Sunday, April 23, 2017

Holocaust Remembrance Day: A Personal Reflection

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (or Yom HaShoah in Hebrew), remembering one of the biggest, and the most brutal genocide in human history. Between 1938 and 1945, and even more so with the roll-out of the infamous Final Solution in 1942, a fascist regime - by fueling the hate, racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism in one of the world's most ‘enlightened’ cultures - killed over a third of the Jewish people. At the same time they carried out a less discussed genocide against other minorities, such as the Romani People, people of lesser physical ability, and the LGBTQ Community.
As a Jew - three of my four grandparents are holocaust survivors. As a proud member of the LGBTQ community, and trans woman - the Nazis killed thousands of my fellow community members, and set back medical transgender research by a few decades. They shut down Magnus Hirschfeld’s “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft(Institute For Sexology), burned all his research, and killed most of its members. The Holocaust formed, and is still forming parts of who I am, in ways that I want it to, and in ways that I would prefer it stays out. It is who I am.
Mass grave of Jews killed during the
Holocaust, in Kopaygorod, Ukraine
Today, I wanna share with you all a list I compiled two years ago when I spoke at the Holocaust Remembrance day ceremony at the Columbia Hillel (center for Jewish student life at Columbia). In the past years, as I have been speaking for more and more diverse communities around the world, I have mentioned a few times that over 25 of my ‘direct’ ancestors (not family - cousins, aunts and uncles, etc. that number is way too high for me to count) went through the holocaust - some survived, some were killed. Often I am met with disbelief; so here is an exact list, with some details I remembered offhand. And while I am at it, why not give you all a crash course in my genealogy.
3 grandparents:
  1. Rabbi Mordechai Stein - born 1940 in Fălticeni, Romania, survived in Fălticeni. Currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.
  2. Rabbi Yosef Moshe Meisels - born 1924 in Galicia, Poland, survived in Hungary. Died 2015 in Brooklyn NY.
  3. Malka Meisels (née Schnek) - born in the 1920’s in Kanjiža, Yugoslavia (modern Serbia), survived Auschwitz and other death camps. Died 2013 in Brooklyn NY.
6 great-grandparents:
  1. Rabbi Yisroel Avrohom Stein - born 1916 in Vyzhnytsia, Bukovina (modern Ukraine), survived in Fălticeni, Romania. Died 1989 in Brooklyn, NY.
  2. Sarah Stein (née Twersky) - born ca. 1910 in Suceava, Bukovina (modern Romania), survived  in Fălticeni, Romania. Died 1997 in Brooklyn, NY.
  3. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels - born 1902 in Sátoraljaújhely, Hungary, survived several death camps, and became Chief-Rabbi of the British DP Camps. Lived in Chicago IL after the war, died in 1974.
  4. Henna Zissel Meisels (née Teitelbaum) - born ca 1900 in Bobowa, Galicia (modern Poland), killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  5. Moshe Schnek - lived in Kanjiža, killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  6. Esther Schnek (née Mentzer) born in Kanjiža, killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
15 great-great-grandparents
  1. Efroim Aaron Stein - born in Vyzhnytsia, Bukovina (modern Ukraine), died in Nazi exile in Kopaygorod, Transnistria (modern Ukraine) in 1943.
  2. Rachel Stein (née Fogel) - born in Vyzhnytsia, Bukovina (modern Ukraine), survived Nazi exile in Transnistria. Died 1957 in Israel.
  3. Rabbi Eluzer Twersky - born 1893 in Belz, Galicia (Modern Ukraine),  survived in Bucharest, Romania. Died 1976 in Brooklyn NY.
  4. Rivka Rachel Twersky (née Moskovitz) - born in Suceava, Bukovina (modern Romania),  survived in Bucharest, Romania. Died 1960 in Brooklyn NY.
  5. Rabbi Dovid Dov Meisels - born 1876 in Tarnów, Glicia (modern Poland), killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  6. Roiza Beluma Meisels (née Teitelbaum) - born ca 1875 in Sighetu Marmație, Maramureș (modern Romania), killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  7. Chaya Sheindel Teitelbaum (née Halberstam) - born in Bobowa, Galicia (modern Poland), killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  8. Gitel Mentzer (née Goldberger) -  born in Kanjiža, killed by the Nazis in 1944.
  9. Mordecai Aaron Mentzer - lived in Kanjiža pre war, killed by the Nazis in 1944.
  10. Faige Twersky (née Rokeach) - born in Belz, Galicia (Modern Ukraine), died in Warsaw Ghetto in 1941.
  11. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kahana - born in Săpânța, Maramureș (modern Romania), killed in 1944.
  12. Mirl Geula Kahana (née Rubin) - born in Berezdivtsi, Galicia (modern Ukraine), killed in 1944.
  13. Rabbi Yitzchak Teitelbaum - born in Drohobycz, Austria (modern Ukraine), killed in 1944.
  14. Hanya Teitelbaum (née Langenauer) - Born in Hussaków, Poland (modern Ukraine), killed in 1944.
  15. Grandfather Schnek (name unknown at the moment), killed.
  16. Grandmother Schnek (name unknown at the moment), killed.
In total, 25 of my direct grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents went through the Holocaust. 9 survived, 16 perished.
When we say “Never Forget” we mean it. When we say “Never Again” we mean it. When you see us scream “We have seen this before” believe us and take action.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Timely Lesson: Let’s Rise Up; Together (INN D'var Torah)

