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New Ken Burns Film Spotlights Little-Known Holocaust Rescuers

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

By: Ben Sales; The Times of Israel –

How a quiet New England couple traveled to Europe on the eve of WWII and saved hundreds through clandestine operations – including money laundering and smuggling

JTA – In 1940, as he was being transported to safety in the lower deck of a ship, the Jewish author Lion Feuchtwanger asked Waitstill Sharp why the American Unitarian minister had bothered to rescue him from the Nazis.

Martha and Waitstill Sharp departing New York Harbor for Prague in 1939. (Courtesy of Sharp Family Archives/via JTA)

Martha and Waitstill Sharp departing New York Harbor for Prague in 1939. (Courtesy of Sharp Family Archives/via JTA)

Sharp and his wife, Martha, had spent much of the previous two years smuggling Jews out of Nazi-controlled territory. Saving people from persecution, the clergyman had told Feuchtwanger, was what any able person should do.

“I think something frightful, in addition to what has befallen Europe, is going to befall now,” Sharp later recalled saying. “I’m not a saint. I’m just as capable of the sins of human nature as anyone else. But I believe that the will of God is to be interpreted by the liberty of the human spirit.”

It’s an intimate moment in “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” a documentary co-directed by the renowned filmmaker Ken Burns that takes a highly personal look at the American Christian couple who left a quiet life in New England, traveled to Nazi-occupied Europe and smuggled hundreds of Jews to safety.

The movie, which relies on written recollections of the Sharps (Waitstill is voiced by Tom Hanks), archival footage, and interviews with survivors and historians, premieres September 20 on PBS.

“Defying the Nazis” is a change of pace for Burns, a director best known for sweeping documentaries on broad topics — see: “Civil War,” “Jazz” or “Baseball.” But when confronting the Holocaust’s enormity, Burns said the best approach was to focus on narrow, resonant stories like that of the Sharps rather than statistics that can mask the pain of mass atrocity.

“The number six million has become rather opaque,” Burns told JTA by phone from his office in New Hampshire. “We just say it, and it lacks dimension and specificity. Here you have a story of two people who saved a few hundred people on the edges of that Holocaust.”

However, the final frame of “Defying the Nazis” dedicates the film to all the Holocaust victims who were not saved.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 28:  Co-director/executive producer Ken Burns speaks onstage during the 'Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War' panel discussion at the PBS portion of the 2016 Television Critics Association Summer Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 28, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

BEVERLY HILLS, CA – JULY 28: Co-director/executive producer Ken Burns speaks onstage during the ‘Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War’ panel discussion at the PBS portion of the 2016 Television Critics Association Summer Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 28, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

“If the finale does anything, it reminds us that those six million are an amputated limb whose lives we still miss, and who ought to itch and bother us as long as we are human beings,” Burns said.

The film traces the story of the Sharps, who were living in Wellesley, Massachusetts, when the American Unitarian Association asked them to travel to Czechoslovakia in 1939 and France in 1940 to help people persecuted by the Nazis. The couple provided relief to embattled groups, raised money for refugee aid and smuggled Nazi targets, including children, out of the country. They are two of the five Americans who have been inducted by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, as Righteous Among the Nations.

Burns became connected to the film through his co-director, Artemis Joukowsky, the Sharps’ grandson and a fellow alumnus of Hampshire College. Joukowsky first showed the film to Burns five years ago, and Burns steadily became more involved, beginning as an informal adviser and ending as a co-director.

Burns compared his evolving role in the film to dialing up the heat slowly on a frog in a saucepan. “But this is a good kind of boil,” he added.

“It’s just firing on all cylinders,” he said of the movie. “You have a comfortable middle-class Unitarian minister and his wife [who] live in Wellesley, Mass. The most dramatic thing that happens is what he says on Sunday. They leave their small children behind, go to Prague on the eve of World War II. She’s dodging various Gestapo agents at night; he’s going to European capitals to launder money.”

‘Those six million are an amputated limb whose lives we still miss, and who ought to itch and bother us as long as we are human beings’

In the film, much of the Sharps’ story is told through the memories of the now-adult children the couple rescued. Burns said the childhood memories created the personal recollection necessary to capture the narrative’s emotional atmosphere.

“Children make unusually accurate witnesses,” he said. “You really remember when your parents are happy, and you really, really remember when your parents are anxious and sad.”

The movie adds another personal touch as it turns away from the Sharps’ rescue work and documents the rising tensions in the couple’s marriage after they return to the States. It’s bookended by an excerpt of a letter from Waitstill to Martha hoping to grow closer to her again.

“There was a fear of the messiness of this story,” Burns said, noting that he was undeterred. “The longing for the other sets in motion that this is about two people in a complicated relationship, as well as about the large topics that are involved here.”

Burns said he isn’t done with Holocaust documentation. He’s in the early stages of planning a movie about the US role in preventing the Holocaust — a topic he says most people don’t fully understand. And though his first allegiance in “Defying the Nazis” was to telling an accurate story, he hopes viewers come away with a drive to do more for today’s refugees.

“We are right now in a refugee crisis in the world that is dwarfed only by the Second World War,” he said. “This is a story, ultimately, about sacrifice and its costs.

“These people endangered their lives to save other human beings. They presumed everyone else would do it. What a wonderful presumption. It’s not true, but I hope it does galvanize others.”

Women’s struggle at the Western Wall continues

Friday, August 12th, 2016

By Joshua Mitnick /

A member of Women of the Wall wears phylacteries and a traditional prayer shawl as she holds a Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Gali Tibbon / AFP/Getty Images)

A member of Women of the Wall wears phylacteries and a traditional prayer shawl as she holds a Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Gali Tibbon / AFP/Getty Images)

Clutching smuggled Torah scrolls, dozens of feminist activists approached the Western Wall, wrapping themselves in colorful prayer shawls and chanting passages from the Jewish Bible.

Their display of piety was met by ultra-religious hecklers who denounced them as heretics and prostitutes. “You can’t change the Torah!” one shouted. “Get out of here!” Another ripped up a prayer book used by the feminist group, Women of the Wall.

Last month’s prayer confrontation was part of a long-running struggle over worship at Judaism’s most important pilgrimage site that pits Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment, which wants to uphold a traditionalist ban on women leading prayer services, against the Women of the Wall and liberal Jewish denominations that want the site opened up to egalitarian and pluralist prayer.

“It’s my right to decide how I pray in my country,’’ said Tammy Gottlieb, 32, a Women of the Wall board member, as she rode in a van full of activists to the holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City.

In recent months, tensions over women’s prayer have been escalating, and a compromise aimed at ending the dispute has stalled. Under the deal approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet in January, Women of the Wall and liberal Jewish denominations would be given a new prayer space at a nearby spot along the Western Wall. However, the government hasn’t started implementing the compromise and ultra-Orthodox parties oppose it.

“It’s like if a Muslim came to the Al Aqsa Mosque and wanted to enter without taking their shoes off. Would they let him?” asked Haim Rabinowitz, an aide to Rabbi Yisrael Eichler, a legislator from the ultra-religious United Torah Judaism party, referring to the Islamic holy site above the Western Wall. “There are rules, and there’s religious law. In Judaism, there’s no such thing as renewal or reform. There are no compromises.”

An Orthodox Jewish man yells at an woman advocating egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. (Gali Tibbon / AFP/Getty Images)

An Orthodox Jewish man yells at an woman advocating egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Gali Tibbon / AFP/Getty Images)

That is not the position taken by the Reform and Conservative wings of Judaism, which are much stronger in the United States than in Israel. As a result, the turf battle at the Western Wall is undermining the longstanding alliance between Israel’s government and wide swaths of North American Jewry.

The dispute over women’s prayer at the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as The Kotel, has roiled relations between Netanyahu — who relies on ultra-Orthodox religious parties to stabilize his coalition — and religiously liberal Diaspora Jews who complain that Israel’s conservative government is impeding religious freedom at Judaism’s most revered prayer site.

“In North America, there’s a whole generation of women who have been ordained as rabbis,” said Steven Wernick, chief executive of the organization representing Conservative congregations, as the women’s singing echoed throughout the plaza. “They come here and there’s no place in the Jewish homeland for us to worship at our holiest site according to the customs that we’ve developed.’’

