Saturday, June 3, 2017

In Search of Jewish Rome

In Search of Jewish Rome by Aaron Ginsburg


Last Shabbat, I davened at the Great Synagogue of Rome, Tempio Maggiore di Roma. I felt at home. The Sephardic nusach recalled the services at Newport’s Touro Synagogue. An audio system failed to improve the acoustics. The cantor was barely audible. 

The tall synagogue building, with its square aluminum dome, proudly shares the skyline with many domed churches. The interior space is much smaller than the height would suggest. 

On Saturday morning there were about 200 people present. The men sat in the center, the women on one of sides.  Each seat has a plaque with a person’s name. On the back of each seat, was a book rest, and a locked storage box for Talesim and Tefillin. 

Piazza Gerusalmme, next to the Great Synogogue.
 In the center is thePortico of Octavia,
Portico di Ottavia, built by Augustus 

I entered through a side door. Inside the entrance hall a jug of water enabled people to wash before entering. A small room was full of lit 24 hour Yahrzeit candles. 

In contrast to Touro Synagogue, no one greeted me, except an Israeli on a work assignment.

In my search for the Jewish community, I noticed that there were several events to celebrate Jeruslaem day, Yom Yerushalaim, 50 anni 1967-2017

I attended “Footnote,” a 2011 Israeli movie with Italian subtitles. The protagonist was a professor who was jealous of his son for receiving recognition in the same field. At the film, I spoke with a friendly couple whose English was excellent. The woman originated from Bulgaria.

Did I mention that President Trump waved at me? I was crossing the street when I saw several heavily armed policemen and women shooing traffic and pedestrians away from the intersection. I read on the internet that the President had arrived in Rome earlier. 

Was President Trump in the
black car when he
waved to Aaron Ginsburg?
Soon, a motorcade of 50 cars sped by. I waved, and, it is safe to assume, the President waved back. Then we both continued on our way, to recover from our stressful trips, mine to the Ukraine and Belarus, and his to the Middle East. I bet he was more stressed out than I was!

Aaron Ginsburg, center, Gianluca Galderisi,
left, and Fabiano Fiore, right, from
ROME - Historic Adventure Tours
Last Sunday, I hired a couple of guides. Gianluca Galderisi and Fabiano Fiore, of Rome Historic Adventure Tours, met me at the Pyramid of Cestius, which was a tomb. There was a fad for everything Egyptian after the Roman Republic conquered Egypt. If you can’t take one, you can build one.

Our first stop was Rome’s Rose Garden, the Roseto Comunale, on the Aventine Hill overlooking the Circus Maximus. Beyond the Circus, on the Palatine Hill, the House of Augustus, the Domus Augusti, still stands.

I returned to chilly Boston on Tuesday, after a balmy week in Rome, where the high temperature was 86 degrees on the cold days.

On Wednesday, I was home again at Touro Synagogue. Rabbi Marc Mandel devoted his sermon to the Ten Commandments, which were given by God on Shavuot, with the rest of the Torah:

“One of the customs of שבועות (Shavuot) is the reading of the Ten Commandments on the first day of יום טוב (Yom Tov). Since we received the תורה on שבועות (Torah on Shavuot), we read about the dramatic episode when the Jews received the Ten Commandments.

“In many synagogues, it is customary to stand for the reading of the ten commandments. Not everyone agreed with this custom. The Rambam was opposed to standing for the Ten Commandments because he felt it gave too much attention to one part of the תורה (Torah)-and all of the Torah has equal importance.

“But most synagogues do have the custom for standing for the Ten Commandments. For us in Rhode Island at the Touro Synagogue, the Ten Commandments have a special significance.

“In the summer of 1862, the famous American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, brought his family from Cambridge Massachusetts to Newport for a vacation.

“While walking the local streets, he became interested in the old Jewish cemetery, up the street. He wrote a poem called, ‘The Jewish cemetery of Newport.’ Here are some verses from that poem,

‘How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves, 
      Close by the street of this fair seaport town, 
Silent beside the never-silent waves, 
      At rest in all this moving up and down!

‘Closed are the portals of their Synagogue, 
      No Psalms of David now the silence break, 
No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue 
      In the grand dialect the Prophets spake. 

‘But ah! what once has been shall be no more! 
      The groaning earth in travail and in pain 
Brings forth its races, but does not restore, 
      And the dead nations never rise again.’

