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Celebrating a Holy Space


GOOD SHOW: Actor Sam Waterston spoke at the event.

My observant grandfather, Shmuel-Yankl Goldin, murdered by the Nazis in 1942, was a carpenter in Byten (now Belarus) who helped build synagogues and churches. My first school in Warsaw, Poland, was a Yiddish school on Krochmalne, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s favorite street. My first English book was “Little Baby Jesus,” at Ecole Ste. Marie, the French convent school I attended in 1941 in Kobe, Japan. There, French and Japanese nuns taught English to us Jewish refugee children. In Montreal, Canada, I attended Alfred Joyce, an Anglican school, where the day began with the Lord’s Prayer and a page from the gospels. The teachers were Scots (MacPherson, McKenzie, Darling), and 80% of the all-girls class was Jewish. We all sang Christmas carols. In the afternoon I attended the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring’s school, where Yiddish secularism reigned, Sholom Aleichem was read in the original and “Oy Chanukah” was sung. In 1946, my mother and I landed in Manhattan, at the single-room occupancy Belvedere House at 536 West 112th Street — a “little Casablanca” where we refugees would gather in the evenings to reminisce and to sing Yiddish songs. At the end of the street, on Amsterdam Avenue, stood the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, where, during the summers, I sought refuge from the heat. and where, in 1989, composer Lukas Foss premiered his “Elegy for Anne Frank” to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Anne Frank’s birth. The cathedral, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the American Friends of Anne Frank Center jointly sponsored the event. On December 3, 2008, I rubbed shoulders with several thousand guests — including Howard Rubenstein and the Intrepid Museum Foundation’s chief operating officer, Bill White, director of the Fallen Heroes Fund, at the “End-to-End” cocktail party held for, and at, the newly restored cathedral, following its disastrous 2000 fire.

“Even if you don’t have faith, you can come here,” said James Kowalski, dean of the cathedral, during the evening’s short program that was hosted by Harry Smith of CBS’s “The Early Show.” The church’s “dream is always to give voice to those who might otherwise not be heard.” New York State Senator Charles Schumer could not attend but sent best wishes. Actor Sam Waterston of “Law & Order” fame, said, “We live in a flood of statements and brands where not much attention is given to what mattered — food, shelter, security, love, justice… this is the house of our high aspiration — to know God, peace, love and justice.”

My husband, Joseph — Yohanan ben Shmuel Pesach — born in Troy, N.Y., was raised in an Orthodox home. As I said at his funeral this past August, “Ours was a mixed marriage… he did not speak Yiddish and did not folk dance.” Still, at one time, we were members of three synagogues because we felt it was important to support the local Jewish institutions. During the years that we worked together in our publishing company, Joe edited and published “The History of Judaism,” by Rabbi Jacob Neusner; “Protestant Christianity,” by the Rev. Roger Shinn, professor of applied Christianity, and the Rev. Robert Handy, professor of church history, at the Union Theological Seminary; “Vocabulary for Roman Catholic Faith” by the Rev. Gerard Sloyan, Archbishop of Washington, Catholic University of America, and, on the eve of Vatican II, a photo-essay on “The Mass,” by the Rev. Thomas Walsh, department of theology, Fordham University. During the early days of ecumenical rapprochement, Joe and I became founding members of the Catholic-Jewish Relations Council of Queens, which was then under the mantle of Bishop Francis Mugavero.

During a recent chat with Leon Charney, host of the award-winning weekly national TV show “The Charney Report,” I told him how helpful his book, “The Mystery of the Kaddish” (Barricade Books, 2006), had been. Charney had just come back from the San Diego Jewish Book Fair, where he spoke about the book, now in its third printing, and where he had been asked to pay tribute to and sing “Male Rakhamim,” in memory of Yitzhak Rabin. I mentioned to Charney that, among the condolence cards and heartfelt wishes we received were notices from three friends who had arranged for Mass to be said for Joe for 365 days by the Passionist of St. Paul, the Purgatorial Society of the Church of St. John Vianney and the church of St. Francis of Assisi “because,” my friend wrote, “your children were raised so that they knew they were Jews.” I said to Charney, “They’ll be saying Catholic Kaddish for Joe!” Charney nodded. He handed me a copy of Michael Arditti’s review of his book, in which he writes: “The first paradox in the adoption of the Kaddish as a mourning prayer is that it was inspired by Christian rituals. The rabbis said: ‘Let us study the habits of non-believers. Observe how they are memorializing their deceased, and let us bring kina or prayer to express Jewish agony.’”


Yeshiva University’s Hanukkah dinner, held on December 14 — days after the disclosure that Y.U. was one of Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme victims — managed to be an upbeat affair, thanks to Y.U.’s stoic, smiling president, Richard Joel, who assured the more than 700 guests at the Waldorf-Astoria that although the university is financially wounded, the damage to its outreach “will have minimal impact on day-to-day operations.” In his address, Governor David Paterson, keynote speaker and recipient of an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, touted “the Yeshiva community” as “committed to social justice,” which “extends beyond the Hudson River.” Paterson, who admitted that as a child, he’d been misdiagnosed with Tay Sachs, a genetic disease common in the Ashkenazic population, could have passed for a Y.U. graduate as he glibly cited from the Talmud’s Bava Batra 9b that “the commandment to be charitable is, in its weight, as much as the commandments in total.” The evening raised $3.2 million.

