Archive | February, 2014

Alice Herz-Sommer: An Inspiration Across Generations

28 Feb
Alice Herz-Sommer, the world's oldest pianist and world's oldest Holocaust survivor, died at 110.

Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest pianist and world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, died at 110.

On Sunday night, the Academy Awards ceremony will take place. Many of us will watch the coverage of this glitzy annual spectacle. I’m sure if we polled the congregation, we would hear about a number of films that we hope will win an Oscar. Let me tell you what I’m rooting for. In the category of documentary shorts, one of the nominees is a 38-minute film titled: “The Lady in Number 6: How Music Saved My Life.” It is about the life of Alice Herz-Sommer, a renowned concert pianist and survivor of of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. She was known as the oldest living survivor of the Shoah, that is until she died last Sunday at the age of 110. Friday’s New York Times carried her obituary.

Herz-Sommer devoted her life to channeling what she regarded to be divinely inspired classical music through her hands playing a piano. She played up until her death. Well past her 100th birthday, one finger in each hand became immobilized, and she reworked her technique to play with eight fingers.

In reading about this feat late in her life, I was reminded of a text in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, and accompanying commentary.

As the Book of Exodus draws to a close, we read about the completion of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The text tells us:

Just as The Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. (Exodus 39: 42)

The text continues:

And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks–as the Lord had commanded, so they had done–Moses blessed them (43).

Absent from this verse is the text of the blessing that Moses offered to the Israelites as their new house of worship was opened for business. Rashi cites the Midrashic work the Sifra that posits that Moses offered the following blessing:

“May it be God’s will that the divine Presence rest upon the work of your hands.”

The rabbis do not pull this blessing out of thin air. In fact, there are 11 Psalms in the Book of Psalms that begin, Tefillah L’Moshe, a prayer of Moses. In Psalm 90, we read:

May Adonai our God show us compassion; may God establish the work of our hands. May God firmly establish the work of our hands (90:17).

Alice Herz-Sommer was a modern day embodiment of the divine presence resting upon the work of her hands. She was born in Prague on Nov. 26, 1903, one of five children of a cultured, German-speaking, secular Jewish family. The family traveled in artistic circles and were friendly with Franz Kafka and Gustave Mahler, both of whom Alice remembered. In fact, she remembered Kafka attending her family’s seder. Alice began piano lessons at five and at 16 began conservatory studies. Before her 20th birthday, she was giving well-received concerts throughout Europe. She married a businessman, Leopold Sommer, and they had a son Stephan in 1937. In 1939, many family members fled Czechoslovakia for Palestine, but she remained in Prague to look after her mother. In 1942, her mother was deported to Theresienstadt and was soon after killed in a death camp. She described this as the lowest point of her life, and she turned to music for solace. She resolved to learn and master Chopin’s Études.

In 1943, Alice, her husband and son were deported to Theresienstadt. Despite the deplorable conditions there, the Nazis used this camp for propaganda. Many Jewish artists, musicians and intellectuals were interned there. The Nazis allowed in the Red Cross three times a year where they would find orchestras playing concerts and leave thinking the Nazis were treating the Jews well. Alice was forced to play on a broken, out-of-tune piano. Through it all, the music sustained her. She performed over 100 concerts in captivity, including all of Chopin’s Études from memory. She said that the music kept her, and the other captives who listened to it, alive. Tragically, her husband was deported to Auschwitz and later died in Dachau.

Alice and her son survived in Theresienstadt until the end of the War. She returned to Prague, but moved to Israel in 1949, where she was a renowned teacher at what is now the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Stephan grew up to become an accomplished cellist, and in the mid-1980s, Alice followed him to London to be near him. Tragically, he died of an aneurism in 2001 at the age of 64. Once again, she coped with her loss through her music. In her London apartment building, where she occupied Flat No. 6, her neighbors heard her practicing piano constantly. Thus emerged the title of the film that is up for an Academy Award: “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.”

Whatever happens at the Oscars on Sunday, Alice Herz-Sommer will remain an inspiration. In the film, she says that it was music that gave her hope in her darkest days. For her, she says, “Music is God.” Indeed, Alice Herz-Sommer mastered one particular expression of Divine energy and channeled it through her hands on a piano. In the time of the Torah, Moses blessed the people by praying that the Divine Presence would rest upon the work of the hands of the people. Let us be inspired by the words of Moses and the music of Alice Herz-Sommer that each of us can bring the Divine Presence into our world through the work of our hands. Our hands may feel broken at times, and the world is often unforgiving, but we can perform the work of our hands literally or figuritively.

May it be God’s will that the Divine Presence rest upon the work of our hands.

#TieBlog #Shekalim

28 Feb
On Shabbat Shekalim, the half-shekels collected from each Israelite eventually add up to real money to support the Mishkan.

On Shabbat Shekalim, the half-shekels collected from each Israelite eventually add up to real money to support the Mishkan.

This week is Shabbat Shekalim. In addition to reading our weekly portion, we read a supplemental reading, Exodus 30: 11-21 from Parashat Ki-Tissa. A census was taken through the collection of half-shekels from adult males. Rich and poor alike gave the same amount, with the funds going towards the upkeep of the Tabernacle.

