Sunday, November 24, 2019

And Sarah Laughed

And Sarah Laughed
At Jewish Newport
November 16, 2019
Thanks to Beth Ginsburg Levine for editing

Thanks to the Temple Israel Sharon MA Minyan and 
The New York Times 
For sharing their joke collections

Abraham Entertaining the Angels
Rembrandt van Rijn 1656
National Gallery of ArtNotice Sarah in the door,
laughing to herself.

What a difference a week makes! After the hullabaloo last week with the visit from Congregation Shearith Israel, an aufruf, and the chance to see three sets of Myer Myers rimonim, we were back to our seasonal routine. A few hardy tourists and congregants braved the cold temperature. 

But the parsha was far from routine. The Avot and Imahot (Patriarchs and Matriarchs) soap opera continued. Sarah laughed at the announcement that she would have a child, Lot’s sons-in-law (to their regret) shrugged off the bad news that the destruction of Sodom was imminent, Abimelach could hardly believe that Abraham passed his wife Sarah off as a sister, Sarah convinced Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, and Abraham was ready to obey the divine command to sacrifice his son Isaac, who willingly cooperated. After reading the parsha, I was eager for some schnapps at Kiddush.

During his words of Torah, Touro Synagogue’s  Rabbi Marc Mandel spoke about laughter,

“Does G-d play favorites? We can see in this week’s Parsha that when she [Sarah] heard that she was going to have a child in a year, she laughed. God said, ‘Why are you laughing? Don't you trust me?’

“But Avraham also laughed in last week’s Parsha, and there was no divine anger. This question is addressed the Talmud on Masechet Megillah page 9A.

“In the year 304 before the common era, the Greek king Ptolemy gathered 70 Jewish scholars in 70 different rooms and asked them to translate the Torah. Miraculously they all gave the same translation with a few changes. One of the changes was that instead of saying that Sarah laughed inside her head they wrote, ‘And Sarah laughed among her relatives.’ Why did they make this change? ‘They made this change to distinguish between Sarah’s laughter, which God criticized, and Abraham’s laughter, to which no reaction is recorded. Based on the change, Sarah’s laughter was offensive because she voiced it to others.’ They thought that the king would say, ‘God plays favorites because he was angry with Sarah not Avraham.’

“Why do people laugh? It's an interesting subject. You don't have to learn how to laugh. We are born with the capacity to laugh. It occurs unconsciously. You don't decide to do it.

“What makes a person laugh? Plato said it was connected to the superiority theory. A person laughs when they feel superior to someone else, and that's why many comedians will put people down and get a lot of laughs. Emanuel Kant noticed that there are many jokes that are not part of the superiority theory.  According to Kant, people laugh because they're surprised when something unexpected happens. This could be the reason why Sarah laughed. She laughed because she was totally surprised by the idea that she was going to have a child at her age. 

‘Let's hope this year will be a year of laughter, not laughter at someone else’s expense but because of good things and good news. 

“Shabbat Shalom!” 

At kiddush, in addition to some schnapps, I got an earful from Mrs. Namel Chadash.

“Listen, mein kindele, ven Rebbe Mandel talks about laughter, it vould be nice if he vas funny. Doesn’t he know that people laugh when they hear other people laugh? Wus good are Plato and Kant if dey don’t know this?

“Our ima Sarah was in shock when the good news came from the ubershter. Fortunately, Avraham had some jokes ready. ‘Ven we tie the holy toira mit a belt, vos do we get?  A safer toira.’ G-d laughed, and so did Sarah!

“And in last week's parsha do you think that Avraham laughed when he got de same good news? No vay. He cried out, ‘G-d, give me a break.’ But his ashas chayel, Sarah, vas ready, ‘Ven you play tic tac toe mit de Almighty, who gets the x’s and who gets the o’s? Hashem oz li’amo yitan, G-d will give strength (oz) to his people.’ G-d, and Avraham, cracked up.

“Vile I’m giving advice, Mr. Aaron, I vant to tell you, ‘You are longvinded. Ven you write for Jewish Newport, you don’t need to include the kitchen sink.’ Which reminds me, ‘Vus is the best day of the week to cook? Vat, you don’t know? Fry-day, so you can get ready for Shabbas Choidosh!’

“A gute Shabbos.”

And Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!

Monday, November 11, 2019

Pomegranates and People

Pomegranates and People
At Touro Synagogue
Thanks to Beth Ginsburg Levine for editing
On Friday, November 8, 2019, Congregation Shearith Israel CSI traveled from New York to Newport, Rhode Island for a three day Shabbaton with Congregation Jeshuat Israel CJI. The New Yorkers were led by Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, Parnas Louis Solomon and Sexton Zachariah Edinger and were accompanied by executive director Barbara Reiss. Much work was done behind the scenes in New York and Newport to ensure a successful weekend.
The visitors were greeted by CJI’s Rabbi Marc Mandel and co-presidents Louise Ellen Teitz and Paul Tobak. Newport caterer Paula made sure we were well fed.
On Friday night Rabbi Soloveichik kicked things off with a description of one of his heroes, Adolphus Simeon Solomons. His stationery store in Washington, D.C., supplied paper to the government. Solomons was friendly with Presidents Lincoln, Grant and Arthur. Grant offered him the opportunity to become governor of Washington, D.C. He declined because he thought the responsibility would interfere with his observance of Shabbos.
When Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address he made two copies; he made three additional handwritten copies for people who had requested them. Two copies bear the watermark of Solomons’ stationery store.
The store also had a photography studio. They had not managed to get a good photograph of President Lincoln so Adolphus asked him to visit. It wasn't easy in those days to take a photograph. During his visit Lincoln regaled those present with jokes. The photographer was not happy with the results so Lincoln suggested that Adolphus tell jokes instead. The result was the last picture taken before Lincoln’s assassination. Jews in the United States were among the first to formally mourn Lincoln, who died on Saturday morning, April 15, 1865. Jews learned of it on their way to synagogue, and recited Kaddish for Lincoln that morning.
At Friday night dinner the highlight was Hungarian strudel prepared by Paula, which got rave reviews. I was sitting next to William Bernstein from CSI who said, “That was the best Hungarian strudel I have ever had.” His wife commented, “What about my strudel?” Mr. Bernstein told me his mother was born in Zabludow,Poland, and that he went there in 1995. I visited Zabludow in 2018 with a friend, Alan Kaul, who had a grandparent born there. Only one or two matzevahs remain in its Jewish cemetery. Before WWII, Zabladow had a famous wooden synagogue.