The Jewish Agency, a nonprofit group promoting Jewish immigration to Israel, which helped broker the Western Wall compromise after three years of negotiations, warned in a statement that failure to provide a space for pluralist prayer at The Wall would have “far-reaching implications” for Israel-Diaspora ties.

Women Wall quote

Tensions over religion and state in Israel stretch back to the country’s founding, when Israel’s secular founders promised to defer to Orthodox Jewish leaders on public Jewish ritual, marriage, and Sabbath observance in order to secure their support for the new state.

The dispute over the Western Wall is one of several tinderboxes for Israel’s Orthodox establishment and the more liberal denominations. The Israeli parliament passed legislation to ban non-Orthodox from performing conversion ceremonies in state-run ritual bathhouses.

The Wall, with its giant stone blocks, is the last remnant of the Jewish Temple complex built two millennia ago and has attracted Jewish pilgrims for centuries. After Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967, it cleared out a sprawling plaza that was partitioned off for gender-segregated worship, and the government handed over management of the site to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious authorities, who run the plaza as if it were a synagogue.

The female activists, who have been holding services at The Wall on a monthly basis since 1988, have pursued several court petitions challenging the ultra-Orthodox control the site.

In their gatherings, women lead prayers, wrap themselves with black phylacteries, and chant passages from the Torah scrolls — roles reserved for men under strict readings of Jewish religious law. They are often met by rowdy crowds of ultra-religious students and teams of police who have tried to block or shout down the prayer service.

“Women of the Wall is simply reminding us that The Wall doesn’t belong to any one segment of the Jewish people,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-Israeli author and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “This is a battle for Zionism: Is the State going to be an expression of Zionism, with its ideology of Jewish peoplehood, or is it going to be run under ultra-Orthodox blackmail and allow a minority of world Jewry to exclude a majority.”

In June, the executive director of Women of the Wall, Lesley Sachs, was detained by police for hours for bringing a Torah scroll into the Western Wall plaza.

“That was an escalation,” said Shira Pruce, a spokeswoman for the organization. “People are up in arms: They can’t believe that in Israel of all places, a woman is being arrested for holding a Torah. If the interim plan is arresting women at The Kotel, this issue is going to get much hotter.”

One day last month, Women of the Wall activists were checked by security guards to see if they were trying to sneak banned ritual objects into the women’s section of the plaza. Wearing stickers reading “equal” and “love thy neighbor as thyself,’’ the women held a bat mitzvah ceremony for 13-year-old Milwaukee native Frannie Turner using a smuggled Torah scroll and a ritual canopy.

The service passed relatively quietly, with no direct confrontations between the women and ultra-Orthodox demonstrators, and no one detained by police.

“The chance to join Women of the Wall and protest against archaic thinking is an honor,” wrote Claire Turner, Frannie’s mother, in an email after the ceremony. “It was joyous, supportive, and also very spiritual.”

But Shulamit Tsolani, a 59-year-old nursery school teacher from Jerusalem, surveyed the prayer service in disgust.

“When we used to come here, we felt the holiness of the place. They are ruining it,” she said. “A woman is not allowed to carry a Torah scroll. They don’t believe what we believe in.”

A Fourth of July Story

Monday, July 4th, 2016
Freed Soviet Jewish dissident Anatoly Sharansky and wife Avital (David Rubinger / Getty)

Freed Soviet Jewish dissident Anatoly Sharansky and wife Avital (David Rubinger / Getty)

By David Samuels /

On July 4, 1974, a 26-year-old mathematician named Anatoly Borisovitch Shcharansky was joined in marriage to Natalia Stieglitz, aged 24, in a friend’s apartment in Moscow. The day on which Americans celebrate their freedom with hot dogs and fireworks was probably the last opportunity that the two young Soviet citizens had to get married, as the bride had only a day and a half remaining on her exit visa. The day after the marriage, the bride left Moscow for Israel, as Avital Shcharansky. While her husband hoped to follow her within a few months, it would be nearly twelve years before she would see him again.

Anatoly Shcharansky first applied for an exit visa from the Soviet Union in 1973. As a former child chess prodigy and a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, the young mathematician was the kind of person that Soviet authorities liked to hold up as an example of the success of their progressive, scientifically ordered society. His application to leave the country was denied, on the grounds that he had enjoyed access to information that was vital to Soviet national security. The bureaucrat who denied Shcharansky’s visa application may have been right, according to the Orwellian criteria that were then prevalent–but he or she did far more damage to the Soviet Union by forcing the young mathematician to stay.

Soviet bureaucrats and security personnel had no shortage of reasons to distrust Shcharansky. He was the translator and go-between for the physicist Andrei Sakharov, one of the fathers of the Soviet nuclear bomb and the inventor of the Tokomak nuclear fusion reactor, who became the target of a sustained campaign of pressure and threats by his fellow scientists and the KGB in 1972 for his insistent warnings against the dangers of nuclear proliferation. In 1976, Shcharansky himself became one of the founders and a leading spokesman for the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, which devoted itself to the Sisyphean task of ensuring that Moscow lived up to its commitments to ensuring the human rights of its citizens under international treaties. With Sakharov’s blessing, Shcharansky also became the most visible spokesman for the growing mass movement of Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union for Israel.

On March 15, 1977, Shcharansky was arrested on charges of high treason and spying for the United States. He would spend the nine years following his trial imprisoned in Siberia while his wife Avital, whom he knew as a quiet, shy woman, galvanized a mass movement of Jews in America and elsewhere to fight for her husband’s freedom. Transforming her imprisoned husband into an international symbol of Soviet oppression and of the resilience of the human spirit, Avital personally pled Anatoly’s case with Ronald Reagan and other world leaders, who were moved by the purity and modesty of her self-presentation, and the fierce, unshakable nature of her convictions, a combination that reminded more than one observer of a female Gandhi.

On February 11, 1986, Anatoly Shcharansky was freed on the direct order of Mikhail Gorbachev, under personal pressure from Ronald Reagan, and rejoined his wife Avital in Israel, as Natan Sharansky. Three years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. In the long view of history, it seems likely that the campaigns that the Sharanskys helped to lead, both inside and outside the Soviet Union, will be seen as having played a significant role in the dismantling of a tyranny that controlled the lives of over one billion people, and which plausibly aimed, at one point in time, in bringing the entire planet under its rule, thereby destroying the ideals of freedom which Americans celebrate every year, on July 4, as the Shcharanskys celebrate their anniversary.

What follows is a very lightly edited transcript of the second of two interviews I conducted last year with Natan Sharansky, who is now the head of the Jewish Agency and a close associate of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I have decided not to publish our first conversation, which dealt with information related to the Iranian nuclear deal and America’s relationship with the Iranian regime, which Sharansky regarded as an astounding betrayal of the promise of freedom that America embodied to him in his Soviet jail cell, and of the brave dissidents who sit in Iranian jail cells today.


Growing up as a child in Donetsk, what did you know about other Jewish communities in the world?
I didn’t know anything about Jewish communities. I knew nothing about Judaism, I knew nothing about Jewish history, nothing about Jewish religion. I knew very well that I am a Jew because that’s what was written in the ID of your parents, and there was a lot of anti-Semitism and discrimination, that’s all.

When did you first start to discover that Jews were a people with a history, and were living in other places besides Donetsk?
I first realized that I have a history, people, and a country in 1967, after Six-Day War. For the Soviet Union, the victory of Israel in that war was a big humiliation, and suddenly Jews discovered that all the people around you, friends and enemies, Jews and non-Jews, connect this country Israel with you. And so you want to understand what this connection means. That’s when, in the underground, from the books that were brought to us by American Jews, we started reading about ourselves and about our history. And we find out that we have such an exciting history, beginning from Exodus from Egypt until these days.

There were Jews coming from all over the world. They would say, “Oh, your father is from Odessa. My grandfather is from Odessa; we are family, we want to help you.” And you discover there is the State of Israel, which also wants to help you. So that’s how you discover your identity, and that’s what gives you the strength to start fighting for your dignity and your freedom.

