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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 20 May 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

I’m in Israel while you’re reading this!

No, I haven’t written a column here and sent it by e-mail for virtually instantaneous inclusion in today’s paper. I’m not really a fan of such things at a time like this. Here with my husband for a playing-tourist holiday, I’m enjoying the homeland we haven’t visited for far too long, and ignoring anything that smacks of deadlines (except, of course, for connecting with friends and family members here).

I’m sure I’ll have lots to tell you when I get back. But this was written before I left, so I could tell you this in advance.

In my wallet, I have two neatly folded dollar bills. The first was given to me by a local rabbi when I told him about our forthcoming Israel trip. “Let me give you some tzedakah,” he said, opening up his own wallet and taking out a George Washington. No destination specified, and no promise that a single dollar would do much good anywhere, all by itself. But the idea was, of course, that it wouldn’t be all by itself.

I was immediately reminded of Danny Siegel and his Ziv Tzedakah Fund, which started almost 30 years ago in just this same simple way: He was going to Israel, and friends gave him small amounts of money to take and do some good with. A movement came out of that. Today, Danny is a recognized expert on, a spokesman for, an author about, microphilanthropy. A dollar here, a dollar here, can “change the world to a more menschlich place” — a quote that www.dannysiegel.com attributes to Mort Meyerson, who also believes that such personalized tzedakah is a tikkun olam force to be reckoned with.

A bit before leaving on this trip, I spent several days with delegates to the Intracontinental Region Conference of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, meeting in Dallas. When I mentioned how soon I’d be in Israel, one of them opened up her purse and her wallet, pulled out a dollar bill and handed it to me. But first, she crumpled it up into a wadded ball.

“Do you know why you should do this when you give money to someone going to Israel?” she asked. I had to admit I was mystified. “That’s to remind you that this bill is for tzedakah, so you won’t spend it on anything else.” I’d never heard that before, but it makes sense. I refolded it as neatly as I could and tucked it into my own wallet with the rabbi’s dollar; it still showed the rumples to remind me that it, and its companion, were destined for a pushke, not some stall in the shuk.

Women’s League has a great project called Mitzvah Yomit — “A Mitzvah a Day” — with many good suggestions for simple ways to live more Jewishly. Under tzedakah, it notes that there are worthy destinations for gently worn clothing and old eyeglasses and cellphones, that schools in low-income neighborhoods will benefit from book donations, that everyone participating gets a healthy personal payoff from walking or running in a charity race. How about parting with your “souvenir” prom dresses, maybe even that carefully preserved wedding gown, giving them new life while bringing joy to indigent schoolgirls and an impoverished bride?

Or maybe you can donate some air miles to bring an inspiring speaker to your club or community — maybe someone like Danny Siegel, to talk about what he’s learned in three decades of small-scale tzedakah that adds up big-time.

As I write this, those two dollars are still waiting, folded in a corner of my wallet where they won’t get mixed up with anything else. And as you read this, I haven’t taken them out yet. There are plenty of places to give here, lots of good causes, many people in need. I’ve been dropping my own dollars into assorted pushkes for a week; we’ll be here a while longer, and I’m saving these for last.

Once, in the Auckland, New Zealand, airport, I dropped all my remaining Australian change into a bin labeled “The Phobic Trust”; I laughed at how peculiar the name sounded in American English, but appreciated the fact that coins collected in that public place go to help some of the mentally ill escape their private hell.

Before we board at Ben-Gurion, I’ll find a worthy collection point for all my remaining shekels. And when I get back, I’ll let you know where those two dollar bills found their happy home.

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 13 May 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

Sometimes there are contests for naming things, with great cash prizes or at least some recognition. And sometimes there are non-contests, when people put out a call for free help. Here’s one of the latter, which has the potential to put your recommendation of a name up in lights sometime in the future — although probably the far-too-distant future. Let me give you the background:

My oldest and dearest friend, who has been that since the day I moved in as her next-door neighbor more than 47 years ago, has a granddaughter who’s always loved to cook. Her inspiration for cooking came from this same person, my friend and her grandmother, who has always been the superwoman of the stove. Her stuffed cabbage (she calls those wonderful meat rolls “prakas,” which is a different culture from mine, but no matter!) are to die for. Her rugalach melt in your mouth — literally. And for the first 17 of those 47 years, until I moved a thousand miles away, I was privileged to break the Yom Kippur fast at her table, with her blintzes. Need I say more?

