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My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Column for July 2015: Boring Shouting Apocalyptic

Dear Rabbi,

I have Facebook friends who are not personal acquaintances, but people in broad circles, friends of friends. Like me, many of them are staunch defenders of Israel. We share personal and public events related to Israel and news reports about the country. Lately, though, I noticed that a vocal minority in my circles has become louder and shriller about their defense of Israel against all criticisms. And beyond that I see a steady stream of apocalyptic pronouncements, statements that assure me of cosmic threats to Israel by numerous nations, and the catastrophic consequences of this or that. An example of recent note is a continuous drumbeat of the doom that awaits Israel (and the world) if the U.S. makes a bad deal with Iran on nuclear development. I have started blocking some of my friends from appearing on my feed because I do not want to participate in their doomsday fear fests. Have I been unfair to my friends?

Fearless In Fair Lawn

Dear Fearless,

On the one hand, your descriptive term apocalyptic does capture the character of some of the rhetoric that we hear at times from those who believe they ought to speculate about the fast-approaching fate of the world.

Genuine apocalyptic literature is a fascinating imaginative genre, a form of speculative theology and a characteristic of some fringe political thought. In Jewish tradition, the visions in the book of Daniel in the Tanach are classic examples of that mindset. The famous vision in Chapter 7 begins: “Daniel said: ‘In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea.’” The Dead Sea Scrolls also contain conspicuous examples of the apocalyptic imagination.

This inventive thinking and writing often anticipates a high drama that posits that we are close to the end of days, that a great conflict is imminent, and that colorful mythic creatures — as stand-ins for nations of the world — will be part of the horrifying spectacle.

Given the history of anti-Semitism, it is not entirely far-fetched to imagine a world full of evil empires that target the Jews for elimination. And it is always meritorious to be on guard against the potential onslaught of our enemies.

But the dire predictions of disaster that you are reading on Facebook in obvious ways are not similar to ancient apocalyptic preaching. Those classic visions often cleverly encoded the message of the secrets of the end times. Only a select few knew the full meaning of which symbolic beast referred to which great world power or nation.

The shouting posts on your Facebook page are almost certainly totally transparent and obvious in their references to their specific targets. They are loud and shouting, not subtle or encoded or shrouded in any secret.

Bottom line: What you did by blocking the content was correct. Keep doing it. Turn off the noise. Stay focused. Do not be too distracted by others who constantly catastrophize about the future of the Jewish people or by those who claim with little basis some special or divine inspiration that with little nuance or imagination, enables them to express troubling and alarmist opinions about the destiny of our people.

Try to stay attentive to the here-and-now, and to find positive meaning in the rich content of your own present-day Judaism.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.

My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Column for July 2015: Holocaust Conceit

Dear Rabbi,

A member of our community has been saying for years that he is Holocaust survivor. In fact he did live in Hungary during the Holocaust, but by all accounts, he was not subjected to any special duress during that period. It seems like this person is engaging in a form of bragging and seeks a special status, even sympathy. Why would someone do that? And what should I do about it?

Befuddled in Bergenfield

Dear Befuddled,

I’ll answer your question in two parts. First the factual. The suffering for Jews during the war was less severe in Hungary than in other parts of Europe. It is true that Germany did not occupy Hungary until 1944, late in the war. During the war, however, many Hungarian Jews suffered deprivation, starvation, humiliation, and other atrocities. Every Jew in Europe during WWII suffered trauma, whether they were in concentration camps, hidden, or partisans in the forest. Even those who escaped direct attack might have been traumatized by the loss of loved ones.

The Jews in Hungary were decimated at the end of the war. As many as 450,000 or more Jews were deported to concentration camps, and anti-Semitic laws were enacted. So as a matter of fact, a person living in Budapest through the war can call him or herself a survivor of evil Nazi rule, if that’s what he wants to do.

The Holocaust is a sensitive subject. You have to be careful of your wording and tone when you discuss it, so you do not suggest that anyone who went through it is less of a survivor. True, some people fabricate their experiences, but that’s not widespread.

You need to accept that a wide range of factors goes into how people in that circumstance choose to describe themselves and their personal histories. On one end of the spectrum, some survivors will not speak at all, even to their families and friends, about their experiences.

Your acquaintance seems to be on the other side of the spectrum — speaking out too vocally for your taste and claiming too much about his past. American culture is quite averse to open conceit. Even when the facts and a person’s achievements make it tempting for him or her to claim special merit, it’s not a good idea. And if it is done in the wrong way, it may backfire for someone who claims attention for triumphs over adversity.

