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: