Reflections from Rabbi Waxman
Saving Soviet Jewry: A Pioneer Remembered
This matzah, which we set aside as a symbol of hope, for the three million Jews of the Soviet Union, reminds us of the indestructible link that exists between us. As we observe this festival of freedom, we know that Soviet Jews are not free to learn of their Jewish past, to hand it down to their children. They cannot learn the languages of their fathers. They cannot teach their children to be the teachers, the rabbis of future generations.
They can only sit in silence and become invisible. We shall be their voice, and our voices shall be joined by thousands of men of conscience aroused by the wrongs suffered by Soviet Jews. Then shall they know that they have not been forgotten and they that sit in darkness shall yet see a great light.
Beginning in the late 60’s, for over 2 decades many of us placed an extra matzah on our matzah plates, a fourth matzah, which was ‘The Matzah of Hope.” We recited this passage. Many of us participated in the Soviet Jewry rallies, some large, such as the ones held at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza near the UN, and some smaller, such as the ones outside the Soviet Mission to the Union on East 67th Street or their residence out in Glen Cove. And we lived to see some of the heroes liberated: who can forget Natan Sharansky’s walk to freedom? We saw, as well, many of the refuseniks, whose signs we carried and whose names we kept with us on bracelets, at the giant rally in Washington in December, 1987.
But none of this would have been possible were it not for the dedication of Jacob Birnbaum, who sadly faded into the background with the passage of time. Having left Germany at the age of 8 before the Holocaust, he grew up in Great Britain. After the War he worked with survivors in the camps in Europe. But in the winter of 1964, Birnbaum, recently arrived in the United States, began going door to door in the Yeshiva University dorms, to generate activity on behalf of Soviet Jewry. 50 years this Sunday, April 27, 1964, the Soviet Struggle for Soviet Jewry (shades of the Marxist revolution!) was founded when 150 students met at Columbia University 4 days later, on May Day, the first rally was held, outside of the Soviet Mission to the UN with a 1,000 people, mostly of them students. Drawn from YU, Columbia, the Seminary and some other local institutions those two events marked the birth of a movement that by the fall could hold a rally with a representative of the White House in attendance, along with Senator Javits. And in the spring of 1965, Shlomo Carlebach, at the behest of Birnbaum, introduced the theme song of the movement: “Am Yisrael Chai; the people of Israel live.”
Birnbaum inspired a generation of young activists, many who rose to prominence in the Orthodox world, including Rabbis Shlomo Riskin—the organization’s first chairman-- and Avi Weiss, but also Malcolm Hoenlein, early on the director for the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry. But it also involved a young Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and Birnbaum was able to recruit prominent Orthodox rabbis, Israel Miller and Herschel Schachter, along with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of JTS, among others, And there is little doubt that Elie Weisel would not have traveled to the Soviet Union in the fall of 1965 as a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and penned the articles that formed his seminal volume The Jews of Silence, had not Birnbaum promoted the cause. Had it not been for the pioneering efforts of SSJ, the Jackson-Vanik bill that linked “most favored nation” status for trade to emigration and human rights would not have been enacted. Indeed, our rallying on behalf of the Jews of Silence would in a short time inspire a generation of Soviet Jews to become dissidents.
Sadly, Birnbaum was passed over for a position when the National Conference on Soviet Jewry was formed a few years later and he faded into the background, even while his some of his disciples rose to prominence, including Glenn Richter, who as a sophomore at Queens College had attended that organizational meeting, and who emerged as the public face of SSSJ. Birnbaum died two weeks ago at the age of 87. He was lavishly and justly eulogized by some of those he had energized half a century ago.
Natan Sharansky compared Birnbaum to Nachshon ben Aminadab, who according to rabbinic legend jumped into the Red Sea, daring the sea to part, forcing God’s hand. Birnbaum’s leap made the liberation of Soviet Jewry a priority not only for Jews, but for our government. So much so that in the 80’s, at every meeting with Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan raised the plight of Soviet Jewry
Next Monday is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. We mourn the loss of 6 million precious souls. With that tragedy embedded in his mind, Jacob Birnbaum fashioned a movement that in the words of Rabbi Saul Berman “saved the bodies and spiritual identities of three million Jews.” T’hay Zichro M’kor Brachah: may his memory serve as a source of blessing and inspiration to us.
It was a harsh winter, but tulips are blooming, leaves are beginning to appear and some of the trees are adorned with pink blossoms. Our tradition includes an unique beracha, blessing, on seeing trees blossom for the first time. Let me suggest it is a nice way to mark spring, even if there is a chill in the air. It begins with the usual formula of “Baruch Ahtah…Melech HaOlam” and continues: “”Sheh-lo Chee-sahr B’olah-mo Dah-vark, U’Vah-rah Vo B’ree-yot Toe-vot V’Elah-note Toe-vim L’Ha-note Bah-hem B’nai Ah-dahm. Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who has withheld nothing from His world and who has created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for mortals to enjoy.
Chadashot MeYisrael: News From Israel
Yertle the Turtle’s Israeli Cousin Gets a New Flipper
4 years ago, a rare green turtle, about the size of a laundry basket, washed ashore on an Israeli beach. It had two severely damaged flippers on its left side and was immediately taken to the Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Michmoret. Unfortunately, Hofesh—which means “vacation”--,the name which was given to the turtle had to have its flippers amputated. Without them, swimming was no longer possible: he would flail and sink, gasping for breath.
