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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Latest Book on the Holocaust

The Latest Book on the Holocaust
April 24, 2014

A while ago, I learned about a new book that Gefen Publishing has produced.  It is a simple book – but one that raises complex questions.  There is only one word in it, but it is repeated many, many times. The word is “Jew,” and it appears in this newly published book six million times.  (See a recent New York Times article describing the book here.)  

The book is entitled, “And Every Single One Was Someone,” and its point is clear.  The book seeks to capture within its covers the immensity of the Jewish people’s losses during the Holocaust.  As you turn page after page after page you see what an incredibly large number six million is.  You realize the magnitude of the loss. 

To the extent that this book sensitizes people (both Jews and non-Jews) to the scale of the catastrophe that we call the Shoah, I think that it is accomplishing something important.  We should never overestimate the knowledge or understanding of the Holocaust of even the most well-meaning gentiles or Jews.  A book like this can make a point.  It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, but perhaps six million words may be worth many, many pictures of the degradation, abuse, and murder our people endured.

However, there is something about this work that I find disappointing--and even disturbing.  First, notwithstanding its title, it reduces the victims to one and only one description:  Jew.  The victims of the Holocaust whom we mourn – whom we may remember as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts or uncles -- were, of course, murdered because they were Jews.  This we know.  But they were more than just nameless, faceless, fungible Jews.  They were real-live human beings with names and occupations and interests and loves.  The famous poem by Zelda, “L’chol ish yesh shem,” or “Each Of Us Has A Name,” comes to mind:

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents;
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear;
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls;
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors;
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing;
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love;
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work;
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness;
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

Yad Vashem (Israel's national center for holocaust research, documentation, education and commemoration) has been painstakingly seeking to identify the names of each and every victim of the Holocaust.  According to the New York Times, so far, 4.3 million victims have been identified.  It isn’t clear whether the researchers at Yad Vashem will succeed in identifying precisely six million victims.  What if they come up with only five and a half million?  What if they come up with six and a half million?  Will it be necessary to print a second edition of the book?  Certainly not, for the number “Six Million” was never intended to be an exact figure.  (See this article from the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz.)  

But if "Six Million" is not an exact figure, then this book is more an impressionistic work of art than a historically accurate representation.  There’s nothing offensive about that, of course -- and on that basis the work deserves appreciation.   But I doubt that its producers or purchasers understand it that way. 

There's another reason I recoil from a book like this.  According to The Times, Abe Foxman, the executive director of the ADL, is giving away three thousand copies of the book, and he has said that he'd like to see one of them in the Oval Office.  I'm going to assume that there isn't room in the Oval Office for more than one book about the Jews.  Should this be the one?

We Jews aren't simply victims, and we shouldn’t think of ourselves simply as victims.  Yes, we have been victimized, but we should also think of ourselves as independent actors in the world, with worthwhile values and a rich culture; as heirs to a profound religious civilization; as a people with a zest for life and an inspiring mission.  

About twenty years ago, I visited a mega-church in the South.  It was a holiday weekend, so there were only a few thousand (!) parishioners in attendance.  The ushers couldn’t have been warmer or more friendly.  The music was lively and exuberant and I felt right at home.  The music died down, and then the pastor rose and said, “The subject I would like to speak to you about today is, “What We Can Learn From The Jews.  

All eyes were on the pastor and all ears were tuned to his message, which was simple:  “The Jews are united—and we should be, too.  The Jews live by one message:  ‘Never Again.’  That should be our message, too!  That message tells the world that the Jews aren’t going to take it anymore. And neither should we.”

On the one hand, I felt slightly proud that this pastor felt that his flock should learn something from the way in which we Jews have responded, with resilience and determination, to the terrible calamities that have befallen us. 

But I felt that something—something very important—was missing.  I would have wanted to hear about—I would have wanted that congregation to hear about—a few Jewish values other than, “Never Again.”  I would have wanted to hear about our devotion to study and lovingkindess, our commitment to truth and to justice. 

