St. Peter, the Jew

One of the most famous Shabbat prayers–Nishmat Kol Chai (literally, “the soul of all that lives”)–might have actually been written by an apostle of Jesus.

The oldest extant Ashkenazic siddur, the Mahzor Vitry, attributes Nishmat to “Simon Peter, the error of Rome,” who “established this prayer…when he was on the rock.” Puzzling? In his new book Why We Pray What We Pray, Rabbi Barry Freundel explains that this attribution may be accurate.

Peter, who was originally called “Simon Peter,” was one of Jesus’ apostles, and was also the first pope. Originally, he was an opponent of Jesus. Later, he came to Christianity, and his first confession was given at a place referred to as “the rock” (Matthew 16:18).

But a legend persisted among medieval Jews, according to Freundel, that Peter was a Jew sent by the rabbis to expose the false underpinnings of Christianity. In those legends, Peter continued to secretly practice Judaism, even writing his own prayers and smuggling them back to his fellow Jews.

The story of a Jewish pope might be true. Or it might have been a medieval Jewish folktale, something to make Jews feel better about their station in life. Either way, it makes quite a story, an undercover pope who secretly composes prayers and passes them along to his Jewish compatriots.


My God Beats Your God: The Saga of Yehuda Bob

by Tzvi Mauer

It was the first of the intermediate days of Passover 2010, and my two older sons decided to wake up really early – around 5 a.m. – and head out with me by car in the expectation of getting in a full day seeing the country around Phoenix, Arizona, specifically the Sedona and Grand Canyon areas.

We were staying at a hotel in the area and were eager to see the renowned natural landmarks. We decided on the way that we would fill up with gas but passed several exits without seeing any obvious signs of a fill-up location. Finally we came across an exit that had what I can only describe as an old-fashioned convenience store featuring a station with pumps that were already antiquated when I was growing up in the 1970s.

It was around 6:30 a.m. and still dark, and I could see a light through the dirty front window of the convenience store. We waited in the car for someone to come out and fill us up, but no one came. Not wanting to honk at that early hour, I got out of the car, leaving my two big boys to enjoy the quiet of the cool morning.

As I approached the store, I noticed some signs advertising novelty items, knives and guns. I pushed open the door – and felt as though I had traveled back in time or been transported into an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

Standing behind a table facing the front door was the most vicious-looking person I had ever seen in close quarters. He was stout and strong. Both his exposed arms were covered with tattoos. He had rings on all his fingers, or at least it seemed that way, and was wearing a black leather vest. He didn’t smile, but just stared straight at me. Suddenly, I was frightened. It occurred to me that perhaps I should have worn a hat on this outing rather than my yarmulke.

Nevertheless, taking my chances, I smiled, said good morning, and asked if I could fill up with gas. He responded cordially that I could. I had brought my credit card into the store with me, but realized it might not be a good idea to give it to this person. I asked if I could pay with cash. I told him I had some in the car. I figured that by returning to the car I could catch my breath or even escape. No problem, he said.

Then he hesitated for a moment and asked, “Are you Jewish?” Continue reading “My God Beats Your God: The Saga of Yehuda Bob”

Yavneh, Pioneer Group On Campus, Remembered

by Joseph Kaplan

Yavneh, a 1960s and `70s organization of Orthodox college students, is, in the words of The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism: Yavneh in the 1960s by Benny Kraut, “hardly remembered today, except perhaps by former members.”

The “perhaps” is misplaced, as can be testified to by those former member’s children, like mine, whose eyes glaze over when their parents reminisce fondly about their “days in Yavneh.” Dr. Kraut’s thoughtful and insightful book not only explains the existence of such warm memories but also highlights certain lessons this student-led organization can teach today’s Modern Orthodox community.

Kraut, a well-respected Jewish historian who had been director of the Queens College Jewish Studies Program and its Center for Jewish Studies, was an active member of Yavneh during his college years. Sadly, he died suddenly, at 60, in 2008, shortly after completing the book, which was published earlier this year. (Disclosure: He and I were college classmates and friends.) But his book is no simple memoir, dredging up hazy recollections of salad days. Rather, it is a serious scholarly study, based on an analysis of 10 boxes of primary sources and recent personal interviews with Yavneh’s leadership. And although chock-full of footnotes, the book is written in a warmly engaging and at times personal style.

There is much to be learned here, even for those who were active members of Yavneh. I know now that long before the ubiquitous gap-year programs in Israel, so popular in the Orthodox community, Yavneh initiated an innovative Israel yeshiva program for American collegiates. And before the creation of March of the Living, Yavneh organized the first Holocaust Tour for students.

