What is a Mezuzah?

Daphne Fautin, LJCC Board President

I recently found among the belongings of my late cousin Shirley, of blessed memory, an attractive but cheap flattened metal tube in the form of a Torah scroll that contained a piece of paper. I identified it as what I have (erroneously) been calling a mezuzah; I was most puzzled by the piece of paper it contained. It was the Ten Commandments – in English. I thought that was not what belonged there so I was inspired to do some research.

A recent newsletter column by the Rabbi enumerated some books that every Jewish household should possess, among them guides to Jewish living. We have several; I consulted The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion (edited by Werblowsky and Wigoder), To Be a Jew (by Donin), and Guide for the Jewish Homemaker (by Levi and Kaplan). I also looked at what is perhaps the first book of this sort I owned, and is still a sentimental favorite, Herman Wouk’s This is My God, and, of course, I visited the Chabad website and the ever-popular Wikipedia.

They all confirmed my understanding that a mezuzah is to be posted on the ‘doorpost’ of a house in fulfillment of the commandment ‘Thou shalt write them upon the doorposts of thy house and upon thy gates.’ But the real question occasioned by my discovery is what it is that ‘thou shalt write.’ And in the course of finding out that, I learned a lot!

First I learned that what I have been referring to as a mezuzah is not. Wouk’s glossary contains a concise definition of a mezuzah, ‘A doorpost; by extension the boxed scroll containing the Sh’ma with other Bible passages fastened on the doorposts of Jewish homes.’ Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mezuzah) explains more: ‘A mezuzah (Hebrew: “doorpost”; plural: mezuzot), is a piece of parchment (often contained in a decorative case) inscribed with specified Hebrew verses from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21). These verses comprise the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael” … A mezuzah is affixed to the doorframe in Jewish homes to fulfill the mitzvah (Biblical commandment) to inscribe the words of the Shema “on the doorposts of your house” (Deuteronomy 6:9). Some interpret Jewish law to require a mezuzah on every doorway in the home apart from bathrooms and closets too small to qualify as rooms.’

So mezuzah means doorpost but refers to a piece of parchment. Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin alone (of the authorities I consulted) gives the parchment scroll its own name – klaf. And he is alone in stating that one of those fancy boxes is unnecessary — you can carve out a place directly in a doorpost for the klaf. The parchment is written, according to Wikipedia, ‘by a qualified scribe (a “sofer stam“) who has undergone many years of meticulous training, and the verses are written in black indelible ink with a special quill pen. The parchment is then rolled up and placed inside the case.’ Werblowsky and Wigoder explain that the writing of the mezuzah ‘is to be executed with the same care taken in the writing of a Scroll of the Law.’ I also learned (from Wikipedia) that an observant Jew will have the parchment checked for defects by a sofer at least twice every seven years. So, my feeling was confirmed that a piece of paper with the Ten Commandments was not appropriate for the vessel.

Wikipedia states that commonly two inscriptions are written on the back of the parchment, shaddai (“Almighty”), and ‘the third, fourth, and fifth words of the Shema … opposite the corresponding words on the front,’ but that the latter is prohibited in Sephardic tradition. According to Werblowsky and Wigoder, the word shaddai should be seen through an aperture in the holder. Most mezuzah cases have the letter shin (the initial of shaddai) on the holder itself; the object from Shirley that provoked this search has the entire word shaddai (in Hebrew) within the magen David on the front.

The Chabad site (www.chabad.org/generic_cdo/aid/278476/jewish/Mezuzah.htm) seems to regard a mezuzah as a sort of talisman, stating ‘The name of G‑d, Sha-dai, which appears on the reverse side of the parchment, is an acronym for the Hebrew words which mean “Guardian of the doorways of Israel.” The placing of a mezuzah on the doors of a home or office protects the inhabitants — whether they are inside or outside.’ The banner for the Chabad site in a Google search is: ‘Mezuzah – The Jewish security system – Chabad.org’. But the Chabad site begins by stating ‘A mezuzah mounted on the doorpost designates the home as Jewish, reminding us of our connection to G‑d and to our heritage … The mezuzah is also a symbol of G‑d’s watchful care over the home.’ Lest the symbolism be misinterpreted, Levi and Kaplan, who begin their book with a discussion of the mezuzah, state ‘the mezuzah is intended as a lesson, not as a charm,’ preceding that remark with the assertion that the ‘contents [of a mezuzah] are teachings of Judaism.’