My friend is the mother of two daughters and a son. This granddaughter, the cooking-lover, is the child of her son, who married a woman who did not love to cook. But she has more than made up for her mother’s kitchen omissions: She is now the executive chef at a major San Francisco hotel. However, she has another dream, that of someday replicating commercially the Jewish cooking she learned from her paternal grandma. She recently shared this ambition with my dear friend, who has shared it with me and given me permission to pass it on to you. Here is Erica’s letter embodying the ultimate hopes for her own culinary future, and asking for a special kind of help:

“Dear Grammie,

“I’ve been thinking a lot about my deli and what it will be when it grows up, which probably won’t be for a few years. I can see it in my mind, though: a white-tiled space with a long counter that stretches the length of the space. I would have smoked fish, shmears, seasonal salads, house-smoked and roasted meats, a few sausages, my pastrami, some breads and a few select cheeses. Then a slicer and seasonal condiments, mostly handmade ones.

“I want a few wooden wine barrels, one for sauerkraut, one for kosher pickles and one for house-made vinegar, which I would sell by the ounce. I also want to do a good dinner-to-go business, with rotisserie chicken and roast meats, meatloafs, soups — a nightly-changing dinner that you could pre-order and take home with you.

“Grammie, I was wondering if you would help me name my deli. I want the name to be something that helps to reflect the seasonality of California and the bounty that is available to us. Also something that invokes an old nostalgia, a handmade quality, but without being ‘cheesy.’ I wondered if there was a word or two in Yiddish that would be accessible and easy to pronounce. I want a name that means something — but if people don’t know what it means, that would be OK, because it won’t matter. Does that make sense?

“I thought maybe you would help me with this because I love you and want you to always be a part of my life and my future….”

My old friend is the one who’s always first to volunteer to bring wonderful desserts for events at her synagogue, who never arrives anywhere without a gift of something edible and homemade. But reality says this cannot go on forever. She is now heading toward her 83rd birthday. Her granddaughter is working hard in the incredible kitchen she supervises, saving to have that dream deli of her own, but my friend may not see the dream herself when it is finally realized. Still, her legacy will live on in the foods prepared there, and in the name of the place, which my friend has asked me to help her find. And I’m asking you, the readers, for suggestions.

Something in Yiddish that evokes the fluffiest matzah balls floating in the most flavorful chicken soup, the crispiest latkes topped with some just-perfect home-cooked apple sauce. Something to convey the “tam” of a special Boubby, a name that will draw people into a deli bound to be filled with love and memories as well as wonderful food. Any ideas?

(How do you say “Help!” in Yiddish?)

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 06 May 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

A local Holocaust hero is about to become a local area Hometown Hero as well! Next Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., Clarice Tinsley, a Fox News (Channel 4) anchor, will “anoint” Mike Jacobs on her Hometown Heroes feature telecast.

I call Mike a Holocaust hero because of the immense amount of essential education he’s been providing to many people in many places for well over six decades, to make sure that “Never Again!” means exactly what it says. The forthcoming broadcast should spread these words even farther.

Mike has been speaking out as a survivor since 1956. He was the driving force behind the 1984 opening of Dallas’ Holocaust Memorial Center in the lower level of the Jewish Community Center. In more recent years, it has operated from rented quarters downtown; now it’s the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance, with broadened mission and focus. As such, it’s enlarged both the size and makeup of its visiting audiences (which now include many walk-ins in addition to its primarily being a pre-planned group destination) and achieved greater recognition through its proximity to important local sites (it’s very close to the spot of the John F. Kennedy assassination and the closely-related Sixth Floor Museum, and has plans to build a large permanent home in that area).

If you don’t know Mike, you should. He’s going on 85 now, but still retains the stamina that was built into him by soccer and other sports in his native Poland, strength that helped him survive the camps and their horrors when no others of his once-large family did. He came here after the war, became a physical education instructor at the JCC and there met the local native he later married — Ginger Chesnick Jacobs, a founder of the Dallas Jewish Historical Society.

Ginger was the caring, careful editor of her husband’s book, “Holocaust Survivor: Mike Jacobs’ Triumph over Tragedy.” First published in 2001, this first-person autobiography/memoir is now in its eleventh printing. It and Ginger accompany Mike on all his speaking engagements, which are many and varied. He’s appeared countless times before groups at the local Center, but he’s also always glad to go anywhere, anytime he’s asked, to tell his riveting story. He’s talked to small assemblies; he’s stood before crowds as large as 2,500. He’s spoken in a couple of foreign countries, including South Africa, and in several American states, including Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Jersey.

