July 26, 2013

Jews of Pinsk

I have just read almost a thousand pages of the two-volume history of The Jews of Pinsk published by Stanford University Press. It is translated from Azriel Shohet’s Hebrew, and I got hold of a copy through one of the editors of the English version, Mark Jay Mirsky. I should mention that his beautifully written prefaces to the two volumes are reason enough to read them. The volumes are packed with facts and tables, not for the fainthearted or those used to getting their information predigested in abbreviated form. This magisterial work underlines both inspirational and disturbing features of Jewish life in the Eastern European diaspora.

Polish Jewry was the child of the expulsions and catastrophes inflicted on the Ashkenazi communities of England and the Rhineland during the crusades. Dislocated remnants of destroyed communities headed east. Poland was short of people. First Boleslaw the Pious welcomed the refugees in 1264, even though his own clerics opposed him. Then Casimir the Great (who reigned from 1333 to 1370) granted the Jews extensive charters and laid the foundations for a self-governing quasi-autonomous community which slowly over the years became the most dynamic Jewish community in the Christian world.

Pinsk, on its eastern borders, sat on the convergence of river systems that linked it with the Baltic to the north and the Black Sea to the south. It came to be the town with the largest proportion of Jews in all Europe, and it eventually merged with its satellite town Karlin. During the course of its history Pinsk came, in sequence, under Polish, Lithuanian, Swedish, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, German, Russian and finally Communists Polish regimes. How’s that for instability?

The first volume, dealing with the years 1506 to 1880, describes life initially under the Poles and the self-regulating Jewish Communal Organization, the Vaad Arbaah Aratzot, which combined the regions of Greater Poland, Lesser Poland, Ruthenia, and Volhnya. Each community was in effect governed by its wealthy members and its rabbis, a kind of aristocracy both serving and benefitting from power, united by bonds of financial support, marriage, and vested interests. The state of affairs in which the poor were effectively treated as second-class citizens has been well documented, including the Littman Library’s 2004 publication Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller: Portrait of a Seventeenth-Century Rabbi by Joseph Davis.

During the Cossack invasions and pogroms under Bogdan Chmielnicki and his allies, too often the rabbis and the rich abandoned their communities, leaving the poor unprotected to bear the brunt of the atrocities. It is reminiscent of the way before the Second World War many great rabbis in Eastern Europe told their followers to stay and not emigrate but then they themselves got out through their contacts and influence, leaving the poor to suffer disproportionately from the Nazis and their allies.

One gets a picture of the instability of life even under the most benevolent of monarchs. The constant agitation of the church (of every denomination: Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed ), the unpredictability of invading forces, shifting alliances, and constant danger from marauding bandits and mercenaries meant that life for most people at the time was indeed as Hobbes described it “nasty, brutish, and short.” For Jews it was doubly so. Yet for all the ups and downs, one step forward and two back, the Pinsk Jewish population grew and thrived.

The eighteenth century brought not only pogroms and dislocation but also the great popular movement of Chasidism which henceforth would divide every Jewish community in Eastern Europe. Pinsk was the epitome of the opposing Mitnaged tradition. Karlin became a great Chasidic center. As the nineteenth century brought change and challenges, the Mitnaged community tended towards intellectual advance and an appreciation of wider study. Chasidism set itself very much against alien culture.

The second volume starts with 1881 and goes to the twentieth century and the effective destruction of Jewish Pinsk. Life in Pinsk was divided beyond religion. The term Haskalah is often wrongly translated as “Enlightenment”. Initially it meant no more in the east than introducing some secular education into the traditional curriculum, something that many leading rabbis favored. In Central and Western Europe Haskalah did indeed lead to assimilation in many cases. In Pinsk it was initially seen as helping many find employment and strengthen the community. However when the Jews of Poland were annexed by Russia and the anti-Jewish culture of the Czarist regime began to weigh down on the Jews of the Pale of Settlement, education imposed by the state was indeed associated with a policy of conscious repudiation of Jewish identity and values.

Under the Czars, the struggle for Jewish survival became a daily test. Hundreds of thousands emigrated. Amongst those who stayed, resistance to the regime in various ways led to serious fissures within communities. Radicals, socialists, and Bundists saw the future only in terms of liberation from class oppression and religious narrowmindedness. Secular Zionists dreamed of salvation in establishing a new Jewish ethos based on labor in the Land of Israel. Different groups competed, fought, and provoked each other. This roiling competitive atmosphere produced great literature in Hebrew and Yiddish, a flourishing cultural life, schools, and youth movements.