Before you discovered this identity, and all you knew was that “Jew” was a curse word in the mouths of people who hated you and your parents, how good did it feel to read that the Israeli Air Force had humiliated the Soviet Union and its allies?
You know, you read very little in the Soviet newspaper. And frankly speaking, at that moment we knew so little about Israel and about Israel’s connection with our life. The real excitement came like a month after this, when you see that all the world connects what happened in the Middle East with Jews, and that you’re one of these persecuted Jews, so you start to learn more. Who are we? And then you become really excited. Then you understand that this war, this victory for Israel, is also a victory in your struggle.

When did you first become aware that there were Jews in the Soviet Union who wanted to emigrate to Israel?
Here and there we heard something, from the Voice of America and so on. But the real realization of how deep and powerful this phenomenon is came after the Leningrad Trial [referring to the state prosecution of a group of 16 refuseniks led by Edward Kuznetsov and a Jewish former military pilot Mark Dymshits who on June 15, 1970 tried to steal an airplane and fly it to the West, an event that helped spark the Soviet Jewry movement]. It was publicized all over the Soviet Union that they are criminals, they are being put on trial, there is a threat of a death sentence. And all of this because they wanted to leave for Israel. The Soviet Union started a big campaign with public press conferences where famous Jews, writers, and actors, and scientists all had to declare their loyalty to the Soviet Union and say, “We as Soviet Jews don’t want to go to Israel, only a bunch of criminals want to.” From this, we understood that something very big was happening, and you wanted to be part of it.

Could you follow the trial in the newspaper and the radios?
Oh no. In the newspaper, there were only one or two big articles about the criminals and their sentences. But at the same time there were a lot of press conferences and public statements of loyal Soviet citizens, of those who were considered to be loyal who had to declare their loyalty. What we did discover, was that through the Voice of America and through BBC and Voice of Israel, in spite of jamming, you could hear the reports, information about the trials. I remember the speech of Sylva Zalmanson, who said these ancient words about “I will never forget you, Jerusalem.” And that was very powerful. And you think, “Look, here are people who are so desperate in their desire to become an active part of the history of Jewish people and to go to Israel, they are ready to sacrifice their lives. What are you doing here?”

When did you become aware of the activities of Jacob Birnbaum and others who were organizing rallies and demonstrations in the West?
During those days of the trial, we heard that Jews all over the world are demonstrating, in spite of the jamming of the broadcasts of Voice of Israel and the Voice of America and others. And we realized how powerful those efforts were when the death sentences of some of the Leningrad Trial heroes [Kuznetsov and Dymshits were both sentenced to death] were replaced by 15 years. After all the propaganda, after all the brainwashing that was done by the Soviet Union, the fact that they had to change the sentences showed us that Jews all over the world really have some power.

I only was able to get more details about our struggle when I myself two years later became an active participant in our movement, and later became a kind of spokesman of our movement, so on a daily basis I was meeting with tourists who were telling me about these demonstrations, who themselves were part of these demonstrations, and then you feel yourself to be part of the world struggle for Soviet Jewry.

Tell me how those contacts between Soviet Jews and foreigners would work.
There were two ways. On Saturday, we were meeting in front of the Moscow Synagogue. I say “in front of” because the synagogue itself was part of the official Soviet Union. So this narrow street in front of the synagogue became like our club.

It was a gathering place for Jews who exchanged information, some who for the first time came to find out how to get an invitation from Israel, or those foreign visitors who are coming and are looking for the people whose names they got from their organizations. And that’s how I met with my first contacts, Jews from different organizations, different cities and countries, who were coming with the specific aim of bringing some materials for us, and to get information about our fate.

Describe one of those meetings to me, an early one that you can remember. You’re standing in the street in front of the synagogue and some person that you’ve never seen before wearing different clothes, speaking terrible Russian, or maybe some Yiddish, is looking for you.
Usually it was like this. Some people who obviously are foreigners, they speak all in English, sometimes Hebrew, but usually English. And they ask if somebody can “help me to see Vladimir Slepak or Alexander Luntz or Alexander Lerner?” These were usually the names that they had in advance. And as a rule, the KGB men were standing just nearby listening to us, but we didn’t care. In some cases, these people, foreign tourists were coming straight to the apartment of Vladimir Slepak. And later when I was actively involved in this, I was spending days and nights there in that apartment, which was just near the Red Square, waiting for these contacts to arrive. Because even if they were coming to this synagogue, they were not bringing all their notes with themselves, they knew very well that they could be arrested there. So we were waiting for later opportunities to meet somewhere.

I can tell you that a very significant meeting happened for me in 1974, after I was arrested for 15 days because President Nixon came, and when President Nixon comes, all the troublemakers were arrested, and I was one of them. On the 3rd of July 1974, I was released. On the 4th of July, my wife and I had our chuppah, and on the 5th of July, she left for Israel. So we hoped we would be apart for a few months, but it happened that we only met again twelve years later.

But the next day, on July 6, I come to the street in front of the synagogue, and there is a very tall gentleman with his wife and two children, who is an American Jew named Jerry Stern, and he asked me whether I know some refuseniks. And I said, “not only I know some refuseniks, I am one of them. And by the way,” I said, “my wife yesterday left for Israel.”

That was the beginning of the bridge which the Jews from America and other countries built between me and my wife. Because Jerry Stern became so excited that two days later, when they left the Soviet Union and went to Israel, they met my wife, and they took the first pictures I got of her and got the first note. They sent me her first letter to me through an American Senator who happened to be coming to Moscow. And that’s how this bridge between my wife and me was built, and later hundreds and hundreds of American Jews were helping us to know about one another.

But of course it was not only about the personal. Through these tourists we were getting some very important literature. The book Exodus by Leon Uris was maybe one of the most powerful weapons that we had. I once wrote to one of my contacts, send us 100 Exoduses and we will have here a Zionist revolution. Because the influence of this book was unbelievable. Suddenly, one night, one family was reading this book and in the morning they were giving it to the other family. First of all, so as not to put yourself at risk by keeping this book longer than one night. But secondly, there was a long line of families that wanted to read it. Because this book helped us to realize that being a Jew is not only about ancient history. In fact, people almost our own age continue this history and you can be one of them.

If you had to imagine a small refusenik portable library, what other books would it have contained?
Well first of all, there was Alef Melim, which was a book to study Hebrew. There was Exodus. There was of course later Bible with translation into Russian. Later there was Operation Entebbe, which was one of the most exciting stories encouraging us. And, in fact, when they came to arrest me, the picture of Yoni Netanyahu was on my wall, because that was like a reminder that the State of Israel will save us. There were many other books, of course.

When you think back now to your arrest and to the years you spent in solitary confinement in Siberia, and when you think of the campaign that your wife helped to lead and inspire, which do you think in the end was more important in the struggle of our Russian Jewish people for our freedom: what you did in the Soviet Union or what she did in the West?
Well, my role was very easy. I was sitting and waiting, and playing chess in my head. But Avital had to work very hard and to travel all over the world and to open the doors of every leader of the free world. And not only to open the doors, and not only to meet them, but then to make sure that he or she will not forget, and will not abandon our cause. So she was very tough with the leaders.

I was a child who grew up wearing a little bracelet with your name on it. I thought about you, I would imagine what it would be like to be you in that cell, and it connected me to my family members who were still in the Soviet Union. I saw Avital speak, but the person I thought about was you, not her.

But the older I get, I have more and more admiration for her. What you did, I can understand as stubbornness: “Blast you, I refuse to give in.” I can feel that easily, even if I am not as strong or as brave as you are. What she did had a different source and a different kind of power. She fired the minds of first hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people around the world with a cause, of which you were a symbol. How do you understand what she did, and where it came from?

Well, first of all, I don’t try to understand my wife. It’s enough that I love her. Second, there is no doubt that her spirituality and the fact that in Israel she very quickly met people who helped her to become religious, to be not only part of our physical history but part of our spiritual life, helped her a lot.

She felt very strongly that she not only was fighting for her husband but she was doing something very important to make sure that Tachnit Alokit, the divine design will be implemented in the world. And I think that gave a lot of power to her words, and it gave her a lot of self-confidence.

