Thursday, November 18, 2010

Saadia and the Spectrograph

In the Great Books class I’ve been teaching on Monday mornings, we’re just about to wind up the section of the year devoted to Saadia Gaon, the tenth century rabbi who was in many ways the father of Jewish philosophy. Preparing myself to teach this class has been a very interesting experience for me. For one thing, Saadia’s great book, The Book of Opinions and Beliefs, was one of the books I studied the most intently years ago when I was preparing myself for a career in the rabbinate. But even more to the point is that Saadia’s work is in many ways based on the principle that has come to rest at the center of my own philosophy of Judaism, the notion that, all truth being by definition congruent with all other truth, any effort to insist that some article of religious truth can be just as “true” as its parallel within the world of science without it mattering that they overtly contradict each other is, also by definition, somewhere between bogus and ridiculous. Indeed, the underlying principle that I believe should guide all religious thinking is precisely that things cannot become true because people simply repeat them over and over, that truths must actually be true (and not merely acclaimed as such) for them meaningfully to serve as the foundation of authentic religious life, that there cannot be any such thing as truths which are true within the context of religion but false everywhere else.

I’ve said these things in a dozen different ways from the bimah more times than I can remember. But even I found myself stopping to scratch my head the other day when I read in the newspaper about the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer that the space shuttle Endeavor is scheduled to carry off into space next February. Everything about the experiment is larger than life. It has taken about sixteen years to get this one experiment ready. And the undertaking will have cost about one and a half billion dollars by the time the Endeavor takes off. The machine itself—which the reporter described as looking like a huge corrugated rain barrel containing eight tons of magnets, wires, aluminum, silicon, iron, and assorted electronic gizmos—is extraordinarily complex. But what matters any of that? (Besides, what’s a billion and a half bucks anyway? The mayor of New York is about to spend that much over the next two decades to reduce the amount of sewage in the city’s waterways and that planned expenditure didn’t even make the front page of the paper.) On the other hand, what actually is unbelievable is what the spectrometer is intended to do once it gets into outer space.

This is one of those things that people can talk about but not really comprehend. Or maybe there even are people out there who combine the kind of background in physics with the kind of imaginative power it would take to make it possible even to begin to understand what this is all about, but all I can do is try to explain even without any real idea what I’m talking about. The basic concept is that all that stuff they told you in high school about how all things—including the universe itself—are made of molecules composed of atoms, and that those atoms themselves have constituent parts called neutrons and electrons and protons (and maybe some other –ons that even your teacher wasn’t quite sure what they were or did)—it turns out that all that is only partially true. It is true, in the sense that those things really do exist. And it is also true that matter is composed of atoms and molecules just as your physics or chemistry teacher told you. But it is apparently also true—or at least possibly also true—that all that we perceive to exist could just be a kind of opaque scrim covering a universe of dark matter, also called anti-matter, that exerts its own mysterious force on all that exists. The reporter writing in the Times last week, Dennis Overbye, referred to this counter-universe as a “vast shadowy realm of invisible ‘dark matter’ whose gravity determines the architecture of the cosmos.” And that brings us to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrograph, the mission of which is to capture some of the emanations coming from this alleged shadow universe and thus to prove the existence both of dark matter and the anti-universe in which it resides beyond and behind what we perceive as reality. (I told you I don’t really understand this. Who could? I suppose Samuel Chao Chung Ting, the MIT professor behind the experiment, must understand it. At least I hope he does! But he won a Nobel Prize in physics and I took a year of physics in eleventh grade, so we’re not exactly playing on the same team, Professor Ting and myself.) The rest of the story has to do with the Big Bang, another thing I only sort of understand, and the reasonability of imagining any primordial antimatter actually still to exist. What the difference is between finding any of this matter and finding mere intimations of its existence, for example in the form of anti-electrons called positrons, is hard to say. Or at least it’s hard for me to say. But the basic concept—that with one grand experiment humankind will take a quantum leap forward by leaping as far back into the past as it is possible to conceive of anyone ever even imagining it would be possible to go—that, for all my lack of training impedes me really from understanding what Professor Ting is attempting to accomplish, that idea engages me totally.

