Grapevine: Praying in security

As was the case last year, congregants of the Hazvi Yisrael Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood have been asked to arrive early for Kol Nidre services tonight to help facilitate smooth security requirements.

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September 12, 2013 20:20
Israeli security officers [file]

Israeli security officers 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

As was the case last year, congregants of the Hazvi Yisrael Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood have been asked to arrive early for Kol Nidre services tonight to help facilitate smooth security requirements. While many synagogues have guards at the door, there is a special reason for added security in this case – as the congregation will be joined by President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Hazvi Yisrael is within easy walking distance of the residences of both the president and the prime minister, although there are several synagogues closer to the President’s Residence. Peres was introduced to the congregation some years ago by former justice minister Yaakov Neeman, who is a regular congregant and lives on the street in which the synagogue is located.

■ ONE OF the capital’s most famous, beloved, influential yet extraordinarily modest personalities was the late Rabbi Aryeh Levin, known as the Tzaddik (Righteous Man) of Jerusalem. The street near Mahaneh Yehuda where he lived in a one-room apartment has been named in his memory, and the synagogue in which he prayed is enjoying a revival and attracts many young congregants.

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The area is very popular with tour guides, but none tell the stories better than one of his grandsons, Canadianborn, American-raised Rabbi Benji Levene, who throughout most of his youth spent summers living with his grandfather in that simple apartment.

Levene, who is directly related or related by marriage to some of the most famous and revered rabbinic personalities in Israel, is a walking encyclopedia of who’s who and who was who among Israel’s sages. When he was a boy staying with his grandfather, few of these great scholars and halachic arbiters bore grandiose titles. Most worked in menial professions such as delivering milk or kerosene for fuel.

Sometimes the milk and the kerosene were not delivered because the great scholars making the deliveries would bump into each other on the way and indulge in a Talmudic debate, which took their attention away from more mundane activity.

Levene often takes groups through the area in which his grandfather made his home – a series of tiny but densely populated neighborhoods of small haredi communities. Levene is a gifted raconteur and personally knew many of the rabbis that he talks about, who were either relatives or personal friends and associates of his grandfather.

When he guides tours through these rabbit warren neighborhoods, he is talking from personal experience, and not through knowledge gained in a tour guide course. It pains him that some of the stories have been distorted in the passage of time and changing perceptions, so that their true meaning illustrating compassion and respect for human dignity has faded.

An example that he gave this week to members and friends of the abovementioned Hazvi Yisrael congregation was at the home of the rabbi who officiated at the wedding ceremony of his parents. (Levene’s father was born in Jerusalem, his mother in London). One day, after teaching at the nearby yeshiva, the rabbi was walked home by one of his students. There was a steep staircase leading to the front door. After they climbed the stairs, the rabbi suddenly turned to the student and suggested they go for a walk around the neighborhood. The student protested that the rabbi had just given a lesson and must be tired, but the rabbi insisted.

When they returned, the rabbi stood for a moment at the top of the stairs and then suggested another walk. The student couldn't understand what was going on, but reluctantly complied.

Only later did the rabbi explain. The floors in his home were being scrubbed by a widow who had a wretched life. But she had a glorious singing voice, and the only joy in her life was to sing as she worked. If he were to enter the house she would stop singing, and that would deprive her of the little joy that she had. So he kept walking until she finished her work, so as not to take away her only pleasure.

Many people have changed the story, said Levene, giving the reason for the rabbi's determination to keep walking as his observance of the prohibition of listening to a woman singing.

Most truly great rabbis and other genuinely religious people put human dignity ahead of personal observance, said Levene, citing an instance in which chief rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, who ordained Levene 40 years ago, had shaken the hand of a female tourist who had spontaneously put out her hand to him. He had come in for a lot of criticism for doing so, and his response had been that though he was perfectly aware he should not be touching the hand of a woman, it was more important not to embarrass or humiliate another human being.

Levene shared a far greater store of anecdotes about his grandfather, one of which was related to his grandfather’s opposition to abortion, which in Jewish law is permitted only when the life of the mother is in danger. When brilliant Jerusalem-born lawyer Shmuel Tamir was justice minister, he wanted to introduce legal abortion under specific circumstances not related to the health of the mother. Tamir came to seek the advice and support of Levin, who told him that abortion was halachically forbidden. Aware that one of the rabbi’s children had died of starvation, Tamir continued to press his point, saying that so many large families were impoverished that it would be wrong for them to bring additional children into the world. The rabbi told him that he was not the first person to consult him about abortion.

