The Sukkah Still Stands


There is simply no describing the plaintive, moving melody to which Yiddish writer Avraham Reisen’s poem was set.  As a song, it is familiar to many of us who know it thanks to immigrant parents or grandparents.  And, remarkably, the strains of “A Sukkeleh,” no matter how often we may have heard them, still tend to choke us up.

Based on Reisen’s “In Sukkeh,” the song, really concerns two sukkos, one literal, the other metaphorical, and the poem, though it was written at the beginning of the last century, is still tender, profound and timely.

Thinking about the song, as I – and surely others – invariably do every year this season, it occurred to me to try to render it into English for readers unfamiliar with either the song or the language in which it was written.  I’m not a professional translator, and my rendering, below, is not perfectly literal.  But it’s close, and is faithful to the rhyme scheme and meter of the original:

A sukkaleh, quite small,

Wooden planks for each wall;

Lovingly I stood them upright.

I laid thatch as a ceiling

And now, filled with deep feeling,

I sit in my sukkaleh at night.


A chill wind attacks,

Blowing through the cracks;

The candles, they flicker and yearn.

It’s so strange a thing

That as the Kiddush I sing,

The flames, calmed, now quietly burn.


In comes my daughter,

Bearing hot food and water;

Worry on her face like a pall.

She just stands there shaking

And, her voice nearly breaking,

Says “Tattenyu, the sukkah’s going to fall!”


Dear daughter, don’t fret;

It hasn’t fallen yet.

The sukkah’s fine; banish your fright.

There have been many such fears,

For nigh two thousand years;

Yet the little sukkah still stands upright.

As we approach the yomtov of Sukkos and celebrate the divine protection our ancestors were afforded during their forty years’ wandering in the midbar, we are supposed – indeed, commanded – to be happy.  We refer to Sukkos, in our tefillos as zman simchoseinu, “the time of our joy.”

And yet, at least seen superficially, there seems little Jewish joy to be had these days.  “State actors” openly threaten acheinu bnei Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.  Enemies bent on killing Jews attack them, there and elsewhere in the world.  Here in America, an ugly current of anti-Semitism emerges at times to remind us that it thrives in the dirt underfoot.  The internal adversaries of intermarriage and assimilation continue to intensify and take their terrible toll.

The poet, however, well captured a Sukkos-truth.  With temperatures dropping and winter’s gloom not a great distance away, our sukkah-dwelling is indeed a quiet but powerful statement: We are secure because our ultimate protection, as a people if not necessarily as individuals, is assured.

And our security is sourced in nothing so flimsy as a fortified edifice; it is protection provided us by Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself, in the merit of our avos, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the Divine.

And so, no matter how loudly the winds may howl, no matter how vulnerable our physical fortresses may be, we give harbor to neither despair nor insecurity.  Instead, we redouble our recognition that, in the end, Hashem is in charge, that all is in His hands.

And that, as it has for millennia, the sukkah continues to stand.


Under The Weather


With hurricane season upon us, we might learn something from the models that meteorologists offer when a large sea-storm heads for land.  Something about Shemini Atzeres.

The maps created as a storm approaches often include colored lines indicating the projected paths of the hurricane as predicted by different models, each based on its own sets of data and methodology.  The combined yield looks suspiciously like, though not as appetizing as, spaghetti.  Only one model (if even that) will end up “winning” the prediction contest.  And, as likely as not, the next storm around, a different model, based on different calculations, will emerge as the retroactively prophetic one.

“Cause and effect” is a basic principle of modern science.  By observing what seems to make happenings happen, we can predict, at least theoretically and if in possession of sufficient information, almost anything.

Weather forecasting, despite mountains of data gleaned from satellites, weather stations and previous storms, cannot even generally predict a storm’s movement or intensity beyond a day or two.

That might be attributed to the sheer amount of information needed to make a weather forecast, and the complexity of combining all the necessary elements.  There is what has whimsically been called the “Butterfly Effect” (and more soberly, “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”) – the idea that even something like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Asia might have an effect on the course of a storm in the Carolinas.

But something deeper and more subtle is at work, too.  An accepted idea in modern physics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, has it that at the most fundamental strata of physical matter, there is a limit to what can be known.  The more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa.  So there is an inherent element of unknowableness (well, there should be such a word) in the matter comprising the universe.

