Category Archives: Personalities

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Unfair Play

In the current polarized political atmosphere, where “team” mentality – “our guys are great, yours are bums” – seems to be the default state of mind, and where objective, thoughtful fairness is the rarest of birds, it must be particularly hard to be a black conservative Republican.

Like Justice Clarence Thomas, Stanley Crouch and Thomas Sowell before him, Dr. Ben Carson, the once-presidential candidate and now Housing and Urban Development Secretary, was recently reminded of the perils of that identity, when an entirely innocent comment he made was blown out of all proportion by a horde of players from Team Black and Team Democrat.

As he began his first full week leading HUD, which provides housing assistance to low-income people and development block grants to communities, and enforces fair housing, Dr. Carson spoke to a standing-room-only audience of the agency’s employees.

He praised them for their dedication to HUD’s mission of “helping the downtrodden, helping the people in our society to… climb the ladder.” And then he extolled the United States as a land of opportunity, saying: “That’s what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they, too, had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”

The positively lupine reaction to that eloquent paean to America was to pounce on Dr. Carson’s pointedly loose use of the word “immigrant” with reference to African slaves brought to these shores in the 18th and 19th centuries. From the overheated comments that suffused the media, one would have thought that the doctor had extolled slavery rather than the aspirations of slaves, that he had made a direct comparison rather than a clear contrast.

Pundits and academics across the land rent their garments at the desecration, and Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota railed that Dr. Carson had shown a “stunning misunderstanding of history… a very scary thing,” and declared that the doctor’s perspective makes him unqualified to lead HUD.

I don’t know what sort of president Dr. Carson would have made, had he prevailed in the Republican primary. He certainly showed misjudgment by imagining that civility is something appreciated by the American electorate.

But I find it easy to envision that he might be just what an agency like HUD needs: someone who recognizes that, however dismal one’s past was or one’s present is, the healthy attitude is fortitude, seeing opportunity in the future and recognizing the role one can play in his own destiny.

Dr. Carson’s personal story exemplifies that well. A poor student in Detroit with, by his own recounting, an anger management problem, he “ask[ed] G-d to help me find a way to deal with this temper” and studied Mishlei. The passuk, he says, that spoke to him most powerfully was “Tov erech apayim migibor…” – “Better a patient man than a mighty one, [better] a man who controls his temper than one who overtakes a city” (16:32). He set himself to the task of self-improvement and earned a full scholarship to Yale, working summers as, variously, a clerk in a payroll office, a supervisor of a crew picking up trash along the highway and on an assembly line. At Yale, he worked part-time as a campus student police aide.

In 1984, when he was 33, Dr. Carson became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, the youngest doctor in America at the time to hold such a position. And he went on to distinguish himself, pioneering groundbreaking surgeries and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., in 2008.

Interestingly, an American president, during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives, made a similar point to the one that earned Dr. Carson such opprobrium.

He said that “Life in America was not always easy. It wasn’t always easy for new immigrants. Certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves… But… they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them. And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.”

That was Barack Obama, in 2015.

Dr. Carson, in his speech, pledged to lead the agency with an “emphasis on fairness for everybody… complete fairness for everybody.”

How shameful that fairness seems to utterly elude the “team players.”

© 2017 Hamodia

Reading Between the Hardlines

Mere days after senior Hamas operative Muhammad Hemada Walid al-Quqa blew himself up preparing a bomb, The New York Times noted, in a recent front page story about the Muslim Brotherhood, that “some of [its] offshoots – most notably Hamas – have been tied to attacks.”

“Tied to”?

That phrase would seem to imply some tenuousness or doubt. In reality (which, despite “alternate facts,” still exists), Hamas has been openly attacking and murdering Israeli civilians and soldiers since 1987, demonically celebrating its every “success.”

A study published in 2007 by the Journal of Economic Perspectives, an apolitical academic publication, found that, of the scores of Palestinian suicide bombings that took place from September 2000 through August 2005, 39.9 percent were carried out by Hamas. (The repugnant runner-up was Fatah, at 25.7 percent.) And then there are the rockets that have rained down on Israel from Gaza in more recent years.

As to the Muslim Brotherhood, which, as the paper of record records, hatched Hamas, while it has been trying to present a more pleasant face of late, one of its mottos is more telling: “Jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish!”

Several days after The Times referred to the Brotherhood’s spawn as merely “tied to” attacks on Jews, Hamas chose a new leader in Gaza, Yehya Sinwar.

Mr. Sinwar was sentenced decades ago in Israel to four life terms for the murder of Palestinians he suspected of collaboration with Israel. According to Israeli security experts, he also played a pivotal role in the planning and execution of attacks against Israeli soldiers.

