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Sat, Mar. 12th, 2016, 09:37 pm
Review of two editions of "Pirke Avot" from Koren

With Pesach coming in less than six weeks, it's time to be thinking about... Pirke Avot, which is traditionally studied between Pesach and Shavuot. This year, Koren Publications has two new editions -- one with commentary by Rabbi Marc Angel, and one on the Maggid imprint with translation and commentary by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. Read more...Collapse )

Tue, Feb. 2nd, 2016, 08:07 pm
Review: "False Facts and True Rumors" by Rabbi Daniel Z. Felman

Koren/Maggid recently sent me a review copy of the extraordinary "False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture" by Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman.

[For those unfamiliar with the term, Lashon ha-Ra, literally "an evil tongue", is used colloquially as a catch-all term for various offenses in which ones speech causes unnecessary harm to another, including gossipping and talebearing.]

I started off skeptical. Another book on Lashon ha-Ra? What will it say that we haven't heard a hundred times before?

Many existing books emphasize the importance of shemirat ha-lashon, the guarding of one's tongue, but too often they leave the reader certain that (a) any speech that could be deemed derogatory is always forbidden; (b) the punishment for lashon ha-ra is much more severe than one would think; (c) it is a mark of piety for a Jew to be extra-careful in this area. As a result, some combination of the fear of punishment and the pride in being holier than one's fellow can lead to people taking the laws of lashon ha-ra so far that they fail to speak out when the halacha and common sense demand that they do so.

Very quickly, I realized that this book was different. Rabbi Feldman comes at his material from the perspective that while lashon ha-ra is certainly both a significant sin and a character flaw, too many Jews apply the prohibition to situations where there is a positive requirement to speak up to protect others from potential or likely harm. He sets out to set the record straight.

And so, in order to enable the reader to better balance the demands of guarding one's tongue versus protecting one's self and others from harm, Rabbi Feldman proceeds in masterful form to provide a thorough education in this area full of subtleties.

The first half of the book is given over to "The Theory." Rabbi Feldman starts with the traditional Jewish sources, analyzing and comparing them to discern the exact nature of the prohibition, or rather, the prohibitions. What forms of damage are done to the subject, the speaker, the listener, and society as a whole? How can they be analogized to civil torts? Are there circumstances where some aspect of the situation not only outweighs the consideration of lashon ha-ra, but removes it from the realm of lashon ha-ra altogether? He establishes these themes and provides a deep foundation, but does not yet draw any conclusions.

The main thrust of the first section is a brilliant survey of the various forms of cognitive biases that we are subject to. For each one, he explains how the bias works, and then relates it to the various forms of forbidden speech. By the end of Part One, the reader has a vocabulary and a framework with which to understand the practical application of the halacha and the psychological theory to the real world.

Part One is an exemplar of Torah uMaddah, the use of science to illuminate the wisdom of Torah law and of Torah to provide a moral frame in which to understand science.

Even if the book ended here, I would strongly recommend it. But in Part Two, Rabbi Feldman redeems the promise of Part One, by continuing his careful analysis of the issues. In each of several categories, he teaches how to weigh the good and harm that will be done from a particular speech act, to determine whether a particular speech act is forbidden, permitted, or mandated. He shows how different great rabbis approached each case, and explores how their varying legal models of lashon ha-ra lead to their rulings -- and sometimes, how their rulings illuminate their legal models.

The book is thoroughly footnoted and the list of sources is both extensive and wide-ranging. (The bibliography is 40 pages long.) Many of the footnotes go into great depth if one is interested, but if one wishes to skip them, the main body text is readable and approachable.

Rabbi Feldman's book belongs on every Jewish family's shelves. He has given us neither a polemic nor a mere feel-good book. Rabbi Feldman brings the study of the laws of proper speech up to the level of sophistication, rigor, and intellectual honesty that we have come to expect from the best modern halachic resources.

Mon, Jan. 18th, 2016, 06:47 am
MIT Mystery Hunt 2016 Writeup

This year's Mystery Hunt was a lot of fun. Read more...Collapse )

Tue, Dec. 29th, 2015, 08:10 am
Review: "Allegiance" on Broadway

We saw "Allegiance" last night at the Longacre with the kids. It was an effective night of theater; the narrative is strong and well-presented. Although it's getting a lot of attention both because, well, George Takei, and also because the circumstances of its story find echoes in today's American political discourse, I think that misses the point. The gripping story is about the various ways different characters respond to the internment, and the consequences of their decisions. Read more...Collapse )

See this show. Ask these questions. Then question your answers.

Sun, Dec. 27th, 2015, 07:52 am
Review: "Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed"

At the recommendation of a friend from shul who is a rabbi and a teacher at the Maimonides school here in Boston, I recently read "Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed" by Kenneth Seeskin.

This is an amazing book which I recommend in the strongest terms, not just to readers interested in Maimonidean Judaism but to anyone, of any or no religion, who wants to understand how a rigorously rational religious philosophy can work.

Read more...Collapse )

Mon, Dec. 14th, 2015, 08:37 pm
Genealogy: Leschem of Dvinsk

As I've posted before, I have circumstantial evidence that the "Green(e)" line comes from Dinaburg, also known as Dvinsk. When I search on JewishGen's Latvian database for the first name "Todros", which was my ggf's name, I find something intriguing... but probably wrong.

So here's the thing. I look at the "Jewish Families of Dvinsk", which are also on Ancestry, and I find the LESCHEM / LESCHIN / LESEM / LESIN family:
Read more...Collapse )

Sun, Nov. 15th, 2015, 10:03 am
Review of two Parsha books from Koren

Recently, Koren/Maggid sent me review copies of books on the parsha by two rabbis whom I greatly respect: "Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible" by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and "Talks on the Parasha" by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz). I've been reading each book's essay on the relevant parsha each week, and now feel prepared to share my thoughts.

Rabbi Sacks's book is a distillation of study that he and his staff did over the years. In each parsha, he finds an opportunity to explore how the Torah views successful leadership from a Jewish perspective. Sometimes it's through a positive role model, sometimes through a cautionary tale, sometimes through exhortation, sometimes through symbolism. Each essay is nicely compact, making its point and supporting it from the text; and each week provides a different perspective though which a holistic view of leadership emerges.

The main drawback to Rabbi Sacks's writing is that his voice has become familiar enough through his commentaries on the siddur, machzorim, and hagadah; his online divrei Torah; and his earlier books that at times he repeats ideas that he has already covered in more depth elsewhere (such as the theme of "the culture of guilt vs. the culture of shame") and sometimes he sounds like a parody of himself.

Despite that drawback, these essays enlighten the reader on a way of looking at what leadership means in the Jewish worldview.

Rabbi Steinsaltz's book is also a collection of divrei Torah that he has given over the years, along with new essays. He is very interested in the issue of the individual vis-a-vis the community, where community is sometimes defined as one's contemporary Jews, sometimes the broader society in which the Jew finds oneself, and sometimes the chain of generations that link today's Jews to those in the Torah.

