Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Problem with Perfection

The Problem with Perfection

At Jewish Newport

July 9, 2022

By Aaron Ginsburg

Edited by Beth Ginsburg Levine

Also at

The band Aesthetic Perfection
Exoport, CC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons
On Shabbat we were a small group, fifteen men and a handful of women. Our shul, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, is small, and our voices filled the room. Several of the guests were lawyers attending a convention of family lawyers from New York State. In the Parsha, Chukat, Moses and Aaron were punished because Moses struck the rock to get water rather than speaking to it as G-d commanded. They were told that they would not be admitted to Eretz Yisrael. Unfortunately, Moses and Aaron did not have members of the New York Bar to speak to G-d in their defense.

One of the guests, Attorney Ira Treuhaft, spoke highly about the kosher food by Andrew’s and Ahava that he received at the convention.

Ira gave a brief dvar after services. Parashat Chukat begins with the ritual of the red heifer. A perfect red heifer (in plain English, a cow on which every hair is  red)  is sacrificed. The ashes are the base of a mixture that is used to purify people who come into contract with a dead body. It’s a ritual that is hard to understand.  

The person who performs the sacrifice, even if it is performed perfectly, becomes ritually impure. Ira told us that Judaism is skeptical about perfection. 

A quick perusal of the literature shows that although Judaism strives for perfection, it recognizes that is unobtainable. We know this both from our own experiences and from science. If people set their goal as perfection, they are bound to be a disappointment to themselves, and to be disappointed in everyone else.

This week I was discussing Carl Orff with a friend. Orff was a German composer. His book Schulworke is very influential in music education. He wrote his most famous work, Carmina Burana, during the 1930s in Nazi Germany. The Nazis decided they liked it, which was not a given. They had their hang ups about anything that had a taint of modern. Orff was rewarded financially. He never joined the Nazi party. For years many people avoided concerts that included his music. 

Richard Wagner  was notorious for his antisemitism. He was a writer as well as a composer. An 1850 essay, Judaism in Music,  criticized Jews and the Jewish composers Meyerbeer and Mendelsonn. He repeated an idea from the French philosophers of the 18th century, claiming that Jewish speech was "intolerably jumbled blabber", a "creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle", incapable of expressing true passion[6] which prevented them from creating song or music. The essay was not a best seller and had no discernible influence. In spite of these opinions, he had many Jewish friends, including Mendelsohn. In his writing he expressed his antisemitism repeatedly.  Wagner died long before the Holocaust. He was a favorite composer under the Nazis who also approved of the three B’s, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. 

The subject of Wagner’s antisemitism came up in Cleveland when Christoph von Dohnányi, the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, was preparing Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Asked about Wagner’s antisemitism he said, “You have to know about it, but then you have to forget about it pretty much.”

Christoph von Dohnányi was very aware of life in Nazi Germany. His father Hans, his uncle, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other relatives were in the resistance to Nazism. They were executed on April 9, 1945, when Christoph was 15 years old. 

Von Dohnányi, who is not Jewish, is sensitvive to antisemitism. In 2011 he canceled appearances at the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest, saying he did not want to "appear in a city whose mayor entrusted the direction of a theater to two known, extreme right-wing anti-Semites."

These reflections dealing with the Holocaust might seem dated. But how should we treat the legacies of people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were slave owners, and Aaron Lopez of Newport, who was involved in the slave trade?

Human beings are not perfect, nor are heroes!

Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!


Judaism in Music

Von Dohnányi on Wagner's antisemitism

about Carl Orff

about Christoph von Dohnányiányi


Thursday, March 10, 2022

From Dokshitz to Newport-America Part two

From Dokshitz to Newport-America
by Rev. Nathan Friedman
translated by Aaron Ginsburg
puliished in Gluboker Leben
March 18, 1932

The story continues. Thanks to Margarita Kozhenevskaya for finding this article which was published in Yiddish in Glubokie, then in Poland. Nathan Friedman immigrated to Newport, Rhode Island, where he died after many years of serving the community.

From Dokshitz to Newport-America
by Rev. Nathan Friedman

In the eighties of the 19th century, the stream of enlightenment poured into our riparian region. The Jewish youth then believed that redemption, the richer life, could come only through education. The urge for enlightenment, which had a strong impact in Germany for many decades, thanks to the theorist of the Romantic Enlightenment, Mendelssohn, finally came to Russia.

The Haskalah infiltrated the balabatish households, whose sons studied in the yeshivot and represented the religious aristocracy. In those days yichis (genealogy) played a great role, the so-called liberal man, the scholar, the priviledged were strrictly separated from the craftsman and simple man, the balabatish psychology was a whole cult that stood above the masses.

With the greatest effort, the young man used to try not to be a soldier. Apart from going to worship, it was a difficult thing because it took 6 years and people had to live in the filthy Russian barracks, eat treif and violate the Sabbath, worship was not considered a fine thing and every father had an assignment. “Avoid the draft.”

The tsarist administration had allowed itself to be ostracized almost everywhere, but if it had been a stricter place, people would have to register elsewhere where the administration allowed itself to act.

In a word, the balabatish avoided military service. Therefore, all the yeshivas were filled with the balabatish bridegrooms.
Fathers used to take the young ones on trips, then they were forced to open a shop, and most of the women became the business leaders.

I was in Dvinsk for three years and could not do any business there, I came back to Dokshitz and went into business with Reb Iser Kaminkemich, a haberdashery shop, and as it did not carry the business for granted I turned over this business to my younger brother. I began to give lessons in Russian and Hebrew, and at the same time helped all Jewish organizations with deeds and with money, though it took a half part in a performance of the wisdom of Solomon for the benefit of Bekor Holim.

At that time our first son, Mordecai Matel, was born to us. We spent a very short time in Doskhitz then quickly returned to Dvinsk, and immediately I got a job giving private lessons from a rich man, teaching Hebrew to his two sons who were in the gymnasia. Through this man I became acquainted with other rich men. I became well known and friendly with the Dvinsk city administration, where I was able to help many people, make a living, give Hebrew and Russian lessons, and also with advocacy before the justice of the peace.

And in my spare time, I assisted my father-in-law, R 'Isaiah Meyerson, in his business dealings with the goods and grain on the Tavarni Station, on the Calcio Livov-Romansky railroad.

Monday, February 28, 2022

Russian warship, Go F*ck yourself!

 Russian warship, Go F*ck yourself!
At Jewish Newport
February 26, 2022 
also on facebook
Edited by Beth Ginsburg Levine

As I walked by the State House in Boston on Sunday I came by the end of a demonstration about Ukraine that had 5000 participants. I started thinking about the Jewish president of Ukraine.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy had no political experience before he was elected president. He is an actor and a lawyer. I think those are related professions, both to each other and to politics.  Today he is a hero of Ukraine and an inspiration for the whole world. How did he do it?. It is his down home approach and language, and that is not an act!

Saturday we celebrated Shabbat Shekalim, the first of four special shabbatot leading up to Purim and Passover. Shekelim (shekels) refers to the half shekel each adult male was asked to donate for upkeep of the mishkan (tabernacle).

During services at Newport’s Touro Synagogue, Rabbi Marc Mandel told the worshippers that the parsha was about the decorating of the mishkan. “Moses conducted a fundraising campaign,” he said, “which was too successful, so he had to slow down the pace of donations.” 

Moses didn’t have fundraising tools like Facebook or advertising, but I think he had a good pitch, “Hakadosh Baruch Hu is on my side.” Since then many have used that line but without being able to provide evidence that it was true.

In the Ashkenazi haftarah, King Jehoash of Judah put the kohanim (priests) in charge of refurbishing the Temple. In the 23rd year of Jehaosh’s reign, someone realized that no repairs had been done. Perhaps the roof collapsed when the King was visiting. Being masters of ritual did not make the kohanim project managers or masters of design and construction. 