What we call nature, in other words, isn’t truly predictable, or even “natural.”  Nature is just the word we use to describe miracles we’ve come to take for granted.

Consider the weird world Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zt”l, asks us to imagine, where the deceased routinely arise from their graves rejuvenated, but grain and vegetation do not exist.

In the thought experiment, a man appears holding a seed, something never seen before in this strange place.  He loosens some soil and places the tiny kernel into the ground.  The locals wonder at the oddity –why is he burying a pebble? – and are astonished when, several days later, a green sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned.  When it develops into a full-fledged plant, even – most shocking of all – bearing seeds of its own, the onlookers are flabbergasted.

Techiyas hameisim will be similarly amazing to those who will witness it, observes Rav Dessler.  What is more, in our world, a seed’s growth is itself no less a miracle, willed from above. The numerical equivalent of the word “hateva,” – “the [realm of] nature” –sefarim hakedoshim  note, equals Elokim.

Miracles we haven’t previously experienced impress us.  Miracles we live with daily are harder to appreciate.  “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” wrote the poet R. W. Emerson, “how would men believe and adore…!”

Or as famed physicist Paul Davies wrote a few years back, “The very notion of physical law is a theological one.”

The miraculous, in other words, is ubiquitous, even if the phantom of predictability lessens our appreciation of it.  Weather, though, with its fickleness, reminds us of what we easily forget: that uncertainty is the real rule, underlying even the very building blocks of matter.

In fact, the Hebrew word for “rain,” geshem, means “physical matter” as well.

There is a human entity, too, that eludes predictability.  Empires and nations rise and fall, never to rise again.  Populations are exiled from their lands and never return.  Those are “natural” rules of history.  You know the exception.

The number eight, the Maharal teaches, represents the miraculous, what lies beyond what we call nature.  Klal Yisrael, the Midrash says, is the partner of Shabbos, and hence, in a sense, the “eighth day.”

In the time of the Beis Hamikdash, on Shemini Atzeres, the “Eighth Day Festival,” after the Sukkos offerings of 70 parim representing the nations of the world, a single par, representing a singular nation, was offered.

That, on the day when we remind ourselves that there really isn’t any independent entity called “nature” – focusing on the wonder that is Klal Yisrael, and, in Tefillas Geshem, on the wonder that is rain.

© 2016 Hamodia




“How do you say ‘the horse died’ in Yiddish?” asked the African-American panhandler to whom I had given a quarter when he accosted me in lower Manhattan.  It was many years ago, shortly after I moved to New York.  A bit taken aback (would you not have been?) by the unexpected quiz, I responded “Der ferd iz geshtarben.”

“No,” he insisted. “A mensch shtarbt.  A ferd paigert.”  He was right, of course.  The Yiddish verb for “died” is different for a human and for an animal.

New York, I remember thinking, is an interesting place.

I never found out how my interlocutor knew Yiddish so well, but, over the ensuing years, I have met many, if less interesting, seekers of alms.

When I first began working in “the city,” as an out-of-towner unaccustomed to street beggars, I made a point of giving a coin or two to each of the bedraggled people on my route who shook a cup of coins or asked passers-by for a donation.  Chazal, after all, teach us to provide charity to all (Gittin 61a).

Rightly or wrongly, though, I eventually came to stop that practice.  There were the times when, after my small donation to an indigent person, I was besieged by theretofore hidden others who, having witnessed my largess, suddenly and magically appeared to stake their own claims. I would have had to carry a bag of quarters each day.

And I came to realize, too, that there are an abundance of agencies and charities that provide food and shelter for the homeless.  I wondered what “extras” the coins and bills in the cups would end up purchasing.  Candy bars?  Cigarettes?  Drugs?

And so, for better or worse, I joined the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers, who go about their business without acknowledging the sound of shaken change or the repeated mantras of “got any spare change?”  But I felt (and feel) bad.  I was still ignoring human beings.  That’s not something a descendant of Avraham Avinu should be able to do nonchalantly.  True, the solicitors don’t seem to mind being ignored by so many, and are seemingly happy with the “business” of the ever-present tourists.  But still.

One day not long ago, though, an elderly man sitting on the sidewalk and asking passersby for change focused on me as I approached where he sat.  “Rabbi!” he called out.  “Got anything for me?”

Having been so (somewhat) personally addressed, I had to interrupt my brisk walking.  In Manhattan, that can be dangerous; those behind you are often inhabiting alternate worlds, talking on phones or pecking out emails as they walk.  By stopping short, one can cause the pedestrian version of a vehicular pile-up.  Luckily, though, the foot traffic behind me must have naturally noted my braking, since it just flowed smoothly around me.

I wasn’t, though, about to change my callous custom.  So I just bent down to smile at the fellow and tell him that I don’t generally carry cash (which by then was true) but that I wished him a wonderful day.

I can tell a sincere smile from a contrived one, and the one he returned was the real thing. And along with it came, without a hint of cynicism, a “thank you.”

Whenever I see the fellow in his spot, I make a point of addressing him, just to smile and wish him a good day.  And each time I do, he seems genuinely pleased.  Sometimes, he even beats me to the greeting.  He doesn’t ever ask me for money.

The Gemara in Berachos (6b) quotes Rav Chalbo in the name of Rav Huna as saying: “Anyone who is greeted and does not return the greeting is called a thief.”  His source is a passuk in Yeshayahu (3:14): “The theft of the poor man is in your house.”  Rashi explains that a poor person has no possessions to steal, and so the thievery referred to must be a greeting owed him, of which he was deprived.

Presumably, if an unreturned greeting is a theft, an offered one is a gift.  My indigent friend certainly appreciates that fact.

Greeting every person we pass throughout the day isn’t very practical, and would seem eccentric.  In some cases, personal interactions might even be inappropriate. But in so many others, the opposite is true.  The hurried nature of modern life shouldn’t obscure the testimony of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (Brachos 17a), that no one ever beat him to a greeting, as he was always first to offer one, “even [to] a non-Jew in the marketplace.”

© 2016 Hamodia





Just in time for Rosh Hashanah, a number of media, including the Wall St. Journal and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, found a good “Jewish” story in the popularity and abundance of dogs in Tel Aviv.

Talk about pnei hador kipnei hakelev, the prediction in massechta Sotah (49b) that, with the approach of the Geulah, “the face of the generation will be the face of a dog.”

Tel Aviv, it was reported, is home to 413,000 people and 30,000 dogs, and, declaring itself the friendliest city in the world for dogs, it recently hosted a “dog festival” cutely called “Kelaviv.”

Our mesorah is undeniably sensitive to concern for animals.  Not only were Yaakov Avinu and  Moshe Rabbeinu  caring shepherds, but the Torah prohibits causing an animal unnecessary pain.

I recall as a young boy how my father, shlita, scooped a pair of injured birds from a street and brought them home to care for them.  In my own home (which over the years has hosted, among other animals, a goat, an iguana and a tarantula), even insects are captured and released rather than killed.

But like most ideals, concern for animals can be taken too far. The “animal rights” group PETA’s founder once declared that that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”  More infamously, she coined the aphorism “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” reflecting a philosophy nothing short of perverse.

Torah-committed Jews – and all thoughtful human beings – maintain a clear and crucial distinction between the animal sphere and the human one.  Animals may be forced to work and may be killed for food.  But humans may not, because we are the pinnacle of creation, and are alone gifted with free will.

In my role as Agudath Israel of America’s media liaison, I regularly receive requests for public comment.  A number of years ago, a call came in from a major media outlet producing a national program.  Flattered, I asked what presumably weighty topic was to be explored.  I was thoroughly deflated to hear the response: “Rabbi, we’d like to get your take on the question of whether pets go to heaven.”

I politely declined the offer to comment but then changed my mind.  What I realized is that many of the most fundamental philosophical and moral issues of our time – indeed of any time – touch upon the special distinction of humanness.  The subject may be the beginning of life or its end; the meaning of family, or of decency.  If humans see themselves as mere mammals, they end up in a very different place than if they see themselves as baalei bechirah, creatures with a mission, and the ability to undertake their individual roles in its attainment.

So, as it happens, the Tel Aviv dog articles are not immaterial to Rosh Hashanah at all.  They can serve to make us think a bit, and remind us of why pets, and all animals, while they may well serve a higher purpose and achieve a tikkun in their service to us baalei bechirah, do not in fact possess the potential, as we do, to “go to heaven.”

