Torah Reflections – June 28 – July 4, 2015

Balak

Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Happiness Beyond Thought

 

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Balak and Balaam. Balak is king of Moab. As the parashah opens, his kingdom is threatened to be invaded by the Israelite armies encamped at his borders. He and his soldiers have learned of the neighboring powers already defeated by the Hebrews tribes; and they fear that they are next. Balak figures that he will need a trump card to shift the odds in his favor, so he hires Balaam. Balaam is a renowned professional curser. Everyone knows, as Balak says to Balaam, that “he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” [Num. 22:6] The power of Balaam’s curse may or may not “work” on the Israelites; but that’s not the point. Balaam’s cursing the Israelites will serve to boost the morale of his own troops and give them the confidence to fight, thus giving his armies enough of an edge to win the upcoming battle.

 

This is the power of a curse–or the power of a blessing for that matter: it only works on those who believe. Words are words; they are empty shells that point to things, ideas and concepts. They only have power over us if we believe them, if we assign them truth. A blessing, a praise, or a compliment on the one hand; a curse, an insult, or a putdown on the other, can only trigger a reaction in us if they echo inside of us the voice of the most powerful Balaam of all: our own always-critiquing self-talk. This inner Balaam is the voice reviewing our every move, telling us of the (few) ways we are good and precious beings, and the (many) ways we are unlovable, unworthy, not tall, thin, smart, beautiful (etc…) enough. So that when our beliefs in our own self-worth get confirmed by an outside source, our ego feels validated and secure. But when it is our own self-curses that are mirrored back at us by the world “out there,” it is our sense of worthlessness that gets reinforced; and we get wounded, resentful and angry.

 

So the question we might want to ask is: is there a way to get rid of our inner Balaam? Or, as some would like us to believe, train our Balaam to only bless? Unfortunately, the only way we could do that, would be if we had control over our thoughts. And we don’t. We wish we could only think positive thoughts, only pronounce blessings, but we can’t. We can’t because by the time we’ve become aware of our thoughts we’ve already thought them. There is no way for us to know before we think a thought, what kind of thought it will be. Whether we like it or not, the mind has a mind of its own.

 

But though we can’t eliminate Balaam’s voice altogether, we can minimize its power over us. Meditation practice helps us look at the different sub-personalities within our psyche that each thought represents; and in so doing, dis-identify from them. We find that inside of us are different characters: the judge, the controller, the list maker, the planner, the commentator — to name but a few — and of course, the professional critique: our inner Balaam. In meditation we practice simply noticing the voice of Balaam when it arises. We learn to name it, recognize its nature, its role, and — most importantly — remember that, since we can look at it as an object, it is not who we are. We don’t have to believe a single word it says, or follow its dictates. Awareness helps us break the spell of our automatic conditioned behavior.

 

This kind of practice supports our realizing that neither our happiness nor our misery is contingent on anyone or anything outside of us. We can reclaim our inner power by disabling the dominant charge that our thoughts have over us, therefore, leading more peaceful and equanimous lives. This is what our teachers called real happiness; Happiness with a capital “H”: Happiness beyond thought.

Torah Reflections – June 21 – 27, 2015

Chukat

Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

 

The Dissolving Power of The Light of Truth                                    

                   

Since we left last week’s Torah portion and opened our books again to study this week’s, thirty-eight years have passed. The generation of Israelites who had known the slavery of Egypt has now died, and a new generation has arisen who’s only memory of Egypt’s captivity is the tales their parents left behind. The image is that in our time of wandering through the wilderness, we have done our spiritual work and have managed to leave behind our slave-mentality, our narrow consciousness plagued with unrelenting attachments and cravings for control. We have been able to transcend this aspect of ego-bound consciousness, yet it is still part of us even if seemingly a distant memory or an ancient tale.

 

In Torah, the time is now for conquest, for circumventing or defeating the armies that still surround our Promised Land. Before engaging in battle, Moses sends emissaries to ask for safe passage through the lands of the different powers standing between the Hebrews and their final destination. The Torah recounts the plea these messengers make to the king of Edom, descendant of Esau, Jacob’s brother — replaying, in so doing, the original encounter between the two siblings: “Thus says your brother, Israel: You know the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors.” [Num. 20:14-15] Some rabbis translate the Hebrew “va-yarei-u lanu,” rendered here “dealt harshly with us,” as: “made us seem harsh, bad.” They comment that “to justify their cruel treatment of us, they proclaimed that we were evil and deserving of persecution.” (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary; p.886) Perhaps what this new generation of Hebrews was realizing in saying these words, is that we all tend to make our enemies — those we hold grudges against, those we dislike — into bad people deserving of all the evil that befalls them. Perhaps they were asking the Edomites not to fall prey to the same human trait, and rise above the unhealed story between their extended families.

