November 19, 2018

A Most Remarkable Miracle by Laurie Dinnerstein-Kurs

Hope - Magic, Miracles, and Health

[Ed. Note: As we approach Rosh HaShanah, here is an entry that offers hope and a positive story. All of us at Kavod v’Nichum offer you wishes for a Shenah Tovah Umetukah! May you be inscribed and sealed for a year of blessings. — JB]

Once upon a time, on a most average, ordinary day, I received a call from a local Rabbi asking if I was available to go immediately to the ER at a local hospital as an elderly Jewish woman was imminently expected to die… and her husband of 60 years was distraught as he stood near her gurney.

In that brief phone call … minus many details … I was informed that this very day was their anniversary. The plan had been that they would renew their vows later this evening. But as we know, often we make plans and G-D laughs.

As I changed from my jeans to more appropriate “clergy/chaplain” clothes my hubby gathered some flowers from our yard, a small glass and a little bottle of grape juice. With these items in hand, off I went to the ER.

Security guards ushered me to the correct bay, and upon my entering this cubicle, the two non-Jewish chaplains left.

So, there I was with the distraught husband, and his wife who was as white as the sheet she was laying on. I held the wife’s hand as I asked the husband to repeat a very very very condensed version of a renewal ceremony – made up on the spot!!

Concluding this ceremony with the shehechiyanu prayer, expressing thanks that they DID reach THIS day, I began to ask him about his years with her. I asked, “what was the most memorable moment that you can recall?” He responded that it was their trip to Israel the year before.

We talked about the various cities and towns where they stayed, and I asked if they had any relatives in Israel. Nope – not a one. My follow-up question was, “What in Israel moved your wife the most?” He quickly responded, “the Kotel.”

With that answer he was moved to obvious emotion. But this obvious emotion paled compared to the emotion he demonstrated when SHE responded, “the Kotel!”

This sick, frail, and dying woman somehow gathered the inner strength to say, though admittedly in a whisper, “The Kotel.”

The fact that this woman had heard us, could respond and defy the odds was strange enough. The devoted, loyal, distraught, husband NEARLY had his own medical emergency when he heard her speak. He had to catch himself from falling!

With that one unbelievable phrase – “the Kotel” – one has to wonder what the powers that be – let be. Why would THIS conversation have the power to elicit strength that was just moments before absent? How is it that she must have  heard all the previous discussions, prayers, and her husband’s pleas for her to get better, but all that for naught, and yet she heard THIS question?

The doctors were sure that death was a certainty, the chaplains were offering comfort and words of early condolence, and the husband was told to call the funeral home and “make necessary plans.” I am the Roshah of the Chevrah Kadisha in this community, and I would put out the call at news of a death.

And yet, the mention of the Kotel stirred her, emotionally and physically. Slowly, color returned to her face, and ever so slowly she began to “look” less at deaths door.

Her husband recounted to her that they had just had a Renewal of Vows, that it was in fact the day of their anniversary, and he was moved to tears that she appeared better.

With that I left the cubicle.

Outside the cubicle, several feet away, the two Christian chaplains were nonplussed and flummoxed, to say the least. Having overheard that she spoke, they wanted to know the Jewish Secret – what had I done? I simply told them “Kotel,” and left!

I did learn that the elderly, imminently going-to-die woman was released to home after 3 days – showing the power of Hashem, miracles, good luck, coincidence.

Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs hails from Brooklyn, currently living in NJ.  Having originally learned about Taharah as a yeshiva student, I knew I would participate as soon as the opportunity presented itself.  I have participated in doing Taharah for almost 30 years.  I am currently the ROSHAH of our chevrah.  When not doing Taharah, I taught school – up until I retired and went back to school and became a chaplain.  I held the Federation position of County (Mercer) Chaplain for 15 years.   My two children have blessed us with grandchildren.

Rabbi Laurie Dinnerstein-Kurs

Rabbi Laurie Dinnerstein-Kurs


Gamliel Courses

The next course in the cycle of core courses offered by the Gamliel Institute will be Course 4 – Nechama/Comfort. It will be offered online during the Fall from October 9th to December 25th on Tuesday evenings, for 90 minutes each week for 12 weeks. The classes will begin at 5 pm PST/8 pm EST. Primary instructors will be Dan Fendel and Edna Stewart, with guest instructors.

Registration is now open – click here.

The course planned for Winter 2019 is Course 2 – Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah. Plan ahead!


Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to a free informal online session, held monthly. On the third (3rd) THURSDAY of each month, different person(s) will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is September 20th. More details will be sent out soon.

If you are interested in teaching a session, you can contact us at,, or


Gamliel Continuing Education Courses

Gamliel students should be on the lookout for information on a series of Gamliel Continuing Education  Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will usually be in groups of three ninety minute sessions (three consecutive Wednesdays) offered roughly twice yearly, with different topics addressed in each series. The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first course took place in Fall 2017, focusing on Psalms, and the second was on The World to Come and the Zohar.

The next course will be November 28th, December 5th, and December 12th. We will continue to look at death as seen in the Zohar, taught by Beth Huppin.

Registration is required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for each three session series. Contact us for information, by email, or call 410-733-3700, or simply register online at

You can also register for prior courses and access them via recording.


Taste of Gamliel Series

The 2018 Taste of Gamliel series has concluded, but it is not too late if you want to access the recordings. You can Register for the 2018 series, Your’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone: Jewish Practices of Remembrance, or any of the series from prior years, and view them in recordings.  There are usually five sessions in a series, and each session is approximately 90 minutes.

The 2019 series is being planned now. Registration for Taste of Gamliel is mandatory to access the sessions. The Registration fee of $36 for each series helps us defray the out of pocket costs.
Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions. To register, click here: register.



Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the annual conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Continuing Education courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities. There is a matching donation program in progress so your dollars go further. See the website for details.

You can donate online at or by snail mail to either:

Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute,

c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum,

8112 Sea Water Path,

Columbia, MD  21045.

Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute] are recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

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Please note: this blog depends on you for content. Without you it cannot publish new material. If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.



Waiting for the Sky to Explode – A Poem for Haftarah Vayera by Rick Lupert

I remember the time I was at Disneyland with my beloved.
We were just a year into our love and everything was magic.

So when the voiceover came on in the park and said
anything’s possible, if you believe, I believed.

And then, as if to confirm my conviction, the sky exploded
as it does every night in that place, which is holy to anyone

who has fended off adult cynicism as long as I have.
So it’s not hard to believe the stories of the prophet

Elisha, holy man with a woman’s name, (we were the first
line crossers…) who gave a poor woman so much oil

she started a fossil fuel company and lived comfortably
on the profits all her days. Or the story of the woman

as old as our mother Sarah, who also had a child when
Elisha made a special arrangement with the original

Walt Disney on high. Or later how that child took to death
after a headache, but was immediately revived when

the prophet’s mouth was put on his. It may have been the first
mouth to mouth resuscitation but the implication is divine magic.

I don’t think I laughed like Sarah when I was told a child
was on the way. In fact it was one of the only speechless

moments of my life. But I see the miracles every day.
Something made from nothing, food purchased from

the sale of art, and the astonishment that breath continues
to come in and out of my lungs no matter what I do.

I believe in magic and I’m always ready for
the sky to explode.

God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

On Gaza border, a mother hangs on

Hila Fenlon, a 36-year-old farmer and mother of two, lives in Netiv Hasara, a small Israeli village of 400 residents that caresses the Gaza border. Hila is not religious, but she loves to use the word “miracle.”