The essence of Y.U.’s impact on individuals and the community was highlighted in the evening’s “Points of Lights” segment, hosted jointly by university trustee Felix Glaubach and Joel. Among the “lights” was Stern College senior Malka Bromberg, who is a young physicist and Kressel Scholar working with Stern College “faculty star” Anatoly Frenkel, in a quest to discover new ways to make hydrogen a truly viable “green alternative for powering cars.” There was Yofi Jacob, a member of Mumbai’s still observant small Jewish community, now a sophomore at Yeshiva University High School for Boys. His father, Levi Jacob, is the community’s schochet (butcher) and was the first man to welcome massacre victims Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, to Mumbai when they arrived at the Chabad Center five years ago. Yofi told the black-tie crowd that after he gets his “first-class education” and learns the intricacies of the art of kashrut, “I will return to Mumbai to help sustain the chain of Jewish history.” Another “light” was Avi Amsalem, a Yeshiva College student and co-president of the student-run Medical Ethics Society. In 2007, at Netiv Aryah in Israel, he registered with the Gift of Life bone marrow donor program, becoming a bone marrow stem-cell donor. “The recipient was not only ‘my match,’ he was someone’s father, brother, uncle, cousin, neighbor,” Amsalem said. This was the catalyst that led him to spearhead the on-campus bone marrow recruitment effort. As a result, 538 new members were added to the registry and eight Y.U. students are currently potential lifesaving matches. Dan Kelly, a 2008 graduate of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, came to his alma mater for its pioneering Global Health Fellowship program. He chose West Africa’s Sierra Leone as his fellowship site, and there he founded a national not-for-profit, the Global Action Foundation, and built a new clinic (with a colleague, Dr. Mohammed Barrie), providing accessible health care to the amputees — and anyone else — and to all victims of Sierra Leone’s devastating violence. “My Einstein experience triggered it all,” Kelly said.

Introducing herself in German, the final “light” of the evening, Y.U. student Sofia Gordon, began: “Vater unser im Himmel, geheligst werde dein Name; dein Reich komme; dein Wille geschehe” — Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name… (Matthew: 6:8-10, New Testament). Gordon continued: “I thought I would tell you the story of a young blond, blue-eyed Aryan looking girl who repeated this prayer in German in her Protestant religious class every day. She desperately wanted to fit in… to assimilate to German society… to be Protestant. She didn’t want anybody to know her secret.” Gordon explained: “My mother, younger brother and I emigrated from Russia to Germany. In the former Soviet Union, our family suffered because of their Jewishness; my father was interned in Viniza and Bersbad ghettos; his family was buried alive in a grave; my father was persecuted by the KGB for his Zionist activities. Being Jewish meant pain and persecution.” In her German-accented English, Gordon described her journey to Judaism, beginning with the Lauder Foundation in Europe: “I became an activist in various Jewish organizations across Europe.” She organized Pesach Seders for the Russian Jewish community in Germany, led by Rabbi Bini Krause, a Y.U. graduate, and established a men’s learning group called Nahal. Recipient of a Y.U. Wilf Scholarship, Gordon noted: “With God’s help through my Stern College teachers, I have not been seduced by the temptation of assimilation.” As Gordon was about to leave the stage, Joel beamingly informed: “What Sofia didn’t tell you is that there’s even a more wonderful chapter to her Y.U. story. Through Y.U. Connects, she has met and become engaged to Barukj Kerzhner, who is here tonight.” As the couple lit the menorah, the audience applauded and kvelled.


The invitation to the December 4 reception at the French consulate, hosted by consul general Guy Yelda, noted that “the reception will be kosher.” Welcoming the assemblage of Jewish community leaders, a smiling Yelda said, “I want to share my friendship… France is a land of many faces, united by universal values, freedom of religion and conscience, and [has] the largest Jewish community in Europe.” Yelda said that “France will unrelentingly wage a fight against antisemitism.” Requesting “a minute of recollection” for the Holtzbergs,Mikhael Cohen, a Lubavitcher rabbi, presented a menorah to Yelda on behalf of the Centre Cultural Juif Francophone de New York. In impeccable French and English, Cohen spoke of the universality of Hanukkah as a “metaphor for freedom over oppression,” saying that instead of “silence [there should be] acts of goodness.”

“On this, Israel’s 60th anniversary and the month when Christians and Jews celebrate light over darkness,” Rabbi Arthur Schneier, senior rabbi of Park East Synagogue, stated: “Were it not for the Maccabeans, there would be no Judaism or Christianity.… With so much darkness in the world, I will not ever forget the Indian nanny who had the courage to rescue [the Holtzberg’s] 2-year-old baby. She followed the commandment ‘Choose life, not death.’ The killer believed in death, not life.” During the post-presentation mingling, Cohen, whose parents came to France from Morocco, told me during our trilingual Yiddish-English-French chat that though he is Sephardic and frum, he became a Lubavitcher as a young adult. I could not help but think that if one year, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Santa Claus is a no-show, Cohen, with his cherubic face and white beard, would be an ecumenical kosher stand-in. Worth noting: On one wall of the consulate’s reception room was a huge tapestry depicting a scene from the Book of Esther.


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