Caretakers were stymied. Since sea turtles can live up to 80 years and Hofesh was still a teen—he was 16 when rescued--, he was at risk of drowning the moment he entered the water.
To the rescue an Israeli industrial design student by the name of Shlomi Gez. Inspired by the stabilizing device on the F-22 jet, Gez created an artificial slipper to enable Hofesh to stay balanced when swimming. To the delight of his caretakers, and of the media, Hofesh is now able to swim, albeit a bit jerkily. But it is hoped that as he gets used to the new fin, he will start to lead a more normal life of a turtle.
However, though the flipper is attached with biological glue that will grow with him, there is concern that should it ever fall off, the turtle would certainly drown. Hence, Hofesh will not be returned to the ocean. He, however, will be used as part of the conservation program and will be bred with a blind young female turtle named Sarit, who lost her eyesight in an accident. One hopes it will be a productive union.
Payrush LaParshahah: A Comment on the Weekly Torah Portion
The portion of Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-37) is read this Saturday April 26th.
19:27 You shall not round off the of the side-growth [Peah] on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard. (28) You shall not makes gashes in, your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.
19:27-28 You shall not round off the side-growth on your head. Do not cut the hair of your heads in a circle [like a monk’s tonsorial]. This is the accepted interpretation; that it was forbidden to clip the hair of the temples (see Makkot 20b...). However, there is no assurance that the singular form "Peah" [corner] in fact refers to this part of the hair. See for example, 13:41 "If he loses the front part [P'at] of his head." (In biblical poetry the word "peah" is parallel to "skull", as in Jeremiah 48:45.) In any event, there is no doubt that the intent of the text is to ban a certain form of haircut. With regard to this style certain peoples among the neighbors of Israel were designated as "the ones who have their temples clipped” (Jeremiah 9:25; 25:23). But perhaps the intent is to refer to cutting the hair around and around. Compare "you shall not mar the corner of your beard" in the continuation of this verse and what is written later (21:5) "you shall not shave the corner of your beard": The Septuagint does not contribute to the understanding of the passage. It translates "you shall not make sisoe of the hairs of your head and you shall not mar the appearance of your beard.” (similarly in 21:5). The word "sisoe" is unknown in Greek. But the Greek translator of the book of Leviticus evaded translating the word "peah" even in other instances, as for example in verse 9, and similarly in 23:22.
Not like the custom of the Egyptians in the period of the Bible, who cropped their hair and shaved their beards, We can learn from archeological finds (idols, wall paintings, images and decorations on vessels), that the inhabitants of Canaan wore their hair quite long and full, and as was customary, as well, in Mesopotamia…compare for instance the description of Absalom (2 Samuel 14: 25-26), and even the [prophet] Ezekiel who was taken in prophetic vision to Jerusalem by the fringes of his hair (8:3). [Further note the material about] the Nazirites (Numbers 6:5 ff.] and on the priests (Ezekiel 44:20) who were forbidden to shave their hair. The priests only “clipped” their heads, that is to say they trimmed their hair. Nonetheless Ezekiel, who was a priest, was commanded to shave his hair and his beard as a symbolic act (Ezekiel 5:1-4). When Hanun the son of Nachash embarrassed the messengers of David by shaving half of their beards, they remained in Jericho until their beards grew back, and they did not search for another “aesthetic” solution—shaving the entire beard (2 Samuel 10:4-5). Shaving of the beard was a sign of mourning (Jeremiah 41:5…). The ban of marring the corner of the head and to destroy the corner of the beard appear to be a commandment to be separated from the customs of the others. And there is perhaps some pagan or magical significance [to this], and hence it is linked with the prohibitions of magical practices (verse 26). Nonetheless, in the laws about the holiness of the priests (21:5) the shaving of the beard was prohibited specifically only for the priests. The connection there is with mourning customs (21:1 ff.) Shaving the head, gashing and incising [of the head/body], and cutting the beard were accepted mourning practices in the ancient world…In the text before us three similar practices are mentioned: “the circling of the hair of the head, the destruction of the beard, and gashing the flesh “for the body” (that is to say; for the body, for the dead; see 21:1). It is possible to explain the prohibitions in our text in relation to mourning or to the ritual of the dead. But it is possible that the prohibition of trimming the head and the marring of the beard are prohibitions unto themselves, and not related to mourning. And the place of these prohibitions in conjunction with the prohibition “of gashing the body” emerges out of associative connections with mourning practices (Moshe Zipor in Olam HaTanakah: Vayikrah. For some 2 decades, from the 90’s until the early years of this decade, Zipor was Senior Lecturer in Department of Bible at Bar Ilan University. He has written extensively about the early transmission of the biblical text, and is the author of variety of studies including a volume entitled Tradition and Transmission, Studies in Ancient Biblical Translation and Interpretation, as well a translation, with extensive notes, of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Bible—version of Genesis back into Hebrew. Both of these volumes are in Hebrew. He has published, as well, a large number of scholarly papers not only in Hebrew, but also in English and French.)