“Longfellow’s view of Jewish life in Newport was very dim. As far as Longfellow was concerned the Jewish community of Newport was gone forever.

“But another famous poet also wrote a poem about the Jewish community of Newport. Emma Lazarus used to spend summers here in Newport with other New Yorkers. Her poem, ‘The Jewish Synagogue in Newport,’ was written as a response to Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Jewish cemetery at Newport,’ and used the same title format, and the same meter. She wrote,

‘Here, where the noises of the busy town,
   The ocean's plunge and roar can enter not,
We stand and gaze around with tearful awe,
   And muse upon the consecrated spot.

‘What prayers were in this temple offered up,
   Wrung from sad hearts that knew no joy on earth,
By these lone exiles of a thousand years,
   From the fair sunrise land that gave them birth!

‘Nathless the sacred shrine is holy yet,
   With its lone floors where reverent feet once trod.
Take off your shoes as by the burning bush,
   Before the mystery of death and God.’

“The last stanza of the Longfellow poem included the phrase, ‘Dead nations never rise again.’ Lazarus concentrated on the living power of the synagogue-and said, ‘The sacred shrine is holy yet.’ 

‘Each time that we read the Ten Commandments in Newport, we prove that Longfellow was wrong. 

‘Thank you for being with us this שבועות (Shavuot), thank you to our visitors and to our members.’

The Ten Commandments at the Rose Garden’s entrances recall the hundreds of years, from 1645 to 1934, that the garden was the site of Rome’s Jewish Cemetery. The site was given to the Jewish community after the Jewish cemetery in Trastevere was destroyed, as reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 1934. The Jews had been forced into a ghetto in 1555, where they were forced to reside until 1870. The Great Synagogue and The Portico of Octavia, the Porticus Octaviae, built by Augustus, dominate the nearby Jewish Quarter’s Piazza Gerusalemme.

In 1934, the fascist government decided to turn the cemetery into a park. The city of Rome and the Jewish community, which was not in a position to disagree, agreed that the remains would be moved under Jewish supervision and a Jewish school would be built.  

A parade with Mussolini and 15000 athletes led to the construction of road bisecting the cemetery. Under pressure to finish the work in time, the contractor worked on Shabbats and Jewish holidays. Many of the graves were moved, but many remain. And so it is still a Jewish cemetery. 

photo by Luciano Rosseti, couresy of Rome Gardn Authority.
The rose garden arrived in 1951. A couple of olive branches were thrown to the Jewish Community, still reeling from the Holocaust, as if this could make right the destruction of a Jewish cemetery. The paths resemble a seven-branched menorah. Jewish visitors often place stones atop monuments with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew that are at each entrance. 

Chag Sameach!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A message from Dokshitz, Belarus

A Message from Belarus

Dear Friends, I miss you all.  I just want to let you know what I have been up to. I will see you during Shavuot. Aaron
Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor
Maria Balash with Aaron Ginsburg
A brief update from Aaron Ginsburg, president of the Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy. As many of you know I am visiting Dokshitsy this week. 
Alan Kaul, my friend from Massachusetts, who also traces his routes to Belarus, and our able guide Daria Khaparikha accompanied me. We viewed the work that was done in cooperation with the Dokshitsy District in 2008 at the Jewish cemetery and holocaust site in Dokshitsy.
In Begomel, about 17 miles east of Dokshitsy, we met with Nikolai Trahinin to review our projects to mark the sites associated with the murder of that Jewish community on October 2, 1941. Subsequently, we met with Alla Vladimirovna Korolevich, the head of the Begomel museum, which is devoted largely to the partisan activity in the area during World War II. Near Begomel, we were warmly welcomed by residents of three small villages; Bradok, Uskrimie, and Karolina.
Today we visited the public school in Parafyanovo where about twenty students entertained us with a half hour version of Pygmalion, including music and song, in English. While in Parafyanovo, we visited Maria Balash(see picture), a childhood witness who with tears described being forced to watch the horror of the local Jews being murdered. Seventy-five years ago, in May, 1942, the Jews in Parafyanovo were murdered leaving less than ten survivors. We also saw the town's Holocaust site.
Thanks to the local government head, Galina Azarevich and to school principal Victor Korostik, on Monday, May 22 in the early afternoon, there will be a holocaust memorial ceremony in Parafyanovo. We will walk from the ghetto, where the Jews were forced to live by the Nazis during the war, to the site where they were killed, and then have a brief ceremony.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Heroes, Then and Now

Heroes, Then and Now



Nahshon, Lunette Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo
On Shabbat Touro Synagogue had many visitors. One of our witty locals quipped, “What’s this? Are we in Brooklyn?” 

