Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reading Jarvis Jay Masters

Readers of this blog know that I love to read, but even after all these years it still surprises me how rarely it is from books formally about Judaism or Jewish history that I learn the most about human nature—the book by Rabbi Teichthal that I wrote about a few weeks ago being an obvious exception—and how regularly those kinds of lessons come to me from books that appear at least prima facie to have no specific connection to my profession or my faith. I’ve been having just that kind of experience over the last few weeks while reading the two published books by Jarvis Jay Masters, an author whose name I suspect will not be at all familiar to most of you. Nor is any of you likely to meet him anytime soon because he is currently on death row in San Quentin State Prison in California. (It’s not clear that he will really be executed, however; just last year, the California Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing that his supporters hope will lead to a new trial and, they further hope, to his eventual exoneration.)

I haven’t reviewed the evidence or the testimony offered the first time around, nor would my personal evaluation of either be worth much. (I certainly do believe that people whose trials can be shown after the fact not to have been fair should get new trials, but I lack the legal expertise to say with conviction whether Jarvis Masters himself falls in that category. You can however get a very clear picture of why his supporters think he absolutely does deserve a new trial at their website, But although I do not wish to comment on matters both still before the court and beyond my professional sphere of competence, I did read both his books and came away moved and touched in ways I hadn’t anticipated at all. And that is the experience what I want to tell you about today.

I came to Jarvis’ books in a slightly roundabout way. The literary agent in Manhattan that I am trying to interest in helping me sell a new novel of my own mentioned to me on the phone that she was about to be away for a week or so visiting one of her clients in California. When I asked why the client couldn’t just come to New York to see her, she told me why. And then she mentioned his name and I jotted it down. Later that morning, I was sufficiently curious to google him and learn a bit more about his story. And what I found was so compelling that I ordered both his books: Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row, published by Padma Publishing in 1997, and That Bird Has My Wings, published this year by HarperOne.

This year’s book, his second, actually treats of the earlier part of his life, the years leading up to his initial experiences in prison. And the first book, written more than ten years ago, describes his life on death row up until that time. (He was sentenced to death in 1990 and had been awaiting execution for nine years when he published Finding Freedom.) So the book treating of the earlier part of his life is the one written from the perspective of the forty-seven year old man he is today, while the one discussing his actual experiences in prison was written from the vantage point of a younger man of thirty-five. But the later book also discusses his first years in prison, so you can reasonably read them in either order.

In a sense, Masters’ story is not that extraordinary. His mother and stepfather were severely addicted to heroin. His biological father was gone even before he was born. Bounced from one foster home to another through almost his entire childhood and adolescence, his only occasional respite was when he sought refuge with one or another set of relatives, almost all of whom are described in the book as being actively engaged in one sort of criminal activity or another. By the time Masters was an adolescent, he had so thoroughly absorbed the violence, criminality, drug abuse, and incivility of his environment that his future as a thug was almost guaranteed. About all of this, Masters writes in a cool, dispassionate way, describing his progress towards prison as a series of almost natural steps that led finally to him being caught and sentenced to long-term incarceration. (He also includes a series of painful, raw chapters about life in the various establishments the State of California runs for youthful offenders in which he spent time before going to “real” jail.) And it was in such a real prison—the notorious San Quentin penitentiary—that he became, so his accusers claim, involved in the 1985 murder of a prison guard that led to his death sentence in 1990.

Along the way, however—and this is the part of the book that challenged me the most provocatively and which I found the most interesting and moving—Masters grows up. And as he leaves his adolescent self behind and finally assumes the trappings of real adulthood—including not only the formerly unrepresented qualities of shame, self-awareness, and humility, but also what certainly sounds like a true sense of responsibility and accountability—he also finds himself falling under the sway of, of all things, a Tibetan lama named Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. As Masters makes his way forward as a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism, he learns how to acquire precisely those qualities that were the most lacking in his life to that point. And by the time he finally takes the vows that appear to have sealed his formal conversion—vows neither to harm nor hurt others even at the cost of one’s own life and to attempt to end the suffering of others—he seems truly to have been transformed spiritually into a new man.

