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“From Rasha, with love”

 
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The Passover Seders of my early childhood are now increasingly distant, cherished, and sacred memories.

I recall most vividly two critical moments in those annual family holiday observances presided over by my father: the taste of the maror, the bitter herbs, which I approached with a measure of trepidation — and the discussion of the four sons, which I found still more frightening. Specifically, I recall a sense of dark dismay at the Haggadah’s treatment of the wicked son — the rasha.

My father’s “Litvakish” (Lithuanian) pronunciation of that Hebrew term sounded to my uninitiated young ear as if he were saying “Russia.” My father was a civilian employee of the Strategic Air Command at the height of the Cold War, intimately involved, for example, in the Berlin airlift. I had a keen early awareness of “the enemy” — lawless, godless, despotic, and bellicose. The emblem of SAC, a shield showing a powerful armored fist grasping lightning bolts against a clouded sky, hung in my bedroom.

What terrible things could a mere child possibly have done, I wondered timorously during the reading of the four sons. What sins could he have committed to merit being branded with so derogatory and frightful a title — “The Russia” — with all the evil and danger the name of the Soviet Union evoked? How relieved I was each year when my older brother volunteered to read this passage, sparing me its secretly dreaded burden.

It was not long before I was disabused of my misunderstanding of the Hebrew text of the Haggadah. In time, too, Russia’s repression of Jewish life would soften, the Cold War would end, and the Soviet Union would be dismantled. A measure of freedom and democracy and hope would spread throughout the former Soviet States, including Lithuania (the ethnolinguistic source of my youthful liturgical confusion) and Ukraine.

Though both my Hebrew language skills and my understanding of geopolitics have grown considerably more sophisticated since my childhood seder experience, I responded to the recent news of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula with an eerily familiar dark dismay.

The rasha of the Passover Haggadah, at least in our traditional reading of that text, defiantly distances himself from the seder’s celebration of freedom: “What do these proceedings mean to you?” he demands. With analogous defiance, the Russia now occupying Crimea insists that the West — and specifically the United States, its erstwhile Cold War foe — has no legitimate interest, no standing to object to its invasion of Ukraine: “What do these proceedings mean to you?” In so doing, today’s Russia — with an emboldened and increasingly despotic Vladimir Putin at its helm — also has rejected freedom, embracing a bellicose lawlessness of unsettling historic resonance. As the Haggadah puts it: L’fi she-hotzi et atzmo min ha-klal — “By excluding himself from the community” of nations… kafar ba-ikar — “he has denied the most basic of principles”… the freedom that is the birthright of all peoples, and the territorial integrity of sovereign nations.

The Haggadah prescribes that we react to the rasha with strength of purpose, explaining in no uncertain terms that our course, our actions, are a principled response to our historic experience: “Because of what the Lord did for me when I went out of Egypt.” The Jewish national experience imposes on us an obligation to champion freedom, a moral and spiritual duty that we are not entitled to shirk or to neglect. “Ever since the Exodus, freedom has spoken with a Hebrew accent,” insisted German poet (and, alas, Jewish apostate) Heinrich Heine.

As a Jew, my sadness (and outrage) at the invasion of Crimea is compounded by the rich Jewish history of that region. Jewish settlement of Crimea began as early as the first century C.E., purportedly by descendants of the Babylonian exile and deported warriors of the Bar Kochba rebellion. The participation of Jews in Crimean culture is said to have led to the storied conversion to Judaism of the Khazar royal family, and after their example, much of their kingdom in the seventh to 11th centuries. In the 20th century, Crimea was the site of a number of experimental proto-Zionist semi-autonomous agrarian Jewish communities, which were annihilated during the Nazi Holocaust. Greater Ukraine has seen the best and worst of Jewish history: the birth of the Hibbat Zion, Am Olam, and Biluim movements, as well as the massacres under Chmielnicki in the 17th century and at Babi Yar in 1941. S. Y. Agnon, Hayim Nachman Bialik, and Golda Meir all were products of Ukrainian Jewry, as was Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. Jewish communal and synagogue life continues in Ukraine to this day.

No less than Jews at their seder tables, Americans also have an obligation, born of our unique history, to champion freedom, and to chart a principled course worthy of that historic mission. A defining element of the American ethos is recognition that all human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That is, America stands for the principle that freedom is not a privilege granted by rulers and government. Freedom is a universal right, an inescapable consequence of our belief in God — “Because of what the Lord did for me.”

The founding principles of the United States, not unlike the founding narrative of the Jewish people rehearsed around seder tables each year, require a meaningful response and strength of purpose when freedom is threatened by tyrants and terrorists. The rights with which we are endowed by our Creator come with equally divine corollary obligations. The cost of meeting those obligations, it is true, at times may be bitter. Perhaps that is the true meaning of the maror — the bitter herbs we dutifully taste at Passover, as we refrain, temporarily, from our ritual reclining. As a child, I would have preferred to avoid the bitterness altogether. Now I understand. Neither as Americans nor as Jews can we discharge our sacred duties without a willingness to abandon the relaxed posture with which we are accustomed to reveling in our freedom, and when principle so dictates, to face a possibly bitter course.

