Tuesday, 28 November 2017

A Vanished World

Yesterday, I posted a video of a rare footage that captured Jewish life and culture in the Shtetl before WWII. I am a product of that culture. I am grateful that I am.

Now, I cannot expect everyone to share my sentiments on this. However, I am dumbfounded at some of the reactions that somehow projected a negative attitude and somewhat contempt towards that chapter in our Jewish history. Yes, there were pogroms, yes there was persecution and yes, there was poverty. But is that all that people see and remember of it?

How sad!

Life in the Shtetl was very hard and often dangerous, no doubt about that. It was particularly true during the end of 19th and early 20th centuries when persecution, economic restrictions and outbreaks of violence pressed increasingly on the socioeconomic foundations of the shtetl.

But it was the culture that helped overcome some of those difficulties, I believe, 
 create a wonderful resilient Jewish spirit. 

I personally was always captivated by the stories that I heard about the shtetl. I was enchanted particularly by the values of Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) and Menshlikhkeyt (humanness) around which the shtetl's life revolved. The traditional ideals of piety, learning and scholarship, communal justice, and charity were integrated in the warm and intimate life style of the shtetl.

As a child, I would always want to hear more about the life that had become a graveyard.

"Bobe, dartziel mir a maise fun amolike yorn (Grandma, tell me a story from the old days)," I would constantly beg of my grandmother in Yiddish. 

Those were some of the happiest moments in my childhood. The stories told by my grandmother mirrored a life of substance and meaning that could not and would never be duplicated. They had a hidden glow about them, always threaded with humour, wisdom and wit.

One person asked, after watching that video, “Where were the women in that video?” “They were at home,” answered another. I will tell you where the women were. They, the Yiddishe Momas, were at home raising some of the finest Jewish kids, giving them all the love and warmth that no nanny or living in maid could ever.  The home was the basic unit in the culture and life of the shtetl; it was founded on a patriarchal and closely- knit structure on traditional lines. The Jewish mother oversaw the Home. And thank G-d for that.

If you really wish to know what the women did, let me invite you to read the lyrics of "My Yiddishe Mommee." It will tell you where women were in that video. I know what it means, I had such one “woman” as mother. Mine was not only at home, she was also out working hard helping my father create a fine Jewish Home. She was one who is described in these few lines:
"How few were her pleasures, she never cared for fashion's style 
Her jewels and treasures she found them in her baby's smile 
Oh I know that I owe what I am today 
To that dear little lady to old and gray 
To that wonderful Yiddishe Momme of mine."

The synagogue, Beit Hamidrash, was the house of prayer, the house of study and the house of assembly combined. It was the place that preserved the Great Spirit of the Jewish people in its purest form. It was the compassionate, old, loving and loyal mother who, in her graciousness gathered the tears of her lost sons and daughters constantly sheltering and consoling yet at the same time granting them the iron will for an eternal spiritual survival. 

Has anyone ever read Bialik?

Bialik, the greatest Jewish poet, in my humble view, was a product of that culture. His poetry mirrored the suffering, but it also reflected the Jewish Spirit that this culture produced and preserved. He was the bridge between that culture and our modern Jewish state. So were Sha”i Agnon, Natan Alterman and many others who were  reared in that culture. I cannot brush it off as insignificant, dear readers.

The hardest blow, however, came in the form of a private message from a person who shall remain nameless. That person could not understand how I felt the way I did about this chapter in our history. That nameless person went on to suggest that those Jews of the shtetle, my people were “whimps and went like a lamb to the slaughterhouse.”

To that nameless person and all those other nameless who feel “machoisticly” superior to the millions who died in the Shoah, let me say this.

What did you expect of 1.5 million children that were mercilessly murdered in the Shoah, resistance? How about the frail elderly, women, and disabled ones? Had you been in their place, would you have believed then that the human mind could have conceived of putting people in ovens??? Would you not have jumped into a shower after several days of being in a cattle train surrounded by the smell death, urine and facies? Would you, yes YOU, have thought that instead of water, you would be showered with Zyklon B?

Those who could resist, did resist.

My father was one of them. He had a choice. He escaped and joined the partisans. That is how he earned 71% disability from the Nazis.

That culture cradled, developed and shaped others like him. It also produced Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion, Begin and many other giants, lest you forget. Those ended up being the leaders of our Great Home, Medinat Yisrael.

That is how I prefer to remember that Vanished world. That is the way, I always will.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Am Segulah

Some words contain an idea, a concept and sometimes a whole universe. They simply cannot be translated into any language or transferred to another sphere of a national or cultural experience lest they lose their linguistic sensitivity.