The religious too were divided, not just between Chasidim and Mitnagdim but between Zionist and anti-Zionist. The very tensions we find today in Jewish life, particularly in Israel, could already be found in Pinsk towards the end of the nineteenth century.

These tensions of wealth and ideology continued through the disastrous Polish regime after the First World War, where occasionally only American intervention stemmed rising anti-Semitism, made worse by the fact that Jews were prominent on both political sides and were blamed for everything, as always. It all deteriorates as the German Nazis and their Eastern European sympathizers brought catastrophe to Jewish life. That anything survived at all was a miracle.

The myth currently cultivated in certain religious circles about the idyllic Jewish life if the ghettos of the East is dishonest, manipulative, and a betrayal of the memory of those who lived through it. Unless you were rich it was insufferable and painful a life. Your wealth could disappear overnight. The relatively few students of yeshivas, even the great Lithuanian ones, often went barefoot, coatless, and hungry in winter. Even the numbers studying Torah full time were a fraction of those supported by Israel today, let alone the USA. There were indeed great rabbis and leaders, and Pinsk attracted and nurtured some of the greatest. But for the masses it was Hell on Earth.

The comparison with Israel today is compelling. Whether secular or religious, financial or political, regardless of all its troubles and tensions, Israel is a flourishing of Jewish life in the widest sense that puts even Pinsk in the shade. Whether the researchers had an agenda or not, the facts speak for themselves. The pretense that it was better then, is, as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, “not a very clever thing to say.”

It’s a sad story of the disappearance of yet another once-great Jewish center. But Professors Mirsky and Rosman deserve gratitude for bringing this important work to the English speaking world. We can rejoice in the fact that we have survived and thrived.

July 18, 2013

Hypersensitivity

I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art the other day, standing in front of a painting by an artist I much admire, Giovanni Battista Caracciolo (not as good as Caravaggio, but a close second). The painting, entitled “Tobias and the Angel”, is based on a weird story in the apocryphal Book of Tobit. Briefly, Tobit is a member of the tribe of Naftali exiled by the Assyrians to Nineveh. Horrible things happen to him. He gets blinded. His son goes off to try to collect a debt, and the angel Rephael sends him on a journey to Media to help a widow called Sarah who is possessed by the demon Asmodeus. Tobias is attacked by a fish as he crosses the Tigris. The angel tells him to use its innards to scare off the demon. He rescues Sarah and, back home, uses the miraculous innards to cure his father’s blindness. Tobias and Sarah marry, and they all live happily ever after. Not really the sort of book you’d expect to find in the Tanach, and it isn’t.
 
In the gallery the caption reads, “Based on the Biblical book.” My hackles began to rise because it might be in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, which include the Apocrypha, but it is not in ours or in most Protestant Bibles either. Couldn’t they get it straight? Then I got worked up about their calling it the Old Testament, for us primitive old fogeys, as opposed to the shiny New Testament for the good guys. And then I thought, “Am I crazy to get worked up by such a trivial issue?”
 
A few months ago a friend in London involved me in a complaint he sent to the director of the National Gallery about a painting called “The Rich Man being led to Hell“ by David Teniers the Younger, in which the rich man is clearly painted as a Jew complete with kipa and beard, not to mention exaggerated features. The director replied amenably, and tried to put it in the context of the painter and his time. But I did think a few lines added to the blurb might have put the portrait in the context of say “The Jew of Malta”, “The Merchant of Venice”, or indeed “Oliver Twist”, not to mention “Der Sturmer”.
 
If I am so hypersensitive, why am I so surprised when other people are? I have always been very quick to take offense at any perceived slur against my religion and my people, even if I am myself amongst the first to criticize them when they are wrong. Doesn’t Proverbs say, “Better the wounds of a friend than the sweet talk of an enemy”? Perhaps it was growing up in England where in my youth Jews and Judaism were indeed regarded as not quite acceptable. We were still called Christ Killers, Jew Boys, and Yids and were accused of being devious, rich, unpatriotic foreigners who should “go home”. Except, of course, many Brits didn’t want us to go “home” either!
 
