Who shall live and who shall die: God’s iPhone, Rosh Hashanah 5769


ALTTEXT

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.



From the cover story by Marty Kaplan

The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer—or piyyut—was the subject of last week’s Torah Slam. Read Danielle Berrin’s report, and watch the video here.



Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?


These are nervous-making times.

No, I’m not talking about the damage the capital campaign may do to you, or — at my temple, anyway — whether you’ll find a parking place for services, which is enough to make anyone want to reach for a Xanax.

What I mean is this protracted season of suspense we inhabit, this waiting for the other shoe to drop, this not knowing what comes next.

The uncertain outcome of the presidential election would by itself be enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter which way you want it to turn out. The economy, both national and global, seems to be lurching from one meltdown to another. Hotspots and tragedies on the international scene may have fallen off the radar screen of the ADD-afflicted news media, but anyone who continues to pay attention to the Middle East or Russia or Darfur, to name just three, has reason to be plenty anxious. Terrorists, loose nukes, avian flu, climate change, the lurking Big One: it’s a wonder anyone can get out of bed these days.

Yet even though the country has a bad case of shpilkes, and despite the nervousness that comes from uncertainty, both presidential candidates have hitched their campaigns to the bandwagon of change. From Barack Obama: “Change You Can Believe In,” “The Change We Need. “From John McCain: “The Change You Deserve,” “Change Is Coming.”

Clearly it’s a welcome message. Eight out of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. All the polls say that the country wants change. Despite the upheaval and disorientation that change often brings with it, nearly all of us want a divorce from the present, a clean break, a fresh start.

But can one leader — whether Obama or McCain — really change us? How much can any one man, no matter how vigorously he exercises his powers, no matter how energetically he uses his bully pulpit, change us, let alone change Washington, or America, or the world?

The answer, of course, depends on how capable of change you believe anyone is, or can be.

I’m not asking whether the next president, whoever he is, will have an impact on our lives. For better and worse, presidents have changed the course of innumerable American lives, and their actions have remade the nation’s place in the world. The issue I’m trying to get at — and I’ll be the first to admit that the question may be unanswerable — is the human capacity for change, the malleability of our individual souls.

Some people maintain — and there is a long tradition that this conception arises from — that people really can’t change. People are inherently good, or they are inherently bad, or they are inherently programmed to be selfish or altruistic or whatever innate characteristics you believe are built into our species. In other words, human beings are limited and run by something called “human nature.”

Yes, there is variety within groups; yes, personal circumstances and social experiences also shape us along the way; yes, we do develop along several dimensions during the course of our lives. But all these variations occur — says this point of view — within the framework of our hardwiring, our genetic givens, our fundamental nature. When real change does occur in our species, it happens during a glacial time frame, not within individual lifetimes; it arises from random variation and natural selection, not from new leaders and new policies.

But the contrary view has just as long a history. It says that conscious human evolution is possible. It maintains that free will can move genetic mountains, that big ideas can change civilizations, that consciousness is not a prison, but a battlefield. Where the notion of human nature leads ultimately to a tragic sense of life, the concept of conscious evolution is ultimately utopian — the belief that there is something perfectible about society, and not over the course of eons, but within our own lifetimes.

José Ortega y Gasset put this way: “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is — history.” Yes, there may be local and temporal limitations on our freedom to act, but if someone tells you that you can’t change human nature, beware of power politics masquerading as evolutionary biology. Just about every progressive social movement — abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, environmentalism — starts from this premise. So does what Philip Rieff called “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”: the culture of self-help, the faith that each of us has the power to change our own life.

Which brings me back to the High Holy Days.

Within the calendar that constitutes the Jewish cathedral in time, no days are more saturated with the experience of human nature, and with experiments in human change, than the Days of Awe. This is when we are asked, paradoxically, both to steep in our powerlessness to escape our species’ fate, and yet also to try out behaviors that can rescue us from our destinies.

This is a good moment for me to confess that I have never been particularly comfortable with the grand narrative of the High Holy Days liturgy, the story of the Book of Life.

