Thursday, September 1, 2022

In This Moment: The "Worst Jew Ever" is Having a Moment; Is Ken Burns' Series a Moment of Reckoning for Holocaust Education?

In This Moment

Today's headline for the first day of school in Israel states, "It's great that you came, Grade 1!" A teacher's strike was averted yesterday, adding to the kids' smiles (at this age, they still smile on the first day of school), along with the fact that their smiles aren't hidden by masks. Their names are listed here - this class is from Hadera. And at the bottom of the page, a welcome note from President Herzog with the heading, "A Better Future."  As we say in Jew-speak, halavai!

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Labor Day

Mazal tov to Ethan Kaplan as he becomes Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat, and to Cantor Kaplan, Eric and their family. 

As we dive into Labor Day Weekend and the beginning of fall, we think about the important role of labor in our tradition. It’s important to note that the Hebrew expression for work, avoda, also means worship.   

As Rabbi Michael Strassfeld puts it, "Avodah connotes service. (It is also the word for slavery, which is involuntary service.) Work is not only a necessary part of life, it is a form of service to the world, to the rest of humanity, and to God. We are meant to be of service, to be partners with God in the ongoing creation of the world. Yet even as we serve God, we also serve our fellow human beings."

I’ve written, regarding my own profession:

"It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word for work, avodah, is also the word for worship. Our work is nothing less than our supreme offering to God, whether we are a rabbi, doctor or welder. Each of us must try to discern the cry of the times, perceive this mission and act on it. I see my task as being analogous to that of the ancient biblical prophet, of whom Heschel wrote, 'He is neither a singing saint nor a moralizing poet. His images must not shine, they must burn.'"

Here are some packets to help us as we proceed with our Elul and Labor Day reflections: 

A quick Covid update. With conflicting news of continued medium/high rates of infection but fewer hospitalizations and a new updated booster at hand, this is a very confusing time. I do not pretend to represent our Opening Committee in determining temple policy. As always, I must answer to a "higher authority." That authority tells me that we all need to think for ourselves while continuing to be "fact based," and not to be swayed by pressures from all sides. It is clear that 1) dangers still exist, 2) we do need to get back to some form of normalcy and 3) while thankfully this is no longer a partisan political issue, the politics of the moment are leading most to greater lenience, which is OK, but in some cases it has reached the point of denial. Some people really believe that it's all over - when it's not.  So it is time to put those rolling eyes back in their sockets, take a deep breath and treat everyone with patience, understanding and a sense of humility at how much we still don't know.

As for me, heading into the fall, there is a backlog of weddings (postponed from that early Covid era) that I am committed to performing and I have promised the lucky couples that I will spare no effort to be able to be there, which means not testing positive. Add to that the b'nai mitzvah, conversions, funerals, special events and those three little holidays at the end of this month, and I am compelled to adopt the same personal practices that I employed in the Spring.

  • I will attend all in-person services and lifecycle events unless I am exposed or testing positive.
  • I will wear a mask at indoor public events and meetings, except when speaking (with some distance).
  • Therefore I will not be removing my mask to eat at indoor events, kiddushes, etc. and will limit my attendance at these. In September and October, at least, I will also limit my participation at stationery (seated) meals in tents where masks are not being worn. 
  • I will attend funerals and in-person Shiva services held in large spaces (eg our social hall) or outdoors.
  • Hospital and other pastoral visits will happen when arranged, but no regular "rounds."
  • I will take the new vaccine booster as soon as I can.

Let's hope and pray for continued positive trends on the Covid front and for everyone, everyone, to have a healthy and sweet new year. 

Happy Labor Day and Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

It's Labor Day weekend and you're at the pool or a bar.

Naturally, you are looking for some Yiddish pickup lines.

Well, we are a full service congregation!

You search has ended!!!

Undoubtedly you would like to know what some of them mean. Head on over to the nifty website Jewish Unpacked and you'll find out. The lines range from “Don’t stick your finger between the door,” to, “For one kiss, I will give up half a lifetime.” There's also, "We can make a mistake together" and my personal favorite, "Don’t think that behind my smiling face there isn’t a deep pain."

Looking for a Jewish calendar for the New Year?