 

Perhaps what they were touching upon goes even deeper than that, and has to do with the essential nature of our enslavement. In their years of spiritual exploration they had come to realize that the essence of what keeps us stuck in our own Egypt, is the self-talk that convinces us that we are harsh and bad, deserving of all the evil that happens to us, and certainly not deserving of freedom. All these years our inner Pharaoh “made us seem harsh, bad” to ourselves as a way to keep us enslaved, stuck in this self-defeating reinforced inner story. We have come to believe in the myth of our separate sense of self and in all the limitations we have placed upon it as a consequence of our own unworthiness narrative. Moreover, we have completely identified with this mythical self and, consequently — like with a Golem — given it a life of its own. This myth of a fixed, permanent, independent self has been layered upon the Light of our True Self, keeping us in the darkness of its lie. What we most suffer from is a case of mistaken identity, believing ourselves to be this sinful, broken, undeserving, mythical creature we call “me.” Our stories are like the armies guarding the entrance to the Promised Land. Some we will have to fight and defeat. Some we will have to outmaneuver. Some will simply yield and offer us safe passage. But we will have to face each and every one of them and shine upon them the dissolving power of the light of Truth; for the only way in is through.

Torah Reflections – June 14 – 20, 2015

Korach

Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

 

When Korach Takes Over                                  

                

We left the Israelites at the edge of the Promised Land last week. Twelve tribal leaders, who had gone to scope out the Land, had come back. Ten against two, they advised not to enter into the Land, opting to remain in the wilderness. They argued that more time was needed to prepare. The people weren’t ready to let go of the spiritual retreat that the wilderness afforded. They wanted to stay in that wilderness state a little longer. Above all, they didn’t want to reenter the world, have to raise kids and go to work every day. They wanted spirituality divorced from everyday reality. They wanted more highs, more miracles, more ecstatic moments.

 

But these were the voices of Mitzrayim, of narrow consciousness, of addictive behavior; the voices of ego that always want more. These voices had turned the wilderness, their spiritual retreat itself, into another narrow place; because when the ego gets attached to wanting more highs, more spiritual experiences, the attachment itself becomes an insurmountable obstacle to experiencing them again, a new place of stuckness.

 

In the biblical myth, God understands that though He had taken the Hebrews out of Egypt, He didn’t succeed in taking Egypt out of the Hebrews. Therefore, He decrees that the generation of Israelites that were slaves in Egypt will have to die off in the wilderness; for only beings who had never known slavery could settle the Promised Land. You can imagine how pleased the Israelites were! As we open this week’s Torah portion a revolt erupts led by a member of the Levite tribe: Korach.

 

“The Hebrew root k-r-ch means ‘division’ or ‘split,’ and our Sages associate Korach…with these tendencies;” writes the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his Likkutei Sichos. Korach is the quintessential splitting and dividing energies of ego. But, for the ego, it is “divide and conquer.” Not surprisingly, Korach and his followers attempt to overthrow Moses and Aaron — who represent the higher levels of our awareness. The ego wants to take over; to go beyond what it is designed to do, and let its need for control spill over the many facets of our being. In Torah Moses answers Korach: “Hear me son of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart… and given you direct access to perform the duties of the Eternal…and to minister to the community and serve them? Now…you seek the priesthood too?” [Num. 16:8-10]

 

In Torah it is the voice of Moses that eventually wins the day. Korach ends up being swallowed by the earth at God’s command, and 250 of his followers consumed by Divine fire. But for most of us it is still the voice of ego that speaks the loudest in our lives, and which — most of the time — obscures the light of our True Self, our inner Moses. Our journey to the Promised Land takes work and takes time (though hopefully not 40 years). We, too, have to practice constantly and persistently to get Egypt out of ourselves. But if Torah is any measure of truth, spiritual practice will inevitably lead us back to that Land, the Land of our soul.