Because in daily life, she is an extremely shy person who is afraid to raise her voice. And she had to lead demonstrations of hundreds of thousands, to threaten to Soviet leaders with the most awful plans, and to demand from Reagan, Mitterrand, from everybody, to release Soviet Jews.

And when you were sitting in Siberia and elsewhere, how aware were you of what she was doing and what others were doing?
I knew very, very little. In 9 years, I had 2 meetings with my family so I could get some information. Sometimes, you meet a person who was arrested after you, so from him you can find out what happened 2 or 3 years earlier, because you met him a few years after he was arrested.

Surprisingly, the third source of important information was Soviet newspapers. If you are not in a punishment cell, you could read the official Soviet newspapers, Pravda, Izvestia. And sometimes, you can find that, for example, they condemn provocations of Western propaganda for a provocative meeting of the adventurist who calls herself the “wife” of a Soviet spy, who met with the American Secretary of State. That was a very nice way of informing me what was happening.

But in general, of course, I knew practically nothing and they did their best to convince me that I am alone, that everybody abandoned me. After all, who is supporting you, just a bunch of students and housewives, and even they are already scared. That’s what they were saying to me. And I knew very well that they were lying. I was absolutely sure. I already knew the power of Jewish solidarity for the 2 or 3 years of working as a middleman between our movement and American Jewry, journalists, diplomats, different organizations I was in contact with. I was absolutely sure that Jews of the world were fighting for our release. And I was also very absolutely sure that my wife would not let anybody sit quietly.

You also served as the translator and middleman for Helsinki Watch and for Dr. Andrei Sakharov. How did he understand this idea of a Jewish people and the movement of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel?
Andrei Sakharov was a person who deeply sympathized with the desire of other people to be free. He himself made the journey from loyal Soviet scientist to dissident in order to be able to express freely his views. He loved to see people free. That’s first.

Second, Sakharov personally had a lot of sympathy for Jewish people. Many of his colleagues were Jewish, and his wife was partially Jewish. But also I think he felt a lot of sympathy towards the history of the Jewish people. And so he believed, and here he was, he differed from some other dissidents like Solzhenitsyn.

Sakharov believed that the struggle of Jews for freedom of immigration was a very important step toward freedom in Russia in general, while Solzhenitsyn was saying, it is a narrow Jewish interest, this freedom of immigration. Why should we be supporting the efforts of the free world to put everything on this issue? We have our own problems. After all, the Russian people are deprived of freedom; we have to work for a change in the regime.

Sakharov agreed that it was important to change the regime. But he was saying, “The moment there will be freedom of immigration, everything will change. Because one of the main tools of keeping people in fear is that Soviet Union is like a big prison, and people don’t dare even to think about leaving it. The result is that they depend fully on the authorities. The moment Jews will help us to open the gates, all of life will change.” And he was right. So he was extremely sympathetic and extremely supportive.

And I can tell you that practically each time when we Jews wanted some support from Andrei Sakharov, he gave it—that he will write a letter which I will send to American Congress, or if there was a trial, that he will personally come and stand in front of the doors of the court in order to draw the attention of the world press. So he was ready to work as an activist of our movement, although of course his interests were much broader.

Talk about the impact made by Sen. Henry Jackson and other members of the U.S. Congress who were determined to link the moral authority and the practical power of the legislative branch of the American government to tie trade and other benefits with Russia directly to increased freedoms including, especially, the freedom of Jews to emigrate?
Well I’ve asked, “Who are the people responsible for the demise of the Soviet Union?” And of course I believe that our movement played a very important role. But if you are speaking about specific names, I will speak about Andrei Sakharov, about Senator Jackson, and about President Reagan. The contribution of Senator Jackson was in the fact that he was the first who made the direct linkage between freedom of emigration and very important economic interest of the Soviet Union. And he did so against all the political thought in the United States of America and in the free world.

Many of those people were saying, “It is our interest to have more trade with the Soviet Union, and when there is more trade there is less war.” And we, Soviet Jews, knew that our only hope to be released was that the interests of the Soviet Union, economic and otherwise, would be so closely linked to our fate that the Soviet Union would have no choice.

Sen. Jackson was the first to understand the power of this linkage, and he proposed the famous Jackson–Vanik Amendment. American [conventional wisdom] was against it, the Soviet Union, was of course against it, but in the end, this amendment passed, and then this idea of linking the question of human rights with the national relations of the Soviet Union with other countries prevailed. The Helsinki Agreement was the next step. I believe that that in the end was the most important factor that altered our struggle.

It’s true that in my court sentence, the long text of my sentence in which I was accused of high treason, there were many accomplices mentioned: American tourists with whom I met, American journalists to whom I gave interviews, the leaders of Jewish organizations, they were all my accomplices. But the accomplice whose name was mentioned more than the others was Senator Jackson, because they realized what a historical role this Amendment plays. Every press conference, every meeting with senators, with congressmen that I organized, where support was expressed for this amendment, was put forth as evidence of high treason.

The Jackson–Vanik Amendment split the American-Jewish community and President Nixon put great pressure on American Jewish leaders to oppose it. Do you remember ever meeting with American Jews who would ask you how you felt about it?
As one who was very actively involved in this connection, I was meeting practically every day with American Jews who were coming, at the request of different organizations, and sometimes you had to send the same letter twice because these organizations in New York, which are on the same street, will never share information between themselves. It was after all a Jewish movement. Jews were all also fighting with one another, as we were fighting with one another in Moscow. So it was a normal solidarity struggle, where everybody disagrees with everybody, but all together are working for one cause.

And practically, in ’73, ’74, maybe in ’75, the question number 1 was, “Do you feel that we should support the Jackson Amendment?” Doesn’t matter whether these people were for or against, but it was very important to hear our voice. And we were very strongly in support and we were condemning Nixon, condemning Kissinger, condemning Brezhnev, of course, and we were praising Senator Jackson and we were praising Sakharov for supporting this. So that was a struggle.

These people, who were wearing their American clothes, they had their American ideas about the world, and they were probably frightened. What did they feel like to you? How did they feel different from you, and how did they feel similar? You must have developed a good understanding of their psychology.
First of all, I believe that those American Jews and Jews from other countries were coming to us, they were going through the same transformation as we did. They were discovering their Jewish identity. Of course, they were not as assimilated as I was, they did have their bar mitzvahs and brit milah [bris], and they knew what is Pesach. And we just now had discovered all those things. But this unique opportunity—which they got to be involved actively in advancing Jewish history, in fighting to help their brothers—it was to them also a very important connection that they were building between their own pasts, the past of their fathers and grandfathers who left Russia, who left Europe, who were escaping pogroms. And their mutual future and our mutual future was in Israel, whether they were going to Israel or not, but it was clear that’s something that unites us.

And also there was practically everybody was repeating that in the times of Holocaust, American Jewry missed it, and we will never permit it to happen again. So they were really feeling that they had a very important role in Jewish history. And so when we were thanking them for giving us support, some of them were saying, “No, it’s we who have to thank you, because you reminded us of our own Jewishness, and what it means to us. You turned our identity into something really meaningful to us.” So I think it was really a mutual process of discovery that both sides were discovering the other part of our people, and as a result we were discovering that we are one people.

On the other hand, of course, all these American Jews seemed like very, very naive people who understood nothing, even when they invested so much time helping us. I remember one funny case: They are coming to the synagogue, they hear all the stories of refuseniks, and there was one refusenik who was explaining that the authorities won’t let him leave because formally he didn’t have permission from his parents. That was a way not to let people go: Even if you were 70 years old, you have to get permission from your parent who was 90 years old, and without it you cannot leave, which was an attempt to make people feel responsible for one another and to threaten your parents, and so on. So he explains that he cannot leave because his parents are not giving him permission. And this American, who just got instructions and brought information and is ready to take risks and to take information back, he says, “You know, I think you can go without permission. Nobody in the West will condemn you for going without permission, I can assure you. Go without permission of your parents.” So that was a good reminder that with all this desire to help, they really don’t understand the situation in which you live.

