30 November 2011

Memento Menu: Jewish Europe in 2002

In 2002, I led my only child on a trip to Europe. Sara was then 14.
It had started as a trip to Vilne to study Yiddish, and grew and grew.
We travelled "student style," with backpacks, by train, and staying in hostels and homes.

When we returned to our home in Oregon, we sponsored a kiddush lunch at Congregation Kesser Israel and published this document to summarize both what we saw there and the food we served here.

M  E  N  U

Sara and I traveled for 3 months. We visited 20 cities in 15 countries. We changed languages 2 times a week. We visited 22 synagogues, where we attended 15 services. We visited 100 bookstores and wrote 5 volumes of our own journals. We spent 31 days at the Vilner Yiddisher Institute with 50 other people from 13 countries.
This trip intentionally had more breadth than depth. Still, there is a lot to write about.
I won’t write it all here.

Americans who grew up in the 1950s and 60s were puzzled by their parents scolding, “Think about the poor children in Europe! Eat your vegetables!”
Huh? How do I benefit poor children in Europe by eating vegetables?  This made no sense.
(And besides, no one, least of all a poor European child, should have to eat green vegetables processed until they are gray . . .)

A couple of weeks ago, we co-sponsored and prepared a Kiddush Lunch IHO “our safe return to Portland (especially from the Russian visa police)”; and also IHO “the children (of all ages) of Kesser Israel who value and participate in Torah education; because,” we added, “when you have visited places where one in a hundred survived, you appreciate anew the importance of dor l’dor education”.

The menu was intended as an edible sampler of our itinerary:  Russian borsch, Lithuanian kasha varnishkes, Ukrainian bean salad, Swedish cucumber salad, Hungarian cholent, Italian biscotti, Belarussian kichelech, Yiddish rozhinkes-mit-mandeln, and Valencia oranges . . . because every meal should include fresh fruit even if the cook neglected to go to Spain.

So now you have read three paragraphs and you are asking yourself, “Yes . . . but what is the point?”
The point is that I finally figured out the connection between “poor” European children and American vegetables; and I will use the Kiddush Lunch menu to explain what I learned.

Russian borsch: 
Sankt Petersburg, Russia is a textbook case of absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Petersburg was built in the 18th century in a great hurry. Tsar Peter wanted a capital city that would look out upon and rival the glittering capitals of Western Europe. He built grand avenues and sinuous canals and luxurious dwellings for the nobility whom he abruptly moved west from Moscow. He built all this on a swamp.
After this, there were costly wars, murderous shifts in dynasty, Napoleon, a World War, and a Revolution that drove Tsarist ambitions into the ground head first and substituted a collective system that extinguished all incentive to maintain anything. Recently, Petersburg started anew and a lot of the city is being rebuilt. But in 2002, Petersburg remains a tissue of impractically grandiose projects that were not maintained for 100 years enduring in a breeding ground for mosquitoes. On the street, babushki lay out on newspapers their inventory of 6 cabbages, 12 onions, and some small white flowers. For such businesses, the overhead is low; the income is vital.
Petersburg has a population of about 5 million and it has one synagogue. Like so much else in Petersburg, the synagogue is being rebuilt incrementally as funding permits. The street façade is totally redone; but if you were able to enter the locked front doors, you’d walk into a construction site. Behind the synagogue is a smaller, old building that has a chapel and some offices. It is a Chabad outpost. The rabbi is not Russian.

Lithuanian kasha varnishkes:
If we learned anything in Vilna, we learned how thoroughly Lithuanian Nazi collaborators exterminated not only native Jewish communities, but also Jews shipped into Lithuania from elsewhere in Eastern Europe.  Every week, white-haired survivors took us to killing fields, crude prisons, partisan forest bunkers, memorials, and cemeteries. They led us through former Jewish quarters, pointing out the locations of former Jewish government offices, former shuls, former yeshivot, former athletic clubs, former theatres, former libraries, former publishing houses.
Before the war, Vilna was 60 percent Jewish and had 103 synagogues. Now it is one-half of one percent Jewish and has one synagogue. We attended the synagogue regularly. There were never more than 30 people there.
Chabad also has a center in Vilna. The rabbi is from Boston; the bokherim are from New York and Canada. They have started a Jewish school for all Lithuania. It has 40 students.

Ukrainian bean salad:
Kiev is a large, fabulous city full of wonderful old edifices accommodating the dignity of state, of literature, and of opera; cobbled streets that wind up and down hills bathed in color by the setting sun; and hundreds of churches with multiple gold onion domes.
In Kiev there are 100,000 Jews and one synagogue. Marko is the head of the Jewish community. We recognized Marko in Kiev because he has a funny but radiant face you can’t forget, and because he had joined our group in Kovne, Lithuania, for a concert of Jewish music.  If they can, Jews from Kiev happily travel 500 miles to Lithuania to hear music.

Swedish cucumber salad:
Stockholm is another city of grand edifices and picturesque old neighborhoods illuminated by the reflections off numerous rivers, inlets, and canals. Taxes are high, but life is comfortable.
We stayed in Cell 201 of a whimsically converted island prison, and spent an entire day traveling back in time at Skansen, a huge outdoor folklife museum. Our cousins took us to an innovative history museum where we examined the still-unexplained artifacts of our Viking ancestors; and Bernard, who just turned 77, complained to us about “alter cockers” as he drove onto and off of curbs.
On impulse, we rang a stranger’s bell and actually got a tour of the apartment where my mother, Sara-the-First, was born. It’s a lovely apartment – a lot lovelier than I would have guessed was within the grasp of my grandfather, a circa-1900 Russian draft dodger.
There are 3 synagogues in Stockholm. We went to the Great Synagogue – the one that is open in summer. The rabbi is from Pennsylvania.

