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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Do you have a handkerchief handy?

About a week after Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day), someone sent me a link to the video below.  I found it quite moving.  

Among other things, it teaches us about the role that the military plays in Israeli society.  In Israel, military service has long been the great equalizer.  Many kids grow up eager to serve, and they look forward to serving in particular units.  The video talks about young people with special needs, and efforts to expose them to the military as a way of integrating them into the broader society.   

The army's commitment to this program tells us a lot about Israel and its aspirations.  The video reminds us that, although Israel is a country, and although it has grown greatly during the past few decades, it can sometimes feel like a village.   

I hope you find the video as enlightening as I did.   

(If clicking on the picture does not activate the video, click here.)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Antisemitism in Ukraine?

As I'm sure we all know, the tension in Ukraine is growing.  Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to drop hints that Russia will invade portions of Ukraine (or "respond" to ethnic Russian Ukrainians who reach out for Russia's support).   Menacing militias, particularly in the eastern part of the country, continue to threaten national governmental control.  

The disturbing whiff of antisemitism has been added to this volatile mix.  Voices have been heard urging that Russia take over portions of Ukraine--among other reasons, in order to protect the Jews there.  Others are saying that the antisemitic incidents are "provocations," that is, pretexts to provide political cover for military intervention.  This has engendered much concern and even anxiety among Jews worldwide. 

The situation on the ground is complex.  In order to get one perspective on the situation, I'm reprinting below an email I recently received from a colleague, Cantor Vicky Glikin.  Cantor Glikin was born in Ukraine and visits the country frequently, most recently only a few weeks ago.  (The political views expressed in her email reflect her own perspective, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this blog.)

The “Jewish Question” in Ukraine
By Cantor Vicky Glikin

My family immigrated to the United States from Kiev, Ukraine when I was 13 years old.  While today I am far more American than Ukrainian, I have kept close ties to Kiev, visiting my friends and family, including my grandmother and father, every couple of years.  My most recent trip was just a couple of weeks ago, in early April to visit my 98-year old grandmother who lives within a mile of Maidan, Kiev’s central square and the heart of the civil unrest over the past six months.  As could have been expected, this trip turned out to be very different from all of my previous trips.  This was not only because I found the center of Kiev looking like a war zone with torn up cobblestone, blackened buildings, and barricades, but also because this trip was filled with unprecedented conversations.  I spoke much less and listened a lot more as the typical talk of our personal well-being was replaced by discussions of Ukrainian politics, stories of horrors and scares experienced over the past six months, and fears for what’s ahead.  And, there were also stories of people coming together, of admirable heroism, of new-found patriotism, and of hope.

My family members in Ukraine are Jewish, as are many of my friends.  Whenever I visit, I always inquire whether they are concerned about anti-Semitism.  The answer over the past two decades has been a persistent “no,” but this time around I asked the question with more caution since the current unrest has the potential to bring out the worst in people and since the media has been filled with fearful reports concerning anti-Semitism in Ukraine.  Nevertheless, as our conversations unfolded it became clear that the general view among Ukrainian Jews is that anti-Semitism is not a concern.  Further still, the legacy of historic anti-Semitism in Ukraine is simply not relevant at this juncture in the country’s development.  In as much as concentrating on issues of anti-Semitism takes attention away from the other issues associated with the crisis in Ukraine, bringing too much attention to the “Jewish Question” might actually be harmful to Ukrainian Jews. 

Having followed the events of the past six months very carefully and having just experienced first-hand the mood of the Ukrainians, it is clear that the majority of the Ukrainian population wants to maintain its independence as a sovereign country.  They want to have less corruption in their government.  They want closer ties to Europe and a chance at a better life.  As I was walking through Maidan, near the flowers and candles marking the places where people had been murdered, I saw a handwritten note that said: “Kind people, I thank you for the [brighter] future for my child!”

