Friday, July 29, 2011

Road Trip: The Caribbean

Asked to detail the history of Jews in America, most people will start with Ellis Island, the Lower East Side of New York, and sweatshops.  But the first Jews in the New World were exiles from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497).  Some came directly to North America, others by way of the Netherlands, eventually settling in the Dutch Caribbean islands, establishing robust Jewish communities in Aruba, Curacao (its Mikve-Israel Synagogue dates from 1730, but the community goes back much earlier), Jamaica, Martinique, Suriname, S. Thomas and S. Croix.

Barbados’ Jewish cemetery is thought to be the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, dating from 1628.  The Jewish community there was formally established in 1654, and the synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Nidhei Israel, consecrated. 

Barbados bears the distinction of being the first British territory in which Jews obtained full political rights.   But from 1668 - 1802 the Jews of Barbados were subjected to discrimatory laws and confined to a ghetto. Following a hurricane in 1831, the Jewish community of Barbados began to decline.  By 1925 the last Jews had left the island.  The current Jewish community of Barbados (about 40 people) are the descendants of Jews fleeing the Holocaust.
 newly discovered mikveh in Bridgetown dates back to 1660.    

Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and the face of the ten- dollar bill, was born in Charlestown, capital of the island of Nevis (then part of the British West Indies.)  Because the local church would not allow him to study in their school, he attended a Jewish school, where he learned to read Hebrew and French, maintaining a life-long reverence for Jews.  You can find out more about the Jewish community of Nevis here.

The presence of Jews on the tiny island of “Statia” was news to me.  The Jews of Oranjestad, whose community dated back to 1660, were wrenched from their homes in February of 1781, following Statia’s fall to the British.  The Honen Dalim shul, one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere (built in 1739,) was burned on orders of Admiral George Rodney.  It remained in ruin until 2001, when its walls were repaired.  Notches on the wall indicate where the floor of the women’s gallery once was.   The shul's twelve windows correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel. 

Synagogue Path connects the shul to Statia's Jewish cemetery, where we said a prayer for those buried there.  For a brief moment, we connected across time and space with Jews we had never met, but with whom we are joined soul to soul.

The Jewish community of Guadeloupe goes back to the late 14th century!  Guadeloupe was then part of Spain and its laws applied here, too.  Because of this, following Ferdinand and Isabella’s decree of expulsion, the Jews of Guadeloupe were forced to sell their cemetery to the local bishop, and many became conversos, living together in the ‘former’ Jewish quarter.  When Guadeloupe came under Louis XIV of France, conditions initially improved, but in 1658 France’s “Black Code” expelled them from the island.  Only in the 20th century did Jews start to trickle back, mostly from North Africa and France.  On our visit there we found a small but vibrant community with an active shul, school and kosher-store.  Young children and teens were in evidence, clearly involved and enjoying being Jewish!

Today, in addition to the Chabad Houses in Martinique, S. Thomas and S. Croix, you can also find us in Puerto Rico and S. Maarten! 
Bonnes vacances et bon Chabbat!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Road Trip: Amsterdam

The Bijbels Musuem, “where Bible, art and culture meet in a monument full of history,” is located in Amsterdam’s historic canal district.  The museum houses antiquities, scale models (including those of the Tabernacle and Temple) plants, animals and souvenirs.  In “Journey to Jerusalem” you can immerse yourself in a 360 replica of the Western Wall plaza.  Aroma cabinets allow you to sniff Biblical scents, while the garden is planted with date palm, almond, acacia, and more. Located on Herengracht 366-368.
A ten minute stroll across two canal streets brings you to the factory where Otto Frank’s pectin company operated, and where he and his family hid during the Holocaust.  There you can see the swinging bookshelf concealing the narrow stairs to the “after-house.”  The tiny area upstairs contains Anne’s shared bedroom with “Mr. Dussel,” the pasted pictures on the wall a poignant note of a life cut short.  Most striking of all is how this cramped and narrow space held the lives and dreams of eight people for two years.  Located on Prinsengracht 267.

A half-hour’s walk (or brief tram ride) brings you to the heart of old Jewish Amsterdam.  In very close proximity you’ll find the Jewish Historical Musuem, the Portuguese Synagogue, Rembrandt’s house, and the de Pinto House.
The Jewish Historical Museum is created out of four adjacent Ashkenazi synagogues no longer in use: the New Synagogue of 1752, the Great Synagogue of 1671, the Obbene Shul of 1685, and the Dritt Shul of 1700.  You can find out more about these shuls here. 

