Paul Blank – Jewish Text

Day 6

Last full day. I went with Alan, Glynis  and Rachel to the Dohany synagogue this morning.  We had been there earlier in the week when we toured the building, saw the memorial and assisted the curator in arranging an exhibit.  Today, Shabbat, was a different experience.  I was told beforehand that I would have an Aliyah to the torah, but I was also asked to chant the haftarah.  What an honor!  As I stood on the bimah I again thought about my namesaqke, my grandfather, Paul Lefkowitz.    Paul died at an early age while my mother was still a teen.  I know little of his life, except that he immigrated to America from Budapest in his teens, lived first with a sister and her family in McKeesport, Pennsylvania (very close to Rachel’s Hungarian family) served in the US army during World War I (a dough boy), married a woman significantly younger and was, by all accounts, a wealthy man.  He was religiously observant, yet seems also to have been a bit of a tough guy, as well.   He had three daughters whom he adored and who adored him.  But, beyond that, I know very little.  Why did he leave Budapest?  What happened to the rest of his family?  My aunt visited in Hungary a few years back and did some research into the family.  She gave me some good leads, but I have much research still left.  Hopefully, in future years, as I continue in this program, I will find out more information.  And so, standing on the bimah, it became a very emotional moment for me.  Perhaps this is the exact synagogue that my grandfather celebrated his bar mitzvah?  Perhaps he chanted the very same haftarah?  I suspect he was more traditional, so he did not attend this synagogue, but, still, it is a possibility.  My pleasant thoughts were interrupted as I looked at the rabbi….he was looking at his watch!  I had been told by Alan that the service was very quick and I needed to speed it up….not a bad idea as the Kiddush was terrific….cholent (including vegetarian)!

A little bit more about the service.  There is an organ and a five man choir.  There was a terrific cantor, and I had opportunity to speak with him during Kiddush..  During the week he works for IBM.  I shared with him that I appreciated hazanut and even dabbled in hazanut  and we discussed some of the great ones (frequently of Hungarian background).  I promised him that I would send him some arrangements.  Many of his tunes were similar to those done in other synagogues, but he slowed down the tempos in a way that led me to believe that these tempos were how the pieces were originally written.  How sad that we often take these wonderful melodies and turn them into something more closely resembling a Prussian march!  I was particularly taken by his rendition of L’or V’dor….the organ, the choir and his deep voice were overpowering,  and I was essentially moved to tears as he sang out “From generation to generation”…how appropriate that I should do so for these most appropriate words, as I was experiencing my own “Dor L’dor” – “from generation to generation.”

In the late afternnon we did a walking tour of the Jewish ghetto.  The guide was spectacular….funny and very informative.  She made references to movies and books on subjects relating to the ghetto and Hungarian Jewry, in general, and I will email her to get a complete list.   The tour passed by a monument sponsored by the government and dedicated to the “Victims of Nazi Persecution.”  It is adorned with an eagle and a statue of the angel Michael.  This monument is most known for the protests waged against it.  Many of the locals are well aware that, far from being victims, many of the Hungarians were, in fact, collaborators.  As such, every day there is a protest in front of the statue, and people put up signs and pictures reminding people of this shameful history.  One sign in particular moved me.  It was handwritten and said, simply:   “My mother died in Auschwitz.  Where were you Archangel Michael?”

Our tour ended at the Danube where we had Havdalah in front of the “shoes”….this is a permanent display of bronze shoes on the banks of the river, in memory of those thrown into the Danube by the Hungarian collaborators.  (I should add here a fact:  Eichman was charged with liquidating the Jews of Hungary.  He had with him only 200 german SS!  Mostly, the deeds were done by the Nazi collaborators.)  Before saying Havdalah we also sang Hannah Senesh’s poem set to music, “Eili, Eili”.  The whole service was a very appropriate way to end our tour and our last activity in Hungary.  After Havdalah I threw the remaining wine into the Danube.  It trickled down in a bright red color as it fell into the water.  It looked to me like blood….i was spoofed.  I also remembered my aunt telling me a story of some relative who was thrown into the river but managed to get away because she was a strong swimmer.  I will need to check with her upon my return.

Finally, a boatride down the Danube, passing the bridges and seeing anew all the sides on both sides of the river.  There were  earphones to listen to explanations and it was interesting that it was different in Hebrew and in English.  The Hebrew version mentioned the shoe display;  it also mentioned that the nobel prize winners of Hungary were jewish.  It also mentioned that Elizabeth Talyor stayed in one of the hotels, identifying her first as Jewish!  None of this was found in the English explanation.  Nothing sinister, I am sure, but I found it amusing.   When the explanations were not playing, the waltzes  of Richard Strauss were heard, including the Blue Danube (which I used to play on the piano and have surely danced on different occasions).   Classical music is very much a part of the history of this city (including Bartok) and  something else to investigate next time I am here.

