LET’S SAY A KADDISH…
BY: ELIHO MATZ
“The meaning of life consists in the search for the meaning of life.”
The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction
Jewish Biblical tradition encourages the belief in miracles. The tradition of miracles is transplanted into Christian and Islamic beliefs, and stands as a core foundation of universal human existence.
One of Judaism’s Biblical miracles is revealed in the story of Esther, which stems from the Jewish Persian tradition. Jewish tradition is, in fact, heavily indebted to ancient Persian civilization. Jewish ideas have been influenced by Persian thought ever since the Israelites were forced out of their ancient land of Israel/Canaan. The encounter between the Israelites and the Persians captivated Jewish civilization ever since its inception twenty-five hundred years ago. Under Persian influence, Jews developed the Bible and the Talmud between 450 BCE and 500 CE. The relationship did not end there; it has continued into modern times. Jewish merchants of Persian extraction roamed the planet from early times. Iran today has a substantial Jewish minority still living in the midst of Shi’a Iran, an Islamic republic.
The settling of Jews in the Fertile Crescent around 500 BCE brought them into contact with Persian/Iranian civilization. This early civilization of the Persians provided Judaism with its most important tenets of core Jewish beliefs. For example, the concept of one God, central to Judaism, is an offshoot of their Zoroastrian worship. It was during this period of influence that the Jewish Bible was initially developed as a religious literary document that undertook to explain Jewish existence in detail. Why the Bible was written in the first place is not known, but it remains the foundation of Jewish claims to the antiquity of Jewish ancestry. With its overtones of hatred toward Egypt, the Bible definitely reflected the political tendency of the Jews to accommodate the historical Persian animosity toward the ancient Egyptians. The Persians, after a long series of wars with the Pharaonic Egyptians, finally conquered the land of the Pharaohs in the year 525 BCE.
Politics is an ancient/modern game of options, possibilities and win-or-lose situations. According to Biblical tradition, the Jews who were permitted to return to ancient Israel with their leaders Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah, were granted the privilege by decree of the Persian King Cyrus. I am sure that many serious historians have been puzzled by this decree. Jews, since that decree, have celebrated it as another miracle in their history. But, of course, to the politically minded person, the question is, “What was the Tit-for-Tat? I would guess that those ancient Jews paid for their permit to return to their ancient land: it is possible that the Jews were actually the mercenary soldiers that the Persians needed for their ongoing campaigns to defeat the Egyptians, and thus the privilege to return to the ancient land was paid by military service. Some of those Jewish soldiers ended up at Elephantine (Yev) in Upper Egypt, or what is today the place of the gigantic Aswan Dam. This community of border military police is well known today in Jewish historical circles. So, after all, there was a definite Tit-for-Tat: the Persians benefited from the Jewish warriors; and the Jews were rewarded by being granted residence in ancient Canaan, as well as the status of privileged citizens of the Persian Empire.
The Jewish warrior tradition did not end there. Rather, it continued to reveal itself in the Maccabean revolt against the Greeks, as well as in the revolt against the Romans, of course with catastrophic results. The worship of warlike people continues today within the Israeli Nation, where the military has been an inspiration as well as a steady source of Israeli politicians.
The second incident seen as a miracle in the Persian context comes in the Biblical Book of Esther. A beautiful Jewish girl is sacrificed for whatever reason, but, to put it in elegant English, the King was obviously looking for sex. The interaction between the beautiful Jewish woman and the Persian King led to saving the Jews from extinction. The moral of the story is, “Don’t mess with us Jews.” Of course, that miracle was just a miracle, and not an indication of real politics -- Jews prefer to follow miracles.