Custody of the donations was transferred to the overseers of the work, who used it to buy wood and other raw materials and pay the artists, craftsmen and workers who were doing the work. It’s something we all experience. Should I do it myself or hire a contractor?

During prayers for the sick after the sixth aliyah, the Ukraine defense forces were included. As we prepared to return the Torah we recited prayers for the American government, the Israeli government and a combined prayer for the American and Israeli defense forces. The Ukraine defense forces were included in the latter prayer, also.

Rabbi Mandel quoted the response of Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny to an inquiry about his well being. Dukhovny is the rabbi at the Hatikvah Synagogue in Kiev, Ukraine.

“Congregant Aaron Ginsburg wrote,” said Rabbi Mandel, “‘Rabbi, I am very worried about my friends in Ukraine. My prayers are with you, Best, Aaron.’

“Rabbi Dukhovny responded, ‘Thank you so much. I am in Kyiv! Just led a Kabbalat Shabbat service from a basement. Air strikes expected! Praying for peace together!’”

Then Rabbi Mandel told us, “The parsha tells us, ‘וַקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כׇּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל Then Moses gathered together all the people (literally, the entire community of the children of Israel).’  It would have been difficult to gather all the people. Moses must have gathered the leaders of the community. The word used, edah, refers to a community. For example, our minyan is an edah. You don’t have to be present to be part of an edah. The Jews of Ukraine are part of our edah.” 

After Shabbat, Rabbi Dukhovny wrote, “The second night I am in the basement of the residential building. Crowded. However, people are calm and full of optimism: peace will prevail and Ukraine will continue to keep its sovereignty and democracy! Amen!

Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport

From Dokshitz to Newport, America

From Dokshitz to Newport, America                                          At Jewish Newport                                                                    by Aaron Ginsburg also on facebook                                                                                         February 28, 2022

Rabbi Nathan Zalman Friedman was born in Dokshitz.  
He wrote several articles in the Gluboker Leben, a yiddish newspaper published in Glubokie, then in Poland. A partial translation of an article from March 4, 1932 follows. Thank you to Margarita Kozhenevskaya for finding it. 

Rabbi Nathan Zalman Friedman and his wife Dora nee Meirson settled in Newport, Rhode Island. In the 1930 US census in addition to English he spoke Jewish and his occupation was listed as Rabbi, industry as Hebrew teacher.

At the end of the article we learn that at Rabbi Friedman's wedding to Dvora Meirson the Rogatchover Rabbi Ilui officiated. I mentioned this to Rabbi Marc Mandel of Touro Synagogue, Newport, RI who told me that the Rogatchover was very prominent Talmud interpreter. You can learn more about him at

Rabbi Friedman's great grandson Bernie Friedman reports that his great grandfather, "retired in 1935 after 25 years of service to the Congregation. He was the chazzan, ritual slaughterer, teacher, and anything else the Rabbi delegated to him. He lived above my Grandfather’s [Bernard C Friedman] Dental Office. My dad would tell stories of his grandfather slaughtering the chickens in the basement and how exciting that was at the time. There was a tribute dinner to Nathan upon his retirement and a beautiful kiddush cup was given to him that we use today. There are photos of the tribute dinner."

From Gluboker Leben, 4 March 1932

Partial translation by Aaron Ginsburg 

Rav Nossin Friedman

From Dokshitz to Newport, America

The rabbis sent me out from Heder at the age of 16 years. I knew  the Talmud quite well, was a good baal Kore, was versed in the entire Talmud, and the Hebrew language, I learned math well, and had studied a bit of accounting. I spoke the Russian language fluently; my Polish language skills weren't bad. I also studied after that to take the chancellor's exam which I took in the Russian language. 

I had fine friends, helped my parents with their business and was familiar with the owners of the courtyards with which my parents used to do business. I also was active in public Tzedakah,  ?, talmud torah, bikur holim and Shul activities. 

We worked hard to collect money for bikur holim. Hevra went with charity boxes to different parts of town. I brought more money in than anyone else because each time I raised money from my cousins, about 40-50 people. I was a hero in collecting donations.  

I worked as a secretary in the Municipal government while my father was a magistrate? in the town.

In those times Jews were allowed to  stand for the government’s “Galileo'' exam and they did well. [discussion of other examinations and awards]

Overcoming my shyness, I became engaged in Dvinsk-Dinenberg to a beautiful woman from a large family, Dvora daughter of Reb Yishiyahu Meirson. who was born in Dokshitz and lived in Dvinsk-Dinenberg.  

Being in Dvinsk-Dinenberg to get married, I got to know  young people who were studying Russian from a teacher of Russian, a student in  the sixth class of the Realschule (name of school) which had given my bride a lecture in Russian.

I persuaded him to go to Dokshitz as a teacher and indeed I immediately brought him down to Dokshitz and all the young people of Dokshitz were enthusiastic and thanked me.

But the joy was not long away. It was seven weeks until my wedding on Erev Shavuot 1887. The entire town of Dokshitz was upset when the teacher had to depart for Glubokie. 

It was a second kind of learning… The teacher was named Robert Weiner. A few Glubokers must remember him. Today he is a famous  medical doctor in America in New York City, and still my good comrade and friend.

I had a big wedding in Dvinsk at a large hotel. Officiating at the kiddushin was the well-known rabbi from Dvinsk, the Rogatchover Rabbi Ilui. (to be continued)

Thursday, February 3, 2022

The Wisdom of Our Forefathers

 The Wisdom of Our Forefathers

Jeshuat Israel, Shearith Israel and Touro Synagogue

contact me

Breaking: Today the The Board of Trustees and Clergy of Congregation Shearith Israel sent a message to the Congregants of Jeshuat Israel and all worshippers at Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island which is below.

Congregation Shearith Israel of New York (CSI) has filed a motion to evict Congregation Jeshuat Israel of Newport (CJI) from Touro Synagogue. The story has been widely reported in the media including an article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) which is well worth reading.

In a public Statement, Shearith Israel President Louis Solomon said, “In seeking to change the Board overseeing day-to-day activities at Touro Synagogue, no congregants are being evicted.  None will be, ever.  Shearith Israel also hopes the current Rabbi of Touro will consider staying, as he is very welcome.  Ritual services will remain the same.  Congregation Shearith Israel is exercising the rights clearly granted it by the final court decision against CJI. 

“Our disagreement is solely with a few members of the CJI Board, and we wish to restructure the group overseeing day-to-day activities of Touro Synagogue to restore trust and confidence that has historically existed, for close to 200 years, between Shearith Israel and Touro Synagogue.”

Jeshuat Israel’s co-president Louise Ellen Teitz told The New York Jewish Week, “We are shocked that Shearith Israel seeks to expel Rhode Island’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel from the historic Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the country and the nation’s cradle of religious liberty. The members of the Jeshuat Israel Congregation have been the faithful stewards of  and peaceable worshippers at Touro Synagogue for more than 140 years. 

“At a time of unprecedented attacks on American Jewry, we are devastated that our Congregation has become the target of a shameful power grab by another Jewish congregation that over the years has not provided us or Touro any meaningful  support at all. We condemn this destructive attack on our congregation and displacement of our community, and call upon Shearith Israel to let Jeshuat Israel live and pray in peace.”

As reported by the JTA, a January 2022 Jeshuat Israel letter to its congregants said, “we are a proud congregation with a proud history — and our independence is vital to our future. In other words, no landlord participates in its tenants’ activities on a day-to-day basis like what CSI is asking of CJI,” and “The Jeshuat Israel congregation objects to the call for board members from the New York synagogue “without any promise of either a long term lease or that CSI will not make future demands at any point,” and, “In other words, granting CSI its demand of two Board seats will not provide any long term stability or comfort with respect to CJI’s future ability to pray at Touro Synagogue.”

There is a difference in tone between Mr. Solomon’s statements and CJI’s statements. Solomon writes of welcome, and of trust and confidence. CJI writes of  shock, shameful power grab, destructive attack, and independence.