Obviously, the man is telling his own story in his own books. I don’t know him personally. I haven’t met him. Obviously, we’ve never spoken. But even if I could somehow meet him, I’m not sure I’d know how to judge the sincerity of his conversion. Is he on the level? The Bible records the prophet Samuel’s observation that an unmediated encounter with the spirit of the living God does indeed have the capacity to turn someone into a new person entirely. Has Jarvis Masters truly become such a new man? Who (other than a prophet) could possibly look into the heart of another person with anything like the kind of clarity necessary to answer such a question unequivocally? These are probably unanswerable questions, but the books are nonetheless very moving. And so, despite my natural skepticism about such things, the sincerity and clarity with which Masters writes makes me inclined to feel that here, for once, is someone who truly did grow up, who lived through the most sordid life episodes imaginable, and yet who somehow retained enough of his basic humanity to be able eventually (and under the most trying circumstances imaginable) to develop into a mensch, into someone possessed of the inner resolve to atone for the past by following a moral and kind path into the future. I suppose different readers will respond to these books in different ways. But I doubt anyone who reads them both will find him or herself unmoved by the experience. When people talk about books having the power to transform their readers, they were thinking of books like Masters’. If you have teenaged children or grandchildren, you could do a lot worse than steer them towards either or both of these books.

Especially during the holiday season, we do a lot of talking in synagogue about the power of repentance. Mostly, we mean what we say. Or at least I hope we do! But to move on from mouthing platitudes to actually accepting that an individual has the power to turn from sin and embrace a path of goodness and charity—and not to roll our eyes while saying it, or to smirk—that is a different challenge entirely. Earlier this year, I wrote about the case of Raymond Guay, a man who appeared to have undergone a similar jailhouse conversion while serving time for the most horrible crime imaginable: the abduction, attempted rape, and subsequent murder of a child. The minister in New Hampshire who, acting on his principles, took Guay into his home to help give him a new start in life was treated to intense pressure from his neighbors and congregants to get rid of him and not to allow him live in their midst. But the minister, the Reverend David Pinckney, had the courage of his convictions and refused to back down. I wrote here that I agreed in theory…but that I also couldn’t imagine inviting a man with a criminal record like Raymond Guay’s to live in my community, much less in my home. Now that I’ve read Jarvis Masters’ books, I find myself revisiting that thought…and wondering why it is, if I try to preach with such conviction each Rosh Hashanah about the infinite power of human resolve to make straight a previously crooked path in life, that I can’t actually imagine myself believing simply and easily that people can and do change…and that the power of the human will to abandon sin is unrelated to any individual’s history of prior bad acts.

The easy way out would be simply to say that I believe in the power of repentance but have no way to peer even inadequately into the heart of another, and that I therefore believe in the concept…but not in its practical application. There’s no obvious flaw in that reasoning. But if it make so much sense, why does it feels like the cheap way out, like a handy peg on which to hang my own endless doubts about the ability of any of us truly to change…and to stay changed. If any of you reads Jarvis Masters’ two books, I feel certain you’ll feel similarly challenged. I’ll be curious to know what you think. You might even come away personally transformed!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Exploiting the Victims/Remembering the Past

I know I’ve been writing a lot lately about the Shoah, but I’d like just one more chance to address a related issue before I turn back to happier and less upsetting topics. And the issue I’d like to raise this week is not actually about the Shoah itself, but about the willingness of people to use—or rather to exploit—the Holocaust for their own ends. It is not something any of us should just let go…and not only because it cheapens the memory of the martyrs and makes of our dead little more than grist for other people’s mills.

I begin with the now infamous comment of Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Coalition of Florida, who expressed his disapproval of the president’s health care initiative by declaring publicly that what “they” are trying to do to our nation’s elderly is not “something like what the Nazis did. It is precisely what the Nazis did.” And then, just for good measure, the Reverend Land awarded the Dr. Josef Mengele award, presumably an award appropriately given (if it existed, that is) to the physician who the most totally has betrayed the ethical basis of his profession, to Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the president’s chief health policy advisor and a Jew. It’s a free country. The Reverend Land is free to disagree with anything he wishes to disagree with. And he has the constitutional right to express himself forcefully and publicly on the matter if he wishes to. But to exploit the sacred obligation we all bear to remember, and never to forget, the events of the Holocaust to make a political point is as morally wrong as it is unacceptable. Whatever the merits of its health care proposals are or aren’t, the current administration is not promoting the idea of solving the health care crisis by killing sick people instead of healing them. Nor are they suggesting that a useful way to trim costs would be to murder the mentally challenged or the terminally ill or the very old. Dr. Emanuel does not spend his days, as Josef Mengele did, sending millions to their deaths. Nor does he advocate using human beings as living, unanaesthetized guinea pigs in medical experiments as scientifically worthless as they were diabolically inhuman.

Having cited the Reverend Land’s comments, I should also add that even he now says he agrees with my assessment of his remarks and, taking note of the pain his comments caused so many and in particular Jewish and other victims of the Nazis, he has both formally apologized and obligingly promised to use more judicious language in the future.

