Tag Archives: History

Revolutionary American Jews

By Adina Rosenthal

“You’re Jewish, so do you celebrate Independence Day?” When you live in a small town with a small Jewish population, such a question is commonplace. Though the reply may be polite (with an inconspicuous jaw-drop, of course), I really want to scream, “Jews enjoy fireworks, barbecues and a day-off from work like everyone else! We’re Americans too, after all!”  Why do people think American Jews don’t celebrate holidays that commemorate American history with dear old Uncle Sam?

Perhaps the reason is that when people look back on this country’s founding, they think of names like John, Thomas and James; not Moishe, Dovid, and Shlomo. Jews are thought of as immigrants who came to the United States about 100 years ago with strong ties to Eastern Europe and, eventually, Israel, so what part could they possibly have played back in 1776?  As it turns out, Jews were in the thick of the American Revolution.

Of the 2.5 million colonists in 1776, the Jewish population in America numbered no more than 2,000. These Jews were mostly Sephardic, of Spanish and Portuguese origin, emigrating from South America, the Caribbean and Western Europe to the American colonies. Despite such small numbers, Jews played an active role in the American cause on a variety of fronts. Financially, Jews like Jonas Philips, who had business connections to their coreligionists in the West Indies, became blockade-runners, jeopardizing their ships to bring goods through the British blockade on American ports.

Among investors, Polish-born Jewish immigrant Haym Solomon, played a significant role in financing the revolution. After being arrested as a spy by the British in 1776, Solomon was pardoned and served as an interpreter for the Hessians (German troops hired to fight for the British). In this role, Solomon helped prisoners escape and encouraged the Hessian mercenaries to desert, resulting in another arrest and a death sentence. Fortunately, Solomon managed to escape to the patriot capital, Philadelphia, where he used his financial acumen to support the rebels, lending thousands of dollars to the Continental Congress and advancing the American government $200,000 during the war effort. Solomon also supported his fellow Jews, becoming an influential member of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel Congregation and advocating to repeal the restrictive laws that barred non-Christians from serving in public office. In 1975, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Solomon as a “Financial Hero…responsible for raising most of the money needed to finance the American Revolution and later to save the new nation from collapse.”

Jews also served bravely on the battlefield side-by-side with their non-Jewish compatriots. Examples include Lieutenant Colonel David S. Franks, an adjutant to Benedict Arnold; Dr. Philip Moses Russell, George Washington’s surgeon; and Colonel Solomon Bush, adjutant general of the Pennsylvania militia. In Charleston, South Carolina, location of the largest American Jewish population until 1830, most Jews served on the American side of the conflict, with one regiment comprising so many Jews that it became known as the “Jew Company.” One important Jewish South Carolinian, Francis Salvador, championed the American cause as a member of the South Carolina General Assembly, the first Jew to hold the office in any of the American colonies. Salvador served as a delegate to the revolutionary Provincial Congress, which set forth the colonists’ complaints against Britain, as well as on a commission that attempted to convince the Loyalists throughout the colony to join the American cause. Unfortunately, Salvador could not see his efforts come to fruition, as he died in combat in 1776, becoming the first Jewish casualty of the war. In 1950, to celebrate the bicentennial of Charleston’s Jewish community, the City of Charleston erected a plaque in commemoration of Salvador that reads:

Born an aristocrat, he became a democrat, an Englishman, he cast his lot with America.
True to his ancient faith, he gave his life for new hopes of human liberty and understanding.

Jewish participation in the American cause did not go unnoticed in revolutionary times either. In response to a letter from Moses Seixas, warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington wrote:

May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

This letter not only set the standard for religious freedom in the fledgling nation, but also solidified Jews as citizens in the newly created United States of America.

So, on Independence Day, I will raise my Hebrew National hotdog in the air to commemorate the Jewish patriots who served this country in the American Revolution, who fought for our freedoms and our livelihoods, which include allowing us to live as both proud Jews and Americans.  No questions asked.

The Lost Diary of Margot Frank

By Kayla Green

Every day, countless tourists flock to the Anne Frank House to visit the hiding place of young Anne, her family and acquaintances. The widespread popularity of her diary, which is one of the world’s most widely read books and the basis for several plays and films, has made Anne Frank one of the most well-known Jewish victims of the Holocaust. While the Diary of Anne Frank is an undeniable historical gem, as well as an extraordinary source of first hand emotion, one story remains relatively overlooked: that of her sister Margot, The Other Frank. Though a temporary exhibit running at the Anne Frank House is dedicated to shining some light on Margot, its title, “Anne’s Sister,” still casts her as a secondary character.

