Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – day 10: Treblinka

Treblinka is an impossibly beautiful memorial. Absolutely nothing is left of the camp that once stood there. It is hard to imagine it being the case, but we have to remember that the Nazis were masters of deception and made a point of dismantling these camps to allow for possible denial later on. In the same way, no one was supposed to leave these extermination camps alive, in order to prevent any kind of potential testimony at a future time. We only know about Treblinka because the Nazis didn’t succeed in eliminating all witnesses, precisely because these witnesses—namely the Jewish inmates they kept around to run this impeccably oiled death machine—figured out that the Nazis would never let anyone survive and staged a successful revolt on August 2nd, 1943, where they overtook the guards and escaped. At the end of the war about 50 of them were still alive. They had made a pact to testify once freed, which was the motivator for their rising, and so a few of them did. Without them, without their act of incredible courage, we would know nothing about Treblinka. In extermination camps where not one person survived, like Chelmno, all memory has been erased. To the point where many have never even heard of Chelmno at all.

The memorial that is Treblinka consists of a large clearing carved out of the forest the Nazis had planted to cover up their ignominious crime. It was designed by a non-Jewish Polish artist in the 60’s under Poland’s communist regime. A couple of concrete blocks made to look like two panels of a half opened gate welcome you into the space. The path on which you walk is made of uneven stones sticking out of the dirt, made to keep you off balance as you walk and slightly twist your ankles with each step. On the right of the stone-path are a series of concrete slabs aligned to represent the train track’s sleepers leading to the recreated platform where the cattle cars were emptied and men and women separated before being ushered into the undressing rooms at the end of their voyage.

From the platform we walked toward the main monument of stones towering at the center of the main clearing and made to look like the Jerusalem Western Wall with tortured bodies rising from its top. This concrete monument stands where the gas chambers once stood. As you walk toward this monument, a dozen or so stones lined up to your right have the names of the different countries from which Jews were taken to Treblinka engraved on them. As you approach you then discover a sea of stones (like burial stones), of every size and shape as far as the eyes can see. 17,000 of them. 17,000 to commemorate the 17,000 Jews per day who were killed there at the peak of Treblinka’s lethal efficiency. No word can describe how beautiful and emotional seeing such a sight is; a reaction you were not prepared for that completely overwhelms you. You are compelled to begin a slow, deeply meditative, wandering walk between these stones many of which have the names of the towns and villages the Jews who died here were taken from. My mind began to tell the stories of these stones, of these lives. The small ones were the children; the tiny ones were the babies. The taller ones were mothers and fathers, those that looked more tattered were the grand-parents. It was shockingly beautiful because its vastness, the thousands of stones spreading forever in front, next to, and behind you, gave you a concrete visual idea of what 17,000 lives standing side by side that one day represented. And then, the next day, another 17,000 “stones” would be brought in to be murdered. Reading or saying “17,000” will never capture the reality of it. Five digits can’t conjure up in our mind the physical reality they poorly attempt to represent. But to walk between these 17,000 rocks and then sit down at the base of one of them and meditate for a while in their presence is the most moving experience one can ever have.

I didn’t know what visiting the death camps would be like, and it has been a different experience for each of us. I must admit that I had reservations, maybe even concerns about being in these places. Often when I talked to people about going to the death camps before the trip, I found their negative reaction to only add to my ambivalence. Who would want to go to what we pre-judge being dark, dreary, awful places? But being in Auschwitz, being in Birkenau or in Treblinka have been nothing but. They each in their own way reach down to previously untouched places in our soul, bypassing all the ego stuff that gets in our way, and leaving us naked and raw in facing the human experience that they are. We come too late. There is nothing we can do about the death and the suffering. The part of us that wants to jump in and help, that wants to fix things, finds itself utterly defeated. All that is left is to acknowledge our powerlessness, bear witness and honor the countless lives that were lost by, perhaps tomorrow, living our lives a little better, a little more lovingly, a little more compassionately and, most importantly, with more integrity; vowing to never let our voice be drown in the silent majority of the self-centered cowards. Silence kills.

One last note. It took my mom a good couple of hours before she was able to speak again, after leaving Treblinka. The two of us went for a walk through the streets of Warsaw’s gorgeous old-city as soon as we got back. I had noticed that in the bus, during the two hours of our drive back, she had been capturing some of her thoughts on her phone’s “notes.” She, too, had been upset at first by the meticulousness with which the Nazis had dismantled and erased all traces of the camp. She noted, however, that compared to Auschwitz-Birkenau where most of the camps’ structures were left standing, the desert that the Nazis left in Treblinka allowed for a memorial a hundred times more powerful to rise from its (and our) ashes. The presence of those they attempted to erase from humanity’s memory could never be felt more powerfully than amidst the sea of stones of this incredible memorial.

I will be posting pictures of Treblinka on my Facebook page.

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day Eight: Warsaw

Warsaw is a city straddling several worlds and several eras. It encompasses, displayed in its make-up, the whole history of Europe. What is striking about its architecture is the mix of century old buildings (some original to their era, some rebuilt), communist era box-looking apartment blocks and unnecessarily wide boulevards (used for the infamous gigantic communist military parades,) and the modern Western-like towers of aluminum, steel and glass. Often those three architectural eras will be represented in building standing side by side on the same street. You’ve never seen a city like this. I must admit, I miss the old-Europe feel of Krakow and Prague. That being said, the rebuilt old-city of Warsaw is absolutely gorgeous and there is something unique and paradoxically endearing about this architecturally-mixed layered city.