Click here for enlarged photos of these calendars, plus more Jewish calendars through the ages, from Israel's National Library

A page from a Jewish almanac from Jamaica circa 1798


Jews settled in Jamaica even before the British took it over from the Spanish in 1655, Jews were attracted because of its potential for commerce – namely gold and produce, but yes, also slaves. The almanac is not a Jewish calendar per se, but it includes Jewish dates, The printer did not know Hebrew, so there are a few typos. The calendar is a testimony to the prominence of the Jews in Jamaica, who were forced to hide their Judaism under Spanish rule.

A 120 year calendar from 1850

The calendar is a large and heavy board in London as a gift to Sir Moses Montefiore – a British-Jewish lord who heavily donated to the Zionist movement and was instrumental in forming the first Jewish neighborhood outside of Jerusalem's Old City.

The calendar contains astronomical information pertinent to maintaining a religious Jewish life. People would use this to be able to calculate which Torah portion they need to read and when to light the candles. The reason it was built to be heavy was so that people would not be able to throw it away.


Days of redemption – calendar 1949-1950


This calendar goes from left to right and each date has Biblical passage next to it. For example, the (Jewish) month of Kislev has a quote from Hanukah and hints at a connection with the War of Independence. Everything is written with a whiff of redemption, probably as a result of the state's formation, which was perceived as a redemption of the land, especially as this was published just after that war ended and the Jewish state's birth was assured.

The Worst Jew Ever having a moment

Jacob Frank is arguably the worst Jew in history. He certainly belongs up (down) there in the pantheon, along with Bernard Madoff, Sabbatai Tzvi (the false messiah who preceded Frank), and assorted despots like Herod and King Ahaband perhaps Na'ama, the Mother of all Demons (though not her associate, Lilith). Throw in 20th century nominees, mobster Mayer Lansky and the "semi-fascist" racist, Meir Kahane. But Jacob Frank (1726-1790) just might top them all.

How bad was he? Well, read this description of one of what was generously called Frank's "sacred orgies."  This is the stuff they didn't teach you in Hebrew School. 

The sexual adventures reached the ears of the senior rabbis of Poland, after the Frankists held a rough sexual ceremony described by David Kahana in his “Book of Darkness”: on the 26th day of the month of Shvat in 1756, on a market day in the town of Lanzkron, Podolia, the people of the Frank sect gathered in the morning in an inn of one of their own, closed all the windows in secrecy, and took the rabbi’s wife, a beautiful and promiscuous woman, sat her down naked in a palanquin, placed a Torah crown upon her head and danced around her, playing instruments, falling on her and kissing her, while calling her “mezuzah”.

But now he is having a moment. Two books about him have just come out. One is a novel written nearly a decade ago by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, a Nobel Prize winner for literature. It's called The Books of Jacoband I read it this summer - all one thousand pages of it. That was my July. The New York Times called it "an overwhelming novel," and I concur. It is astounding how the author was able to bridge Polish Catholic cultural sensibilities with a rabbinic-level knowledge of Judaism (she is not Jewish). Read this interview, where she talks at length about Frank and this novel.

The story of Jacob Frank is in some ways more a Polish-Ukrainian story than a Jewish one, but Jewish scholars have taken a keen interest in him, beginning with Gershom Scholem (whose study of the Sabbatean movement can be read here, excerpted in Commentary Magazine). This week, another book has come out, penned by the spiritualist and scholar Jay Michaelson, called The Heresy of Jacob Frank: From Jewish Messianism to Esoteric MythRather than piling on more condemnation of his excommunicated subject, Michaelson describes Frank as an "original and prescient figure at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, reason and myth, Kabbalah and Western Esotericism." Everything that followed the tumult of Frank's 18th century, including the Haskalah, Hasidism, Zionism, Socialism, Secular Yiddishism - you name it - owes something to Jacob Frank, according to Michaelson, which hardly makes him rogues gallery material. 

So what are we to make of this enigmatic, charismatic leader, whose followers stayed with him after he converted both to Islam and Christianity (a mean trick), who betrayed his former coreligionists by legitimizing accusations of Blood Libel, who was the cause of mass Talmud burnings, who was the focus of sex scandals and, as noted, orgies, who led thousands of Jews to be baptized and who ultimately went to prison. But otherwise, what a guy!

