Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
On a long flight to Israel this past week I read a beautifully written memoir called “The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund DeWaal. This thoroughly researched work tells the story of four generations of the Ephrussi family, among the most prominent and wealthy Jewish families in pre-World War II Europe. It is a gripping tale about a dynasty acting at the center of the world of art, culture, politics, and finance in two great European cities, Paris and Vienna. It is biography, history, art history, anthropology, autobiography, and memoir written by a British porcelain ceramicist and Ephrussi descendent.
Hailing from Odessa, the Ephrussis migrated to Paris in the mid-19th century, then to Vienna, and within weeks of the Nazi Anschluss (lit. “link-up” with the “Fatherland”) of Austria in March 1938 to London. They fled Austria with one suitcase leaving their palatial estate, much property, a massive art collection and library, and interests valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars by today’s standards.
The book’s title takes its name from a small carving in the Japanese netsuke style, one of 264 such figurines collected by Charles Ephrussi (great-great uncle to the author) who was an amateur art historian, dealer and art patron in late 19th century Paris. These animal carvings are the only items remaining of the family’s fortunes. The Ephrussi treasures most likely hang in the world’s great museums and private collections with no compensation ever having been given to the Ephrussi heirs.
Edmund DeWaal is an elegant writer with an artist’s eye for detail. As he weaves the family’s story together set against the late 19th century and early 20th century European art culture and Parisian and Viennese upper-class soirees and balls, he ponders what it means to belong anywhere and to leave what one has always known. In that sense, this is a quintessential Jewish story.
Though the Ephrussi family fate was like that of the rest of pre-war European Jewry, there was almost nothing identifiably Jewish about them. They never attended synagogue, did not observe any holidays, were disinterested in nascent Zionism (Theodor Herzl appealed to them for financial support but was politely turned away), and they seemed to know little about or care about Judaism as a faith tradition and religious civilization.
Instead, their social circles were populated by writers, artists, intellectuals, royalty, and business tycoons. In the Paris of the 1880s Charles was a friend to Proust, Pissarro, Manet, Degas, Sisley, Monet, and Renoir. He even appears in top hat and black suit in Renoir’s famous Le dejeuner des cannotiers (“Luncheon of the Boating Party”). He was among the earliest and most important collectors of Impressionist art in Europe.
Charles Ephrussi’s granddaughter Elisabeth continued the family’s affinity for the intellectual and artistic elite. She had left Austria when Hitler came to power and earned a law degree in London. She carried on an extended correspondence with the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
The lack of a strong Jewish religious identity eventually took the family far from the large pre-war Jewish community of Vienna as they continued the process of assimilation that many underwent in the Western Europe of those years. Elisabeth married a member of the Anglican Church who was eventually ordained a Priest, attending Church with him every Sunday. Her uncle (Edmund’s great uncle Iggi), a gay man, lived out the rest of his life in Tokyo as part of that country’s artistic and cultural elite with his long-time Japanese partner, Jiro.
The netsuke carvings followed the family from the moment Charles purchased them in mid-19th century Paris to Vienna. They symbolize this family as constant outsiders. The only reason these object d’art survived as a collection is due to the courage and loyalty of a long time Ephrussi family Viennese servant, Anna, who, when the Nazis ordered her to help crate all the family’s art and books, systematically took them away in her apron pockets and hid them in her mattress until she could return them to the family. They now reside with the author.
Edmund concludes years of research, travel and writing by wondering what it means to belong to a place, to leave it and continue to wander. “You assimilate, but you need somewhere else to go. You keep your passport [in] hand. You keep something private…Why keep things, archive your intimacies?...Just because you have it does not mean you have to pass it on. Losing things can sometimes gain you a space in which to live.”
A provocative thought, but I don’t buy it. For Jews, especially, memory shapes who we are, how we think and what we think about, and who we will be. Transmission therefore becomes not only an existential necessity but a religious duty.
12.3.13 at 6:33 am | Anat Hoffman's letter and a link to include your. . .
12.2.13 at 7:19 am | To acknowledge vulnerability is to accept our. . .
11.29.13 at 6:59 am | The recently published Pew Study of the American. . .
11.27.13 at 8:45 am | The two pieces below published in today’s. . .
11.24.13 at 12:15 pm | Kerry turned to the Jewish community to enlist. . .
11.24.13 at 8:10 am | “As corny as this sounds I get up in the. . .