In the context of the more than fifteen-hundred years of Persian-Jewish interaction, Judaism developed and thrived. At the beginning of the early stages the Bible emerged, and later the Talmud, published in 500 CE. As time passed, Persian Jews also learned the art of trading from the Persian merchants, and eventually, those Jews took a leading role in the East-West trade between China and the West. In around 900 CE, in the region of Babylon (part of ancient Persia), Jews produced the first Jewish prayerbook, the Siddur. In addition, they also published the Passover Haggadah. Several more items of Jewish significance were produced under Persian intellectual influence. One was the Ketubah, the Jewish matrimonial contract. In the Talmud we are told that the purpose of the Ketubah is to make sure that it is difficult for the husband to divorce his wife. Another was the Kaddish prayer for the dead. Like the Ketubah, this prayer is written in Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of the Persian Empire. Also, another important prayer written in Aramaic was the Kol Nidre prayer, which begins the service for the Yom Kippur Day of Atonement.
The Persian Jewish merchants who roamed between East and West established safe and secure stops between China and Europe. They reached these Jewish safe-havens of Bukhara and other cities via the Khazarian Empire, and thus this passage helped lay the path for the introduction of Judaism to the future Khazarian converts to Judaism. These merchants’ activities were critical for their introduction of both business and religion to the communities along their route. Jewish traders continued to roam between East and West for the next few hundred years, until they were later replaced by Italian merchants, one of whom was Marco Polo. Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice” is an expression of that change. It is no surprise that Marco Polo exemplified that change of trade: while visiting the Mongolian court, he used the lingua franca of the Mongolians, which was Persian [Laurence Bergreen, Marco Polo (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), pp. 135-136].
While the Jewish merchants carried out their East-West trade, the Yiddish language and Jewish culture were developing in full swing. Turkic Khazaria lost its empire and what was left were the Yiddish-speaking Khazarian Jewish converts who settled in small villages all over the former Khazarian Empire. Their Yiddish language reveals a most interesting DNA. For example, the word Davenin, which means “to pray,” is a critical Yiddish word whose origin is Turkic. And there are many other indicators that show the connection between Khazaria and Yiddish Judaism. Two other important events critical to Judaism developed because of the Persian-Jewish connection. The first is that the entire Jewish matrimonial structure changed between the Third and Sixth centuries CE. Suddenly, the determining force behind the “Jewishness” of children started to depend on the mother, not, as had been the ancient custom, on the father (imagine how in Biblical times we said, “B’nei Ya-akov” [Children of Jacob], but now suddenly we were saying, “Children of Rachel”). The men who traveled from Persia to the far distances of the East and married other women, or had concubines, caused this alteration in the basic nature of Judaism. Later, in the Tenth Century, again because of the merchants’ activities, Rabenu Gershom Meor Hagolah (in Europe) decreed that Jewish men could marry only one woman. I would suspect that the Jewish daily prayer recited by men, “Thank God for not making me a woman,” would stem from the Jewish merchants’ activities. So it is, to thank God for not making me a woman, because if I were I would not be able to travel on the difficult roads to bring parnuseh, wages, to support a family. With their Far East trade, it is also possible that the Jewish merchants picked up some Chinese customs. One example is the skullcap, or Yarmulke, a second is the practice of marking the burial place of the dead with small stones, and a third is the style of humor that is an ancient Chinese tradition to insult each other in teahouses. For an example of this humor, one should only hear Don Rickles and many other old-style Jewish comedians!
Despite the vast span of years that have passed from ancient to modern times, the Persian people have remained on their land -- not like the Jews, who were scattered and converting communities around the world to Judaism. The Persians went through the process of Islamization, and with it oral and written linguistic changes. Christianity and Islam were both influenced by Jewish writings and ideas, and the Iranians adopted synthesized Persian/Jewish ideas that Judaism had recycled. Recently, for whatever political reasons, the Iranians have chosen to create an Islamic Republic ruled by Ayatollahs. Whether this type of political system will provide them with the tools to live in modern times, only time will tell. In his recently published book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (New York: Doubleday, 2008), Hooman Majd depicts modern Iranian society in a vibrant and critical light. It is worthwhile reading. Despite the drastic political changes, the Iranian people are really the same as they were in ancient times: vibrant, argumentative, dreamlike, and, of course, they are waiting for their Messiah to arrive at any minute to bring them a better world. Today’s Israeli society is likewise awaiting its Messiah, in spite of the fact that Zionism was established as a secular movement rather than a religious one.