Notwithstanding, Margot is referenced many times in the diary. Through Anne’s narrative, one is able to get a general sense of Margot’s personality, background, and living conditions. We learn that Margot spoke Dutch, made friends and continued to do her Latin homework, even when in hiding. We know that she was born in 1926 and aspired to be a maternity nurse in Palestine. She played sports such as tennis and skating and participated in rowing races until 1941, when she was forced to leave the rowing club because she was Jewish. Along with the rest of the family, Margot spent the months between July 1942 and August 1944 hiding in the secret annex. In March, 1945, she died in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, just weeks before its liberation.

Of, course, her sister’s diary cannot provide a very profound and sensitive understanding of Margot’s thoughts and emotions. Margot also kept a diary, however, unlike her sister’s, it was never found. The world will never know what kind of effect her words might have had.  The girls’ father, Otto Franks, the sole survivor of the family, expressed his astonishment that Anne’s diary that became renowned; the depth Anne displayed in her diary was a quality he usually attributed to Margot.

The exhibit also includes insight from Margot’s best friend who resents the lack of attention paid to Margot’s story. “After the war Otto Frank was so busy with Anne Frank’s diary. He was very impressed with what readers of the diary had written to him. I told him then. ‘I think it’s wonderful what you are doing for Anne, but I think it’s a pity that nothing is mentioned anymore about Margot. She is also worthy of being mentioned.’”

One of the many reasons The Diary of Anne Frank is so popular is that readers can relate to it.  The personal journey of a young girl allows readers to empathize with Anne, reminding them that every Holocaust victim was a real person, just like them. Furthermore, the relatable nature of the book allows Anne to speak for countless young victims whose words were lost and voices were silenced.  It is all too easy to forget that Margot Frank was among those silenced voices.

Jewish History in China Boosting Sino-Israeli Relations

by Amanda Walgrove

Chinese and Jewish cultures are among the oldest remaining civilizations in the world. Besides the spiritual divide, both cultures highly value family life and educational pursuits, and although both have absorbed various other cultures, their central foundations remain strong. As developments in the Middle East have begun to change the landscape of Israel’s international relationships, China has become a central player for it. While China’s attitude towards Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons are worrisome, efforts are still being made to boost tourism, trade, and communicative cooperation between Israel and China. Most recently, on March 2, visiting Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming met with Israeli President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu with intentions of enhancing economic cooperation between the two countries. Although Sino-Israeli relations were first officially established as late as 1992, China’s history with people of the Jewish faith dates back to the eighth century.

Dr. Pan Guang, Director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies Center and Dean of the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai, has developed a recent project, Jews in China: Legends, History, and New Perspectives, which outlines the history of Jewish and Chinese relations, beginning with the four waves of Jewish immigration to China. As early as the eighth century, Jews from the Middle East traveled over the Silk Road to Kaifeng and formed a Kaifeng Jewish Community during the Song Dynasty. Many became government officials, doctors, clergymen, and businessmen. They assimilated into Chinese culture, learned the language, and began to intermarry.

While in China, Jews established a Chinese style synagogue in Kaifeng, influenced by Confucianism but modeled after Jerusalem synagogues. Jews had their own clubs, hospitals, cemeteries, and volunteer corps. Russian Jews had a fur bank in Shanghai, and opened the “Siberian Fur Store.” They founded over fifty newspapers that ran in over eight languages, such as the Israel Messenger (founded in 1904) and the Gelbe Post. The Kadoorie family opened a school for refugee children, free of charge, where many first learned to speak English. Mordechai Olmert, father of the former prime minister of Israel, grew up in Harbin. Most notoriously, China opened its doors to over 30,000 of refugees fleeing from the German occupation after 1938.

Not only did Chinese and Jewish cultures share certain core values, but they were also both subject to political persecution. After thousands of Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai between 1937 and 1941, millions of Shanghai residents themselves became refugees after the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Nearly 35 million Chinese were killed and wounded by the Japanese fascists during wartime. Chinese were sympathetic towards anti-Semitic suffering. In his lecture, Guang noted that while prejudice may be imported, there has never been any native anti-Semitism on China’s soil. At the core, Chinese are influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, but they remain accepting of other spiritual aspirations. On a stone monument erected in 1489, Kaifeng Jews wrote: “Our religion and Confucianism differ only in minor details. In mind and deed both respect Heaven’s Way, venerate ancestors, are loyal to sovereigns and ministers, and filial to parents. Both call for harmony with wives and children, respect for rank, and for making friends.” In turn, Jews in China supported the Chinese national-democratic movement against Japanese aggression and many began working with the Chinese Underground. Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen famously acted as aide-de camp to Dr. Sun Yat-sen and rose to be a general in the Chinese Army.

