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Every Star, Every Galaxy, Every Grain of Sand

13 Oct

There are 300 billion stars in the Milky Way alone. That’s just the Milky Way, though. It’s hard to know exactly how many galaxies exist in the universe, but the estimation is about 100 to 200 billion galaxies. Mah rabbu ma’asecha Hashem doesn’t seem to cut the awe of these statistics. Every star is a huge ball of energy, with precise chachma. Every star required a creator. Every star originated for another reason. Why did Hashem create so many? These stars are seemingly useless.

 

Avraham Avienu was promised that his future generations will be as many as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand. Think about a clear night in upstate New York. As a young child, I have vivid memories of fun summers with my family in a Boy Scout camp, completely deserting civilization. Dirt paths connected small cabin and camp sites, and the roads were obviously unlit. The scariest was Friday nights. After sharing a Seudas Shabbos with the camp in the Dining Room, my family would embark on the scary journey back to our cabin. The path, the trees, the bumps in the road, and the distance ahead was all a blank black canvas. There was just one thing visible. Above was a warm blanket speckled in tiny white dots of different sizes and arrays. To my seven year old logic there must have been one hundred stars above. Now, I obviously understand it was many millions more. My family would trek the ten minute walk through pitch darkness, walking up a hill and then turning right to go down a hill, passing the gentle little stream which now was just an audible sound and not a scenic site, and finally making it to the open field in front of our cabin, merely by looking up at the stars, having only them for light.

 

We are those zerah of Avraham. It’s ironic, because when Avraham was promised his descendants would be like the stars and the sand, to him all that meant was looking up at the vast sky and trying to count them, which was obviously impossible. It took thousands of years of research until the telescope was invented and the concept of vaster galaxies became known. Only a scientific notation of a percentage of the stars is even visible to the human eye! A tiny percent…And of course it is all a moshul to Am Yisroel.

 

In Pirkeih Avos, Perek Gimmel the mishnah teaches us, “Kol ha shochayach davar mi’mishnaso, ma’aleh alav ha’kasuv ki’iloo mit’chayiv bi’nafsho (3:10).” This is obviously something difficult to understand. How can this be interpreted?

 

The Torah is made up of 600,000 letters corresponding to the original neshamos of klal yisroel. From this it is implied that every Jew is represented by a letter in the Torah. This comes to show us the importance of every Jew, as the halacha clearly states that a sefer Torah missing even one letter (even the little decorations on the letters) is posul. This shows us our enormous achrayas to fulfill our own tafkid, as my letter counts just as much as yours! Well this too connects to this mishnah. I can pride myself in knowing “my letter” of the Torah. I know that I try to serve Hashem and keep His Torah. I know my place and morning after morning, I wake up and try to play my role as a frum Jew. But does every Jew wake up with this knowledge? Just recently, I met a man who found out he was a Jew from his mother’s side only after his great-grandmother passed away and they found all her letters. Did he wake up morning after morning with the knowledge of his tafkid in the world as a chayil in Hashem’s army? Am I forgetting that portion of the Torah? This is one way to understand the mishnah. Am I forgetting that last “davar mi’mishnaso?” Am I looking front and back, ready to help the next Jew up and on his/her way down the derech of Torah?

 

Rav Noach Issac Oelbaum quoted a beautiful idea which sheds light on this topic. When Yaakov mourned Yosef’s “death” the shvotim tried comforting their father by gathering the entire family, showing Yaakov his big and happy family. But still, even seeing his 11 sons and daughters, as well as all their children didn’t comfort Yaakov because Yosef was still missing. This past summer I really wanted to go to the Siyum haShas, but because I tend to decide things pretty last minute I wasn’t able to. The huge Kiddush Hashem which was achieved was beautiful. Seeing pictures of endless black hats, a stadium full of Jews, all with one common goal— to continue in the ways Hashem and His Torah. Though I can confidently say Hashem was schepping nachas and smiling down upon us that night, as it began to rain but everyone remained in their stadium seats, continuing in the celebration, I can also say Hashem still felt an ache for the larger percentage of Jews who still live life and don’t know. It is pretty hard to count, but most statistics show that between 20% to 10% of the Jewish nation is frum.