I've always been a fan of Michaelson - we brought him here as scholar in residence a few years ago - and being a wee-bit of a heretic myself, I'm sympathetic to the antinomian thread that he has always brought to his writing. I also see how both Frank and Sabbatai Tzvi were much more mainstream than we are led to believe by those who tried to write them out of Jewish history. It is a great source of embarrassment that so many Jews were sucked into these movements. People followed their wacky ideas because they were desperate and looking for strong, charismatic leadership. 

Frank's imprisonment lasted thirteen years, yet it only increased his influence by lending him the aura of martyrdom. Below are a couple of passages from Tokarczuk's book, describing Sabbatai Tzvi's conversion and imprisonment, that attest to the cognitive dissonance that happens when your savior is incarcerated and all their lies exposed. The analogies to hard-core Trumpism are hard to ignore, especially following this week's upsurge of QAnon conspiracy-mongering in the wake of a summer-long reality check, courtesy of the Jan. 6 committee and the D.O.J.  As the pressure increased, so did the delusions. The true disciple never succumbs to doubt - or to facts.  

From The Books of Jacob

Was it really prison? Blessings in disguise? Not really converted to Islam? it's truly  embarrassing to think that Jews were so duped by Sabbatai Tzvi, and then again just a generation later by Jacob Frank. But unless we look closely at why it happened then, we are more likely to succumb again. Leon Festinger's classic treatise "When Prophecy Fails", demonstrates that no matter when or where, people have devised ingenious ways to overcome cognitive dissonance when their messiah turns out to be a fraud.  In that work, the social psychologist infiltrates a doomsday cult to see what would happen when the group’s apocalyptic beliefs are disconfirmed. Rather than dissolving the cult and dispersing, the group doubles down on their diet of crazy and find ways to continue to believe.

We see it now - I mean aside from the cult of Trump. The Jewish world has enough personality cults to keep us quite busy (cough, cough Bibi), most especially the dangerous strain of ethno-nationalism inspired by Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein, now propagated by their apostle, Itamar Ben GvirHe will bring his ultra right wing party into the Israeli government if Netanyahu's bloc gains enough seats to gain a majority in the Knesset after the November 1 vote. So when people say that democracy is on the ballot this November, they could just as easily be talking about Israel as America.

You can learn more about Michaelson's revisionist approach to Jacob Frank in this recent Judaism Unbound" podcast and in this essay from 2007, Why I Study Sabbateanism, where he calls Jacob Frank...

... a manipulative, vulgar cult leader who converted both to Islam and Catholicism, may have had a long-term incestuous relationship with his daughter, and was regarded by thousands of 18th-century Jews as a messianic figure. Not a nice guy - but, to me, a fascinating one, precisely because his was a theology of transgression in which no answers were assured. Indeed, in which answers were the enemy. If you see a boundary, cross it - that's the view, because it's what God did, mixing Godself with the impurity of the material world. Where does that end up? Some scholars call it nihilism - but it's a nihilism that greatly influenced Frank's contemporary, R. Israel Baal Shem Tov, and which, astonishingly, paved the way for the Haskalah (Enlightenment) in some communities, assimilation in others.

You may quibble about whether such a destructive figure deserves to have a moment as Frank is having now, but there is no question that he was influential. And his impact, ironically for someone who burned so many bridges, has been to bridge Polish-Ukrainian and Jewish cultures. Tokarczuk's vivid descriptions of places like Lviv and Podolia, the heart of Jewish Ukraine, are particularly poignant now. The same boulevards and squares where Talmudic volumes were burned back then have recently been set aflame again by Putin's missiles. But now, the lines separating former antagonists, Jews and Ukrainians,

have been blurred. These are the boundaries that were meant to be crossed, unlike the red lines of Jewish practice transgressed by Jacob Frank. Ukraine's current Prime Minister is Jewish - and he is an epochal, charismatic leader, but his following is not a personality cult. Zelensky is the bridge, and Tokarczuk, much more than Frank, laid the foundation.