Considering themselves, “old China hands,” Chinese Jews now live throughout the world and often return to their Chinese roots to visit old friends. Many have invested in business enterprises and taken advantage of their former home’s new upsurge of development. The commercially successful Shanghai Diamond Exchange Center, for example, was the brainchild of refugee, Shaul Eisenberg. But how do these amiable cultural assimilations tie in with current relations with Israel? Representative of the Schusterman Foundation and Project Interchange believe that by establishing and expanding Israel-related scholarship in China will create opportunities for deepened cultural ties and mutual appreciation between the Chinese and Jewish people, as well as an enhanced relationship between China and Israel. YNetNews.com writes, “Despite interest in Jewish culture, Middle East policy and even Hebrew language, few Chinese scholars have ever traveled to Israel, and Israel is rarely…the explicit subject of scholarly research.”

Today, Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, contains only 5,000 to 6,000 Jews (Guang argues that newspapers underreport the number at 3,000, excluding those that do not attend synagogue). While many Jews were pressured to leave China during the Cultural Revolution, the impact shared between the two communities stands strong today. Culturally, Jews in China became an academic hot topic during the 1980s and 1990s and subsequently extended to mass media. There is a wealth of Jewish how-to literature as well as a fascination with the Jewish mystique. Some Kaifeng Jews still follow dietary laws that resemble kashrut. Jordan Maseng, a native New Yorker working in China, recently opened up his own bagel shop in Beijing. Guang noted that there are over forty documentaries about Jewish relations in China but a narrative film has yet to be made. With a mixture of jest and sincerity, Guang admitted that he has many ideas but none of them seem good enough, rather adding the assertion, “We want a movie like Schindler’s List.”  Until that happens, Chinese Jews will continue to slowly contribute to the culture, while the rest of the Jewish population indulges in Chinese food.

Keeping Up With the Times: Digitizing Holocaust Archives

By Amanda Walgrove

The rapid growth of technology, characteristic of the twenty-first century, has altered methods of human relation. Communicating through Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and email correspondence can make interpersonal connections seem trivial and dispassionate, but technological advancements can also produce meaningful intimacy. For example, we can video chat with estranged loved ones on the iPhone and reconnect with old friends through social media networks. The resources of cyberspace not only affect how we communicate, but also how we access, preserve, and retain information.

On the eve of International Holocaust Day, Yad Vashem announced that the world’s largest collection of Holocaust archives would be incorporated into Google’s overwhelmingly vast pool of virtual documents. Yad Vashem began digitizing their collection in the 1990′s but collaboration with Google is a vast leap for any remote assemblage of archives. What was once only accessible to those who visited the museum on a hilltop in Jerusalem is now available at the fingertips of anyone with Internet access. Now 130,000 photographs from the Holocaust archives can be sifted through with the aid of the world’s largest search engine.  Adding to the ease of the search process, the photographs have been scanned using optical character recognition. This means that during a search a photograph can be identified using any text in the picture, even if it is inscribed or written in another language. After locating an image on Google, the picture will then link to Yad Vashem’s website where users are encouraged to add their own text in the “Share Your Thoughts” section. To allow for immediate circulation, there are options to link the page to Facebook, Twitter, and Google Buzz. Family history can be published and distributed in cyber space instantaneously, but this isn’t the first time Google has teamed up with Yad Vashem for these purposes. Due to their first cyber collaboration in 2009, Holocaust survivors were able to post testimonials on their own YouTube Channel. Still, this recent project marks only a stepping-stone in Google’s plans to annex Yad Vashem’s collection of millions of documents, survivor testimonials, diaries, letters and manuscripts.

For Google employee, Doron Avni, this technological merger meant a chance to search for an image of his grandfather with the click of a button. Avni is a policy manager at Google’s research and development center in Israel and once the project was finished, he immediately took advantage of the opportunity. A recent New York Times article featured his search as a prime example of how history can be unearthed from Yad Vashem’s recent circulation project. Avni’s grandfather, Yecheskel Fleischer, was taken in 1941 after he was released from a Nazi-run prison in Lithuania. After locating the photograph of his twenty-seven year old grandfather, Avni was then able to type in the details of his family’s story.

While historical and familial bridges may be gapped, there are always risk factors that accompany the widespread digital circulation of vital information. John Palfrey, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, said that there are concerns about “the central role a company is playing in the preservation of the world’s cultural information.” Although these photographs are not physically tangible in cyberspace, the opportunity for a broad audience to access these documents will have a profound educational impact as well as a sentimental one. “What my grandfather wanted was for the next generation to know about the Holocaust,” Mr. Avni said. “He would have been inspired by this, to know his message is now being communicated to so many people around the world.” The easiest way to access the next generation is through the twenty-first century’s social, educational, and political playground: the World Wide Web. Google’s gradual acquisition of Yad Vashem’s primary sources will enhance the way in which the memory of the Holocaust can be shared and passed on by those who survived and those who left documents behind.