And so we go back to Saadia. He was a truly amazing man, one of the very few individuals of whom it can be said honestly that he was a true innovator and pioneer in every single field to which he turned his formidable intelligence—not only philosophy and theology, but also linguistics, liturgy, and law. A polymath and a true genius, Saadia understood that the notion that religious faith can only be embraced after checking one’s intellectual integrity at the front door makes a mockery of religion. And so the concept when encountering a world of ideas like the ones connected with Professor Ting’s spectrograph is not to wave the whole thing away as inimical to faith, anti-matter not being mentioned by name in the account of the creation in the Bible, but to embrace the indescribable as a way of reminding ourselves yet again that it is the ideas that rest at the core of the biblical narrative that count, not the ancient garb in which they were presented to ancient readers who hadn’t ever heard of electrons, let alone positrons. The bottom line, as noted, is that all truth must by definition congruent be with all other truth. If the Torah is true and Professor Ting’s theory pans out and appears also to be true, then there therefore must be some way to embrace them both without retreating into illogic or self-referential silliness. To paraphrase the Talmud, if you don’t see how two absolutely true statements can fit together, then the problem probably has a lot more to do with you than with them! I feel that way when I read stories like the one about the spectrograph in the newspaper. Who knows what it’s all about really? But I feel as humbled by my own lack of real scientific education as I feel awed by the possibility that the world we see really is only a thin patina coating an inner core of unseen, unfathomable reality. The author of the 104th psalm clearly had it right when he enthused, “How many are the things You have made, O Lord! Truly, everything that exists somehow suggests Your wisdom.” That seems right to me. And it is surely a notion Saadia easily would have both understood and embraced!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Ghosts of Lublin

I don’t usually like to write about related topics on consecutive weeks, but I’d like to make an exception to that rule and write about a truly unique art project undertaken in the Polish city of Lublin last June by Israeli artist Ronen Eidelman.

First, let me tell you something about the artist. Born in New York, Eidelman—known on the web and, I suspect, professionally as well mostly by his first name, Ronen—grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in Jaffa. Hebrew readers may know him as the founder of the very hip on-line journal called Erev-Rav ( or the one called Maarav (at; click on the tab marked “English” for a big surprise), but he will be mostly unknown to American readers. That is a shame, because his projects are uniformly provocative, interesting, and, in my personal opinion, incredibly cool. I could write about any number of them too, but the one I want to write about here today is his street-art project called “Coming Out in Lublin.” (You can find a whole list of other projects to inspect and enjoy at The title is a bit unfortunate—I’m guessing the artist left the States before the expression “coming out” came to mean what it’s come to mean in contemporary American English and the exhibition has nothing at all to do with gay people or issues—but that’s an unimportant detail that should not be allowed to distract viewers from the artist’s truly amazing achievement.

Most of my readers will know more about Lublin than about the contemporary art scene in Israel, but let me present some of those details anyway. The first Jews came to Lublin in the fourteenth century at the invitation of King Casmir III. By the sixteenth century, the Jewish community ran a kind of autonomous city-within-a-city in Lublin and was the third largest Jewish community in Poland. As a sign of how integrated into public life the Jewish community was, the king of Poland granted the rabbis who headed the great yeshivot in Lublin the same rights as university professors in 1567. The Jewish community knew its share of violent troubles too, but it always seemed able to come back to full strength after even the most devastating attacks. By 1862, there were nine thousand Jews in Lublin. But just forty years later as the nineteenth century drew to a close, though, there were nearly 24,000 Jews living there. And by 1941 there were about 45,000 Jews in Lublin, which figure included many refugees from outlying villages and towns whom the Nazis forced into the Lublin ghetto. But far worse horrors than cramped living quarters were coming. The deportations to Belzec, Sobibor, and Majdaniek, the latter only two miles away, began on March 16, 1942. Others were not deported at all, but merely murdered in nearby forests. The final deportation took place on November 3, 1943—as far as I can tell there were no survivors of these deportations—and with that the story of Jewish life in Lublin drew to a temporary close. It is true that about five thousand survivors settled in Lublin after the war, some of whom were apparently hoping to resume some version of their pre-war lives as Polish Jews, but almost all fled for good after the post-war pogrom in Kielce. There are today about twenty Jewish residents of Lublin, all fifty-five or older.

