A question in the back of my mind

Corridor of Yad V’Shem, like that of Belzec

At Yad V’Shem, Israel’s primary holocaust museum in Jerusalem, I picked up a copy of “The Jews are Coming Back“, a book about the return of Jews to their countries of origin after World War II.  How do you answer a person that says, “Jews should have gone back where they came from!”  As an American, it’s actually hard to answer.  After World War II, Jews generally found a safe place in the United States with quotas lifted (or rather, unused spots from prior years filled when the state department changed their policy).  Without knowing one way or the other, it would seem that Jews could just return to their places of origin in Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere . . . turns out this answer greatly varied by country.

The book is organized by country, from most friendly to Jews to least friendly after the war.  The holocaust didn’t just “end” in Europe.  The flip of the switch that happened in the United States where refugees (and especially Jews) where suddenly welcomed never happened in Europe, save for perhaps France and Belgium to an extent.  Unsurprisingly, France also has the largest Jewish population in Europe today though the Jews are largely leaving for Israel these days due to virulent anti-semitism in France.  However, even there, shortly after holocaust, groups organized to prevent Jews from reclaiming the property they had stolen from their former neighbors.

Country by Country – Jews Returning in Europe after WWII

Memorial candles with the names of human extermination camps

While Jews in France and sometimes Belgium were sometimes able to get their property back through court proceedings, in the rest of Europe the situation was nearly hopeless.  Jews were told they needed to lay low so as not to cause anti-semitism in country after country, and after all, the refrain went, everyone suffered in the war!  France, at least, learned of the concentration camps and mass killings as did the United Kingdom, Belgium, and somewhat the Netherlands and the more the country people knew, the more sympathetic, at least, the government was, though the people tended to feel in country after country, “we all suffered!  … and this property is mine now, so who are you to come back and ‘reclaim’ it on the basis that you suffered too/more?”

Exhibit in Yad V’Shem

Should your country be communist after World War II then the refrain was that there should be no separate nations.  We were “all the same” and just because a returning Jew had his property and rights removed from him and had nothing but barely the rags on his back, that was just the way it was.  The Jewish Agency might try and send you aid, but the communist government almost always rejected same unless it went to everyone equally … which usually meant it went to aid those in power and that was that.  An exception was found here and there: in Tarnipol, Poland a mayor allowed for a statue commemorating the holocaust, but he found himself overruled and without further promotions in the party for life.

Should you try and return to the Ukraine, you might find pockets of help from the government – but the local officials would first strip the women bare, delouse, search, and humiliate before you boarded the train.  In the countryside the government actually provided a safe house for returning Jews and jobs but the locals, the former neighbors, would protest and sometimes violently.  Jews were unable to actually work and the situation was dismal.  In other places older Jews who survived the concentration camps would return to roam without proper shelter or help from the anti-semetic locals.  While Zionists organizations came to pay for transit for younger and able bodied youth to be found to move to Israel and start a new life, neither the elderly were left in squalor, penniless, unable to work, having everything stripped from them.

Perhaps you would try to go to a different country where things were more favorable to you … many traveled to the Netherlands where things were better for Jews, but only Jews who were citizens before the war (and could prove it).  Travel there, or to many other European countries, and you were treated as an “enemy combatant” no different than an ordinary German.  You might find yourself in jail if you were unlucky, or “free” but without rights to do much of anything.

Return? Hardly … and Conclusion

Exhibit in Yad V’Shem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum

There was no light at the end of the tunnel for many.  Surviving the holocaust didn’t mean being able to rebuild you life.  The stories we here and the movies we see are almost always about the 1/6 who survived.  They were the exception to the rule.  We want to hear the stories of the exception who made it, and by in large that’s where we find stories of heroism and those who rose above the horror, but even being the 1/6 to survive did not mean recovery.  My wife’s great-grandmother survived Bergen-Belsen to die of a tuberculosis epidemic after “liberation”.  In researching my own family records at Yad Vashem, I found a cousin of my great-grandmother who made it to Jerusalem to testify about my great-grandmothers family – they were almost all killed in Belzec.  My great-grandmother, Sheindel (Jenny) Silberman, the oldest of a dozen plus children had left for New York earlier, at the age of 12, to avoid being raped by the Kozacs … they saved her life and mine in a twisted way.  One sister made it to Brazil, another to Toronto after hiding in convent.  Other cousins made it to Israel.  There’s a reason they didn’t find their homes in Europe – Hashem [G_d’s] plan, it seems, was not for Jews to remain in any large numbers in eastern Europe any longer.

My first time back to Yad Vashem was last summer on the insistence of my teenage son.  I had my fill of Holocaust museums earlier in my life, but the museum is well made and well thought out.  It chronicles the history of the Holocaust as you move back and forth from room to room, crossing through a long narrow corridor designed after corridors such as that which my great-great grandparents went through stripped bare on the way to the gas chamber in Belzec where they were told to breathe deeply.  At the end, in Yad Vashem at least … when you finally make it, after what took us hours of passing through “highlights” and stories of 12 years of hell in Europe, one reaches an actual light at the end of the tunnel.  It’s a balcony overlooking the hills of Jerusalem.  In the distance is a physically rebuilt Jerusalem, bigger than it every was.  Now we wait for the ongoing spiritual rebuilding to be completed.

(Written and published on Tish B’Av while fasting though I visited Yad V’Shem on Shiva Esser B’Tammuz last year – I couldn’t seem to complete the article until today.)

On a wall in Yad V’Shem – Truth.

Albert Einstein Biography

Who is Einstein?

I just finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein.  I sought out the biography to better understanding various quotes which have been circulating as of late.  There are the witty quotes about relativity of time and sitting with a pretty woman and there is the 1914 letter to his first wife:, ”A. You will see to it (1) that my clothes and linen are kept in order, (2) that I am served three regular meals a day in my room. B. You will renounce all personal relations with me, except when these are required to keep up social appearances.” And: ”You will expect no affection from me . . . You must leave my bedroom or study at once without protesting when I ask you to.”

One has to wonder, what was he really like behind the Warhol-like posters, tongue sticking out, and unkempt hair?

If you’re also wondering, you can read this summary or you can read the biography.  Walter Isaacson never disappoints – he has a great book titled “In the Plex” on the early years of Google and another on Steve Jobs.  Walter Isaacson, clearly Jewish himself, also provides plenty of information about Judaism and Jewish people in his books, most especially when talking about Einstein.

One can best sum up the contradictions between a cold-hearted spouse and witty affable man with a pipe, sailboat, and violin by looking at different stages of his life.  He came from a very secular Jewish family and had more Christian than Jewish education which, Isaacson suggests led him to seek out more about Judaism.  He had some informal Jewish education in his single digit years and actually kept Shabbos and Kosher for a time despite his family doing neither.  Then he got into secular philosophy and that was the end of any formal religious practice for the rest of his life.

