The beloved musical, Fiddler on the Roof, was drawn from the Tevye stories by the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem (real name, Solomon Rabinovich). The setting is Anatevka, a Jewish shtetl in Czarist Russia, and the story describes how Tevye has to cope with the changes that shake his life as a Jew. The story is told by the marriages of his three oldest daughters. Each marriage presents change to Tevye that threatens his grip on tradition. As a master storyteller, Shalom Aleichem uses the weddings of Tevye’s daughters to illustrate the social and political changes that were sweeping through nineteenth century Europe.
The seasoned members of the United Nations Security Council were transfixed by the young speaker at the podium; his eloquence captured their attention. In Churchillian tones he defended a small state that had only recently been admitted into the international body but already had powerful enemies from U.N. Arab members. The name of the young orator was Abba Eban and the country he defended was Israel.
On May 11, 1960 Ricardo Klement was walking on a street of the Argentinean suburb of Buenos Aires when he was suddenly forced into a car by four men. Klement’s real name was Adolf Eichmann and the four men who abducted him were Mossad agents. The fact that this abduction took place in Argentina was no accident. There was a large German community in Argentina that was friendly to the Nazis during the war. After the war, Argentina opened an escape route for hundreds of Nazi war criminals and Adolf Eichmann was among them.
During the 18th and 19th centuries the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe developed as a world apart. Religious, social and political forces kept Jews isolated in their communities except for the weekly market day that brought them into contact with their Russian neighbors. It was in this insular world that Jews made use of a tool that was their eternal birthright – words. The religious binding force of the shtetl was Torah study, the constant effort to understand the full meaning of the word of God. But under the growing influence of Haskalah, Jewish enlightenment, words also found their way into the secular realm of Yiddish literature where all the emotional complexities of shtetl life were explored in the deft writings of Jewish authors like Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
One branch of this blooming Yiddish literature was the development of a distinctly Jewish humor.
At the end of 1948 the young nation of Israel was winning a war of survival over the national armies of five Arab nations. Many reasons have been given for Israel’s victory, but the overwhelming one was the Arab threat to “push the Jews into the sea”; that threat left no alternative but victory. With victory close at hand, Ben Gurion knew he had to win the peace. The future of the new-born Jewish state rested largely with Russia and whether the Russians would continue to support the Arabs or move to a more neutral position in the Israeli-Arab conflict. To move the Communist state into a more Israeli-favored position, Ben Gurion chose Golda Meir as his ambassador to Russia.
Golda was not good ambassadorial material. She was headstrong, outspoken and highly opinionated, not the qualities you look for in a diplomat. In 1948 Golda began what was to be a short-lived diplomatic career in Russia. In a reversal of fate, Golda was returning to a country she had left 40 years ago as a hungry, frightened child with memories of pogroms and Cossacks rampaging through her shtetl. Now she returned as the Ambassador, minister plenipotentiary, of the new state of Israel. Golda had come far from her shtetl childhood.
The measure of a person’s greatness is the change that lives after him. By this measure Theodor Herzl was a great man because of the gifts he gave Jews – hope and a future. The Jews of Eastern Europe had been locked in shtetls under the rule of czars for centuries. Poverty-stricken, isolated and subject to over 200 pogroms just in the years of 1881-1884, Jews desperately needed hope and a future out of Russia.
The man who gave them these gifts, Theodor Herzl, was most unlikely to become the leader of his people. Herzl was an assimilated Jew and one of the leading journalists of his day. He gave little thought to the plight of the Jews of Eastern Europe until fate and a newspaper assignment brought him to the 1894 Paris trial of the French Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who had been brought up on treason charges by the French military. The charges were concocted and laced with anti-Semitism, leading to Dreyfus’ conviction. It was during the public ceremony that stripped Dreyfus of his rank that the reaction of the crowd changed Herzl’s life. “Death to the Jews” was the cry from Frenchmen who were supposed to be the most liberal and democratic people in Europe. Upon hearing this anti-Semitic outcry, Herzl recognized that Jews must have their own homeland, that coexistence would not work.