“Never Again” may have been the Jewish message that that pastor wanted to share with his flock, and it may be the message conveyed by the publication and distribution of "And Every Single One Was Someone," but that just isn’t enough of a message for me.  And if I had the opportunity to put one and only one book about Jews on a coffee table, it wouldn’t be a book with the word “Jew” written in it six million times.  I’d put the Bible there, or the Mishnah, or an anthology of texts from the Talmud, or a one-volume Jewish encyclopedia, or some other book that seeks to speak not merely about what once happened to us—as horrid as it was—but about the wisdom, truth, compassion and grace that we have brought—and hopefully will continue to bring—to the world. 

As we prepare to commemorate Yom HaShoa this weekend, may the memories of all of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust serve as a blessing for us and for all humanity.  May those memories lead us to renew our commitment to living lives devoted to the study of Torah and the observance of many, many good deeds.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Four More Questions

Four More Questions 
to Ask This Passover

It sounds trite, but it’s true:  we are living in historic times.  A few weeks ago, Crimea was ruled by Ukraine.  Now, it is part of Russia.  Troops are massing on the Russian-Ukrainian border.  Will they invade?  This uncertainty about the future in the wake of rapid, unanticipated political change reminds us of what we have been witnessing in the Middle East during the past few years, as several regimes suddenly toppled with ease, while others stubbornly and successfully resisted. 

It’s hard to imagine celebrating our great Festival of Freedom this year without reflecting on the many serious conflicts going on in the world right now. How can we not think about what just happened in the Crimea? And what about the on-going slaughter in Syria?  Or the increasingly repressive regime in Egypt? 

When we sit down at the seder, we should, of course, focus on the Jewish struggle for freedom.  The Exodus is the story of our liberation.  And yet the Exodus is not only a Jewish story. As the prophet Amos reminds us, God is as concerned about the Philistines and the Arameans—indeed, any oppressed people—as God is about the Israelites (Amos 9:7).  

The Exodus isn’t only about what happened once upon a time in one particular place to one particular people.  (In fact, we know very little about the historicity of the Exodus story.) Rather, the Exodus is the story of a struggle that, our tradition teaches us, must happen again and again throughout the world, until freedom is enjoyed by all.

This year, it seems to me that in addition to asking the traditional four questions at the seder, we should ask four additional ones to help us focus our attention on the struggles for freedom going on throughout the world.  Consider the following:

  1. In the book of Exodus, the Torah preserves a great saga of the struggle for freedom:  the Israelites, who were enslaved in Egypt, rebelled against their Egyptian taskmasters and fled to safety.  In what ways do the ongoing Middle Eastern uprisings, such as the one in Egypt, remind us of the Exodus story, and in what ways are they different from it?  What about the annexation of Crimea?  Is that the expression of a yearning for freedom by ethnic Russians, or is it a bald land grab by a modern day Pharoah?

  1. Our tradition teaches us that government is vital to the safety and security of all persons.  A revolution—even a peaceful one that overthrows an oppressive regime—can be devastating.  Consider the following teaching from Pirke Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers):  Rabbi Hanina said:  "Pray for the welfare of the government.  Were it not for the fear of it, human beings would swallow each other alive."  Does this teaching apply to the current situation in Syria?  If so, how? Does it apply to what has happened in Crimea?  To what may yet happen in Ukraine?

  1. There’s an old slogan, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Is this true?  Many Israelis supported the thirst for freedom demonstrated by anti-Mubarak Egyptian protesters in 2011, even though they were wary of an Islamist government arising in his stead.  Such a government did arise and was then overthrown by the military, and now Mohammed Morsi and many of his followers are in custody.  (529 Morsi supporters were just sentenced to death. See:  To the north of Israel, over two million Syrians have fled the country, and a total of seven to nine million may have been displaced by the carnage.  Militant Jihadist fighters are among the rebels fighting against the brutal Syrian regime whereas Hezbollah, which supports the regime, has begun attacking Israel from the Syrian side of the border. What role should Israel play in these internal struggles playing out along her borders?  What role should Jews outside of Israel play? 

  1. In the Torah, not long after the Israelites fled Egyptian oppression, they begged Moses to let them return.  They began to idolize the conditions under which they had once lived, forgetting (or minimizing) their suffering and wistfully remembering only the good things.  Do you think that the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Middle East will continue to yearn for authoritarian leaders, like those who for so long ruled the Soviet Union or Egypt and Libya and Yemen and Bahrain—or do you think that they will persist in seeking to establish and maintain democracies, and remain committed to them? 

