Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Chain of Miracles: Divine Providence in the Midst of Nazi Persecution by Rabbi Meyer Juzint

As a master religious educator, Rabbi Juzint sets out by explaining that there are 3 types of miracles.  There are those that are natural and are taken for granted. For example, when one wakes up from sleeping, no one thinks about why one wakes; one takes for granted the cycle of sleeping and waking. Waking up, nevertheless is a miracle. There are miracles that are beyond explanation like when a doctor tells a patient that there is nothing else to do or there is no cure yet somehow the person rallies and recovers.  The third type concern the miracles found in circumstances that upon reflection one sees that an alternate turn of events would have resulted in a completely different end.  This slim powerful memoir concentrates on the last type of miracle even though the rabbi experienced all three types. 

Rabbi Juzint loses his extended family of seventy. From the time the Germans enter Lithuania the rabbi is either on the run or captured: sequestered either in a ghetto or concentration camp.  He is liberated by the British at the infamous Death Camp of Bergen - Belsen. Under constant pressure, torture and mental anguish, the rabbi wonders how indeed he woke up every day!  He sees brutal murders, he experiences merciless beatings, even one on the day of his liberation from which he never fully recovers causing him headaches for the rest of his life.

This memoir is not an indictment against the world. The rabbi is quick to remark about the many kindnesses that he experienced by some unusual courageous people.  He mentions that Sudetenland Germans of Czechoslovakia were not bloodthirsty like the S.S. or the Lithuanians but rather, actually showed kindness in dealing with the Jewish people.

Rabbi Juzint's entire experience of 4 years evading death at the hands of Nazis and other Jew haters reflects a chain of events that in every case turns the rabbi away from an unnatural end, teaching the concept of personal Providence. The rabbi describes the sweet ring of "you are free!" upon being liberated as he collapses from just previously receiving a blow to the head from one of Nazi guards. Inexplicably, he awakes as a free person immediately reflecting on his miraculous survival.

This amazing volume reminds me of my own rebbe, Rabbi Dovid Lifshitz ZTz"L the Suvalker Rav relating to our class that we Americans don't know what "pressure" really is. He experiences unspeakable horrors in Poland before in he made his way to the USA via Shanghai.  Rav Dovid would explain how much he enjoyed going to the fruit market on Amsterdam Ave. (in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan)  to pick out special fruit for the Shabbos WITHOUT FEAR!  I can just imagine what it meant to Rabbi Meyer to be able to teach Torah to so many students without any fear.

This book is an important contribution not only to Holocaust studies but also to religious education, inculcating belief in the context of evil.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Six Days of War June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Michael Oren has written probably the definitive history of the Six Day War.  Although it is history, it reads like a thriller.  There are two features that I think are worth sharing about the book: Yitzchak Rabin's relationship to Moshe Dayan and the prime minister at the time of the war, Levi Eshkol.

In recounting the events that led up to the war, the reader gets a profound sense of the prudence and wisdom of Levi Eshkol.  His wit, dry Yiddish humor come across in a very compelling way.  His desire to gain consensus shows leadership and prudence often necessary when such profound decisions need to be made.

Throughout the book, one gets the feeling that Yitzchak Rabin was constantly under the thumb of Moshe Dayan.   Dayan comes off as the supreme egoist at the expense of Rabin.  Dayan seems to have taken all the credit by which Rabin was responsible.  The reader learns of the mental breakdown suffered by Rabin and his relative quick recovery during the war.

The book is a fascinating critical study of the real theater of war on the one hand along with a critical historian's eye for the miraculous events that accompanied the prosecution of that war.  This is an excellent critical history.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Up Stream by Ludwig Lewisohn

This is an autobiography of the modern drama critic.  His story is an extraordinary experience of prejudice and a repudiation of assimilation.  Lewisohn was a founding member of Brandeis University and became an ardent Zionist.

His story is amazing because as a young German immigrant his irreligious father encourages his son's acculturation and assimilation into Charleston, South Carolina's gentile community.  Lewisohn becomes a Church going American and is rudely awakened when in spite of explaining his allegiance to Church and country he is labeled a Jew.  When he protests, he is told that his features are "too Jewish" to be ignored!  He tries very hard to overcome the bias against him and when he gets into Columbia College and gets a doctorate he is told that there will not be any job for him.  He is forced to take a job at Ohio in the German department instead of settling down in his beloved field of literature.

He loses his job when his pacifism during WWI is interpreted as sympathy for Germany; his loyalty is questioned and he feels the alienation of one socially shunned.  He comes to the conclusion that the Jew will never be accepted in a non-Jewish environment and encourages a Jewish environment (not necessarily religious) and a Zionist outlook.  He looks toward his Jewish heritage for comfort and finds inspiration in being Jewish.

I am not sure whether his story will resonate with contemporary readers.  His experience seems to coincide with the rise of American isolationism and the curtailing of immigration.  He bore the brunt of its effects.  However, the injustice that he experienced is 'eye opening' since one does not expect such things to happen in America!  Lewisohn's fictional account repudiating assimilation called The Island Within,(also reviewed on this Blog) is a better articulated argument, however, the actual history is worth reading.