Rabbi Steinsaltz's insights are keen, and carefully phrased in a way that lets each reader identify with the author --- for me, a Modern Orthodox reader with a primary focus on what Rav Slifkin calls the "Rationalist" perspective, the essays have enough grounding in psychological reality that I can appreciate them as recognizing fundamental truths about the human condition, without feeling put off by assertions of kabbalistic connections with which I have trouble relating. But I can easily imagine a more spiritually inclined reader (not even necessarily from a Chassidische perspective) perceiving different layers of meaning in the text.

Both books share a rare quality: Although they address the weekly parsha, ground that has been well gone over, both Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Steinsaltz have found something new to say. I have come to look forward to my time with them after Shabbat dinner, and the discussions at my family's table that these divrei Torah have sparked.

I highly recommend both of these books.

Sun, Nov. 1st, 2015, 06:59 am
Review: "The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness" by Elliot Jager

Toby Press sent me a review copy of Elliot Jager's memoir, "The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness", which is being released this week.

Jager's story is moving, and his writing is clear and, at times, engaging. His book alternates accounts of interviews with other childless Jewish men with the life's story of his damaged relationship with his father.

Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this book.

The men Jager speaks with are childless for various reasons: Some never found a wife, some face medical fertility challenges, some made a conscious choice not to have children. Jager gives one man in each "category" the chance to tell his story, but there's not much of an attempt to put them in a larger coherent framework: we don't know how many men there are in each "category", we don't know whether the subject is representative of his "category", we don't know what the community can do so support the men in each "category."

Women are absent from the case studies except when the subjects choose to discuss their partners. I get that Jager's theme is "Childless Jewish Men," but when he talks about his own personal narrative, he and his wife are clearly partners in this struggle. Why then does he ignore the perspective of women in his case studies?

The autobiographical sections of the book made me even more uncomfortable. Jager's father seems to have mental-health problems, and his abandonment of his wife and son was tragic. I'm sure that writing this book was cathartic for Jager, but I felt like a voyeur for reading these parts of it. For Jager to better understand his relationship with his father is an important personal need; for him to explain it to us does not serve a constructive purpose, and left me feeling sullied.

Jager briefly discusses childlessness from a Jewish religious perspective, but this is fairly superficial. The Judaism in this book is mostly cultural/tribal, and somewhat specifically Israeli. I'd be fine with that, except that the subtitle and the opening paragraph seem to promise more than that.

When the reader arrives at the end of the book, all we've been given is a parade of people to sympathize with, and an embarrassing sense of peeking into the private lives of a dysfunctional family. Jager doesn't use his case studies stories to build a coherent picture of those Jews facing infertility. He offers neither comfort to the afflicted nor vision to those who would help, and his omission of women is curious at best. His tell-all memoir may constitute lashon ha-ra.

I am sorry for the difficulties that life has presented the author, but I wish he had written a different book. I do not see what purpose this book serves, but I am certain that there is need for a book that places the struggles of childless Jews into a larger social and religious context.

Mon, Aug. 3rd, 2015, 07:33 am
Genealogy: Abeles

Just a quick note to capture yesterday's discoveries.

Saturday, at my daughter's bat mitzvah celebration, my half-third-cousin-once-removed and neighbor Cary asked me what I know about the one Gutmann in my tree. That would be Reichele Gutmann, who married Meyer Neumann in Wassertruedingen; their daughter Jachet married Henoch Bissinger; they had Max who had Louis whose daughter is my mother. I'm pretty sure Reichele came off my cousin Jim Bennett's research but I've independently confirmed that data; the problem is that the vital records for Wassertruedingen are not available (at least not online) so there wasn't much else to go on there, and I've put my efforts into easier areas.

But I have had "Wassertruedingen" on my list of things to get back to for a while, and Cary's question got me to take another pass at it.

A quick check on FamilySearch turns up Julius Neumann, son of Meyer Neumann and Reichele of Wassertruedingen, born 22 May 1836, and married on 11 Oct 1871 in Frankfurt-am-Main to Franziska Zunz, daughter of Salomon David Zunz and Amalie Schnapper. So Jachet had a brother! I have found no other siblings so far, but this gives me a chance to do descendency research and see if I end up finding new cousins.

So I repeat the strategy of using FamilySearch and providing the father's name and city of birth, and I find that Julius and Franziska had a daughter, Martha Rosa Neumann, born in F-a-M on 19 July 1872. (If you're keeping track, she's my great-grandfather Max's first cousin.)

Now Ancestry's new Social Security Applications database comes to the rescue. I found a record that matches parents' names and dates of birth but adds that Martha's appication was under the name Martha Rosa Abeles, so now I know her married name. That leads me to her passenger list, arriving 30 Aug 1940. The interesting data is, as always, on page 2 -- she is traveling from her son, F. Abeles, 171 New Kings Rd., London; to her son, Karl Abeles, 63-07 Saunders St., Forest Hills, Long Island [Queens], NY.

So now I have two second cousins for my grandfather Louis.

It's not hard to find Carl Abeles living with his wife Alice on Saunders St. in the 1940 census. Born in 1905, he was an "Ex-ray [sic] technician." The SSDI record gives specifics: born 20 Nov 1905, died Mar 1974; his death was listed in the NYT with no survivors, so I presume that Alice predeceased him and that they had no children. (I'm not basing that just on the one NYT listing, but I'm summarizing here.) He appears to have been a radiologist, not just an X-ray technician. This turns into another case of my grandfather having a second cousin who lived in the same area of Queens and who, as far as I know, never knew about each other. (Makes me even more glad to have found Cary!)

A little triangulation goes a long way with F. Abeles. Since he was living in London, a search on FindMyPast.co.uk is called for. That gives me a small list of possible first names: Francis, Fred, Friederich Moritz, Fritz. Going back to FamilySearch, I find a marriage of Friederich M. Abeles to an Elizabeth T. Robinson in Oct-Dec 1941. Searching for more information on Elizabeth by using Google, I find her name on the official publication of persons being naturalised published 12 May 1942 as Abeles, Elizabeth Treslove, 171 New Kings Rd.. That matches the address on Martha's passenger list, which gives me a complete paper trail and confirms that this is the right family.

Turns out Friederich was a well-estemed radiologist in Britain, as his obituary in a professional journal shows, so that seems to have been the family career. He died 29 Jun 1984;  Elizabeth remarried and, according to her obituary in the Times of London, died 14 Sep 2002. They also did not have children, as far as I can tell.

So now for completeness' sake, I'd like to know the name of Martha's husband. A Google search for Abeles Frankfurt-am-Main turns up this description of a Stolperstein, a "stumbling stone" which is a kind of Holocaust memorial on the sidewalks of German cities, marking places where Jews who were murdered by the Nazis had lived. The stone tells of Leo Abeles, whose wife left F-a-M in 1933 to join their son Friederich in London.

Furthermore, a Google books search turns up an entry on the marriage of Leo Abeles to Martha Neumann. She is described as the daughter of the deceased bankers Neumann-Zunz, which gives me more information about her parents.

I have not found a definitive record of Martha's death; there is a Martha Abeles whose cremains are at Maimonides Cemetery, listed in both JOWBR and FindAGrave, but the date on that is 1952 and the age is given as 62; but she would have been 80 at that point. So I don't consider that good enough evidence.

In summary, in about an hour I had dug up another branch, and gotten some pretty good information with extremely high confidence. Unfortunately, it looks like this branch does not have any living descendants, but there may be other siblings that I haven't found yet.

