Jews, judaism, politics, social action
On the Friday night immediately after Rosh Hashanna, my son Dan called for Shabbat dinner at Occupy Wall Street. There were about 25-30 of us who made kiddush, ate cholent (translates these days into vegetarian chili), had tuna fish instead of gefilte fish and drank lots of juice while eating home-made challah. When a CBS reporter found us under the sculpture on the northwest corner of Cedar and B’way, he didn’t want to know why we made Shabbat in Zuccotti Park. He didn’t care that there were ethical, principled reasons to have Shabbat at a protest, to sanctify a day by speaking out for justice. This guy wanted us to be hippies having pot luck dinner. Sorry we didn’t fit his stereotype. “I only have 10 seconds, no time for this Shabbat thing,” he said.
I was the senior in the bunch, and David Peel, a real hippie who hung with John and Yoko back in the day (and was singing Tevye’s greatest hits), was one person who asked me why I was there, as did a struggling freelance journalist. They both looked pointedly at my gray hair and my grandmotherly physique.
“I am here because when things were circling the drain, the banks wouldn’t renegotiate our mortgage. The credit card companies hiked their interest rates. My husband got sick and lost his job. And the co-pays on drugs have become obscene. My Nexium went from $30 for 90 pills to $640+ on a co-pay. Full price for that formerly $30 bottle is $1080. That’s why I am in Zuccotti Park. I marched against Vietnam in 65 (and married a Viet Nam vet). I marched in the Women’s Lib Parade in 1970, because my Orthodox Jewish husband refused to grant me a Jewish divorce for seven long and bitter years. I marched on behalf of Soviet Jewry and for the State of Israel. Now I am marching for me.”
In bankruptcy and foreclosure, after paying every bill for 21 years, we lost a state tenant in our investment/retirement home in Arizona and lost the house. Then clients bailed on us because they had no money, others canceled projects because of investments with Madoff and other shaky stuff. Now our home in New Jersey is underwater.
We write books, we edit books, we print books. We are a necessary niche market business. But the trustee for U.S. Bankruptcy court will not allow us to sell the books we print for our clients, let alone our used books, and is demanding $21,500 for the books I need to do my work, for the mementos of a full and not-boring life, for my beloved Brooklyn Bridge collection, and my Judaica. That’s why I go to Zuccotti Park and exercise my first amendment rights.
If anyone missed what the media says about people like me and my son Dan—they are saying we are young (I wish), smelly, nasty, ignorant know-nothings who do not believe in the system, we are criminals, etc. You really have to see the Jon Stewart take on this to see what they say about people like you and me. CLICK HERE.
We are not who the media says we are. We know who we are. We are those who struggle just to keep it together, to rescue something from everything we had ever worked for. And those of us who have parents watch them in the last days of their lives as they suffer along with us. And trust me—it is infinitely more difficult when those elderly parents are Holocaust survivors.
On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Isaiah speaks for God, who essentially says, “Who needs you to fast and say all these prayers of repentance and offer me all of these sacrifices if you don’t take care of your widows, your poor and your orphans?”
That’s why it is precisely on Yom Kippur that I am with my son in Zuccotti Park. It is precisely here that I can, with a clear conscience, ask for forgiveness for selfishness, apathy and pride. I want people to understand that it’s not just about ATM fees and interest rates; it’s about human beings who are just like you and me. It’s about millions of Americans who are teetering on the edge of the abyss, and nobody out there with the means, the power and the vision wants to step forward and give us the help we need to survive as our American dreams turn into nightmares.
I knew it a long time ago, but you cannot, like Isaiah, be a prophet in your own hometown. Check out youtube.com. On May 1, 1979, Ayn Rand, the grand diva of the free market, was a guest on Donohue, who at the time had the only intelligent talk show on TV. My sister-in-law and I were in the audience. I wore a white dress and had long, black curly hair and big glasses. I was eight months pregnant with Dan, my son who called for Yom Kippur services at Occupy Wall Street. Rand and I had a knock down drag out with Donohue as referee, and it dominated the show. For Rand, it was all about keeping whatever you make, charity is a waste and it’s not the government’s job to protect anyone or give them a leg up, and how dare Donohue allow her to be attacked by hippies!
For me it was quite the opposite. When Donohue explained to me that according to Rand, corporations will do the right thing, I said that I didn’t believe that. “The more money you have,” I said to him, “the more power you have.”