She used the word several times when I met her in her village last week, as when she described a birthday party her young son attended several years ago.

“There was a clown putting on a show,” she said in her Hebrew-accented English. “All the kids were happy and sitting on a large blanket on the grass in the park.”

Then, a few minutes after the show had ended and the kids had left the grassy area, the miracle happened. A rocket landed precisely where the kids had been sitting.

Since moving to Netiv Hasara in 1982, Hila said, they have received “thousands” of rockets, in increasing levels of intensity. 

“In the beginning, the rockets would land in back fields. We didn’t take them very seriously.”

That casual attitude didn’t last long. Over the years, the rockets became more frequent, more lethal and more accurate. Bomb shelters were built. Security control rooms were opened. Eventually, the village was put on 24/7 alert.

Of course, none of this is news. Since Israel left Gaza nine years ago, we’ve all been reading about the thousands of rockets that have rained down on the border communities — especially Sderot — and the intense anxiety this has produced.

That anxiety really hits home, though, when you hear the human stories that linger long after the rockets fall — stories like the miracle of the birthday party, or the story of the big red metal bird.

When Hila’s son Jimmy was 4, he misheard the voice that was broadcast with the sirens: Instead of hearing “shachar adom” (red dawn), he would hear “shachaf adom” (red seagull).

Hila never knew this until years later, when her son finally told her that he was afraid a giant red metal bird would come and take him away.

Evidently, little Jimmy couldn’t imagine that these big, dangerous, metal things in the sky could come from other human beings. He figured it must be one of those science-fiction monsters you see in comic books — in this case, a giant bird.

The grownups in the village, maybe as a coping mechanism, have a humorous way of describing the kids of the village — they call them little ducks, or “duckies.” Just as little ducks like to follow their mother everywhere, so do the little kids of Netiv Hasara.

“When my kids were younger,” Hila said, “they never left me. I could go from the kitchen to the living room and they would follow me.”

When they took their showers, she had to stand by the bathroom door, in case the siren sounded and she had to rush them in 15 seconds or less to the nearest bomb shelter.

But it’s not just the kids who have been traumatized by years of indiscriminate rocket fire. It’s also the animals, especially the dogs. 

“Maybe the dogs take it worse than the humans,” she said. “When they see the kids panic, they go even crazier.” 

In the chaos of the sirens, some dogs have wandered and gotten lost. Hila thinks that the piercing sounds of bombs and sirens may damage the dogs’ hearing, and hence their sense of direction. Other dogs, she said, are extra cautious and are the first to run into the shelters.

As far as her own pets, when the Gaza war started a month ago, Hila took no chances. Just as she sent her two kids away to be with relatives, she put her dogs in a dog farm, safely away from the war zone.

Hila was among the minority of villagers who decided to stay during Operation Protective Shield. She said she didn’t sleep much, and spent many nights in the control room. When I asked how she went with so little sleep, she smiled and said, “I live on Red Bull.”

At the height of the war, she said her village did, in fact, feel like a war zone. 

There were moments when everything would erupt at once. The Israeli artillery shelling of Gaza would emit huge booms that would make the earth tremble, while above, the Iron Dome would make a terrifying sound blowing up rockets over Ashkelon, and, as if that weren’t enough, village sirens would wail to warn of incoming rockets.

“We’ve become experts at figuring out the different sounds,” she said. “Every rocket, every bomb, every siren we hear is different.” 

She doesn’t know when all these sounds of war will end. For now, she’s just happy that she and her kids are still around to hear the sounds of better days.

Chanukah Gift Guide

Jonathan Adler Dachshund Menorah   Calling all dog lovers! The Dachshund Menorah designed by Jonathan Adler is not your standard chanukiyah. Made in Peru, this fair-trade sculpted menorah is made of high-fired stoneware and features a white matte glaze. The Dachshund Menorah is pottery at its finest and makes the ideal gift for the Festival of Lights. $120.

Growbottles  Winner of the Eco Choice Award, Potting Shed Creations’ Growbottles add a touch of spring during any season — rain or shine. Basil, chives, mint, oregano or parsley easily grow when potted in these recycled and repurposed wine bottles. And, they create a unique display of freshness in any household or office. The Growbottles kit includes everything you need to make your plants flourish: seeds, pebbles, grow bottle and cork coaster. Replant kits available. $35.

Matisyahu’s “Miracle” EP  Matisyahu has done it again with the release of his Chanukah anthem “Miracle.” The EP includes a track with his band Dub Trio, guest vocals by rapper Shyne, a remix by University of Colorado at Boulder freshman Miniweapon as well as a beatboxing and acoustic version. $7.

Laura Cowan’s Smart Dreidel  Forgot what the letters on your dreidel stand for? Have no fear because the Smart Dreidel by Laura Cowan teaches you how to play the dreidel game. The text on the dreidel is uniquely designed in acrylic and anodized aluminum, incorporating Cowan’s signature use of discs and cones. $80.

Cookie Monster Nosh Bib  Let your child indulge in a snack with his or her favorite monster — Cookie Monster! Designed by Rabbi’s Daughters for a Shalom Sesame collection, the cotton bib features yellow trim with a Velcro closure and an adorable picture of Cookie Monster snacking on rugelach. $18.,

“I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River” by Henry Winkler  Actor Henry Winkler, best-known as the Fonz on “Happy Days,” shares all he’s learned while fly-fishing, which is more than just catching fish. Compiling humorous anecdotes and heartfelt observations from his annual trips to Montana and Idaho, Winkler recounts how his experiences on the river have shaped his perspective on life. $21.95.

Modern Bite Chanukkah Gift Boxes  Chef Daniel Shapiro taps his passion for baking to come up with the Modern Bite Chanukkah Gift Boxes. Baked to order, the boxed gift set includes natural sugar cookies with colorful icing that are pleasing to both the eye and stomach. Packed with a keepsake stationery box made of 100 percent post-consumer recycled materials, the cookies are ideal for satisfying a sweet tooth. $30.

Marla Studio’s Beauty, Kindness, Compassion Necklace  What do beauty, kindness and compassion all have in common? Not only are they three of the many things Jews thank God for, but they are the three words that are engraved in Hebrew on designer Marla Studio’s brass pendant. An English translation is featured on the back, so even non-Hebrew readers can enjoy the striking message. $88.

“The Brisket Book:  A Love Story With Recipes”  There’s no longer a need for frantically searching for the best brisket recipes. Stephanie Pierson, author, food writer and brisket lover, has written a cookbook filled with only the best brisket recipes, accompanied by illustrations, poems, cartoons and musings. “The Brisket Book” has a recipe for everyone, and it’ll turn you into the star of any potluck. $30.

Chewish Treats  Who says dogs can’t get gifts on the holidays? Chewish Treats come straight from the doggy deli to your home. Allow your dog to indulge in these pooch-pleasing cookies that are topped with a yogurt-based icing. Made with only the highest-quality ingredients, these treats are sure to satisfy any kosher canine. $8.

Jewish Blessing Flags  If you’re looking for a decorative piece that has some Jewish value, these Jewish Blessing Flags are a must. Based on Tibetan prayer flags, each design is distinct in color and represents one of seven values in Jewish tradition: love, compassion, lovingkindness, peace, healing, respect and justice. The flags are suitable for the home, synagogue, classroom or sukkah. $20.


