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. 

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Making the Law of Return Work for All Jews, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

November 9, 2009

On Friday an Op Ed appeared in the Jerusalem post, written jointly by Rabbi Seth Farber – Orthodox – and Rabbi Ed Rettig – Reform – where together they excoriated the Israeli government and its bureaucratic arms for preventing Jewish converts from becoming Jewish citizens under the Law of Return.  Rather than recognizing all Jewish converts as Jews, as the Israeli Supreme court ordered over a decade ago, the relevant ministries are requiring converts to jump through multi-year hoops in order to gain acceptance.  I would add to it, that I was involved in an Orthodox  conversion that was flat-out rejected since the Interior ministry did not recognize the Beit Din of Evanston as a legitimate Beit Din.

Rather than getting angry at the government of Israel or the ministries or the individual bureaucrats involved, I suggest there is a systemic problem that has a simple solution.  The problem is once again: “Who is a Jew?”  True, Israel  years ago veered away from defining that halachically, but still – is anyone who is converted by anyone, or anyone who just claims they are Jewish with no evidence to be admitted under the Law of Return?  If not – and  on the surface it seems we need some control – then who determines the criteria? The Rabbanut doesn’t, but now secular ministries do, and that is worse!

I say the only way for the Law of Return to work the way it is supposed to – to protect every “Jew” in the world from potential persecution and to allow any “Jew” in the world to return to the Land of the Jews is if yes, Israel accepts anyone who converts to Judaism in any way, and anyone who declares that they are Jewish. Wouldn’t the Nazis kill anyone who claimed to be Jewish?  Wouldn’t the crusades kill anyone who claimed they were Jewish?  Would the Muslim mobs in Morocco or Yemen kill any Muslim who declared they had become Jewish no matter who converted them or how?  Of course.  So the Law of Return should apply to anyone who claims they are Jewish and who is willing to have “Yehudi” stamped on there Te’udat Zehut – their Israeli identity card.  Yes, we may get millions from around the world, from Africa and Asia and South America declaring they are Jewish – Oy gevalt!  More self identifying Jews in Israel!!  That is exactly what we want.

Yes, if you are racist, or bigoted or xenophobic you will be afraid of these “Jews” coming to Israel.  But that is what Ben Hecht claimed some of the early Jews living in Israel felt about the masses from Europe – were they the right kinds of Jews to bring to the Holy Land?  That is was some of the Gedolim told Rav Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg when he wanted to save the Hildesheimer Yeshiva in Germany from Nazi destruction by bringing it to Palestine – they felt it was the wrong type of Yeshiva and Torah for the Holy Land of Israel.  So they perished at the hand of the Germans.

Just as the system works today, the Jewish and religious community in Israel will have to sort out “Who is a Jew?” from a Halachic point of view.  Following the Mishna B’rurah’s p’sak for minyan and leading services, anyone who shows up in shul will be counted (males, that is, for the Orthodox) and can daven, because of the law of the majority.  When it comes to weddings, anyone who wants to get married will have to convert – if they haven’t already – based on the standard of that community: chareidim, Modern Orthodox, s’faradim, etc.  No hard feelings. If I can verify to the community I want to live in and marry in that I am Jewish, fine.  Otherwise, that community should welcome me if I meet their standards of conversion.  But no one in the world who self identifies as a Jew should be denied admission to Israel as an Israeli citizen.

We need the Law of Return to work to save Jews and bring them home to Israel.  Let us welcome all Jews – anyone who says they are Jewish should be welcome in the Jewish state.  And maybe if those masses of self-identifying Jews come back to the Homeland, in all their shapes and colors, then maybe those Jews from America and Europe, who have the proof that they are Jewish, will return as well.  Then Israel will  be the safe-heaven for Jews which the founding fathers of Israel, such as Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky  envisioned.