The Hebrew word “Segulah” is one of them. “Am Segulah” is what G-d refers to Am Yisrael as and on several occasions in the Torah. " "וְעַתָּה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ" )Exodus 19:5) (Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine).
Am, as many of us know, is a nation, a people. Am Segulah is a unique, a very distinct and rare nation. Segulah סגולהstems from the Hebrew root, ,סגל the same root of the word, purple סגול . What then, may some of you ask, is the relationship between Am Yisrael and the colour purple?
It is not a secret that purple is the colour of royalty and has been for thousands of years. There is a reason.
The production of the colour purple in ancient times was costly. Hence, it was rare and accessible only to kings and rulers who could afford purple fabrics. The dye that was used to produce the colour purple originally came from the city of Tyre, ruled then by the ancient Phoenicians. It was extracted from the Mollusk which according to the Online Oxford Dictionary is “An invertebrate of a large phylum which includes snails, slugs, mussels and octopuses. They have a soft unsegmented body and live in aquatic or damp habitats.” It took thousands of mollusks to create just a tiny quantity of the dye.
It follows then that since it was exclusive to kings and rulers, the ones who could afford to purchase fabrics of that colour, purple became linked with the ruling classes of ancient empires. The colour was also associated with holiness and wisdom as those who wore it were regarded by many as descendant of gods.
Though not all members of Am Yisrael are part of the imperial classes, our nation, just like any other, each in their own way, is unique. Am Segulah, though, is what G-d named and referred to our People as the quote from Exodus above points. It is not a title that, one bright day and out of nowhere, we chose to adorn ourselves with.
What many Jews, however, fail to understand is that this title, associated with once a very rare and unique colour, is not merely a label one can wear as a feather in their hat or let it serve as the laurel leaves upon which they can rest and enjoy that title. To be a chosen, chosen to carry a unique mission, role or destiny, requires constant work and toil. It bears high responsibility and demands repeated and concerted efforts to prove, time and again that the title and the awards attached to it are well deserved and well earned.
Nowadays, as the colour purple has become more widely accessible, I pray and wish that this new reality does not dilute the significance of our People’s role in history. I implore every Jew to remember who we are, where we came from and prepare ourselves to our destined purpose on the timeline of history. Only a close familiarity with these will ensure that for us and our relationship with G-d, we will forever remain as rare, precious and unique as the ancient purple dye, an Am Segulah.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The importance of reporting all the facts

 This article was written jointly with Roger Froikin

Our dear friend Sheri Oz recently published a series of articles on the Jordan Option conference that was held in Jerusalem on October 17.

She was among those who attended the conference. Her articles were based on her personal impressions of the conference and its speakers. While Sheri's articles contained important information, perhaps they could have provided a wider perspective of the conference and its organizers. On initial impression, Sheri’s articles seemed objective as she reported the events and quoted, mostly verbatim, the person(s) she interviewed leaving the readers to draw their own conclusion.

However, a second and more careful reading of the articles seems to reflect merely one side of the issue, the one she heard at the conference and those she spoke to wished her to share with her readers.

First, contrary to what is mentioned in Sheri's articles, there was no "controversy" between the London based Jordanian asylum seeker, Mudar Zahran and the highly respected Yisraeli Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. In fact, Mudar has been waging a smear campaign against Khaled Abu Toameh for several years. Second, we need to understand that such a report, as this article clearly was meant to be, will always be more influenced by those interviewed than it will be objective on an issue.

Though the article mentioned the other side, Khaled, Sheri never contacted him or gave him the right of response.

The campaign began after Zahran was booted out of Gatestone Institute. Two people who, according to Khaled Abu Toameh, have been involved in the smear campaign, Ted Belman and Rachel Avraham, are currently facing legal proceedings by law firms hired by Gatestone Institute and Khaled Abu Toameh.

It needs to be noted that Sheri's articles, though no fault of her own, were not inclusive of important information published recently about the conference and its organizers. Take, for example, the recent disclosure by Varda Epstein on Elder of Ziyon website that one of the keynote speakers, Michael Ross, is a lobbyist for the adult entertainment industry in California. Sheri's articles quote Ross, but do not make any reference to his work in the porn industry. Granted, the disclosure and exposure of Ross’s involvement in the pornography industry came out AFTER Sheri published her articles. Were Sheri to write today, however, now that Sheri knows the truth about Ross, she might want to ask herself what is the connection between porn and the conference she and others paid money to attend.

Sheri was aware of the public controversy surrounding the conference and Mudar as she has read Varda Epstein’s articles prior to writing her articles. Though I personally never detected any support of either Mudar or Belman in her article, the two twitted it as if the article praised them and their venture. Is it possible that either they or some of us might have grossly misunderstood Sheri’s intentions behind writing the article?

Recently, the Gatestone Institute issued the following Notice. Sheri was aware of it as well. Here it is:

It is important for all of us that these matters be looked at carefully and fairly and without providing half the story, half the facts. The best results come when we have all the facts with which to judge.

Saturday, 11 November 2017


Last Sunday night, while many of you were sound asleep, my students and I made our way to the top of Mount Metzada (Massada). It was a bright night with a full moon shining above lighting our path as we climbed this significant milestone in our Jewish people’s history. We were on our way to experience the place where members of our great Jewish nation remained faithful to their chosen destiny. We were on our way to keep our promise to them, to vow that we would never forget them and remind them and ourselves that their untimely death was not in vain.