Young Einstein

Through his 20s he was a “dissenter” as he described his religion in a government document.  At the same time, he was a “dissenter” from any sort of ideas society would impose upon him and quite aloof in terms of human relations.  He would write letters to eminent scientists and tell them everything they did which was wrong and then ask them for a job at the end of the letter.  This also goes for professors for him he did not care for and for whom he would later rely on to find employment.  As such, he found employment in the Swiss patent office.  I chuckle at this because it’s quite often that one finds those near the bottom of their scientific profession working at the U.S. Patent Office making, sometimes, 1/3 of what they could make in the private sector.

Though much of this information didn’t come out until the 1980s when letters were found (which ex-relatives didn’t destroy but were asked to), it turns out during these younger years Einstein had an illegitimate child, a failed marriage, an typically absentee father (though he was very involved before the divorce) and occasional teaching positions with few attendees.  Then came his breakthroughs.  As such a “dissenter” from religion, society, and structure Einstein gave up his German citizenship (well before WWII) hating rigidity of German society where he was born and opted for Switzerland and a whole lot of thinking.  Most of his papers, as he himself would describe, were of little consequence – except for relativity.  (He never failed math, incidentally – the closest he came was a bad grade in college because he refused to attend.)

I’ll refrain from getting into the science for the purpose of this article.  Rather, Einstein was catapulted into stardom for his theory that the New York Times regularly misunderstood and said they didn’t understand.  Yet they kept writing about Einstein and he became famous to a level which seems to be largely unknown today in a fractured society with so many media outlets.  At that time, heroes were simple and uncomplicated.

Einstein Matures

Returning to the Jewish issue, as Einstein got older it seemed he was more aware and involved in being Jewish.  Though intermarried to his first wife, his second was his Jewish first cousin.  Throughout his life he continued to reject things like monogamy and had many female “friends” but he was acutely aware of anti-semitism.  He didn’t, before the rise of Hitler, seem to lose any speaking positions or professorship jobs at various universities but he had friends who did and anti-semites who spoke out against him and his “Jewish science” which was less grounded in the reality and experimentation and more based in abstract thought and reasoning.

Einstein, for his part, believed in a form of an omniscient G_d or Creator.  However, he did not believe that this Creator cared about us or that we matter, in a large break from Jewish thought.  On top of this, as he got older he retreated from a free-wheeling philosophy to one of formalism.  A hydrogen atom, when excited, releases a certain discrete quanta of light when energy is added but the direction which the light travels is seemingly random.  Einstein said to Neils Bohr on a trolly ride where they lost track of time and position, “I do not believe that G_d plays dice.”  Bohr responded, “Who are you to tell G_d what to do?”  Einstein believed there is no free will – merely causation in a big dance that plays itself out.  Bohr, who I learned from the book is also Jewish believed like a Jew – we have free will and can decide or destiny.

Einstein then went on for years to agitate against those that argued otherwise and worked for decades on a “unified theory” to explain all natural phenomena according to formula.  That has remained unsuccessful to this day.  When pressed as to why he was no longer rebelling and was sticking to his rules, complete with finagle constants and the like (which have been shown to be very wrong) he repeated, “a good trick shouldn’t be repeated” and he was left behind as science advanced.

Instead, Einstein became a celebrity and figure in places like the pacifist movement (arguing that if just 2% of people didn’t show for a draft they couldn’t jail everyone).  After WWII he would change his mind about this.  Einstein fund-raised for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem which holds his archives today.  When traveling to Israel and seeing the Western Wall (pre-state) he thought the religious Jews praying there were relics of an old time and went with the reform and typically Chassidic opinion on the formation of a state – he was for Jews living in Israel but not for the formation of the state.  He was extremely against Menachem Begin and violence used to try and make the state happen.  He further felt that it would hurt Judaism and make it nationalistic instead of religious in character.  However, after 1948 he changed his stance going from a “Satmar” opinion to a “Rav Schach” stance stating that since it’s there we have to keep it and do what we can to make it stronger.  He did not think the state would help Jews economically but 70 years later it’s clear how wrong he was.


There’s much more that can be said about Einstein from his transformation from a radical anti-people person to an affable professor as he matured.  In terms of his Judaism he reminds me of my own grandfather who was born in 1918 and worked as a chemist for his career.  On the one hand my grandfather might tell me, “I’ll have you know that I donated a large sum of money to help Jews in Argentina [during the financial crisis there] move to Israel” while perhaps lighting Chanukah candles or attending a Passover seder.  On the other hand, my grandfather also claimed to believe that everything was part of a natural order.  Judaism was more cultural and defined by how other’s treated us rather than an internal value system which guides every aspect of our lives regardless of what the outside world has to say about us.  (My grandfather was completely faithful to my grandmother though!)



kosher-patentsWhen the name of your blog is Patently Jewish and someone sends you a book titled Kosher Patents, it doesn’t get much more on topic than that.  The book starts with a very good description of the patent process and how one goes about obtaining a patent.  It’s written by Adam Diament, a patent attorney in California.  (I’m a patent attorney in New Jersey.)   It’s a very jewish field in general, including a good number of Torah observant patent attorneys.  Another runs the ‘12:01am Tuesday‘ blog.  Another was the former head of AT&T’s patent department who also happened to train me.  Finally, yet another that I worked with a few years ago on litigation introduced himself to me in synagogue two weeks ago … it turned out we’ve been going to the same place on Friday nights for quite some time.  Patent attorneys aren’t the most social bunch.

Anyway, that’s enough digression for now.  Mr. Diament’s book then proceeds with a disclaimer about bad patents and the examples are really mostly the sort of thing for a coffee table.  I got through the entire book in one sitting.  It’s not very technical … just a picture each invention, what is the Jewish issue it’s trying to solve, and what the patent is for.  Some are serious … like Maneshevitz’s matzah baking machine dating from the 1910s, but most are on the silly side of things.  For example, a wand that you hold next to an LED light on a menorah to turn it on simulating lighting with a candle.  Most are more on the silly side of things somewhat akin to another book, “Patently Silly.”

A great many of the inventions simply aren’t kosher at all.  (The author usually points out the problems with the patents according to Jewish law, although I believe he is mistaken about a lack of source for fish not being eaten with meat.)  There are various inventions to be able to turn on and off lights on the Sabbath, but most of them are totally invalid according to Jewish law, except in emergency situations when you’re probably better off just flipping the switch.  Though I did like one – it was a cover to hold down the switch in your refrigerator so the light stays off when you open the door (we just don’t keep a bulb in our refrigerator).  Many a ba’al teshuvah (loosely used today to describe someone who returns to Judaism from a more secular background) has a story about the first time they had to do that while staying at a relative’s house.  Good times Dad, good times.