Now, if anyone on Fox Not the News cares to show up at Kol Nidrei services at Occupy Wall Street, I would be proud to answer any questions intelligently. But I have learned, again, through bitter experience, that Fox never lets reality get in the way of Fox facts.
Holocaust, HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS, interfaith relations, Jews, judaism, Poland, social action
When the World Federation announced that this year’s meeting would be in Poland, many 2Gs (children of survivors), survivors and child survivors were angry. They didn’t want to spend a nickel in the country where their families suffered so brutally, and saw all Poles as collaborators. I, too, had sworn that I would never come to Poland to do what I call “Le Tour Macabre,” but when I heard that the World Federation was having its annual meeting in Warsaw, I realized I was a hypocrite, realized that Warsaw is not Chicago, Boston or DC. I realized I had to come, if only for three days. It is very hard to teach tolerance to kids and not be tolerant yourself. Why should I be a hypocrite?
My mother was furious. My friend’s mother forbade her to come altogether, and she obeyed her mother. But I was determined to go and my cousin in Jerusalem made it possible.
A few days after my trip was booked, I received a call from the North American Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and after an interview with Mr. Sigmund Rolat in New York, I learned I would be in Poland for 18 days—to learn about the country and to witness the I.B. Singer Festival in Warsaw while learning about the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which sits atop what used to be the street where my mother and grandmother lived, in the Jewish Quarter that became the Warsaw Ghetto.
The welcome we received on Friday night in what I call the cocoon (the hotel that could be anywhere) was heartwarming. Stefanie Seltzer, the Federation president, opened the conference. The Israeli ambassador, Zvi Rav-Ner and American ambassador Lee Feinstein welcomed us, as did the mayor, really the President of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, along with Rabbi Michael Shudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, who was born in Queens, New York.
Stefanie Seltzer opens the Conference
Ambassador Feinstein was honest. He noted that Jews have a very long history in Poland, one that was complicated at times, in part because of Poland’s location in the so-called “bloodlands,” where great power competition too often brought out the worst in humanity. He described how the Jews found a home in a historically diverse and tolerant Poland, and established what was once the world’s largest Jewish community. He talked about how the Jewish people made vital and lasting contributions to Polish society and world civilization, including in the arts, science, and commerce. And of course, he explained how the Holocaust changed all that, and yet there were Poles who risked everything to save Jewish lives, giving Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 children, as the classic example of a Righteous Person.
U.S. Ambassdor Lee Feinstein
He said that our conference was helping Poland re-discover its heritage and talked about the growing interest among Poles in exploring this history and embracing Jewish culture, mentioning the annual Jewish festivals in Warsaw and Krakow, noting that the embassy is playing an active role in supporting this renewed cooperation between Poles and Jews. (It is no secret that Poland is a strong ally of Israel at the EU.) He mentioned Holocaust education programs and the renovations and restorations of synagogues and cemeteries. And he described how President Obama came to Warsaw, and paid tribute to the Ghetto Fighters. He also noted that the U.S. President visited the new museum that is “rising from the ashes of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw to teach future generations about this rich history.” And, he admitted, there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done.
Part of that work took place in our workshops, where we met our 2G brothers and sisters in Poland, many of us for the first time. I was blown away by the courage of the Polish 2Gs, some of them who never knew their parents were Jewish, and some from mixed marriages, who grew up thinking and feeling they were apart from their society, and yet didn’t know why. Yet in their heart of hearts, they felt they were different, and at these meetings, finally felt as if they had found “a home.”
They told us that Jewish life was being reborn in Poland. For the first time in 73 years, they were able to talk about being Jewish. A.D., a psychologist and leader of the Second Generation movement in Warsaw, explained how after the war, their parents’ couldn’t understand what happened, and then were hit with the double-whammy of communism. Many hid their Jewishness as a result, and never spoke of it until communism fell in 1989. For the first time since the war, they thought they could tell their children who they really are.
The meetings were welcoming to those who thought they were lost forever—and that is truly the story of Polish Jewry today. While the community is a tiny fraction of what it had once been, for the first time, these people feel safe when they say they are Jewish. While some are discovering Judaism, others are discovering their Polish-Jewish history. They credit Pope John Paul II with doing more to fight antisemitism in Poland than anyone else, and while there is still antisemitism, as the older generation dies off, and the children become educated, it becomes less virulent, less effective, particularly in a global society. Poles are learning about Jews and Judaism, and are seeing that the Jews were an integral part of their culture and society, perhaps often separated, but part of Poland’s history for almost 1,000 years.
