(from Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, Tradition Journal Online)
“In Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold argues for the role of reading “the best that has been thought and said” as an antidote to the anarchy of materialism, industrialism and individualistic self-interest.”
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.”
In 2016, a hefty new Artscroll biography was published whose cover stands out in the sefarim store among images of bearded rabbis. Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup is the story of the late Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, whose Jerusalem home was legendary for welcoming hundreds of guests each Shabbos, providing them with home-cooked meals as well as a deeper nourishment they may not have known they needed. The book is written by Sara Yoheved Rigler, author of Holy Woman and a frequent contributor to Aish.com. Rigler writes with a unique appreciation for holy Jewish women. While her books would probably not pass the academic smell test, she is able to convey the passion and fire of a great individual in her writing in a way that tends to escape her more polished peers. Henny Machlis as well as her husband Rabbi Mordechai Machlis were truly great individuals who stretched themselves beyond their individual egos to leave a remarkable legacy. Rigler writes in the book that when Henny was younger she used to say that she wanted to have 20 children and introduce Judaism to the entire world. She ended up having 14 children (with nine c-sections!) and inspired tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike. She was, as the book jacket describes, “a virtuoso in chesed,” someone for whom the normal boundaries separating oneself from others is effaced.
In anticipation of the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, the Jewish Review of Books printed an adapted and shortened version of my essay in the newly released anthology Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth (Maggid Press, 2019).
“While not the most dramatic of all the biblical stories, the quietly moving book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, continues to resonate in Western literature. Sometimes the references are explicit, as when John Keats famously wrote, “Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home / She stood in tears amid the alien corn.” Yet we also encounter Ruth-like scenarios that draw on, or even undermine, the book’s central theme of chesed, or loving-kindness.
American novelist Marilynne Robinson and Israeli writer Meir Shalev invoke the Ruth story to tell biblically infused stories that expressly do not end in redemption. In contrast, S. Y. Agnon found a way to draw upon it while keeping the transformative spirit of the biblical narrative.”
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.
As a particularly raucous Israeli election season enters the homestretch, a recent Israeli film, now making the Jewish film festival circuit with subtitles, provides some perspective. It’s called The Unorthodox (Ha-bilti Rishmiyim, literally “Those Without Permission”) and tells the little known story of the founding of the Shas political party, a punning acronym for “Torah observant Sephardim.”