Hungarian cholent:
We both loved Prague. (Everyone loves Prague). In addition, Sara loved Stockholm . . . and I loved Budapest.
In Budapest, buildings have gone from private to public ownership and back again without ever having been restored. We rented a stuffy apartment that had too many doors and too many furry textiles, and shopped in grocery stores generously stocked with kosher delicacies and soil-dusted produce from the countryside; but where the checkout mechanism was a clerk with a hand-held calculator.
Budapest has a melancholic, nostalgic, and occasionally self-mocking character that suited my temperament more than the frantic entrepreneurship of Prague.
In Erzsebetvaros, the Jewish Quarter, the ground floor of any building may still be occupied but the top floor may be a bomb crater. Soot-blackened and shrapnel-pocked windows are brightened by trays of red geraniums. We entered a tiny storefront selling “Judaica,” and inside found a treasury of worm-bored old Talmuds and museum-quality spice boxes. For Sara, this was The Magnetic Center of the Universe.
The Dohaney Street Synagogue is large and splendid and a tourist attraction. You buy a ticket and go in to see its golden adornments and the leaning headstones in the adjacent cemetery.
The Orthodox synagogue nearby is undergoing renovation. The floor tiles smell of dampness and the stained glass ceiling is draped with spattered plastic. Meanwhile, the “regulars” daven maariv in a nearby shtiebel. The women wait outside in the courtyard, listening, and gently rocking the babies in their prams.

Italian biscotti:
The word “ghetto,” we learned, comes from Italian geto, the old foundry district where Ashkenazic and Levantine Jewish traders were permitted to settle in the fourteenth century when Venice became a mercantile world power.
The Levantine Jews had more privileges and more income than the others in the ghetto. But all 5 remaining synagogues empty into the same piazza. Makes one wonder what things were like on your average shabbos in, say, 1612, when the Haves and Have-Nots dispersed after mincha.
In the ghetto now, there is a gondolier stand, wonderful artisan shops, a couple of kosher restaurants, a museum, and a Chabad center. The rabbi is American.

Belarussian kichelech:
Two great men came from the area around Vitebsk:  Marc Chagall and my grandfather. I knew that too much time had passed to see anything of their world; but I wanted to go to Vitebsk, anyway.
Vitebsk was dream time – an impression much enhanced by the smoke in the air from field-burning; by the absence of anyone who spoke any language except Belarussian; and by arriving at 3:00 in the morning and leaving 25 hours later at 4:00 in the morning.  (Our planned 3 days in Vitebsk shrank to only one because of difficulties with the train schedule.)

Our first stop was the Marc Chagall Museum – the only museum in Vitebsk. It was closed . . . but it was in an interesting neighborhood near one of the city’s 3 rivers.  So we walked around inspecting Soviet-era factories surrounded by high concrete walls and mossy board fences; old “worker housing” long since abandoned, roofless, and hollow except for plants growing in former stairwells; heroic statues of people we never heard of; and wood houses that were barely tall enough to stand up in, with roofs slanted badly by years of wind, each with its apple tree and chickens. It’s a cliché, I know; but those crooked little houses with their trees and chickens were VERY Chagall-esque.
In fact . . . chickens were everywhere in Vitebsk.  Even next to huge, featureless, Soviet apartment blocks where no resident had a yard, there were high-rise chicken coops – one coop compartment for every apartment-dweller. I figure that traditionally, everyone kept chickens as a reliable source for eggs, and maybe even for a little extra cash from selling eggs; and that, under the Soviets, the need for this bit of self-reliance was even more pronounced.
We got into a conversation with a babushka who found us photographing her tumble-down house. I told her that we were admiring her tree and her chickens. This made her very proud, and she ran back and forth to show us the fine eggs from her fine chickens, and to tell us what fine blini she made with them.

We made kichelech for the Kiddush Lunch because kichelech, like blini, are more egg than anything else; but blini are made fresh and you just can’t do that for 70 people on shabbos. 
We never found a synagogue in Vitebsk.

In dem beys hamikdash
In a vinkl kheyder
Zitzt di almone Bas Zion aleyn.
Ir ben yokhid, Yidele,
Vigt zi keseyder,
Un zingt im tzu shlofn a lidele sheyn: ay-lu-lu...

I always liked this song, though I did not understand the words until recently. Now I know enough Yiddish to wonder whether the words are just pretty nonsense, or if they have subterranean  meaning. What to make of a widowed mother named Daughter-of-Zion who sits cornered in a study hall, singing a lullaby about his future as a wanderer and trader in raisins-and-almonds 
-party food-  to her son, Little Jew? And why is there a bleach-white kid under Little Jew’s cradle?

And what has any of this travelogue got to do with eating vegetables in order to aid the poor children of Europe?

The Point
Well, folks, this is what came clear to me.
Europe used to be very, very rich in yiddishkeit. And I am optimistic from the healthy seedlings we saw that it will be rich again.
But right now, Europe is poor. In the erstwhile capitals of Jewish learning, Jewish letters, Jewish trade, Jewish music, Jewish art, and Jewish craftsmanship, very little is left.
In some places, all that remains is 4 synagogues deconsecrated and made into a museum  that explains Judaism to non-Jewish visitors. “This,” it says in 4 languages on the front of the glass case, “is the Jewish sacred book. It is called a Torah.”

If you want to open the glass case and study the Book, you have to walk miles across town to the one remaining shul, or wait for the shul to be rebuilt and for the 40 students to grow up and bear the children that will fill it, or go to the very lovely repainted shul where selections from the Book are read to you in the local vernacular, or petition the government to return the Book which was “given as a gift” to a museum in the 1940s.
Or you can go to Israel.
Or you can go to someplace American:  for instance –believe it or not (and this was a surprise to Europeans)- Portland, Oregon!

American post-war children were right: eating vegetables in the U.S.A. does not feed children in Europe.
But it does feed Americans.
Absorbing Torah and yiddishkeit in the U.S.A. does not promote Torah and yiddishkeit in Europe. But it does promote  Torah and yiddishkeit in America, one of our two remaining vigorous kehillot.

And at congregations like Kesser Israel, the vegetables are freshly prepared. 