The Books of Jacob is a book well worth reading, if you've got a spare month, with either a thesaurus or a rabbi close at hand. Otherwise, I'd wait for the movie. Though if you are looking for a challenge, go for it. The book continually fascinates (for instance, the pagination runs backwards, as if the book is meant to be read from right to left, like a sacred Hebrew scripture), This is not a book to take to the beach. It's too heavy, in every respect. But if you do manage to tackle this Nobel Prize winning novel, you'll come away with a far deeper appreciation of just how infinitely layered Jewish civilization is, and how susceptible we all are to the influence of very bad people (cough cough).

And at this moment in history, that's reason enough to read about people like Jacob Frank, and to celebrate a Polish writer's Nobel Prize.

Is Ken Burns' Series a Moment of Reckoning for Holocaust Education?

The U.S. and the Holocaust A new documentary by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, premieres Sept. 18Here is how the producers describe this film:

Inspired in part by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition and supported by its historical resources, the film examines the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany in the context of global antisemitism and racism, the eugenics movement in the United States and race laws in the American south. The series, written by Geoffrey Ward, sheds light on what the U.S. government and American people knew and did as the catastrophe unfolded in Europe.

So this series is going to go way beyond the typical question of whether FDR should have bombed the camps. Interesting to note that here is where American Jewish history intersects with Critical Race Theory in educating Americans about our beloved nation's history, and in particular one of this country's finest and most shameful episodes. History is messy. The U.S. both liberated and abandoned European Jewry during the war, and prior to 1939, the Golden Land was both a refuge and a mirage, unattainable after the refugee quotas of the 1920s. It can be argued that millions of Jews died because of those quotas, and the racist eugenic theories that propelled them. It can be - but will teachers in certain states be allowed to say it?  

For American Jews, and those Jews who wished to come here, 1921 is our 1619.  In 1619 is was about the boats that came over.  In the 1920s and '30s, it was about the boats that couldn't.  As a result of 1619, millions were enslaved.  As result of 1921, millions died.

But will the teachers in Florida or Virginia be able to say that?

Recommended Reading

  • What Jews in the Pews Would Choose (Gary Rosenblatt) - Based on the dozens of thoughtful responses I received to my recent query about the issue readers would most want to hear addressed from the pulpit on the High Holy Days, it seems clear that many of us are experiencing “loneliness and despair.”

  • Yeshiva University petitions Supreme Court to intervene in LGBTQ club dispute (RNS) -  Yeshiva University in New York City filed an emergency request Monday (Aug. 29) asking the Supreme Court to block a court order that would require it to immediately recognize an LGBTQ pride club. “Yeshiva and its President are now being ordered to violate their religious beliefs or face contempt,” the request said. “That ruling is an unprecedented intrusion into Yeshiva’s religious beliefs and the religious formation of its students in the Jewish faith.” The move is in response to a lawsuit by a group of students at the Orthodox Jewish university who have been advocating for a school-sanctioned undergraduate LGBTQ student group since 2019. In April 2021, four students representing the YU Pride Alliance sued the school for discrimination, and in June the New York County Supreme Court decided in favor of the students, at least three of whom are now alumni. The school was ordered to recognize the student group “immediately.”

  • Basmanny Justice’ and the Jews of Russia - JNS - Russia’s campaign against the Jewish Agency, which assists Jews wishing to emigrate to Israel, was launched at the end of last month. The Russian ministry of justice filed a legal bid to close the agency’s local operations, alleging that a database of Russian citizens was being maintained in contravention of Russian law. The court where the case against the Jewish Agency was filed—the Basmanny District Court—has become the emblem, as far as Russian dissidents are concerned, of the politicization of the country’s judicial system. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s wealthiest man until Russian President Vladimir Putin came gunning for him in 2005, even coined the term “Basmanny justice” to describe the woefully compromised state of the Russian judiciary. And “Basmanny justice” is no doubt what lies in store for the Jewish Agency.

  • The greatest forgotten hero of modern Jewish history (RNS) - Exactly 125 years ago, a 37-year-old bearded journalist and playwright stood before a formally attired assembly of Jews in Basel, Switzerland. These are the words he uttered: “At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.”
Temple Beth El

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