Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Remembering Isaac...

Tomorrow, the 10th of Adar, is Isaac Meyers' second yahrzeit.Isaac was a doctoral candidate in Classics in Harvard. He had grown up on the Upper West Side, attended the Heschel School, and was a regular at Ansche Chesed with his parents Bill and Nahma, and his sister, Hannah. Then something happened, and somehow he made his way to Old Broadway, which he attended for a year or two, and then made his way to England and them to Harvard. Nevertheless, he often visited home and when he did he could be counted on to make the minyan and, if we were really desperate, to come back to minchah. He was both sweet and funny and always lifted everyone's spirits.

When he was still attending regularly, Isaac did something that some of us of found disturbing. He proposed that we include the traditional prayer, the misheberakh, on behalf of the welfare of the President and Vice President of the United States. Some thought that the services were already too long and that adding this short prayer would make things worse. Others felt that President Bush and Vice President Cheney were not worthy of our prayers. Others undoubtedly thought that we were adding something new and accordingly were opposed. Nevertheless, we had a process in that the officers discussed the proposal and ultimately decided to include the passage. By the time that we reached this decision, I believe that Isaac had already moved to Harvard, so I did not get a chance to see what he thought now that his proposal was accepted.

Over time, the objections to the prayer fell. No one really noticed the extra minute it took to read the prayer. And those who didn't want to pray on President Bush's behalf had their dreams answered. As for tradition, it is funny how time makes even new things seem like they have been here for ever.

Whenever I recite the misheberakh for the President and Vice President, I think of Isaac, and I miss having the opportunity to discuss with him how his proposal has fared at shul. I am glad that I have a frequent opportunity to recall him, and as I say the prayer for our political leaders, I hope that Isaac looks down upon us from heaven and gives us one of those mischievous smiles that we remember him for.
The photograph of Isaac was taken from www.forward.com.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Who was Isidor Thornschein? (Part II)

Since my first post about Isidor Thorschein on January 30, 2010, I had the good fortune to be contacted by a couple of his distant relatives, Bobbi Stern and Phillip Walker. Based on their information, the story that emerges about Mr. Thornschein's life is bittersweet. He apparently moved to the United States with his family in the early 20th century. He then moved back to Europe, but returned to the States (with his older daughter Anna) by the late 1920s. He appeared to be man of means (in addition to being a painter) and was involved in various investments, as evidenced by the airplane patent noted in the previous post.

Phillip Walker sent me a fascinating clipping which describes the vagaries of another project with which Mr. Thornschein was associated. Appearing in the Los Angeles Times on December 25, 1929 and entitled "Secret Worth Million: Chemist Who Ca Make Fuel at a $1 a Ton Faces Bleak, Penniless Christmas," the article tells the story of Heinrich Weber, an Austrian chemist from Lemberg (perhaps the L.A.Times did not recognize Poland's claim to East Galica?) was brought over to the United States by Moses Rosenthal and Isidore Thornschein, who had saved Weber from having to serve in the military during World War I. Weber claimed to know a way of mixing water with coal dust that would generate fuel for $1 a ton. He apparently did a demonstration for a couple of coal companies, which told him that they would be interested if he patented his invention. Weber refused to do so, afraid that his idea would be stolen, but offered (generously, of course) to sell the formula outright for $1,000,000. The Times doesn't say why, but no one took Mr. Weber up on his offer. Rosenthal and Thornschein were able to obtain a court order preventing Weber from leaving the country or from divulging the secret to anyone but his erstwhile sponsors.

Mr.Thornschein's wife, Honora, and younger daughter, Dora, stayed in Europe. We don't know if they were separated, or if Mr. Thornschein traveled back and forth. In any event, according to a report submitted by Mrs. Thornschein's grandnephew, Yosef Rum, to Yad Vashem, his great aunt and her daughter were killed in Transnistria, an area of Ukraine that was held by the Romanian army, and which carried out mass murder against the Jews who were concentrated there. As I noted in my first posting about Mr. Thornschein, as his obituary in the New York Times notes, he was searching for his relatives in Europe when he died. He probably never learned what happened to them. Perhaps it was better that way.

