In her article “Freedom Riders: The National Museum of American Jewish History” (Fall 2011), Esther Schor says that at the National Museum of American Jewish History “freedom . . . becomes the key term for exploring the entirety of American Jewish life since 1654.” After touring the museum I concluded that one could replace the word “freedom” with the word “assimilation” without changing the museum. With a focus on how Jews melded into the fabric of American life, there is very little in this museum that is particularly Jewish.
Consider some of the personalities on display: Irving Berlin (composer of “White Christmas”), Barbara Streisand, the Marx Brothers, Estee Lauder, and Jonas Salk. All very successful in their fields, but what exactly did they contribute to the continuity of Judaism? The message of the museum’s collections is that adherence to traditional Judaism is not important in America.
The museum makes an exception for Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose exhibit is next to, and the same size as, Sandy Koufax’s baseball glove. The implication is clear: Sandy Koufax’s refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur had just as much impact on American Jewry as Schneerson’s leadership of Chabad.
If this were only true! Who of today’s Jewish American athletes would make the same choice as Koufax? “I don’t put religion into sports,” says Boston Red Sox Jewish all-star Kevin Youkilis, who suited up and sat in the dugout on Yom Kippur 2004, while teammate Gape Kapler-who sports Jewish-themed tattoos-took to the field.
We know that this country has allowed Jewish Americans to thrive, but perhaps a better exploration of what freedom in America has meant to Jews would focus on how it has benefited Jewish life. A stunning achievement is the widespread accessibility of kosher food. There is probably not a city in America where a Jew could not find something that is certified kosher to eat, but you wouldn’t find that out from the National Museum of American Jewish History.
What clinched my perspective of this museum was the exhibit for Mordecai Kaplan. A museum placard reads, “When Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan wrote the Sabbath Prayer Book which rejected the idea of Jewish chosenness among other traditional Jewish beliefs, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis excommunicated him for ‘atheism, heresy and disbelief in the basic concepts of Judaism.’ Some went so far as to organize a public burning of the prayer book.” Instead of pointing out positive elements of Reconstructionism, which offered an alternative for many Jews who could not find their place in the Conservative or Reform movements, the museum took the opportunity to denigrate Orthodoxy. Why? Because Orthodox Judaism refuses to assimilate; it refuses to shelve its Judaism and disappear. It is the antithesis of what this museum values: the freedom to render Judaism inconsequential.
Rav and the Butchers
I really enjoyed the article by Professor Moshe Halbertal, “At the Threshold of Forgiveness: A Study of Law and Narrative in the Talmud” (Fall 2011), and especially its emphasis on the role of aggada (legend) as a foil to the law.
Professor Halbertal translates the tragic story of Rav and the butcher as beginning, “A certain butcher injured Rav,” but the Aramaic is closer to saying that “Rav had words with a certain butcher”-they had an argument. Rav clearly expected the butcher to apologize, but it seems he was not entirely blameless, as the worried R. Huna may have known. Moreover, when he arrives to “appease the butcher,” he stands over him, waiting for him to finish his work. As we know from elsewhere, Rav was unusually tall, so may have been intimidating, which helps explains the butcher’s negative reaction.
This is, in fact, not the only story about Rav and a butcher in this chapter of Yoma. Only one page earlier (Yoma 86a), there is a discussion of chillul Hashem (the desecration of God’s name). Rav explains this with an example: “like me, if I were to take meat from a butcher and not pay for it immediately,” which would be a desecration because people would think Rav was taking advantage of his standing as a Torah scholar. Perhaps R. Huna already knew that Rav was worried about his interactions with butchers and that’s why he had a premonition that the affair was going to end badly. Or it was precisely this incident that led Rav to say (as quoted on 86a) that his not paying for his meat right away was liable to lead to a desecration of God’s name, the most serious of sins.
Silver Spring, MD
The Bergson Boys
In an aside in her review of Moshe Berent’s book (Fall 2011), Ruth Gavison refers to “the ‘Bergson Boys’, who during World War II loudly and unsuccessfully demanded more vigorous action [by the Allies] on behalf of Hitler’s victims.” If one measures success as being able to bring about swift and wide-ranging intervention by the Allies to rescue Jews, then they certainly were unsuccessful. Indeed, the group’s leader, Peter Bergson (a.k.a. Hillel Kook) remarked in a postwar interview with David S. Wyman that he felt “a frustrating sense of failure.”
However, the Bergson Group’s unorthodox publicity efforts, which included staging theatrical events, sponsoring more than 200 full-page newspaper ads, and recruiting celebrities to the cause, did help shatter the curtain of silence surrounding the Holocaust. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to establish the War Refugee Board, a U.S. government rescue agency, would not have come about if not for the campaign that the Bergson activists orchestrated in late 1943. The centerpiece of the campaign was a congressional resolution for which it lobbied relentlessly. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who appealed to Roosevelt directly, said “the thing that made it possible to get the President really to act on this thing” was “the Resolution in the House and the Senate by which we forced the President to appoint [the Board].” During the final 15 months of the war, the War Refugee Board played a central role in the rescue of an estimated 200,000 Jews.
The Bergson Group’s public pressure campaign also played an important role in the British decision, in late 1944, to establish the Jewish Brigade, an all-Jewish military unit. Although it fell far short of the full-fledged Jewish army that they sought, the Brigade fought with distinction on the German front. Some Brigade members also later smuggled Holocaust survivors to Palestine and participated in Israel’s War of Independence.
Dr. Rafael Medoff
The David S. Wyman Institute
for Holocaust Studies
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