And it's interesting that the architect that we used fifteen years ago for some home improvements is named Lisa Abeles... who knows if there's a marriage-of-cousins connection there?

Wed, Mar. 25th, 2015, 07:58 pm
Genealogy: A Letter from the Past

Today is my maternal grandfather's yahrzeit. Earlier this week was my grandmother's birthday and their wedding anniversary. And this week I received the most amazing thing, and the timing could not have been more fitting.

But let's rewind a bit so I can give you some background. I've posted before about their escape from Germany weeks before the outbreak of war, and their time in Britain. In the spring of 1940 they were able to move to London, but in June 1940 the regulations changed and so even though they had both been vetted by a tribunal and declared "Class C" -- i.e., legitimate refugees from the Nazis -- my grandfather was interned in the Onchan Camp on the Isle of Man. He was there through Sept. 1941, when he was released to work in Cumberland for the War Agricultural Executive Committee. Shortly after that, he was reunited with my grandmother in London.

Now let's fast-forward to 1993. When my grandmother passed, my mother was clearing out the basement storage area associated with the apartment, and found that my Oma had kept all the letters from my Opa while he was interned. But due to water damage, they had congealed into a solid block of paper fibers. My mother donated the letters to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, hoping that they would be able to figure out a way to salvage them.

A few months ago, I found the accession record for this artifact in the USHMM website, and sent them an email asking if they'd ever been able to get anywhere with the letters. They decided to take another look, since restoration techniques have advanced in the last two decades, but they warned me not to get my hopes up.

The proposal was to peel off the outermost letter, and expose it to some humidity and slip a piece of tissue paper between the pages to gently and gradually wedge them apart. If that didn't work, there were two other treatments that were riskier but might also work.

On Monday, I got an email from the archivist. The simple and safe treatment has worked on the sample letter, and the ink has only run a little bit.Pictures and transcription....Collapse )

I ran it through Photoshop(R) to bring up the contrast and make it easier to read:

And here is my transcription (line-for-line with the image) and my translation:

Meine liebte Bielein (?),
Post von 11. Okt. (?) erhalten u. herzlichen Dank. Hoffentlich
bleibst Du weiter so gesund u. tapfer. Wenn du bis von
einem Anwalt etwas versprichst, dann riskiert des Geld.
Ich bin aber dafür sehr vorsichtig zu sein, damit nicht
wieder das Gelt verloren ist. Hast Du eigentlich an Hugo
geschrieben, dass er auch unserer Mutter einmal ___
Leiter __ soll. Die Arme wird sonst zu nervöses-
ten. Von Heute, einen Austrag macht ist alles nett, aber
ich glaube nicht an einen Erfolg. Du schreibst nichts wie
es Du sonst geht. Du hast lediglich enwähnt, dass Du in
ärzlicher Behandlung bist. Ich schreib Dir daraufhin
dass ich darin eher eine Entlassungsmöglichkeit sehe
u. vielleicht hast Du in dieser Hinsicht etwas under-
nommen. Hier gibt es nichts Neues. Ich komme tage-
lang kaum aus dem Hause. Die Feiertage brauchen viel
Arbeit u. wenn man etwas verdienen will, muss man
sich schon sehr ranhalten. Man hat immer nur
einen Gedanken. Was ist mit dem Bie. Was ist in
London, hoffentlich ist es nicht gar zu schlimmen.
Alles andere ist unwesentlich u. an Entlassung denkt
man kaum alles. Man ist darin hoffnungslos ge-
worden. Tage Wochen u. Monate vergehen, man macht
keinen Unterschied u. möchte doch alles englisch ein-
mal hinter sich haben. Hoffentlich habe ich bald die
der Post von Dir. Mit lieben grüssen u. Kussen immer dein

                                 17 Oct. 1940
My darling "Bielein" (?),

Your mail of 11 Oct. arrived and heartfelt thanks. Hopefully you remain healthy and brave. If you found a promising lawyer, then risk the money. But I am very concerned that the money not again be lost. By the way, have you really written to Hugo that he also should once more to our mother [illegible]?

The poor are usually the most nervous. From today, a discharge would make everything nice, but I do not believe in a success.

You write nothing about how it goes with you. You've only mentioned that you are in medical treatment. I write you as a result that I see more of a possibility of release and perhaps you have undertaken something in this respect.

Here there is nothing new. For days at a time, I hardly left the house. The holidays require much work and if you want to earn something, you already have your work cut out for you.

One has always but a single thought. What is with the "Bie"? What is happening in London -- hopefully it's not too bad at all. Everything else is irrelevant and about release one thinks barely at all. One becomes hopeless about it. Days, weeks, and months go by, one makes no difference and one wishes that one could have everything English be behind one.

Hopefully, I will soon have mail from you.

With loving greetings and kisses, forever yours,


Sun, Mar. 15th, 2015, 07:23 am
Review: "Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy" by Yael Ziegler

Koren/Maggid sent me a review copy of Yael Ziegler's new book, "Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy." This is one of their new series of modern commentaries called "Studies in Tanach", in conjunction with Yeshivat Har Etzion.

Overall, this is a well-written book, which draws on both traditional exegesis and modern literary scholarship. In fact, one of Ziegler's points is that these two approaches are often complementary, and come to the same conclusions based on noticing the same initial unusual text features, just using different language to connect the source and the conclusion. (I think that Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, in his book "Mikra and Meaning", also published by Koren/Maggid, makes the same point more concisely and effectively, but it's a good point to reiterate.)

There are three main themes in this book. First is the narrative of Ruth serving as a "tikkun", a repair, for the descent of the nation throughout the book of Judges. Second is a focus on identity versus anonymity, and the importance of when people are known by name and when they are identified merely as a type. Third is comparing passages in Ruth with parallel passages elsewhere in Tanach, both on a narrative level and in terms of word choice.

Ziegler is effective in all three of these areas. She expresses her ideas crisply. She clearly has deep familiarity with a broad base of sources on which to draw, and a keen sense of when an unexpected word choice or subtle parallel to another biblical text can unlock an entirely new way of understanding a deceptively straighforward text.

There are a few weaknesses in this book.

While it functions as a commentary on the Book of Ruth, and each chapter (really, each essay) begins by citing the relevant verses (in Ziegler's own excellent translation), it is not clear to the reader whether these excerpts combine to form the complete text of Ruth. (Also, the text of Ruth is short enough that each essay's primary source text could and should have been included in the Hebrew as well.) Because Ziegler sometimes has several essays on the same (or overlapping) passages, exploring them from different angles, we find ourselves sometimes jumping ahead, sometimes doubling back. I found that confusing, especially in the section on Chapter Two.

Relatedly, because the book started as a series of essays in the Yeshivat Har Etzion online beit midrash, it suffers a little bit from redundency -- again, mostly in the section on Chapter Two. I wish there had been some more intense editing here, both in terms of combining related essays and, frankly, distilling some of the supporting material. When each essay had to stand on its own as a separate email thread, the reiteration of key arguments in full was necessary; in a book, it becomes dulling. At nearly 500 pages, this book outweighs the source material in the Book of Ruth by a factor of fifty; at some point, the sheer mass of it overwhelms Ziegler's otherwise skillful writing.