So in summary, it’s a good book to open discussion.  Personally, I keep two pictures in my office – one is a stick figure cat drawn by Mark Cuban, and the other is a picture of my family and kids.  Both do wonders to calm down nervous / paranoid inventors and paradoxically help us get down to business.

healing_from_the_breakHealing from the Break by Abigail Rosenberg (not her real name) is recommended reading for anyone who goes through a divorce, Jewish or not.  Though many of the references are “Jewish”, the themes are universal.  The book is large on feelings the emotions and pain of men, women, and children who tell their stories.  Arranged in chronological order of a typical person’s progression, the book opens with stories of raw emotional pain at the separation followed by divorce proceedings to learning to live on your own again, dealing with children, dating again, remarrying, and fitting together blended families.

The stories have to be read with a bit of skepticism as they are told from the point of view of the story teller (who almost always views him or herself as ‘in the right’ while their spouse was almost always the crazy one).  In fact, I recognized one of the stories, and it was clearly embellished either to make for a better story or to make the storyteller feel better, but nevertheless, the emotions are real.

The topic is not one often talked about or written about in a meaningful way . . . or maybe I’ve just never looked, but I now recommend this book to anyone going through, or about to go through, a divorce.  Thankfully, that hasn’t been too many people but to understand the pain of going through it and the hardship of rebuilding your life anew should help people realize what they have.  Trying to rebuild an put behind past trauma, especially with children involved, creates all sorts of problems.  Or, to the contrary, it should help people realize they’re not alone and certain things aren’t normal or acceptable.

The book takes first hand accounts from a variety of people, especially including both men (whose voices are often absent when discussing such topics) and women, during all different stages of the “process” and finding, in most cases, a meaningful or, at least, better conclusion than the start.  Unfortunately, the topic of divorce is so prevalent today that a good book like this is needed and can save one from going it alone or going to, I don’t know, a support group where one can’t turn the page.

unchosenMaybe one day I will get to reading books as they come out – while I was about 60 years too late commenting on Lawrence of Arabia I’m only about ten years behind for the Jews in the Dominican Republic and this one.   However, this is not a new topic for me and in many ways, one needs to find an older book to find something more scholarly on the subject of Hasidic Jews who leave the path.  Today, what I largely find on the topic are sensationalist “self-accounts” and Facebook rants by angry people that I’ve found by accident  . . . but I stuck around for some great intellectual discussions with them.

Hella Winston on Hasidim

Anyway, on to Hella Winston’s book.  She’s a Jew raised with no religious background who describes her own great ignorance about Judaism.  She, in one extreme, set out to understand the other extreme and ended up writing about those who leave or want to leave their Hasidic groups which proved more interesting to her.  Almost all of the stories focus around Satmar, one of the largest Hasidic groups and the one known to be most strict and insular.  While the author goes to great lengths to simply provide the information without bias, she’s less successful at this at the book goes on but no person can truly write without bias and overall, she does a wonderful job.

One of those biases is the repeated rebuke of the premise that Hasidim who leave will get into drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity.  The book mainly tells the tale of “Yossi”, a former Satmar Chasid who gets into drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity.  At one point, she quotes him as saying, “I eat anything. I shtup anything.”  (The word used wasn’t in yiddish.)  Then there’s an interesting insight about how Chasidim often do believe that being a liberal and being on the outside involves just that … doing anything without bounds.  Meanwhile, the few Lubovitch stories (a group which has a goal of being connected to the outside world and bringing them in) are far, far less dramatic though still heart-wrenching.

What Do I Think

For my own biases, which you can find all throughout this blog, one of the best biographies I have ever read was on the Satmar Rav – you can read that review over here.  He was a man of amazing intellect, principal, and the drive to replace a community that was destroyed in a way which was more exacting and more extreme than the one he left and with great success where his predecessors largely failed.  He wanted to make it better and in his community, there were no compromises and no exceptions.  Meanwhile, no matter who you are, you can’t go through a situation like he did, barely escaping with his life while your world is destroyed, and come out unscathed.

While I certainly admire the man, what I haven’t written about is that after I read the biography, I went and found a book purity based on the writings of the Satmar Rav … I couldn’t get very far.  Let’s leave it at that.

The striking part for me is what I’ve heard about, but Winston brings a whole lot more understanding to – it’s all or nothing.  The problem is this, and this is straight out of Mesilias Yesharim, the chapter on purity: the higher levels of purity are meant for some, not all.  By requiring it of those who are not up to the task, you are suffocating them.  What then happens is they become requirements in a community, and worse, many of the requirements have nothing or little to do with Jewish law – e.g. there is no requirement (that I know of) in Jewish law to have long peyos though I can and do appreciate those that say “I want to do more than the minimum” and leaving the corners of your face unshaven, as we leave the corners of our fields for the poor.  There is no requirement (that I know of) to have a long beard – it’s a kabbalistic thing of sorts (though I have one because it beats shaving every day).  There is no requirement to wear a long black coat.  However, these are things that people can see and since there is no leeway for doing anything but the highest levels of “purity”, people end up doing them not out of purity but out of “what will the neighbors say?”  It’s kind of like “what will my friends say if I drive a Volvo while they have Benz’s?” only with a Volvo, your kids can still be accepted into the local schools.

The same goes for secular education – Winston aptly brings up the point that the Hasidim of old were involved in trades and secular education, but today it’s largely fallen by the wayside especially as funds have dried up with huge growth and low incomes to support it.  If you ever want to see how government assistance can ruin the work ethic of a community, no need to look at the inner city black population (at least not that black population).  The funds could be better directed to providing better educational opportunities, but alas, in the United States and more so in New York, again we’re faced with an “all or nothing” situation … funds are provided for public schools devoid of specific religious instruction or you go to a religious institution which struggles to provide secular education (or gives up in others).

Where We Go

I am a Torah observant Jew and I can say I experience some of these issues, while not seeing the others.  A world where people’s interiors sometimes are far different than what they keep up on the exterior?  Not in my circles.  A world devoid of secular education?  Not in my circles.  A world where we struggle to find the balance between religious and secular?  Yes!  That’s in my circles.

What is needed is the place where one can find the middle path and where children can grow to find theirs.  I have the utmost respect and the utmost support for a Jew who is Chassidish and is totally into it just as I do the Modern Orthodox Jew, so long as they are true to themselves and true to the Torah, and ultimately, what G_d wants.  G_d gave us the Torah and mitzvos as a vehicle for joy, meaning, and purpose in life.  At the same time, we have to live within the world and we are the only major belief system that says we have to do both.

As someone who went “the other way”, going from secular to religious, I also say that we must be sensitive to where our children are.  While we guide them and of course want every Jew to be Torah observant, even Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov were completely different in their approaches to serving G_d but all completely observant of the mitzvos.