Thinking about Europe's “poor children,” visiting the “poor children,” davening with the “poor children,”  singing with the “poor children,” and studying with the “poor children,” makes us appreciate the availability of the Torah "vegetables" right here on the plate in front of us. 

So this is what I learned:  Let’s eat!

. . . another thing I learned from our travels is that I speak French with a Hungarian accent . . .

29 November 2011

More Good Links

This: http://holylandinsights.blogspot.com/
is Rabbi Schwartz's (formerly of Seattle) weekly words of Torah and "Cool Places in Israel of the Week".
There are a lot of good weekly Torah publications out there but his has always been one of my favorites.

A woman named Allison has made a project of explaining basic Torah Judaism via YouTube videos. Here's her explanation of Shabbat:

27 November 2011


Somehow I always expect the weather, in every region, to follow the pattern set by the storied weather of New England. I expect the trees to drop leaves that look like this: http://www.filthwizardry.com/2009/11/leaf-rubbing-and-paint-mural.html

I was taken aback the other day to realize that I have never seen a muskrat.

public domain

There just are not as many muskrats running around our house as there were around Thoreau's Concord. Or else I never went out to look for them.
I wonder what else I have been content until now to observe secondhand.

Autumn in Jerusalem - at least at this writing - does not come in red and orange. The winter rains are bringing forth new grass from between the fallen leaves, and what I call the Improbables - because I never saw another flower that color - are still tumbling all over the walls, and putting forth buds. It feels like snow weather, but looks like Spring. I feel offensive wearing a coat.

I suppose the flora in this neighborhood takes after the people, who stay up late: just as it is safe for people to walk around at 2:00am, it is safe for the grass and flowers to put out shoots and blossoms at the end of November. There is no time to sleep, there is no time of day or year when stepping out is solitary - there is just too much for everyone to do. On with life!

Elul in Slabodka - 1913

Rabbi Bechhofer graciously granted permission for his translation of this diary entry from 1913 to be posted here in its entirety.
I will add a partial glossary at the bottom; and - I hope Rabbi Bechhofer doesn't mind - move his introduction to the end, also.
Elul is the month leading up to Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the yeshiva year. I thought about saving this post for next Elul but I can't; it is too delicious.
If you are one of those people who can't read anything longer than a paragraph, make it the last paragraph of the entry.

The original link is: http://www.aishdas.org/rygb/elul.htm

From the Diary of Rabbi Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan zt"l:

[Elul 5673 (1913). Slabodka]
Excitedly and joyously I jumped from the train's steps. Within me sparkled the happy thought: "Kovno!... Slabodka!..." [Slabodka is a suburb of Kovno.]

Even though I couldn't find even one acquaintance among all the people that I saw in the terminal and that traveled with me in the tram car, they all seemed related to me. The streets through which I passed all gladdened my still heart, as if they were calling to me and saying: "Here you are, drawing closer to Slabodka. Another street, then another, the bridge, the sand, Yorburg Street - and, then... the Yeshiva, the Rav's [Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt"l, the Alter from Slabodka] small house. And then... the Rav himself!" But who knows if he's here? Perhaps he hasn't yet returned home... While walking on the bridge, my eyes began to glance around with special eagerness. Perhaps I might meet one of my friends. There at a distance, two young men are coming closer! Who are they?... Perhaps Yechezkel [Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna zt"l, later Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron in Jerusalem, then a student in Slabodka, a close friend of Reb Avrohom Elya], or another one. My heart started pounding... But I was mistaken: A young Ben Torah that I did not know passed by.

I passed over the entire bridge and did not meet a single acquaintance. I became angry. Another unfamiliar bochur passed by and I greeted him angrily, thinking inwardly: "Be it as it may! Perhaps I do know him but have forgotten..." So distorting was my powerful desire to meet some Slabodker that I knew. This is a bit of that Slabodker egoism!

By now I was already standing by Chaim Meir's [Reb Chaim Meir Gitelson zt"l, later of Jerusalem, then a student in Slabodka, a close friend of Reb Avrohom Elya] doorway. Before I managed to open the door, it opened before me, and opposite me came, nodding and smiling - Yechezkel himself. "Shalom Aleichem - Aleichem Shalom!..." - "Is the Rav here?"

- "Not yet," answers Yechezkel, "tomorrow."

Two or three of our friends came over. The conversation dragged a bit, as among people who have no idea what they should discuss. I could not look into their eyes. I wanted to spill everything... to grab Yechezkel from among them, to bring my mouth close to his ears - and to spill everything. Within me were amassed so many fragments of thought and emotion which had arisen from various events and incidents. These feelings now demanded revelation from mouth to ear ...

Yechezkel arose and said: "Let's go!" We scattered, each to his own way. Yechezkel and I remained to stroll on Slabodka's dusty and stony main street, waiting for each other with a little embarrassment and anxiety, wondering where to begin our conversation.

In the end I told him all that transpired with me. After I finished my account I suddenly saw that it was all emptiness: I had only taken leave of Slabodka for two months. I had imagined that it had been a long time, because in the meantime I had ample time to pass through several new segments of life and its events... Now, after I had told him all these things over the course of a few minutes, I suddenly realized that it was all nothingness. There was no significance to those entire two months. The essence of it all was that I had bathed in the sea and returned to Slabodka - and nothing more... Indeed, "Fools when will you learn!"

The next day, Monday of the week of Ki Savo, was the great day of Slabodka: The Rav has arrived! When I came to seem him a somewhat amusing and uncomfortable incident occurred: He stood among a group of younger students who greeted him by shaking his hand. They did not kiss him. I, however, without thinking, bent over to kiss him... Of course, he too "responded" with a kiss, but I was very embarrassed. I felt compelled to hide behind their shoulders. The pleasant experience that I always have when first meeting with the Rav after having been away for a while was a bit marred. I stood hiding and listened to the course of conversation between him and them...

