Monthly Archives: April 2011

The First and Final Nightmare

By Symi Rom-Rymer

When 69 year-old Sonia Reich ran out of her Skokie home late one February evening in 2001, no one knew why.  Insisting that a man was trying to “put a bullet in my head,” she refused to go home. This anecdote opens the haunting book, “The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich” by Chicago Tribune Jazz critic Howard Reich.

Holocaust memoirs have conventionally ended in 1945 with survivors emerging from the years of darkness and terror, hardened but resolute. Reich’s hybrid memoir/biography, however, is part of a growing trend of books by children of Holocaust survivors who explore what happens next.  The end of the war seemed to give his mother a sense freedom and even allow her to achieve modest prosperity.  She arrived in the United States in 1947 at 16 years old and built a comfortable American middle class life for herself: a husband, two children, and a house in Skokie, a predominantly Jewish, middle-class suburb of Chicago.

But behind the veneer of normality, a different life was playing out.  It was the life of a woman still on the run from those who threatened her as a child.  Reich tells how his mother would triple lock the doors to their house and unconvinced of their strength, would check them over and over again.  She would keep a vigilant watch at the living room window at night, afraid of who might come to threaten her family.

Growing up, Reich knew little of his mother’s Holocaust experience except that she was on the run for three years.  Like many children of survivors, his childhood was deeply informed by his mother’s experiences without really knowing her stories.  Family get-togethers would often devolve into shouting matches and contests over whose Holocaust experience was the worst, but Reich simply assumed that was normal. He never drew the connection between their experiences during the war and their current psychological states.   But his father’s death put an end to his ignorance.

In the years following her husband’s death, Sonia’s world slowly contracted. She no longer ventured out for the small excursions she used to enjoy: going to the local Jewish deli for matzoh ball soup or going shopping. She instead started to spend most of the time seeking refuge behind the walls of her house, until the fateful day the anonymous man in her head chased her out of her house, insisting he would kill her.

It turns out, however, that the man was not so anonymous, nor was he truly a figment of Sonia’s imagination, conjured up by a delusional mind.  He did exist, albeit 59 years ago, in the form of a Nazi soldier who threatened to kill 10 year-old Sonia by putting a bullet through her head in her hometown of Dubno, Poland. Reich eventually realizes his mother is suffering from late-onset Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the psychological condition now most commonly associated with recently returning war veterans.   As Reich digs deeper into the illness and its causes, he comes to understand that it afflicts not only soldiers but civilians exposed to the traumas of war as well.   Moreover, the extent of his mother’s PTSD is so great that not only is she suffering from the usual symptoms (sleeplessness and hypervigilance among others) but that she also, as Reich writes, “had so deeply absorbed her childhood traumas into the fabric of her being that there simply was no way she could ever escape them…they were replaying themselves in an endless loop in her traumatized psyche.”

The book’s greatest strength is the powerful and personal way Reich brings to light this little-discussed form of PTSD.  As difficult as it was for many the post-war era to come to terms with the Holocaust, it is similarly difficult to accept that there was often no happy ending for its survivors.  This not a simple case of denial by loved ones, or indeed by the survivors themselves.  According to Reich, even the medical community does not fully understand or recognize the causes of late onset PTSD.  By opening up a painful part of his life to readers, however, he offers an invaluable opportunity to better understand the life-long toll that such a trauma can have.

Editor’s Note: Read a review of Howard Reich’s book, written by Moment editor and publisher Nadine Epstein, here. And learn about the film Prisoner of Her Past, based on Reich’s book, here.

James Frey’s Messiah of the Subways

by Amanda Walgrove

What would the Messiah be like if he were walking the streets of New York today? James Frey takes a stab at answering this question in his new book, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. After revealing that his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces was mostly fictive, Frey was swiftly ostracized by the literary community and, famously, by Oprah Winfrey, who had previously championed him. In a brave attempt to redeem himself, Frey has written an addendum to the most famous book of all time, revealing the second coming of the Messiah—this time, in the Bronx projects.

Pulling out all the controversial stops, Frey’s Christ character, Ben Zion Avrohom, also known as Ben Jones, is a former alcoholic who impregnates a prostitute, smokes pot, and engages in homosexual relations. After surviving a horrific work accident, Ben suffers from epileptic attacks in which he converses with God and gradually develops a band of devout followers who fearfully build a shelter in the Manhattan subway tunnels. Ben Zion preaches that the 2,000-year-old Bible is antiquated and that “stories that had meaning then are meaningless now…those books are dead.”