And that brings me back to Ronen Eidelman’s work. The concept was simple enough. The artist created life-sized black-and-white photographs of Jewish people who lived in Lublin during the years leading up to the war. He included people of all sorts—religious and secular, young and old, traditional and modern, communists and Zionists, bundists and nihilists, hasidim and yeshivah types, and whomever else he could find to represent some identifiable group within pre-war Polish Jewry—and then he pasted these full-sized portraits on the buildings in Lublin in which the people in the pictures actually lived during the years leading up to the war. Mostly, these houses were in the oldest part of the city. Some were in the actual ghetto. Others were in what was then, in the 1920’s and 1930s, the newer part of town. Where the buildings themselves no longer existed, Ronen pasted the photographs in nearby alleys or on fences, utilizing whatever available flat surface was closest to where that specific family or person lived. And beneath each of the pictures, he pasted a large poster bearing one of four questions specifically designed to make modern-day Polish residents of Lublin highly uncomfortable. (That is the point of art, isn’t it? To make uncomfortable the complacent and creatively to irritate? Surely that is the specific point of street art! And Ronen Eidelman is very good at it!) But the questions themselves are not what I expected them to be at all.

I expected the artist’s questions to be accusatory. I expected the artist to want to challenge modern-day Lublin residents to ask themselves how their parents and grandparents—or, if the citizens in question are old enough, how they themselves—could have allowed the Nazis to perpetrate crimes on that level of brutality in their city without rising up in even futile rebellion against what everyone must surely have understood to be evil itself made manifest in their midst. I expected the whole thing to be about blame and the apportioning out of after-the-fact responsibility, but that wasn’t the thrust of the exercise at all. And, in a sense, just the opposite was the case: Eidelman’s concept was not to assign responsibility at all but simply to wonder out loud (and slightly aggressively) how many modern-day citizens of Lublin are the descendants of Jews who managed to survive somehow by managing to pass themselves off as ethnic Poles and then who forgot to turn themselves back into Jews after the war ended. And so the questions have nothing to do with who was responsible for the depravity and barbarism of the German occupiers of wartime Poland, but with the hidden Jewishness of some unknown, and unknowable, percentage of the overtly (but only overtly) Polish citizenry in place in Lublin today. The questions were obviously all posted beneath the photographs in Polish so residents could read them, but the English translations will give you the idea clearly enough. “Have you always felt different from your friends?” “Does your family hide a great secret?” “Does your grandmother mumble in her sleep in a foreign tongue?” And the most devastating question of them all to put to a young Pole who has never even remotely considered that he or she might actually be a descendant of one of the handful of Lublin Jews who survived in hiding: Jakim Żydem Jesteś? “Just what kind of a Jew are you?”

Take a look at the slide show of the exhibition posted on the artist’s website at It took me several viewings to take it all in, but each time I went through the slides I found more to notice and to consider. (I also found more to admire.) And then, just when you think you’re done, comes the unexpected ending most viewers will completely have failed to anticipate as the artist presents about half a dozen slides showing the photographs ripped down, vandalized, and defaced. Clearly, he was pressing some buttons that at least some Lublinites found highly unpleasant to have pressed in public! And at least some of those people responded violently, thus subconsciously (or possibly not subconsciously) playing their part in mimicking the way an earlier generation dealt with the annihilation of the Jews in their city either passively by tolerating their treatment at the hands of the occupiers or else actively by assisting in their eradication. In some ways the final slides showing the photographs mostly missing is the most impressive part of the show because that, almost more than the original images themselves, suggests the reality of Jewish life in Lublin today: the occasional living person surrounded by uncountable armies of ghosts, some fully present but most only, even in ghostly terms, barely there.