Since the fall of the corrupt Yanukovich government, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has time and again tried to mischaracterize the opposition movement and Ukraine’s current government as “fascist,” “intolerant of minorities,” and “anti-Semitic.”  In fact, the very pretext for Putin’s unlawful occupation and annexation of Crimea was to “protect the Russian citizens living in Crimea from the fascist Ukrainian regime.”  Putin’s claims are self-serving and could not be further from the truth.  The opposition is not composed of extremists.  Rather, the opposition is composed primarily of middle-class, well-educated citizens who stood up on Maidan and continue standing up for their human dignity.  Maidan is patriotic – its main aim is to maintain Ukraine’s right for self-determination as an independent country.  At the center of Maidan, I saw the following quote laid out on the ground with bricks, written in Russian and decorated with a heart and flowers: "Patriotism is the main idea of Maidan.  Stop the propaganda.  There's no fascism here."

The most hardcore of the opposition members are not leaving Maidan until after the elections, which are scheduled for May 25 and which most Ukrainians fear may be disrupted by Putin.  “We love Russians.  We despise Putin” stated one of the oversized fliers dominating the center of Maidan, where the opposition’s tents and barricades still remain assembled. Nearby is a flier of a Time Magazine cover featuring the face of Putin (or, as everyone in Ukraine is calling him these days – “Putler”), made to look as Hitler with the latter’s foreboding mustache and hairdo.

In response to the claims of rising anti-Semitism, the President of the all-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, Vadim Rabinovich, stated in mid-March that there have been no anti-Semitic acts on Ukrainian territory and that any reports of anti-Semitism are provocations.  Kiev’s Chief Rabbi Moshe-Reuven Asman noted that not only are the Jews not fleeing Ukraine, but they are volunteering to fight in the Ukrainian army.  “Ukraine is currently unified.  The threat to Ukraine has united the Ukrainians and the non-Ukrainians.”  In response to the anti-Semitic fliers that were passed out during Passover in Donetsk, a town in Eastern Ukraine, the Chief Rabbi of Donetsk Pinchas Vishedsky stated: “"the citizens of Donetsk are tolerant people; we live side-by-side with them, practically without conflict.  What happened certainly smells of a provocation.  It remains an open question as to who is behind this.  But, since this is only a provocation, it should garner a respective reaction: namely, to close this topic and to put a period at its end."    

The members of the Jewish community with whom I interacted while in Kiev have been and continue to be involved in the opposition efforts and support the current transitional Ukrainian government.  During the stand-off between the opposition and then-President Victor Yanukovich, all of the members of the opposition working on Maidan were divided into “One Hundreds.”  One of these was a “Jewish One Hundred,” comprised of Jews and non-Jews and led by the members of the Jewish community.  The Ukrainian Jewish community was also involved in the provision of supplies to Maidan, including food, medicine, and clothes, as well as the transfer of 10 heavily-wounded Ukrainians (only one of them Jewish) for treatment in Israel.   Jews are very well represented in the transitional government of Ukraine.  Rabbis and Jewish community leaders have addressed Maidan from the stage located in the square’s center.  They are also currently involved in the creation of policies meant to ensure that there will be no anti-Semitism in the new government and in modern independent Ukraine. 

Given the unpredictable nature of the current situation, the Jewish community is being very vigilant and a Jewish self-defense unit is currently in formation.  However, like their Ukrainian counterparts, the members of the Jewish community are not afraid of their countrymen.  In fact, the prevalent view among the Ukrainian Jewish community is that their wellbeing is directly aligned with that of the broader Ukrainian population.  Just like the rest of Ukrainian residents, the Jewish community is concerned about provocations staged or sponsored by the Putin government and its agents, which are methodically chipping away at Ukraine’s independence.  They are concerned about the empty treasury coffers, which have been plundered by years of corruption.  They are threatened by the amassing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s Eastern border, Putin’s incessant bullying, and the realization that they relinquished their nuclear weapons and ceased investing in the Ukrainian army in exchange for empty promises of security guarantees. 

The situation is very serious, indeed, not only for Ukraine and its Jews, but for the broader world as well.  Let us pray that the world community will be able to look back at this time in history with pride, knowing that it did everything in its power to protect democracy and to curtail ruthless attempts to attain power, influence, and domination at the cost of others’ self-determination.

Cantor Vicky Glikin serves Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL, suburb of Chicago.  She is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and was ordained in 2012 from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  She can be reached at

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.