FALLS VILLAGE, Conn. — Judaism is designed to be a person’s operating system, the platform on which other areas of one’s life functions.
But for many Jews, religious practice sits on a shelf alongside theater subscriptions, gym memberships, and soccer practice, relegated to one of many offerings from which we can choose.
The Syrian government’s reported use of sarin in its war against rebel forces is ominous.
It suggests dissemination of the nerve agent could become more frequent there — whether by the Syrian military or by opposition forces in possession of captured stockpiles. If this happens, many more people are likely to suffer the agonizing effects of the chemical.
CAIRO — My first visit to Egypt was eight years ago. My guide was Carmen Weinstein, the head of Egypt’s Jewish community. On a hot September day, we drove through the usual chaotic traffic with our driver to visit 10 synagogues.
I am the son of American Jews, the grandchild of Jews from Poland, Lithuania, and White Russia, and I knew little about the history of Jewish life in Egypt. But the synagogues tell that story.
Together, the ancient Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, the stately Shaar Hashamaim on Adly Street, the soaring interior of the Karaite synagogue, the Italianate Vitali Madjar synagogue in Heliopolis, the modest synagogue in upscale Maadi built to lure prosperous Jewish residents to the new suburb, and the Maimonides yeshivah and synagogue, a rubble-strewn, roofless building at the time, reflect the rich and diverse religious life that once was Egyptian Jewry.
Nearly all the buildings were empty and unused. In some places, a caretaker living in or near the synagogue let us in and escorted us through. Carmen gave each a few pounds and some disapproving words about the conditions, although it was obvious that they had done their best to clean in advance of our visit.
It was evident then, and would become clearer on my many subsequent visits, that Carmen’s mission was to preserve this Jewish heritage of Egypt.
To an outsider like me, this seemed to be an impossible task. What could anyone expect with a Jewish community that had dwindled to a few dozen, a government that was at best indifferent, and an Egyptian Jewish diaspora that had grown increasingly distant?
We have the experience in Eastern Europe to compare — synagogues abandoned and in disrepair, or turned into factories or theaters or meeting halls after Nazi occupation and communist nationalization. This is the normal fate of synagogues when Jews disappear. Everybody knows that.
But not Carmen. And that was the reason for her success. She didn’t know that this couldn’t be done.
She brought as many of these synagogues as she could under the protection of the country’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and pressed it to make repairs. She simply assumed that each building deserved to be protected, preserved, and ultimately restored. She had little patience for anyone who disagreed.
On each of my visits, we would go together to the Cultural Ministry or the Antiquities Council. Carmen focused on the repairs that were needed and the work to be done. Usually we left with promises.
Those promises were not empty. Shaar Hashamaim synagogue, where Carmen’s funeral took place on April 18, was repaired and restored in time for the 100th anniversary of its dedication. A small exhibition space was built opposite Ben Ezra to tell the story of the Genizah documents that were discovered here. And in the most elaborate project to date, the Maimonides yeshivah was fully restored and the adjacent synagogue completely rebuilt.
As I learned from Carmen and other Egyptian Jews, the 12th century Maimonides building was considered a place of miracles — the sick and infirm would spend the night there and be healed. But the biggest miracle in our lifetime was its restoration and dedication two years ago.
One of the greatest challenges Carmen faced was the Bassatine Cemetery, where more than 20,000 squatters were living on the historic Jewish site. Carmen valiantly fought off further encroachment, building walls and imploring authorities to prevent the looting of memorial stones and the dumping of trash that had become commonplace. In her more optimistic moments she planted trees and flowering shrubs. Carmen took special care of her mother’s grave there, and frequently visited it.
Last month we went, at my request, to Bassatine. Conditions clearly had deteriorated. Walls had been removed, originally to facilitate construction of sewage drains from the squatters’ dwellings. But that work never was completed. Sewage water now flows freely, submerging several acres. The place is open to trash, looters, and grazing animals.
I walked through the cemetery until I came to Carmen’s mother’s gravesite. The shrubs that had been planted were uprooted and gone. The facing stones were stolen. Saddest of all, the enclosure to the grave itself had been cemented shut. She no longer would be able to visit, but at least no one would be able to do more damage.
“I never come here any more,” she told me, and I understood why. She now has made one final trip.
We say, in the spirit of Jewish tradition, Yehi zichronah l’vrachah, “May her memory be a blessing.”
