Seeking Holocaust reconciliation in Lithuania, from Los Angeles


The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, occupies a stately stone building on a large, forested park in the city’s center. It is notably not a Holocaust museum. To find the Holocaust Exposition, look for a small, clapboard wooden building on a narrow side street.

Instead, the museum commemorates atrocities more often spoken of in Lithuania: the lethal brutality of the Soviet regime against citizens of the Baltic country, with Lithuanians as victims rather than perpetrators.

Half a world away, Grant Gochin, a wealth manager in Woodland Hills, has spent the better part of a quarter-century trying to bring about greater recognition for the genocide carried out largely by ethnic Lithuanians against their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust.

On Aug. 26, he filed a legal action in Vilnius petitioning the city’s mayor, Remigijus Simasius, to order the removal of a monument to a man who ordered the murder of Gochin’s relatives.

“I can’t fix the whole world,” Gochin said. “But I can choose my battles, and this guy murdered my family, so I choose him.”

The country of his grandfather’s birth may be far away, but it’s never far from Gochin’s mind. He would be a lot wealthier, he said, if he spent less time advocating for Litvak (Lithuanian-Jewish) causes. He operates a blog largely dedicated to Litvak history, and he has argued a lawsuit up to the Lithuanian Supreme Court, advocating for citizenship rights for Jews who fled Nazi persecution, which he won.

For a while, Gochin tried to convince the Vilnius government on ideological grounds to remove the plaque outside the Wroblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences commemorating Jonas Noreika, a wartime commander of the Siauliai region for the Nazi-collaborating Lithuanian Activist Front. When that effort failed, he resorted to technical grounds: His research uncovered that the plaque had been put up without official government permits.

By filing a motion in court, he hopes to force a choice by the city’s administration. “They can either make a public statement that they choose murderers as national heroes, or they can set the record right and select better heroes,” he said.

The monument seems to date to a chaotic period during the late 1980s when the Soviet Union began to collapse, leading, in 1991, to Lithuania’s becoming an independent nation.

Darius Gaidys, consul general of Lithuania in Los Angeles, is old enough to remember those years well. At the time, he was a law student at Vilnius University. The toppling of the Soviet Union resulted in what Gaidys called “a flood of information” as the repression of the Soviet years eased.

“Growing up during Soviet times, it was taboo to talk about the Holocaust,” Gaidys told the Journal during an interview in his Westwood office. “It was not mentioned.”

Prior to independence, monuments erected at the sites of mass murder tended to commemorate the killing of “Soviet citizens” without making specific reference to Jews, he said.

After gaining independence, Lithuanians were more apt to remember Soviet atrocities than Nazi ones. Gaidys said that nearly every family in Lithuania has a relative who was deported to Siberia during the Stalin era to languish in a Soviet gulag. Many never came home. It made sense, then, to adopt as national heroes the men and women who fought against Soviet rule, regardless of the more ominous elements of their biographies.

“If you’re a nation that’s been oppressed for a long time and then you win independence, then instantly you’re looking for your new heroes,” Vilnius City Councilmember Mark Adam Harold said in an interview via Skype.

Harold, who is British, moved to Lithuania 12 years ago and won election to the council in April 2015; he is among Gochin’s allies in the fight to commemorate Jewish martyrs and force Lithuanians to terms with their country’s complicity in the Holocaust.

Harold expressed some sympathy for post-independence Lithuanians who chose to commemorate people they saw as freedom fighters. However, he said, “You fast-forward to post-European Union times, and it starts to look very inappropriate to have a commemoration to a person who, although he fought the Russians, basically also sent Jews to their deaths.”

On Aug. 22, 1941, Noreika ordered local authorities to transport all Jews in the Siauliai region to the town of Zagare, on the modern-day border with Latvia, according to the Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania, a Vilnius-based effort to document mass murders in Lithuania. Included in that number were members of Gochin’s family from the town of Papile. Less than two months after Noreika signed the order to ghettoize the Jews, they were summarily shot.

Grant Gochin

Today, the plaque to Noreika exists in a legal and political gray area, Harold said.

Aleksandras Zubriakovas, an advisor to the mayor, said the decision to remove the monument is not up to the city.

“This building is not operated by Vilnius city municipality, so the library is free to decide what [to] do with the sign,” he wrote in an email. “No instructions are needed from the city.”

Ruta Matoniene, the city’s deputy director of urban development, said no records are available as to the plaque’s origins.

“The City of Vilnius cannot identify when this plaque was erected and by whom,” she told the Journal via email.

The library’s director, Sigitas Narbutas, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Gochin recognizes that removing one plaque won’t immediately awaken Lithuanians to the realities of the Holocaust. But cumulatively, he feels, his efforts to attain wider recognition for the Jewish genocide are bearing fruit.

“We’re actually at a tipping point with Lithuania, where we will bring them to that recognition and reconciliation,” Gochin said. “And that’s taken 25 years.”

The shift is largely the result of Jewish activists in the Diaspora like Gochin, along with their partners in Lithuania, where many of them receive death threats or face being ostracized for their work, he said.

“They’re coming to a positive place, because for the last 25 years there have been people of goodwill that are fighting them tooth and nail and dragging them to a positive place.”

There are now signs of a thaw.

Last month, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite addressed a crowd of hundreds gathered in the town of Moletai to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 1941 massacre of 2,000 Jews there. The same week, remembrance marches took place across the country, marking a particularly bloody week in Holocaust history.

In February, Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, published a book he co-wrote with well-known Lithuanian novelist Ruta Vanagaite called “Musiskiai” (“Our People”), relating oral histories of mass murders perpetrated by Lithuanians against Jews.