I’d like to think that the reverend has taken to heart the firestorm his remarks occasioned. But he is not at all alone. Representative Alan Grayson, a Democratic congressman from Florida, also referred to America’s health care system as a holocaust the other day. (You can hear Congressman Grayson’s comments on youtube at It's only a 23 second clip, but you’ll get the idea.) A few days later, he too apologized. They all apologize, it seems…but by the time they do the damage has already been done. And the slow devaluation of the meaning of the Shoah continues unabated as terminology specifically developed to make it possible to speak somehow about unimaginable horrors slowly makes its way into daily discourse. If you google “Hitler Obama,” you will get about nine million hits, not all of them relevant but a stunning amount offering to bring you to sites that promote the idea that the president is a crypto-Nazi whose Nazi-like policies will end up with transforming America into a Nazi state. A Republican woman’s organization in Maryland actually posted a detailed comparison of President Obama and Adolph Hitler on its website as though this were a serious way of evaluating the president’s first months in office.

I am not writing today to evaluate any of the criticism leveled against the president with respect to his health care proposals, only to say as clearly as I can that I think it is critically important that people of good will—and particularly Jewish people—respond forcefully when the Shoah is exploited to make political hay. Especially important to notice is that the offenders here are not rabid anti-Semites or loony Holocaust deniers. For the most part they are reasonable people—ministers and congressmen and members of respectable political organizations—to whom the Shoah has simply become a symbol of a really bad thing, thus something to evoke when discussing other really bad things.

Nor do I find it by definition morally or ethically wrong to compare the Shoah to other events in world history. There surely are things in our sorry world, and not a few of them, that bear comparison to the Shoah. The slaughter of half a million Rwandans in 1994, for example. Or the deaths of two million Cambodians in the mid-1970s. Or the mass murder of 1,500,000 Armenians during and just after the First World War. But these are examples of “real” genocide, of the concerted effort to destroy a national or ethnic culture by murdering its citizens or its proponents. To compare these instances of almost unspeakable horror with the effects of a proposed reform of some aspect of our national life, no matter how deleterious to the public good that reform may eventually turn out to be, is to go far beyond the rules of normal or moral rhetoric. Nor does it matter much to me that the people who use these comparisons are not motivated by anti-Semitism or by any specific desire to insult the martyrs who died during the Shoah. That may not have been their intention—I dare say I’m sure it wasn’t their intention—but their remarks are having the same effect on our national sense of the ultimate meaning of the Shoah that they would have had if the makers of those remarks actually had been motivated by bigotry, prejudice, or hatred.

The word “holocaust” was originally coined by the Greek translators of the Bible to describe the kind of offering that was wholly consumed by the fire atop the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem, and for a long time that was its sole usage. By the nineteenth century, however, the term had gained some currency as a synonym for large-scale national tragedy and it was in that sense, for example, that Winston Churchill used it to describe the Armenian massacres I mentioned above. During the dark days of the Second World War itself, the Hebrew press adopted the word shoah (“catastrophe”) to refer to the persecution of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and that word was translated into English as Holocaust, which term gained currency too in the English-speaking world. It is not known who first thought to use that specific term to translate the Hebrew term, but, by the mid-1950s, “the Holocaust” was the term in general use to refer to the Shoah. And so it has remained to this day, even in Germany.

Even after all these years of reading so many Shoah memoirs and histories, both personal accounts and the works of “real” historians, I still routinely find details regarding the suffering the Jews of Europe underwent during the war that I find it almost impossible to believe. We are not talking about misguided national policies here, if misguided they be, but about inhuman behavior so despicably cruel that it is beyond anyone normal person’s ability to fathom, let alone adequately to describe in regular human language. We are talking about barbarism that beggars description, about crimes that defy the mind actually to accept as doable (let alone as actually having been done), about nightmares that no one could actually have had before they became reality. We are talking about national trauma so deep and so lasting that it seems to me likely that even my own children’s generation—now two generations removed in that I myself was born after the war ended—will live out their Jewish lives in its shadows as will, I suspect, their own children.

We do ourselves no favor at all by looking the other way when people use language rooted in the events of the Shoah to make some point that has nothing at all to do with the suffering of European Jewry or with the traumatic worldview those events have bequeathed to us all. Just the opposite is true, actually—we do ourselves a huge disservice by looking away. Far better to say nothing at all than to cheapen the memory of the dead by exploiting their suffering. To liken the president’s health care advisor to Dr. Mengele is beyond the pale of normal discourse. To compare his policy initiatives to the annihilation of European Jewry is beyond grotesque. It is not only expressive of a wholly incorrect take on history, but it is a true insult to the dead…and also to those of us who have taken it as our life tasks to memorialize them and to keep the world from forgetting their plight. The philosopher George Santayana famously said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. That comment, it seems to me, can apply equally meaningfully to those who forget the past and those who willfully misuse it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Happy Mother (2)

