,

Daniella

Josep follows instructions!

On several occasions, I have asked (or, um, in certain cases, my imaginary friend character Manuel has asked) for people to send me photos of themselves with my book/s when they get their copies. Well, Josep, for one, has complied:

My hope is that he’ll be so absorbed in the book tomorrow that he’ll forget to go out and protest and get beat up by Spanish police if/when Article 155 hits the fan… but I’m not optimistic. He told me he was reading “your first book” (a.k.a., the one that’s addressed to him) during a demonstration last week. So most likely, he’ll just bring it along.

Hey Josep–when I said that la llamada de la sangre is mentioned in the book, I didn’t mean I want actual blood of converso descendants on the book, okay?! Sheesh. You stay out of trouble!!!

*ahem*

Nu, so why haven’t the rest of you sent me book selfies yet?!

By Light of Hidden Candles Is Launching Today!

We interrupt this program to bring you the news that my novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, is being officially released today!!!

By Light of Hidden Candles

You can purchase it directly from the publisher here, or from Amazon here.

I’ve started blogging specifically about the book on my author website here, which is partially my excuse for neglecting this blog. My other excuse is that Josep and I have been communicating a lot off-blog because of the craziness around the Catalonia referendum, and our on-blog communication tends to be inversely proportional to our off-blog communication. But I did write an op-ed in the Times of Israel about Catalan independence here.