 

Startlingly a tiny percent, yet not random. Only 1/5th on the Jewish people left Mitzrayim, the other 4/5th had been killed in makkas choshech because of their sins. 1/5th is 20%. The same percentage as an estimation of the religious Jews today.

 

There are thousands of labels we can give ourselves. Chariedi. Chashidish. Orthodox. Tzioni. Mizrachi. Modern Orthodox. Litvish. Sfardi. Conservative. Reform. Traditional. Non-affiliated. Jewish Rebirth. The list can go on and on. Regardless, every Jewish neshama still shines, no matter which galaxy it is part of. Every Jewish person, no matter where or what or why makes a huge difference to the bigger picture. You matter. Every letter is a crucial part of the Torah. Every last grain of sand. Every last flickering burst of energy.

 

~ Alti Bukalov

The Red Star Line Museum: A Story of Immigration

15 Jul

During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, hundreds of thousands of Jews left their European countries of birth and immigrated to North America. Many of these Jews traveled from the alter heim (old country) to the United States via the Red Star Line (RSL), a transatlantic passenger ship line operating from 1873 to some time in 1934. During this time period, about 2.6 million passengers sailed on RSL ships to the US and Canada, about one-quarter of whom were Jewish. The list of notable Jews who immigrated through the RSL includes Albert Einstein, Golda Meir, Admiral Hyman Rickover, Irving Berlin, and my mentor and National Organization for Women (NOW) cofounder Sonia Pressman Fuentes. All but Einstein came as children.

Sonia was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1928. Five years later, Hitler rose to power. Sonia’s 18-year-old brother Hermann realized that Germany would not be a safe place for Jews and had the foresight to flee the country. In May of 1933, he traveled alone to Antwerp. His parents refused to go with him as they had lived in Germany over twenty years and were well established there.  They thought Hitler and the Nazis would shortly blow over. Two months later, his parents and five-year-old sister Sonia joined him. Hermann spent nine months trying to obtain permanent residence permits for the family to remain in Belgium, but was unsuccessful. Threatened with deportation to Poland, the family managed to book passage on the RSL’s SS Westernland.  They arrived in New York City on May 1, 1934, safe from Nazi brutality.

Many Jews, like Sonia and her family, traveled on the RSL to escape Hitler’s oppression or earlier anti-Semitism and pogroms. Others left to escape poor economic times or for the opportunities for advancement they believed lay in the goldene medine (golden land). Some traveled for pleasure.

Although the RSL ceased operations some time in 1934, its history is still alive almost eighty years later. On September 28, 2013, the RSL Museum will be opened in Antwerp dedicated to immigration and the RSL. It will include exhibitions about Antwerp, one of Europe’s largest seaports, and the passengers on the RSL. One exhibit will be about the journey Sonia and her family took from Berlin to their temporary residence in Antwerp and then to their permanent move to the U.S. The Museum will also show a documentary film it commissioned about Sonia.

“[The Museum is] a story about ships, but more importantly, it’s a story about people,” said Philip Heylen, Antwerp’s vice mayor for culture and tourism in an August 6, 2011, speech to Sonia’s congregation, the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Sarasota, Florida. The Museum’s motto, “People on the Move,” underscores this point. The Museum is intent on preserving the stories of its passengers who traveled on RSL ships to find a better life.

~ Talia Weisberg

Image 8 Jul

The Needed Enemy

7 Jul

In a still black room, filled with the soft breathing of two sisters

Each sleeping in a soothing, unhurried, utopia,

With lids innocently closed and creases smoothed,

A vibrant enemy reigns.

 

 

It slithers through the darkness.

Then with the burst of banging metals

My stomach crumbles into

A pile of old autumn leaves.

 

 

My lids stay sealed, shading the dazzling glow

As groans reach my ears; a body flips over.

Lazily a finger triumphs over the foe

And I awake into a world where the lack of sleep cannot be forgotten.

 

~ Frumi Cohn

Model Behavior

1 Jul

The studio apartment looks small and oppressive from the viewfinder on my camera. A sharp staccato of voices clang together, making the stifling gray walls tense up.

“Stand to the left of that wall. No, I mean my left – not hers…”

“Good, stay there were the light captures her face – great. “

“Alright. Make sure to get that on camera. Hello? Mr. Photographer? Are you getting it on camera?”

