Saturday, April 30, 2016

White Ibises: A Vision

White Ibises: A Vision

By David Hartley Mark

            Leaving the house for work this morning, I noticed a trio of American White Ibises—I did not realize at first the sort of birds they were, but a later online search revealed them as such (Eudocimus albus). They are a pure, beautiful white color, with bright-orange beaks and long legs. They spend their lives poking their curved beaks into the grass, hunting for bugs, in the course of which foraging they also aerate the soil, benefiting all of us.
I was mind-filled with my typical day’s events: drive to Route 7, invade the stream of traffic, put on NPR for World News, perhaps my CD of The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, by Rimsky-Korsakov. Get to university in enough time before class to speak to the Dean—will he be available? Will that student get in her overdue paper on time, before the course officially ends?

Watch it, Hyundai! Schmuck nearly took my fender off, as I began to pull out of the driveway….

But the little group of birds made me pull over to the curb abruptly (as the Hyundai vroomed off, smoking—it probably needed an oil change; fried valves, or something) and seized my attention. The thin, graceful creatures were going about their business in a methodical way, walking in line, like lean, determined-but-leisurely, English Country Gentlemen out for a walk; what we call in Yiddish, ah shpatzir—a stroll. White, starched Morning Coats, long, orange bills. They were serio-comic, but acted in a businesslike fashion. They had no time to look about, neither at sky nor trees.

Having completed their in-depth examination of this quadrant of earth—pecking, pecking solemnly, in search of—what? Grubs, worms, caterpillars, insects for breakfast?—they, without turning, nodding or acknowledging the presence of their fellows, spread forth glorious, pure-white-wings and sailed off into the warmish, early-morning air in a graceful fashion, one after the other, like a flight of gulls.

Still, my Ibises—for they belonged to me, now—as much as sky and sunlight and sudden summons (from God, perhaps) to stop and notice what was going on around me, as the crushing schedule of a forthcoming day of teaching (which I adore) and punching in (which I abhor) loomed before me—my Ibises, I say, appeared far more sophisticated and cultured than gulls: they soared off, majestically silent, never begging a crumb of me; indeed, I was not part of their world.

O my Ibises! They are particular to our Florida, and I have grown to love their concentration, their single-mindedness, and the quietly efficient manner in which they go about their work and their lives.

Ibises have a long and illustrious past connection to us dull humans, part natural, richly mythological. The Egyptian ibis-god, Thoth, was a moon-god—his curved beak put the Egyptians in mind of the crescent moon. His worshipers considered him to have been the very heart and mind of the Creator-god, Ra, the Sun-god, and, as that Divine Voice, uttered the words which Brought into Creation every being and object in the universe, as well as the laws which govern that existence, including the courses of the sun, moon, and stars.

Thoth was also the inventor of writing, and the solemn and irreplaceable recorder of judgments about the dead, as author of that seminal Egyptian text, Per-t Em Hru, The Book of the Dead (Budge, n.d.). Besides writing and the alphabet, Thoth invented mathematics, drawing, design, and the arts, in his role as “scribe of the Great Company of the Gods”; indeed, he functioned as a sort of Recording Angel, perhaps parallel to our Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year’s Book of Life—was there some Mosaic or Solomonic "Book of J" borrowing here?

In the world of the Dead, Thoth was more powerful than even Osiris, who acknowledged him as an adviser. Thoth was also to function as Defense Attorney for the Egyptian Dead on their Day of Judgment. I have no doubt that he influenced the Exodus narrative, as well as later Israelites notions about the World-to-Come and, perhaps, Resurrection's mysteries. 

As the little, white-winged trio flew off, dipping beneath the palm trees and landing softly, to continue their patient search for grubs and bugs, I considered also their patron-god Thoth’s role as Hermes, Greek messenger of the gods, even as Hermes Trismegistus, who conveyed knowledge of ethics and life’s mysteries to a searching humanity. 

Did my Jewish God, in His role as Hashgacha P’rateet—Divine Providence—plan for me to encounter these little messengers this morning—perhaps to remind me that my own troubles and petty concerns do not amount to so much?

Yes, but more: my God was telling me that I—that is, we—can overcome, not alone, but only by working together with others. As my Ibises group, stroll, hunt, and fly in flocks, so are we mortals not meant to be hermits. We are born to enter into good-will communities of all sorts—whether through business, faith, or good and upright conscience—in order to conquer the ignorance, self-satisfaction, stereotyping, and race-baiting hatred that threaten to divide us all.

Only by reaching out to other people can we, like my little Ibises, achieve a singleminded peace which will beat back the darkness of closemindedness, terror, and ignorance, and, ultimately, benefit the world.

We have no other choice: we, like the ibises, have taken flight.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Pesach, Eighth Day: Yizkor, the Memorial Prayer.

Pesach, Eighth Day: Yizkor, the Memorial Prayers

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            Pesach, besides its major theme of Liberation from Slavery, also has the poignant coda of Yizkor, the Memorial Prayer. We Jews are famous Rememberers, and it reminds me of the Old Days, growing up in the apartment with my family, and the Sedarim that my parents used to hold. We had no innovations, no “Bags O’ Plagues” with plastic animals or fun figures of scepter-shaking Pharaoh or crook-wielding Moses. We put on no plays. No: as many of my congregants and contemporaries can recall, an old-time Seder Meal consisted of Grandpa or Papa plowing slowly through the Traditional Hagada in lugubrious Hebrew without translation, adding a song here and there, with the family trailing along, yawning, chatting, or hiding in the kitchen with Bubbie and Mama, to taste if the chicken soup had enough salt or pepper.