Ziegler has some deeply insightful things to say, and I will never be able to read "Ruth" as a simple narrative in isolation again. There are several passages in the book which I have bookmarked as sources for potential divrei Torah when Shavuot comes around. It is worth struggling through the slowness in the middle to learn from a scholar with her finger on widely disparate sources and an ear for the subtleties of language that make the Book of Ruth much richer than we realize when we listen to it only once a year.

Sun, Jan. 25th, 2015, 08:03 pm
Genealogy: Wishful thinking

My great-great-grandmother was born Pessl Fallek in the town of Mielec in Galitziya around 1840. (I don't have a reliable source for her date of birth.) According to her death certificate, her father's name was Leo; according to her gravestone, it was Yehuda. In Nov. 1875, she gave birth to a son (my great-grandfather); his name was Leo in English, Leib in Yiddish, Juda on his marriage certificate, Leibish on his gravestone. Pessl came to New York in 1896 with Leo and died in Brooklyn in 1923.

There was a man named Eliasz David Fallek born in the town of Mielec. According to his death certificate [no image], he was born 1 Sep 1836 and his father's name began with an L (the rest, according to the researcher who found it but was unable to make a copy, was illegible) and his mother was Sara Cohen. According to records in JRI-Poland, he lived in Mielec and had several children. Several New York records give his occupation as Rabbi; he came to New York around 1902 and died in the Bronx in 1922. His gravestone [available at JewishData.org for those with a membership there] gives his father's name as "Aryeh Leib."

Pessl married Moshe Yitzchak Werdesheim. Eliasz's daughter Blime married Isaac Werdesheim. I do not yet have documention about how these two Werdesheims were releated, but the odds are very high (from other sources) that they were either uncle and nephew or first cousins once removed.

I really want Pessl and Eliasz to have been siblings. If it weren't for their gravestones, I'd have a moderately strong case. The question is whether the inconsistency in the fathers' names is significant. It's quite possible that in both cases the father was known to the later generation only as "Leibish". Note that the death certificates are consistent. But when it came time for the matzevah, perhaps the children wanted something more formal -- and since "Leib" is the second half of two common Hebrew/Yiddish name pairs -- Aryeh Leib and Yehuda Leib -- perhaps they each chose based only on "Leibish"... and chose inconsistently.

But in the back of my mind, I hear Israel Pickholtz's admonition: "If it might be wrong, it doesn't belong." If I'm honest with myself, this is just wishful thinking on my part. I need something more definitive to link these two together.

Sun, Jan. 25th, 2015, 08:02 am
Genealogy: Einhorn update

First, I was able to make contact with the descendents of Max Einhorn, who were as pleasantly surprised to hear from me as I was to find them. Looks like some good stuff ahead there.

Second, I went back to JRI-Poland and did a search for "Surname like EINHORN and Given Name like NOACH" and found a birth record from Sokolow Malopolski for Sina Einhorn, b. 1861 to Noach and Taube. That matches the variants of Tovah that I've seen for the mother of Sarah, Chana, and Max, so I'm adding her to my tree.

I'm not familiar with the name "Sina", but I don't think that she's the same person as Sarah (b. 1864), because Sarah's birth year stayed very consistent across all her records. (ETA: Also, Sarah's granddaughter was given the middle name Zena, which I just realized is the same name as Sina.)

Sun, Jan. 11th, 2015, 03:34 pm
Genealogy: Found another one!

Found another one!

I was doing a pass through newspaper archives this weekend, and found another article about Annie Einhorn. Annie was the sister of my great-great grandmother Sarah (Einhorn) Allweiss, who died under tragic circumstances weeks after arriving in New York.

Over at the Library of Congress's website "Chronicling America" was the most extensive -- and painful -- article on her death that I've found yet. (And over a century before things "go viral", her story was in newspapers literally around the world.)

That prompted me to revisit her death certificate. Father's name, Noah, mother Regina -- although on Sarah's second marriage, she gave her mother's name as Tillie Prise. I decided to go over to FamilySearch and see once more if I could find any other siblings in New York; in particular, I tried a variant strategy on looking in the marriage records.

In particular, I looked for NYC marriages for someone named Einhorn whose father's first name began with N and whose mother's first name began with R (no results) or T (one result).

That one result was for Max Einhoren, son of Nathin Einhoren and Toba Preis, marrying Fanny Cohn, daughter of Barny Cohn andTohbe Ferziger, on 20 Dec 1898. That's a pretty good match.

So I tentatively entered those new names into my Ancestry.com tree, and waited for the waving green leaf to appear. Sure enough, there were likely census matches in 1905, 1910, etc. These gave me the names of children: Nathan (b. 1904), Rose (b. 1908), and Harold (b. 1913). The family moved to Chicago. (I still haven't fleshed out all the intermediate steps, nor have I started working on the children's lives yet. I want to capture this moment while the details are fresh in my memory.)

I went to jewishdata.com and searched for Einhorn graves in Chicago. I recalled having seen some earlier, but until now I had no reason to pursue a Chicago connection. Sure enough, there are graves there for Max and Fannie. Max's stone gives his Hebrew name as Michel b. Noach ha-Kohen -- and I knew from Sarah's gravestone that her father was Noach ha-Kohen. Fannie's stone gives her Hebrew name as Frumet b. Dov Ber -- a good match for Barney.

This evidence seems strong and I'm convinced that Max was my great-great-grand-uncle. The next step is to start working on descendancy research and see if I can find any cousins on that branch.

Tue, Dec. 30th, 2014, 06:54 am
Fanny (Rabinowitz) Levine, my great-great-grandmother

In my previous entry, I wrote about the discovery of my gr-gr-grandmother's birth name. Since I don't have much else about her, I thought I should quickly summarize what I do know.

She appears in the 1905 NY census and the 1910 US census living with my great-grandparents, Barnett and Ida Green.

In 1905, Fannie is misidentified as the "mother" of the head-of-household. Her age is given as 68 (implies born 1837) and her arrival in the US was 5 years prior. The family lives at 15-17 Lewis St.

In 1910, Fanny is identified as "mother-in-law" of the head-of-household. Her age is given as 75 (implies born 1835); she is listed as married (not widowed) and the length of her present marriage is given as 50 years; she has had 9 children of whom 5 survive. (We know the identities of 2 of those children: Ida and Jennie.) No information is listed about Fannie's year of arrival. The family lives at 607 Water St.

I have not been able to find a passenger list entry for her. I have not been able to find a death certificate. She does not appear in the 1915 census record for Barnett and Ida. In searching the NYC marriage records, the only one in the FamilySearch.org index that lists Fanny and Joseph Levine as parents of the bride or groom is the one for Jennie.

Sun, Dec. 28th, 2014, 10:15 am
Jennie, my great-great-aunt

It's been a while since I blogged about any genealogical findings. I'm hoping to get back into that habit... and where better to start than with a nice, juicy sex scandal?

Back on Thanksgiving Eve, I decided to systematically search various old New York newspaper sites for combinations of ancestors' names and known addresses. When I searched for the combination of "Ida Green" (my great-grandmother) and "99 Clinton" I struck gold.

