On the road to Sinai

According to tradition, the Israelites trekked for seven weeks between leaving Egypt and arriving at Mount Sinai where they received the Law.  This march to revelation is observed by “Counting the Omer.”   Each night we say a blessing, note a spiritual attribute of the day, and literally count the day.

At the suggestion of my cousin Bethanne Goldman, we have created a new tradition.  Since we live in two civilizations—Jewish and American—we mark each day by honoring the admission of a State to the Union and recognizing an outstanding Jewish personality associated with that State.  

Some of these personalities are heroes, a few are rogues.  And yes, we cheat a bit.  Since there are 50 States but 49 days of the Omer, we squeeze in Hawaii just before sunset on the 49th day.

Here is a sample of our Count:

Day 2

Pennsylvania, ratified the Constitution on December 12, 1787

Jonas Salk, developed the polio vaccine

Day 3

New Jersey, ratified the Constitution on December 18, 1787

Albert Einstein, the scientist of all scientists

Day 4

Georgia, ratified the Constitution on January 2, 1788

Mordecai Sheftall, hero of the American Revolution

Day 7

Maryland, ratified the Constitution on April 28. 1788

Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah

Day 8

South Carolina, ratified the Constitution on May 23, 1788

Bernard Baruch, financier and advisor to Presidents

Day 11

New York, ratified the Constitution on July 26, 1788

Arnold Rothstein, fixed the 1919 World Series

Day 15

Kentucky, admitted June 1, 1792

Louis Brandeis, Justice of the United States Supreme Court

Day 18

Louisiana, admitted April 30, 1812

Lillian Hellman, playwright

Day 21

Illinois, admitted December 3, 1818

Jack Benny, violinist

Day 24

Missouri, admitted August 10, 1821

Joseph Pulitzer, publisher

Day 30

Wisconsin, admitted May 29, 1848

Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel

Day 31

California, admitted September 9, 1850

Marilyn Monroe, friend of the Kennedys

Day 36

Nevada, admitted October 31, 1864

Bugsy Siegel, founder of modern Las Vegas

Day 44

Wyoming, admitted July 10, 1890

Ernestine Rose, radical feminist and campaigner for women’s suffrage

Tonight  (April 27) is Rhode Island.

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Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto revolt this year at Passover

Seventy-one years ago on the First Day of Passover, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto rebelled.  It took the Germans more than a month to root them out.  At my brother’s Seder this year, we will remember the revolt with readings from Mila 18 by Leon Uris (1924-2003).  The  book, originally published in 1961 and reissued as an ebook by Open Road Integrated Media, is a fictionalized account of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Seder, conducted hours before the Jews launched their attack, takes place in the command bunker below 18 Mila Street.  Each room in the bunker is named after a death camp.   Andrei was a cavalry officer in the former Polish Army and a militant leader of the Jewish Fighters.  Rabbi Solomon is the last surviving rabbi in the Ghetto.  Chris is a journalist with a Swiss news agency.  He knows the locations of the buried diaries from the Ghetto.   The goal is to allow him to escape and reveal the locations of the diaries after the war.  Alexander is head of the diary project.  Moritz Katz is a big time smuggler who became quartermaster of the Jewish Fighters.  The bold black type indicates where the excerpts will be read during our Seder on Tuesday night. 

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At the beginning

“Passover,” Andrei said sardonically.  “The feast of liberation.  What a damned joke.”

Simon nodded in agreement.  “Oh, where is Moses to lead us through the Red Sea and drown Pharaoh’s army!  The only pillars of fire are the ones that will devour us.”

“Well,” Andrei said, “we have to have the Seder.”

Chris shook his head. “You Jews astonish me.  In the pits of hell, about to be destroyed, and you mumble rituals to freedom.”

After the chanting of the Passover plate

How Jewish Warsaw would have reverberated with the weeks of unabated excitement before the war!  Alex tried to remember the Tlomatskie Synagogue … crowds jammed to watch the elite fill the marble temple.