The Jews, I mean the East European converted Jews, went through their own transitions. Some moved to Western European countries, others at the end of the Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the Twentieth came to America, and still others, who became Zionists, moved to ancient Israel, then called Palestine and part of the Ottoman Empire. The Twentieth Century was the most chaotic century for Jews in their three-thousand year existence as a religious civilization. Between 1939 and 1945, millions of Jews were exterminated by the German Nazi regime. Eastern Europe, the birthplace of Yiddish-speaking Jews, became the greatest graveyard for them. Historians are still trying to figure out exactly how that happened.
In the Holocaust, we did not miraculously have a Queen Esther to defend or protect the Jews. As far as the protective Jewish God, we can consult Elie Wiesel where that God was (in his book Night, he himself tries to figure this out). As perhaps the most prominent Auschwitz survivor, his persona has become “psychological” help for Jews, but he has also joined the ranks of many historians and others who have failed to contribute in a more pertinent way to dealing historically, philosophically or politically with the Holocaust events. His writing and thought does not lead me to be inspired. Between 1882-1948, the Zionist leaders in Palestine developed a survival kit for the future Israelis. During the Holocaust years, they did not deviate from this focus, and the leading Zionist leaders in Palestine did not engage in any great effort to save European Jews. Worse, continuing in a failed effort, Ben Gurion came short of leading the new Israeli nation on the path to a constitutional democracy: an Israeli constitution was never written. Consequently, “Israeli law” is as liquid as olive oil. Try to walk on two feet on a floor sprayed with olive oil, and see what kind of miracles will happen to you! It is my firm belief that the absence of an Israeli constitution is at the root of the cause of all Israeli political troubles inside or outside the country. No, no, I do not think Israelis yet have plans to write a constitution.
A perhaps more pertinent issue in this essay is the future of America’s Jews, and its non-representative organizations. Tony Judt, in his autobiography, expresses this observation of American Jews: “Many American Jews are sadly ignorant of their religion, culture, traditional languages, or history. But they do know about Auschwitz, and that suffices” [Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet (New York: Penguin Books,2010), p. 202]. The recitation of the Jewish Kaddish prayer on American Jews can start now -- I am not the first American Jew to suggest that idea. During the Holocaust, Chaim Greenberg, in his essay called “Bankrupt” suggested a similar idea in response to the inaction of American Jewish leadership during the Holocaust. A few weeks ago, towards the end of 2012, the NY Times, the newspaper of record, reported the announcement that the Washington, DC, Holocaust museum is marking its twentieth anniversary. One should pay attention to the statistical data cited: “As of Aug.1 , according to the museum, it has drawn more than 34.1 million visitors, about 90 percent of them non-Jewish, and 34 percent of them school-age children” (NYT, Dec 11, 2012, p. B-4). By what statistical method did this museum arrive at these numbers? And what is the use of these statistics, unless to show that Jews are simply not interested in visiting such a place. The reason for the establishment of this museum, or others like it, in the United States is a mystery to me. If the museums are established as an “insurance policy” to safeguard the future of Jews and Judaism, then I think they are misleading themselves. What educational values do they offer? It is frustrating. Shouldn’t they be in Europe? For example, in Paris, or in Vienna, or in some minor cities where the Europeans can look at themselves and try to remember what they did to Jews.