Last week, I ended by promising to tell you where Joan and I went Monday night a week ago and why it seemed fortuitous, almost to the point of being eerily so, that we happened to go there precisely while I was in the middle of Rabbi Yissakhar Shlomo Teichthal’s Eim Habanim Semeicha, which book I wrote about in detail last week. I don’t want to repeat myself here, only to note again that I read the book in Pesach Schindler’s very able translation, that it was published by KTAV Publishing in Hoboken, and that it is readily available on-line and in Jewish bookstores under the unwieldy (and unfortunately off-putting) title, Restoration of Zion as a Response During the Holocaust. And also that it is a work not only of real (as opposed to computer-generated) erudition, but also one of intellectual integrity so impressive—and so humbling—that it would be an extraordinary work even if it hadn’t been written in 1943 in Budapest by a man who had every reason to wonder if he was survive long enough to finish his work on it. (Just to recap, Rabbi Teichthal did live long enough to finish the book, but he did not survive the war. He died in a German cattle car as the last surviving prisoners at Auschwitz were evacuated to keep them from being captured by the Red Army and telling their liberators, and through them thus also the rest of the world, the brutal truth about the Nazi war against the Jews.)

So where did Joan and I go on the Monday night of Chol Hamoed Sukkot? Well, the story begins a few weeks earlier when I unexpectedly and slightly inexplicably received an invitation to attend a concert version of Wallenberg, a new musical about Raoul Wallenberg, that was to be performed that Monday evening at the Consulate General of Hungary on West Fifty-Second Street in Manhattan. Why the invitation came to me, I had no idea. (I actually still don’t, although I think I can guess.) But it sounded interesting. And Joan, who directs the dramatics program at the Solomon Schechter High School in Glen Cove, is always ready to see new productions...and especially ones with strong Jewish themes. So she was interested in going. And I was too. (I set some of the opening chapters of my third novel, The Sword of Goliath, in the Czech Consulate on Madison Avenue, but I just made up most of the details. Here was a chance actually to visit such a place...and as an invited guest to boot!) We accepted the invitation and received an e-mail back almost immediately confirming that we would be expected and that our names would appear on the guest list.

Raoul Wallenberg has always been a kind of icon for me. Many readers will know that he was the single person who saved more Jews from the Germans during the war both than any other individual and also than any organization or government. (Indeed, the only way to deny him that status would be to count the Allies’ armies as an organization and claim that they saved all the remaining Jews in occupied Europe by defeating the Nazis. But if we consider only people acting while the war was raging, then Wallenberg’s status is unassailable.) There’s something innately ghoulish about considering numbers such as these as though they were the results of some sort of macabre contest, but there’s also something to be learnt from such a comparison. Oskar Schindler, for example, was responsible for saving about 1,200 Jewish lives during the war. The regretfully less famous Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania, facilitated the escape of about 6,000 Jews. You’ll find an extremely moving selection of stories regarding individuals from all over Europe who risked everything to save individual Jews and Jewish families at But Wallenberg was personally responsible for saving over 100,000 Jewish lives in Hungary during the war. And the way he saved them—risking not only his status as a diplomat representing a “neutral” country, but also his life—is the stuff not only of legend, but also of this musical Joan and I went to see in the Hungarian Consulate.

The stories themselves are almost unbelievable: stories about Wallenberg handing out official-looking but actually legally meaningless “protective passports” identifying simple Hungarian Jews (most of whom had probably never even met a Swede before) as citizens of Sweden, Wallenberg actually climbing on top of trains packed with Jews being deported to their deaths and handing such phony “passports” to as many people as he could through the doors of the trains before they were sealed, Wallenberg running a series of thirty-two “safe houses” he personally (and acting solely on his own authority) designated as Swedish territory in which about 10,000 people were sheltered, Wallenberg hiring divers to fish Jews out of the Danube after the Nazis’ Hungarian allies realized they could save bullets by not shooting each Jew they wished to murder individually, but by tying them together in groups of three and then only shooting the middle one into the river and letting the other two die by drowning when they hit the water. And then there was the decisive role Wallenberg played in convincing the Nazis not to bomb the Budapest ghetto, a decision that all by itself saved the lives of 70,000.

The deportation of the Jews of Hungary to their deaths at a rate of 12,000 per day in the spring and summer of 1944, when the Germans already knew perfectly well that the war was lost, is one of the single most ghastly stories of the Holocaust. And although there are countless stories to tell of those days, Raoul Wallenberg’s is one of such exceptional courage and moral strength that he has been a true hero for me since the day I first began to hear about him. But a musical? That sounded like a stretch. A big stretch. Maybe more like a chasm than a stretch. True, I have seen musicals about war and the misery war inevitably entails that have struck me both as compelling and very moving. (Les Misérables, for example, is about rebellion and death...but somehow the storyline of Les Mis put it far enough in the past and sufficiently unrelated to me personally for it not to seem absurd for the characters to break out into song.) But the thought of Wallenberg singing about his life and his work—I simply couldn’t imagine what that was going to be like. But, having reserved our seats, we decided to follow through and actually to go.