Tamir became interested to hear who else thought as he did, and Levin told him about a couple, young students who had come to him many years earlier. The woman was pregnant and wanted to get an abortion.

He convinced the couple to change their minds. In concluding the story, Levin said to Tamir. “The woman was your mother. Do you think I was wrong in telling her not to abort?” Tamir never raised the subject again.

This episode stood Levene in good stead many years later. He and his wife have a large brood and employed a young Russian woman to help take care of the children. One day he came home and found his wife and the young woman in the kitchen. The woman was crying and Levene assumed that one of his children had done something to offend her. But no: It transpired that she was pregnant.

She wanted to keep the baby, but her husband wanted her to have an abortion.

Levene’s wife sent him to talk to the husband, a big hulk of a man who was totally secular in his outlook. Levene, who is not very tall, felt some trepidation but went nevertheless, and told the man about Tamir.

Amazingly, the story struck home, and the man now proudly shows off his son to Levene at every opportunity.

Levene has been conducting these walking tours for years, not just as a means of familiarizing people with the history of the neighborhood in which his grandfather lived, but also to honor his grandfather’s memory and preserve his values and teachings. He will be leading a similar walking tour on behalf of the Orthodox Union on Monday, September 23. Registration details are available on the OU website.

■ EARLIER IN the week, Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, in conjunction with Maggid Books, hosted a book launch to celebrate the publication of the English edition of Rabbi Benny Lau’s Jeremiah – The Fate of a Prophet, which was initially published in Hebrew three years ago.

Lau, whose own command of English is nowhere near the standard of that in the book, listened as Gila Fine, Maggid’s editor-in-chief, introduced him to the audience and read an excerpt from the preface, plus the translation of part of an interview that Lau had given in Hebrew when the original version of the book was published.

The level of Fine’s English was somewhat over Lau's head, which readily admitted. “I didn’t understand a word,” he said, adding that it was not easy to keep a book of his own writing in his hand and not be able to read it. “People told me it was welldone,” he said, speaking in simple English peppered with grammatical flaws.

This is not the first of Lau’s books that have been translated into English by Maggid, and as he has done in the past, Lau expressed heartfelt gratitude to Maggid’s owner and publisher Matthew Miller, who has made many Hebrew theological and philosophical works available to an Englishreading public. Stressing the importance of language as a contributing factor to Jewish unity, Lau said that lack of a common language breaks connections within the Jewish people.

He noted that for years, Israelis who were illiterate with regard to English were denied access to the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Lau said he was unsure if Miller understands the full significance of the role that he has played, but underscored that he and many others are personally indebted to him.

■ IN ADVANCE of the 19th anniversary next month of the passing of the popular Singing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who even from the grave has influenced thousands of young Jews to approach religion with open hearts, Dr. Natan Ophir has published a new, comprehensive biography of the charismatic Carlebach. It includes a foreword by the singer’s daughter, Neshama Carlebach, who has followed in her father’s footsteps and become a popular singer in her own right.

An excerpt from the foreword shows the extent of Neshama Carlebach’s appreciation for Ophir’s dedicated work: “I know that Dr. Natan Ophir has worked to clarify the diversified aspects of my father’s rich career. He has recounted relevant events and unearthed a surprising wealth of factual evidence. Undeterred by the daunting task, Natan has worked to present a comprehensive portrayal that will now enable others to come forth and fill the many spaces in time. I appreciate his sincere connection to my father’s legacy, and I know the world will benefit greatly from his devoted efforts at constructing this first booklength biography.”

Some of Shlomo Carlebach’s closest associates, who continue to disseminate his legacy, have read review copies of the book and expressed high praise for the definitive biographical study, and its meticulous research and attention to detail. Although other books have been written about Carlebach and all have been eagerly snatched up by his followers, there is consensus among the reviewers that none are as comprehensive and allencompassing, in terms of the rabbi’s life, music, concerts and contributions to Jewish liturgy, as the work produced by Ophir.

■ OVER THE past couple of weeks, much of Israel’s media has been devoting time and space to the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.

Yediot Aharonot has been featuring photographs that appeared in that paper at that time, and has sought out the subjects of the photographs to see what has happened to them in the interim.