12.3.13 at 6:33 am | Anat Hoffman's letter and a link to include your. . . (80)
11.17.13 at 7:20 am | Thousands of secular Israelis are turning to the. . . (79)
12.18.11 at 5:57 pm | General George Washington and a Polish Jewish. . . (77)
February 7, 2012 | 5:14 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This is my 15th sojourn in Israel since my first trip 38 years ago, and as much as Israel has changed in that time it is still the most fascinating and inspiring place I know.
Today I met an old friend for lunch who made aliyah from South Africa in 1970, and he shared with me how difficult life has become for Israelis noting that the mood of the country is very similar to that immediately following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. That war shattered the illusions and optimism that Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Days War had inspired. In those heady six short years between the wars Israelis felt impenetrable, like modern-day Maccabees, capable of overcoming every challenge and believing that at last they were fulfilling Jewish destiny.
Today, in light of last summer’s massive social justice rallies, the current government’s extremist nationalistic policies and the existential threat posed by Iran, it should not come as a surprise that Israelis are disheartened and distressed.
I am here for two weeks to study Hebrew on Ulpan (an accelerated language immersion program), and though my speaking approaches fluency at times it isn’t good enough for me. I am finding it increasingly difficult to understand many Israelis under the age of 45 who speak a mile a minute, far quicker than I remember 20 and 30 years ago. I figure that if I ever hope to engage with them in our common language, I have to do better, enhance my speaking and listening, and meet them where they live.
I asked my Ulpan teacher about why she thinks so many speak so fast all the time. She is a smart and sophisticated young woman younger than my eldest son, and she confessed that she didn’t know, but acknowledged that Israelis today live with exceptional tension, and perhaps that pressured life-style has affected their communication patterns.
That being said, there is no place like this place!
The day after I arrived, last Friday morning, I walked from my hotel in the chilly 45 degree sunshine to Machaneh Yehudah, Jerusalem’s famed open-air market, to buy food for my room and a fine bottle of Israeli Cabernet for my Erev Shabbat hosts. En route I wandered through old neighborhoods and narrow alleyways. Two elderly religious women hauling food carts were talking excitedly about their children and grandchildren who were coming from a Jerusalem suburb to their homes for Shabbat. Children ran by laughing and yelling. Hip looking 20-somethings passed me as well. Other than these human voices the streets were quiet as few cars were about. I entered the market and barkers were shouting the price of dried fruit for Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees and one of Israel’s favorite holidays, that comes Tuesday night and Wednesday.
So much happens here. On Shabbat evening I prayed with my friends at the Reform synagogue, Kehillat Mevasseret Zion. In the morning, I attended services at Congregation Shira Chadasha, an egalitarian Orthodox synagogue where women co-lead services with men. The singing of P’sukei D’zimra (a section of the service filled with Psalms and praises of God) especially was moving, melodic and beautiful. Kol isha (“the voice of the woman”) was clear, feminine and strong despite the Talmudic prohibition against men having to listen to a woman’s voice out of fear that they (the men) will become sexually aroused and distracted from their prayers. I was happy to hear these feminine voices and especially here, in the holiest of cities, for they along with the men were filled with love and Godliness, the essence of holiness.
And then, on Motzei Shabbat kol isha again! It is now an annual tradition on the Saturday night after Shabbat Shira celebrating the “Song at the Sea” (Exodus 15) that HUC’s cantorial students celebrate the life, music and spirit of Debbie Friedman (z’l) who is responsible for initiating the transformation of liturgical music for Reform Jews and many Conservative Jews around the world. Hundreds sang Debbie’s songs, laughed, cried, and expressed gratitude to her for what she gave to us and the Jewish people, again in this holiest of cities.
I have two homes – one in Los Angeles and one here. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
January 29, 2012 | 12:59 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This is a deeply moving statement of Jewish identity by a young Jew, Andrew Lustig, in poetic rhythm. I do not know Andrew, but I love what he has created here. If you are moved as I was, please share it with your college friends and 20 somethings and 30 somethings and 90 somethings. It will make your day and cause you to renew your faith and hope in our people’s future with young Jews such as Andrew.
Thanks to my friend Jacob Perlin for sharing it with me, who, (along with his new wife Kat) and their friends, inspire me also about the Jewish future.