Visitors were also present from Connecticut, New Jersey, and Chicago. We were joined by Jackie Mandel's parents from Los Angeles, and by the Mandel's son-in-law and daughter Rabbi Yaakov and Kayla Lasson and grandson Abie from Detroit. The congregation kvelled over Abie together with the family.

Edward Sopher, a New York attorney originally from London whose father was born in Bombay, wrote that his visit was “Quite special.  A beautiful and bright synagogue. And very reminiscent of the classic Spanish and Portuguese style, only much brighter and without the choir box. It’s notable and inspiring to see a synagogue slap-bang in the middle of town with big windows on every side-showing more confidence in the promise of freedom of religion than in the 15 other countries I have visited, where the synagogue is always down some side road with obscured windows facing the alleyway.” 

In the afternoon, I attended mincha at Temple Israel in Sharon, Massachusetts. I told Eldad Ganin about meeting Edward Sopher and his face lit up. Eldad often travels on business. Each time he has been in Mumbai, India (Bombay), he has met Shlomo Sopher. Edward Sopher confirmed, “In Bombay Solomon Sopher took over looking after the Fort synagogue after my uncle died.  He is ironically more closely related on his mother's side than my father's, but he knows my father David Sopher quite well.” 

In the Torah reading for Pesach Shabbat Hol Hamoed, Moses was the reluctant prophet, so God had the grace to show Moses his backside.  The focus on the body was carried to the extreme in the haftarah from Ezekiel, in the valley of the dried bones. The bones reassembled themselves…with God’s help. The message: A scattered Israel could also be reassembled.

Rabbi Mandel discussed the parsha, although the incident he referred to is not mentioned in the Torah, but in the Talmud. 

“Who is the hero of passover? Is it Moshe? Not according to the Talmud. According to the Talmud, the Egyptians were chasing the Jews-and when the jews reached the water they were trapped. They didn’t know what to do-Moshe was praying. In Sotah 37a we are told, ‘Moses was prolonging his prayer. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: ‘My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong your prayer to me?’ Moses said before Him: ‘Master of the Universe, but what can I do?’ God said to him: ‘Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward. And you, lift up your rod and stretch out your hand (Exodus 14:15-16).’”

“Israel lacked confidence in Moshe. Nachshon ben Aminadav had confidence and faith that Moshe was the true messenger of Hashem. He dove into the sea with full faith in Moshe’s ability to save the people, and the waters parted. Israel followed Nachshon’s example.”

Sometimes it takes a person like Nachshon to push forward and make things happen. So Nachshon is the hero of the Exodus.

The rabbi said that most synagogues are run by boards composed of volunteers, and they sometimes have trouble making decisions. He thanked the board members of our congregation who provide the leadership that we need and benefit from. 

Rabbi Mandel also mentioned Karen and Gerry Goldberg, who were visiting from Connecticut. “They are leaders of the Jewish community in West Harford,” he said, “like Nachshon Ben Aminadav, who was the first to jump in the water, and then the sea split.”

Roger Williams also made things happen. He went to London to secure Rhode Island’s colonial charter. The charter featured freedom of religion, separation of church and state, fair treatment of Indians by  recognizing that they owned their land, and the right of the residents to elect the Colonial government and enact their own laws. Williams was also against slavery, but after he died in 1700, the town of Newport insisted that slavery be permitted, and its merchants engaged in the slave trade.

The obituary in the New York Times described Robert Taylor as an innovator in the world of computers. 

In 1966, on his first day as the director of the Information Processing Techniques Office, part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as ARPA at the Pentagon, he realized that the three computers that the agency was funding needed a way to connect. He spoke with his boss, who took one million dollars out of ballistic missile defense to solve the problem. This led to Arapnet, which was a precursor to the internet.  Dayenu! That accomplishment would have been enough for one man.

But in 1961 he was working for NASA, and heard about Douglas Engelbart who was studying how humans would interact with computers. Taylor put money into the project, which led to the computer mouse, invented by Engelbart. Dayenu!

