Five Days that Shocked the World


Good histórical writing is always entertaining, no matter how old the story.  Such is the case with Five Days that Shocked the World (Thistle Publishing).  British author Nicholas Best has woven first hand accounts of the deaths of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and German leader Adolf Hitler and the related events of April 28 to May 2, 1945 into a fast moving, easy reading retelling of the end of World War II.

The best events of the book are the execution of Mussolini and the last hours in the Fuhrer bunker.  Amidst all the tragedy, Best reveals ironic comedy.  Mussolini’s widow, Rachele (he always told her that she was his one true love) had to endure the insult that Mussolini was buried with his mistress, but not her.

Five Days that Shocked the World is a worthy companion for a long train or airplane ride.   Next time in Europe, I will visit the gasoline station in Milano, where Mussolini was hanged—and then go shopping for threads.


Nicholas Best



The Death of Democracy: Why it can’t happen here.


Confronted with the title of this book, one could conclude that it is about the political scene in the United States.  The elected head of our Republic has set the news agenda every day since he assumed office.  The Washington Post displays the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

UnknownHunter College history professor, Benjamin Carter Hett, writes about the death of a different democracy–Germany.   The Death of Democracy (Henry Holt & Company) tells of the rise of Hitler, but in a different way.  Instead of focusing on the step by step growth of the Nazi movement and its consolidation of power, Professor Hett writes about the step by step disintegration of the political institutions which could have blocked Hitler.

Benjamin Carter Hett

In a flowing and comfortable way, Professor Hett writes about the political personalities, the social movements, and economic forces which operated during the era of the Weimar Republic.  He shows how the political parties and their leaders failed to unify against Nazism.  Some leaders collaborated with the Nazis,  while others turned away from challenging the Nazis.

Part of the problem was the Weimar Constitution.  It was too democratic, yet too autocratic.  It provided an unworkable hybrid of a presidential and a parliamentary system.   The parliament (Reichstag) was elected by proportional representation.  If a party won a third of the popular vote, it was assigned one third of the seats in the Reichstag.  A series of unstable coalition governments was the result of proportional representation.  Meanwhile, the president had the power to suspend the Reichstag and govern by decree, which President Paul von Hindenburg did.

After reading Professor Hett’s book, I am assured that “it” can’t happen here.  Our political parties, civic institutions, and our traditions of citizen activism and dissent are too strong to prevent a totalitarian takeover of our country.  Notwithstanding their faults, the drafters of our Constitution did it right.


The Marshall Plan and how Germany turned into two


As a Cold War junkie, I always wondered how East and West Germany came to be.  At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Allies agreed to govern Germany as a whole, with the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and France, each to temporarily administer a zone.

How did this arrangement break down?  How did two rival German republics emerge?  What caused the Berlin blockade?  Why were the United States and the Soviet Union brought to the edge of war?

benn-steil-483777358Benn Steil, senior fellow and director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, offers answers lot these questions in his book The Marshall Plan:  Dawn of the Cold War (Simon & Schuster).

The breaking point between East and West was economics.  In the months after the surrender, Germany and much of Western Europe were destitute.  Britain was broke.  France wanted to dominate the Rhineland. The Soviets wanted as much reparations—removal of industrial assets and exports of manufactured goods—as Germany could yield.

The United States was left with the responsibility of feeding Germany and getting the Western European economies on the road to recovery.

The immediate split between East and West was over monetary policy.  The United States and the Soviet Union each proposed plans for currency reform.  These two great powers could never reach a compromise.  Eventually each side implemented their own versions of currency reform in their zones of Germany.

To get the Western economies on the road to recovery, the United States proposed the Marshall plan, which drew the three western zones of Germany and most of Western Europe into America’s orbit.  The ever suspicious Soviet Union, saw the Marshall Plan as an instrument of imperialism.  The Soviet Union forbade the Eastern European states from participating in the Marshall Plan.

The final rupture happened when the Soviet Union blockaded the Western sectors of Berlin, from June 1948 to May 1949.  The final division of Europe was solidified when the United States and Britain oversaw the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in May 1949.  The Soviet Union responded by organizing the rival German Democratic Republic in October 1949.

Benn Steil has written a scholarly and comprehensive history.  Whatever your interest in the Cold War–be it ideology, economics, strategy, diplomacy, American politics, or just a good story–Steil has a chapter for you.






Vayishlach: Rachel, the motherless child, the Matriarch without love.


by Dahlia Ravikovitch
Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld

To die like Rachel
when the soul shudders like a bird,
wants to break free.
Jacob and Joseph speak of her,
all a-tremble.
All the days of her own life
turn head over heels inside her
like a baby that wants to be born.

How grueling. How
Jacob’s love ate away at her
with open mouth.
Now, as her soul takes leave,
she has no use for any of that.

Suddenly the baby screeches
and Jacob comes into the tent,
but Rachel does not even sense it,
Rapture washes over her face,
her head.

And then did a great repose descend upon her.
The breath of her nostrils would not stir a feather.
They laid her to rest among mountain stones
and made her no lament.
To die like Rachel,
that’s what I want.

(From The Torah, A Women’s Commentary, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Andrea L. Weiss, URJ Press, 2008).

In today’s Torah reading, Vayishlach, we learn of the death of Rachel.
Here is Everett Fox’s translation. (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, Word Bibles). I like Fox’s stark choice of words:

Genesis 35:16

They departed from Bet-El.
But when there was still a stretch of land to come to Efrat,
Rachel began to give birth,
and she had a very hard birthing.

It was, when her birthing was at its hardest,
that the midwife said to her:
Do not be afraid,
for this one too is a son for you!

It was, as her life was slipping away
–for she was dying–
that she called his name: Ben-Oni/Son-of-My-Woe.
But his father called him: Binyamin/Son-of-the-Right-Hand.

So Rachel died;
she was buried along the way to Efrat–that is now Bet-Lechem.
Yaakov set up a standing-pillar over her burial place,
that is Rachel’s burial pillar of today.

Now Yisrael departed and spread his tent beyond Migdal-Eder/Herd-Tower.

The Soncino Chumash (The Soncino Press, 1983), features explanations by seven classic commentators.

Nachmanides explains that Jacob did not take her body to the near by city of Bethlehem. He foresaw that it would belong to the tribe of Judah. He wished Rachel to be buried in the portion of Benjamin.

According to Rashbam, the midwife’s statement, “For this one is a son for you” is because Rachel had prayed upon the birth of Joseph: “May God add to me another son to me.” (Genesis 30:24).

As to the name switch, Nachmanides explains that Jacob gave an optimistic spin to the name chosen by Rachel; oni also means “strength.” Jacob called him Ben-yamin, “the son of my right hand,” the right hand being he symbol of strength.

Later at Genesis 48:7, Joseph visits Jacob on his death bed. Jacob recounts:

When I came back from that country,
Rachel died on me,
in the land of Canaan,
on the way, with still a stretch of land left to come to Efrat.
There I buried her, on the way to Efrat–that is now Bet-Lechem.
(Fox translation).

Nachmanides explains that Jacob was ashamed to bury her with Leah, since later laws prohibited a man from marrying sisters.

Sforno says that Jacob’s grief was so intense that he could not even convey her to Bethlehem.



Guido Cagnacci, Jacob between Leah and Rachel, c.1655.


Wilda C. Gafney is a professor at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She used to attend Dorshei Derekh when she taught at Lutheran Theological Seminary. In her new book, Womanist Midrash (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017) Reverend Gafney writes of the heartbreak in Rachel’s life.

Rachel was a motherless child. Her mother is never mentioned in the Bible. Was the mother dead? Was Rachel raised by someone else? What was the mother’s relationship with Rachel’s father?

Rachel’s father sold her to Jacob in exchange for 14 years of labor.

Rachel’s father disowned her at the pact between Laban and Jacob at

According to Gafney, Rachel had a loveless marriage. Jacob overwhelmed her with his love for her. The text never says that Rachel loved Jacob.

It is never clear whether Rachel embraced God as her god. Did she continue to worship idols? When she stole her father’s idols, did she steal them for herself? Did she die as a result of the curse placed by Jacob on the person who stole the idols.

Rachel is dominated by her older sister Leah.

Rachel is displaced at her wedding bed with Leah.

Rachel got into a fertility war with Leah.

Leah’s sons, particularly Judah and Levi, became the dominant tribes in Israel.

Rachel is buried alone, separate from her husband and her sister.

Rachel is not mourned. The text only states that Jacob buried her and traveled on.

Gafney concludes:

“Lament and blessing characterize the portrayal of Rachel in the Sciptures:
a pawn of her father, in conflict with her sister, loved by a man she does not say she loves, ashamed of her infertility, and finally a mother granted fertility by God, dead before seeing her children grown and married, her deathbed wishes disregarded.”
* * * *
“She is canonized as the beloved of Israel. Her love is not considered.
Rachel has difficult relationships with her father, sister, and husband. Rachel’s mother is mysteriously missing from her story.”
* * * *
“There is someone else with whom Rachel is in some sort of relationship. God is involved in Rachel’s life in the most intimate way, granting her the desire of her heart, even though she does not turn to God for help and may not have subscribed to the worship of this God as she worshiped the gods of her ancestors.”
* * * *
“In the words of the . . .  spiritual, Rachel is a motherless child, a long way from home. Willingly or unwillingly, she gives up her life for her child, begetting another generation of motherless children,” Reverend Gafney says.