I’ll leave it at that.

My interest in Jews of the Dominican Republic piqued (or peaked, or maybe peeked) after my visit to the country.  The Rabbi on my Dominican Republic kosher vacation casually mentioned how hundreds of Jews were saved from the holocaust not too far from the resort with kosher restaurants where I was staying.  Why hadn’t I heard about this before?  Two books later, I’m here to report what I know.  One book is “Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosua, 1940-1945”  by Kaplan.  The other is “Tropical Zion” by Wells.  Both books are similar – they’re written by academics in largely high handed and detached academic style with a whole lot more about the geopolitics involved in what was an agriculture project to resettle displaced Jews from Europe to the Dominican Republic.  Very little is told about the personal stories and struggles of the individuals whose lived it.  In many respects, they’re similar to books like “Six from Leipzig” which is about my partner’s former partner at my law firm – big on politics, short on personal story.

Short Answer

Here’s the short answer why there aren’t 100,000 Jews in the Dominican Republic today: economics, the United States, and Israel.  The long answer follows.

Rafael Trujillo and the Jews

Peurto Plata airport departure area - Jewish settlement pictures in Sosua.

Peurto Plata airport departure area – Jewish settlement pictures in Sosua.

Rafael Trujillo took over the Dominican Republic by military force in 1930 and lost power in 1952 after his assassination.  He feared takeover by Haiti – the French, black, and poor country that shares the island.  He also feared and needed the United States, the economic giant in the hemisphere.  He was a ruthless dictator but an ally of the United States in whatever it wanted.  In return, the United States largely looked the other way after his army slaughtered 20,000 Haitians.  While being part black himself (he lightened his skin with powder in official photographs) he desired a whiter population.  Lest there be any doubt about his racism, he stated his opinions clearly upon the inauguration of the Jewish settlement of Sousa.  His desire was to make his island lighter skinned and differentiate it from Haiti while keeping the blacks at bay by raising his white population to compete with the Haitians who had many more children per woman.  History hasn’t changed much – look at the news in 2015.

Meanwhile in Europe, Germany was systematically stripping Jews of their rights, taking over neighboring countries where they then stripped those Jews of their rights, and creating a human catastrophe.  It all seemed horrendous until we consider what came next.  Each year the exchange rate given to a Jew was decreased until he could get maybe 10% of the actual value of his money out of the country if he could still find a way to leave and had any money left after a depression and his business was destroyed.  The rest of the world, still feeling the Great Depression, had no desire to take in poor refugees except one country – the Dominican Republic.  The Dominican Republic stood up at two refugee conferences organized by the United States and declared the intention to take in 100,000 Jews.  Various reasons are given but race seems to be the most convincing argument to me.  As racist as Hitler was towards Jews, Trujillo was favorable because European Jews are white.  Countless times in history, one country expelled Jews while another absorbed them.

The Dominican Republic, it is said in the books, probably managed to save a few thousand Jews by issuing visas.  Even if a Jew couldn’t or didn’t want to make it to the Dominican Republic, a Jew in Lisbon, Portugal (a transit point out of Europe) could remain there until finding another refuge.

Why So Few Jews Made it

So why were only 1% of the spots filled?  First and foremost, the Dominican Republic was poor.  It was in receivership to the United States and under a corrupt dictator who controlled most business.  Even once the settlement got started, sugar was out of the question as this was part of a state monopoly.  Most other businesses failed as the cost to import and export was prohibitive.  Meanwhile, most people lived in dirt floor huts.  Why would you want to live there?  Those who came usually wanted to leave for the United States as soon as they could.  In fact, around this same time period, 20,000 refugees from the war in Spain came to the Dominican Republic . . . and left.

Next, Trujillo and those selecting Jews for the settlement wanted the young and strong who could work the fields and do hard manual labor day after day.  Jews in Europe were mainly city dwellers and mainly attached to families.  Those who did come were largely single and male with a huge dearth of young women.  The women weren’t desired, nor did they desire to leave their parents on their own.  This meant the settlement couldn’t populate future generations and those who were there had every incentive to leave to find a wife, without a family or homestead to tie him down.  (Trujillo hoped for intermarriage which was exceedingly rare.)  There were plenty of children from those who came over married and wanted to replace what was lost.   Other Jews, who weren’t up for the labor, lived in handouts from Jewish philanthropists in the U.S. but were teh subject of complaints by Trujillo and the settlement administration causing “evictions” of Jews from the settlement to the capital city.  It wasn’t until after WWII that Sosua really functioned as a place work as opposed to a place of refuge largely by those not fit for the task circumscribed for them.

The next problem: the United States.  Why the Dominican Republic or the Jewish financiers of the operation did not send ships to Lisbon, Amsterdam, or Italy and just take over boatloads of Jews while bypassing the United States, I do not understand.   Many Jews, especially those who made it to Italy, held out for transit to Israel which was almost non-existent in the 1940s.  However, I say this with the power of hindsight.  Most didn’t expect extermination and the “slow growth” of the settlement was considered necessary as well as keeping on good terms with the United States.  The State Department in the U.S. had to approve every application.  This bigoted department (then and now, actually) usually served to make it next to impossible.  For years, it was completely impossible to get a transmit visa from Europe through New York.  When they did, a Jew in Ellis Island was a closely guarded prisoner for fear he’d escape to the United States.  More often, the papers weren’t all in check for a valid or bogus reason and with the winds of war coming, the United States claimed to fear spies or those with relatives stuck in concentration camps who could be bribed to hand over intelligence information.  Nasty rumors spread about spies already who came as refugees.  After the first arrivals from Germany in 1940, Germany soon too closed it’s borders.  In other words – those who needed refuge the most and would have most readily come could not.

After the war, the United States actually didn’t change it’s laws one bit… they just changed policy in the State Department and all of the sudden all the unused spots from years past were made available to refugees.  This caused an exodus of Jews from Sosua to the United States as well as an exodus of remaining Jews in Europe to the same location.  Some, especially who stayed the war in Shanghai, did join the settlement in Sosua.  Most others chose Israel.  Over time, the settlers who remained grew old and their children did not remain except to visit.  Had the Jews been welcomed as merchants, doctors, and lawyers (as is more of our calling, it seems) as entire families maybe there’d be a larger Jewish population there today and the DR might also have a much stronger economy.  As it is, the largest milk and cheese factory in the country was founded by the Jews of Sosua.  Instead, the children of the settlers went to seek their education and technical jobs largely out of the country with many resettling to nearby Florida.  The synagogue remains, but hotels and tourism have taken over what is now a “working class” travel destination in Sosua, a town filled with street names like “Dr. Rosen” and “David Stern.”