The new Hamas leader was also one of the founders of Al Majd (“Glory”), a precursor of Hamas’s military wing, Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

After serving more than 20 years in jail, Sinwar was released in 2011, one of the 1,000 Arab prisoners exchanged for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The Times, along with many media (the BBC, CNN, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Guardian and ABC News, among others) referred to Sinwar as “hardline” or a “hardliner.” While that description isn’t inaccurate (“hardliner” meaning “a person who adheres rigidly to a dogma, theory, or plan”), some other adjective might have been more informative, something, perhaps, like “convicted murderer.”

Interestingly, as it happened, another “hardliner” was in the news, too, last week: David Friedman, President Trump’s designate for ambassador to Israel. That was the word used by many of the very same media noted above to describe Mr. Friedman.

Mr. Friedman has not, to anyone’s knowledge, ordered the murder of anyone, or founded a terrorist group. His hardliner-ness consists of his past skepticism about a two-state solution to the Israel-Arab conflict and various intemperate statements he made about Jews and others who he feels have advocated for Palestinians to the detriment of Israel.

Last Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee grilled the nominee. In light of some of Mr. Friedman’s earlier statements, I was prepared to be uninspired. But the give-and-take between Mr. Friedman and his Senatorial inquisitors left me, instead, impressed. Deeply so.

Mr. Friedman was composed (even when pro-Palestinian activists obnoxiously interrupted the hearing, shouting slogans – one, righteously blowing a shofar – before being escorted out of the room by security personnel), eloquent, thoughtful, fair-minded and – most impressively – willing, under oath, to publicly and without reservations, renounce the extreme things he had said or written as a private citizen.

“While I maintain profound differences of opinion with some of my critics,” he said, “I regret the use of [harshly insulting] language.”

Asked by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker if he believes, as he had once seemed to say, that former president Obama is in fact an anti-Semite, Mr. Friedman, without hesitation, replied: “Not at all. I don’t believe that for a second.” (Halevai other erstwhile Obama-defamers would own up to their own excesses.)

Pressed repeatedly (and disturbingly – just how many apologies were required?) by various senators to address the issue of his past statements, Mr. Friedman didn’t get upset. Nor did he offer the typical politician’s “non-apology apology.” He stated clearly and forthrightly: “There is no excuse. If you want me to rationalize or justify [the words I used], I cannot. I regret [them].”

Mr. Friedman proudly and convincingly expressed his desire to fortify the American-Israel relationship, and demonstrated that he has no animus for Arabs and wants to see peace between Israel and the Arabs in her midst.

Of course, and unfortunately, many obstacles stand in the way of that goal. Prime among them, his “fellow” hardliner in Gaza and the all-too-many others like him.

© 2017 Hamodia

Perceiving the Good

More than 40 years ago, at just about this time of year, the rebbi insisted I leave class. I readily obliged.

The details of what prompted my banishment, while amusing, aren’t important. All you need to know is that someone had called out something while the rebbi’s eyes were in his sefer, and that it hadn’t been I. (Admittedly, on a number of occasions during my schooling I would have rightfully been accused of various violations of rules or decorum. That particular time, however, I happened to be innocent.).

Irate at the unfairness of it all, I marched to the office of the principal, Rabbi Joel Feldman, shlita, announced with righteous indignation that my punishment had been unjust, and declared that I had no intention of ever returning to that shiur. I was convinced, I declared, that the rebbi, while a fine man, had it in for me.

I was surprised by the principal’s reaction. He didn’t ask me to identify the criminal (and, honoring the high school omertà code, I would never have told him anyway), but simply said, “Well, I can’t send you to the lower shiur; you’d be bored. So I guess I’ll send you to Rabbi Rottenberg’s shiur.”

Rav Yosef Rottenberg, shlita (may he have a refuah shleimah), was Baltimore’s Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim’s “high shiurrebbi at the time and its eventual Rosh Yeshivah. I was taken aback but readily accepted the offer.

That marked a turning point in my life. Although the shiur was somewhat over my head, I made some effort (for a change), and actually did some learning. Rabbi Rottenberg, a brilliant Torah-scholar and talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, truly became my rebbi. His broad knowledge of both Torah and worldly matters, not to mention his well-honed sense of humor, were inspiring. When I graduated, he recommended me to Yeshivas Kol Torah in Bayit Vegan, where I learned before returning to Baltimore and continuing my studies in Yeshivas Ner Yisrael.

I owe any hatzlachah I had thereafter to Rabbi Feldman, Rabbi Rottenberg… and Rebbi X (not his real initial), the one who ordered me out of shiur.

I don’t write those words facetiously. Hakaras hatov is due for any tov, intended as such or not. Why else, the baalei mussar ask, could Moshe Rabbeinu be “indebted” to the water or to the earth to the point where Aharon had to strike them to bring about the makkos of dam, tzefardeia and kinim? Inanimate objects can’t be objects of what we call “gratitude.” They can, though, be objects of hakaras hatov, “recognition of the good” – which is for our own benefit, not that of the objects.