The Berditchever conveys a pithy and pertinent thought on the wording of one of the Torah’s prohibitions of idol worship: bowing down before “the sun, moon or other heavenly bodies that I have not commanded” (Devarim 17:3).

We may not genuflect to the sun, but we may do so to a human being.  The navi Ovadiah, for instance, bowed before his master Eliyahu.  Explained the Berditchever: People, by virtue of our being commanded creations, intended to not just exist but to shoulder responsibility, are singular parts of creation.  Our being commanded exalts us, places us on a plane above everything else in the universe.

The sun and the moon – and animals – are not charged, or able, to choose. They are bounded by their natures and their instincts.

Not so, us.

We may, to be sure, lapse into “instinctive” living at times.  But we have the ability to transcend our failures.  And that’s why Rosh Hashanah, when we are judged for our choices, is described both as a Yom Hadin, a Day of Judgment, and as a festive holiday.  Even as we face our failures and stand kivnei maron, “like sheep,” before the Judge of all, we celebrate with our seudos Yom Tov.  Because we are not sheep.  We are commanded beings – a fact that should fill us with both awe and joy.

© 2016 Hamodia


A Mid-East Inconvenient Truth


Yes, yes, I get it.  “Ethnic cleansing” conjures images of Nazi expulsions and murders of Jews, or the 1990s Bosnian war, when Serb and Croat forces intimidated, forcibly expelled or massacred one another to ensure Serb-free or Croat-free  territories.

But, like many charged terms, the expression has come to be applied as well to more benign, but still pernicious, attempts to remove populations from areas where they have lived for years, in the interest of creating a mono-ethnic state.

And that is precisely how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the term when noting that Palestinian leaders envision a Jew-free Palestinian state.  As recently as 2013, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas said in Cairo that, “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands.”

Israel, Mr. Netanyahu reminded viewers of the brief video in which he made his comment, has nearly two million Arabs living inside its borders, while the Palestinian leadership “demands a Palestinian state with one pre-condition: no Jews.”

“There’s a phrase for that,” he continued, “It’s called ethnic cleansing. And this demand is outrageous.”

“It’s even more outrageous,” he added, “that the world doesn’t find this outrageous.”

The loud, wild howling you may have heard in the wake of the video’s release was the reaction of much of the world to that observation of the Palestinian emperor’s new (and old) clothes.

Unsurprising were Palestinian and other Arab expressions of anger over the suggestion that it was somehow impolite to insist that Jews finding themselves in a future Palestinian state be forcibly removed.

And only slightly less surprising was U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon’s pronouncement that the Israeli leader’s remarks were “unacceptable and outrageous.”

There was political criticism within Israel too.  Former Justice Minister Knesset member Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah-Zionist Movement) said that the Prime Minister’s video undermined her diplomatic achievements vis-à-vis the settlements.

Even ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt was critical of the “ethnic cleansing” remark.  “Israel has many legitimate concerns about Palestinian policies and behavior,” he wrote, “However, the charge that the Palestinians seek ‘ethnic cleansing’ of settlers is just not one of them.”  He didn’t, however, explain why it wasn’t.

Disturbing too was the fact that the U.S. State Department joined the chorus of lamentations. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau responded to a question at a press conference by saying that “We obviously strongly disagree with the characterization that those who oppose settlement activity or view it as an obstacle to peace are somehow calling for ethnic cleansing of Jews from the West Bank.”

Even those who believe in the wisdom (or just the inevitability) of an eventual “two state solution” to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, even if they believe that Mr. Netanyahu was imprudent to have used the loaded phrase, have to admit that, all said and done, it wasn’t inapt.

If you read this column regularly, you know that I am not among the relentless critics of the Obama administration. I feel that the president has been, in concrete actions, as supportive of Israel (if not some of the Netanyahu government’s policies) as any American leader, if not more so.  And in fact, not long after the Netanyahu video contretemps, the American administration reached agreement with Israel on a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding that constitutes the single largest pledge of military assistance in U.S. history, totaling $38 billion over 10 years, including $33 billion in Foreign Military Financing funds and an additional $5 billion in missile defense funding.

Even Mr. Netanyahu, despite having asked for yet more (the shuk doesn’t stop at Machaneh Yehudah), was clearly satisfied with the agreement.  He could have declined to sign it until after a new administration takes office in three months, but apparently felt that he was better off in Mr. Obama’s hands than in those of his successor.

But my feeling that too many of us view the Obama administration with grossly jaundiced eyes doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when it is deserving of criticism; this is one of them.  Even if it views settlements in Yehudah and Shomron as “obstacles” to peace (and the expansion of at least some arguably are), the administration was misguided to regard Mr. Netanyahu’s words as unhelpful.  They were very helpful.

If only because they discomfited so many, forcing them to fidget as they tried to justify the unjustifiable: the removal from their homes of people of a certain ethnicity – not to mention one whose members, over the course of history, were exiled repeatedly and callously by a long parade of tyrants, dictators and thugs.

© 2016 Hamodia


Tempest in a Tallis


The image was, to be sure, jarring: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump being draped in a tallis.

By an African-American pastor.

In a Detroit church.

To resounding applause.

Bishop Wayne Jackson of the Great Faith Ministries in Detroit effected the atifah while most of us were listening to the Krias HaTorah of Parashas Re’eh, after the candidate addressed the minister’s congregation in an attempt to garner votes from a segment of the population not naturally supportive of his candidacy.

“Let me just put this on you,” Pastor Jackson said, identifying the garment as a prayer shawl “straight from Israel,” and The Donald, although he did look a mite befuddled, didn’t resist.

The congregation was effusive in its praise of the spectacle.  Some Jewish media, clergyfolk and armchair pundits, though, considerably less so.

Some took the humor route, like writer Yair Rosenberg, who speculated that “Trump was finally embracing his role as a fringe candidate.”

Others, though, were outraged at, as several described it, the “cultural misappropriation.”

One commentator called it “sacrilege” for Mr. Trump, a non-Jew, to dare to wear a “sacred garment of Jews.”   Another, growing apparently increasingly apoplectic, could only comment: “The pastor just gave Trump a tallis from Israel. Which is just … no. Just no. No no no.”

Reform rabbi Ron Kronish, the founder and senior advisor for the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, was appalled by the scene, which he described as “a totally absurd distortion of the meaning of an important Jewish ritual object, which is used by Jews for prayer all over the world.”

Nor could the rabbi resist the opportunity to denigrate Mr. Trump (ignoring the candidate’s karka olam passivity throughout the tallis-donning, which was unexpectedly sprung upon him by the pastor), creatively suggesting that the tallis “is a symbol of humility before G-d” and that while he “would hope that Mr. Trump would not misappropriate this ritual object for his travels… with this megalomania [sic] almost anything is possible.”

Conservative rabbi Danya Ruttenberg huffed that “A Jewish prayer shawl… is a ritual garment. Meant to be worn only by Jews. This is the worst kind of appropriation.”

And Modern Orthodox rabbi Seth Farber expressed his own great discomfort with the use of a “holy object” for “political purposes.”

Now, there is certainly something to be upset about when non-Jews utilize objects associated with Judaism to try to lure ignorant Jews away from their religious heritage.  Tallisos, among other things, are routinely employed by missionaries to put a deceptive “Jewish gloss” on decidedly un-Jewish beliefs.

And the Detroit spectacle, too, in fact had distinct Christian overtones.  While his victim was trapped in the tallis, Pastor Jackson offered him a second gift, two copies (one for Mrs. Trump) of something called the “Jewish Heritage Study Bible,” which includes distinctly Christian elements.  The pastor also saw fit to quote from the Christian bible at that moment.

He, moreover, shared a distinctly un-Jewish description of a tallis, understanding it, apparently, as a good-luck talisman of sorts (over which, he explained, he had fasted and prayed) that, when Mr. Trump will wear it, will “lift you up.”

But the clergyman was not aiming his act or comments at Jews, but rather at Mr. Trump and the congregation.  The howls of outrage, I think, say more about the howlers than about the poor pastor or the recipient of his gifts.

The misappropriation of Judaism that more merits vexation is various Jewish clergy’s abusing holy pesukim to justify some of the most decidedly un-Jewish ways of life.

We might wince at bit, or even smirk, at appropriations of things like a tallis or menorah or yarmulke (a Jewish article that most every politician, at least along the coasts, has donned on countless occasions).  But waxing indignant over such sillinesses bespeaks being overly sensitive – and insufficiently appreciative of the fact that, despite the dormant, and occasionally not-so-dormant, anti-Semites that infect parts of the nation, so many Americans value, even venerate, things Jewish, and Jews.