Having been dumped by his publisher after the Oprah snafu, Frey is taking precautions this time around, publishing only 11,000 copies in the United States and self-publishing e-books online. And just in case we didn’t understand that he was making a statement in the face of religion, the book was released on April 22: Good Friday. Frey is prepared to take criticism, saying, “I’m sure the religious right will go crazy because the story of Ben…is hardly the Messiah they have in mind. But I don’t really care. I just did what I always do — tried to write the best book I could.” However, with all of the controversy brewing before the book was even released, Frey must have anticipated that any hopes of praise for good writing would be overshadowed by passionate religious dialectic.

John Murray, Frey’s publisher in the UK, is using a “word of mouth,” or more specifically, a “word of YouTube” strategy to inspire an audience of readers. In one video, Frey expresses in a monotonous discourse: “I believe the first two volumes of the Holy Bible were written by people like me, storytellers, who wanted to create some piece of work that made sense of the world they lived in…I believe these books should never be considered pure fact or literal truth, but works of art.” Frey is quick to attack organized religion through the doctrines of Ben Zion, speculated to be Frey’s alger-ego. Ben Zion defines the institution as “a beautiful con, the longest running fraud in human history.” It is true that the scribes of the Bible could not have imagined the world we live in today, rife with nuclear power, cyberspace, advanced physics, and social reformations. But the power of the Bible lies in its ability to transcend generations and encapsulate values that speak to each human.

The UK’s Channel 4 released a review saying that for those who can get past the offensiveness, “It’s a sensitive and very moving exploration of the human need for love.” One of Ben Zion’s converts says, “God is what you feel when there’s love in your heart,” which may be the closest Frey gets to adhering with the messages of the Hebrew Bible and Yahweh’s notion of steadfast love. But if Frey is looking to stimulate acts of kindness, he may be going about it the wrong way by writing a book that invites readers to “Be enraged.” And if he is looking for redemption, as does his Christ character that is martyred by the media, he may only be placing himself on a higher pedestal. The Guardian wrote a scathing review, saying that Frey is “less of a writer than a professional celebrity, which means that he can count on being rewarded for behaving badly.” Considering the millions of devout followers garnered by Twittering celebrities, no matter how outrageous they may be, that claim may hold some truth.

Regardless of whether Frey finds success with this radical book, he certainly has chutzpah for writing something that he believes to straddle the line between religious text and fiction. If anything, he will create a dialogue by asking how much power we give to the fictive word and how much to the religious. Is there a fine line? Slapping the adjective “Final” before “Testament” not only presents Frey’s book as an addition to holy texts but also as a conclusive one. Frey nullifies all further attempts at creating pseudo “testaments”—that is, if you take his word as truth. Rather than prejudging a text that can be seen as folly, treason, or literary genius, the author first invites us to judge for ourselves. Stepping into the shoes of a modern religious scribe, Frey asserts that his goal was to “create a mythology, to tell a story, to make a work of art…whether I was able to do it or not will be determined by readers, and by time, and by history.”

Passover Remixed

by Amanda Walgrove

For thousands of years, the Passover Seder has evoked universal themes of personal liberation and religious freedom. Each generation tells and retells the story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. But the annual remembrance also has a history of being a uniquely malleable occasion that can be customized to certain values of an individual or household. From its conception, Passover has been a holiday predominantly based on interpretation of Bible narrative, using an aggadic midrash as its leading text for instruction and discussion during the Seder. While tradition has always been an important aspect of Jewish practice and ancestry, how much wiggle room is there to expand upon and perhaps amend certain traditions?

The adaptation of the Passover Seder is commonly accomplished through the modification of two main tools used during the annual observance: the Haggadah and the Seder plate. New songs and activities to include in Passover celebrations abound on the Internet; Each new year delivers a fresh batch of innovative variations of these iconic objects, and with the development of technology and the continuing exploration of certain core values, 2011 is no exception.

