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.