It turned out to be an amazing experience. We only saw a concert version, so there were no costumes or any real staging. And the show we saw was an abridgement of the full-length show in which the parts we did see were linked together by a narrator who does not actually appear in the real musical. But, at least for me personally, it was an overwhelming experience even in its scaled-down version. With a book by Laurence Holzman & Felicia Needleman and music by Benjamin Rosenbluth (who has both a degree from Julliard in composition and his MD from the Harvard Medical School), Wallenberg is an exceptional piece of work. Even the parts that I would have found impossible to imagine—Eichmann is in the musical too, as he would almost have to be—were effective, even mesmerizing. For me, the music was the highpoint. The composer was at the piano—he is also an incredibly gifted pianist—and I felt he captured the spirit of the story and the people in it almost perfectly. I was, to say the least, impressed.

After the performance, it became clear that the real point of the evening was to raise the funds necessary to bring the show to Broadway. You can read all about the show and learn about investment possibilities on their official website at, where you can also hear some musical selections from the show. The show has the support of all sorts of interested outsiders, including the Consul General of Sweden and the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. (Their website, at is also very worthwhile and interesting to visit.) But, of course, the only kind of support that’s going to matter in the long-run is the kind that will pay the gigantic costs connected with opening a show on Broadway. I hope they make it. I lack the expertise to say what its chances are or to guess at its chances of success if it does eventually open. But the story itself is so compelling to me and its subject such a paragon of moral greatness that it would be a true shame for this opportunity to bring his story to the attention of the wider public not to succeed. If any readers are inclined to be interested in helping the cause, the people to contact are at Three Crown Theatricals at (646) 592-1708 or via e-mail at

What eventually happened to Wallenberg is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Shoah. He was probably arrested by the Soviets in 1945 and brought to Russia. The Soviet government announced that he died in prison in 1947—although it was never made clear why he was in prison or what charges had been brought against him—but others claimed to have seen him alive long after that. The last reliable claim dates to 1981, the year that President Reagan made him an honorary citizen of the United States. If Wallenberg were alive, he’d be 97 years old. Almost definitely, he is long gone. Probably, he was eventually executed by the Soviets in the context of some amalgam of anti-Americanism—his mission to Budapest was entirely funded by Americans—and anti-Semitism. (You can find a detailed discussion of his fate by Baruch Tenembaum at But regardless of what his eventual fate was, Raoul Wallenberg remains one of the great heroes of the war, a man who could easily have skipped the whole thing...yet who felt personally called upon to save the lives of scores of thousands merely because he realized that he could. To participate in the effort to memorialize his legacy, therefore, is an ethical obligation of the highest and most noble order that rests on the shoulders of all of us who live our lives in the shadow of the Shoah and who feel compelled to honor the memory of those who stood up to the Nazis and, in so doing, set an example of moral courage most of us can only hope to emulate.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Happy Mother (1)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the peculiar experience I had watching Quentin Tarantino’s movie, Inglorious Basterds, while I was reading Hans Fallada’s great novel, Every Man Dies Alone, and how seeing the one while reading the other heightened (and also altered) the impression I think each would have had on me separately. And now I’ve had a similar experience that I also wish to share with you all.

Every so often, you read a book and end up feeling as though the author is speaking to you directly. It has an uncanny feel to it, that sentiment...but it is also a deeply satisfying one: the ability of a great author to reach out over time and space to speak not generically to the world but specifically to individual readers is no less real for being physically impossible, and the ability of great books to foster the sense in readers of being addressed directly by an author long in his or her grave is one of the reasons reading will, I think, remain one of the truly unifying building blocks of culture no matter how digitally advanced our world becomes.

In the course of this last week I’ve been reading something truly exceptional, precisely one of those books that somehow made me feel that the author was and is addressing me personally. Saddled in English translation with the unwieldy, off-putting, and slightly ungrammatical title, Restoration of Zion as a Response During the Holocaust, the book is nothing at all like its title in translation makes it sound: not a dull theological treatise at all, but a cri de coeur so vibrant, so alive, so simultaneously tragic and uplifting that it almost defies description in mere words. There’s literature and there’s literature, but this book, called Eim Habanim Semeicha in the original Hebrew, is in its own class both in terms of its author’s scholarly erudition and its ability to serve as living proof that there are in the world individuals wholly capable of living through the most indescribable hell without abandoning their faith, their moral bearing, or—in some ways most amazingly—their intellectual and spiritual integrity. And that is the book I’ve been reading: the English translation of the Eim Habanim Semeicha by Rabbi Yissakhar Shlomo Teichthal published in 1999 by KTAV Publishing in Hoboken, New Jersey. (The Hebrew title comes from Psalm 113 and could be translated as “The Happy Mother” or something like that. The translator, Pesach Schindler, should have left it at that. But that’s only a small detail and the translation itself, literate, abundantly annotated, and very easy to read, is masterfully done.)