Seder plates, now used as microcosmic edible message boards, have a history of being modified with new foods that represent certain values and causes. Oranges have been known to symbolize the power of Jewish women, olives as a call for peace between Israel and Palestine, and an artichoke for the interfaith-friendly plate. Activists have grabbed onto the plate phenomenon as well. Last year, the Progressive Jewish Alliance put together a “Food Desert Seder Plate” that replaced the traditional items with ones symbolizing lack of access to fresh food in low-income neighborhoods.

Feminists have also latched onto the opportunity to emphasize certain values and key figures in the Passover Seder. “Jewesses with Attitude” (JWA) recently debuted a short video highlighting Miriam’s role in the Passover story, her legacy as a leader, and the contemporary Jewish women who follow in her footsteps. While Miriam may be the only Biblical woman who is “not described as somebody’s wife or mother,” she is absent from the traditional text. But this hasn’t made her famously essential role in the Passover stories any less profound. Now, many observers include Miriam’s cup in their Passover Seders, representing “the recognition of women’s contributions and the commitment to inclusivity more generally, making sure all Jews have a voice.” JWA is teaming up with—which has already released a free, downloadable, customizable Haggadah—to produce a Haggadah that celebrates the contributions of women to Jewish life.

In the virtual Haggadah department, DIY Holiday Co. just released their first product, Do-It-Yourself Seder, which allows families to create their own personalized Haggadot. Offering content relating to current events, foodies, kids activities and songs, the new project serves to broaden the Passover tradition with an interactive and creative approach. Similarly,, winner of the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund award, allows users to cut and paste their own Haggadot. The Forward compares the process to, which has thousands of retail partners from which you can mix and match. Users can add their own photos and stories, pull from those others have shared, paste it all together, print it out, and upload it for others to ponder.

For fans of the most traditional form of Passover capitalization, the overwhelmingly popular Maxwell House Haggadah has been given a makeover to go along with its first new translation since its original printing in 1934. Conforming to contemporary vernacular, “thee” and “thou” have been replaced with “you.” God is also no longer gendered by the proper pronoun, “He.” Along with the new cover design, the text will also be larger, and the layout easier to navigate.

The message of Passover hasn’t changed, but the ways in which we retell the stories will continue to evolve for each individual, family, and generation. If you ever remember acting out the Passover story in Hebrew School, now you can see it all through your Twitter feed as @twitplaymoshe, @twitplaypharaoh, @twitplayammon and friends reenact #exod2011. While some may fear that “watered down” versions of the Haggadah and internet fads can damage the observance of the holiday, a sense of community and accessibility is important during a time when Jews give thanks for religious and personal freedoms. With the internet on board as Moses readies himself to lead the Jews out of Egypt once again and Jake Gyllenhaal preparing to hide the afikomen on “Sesame Street,” all we need now is the iPad and Kindle to consider joining the Seder so we can say, “Passover?” “There’s an app for that!”

Homophobia Is Not Kosher

By Steven Philp

On Thursday LGBT-interest blog Queerty posted an article outlining the newest addition to the affiliates program: the anti-gay group JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. advertises itself as the largest online kosher supermarket, offering door-to-door delivery of several thousand kosher products including meat, dairy, wine and frozen foods. The affiliates program allows customers to select a non-profit organization—including synagogues and schools—to receive 5% of their online purchase; in return, benefits from increased traffic from that organization’s constituent population. JONAH has come under fire for their prescription of “reparative” therapy for LGBT Jews, which has been shown by all major American health organizations—including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatry Association, and the American Psychology Association—to be ineffective; in fact, as outlined in a 2007 article by The New York Times, the majority of certified health professionals hold that “reparative” therapy can damage self-esteem, increase depression and promote suicidal behavior.

Queerty was alerted to the partnership between and JONAH by Jayson Littman, a survivor of “reparative” therapy. Littman had held membership in JONAH for five years, before coming out and starting a “gay Jewish events outfit” in New York. Littman expressed his misgivings in an e-mail to, explaining that their association with JONAH sends “a message to [LGBT Jews] of where you stand on this issue and what your beliefs are.” replied to Littman, outlining their acceptance of any and all organizations in to their affiliates program. Unsatisfied, Littman responded: “I am sure that non-profit organizations that spread hateful messages about Jewish people wouldn’t be considered for the affiliate program.” The following Friday, Truth Wins Out—a pro-LGBT organization that sheds light on the harmful effects of “reparative” therapy—started a petition on against the partnership of and JONAH. According to an article posted on their site, within 90 minutes they had gathered one thousand signatures. Shortly after, responded to the petition with the following:

Firstly we wish to apologize if any action taken by any member of our company offended anyone. Our affiliate program…was not something that we had monitored but considering the current reaction regarding’s decision to send their members our affiliate offerings, we have decided to discontinue that affiliation and our management will review our affiliate programs guidelines going forward.

