Thursday, July 31, 2003

More information on Ben Blutstein (by his father): "At 25, Ben, a graduate of the Rabbi David L. Silver Yeshiva Academy, Susquehanna Township High School and Dickinson College, was enrolled in a Masters Degree Program at Hebrew University, in conjunction with the Pardes Institute, in preparation for a career in Jewish education. Ben had just completed two years of advanced Jewish learning at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies when he was killed in a bombing attack in a Hebrew University cafeteria on July 31, 2002." He also quotes from a letter that Ben wrote to his grandmother in the fall of 2001, before Thanksgiving: "'I want to bless... all of us that we should have strength to continue doing the things we know are right even when others might think we're crazy or be concerned for us. And that all of us should continue to strive and grow....' Ben continued to strive and grow until his life was tragically ended."

Just a short note -- a year ago today, a terrorist bombing at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem took the lives of 9 people, including two young American students who were studying at the Pardes Institute. One of them, Benjamin Blutstein, was the son of people I know in Pennsylvania, and it was a tremendous shock to see his name in the list of the dead. May their memory be for a blessing. For a moving statement on the attack and its impact upon the university, see the article by Menahem Ben-Sasson, The tendency of memory.
I am rather disappointed by Andrew Sullivan's enthusiastic reception of an "evisceration" of Paula Fredriksen's very intelligent article on Mel Gibson's upcoming movie. One rather representative comment from the letter: "In fact, it is precisely Fredriksen's agenda -- to reduce Jesus to a merely historical figure and to use 'history' to obliterate any notion that Jews were involved in the killing of Jesus (one of their own, remember) that is beginning to border on fantasy." The author of this letter accuses Fredriksen of "political correctness" when actually she is employing the usual tools of historical-critical study of biblical texts. For example, he/she says:
Moreover, in light of Fredriksen's erudition and years of research, the decidedly unscientific method of her own argument is quite remarkable. She attacks the credibility of the evangelists, stating "[t]he evangelists wrote some forty to seventy years after Jesus's execution. Their literary problems are compounded by historical ones: it is difficult to reconstruct, from their stories, why Jesus was crucified at all".

This is, in fact, one of the usual assumptions in academic study of the New Testament. The letter writer then continues:
However, even she must concede that, however dubious she believes them to be, these gospels represent the only historical data directly bearing on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth; nonetheless, she summarily dismisses all but the most basic data to arrive at her predetermined conclusion: "But the historical fact behind the Passion narratives--Jesus's death on a cross--points to a primarily Roman agenda." The analysis sandwiched in between these statements involves incredible intellectual contortions. Fredriksen posits that Pilate had his own political motives for killing Jesus that were completely independent of any influence or pressure from the high priests by means of the following argument: "The fact that Jesus was publicly executed by the method of crucifixion can only mean that Rome wanted him dead: Rome alone had the sovereign authority to crucify. Moreover, the point of a public execution, as opposed to a private murder, was to communicate a message. Crucifixion itself implies that Pilate was concerned about sedition. Jesus's death on the cross was Pilate's way of telling Jerusalem's Jews, who had gathered in the holy city for the paschal holiday, to desist from any thought of rebellion."

The author of this letter takes the gospels at their face value, as offering an accurate historical record of the time, without being willing to view them critically at all. The consequence of this perspective is reiteration of traditional Christian anti-Judaism which blames the Jewish people as a whole for the death of Jesus -- a position rejected by the Second Vatican Council.
Interestingly, Matthew, the first of the gospel writers chronologically (and thus, presumably, the most intimately familiar with the facts and circumstances surrounding Jesus' crucifixion), seems to have agreed completely with this analytical process; but, of course, he arrived at a different conclusion (after noting some facts): "Meanwhile, the chief priests and elders convinced the crowds that they should ask for Barabbas and have Jesus put to death. So when the procurator asked them, 'Which one do you wish me to release for you?' they said, 'Barabbas.' Pilate said to them, 'Then what am I to do with Jesus, the so-called Messiah?' 'Crucify him!' they all cried. He said, 'Why, what crime has he committed?' But they only shouted the louder, 'Crucify him!' Pilate finally realized that he was making no impression and that a riot was breaking out instead. He called out for water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, declaring as he did so, 'I am innocent of the blood of this just man. The responsibility is yours.' The whole people said in reply, 'Let his blood be on us and on our children.' At that, he released Barabbas to them. Jesus, however, he first had scourged and then he handed him over to be crucified." (Matthew, 27:20-26 (The New American Bible)).

This passage from Matthew is one that has been used for the last 1900 years to justify both anti-Judaism (denigration and contempt for Judaism as a religion) and anti-semitism (denigration and attacks upon Jews as a group). Paula Fredriksen's approach to this text -- one which is accepted by many New Testament scholars, and which does not originate with her -- vitiates the offense offered by the statement "let his blood be on us and on our children" and contextualizes it as part of Matthew's agenda to diminish the responsibility of the Romans (at a time of overwhelming Roman hegemony over the Mediterranean world, and after the brutal war between Rome and the Jews of Palestine which lasted from 66-73) in order to make this new sect seem less threatening and more attractive to Gentiles. It is hard for me to understand why a contemporary Christian would want to maintain the force of the traditional anti-Jewish interpretation.

The author of the letter addresses Matthew's statement with this explanation:
(Sidebar: Note that the statement "Let his blood be on us and on our children", while easily misappropriated by anti-Semites, must be put into proper context. If applicable to all Jews, it would implicate Mary, the apostles and St. Paul, among all of the other early Christians. As it is, it simply refers to those individuals actively complicit in the event, and not to a larger group of people, most of whom were not present. One may love and honor and respect Jews without having to pretend that all of the Jewish residents of Jerusalem were looking the other way while the Romans slew one of their most high-profile brothers).

