The freedoms within (ask me about what I mean)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Holocaust; if not for us, then for them

He would have been 67 years old today, says Auschwitz survivor Rose Stark in regards to her baby, Shlomo Nachum Ben Yosef. As I held her hand tightly, I peered into her deep, but light brown eyes. “Today,” she stopped, “today I wanted to talk about it, but I couldn’t I got to emotional.” Her European accent really reminded me of my Hungarian grandmother who passed away a little over a year ago. I held back my tears; I wanted to stay strong, for her, for the others.

Last week I attended the fourth annual Michlala Jerusalem College women’s event on the Holocaust. The theme for this year’s was ‘Growing up in the Shadow of the Holocaust: Finding Identity, Keeping Faith’. There were 3 speakers, one short documentary, and one special blessing. Each speaker had an amazing story and I wish I remembered every detail to retell them to others. One of them though, I really identified with. (sorry this is so lengthy, but I had to include everything that I thought would be relevant)

A big guy, with a black hat, a nice suit, and looking tougher than ever walks up to the stage. His name was Joseph Chaim. The crowd quiets down as he begins his story. He starts with ‘I did not go through the Holocaust, but my grandparents and parents did. He looks as if he had been religious his whole life. I thought wrong. He continued with the story of his own family. Him and his wife and 3 kids lived somewhere in Israel and were not really religious. One say, his wife told him that she was tired, and asked him to pick up dinner. He agreed and went to the popular ‘steak lavan’ aka pork place he normally would go to. For some reason, this time while waiting in line, he recalled a story from his past.

 During the last days of the Holocaust, his grandfather was still in the camp, and was still trying to keep up the Jewish traditions he had always kept up his whole life. Literally, on the day they were to be released, one of the Nazi guards made the remaining survivors stand in a circle. He pointed to Joseph Chaim’s grandfather, knowing he was the most religious one in the group and said ‘you are going to be released today-that’s it-you are free-so take a bite of this [with pork in his hand] or die, why not, just eat it!’ His grandfather looked at the Nazi and said ‘no.’ He was shot, and he died. Joseph was thinking of this story online to buy pork sandwiches for him and his family and thought to himself ‘either my grandfather is crazy, or I’m crazy…and my grandfather could not have been crazy, so I certainly am!’ he left the line and came home to his wife. He explained to her what had happened and said that he neede to do something more with his life; from there he decided to attend a seminar-a religious one-like a shabbaton for older people. 

Anyways, here is where his 360 of life began. As he danced with all these Chassidic rabbis, not ever knowing them before, he felt as if he was with his people. He decided from then on out, he was going to be religious. On his way home, he realized that he did not have tefillin with him, and told his wife that he needed to go to his father’s house to pick them up. At the time, his wife was hoping that his father was going to convince him out of this phase, and wasn’t so sure what was really going on. Anyways, as they got to the house, and as he asked his father for the tefilin-there was a ramble of confusin from everyone, but his father decided to take him up to the attic to get the tefilin anyways. 

His father began to cry as he handed over the tefilin and Joseph, dumfounded, asked him why. His father then told him the story of where the tefilin were from. When he was in a camp, he saw his friend being taken away, but right as his friend was being escorted out of the camp, he threw him a bag. He thought it was a piece of bread, but when he looked inside, he realized it was tefilin. He put them on the next morning. The guard came in earlier that day, saw him with the tefilin, escorted him out, looked him in the eye, and told him this was punishable by death. The Nazis gathered up the people that morning and had the man standing on the table, ready to be hanged. They asked him if he had any last wishes and he answered asking to put the tefilin on. The nazi agreed, obviously thinking that this would be perfect, people would see the Jew hanging, with the reason why around his arm and his head. So Joseph’s father put the tefilin on, and then looked at everyone and said ‘you think I am the loser? No no, you have it all wrong, I am the winner here!’

