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.

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. Collapse )

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

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.

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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:
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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.

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.

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?

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.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,