Levi and Kaplan, Rabbi Donin, and the websites I consulted provide guidance on affixing mezuzot, and the prayer to be recited when doing so. Wikipedia makes the interesting point that one must affix mezuzot to the doorposts of a purchased residence immediately on moving in, as is also true of a rented residence in Israel, whereas, in the Diaspora, one has 30 days to affix a mezuzah in a rented residence.

At the other end, of the authorities I consulted, only Rabbi Donin provides guidance on what to do when moving from a house – leave the mezuzah if the next resident is Jewish but remove it if not. If the non-Jewish next resident ‘request[s] that the mezuzah be left on since he regards it as some sort of “lucky charm” that might bring him good fortune, this is an unworthy attitude toward the mezuzah and the mezuzah should still be removed … but it may be left on as long as the sacred parchment scroll (klaf) is removed.’

In summary, I learned that a mezuzah is the text itself of the entire Shema, which also includes the commandment concerning t’fillin: ‘Thou shalt bind them for a sign upon they hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes.’ Both the t’fillin and mezuzah fulfill the commandment to recall and recite the Shema. And I learned that ‘A mezuzah is not, contrary to popular belief, the outer container. The mezuzah is actually the parchment scroll within.’ This evidence that my misapprehension is widely shared comes from the Chabad site.

With deep gratitude to Herb for giving me a Kosher klaf for my cheap little case.

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2013 BB Poster

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Fred Scheff surprises LJCC with a visit!

On Friday, June 21, we were thrilled to welcome Fred Scheff, former Cantor for the LJCC, as he returned to help lead services with Rachel Black, Cantorial Soloist.  View a portion of his visit here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPoE_zdwSEE

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An Unanswered Letter, An Unanswered Call for Help: What the Holocaust Shows Us About Caring Enough to Take Action

Editor’s Note: The following is the keynote address given by Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg at the State of Kansas Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony on Monday, April 8, 2013 at the Kansas State History Museum.

 

Thank you so much for having me here today, and especially to everyone on the organizing committee and who shared such moving readings and songs. I’m deeply honored to speak to share some of the story of the late Lou Frydman, who is the subject along with Polish resistance fighter Jarek Piekalkiewicz in my book Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other. What Lou and Jarek would say echoes all of what we’re contemplating today, especially what Rep. Paul Davis read from Elie Wiesel: “We must take sides,” and from caring enough, we must take action.

 

I want to share with you warning signs of the Holocaust, on the personal and global levels, that went unheeded, and what we can learn from these answered calls.

 

1. An Unanswered Letter

            When Lou Frydman began sharing with me his oral history of the Holocaust, he started with me the most important letter he ever received: one his mother Rywa Frydman wrote 70 years ago and which Lou only received a copy of a decade ago. He was thrilled to see his mother’s handwriting as she wrote to a family friend, imploring her to help place Lou and and his brother Abe in Christian homes where they could be hidden for the war. The letter was probably written in March or April of 1943 when the Frydmans lived in the Warsaw Ghetto between years in hiding, and either death or concentration camps.

 

Rywa Frydman wrote with heart-breaking candor, “The world belongs to the brave, but I have lost my bravery, my nerve, with everything else. I have especially lost my trust in people….Thirty-two of us live in one room, sleeping on tables….it is not possible to go out to the street. We are with people who have, in most cases, lost most of their family members. They are demoralized, have no faith in anything, no longer even feel any pain. It is difficult to live in such surroundings.” She went on to ask,

 

Regarding our placement, the truth is that I would like all of us to live together. Why should my fate be better than anyone else’s? On the other hand, one would like to live. The world is so nice.

 

If you could place Lolek (Lou) by himself and me and Aba (her husband) together, I would never leave the house at all, but I would like to be assured that those around knew of my family situation. Please kindly take care of this matter as I think that this is likely to be my last request of you. I worry that we may not succeed as time is fast running out. Whatever you can do, dear lady, please do it now – let’s have a clear conscience that everything was done that could have been done. Beyond this, I feel at peace. I hold no ill feelings toward anyone……At this moment I have become very emotional and am crying like an old lady. I have received so much kindness from you and I believe I have not deserved it – this causes me much pain.