And that requirement to recognize good exists even when the good is sourced in something negative. In last week’s parashah, Moshe is described by the daughters of Yisro as an “ish mitzri,” an “Egyptian man.” Midrash Tanchuma has it that the reference is to the “ish mitzri” Moshe had killed in Mitzrayim, whose death was the cause of his flight to Midyan. Moshe, in other words, in a sense, owed much to that Mitzri.

Many years after being kicked out of shiur, I myself, ironically, served as a rebbi and principal of a yeshivah, in an ‘out-of-town’ community. And one day, I found myself forced to leave – not just the classroom but the institution. A new overseer, working with a board of directors with a very different vision than I had of what the yeshivah should be, told me that he couldn’t guarantee my position for the following school year.

I was heartbroken to leave my beloved yeshivah and community. And more, to be forced to entertain something I had often said I would never do: move to New York. But Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, had asked me to join Agudath Israel’s staff. Tearfully, my wife and I and our young family left our home of 11 years.

Fast-forward a few more years, after we had acclimated to our new location, and I to my new job, which I grew to deeply appreciate. One Shabbos in shul, I saw Rabbi Y. (not his real initial either), the overseer who was the cause of our exile. He was related to someone in the community and had come to visit.

First reaction: Oh, no! Not him!

But then, a deeper, more profound thought dawned: I owe this guy my new life. And I said to myself, as all feelings of hakaras hatov should ultimately impel us to say, “Baruch Hashem.”

© 2017 Hamodia

Rabbi Simcha Shafran, zt”l: A Sheloshim Reflection on His Life

I only knew my father, hareini kapparas mishkavo, for 30-odd years.

I’m much older than that, and knew and loved him my entire life. But I only really knew him – his full life story – for three decades.

How, for instance, at the age of 14, Simcha Bunim Szafranowicz had insisted that his parents let him go to study in yeshivah – even though what would come to be known as World War II had begun mere weeks earlier, and the family was fleeing the Nazis.

How SS men who had caught up with his family and other refugees from their Polish town, Ruzhan, had killed his uncle in front of him and packed my father and hundreds of Jews into a shul, and set fire to neighboring homes. Preparing to die, the Jews were rescued by a regular German Army official who had passed by and ordered the Jews out. Eliyahu Hanavi, they suspected, in unprecedented disguise.

How the boy’s parents reluctantly gave him their brachah, and said goodbye to him for, it turned out, the last time.

That was the beginning of a journey that would take “Simcha Ruzhaner” to Siberia, and then America, where, as Rabbi Simcha Shafran, he would become a revered, beloved Rav.

He and his remarkable, beloved eishes chayil Puah had three children, my sister Rochel (Zoberman), brother Noach and me. Our dear father was niftar on 20 Kislev.

In the fall of 1939, the boy who would become our father, holding his tefillin and some apples his mother had given him, set out for the Novardoker yeshivah in Bialystok.

En route, he discovered that the Polish yeshivos had relocated to Vilna. In Bialystok, he heeded a voice in his head crying “Simcha! Get on the train!” to Vilna, and managed to pull himself onto the platform between two cars.

Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, zt”l, famously organized the relocation of yeshivos in Vilna; Novardok settled in the “Gesher Hayarok” shul, and, at the end of 1939, relocated to Birzh, where the yeshivah functioned until the Soviets took over in 1941, and demanded that all refugees become Soviet citizens.

Refusing the offer, which the talmidim did, made them foreign nationals. Those without visas to other countries were put on cattle trains and, weeks later, arrived at a Siberian work camp, where they were ordered to fell trees, chop wood, and harvest and grind grain.

My father was the youngest of the chaburah that spent the rest of the war in the frozen taiga, along with their rebbi, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Nekritz.

When working, the bachurim would review Gemara or recite Tehillim. When not, they studied the few sefarim they had with them – with a chessboard, mid-game, in front of them, in case their anti-religious overseer should stop by.

The exiles used an assortment of tricks to avoid working on Shabbos, and tried to observe Yamim Tovim, clandestinely baking matzos and using a kosher sukkah in the middle of the night.

In 1944, the group was transferred westward, and eventually smuggled into Berlin’s American zone. My father had a bullet wound scar on his arm from when a bribed guard betrayed them.

The refugees organized a yeshivah in Salzheim, near Frankfurt, and resumed their Torah studies. In June, 1947, after establishing contact with a relative in the U.S. willing to sponsor him, my father arrived at Ellis Island and joined other refugees in the reestablished Novardoker yeshivah, Beis Yosef, in Brooklyn.