Left Bank. A delicious peak into the intellectual life of Paris from the Occupation to the Marshall Plan

cover122475-mediumFrench anglophile journalist Agnes Poirier, presents a delicious peak into the intellectual life of Paris from about 1940 to 1950. Left Bank (Henry & Company) centers on Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, their loves, their students, their writing, and their circle of French, British and Americans friends who lived and created on the Left Bank in Paris.

Poirier tells us about the cafes, theaters, restaurants, streets and hotels frequented by the existentialist set. Her book is a travelogue, especially useful for the reader who has never been to Paris.

Most of all, Left Bank is about lifestyle, and what lifestyles did her characters lead!

Poirier is an accomplished name dropper. She acquaints the reader with cultural figures whose names I had often heard, but whose lives I knew nothing about.

As a secondary theme, Poirier tells the political story of those times, and how the main characters edge away from the Communist Party. The book concludes with the triumph of the Marshall Plan over cultural Communism in France.


Repent and Reprieve

D’var Torah given at Minyan Masorti, Germantown Jewish Centre, September 30, 2017.

On July 23, my uncle and aunt were burned to death in a house fire. Minutes after I received the news, the haunting words from Unetaneh Tokef came to mind:

“Who shall live and who shall die. . . . Who shall perish by fire and who by water.”

In that moment, the words of the Unetaneh Tokef became real. I wondered if what it said were true. Had God imposed judgment on them? My uncle and aunt had lived 98 years. They had survived all of their siblings and friends, weathered illnesses, yet died in a most unnatural way.

Contemporary rabbis and scholars wrestle with this prayer. They question its view of divine judgment and punishment. As our rabbi emeritus Leonard Gordon writes in our Machzor, “We are not praying to be spared an ending in death. We are not even asking that death be postponed. Rather, after reminding ourselves relentlessly of the many ways that life might end, we tell ourselves that the way to cope with ultimate vulnerability is through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. Our goal is not security, but a life of meaning that recognizes our vulnerability but rises beyond it.”   (Mahzor Lev Shalom,, page 315).

After my family members died by fire, Unetaneh Tokef echoed in my ears. I was called to study this text, to grapple with their death. I found Unetaneh Tokef a text to study, if not embrace.

In part, the Unetaneh Tokef draws from theology of Ezekiel 18.

Ezekiel speaks with clarity and precision, connecting righteousness to life and wickedness to death.

Verse 20: The person who sins, he alone shall die. A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone.

Verse 23: Is it my desire that a wicked person shall die?—says the LORD, GOD. It is rather that he shall turn back from his ways and live.

Verse 31: Cast away all the transgressions by which you have offended, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, that you may not die, O House of Israel. For it is not My desire that anyone shall die—declares the LORD GOD. Repent, therefore, and live!

The theology of Ezekiel is severe. It addresses the core of Unetaneh Tokef: Straighten up! Life is fragile. We are not worthy, but we can try to repent. God, be gentle in your judgment.

What we seek this Day of Atonement is not a pardon, but a reprieve—a stay of execution.

Rabbi and psychotherapist Ruth Durchslag explains:

“We are reminded that teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah—repentance, prayer and charity—can transform the harshness of God’s decree. Changing our ways may gain us a few more precious hours, a few more days or a few more years.” (Who by Fire, Who by Water, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, editor, Jewish Lights, 2010,, page 188).

I would pose these questions:

  1. Is reprieve only about lengthening our time on earth or it is about living the way we choose and living according to our values?
  2. Are we seeking reprieve from death or reprieve from the expectations of others and the expectations we have for ourselves?

Durchslag’s is a theology of praying for reprieve—a reprieve from fate or expectations, but nonetheless it is a reprieve for life in the next year. But reprieve does not answer the way my uncle and aunt died. So I needed to continue my study.


Writing in the Daily Beast on September 20, 2017 Jay Michaelson saw the Unetaneh Tokef in the context of its times. It was composed in the era of the Crusades, a time “in which the oppression of Jews was as unpredictable and violent as the prayer’s text suggests.” Unetaneh Tokefreflects the religious yearnings of an oppressed people.”

Michaelson writes that “the High Holiday liturgy reflects the hardship of oppression and exile. The endless petitions for forgiveness . . . are not simply remnants of a bygone theological era, in which God was understood as a kind of giant puppet-master pulling the strings of fate. Rather, that theology is itself the product of centuries of Jewish suffering and marginalization.”

(Jay Michaelson,, adapted).

If Unetaneh Tokef is a prayer that echoes the cries of an oppressed people, how does our understanding of “who by fire, who by water. . . .” change?