In 1991, Taylor created the Digital Equipment Systems Research Laboratory in Palo Alto, California. The Laboratory created one of the first internet search engines AltaVista. Dayenu!

Robert Taylor died of complications of Parkinson’s disease on Thursday, April 13, 2017.

Shabbat Shalom!  @tourosynagoguenewport @templeisraelSharon 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Passover Reflections

Passover Reflections

by Aaron Ginsburg 


Passover starts long before we sit down for the seder. First there is a thorough house cleaning, during which I discovered that those blue circles on the kitchen floor were the remains, flattened and dried, of 6 months of blueberries that rolled off the table. I was very surprised to learn the floor was a boring gray.  

The object of all the cleaning is to get rid of the chametz. Just to be safe, Jewish law provides a loophole; the chametz that remains is sold, usually to a rabbi, who then resells it to a non-jew. At the end of Passover, it is repurchased. 

On Sunday I picked up food for 70 people from Zayde’s Market, in Canton, Ma, for the  Congregation Jeshuat Israel (Touro Synagogue Newport, RI) community seder. On arrival in Newport there was a whole crew getting the Levi Gale house ready for the seder.

On Monday morning I attended services at Temple Israel, Sharon, MA. It was the fast of the first born. It’s a very minor fast, and after studying some Talmud, a siyyum made that fast unnecessary. There were a lot of people at services, far more than at our usual daily minyanim. I don’t think it was for the food!

Selling and burning of the Chametz was the next order of business, under the leadership of Rabbi Ron Fish, who had both the sales contract and the lighter fluid ready to go.  Lulavim (palm branches) from Sukkot were used for fuel.

On the first night I attended a community seder led by Rabbi Yossi Kivman at Chabad in Mansfield, Ma. His wife Tzivi was ill…the Rabbi soldiered on. Tzvi is starting to feel better. The seder was running a little late, so I went home and had an instant seder. I boiled an egg for the seder plate, and made my 5 minute Italian charoset. Actually, it took me 35 minutes to remember how to assemble the blende, so it was 40 minute charoset!  A rolled up slice of Turkey filled in for the zeroa (shank bone). It’s amazing how fast a seder can be when you don’t have an audience.

On the first day of Passover, the haftarah is Joshua 5:2-6:1.  There is curious incident at the end of the haftarah,

“13 Once, when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him, drawn sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and asked him, "Are you one of us or of our enemies?" 14 He replied, "No, I am captain of the Lord's host. Now I have come!" Joshua threw himself face down on the ground and, prostrating himself, said to him, "What does my lord command his servant?" 15 The captain of the Lord's host answered Joshua, "Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy." And Joshua did so.”

When Joshua asked the messenger what he was commanded, he was obviously expecting something important.  No such luck!  “Take off your sandals!” The messenger called out Joshua for being rude, and by implication haughty.

It’s unlikely that Joshua, a prophet noted for his piety, needed to be reminded that he was God’s servant. So who is the message for? Undoubtedly the message is for us, the readers of this passage.  

When we burn the chametz that we eat, we should also be banishing the chametz in our minds, including the idea that we are number one.

Later, I traveled on to the community seder at Touro Synagogue in Newport. I was delayed by one hour by an accident on Route 24 south. My friends in Newport told me they were worried about me. It’s nice to be missed.

Rabbi Marc Mandel led a spirited seder for 70 people. To break the ice, some of tables had to guess a Passover item after hearing three clues. As the meal was being served, the Rabbi called on several people to describe synagogues they had visited. We heard about synagogues in the US Virgin Islands, CuraçaoPonta Delgada, Portugal (Azores), Rome, and Kiev. 

Zayde’s food was a hit in Newport. It was good, and there was plenty of it.  Thanks to Josh Ruboy and the crew. I’m sure most of us avoided the scale for a few days. 

Chag Sameach!

Monday, April 10, 2017

A Zissen Peisach!

A Zissen Peisach!


Shabbat was almost entirely a local affair at Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI. 

Among the visitors were Amir Sofer, his wife and children. Amir is the mayor of the Merom HaGalil Regional Council  מועצה אזורית מרום הגליל which was established in 1950. It covers an area of 69 square miles, and consists of 14 moshavim, one kibbutz, 8 communal settlements, a Druze village, and a Circassian village. The total population in 2014 was 14,600.  

By way of comparison, the Dokshitsy District in Belarus is 810 square miles, and has a population of about 30,000.