Note: I begin my Sabbatical leave today and will journey to Israel on Wednesday to study on Ulpan to enhance my conversational Hebrew. I may or may not post before leaving, but once there I will share reflections from time to time on this blog about being there.
Kol tuv lachem!
January 26, 2012 | 6:24 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came, and went and came, and brought no day,
And [people] forgot their passions in the dread
Of this desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:…”
Lord Byron describes well what must have been in the hearts of the Egyptians when the 9th plague of darkness befell them, as described in this week’s Torah portion Bo.
This was not an ordinary darkness. So dense it was that a person couldn’t see the hand in front of his face and if he/she moved would trip over the darkness.
The Midrash says that this darkness (choshech) wasn’t of the natural world. It wasn’t as a consequence of a solar eclipse or a moonless night. While it oppressed the Egyptians, the sun and universe operated normally everywhere else. It was as if each Egyptian was imprisoned in a black box of isolation, requisite punishment for their cruelty. This darkness catapulted the Egyptians back to a time before the creation when “darkness covered the face of the deep.” (Genesis 1:2)
From whence did it come? And what did it mean? In Psalms (105:28) it is said; Shalach choshech va-yach’shich – “God sent darkness and it became dark.” In our portion God instructs Moses; N’tei yad’cha al ha-shamayim vi-hi choshech… - “Hold your arm over the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” (Exodus 10:21) This darkness reflected the debased spiritual and moral condition of the Egyptians.
The Psalms tell us something else as well; Yashet choshech sitro s’vi-vo-tav sukato - “He makes darkness be His screen round about Him,” (18:12) suggesting that the spiritual light that abides at the very core of existence is always hidden and could never enter the Egyptian heart. That same light, however, shone in all the Israelite dwellings. In its pure form this light was so powerful that no one could see it and live. It is said that every angel and human being are able to receive only a very small measure of this Divine glow, each according to our spiritual capacity and development.
The Kabbalist Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (14th century Spain) taught that God shut down every Egyptian’s antenna so that none could receive these Godly light-waves and therefore not interfere with the Source of its transmission. But the Israelite antennae were open.
What does all this mean for us?
It is a certainty that each of us will suffer a broken heart once or more in our lives. Some of us bear chronic biochemical imbalances that need medical attention. All of us need love and support when we or our loved ones become ill, divorce, suffer the death of dear ones, the loss of jobs and income. Every loss casts a darkness upon the human soul.
Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter (19th century Poland) taught that the worst darkness of all is that blindness in which one person will not “see another,” and will refuse to look upon another’s misery and lend a hand. Such a person is incapable of “rising from his/her place,” that is, of growing in heart and soul.
Rabbi Yochanan taught that every eye has an area of white and black. We might think that the human being sees out of the white part. But no! We see out of the black part, which means when we’re in the dark we’re capable of seeing what’s in the light, but when we’re in the light we can’t see what’s in the dark. (Yalkut Shimoni 378).
In other words, there is always hope out of darkness, and there is always light when we think there is none.
In Egypt, wherever Jews went light went with them because the light was in them. That is what it means to be a Jew - to live in the light, to be a light to others and to hope.
January 25, 2012 | 6:12 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
As the gender wars heat up between Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews and the rest of Israeli society, the Israeli Defense Forces has become the newest and most dangerous battle ground.
Traditional rabbinic law has a prohibition known as Kol Isha (lit. “the woman’s voice”) based on a verse from the Song of Songs 2:14 (“For your voice is sweet – arev - and your appearance pleasant - naveh”). Turning that verse inside out in order to protect the male gender from the allure of a female voice and, Heaven forefend, the transgression of the laws of ervah (“nakedness”), a man was prohibited from praying or studying Torah in the presence of a singing woman.
I remember leading a funeral years back of a long time friend and synagogue member with my colleague, Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom (who was known in our congregation as our own “nightingale”). Sitting in the back of the chapel was a black-hat Orthodox Jew, and every time Aviva began to sing from the Psalms and finally the Eil Maleh Rachamim (the Memorial prayer) he walked out of the chapel. In and out, in and out he went. We both shrugged. No big deal. In America, he can do as he pleased, as silly as both Aviva and I considered his adherence to this particular ancient prohibition.
However, for those living in the state of Israel today, the battle of the sexes does not abate. Indeed, it is getting worse and kol isha is the new point of contention.
