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If Your Menorah Could Talk, What Would It Say?

Menorah. Courtesy Scott Ableman CC, Flickr

Menorah. Courtesy Scott Ableman CC, Flickr

I have told many of you about a close friend of mine in the Rabbinate who is a collector of antiques. Among his collection are a number of gorgeous menorot from different places and time periods. One was an 18th century German menorah. Just before the pogrom of Kristallnacht, someone who had an inkling of what was about to happen brought the beautiful menorah to the Bishop of Ulm, a German city on the Danube. The Bishop hid it in the church crypt. At the end of the war, the menorah came into the possession of Otto Frank, who survived the war, though his wife and daughters (Anna and Margot) did not. Otto Frank went on to become quite active in the Reform Movement of Europe. My friend was interning for a time in Europe and spent an evening in Frank’s home. Frank saw him staring at the menorah and understood that this was someone who appreciated the value of good art. Frank decided to give him the menorah on the condition that he would see to it that Kaddish would be recited for his daughters in the United States. My friend agreed, and the menorah found a new home.

Another piece in my friend’s menorah collection was black, fashioned out of shrapnel that was collected from one of the battlegrounds in the aftermath of the Six Day War in Israel in 1967. (“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares….”)

One Chanukah a number of years ago, I sat in my friend’s apartment in New York, along with a several other friends. The apartment was ablaze with light from the vast menorah collection. This time he focused on another incredible piece in the collection. He shook his head and opined, “If that thing could only talk!”

And so, my friends, I bring this story to you now, and hope you will take the opportunity to make it your own. If Your Menorah Could Talk, What Would It Say? Maybe it has been passed through generations of your family. Maybe it is brand new. Maybe it has a child-centered theme, or came as a gift from a special person in your life. Whatever it may be, the story of your menorah is ultimately a story about you; about you, your family, and your relationship to Jewish life.

This Sunday, during our Chanukah celebration, instead of lighting all our menorot (because it isn’t actually Chanukah yet), our menorot will tell their stories to all to come to celebrate with us. Bring your menorah, and we will provide a card and a pen for you to write your menorah’s story to share with all of us. And we look forward to sharing ours with you.

In Concert

Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra

Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra

With a free evening from Hartman this past Monday, Steve and I treated ourselves to a performance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) at the International Convention Center, known to most as “Binyanei Ha’uma,” which is across from the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. The IPO usually performs at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium at the Cultural Center of Tel Aviv, but since last night’s performance was in Jerusalem, it saved us the drive. Maestro Zubin Mehta conducted the orchestra, along with the Gary Bertini Israeli Choir and an assemblage of magnificent soloists, in a concert performance of Giuseppi Verdi’s opera, “Un Ballo In Maschera” (A Masked Ball) – a story of palace intrigue and affairs of the heart. Verdi originally intended the protagonist to be the King of Sweden, but the court censor nixed that idea, and relocated the story to center around the governor of Boston, MA, in the 18th century. Admittedly, a pretty ridiculous premise; but Monday’s performance was absolutely gorgeous, with magnificent singing and playing all around.

The great conductor Arturo Toscanini conducted the first performance of the IPO on December 26, 1936. Originally called the Eretz Yisrael Symphony Orchestra, the name was changed to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with the formation of the state in 1948. The orchestra was founded by violinist Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish Jew who had fled from the Nazis to Palestine. Its general manager was Leo Kestenberg, a German Jew forced out of Germany by the Nazi regime. In fact one of the primary intents of the orchestra was to provide professional opportunities for many Jewish musicians forced out of Europe and elsewhere, as the world moved closer to conflagration. During WWII, the orchestra played no fewer than 140 performances for Allied soldiers, and in 1942, arranged a special performance for the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade of El Alamein. Since that time the IPO has played numerous performances for IDF soldiers all over the country.

In 1988 Leonard Bernstein was named the IPO’s Laureate Conductor. Seven years earlier, in 1981, Steve and I had the pleasure of attending an outdoor concert of the IPO in Jerusalem, which Bernstein conducted. In honor of Former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kolek, the program included a segment of Viennese Waltzes by Johann Strauss. It was an incredible moment – sitting in a valley known as the “Sultan’s Pool,” packed to the gills with enthusiastic music lovers, just outside the Old City Wall, which was specially illuminated for the occasion, listening to Strauss waltzes conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Now what could be better than that?!

Honorary Guest Conductors of the IPO have included William Steinberg, Kurt Masur, and currently Yoel Levi. In 1968, Bombay-born Zubin Mehta became the orchestra’s Music Advisor, and in 1977, its Music Director. Mehta was born in the same year as the orchestra. Next year they will both celebrate their 80th birthdays. Mehta and IPO have a seemingly organic relationship, and he has earned the respect and affection of all its players.