The Golem in the Attic

By Kayla Green

Tucked away in the snowy cobblestone streets of Prague’s Jewish Quarter stands a synagogue that is as old and significant as it is beautiful. With its high, pointed brown roof and few windows, the Old-New Synagogue  maintains old-world style without revealing its true age; built between 1270 and 1280, it is the oldest synagogue still in use in Prague. It defined the Jewish Ghetto, survived the Pogroms and the Holocaust and continues being used today. Embedded in the Shul’s ancient walls lies the history of Prague’s Jews, making it a riveting symbol of the community’s remarkable past.

From the beginning, the Old-New Synagogue reflected the troubles of the Jewish community in Prague; hardships and anti-Semitism hindered the process of building the synagogue in ways still visible in its physical structure.  Because it was illegal for Jews to hold jobs when the synagogue was built in the 13th century, they had to employ Christians to build their house of worship. As a result, the synagogue’s Gothic style included vaulted ceilings whose beams intersect in “cruciform” (the form of the cross). The Synagogue added an additional beam so the intersecting lines would form something that resembled an asterisk rather that a cross, exemplifying Jewish techniques for complying with the law while remaining true to their Jewish identity.

Between the 15th and 16th centuries, the Old-New Synagogue experienced more changes, but this time it was from the community itself rather than from outside. Jewish women, who at the time were not allowed in the all-male congregation, demanded a space to accommodate them for prayer. Architecturally, it would have been impossible to add a balcony or another floor, so an oblong room was built alongside the Synagogue in which the women could watch the sermons through a window. Unfortunately, the delicate Gothic structure would not permit windows large enough for all patrons to get a complete view, so the “windows” more closely resemble holes, about one foot tall and two feel wide, placed at eye-level. To this day, women who attend service at the Old-New Synagogue can be found, faces pressed against the window, prayer book clutched in hand, straining to hear the words of the Rabbi. The dedication of these women, who strictly believe and observe words they strain to hear, provides a fascinating insight to the history of the Jewish women’s movement, demonstrating how the Jewish people have adapted to new ideas, accommodating change yet stay true to their beliefs.

In the main room, what appears to be a heavily vaulted chest conceals the true treasures of the synagogue and represents yet another example of the challenges of Prague’s Jewish community. This chest is in fact a locked closet that was created to hide Torah scrolls during Pogroms, a constant reminder of the history of persecution.

While the architecture, closet and women’s gallery are all essential to the preservation and adaptation of Prague’s Jewish community, they are not the only protectors of the Jewish people present in Old-New Synagogue; the building was also said to be the home to the mythical Golem, an animated being in Jewish folklore.   Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, the chief Rabbi of Prague in the late 16th century was said to have created a Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks. The legend adds a mythical layer to the already complex and awe-inspiring Synagogue. Though the Golem is rumored to have been driven out of the Shul’s attic during the reconstructions, it is certain that even without it’s mythical protector, the Old-New Synagogue will continue thriving and prospering, much like the community it represents.

Jewish Ghosts of Budapest

By Merav Levkowitz

On the last evening of 2010, a Friday, about 35-40 (mostly) young adults, gathered in a non-descript apartment in the center of Budapest’s—actually on the Pest side of the Danube river—Jewish quarter. This is Budapest’s branch of Moishe House, an organization that maintains 33 houses around the world in which young Jews can gather for Shabbat, holidays, and activities. I spent the last Shabbat of the year at Budapest’s Moishe House, which had become my brother’s Jewish community during his semester abroad.

Hungary’s Jewish community has a unique, but tumultuous history. Jews have resided in the Austro-Hungarian empire and in Buda, Obuda, and Pest—the three towns that came together as Hungary’s capital, Budapest, in 1873—since medieval times. As in other European countries, Jews in the region experienced waves of safety and success interspersed with those of discrimination and expulsion. Following the Ottoman conquest of Buda, Jews were dispersed throughout central Hungary and the Balkans, where they lived in relative calm until the Habsburgs, the ruling royal family, imposed new restrictions during their late 17th century reign. In December 1867 Jews were granted full emancipation, and the period that followed was one of prosperity and assimilation of the Jewish community into Hungary. During this time, Hungary’s unique Neolog Jewish movement, which seeks middle-ground religiosity and is most like the American Conservative movement, gained popularity. The movement’s majestic and regal synagogue, the Dohany Street Great Synagogue—the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world—hosted major community events and still serves as the emblem and gatekeeper to the city’s famous Jewish quarter behind it.

