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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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