The letter writer seems to have missed the fact that Matthew says that the crowd says "let his blood be on us and on our children." This is a self-directed curse whose force falls not only on those who uttered it, but on their children, who, it seems to me, cannot be said to be guilty. And these words were used to justify millenia of anti-Jewish actions.
I had dinner with some friends tonight, with whom I had previously discussed this blog, and was complaining that I hadn't received much feedback. They pointed out that perhaps I hadn't gotten any e-mail, but that one type of blogging attention was when other people linked my blog to theirs. So lo and behold, I was just looking, and discovered that yes, indeed, I am linked to a few other folks. One blog that I found which looked really interesting is Kesher Talk, which advertises itself as "Judaism, Jewish culture and politics, Middle East affairs, etc." and has posts from multiple bloggers.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

I just came across a truly fascinating blog, mentioned in my friend Gary Farber's blog -- Hasidic Rebel, written by a man in one of the New York Hasidic communities about his life including many very interesting comments on Hasidic life (and Jewish life) in general. Well worth reading, it furnishes a window into a world that is often very closed to outsiders.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Just heard the news that the two sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay, were killed today in Mosul, Iraq. After the report came out, apparently gunfire erupted in celebration all over Baghdad. Perhaps the deaths of Uday and Qusay will diminish attacks on American soldiers in Iraq, if the attackers are part of an organized group that is connected to the members of the former regime.
I'm back from the family reunion and I saw an interesting article in this week's New Republic by Paula Frederiksen on the movie Mel Gibson is making on the crucifixion of Jesus -- "THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO GIBSON. Mad Mel" (requires registration to read on line). She was one of a group of scholars invited to respond to the script and write a report on it to the production company. In her opinion, if the movie follows the script that they read, it will only reinforce traditional Christian anti-semitic beliefs. Gibson apparently belongs to a traditionalist Catholic group that rejects the reforms of Vatican II, including the repudiation of the traditional charge of deicide against Jews. Gibson claims that in the movie he is trying to adhere to historical accuracy -- so it is being made in Aramaic and Latin (!) as these were the spoken languages of first century Palestine. As Fredriksen says, while Aramaic was one of the spoken languages, Latin would have been heard very rarely and would not have been a language spoken between Jews and Romans -- Greek would have been used instead. So much for historical accuracy. Read her article for all the details.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Letters from the Past

It's been a while since I posted anything. I went home after my grandmother's death and spent a few days with my family. While there, I went over to my grandmother's apartment and looked through her boxes. Among other things, I found some short stories she had written (one, called "The Messiah," is set in the Cleveland of her youth, before WWI), and in addition, letters that my grandfather had received from European relatives before World War II. In my family, I remember hearing about these letters when I was much younger, from my grandmother, but we had no idea that they had been preserved. My great-grandfather emigrated to the U.S. either from the city of Libau (now called Liepaja), which was at that time in the Russian Empire, or through Libau, which is a port city (now in Latvia). In any case, in his naturalization papers he listed himself as coming from Libau.

His son, my grandfather Mark Falcon Lesses, married my grandmother, Helen Rosenman. In the 1930s my grandfather received letters from three people -- his aunt Gittel (Falkon) Kagan, living then in Moscow with her family; from his uncle Mordechai, living in Libau with his family; and from a cousin, Sima Shlosberg, living in Jelgava, another city in Latvia. The first letter in the collection was from his aunt Gittel writing in 1934, and it seems from reading her letter that she had not heard from any relatives in the United States for many years. She writes about her love for her brother Jacob (my great-grandfather), who had died many years before, in 1912. The letters from Gittel and Mordechai that are dated in the early to mid-1930s talk about how they are doing, how their families are doing, etc. Sima's first letter is from 1938, and already mentions the difficult situation that the Jews of Latvia are living in. Her letters reveal far more awareness of the vulnerable political position that Jews in Europe are living in than Mordechai's letters do. In 1939 she writes to my grandfather to ask him for help in emigrating to the United States. Her last letter, dated January 19, 1940, has information that he will need to put in an affidavit to send to her so she can enter the United States. One of Mordechai's last letters also mentions the affidavit that my grandfather had sent on his behalf, but Mordechai's last letter, from March 18, 1940, says that he does not want to leave Latvia as long as his situation seems fairly stable.

I do not know what happened with Gittel and her family -- I still need to do more family research on them. Her last letter is from 1938. We do know what happened to Mordechai and his family in Libau, on the other hand. Latvia was under Soviet occupation from June 1940 until the Nazi invasion in June of 1941. Latvia was quickly overrun, and when the Nazis occupied each town, they took a census of its Jewish inhabitants. Mordechai, his wife Dobre, their son Abram and his two children show up in the 1941 census. Starting very early in the Nazi occupation they and their Latvian collaborators began to kill the Jews of Libau (as they did the vast majority of the Latvian Jewish population). Mordechai was probably shot in July, 1941, while Dobre was probably killed in mid-December, 1941, when many of the surviving women and children were murdered. Their son, his wife, and their grandchildren were also killed. Sima, in Jelgava, was probably also killed in the summer of 1941, with almost all of the other Jews in that city. It's harder to know what happened to her, because the genealogical research on the fate of the Jews in Jelgava in the Holocaust is much less advanced than the work on the Libau Jews.

Most of this information I gathered from the letters -- which can be found on my web site. There is extensive information on the Jews of Libau, including a listing of almost all those living in the city when the Nazis invaded, available at a web site set up by Edward Anders, who survived the Nazi occupation and came to the United States in 1949. He became a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago and since his retirement has been working on the genealogy of the Jews of Libau.