Would we know a Maccabi?

Chanukah, the festival of lights. The celebration of the Jewish victory over the Hellenists and the ultimate survival of the Jewish people.

Today we marvel at the thought of a Jewish ruffian, standing up to the ruler of the land and saying No. We call Judah Maccabi a hero, we hail him, remember him and celebrate his victory. But what about modern day Maccabis, what about the men and women who fought and continue to fight for Jewish values and Judaism?

Historically, modern day Maccabis have been shunned. Take, for example, Vladamir Jabotinksy. The following is from the Wikipedia entry for Jabotinksy:

“During the 1930s, Jabotinsky was deeply concerned with the situation of the Jewish community in Poland. In 1936, Jabotinsky prepared the so-called ‘evacuation plan’, which called for the evacuation of the entire Jewish population of Poland to Palestine. In 1936, Jabotinsky toured Eastern Europe, meeting with the Polish Foreign Minister Colonel Józef Beck; the Regent of Hungary, Admiral Miklós Horthy, and Prime Minister Gheorghe Tătărescu of Romania to discuss the evacuation plan. The plan gained the approval of all three governments, but caused considerable controversy within Polish Jewry, on the grounds that it played into the hands of Polish anti-Semites. In particular, the fact that the ‘evacuation plan’ had the approval of the Polish government was taken by many Polish Jews as indicating Jabotinsky had gained the endorsement of what they considered to be the wrong people. The evacuation of Jewish communities in Poland, Hungary and Romania was to take place over a ten-year period. However, the controversy was rendered moot when the British government vetoed it, and the World Zionist Organization‘s chairman, Chaim Weizmann, dismissed it. Two years later, in 1938, Jabotinsky stated in a speech that Polish Jews ‘were living on the edge of the volcano’ and warned that a wave of bloody super-pogroms would be happening in Poland sometime in the near future. Jabotinsky went to warn Jews in Europe that they should leave for Palestine as soon as possible.”

Of course the Jews of Poland looked at Jabotinksy as a nutball, they ignored his warnings and were ultimately marched to the Gaz chambers of various concentration camps.

Jabotinksy was a failed Maccabi, he put himself forward but was unable to guide the troops and furthermore, when the Irgun lost the power struggle against the Hagganah, Jabotinsky, who died in 1940, was soon forgotten.

Simon Weisenthal was another Maccabi. After surviving the death factories of Germany, Weisenthal went on to form an institute dedicated to the hunting of Nazi murders. Weisenthal was instrumental in the hunting and capture of Nazis Adolf Eichman and Karl Silberbaur.

While honoured extensively, Weisenthal failed to ignite the spirit of the Jewish people of North America to pressure their governments (notably Canada and the US) who had and still have a dismal record of persuing Nazi war criminals.

Rabbi Meir Kahane was a controversial character. The Founder of the Jewish Defense League, an organization dedicated to protecting Jews in New York City and bringing the plight of Russian Jews to the forefront.

While noble for the feat of transforming pacifist 1960 era New York Hippies into a militant fighting machine, Kahane failed to gain mass North American appeal. His Maccabian revolutionary stance was overshadowed by what mainstream Jews perceived, rather than the reality.

Kahane’s transition from the streets of New York to the Israeli Knesset and the publication of dozens of books, didn’t quell the lies about his philosophy, some which continue to be repeated today. These lies, some contrived by other Israeli political parties, contributed to him being banned from the Knesset in 1988.

Kahane failed as a true Maccabi, simply because North American and by extension, Israeli Jews refused to accept a strong, charismatic Jew who was able to physically defend himself. The week before his murder in 1990 by Al Queda, Kahane stated in an interview that if he was going to be assassinated, it would be by Jew. He was killed by an Arab, El Sayid Nossair, after giving a speech in New York City. Nossair, acquitted of the Kahane murder, was later arrested in the Al Queda plot to blow up the World Trade Center in New York in 1993.

These three failed Maccabis are just a few of many that have come and gone, but have been unable to ignite the Jewish spark in mainstream Jews.

Would we accept a Maccabi today? Probably not. Julius Cesar said it the best, ‘if you leave the Jews alone, they will turn on each other and self destruct’.

Intermarriage is at over 50%, and climbing, Jewish family values have disintegrated and Kosher eating has declined. The Jewish world is at a sorry state, I could only hope that a Maccabi will arise and return us to our former glory. If not, I’m afraid we may be doomed.

May the lights of the menorah be a shining beacon upon the nations.