As one Polish 2G said, “We are discovering our Jewish roots, and the Poles are discovering Jewish Polish history. This creates a synergy…but while we are getting really good at seeing and fighting antisemitism because we have to, we are not so good at finding friends and allies. We need to find common ground.”
“Imagine how different the world would have been if we could have taught our children and grandchildren our heritage and legacy. We are like the hidden Jews of New Mexico, and now we have the unprecedented chance to change our future,” said another.
Some are discovering pride in their Judaism, while others just want to blend in. Another 2G talked about how he was born to be like everyone else. Now he deals with survivors every day, but says that was a choice that he made…and yet had no choice in making it, because he owes it to those who were murdered. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to be swallowed by the Holocaust. He feels like Ulysseys, who couldn’t deal with the souls of those who died. “There are too many stories, and some of them scare me, but I cannot come home. I hate going to Auschwitz-Birkenau, but I must go… Only my mother and grandmother survived and I hate to go to them with questions because of the looks on their faces…and still I try to extend my Jewish experience.”
A young woman talked about her father, who was in the underground. Her mother and grandmother survived, but avoiding talking altogether. Her father’s mother simply lied. But it was much easier for her to identify with her father, because he fought back instead of being trapped in the fear, shame and guilt that came from her mom. It took her a long time to be able to listen to the stories, and now she is discovering who she is.
These 2G/3G workshops also discussed the differences between those whose parents did not speak at all, and those who wanted their children to be their supporters, to use them as a tool for hating. It created complicated feelings when coping with their parents and was an important obstacle in the 2G acceptance and exploration of their Judaism.
A, who was born in 1947, was able to come to grips with her Judaism for the first time when she was 55 years old. She was self-motivated because she needed to find out who she was and accept her identity. It was hard for her to find herself in the shadow of the Holocaust, and she began with the story of her grandfather, who used to sing songs in Yiddish—and tell her he was singing old Army songs. He had a tiny Torah scroll that no one was permitted to touch, and she wanted him to read it to her. He said it did not contain stories for children. “If you hear them, when you are an adult, you will run away,” he told her.
Another woman was told as a child to forget Judaism, forget the Holocaust. She felt a pervasive loneliness, and was comforted by our presence. When she found out she was Jewish, she cried, and pleaded not to be told she was a Jew. Those fears and the feeling of being different ran deep, and it was scary. As one American 2G said to her, “It took something good to justify our survival, and if you want the third and fourth generations to be proud, you remind them that they come from a people who have perservered.”
In Poland, Jewish identity fluctuates. Many were raised in an environment loaded with high doses of antisemitism. As one Polish 2G put it, “It still exists, of course, and it depends where you live. Sometimes, when you tell your lifelong friends the truth, they treat you differently…it can be compared to other traumas, like those of mixed races who live in Zimbabwe.”
Yet on a personal level, they are finding each other and creating close, emotional bonds–just like the American and Israeli 2Gs did when they came together decades ago.
On Monday morning, the last day of Conference, those who attended the Yad Vashem ceremony to recognize the Righteous—Polish families who had risked their lives and families to save the lives of our parents, brothers and sisters—were reminded that good can triumph over evil, if people make difficult choices. The Israel ambassador, Zvi Rav-Ner spoke movingly and forcefully about those choices, and noted that there is a universal lesson in what these people did.
Israeli Ambassador Zvi Rav-Ner
“They made the right choices even though it was so painful… Today we honor those human beings that we have to respect and honor forever. ..Yet not everyone saved people and not everyone could, but there were those who made the honorable decision. When we ask why not everyone did that, [why] there were collaborators…when we put must also put this question to ourselves…would you have risked your own lives and the lives of your family to risk to save a neighbor or friend or even a stranger? These people have done it, and we are forever in debt to them and their families… The message for the future is universal—to prevent such situations anywhere, God forbid that we get into such situations… These people give us hope that we can still believe in people.”
Because I believe it is important to name names—victims, survivors, rescuers—to put a human face on the tragedies of the past, to bring understanding that these were just folks who found themselves in dire straits and made choiceless choices, I list them here. Survivors’ children often presented these awards to the children, grandchildren and relative of the rescuers, all of them now resting in peace.