Today Hungary is home to an estimated 100,000 Jews, one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, and Budapest houses over twenty synagogues and a hip, vibrant Jewish quarter that is familiar to all who live in the city and is actively advertised as a “Must See” in all travel guides. Yet, it also seems hidden and cloaked in mystery. Many of the Jews we met did not even know they were Jewish for most of their lives.

Both World War II and the subsequent communism eroded the Hungarian Jewish community and identity. While the discourse has long held that Hungarian Jews perished at the hands of the occupying Nazi German forces, the relatively new Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest ascribes distinct responsibility to the Hungarian state, arguing that beginning in 1938 the state undertook a process by which it deprived Jews and Roma, in particular, of their “rights, property, freedom, human dignity, and in the end, their very existence.” Budapest’s Jews were confined to the tragic conditions of the Jewish ghetto until their deportation was carried out. Indeed, the deportation of Hungarian Jews was the fastest and most extensive—437,402 Jews from Hungary deported within 56 days—and one-tenth of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims were Hungarian.

After the Holocaust’s devastation, the subsequent communist regime turned the remaining Hungarian Jews away from the religion. Many Jewish families were active communists, but even those that were not kept Judaism under wraps. One family friend, now in her late 50s, told us that as a child, most of the families she knew, including her own, were atheists. Once she learned, as an adult, that her family was Jewish, she discovered that all her atheist childhood friends were also, in fact, originally Jewish. Another adult friend shared that as a child he had been told that his grandmother lived in England. He was surprised, when she came to visit, that she did not speak any English and was told that she lived in an area of England that was predominantly Hungarian. As an adult, he, too, learned that he was Jewish and that his grandmother had, in fact, been living in Tel Aviv. Hungarian Jews of all ages shared similar stories.
Today, Budapest’s Jews seem caught in a tug-of-war. On one hand, Jewish life and culture seems active, alive, and on the rise, especially among young adults. On the other hand, however, many Hungarians expressed fear about the current government, which has censored the press and includes a faction of members of the nationalist, anti-Semitic, far-right party Jobbik. Many Hungarian Jews I met espoused concern for a future and a desire to make aliyah, especially if the political climate continues as is. Indeed, even as I, a tourist, roamed the colorful and vibrant Jewish neighborhood and visited the impressive—but empty—Holocaust Memorial Center, I could not help but feel that the residual fears of the Holocaust and communism had settled over the city and that the Jewish community was, in fact, one of ghosts.

A Tale of Two New Years

By Gabriel Weinstein

Optimism and excitement for the new year still permeate the crisp winter air as in the second week of 2011. Lofty New Years vows to cut down on late night snacks or quit watching reality TV shows are still manageable goals and not forgotten ideals.

Only four months ago the same unencumbered joy and boundless passion sprung forth from synagogues and family dinners during Rosh Hashanah. We penned our New Years resolutions during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah and wished “L’Shanah Tovah.” Despite the overlap between Rosh Hashanah and New Years, a majority of Jews propose midnight toasts New Years Eve and watch the ball drop. But for hundreds of years Jews anxiously awaited midnight as gentile peers rang in the New Year by unleashing waves of violence on January 1.

In much of the European world, New Years Eve is called “Sylvester” in honor of Pope Saint Sylvester. Saint Sylvester was an integral figure in passing anti-Semitic legislation at the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.) and prohibiting Jews from living in Jeruslaem (a fact lost on the many Israelis, who brought the terms over from Europe).

The New Years holiday regained prominence in the late 1500’s when Pope Greogry XIII designated January 1 as a day for Catholics to antagonize their Jewish peers. Gregory picked January 1 because it is believed to be the date of Jesus’s circumcision. On New Years Day 1577, 1578 and 1581 Gregory decreed policies forcing Jews to listen to Catholic conversion sermons after Kabbalat Shabbat services, pay taxes to support a “House of Conversion” for Jewish citizens and had troops seize Jewish literature in Rome.

Before New Years Eve and Day were marred by violent anti-Semitic outbreaks Jews still did not fully embrace the holiday. During the days of Roman Empire New Years Eve was known as the Kalendae Januariae festival.  Talmudic Rabbis had a litany of reasons for opposing the holiday. Their hate for the holiday  stemmed from beliefs the holiday was a diluted version of a Biblical New Years Celebration,  imbued with Roman mythology and venerated “The Kingdom of Wickedness”-Rome. In the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 1:3) the Rabbis forbid Jews from engaging in business with gentiles during the holiday to ensure Jews do not provide additional joy or appear to endorse the worship of idols.