Let me tell you about the book itself. Rabbi Teichthal wrote his book under circumstances most of us can only vaguely imagine and, indeed, the author died in a German cattle car in January, 1945, while the Nazis, still hoping to keep the enormity of their war crimes a secret, were attempting to prevent those still alive at Auschwitz from being liberated by the Red Army. But the Eim Habanim Semeicha dates to a slightly earlier period: before he was captured, deported, and murdered, Rabbi Teichthal spent 1943 in hiding in Budapest. And it was during this period of self-imposed incarceration, while reports of atrocities so horrifying so as almost to be unbelievable were already widely circulating in Hungary, that the author was moved to create a book that, even more than as a monument to Rabbi Teichthal’s almost indescribable erudition, serves today as evidence of the truly indomitable nature of the Jewish spirit. The book is almost 400 pages long and I read it in a few days possessed of the impossible feeling that Rabbi Teichthal was speaking from his grave—and I shudder to think what the fate of his remains must have been once the train reached wherever it was going and the bodies of those who died during the journey were removed—and that he was speaking to me personally and directly.

As everybody knows and endlessly observes, Jews have a deep, visceral love of learning. Indeed, the fact that the Yiddish words for synagogue and school are almost the same reflects our conviction that the institutions themselves are also almost the same: the ultimate act of Jewish worship is study and the word “rabbi” itself means teacher. Yet it is also the case that in some circles, and the more traditionally observant the circle in question the more true this regretfully becomes, the worth of study is predicated on the condition that nothing too radical ever actually be learned. In other words, study—and I am thinking specifically of Torah study here, although the same is true of other kinds of learning as well—study is deemed a wholly worthy undertaking...but mostly, or even perhaps solely, when it serves only to buttress previously held positions and to strengthen convictions one already holds to be true. Real learning—the kind that alters the learner, that is undertaken with no preconditions, that reflects the integrity of the learner’s intellect—is not only to be avoided, but is generally denounced as inimical to faith. (In this regard, I recall having a conversation years ago with a rabbinic colleague whose background was in the haredi/hasidic world, just as was Rabbi Teichthal’s, in which he boasted to me that he hadn’t ever read a book published by anyone whose piety was suspect and that he was proud never to have allowed himself to be exposed to ideas that might possibly have proven deleterious to his belief in principles he felt called upon to uphold regardless, apparently, of whether they were reflective of actual reality.) But there are rabbis and there are rabbis. And Rabbi Yissakhar Shlomo Teichthal was a man of true intellectual integrity, the rabbinic equivalent of the scientist who does not go into the lab to confirm things already known and widely believed, but to learn something new...and then to use the results of such unbiased experimentation to further our understanding of the physical world.

What Rabbi Teichthal learned from his year of work on the Eim Habanim Semeicha is that the violent opposition to the Zionist enterprise that was the hallmark of ultra-traditional European Jewry in his day was not only misguided, but contrary to the plain sense of so many traditional sources so as to constitute a wholly inappropriate stance for the traditional Jew eager to use those sources as the foundation upon which to build a life. Nor does Rabbi Teichthal—who himself had published a strongly anti-Zionist letter in a volume of similar screeds only a few years earlier in 1936—feel that the detail that so many of the early pioneers who left Europe to build up the Land of Israel were non-observant should serve as a reason to deny them the profound respect and admiration of Jews everywhere. Indeed, the author does not merely touch on this detail in passing, but returns to it again and again to insist that the settlement and building up of the Land of Israel is a mitzvah of such paramount importance that—and especially in times of such relentless disaster for the Jews of Europe—that those who have actually undertaken to establish a thriving Jewish presence in the land have done more than enough to earn the respect of those who in the past have only denigrated both them and their efforts. Nor does he content himself simply with making this point eloquently or forcefully, but instead proceeds to buttress his convictions with a series of analyses of various traditional texts so artfully and insightfully done that even the reader unfamiliar with the ins and outs of rabbinic commentary will find the argumentation lucid and inspiring. I honestly cannot recall reading a more persuasive or intelligently argued book about the relationship of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel and I would recommend the book to my own readers for that reason alone...even without the added detail that it was written by a man who cannot have woken up a single morning during the months he was working on its chapters without wondering if he would be arrested, deported, or murdered by nightfall.