Leo Hoffman presented the award to the son of the late Janina Bereska. Ewa Banaszczyk of Lodz, received the award for her late grandfather, Adolph Brauner. Lilka Rosenbaum-Elbaum presented the award to the granddaughter of the couple who rescued her family, Jadwiga and Adam Chorqzkiewicz. Mira Becker honored two sisters, Maria and Marianna Kazuczyk, and gave the award to their family members. Jozefa and Wilhelm Maj were honored with an award given to their adopted child, a survivor herself, Ida Paluch-Kersz. The daughter of Katarzyna and Stanislaw Swietlikowski, Maria Nadstawek, received the award for them, and a survivor’s daughter, Agnieszka Bater-Shupska, gave the award to the nephew of her parent’s rescuer, Agnieszka Troszka.
Some of the children of survivors recognize the rescuers of their families.
You will probably be able to find all their stories and many more on the Yad Vashem website, along with information on how to honor the righteous who saved your own family members.
And the next morning, a group of us left for Lublin and Krakow…code words for Majdanek and Auschwitz… more to come.
commentary, politics, social action
By Jeanette Friedman
Even after the moving memorial service and perfect presidential moment for those murdered in Tucson, when Barack Obama acted as President of the United States and not the head of the Democratic Party, the most extreme Internet commentators continue to hide behind their screen names and post vituperative comments designed to agitate their followers.
Their actions make it easy to believe that if President Obama sacrificed himself so that another person might live, or saved the life of a poster’s family member or even the life of the poster him or herself, they would still tear him apart. After the killings in Tucson, a reasonable person would have expected pause, perhaps a moment of introspection, a slowing down of the endless stream of antipathy that fills our ears and eyes. Few of these posters and well-known pundits seem to have enough human decency to stifle the poison coming from their keyboards. It matters not to them if their overheated rhetoric might convince lunatics to pick up guns and blow people away. History is filled with examples of political rhetoric leading to violence—including Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, blood libels, the Holocaust, contemporary genocides, and even the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin.
Since these unnamed villifiers don’t seem to be able to stop their addiction to their rage and hatred, what would they do if their favorite targets—the President and his supporters—disappeared? They would have to find something else to denigrate and despise, because such an addiction is tough to break. Will the usual victims of blood libels become their next targets? Sarah Palin, for one, throws words like blood libel around and is clueless about their meaning. These cowardly posters think they are brilliant American historians (not) and insightful students of politics (also not) and you can bet they do not know that an innocent New York Jew, Leo Frank, was lynched by the prominent citizens of Marietta, Georgia in 1915 for the murder of a little girl. They probably also don’t know there was a blood libel against Jews in Massena, New York in 1928.
So what will these enraged posters and pundits do when the silent majority decides to stop being quiet and demands that the rivers of digital hatred in our political discourse be dammed? Will they change their focus and target those who are tired of politics as blood sport and want reasonable discussion on the issues?
In America, freedom is a privilege, earned via good citizenship. Civics, decent behavior, respect for each other matter. Enlightened, informational discussions of the issues matter. Pulling a lever or pushing a button in a voting booth matters—and if you don’t exercise that right, then just shut up and get out of the way. If you believe what these posters put out there, and you don’t want to pay taxes, don’t expect the fire department to put out the fire when your house is burning. Don’t expect folks to pick up the garbage you generate, and don’t expect your children or descendants to get a decent public education. Expect senior citizens to be homeless. Do not expect to see the best of America, expect the worst.
Pundits spit lies and fire like hydra-headed dragons. For them and the anonymous, ubiquitous Internet commentators, it’s all about despising those who disagree with them. Their tone and attitude diminish our American values. No matter how many columns such people write and how many comments they post, they are like electronic hooligans who live to generate page views and damn the consequences. Clearly they have forgotten that words can kill. We don’t know who dismisses them, or who is nurtured by their loathing. When they upload their venom-loaded verbiage with such glee, it makes you wonder how they can sleep at night or stand to look at themselves in the mirror. It almost makes you ashamed to be an American.
Perhaps it’s time for the silent majority to say, “Enough!” and demand that politicians and strategists change the existing paradigm, and let reasonable, common decency trickle down to the rest of us.