Final Thoughts

Not long ago I wrote to a law firm in the Dominican Republic which handles trademark applications throughout Latin America.  A client of mine wanted a price quote to file same in a smattering of countries.  I added to my letter that I stayed close to Sosua (in what is a very nice resort with the kosher food and synagogue, the only one of it’s kind in the Caribbean) and would be happy to send my money through a country that would have saved my life.  At the airport today, an Israeli flag is listed on every customs sign showing that is one of the few countries where the passport holder need not pay an entrance fee.  Dominicans are so much the opposite of anti-semitic that they want to marry Jews and look at it as almost a status symbol to say they are descended from a Jew.  The attorney’s answer fell along these lines: “There is a huge Jewish community and its descendants have integrated completely in the Dominican Republic making many cultural and trade contributions. For your information my wife last name is Hazim and Majluta” which are Sefardi names, reprensentative of the large number of such Jews who settled the island throughout the 1800s.  With mixed emotion, it’s nice to know there are places in the world that have been and probably will be friendly to the Jews for a long time but not so nice to know that the Jews there that forget what they’re supposed to do in the world.


How I came to This Book

lawrence-of-arabiaSometimes I find books by putzing around on Amazon . . . my latest comes from putzing around a library.  I roamed the shelves and picked up a copy of What If? by Randall Munroe and a 1963 biography of Lawrence of Arabia.  Dare you to find another website that mentions the two of those together.

I enjoy reading history books for some reason and even more so, those from previous times because you can also learn about the biases of the the time when the pick was written as opposed to those of your own time which are already well known.  Older books are closer in time to the event they describe and apt to be more accurate (I’m willing to be proven wrong).  By looking in the past, you can also become aware of current biases you didn’t even realize were so.  Science magazines are just as fun this way.

Summary of Where the Jews Fit in to Arthur Nuting’s Lawrence of Arabia

In this case, the book is Arthur Nuting’s Lawrence of Arabia published in England in 1963.  I hadn’t much of a clue who the man was.  Turns out he was an unsettled and restless soldier for the British who fought for the freedom of the Arabs from the Ottoman Empire.  He knew of the Picot-Sykes agreement whereby the U.K., France, and Russia planned to partition the countries into what is now Syria, Iraq, jordan, and Israel but kept it secret until the Russians went though a revolution in 1917 and divulged it the world.  In his day, as the author writes, heroes were uncomplicated and perfect and an American who went on a lecture tour popularized Lawrence as an unyielding, seemingly superhuman man who fought to the point of exhaustion in a “quest for good.”

Here’s were the relevance to the blog comes in – the Jewish part.   Okay, soon.  Lawrence, who liked to dress in Arab clothing even at meetings with his commanders, fought alongside Feisel I of Iraq.  After the Ottoman Turks were ousted at the end of WWI (1918), Lawrence’s plan was to install Feisel as king over the lands stretching from Syria to Iraq.  After the war, however, the Arabs looked askance at Feisel who cooperated with the British colonial powers and Feisel, for his part, would have little further to do with Lawrence who returned to England distraught over a battle fought for independence only to place the area under different colonists.

Feisel and Lawrence welcome Jews to Israel (“we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home”) though as part of an undivided pan-Arab nation extending through the Middle East.  Meanwhile, the French take over the area which is now known as Syria and defend it vigorously.  The British partition their land into Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq.  Mosul, with oil fields, goes to the British after much lobbying and jockeying with the French.  The locals in Iraq cause enough trouble that it costs the British taxpayers more to maintain it than it did the prior war so it goes to Feisel as consultation for being kicked out of Damascus.  British policy is in disarray with different branches promising different things, and a march from Iraq to out the French stops in Transjordan, a mostly nothing desert in comparison since the times of the Second Temple when Jews bypassed it for modern day Iraq (“Bavel”).  The British governor, not knowing what to do, welcomes the Hashemites and they decide to take over that area instead of fight the French in Syria.  Until ISIS, the imposed borders remain, albeit with local rules.  Democracy?  Unheard of.

What I Draw From This Book re: Jews and Arabs Today

The interesting part of all this is what it teaches us about the Arab-Israeli conflict today.  Such as:

a) There are Arabs, then as now, who are just fine with a large Jewish presence in Israel, albeit, they are very adverse to a long history and feeling of being ‘colonized’ or made to feel second class.

b) Arabs stink at forming armies (paraphrasing pages and pages of Lawrence’s biographer).  They excel only at what we call today “terrorist” tactics and only when they see victory in the first instance.  At the first counter attack, they generally scatter in fear.  This was true when fighting the Turks and most of the Israeli-Arab wars.

c) Arab arms come from foreign suppliers who, in turn, seek influence.  Homegrown ingenuity doesn’t seem to be their strength.

d) There are no easy solutions.  The past should have and could have been played out differently.  While I agree that is is moral and that we most stop atrocities wherever they are, in a “regular war” or conflict, in my opinion, the world should leave well enough alone and let regions tend to their own affairs.  Just as sending free shoes to poor countries actually inhibits growth according to many, fighting the battles of others keeps them weak.

More on that … what was the point of the British ousting the Turks?  The Turks allied with Germany, the enemy of Britian.  For that matter, what was the point of WWI?  It was, as Nuting writes, an era where things were black and white and heroes and villains were uncomplicated.  Today, while moral relativism eats us apart from the inside, yesterday it ate us apart from the outside.  Imagine a world were Europe said “this is stupid” in 1914 and went about their business.  Let the Arabs defeat the Turks on their own time, let the Jews return on their own time, let the world progress without war into a world where maybe there wouldn’t be a nation state called “Israel” but there also wouldn’t be a “Saudi Arabia”, an “Iraq”, or a “Jordan” …

imagine Jews returning to the land in the same or even larger numbers.  This, actually echoes the Satmar Rebbe‘s arguments that nation seeking resulted in more Jewish deaths by turning the world against us.  There are a lot of moving and complex parts to all of this IMHO to draw such a conclusion.  Yet for today, while ceding power in Israel would be a terrible idea for everyone (it’s the pillar stability as well as both technological and spiritual advance in the world), we can try and let the Arab world work through it’s own battles so it can calm down after hundreds of years of anger at outsiders.

Garden of Emuna

Garden of Emuna

This book is interesting.  79% of readers on Amazon give it 5 stars out of 5.  “Goodreads” gives it a 4.6 out of 5.  All that stuff on this blog about philosophical reasoning to come to Judaism and Torah … Rabbi Arush would say stay away because it detracts from emuna.  “Emuna” roughly translates as “faith”.  This book categorically explains what it means to live with perfect emuna with a high level picture, then discussing free will, then discussing individual situations from those who are not religious to those who are not Jewish to those who are in jail or have gambling addictions.