The swiftness with which online organizing produced results is heartening. The article on Queerty coupled with Truth Wins Out’s petition is an example of quick and effective online advocacy. Although we are called to respect—if not cultivate—a plurality of opinion within the Jewish community, supporting an organization that actively discriminates against other Jews is decidedly not kosher.

Like a Yellow Star On Our Food

By Steven Philp

Kosher products are a common sight in most American stores; it is an industry that is recognized outside the Jewish community, employing both Jews and non-Jews in its processing and distribution. Americans are less familiar with halal products, even though they are consumed by almost 1.5 billion people. Yet people are starting to pay attention.

This week thousands of businessmen and women will congregate in Kuala Lumpur for the largest annual exhibition of halal products in the world. For seven years the Malaysia International Halal Showcase (MIHAS) has served as a lynchpin for the growing industry as it seeks to meet the demand of Muslims’ dietary laws. A press release from the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation, which hosts MIHAS, stated that last year’s event attracted “over 32,000 trade visitors from 81 countries.” With Muslim spending power increasing as their constituent nations emerge from the recession, this year’s conference is expected to exceed those numbers.

Yet the reception of halal products in countries with Muslim minorities has been tentative.  This past week, Struan Stevenson, a Conservative Minister for the European Parliament, added an amendment to a food bill that would have food labels read: “This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the halal method” or “This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the shechita method.”  The main bill, proposed by Jim Paice, the Food and Farming Minister to the European Parliament, seeks to label meat based on whether the animal was stunned before killing. According to an article by the Daily Telegraph, Paice is responding to demands from veterinarians and animal welfare activists who claim that the failure to stun an animal before its throat is slit causes “unacceptable levels of suffering and pain.” Currently, the failure to stun is legal under laws protecting religious freedom; in both halal and shechita, the animal is slaughtered while still conscious.

Although Paice believes that consumers should be informed which foods have been killed using the stun method and which have not, he has expressed resistance to Stevenson’s idea that they carry explicit religious labels. He is joined by the British Jewish interest group Shechita UK in opposition to the amendment. Their representative, Simon Cohen, explained that the proposal is “the 21st century equivalent of the yellow star, but on our food.”

Cohen is right, insofar that the requirement to label food with an explicit reference to their intended consumer is based in latent phobias. Only two months ago, American pastor Mark Biltz of El Shaddai Ministries—a Messianic Christian congregation in Bonney Lake, WA—posted a sermon online advocating for an increased awareness of “backdoor Sharia” vis-à-vis the prevalence of halal products in the United States. He cites the prohibition against eating food sacrificed to idols, explaining, “You could be eating beef, chicken… offered up to Allah and not even know it. I can just imagine at a Passover Seder the caterer unbeknownst to anyone is serving halal meat!” He then outlines methods by which one can ascertain what stores and restaurants to avoid for their provision of halal products. With its genesis in bigotry and misunderstanding, Biltz parallels arguments made almost a decade ago by white supremacist groups that kashrut was the façade for a special “Jewish tax.” Briefly outlined by an article posted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the conspiracy surmounted that if a food company did not pay the “tax”—and consequently did not receive the heksher—its products would be boycotted.

Halal and kosher products tend to occupy a shared space in a number of American stores intended for the general public, making access to them a mutual concern of the Muslim and Jewish communities. As we see in Europe, their similarities can cause them to be lumped together when considered from an outside perspective. We are fortunate to have access to a wide variety of kosher products in the United States.  In response to the high demand from the Jewish community, as well as other groups including Seventh Day Adventists, many non-Jewish stores stock their shelves with kosher goods. Even for many American Muslims, kosher products—subject to more stringent regulations than other foods—are a good alternative for the time being.  It is ultimately in our best interest to advocate for the availability of specialty products, and speak out against laws that restrict our freedom to consume food aligned with our religious values.  Kashrut and halal are not always the same, but they are not that different either.

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.

