Books: Kristallnacht’s memory revealed and recovered


Nov. 9, 2006 marks the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogroms throughout Germany and Austria, then incorporated into Germany, that set fire to the synagogues in towns and villages, pillaged Jewish shops, and led to the arrest and incarceration into concentration camps of 30,000 Jewish men aged 16-60.

Kristallnacht marked the end of Jewish life in Germany; a pivotal turning point in what later became known as the Holocaust. From that night onward, the situation of German Jewry went from bad to worse.

The youngest of the survivors of Kristallnacht, those who can actually recall the events give it texture and context, are now in their mid-70s. Soon, all too soon, the generation that lived through these events will be no longer and living memory will be replaced by historical memory.

A generation is passing, but it is a generation that has left behind voluminous records, testimonies and memoirs, video recordings and diaries, letters, notes – the raw stuff from which not only the historical record can be reconstructed but the personal narrative, the very lives that were lived and lost, can be recaptured, at least in part, at least for some.

Four books have recently been published that grapple with the Holocaust and recover lives that would otherwise be lost. Two are memoirs written by Holocaust survivors for whom English is not their native tongue and writing their learned obligation rather than their vocation. The other two are the work of descendants, professional writers who learned of the Holocaust by listening to those who were there and set out on their own journey to encounter the past and it.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” (Harper Collins: 2006) is a gripping story told so very beautifully. Mendelsohn’s grandparents left Europe and came to the United States in the great wave of immigration in the early 20th century. His grandfather was an Orthodox Jew who migrated to Miami, and Mendelsohn was raised on Long Island in a home where Jewishness was venerated but the attachment to tradition and Jewish learning were attenuated. A classics scholar by training, he is more at home in Greek civilization than with ancient Hebrews or contemporary Jews, and yet it is the memory of his grandfather’s brother and his family lost in the Shoah, the unspoken loss within his own family, transmitted only in the most fragmentary of memories, that propels him forth to seek his past and to uncover the family secret. He is haunted by the presence of absence and the absence of presence, and thus sets out on a journey that takes him to Australia and Israel, to Sweden and to Ukraine to Poland and elsewhere, all in search of six people from the small village of Bolechow who were murdered in 1941, 42 or 44 — two of whom were saved for a time and later betrayed. His siblings join him for part of the journey; his friends join him for other parts; and his family, present and absent, looms large in the narrative.

As he confronts his personal past, his search deepens, and he reads and rereads his journey through the legacy of his people as captured in the opening sections of Bereshit (Genesis), and bringing his manifest literary skills to his new study of Torah. The result is satisfying because his talent for storytelling is so evident. And sometimes as the novice, especially one so well trained in reading ancient literature, he brings new insights and a freshness to this very familiar material. His search for just these six people encapsulates the history of the Holocaust, the journey of survivors after the war to the lands of their resettlement and rebirth, and the passage of one Jew forth unto the past and unto himself.

Lech Lecha is the commandment given to Abram, the first demand of a demanding God. Translated “Go forth”, the words literally mean “go unto yourself.” Every journey outward is also a journey inward, as Mendelsohn — and we — soon discover.

His quest takes place just in time. He meets people who will soon be gone, who do not live to read of his discoveries, and he weaves together the distant recollections of dispersed and aging people into a tapestry that is rich and deep and by the end almost complete. He brings the reader along on his quest, making us relive his experience and piece together the fragments of information that he receives as he receives them. We experience his hopes and his disappointments as he experiences them, and we become ever more invested in this journey that soon may also become ours as well. His discoveries are miraculous — seeming coincidences that soon feel like destiny.

Mendelsohn’s begins with dim recollections. He must go forth on his own. In “Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story” (Free Press, 2006), Ann Kirschner begins with so much more. She possesses very rare documents; a series of letters written to Sala during her incarceration in seven Nazi slave labor camps by her family and friends, which she scrupulously guarded and saved. Because she was in slave camps and not concentration camps, Sala was able to save the letters. Kirschner only has the letters written to Sala; her responses were not preserved, but Kirschner’s commentary skillfully brings Sala’s story to life.

Meticulously researched and respectfully presented, she seldom intrudes and always illumines so that we come to appreciate Sala’s struggle, her family’s anguish, when she is taken off to camp and they are left behind, and when she volunteers to go instead of her more reserved, less-worldly sister. We learn more of Sala’s friends and their impossible circumstances. For historians, one of Sala’s friends is of particular importance: Ala Gertner, who worked with Moshe Merin, the controversial leader of the Sosnowiec area, who was later one of the four women hung at Auschwitz for smuggling gun powder to the Sonderkommand to facilitate the October 1944 uprising that destroyed a gas chamber at Birkenau. We see a mother-daughter relationship play out in discovery and admiration. Originally conceived as an exhibition for New York’s famed 42nd Street Library that soon resulted in a very satisfying book, “Sala’s Gift” is a singular work that extends our understanding of Jewish women and the manner in which they struggled for survival.

Zenon Neumark’s “Hiding in the Open: A Young Fugitive in Nazi-Occupied Poland” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2006), joins the many stories that have been told in recent years by younger survivors who used their youth as a weapon of survival and escaped living in the “Aryan” world while all that they knew — their families, their villages, their towns and their loved ones — were destroyed. The reader should know that I wrote the foreword to this book and assisted him in finding a publisher, but I have no financial interest in its success.

Jews in the Military: High Holidays Under Fire


Who shall live and who shall die.
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.

Ralph Goodman recited those words in a hillside tent in southeastern Belgium. Warren Zundell’s “shul” was a patch of no-man’s-land somewhere in North Korea. For Robert Cirkus, it was a jungle clearing in the bug-infested Central Highlands of Viet Nam. And for Lee Mish, it was Saddam Hussein’s former palace.

The four men have never met, but they share an uncommon bond. They represent four generations of Jewish servicemen for whom the High Holidays — and their signature Unetanah Tokef prayer — took on new meaning.

For all Jews, the words of the emotionally charged Unetanah Tokef are a powerful reminder of mortality. All the more so for Jews serving their country in wartime — such as Goodman, Zundell, Cirkus and Mish — where every day is Judgment Day and where prayer, righteousness and repentance can’t always avert a decree of death.

Here are the stories of these American servicemen who observed the High Holidays not in conventional synagogues, but on far-flung battlefields. The worship services they participated in were often improvised and incomplete. But the jarring juxtaposition of war and prayer, faith and fear, continues to resonate with these men.

A Tent on the Side of a Hill
A Tent on the Side of a Hill
Fays, Belgium
September 1944

“Colonel, the Jewish community wants to observe Yom Kippur. What can you do to help us?”

Ralph Goodman, attached to the 1st U.S. Army’s Headquarters Commandant in Belgium, was unable to celebrate Rosh Hashanah because his unit was traveling.

But Yom Kippur was fast approaching, and the 24-year-old enlistee from Pittsfield, Mass., was determined that the Jewish servicemen, now encamped at a temporary base near Verviers, Belgium, be given a place to pray.

He had already approached the 1st Army’s chief chaplain, who offered nothing except a few prayer books. But Goodman’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Harry F. Goslee, was more accommodating. He ordered a large blackout hospital tent set up on a hillside, with chairs and a portable electric generator.

On Yom Kippur, Sept. 27, 1944, about 25 soldiers and airmen congregated in that tent. Two Orthodox laymen acted as cantor and rabbi.

Goodman sat by the tent flap opening, his gun on his lap. He was juggling several different prayer books, trying to find the correct pages for Unetanah Tokef. He finally located the prayer and recited the words. But what he really was saying that day was, “Please, God, bring my buddies and me home.”

Suddenly he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up to see a chaplain he didn’t recognize, a fresh-faced, sandy-haired man about 30, who asked permission to address the troops.

“How lovely are your tents, Oh Jacob,” he began, intoning the words to a prayer Jews say each morning.

He talked about five minutes, thanking the men for allowing him to speak and commending them for assembling a service.

Goodman, who still lives in Pittsfield, thinks about that service often, proud that he and his buddies were able to make it happen. He wishes he could share another Yom Kippur with them.

But 62 years later, he still regrets that he never asked the name of that fresh-faced Christian chaplain who reached out to a group of Jews on the holiest day of their year.

“God bless that man,” he said.

Above the 38th Parallel, North KoreaAn All-Jewish Convoy
Above the 38th Parallel, North Korea
October 1951

Warren Zundell, an orthopedic surgeon with the 11th Evacuation Hospital in Wonju, South Korea, wasn’t eager to attend Rosh Hashanah services. It meant traveling 40 miles on an unpaved, mountainous road to 10th Army Corps headquarters, over the border into North Korea. Zundell, 27, had a baby daughter back in Fall River, Mass., whom he had never seen, and he didn’t want to risk encountering snipers or land mines.

But Zundell was the unit’s only Jewish officer, and the Catholic chaplain on his base was insistent that Zundell escort the convoy.

“There are about 30 Jewish boys around here who want to go,” said the priest, who planned to remain in Wonju at the hospital.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 30, 1951, in the priest’s jeep with a white cross painted on the hood, Zundell led the way. A few truckloads of Jewish soldiers, all heavily armed, followed. Perhaps the only all-Jewish convoy ever to travel into North Korea, they arrived safely several hours later at the camp, a war-scarred patch of ground that sported some tents and housed perhaps a few hundred soldiers.

The next morning, a rabbi conducted services in a large tent, with about 300 soldiers, many who had traveled there from other units, sitting on the ground or on boxes. There was no ark, no Torah and no prayer books, except for the rabbi’s.

“I just sat there and listened,” Zundell recalled. “I didn’t think about where I was.”

After services, he traveled back to Wonju with the same soldiers.

Even less enthusiastic about observing Yom Kippur, Zundell was again induced to return to the prayer site. On Yom Kippur day, the convoy again traveled above the 38th Parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. The scene was identical to what Zundell remembered from Rosh Hashanah, except, instead of 300 soldiers in the tent, there were now 150.

“Where are the other boys?” Zundell asked the servicemen sitting near him.
“Heavy casualties during the week,” one of them replied.

Zundell doesn’t remember his exact reaction; he imagines the service was pretty sad. Afterward they loaded up the trucks and headed home.

Since then, every Rosh Hashanah, the Coral Gables, Fla., resident sits in temple and remembers Korea.

“It never leaves my mind,” he said. “I think about those boys who didn’t make it back for Yom Kippur.”

Central Highlands, Vietnam

A Jungle Clearing
Central Highlands, Vietnam
September 1966

While stationed in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry, Army Spc. 4 Robert Cirkus often didn’t know what day it was. But somehow the 21-year-old draftee from Passaic, N.J., knew the High Holidays were coming. And he knew he wanted to attend services.

A rabbi was dispatched to the forward base camp in the Central Highlands where Cirkus was working as a weapons repairman. Around noon on Rosh Hashanah day, Sept. 15, 1966, Cirkus, three infantrymen and a medic, all strangers to one another, gathered together in a cleared-out jungle area.

The rabbi set up a small ark on a bench in the back of his open Jeep. Inside was a traveling Torah. Cirkus and the others sat on the ground in the hot sun, the air muggy and bug-infested. He wore a tallit over his uniform, holding his submachine gun and his prayer book on his lap.

Cirkus, who now lives in Clifton, N.J., remembers that the service was truncated and that he and the others were not really at ease. They were praying, but they were also alert to every sound, especially gunshots off in the jungle. He knows he wasn’t thinking about life and death. Or about Judgment Day. He didn’t want to think about what was really going on.

Afterward, the rabbi handed out cans of tuna fish, bread, wine and kosher C rations.

“We sat, we chitchatted and we went our separate ways,” he said. “But we knew we were all Jews.”

Until 10 years ago, Cirkus was too traumatized to discuss his Vietnam experience at all. Even now, he can’t talk about all of it. But he’s able to look back on that Rosh Hashanah in the Central Highlands, where, for a short time, five Jews who didn’t know each other sat around together with a rabbi praying.

“I don’t want to say it like it’s jerky, but you felt like you were being watched by God,” he said.

Saddam's Palace

Saddam’s Palace
Tikrit, Iraq
September 2004

September 2004 was a tense time in Tikrit, Iraq, where Special Agent Lee Mish was stationed. Roads were impassable, bridges were blown up and food and water were rationed. Plus, with flights grounded, the rabbi assigned to Tikrit couldn’t leave Baghdad.

Despite these obstacles, erev Rosh Hashanah services were held on Sept. 15. And Mish, 27, a Conservative Jew from Sharon, Mass., who enlisted in the Army nine years ago, walked to Saddam Hussein’s former palace, now under control of the U.S. military.

There, in a large room with marble floors and ceilings and a gold chandelier, a room once used by Saddam’s servants, Mish encountered three other Jews. They included a captain who served as the Jewish lay leader, a sergeant and a civilian contractor.

Wearing kippot, the uniformed men sat around a card table on folding chairs, their guns by their sides. For about 20 minutes, they read from prayer books sent by Hebrew school students in Wisconsin. Mish doesn’t remember the specifics, but he recalls saying prayers for all the soldiers and being aware of Rosh Hashanah’s message of mortality.

“When you’re in a situation where your friends are dying, where people all around you are dying, any time you pray, it hits home more,” he said.

Afterward they shared a bottle of wine and ate some “normal food,” including bagels with jelly. They also read Rosh Hashanah cards that the students had decorated with honey pots and apples and inscribed with messages such as “Be safe” and “Hope you come back soon.” Inside the holiday cards, the students had placed prepaid phone cards.

Despite its informality, that service resonated with Mish, now stationed in Wurzburg, Germany. Rosh Hashanah had always been important to him, a way of confirming his Jewishness. But being in Iraq had given him more time to reflect on death and destruction, and he was feeling more religious while stationed there. Also, he had recently learned from his Iraqi translator, who was born and raised in Mosul, Iraq, that during Saddam’s reign, the Jews in that area were barred from observing holidays in public and were forced to celebrate secretly in their homes. That day, however, Jewish soldiers were praying openly in Saddam’s palace.