            It was the same thing in our family. My father, a self-taught Hebrew reader, was like a steam engine slowly chuffing its way up a mountain; I, yeshiva-honed to zip through any page of Hebrew, was more like a shiny-new diesel train. We didn’t even use the same Hagadahs: he preferred a large-print Saul Raskin, while I loved the Arthur Szyk colored edition that a girl classmate had gifted me for my bar mitzvah. (She had inscribed the flyleaf, but the word “love” was notably absent. Darn.)

            As for food, there was plenty: roast turkey, broccoli (the official Jewish green vegetable in our health-conscious house), and baked potato. Horowitz-Margareten Matzos were preferred, all the more ironically, with the Streit’s Factory a short walk away, but it was my mother’s family’s choice. Matzo cannon-balls thick and heavy enough to level Jericho, in a thin broth made palatable by carrots and onions. As for cake, it was dull, spongey, and made from matzo-based mixes, unlike today’s taste-tempting patisseries. Oh, and macaroons. Lots of macaroons. And Malaga wine, until I started buying Kedem Crème White at the Yeshiva High School Wine Sale, and bringing it home on the subway, sneaking it past the eagle-eyed token clerks who wondered why a thirteen-year-old was carrying unbagged liquor on a Sunday onto a public conveyance, and using his Subway Pass to do so (Don’t ask.).

            There were Yuntef services at shul with my father—endless, unvarying Hebrew prayers that went on and on and on, including Torah readings that varied not a whit, describing legions of cows and sheep and goats (I read the translations in our big black Pentateuchs, no commentary provided) that went to Cattle Heaven for the benefit of this springtime harvest festival. We prayed for dew—not in the neighborhood, but in Israel. For Kiddush, we ate matzo in the basement, and I got a sip of Slivovitz, which knocked me back on my keister. Then, we went home, to more matzo.

            During Chol HaMoed, the Festival’s Intermediate Days, I was relieved from the ongoing cattle parade by my mother’s taking my older sister and me to the Radio City Music Hall for the Annual Easter Show, where we watched the Rockettes kick their perfect legs up high to the tunes of “Easter Parade.” The show climaxed with an enormous cross made of fake flowers descending from the proscenium.

            “What an amazing religion Christianity must be,” I remember thinking to myself, while munching matzos-and-butter, tangerines, and macaroons (again) in the dark. I don’t remember what movie we saw; what did it matter?

            “Such beautiful legs—and such ugly faces!” my mother would always say. Now, why did she have to say that? I always felt bad when it rained on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the Rockettes had to do their final splits in a puddle.

It must be cold down there for them, I would think.

Finally, at nightfall on the Eighth Day, after Dad and I came home from the final service, all of us would pitch in to wash, wrap, reach, pass, and store away the Pesach dishes, cups, pans, cutlery, and all the little odds and ends that made up our Pesach dish set. We would break out the chametz food we had stored away, and make a small meal of it. The next day, my mother had to be careful not to buy any chametz that had been baked while the holiday was still in effect. Trust Judaism to make a holiday even more challenging than it had to be, but we were Orthodox.

That was it: Pesach was over, for another year.

Stay well, family, I would think, Pesach always comes back.

            Pesach did, but our folks are gone. O Pesach! What have we left but memories? Memories and Matzo….

The Best Boy in the World is Suspended from Orthodox Jewish High School: A Memoir of 1965

The Best Boy in the World is Suspended from Orthodox Jewish High School: A 1965 Memoir

By David Hartley Mark

I was the Best Boy in the World: well-behaved, polite, respectful of my elders, as religious as an Orthodox Jewish upbringing could make me, and fearful of Authority, whether religious or secular. I became the first boy from my little neighborhood Hebrew Day School, the East Side Torah Center, ever to attend Solomon Maimon University High School for Boys-Manhattan, that bastion of Modern Orthodoxy in Washington Heights, NYC.
I had not wanted to go. I wanted to go to Peter Stuyvesant HS, the competitive school to which all my friends from elementary school were going. I had passed the entrance exam, despite realizing during the last, feverish, few minutes of the Math Component of the Exam, that I had blackened the squares Horizontally rather than Vertically on the Official PSHS Answer Sheet, resulting in an orgy of penciltop-erasing, and leaving a paltry twenty answers remaining, testifying to my meager mathematical ability.

What I wanted, with all my thirteen-year-old, mid-1960s American, Age of Hippie (but, alas, Not for Me) to be Normal—blissfully, secularly, normal. It was not to be: the fulminating, thunderous Jehovah-God of my ancestors and the purblind Fates had declared otherwise—or, closer to home, my father.

Dad had fallen in love with the Orthodox Judaism he had re-discovered after leaving it during his college years. He was an industrial chemist, a scientist; he liked a Place for Everything, and Everything in Its Place. He was also a gifted, albeit uncertified, accountant, and could tell you to the penny how much he spent on any given day for any given expense. He kept his books—a tall stack of stenographer’s binders—in a pile atop his desk.

My father stood for Order. He loved Orthodoxy, because it consisted, at least for him, of an orderly array of prayers, holidays, and various customs pertaining to those holidays. He did not need the stories, legends, Talmudic principles, poetry, philosophy; for him, davening, praying, was enough. I did not know my father’s vision of God. I don’t believe he needed one.

I did know that my father spoke to his—our?—God on schedule, at the 6 am minyan (prayer quorum), every morning. There were also 7 and 8 am minyanim, which he did not attend; by then, he was out the door, and off, via bus and subway, to work at a paint factory, using formulae and principles known only to him. I never knew where these factories were located; like the details of chemistry, like the burial-tomb of Moses, my father’s place of business was a mystery.