I had been to Metzada many times before.  Something draws me personally to this place. I was one of them. I am one of them. Their blood runs through my veins. To walk again and again in the footsteps of the Zealots who were determined to keep their faith and remain defiant for as long as they could, makes my heart flutter. To roam along this flat top mountain, close my eyes and imagine myself as one of them, fills me with great pride. To share their joy of planting crops, educating the young ones about our Jewish history and to breath the air of freedom of being Jewish for as long as one could, is the fulfillment of the ancient and eternal promise of G-d to Am Yisrael. To stand there and look in the direction of Yerushalayim as we were sadly watching the clouds of smoke rising from the destroyed city of G-d yet knowing that the Eternal of Yisrael shall never lie, always filled my palate with that bittersweet taste that has ceaselessly been coating our Jewish essence.

On each visit to Metzada, I look down at the site of the Roman camps and wonder what it must have been like to watch them from above, try and guess their next moves and plans in their efforts to annihilate us. I imagine observing them and their thousands of slaves toiling to build the ramp alongside the western part of the mountain while worrying about our old and young frail ones and what fate awaits 

Never, however, had I visited Metzada at night. 

When we reached the top, I faced our ancient fortress under the moonlight. I was awestruck. The desert night had always bewitched me. Now, I was surrounded by its magnificence. Its recollections echoed against the walls of my beings.The cool air caressed my face. It soothed and cradled my soul in its ancient music.

As the first rays of the morning sun kissed the horizon, I sat on a rock as I had done in times gone by and counted my blessings. And there are many countless ones.

To be able to stand on top of Metzada as a Jew, as an Yisraeli Jew, in our Ancient/Modern Home and pledge our loyalty to our People and our Jewish heritage, to be able to vow "Again Metzada Shall Never Fall," however, is by far one of the greatest blessing of them all.

Wishing all of you Shabbat Shalom and Shavua tov.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

There is an Avraham in Every Jew

Lech Lecha לֶךְ-לְךָ is the name of this week’s Parasha (Torah portion) from Beresheet 12:1 – 17:27

Each year as we get to reading it, the Jew in me is, yet again, filled with awe witnessing the courage of Avraham, our forefather. To be able to pick up one’s past life, leave the comforts of one’s Home and follow the directives of a voice, a calling, be it external or internal and face the unknown, does indeed require much valour, resolution and bravery. Avraham certainly took the road “less traveled by” in the words of Robert Frost and that made “all the difference.”

And that move, that major step by Avraham, as we Jews believe, has changed the face and the essence of humanity forever.

At this point, I would endeavor to say that Avraham was not the first one to whom that “voice” spoke. I would say, however, that he was probably the first one that heard it, listened to it and followed its command.

Though not every Jew is a born Avraham, we all have some of him in us. We all possess the potential to make a difference, small or major, in our world. Such opportunities present themselves to us on our Life’s path almost daily. Unfortunately, many of us miss them, intentionally or otherwise. We miss them for several reasons.

First and foremost, some Jews have chosen to continue to live in their comfort zone and any effort to rattle it is rejected by them. 

Others, sadly enough, have simply elected to tune out of the dynamic world that surrounds them. They have decided to seal their ears and resuscitate the blinders over their eyes. The sounds of their inner silence have become their new idols, their panacea. “It is not my problem,” they keep telling themselves as they engage in their selfish dialogues in a futile effort to justify their choice.

I was one of those. Though the fighter in me never ceased her battles, I rarely responded to the calling, until over 8 years ago.

I was residing in the UK at that time, living a comfortable lifestyle, mingling with all the who’s and who’s through family connections and work. I was at last, I felt, enjoying the fruits of my labour from long and hard previous years.

Then, one bright day, it hit me. I paid heed to the voice that was calling me. I stopped and listened to it. It kept asking, “So what’s next? You have done for yourself and nicely so. Is that the legacy you want to leave in this world. Is that what your Jewishness is all about?”

There was only one alternative left for me: moving back to Eretz Yisrael and doing for our Jewish people and our future here. It was time to make that long dormant dream, buried deep inside of me, a reality. I followed that voice and, just like Avraham, I have been blessed, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The dictate of “Lech Lecha” is what being Jewish is all about. It is a directive that has run like a golden thread through the spiritual DNA of our Jewish generations. It is our duty as Jews to dare, to go against the stream and to venture. That has been not only our duty but our destiny as well. That is the key to our survival, Past, Present and Future.

My dear fellow Jews, we each have different voices calling us. We each hold different vocations, some are easier to achieve than others. Regardless of the magnitude and the significance of our calling, each carries a blessing.

So, let us give rise to the Avraham that is in us, harness our courage and wisdom and follow in the footsteps of the great first Hebrew. Let our ancient Spirit, prudence and invincibility guide us. Let it take us through the road “less traveled by.” Let us embark on our destined journey and leave our footprints not only on that road but also on the hearts and souls of many others for many years to come.

Shavua tov

Special thanks to Michal Dar-El.

Saturday, 21 October 2017


תִּמְשָׁל (Timshal) is a Hebrew word which means “you shall control or rule.” It is mentioned in Beresheet chapter 4 in the story of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s two sons.

