German teacher caught smuggling inmates’ possessions from Auschwitz

A teacher from Germany was arrested at Auschwitz after being caught with items that belonged to Holocaust victims.

The 47-year-old educator on Tuesday admitted to taking the items from an area where possessions of the former concentration camp inmates had been stored during World War II. He said he wanted to show the items to his students, who are studying the Holocaust.

The teacher pleaded guilty and was levied a suspended jail sentence and a fine by a local court, the French news agency AFP reported. He could have faced up to 10 years in prison for stealing goods of special cultural importance.

The man’s bag held 10 items, including a fork, a fragment of scissors and pieces of pottery, gathered from an area where warehouses once stood. The warehouses, called “Canada” by the inmates, were set on fire at the end of the war by the Nazis.

The Once and Future Yiddish Language


“Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish” by Dovid Katz (Basic Books, $26.95).

Given the sentimentality of much recent writing on the subject, American Jews might be forgiven for believing that no one with a critical eye, or without sepia-colored glasses, could possibly write an entire book about Yiddish — much less a detailed overview from its very beginnings to its future.

Into this breach springs Dovid Katz, a professor and linguist at Vilnius University, peripatetic interviewer of the last shtetl Jews, Yiddish novelist and short-story writer, with his book, “Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish.” The history of Yiddish spans nearly 1,000 years, from what Katz calls its “big bang” — in which the embryonic language emerged from contact between Jews and non-Jews — to the present day. In between are huge tracts of history, politics, literature, religion, sociology and linguistics, not to mention lesser matters that might seem trivial to the non-Yiddish speaker but fire many an impassioned debate: etymology, spelling, word choice and Chasidic literary esthetics.

The author’s massive erudition, clear, witty prose and unhesitating self-confidence make him more than a match for this enormous task, and — just as worthy of admiration — he, or perhaps his editors, managed to shoehorn the whole thing into fewer than 400 pages. If not a beach read, at least something that can be comfortably hefted with one hand.

Katz is an exploder of myths, doing so in cogent fashion from the very first page. “This book,” he writes in his introduction, “presents an unabashedly alternative model of Jewish cultural history… with no malice toward the winners of the public relations battleground. Israel, Israeli Hebrew and the modern American Jewish establishment … are all, thank heaven, secure and mature enough to withstand efforts to add to the mainstream canon some other parts of the Jewish heritage.”

He is not anti-Hebrew, anti-Israel or anti-mainstream. (These charges are frequently leveled at those who wish to inform or to convince American Jews of the importance of Yiddish. In a column some years ago in The Wall Street Journal, a writer based his hostility toward the rising popularity of Yiddish studies on the fact that the language finds supporters among — horrors! — homosexuals.) Rather, he presents Yiddish, together with other smaller languages, as a symphonic alternative to the monotone of English-only globalization.

Katz calls his high-energy historical tour “the dramatic life story of an embattled, controversial language and people.”

Here’s a good test of whether a book is worth reading: How many times do you turn to the person next to you and say, “Wow! Did you know that…?” There are many such moments in “Words on Fire.” We’re acquainted with, for example, the Jewish brothers who founded Yiddish publishing, later converts to Christianity, whose books were burned by their Jewish contemporaries; a surprising number of early Yiddish women poets; and the government-sponsored suppression of Yiddish cultural activity in the early years of the State of Israel.

In order to cover such broad territory, an author needs a guiding philosophy, and in presenting his own, Katz takes sides in a dispute that’s been smoldering for the last century. Is Yiddish primarily the language of tradition or of the left wing? Is mamaloshen religious or radical?

Katz comes down on the side of tradition. Yiddish hangs on “religious and ideological continuity,” that is, traditionalist observance “challenged and enriched … by secular outbursts” that occur during the first few generations of “creative intermingling” with tolerant non-Jewish civilizations, and then sputter out in their descendants’ assimilation. According to Katz, although the “outbursts” produce much of great value, it is the continuing chain of tradition on which the language depends.

The material that Katz compiles about Yiddish among the ultra-Orthodox, both past and present, can be found in no other book for the lay public, and only very rarely in the scholarly literature. Katz explains (with excitement just short of glee) that the year 1864, the same famous founding year in which Mendele Moykher Sforim began to publish the first “modern masterpiece of Yiddish prose,” saw a proclamation of the religious sanctity of Yiddish in the will of the founder of ultra-Orthodoxy, the Khasam-Soyfer.