Matisyahu’s ‘Miracle’ Chanukah song [VIDEO]

A message from Matisyahu from


An enduring miracle

This coming Shabbat, together with Jewish communities around the world, we will celebrate the joyous festival of Chanukah. Most of us are quite familiar with the story of Chanukah and the miracle that our tradition recalls.

We learned as children that when the Maccabees rededicated our ancient Temple in Jerusalem, they found enough oil to light the menorah for only a single day. God’s miracle, we learned, was that the oil that should have lasted but one day lasted, rather, for eight days.

The rabbinic sages, explaining the ritual lighting of Chanukah, recounted in the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat the miracle noted above. We might wonder whether this miracle actually occurred. And, if it did not occur, we might question whether we should continue to observe the ritual lighting associated with this nonevent.

In order to understand the original and continued significance of the lighting of Chanukah’s flames, we might explore the manner in which we light the chanukiyah — Chanukah’s eight-branched menorah. We can thereby gain a deeper and enduring appreciation of the lighting, one that chronicles a miracle we live today as much as it commemorates a miracle of long ago.

The Talmud instructs us to observe Chanukah’s ritual lighting in accordance with the sage Hillel’s practice. We are to kindle one additional flame for each successive day of the holiday. On the first day, we kindle one flame; on the second, two flames; etc. According to the sage Shammai’s dissenting opinion, we ought eliminate one flame for each successive day of the holiday; on the first day, eight flames; on the second day, seven flames; etc.

At first glance, Shammai’s approach seems compelling: In recounting the miracle of the single jar of oil that lasted eight days, we should acknowledge that, despite our rational conclusion to the contrary, there was in actuality enough oil on the first day of Chanukah to last eight days, on the second day to last seven, and so on. In other words, Shammai suggested that the proper way to recount the miracle is to recall what once occurred from the perspective of one who knows how the story ends.

Still, the Talmud rules in accordance with Hillel. I believe Hillel’s view prevailed because it reflected a belief that the ritual lighting of Chanukah is more than commemorative; it exists very much in the present tense, experientially. Standing outside the miracle, remembering it historically as Shammai did, the focus is simply on how much oil remained each day. However, when we use the ritual to relive the miracle in our present, when we experience each day of it anew, we are not certain that our oil will last yet another moment. We cannot be sure that the lights we revisit from our ancient Jewish past, or even those we strive to preserve and nourish today, will endure. Will the Jewish flame of our era burn forth unto our children and our children’s children? Are we any less at risk of losing our light than the menorah in the Temple was so very long ago? Might it have been the case for the rabbis long ago that the “miracle” of Chanukah was a metaphor for our people’s unlikely but persistent survival and flourishing, against all odds? Is it possible that the miracle that we celebrate in our own era, when kindling our own flames of Chanukah, is the ever-constant miracle of our presence in this world, altogether, as Jews?

The flames of Chanukah, as Hillel had us kindle them by adding one more flame each day, express our enduring faith that our flame of today will grow ever stronger, in our own generation and beyond. The flames we kindle on Chanukah represent our commitment to the work we must do to enhance and clarify the light of our people and the beauty and depth of Jewish meaning and purpose. Ultimately, from within the annual and ongoing miracle of Chanukah, we might even come to recognize that we, ourselves, are the flames; we are the enduring miracle of Chanukah, if we make it so.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid, a Conservative congregation in Rancho Palos Verdes. For more information, visit

The forgotten miracle: Nov. 29, 1947

I originally planned to write a column about the flood of condemnations that Muslim leaders issued following the massacre in Mumbai, and how disappointed I
was not to find a single fatwa in those texts, nor a mention of any religious offense: no “sin,” no “hell,” nor “apostasy.”

I was also tempted to write about liberated Western TV anchors finally shaking off those funny adjectives: “activists,” “militants” and “fighters” and returning to good old-fashioned “terrorists” — a glorious triumph of the English language over years of politically correct oppression.

But I had to suspend those plans and pay my dues first to the gods of history, which, for us Jews, must take precedence over all other gods.

This obligation is pounded into us by the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Thou shall not have any other god before me.” In other words, to recognize me, says God, you must acknowledge your past, for I am revealing myself to you through the movements of history, or, put in modern vocabulary: If you forget your past, gone is your Jewish identity.

Why dwell on lost history? Because last month saw the anniversary of one of the most significant events in Jewish history, perhaps the most significant since the Exodus from Egypt — Nov. 29, 1947 — the day the U.N. General Assembly voted 33-13 to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.

Believe it or not, but this momentous event, which changed so dramatically the physical, spiritual and political life of every Jew in our generation, as well as the course of history in general, passed virtually unnoticed in our community, including in the pages of this paper.

I felt compelled therefore to amend this thankless rebuff of history and do what I can to compensate for the loss of opportunity. Imagine if the Jewish community in Los Angeles invited the consuls general of the 33 countries who voted yes on that fateful day to thank them publicly for listening to their conscience and, defying the pressures of the time (and there were millions of such pressures), voting to grant the Jewish nation what other nations take for granted — a state of its own. I can see 33 flags hanging from The Jewish Federation building, 33 bands representing their respective countries and the word “yes” repeated in 33 different languages in a staged reenactment of that miraculous and fateful vote in 1947.

Too theatrical? Extravagant?

Let’s face it. It’s not very often that we can honestly thank 33 countries for their governments’ decisions, especially not these days. And it’s not very often that we can forge a network of friendships with 33 local ethnic communities representing: Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Byelorussian SSR, Canada, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Iceland, Liberia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Sweden, Ukrainian SSR, Union of South Africa, United States, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Uruguay and Venezuela.

I purposely spell out the names of these countries, in case anyone wonders whom they ought to thank for that spectacular turn that Jewish history took in November 1947 and for the dignity, pride and self-image world Jewry has enjoyed since.

Each of these names harbors an intriguing story behind its yes vote. Some voted yes out of moral conviction (e.g., Brazil, Guatemala), some through diplomatic arm-twisting (e.g., Philippines, Haiti) and others as a result of personal pleadings of ordinary, courageous Jews who understood the collective responsibility that history bestowed upon them in 1947.

A brief, yet fascinating account of some of these stories can be found in Benny Morris’ new book, “1948” (Yale University Press, 2008, pages 51-61). Others are still to be unearthed and are patiently awaiting a creative historian, novelist or filmmaker to be lifted from oblivion and added to the crown of Jewish lore and world history.

The story behind the pivotal U.S. vote is perhaps the best known and highlights the courage of Eddie Jacobson, President Harry S. Truman’s friend and former business partner from Kansas City, Mo., who risked that friendship and wrote to Truman on Oct. 3, 1947: “Harry, my people need help and I am appealing to you to help them.” To which Truman answered evasively: “When I see you I’ll tell you just what the difficulties are.”

Still, Jacobson did not give up; he did not mind being called “pushy Jew” and pleaded with Truman to grant one more audience to Chaim Weizmann, the engine behind the Zionist effort, who was not happy at all with the way the State Department was dragging its feet.

Weizmann had good reason to be nervous, for the outcome remained uncertain until literally minutes before the actual vote. In a preliminary vote taken on Nov. 25, six Latin American countries abstained, and the required two-thirds majority was not obtained. And while the fate of one whole nation was hanging in the balance, the Arabs were lobbying aggressively, promising money, oil and bloodshed. Yet, at the end of the day, the miracle did happen: 33 ayes, 13 nays and 10 abstains — a brand new chapter in world history.