“The hottest place in Hell,” said Dante Alighieri, in an observation framed and displayed in my rabbinic study, “is reserved for those who, in time of moral crisis, remain neutral.”

 

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.

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Thank you, Jon Stewart

The most trusted man in America

The reality of Jon Stewart’s February 10 announcement that after 17 years he would be leaving as host of the “Daily Show” on the Comedy Central cable network did not quite hit home until the March 30 announcement that his successor would be South African comedian Trevor Noah.

Noah, who has some Jewish ancestry, in turn was quickly the subject of controversy surrounding some offensive tweets he made in the past, tweets that some consider anti-Semitic, not to mention misogynistic, and perhaps worst of all, simply not at all funny.

 

 

Letter from Israel: Chowing down on plants

I was a vegetarian wannabe for most of my life, and when we made aliyah in August 2007, I grabbed the opportunity to take the plunge. Introducing myself as a vegetarian from the get-go would ease the dietary transition, I reasoned.

And I was right. Our new friends didn’t bat an eye; a fair number of them also eschewed meat. Dining out was never a problem, thanks to bountiful kosher dairy and fish restaurants in Israel. My husband supported my decision with the caveat that we continue serving poultry at our Shabbat table for those like himself who prefer it. So far, so good.

A couple of years ago, after doing extensive reading and video viewing about the cruelty and environmental damage involved in the dairy, egg, and fish industries — not to mention mounting scientific evidence of the dubious nutritional value of animal foods as they are produced today — I began a gradual shift toward veganism.

 

 

‘Ah no, Jews cannot be judges’

In November, United States Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan told a conference group that her Jewish identity was the one thing that didn’t come up during her confirmation process. At the same conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, Justice Stephen Breyer said that the most remarkable thing about the fact that there are three Jews among the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices was how unremarkable it is in America today.

Apparently, there’s a huge disconnect between what’s acceptable in the highest echelons of the federal justice system and what passes muster in student government on America’s college campuses.

 

 

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Penning our stories

“The last time I got a fountain pen was for my bar mitzvah.”

That line was uttered during the two-part season finale of the ABC television network’s popular series “Once Upon a Time,” which aired on May 10. It was a little inside joke inserted by series creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who co-wrote the episode; both of them may well have received fountain pens as gifts for their own bar mitzvahs. There was a time when a fancy fountain pen was as commonplace a gift as savings bonds for bar mitzvah boys, so much so that an often repeated bar mitzvah joke was, “Today I am a fountain pen.” (This was a play on the cliché declaration “Today I am a man,” this being a time before the bat mitzvah was fully instituted as an egalitarian religious practice.) Michael Hilton, in his book “Bar Mitzvah: A History,” reports that “in July 1946, Barry Vine of New Haven Connecticut, received sixteen fountain pens as gifts”! Now that’s the write stuff!

“Once Upon a Time’s” bar mitzvah boy was played by the actor Patrick Fischler, who perhaps is best known for his role as the Jewish comedian Jimmy Barrett on the recently concluded AMC series “Mad Men,” and who also appeared on the series “Lost,” a series that Kitsis and Horowitz previously had worked on as writers. Fischler’s character was introduced in March, during the final story arc of the series’ fourth season, first through references to a mysterious “Author” whose writings set the course of the series’ storybook characters, such as Snow White, Prince Charming, Rumpelstiltskin, Captain Hook, Robin Hood, Maleficent, and Regina (aka the Evil Queen, Snow White’s nemesis); as “The Author” he also had the power to rewrite their stories, and change their fate.

 

 

Taking inspiration from Norpac’s mission to Washington

Family vacations certainly provide more relaxing interactions. Family missions provide more meaningful, long-lasting experiences.

Our family traveled together to Washington, D.C., for the Norpac mission last week. Being part of a record-breaking 1500-person mission made the effort seem all the more important. And for our two teenagers, we provided a fascinating and awe-inspiring experience in current events, political science, history, economics, foreign policy, public speaking, and the democratic system, all in one single (and very long) day!

The Norpac mission mobilizes a cross-section of our broad community. We come from various political backgrounds but we are united in agreement on the importance of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and we are committed to ensuring bipartisan support for that relationship.

Imagine the logistics of a fully immersive one-day experience, providing transportation, food, briefings, and meaningful experiences for each participant. The Norpac leadership team, with dedicated volunteer support, ensured impressive and flawless execution.

 

 

Update on Nostra Aetate

After our story “Nostra Aetate 50 years later” was published in last week’s Jewish Standard, the Vatican issued two statements that we would have recognized there had they come out even days earlier.

The first was the church’s announcement that it is about to sign a treaty that will recognize the “state of Palestine.” Although the decision to recognize the state was not new, the move to do so officially was.

Our story focused on Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. Like much of the rest of the organized Jewish world, the AJC has responded to the church’s decision with sadness and dismay. Its formal response came from its executive director, David Harris.

 

 
 
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