And then he gets to me. (I mean that in both ways the sentence can be read.) A little more than halfway through the book, the author looks up from his writing desk—this is my fantasy, obviously, but not an unreal one for being untrue—the author looks up, then stands to address me directly. “I will now direct my words to the golus-yid,” he says. And then, launching into the ten or eleven pages that are, at least for me personally, the heart of the book, Rabbi Teichthal uses his considerable literary skill to draw a portrait of the golus-yid, of the diaspora Jew, so devastating as truly to be shattering for those of us who generally feel good about our decision to sit on the sidelines and watch on as others build up Israel, serve as its soldiers, and pay the taxes that support the Jewish state. And it takes him fewer than a dozen pages almost totally to smash the mirror in which all we golus-yidn so enjoy primping and preening while enjoying the fantasy that we are totally secure. Without raising his voice, but also without pulling any punches, he says it as he sees it. And the effect, truly, will be beyond stimulating for most sensitive readers.

Everyone who knows me or reads this blog or hears me preach regularly knows how proud I am to be an American and how regularly I decry the disinclination of contemporary Americans to use the language of proud patriotism to express themselves with respect to our great land. And, despite my awareness that the Jews of Germany too felt proud and patriotic before everything changed, I really do think America is different. But asserting that to be the case is one thing...and doing so after reading a book like Rabbi Teichthal’s is something else entirely. This is the bracing test that all of us in the diaspora must force ourselves regularly to take: not merely to parrot slogans about how happy we are to be here, but to assert our pride as Americans after reading something like the Em Habanim Semeicha and so to test our beliefs the only real way beliefs are ever truly tested: by being presented with argumentation to the contrary as forceful as it is well-written and then to see how those ideas and convictions fare under real fire.

I’ve gotten to the end of my space allotment for this week...and I still haven’t told you all where Joan and I went Monday night and how that experience was so dramatically heightened by the fact that I was still in the middle of Rabbi Teichthal’s book at the time. I suppose I’ll have to wait until next week to tell....

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Yizkor at Shelter Rock

I chose to speak about the prospect of a nuclear Iran from the bimah this year on Yom Kippur not because I couldn’t have expressed the same thoughts in some other context during the holiday season, but because what I wanted to say to the congregation was something that I wished to say aloud specifically in the company of the ghosts that habitually join us for Yizkor....and, for me personally, in the presence of my parents’ and grandparents’ lingering spirits. I don’t want to repeat myself here—I wasn’t speaking extemporaneously and I can easily mail a copy of my remarks electronically or by regular mail to anyone who wasn’t with us and would like to read them—but I do want to return to one or two of the core concepts I put forward on Monday and make some practical suggestions regarding where exactly I think we should go from here.

When I heard myself saying that we all become after-the-fact collaborators when we speak of the Shoah as though it was an historical inevitability, I actually shocked myself. Do I really think that? I meant it when I was composing my remarks! And I still thought I meant it when I reviewed my sermons before yontif to prepare myself to deliver them accurately and forcefully. And yet...when I actually heard myself saying those words aloud from the bimah, I felt a kind of dread come over me that made me wonder what I really do think. I faltered for a moment—perhaps some readers who were present remember noticing that—but then I pulled myself together and carried on with my remarks. To say the very least, it’s a challenging idea. We speak endlessly, and with endless contempt, about all those so-called “innocent” bystanders in Europe’s cities and towns who looked on silently and did nothing at all as our people were first degraded, then deported, then destroyed. But that thought becomes far less satisfying when we challenge ourselves to say what exactly we think those people should have done. Should they have...what? Gotten teacups full of water to use to douse the burning synagogues on Kristallnacht while the fire departments of Germany, themselves complicit in the crime, simply stood back and allowed them burn to the ground? Should individual men and women have risked execution by handing out home-printed leaflets that at most a few score people, or even a few hundred, might have seen but which ultimately would have done nothing at all to bring down the terror state in which they lived? (I wrote with the greatest respect a few weeks ago about the real-life couple depicted in Hans Fallada’s great novel, Every Man Dies Alone, who did just that. But even the Hampels themselves didn’t actually accomplish anything significant in terms of bringing down the Nazis. Nor did they think it was at all likely that they would.) Should people really have risked the safety and wellbeing of their own children to save the neighbor’s children from being deported to some vague destination they could not even name, much less accurately imagine?