Yet whenever people made fun of religion in general, pompous vicars or duplicitous priests, I enjoyed the fun. Jewish humor is predominantly self-critical and makes fun of God, Moses, rabbis, and the lot of us. But as society has changed we have been forced to become much more sensitive towards those who suffered from racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, indeed any kind of discrimination.
 
This weekend the doyen of American writers, Joyce Carol Oates, has been mangled online and in the press because she tweeted, “Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed & rape is epidemic—Egypt—natural to inquire: what’s the predominant religion?”
 
Some of the criticism has been that Ms. Oates might have mentioned other factors such as social, economic, and historical. It was not fair to blame religion only. But why are some religious groups more prone to sexual assault and violence against women? Might it mot be, in part, because of religious attitudes? We can all see that within religions there are extremes and fanatics and bad guys as well as good guys. If people set themselves up as spiritual leaders, we have every right to expect them to behave as such and take responsibility. Toleration of corruption or distortion must be excoriated. That, after all, is our tradition. The prophets, Mussar, and Torah require self-analysis, self-criticism, and self-discipline.
 
The Zimmerman affair is polarizing American society. One side argues that one must respect due process. The other argues that the victim was black and that proves discrimination. But it was Martin Luther King who fought discrimination like no other, yet called on black society to ask itself why its proportion of criminals and single parent families was so much higher that other minorities. In other words being sensitive should not prevent one asking questions.
 
So despite my hypersensitivity I do not get angry over reasoned criticism of Judaism (or of myself). I don’t expect thinking Muslims to object to a reasoned critique of Islam. Is this insensitive? No, I don’t think so. Religious leaders or authorities should expect criticism over mistakes or poor judgments. The Ethics of the Fathers declares, “Nagid Shmey Avad Shmey. [A Name Made is a Name destroyed.]” If you set yourself up above the crowd, you must expect scrutiny and criticism.  
 
If American politicians like Spitzer and Weiner, who lost office through their own sexual misdeeds, choose to run for office again, they must expect the scrutiny and explain why they should be trusted with high office. They cannot be treated with kid gloves. It is not insensitive to challenge them about their past behavior. I recall John Profumo who in 1963 lost office against a background of sexual impropriety. But then he lived a life of good deeds, modesty, and charity. We all have choices. If we take the high ground, we must expect to have to defend it.
 
Of course there is still racism, anti-Semitism, and anti a whole lot of others. The Supreme Court opened up a debate over preferential treatment for minorities. New York is arguing over police profiling. All sides are getting their oars in openly and blatantly. That is the beauty of robust, open, contrary debate.
 
In Britain and Europe, where state broadcasting systems affect the narrative and in practice dictate the manner of debate by imposing a wet blanket of political correctness and bias, it is much harder to find a fair, open, and honest hearing of a contrary point of view. Just read Melanie Phillips’ blog to see what it’s like to try to offer an alternative narrative.
 
The USA also contains different states with different laws and different biases. Some are pro-business and some are pro-union. Some impose State taxes, some do not. Some allow gay marriage , others reject it. If citizens do not like one state’s laws, they can move to another. The freedom to insult in the USA often surprises Europeans. But in the end I believe its brutal openness is healthier. In other words, being sensitive ought not necessarily to mean you cannot say what you believe is right. If I am hypersensitive I need to get over it.

July 11, 2013

The Golem Disease

On my first visit to Prague some fifteen years ago, I was stunned to see a statue of the great sixteenth century Rabbi Loew, by the twentieth century Czech sculptor Ladislav Jan Šaloun. It stands at the side of the New Town Hall. He is depicted as an evil, looming, glowering wizard, like the evil Queen in “Snow White”, with “the hounds of hell” glaring from behind his cloak and the supine naked body of the church at his feet. There have been attempts to explain away the obvious, but it won’t wash.

Photo: Engelberger at the German language Wikipedia.

Nothing could be more ridiculous and evil a portrayal of a gentle, saintly scholar as this offensive object. It epitomizes to me the continuing evil of anti-Semitism that portrays the Jew as a dangerous magician out to destroy the world and incidentally how art can be misused.

