My wife and I enjoyed a fun Memorial Day picnic in New Jersey with our children and grandson. But on the flight home last night from EWR to TLV, I thought about that combination of words—“fun Memorial Day”—and about a cultural contrast, after 36 years here, between my native and adopted lands.
America is a vast country with 330 million people, protected by giant oceans, friendly (yes) borders, and a mighty (since WWII) army. That’s one reason that 9/11 shocked everyone: intense, murderous intense, murderous destruction– hatred as much for successes as for failures.
Israel, on the other hand, is home to just 9 million people in the same area as New Jersey, vulnerable in an unforgiving neighborhood, and there are people who are actively committed to killing us all! Power may be required to survive but doesn’t win us any popularity awards. as Golda Meir once said, “Better negative press than positive eulogies.” My Dad, a concentration camp survivor, put it differently, “When somebody threatens your life, just believe him.”
The U.S. has a tiny fraction (0.5%) of its 350 million population in uniform. Israel has 1.8% of its 9 million citizens on active duty right now, not counting 5.2% on reserve duty, and most of the rest are veterans. That’s why Israel has no Veterans Day. Like your mother used to say, “Every day is Children’s Day.”
But the real difference between the two countries lies in a phrase from the Passover Haggadah: “In every generation they try to destroy us.” American Jews enjoy the luxury of questioning that phrase in the disturbing light of recent Jew-hatred; Israelis just nod. In this little country, everyone seems to know each other and has a family or friend touched by that most permanent of sadnesses.
There’s one more contrast—timing. The U.S. has Memorial Day at the end of May, Independence Day on July 4, and Veterans (“Armistice”) Day on November 11. But let’s face it, unless you’re part of the tiny percentage experiencing that personal blow, you might pay respect to the armed forces, but it’s a still a long weekend for picnics and discount sales. Maybe we all hope to get to that place.
In Israel the juxtaposition is severe by intent. Two weeks after Passover comes Holocaust Memorial Day, a reminder of the direct link between powerlessness and mass murder. A week later comes Memorial Day to remind us of the wrenching sacrifices that (help) guarantee national freedom. And the next day, at sunset, to be precise, it all switches in the blink of an eye from mourning to the celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. The three are intricately connected, for better or worse.
There are sirens on both Israeli Memorial Days and people stand at attention wherever they are. Even drivers on the highways stop and get out of their cars to observe a minute of silence and remember. Because, however fractured our politics, we all grasp the true stakes as one.
Nowhere have I seen this phenomenon explained more movingly on film that this short clip from Simon Schama’s brilliant “The Story of the Jews” (Episode 6).
So, you see, there are advantages to both big and little countries. Let’s dream of a happier future when Memorial Days are distant memories of the very personal sacrifices for independence.
Welcome all! It is our honor to host this party for the newlyweds. I’m going to go out on a limb here and offer some free advice to the newlywed couple, knowing full well that most people are equally as willing for a dentist to be drilling than to ever take a word of free advice1. But, as it says in the book of משלי (Proverbs 9:8), אַל־תּוֹכַח לֵץ פֶּן־יִשְׂנָאֶךָּ הוֹכַח לְחָכָם וְיֶאֱהָבֶךָּ. Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; but offer advice to the wise and they will love you. So please indulge me some insights from almost forty-four years of a loving marriage, through richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, still working at it every day.
Everyone knows that marriage usually starts out with great passion and high hopes, but passion can wax and wane with the years. Someone, I think Shenandoah, said it’s more important to like your spouse than to love them. Loving marriages are nurtured over time; unloving ones devolve into apathy.
So here are my three steps to a respectful marriage–not specific to you–but for anyone.
What You See is What You Get.
We humans want to believe we’re rational, but we are dominated by our emotions. The comedian Danny Kaye said, “I know a woman whose favorite position is beside herself and whose favorite sport is jumping to conclusions”.People are a delicious mix of Nature and Nurture. If you shuffle a deck of cards, there are 250 septillion permutations. Your 5,000 matched pairs of genes yield 103000 possibilities, which is more than the 1080 atoms estimated in the known universe. You are literally a soup of genetic traits from all your 8 great-grandparents and beyond, and you didn’t even know them! And that’s not counting your upbringing, environment and experience. You think it’s tough planning a wedding? Try bathrooms, much less the challenges surrounding location, lifestyle, spirituality, careers, money, health, and children.So here’s my 1st point. We all mistakenly believe that everyone thinks — or ought to think — like us. In the immortal words of Henry Higgins, “One man in a million may shout a bit, Now and then there’s one with slight defects, One, perhaps, whose truthfulness you doubt a bit, But by and large we are a marvelous sex! Why can’t a woman be more like a man?…”2
We all want to train or “help” our partner to overcome some irritating habit, but we all have our crazinesses. In principle, according to Maimonides, human change is achievable, however tortuous. That’s what Rosh HaShanah is about. But, in practice, the rabbis said that it’s easier to learn the entire Talmud than to drop one bad habit. It is possible, but if you expect your spouse to change their basic personality ten years from now… then… don’t.
Speak Up / Hold Your Tongue.
I have a beef with the so-called Golden Rule: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Or, in Hillel’s negative version, מָה שֶׁשָּׂנוּא עָלֶיךָ אַל תַּעֲשֶׂה לַחֲבֵרְךָ. What you do not like, do not do to others. The problem is that it assumes that other people think like you. Guess what, they don’t. How much better to adopt the Platinum Rule: do unto others as they would have you do unto them! Sadly, each two human beings are divided, in Soloveitchik’s words, by a lonely chasm of uniqueness. Bridge it as best you can, but individual we remain.I am fascinated by a verse from Leviticus 19:17. לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא. Do not hate your brother in your heart. Criticize him and do not bear guilt because of him.So the Torah is teaching us not to quietly resent somebody. It’s better to say something. But I’m intrigued by the do not bear guilt because of him part. Rashi says it means criticize him gently and avoid the sin of cruelty. Ibn-Ezra says that by criticizing him, you might actually prevent his doing something wrong.
Some might notice contrast between the extremes of Israeli over-directness and American over-hold-it-in-ness. The right way, I think, is to say something, but with kindness. Frankly, It is as difficult to criticize with delicacy and tact as it is to hear criticism. God gave us lips and teeth: two obstacles to our loose unfiltered So think before reacting, before saying something mean or stupid. We humans are sensitive creatures; we sure can dish it out but we cannot take it. In fact, we will remember a mean word for a lifetime.
In the book of Zechariah, there’s a wonderful verse (8:19), הָאֱמֶת וְהַשָלוֹם אֱהָבוּ, which translates simply as “love honesty and peace”. Sounds simple. But the rabbis read more into it. In the gemara of Sanhedrin, it says, “Wherever there is total honesty, there is no peace. Where there is complete peace, there is lacking justice.” The difficult answer is a balance, a never-ending compromise between honesty & peace. Stop having the last word.
Put your spouse first.
This, too, sounds obvious, right? It’s not. After decades not being together, with one act under the חופה, the two of you became a married couple. Maybe not quite “you against the world”, but close.Diane likes to say that a loving marriage is not a 50-50 proposition, it’s really 90-90, meaning that maybe you cannot always be considerate of your spouse, 100% of the time… but close. It is not about one partner being smitten with the other more (that’s בּאָבּע מעשׂיות), it’s the two of you as equals in caring. Giving beats taking.However close you are today with your family and friends, your wife or husband now comes first, i.e. #1. Not your parents, grandparents, sisters, friends or even children, God willing, someday. No. Your partner from here on must be your #1 concern. Period.
So there you have it: three not-so-easy rules for a happy marriage:
WYSIWYG: What You See is What You Get
Speak up AND hold your tongue. Never harshness, all kindness.
Your partner comes first. Period.
So there you have it. We all wish you the blessings of health and naches that life has to offer, with warmth and love. Mazal tov!
[remarks at the funeral of my mother, Yolanda Rosenschein ז״ל, February 5, 2019]
The pain of parting from your mother is intense even when she lived happily to 97. She was our last surviving family member of her generation. I want to honor her memory today and share with you our Mom’s story and also her secret for enjoying life.
Yolanda Rosenschein was born Yenti Gitl Bleier on April 9, 1921 in the town of Mukačevo (or Munkács) in eastern Czechoslovakia. She was the youngest of 7 daughters, with an older and younger brother, too.
She enjoyed a happy childhood and young adulthood in a thriving cultural center. She grew up without today’s conveniences. For example, her grandfather had a real telephone in his business—and she always remembered his phone number; it was “2-5”. By the age of 22, she was an assistant manager in a local dress shop.
World War II almost passed them by, because it was the Hungarian Fascists, not the Germans, who occupied their town, and they were not deporting Jews. Yet.
Mom once told me that she would visit their local hospital on Shabbat afternoons with her girlfriends. They brought candies to the sick children, one of whom was a young boy named Shonyi. (more on him later).
On March 15, 1944, the Germans seized Munkács. 5 weeks later, right after Passover, they decreed that all Jews immediately relocate to a tiny neighborhood (ghetto) in town, scrounging for a place to live.
One month later, May 15, the Jews were ordered out of their houses, to march—past their former neighbors, who were jeering — to the brick factory on the outskirts of town, where they sat on the ground… waiting.
Three days later, on Thursday, May 18, the deportation trains pulled in. Not passenger cars. These were livestock cars, into which you could shove about 100 humans, give or take. No food, no water, no sanitary facilities. There were 40-50 cars per train. It took 5 days to deport all the Jews from their town.
Yolanda’s extended family was packed in like sardines. Then she saw her young friend Shonyi from the hospital. “Hey, Shonyi, come with us!” Unfortunately, the German commandant overheard this and shouted, “You want the cripple? You can have all the cripples.” And, sure enough, they squeezed another 20 people into that cattle car.
Later in life, Mom told me two things about this incident. (1) To their credit, her family never complained about what she had done. (2) She believed in her heart that whatever good fortune may have smiled on her family — was God’s reward for this simple act of loving-kindness.
By May 23, 1944, the Nazis reported to headquarters that Munkács was Judenrein — “free” of its 28,587 Jews.
Upon arrival at Auschwitz/Birkenau three days later, the men and the women were divided into two long lines for “processing”. Yolanda’s father, Shmuel, our grandfather, crossed lines to say goodbye to his wife. “Tate,” his daughters screamed, “go back… they’ll shoot you!” But he crossed lines anyway, recited the Shema Yisrael and told our grandmother in Yiddish, “May we meet again someday in עולם הבא in the next world.”
Almost all of her extended family was sent to the left: death by asphyxiation in the lonely darkness of the gas chamber. Yolanda was sent to the right, with one sister, to the labor camp — stripped naked, shaven, issued striped prisoner pajamas, one size fits all. Upon emerging, she beheld hundreds of unrecognizable crazy-looking women, and then she realized that she was one of them.
In the work camp, she met one familiar face: Freda Rosenschein (later Freda Lederer). “Martin’s sister?” she asked. The two of them became “Lager-schwestern” (camp-sisters) and would stick closely together the next 69½ years.
The two were “selected” for work in another concentration camp called Weißwasser. By the winter of 1945, the women weighed a skeletal 70 pounds (32 kg). Besides the whips and the clubs, the worst part was waking up in sub-zero nights to stand outside, sometimes for hours, in the snow and howling winds, waiting for roll call.
There was one humane German woman in the factory, named Paula Kattendorff, who took pity on the girls. She would leave a small apple in the drawer, which Yolanda and Freda would hide and then split down the middle.
By spring of 1945, the inmates still breathing were force-marched to the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where there was almost no food but plenty of epidemic. It was here that Yolanda witnessed the single most horrifying sight of her lifetime—a mountain of unburied bodies.
The British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945. In the final moments of captivity, with soldiers walking up to the barracks, the German women guards took out pistols to rid the world of a few more Jewish girls.
Yolanda was sick as a dog with typhus, powerless to move or swallow food. Her new sister Freda was sent to Sweden for convalescence.
Now, for most nations who fought in World War II, the end of the war brought some joy and relief, as they counted their dead.
The Jewish survivors had no such celebration — they only counted how few were left living — shattered, traumatized for life, and guilt-racked for even surviving. The Nazis had successfully slaughtered sixty hundred-thousand Jews, two-thirds of Europe’s ten million Jewish population — to the “shock” of the civilized world.
Postwar Europe was in pandemonium, masses of refugees passing through train stations, desperately looking for anyone who knew someone in their families, living or dead.
In the Budapest train station, Mom saw Martin Rosenschein from her hometown again. “Your sister Freda is alive; she’s in Sweden!” And the two of them stuck together from then on. Martin knew her family and proposed marriage soon after. Yolanda was too overwhelmed to grasp it. She was emaciated; she had zero idea what would be. Later that winter, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and gave Martin another chance to back out.
They crossed through forests and over borders in the dead of winter. When you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat the grass. Our Dad would later smile — or maybe wince — when someone would remark, “I’m really starving!”
Yolanda and Martin reached a “displaced persons” refugee camp in West Germany, where they were married in March 1946. They got one wedding gift from all their neighbors: a cup and saucer. They lived in that camp for 3 years.
In 1949 the Truman administration accepted some European Jewish immigrants. Many stayed in New York, but others went to Jewish communities across the country who accepted a few families each. Yolanda and Martin were sent to… Harrisburg PA, where they arrived with her brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Ben and Lillian Rosenschein.
A year later, the four of them founded Rose Family Cleaners, later Quality Cleaners. Dad did the cleaning; Mom did sewing and alterations. Within a couple of years, Freda and her new husband Steve Lederer joined them. Fifteen years later, brother Sandy and Ella Sternberg came to town. The four families lived on one block on Green Street, a vestige of their need for family to rely on and stick close together.
We children grew up never grasping their stories; how could we? Our parents decidedly did not talk about the war; some things are simply not discussed. They wanted “normal” quiet lives in Harrisburg. What I can say is that they all worked hard to provide the best for their families and contribute to their adoptive community and attempt to overcome the nightmares of their pasts.
So stop for a second. Who cares! We’ve all heard Holocaust survivor stories and seen the movies.
Well, what makes the survivors special is not what they suffered but that they found the courage to reboot their lives.
What made our Mom remarkable was her determined upbeated-ness. She was the most optimistic person that I have ever met. Believe me, Mom was not naïve; she’d literally seen it all.
But she possessed a special generosity of spirit, warmth, optimism, and a so-big heart. She approached everyone she met — strangers, friends, family — with a smile on her face and an openness in her heart. That is her legacy.
The Nobel-prize winning Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, himself admittedly not an optimist, wrote that, if you could wish one genetic trait on your children, it should be the optimistic gene. Optimistic people, on the average, are luckier, happier, and more successful.
But I’m telling you that there’s more to it than that and Yolanda Rosenschein is the proof. To a certain extent, of course, optimistic genes help. Yes, she wore rose-family-colored glasses. But she also experienced plenty of heartache in her life, “oh yes”.