G-d requests that they each sacrifice a gift to Him. He accepts Abel’s offering and rejects that of Cain. Naturally, Cain is upset, even jealous. G-d must have known that Cain would be tempted to punish his brother for that and was about to commit a sin, a crime and suggests to Cain to resist and triumph over it: “ לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ; וְאֵלֶיךָ, תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ, וְאַתָּה, תִּמְשָׁל-בּוֹ.” (“sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be its desire, and thou shalt rule over it”). To me, the word “Timshal” encapsulates responsibility and our human capability to choose between good and evil.

Cain ignores G-d’s words and kills his brother Abel. G-d then punishes Cain by banishing him.

Why did I decide to write about this, you might ask?

The reasons are twofold. The first is because it was part of Parashat Hashavua, the Torah portion, last week. The second bears just as much importance to me on personal and professional levels.

Recently, I have been teaching my English class a story by Langston Hughes. It is called “Thank you Ma’am.” The story tells about a young boy, Roger, who, one night, attempts to rob an older woman by the name of Ms. Jones. It is an excellent story with a great lesson and I highly recommend that you all read it.

The boy, as he later shares with his victim, tries to rob her because he wants to buy a new pair of shoes and needs the money. Temptation and greed drive him to break the law and commit a crime. Ms. Jones could easily turn him to the police and forget about him. Instead, she takes him into her home, offers him to wash his face, comb his hair and shares her meager meal with him. Most importantly, she teaches him a very valuable lesson. I call it the lesson of Timshal.  Evidently, she, too, had, at one time, difficulty in choosing between good evil, right over wrong.  “I were young once and I wanted things I could not get,” she proceeds to tell him. “I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son.”

I would venture to say that most of us have done “things” in our lives, some worse than others. Temptation which in turn may lead us to break laws or some moral code, lurks at the doorstep for almost all of us. Many of us want bigger homes, better clothes, more expensive cars or other luxuries which we cannot afford. These temptations may lead us to doing “things” that are not always right. How many of us have asked themselves and maybe more than once, “was my deed good or bad? Have I done right or wrong?” It is an individual struggle. Some can control the urge to cross that threshold more than others. Some are just too weak to resist it.

Before she bids him farewell, Ms. Jones gives Roger a ten-dollar bill so that he can buy the shoes he so desires. As he leaves her home, she tells him, “But I wish you would behave yourself, son, from here on in.” The readers are left with the feeling of hope, a sensation that he will have learned that precious lesson and the importance of choosing good over evil.

Another book that one of my beloved students has recently chosen to do a book report on, “East of Eden,” by Steinbeck, is another example of a literary creation that employs the Beresheet concept of Timshal as one of its main themes, if not the most important one. There, the association is even more explicit than in Hughes’ story.
Firstly, is Steinbeck’s choice of title: it is to the lands which are East of Eden that G-d banishes Cain. Secondly, the selection of the name Adam, the name of the father of the two feuding twin brothers, Aron and Cal. (resembling the story in Beresheet, Cal causes the death of his brother Aron, albeit indirectly).

Thirdly, and most importantly in my view, the association to the Torah story is condensed by the repeated use of the Hebrew word “Timshal” (Timshel).

It is Lee, Adam’s dedicated and educated housekeeper who has researched the meaning of this Hebrew word and who is eventually instrumental in helping the family become a cohesive unit. As Lee attempts and succeeds in convincing Adam and Cal of the cogency of the concept of “Timshal,” father and son make peace and Cal realizes the power that rests in him to overcome evil.

As a teacher, I hope that we all internalize this important lesson and learn that overcoming evil is not only part of making this world a better place but also that it is up to us, through our power of free will, the most precious of human capabilities, to make it happen.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

In the beginning....

As we start reading the Torah over, I cannot cease, yet again, to marvel at its wisdom. Some believe it was written by G-d, the ultimate composer. Others believe it was written under Divine Inspiration. Whatever the source, its cup of wisdom certainly “runneth over.”

Whenever I read the first chapter of Beresheet (Genesis) which recounts the story of creation, I am enthralled by the recurring sensation that whoever wrote it several thousand years ago, must have had some understanding of science and the laws of nature.

I am not a scientist, I do not profess to be one. I am, however, intrigued.
As a lay person, I can only eandevour to address this complex issue of creation, a topic which, admittedly, has fascinated me for years and lead me to form the impressions which I have had about its narrator.

At the outset of the Book, the author states: בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ")In the Beginning G-d created the Heaven and Earth) which, as Rashi explains does not merely mean “ in the beginning” but rather “In the beginning of” the process where G-d set to create the world. In fact in that verse, we are told that three very important pillars of our existence were formed, Time, Space and Matter.

 Then we are told that “"וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ  (the Earth was Tohoo Vavoho) indicating that it was chaotic before G-d put it in order. As I stated, I am not a scientist, far from that, but nowadays, we know of studies by physicists which confirm that the expansion of the early universe at the time of the big bang, was highly chaotic. The first chapter in Bresheet unfolds to us the sequence of events that shaped our world as we know it today.