“I felt honored,” Mish said.

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino.

To learn more about today’s Jews in uniform, visit Jews In Green, the”ultimate resource for Jewish service members.”

Saddam Hussein’s palaces have also been the site of Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Pesach and other Jewish celebrations, as this Jewish Journal story from 2004 relates.

Needed: Rational Discussion


When David Lauter, the deputy foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, began speaking to a crowd of about 400 at a Women’s Alliance for Israel program last
week, it was clear that most of the audience was out for his scalp, and not even the yarmulke he was wearing could save him.

Lauter was on a panel discussing news coverage of Israel’s battle against Hezbollah. I was also on the panel, seated next to Lauter, who is a friend and was a longtime colleague when I worked at the Times.

He is a highly intelligent, soft-spoken, logical man who thinks before he speaks. He is also an observant Jew.

That meant nothing to this crowd. Neither did his intelligence and logic. They booed when he tried to explain his paper’s coverage. When they weren’t booing, they talked among themselves, paying no attention to Lauter. To this bunch, the world outside their own community was a vast and hostile conspiracy against them and against Israel.

I’ve spoken to many groups all over Los Angeles during extremely volatile times. I’ve never seen such rudeness, narrow mindedness and just plain boorishness.

Nothing Lauter said warranted such a response. He told how the coverage began, with him and the foreign editor, Marjorie Miller, organizing the Times foreign correspondents the day the conflict began.

The regulars needed help. A couple of the correspondents were already arranging their transportation to Israel. Miller and Lauter dispatched more to deal with the unexpected story.

This crowd wasn’t interested in these details. Nor did they want to know of the courage of these correspondents, who willingly head into danger — and stay there. This crowd probably had no idea of how many correspondents have been killed in Iraq. These deaths are a clear warning that the same thing could happen to some of the reporters in Lebanon or Israel.

The questions were unrelentingly hostile. They weren’t questions, in fact. They were attacks. And when Lauter tried to answer them, there were more boos.
When he sat down, I told him that this bunch was out for blood. Later, he said felt there was a hard core of haters, “but I don’t think they were the majority.”

I don’t know about that. Hostility seemed to extend through the room, back to the far edges where my wife and cousin were seated.

And at the end of the program, Lauter announced to the crowd that he would stick around and answer more questions.

“Several people came up to me and said they appreciated my being there, but they said so quietly, not exposing themselves to the crowd,” Lauter told me later.
Not blessed with Lauter’s patience, I left angry and stayed mad all the next day.

In the first place, the Times’ coverage is excellent. It’s fair. The reporters and editors strive for balance in the writing and editing of stories and the placement of the stories and the powerful pictures.

This does not mean it is perfect. Putting out a daily paper is an imperfect business. Think about putting that thing together every day with deadlines. I did it for years, the last three as city editor of the Times. When I went home at night, I wondered how we did it. In the process, mistakes are made. Reporters get things wrong. Editors make bad choices. Journalists live — or should live — in constant awareness of their fallibility.

But the Women’s Alliance for Israel event illustrates a bigger issue that extends far beyond the reliability and honesty of the Times coverage: Why can’t we have a rational discussion of Israel and the war in Lebanon?

In my modest presentation — I thought it best to bore these people rather than anger them — I noted that never before in history was so much information available in so many forms of media.

In the morning, I read three papers called the Times — the Los Angeles, New York and Financial. When writing, I take breaks to read Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post and the DEBKA Report, all from Israel, plus take a look at the Guardian to check out the anti-Israel thoughts of the British left wing. All that, plus my lifelong support of Israel, shapes my opinions.

With this information overload, sometimes it is hard for me to make up my mind. Sometimes, I actually have to think.

I would have enjoyed a rational discussion of the media, in general, and the Times, specifically. I have talked to many anti-Times audiences. People hear me out, argue and exchange ideas. They concede a point. I concede a point. We all leave the room better informed.

This group did not want to be better informed. They preferred to get their information from e-mails circulated by like-minded friends, interest groups and, of course, by watching Fox. Any mention of this network, by the way, got a lot of applause.

But as this war continues, we’ve got to reach out and talk to people who don’t agree with us. If we won’t listen to fellow Jews, particularly those as well informed as Lauter, how can we convince anyone of the rightness of our cause?

Bill Boyarsky’s monthly column on Jews and civic life returns this week. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Rosenbergs’ Granddaughter Tackles Washington ‘Hill’


What do you do for an encore when your first work is a powerful, heart-wrenching documentary about the life of your notorious grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?

The Rosenbergs were executed for spying for the Soviet Union in June 1953. Their personal story was told 51 years later by their granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol, in the powerful 2004 documentary, “Heir to an Execution.”

Ivy Meeropol
Now the 36-year-old filmmaker has followed her ground-breaking and very personal film with a six-part cinema verite-style political series, “The Hill,” which begins airing on the Sundance Channel on Aug. 23. It gives viewers an unprecedented look into what goes on in the office of Florida Jewish Congressman Robert Wexler and the way in which his young staff dictate his actions.

At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Spa in Pasadena, Meeropol talked easily about her new film, in which she takes a “fly-on-the-wall” approach capturing the behind-the-scenes intrigue and intimacies of the office of the Democrat Wexler, who is a strong supporter of Israel.

Meeropol lives on the East Coast with her husband, Thomas, a production designer in films and commercials, and their 15-month-old son, Julian. She is the first to admit that it was the emotionally stirring documentary about her grandparents that was instrumental in persuading the congressman to allow her and her all-seeing cameras into his inner sanctum.

Meeropol said she discovered her love of politics after working in Washington as a legislative aide and speech writer for Democratic Rep. Harry Johnston, Wexler’s predecessor.

“It makes sense that I would want to do ‘The Hill.’ I was feeling some nostalgia for my time in Washington,” she said. “I loved working there. And I was always amazed that people really don’t know what goes on. They don’t know that it’s all these very young people who are advising members of Congress — for better or for worse — on how to vote. It’s a compelling story.”

Wexler and his team gave her the green light after viewing “Heir to an Execution.”

“They all felt I had dealt with the subject very sensitively and I wasn’t someone who would exploit things,” Meeropol said. “And they quickly forgot that I was in the room with a camera. Since I had worked in the same capacity as some of the people you see in the film, I was able not just to gain access but tell the story in a way that others wouldn’t be able to do.”

The first episode, set in November 2004, focuses on Wexler’s support for the Kerry-Edwards presidential ticket. He and his staff go to a Boca Raton temple — along with actor Mandy Patinkin — to try to sell a “why I trust John Kerry on Israel” message to voters. Wexler discusses attending an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference and refusing to deliver a soft speech. But all of his staff are utterly devastated when Kerry loses.

Wexler, his foreign policy adviser, Halie Soifer, and his staff come across loud and clear on their strong support of Israel, their opposition to Supreme Court nominee John Roberts and President Bush’s Iraq policy — although Wexler originally supported the war.

Meeropol, an open, friendly young woman talked enthusiastically about her new film series, as well as her pedigree. While she had come to Pasadena to talk about “The Hill,” the conversation inevitably turned to “Heir,” her critically acclaimed film that humanized but didn’t lionize the grandparents she never met.
That first documentary gave her career as a fledgling moviemaker a huge boost. It was the calling card the young filmmaker needed, but it came with some built-in insecurity.

“I was essentially elevated immediately to the status of successful filmmaker on my first one out of the gate, and I wondered if that had more to do with who I am — that kind of celebrity status that came with it — or was it a good film as I thought,” she said.

Though she didn’t start out life to be a documentary filmmaker, her future was almost dictated by her history.

“I had been grappling with the story of my family for years as a writer, trying to figure out what I would contribute that would really demonstrate what I would have to say about it,” she said.

The documentary idea evolved, she said, “in part because I realized there were people out there who knew my grandparents who weren’t going to be around much longer. I knew if I didn’t get these people’s stories, then they were going to be gone, and I’d never forgive myself. So that’s how it started.”

After her grandparents were arrested during the height of the Cold War, the ensuing scandal stunned and rocked Jews in America. Her father, Michael, was only 7 when his parents were arrested, and he and his 4-year-old brother, Robert, soon discovered that their relatives didn’t want to have anything to do with them. In 1957, the boys were legally adopted by Anne and Able Meeropol, who were not related to the family.

Growing up, Meeropol said, “We were quite cultural Jews, not religious, very secular. Passover was the only Jewish holiday we celebrated, because it was kind of cultural, historic. So we had seders. But I was never bat mitzvahed. Ironically, though, I’m very identified as a Jew because of the Rosenbergs. You can’t get rid of it. You’re Jewish royalty, even though my mother is a Lithuanian-Irish Catholic,” she said with a laugh.

The fly-on-the-wall approach to “The Hill,” she said was a direct result of the personal nature of her first film.

“I wanted to do something very different,” she said. “I wanted to do the political series as pure verite as possible.”

Meeropol now says she feels comfortable about revisiting other periods of her life.

“I worked as a nursing assistant at a nursing home because my other grandfather, Abel Meeropol [who died at 78 when she was a freshman at college], ended up in a home suffering from Alzheimer’s.

She visited him regularly and said she wanted to work in the home to make sure her grandfather was well cared for: “I had no idea what that really entailed. They were so desperate for nurses’ aides they hired me without any experience, and I was thrown right into that.”

Now Meeropol said she’s interested in making the nursing home experience the topic of her next film.

“I’d like to tell the story about life in a nursing home — focusing more on the people who work there,” she said. “It’s a very contemporary issue, and more and more people are going to have to deal with it. It’s a fascinating world — just like ‘The Hill.'” l

Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.

Guilt Judo


Rosh Hashanah dinner. My friend — like me, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors — settles into the seat next to his grandfather. The two exchange pleasantries. Then my friend mentions that he’s recently taken his toddler on her first choo-choo ride.

“Trains,” says the grandfather. He splays his hands on the tablecloth, and sighs. “I remember when they put us on a train. This was during the transport from the ghetto to the first work camp.”

The story of the grandfather’s wartime suffering — tragic, inexorable, hypnotic in its familiarity — spins out as the Rosh Hashanah meal is brought to the table, served, and consumed.

“But that’s history,” the grandfather intones at last, as the plates are gathered. “Life is for the young.”

A college buddy of mine — Jewish, though not a descendant of survivors — once observed that his family dynamics follow the rules of a sport: Guilt Judo. The sport requires a range of moves: arm-twists, throws, the art of the pin. Grace and style matter, and it is, of course, imperative to master that most fundamental skill: learning to fall without injury.

“Oh. You’re home. No, it’s just that I thought you’d be home an hour ago. It’s OK, it’s just that the dinner got dry and ruined in the oven. And your uncle went home. He was upset not to see you, though he didn’t want to let on. So tell me, how was your drive?”

To play successfully, my friend maintained, you need to understand the rules. Family obligations pin the needs of single people. The needs of the elders pin the needs of the young (except when said young are infants). Safety pins punctuality.

Q: Why were you late?

A: I wanted to come earlier, but the roads were wet…. I just didn’t want to take the chance.

You get the idea.

The Holocaust pins everything.

Many Holocaust-survivor families — at least the ones I’ve encountered — have powerful vocabulary for everyday troubles. The missed phone call is terrible, as is the stained blouse. The over-seasoned soup? Disaster.

Disaster, in fact, lurks around the most innocent-looking corners. Mountains hang by a thread. I’ve known survivors who are impossibly controlling in day-to-day life — worried about the weather and the canned goods in the pantry; consumed with planning for traffic patterns; beside themselves because you haven’t made reservations, dressed for the cold, put a dust-ruffle on your child’s bed (“It’s hygienic!”). They seem nearly undone by humdrum disorder.

Yet in an emergency they shine. They turn into the heroes you always knew them to be. To varying degrees the same goes, I believe, for us children and grandchildren of survivors. Calm waters may disorient us, yes; small matters may evoke overblown responses. But when you’re raised to anticipate disaster, it’s no big deal when it comes. (The one time when, living in a group house in college, I actually had to say, “Mom, I have to get off the phone, the house is on fire,” my mother barely batted an eye.)

Here is what my mother says about her own mother: She would threaten to jump out the window when she was upset. She would open the door of a moving car and threaten to jump.

Though I didn’t have many years with my grandmother — she died when I was 5 — I adored her. She was a brilliant, artistic, beautiful, rebellious woman who’d lost her community and most of her family in the war. Her hard-won law degree (not a small achievement for a woman in 1930s Poland) was useless in post-war New York.

“She would say she was going to kill herself,” my mother says, “then lock herself in the bathroom for an hour.”

It was only in my 20s that I read Helen Epstein’s “Children of the Holocaust” — a book first published in 1979, with page after page detailing nearly identical behavior. Children standing anxiously outside bathroom doors. Parents enclosed in darkness.

My grandfather told me to have six children. (“They killed one-third of us. We need numbers.”) He said I wasn’t safe in the United States (“We thought we were safe in Poland.”) He counseled me endlessly to remember the stories of the Holocaust. If we grandchildren did not remember no one would. This truism was solemnly echoed in my Jewish school and summer camps. To remember, to remember actively, was to ensure that these things could not happen again. To forget was to let the survivors’ experiences wither away. To forget was to let Hitler’s victims die all over again.

There was never any danger, for children and grandchildren of survivors, of forgetting.

At every Holocaust-related lecture I have attended, there is one. She stands on line for the Q-&-A microphone — it’s usually a she. You can see her coming. Waiting behind distinguished professors, doctoral candidates and a few elderly Holocaust survivors who wearily, politely, offer small corrections of fact to a scattering of interested hums.

She waits on line. Pent up, straining forward, her hair white or perhaps heavily dyed. Something about her dress is often strange — the colors too bright or the blouse askew, the buttons of her sweater misaligned. When at last she reaches the microphone, she seizes upon something one of the speakers has said: the American graduate student’s stray assertion that most refugees traveled a certain route, or perhaps the French professor’s assessment that in the wake of Chirac’s historic speech and the creation of a commission to enact individual restitution, the French government’s rapprochement is, at long last, finished.

“No.” This woman’s hand chops the air. “My uncle traveled this route. My aunt was imprisoned. My cousin traveled a different route so this is not true what you say, that Jews traveled only the Vladivostok route. There was another.”

Often she holds documents, which she reads from in a quavering, accented voice: the aunt’s prison papers. Her voice strains with fury at the betrayal she has just heard.

“Here is the documentation. I brought the documentation. My family was in France. It is not finished.”

The sheaf of pages rattles. Her voice is thick with rage.

This is an academic setting. It is not a place for fury. Of course her specific case may be true, but this is irrelevant to larger historic questions. Speakers are lined up behind her, eyes averted, faces impassive; the session is running late; every extra minute is coming out of the lunch break. Someone rises — everyone has been waiting for someone to rise — and takes the microphone from her: “Thank you. Others are waiting. Your contribution is appreciated.”

I come to think of this woman — this survivor who refuses to be polite — as a Jewish prophet, a wrathful Job or omnipresent, ever-witnessing Elijah. Long after the last of the survivors has died, she will continue to appear at lectures: throwing a wrench into academic discussion, rattling her sheaf of papers, raging with the choking grievances of Lamentations.

I am wrong about this. She will not visit these gatherings eternally. In a few years she’ll be dead.

In college and after, I was periodically asked to speak at Holocaust-commemoration events — I’ve been entrusted with stories. I’ve researched and written fiction and nonfiction about the Holocaust and its aftermath. I’ve felt, all my life, fiercely protective of survivors. And now, as I watch them enter old age, many with a prodigious, stunned contentment at having made it there at all, I understand it’s my job to keep the flame lit.

But does that mean suiting up for a lifetime match of guilt judo?

Perpetuating memory, passing on the stories of the survivors I love: I’ve been committed to these things as long as I can remember. The horrors that were done, and the pure human evil displayed by the doers, need to be known and pondered today and always. But I don’t think that gives me carte blanche to use the Holocaust in any way that happens to feel satisfying. And I don’t believe the point of never again is to render everyone reverent unto silence; to pin everyone else’s suffering to the mat until the end of time.

I refuse to be so intimidated by guilt that I don’t speak up against what I see as misuses of the victims’ memory. I’ve seen Holocaust-education programs that seemed so invested in emphasizing Jewish annihilation that they couldn’t tolerate acknowledging that some Eastern European Jews are still alive. (The March of the Living, an international program that brings teens to visit the Polish concentration camps, initially prohibited Polish Jewish teens from participating.) I’ve met students who can tell you all about Auschwitz but nothing about the pre-genocide lives of the Jews who were murdered there. I’ve been rebuked for my participation in German-Jewish dialogues (“I can’t believe you talk to them”) by a second-generation writer who told me he thinks a 5-year-old German is culpable; I’ve heard the same writer tell audiences, to applause, that Jews have no business living in Europe today. (Isn’t that what Hitler said?)

By birthright, I’m a natural-born black belt. I know the moves. But here is what I now wish I had asked my college friend: What happens to the people who win at guilt judo? If we pin all comers, what then? What is the game’s endpoint?

Like it or not, we’re in this together: descendants of victims, of bystanders, of perpetrators, locked in our holds, straining. Guilt judo isn’t going away any time soon, because the sport was invented for a reason. It’s a wearying but sometimes necessary way of making sure unredressable wrongs are at least acknowledged–making sure you get heard. We all know how to play it, whether recreationally or in self-defense, in our families or in politics.

Of course, this endless contest is not limited to those affected by the Holocaust. Look around and you’ll notice that most of the globe — at least wherever the philosophy of might makes right has evolved into blessed is the lamb–is engrossed in its own intergroup matches. Black vs. Jews (how dare they compare slavery to the Holocaust); Native Americans vs. African Americans (slaughter to slavery); Palestinians vs. Jews (their suffering to ours?).; Catholic vs. Protestant vs. Jew vs. Muslim vs. Hindu. The Hatfields have suffered — but the McCoys have suffered more. You say your population was decimated? Decimated is one-tenth of your population wiped out. Decimated would have been an improvement, compared to what happened to us.

But exactly what — in our homes, in our political conferences — is the point of the game? What is the point of determining who hurts more; whether my tears were more important than yours; whether the Holocaust was worse than slavery? Does it render the opponent’s suffering lesser, unmentionable? Does it guarantee sympathy? Love? Compensation? A better future? Does it work?

We all conduct ourselves as if we believe it does. And sometimes we’re right –sometimes guilt judo is an effective tool for important practical ends. But it’s also, if we’re not careful, poisonous: “You were only in Auschwitz for two weeks. I was there two years. What did you survive? You have no right to call yourself a survivor.”

The person who makes such a declaration is not malevolent; he or she has simply been destroyed in spirit.

May I say something, now, about guilt? I think it has a bad name. American culture presumes guilt is something manipulative, something to be washed away with a good jet of therapy. Guilt, though, is nothing more than a cue that we have a choice to make: Do something to repair the situation, or accept it and move on.

Guilt is a powerful, important road sign. The trick is to remember that it’s not the destination. In truth, it’s a fundamental error to believe that the word for the burden we all carry — we children and grandchildren and neighbors and acquaintances of survivors — is guilt.

I don’t feel guilty about the Holocaust. (I didn’t do it.) Nor do I feel guilty because my family survived. And now that I’m an adult, I no longer feel any guilt about the contrast between my own privileged life and the traumas my family endured. My grandparents wanted me to have a good, safe life; if tragedy should befall me, I know how fervently I’d wish my own children a joyous life. My family’s legacy neither devalues my own experiences, nor does it make me somehow holy. It just means I inherited a history, transmitted by people doing the best they could. So now I need to do the best I can.

What I feel is not guilt — it’s responsibility.

I don’t care who suffered the most. All I care is what we do about the Holocaust’s legacy now, for the generations behind and ahead of us. Getting mired in guilt (mine, yours, theirs) is a waste of all our time. There may be infinite ways to feel guilty about the Holocaust, but the “Your life is good and they died” varieties and the “How dare you compare other people’s suffering to ours” varieties are moral dead ends.

The only one worth sweating over is the one that asks, “What are you going to do about it?”

I have a responsibility to carry on my relatives’ stories; to speak out about anti-Semitism and racism when I encounter them; to do my small part to keep crosscultural dialogue going; to make sure victims’ individuality isn’t lost in thickets of tragedy; to respond actively when I see harm being done, and to avoid posturing and self-importance in the process. I have a responsibility, too, to make sure I enjoy life’s wonders to the fullest. I would be remiss if I neglected to laugh; to make the most of this country’s freedoms; to teach my toddler how to imitate a pterodactyl, talk to the moon and delight in a train ride.

Memory fades. Tomorrow’s children will never know survivors. The responsibilities I bear have no statute of limitations; I’ll always do my best to protect the survivors and their legacy. But that doesn’t change the fact that the history of the Holocaust will grow distant, even abstract. No amount of guilt judo can prevent this. And while strenuously broadcasting that the Holocaust was worse than any other human suffering may be justified, it can’t keep the survivors alive any more than it can undo what happened … and it is going to damage us.

If the memory of the Holocaust recedes, let it not be because I failed to do my part to keep it alive–I’m committed to that labor. But if the Holocaust comes, in some unknown number of generations, to occupy a smaller place on our cultural landscape, I don’t see this as cause for guilt. The point isn’t to pin everyone else ad infinitum, but to carry forward the important pieces of memory so that people see, and understand, and act differently in the world because this happened.

If we can accomplish that, then whenever it comes, the inevitable decrescendo of memory — which some will call abomination and others will call healing — will be, in truth, neither. It will simply be life. It won’t signal that we’ve failed — that we’ve let down the Holocaust’s survivors or, worse, its victims — but rather that we’ve simply, regretfully, tragically, hopefully, moved forward. And that has nothing to do with wrestling each other to the mat, and everything to do with standing up.

Excerpted from “Guilt Judo” by Rachel Kadish from “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson. (Dutton, $24). Copyright (c) 2005 by Rachel Kadish.

Rachel Kadish is the author of “From a Sealed Room,” as well as numerous short stories and essays. She has been a fiction fellow of the NEA and was the recipient of last year’s Koret Foundation Young Writer on Jewish Themes Award. Her new novel, “Love [sic],” will be published by Houghton Mifflin next year.

The Love Impaired


 

You remember the famous line from “Forrest Gump”? “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.”

The other day, it suddenly hit me. I’m the anti-Forrest Gump. I am a smart man (or at least I test well) but I don’t think I know what love is at all. There is nothing I find as confusing. Programming my VCR is child’s play by comparison.

Recently, I was thinking of a former girlfriend, so I called her up. We had a great conversation, and after I got off the phone, I was really wondering, “Now why did we break up again?” And then I remembered. “Ohhhhhhhhh — yeah, that was a good reason.”

But it really got me to thinking, what is love anyway?

I bet you thought I was going to answer that question, didn’t you? Well, I can’t. That’s the point. I don’t know. I’m 37 and single. I’m a relationship moron. I’m romantically impaired. I don’t know what I’m doing — at all.

And it’s not just me. No sirree Bob. We are an entire generation of the love impaired. It seems especially bad for folks in their 30s and 40s, and even worse if you’re Jewish. I’m not quite sure why this is, but I have seen polls on the subject. In this epidemic of unmarried singles, it seems Jews have caught the bug worse than other ethnic groups.

And it extends to the observant world, too. Sure, plenty of them are married at 22 and have 18 kids by the time they’re 30, but there are also others who are having the same problems their secular brethren are having. This epidemic goes across the entire religious spectrum. Believe me, it’s not just your mom, who’s noticed. The rabbis have, too.

I went to a singles event a few weeks ago at a synagogue that illustrated this problem really well. The rabbi was asking why young people (and not-so-young people) were having such a problem getting married. He was really mystified. It seemed pretty simple to him:

You meet a girl you like and you marry her. One guy stood up and gave such a perfect answer, it seared into my memory, perhaps permanently: “Well, I meet a girl and like her and she doesn’t like me. Or a girl likes me and I don’t like her. Or we go out and it doesn’t work.”

It’s almost poetry, isn’t it? Well maybe not, but it does seem to sum up the state of things pretty well.

I wonder if we could get this problem classified as a real disability. Maybe it’s like a learning disability. After all, learning to love someone besides yourself is something that people are supposed to learn in adulthood. You can check. It’s in developmental psychology. I took a course.

If not being able to sit still and concentrate is called Attention Deficit Disorder, and not being able to read is called dyslexia, what would you call not being able to love? LDD: Love Deficit Disorder? No, that sounds like a shortage. How about the same initials but different words: Love Development Disorder. That might be it, except it probably sounds too similar to learning disabled. I don’t know.

But, before we go looking for solutions to this problem, maybe it would be worthwhile to take a look at past generations. Why was it so easy for them anyway? Maybe it was because they had matchmakers and arranged marriages. It used to be that your parents would arrange a match for you and, unless you found your intended completely repulsive, you married them. Boom. Just like that.

This brings me to my grandparents. After fighting in World War I, my grandpa, Danny, stayed in Europe to try to get his family out of Russia. Not surprisingly, however, he couldn’t even get in the country, because the Russian Revolution was going on full steam. Here’s where it gets romantic: Poor Danny, stuck in Warsaw, met my grandma, Ina, and was struck by a thunderbolt. Times being the way they were, instead of having a tempestuous affair, they were quickly married and Danny brought her back to New York.

Now, this should be where they live happily ever after, right? Wrong. After a few months, Danny must have done something pretty bad, because according to family lore, Ina got ticked off, packed up and went back to Warsaw. So how is it that I’m telling this story? Because instead of welcoming her back home with open arms and soothing words, my great-grandmother wouldn’t let her in.

“Go back to your husband. Stop behaving like a child. You’re married now!” she yelled as she slammed the door in Ina’s face (or so the family legend goes).

What does this tell us about love? I don’t know. I’m the love moron, remember? But from both these stories, it seems the emphasis was much more on keeping the family together, than on being in love. That, and once you were married, that was it. At least, that’s how it sounds.

But how does this help me, The Love Idiot? Should I call my mother, ask her to find a girl for me and marry her if she doesn’t make me puke at the first meeting? You know, I’m actually starting to consider it.

 

Is the U.S. Terror Threat Overblown?


 

President Bush has played the Sept. 11 card with his choice of former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to head the Department of Homeland

Security during his second term. Kerik’s a man who had to personally attend the funerals of many of his own boys as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks, the very reason the department he is now tapped to lead exists.

He’s a star of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s team (Kerik rose from being Giuliani’s driver in 1993 to becoming commissioner of the country’s largest police department in fewer than seven years) and shines with much of the reflected glory of the heroes of Sept. 11.

His most recent job had him working under Giuliani again in his private firm, and Giuliani is said to have been the voice that talked Bush into this appointment. But in his last government job, Kerik served only three of a planned six months in Baghdad, trying to train the new Iraqi police force.

Fred Kaplan at Slate [magazine] notes some controversies he was embroiled in there:

Members of Iraq’s interim governing council expressed loud dismay that Kerik spent $1.2 billion to train 35,000 Iraqi police in Jordan. More annoying still was his decision to buy from Jordan 20,000 Kalashnikov rifles, 50,000 revolvers and 10 million rounds of ammunition, when he could have rounded up all those weapons far more cheaply — if not for free — from the disbanded Iraqi army.

And the Los Angeles Times notes:

The training programs Kerik launched increased the Iraqi police force from about 30,000 when he arrived to more than 80,000 in late 2003, but his successors cut the force to about 46,000 this year by weeding out corrupt and ill-trained officers. After Kerik left, other officials concluded that the short-term training was not working and revamped the program.

So, demonstrably incompetent at his last big job, inexperienced with running federal-level bureaucracies, what he has going for him, besides Giuliani’s imprimatur and an attractive coating of dust from the collapsed World Trade Center, is that he’s a former city cop, and as Phillip Carter, also over at Slate has noted, homeland security against terror is the kind of thing city cops should run:

Kerik knows that the most likely person to stop or encounter a terrorist attack is not an FBI agent or CIA analyst, but a cop walking the beat or a transit worker who sees something suspicious. If Kerik remains true to his background, he will direct the lion’s share of resources and federal attention toward these local officials on the front lines of homeland security.

But there’s a more interesting question about the Department of Homeland Security than who will get to run it: Why the threat it is designed to prevent hasn’t seemed like much of a threat lately? That question is the topic of two different cover stories recently in two very different magazines: New York and Regulation.

The New York piece offers a handful-plus of “Reasons They Haven’t Hit Us Again”: Al Qaeda is patiently waiting to strike any day now; New York, which remains the best target for hitting lots of people at once in the most mediagenic way, is now too well-defended; foreign counterintelligence has helped us break up all the plots in utero; the enemy just can’t find motivated suicide bombers here; and the ol’ flypaper theory — we’ve moved the war between us and Al Qaeda to Iraq.

The explanation given the most detailed narrative is, in New York’s own words: “We have informants everywhere” and “homegrown terrorists are incompetent.”

They report the story of a government informant in the thick of a plot by of a pair of angry Muslim youths from Staten Island and Bay Ridge to set off a bomb in the Herald Square subway station. The alleged junior Attas are in custody. (I’m not entirely convinced by the way New York reports the story that their terrorist activities weren’t as much suborned by the informant as organically arising from the collared perps; prosecutors, of course, deny that they entrapped the pair.)

Might there not be dozens of stories like this, unreported for national security reasons? Possibly. But in the main, the record of the feds’ legal fight against terror, as ably explained by James Bovard in a recent American Conservative, has been one of overzealous prosecutions and past victories, like the breakup of the fabled Detroit terrorist cell, dissolving upon closer inspection.

John Mueller’s cover story in the fall issue of Regulation (a magazine I was managing editor of briefly in the early ’90s) provides some insights into how the entire Homeland Security apparatus might be more about scaring ourselves and wasting our collective energy than providing a vital national service. Mueller points out that, given its rarity and comparative lack of real impact in America (yes, even after factoring in Sept. 11), perhaps Americans are overly fearful and aiming too many resources at trying to stave off a terror menace that might not even be out there.

As Bart Kosko noted in a Los Angeles Times op-ed back in September, in contradiction to the argument that diligent federal efforts have kept us safe since Sept. 11, “the comparative absence of terrorism could just as easily (and I believe more reasonably) support the very different conclusion that we have overestimated — grossly overestimated — the terrorist threat. We may be winning a war against terrorism simply because there are few terrorists out there posing a serious threat to the U.S.” (See the New York article for more insights on the obvious difficulties of finding willing suicide terrorists.)

Mueller lays out the comparative risks of air terror in the Sept. 11 manner and driving, noting that we’d need a set of Sept. 11-level tragedies each month for the risks of flying to become the same as those of driving. He points out that even the superterror weapons we were frightened about with regard to Iraq — chemical and biological ones — have never proven to be very effective killers.

The obsession with trying to stave off more and more distant and difficult-to-uncover terror plots leads to schemes, like this one laid out in a Rand Corp. study, to keep a closer and more analytical eye on everything we all say, do and buy, in order to find the “dots” that might be connected to foil a potential terrorist plot. This mindset leads ineluctably to the sort of privacy-destroying regulations fingered by John Berlau in Reason Online that try to recruit our bankers and jewelers into becoming spies for the feds.

The opportunity costs of this fight, in resources, energy and know-how — and in our civil rights — are enormous. As Mueller points out, economist Roger Congleton has figured that delaying all airline passengers for only half an hour each adds up to total economic costs of $15 billion a year.

Imagine what else smart fellows like the authors of that Rand study, or all the people involved in the new and burgeoning industry, both private and public, of fighting domestic terror assaults might be able to do if they weren’t expending their energy on what might be a smaller threat than we seem to think? (When I say “we,” I mean those in the anti-terror industry — in the real world, actual active fear of domestic terror seems far less prevalent now than was fear of nuclear devastation during the early ’80s.)

Absolute security is impossible, of course, at any price. But cost-benefit analyses have been noticeably absent from the public and political discussion about how to handle domestic defense against terrorism. For that, perhaps, it would be better to tap for Homeland Security head someone who had a more nuanced sense of his own job’s capabilities and significance, someone who did not have to attend the funerals of many of his own boys as a result of the one — and so far only — successful example of mass-murderous international terrorism on our shores.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor of Reason magazine and the author of “This Is Burning Man” (Little, Brown, 2004).

 

The Forgotten Pogrom of Baghdad


At about 3 p.m., June 1, 1941, everything changed for Iraq’s Jews. No American Holocaust museum pays homage to their tragedy. Holocaust studies have virtually overlooked the incident and its profound consequences. But the Jews of Baghdad found themselves caught between Hitler’s master plan to dominate Europe and the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine.

At stake was the oil Hitler needed to succeed.

As the world finds Iraq once again at the center of competing international interests, a look back at this bloody chapter in Iraqi history illuminates how this region’s inherent geography and geology have given rise to a crossroads for conflict, conquest and commerce that has endured through the years.

That day in 1941, on the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the sight of Jews returning from the Baghdad airport to greet the returning Regent Abdul al-Ilah, ruler of Iraq, was all the excuse an Iraqi mob needed to unleash its vengeance.

The attack began at 3 p.m., as the Jewish delegation crossed Baghdad’s Al Khurr Bridge. Violence quickly spread to the Al Rusafa and Abu Sifyan districts. The frenzied mob murdered Jews openly on the streets. Women were raped and infants were killed as their horrified families looked on. Torture and mutilation followed.

Jewish shops were looted and torched. A synagogue was invaded, burned, and its Torahs destroyed in classic Nazi fashion. The shooting, burning and mayhem continued throughout the evening. Jews were dragged from their automobiles. Homes were invaded, looted and burned. On June 2, the fury continued with policemen and slum dwellers joining in.

At the Muallem-Cohen house, young Nezima was terrified. Her father had just returned from the synagogue, relating terrible stories about daughters being raped and homes burned, when suddenly shouting, armed men crashed through his own front gates. Quick, Mr. Muallem-Cohen rushed his family to the stairs to escape to the roof. Up they scampered, first young Nezima, then her mother, and then her father. A shot — Mr. Muallem-Cohen was dead.

Mrs. Muallem-Cohen looked back in horror. Just then a policeman appeared.

“They killed my husband,” she shrieked.

“How do you want to die?” the policeman snapped back, and then cracked her skull with his gun.

Finally, in the afternoon, British forces punched into the city. They opened fire on the rampagers. A 5 p.m. curfew was broadcast. Scores of violators were shot on sight. The disturbances were finally quelled.

The carnage of those 48 hours would be forever seared upon the collective Iraqi Jewish consciousness as “the Farhud,” best translated as “violent dispossession.”

It was the beginning of the end. From that moment, Iraq’s approximately 125,000 Jews would be systematically targeted for violence, persecution, commercial boycott, confiscation and eventually, in 1951, near complete expulsion.

For 2,600 years, the Jews of Iraq had dwelled successfully in the land of Babylon, achieving as much acceptance and financial success as any non-Muslim group could in an Islamic society that despised infidels.

In 1941, Iraqi Jews were well entrenched at all levels of farming, banking, commerce and the government bureaucracy.

What happened in 1941 and why?

After the Allies defeated the Turks in the World War I, the British in 1920 engineered a League of Nations mandate over Turkish Iraq to obtain its fabulous but still undeveloped oil. Faisal, who fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia, was rewarded with the monarchy, and designated “King of Iraq.”

In 1941, the succeeding heir was Faisal’s 4-year-old grandson. So London installed as Iraq’s governing regent Abdul al-Ilah, another Hashemite prince from Saudi Arabia.

This appointment stirred deep resentment among Iraq’s Muslim masses that viewed the British “infidels” as occupiers, and those who cooperated with them as lackeys. As resentment turned to armed resistance and terror, militants targeted the British, as well as anyone deemed collaborators — including many Jews who held the top posts in all strata of commerce and civil service.

Seizing on the growing discontent, the pro-Nazi cleric, Haj Muhammed Amin al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem, the leader of the Arabs of Palestine, continuously railed against the Jews, accusing them of being part of a Zionist plot to dominate the Middle East.

The mufti — who was being sought by the British in Palestine on charges of terrorism — had slipped into Iraq on Oct. 13, 1939, six weeks after the outbreak of World War II.

In Iraq, the mufti set up a new and powerful base. He conspired with a group of pro-Nazi Iraqi officers, known as the “Golden Square,” to overthrow the regent.

The mufti also entered into a secret pact with Germany, offering Iraq’s precious oil in exchange for the destruction of the Jews of Palestine and the Reich’s support of Arab national aspirations across the Middle East.

Hitler himself was anxious to thwart Britain’s domination of the oil-rich Middle East and secure the oil needed to fuel his planned invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. So he went along with the idea, even though the Nazis reviled “the Arab race.”

On April 1, 1941, the Golden Square staged a coup, forcing the regent to flee Iraq. British warplanes stationed in Iraq responded with a series of persistent bombardments against Golden Square forces.

The German high command reacted as well, dispatching 16 Heinkels and 10 Messerschmitt heavy fighters to aid in an all-out attack on British forces at the giant British air base at Habbaniya, located midway between Fallujah and Ramadi. Meanwhile, two-dozen German mechanics and airmen filtered into the country, along with Reich secret agents known to Arab elements.

Luftwaffe planes began running strafing and bombing missions against Habbaniya, as well as British commando formations crossing the desert to aid the besieged camp. The British airbase at Habbaniya, at the time, was only defended by students and instructors. Undaunted, the Brits climbed into their rickety trainers and took to the skies, heroically flying day and night against the Germans and the small Reich-supported Iraqi air force. Most enemy craft were destroyed on the ground, sometimes a dozen at a time.

Churchill had already sent a foreboding cable to President Franklin Roosevelt, stating that if the Mideast fell to the Germans, victory against the Nazis would be a “hard, long and bleak proposition.” All understood that if Germany secured Iraq’s oil, the Reich would proceed all the way to the East.

By May 15, 1941, urgent messages burned the telegraph wires as British commanders in the area informed London that land operations to destroy the oil infrastructure were now out of the question. One typical note declared: “In view changed situation Iraq, consider it will be impossible to destroy Kirkuk wells at short notice.”

Besieged and out of options, the British called in the Irgun, an extremist Jewish defense organization in Palestine. Irgun commander David Raziel, at that moment, was in a British prison in Palestine. Raziel was approached by British intelligence and asked if he would undertake a dangerous mission to destroy the oil refineries in Iraq, thereby denying fuel to the Germans.

The answer was yes, on one condition: Raziel wanted to kidnap the mufti of Jerusalem and bring him back.

Agreed.

The next morning, May 17, 1941, Raziel and three comrades, along with a British officer, quietly climbed into an RAF plane parked at Tel Nof airbase, and flew to Habbaniya. While in flight, however, London decided that the destruction of Iraq’s refineries should be delayed to the last minute. Rebuilding the pipelines would take years and place an enormous strain on British fuel needs for the rest of the war.

Raziel was given new orders: Undertake an intelligence mission preparatory to a British sweep into Fallujah as part of the final drive to retake Baghdad from the Golden Square.

So they set out by car from the Habbaniya base toward Fallujah. At the first river, they found a boat, only big enough for two. Raziel ordered his comrades to proceed, while he went back to the car with his fellow Irgunist and the British officer.

Just then, from nowhere, a plane — no one knows if it was British or German — dived from on high, dropping a bomb. The car was destroyed and Raziel with it.

On May 25, Hitler issued Order 30, redoubling support for Iraq.

“The Arabian Freedom Movement in the Middle East,” he wrote, “is our natural ally against England. In this connection special importance is attached to the liberation of Iraq I have therefore decided to move forward in the Middle East by support of Iraq.”

The Admiralty in London now gave the final order to destroy the refineries and pumping stations in Iraq at will.

“If Germans occupy Iraq and Syria,” the message read, “they cannot profit by the oil resources there for at least some time.”

But suddenly, the forces at Habbaniya were gaining the upper hand. Persistent bombing, Arabs abandoning their positions and equipment en masse to disappear into the populace, plus the sheer exhaustion of Arab supplies delivered victory to British forces.

On May 30, the British-organized Arab Legion, led by legendary Maj. John Glubb of Britain, pushed past fatigued ground resistance and a steady barrage of German air attacks. Glubb reached Baghdad at about 4 a.m. By now, the Golden Square, and their Reich cohorts, had fled to Iran.

The mayor of Baghdad was the only one left to sign the cease-fire document.

On May 31, Regent al-Ilah was preparing to fly into Baghdad to reclaim his leadership. To avoid the appearance of a London-sponsored countercoup, British troops were instructed by their commanders to remain on the outskirts of Baghdad, allowing the regent to enter unescorted.

But for days before, the mufti had been broadcasting by radio, inciting the people of Iraq against the Jews, accusing them of having intercepted telephone and telegraph transmissions and passing the information to the British Embassy — thus causing the defeat of the Golden Square. All Jews, the mufti declared, were spies.

For a few hours on June 1, a power vacuum existed in Baghdad. The Golden Square had fled. The regent was en route. The British were at the city’s edge. For just a few hours, Baghdad was unsupervised. But a few hours was all it took for angry masses to suddenly erupt in a maniacal pogrom against their Jewish neighbors.

At 3 p.m. the sight of Jews returning from the Baghdad airport to greet the regent was all the excuse an Iraqi mob needed to unleash its vengeance.

The Farhud and its consequences are absent from the Holocaust museums and study courses. But it will live forever in the hearts of generations descended from the Farhud’s victims and the more than 100,000 Iraqi Jews who 10 years later, after a campaign of systematic persecution, were expelled to Israel.

This article is adapted from Edwin Black’s just-released book, “Banking on Baghdad” (Wiley), which chronicles 7,000 years of Iraqi history.

The Slow Revival of Siberian Jewry


There is a cold chill inside the dingy Siberian synagogue in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, where 84-year-old Aron Broder sits telling his story.

A veteran of the Soviet war against the Nazis and an internee in both Nazi and Soviet labor prison camps, Broder is trying to put together the pieces of a life that took him from Yiddish-speaking Ukraine to the barren Siberian landscape and away from home, family and faith.

Nowadays, the elderly Jew with a wizened face comes to this modest synagogue in Krasnoyarsk to try to recover some of the religion he remembers from his youth.

Much of what he once had was taken from him: The Nazis took his freedom, the Soviets stifled his religion and, more recently, a murderer robbed him of his 40-year-old daughter. But Broder still harbors hope for the future.

That is the indomitable nature of Siberian Jewry.

“Stamina is what separates Siberian Jews,” Broder said. “We can adapt to any form of life. We’re not afraid of difficulty. Look at me, what I managed to survive. I didn’t lose my spirits. I still have high hopes.”

Stories like Broder’s of suffering and survival are easy to find among the 70,000 Jews dispersed through this massive region, which spans seven times zones. However, stamina may not be enough to overcome the latest threat to the survival of Siberia’s Jews: an intermarriage rate between 80 and 90 percent, the highest assimilation rate among Jews in the former Soviet Union.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, religion was slow in coming to Siberian Jews. While Russian cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg saw a revival of Jewish life in the early 1990s, there was little change in Siberia until later in the decade. Thousands of Siberian Jews only now are discovering their Jewish roots, 12 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

At first glance, Judaism in Siberia appears to be undergoing a rebirth. Dozens of Israeli and Russian-born rabbis have moved to the region to spearhead a religious revival. They have developed close ties with governors and mayors, a necessary form of networking in the post-communist era that has helped the Jewish community regain control of synagogues that had been nationalized by the Soviets.

Jewish life is big business even in remote Siberia. Multimillion-dollar Jewish community centers and synagogues are multiplying in semicosmopolitan cities such as Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk.

In some cities, Jewish kindergartens, day schools and youth clubs have as many as 300 children enrolled. Soup kitchens and medical aid warm the hearts of poverty-stricken pensioners.

Jews no longer conceal their ethnic identity. In today’s Siberia, being Jewish even carries some prestige, but a religious revival has been slower in coming. While Siberia’s Jews clearly are interested in the social benefits of being Jewish, far fewer are interested in their religious culture and tradition.

Prayer services are sparsely attended, drawing mostly elderly Jews looking to connect with the traditions of their youth. Middle-age and younger Jews in Siberia are mostly secular, raised in the staunchly secular Soviet republic by parents far removed from Judaism.

“The real victims of atheist, communist Russia are today’s middle-aged Jews from 40 to 60,” said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the former Soviet Union. “It’s a lost cause, and we need to learn from that. They intermarried, and we can’t make that same mistake.”

Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, the fiery chairman of Russia’s Reform movement, the Union of Religious Organizations of Modern Judaism in Russia, said Russia’s Jewish communities face extinction if the younger generation does not become interested in Judaism.

“The youth are our problem,” Kogan said. “If we don’t solve this in 10 years, Russian Jewish communities will be finished.”

Kogan, who also is chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia, said he has given up hope of drawing the generation of middle-age Russian Jews back into the fold.

In Siberia, Jewish life is restricted largely to the public sphere. Holidays are festively celebrated in concert halls and circuses, but Judaism has yet to permeate many Siberian homes. Jewish officials in Siberia predict that Jewish life here will remain forever a crippled beauty, due to aliyah (moving to Israel) and assimilation.

During Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost in the 1980s, many Jews in Siberia started their own grass-roots Jewish cultural groups, such as klezmer bands. But when the floodgates of emigration opened, many of these enthusiastic Jewish promoters left for Israel, part of the mass exodus of 1 million Russian Jews who made aliyah.

A second wave of emigrants followed soon afterward, leaving in Russia a generation of deeply assimilated secular Jews, most of whom had never walked into a synagogue before 1990. Those who stepped up to positions of communal leadership were only loosely familiar with Jewish tradition, and they knew Yiddish only as a language that their parents used to speak privately.

Meanwhile, the grass-roots infrastructure that the first generation of Jewish community leaders created was swept up by ambitious international organizations — among them the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel — which spent millions of dollars professionalizing Jewish life in the form of synagogue restoration, education and humanitarian and social support.

In most communities, international donors and generous local businessmen, who empty their pockets without reaping tax benefits, serve as the financial backbone of Jewish life. In most cities, the well-funded, Chabad-affiliated federation offers the only religious game in town. The cash-strapped Reform and Conservative movements are virtually unknown.

Siberian Jews live in such deep poverty that they say they can’t imagine playing a contributory role, even a small or symbolic one. For most Siberian Jews, religion merely means support from abroad.

Misha Oshtrakh, a free-thinking Jewish official who runs a quasi-independent cultural community in Yekaterinburg, said the problem is that international organizations don’t always know what’s best for a community.

“Despite their great support, Jerusalem and New York can’t clearly see local needs,” he said. “The majority of Jews here were living as slaves, and now we converted to slaves of international Jewish bodies.”

Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the JDC, said, “From day one of our return to the Soviet Union, we worked in the local communities, with their emerging leadership and with great sensitivity to the wishes and the needs of the local Jews.”

“It is an axiom of JDC culture: Always respect the local community and its desires and aspirations,” he said.

Despite the difficulties in Siberia, some Siberian Jews like Broder are trying to make up for lost time by taking advantage of the new Jewish opportunities in the region.

I want to “make up for everything that I missed,” Broder said.

Though born to Yiddish-speaking parents, Broder long ago grew accustomed to hiding his Judaism, starting in 1940, when, as a Soviet soldier, he was captured by Nazi fighters and sent to a labor camp in Gdansk, Poland. He shielded his Jewish identity by coining an Armenian last name to match his dark complexion.

Later, he passed a circumcision inspection, when a humane Nazi doctor concealed the truth. His reward was five years of loading coal onto Baltic Sea fleets.

When the Soviets liberated Gdansk in 1945, Broder underwent a three-month interrogation by Soviet secret service agents, who hastily concluded that a Jew could survive a Nazi camp only by collaborating with the enemy. His punishment: Siberian exile and five more years of forced labor, imposed this time by his own country.

Freedom arrived after Stalin’s death in 1953, but it took 40 more years for the Soviet system to collapse and Broder to return to the synagogue.

Despite the thousands of miles and many decades that separate Broder from his Jewish roots, he has now come back.

“What can I say?” he said simply. “We were brought up with this spirit.”

The ‘Secret Lives’ of Shoah’s Hidden


In 1993, filmmaker Aviva Slesin traveled to Lithuania to meet Matilda Salenekas, the non-Jew who hid her from the Nazis when she was a small child. She had no memories of Salenekas, whom she had not seen since 1945, and the two women did not speak the same language.

"But the feeling between us was so powerful," Slesin said by phone from her Manhattan home. "We both wept, and I understood that in some strong way we were connected. I began wondering whether the experience was similar for other hidden children, and if they had memories of their rescuers, what the relationship was about."

Slesin’s curiosity led her to produce and direct a documentary, "Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During World War II," which joins a particularly heartwrenching subgenre of Holocaust cinema: documentaries about child survivors by filmmakers with a family connection to the subject. Examples include Pierre Sauvage’s "Weapons of the Spirit" (1987) and Deborah Oppenheimer’s Oscar-winning "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport" (2000). The films are especially poignant because only 10 percent of Jewish children survived the war.

Slesin’s affecting but unsentimental documentary focuses on the psychological aftermath of hiding, such as the sense of abandonment child survivors carried into adulthood and the difficulty rebonding with parents.

Alice Sondike, who was sheltered on a farm in Poland, describes the revulsion she felt when her mother, Julia Melcer, returned from Auschwitz.

"I was covered with lice, and she was trying to clean me up," Sondike says on camera. "What she looked like when she came back…. I didn’t believe she was my mother."

Melcer, sitting next to Sondike, nods and adds that her daughter said, "Don’t touch me with your Jewish hands."

Other relationships also proved strained.

"Hidden children are generally very adaptable, but for some of us, the bonding mechanisms are altered or broken," Slesin said. "I think that children have only so many bondings in them. At some point, they don’t ‘take’ anymore."

The filmmaker speaks from personal experience. Born Aviva Leibowitch in 1943, she was smuggled out of a Jewish ghetto in a suitcase before being placed with Salenekas and her husband, Juozas, when she was 9 months old. Slesin, who has never married or had children, vaguely remembers that when her mother returned from Stutthof concentration camp two years later, "she was a stranger and I didn’t want to go with her."

Like most survivors who had hidden their children, Slesin’s mother had been greatly altered by the war.

"Many of the returning parents were themselves orphans and they were grieving," the director said. "They looked like hell because they had been to hell and back."

Over the next decade, Slesin lived a nomad’s existence, relocating to Munich, New York and Montreal as her mother married, was widowed and remarried.

"It was not a happy time for me," she said of the years with her second stepfather. "That was one bonding too many I was asked to do, and it just didn’t work."

In 1965, Slesin moved to Manhattan, she said, "To start my grownup life in a place with no history or baggage from my family." Because of her refugee experience, she was "never a joiner," but she was a good observer — which in part led her to become a filmmaker.

Over the next 30 years, Slesin made movies that were anything but personal, winning the Oscar for her 1987 documentary, "The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table."

The change came after she attended a convention of hidden children in 1991; two years later, she set off for Salenekas’ Kovno, Lithuania, home with a translator.

"I wanted to see if I could get some memories or any kind of clues into my character," she said. I also wanted to find out why she risked her life to save me, but she just sighed a lot when I asked her that. She wasn’t really able to answer."

Slesin hoped to learn more by quizzing survivors who, like herself, had been hidden by rescuers without apparent ulterior motives.

"Her questions were penetrating," the film’s co-producer and writer, Toby Appleton Perl, recalled. "Aviva was very much driven by her need to understand certain things about her experience."

During interviews, conducted in Israel and Europe, Slesin said, she was deeply touched by a Dutch woman who also had been hidden as a small child. Erica Polak recounted the "difficult relationship" she had with her mother and the great joy she had experienced upon reuniting with her rescuer.

"She moved me enormously because she had no memory either of this woman, yet her feelings about her were so strong," the director said. Interviews like Polak’s were revealing for Slesin.

"What I have come to understand is that our rescuers were also our parents," she said. "When you are a child, the people who feed you, protect you and care for you in essence are your parents. That explains why the bonds are so emotional and lasting, even after more than 50 years."

"Secret Lives" opens June 20 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

Looking for Truth in Documentaries


A Palestinian boy, about 8 years old, dressed in a red T-shirt and missing his two front teeth, is yelling in Arabic: “I foresee my death and I run toward it. On your life, this is a hero’s death and he who seeks the death of a suicide warrior, this is it.”

The scene, which aired on Palestinian Authority television in 1998 appears again in “Relentless: The Struggle for Peace in Israel,” a documentary recently released by the media watchdog organization Honest Reporting. The documentary, which examines both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and evaluates each side’s commitment to the peace process by comparing how each held to its obligations as outlined by the Oslo accords, addresses the perpetuation of incitement as only one Palestinian violation.

Based on a PowerPoint presentation that the film’s executive producer, Raphael Shore, developed while teaching a political science class in Israel, “Relentless” uses TV clips, polls, analysis and newspaper articles to make Israel’s case.

Adopted by Jewish organizations, including American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Jewish National Fund, Aish HaTorah, and various JCCs, “Relentless” has been viewed by more than 10,000 people (both Jewish and non-Jewish) since its February release. As such, it is one in a slew of recent films that organizations and individuals have developed in order to promote the Jewish State, offer insight into Israel’s position in the conflict, and ultimately, “to get Jews behind Israel,” Shore told The Journal.

The question of whether such films can be considered documentary or propaganda largely depends upon whom you ask.

“We feel, and I don’t think we’re unique, that Israel is going to be facing a lot of international pressure in coming years,” Shore said. “The Palestinian and Arab world has won the media battle and, as a result, Jews are finding it difficult to come to the support of Israel. Our goal is to get Jews back supporting Israel and understanding that Israel has a higher moral ground.”

While the filmmakers hope that their documentaries will initiate further support for Israel, they insist that their motivation for making their film was not to push a particular political agenda. Instead, each felt it was important to show a side of the story that had been left untold.

In “Jenin: The Battle for Truth,” scheduled for completion in July, writer and political commentator Avi Davis attempts to set the record straight regarding the controversial battle of Jenin.

“The headline that stays in people’s minds when they hear the word ‘Jenin’ is ‘massacre,'” Davis said. “It’s very difficult to take that word back.”

Through interviews with media experts, eyewitnesses and reporters that covered the event, Davis hopes his documentary will create awareness of the partiality that exists in reporting today.

AIPAC and the Jewish Television Network (JTN) have taken a more emotional approach. Limited only to private showings, AIPAC’s “A Soldier’s Story” and “When War Is in Your Backyard” attempt to give a voice to those individuals on the front line of the conflict. Through personal interviews, AIPAC’s “A Soldier’s Story” examines the moral conflict that Israeli soldiers face on a daily basis, while “When War Is in Your Backyard,” tells the stories of individuals struggling for normalcy despite the constant threat of terror.

In the JTN production, “No Safe Place: Six Lives Forever Changed,” executive producer Jay Sanderson and producer Harvey Lehrer have set out to acknowledge the human toll of terror.

“We felt there wasn’t a human face on the suffering of innocent Israelis,” Sanderson said, adding that the film is expected to be picked up by major television networks in the near future. “We wanted to put a human face on this side of the struggle because we didn’t feel it existed.” “No Safe Place” does that through six heart-wrenching testimonials of Israelis whose lives have been drastically altered by acts of terror, including that of a woman whose mother and 5-year-old daughter were murdered in a suicide bombing attack, a boy who suffers from extreme trauma as a result of witnessing the murder of his father during the Passover massacre and a bus driver who lives in fear as a result of the high risk involved in riding buses in Israel today. Lehrer hopes the documentary motivates people to action.