Six self-help books seek to help you get sealed in the Book of Life


In these days of asking tough questions, taking stock, revisiting memories and trying to do better in 5767, books are essential tools. Several new works from different disciplines and traditions, some of which don’t mention the words Days of Awe, lend new meaning to the holidays — on caring for orphans, baking bread, deepening celebrations, understanding forgiveness, practicing kindness, exploring traditional liturgy and rituals.

 

Holiday tunes for when you haven’t got a prayer


I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.
— Jerome K. Jerome


 
Perhaps it is the intensity of the emotions raised by the liturgy itself. Or the power of worshipping in a sanctuary filled with people. Or the sense that everything is at stake.

 
I like to think it’s the music.

 
But whatever the reason, the High Holidays provide some of the greatest frissons one can experience in a synagogue. And the music is, indeed, a big part of those rising chills. One need look no farther than four new CDs that include generous helpings of music for the Days of Awe to hear evidence of the power of these holidays to inspire composers and performers.

 
Sometimes the simplest music has the greatest impact. Consider “Shomeah Tefillah: Prayers of the High Holy Days,” a CD by Cantor Lois Welber of Temple B’nai Israel, Revere, Mass. Almost all the music on this recording is from Israel Alter, one of the great Conservative cantors of the 20th century.

 
Alter didn’t write classical hazanut; his compositions are devoid of the coloratura pyrotechnics of the Golden Age cantors. Rather, his settings of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies, published 35 years ago, are straightforward, emotionally direct and comparatively simple. And that is the source of their power.

 
Welber opts for an equally simple and powerful approach. Accompanied only by organist Ernest Rakhlin or pianist David Sparr, she tackles Alter’s music head-on, not with flash but great feeling. Welber has a resonant mezzo voice, not glitzy but profoundly effective. The result is a tribute to the power of simplicity.
 
The mandolin i
s an instrument whose sound resonates with poignancy. In the hands of masters like Dave Grisman and Andy Statman, the gentle ringing of its strings carries a powerful emotional charge.

 
Put those two musicians together with “a collection of timeless Jewish melodies,” as their new CD “New Shabbos Waltz” bills itself, and the result is a sterling blend of deeply emotive music.

 
The set kicks off with a melancholy “Avinu Malkeinu,” with Statman’s plangent clarinet stating the traditional tune while Grisman comps behind him. The duo deftly trade leads on this and the other cuts on the record, aided immeasurably by some silky slide guitar from Bob Brozman and rock-solid timekeeping by Hal Blaine on drums and Jim Kerwin on bass.

 
Statman is in a more playful mood than on his recent excursions into Chasidic mysticism, and his interplay with Grisman is delightful throughout.

 
Two of the latest entries in Naxos Records’ series of Milken Archive recordings feature contemporary orchestral pieces inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. In fact, both Herman Berlinski (“From the World of My Father”) and David Stock (“A Little Miracle”) have tried their hand at re-imaginings of the shofar service for Rosh Hashanah. (Given that this year Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat and there is no shofar service, I find this an amusing coincidence.)

 
Berlinski (1910-2001) was a student of the great Nadia Boulanger, albeit an unhappy one, and I think I detect some of her influence in the rich, dense sound tapestry of Berlinski’s “From the World of My Father,” a lovely 1941 piece that pays homage to the synagogue and folk music of Eastern Europe. His 1964 “Shofar Service” is a fairly straightforward setting of the old Union Prayerbook liturgy, here ably performed by the BBC Singers conducted by Avner Itai.

 
Not surprisingly, Berlinski blends two trumpets with the shofar itself, to considerable dramatic effect. Although he was a friend of Olivier Messiaen and his circle, on the pieces included here, Berlinski is not interested in the less-is-more aesthetic of Messiaen; his is a resolutely post-Romantic palette, whether he is writing for organ (“The Burning Bush”) or full orchestra (“Symphonic Visions for Orchestra”).

 
Stock, who was born in 1939, is of a more obviously modernist bent than Berlinski. His operatic monodrama, “A Little Miracle,” which retells an extraordinary story of Holocaust survivors, owes a bit of its rhythmic drive to Schoenberg (perhaps with a nod to Gershwin).

