Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Out of the Depths by the former Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau

I just finished reading an extraordinary memoir by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. He is a 38th generation rabbi, and the youngest liberated holocaust survivor of Auschwitz.  Out of the Depths is unique, not like other holocaust stories.  Rabbi Lau does not solely rely on his recollections.  He includes his recollections along with other corroborating testimonies from other people who witnessed the same scene.  His story is heroic with real life heroes like his brother Naftali who was charged with taking care of his younger brother during the war.  "Tulek" carried his younger brother "Lulek" in a sack to hide him in the various camps.  Or the non-Jewish Russian, Feodor who looked after "Lulek" in the barracks.  The story is a record of indomitable spirit and a determination to carry on the Jewish tradition and the family tradition to be a rabbi.

The memoir is a description of how Rabbi Lau arrived in Israel before the State was founded and how he was educated and trained by great rabbinic personalities like his uncle Rabbi Vogelman and the Torah giant Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.  The reader discovers how orphans of the holocaust were treated with sensitivity and care in the yeshiva world.

We are introduced to the experiences of what it means to be a rabbi, ministering to all types of people.  With the Chief Rabbi, we discover the many public figures who interacted.  We learn that he ministered to Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres. We are informed that the former Pope John Paul (of Polish origin) refused to baptize Jewish children who were living with Catholic families during the war.  We learn about the moral integrity and courage of King Hussein of Jordan and how he appreciated the Chief Rabbi's visit during his cancer treatments in America.  Fidel Castro claimed not to be an anti-Semite agreeing to import matzo to Cuba for Passover. 

The truth is that this book kept my eyes moist because the reader is told about countless trials and tribulations of individuals and how these amazing people survived under the most difficult conditions without losing faith.  As a matter of fact the whole book is a lesson in faith, a lesson in Torah to look with optimism in the face of calamity.  The last image of the book is very profound: Rabbi Lau writes that he is very proud of his "personal" Hanukkah Menorah- he sees that his wife is the base, the foundation, his 8 children are the lights, the candles and he is fortunate enough to be the "Gabbai" the one that guides the candles.  When the Jewish tradition is carried forth into the future with "Kol Torah" Torah talk and holy Talmudic discussion then there is proof that the perpetrators of the holocaust failed in their mission.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Warburgs by Ron Chernow

The illustrious history of the Hamburg banking family is chronicled in a hefty volume by Ron Chernow.  The story is really an epic about the Jewish family of Hamburg's third largest bank.  We learn of the trials and sacrifices the befell the Warburgs.  We learn about the effects of assimilation of German Jewry, the attachment to Deutchland and the astonishment felt during the Nazi takeover.  We discover the ill feelings between the Zionists and non Zionist Warburg family.  It is also the story of the American Jewish community at a time when the banking firm, Kuhn Loeb reigned under the leadership of Jacob Schiff and then by his son-in-law Felix Warburg.

I found the relationship that Jacob Schiff maintained with Germany during WWI fascinating and that his position was heavily influenced not only because of his birthplace but also because he wanted to thwart the Anti-Jewish activity in Russia thus supporting the Japanese by underwriting loans to them.  The marriage of his daughter, Freda to Felix Warburg help solidify a true internationalism in banking that was very common before the world was taken over by nationalism.

We are introduced to famous Jewish figures like Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion.  In the eyes of the Warburgs, these are negative characters because the Warburgs are unable to appreciate the value and need for a Jewish State.  Their attachment to Germany and America cloud their understanding.  Felix Warburg finds Ben Gurion too dogmatic and extreme to be a diplomat.  He sees Weizmann smooth and highfalutin.  We also find out that Weizmann carried on an affair with Eva Warburg.  We find out that Weizmann really could not stand dealing with the wealthy non-Zionist Warburgs.  He nevertheless put on the charm, persuading Felix Warburg to contribute to the cause of Zionism.

The most stunning part of this epic was how the Hamburg bank survived Naziism. Max Warburg could not believe that Hitler would last and continued to believe in Germany and its people.  The Aryanization of the bank required a name change.  The Warburgs called upon Dr. Rudolf Brinckmann to take over the Bank during the dark years of WWII.  In public the Warburgs praised Brinckmann for leading the bank during those dark years.  They defended him, never calling him a Nazi.  During WWII, the Warburgs moved operations to London and New York.  In Hamburg the bank was called Brinckmann and Wirtz & Co.  What became quite curious was the fact that after the war Brinckmann refused to change the name of the bank back to Warburg.  The 4 years of the war negated the 143 year history of the bank!  Brinckmann did not seem to appreciate that his 4 years at the helm of the bank could not replace what the Warburgs accomplished over the years.  It took Brinckmann's retirement and ultimately his death to add the original name to the bank.

Bringing the bank back to Germany was very important to the family because their attachment to Germany was absolute.  The family was cultured and believed in German culture.  Siegmund Warburg refused to condemn Germans.  He was loyal to his homeland and made great attempts to forgive what happened there. 

This was not true of the American branch.  The Americans could not understand the attachment to Germany in light of what brutality took place there. There was, nevertheless, a great appreciation for America and we learn about the fact that Paul Warburg was really the author of the Federal Reserve.

One interested in Jewish history of the twentieth century should plow through this epic.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Morality for Muggles by Moshe Rosenberg

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg has written a wonderful brief discussion of the values gleaned from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.  The rabbi seamlessly connects the lessons of Harry Potter and their parallels to the Torah's tradition by citing Biblical, Midrashic and other rabbinical wisdom.

All the different themes like friendship, loyalty, and love (and more!) that manifest themselves through Harry, Ron and Hermione have counterparts in the Jewish Tradition like Moshe Rabbeinu, his brother Aaron and sister Miriam or King David and Yonatan and others!.  Dark characters of Hogwarts are compared to Bilaam and King Shaul (after his jealousy sets in against David) and others in a very simple clear readable fashion.  The rabbi even includes the insights of his students of the S.A.R Academy of Riverdale, NY.

I remember coming away with great satisfaction when I finished the series years ago; I was struck by the series' honest values and true psychological insights.  As Rabbi Rosenberg aptly says, Harry Potter  "fires" one's imagination.  For Jewish Harry Potter fans interested in a springboard for discussion about possible Torah applications to what one gleans from J.K. Rowling's 7 part series, Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg has provided us with good one!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Murder in the Synagogue by T.V. LoCicero

Murder in the Synagogue is a multilevel, fascinating study of the 1966 notorious murder of prominent suburban Detroit rabbi Morris Adler.  The book profiles Richard Wishnetsky, a promising graduate student who gradually descends into a psychosis that culminates in Rabbi Adler's murder and Wishnetsky's suicide during a Saturday morning Bar Mitzvah service.

 Richard Wishnetsky drew inspiration from his Hasidic grandfather claiming a certain authenticity that the suburban synagogue community and its rabbi lacked.  We are told of his idealism of wanting to make a difference. He wants to make his mark, to make a statement. Unfortunately, his life spins out of control when it appears that his graduate study plans will not come to the fruition that he expects.  We find that he fails at love; he is frustrated with rejection.  Speculations of homosexuality persist about his social interactions.  He is unattractive.  His tragic confusion results in such an horrific scene: reading a final statement against the community and turning to shoot the rabbi and than himself before a crowd of 800 congregants and Bar Mitzvah celebrants.

What struck me about the book was the criticism of Suburban Jewish life; its materialism and lack of religiosity.   However, how can one take seriously the criticism of the deranged?  Had Wishnetsky experienced success and not failure would he have even noticed the flaws in his own community?  Would his mind have crumbled so severely with the taste of triumph?  He may have identified with his religious grandfather, however, he, himself, never became religious.  The phoniness that he charged and applied to the community could have been charged and applied to himself.

Although a heart wrenching read, the book is thought provoking, written in a strong narrative prose.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Daniel Levin's The Last Ember

The Last Ember teaches.  It teaches about ancient history and contemporary events.  It rehabilitates Josephus and uncovers the injustice being perpetrated on the Temple Mount.  Although it is fiction, one can derive many lessons.  If one is interested in a fast paced action packed twist filled thriller, The Last Ember delivers.

The book fits into a modern trend to rehabilitate Josephus.  In the past, Jewish Historians peg Josephus as a traitor, however, currently many historians cut Josephus some slack by justifying his self preservation and appreciate him in the context as being an essential source of first century history of Israel and Rome.  Daniel Levin goes so far as to conjecture that Josephus was actually not a traitor, but rather a clandestine operative with the mission to keep the golden Temple Menorah burning perpetually. The book reports that Titus made a mistake and brought back a forgery and that Josephus saved and hid the real golden Temple Menorah.  Josephus here is depicted as a hero.