Happiness, it turns out, is also a choice!That was her secret.
Here are 5 Yolanda Rosenschein lessons for us:
Choose to be happy and work hard at it.
If you want others to smile, then you must smile.
Find meaning in loving your family and friends.
Accept others the way they are, even strangers. Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.
Discover your own faith: not the one’s that’s easy but the one you’ve wrestled with, nurtured, and, in your darkest moments, doubted.
She would always say: life goes on; we do the best that we can.
Mom’s upbeat nature provides inspiration. Whenever I go through a tough period, there’s this tiny voice in my ear: this is nothing, you have shoes on your feet and a shirt on your back.
In the ancient Jewish book of Pikei Avot, Rabbi Yochanan Ben-Zakkai asked his five students what is the most important quality a person should seek. Rabbi Eliezer said, “A good eye.” Rabbi Joshua said, “A good friend.” Rabbi Yosay said, “A good neighbor.” Rabbi Simon said, “The ability to see what’s coming.” Rabbi Elazar said, “A good heart.” The master responded: “Elazar is correct, because a good heart actually includes all the rest.”
Even in the struggle of her final days, with her physical heart failing, Mom’s big-heart and joie de vivre shone through. One of her last sentences, cobbled painfully together to the doctor on Friday, was “Maybe they should write an article called ‘the woman who wouldn’t let go’.”
Mom, we ask for your סליחה וּמחילה, your forgiveness, for anything we might have done to you, or not done in the long years we’ve lived far away.
We are grateful for the tenderness shown Mom in her final months at The Residence of the Jewish Home and the extraordinary care at Harrisburg Hospital, especially Dr. Jessica Cunningham. We’ll never forget the devotion and kindness of her nieces and nephews on both sides — please forgive me not mentioning all your names — but I must especially thank Rita Gordon for always being there and treating Mom as her own.
Please remember Yolanda Rosenschein. Stop and think of her, maybe once a year, maybe on your birthday, and savor your own blessings / loved ones.
Remember her smile and her loving warmth. It’s not about the inevitable hardships but rather the courage to make meaning in your life.
ְנוּחִי בְשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְכָּבֵך. Rest in peace, dear Mom. We love and will miss you beyond words. May the angels descend and accompany you to your next place. We, your survivors, family and friends, will keep you alive, in our hearts.
4 years ago yesterday, on a business trip to NYC, I woke up and read this post. Michael Eisenberg, thank you! (You couldn’t know how your kindness encouraged me in a crisis.)
4 years ago today, I woke up with troubled breathing and chest pains, took two meetings, cancelled five, and jumped in a cab to Beth Israel Hospital [story here].
4 years ago tomorrow morning, I survived 7 hr quadruple bypass surgery, rebooting body and spirit. My life was saved by my cardiac surgeon, Dr. Darryl M. Hoffman.
We none of us know what tomorrow morning brings but try to face each day in courage and hope. Blood flowing and feeling great, I am profoundly grateful this and every morning for health, friends, family — and especially Diane — who keep me going.
So slow down a second and savor your own delicious breathing!
Rivers of pixels have been spilt over fears of the new administration and America’s deep divisions. I’ll add a short personal story, going back 40 years today. My purpose is not to compare Prime Minister Begin’s and President Trump’s characters, but to focus on our own emotional reactions to them.
Out of School
My first software job was in February 1976. Newly married, just graduated from MIT, I started as an assembly language programmer at Data General. Later that year, Diane and I decided to try out Israel, arriving two months after the US BiCentennial / Entebbe rescue. We found jobs in Jerusalem and enjoyed a fun year, just the two of us in a freezing rental on HaPalmach St.
In January 1977 our close friend Judy visited. She had a cousin named Hillel Seidel, a Member of Parliament from the small Independent Liberals party. Judy took us to visit the Knesset. It was exciting to see the action behind the scenes, especially the Knesset cafeteria, where bitter political rivals chatted like old friends.
We were introduced to the Likud’s Menachem Begin, who was 63 at the time (yikes, that’s my age!) A gentleman, he kissed Diane’s hand and said hello to us. He then remarked to her, “I can tell from your accent that you’re not originally from here.” Diane shrank. But then he added, “Don’t worry about it, neither am I!”
No Way He’ll Win
In the spring of 1977, nobody — I mean nobody — imagined Begin actually winning the election. Not only was he a so-called fanatic but he had lost every single election since 1949, even the one right after the Yom Kippur War. Everyone just KNEW that Labor had been in power, was in power, and would always be in power, right? Of course right.
With my (superior?) American perspective, I kept telling co-workers that democracy means that governmental turnover is possible, however unlikely. Expect the unexpected. And on May 17, the Likud won and Menachem Begin became prime minister. And then came the Anwar Sadat visit, Camp David, peace treaty with Egypt, etc. All seemed about as unlikely in January 1977 as a visitor from Mars. When Sadat arrived in Jerusalem, Golda Meir said to him, “Mr. President, couldn’t you have visited while I was the prime minister!”