The story does not stop there. Mr. Thornschein continued to take an active role in the Old Broadway Synagogue and published a congratulatory message in our 35th Anniversary Dinner Journal on June 19, 1946. By April 15, 1947, he was dead. I have not been able to find cause of death, but a broken heart was undoubtedly a contributing factor. At a memorial service given May 18, 1947, William Joachim, the then president of the shul, wrote that Mr. Thornschein was a "dynamic personality, a good man, a righteous soul, a noble Jew and a loyal American..." Mr. Joachim continued that Mr. Thornschein had revitalized the synagogue in many ways including installing a modern steam heating system (I heard that there had been a potbellied coal stove originally), that the pulpit be re-carpeted, that new menorah lights be installed on the podium, that the Torahs be dressed in new mantels and that a new parochet be hung, that the building be redecorated, that the facade be sandblasted (I guess they didn't follow the halakhos then of historic preservation), that a recreation lounge be constructed on the lower floor, and finally that the membership be raised from 38 to 70 (we are still working on that one!).

These are all tremendous accomplishments, and when one recalls the personal suffering that Mr. Thornschein was going through at this time, they are all the more impressive. I dare say that without Mr. Thornschein's efforts our shul and our community would not be functioning today. His effort should continue to inspire us, and in this way Isidor Thornschein's memory will continue to be for a blessing.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cholent Review - Parashas Terumah

I haven't posted a cholent review in a few weeks because I really had nothing new to add. I did a few things differently for my cholent this past Shabbos so I would like to share my experiences with my cholent making colleagues out there. I have mentioned before that my Hamilton Beach slow cooker is not as hot as the old Rival Crock Pot was, however, I have larger been able to compensate by the way I layered the ingredients as they are placed in the pot. The most important ingredient in this regard is the chopped carrots. I put all of them at the very bottom yesterday afternoon, and they all were cooked perfectly. Another ingredient that needs to be placed with care is the barley (this past Shabbos I mixed it with wheat kernels - yummy!). The barley (and wheat) are the last dry ingredients before the spices to go in. After I pour these grains in, I shake the pot so that they fall between the the meat and cut vegetables. This way, they will also be fully cooked. The last point that I want to share is also an important one. After Igor brought the pot up from the basement during kiddush, I stirred my cooked confection to make sure everything was well mixed. And so it was. For anyone out there following my reviews and making your own cholent, Ess gezunterheyt!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Memory Yisrael Liberman...

This past Friday, we lost yet another of our old timers at the Old Broadway Synagogue, Yisrael Liberman. I must have originally met Mr. Liberman while walking north to Old Broadway while he was heading south to Ramath Orah, but I only got to know him about ten years ago. At the time, our rabbi, Abe Weschler was courting Mr. Liberman and trying to win him back to Old Broadway. Some time before I began attending Old Broadway in 1993, Mr. Liberman had finally had it with Old Broadway (I heard that he did not approve of the dovish politics of another member who was given the opportunity to speak from the bimah) and left to attend Ramath Orah, another local synagogue. In 1999, Rabbi Weschler was doing his best to bring Mr. Liberman back to our flock. He and his wife Tirtza would often have Mr. Liberman over for Shabbos dinner. It was at such a dinner that I finally got to know Mr. Liberman. I recall that he was boasting of his strength - that he could easily do 50 push-ups, and would gladly do so on the spot. I declined his generous offer, but this would forever prove to me that Mr. Liberman was a shtarker - a strong man. Before Rabbi Weschler left Old Broadway (to join the Air Force), Mr. Liberman did come once - vindicating, perhaps, Rabbi Weschler's efforts. Fast foward a couple of years. Mr. Liberman, unfortunately suffered a severe stroke. Amazing, he largely recovered. With the help of his young roommate, Michael, and his friend, Doug, Mr. Liberman now returned to Old Broadway, which was quite a bit closer than Ramath Orah. We did not talk about whatever issues had caused him to leave Old Broadway in the first place, and we were glad to have him back. I think he was glad to be back to. When he felt up to it, and if we would ask him several times, he would agree to lead musaf in the Shabbos morning service. He had a beautiful voice and sung the prayers in a sweet, Polish-Ashkenazic Hebrew. He would say "Burkhi es hashem hamvurekh" as opposed to "Barkhu et hashem hamevorakh," and so on.

Only after his death did I learn a few biographical details of his life. He grew up in Lodz, Poland, where his family were Gerer Chasidim and his father Fischel, was an important community leader. When the Nazis invaded in 1939, his father was murdered soon after. Mr. Liberman was in the ghetto until the great deportation in 1944, when he and his mother were sent to Auschwitz. Miraculously, both survived. A heard a story that during the death march out of Auschwitz in late 1944, sick and starving, he collapsed as was put on to a pile of corpses. Somebody saw his mouth moving - he was apparently davenning Shacharis - and realized his was alive and rescued him. Ultimately, Mr. Liberman came to the United States and rebuilt his life. He worked as administrator for the Bialystoker Home for the Aged, married, and had three children, Fischel, Fay and Chaim.

With the assistance of Michael and Doug, Mr. Liberman became a regular at Old Broadway. I gave him an aliyah whenever I could, and he gave us his idiosyncratic personality which was often impatient, but was still warm and accepting. Like the other old timers, Mr. Liberman was a link to the past which enabled us to understand who we are as a community, so that we can flourish in the future.

Since Mr. Liberman was born into the Chasidic world, it was perhaps appropriate that he left this world through Chasidim as well. His daughter Fay, herself part of the Gerer Chasidic community, arranged for his funeral in Boro Park. The coffin was wheeled through a room full of Chasidim who were bedecked in their Shabbos kapotes and shtreimels. We - the Old Broadway people and they - the Chasidim - followed the coffin on the way to car. From there, Mr. Liberman's body was flown to Israel, where is was greeted by Chaim and buried in the Har Menuchot cemetery outside of Jerusalem. A fitting sendoff for a very special human being. We will miss Mr. Liberman. May his memory be for a blessing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Woman of Valor, Who Can Find?

Traditional orthodox synagogues are usually not well known for women's empowerment, but a glance at the history of the Old Broadway Synagogue shows that women's participation and traditional Judaism are not mutually exclusive either. I have in mind, of course, our Ladies Auxiliary, which seemed to be active in the shul from the 1920s through the 1950s and maybe even for longer. I should state right off the top that the women's empowerment that existed at Old Broadway was not egalitarianism and would not satisfy those for whom nothing else measures up (indeed the reason the women's group in the shul was called "Ladies Auxiliary" was that the primary members were the men), but if we want to talk about women playing a central role in a traditional synagogue community, this is it (Ladies Auxilary group photo below from the 1959 48th Anniverary Journal). I have not yet had a chance to study the minute books of the congregation, so what I am going to say comes from what is visible around the shul. First of all, there are the two photographs in the Kiddush Room, both from the late 1940s or early 1950s. In one, members of the Ladies Auxiliary stand around a primitive electrocardiograph machine that was purchased and donated to Israel. Another similar photograph shows the women behind a obstetrics table that they bought and were sending to Israel. I think it is fair to say that most of the women in the photograph have that solid Eastern European Jewish look that says, "don't mess with me or you will be doing the dishes for the rest of your life!" Another object that testifies to the importance of the Ladies Auxiliary is a pewter gavel that was inscribed for the Ladies Auxiliary and dates to 1927 (we have not found anything similar for the male membership). The real thing that is the clincher for me is perhaps the most surprising: the inscription over the ark.
In most synagogues, the inscription reads, Da lifnei me atah omed (Know before Whom you stand) or Shiviti hashem le-negdi tamid (I will place God before me always) or something which elevates the congregants thoughts towards heaven. Our inscription reads (and here I will transliterate from the original Hebrew/Yiddish characters From Ladies Egzelery oyf Ch.T.T.A.M. Let from translate: "From the Ladies Auxiliary of the Chevra Talmud Torah Anshei Marovi." So here is our dirty little secret: out inscription is in English (but written with Yiddish characters). And to make matters worse, what should the men be thinking about when they daven and look towards the ark? The Ladies Auxiliary (which was made up of their wives)! Just in case the men forgot who was really in control! These bits of evidence suggest a women's group that was dynamic and able to accomplish a tremendous amount. In a time when a family could have a middle class life on a single income and women whose children were grown were able to devote themselves to volunteer work, these women gave their time and talent to our shul and to the Jewish community. We were lucky! I dare say that without them, our shul wouldn't be here.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cholent Review - Parashas Yisro