Moreover, in his ideological but invigorating conclusion, Katz brings us back to the present day, maintaining that all those interested in Yiddish language and literature must concern themselves with the ultra-Orthodox, mostly Chasidic population that will constitute the vast majority of future Yiddish speakers. Non-ultra-Orthodox Yiddish speakers and cultivators, he argues, are builders of bridges to the day when “the Chasidic world, the new Ashkenaz, moves from Yiddish popular literature to an era of new masterpieces.” Though this “bridge” chapter is a comparatively small one in the history of Yiddish, it is being written at this very moment.

The downside of Katz’s admirable enthusiasm is that it is a shaky foundation for an argument. The reader looking for a bibliography, information on further reading or, indeed, any sort of notes (end-, foot- or otherwise) will be frustrated by “Words on Fire,” and minor-but-annoying mistakes pop up often. Substantive innovations that he would have done well to explain to the lay reader — such as his interesting claim that Aramaic played the role of Ashkenazic Jews’ “third language” after Yiddish and Hebrew — are shot up like flares, providing more interest than light. At times, one senses that rather than a handbook to the history of Yiddish, or a gateway to study, Katz’s treatment is meant to be the “truth.” Such an attitude might explain the author’s peculiar omissions and inclusions in Yiddish literary history (in particular, modern American Yiddish literature is given little more than a paragraph) and his sneers at today’s Yiddish-language activists.

But apart from these qualifications, this book is probably the most intelligent and energetic one-volume introduction available to the history of Yiddish and its culture, entertaining and informing the ignorant while enlightening even the very knowledgeable. Its attitude toward Yiddish is positive without being politically correct and academically well-founded without being library dry. Thus one greets this book with the traditional wish: May there be more like it in Israel!

Article reprinted courtesy the Forward.


Bringing Caring and God to the Sick

"So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom…." (Psalm 90:12)

Truth be told, there are no "soft issues" in medical ethics, unless by "soft" we mean the human issues, the matters of the spirit that so influence people’s capacity to heal and even (as research seems to be showing more and more) their ability to be cured. "Soft" is the "how" dimension of medical ethics, a critical complement to the "what" decisions that are often its salient province or overriding focus.

Perhaps the best place to start is to ask, "What are the psychosocial needs of people going through serious medical experiences?"

Let it first be acknowledged that the needs of these people are not unlike everyone else’s — just, perhaps, more so. People who are suffering, or struggling, or facing mortality — and those who care for them — need what we all need, if more urgently, boldly, unavoidably.

These universal needs include: a restoration of connection, a new relatedness — to a sense of self, the community, creation, God, the big picture; transcendence, growth, meaning, affirmation of their total identity (including but not limited to their diagnosis, condition or illness), an expanded sense of hope and possibility; re-empowerment, striking a balance of dependence and independence, taking charge and letting go; tools to integrate major losses or fundamental life-disruptions into their life-narrative.

Jews who are suffering, and those who care for them, similarly need and deserve resources of guidance, strength, insight, comfort, solace and hope — and, for centuries, have looked to Jewish tradition and the Jewish community for these resources. In diverse host cultures and civilizations, Jews developed a very strong tradition of bikur cholim (reaching out to those who are ill and those who care for them). This mitzvah was understood as a basic and far-reaching commandment that requires and enables us to emulate God’s own care and concern, indeed, to partner with God in making that care and concern manifest and tangible. Bikur cholim was highly developed through our treasured, evolving corpus of both narrative and legal texts.

"The essential feature of the mitzvah of visiting the sick is to pay attention to the needs of patients, to see to what is necessary to be done for their benefit, and to give them the pleasure of one’s company. It is also to customary to pray for mercy on their behalf." (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 193:3).

What a cogent summary of what folks need. Practical and individualized help, social and interpersonal connection and intercession/dialogue with God in echoing or amplifying the patients’ needs, wishes and prayers.