“Let there be light,” is the first act of creation. Every child knows that the sun is the source of light yet the sun, the moon and the heavenly bodies were created only later. There goes the theory that the entity that composed this recount was ignorant of the laws of science. I can partially agree with it. In our time and age, we are still discovering facts about our universe. Just as the understanding that the earth was round came at a later stage, so perhaps did the awareness that the sun is the source of Light came later to the people of the Tanach. When the “the big Light” and the “small Light” were created, according to Bresheet, they were for the sole purpose of distinguishing between the day and night and to determine the special and Holy Days, months and years.” לְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַיּוֹם וּבֵין הַלָּיְלָה; וְהָיוּ לְאֹתֹת וּלְמוֹעֲדִים, וּלְיָמִים וְשָׁנִים
The composer of the chapter of creation, however, was, like modern humans, aware that Light was energy, the source of all living in our universe. And that indicates that some understanding of the laws of nature did exist already then.

Next is the act of separation between “הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ, וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ “ the upper water and the lower water,” Heaven and Earth, or as Bersheet calls it
  שמים,  ארץ  וימים “dry land,  seas and sky. The Hebrew word for sky is Shamayim. It means, “there is water there.” I can only envisage the Biblical people staring at the sky, seeing that it is blue just like the sea water next to them and concluding that the blue up above, up there, is the same blue of the water near them.

Following that, came the creation of the plants and trees. Surely, we all know that without the process of photosynthesis in which plants are an important factor and which produces oxygen,  no life could ever exist on our planet. The composer of the first chapter of Bresheet must have also known that.

Another scientific fact that is well known to modern day scholars is that life originated in the sea. The author of the first chapter of Bresheet seems to have known that too. The creation of tetrapods: the four-limbed vertebrates, had to be preceded by the creation of the various creatures of the sea.

Finally, comes the creation the animals, the reptiles and all living creatures that can survive on land, culminating with the highest forms of living, Man and Woman.

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ And G-d created Man in His image, tells us the author of this fascinating first chapter of Bresheet. We all know that the reference is not to a physical image but rather that hidden spark of G-d that each one of us holds.

May that spark shine through and ignite our world with Light, Love and every blessing.

Shavua tov!

Wednesday, 20 September 2017


Kavod is Hebrew for Honour.

Honour, a word which originated in Latin, could mean a host of concepts to many. To some, it means glory, renown, dignity reputation. In Hebrew, however, the language which I, as a Jew, define myself in, it bears those and much more, a lot more.

Hebrew is a language based on the system of roots. As such, in most cases, words that share the same root are related in their meaning.

The root for the Hebrew word Kavod כָּבוֹד   is  כ,ב,ד k,v,d . It is the same root for the word, “heavy,” כָּבֵד, (kaved).  What follows then is that these words are related as they stem from the same root. We generally refer as heavy to something that weighs much and thus has a stronger influence on our lives. Honour is generally given to anyone who bears significance and meaning.

Kaved,“Liver” in Hebrew, is another word that stems from the same root as Kavod. It is that internal organ in our body whose role is to break down the food we eat, a very significant role. It was also discovered in the past that the liver is the heaviest internal part in the human body.

Kavod, appears in the Tanach 119 times. In most cases there, it is used to describe G-d.  In other cases, when it is used to describe humans, it almost always refers to their inner beauty and good qualities. These are the qualities that are the reflection of that spark of G-d, His image, that is in each one of us. Every one of us, therefore, holds the potential to adorn themselves with the title of being Honourable.  We can, through our deeds and behavior, choose to highlight these inner traits or we may choose to ignore and scorn them. Dignity,
the state or quality of being worthy of earning Honour or respect, and integrity are the compass that will dictate and guide us, humans, in choosing the right path for ourselves to be merited and deserving of Honour. That, as Roger Froikin, my mentor, has just reminded me is consistent with our great Jewish ideology and tradition of 3400 years.

This concept is also reinforced in the literature of our sages where the following saying is emphasized.  “Those who run after Kavod, the Kavod evades them…. Those who run away from Kavod, Kavod chases them.
 "הרודף אחר הכבוד הכבוד בורח ממנו, והבורח ממנו ..., הכבוד רודפו"

Again, what that saying implies is that in Judaism, genuine Honour is not external, one which is given for a flaunt of wealth, social or other position or a role. Neither is it one that can be actively sought, demanded or imposed. Rather, it is earned. It is earned for wisdom, honesty and modesty which are expressed through their deeds and behaviour. Therefore, when we witness people for whom all that matters are their title and their affluence yet when asked to engage in a matter that they consider beneath their dignity, we refer to them as players in the game of Honour.

As we enter the Jewish New year of 5778, I express a silent prayer for Am Yisrael, in particular, and the world in general. I pray that this year will bring Peace, unity to our fractured world and above all the earned cloak of  Kavod, Honour, to all.

Shanah Tovah

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Opportunities and Learning Curves

Life presents us with many opportunities. Unfortunately, we miss many. We miss them for various reasons. Fear of change or perhaps the stage that we are at on our Life’s path may not always be timely, are but a couple of the reasons for failing to see the prospects that some events, or experiences hold for us.