Just this past week, Mike and Ginger were in Dodge City, Kan., for a Sunday evening appearance at a Baptist church followed by a Monday morning middle-school talk. For these, the Jacobses flew to Wichita, where a couple of teachers from Dodge came to meet them — driving 2-1/2 hours to do so!

Mike reaches some 18 to 20 thousand people each year with his story, which he’s also told at Dachau and Terezin, in Yugoslavia, and in Konin, Poland, where he was born. There he spoke in the town library that today occupies the restored synagogue in which he worshiped with his family before the Shoah — on the balcony that was once the women’s gallery. He’s made at least 10 return trips over the years, and on one of them located his birth certificate and those of all his loved ones who once lived there.

Mike’s also made many trips to Israel, beginning in the late ‘70s, leading several Jewish Federation missions. All the Jacobs children — Mark, Andy, Reuben and Debbie — and grandchildren — Rivka, Leeza, Sara and Aviva — have visited Israel, Konin and the camps with Mike and Ginger. They share family love and have dug deeply into its history: Mark, like his mother, is a past president of the Dallas Jewish Historical Society, and this year Rivka, Debbie’s oldest daughter, becomes a new member of the DJHS board of directors.

Now, here’s information on Mike as a “Hometown Hero” on this brief, weekly Fox News feature. Channel 4 filmed him as he was speaking to students yesterday afternoon at Staley Middle School in Frisco. You can view the segment’s first TV airing at 5:30 p.m. next Wednesday, May 12, and/or again at noon the following day, Thursday, May 13. You’ll even be able to film this on TIVO or DVR, and it will also be posted on the channel’s Web site, www.myfoxdfw.com, for at least three months after the initial showing. Anticipate a short-but-mighty clip, the way all the Fox honorees are featured. Enjoy! And appreciate our Holocaust Hometown Hero!

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 29 April 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

You’re tired, so you sit down for a while. Then when you’re rested, you stand up and get moving again.

Well, the Dallas Holocaust Museum is out to change our definition of “standing up,” and our behavior. “Sitting down” isn’t even part of the equation.

The Museum — also the Center for Education and Tolerance — has adopted “Upstander,” the word that’s on its way to becoming coin-of-the-realm everywhere Holocaust is a primary concern. It’s the opposite not of “downsitter,” but of “bystander.” The latter doesn’t have to sit down to be taking no part whatsoever in whatever’s going on.

Bystanders are particularly dangerous, the Holocaust has taught us, when bad things are happening to human beings. Which is why a center like the Dallas one, which educates hundreds of school-age kids every week at its downtown facility, is so concerned with the latest, greatest problem emerging big-time from that group: bullying.

Bystanders see, but let the bad things happen without taking any action. They don’t say no to anyone; they just keep quiet, as long as the bullying doesn’t target them. And in these situations, adults are often bystanders as well: parents who advise kids to “Just ignore it”; teachers and principals who look the other way, or take only ineffectual, minor-league stabs at action.

Upstanders, on the other hand, do something, even if it means putting themselves at risk. For school kids, this can be very uncomfortable. For those who hid and/or otherwise rescued Jews during the Holocaust, this was far more than uncomfortable; it was often a matter of threatened life and potential death. But they did it anyway. That’s the latest lesson being taught at our Holocaust Center.

The lesson itself may be uncomfortable. Kids hear survivors’ stories; it can be hard to take, trying to imagine oneself in a survivor’s place. But it happens. Alice Murray, the Dallas Center’s president and CEO, has heard kids leaving after such a presentation saying things like “I will never hate again.” Their schools, which often find these lessons the most compelling ones their students have ever had, report kids becoming more respectful of others. At the very least, this is a start.

The Center’s late driving force, Elliott Dlin, an internationally known expert on all phases of Holocaust, began using the word “Upstander” months before his recent, untimely passing. Many people thought he invented it. But he was quick to tell them this wasn’t so. A respected organization called “Facing History and Ourselves” began circulating a human rights curriculum to secondary schools back in 1995, examining racism and violence. Since then, it’s begun “linking history to moral choices,” inviting students to “Be the Change: Upstanders for Human Rights.” It’s even suggesting that “Upstander” might be a good substitute for the word “activist.”

But among Holocaust centers across our nation and elsewhere, Dallas’ is certainly leading the way with the introduction of its compelling invitation to young people to “Be An Upstander.” At the end of its recent Yom HaShoah commemoration, our Center rolled out bracelets in black and white: “Upstander” in stark light letters against a solid dark background. The message and the choice are clear.

These bracelets come wrapped with a pledge card offering the chance to be among the first official Upstanders. Kids 10 through 18 are in for $10, older individuals and whole families for $36. August will be the cutoff time for charter memberships.