In the homes of the poorest, brass and silver candlesticks shone to a glisten and the white tablecloths and shining dishes dazzled the eye and the kitchens smelled of baking and candies prepared with the very soul of the homemaker.

The tables were fixed with special food symbolizing the suffering of Moses and the tribes.  The diced nuts and bitter herbs for the mortar of Pharaoh’s bricks which the Jews laid in bondage.

Before Ha Lachman Anya

A tiny bench stood at the junction of the two corridors of Mila 18.  They held a pair of candle- sticks which Moritz Katz had managed to salvage.  Substitutes took the place of the prescribed symbolic foods.

Alexander pushed his way past the jam of humanity into Rabbi Solomon’s cell.

“We are ready to begin the Seder,” he said.  He helped the old man to his feet.  Solomon was no longer able to see except in shadowy outlines, nor was he able to read. But that did not matter.  His voice was yet clear and he knew the Haggadah by memory.  He was led to the bench and seated upon a pillow, for the pillow symbolized the free man who relaxes while he feats.  From rooms Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmo, Majdanek, Treblinka, and Sobibor, the Fighters and their children pressed to the door in bated breath to hear—Zionists, plain and fancy, infants, Communists, Bundists, Orthodox and smugglers.

Before Four Questions

“Let us begin our Seder,” he said.  “Let us begin our feast of liberation.”

The youngest Fighter in the Joint Jewish Forces, an eleven-year-old runner named Benjamin, opened the Haggadah to ask the questions.

He asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights of the year.”

And Rabbi Solomon answered firm and unwavering, “This night is different because we celebrate the most important moment in the history of our people.  On this night we celebrate their going forth in triumph from slavery into freedom.”

Before the Ten Plagues

Watercress for the coming of spring, and the egg for the symbol of freedom.  Well, spring was coming to Warsaw.  There was no egg, no watercress.  Forty thousand terrified people mumbling ancient prayers, begging to an unhearing God to fill His promises to bring forth … to deliver … to redeem … to take the tribes of Israel. In six hundred bunkers the ritual was repeated in numbed and tear-filled voices while the Polish Blue Police took their positions around the ghetto walls every seven meters.

But … the story had to be told.  Was it ever to be told with greater futility?  Alexander wondered.  Still … it had to be told.

Before Dayenu

“Remember the stories of our people!"  cried Rabbi Solomon.  "Remember Betar and Masada and Arbel and Jerusalem.  Remember the Maccabees and Simon Bar Kochba and Bar Giora and Ben Eliezer!  No people upon this earth have fought for their freedom harder than we have.  Tonight we are on the eve of another fight.  Forgive an old man who told you not to use arms, for he realizes now that the truest obedience to God is the opposition to tyranny.”

The bunker was galvanized.  Yes!  Yes!  Alexander trembled.  He has found a great key to all of life — to obey God is to fight the tyrant!

The bony hand lifted Elijah’s cup.  “Elijah has drunk our wine tonight.  Israel will come!"  He chanted a prayer of all the ages, and the bunker trembled. 

Before Elijah’s cup (fourth cup)

The silver goblet in the center of the bench was called Elijah’s cup.  When the Prophet who had foretold the second coming of Israel drank from the Passover goblet, the prophecy would be fulfilled.  Solomon’s ancient hands felt over the bench for the cup.  He lifted it and jiggled it.  It was empty, for there was no wine.

"Perhaps,” he said, “this is a way we are being told that Israel will come again. Perhaps Elijah has come and drunk.”

Getting ready for Passover

On Monday, March 31, I visited the shopping district around Coney Island Avenue and Avenue J in Brooklyn.  It’s an exciting multi-cultural neighborhood, where Halal stores and Kosher stores prosper across from each other and people in Muslim garb and Black hats and beards shop together.  It’s like being in Jerusalem but speaking English.  Passover is but two weeks away.