Four years later, Begin was reelected, three weeks after the Israeli Air Force’s pinpoint destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, an act internationally condemned. BTW I once read that A. M. Rosenthal, NY Times Editor, said one of his biggest professional regrets was attacking that operation.
Reflect on the big picture. There are natural, even healthy, tensions between Left and Right, freedom and equality, and between universalism and particularism. We’ve become polarized and emotional in our certainties, too unwilling to at least understand the other side. Black-and-white thinking is easy, it’s those grays that are tough. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock explained in 1970 why Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Our poor impressionable minds & hearts can’t handle the complexity, overload, and accelerating rate of change. Don’t you ever just want to stop the world? Trump voters know that he won’t be able to keep all his promises; many don’t even want him to. That’s not the point. The unshakable message, as with Begin: shake things up.
My two biggest concerns today (besides the profound chasms in American society and myriad policy dilemmas facing Washington) are how clueless we are about the new cyber-warfare (read David Ignatius) and our insistent gullibility to fake news (i.e. the legitimacy of the well-formatted written word). These two areas require radically creative responses and adjustments to our mental models, and quickly.
I may not have voted for Trump, but let’s adjust to reality and hope/work for creative solutions to our new challenges, because so much of what we know to be true — isn’t.
36 months ago today I survived a successful quadruple bypass surgery. Operating time: 7.5 hours. Diane took an exceptionally long flight over the Atlantic from TLV-JFK and nursed me back to health. I want to share with you how happy I am to be here today and every day. I thank God each morning for the miracle of waking up.
Aging is great. I wish you many years of it, in good health. I know how you might feel about the aches, wrinkles, and creeping forgetfulness. But it’s better to age than to not! Ideally, surrounded by family and friends.
As we grow older, years grow shorter. That’s because they represent a shrinking percentage of our life’s memory. I’m down to 1.5%. This morning I looked through Picasa and gathered a few images. (You should try this, too.) What’s funny is the human recollection of many ages and experiences “like they were yesterday”. At least inside your brain. I remember that guy, perhaps disbelievingly in the mirror, but comprehend what he looks like to others.
The message remains — embrace each day of your life.
Counting Your Blessings
Take a moment and think about the near-misses that you and your family have survived this past year. It might be an illness, dozing at the wheel, a fall down steps, violent crime, accidents, or a hundred other bullets dodged. Most, you haven’t noticed — because you never thought about them — and assume they wouldn’t happen.
We humans are the only species conscious of our finite time on this earth. Thankfully, we do not dwell on it too much — in fact, we live in thoughtful, blissful, healthy denial of all the things that might go wrong. Otherwise, we’d never make it through a day.
We’re more proficient at comprehending the past than the future. Very possible things we never imagined are, well, unimaginable… in the vernacular, “unbelievable”.
The trick is to confront the future with the balance of choice over what you control/influence — and a healthy respect for what you cannot.
Yom Kippur 5777
Today is Yom Kippur Eve. According to Jewish tradition, we face the scales of justice and mercy, as we look forward to a better year. The High Holidays are both celebration and a thoughtful view towards the challenges of the coming year. There’s a beautiful prayer we say, of which I find myself more in awe each year.
My wish for you is to find your own peace with yourself, as you consider your personal and professional goals for the coming year. At this time of year, we ask others for forgiveness. But it’s just as hard to ask ourselves to forgive — to let go of the angers, envies, grudges, I-told-you-so’s, Schadenfreude, and pettinesses.
From Jerusalem, wishing you a peaceful year of good health and nachat. And enjoy Yom Kippur! If you’re fasting… have an easy one.
Do you ever wonder how your children (or grandchildren) might remember you someday? Today is the quarter-century yahrzeit, the Hebrew anniversary of my father’s death, and I would like to tell you about him.
Martin Rosenschein was born Meir Yisrael מאיר ישׂראל בן יהוֹשע ורבקה on March 13, 1919, five months after the Armistice which ended The Great War, in the Carpathian town of Mukačevo (Hungarian: Munkács) in eastern Czechoslovakia, a successor state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He grew up in that vibrant town of some 20,000, about half of whom were Jews. It was a highly diverse population, ranging from ultra-Orthodox to Zionists to radical secular Communists, and he grew up in an atmosphere of intense intellectual ferment. His family (three brothers and one sister) were not well-to-do, and the children worked hard from their youth to help put food on the table.
In 1938, as a result of Chamberlain‘s and Hitler’s “peace in our time” deal, Nazi Germany occupied western Czechoslovakia, and its ally Hungary occupied Carpathian (eastern) Czechoslovakia. It might have been oppressive, but the Hungarian Jews were spared for the time being the Einsatzgruppen and death camps that extinguished most of Polish and Eastern European Jewry.
My father didn’t talk about it too much but once told my brother Jeff that he was walking home one evening with his own father, when they met a group of drunken Hungarian soldiers. One of them started to strike his father, and he jumped in front of the blow, suffering a broken nose. Such was the respect he showed his own father.