The permanent collection of the museum encompasses over 13,000 works of art, ceremonial items and historical objects.  Only 5% are on display at any one time.  The museum’s resource center includes 43,000 books, brochures, documents, photos, and audio-visual material.  Located on Nieuwe Amstelstraat 1, near the Plantage.

Just across from the museum, as the crow flies, is the Portuguese Synagogue.  Known as the Esnoga, this 17th century synagogue was founded by Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and then from Portugal in 1497.  The building was built by Elias Bouwman in 1675.  The synagogue is still in regular use by the congregation.  Since it is not wired for electricity or heat, the congregation does not pray there during the winter, so if you want to join their service, summer is an ideal time to do so.  The coat closet contains cubicles for the black top-hats worn by the men during prayers, each marked with its owner’s name.
The synagogue complex also holds the Ets Haim library, founded in 1616, with many unique books and documents of great historical and cultural significance. Located on Mr. Visserplein 3.

A five minute’s walk from the Esnoga is Rembrandt’s House, the 17th century house and studio where Rembrandt van Rijn lived and worked.  The artist used the local Jewish population as models for many of his compositions, most famously in “The Jewish Bride.”    Located on Jodenbreestraat 4-6.
One minute away is the Pinto House, an Italian Renaissance house owned by Isaac de Pinto.  De Pinto escaped the Inquisition in Portugal and went on to become a founder of the East India Company.  De Pinto bought the house in 1651 and had it renovated by the same architect who designed the Portuguese Synagogue.  The building was almost demolished in the early 1970s in order to put up offices and a four-lane highway, but was saved by the De Pinto Trust and some local demonstrators. The de Pinto family rose to prominence in the New World as well, even taking an active part in the American Revolution. Located On Sint Antoniebreestraat 69.
The nearly 400 years of Jewish history in Holland has been largely concentrated in Amsterdam, known by all its inhabitants as “Mokum” (Hebrew for “the place”).  It’s still going strong, with today’s Jewish community located south, in the Amstelveen area, where there are a number of shuls and three Chabad centers, including one just for tourists!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Road Trip!

This week we’re going to profile some fun places to visit this summer.
Perhaps you had a collection of international dolls as a child; I did.  The Russian dolls with long braids and wide swirling skirts, the porcelain Japanese baby in kimono, the elaborately costumed Turkish woman, the Guatemalan family constructed of cast-off hosiery and wires.  When we traveled – or a family member did – I could be fairly certain of bringing home a national doll.  It was a fun way to learn about the world and the many peoples in it, and my children continued the collection with their own souvenirs.
 But The Eretz Yisrael Museum in Tel-Aviv, is taking a different tack with dolls, using them to trace the history of modern Israel.  A Land and its Dolls utilizes over 200 dolls dressed in various national costumes, each representing the different philosophies, ideologies, and movements that have shaped modern Israel.  These dolls were created by artists, artisans, and amateurs, beginning back in Mandatory Palestine right up to the late 1980s.  In the collection we meet Yemenite goldsmiths, chalutzim of the kibbutz movement, a Chassidic couple, a miniature Moshe Dayan, wooden-block Golda Meir and lots more.

While you’re there, you may want to look in on their temporary photography exhibit on the Mandlebaum Gate which divided Jerusalem between 1948 to 1967.  Located at the intersection of Shmuel Hanavi Street and St. Geoge Road, the gate took its name from the home Rabbi and Mrs. Simcha Mandelbaum, which pre-existed the gate.
Among the permanent collection, of note is a square filled with mosaics gathered from across Israel stretching as far back as the 6th century, and ancient machinery for milling flour and pressing oil. 

A special exhibit focuses on the Bezalel style silverwork of the 1920s, showcasing the “Queen Esther Crown,” a modern Purim tradition of Tel-Aviv.

The museum is located on 2 Haim Levanon St., Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv 69975.      

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jerusalem, May 1948.  Following a strangulating siege and resultant near famine, the Jews of Old City Jerusalem surrender to Abdullah el Tell’s Arab Legion.  Leaving behind their homes and thousands of years of Jewish history, did these 1500 residents realize they might never see the Kotel (Western Wall) again?

Once Jordan took control of the Old City, it set to work destroying or desecrating over half of its 58 synagogues, using them as stables and hen-houses – one of the few that still stood was the Tzemach-Tzedek.  Headstones from the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives were repurposed for paving roads and latrines.  The Old City’s former residents tearfully climbed Mount Zion to peer over at their former lives.