The no and abstaining votes unfold heroic stories of their own. One of those tells us of a letter exchange between Albert Einstein and Jawaharlal Nehru, then the prime minister of India, which was discovered in Israeli archives (The Guardian, Feb. 16, 2005).

In his plea, which Nehru politely declined, Einstein wrote: “The Jewish people alone has for centuries been in the anomalous position of being victimized and hounded as a people, though bereft of all the rights and protections which even the smallest people normally has…. Zionism offered the means of ending this discrimination. Through the return to the land to which they were bound by close historic ties … Jews sought to abolish their pariah status among peoples.”

And concerning the Arabs’ demands to own all of Palestine, Einstein wrote: “In the august scale of justice, which weighs need against need, there is no doubt as to whose [need] is more heavy.”

I find Einstein’s letter heroic, not because of any risk he took in this exchange, but because he agreed to forgo personal hesitations and harness his worldwide reputation and friendly relations with Nehru to his people’s calling. Einstein was a lukewarm Zionist, constantly torn between his belief that Zionism is the only just solution and his deep concern about potential misuse of power by the ensuing Jewish state.

On one occasion, in 1938, he even expressed preference for a binational one-state solution. He could have easily told his “mobilizers” from the Jewish Agency Executive: “Sorry, I am not your guy”; “I can’t get involved in politics right now”; “I don’t know Nehru well enough,” or “I myself am often critical of the course the Zionist movement has taken.” (Sound familiar?) Yet, when he heard the bells of history ringing his name, he knew exactly what was to be done; he put aside those personal hesitations and stood firmly with his people.

We owe it to the gods of history to mention Einstein and Jacobson and 32 other heroic stories that heralded the greatest gift history has given us: A state that contributes to humanity more than all the countries in the United Nations that mourn its birth (paraphrasing Daniel Gillerman). We owe it because the offerings we give to the gods of history today will strengthen the spines of our children and grandchildren tomorrow.

Indeed, in campuses ruled by Noam Chomsky’s disciples and “New Maranos” (Jewish faculty peer-pressured into silence), where will Jewish students find the courage to stand up to anti-Israel slurs in the cafeteria, library or the classroom, if they have not heard about Nov. 29, Eddie Jacobson or any of the other 32 heroic stories that led to the U.N. vote of 1947? Where would they gather the courage to lift their eyes from the salad plate and tell their abuser: “Accuse me; I am Albert Einstein’s kin, and what you just said offends everything I cherish and stand for. If you value our friendship, read first about Nov. 29, 1947.”

Speaking of college campuses, imagine Hillel students at UCLA or UC Irvine inviting student organizations representing all the 33 yes-voting countries to a “thanksgiving get-together” on Nov. 29. This could include a multicultural talent show, a reenactment of the U.N. vote or a reading of U.N. Resolution 181. Imagine what it would do to Israel’s image and Jewish posture on campus.

It is for this reason that I decided to devote this
column to the gift of history: The miracle of Nov. 29, 1947.

Finally, to compensate for overlooking the November miracle
in 2008, I am including a poem that Natan Alterman
wrote on Dec. 19, 1947, soon after the UN decision to
partition Palestine, which reflects his understanding of the
sacrifices that everyone knew would have to be made
for independence. It is Alterman’s most popular poem
and is often read in school assemblies and at public gatherings
in Israel.

The Silver Platter
By Natan Alterman
Translated from the Hebrew by David P. Stern

“No state is served to a nation on a silver platter.”
(Chaim Weizmann, December 15, 1947)

…And the land will grow still
Crimson skies dimming, misting
Slowly paling again
Over smoking frontiers

As the nation stands up
Torn at heart but existing
To receive its first wonder
In two thousand years

As the moment draws near
It will rise, darkness facing
Stand straight in the moonlight
In terror and joy

…When across from it step out
Towards it slowly pacing
In plain sight of all
A young girl and a boy

Dressed in battle gear, dirty
Shoes heavy with grime
On the path they will climb up
While their lips remain sealed

To change garb, to wipe brow
They have not yet found time
Still bone weary from days
And from nights in the field

Full of endless fatigue
And all drained of emotion
Yet the dew of their youth
Is still seen on their head

Thus like statues they stand
Stiff and still with no motion
And no sign that will show
If they live or are dead

Then a nation in tears
And amazed at this matter
Will ask: who are you?
And the two will then say

With soft voice: We–
Are the silver platter
On which the Jews’ state
Was presented today

Then they fall back in darkness
As the dazed nation looks
And the rest can be found
In the history books.

Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (, named after his son. He and his wife, Ruth, are editors of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Light, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Rays of light

A couple of events over the past week have given me a nice dose of optimism for the Jewish people. The first event was a Little League baseball game in a Jewish league called Blue Star, where my son Noah’s team, the Rays, were playing a very talented team called the Jays.

For a while, I thought I was in one of those “Bad News Bears” movies, where one team fumbles everything while the other team is smooth and confident. And just like in the movies, near the end of the game, the Jays scored five runs to go up 6 to 1 (they have a “mercy” rule in this league where they stop an inning if you’ve scored five runs).

Now it was the Rays’ last chance. These cute little kids came into the dugout and, instead of being demoralized by the five runs they had just given up, decided they were going to rally. No kidding. In their first two games, they had barely managed to get one or two hits, and only walks and an error gave them their only run. It’d be a miracle just to get someone on base — let alone score five runs!

You could just imagine the thought bubbles over the parents’ heads: “These kids are in for some hard lessons, like you better learn to lose and it takes more than enthusiasm to make it in life.”

But these little guys didn’t know from grown-up realism. It’s as if they completely forgot their past failures at scoring runs, and this was simply a brand new inning where anything could happen. While I was bravely trying to match their enthusiasm, all I was thinking was: There will be peace in the Middle East before the Rays score five runs against the Jays.

Well, 30 minutes later, I was feeling a lot better about peace in the Middle East. Don’t ask me how, but the Rays scored those five runs. Grounders, errors, fly balls, a few walks, gutsy running, an amazing double and lots of wild cheering from the dugout — including an improvised backward twist of their cap that they called the “rally caps” — gave the Rays a miracle comeback that they’ll probably still remember when they’re grandfathers.

When the shock wore off, part of me felt like an idiot for having been so “realistic,” and for not taking more seriously the optimism of these courageous munchkins. For the first time in years, I started thinking without cynicism about the incorrigible optimism that some of my friends on the political left have always had for peace in the Middle East — an optimism I have rarely taken seriously.

It took a little miracle at my son’s baseball game to make me consider the possibility of other miracles. When I shared this story with a friend who is to my political left, he took over my role as the cynic and joked that when it came to peace with our enemies, Israel might as well be “miracle proof.” Of course I knew where he was coming from, but on that cool and windy Sunday in the San Fernando Valley, the miracle of Noah’s Rays was so mind-blowing that I was in a mood to think only of miracles — even unimaginable ones.

The second event that has fueled my optimism happened at my friend Rabbi David Wolpe’s Sinai Temple. For those of you who were around about seven years ago, you might remember that a good chunk of the Orthodox community wanted to run the Conservative Rabbi Wolpe out of town for suggesting at a Passover sermon that the Exodus might not have happened exactly how it is explained in the Bible. Although Rabbi Wolpe’s ultimate message was to promote faith and mitzvahs despite any doubts one might have about the literal veracity of Bible stories, this idea got lost in the front-page coverage of the Los Angeles Times, and the controversy sparked a firestorm that simmers to this day.