As a small boy, eager to know What My Father Did for a Living, I would meet him at the door of the apartment every night for a hug and kiss, to ask, “Daddy, what color paint did you make this morning?”

“Yellow,” he would answer.

It was always yellow. I wouldn’t ask further. My father’s job was an enigma. Other children in my class had looseleaf notebooks (we call them binders, today) adorned with pictures of Yogi Bear, Superman, and Davey Crockett. I was the only one with a looseleaf from Monsanto or Pfizer; I had no idea what these entities were, nor did I care.

My mother wanted me to go to YUHS-MB: “It will make your father so happy,” she said.

“Ma, I will go to Solomon Maimon High School,” I conceded, “but will I have to go Solomon Maimon College?”

“Oh, no,” she said, “We’re not that Orthodox.”

Four years later, when I graduated, we were that Orthodox, and so I went to Solomon Maimon College. That is a tale for another telling. As for high school, what thirteen-year-old Jewish boy dares to oppose his mother?

So I went. But I was not happy. I was miserable.

Solomon Maimon High School was a churning, burbling cauldron of adolescent male hormones, and teachers who demanded that we produce our best. We had Hebrew subjects in the morning, and secular in the afternoon. Like highly-bred racehorses practicing for the Ascot or Triple Crown, rabbis put us through our paces daily. I was placed under the tutelage of Rabbi S. He was kind, relatively speaking—a great many of the rabbi-teachers were either Napoleonic or tyrannical—but, like all of our teachers, he had a rapier-sarcastic tongue.

Once, half-awake in the early morning, after my daily-dizzying voyage on the Madison St. bus, jumping off to pound frantically down the stairs of the Chambers Street Station and leap onto the subway, I accidentally got onto the E instead of the A train. I did not realize my error until I was well beyond Manhattan, and on my way out to Queens. There appears to be some recessive gene running through my family which makes us terrible navigators; we are lucky to have been able to find our way to North America.

I sat in the train, anxiously reading the names of stop after stop, knowing they were wrong, but remembering the advice of a well-meaning aunt who had told me, when I had confided that I would be taking the subway on a regular basis, “If you notice that the train is going the wrong way, don’t worry. Maybe it’s the motorman’s first day, and he’s not sure of the route yet.”

My life has consisted, to a large extent, of getting terribly wrong advice from well-meaning people.

By the time I realized that I, not the motorman, was lost, I had reached Queens Plaza. I left the train and nervously approached a kindly-looking gentleman on the subway platform, who steered me to the Downtown side. A long return ride later, panting, I arrived at the 181st St. Station of the A train, and raced up the legendary hills of Washington Heights.

I arrived in the classroom, just as the 9 am bell was ringing; Rabbi S had already taken his seat. I stood there, winded from my run—not for nothing had Washington given the Redcoats a merry chase through the mountainous neighborhood, up and down and all around, back during the Revolution—and the Rabbi looked at me, standing and sweating there in my Navy-surplus pea coat (Surplus Military wear was much the rage, during the Vietnam Era, most popular among those who resisted the Military Draft most vociferously), and spoke:

“Well, Mark,” he said, fixing his gimlet eye on me, “will you be joining us this morning, or have you somewhere else urgent to go?”

I shook my head, forgoing any explanation, and sank gratefully into my chair, to begin our Talmudic research into the millennia-old topic of Jewish Divorce.

I was fourteen.

Most of the time, I got to class early, trying to avoid rush hour. I experienced trains so crowded, and travelers so tired, that once, a beautiful young teenage girl had, from sheer fatigue, leaned her head on the pole to which both she and I were clinging, there on the uptown A train.

She looked fourteen—the same age as I. She had big, brown eyes, golden skin, and hair of the darkest black.

I fell in love, instantly.

The problem was that My Girl was leaning her head, not on the pole, but on my adolescent knuckles, which were, like the rest of me, charged by testosterone and sexual abstinence. I practically crackled from sexual overdrive, as I stood there, in a feverish quandary—

Should I tell her? Strike up a conversation? Get her phone number? Pledge my eternal fealty? Compose a sonnet?

 “To My Beloved, whilst she reposeth sweetly, there on my knuckles….”

Alas, none of these things happened—the train reached 59th St.; the girl stood up straight, yawned, looked, beheld my sweaty hand, realized where she had been resting her tired head for the last three stops—O that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!—no thanks to you, Romeo, Juliet, or Shakespeare—rolled her eyes, and raced off the train, blushing furiously, and leaving me sighing and heartbroken.

Of course, I never saw her again. Oh, well.

I had been prepared to marry her. Too bad she wasn’t Jewish. It had been the shortest courtship of my life: three knuckles and a metal pole on the uptown train.

Those were the days of my life during my freshman year at YUHS: buses, subways, Talmud, and homework, as celibate as a monk, and as law-abiding as—as a Solomon Maimon student fearful of either divine or mortal punishment. How, therefore, did I get suspended?

It was the fault of my Wham-O Super Ball. The Wham-O Corporation had just marketed it; it was the rage among us adolescents, and I had to have one. Even non-athletes like me marveled at its bounciness; the TV commercials were very effective. The first time I laid hands on it, a friend and I tried it out in the hall of my apartment building: the trick was to slam the thing hard enough on the floor to set it bouncing multiple times between floor and ceiling.

We succeeded beyond our wildest expectations: the ball bounced so hard, that it smashed into one of the fluorescent fixtures in the hall, exploding the bulb and sending shards of thin glass in all directions. We ran into my apartment, slammed the door, and hid.

I did want to take the thing to school. School was unbelievably, excruciatingly, dull. I would usually arrive long before class, often thirty or forty minutes before the rabbi arrived, and our daily Talmudic ordeal commenced. We boys wanted something to do, and the ball seemed the best idea.

We may have been highly intelligent, but weren’t very bright, frankly. What could you expect? We were teenage boys. Today, we would be skateboarding off the famous Green Bronze Dome atop the Main Center.

The problem was that a number of delinquent students had been vandalizing school desks. I had seen this happening. I would be sitting in the classroom during break, eating my lunch—two kosher baloney-and-mustard sandwiches on thick-sliced-seeded-rye-bread.

Two of the older students—they were already sophomores—would take out their frustration and excess energy by wrestling, and, afterwards, throwing chairs across the room. I would watch this orgy of destruction bemusedly, somehow understanding their anger, but certainly not participating. And I never thought of reporting it; that would be a violation of the Boy Code: Thou Shalt Not Rat Out Thy Fellow Student.

I did not know that the school had an Official Snitch, but I was about to find out. That fateful morning, my friends and I began an informal game of Super Ball Catch among the desks. Of course, the added bounciness of the ball made it escape from us, and we began pushing the desks aside to grab it; the desks screeched and skrawked as we pushed them aside—and that’s when the Snitch came in.

He was a small, thin man, with a pencil-thin mustache, wearing a shabby black suit and hat. We had never seen him before. He took out a small, leatherbound notebook, and began asking for our names. He had a Yiddish-inflected accent; no surprise, there. There were three of us: we gave him our names readily; it was hardly unusual for a school official to ask for a student’s name, and we thought nothing of it.

By the time he was done with us and left, it was almost nine. We pushed the chairs back into their rows, took our seats, and talked quietly until the rabbi arrived. The Talmud shiur (class) began.

Around 10 am, a student messenger, a well-known stooge, Teplitzky, came into the class. He was pink, short, and fat. He read our names off a list; we were “wanted in the Principal’s Office.” We had no idea why, but Joey, Bob, and I dutifully rose, closed our Gemaras (Talmud tractates), and went down the stairs.

“Maybe he wants to give us an award for ‘Best Student of the Month,’” Joey joked.

“Yeah, right,” Bob and I laughed.

We had never even met the Principal; he had been one of several functionaries to welcome us to Maimon on Opening Day, but we had never seen him since. We were the lowest rung of the pecking order, and didn’t really care.

In the office, the secretaries (they were, oddly, twins) ushered us in to Rabbi Z, the principal’s, inner sanctum. It was a dark, book-lined study; hardly any students, let alone us freshmen, ever entered there. We stood and waited until the principal looked up. He leaned back, steepled his hands, and looked us over, slowly. Then, he spoke.

“You boys were caught, red-handed, breaking chairs,” he said, flatly and without emotion. “That is a terrible thing, breaking school property.”

“We weren’t breaking chairs, Rabbi Z,” said Joey, “We were just playing with a Super Ball, and it got away from us.” Bob and I nodded vigorously.

The principal’s mind was made up; he had had reports of student vandalism, and, in true Jewish fashion, had found his scapegoats.

“I’m suspending you three students as an example to the others,” he said, “Go to the locker room and get your things. You’re going home for the rest of the day.”

Chills ran down our spines. I felt tears begin to spring to my eyes. We began to protest, but saw that his mind was made up. As we turned to leave, Rabbi Z added the Final Twist of the Knife:

“Oh—and this is going on your Permanent Record.”

My heart, and my stomach, sank. Me, suspended? I had never even been sent to the Principal’s Office, not once, during all my years in elementary school. Well, maybe once, when I kept on talking after Miss Fay, my 3rd-Grade teacher, had been trying to bring the class to order. And what did Rabbi Z mean about my “Permanent Record”?

Oh, God. What would my parents say?

As the three of us sadly trudged toward the subway, we wondered what our parents would do to us. Nice Jewish boys didn’t get punished; it was simply unheard of.

“My father will probably yell at me—hit me, even,” said Bob.

“Mine, too,” said Joey.

I said nothing. I had never been in this kind of trouble before. What should I do—not go home? Join the Foreign Legion? I remembered seeing a Recruitment Station on 42nd St. for the Armed Forces. Would the Navy take a fourteen-year-old? My thoughts were spinning. And what was my Permanent Record? Where was it kept?

At the subway station, Joey and Bob said goodby. We even shook hands, as if we would never see one another again. It was all very solemn.

I went to the phone booth just inside the doors of the station and called my mother at home.

“Why are you calling me at 11 am in the morning, on a weekday?” she asked, “Why aren’t you in class? Are you sick? Do you have a temperature? Did you throw up? What’s the matter?”

I told her the story: how the Super Ball had gotten me into trouble; how I hadn’t been breaking chairs; how the principal had wanted to Make An Example of me and my friends.

To my surprise, my mother began laughing. It took her a long time to stop. She just laughed and laughed. I couldn’t believe her reaction; I was amazed.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have to apply for kosher food in the French Foreign Legion, after all.

“Come home,” she said, “Looks like you’ve got the rest of the day off.”

“Aren’t you mad at me?” I said.

“How can I be mad at you?” she said, “You didn’t do anything. OK, maybe you shouldn’t’ve taken the Super Ball to school, but you didn’t do anything wrong. I believe you. Come home. All is forgiven.”

There was still my father to be dealt with.

“Don’t worry,” my mother said, “I’ll handle your father.”

When he got home at 6 pm that evening, tired and hungry as he always was, Dad did get angry, but not at me—it was about the administration, and the tuition. Unlike Stuyvesant, which was free, because it was part of the NYC Board of Education system, he had to pay for YUHS. But Mom convinced him I had done nothing wrong, that it was all a misunderstanding.

For years afterward, I did worry about the principal’s putting it into my Permanent Record. I thought that, perhaps, I might be going to a job interview, that everything would be going well, and then the Human Resources guy might be going through my file, and say:

“Hey, wait a minute: what’s this thing about you breaking chairs during your freshman year in high school--?”

But it never happened. Still, you never know. You just never know.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

On the Plenitude of Holocaust Memorials in South Florida: Do We Really Need Another?

On the Plenitude of Holocaust Memorials in South Florida

By David Hartley Mark

            Pesach, the Passover, our time-honored Festival of Liberation from Slavery, begins tomorrow night. Holocaust Memorial Day, with its lamentations, speeches, black drapery, and yellow Yizkor Memorial candles, will fall one week from now.

            Yesterday, online, I engaged in a lively disagreement with two semi-Orthodox twenty-somethings. They were making off-color jokes about Hitler, may his name and memory be erased—yemach sh’mo v’zichrono, as we used to say in Yeshiva. I objected to their Mel-Brooks-like attitudes, saying that we ought not to engage in humor when speaking of such a horrific villain.

            “This is our way of dealing with him,” one replied, “It’s a generational thing. We are much younger than you; we were born farther away from the Holocaust. Your ‘erasing his memory’ style seems to us, to be putting him on a pedestal.”

            I replied that I always believed, contrary to the current emphasis on Shoah remembrances and frantic memorial constructions concurrent with the ongoing passings of the victims, that, eventually, taking the Long View of Jewish History, the Holocaust would take its place along with the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Chmielnicki Massacres, the Black Hundreds, the pogroms, and all other atrocities committed against our people. What makes the Holocaust sadly unique is that the Nazis employed technology to destroy people, after first dehumanizing them. And humanity has not lost its yen to destroy one another, as a glance at news on the Web or in print will reveal. (There may even be a direct line from the anonymity of the gas chambers to today’s drone killings.)

            “I just didn’t believe the historical shift would happen this quickly,” I typed, and left the online thread, disappointed and gloomy.

I count, have counted, Holocaust survivors among my dearest friends. I recall being invited to the annual luncheon sponsored by our local chapter of the Kindertransport, by a close friend and congregant (now deceased) who, with her younger sister, had, luckily, participated, leaving Vienna for England. At the tender age of thirteen, she was one of the older children in her train car. As the whistle blew, steam hissed, and parents waved frantically from the station platform, a young mother raced up to the train and thrust a large wicker basket at Ilsa (not her real name), through the open coach window.

            It was twin babies; Ilsa was responsible for them throughout the entire rail trip. There were a few adult women on the train, as well, but they disembarked in Belgium, the final Continental leg of the trip. The Nazis had warned them that if they stayed on the train, their remaining families, held hostage at home, would be murdered by the Gestapo.

            Yes, this story is crucial, and needs to be told. Also crucial is one of the remarks made by another Kindertransport survivor who spoke at the luncheon: “We have nothing to be ashamed of, we Kindertransport survivors. None of us ever went to jail or caused a burden to society. On the contrary, we have all of us contributed to benefit the countries where we settled. We include doctors, lawyers, business executives, scientists, and more. We have every right to be proud.”

            I, too, was immensely proud to be there, in the company of heroes.

            But what of this latest news report, from the 4/20/16 issue of The Sun-Sentinel of Broward County, Florida?

“Florida is about to get its sixth Holocaust memorial, though it will be the first in the state's capital.

Gov. Rick Scott came to the Jewish Federation of Broward County on Monday afternoon to ceremonially sign a bill creating the memorial in Tallahassee. He officially signed the legislation on April 6, and it will take effect at the beginning of the fiscal year, July 1.

The state Legislature also included $100,000 in this year's budget for work to begin.
‘The Holocaust stands as a stark reminder that evil exists in the world,’ Scott said” (Sweeney, 2016, April 21).

            Why does Florida need a sixth Holocaust Memorial, and, more importantly, why is the State Legislature apportioning $100,000 towards it? Years ago, back in the late 1980s, there was a massive onslaught of American Jewish Holocaust-Memorial-building. At the same time, nationwide, rabbis like me were decrying widespread Jewish ignorance and the reluctance of parents to place their children in temple religious schools. The temple I then served was the only one in town, the larger of two serving the entire New Hampshire Seacoast, and yet, we knew we serviced but a fraction of the families and children in the area.
Yet, the memorial-building continued apace, as if remembering a dead European past were of far greater weight and significance than insuring a knowledgeable Jewish future for our people. This was long before computers and cellphones; it was all very primitive by modern standards today. What helped urge on the memorializing was a key event in television, which had a far stronger hold on the American imagination then than now. It was a three-night miniseries called, appropriately, Holocaust. The plotline was thin, but effective: it traced the fates of various, stereotyped European Jewish characters, both before and during the Nazi onslaught against our people.
The melodrama’s combined effects of destruction, finality, and suffering hit the fatalistic American Jewish nerve a crucial blow, and thousands altered their schedules to sit before the TV, nightly, to follow the series. What concerned me, as it did all rabbis, was the sad effect, the blowback really, that this caused to our religious educational efforts. One infamous story had the father of a temple Confirmation student, a boy in his mid-teens—significant years indeed!—calling the senior rabbi who taught the class, and saying,
“Rabbi, tell Stevie that I’m on my way to temple to pick him up. That TV show, ‘Holocaust,’ is going on in a half-hour, and I really want him to watch it.”
“But, he’s in my Confirmation Class,” protested the rabbi, “Don’t you think he would do better to learn about his Judaism than to see his people being tortured and killed for the crime of being Jewish?”
“Rabbi,” the father answered stubbornly, “you have your values, and I have mine. Tell Steve that I’m coming to pick him up. This program is more important than your class!”
See what I mean? Faced with similar circumstances, I wrote for advice to a West Coast rabbi I had long admired, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of blessed memory, whose renown among colleagues and laypeople alike was well-known. I poured out my heart to him, asking whether memorials to a Dead Jewish Past should take precedence over our educational efforts to insure a Bright Jewish Future.