Torah Reflections – June 7 – 13, 2015

Sh’lach L’cha

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

Why The Spies Were Wrong

 

This week, in Torah, we meet again the story of the twelve elders, leaders of the Hebrew tribes, whom Moses sends to spy upon the Land of Canaan ahead of the Israelites’ invasion. Returning after forty days and forty nights, their report to Moses and the people is overwhelmingly despairing: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we… The land that we crossed through and scouted is a land that devours its settlers.” [Num. 13:31-32] Only Caleb and Joshua, two out of the twelve, disagreed and “hushed the people before Moses and said: ‘Let us go up, yes, up for we can prevail, yes, prevail against it!‘” [Num. 13:30]

 

I’ve always wondered; why would these ten elders — wise and discerning individuals especially selected by Moses — be so pessimistic in their report? What did they fear? After all, they had seen God destroy the mighty armies of Pharaoh; how could Canaan’s stand a chance? They had witnessed miracle after miracle ever since the plagues of Egypt: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, Revelation at Sinai. Miriam’s traveling well had sustained them with water, and the daily manna falling from heaven provided them with food; all their needs had been taken care of by God day in and day out. How could the Canaanite be stronger than them? In truth, their claim was even more ominous than that. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sotah, 35a) offer a different translation of the Hebrew: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than Him… [this] is a land that devours its settlers.” Despite continued Divine providence in their journey through the wilderness, they not only feared that the people of Canaan would be stronger than God, but that settling the land itself would lead them to their doom.

 

The elders’ argument was that because of the unabating Divine providence, the Israelites were not ready to enter the land. In the wilderness they became accustomed to God providing for them. Going into the land meant that the manna would stop, and the well disappear. The Children of Israel would have to grow up and provide for themselves, while contending with a foreign people and its competing religion. Being busy with a thousand material preoccupations and new responsibilities, they would forget about God. The elders’ real fear was not of external threats, but of internal ones-indeed, the deepest internal ones; threats to the very soul of their people. They feared that the materialistic world and its daily concerns would consume their energy — leaving no time for Spirit — and that God would eventually be defeated by the harsh settler’s life which was bound to “devour” them, overtaking every minute of every day. It was best to remain in the secluded peace of the wilderness, where all material needs were provided for, and where they could continue to deepen their newly acquired spiritual path. And who could blame these elders? Anyone who has ever experienced the peaceful quiet of a complete Shabbat, or of a meditation retreat, knows the attraction of spiritual seclusion. They argued that the best way to find God, the best way to stay connected to the Divine is to remain separated from the physical, materialistic world. God, they claimed, is to be experienced in the wilderness, not in the land of Israel. Entering the land would disconnect the people from the spiritual realm.

 

But as far as Judaism is concerned, they were wrong. Without denying the importance of wilderness experiences, seminal to our spiritual unfoldment, Judaism insists upon recognizing God’s Presence in every event. We are to remain aware of God’s acting through our acting, God’s speaking through our speaking, and to remember the holy in the mundane, the miraculous in the seemingly insignificant. That’s what Joshua and Caleb said when, twice, they urged the people to “go up.” It is one thing to “go up,” to ascend the spiritual path while in the wilderness; but the real “going up” is to remain aware of Spirit’s Presence in the world itself, within the everyday reality of human interactions with that world, in all its light and shadow. Yes, we are to carve time to meditate or pray every day; to immerse ourselves daily in this “wilderness.” But that grounding space needs to infuse, in turn, who we are and how we show up in our world; our remembering the holiness of every being, of every thing, and every moment, in order to transform our world into the holy place it already is.

 

 

 

 

 

PS: Once a year I come to you asking those of you who are not members of Bet Alef — if you enjoy receiving and reading these (almost) weekly Reflections — to consider making a donation to the organization that strives to be the spiritual community I describe here-above, and, as such, supports me in making these Reflections available to you. Please go to our website, and click on the “Donate” button on the right side of your screen (as you scroll down). Thank you.

 

Rabbi Olivier

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day 12: Lodz

Before you start reading today’s post below, I must admit that I didn’t think I would write another blog entry about yet another difficult place to be. I was feeling pretty done. I was looking forward to sharing the other side of Poland, its sheer natural beauty, its youthful people filling the streets and the cafes, its incredible museums etc… But, once again today, a mournful place connected to the Shoah surprised us by its simplicity and its power. Though I share some of my thoughts about “tomorrow” at the end, I confess that the place I find myself in reaction to being in the camps, the Ghettos or (as in this case) the deportation stations in particular, or to talking about the Shoah in general is a resounding “I don’t know.” The meaninglessness of it all, the emptiness one is left feeling within, have yet to allow any kind of conclusive “next step” if such a thing is even possible. It is from this “not knowing” that I write the following few words.