Last September nine religious soldiers, in obedience to the kol isha prohibition, walked out of a mandatory Israel Defense Forces training course because it included women’s singing. An IDF committee was formed to study the issue and bring back a recommendation about how to handle this military insubordination in light of religious law. The decision? The army required all soldiers to remain at these mandatory training sessions regardless of the kol isha prohibition.
The official hareidi Orthodox reaction was swift. Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, a leader of Elon Moreh Hesder Yeshivah, which sends students to the IDF (more and more orthodox Jews are, at last, entering the Israeli military) advised soldiers to “choose death” because requiring them to listen to a woman’s voice is a “coercive order against Judaism.” Death!
Traditionally, there are three mitzvot that tradition prohibits a person to transgress even if it means death: Idolatry, Adultery, and Murder. These extremist rabbis have extended listening to a woman sing to the category of adultery.
Clearly, the lack of an Israeli constitution with a separation clause is increasingly problematic for Israeli democracy and society as a whole (see Hiddush, an Israeli organization fighting for religious freedom and equality – led by Reform Rabbi Uri Regev). The tension between the most conservative and reactionary interpretation of halacha (traditional Jewish law, which is an historically liberal and dynamic process of decision-making) versus the laws of the state of Israel, is now threatening the rule of law and Israeli democracy itself.
This article posted this week on “Jewish Ideas Daily” is worth reading. I recommend subscribing to this site as well.
January 22, 2012 | 10:17 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Thankfully, we living in California have been spared the most recent barrage of SuperPac political advertising and candidate trashing of each other. Unless we read the national press we have also been spared the right wing’s wanton distortion of the truth of President Obama’s record and what he inherited upon assuming office three years ago, as well as the candidates’ pandering to the nation’s very worst angels of greed, self-interest, arrogance, aggression, self-justification, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia.
In listening to the lies and distortions that daily pour out of the candidates’ mouths it would be natural for decent people to run far from politics. That a two time admitted adulterer and hypocrite and an unrepentant corporate raider who has not a clue about what the other 99% of America has to deal with are the two leading candidates of the Republican presidential contest is enough to make any decent person despair.
Plato reminds us, however, that “The penalty that good [people] pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by [those] worse than themselves.”
Pericles adds, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
Rather than run away, each of us has to become even more engaged. If we run then we deserve whoever we get.
January 20, 2012 | 6:05 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This past week I was talking with a good friend and colleague when he said, “John - I’ve been really irritable lately. Everything people do and say bothers me.”
I asked if anything particular was wrong. “No. Everything is fine,” he said. His marriage is happy and strong, his children well, and his work meaningful.
“Yet, I feel so impatient all the time. Things that normally don’t bother me now do.”
Knowing the way he works I suggested that he was exhausted. “Perhaps,” he said, “but I don’t feel any more tired than normal!”
That’s the rub. My friend’s “normal” isn’t normal at all. Though he does what many rabbis do, such work can be overwhelming. When I spelled it out for him, he acknowledged that I was probably right.
Certainly, the rabbinate isn’t the only occupation that exhausts its practitioners. No one is immune.
In this week’s Torah portion Vaeira (Exodus 6:2-10:1) we see the deleterious impact that relentless demands can have upon us.
The pivotal scene puts Moses talking with God a second time. He and Aaron had just appeared before Pharaoh to demand the people’s liberation. But, every request turned Pharaoh’s heart harder and he increased their work-load and their sufferings.
God responds by promising the people the greatest reward:
“I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord.” (Exodus 6:6-8)
Then, we read, Vay’da-beir Moshe ken el b’nai Yisraeil v’lo sha-mu el Moshe mi-kotzer ruach u-mei-avodah kashah.” “When Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, mi-kotzer ruach” (Lit. “because of shortness of breath”). What is its meaning?
Rashi comments that “the people didn’t accept consolation [i.e. Moses’ message of their impending redemption] for they were too much under stress.” All hope had left them. Abraham ibn Ezra translated mi-kotzer ruach to mean that the people were “impatient,” short-tempered and fatigued and incapable of sensing a higher purpose in their lives.
Though we are no longer “slaves” in this classic sense, our schedules can control us, people to whom we’ve given over too much influence of our lives can oppress us, obligations we’ve taken on can weigh us down, and the legitimate needs of others (our spouses, children, parents, friends and colleagues) can burden us.
When we feel over-burdened our spirits are afflicted and our creativity is diminished.