On the other hand, Jewish culture is thick with recollections of enslavements, persecutions, and sufferings. Theologians have spent great efforts dealing with the cosmic and narrative meanings of our adversities over the generations.

A familiar refrain that we recognize from the Haggadah proclaims that, “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” And we have faith that God redeems us from our sufferings.

Cultural analysts suggest that the survival of the Jews as a collective is strengthened by the sharing of stories of survival in the face of barbaric enemies.

Yet some historians have decried the religious meme of the persecuted and suffering Jew as an overemphasis on the lachrymose side of history. Tearful accounts of the past, they say, deflect us from the reality that while many tragic events have occurred to us as a people, most of Jewish history is positive, not sad, unhappy, mournful, or sorrowful.

Your attention-seeking acquaintance seems to have chosen to personalize our Jewish meme and make himself into a singular symbol of past suffering. While that does not sit well with you, I suggest that you try to abide his attitude. Given the historical and cultural contexts of this situation, there is little that you can or should do about it.

Remember, stories of the past ought to make us wary of the real enemies that are lurking out there to attack us. But be balanced. Stay focused, and find meaning in your own present-day Judaism. Do not be distracted from it by others who dwell overly much on the horrors of our history.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.


Yitzhak Zahavy's fantastic book, "Archaeology, Stamps and Coins of the State of Israel"

A brilliant book. Available in Teaneck and worldwide on Amazon!

Archaeology, Stamps and Coins of the State of Israel

This book explains how archaeology is used in the politics and nationalism of the State of Israel through its stamps, coins and currency. Taking the reader from the pre-state years to the modern day, Archaeology, Stamps and Coins of the State of Israel catalogs and analyzes the Israeli government issued materials that employ archaeological motifs.

Purchase this excellent book online or pick yours up today at the Judaica House on Cedar Lane in Teaneck, NJ.

Is Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor Jewish?

No, Judge Sonia Sotomayor is not a Jew. She is Catholic.

In the Times blogs, Charles M. Blow wrote about the religious composition of the court in his post called, "The Catholic Court":

"Thirty years ago eight of the nine Supreme Court justices were Protestant. Now only two are. Five are Catholic, and two are Jewish. If federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed as a replacement for Justice David H. Souter, who is Protestant, she will become the sixth Catholic justice on the court."

Is Sotomayor the first Hispanic Supreme Court Judge?

Technically, you could argue that Sephardic Jewish judge Benjamin Nathan Cardozo was the first Hispanic judge to serve in the US Supreme Court. Cardozo served from 1932 until his death in 1938.
Cardozo was born in New York City, the son of Rebecca Washington (née Nathan) and Albert Jacob Cardozo. Both Cardozo's maternal grandparents, Sara Seixas and Isaac Mendes Seixas Nathan, and his paternal grandparents, Ellen Hart and Michael H. Cardozo, were Sephardic Jews; their families immigrated from England before the American Revolution, and were descended from Jews who left the Iberian Peninsula for Holland during the Inquisition. Cardozo family tradition held that their ancestors were Marranos from Portugal, although Cardozo's ancestry has not been firmly traced to Portugal. [Wikipedia]
The AP reported via the StarTribune that, "Some definitions of Hispanic include Portugal and Portuguese-speaking cultures; others don't." [reposted]

Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair in 2010 Explained the Role of the Monks in the Vatopaidi Monastery in the Greek Debt Crisis

And now the crisis has come to a head. Nearly five years ago Michael Lewis in a brilliant article in Vanity Fair in 2010 explained the role of the monks in the Vatopaidi Monastery in the Greek Debt Crisis ("Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds").

Apparently the monks engage in more than prayer and contemplation.

The article summary says:
As Wall Street hangs on the question “Will Greece default?,” the author heads for riot-stricken Athens, and for the mysterious Vatopaidi monastery, which brought down the last government, laying bare the country’s economic insanity. But beyond a $1.2 trillion debt (roughly a quarter-million dollars for each working adult), there is a more frightening deficit. After systematically looting their own treasury, in a breathtaking binge of tax evasion, bribery, and creative accounting spurred on by Goldman Sachs, Greeks are sure of one thing: they can’t trust their fellow Greeks.

It's an indictment of the country as a whole, with a clear explanation for how things got so bad in Greece, and with clever insights like this caption to the picture above:
VOW OF PROPERTY - Father Arsenios at the Vatopaidi monastery, overlooking the Aegean Sea, in Mount Athos, Greece. He is considered by many to be Vatopaidi’s C.F.O., “the real brains of the operation.”


