A Great Debate

By Masha Leon

Published August 23, 2007, issue of August 24, 2007.
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Doris Schechter, a Vienna-born restaurateur, was kvelling at the August 14 launch of her cookbook-cum-memoir, “At Oma’s Table” (Berkley Pub. Group), held at her Manhattan restaurant, My Most Favorite Food. The crowd included journalist Ruth Gruber, who in 1944 accompanied 1,000 World War II refugees from Italy, including a young Doris Schechter, to safety in Oswego, N.Y. Both women were recently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust Women’s Spring Benefit luncheon at The Pierre, which honored Holocaust survivor Hannah Sara Rigler. Born in Shavel, Lithuania, Rigler recalled her death march survival and her subsequent rescue by “Stan Wells, one of 10 British POWs” captured at Dunkirk in 1941 and working as forced laborers. He told the then 15-year-old, “‘May God watch over you.’” It took Rigler 20 years to locate one of her rescuers in South Africa. (He kept a diary of Rigler’s rescue!) In 1972, she was reunited in London with nine of the POWs. (A delicious incentive to attend the museum’s benefit: In past years, the luncheon goody bag included a devastatingly rich chocolate cake, courtesy of Schechter.)

In her book, “10 British Prisoners-of-War Saved My Life” (Jay Street Publishers, 2006), Rigler (nee Matuson) details her prewar life: “My mother was a St. Petersburg university graduate at 20… Hebrew was spoken at school as well as Lithuanian and German — Yiddish at home.” Following the 1940s Soviet occupation, the Soviets arrested Rigler’s father, a leather factory owner. Having survived the town’s ghetto, German death camps and a December 1944 to January 1945 death march, Rigler described herself as “a filthy, starving bundle of rags [who] did not want to die… [with German] bystanders who did not care that a young girl was brutalized and would soon be murdered.” Escaping her German pursuers, Rigler ran into a barn and hid in a trough, where Stan Wells brought her food and cared for her. “He showed me that there was still some decency in the world… he brought me… clothes and a sweater to cover up the large Mogen David on the back of my dress.” As the Soviet liberating army was closing in, the POWs were evacuated. Rigler ended up working for a highly placed SS man who asked her to write a note in Yiddish stating that he had saved her life. In 1988, the 10 British POWs were declared Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.

Sara Matuson came to America in 1947. She became a nurse and worked at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. In 1952, she fell in love with, and married, her American “dream man, William “Bill” Rigler, now a retired New York State Supreme Court judge. The Riglers have two children and two grandchildren. As a politically active person, Rigler has among the photos in her book one with former New York City mayor Ed Koch and one with Brooklyn Democratic County leader Meade Esposito. There is also December 1973 poster with the message “Re-elect Hannah Rigler, State Committeewoman, a Fighter for Soviet Jewry.” In memory of her sister, Hannah, who perished on the death march along with her mother, Sara adopted her sister’s name and is known as Hannah Sara.


“Which Side Are You On?” Florence Reese’s 1930s union song, came to mind as I entered the St. Regis Ballroom for the Aleph Society’s recent 30th annual dinner, featuring a dialogue between Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt. Scanning the yarmulkes in the room, it was my impression that Steinhardt’s championing of secular Judaism would prove a hard sell, even though his Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation has brought Jewish context into the lives of thousands of young people who otherwise might never have set foot in Israel or explored any aspect of Jewish culture. Steinhardt had an equally committed adversary: scholar, teacher, mystic and social critic Steinsaltz, who has to his credit some 60 books and hundreds of articles on the Talmud. Steinsaltz, a onetime mathematician who has admitted to nonorthodox beginnings (with possible Bundist sprinkling), stressed: “We are about numbers, not just quality.… There have never been fewer of us in relation to the world’s population.” He lamented that so many young people are leaving the faith… no longer moved by authentic Jewish messages.” Steinsaltz added: “There is no reason to give them up or give up on them.… Give them texts and classes for study… widen the foundation so they can create a Jewish identity which reflects their own geography, demography and reality.” Steinhardt countered: “Millions of Jews in America learned Hebrew from a rabbi or teacher… never learned what it meant… Jews remember the First and Second Temple in synagogue. The Shoah should also be part of the ritual.” After Steinhardt faulted Hillel because it “does not reach three out of four [on-campus] Jews,” dialogue moderator Richard Joel — who, prior to his appointment as president of Yeshiva University had led and revitalized Hillel — jumped to the organization’s defense.

Steinhardt’s statement that “90% of Jews today are secular” and that “most Jews alive today don’t take religion seriously” did not ruffle Steinsaltz’s equilibrium. Like a character with an I.L. Peretz Hasidic tale pedigree, Steinsaltz returned the volley: “Michael Steinhardt… it’s hiding within you, you’re fighting very hard.” Undaunted, Steinhardt rebutted: “Five thousand-year-old clichés don’t resonate one bit with our people.…You are speaking to a very narrow group, and you don’t know it. We’re not so large when half marry out of the ‘family.’” With a fatalistic rabbinic shrug, Steinsaltz responded: “Everybody knows about education and intermarriage.… Those who are lost will be lost. I try to understand why so many people are leaving the faith. What happened in the last 300 years? Jewish role models were secular — Einstein, Ben-Gurion — not religious.”

Neither convinced the other. Secularism won no converts. The committed observant Jews left the dinner, unscathed.

My father’s Jewish duality came to mind. Having studied at the Slonim, Mir and Baranovich yeshivas (where he’d shared a kheder benkl (bench) with Joseph Foxman (father of ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman), Mordkhe-Velvl Bernstein (aka Matvey) received his rabbinic ordination, smikhe, at 18. After he heard a Bundist speaker decry the disgrace of children going hungry and the horrors of adults working in unconscionable conditions, he took off his kapote, cut off his peyes and became a secular Jew and activist for social justice. Yet in 1966, while at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital dying of stomach cancer, secular Matvey, IV-trailing, daily organized a minyan for mincha and ma’ariv services, which he shared with then ill Hasidic Reb Porugal whose minion of followers filled his room and lined the hospital corridors. At my father’s Bundist funeral at Riverside Memorial Chapel — complete with honor guard and the singing of the Bundist anthem — the back of the room was filled with a contingent of kapote-clad Hasidic mourners from various shtibls.At the cemetery, I asked Joseph Foxman — who had survived Auschwitz — if he would say Kaddish for my father, his childhood friend who had survived Stalin’s gulag. No sooner had he intoned Yiskadal than one of my father’s colleagues turned to my mother and, in dismay, whispered in Yiddish, “Er iz dokh geven a Bundist!” My snappy retort was, “Eyder er iz geven a Bundist, iz er geven a yid” — “Ere he became a Bundist, he was a Jew.” “Azoy geyt es” — So it goes.

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