 

We don’t know if the dear friend actually received this letter, sent a reply that didn’t arrive in time, or, fearing for her own life (as Poles who helped Jews were regularly sent to concentration camps or shot) didn’t answer at all. But we do know that on April 28, 1943, the final residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were ferreted out of the 600 underground bunkers and other hiding places. They shipped to Treblinka to be gassed to death, or toward other camps to mostly die and, very rarely, survive. Lou’s father Chaim Mejer Frydman was shot that day along with the other men from the bunker where his family had hidden with other 400 other Jews. Rwya Frydman went to a concentration camp, where she was killed. Lou and Abe, only 13 and 14 years at the time, went onto six concentration camps, starting with one of the most brutal, and three death marches, until, two years later, they found their way toward freedom and a new life. They were the only ones not murdered during out of dozens of people in their large and loving family.

 

2. Warning Signs

            When it comes to any genocide, and especially the Holocaust — which was the most mechanized, planned-out, coldly calculated genocide in our history — we need ask how this could have happened. In the case of the Holocaust, the warning signs were incremental, starting with Hitler stripping Jews of their rights, starting in 1933, in what seemed like a nonsensical pattern. Each small change conditioned the Jews to believe if they could just make it through the next incremental insult, they might survive. After 1933, when political demonstrations were first banned in Germany and the Nazis opened Dachau for their political opponents, each month brought new changes. n 1934, Germany began to sterilize people the Nazis considered “unfit.” That same year, Jews were forbidden to act in theaters or grow vegetables. Jews were soon forbidden to own property, swim or buy milk. After Kristallnacht, when mobs were encouraged by German police and to smash the windows of Jewish businesses and burn synagogues to the ground, the German government began sending Jews to concentration camps as well as expelling Jewish children from German school and “aryanizing” – turning over to non-Jews – all Jewish businesses. The same year, Jews in Dresden were forbidden, oddly enough, to own combs or to cut flowers.

 

The overall state of denial, even among the victims, speaks to how the Holocaust’s impossibility – or at least, its supposed impossibility – turned into the systematic annihilation. Put into action by extensive coordination between government agencies, this denial made killing easy, almost second nature, for those involved. Furthermore, because it tended to traumatize German soldiers to shot hundreds of Jews each day, the mechanized gas chambers took hold, often staffed by concentration camp prisoners who would lead new arrivals in, and afterwards, remove and sort any remaining valuables for the Nazis.

 

Yet there’s another element that Lou pointed out to me that was essential to the plan: the power of the group. Lou said that Hitler succeeded in making the German people feel like they belonged. That sense of belonging is key, connecting people to a common identity. From sharing such a strong sense of belonging and purpose, it’s easier for one people to dehumanize another people, to see them as less than livestock or manufactured products; as only a problem to be eliminated.

 

We just celebrated Passover, a holiday based on a story of oppression and liberation in which Pharoah hardened his heart against the plight of the Jews.  A hardened heart is what fueled the machinery of mass murder and the heartbreak for generations for come. A hardened heart — playing out in indifference or hatred, turning away from those in pain or turning toward them with anger — allows us to distance from the reality of other people’s very real and beating hearts.

 

3. An Unanswered Call

            “Let me tell you a story,” Lou says. “In 1975, Jane and I visited the death camps, including Treblinka, where most of the Jews from Warsaw were gassed. To get to Treblinka, at least to where the gas chambers were, you had to pass over an inland bridge. It wasn’t over water. If this bridge were destroyed, Treblinka would be useless until they could rebuild it. It would take them years. The Underground never touched the bridge, but neither did the damn Allies.”

 

This story is one of many. The Underground government of Poland, while very effective at damaging the German war effort, and even more so, the Allies, hardly ever liberated a camp, nor attacked a transport so that people could escape.

 

Lou continues, “With Dachau, the camp I was liberated from [at the end of the war], the American troops were sent in by accident…..We were written off. We were prematurely dead. Nobody expected us to survive.”

 

In the end, there were only verbal protests. The U.S. Government held that planes to bomb the camps couldn’t be spared, asserting that “such an effort, even if practicable, might provoke even more vindictive [acts] by the Germans,” in the words of John J. McCloy, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of War. Other fighters in this conflict, while sympathetic to the plight of the Jews in ghettos and camps, were focused on their own agendas.

 

Lou went on to tell me, “In fact, Hitler, in one of his speeches, in 1939 or 1940, commented on it. He said, ‘Look, nobody will cry for what we are doing to them.’” Lou showed me documentation of a British diplomat who said the Jews were the Nazi’s responsibility, and the Allies shouldn’t interfere.