I want to conclude with many thank yous.  First, to Roz Landy, Mitch Malkus and whoever else might have been involved in allowing us to attend this amazing program and for their support and encouragement.  I’m just sorry that Roz wasn’t able to join us, as I understand she at one point had considered this.  Second, to Alan and Glynis for organizing what has truly been, for me, a life changing event.  They are great organizers, of course, but they are also sincere and caring and fun people to be with.  Third, to my new friends at the Lauder school, both students and teachers and, in particular, my counterpart, Gabor.  I’m looking forward to being with them again next year and also to their visit to our school.  Finally, to those with whom I participated in the trip.  Yaffa Malashock from the Kushner school in New Jersey, who, ironically,I knew before any else in the group, as Yaffa was a teacher at JDS over 20 years ago.   I have kept in touch with Yaffa through the years and I consider her among my closest friends.   And, from JDS, my colleagues and now also my closest friends (whether they want it or not): Natalie, Rachel, Tori, Daniella, and Ben.  We had so much fun this week.  I am so fortunate to have been able to share this experience with you.  Let’s keep in touch (in other words, see you 7:45 Monday morning!).

Day 5

Friday was an abbreviated day, although still very full.  I taught four classes during the morning and will genuinely miss the opportunities I had to study with the Lauder students.  Afterwards we met with the Israeli Ambassador.  He was a career diplomat who has held many positions, including an attache in Washington. Compared to the American ambassador, who was a political appointee, and who I have written about early, it is now clear to me why many prefer career diplomats and not the political appointments.  Enough said.  He was very articulate and wearing what was a very tailored and expensive suit.  Every answer he gave was substantive and well thought out.   Like the American ambassador he also gave his assessment of the American election, but his analysis was much more sophisticated and respectful towards the will of the American voter.   It was also interesting how he clearly saw himself first as a representative of the State of Israel, but also saw his role as being an emissary for the Jewish community.  He remarked, for example, that in the four weeks he had held the position of Ambassador, he had been to synagogue in Hungary more times than he had been to synagogue his entire life in Israel!

In the evening, we ate dinner at the Moishe house, where young Jewish people(many times those who recently discovered they were Jewish) can live, being obligated to attend and plan five different jewish activities every month.  I think, although I am not certain, that it is sponsored by Chabad and I am told that there is also a Moishe house in Washington, DC.  Very interesting dinner as we heard stories of the Jewish journeys of these young people.  One story in particular struck me, as it was also, for me, a lesson in conflicting narratives.  According to this young girl, her great grandfather (or perhaps great great grandfather) witnessed the Dreyfus Affair while he was living in France.  His reaction was to convert to Catholicism!   Very different than the narrative I was taught about Herzl, whose reaction to the Holocaust was to recognize that assimilation was not the solution but, rather, the establishment of political Zionism and the establishment of a State for the Jews.  But, if we were to continue the narratives, we would see that this girl became (or is in the process of becoming) a committed Jewish person and, to the best of my knowledge, Herzl’s own son converted to Catholicism (before committing suicide) and I believe that Herzl does not have any descendants that remained Jewish.  (I may need to investigate this further).  What would I have done if I witnessed the Dreyfuss Trial?

While the others were telling their Jewish journeys, Tori, Yafa and Rachel shared theirs, as well.  Very different stories, to be sure: Tori, who does not identify as Jewish, yet has strong ties to Judaism, Yaffa, born in Lebanon, moving to Israel in a very dramatic way and now living in the United States, and Rachel, a descendant of Hungarian immigrants who settled in Western Pennsylvania, she, herself growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with a small Jewish community.  One of the themes of the week, however, is that Jewish is not a one size fits all definition.  For sure, in Hungary, the definition of who is a Jew is extremely vague and indeterminate.   But, even in America, we face some of the same challenges, sometimes perhaps a problem, but certainly also an opportunity that can make us richer.   In order to demonstrate this diversity, I taught the group a song with the simple words  (in Hebrew) “A song for the Sabbath day”  – mizmor shir l’yom hashabbat.   But, while we were singing, I asked people to clap their hands or banh on the table to their own beat…an attempt to show how the idea of Shabbat is entrenched in a Jewish definition, but the way in which it is expressed is dependent upon the person and their own individual Jewish journey.

The dinner ended with singing Hinei Mah Tov. I knew it was an appropriate song given the discussions of the evening, but I appreciated that Yaffa, at the end of the song, was able to express in words the significance of the song.  Shevet Achim Gam Yachad  – “How good that brothers dwell together”.