Gaidys, the Lithuanian diplomat, said the book lays out for the first time “in plain and open words” for a mass audience the part ethnic Lithuanians played in the genocide. When he visited Lithuania in July, he couldn’t find a copy; the book was sold out.

Meanwhile, Lithuania’s government has promised to release a list it has compiled of 1,000 suspected Nazi collaborators.

But recognition is still a work in progress.

There are still those who balk at a rethinking of their national heroes. When Harold went before the Vilnius city commission on monuments and street names to petition them to rechristen a boulevard currently named for Kazys Skirpa, a pro-Nazi propagandist, he was met with stark resistance from some members.

“The answer from the most aggressive commission member was, ‘You think we need to reassess everything?’ ” he said. “And my answer was, ‘Yes. Yes we do, every day. It should be constantly reassessed.’ ”

Harold’s crusades have won him few friends in the Vilnius government, and some enemies. Many can’t understand why he would fight on behalf of Jews if he is not himself Jewish. And he has fended off four attempts by the council to impeach him — though not necessarily because of his pro-Jewish efforts (he’s also a vocal defender of LGBT rights).

“I just annoy them, I guess,” he said of his council colleagues.

As a member of Lithuania’s foreign service, Gaidys has no official position on commemorations of Noreika or other so-called “resistance fighters” with Jewish blood on their hands.

However, he said, speaking “as a private person, we should not have heroes who committed atrocities. They are not heroes.”

Amid complicity debate, Polish clergy to attend 70th anniversary of post-Holocaust pogrom


Polish clergy and researchers will hold a seminar in Kielce about a historically significant pogrom in which locals killed Holocaust survivors in that city 70 years ago.

Occurring amid an acrimonious debate in Poland on local complicity in the Holocaust and the attention it merits, the conference planned for July in Kielce, 110 miles south of Warsaw, aims to promote “the spiritual concept of forgiveness” in relation to the 1946 murder of 42 Jews, Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, told JTA on Wednesday.

Titled “Memory, Dialogue, Reconciliation,” the seminar is being organized on the pogrom’s anniversary by Bogdan Bialek, a writer and political activist who is also president of the Jan Karski Society — an anti-racism group named after an officer of the Polish underground who risked his life to provide the Allies with evidence of the Nazi genocide.

Taking place shortly after the genocide in Poland, the pogrom spurred a wave of emigration by survivors of the Holocaust who felt unsafe even after it ended, Schudrich said. Far from an isolated incident, it is the most famous pogrom in a series of attacks that left 1,500 to 2,000 Jews dead after the Holocaust had ended.

Kielce, Schudrich added, “remains a sensitive and painful subject in Poland.”

In recent months, Poland’s center-right government has faced international criticism for statements and actions by officials that are seen as unfavorable to open discussions about the complicity of some Poles in the killing of Jews. At the same time, officials have pushed through commemorations of Poles who saved Jews from the Holocaust in a manner deemed by some critics as excessive.

Jan Gross, a Polish-American professor from Princeton University, was recently questioned by prosecutors on suspicion of violating Poland’s law against “insulting the Polish nation” because he said that more Jews than Germans died at the hands of Poles during World War II. The probe followed public petitions demanding action against Gross.

In February, the office of the president of Poland ordered an examination of the possibility of withdrawing a state honor given to Gross, who wrote a landmark book on another pogrom by Poles against Jews in Jedwabne in 1941.

Among the participants expected at the Kielce seminar is former Prime Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz and Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, a former state secretary who also served as the Polish consul general in New York.

Schudrich said he hoped the event would “encourage those who need to seek forgiveness for their actions to do so” but added that, for him, “the event in Kielce is not about identifying the guilty but grieving together for the dead.”

The event is necessary to bridge gaps in how Jews and non-Jews relate to the Kielce pogrom, Schudrich said.

“The Jewish view is of indignation over the murder of Holocaust victims. But the discussion in Polish society is more about who actually perpetrated the killings: communists, anti-communists, etc.,” he added. “I can understand that, but now is a time to look at the victims.”

U.S. pressing Israel, Turkey to reconcile


The Obama administration is pressing Israel and Turkey to renew reconciliation talks.

Turkey suspended the talks and downgraded its ties with Israel last week after a U.N. report partially vindicated Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-backed aid flotilla heading for Gaza. Turkey, anticipating Israel’s partial vindication, had been seeking an apology from Israel before the report was released for the deaths of nine Turks in the ensuing melee.

In addition to cutting off defense cooperation and trade, the Turkish government is now threatening sanctions against Israel.

“We have, over many months, tried to work with our ally Turkey and our ally Israel to strengthen and improve their bilateral relationship,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. “We still believe that getting back to a good partnership between them is in each of their interests, and we will continue to work for that goal with both of them. But we are concerned about the state of the relationship today.”

Nuland said U.S. representations have been made by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a recent Paris meeting with her Turkish counterpart, and by top peace brokers Dennis Ross and David Hale in meetings this week with Israeli leaders.

Ziman and Lee hold hands, pledge friendship


A highly charged controversy between two self-described “passionate” advocates, one African American, the other Jewish, appears to have ended on Thursday (May 1), with pledges of mutual friendship and future cooperation.

Following a closed-door, three hour meeting the two principals in the case, joined by national and local leaders, declared an end to a confrontation that had grown from a local incident to a widely reported national and international story, fueled by barrages of e-mails and blogs.

The initial spark was ignited April 4, when Daphna Ziman, the Israel-born wife of wealthy real estate investor Richard Ziman (she serves as his partner in numerous political and philanthropic causes), was honored by a historically-black fraternity for her work with foster children.

The keynote speaker was the Rev. Eric P. Lee, president and CEO of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Ziman alleged that during Lee’s talk he accused Hollywood Jews of exploiting black artists and perpetuating black stereotypes in films and that he rejected any future collaboration with the Jewish community.

Ziman left the dinner in tears and immediately sent e-mails to some friends and to The Journal. The reaction was more than she had expected.

“I just sent out eight e-mails,” she said, “and next morning I had millions of responses.”

The number may be slightly exaggerated, but it was obvious that her charges hit a deep nerve in some segments of the Jewish community. A declaration by Lee strongly denying the statements attributed to him did nothing to slow the story’s spread to national and international media, pundits and bloggers.

Since Ziman also made allusions in her e-mails to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, and has given considerable support to rival candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, politics inevitably inflamed the incident and added to its intensity and news value.

Concerned by the growing acrimony, Esther Renzer, international president of the StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy organization headquartered in Los Angeles, phoned a friend, Rabbi Marc Schneier, for help.

Schneier, a New York Orthodox rabbi, is founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which aims for better black-Jewish, and now Muslim-Jewish, understanding.

He, in turn, contacted Charles Steele Jr. of Atlanta, SCLC’s national president and CEO, and both flew to Los Angeles this week for the hoped-for reconciliation meeting.

Joining them at a roundtable in Ziman’s Beverly Hills home were Ziman, Lee and Renzer, as well as Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League; Rabbi Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am; and Roz Rothstein, international director and CEO of StandWithUs.

Following their three-hour private lunch and discussion, the eight participants spent another two hours talking to three reporters.

Judging by the determinedly upbeat comments of the participants, their private deliberations had touches of a peace summit, a revival meeting and an exploration of past, present and future relations between the African American and Jewish communities.

Ziman and Lee, sitting side by side and occasionally linking hands, were a picture of amity and good will, with both crediting their reconciliation to “divine intervention.”

Ziman noted that in the past three weeks she had moved “from shedding tears to a sense of hope” and stressed that those present had a responsibility not to damage future generations through prejudice.

“I request the pledge of every religious leader in the United States that no racism be spouted in public places and places of worship,” she said.

Lee described Ziman and himself as “two passionate and well-intentioned people who both love God.”

Participants frequently invoked the name and example of Martin Luther King Jr. and noted that their meeting was taking place on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

Schneier sought to put the meeting into the larger context of black-Jewish relations over the decades, from the halcyon days of the civil rights struggle, to the acrimony of the early 1990s and the Crown Heights riots, to a certain healing process in recent years.

“Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t have called on the leader of the SCLC to join me because there were no communications between African Americans and Jews,” he said.

According to Schneier, enlightened black leadership “skipped one generation,” between King and the current evolving leadership, with the generation in between including such divisive figure as Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor.

Schneier expressed hope that “Obama can right Wright.”

Participants in the “peace summit” said there had been no advance assurance that a reconciliation would be achieved, but did not make clear by what process the parties had been finally brought together.

In pledging their future cooperation, Lee noted that he has invited Ziman to address his congregation, while she mentioned possible cooperative projects between a Jewish day school, such as the Milken Community High School, and a predominantly black inner city school.

Lee and Ziman, asked separately whether they regretted any of the words and actions that led to the confrontation, responded in different ways.

Lee observed that though he has held Passover seders at his congregation for the past 10 years, “I have learned a lot during the past three weeks, which have been the most difficult of my life.”

Ziman explained that she had “acted instinctively” when confronted with perceived anti-Semitic slurs, but did not regret her subsequent actions.


Bigotry is instinctive, a new scientifc study says


Ex-JDL member urges faith without fanaticism


Brad Hirschfield was a member of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), the militant organization bent on fighting anti-Semitism. He spent time with JDL leader Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Israeli political party was banned for racism and who was assassinated in 1990. By the time Hirschfield was 18 and studying at yeshiva in Israel, he was entrenched with the Gush Emunim in Hebron — Israelis intent on establishing settlements in the midst of the Palestinian population. There, Hirschfield found the passion and Zionist commitment he’d craved during his childhood in Chicago, where he became Orthodox on his own, despite his Conservative Jewish family.

But after a few years, when some settlers killed Palestinian children in retaliation for violence, it all fell apart.

“I was stunned by their deaths,” he wrote more than two decades later in his memoir, “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism” (Harmony Books, Random House, 2007). “When I sought the advice of one of their settlement leaders, he said, ‘Yes, this is a problem, but it is not a fundamental problem.’ That was when I knew something horrible had happened.

Staying in Hebron was destroying the very things that brought us there: the desire to take back power and walk the land our ancestors had. These are good things. But even the best things have limits. A lesson that I learned in Hebron was that the best things can become the most seductive — and deadly.”

The book is not called “Confessions of a Former Fanatic,” although that is what one publisher wanted — a memoir about leaving the extremist life. But that notion did not appeal to Hirschfield, who is now a rabbi and president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The book is not a confessional tell-all — his life as an extremist and the fallout from that is discussed in snippets, as asides. In fact, it was a different extreme event that made him decide to write the book: Sept. 11.

“After 9/11 I felt that I wanted to explain the religious impulse at its most extreme, to dig into the anatomy of fanaticism, really to probe the destructive tendencies that are part of all religions,” he wrote. “After years of simply avoiding any real examination of that part of my life, it was time to come clean and share my journey into and out of fierce faith precisely because, unlike most people who make that journey, it had left me still in love with what I left behind.”

Which is why Hirschfield’s not looking to fan the flames of extremism, hate and finger-pointing. He’s looking to bring the heat down a notch, with a prescription for how people on all sides of every argument can learn to hear each other out: “That is finally what I want this book to be: a guide to our common humanity and a source of strength and stamina and hope.”

“Look, there is a way to be passionate and proud of who you are and still embrace who others may be, even when it disagrees with who they are: that’s what this is about,” Hirschfield said in an interview from The Jewish Federation headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, where he was about to give a lecture on the subject to different agency workers.

Federation members are also guilty of the them-and-us syndrome, he said, regarding people as insiders and outsiders.

“We spend money on studying ‘Are they coming in’ and not, ‘What do they need?'” Outsiders, he said, “don’t understand that without the institutions there is no community.”

But his book is not about addressing problems in institutional Jewish life — or Jewish life specifically. Belief.net has listed the book on its Christian site, and Hirschfield gives talks to Christian groups as well. It’s not even just about religion.

“This is about liberals and Conservatives and Republicans and Democrats,” he said, adding that tt’s about relationships of all sorts, from marital relations to global politics.

“The real issue is not to get everyone to agree, but how do you treat people with whom you don’t agree?” he said. “That is the test of a great society. You’re not Jewish because Christians are stupid, you don’t go to your shul because God doesn’t hear everyone else’s prayers. It’s a terrible way to think. That is simply cover for not being happy where you are,” he said. “Whatever person or ideology one really opposes — I understand that they’re not all equal — but even if you give me the worst one, there’s no way to teach someone what you most believe if you don’t learn from what they most believe.”

But aren’t the very people who need to ascribe to this approach the very fanatics who are probably not going to?

No such thing, Hirschfield says; everyone can learn tolerance and respect. “People pick their lines,” he said. “Traditionalists wrap it up in God’s will but liberals wrap it up in decency.”

For example, while Reform and Conservative Jews accept gay marriage, “Try and be a person who is opposed to gay ordination — that’s not so easy,” he said. Or on the subject of God, “the assertion that God is nonexistent is about as absurd as someone who says, ‘Of course God exists, and I can say what he wants.'”

Hirschfield is trying to do for religion what mediation has done for conflict resolution: instead of pitting the sides against each other with lawyers in a court of law, draining the resources of both sides until someone “wins” (where both parties really may lose), mediators find common ground between two sides and get them to come to agreement.

Easier said than done. How would one go about doing this?

John Paul II and the Jews


For 20 centuries, the Catholic Church has had a turbulent relationship with the Jewish people. Jews were persecuted and held responsible for the death of Jesus, and were often the victims of church-instigated pogroms and anti-Semitic attacks.

With the passing of Pope John Paul II, we have lost the strongest advocate for reconciliation with the Jewish people in the history of the Vatican. This pope was determined to embark on a new course and leave that shameful period behind. From the very beginning of his papacy, when he first visited his native Poland, there were hints that this pope was going to break with tradition and not follow the centuries-old script, with respect to the Jews.

On his 1979 visit to Auschwitz, when he approached the inscriptions bearing the names of the countries whose citizens had been murdered there, he said: “I kneel before all the inscriptions bearing the memory of the victims in their languages…. In particular, I pause … before the inscription in Hebrew. This inscription awakens the memory of the people whose sons and daughters were intended for total extermination…. It is not permissible for anyone to pass by this inscription with indifference…. “

The first time I met the pope was in 1983, when I led a Wiesenthal Center mission to Eastern Europe. There, at a private audience at the Vatican, I expressed my concerns about anti-Semitism and said, “We come here today hoping to hear from you, the beloved spiritual leader of 700 million Christians, a clear and unequivocal message to all that this scourge in all its manifestations violates the basic creed to which all men of faith must aspire.”

Obviously, John Paul II understood that very well, but it is important to place in proper context the considerable obstacles that he had to overcome.

During the height of the Holocaust, when millions of Jews were being gassed, the Vatican found the time to write letters opposing the creation of a Jewish state. On May 4, 1943, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Magaloni informed the British government of the Vatican’s opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine. One day later, the Vatican was informed that of the 4 million Jews residing in pre-war Poland, only about 100,000 were still alive.

Six weeks later, on June 22, 1943, the Vatican’s apostolic delegate, Archbishop Cicognani, wrote to then U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, again detailing its opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine and warning him that Catholics the world over would be aroused, and saying, in part:

“It is true that at one time Palestine was inhabited by the Hebrew race, but there is no axiom in history to substantiate the necessity of a people returning to a country they left 19 centuries before…. If a Hebrew home is desired, it would not be too difficult to find a more fitting territory than Palestine.”

To imagine then that 62 years later a Polish Pope would have redefined Vatican thinking regarding the Jewish people is astounding.

Twenty years after our first meeting, on Dec. 3, 2003, together with a small delegation of center trustees, I returned to the Vatican for another private audience, this time to present the pope with the Wiesenthal Center’s highest honor, our Humanitarian Award. On that occasion, I recapped his remarkable accomplishments:

“As a youngster, you played goalie on the Jewish soccer team in Wadowice … in 1937, concerned about the safety of Ginka Beer, a Jewish student on her way to Palestine, you personally escorted her to the railroad station … in 1963, you were one of the major supporters of Nostra Aetate, the historic Vatican document which rejected the collective responsibility of the Jewish people for the crucifixion … in 1986, you were the first pope to ever visit a synagogue … the first to recognize the State of Israel … the first to issue a document that seeks forgiveness for members of the church for wrongdoing committed against the Jewish people throughout history and to apologize for Catholics who failed to help Jews during the Nazi period … the first to visit a concentration camp and to institute an official observance of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Vatican….”

I did not always agree with the pope, especially when he nominated Pius XII for sainthood or when he met with then Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. But one thing is clear: In the 2,000-year history of the papacy, no previous occupant of the throne of St. Peter has had such an interest in seeking reconciliation with the Jewish people.

With his passing, the world has lost a great moral leader and a righteous man, and the Jewish people have lost their staunchest advocate in the history of the church.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance.

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Another Chance


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With great sadness my friends decided to divorce in January 2001. They had given themselves one year into the new century to see if they could make it work, and it didn’t seem as if they could. Then, in 2002, they happily reconciled. When asked why, they say Sept. 11 brought them back together; it helped them refocus their priorities.

They bought a house they both love and they remodeled it together. Their tastes were suddenly so similar, and these days they could compromise so easily when necessary. Nothing was hard, not even when the contractors “needed a little more time,” not even when the previously undiscovered foundation crack swallowed the money intended for the new kitchen, not even when their new foster child made the quarters a little tighter than they’d anticipated.

Unexpected “set-backs,” the kind of thing that used to have them yelling at each other, suddenly seemed funny, led to changes in plans that led to whimsical changes in design. It’s a beautiful house — they love it. It’s a beautiful home — they love each other. They feel so grateful to be together again.

Perhaps you know my friends. Or are them. Perhaps you’ve experienced such a reprioritizing in your life. It doesn’t only come on the heels of tragedy or even of the unexpected, but it often does. It often takes something “big” to shake us up, to cause us to change. It doesn’t even always take so big a change; sometimes it just calls for a different lens, another focus, a new appreciation. Marcel Proust, author of “Remembrance of Things Past,” wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

A new lens, another focus, “new eyes,” a new appreciation are what happens in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, the estranged Israelites, God and Moses all reconcile, deciding to try again instead of giving up on one another. And it is in the ecstasy that comes with giving a relationship another chance that the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), the exquisite portable sanctuary with its ohel mo’ed (tent of meeting), is built in the wilderness.

Indeed, the description has inspired (and made jealous) generations of synagogue fundraisers, for Moses tells the Israelites that God wants gifts only from “the willing of heart” (Exodus 35:5), and soon the artisans and builders charged with the actual construction come to Moses, saying:

“The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that God has commanded to be done.”

Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!”

So the people stopped bringing: their efforts being more than enough for all the tasks to be done (Exodus 36:5-7).

Midrash tells us that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur, and the medieval commentator Rashi suggests that on the next day came the events of this Torah portion, when Moses began instructing them on the building of the Tabernacle. Just as we begin to build our sukkot — cleverly designed, cheerfully built, lovingly decorated by families working together — on the very evening Yom Kippur ends, so, too, in the wilderness did our ancestors (“all whose hearts are moved to do so” [Exodus 35:5]) begin their building of their protective shelter, the Mishkan (the dwelling place), on the day after Yom Kippur.

The lost faith of the Golden Calf, the anger of the broken tablets, the forgiveness in the new tablets, the heartfelt building of the Mishkan come to tell us that a post-traumatic moment is a time when fear can give way to relief, despair to hope, anger to forgiveness, hate to love. It’s been a difficult time in our world: terrorism, war, tsunamis, earthquakes, torrential rains, hurricanes, epidemics, diseases, abuses, deaths of world leaders, overthrown governments, elections, recalls, judicial decisions, constitutional amendments, and the list goes on. Whether as a couple, a family, a congregation, a community, a neighborhood, a city, a state, a nation, a holy land, a world — perhaps now would be a good time to “see with new eyes,” to look inside and find our “willing hearts.” Perhaps now would be a blessed time to begin (or continue) building a home together.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim.

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The Nation and The World


 

New Anti-Semitism Report

The U.S. State Department praised the work of European governments against anti-Semitism, but said law enforcement must do more to respond to anti-Semitic crimes. The State Department�(tm)s report addressing anti-Semitic incidents around the world – slated for release Wednesday and obtained in advance by JTA – comes after Congress passed a law last year mandating increased monitoring of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. The report says recent anti-Semitism has come from traditional anti-Jewish prejudice in Europe, along with anti-Israel sentiment “that crosses the line between objective criticism of Israeli policies and anti-Semitism.” It also cites anti-Jewish sentiment among Muslims in Europe, and spillover criticism of the United States and globalization.

Holocaust Lawyer Charged

A lawyer involved in the lawsuit against Swiss banks for Holocaust-era accounts was charged with misappropriating funds from two survivors. The Office of Attorney Ethics in New Jersey, the investigative arm of the New Jersey Supreme Court, charged last month that Ed Fagan, one of the lead attorneys in the case that resulted in a $1.25 billion settlement, transferred funds from the survivors�(tm) accounts to pay off debts. Fagan has yet to respond to the charges, which were first reported by the Black Star News.

Peruvian Community Gets Rabbi

An “emerging Jewish” community in Peru now has a rabbi and Jewish educator. The Jewish professionals serving the community in Trujillo are courtesy of the Israel-based Shavei Israel group. The community dates back to the mid-1960s, when several hundred Peruvian Catholics decided to live as Jews. Some 300 members of the community have already moved to Israel.

WJC Faces Informal Probe

New York�(tm)s attorney general has launched a preliminary inquiry into allegations that the World Jewish Congress (WJC) mishandled its finances. In a statement, the group said it promised to cooperate with the informal probe launched recently by Eliot Spitzer. Officials with the group have said issues of financial transparency, which have roiled the organization in recent months, will be laid to rest at a meeting next week in Brussels. At the meeting, Stephen Herbits is expected to be nominated to the post of secretary-general, and the organization�(tm)s president, Edgar Bronfman, is expected to be re-elected.

Abuse in Ethiopia?

A North American Jewish group was accused of abusing Ethiopian Jews waiting to immigrate to Israel. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, some people living and working in Ethiopia accused the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) of refusing to distribute food to the Falash Mura at the group�(tm)s Addis Ababa compound; of treating Ethiopians employed in a sewing facility like slave laborers; of threatening those who cry foul at their treatment; and of dispatching a thug to rough people up. NACOEJ denied the accusations, insisting the claims were born of a labor dispute between the organization and some school teachers that NACOEJ fired and who were refused permission to immigrate by Israel. NACOEJ�(tm)s executive director, Barbara Ribakove Gordon, told the Post that, as a result of some Ethiopian trouble-makers, the group had to shut down its school in Addis Ababa, which also served as its food-distribution hub, for three weeks, and that the group was unable to operate the program during that time. Some 300 Falash Mura Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity but who now have returned to Jewish practice immigrate to Israel each month, and thousands more are waiting.

Vatican: Don�(tm)t Return Survivor Kids

The Vatican instructed French churches that protected Jewish children during the Holocaust not to return the young Jews to their families at war�(tm)s end. According to a letter from Nov. 20, 1946, published this week in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the wartime pope, Pius XII, said that children who had been baptized while in the church�(tm)s guardianship should not be reunited with surviving members of their families, Ha�(tm)aretz reported. “The documents indicate that the Vatican completely ignored the Holocaust and murder of Jews,” Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, was quoted as saying in Ha�(tm)aretz. “There is a sticking to theological arguments as though this were an ordinary situation, when in practice these children were not entrusted to churches to convert to Christianity but to save them from murder.” The pope�(tm)s letter was sent to Angelo Roncalli the Vatican representative in Paris who later became Pope John XXIII who shortly thereafter told Israel�(tm)s then-chief rabbi that Roncalli�(tm)s authority could be used to return such children to their families.

Clerics Talk Reconciliation

Rabbis and imams opened a three-day peace conference in Brussels. Around 100 clerics attended the symposium, which began Monday under the auspices of Belgium�(tm)s King Albert II and the Hommes de Parole Foundation.

“For the first time, two religions that have been too often used as a pretext for war will be used to achieve peace,” the event�(tm)s Web site said. Rabbi Michael Melchior, a left-wing Israeli politician and Norway�(tm)s chief rabbi, said Jews had as much to learn from the conference as Muslims.

“There are religious leaders on both sides who incite to violence in the name of religion,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “And that must be stopped.” The attending imams came from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Sao Paulo Jews Face Missionaries

Brazil�(tm)s largest Jewish community published a guide to combat missionary activities. Supported by the U.S.-based organization Jews for Judaism, the Sao Paulo State Jewish Federation published an online guide on its Portuguese language Web site, www.fisesp.org.br, to teach Jews how to resist Jews for Jesus and other Christian missionaries. Some 60,000 Jews, one-half of Brazilian Jewry, live in Sao Paulo.

Farewell, Foie Gras

Israeli geese farmers were given three months to stop force-feeding their livestock, a step in making foie gras. On Monday, the Knesset�(tm)s Education and Culture Committee upheld a High Court of Justice ban, as of April 1, on the controversial practice of force-feeding geese. The decision was a triumph for animal-rights activists and a snub to the Agriculture Ministry, which had argued that a humane method of feeding could be devised.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

 

Familial Forgiveness


The syllabus for my USC general education class includes both Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and chapters 37-50 of Genesis — the Joseph story or “novella.” These two narratives share themes that commend themselves: forgiveness and reconciliation. Both Prospero and Joseph were set upon by their own brothers and narrowly escaped death. Both protagonists contributed to their victim role — Prospero through neglecting governance and Joseph by insensitive boasting. In the end, though, both forgive those who abused them — enabling their family circle to be repaired and the next generation blessed. Just as Prospero realizes that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,” so too does the instinct for reconciliation surge through Joseph.

Just barely, however. And it is in this week’s parasha where Joseph turns the corner. That turn allows him to be a brother and son while also being himself. In effect, that turn enabled us to become the Jewish people who went out of Egypt and returned to Israel. Such turning is not easy, then or now, within a family or within a people.

The stellar moment of Parashat Vayigash comes when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers: “I am Joseph. Does my father yet live?” (45:3). For me, Joseph’s trumpeting of his individual identity within a complex social situation echoes across the millennia: “It is I, Hamlet the Dane.” “Call me Ishmael.” “I am an invisible man.” We know from literature and our own lives how difficult it can be, not only to forgive those who wrong us, but to be both our parents’ child and our own self. American society keeps struggling to strike the right balance between self and other, healthy individualism and civic cohesion. We could do worse than Joseph as a model, precisely because such balancing does not come easy to him.

Upon reflection, it’s clear that being able to forgive requires the stretching of personal borders and the capacity to take a broad view. Ironically, only a secure person or people can manage such a stretch; only a firm hold on one’s own life thread permits that thread’s being woven into a larger tapestry. Through suffering, Joseph has sloughed off his egotism and gained a clear sense of God’s providence. So matured, he reassures his brothers with great sensitivity: “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” He does this while still realistically urging them to “not be quarrelsome on the way” back to their father Jacob (45: 4 and 24).

I will not assume that others have as much trouble as I being like the Joseph of Parashat Vayigash. For me, it has not been easy to get beyond familial and other breaches. The struggle continues to transcend resentment for past ills and discern the outlines of a divine plan. On the Jewish level, it can be hard to meet inner needs and participate in community. Hard also to hold together ahavat Yisrael — the special bond among Jews — with acknowledgment of where we have done wrong, forgiveness of the wrongs that have been done to us, and effort to repair the damage and move toward the wholeness that is peace.

All the levels of our lives are linked and require constant tuning. As individuals who belong to families, as American citizens who are members of both the Jewish people and the world order, we have to be able to forgive in order to go forward. From beginning to end, our sacred scripture, the Tanach, records disruption and repair in irregular sequence. Until the Messiah comes, the best we can do is strive toward the enlightenment and clear-sighted resolve displayed by our patriarch Jacob at the end of chapter 45: “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.”


Rabbi Susan Laemmle is dean of religious life at USC.