Everything changed again 72 years ago, in March of 1944, when Nazi Germany dumped its erstwhile ally and occupied Hungary. A man called Adolph Eichmann realized that Hungary’s 600,000 Jews had escaped the clutches of their fate, which he acted to rectify. The Jews didn’t see it coming; they literally “could not believe” it could happen to them. On the Seventh Day of Passover holiday, the Germans announced that the Jews were to all move into a smaller neighborhood of the city, the Jewish ghetto, overnight.
A few weeks later, in the last week of May 1944, all Jews were marched through the town, to the jeers of neighbors, to a brick factory on the outskirts, to await their fate. Three days later, they were crammed into cattle cars for the 3-day airless, sanitation-less train ride to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There they experienced their first “selection” — 80% to the left [=gas chamber], 20% to the right [=starvation + slave labor].
Dad told me once that, even inside Auschwitz, he didn’t grasp what was happening. The second day in the camps, the guards gave out postcards that the inmates were commanded to fill in, praising camp conditions, for pacification of the next hapless victims. Someone asked him whom he was writing to. He said, “my mother”, at which point the man hit him in the side of the head and said, “Idiot– don’t you realize that’s your mother coming out of that chimney over there?” He was there and he still couldn’t grasp the plain truth.
He survived the torture of several camps, including the infamous Buchenwald, performing pointless backbreaking labor on a starvation diet. One group of men would carry a heavy metal rail across a yard, and the next group would carry it back. The guard once said, “Don’t you know that if I shoot any of you, they’ll give me a prize.” The cruelest humiliation was the guards throwing a little food into a circle, just to enjoy watching the men claw at each other like animals.
He was still together with his brother Shimi (later Sandor Sternberg) and brother Moshe and father Yehoshua. My uncle Moshe, who was a bigger (taller) man, had it tough. He eventually gave up — “I can’t take this anymore” — and the next day that was it, he was gone. Their father was so emaciated that his sons got him into the infirmary (if you can call it that) and convinced him to stay there an extra day. Tragically, that was a day the Nazis disposed of the “patients” of the infirmary by lethal injection. They didn’t talk about it much, but I think that the brothers never forgave themselves for that horror regarding my grandfather’s murder.
Martin escaped from a transport train with his younger brother Shimi in the final days of the war. They were rounded up by the police in a little German town, whose captain said to a row of men, “Jews step forward.” In a split-second glance between the brothers, they did not… fortunately, because those men who did step forward were taken outside and shot.
The survivors of the War (there was no term Holocaust yet) wandered towards their one-time-homes looking for any family left. They had a code word to ask a stranger if he was Jewish: “עַמְךָ (amcha)?” Imagine a crowd of wretched homeless people mingling at a train station, desperate for a tidbit of information whether a loved one had made it out alive in one piece.
He reached his hometown, now the liberated Soviet Ukrainian town of Mukacheve / Мукачеве, with two sets of documents, one saying he was from there and one (sewn into his jacket) saying he was not — so he might leave. There was nothing and nobody there for him.
He met my mother, Yolanda, whom he had known from home, at the train station in Budapest. She had stuck together through the nightmare with Dad’s sister Freda (1925-2013) — they had become לאַגער שוועסטער, “camp sisters”, and would continue to stick together for the next 68 years.
It took them two tries to slip across the border into West Germany near Liberec, in the woods in the dead of winter. They ended up in the displaced persons camp of Fürth.
My parents were married on March 12, 1946. (A few weeks ago would have been their 70th wedding anniversary.) The other refugees got together and gave them their sole wedding gift: a cup and saucer.
Three years later, the Truman administration admitted thousands of Jewish survivors of the concentration camps into the United States. Many Jewish communities across America absorbed several refugee families, and that’s how our family arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
My father started a dry-cleaning company, to be joined by his two surviving brothers Ben and Sandy and brother-in-law Steve Lederer. It continues to this day as Quality Cleaners.
My brothers Stan and Jeff and I grew up with happy childhoods, not realizing what horrors had transpired just a few years previous. (Here’s a picture from Hershey Park from Aug-1959; I know that because, in those days, it was on the B&W print.)
Dad was a hard-working, quiet, logical, tough-minded, disciplined, and highly pragmatic man, who believed a husband and father’s primary responsibility was to support his family, no ifs and no buts. He truly appreciated and loved America as the greatest country in the world and was puzzled by the protests of the Sixties. He would smile ironically if someone used the phrase “I’m starving”. “In America,” he said, “someone is considered poor if he doesn’t own a color television set.”
Here was a man who never finished high-school, much less university, but was well-read and thoughtful, intellectually inclined, and especially proud of educating his own three boys.
Though rooted in America and its wonderful freedom, he had a love and appreciation for Israel, too. When we made aliyah, moving here, he certainly understood, and I think he was also proud. He had an unsentimental view of the complex challenges facing the State of Israel. He was not, shall we say, overly optimistic about the intentions of our adversaries.
Dad once told me, “If I could somehow transfer to you one painfully acquired lesson, it would be this. If someone ever threatens your life or that of your loved ones, JUST BELIEVE HIM! Never ever say, he couldn’t, he wouldn’t, the world would never let it happen — because if he could, he would, and it does.”