There’s no light in the apartment. I’m too scared to divulge this information to the director of the shoot, lest he seize my camera and fling it out of the barred windows down to the frigid February sidewalk, stiff from all the snow and ice that have blanketed it for the past few months.

The model stands waiflike in a severe black dress, with exaggerated shoulder pads. I walk over a few steps and reach out to loosen her hair, but the curls crunch beneath my fingertips from all of the hairspray.

“Yoohoo…you in there?” the director snaps in her face, trying to get her attention. “Face the camera, and give me some verve! I wanna feel the energy you’re emanating!” The model shrugs and nods her head slowly in affirmation. I can’t understand her resistance. She seems strangely unaware of her surroundings, as if she has tuned the director out and has conceived her own world.

“No…no, and no!” He wipes his brow and looks over at me to see if I am as frustrated as him, but I feign ignorance and looked into the viewfinder again, trying to find the light.

I can’t understand her. Despite all of his barking, she can’t conjure up even a semblance of a smile. She doesn’t even seem to be trying. She clenches the hem of the dress through her stiff fingertips.

“Lemme tell you something honey, if you’re here to model the clothing, then you gotta sell it to us. Give me some personality! Women havta want this dress when they see it on you,” he finishes off as he reaches over to fix a strand of hair that’s out of place. She looks haunting; her face carries the burden of a tragedy of some sort. I feel a kinship to her, seeing as we’re both struggling to tune the director out.

Throughout the shoot, I watch her. Her face is stoic, and defiant. It doesn’t alter in the slightest when I tell her different poses to embody. She straightens out her gaunt frame until she towers over the director, the hairdressers, and assistants. She remains above it all.

“Do anything you like now,” I instruct, “manipulate your surroundings, and give me your own pose.”

The model turns to her side, and for a moment she is almost transparent or unable to be seen. I press the shutter release down, but before I can even process the new angles of the shot, the door swings shut with a resounding bang.

I glance up, and she is gone, leaving a breeze of freedom in the doorway as her farewell.

“These arrogant models think they can come and go as they please. She’ll see how she likes it when she’s not even featured,” fumes the director. “Tomorrow, we’re bringing in the model I choose, and she won’t be from this agency.” With that being said, he rolls his eyes, slaps me on the back and strolls out.

The next morning, I show up and the director shows me the new model, being that the other girl just wasn’t able to represent the brand, or any, for that matter, he adds, muttering under his breath.

She was perky, and easy to work with, but I felt an irrevocable sense of loss from the intangible ghostly beauty of the first model.

“Give me delight! Show me sheer elation! You’re in love with yourself! Remember you represent the brand; you’re modeling for all women.” She poses, blowing the camera kisses, smiling uncontrollably, and I grimace. It’s not her fault – she’s doing her job the way she’s supposed to – but I can’t help but feel there is something missing. The director turns to me with an approving eye. He evidently made the right decision, well, according to him anyways.

“Show the dress off, it’s who you are, and what all women wanna be,” the pompous director once again instructs. I turn to her half expecting to see an eye roll or a shrug, or just a look of pure resentment, but then remembered – she’s a different model.

By the end of the day, I was tired and I just wanted to get home, but the director wanted to sit and celebrate on a job well done. On my way out he stopped me and asked, “Do you think you got your shot?”

I glance through the frames of pictures, but the image that kept coming back to me was the defiant stare on the first model’s face. The one where she stared straight at the lens with flashing eyes, and a staunch position. She had been representing the brand in her own way. She meant to say, “I do symbolize women, and this is our reply.”

“Yeah, I got the shot,” I answer, never wavering, as I grabbed my camera bag and swing open that door. It clicks shut behind me with a nod of approval.

~ Adina Feder

MY Shoes

20 Jun

This poem was inspired by a different poem I wrote while at the USHMM in Washington, DC. In the museum, there is a room with a pathway down the middle. On each side is a pile of shoes taken from people as they arrived at concentration camps. This was inspired by my journey through that room.

 

Shoes

 

At the top of the pile-

MY shoes.

Little black flats with little leather caps

On the toes. Just like mine.

 

They must have gleamed like stars at midnight

When she slipped them on her feet

In the store.

Mine did.

She must have twirled, a dancer with

Tip-toes extended, catching the light

In the mirror.

I did.