Moshav Meron is one of the communities in the district. There is a lot of action there on Lag BaOmer. The Zohar, which was attributed to Rabbi Shimon, said that Rabbi Shimon’s hillula (Yahrzeit) was on Lag BaOmer. Pilgrimages to the burial cave in Meron have been documented from the 12th century. Nowadays almost a million people make the pilgrimage on Lag BaOmer. It's Israel’s Woodstock!

As Rabbi Marc Mandel explained, the Haftarah spoke about the prophet Elijah, who traditionally visits all seders, 

“The Shabbat before Peisach is called Shabbat HaGadol, the Large Shabbat. Why is it called שבת הגדול?

'No one knows for sure. Some say it’s because of the last posuk of the special Haftarah,  Malachi 3:4 - 3:24

הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא  

‘Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet and he shall restore the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents.’  לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם יְהוָ֔ה הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא 'before the great and awesome day.'

'Because the haftarah ends with the word גדול, some say it is called Shabbat Hagadol. 

"But it's fascinating that the theme of the haftarah ends with the relationship between parents and children and that one of the main themes of the holiday is
 וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, ‘And you shall tell your children about the story of Pesach.’

"When I was with my family for Purim, we discussed where our kids would be for Pesach, and when I said that my kids were working at Pesach programs, my sister  was surprised and said, ‘That's not what we do.’”

To the best of (limited) memory, Rabbi Mandel told us that helping other families celebrate the holiday was a worthwhile experience.

Jewish Newport wishes you all a zissin peisach, whether or not you are with your familiy, whether you are on the sea, on the land, on a plane, or on an island. Chag sameach!  
!חַג שָׂמֵחַ

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

I don’t need you anymore!

I don’t need you anymore!
at Touro Synagogue March 18, 2017

A few years ago, I stumbled on a help wanted ad, “Wanted, rabbi, expert in layning and leading, friendly, team player, likes island living.”  I always wondered what shul posted that ad.

In his words of Torah, Rabbi Marc Mandel opined about a congregational rabbi’s role,

“This Sunday, in New York City, Yeshiva University will be hosting its Chag HaSemikhah, which is a triennial graduation, celebrating the new rabbis ordained from 2015-2017: In this week’s Parsha, Parashat Ki Tisa, the challenges that a rabbi can face emerge and there are many insights about Rabbinic leadership.

“In a bizarre series of events, while Moshe is receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, his brother Aharon is somehow pressured into building the Golden Calf. God tells Moshe, ‘Go back down לֶךְ־רֵ֕ד, I don't need you anymore.’ God says to Moshe, ‘Your purpose as a rabbi was to be the spiritual leader of the Jewish people, but, now that they are worshiping a golden calf, what do I need you for? Go back down לֶךְ־רֵ֕ד, you’re fired!’

“What is the job of a rabbi in our modern times? Do rabbis have any influence over their communities? Or are they like Moshe and Aaron-who were helpless and couldn't prevent the people from fulfilling their desires and wishes to live their own lives?

“There are many challenges facing Jewish communities today. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center indicate that the number of Jews who participate in Jewish community life is decreasing, and there are many questions about the Jewish future.

“What can a rabbi do to counter these powerful forces that are threatening the future of the Jewish people? Can rabbis prevent our communities from assimilating, or are we just like Moses and Aaron, participating in the building of modern idols that the people prefer? 

“The Parsha teaches us that Moses did not give up. True, he does smash the Ten Commandments. But he also got the Levites together, and they pledge their dedication  and commitment to follow the laws of the Torah. There was a plan for the future and Moshe went back up to Mt. Sinai and prepared for the next set of commandments.

“The broken commandments always traveled with the Jewish people as a reminder of that dark chapter and they remind us today, that we must rebuild our communities as we look forward to the future of strong and united Jewish communities.

“Rabbis cannot do this alone. Just as Moses worked with the Levites, rabbis and congregants must work together to build our communities and to plan the Jewish future together.”

In keeping with the theme that it takes a community, the parsha began with a census. God did not command that a census be taken, but just got right into the technical details, “When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled…the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” 

In this day and age, joining a community is voluntary. We are all equal, and we all need to work together for our island community to survive. An island is like a boat, and each member of the crew has a role to play to keep the ship afloat.

Shabbat Shalom

@jewishnewport @tourosynagoguenewport @newportri