This past week in another blog I reflected on the work of Daniel Pink in
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future
and the importance of our nurturing our solitude as a means in stimulating the creative impulse and restoring balance in our lives. I refer you to that blog now.
January 19, 2012 | 7:01 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In November I was invited to become a member of the Host Committee for a Gala Fundraising event sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Los Angeles in February, 2012. I have declined the invitation, with a heavy heart, and when the Southern Pacific Synagogue Initiative Director of AIPAC invited me to speak with him about why, I wrote this letter and welcomed a follow-up conversation with him. I wanted you to see an edited version of that letter.
I welcome the opportunity to meet and begin a conversation with you. Thank you for the offer and outreach.
By way of introduction, my involvement with AIPAC goes back to the 1980s. I was very friendly with Tom Dine (one of the first Executive Directors of AIPAC) who was a congregant when I served at Washington Hebrew Congregation in D.C. in the mid-80s. I have always been respectful and appreciative of AIPAC and its multitude of contributions to the security of the State of Israel through its advocacy in Washington.
One issue for me which keeps me from signing on as a member of the host committee is that too many people involved with AIPAC have become intolerant of American Jewish diversity and uncritical of Israel’s government policies that are undemocratic and reflective of extremist nationalism. For AIPAC (and for that matter, for any pro-Israel Jewish organization) to say nothing is essentially to give tacit support to those undemocratic forces within the government and Israeli society that run counter to the principles articulated in Israel’s own Declaration of Independence calling for a just, democratic society that includes all citizens of the Jewish State.
That is not the only difficulty I have, however. The refusal of AIPAC leadership to meet with J Street leadership, to join together as two pro-Israel organizations when there is consensus on a particular issue, or even to enter into a public debate with J Street President Jeremy ben-Ami about the differences between AIPAC and J Street in their respective approaches to American Jewish politics in Washington, D.C. vis a vis Israel does not serve the cause of Israel as a vital democracy and adds fuel to the flames of many Republican leaders in Congress and their Jewish pro-Israel supporters who seek to make Israel a wedge issue in American politics for political gain. This has never before happened in the 63 year history of the State of Israel vis a vis the American Jewish community.
I believe AIPAC could do much to change this negative and divisive atmosphere by addressing these undemocratic and intolerant trends directly and publicly, but it declines to do so. Remaining quiet is not good for Israel or for the American Jewish community.
Having said this, please understand my own Zionist and pro-Israel background and thinking. I am a national Vice President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), supportive of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), am a member of the Advisory Board of the Daniels Center of Tel Aviv, and have assisted as a congregational rabbi at my own synagogue in helping our Israeli Reform brothers and sisters build two Reform synagogue centers in Israel (Kehillat Mevasseret Zion and Congregation Darchei Noam in Ramat Hasharon). I take missions of my congregants to Israel every two or three years. My synagogue Day School has a 3 year exchange program with the Tzahalah Elementary School (in north Tel Aviv) as part of the LA-Tel Aviv partnership. I have raised millions of dollars for State of Israel Bonds. And I am an active member of the Rabbinic Cabinet of J Street, though I have not always agreed with every position that J Street has taken.
J Street, in my view, is essentially correct in its approach to Congress and Israel, that we American Jews have both a duty to support Israel as a pluralistic democracy that champions human rights and civil liberties, as well as supporting all efforts that will bring about an end-of-conflict solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that results in two-states for two-peoples living side by side in peace and security. I agree with J Street’s position, as well, that pro-Israel American Jewish supporters must be free to criticize Israel’s government (arguably the most right-wing extremist government in the history of the Jewish State) without fear of being placed in cherem (excommunication and pariah status) when it acts in ways that we, as American Zionists and lovers of the Jewish State, believe do not support a peaceful and secure two-state resolution and compromise with the Palestinians.
If you are interested, please read my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon this past High Holiday season which is posted on my synagogue’s web-site to learn what is behind my thinking about Israel, her security and liberal Zionist values.
This is why I have declined to be an active supporter of AIPAC, though again, I am grateful and appreciative of AIPAC for its many years of past advocacy for Israel in our nation’s capital. If you feel comfortable I ask that you share this letter with AIPAC leadership in Washington, D.C.
Rabbi John Rosove
Senior Rabbi - Temple Israel of Hollywood
[Note: It is now the end of January and I have not heard back from the local leadership of AIPAC.]