The Nazis, now disheveled, did not want this message to be spread and made him get off the table so he could have a more torturous death. The punishment was holding 2 large stones while getting lashed in the head. If he dropped the stones, he would be shot. Normally, after two slashes, a person was dead. This time however, he did not drop the stones, but he did pass out on the 25th lash. He was thrown into the dead body pile, but later woke up, realized where he was, and went back to the barracks, and from then on later was liberated. 

Those were the tefilin that Joseph Chaiim got. Together, with the whole family, including his father and grandmother, and his brothers and sisters and their kids and his wife’s brothers and sister and their kids, new generations of orthodox Jews was born.

I left with a message. A very, truly strong message. These people that went through the Holocaust kept their faith. They kept it, and they are continuously circulated it from now till the day that they die.  They want to make sure that their pain and suffering goes unforgotten, and that is what I promised Mrs. Rose Stark, as I held her hand after the ceremony was over. 

Her dark, but light brown eyes really showed that even through the darkness, the Holocaust, and having her own baby ripped out of her arms, there will be light, with the continuation of her Jewish family. I can’t help but think that this alone should be a reason to stay true to Judaism, and not get sucked away into the addictions of materialism and society. If you’re not happy with G-d, then OK-but if not for him, then do it for them; the ones that feel they are rich because they have amazing Jewish families, not because they have all the money in the world. Stay true to your roots, to our roots, and to everything that these people went through.  
I left with her pulling up her sleeve, showing me the tattoo that was engraved into her arm saying “if someone tries to tell you that the Holocaust didn’t happen, it did! It’s here! Right here, it happened, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise’. I will never forget, and with that I say if not for us, then do it for them, keep the Jewish religion alive, circulating, and real..

Monday, February 21, 2011

The realization of the opening

I recently took a trip back to Florida for my semester break. I found out a few things about my family, and re-connected with family members as well. However, I think it may have taken a little bit of a toll on me as well. First semester, I was on fire. Spiritually heightened, I was always on a constant thinking marathon analyzing things I've learned and took everything into account. I was never really this way before; I mean yeah I was intelligent, but I never recognized my potential, making me lack many aspects of my true deep-thinking qualities. So I get back to Florida, after my amazing first four months and slowly but surely loose a little bit of that fire I achieved. I didn't pray everyday, I wasn't learning, I wasn't really thinking every second of every day either. It was a little mind-numbing going about daily activities and I was pretty excited to get back to the thinking process.

So I returned back to Israel and reality had been set upon me. I faced the challenge of my past shadows walking beside me. Looking at them in the face, my mind-numbness had continued. I felt sort of sick, lacked interest in showing up to class, and took my voluntary learning and put it off to the side. I just walked along normal life activities in a tiresome way.

Anyways, one thing that happened was that I went out one Saturday night, of course drank, and had my guard walls broken down. With another student, we began to discuss life and tear-wrenching memories began to bubble up. Over a period of a few hours, sobs were exchanged and then daily life continued. I sat down with one of my staff members of my program and discussed this issue, and realized that I needed to regain some inspiration. After a long talk, the question of how still remained.

My Judaic classes today; Jewish Literacy and Tanach, revealed some information that allowed me to regain a little bit of that spark I had all last semester.

From Jewish Literacy:
We've been speaking about the Jewish life-cycle lately and today we touched upon death. From the stories of Eliyahu a concept is discussed. It reads that every person gives G-d the same excuse when he reaches heaven: 'you didn't give me the capabilities to reach that potential you set for us!' These people don't realize that G-d isn't judging the soul, he's judging how they reached their potential. Basically said stated by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi 'the world is compared to a waiting room-prepare yourself in the waiting room before you enter the court'. Once your soul departs from your body at death, there's no turning back, so make sure you reach your full potential. Many of these teaching do not come directly from the Torah, but are only hinted then furtherly explained in the Zohar.