The good news is that these efforts, at least in my experience, are on the rebound in our community. More and more synagogues, Jewish community centers, day schools, healing programs, family service agencies, and other Jewish organizations are developing or revitalizing bikur cholim efforts, sometimes called G’mach for gimilut hasidim (deeds of loving kindness or caring committees). More than 200 bikur cholim organizers and volunteers, from more than 75 different sites in all corners of the Jewish community, took part in the November 2002 15th annual Bikur Cholim Conference in New York City. Jewish chaplaincy, long the terribly underfunded and neglected professional field in our community, is experiencing a growth in recognition, support and status. Rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators are devoting more time in training and continuing education to expand their skills and enhance their effectiveness in reaching out to the ill and their families and professional caregivers. And materials that help Jews hope and cope are multiplying.

Yet, so much remains to be done. We live in a society that desperately seeks not only to avoid disease and pain at all costs but also to deny vulnerability, aging, disability and mortality — and the Jewish community is not immune from these biases. Though it is somewhat more comfortable than it was in recent decades to utter the "c" word — cancer — Jews, like everyone else, recoil from serious illness, and we need to strategize how to restore illness and death to their natural and important place in our lives.

There are many ways to bring about the reintegration of illness and death into communal life. School curricula, youth group projects, film series, concerts, art exhibits, public programs where people tell their stories, rabbinic sermons and bulletin pieces can all work to undo the denial of suffering and death and enable Jews of all ages, backgrounds and affiliations to share the vulnerability and burdens of disease and disability. In these and other ways, we can reach for a time when Jews will feel freer to let others know of their challenges, more secure in asking for help and less constrained in offering it.

Complementing these educational and cultural innovations and communal change ought to be substantial advocacy efforts that work for a more humane and holistic approach to pain, suffering and healing. Convention resolutions are fine, but we must do more to "walk the walk." Synagogues, schools, service agencies and JCCs must join in challenging the current health-care systems that render so many suffering people alone, confused and despairing. Practical efforts directed at changing legislation, policies, and managed-care companies must go hand in hand with the one-on-one, direct support and service provision.

Our generation, as those before and after us, will be judged by how we listen and attend to those who are sick and vulnerable and to those who care for them. In the end, there is actually no "them"; there is only "us."

Reprinted from the Journal Sh’ma, a service of Jewish Family & Life!

Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, a certified social worker, is rabbinic director at the National Center for Jewish Healing/Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York.

Jews Say Bonjour to Club Lampadaire

In between the prayers at the Pinto Shul in the Pico-Robertson area, people who only speak English might feel a little lost.

Not because congregants there don’t speak English — they do, except they are likely to break off into French every so often, leaving behind the hapless English speakers. Likewise, if you are expecting cholent or kugel or any of the other regular foods that you find at an English-speaking shul, you have gone to the wrong place. "Kiddush" at the Pinto Shul has a North African flair. Instead of cholent, they serve salmon cooked in red sauce with garbanzo beans, rice sticky with prunes and apricots and boutargue, a special Tunisian delicacy of dried waxed fish (which to the uninitiated palate tastes like shriveled goldfish).

The Pinto Shul is one of several congregations in Los Angeles that serves the French-speaking Jewish community. Unlike other ethnic Jewish communities in Los Angeles, such as the Persian community, the French-speaking community does not have a cohesive origin. French speaking Jews in Los Angeles are predominantly Sephardic, but they emigrated from a variety of places — Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and France. Eager to escape the perceived and real hostility toward Jews in their countries of origin, and in some cases attracted by the greater personal freedoms that America offered, French-speaking Jews have been coming to Los Angeles for several decades now. They view Los Angeles as a good weather alternative to Montreal, where the French community is the largest outside Israel and France. In Los Angeles, despite their disparate origins, French-speaking Jews tend to stick together, united by the language and a shared cultural affinity.

In 1997, there were approximately 2,500 Jews of North African or French origin in Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey. Today, some estimate that the number has grown to 5,000.

Up until now, this community’s organized communal life has been relegated to the synagogue. Shuls like the Pinto Shul; Congregation Em Habanim and Adat Yeshurun in the Valley; the Baba Sale Shul in the Fairfax district; and the West Coast Torah Center in Beverly Hills have predominantly French-speaking congregations.

This Chanukah, however, marks the emergence of Club Lampadaire (The Lamp Club), a new French community group in Los Angeles, which aims to unite the French Jewish community with social, spiritual and cultural events.