The old Jewish quarter in Prague was preserved by Nazi propaganda to portray us as primitive, medieval sorcerers. But the sad fact is that we ourselves handed them the means of regarding us this way. Almost three hundred years after Rabbi Loew’s death, Jewish “enlightened” writers created the myth of the Golem. There was not a hint at such a fantasy for hundreds of years after his death, let alone in his lifetime. They had an agenda; to depict the Jewish religion as a dated, medieval culture, dependent on ancient myths, superstition, and magic, a distortion of the Kabbalah, that they would now sweep away either through reform, assimilation and, when that did not work, through secular Zionism.

Reproduction of the Prague Golem.

The idea that one can create life is indeed mentioned in Talmudic legend, with two rabbis producing a calf through incantations and enjoying a meal. It does not require Rambam to remind us that we should not always take Aggadah literally. This legend has, of course, no legal significance, although if it did it might be useful way of avoiding animal slaughter and current methods of meat rearing; cloning we call it nowadays!

But by publicizing and even glamorizing Golems, Dybbuks, evil spirits of the night, and mad kabbalists who could curse and perform miracles, these writers were able to make the association that played into the hands of our enemies and still does to this very day. It’s like depicting American culture through the prism of an era in which Americans murdered the so-called witches of Salem. But it also serves another purpose.

We are a culture that perpetuates the myth of Superman, Batman, Ironman, Captain Marvel, and all those comic book heroes, now Hollywood blockbusters, that tell us that some extremely powerful spirit can come to our rescue and remove evil and restore order. This is every child’s dream of overcoming adults, or every adult’s dream of overcoming whatever or whoever it is that either stands in his way, threatens him, or simply lives better than he does. It is dangerous because it is an excuse for inaction and fantasy. It is a justification for refusing to come to terms with a challenge because some sort of miraculous intervention will solve all our problems. It is like expecting the Messiah to com and sort out our personal problems.

The fact is that this has always been a very powerful strain in Judaism, as in all religions. They have all tried at some stage to suggest that they have all the answers to everything. They have told us that God intervenes to defeat evil and to support good. And when this has manifestly not happened on earth, they have told us that all will be put right in the Next World. As against this, the very same religions have added a rider that we must take responsibility for our actions and live with the consequences.

This internal conflict has always played out throughout our history. Do we seek our freedom from the Egyptians or stay slaves? Do we accept Greek authority or fight it? Do we challenge Rome or capitulate? Do we actively try to create a state of our own or wait for the Messiah? Do we withdraw settlements from Gaza or leave it to God? Do we seek a peace settlement with improbable partners or wait and hope for Divine Intervention? Do we insist on the ridiculous proposition that every Jew, regardless of his mental capacity, should sit and study Talmud for the whole of his life, or should some at least, train for a job to care for their families?

The incapacity of too many rabbis to tolerate some sort of practical compromise in relation to the state of Israel is one of the most myopic examples of paralysis that recalls the inability to take steps to prevent millions from escaping the Nazi catastrophe. The state subsidizes their academies, supports their families with welfare, and in return asks for some practical social if not military contribution to its safety. The current Israeli government is proposing exemption for genuine scholars and yet the crude responses are the objectionable scenes of religiously garbed and bearded men who ought to know better, accusing other Jews of being Nazis, victimizing those Charedim who do join, calling them rats and traitors, expelling them from communities, abusing them in public, calling rabbis who support the draft sinners and evil men. They might be dismissed as unbalanced harmless village idiots if it were not also dangerous and self-defeating.

What a Chillul HaShem, a Desecration of the Divine Name, to see the New York Times blazoning across its pages this primitive abuse by Orthodox Jews of others, supported by some ( thank goodness not all) supposed great leaders, great wise rabbis. All this does is proclaim in public for everyone around to the world to see and say, “You see, the Jews are as crazy as the Mullahs.”

Instead of finding ways of relating to the issue, instead of trying to offer vocational education alongside Torah education for those who will not be the scholars, they are cutting the ground from under their own feet, humiliating Torah and relying on Superman to save them and their subsidies. They no doubt are, as I write, calling on Kabbalists to issue curses and exorcisms and Golems to do what common sense and good will could achieve.

As we approach the great fast of the Ninth of Av and remember how we blame our own mistakes for those catastrophes that befell us, I pray a spirit of wisdom might enter their souls and get them to think again.

