Living Judaism

The Living Judaism section focuses on Jewish Spirituality, Meaning and Activism with invited columns written by Jewish clergy and others across the full spectrum of Jewish life and learning. Please contact Living Judaism editors Rabbi Goldie Milgram and Rabbi David Levin at [email protected] if you would like contribute your thoughts.

A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Remembrance

By Rutie Eckdish

Gurs internment camp

Every morning, I get up, walk to my bathroom, turn on the hot water and stand under the shower to get my 60+ year old bones to work, and I think of my grandmother. No, I don’t think of the fake showers of the concentration camps, as you probably thought. When my grandmother, Flora Lotte Paradies, nee Loëwenstein was 60+, she was, indeed, taken from her home, along with most of the Jews of southern Germany, and sent west to one of the many German “holding camps” on the Spanish-French border, known generically as Gurs.
I am now about the same age she was when she was taken away from her home. When she was my age, Flora Lotte had no shower, no hot water, no running water, no food, no paper to write on, no band aid to put on a sore finger, no cream to put on her face. She had no towel, no toilet paper, no toilet to speak of. And in those conditions, she lived for over 4 years.
When she was my age, my grandmother was put on a train with her husband, Julius Paradies, taller than she was by 2 feet and 2 years younger, and sent west to the unknown. The trip took several days, and if she had a place to sit, she probably shared it with him, or with other people. They each had a suitcase, probably, packed with the things you take when going to the unknown. Toiletry? Towels? Toilet paper? Books? What do you take when you don’t know where you are going to nor for how long or what to expect? Do you take slippers? Shoes, I was told by others, was the first thing you lost as you stepped off the train and set foot in the muddy soil of the Pyrenees mountains. Do you take your address book with you? Your favorite fountain pen or a pencil? And what do you do when you ran out of ink? How many clothes can you stuff into one small suitcase, and what happened to the coat you took off in the suffocating, stuffy, airless train ride?
When the train stopped, Omi and Julius and the others on that train arrived in Gurs, or in Récébédou, or in Nexon, or in one of the other satellite camp in the PyreneesMountains. The camps were originally erected as interim housing for 15-20 thousand Spanish refugees after the Spanish civil war by the French government. The Germans took it over in 1940 and housed, by some accounts, over 120,000 people, most of them Jewish, with no upgrades: no baths, no showers, no running water, no food, no shelter from the rain other than leaking roofs, no shelter from the scorching heat other than tar-covers roofs in the long summers, no shelter from the howling winds other than drafty walls in the awful long winters. No place to hide your few valuables you brought along to barter or bribe or maybe save. No where to place your spoon if you brought one or if you found one. No place to hang your towel, if you had one. No closet, no shelf, no cover, no pillow. No safe place to put your glasses when you take them off at night. No soap, once the piece you were smart enough to bring with you was gone, or maybe fell into the mud and you lost it when you walked for the first time to the make-shift sink.
No place of your own.
For over 4 years.
When I was little, I had various nicknames. My favorite was ‘the Little Paradies’, because, so I was told, I looked like her. I could never see it, of course. I recall being about 8 or 10, standing next to her and asking her if I will ever be as tall as she was. In no time, she answered me, though I could not see it. Just a few years later I towered over her 4’-10”, and she reminded me of that conversation. She was protective and she loved me, and she laughed with me. She was all that a grandma should be: loving without reservations, generous, smiling, and above all imbuing in me the sense of worth of my own importance as a person.
I have pictures of my Omi and me as I grew up, and as I age I see the family resemblance. I have pictures at home all around me of both my grandfathers whom I never met and of my Eckdish grandmother who was deported and died in the Piaski Camp, in the east. I have since lost my father, and my mother who died 34 years after him. I come from a line of longevity: My Omi died peacefully at her home in Israel near me and with my mother (her daughter) present, at the age of 92 of heart failure due to old age.
As I grow older, I become more aware of my parents and grandparents. I am less angry at what was not said or not shared; and I understand that much better how they lived, loved, interpreted their realities, what they learned and what they taught me. And what I learned from each. The older I get, the closer I get to the visceral and existential survival of the daily horrors. I get up every morning, gingerly and safely walk to my bathroom, turn on the hot water to the right heat and stand under the shower to rinse my eyes and start the day – and I think of my Omi. I can’t help it: I feel guilty for having the luxuries she was denied for over four year. And I cannot shake the sense that I would not have survived her ordeal. My Omi was not a hero, and I am not a coward. She came out of this imprisonment without ever calling it hardship, imprisonment, captivity, or denial. She put it behind her and never talked about it. My sister and I never asked, fearing of awakening in her nightmares she probably had and never shared. My Omi never told us about it in fear of awakening in us nightmares.
So I have my day-mares.
I feel guilty when I pick up my glasses off the shelf, take out clean underwear from the drawer, pick out another clean shirt I did not wear yesterday, lace my shoes up, and sit down to have a breakfast of champions. Every morning, as I get up and walk to my bathroom, turn on the hot water and stand under the shower to get my 60+ year old bones to work, I think of my warmly smiling grandmother who would probably have the right words to say to sooth my pain of guilt and inadequacy.
Few books were written about the endurance of the concentration camps that were not the crematoria or did not have death march, did not have the horrible factories, the hundreds of camps that were not freed by the Allies, the thousand of people who endured day after day for years in camps that no movie were made for. So, I carry the guilt of mundane forgetfulness, too.
One of my 7th grade students came back from a trip to Europe and asked to share his experience with his the class. No special occasion, no Holocaust day. Steven brought to class 6 x 8 pictures and passed them around. The pictures showed the long benches of the concentration camps, the mounds of shoes and glasses, and the likes. I have to admit I was unmoved by seeing it again. Then, Steven showed a picture of a niche with a bucket and said: this was the bathroom. There were some uncomfortable giggles, and then the questions: where is the door, or a curtain? Water? Sink? And then the giggles became very uncomfortable, when the realization set in: this was not about 6 million, or about the endless rows of torture. This is about the daily humanity stripped. And this bathroom – so to speak – is a universal value, it seems.
The Holocaust is indeed the attempt not only to annihilate the existence of Jewish people, it was an attempt to strip individuals of their humanity and human values. Among the few things Flora Lotte Paradies brought with her from the camp is a piece of brown paper with some colored drawing, a thank-you note from one of her colleagues for the piece of bread she shared on her friend’s birthday. And that is what I think of as I step out of my warm shower into my day.