Third century Talmud scholar Rav believed the biblical figure Adam created Kalendae Januariae as a solstice festival. According to Rav, Adam believed that the diminishing daylight and beckoning winter foreshadowed the end of the universe. Adam thought a serpent was devouring the universe and the world’s daylight. When sunlight increased at the Winter Solstice instead of an apocalypse, Adam allegedly proclaimed the Greek phrase “Kalon Dio”, roughly translated as “May the Sun Set Well”, “Praise Be to God” or “Beautiful Day”.  Talmudic authorities believed that since Adam’s celebration of Kalendae Januariae, his offspring marked the solstice in some form.

Rav Yohanan offered a different explanation of Kalendae Januariae’s origins. According to Rav Yohanan, the holiday honors Januarius, a Roman general who fell on his sword in war to ensure Roman victory and plush administrative positions for his twelve sons. But other scholars believe Rav Yohanan’s interpretation fails to acknowledge Kalendae Januariae’s religious overtones.

Januarius is most likely an allusion to the Roman god Janus, who the month of January is named for. Janus had two faces, and was able to look at the past and present simultaneously. Janus’s unique ability made him the perfect God to honor at the dawning of a new year when we reflect on the past year and plan for the upcoming months. Some posit Kalendae Januariae is an occasion to celebrate Janus’s status as a god of Light and Day. This interpretation meshes with Rav’s interpretations of New Years.

Resentment towards the secular New Years celebration has significantly subsided since Talmudic times as Rabbinic authorities now acknowledge and in some cases encourage the celebration of New Years. Rabbi Tzvi Shapiro characterizes New Years as a holiday that has lost its religious overtones and become completely secular, making its observance palatable. According to Shapiro, Jewish law does not explicitly forbid observing widely celebrated holidays such as New Years and Valentines Day.

While Shapiro tepidly endorses celebrating New Years, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield gives the holiday a strong endorsement. Hirschfield emphasizes approaching New Years from a Jewish outlook and incorporating Jewish ideals into New Years resolutions. He encourages consulting Jewish views on the power of words, vows and balanced lifestyle when formulating New Years resolutions.  Hirschfield justifies the celebration of the secular New Year by citing the Mishnah’s recognition of multiple New Year celebrations such as Rosh Hashanah, Tu B’Shvat, the first of Nisan and the first of Elul.

The observance of the secular New Years celebration is a microcosm of Jewish cultural development over the last thousand years. Initially deemed a vestige of foreign oppressor, secular New Years is one of many festivals Jews celebrate. Yet, whether secular New Years will eclipse the sentiments of redemption and renewal espoused during Rosh Hashanah remains to be seen.

An Ancient Synagogue in Damascus

By Samantha Sisskind

If you go to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Damascus, Syria, you’ll find hardly any obvious traces of Jewish life.  There remains a school that is unidentifiable as a Jewish institution, a few doors with the Star of David engraved in the granite lintel of the doorways, a small unobtrusive synagogue, abandoned houses and storefronts and some dusty narrow streets.  If you didn’t know it was there, it would be virtually unrecognizable as a relic of a once-vibrant Jewish community with a heritage and history centuries long. However, the major monument to Jewish life in the country lies in the National Museum of Syria, just a few minutes outside of the Old City. At the very end of the classical period wing, past the Greek, Roman and Palmyrene exhibits, you’ll find a reconstruction of a third century synagogue from the initially Syrian Greek city of Dura Europos, a trading hub along the Euphrates River. Not only will you see beautiful clay wall and ceiling tiles painted with flora and fauna, but also frescoes from the walls of the synagogue depicting scenes from the Torah and portraits of Abraham, Ezra and Moses.

The frescoes from the synagogue at Dura Europos tell a fascinating story of one of the first synagogues erected in the Jewish Diaspora. Hidden under a ramp built by the Persians at the end of the third century C.E., the synagogue’s frescoes were undisturbed for over fifteen hundred years afterward until its discovery by the British military in 1921. The style and character of the frescoes at the synagogue borrow from Hellenistic art, and the architecture draws from the dominant Byzantine religious art culture of the time of the temple’s construction. Of the four frescoed walls, the best preserved is the Western Wall, which benefited from the ramp’s direct protection and faces Jerusalem. Surrounding a permanent ark niche carved into the wall are paintings of David as the King over Israel; the Red Sea crossing; the infancy of Moses; the anointing of David; Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; the sacrifice of Isaac; Moses receiving the tablet and many other biblical stories. The lack of any archaeological evidence for a gender separation barrier in the prayer room makes the worship culture of the Dura Europos Jews even more curious and divergent from the traditional Jewish practices.

While artistic renditions of animals and scenes from the Torah have been found on Jewish artifacts from that time period, nothing of this magnitude and detail has ever been discovered.  Some scholars maintain that the Jews in Dura Europos were influenced by the decorated Christian churches in the same city and Dura Europos was home to several religious groups and tolerant of the faiths of all its residents.  Yet the more prevalent theory is that the synagogue was decorated and painted to resemble a Roman temple so that worshippers could avoid religious persecution.