Some, however, question how a documentary will be accepted in the mainstream when it is affiliated with an organization or individual that is known to support Jewish causes. Richard Trank, executive producer of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s film division, Moriah Films, encounters such a problem on a regular basis. He believes that it is more likely that independent filmmakers and media outlets will be taken seriously in the mainstream than an organization or individual who has a known political agenda.

“It could be a great film, totally balanced, but there’s this hump they have to get over,” said Trank, who produced “The Long Way Home,” the 1997 Academy Award-winner for Best Documentary Feature.

Davis paid particular attention to the challenge of objectivity, he said.

“I went to Jenin as a journalist and I am very pro-Israel, but I went there to conduct a documentary that is balanced and fair. I wanted to present both sides of the story,” Davis said. “I made great pains to give everybody a fair shake which is why I allowed the correspondents to defend themselves.”

Trank acknowledges the challenges that those like Davis encounter in addressing such controversial subjects and supports any efforts being made to educate and to support Israel.

“The reason why organizations are coming out with these is that there’s been a concern about how Israel’s position has been portrayed during the intifada — people should be upset,” Trank said.

While Jewish documentarians seem to be concerned about appearing overly sympathetic, Jewish leaders are concerned that notoriously provocative director Oliver Stone’s new documentary on the Middle East, “Persona Non Grata,” will not be sympathetic enough (see story, above).

Mark J. Harris, professor at the USC School of Cinema-Television, realizes that one man’s propaganda may be another man’s truth, and he applies a rule of thumb to films concerning the controversial situation in Middle East:

“Any film that attempts to demonize the other side would, in my view, be propaganda,” Harris said. “But if people are sympathetic to the point of view expressed in these films, they may be more inclined to see them as documentary truth.”

To order a personal copy of “Relentless: The Struggle
for Peace in Israel,” visit

Your Letters


Women Suffer Blow

I write to express my hurt and outrage at your recent article, “Women Suffer Blow on Praying at the Wall,” (April 11). To which women, exactly, are you referring? Surely not the thousands of women, secular as well as religious, who come year round to pour their hearts out to the Almighty at all hours of the day and night.

I have never been to the Kotel without being overcome by emotion — partly because I am praying in a spot so drenched in sanctity, but also, invariably, because of the sight of my fellow daveners. No matter what time of day or what season of the year at the Kotel, any Jewish woman can experience a sublime connection to our foremothers — we watch all around us the devotion of living embodiments of our Mother Rachel, weeping for her children. These are the real Women of the Wall, and they come to worship and beseech God’s mercy every day, not once a month with fanfare and advance press releases.

Nowhere in your article do I sense any concern for the sensitivities of these women who are hurt and offended by the strident, politically based activities of Women of the Wall, which disturb their prayers and marginalize their devotion to the peace and holiness of the site. Please, the next time you choose to address this issue, take into consideration the feelings of the real Women of the Wall.

Shana Kramer, Director Creative Learning Pavilion of Torah Umesorah Los Angeles

Rome and Baghdad

Reuven Firestone’s article on Islam modernization through defeat oversimplifies the issue. Islam did lose many wars, and its confidence was shaken (“Rome and Baghdad,” April 11). The losses to the Turks and Mongols were the greatest of such disasters. These did not just fade the caliphate away, but brutally overwhelmed it in worse ways than the American victory over Baghdad. That which Firestone claims did not happen happened.

The reason why a “softer Islam” did not emerge after such debacles is because the invading hordes took up the religion and even infused it with new fervor. Islam did soften somewhat during various periods in history, and often when its confidence had been high for centuries.

It was the defeats, upheavals and ease of interpreting the Koran in belligerent ways that seems to have always led to a new wave of fundamentalist Islam. Professor Firestone generously praises the value of humble pie to Islam, but his historical analysis of cause and effect in this case entitle him to a slice.

Andrei L. Doran, El Segundo

A Letter of Thanks

This is a note of a sincere, warm “Thank you.”

We are residents in a retirement facility, which has a number of Jewish residents. Receiving The Jewish Journal each week keeps us in touch with what’s happening locally and internationally within the Jewish communities. While physical conditions don’t permit being active anymore, as we once were, just reading and seeing photos as to what is going on helps keep our interest “upbeat.”

To enjoy all of this and not say, “Thank you,” would be remiss on my part. My wife and I wish you and your entire, so capable staff a very happy Passover holiday.

Jack and Cecily Flamer, Chatsworth

The War at Home

Just wanted to let Rob Eshman know that he wrote a great article on “The War at Home” (April 18). Three-hundred and fifty people killed in one year in Los Angeles alone? It is amazing how many problems go unreported by the major news media.

Thanks for reporting on the extremely high murder rate here in Los Angeles, which has been invisible by the major news media. Your article helps create the first step — awareness. Hopefully, enough people read it.

What’s the next step? Your suggestion for individuals — community leaders and anyone who is willing to make contact with L.A. leaders — was that speaking out is key. I hope your message is heard.

Mike Cohen , Sherman Oaks

Between 1997 and 2001, a total of 5,960 Los Angeles County residents were killed by guns. Where is the outrage? “The War at Home” echoes a message we at Women Against Gun Violence try hard to share.

Those who protest the war in Iraq need also to turn their energies to protesting this war at home. Support Sheriff Baca and Chief Bratton’s request for resources.

Ask them, and all law enforcement, to focus their attention on where the guns are coming from. How do they so easily get into the hands of young people and those with criminal records? Are there enough resources in programs which trace confiscated guns to help identify gun dealers who sell out the back door? Do legal gun owners lock up their guns so that they cannot be stolen?

By all means send support to the sheriff, and for moreinformation and ways to get involved, contact us at info@wagv.org, or phone (310) 204-2348 and checkout our memorial Web site, with pictures and tributes to victims of gunviolence, at www.wagv.org . Those stories should be enough to help you feel the outrage.

Ann Reiss Lane, Women Against Gun Violence

The Challenge of Pluralism

In Julie Gruenbaum Fax’s piece, “The Challenge of Pluralism in Israel” (April 11), Ehud Bandel is quoted as saying, “The sad reality about religious life in Israel is this unholy alliance between the Orthodox and the secular that says that Judaism is a matter of everything or nothing at all.”

While I agree entirely that Jews are best searching for spirituality “at home,” I find it difficult to understand how Bandel sees Orthodoxy as monolithic or “everything or nothing.” It is clear that no Jew, no matter how righteous or pious, is “all”; no one has reached perfection. Even Moses was denied entry to the Holy Land for his lack of perfection.

Judaism teaches that each and every adherent should strive to the best of his or her ability and to make the greatest possible use of the unique gifts that God has bestowed upon him or her. An Israeli Jew can go to a Sephardi, Azhkenazi, Charedi or Mizrachi community to find like-minded strivers and together create a better Israel, and a better Jewish people.

Manny Saltiel, Los Angeles

Birthright Continues BirthrightIsrael

I was excited to read the features on Birthright Israel in your April 4 issue (“Birthright Continues Despite Setbacks”). As an alumna of the winter 2000-2001 trip, the articles brought back wonderful memories. Birthright Israel provided me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Israel (free of charge) with people my age, all experiencing the same wonder and excitement together.

I went on my trip with peers from all over the United States, but when I returned, I was anxious to meet people locally that had shared in my experience. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is helping to make this possible. The Federation is currently planning ways for Birthright Israel alums to stay involved and connected through social gatherings, and give back to the community through tzedakah and tikkun olam.

When you hear about the generous financial support The Federation provides for these trips and others like them, you think “Dayenu.” But it’s when you really begin to take advantage of these programs that give you an opportunity to be part of a community, you realize The Federation is doing much, much more.

I hope people will call The Federation’s Israel connections/experiences department at (323) 761-8342 to learn more and get involved.

Kimberly Gordon , Birthright Israel alumna

Helluva Ball Club

I had no idea that baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg was also an outstanding executive in his chosen sport until I read Richard A. Macales’ informative and entertaining article, “Helluva Ball Club.” (April 4). Greenberg’s work in the front office was sadly omitted from the acclaimed documentary film on his life The Journal reviewed some time back.

After I read Macales’s article, I checked the record of Greenberg’s Cleveland and Chicago teams. In 10 years as general manager and/or part owner, his clubs finished first three times and second five times. They never had a losing season and won a then-league record 111 games in 1954.

His son, Steve Greenberg, was deputy commissioner of baseball. It is too bad, as Macales correctly writes, that Greenberg didn’t get the Angels franchise. The Dodgers should have never moved out of Brooklyn. Shame on you for what you did to Brooklyn’s loyal fans and to the Angels team, Walter O’Malley!

Dr. Melvin Myers, Chatsworth

Defining Moment

Your cover story referring to “The American Empire” (“War Marks Defining Moment for Jews,” April 4) was highly inappropriate. An empire as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority.”

Has The Jewish Journal now joined the Arab propaganda machine (along with some naive members of the political left wing) in suggesting that the United States plans permanent sovereign rule over the Iraqi people?

I could not have imagined a more inflammatory cover page feeding into the misplaced rage of those who really wish to hurt us all. What’s next? Perhaps a cover story with an expose detailing the Zionist conspiracy behind the empire?

Edith Ellenhorn , Beverly Hills

Your choice of headlines, “Will the American Empire Be Good for the Jews,” on the April 4 issue disturbs me. Without question, I want what is best for the Jews throughout the world, but to put it on the front cover in reference to this war and show concern only for the Jews is wrong. What about Christians and Muslims, will it be good for them? I am fearful that this type of headline will only bring out more anti-Semitism.

Phoebe Reff , Tarzana

Correction

In the Friday listing for the April 4, “7 Days in the Arts,” the “Strange Fruit” songwriter adopted the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

Failing Minds Fall Prey to Holocaust


"Why did you come? Go, go before it’s too late," Laja Szydlowski warned her daughter, Hanna. She then whispered, "They’re killing people here. You don’t understand."

This encounter did not take place in 1940, with Szydlowski holed up in a cramped apartment in the Lodz ghetto in Poland. This happened less than a year ago, in a cheerfully furnished room at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA). However, in Szydlowski’s mind, she was back in Lodz. This time the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, rather than the Nazis, imprisoned her.

"What happens," explained Dr. Marla Martin, a clinical psychologist who has worked intensively at JHA for more than 10 years, "is that the sense of time is impacted by dementia, and the person again becomes the young man or woman struggling against all odds to survive."

Szydlowski, 93, has been reliving the Holocaust for the past six or seven years, according to her daughter, Hanna Golan. However, her Alzheimer’s disease has now progressed to where she can no longer verbally communicate. "She is constantly crying," Golan said.

Szydlowski is one of an estimated 11,000-12,000 Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles County, whose average age is 81. With nearly half of all elderly people 85 or older affected to some degree by Alzheimer’s or other dementias, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of those Holocaust survivors, who are reliving in their minds the roundups, selections, starvation, brutality and the killing of family members, often in their presence, is significant.

Even without dementia, many survivors have nightmares, fear abandonment, act secretively and read anti-Semitism into innocent interactions. They react adversely to such seemingly normal activities as standing in lines or dealing with uniformed personnel. Some even avoid the oil well on the Beverly Hills High School campus, now painted with flowers, because it is a reminder of the smokestack at Auschwitz.

Helen Zisner, 82, who is in early stages of dementia and living at the Vista del Sol Care Center in Culver City, is not catapulted back into the Holocaust but reacts to certain stimuli.

"You can’t approach her from behind," her son, Benjamin, said. "She’ll ask, ‘Who are you here for?’ because she’s reminded of guards entering her concentration camp barracks."

But for survivors with more pronounced dementia, the Holocaust experience exacerbates the paranoia and suspiciousness, and, Martin said, "Those people are much more likely to experience flashbacks."

JHA, with a population of 800 residents, houses only 41 Holocaust survivors in its residential and skilled-nursing facilities, according to Laurie Manners, administrator of the Grancell Village campus. The number is small but, with over two-thirds of them suffering from some degree of dementia, the behaviors stand out.

"We have people who hoard food, who stockpile it in their rooms," Manners said. "And we have one resident who is convinced that noxious fumes are coming in through his air conditioning vent. ‘It’s poison gas. I’m suffocating,’ he tells us."

Holocaust survivors, who felt so deprived, often cannot adjust to living with a roommate, whom they may believe is plotting against them or stealing their possessions. Some are very distrustful.

Haya Berci, JHA’s executive director of nursing, said, "If something goes wrong, some survivors are afraid to say anything, for fear of retaliation."

They also have issues surrounding money, such as one resident who believed a rabbi had stolen her $50,000. Many want to sleep with their cash. These behaviors happen more readily in an institutional setting, where survivors feel less in control, according to Martin.

"They can react to showering or to undergoing a medical procedure," she said. "They think the hospital is performing experiments on them and their family has been murdered."

Also, she said, many lose the ability to speak and understand English and are frightened by people talking in what they perceive as a foreign language.

Most survivors, however, according to Paula Fern, director of Jewish Family Service’s (JFS) Pico-Robertson Storefront and the Holocaust Survivors Program, like most elderly, generally live in their own homes, alone or with paid caregivers or with relatives.

JFS works with about 650 survivors in their 60s and older, about 10 percent of whom suffer from some type of dementia. Caseworkers in four storefront facilities make home visits, assisting the survivors and their families. Additionally, JFS provides adult day care for Alzheimer’s clients in three locations, as well as respite time for families.

Still, JFS has seen its share of survivors with Alzheimer’s or dementia who, according to Fern, "are caught in the moment of the Holocaust and relive all that terror, anguish, anxiety and peril."

Fern tells of a past client, a physically fit man in his 70s, who, donning a suit, tie and hat, and putting his financial papers and money into a leather briefcase, disappeared. He stayed with various friends, a few days at a time, and only occasionally resurfaced.