With the $75 given him by a Jewish social service organization he bought a new pair of tefillin, his old ones having been weathered by Siberia. (He later discovered that his new parshios had been written by his second cousin and namesake, Simcha Bunim Szafranowicz, the Gerrer Rebbe’s personal sofer.)

Another immigrant, Rabbi Yaakov Krett, suggested a shidduch for my father, the daughter of Rav Noach Kahn, a respected Rav in Baltimore, a musmach of Rav Boruch Ber Leibovitz. The young couple had Yiddish in common, and my father, impoverished but resolute, courted my mother by taking walks with her and singing Novardoker niggunim; soon they married.

The couple moved to Baltimore and my father taught at Yeshivahs Chofetz Chaim (“Talmudical Academy”) before becoming the rov of a small shul, Adath Yeshurun – Shadover Shul.

He delivered drashos in Yiddish until more non-Yiddish-speakers joined the shul, and my mother helped him translate his speeches into English. She was a full partner in both his life and the shul, cooking for kiddushim, conducting groups for children on Shabbos afternoons, and much more.

Kiruv’ wasn’t a catchword back then, but that was what my parents were doing, and they raised the commitment to Yiddishkeit of untold numbers of people then and for the rest of their lives.

The shul paid little and somehow, even with the counseling, chasunos and hospital visits, my father found the time to attend night school to study accounting. In addition to his rabbinic responsibilities, he became an auditor for the city of Baltimore. He took his obligations seriously and his co-workers were impressed by his integrity. They said they could set their watches by when he left for lunch break (when he would take walks to keep in good health) and when he returned to his desk.

In the 1970s, a minyan near his office in downtown Baltimore wouldn’t hew to my father’s polite request of a mechitza to accommodate a woman who attended davening, so he started a second minyan. Someone who was there at the time recounts that my father was “the rav, the gabbai, the posek, and often the shliach tzibur” as well as “a role model for how a frum person should conduct himself… [and] interact with all of one’s diverse co-workers, creating a true kiddush HaShem. [He] foster[ed] respect towards Jewish people from everyone he encountered.” Days after his petirah, the minyan, which continues to this day, was formally named “The Rabbi Simcha Shafran Downtown Mincha Minyan.”

Throughout his more than 60 years as a Rav, my father made deep impressions on young and old, seekers and scoffers, intellectual and spiritual sorts alike. There wasn’t any trick. With his radiant smile, he just presented himself, and Torah, honestly, without pretensions. Someone once remarked that he had always assumed that, to be a successful Rav in America, a man had to be tall and sophisticated, speak the Queen’s English and hold himself aloof – until he met my father.

When, after more than 40 years of marriage, my mother was nifteres, in 1989, my father was devastated. But the inner strength that saw him through so much emerged with time and he resumed his life with vigor, even marrying again. His second wife, the former Ethel Bagry (Mendlowitz), was beloved to my wife and me, and everything a Bubby could be to our children. My father and “Bobby Ethel” exulted in each other’s families’ simchos for 20 years, and my father cared for her, as he did for my mother, during her final illness.

The neighborhood where my father’s shul existed for many years changed and so, in his 80s, he moved to the Greenspring area of Baltimore County. He built a beis medrash in his new home’s basement, and established a Shabbos minyan. A dedicated group of mispallelim considered it their shul; and my father, their life guide.

He learned and taught Torah, and served as the mazkir of the Baltimore Bais Din. His “vacations” were trips to celebrate the simchos of his children, grandchildren and step-progeny.

He would also yearly address a Ner Yisroel high school Holocaust Studies class (taught by my brother, a rebbi), sharing his wartime experiences with that, and other, rapt audiences.

He walked three miles daily, well into his upper 80s. Only a brain tumor slowed him down. When it became necessary for him to have 24-hour care, he moved in with my brother and his eishes chayil Shalvah, both of whom were deeply dedicated to him. Two days before his petirah, my father was able, with Baltimore Hatzalah’s help, to attend the chasunah of one of their daughters. He gave and received brachos from many of the hundreds in attendance, gave the kallah a special brachah before the chuppah, and one to the new couple afterward.

The morning of his petirah, he made a final request. It wasn’t clear what he sought but his daughter-in-law thought she heard him say “tefillin.” When she asked him if that was what he wanted, he nodded yes, and my brother put tefillin on him. Shortly thereafter, Hakodosh Baruch Hu welcomed my father to his eternal reward.

The final day of shivah, a baby boy was born to my and my wife’s son Mordechai and his eishes chayil Leah Gittel. At the bris, a new Simcha Bunim Shafran was introduced to the world.

Zeh hakatan gadol yihyeh. May he prove a worthy bearer of his name.

(Rabbi Simcha Shafran’s memoir, “Fire, Ice, Air: A Polish Jew’s Memoir of Yeshivah, Siberia, America,” is available from Amazon.)