Freedom of Speech

I have been hosting radio for approximately 11 years, before that for 7 or 8 years I worked as a print journalist and commentary writer. I’ve worked for commercial stations and am currently at 1650 AM Radio Shalom, the Montreal Jewish community radio station. In my entire career, I have never experienced a phenomenon that seems to permiate the listeners of this radio station. It’s not a bad thing, most radio stations would love to have their listeners infected with this infliction, at least it proves a listenership that listens and cares, for me and my show, I appreciate it, it makes us feel good that people want to be part of the show.

The affliction I’m talking about is very familiar with people who work within the framework of the Jewish community (and dare I say any minority community). Synaogue presidents, rabbis and even cantors are on the receiving end of people who suffer from this and there is no cure.

The affliction I’m referring to is the constant and sometimes annoying habit of some Montreal Jewish Community members who think they know how to do your job better than you. Always critical, never helpful, the people afflicted with this virus feel that they HAVE to call or approach you with severe and heavy criticism over how you do your job.

It never fails. Moments after I turn on the microphone at Radio Shalom and start my three times a week 2 hour news/commentary show, we get a phone call or an email chastizing us for covering a controversial topic. If the topic is very controversial, the phone calls can add up to dozens or multiple dozens, as they did last week when I tackled, what seemed to me to be a no-brainer issue, the Crown Heights Chabad Community standing in solidarity with a thief.

So many calls poured into the station that the executive committee called an emergency meeting to discuss how to handle the situation. What amazes me, however, is that the open line show everyone was complaining about only received three or four calls in the entire 2 hour broadcast. I have to point out that not all the calls came from Chabadniks.

This leads me to believe the following:

1. The Montreal Orthodox Jewish Community does not believe in freedom of speech. Many of the callers to the management of the station demanded that I be censored, removed from the air or forced to apologize to the Chabad community.

2. The Montreal Orthodox Jewish Community is comprised of cowards. How else do you explain that members of said community decided to call everyone and their uncle associated with the radio station, but refrained from calling me, either on the show, or at my private extension at the station.

3. The Montreal Orthodox Jewish Community doesn’t understand the concept of radio. Radio is a NOW media. It’s hard hitting and instant.

Last night I covered the unbelievable and unfortunate story of Shirel Attar, a 14 year old Montreal girl who was brutally murdered. Her 18 year old brother Maor Attar was charged with 1st degree murder in the case. I could have come onto the air and detailed the bloody and horrific events of the murder. I could have gotten friends of both the alleged perpetrator and victim on the air with me to diafy the victim and demonize the alleged perpetrator. I could have made the story into a sensational media event, released information we have that is not publicly known, shamelessly promote the show and experienced a great ratings influx. I chose not to.

I felt that as a Jewish radio station, we had the responsibility to cover the murder, but at the same time dignify the sadness of the event and respect the shock and grief of the family and community. So I approached the show differently, with only mentioning the victims name once in the entire two hours, I posed the following three questions:

1. What lessons can we learn as a community from a horrific act of violence such as this one?

2. As a parent, will this event make you think twice about leaving your young teens at home alone?

3. As a parent, will this event make you take a good long hard look at your kids and perhaps make you recognize a problem that you didn’t see before?

It was inevidable, three calls came in almost instantly berating me for touching the topic. Caller Jacob pointed out that the girl wasn’t even buried yet and here I am talking about the case on air. Another caller chastised me for allowing a listener to express that perhaps the young man who is accused of committing the murder had psychological problems (which by the way is being questioned by police authorities as pointed out by a front page story in today’s Montreal Gazette). The third caller accused me of being insensitive to the family of the victim.

All three callers suggested that perhaps I chose to do the show too soon and I should have waited at least two weeks for the family to get up from shiva before I even looked at the topic.

Two weeks is an eternity when it comes to topical news shows. What these callers failed to understand and what the Montreal Jewish Community continues to fail to understand is that we live in an instant world.

Within minutes of the first reports of the murder, I had the name of the victim, certain personal information about the victim and the alleged perpetrator and speculation from people who knew them that the brother perhaps killed the sister. If I had received the information an hour earlier, I would have reported the event on Monday night’s radio show.

On The Howie Silbiger Show we talk about things going on right now. When the Neturai Karta was protesting in Cote St Luc, we were on the air urging people to go out and counter protest, when anything big happens in the Jewish community we are there.

The community will have to get used to instant inforation, that is the nature of radio, that is the nature of my show and it is not going to change.

The Cost of Being Jewish

At the beginning of July, here Newsweek Magazine, order a weekly American news publication, pharm ran a column entitled ‘The Cost of Being Jewish’. In the article, Lisa Miller, the magazine’s religion editor complained that the cost of being Jewish, essentially synagogue membership, tuition and kosher food was driving mainstream Jews away. She complained that the Jewish establishment wasn’t doing enough to curb the costs and middle to low class Jews were feeling the brunt, with some families having “to choose between Hebrew school and math tutoring.”