Day 4

As I am writing this a few days after the events, it is difficult to keep track of all that we have done.  We visited at the Scheiber School, which is the other large Jewish Day School in Budapest.  Radically different that the Lauder School.  Even upon entering one is aware of the more pronounced emphasis on Jewish observance.   There were signs announcing times for Tefillot, all males were wearing kippot, there was jewish art celebrating the holidays.  However, despite this appeal, I still very much preferred the Lauder School.  Beginning with the physical plant, the Lauder School is a much newer building with vibrant colors and interesting design.  In fact, seen from above it is in the shape of a jewish star.  The students seem much more eclectic and perhaps more similar to our JDS students.  Finally, there is a relaxed attitude at the Lauder school that is missing from the Scheiber school.  When I entered the classroom at Scheiber, the students all stood up!  I was in such disbelief that I left the room and then entered again…and then left and entered….and then left and entered….by the 4th time they stopped standing up.  In terms of study, I felt that the students at Lauder were more attentive although, to be fair, we did teach at Scheiber at the very end of the day.

A word about what I have been teaching.  I prepared a few different lessons but, because there were no repeat classes, I essentially repeated the same lesson each time.  It was a class on triage, saving one life over another (I have mentioned this in a past blog).   What was interesting to me was that all the time I was teaching I questioned whether it would be wise to bring up triage issues from the holocaust.  There is, for example, a famous responsa by Rav Oshry about giving out a limited number of visas when everyone was demanding a visa and a way to leave the country.  I was worried, however, about how this would be received by the students, some of whom may have had relatives who were either the recipients of such visas or, perhaps even among those who did not receive a visa.   I thought specifically about the Kastner affair, which I had been taught visas were selectively given to family members of Kastner to the exclusion of others and how this became more known during the Eichmann trial.  Ultimately I did bring up some other holocaust situations, but left out the Kastner affair.  Interestingly, however, during a walking tour of the ghetto on our last day, the guide spoke about Kastner and presented a very different picture, even seeing him as a sympathetic leader.  Fascinating to think how events in history can be understood in such different ways.  I am looking forward to doing more research on this topic….by the way, this same guide told me that there is an historian from Rockville who wrote a book on this exact topic.

Dinner featured an appearance by the rebbetzin of the Frankl synagogue.  She was also very involved in the summer camp and told us a rather horrifying story.  A child was sent to the camp by his parents, but only days after being told that he was Jewish for the first time!   In order to educate the child about what it meant to be a Jew, they decided to show him the movie Schindler’s List.  The child arrived in camp with his suitcase in hand and then disappeared.  He was finally found trying to climb over the fence and leave the camp.  Evidently he did not understand that this was a summer camp and not a concentration camp, as was depicted in the movie.  As I am writing this I realize that the story could be seen as comical….however, knowing now what we know about member of the jewish community, and the difficulties in connecting and understanding their identities, none of us around the table laughed.  It was, in fact, a tragic story.

Day 3

Another extraordinary day.   In the morning I joined a 7th grade English class where the students had opportunity to ask me questions.  Afterwards I got to ask them questions.  Because it was a 7th grade class I inquired how many of them had Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.  It was clearly the minority of students who raised their hands.  Two of the girls, however, shared how they had their Bat Mitzvahs at the Szarvas Summer Camp.  These same girls also told me that they were involved in BBYO!  I do think there is a lesson to be learned from the enthusiasm of these girls and that is the importance of informal Jewish education for Jewish identity.  The school undoubtedly fosters Jewish learning but it experiences such as camp or youth group that may best give the students a positive Jewish identity.  Of course this is the same debate which takes place in our own community, particularly for families that feel a need to choose between these two alternatives.

I had a meeting with the headmaster today.  He had found out about my excitement in finding an old book in the school library and he wanted to show me some of his collection.   After the meeting I realized that my excitement over a 300 year old book is far greater than it would be for a Hungarian.  We, with our 200 year old history, measure time quite differently.  300 years is ancient, ancient history.   In Hungary it is simply old.  As a gift, the headmaster gave me a 200 year old Machzor for Shavuot (published by the Landau publishing company of Prague).

After teaching we went to the Dohany Synagogue.  I had been there before, but this time got to see it with a new appreciation.  The guide pointed out the “church like” design of the synagogue, including the organ.  I am not sure I would agree, as I don’t think a single religion can lay claim to a particular architectural style.  Simply stated, Jews were a part of the society under the Habsburgs, and this was reflected in all aspects of thir lives, including their religious expression.  It is not a Jewish versus Christian distinction.  In addition,  as we all know, the Temple itself had instruments so an organ should not be considered so novel.