The pledge says it all: “From this day forward, I will STAND UP against prejudice, hatred and indifference in all its forms … for what is right … not just for myself, but for all of humanity.” Watch for a regional contest: Those up to age 22 may create a piece of music, a video or some combo of the two, illustrating the Upstander mission; YouTube airings are promised, plus professional packaging and promotion for the winner. What could beat fame and possible fortune achieved while helping a good cause?

I now wear the bracelet on my right wrist, a worthy companion to the Sh’ma that always circles my left. And I shared its message with attendees at the recent Women’s League of Conservative Judaism conference in Dallas, who’ve taken it home with them. Will you join us? Get more information on Upstanding from Nanette Fodell at the Center, 211 Record St. #100, Dallas 75202; 214-741-7500. Like Lowe’s “Let’s build something together,” we’ll build a broadened Holocaust memory to extend far, far into the future. No one can afford to sit down on this job.

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 22 April 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

This is an only-in-America story, something to reflect on in the month marking the 42nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination: Alysa Stanton, the first black woman rabbi, is a living success story deep in America’s South. This may be despite, or perhaps even because of, some factors besides race: She’s in her mid-late 40s, and the divorced mother of a teenage daughter.

Chosen over six others for the pulpit of 60-family Conservative/Reform Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, N.C., she was selected, its president said, because “We’re a one-synagogue town, so we need a rabbi who can reach out to all members.” She has certainly reached the community’s youth: Religious-school enrollment has almost doubled since she assumed her position there last October.

Stanton recently gave a speech (she called it “a one-woman monologue about my journey to the rabbinate”) at the University of Pittsburgh. A senior, Carly Adelman, arranged it: “Pitt’s got a Cross Cultural and Leadership Development Department, and this is an individual who’s had experiences [with diversity]. She exemplifies how being part of many groups can be a struggle, and how you can learn from that.”

We learn that Stanton moved away from her family’s Pentecostal faith during her Ohio childhood. “There was a rule in my house that you had to go somewhere to worship God. Didn’t matter where. I was allowed the freedom to choose….”

She tried out several faiths, including Eastern and Evangelical, until finally finding her religious home while attending Colorado State University in her 20s. Studying Judaism along with a major in psychology, she was converted at Denver’s Conservative Temple Emanuel. After graduation, she worked as a grief and loss psychotherapist, and was one of the counselors called to Columbine following the 1999 school massacre there.

At first, because she also loved music, Stanton thought about becoming a cantor. But learning trope — traditional Hebrew prayer settings — “opened the doors of my soul,” she said. “I had a hunger and thirst to learn more.” That desire took her to Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, where after seven years, she was ordained last June. Time magazine then ran an article calling her “an outsider who’s become the ultimate insider.”

A rabbinic spokesman for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism cautioned, “The color of her skin shouldn’t be a distinction. But I understand that historically, intellectually and culturally, it probably is. [However,] if we’re a light among the nations, and there are people interested in becoming a part of that light, we should welcome them.”

At first there had been some trepidation in the Alabama synagogue where Stanton served as student rabbi, but people soon got over it. And interestingly enough, the South has made things easier for her, in a way. The pastor of Greenville’s First Presbyterian Church points out that Christians there “have many prominent female African American religious leaders, so another black female minister isn’t a surprise. I don’t think when she walks into the room [at an interfaith event], people say, ‘Oh, there’s that black female rabbi.’ People just see her as the rabbi. They just think, ‘Oh, there’s the rabbi who happens to be female and black.’”

Stanton says much the same thing herself, emphasizing color over gender: “I’m foremost a rabbi who happens to be African-American, not THE African American rabbi.”

She is, however, THE first female black rabbi anywhere. Learning that she would be making Jewish history actually came as a surprise to her after she started her rabbinic studies. “I’m glad I didn’t know at the time,” she says now. “I would’ve been scared away!”

The San Francisco–based Institute for Jewish and Community Research said last year that a surprising 20 percent of today’s American Jews are not Caucasian; they are converts like Stanton, or adoptees, or children born of mixed marriages. IJCR was founded by Gary Tobin, whom locals may recall as the engineer of a major Dallas Jewish community study a number of years ago. He passed away last year, just a few weeks after Rabbi Stanton’s ordination.

Now Diane Tobin heads the “think tank” in which she worked side-by-side with her late husband, and offers a current-day assessment: “Due to assimilation and intermarriage, the stability of the American Jewish community has never been more vulnerable. If we are to survive, we must become more welcoming to people, not just send them away….”