If we redouble our efforts to preserve and protect the Jewish heritage of Egypt, if we prevent the further desecration of Bassatine, if we secure the support of friends and allies in this work even in these difficult economic and political times in Egypt, Carmen’s memory indeed will be a blessing.
JTA Wire Service
In politics a “bully pulpit” is considered to be a good thing. In the synagogue, mosque, or church, a bully in the pulpit is not a good thing.
The term “bully pulpit” was coined by President Teddy Roosevelt to describe the White House as a superb platform from which to propound a political agenda. Roosevelt used the word bully to mean “wonderful,” a common adjectival usage in his day.
Now we use bully mainly as a pejorative noun meaning a ruffian who harasses the weak. Bullying among children in schools is recognized today as a serious problem.
Based on what we have seen and read lately, bullying by clergy from the pulpit is a serious problem too. It is fairly likely that you or one of your neighbors goes to a synagogue, mosque, or church where the spiritual leader is a bully.
The signs that your clergyman (or woman) is a bully are straightforward. He engages in name-calling, often subtle, via sarcastic or cynical stereotyping of those groups or individuals who oppose his view of the world. He makes you feel uncomfortable and insecure by characterizing classes, congregations, or parties of people as dumb or incompetent, if not outright evil, by dint of their political or religious affiliation or preference. And hence you may feel that you could be next in line for his bullying if you say or do something that he decides is wrong.
Bullies gang with their cronies to insult and denigrate others. By staying silent or by cheering him on, you may be one of those people who encourage the bully.
And to justify your support for the bully, you may think that we need a strong voice in our community, a person who will stand up and protect us from outsiders who want to harm us. We need an outspoken representative, a person who will impress the world with the justice of our faith or cause. We need an inspirational leader, a person who will make us feel powerful, not defensive. After all, we are at risk of being bullied by the world. We need a bully of our own to fend that off.
But a bully in the pulpit is not a proper voice, not a valid representative, and not a credible leader. His blustery transparent rhetoric lacks substance. He comes across as weak and insecure and he is easily ignored by the rest of world.
To combat a bully in the pulpit you can do some of the same things that people recommend for dealing with bullies in schools or at work. You can try to avoid the bully. Walk out of the chapel when he speaks. Change to another place of worship. In our town, we’ve seen people quietly withdraw from one synagogue whose rabbi is a bully and join another one, whose rabbi has a proper substantive demeanor that is not intimidating or threatening.
Or if you detect pulpit bullying, you can take action. You can speak up and try to end the bullying. You can raise consciousness in your town that bullying in the pulpit exists, that it is counterproductive to the strength and health of the community, and that it must be stopped.
Jewish funders today are focused on the issue of Jewish continuity, and on ensuring the future survival of our community.
Summer camps, day schools, Birthright trips, youth activities, and the like are on the radar of Jewish philanthropists. But if these programs do not support the full inclusion of people with disabilities, then our community will cease to appeal to our youth — the very group funders are fixated on right now.
Seeking light in the wake of Boston’s black Monday
How can we make sense of Monday’s tragic events in Boston?
A day of celebration of American liberty, Boston’s unique Patriots’ Day holiday, ended in the death, once again, of our innocents and our innocence.
The Torah portion we read this week is the combined Acharei Mot and K’doshim, a double portion whose title translates into English as “After Death, Holiness.”
‘Modesty’ keeps women’s names off invitations in Israel
I recently received a bar mitzvah invitation that was addressed to “Teddy Weinberger and his spouse.”
The Hebrew text of the invitation was fairly standard, thanking God and giving the details of the celebration. Standard too, unfortunately, since the family in question is ultra-Orthodox, was the fact that for each of the three sets of couples that appeared at the end of the invitation — the parents and the two sets of grandparents — the woman’s name was designated as had been my wife’s on the envelope: “and his spouse.”
My father, Howard Lasher, grew up on the corners of Suffolk and Houston streets on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
It was not an easy childhood. His dad, Louis, died when my father was only 3, so it was just my dad and my grandmother, Ida, living together in a tiny apartment, making ends meet. My father was always a hard worker, and by the time he was 14 he already worked part time.
One of his jobs was a delivery boy for a jewelry store. He lost this job on the day of Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 World Series. It seems that my dad was to deliver a wedding ring for a wedding taking place that day, but he got sidetracked watching the perfect game on television, standing outside a storefront, one of a crowd of ecstatic fans. He did not make it to the wedding on time, and despite the historic game it seems that neither the store owner nor the bride and groom were pleased.