To say what people ought to have done is complicated, but to agree that the only rational response to Nazi racism was for ordinary citizens to throw their hands up in disgust and make their peace with doing nothing at all to stop the horror seems almost grotesquely disdainful of the force of ethical suasion we generally insist any one of us can exert through the sheer force of our moral will to act. Indeed, to say that there was nothing that could be done, that once the Nazis came to power there was no hope for the Jews of Europe, seems impossible to accept. Could the Jews of America acting in concert and speaking with one firm, unwavering voice gotten the Allies to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz? Could the Jews of the U.K. spoken loudly and forcefully enough, and with a sufficiently convincing moral argument, to pressure the government into opening Palestine to Jewish immigration while there was still time? Could the Catholic Church have been convinced by large enough masses of ordinary Catholics speaking clearly enough that by signing a treaty with Hitler—I speak of the infamous Reichskonkordat of 1933—they were not entering into a savvy political agreement with a potential adversary but openly allying themselves with the devil? Could the decent men and women of the world have somehow wedged open a doorway somewhere through which the Jews of Europe might have fled merely by insisting vocally enough that not doing so was simply an unacceptable option for human beings attempting to live lives of moral worth? These questions do not have easy answers—really none of them does—but all of them are worth asking precisely because by their very existence they argue for my original point: that by referring to the events of the Shoah as though they were inevitable, as though there was nothing anyone could possibly have done to turn the tide of history in a different direction, we become, if not “real” collaborators, then at least after-the-fact collaborationists. And that is not a seat in which I personally wish to sit. Nor should any of us.

And that brings me to Iran. Is it inevitable that Iran become a nuclear power? Openly and implacably hostile to Israel, aggressively antagonistic towards our own country, governed by a clique so filled with contumely for their own people that they could not bear even to allow their own citizens to participate in a free election to determine who should be in power—these are the same people who seem well on their way to acquiring an atomic bomb. Is it inevitable that they succeed? I can’t quite imagine that it is...and yet, when challenged not just to assert that but actually to say what it is—what it is precisely—that I think we can all do to prevent that from happening, I find myself on far less sturdy ground.

One thing I never tire of suggesting that we do is communicate our views forcefully to the five people who represent us in the federal government: the president, the vice president, our two senators and our congressman. To write to President Obama, use the handy form at To write to Vice President Biden, use the form at To write to Senator Schumer, use this form: To contact Senator Gillibrand, use this form: Congressman Gary Ackerman can be reached by clicking here: There’s no need to wax eloquent or go on at length: these letters are tabulated and the results presented to the addressee for his or her all that matters is that you say what you mean and that you say it clearly.

In this matter, I think we should focus on a few key points and repeat them until we’re sure we’re being heard clearly:

· The key concept is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. Any effort that fails to prevent this will have to be considered a failure.

· Sanctions will only work if they have a devastating effect on the Iranian economy. Half measures cannot possibly succeed.

· Supposing the president of Iran not to mean it literally when he talks about wiping Israel off the map is to join the ranks of those who thought the Nazis were kidding when they spoke about obliterating the Jewish people.

· A military response should be our last resort, but there is no real doubt that a coordinated effort involving the military might of our country and its allies, including Israel, could and would be effective. Therefore, we have an obligation not to rule out the use of military force if it eventually appears to be our sole remaining viable option.

· There is more or less no chance this problem will be solved without the forceful leadership of the United States in the forum of nations. The possibility of the United Nations taking forceful enough action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is laughable.

That’s it. You don’t need to make every point in every letter. But that you write continually and forcefully to our officials is crucial. I suppose there are other ways to say the above, possibly with a bit more finesse, but the bottom line is that those are the points I’d make. In fact, they’re the points I myself did make when I sent my five letters off yesterday this afternoon. It’s not much. It’s not all we can or should do. But it’s a place to start. And, in that it couldn’t be any easier or cost any less, it’s an obligation that none of us should feel right stepping away from.

As the weeks pass, I hope other options will present themselves to us. We should all be prepared to come out for any rally, to sign any legitimate petition, to raise our voices in as many different forums as possible. Readers who belong to political parties should feel obligated to stress to the leadership of those parties where we stand. You can write to the leadership of the Democratic Party using this form: You can contact Republican Party chairman Michael Steele at

Finally, I would like to invite members of the community to step forward with ideas of their own regarding specific steps we can take to register our opinions with people who can make a difference. If we all think together, perhaps we’ll come up with something that conceivably could make a difference. I meant wholeheartedly what I said in shul on Yom Kippur morning: if you can’t stomach the thought of having nothing to say when your grandchild asks you how you could possibly have sat idly by and done nothing while nuclear weapons were acquired by people whose hostility to Israel is as vocally asserted and endlessly repeated as Iran’s, then this is your fight too. And this is not only Israel’s fight: the United States and all of our allies will be in very dire danger if Iran acquires nuclear weapons and then passes those weapons along to terrorist organizations sworn to our destruction. This is not a theoretical danger we are facing, but something of the most pressing urgency. History, I am convinced, will judge our generation based on how we respond to this specific issue.