I was gratified to receive a letter (Remember personal mail, long before email took over?) from him, which said, in the rabbi’s words, which I paraphrase: “Any Holocaust Memorial which does not contain an Educational Component (capital letters mine) is hardly worth the bricks-and-mortar used to build it. If we do not educate against hatred and anti-semitism—indeed, against racism of all kinds—other Holocausts will recur. Certainly, they are happening as I write.”

Because of Rabbi Schulweis’s advice, when I taught my Holocaust unit to my Seventh-Graders in Hebrew School, I made a point of showing them, not only the Oscar-winning documentary “Holocaust,” produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, but also “Hotel Rwanda,” which depicted tragically the mid-1990s intertribal massacre in that country.
That is my objection to (yet another) Holocaust Memorial. That $100,000 should go to the schoolchildren of Florida.

More: just as certain misguided states in our American Deep South have passed misguided bills which discriminate against LGBTQ minorities, there will surely be lawsuits held against them. Who will end up paying the court costs? The hard-beset taxpayers of those same, poverty-stricken states, including the youngest and weakest—their schoolchildren. These little ones do not need a monument against hatred or racism; they need money for education.

Furthermore, during this election season, I read that various whites-only racist groups have become emboldened by the hate rhetoric of certain politicians, and are coming out of their lairs. They are preaching segregation, that lethal American poison, again, only giving it a new, euphemistic name. It’s the same old muck, in a brand-new box. Will a monument deter them? No: only education. Ignorance thrives on darkness. The sunlight of learning destroys it.

Again: no more heaps of stone and mortar, commemorating hatreds long past. If our dearly venerated Holocaust survivors are slowly passing to their Eternal Rest, their good deeds will forever be their monuments. As for their littlest survivors, our American (and world) children of all colors, races, ethnic groupings, beliefs or lack thereof, and differences—let more money go for education. Let our little children, born pure and without racism, show us the way to a better world of peace, progress, and love.

Sweeney, D. (2016, April 21). Scott supports Holocaust memorial in Tallahassee. The Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved from

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Shabbat Day 1 Pesach 5766: A Wedding, NYC Taxi Rides, & Pesach

A Wedding, NYC Taxi Rides through the Old Neighborhood, and Pesach

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            We had a family simcha (joyful event) recently, returning to our hometown of New York City—my Old Neighborhood in particular, the Lower East Side—for our nephew Justin and his new bride, Sue’s, wedding. The venue was a hall directly across from the Statue of Liberty, who sent her welcoming torch-rays over the waters as the sun set and the evening crept over Battery Park. Bridal pictures were taken near a titanic statue of an American Eagle commemorating US Navy personnel who made the supreme sacrifice during World War II, a remarkable joining of present love and past history.

            The ceremony was very moving, as created by the celebrants. I read prayers and wishes of love on behalf of the family, explaining the ritual of sharing a glass of wine together, using a quotation from the Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho (1947- ): “Accept what life offers you, and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle.” Finally, I presented them both with cloth-wrapt glasses to be smashed, and described the tradition, beginning with the Destruction of the Holy Temples, moving through the fragility of love, and concluding with Judaism’s inclusion of demonology—our own, and those of the various cultures in whose midst we have sojourned. We spent the remainder of the evening celebrating, eating, drinking, singing, and dancing.

            We stayed in a hotel in Chinatown, immediately adjacent to my Old Neighborhood, which gave the trip a bittersweet tinge. Chinatown is expanding, even as the Jewish and Italian sections are shrinking. This is the logical fulfillment of Jewish social critic (and author of World of Our Fathers, 1976) Irving Howe’s famous statement, “For the sake of her Jewish children, the Lower East Side was prepared to commit suicide. Perhaps she did.” My new wife and I left New York City, in 1980, along with hundreds, perhaps, of our fellow Baby Boomers.

And now, the City is rebuilding itself: ramshackle Lower Broadway factories are, phoenix-like, springing back to life as apartment houses, much in demand by young entrepreneurs; restaurants rise up and fall, and flashy new boutiques appear where once heroin and crack dealers peddled their deadly goods. This is New York: forever dying, forever being reborn.

            The three of us—son Jordan was there, too—sped through the same old streets I wandered, Alfred Kazin-like, as a Walker in the City—in sleek new, unmarked, Uber and Lyft vehicles driven by Aydin, from Istanbul; Abdul from Sana’a, Yemen; Isidro, from Santo Domingo, and even Fadukh, from Tajikstan. They are the new New Yorkers, replacing the Jews, Puerto Ricans, Italians, and African-Americans of my youth. We summon the cabs via cellphone; they arrive within minutes, and English is no barrier, because the universal language of computer-voiced GPS speeds us to our destination.