"We come now from the material vacation to the spiritual vacation: From the months of Tammuz and Av in the forests and the fields to the months of Elul and Tishrei in the house of the yeshiva. What distinguishes that vacation from this vacation? We know, of course, that just as that vacation is essential to fortify the body, so too this other one is necessary to heal the soul. Even more so, for all are sick vis a vis Elul..."

- Indeed, Am I an "Elul"-seeker? Am I a yarei Shomayim?

What then - am I not an Elul-seeker? Am I not a yarei Shomayim? ...

How amusing and how pathetic, that I can ask these two questions in quick succession, yet they do not contradict each other.

When later I went out into the street I met Shaul Margolis [later a Rav in several cities in Polish Lithuania, then a student in Slabodka] walking alone, stick in hand, eyes fixed on it, pacing slowly and pondering. I saw him from a distance... I knew instantly that he had something to say to me. And indeed! "The man is amazing," Shaul said as I came to him, "He is mighty beyond compare. The man comes from Krantz, sits next to the table, surrounded by youngsters, and immediately begins from where he left off two months ago... He speaks pleasantly, clearly, sincerely, and [yet it is] his silence [that] is [most] profound, sure and penetrating to the heart... When he is silent, it seems that he has nothing at all to relate about all that transpired with him through the entire summer, what he met and whom he saw. He forgets it all, forgets himself [There seems to be a typographical error in the original Hebrew here. The Hebrew here reads "ve'eino yodei'a elah es atzmo." I translated the phrase as if it had read "ve'eino yodei'a es atzmo." Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan shlita (Reb Avrohom Elya's son) wrote to me, however, that he believes there is no mistake here, and that the intent here was that the Alter was only aware of atzmo in the sense of atzmi'us, essence, i.e., the lofty ideal that he lived, with which he identified and to which he constantly dedicated himself] - and is silent... This restraint of all emotions upon careful consideration is true mightiness. Mighty!..."

That evening I heard a shmuess. He [the Alter] stood in the middle of the small room, next to the table, and around him they gathered. The students packed together. They yearned to hear and to understand. They gazed with eyes partly happy and partly anxious, a decent number of young men, and immediately my heart began to absorb the warmth...

It is a time of true and thorough pleasantness: Every matter is clear, every thought succinct and every movement measured and balanced. The entire experience bespeaks tranquility and sincerity [ne'emanus]. There is no confusion nor haste.

He stands before us and states his complaint: People [outside Slabodka] lack belief in the power of Mussar. They do not acknowledge that the young men here genuinely involve their hearts, more or less, in the subject of yir'as Shomayim . Though he tries to impress this upon them, they remain adamant. They claim it is all superficiality, verbal pilpul, an empty and muddled waste of artificial ideas.

Immediately after this complaint he consoles himself: In the final analysis it is this [lack of appreciation] that provides all the contentment that there is in Mussar. If Mussar was not a hidden thing that the world does not recognize, it would be entirely worthless. It would stand only on the same level as "lamdonus," as a tool of public discourse. Let us be grateful to those who indict Mussar. It is because of them that the little that we do have is genuine and modest, in "hatznei'a leches"... After all, no matter how much positive publicity Mussar receives, all that the publicity achieves is that people will not mock Mussar, not complain against it. To recognize and believe in its depths [pnimiyus] and in the education of hearts in which Mussar deals - that will not happen!

Immediately after this consolation (that followed his original complaint) came another complaint: We have acquired something, we feel inside ourselves traces of the impression Mussar has made upon us. When, however, we analyze this impression deeply, we realize that it has only come about because we habitually steer our thoughts in that direction. Our minds constantly review the realizations that they have absorbed from the [literally: "kneaded from the dough"] words of Chazal and the Rishonim. Because of this habit, our hearts have been conditioned to identify the negative components that the Torah perceives as "evil" in any situation. Naturally, the heart then distances itself somewhat from that situation - because it has become conditioned to thinking of it as base - but not because of yir'as Shomayim.

In other words, it is not because I fear the sin [that I avoid it], but rather because it is unpleasant for me to get involved in something that I have already become conditioned to hear of and consider as a "sin". If, however, some powerful issue overcame that unpleasantness, then I might no longer distinguish between good and bad, and I would do what my heart desired... - I contemplated: "This is the crux of the matter!..." [Literally: "Here the dog is buried!" Rabbi Gershon Eliezer Schaffel pointed out to me that the Alter from Kelm zt"l discusses this subject in Chochma u'Mussar vol. 2. chapter 8.]

The following day - Reb Avrohom [Rabbi Avrohom Grodzhenski zt"l hy"d, Menahel Ruchani in Slabodka]. came to me and began to "check my pulse." I saw in him all the characteristics of an expert physician. He did not want to surprise the patient under examination, so he came "from the side of the left ear," and began by discussing simple things. He succeeded. Only a few minutes later, I already stood before him like a priest before the altar, and I was sacrificing my heart upon it...

... Several bochurim stood around us. They did not understand the process that was appearing within their daled amos, that Avrohom Elya was standing and revealing his heart before Reb Avrohom... because we were talking in "the third person," i.e., [I would say:] "Some say thus," and he would respond: "And some say thus, and the second opinion is correct - the first one, meaning: yours, is distorted..." ...

The next day (Wednesday in the week of Ki Savo), I harvested the fruit of my heart's revelation. Several times the Rav alluded to the themes I had expressed before Reb Avrohom. The mail had already achieved its purpose. My heart's meditations had already reached the proper address, following the simple route: From my mouth to Reb Avrohom, from his mouth to the Rav, and from him back to me.

"You complain," the Rav remarked to me, "about our abstract words, about the disputes that float in the air, [you say] that they barely touch upon practice, that they lead to inactivity and quibbling, and that they cast a fog over the eyes so we can no longer see anything simply and satisfactorily," thus the Rav reported my criticisms to me. He did not deny them, but rather battled me on my own terms: "Nu, on the contrary," he stood and asserted, "turn as you say to matters of substance, check and analyze your deeds and your self. Don't become involved in abstraction, for why, indeed, do you need it?"