Rutie Eckdish is currently a full time freelance Hebrew – English court and conference interpreter as well as medical and legal translator. She is a veteran Hebrew teacher and now teaches adults in private setting.

A New Approach For Personalizing Learning In Jewish Day Schools

A laptop. Photo: Raimond Spekking

By Andrea Helling

San Francisco-based education technology company, AltSchool, is kicking off a nationwide search to partner with innovative Jewish day schools. Thanks to a grant from Philadelphia-based Kohelet Foundation, select day schools will have the opportunity to join the growing network of schools and districts using AltSchool’s personalized learning platform, which includes access to Judaic Studies milestones built into the technology. In addition to comprehensive training and services for teachers, schools also get the unique chance to collaborate with the Pengineers and designers to help shape the tools. Longtime Jewish day school education leader, Bryna Leider, has joined AltSchool to spearhead the initiative and support day schools in the network.

“Educators know that technology alone cannot improve learning,” said Leider, AltSchool’s Head of Partnerships for Jewish Education. “That’s why teachers using the AltSchool platform play an essential role in the design of the tools being developed to empower a learner-centric education. This marks the first time a coalition of teachers from day schools around the country will be able to work alongside Silicon Valley engineers and product designers to improve Jewish day school education broadly.”

[Read more…]

Make Your Counting Count

Rabbi Shaya Deitsch. Photo: Twitter

By Rabbi Shaya Deitsch

While you were on your way to the polls or at home in protest or apathy for last week’s primary midterm elections, did the inevitable thought creep up on you: “Why do I even bother? Does one vote even matter?” Spiraling further into self-depreciation, you may have even compared yourself to the “big decision makers” and questioned your right to have a say at all: “Who am I to have an opinion?”

True, our democracy gives us this right to vote, but beyond this right, does it really count for anything?

As we think about counting, and whether our counting—well, counts—it may have thematically dawned on us that we have just finished counting down the Omer, the tradition of counting the days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot.  Daily, we verbally counted as a community and as individuals—one day of the Omer, two days and so forth for the last 49-days.

[Read more…]

Time to Revitalize Judaism: A Respectful Challenge to the Jewish Establishment

By Prof. Richard H. Schwartz

As author of Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, I was immediately intrigued by the title of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s new book, Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage. The idea that Jews should not blindly accept the status quo, but should use Jewish law as a source for rebelling against complacency, denial, injustice, oppression and more, with the courage to apply Jewish teachings to help promote a better world, excited me. [Read more…]

The Direction of Prayer

By Rabbi Chaim Galfand

Sunday, May 13, is Yom Yerushalayim, or Jerusalem Reunification Day. This Israeli national holiday celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 in the wake of the Six Day War. As we prepare to mark this occasion when the Kotel (Western Wall) and the entirety of the Old City came under Israeli control, it seems like a very appropriate time to answer a question that has been posed to me: why do Jews face east when they pray? [Read more…]

Time is in Our Hands: Passover Devar Torah

Zodiac – Central Europe 1631. Photo courtesy of Jewish Theological Seminary Library.

By Rabbi Albert Gabbai

We are now in the month of Nissan, the month of our freedom from slavery in Egypt. We just read in the Torah this past Shabbat about the first mitzvah and commandment, which G0d gave to the Israelites as a nation: “This month will be to you the first of the months”.
The question is why does the Torah add the words “to you,” and not simply that “this month will be the first of the months?”
Our sages of blessed memory tell us that God gave the people the right to establish their own calendars; therefore, they determine when the holidays will occur. It is up to the Jewish leadership to establish the beginning of the lunar month and, in turn, the day on which, for instance, Passover will occur. In contrast,  Shabbat is not determined by anyone except by God, who created the universe in six-days and sanctified the seventh, the Shabbat. That day is not dependent on a calendar, but will happen every seventh day.

[Read more…]

Passover: Our Story of Redemption

Rabbi Gregory S. Marx.

By Rabbi Gregory S. Marx

Every faith community has a story of redemption. But what we need to be redeemed from is what divides us.

The Buddhist believes that we need to be saved from suffering. The Buddha taught that all of life is suffering, and we must figure out a way to end craving. Our Christian brothers and sisters argue that it is sin that oppresses us.  They teach that faith alone can save.

Judaism also believes in redemption and being saved.  I remember a number of years ago someone erroneously saying to me, “The Jews do not need to be saved.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. We tell a story of redemption as well, but it is not from sin or suffering. It is from oppression.

The story of Passover is not a story that resonates in an ashram or in some exotic fashion. It is a story that reminds us that there are forces of oppression all around us. They drag us down and prevent us from being fully human.  We are saved by righteous action, or mitzvoth. We can redeem the world in partnership with God by living a life of goodness and mitzvoth.

[Read more…]

The First of Nisan, the Forgotten Jewish New Year

By Joel S. Davidi Weisberger

The Alexandrian pamphlet describing the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy.

It is late March and the weather is still cold. The sounds of Arabic music and exuberant conversation emanate from an elegant ballroom in Brooklyn, New York. No, it’s not a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah. A Torah Scroll is unfurled and the cantor begins to read from Exodus 12:1, “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.’” The reading is followed by the chanting of liturgical poetry based on this Torah portion, “Rishon Hu Lakhem L’khodshei Hashanah”… Yom Nisan Mevorakh….” “The first month shall it be for you for the months of the year… the month of Nisan is blessed.” As they leave the event, men and women wish each other “Shana tova,” happy new year.

Something seems off. It is a Monday night and Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish new year, is still six months away. Why the celebration and talk of a new year? This ritual is very familiar, however, to the members of Congregation Ahaba Veahva, a Synagogue that follows the Egyptian-Jewish rite. It is a vestige of a very ancient, almost extinct Jewish custom called Seder Al-Tawhid (Arabic, Seder Ha-Yikhud in Hebrew, the ritual of the unity). [Read more…]

A Rabbi’s Trip to the Vatican

by Rabbi Gideon Shloush

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Shloush recently attended a conference on anti-Semitism at the Vatican in Rome.

I dreaded returning to Rome. I remember being there a decade ago and I recall the unsettling feeling. After all, this is the place of our Galut (exile). Rome is the symbol of the crushing of Jerusalem and our people’s enslavement.

Nevertheless I was there to participate in a major international conference focused on anti-Semitism. How ironic. The Romans ransacked Israel, the Catholics were responsible for endless persecutions of our people, and here we were in Rome talking about anti-Semitism. [Read more…]