A Misstep on the Road to Reconciliation


Though the agreement signed by the Vatican and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) last week was aimed at strengthening Arab-Catholic ties, it will probably go down as having a greater influence on Catholic-Jewish ties.

Signed on the eve of Pope John Paul II’s trip to Israel next month, the agreement ratified the rights of Catholics and the Roman Catholic Church in Palestinian Authority territory. But its preamble contained a stinging and gratuitous attack on Israeli sovereignty over its capital of Jerusalem. Whatever else the document accomplished, it has reinforced negative Jewish stereotypes about Catholic attitudes toward Judaism and Israel.

I think that’s unfortunate, and not just because it is yet another blow struck against the unity of Jerusalem. It’s sad, because just when Jews should have been focusing on a historic trip of reconciliation between Jews and Catholics, we are forced again into a confrontational mode.

One of the greatest ironies of our time is that we have been living in an era of profound and historic changes in the way the Catholic Church thinks and acts about Judaism, Jews and Israel — but most Jews are barely aware of it.

The fact is, for the overwhelming majority of Jews not involved directly in community relations or interfaith-outreach work, the pope’s great work has been an untold story. That is an injustice that needs to be corrected.

A Revolution in Jewish-Catholic Relations

In the words of Pope John Paul’s biographer, George Weigel, the man who was born an ordinary Pole named Karol Wyojtyla has effected a “revolution in Jewish-Catholic relations.” Weigel’s lengthy biography of the pope, “Witness to Hope” (HarperCollins), devotes a fair amount of space to that revolution.

Despite the epic nature of the church’s turn-around on anti-Semitism, it has often been overshadowed by ongoing disputes , such as the Catholic presence on the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust and the disposition of Jewish material in the Vatican archives. Not to mention the church’s unwillingness to give up the vestiges of its old and thoroughly outdated policy of demanding that Jerusalem be internationalized.

But before the Vatican-PLO agreement sets off another round of arguments, it is worth noting just how far John Paul II has collectively taken us. Weigel writes that after his election as pope, John Paul “was acutely aware that a kairos — a special, providential moment — was at hand in the ancient entanglement of Jews and Christians.”

Having grown up in a town in Poland — Wadowice — with a large Jewish population that had relatively good relations with its Polish neighbors, and having Jewish friends, the young Wyojtyla, apparently, was an exception to the widely held Jewish belief (famously expressed by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir) that Poles “imbibed anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.”

He has proved that time and again during his papacy, which should also be remembered for its courageous role in the struggle against the Soviet empire. His statements denouncing anti-Semitism and two millennia of anti-Jewish hatred by Christians were remarkable in and of themselves.

Building on the work begun by his much-beloved predecessor, Pope John XXIII, John Paul dedicated himself to what he called the “reopening of an ancient conversation.” Moreover, in marked contrast to the history of the church’s interaction with Jews, his has been a call to dialogue in which both sides are treated as equals.

Overriding the Polish Clergy

Even in those situations in which Jewish sensibilities have been outraged by Catholics — such as the presence of the Carmelite Convent and crosses over Jewish graves at Auschwitz — a fair reading of the events shows that the pope has been a force for conciliation. It must be recognized that without the persistent urging of the pope, who overrode the sentiments of many in the clergy in his native Poland, the convent would probably still be there.

Similarly, without the strong support of the pontiff, the establishment of formal relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel in December 1993 is hard to imagine. Weigel writes that John Paul achieved this in spite of the fact that “the Vatican bureaucracy and the Middle Eastern Catholic hierarchy included men who had neither internalized the [Ecumenical] Council’s teaching on Judaism nor reconciled themselves to a sovereign Jewish state.”

The pope’s visit to Israel next month was supposed to have crowned this process of reconciliation to which he has devoted so much effort. Much good may still come of the visit, but the problem with the Vatican’s rapprochement with the Palestinians last week is more than symbolic.

Stuck in the 1940s

The Vatican-PLO agreement’s preamble on Jerusalem shows that the Vatican’s attitude on Israel’s ancient capital is still stuck in the rhetoric of the 1940s. The call for internationalizing the capital is as appalling as it is anachronistic.

And the document’s call for protecting the rights of all religions is as disingenuous as it is insulting — especially since, as Weigel writes, the pope is aware that, “unlike any other state in the Middle East,” Israel is a democratic society, and “the holy places under Israeli control were more open to pilgrims of all faiths” than they had ever been before. The fact is, the only way to ensure the rights of Christians and the safety of Christian holy places in Jerusalem is to ensure that Israel’s sovereignty over all of its ancient capital is left in place.

In some ways, an agreement between the PLO and the church was merely following the logic of the Oslo peace process. Since Israel has ceded virtual sovereignty over some areas to the Palestinian Authority, it is only natural that the church look to codify its rights and secure its property in those places, just as it has done elsewhere. The church is also probably reading some of the mixed signals the current Israeli government has been sending on whether it will eventually make concessions on Jerusalem.

It is also true that the church thinks of Christian populations under Arab rule as being at risk. Thus, rather than protest the increasingly poor position of the Christian Arab population in Palestinian territory, the Vatican cowardly chimes in with PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s talk about stopping the “Judaization” of Jerusalem.

But the bottom line here is that this embrace of the cause of ending Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem can only hurt the peace process and encourage violence as the Palestinians seek to raise the temperature in the city.

That would be a tragic conclusion to the pope’s brilliant career.


Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. He can be reached via e-mail at jtobin@jewishexponent.com.

Payback Time


You’ll never find “The Cadillac,” on any critic’slist of top 10 “Seinfeld” episodes, but I don’t care. “The Cadillac,”episode 124 in the Seinfeld oeuvre, IMHO (in my humble opinion, forthose who don’t use Internet shorthand), is the real thing, among theshow’s most authentically Jewish episodes, revealing theuncircumcised heart within a sitcom generally acknowledged to reflectonly callousness, narcissism and an urbane hipness in post-shtetlAmerica. And, in a small way, “The Cadillac” changed my life.