The reverend’s reverence for the tallis and his excitement over its Israeli origin – like the blowing of shofaros at civil rights rallies or Pesach “Sedarim” at the White House – should evoke not indignation but perhaps something akin to gratitude.  Gratitude, that is, for Hashem’s allowing so many of us Jews to serve out our exile-sentence today in a place where we are not only not hated and hunted but actually, in some ways, appreciated, even revered.

© Hamodia 2016


Conservatism in Crisis


If the phrase “alt-right” puts you in mind of a computer keyboard, you are (blessedly) not following the presidential campaign.

Even if you are aware of the phrase, though, you may not have a good handle on what it means.  For good reason.  Many don’t.  It’s a hazy phrase.

The term, which is shorthand for “alternative right,” has been in circulation for several years, but it enjoyed a recent moment in a particularly bright spotlight when presidential candidate Clinton, in a speech, sought to make a distinction between mainstream Republicans and what she characterized as holders of a “racist ideology,” i.e. the “alt-right,” who she says are a major base of support for her opponent.

The “alt-right” movement – if it can even be given a label implying some unifying philosophy – means different things to different people, as it includes disparate elements.

What those elements generally share is a dedication to family values; a reverence for Western civilization and rejection of multiculturalism; an embrace of “racialism,” the idea that different ethnicities exhibit different characteristics and are best segregated from one another; and, consonant with that latter credo, opposition to immigration, both legal and illegal.

Mrs. Clinton referenced the alt-right because her rival Donald Trump recently named a new campaign chief, Stephen Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, a conservative website some have associated with the group.

The alt-right’s “intellectual godfather,” in many eyes, is Jared Taylor. Although he characterizes himself as a “white advocate,” he strongly rejects being labeled racist, contending that his “racialism” is “moderate and commonsensical,” a benign form of belief in the “natural” separation of races and nationalities.  He contends that white people promoting their own racial interests is no different than other ethnic groups promoting theirs.  He has said, “I want my grandchildren to look like my grandparents. I don’t want them to look like Anwar Sadat or Fu Manchu.”

Pointing to the homogeneity of places of worship, schools and neighborhoods, he insists that people “if left to themselves, will generally sort themselves out by race.”

Certain of Mr. Taylor’s beliefs may resonate with some Orthodox Jews.  We may rightly eschew racism (seeing black Jews, for instance, no different from white ones), but we tend to be less than enamored of some elements of various minority cultures; we deeply value ethnic cohesion, preferring to live in neighborhoods among “our own kind”; and we have serious problems with certain elements of “progressive” western civilization and multiculturalism.

Mr. Taylor, in fact, welcomes Jews.  He has said that we “look white to him.”

That sentiment though, is not typical among others under the alt-right umbrella.

Even a nuanced rejection of non-western cultures inevitably attracts genuine racists and haters, and devolves into rejection of the eternal “other”: Jews.  The American far right has always embraced, inter alia, one or another form of Jew-hatred.  More balanced members of the alt-right refer to their “1488ers” – a reference to two well-known neo-Nazi slogans, the “14 Words” in the sentence “We Must Secure The Existence Of Our People And A Future For White Children”; and the number 88, referring to “H,” the eighth letter of the alphabet, doubled and coding for “Heil Hitler.”

And even Mr. Taylor has permitted people like Don Black, a former Klan leader who runs the neo-Nazi web forum, to attend his conferences.  He may or may not endorse Black’s every attitude, but neither has he rejected his support.

Back in the 1960s, the John Birch Society, then dedicated to the theory that the U.S. government was controlled by communists, was condemned by the ADL for contributing to anti-Semitism and selling anti-Semitic literature. The brilliant and erudite William F. Buckley Jr., the unarguable conscience of conservatism at the time, recognized the group’s nature, and the threat its extremism posed to responsible social conservatives.  In the magazine he founded, National Review, he denounced and distanced himself from the Birchers in no uncertain terms, contending that “love of truth and country call[s] for the firm rejection” of the group.

It is ironic that it has fallen to the Democratic presidential contender to make a distinction between responsible Republicanism and the current loose confederacy that includes haters.

In the wake of Buckley’s denunciation of the alt-righters of the time, some National Review subscribers angrily cancelled their subscriptions.  Others, though, were appreciative of Buckley’s stance.  One wrote: “You have once again given a voice to the conscience of conservatism.”