 

What Lou says is confirmed by my research. “The terrible truth was that in ten crucial years, 1933-1943, there were over 400,000 unfilled places within U.S. immigration quotas for refugees from countries under Hitler’s rule. Each place unfilled was a sentence of death for a European Jew.” According to the United States Holocaust Museum and other statistics I’ve found, many countries turned away from taking on refugees who might have escaped the gas chambers had their visas been approved.

 

There is ample research to show just how much the Allied governments knew about the Holocaust, and just how little was done.  There are millions of people — including very likely one third to one half of all Germans, according to research, who knew what was happening and didn’t intervene. While the whole tangle of unheeded calls is infinitely complex, the result is simply horrendous. We know that approximately 9 million people died in concentration camps, 6 million of whom were Jews, and even those who survived carried and carry within them galaxies of loss.

 

4. Heeding the Warning Signs: Answering the Call

            “Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe,” as Elie Wiesel said and Rep. Davis shared with us. Answering the call also means stepping into the center of the universe: into what makes us human, into our birthright to care for each other and live with dignity. “The world belongs to the brave,” Rwya Frydman wrote in her unanswered letter, and also, “One would like to live. The world is so nice.” The world is so nice, despite and because of that space that lies between devastation and the life force.

 

Educating ourselves, in greater depth over time, about what humans are capable of at their worst, and what signs to heed as well as wonders to protect, is part of what makes us our best.

 

“What do you want people to know about the Holocaust?” I ask Lou.

 

“Everything! As much as possible.”

 

Yet learning what we can, grasping what we’re capable of grasping, and considering deeply the best course of action for the good of all must come first from opening our hearts, however hardened they’ve become, to seeing others as precious and alive, and through this vision, as part of who we are. Only through cultivating such compassion can we find the necessary clarity to see what is and what is needed, and the essential courage to speak, act and live with integrity for ourselves and dignity for all.

 

As Christians, as Jews, as Moslems, as Hindus, as Buddhists and as members of other faith traditions, and as Republicians or Democrats or Independents, we must overcome what divides us to step into the center of the universe at such crucial times. To get there, and to stay there, especially when it means working with others who have different perspectives than us, we are called upon to unharden our hearts so we can care enough to speak to injustice, speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and speak up for life. Let’s not leave such calls for help unanswered.

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A Song For Your Life in memory of Hadassah Singer

A Song For Your Life

In memory of Hadassah Singer

by Caryn Mirriam Goldberg
Poet Laureate of Kansas

You name your life in songs: tones ringing through your travels
and landings, departures and arrivals, until they weave themselves
into refrains you can never forget, like the beauty of Swansea,
so vibrant that when it was time to leave, you cried, or any of
the beautiful places that framed your life in dissonance and tilting
sunlight across the changing frames of time, wooden floors
for Israeli dancing or homecoming in narrow rooms. You loved
them all, you said, each song a moment concise as a turquoise
Swarvoski crystal catching the lamp light, yet fast as quick silver.
You sang on the hoof and in the steady quiet of your own
living room, your voice bright as the oceans you crossed,
knowing as the home fires in your heart. The music itself
bore witness to the voice of a child, ready to say or sing
something for the first time, and especially your children,
who added in their own melodies, rivers of shadow and rock
merging with one another and moonlight. All of this time
what music always is, always was for you even though
this too-soon ending to your life. Now the seasons to come,
echoed in the late winter light today and burst of spring warmth,
laced with the song of your presence and absence at once,
sounding here in all our hearts, igniting music.

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Hanukkah: A Holiday that Changes Meaning over Time

MotiHanukkah, which begins this year on the evening of December 8, is a great example of how the meaning of Jewish traditions changes across time, in response to the situations in which Jews find themselves.

As you probably know, Hanukkah commemorates the rebellion of the Hasmoneans against the Seleucids, successors of Alexander the Great who, unlike the conqueror himself, tried to impose the glories of advanced Greek civilization by outlawing Jewish practice. It’s a truism of Jewish life that Jews might not mind giving up Jewish practice, but they don’t like it to be taken away from them by force, and this time their response was rebellion. In 165 BCE, after a three-year struggle, the Hasmoneans defeated the Seluecids.

These events are recounted in the Book of Maccabees, a nearly contemporaneous account which wasn’t included in the Bible for two main reasons: first, a lot of it is in Greek, and second, the classical rabbis didn’t like it.

You see, the Hasmonean revolt was considered a bad example for the Jews who came after. The Seleucids were defeated militarily (largely because their attentions were divided with their other enemies), but when the same tactics were tried on the Romans, it led first (in 70 CE) to the destruction of the Temple, and then (Bar Kochba revolt, 135 CE) to the expulsion of the entire Jewish population from Judea. Because the option of armed resistance had done so much damage, the rabbis were at great pains to disapprove of it.

So when the rabbis, 500 years or after the events described, asked the question “Mai Hanukkah?” (What is Hanukkah?) the answer was very different: “For our Rabbis taught: …. when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they [the Hasmoneans] searched and found only one cruse of oil which possessed the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for only one day’s lighting; yet a miracle occurred there and they lit [the lamp] for eight days…” (BT Shabbat 21b)

And here we have the “miracle of the oil,” and with it a focus, not on rebellion and nationalism, but on ritual practice and miracle. We also the beautiful and powerful words of the prophetic portion read on Shabbat during Hanukkah, from the Book of Zekariah: “Not by might, and not by power, but by my spirit only, says Adonai of Hosts.”

There things stayed for hundreds of years. When the early Zionists began to settle Palestine, they weren’t interested in the quietistic and ritualistic Hanukkah of the rabbis. They wanted the rugged, self-defense orientation of the original story. The nationalistic elements of the classic story meshed well with the “new Jew” the Zionists were trying to develop, so that’s where they put the focus.

Here in America, the historical circumstance that has most affected our celebration of Hanukkah is its proximity to Christmas. Because we don’t want out children to feel deprived relative to the majority population, we have puffed up this fairly minor holiday to major proportions. Just another example of how Hanukkah is changed due to the historical circumstances of those celebrating it.

So where that leave us?

Despite a certain romantic attraction to the rugged rebellion of the Maccabees, I find myself more in agreement with the classical rabbis. A reliance on warfare as a means of national expression leads to all sorts of terrible consequences, as we keep seeing in our own time. When your major weapon is a hammer (Judah Maccabee was called “The Hammer”), then everything around you is a nail, and that’s no way to build a world.

As we light the lights this holiday, let’s remember, as Debbie Friedman reminded us, that it’s “not by might, and not by power” that the world will learn to live in peace, and in mutual connection and concern. And that really would be a Hanukkah miracle.

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Who Do We Represent?

  Jonathan   At the intersection in front of our house there are big red octagonal signs with the letters S T O P printed in white on them. It is unclear what the function of these signs is. For the most part, cars drive on past them without allowing them to impede their progress at all, although a few cars appear to accelerate when the signs come into view. This irks me, partly because I’ve had several close encounters with those drivers while I’ve been pulling out of our driveway or crossing the street with our slow, aged dachshund, and partly because I’m turning into one of those old men who derive pleasure from shaking their canes at reckless young whippersnappers. And so I occasionally find myself engaging in futile verbal exchanges with drivers of passing cars. I vent some anger while they generally ignore me, and the world turns on.

     Recently, however, I have made a conscious   effort to restrain my     emotions and to change the way I project myself to the world. A Yiddish proverb tells us der kaas iz a nar. Anger is a fool. It seems unbefitting of the president of our congregation to be out on the street making snide comments to passing motorists. It could cast our entire community in a bad light  –  what if someone recognized me as the president of the LJCC and wondered what kind of group elects a hot-headed bum to represent it? I don’t just represent myself; I represent all of us, and I try to moderate my behavior.

     But at a deeper level, don’t we all represent the community? It isn’t just the executive officers who are the faces of the Lawrence Jewish congregation; it is every member. We should all be striving to represent us in the best way possible. I should not have waited until I was president to consider what kind of a public presence I display; I should have been working at being a mentsh the whole time I’ve been associated with the Jewish people, which goes back pretty close to the time I was born.

     And even more profoundly, we all represent humanity, not just  Judaism. We can in our public and private lives seek to  conduct ourselves as representatives of people all over the world and all through history. We should not expect others to be better humans than we are, but we should constantly     expect ourselves to be  better humans than we are.

As promised, I will conclude with the phrase Bob reponendus est.  We must find a    successor as treasurer to Bob.

 Jonathan Paretsky

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