You are now the head of The Jewish Agency, which for a while was not very enthusiastic about the idea of supporting any kind of mass immigration of Soviet Jews, because Israel then—as now—was worried about its relationship with Moscow. How did you feel, thinking back to the early 1970s, about the role of the Israeli state?
I think it’s absolutely wrong to say at any stage that the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, were not enthusiastic about massive aliyah. They were always enthusiastic and they always wanted it. On the other hand, yes, Israeli leaders and Israeli establishment were afraid to irritate the Soviet Union, and were afraid of public pressure coming from Israel. Sometimes when I was one of those activists who were going on demonstrations, irritating and infuriating Soviet authorities, the message was coming, “Don’t do it, we want quiet diplomacy.” So it’s not that they didn’t want aliyah, but they somehow naively hoped that maybe we will succeed to do it through quiet diplomacy.

And the other major conflict between some of us and the Israeli government was that when some Jews started using this channel, going to Israel through Vienna, they were changing their way and going to America. Israeli authorities were infuriated. They really believed that it’s very unfair. “We are working so hard to bring these Jews to Israel, and they are deceiving us, they are getting an invitation from Israel and then go to America.”

And then there was attempt to use us to convince American Jews to close this gate, to close HIAS, so that everybody has to go to Israel. I was one of those refuseniks who sent a letter saying that we are Zionists, we really want to be in Israel, but we don’t believe it is a function of Israel as a state to close any doors for Soviet Jews. You should do everything to attract every Jew in the world, but we should not work to close any doors. That was my position then, and that is my position today when I am the head of Jewish Agency. I do our best to help every Jew and to attract every Jew to come to Israel, but I believe it is the personal decision of each and every one. We have to work to strengthen Jewish identity of every Jew, those who are coming to Israel and those who choose not to come.

Talk about how strange religion felt at first, to you and to many Soviet Jews. I know that Yosef Mendelevitch, your wife Avital, and other some refuseniks did in fact become quite religious. However, thinking back to my own Soviet family, I remember that religion was primitive superstition, it was not scientific, it was a product of a different period of human historical development, and most of all it was just an empty category of experience. What did that encounter feel like?
I would say that hostility toward religion is something that I found only in Israel, when I discovered that there is a big split between the secular world and religious world. In the years of our activism, though I was a secular Jew, I was an assimilated Jew, we didn’t have any objection or resistance to religion because religion was the enemy of the Soviet Union, and we believed that all the ideology of the Soviet Union is inhuman. One of the first official lessons that Soviet school children were taught was the phrase of Marx: that religion was the opium of the masses, it’s poison. So we knew that is a good thing, because everything that the Soviet Union is against is a good thing.

It’s true that when we started reading the Bible, it was very difficult for us. For people who were very advanced—as we believed in physics and chemistry and mathematics—we understand that all this is myth, story, it cannot be real. But parallel to this, very quickly, you are reading about the history of your people, you want to be part of this history, and you discover your identity. So religious stories also become part of your identity, and you love it. And of course then when you’re in prison, that’s the best place to understand that there are things that you cannot explain by logic, and the fact that you are saying “no” to the KGB is not for some material reasons. The fact that you feel very strongly that your physical survival is not the highest value in your life means that there are different values, which are spiritual values. Prison is a good place to become close to religion.

Do you remember what you felt thirty years ago, in 1986, when you crossed the famous Glienicke Bridge from East Germany to the West?
I crossed the bridge when the American ambassador to West Germany took me together with a representative of the German foreign ministry, and they said, “Now we will go slowly.” And so we started moving very slowly, and then I see on the Western side, there are some crowds, journalists. I said, “Is my wife there?” He said, “No, she will wait for you in Frankfurt, we will take you to stay there.” And then I said, “And where is the border?” He said, “That big line on the side is the border.” So when we crossed the bridge, I jumped. I said, “That’s the freedom!”

And when I jumped, my pants, I had very big pants, which day before they gave me in Soviet prison. But they didn’t give me a belt, because I was still in prison, they gave me some rope, and the rope was broken. So I had to catch my pants at the last moment. So whenever I’m asked, “What was your first feeling when you entered the freedom? It was how not to lose your pants.”

There’s a story that you told me the last time we met, that I would like to end on today. You spoke well earlier about how the Soviet Jewry movement was a catalyst for Jewish self-discovery, not only inside the Soviet Union but perhaps for just as many people who were living comfortable lives in the West. There’s nostalgia for this moment now.
Well, of course it was a great time. And a few years after I was released, when I was playing with my daughters in my yard, our neighbor, who made aliyah from America some years before, looked to me playing with my daughters and with a very nostalgic sigh she said, “Natan, it was such a great time when you were in prison. We all were going to demonstration, we had our dates, we had our twinned bar mitzvahs, we were all friends. Where did it all go?”

So I almost apologized to her for being out of prison, but I have no intention of going back. The Jewish people will have to find other reasons to love one another.

2 Jewish visitors beaten, ejected from Temple Mount for bowing in prayer during Passover

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Muslim worshippers attacked two Jewish men on the Temple Mount on Tuesday after the Jews bowed in prayer in violation of the visiting rules.

The Jewish men were beaten as they prostrated themselves. The Muslims clashed with police attempting to protect the Jewish visitors, who were ejected from the site.

A video of the incident posted on social media by a Palestinian news website shows dozens of Muslim worshippers punching police trying to protect the men, who are still on the ground. The police then push back.

Jewish prayer is forbidden at the site, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims. The Temple Mount is administered by Jordan’s Muslim Wakf.

At least eight Jewish visitors were removed from the Temple Mount on Tuesday (April 26, 2016) for allegedly attempting to pray. Jewish visitors were removed on Sunday and Monday for the same offense.

Jordan condemned the increase in Jewish visitors to the site, including many tourists who came to Israel for Passover. During the holiday’s intermediate days, there are expanded visiting hours for Jews at the Temple Mount, and Muslim worshippers are prevented from ascending to the Mount during certain visiting hours.

On Monday, Jordan’s media affairs minister, Mohammad al-Momani, released a statement accusing “Israeli settlers and police” of storming the Al-Aqsa Mosque. He called Israel’s actions at the site “a violation of international laws and conventions” and said it could lead to “serious consequences.”

The Prime Minister’s Office in Israel responded to the threats, saying, “There is absolutely no basis to these claims,” and that “Israel is behaving responsibly, and Jordan knows that.”

Additional security forces have been put on patrol in the Old City of Jerusalem because of increased tensions at the Temple Mount and throughout the city in the aftermath of a bus-bombing in Jerusalem last week.

The gods of Egypt vs. God of the Bible

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

By Jerry Newcombe /

Dr. Jerry Newcombe

Dr. Jerry Newcombe

The title of a recently released film caught my attention: The Gods of Egypt. This column is not about the film, but rather it addresses God’s judgment on the gods of Egypt by way of the ten plagues. The ten plagues were the systematic judgments of God against Pharaoh and the Egyptians for enslaving the Hebrews for 400 years and refusing to let them go.

“Let My people go,” said God through his servants, Moses and his brother Aaron. But Pharaoh refused. So under God’s instruction, Moses unleashed ten plagues against Egypt.

In each of these judgments, God spared His people, the Hebrews. He miraculously kept them from experiencing His wrath.

The final judgment, the slaying of the Egyptian’s firstborn, involved the very first Passover event. The Hebrew people were instructed by God to take a lamb without blemish, to sacrifice it, and to spread the blood on the top and the two sides of the doorpost, forming a type of cross.

Then the angel of death would pass over the Hebrew households [with the blood on the doorposts], but would slay the firstborn of the Egyptians. The New Testament says Christ our Passover lamb has been slain for us.

Dr. D. James Kennedy points out that each of the ten plagues was a judgment on one of the gods of Egypt. You can find his commentary on this it in the new D. James Kennedy Topical Study Bible in the Book of Exodus.

Kennedy notes, “In the Book of Exodus, we see the great confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh. This is the Old Testament counterpart to the confrontation between Christ and Pilate, the representative of the pagan Roman Empire, with Pharaoh being the representative of the pagan empire of Egypt. Here is a classic confrontation between good and evil, Christ and Satan.”