Our Day 7 was spent traveling by train from Krakow, checking-in at our Warsaw fabulous hotel and visiting with Dr. Staszek Krajewski, a professor of philosophy in Warsaw, old friend of Gerardo and major player in the creation and sustaining of Jewish underground life post-WWII during the communist era. It was a privilege to be able to spend over an hour with him and ask as many questions as our time allowed. Nothing can replace meeting those who were the principal actors during these troubled times. Truly a great gift for our group.

Today started with a deeply emotional tour of the major monuments dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto of WWII. We stopped at one of the red brick walls of the Ghetto that is still standing today between two currently inhabited apartment buildings, creating a kind of cul-de-sac or walled-off courtyard between the buildings. One of the inhabitants was sweeping around with a broom as we stopped. It was just another Friday morning for him. Then we travelled to the Umschlagplatz, the departing platform for the 300,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto who boarded the trains to Treblinka, the death camp where their life expectancy would be about forty-five minutes. Gerardo reminded us that he had been present when the monument which now stands there with 300 Jewish names on its wall (representing the 300,000 other names) was dedicated. He remembered singing a Yiddish version of the Kaddish during the dedication ceremony. As prayers weren’t allowed in communist Poland, this was his way to circumvent the authorities and still share something that would make evident (to those who knew) that the Kaddish had been said that day. As his voice was rising in that place, tears started raining down all our faces. My legs became weak. I couldn’t remain standing. I sat at the foot of the monument, closed my eyes and tried to meditate. I was transported back in time. Breathing in I thought of all those who once stood in this place bags and suitcases in hand, pushed and shoved into these cattle cars. Breathing out I heard the tumult of the place, the shouts and the cries, and the birds singing in the glorious trees around just like they did today. Breathing in, I felt my ancestors, long-lost family members from Warsaw breathing in as well, in this very place so many years ago. Breathing out, I felt their fear and their sadness. I wanted to stand up and climb in the train with them. So I did. I stood up and went behind the monument where there is a little patch of green grass with a tree in the middle, across from which the rails and the trains once waited.

Today it’s the yard of an all-girl school. How does one go to school there? How does one broom around in front of the old Ghetto wall? How does one live in a house a hundred yards from the entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau? I have been unable to reconcile this for myself. And no, the answers that: “life goes on” or “it’s a proof that life always wins,” do not satisfy. They verge on feel-good affirmations we tell ourselves to help ourselves cope. Life doesn’t go on. The life that was before is forever broken, and we are no longer the person we were before the violence took place. Israelis, among whom I lived for a decade, have mastered a certain level of “healthy” denial in a land scarred by death and violence. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t live with the wounds of every loss, every act of terror, every war. To live amongst the ghosts of Poland’s darkest history has to impact one’s psyche. Personally, I would find it impossible to build a home in these places. But let me close this parenthesis and take us back to Umshlagplatz.

I couldn’t climb into the train. I couldn’t even see the train tracks that were now gone. I decided to sit on the grass instead, as close as I imagined the train to have been. I remained silent for a while, cross-legged. Suddenly I felt the urge to touch the grass, to touch the earth. I wanted my hands to not just lay flat on the grass, I wanted them to pierce through the earth and get underneath. I wanted to lie down and let the earth surround me, cover me; to be one with this place. I felt sadness, I felt anger, I felt completely inadequate, unable to even begin to comprehend what this place was, what this experience was. I was angry at myself for that. I closed my eyes again, my hands firmly on the grass, grasping at every blade as if for dear life, and I simply let the flow of all these emotions wash over me. I can’t do this! My cousins, great aunts, distant nephews, I will never be able to know the beating of your heart when you climbed up onto this train car, when you handed your little child to the person already in before climbing in yourself, or when the sliding door of the wagon slid shut. All I have is your silence merging with my silence and the beating of my heart echoing yours perhaps. I cry for you, I cry for me, I cry for humanity. I just cry. Your breath is my breath. Your prayer is my prayer. I am so sorry.

The hardest part is when the guide gestures it is time to leave. It feels impossible. It feels disrespectful. It feels as if we were abandoning them again, as if because of us they were going to be utterly alone again, forsaken again. And so you make a promise to yourself that you don’t know if you can keep, perhaps to alleviate your guilt of having spent too little time there: I will come back to Umschlagplatz.

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day Six: Krakow

Krakow is a gorgeous city, especially the old-city and—as a separated quarter within it—the district of Kazimierz where the Jews lived from the middle-ages. This is the region of Galicia in Poland, the birth place of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism in the 1700’s. As I often identify as post-modern neo-Chasidic Jew personally, this region is of major significance to me. I was, in fact, reminded of this being the birth-place of Chasidism by a small group of Chasidic men we encountered in front of one of the synagogues we visited and who were on their own pilgrimage from one grave of a great rabbi to another throughout this foundational region.

Beyond touring between all the beautiful sites and learning about so much of the city and its history from our guide (who defies any superlative I could dream up to describe how good he was) one of the places that inspired me most was our quick stop at the 7 year-old Krakow’s JCC. Yes, believe it or not, there is a JCC in Krakow (and Warsaw as well) and it is called JCC here too, and not, as you might expect, the equivalent in Polish. There was a group of about 50 people, a few Jews but most no Jewish, working toward the renewal of Jewish life in Krakow. The rabbi there is an American Jew living with his family in Israel, who spends two weeks per months in Krakow. We met a young woman from NYC, sent by the Joint, who is posted for a year to support existing programs and emerging efforts. It seemed that the rest of this bare-bone staff and a large group of volunteers were all non-Jewish Poles. The interest of non-Jews in matters of Jewish nature seems to stem from people coming to the realization that, though they live in Polish cities filled with Jewish landmarks, they know close to nothing about the how’s and why’s of such obvious Jewish presence. Their need to understand their own history and identity as Poles, they feel, is incomplete without learning about the Jewish Polish history. However much this made sense to me (and one could wish this to be done at the national level through, at least, primary and secondary education,) this is the farthest from being a widespread trend in non-Jewish Poland. Yet 50 of these people were interested enough to volunteer at the JCC.