You can imagine, then, my shock and awe when I saw Orthodox rabbis and all these Orthodox Jews gathered at Sinai Temple on a Monday night to help launch an organization called Standing in Unity. About 200 Jews of all denominations were there to listen to Rabbi David Baron of the Reform Temple of the Arts, Rabbi Yitz Jacobs of the Orthodox Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Wolpe and the Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan speak passionately about Jewish unity in honor of the eight fallen yeshiva students of Jerusalem.

What was remarkable was that the Orthodox were not simply participants, but were instrumental in putting the whole event together. Rabbi Jacobs talked about transcending our differences by focusing on the things that bind us, like preserving Jewish lives and Jewish peoplehood. Rabbi Wolpe connected Mordechai’s message to Queen Esther in the story of Purim — that she was given the unique power of a queen precisely to help save the Jewish people — with the idea that our generation has been given unique powers and resources precisely to help our brothers and sisters in Israel.

Everyone — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — spoke about Jewish unity.

Of course, it was easy to be a cynic and remind yourself that only tragedies seem to bring Jews together; or that Jewish unity is a tribal idea that undermines the importance of healthy self-criticism; or even that a night of unity hardly makes for a movement.

But cynicism and even realism don’t allow for miracles. Jews coming together despite their sharp differences is a little miracle, even if it took a crisis to make it happen. It’s like the story Rabbi Jacobs told of the British soldier during the Falklands War who pointed his gun at a lone Argentine soldier left in a foxhole. The Argentine covered his eyes and started saying the “Shema,” at which point the British soldier, who was also Jewish, dropped his gun, hugged his “enemy” and said the “Shema” with him.

It was a week to be reminded that miracles do happen, in foxholes, baseball dugouts and even synagogues.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

A grown-up children’s story

Inner child therapy is a psychological method aimed at giving voice to part of the adult psyche that remains eternally childlike. It purports that a vulnerable innocence
exists within our subconscious; when acknowledged, a more complete and mature life experience is attained.

For example, were my inner child invited to describe Parshat Noach, she might say:

Spectator – Once Upon a Menorah

A three-foot dancing dreidel and a visiting Holocaust survivor recall the ageless tales from a fresh perspective, when PBS station KCET airs “Chanukah Stories” on Dec. 24 and 25.

The heroes of the animated film, “Moishe’s Miracle,” is 8-year-old Zackary Maccabee, known as Zak Mak to his friends and television viewers, and a 50th generation descendent of Judah Maccabeus.

As Zak impatiently awaits the first night of the Festival of Lights, his trusty dreidel transports him to a snowy Jewish shtetl of the 1800s.

There, Moishe the Milkman ekes out a meager living and, to the frustration of his wife, Baile, gives out free milk to neighbors who have fallen on hard times.

Comes Chanukah time and Moishe sadly realizes that he doesn’t have enough money to buy all the ingredients for latkes. But just in time appears a magic pan, which self-produces limitless amounts of the savory dish. The one provision that comes with the gift is that no one but Moishe can ever use the pan.

As the latkes pop off the pan, Moishe invites the whole shtetl for a feast. But while he is away, Baile can’t resist trying out the pan and the heaven-sent latkes disappear forever.

Narrated by Bob Saget, “Moishe’s Miracle” is followed by “The Tie Man’s Miracle,” during which Zak Mac, now back in the 1960s, is waiting for his father’s return to celebrate the last night of Chanukah.

Suddenly, an elderly man, Mr. Hoffman, appears at the door, selling neckties. He resists the invitations of the mother and children to spend the evening with them, but finally gives in to the entreaties of the father.

Asked by Zak why he doesn’t spend Chanukah with his family, Mr. Hoffman haltingly relates the story of his wife and children, who were killed during the Holocaust.

Before taking an abrupt leave, Mr. Hoffman tells Zak that if on the last night of Chanukah all nine candles go out at exactly the same time, his wish will come true.

Deeply affected by the sad visitor, Zak closely watches the menorah on future Chanukahs, hoping that the tie salesman might return one more time. Jami Gertz, star of the CBS comedy, “Still Standing,” narrates the story.

“Chanukah Stories” is the latest in the series of children-oriented cultural and religious programs by JTN Productions of the Jewish Television Network, headed by Jay Sanderson.

KCET airs “Chanukah Stories” on Dec. 24 at 10:30 a.m. and Dec. 25 at 8 a.m. Check listings for other PBS stations in Southern California for air dates and times.


A Fishy Miracle


The fish was the ugliest I had ever seen. I actually recoiled as my son proudly pointed him out in the aquarium. He loves fish.

Most boys want a dog or a cat. Fish, it seems, capture my son’s imagination.

“Fish,” he told me, “don’t bark or jump on guests.”

“You can’t pet them or teach them tricks,” I replied.

They look at me sometimes, he claimed, and that was enough.

He brought the ugly fish home on a cold, dark December day. Jet black, just like the winter night, the fish’s eyes were perched on the ends of hideous balls protruding from his unfortunate body. The rest of him looked like a regular black goldfish, but the awful eyes made me cringe. He was quite out of place in the aquarium.

After a few visits to the tank, I began to admire the fish’s moxie. We bonded and I started to call him Bugsy. He glided past the more elegant fish, ones with tiger stripes and brilliant dots of color, with his big baseball eyes held high. He found his way and found his place in the underwater world.

A few days before Chanukah began, my son came to me, expressing concern for Bugsy. It appeared that the black scales around the horribly shaped eyes were coming off. We looked at Bugsy and felt a terrible sadness. We turned away.

My son felt the fish was looking to him for help. He didn’t know what to do. Although I appreciated his concern, I knew that his beloved pet was a $2 fish and could be easily disposed of. He rejected that idea immediately and said he would call the fish supply store for advice.

He got busy with school and work and didn’t consult the store. When the other fish began to nip at Bugsy, he removed the fish from the tank and put in him in a big jar of water.

Bugsy was on deathwatch. We could not know for certain if he suffered, but, nonetheless, we felt his pain.

Darkness descended.

The next day, after his geography final, my son planned to release Bugsy into a fountain in a park to let him die with dignity, but first he promised he would stop at the fish store to see if anything could be done. I said goodbye to Bugsy as my son walked out to his truck, gently cradling the big glass jar in his arms with the fish swimming blissfully in tiny circles.

Less than 30 minutes later, my son returned, holding the big glass jar aloft. Bugsy, it seems, had contracted a virus.

All he had to do was put some pills in the fish tank for a period of time and Bugsy would recover quite nicely.

He showed me the pills, eight in all, in a tiny plastic packet. Eight pills, eight days.

Chanukah! Bugsy was our Chanukah miracle — his recovery lit the night.

A tiny fish that could have been tossed out was given a second chance by a compassionate young man. Bugsy is holding his own and we are quite optimistic.

We hope he will survive the odds and light our winter nights, as the lamp lit the dark nights of the Jewish people centuries ago. We light the Chanukah candles to keep away the winder darkness and find our miracles where we may.


Almost Mother’s Day

I’ve really done it now. A year ago I got engaged. I made good on that promise in late July, and we have been on a honeymoon ever since.

Well, the honeymoon is over, folks. I’m here to tell you that I’m pregnant. Actually, I’m not much of anything, but my better half is pregnant. My wife went and got herself in trouble. Mother’s Day has taken on a whole new meaning at my house this year.