I stand and hear the simple, yet profound, words: "The primary part [ikkar] of Torah is the Torah of Middos. At the core of middos [that we must fight] are delusion [dimayon] and falsehood [shav], no more. Jealousy, lust and pride - these are fancy terms for concepts that seem to possess substance, but in reality do not. The only reality worth pursuing is the intellect [seichel]. The intellect alone can recognize the true essence of every entity. Only intellect, therefore, can accurately judge how man should conduct himself vis a vis any entity [for more on the Alter's perspective on intellect, see Reb Yaakov p. 48]. A drive born of the middos, however, will only lead to mistakes. A drive is constantly and always mistaken. There is no hope to be saved from a drive's mistake. One who but opens his eyes widely will realize the degradation of that mistake. Then his heart will no longer pursue it..."

[This Slabodker perspective, is developed in one of the Alter's shmuessen that Reb Avrohom Elya transcribed (ibid., p. 233). In that shmuess, the Alter said: "All of creation, except for the intellectual reality that man attains within himself, is insignificant! Concede the truth: All of creation is but the knock that a person in a foyer [prozdor] knocks upon the door of a banquet hall [traklin] so that the door may be opened for him to enter. Does that knock possess any independent value? Does the person who has already entered the hall even recall that he once knocked on the door?!... The essence of reality is, therefore, only the goodness a person toils to pursue and then finds. Everything else is but a fleeting shadow..." The rest of the shmuess resembles the one Reb Avrohom Elya recorded here. After negating the ambitions and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of mankind, that are but pale shadows of the purpose the Torah has set forth for humanity, the Alter concludes: "If so much light may be found in the shadow of a reflection of a reflection, how great is the light concealed [or haganuz] in the concealed light itself!"]

"If anyone wants to disagree, let him come and do so, let him come and prove otherwise!" the Rav calls out to us. He lifts his head, and he looks into our eyes with a gaze that caresses with love and pinches with the strength of perception. You feel him drawing out the complaints and criticisms that you have against his words. His gazes draw all that you think about him. The mail will soon bring these matters to the right address, via the simple route: From your heart to his heart, from his heart to his mouth, from his mouth to your ear, and from your ear once more to your heart, to uproot and to plant, to destroy and to build... Another moment of silence quickly passes. Again he speaks, with strength and hidden love:

"I understand your difficulty... I know what you must be thinking right now. You are amazed that all those matters that stand at the heights of the world, all those ambitions, aspirations and desires for which endless rivers of blood have been spilled for generation upon generation in countless countries, all those middos that prevail among the living... You are amazed: How can we regard these matters, in our four amos, as irreparable broken potsherds, as shadows of no substance? I understand you. I am as amazed as you are, but amazement does not lead to blindness! Truth is truth, even if others disagree! And I, in my understanding (if not in my actions), do not see in any of these desires anything more than fruitless delusion!!" This last statement was expressed with such wonderful strength that it seemed to cut the air to shreds...

Erev Shabbos - immediately after I finished breakfast, I rushed to the Rav's house. After a whole day of unhappy desolation I was hungry for a thoughtful word. I yearned to hear. I cannot explain, even to myself, the meaning of these longings, what they are and from whence they come - but I feel that they emanate from my heart, and are often intense...

The Rav's words that I heard that day were boldly expressed and clearly spoken. It seemed as if they were primarily intended to lift my dark mood. The Rav based his talk upon these words of Chazal: " Blessed is He from whose food we have eaten, and in [u'be'tuvo] whose goodness we live.' Anyone who says from his goodness' [u'me'tuvo] and not in his goodness' - is a boor" (Berachos 50a). Hashem's entire bounty of goodness is compressed into a small loaf of bread. Anyone who sees in the loaf just a part of His goodness is an ignorant, uneducated boor. Just as we know that there is none like our G-d, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth and all the Olamos, so we must also know that there is none like our G-d the Creator of a small loaf of bread; both are acts of G-d. Were it not for the Creator, no creature could make such a thing. We must therefore recognize Hashem's entire bounty of goodness in this loaf...

"The Gemara then asks: "Does it not say, and from Your blessing may the house of your servant be blessed' etc.?" The Gemara answers: "A request is different." Rashi explains: When a person makes a request, he asks like a poor beggar standing in the doorway that dares not lift his head to make a large request. If so, how much should he request? If all Hashem's goodness is compressed into one kezayis - what then should a person request for his sustenance? Should he ask for less than a kezayis? Of course not! Rather, man is indeed forced to request for himself all of the Creator of the world's goodness, yet at the same time he makes his request he must feel the great weight of his prayer. [He must be aware of] what he is asking for himself..."
[This Slabodker perspective, mentioned briefly here, is perhaps best expressed in another one of the Alter's shmuessen that Reb Avrohom Elya transcribed (ibid., p. 221). In that shmuess, the Alter discusses Chazal's statement (Bereishis Rabba 10:6-7) that every blade of grass is controlled by a malach that causes it to grow. Man casually walks upon thousands of blades of grass, not considering the great wisdom and transcendent purpose of the thousands of malachim upon which he treads. How uplifted a person should become when he realizes how many malachim were created to serve him! His heart should fill with both the glory of this kedusha and emotions of gratitude for this gift. How can one not be ashamed to enter the sanctuary of kedusha that is this world with soiled shoes and dirty clothes? How is he not embarrassed to be engrossed in frivolities while at the same time making use of the malachim created to facilitate man's destiny? The entire world - from its most general principles to its finest details - serves as a reminder at each step we take to be cognizant of G-d, and, bechol derachecha da'eihu, "In all your paths you shall know Him."

All these many great malachim were created to enable man to develop his spirituality. Man is the "Rebbe", and all the spiritual forces are "talmidim" created to serve him. How terrible it is, when a Rebbe sins in front of his students! Yet at the very moment that the malach of the blade of grass serves the man who treads upon him, the man who is supposed to make use of all the vast spiritual potential underfoot, that great Rebbe involves himself in frivolities and corrupt behavior. This Rebbe suddenly becomes an animal in the eyes of his student, the malach.]