"It took a long time to figure out he had been a courier in the Paris underground and was re-experiencing those days," Fern explained. Because he had no family, JFS arranged for a private conservator.

"This phenomenon is not a new revelation," Fern said. JFS has had survivor clients since 1945 and began a program specifically for aging clients in 1997.

Currently JFS has an extensive program for survivors and their families funded by the Conference for Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund, as well as private donations. Additional training on Alzheimer’s and other aging issues is provided by the Alzheimer’s Association and JFS staff.

"Training, training, training," stressed Berci of JHA, which provides training to new employees, along with ongoing education for all staff members, on Jewish culture and issues, including the Holocaust. Recently, JHA received a grant from Wells Fargo Bank to set up a comprehensive program specifically to assist Holocaust survivors, including those with dementia, and their families.

Interestingly, while the Holocaust population in general is decreasing, this subset is actually increasing as survivors, like the general population, are living longer, and thus are more likely to become demented.

"The cruel irony," geriatric psychiatrist Daniel Plotkin said, "is that dementia doesn’t protect these people. Their long-term memory remains intact."

Plotkin stressed the importance of a trusting relationship, whether it’s with the spouse or a hired caregiver.

For Szydlowski, that trusted person is her husband, Michael, 94, who also lives at JHA and comes to his wife’s room every day before she rises.

"He is afraid to have her wake up and have him not there, because that would be terrible for her," Golan explained. "He doesn’t sleep because he’s afraid of oversleeping."

He stays with her in the Alzheimer’s day room, taking time off only to eat and, at his daughter’s urging, to play bingo a couple times a week.

"I’m not sure she recognizes my father or me, but she feels safe with us," she said. "With everyone else, even nurses who have cared for her for years, she struggles."

For some, artistic pursuits help tame the Holocaust demons. Sam Gal, 81, entered JHA in 1998 and took up painting for the first time. He spent every day in the art room, creating a prolific portfolio of paintings, which gradually became lighter, in both content and appearance. About two years ago, as dementia set in, he was forced to stop.

Medication can sometimes help control the agitation and paranoia, though it can’t prevent flashbacks. People can also often be distracted, with a song or a walk. For those with severe dementia, just holding their hand or talking to them in their language of origin can comfort them.

"Our philosophy is to know each person," Manners said. "What were his hobbies? What did he do for a living? Often, we can calm someone by doing something familiar."

Some known triggers can be eliminated, even in institutional settings. In JHA, patients can be given baths rather than showers. The overhead paging system is rarely used. Bank statements have been simplified, to make them more understandable, and residents have a locking drawer in their room, to securely store their possessions.

Facilities can also be made as homelike as possible. JHA’s Goldenberg-Ziman Special Care Center, which opened a year ago on the Eisenberg campus with 96 beds for residents with dementia, offers lots of sunlight, with floor-to-ceiling windows, carpeted rooms and a soft décor. Some residents simply become less agitated as they become familiar with their surroundings and staff and relax into a routine.

"However," Fern said, "most children are extremely reluctant to place their survivor parents in facilities. It’s a tough sell even to get them into adult day care."

Miriam, who declined to give her last name and whose mother, 78, suffers from Alzheimer’s, arranges care for her parents in their own home. That is also their wish.

"They’ve gone through so much in life," she said. "I don’t want anything at the end of their lives to resemble the hardships they went through at the beginning."

Golan’s parents, on the other hand, independently made the decision to move into the JHA in 1995. She visits them several times a week, though she’s not certain her mother realizes she’s there.

"She’s fighting for her life," Golan said, explaining that her mother’s first husband was beaten to death in front of her, just before her 2-year-old daughter was taken away. She subsequently spent time in Auschwitz, Treblinka and Mauthausen.

"Once was enough," Golan said. "Once was too much."



Remembrance Rites to Mark Holocaust

Two Holocaust remembrance events will be held on April 29 and May 4 at the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument in Pan Pacific Park.

The April 29 observance, starting at 11 a.m., will bring together approximately 1,600 students from 25 public, Jewish and Catholic schools for a memorial program conducted by students and for readings by Holocaust survivors. Each participating school will receive four books for its library.

One of the books is "Abiding Hope, Bearing Witness to the Holocaust," by Benjamin A. Samuelson. The author, who uses a pen name, was forced to work as a member of the sonderkommando, which operated the crematoria. He later was wounded fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. The books are being donated by the Greta Savage Memorial Foundation.

The other three books are "Witness to the Truth," by survivor and philanthropist Nathan Shapell; "The Children of Willesden Lane," by Mona Golabek; and "In the Shadow of the Past, Lest We Forget," the stories of 12 survivors.

Both events are being underwritten by Jona Goldrich, chairman of the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, and co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Second Generation.

The Holocaust Monument is located at the north end of Pan Pacific Park, between Beverly Boulevard and Third Street, adjacent to The Grove and Farmers Market.

The May 4 observance will be held at 1:45 p.m. Free transportation will be available from Westwood and the San Fernando Valley by preregistration. For information, phone (310) 280-5010 or (310) 821-9919. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Who Are the Journalists?


We love to hate them, those journalists who wield so much power and never quite get the facts right.

For two years now, we have opened up our morning papers, our Web sites and our hourly news broadcasts with a pit in our collective stomachs. It isn’t bad enough that the news from Israel is so frightening, terrifying and brutal, but the events are served up to us by journalists who can’t seem to distinguish between the ruthless murder of innocent babies at a pizza shop and the deliberate and cautious method in which our brave soldiers execute these murderers.

We are repelled by the moral blindness that screams from every page. Was there something we were missing?

Both of us had developed a much more positive view of journalists here in Los Angeles as we got to know them as human beings and friends. We went to Israel with a unique mission: not to confront but to engage, not to challenge but to question. Through the good offices of friends in Israel, we were able to meet with nearly a dozen journalists in a dizzying half-week; we got to know them and they us.

We spoke with the bureau chiefs of almost all the key American dailies, and then some. We learned much. We enjoyed the company of some very likable people, for the most part, struggling to do a good job on the toughest beat in the world. We detected no animus oward Israel, Israelis or Jews.

No two were the same in temperament or in previous experience. Some had covered wars elsewhere; others had last covered PTA meetings.

Some arrived in Jerusalem with very little knowledge of the historical background to the conflict (what was needed, they said, was accurate reportage of the events of the day). One was a Fullbright lecturer with shelves of background material neatly separated according to topic.

They also had quite a bit in common. They all took considerable risks to cover hot spots. Everyone had a flak jacket; everyone had thrust himself or herself in the midst of combat.

Despite each having important stories to tell and personal insights to relate, they exhibited far less ego then we anticipated. None of them had plans to write a book; they were almost uniformly sheepish about the suggestion. They saw themselves as specialists in their single interest of daily reportage, and that suited them just fine.

They had all been to Jenin, and each one insisted that he/she quickly knew there was no massacre and had gotten the word out quickly. Each one also insisted that it was shortsighted of Israel to change the press accommodations without warning, leaving them stranded outside the arena of action.

The authorities had never clamped down too hard on them when they exposed themselves to the dangers of bullets whizzing around their heads. Why did they choose Jenin to become solicitous of their safety in the face of hidden bombs, refusing to allow them official entry (some found ways around that) until after women and children had reentered the town? While they personally believed that Israel had nothing to hide, the country had handed the Palestinians significant credibility for their claims.

The veteran writers all appreciated that in other wars they had covered, they were simply kept away from the combat zones — and that was the end of it. No country matched the freedom of access that Israel provided, but that did not lead to enthusiastic embrace of the Israeli position, when in their view political hacks frustrated their getting their work done.

One writer pithily offered this summary: “When most of us get here, we have leanings toward the Israeli side. After we see the plight of the Palestinians, our sympathies tilt in the other direction. When we really get to know the principals, we are equally turned off to both.”

Why do they get in trouble with American Jewish critics? One factor became prominent: the use of Palestinian “facilitators” to gather news and sometimes to do much more.

Everyone has them. Israelis just cannot operate in the territories, while the opposite is not true. The journalists say they take their bias into account, but the process is imperfect. And the Palestinians speak with one voice: they want to put their people in the best light.

While the journalists use Israeli facilitators as well, they do not all hew to the same line. Israel is a democracy, and the Israeli counterparts to the Palestinians (none of the latter, by the way, agreed to meet with us) are not all great boosters of the state.

Here we were able to level the playing field a bit. We came equipped with ideas for stories, and fresh contacts who would give voice to points of view they had not yet heard. Surprisingly, we found out that we were the first who had tried this personal approach to helping them do their job.

We proposed human interest ideas, and every one of our new friends sighed, expressing the wish that the violence would subside long enough to allow them the luxury of pursuing those avenues.

There were some difficult moments. We found it hard to listen to stories of the counterproductive behavior of our own people. We hoped — and continue to hope — that people outside our community should be able to differentiate between a small number of hotheads in one society and an entire culture peddling hatred and suicide bombing in the other.

But what could you really tell two female reporters who, covering a funeral in a settlement, returned to their car late on a Friday afternoon to find all four tires slashed? It was hard to disagree when they said that this was more than harassment; that they felt threatened and endangered.

Most difficult to listen to, however, was their almost uniform reaction to our questions about their pursuit of the human side to terrorism, when it seemed to make unvarnished evil more understandable, and therefore not as evil. They all rejected the notion that they were somehow creating a sense of parity between victim and victimizer.

Suicide bombing is so horrific, they claimed, that telling the story of its perpetrators could not possibly diminish normal people’s revulsion for it. It should, they expected, do just the opposite.

But what if it didn’t really work that way? What if they learned, for example, that a story they wrote about a teenage bomber so fascinated a kid in Des Moines that he blew up himself and a school bus of his peers? Would they have any regrets?

None, they insisted. Their job was to report the news, regardless of how the readership processed it. They could not be responsible for that.

With all the differences in background and personality, they all offered the same reasoning. The response was so uniform that it had to be part of their training. They had arrogated to themselves a privilege few of us have: hermetically sealing themselves off from the consequences of their words.

It is a position that we simply could not accept. As rabbis, as educators — as traditional Jews — our interest is almost exclusively what the listener will do with the material, how he or she will internalize it, use it, expand upon it. The advice of our sages in Avot rang in our ears: “Be careful about your words!”

We had arrived at the crux of the matter and left somewhat relieved, but doubly frustrated. We were thankful that it was good, decent people, and not a pack of rabid anti-Semites invoking this moral insulation. But we left without a solution in sight to correcting the daily moral imbalance that these new friends of ours create in the name of balanced reportage. And it was all the more difficult to hear it defended as a privilege of the fourth estate.

We now understood why we could never become journalists ourselves.


Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School. Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom is the chairman of Bible studies at Yeshiva of Los Angeles High School. Together, they run Project Next Step of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and host “Rabbis With Attitude” on KCSN-FM.

Mother Weathers Terror’s ‘Storm’


"Storm of Terror: A Hebron Mother’s Diary," by June Leavitt (Ivan R. Dee, $22.50).

Either excoriated as illegal conquerors or praised as pioneers, Jews living in the territories conquered by Israel in the Six-Day War are never portrayed neutrally. The very name of where they live depends on the political bent of the writer: to critics they live in "the West Bank in the Occupied Territories," and proponents historically term it "Judea and Samaria." But at the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian controversy, settlers themselves rarely tell their own stories in print. With "Storm of Terror," June Leavitt has filled that gap.

Leavitt is an American Jewish woman who grew up in secular upper-middle-class Long Island, left for the University of Wisconsin with a trunk full of new mix n’ match clothes, then found herself floundering in the drug culture. Today she is an ultra-Orthodox mother of five who lives with her husband and children in the Jewish enclave of Kiryat Arba in the Palestinian-controlled city of Hebron.

"Storm" is the intensely personal diary of her life during the first year and a half of the second intifada, which erupted on Sept. 29, 2000. Apart from emotional references to biblical patriarchs, the book is not a political polemic; Leavitt, passionately convinced of the Jews’ historic right to live in the entire biblical Israel (including Palestinian-occupied territories), feels no need to justify her a priori position.

Rather, she tells the story of how it feels to live through the trauma of violence and death that strikes her neighbors and friends daily. She relates chronologically the relentless terrorist incidents in which settlers have been attacked in fields, cars, busses and in their own beds. In each case, Leavitt writes not of some anonymous victim, but of acquaintances in her tightknit community whom she meets in the streets, in the grocery and in her children’s schools: "We are burying another of our dead…. Orphans. Orphans everywhere."

When right-wing Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi was assassinated in 2001, it was not some remote politician Leavitt lost but a close family friend who years earlier had himself joined her hospital vigil after rock throwers assaulted her husband causing head injuries.

The real power of the narrative is its honesty, as when Leavitt agonizes about watching her own children on the firing line: "Miriam said that at school her friends are busy writing their own eulogies…. Whoever says they are not frightened is telling a lie."

Leavitt also struggles to juggle among her children’s differing viewpoints. Her eldest daughter Estie, a soldier, was stationed in her hometown to quell settlers advancing towards violent Arab demonstrators. One of the settlers was Estie’s younger sister, Miriam:

"Get out of here before I smash you with this!"

Estie pushed the settlers back with the butt end of her rifle.

Miriam cried, "Why are you on their side? Why are you going to let the Arabs kill us?"

"Traitor!" other settlers screamed at Estie.

A woman soldier grabbed Miriam’s arm. Miriam resisted. When the soldier raised her arm to hit Miriam, Estie screamed, "Don’t touch her! She’s my sister!"

Leavitt’s son became intensely devout as a reaction to friends’ deaths. And her 13-year-old daughter was often so terrified that Leavitt spent nights rocking her. In the new reality of the intifada, normalcy is nowhere. Even a simple mother-daughter conversation about planning the daughter’s future is not immune: "Both Estie and I are trying to ignore the screaming, the whistling of the mobs, the gunfire, the grenades, the street battles between the army and the Arabs," she writes.