She feels pretty lousy. She says it’s like having a hangover all the time. When we were in London, we noticed that the TV weather reporter had about 100 ways of saying “cold, windy and rainy.” I told Amy that she was going to have to get more creative with her physical complaints if I had to hear about it for the next nine months: “Night and morning nausea giving way to constipation in the afternoon. Expect some extreme fatigue in the early evening hours and a 60 percent chance of food aversions tonight. Dizziness expected all day tomorrow.”

I feel fine. Thanks for asking. Never better.

Whatever the problem, I know that I got her into this mess, so I’m going to have to clean it up. This morning she pointed a finger and said, “You did this to me.”

“Yes, but you wanted me to.”

She can’t believe anyone ever has a second child.

We decided to keep this news to ourselves for as long as possible, but it’s not so easy to do, especially as she doesn’t fit into her pants. We avoided seeing our parents to the point where it was getting just plain rude. We had plans with her father and started to work on a viable excuse a week ahead of time.

“Should I get sick?” I asked.

“No, I could have a work thing come up,” she said.

To be fair, we were afraid that my mother’s heart might actually explode from joy, so you could say our self-imposed silence was due to health concerns. Our plan was that I would go over to see them on a regular basis, and they’d think that they’d seen her, too. A classic misdirection. That scheme worked fine, but we had to explain to friends that she wasn’t drinking wine at dinner because (we said) she was taking antibiotics for a sinus infection. The next time my mother called, we said we couldn’t get together because of the nonexistent sinus infection. That poor little kid is going to come into a family of such accomplished liars.

We watched a DVD called “Life’s Greatest Miracle.” The little troublemaker is about 13¼8 inches long now and looks more like the creature from the movie “Alien” than it resembles either of us, with black dots for eyes, webs for hands and buds where the legs ought to be. All the cells are getting assigned jobs, not unlike choosing up sides for a softball game: “You play left field, you be a kidney.”

Now that I’m pregnant, I see children everywhere. I assume that they’ve always been there, but they must have been in hiding until recently. Let me tell you, they’re not all they’re cracked up to be, these little babies. They are the most helpless mammals on the planet. Baby zebras can run with the herd. Junior’s not even here yet and already it’s got a lot of catching up to do.

Everyone is playing the “Guess the Sex” game. Amy gets so excited whenever anyone expresses an opinion. “A little girl!” she shrieks and waves her hands and her eyes get big and wet. She gets just as excited either way. “A little boy!” Then she polls me, and I continue to have no “gut” about it at all. Of course I’m very excited, but my opinion doesn’t make a bit of difference. We’ll know soon enough. Bring it on. I can’t be expected to jump up and down for seven more months, it just ain’t dignified.

Everyone has been so congratulatory (“Your boys can swim!”) and so encouraging. My favorite response came in an e-mail from a friend back East that said: “Now your life begins again.”

We’ve got seven months to go and already we’re knocking wood and interjecting “God willing” and “God forbid” into the front of sentences. They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and there aren’t any in the maternity ward either.

The baby is due on Thanksgiving Day. I put it in the calendar on my computer’s Outlook program and synched it up to my Blackberry with one of those pop-up reminders so I won’t forget. “Thanksgiving” is going to have a whole new meaning at my house this year, too.

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

J.D. Smith is expecting @

The Miracle of Purim

People generally think that a miracle must be a supernatural event. In truth, however, a miracle need not be supernatural, and a supernatural event may not necessarily be a miracle. These two concepts sometimes overlap, but they are not identical.

The events of Purim are clearly regarded as miraculous, yet the story unfolds quite logically, through very human emotions and very human actions. Certainly, the narrative has religious elements: There is prayer, there is a fast, there is faith in deliverance, but where are the miracles — the nisim — and why is God’s name not even mentioned? Perhaps, we must re-examine just what a miracle is, that is, what turns a mere event into a miracle.

I would suggest that the “supernatural” is whatever cannot be explained by the physical laws of nature as we understand them, whereas a “miracle” is a meaningful event, regardless of whether it happens within the laws of nature or outside of them. The essential aspect of a miracle is its significance: Its naturalness or unnaturalness is only its mechanism, its external manifestation. To illustrate this in broad theological strokes, we may say that if the Almighty is not concerned with the actual agency of a miracle, then it should not matter to us either. What matters is not how something happens, but the meaning associated with what happens.

This definition entails a change of conception, since even something that happens naturally can still be meaningful. One who has been cured of a serious illness, for example, or escapes from a dangerous situation, recites the blessing of “HaGomel” in synagogue, in which he publicly thanks God for having saved him. This does not mean that recovering from illness or walking away from an accident unscathed is necessarily miraculous in the supernatural sense of the word, but only that it is significant. And it is its significance that makes it miraculous.

Our awareness of the association between miracles and meaning fades with familiarity: When we get used to something, its ability to elicit wonder tends to dissipate. The Bible records that when Eve gave birth to Cain, she uttered in awe, “I have made a man together with God” (Genesis 4:1). The birth of a baby is no less a miracle today, and God’s role in the process has in no way been diminished, yet there is a tendency for people to take it for granted. The manna in the desert was most certainly a miracle, but in the course of 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites became accustomed to it. Indeed, not only did they cease to marvel at it, but they complained bitterly that it was their only form of sustenance.

We can see, then, that we use the terms supernatural and miraculous for things to which we are not accustomed. Indeed, it matters little whether an event is objectively “natural” or “supernatural”; what matters is how we perceive it.

In the Jewish prayer book, there are a great number of blessings. Many of them concern simple, mundane activities, such as opening one’s eyes in the morning, stretching, standing on one’s feet, walking and so on. Why must we say them every day? Because the significance and wondrousness of our ability to do these things tends to get lost. We rarely recognize them as gifts from God until they are suddenly gone: It is only when pain prevents us from walking with ease that we recognize and acknowledge God’s role in “firming our footsteps.”

In fact, we often need to experience the extraordinary in order to reawaken us to the significance of the ordinary. When something happens that is remarkable and unusual, we are jolted out of our stupor and reacquire the ability to see the miraculous in the routine and the habitual. This sudden change enables us to see what routine conceals, so that we can once again perceive what is truly important and what is not.

There are two ways of sensing God’s presence in the world. One is through thunder and lightning and other extraordinary events; the other is within the world’s natural order. Nature is God’s alternate signature, so to speak, when He does not want to sign His work with the Ineffable Name.

Thus, we may say that God wrote the Book of Esther using a pseudonym; God’s name is there even when it is not written. And, more important, God is there. Even things that seem rational, clear and “natural,” may be miracles. May our experience of Purim enable us to appreciate all of the miracles in our lives.

Bubbie’s Menorah Miracle

Bubbie, my sweet grandmother, is a small woman, barely
5-feet tall. Her candelabra wasn’t just a candleholder used for the Sabbath and
Chanukah lights. It was a family symbol; a magnet that brought family and
friends together. On Sabbath evenings Bubbie would don a special Shabbos
kerchief. With great fanfare she would light each candle. When she finished
lighting the last candle she stood in front of the candelabra and clenched her
eyes; tears ran down her cheeks. She prayed for her husband, her married children
and her grandchildren. She spoke in Yiddish, “Her mien tinere tata heat mien
kinder un de eynikloch” (Dearest Father, God watch and protect my children,
grandchildren and great-grandchildren. May it be Your will that they grow up to
be good people and are loyal to our religion. Please grant my dear husband a
livelihood and patience. Watch over us all.).

We all stood by the Shabbos table in awe. Bubbie looked like
a queen speaking to the King of Kings, the Almighty God. When she finished her
prayer, we began our Sabbath.