A 2009 American study reported that the average cost of synagogue membership in the US is $1,100.00, it’s not much less in Canada. Between synagogue membership, seats for the high holidays, donations and life cycle events the extra costs could run into the thousands of dollars, quite a chunk of after tax dollars (although some, but not all of it is tax deductible) for an average middle class family.
But money isn’t everything and if you make the decision to follow a lifestyle, you have to accept the intricate costs involved with it. No one said commitment to a higher being would be cheap, but is the cost worth the payback?

Most Montreal modern orthodox synagogues seem to care less about the religious aspect of the synagogue and are focussing more on the fundraising and programming aspect of their institutions. You see it on Shabbat morning when, in a lot of big synagogues, the chazzan is instructed to be finished ‘no later than 11:30 am’. In order to achieve that goal, these synagogues have cut out interaction with the audience, meaning no circulating the Torah for the audience to kiss, no handshaking with the Rabbi or Chazzan, a shortened Rabbis speech, no page numbers being called and a race to finish mussaf.

What these policies tend to do, however, is suck the life out of what is already a boring prayer service. If an unaffiliated Jew walked into one of these synagogues, the lightning speed and lack of intellectual stimulation would drive the Jew back to the shopping mall, ski hills and/or golf courses.

This unfortunate trend was started in Montreal by a group of Jewish school educated 40 somethings who felt the prayer service dragged on too long. They wanted to be out early on Shabbat. So with little consultation, they made the decisions, changed the policies and forced everyone attending their synagogues to follow their rules. This has led to unhappiness and confusion amongst synagogue goers and dissent amongst the ranks. Believe it or not, when people pay thousands of dollars a year to be members and only show up for Shabbat and some Yom Tovim, they want their money`s worth, or at minimum, a chance to shake the Rabbi`s hand. Its always baffling to then hear these same policy makers wonder why their synagogues are leaking membership.
But the monetary aspect is not the only cost of being Jewish. There is a social cost. We live in a secular world, most Jews are assimilated to a certain extent and do want what is perceived as the acceptance of their neighbours.

There`s an old joke often told around Christian holiday time: A Jewish man is walking home from work and sees a neighbour decorating a Christmas tree. He waves at the neighbour who stops his work and invites the man into his house for a cup of tea. Upon entering the house, the Jewish man immediately smells the turkey baking in the oven, cookies on the counter, a huge tree set up in the living room with dozens of presents under it, stocking hanging on the mantle, festive colourful decorations all over the house and holiday themed music. The Jewish man is taken aback, he`s shocked at how welcoming and fun the Christian holiday is. His neighbour notices his shock and asks, `why are you surprised?’ The Jew responded, ‘well in Judaism all of our holidays are about us being killed, we’re always mourning, it’s basically, we were killed, let’s eat, oh we were killed, repent, let’s eat.”

Not an overly funny joke, but one that truly highlights the problem with marketing Judaism. We get so caught up in the nitty gritty details that we forget the big picture. It isn’t a surprise that the North American Jews are assimilating and intermarrying in epic numbers, orthodox Judaism has given them nothing to hold onto, nothing to grasp. In fact, over the past few centuries, with a few exceptions, Orthodox Judaism has become an exclusionary club where only the privileged few are allowed to join.

On a recent radio program on Radio Shalom Montreal, the question of Jewish unity was raised. About 30 calls were received, most of them from disgruntled Jews upset at Orthodox Jews. The reasons for their dismay was clear, at one point or another they had the opportunity to interact with the orthodox community and were shunned, ignored or not welcomed.

The story is always the same, non-orthodox Jews entering orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods and being stared at by the kids. Overhearing the kids asking their parents if they are Jewish and hearing the parents answer “they are Jewish non-Jews.” This kind of self righteous, egotistical, exclusionary and repulsive behaviour is another cost of being Jewish. The message sent: not only are Jews hated by non-Jews in general, they are also hated by other segments of Jews. It always strikes me as odd that these segments of Judaism that reject other segments of Judaism still have the audacity to moan and wail on Tish Ba’av about the destruction of the Beit Hamigdash (Jewish Holy Temple) but at the same time don’t realize that the Temple was destroyed due to the unjustified hatred between Jews. Essentially, if that’s the case, then these Jews are part of the problem, they are standing in the way of the coming of Messiah and the building of the third Temple in Jerusalem.
But inter-Jewish relationships or lack thereof are not the only cost of living in a secular world and being Jewish. There’s also a societal cost.