An interesting controversy arose in July of 2001 during a performance of the IPO conducted by the Argentinian-born Daniel Barenboim, who lived in Israel for a number of years as a young man. At a certain point during the concert, Barenboim announced to the audience that he intended to conduct the orchestra in a performance of Richard Wagner’s “Overture to Tristan und Isolde.” In the wake of Kristallnacht in 1938, the orchestra adopted an unofficial ban on Wagner’s music, because of Wagner’s own rabid anti-Semitism, and because his music served as a personal inspiration for Hitler. When Barenboim announced his intention, he acknowledged that many people there might be offended, particularly survivors of the Holocaust and/or their descendants. A 30-minute heated debate ensued in the theater, and a number of people walked out in protest. The music was played anyway. But then in May of 2012, the IPO announced its decision to lift the ban on Wagner’s music, and on June 18th of that year, held a program dedicated to a discussion of Wagner, which it called: “An Academic Musical Encounter: Herzl – Toscanini – Wagner.” The IPO concluded that with the passage of time, and the expanded understanding of Herzl and Toscanini’s own more positive relationships with the music, the artistic value and lush beauty of Wagner’s music no longer should be banned from its programs.

In April of 2013, the IPO played a concert in Warsaw, Poland, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The concert began with playing of “Hatikvah,” sung by the Polish National Opera. The Israel Philharmonic playing Hatikvah. . . in Warsaw. . .

Can the wounds of history be healed? Perhaps that is a question that cannot be answered categorically. But there have indeed been times when human beings have found a way to live, even with those wounds, in the ultimate pursuit of peace. In these two particular cases, it was through the potential for human creativity and the universal language of music. On Monday night in Jerusalem, Steve and I heard an Israeli orchestra, with soloists from Spain, Albania, the United States, Germany, Russia, and Italy, led by a conductor from India, performing the music of an Italian composer. At least within this context, we may find a note of consolation and hope.

Making His Way Around the Broken Glass

Semone Grossman

Semone Grossman

On Tuesday, November 9, 2010, Peggy Lebenson, Union Temple’s own Charlie Rose, interviewed Semone Grossman, Holocaust survivor, at our Commemoration of Kristallnacht, the concentrated attack on the Jews of Germany on this night seventy-two years before.

Peggy’s format enabled Mr. Grossman to sit comfortably in our midst, speaking his harrowing story without having to stand and deliver a speech. He traced his early history as a boy in a small town now in Poland that had been at times a part of Germany. He took us with him on his journey from ordinary living through the growing privations and dangers of the early Nazi period. Semone described the gradual loss of freedoms for Jews as Jewish children were deprived of attending public schools, as they were no longer allowed to sit on park benches, eventually not allowed to leave their homes after an early curfew, and deprived of an adequate diet. Ultimately the Jews of his town and neighboring towns were rounded up and sent to slave labor or death camps.

The reasons that Semone Grossman survived to tell his story are many. First and foremost was his mother’s observant eye. As the family stood in line during the round-up, she watched the selections, the very young and the old ordered to the left, the stronger adults ordered to the right. When someone in the line fainted, distracting the selection officer, she pointed to the right, ordering her son, “Run, run.” His mother’s vigilance and his obedience of her command was the first in a series of chance events that enabled him to live. The other children and the elderly who went left were transported to their deaths.

Semone thus became the youngest member of the various labor camps that he inhabited during the years of his captivity. Perhaps his young age protected him from the worst of the back-breaking work, as apparently he was assigned work less arduous than the older prisoners. One of his jobs was tending to the camp commandant, cleaning his quarters and delivering him meals. He would pile on the food for the commandant and sneak some for himself and some of the other inmates. As Semone, now in his eighties, spoke, we could imagine him as the hungry boy he was describing. As he answered questions, his child-like mischievousness, his inherent likability, and his wiliness became clear to us.

That night I was aware, as many of us were, that we are nearing the time when we won’t have the chance to ask questions of a person who has come through this experience and lived to tell about it. No longer can we take this privilege for granted.

Semone’s upbeat tone seemed especially remarkable, and our questions reflected our amazement at such resilience in the face of the enormity of what he lived through. The first questions tried to elicit how his parents explained what was happening, as the restrictions on the Jews became more and more harsh. He had no way to grapple with these questions even though asked three different ways. Peggy later intuited his inability to address this question: his parents were from a culture with little recognition of the psychological lives of children and were absorbed in the tasks of surviving and providing enough food for themselves and their children.

Several questioners asked how he felt about Germans. He responded in a way that seemed unlikely: he seemed willing to forgive and even to forget what had been perpetrated by the German people. He had, after all, been given many lucky breaks. He gave the example of the good guard who gave Semone his address in a village outside of Munich. The guard had offered to help Simone after the war if he could make his way to Germany. In fact Semone did get to Munich, looked up the guard, who then found Semone an apartment. The Germans he met in Munich were also kind to him. He expressed no bitterness, held no resentments, to the amazement of many of us.

Eventually in 1949, through the help of a cousin living in America, he immigrated to the U.S. He figured he’d sleep in a park but instead this young, resourceful, and lucky man found an apartment and then a job, working in a gas station. He was given the task of parking cars and came to realize the money that could be made in owning land where cars could be parked off the street. How he came to own a group of garages throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn is yet another chapter of this man’s lucky, lucky, lucky life.

Peggy asked the last question, “What advice could you give us, could you give to my young daughter, sitting over there?” Again he avoided the question.

“I have a 17 year old and 22 year old daughter. I know they won’t listen to my advice.”

Yet we came away with a sense of being in a room with a man whose life and resilience teaches us more than any sentence he might utter. One sentence stayed with me: “I live every day like it’s the first and last day of my life.”