Here’s the plot of the show that ran February 8,1996 as a 60-minute “Seinfeld” special.

Morty and Helen Seinfeld have been worrying foryears about their son’s ability to earn a living as a stand-up comic.Morty, in particular, has suggested over time that Jerry enroll in abusiness internship program or go back to school. Anythingstable.

Now Jerry’s nightclub act really is making it big,and to prove it, he buys his folks a Cadillac. Immediately, the giftbackfires. The car, enormous, obvious, and an egregious symbol ofAmerican success, makes Morty and Helen a spectacle among the formershmatte salesmen and other luftmenschen of their Florida condoproject where Morty is president.

None of Morty and Helen’s neighbors believe thatJerry can afford to buy the car for his parents. Suspicions aboutMorty become so strong that he faces impeachment as condo president,and has to prove to his arch-rival Jack Klompus, that he himselfdidn’t embezzle the money to buy the car. After endless complexity,the Cadillac is returned.

Why did this show make such an impact that myfriends and I were laughing about it weeks later? Just the words “TheCadillac,” has become shorthand to us, indicating a host of familialjoys and tensions which until then had gone unarticulated.

Well, of course, it’s because we’re in “TheCadillac” stage of life too. For what are the 40s in the course of anadult life if not “payback time.” The time of the commandment tobring honor to thy father and thy mother; when we show them who weare. The 40s are the time when parent-and-child stuff finally getssorted out, and the gifts of kindness, generosity and considerationbegin to flow the other way.

But in a way it’s too late. As “The Cadillac”shows, reconciliation is not easy. Jerry’s parents have stoppedwaiting for their payback; Helen and Morty have moved on and nowaccept Jerry as the limited, sarcastic being he has become. TheCadillac means less to them than the respect of their peers.

Moreover, what does it mean to have a son who canafford to buy you a Cadillac? It’s a mixed blessing to be upstaged,diminished in your child’s eyes. For many older “Seinfeld” watchers,writer Larry David is merely updating the wisdom of Lao Tsu: Bewarewhat you wish for, you may get it.

But how ironic it is that only now, when itmatters less to his folks, does Jerry want to please them. Theparents who have eternally been the butt of jokes for their boringstolidity now seem paragons of loyalty and islands of admiration. Atshow’s end, Jerry is bewildered that he can’t persuade Helen andMorty to keep the car. He shrugs, as if to say: see, no good deedgoes unpunished.

For most of “Seinfeld’s” nine-year run, Jerry andhis buddy George (Jason Alexander) have slowly, painfully and withlimited success been working to see their parents as people, not asjudgmental tyrants. What’s striking is the strength of that need;these hardened cynics, who can drop girlfriends and best-friendsbecause they don’t like the way they answer the phone, still feel theumbilical chord strongly attached. In the midst of the “Seinfeld”universe, where people use, abuse and lie to each other without asecond’s guilt, it’s amazing to find an ongoing plot line concerningparents and adult children who try to turn things around.

Another of my favorite continuing story linesconcerns George’s parents (played by Jerry Stiller and EstelleHarris), who are having marital troubles.

GEORGE: Oh my God! You know what I just realized?!If they get divorced an’ live in two separate places? That’s twice asmany visits!

JERRY: I never thought of that.

GEORGE: Imagine if I had to see them both on thesame day? [mirthless] Haha! It’s like runnin’ the doublemarathon!

ELAINE: Hey George, did you have any idea thatanything was wrong?

JERRY: Have you ever spent any time with thesepeople..?

George and Jerry never actually stopped judgingtheir parents. But sometime during this show’s great run, it seems tome that I have.

So if I never buy my parents a “Cadillac,” I have”Seinfeld” to thank for that.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist at theJewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.com. Her5-session writing retreat”Writing and Reading for Heart and Soul”begins May 16 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

SEND EMAIL TO MARLENE ADLER MARKS
wmnsvoice@aol.com

May 1, 1998StillDead

 

May 1, 1998Israel: Reclaimingthe Feminine

 

April 10, 1998The ExodusThroughout the Years

 

April 3, 1998A Worrier’sDelight

 

March 27, 1998Clinton and theFeminists

 

March 20, 1998Shabbat, AmericanStyle

 

March 13, 1998The PublicMan

 

March 6, 1998Taster’sChoice

 

February 27, 1998 ALiberal Feminist Meets Modern Orthodoxy

 

February 20, 1998Spinning theWeb

 

February 13, 1998How Do We DoIt?

 

February 6, 1998One by One byOne

 

January 30, 1998TheDaughter

 

January 23, 1998Babysitters NoMore

 

January 16, 1998FalseAlarms

 

November 28, 1997As AmericanAs…

 

November 21, 1997The ThirteenWants

 

November 14, 1997Music to MyEars

 

November 7, 1997Four Takes on50

 

October 31, 1997ChallengingHernandez

 

October 24, 1997CommonGround

 

October 17, 1997Taking Off theMask

 

October 10, 1997Life’s a MixedBag

 

October 3, 1997And Now ForSomething Completely Different

 

September 26, 1997An OpenHeart

 

September 19, 1997My BronxTale

 

September 12, 1997 — Of Goddesses andSaints

 

August 22, 1997 — Who is Not a Jew

 

August 15, 1997 — A LegendaryFriendship

 

July 25, 1997 — A Perfect Orange

 

July 18, 1997 — News of Our Own

 

July 11, 1997 — Celluloid Heroes

 

July 4, 1997 — Meet theSeekowitzes

 

June 27, 1997 — The Facts of Life

 

June 20, 1997 — Reality Bites