ALEXANDER KIMEL - HOLOCAUST UNDERSTANDING & PREVENTION
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THE SURVIVAL OF THE SHTEITL
One of the great mysteries, that intrigued sociologist for ages, is the mystique of the Jewish survival. For two thousand years Jews survived the Diaspora, despite their weaknesses, persecutions and dispersion. Many powerful nations appeared on the historic scene, dominated the landscape for a while and vanished. Who today knows what happened to the Vikings, Goths, Visigots, Celts, and Mayas? Take for example the Mayas, they developed a mighty, civilization and suddenly they disappeared with leaving the slightest trace. Disappeared without leaving a forwarding address. In the 17th century, during the Uprising of Bogdan Chmielnicki about 90% of the Jews in Podhaitse were killed. Despite that, the Jews maintained their presence in Podhaitse for the last 500 years. They survived the killing by the hoards of Ukrainians during the Uprising of Chmielnicki, the persecution by the Turkish Ottoman Army, the rapes and killing by the Cossacks. The Jews mastered the art of survival. How did they do it?
I believe that the most important factors that helped the Jews to survive was poverty and . . . taxation. The Jews could not afford to leave the safety net, provided by their brethren. They simply could not afford the assimilation. Taxation, or rather self-taxation helped to maintain this safety net.
It is an old, little known fact that a powerful Polish king granted the Jews the right to maintain separate communities with the right for self-taxation. The taxes saved the Jews from assimilation. Many religious groups use the tithe method, but on a volunteer basis. One can pay and one can cheat a little. No Church asks for a copy of the 1040 form. With the Jews it was different, you pay as you are assessed or you are ostracized.
The community raised taxes according to its needs, paid by each member according to his means. Who determined the means? A committee, of course. Every year, at the taxation time the whole town was in an uproar. "Why is Moses assest 300 zloty, while I 500 zloty? This is injustice that calls for heavenly intervention." Most of the time, the Heavens did not intervene and people paid through their noses, and nobody resigned from the Kehilla. What did the politicians from the Kehilla do with the collected taxes? They prudently invested them in mutual funds. But due to the fact that there was no Dreyfus Jewish Fund or Jewish In-Fidelty Fund, they invested in funds with low capitalization and high social return, like the Torah Education Fund, Orphan's Fund, Poor Girl Dowry Fund, Burial society fund, etc.
All those funds, administered by honest people of means, supported poor orphans, paid for their education, provided dowries for poor girls and loans for merchant in trouble. The Jews were their brother's keepers. This cohesiveness created a feeling of security that gave each member of the community the assurance that his family will not die of starvation. br wp="br1" The Jews survived millenniums in the Diaspora by developing, decentralized, local authorities that guided them in time of peril and organized their lives in time of peace. They did this by adapting the religious life. I remember that as a kid I sneaked into the Polish or Ukrainian Church, and was awed by the ambience. Everything was centralized, all the pews faced the altar, the focal point of the Church. It was difficult to talk during the services or mass. Most you could do is to watch the stained glass windows.
The religious life of the Christians was well organized and centralized. When you go to Church you listen to the priest, that reports to the Bishop, who in turn reports to the Archbishops who reports to the Cardinal. It was a straight line of command. Everybody knew his place in life, everybody had to conform. With the Jews it was different, a complete decentralization and autonomy of the religious life. First of all there were about twelve synagogues, each with a different ambience and flavor. The rabbis were teachers, servants of the community and not ministers. Next, in the synagogues people sat at tables, directed toward the center of the synagogue, toward the podium where the Torah was read, the Belamer. People were sitting on benches facing each other. The most honored and most expensive seats were the seats at the eastern wall. The benches along the eastern wall, developed into a mini country club.
What do you do during the services when the prayers, repeated a thousand times, you know by heart? You talk. You talk about business deals or family affairs. At times the noise of the conversations drowned out the prayers. At such times, the "Shames", the beadle banged his fist on the prayer book. My guess is that he was afraid of competition; God might be more interested in listening in to the creative business deals than to pay attention to the familiar, thousand years old prayers.