A loaf of bread also contains the great wisdom and transcendent purpose of the thousands of malachim that comprise it. The goodness of Hashem manifest in the bread is another aspect of the great weight involved even in a mundane loaf of bread. The entire creation demands serious consideration, and demands of man that he use its great potential for the right purposes and lishem Shomayim.

The Rav continued on. He began to worry: "What shall we do in our tefillos this coming Rosh haShana?! How can we open our mouths?..." As I stood and listened, my heart felt how authentic his outlooks were. My thoughts followed in the footsteps of his ideas. At that moment, I imagined that I was already belonged entirely to him, that I was completely directed toward all those great and lofty ideals of the Rav's Torah, and that soon I would become... a true Ba'al Mussar...

That Shabbos (Parashas Ki Savo) passed over me quickly, without the emotions I had expected would flow from my longing for the Rav's table, at which I sat for Shalosh Se'udos... I passed Sunday of this week (Nitzavim) in a similar fashion, until evening. That evening another mighty wave came, and again shook my soul...

I came into the yeshiva at the beginning of mussar-seder. In order not to distinguish myself from the tzibbur, I took a sefer from the shelf, and I sat at my place to look into it. As I glanced at it, I immediately saw that it was the sefer "Reishis Chochma". A desire to learn it and immerse myself in one of its sections suddenly filled my heart. All my life I have so intensely loved this holy sefer, this boundless encyclopedia of all the depths of kedusha in the heart; of all the inner heights of tahara; of the thousands upon thousands of Chazals that sparkle in the light of their Torah that penetrates the heart [the next phrase here: "u'bochen kelayos" cannot be translated!]; and of thousands of the Rishonim z"l's comments, each of whose words casts a new light on Torah horizons broader than the ocean... There came to my hand a page from the Sha'ar haKedusha, where he discusses the truth in the heart. "The essence of the matter - is the intent of the heart. Hashem is close to all who call unto Him, to all that call unto Him in truth. The call to us is that our hearts not focus on matters of falsehood. One should worship neither man, nor glory, nor anything else that is in reality just sputtering wind." The pure sefer with its small letters spoke more of this to me. My heart pursued its words. My soul was aroused by the sound of the statements aflame with fervor [eish dos] that my lips pronounced. My spirit blissfully concluded: I shall indeed return from now on. I shall improve my pathways in the future. From this moment I will redirect my thoughts, and purify them for the sake of truth. All of my conduct will be kissed by the directives of the Torah in Hilchos Dei'os and Ma'asim... I thought a great deal along those lines at that hour, and I consoled myself that I would yet do complete teshuva. I forgot all else and remembered only teshuva! ... And I hid my face in the pages of that beloved sefer, like a child in the embrace of his beloved mother, like a child whose cries spilled forth on all that was, and all that chas veshalom was yet to be... In short: Why should I reflect at length on that hour? I can succinctly describe it to myself in two short words: "[I] learnt mussar!..." I then davened Ma'ariv with the tzibbur! With that great and impassioned tzibbur, whose constituents' heads shook as if in a storm, and whose whispered voices cascaded like waters gushing down a waterfall...

(B'Ikvos HaYirah, pp. 157-162)

Seuda Shlishis - third meal on Shabbos
Gedolei HaDor shlita - greatest sages of the generation
Avoda - lit. work; here, more like work on oneself
derech halimud - method of learning
Machashava - thought
Mussar - oh, help, how does one translate this concept, let alone this word? Read the last paragraph; that will explain it.
Lomdus - learning, as in intellectual study
talmid chochom - excellent Torah scholar
Yomim Nora'im - Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the days in between
Ba'alei Mussar - masters of mussar study
This Rabbi N. T. Finkel is not the same as his descendant of the same name, who was the subject of the previous post.
Ben Torah - "son of Torah"
yarei Shomayim, yiras Shomayim - one who is consistently aware of Heaven; awe of Heaven
shmuess - Mussar lecture
Chazal and the Rishonim - Sages of the Talmud and of the medieval era
middos - character traits
kezayis - a unit of measure (lit. "like an olive")
malach - lit. messenger, usu. translated angel - but if you are picturing frescoes of cherubs, you have the wrong idea
kedusha - sanctity
talmidim - students
lishem Shomayim - with proper intentions, lit. "for the sake of Heaven"
tefillos - meditations/prayers
Shalosh Se'udos - another name for the third meal of Shabbos (as the Swedes say, "A dear child has many names")
tzibbur - assembled congregation
tahara - purity
davened Ma'ariv - prayed the evening meditation/prayer

"... You already know well the great benefit to be acquired for one's entire life in one Elul day in Slabodka." (A letter from 5670 [1910], B'Ikvos HaYirah p. 195)

    I {Rabbi Bechhofer} was once privileged to spend Seuda Shlishis with one of the Gedolei HaDor shlita in Yerushalayim. In the course of our conversation the gadol remarked: "In this generation, everyone honors Rabbi X and Rabbi Y, because they can relate wonders that these rabbis are supposed to have performed. In my youth, the person we respected most was the Alter from Slabodka. You could not relate a single wonder that the Alter had performed. We respected him because he was the wisest individual we had ever met, and he had a deep understanding of our personalities, and how to help us develop our unique potentials."

    Rabbi Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan was the Alter's most beloved student. There was a close personal relationship between the two. Reb Avrohom Elya often contemplated leaving Slabodka - and did leave from time to time, feeling the intensity of the Avoda there was sometimes overwhelming. In the final analysis, however, he writes (ibid., p. 194): "One Sinai have we in our generation - Slabodka is its name! Anyone who leaves Sinai cannot hope to find another. More correctly, anyone who leaves the mountain falls into the valley..." Even when he was away from Slabodka, his heart and soul remained there.