Since the beginning of time, Jews have not been well accepted in lands that they did not control. When Hashem gave the Jews the Torah on Mount Sinai and effectively created the chosen people, other nations were upset. They couldn’t accept the fact that this small nation was Hashem’s favourite. It was the exact reaction expected when a father tells the rest of his children that his favourite child is a certain son. Resentment sets in and other children vie for the affection of their Father.
Christians got around the problem by creating the New Testament, a book of the teachings of a Jewish man, whom the Christians claimed was the Jewish Messiah. Jesus, according to Christian liturgy, ushered in a new testament and agreement with Hashem. Basically, after Jesus and his teachings, Hashem had named a new chosen people. But what to do with the problem of the old chosen people? The ones who rejected the New Testament, the ones who didn’t accept Jesus as messiah?
Thus started a series of inquisitions, persecutions and conquests all targeting Jews. Many Jews, in order to survive, converted to Christianity. Many others fled, fought back or died in the name of the Torah. But Judaism survived.

Then came the Moslems, who through a prophet named Mohammed, received another new testament from Hashem. The Koran was a new set of laws which essentially named Islam as the new chosen ones. The question arose, what to do about the Jews, the original chosen people and the Christians, the new chosen people?

The answer was simple, through a series of Jihads over centuries, Islam tried to convert Jews and Christians to their way of life. While moderately successful, Islam is the largest religion in the world, Jews and Christians still remain and the Jihad continues to this very day.

So economically, religiously and socially, Judaism appears to be nonsensical, on the surface it looks as though the costs outweigh the benefits greatly. If it were a business, any smart businessman would shut it down immediately. Yet, Judaism has survived thousands of years, countless persecutions and attempted genocides and explosions of intermarriage and assimilation.

Nineteenth Century American humorist and author Mark Twain, commenting on the recently held first World Zionist Congress in Basel, noted that Theodor Herzl had enunciated a plan to ‘gather the Jews of the world in Palestine, with a government of their own – under the suzerainty of the Sultan, I suppose.’
Twain responded: “I am not the Sultan, and I am not objecting; but if that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world are going to be made into a free country (bar Scotland), I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let that race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride anymore.” He then concluded with the oft quoted “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then . . . passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts. … All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

Twain failed to realize the same thing many North American and even most world Jews still fail to realize. Being a Jew isn’t about how much it monetarily costs or the hardships of following the rules or how much land Jews control and who conquered what when. Judaism is not about any of those things, it is simply about a stubbornness to follow the word of Hashem.

Jewish stubbornness is the secret of Jewish survival.

When Jews of Spain were faced with conversion or death, they converted but, facing the penalty of death, still held secret Friday night candle lighting and dinners in the basements of their homes to commemorate Shabbat.

In Russia, when the Cossacks banned religion, and practicing Jews were being persecuted, facing the punishment of firing squads or worse, they still built secret cheders (learning centers) so that they could teach their children the basics of Judaism. So the religion that Hashem passed down to his chosen people could survive.
When, in the 1930s and 40s, Jews were being corralled into ghettos and concentration camps, facing certain death, many snuck in scraps of paper with prayers on them and prayed everyday. In the Ghettos, Jewish mothers gathered their children and the children of their neighbours and gave lessons on Torah and Judaism, because even in the face of death, there was an off chance that one of these children would survive and continue to spread the word of Hashem.

In the 1970s and 80s, in Russia, facing death or life of hard labour in Siberia, men like Anatoly Sharansky held onto their Judaism, were viciously punished, tortured and imprisoned, but remained steadfast and stubborn holding onto their ancestral traditions.

Today we live in a free society, we fret day in and day out, complain about the high cost of living as a Jew.

Everytime anyone brings it up to me, I immediately think about the Jews cowering in their basements, hoping and praying that the Spanish royal guards don’t see the flickering of the candles, of the Jews teaching aleph bet to children in Russia with one ear to the door, listening for the stomping of soldiers boots, and to the Jews, who facing the Nazi firing squads and gaz chambers, still had the courage and stubbornness to scream out Shema Yisroel.
I think about Anatoly Sharanksy, who never dreamed while sitting and being tortured in a KGB prison, that he would ever be a cabinet minister in Israel free to watch the fall of Communism.

When I think about these Jews, their struggle and their stubbornness, I realize that we don’t have it all that bad.

Howie Silbiger is a freelance writer based in Montreal. He is the host of the Howie Silbiger Show on the Truetalk Radio Network, heard in Montreal, Sunday through Tuesday at 6 p.m. on 1650 Am CJRS Radio Shalom Montreal. He can be reached by email at howie@truetalkradio.com