(This post was written as part of the weekly IfNotNow D'var Torah series. It was originally published at:
This week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim (literally, laws), is one of the most complicated Torah portions to study in depth. It is a wealth of laws as they relate to interpersonal relationships — Bein Adam LeChavero. Growing up I attended an ultra-religious school, and we would joke that on this week we need to wear ‘metal pants’ to school, to avoid being wounded by the wrath of our teachers — if/when we couldn’t keep up with the complicated studies.
This week, it felt like every transgender student has to start wearing metal pants to school — this time the regime is coming for us. The highest office in our country made a not so subtle announcement proclaiming “Trans lives don’t matter” and, wink wink, we will ignore Title IX of 1975’s federal human rights law when it comes to one of the most vulnerable communities in the country, transgender youth.
We are at lost. How do we fight back against a government that is pouring all its resources into undoing all we have accomplished in the past few years? How do we fight regressing, when we are still working on progressing? Once again, we can turn to our ancient tradition, and find inspiration to rise up and resist.
Second Temple period coins that were used to bring donate to the temple.
A part of this week’s Torah reading that is perhaps less known to most American Jews, is the special reading of “Shabbat Shekalim” — a special reading about the charity the Israelites ought to donate to the temple. This reading is added every year on the Shabbat leading up to the new month of Adar, the month of happiness, the month of the holiday of Purim.
One of my favorite rabbinical exegesis on this reading, is a interesting conversation between the divine and the Israelite leader, Moshe:
“On Parshat Shekalim Moshe said before the Holy one, Lord of the world, once I die I wouldn’t be remembered? The Holy One responded, I promise you, just like now (while you are alive) you are standing before them and teaching them Parshat Shekalim, and you are raising their heads (raising their spirits), so will it be each and every year when they will read it for me, you will be there at that time, and raise their heads.” (Midrash Tanchuma, 2:9:3)
What’s the significance of ‘reading’ this specific story, that the divine promised Moshe, that this will be how he will be remembered, and that with this he will raise the spirits of the nation?
In the Hasidic teachings of my great ancestor, Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer — Baal Shem Tov, and his disciples, there is a consistent approach to the power of reading biblical stories. Hasidism teaches that “Reading evokes the time” meaning, that reading a specific story, at a specific time, is not simply storytelling, but it is as if the story is happening once again. In that sense we can understand the relationship between the power of charity and the energy to ‘rise up’: it reminds us, and recreates the original deeds; it is teaching us the power of charity — it is what gives up the power to keep our heads up.
This past week we had an oppertunity to see the power of charity, and how that helps us to rise our heads up: As we were faced with yet another symptom of the rising tide of hate, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and discrimination against every minority in our country; motivated by the rhetoric of the highest office in land. This time the victims were the living and the death alike, the vicious attack on the Jewish Cemetery in St. Louis. Yet at this moment the power of charity and inter-faith solidarity rose in its full glory, with over $110,000 raised by Muslim women, to help rebuilt the cemetery.
This is what this Torah portion of interpersonal relationships, and its added portion of rising up through charity teaches us about current days. When we look on both of these ideas, together, The most effective path to resistance is when the persecuted in whichever way it is, gather to fight back, together.
When and if, all the Jews, Muslims, LGBTQIA, People of Color, People of less privileged socio-economic status, and so on, with the help of allies, gather to cry out loud: “WE RESIST” there is nothing we cannot accomplish!
Shabbat Shalom!
PS: Check out the Sefaria source sheet with some of the sources mentioned here:

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Personal and Communal Journey: Education, Columbia University, and Family

It was a chilly winter evening at the beginning of the Spring 2015 semester, after class, when I took the Columbia University Intercampus Shuttle from the Morningside Heights Campus, to the Columbia Medical Center in Washington Heights. At that point the driver of the 4:20 shuttle already knew me by name, as I was taking that shuttle on a weekly and sometimes bi-weekly basis. My maternal grandfather, may his memory be a blessing, was hospitalized for months at CUMC, up to his passing just two months after that. Over the 7 months that he was there, he wasn’t alone even for a single second, should it be a weekday or weekend, an ordinary day or a holiday, in rain or in snow. Between his 16 kids (kids and in-laws), and tens of grandkids and great-grandkids, the family took turns being with Zaidy. My mother was there about twice week, and every few weekends, and whenever I could I would take the 20-minute shuttle to the medical center to spend time with my beloved Mommy and Zaidy. After all, I was the only one in the family to live in Manhattan, and the only one in the entire extended family [1] to be part of the very university that became an integral part of our family life for months.
My (old) Columbia ID
That day I arrived at the Milstein Medical Building at the same time as my mom got out of the car that drove her from Brooklyn. The security at CUMC is adequately tight, and every time my mother came to visit, doesn’t matter how many times a week, she had to go through the security check-in. That meant walking up to the Visitors Counter, show a government ID, say whom she is visiting, and do a quick bag-check - she was no doubt used to it at that point. As always my mom was happy to see me; no matter what, her love - unconditional at the time - to the kid she saw as her oldest son was strong. We walked in through the revolving door, and out of instinct my mom approached the security desk. As she was pulling out her non-driver's license, [2] I pulled out my Columbia ID - which always gave me access to the medical center, no questions asked. Seeing my ID, the security guard asked me on my mom: “Is she with you?” and when I said yes, he just let us both go up without having to check in.
For my mom, this was the first time she faced firsthand what she knew for the last year, but never wanted to face it: her kid - myself, is part of the very same prestigious institution the family chose to take care of their crown - my grandfather. Mom’s first response, turning to the guard, was “Yup, my kid is just a showoff.” but as we entered the elevator to go up to the ICU on the sixth floor, my mother turns to me and said: “I see, you are doing something useful you’re your life.”
She said that in a tone of mourning rather than pride of her daughter's accomplishment. It is quite possible that she was the first mother to visit Columbia Medical Center because she believed in the effectiveness of the Columbia machine, and at the same time be upset, sad, and ashamed that her kid is part of that very same institution.
          I was only a young teenager when my cousin, [3] the now award winning actor, Luzer Twersky, left the Hasidic community. Luzer was the first person in my entire extended family [4] to commit one of the harshest sins possible in my family; going Off the derech - leaving the community. At the time our family went out of its way to demonize him and degrade him. I remember being told the worst things possible about him. From claims that he is mentally ill to claims that he is a criminal. The reasons why he left ranged from being insane to just a sinner who likes sex. We were told that it is certain he will end up a drug addict, in prison, or dead. Compassion to a family member that is going through a hard transition? none at all. At that point I pretty much believed it, while I was secretly watching his path hoping that maybe one day I will be able to follow in his footsteps. The possibility that in a few years he will have earned a few film awards, and have a fairly successful acting career, just didn’t cross my mind.
          Luzer wasn’t the only one that was demonized in that way. Every time someone left, the families and the whole community establishment rushed to explain it in any way possible - besides the possibility that they were looking for a better life outside the confines of one of America’s most isolated communities. We were told that everyone who leaves ends up either mentally ill, a criminal, or dead. As with Luzer, the community would get creative in creating a story of why they left, always negative, and usually along the lines of mental illness or desire to be sinful and lustful. Without question, up to about ten years ago, without any support groups or social media, that was what most of us believed. In addition, they were sadly right more times than not. Without a solid education or baseline knowledge of how to live as a civilized human being in the outside world, topped with family rejection leading to financial breakdown, very few people were actually successful after leaving. I don’t think anyone took statistics of these leaving prior to 2003, but from what we know, a lot of them sadly ended up in bad places physically, mentally, and/or emotionally.