Some roles of the JCC here in Krakow (beyond and differing from what we traditionally know it to do – i.e. organize Jewish educative experiences, classes in Hebrew, teaching about and celebrating Jewish holidays and Shabbats) has been to support non-Jewish Poles interested in conversion and be a resource for Polish Jews interested in reclaiming a long-time buried Jewish identity or Jews-by-surprise who don’t know where to turn to with the thousand questions they have. Jews-by-surprise is a growing category of Jews who are learning late in life that they were Jewish children rescued from the Nazis by families who adopted them as their own when their biological parents didn’t return, or biological Jewish parents who suddenly acknowledge being Jewish after years spent in fearful silence. Not every one of these Jews-by-surprise decide, however, to act on that knowledge and many ignore this piece of information to continue their lives as the Polish Roman Catholics they always knew themselves to be. And who could blame them? Some, however, find their way to the JCC that act as a resource for the beginning of their often difficult journey of re-discovery. Though there also is Chabad in town and as well as a woman Reform rabbi, the JCC provides a more neutral ground religiously which makes it more inclusive for those who are just taking their first initial steps in their new-found Jewish life. As I said earlier, I was inspired by the staff of the JCC, their work and their mission.

With that, one need also to bear in mind that even though the war has been over for 70 years, and the communist block fell some 25 years ago transforming Poland into a thriving capitalistic democracy, there are only 600 self-identifying Jews in Krakow. And that’s after the many years of diligent efforts from the JCC and other Jewish organizations in the city. 600 Jews in the city of Krakow speaks of the devastating impact of the Shoah on the Jewish community of Poland which was decimated to the tune of 90% of its total population. The few hundred thousand (out of 3.3 million) who managed to survive, never came back after the war, and those who dared coming back found themselves so badly persecuted by the communist government that thousands fled or were expulsed in the decades that followed the war.

And so, though I admire and understand the work the JCC is doing, believing it to be a needed resource space for those Jews-by-surprise, I find myself questioning the motivation behind their mission. Should we try and revive Jewish life in Krakow in particular, in Poland or even in Europe in general? And if we should, why? Anti-Semitism is on the rise again everywhere, with Western Europe leading the charge. My own mother is preparing to leave France in case the far-right fascist party comes to power in the next elections. Herzl, at the end of the 18th century already, prophetically warned that Europe no longer was a safe place for the Jews; that it was time to leave. After 70 years since the end of the Second World War it seems that the lessons from the past have faded from global consciousness; that the memories of the camps have receded from public discourse. The world has closed its eyes to the annexation of Crimea by Russia (pretexting similarity of language and culture to invade) and in the interest of “appeasement” and fearing broader conflict the West remained silent. The resemblance to the Nazi’s invasion of the Sudetenland under the same pretext and the silence of the Western World, is more than eerie. Even the propagandist language is the same. Ukraine is bracing for more take-overs and Poland is extremely concerned (to put it mildly) with an imminent invasion of Russia. When one sees with one’s own eyes history repeating itself, one must choose a different path in response. If Herzl was right decades before Nazism, and European Jews didn’t listen then, we might be wise to heed his call today when our brothers and sisters of Europe seem to be suffering from short term memory loss.

I don’t have an answer to these questions. To be honest, I could—at this junction—argue the other side as well and find a dozen reasons for the re-establishment and development of a Jewish community in Krakow. For one, there are Jews living here; and that’s as simple as that. But the sense I got from listening to the staff at the JCC was more than it being a resource for Jews wandering back home, but to be a platform from which to grow a Jewish community like a missionary organization would. That they kept the “JCC” as their name, defining themselves as an American institution in Poland, struck me of such missionary-like mentality. But there was more. Staff members who talked to us, for example, mentioned two brothers who were Jews-by-surprise and had come to the JCC with inquiring minds. One of them ended-up choosing to practice Judaism again—and they were clearly proud of that—the other decided, as many do, to remain a practicing Roman Catholic and not concern himself with his Jewish heritage. While they emphatically called the first brother a Jew, they called the second a “potential” Jew. This hidden agenda made me feel greatly uncomfortable because the intention I perceived went far beyond simply acting as a resource center for disoriented people wrestling with a major identity crisis. I read this kind of remark as connected to the age-old fear of the dwindling of the Jewish population worldwide. We need more Jews, the voice of fear goes, because inter-marriages and the disaffection of Jews from the Jewish communities in droves threaten the continuing existence of the Jewish people as a whole. Reviving the Jewish community of Poland adds Jews to the tribal roster. I, unfortunately, suspect that the hidden agenda as more to do with that than anything else. Now I may be grossly projecting here, but in my darkest moment of suspecting the worst in people, it has also crossed my mind that, in the Jewish unconscious, a need for “winning by re-population” could be the ultimate—though unavowable—motivation for such an effort in Poland. Hitler wanted Europe—and especially Poland—to be Judenrein (empty of Jews). Rebuilding Jewish life in Poland might be a way to say “Hitler didn’t win. We did.”

Food for unfolding thought and enlightening conversations.