Dad / Sabba lived to see the birth of seven grandchildren. When he was feeling pains in his chest in 1990, his doctor, I believe, sort of knew what might likely happen, and encouraged him to travel to his grandson Koby’s bar-mitzvah in California. The next week he was operated on and diagnosed with an aggressive case of mesothelioma.
Jeff encouraged him in his final struggle, saying, “Dad, you survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, you can fight this cancer.” His only answer: “I was younger then.”
My mother nursed him bravely up until the end. He passed away a few days after the close of the Gulf War in 1991, on the eve of his 72nd birthday.
As I said the kaddish prayer in his memory today, I reflected on this very Jewish ritual, at the heart of Jewish remembrance and mourning. The words are יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא / Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba / May His name be sanctified. In other words, even in moments of grief, we must choose to see life as good and for life to go on. We must fill the void.
I was fortunate to receive maftir in our synagogue this shabbat, in my father’s memory. I woke up early Saturday morning to have a look through the weekly Torah portion, and I picked up off the bookshelf a gift from my father that he had given Diane and me right before we moved to Israel in 1983. He inscribed it by hand (remember that?) uncharacteristically in Yiddish — but for him this was a statement of tradition and faith, given from the heart to enter another’s.
May the memory of my dear father מֵאִיר יִשְׂרָאֵל בן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ ורִבְקָה be a blessing.
Yesterday Diane commemorated the memory of her wonderful father, Aaron Glassman, who passed away 22 years ago (9 Adar, 5754). I had the privilege of getting to know him as my father-in-law. He was a gregarious and generous man, active in community causes and loving of his family, someone everyone looked up to. He loved gadgets and all things mechanical. There are many times when Diane and I look at some modern technology and think of what a kick her Dad would have gotten from it.
We’re also coming up in two weeks (26 Adar, 5741) on the quarter-century of the passing of my own father, Martin Rosenschein. He had a lot in common with Diane’s father, and the two of them got along exceptionally well. They were both modest, traditional, hard-working men, devoted to their families. In some ways they were different — Diane’s a born-and-raised American, mine a European immigrant. As we recently started watching “Band of Brothers”, we realized that one of our fathers landed in Auschwitz a week before the other landed on Normandy. I guess one rescued the other and here we are.
In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, I came across a wonderful column by a young book-review editor. I found it so deeply moving that I want to share it with you below.
May our fathers’ memories be a blessing.
Watching Over My Grandmother
By Bari Weiss http://www.wsj.com/articles/watching-over-my-grandmother-1458256719 @bariweiss
How do the rituals of death teach us how to live more meaningful lives? As religions go, Judaism is far more concerned about what happens in this world than the world to come. But as I learned this past weekend while burying my grandmother, Jewish rituals can serve not only to sanctify the dead, but also to humanize the living.
My grandmother, Sandy Steiner, who moved in with my family from Los Angeles 25 years ago to help raise my three younger sisters and me, was 81 years old when she died at home shortly after the Sabbath began on Friday night. In Judaism, a dead body is never to be left alone between the time of death and the time of burial. It’s a tradition called shmirah, or guarding, which dates to an ancient time when fear of rodents and grave-robbers was real.
Typically, the task is performed by volunteers, member of the community’s hevra kadisha – holy society – who do the watching in the funeral home. But if a person dies over the Sabbath, the body cannot be buried or even removed.
And so my grandmother’s family became her guardians: over a 24 hour period, her body covered in her bed, we watched over her.
My grandmother’s younger sister kept watch over Friday night. In the early morning hours Saturday, I sat with my younger sister. In the afternoon, my father sat with my uncle, followed by other family members who took her turns as the shomer or guard.
Traditionally, the shomer is supposed to sit quietly and recite Psalms. Our grandma was not so into the Psalms, but she could give you chapter and verse about the latest doings on E! and Bravo. And so we shared funny anecdotes about her, when we weren’t browsing through her copies of Vanity Fair or People. Surrounded by her books and family photos, we were reminded of a full life lived, as we sat beside the beautiful vessel of this woman we loved.
An hour after sundown on Saturday, which marks the end of the Sabbath, her body was taken from the house by members of the hevra kadisha. These are not strangers, but people we sit next to in synagogue – my father’s doctor, my best friend’s mother, volunteers all.
The members of this holy society prepare bodies for burial according to detailed rituals meant to honor the deceased and preserve their modesty. (It is for this reason that Jews prohibit open caskets.) Men prepare the bodies of men; women prepare women. The atmosphere in the room is quiet; only prayers are spoken, in Hebrew, including a final one asking for forgiveness if the dignity of the deceased has been violated in anyway. First the body is washed, then there is a ritual washing, before it is dressed in simple linen shrouds.
Judaism emphasizes that all are equal in death, but for a time Jews lost sight of this spiritual reality. By the second century in the Holy Land, the funerals of the wealthy had become so ostentatious that the poor, ashamed that they couldn’t keep up, left their relatives unburied outside the walls of Jerusalem. Rabbi Gamaliel, the leader of the Jewish community and a wealthy man, insisted that he be buried as a pauper in a plain shroud. His example of simplicity and humility in death has endured to this day.