Consider the plagues one by one and what Kennedy says about God’s judgment on Egypt’s false gods:

1. The Egyptians worshiped the River Nile, the source of their lives.

The first plague attacked that idol by turning the water into blood.

2. The goddess Hekt (Heket, Heqet) had the face of a frog.

“You worship frogs,” said God in effect, “now see what it’s like to have frogs everywhere.” In a short time, the Egyptians were sick of frogs.

3. Plague number three saw lice fill the land.

Kennedy notes, “Now one of the gods of the Egyptians was Seb, the earth god. … The Egyptians’ reverence for the ground having it covered with trillions of fleas or lice would no doubt cool their amorous desires for that earth god Seb.”

4. Swarms of flies made up the fourth plague.

Says Kennedy: “Scholars say they probably were not flies, so much as they were the beetles common to that area, called the scarabaeus from which we get the word scarab, which is a black beetle.”

5. The fifth plague was the judgment on the Egyptian cattle.

Apis, the chief god of Memphis, was a sacred bull worshiped by the Egyptians.

6. The sixth plague involved boils.

This was a judgment against the god Typhon. This god, notes Kennedy, was “a magical genie that was worshiped in ancient Egypt. Here was a god who was connected with the magicians, which were the priests of the Egyptian religion. We find here that the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boil was upon the magicians and upon all of Egypt. So their power was broken.”

7. Then came the plague of hail.

Shu was the “god of the atmosphere.” As Kennedy points out: “Now it is hard to go out to worship the god of the atmosphere when you are being pounded with large hail stones.”

8. Next, locusts swarmed the land.

The Egyptians worshiped the god Serapis, defender of the land against locusts.

9. Another major god of the Egyptians was Rah, the sun god.

But Plague number nine saw darkness come over the land, even during the day.

10. “And finally in the last plague upon Pharaoh himself, who was supposedly descended from the sun god Rah, his first born was killed,” writes Kennedy.

He sums it all up this way: “In the ten plagues, God shows the world for all time that He alone deserves our worship.”

Tragically, people today worship all sorts of false gods: money, celebrities, and football or other sports. Some even worship their own possessions. Each of these will one day be burned up in God’s final judgment of this Earth, and then all will see that only the Triune God is worthy of worship.

Whether audiences find the new movie, The Gods of Egypt, to be an entertaining fantasy adventure or just a high-tech stinker, it’s good to remember that the ten plagues were God’s judgments on human idolatry.

Dr. Jerry Newcombe is a key archivist of the D. James Kennedy Legacy Library

Is this the sound of worship in Jesus’ time? — audio

Monday, March 21st, 2016

The sacred chants of the ancient Jewish Temples in Jerusalem are a long-lost art. But some musicologists believe the 2,000-year-old notes can be reconstructed by drawing on traditional prayer songs heard in synagogues today, extrapolating from the sounds of biblical instruments like the harp and observing medieval church incantation that has common roots in the Holy Land.

These efforts thrill pious Jews who would like to see a new Jewish Temple built to prepare for the arrival of a messiah. Others worry that temple revivalism could inflame Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Al Aqsa, Islam’s third-holiest mosque, now sits where the Temple is believed to have stood nearly 2,000 years ago.

Additionally, many scholars are skeptical about the academic rigor of the research. Nothing is ever simple in the Middle East.

Dan Williams in Jerusalem has sounded out all sides.

Photo by: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Audio produced by: Bethel Habte
Editing by: Jason Fields

The Light of Two Faiths

Monday, December 7th, 2015

Hanukkah 2015 begins at sunset on Sunday, December 6 and ends at sunset on Monday, December 14

By Susan Perlman /

“The purpose of the celebration of Hanukkah is to welcome the Messiah. Peace is the Messiah. We light candles of peace to renew our faith in the ultimate triumph of peace over war. And we rededicate ourselves and our efforts to bringing this about.” -Rabbi Yaakov Bar Nachman, The Hanukkah Haggadah

    Rock of Ages let our song
    Praise Thy saving power;
    Thou amidst the raging foes
    Wast our shelt’ring tower.
    Furious they assailed us,
    But Thine arm availed us,
    And Thy word broke their sword
    When our own strength failed us.

    -Maoz Tzur, 13th Century

While the lyrics of Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages) express the traditional meaning of the Hanukkah celebration, Rabbi Nachman offers another explanation of the holiday: a festival of peace. Others see Hanukkah as a little holiday, a time for menorahs, latkes, dreidels, and Hanukkah gelt. But some say Hanukkah is the “Jewish Christmas.” Are any of these assessments correct? In order to decide, you need to know the Hanukkah story.

The events of Hanukkah took place during the 400-year period between the writing of the last book of Hebrew Scriptures and the first book of the “New Testament.”

The Jewish people were under Persian rule until Alexander defeated the Persians in 331 B.C. Ten years later, Alexander died and his kingdom was divided among his generals. While all of them were Greek, they were far from harmonious. Syria was under the Seleucids, and Egypt under the Ptolemies. Judea was caught in between.

The system of government for Jews changed under Greek rule. The Persians had been content to place a governor in Israel who primarily concerned himself with enforcing imperial civil laws and the payment of taxes. The Greek conquerors demanded compliance and conformity in religious practices as well. For the better part of the 3rd century B.C., the Jewish people were under the domination of the Greco-Egyptians. With the Persians, a foreign governor had been installed, but not so with the Ptolemies. Instead, the High Priest of Israel served as both political ruler and religious representative.

Along with this greater degree of self-rule came pressure to conform to Greek ways. This gave rise to political factions in Judea; some were more disposed to the Greco-Syrians, others to the Greco-Egyptians. Wars were frequent, and eventually the Syrians conquered the Jewish land. The Seleucids were even more dedicated to inculcating Greek culture and customs on the people than were the Egyptians. In order to conform, Jews adopted Greek names, wore Greek-style garments, and adopted Greek ways.

Antiochus IV was the Syrian ruler. He called himself “Epiphanes” (the visible god). The now-corrupted position of High Priest had been assumed by a hellenized Jew, Jason, formerly called Joshua. Jason was considered a “moderate” hellenist, and so he was replaced by an even more-hellenistic Menelaus (formerly Menachem).

The Persians had only wanted tribute from the Jewish people. The Greek successors to Alexander, especially Antiochus IV, held to a belief in the superiority of “the Greek way of life” and wanted much more. Hellenism encouraged intellectual pursuits and a polite, highly civilized society, but it also involved idolatry and exalted the wisdom of mankind.

The hellenists had nothing but disdain for the Jewish religion and the Jewish way of life, and they set about to “civilize” the people of Judea by forcing them into the Greek mold. Only those who would renounce the “old ways” and embrace the new (including the worship of Greek gods) could have a place in this idealized Greek society. “Whoever refuses should be put to death,” it was decreed. And many were. This rejection of hellenism infuriated the Syrian king, and we read in I Maccabees of the persecution that ensued:

    The Books of the Law which they (the hellenists) found, they tore into pieces and burned. Wherever a book of the covenant was found in anyone’s possession, or if anyone respected the Law, the decree of the king imposed the sentence of death upon him. Month after month, they dealt brutally with every Israelite who was found in the cities … In accordance with the decree, they put to death the women who had circumcised their children, hanging the newborn babies around their necks; and they also put to death their families as well as those who had circumcised them …

The Holy Temple was defiled. The golden altar, the candlesticks, and all the gold and silver utensils were looted from the Temple and desecrated. And to show his utter contempt for Judaism, Antiochus offered a sow on the altar to honor the Greek god, Zeus.

During these dark times of devastation, it is said that Mattathias, an elderly priest from Modi’in, defied a Syrian soldier who ordered him to bow down to an idol. Instead he struck down the soldier and fled from the city to the hills of Judea. With his five sons and a few other faithful Jews, Mattathias formed a band of guerrilla fighters. They were faithful to the God of Israel and would not countenance Greek idolatry and, in zealous contempt, rejected Greek culture. They were called Hasmoneans, though no one seems to know how that name came about. Unlike the other Jewish resistance fighters, they believed that for purposes of self-defense, it was permissible to fight on the Sabbath. Until this time, the Greeks could prevail by ordering their attacks on the Sabbath.

This guerrilla company was valiantly successful in its skirmishes with the Syrian soldiers. The rebels grew in number and in the ability to fight, inflicting great damage on the Syrian forces with their “hit and run” tactics. According to the account in the extra-biblical writings, Mattathias died within a year of their formation and his son Judah took charge. He was called “Maccabee,” which means “hammer,” for it was said that he was God’s hammer to smash the Syrians.

History and legend seem interwoven, but as best as we can piece it together, there were three years of fighting, surprise attacks, night raids, and ambushes by these tough, Jewish fighters.

Antiochus sent his ablest general, Lysias, to destroy the Hasmoneans. From their mountain camp, a war-worn group of 3,000 Jewish fighters watched as 47,000 Syrian soldiers marched across the plain to engage them in battle. As the story goes, the faithful band of Maccabees, with God on their side, vanquished the Syrians at Emmaus. Judah Maccabee marched into Jerusalem and set about to purify the Temple. Idols were torn down, and the altar, which had been defiled with the sacrifice of pigs, was dismantled and a new one built. New holy vessels were crafted. A date was set for the rededication of the Temple — the 25th of Kislev, the same day on which, three years earlier, Antiochus had issued his decree.

Tradition says that when Judah offered prayers of dedication in the Temple in 165 B.C., only one vessel of sanctified oil was found — enough for one day. Miraculously, it burned for eight days. This is remembered by the kindling of lights for eight days.

How the Hanukkah observance has changed over the years! In a 1985 article, “Why Can’t We Have a Christmas Tree?” Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Temple Valley Beth Shalom reflected:

    “Parental figures dress up as Uncle Mordecai, mask their faces with Chasidic beards, don a blue suit, carry a bagful of toys wrapped with menorah-figured paper, and place them around the Chanukah bush, which is brightly lit with blue and white blinking lights (the colors are authentically Jewish), then announce cheerfully, “Ho, ho, ho. Happy Chanukah!” Christmas is but one night; Chanukah lasts for eight. So on each night, the child is plied with gifts. With eight-to-one odds, the fidelity of the Jewish child to Chanukah is a sure thing.”

Herman Wouk, the Jewish existentialist, says:

    “It would be pleasant to believe that the stabbing relevance of Hanukkah to Jewish life in America has occasioned the swell of interest in the holiday. But a different and perfectly obvious cause is at work. By a total accident of timing, this minor Hebrew celebration falls close on the calendar year to a great holy day of the Christian faith. This coincidence has all but created a new Hanukkah …”

The observance of Hanukkah, unlike Passover or Rosh Hashanah, is not among the festivals required by the Hebrew Scriptures. However, it is still worthwhile for Believers to celebrate it — and not merely to pacify Jewish children who might feel deprived because Santa Claus does not deliver to Jewish homes. Hanukkah is worth celebrating because it teaches us about the God of Israel, the God of peace, the God of power.

Herman Wouk reflects more on Hanukkah in This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life:

    Our whole history is a fantastic legend of a single day’s supply of oil lasting eight days, of a flaming bush that is not consumed, and of a national life (that, in the logic of events, should have flickered and gone out long ago) still burning on.

One might dispute his use of the word “legend.” Still, Wouk has touched on the miracle of our people and the wonder of our God. It is unfortunate that he detracts from this awesome reflection by adding:

    That is the tale we tell our children in the long nights of December when we kindle the little lights, while the great Christian feast blazes around us with its jeweled trees and familiar music.

    The two festivals have one real point of contact. Had Antiochus succeeded in obliterating Jewry a century and a half before the birth of Jesus, there would have been no Christmas. The feast of the Nativity rests on the victory of Hanukkah.

The Nativity (the birth of Jesus/Yeshua) does not depend on Hanukkah. It’s not nearly that fragile. It does rest on the truthfulness and accuracy of the Jewish Scriptures.

Yet there is a connection between Hanukkah and Christmas. Hanukkah is often called “the Festival of Lights.” The explanation given by Josephus is that the right to serve God came to the people unexpectedly, like a sudden light.

Christmas is also a holiday about “a sudden light.” The story of the Nativity includes this account:

    “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and come to worship him.'” (Matthew 2:1-2)

The arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem must have impressed Herod, the Roman ruler of Judea, for he granted them an audience. And they asked him about the king of the Jews.

Herod’s first response was one of uneasiness. After all, the king of the Jews whom the Magi were seeking would surely be a threat to his Roman allies who enabled Herod to rule over the Jewish people. The Jews may have rededicated the Temple in 165 B.C., but they were still oppressed and governed by foreign powers. However, Herod apparently had enough religious knowledge of the people he ruled to call together the chief priest and scribes of Jerusalem. He asked them where this prophesied “king” was to be born.

These learned religious leaders pointed Herod back to the prophet Micah who said almost 800 years earlier:

    “But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from ancient times.” (Micah 5:1)

Herod passed the information on to the Magi, telling them to come back to him when they found the child. (Later, we learn that the Magi were warned by God not to tell Herod of Jesus’ whereabouts. Herod’s murderous response to this is described in Matthew 2:16-18.) As soon as the Magi headed for Bethlehem, the star, which had disappeared temporarily, reappeared and led them to the house in Bethlehem where they saw the infant Yeshua.

In a sense, Herman Wouk’s self-serving remarks about the Nativity resting on the victory of Hanukkah is a sad example of the insecurity of many Jews who need to hoist up Hanukkah in order to insulate nerves rubbed raw by December festivities.

Ironically, the Christmas story of the birth of Yeshua adds meaning to Hanukkah, “the Festival of Lights.” It was at the time of the “Feast of Dedication,” when all of Jerusalem was illuminated with the light of the Hanukkah lamps that Yeshua spoke from the Temple courts:

    “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. ” (John 8:12)

The wicks in the oil of the Hanukkah lamps had barely burned out when the light of the world, Yeshua, came on the scene:

    “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the city of David a savior has been born to you; He is Messiah the Lord!”

Could it be that Rabbi Nachman was not so innovative after all when he said that the purpose of Hanukkah is to welcome the Messiah?

Rebuttal to Chief Rabbis’ Besmirch of Christian Embassy

Sunday, October 4th, 2015
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)

By Isi Leibler \ Op-Ed to The Jerusalem Post on 09/21/2015

Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler

It is regrettable that on Yom Kippur eve, our chief rabbis have again uttered offensive remarks, this time besmirching one of Israel’s most dedicated allies and ardent supporters.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and his Sephardi counterpart, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, have issued an extraordinary condemnation against the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), accusing it of missionary activities and calling on Jews to boycott its 36th annual global Succot gathering in Jerusalem. The pro-Israel ICEJ was established in 1980 and is an extension of the Evangelical branch of Christianity.

Over the past half century, we have witnessed an exponential intensification in the Evangelical movement’s attachment to the Jewish people and Israel. This has coincided with the dramatic erosion of support for Israel from the Left and liberal sources.

Needless to say, Evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group and include a small minority whose primary interest in Jews is to proselytize them. Jews cannot countenance any relationship with such groups.

There are also some fringe elements whose philo-Semitism is motivated by premillennial dispensationalism – a belief that the End of Days and the second coming of the messiah can only take place when Jews have returned to the Land of Israel.

However, the majority of Evangelicals are God-fearing Christians who share an unconditional love for the Jews as God’s chosen people, pray for our welfare and passionately support Israel. They regard Judaism as the foundation of Christianity and reject Protestant replacement theology, which says the New Testament supersedes the historical role of the Jews as God’s chosen people. They base their belief on biblical passages such as Genesis 12:3: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”

Most believe that God always intended Israel as a Jewish homeland and regard support for Israel as a way of honoring God. These feelings nurtured the early 19th century Christian Zionists and subsequently motivated people like Lord Balfour and Orde Wingate – who helped create the Haganah – and many others. These sentiments, rather than proselytism, were the major factors whereby Evangelicals developed into passionate Christian Zionists.