This portion is read on the Shabbat prior to the month of Adar (in this year’s case, Adar II). It is a harbinger of spring. It is a time when much of the world begins to thaw out from winter and spring cleaning on a small and large scale commences. The Mishnah in Tractate Shekalim describes this as a season of repairing roads and engaging in other major civic projects that require tax revenue. It’s interesting that this happens to be the busy season for American CPA’s, with the looming Apri 15 IRS tax deadline quickly approaching. Factoring inflation over the last 3,000 years, the half-shekel doesn’t go as far as it did in the time of the Torah. So, my tie represents the growth in value of the half-shekel since Biblical times.

#TieBlog #Pekudei

27 Feb
Wilber and Orville Wright's design for their "flying machine"

Wilber and Orville Wright’s design for their “flying machine”

Parashat Pekudei completes the book of Exodus. Combined with the previous portion, Vayak’hel, we read here the Torah’s recapitulation of the blueprint of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Under the direction of artisans Betzalel and Oholiab, the blueprint is executed and the Mishkan begins it’s operations. My tie depicts Wilbur and Orville Wright’s blueprint for their first “flying machine.” They brought their drawings into reality and changed the course of history. Similarly, by the end of Pekudei, the blue print of the Mishkan becomes reality. God’s presence fills the Sanctuary, and organized Jewish worship “takes flight.”

#TieBlog #Vayak’hel

20 Feb
The symbols of Shabbat

The symbols of Shabbat

Most of the last five portions of Exodus concern the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). In the middle of these instructions is the Golden Calf narrative that was read in last week’s portion. Flanking the Golden Calf narrative on either side are instructions for observing Shabbat, the day of rest. Parashat Vayak’hel begins with the second of these expositions of Shabbat in this section. The Torah emphasizes that even the sacred work of constructing the Mishkan, representing a divine dwelling place, must not be done on Shabbat. The construction of the Mishkan must mirror God’s creation of the universe–six days of creation, followed by a day of rest. For a fuller exploration of the significance of the text’s juxtaposition of Shabbat and the construction of the Mishkan, read this week’s JTS Commentary by Dr. Eitan Fishbane. In the meantime, I will enjoy Shabbat with my Shabbat tie.

All the World’s a Stage–Moses’s Dramatic Flair in Smashing the Tablets

14 Feb
Moses breaking tablets (Rembrandt)

Moses breaking tablets (Rembrandt)

Expanded upon 2/13/14 blog post

The last couple of weeks have confirmed more than ever how obsessed America is with celebrity. Even when events of much greater consequence to our daily lives occur, more newsprint, more air time and more Internet bandwidth are given to celebrities in the news. Why do we grant equivalent if not greater importance as a society to people who entertain us rather than people who produce for society in other ways, such as manufacturing and teaching? There may be numerous answers to this question. One is that entertainment is a vital human pursuit that makes us, well, human. We need to be entertained to nourish our souls, and the people who entertain us play important roles. Furthermore, the songs singers sing to us; the stories actors perform for us; the games that athletes play for us become part of our individual stories. Their successes and failures become metaphors for our own.

Let’s consider some recent headlines to illustrate this point. Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first trip to America and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s amazing how these four men, their music and the moment they stepped onto the American stage all continue to capture our imagination. Their music was transformative in that it feels current, even decades later.

The recent passing of Shirley Temple Black reminded us of the young girl who brought song and smiles to our nation in the midst of the Depression. She then grew up and became a distinguished diplomat and public servant, blazing a trail for women in public service. Sid Caesar, who died this week, revolutionized American comedy, bringing Borscht Belt humor to the masses via television. Pete Seeger, the granddaddy of American Folk music, used joyful song to galvanize multiple social movements including for civil rights, labor and the environment. These were not just three people who grew old and died. They touched people’s souls in personal ways and were transformative figures through their genres of entertainment.

Other entertainers in the news remind us of the fragility of life, its complexity and occasional tragedies. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death by a drug overdose reminded us of the dangers of substance abuse and that some of the most accomplished and celebrated actors are not immune from this disease. New public allegations that Dylan Farrow was molested as a child by Woody Allen forces the issue of child sexual molestation back into the limelight. We are forced to confront not just whether or not we think Woody Allen is a creep but whether our society has turned a corner in confronting the seriousness of the broader issue of child sexual abuse.

Any of the celebrities I mentioned and their respective achievements and failures would probably warrant a sermon in his or her own right. I’ve chosen to briefly survey these recent newsmakers to highlight the extent to which people who entertain us grab our attention. We live vicariously through performers such as these because, as human beings, they help provide structure and purpose to our lives.

In this light, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that among the numerous roles that Moses plays in leading the Israelites, he is also a great performer on the public stage. We see his flair for the dramatic on full display in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki-Tissa. The reading contains the famous–or infamous–story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites fear that Moses is not returning from the mountaintop, and they make a graven image–a golden calf–in direct violation of the second of the Ten Commandments that they had just received. God is incensed and threatens to destroy the people. Moses, not having yet seen the idolatry has enough distance to put God “on the couch” as it were, and talk him out of destroying the people. However, once Moses sees the idolatry himself, his rage is so great he throws down and breaks the tablets of the Decalogue.

