Thursday, February 24, 2022

In This Moment: Feb. 25: How Can We Help Ukraine?

In This Moment
We don't talk about ...
H-A-M-A-N !
We Don't Talk About Bruno (From "Encanto")
Shabbat Shalom...
Click on the video above to view one of the most popular Disney songs of all time, the song everyone's talking about, about someone who is not supposed to be talked about. Take a look at the lyrics of "We Don't Talk About Bruno," then come up with new lyrics for part or all of this song - a Purim parody - and send your version to me....or even better, turn those parody lyrics into a video of your own and send THAT to me. Our judges will pick which ones to premiere on Purim night! Open to adults and kids of all ages!

Join us for services this Shabbat! Friday night, I'm looking forward to our musical meet-and-greet for Cantor Kaplan, which people can attend in person and online.
But what's foremost on our minds today is the war that has been thrust upon Ukraine.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
First Putin Came for Ukraine...
Who's Next? And Does it Matter?
When I heard the chilling speech by Vladimir Putin the other night, I thought of Israel. His justifications for dismembering his neighbor to the west could just as easily have been made to justify the destruction of Israel. True, Israel is not in the same neighborhood as Russia and Ukraine, but Putin could have listed many of the same grievances in conjuring up excuses to attack the Jewish state.

Russia has a long and complicated relationship with Jews and has already tried more than once to destroy the Jewish people and culture. Czar Nicholas planned to solve what was called the "Jewish Question" through a combination of exile, forced conscription and extermination; the communists followed suit,
Ukraine, 1877 The Jewish Museum, NY

assisted during World War Two by the genocidal efforts of the Nazis. How grotesque that Putin played the Nazi card in his speech last night, given that history and Ukraine's Jewish president.

Putin falsely claims that Ukraine is not a legitimate nation and has no historical basis to exist. Those claims have been made constantly about Israel by Russian leaders. Russia is where the Protocols of the Elders of ZIon were first published, in Russian, and after Israel's creation, Soviet propaganda was filled with venom directed toward Zionism, Israel and the Jews. In the latter years of the USSR, it was the Soviet Jewry liberation movement that opened the door for freedom for Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, contributing to the downfall of the Soviet empire. Putin's got a whole list of reasons to detest the Jews.

As he tries to rally his nation against a world that has rarely been so unified, Putin will become increasingly embattled, looking for scapegoats wherever he can find them. He won't have to look far. It was Putin who said, in a 2018 NBC interview, that 13 Russian nationals indicted for U.S. election interference may not be ethnically Russian: "Maybe they are not even Russians, but Ukrainians, Tatars or Jews, but with Russian citizenship, which should also be checked," he said.

President Zelensky, is holding up his end amazingly as a contemporary Jewish hero. His speech on Wed. night, delivered mostly in Russian, was, in the words of reporter Max Seddon"A powerful, dignified, mature, and heartfelt appeal for peace between Russians and Ukrainians that couldn't have been any more different from Putin's resentful rant."

How should Jews think about Ukraine? Ukraine also has a checkered history of antisemitism: there were the 1648 Cossack massacres and Babi Yar; but also the real-life Anatevka - and how many other countries have had Jewish presidents and Jewish prime ministers — simultaneously? (As Jeffrey Salkin pointed out this week, that would be Israel).

So yes, first Putin came for the Ukrainians, but we all have a stake in this war. While it is highly unlikely that Putin will attack Israel directly now - because bullies prey on the weak and Israel is much too strong for his liking - he'll be happy to outsource that task to proxies like Iran.

But why should it even matter who might be next on this madman's list? It's bad enough that he is destroying the shaky foundations of European security, so essential for a stable world, already. And while it is understandable that NATO can't intervene more forcefully right now, it leaves us feeling helpless. We want and need to actively oppose this affront to civilization.

For now, this is what we can do:

  • Pray. That's what thousands of Jewish children all across Ukraine did this week. It's also what Queen Esther when learning that her people were endangered by another madman. Here is one of the blessings found in the Amida, recited three times daily. This 19th blessing was added to the 18 blessings of the Amida by Rabbi Gamliel, during a time of rampant persecution by the Romans.
Recommended Reading
(and Viewing)

  • TBE's Elissa Hyman sends along this glowing review of a current Broadway production of Jewish interest, "Prayer for the French Republic." Thank you, Elissa!

James and I see a lot of theatre. A lot of theatre. Before the pandemic, we were seeing an average of about 15 Broadway shows a season. And that did not include the London West End/National theatre shows we frequented.

I’m not trying to impress, but what I am trying to say is that because we see a lot of theatre, we are not afraid to walk out on shows during the intermission if they aren’t up to snuff.  This year was a big year for that—I’d say we had a 50% stay rate on the shows we saw since the theatre re-opened this past fall.