As our family grew, Bubbie spent more time with her candles.
By the time she reached the beginning of her 96th birthday, Bubbie had many
married grandchildren who also had children. There were five generations in
Bubbie’s family. When lighting the candles, Bubbie prayed for each family

Her candelabra was made of solid silver with a heavy silver
base. It was 2-feet tall. Year round it had three branches of two candlesticks.
In the middle was a stem for another candle. The traditional custom for Shabbos
eve is to light one candle each for the father, mother and children. As each
child is born, another candle is added. Throughout the year Bubbie’s candelabra
was fitted for five candles.

During the week of Chanukah she added another branch of two
candlesticks each, making a total of nine candles. The candelabra was built in
such a way that the candle holders could be removed and oil cups could be
inserted for the special lighting on Chanukah. Our Shabbos candelabra became a

During Chanukah the prized candelabra was given to my
grandfather. He used it to fulfill the commandment of lighting candles for the
holiday. Chanukah was the happiest time for the family. All the children,
grandchildren and great-grandchildren came to Bubbie and Zadie to receive
holiday gifts of Chanukah gelt and joined in the lighting of the menorah.

Imagine the menorah lit with nine candles shining in its
glory. Zadie stood like a Kohen, the Jewish high priest, when he lit it. He
would be dressed in a special fur hat, called a streimel, with a magnificent
long, silk caftan.

When Zadie died, Bubbie would spend her winters in Miami
Beach. She took her candelabra with her. Every Shabbos, Bubbie would polish
it and pray, “May my mazel (luck) always shine!”

All this came to an end when someone stole her candelabra.
Bubbie was livid. Her small body shook like a willow in a storm as she spoke
about her most prized possession. How could anyone steal it? Her only concern
was how she would light her candles.

She believed it would return.

“I have prayed that the menorah would protect us and I’m
sure that the menorah has done just that. Now I pray that the menorah protect
itself and be returned to me.”

With silent determination she prayed and prayed. We, the
family, did not know what to do. Unexpectedly, a childhood friend from Austria,
Bubbie’s birthplace, visited us and announced, “I have never seen another
menorah like yours until today. I always wondered if there was a second
majestic menorah. Surprisingly I just saw a menorah just like yours in the
window of a gift store. It is a replica of yours.”

We were dumbfounded. Could it be that our guest had seen the
stolen menorah? Bubbie jumped up and said, “Let’s get my menorah back! It soon
will be Chanukah and I need the menorah.”

Bubbie, my parents, Bubbie’s girlfriend and a policeman made
their way to the gift shop. With a gleam in her eyes and a shout of joy Bubbie
pointed to the menorah and said, “Yes, you have done well. You have protected
us and now you have protected yourself. Come back home to my family and me.”

Before anyone could say anything, Bubbie grabbed the menorah
off the shelf and held it close to her heart. Nobody was going to stop her.
Neighbors, Jewish and non-Jewish, joined her in her triumphant walk home. The
closer she got to her home, the more people that joined her. Bubbie, dressed in
the European manner, with her slight frame carrying a menorah that was almost
as big as her, with a procession of excited family and friends following, was a
sight to see. It truly was a Chanukah parade. The owner of the shop was

Needless to say, the menorah was given a special cleaning.
It became the most respected object of our Bubbie’s home. That Chanukah was the
brightest in Bubbie’s home. Who says that miracles can’t happen anymore?  

Rabbi Eli Hecht is vice president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and past president of the Rabbinical Council of California. He is the director of Chabad of South Bay in Lomita.

What Is the Holiday Miracle?

Nes Gadol Hayah Sham.

We all agree that the letters on the sides of the dreidel stand for "A Great Miracle Happened There." (In Israel, of course, the letters stand for Nes Gadol Hayah Po — "A Great Miracle Happened Here.")

But — and this is why there’s a book titled "Two Jews, Three Opinions" — what miracle are we talking about?

"It’s obviously the oil," my son Zack, 17, says. "Read your Rashi."

When the Talmud asks "What is Chanukah?" Rashi, one of the leading rabbinic commentators, interprets this to mean "What is the miracle of Chanukah?" The Talmud then explains that when the Maccabees entered the defiled Temple, they found a small amount of oil, enough to last only one day. But, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days.

Thus, we light candles on our menorah for eight days to commemorate this miracle, fulfilling the only commandment of this — yes, hard to believe, minor and nonbiblically ordained — holiday, which is also appropriately called the Festival of Lights. Additionally, if possible, we display the menorah in a window to publicize the triumph of Jewish faith over the forces of darkness.

"No," says Jeremy, 12. "The miracle is that the Maccabees conquered the Greek army. I studied Ancient Greece, and they had a pretty good army."

The First and Second Books of the Maccabees, which are contained in the Apocrypha, a series of books that were excluded from the Bible, support Jeremy. These tell the story of how the small band of Maccabees, led by Judah, fought for the right to practice Judaism — to observe Shabbat, to study Torah and to eat kosher foods. They overcame the stronger, larger army of the Syrian-Greeks, as well as scores of Jews who readily embraced the Hellenistic culture, and reconsecrated the Temple. There is no mention of oil.

The military victory, and not the oil, is also commemorated in "Al Ha’nissim," the special prayer included in the Amidah during Chanukah. "You delivered the mighty into the hand of the weak, the many into the hand of the few… " it says.

"That’s not a miracle. That’s hard work," Zack argues. "A miracle implies something that is beyond human capacity."

"Like fighting holiday crowds and standing in long lines to buy a Microsoft Xbox?" I ask.

In truth, that is the miracle of Chanukah. Not merely that we stand in long lines to buy the Xbox or GameCube or Fisher-Price Rescue Heroes. But that year after year, century after century, we gather with our families to kindle the Chanukah lights, chant the blessings, eat latkes, spin dreidels and, a recent innovation, exchange gifts.

Even in darkest Europe during World War II, many Jewish concentration camp inmates saved bits of oil or shoe polish, fashioned wicks out of threads and enlisted spoons or scooped out potatoes to serve as menorahs. They risked their lives to light Chanukah candles.

For the miracle, in short, is that we Jews have survived, or, as we say in the "Shehecheyanu" blessing on the first night of Chanukah, that God has "kept us alive and sustained us and let us reach this time."

To achieve this, we needed both miracles — the oil, which symbolizes our commitment to Judaism, and the military prowess. Without either, we would have perished.

This, of course, is an old story, going back to Amalek, the quintessential evil-doer and the first to attack the Israelites. Amalek was defeated, but, as the Torah states in Exodus 17:16, "The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

This is also a modern story with a new Amalek, Osama bin Laden, who wants to annihilate our Western and Jewish ways and institute his fundamentalist brand of Islam.

And so Chanukah seems darker this year. Not because it comes in the Northern Hemisphere before the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, but because it comes after Sept. 11.

Nearly three months later, it comes after our shock, which has protected us with a shield of surrealism, has worn off, leaving us with the stark and painful reality of thousands of senseless deaths.

And it comes after we’ve seen unemployment and long lines at food pantries across the nation rise, along with increased reports of depression and anxiety.

In addition, the Israeli-Palestinian violence — now 14 months old — shows little sign of abating.

But despite our somber moods, it is imperative that we celebrate Chanukah this year as fully and joyfully as possible, focusing on its enduring story of survival.

My sons, along with ancient and modern Jewish authorities, can continue to debate the nature of miracles. Whether they result from divine intervention, such as the parting of the Red Sea or Daniel’s escape from the lions’ den. Whether these supernatural phenomena are preordained or allegorical. Or whether miracles come from human struggles that eventually triumph in the face of great adversity.