The Christian Embassy has approximately 50 dedicated representatives in Israel who liaise with branches in over 80 countries. It has an impressive record of major charitable contributions to Jewish, principally Israeli, causes. Most of the funds for these projects originate from $50 to $100 donations from churchgoing Christians who consider support for the Jewish people as a righteous cause.

The ICEJ has sponsored the aliya of over 120,000 Jews to Israel and provided seed money for the creation of Nefesh B’Nefesh. It contributes to the integration of immigrants and numerous social welfare projects in Israel, including a home for needy Holocaust survivors in Haifa, support for former Gush Katif residents and the funding of bomb shelters for settlements in the Gaza border region.

In the public arena, it canvasses support for Israel among parliaments throughout the world, and even created a Christian counterpart to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in support of Israel and against anti-Semitism. Passionate Evangelical support contributed substantially toward the surge of popularity for Israel in the United States and the good standing Israel currently enjoys in Congress. In some respects, Evangelical political influence has been as important as that of the pro-Israeli lobby.

The Christian Embassy works closely with the Foreign Ministry, the Tourism Ministry, the Jewish Agency and Yad Vashem. Last year’s Succot celebrations, which took place just after the Gaza war, attracted the largest number of participants in many years (over 5,000).

This year’s expression of solidarity with Israel will again celebrate the “recognition of the hand of God in Israel’s modern-day restoration and the need to work with what God is doing and bless it.”

In stark contrast to the traditional anti-Semitic church doctrine and current anti-Israel hostility manifested by most Protestant churches, the Christian Embassy and its supporters are genuine lovers of Zion. Evangelical support has never been conditional on a quid pro quo.

Yet the Chief Rabbinate shamefully proclaimed that the ICEJ’s objective is to convert “all the inhabitants of the world to Christianity” and, in particular, “to change the religion of Jews from the religion of Israel and to bring them under the wings of Christianity.” The chief rabbis urged Jews not to have any contact with them whatsoever, declaring that Jewish participation was prohibited by the Torah.

There are small groups of Orthodox Jews who remain convinced that all Christians are anti-Semites and their friendly gestures are only a ruse to proselytize us.

Extremist fringe elements like the xenophobic Lehava organization exhibit vile bigotry and poisonous hatred, and a handful are pathological and guilty of despicable acts of vandalism against churches.

But the majority of anti-Evangelical agitators, like Yad L’achim, are naïve and misguided zealots who accuse the Christian Embassy of missionary activity.

They obviously succeeded in convincing the chief rabbis to issue this condemnation without adequately checking the facts.

Over the years I have worked closely with the ICEJ.

It and its staff are indeed genuine friends of the Jewish people, and are righteous gentiles. I attended their Israel Guest Night on Succot and have been invited as a commentator on many of their broadcasts directed toward Christians throughout the world. I never once encountered even the slightest hint of missionary intent and I admire their integrity and innate decency.

I have never engaged in theological dialogue with them and see no merit in discussing our religious differences. I do recognize the common roots of our Judeo-Christian heritage, which obliges us to reject moral relativism and differentiate between good and evil.

For decades, in its charitable work throughout Israel, the Christian Embassy obliges every Israeli individual or institution that receives any aid from it to sign a statement confirming that there has been no attempt on its part to proselytize.

The week-long Feast of Tabernacles event is essentially a Christian gathering restricted to those who have regularly attended church services for at least six months.

It also holds a parade in Jerusalem where thousands of followers from all corners of the world proclaim their support and solidarity with Israel.

One activity, designated Israeli Guest Night, is open to the Israeli public. The program is extraordinarily sensitive to ensure that there is no missionary content, and it concentrates on expressing solidarity with the Jewish people.

Last year’s Israel Guest Night paid tribute to soldiers and survivors of terrorist attacks, and honored 300 Jewish, Christian and Druse paratroopers who served in Gaza. It was addressed by President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This year, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein will be the keynote speaker.

It is disgraceful that the Chief Rabbinate failed to verify the false allegations made against the Christian Embassy and slandered those who represent Israel’s greatest friends in the world. The chief rabbis’ churlish action shames the Jewish people, and they should apologize and withdraw their scurrilous accusations.

In the meantime, I have every confidence that Israelis will continue to welcome our Christian friends and express appreciation for their support. Succot is traditionally recognized as the festival on which gentiles are invited to Jerusalem, and we should be gratified that during these difficult times, Christians from all over the world will gather here to express their solidarity.

Indeed, we should echo the sentiments expressed by then-chief rabbi Shlomo Goren who, in 1981, blessed the Christian Embassy Succot gathering with “Bruchim habaim b’shem Adonai” — “may all of you who have come here be blessed in the name of God.”

Rosh Hashanah and the Jewish Months

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

Torah scroll

Torah scroll

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you are to have a holy convocation; do not do any kind of ordinary work; it is a day of blowing the shofar for you” (Numbers 29:1). Those are the words in the Torah that tell us to observe Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Something is missing from that verse, since there is nothing about a new year. Besides, does a year start on the first day of the seventh month? Apparently it does.

Passover begins in the month of Nissan, but according to the Book of Deuteronomy, it begins in the month of Aviv. Aviv is Hebrew for “spring,” as in the name of the city Tel Aviv (hill of spring). Nowadays, Nissan is the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, if we count the months beginning with Rosh Hashanah. But if Rosh Hashanah takes place in the seventh month, then Aviv – now called Nissan – is the first month.

The Bet Alfa synagogue in Israel was built in the sixth century A.D. One of its mosaics has a circular panel with the signs of the Zodiac. There are Zodiac representations in synagogues all over the world, including the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now a museum, in New York City. According to a congregant at a synagogue in Tel Aviv, the Zodiac symbols there represent the twelve tribes. Since there are twelve months and twelve tribes, turning the symbols from Zodiac signs into representations of the tribes is a way to reconcile the symbols with Jewish tradition.

The Zodiac was part of the Babylonian calendar; so, Jewish traditions involving these symbols may have been borrowed during the Babylonian exile. However, the Babylonian year began with the month of Nissan.

The language spoken on the island of Sardinia is considered a separate language and not a dialect of Italian. The month of September in Sardinian is caputanni – caput means “head” and anni means “of the year.” Thus, caputanni is a perfect, direct translation of Rosh Hashanah, “head of the year.” There is a possibility that the name reflects a pre-Roman calendar that began the year with September. It is also possible, and probably more likely, that the name goes back to the year 19 A.D., when the Jews were expelled from Rome and 4,000 young Jews were condemned to forced labor on Sardinia. Twelve years later, when the order was rescinded, the Jews had the choice of going back to Rome or remaining where they were. A Jewish population remained in Sardinia until 1492, when the island belonged to Spain and the Jews were expelled. There is a second word in Sardinian that appears to be of Jewish origin: cenabura, pronounced [kenabura], meaning “Friday,” and coming from cena (feast) and pura (pure), suggesting the Sabbath meal. These words remained in Sardinian after the expulsion of the Jews.

And then there’s September, from Latin septem meaning “seven,” with what is probably an adjectival suffix -ber. September, October, November, and December mean 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th. Yet they are the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th months of the year. In the days before the Roman Republic existed, there were 51 winter days that were not part of any month. Around the year 713 A.D., King Numa Pompilius introduced two months into the winter season — Januarius and Februarius — and designated them as the first two months of the year. Julius Caesar renamed the fifth month, Quintilis, after himself, calling it Julius (July in English). Augustus Caesar named the eighth month, Sextilis, after himself, calling it Augustus (August in English).

And so the Jewish calendar begins with a month originally called the seventh, which occurs in September, a name meaning “seventh.”

Shanah tovah … Happy New Year!

Passover videos

Monday, March 30th, 2015

More Passover videos /

If Moses had Facebook

Let Them Go (Passover version of “Let It Go” from Frozen) (This young woman could sing a duet with Idina Menzel!)

More parodies on “Let It Go” from Frozen, with more humor.

Let It Go — Passover edition

Jew Direction: “Not Slaves Any More” a Passover parody on Katy Perry’s “Roar”

Zola Levitt Presents
Levitt Letter