The above is the plain sense of the text. The Midrash and commentators probe a little deeper to try to get inside the head of Moses to see what he was really thinking and why he would take such an extreme measure.

The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah says: When Moses saw there was no future hope for Israel, he threw in his lot with theirs and broke the tablets and said to the Holy one blessed be He: They have sinned, but so have I with the breaking of the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me too; as it is said; “and now, if you will forgive their sin” forgive mine too. But if thou do not forgive them, do not forgive me but “blot me out I pray from Your book which You have written.”

According to the Midrash, Moses has a flair for the dramatic, and it is none other than God whom he needs to impress. Abarbanel, the 15th century Spanish commentator agrees that Moses has a flair for the dramatic but takes a different approach: Moses did not break them on the mountain itself when he was first apprised of the sin of the calf, but he broke them in the camp. For had Israel not seen the Tables intact, the awesome work of the Lord, they would not have been moved by the fragments, since the soul is more impressed by what it sees, than by what it hears. He therefore brought them down from the mountain to show them to the people and then break them before their very eyes.”

Moses may have been the great lawgiver, but his job description also included Actor-In-Chief. It’s possible that both the Midrash and Abravanel are correct and that Moses was playing to different audiences at the same time–God AND the people. In this case he gave the performance of his life. Moses shows that a leader is tasked with engaging the soul as well as the mind. He intuitively understood that the people needed a performance. They needed drama. In fact, his absence for forty days prompted their yearning for the ritual performance of the Golden Calf. His clamping down on that act of idolatry had to be even more dramatic in order to get his point across.

Last Yom Kippur, I paid tribute to my late grandfather, Sam Lesner, who was the film and entertainment critic of the Chicago Daily News. His birthday was February 16, and he would have been 105. In a 1978 lecture on the Yiddish theater, he said the following:

“It has been written that ‘[a]ll the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely the players’ (Shakespeare). For Jews everywhere, that is more than a literary catch phrase. It’s a philosophy for living, for surviving. For, do we not daily reenact our traditions? Do we not daily reenact our faith? And do we not daily rededicate ourselves to continuity of a vast, varied and colorful heritage, the Jewish heritage?

“It has also been written that ‘[t]here is that smaller world which is the stage, and that larger stage which is the world’” (Isaac Goldberg, early 20th century journalist).

“And yet another sage has written the theater is not a game. It is a spiritual compulsion. Once it celebrated the gods. Now it broods over the fate of man. Mensch trocht, Gott lacht (Man plans, God laughs).”

My grandfather’s words continue to ring true. So, the next time we read an obituary about an entertainer or a story about a fall from grace of a celebrity, let’s remind ourselves that it’s only human for us to consume such stories because we need performers in our society. But let us also remember that Moses himself was also a performer who mustered his dramatic skills to inspire a nation towards repentance and renewal.

Shabbat Shalom

#TieBlog #Valentine

14 Feb
A tie of love

A tie of love

I know, some readers are probably saying Valentine’s Day is not a Jewish holiday. But when else am I going to wear this tie? Let’s bring more love into the world.

#TieBlog #Ki-Tissa

13 Feb
Moses breaking tablets

Moses breaking tablets

Parashat Ki-Tissa contains the famous–or infamous–story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites fear that Moses is not returning from the mountaintop, and they make a graven image–a golden calf–in direct violation of the second of the Ten Commandments that they had just received. God is incensed threatens to destroy the people. Moses, not having yet seen the idolatry has enough distance to put God “on the couch” as it were, and talk him out of destroying the people. However, once Moses sees the idolatry himself, his rage is so great he throws down and breaks the tablets of the Decalogue.

The above is the plain sense of the text. The Midrash and commentators probe a little deeper to try to get inside the head of Moses to see what he was really thinking and why he would take such an extreme measure.

The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah says: When Moses saw there was no future hope for Israel, he threw in his lot with theirs and broke the tablets and said to the Holy one blessed be He: They have sinned, but so have I with the breaking of the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me too; as it is said; “and now, if you will forgive their sin” forgive mine too. But if thou do not forgive them, do not forgive me but “blot me out I pray from Your book which You have written.”

According to the Midrash, Moses has a flair for the dramatic, and it is none other than God whom he needs to impress. Abravanel, the 15th century Spanish commentator agrees that Moses has a flair for the dramatic but takes a different approach: Moses did not break them on the mountain itself when he was first apprised of the sin of the calf, but he broke them in the camp. For had Israel not seen the Tables intact, the awesome work of the Lord, they would not have been moved by the fragments, since the soul is more impressed by what it sees, than by what it hears. He therefore brought them down from the mountain to show them to the people and then break them before their very eyes.”

Moses may have been the great lawgiver, but his job description also included Actor-In-Chief. It’s possible that both the Midrash and Abravanel are correct and that Moses was playing to different audiences at the same time–God AND the people. In this case he gave the performance of his life.