CJI’s passionate tone and words of outrage make for good print. They are inspiring, fighting words. But are fighting words the best words for the current situation? 

Lets review the history:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, different factions of the  Newport Jewish community tried to get access to Touro Synagogue. Attempts to bring the future of Touro Synagogue to court failed and Congregation Shearith Israel remained in control of the building. Newport’s Jeshuat Israel recognized the weakness of its position and accepted New York’s offer of a simple one year lease for $1 a year that would renew annually. 

The lease is brief. Jeshuat Israel is obliged to pay the rent, neither alter the building (without permission) nor assign the lease, to worship according to Orthodox Spanish and Portuguese Jewish custom, submit its religious leader for approval, and to leave the building in the condition received if the lease ends. That lease has been in effect for almost 120 years. At the bottom is the exact wording. The full text is here.

Perhaps Congregation Jeshuat Israel wanted to be independent. But that did not stop them from accepting the agreement with Shearith Israel.

After a long lawsuit, the courts have decided once again the New York congregation controls the building and the ritual objects that go with it. Jeshuat Israel lost and is in a weak position. 

After the legal battle ended in 2019, Parnas Louis Solomon of Shearith Israel wrote, "...we want to go into what we hope will be a very long and lasting period of harmony and cooperation with the congregation up there for the long betterment of the Touro Synagogue. We want to make sure that it remains an active vibrant house of worship open to all Jews.” In remarks directed to Jeshuat Israel members, he said, “…I really hope that we can re-engage in an instructive and harmonious way." 

He reiterated, "We're quite serious about it. It’s time to put this past behind us. There are not only decades but literally a century of harmony…and yes, ups and downs, but basic respect and harmony. Let’s re-achieve that." 


Jeshuat Israel is adamant that adding Shearith Israel members to its board would end its independence. However, the Newporters imply that in return for a long-term lease concessions might be possible.


It is not unusual for a company to change its leadership or its policies. Sometimes when negotiations falter, the negotiation team is changed. An impasse has been reached. The years of litigation have reaffirmed that Shearith Israel of New York owns Touro Synagogue. Now congregation Jeshuat Israel of Newport  is faced with eviction after 120 years. Perhaps it is time for a different strategy. 

Is Shearith Israel an intransigent bully engaged in a power grab and trying to take away Jeshuat Israel’s independence? Or is it exercising its legal rights and fulfilling its duty as owner of Touro Synagogue? The issues seem to be landlord participation, the length of the lease, board seats, future demands and independence.

Touro Synagogue is not an ordinary building. And most leases now-a-days ( and condominium bylaws) are full of conditions and stipulations about what you can and when you can do it and what you cannot do.

In asking for a longer lease CJI is attempting to renegotiate an agreement that has served it well for 120 years. It just might be that CSI might want to make changes to the lease too. 

As mentioned above, Shearith Israel wants two seats on the Jeshuat Israel’s board, “without any promise of either a long term lease or that CSI will not make future demands at any point.” “Demands” is another fighting word. Agreements (and promises) are constantly changing as conditions change and as we learn more.  Most agreements recognize this and include a way to revise themselves as needed. It is wishful thinking to believe that the promise the Newport congregation asks for would preclude future changes.

What does independence mean? In the current context, it is not clear. As human beings and Jews, we depend on each other. 

CJI is dependent on visitors to help maintain worship services and on donors from all over the world. CJI depends on the agreement with CSI to worship in Touro Synagogue, and it has been that way for over 120 years. CJI has not been independent.

Let’s look at this from Shearith Israel’s’s point of view. As the owner of Touro Synagogue, they have both a right and a duty to make sure it is in good hands. A snafu regarding the colonial Jewish cemetery by Jeshuat Israel did not help (Jeshuat Israel apologized but the damage was done.) After years of acrimonious litigation and the failure after three years to come to a modus vivendi, the New York congregation feels board access would be helpful.

When Prince Henri of Navarre became King Henry IV of France he was a Protestant. Eventually, to consolidate his reign, he became a Catholic, saying, “Paris is worth a Mass.” (“Paris vaut une messe.”) Among Henri’s accomplishments he built a public square in the Marais district, the Place des Vosges, which became the model of many similar squares in Europe.