Coming to terms with the Shoah—to the extent that any of us can—means confronting the ghosts. We tend to think of the Holocaust in terms of the survivors in our midst. That is surely natural, but it also behooves us to remember that the survivors were the anomalies and that, since we’re talking about Poland, more than nine out of ten Polish Jews were murdered during the war. So even thinking clearly about the Shoah means cultivating the ability to see the ghosts. And that Ronen Eidelman ran with that thought and actually made them visible—even just for a few days in a sunny Polish June sixty-five years after the end of the way—is ample proof of how some things can only really be said meaningfully through the medium of artistic expression, how art can speak profoundly in a way that even the most accurate textbook simply cannot.

Even though, as Shelter Rockers all know, I am not generally afraid of ghosts, I’ve never gone to Poland, land of my father’s people. (I have had many opportunities over the year, including at least one chance to go for free as a kind of chaperone for a school trip.) On my own terms, I’m able easily to welcome the ghosts into the sanctuary for Yizkor. But there is something about confronting them in such unimaginable numbers that keeps me away from the great-grandparents’ shtetl and from the places in which the Jews who didn’t flee in time ended up. Seeing Ronen Eidelman’s exhibition, even on line, made all of these feelings real to me in a way that I generally prefer not to acknowledge. But that too is the point of art, I think: to force just the kind of internal growth that comes from being pried away from one’s comfort zone and forced to look at ghosts from whom one prefers—I should say, from whom one vastly prefers—generally to hide.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Kristallnacht 2010

Next Tuesday evening marks the seventy-second anniversary of Kristallnacht, the great nation-wide pogrom in Germany and Austria that in the eyes of one eye-witness “changed everything.” As indeed it did! Up until that point, Nazi anti-Semitism, for all it was virulently promulgated and for all Jews living under Nazi rule had prior to 1938 suffered indignation after indignation as their civil and human rights were slowly—and through an exquisitely “legal” process—taken from them, the ultimate horrors of the Shoah were first accurately presaged by the events of November 9-10 during which almost a hundred Jews were murdered, about 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps where more than a thousand eventually died, and almost two thousand synagogues were either ransacked or burnt to the ground.

That the Nazis meant business was no secret even before Kristallnacht. But that they were prepared to know no restraint at all of any sort—in other words, that they were prepared to sink past the savage to the level of the truly inhuman—that first became crystal clear to the world outside Germany (and perhaps also to many inside the Reich as well) as the sun rose on the tenth of November and, as sometimes occurs in the course of human events, the landscape was nothing at all like it was the previous day. Not for the Jews, certainly. But also not for the Germans who crossed a line that night back across which they themselves would soon be powerless to retreat. For people like myself who feel obliged by the facts to interpret the events of the Shoah in terms of the possibility of nations choosing to join the realm of the demonic, Kristallnacht is suggestive of the great truth that once nations (in this not unlike people) sell their souls to the devil they can only buy them back when the devil is ready to deal. And, as any student of Jewish history knows all too well, Samael rarely if ever folds his cards while still ahead in the game. (Do readers know who Samael is? I’ll write in more detail about him another time, but the short version is that he serves in kabbalistic mythology as king of the demonic realm, thus as the embodiment of depravity, debauchery, and evil. I hope one day to write a book about the Shoah in terms of traditional Jewish demonology. One day!)

Nor does it seem odd to me that, at least at Shelter Rock, we mark the annual observance both of Kristallnacht and Yom Hashoah, the memorial day for the martyrs of the Nazi era observed on the twenty-seventh day of Nisan each spring. Obviously, they’re related. They’re even intimately related, but they also have different messages to impart. Yom Hashoah—or more properly Yom Hazikaron Lashoah Velagevurah, “Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day”—is a day devoted to remembering the martyrs, to forcing ourselves not to look away from the camps and the execution pits, from instances of moral degeneracy and brutalization too numerous even to count let alone truly to fathom. Kristallnacht is about the Shoah, but also about the years leading up to the Shoah, about the way a nation slowly turned from decency to perverse criminality of the most violent and terrible kind, about the way that things can change for the worse almost (at least at first) without anyone taking too much notice or understanding the implications of the present for the future. Kristallnacht is thus not solely about remembering, but also about the need to remain ever vigilant in the defense of human rights and in the ongoing and never-ending battle against anti-Semitism. And it is about our obligation to turn away from the fantasy that somehow politics has to do far more importantly with the government itself and those who serve in it than in any truly consequential way with the people governed by that government. (How many times have you heard someone voice the opinion that governments come and go but the lot of the governed remains basically the same regardless of who is in power? Kristallnacht exists to negate that opinion totally and absolutely.) We do want to believe that things never change. We all enjoy thinking that change itself is not only not inevitable but almost impossible, that how things are is how things always will be. There’s great comfort in that sense of permanence, but the Jews of Germany found out just how quickly and totally things can deteriorate on the evening of November 9, 1938. We gather to remember the events of that evening partially out of solidarity with the ghosts of the kedoshim and their legacy, but also to re-affirm our own commitment to remaining ever vigilant, ever watchful, ever aware of how things are out there in the great big world beyond the confines of our happy, slightly insular community. On Yom Hashoah, we close our eyes to the world and focus on remembering our martyrs, our kedoshim. On Kristallnacht, we open our eyes to the world and focus on the ways we must labor to make the world safe for our own children and grandchildren.

As many of you know, Joan and I (and also baby Max) lived in Germany for two years in the mid-1980s. I haven’t written much about those years, but I’d like to write about one specific aspect of our stay in Heidelberg here and specifically with reference to our first Kristallnacht on German soil.

It was an odd time in our lives. We thought we had left New York for one year so I could spend two semesters as a fellow at the Hebrew University. But then I was approached by Shmaryahu Talmon, a professor of Bible in Jerusalem who also served as the rector of the Institute for Jewish Studies attached to the University of Heidelberg. He asked if we would consider spending a few years in Germany, if we would like to be part of the great effort to re-establish Jewish learning and Jewish culture in Germany. It sounded beyond intriguing. The salary was exceptional, even by American standards. Our stuff was all in storage anyway. Max was years away even from attending Nursery School. (He was four months old when we arrived in Heidelberg.) I felt challenged by the obligation to deliver my lectures in German, a language I could read well but which I had little practice speaking even informally. But I also felt myself drawn to the enterprise…and not least of all because of the role the Shoah played even in then in my thinking about my own Jewishness and my place in the world. There was something about seeing this place up close, about matching the fantasy to the reality, about actually encountering these monsters in their own lair. And, of course, also about serving the Jews who remained in Germany and meeting Jewish students of a kind I had earlier barely known to exist.

We settled into a nice apartment in Rohrbach, once its own little village but now part of greater Heidelberg. It was, we soon realized, the real thing we had somehow wandered into. The nice lady downstairs mentioned to me in passing one Sunday morning as she was leaving for church that her fiancé had fallen “in the east.” (She didn’t need to add on which side he had been fighting.) The slightly demented old guy in the apartment across from ours actually had been a Nazi soldier, which detail he shared with me one evening as I came home to find him moving most of his furniture onto the landing between our two front doors as part of some imaginary air raid drill he was internally reliving. Even the nice couple upstairs, he an Australian and she a German dance teacher, kept an enormous, larger-than-life-sized bust of Golda Meir (of all people) hidden in a huge armoire in their living room as some sort of weird, slightly creepy, way of affirming their non-Nazi-ness to whomever they felt inclined to make that point. It was, in a word, both just as we had imagined it was going to be and also nothing at all like what we had imagined Germany would be like. But I had signed a contract to remain for two years…and so there was nothing to do but make the best of it. At the very least, we told ourselves, our German would improve!

