Grape Vine: Messiah may not come any time soon

After the disgusting display of intolerance at the Western Wall the Messiah will probably never come in our times.

Women of the Wall protest (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women of the Wall protest
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
After the disgusting display of intolerance at the Western Wall on Friday, when a concerted and violent effort was made to prevent the Women of the Wall from giving thanks to the Creator on the new month of Sivan, on a morning preceding Shabbat and just a few days before the Shavuot festival – which teaches kindness, concern for one’s fellow human being, provision for the poor and to some extent, pluralism – we must sadly draw the conclusion that the Messiah will probably never come in our times.
It is ironic that from among those who purport to do more than others to hasten his (or maybe her) coming are people whose actions might be preventing the Messiah’s arrival.
While many aspects of Jewish observance have remained constant over the centuries, different traditions have evolved among the many streams of Judaism. Instead of looking for common denominators, the more stringently observant among our people seek to emphasize what divides us – which is the very reason that the Messiah may not come.
Mythical Jewish unity, as told by tradition, occurred at Mount Sinai when the Children of Israel were as one with one heart. It now comes only when we face an existential threat – and even then, not always.
Ruth, the heroine of the Shavuot readings, was not born Jewish, and by today’s standards her conversion would be declared null and void. Some interpretations of the story deviate somewhat from the text, to enable Ruth to remain kosher with regard to not casting doubt on the Jewish identity of the Messiah – of whom, according to legend, she is the progenitor.
Other than in some circles of progressive Judaism, Jewish identity is determined by the mother and not the father. The reason for this was quite valid in the days prior to genetic testing – but only at the time of birth. If an infant was taken away from its mother, there was no way to prove the relationship unless it bore a striking resemblance to her or other members of her family. Without the acceptance of Ruth, much of Jewish tradition would crumble. She was the great-grandmother of King David, who we have been led to believe was born and died on Shavuot, and the Messiah is thus the descendant of at least two great figures in Jewish history.
While Shavuot primarily marks the giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel, subsequently interpreted as the Jewish people, the festival is incomplete without the reading of the Book of Ruth. Would today’s arbiters of who is a Jew accept the declaration that Ruth made to Naomi, “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God,” as sufficient proof of her desire to be part of the Jewish people? We just have to see how miserable they have made life for so many proselytes whose conversions they refuse to accept.
At a private Rosh Hodesh gathering in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda last Friday, Emuna Witt Halevi, arguably one of the world’s greatest authorities on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, spoke to a group of women. She explained the reason that the Torah was given in the desert: in the desert it’s easy to get lost, so when you see another human being, your spontaneous reaction is to love and embrace them. The message was for people to love each other despite their differences.
The following day, Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg, who heads Chabad of Rehavia, also in the capital, told congregants at a kiddush that the reason the Torah was given in the desert was because like the desert, it does not belong to any one sect or group.
It belongs to God, who shares it with everyone.
It is doubtful whether either Witt Halevi or Goldberg would support the Women of the Wall, but neither would they publicly condemn them, and would certainly not participate in a demonstration against them.
■ GOLDBERG, WHO is aware that the way to a person’s heart and even to their soul is often through the stomach, hosts a generous kiddush every Shabbat. He has a marvelous gift for finding both sponsors and speakers. Last Saturday, the speaker was seventh-generation Chabadnik Rabbi Leibel (Leo) Zisman, a child Holocaust survivor.
He firmly believes that he and his older brother Berel were spared because each had separately received a blessing from the sixth rabbinic leader in the Chabad dynasty, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, whose own escape from Nazi-occupied Europe was nothing short of a miracle.
Zisman, now 82, was born on Yom Kippur in Kovno, Lithuania. His father, a successful businessman, occasionally undertook missions for the Rebbe, who had been living in Warsaw when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939. The Rebbe, a Latvian citizen, was spirited back to Riga, where Zisman’s father was among the many disciples who visited him there to seek a blessing despite the dangers. Berel had received a blessing two years earlier.