From Tanach:
Shir HaShirim, the poetic and visually provocative controversial love story from the Megillot section of Tanach, was talked about today in class. At first, the many reasons of why it shouldn't be controversial because of course it is an allegory of many other wonderful things were presented. Basically the maiden in the story being Hashem and the beloved being the Jewish people and the relationship between them is the most famous explanation. After this was presented, an essay by Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik from 1961 was partly read. It was called "Kol Dodi Defek: The Voice of my Beloved Knocks". He introduces the essay by explaining the horrors of the Holocaust and how when we were in the worst of pains, G-d finally 'knocked' and the state of Israel was born. He adds that six knocks from G-d have been recorded. The first knock was a political knock in Nov 1947, when the UN gave Israel permission to their own state. The second knock was on the battlefield-how when the Arab's denied the Partition Plan which would have given them most of Israel, they denied it, fought us instead, then lost, resulting in our victory of the land of Israel. The third knock was theological on how Christians believed Jews were supposed to disappear, and now the Jews were receiving their own land, going against there beliefs entirely. The fourth knock was the hearts of the perplexed, or the hippie stages, when the returnee movement (Baal teshuva) was created. The fifth knock was that Jewish blood was not free discussing the 1976 black September when Golda Meir hunted down the terrorist that killed the Jewish Olympians. And lastly the sixth knock was when the gates to a Jewish homeland were open to all Jews worldwide. All this tied into now the Maiden, or G-d is knocking on our doors and the question is if you want to open the door and read the messages.

All in all, I have a new realization that I am the only one that is going to make me work to my full potential and that I also know this escapade away from home in Israel is G-d knocking on my door. Hopefully I can do this and hopefully I open it in time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

'Jews must live in Israel'

So I've had many Shabbat experiences on this excursion I've taken to Israel. Many places have been visited like Chevron, the Old City, Tzfat, etc. There has been a variety of emotions that I have felt on these trips, but nothing like what came over me on this past shabbaton in Kibbutz Ein Tzorfim.

Myself and a new student on the program, Adina
The Shabbat started off beautifully with the setting sun really bringing out all of the colors of the plethora of flowers all around the kibbutz. We walked over the the small Synagogue and then headed over to the dining room for the Sabbath evening meal. It was really amazing to be back filled in a room with a bunch of Jewish people celebrating G-d's commandment to rest for 25 hours out of the week. A Friday night Oneg proceeded with songs and words of inspiration and testimonials on the past semester and what it has done for the specific person making their statement.

I slept in a bit Shabbat morning headed to Shul and of course another amazing meal. We then got a walking tour of the kibbutz. A sense of community overtook my body as the roles and the history of the area was described. People are there for each other. And they always will be. They will sacrifice what they have for you to feel comfortable, and will always stand together. I realized that the only place in the world where real Jewish community will prevail would be in Israel.

Later that afternoon after an intense game of Taboo, we were all to attend a speech from a woman named Bryna. Bryna is an American woman that took part in the Gush Katif incident back in 2004. Her full story can be found here: . But besides the whole entire story this is what I took from it.

The woman was one of the strongest and most inspirational people I have ever met in my life. She moved to Israel sometime after her one year program excursion in Israel and settled in a few different places before she landed in Gush Katif. When she got there, a few of her children, I think she had six, were in the army. Unfortunately one of the sad parts of children partaking in the army is when parents receive that unwanted phone call that your son/daughter would not be coming home anymore. This happened to her oldest son Yochanan when he was on a mission in Lebanon. He was buried near the Gush Katif settlement where the sea could be viewed because he was in a unit where scuba diving was involved. She explained in detail how thousands upon thousands of people would show up at her house during the shiva, and how she really felt that sense of community as well. A few years later, I beleive, her community was kicked out by the Israel government due to the dangers and the agreements being made at the time. The actual Gush Katif settlement was in the Gaza Strip making it sincerely dangerous for them to be there. Basically what happened was they all waited in their houses after countless protests to finally be escorted out by the IDF. This one last time, Bryna was yelling at the solider on how they could do these to these families, that that was their homes, and that what they built up came from nothing. The soldier stood there emotionless. Bryna built a clubhouse in honor of her son Yochanan and asked if she could go there one last time before she left. The soldier accompanied her. As she was there she began to tell him stories about Yochanan and about the neighborhood and her story. Still the soldier seemed emotionless. She said that she started to question his lack of emotion, and then suddenly he began to cry to. She hugged him and said 'don't break down, just build up' and they stood there together. She ended up having to un-bury her son, and then re-bury him somewhere else in fear of the new Arab settlers destroying the grave site. Then, She ended up in temporary housing right next to where the kibbutz I was staying at, and has not moved since. She still does not call it her permanent home, but still has an immense amount of faith and hope in G-d, and the Israeli nation. She kept on repeating: Jew's must live in Israel and never break down, always build up.