When the opportunity that I am about to share with you first presented itself to me, I was least ready for it.
At that time, was living in New Zealand and nearing my 50th birthday. I held a great job as a Hebrew lecturer at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch and lived a quiet, sometimes too quiet, life down under.

I decided to spice up my routine and joined a local gym. That decision has changed my life, enriched it and opened up doors that led me into realms that I could only dream of.

One day while I was training with my personal trainer, I noticed some younger girls standing in front of the mirror and posing in a way that enhanced their muscle tone.

I was intrigued.

“What are they doing?” I asked my personal trainer. “Oh, they are practicing for a body sculpting competition,” she answered casually.
“You mean body building?” I persisted. “No,” she quickly corrected me. “It is a much milder, softer and more delicate field.”

“I would like to try it,” I jumped in excitement.
“Forget it,” came her abrupt response, “ you are forty-nine, fifty, forget about it.”
I was taken back by her discouraging answer but not for long.
“No dear,” I answered in a determined voice, “if anyone is going to forget it, it is you, not me. No one has a right to kill anyone’s dreams.  I am going to start training and aim toward competing. I may not win,” I added before I left the gym, ”but no one could ever stop me from embarking on that journey.”

The following day, I changed personal trainers. Shelly, my new one was wonderful, supportive and encouraging.

The routine I had to go through was harsh. It required an immense amount of self-discipline and will power. The exercise regiment was rigid. I trained for about 2-3 hours per day, walking, weight bearing exercises, practicing my dance routine and posing. The diet was, likewise, strict. I had to weigh every crumb I put into my mouth. No alcohol, no sweets. There were many temptations along the path. And while I resisted them, I knew then that I would do it only once in my life.

In November 2003 as I was standing on stage holding my 1st place trophy, another door opened up for me to reveal another great opportunity. I realized that if I, at almost 50, could reach such an achievement, I can help maturing women such as myself, women after childbirth, during menopause, improve their looks, their self-image and self esteem. I suddenly realized the niche that this experience carved for me. 

Six months later I completed a Personal Training course and received my certificate. It was an immensely rewarding experience and a great learning curve. I have learned about our body, about nutrition and overcoming hurdles to reach what many believe is the impossible. I have trained many women who achieved some wonderful results.

My advice to them all was, “do not let Life go by you, let it go through you!” 

That was, is and always will be the motto of my life.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Survival was my Hope; Celebrating Life is my Victory

That title encapsulates the essence of the story I am about to unfold to you, a moving story of survival, hope and its eventual rewards of success.

Avraham Moshe Minkowski, also known to his friends as Manny, was born in 1926 in the town of Starachowica, in the southern part of Poland.

His religious Jewish family of ten enjoyed the quite life of their shtetel.  Manny belonged to the local chapter of Beitar and lived through a relatively normal childhood until that dreadful day in November 1939 where his world turned upside down as the Nazis marched into their little town.

On that day, at the young age of thirteen, soon before his Bar-Mitzvah, Manny and his father were separated from the rest of their family. That is when his  painful pilgrimage through the inferno of drifting from one Nazi labour camp to another, towards the final destination at Auschwitz, where he was reduced to number A19762 (etched in his brain in German until this very day!), started.

That journey is laced with tales of struggle, pain, humiliation, repeated beating, starvation, theft, death and other horrors which are too harsh and too many for this paper to contain. Manny’s strong spirit, however, overcame them all. He belongs to a very special and exclusive group of Jews who have inspired many of us, Shoah survivors. He is one of the invincible. No power would or could ever extinguish their tiny spark of Hope, a spark that ignited their desire to go on living and pass their legacy to future generations.

Manny’s journey of survival, however, did not end when the Russians liberated Auschwitz. Fortunately, neither had hope left his heart.

Soon thereafter, he realized that his road to freedom was still speckled with many more harsh experiences woven with pain and betrayal, forever testing his resolute Jewish Spirit which eventually prevailed. His wanderings took him to Germany, then back to his home town and after what seemed like an eternity, Manny found his way to a refugee camp in the most southern spot of the Italian boot.

While in Italy, where he spent a year and a half, first in its southern part and later in Arona in the north, Manny joined the Italian branch of the Irgun which had over a thousand members of Beitar who had arrived with the flood of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. It was there that he acquired the skills of mechanics and electricity which would eventually earn him a very important role in the history of the early days of the nascent state, Medinat Yisrael, our Jewish Homeland.

 These skills were first handy when Manny became part of the team that prepared the explosives which were used to bomb the British Embassy in Rome on October 30th, 1946. The explosion which took place in the early hours of the morning, destroyed the central part of the building. Though the planners made every effort to avoid casualties, two Italian civilians were injured.

Then there was the Altalena Affair. Manny was selected to be one of its ten crew members.
The Altalena was an American made war ship, more precisely a landing craft. It was chartered for a twofold purpose, to bring European refugees to Eretz Yisrael and badly needed weapons for both Etzel (Irgun) and Haganah. In addition to the close to 1000 people on board, the ship also carried rifles, rounds of ammunition, Bren guns, armored vehicles and other war equipment.