Up the road a piece from our apartment house was the site of the Rohrbach synagogue burnt to the ground on Kristallnacht. I learned this soon after we arrived not by being told about it, but simply one day on the way home from the grocer’s by walking past a low pillar emblazoned with the single Hebrew word chai that a nearby plaque noted marked the spot of the former synagogue. I had heard about Kristallnacht my whole life. To some degree, I had internalized the horror and allowed it to become a motivating factor both in my career choice and in the direction in which I grew to adulthood both in terms of my Judaism and my Jewishness. Our next neighbor when I was a boy was a woman who had experienced the events of Kristallnacht in Vienna and who had escaped Austria barely a month or two later. So I certainly knew all about the events of November 9, 1938…but somehow none of that prepared me for that moment on a crisp, fall day when, carrying two bags of fruit and vegetables, I suddenly found myself standing on the all-too-real site of a synagogue actually burnt to the ground in the course of that horrific night.

Later, I found a book in the university library and read up on the details. The Nazi Student Organization began its work that evening in Heidelberg proper, taking as its first priority the destruction of the beautiful synagogue on the Grosse Mantelstrasse that at that time had served Heidelberg Jewry for three quarters of a century. By the time they were done, it was already 4:30 in the morning, but their leader, a man named Chelius, urged them on towards Rohrbach, about a kilometer or so south of the then city limits, where they attended to the destruction of the synagogue on the Rathausstrasse there as well. First the contents of the synagogue was taken into the street and burnt to ash. The fire department was in attendance, but only to make sure the fire didn’t spread to neighboring buildings. The police, apparently not considering any crime to be taking place, stayed away entirely. The most prominent Jewish resident of Rohrbach, a man named Siegmund Beer who lived just up the Rathausstrasse from the synagogue was arrested and, along with 150 other Heidelberg Jews, sent to Dachau. The synagogue building was left an empty shell, but not fully destroyed. Soon enough, however, it was declared a danger and torn down properly. And thus the religious life of a Jewish community that had existed in that place for hundreds of years came to an end.

In the course of our years in Germany, I walked by that pillar almost every single day. I imagined that eventually I would stop noticing it, stop feeling duty-bound to stop and ponder its implications, stop feeling obliged to stop in my path every single time I walked by to read the plaque again. But that never happened and, in the end, I never failed to stop, never failed to read the inscription, never failed to pause for a moment to ask myself how I could live in that place and among those people. In the end, I suppose I must have grown tired of asking myself that question.

After two years, we left. I only knew one other Jew in Rohrbach, the elderly man who served the synagogue in Heidelberg proper—in those days just a prayer room over a store but now a full-fledged synagogue with its own building—as its shammas. If there were other Jews in Rohrbach, they didn't present themselves to me. As we packed up and looked after selling our car and finding a way to ship our stuff to Vancouver, I remember wondering who would stop to ponder that marker and its plaque once we would be gone. Was it rational to expect the locals to care? They were mostly born after the way. Even the older ones hadn’t personally destroyed the Rohrbach synagogue and so had every reason not to feel involved in the matter. (If any members of the SA-Studentensturm group that actually had destroyed the synagogues in Heidelberg and Rohrbach survived the war and settled in Heidelberg after the war, I obviously had no way to know. But I preferred to imagine them all consigned to whatever depth of hell is reserved for people such as themselves and their leaders. Imagining that any of them might yet have been alive and well and living in my neighborhood was just too much to imagine. I preferred to close my eyes to that being even remotely possible. But in my heart I knew I was lying to myself…and that too was why we felt eventually that we had to leave.)

And we did leave, only returning for a few days’ visit twenty years later. In 2006, two decades after packing up and leaving, Joan and I decided to spend a night in Heidelberg on our way to Israel. We wanted to see how it looked, how our house was faring, what the school and the new synagogue looked like. But mostly I wanted to walk up the Rathausstrasse and visit that pillar and its plaque. Which I did. It looked the same. It was a cool July day. No one was around. It was just Joan, me, and the ghosts. We hadn’t seen each other for a while, but reunions can only be heartfelt to a certain degree when one side says nothing at all. But silent or not I knew them to be present. And I found myself glad to have given two years of my life to honoring their memory with my daily pilgrimage to the site of their synagogue…and happy also to have left and, until that very moment, never to have returned.