I hope that these questions will spark thoughtful inquiry and reflection at our seders.  And I hope that we will realize just how lucky we are as Jews to be heirs to a religious tradition that values freedom so strongly—not only for us, but for the rest of the world as well. 

Happy Pesach!

Monday, December 30, 2013

A post-script to an earlier blogpost

This past August 6th, I wrote about Dr. Menachem Stern, the highly regarded scholar of ancient Judaism and winner of the Israel Prize, who was murdered in Sacher Park in Jerusalem in 1989.  The occasion for my writing about him was the news that Israel had agreed to release his assailants (who had been apprehended, tried and convicted about twenty years ago) as part of a "confidence-building gesture" in conjunction with negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.  (Click here to read the blogpost.)

Now, almost five months later, as 2013 is drawing to a close, the newspapers have just reported that the perpetrators of the murder of Dr. Menachem Stern are indeed due to be released with twenty-four hours.  (Click here to read The Times of Israel report.)   

I will simply repeat what I wrote several months ago: this is a very, very difficult time for Israel.  Whether this gesture will bring peace between Palestinians and Israelis remains to be seen.  In the meantime, there will be rejoicing in the Palestinian territories and quiet grieving in Israel.

Monday, December 23, 2013

What’s a Jew to do on Christmas Eve?

What’s a Jew to do on Christmas Eve?

Three years ago, at the confirmation hearings examining her fitness to serve as a Supreme Court Justice, Elena Kagan was asked some tough questions.  One that initially flustered her was, “Where were you at on Christmas?”  She finally responded, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably in a Chinese restaurant.”

For the benefit of those who had no idea what Ms. Kagan was talking about, her sponsor, Senator Schumer explained, “No other restaurants are open.” (The answer apparently satisfied her interlocutor, Senator Lindsey Graham, who responded, “Great answer.”)

You can check out the Youtube video of the exchange right here:  

Many Jews have long wondered where they should go and what they should do on Christmas.

Long before Jews began going to Chinese restaurants—indeed, long before Jews came to this country, Jews would stay home on Christmas Eve.  It was considered dangerous to be up and about.  The reason is simple:  as on other Christian holidays such as Good Friday, Christmas Eve was a time for pogroms. 

By the way, Jews didn’t call it “Christmas Eve,” they called it “Nitl Nacht.”  (“Nitl” is a Yiddish word meaning, “natal” or “nativity,” and “nacht” means “night” or “evening.”)

Jews began to adopt practices on Nitl Nacht that allowed them to express their resentment of their subjugated state, such as reading from a less-than-flattering account of the birth of Jesus, called, Tol’dot Yeshu.  They would refrain from studying Torah, lest they lend an air of holiness to the evening.  Instead, they would engage in less serious pursuits, such as card playing. 

Today, we no longer live in a subjugated state. We live in a free country.  Our Christian neighbors and friends don’t share the same hostility toward us as those among whom we lived during the Middle Ages.  In pluralistic America, religious affiliation tends to bring us together, rather than tearing us apart; it tends to support understanding, tolerance and ecumenicism.  Hence, pursuits that cast aspersions upon Christianity are entirely without warrant. 

What then are we to do on a national holiday on which just about everything is closed?  

One response is to relax and enjoy ourselves—which is why I’m so grateful to our Men's Club for sponsoring an evening of fun at the synagogue on December 24th.  (Please contact Rick Kramer at for further details.)

Another fine response is to volunteer to help our non-Jewish friends and neighbors on this day. I'll never forget one particularly memorable Christmas Day I spent with my father many years ago.  He had volunteered to help out in the kitchen of a local hospital and, at the last minute, invited me to tag along with him.  I’m so glad he did.  It was very gratifying for both of us to volunteer time so that the regular food service workers in the hospital could be with their families on their holiday.  

Many of us to do this quietly on our own.  Collectively, we have Project Ezra, sponsored by the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, which places volunteers in various shelters in the metropolitan area on Christmas. I am grateful to our Social Action Committee for facilitating our participation in this worthy program.  Fifty-one (51!) of our members are due to participate this year! 

