A Family Discovery – Yom HaShoah Comes to Life

April 28, 2014

As the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, I never heard the story of the murder of our family members directly from my grandfather – he never liked talking about it – but it was told and retold to me by my mother. She pursued graduate work in Holocaust studies, she lectured on the topic, she chaperoned hundreds of teenagers on visits to the camps and crematoria. So immersed was she in Holocaust literature that our bookshelves brimmed with the classics.

As for me, after all this exposure, I had somehow reverted to my grandfather’s silence. Not that I wasn’t willing to talk about it, but the fact was simply that the Shoah was a closed piece of my history, sealed and far away. The schools I attended did such a good job of Holocaust education, as did the summer camps – which would not let a Tisha b’Av go by without showing images of gas chambers or talking about the destruction of European Jewry – that I somehow felt saturated. I didn’t need to talk about it anymore.

Until now. My second cousin received an email from a gentleman in Israel. He had heard there were members of a Chanowitz family (my mother’s maiden name) in the United States. Since this man’s mother was a Chanowitz, he thought perhaps we were distant relatives. He knew his mother was the only survivor of her entire family, which had included nine children. But perhaps this was a cousin through his mother’s distant family.

He proceeded to tell his mother’s lineage and all the details of the family. As my mother read me the original email over the phone, I was in shock. This man’s mother, was none other than Asna Mera, who figured prominently in our family’s story, the story I had heard so many times growing up.

Asna was the second sister of my grandfather’s family. She was taken away in the first of the roundups, along with many of the leaders of the community. The story I had heard (and details are now being clarified) was that when the Jews had heard that there was danger, the entire Chanowitz family barricaded themselves in their home for protection. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. Asna insisted that they should open the door despite the danger, because it could be a Jew in need of protection. And so the other family members barricaded themselves into the back of the house while Asna opened the door. It was a German soldier, who immediately took her away. Asna was shot and buried in a mass grave in the forest, along with the rest of the group. She was just a teenager when she was murdered.

And now, we hear that Asna actually had somehow escaped and had made a life for herself in the former Soviet Union, that Asna had children and grandchildren, a family. My family.

And suddenly my family’s history, and my own, opened up again. Suddenly the tales of the Shoah were happening right here and right now. I felt the strange feeling of gaining family, of reviving the dead, of repairing a broken chain of my identity and of my family. It felt like a world reborn.

And then the realization hit: if this entire branch of my family could suddenly reappear, and could elicit such a feeling of rebirth and of hope, what of all the branches that never got to be? All the siblings who were, in fact, brutally murdered? Where are their descendants now? Where are all my dear cousins who should now be raising families of their own, as I am? And for the first time, I understood the loss. For the first time, I felt like a survivor.

The third generation is a strange place to be. It is the point where it is easy to step aside and allow the family story to be just that – a story rather than a living, breathing reality. For all these years, the Shoah was tucked away like a family heirloom. Now, it was suddenly dusted off and bequeathed to me, along with the loss and the void. It is my loss, too.

This piece originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News, April 24, 2014.

To read more about my family’s unfolding story, see this article from the Chabad Lubavitch Headquarters. (Our connection to Asna Mera’s family was made because of my family’s roots in Chabad.) My grandfather, Yisroel, is pictured at the right. 


Hidden meanings in the Passover Seder by Rabbi Hyim shafner

April 11, 2014

In a few days the Jewish people will celebrate the holiday of Passover. The central observance of Passover is the seder meal with matza (unleavened bread), maror (bitter herbs), a festive meal, four cups of wine, readings related to the Biblical exodus from Egypt 3500 years ago, and above all, dialogue including questions, answers and discussion.

The Bible itself frames the seder this way: “When your child shall ask you, “What is this service to you?” You shall answer, “With a strong hand did G-d take us out of Egypt.”” It is a meal of interaction, of questions, of hearing each other out, of family, and of connection.

According to Jewish tradition the function of this meal is to reenact the exodus from Egypt every year. But why is this so important? There seem to be other moments in Jewish history that could have been equally, if not more, significant.

The Rabbis tell us that the lamb which the Jewish people were told in the book of Exodus to slaughter that night before leaving Egypt, and to put its blood on their doorposts, was actually an Egyptian God. In fact the lamb is the zodiac sign for the month during which Passover always falls, Aries. This nation of Jewish slaves is told in the Bible that they should take this lamb and tie it up for 4 days, then roast it in fire and eat it in groups.

This was a meal like none other that the Jewish slaves had ever eaten. Slow roasted meat, eaten in pre-invited groups, consuming the deity of their captors. This is a meal of rebellion and unity. A meal of connected, free people, no longer acting like slaves. The Jewish people through this passover meal, are born together in rebellion.

Many claim that something more though is going on here. The Jewish people went down to Egypt because at the end of the book of Genesis Joseph’s brothers violently threw him in a pit. They took his coat of many colors from him, which Jacob their father had given him as a sign of his love, dipped the coat in blood and sold Joseph to a caravan bound for Egypt. They brought the coat to their father claiming that Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal.

Joseph ends up becoming the viceroy to Egypt and is there to provide food for his brothers when they come to Egypt during a drought, since due to the Nile Egypt always had crops. Ultimately it is the the hatred of Joseph’s brothers for him that lands the Jewish people in Egyptian slavery for 210 years and from which they are now being redeemed.

The vegetable that we dip in salt water at the beginning of the seder meal is called in Hebrew “carpas,” which is also the word for a fancy colored garment, a coat of many colors! This is a meal of dialogue, of sons all talking together, a meal with blood only on the doorpost outside.

A large group must come together to exactly finish the lamb, no bone of the lamb may be broken, it is a meal of freedom that unifies. That brings together the slave children of Abraham in Egypt as a united nation that can be redeemed. This meal of redemption and discussion, of unity and hearing each other out, of dipping but not in blood, recalls for us, and perhaps in the process attempts to repair, the rift among Jacob’s 12 sons that produced the exile to begin with.

In Christianity, a particular 1st century Passover seder that was had by 12 men and their leader is a central motif. A meal in which blood was, or became, a profoundly important spiritual theme. Could this perhaps also have emerged from the hidden meaning of the Passover seder, the unifying of and atonement for, Jacob’s 12 sons’ sin of “spilling” Joseph’s blood, ultimately the seminal event from which emerged the entire Biblical exile and redemption?


IRF Passover Supplement 5774

April 10, 2014

With Contributions by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Rabbi Barry Dolinger, Rabbi Jon Kelsen, and Rabbi Menashe East

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1xGwp0vdYtgTnhzTXdfd3kxckFvUk0tQ1hXczV3dWZHTk9z/edit?usp=sharing