Certainly we must not send away Rabbi Alysa Stanton, or others who may follow.

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 15 April 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

Today we sit squarely between Yom HaShoah and Israeli Memorial and Independence Days.

The last two are certainly not unrelated to the first. Without the Holocaust, Israel might not have needed a day to remember the many who fell in its defense. It might not have become an independent nation at all.

Which is to say that I’m not as afraid of those who deny that the Holocaust happened — we know they’re certifiably crazy — as I am of Jews who believe that because it’s so far in the past, we should give up the Holocaust and “move on.”

I review a lot of books these days, and find many Jews who are not ashamed to say they don’t want to read, or even hear about, another Holocaust-themed book; some insist they’ve had enough Holocaust altogether. I wouldn’t be so concerned if they were expressing unhappiness, even fright, over the horrors those memories reawakened. But what they’re actually saying is they’re “tired” of the Holocaust as a topic in today’s literature. That’s what concerns me.

I maintain that even a cursory glance at current writings will prove that if you eliminate Holocaust tales and references from your Jewish reading list, there’s not much left to choose from. It’s everywhere: in fiction and nonfiction, in history and biography and memoir, in plays and poetry. We can’t get away from this theme, even if we want to.

Why should we want to? Decades after the world went mad in so many ways — ghettos, camps, cruelty and killings, and feigned ignorance that taught us how yellow the stream of human cowardice can run — how can we permit ourselves to run away?

The books accumulate in my office, overflowing shelves, piled on tables, chairs, the floor. I cannot possibly do justice to them all. But I’ll offer you a sample here. New publications and new translations, all fresh and raw despite the age of their subject matter:

“The Wedding in Auschwitz,” by Erich Hackl. The Austrian novelist is inspired by the true story of Rudi and Marga Friemel, who married in 1944, a union that survivors considered “a victory — a proof that we were still alive.”

“Selfless,” by David Michael Slater. This novel could be a modern Jewish “You Can’t Take It With You,” with the tale-teller’s scheming and teasing sisters and his father, the plagiarist writer. The author’s comedy is not funny when he injects some Holocaust survivor grandparents into the mix.

“Chance Encounter,” by Sanford R. Simon. He was a business writer before creating this post-Holocaust fiction, contrasting and analyzing the mindsets and actions of an assimilated American Jew and a Gentile German banker, while trying to trace relatives lost during World War II. Are they really so different?

“A Lucky Child” is the memoir of Thomas Buergenthal, who survived Auschwitz and its infamous death march as a boy of 10. His book is graced with a foreword by Elie Wiesel, who begins by asking about this belated storytelling, “Are there rules to help a survivor decide the best time to bear witness to history?”

“Penguin Luck,” by Kay Mupetson. In her novel, this corporate lawyer of many years’ experience creates a much younger alter ego, a small-firm attorney who is visited by Holocaust ghosts relentlessly demanding that she must “carry on for us.”

“Kiss Every Step,” by Doris Martin. Her entire Polish family, parents and five children, somehow survived the Holocaust. The former Dora Szpringer says that although this fact alone is amazing, “What is more remarkable is how we survived.” Here, her siblings help tell the story.

“Run for Me Too,” by Neva Gould. This historical novel fulfills the long-ago promise of one survivor, now a retired physician in Chicago, who gives voice to the victims of the Croatian town in which she grew up.

These are my “lucky seven” books of the moment — lucky because they’re the products of people who lived long enough to write their own stories, or were written by people who cared enough for those already gone to tell their stories for them.

Please read, and please think. Please say “Never again!” rather than “Enough already!” At our recent seders, all of us came out of Egypt together once more, a yearly passage. But now, we Jews must acknowledge coming after the Holocaust, all together, every day of our lives. We’ll do our best “moving on” by remembering, and making the world move with us.

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 08 April 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

I often tell both Jews and Christians that this time of year, the conjunction of Passover and Easter, is the closest our faiths ever come to each other. As we recall the Exodus from Egypt, the starting place of our peoplehood, all branches of Christianity are celebrating their beginnings as religions, not so much rooted in a baby’s birth but in a man’s death: that same baby, grown up.

Some Christians find it difficult to recognize, and accept, that Jesus’ famed Last Supper was probably a Passover seder. But the truth is, Jesus was a Jew, in Jerusalem to observe one of our pilgrimage festivals. The bread and wine that he told his disciples at that table to adopt as symbols of him were the same matzah and sacramental drink on our tables today. The eggs and greens we use to symbolize spring and its new life are replicated in Easter baskets; the lamb bone reminding us of our salvation from that terrifying 10th plague, the slaying of the firstborn, is the genesis of one Christian name for a sacrificed Jesus: “the lamb of God.” And some Jews find these correspondences surprising, too.