I found an article from the New York Times of 5 March 1893, reporting that "Mrs. Ida Green of 99 Clinton Street and her husband had her sister, Jennie Leivne, arrested yesterday ... as a refractory and wayward girl." I had never heard of Jennie before.

Long story short, Jennie had come over from Russia four months previously and lived with Ida and Barnett, had run away two months later and taken up with Joseph Rosenberg. Other newspapers assert that she knew Joseph from the old country and that between running off and settling down with Joseph, she had spent time in "various disorderly houses". Ida had Jennie arrested, claiming she was underage, and Joseph was arrested for abducting her. (I don't see how Ida could have it both ways, but there you go.)

The couple agreed to marry. Ida said that would satisfy her, and so they wed and Ida dropped the charges.

The marriage certificate is somewhat helpful: It lists Jennie's father as Joseph T. Levine (which is consistent with the "Yosef Tuvia" on Ida's gravestone and the "Fannie Levine" listed in the 1905 NY census as her mother) and Jennie's mother as Fanny Rabinowitz (which again is consistent with the "Fannie Levine" in the census, but adds Fannie's birth name to my database.) It is also worth noting that the officiant is "Louis Klein, Rev. of Cong. Tiferes Achim Ancei Dinaburg", who is the same rabbi who officiated at many of my grandfather's older siblings' marriages a decade or two later. This gives a much earlier date for my great-grandparents' affiliation with the Dinaburg Landsmanschaft.

And that's all I've been able to find about Jennie and Joseph. No luck looking in NYC birth records, censuses, or passenger lists. Just a scandal-of-the-day in several newspapers. Although this does make my great-grandmother the earliest member of my family to have her name in the Times.

Sun, Sep. 14th, 2014, 09:06 pm
Coleman 1 = Coleman 2

A while back, I wrote about my cousin Coleman Wertheim, and how I had two sets of non-contradictory non-overlapping records. I just found a chain of records that proves to my satisfaction that they are indeed the same person.

To review: My great-grandfather Leo had an elder brother Hyman (sometimes Herman), one of whose children was born Kalman Wertheim on 29 Oct 1890, and adapted his name to Coleman. I have a paper trail for him until the 1910 Census; and I have a record of his death in 1975 on Staten Island. (The SSDI record links him based on his date of birth.)

Coleman 2 has a consistent paper trail from 1915 to 1948. He was an auto dealer and chauffer.

Here's the trail, starting with Coleman 2:

1920 US Census, from Ancestry.com at http://interactive.ancestry.com/6061/4313901-01029/85940933?, gives him residing at 477 West St., Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Standard Union, 1 Feb 1920, p. 9, has the notice of incorporation for Ace Motor Sales Company, one of whose founders is Coleman Wertheim, 477 West St., Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Standard Union, 5 Apr 1921, p. 1, "Convict Dr. Kranzer in Stolen Car Deal", is an article about the conviction of Dr. Leo Kranzer, age 30, residing at 65 Tomkins Ave., for grand larceny. "The complainant against him was his cousin, Coleman Wertheim, of 570 East Second St., who conducts the Ace Motor Sales Company, of 279 Flatbush Avenue."

Dr. Leo Kranzer was the son of Nellie Wertheim Kranzer, the sister of Leo and Hyman, and thus a first cousin to both Coleman (1) and my grandmother Rosalie Wertheim. He was the attending physician on the death certificate of Pearl Wertheim, the grandmother of all these cousins. And indeed, according to the 1920 Census, he lived at 65 Tomkins Ave. (See http://interactive.ancestry.com/6061/4313502-00725/32241995?)

So at this point, I am asserting that I have met the Genealogical Proof Standard: Coleman 1 is indeed the same person as Coleman 2.

(In fairness, I should note that although Dr. Kranzer was found guilty, the jury urged mercy because they felt he had been tricked into breaking the law, and he was given a suspended sentence.)

Sun, Sep. 14th, 2014, 07:49 pm
Theodicy and the Daf

A friend once pointed out that there are three main approaches that the Bible takes to the problem of theodicy, what Rabbi Harold Kushner titled the problem of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People".

The Deuteronomic approach asserts that life is fair: If you follow God's mitzvot, you will be rewarded; if you stray, you will be punished.

The Jobian (not Jovian) approach is that God has a Plan, and we don't know what it is, but we should have faith that when bad things happen, it is for an ultimately good reason.

The Kohelet philosophy is that things happen. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but not always fairly and not always because there's a Plan.

The appeal of the Deuteronomic approach is that we like to feel that things are fair. And so much of the teshuvah literature is based on this: if something bad has happened to you, you should reflect on your deeds and figure out what you did wrong; conversely, you know that you have sinned and you have punishment coming to you, and so you'd better pray for God's forgiveness.

While I admit that this philosophy has some utility in prompting us to examine our deeds, it is dangerous because (a) it can lead people to disregard the needs of the unfortunate, because "they must have deserved it"; (b) it can lead people whose lives are going well to neglect their spiritual growth; (c) it can lead good people who are having difficult times to abandon God.

The appeal of the Jobian approach is that we like to feel that things are fair, even when they don't look like they are. By asserting the existence of a sekkrit Plan, we can explain away seeming incongruities between doing good and doing well. But not everyone has the "faith of Job", and telling a suffering person that their suffering is needed for God's ultimate Plan seems rather patronizing. (As the character Aristophile puts it in Good Omens: "This wouldn't be the ineffable plan, would it?")

Much of the Talmud's dealings with the problems of theodicy follow these two approaches. So I found myself gratified to encounter two passages in the Daf Yomi last week that show that even in rabbinic thought, the Kohelet approach is considered a valid alternative:

Rava said: Life, children, and food do not hang on one's merit, but rather on one's luck. (Mazel in this context probably refers to astrological influences, but I think it's not unfair to treat it as "luck".)

Rava then brings his proof by example: For Rabba and Rav Chisda were both righteous sages; one would pray and rain would fall, and the other would pray and rain would fall. (The fact that God would listen to their prayers demonstrates their righteousness.)

But: Rav Chisdah lived to age 92, and Rabbah to age 40. Rav Chisdah's household had sixty wedding feasts; Rabbah's household had sixty funerals. Rav Chisdah's household had bread made from high-quality flour even for the dogs, and no one needed to ask for some; Rabbah's household had coarse flour even for the people, and there was not enough of it to be found. (Moed Katan 28a)

And then a few days later this bizarre aggadic narrative:

When Rav Yosef reached the verse 'But there are those who are swept away without justice' (Prov. 12:23) while he was studying, he would cry. He said: Who is it who goes (i.e., dies) before his time? Is such a thing possible?

Yes, responds the gemara, citing what happened with Rav Bevai bar Abaye, who was familiar with the angel of death. One time, the angel said to his emissary: go, bring me Miriam who braids women's hair. The emissary went and brought him Miriam the nanny. The angel said to him, I said Miriam who braids women's hair! The emissary said to him: In that case, return her to life. The angel said to him: Since you brought her, she shall be counted among the dead.

Rav Bevai asked the emissary: But how could you take her if it wasn't her time to die? The emissary explained: She was holding a shovel in her hand, and she was lighting and sweeping the oven. She accidentally put it on her foot and burned herself and she had bad luck, and I took her. So again we see the concept that a person's luck (mazal) can be bad, and they can die before their time for no reason at all.