July 04, 2013

92nd Street Y

In my youth, everyone had heard of the YMCA, the Young Men’s Christian Association. It was founded in 1844 “to put Christian principles into practice by developing a healthy body, mind and spirit". And it spread around the world. If you have spent any time in Jerusalem you could not avoid the YMCA building and tower. Once it was the tallest construction in West Jerusalem. Now it is dwarfed by apartment blocks, hotels, and office towers.

www.pikiwiki.org.il photo

To a young Jewish boy fresh from the UK, the YMCA Jerusalem in the 1950s reeked of alien smells, sights, customs, and ideology. It was the Arnold of Rugby public school system transferred to the Middle East, a legacy of the British Mandate and colonialism. The indoor swimming pool was the only one in Jerusalem in the fifties until the late, unlamented Presidents Hotel added a minute plunge pool. The YMCA pool in Jerusalem was not only segregated, but you had to swim in the nude.


The Young Men’s Christian Association was founded to bring robust Christianity, directly and indirectly, to a world of young pagans. In my youth almost wherever you travelled you were bound to find cheap YMCA hostels and, to be fair, not too many evangelists. It was an institution, and it provided a great service for working- and middle-class men and women (although women had the Young Women’s Christian Association) away from home, and it also provided social and cultural facilities. It is all now much reduced. There is still a large YMCA almost opposite where I live in New York City that is often patronized by Israeli youth groups coming to the city looking for convenient, cheap accommodations.

The Young Men’s Hebrew Association was established some ten years after the YMCA, in Baltimore, primarily to offer young immigrants an alternative to a Christian sporting and social atmosphere; it was a very secular organization and made no serious attempt to provide any Jewish content. Eventually the organization was largely absorbed by the Jewish Community Centers, but a few remained independent, and the most famous today is the 92nd Street Y in New York. It offers a very wide range of services. It has a first-rate cultural program with lectures and concerts, and nowadays it even has a rabbi on its staff. It is, in spirit and execution, primarily an organization for Jews more than a Jewish organization. In this article I hope to make that point.


There is a reserved young lady in my community, still in high school, who tries her best to adhere to tradition. She is outstandingly good with children and helps in the weekly children’s services. She was accepted by the Y to join its team of paid helpers for its summer day camp. The program includes weekends, which occasionally involves travelling on Shabbat. She did not want to break Shabbat. But whether rightly or wrongly, she feared for her job, and so she kept quiet. You might argue that if she cared enough about it, she should have refused and accepted her fate. But she was not strong enough. Perhaps she reasoned that if a non-Jew drove she could live with it. But when she got to the campsite, she was directed to start clearing it up, which obviously involved a lot of hard work.

I find it very sad that an organization founded to help Jews retain their identity, regardless of how inclusive or non-denominational, should be so insensitive, so unaware Jewishly. One can understand a non-Jewish organization not even considering the possibility that someone might want to keep Shabbat. But one founded by Jews and for Jews? We hear a lot nowadays in the Jewish world about religious coercion and fanatics imposing their standards on others. How about the reverse? Perhaps the organization will say that a junior official went beyond his brief, or that it was an unfortunate error of judgment, or as I have said that it was her fault for not speaking out. They might not be wrong, but still I find it sad.

I am reminded of my late father’s comments after his first visit to the USA in 1955. He was struck by the professionalism of the communal organizations in contrast to the amateur way things were done in the UK. But he was shocked at how Jewishly ignorant they were and how little they were aware of the sensibilities of traditional Jews and the requirements of orthodoxy. Communal leaders taking him around felt under no obligation to provide kosher food whether for visitors, meetings, or functions. The truth was that in those days Israeli diplomats and politicians notoriously disregarded any Jewish religious sensibilities. It was not until after the Six Day War that the pendulum began to swing the other way. In Europe too, many Jewish organizations paid no heed at all to dietary or other religious requirements. Often they were more sensitive to other religions than their own. But over time things have improved dramatically. It is one of the achievements of the growing Orthodox and Charedi presence that most Jewish organizations now realize that a non-Orthodox Jew can eat kosher but an observant Jew cannot eat non-kosher.

I do not object to Jewish organizations that serve the whole community opening their facilities on Shabbatot and festivals. But I do expect them to be proactive in not requiring Jewish employees to work them, and they should make their requirements clear from the start. In our world we bend over backwards to avoid offending other religions and cultures, yet we seem all too careless about our own. Obviously there are people within the 92nd Street Y who still need to be sensitive to practicing Judaism.