Would you also be surprised to learn that a man of 32, about the same age as Jesus at his death, has already lived his own kind of Jewish-Christian conjunction, and written a book about it? Its title is “Son of Hamas”; its author is Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Muslim convert to Christianity who for a decade was in the service of Shin Bet, Israel’s first line of internal security. I was surprised! I hadn’t even heard of this man, or his recently published book, until a reader handed me the first page of the Wall Street Journal’s March 6–7 weekend Opinion section, featuring an interview with him, reported by WSJ editorial board member Matthew Kaminski.

Mosab’s father, Sheik Hassan Yousef, is a Hamas founder who’s been an Israeli prisoner for about five years. Shin Bet has confirmed the truth of what’s in the book, and the sheik has confirmed that he and his family “have completely disowned the man who was our oldest son and who is called Mosab.” (A double quote: I’m repeating here what Kaminski quoted in his article.)

Although I’m interested in what he did with and for Israel, I’m more intrigued by why Mosab gave up Islam for Christianity, especially since this happened while he was under Judaism’s influence. The simple, basic facts: Someone handed him a New Testament and took him to a Bible study group. But the experiences behind that simplicity are far more complicated, and very basic to his life. Remember: This is a “son of Hamas.”

Mosab told interviewer Kaminski that he became a Christian because he found in Jesus something lacking in the faith of his birth: love. He maintains that his father is not a fanatic, but “What matters is not whether my father is a fanatic … he’s doing the will of a fanatic God. It doesn’t matter if he’s a terrorist or a traditional Muslim. At the end of the day, a traditional Muslim is doing the will of a fanatic, fundamentalist, terrorist God.”

Listen, in your head and with your heart, to this man who’s articulating something he says few others will: “I know this is harsh … most governments avoid this subject. They don’t want to admit this is an ideological war. The problem is not in Muslims. The problem is with their God. They need to be liberated from their God. He is their biggest enemy.” This son of a Hamas founder says that there will be no defeating today’s Islamic terrorism without really understanding Islam’s God.

Mosab, son of Hamas, has left his work for Israel and now lives quietly in Southern California, waiting to see if the United States will approve his application for political asylum. A bundle of contrasts, he’s a low-profile person who’s put a high-profile story on the open market and signed his real name to it. Of course his life has been threatened, but Mosab Hassan Yousef says he’s not afraid. I wonder if he sees himself as a new Jesus?

Jesus was a “Reform Jew,” bringing a message of love to other Jews; he paid with his life for it. Here’s a new Christian who can say about death: “That’s not the worst thing that can happen to you. I’m OK with it.”

For me, this is the season, and the reason, to read his book.

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 29 March 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

It’s time to think about matzah — I mean, really think about it. What it stands for.

We don’t have to think too hard, because Yehiel Poupko wrote all about this at Pesach five years ago. I’ve saved his words; they’re just as important for Pesach now.

Full disclosure first: I grew up in the shul of Bernard Poupko, an important, dynastic rabbi in the Orthodox tradition. Yehiel is one of his sons. I remember him as a very little boy, on the bimah, davening with his father. Of course he’s a rabbi, too, now — in Chicago, the last time I looked. Which was where and when I found his Passover message, called “Matzah: The Seder’s Sacred Messenger.” In it, he says that it’s “the matzah and the matzah alone over which the whole narrative is recited. Matzah is bread animated with memory….”

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko calls the seder “the most complex and detailed of Jewish rituals. A variety of texts have to be recited, chanted, studied, prayed. In their midst, a variety of foods — properly prepared — must be taught, presented, and eaten at the right moments, with understanding and purpose.” But the matzah, like the cheese in the famous nursery song, stands alone. The theme of the Haggadah, which guides us, is matzah.

To begin our seder, we bless the matzah. Then we break it, and put aside a piece to end our seder with. The story of Passover is recited in the presence of this broken bread. And why must we break it? Yehiel says, “Matzah really is poor bread, just flour and water, quickly kneaded by the poorest of the poor and baked on a hot rock in the desert sun of the Middle East. And the Talmud says it must be eaten as a poor person eats poor bread — never a whole loaf, but scraps and bits and crumbs.

“This was the poor bread that our ancestors ate while enslaved in Egypt: the bread of slavery itself.” So we break it to summon up the memory of poverty and torment. Yet it’s also the bread of faith, since those ancestors ate it before Sinai, before they had the Torah, when they left Mitzrayim with not much more than faith in God.