One of the secrets of the Jewish art of survival was creative using religion in their adaptation to the changing conditions. All religions put an imprint of the societies. The Moslem religion spread through conquests and needed a multitude of devoted, fighting warriors. Polygamy elevated the status of men and enslaved the women. The society was modified to serve the religious dogma. The Jews took the opposite tack; the religious laws were changed to preserve the dispersed group in a hostile environment. The Jews were not interested in conquests, just survival. The Jews were masters of interpretations of the religious laws, creating a set of injunction that maintained a strong cultural identity through building an invisible gulf that separated Jews from Gentiles. To keep the Jews as a separate group the rabbis came up with many injunction and prohibitions that with the time were became traditions. What is the meaning of tradition? It is a way of life of which the origin and its meaning are lost. Let's take for the example the Dietary Laws: The innocent injunction of the Torah "Thou shall not seethe a kid in his mother's milk (Exodus 23:19.)", was developed in a complex set of dietary laws that made it impossible for a Jew to share a meal with a Gentile. In all my childhood years I don't remember even one case eating in a non-Jewish home. How can you share a meal with a Gentile when you have to have two set of dishes, can't mix meat with dairy foods, and you after a meat dish you have to wait four hours before taking a sip of milk?
Another example is use of the skullcap. Nowhere in the Torah is there a requirement a that Jew is had to cover his head, at all times. It is true that the Bedouins wandering under the mercilessly hot sun of the desert keep their head covered but for practical matters, not for religious purposes. So what is the purpose of this Jewish tradition ? The Christians, when entering the Church are required to uncover their head as a sign of respect, so to make assimilation of Jews more difficult, the rabbis came up with the injunction that a Jew has always keep his head covered. It was impossible to keep this injunction. How do you keep you head covered when you encounter a person of authority where tipping of ones hat was a necessity? The Jews came up with an ingenuous device, the double -decker head. Under the normal hat a Jew carried a small skullcap. This trick allowed one to tip his hat and have his covered at the same time. Injunction - detour - tradition - separation.
After the tradition was established, the detour continued, the skullcap was getting smaller and smaller and now two hairpins are required to uphold the tradition and to prevent it from falling off ones head. Observing the Sabbath. As on of the Sages of Israel remarked, it was the observance of the Sabbath that guarded Israel from assimilation. The Christian observed Sunday, as the day of rest. It is a day of rest from work but play and enjoyment is allowed. A Christian can travel on a Sunday, cook, play football, or go for long walks. A Jew can't, God forbid, do all those things. With Jews, observing, the Sabbath is not so simple. You can't cook, you can't even walk even to Synagogue carrying the prayer shawl. To survive those persuasive injunctions creative detours were necessary.
Let's take for example cooking. Cooking of any food was considered work, so one is not allowed to cook on Saturday, but how can you observe a holiday without a hot meal? So the Jews invented the tshulend. The tshulend was a mixture of barley, chunks of meat, beans and potato left to simmer in a hot oven for twenty-four hours. The fat from meat penetrated the beans and browned the potatoes into a succulent delicious amorphous mass. The tshulend had a good side effect; it provided a heartburn that lasted to the next Sabbath, and penetrated the man with the feeling of well being. In addition to the tshulend a kugel was served, it was a mixture of macaroons baked with cinnamon and raisins and honey. It was served as desert. Another injunction or restriction dreamed up by the rabbis was an injunction against walking on Saturday and carrying weight. The Rabbis decreed that you can't walk more than 1000 feet and carrying even a handkerchief in pocket is considered work. It was an injunction impossible to keep. How can a pious Jew go to the synagogue to pray without carrying his prayer shawl? It was a catch 22 situation until another Rabbi came up with the detour; He decreed that if the community is surrounded by a metal wire, symbolizing a fence, than the area fenced in is considered one household and one is allowed to carry a handkerchief in the pocket or carry the prayer shawl.
Even today the very orthodox communities are surrounded by an erev, or fence. The side effect of this detour was the reinforcing of the self-imposed ghettos. A pious Jew could not live outside the fenced in community, without violating the Sabbath. In time self-imposed ghettos were created. All those methods of survival developed during centuries, separate culture, diffused religious authorities, lack of military training turned out to be disastrous during the Holocaust. And now this world is gone, never to be seen again.