My grandmother was buried in a plain wooden box. In keeping with Jewish law, the coffin had no metal – even the sides were connected by wooden dowels. The aim is to ensure it’s complete disintegration, fulfilling the verse from Genesis: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
At the burial, her family and friends filled in her grave. In shoveling the dirt we were performing a chesed shel emet – a true act of kindness – because it is something that cannot be repaid.
My grandmother’s life’s work was as a caretaker for her family – in addition to bringing up three daughters, she helped raise four of her grandchildren. Diapers, meals, car pools; Saturday nights spent watching blockbuster rentals with us so my parents could have a date night.
It is the natural way of things that those who have been caretakers ultimately become the cared for. In the last few weeks of her life – diagnosed with terminal cancer after already having survived bouts with the breasted lung cancer, she didn’t cry – she was tended to around-the-clock by my mother and her two sisters, who made sure she died at home, surrounded by family.
When so much in modern life is outsourced, there is something clarifying, maybe even purifying, about witnessing a loved one’s final days. In caring for someone after death, and being expected to take part in rituals at once deeply uncomfortable and comforting, I realized the Judaism was forcing us to examine our own lives and deed – and to ask ourselves: are we putting our own vessels to their best use?
— Ms. Weiss is an associate book review editor at the Wall Street Journal.
Now I don’t think that I talk too much about surviving my heart attack and emergency surgery, but Diane says I talk about it all the time, so you can guess who’s right. Two years ago today. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure that cloudy morning when they wheeled me into the O.R. exactly where I would end up next!
So I’m happy to tell you that I’m still here — eating / breathing / sleeping / working better, walking 10K steps a day, and feeling overall healthier than I have in several decades.
But I do want to tell you something about superlatives and denial — and how they connect.
The English language is rich in exaggerated words that once meant something else, such as awesome, awful, terrible, and fantastic. My personal favorite is un·be·liev·a·ble, defined as “not able to be believed; unlikely to be true” or “so great or extreme as to be difficult to believe; extraordinary”. (Here is a graph of usage of the term over the past two centuries.)
Connected to unbelievable is another phrase which we all love to use: “Can you believe that… [fill in the blank]?” We use this gut phrase when we know that we are right about something or wronged by someone else, which is roughly 100% of the time. Robert Wright put it best in his book, “The Moral Animal“:
“One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute over credit, or money, or manners, or anything else. Nope. Time and again–whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which–we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage is not warranted.”
The trouble with unbelievable or incredible is, well, that they’re not. If the human race learned nothing in the 20th century, it’s that the unthinkable isn’t.
Here’s a story which speaks volumes about this problem. In 1942, a Polish resistance fighter named Jan Karski escaped Europe with documentary evidence about the vast extent of Nazi war crimes and mechanized death camps. He made his way to Washington D.C., where he was received by the (Jewish) U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter. Upon disclosing his horrific discoveries, Justice Frankfurter replied, “I don’t believe you. . . . I do not mean that you are lying. I simply said that I cannot believe you.”
Which brings us back to the cannot-believable. Daniel Kahneman has written, “We are blind, and we are blind to our blindness.” You see, there ain’t no deception like self-deception!
Of the untold things to which we’re blind, the biggest are the everyday dangers. Reasonable caution notwithstanding, it’s better not to spend all day thinking about the car crashes, bankruptcies, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, violent crime, and a long list of horrible diseases and catastrophes. Not that they’re unthinkable — just that it really won’t help to dwell on them. It’s healthier to live with a limited denial of the real world. Not only does it not help to wallow in the negative, it leads to damaging stress and incapacitation.
No, you shouldn’t stay indoors your whole life; it entails other adverse effects, and it won’t eliminate those dangers anyway. For example, helicopter parents don’t realize that their overprotectiveness actually damages their children’s capacity for independent growth, just as over-dieters suffer from their own eating-disorders. But we are all naturally blind to our blind spots.
We deny the unbelievable (1) because it’s too painful and (2) because we’re human! This is not a bad thing. We need to find the right balance between optimism, pessimism, realism, and naïveté.
So my random connection of a level of healthy denial, our relentless use of superlatives, and my outstanding mood on the 2nd anniversary of surviving come together. Enjoy — appreciate — your loved ones. Never fall into the trap of being too inhibited to tell them you love them.
We live in troubled times, but you must keep fighting, keep going. Grab life and never let go.
September was a hectic month: Jewish holidays and our Curiyo product launch.
By far, the most stressful part was waiting 11 days for Apple’s routine iOS App Store approval. To be fair, they state it could take 1-2 weeks, but they really mean it! Compared to the Google Play Store (Android), it seemed forever. Anyway, the apps was both finally approved — download them here — and we were able to announce, in 15 international languages.
We were lucky to get some positive press, which you can see here. But the most fun and most widely received coverage was an interview I did with the Robert Scoble, a.k.a. @Scobleizer. We covered a whole range of topics, including Curiyo, content discovery, Jerusalem, Israel, internationalization, and startups.