 © Hamodia 2017

Hypocritic Oath

A nineteen-year-old Israeli citizen of Arab ethnicity was among the 39 people killed in the recent attack of an Istanbul club, for which the terrorist group Islamic State claimed pride of ownership.

Lian Zaher Nasser was from the Israeli Arab city of Tira, and, since she had no travel insurance, her family asked the local municipality for help in bringing her remains home. The municipality turned to the Israeli government, and the Interior Ministry immediately agreed to fund the return of the body and made the necessary arrangements. ZAKA coordinated the logistics and transportation.

The young woman’s funeral took place in her home town. Among the speakers was Israeli-Arab Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi (Joint Arab List). In his eulogy, he said that the Islamic State terror group “is not Islam, and most of the victims of its crimes are Muslims…” The entire Arab public, he added, “is shocked and feels great sadness and anger” over the attack, which he rightly called “loathsome.”

Dr. Tibi, a doctor who trained at Hebrew University, is often described as “witty” and “charming.” A vocal Palestinian nationalist, he opposes Islamism and, as per his funeral comments, the terrorism it embraces.

He is also a hypocrite.

At a Palestinian Authority event on September 1, 2011, which was broadcast by Palestinian Authority television, Mr. Tibi, who served for several years as a political advisor to Yasser Arafat and wearing an Arafat-style keffiyeh slung over his neck, told his audience: “Nothing is more exalted than those whom Israel dubs Terrorists-Shahids.”

Shahid” is usually translated by media as “martyr.” The English word, however, bespeaks a passive death, and its wide use by both “Palestinian nationalists” and Islamists like Islamic State alike includes people who are dispatched in the process of trying to kill others in the name of either ideology. In the Arab world, suicide bombings are popularly called amaliyat istishadiah, or “acts through which one became a shahid.”

Mr. Tibi, at that same event, explained that “The shahid is the trailblazer, drawing with his blood the path to freedom and liberation.” And he offered his blessings “to the thousands of shahids in the homeland and abroad, and… to our shahids and yours, inside the green line, those the occupier wants to dub terrorists, while we say there is nothing more exalted than those who died for the homeland.” Deaths, that is, resultant from the act of murder. After all, despite all the Arab propaganda, Palestinians are not killed for passive resistance. And, as was seen in recent days, in the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who illegally dispatched a terrorist whose absence from the world left it a better place, when an Israeli soldier, in a rare occurrence, uses lethal force where it wasn’t necessary, he is put on trial and convicted.

This past July, Mr. Tibi paid a visit to the Hadarim prison, to pay his respects to Marwan Barghouti, the terrorist responsible for a number of terrorists attacks in 2002, including one at a gas station in Givat Ze’ev, in which 45-year-old woman was murdered, one in Ma’aleh Adumim and another one at the Seafood Market restaurant. He was acquitted for 33 other murders of which he was accused; there was insufficient evidence of his direct involvement.

Currently serving several consecutive life sentences, he continues to regularly incite violence against Israel from his prison cell.

Ahmed Tibi’s visiting a convicted and unrepentant terrorist dovetails (if any word with “dove” in it might be appropriate here) well with his words at the 2011 gathering. He is a wolf in doctor’s white coat (or Knesset attire). He likely has some high-minded response to the question of how he can loudly and harshly condemn the killing of civilians by Islamic State but celebrate the killing of civilians by Palestinian “trailblazers.”

Maybe he would try to make some distinction between religiously-fueled murder and politically-fueled murder.

Maybe he would describe Palestinians’ aching for a homeland (other than Jordan, Syria and Gaza) as something that justifies wanton mayhem.

But, were he an honest man, not just a charming one, he might just admit that the key to his distinction lies not in such philosophical assertions but rather in the very words he used during his eulogy for Miss Nasser – his reference to the fact that “most of the victims” of Islamic State’s “crimes are Muslims” and the fact that most of the victims, and all of the targets, of Palestinian “freedom fighters” are Jews.

© 2017 Hamodia

Loss and Legacy

Like so many of his generation in Europe, he had an all too short childhood.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, when he was 14, he found himself, along with his family and others from the small Polish shtetl of Ruzhan, fleeing the Nazi invaders with only what they could carry on their backs. Soon enough, the refugees were apprehended and locked in a shul, with a neighboring home set ablaze and the flames growing closer. The din, he recalled, was deafening. People were shouting out the Shema with all their might, crying bitterly, saying Viduy. Then they were suddenly, miraculously saved before the flames reached the shul, by, they suspected, Eliyahu Hanavi, in the guise of a high-ranking German officer.

Then, in a miracle of will, the boy decided to leave his parents to journey to Bialystok, to join the Novardoker yeshivah, a dream he had been promised, before the war, he would be able to fulfill.