                                                             Manny on board the Altalena 

                                  Training on board of the Altalena as it was making its way towards Yisrael

 A few precautionary measures were taken in order to assure that hostile powers would not be able to detect the ship. The first, a radio silence was declared and it had been agreed that the Haganah (a Jewish paramilitary organization during the British Mandate era which later became the core of the IDF) would send them a coded message where to land and unload the badly needed weapons.
Another measure was to blur the connection between the ship and the identity of its occupants. Some of the Hebrew names were changed into less sounding “Jewish”. That is when Avraham Moshe became Manny.

Unbeknown to the Altalena crew, a UN brokered truce was accepted by both sides. The first cease fire of Israel’s War of Independence went into effect while it was making its way to Yisrael.

On June 20th, 1948. The Altalena arrived at the shores of Yisrael. No signal was given as to the place of landing, as had been agreed prior to its departure from France. The crew suspected that something was terribly wrong although they could not point their finger to it. They awaited further instructions.

After an unexpected delay, the temporary government instructed it to land in Kfar Vitkin, a small town along the Mediterranean coast half way between Haifa and Tel Aviv. Soon thereafter, the offload of most of the weapons commenced. Most of the refugees were brought to shore.

Menchem Begin came to greet them. Suddenly, some shots were fired at them and they all hurried back into the ship. Begin instructed them not to fire back. “There will be no war between brethren,” were his words. They obeyed him.

From there, they sailed to Tel Aviv, flying a white flag which was visible to all. Their only wish was to negotiate. As they approached Tel-Aviv, heavy shelling of the boat was what welcomed them. The shooting came from what was known as the “Red House” – the headquarters of the Haganah. That is where the Tel Aviv Hilton stands today.

The shelling and shooting never ceased. The wounded were evacuated from the ship under fire and those who could, jumped into the water and swam ashore. Manny was one of them.

Manny pointing at the Altalena as its survivors, himself included, are swimming ashore. Notice his tattooed number A19762

Today, Manny and his beautiful wife, Rachel live a rewarding life here in Yisrael. They are surrounded by the love of their three children and ten grandchildren. His son, Yaron Minkoowski is a world renowned and one of Yisrael’s top fashion designers. Yaron married his beloved wife, Pazit Yaron Minkowski, a well-known Yisraeli actress, in 19.7 (the first three digits of Manny’s Auschwitz number). Their daughter, Ori Minkowski, 16, followed in the footsteps of her father and is now the youngest fashion designer in the world.

Manny (second to Left) in the company of  his three children (two daughters to his right), four of his grandchildren. His son, Yaron in the middle and his granddaughter Ori in front of her father, Yaron. To his left is his beautiful and talented wife Pazit Yaron Minkowski. To the left of Pazit is Rachel, Manny's amazing wife of 60 years.

For Manny, Hope and Survival undoubtedly transformed themselves into one big Celebration of Life. We wish him many more years of Health, Celebrations and sheer Bliss.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Torah, a Contract, a Covenant of a Different Kind

In this week’s Torah portion,  Parshat Ekev, D’varim (Deuteronomy) 7:12-8:10, Moshe continues to remind Am Yisrael of the terms of the Covenant that they had entered with G-d at Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah.

Like any contract, written or oral that is entered into between the parties ,  the Mosaic Covenant specifies obligation, the mitzvot, as well as the rewards that result from fulfillment of all obligations and includes  the adverse results of violating its terms and how to deal with such consequences.

There are other Covenants that G-d has entered with Am Yisrael as as the Abrahamic Covenant and the Davidic Covenant. Unlike the Mosaic Covenant though, those are unconditional. This one is not only conditional, it is one that is not easy to follow. Yet, as we all know, Am Yisrael accepted it verbally and out-rightly when they said,  
   נעשה ונשמע“Naaseh Venishma.” (We shall do and listen).  It is one that is not easy to follow,
A law school professor might tell his students that the Mosaic Covenant is a “CONTRACT OF ADHESION”

A type of Contract, a legally binding agreement between two parties to do a certain thing, in which one side has all the bargaining power and uses it to write the contract primarily to his or her advantage.

That law professor would also possibly ask his students about its validity.  After all, what choice did the people feel they had about accepting such a contract from an all-powerful G-d who had just freed them from slavery in Egypt?   Moreover, they were asked to accept this deal without having really studied it and without benefit of legal counsel to help them understand its implications. 

In retrospect, would they agree that it was a good deal?  Some, like those who erected he Golden Calf or Korach and his congregation, did not and proceeded to violate the contract’s provisions with disastrous effect.
Now, why have we written about this?  

This story teaches something unique about Judaism and Jewish culture and why Torah should have been studied and seen only in the original Hebrew language.
It, also, illustrates something vastly different between traditional Jewish interpretations of Torah and those of others who have adopted Jewish literature and interpreted it to fit their own theologies.

One example where translations of the Torah from Hebrew has erred, innocently or deliberately, is when one refers to the information that was written on the Two Tablets that Moshe brought down from Mount Sinai as “commandments.” What was inscribed on them is described in the Torah asדברות   (Diberot) literally meaning  “pronouncements,” NOT “commandments” as the translation reads. There is a different word in Hebrew for commandments, מצוות (Mitzvot).