You see, that quick escape wasn’t the first time our people ate matzah! From Yehiel, I’ve learned that Moses told his people 14 days in advance about the 10th plague, and what they must eat that night: lamb broiled over an open fire, bitter herbs — and matzah. Why matzah, when they had ample time to make dough and let it rise? Because that first Passover, observed in homes rather than a place of worship, made each family’s table an altar.

“Because on the shared table of God and Israel,” Yehiel says, “everything must be pure. Leavening is not pure. The night of the first Passover meal, we were eating the only sacrificial meal found in the Torah that takes place outside a sanctuary. A sacred meal demands pure foods. Matzah is pure bread, just flour and water. Elemental.

“On that night, back in the land when and where we were still slaves, we became free by asserting that every home is a temple, every table an altar, every meal a sacrifice, every Jew a priest.”

This is a heavy matter to contemplate. But Yehiel offers us something much lighter to consider as well. Our seder culminates with the eating of the afikomen, the poor bread that has been waiting for us throughout, so that the last taste on our lips at the end of this special meal will be the taste of matzah.

If the children are sleepy, the Talmud says they may play “catch” to stay awake. With the matzah! The very first Frisbee! “This is actually the only time we permit this possibly less than fully respectful kind of fun to take place with bread, the staff of life,” Yehiel says.

So we begin the seder by tasting broken bits of matzah, and end it by eating the afikomen. The same matzah. But we have been transformed, at our table altars, from slaves into free men and women, just as our ancestors were. And that matzah has been transformed as well, from the poor bread of torment to the bread of faith.

The little boy I knew years ago has taught me to think deeply about matzah. Please join me! May Rabbi Yehiel Poupko’s wisdom enrich Passover for all of us this year.

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 11 March 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

Ironies abound.

Very recently, our daily paper’s classical music reviewer scored the Dallas Opera’s announcement of its forthcoming season: Nothing new there, he noted — and complained. At virtually the same time, a friend pointed out to me a very new Italian opera that’s just had its first performances. That’s the first irony.

The second: This new opera has a Holocaust theme. And the third irony is that its story, which involves the not-always-stellar role of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis World War II’s Italian Jews, premiered in a Catholic church. I hope you’re intrigued.

The opera is called “The Mortara Case” (“Il Caso Mortara” in Italian). New York City’s Dicapo Opera Theater actually commissioned this new work by a young composer-librettist, Francesco Cilluffo, who based it on something entirely real.

Back in Bologna in 1851, a Jewish baby, Edgardo Mortara, fell seriously ill; the family nursemaid, hoping to save this near-dead child’s soul, had him baptized without the by-your-leave of his parents. Edgardo did indeed survive, but when he turned 6, representatives of the pope came to the family’s house to claim him; according to the Vatican, no baptized child could be raised in a Jewish home.

In his New York Times review of the opera, Anthony Tommasini attributes what happened next to “righteousness and paternal longing”: Pope Pius IX raised Edgardo himself, like a son, and the boy grew up to become a priest.

With much lyric and some of what Tommasini calls “tormented, complex, highly-charged, spiky” music, especially in the scene where the boy is taken away from his parents, the opera follows Edgardo’s life until 1940. Then, at age 89, he dies — some might say fortunately, for his passing was only a few minutes before he was to be arrested by German soldiers. Ah, the supreme irony here: Under Nazi law, Edgardo was a Jew!

(In the best tradition of Italian opera, the priest has a vision of his mother just before his death, and the two join in what the reviewer calls “an agitated duet.” How could it be otherwise? No irony here: Remember, this opera is based on truth. Marianna Mortara must surely have suffered torments far beyond agitation when her youngest child was torn from her, and for the rest of her life.)

We should be quick to hand Dicapo our praise for conceiving this project and seeing it through to completion. This opera company is no Met. But it’s no amateur effort, either. Its founder and general director, Michael Capasso, birthed his artistic baby almost 30 years ago on Long Island, in a theater-turned-movie-house that was in the process of becoming a legitimate theater again. He convinced its renovators to open their inaugural season with an opera, which was “wildly successful,” he says. But then, those developers had an offer they couldn’t resist, and sold the building to folks who made condos out of it.