On the surface, it appears that the Jews of Dura Europos diverted from their faith in order to avoid punishment from the Romans. However, upon second glance, they seem more like Hannah and her sons in the Hanukkah story, who refused to break the commandments or apostatize, even when faced with execution. Like them, the Jews of Dura Europos prayed under the Romans’ noses and defied Roman law in order to stay true to their Jewish heritage while they were far from the Holy Land.

The Dura Europos Jewish community’s beliefs and interpretations of the Torah remain a mystery to this day, but the synagogue is a monument to the development and transition of Jewish faith and practices in the Diaspora. It is a testament to the existence of Jewish life outside the Holy Land, and a rare example of the resilience of a Jewish community in the face of unfriendly foreign occupation.

Traveler’s Note: If you are able to pay a visit to Syria and you’d like to go to the National Museum in Damascus to see the frescoes from the synagogue at Dura Europos, don’t plan your trip for the upcoming year. The entire classical wing is currently closed for renovations, and a few other exhibits are closed for renovations as well. Visiting to the ruins themselves may be slightly disappointing as little remains but rocky foundations, and would require much imagination to picture the city as it once was. However, viewing the museum in Damascus first and then traveling to the historical site near the modern town of Salhieh will give you more context and insight, and would be a much more educational and beneficial experience.

This article referenced the book “Dura Europos,” written by Bashir Zahdi and published by the National Museum of Syria in Damascus, as well as a very well synthesized and researched article analyzing the historical significance of the art and architecture of the synagogue.

The Secret History of Hanukkah

By Gabriel Weinstein

Students in Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools learn that Hanukkah is the celebration of the Maccabees’ improbable military triumph and the miraculous burning of the Beit Hamikdash’s (Holy Temple’s) Menorah for eight days, a holiday for crooning festive tunes and wagering intense games of dreidel. But Hanukkah’s origins in the Nayrot festival are usually never mentioned during classroom discussions or a meal over latkes.

Nayrot (light) was an ancient winter holiday celebrating the increased daylight promised by the winter solstice, and was observed in a way similar to Hanukkah. Nayrot had similar qualities and occurred around the same time as the Greek-Syrian holiday celebrating sun god Kronos-Helios’s birthday, which was observed by Jews and non-Jews in Israel and Greek occupied territories. Households kindled eight flames on a fireboard in their house each night of the eight-day festival. Some added a flame each night while others reduced the number of lit flames. Lighting fires was done to mimic the earth’s natural cycles and believed to persuade nature to elongate daylight. Light’s association with life and darkness’s symbolism of death imbued Nayrot with rejuvenation and optimism.  Nayrot was eight days to mirror the length of Passover and Sukkot, the other holidays associated with seasonal changes.

Nayrot seemed primed to establish itself as the third major Jewish seasonal holiday. But religious authorities during the reign of King Hezekiah, whose reign occurred during a period known as the priestly era, scoffed at the idea of Nayrot becoming a major celebration endorsed by the Torah. Nayrot was rejected because it had no explicit divine connections, nor was it associated with the Exodus from Egypt. Nayrot was relegated as a folk festival until the Maccabees seized power and changed the holiday’s meaning to fulfill their personal ambitions.

When the Maccabees defeated the Greek ruler Antochius IV’s regime in 165 BCE they were eager to restore the defiled Beit HaMikdash. Some believe the Maccabees defeated the Greeks in October but waited until the winter to begin their restoration so it corresponded with Nayrot. Judah Maccabee, the military leader of the Maccabees, renamed Nayrot Hanukkah (dedication), and intended it to mark the rededication of the Beit HaMikdash to God.  The transition wasn’t too difficult; both holidays celebrate similar human triumphs. According to Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, founder of the Humanistic Judaism, Nayrot celebrated humans’ ability to produce fire. The ability to produce fire was a crucial step in the development of human self-confidence and essential to societal advancement, says Wine. Though Judah Maccabee most likely did not intend to perpetuate the values of Nayrot, Hanukkah’s emphasis on the Beit HaMikdash’s renewal and personal spiritual rejuvenation seamlessly mesh with the themes of the holiday.

The Book of Hasmoneans implies Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days because the Maccabees had forgotten to observe the eight days of Sukkot while immersed in battle. The Maccabees wanted Hanukkah to become a flagship holiday, but religious authorities cringed. They resented Hanukkah because they believed the Maccabees had unfairly assumed power over the Judean kingdom. When the Rabbinical establishment regained power under Roman rule, Hanukkah was deemed a minor holiday like its predecessor Nayrot.