And then, in June of 1967, a miracle!  Two days after Jordanian troops opened heavy-artillery barrage on Jerusalem, Mordechai (Motta) Gur’s Paratroopers Brigade burst through the Lion’s Gate, captured the Old City, and reclaimed the Temple-Mount and Western Wall.  Nineteen-year old soldiers who had never seen the Kotel cried as they touched its stones:
“Men quickly advanced on the paved area….with great emotion, the heart beats quickly. We are among the first to reach the small opening. From here, narrow and winding steps lead us to the Western Wall. The Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple. Jewish footsteps have not walked here for 19 years. We are pushed forward by the stream of exultant soldiers… hundreds of dusty, sweaty soldiers, their clothing stained with blood…crowding into the narrow rectangular space in front of the Wall…tough men, who for two days have carried out heavy fighting, imprinted with blood…stood and cried out loud without embarrassment, a cry of release and emotion, a cry of spiritual elevation and a recognition of the … eternity of the nation of Israel….”

A recording of this historic event.  You can read a transcript of this recording here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Jerusalem.  Circa 70 C.E[1].  Inside the city’s walls a violent civil war raged between rival factions of Jews; outside Titus’ Vth, XIIth and XVth Roman legions surrounded the city to the west with the Xth legion to the east.  Along with the 60,000 experienced warriors came attendants, road builders, land surveyors, transport, generals, cavalry, all sorts of war-machinery, standard bearers, trumpeters, servants, and mercenaries.  Inside was a starving populace – but one surrounded by sturdy stone walls on one side and a sheer cliff on the other.  Titus would have to breach these walls to capture Jerusalem.
The Xth  Legion, stationed in Judea for 200 years, left behind this column, located just inside the Jaffa Gate.  Its currently in use as a lamp post.
 On the 7th of the Jewish month of Iyar Titus’ army broke through the first wall, near present day Jaffa Gate, capturing the Bizitiya area.  Eight days later he broke through the second wall, to the New Quarter.  On the 1st of the Jewish month of Tamuz he began his assault on the Antonia Fortress that protected the Holy Temple and the Lower City.  For five days, bitter fighting raged with heavy casualties, and when it ended on the 5th of Tamuz, the Jewish forces under Yochanan Gush Chalav had retreated to the Temple Mount, while the Romans controlled most of the city.[2]

Model of the Second Temple, locted at the Israel Museum
Throughout all this, the kohanim (priests) had continued their service in the Temple, faithfully bringing the daily offerings.  But on the 17th of Tamuz the altar lay empty – there was nothing for the daily sacrifice.[3]  The kohanim were urgently called from their holy duties to battle the Romans.  But it was for naught.  The last wall fell, and as legionnaires poured onto the Temple Mount, the fate of the Temple was sealed – but it would take three more weeks of bloody battles before its destruction.
It is this tragedy that we commemorate on Tuesday with the Fast of the 17th of Tamuz.
To learn more about this calamitous time, see here and here.

[1] There are varying opinions as to when the destruction of the Second Temple took place.  Rashi (Avodah Zarah 9b) places it in 68 C.E, while Tosafos says it occurred in 69 C.E.  Others – both Jewish and secular scholars – identify the year 70 C.E.
[2] Even after the destruction of the Temple, the Romans did not succeed in capturing all of Jerusalem until the 8th of Elul, when they finally defeated Shimon bar Giora’s forces, who controlled the Upper City.
[3] Goldwurm, Hersh & Friedner, Yekutiel. (1986). History of the Jewish People: the Second Temple Era (volume I).  Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications.  Others say that this incident occurred much earlier, during the time of the warring brothers , Hyrkanus and Aristobulus.