Rav Bevai asked the angel: You have permission to do this?</b> You're allowed to take people who have bad luck before it is their appointed time? And the angel replied by quoting the verse with which this sugya began: He said to him, and is it not written, 'But there are those who are swept away without justice?'" (Chagiga 4b-5a)

As we work our way through Elul, listening to the blasts of the shofar each morning and repairing the breaches in our moral bulwarks, I find this a comforting perspective. Sometimes God's justice is visible; sometimes we express faith in a Plan, but most of the time life seems random because most of the time it is.

That doesn't excuse us from the task of trying to be the best people we can be.

It just means that we should do that not because we expect a reward, but because being the best people we can be despite the vicissitudes of life is God's plan for us.

Sat, Jun. 28th, 2014, 10:04 pm
Dvar Torah: Chukat

This week's parsha confronts death. First, we encounter death in the abstract, as we learn the ritual of the parah adumah, by which one who has become tamei due to contact with any corpse may be returned to a state of taharah. Then we read of the deaths of Miriam and Aharon, as the forty years of wandering begin to draw to a close. It is from the beginning of this parsha that we learn the principle of shiva, and it is from its middle that we learn the priniciple of sheloshim.

It is therefore a fitting parsha to consider in this week of yahrzeits. My father's yahrzeit was two days ago; his mother's is two days from now; and today is his grandmother's.

When we consider the deaths of Miriam and Aharon, we also realize that they are representative of the entire generation that left Egypt. Their time has come. And yet up to this point, Moshe's fate is not yet determined. Will he die in the midbar, or will lead the people as they enter Eretz Yisrael? It is in this parsha, as well, that Moshe makes his fatal mistake.

The problem is that no two mefarshim seem to agree on what Moshe's mistake actually was. In a sense, this is as deep a mystery as the parah adumah.

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot writes that Moshe's striking the rock was a failure to adapt to the reality of the new generation. With Miriam's passing, the well that miraculously followed us in the midbar has gone as well. Moshe is faced once again, as he was 38 years earlier, with a people grumbling from thirst; but this time Hashem has given Moshe different instructions. For reasons that perhaps only God understands, the new generation of the midbar needs to see Moshe speak to the rock, not strike it. In this instance, that is the specific behaviour that will optimally glorify God in their eyes. Yet Moshe falls back to the same solution that worked for the generation of the Exodus. In Rabbi Helfgot's reading, Moshe thus demonstrates that it is time for a new leader to take the people forward.

Three years ago, while I was sitting shiva for my father, I heard Rebbitzen Sylvia Kogan give a different perspective. She pointed out that when Miriam died, the Torah does not record that the people mourned her, instead, in the very next verse, they immediately complained to Moshe about the loss of the water that had benefited them on account of Miriam's zechut. Then, when God tells Moshe to speak to the rock, Moshe loses it. No one seems to care about his grief, and he lashes out. Perhaps he even knew the consequences of what he was doing, but he could no longer bring himself to care. Later in the parsha, when Aharon dies, this time the people mourn for thirty days, because they have learned that it is necessary to share the grief of the family when they have lost a loved one.

Generations pass, and new generations arise. We carry forward our memories, our mesorah, and our ahavat Hashem. My great-grandmother, Chaya Grune bat Josef Tuvia ha-Levi, passed away on this date 95 years ago; her daughter-in-law, my grandmother, Reizel bat Yehuda Leib, passed away on the second of Tammuz 11 years ago; Reizel's son, Avi Mori Gershon Eliyah ben Avraham ha-Levi passed away on the 28th of Sivan 3 years ago. May their memories continue to be a blessing.

L'havdil bein hachayim uvein hametim; as we look back, we also look forward. Im yirzah Hashem, later this week, I will dance at the wedding of my cousin, Chaya Grune's great-great-granddaughter, the first of the next generation to get married. The mysterious ritual of the parah adumah reminds us that God not only gives us the strength to grapple with the awful reality of death, but God then guides us back, to embrace the awesome reality of life.

Wed, Jun. 25th, 2014, 07:45 am
Genealogy How-To: Steve Morse, the Italian Genealogical Group, and FamilySearch

Recently, I've tutored several cousins on how to use the combination of three websites -- Steve Morse's "One Step Searches", the Italian Genealogical Group's index to NYC vital records, and the LDS Church's FamilySearch PhotoDuplication Service -- to obtain (for free!) copies of our ancestors' birth, marriage, and death records. These records have been invaluable to me in piecing together fragments of my family's lost history.

So for those who are getting started, here's the workflow. It's really very simple and surprisingly effective:

I start off at stevemorse.org -- Steve is a brilliant man and a mensch, and he has a whole bunch of pages on his web site that are user interfaces onto various genealogical databases that are out there. In particular, I make extensive use of his links to the New York City birth, marriage, and death records, which the Italian Genealogical Group in New York volunteered to index. So the search form is at Steve's website, but the results are coming from the IGG database.

Each row of the results contains two critical numbers: The film number in the LDS archives, and the record number on the film. So, for example, my great-great-grandfather's death certificate is listed as :

Greene Todres 60 y Dec 23 1901 37861 (1901) Manhattan 1840 - 1841 1323000

Next, I go to FamilySearch.org, which is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). The LDS church has a deep interest in genealogy, for reasons I won't go into here, and they have an incredible wealth of records on microfilm. You'll need to register for a free account on their site, and then search for "PhotoDuplication Service". You are permitted to submit up to five document requests per month; I keep a prioritized list of requests that I plan to make and every month I send off the next five on my list.

So when you fill out the PhotoDuplication request form, you'll take the film number from the last column of the Steve Morse/IGG data -- but be nice to them and add in commas. So Todres's certificate is on film 1,323,000. And at the end of the form, they ask for the document number within the roll, so this one is 37,861 (1901). The other fields are self-explanatory.

Once you submit the form, it goes into a work queue at the main LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Volunteers there will retrieve the given film, scroll to the given frame, make a scan of the document, and email it to you.

I have made some amazing discoveries this way.

They don't have the resources to do a search through the film, which is why you need to provide the frame number. But for older NYC records, this system works amazingly well.

Sun, Jun. 1st, 2014, 08:13 pm
Book Review: "Laws of Pesach" and "Laws of Prayer" by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Koren/Maggid sent me a review copy of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed's "Laws of Pesach", the second volume in their English translation of his series Peninei Halacha, "Pearls of the Law". I was so impressed that I bought my own copy of the first volume, "Laws of Prayer", and this review will discuss both books.

The series is a practical overview of the laws pertaining to a particular subject. Each chapter deals with one particular area in moderate to heavy detail. For example, the "Laws of Pesach" volume has a (long) chapter on Bedikat Chametz, and a separate chapter on Bitul and Biur Chametz.

One things that shines through the text is Rabbi Melamed's ahavat Yisrael. He provides the range of halachic opinions on an issue, indicating where each position comes from, and then emphasizes that all of the positions that he brings have validity, and while he sometimes recommends certain positions he is always clear that if one has a reason --- family tradition, practical considerations, or simply that it will be more meaningful to the reader --- that one should follow a different position.