Making Sacrifices Meaningful by Rabbi Lopatin

August 17, 2009

I have always had a rough time getting into the idea of animal, bird or grain sacrifices meaningful. The idea of killing an animal and spritzing its blood on the alter and burning some of it, eating some of it – has never spoken to me. Just last week, in Re’eh, we talked a lot about centralizing sacrifices. And this week, Parshat Shoftim, while focusing mainly on leadership issues, still manages to slip in how sacrifices: Which sacrifices go to the Kohanim, the spiritual leaders? How to make “leadership” sacrifices, and not blemished ones. What do we make of all this talk about sacrifices, and, more to the point, how do they relate to today’s world?
Here are some ideas I’ve picked up over the years: Even though “korban” comes from the root to get closer to God, the word “sacrifice” actually does convey the meaning of this ritual, but we normally forget that “sacrifice” is a powerful word for the lives we live: it means to give up something for a causes, for someone you love, for something you believe in and feel is right. At the core, that is what God wants – God wants us to make the necessary sacrifices in life in order to have a better connection to God – to come closer to God – and to have a meaningful life and to make this a better world.
One easy read of this interpretation and translation is in the “avodah” blessing we say at least three times every day of the week: “Retze Hashem Elokeinu… v’ishei Yisrael … t’kabel b’ratzon…” We ask God to please be happy with the People of Israel and to accept the “fires” – read sacrifices, day to day sacrifices – of Israel with favor… That doesn’t mean the ritual slaughter we do; that means the real tough choices we make to be Jews. No, it doesn’t have to be hard, “shveir”, to be a Jew, but it does require the ability to give up some things at some times. It’s those “fires” – we want God to accept. At the most painful and radical level, those are the burnt bodies of the millions of Jews who gave their lives merely for being born Jewish. That sacrifice, involuntary and tragic, is a holier fire than all the animal sacrifices offered in the Temple – first or second. But even the smaller burnt offerings, the moments of pleasure and opportunity that we sacrifice and burn for the sake of our love of God and Judaism and what is right, we ask for God to see them all and take them all in a sign of our devotion to God and our ability to rise up – the olah offering – and reach closer to God.
But will these sacrifices of love and devotion be enough? After all, in the standard Musaf, we Orthodox maintain the language: “And the Musaf of Yom… we will do and sacrifice with love as you have desired and as you have written to us in the Torah…” That’s not some vague offering of love and devotion and sacrifice. No, that‘s the real animal and grain, and we say so in the musaf davening as well. Actually, we would fulfill our obligation not enumerating the details, and so we see that those details are not central to the prayer. But still, we say we will sacrifice as God proscribed in the Torah! Look closely, however; we say we will do this sacrifice WITH LOVE! Yes, we will do the same thing God told us to do in the Torah, but we will do it in a mode of love. What will that look like? I don’t know. But what it looks like is not as important. What is important is that it is essentially a sacrifice not of an animal or a grain, but a sacrifice of love. And perhaps we won’t even need any animals to do these sacrifices in the future – the Torah commandment will be fulfilled with love. There are plenty of midrashim that clearly state that almost all the sacrifices will be eliminated in the Messianic era. I say no! The sacrifices will still be here, but they will be offered through love and devotion not through physical destruction of an animal or a bird or a grain.
One more thought regarding these sacrifices of love: Last week’s Parsha of Re’eh warned us not to offer these sacrifices anywhere but in the Holy Land and the Holy City where God’s name is sanctified. I think there is a hint in these verses that the sacrifices we make for Judaism and for God’s presence in the world should be done in Israel, the Land of Zion, and not, primarily in the Diaspora. Yes, there was a period where sacrifices were allowed on “bamot” – on altars everywhere. But ultimately, the Torah wants us to put our effort, our commitment our devotion and our love into the Land of Israel and come together to show our love of God. So work hard, Jews everywhere, and make the sacrifices of love that God requires, but save your most profound work for Israel, for the Land where God wanted all the sacrifices to be made, to build a great people in order to be the light onto the nations.

Asher Lopatin