          In 2012, when I was beginning my own journey out of the community, everyone in my life rallied around to convince me of my upcoming colossal failure. A lot of people were called in - so to speak - to ‘save’ my soul, and try to prevent me from moving forward. From my father who has a lot of experience working with “teens at risk,” [5] my paternal grandfather with whom I had a very personal relationship as my spiritual mentor, to my great-aunt, Rebbetzin Feige Twerski, a world renown kiruv speaker. The underlying message I got from all of them was that one thing is clear: there is simply no way I will ever succeed in life outside of the community. However, the biggest reason why that didn’t work in 2012 as well as it worked with others in 1992, was that I have seen success stories. Thanks to organizations such as Footsteps and Hillel, social media such as the Facebook group Off the Derech, and online projects such as It Gets Besser, I knew that success is possible. To my family and community however, my success, and the success of my fellow journeyers leaving the community, was seen as a threat of itself.
          From the first moment I started planning to leave the enclave I grew up in, I knew that one of the most important steps towards success would be education. Here once again everyone was enlisted to convince me that I will never succeed in academia. As a matter of opinion, I believe that they knew that education is actually the path to success, and wanted to do everything possible to ensure that doesn’t happen. I clearly remember a moment when I was studying for my GED in my father’s study at home, [6] and he came in and said, “I know you, and I can promise you, you will never succeed in college.”  In the end, as a direct result of these messages I started pushing myself to prove them wrong, and to work hard to get somewhere in life. I will admit that part of the reason I applied to NYU and Columbia was because even my parents recognized that these are top schools. Knowing that pushed me - at least a bit - to work hard on my SAT's, admissions essay, and so on.
My Columbia acceptance lette
I will never forget the look of shock, dismal, and disappointment on my father's face when I showed him my Columbia acceptance letter. Throughout the next year - while they were still talking to me - they constantly hated it when I mentioned being at Columbia, studying with leading professors, and later on making political connections. They didn't know how to deal with it, and even more how to convince the rest of my family that I am NOT successful.
To that extent, I have to admit, my mother saying “I see, you are doing something useful with your life,” while sincere, was a challenge not just to herself, but to the entire community’s basic belief system. However, I am proud to say, and to be just one of the living examples, that everything is possible. No matter what our communities and families are tell us, we can be successful. Nothing is off limits, not even the Ivy League, or the third best school in the United States of America.

This post was inspired by an inquiry by my dear friend Shulem Deen, regarding what we (the OTD community) were told growing up about what happens to these who leave.

[1] For context, just my grandfather’s father’s kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, and great-great-grandkids, make up about a hundreds of college age people. I almost certain that I am the first of them to go to college.
[2] Non-driver’s license is the most commonly used form of ID in communities were driving for women (and sometimes even man as is the case with my family) is considered taboo, and pretty much unacceptable.
[3] Luzer is my second cousin on my father’s side, and later first cousin through my ex wife. Just like in royal families, the royal Hasidic families – namely descendants of Hasidic rabbis, marry each other all the time, so there is a lot overlap in family trees. Even in my own marriage, my great-grandmother, and my ex’s grandmother were first cousins.
[4] The family of my paternal great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Eluzer Twersky - Luzer’s namesake.
[5] Teens at risk didn’t usually refer to drugs, or at risk of joining the neighborhood gang. Usually it meant boys that have smartphones god forbid, talk the girls, or just don’t want to study 10 hours a day at religious schhol.
[6] As depicted in this video:, produced by the It Gets Besser Project.