Now it was the turn of nine-year-old Leibel. The Rebbe stared at him with his penetrating eyes, but did not bless him.
“Please bless my boy that he should survive,” pleaded Zisman’s father again and again, until the Rebbe relented. Zisman had been a wild, red-headed child, and this may explain the Rebbe’s hesitancy.
Whatever the reason, his parents and two of his three siblings did not live through the Holocaust – just Berel and Leibel. They survived the Nazi atrocities perpetrated in the Kovno Ghetto, they survived slave labor, they survived several camps, and they survived separation. Leibel was in Dachau, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Mauthausen and Gunskirchen. Before the two brothers were separated, Berel managed to smuggle a pair of tefillin to Leibel, who also had a siddur, a small calendar indicating Shabbat start times and a photograph of the Rebbe.
He stuffed them all into the Russian boots he was wearing.
When he and a group of other boys arrived in Auschwitz, the boys were uncertain of what to do when getting out of the cattle cars and were afraid of what awaited them. Zisman said they should not go like lambs to the slaughter, but should march in as proud, believing Jews. They lined up five abreast and to the tune of Ani Ma’amin – I Believe, marched into Auschwitz. The German guards were stupefied; this was not something they had expected.
Although the Germans managed to strip prisoners of all their possessions, Zisman somehow outwitted them and kept his tefillin. One of the characteristics of Chabad is to persuade all Jewish males aged 13 and older to put on tefillin at least once in their lives. “I was doing that in Auschwitz long before it became popular,” quipped Zisman, saying that hundreds of Jews had used his tefillin, knowing they would be instantly killed if caught. After the war, both he and Berel returned separately to Kovno to search for anyone who may have survived. They kept missing each other, but were eventually reunited in a displaced persons’ camp and together found their way to the United States, where Zisman studied to become an ordained rabbi, and later earned a PhD. in mathematics and degrees in architecture and engineering.
Together with Berel, he set up a highly successful construction and property development company, and after concluding each project, would take a bagful of money to the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and ask for a blessing. On one occasion they had a huge project, but were encountering difficulties with the trade unions. Zisman decided that this time he would ask for a blessing before starting the project, rather than after completing it, but he didn’t want to seem too eager. So when he gave the bag of money to Rabbi Binyomin Klein, one of the Rebbe’s secretaries, he explained that he was doing so because in America is was customary to take out insurance in advance. When Klein gave the money to the Rebbe to get his input on which Chabad projects to fund, the Rebbe remembered that Zisman had brought in money only a month earlier, and could not have possibly completed another project in such a short time. When Klein explained the insurance concept, the Rebbe smiled and uttered a string of blessings.
Zisman said that in the final analysis, this was the most successful project he had ever undertaken.
Zisman was reticent to discuss his Holocaust- era experiences until about 15 years ago, when he finally began to open up at the urging of his wife Myrna, who is one of many people who collect testimony for the Steven Spielberg Holocaust Archive.
Since then, he has spoken to students on university campuses across America and has accompanied groups to Auschwitz to tell them what it was like from the perspective of someone who was there.. Two years ago, he wrote a book about his experiences, I Believe: The Story of One Jewish Life. Last year, filmmaker Matt Mindel made a documentary, The Lion of Judah, based on Zisman’s story. The film has already won several prizes and honorable mentions.
On Saturday, when Zisman was telling his tale at Chabad of Rehavia, a core group of more than a dozen people was simply captivated by him. The kiddush, including a lecture and singing, seldom lasts for more than an hour, and sometimes finishes even earlier. Indeed, there were a lot more people when Zisman started speaking, as those with other commitments had to leave. However, those who stayed for more than two hours formed a close semicircle around Zisman and kept plying him with questions, as they were reluctant to let him go.