Their little leather tips must have twinkled

In the sun, wet with rain, black in night

On her journeys—

                             —til the last—

 

“Take off your pretty shoes, my dear;

Put them here, together, so they don’t get lost-

                                                                           -for later.”


My shoes feel strange on my feet.

 

 

~ Chani Grossman

When Torah Comes to Life

17 May

I never thought of leyning – the ritual chanting of readings from Tanakh during synagogue services - as a possibility for me. As an Orthodox Jewish girl, leyning was supposed to be the domain of the boys. It was deemed immodest, non-halakhic, and – the greatest taboo of all – “Conservative,” for a girl (even as part of women’s tefillah) to read from the Torah.

High school exposed me to a wider range of halakhic positions. I was disturbed to discover that over half the girls in my freshman Gemara class had leyned at their bat mitzvahs. These weren’t girls who had no respect for halakha; they were, for the most part, girls with a deep commitment to halakha and whom I trusted to make decisions that remained within the pale of Orthodoxy. So what was I missing? What was it that led my new friends to accept something that was so tabooed in the community of my childhood?

The next few years took me on a roller coaster ride of varying sentiments about women leyning and about the role of women in Judaism in general. It was not an issue I was willing to shrug aside by either completely accepting or completely rejecting these new ideas. So I went on my own quest to find a satisfying answer. Following a series of conversations and reading a collection of books and articles, the details of which are beyond the scope of this article, I concluded that reading from the Torah was something with which I was personally comfortable. Indeed, women leyning, at least in the presence of other women, is something which should pose no halakhic issue at all.

During my senior year of high school, my friend Ricki agreed to teach me how to leyn. With the elaborate crowns above the letters, I could hardly make out what the words were, but at the same time, I felt more connected to them than I ever had before. When I leyned, I was participating in a Jewish tradition that existed long before me and that will continue to exist long after me. By serving as an active link in that chain, Tanakh became more than a historical account or interesting literary work. I no longer had to rely on someone else’s interpretations to feel connected to the text. Leyning the words took them out of the page and brought them to life. It didn’t matter that I was completely tone deaf and anyone listening to my leyning would probably cringe. Leyning became a way for me to connect to my heritage and to the sacred words of Tanakh, completely devoid of any external concerns.

Learning how to leyn exposed me to a skill that would help me participate in tefillah, but more importantly, it opened my eyes to an entirely different way of approaching and connecting to Tanakh. Teaching me how to leyn rekindled Ricki’s passion for leyning.  Both of us recognized the importance of acquiring this skill, but also realized that unless a child learns to leyn for his or her bar or bat mitzvah, it is unlikely that he or she will ever learn. So we decided to share our passion with others by creating an organization called The Leyning Partnership. The Leyning Partnership’s mission, most broadly, is to make leyning more accessible to people of any gender and all backgrounds. It provides information about online resources that teach leyning, pairs up tutors with students to provide free access to high quality education, and engages in open discussion about the role of Torah reading in public prayer and about the role of women in Torah reading. Our goal is to enable the widest possible range of people to learn to leyn in a way that is most convenient to them.

Current impediments to leyning include financial, halakhic, and geographical constraints. The Leyning Partnership seeks to overcome all these boundaries. When leyning lessons cost up to $100 an hour, it is difficult to afford such a luxury, especially if you are not actively preparing for your bar or bat mitzvah. The Leyning Partnership counteracts this by providing free, volunteer-based tutoring to interested students, so that cost does not have to be a deterrent. As I articulated earlier, many people have halakhic concerns regarding women leyning. By explaining sources in a non-biased way, the Leyning Partnership seeks to address these concerns. Finally, some students are constrained from learning how to leyn because of geographic disabilities: they live too far from the mainstream Jewish world to find anyone to teach them how to leyn. The Leyning Partnership provides lessons via Skype in order to eliminate this problem. You can find out more about our programs by visiting our website, or visiting our Facebook page.

I am not asking you to learn something that makes you uncomfortable. My personal analysis led me to the conclusion that it is acceptable to leyn, but there are a range of interpretations that could lead to a variety of conclusions. I am asking you to consider the idea of leyning as something that might be more halakhically acceptable than you have always assumed. Even if it is not something that feels immediately compelling to you, I am asking you to consider it as something that could expand your relationship with Tanakh and Judaism. Opening yourself up to this possibility really can change your life.

~ Leah Slaten

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