            The City is the same size, but more crowded than ever, it seems; I could not live there, today, nor would I wish to. I urge my Florida college students—they are young, for the most part, and eager for adventure—to visit and live in New York for a time, or to consider living in other parts of this vast and wonderful country. America is an enormous gift to these bright, young, eager immigrant- and first-generation-American youth, just as it was to our parents and grandparents, ready for their own, personal life-adventure, their own Exodus from Egypt, from old, stale notions of what family, job, and personal future must mean and be.
            And that, finally, leads me to Pesach, Passover. An old friend emailed me recently, asking if I told him, years ago, that Pesach is my favorite holiday. It is not: I have too many memories of arduous toil, climbing a stepladder in my parents’ old apartment, God rest their souls!—or in our various homes, through the years, switching dishes and silverware and cups and towels, scrubbing down cabinets, the fridge, and counters, and moving the microwave out from its tight corner to see if any chametz had crept in behind. For my friend, Pesach meant merely consuming matzo balls and gefilte fish; these do not tempt my palate, either. No.

            The meaning I seek in Pesach is more universal: it is the freedom of Justin and Sue—our nephew and niece entering a new phase of their lives together, as our little family grows, and we look to our children to carry on our traditions and stories, either purposefully or unintentionally (children will listen, as Stephen Sondheim tells us, especially when parents drop their voices—that is when they will listen hardest of all).

It is also the freedom sought by our newest Americans, those immigrants who, despite the prejudice of certain troglodyte politicians, have come to this country as did our ancestors, speaking a different language, practicing different folk and religious customs, but hoping with all their hearts to seize a portion of the American Dream for themselves and their children. Many of these New Americans have lived under or escaped from conditions of unspeakable horror and oppression. I believe time will prove them to be among the most loyal and hardest-working of our fellow citizens.

Finally, it is the freedom of Pesach, as we read in the Hagada, that remarkable prayerbook-instruction manual-hymnal-history-debate guide, which guides us through the Seder, the earliest audio-visual learning experience known to humanity, invented by us Jews, a people who stand foursquare for the power of Education to uplift and elucidate the minds of humanity. I therefore bemoan the current trend toward “One Hour,” “Half-Hour,” or Seder-Meals lasting even fifteen minutes, and would strongly recommend that all committed Jews hit upon a Hagada with Commentary to read at some point during Pesach, either prior to or following the Seder, or even during the year. Do not read it cover-to-cover; dip in, here and there. For years, my personal favorites have been the Artscroll Haggadah of the Chassidic Masters (Rabbi Shalom Meir Wallach, 1990) or the more offbeat The Santa Cruz Haggadah (Ed. Karen Roekard, 1991).

This Pesach, I wish my readers more mitzvote than matzote; more “amens!” (in temple) than afikoman gifts; and more chachmote (wise sayings) than chad gadyas. Pesach is more than just a Seder, and a Seder is far more than Thanksgiving with more wine than usual. Be sure to create your own customs, involve the children, answer their questions to the best of your ability, and bring the questions you cannot answer to me. (That’s my job.) If you are joining us in Temple for the First Night of Seder, we will welcome you wholeheartedly; if you are going elsewhere, go in good health—Ah Zissen Pesach—a Happy, Sweet, and Kosher Pesach to all!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Haftorah of Torah Portion Metzora: The Prophet Elisha


            My years of dealing with this parsha/Torah portion have drained the intellectual well dry: its tiresome subject is leprosy, again. For a change of pace, therefore, I turn to Haftarat Metzora (though we will not be chanting it this year, in favor of Malachi, since it is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” preceding Pesach). Its livelier protagonist is the prophet Elisha, who prophesied between approximately 892-832 BCE. Despite his arguable reputation for performing greater and more numerous miracles than his teacher, Elijah, Elisha has gotten far less “Biblical publicity” over the years.

Why is Elijah better-known than Elisha? It is because Elijah risked his life by ignoring the wicked King Ahab’s prohibition against circumcision. He is, therefore, for all time honored by being spiritually present at every brit milah/covenant of circumcision, with a special chair designated for him, on the off chance that that babe should turn out to be Messiah. Since Elijah was designated the harbinger of Messiah, it makes sense to have him present at the ceremony. And of course, we are all familiar with Elijah’s presence at every Passover Seder meal—here again, with the arrival of spring, we anticipate Messiah’s coming, so it is only right and proper that Elijah be there.
Elisha’s prophetic style and career were different from those of his taciturn, wilderness-dwelling, hairshirt-wearing master, Elijah. II Kings makes a point of listing the several miracles Elisha performed, from making an iron ax-head float (II Kings 6:1-7) to reviving a dead boy (4:8). His prophetic career began when Elijah suddenly appeared, unceremoniously, while Elisha was plowing his wealthy father’s field with a team of oxen (2:1-18).

“You will succeed me as a prophet of God,” ordered Elijah, “Now, come along.”

Elisha was understandably anxious about being able to follow in Elijah’s considerable footsteps, and begged him for twice the prophetic power Elijah possessed. Elijah replied that, if Elisha was granted to see Elijah’s departure from earth, it would mean that God heeded his request. Suddenly, Elisha saw a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses: he fell on his face to the ground. Elijah mounted the chariot, and was carried off, alive, transmogrified into heaven. It is highly significant that he never died: that gave him the power to continually act as God’s messenger between earth and heaven, the role he fills in Jewish folklore. In the meantime, he left Elisha his cloak, source of his prophetic power.
There is one episode in Elisha’s career I, like many other students of Scripture, find peculiar. All men—even prophets—are sensitive about one personal failing or lack; in Elisha’s case, he was bald.

Once, he was approaching the town of Bethel, when a group of children saw him and called out insultingly, “Go away, Baldy! Go away, Baldy!”