■ WHEN CARMEN Weinstein, the longtime president of the Jewish community of Cairo, died last month, even Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi paid tribute to her memory. A memorial service for Weinstein will be held in Jerusalem on May 19 at 6 p.m., at the Ohel Yitzhak Synagogue on Maalot Nahalat Shiva Street. Outside of Cairo, no venue for a memorial could be more appropriate, as the synagogue was founded by Weinstein’s great-grandfather Itzhak Itzhaki. Among those attending will be Weinstein’s sister, Glorice, a psychoanalyst who lives in Geneva, and family members living in Israel, as well as friends and former Israeli diplomats who served in Cairo.
Weinstein, a feisty lady who was the driving force behind the restoration of various monuments testifying to the long history of Jewish life in Egypt, was eulogized in Egyptian, Israeli, French, American and other publications. Notwithstanding the extent to which Cairo’s Jewish community had diminished, she would not allow the community’s artifacts to be taken over by the Brooklyn-based Historical Society of Jews from Egypt. To prevent this from happening, she got the Egyptian government to classify all of the Jewish artifacts as Egyptian antiquities, thereby guaranteeing they would remain in Egypt. She chided the Egyptian expatriates in Brooklyn by declaring that removing Jewish records and artifacts from Egypt just because the Jewish community was dying out, was tantamount to saying that Egypt should demolish the Pyramids and the Temple of Luxor because there are no more pharaohs.
Weinstein was born and died in the Cairo that she loved, where she struggled for many years to preserve Jewish heritage.
■ TRADITIONALLY, THE awards ceremony for the President’s and Prime Minister’s Prizes for works written about deceased presidents and prime ministers of Israel is held on the first day of the month of Nissan, which is considered to be the New Year for Kings. It also happens to be the Hebrew calendar date of the birthday of Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon.
This year’s ceremony was delayed by two months because of the visit by US President Barack Obama, and various other commitments on the part of President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
But better late than never. At the ceremony held on Sunday of this week, the President’s Prize in memory of Israel’s sixth president Chaim Herzog was awarded to veteran journalist Shlomo Nakdimon, for his comprehensive research into Herzog’s contribution to Israel’s security and diplomacy.
The Prime Minister’s Prize was divided between two parties: another veteran journalist, Rafi Mann, for his book The Leader and the Media, which deals with the leadership of David Ben-Gurion during the fledgling years of the state; and Mitzpe Ramonbased 900m Productions, which produced an artistic, animated chronicle of the life of Ben-Gurion under the title Ben-Gurion Hosting.
The film was produced for the Ben- Gurion Museum in Sde Boker and the Ben- Gurion Heritage Institute, and was funded with the support of the Ottawa community and JNF-Canada.
■ AFTER A decades-long hiatus, Jerusalem’s famed Montefiore Windmill resumed operations on April 26, with the production of the first sack of flour since the completion of renovations in August of last year. The restoration project was initiated by Christians for Israel, a Dutch organization that wanted to do something a little off the beaten path.
Dutch Ambassador Caspar Veldkamp joined representatives of Christians for Israel in watching the initial flour production.
The windmill, which still stands out on the Jerusalem skyline, was built in 1858 by British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, to enable the production of affordable flour for residents of the Yemin Moshe neighborhood. The windmill was made inoperable in 1948 by departing British troops. Five years ago, Christians for Israel decided to restore the windmill to its original grandeur. Dutch contractor Arjan Lont and Dutch windmill builder Willem Dijkstra carried out the working project, in close cooperation with the Jerusalem Foundation and the Jerusalem Municipality. Netanyahu and Veldkamp were both in attendance for the official opening on August 6, 2012, and Veldkamp was back again to witness the flour production.
■ USUALLY QUITE buoyant, Ambassador Andrew Standley, the head of the European Union Delegation, was not as happy as he might have been at the Europe Day reception that he and his wife Judith hosted.
He made no secret of the fact that he was concerned about the economic plight of Europe, but another reason for his being somewhat downcast was the fact that he and his wife were approaching the end of their four-year assignment in Israel – and were not exactly overjoyed about leaving.
These are not the easiest days for the European Union, said Standley. The lives of the people are difficult and political leaders face challenges in bringing back growth and creating jobs. However, Standley said he did detect a forward movement that signified the beginning of growth, with results that will hopefully be seen next year.