But one show, Prayer for the French Republic by Joshua Harmon, was so outstanding that I feel that I need to shout its praises before it leaves its Broadway run on March 15th. If you haven’t seen it yet, you MUST.

Don’t be put off by its 3 hour with 2 intermissions, length. We were riveted from the very beginning.

 The story takes place in contemporary Paris, at the apartment of Marcelle and Charles Benhamou, a Jewish French couple with two adult children living with them.  Marcelle is a psychologist, and Charles is a doctor—both of whom are in their mid-fifties. Charles was born in Algeria, of a Jewish family, and Marcelle’s family, we learn, has been in Paris for 5 generations.

The show opens with Marcelle talking on her couch in their apartment to a distant young cousin, Molly, who has recently arrived from America and is studying in a semester abroad program outside of Paris. 

Throughout the play, we see the relationships between Marcelle and Charles, the children and the American cousin, and the interplay of issues facing all Jews in all countries—is it safe for us here, with all the terrorist acts against Jews? Or should we abandon our lives and leave? When is the right time to make this decision? And most importantly, where should we go? To further highlight these questions, the play flips back and forth between the present and Marcelle’s family during WWII, who stayed in Paris throughout the war.

It’s funny but challenging as we recognize our own Jewish selves in this play—and all the conflicting emotions we have toward feeling comfortable where we are, or whether we have our to-go bag packed and ready to go.

I won’t give away any more but I highly recommend you see it. Let me know what you think!

  • We may not want to talk about Bruno (and is it right to ostracize a family member, really?) but many people have been talking about Bruni. If you haven't read Frank Bruni's heartbreaking, wise and revealing column, by all means do. it's an excerpt from his new book, "The Beauty of Dusk," asserting that our moments of self-pity would be rarer and our capacity for empathy stronger if we knew the full truth of the people around us.
Rabbi Neil Gillman: A Tribute
At our most recent session of our year look look at the New Jewish Canon, we discussed Rabbi Neil Gillman's work. Neil z'l was a teacher of mine at JTS, a great contemporary philosopher, and the director of the rabbinical school at the time of my entrance, so in a real sense, he is why I am a rabbi today. During the session, I shared some personal memories, including stories of his several visits to TBE over the years.

Afterward, class member Jonathan Gellman sent me his personal tribute to this kind and influential scholar. With Jonathan's permission, I share it with you here. Neil's mark on Jewish culture deserves to be remembered, and his book "Sacred Fragments" deserves to be part of the New Jewish Canon. Thank you, Jonathan!


Last week’s class on The New Jewish Canon  struck a retrospective, memorial chord for me.  Your recounting the thought and influence of Neil Gillman reminded me of my own memories of his purposeful life, based on my impressions of him both as a professor and as a sharer of discussions outside the Seminary.  In the 1980s I took two introductory courses at JTS, sort of a Great Books of Jewish history, first with Ed Greenstein and then with Neil Gillman.  Neil was kind enough to let me, a lawyer by day, submit my final paper (a personal theology viewing G-d as our partner) after the formal end of the course.  

A few years later, I asked Neil if he would advise an ADL outreach group with General Theological Seminary on advising prospective interfaith Jewish-Episcopalian couples.  He initially held back, but accepted when I said the aim was to frame questions for those couples to consider (expectations, likely responses to various situations, etc) with the intent not to encourage or sanction intermarriage, but rather to prompt both partners to explore differences that might emerge in the future. 

After those early experiences, we would meet for dinner near Columbia once every three months or so.  I appreciated the breadth of his intellectual interests and I think he liked, as a native Canadian, being able to discuss American politics with me.  

I also saw Neil in his last few years, as he closed his JTS office and fought cancer at his apartment.  His mind was still sharp and eager to discuss current events and I was flattered by the interest he showed in an article I wrote on Herman Melville (possibly he was just curious how a lawyer could venture into such extra-curricular activity, albeit one that was inspired by an adult ed literature class at Temple Emanu-El that he had described).  

A month after I spoke with one of his daughters (“it’s not good” she replied about his condition), I saw his obituary in the Times and later received a call from her (or so I recall) informing me of their shiva arrangements. Asked to offer memories of Neil, I turned to a memory from his JTS roommate, Norton Shargel, who recalled that Neil was a skilled mimicker of the voices of French-Canadian hockey announcers; others then recalled Neil mimicking the voices of Kaplan and Heschel in his lectures.   In this way, Neil Gillman leavened his text when teaching: a serious, original thinker, he had a playful side as a classroom presenter who evoked the voices of other contributors to the evolving Jewish canon. Z”l.

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