Angry, Elisha cursed them in God’s Name. Suddenly, two she-bears emerged from the woods and mauled forty-two of the children (2:23-24).
The rabbis in the Talmud were hard-pressed to defend this action: they explained it by taking the Hebrew word for ‘tween-aged children (n’arim) and etymologically interpreted it, saying that “These children lacked the fear of (m’nuarin) and respect for religion (Talmudic Tractate Sotah, p. 46b).

It is a strange story, indeed, but shows us that even prophets have limits to their patience and understanding. Anyone who could call on God’s Name to work wonders was a person to be reckoned with, even Elisha, one of the most patient of Biblical prophets!

My Chavrusa is a Vampire: Nister Meets Mutik Nachtleiber for the First Time


My Chavrusa is a Vampire

By David Hartley Mark

            The Bais Medrash, the Study Hall of the Yeshivas Urim v’Tumim (Rabbinical Academy of ‘Lights and Wonders’) was dark; only the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light over the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, illuminated the room. My Chavrusa, my study partner, a new student in the Yeshiva by the name of Mutik Nachtlieber, was supposed to meet me that evening. He was two hours late. I had fallen asleep and the other boys, yawning, had quietly slipped away to their rooms, careful to close their holy books and kiss them tenderly, protecting them against Demons of the Night.

I was alone; only a stale, lonely breeze from the open windows moving the greygreen curtains back-and-forth, back and forth.

In the distance, I heard the horns and sirens, along with the occasional screeching of brakes on the Sleepy Hollow River Drive to the East. There was little earthly traffic at this hour. I held my Dimex watch to my bleary eyes and pushed in the stem: 12:34am.

If the Lord God had opened the Study Hall canopy and peeped through, there to see me, a lone Yeshiva Bochur (Chosen Scholar) working at his studies, I would have missed it. I looked around: there was neither Angel nor Daemon left in this place of study: the Holiest of Holies, where both Limud u’Tefilah, Study and Prayer,  took place.
I was neither frightened nor worried; ChaZal, our Rabbis of Blessed Memory, tell us that an unclean spirit cannot enter a holy place. I rose, and stretched, knocking the Maseches Gittin, the Tractate on Divorces that I had been studying, to the floor. I bent to pick it up, and brushed my lips over the ancient leather, as Tradition instructs us to do when dropping a Holy Book.

A page had fallen askew, and I squinted at its lines in the half-darkness: “And if a messenger be lost between chutz la-aretz, the gentile lands Outside the Land of Israel, and Israel itself, he must seek out the local authorities….”
I heard a creak at the door, and saw a glimpse of white shirt: was that Nachtlieber? I went over to see. In the halflight, he appeared thin, rail-thin, and of average height—that is, Jewish height, about five-eight.

He smiled briefly at me, lips only, and ran his fingers through his hair. I heard a slight—crackling?—noise. He carried no books, no briefcase, no notebook. He knelt down before me, as if tying his shoe—or was he hiding something beneath his pantleg? It was dark; I could not see.

What kind of student is this? I wondered, Without sefarim or backpack, he’s not even a Hamor nosay sefarim, an Ass bearing books, a bookish dilettante. I hope he’s no laydehgayer, a layabout, a batlan, a time-waster. I am eager to succeed in the Yeshiva, and Talmud b’keeus—mastery—is my goal.

“Never fear me or my efforts, YaChabibi,” he said sharply, looking up at me, and cutting through my thoughts, “I will hold up my end of our chavrusa; I will gladly learn, and gladly teach.”
“Are you Mutik?” I asked.

He straightened up, put his arms akimbo, licked his lips as he looked me up-and-down. Beneath the deep red of the EXIT sign, his tongue, which I saw only momentarily, flickered in-and-out, like a snake’s.
“Yes, are you Nister?” he asked me, smiling with fullest teeth—they seemed almost to glow in the dark. We shook hands. His skin felt cold and dry.
“Come outside; I need a smoke,” he said.
It was odd to meet a yeshiva boy who smoked anymore. He took out a vaporizer as we walked through the empty halls of the Main Center. His heels clicked against the marble. We pushed through the heavy bronze doors, which usually squealed in protest, as if begging us not to leave the sacred precincts of the yeshiva, but they did not utter a sound.
As if—but we were in the street, where old, raggedy scraps of newspapers tumbled by, and a stray cat perched on an overflowing garbage can arched its back and hissed at us, before leaping-and- scampering into the blackness. Mutik flared a match against his vaporizer, and his face almost vanished in a cloud of white smoke. It swirled around us both, and I thought of the Ketoret Ha-Samim, the incense-cloud that accompanied the priestly service—strange why that image should pass through my mind, but it was now nearly 12:30 am by the clock of St. Anthony’s Holy Roman Catholic Congregation next door to the yeshiva, and I had not eaten since that Devil Dog from Zunder’s Grocery, some five hours before.
“Do you want to learn?” I asked Mutik. “What masechtas, Talmudical tractates, have you studied, thusfar? Which Rishonim and Achronim, Primary and Secondary Sources? Where would you put yourself in terms of Practice, Belief, Women’s Rights, Israeli Issues—?
He abruptly stopped walking, held up one hand to silence me. He smiled widely in the flare of his vaporizer, and turned to me. White clouds, thick as anan v’araphel, surrounded us.

His teeth were very white. I glanced upward but could no longer see the moon; clouds covered all but a dim glow from behind.

“All will become clear,” he said, in a low voice, and I heard the beating of many wings—was it a flock of pigeons rising up from Father Mortara Court, next block over?

“I can teach you a great deal,” he said.