The ties between Israel and the EU are multiple and deep, embracing geography, history, culture and science, said Standley, who also expressed pleasure that the Open Skies agreement had been concluded, following that of the Conformity Assessment agreement, which will provide better access for Israeli exports to European markets.
Commending Israel’s scientific acumen, Standley remarked on the fact that Israeli scientific research receives 100 million euros. He also noted the increasing number of twinning projects between Israel and Europe that allow for exchanges of know-how.
Standley reiterated the EU’s support for the Middle East peace process and said it would do every thing possible to help attain peace. In closing, he said that he and his wife had been deeply touched by the warmth and friendship that had been shown to them in Israel, and this had left “a deep impression in our hearts.”
Ministers representing the government at diplomatic events tend to arrive somewhere between a half-hour and an hour after the start of the reception. Not so Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is also Israel’s negotiator in the peace process. Livni arrived not just on time, but early – which meant that Standley’s wife was left to be the chief greeter of the guests while Standley escorted Livni around the grounds.
For much of the time, she was monopolized by French Ambassador Christophe Bigot, who last year at Bastille Day announced that this was the last reception of its kind he would be hosting in Israel, as he expected to leave soon. Meanwhile, he received a stay of execution, and his designated successor never arrived.
Livni, who prefers to speak without notes, had just come from Rome, where she met with US Secretary of State John Kerry. She had been in Austria a few days earlier and commented that on both a personal and professional level, the week, with regard to Europe, represented for her the past, the present and future. In Austria she had visited Mauthausen, where her father-in-law had been imprisoned during World War II, and where she was reminded of the “tragic and horrific history of the Jewish people in Europe.” In Rome, during her meeting with Kerry, she discussed the relaunching of peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
As far as the future of Europe, with which Israel shares values, democracy, science and culture, Livni hoped that the light at the end of the tunnel was the beginning of something new and better for Europeans.
While she understood the importance to Europe of peace in the Middle East, Livni emphasized that there should not be a linkage between Europe’s relations with Israel and that of Israel with the Palestinians. She asked Europe to be patient, and to give the two sides the opportunity to start something and renew their dialogue “after four years of stagnation.”
■ THE ISRAELI Embassy in Myanmar combined Israel’s 65th Independence Day festivities with the kickoff for the year of celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Israel and Myanmar. In a joint venture between the embassy and Dan Hotels – which in the 1960s managed the Inya Lake Hotel in Yangon, where Ambassad or Hagay Moshe Behar and his wife Nurit hosted the reception – guests were treated to an Israeli food festival organized by Dan Hotels food and beverage manager Haim Spiegeland prepared by Dan Tel Aviv executive chef Oved Alfia, who also lectured on Israeli cuisine in the course of his visit.
Among the guests at the gala reception were Yangon Region Chief Minister U Myint Swe; Yangon Mayor U Hla Myint, Border and Security Affairs Minister Col. Tin Win; Agriculture Minister U Soe Min; Electricity and Industry MinisterU Nyan Tun Oo of the Yangon regional government office; heads of the diplomatic missions in Yangon along with their deputies; defense attaches as well as heads and members of UN bureaus and NGOs; and representatives of business associations, the media, culture and the arts.
In drawing comparisons between Israel and Myanmar, Behar said that both gained independence after the end of World War II, in the same year and from the same empire. He recalled that the start of diplomatic relations was highlighted by the visit of Burma’s first prime minister, U Nu, to Israel, followed by a reciprocal visit to Burma by Israel’s first prime minister, Ben-Gurion. While proud of Israel’s achievements, Behar noted that in its 65 years of statehood, Israel has faced a constant struggle for freedom and independence.
“Unfortunately, even today, there are extreme regimes and terrorist organizations that are not ready to accept the existence of a free, secure and independent Jewish state,” he said. “Our response to those is simple. Israel was not created in order to disappear – Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.”

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