 

It would be easier to hate. When I was in my early teens growing up in France and started to learn about the Shoah, the Holocaust, I became angry and hateful towards the Germans. I promised myself never to go east, never to visit Germany, Poland or all these other countries with peoples I held responsible for the atrocities of the Shoah. Every time I met a group of German tourists of a certain age, I wondered about their role during the war. I hated them. I took this hatred all the way to Israel when I emigrated there from France (France didn’t have a clean record when it came to its Jews either) and channeled it into a virulently right-wing Zionism. I know that a lot of my French friends in Jerusalem felt the same way. I have found in my aging, however, that this capacity for hating was, at some point, left behind. Hate and the desire for revenge make things easier. It paints a more black-and-white picture of our interpreted reality about who the bad guys and the good guys are, and gives the hatter the illusion of control and power, which in the reality of the absence of both is deeply satisfying. A part of me wishes that I could revert back to my impassioned youthful hateful self, right now. It would have made being at the Lodz Ghetto deportation train station simpler and, perhaps, more tangible.

But I can no longer hate the Nazis. I am the Nazis. The Nazi part of consciousness that allows for this train station is part of my own make-up and, under the right circumstances, could easily be re-activated. I can’t hate the Poles either. I don’t know what I would have done living in fear under Nazi rule all these years. Besides, so many of them risked their lives and their children’s lives to save Jews. Additionally, I felt in all our traveling and being in so many places where the events of the Jewish mass murder took place that they have done an incredible job making sure monuments are built, sites are preserved and schools take their students there. I wonder what it would look like if, in the good US of A, we would have done half as good a job commemorating the native-American genocide or African-American slavery.

This remarkably preserved train station had a little museum inside its walls about the history of the Jews of Lodz in part but, mostly, about its WWII Ghetto. Around the deportation station was a tall concrete wall with different commemorative inscriptions engraved. The concrete wall behind the station was in the shape of a series of giant Jewish tombstones each bearing the name of one of the camps those who came through this space were sent to. All that I missed at the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw was here in Lodz’ Umschlagplatz: the platform where Jews were gathered before climbing onto the train, the rail tracks themselves, as well as three well-preserved war-era cattle cars still waiting. One of them was left open and the public was welcomed to step into it. For some irrational reason my first reaction at the site of the open cattle car was fear, and the impulse to run away. “I could never do that,” I thought to myself, “that’s beyond where I am willing to go.” But I looked around and, this time, there were no yelling Nazis and no barking German shepherds. A few of our group had already gone in and were able to come out unharmed. Now I wanted to get in, I wanted to wrap myself in the four wooden walls of the rusty car. I went to one of the corners of the car and began to look at the beautiful green grass on this rainy day through a little whole between its wooden slats. In a moment as more and more people would crowd around me, the car would begin to move. I could still see, through my little hole, on my way to death, the green grass of life continuing to grow without me. Soon I would be naked in a cold barrack awaiting my faceless assassination. I could hear them around me stepping on each other in this too small a car with their heavy bags full of hope or denial. Two hundred plus of us, squeezed into the 21.3 m2 car, standing here suffocating with no room for our body to find rest. There are places like this one, where you can hear the past.

I wanted to hate the Nazis. I really did. But I couldn’t. The Shoah is both horribly human, and completely beyond human understanding at the same time. To me it represents the darkest expression of the conditioned ego; this same ego which, especially at such times as these, is also capable of expressing as the greatest human light. A part of me naively believes that “never again” can only be true if most of humanity manages to wake up from ego-consciousness. Our tradition calls this the messianic age, when most of humankind will reach Messiah-consciousness. But short of that, as this might take us many more generations, at the level of your and my everyday life of ego-consciousness, we need to begin telling a different story about what defines us as human beings: a story of collaboration instead of competition, a story of preservation instead of destruction, a story of oneness instead of separation, a story of recognition instead of exclusion, ultimately a story of pluralism instead of racism, prejudice or intolerance. This is the story we need to tell, the story our world is in dire need to hear. The narrative that currently guides our decision both locally and globally, is leading us down a path of planetary destruction. It is barely a notch above Nazi consciousness. But it is just a narrative. We don’t have to subscribe to it any longer. The Shoah demands of us that we evolve our human story.

The Jewish prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau whom we remember each year at our Yizkor service on Yom Kippur, used to sing a song our group sang when we were there: “Ani Ma’amin. I believe with complete faith in the coming of Messianic-consciouness; and even though it may be delayed, I will wait for it with every day that comes.” May we find the strength to write anew, and before it is too late, the human story of tomorrow.

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.