For Congregation Jeshuat Israel of Newport, the dilemma is whether or not to follow the example of its forefathers 120 years ago and make an agreement with Congregation Shearith Israel of New York. Is a short term lease and Congregation Shearith Israel board participation worth it to continue worshiping in Touro Synagogue?

1. Letter from Shearith Israel

2. Excerpt from Lease agreement

February 3, 2022 

From: The Board of Trustees and Clergy of Congregation Shearith Israel 

To: Congregants of Jeshuat Israel and all worshippers at Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island 

Three years ago, Congregation Shearith Israel was confirmed by the courts to be the owner and steward of the Touro Synagogue. Sadly for all of us, that determination has not put an end to the friction and mistrust borne from that unfortunate litigation. By now, you have likely learned that Shearith Israel is seeking to change the Board overseeing day-to-day activities at Touro Synagogue. We want you to know that no congregants are being evicted. Congregants will never be evicted, ever. Shearith Israel also hopes that Rabbi Mandel will consider staying, as he is a welcome and trusted minister to the Newport community. Ritual services will remain the same. 

We want you to know that for the past three years Shearith Israel has worked tirelessly to find common ground with the Board of CJI in terms of transparency and cooperation. Regrettably, the effort has not been successful. Two mediations led by friends of CJI ended in Shearith Israel’s being willing to agree to their recommendations while those controlling the CJI Board were not willing to accept the recommendations of their own chosen intermediaries (a third mediation never got off the ground due to Covid-related scheduling conflicts). 

Shearith Israel’s disagreements are solely with a few members of the CJI Board. We wish to restructure the group overseeing day-to-day activities of Touro Synagogue to include currently sitting CJI members who bear no animosity towards Shearith Israel, Shearith Israel members, and independent trustees of national renown who have the best interests of Touro Synagogue in mind. 

We want to restore the trust and confidence that has historically existed, for close to 200 years, between Shearith Israel and Touro Synagogue. We do not wish to disturb the religious services or social activities of Touro Synagogue’s long-functioning community. Quite the opposite – we hope that congregants of the Touro Synagogue will experience no disruption of communal life whatsoever. We hope you will see past all the rhetoric and understand that the current legal action is being taken in order to ensure that we will once again have confidence that our tenant will act in a manner that is in the best interests of Touro Synagogue and that is not adversarial. We do not, for example, want to learn, after the fact, about sales of ritual objects or of the erection of gravestones in the historic cemetery. Only in this way will our communities be able to move forward together from the unfortunate disputes of the past several years. 

We would be happy to speak with you and answer any questions you may have. Please contact Shearith Israel Executive Director Barbara Reiss or Reverend Zachary Edinger. We wish you all a Shabbat shalom. 

2 West 70th Street, New York, NY / T 212.873.0300 / F 815.301.3820 /

From the lease:

“AND the said party of the second part does covenant to pay to the said parties of the first park the said yearly rent as herein specified.

AND the said party of the second part further covenants that it will not assign this lease, nor let or underlet the whole or any part of the said premises , nor make any alterations therein without the written consent of the said parties of the first part under the penalty of forfeiture and damages; and that it will not occupy or use the said premises, nor permit the same to be occupied or used for any purpose other than here in stated without the like consent under the like penalty.

This lease and the term hereby granted is made upon the express covenant and condition that the party of the second part will cause the same to be used and occupied for the maintenance therein of the usual and stated religious services according to the ritual rites and customs of the Orthodox Spanish and Portuguese Jewish as at this time practiced in the Synagogue of the Congregation Shearith Israel, in the City of New York.

It is further agreed that before any Minister can officiate in said Synagogue, his appointment to the position must first be approved of in writing by a majority of the parties of the first part, or of their successors.

AND at the expiration of the said term the said party of the second part will quit and surrender the premises hereby demised, in as good state and condition as reasonable use and wear thereof will permit, damages by the elements excepted.”