That letter was signed “Ronald Reagan.”

© 2016 Hamodia

Birkenau_gate (1)

Unrighteous Indignation


And here, all this time, we thought Auschwitz was a Polish death camp.

It was, of course, at least in the sense that it was a place in Poland where upward of a million souls, the vast majority of them Jewish, perished at the hands of ruthless, evil murderers.

The camp, though, was built and operated by Germans, a fact that has brought Polish authorities to protest when the camp is labeled “Polish.”

In 2012, for instance, President Obama raised hackles when, awarding a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to a Polish resistance fighter, he referred to a “Polish death camp.”  He later apologized, saying he should have used the term “Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland.”

Earlier this month, the Polish government approved a new bill mandating fines and even, in some cases, prison terms of up to three years for anyone who uses phrases like “Polish death camps” to refer to Nazi camps on Polish soil.

While threatening penalties for using a particular phrase is an act of dubious wisdom or worth, the Polish protesters have history on their side… at least with regard to who owned and operated the death camps on Polish soil. Germans, not Poles, ran Auschwitz, Treblinka and other death camps, where more than three million Jews died; Poland was an occupied country at the time.

But the indignation isn’t righteous.  At least not unless it includes an important caveat; an admission that many Poles themselves were no mere bystanders to the Holocaust.

Some Polish officials are trying to obscure that truth.  “It wasn’t our mothers, nor our fathers, who are responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust, which were committed by German and Nazi criminals on occupied Polish territory,” asserts Zbignew Ziobro, the Polish justice minister.

But the justice minister does truth an injustice.  In implementing their genocidal program, German forces drew upon all-too-eager-to-help Polish police forces and railroad personnel, who guarded ghettos and helped deport Jews to the killing centers. Individual Poles often pitched in, identifying and hunting down Jews in hiding and then actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.

In his book “The Coming of the Holocaust: From Antisemitism to Genocide,” University of California, Santa Cruz Professor Peter Kenez described Poles of German ethnicity as “welcome[ing] the [Nazi] conquerors with enthusiasm.”

Nor were ethnic Poles unhappy at the prospect of helping the invaders rid their country of Jews.

History Professor Jan T. Gross, who was born in Poland to a Polish mother and Jewish father, published “Neighbors” in 2001, in which he documented that atrocities long blamed on Nazi officials were in fact carried out by local Polish civilians.

Like the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne in July 1941. Mere weeks after Nazi forces gained control of the town, its Polish mayor, Marian Karolak, and local Nazi officials gave orders to round up the town’s Jews – both long-term residents as well as Jews who were sheltering there. Some Jews were hunted down and gleefully killed by the town’s residents with clubs, axes and knives. Most were herded into a barn, emptied out for the purpose and set afire, killing all inside.

There were also Poles, of course, who helped Jews, even risking their own lives to do so. Yad Vashem has recognized more than 6,000 of them as “Righteous Among the Nations” for rescuing Jews, more than from any other country.

But the norm, sadly, was that Polish citizens were more likely than not to turn against their Jewish neighbors when circumstances permitted.  There are numerous personal accounts of such hatred leading to murder.  It lasted throughout the war, and beyond it.

The Polish town of Kielce was home to about 24,000 Jews before World War II, and the number swelled considerably during the war, as German officials forced Jews from other towns and countries to enter the ghetto established there.  By August 1944, all but a few hundred Jews who were kept alive as slave workers there had been murdered.

You may know the rest of the story. After the war, about 150 Jewish survivors returned to Kielce. Slowly, they began to rebuild their lives, establishing a shul and an orphanage. On July 4, 1946, the town’s non-Jewish inhabitants started a blood libel, falsely accusing the Jews of kidnapping a Christian child. A mob descended on the Jews and, as police and soldiers stood by and watched, the local Poles viciously murdered 42 innocent Jewish Holocaust survivors and injured scores more.

If you drive down Bathurst Street in Toronto, you might notice a shul called Kielcer Congregation, presumably established by survivors of the war and pogrom, or by others in their memory.

And if you drive about a mile south, you’ll reach Eglinton Avenue, off of which my dear in-laws live.  My father-in-law, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well, is an alumnus of a number of concentration camps, including the Polish – sorry, “German on occupied Polish territory” – one called Auschwitz.  At war’s end, he emerged, barely, and managed to find his way back to his Polish hometown of Lodz.  He had heard that his younger sister Mirel (whose memory is carried in the second name of my wife), had also survived the war and had returned there.

He discovered that Mirel had indeed reached Lodz.  And that one day soon after their arrival, she and several other girls had visited the local Jewish cemetery to find the graves of relatives who had died in the Lodz ghetto.  The girls split up and made up to meet at the cemetery entrance.  All did, except for Mirel.  Having survived the war and made her way “home,” she had been murdered by an unknown assailant among the graves.

Before that was known, the other girls went to the police to report the missing person.  The response they received was, “What is your worry?  So there will be one Jewess less in Poland.”

© 2016 Hamodia


Illusions of Objectivity


Some American journalists assigned to the political beat are having a hard time.  Their dilemma is named Donald Trump, a man they don’t feel they can cover objectively.

Those troubled are reporters with a liberal bent, and that, of course, means most of the profession.  The vast majority of mainstream print and electronic media personnel are well entrenched on the left end of the political spectrum. To be sure, one needn’t be a social or political liberal to regard the Republican presidential candidate with concern – many in Mr. T.’s own party are distancing themselves from him – but “progressive” citizens have a particular revulsion for the controversial candidate.

And so, while the intrepid reporters soldier on in the quest for fairness, impartiality and objectivity, they are finding it hard to maintain their professional standards, or even the façade of neutrality.

Jim Rutenberg, the New York Times’ “media columnist,” lamented his and his colleagues’ predicament.

“If you’re a working journalist,” he wrote, “and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes… you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career.”

“You would move closer,” he continued, “than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.”

Mr. Rutenberg’s honest confession of discomfort is commendable.  But it’s also somewhat amusing, because, while Mr. Trump may be an outsize (one might even say yuuuge!) challenge to the media’s objectivity, the notion itself of journalistic impartiality is more veneer than substance.  There are other fairness challenges that reporters routinely face and fail.

In fact, Donald Trump doesn’t really pose so great a trial for reporters.  Even if they regard him as dangerous, his words have famously spoken for themselves; all that the media has to do is quote him.  He’s not a very guarded or subtle person; he says very much what he means. So there is no need, and should be no temptation, for any journalist to treat him any differently than anyone else.  Just share what the guy says.  That’s enough.

The greater challenge to idealistic members of the media is the need to recognize and confront their broader biases when it comes to other subjects.  Like, say, religion.

Fully 91% of those who work at national news organizations, according to a Pew survey, say they don’t consider it necessary to believe in G-d to be moral.  Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those respondents disdain religious people or institutions, but it does raise the possibility, maybe even the likelihood, that they may harbor at least some subtle bias regarding religious believers or their ideals.

This column last week noted one recent example.  No major media news report (and, for that matter, no major media opinion columnist) saw fit, when reporting on Mrs. Ghazala Khan’s decision not to speak, as her husband did, at the Democratic National Convention, to note some traditional religions’ concept of modesty.  The idea that a woman might consider it inappropriate to speak before men is simply beyond the imaginings of most reporters.  Were they forced to confront it, they would likely dismiss it as backward, oppressive or even immoral.  Olam hafuch ra’isi.

And then there are the general Jewish media, which are transparently prejudiced against Orthodox Jews, at least chareidi ones, a fact well evidenced both in their choices of what stories about the “ultra-Orthodox” (a pejorative phrase itself) to cover or to ignore and in the tone of chareidi-world stories they consider newsworthy. That isn’t surprising; most of their reporters and columnists are non-Orthodox Jews, and they surely shlep their personal baggage to their keyboards – whether they are aware of it or not.  As the writer William Saletan once wisely observed: “There’s a word for bias you can’t see: yours.”

The not-so-secret “secret” here, which applies to both the general Jewish media and their non-Jewish counterparts, is that reporters, despite their imaginings of themselves as objective, are human.  And, as such, they are just as biased and close-minded as any other mortals. So, rather than wring their hands over how to cover Donald Trump, they would do better to consider the possibility that some more subtle, hence more troublesome, biases inform their reportage of… other things.

© 2016 Hamodia


Summer Camps and Summer Camps


There are all sorts of summer camps.