Louis Danto: My Favorite Cantor

Recently in my research for my current book, I learned that the great cantor Louis Danto passed away this year July 23, 2010 at age 81.

Here is my recollection of the chazan extraordinaire, from a working draft of the chapter on the "performer" in my current book project (posted 11/1/2010).

Cantor Louis Danto was a happy Hazzan. His chanting was upbeat and peppy. I heard him often at the Atlantic Beach Jewish Center as a child and teen ager in the fifties and sixties. I knew then that Danto was a world class singer, a tenor whose beautiful voice was trained yet ethereal. And I could see that he comprehended and loved the words of the prayers and cherished their meanings. I did not know at the time that he had studied at Yeshivas and in conservatories in Europe, that he had won prizes, that he later would go on to perform worldwide, to record many albums of Jewish songs, of folk, popular, romantic and operatic music. 

As a kid in Atlantic Beach, I did not know that later he’d be celebrated for his unmatched graceful yet ornate bel canto artistry, for his classical vocalization and his just plain beautiful singing. I just loved his extraordinary rendition of the shehechiyanu blessing after the Kiddush on a Yom Tov holiday. In it we simply praise God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this special day. His blessing rang out with such emotion and expressivity that it just lifted my soul. I can recall vividly to this day Danto’s ringing repeated conclusion of the blessing, “…to this day,” “Lazman hazeh, lazman hazeh…” And I’ve tried at every holiday to replicate the joy of that singing as best as I can in my own prosaic chanting of the same blessing.

Danto defined for me how a formal davening should sound. Wow, he set the bar way high up. His lyrical davening changed the character of the sanctuary. From listening to him I learned that a good chazzan like Danto creates a palpable focus, a presence, a joyous and numinous, holy quality in the house of prayer.

Not every congregation can be fortunate enough to have such a performer. Many synagogues still do have professional cantors who lead the services. However, for reasons that I have yet to figure out, many congregations these days want basically untrained volunteers to lead the prayers. 

Whatever the style, at every service in an actual brick-and-mortar synagogue, Jewish prayer is an orchestrated performance, led by a leader and joined by an involved congregation. The synagogue members attending the service act at times as a performing chorus and at other times as a listening audience.... to be continued in my book...

You can hear and see a clip of Cantor Danto's mastery at a concert in Brooklyn in 1982: Moshe Koussevitzky Memorial Concert, Chapter 3, Cantor Louis Danto זצ"ל from Arthur Rubin Studios on Vimeo.


Summer Promotion: Free Tzvee Kindle e-Books - Enjoy! June 25 - 29.

Many of my Kindle e-books are free for five days as a promotion!

Do all Korean Children Study the Talmud?

The Talmud is a Best-Seller in South Korea according to the The New Yorker.

Is it a bestseller? Yes. Is it the Talmud? No! It is a long story and quite convoluted.

On 4/1/11 we posted this:

There are stories circulating that all South Korean children study the Talmud. Do they?

We'll go out on a limb here and say, no, Korean children do not study the Talmud.

We'll go further out on a sturdy limb and say that this whole story is akin to an urban legend.

One blogger, Mostly Kosher, has tried to verify the news items claiming child Talmud study in Korea and he came away mostly "debunking" the story.

He found that at best Korean children have heard of some Talmud stories and maybe even read them in an abbreviated comic book form and that they have a positive opinion about the wisdom that can be found in the Talmud.

Another blogger, Raising Wings, has more details on the origins and content of the so-called Korean Talmud.

That's a good thing, but it does not at all mean that Korean children engage in the serious and demanding enterprise of Talmud study.


15th Yahrzeit of my mother Edith Zahavy

Today is the 15th Yahrzeit of my mother Edith Zahavy (aleha hashalom).

We miss her so very much. She would have loved to see the progress of her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and take pride in all of their accomplishments. She would have loved to read books to her little great-grandchildren and to watch them play and grow.

She was born in NYC and attended the public schools in Washington Heights. She watched from her classroom window as they built the George Washington Bridge.

She graduated from Hunter High School, Hunter College and went on to a career in public service at the OPA and then into the field education. Together with my dad, she founded the Park East Day School when my father was rabbi at the Park East Synagogue, then called Congregation Zichron Ephraim. She subsequently taught in NYC public schools for many years.

She is interred on Har Hamenuchot in Jerusalem. Her memorial site is here.