Over 4.1 million Syrians have fled their war torn country in search of a safe life for their families. The world’s response to this latest refugee problem has been mixed at best and dismissive at worse. Countries like Germany and Turkey have honored their humanitarian role, with Germany scheduled to take in 800,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end and Turkey approximately 260,000. The rest of Europe is glaringly deficient, with wealthy countries like Great Britain accepting about 20,000 and France 24,000 Syrian refugees this year. The United States has far from an open door for refugees with its promise to accept just 10,000 Syrians in 2016. However, despite their poor record as safe havens for refugees, the U.S. and Europe shine as humanitarian beacons compared to the Muslim countries Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, who have accepted no Syrian refugees – none.
On October 6, 1943, 400 rabbis marched from the Washington, D.C. railroad station to Capitol Hill. The sight of 400 Orthodox rabbis marching up Pennsylvania Avenue in their black hats and beards blowing in the wind must have been astonishing to residents of wartime Washington. Also unusual was the date, October 6, two days before Yom Kippur.
Why in heaven’s name would these rabbis leave their congregations two day before the holiest Jewish holiday to march in Washington?
In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated and, of course, Jews were blamed for his murder. Life for Jews in the shtetls of Czarist Russia was never easy and, after this, it deteriorated even more. Restrictions on where Jews could live and how they could make a living reduced shtetl life to one of poverty, punctuated by violent pogroms. Generations of young Jewish men faced bleak futures with little hope for escape from drab shtetl life. For Jewish women, their futures were strictly limited to marriage and motherhood; nothing else was even considered.
One day you are fully involved in a job or a business. Your day is full of work; you have structure to your life, a daily schedule of how to spend your time. You have all of this structure one day and then the next day you retire. One day you never have enough time, the next you have too much with the immediacy of work gone. All too quickly life becomes open-ended and previously filled schedules are now empty.
After retirement and the structure of the workday gone, there is the danger of slipping into inactivity. Life slows down, the inconsequential fills the day. The question arises of how to stay functional in both mind and body. Now there is time for workouts, to discover what Yoga or Tai Chi is all about. And, of course, time for that always reliable form of exercise: walking. With the important motivation of keeping healthy, retirees have time to keep the body fit. How about the mind?
The recent holiday of Yom Kippur recalls the Jewish dedication to Torah study. For centuries Jewish men (almost exclusively men) have devoted their lives to studying the complexities of the Torah. The reasons for this scholarly dedication range from trying to understand the hidden meanings of God’s word to the lack of work for men living in Russian shetls. But underlying Torah study there is a more basic reason for this use of Jewish intellect. Some understanding of this ability is revealed by the story of the High Priest and the Holy of Holies.
When Kol Nidre is sung on the eve of Yom Kippur, Jews everywhere are wrapped in spiritual emotion as they pray to be entered in the Book of Life. The chant of Kol Nidre captures this spirituality because, if the Jewish soul could be set to music, Kol Nidre would be the melody. These somber notes capture the pain of the Diaspora in a way that no words can express. Jewish tradition says that on the sacred eve of Yom Kippur you can hear the flutter of the wings of angels as they wait to be inscribed in the Book of Life. For angels, too, must appeal for judgment on Yom Kippur. Except for the murmur of angel wings, the congregation is silent as the cantor sings the stirring prayer of Kol Nidre.
It was 1973 and the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, was angry; more than angry, he was furious. In just six days in the war of 1967, the Israelis were able to effectively wipe out the Egyptian air force and land troops. The Six Day War was a glorious victory for Israel and General Moshe Dayan, but it was a severe blow to Egyptian pride. Now Anwar Sadat vowed to change that.
In the years before 1973, Sadat rethought his war strategy and secured the latest in military weaponry from Egypt’s longtime enabler, Russia. During the summer of 1973, Sadat initiated yet another war plan and started a series of outwardly innocuous military maneuvers in the Sinai Desert. Israeli intelligence was very much aware of Egypt’s new belligerence and reported it to Israel’s Prime Minister, Golda Meir.
Theodor Herzl was the most unlikely person to lead Jews to a desperately needed homeland. A very assimilated Jew and one of the leading journalists of his day (think Thomas Friedman of the New York Times), Herzl gave little attention to the suffering of his fellow Jews in Eastern Europe. That was before his newspaper gave him the assignment to report on the trial of Alfred Dreyfus.