In other words, this is not a "race to the most machmir" book. I believe that there is a grave risk in books by some other authors and other publishers who take a consistently machmir position: the reader may decide that observing the mitzvot is too onerous. Rabbi Melamed, on the other hand, is clearly aware of what it takes to be a Torah-observant Jew in the real world. He discusses practical situations such as a soldier on duty or one whose schedule forces him to daven on the bus to work. Or, for that matter, simply one whose practice falls somewhere other than the most machmir position on the spectrum.

In addition to the nuts-and-bolts discussion of practical halacha, Rabbi Melamed also explains the origins of the halachot and minhagim. Sometimes these are strictly halachic discussions, such when he explains whether one should try to eat less than a kezayit of karpas. Sometimes they are kabbalistic explanations. What is wonderous to me is that I, as someone who generally has little appreciation for kabbalah, found his kabbalistic explanations to be beautiful and meaningful.

The translators have done an extraordinary job. I do not have the original, so I can't comment on the faithfulness of the translation, but I assume it is true to the original. What is extraordinary is that this does not read like a translation; the English prose soars when it needs to, and is clear and precise when that is what is called for.

The combination of these traits means that these books succeed on many levels. They instruct us in practical details of the halacha, sometimes reminding us of things that we've been taking for granted, and sometimes correcting erroneous habits that we have developed through inattention or mistaken understandings. They inspire us with a new, deeper understanding of the foundations of the mitzvot and how the mitzvot help us live lives connected to God. They remind us that those whose practices differ from ours are neither fanatics nor heretics (as the old joke goes), but pious Jews who are also following divrei Elokim chayyim.

To clarify, not every question is covered in these books. This is not a series of comprehensive seifim, and it is not a substitute for asking one's rabbi for piskei halacha. That is not Rabbi Melamed's goal. Rather, these books cover the most common situations that everyone needs to know about, and they develop an understanding of the halachic and hashkafic framework within which we live.

A technical comment: I'm pleased to see that in the second volume, the notes were moved from the end of each chapter to the bottom of the page. Since these notes go into more depth about the body text, rather than simply present sources, it's great to have them on the same page.

And a personal comment: For the last few years, I have been seeking a book that would help me revitalize my tefillot, which have been tending more towards keva than kavannah. Having now read Rabbi Melamed's "Laws of Prayer", I am once again experiencing in my tefillot meaningful moments of reaching out to our Creator. For that alone, I am grateful.

I eagerly await the remaining volumes in the series.

Thu, Mar. 27th, 2014, 02:46 pm
Meta-Genealogy: What I wish the software did better

So I've been doing this genealogy thing now for about 18 months now, and there are a few things that I wish worked differently. I'd love to hear feedback from others who may have suggestions about other tools that I should look into.

First: I've come to the conclusion that the common data model is backwards. We assert "facts" about people, and then we're supposed to back those up with sources. But I think we'd have better results if we started by cataloging and transcribing sources, and then asserting "facts" from them. That's probably too hard for most people to wrap their brains around, but it would solve two problems: First, it's too easy to enter a "fact" with the best of intentions of getting around to the tedious step of adding the source info later, and never getting back to it. Second, and more pressing, sometimes what you start with is a (virtual) pile of source documents, and your task is to organize them into a network of relationships. Managing those is difficult at best.

Second: I want a fast plain-text fuzzy search. "Hmm, this naturalization record has the address 62 Common St., that sounds familiar." Right now, I'm actually doing most of my work in Emacs. It doesn't represent everything nicely, but it's fast and it represents anything that I can type.

Third: I want to have a "trust chain." That is, for every "fact" that I assert, I want to be able to assign it a probability score: 100% means I'm certain it's true (I was at my own wedding and know my own name); 0% means I have no idea if it's true or not, but I encountered the assertion somewhere, -100% means I'm certain that the assertion is incorrect but I'm including it to show that I've encountered it, evaluated it, and rejected it.

(For example, an otherwise wonderful tree of my mother's father's family that a cousin spent decades researching introduced a spurious twin sister three generations back by accidentally combining two records for different people. I've contacted the cousin and he agrees that it was a mistake -- but dozens of people have downstream copies of his tree. So I want to indicate on my tree that that individual doesn't exist, not just have her omitted from my tree which could be considered ambiguous.)

And then I want to be able to assign a "trust factor" for other researchers whose trees are loosely liked to mine. I want to get notified when they make changes -- and I want the trust factors multiplied. So my otherwise very reliable cousin would have a trust factor of 90%, while someone I barely know might only have a trust factor of 50%. Then if my reliable cousin has marked a "fact" as 50% reliable, while the unknown quantity marked a "fact" as 90% reliable, they'd both show up as 45% reliable in my summary of things to look at and consider importing. (Of course, when I import that "fact", I'd get to assign it my own level of trust.)

Fourth: I want to be able to divide my tree into segments, and grant different people different permissions depending on what part of the family they belong to. I'm doing some great collaboration with my Werdesheim cousins, but they don't need full access to my Bissinger data. 'Nuff said.

Fifth: I want a lot more flexibility in how I visualize my data. I want to be able to apply filters and templates of my own design in generating reports. I want a real API into my data so I can write scripts to extract things.


Wed, Mar. 26th, 2014, 07:31 am
Genealogy: Major progress on the Werdesheim family

Over the last two months, the team of descendants working on the Werdesheims of Mielec has made some amazing progress. We took a long hard look at the list of "loose end" records, and managed to fit about half of them into one of our six main branches. We've made contact with more "lost" branches -- in fact, we now have contact with at least one descendant of each of the six main branches and we are all comparing notes and research.

From a record-keeping perspective, the biggest find was that Ben-Zion Werdesheim, the patriarch of what I had labeled "Branch 6", came to New York with his second wife, took the Americanized version of his name "Benjamin Wertheimer", and had five more children here. (We had not previously known anything about him except that he had 5 children in Mielec, 2 of whom moved to New York.) Not only did that help us make contact with his descendants, it also gave us our first break in the "1840 wall." Read more...Collapse )

Sun, Mar. 23rd, 2014, 07:19 am
Review: "Derash Yehonatan" by Rabbi Shalom Hammer

Koren/Maggid recently sent me a review copy of Derash Yehonatan: Around the Year with Rav Yehonatan Eybeshitz by Rabbi Shalom Hammer.

The Author's Preface begins with these words of introduction:

Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz, Dayan of Prague, and later rabbi of the the 'Three Communities' ... was an outstanding eighteenth-century talmudist, halakhist and kabbalist.... I discovered Rav Yehonatan's works a few years after I began my professional career as a teacher and rebbe... While parts of the commentary were difficult for me to understand because of their kabbalistic nature, typical of many of Rav Yehonatans books, I was enthralled by their richness, linking all of the varied disciplines of the Torah.... Discovering Rav Yehonatan's mastery in addressing a midrash, linking it to a portion of the Talmud, connecting it to a teaching of the Zohar, and then concluding with codified laws in the Shulchan Arukh was an awe-inpiring experience.

Why, then, does Rabbi Hammer's book both please me and frustrate me so?

Rabbi Hammer has structured his book around the Jewish calendar; each chapter takes as its theme one holy day and consists of a series of brief essays, bringing down a teaching of Rabbi Eyebeshitz that relates to that theme. Many of these essays taught me something I did not know before, or suggested a new perspective on a text that is overly familiar.