Skulls, Bones and Jews at Yale

by Amanda Walgrove

On March 28, TIME published an article “outing” Yale’s Eliezer Society, entitled, Yale’s Secret Society That’s Hiding in Plain Sight. Truly a baby in terms of Yale’s history, Eliezer’s 1996 conception was the brainchild of three Jews and a Baptist—Rabbi Shmully Hecht, Ben Karp, Michael Alexander, and Corey Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey—who formed an underground community that encouraged Jewish leadership and intelligent religious discussion. Far from actually being “secret,” the society is known for its invitation only membership and self-selecting channels of private networking. Approximately ten students are nominated and tapped annually by members and founders.

Yale University, founded in 1701, has produced its fair share of infamous secret societies, most notably, Skull and Bones, whose creation dates back to 1832. Dominated by Christian males for decades, Skull and Bones alumni include President Taft and George Bush Sr. and Jr. Contrastingly, Eliezer was founded by four men who, sixty years ago, “would have been shunned by Bones.” As opposed to the membership restrictions of centuries-old societies, Eliezer prides itself on its diversity. Not only does it include women (something it took Bones many years to do), but the club has never discriminated against race, ethnic background, or orientation.

Originally named “Chai,” meaning “life,” the society officially changed its name in 2006 to “Eliezer,” meaning “May God help.” Aside from the religious connotation, the name is wittily reflective of Elihu Yale, the namesake of the university. In a New York Times article from 2000, the Jewish intellectual cabal is referred to as the Chai Society, an intellectual salon for “blacks and Jews at Yale.” Dan A. Oren also refers the society in his book, Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale. Additionally, an article in The Jewish Week from 2006 quotes the society President Joshua Ezra Burns as saying that the motto of the group was “uniquely Jewish, uniquely Yale.” Gradually garnering publicity and recognition, world leaders have been known to “clear their schedules to attend Shabbat dinner” with the members of Eliezer. Speakers have included former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Muslim activists Tarek Fatah and Mona Eltahawy, talk-show host Jerry Springer, and Moment columnist Eric Alterman.

Yale’s history is strongly tied to religion. The university was founded as a religious training school that required students to attend daily chapel services until 1926. Yale’s famous blue and white crest proudly totes the Latin motto “Lux et Veritas,” meaning “truth and light.” However, unmistakably included on the crest of the stereotypically “WASP-y” university, is the unique addition of Hebrew lettering. “Urim v’Tumim” is a Biblical phrase that has been translated to have several meanings, but in this case reads, “Truth and light.” Still a thriving aspect of campus life today, a 2010 Yale Daily News article discussed the growth of religious tolerance and expression at the Ivy League university, citing the existence of eighteen registered undergraduate religious organizations. Flexing its political muscles in 2006, the New Haven school founded the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, the first university-based center in North America dedicated to the study of Anti-Semitism.

While groups such as Eliezer offer an opportunity for Jewish students to gather and share experiences and information, anti-Semitism is still a problem on many campuses. It was recently announced that the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is investigating claims of anti-Semitism at the University of California Santa Cruz in response to lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint that the university was failing to repined to “hostility and demonizing criticism” aimed at Jewish students. Similar problems have arisen at the University of California Berkeley and most recently, Canada’s York University. These acts of hostility infringe upon personal safety as well as the idea that college is a place where students should be able to expand their academic backgrounds freely and explore any spiritual or religious aspirations without inhibitions, violence or peer pressure.

In promoting religious tolerance on campuses, does the label of a “secret society” insinuate an exclusively elitist view of Jewish intellectuals in a way that makes the group removed and inaccessible? New York Times critic Edward Rothstein, a member of the society, said, “There was no question that Eliezer was a Jewish association, but also no question that along with its elements of religious observance and allusion, the aura was nonsectarian intellectual.” While the “secret” society, intimate by nature, was not created to advertise a public religious message or battle anti-Semitic issues, the influence of the society is expected to exceed its collegiate bounds. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz is working on a foreword to a book about the society and suggests that Eliezer’s influence is wider than just a college campus, but rather it is a “global network of activists who care deeply about the Jewish people and about the world.” There have even been talks about expanding the Eliezer community to Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and eventually rest of the country. While Eliezer is currently a private and selective society within a private and selective school, its impressive efforts to stimulate intellectual conversation among the Jewish leaders of tomorrow may encourage the religious youth of America to reach out, gather, and discuss.