I couldn't help but cry during and after this presentation, knowing that someone could have gone through so much, and still be in such a state of awe of being a Jew and belonging to the Jewish nation. I feel empowered and only want every other Jew to feel this. I'm not sure how this will happen, but hopefully along my journey I'll figure it out.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In your Holy

I stumbled upon an old blog post from October 2010-may not seem like so long ago, but a lot has happened since then, so it seems like forever. Here's what part of it read:

"My intrigue for the Jewish life is at it's highest right now.

We just started taking classes, and I'm actually excited to actually start getting into the learning. Even though I'm taking 8 Jewish classes, 5 Secular classes, and 1 Ulpan class, I'm still ready. I am a little afraid since so much information has departed my mind; it might be hard to absorb it all in one year."

At the Kotel, again.
The learning I did really changed me as a person. It opened up many new doors in my mind, and discovered things I never though I would be able to conquer. All in all, today was the first day of my second semester, and I was so excited to be there, to get back on that learning track that I left a few weeks ago.

The parsha these few weeks discusses the building of the Mishkan. There are three rooms to the Mishkan, a courtyard, the holy room, and the holy of holies room. The simple meaning was the actual dimensions, but what this symbolized was something much more meaningful. As a person, you have three levels. Your physical self, which is the outer courtyard, your emotions and feelings which is considered the second inner room, and the third place is who you truly are, something many people try to hide from and something that takes a lot of dedication to embrace.

In that third room stands the aron hakodesh that holds the Tablets or the Ten Commandments. It was hidden behind curtains, but the two poles that were attached to the Holy box, indented the curtains from the inside out. Regular people were not allowed to go into this room, only the main cohen gadol once a year on Yom Kippur. But the amazing thing is that, people knew that there was something in there because of those indentations from the poles. They couldn't see it, but they knew it existed.

G-d is the parallel in this situation. You cannot see him, but he is there. You have an intuition, which means you have a soul, and since you know there is something inside of you, rather then just having your physical body, you know there has to be something more to life. Intensify these thoughts by putting your inner most feelings into action and traveling the road into that holy of holies room, into your whole true self.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Israel to Florida-Florida to Israel

(At the Kotel)
What I learned from my break at home:

So I was thinking before I left back to Florida, that I may have wanted to switch into a seminary from my Bar Ilan program. I tried to make pro con lists, but I just wasn't sure what would be right. After a talk with our program director (that has known me for a long time), he told me that I'm on a good path right now at Bar Ilan, and that it would probably be in MY best interest to stay. I wasn't the happiest, being a bit unsettled, but being home definitely showed that the path I'm on right now is truly what is best for me. I wasn't ready to as what many kids coin it as 'to flip out', meaning getting on such a spiritual high, accepting everything in the Jewish religion and putting it into effect. So far, I'm doing my best to dress more conservatively, eat kosher, keep Shabbat, keep the Jewish holidays, and learning. It's been a lot for me, knowing I came from not doing any of those for 6 years-so as for now, I'm going to stay doing those actions, and see where it has taken me at the end of the year.

(My father and I at Magic Kingdom!)
Another thing I picked up on here is that I truly deeply care about staying connected to my family, especially my families past. I did some asking about where I have come from, and I don't ever want to let the information I've received die. 

This past semester has truly been an amazing experience If you know anyone questioning on if they should go to Israel for their first year of college or straight to a secular college, please ask them to talk to me! I only want to spread how amazing this experience has been, and since I've seen both sides, I know exactly how it feels. That being said, I cannot wait to see, hear, and feel what next semester has to offer me-goodbye United States, hello Israel!