The opera company, however, was too good to disband. For 10 years, it “bounced around” — Capasso’s words — from venue to venue, until finding a permanent home at St. Jean Baptiste Church on Manhattan’s East 76th Street, corner of Lexington. The lower level, fully remodeled back in 1995, boasts a large lobby, a pit for Dicapo’s own 26-piece orchestra and the “supertitles” that today’s opera-goers are accustomed to. With only 204 seats, it’s certainly not The Met, but Capasso revels in that: “We stage full-scale productions with professional performers whose voices and careers bring them to the greatest opera houses of the world and still perform here,” he says. “It is very high-end. The quality is there, but there is an intimacy and accessibility to the performance that you don’t receive anywhere else.

“The difference is, our last row is closer to the stage than the first row of the Metropolitan Opera is to its stage!” There are too many ironies right here in this tale of “The Little Opera Company That Could” to count!

The last performance of “The Mortara Case” was sung one week ago tonight, and I’m really sorry I wasn’t able to be in New York to hear it. I do hope, however, that a day — or a year! — will come soon when the Dallas Opera decides to update its offerings by adding a very new opera to its seasonal schedule, and that it will choose this one for that honor. A Jewish-themed work in Italian, sung on a Texas stage: That could be the greatest irony of all!

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 04 March 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

I’ve just finished reading a book I’d like to talk with you about. It’s a memoir called “The Rabbi’s Daughter.” I hated it!

Yet the story of Reva Mann’s life (which had the telling subhead “Sex, Drugs and Orthodoxy” on its initial British publication) makes a compelling read; it offers all the fascination of watching a snake swallow a live mouse. Because the author — who’s now in her 50s — was a true “wild child” who purports to tell it like it was. Her life story teeters uneasily, looking for balance between the sex and drugs on one side and devout Orthodoxy on the other.

We have to believe it’s true, because she is not only a rabbi’s daughter, but a granddaughter as well, and not of garden-variety rabbis, but of immensely prominent ones. Her late father was Morris Unterman, beloved spiritual leader of London’s West End Marble Arch Synagogue. And her late grandfather was Isser Yehuda Unterman, the scholar who left his native England for Israel and became his adopted country’s second chief Ashkenazi rabbi.

Reva just shortened her family name, and provides a disclaimer: Other names and identifying details as well have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved. But she doesn’t seem to feel the need to protect any of her own private matters — not even her “private parts,” which she lets “hang out,” to use her hippy lingo, quite literally.

Ms. Mann plays the same song over and over: how she’s spent a lifetime trying various ways to unite in herself her warring physical and spiritual urges. But every time she thinks she’s found some place of peace, she loses it again.

The South African playwright Athol Fugard wrote a great scene into one of his early dramas. A young man moves dreamily through life, trying to “find himself”; another, more practical character, challenges him: “I didn’t know you were lost. You’re right here.” But Reva Mann is proof that a person can be totally lost to herself. She loses her virginity in the darkened sanctuary of her father’s synagogue, on the bimah, in front of the Ark — and at an “appropriate” moment, actually shouts “Halleluyah!” Or so she recalls. After a few arrests for drug possession, she goes to Israel, falls in love with the Torah’s mitzvot — or at least the idea of them — and with the dream of marrying a Torah scholar. Which she does. Then, six years and three children later, he divorces her, because he cannot live under the same roof with an unfaithful wife. The Torah teaches that, too. But Reva finds its spirituality restricting her physicality.

And so it goes for more than 300 pages, with Reva searching for some way to glue the two halves of herself together. Throughout, she’s having the same dichotomous problem with her parents. She loves them. She hates them. Their brand of English Orthodoxy doesn’t satisfy her spiritual needs; they are certainly not accepting of how she plays out her physical ones, but they try — unsuccessfully — to save her from herself.

If she reports accurately, her father was a rigid hypochondriac and her mother a self-centered depressive. I feel there’s an ethical problem here: Are Reva’s readers entitled to know all these things? For a long time I’ve been considering, and been concerned with, what responsibility a writer has to the people s/he writes about. Should their privacy be protected? If so: Does making a simple name change provide enough protection? As is the case here, does the death of those people mean all bets are off, and anything is fair game?

I’m not the only one questioning the avalanche of revelations and reproaches in this book, and especially the shucking of all parental coverings. One of her parents’ friends said Reva had certainly not followed the commandment to “Honor thy father and thy mother,” maintaining it still has force even after they are dead, as hers already were when she wrote so fully about them and her conflicts with them. She cites “honest truth” as her cause — and her defense.

Ms. Mann gives her writing a noble purpose. In a Haaretz article, she said she hoped her book would “reach people who are self-destructive, and help them rehabilitate their lives. That they will learn from me.” I think that’s a stretch. I suspect she still has much to learn from, and about, herself.

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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