The Last Ember publicizes the destruction going on under the ancient Temple Mount.  This is consistent with the desire among some to deny the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel.  Many Islamic leaders have purported Islamic hegemony and deny Jewish history and identity with the Temple Mount.  The plot is the denouement of the Waqf authority's complicity with the destruction of artifacts.

The book fits into the genre of Dan Brown's DaVinci Code: a merging of historical fact and fiction, fast paced page turner.  Although I found the protagonists not developed as much as the secondary characters, nevertheless, its an edifying experience and a fun read.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bleachers by Grisham, Koufax: a lefty's legacy by Leavy, and Ten Rings by Berra

Just wanted to recommend some  books for one who enjoys reading about sports.  Bleachers by John Grisham is a fun read about high school football that I thought captured the essence of a typical "Lombardi" type coach.  I won't be surprised if it becomes a movie...It is practically a fantasy about a player who courageously opposes and stands up to his coach.

Koufax- A lefty's legacy by Jane Leavy is a book that has a great inning by inning description of Koufax's perfect game against the cubs in '63.  Koufax himself comes off with good human qualities and is clearly a modest individual.  She calls him a "mensch".  
          I did not like this biography because it was mostly hero worship and made Koufax more than he is.  Although he was for 5 years the best pitcher ever and did not play on Yom Kippur which rightly and forever enshrined him in the hearts of American Jewry, there was no religious conviction in his decision.  He said he refrained from playing 'out of respect'. I suspect that possibly the result of his upbringing in Borough Park Brooklyn, a Jewish cultural heritage was just difficult to break. He made no significant contributions to the Jewish community, and resented his status as a Jewish hero for years.  The book reveals that he married out of the faith twice, and wanted to be remembered as an athlete without the Jewish adjective.  

NY Yankee great, Yogi Berra wrote a memoir about his ten championship seasons called Ten Rings.  It was a fun read about the late forties and the decade of the 50's;  an era of great baseball talent.  Berra comes off affable, very modest, self effacing and very funny. The book brings out Berra's wit, his talent for negotiating a contract and his personal sensitivity in handling different pitchers and different situations. I forgot that he was such a great ballplayer!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Michael J. Cohen's Truman and Israel

Michael J. Cohen wrote a study of Harry S. Truman's attitude toward Israel.  Professor Cohen is at Bar Ilan University.  The book is a critical study of how domestic politics drove Harry Truman to recognize the fledgling state of Israel.  Professor Cohen paints Truman with his Mid Western prejudices but captures his integrity as a humanist and uncovers the special relationship that Truman had with his WWI Battery D veteran comrades.  It's a story of his close relationship with Eddy Jacobson but more important it uncovers the talents of Max Lowenthal and shows that Truman's successful 'whistle stop tour' was largely financed by loyal fundraisers for the Democratic party like Abe Feinberg.  The professor uses the expression 'Zionist Lobby'  when discussing Zionists like Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion attempts at influencing Truman through American rabbis like Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise.  One never gets the impression that there was an organized lobby but rather disparate factions jockeying for position to influence Truman.
We are introduced to a prejudiced Harry Truman who was known to use pejorative terms about Jews.  His relationship with his Jewish friends was different; he was loyal, he played cards with them and visited at their homes.  Truman, however, never reciprocated because of the anti-Semitic attitudes of his wife's family.  The loyalty, nevertheless, that Truman showed his friends expressed itself in the fact that Eddie Jacobson and Abe Granoff could enter the White House at anytime!  All of the Jews close to Truman were not Zionists and were very sensitive to their patriotism being called into question. We are told that Truman disliked Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver (who was an outspoken opponent) and thought that Jacobson was being exploited. 

Politics were the driving force that influenced Truman to recognize Israel.  Understanding that over 90 % of the Jewish vote went to Roosevelt and that Truman carried only 75%, the State of New York became a focal point of the Truman campaign.  The fear of the Russians influencing the new State of Israel also played a role in Truman's recognition.  Knowing that he was well behind in the polls, Truman was confident if he could only get to the people he could win the election.  Abe Feinberg (who owned a chain of jewelry stores) stepped forward and raised the necessary funds to enable Truman's 'whistle stop' train tour.  Truman was forever grateful to Feinberg and acknowledged Feinberg as his friend.