The yeshivah, though, wasn’t there anymore, and so the boy jumped onto a train to Vilna, where many Polish yeshivos had relocated. Lithuania was still independent.

It wasn’t long, though, before the Soviets took over, and he and his chaverim and rebbe were sent to Siberia, where they spent the war years, enduring long 40 degrees below zero winters.

He once came close to death there. One of the other young men even trudged for kilometers through the snow on a mission, the trudger thought, to bury the boy, who was rumored to have succumbed.

At war’s end, the group made its way to Germany, were smuggled into Berlin’s American sector and set up a yeshivah in a town called Salzheim. Eventually, the boy, now a young man, was able to sail to America, where he married a respected Baltimore Rav’s daughter, who taught him English and helped him pursue his career, first as a rebbe in Baltimore’sYeshivas Chofetz Chaim and then as a shul Rav, a position he held for some 60 years. They had three children.

He was my father, hareni kapporas mishkavo. And his actual kevurah did not happen until more than 70 years had passed since that day his friend expected to inter him. It took place just before the start of Chanukah.

For all who knew and loved my father – and it is a very large group – his petirah was a wrenching personal loss. But it represented a tragedy for Klal Yisrael, too, and not just in the sense that an oved Hashem and marbitz Torah left this world.

It was a national tragedy for another reason, too, because, among all the many men and women whose lives my father touched and who came to the shivah house or called or emailed their nechamos – a group that included an astonishingly diverse spectrum of Yidden, from talmidei chachamim to the not-yet-frum – not a single one was from my father’s European chevrah.

That dearth, of course, was not unexpected. But it was an unhappy reminder, all the same, that the generation that witnessed the Jewish Europe that once was, and the horror and hashgacha of the Holocaust years, the generation that was our living link to that place and those days, is ebbing.

The only member, in fact, of my father’s Novardok chaburah in Siberia still alive is Reb Herschel Nudel, may he have a refuah shleimah, the man who endured that long, frigid walk to “bury” my father so many decades ago. Considering his astounding chessed, his arichas yamim, isn’t surprising.

And yet, the scene at my father’s levayah that most vividly remains with me was when the announcement was made that grandsons and great-grandsons of the niftar should come forward to carry the aron to begin its journey to the beis olam, where my mother, grandmother, uncles and aunts, my Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, and my rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zecher kulam livrachah, all lie, awaiting techiyas hameisim.

Those summoned came forth, but it took a while before the aron could be lifted. Not that it was heavy. My father wasn’t a physically large man. But it was a challenge for the many young men, all yirei Shamayim, who had heeded the call to find an empty spot to put their hands.

It was an aron, not a shulchan. But the words “Banecha kish’silei zeisim saviv lishulchanecha,” “Your sons, like olive shoots, all around your table” (Tehillim 128:3), even at that agonizing moment, rang like a melodic bell in my mind.

© Hamodia 2017

A Window into the Past

It’s barely visible. Taped to the inside of the front bay window of a neat, modest house on a nondescript street in Toronto is a photocopy of a spoon.

The window, off the living room, is dominated by two large, healthy banana plants that have thrived there for many years. But if you look closely at the window of the house near Eglington Avenue, where my dear in-laws live, you’ll see the reproduction of the spoon, and might wonder why it’s there.

The answer to that question has to do with my father-in-law, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well, an alumnus of a number of World War II concentration camps. And with Chanukah, too.

The spoon that was photocopied was one of the items he smuggled out of Auschwitz, when the Nazis moved him into “Camp Number Eight” – a quarantine camp, for those suspected of carrying typhus.

There were no labor details in that new camp, but the inmates were ordered to help in its construction, which was still underway. Having had some experience in the Lodz ghetto as a mechanic, my father-in-law helped the electrical technician install the camp’s lighting.

With his new access to tools, he brought his spoon to work and filed down its handle, making it into a sharp knife, which he used both to eat his soup ration and to cut the chunk of bread he and others were allotted and had to cut evenly to apportion it fairly. My father-in-law became the go-to person to wield his spoon-knife to help avoid disputes and maintain relative peace among the prisoners.

When winter came, he was transferred to “Camp Number Four” in Kaufering, a camp more similar to Auschwitz. Despite the terrible hardships the prisoners suffered daily, however, my father-in-law, a Gerer chassid, and other G-d-fearing Jews in the camp tried whenever possible to do what mitzvos they could, despite all the dangers that involved.

My father-in-law always kept mental track of the calendar, and he knew when Chanukah had arrived. During a few minutes’ rest break, he and a group of inmates began to reminisce about how, back home before the war, their fathers would light their menorahs with such fervor and joy. They remembered how they could never get their fill of watching the flames sparkling like stars, and basked in their warm, special glow.

