“Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, Rabbi Yaakov Smith, a father of six and an emissary of the Chabad Hasidic movement in the Old City of Jerusalem, hosted a Shabbat dinner. As the guests were leaving, one took Smith aside and said something that would reverberate with his host: “That was an amazing act you performed. Whatever is wrong, take care of yourself.” Fast forward thirty years and Yaakov has become Yiscah Smith, a transgender person who still lives and teaches in Jerusalem. Smith’s transformation is the subject of the documentary I Was Not Born a Mistake, created by the Israeli filmmakers Rachel Rusinek and Eyal Ben-Moshe. The film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival this past Hanukkah and made its U.S. debut in January.:
“In the last two weeks of seger (lockdown) in Israel, an almost laughably long list of public figures have admitted to violating the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. Some of them are lawmakers who are themselves directly responsible for initiating the lockdown.”
Earlier this year, our family left a suburban Jewish community in New Jersey that we loved in order to fulfill a dream of making aliyah to Israel. In the years leading up to our move, we frequently discussed the merits and drawbacks of life in Israel versus the US. We discussed matters like the dangers of living in an isolated enclave surrounded by enemy states versus our seemingly comfortable and secure American lives. My husband often pointed out the spiritual dangers of life in the diaspora as well as the potential for established ways of life to degenerate rapidly, even in advanced Western societies. We boarded our aliyah flight against the backdrop of a common web of excitement, anticipation, and doubt.
Once in Israel, however, our commonplace constellation of concerns was complicated, perhaps overshadowed, by a new set of events. A wave of antisemitic incidents in the New York City area in late 2019 left us to glued to American news sources for updates. I grew up in the idyllic religious community of Monsey; in my mind it was the peaceful foil to whatever uncertainty we encountered in Israel. Yet the attack on a local Hanukkah party by a machete-wielding lunatic revealed that this place was hardly immune from hatred and violence. Sitting in Israel with rockets from Gaza falling in the distance, my heart was nevertheless in New York and New Jersey, concerned about family members and friends. I had the stomach-churning sense that the problem was unlikely to dissipate anytime soon….
My young daughter was playing in my mother’s living room and approached me holding a battered prayer book she found on the shelf. When I realized what it was, I gasped. I hadn’t thought of it in years, but the siddur is a family treasure. My grandmother, Raizel Berger, a native of the Maramures region of Romania, was sent to Auschwitz along with her family in 1944. She managed to smuggle a small siddur into the camp by hiding it in her stocking garter. The young women in her bunker, mostly Chasidic Jews from Romania and Hungary, took turns praying from it each night. One of the girls worked in the kitchen and snuck out a potato sack to use as a cover for the siddur, onto which she used a rough yarn to beautifully embroider a Star of David in the center. The pages of the siddur are delicate with age, but the section of Tehillim (Psalms) is particularly worn from repeated use.
After the war, my grandmother married my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor from Poland. They moved to the United States and had four daughters in quick succession. The siddur continued to be used on a daily basis in their brownstone home in Brooklyn. Each holiday, my grandparents lit dozens of Yizkor candles for their many murdered family members. But their resilience to transition into loving parents and industrious new immigrants almost immediately after surviving such horrors still baffles the mind. So too the siddur, once hidden in the bowels of a dark dungeon and used by inmates of the most horrific and debased place on earth, transitioned to use for mundane, though still holy, daily prayers. In unsentimental fashion typical of Jews of my grandparents’ type, the siddur was not treated as a talisman. At some point, someone even scrawled a phone number on the inside cover…
The Tomb has become a shrine for thousands of pilgrims, just as Rachel herself has become the religion’s ultimate matriarch. Why?
In 1995, when the Oslo process was in full swing, then-Prime Minister Yitzḥak Rabin was planning to hand over several West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority. Among them was Bethlehem, where the site venerated by Jews as the tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel is located.
Disturbed at the thought that Israel would relinquish the tomb, Rabbi Ḥanan ben Porat, an influential settlement activist, met with Rabin to convince him to leave it under Israeli control. On the way to this meeting, Porat was unexpectedly joined by Rabbi Menachem Porush, a Knesset member for the ultra-Orthodox, and formally non-Zionist, United Torah Judaism party.
At the meeting itself, Porat put forth a series of arguments, most of them security-related, to persuade Rabin that handing over Rachel’s Tomb would be a mistake. But Porush, to Rabin’s surprise, began to weep and grabbed the prime minister’s hands: “Yitzḥak, it’s Mama Rachel, Mama Rachel!” In Porat’s telling, Rabin was so moved that he changed the agreement so that the site would remain under full Israeli control—a decision in which the Palestinians concurred.
The biblical accountof Rachel’s death can be found in this week’s Torah reading of Vayishlaḥ (Genesis 32:4–36:43), which begins with Jacob’s tense reunion with his brother Esau. After years of enmity, the two embrace and weep and then go their separate ways. Shortly afterward, Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel dies while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. She is not buried in the family tomb in the Makhpelah Cave, where Jacob will be buried alongside his other wife—Rachel’s sister Leah—and where Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and Rebecca were already interred. Instead, Jacob buried her “on the road to Ephrath, now Bethlehem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day.”
On a June evening in the suburban Orthodox mecca of Teaneck, NJ, a long line of women snaked outside a small independent theater that rarely sees much of a crowd. They were waiting to see Mikva the Musical, which came to the U.S. for a weeklong, women-only run following a successful stint in Israel.
Of course, the terms “mikveh” and “musical” don’t normally go together. A mikveh is a ritual bath, in which, among its other functions, married observant Jewish women immerse themselves each month after completing their menstrual cycles. It’s not something one associates with showtunes and zippy dance numbers: precisely the surprising juxtaposition that gives the play much of its humor and charm.
“Ours is physically the healthiest and most affluent society that has ever existed, and, in some ways, raising children is also more convenient than it has ever been. Yet, children are increasingly perceived as a burden.”