In addition, although I knew that rabbinic leaders from right-wing yeshivot gave lectures and shiurim [lectures] to coed audiences at Yavneh conventions (without separate seating), I was unaware that in 1968 five Yavneh leaders from Yeshiva University, Columbia, Princeton and Brooklyn College met with Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Schneur Kotler, Yaakov Ruderman and Yaakov Weinbeger, leading luminaries of the yeshiva world, to discuss improving the relationship between that world and Jewish college students.

Times have changed. The prospect of yeshiva-world rabbis engaging that far afield, and to mixed audiences, is unthinkable today.

The book goes into great detail about the activities of Yavneh’s leadership and the speakers at its conventions and classes. But the players are a who’s who of Modern Orthodoxy; to name just a few, Rabbis Berkovits, Hartman, Blau, Greenberg, Riskin, Rackman, Pelcovitz, Lamm, and Professors Berger, Blidstein, Brody, Penkower, Shatz, Kaplan, Steiner (quiz: see how many first names you can fill in).

Yavneh bridged a period of time from the refusal of some Hillel rabbis to aid Orthodox students in their quest for kosher food on campus to the availability of kosher meal plans; from tests on Shabbat and graduations on Shavuot to daily campus services and shiurim. In the end, a combination of factors led to its demise, some positive – more accommodation for Orthodox students on campus – and some negative, like the constant struggle for finances and the fact that the student-led organization had to constantly renew its leadership.

Yavneh was in existence only twenty years, but as Kraut concluded, it “is to be judged not only a success, but one of the more remarkable and culturally illuminating student organizations in American Jewish history.”

We owe a debt of gratitude to the author for shedding that light.

Now, when my children’s eyes begin to glaze over, my wife and I have an important work of scholarship to support our memories.

For the original article from The Jewish Week, please click here.

Tracing the journey of a Rockville Centre resident

Longtime Rockville Centre resident Dr. Herbert Ausubel, who has had a distinguished career in medicine as a practicing physician, researcher, writer and lecturer, is the author of Flower of God — the first of six planned books tracing and documenting the family lines of his children’s ancestors. Two of the books go back 3,000 years to Biblical times.

Ausubel comes from a family of writers and scientists and, as a child, lived in a three-generational household that he said connected the Old World with life in America. He trained as a historian before attending Harvard Medical School. But despite a busy medical career, Ausubel said he always had a second need: to tell the story of the Jewish people. To achieve that goal, he has spent the past 32 years meticulously researching material for his books.

Flower of God recounts his paternal family’s journey from the time of the Temple of Solomon to the present: their migration from ancient Israel to Babylon, to Persia, to Anatolia, to Europe and finally to the U.S.

This saga of his family history is a captivating story of the Jewish experience, at once universal and unique. It is everyman’s tale, and the family’s struggles are immediately recognized by anyone who knows something of the immigrant’s journey, whatever the ethnicity. It is easy to empathize with the characters because Ausubel captures their humanity, and their difficult search for a hard-won life of dignity, purpose and acceptance.

This book is a testament to the courage and indomitable spirit of the Jewish people. William Faulkner’s marvelous Nobel Prize acceptance speech provides the perfect summary of their struggle: “We will not merely endure, we will prevail.” “Not since Alex Haley’s Roots, ” wrote a reviewer in Northeast Magazine/Hartford Courant, “have we seen such a rich tale of generations.”

Ausubel has lived on Long Island for more than four decades with his wife, Stephanie Gusikoff Ausubel. The couple has two grown children who are graduates of South Side High School.

Click here for the original article from the LI Herald.

IS THERE LIFE AFTER DEATH? Jewish Thinking on the Afterlife – A Moment Magazine Symposium

by Amy E. Schwartz

Ask Jews what happens after death, and many will respond that the Jewish tradition doesn’t say or doesn’t care, that Jews believe life is for the living and that Judaism focuses on what people can and should do in this world. But not so fast. If anything is less Jewish than belief in heaven and hell, it’s Jews agreeing on an official theological party line. And after 4,000 years of discussion, you’d expect considerable variation. Sure enough, when Moment asked an array of prominent Jewish thinkers, artists, writers and other doers to tell us what they think they’re headed for, the range was extraordinary. In the following ruminations you’ll find ghosts, zombies, animal souls and reincarnation, along with more familiar discussions of memory, legacy and divine judgment. And, of course, disagreements. As they say: two Jews, three afterlives.

An Imaginary Sphere

I think everybody thinks about it. The afterlife is the principal preoccupation of anyone who’s going to die, regardless of religion. Judaism has never decided on a formal approach to the afterlife. It’s never had a formal approach to eschatology, either—what’s going to happen at the end of the world. We’re left with a typically practical, or provisional, interest in the world as it is—a regulation of the mundane, the here and now, rather than a pondering of the celestial.

I’ve always felt the afterlife exists in relation to life in the same way literature exists in relation to life. It’s an imaginary sphere, in which one can play out one’s fears, neuroses, desires and pains, but it’s still a terrain strictly for the living. Only the living can play, or imagine—or read. Once a man dies, his afterlife ceases to exist.

Jews, if not Judaism, regard death as a great injustice. Everything I’ve read tells me that Judaism is loath to encourage a positive view of the afterlife, because it might encourage a more positive attitude toward death. Anything that would see death as a salvation risks encouraging the believer to shirk his job on earth, or opt for thoughtless martyrdom. The classic refusal of salvation is the Mourner’s Kaddish, which says nothing about death, or about life after death. I have always read the Mourner’s Kaddish as a unique provocation to God. “Magnified and sanctified is God, Who brought us all here to the graveside to suffer and yet Who still hasn’t offered any reward.” It verges on gallows humor. I’ve never subscribed to the myth that the Kaddish can be used to spring one’s parents from purgatory. It’s merely a call to duty. I remember as a kid thinking, “Yes, yes—that’s a very effective way of getting me to shul.”

Joshua Cohen is the author of A Heaven of Others and Witz.

Beyond Bodily Death

Maybe most Jews haven’t, but Judaism has absolutely always had a view of the afterlife. From the 14th century on, a belief in gilgul, reincarnation, was as kosher as Manischewitz. In the Artscroll prayer book, there’s a line in the bedtime Shema, “Forgive anyone who has harmed me in this incarnation or any other incarnation.” Even in the Bible, Saul goes to the Witch of Endor to raise up the spirit of Samuel from the dead. It’s forbidden, but it’s practiced.

Most Jews today see the Jewish tradition through the lens of 20th-century rationality, so they don’t see those aspects. The collective shock of losing so many people in the Holocaust was just too great. We had to move ahead, found the State of Israel, deal with the devastation and the trauma—no one could afford to think about six million souls. And then the culture was increasingly secular. Rabbis didn’t talk about God and spirituality from the pulpit, they preached about Israel and anti-Semitism.

But now we’re really on a quest for spirituality. Young people are saturated with material things. They want some kind of connection with nature and the universe, not just with the next iPod. And an interest in the afterlife emerges from that. You see it in popular culture as well: movies about the supernatural, a cop show where a medium is the protagonist. No one would have touched that 20 years ago.

How do we evolve a different pastoral approach based on the idea that consciousness survives bodily death? How does it change the way we think of Kaddish, of caring for the dead, of sitting shiva? There are long-term implications that we haven’t even begun to investigate. I’ve done a lot of work in hospice, and my sense is that with all our science, we really can’t comprehend the subtlety of what happens when we die.

Simcha Paull Raphael is the author of Jewish Views of the Afterlife and specializes in bereavement in his private psychotherapy practice.

Love is Immortal

To me, the afterlife consists of the memories that we leave in the minds and hearts of the people we love. Obviously, we all want to leave a heritage for the world, but it’s given to very few of us to do that. But what one has been to one’s spouse and one’s children, and perhaps one’s students, carries through to countless generations. I don’t believe in immortality except in that sense. My sense of religion has to do with community, with continuity, with going to synagogue and identifying publicly with the Jewish people. Continuity doesn’t mean some shadowy figure of your individual self goes on. It means your work and your love go on.

Nature is cyclical. Just look—in the last few months all the green stuff has come out, birds are chirping, everything is renewed. Nature is an environment in which we die so others may live, so that our civilization can expand, so new ideas and experiences can be promulgated. Why should human beings be an exception to all the other biological phenomena?

Sherwin B. Nuland, a retired professor of surgery, teaches bioethics and medical history at Yale University. He is the author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.

Heaven is for Everyone

Jewish and Christian views of the afterlife differ Continue reading “IS THERE LIFE AFTER DEATH? Jewish Thinking on the Afterlife – A Moment Magazine Symposium”

Space-age science in Intergalactic Judaism

This excerpt from the book can also be viewed on The Jewish Chronicle Online site.

Recent scientific advances have transformed our understanding of the universe and our place within it. In the last century, we have discovered that our planet is just one of billions of stars and planets in a galaxy that is itself but one stitch in a wondrous, delicate tapestry of galactic clusters stretching across the vast emptiness of a universe.

Modern science has also uncovered baffling mysteries in the subatomic realm. There are particles that pop out of nothing and annihilate themselves in a fraction of a second. Solid matter has been shown to be just a condensed form of energy, which can be released in a colossal nuclear explosion. There may even be subatomic particles that travel both forwards and backwards in time.

Is there a place for all this cutting-edge discovery within the pages of the Torah? Continue reading “Space-age science in Intergalactic Judaism”