Though Rabbinic authorities sought to expunge Nayrot and Hanukkah from the canon of Jewish holidays, aspects of the two festivals–some manufactured, others stemming from the original  holiday celebrations–have become vital parts of the modern Hanukkah celebration. In the centuries following Hanukkah’s establishment, its religious aspects have been amplified. Many scholars believe rabbis created the idea of the Hanukkah miracle to draw attention away from Hanukkah’s glorification of the Maccabees’ military might. This was an expression of the rabbinical authorities’ frustration that the Maccabees asserted intellectual authority over divine dictums and claimed royal authority though they were not descendants of King David.

Although religious authorities sought to hide Hanukkah’s origins as a folk festival, the spirit and practices of Nayrot lives on.  The “Hovevi Zion” Zionist movement of the late 1800’s adopted Hanukkah as their major holiday. They viewed the story of Hanukkah as a metaphor mirroring the Zionist struggle to fortify Jewish identity.  Today the city of Haifa uses Hanukkah as a catalyst to promote interfaith solidarity through their annual “Holiday of Holidays” festival celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas and Ramadan. The transformation of Hanukkah from a folk holiday celebrating fire to a festival celebrating divine miracles, military victories and Jewish identity is the ultimate example of the fluidity of Jewish tradition and the effect of cultural impacts that will continue to be a hallmark of ever-evolving Jewish history.

Questioning the Merit of Faith

By Steven Philp

Friday evening, nearly 3,000 people packed themselves in to the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, Canada to witness former-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and author Christopher Hitchens grapple with the merits of religion. The event was part of the Munk Debate series, organized by the Aurea Foundation, for which the prompt was simply: “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.” Blair–a recent convert to the Roman Catholic Church – was tasked with defending the necessity of faith communities, while Hitchens–author of the best-seller God is Not Great–argued that religion is the source of incalculable misery throughout human history. During the 90-minute debate, Hitchens seemed to hold sway over the crowd although a pre-debate poll showed 57% of the audience already agreed with his position, compared to the 22% who were sympathetic with Blair. The remaining participants were undecided.

As might be expected from such vocal personalities, both men conceded little to their opponent. Hitchens characterized religion as a dangerous anachronism, comparing G-d to “a kind of divine North Korea.” He equated omniscience to malevolence, arguing, “Once you assume a creator and a plan it makes us subjects in a cruel experiment.” Blair held the defensive through most of the debate, returning to the theme that throughout history people of faith have been engaged in acts for the betterment of humankind. “The proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable,” Blair argued, pointing out that such generalizations ignore the multifaceted nature of faith communities. Yet in the end, he failed to qualify religion as more than “a benign progressive framework by which to live our lives.”

That this debate occurred Friday evening is apropos of a similar discussion within the Jewish community, as each Shabbat we are asked to make a conscious decision about what it means to be a Jew. On one hand, Judaism is a matter of faith affirmed by the commandments of shamor v’zachor, to keep and remember, the Sabbath. On the other, it is a cultural heritage that extends beyond the synagogue–if it includes it at all. As Jews we ask ourselves if Judaism as religion is “a force for good” in our lives, in our communities, and the world at large.

Unfortunately, elements of faith have been used through our history for oppression; consequently, it may not be surprising that traditionally subjugated minorities–women and the LGBT community, for example–have found greater degrees of mobility within those denominations of Judaism that have moved further away from strict observance. At the same time, there have been countless Jews who have contributed to the betterment of our communities – looking at the Forward 50 published earlier this year, we can see contemporary examples of fellow Jews who have taken leadership on a variety of issues. Yet contrary to Blair’s characterization of do-gooders their individual relationship to Judaism is not necessarily one of faith, even as this heritage may have inspired them toward a certain moral imperative. In this way, the religious element may not be necessary for the performing of good deeds. At the same time, there are many on the list that have an intimate relationship with Judaism as a faith practice. For them, it’s an inextricable part of their Jewish identity.

Then is it possible to separate Judaism as faith from Judaism as cultural heritage? I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rabbi Adam Chalom of Congregation Kol Chadash, a growing Humanistic community north of Chicago proper. He explained that the purpose of Humanistic Judaism is to honor Jewish culture in a way that is human-centered; it is a space for the secular Jew to celebrate his or her heritage, while “saying what they believe, and believing what they say.” In some cases, that may mean removing G-d from the equation. On the other hand, as a Jew-by-choice my approach to Judaism is one defined almost exclusively by faith; unlike Rabbi Chalom, I lack the cultural heritage of a born-Jew. Yet through our conversation, it was evident that we shared one key belief: Judaism can be “a force for good in the world.” It is true that our tradition – inherited or chosen–has been used to maintain systems of oppression. Yet it has also served, and continues to serve, as a source of inspiration for the betterment of mankind, for both secular and observant Jews alike.