Our Torah, literally “instruction” (not law), in Hebrew, describes what happened at Mount Sinai  as ‘giving’ the Torah as a ‘gift’ (giving and gift in Hebrew  are derived from the same root, נ,ת,נ), implying that the giver is benevolent and loving,  like a caring parent,  caring for the welfare and best interests of its children. Therefore, though it may still be a contract of adhesion, it is one provided in love and concern.  It’s the parent who tells his child “look both ways before crossing the street, because the consequences of not doing so could be horrible”, not to set up the child to be fearful and not to be mean to the child, but out of love and care.   That, too, is a ‘contract of adhesion’, but one based on love and concern.

We are troubled by those who teach that all Abrahamic religions are essentially the same, just versions of the same themes and beliefs with little differences here and there.  Some Jews want to believe that as it makes them feel safer to be like everyone else in what they fear as a hostile world.  Christian Missionaries have for a long time preached that line to Jews to encourage them to convert, to just accept a small change, they claim, for salvation.   The problem is that between Judaism and the other “Abrahamic religions,” there is a theologically wide gulf that makes them almost polar opposites.

Christianity sees the establishment of the contract between G-d and Am Yisrael precisely as that definition above of the Contract of Adhesion.  A cruel and demanding G-d imposing harsh rules on the people with a deal they cannot dare refuse without an opportunity to study it.  They combine that with the Hellenistic belief that mankind is helpless and at the whim of the fates and gods, needing a hero to save them.  (according to Christian theologian Fr. Hans Kung). 

In great contrast, Judaism sees that contract more as directions and lessons (Torah, as we mentioned above, means instruction) from a benevolent kind father, who wants the best for his children and from a Benevolent G-d who wants the best for His People, ones who share the desire to set the standards and warn against what will naturally happen if those standards are not kept.  It’s the parent who warns his children to look both ways before crossing the street because he cares for their safety and welfare. 

Thus, for Am Yisrael and Jews, the Covenant is not the kind of one sided deal imposed by the powerful G-d.  It is lessons given as a gift to those who might benefit. In this case, it is Am Yisrael ONLY.

This article was written jointly by Roger Froikin and Bat-Zion Susskind

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Our Resilient Jewish Spirit

This Shabbat is another special day on the Hebrew Calendar. It is שבת נחמו Shabbat Nachamu. 

Shabbat Nachamu ("Shabbath of comfort/ing) takes its name from the Haftarah from the Book of Isaiah 40:1-26. It is called by this name because of the Haftarah’s opening words,נחמו נחמו עמי " “ : Be comforted, be comforted my People.”  It speaks of comforting the Jewish people for their suffering. It the first of seven Haftarot of consolation leading up to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

For me, this National milestone also bears a personal significance. It was on Shabbat Nachamu that my parents were liberated from the Nazi camps, seventy two years ago.

Growing up in the shadow of the Shoah, that is the date my parents always mentioned when asked about their liberation. Some found it strange. Why? You may ask.

Most people would remember and mark the Gregorian Calendar date as their anniversary of such an important event in their lives. Strangely enough, I never knew it by any other date other than “Shabbat Nachamu.” I doubt my parents ever remembered or at least did know the Gregorian date at some stage. Now, more than ever, I find it odd that they never remembered their Hebrew birth date, yet remembered the Hebrew date of their rescue from the inferno. That oddity is woven with bright coloured threads that send shivers through my spine each time that I stop to think about it.

It is only this year that I finally realized the significance or the symbolism of this date.

Firstly, for Jews to remember, observe and commemorate Jewish holidays and events, while being inmates of death camps in a hostile environment that tried to erase every connection to their essence as Jews, is commendable. As the years go by, I learn and read more and more stories of how some Jews risked their lives during those years to hang on to every possible shred of Jewish tradition. That is truly inspiring.
Clinging to their wonderful tradition, the customs, the celebrations at least through remembering them, infused in them the hope for better days and the firm belief that the “Eternal of Yisrael shall Never Lie.” What a fountain of optimism and courage it must have unfrozen in them. Their resilience was second to none.

Moreover, in Yiddish, the lingua franca of most European Jews upon whom the Shoah was brought, this disastrous event in Jewish history has come to be known as “Der Churben” דער חורבן  (The Destruction). This is the same name that was given by Jews to the destruction of both Temples, which according to tradition were both destroyed on Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av,  חורבן בית המקדש (the Destruction of the Temple).

How appropriate, then, that the Liberation of these Jews, who did all they could to cling to their Judaism, took place on the very day we console Am Yisrael on all of its sufferings.

And the parallel between their survival and that of Am Yisrael goes further than that. Like Am Yisrael, my parents and many other Jews were liberated to see the resurrection and the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. They came out of the Abyss, collected the broken pieces of their shattered lives and built a bigger and stronger tabernacle out of it in Eretz Yisrael.

May Am Yisrael continue to thrive on our Promised Land and make our Jewish Homeland go from strength to strength for ever and ever.