Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Missing Item in the Display Case

When you enter our TBS lobby in early February, you may notice a missing item from our TBS display case – our so-called “Holocaust” Scroll.  This Scroll, along with Rabbi Jay Perlman, Patty and Louis Grossman, and Jason and Judy Chudnofsky, will be returning the Scroll to its home congregation for a very special service marking a special anniversary.

Long-time members Patti and Louis Grossman pictured here in front of the rescued Holocaust Scroll which they were instrumental in bringing to TBS.  Photo taken Summer of 2013.

You may know that this Scroll is one of many recovered Scrolls which the Nazis planned on either destroying or displaying in museums to document their efforts in eradicating the Jewish people.  You may also know that the Scroll is on loan to our community as part of an effort to show the resilience and triumph of the Jewish spirit.  What you may not know is that over 1600 recovered Czech Torah Scrolls have been on loan from the Westminster Synagogue (and Memorial Scrolls Trust) to congregations throughout the world for 50 years.  On February 9, 2014, many of these Scrolls will be temporarily returned to the Westminster Synagogue for a beautiful ceremony marking these 50 years and the steely resolve to continue to celebrate our Judaism while marking and remembering the lessons of the Holocaust.

Every year, we read from our Holocaust Scroll on Yom Kippur during our Yizkor, or Memorial, service.  The memory of those who have passed on is in the front of our mind at this time as we mark and remember their impact in our lives.  How meaningful for us as a community that we also mark this moment with a visceral reminder of the power of memory; our Holocaust scroll becomes a visual reminder that the Jewish people lives on, that we are not an exhibit in a museum of a people whose time has passed.  This February, when you enter our lobby at TBS and note the temporary absence of our Holocaust scroll, please take the opportunity to reflect on its journey, from its original home in Czechoslovakia, through the hands of the Nazis, to its temporary home in London at the Westminster Synagogue, and to its (we pray) permanent home with us.  May the journey inspire you to remember and to commemorate.

--Daniel T. Barkowitz, Executive Director

Here are Rabbi Jay’s words from the Yom Kippur Afternoon Service last September:

Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond the Jewish communities of Europe knew well the experiences of ongoing persecution and anti-Semitic uprisings.  Yet throughout, these very same Jewish communities – large and small – continued to find ways to flourish – to bring Judaism to life – and to create.  One of these places was the town of Sobeslav in Czechoslovakia.  Some time during either the 1700’s or early 1800’s a special sofer – or Torah scribe was called upon to pen a most unique Torah scroll. 

This text would be, what is referred to, as a Kabbalistic or mystical scroll….And its writer – specially trained in the art of Kabbalah would scribe each of the letters with particular mystical focus and by using a unique calligraphic style.

Ultimately, it would become a spiritual and sacred work of art that its owners hoped would inspire generations of Jews.

When the Nazi’s rose to power and invaded Czechosolvia – tragically, the Sobeslav scroll – along with thousands of other Torahs in communities across the country-side – was looted and held by the Nazis who sought to destroy every Jew and Jewish community.

However, with the defeat of Nazi Germany, many of the Czech scrolls that had been taken were found and brought to London where they were held by the Westminster Synagogue.  Eventually, a number of these Torahs would be shared – on permanent loan – with synagogues around the world as a testament to the hope and promise of a Jewish people which has continually found a way to survive.

A number of years ago, thanks to the work of the Grossman family and Rabbi Sonsino – the mystical Torah scroll of Sobeslav – found its way to its new home, here at Temple Beth Shalom. 

While the sign that we have for this Torah states that it was penned in the 19th century – a sofer who recently appraised this text for our community has told us that he believes that it is actually over 300 years old – and is one of the most unique Torahs that he has ever seen.

This coming year – 2014 – happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Westminster Synagogue’s Scroll program.  In celebration of this milestone, the leadership of the program has invited ALL of the congregations who have Czech Torah Scrolls to bring them to London for a special ceremony and celebration.  I am pleased to share that the Grossmans….and I….and possibly a couple of our lay leaders…..will be traveling to London this coming February to participate in this historic anniversary program.  We will be sharing of our experiences when we return.

This afternoon… part of our commemoration of Yom Kippur….we will read from the sacred scroll.  It is, for us, a living testimony: Ani Ma’amin - to our belief – with complete faith – in the continuity – in the vitality of the Jewish people.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Great People - Great Legends

Rabbi Sonsino
In human history great leaders attract great legends.  The details of their lives, often irretrievable, remain with us as the creation of an imaginative mind, either to destroy these leaders or to elevate them to new heights. For the Romans, Attila, the Hun (5th cent. CE), was a “scourge of god,” a symbol of cruelty. On the other hand, Moses, in the Western world, stands for law and wisdom.

Recently I was reading about the famous-- or maybe infamous--Russian queen, the great Catherine II (1729-1796), who was the subject of unbelievable legends that circulated for years in literary circles. Born a minor German princess, Catherine, at the age of 15, was married to the grand Duke, Peter of Russia. When she turned 33, she overthrew her insane husband in a bloodless coup, and established herself as the Empress of Russia. During her reign, the country expanded, prospered, schools were opened, laws enacted, and many wars won, including the defeat of  the Ottoman Empire by Russian forces in 1768. After her death however, a number of incredible legends began to circulate: that she had an excessive appetite for sex, that she had a sexual intercourse with a stallion, that she was the illegitimate mother of Eva, the daughter of a false Jewish-Messiah Jacob Frank, that she died on the toilet when her seat broke, etc.

In human history she is not the only one. The Bible tells us that, though king David began his life as a country thug (I Sam 22), he quickly became a national hero, by defeating the valiant Goliath, the Philistine (I Sam. 17) (but in another passage, the Bible says, it was not David, but Elhanan who killed Goliath; cf. II Sam. 21: 19) and by unifying both Judah and Israel. Eventually, he was viewed as the messianic figure that will come at the end of time to save humanity (Isa. 11; Jer. 23). In Jewish life, all messianic contenders, from Jesus to Rabbi Sabbatai Zevi of Turkey (17th cent.), have claimed to be of Davidic line.

And what do we know of Moses? The Bible tells us that he was the great liberator of the Jews in Egypt, the legislator to whom God revealed the entire Torah on Mt. Sinai, and, according to the sages later on, even all the teachings of the rabbis who lived centuries after him (Shemot Rabba, 28: 6). In reality, the story of Moses’ birth seems to have developed very much like the birth of the Assyrian king, Sargon the great (3rd millennium BCE), including the detail of how he was placed in a basket and found in a river by a young woman (See text, ANET, 119).

The observation that great leaders attract great legends does not, in my opinion, deny the reality that these important leaders of the past (like, Moses, David, Solomon, Jesus and others) lived but it highlights the fact that the details of their lives cannot be verified. The kernel of truth we have about them cannot be taken as historically reliable. Their descendants saw greatness in them and attributed to them fundamental teachings that still govern our lives.

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Jan. 2014.