Tomorrow we will be in Warsaw, birth-city of my grandmother (z”l). I am thrilled beyond words to be sharing these days with my mother. Our group is doing extremely well and we all feel deeply touched and enriched by what we have lived together so far. I am looking forward to the last few days of our trip.

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day Four/Five: Auschwitz-Birkenau

There is no way for me to talk about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. I would only say that if one is able, it is important to travel and be there to bear witness. Nothing can replace walking these sacred grounds, no book, no movie, no conversation.

All I can do, I feel, is try and articulate some of my personal reflections with regards to being in Auschwitz-Birkenau. First, I am not sure how anyone can be at Auschwitz-Birkenau and still hold a “God-out-there” understanding of the Divine. If this God didn’t die before the shoah, it certainly died when Meir Heller a one year old Jewish baby from Romania was murdered in Auschwitz. I couldn’t pray at Auschwitz; not to a God as traditionally understood. I tried. I simply couldn’t. The God of my understanding, the God that manifests as both the perpetrators and the victims, the God that manifests in me as the potential Nazi and the innocent human prey; this God is met in reverential silence, consequence of the awareness that there is very little, if anything, I can truly grasp or have control over. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a place that puts one face to face with the ungraspable. It is a place that tears apart what one thought they knew about how the world works. Suddenly, the overwhelming nature of the space reveals to the self its smallness, its limitedness, its irrelevance. All that is left is a silence within.

Second, it speaks in chilling ways of the dangers of psychological manipulation/warfare of the masses by the state or, in our day and age, any source of great power be it economic, political, media-based etc… Concentration and death camps where masterminded for peak productivity. Birkenau especially, was organized with great minutiae, to ensure the best output at every level of the camp. The arrival in the camp, the selection process, the walk to the registration offices for new inmates or immediately to the Gas Chamber if you weren’t fit to work, wasn’t the chaotic dog-barking, Nazis yelling experience that Hollywood often portrays for better effect. That would be counterproductive, stress the newly arrived, waste copious amounts of time and human resources. Nothing the German perfectionist mind could stomach. Instead, the whole process was done in great calm, methodically and with clinical precision to lull the disembarking into believing that the worst of the journey was now behind them (surviving days of inhumane conditions during “transport” in cattle cars,) and that they would now be assigned to work in this camp that, though it didn’t look appealing, might have just been one little step down from living in the ghetto in the first place. In other words: survivable. Just follow the orders. And so, hundreds of thousands went to their death in the gas chambers ignorant until the Ziklon B was dropped from the ceiling that anything bad was going to happen. At peak “production” times, once the Nazis truly perfected their psychological warfare technique, the life-expectancy of a newly arrived deportee selected for immediate murder was two-and-a-half hours. We stayed longer than that touring around the camp today.

The other, more insidious psychological manipulation the Nazis mastered was regarding the dynamics of hope. Because the Jewish people has survived so much over the millennia and in every continent we’ve been, we have built up great resilience, great tolerance to suffering and an indomitable sense of hope. The Nazis understood that, and used it to manipulate us into perfect inmates. One example. While, unbeknownst to you, the rest of your family was being murdered and turned into ashes a few hundred yards away; you were selected to work in the camp and walked to the inmate registration building I mentioned earlier. As you entered, you were ordered to strip naked, and as you were quickly moved from room to room, your head was shaved, your arm tattooed, your body showered, and you were given a striped uniform that more often than not didn’t fit you. People who had entered together with a cousin or another relative, often didn’t recognize each other by the time they were done was the transformation so radical and dehumanizing. But then, just as you began to mentally spiral down into shock, the Nazi officer gave you back your own belt and handkerchief if you were a man, or your head scarf if you were a woman. Just a little something for you to cling to what gave you just enough of a sense of personhood still, as tenuous as it may be. He gave you hope. Hope was critical to keep the slaves enslaved; the hope of surviving today, this afternoon, this hour, now. Why keep dangling this razor thin possibility of hope (taking it away, giving it back, taking it away…)? Because a hopeful inmate, with even one lousy dimming spark of hope in him or her, is an inmate that does not revolt. Only those who have nothing left to lose, those who know the certainty of their death, those who are beyond despair, can rise to fight their oppressor. Those who still cling to that thin thread of hope, still have something to lose. Our millennia-old hope was the cord we gave the Nazis to hang us with.

Which begs the question in our times about the manipulation of public opinion and the forces that prey on our predilections , manufacture our desires, keep us asleep, divided, distracted, and altogether apathetic. Right where they want us.

Lastly one of the points our amazing guide, Tomasz Cebulski, hinted at time and again, was the financial aspect of the camp life. Everything that was brought by anyone arriving in a concentration or death camp, every possession they managed to pack (being made to hope they were simply being “relocated,”) was stolen from them on arrival. It was cleaned up repackaged and sent to be sold again in the stores of Germany and Austria. The hair that was cut, the gold teeth that were pulled out of people’s mouths just before they entered the gas chambers, and all the cash, gold, bonds etc… people brought was immediately recycled into the Nazi economy. And then there is the exploitation of the human beings themselves as labor, or lab rats. Mengele sought to make new medical discoveries by using children for experiments. The German corporation, Siemens, had its own designated barrack in the camp of Birkenau where they tested x-ray technology on inmates. And then, of course, there is the slave labor that the inmates provided not just in running the camp but for all the factories and corporations that were more than happy to have them. Auschwitz-Birkenau is Capitalism run amok. Today, our corporations set shop in places in the world where labor is cheapest, labor laws inexistent or not enforced, and they can work their quasi-slave employees long hours while housing them in the worst conditions. We are not talking about the completely free slave labor of Auschwitz of worthless lives over which one had life-and-death power, but we might not be too far from it if we are not paying attention. And, mostly, we aren’t really paying attention, thrilled as we are to be able to save a few bucks on buying a lot of stuff we don’t even need.