"I think a lot of Jews living in France see California as an antidote to the stuffiness and formality of French society, and the pleasant weather reminds us of our childhood on the Mediterranean, and it appeals to our sense of nostalgia," said David Suissa, one of the founders of Club Lampadaire, who was born in Morocco. "But at the same time, the way the city is so spread out it does not encourage the fathering of the community which would otherwise happen naturally. So we have to compensate for that by creating this organization to make it easier for us to get together on a regular basis."

Club Lampadaire currently has a membership of 600 families, and has already raised $25,000 for its events from French Jews. Suissa said that Club Lampadaire was inspired by a conference given to French-speaking Jews in Los Angeles by Yechiya Benchetrit, one of the leading rabbis in France. "During this talk he brought up the word lampadaire, lamp, and suggested that Jews are like lamps and our mission in life is to light up the world," Suissa said. "So we decided to start an association which would bring together all the different synagogues and create a family of French Jews in Los Angeles. Our slogan is Alluman Le Foi et La Joir — light up faith and joy — and our first event will be to light up the first night of Chanukah. We want to seek out all the French Jews in Los Angeles, affiliated or nonaffiliated, and tell them that they have a home."

"I have a lot of American friends, but because of the wittiness of the French language, I feel more at ease on a cultural level with Jews who are French speaking," said Lolita Engleson, a psychologist, who was born in Lebanon but moved here from France while trying to market a documentary film she made about the Jews in Lebanon.

In Los Angeles, many French-speaking Jews find it difficult to get working visas or green cards, so they attempt to network in the community to find employment and sponsors that will allow them to do so. "They love it here," said Rafael Gabay, a French Moroccan who is president of the Baba Sale Shul. "If they can live here free without having a problem with a green card, then this place is a paradise."

Ten Days in L.A.

A Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles reception welcomed 18 students participating in a cultural exchange sponsored by the Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership. Fourteen students from Tel Aviv’s A.D. Gordon School and four students from their paired partner, Northridge’s Abraham Heschel Day School, gathered to reflect on their experience as the Israeli students — all ages 13 and 14 — wrapped up their 10-day visit to Los Angeles.

"This trip was very important to me, because I actually got to meet the kids I’ve been writing to for four years and see how they live in Israel," Gordon student Maya Levit said.

While in Los Angeles, the Israeli students experienced American culture, both exotic and mundane, including trips to the mall, Disneyland and Universal Studios. The students also took part in some charitable work: half the group participated in helping the homeless, while the other half volunteered at an AIDS Project Los Angeles food bank.

On the penultimate day of their visit, the Israeli teens conveyed their impressions of American culture and of their life in Israel, which is rarely divorced from the ongoing violence and political turmoil. The Israeli students unanimously feel that their country, in recent years, has become isolated and inoculated from worldwide support.

Merav Schechter even considered her stay a diplomatic mission.

"I wanted to get more support for Israel from Jews in L.A.," she said.

"We need support from Jews here, even if they don’t think Ariel Sharon is doing the right thing," Eliran Raz said, to which Gil Asher added, "Israel needs support in the media."

The Israeli students said they were struck by cultural differences with their American counterparts, who seemed more connected to Jewish tradition. Aviv Benn-Sa’ar said he admired the inclusion of religious ritual at their host Conservative day school.

"In Heschel, every Friday they go to beit midrash," Benn-Sa’ar said. "In Gordon, we don’t do it."

Heschel’s students were equally moved by their Israeli pen pals’ visit.

"It has impacted me a lot," said Ali Baron. "Now the situation in Israel is actually more real to me."

"It reinforced for me how every Jew in the world is connected," Daniel Kattan said.

Gisele Feldman learned that Los Angeles was not as religiously polarized as Israel is. "There, it’s Orthodox or nothing," Feldman said.

The Federation reception was organized by Galia Avidar, Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership’s assistant director of Israel and overseas relations. Also present were Judy Taff, director of Judaic studies and exchange coordinator at Heschel, who oversaw the L.A. visit with the help of Pam Teitelbaum, mother of Heschel participant Adam Teitelbaum. Lois Weinsaft, the Federation’s vice president of international planning, heads the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.

The Israeli teens were accompanied to Los Angeles by Gordon staff members Maya Mendel and Tal Atiya and Gordon parents Shoshanna Gatenio and Menachem Reiss. Special programs leaders Sara Brennglass and Hyim Brandes also took part.

The Tel Aviv students said that they would leave with good impressions of Los Angeles’ way of life.