 
But his “Yizkor” is surprisingly conservative, powerfully melodic and quietly restrained. By contrast, his shofar piece, “Tekiah,” written for trumpet and crisply performed by Stephen Burns and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble with the composer conducting, has moments that are distinctly reminiscent of the heyday of minimalism. One hears echoes of Glass in the repetitive ensemble figures behind the staccato trumpet line, and the contrast between foreground and background is a fruitful one. The result is an intriguing recording, but I don’t imagine your local shul is going to try it any time soon.

 

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses,” will be published by Shocken Books in October.


 

“Shomeah Tefillah: Prayers of the High Holy Days,” can be purchased at www.loiswelber.com.

 

“New Shabbos Waltz” can be purchased at www.acousticdisc.com

“From the World of My Father” and “A Little Miracle” can be purchased at www.milkenarchive.org.

Song of the Sons


The centerpiece of the third section of the Tanach, the section known as Ketuvim (the Writings), is the Book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms contains some of the most majestic poetic images in the history of the Hebrew language. They express awe at the artistic power of the Creator and express wonder at the reality of all Being. They reflect on the redemptive design of the God of history who took us out of Egypt and anticipate the ultimate redemption at the end of days. They cry out in the pain of human suffering and appeal to a God of healing. They protest the injustice that surrounds us and the domination of the powerful over the weak. They sing of the yearning for communion with God. And more.

Nowhere is the relationship between God and the Jewish people articulated with more poetic power or artistic beauty than in the 150 chapters of the Psalms. The Psalms have withstood the test of time with their undiminished power to inspire, to move, to touch and elevate the human soul.

The original purpose of the Psalms was liturgical, written to be sung by a choir of Levites during the sacrificial service in the Temples in Jerusalem. Still, in our own day, many of the Psalms are used liturgically and comprise entire sections of the prayer book, the most obvious examples being Psukei d’Zimrah (the preliminary service recited daily before the Shachrit prayers) and Hallel, (the thanksgiving liturgy recited on holidays and Rosh Chodesh), the kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century used Psalms when creating the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which introduces the Shabbat evening prayers with great beauty.

Although the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) ascribes authorship of the Book of Psalms to King David, even the Talmud ascribes composite authorship, insisting that David incorporated earlier collections of Psalms into his own. Among those the Talmud identifies are two collections, Psalms 42-49 and Psalms 84-88, 13 in all, that were written by the sons of Korah.

It is a stunning statistic that almost 10 percent of the Book of Psalms was written by the sons of Korah. The very name, Korah, symbolizes all that can go wrong in communal life. Korah was the cousin of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, who protested the undemocratic centralization and personalization of power in the other side of the family. Korah led a rebellion in the wilderness against the authority of Moshe and Aharon. In the guise of egalitarianism and inclusiveness, with the claim that all of the Levites are equally holy, Korah incited 250 followers to join him in his rebellion. The rebellion was immediately recognized as a thinly veiled exercise of political opportunism and a shameful power grab. The rebellion ended badly, as it should have, as it was destined to. In the final scene, Korah was swallowed up by the earth, his minions and his ideas disappearing with him into the depths.

But his sons were not with him.

One might think that because his end was so dramatic, so violent, and so final, that Korah was wiped out once and for all. Remarkably, even though Korahism was dealt a fatal blow in the wilderness, the line of Korah did not die. The sons embraced the claim of the father that they were indeed holy, and they wrote holy words. His sons became poets; they wrote Psalms.

That is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Psalm 49 was selected to be read in a house of mourning. Beyond the ideas contained in the words themselves lies the power of the Psalm’s authorship. The heading of the Psalm reads: “To the leader: A Psalm of the sons of Korah.” The message of Psalm 49, a lesson the sons apparently learned from the bad example of their father, is that death comes to everyone, rich and poor alike. The importance of wealth and status in life is exaggerated because neither can protect us from death; nor are they of any use to us after we die. What is important in life, and in death, are the relationships we have formed with loved ones, with friends, and with God. Love transcends death. Love is eternal, and lives on after us.

Korach is the symbol of rebellion and conflict and despair; his sons are a symbol of hope. Korah brought dissension and tension into the world; his sons comfort the bereaved. Through the words of the sons of Korah, and by their example, we are inspired to embrace life with gratitude, with optimism and with passion, as long as our souls remain in our bodies.

Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of “Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at pnetter@tbala.org.

Classical Musicians’ Volume Decreases


The conductor raises his baton. On cue, 73 young musicians launch into a heartfelt rendition of “Sabbath Fantasies,” a piece that weaves together snatches of Jewish liturgy and folk tunes.

This is the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra (LAYO), a 6-year-old ensemble sponsored by Stephen S. Wise Temple to encourage the next generation of music lovers. The players, all between the ages of 8 and 18, represent a wide range of cultures and ethnicities.

But because the orchestra rehearses on Sundays on the temple’s grounds, it especially attracts young musicians from Jewish homes. The LAYO is one route through which Jewish community leaders are trying to keep alive the noble tradition that links Jews with classical music.

Russell Steinberg, who conducts the LAYO and composed “Sabbath Fantasies,” is at the forefront of this effort. As founder and director of the Stephen Wise Music Academy, he also works to provide music education for all students at Stephen Wise Day School and Milken Community High School.

Another pioneer is Bryna Vener, who for 28 years has led Sinai Akiba Academy’s popular after-school orchestral program. But many other Jewish day schools that offer elective music programs are struggling to keep them afloat.

Perhaps it’s a matter of scheduling. Students today face mounting academic obligations that leave many feeling hard-pressed to take on an instrument.

Still, Steinberg suspects also that many Jewish parents view classical music as an outmoded form of entertainment. Because they themselves prefer the likes of Pink Floyd to Prokofiev, they are less inclined to push traditional music lessons on reluctant offspring.

There was a time when Jews dominated the ranks of American orchestras, and superstars like Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern were musical ambassadors to the world. The fact that today’s master Jewish musicians tend to have proteges with names like Yo Yo Ma, Kyung-Wha Chung and Lang Lang is one hint that for many Jews, classical music is no longer a top priority. This gives Steinberg an important goal: “I’m trying to build a parent culture that values music.”

Why in recent years have so many American Jews sidestepped classical music?

One answer is that most 21st century American Jews are far removed from the immigrant experience of their forebearers. The Jews who came from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as those who arrived as refugees after World War II, brought with them a passion for music.

Nostalgic for the culture they left behind, they flocked to concerts and regarded soloists as heroes. Their love of good music dovetailed with eagerness for success in their new homeland, making them hugely ambitious for their American-born children.

Sylvia Kunin Eben, 91, was raised in a Jewish enclave in South Central Los Angeles, where “everybody we knew had a piano. Even if you couldn’t afford lessons, you had a piano.”

Eben’s Russian-immigrant father somehow scraped together 90 cents for her weekly piano lesson. In return, she was expected to be a prodigy. Although stage fright derailed her performing career, she went on to create award-winning music programs for television.

A generation later, immigrant Jewish parents were still avidly steering their children toward classical music. Music educator Neal Brostoff is the American-born son of a couple who left England for Los Angeles in 1936. He began concertizing at a early age, often rubbing shoulders with such soon-to-be-famous young Angelenos as violinists Glenn and Maurice Dicterow, cellist Nathaniel Rosen, pianists Mona and Renee Golabek and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. All had parents who were staunch supporters of their youngsters’ careers, and all had strong European roots.

Today, times have changed. Aaron Mendelsohn, whose Maestro Foundation lends musical instruments to talented but impoverished young players, notes that many of the Asian-born musicians he helps are “clawing their way out of poverty, just the way the Jews did.”

Young Jews, for the most part, now tend to be firmly ensconced in the American middle class. All professions are open to them, and they’ve long-ago cast off the immigrant tradition of letting their parents determine their future path.

Jewish mothers and fathers, who in earlier eras might have overseen their children’s lessons, monitored their practice sessions and carted them to musical auditions, are now much more likely to emphasize academics, sports and, in Los Angeles, acting auditions.

UCLA music professor David Lefkowitz provides a telling example. His 9-year-old son has been playing the violin since age 3. A promising musician, he practices an hour a day but also plays soccer in the fall and baseball in the spring.

A colleague’s daughter, exactly the same age, started the violin at the same time. She practices two hours daily, and Lefkowitz doesn’t doubt that by 12 she’ll have moved far beyond his son, for whom music is one of several boyhood interests. It’s probably no coincidence that the girl’s mother is a fairly recent immigrant.