I did, however, ask the guide to clarify that on Shabbat the organ is played by a non-Jew.  By the way, I will be having an Aliyah to the Torah at the same synagogue on Saturday.  Very excited about that.  Perhaps this was the same synagogue in which my grandfather had his Bar Mitvah and was called to the Torah?  Probably not, as they were a more traditional family….

In the evening Ben and I went to one of the spas.  Lots of fun.   But COLD when getting out of the water!

Day 2

Today was another spectacular day.  I had opportunity today to explore the library at the school.  I was interested in seeing their Judaic collection and, in particular, the Jewish text section.  There were, to be sure, many editions of the bible, but few rabbinic sources.  There were also some books missing, as, for example, a full set of Soncino Talmuds.  Furthermore, the collection was not in a very visible part of the library.  On a personal note, I strongly feel that the Judaic collection of a Jewish day school should be among the most pronounced part of the building.   Certainly this was considered when the JDS upper school campus was planned.  I spoke to Gabor about this and he suggested that it was not a priority, as these books would not be used by the students to any great extent.  Regardless, I still feel that these books should be on display.  How can the students be expected to know what the Talmud is (which they did not know in my classes) if they had never seen a Talmud?  Undoubtedly a well displayed copy of the Talmud would peek their interest.   In addition, the library also had some old books, including a 300 year old copy of the Ravad’s commentary on the Talmud.  Unfortunately, it was on a bookshelf in the back of the library, not protected in any way and simply collecting dust.  Certainly a book worth displaying and probably also worth quite a bit of money.

During our interview for this program we were asked to think about a project we could participate in.  I would like, perhaps, to do something with the library at the school.  We are getting rid of many books at the our JDS library as we continue to digitalize.  Perhaps we can share some of our collection with the school?  In addition, I would love to help the display more prominently their current collection.  Once this is done I can share more readily with the students the significance of these books.  Finally, I would want to go through their rare books and see what other gems they have.

The highlight of the day, however, was meeting the head of the JCC.   A very dynamic woman and I appreciated her answers to our questions.  I asked her about the tendency I have found for people to find equivalency between the period of the Nazis and that of Communism and how they impacted upon the Jewish community.   Although I personally find no equivalency, of course I did not live through either so I have little to base my opinion upon.  She, on the other hand, while giving credit to the Soviets as liberators and protectors of rights, gave a thoughtful answer that explained the impact of both time periods and their effects on the Jewish community, both leading to its weakening.   Gave me much to think about as we continue our journey…..

Day 1

What a wonderful day!  Alan and Glynis have organized a marvelous trip.  Some thoughts on the day:

  • Met with the American Ambassador.  I was able to ask a question about road safety (as I promised to Rochelle Sobel).  I was pleased that she began her response by confirming that road crashes are the number one killer of Americans traveling abroad.
  • I was somewhat disappointed by one of the answers given by the Ambassador.  Commenting on the elections, she shared her opinion that Hillary Clinton lost because she did so well in the early voting that the average voter didn’t show up on election day to support her.  Where she got this information I am not sure but, in any event, it totally discounted the importance of the Donald Trump vote and how, perhaps, it represents a broad segment of the United States public.  To ignore this population is, in my opinion, a bit chauvinistic (perhaps too harsh a word) and discounts one of the important lessons of the election….we are, in fact, a divided nation that needs to recognize what is important to each other.
  • The teaching went very well.  I did a lesson on triage.   I started by talking about my grandfather who, appropriately, was a soldier during WWI in the Austrio-Hungarian army.   As a child, he told me stories of his job in the army.  After the battles, he would go into the fields and have to collect the bodies….the dead bodies for burial and those still alive to be given medical attention.  Concerning the last group, he had to make a triage decision.  Who should he bring back and in what order?  Essentially he divided these soldiers into three groups:  1) those so severely injured they would dies in any event;   2) those who were lightly injured and could wait for treatment;  3) those with serious injury that would dies without treatment but would likely be saved by medical attention.  This latter group was the one he concentrated on.  Concerning my lesson, it was a good introduction and a way to share my common history.   Who would have thought that the nightmares I had as a kid because of my zeyde’s stories would one day be used in a positive way!
  • My counterpart, Gabor, is truly my double!  We seem to share the same educational philosophy, political perspective and more.   We have had similar experiences and education, as well.  I look forward to developing a strong friendship with him and working close together on this program.
  • I am not going to lose any weight on this program!  The food is plentiful and good.  Lunch at the school was particularly tasty and rather tasty.
  • The school is very impressive.  The architecture of the physical facility is exquisite and conducive to learning.
  • The afternoon tour was very interesting and we had a great guide.
  • In total, a great day and a wonderful start to what I am sure will be a highlight of my life, as promised by Alan (truly!)

 

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