"It was a really good experience for me," Tal Erdinast said. "It will change my life forever."

Bunny vs. Rabbi

Lindsey Vuolo, Playboy bunny, met her match last month: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

The two squared off in front of an audience of more than 150 people — about three-quarters of them men — at Makor, a Jewish cultural center in Manhattan geared toward 20- and 30-something Jews.

The talk show-like event included a lot of back-and forth between Vuolo and Boteach, who met when the media-hungry rabbi interviewed Vuolo for a Web site called

Miss November spoke like a poster girl for Jewish continuity.

"My biggest fear is that because I’m not as religious as maybe I should be, I won’t be able to conduct High Holidays in my home," Vuolo said, her voice cracking with emotion.

When Miss November 2000 spoke about her "amazing" high school trip to Israel as part of an exchange program called Ambassadors for Unity, she choked up again.

Boteach, author of the relationship guide "Kosher Sex," said he respects Vuolo, particularly for her commitment to the Jewish people and for saying she wants to raise Jewish children. But he was critical of her choice to pose for Playboy.

At one point he told Vuolo that by posing in Hugh Hefner’s magazine she had turned herself from "extraordinary" to "ordinary." Vuolo hardly reacted.

When Boteach spoke, Vuolo at times grimaced or arched her eyebrows to show her disagreement. Members of the audience alternately booed, hooted and cheered — particularly for Vuolo, who seemed to have the crowd’s sympathy.

And audience members weren’t shy about taking shots at either the rabbi — short, bearded, in a dark suit — or the buxom bunny, who was dressed in a fashionable and sexy style that wasn’t too revealing.

Yet it appeared the audience wanted to bury the controversial Boteach.

Boteach was criticized for his long-windedness and for his friendship with pop star Michael Jackson. He also was called a hypocrite for publishing an excerpt of "Kosher Sex" in Playboy.

"Where am I going to put this, the synagogue newsletter?" Boteach responded. "I’m going to put this in the place where it’s most important to be read."

Articles courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Lotta Y.A.D.A.

Jessica Freedman felt like neither fish nor fowl while pursuing her degree in Jewish studies at UCLA, and her social life was even less uplifting. During Rush Week on campus, Freedman looked into joining a Jewish-founded sorority. To her dismay, she discovered the house was awash in self-loathing — members vigorously suppressed their Jewish identity to the point where wearing a Star of David or a chai was a faux pas. So Freedman joined a different sorority, only to discover later that the social order was insensitive to Jewish concerns, holding meetings on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Freedman never found that group she was looking for, so she decided to start it. Now 22 and an administrative assistant at Bnai Zion, Freedman merged the U.S.-Israel humanitarian group’s thirst for a youth program and her own personal interest to create Y.A.D.A. — an acronym for Young Adults Dedicated to Altruism.

Freedman herself grew up with a strong sense of cultural identity. She was raised in Hollywood (the other Hollywood, in Florida) in a Reform home. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors, her mother born in a German liberation camp after the war.

Her mandate for Y.A.D.A. is to develop "a social group that will do charity at the same time. It’s a great way to meet people, and it doesn’t feel like a chore." Her idea is to mix tikkun olam and fun in a way that is attractive to postcollegiate young adults who are at a vulnerable time in their lives and careers when "they’re still trying to find themselves. But if you start now to care about your identity, you’ll do it for life."

At their initial get-together, about 25 young professionals met to discuss the direction of the group and to party down at a private reception at Yuu Yuu Karaoke Studio on the Westside. Since that Dec. 15 outing, Y.A.D.A. has received a surge of response from young Jews looking for a fun and constructive way to meet their peers.

The timing of Y.A.D.A. is just about right. According to Freedman’s boss, Bnai Zion’s Western Regional Director Gail Bershon, the 92-year-old organization is ripe to embrace the future through youth participation.

"It has always been my dream and my passion to have a young adult group," said Bershon. "We were blessed to get Jessica and have Y.A.D.A."

Y.A.D.A’s next social gathering will be a trip to an L.A. Kings hockey game on March 26. Y.A.D.A. currently meets the first Tuesday of every month to make sandwiches for the needy. The next sandwich-making effort is April 3. Y.A.D.A. is also looking for people to help plan the upcoming Y.A.D.A. Bowl-A-Thon event in September. For more information, call Jessica Freedman at (323) 655-9128 or