    Although this is not the place to dwell on Reb Avrohom Elya's greatness, a few words of introduction are necessary. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky zt"l once remarked that Reb Avrohom Elya possessed such remarkable powers that had he lived longer (he died at the age of 34), he would have restructured the entire derech halimud in the yeshivos with his proposed new commentary on Shas (Reb Yaakov p. 85). He was a wonderful synthesis of Telzer Machashava, Slabodker Mussar, Lithuanian Lomdus and German meticulousness. He was a gifted writer, poet and songwriter, and at the same time a talmid chochom and posek of the highest caliber.

    When Reb Avrohom Elya became a Rosh Yeshiva in Berlin, he brought Mussar to Western Europe. His pleasant demeanor and refined personality were the foundations, and his discourses the framework that enabled his German students to develop and perfect their spiritual selves. His personal Avoda was exemplary: "One who has not heard him read the Pesach night Hallel in lofty ecstasy in the unique melody that he wrote yet in his youth - has not seen true Jewish life in our generation. One who has not seen him dance the Kotzker Rebbe's dance in the joy of Sukkos - has not seen true Jewish joy in our generation. He was alive and gave life." His talks: "ignited hearts with the lightning flashes of his ideas, heads were enwrapped in illumination, a purifying tremor enveloped all existence..." (ibid., p. 294).

    It seems that talmidim in Slabodka were wont to keep diaries. The Alter himself kept a diary. The Alter kept the diary hidden. Clearly unbeknownst to the Alter, Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna zt"l discovered the diary in an attic. Interestingly, none other than Reb Avrohom Elya himself copied the diary word for word the day after Yom Kippur in 1914! It can be found in Rabbi Dov Katz's Tenu'as HaMussar (vol. 3, p. 220). Another Slabodker, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner zt"l (whom the Alter had room with Reb Avrohom Elya when the latter, after he had already moved to Berlin, would return to Slabodka for Yomim Nora'im) kept a diary as well. That diary served as the basis for Rebbitizin Beruria David shetichye's inspiring biography of her father in the Sefer Zikaron l'Maran Ba'al HaPachad Yitzchok. Diaries and private notes were tools often employed by the Ba'alei Mussar. These soul searching, intense chronicles wrestle both with personal avoda and with great issues. They offer rich inspiration and profound insight.

    The passage we will pursue here captures the essence of such journals. Like many Slabodker students, Reb Avrohom Elya saw noble qualities in the great European movements and zeitgeists of the day. In the post-Holocaust era it is difficult for us to see significant value in cultures and ideas that did nothing to impede the worst atrocities imaginable. In those yet innocent days, however, many prevalent "isms" still possessed a romantic, even transcendent appeal, that generated contemplation. Thus, for eample, Reb Avrohom Elya has a diary entry from 5671 (1911) in which he analyzes and rejects the great Russian writer Tolstoy's perspectives (p. 250). It is hard to imagine any contemporary yeshiva bochur feeling it necessary to address the views of a secular thinker. At the time, however, such ideologies roused fervor and passion. Slabodka's young idealists found their emotions stirred. They would ponder an ideology: "How should we respond to it? What claim does it make upon us? And should we concede somewhat to it, or deny it altogether?..." (p. 154). This passage affords us a glimpse of how the Alter - who encouraged his students to grapple with great issues in their quest of growth - dealt with his students' internal struggles.

    The primary purpose of this free translation is to inspire and motivate. The secondary purpose is to whet the reader's appetite to pursue Reb Avrohom Elya's writings. These writings so eloquently express his Master's spirit and derech, that they will inevitably lead the reader to aspire to greater attainments in Avodas Hashem.

    I should add that while this is not the place to dwell on the topic at length, it is high time that we attempted to revive the Mussar Movement. May Hashem grant that such essays serve as an impetus for us all to proceed in that direction!

    Note: I am indebted to Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan for correcting several errors and to Rabbi Yisroel Leichtman for critiquing and editing my translation.

On the rosh yeshiva of Mir

The head of the Mir yeshiva passed away two weeks ago.
This is going around, but here it is for those who haven't seen it yet - and if you've seen it before, it can't hurt to think about it again:

"Mishpachat Ritholtz" added this comment:

This is what I mean by inspirational. Rav Nosson Tzvi was a regular American boy... who came to learn at the Mir after spending his childhood in Chicago. He became the Rosh Yeshiva of the largest Yeshiva in the WORLD, with over 6000 students. The Rosh Yeshiva is the epitome of a role model for everyone on how to aspire to greatness, even with the most distressing physical limitations. He NEVER missed a Shachris at the Yeshiva! His 68 short years on Earth impacted hundreds of thousands of people. And he wasn't a Gaon at age 5. He was an "ordinary" bochur who became an extraordinary Rosh Yeshiva. Believe in yourself! Gedolim are made, not born.
[Gaon = genius.
bochur = boy
Gedolim = great people.]

23 November 2011


Occupy, By Mendel Hirsch
To occupy is more than to consume space; more than inhabiting.  To occupy is to influence an environment.  When being influenced, you are being occupied.
I occupy.
At home, I occupy.  Whether I’m aware or not, I occupy.   I’m a husband and a dad. 
In the community, we occupy.  Whether we’re aware or not, we occupy.  We are a Jewish community.
When unaware, we may be influencing negatively.  We occupy and we may be destructive.  When aware, we can focus on being constructive. 
Occupy; be present.

22 November 2011

35 by 35 sewing challenge, and a teddy bear

I asked a dressmaker whether I should take a course in pattern drafting. "No," she said, "just sew 35 garments from patterns, and then you'll know how patterns work."
My goal is [to save the world! and in my spare time] to sew 35 garments by the time I turn 35 - at which point the Babyloops will be old enough to care about how she looks, and it will be a real advantage not to be dependent on the fashion industry, with its "one-yard wonders": we are a yardage-loving people.
Personally, I am one of those anachronistic wish-I-could-wear-hoopskirts-to-work people. (No, no, that's not an orthodox thing...!)