Some of us have non-Jewish relatives—perhaps spouses or parents.  What are we to do?  If we are Jewish, how can we celebrate Christmas? On the other hand, how can we not join our loved ones on this day?  

A number of years ago, Jewish educator Joel Grishaver came up with a useful distinction.  On the one hand, he said, Jews should not "celebrate" Christmas.  After all, it isn’t a Jewish holiday.  We shouldn't compromise our religious and cultural integrity.  On the other hand, if we have non-Jewish relatives, we shouldn’t hesitate to “visit” Christmas with them. We can and should respect our relatives’ holidays, and we can lovingly support our loved ones--without however celebrating those days ourselves.

Let me close on an amusing note. I’m sure that many of us are familiar with the famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” written by Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) in 1822.  I’m sure many of us remember those opening lines: 

            T’was the night before Christmas,
            and all through the house,
            not a creature was stirring,
            not even a mouse. 

But I am sure that most of us have never heard this poem recited in Yiddish!  Well, there’s always a first time:  click here to hear a recording of Dr. Sheldon Benjamin reciting Marie B. Jaffe's Yiddish translation, published in Gut Yuntiff, Gut Yohr, in 1965. 

And while you're at it, have yourself a merry Nitl Nacht!


Rabbi Carl M. Perkins

Monday, September 2, 2013

Two Very Different New Year Messages

26 Elul 5773
1 September 2013

Dear Friends, 
I tried, but I couldn't write just one Rosh Hashanah message this year.  So this comes to you in two parts:  Part I and Part II.
"Peace, peace, ... but there is no peace!" (Jeremiah 6:14)

As I write these words, our nation's leaders are contemplating whether, and if so how, to respond to the Syrian government's alleged use of poison gas against its own citizens. 

There appears to be a profound lack of unanimity within our nation concerning whether and how to respond -- and what the impact of our intervention might be.  

Peter Beinart of the Daily Beast raised the question: Why now? Why is poison gas the trigger?  After all, 100,000 civilians had already been killed prior to this most recent attack.  Already, 1.6 million Syrian refugees are registered with the United Nations.  (See here.)   It is estimated -- I'm still in shock thinking about this -- that there will be as many as 3.5 million refugees by the end of 2013.  Why, if the United States has not responded earlier, Beinart asks, is it responding now?  
I think I know the answer to that.  I know that for me, as a Jew, poison gas has a particularly despicable and horrifying resonance. (Coincidentally, today is the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.) I am sure that for many others as well, the sight of the innocent victims of the Syrian attack (including many children) was sickening and heartbreaking.  

Whatever our leaders decide to do,  I hope that they will energetically continue to elicit international support to condemn this attack and to try to prevent future ones.   I hope that they will use wisdom and care in determining how to respond.  Finally, I pray that their actions will not inadvertently lead to a dangerous escalation of the conflict, but will instead lead to a speedier resolution.  
May peace come soon to this very troubled country in this very troubled region.  May 5774 be more peaceful than 5773.

While our thoughts, prayers and concerns are focussed on the international crisis, it is nonetheless true that Rosh Hashanah is only a few days away.  Although the season is a time for self-reflection, it is not solemn.  It is a time to celebrate the coming of the new year which we hope will be a sweet one.   
One way we express this hope is by eating foods like apples and honey and desserts like honey cake. Additionally, our Yom Tov meals on Rosh Hashanah begin with two challah loaves, which we also dip in honey, and it is customary for these to be special round loaves in honor of the holiday.
Recently, I saw a short and sweet Youtube video featured in a Tablet magazine article that I couldn't resist sending on to you.  It features the well-known Jewish cook, Joan Nathan, demonstrating how to make and braid round challot for Rosh Hashanah.  Even if you won't be baking your own this year, this video is worth watching.  (Click here to read the article and watch the video.)
I hope that your Yom Tov (holiday) tables will feature sweet round challot--even if they are not as tasty as Joan Nathan's seem to be--and that they will usher in for you and your family a good and a sweet year.
Shanah Tovah u'mtukah!
Rabbi Carl M. Perkins