But at the end of day, this Chanukah, we again need both kinds of miracles — our faith, as Americans and as Jews, and our military might — to dispel the darkness that has fallen on our world.

Preserving History

Some five miles outside of Amsterdam, there is a site where a miracle took place during the Holocaust.

Here, in this tiny town with quaint, pretty houses and narrow streets, the Nazis allowed Jewish history to survive. At a time when they were desecrating Jewish burial places all over Europe, they left this one alone.

“No, the Germans didn’t destroy the Beth Haim Cemetery. Jews who were already dead were of no use to them,” said Rabbi Rodrigues Pereira, administrator of Beth Haim for the past decade.

“What they did do was reduce the 5,000-strong Portuguese Jewish community to several families who were, of course, unable to meet the financial burden of preserving the cemetery,” said Pereira. The maintenance costs alone are more than $75,000 each year, he added.

Now, however, what the Nazis did not destroy is being ravaged by time and neglect, and the cemetery administrator is trying to raise the money to restore it.

The Portuguese Jewish community, which settled in Amsterdam in 1590, purchased an estate to bury their dead. The first burial at Beth Haim took place April 11, 1614, of a child named Joseph, son of David Senior. The memorial stone is inscribed with a poem in Hebrew and is still quite legible.

Two years later, the cemetery was in official use and could be accessed by road as well as by boat via a nearby river. The cemetery was extended in 1663 — and twice more over the years.

It was originally estimated that the space would be depleted by 1963, but the ravages of World War II ensured it will last for another 80 years. Eight hundred spaces are still available.

Beth Haim, however, is a victim of time. Many of its stones are damaged or missing. Thanks to the diligent work in 1866 of David Henriques de Castro, much is known about stones that had, for instance, sunk into the marshy ground.

Those of special historical or artistic merit were raised on brick bases to prevent further submersion, while the remaining ones were covered with earth. De Castro’s findings were published in his 1883 book, “Keur van Grafsteenen, A Selection of Gravestones,” which is being reissued.

Many famous people have been buried in Beth Haim. Perhaps the most famous is Rabbi Menashe ben Israel, a friend of artist Rembrandt van Rijn, who, apart from making etchings of his friend, also illustrated many of his books. Rabbi Menashe, together with Rabbi Jacob Sasportes, was able to persuade Oliver Cromwell to allow the Jews to resettle in England in the 17th century, said Pereira.

Other well-known Jews reposed here include Dr. Eliahu Montalto, Maria de Medici’s personal physician, as well as the parents of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

Many visitors to Beth Haim leave notes on the tomb of Rabbi Sasportes, renowned in his time for battling false messiahs. Indeed, the grounds provide a fascinating look at the culture of the day.

Engraved upon some of the stones is art that is at once macabre, whimsical and poignant. This is in stark contrast to the latter-day section, featuring bleak, modern stones for deceased Jews like Salomon Nunes Nabarro, son of Rebecca and Jacob Nabarro, inscribed “in Auschwitz did the Nazis murder [his parents].”

The Holocaust is recalled in a small memorial area, commemorating the thousands of community members who perished at the Westerbork camp or were murdered elsewhere during World War II.

A fund bearing the name of David Henriques de Castro has been set up to restore and preserve the cemetery. They’re looking to raise $3.5 million.

“Beth Haim must not be allowed to just fade away,” Pereira said, “even if it is just to give those people who lost parents and grandparents during the war a place where they can find their ancestral roots.”

Inquiries or donations may be made to the David Henriques de Castrofonds Foundation, Kerkstraat 7, 1191 JB Ouderkerk a/d Amstel, or e-mail:

Torah Portion

By Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

Here’s a riddle: What do leprosy and the State ofIsrael have in common? Hopefully, nothing leaps to your mind rightaway. I, however, needed to solve this riddle before I could begin towrite this week’s parasha column: For the week that we celebrate Israel’s foundingalso happens to be the week that we read the Torah portion concerninglepers.

As we’ll soon discover, there is, in fact, aprofound connection between the two ideas, and the first step towardseeing it is understanding that the malady the parasha termstzara’at is notreally leprosy at all. The description of tzara’at is not consistentwith the medical nature of leprosy, and the treatment that the Torahprescribes for tzara’at is much more of a personal, spiritual onethan a pharmaceutical one.

Perhaps the most persuasive evidence that theportion is not discussing the disease we know as leprosy is thattzara’at can apparently affect not only one’s body but also one’sgarment, or even the walls of one’s home! Taking all of this intoconsideration, about the only conclusion we could reach abouttzara’at, is the conclusion our sages of old reached: Tzara’at was ameans through which God sent an individual a message of spiritualrebuke (usually about the sin of speaking evil of others). As soon asthe afflicted soul would recognize his or her flaws and repent ofthem, the tzara’at would cure itself.

The profound link between the land of Israel andtzara’at is to be found in the parasha’s discussion of the tzara’atthat affects the walls of the house. The section’s opening versereads, “When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you asan inheritance, and I afflict the [walls of] your house with aplague.” The section then proceeds to describe the proper procedurefor addressing the outbreak.

What catches the eye of the great biblicalcommentator Abraham ibn Ezra is the opening verse’s implication thatit is exclusively in the Land of Israel that a home could be thusafflicted. While this might seem, at first blush, to be a dubioushonor, to ibn Ezra, it is actually a great tribute to the Land ofIsrael. For God would only bother to send an affliction if Hebelieved that the people receiving it were spiritually sensitiveenough to understand it. Apparently, ibn Ezra asserts, it is the Landof Israel, like no other, that can generate such people — people whowould be deeply affected by the sign of God’s displeasure, and whowould commence with the process of personal introspection forthwith.Ibn Ezra teaches us that when it comes to the Land of Israel, wemustn’t just look at the afflictions or problems themselves; we mustlook deeper and realize that we are only experiencing them because ofthe special spiritual state that we are in.

Let us look at today’s issues. Why is it thatIsrael, and all of us who ultimately have our roots there, areafflicted today by the wrenching debate over Jewish identity? Why arewe suffering this pain? It is only because, even at the close of the20th century, even after the devastation of the Holocaust, Jews stillcare deeply and passionately about their Jewishness. If no one cared,there would be no debate. Yes, we have been afflicted these past manymonths — but only because of the underlying health of the state ofour spirit.

The same can be said regarding the tension andinternal conflict surrounding the peace process. This debate, too,has generated a great deal of pain and angst and its fair share ofnational division. Here again, though, let us follow ibn Ezra’sprinciple and appreciate the high quality of the spiritual soil outof which this “plague” has grown.

Virtually everyone who has a strong opinion aboutthe political direction in Israel — both Israelis and not-yetIsraelis — articulates that position in terms of the inestimablevalue that we place on every Jewish life, and the sincere desire thatthe land we call our homeland know no more war. In almost allquarters as well, the objective of affording Palestinians the dignityof directing their own future is highly valued. We diverge only inour feelings about which strategy will bring us to these goals. Thesooner we recognize the deep commonality underlying our areas ofdisagreement, the sooner we will be able to talk more constructivelywith each other about them.

We all pray that by the time we celebrate Israel’s51st anniversary, these important issues be closer to resolution. Thereality that the nature of the problems actually speaks positively ofus is what gives us hope that our prayers might be answered. One canreally be inspired by a leprous wall.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David Judea inLos Angeles.