In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, was accused of treason and put on trial. The charge and trial were infested with anti-Semitism then prevalent in the French army. Despite contrary evidence that proved him innocent, Dreyfus was found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment on Devil’s Island. It was during the ceremony when Dreyfus was cashiered out of the French army that Herzl heard the call that changed his life.
When most academic historians discuss a particular historical period, they do so at arm’s length — as if they were commenting from behind a curtain. Not so for Simon Schama, an author, fully credentialed historian, professor at Columbia University and host of the five-part television series, “The Story of the Jews.” The series is a rich mixture of 3,000 years of Jewish history, and Schama’s personal involvement in the story of his people.
As Schama explains, historians must find a midpoint between projecting their personal experience on historical events, and being “too remote; too distant.” Admirably, Schama has found that vital midpoint.
At the turn of the 20th century, the first Zionists moved to the part of the Ottoman Turkish empire called Palestine. What these early Zionists found was not the biblical land of milk and honey, but a land that was desolate.
So close, and yet so far. After the war, over 50,000 Holocaust survivors tried to make the almost sacred journey from blood-soaked Europe to Palestine. Their journey was forcibly interrupted by a British blockade, and the survivors were imprisoned on the British island colony of Cyprus. These tragic Jews were not prisoners of war, but prisoners of a British government policy. The interception and imprisonment came about because of a 1939 British policy change that revoked the Balfour Declaration promise of a Jewish homeland, and sharply limited Jewish immigration to Palestine. That policy of restrictive Jewish immigration was continued after the war by Ernest Bevins, the British Foreign Secretary.
On hearing the news, Jews were dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv. The dancing celebrated the November 1947 United Nations partition vote that created a Jewish homeland. At last, Jews would have a safe haven to escape a world that had persecuted them for centuries, fatally compounded by the Holocaust.
While the celebration went on, David Ben Gurion said that he felt like a mourner at a wedding. His acerbic comment on the news was, “But I could not dance. I knew that we faced war and that we would lose the best of our youth.” With his usual political insight, Ben Gurion was right. For the six months following the November partition vote, Britain would retain control over Palestine and serve as a shield between the newborn Jewish state and five Arab countries posed to attack it. At the end of those six months, the British shield would be gone and Israel would be an open target.
Almost every day newspapers report the deaths of Holocaust survivors. What German brutality could not do, advancing years can, as the survivors live out their years. This is not the twilight of the survivors, it is deep night and soon the world will not have living witnesses of how quickly the veneer of civilization can be stripped to reveal the depth of immorality.
The wonder of the survivors is not only that they physically survived the demonic efforts to kill them, but also how they kept their minds intact when every morning they woke and questioned whether this would be their last day. The fact is that many of them, while surviving physically, could not escape the psychological damage that would cloud their lives thereafter. All the more credit and honor to those survivors who escaped the death camps with body and mind intact and could provide witness to the world that what happened to them must not happen again. The lives of these indomitable men and women stand as examples of the unflagging human spirit that stands in defiance of evil.
But as we honor survivors and their testament to courage, we must also remember and revere those who did not survive. There is a terrible ratio of survivors to those who perished in the Holocaust. That ratio is 30 to 1; for every survivor, 30 Jews were murdered by the inhuman German regime. We know the names and faces of the survivors, but faded from history are the names and faces of those lost in the ashes of Auschwitz. We must honor and learn from the survivors who are still with us, but always remember that for every Jew who survived, 30 Jews did not.
A recent article in a Christian journal, Ichthus, published by Harvard students has repeated an anti-Semitic slur that was responsible for the death of thousands of Jews throughout the ages. The hateful words appearing in Ichthus (I hesitate to give them visibility here) were, “We, the Jews, collectively rejected God and hung Him up on a cross to die, and thus we deserved the punishment that were heaped on our head over the last 2000 years.” This diatribe was written by an anonymous person who was a convert from Judaism to Christianity. After an uproar, the Ichthus article was removed with a lukewarm and puzzling apology that it was not the policy of Ichthus or the writer “to present a piece that is anti-Semitic in nature or interpretation”. But Ichthus then concludes with, “the necessity of salvation through Jesus Christ alone”. So much for repentance