Tomorrow we’ll do our best to shift gears (if that is possible) and take in the sights in Krakow where we are tonight already. We are turning our gaze toward celebrating the Jewish life that was thriving here for 1000 years, and connecting again with those who are working to revive Jewish communities in Poland. One thing for sure, we cannot let Auschwitz reduce all Jewish life in Poland to its name. To honor the memories of those who perished we must speak about their lives much more than about their death. The last week of our journey will be focused on that very purpose.

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day Three: Terezin

I have been sitting in front of my keyboard for a while now, starting and erasing, starting and erasing whatever I begin to write. How can one summarize visiting a place like Terezin, a concentration camp where thousands of Jews died and from which tens of thousands were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps or even to execution sites to be shot and dumped into mass graves?

All I might be able to do, I believe, is share some of my own experiences. First, I was shocked by the proximity of Terezin to the nearest village of Bohusovice, barely a mile and a half from the gates of the ghetto. How could people living in so close proximity ignore the thousands upon thousands of people arriving day after day, week after week, year after year between 1942 and 1945 to the train station of their village only to walk old and young, infants and pregnant women, that last mile and a half, partly through the streets of the village, to the entrance of Terezin. How did they not wonder about the fate of these people? The military garrison that was Terezin initially, was built to host about 5,000 people; the soldiers and their families. How could they not wonder what was happening within these walls when 10, then 20, and eventually 60,000 Jews—at its peak—came to “live” in Terezin? How could they remain indifferent? Sylvie, our amazing guide, made a point to tell us that the Danish government (with Denmark occupied by the Nazis at the time,) upon hearing of the internment of 400 Danish Jews in Terezin, stood up to their occupiers, sent buses there all the way from Denmark, and got their Jewish citizens out and back to Denmark. She mentioned, as another example of resistance, that when in Berlin’s Rosenstrasse police station the Nazis detained interfaith-married Jews to be deported (most likely to Terezin,) their non-Jewish spouses protested for days on the street in front of the station and forced the Nazi authorities to release them. Why didn’t the local Czech population rise in demonstration in front of the gates of the ghetto to demand the liberation of their compatriots?

The second powerful moment was when we stood in one of the barracks that housed women in Terezin, with bunk beds three levels high, and 80 women packed into one tiny room. The story Sylvie told was of a friend of hers, imprisoned in a similarly crowded room in Terezin during the war. She was about 14 at the time but was allowed to stay with the women and not be separated from her mother to join the youth quarters, after her mother convinced the Nazis that her daughter was older than 15. Sylvie called her friend’s mother a “righteous liar.” She mentioned how, at 14, she took every opportunity to live her life with as much joy as possible in Terezin, even when her “joyful” life was more imaginary than real. She mentioned convincing herself, for example, that beets baked with a little flower and water was, in fact, a strawberry cake. First, that story brought me back to the heartbreaking movie “Life is Beautiful;” and second, I couldn’t help but imagine my own 14 year old, Amalya, and her mother in this situation. Her mother, the righteous liar, lied again to save hers and her daughter’s life once more, on the selection platform at Auschwitz when she declared her girl younger than she was this time, and was able to get them both assigned to the line that was not destined for the gas chambers. They both, mother and daughter, survived the war.

And speaking of Auschwitz, I learned today that a Jewish man named Fredy Hirsch convinced Mengele in the death camp to create a children block out of one of the barracks; and, together with another detainee named Pavel Stransky—a life-long friend of Sylvie, and a holocaust survivor interned first in Terezin—became the clandestine teacher to these children of the Czech Family Camp. There too, by creating a make-believe world and providing an escape for these kids to stay inside “learning” during the harsh weather conditions of the winter months in Auschwitz, the two men probably contributed to saving 80% of these children from the gas chambers. Sylvie told us Pavel’s story through her tears as he had just died weeks before our group arrived and both she and Gerardo (who had known him previously) were looking forward to having us spend today with him.

Lastly, the most terribly moving experience of our day in Terezin was, for me, the visit of the crematorium. Terezin was not an extermination camp, but living in such deplorable conditions with so many people confined to such tiny quarters, exposed to diseases and suffering from malnutrion, the weakest ones, the elderly, didn’t survive long within its walls. 33,000 people died in Terezin between January 1942 and May 17, 1945 (today was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp just as we visited.) Something needed to be done with the bodies. At first, they tried to bury them. But as soon as the spring melted the snow from the nearby mountains the earth became so engorged with water that the corpses floated up from their grave. Cremating was the most humane solution in this case, and the solution that would prevent the further spread of diseases. To avoid disturbing the nearby selectively blind, deaf and mute Czech village of Bohusovice with 24 hours-a-day fumes from high crematorium chimneys, the Nazis built four state-of-the-art ovens with low brick chimneys layered with filters that eliminated most of the escaping smoke, and housed them in a building that looked inconspicuously like a famous Bohemian Glass factory. To stand in this building, surrounded by these four original intact crematorium ovens was more than I could handle at the end of an emotionally trying day.

Tomorrow we travel to Auschwitz. We symbolically follow the path of the Terezin detainees, most of whom were forced onto a “transport” to their death from Terezin to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We will stay there a couple of days. These may be our most difficult days yet.