I'm defining "garment" loosely. Here is project No. 3 out of 35:

He is a wedding present for the new wife of our neighborhood greengrocer - hence the garlic print.
I used Simplicity pattern 5461, and hand-stitched most of him on buses and in waiting rooms. (Somehow I'm convinced it's a him.)
This pattern results in a fairly intelligent- and friendly-looking bear.

20 November 2011

Entish for humans

If you don't know what Entish is, you obviously haven't read enough of Tolkien's fiction. The intrepid may venture here: http://folk.uib.no/hnohf/entish.htm
Entish words run extremely long, because each contains a detailed description: "Forestmanyshadowed-deepvalleyblack Deepvalleyforested Gloomyland". Trees, and their Entish shepherds, have time to talk like that. If you love poetic language, it's enough to make you want to be an Ent.

Is there a language with the integrity and evocative description of Entish that can be spoken at a pace suitable for humans?
There is. It's called Hebrew.

In Hebrew (Biblical Hebrew), every word - every word - has a three-letter "root". That root has a meaning.
This system exists, to some degree, in English: spoke, speak, and speaking are clearly related - enough that if you come across spake in an old text, you know what it means.
English is like Silly Putty - every language that ever got thrown at it stuck. By now English contains also spokes of a wheel, and specks, and spic and span, so that knowing speak  does not help you figure out what these other words mean. Speak and a dime will get you a ride on the subway.
In Hebrew the subway is free. All words with the same root are related.

More: all roots that sound alike are related.
More: each letter has a meaning (e.g. a ch will take the place of an h in a root to convey a harsher meaning), and all letters that sound alike are related. Entish is the language of Tolkien's trees, but Hebrew is shaped like one.
There are families of roots. There are families of letters. If you know one word in Hebrew, it isn't hard to learn a second. The Hebrew alphabet functions like the Periodic Table of the Elements.

This is seldom taught in Hebrew courses, which is a pity. People come out of Hebrew classes grousing that the language has two genders to keep track of, like French, and thinking that Hebrew is a difficult and sprawling language. Non, non, non. I used to teach Hebrew, and the shortcuts are real, and even before we get into its being a Divine language, it is an insanely gorgeous one, because if one letter has a meaning,
and you add to that another letter with another meaning,
and make of this a word with a root with a deeper meaning,
and this root calls to mind all the other words that grow from it, as well as the other related roots - by a power of association which does not exist in English- why, here we are with as complex a word as Entish, a word that expresses the essence of the thing, with perfect integrity, to say nothing of a great deal of poetry or of the joy of all those words being related to each other. And it took only three letters to get here.

(Why two genders? Having male and female words allows for subtle shades of meaning: e.g., using a female adjective for a male noun indicates something feminine about it.)

The Voice of the Kotel

I asked my friends to post here. Instead, they all sent their compositions to me.
Here's one by a friend in high school. Don't skip it just because it rhymes - I suspect it's better than you expect, especially if you've been to the place it's about.
The Kotel is the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans c. 70 ce.
It isn't like a colosseum - it is a living place.

The Voice of the Kotel

I am a watcher, standing by
As thousands come to me to mourn.
They cry for what was lost to them,
And hope for it to be reborn.

Some never had the chance to come,
Though they've waited all their years,
Yet children can come touch my face,
Who have forgotten all those tears.

I cry out to my master's ear:
You've left your nation all alone.
How much longer must they weep,
Until you finally come home?

Sometimes I try to speak out-loud,
To some of  those who come to me,
To show them answers to their prayers,
As they stand begging at my feet.

When my master told them how to act,
When my master told them what to do,
He said what's missing from their lives,
To make these dreams they have come true.

Until they listen, here I stay,
Observing, still, always the same.
Silently waiting, hoping, sure,
But always crying for their pain.

17 November 2011

Delicious Links

The English language needs new words for "friend".

There are the friends who can read you like a book, the girls in the next apartment whom you don't know as well as you should like, your former elementary school teacher with whom you now go out for coffee, and the people who so awe you that you can't bring yourself to address them in anything but the third person, even when speaking to them directly.

The Spilmans are what would be called "friends" of mine if it did not feel presumptuous to say that about people old and wise enough to be my parents.
http://jacobspilman.wordpress.com/ is Mr. Spilman's notes from learning Talmud with one of my favorite rabbis on the planet. It is delicious. It is my favorite website. Check it out.

http://devorahspilman.wordpress.com/ is films of Mrs. Spilman's storytelling, and something she calls "guided imagery", which I like when she is the one leading it.
She has always seemed to me like one of the characters in her stories: the holy Jew in the woods.

Frogs and Spoons and Orthodox Jews

I do not want to write a blog. I think it is demeaning for an adult to spout the details of her everyday life to an invisible audience of millions of strangers.
But, I sometimes suspect that there is no one addressing the general public to make the point that "Orthodox" Judaism is
1. not necessarily urban, but organic, green, skookum, alive, warm, familial, and comfy
2. not small-minded, but deep and profound
3. not Establishment, but personal
...in sum, poetic.
4. unlike any other "organized religion" you've ever heard of.

It is a bit contradictory to create a blog to make this point, because the medium itself is inherently impersonal - I do not believe that blogs have the power to change their readers in the same way as books, let alone conversation with real people. If you have a choice, and if you do not find it too daunting, stop reading here and go to http://www.shabbat.com/ and sign up to meet real people.
Otherwise, keep reading, because you probably will not find any other Orthodox women spouting the details of their everyday lives to millions of strangers.
I have asked several people to contribute to the blog - so there will be many different voices behind the word "I".

The decision to try writing a blog came when I read a newspaper article interviewing an Orthodox rav. He said something about how we should all do what G-d wants us to.
An observant Jew reading this paper will see what the rav said, and understand that although the thought was not expressed poetically, there are mountains and rivers under that idea, and births and deaths, and frogs and spoons, and nostalgia and parties, and if you just add water to those words and stir, they will burst into flame like potassium.
The average person reading this particular paper sees sees the word "G-d" and turns the page. Next.

Too bad. Someone has to demonstrate that Torah is poetic.
Stay tuned.