What’s taught is really nothing new that isn’t already in a plethora of other Jewish sources and books, but what makes this book different is that, first, it’s directed directly at modern man in modern environments.  Second, it’s sharp and too the point taking emuna to it’s logical conclusion.  Third, the author clearly isn’t swayed by arguments to contrary because . . . he has emuna.  If you’re looking for clear perspective on what it means to live a life where you believe everything is run by a Creator who cares about us, you need only read chapter 1 of this book.  The rest is applications of the principle applied to different situations.

For example, R’Arush speaks about a man who do not keep Torah and mitzvos but heard one of R’Arush’s lectures on tape and decided to apply it to his daily life.  The constant trust in the Creator throughout his day to day struggles and events made him quite happy and he saw only good.  His religious friend asked how it could be that he, the religious person did not have this level of joy in his life, but his not religious friend does!  Answer: Torah and mitzvos are a vehicle to have emuna and that is the purpose of life.  One can have emunah without Torah and do mitzvos without really having emunah … the taste of wine without the cup, or the cup without the wine.  As R’Arush puts it, you can have access to the company car but not use it.  Having the company car, one can still drive in the wrong direction and Torah can even be a block to emuna (as I understand R’Arush’s words)!  The man who was not religious but had emunah would eventually get tired of taking his own path and use the company car.

Living a life of emunah means you have no doubts who is in control.  When something happens to you, you don’t worry or stress for what’s in the past.  That was meant to happen.  However, in the future, you make changes and do what you should.  This is the free will dichotomy of a Creator who knows what will happen, but we still have the choice.  This is how someone with trust in a Creator views the world.

I am honestly not on this level of belief.  As much as I say, “I believe, I believe” I have doubts.  However, this is still the goal and still something to be worked on constantly.  With emuna, there is no anger.  With emuna, there is no pain.  There is growth and connection back to the source.  Those who think otherwise are constantly in a state of fear and anxiety because a disease or mishap can happen at any time beyond their control.  With emunah, it’s all for a purpose and there is no need to have wakeup calls when you daily make those wakeup calls for yourself and attach yourself to your mission in life to reach back to the source.

Throughout, R’Arush discusses asking the Creator for things.  When you ask for emunah and ask for things on a spiritual level he says that such things are almost always granted.  When you ask for material things, such things are not so often granted because you are given what you need for your growth even if you don’t know it.  Sometimes it’s better for you not to have it.  (Take a look at lives of lottery winners – winning often shatters their relationships and they find themselves in debt often with unpaid tax bills.)

I’m hardly on the level where I can emotionally say that I believe everything in this book, but at the same time it’s own I’d recommend for anyone interested whether religious or not, Jewish or not.  While the book is based very much on Jewish sources, the concepts are universal as they must be.

Relationships are Meaning

One summer day in my childhood I returned from swimming with my grandfather to his house where I was staying.  Waiting at the front door were two smiling missionaries.  It didn’t take long for my grandfather to start arguing, “You expect me to believe in G_d? In a being who sits alone with no company? An unsexed being?”  The missionaries smiled and moved on, while my grandfather and I went in to unload the dishwasher while my grandfather apologized for being an atheist while encouraging me to have my bar mitzvah. Later in life, it would irk my grandfather quite a bit when I became Torah observant.

Yet his argument is, I think, somewhat correct.  The Rosh Hashana machzor [prayer book] speaks of the “King who sits in solitude” and this is one of many philosophical questions that that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks answers.  In fact, he explains the whole opening of the Torah itself is about relationships.  One would expect a G_d-given rule book to start with the rules … open with the 10 commandments maybe.  Nope.  After a very short, terse, and in Rabbi Sack’s view, non-literal exposition of the creation of the world, we find thousands of words on relationships.

Relationships taught in the Torah include man’s relationship with the Creator; meaning, that the Creator does not sit along with no company – we are like the bride, the children, and the partner with the Creator in the creation.  This includes relationships between fathers and sons (e.g. Abraham and Isaac), brothers (Yaakov and Eisav), sisters (Rachel and Leah), neighbors, bad inlaws (Laban), bad rulers (Nimrod), and so on.  This is such a large part of creation and Torah and understanding G_d that, as Rabbi Sacks posits, this is why the Torah is written this way.

Meaning is Outside the System

From there, Rabbi Sacks covers a wide range of philosophical topics that I wish I read when I became Torah observant because, much of what I wrote in my first posts where I describe my process of choosing a Torah way of life, Rabbi Sacks describes with quotes reference to some of the great philosophers.  In fact, I’d guess that, excepting for the posts about kosher travel, half the posts on this blog are encapsulated in Rabbi Sacks’s book.

For example, Rabbi Sacks talks about man’s search for meaning.  He states that meaning is always outside the system.  A rat running through a maze does not see the meaning behind why he running through the maze.  Yesterday, I witnessed a college student with her iPad having children play a “game”.  She didn’t disclose that she was running some sort of psychology experiment on the kids, and while I watched it and saw all the questions, only she who is running the experiment posing as a game really knows the meaning behind it.  This, as Rabbi Sacks quotes, is the essence of Iyov [Job].  There are a whole lot of questions, but not a whole lot of answers.

So when philosophers search for meaning, they do so in two ways; in a world with an ultimate meaning and purpose and in a world without.  Camus cannot accept that there is a G_d and his in depth search for meaning results in, what Rabbi Sacks describes as, “Sisyphus comes to enjoy pushing the stone up the hill to have it fall back down and do it again.”  That is, there is no meaning, just the system.  Camus says find ways to like being the rat in the maze.  On the other hand, Tolstoy says there is a G_d and finds meaning outside the system.  Rabbi Sacks says that meaning is always outside the system.  I agree.

Finally, Rabbi Sacks comes to King Solomon and Kohelles [Ecclesiastes].  It’s an entire book that Jews read every Succos, on a holiday where we are supposed to be joyous for eight days … yet it opens with the famous line, “futility of futility.”  Discussing every pleasure known to man from a “been there, done that” perspective and trying to find meaning, the book closes with what is really meaningful … none of what you do in life matters expect for serving the Creator and following the guide book, the meaning being outside the system.

[On a side note, after reading this book I began listening to the English version of Tolstoy’s “What I Believe” available on YouTube.  it’s eight hours.  In short, he guts Christianity and re-translates / re-interprets it to be an extreme form of pacifism that is not practiced by the governments who enforced it through killing through his day.  In the one reference to Judaism I came across, he states that Jews believe in the Torah from Moses and that’s a whole and complete belief that he can’t find reason to argue with, though he is very clearly a Christian believer.]