Leavitt lost her mother at a young age, and her father and brother turned their backs on her when she moved her children into the dangers of "the West Bank."

Leavitt continues to search for the meaning that brought her and her husband first to become devoutly religious and then ardent Zionists. As a child of the ’60s she used yoga, bioenergy healing, meditation and even tarot cards in her quest for equanimity in the midst of horror.

Leavitt is candidly on the extreme fringe of the Israeli political spectrum. Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in 1994, had been her family doctor. Her comment on the causes for the crime?

"So many friends had died in his arms. Many of us think it was that event which broke our neighbor, Dr. Goldstein."

Leavitt describes, with almost utopian nostalgia, the friendships between her children and nearby Arab families before the peace process "put up barbed wire between us and the Arabs."

"Storm" will not cause any reader to change sides. But its powerful style and even more powerful emotions will engage anyone interested in the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy to race through its pages. Leavitt reveals herself not only as a determined ideologue but as a complex, struggling human being.

What We’ve Learned


On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Larry Eisenberg, president of the West Coast Region of the Orthodox Union, was in Toronto for a cousin’s wedding. He had just dropped off his daughter, a Fordham University law student, at the airport about an hour before for her 8 a.m. flight home to New York and was listening to the radio on his way back to the hotel.

Suddenly, a reporter broke in with news that an airplane had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center, followed by reports of problems with other planes. Eisenberg calculated the departure and arrival times for his daughter’s flight and realized she could very well be on one of those planes. He began to pray, both for her safety and that his wife was still asleep.

"I got back to the hotel and my wife had the television on and was hardly breathing. We couldn’t find out anything, we couldn’t get through," he recalled. It would be several hours before his daughter finally reached him to tell him she was safe.

While there were many similar stories of near misses — too many — more than 3,000 ended tragically. For the families and friends of those lost, time stopped that day. But even for those not personally connected to the victims, one thing is certain: we all remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on Sept. 11, 2001. The lessons we learned in the ensuing year continue to color our actions and our thoughts, and probably will continue to do so for the rest of our lives.

On a national level, the main lessons learned concerned security. In a recent interview, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer noted that all internal security organizations, particularly the FBI, have since shifted their focus to fighting terrorism and that, while the removal of the Taliban from power and the blows against Al Qaida’s infrastructure have diminished their threat, improving America’s security remains a major concern.

"The risk that our country faces, a country that has [before Sept. 11] enjoyed virtual immunity from attacks on our own shores, is that time and technology are not on America’s side," Fleischer said. "Time and technology are on the side of the terrorists. Terrorists, over time, could get access to technology, principally chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and they have shown a desire to use the weapons they obtain to inflict maximum harm. Sept. 11 showed that, and that’s why President Bush has taken the steps he’s taken to protect our country from terrorists who obtain these weapons."

Hand in hand with Bush’s continued military actions (including a possible attack on Iraq) has been a growing interest in issues of faith. In this vein, Fleischer announced Bush will hold a meeting this Friday with a group of interfaith leaders at the White House during which he will designate Sept. 6-8 as national days of prayer and remembrance, "to honor those who were lost, to pray for those who grieve and to give thanks for God’s blessings."

For some, the lessons of Sept. 11 have been spiritual and emotional. In the days following the tragedies, we were reminded by our leaders in the Jewish community to hug our children and our partners, pray for the families of the victims and feel grateful for the blessings in our lives. Other lessons have been more concrete: to be aware of our surroundings, to plan on spending an extra hour waiting in line at the airport. But in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks, it was hard to foresee that the world would ever return to normal.

Transplanted New Yorkers took some of the hardest blows on the day of — and days following — Sept. 11.

"The terror attacks were personal for every American, but for New Yorkers who lived there and worked there, it was even more shocking," said Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles. "There was a sense of disbelief that permeated the day. Even looking at images on television, it all seemed kind of surreal. I think it took a long time for people to accept it really happened."

Orenstein grew up in New York; her sister, a law professor at The Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Yeshiva University, works just 2.5 miles from the World Trade Center. Their grandfather once had an office in the Twin Towers and both women knew many people who worked in and around the buildings.

"My first cousin worked at Cantor Fitzgerald," Orenstein said. "She had just decided to start working flex-time, and the day she picked as her day off was Tuesday. It was only by chance she wasn’t there. I had another friend who worked in the building next to the Twin Towers, and after he helped evacuate the building he was able to get out."

For Orenstein, the near-misses underscored her belief in the miraculous.

"The thing I was struck by was the sense of grace. There was this tremendous tragedy, but also tremendous chesed [lovingkindness]. The idea that the planes were relatively empty, that on one of the planes the passengers managed to divert [it] so as not to cause even more tragedy, that so many people were evacuated and that even with people who did not make it some got to say goodbye on their cell phones … that was God’s grace. And there were so many people reaching out to help. There was a human response of real giving that happened that day," she said.

Rabbi David Woznica, executive vice president of Jewish affairs for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, had just returned to Southern California in August of 2001 after living for 13 years in New York City, where he had been director of the 92nd Street Y Bronfman Center for Jewish Life. Five days after the tragedies, he flew back to conduct High Holiday services there and to be with the people of his adopted city.

"The most vivid memory I had was walking on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and getting to the fire station on East 85th Street," he said. "Normally the gates were closed, but the gates were open, even though it was late at night, and there were pictures there of five men, five firefighters who had died. The pictures were surrounded by literally thousands of letters from schoolchildren and hundreds of burning candles, and there were firefighters milling about along with local residents. Everyone was in this ashen state and there was almost no talking.

"That was the strange thing; the city was so silent. And everywhere you went, there were photocopied pictures of people with something like, ‘WTC, 92nd floor, please call, I love her very much.’ In those first few days, there was the assumption that there would be survivors. You couldn’t walk by without reading them and then you would just get chills."

Woznica said he feared it might be too early to know the real lessons of Sept. 11.

"I guess one lesson is the reminder that evil exists," he said. "It was also a lesson in how unbelievably generous Americans are, and not just with money. There are people who are willing to risk their lives for others and we see them every day. Sometimes they wear a uniform and sometimes they don’t."

For other L.A. residents, Sept. 11 is a reminder of our vulnerability, a word which was rarely used in concert with the word "American" before the terror attacks.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was at Heathrow Airport in London on his way to Israel when he noticed people gathered around a television monitor and shouting.

"It was right after the first attack," he said. "Then we saw the second attack on the south tower, and it immediately occurred to me that this had never happened in American history. It was, in a way, much worse than Pearl Harbor, because it was an attack on a major city plus an attempt on Washington, D.C., I thought, this will change America forever. American history will be known as before Sept. 11 and after Sept. 11."

Despite the attacks, Hier said he is confident that Americans and American Jews are safer now than before Sept. 11 because of heightened sensitivity to security issues. But he voiced his disappointment that world religious leaders, particularly Muslim clerics, have avoided addressing the key issue: Islamic fundamentalism.

"Not enough time has been devoted by the media and politicians, and not enough resources have been devoted to involving all the world’s religious leaders in defeating the scourge of this terrorism at its roots, which is the teaching of this [suicide attacks] as a legitimate form of martyrdom and a way to heaven," Hier said. "Here we are, a year later, and the Muslim clerics and the United Nations have not come out in force against this. Why does the United Nations think that nudging only works over territories?"

LAPD Deputy Chief David Kalish, commanding officer of operations for the West Bureau, was busy in the hours after the incidents in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania making sure that if Los Angeles was indeed a target, the city was as prepared as possible to survive (and if possible prevent) another attack.

"Historically, we know with these terrorists that if at first they don’t succeed, they try, try again," Kalish said. "We saw that with the World Trade Center. Like New York, Los Angeles is a target-rich environment and the airport is obviously a top priority, so we added additional deployment that remains to this day."

Like Hier, Kalish feels that the city has become safer.

"The world has changed. I think we have learned we are vulnerable, but I think because of this, officers are much more cognizant of security issues than in the past," Kalish said.

Kalish said he feels the most important lesson to be learned from the events of Sept. 11 is the need to balance vigilance with the hallmarks of American democracy, including liberty and tolerance.

"Almost half the population [of Los Angeles] is foreign-born, and so it is important that we respect one another and are tolerant of one another. We have to be very careful that in our war on terrorism, we do not confuse the terrorists with other populations. Despite the fact that there is certainly the potential for terrorism to strike anywhere, we must never let it compromise our way of life and our freedoms," he said.

The need within the Los Angeles Jewish community to respond to the tragedies resulted in one of the strongest years for The Federation. According to Federation President John Fishel, the Federation has raised $54 million in pledges so far this year, with over $500,000 in unsolicited giving from last fiscal year and this fiscal year being set aside for victims of Sept. 11.

"From a fundraising standpoint, the last year has been extraordinary, especially given the malaise in our economy," Fishel said. "People responded extremely generously and enabled us to help the victims."

A year after the tragedies, the media is full of stories of healing and recovery. Among Jewish community leaders, some insist that while healing is necessary, it is equally essential that we do not lessen the impact of Sept. 11. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple notes that "too often, Americans forget the past, and Jews despair of the future, especially in Israel. That is a terrible mistake. The memorial, a serious memorial, of Sept. 11 is important, and the ability for Jews to get together and acknowledge we have a future is also very important.

"Sept. 11 has enlarged the community of people who care passionately about politics, especially foreign policy, and has reawakened us to the reality that America is not an isolated place in the world," Wolpe said. "We may be bounded by oceans, but we are not above the tides of time. What happens to the world happens to us. We need to care about the rest of the world and continue to pay close attention to it."

Overall, the mood in Los Angeles seems to be one of optimism for the future. Perhaps because we were not directly affected, it is easier to distance ourselves from the horrors and hold onto the hope.

Orenstein said she, like many other rabbis this year, will be addressing the shadow of Sept. 11 in her High Holiday sermons (see related story, page 39).

"I’m planning to say something about how to say goodbye to the past year. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov has a High Holiday prayer in which he says to ‘let the curses of the old year end and the blessings of the new year begin’ and that really resonates strongly for people right now," said Orenstein. "Sept. 11 is very hard for people to close the book on, but part of the High Holidays is to turn to a new page on which you can start fresh."

Thinking Twice About War


On a single day during Passover 1986, most of Israel’s major dailies ran oddly identical front-page stories describing a secret negotiation, recently collapsed, between Israel and Iraq. Iraq, it was said, had approached Israeli representatives in New York, asking that Jerusalem switch its covert support from Iran to Iraq in the war between them. In return, Iraq would exchange ambassadors with Israel after it won the war. Israel reportedly demanded recognition now, not later, and then ended the contacts abruptly after Washington caught wind of them.

Nothing further was reported. Israeli officials questioned about it responded, even years later, with studied, bristling silence. But in the spring of 2000, during not-so-secret Israeli-Palestinian talks leading up to Camp David, Israeli papers again reported Iraq-Israel contacts. Baghdad was said to be offering to absorb 300,000 Palestinian refugees from Lebanon if Israel would speak for Iraq in Washington and help soften American hostility. This time, Israel reportedly backed away even without being told.

No, the stories aren’t confirmed, but there is a telling logic to them. They echo something we’ve known all along about Saddam Hussein but often forget: that he is a cynical, power-hungry tyrant who believes in nothing — not even in anti-Zionism. The butcher of Baghdad is capable of virtually anything, including cozying up to Israel one day and attacking it the next.

Alas, America’s mostly one-sided public debate over Hussein has generated more heat than light in recent months. He’s been called a reckless adventurer, a wily survivor, a cynical tyrant, a ruthless fanatic. He can’t be all that. A wily survivor isn’t reckless, and a cynic isn’t fanatical. In fact, the Iraqi tyrant is an opportunistic thug who will do whatever suits his purposes, if he thinks he can get away with it. Above all, he’s a survivor.

The Washington hawks demanding war with Baghdad depict Hussein as something different: a dedicated extremist who’s committed to defeating Israel and the West, whatever the cost. There are forces in the region who fit that description, but their address isn’t Baghdad. It’s Tehran.

America’s attention has been riveted for months on Hussein and his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, which may have yielded, according to current Israeli intelligence, some stocks of chemicals, some rudimentary biological weapons and very few usable launchers. All the while, Iran has been working unhindered on building a nuclear bomb. This week, it reportedly brought two new nuclear facilities online, a heavy water plant and a nuclear fuel plant. Iran’s mullahs say they wouldn’t mind starting a nuclear war with Israel. They might survive and Israel wouldn’t. Anyway, survival isn’t their thing. They’re holy warriors. Iran is where Israel’s nightmares take shape.

It’s true that Hussein is a very bad guy. He’s gassed his own people and attacked two of his neighbors. The world would be a better place without him. But the same could be said of a host of dictators past and present who have threatened neighbors and massacred their own populations, sometimes over our objections, sometimes with our financial backing.

So why Hussein? The fact is, some folks just want action, and with communism gone, Baghdad may just be a handy new target.

They’re not wrong to want him gone. But an American attack isn’t necessarily wise. It could splinter Iraq, vastly strengthen Iran and cripple Turkey. Worse, it could bring a catastrophic attack on Israel, leaving thousands dead and inviting an Israeli reply that might spell nuclear winter. Would that make the world a better place?

War hawks point to Munich 1938, when the free world faced a tyrant and blinked. But Hitler was explicitly bent on conquering the world and eradicating entire populations, and as head of a great industrial power he had the means to do so. Hussein is more like Stalin circa 1946, a corrupt thug terrorizing the cowed populace of a backward nation.

After defeating Hitler, the West looked east and properly decided Stalin was best contained, not crushed. That was the approach the Clinton administration took in 1993 with its "dual containment" policy — albeit inadequately enforced — toward Iraq and Iran.

If there’s now a case to be made for abandoning patience and risking world cataclysm, we’re waiting to hear it. So is the rest of the world, beginning with our European allies and the moderate Arab states. They have at least as much at stake as we do in stabilizing the Middle East and avoiding nuclear Armageddon.