Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Rav and the Refugees

Most engaged Jews knew of Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, author of the seminal Zionist Idea. But I have a soft spot for his father Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Herzberg.

As a first-born son, I needed to be redeemed in a ceremony called a Pidyan Haben. According to Jewish Law first-born sons are to be given to the priests. But priests became a hereditary group (the Kohen), so parents offer the priests a silver coin to redeem their son. It's all very cute and ancient. (Just to be a 100% clear for any conspiracy minded anti-Semites, this is all symbolic - no one is taking anyone's children!) The ceremony is to be held 31 days after the birth. My mother wanted the ceremony on a certain day that was not the 31th day after my birth.

(Another aside, the priest who performed my pidyon aben was a cousin. One of his sons performed my son's pidyon aben, and one of his grandsons, the late Dr. Ami Cohen, established Save a Child's Heart. If you are inclined on this Thanksgiving - or any day, because that is what this post is really about after all - to help those in need, this is a terrific cause.)

So my father and my mother's father (Grandpa Bernie) went to the Rebbe, Rav Herzberg, to see what could be done. My father, a product of the classic Reform movement, relates:
We went into a room packed with beards. Bernie talked to them for a bit in Yiddish and we went further in. As we went deeper into the forest of beards got bigger and grayer. Finally we reached the biggest whitest beard of them all.
Bernie explained the situation and the Rav got his calendar and counted the days. The day my mother wanted wasn't the right day. The Rav invited everyone have some schnapps. Then they counted again. Still not the day my mother wanted. Schnapps! Counting and then some more schnapps. After a few rounds of this, my mother got the day she wanted.
Cute story about a clever, flexible Rabbi with a sense of humor. We could use more of those. But Rav Herzberg was also made of steel.

When an African-American man from Toronto came with documentation to prove he was a Jewish cantor came to the synagogue and asked to lead prayers, the congregation shuddered and refused him. It was segregated Baltimore, they had their reasons. But their Rabbi was ashamed of them, took the man by the arm and walked out the door with him, announcing that he would never return because, "they'd insulted a human being made in the image of G-d."

In his 1940 Yom Kippur sermon, Rav Herzberg delivered a blistering sermon, castigating President Roosevelt for not doing enough to rescue the Jews of Europe. 
Our brothers are being killed in Europe by the Nazis. If we had any Jewish dignity, we would, at the end of this fast, get into our cars and go from Baltimore to Washington. We would picket the White House and we would demand of the president that he use his influence on the Nazis, as the great neutral power, to stop the killings....
His synagogue, within an hour of the end of Yom Kippur, fired him. 

The American Jewish community did not have its present day confidence in its standing. It shrank from overt political activism. And American Jews loved FDR. I'm reading the Phillip Roth classic, Portnoy's Complaint, in which he mentions his community saying a blessing for FDR. And this was a true blessing, not like the old blessing for the czar: May Hashem bless the czar and the keep the czar far away from us!

Herzberg did march on Washington, with 400 other Orthodox rabbis on October 6, 1943. These were not the polished Westernized American Jewish leaders - these were Eastern European Orthodox rebbes with accents in fur hats, giant beards, and long black coats. The President avoided them, claiming a busy schedule. He had advisors (including Jewish leaders), who told him avoid the rebbes. Vice President Henry Wallace met them briefly and "squirmed through a diplomatically minimum answer."
Image from The David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

(Vice presidents are kind of my thing - but Wallace was not a player under FDR, he was used here as a political punching bag.)

FDR was a great, great man. Was there someone else who could have pulled the U.S. out of the depression and mobilized its vast power to destroy the Nazis and Japanese Empire? But on this, he was wrong. How good for the Jewish people, for America, for the world would it have been to rescue a few hundred thousand more Jews - or even a million.

Food for thought as we count our blessings - and we consider the many many millions dreaming of the same.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Visit to the Postal Museum II: The National Nervous System

But focusing on this one exhibit is hardly fair to this fascinating museum.

It has the world's largest collection of stamps, harking back to the days when exotic stamps were items of wonder and mystery. They were also a significant organizational advance for governments, verifying payment of taxes and fees.

Stamps are neat, but the functioning of bureaucracies is what grabbed my attention. Now, the Post Office is generally seen as a relatively minor, and frankly dull (and earnest) government function. But, pre-electronic communications, organizing consistent large-scale communications to support commerce and the exchange of knowledge. I've also been interested in how large organizations function and the power of making them do so. It is incredible to think that the European powers, in the pre-electric era, with limited technology, managed to establish worldwide empires. Their technological advantages, while present, were insufficient. But their organizational abilities were essential.

Benjamin Franklin was a great American - a writer, inventor, and businessman and world-renowned scientist. His international fame helped make the American Revolution in France possible. He was a rock star in France, Monsieur Electricite. This status gave him access to elite Paris society in order to dun them for support for the Colonies. But he was also a postmaster. Establishing an orderly mail service through the colonies played an essential role in establishing an American identity (there was some self-interest involved since it allowed Franklin to better disseminate his writings and acquire information from around the Eastern seaboard and beyond.)

As the colonies moved towards independence, they established a postal system before anything else. Representatives needed to communicate and couldn't rely on the British system which they knew was monitored. In effect, the United States had a post office before it had an army, government, or anything else.

Side note, the British postal system had always been monitored. People knew if they wrote against the king, for example, it might very well be read and the writer would find themselves in big trouble. In contrast, the United States never really accepted a domestic intelligence agency. The FBI does the job in a pinch, but they'd prefer to catch criminals.

Now we live in the age of big data, instantaneous global communication, and innumerable complex bureaucracies. Yet for its time, the Post Office was a marvel of communication and a major technological innovator that made enormous contributions to the American economy.

It is fascinating to consider the postal system as a sort of rudimentary nervous system for a great nation, binding its vast spaced together. Ultimately it was superseded by telephones and now the Internet. It is easy to dismiss it as primitive compared to our present-day wonders. But just as scientists study and people wonder at less complex organisms like jellyfish, we can marvel at all the postal system achieved given the technology available and learn from it.