A quiet monument to the courage and determination of hundreds of thousands of Jews sits vulnerable on the Lower East Side at 228 East Broadway. This location was the former of home of the Bialystoker Center, built in 1931. For many years it was primarily operated as the Bialystoker Home for the Aged that finally closed in November, 2011.
“After these things, God tested Abraham… (Genesis 22:1). What things? The midrash demands that the wording, “after these things” means something immediately after. We, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, mentally experience these words immediately after the first day’s reading. That reading starts with the miraculous birth of Isaac, thirty-seven years earlier.
David Roberts (1796-1864) was a Scottish painter who in the late 1830’s traveled extensively in the Levant and Egypt documenting “Orientalist” sites in drawings and watercolors. Together with the lithographer Louis Haghe, he marketed his work to a public eager for exotic scenes. Queen Victoria was one of his first customers.
Ketubot are the magical crystal ball into the life, concerns and joys of the Jewish community. Perhaps no other Jewish artifact is so openly expressive of the dreams, desires and fears of the everyday world of Jewish life throughout the ages. To illuminate this fact Sharon Liberman Mintz has expertly curated The Art of Matrimony: 32 Marriage Contracts from the Jewish Theological Seminary currently shown at the Jewish Museum.
Why is the menorah such a powerful and long-lasting symbol of the Jewish people? After all, its lure ostensibly originates in a relatively minor rabbinic festival, Hanukah. No disrespect intended, but how can Hanukah compare to the great pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavous and Succos or the Days of Awe with Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur?
“Hashem saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth…” It was as if His Divine patience had run out and as a result His attribute of strict Judgment overtook His attribute of Mercy (Akedias Yitzchak). God decreed that all of mankind was irredeemable and the rest of His creation that existed for man’s sole benefit was rendered useless, and so all was to be destroyed. All except Noah and his family.
The problem with God is His holiness. After thousands of years of countless trials and many too many unmentionable “sufferings of love” (Berachos 5a) the Jewish people continue to love Him even as many flee His embrace. From the Binding of Isaac to the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva and the last Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, God's seeming distance, his hester pannim, confounds the masses and sorely tests the pious. When He is the most distant, and therefore the most Holy, the slaughter of innocent Jews that ensues becomes tragically a chilul Hashem, defaming his holy Name.
Had Gadya, the playful, threatening and ultimately reassuring song that ends many Seder evenings among Ashkenazi Jews, has a long history in the Haggada. It emerged from German folk songs to be first printed in the Prague Haggada of 1595. The classic commentators have equated the kid with the Jewish people and each succeeding animal as an oppressor of Israel from the cat representing Assyria to the Angel of Death representing the Turks.
Jewish Art has always been burdened by Jewish history. Unlike most other cultural traditions, the vicissitudes of fate have been particularly harsh and have frustrated any attempt to establish a long-standing cultural tradition for the Jewish people in their far-flung habitations. Frequently just as an art form began to take hold, an expulsion, pogrom, or oppressive decree would disrupt Jewish life and all chance of stability.
The Holocaust was the largest mass murder in human history. It casts an indelible shadow over everything that follows, twisting morality and normative values in unfathomable ways. The vast complicity of Western Civilization in the pre-meditated murder of six million Jews taints all culture and intellectual life to this day.
The Portrait of a Young Boy by Isidor Kaufmann, offered at auction on November 12, 2002 by Kestenbaum & Company, is one of many singular paintings by this unappreciated master of Jewish art. This modest little portrait, only nine inches high by six and three quarter inches wide, has a disproportionate power and can be seen as an example of how art can challenge prejudice and criticism leveled against Orthodoxy both in the beginning of the twentieth century and now.
The visual image is not a problem in Judaism. We have countless examples of images and representations of Jewish subjects and ideas done by pious Jews throughout the centuries, whether as ancient synagogue mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, synagogue wall decorations or paintings. But, in spite of this evidence, there is a parallel Jewish sensitivity to images.
“And God made the two great luminaries, the greater luminary to dominate the day and the lesser luminary to dominate the night; and the stars.’ (Genesis 1:16).” And it was so, sun, moon and stars, for all time. These basic elements of the order of creation are wonderfully integrated into the elaborate decorations found in the Bialystoker Synagogue on the Lower East Side. What is intriguing is that this synagogue not only possesses wonderful artworks, but also an array of incongruities and surprises that reveals the diversity, creativity and strength of the New York Jewish community.
On Shabbos evening I walked home on my normal route down Fifth Avenue towards Washington Square Park. Looking past the Washington Square Arch, slightly to the west and further downtown, I noticed a glow of lights and smoke illuminating the early evening sky. That was where the World Trade Center used to be.