If Jewish parents are less driven now to turn their children into stars of the concert stage, they’re also well aware that music as a profession has become less promising. With the number of quality orchestras diminishing, 200 applicants vie for each open seat.

Some record labels have done away with their classical divisions. Hollywood studios that once employed a full complement of musicians often make do now with synthesized music and the licensing of pop tunes. Alan Chapman, composer, music educator and KUSC radio host, stressed, “The value of being a classical musician to society at large is not what it used to be.”

In a materialistic age, it’s no surprise that young Jews have learned to be pragmatic about their career choices. When Steinberg introduced his students to a professional conductor, their first question was, “How much money do you make?”

But sometimes pragmatism can be idealism by another name. Adam Mendelsohn, a recent UCLA graduate, for years played violin in the American Youth Symphony. Unlike most members of that highly motivated group, he gave up any thought of a formal music career to enter a doctoral program in biomedical engineering.

His father’s Maestro Foundation has shown him firsthand the hardships faced by music professionals. As a scientist, he can treat music as a serious hobby and “play the music I want to play when I want to play it.”

The dearth of rising young Jewish musicians does not extend to Israel, where ongoing political tensions may be part of what makes the arts an appealing outlet. In addition, Israel’s subsidies for artists, as well as its numerous institutes for promising students and its European-based tradition of respect for classical music, also play a significant role.

When Israeli composer Ariel Blumenthal attended a concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall, he was amazed to find an auditorium full of graying heads. At home, the Israeli Philharmonic had always attracted a younger crowd, including uniformed soldiers who get in for free.

One source of Israel’s eagerness to produce the next Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman lies in its thousands of music-loving emigres from the former Soviet Union. The Russian musical legacy also shows itself in the U.S. Sixteen-year-old Simona Shapiro, whose Russian grandmother was a concert pianist, admits that her own budding piano career is fulfilling the dreams of several generations: “My entire family is basically living this through me.”

But most American Jews have to force themselves to be philosophical when their children opt to make music professionally. Partly because they’re short on recent role models, they don’t see how their youngsters can make a living in the classical field.

But many American Jews feel, at best, philosophical when their children opt to make music professionally. Partly because they’re short on recent role models, they don’t see how their talented youngsters can make a living in the music field. One organization trying to help is the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity (jewishcreativity.org).

This small but ambitious nonprofit based in Los Angeles and Jerusalem has, for the past 16 years, worked to promote Jewish identity through support for the arts. Proceeds from the center’s ongoing $3 million fundraising campaign go toward such projects as international arts festivals, subsidized residencies at an Israeli arts colony, and multidisciplinary events at major universities.

More than 400 Jewish artists from many nations and in many fields have been named center affiliates. On behalf of Jewish classical musicians, the center underwrites the L.A.-based Synergy Chamber Ensemble as well as an Israeli group, Metar. It also sponsors recordings, awards prizes, and has commissioned works from such rising Jewish composers as Ofer Ben Amots, Sharon Farber, David Lefkowitz and Yale Strom. The center’s founders, led by board president John Rauch, recognize that from the time of King David forward, music has played an integral role in Jewish life.

They hope their support will smooth the way for the talented Jews of tomorrow.

 

Bob Dylan: In His Own Lyrics


Torah References:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me comin’ you better run:

Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killing’ done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

— From “Highway 61 Revisited” on the album, “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965)

Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed

Dignity never been photographed

I went into the red, went into the black

In the valley of dry bone dreams

…Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take

To find dignity

— From “Dignity” on the album, “Under the Red Sky” (1991)

Reference to Jewish Liturgy:

May God bless and keep you always

May your wishes all come true

May you always do for others

And let others do for you….

— From “Forever Young” on the album, “Planet Waves” (1973)

Christian Reference:

I was blinded by the devil

Born already ruined

Stone-cold dead

As I stepped out of the womb

By His grace I have been touched

By His word I have been healed

By His hand I’ve been delivered

By His spirit I’ve been sealed

— From “Saved” (with Tim Drummond) on the album, “Saved” (1980)

Allusions to Jesus:

You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds

Manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twister

You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah

But what do you care?

Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister

Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame

You look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name

— From “Jokerman” on the album, “Infidels” (1983)

Pro-Israel, Pro-Jewish Reference:

The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land

He’s wandered the earth an exiled man

Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn

He’s always on trial for just being born

He’s the neighborhood bully

— From “Neighborhood Bully” on the album, “Infidels” (1983)

On Social Justice:

Come you masters of war

You that build all the guns

You that build the death planes

You that build the big bombs

You that hide behind walls

You that hide behind desks

I just want you to know

I can see through your masks

— From “Masters of War” on the album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (1963)

On Faith in God:

Father of grain, Father of wheat

Father of cold and Father of heat

Father of air and Father of trees

Who dwells in our hearts and our memories

Father of minutes, Father of days

Father of whom we most solemnly praise

— From “Father of Night” on the album, “New Morning” (1970)

Source: “Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-2001” (Simon & Schuster, 2004)

 

Other Voices


My father has always revered Joe Louis. Asurprising hero, perhaps, for a man born and raised in far-awayHungary. Not the hero one might expect of a Jewish cantor, whose workall his life has been singing liturgy in synagogues. Yet, among themost vivid memories I have from my childhood in Hungary and Israel,through my teen-age years in the United States, are the stories myfather told of Joe Louis.

Although my father was recalling events that he’donly read about in newspapers and seen in newsreels nearly 20 yearspreviously, his stories were filled with dramatic detail. Many times,in our living room, back yard or even occasionally before services inshul, he’d ball up his fists, get into a prize fighter’s crouch andshow us how the Brown Bomber landed the savage right to MaxSchmeling’s kidney that fractured two vertebrae in the unluckychallenger’s back.

“Two minutes! Just two minutes and four seconds isall it took!” he would exclaim. “They say that a Texas millionairewas at ringside that night, wearing a big cowboy hat. When somebodyaccidentally knocked his hat off at the beginning of the fight, hebent down to get it. By the time he looked up, the fight was over.”Saying this, my father would laugh until tears came to his eyes. Thenhe’d add, dramatically: “Can you believe it? Hitler had even sentSchmeling a telegram before the fight. ‘Congratulations to the newheavyweight champion of the world!'” Again my father would laugh.Again, tears would come to his eyes.

My father is a gifted storyteller, and the storiesof great men are his favorite topic. He knows many stories. Some ofthem are of singers such as him, of Koussevitsky, the legendarycantor; Gigli, the great Italian operatic tenor; and Chaliapin, thefamed Russian bass-baritone. Others are about the teachings and thesayings of the great rabbis of history. And still others are abouthis childhood and adolescence in Hungary between the two worldwars.

Always, though, and to this day, he comes back tothe stories of Joe Louis. And of his own father.

There are only three pictures left of mygrandfather, Shaya. In one, he is a young man wearing his World War IHungarian army uniform. He is posing in profile, his rifle in hisright hand, a long pickax in his left. On his back is a fullknapsack, and binoculars hang from a strap around his neck. He was anadvance scout. His assignment throughout the war was to climbmountains and lookout towers, occasionally behind enemy lines, andreport on troop movements. His face, looking out of the olddaguerreotype is calmly confident, almost defiant — a man aware ofhis powers.

When World War I ended, small bands of troops fromthe retreating Czech army entered his city of Balassagyarmat andbegan looting homes. My grandfather stood by his front gate, rifle atthe ready. “They are not coming in here,” he said. Theydidn’t.

After the war, because of his army service, Shayawas allowed a gun permit and carried a pistol in his travels as apeddler. When, in the late 1930s, the many restrictions against Jewsbegan to be enforced, Shaya lost his permit and his gun. One day,traveling home from a successful selling trip, he was attacked by tworobbers. Wielding a loose plank from his cart, he knocked both mensenseless.

When my father was about 12 years old, he waswalking home from Saturday-morning synagogue services with a few ofhis friends. Grandfather Shaya and the other men were walking somedistance behind the boys. A group of young men surrounded the boysand began chanting, “Dirty Jews, dirty Jews.” One of them yanked myfather’s payis, the customary long sideburns of religious Jews, andlanded a blow to my father’s head. Shaya came running, and the youngmen fled. He caught two of them from behind and hit them so hard witha fist in each back that they fell face down on the ground.