And they spoke of the war of the Chashmonaim against their Seleucid Greek tormentors, who were intent on erasing Judaism from Jewish hearts. And how Hashem helped them resist and rout their enemy, enabling Jews to freely observe the Torah and mitzvos once again.

If only, they mused, if only they could light Chanukah candles.

One prisoner said he had a small bit of margarine he had saved from his daily ration. That could serve as our oil. And wicks? They began to unravel threads from our uniforms…

But a menorah. They needed a menorah.

My father-in-law took out his spoon.  Within moments, the small group was lighting their Chanukah lichteleh, reciting the brachos of “Lehadlik ner”, She’asa nissim” and “Shehecheyanu.” The prisoners all stood there transfixed, immersed in their thoughts… of Chanukahs gone by.

The small flame kindled in them, too, a glimmer of hope. As they recited She’asa nissim, the bracha about the miracles Hashem had performed for our forefathers “in those days”, but also “at this time,” they understood that the only thing that could save them would be a miracle. A “nes gadol,” in fact.

Non-religious Jews, too, stood nearby and watched the luminous moment in the darkness of their concentration camp lives. Who knows what difference it may have made in their own lives.

My father-in-law today, along with his eishes chayil, are filled with gratitude for his having been graced with a personal miracle and surviving those days – a harrowing story in itself, which he chronicled in his ArtScroll/Mesorah book “Destined to Survive.”

And they thank Hashem for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren He has granted them, kein yirbu, committed to lives of Torah and mitzvos.

A more elaborate menorah than a spoon is placed at their window each Chanukah. But the spoon, or at least a photographic reproduction of it, always shares the window space, a reminder of a Chanukah many years ago in a very different place.

And, somehow, the large, thriving plants that frame the window seem appropriate too.

© 2016 Hamodia

The Boys Who Cried “Anti-Semite!”

The sobbing of some political liberals, including, of course, many Jews, that ensued after the presidential election results were tallied has turned into wild wailing with the appointment of Stephen Bannon as senior counselor to the president-elect.

Those observers were shocked enough back in August, when Mr. Bannon, the executive chairman of the politically conservative Breitbart News, was put in charge of Donald Trump’s campaign.  Now, though, mouths are foaming.

Partisan condemnation of Mr. Bannon’s recent appointment was expected.  169 House Democrats signed a letter to Mr. Trump characterizing his new appointee as a purveyor of anti-Semitism, misogyny and racism.  Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called him “a champion of white supremacy.”

In the Jewish world, the Union for Reform Judaism accused Mr. Bannon of being “responsible for the advancement of ideologies antithetical to our nation, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia.”

The Anti-Defamation League said that Bannon is “hostile to core American values.”

Forward editor Jane Eisner, asserted that with Bannon’s appointment, “the anti-Semitic sentiments of the far right are closer to the center of political power than they have been in recent memory.”

And the National Council of Jewish Women pronounced its verdict: “Bannon and his ilk must be barred from his [Trump] administration.”

The actual evidence for labeling Bannon an anti-Semite, or enabler of anti-Semites, or racist, or all-around monster is slim. No, actually, nonexistent.

Not that a yeoman’s effort hasn’t been expended to make the case.  The news organization that Mr. Bannon has headed since the death of its founder Andrew Breitbart in 2012 is certainly not to many people’s tastes (my own included).  It makes famously right-leaning Fox News seem like a liberal lamb.  And it has a penchant for putting provocative headlines on entirely reasonable (if arguable) opinion pieces.

Headlines like: “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.”  That Breitbart piece, written by political conservative David Horowitz, was an unremarkable gripe about the fact that Mr. Kristol, a dean of American conservatism, had written critically about Donald Trump.  Mr. Horowitz noted how “Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, ISIS, and Hamas” have “openly sworn to exterminate the Jews,” and shared his feeling that the Obama administration was not adequately facing that threat to Jews and to America. “To weaken the only party that stands between the Jews and their annihilation, and between America and the forces intent on destroying her,” Horowitz wrote, “is a political miscalculation so great and a betrayal so profound as to not be easily forgiven.”

Whatever one might feel about that article’s thesis, it was run-of-the-mill  intra-Republican kvetching and not, by any measure, anti-Semitic.

Another piece of “evidence” for Bannon’s malevolence is the claim of his former wife, in divorce documents, that, while seeking a private school for his children, he made a remark about “spoiled” Jewish children.  Needless to say, unsupported (and denied) accusations in divorce proceedings deserve no one’s attention.

The strongest charge against Mr. Bannon is his statement in an interview last summer that Breitbart News is “the platform for the alt-right.”

But, as has been noted before in this space, the “alt-right” means different things to different people, and includes widely disparate elements.