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day Two: Prague

We took a lovely walk to a nearby park mid-morning in sunny Prague for our meditation today. Some sat on benches others on the grass near a gorgeous fountain. There is something to be said about meditating outdoors, feeling into the sensations of the sun on your face, the wind in your hair, the noise of the cars driving by and the people walking around having conversations in Czech. You would think that with all this noise it would be more difficult to go deeper, but the opposite happened. It became easier to focus and to remain as the simple observer of all that was arising within and without. Of course we ended the meditation with a stroll around the park.

Our guided tour began in the afternoon with the delightful Sylvie (our beloved guide in the Czech Republic.) Today we visited Golden Prague, including different neighborhoods, a fabulous little outdoors market that also had music and people dancing on the grass. On a day as hot as this was, picnicking in the middle of the city in this gorgeous little park was the thing to do. And the local food they sampled at this market was incredible. It was hard to get back on the bus, I can tell you that.

But as beautiful and picturesque as the neighborhoods of the “new” city of Prague (as opposed to walking the old-city and the Jewish Quarters yesterday,) I couldn’t help but noting how, each time we turned one corner, Sylvie kept mentioning all the Jewish businesses, schools, offices, and homes that used to be on this street or on that street. How such and such Jewish family owned this apartment building, how the Kosher market used to be at this address, how there used to be a Synagogue there but now it’s a public school. Then we went to the old Jewish cemetery in the “Wine Hill” neighborhood (they tried to grow wine there before the city expanded and the hills saw their vines make room for more lucrative real estate.) What was left of the cemetery was barely a quarter of what it once was, and that quarter only survived because the main leaders and famous families of Prague were buried there. The three other quarters were desecrated and bulldozed out by the communist regime to make room for an ugly radio tower that never worked as such but is so massive that it came to host an observation deck and restaurant on top of it (a la Space Needle,) and mostly serves now as a cell phone tower. And beside it a large parking lot. Underneath? The bones of hundreds or thousands of Jews.

Between this afternoon’s revelations, and the fact that all the synagogues still standing in Prague have more or less all become museums six days a week and are only used as synagogues for the few hundred Jews that attend them once a week on Shabbat and twice a year for the High Holy Days; I have found myself reflecting on the nature of the Jewish community of Prague in 2015. Sylvie told us that, in her estimation, between 5 and 6,000 Jews remain in Prague. There were about 92,000 Jews living in Prague pre-WWII (20% of the total population). To put things in perspective, the Jewish population in Seattle today is about 64,000; and that’s after a 70% jump over the past decade or so. Not every Prague Jew was exterminated by the Nazis during the war. Some 20,000 survived. Most escaped, left Czechoslovakia. Many emigrated to Palestine or the US.

Now there are 5 or 6, 000 Jews left with very fragile roots. Few of them are descendants of old Prague families. Most of them are emerging still from decades of Communist Regime, and have remained either atheists, self-proclaimed agnostics, or are trying to find their way between Reform or Orthodox versions of this very tentative re-birthing of Judaism. They live among the ghosts of empty Jewish Prague, and go to synagogues (where they can barely get a minyan together) that are now museum sites. It feels to me as if these 6,000 Jews live, themselves, in a Jewish museum that tourists from around the world tread through by the thousands day after day after day. How do you create community in this context? How do you create identity in this context?

There is a Hebrew expression that says: “Hazman Katzar, v’ham’lacha merubah – The time is short, and the work is great.” Such is the work facing this fledgling community. Perhaps, we too, could lend a hand. After all, we share many of the same challenges and, personally, I felt a deep resonance with their struggle.

Though our group only has one more day left in the Czech Republic, something is telling me that I might find myself back here sooner than I thought. I hope, next time, that you will be on that plane with us.

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day One: Prague

What a magical day! I am always pleased when I talked to the people in the group and at the end of the first day and they tell me that it feels like we’ve been here for a week, so much has happened. And yes, so much has. I can’t believe myself it’s only been one day.

We started with giving people space in the morning to sleep and recoup from jet-lag, so we had a late start. We gathered in the hotel lobby at 10AM heading toward our meditation spot that our friend Kate suggested at dinner the evening before: The Jerusalem Synagogue. This, to me, is the magic of these trips. Yes we plan as much as we can, make reservations, book group tours etc… but there is a part of this where we get to practice our spiritual values in real-time. When an opportunity makes itself known, when the Universe opens a door, we are to make ourselves available for a spontaneous change of plan. The Universe never stops talking and inviting us to greater discoveries, greater learning, broader openings; but if we keep ourselves stuck on our pre-delineated life tracks we will forever miss the gorgeous magic of a detour.

We thought the meditation would be in the hotel but here we were, walking the 20 minutes it took to find ourselves in front of the Jerusalem Synagogue which got its name from the name of the street it is on. As I drew closer to the Synagogue entrance, I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the façade of this incredible place. It took my breath away. Though the pictures you can find on line won’t do it justice (as nothing replaces being in the presence of such a piece of architectural art,) do yourself a favor and Google it. It is beyond stunning. But then we walked inside when its doors opened (it is no longer used as a house of worship these days but is one of the few synagogues transformed into museums downtown Prague,) what we found within was a jewel of Moorish-style design. Now I am already running out of superlatives. Our group found a couple a pews to sit together and I led us into a meditation with the Sh’ma that simply felt right in that moment. After half an hour of silence we closed singing our community’s Sh’ma together. Magical.