It’s not about the fire and the water—it is about the trauma that comes from the uncertainty, the fragility of life when we live under oppression. When a people is oppressed, their fate is not in their own hands, but rather in those of their oppressor. Unetaneh Tokef flips the script and takes this fate out of the hands of the oppressor, and places it into God’s hands.

In God’s hand, even in those horrible fates (death by fire, drowning, plague, sword, beast. . . ), we find a kind of freedom—since, even at the worst of times, our lives—our fates—are in the hands not of those who mean us harm, but in those of the God of our Salvation.

Here is the problem of Unetaneh Tokef. Jews in America do not live under oppression. This theology does not apply to us, and by extension, to my Uncle and Aunt.

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah on Teshuvah, Chapter 7, gives us a view more hopeful than the text of Unetaneh Tokef. Maimonides informs us that we have agency at all times of the year, not just on the High Holidays.

Maimonides teaches that we have the ability to become the masters of our own Teshuvah, our repentance.

Quoting from Teshuvah, Chapter 7:

  1. Since free choice is granted to all men as explained, a person should always strive to do Teshuvah and to confess verbally for his sins, striving to cleanse his hands from sin in order that he may die as a Baal-Teshuvah—a Master of his own Repentance—and merit the life of the world to come.
  2. A person should always view himself as leaning towards death, with the possibility that he might die at any time. Thus, he may be found as a sinner.

Therefore, one should always repent for his sins immediately and should not say: “When I will repent,” for perhaps he will die before he grows older. This was implied by the wise counsel given by Solomon [Ecclesiastes 9:8]: “At all times, your clothes should be white.”


Today, on Yom Kippur, many of us stand in white.

Maimonides says that life is fragile, unpredictable, any day could be our last.  Repent every day, to temper the severity of God’s decree every day.

For my Uncle and Aunt, Maimonides worked for the way they lived their lives, through the theology of living Tefillah, Teshuvah, and Tzedakah. Not being a direct descendant, I could observe the relationships they had with their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

I recognized that their death by fire not as punishment, but as Korban—Their souls were pure, ready to go up to heaven. By dying together, they were reprieved from the pain of widowhood. They had become Baalei Teshuvah — Masters of their own Repentance—in the way Maimonides envisioned it. They took that daily opportunity to repent.

Unetaneh Tokef is a shake-up call. A call to reassess, a call to turn around our lives. Life can change in a moment. The great challenge is how to be prepared.


The fall of Nationalist China as understood 70 years later


Back in the 1960’s, I watched TV shows recounting the fall of Nationalist China. The bold voice of Walter Cronkite told how Peiping, Nanking, Shanghai and Canton (1950’s spellings) surrendered to the Communists in succession in 1949, until the refugee government retreated to Formosa (now called Taiwan).

I never understood how an American ally could collapse so quickly; nor did I understand the power of the China lobby and its successful efforts to protect Taiwan and prevent United States recognition of the Communist government for more than a decade.

Veteran foreign correspondent Kevin Peraino tells how it happened in his upcoming book A Force So Swift, to be released in September by Crown/Penguin Random House.

China emerged from World War II victorious. The strength of the Nationalist government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was superficial. Weakened by corruption, primitive infrastructure, inadequate military equipment, and an unstable economy, the Nationalists were no match for the rival Communists. The Communists were tightly disciplined, supported by the rural masses, and ideologically driven,


From 1945 through 1948, the United States pressured the Nationalists and Communists to join a coalition government. The Nationalists refused. American military aid failed to get the Nationalists into shape to battle the Communists.

Finally, in 1949, the United States gave up on the Nationalists, reduced aid, and stood by while the Nationalists collapsed.

Peraino (photo on left) spotlights three key figures in the fall of China.

(1) Secretary of State Dean Acheson. He was a realist. He understood that the Communists were going to win. He wanted to end American support for the Nationalists, maintain some American influence in China, and begin a relationship with the future Communist rulers.

(2) Congressman Walter Judd. A former medical missionary in China, Judd was elected as a Republican to Congress from Minnesota. He was no isolationist. He campaigned with then Vice President Harry Truman in the midwest in support of the proposed United Nations. Judd thought that because of racism, the United States focused on saving post-war Western Europe, consigning China to a low priority. He clashed with Truman and Acheson, organizing support for the Nationalists in the late 1940s and throughout the Cold War.

(3) Madame Chiang Kai-shek. The American educated and politically savvy wife of the Generalissimo, Madame Chiang organized support in United States for the Nationalists, and drove the agenda of the right wing during the early years of the Cold War. Her family ran the Chinese government and its finances as a privately held corporation.

Peraino tells a good story, using enough detail to inform without overwhelming the reader. This book is highly recommended for fans of the Cold War.