Opposition by Atheists and Religious People

At other times Rabbi Sacks implies, sometimes more recognizably so than others, that it doesn’t matter so much if there is a G_d, but that society is changed based on whether it is one that is G_d fearing or not.  (A midrash says similarly, stating something like, “if they would forget Me but remember my Torah…”)  R’Sacks uses overly safe language to describe this, stating that a society without G_d won’t remain “exactly the same.”  Of course it won’t remain exactly the same, but his examples go further than that, including the oppression of a Catholic adoption center in the United States because they will not consent to homosexual partners adopting.  This is the opposite of liberty and allowing those to have choice in their beliefs, for which he compares to being “French.”  After all, he is British and the British have a long history of mocking the French.  The French, he says, had an abrupt revolution and changed things dramatically … and failed in doing so.  The British way, he tells us, is to move slowly.

When religious faith goes, five things happen, gradually and imperceptibly. First there is a loss of belief in human dignity and the sanctity of life. This is not immediately obvious, because the new order announces itself as an enhancement of human dignity. It values autonomy, choice and individual rights.”

So what of religious oppressors?  He has no love for that either.  He describes that his debates with atheists (of which his PhD mentor was one); he agrees with almost everything they say.  Further, those who have done things in the name of G_d things that are amoral are just as bad to him as to an atheist.

The cure of bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure of bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.

He rails against the Christian form of stoic G_d who has hell fire ready for us upon our death and dualistic right vs. wrong, us vs. them sorts of philosophies which come in both religious and atheistic forms.  An example: he states that the first suicide bombers were secular Tamil tigers in Sri Lanka, the Muslims only copying them.  On the other hand, he praises the Muslims for their faith, which, save for the unfortunately large and growing extreme dualistic elements is far better than the results of society with no moral basis whatsoever.  He fears for the direction Europe is going, finding that will be much worse and points to, of course, the holocaust.

Rabbi Sacks on Science and Old of Date Theology

Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind. – Albert Einstein

The book, after all, is called “The Great Partnership” between science and religion.  Rabbi Sacks quotes Einstein (above), and shrugs off contradictions between science and religion with a great, “meh.”  His answer is something like, “So the Bible isn’t literal after all.  Let’s move on.”  His training is in philosophy, not in hard sciences, but more on this in part II.

rav-yakov-yosefI picked up my latest book in a very different manner than normal.  Rabbi Yonah Landau walked up to me in shul, as the gabbi [leader guy] and asked if he could make an announcement.  Usually, these announcements are requests for money to people in need.  in this case, it was a request to sell his book.  It looked interesting, so I bought one and finished it quick.  It’s 545 pages of simple reading translated from Yiddush.  The author apologized ahead of time for problems with the translation and editing.  Some of the placement of pictures and chapter breaks are quite jarring. I wouldn’t have picked it out of a shelf or known what it’s about without the author selling it himself, but you won’t find it on many shelves.  I did find it on Amazon and a bit cheaper over here if you want to buy it.  What it is lacking in polish, it more than makes up for in feeling and paining a picture of Torah Judaism in the United States throughout the 1800s and very early 1900s.  Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, the first and only Chief Rabbi of New York does not enter the book until about page 225.

It seems that Rabbi Landau, a Satmar Chassid, is something of a New York Jewish history aficionado.  He tells of the previous quasi-head Rabbi, Rabbi Avrohom Yosef Asch, zt’l (1813–1887) whose burial place was forgotten, whose name no one has ever heard, and who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet.  It turns out Rabbi Asch is buried in the same cemetery as one set of my great-great grandparents.  (Their burial place was unknown by any of the numerous descendants I contacted, so I can relate.  I embarked on a similar quest to find their place of burial.)  If you search for either Rabbi Asch or Rabbi Yaakov Yosef on the internet, you’ll find mostly links somehow related to Rabbi Landau.  He brings people to the grave site and generates interest in the subject in Jewish newspapers.

The State of Judaism in the United States in the 1800s

This covers roughly the first 225 pages of the book.  To put it mildly, Torah Jews did not adapt to the United States in such a manner as to pass on the traditions from Sinai to the next generation.  The book details numerous efforts to start proper yeshivas where Torah could be learned, but the funds usually were simply not there or dried up.  Those who came here tended to be escaping something, whether it be persecution or religion itself, while the scholars remained in Europe.  It seemed to be a phenomenon where husbands or wives would leave each other for the United States in order to escape divorce proceedings or each other and since the level of scholarship was so low, numerous improper marriages and divorces were conducted by those earning a quick dollar.  For “the real thing” you had to pay more, but with no knowledge of what was “real”, few would pay that.  The Torah world had not yet figured out how to adapt to democracy, then encompassing 2% of the world’s population.

As early as 1816, when the Jewish community tried to shutdown a butcher selling meat marked as kosher without the approval of the community, the butcher won.  Anyone is allowed to claim anything in the United States.  In Europe, there was a community structure with head Rav in each town.  How do you adapt this to “the land of the free” where everyone is his own boss?

Parenthetically, this problem is not unique to Judaism.  One of my friends, a former Baptist minister who converted to Judaism once said to me in reference to a European trained preacher (Rav Asher Wade), “Yeah, but he was trained in Europe so it means that he actually knows a lot about Christianity.”  A Muslim friend once complained similarly that Islam in the United States is hefker [ownerless; okay, he didn’t use the word “hefker”].  Everyone does their own thing and for true scholarship, you need to travel to another country and learn.  Back in the 1800s United States there were all sorts of religious movements praying on the uneducated.  This is just a much larger problem for Judaism, and still is, because an ever greater amount of learning and knowledge is needed to be a Jew.  With the Jewish community structure broken down, the masses of immigrants also happened to be dirt poor and largely uneducated in Torah.  Most were only secondarily even interested.  There was a plethora of non-kosher food marked as kosher and those with the money and power were largely assimilated German Jews who caused problems for the Torah observant.

The Perceived Need for a Chief Rabbi

It was thought that by bringing in a major Torah scholar, the disparate Jews of the United States could unite and there could be some standards again.  First, the Malbim was asked but ended up declining in old age.  I actually have an entire outline of one his works on Iyov [Job].  This is someone who knows what he’s talking about, but it’s kind of like when the Israeli government suggested that Albert Einstein be the first Prime Minister of Israel.  Being a politician, heading numerous people is quote a different task than just scholarship.

The European gedolim who were asked to find someone to lead New York’s Jewish community would often write back and ask questions like, “Will the U.S. Government approve?”  This is so jarring to me, writing in the U.S. in 2014.  What business is it of the government to approve?  It gets even more interesting: the leaders of the European Jewish community eventually coalesced around a candidate.  The Americans would have nothing of it.  How dare the Europeans tells the American’s what to do!  The Americans asked for suggestions, not the choice being made for them!  It sounds just like James Madison talking about the role of the British in the life of the newly formed U.S. Government, and is the exact attitude which didn’t allow there to be a “Chief Rabbi” in the United States in the first place.  Yet, this came from the heads of the Torah Jewish community.