I also met Shlomit. When I mentioned that I visited Poltava, Ukraine. She said, “My grandfather, Moshe Nachum Jerusalimski , a rabbi in Kielce, Poland was buried in Churol Poltava.” Churol is now Khorol, Ukraine. I drove through Khorol in 2018 on my way to Poltava from Kyiv. Vitaliy Buryak, who was my guide when I visited Gorodishche, Ukraine, where my grandfather Jacob Pokross was born, wrote about Khorol at He mentioned a son of Rabbi Jerusalimski, David Moiseyevich Yerusalimskiy, who was a leader in a prayer house.  

Rabbi Moshe Jerusalijski was very well respected In Kielce, as told In the Kielce Yizkor book. He worked hard to defend the Jews community from pogroms instigated anti-semitic rumors during the turmoil of World War I in 1914 and 1915. The Yizkor mentions that he moved to Khorol to join his family, and includes the rabbi’s diary from 1914-15. After World War II, forty-two Jews and two non-jews were murdered in a notorious pogrom in Kielce on July 4, 1946. 

Louise Ellen Teitz and Rabbi Mandel warmly welcomed our guests, and Parnas Louis Solomon responded in kind.
On Saturday we davened in Sephardic fashion with siddurim brought by CSI, led by Sexton Zachariah Edinger. Zachariah pointed out that the tunes used were similar to the tunes used in the 18th century at CSI and CJI. Among the differences from an Ashkenazic service were that the Torah was raised at the beginning of the Torah service and the musaf amidah was read by the leader with the congregation following along and not repeated.
During the service, a family from Illinois celebrated an aufruf. Candy rained down on the groom, and friends and congregants celebrated by dancing on the bimah. This family sponsored a congregational kiddush at the Levi Gale House. Because the Levi Gale House was in use, the Shabbaton lunch was at the Newport Historical Society next-door in the Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House (1730) in the rear of the building.
Society director Ruth S. Taylor told us that the chapel was moved from the corner of Touro and Spring Streets in 1884. It's one of at least three buildings around Touro Synagogue that have been relocated. The Levi Gale House and the house across from it at the corner of Division and Touro Streets were also moved. If they had all been moved on the same day that would’ve caused quite a traffic jam! On the wall was a clock made for the church in 1832 by William Claggett. Another Claggett clock is in the Redwood Library, and one of the Claggett family homes is on Bridge St. Rabbi Mandel briefly spoke about the Touro family, America’s first philanthropists.
Saturday afternoon we enjoyed seudah shelishit (third meal) at 4 PM. Many of us had to loosen our belts before we proceeded across the street for the maariv service.
At 7 PM we attended a discussion about three pairs of Myer Myers rimonim on display. (Rimonim means pomegranates.) Two of the pairs are used at CJI and one at CSI. They are rarely used becausethey are too precious and fragile for regular use. Holly Snyder, Curator, American Historical Collections and Lincoln/Hay Collections, Brown University, moderated. The panel included frequent Touro visitor Professor Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis University, Marietta Cambareri, Senior Curator of European Sculpture, Jetskalina H. Phillips Curator of Judaica Art of Europe, and Simona Di Nepi, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica Art of Europe, both of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
There were many observations and speculations about the rimonim because there is a lack of documentation about them and about their creator Myer Myers.
Professor Sarna told us that Meyr Meyers was probably of Ashkenazic origin. This led to a discussion of the composition of early American congregations. Although they followed the Sephardic ritual their membership was mixed and by no means totally Sephardic. In Philadelphia, Bernard Gratz was the parnas (president) of Mikveh Israel when their first building was built in the 1770s. The decision was made to follow the Sephardic ritual, probably because that was the ritual that was used in America at the time. This continued until the first Ashkenazic congregation was founded in the United States which was not until the late 1780s.
Jonathan Sarna speculated that in colonial America this pragmatic solution was possible because there were no rabbis in America. The rabbis present remained silent!
Sarna also mentioned that Isaac Touro, CJI’s spiritual leader when the synagogue was built, was a loyalist during the American Revolution. America was very divided about independence, and many people were neutral. Loyalists were persecuted and many left the country including Isaac Touro, who returned to Jamaica, where he died. After America gained its independence, loyalists who remained did their best to distance themselves from that part of their past. CJI member Naftali Hart was also a loyalist. He was killed during an American raid on British-occupied Long Island.
The speakers agreed that Touro Synagogue was a unique building which broke new ground in both American and Jewish American history.
Philadelphia, Newport and New York all had rimonim made by Myer Myers. This reflects how closely the congregations kept in touch. Myer Myers also had family relations both in Newport and Philadelphia.
After morning services on Sunday many of the CSIers visited the Breakers before heading home.
Bringing together the rimonim was a remarkable and symbolic feat. The important part of the Shabbaton was bringing together two congregations.
We look forward to continued exchange visits as CSI and CJI work together in harmony to preserve our mutual history and to assure our future.