In 1939, Shaya, despite being 52 years old, wasordered into the Munkaszolgálat, the work detail attached tothe Hungarian army into which many Jewish men were conscripted.Stationed far from home, he rarely saw his family. One week, however,his unit camped only five kilometers from Balassagyarmat. ThatFriday, Shaya walked home to spend the Sabbath with his family. Heneglected to inform anyone that he was leaving. When he returned onSunday afternoon, his commanding officer accused him of desertion.Shaya replied, “I’m here. Besides,” and at this point he steppedclose to the officer and repeatedly tapped the man’s chest with hisindex finger, “if you hadn’t seen your wife and children in threemonths, and you were this close, what would you have done?” Thematter was dropped.

Shaya was released from Munkaszolgálat whena lookout tower, like the ones he’d climbed more than 20 yearsbefore, but now rotted from years of neglect, collapsed under him. Hebroke his right shoulder and several ribs and never quite recoveredfrom his injuries.

When my brother and I were about 16 years old, mymother told us one day that she was our father’s second wife, thathe’d lost his first wife and their three young children in theHolocaust.

This almost unbelievable news suddenly explainedthe sadness I’d always sensed in my father but whose cause I’d neverknown. It seemed to explain why he kept to himself so much, why herarely joined my mother and brother and me on family outings to parksor beaches, saying that he needed time to study for the next week’sTorah reading. We all knew that was not true. He could almost recitethe readings by heart after so many years of study and repetition. Hedidn’t need to rehearse every Sunday afternoon, all afternoon.

The truth was, he wanted to be alone. It sometimesseemed to me that he wanted to be alone so much that he was not apart of our family. Twenty years after their murder, my father wasstill in mourning for his first family.

His frequent stories of Joe Louis now took onextra meaning for me. Over the years, I began to see why Joe Louis’victory over Max Schmeling held such mythic power for myfather.

Sixty years ago, on June 22, 1938, when Louisknocked out Schmeling, my father was living in Kunhegyes, a smalltown 125 kilometers east of Budapest. He served as rabbi, cantor andschoolteacher for the Jewish families living in that community.Although he was happy in his life in Kunhegyes, he was well aware ofthe gathering horror of Hitler. After Kristallnacht, in 1938, myfather had visible proof that Hitler’s insane rantings could inspirevery real violence and horror. In 1939, that horror and violencepounded on his door. When war broke out, like his father, Shaya, hewas ordered into the Munkaszolgálat. He spent much of the restof the war in work camps in Poland.

When he returned home to Kunhegyes in late 1944,my father discovered that he had lost everything to the Nazis.

While he was away in the Munkaszolgálat,much of his family was taken to Auschwitz in cattle trains. There, inaddition to countless more distant relatives, he lost his father,Shaya; his mother, Rose; his only brother; three sisters; twonephews; and, perhaps most excruciating of all, his wife, two sonsand daughter.

To this day, my father believes that Shaya, had henot been recovering from the fall from the lookout tower, would havenever been taken alive to Auschwitz. He is certain that Shaya wouldhave taken to the grave with him a number of the hated Hungarianstate police who rounded up Jews to transport to the camps.

My own fantasies are slightly different but evenmore unrealistic. I dream that Shaya might have been able to save thewhole family.

Joe Louis was an exce
ptional man, worthy of myfather’s admiration. However, my father did not look up to him onlyfor his athletic feats. He revered him because Joe Louis didsomething my father had not been able to do.

Joe Louis beat the Nazis.

In all his stories, my father never mentioned thatthe Joe Louis fight of 1938 was a return match, that Max Schmelinghad defeated Joe Louis two years previously. I was more than 30 yearsold when I read that in a biography of Louis. When I told my father,he hadn’t known. In that same biography, I read that Joe Louis andMax Schmeling were, in fact, not blood enemies, that, in later years,the men were friends. That, I never told my father. I didn’t thinkhe’d want to know.

Sandor Slomovits is free-lance writer whoresides in Ann Arbor, Mich.