The book is well-written and, I think, is intended to be read one chapter at a time, just before or during each of the relevant days. It will take a place on my shelf of resources for when I am asked to deliver a dvar Torah.

One thing that I found off-putting, though, was that the structure of the essays was not what the Author's Preface seemed to promise. Instead, they seemed to follow the modern style of rabbinic essay: an establishing sentence that identifies a source text, then an extended quote from that source, then a question raised by that quote, then a series of brief observations that address the question, all wrapped up in a few pages and then on to the next. (I believe that this structure comes from a generation that came of age learning from the essays of Nechama Liebowitz zt''l.)

Rabbi Hammer has recast Rabbi Eyebeshitz's teachings in his own voice; these essays give the setup and then continue "Rav Yehonatan attempts to explain...", "Rav Yehonatan answers these questions..." Some essays are followed by a postscript labeled "Author's Note"; but that makes me even more unclear what the difference is between Rabbi Hammer re-writing Rabbi Eyebeshitz in the third person and Rabbi Hammer adding additional thoughts in these postscripts. (I would have preferred the Author's Notes to be typographically distinct -- perhaps in italics, or a narrower margin -- which might have helped me to keep Rabbi Hammer's voice, as himself, distinct in my mind from Rabbi Hammer's voice, teaching what Rabbi Eyebeshitz wrote.)

The approach that Rabbi Hammer has used certainly gives him the opportunity to make Rabbi Eyebeshitz's teachings more accessible to a general audience, and that is a good thing. By breaking Rabbi Eyebeshitz's commentaries down into shorter pieces, and by selecting those aspects that are not esoteric, Rabbi Hammer has produced a book from which anyone can learn. This comes at a cost, though: it is also a book that in some ways is indistinguishable from any of the other myriad collections of commentaries.

I kept wanting to break through the page and get at least one taste of pure Eyebeshitz, at full length, in faithful translation with explanatory footnotes. Perhaps that could have been an appendix. The Author's Preface, which I quoted above, made me eager to taste of the brilliant "linking" and the elaborate all-inclusive structure that Rabbi Hammer describes; instead, I felt like I was being given a series of disconnected glimpses.

Derash Yehonatan is a good book. I just wish it had been a great one.

Tue, Mar. 11th, 2014, 08:23 am
A little something for the day

I made a puzzle: http://greenehouse.com/a/puzzles/cute.pdf

I hope you enjoy it.

Mon, Feb. 24th, 2014, 09:20 pm
Book Review: "The Laws of Cooking and Warming Food on Shabbat" by Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Koren Publications / Maggid Press recently sent me a review copy of The Laws of Cooking and Warming Food on Shabbat, by Rabbi Mordechai Willig. This is the second volume in "The REITS Practical Halakhah Series".

Each chapter in this book -- some brief, some longer, as the material requires -- discusses the various positions surrounding one particular aspect of the subject. For example, there are several chapters about whether a kli sheini cooks its contents, depending on whether they are solid, water, or other liquids. Each chapter is backed up by extensive source material in Hebrew in the back of the book. Many of the issues are as old as the Mishna, but some are as new as modern technology can make them. (Is there a problem if your hot-water urn has a glass sight-tube? Can you reheat food on Shabbat if the food was originally cooked in a microwave oven, which is not halachically fire?)

The genius of this book is that Rabbi Willig explores the underlying halcahic constructs that inform the piskei halacha that the sources bring. This of course is how the Talmud works: given opposing sets of halachic decisions by some number of rabbis, the author tries to deduce, from the shape of those decisions, how each decisor views the halachic and physical realities involved. It is a joy to see Rabbi Willig propose test cases and tease apart the underlying structures.

In many cases he does not even provide a definitive answer, since there is room for different rabbis to interpret the halacha differently, and one should be asking one's rav, not a book.

In other words, this is not a "quick reference" book that gives quick (and safe) answers for the lay Jew. That ground has been masterfully covered by the Shemirat Shabbat ke-Hilchata. Instead, what Rabbi Willig has provided us is much more profound: an insight into how the different schools of thought understand the nature of Shabbat, the nature of food and food preparation, the nature of halachic divisions into the permitted and the prohibited, and how these spheres intersect.

It is clear that this book is adapted from shiurim that Rabbi Willig has given at REITS. In fact, my main frustration with the book is that it's not always clear when a cited source is going to be quoted in full in the back of the book; I feel like the material is intended to be followed the way it would be in a shiur, with a source packet in hand and with the reader's attention being directed first to the original source, then to the maggid shiur's explanation of it, then to the next source, and so on.

I soon figured out that the right way to read this book is to read a chapter, then read the sources, then came back and read the chapter again. Each chapter does end with an clear and brief summary of the issues considered in the chapter and what the major opinions are on them. That helps, but not as much as integrating the source material with the main text would have.

And I'm afraid I must disagree with the series title: This is not a book about practical halakha. While I am glad to see that Koren/Maggid/REITS/YU sees a need for a more centrist alternative to the more reflexively machmir books that are out there, this does not address that audience. A pashut yid looking for a practical guide to the laws of cooking and warming food on Shabbat will not find their questions answered here.

To stress: That is not Rabbi Willing's fault, and it is not a fault in this book; it is a mismatch between what this book is and how it is being positioned in the marketplace of ideas.

But for those with an interest in the halachic process and in gaining a deeper understanding of how the halachic mind grapples with questions that we take for granted week in and week out, this is an excellent book worthy of space on your shelves and in your thoughts.

Fri, Jan. 31st, 2014, 03:34 pm
Two Yahrzeits: My great-grandfathers

Today was the yahrzeit of my maternal grandfather's father, Max Bissinger.

Tomorrow is the yahrzeit of my paternal grandather's father, Barnett Greene.

It is interesting to compare their lives. Read more...Collapse )

Mon, Jan. 27th, 2014, 05:16 pm
Memories of my Oma

Today (i.e., tonight and tomorrow) is the 21st Jahrzeit of my Oma, Frieda (Friedmann) Bissinger. I wanted to capture some memories that I have of her; I suppose that this technically qualifies as a genealogy post, in that I'm recording family history. But today I'm not going to talk about her origins in Germany, or the story of her escape in August 1939 to England, or how she came to America. I'm not going to trace her family line back N generations. Nor am I going to talk about those last hard months of her life.

Today is a day for reflecting on the love in my relationship with my Oma. Read more...Collapse )

Mon, Jan. 20th, 2014, 09:05 pm
One Mystery Hunt thought for now

Hunt was awesome -- the best in my memory. Delightful theme, but more importantly the puzzles had been really well edited and testsolved and factchecked, and it showed.

At wrapup, the editorial director explained their overall philosophy, which included "Make the Hunt more enjoyable by smaller teams." She then added "I'm not sure how well that worked out."

It worked out amazingly well.

Read more...Collapse )

Thu, Jan. 16th, 2014, 01:44 pm
Genealogy: Some happier tidbits for a change

It's important to remember that genealogy is not just about finding out when people died. The "family history" part is about understanding their lives. So this week, I want to blog some of the more smile-inducing things I've found lately in various newspaper archives. Read more...Collapse )

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