Professor Cohen tells us that Ben Gurion was suspicious of Truman, however, Weizmann was always optimistic and positive about Truman.  Eddie Jacobson was so convinced of Truman's integrity that he told people that Harry Truman would do the right thing when it counted.  Professor Cohen tells us of the fateful meeting that was arranged by Jacobson between Truman and Weizmann and the presentation of the small Sefer Torah.  Truman was moved by the gesture and makes mention of it in one of his later letters to Weizmann.

We are told of the showdown between the State Department and the Administration about recognition.  What was interesting is the fact that Professor Cohen makes the case that Truman was never in favor of a Jewish National Home in Israel, but rather wanted a solution to the Displaced Persons problem that resulted from WWII.  Truman wanted the absorption of 100,000 Jews to what was known then as Palestine over the objections of the Foreign Ministry of British Empire.  For Truman, the Jewish problem was essentially a humanistic issue.  He did not believe in the Zionist dream. (In this regard, he is different then Winston Churchill who claimed a Zionist sympathy- see Martin Gilbert's Churchill and the Jews: a lifelong friendship)  Clark Clifford credits Max Lowenthal in preparing the arguments in favor of recognition of Israel against General Marshall's State Department position.

Professor Cohen seems convinced that had the founding of the State of Israel happen during a non election year the outcome would have been different because of Truman's true attitudes of antipathy toward Jews and Zionism.  The record of events played out differently and Harry Truman will forever be remembered as the first to recognize the State of Israel.

Shmuel Feiner's Moses Mendelssohn: sage of modernity

Just finished a brief biography of Moses Mendelssohn by Shmuel Feiner of Bar Ilan University.  The book is a brief, concise discussion of Mendelssohn's profound impact on modern Jewish history.  Feiner appreciates the pivotal position of Mendelssohn being at the transition of the Jewish community going from the Ghetto into the mainstream of general culture.  It is a time filled with Jew hatred on the one hand, and great optimism, a direct result of the Enlightenment on the other.

Mendelssohn was the most famous Jew of Central Europe, indefatigable in his defense of his people and their right to practice their ancestral laws.  We learn, nevertheless, that he clashed with the 'rabbinic elite'; his sanguine attitude of 'tolerance of ideas' stood opposed to the rabbinic ban.  In an age of reason, according to Mendelssohn, one should be free to think without coercion.  For example, we learn of a Government decree to delay funerals up to three days (in order to make sure that living people are not buried alive).  This decree was a clear rejection of the Jewish practice to bury within 24 hours.  Mendelssohn offered a creative Halakhic compromise to open 'caves' similar to how Avraham and Sarah were laid to rest at the Cave of HaMachpeilah in the land of Canaan.  The Jewish law could be fulfilled simultaneously with the Government decree; a person would not be trapped in a casket but could literally wake up and walk away.  The eminent Rabbi Yakov Emden bluntly warned him to stay clear of the rabbinic discussion, a veiled threat of rabbinic ban.  For Rabbi Emden and others the novelty and compromise of such an approach was unacceptable since such a change would indefinitely alter an ancient Jewish burial practice through outside pressure of a government decree.  Rabbi Emden showed great restraint in dealing with Mendelssohn possibly because he understood the ramifications of Mendelssohn's fame and influence and how he positively impacted the image of the Jewish community on the the outside world.

Mendelssohn clearly resented the threat and probably harbored strong opinions about the old ways of the rabbis, nevertheless, we are told that he was not a reformer and had advocated no breaches to or suspensions of Jewish Law.  What makes him unique is the fact that his adult life was not spent in the Beis Medrash, Torah Study hall, but rather it was spent in the salons of general philosophy.  When publicly challenged to convert to Christianity, he staunchly refused and rebutted the challenge.  The unfortunate irony is that conversion to Christianity was the fate of his descendents.  Professor Feiner teaches us that Mendelssohn was a complex figure during a watershed period of Jewish history.  His personal impact must be contextualized into the bigger questions of what was happening to the general Jewish community as it integrated into the greater society.  As the subtitle reads he was a indeed a 'Sage of Modernity.'