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…
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.”
This month, a new Spanish volume was published about Jorge Luis Borges’s relationship to Judaism—timed to be released 50 years after his first visit to Israel at the personal invitation of David Ben-Gurion. The book, titled Borges, Judaísmo e Israel, explores the great Argentinian writer’s various Jewish connections.
A lapsed Catholic with an interest in many religions, Borges (1899-1986) was particularly fascinated by Judaism, especially Kabbalah, and surprisingly erudite references to Jewish texts make their way into several of his stories. Even more unusually for a literary figure, especially one who traveled in avant-garde circles, his appreciation of Judaism translated into enthusiasm for the Jewish state.
Indeed, the 1969 trip to Israel affected Borges profoundly, prompting him to write a trio of poems in praise of the young state and the Jewish people more broadly. “Long live Israel,” he declares in one poem, published in that same year; in another he marvels at how “a man condemned to be Shylock” has “returned to battle/ to the violent light of victory/ beautiful like a lion at noon.”
Written shortly after the Six-Day War—just when much of the literary world was beginning to turn against the Jewish state—these poems celebrating the Jews’ return to martial glory also stand in stark contrast to their cosmopolitan author’s own general suspicion of nationalism.
A half-century since the poems were written—and on the eve of Jerusalem Day, which this year falls on Sunday—its well worth revisiting the story behind them and the place of the Jews in Borges’s worldview.
It’s common knowledge that Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is the Jewish new year. And yet, despite the obvious importance of this High Holy Day, the Bible quite clearly stipulates another month entirely as marking the true beginning of the Jewish year. That is the month of Nisan, whose first day falls this year on Saturday, April 6. By dint of its connection to the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Nisan would indeed seem to be the most important month of all.
Recently, junior congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez invoked distant Jewish roots at a Queens synagogue as a preamble to celebrating the mash-up of Puerto Rican culture and by extension all cultures: “I think what it goes to show is that so many of our destinies are tied beyond our understanding.” Last year, a minor fuss erupted after New York State Senate candidate Julia Salazar made dubious claims to Jewish ancestry.
Such claims, some more credible than others, have been made by various politicians and public figures. Indeed, possible Jewish ancestry has fascinated both Jews and non-Jews when it comes to American historical figures, reaching as far back as Alexander Hamilton (not to speak of my fellow columnist Stuart Schoffman’s fascinating piece on Lincoln). A recent study suggests that one in four Latin Americans has some Jewish ancestry, most likely a vestige of Jewish conversos fleeing the Inquisition to settle in the New World.
There’s something tantalizing about the prospect of uncovering your past with a cheek swab. DNA evidence is refreshingly precise in contrast with the hazy knowledge afforded by family legends and hearsay. Thanks to popular DNA analysis platforms like 23andMe, one can uncover deep connections to hundreds of individuals, of the past and present, whom you have never met. Putting aside the genuinely amazing stories of immediate family reunions that have emerged from 23andMe, the phenomenon also speaks to those with more distant threads to unravel. In one promotional video on 23andMe’s website a Lebanese American man who always wondered about his mother’s gray eyes and his love for Martin Scorsese movies is astounded to learn that he is 9 percent Italian. In that same report he finds some Ashkenazi Jewish heritage as well, a discovery he suggests might hold some promise for peace in the Middle East.
I recently purchased my own 23andMe DNA kit in a Black Friday sale and mailed it in just as Ocasio-Cortez released her Jewish heritage announcement. While I don’t struggle with any glaring mysteries about my past, the thought that these results might offer some new knowledge about myself kindled my excitement. But what kind of knowledge, really? And why the excitement?