What those elements generally share is a dedication to family values; a reverence for Western civilization and rejection of multiculturalism.  The fringes of the movement, though, can include racism, opposition to all immigration and anti-Semitism. The fringes of the “progressive” wing of American politics, too, include Jew-haters (though they dress up their hatred as “anti-Israel” sentiment).

Imagining that Mr. Bannon meant to include the alt-right’s tattered fringes in his statement is ungenerous, and unsupported by the actual content of Breitbart offerings.  As far back as 2014, he explicitly predicted that racism would eventually get “washed out” of right-wing movements.

As it happens, not only was the late Mr. Breitbart Jewish, but the news service carrying his name was started by a Jewish lawyer and businessman, Larry Solov, who conceived it during a trip he made to Israel with Mr. Breitbart.  It was to be “a site,” Mr. Solov wrote, “that would be unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel.”  Which it has been.

I don’t automatically accept the veracity of what I read at Breitbart, or in The New York Times.  Every news medium, whether it admits it or not, has its slant and partialities.  A semblance of accuracy can only be gained by reading, and balancing, a variety of media, fully aware of each one’s biases.

Racism and anti-Semitism are malign, to be sure.  So, though, is, carelessly and without evidence, casting labels like “racist” or “anti-Semite” about.

© Hamodia 2016

Glimmer of Light in a Dark Campaign

Well, we’ve all had some time by now to recover from the year-and-a-half-long national convulsion that passed for a presidential campaign. Might there be something positive to point to in an experience most of us would prefer to somehow un-experience?

Well, there’s no way to make any sort of purse, much less a silk one, out of this particular sow’s ear. But still, in the campaign’s waning days, there was a flicker of civility to behold.

It came at a time of particular tension for the Clinton campaign – after FBI chief James Comey’s first statement revealing the discovery of a new trove of possibly problematic e-mails, and before his second one revealing that the trove was untainted.

It took place at a Clinton rally at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. As President Obama addressed the large crowd, a protester wearing a military uniform stood up at the front of the gathering, holding aloft a pro-Trump placard. Predictably, a wall of loud, sustained boos resulted.

In professorial tones, Mr. Obama told the crowd to calm down. When it didn’t, he raised his voice. “Everybody! Hey! I told you to be focused and you’re not focused right now. Sit down and be quiet for a second!” The boos faded to a muted murmur.

“You’ve got an older gentleman,” the president lectured his listeners, referring to the protester, “who is supporting his candidate. He’s not doing nothing… This is what I mean about folks not being focused. First of all, we live in a country that respects free speech. Second of all, it looks like maybe he might have served in our military and we ought to respect that. Third of all, he was elderly and we got to respect our elders.”

The incident was reminiscent of one in 2008, at a Republican town hall meeting in Minnesota, where Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama’s opponent at the time, also had to deal with supportive but misguided booing – and did so decisively.

A supporter had said he was “scared” of the prospect of an Obama presidency, and the crowd loudly vocalized its approval. But Mr. McCain refused to bask in the anger.

“I have to tell you,” he said. “Senator Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.”

“Come on, John!” someone shouted out. Others loudly labeled Mr. Obama “liar,” and “terrorist.”

Then a woman who had been handed a microphone said “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not, uh – he’s an Arab.” Mr. McCain retrieved the mike and replied: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

Such moments of comity are all too rare in the tumult of of campaign-tornados, like the recent one, that swirl angrily with snide innuendo, malign spin and outright lies – all eagerly drunk in and spat out by partisan pundits. But those moments are the ones consonant with the concept of menschlichkeit.

Pleasing, too, if not unexpected, was hearing Mrs. Clinton, the day after the election, tell her supporters that “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”

As it was hearing Mr. Obama, that same day, declaring that “we are now all rooting for [Mr. Trump’s] success in uniting and leading the country.”

The president’s decency was all the greater for his citing that of his predecessor. “Eight years ago,” Mr. Obama recalled, “President Bush and I had some pretty significant differences. But President Bush’s team could not have been more professional or more gracious in making sure we had a smooth transition so that we could hit the ground running.”

It’s no secret that I have come to judge the current president much more favorably than many in the Orthodox Jewish world. But I came to that conclusion only after Mr. Obama, to my lights, demonstrated his commitment to the safety and security of Israel and Jews. Until then, like others, I feared what the punditocracy was preaching about the purported Muslim, chassid of unhinged hater Reverend Wright, husband of a black power radical and all-around evildoer who had somehow infiltrated the White House.

Like many, even among some of Mr. Trump’s supporters, I have concerns about the president-elect. Heeding Hillary’s admonition, though, I am keeping an open mind, and will let future facts lead me where they will. I am hoping that the new president, like his predecessor, will come to pleasantly surprise me.

© 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 Stormfront.org 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