Monday, July 18, 2011

On Mortality and Being Here
5,730 years ago Cain killed Abel, and the world has never been the same.   “The sound of your brother's bloods cry out to Me from the ground" (Genesis 4:10.) A week ago Levi Aron killed Leiby Kletsky of blessed memory, and the world has never been the same.  There is nothing we can say to explain such evil, nor to assuage the suffering it brings in its wake - to even attempt to do so is hideous.  But the very real questions banging on our door refuse to go away.  We cannot answer them and yet the heart and mind clamor for meaning. 
I have always been acutely aware of mortality – perhaps because of three miracles that allowed my existence.  In the winter of 1921, five million people in Ukraine died of famine.  My grandfather, age 10, was among those saved from starvation by his older brother, who ‘liberated’ some food from a boat bound for Moscow.  Fast forward 25 years - after 10 years of marriage, my grandfather and grandmother are finally blessed with their only child – my mother.  Twenty-two years later, as a 6-month-old infant, I survived a fire that landed me in the hospital for many months, requiring years of follow-up surgeries. 
But the truth is, we are all living on miracles, as we say every day in the Amidah prayer, “and for our lives which are committed into Your hand, for our souls which are entrusted to You, for Your miracles which are with us daily…”  If we’re alive, it’s a miracle.  If we breathe, we must say, “Blessed is G‑d each and every day” (Psalms 68:20.) 
If a little boy in Ukraine had died of starvation, fourteen other people never would have been.  If Leiby had lived, how many worlds could have come to be?  “Whoever destroys a single life destroys an entire world; whoever saves a single life saves an entire world” (Sanhedrin 73a.)  Remembering the preciousness of every life, how will you treat the next soul you meet?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Glorious Things are Spoken of You, City of G-d

All this week we'll be focusing on Jerusalem.  Here are two fun links to get you started.
You can take a pre-recorded virtual tour of four different destinations in Jerusalem, or you can view a live, real-time webcam of the Western Wall.

Why do Jews love Jerusalem so much?  Find out here.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

For G-d the L-rd is a sun and a shield

We're continuing our exploration of Judaism's take on summer.  Is it a time of light and happiness, or the hollow shadows of tragedies in our past?

Last week we discovered that Newton’s third law of motion – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – also applies to the balance between the spiritual and the physical.  The juicy summer fruits can find their mirror in  succulent spiritual fruits as well.  The summer sun finds its parallel in G-d Himself:  "For G-d the L-rd is a sun and a shield.”

When I was in seventh grade, a rare solar eclipse occurred in the skies of northern California.  In science class we studied about the impending eclipse and prepared small cardboard viewers with pinholes, shields for our eyes. Holding the shield to our eye, we could peer through the tiny pinhole to see the eclipse.  It was an awesome sight.  The sun’s corona radiated out beyond the sun’s round orb, usually never clearly visible.  The teacher explained that without the shield, the sun’s rays would burn our corneas, and that no one was to look at the sun without the shield.  Even with it, we could only gaze at the sun for a few seconds before looking away. 

The 1 percent of the Sun's surface still visible is about 10,000 times brighter than the full moon.  The power of G-d’s infinite light is of massively greater magnitude than the rays of the sun.  If G-d would allow His light to shine into this world unimpeded, there would be no “this world,” for nothing else could exist in the face of G-d.  Only by blocking some of this light, by making a shadowed place, can there be this world.  It is a balance between action and opposite reaction, between G-d’s light and a place devoid of that light, between sun and shield.  That is our world.  A place where anything is possible.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

No Degrees of Separation

The Hungarian author, Frigyes Karinthy, is most famously known for his “six-degrees-of-separation,” the concept that through the friend of a friend each of us can connect to anyone else on earth in six steps or fewer.  Jews like to joke that for us it’s more like two-degrees of separation.  And there are some for whom no separations exist at all.

Today is the 17th yahrzeit (anniversary of passing) of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM.    The Rebbe was a giant in Torah scholarship, in piety and righteousness, and in leadership.  And far from being abstracts, these achievements found constant expression through his connecting with politicians, rabbis, regular folk, and children.  For the Rebbe, there were no separations.

Around the same time that my family moved to California from the East Coast, the Rebbe opened the first Chabad House on the campus of UCLA.  Four years later, just as we were beginning our exploration of our Jewish heritage, a second Chabad House opened right nearby, in Berkeley, California.  Under the guidance of Rabbi Chaim Zev  & Mrs. Sterna Citron, and Rabbi Chaim Itche & Mrs. Leah Drizin, every Shabbat saw over 100 guests singing the prayers, gathering at each meal, and studying Torah and chassidut together.  Judaism, which had been a cipher, suddenly blossomed into a vibrant living entity that filled our lives.

This event is the pebble dropped in the water, its ripple effect ever-widening as time goes on.  Over the years, the little girl who played on the porch of the Berkeley Chabad House went on to teach Bible, Jewish History and Jewish Philosophy to hundreds of Jewish girls and women; many of them later opened Chabad Houses of their own.

The influence the Rebbe has on Jewish life is not a thing of the past, but an ongoing activity that touches more and more lives as the years pass, creating a chain of people linked across time and space, with no separation.

For more stories about the personal connections the Rebbe forged with people , see here and here.