This weeks cholent was good, but not my best. I did not over stuff the pot but some of the carrots were not as cooked as I would have liked. I put in less pepper this time but the person who complained in the past that there was too much pepper didn't come. I have been out of wheat berries for a few weeks but hope to add them to Parashas Mishpatim's cholent. I am wondering if I should cook the cholent on high...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Rabbi Kret's Third Yahrzeit and "Wasilkower Broyt"

Since tonight (19th of Shevat) marks the third yahrzeit of Rabbi Kret's passing, I would like to note it by recalling an aspect of life in the Bialystoker yeshiva that Rabbi Kret shared with us. It is hard for us to imagine the poverty of that some of the yeshivas endured in the 1930s, and by extension, what the bochrim (students) who studied in these yeshivas endured as well. For Rabbi Kret this was epitomized by the bread that was given to the students in Bialystok.

Before speaking about this bread, I should say that Rabbi Kret didn't go to Bialystok simply because it was the local yeshiva. Rabbi Kret was raised in a Hasidic family that was associated with the Gerer rebbe. Rabbi Kret decided not to follow this path, but consciously chose to follow the route of Lithuanian yeshiva scholarship. It is interesting that Rabbi Kret chose the Bialystoker yeshiva, since when he was there, it had become the  the flagship of the Musar movement (the yeshiva in Novardok was the first institutional home of the Musar movement, which was founded in the nineteenth century by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. When Novardok came under the rule of the Soviet Union, the faculty and students fled to Poland and reestablished their yeshiva in Bialystok). When I asked Rabbi Kret about why he studied in Bialystok, if I recall correctly, he told me that he was interested in the learning, and not necessarily the Musar.

But back to the bread. In Bialystok, the bread that was supplied to the students was apparently produced in Wasilkow, a small town about four miles northeast of Bialystok. Rabbi Kret said that when the bread came, it was inedible, and the students had to let it sit for a while. When they did eat it, something in it gave them a burning sensation. Rabbi Kret thought that the flour was stretched by addition of sawdust, which is what gave the burning sensation. Despite the deprivation, Rabbi Kret continued in his studies and was very successful. Rabbi Kret thrived in Bialystok, and became the second in command of the school. (The photo above, from Wikipedia, is of the Great Synagogue in Bialystok, which was destroyed during the Holocaust). He eventually left to return to his hometown of Ostrow Mazowiecka, where he established a branch of the yeshiva.

During the war, Rabbi Kret was arrested by the Soviets and was incarcerated in Siberia. After the war, he taught in or headed the yeshiva in the Zeilsheim DP camp in Frankfurt, Germany. In 1949 or 1950, he came to the United States, and became the rabbi of the Old Broadway Synagogue, and the rest, so they say, is history. The thing which sustained Rabbi Kret in all of these places was his love of Torah. Anyone who spoke with Rabbi Kret could see the fire of Torah as it burned in his eyes. The Torah gave so much nourishment that even the Wasilkower broyt, bad as it was, was tolerable.