Our tour began in earnest in the afternoon. From 2 to 6PM we walked the streets of the Jewish Quarter of Prague with our fabulous guide, Sylvie. We stopped at every street corner where she told story after incredible story, we entered into four different synagogues and traversed the old Jewish cemetery. One of the highlights for me was the walls of names at the Pinkas Synagogue. 80 thousand names of the Czech Jewish dead, representing the annihilation of 153 towns and villages communities victim of the Shoah. And there, on one of the heartbreaking walls, the names of Kate’s late husband’s parents, murdered during the war. She broke into a beautiful chant in their honor and we all started to cry with her. The other highlights was for me to be able to place a stone atop the grave of the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel; one of the greatest Jewish mystics and rabbi that ever lived, and who is forever associated with the mythical creature of the Golem. I felt great love rising within me in that moment that I cannot explain (and why should I?).

At 7PM we stood in front of the Spanish Synagogue where our group had been invited by the local rabbi to join in their Kabbalat Shabbat service. I even had the honor to be asked to give the talk that evening, which I did. I led the 100+ people that were there into a brief meditation starting with a Shalom Chant. I was reminded how much what we do is unique and foreign to most Jews everywhere. The words “Jewish” and “Meditation” somehow are concepts that have come to be dissociated in the Jewish psyche, where only a couple hundred years ago these regions of Central Europe were the centers of early Chasidism which promoted not only meditative practices but ecstatic prayer, chanting and dancing. It was obvious to me that a few people were deeply uncomfortable with our practice, squirming in their chair, burying their head in their hands or even laughing. But, overwhelmingly, what I shared was well received and many people made a point to talking to me and thank me at the end of services. The Rabbi couldn’t stop thanking me and shared how much he was moved by what I shared.

And then there was Vladimir. As our group was last leaving the Spanish Synagogue (Google it too, it is absolutely gorgeous,) Vladimir was waiting for us on the sidewalk. And Vladimir (about 65) wanted to know everything I could possibly tell him about Jewish Meditation as he believed Meditation one of the basic needs of any human life. A Jew from Slovakia (and a transplant to Prague) himself, he had never heard about Meditation as a Jewish practice and wanted to know more. Again, when the Universe sends Vladimir into your life you just don’t give him your business card and tell him to e-mail you in two weeks when you’re back home. You listen to the Universe and say: “Sure Vladimir, I’d love to talk about the Jewish Meditative path, let’s go have a beer and chat.” Nothing like a local to find you the best pub in Prague and take the 10 of us there away from where the tourists hang out. We had a blast. And since you won’t find great pictures of the pub we went to on Google, I am posting them on my Facebook page for your viewing pleasure. Vladimir is the guy in the white shirt. When did we get back to the hotel? I think it was 11:30PM.
What a rich, profound, surprising, amazing day! No wonder we all though it felt like we’d been there a week.

Wish you were here.

Torah Reflections – May 3 – 9, 2015

Emor

Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Knowing God vs. Playing God                                                   

The beginning verses in this week’s Torah portion are rather challenging to our current understanding of spirituality. They define an impossibly strict code of holiness for the priestly caste. In reading these verses we get a sense that, in order to perform his sacrificial duties, a priest had to be a perfected being; absolutely pure in mind, body and spirit. What may be most disturbing to our modern sensitivities is the physical requirement for priesthood: “No man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long… or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes… No man…who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Eternal’s offering by fire…the food of his God.” [Lev. 21:18-20] What human being can meet such standard? Who among us can claim to be defect-free?

 

The next chapter, however, might help shed light to this passage. There we read: “And when a person offers, from the herd or the flock, a sacrifice… to the Eternal… it must be acceptable, be without blemish; there must be no defect in it. Anything blind or injured, or maimed, or with… a boil-scar, or scurvy-such you shall not offer to the Eternal… anything with its testes bruised or crushed…” [Lev. 22:21-24] As we read here, the Torah makes a perplexing analogy between the priest and the animal he was to sacrifice. How come? Perhaps because this need for holiness is not about the priest as a person, not about the priest’s ego. In fact, one might suspect that, for the priest, this continuous drive for holiness, this strict way of life, was a stringent holistic spiritual practice to achieve ego-less-ness. For this, indeed, was about function; not about personhood. Both the animal and the priest’s only reason for being was to serve a purpose; to be instruments of a greater end: the relationship between the awestruck “offerer” and his God. The ideal of purity — which, our rabbis are quick to explain, was never a reality — stems from the notion that the priest (with the sacrificed animal) served as conduit, as channel through which a connection took place between God and His people. For this to work in the mind of the “offerer” of the ancient world, he needed to maintain the façade, the illusion of an unattainable perfection embodied both by his animal and his priest.

 

How can we, spiritual wrestlers of the 21st century — having long left behind the sacrificial cult — enter in relationship with the Divine? The Book of Psalm offers a window into new possibilities: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a humbled and broken heart.” [Psalm 51:18-19] The paradox is compelling. Once the practice is no longer directed to the outside but awakening instead on the inside, the need for perfection dissolves and human fallibility is embraced. Suddenly we are asked to acknowledge and accept not only our natural human limitations, but our inherent defectiveness. What we are asked to sacrifice is the illusion of the impossible standards of perfection we hold for ourselves, our loved ones and our world too. We are limited beings who do the best we can facing every moment, living every day. Though we would like to think we are in control of our life, we are not. Though we would like to mold our life, our world, and our loved ones in our image/vision, to create a world that would be an expression of our will, we can’t. Perhaps the prerequisite to knowing God is to stop playing God; and live, instead, with a humbled and broken heart. The Kabbalists tell us that the heart itself doesn’t need to be broken, rather it is the klippot— the husks of illusion — that encircle it that need to be “sacrificed,” to be surrendered; for only at the center of the heart, God’s dwelling place, can we find our own True Self.