In 1979 at Yeshiva University in New York, I published my Master’s thesis, “The Response of American Jewry and Its Representative Organizations Between November 24, 1942, and April 19, 1943, to Mass Killing of Jews in Europe”. The impetus for my choosing this topic came when Dr. David S. Wyman, a my former professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, was in the final phases of his important book on America’s behavior during the Holocaust. His greatest academic difficulty in those days was how to enter into the archives of Jewish organizations; most of them were closed to him. I, however, was able to gain access and carry out the research that he was unable to do there. I examined the papers of most Jewish organizations that had offices in NY City. While working on my MA project, I also met Hillel Kook (a.k.a. Peter Bergson) and Samuel Merlin, two heroic but tragic individuals who during the days of the Holocaust raised hell in the US on behalf of European Jews. The Jewish people, I mean the Jew in the street, supported them, but not the leadership of American Jews. Put off by their outspoken and radical methods, the totality of American Jewish organizational leadership wanted them deported, or at least jailed (the files in the FBI indicate this clearly). One of the great achievements of these two men during WWII was that they were instrumental in helping to bring about the creation of the War Refugee Board (WRB). In truth, it was not exactly what Mr. Bergson and his allies in the US Congress had envisioned: they did not ask for an agency for refugees, but rather for an act of the President and the diplomatic military authorities to save Jews. In his book The Abandonment of the Jews (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), Dr. Wyman explained the process that led to the creation of the WRB. I once wrote an article explaining that, too [“Political Actions vs. Personal Relations” in Midstream (April, 1981), pp. 41-48]. But the Holocaust Museum in Washington prefers the old-fashioned Jewish miracle explanation (let’s not forget the Esther miracle), for according to them and other “scholars” and many “advanced” studies, it was Henry Morgenthau Jr., the “miraculous Jewish” Treasury Secretary, who convinced FDR to do something to save Jews, which is factually incorrect. FDR as a politician, and quite an accomplished one, understood one thing for sure: political public pressure, and that pressure was provided by Mr. Bergson and his non-Jewish allies in the Congress.
For his efforts to stand up for Jewish rescue, and for his foresight about the practical political structures necessary to the establishment of the new Israeli nation, I believe that Peter Bergson was probably the most important Jewish individual to live in the Twentieth Century. He was a Palestinian British Jew who arrived in the United States in the 1940’s. His activities between 1940 and 1948 reflected a deep sense of his burden of responsibility toward the Holocaust, which, over the past ten years, I have written a number of articles about. His activities are important to explain, but the Jewish Holocaust museums prefer not to mention them. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington have ignored his activities on behalf of Jews, and do not appear to be changing their minds yet. In the 1980’s, while I worked in Bergson’s office in NYC, he and I used to debate, or converse, about issues that included the Holocaust and the Israeli nation. One of the topics we covered was Elie Wiesel. Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor, a writer and a Nobel Prize winner, has become a symbolic guru of American Jews. I personally do not hold much respect for this individual: first, because he has nothing to contribute intellectually to the future of Jews; second, Mr. Wiesel, when he arrived in NYC during the Fifties, was a victim in a pedestrian- automobile accident near 42nd Street. The money to save his life was provided by Peter Bergson. Ever since Bergson’s death, I have never seen any public statement or an article in an important newspaper or magazine by Wiesel about Peter Bergson. While he did make an effort to make sure that Bergson’s name would be mentioned at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, I do not think that this was enough of a gesture.
And now, something about American Jewish organizations, representative or not representative of America’s Jews. In recent years, they have all pursued the political policy of supporting almost every action of Israeli politics. This totally subservient approach and non-critical political outlook is harming American Jews, as well as the Israelis. We can start again our Kaddish (of course spoken in Aramaic, or Middle Persian) for American Jews.
I would like to end this article with a short story. Peter Bergson, who, as I stated above, was I believe the most important Jewish individual of the Twentieth Century. While trying to save European Jews, he also spent quite a bit of time meditating on the future of the Israeli Nation. He called it the “Hebrew” Nation. In the early months of 1944, he purchased a building and raised the flag of the Hebrew Republic, which eventually became the Israeli national flag. Ironically, the building Bergson purchased belonged to the Iranian people and had been their Embassy in Washington! The flag had been created in the early Twentieth Century in the town of Rishon LeZion, which at the time was part of Ottoman Palestine. As a matter of coincidence, Rishon LeZion was also the birthplace of the modern Hebrew language. This small town created the first Hebrew kindergarten and grammar school of modern times. So the cycle has come full circle: it is Biblical Hebrew coming from the Persian tradition in the Assyrian alphabet that went through the Yiddish and was recycled into what we now call modern Hebrew. It was my birthplace as well and the place where I started reading and writing in Hebrew. It was only when I came to America that I started meditating on the subject I wrote about.