One of the more unusual photographs taken during the war was of a wedding near the Suez Canal. The groom, Haim Miller, was a 23-yearold officer, who was urged by the soldiers under his command to get married.

Most were reservists who were already married themselves and had fathered children. They kept telling Miller that it was pointless to wait, and since he couldn’t secure leave to go home and get married, he decided to bring Ilana, his high school sweetheart, to the war zone to tie the knot.

They had been planning to get married after the war, but with the cooperation of the IDF, they brought the wedding and the guests forward.

The bride and the guests were flown in on a Boeing plane, and the ceremony was performed by IDF chief rabbi Shlomo Goren. Everyone was apprehensive that there might be some mortar fire from Egypt during the ceremony, but the wedding took place without disruption.

It is a tradition in the ketuba for the groom to state a sum of money that will be given to the bride as a marriage settlement. In the Millers’ ketuba, the settlement was not a sum of money but a tank.

Now in their early 60s, the couple told Yediot Aharonot reporter Eitan Glickman that they are as much in love as they were 40 years ago. They have a son and a daughter and three grandchildren, and can boast of a truly memorable battlefront wedding.

■ BRIEFLY IN Israel for Rosh Hashana, Monika Krawczyk, head of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, said she could detect creeping anti-Semitism in Poland – and not only in regard to the controversial issue of ritual slaughter.

As an example, she cited cutbacks by the Culture and National Heritage Ministry for Jewish community restoration projects. In the past, the ministry generously contributed to such projects.

But when an application was made for the restoration of the 18thcentury synagogue in Przysucha, only a third of the sum requested was granted – and the foundation had to scramble to find additional funds from private and institutional Jewish donors.

Had such monies not been forthcoming, the foundation would have been forced to put the project on hold and to return the funds allocated by the ministry, thereby giving the ministry an excuse to grant even fewer funds for subsequent projects.

The foundation monitors anti-Semitic incidents in Poland and reports them to the relevant authorities. Such incidents mainly involve anti-Semitic graffiti on synagogue walls, Jewish cemeteries and Jewish monuments. Sometimes there is desecration of Jewish graves and tombstones, anti-Semitic Web content, theft from synagogues, and drunken orgies in Jewish cemeteries.

Some of the foundation’s projects, such as the creation of monuments, are initiated by children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors or descendants of destroyed Jewish communities, so there will something to remind current and future residents of cities, towns and villages that Jews once lived there. Some of the restoration projects are carried out in partnership with local municipalities – sometimes with the participation of the Culture and National Heritage Ministry, and sometimes without it.

One of the most ambitious of these projects was the restoration of the Renaissance synagogue in the old city of Zamosc, which is considered to be one of the most spectacular of Jewish heritage monuments in Poland. Most of the funding came from Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The festive opening of the restored synagogue, which has been turned into a cultural center serving the local community as well as the few remaining Jews, took place in April 2011 under the patronage of President Bronislaw Komorowski. Built during the second decade of the 17th century, the synagogue served the religious needs of generations of Jews until the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939.

The Nazis turned the interior of the synagogue into a carpentry workshop.

Jews have lived in Zamosc since 1588. In 1939, there were more than 12,000 Jews there, comprising approximately 45 percent of the area’s total population. Today, the Jewish community is all but nonexistent. During the Communist era, the building served as a public library, as do several former synagogues throughout Poland.

Among the Israelis attending the festive ceremony celebrating the building’s restoration was Labor MK Isaac Herzog, whose family had centuries earlier been brought from Italy to Zamosc by ancestors of the city’s mayor, Marcin Zamoyski.

The Zamosc Synagogue is the venue for an academic research conference on “Jan Karski, Witness, Emissary, Man,” which is scheduled for November 6-8. The conference is co-sponsored by the foundation, the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin and the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland.

■ PITCHON LEV is one of the many organizations that feed the poor. Nissim Tzioni, its founder and director, said in a pre-Rosh Hashana interview with Israel Radio that there are currently 1.9 million people in Israel who are living below the poverty line. Many of them were previously part of middle class, and were able to give to charity.

Now, because of stagnant wages, rising prices and rising taxes, they have become charity cases themselves – and are embarrassed to ask for handouts.

Tzioni estimated that if the economic situation continues as it is, poverty statistics will continue to climb. It is a sad indictment of a country that has the outward trappings of wealth, but where almost 25% of the population lives in economic distress.

greerfc@gmail.com


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