Torah Reflections – April 26 – May 2, 2015

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim

Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Drawing Closer Through Generosity                               

                   

There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion that caught my eye this time around. God, through Moses, asks the Israelites to only bring sacrifices at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting in the Presence of the Divine, and to “offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after who they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.” [Lev. 17:7] The expression “after who they stray” uses a language in Hebrew connoting harlotry. Clearly this act of sacrificing animals outside of the prescribed normative religious context was considered a debased act from people of great moral defect. But why use such powerful language?

 

I suspect that our modern understanding of the word “korban“-translated as “sacrifice”-might differ from that of ancient times. Korban shares the same three-letter root as the word karov which means “close” or “near.” A better translation of korban might have, therefore, been “near-drawing.” In Temple times the Israelites lived in agrarian societies. Their animals were everything to them: providing clothing, a food base, milk supply and field labor. To bring the purest and most precious of their animals as an offering to God was a major sacrifice. But in so doing, in sacrificing some of their most precious possessions, they drew nearer to God. They were reminded that all they have is, in fact, God’s possession, God’s creation, God’s blessing upon them. Letting go of their animals in this way acted as a spiritual practice of deep humility in the awesome Presence that creates all; of gratitude for the gifts in their lives, and ultimately supported the surrender of their ego-based attachments. A powerful practice indeed.

 

So when sacrifices were done to the pagan gods, the assumption was that peoples’ intention was not to draw near but to try and manipulate the gods of the natural order in one’s favor; not to practice letting go of ego attachments but to use the sacrificed life of the animal for egotistic aims. It was not an honoring of life but a desecration of life.

 

Our text, this week is there to remind us, too, that all our wealth is but God’s, all our possessions but God’s blessings upon us; and that we can use our wealth in the service of the Divine, no longer in the form of sacrifices, but through living generous lives. When we give from the wealth of our lives-not just from our finances but from the richness of who we are-we remember that we are but channels through which the blessings of the Holy One are allowed to flow. We grow in the awareness of a greater context for our life; a context in which the unique gifts that are ours are not only welcomed but absolutely needed. Generosity becomes a pathway to self-actualization, a practice through which our Greater Self is realized. With each act of generosity, with each gift, we grow nearer and nearer to Spirit until the point where we eventually merge with the One we have always been.

 

Torah Reflections – April 19 – 25, 2015

Tazria – Metzora

Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

 

We Are Energy Bodies                              

                   

This week’s Torah portion is, admittedly, a challenge to our modern sensibilities. This portion talks about tzara’at, a skin affliction most translators define as leprosy; although no one knows what it was exactly. Given that skin disease is generally not a favorite topic of conversation, one way to bypass it is to extract from the text the more mystical teachings, and avoid dealing with scaly skin afflictions, and other colorful details. This time, for a change, we find at the literal level of the narrative, a fascinating passage that brings to light a broader understanding of the context and the aim of the biblical text.

 

The second Torah portion of the two assigned to this week’s reading is called Metzora.

In the ancient sacrificial system of the Temple, the disease afflicted person would come to the High Priest for healing. The High Priest, not unlike the Shaman, was also a healer. This portion describes what the affected person is to do. He is to bring animals for sacrifice, and come to stand in front of the High Priest. A rather curious ritual is then described, whereby the High Priest dips the fingers of his right hand into the blood of the sacrifice, and puts it on the ridge of the right ear of the leper, on the right thumb and on the right big toe. Then the High Priest repeats the three part ritual, but this time, with oil. This peculiar encounter is described twice back to back in this Torah portion. Our sages tell us, anytime something is repeated in Torah, you have to pay careful attention. So what was this ritual about?

 

I am one of many who are convinced that, 2500 years ago, the Middle-East and the Far-East were already intimately connected. Trade routes crossed through the known world from China and India, all the way to Egypt. Spiritual practices and healing techniques traveled along these routes as well. I checked in with friends, professionals in the arts of Chinese medicine, and asked them what was likely commonly known about the connections for these places on the body: ear, thumb and big toe.

 

The acupuncture chart for the ear reveals that its center ridge is directly related to skin diseases. The thumb point is the last point of the lung energy channel. The lung and large intestine are the organs containing the metal element in the body, and the tissue ruled by metal is the skin. So skin ailments are often considered to have lung and/or large intestine involvement. The big toe’s outside corner of the nail is the Spleen channel (digestion, absorption, assimilation of food/ideas/events; related to the earth, to harvest time;) and the inside corner is the liver channel (harmonization and smooth flow of energy; related to springtime, vision and hope) — all linked to energetic imbalances expressed as inflammatory responses of the skin.

 

What our sages understood then, and we have lost touch with since, is that we are energy bodies. The Temple Priests practiced acupressure as a form of healing 2500 years ago because they knew our bodies were channels for the flow of Divine energy. They understood the energy lines that course through us, and saw each spiritual practice as a way to bring balance to the energy body. In fact, our sages divided the traditional 613mitzvot/commandments into two groups: 248 were connected to what they saw as the 248 organs of our bodies, and 365 were connected to what they saw as the sinews or tendons, nerve connectors. Performing the mitzvot was not only a way to heal the world “out there,” to bring harmony into society; it was a way to heal our inner energetic world, to bring it into balance. Perhaps the time has come to reclaim these ancient practices, to shift our vision of the embodied beings we are to more holistic, integrated, multidimensional selves, and work through our prayers, our chants, our meditations, our songs and our spiritual practices to bring our energy bodies into greater wholeness, greater harmony, greater shalom.