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef’s Tenure in a Nutshell

Finally, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef was voted upon and accepted.  As a student of Rav Yisroel Salanter, zt”l and the Netziv, both very well known Torah giants, he was well respected in Vilna.  While numerous other great Rabbis refused to move to the United States for fear that they’d lose their children to assimilation, it seems that Rabbi Yaakov Yosef decided to do so as he was deep in debt and felt up to the task.  He borrowed huge amounts of money from the rich to give to those in need, but couldn’t pay it back.  At each new Rabbinic post, he required the new community to pay back his old debts without telling them why he needed so much money.  He could have stayed in Europe and remained highly respected.

In fact, when he came to New York, he was greeted by huge crowds.   Once he started, you know, actually trying to do stuff to institute more Torah practice, he was ridiculed. Within a short time the funds to pay him dried up, the kosher food producers had revolted, the Jewish magazines tore him apart, and it is said that he had a stroke soon after seeing kashrus symbol hung in a butcher shop next to pork … all done to embarrass him.  After the stroke, he was forgotten, his furniture was repossessed, and though a huge crowd came to his funeral, his descendants no longer keep the Torah and it’s mitzvos.

Some of the fights of this era are still known today, most notably, his attempts to raise the standards of kosher food.  In doing so, a 1 penny tax, which R’Yaakov Yosef was against (he was outvoted by the board) was placed per chicken to help cover the costs.  In japan, I once remarked how Buddhist trinkets were selling with high prices because they claimed to be blessed.  The non-Jewish friend with me replied, “Isn’t that the same thing with kosher?  Don’t you pay a tax on that to the Rabbis to bless it?”  In reality, the blessing doesn’t make anything kosher and the tax didn’t cover the costs, and when the butchers revolted and formed their own conglomeration for kashrus … the costs were paid by the butcher shops anyway.  In another one of these holdovers from this era, I once tried to tell a vegan member of PETA that instead of reading the label, she could just see if it had a kosher symbol indicating that it was paerve.  Her response: “Huh? Kosher just means they turn the animal upside down before they kill it.”  Suffice to say, I didn’t get anywhere with her, but this was another thing that Rav Yaakov Yosef fought against as it’s not kosher to do that!

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef was a Success

Certainly Rabbi Yaakov Yosef didn’t appreciate what he had done in his lifetime, but then, neither did most others.  However, he paved the way for many more Torah-true Jews to enter the United States and try and start placing footholds in the shifting tundra.  Numerous starving yet quite learned Jews followed, now less afraid that they would be lost in America.  Most turned out to be wrong, and did lose most or all of their children, but they also laid the foundation of many new yeshivas which finally raised a new generation of learned Jews in the United States.  Among them was Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l and Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg who were fully American and fully able to bring Torah to Americans in a way we would receive it.

Many new and knowledgeable shochtim [meat slaughterers] also immigrated.  While the attempt to fix kashrus in the United States was met with such a backlash, it bred competition and started a capitalist sort of arms race which, in the end, greatly increased kashrus in the United States.

The Eitz Chaim yeshiva was founded and sustained.  Today, it is part of Yeshiva University, and while the author bitterly complains about the direction the yeshiva went, he does not argue that in earlier times it certainly was the only place for a true Torah education beyond simply learning how to read Hebrew and know a few prayers (which, on another side note, covers about 90% of what I learned in the 1980s in a reform Jewish education).  Torah learning used to continue until 4pm, and only then would secular learning begin.  While there are plenty of flaws to pick out on this institution, it has certainly raised generations of large numbers of Torah observant Jews who passed on Torah to their children.

Adapting and Competing in a Democracy

As recited above, even the leaders of the Torah Jewish community in the United States at the time wanted suggestions for their Rabbi.  They didn’t want the choice being made for them.  So goes democracy.  My own American Jewish community today has so many shuls and one potential candidate to unite everyone as a “Chief Rabbi.”  This Rav refuses, remaining in his yeshiva teaching Torah with only occasional talks at shuls … when invited.  If I’m not happy with a certain shul, I go to another.  There are few communities which are the exception.  Elizabeth, NJ and Monroe, NY come to mind as decent sized Jewish communities organized with one structure.  Even there, if you so chose, you could open your own synagogue or advertise your own kosher butcher and aside from social pressure, no one can legally stop you.  You can legally, as people say, “be a member of the community” as you choose.  Such Torah Jewish communities are growing all over today.

The book has many references to Jewish newspapers run by those against Torah Judaism which had an effect on the masses.  It’s hard for me to understand today, but it seems that reform Jewish media, which wanted nothing more than for Jews to abandon the Torah and assimilate, had a huge effect on people.  Further, assimilated Jews pushed for other Jews to work on Shabbos and dress like Americans whereas the general population is more accepting.  This was before the Satmar Rav came and separated entirely from other Jewish communities, and before even Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l said not to interact on a religious level with reform and conservative institutions.   In Germany, in took until the 1880s for Rav Samson Hirsch zt”l to split from the reform community, his congregation being a tiny minority.  In the United States during the time of Rav Yaakov Yosef, it seems no one was truly ready to split and these “members of the community” brought the whole thing down.

These attitudes continue today amongst the majority of Jews in the United States, but have largely been stemmed in the Torah world.  Torah and mitzvos are the primary thing for me, but I also work with a yarmulke on, take off every Jewish holiday, and I’m very unapologetic about it.  It’s still a struggle to balance, but with so many around doing the same, there’s plenty of support both legally and socially.  This world has largely insulated itself from the ideals of the assimilationists, and Rav Yaakov Yosef tenure was a stepping stone.

Today, the assimilationists are losing their voice having huge apathy in their communities in general and those who care being almost entirely separate from them for religious functions.  The assimilationist heterodox movements having been largely successful in making themselves disappear.  Their voices in their own media are not even heard by Torah observant Jews today, and are often just plain sad or laughable at this stage in history.  If it’s written in “the Jewish Forward”, one of the only remaining socialist Jewish newspapers, it stays there.  Even this paper has since moved “to the right” from where it was.

Yet the non-assimilationist Jews have also adapted to the outside world by using democracy as a tool to further Torah.  One of the largest yeshivas in the world, the Bais Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ where thousands learn full time daily, gives teaching positions to those who have other students sign up to learn from them.  Each receives the same small stipend, except for a few administrators.  Democracy is now used to further the study of Torah and make it stronger.  Those who choose to join the system now find a lot of depth and a competitive environment in not only learning and meaning of life, but to a lesser extent food, vacations, camps, and schools.

Like a planted seed which at first decays, the tree that comes out grows much stronger with firmer roots.  Perhaps this is G_d’s plan.