Archive for May, 2011

Buried at the ends of the earth

May 21, 2011

Michael Wolfson, son of Avraham, was only seven years old when he died in 1925 in Nova Scotia. A teacher surnamed Voldman who was the father of two died the following year at the age of twenty-six.
Their graves are in a Jewish cemetery in Whitney Pier, a suburb of Sydney on Cape Breton Island.

In March 2011 a request appeared on an international copy editors forum for a pro bono translation of Hebrew tombstones in Nova Scotia for the local genealogical and historical association.

“A member has photographed approximately 10 headstones in a Hebrew Cemetery in Cape Breton,” read the message from Margaret McLean. “Their Temple [Sons of] Israel is closed and no one is available to do a transcription.”

Cape Breton is at the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia, and Whitney Pier is at the northeastern tip of the island. Fascinated by the fact that Jews lived in this far-flung spot, I volunteered. Margaret referred me to Roger Tobin, who handles the content of the society’s Web site. He told me that most of the tombstones were in English and that he had called the two local synagogues for help in translating the Hebrew ones, but had received no response. The one functioning synagogue was closing, he said, because it no longer had enough men to make up the minimum needed for services.

Actually, it should be no surprise that there were Jews on Cape Breton. According to the magazine Reform Judaism, 1 million immigrants entered Canada through the port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, between 1928 and 1971. But in 2007, the magazine reports, Cape Breton had only 100 Jewish residents, with an average age of sixty.

“Most are descendants of Jews who arrived from Poland, Russia, and Lithuania at the turn of the 19th century during an economic boom fueled by the island’s mines and coal-fueled factories,” the magazine reports.

By the 1940s, there were 935 families; after that the number dropped, especially after the coal mines and steel plant closed in the 1980s. The last rabbi left in 1986, and the synagogue in Whitney Pier, Adath Israel, is now home to the Whitney Pier Historical Museum.

But the twenty or thirty Jewish families still in Sydney maintain the large Temple Sons of Israel and now allow women to be counted so that they will have a quorum for services.

The earliest of the Hebrew tombstones was that of Chaya Sadofsky, daughter of Reb Zussman, who died at thirty-eight in 1915. The details on this and other tombstones suggest that life on Cape Breton was short in the first half of the twentieth century.

One of the tombstones was that of a young man, Binyamin Zakheim, son of Dov, who died in 1929. A quatrain describes him thus:

An innocent yeshiva student
Young in years [literally young in days]
As in the spring of his youth
In the thirtieth year of his life

Another man who died young the same year was Zelig Falk, son of Yehoshua. He was forty-five.

The tombstone of Reb Shmuel Nahum Waltzer, son of Reb Dov Berish, indicates that he was a prayer leader and ritual slaughterer from Waterford, about 365 miles southwest of Whitney Point. He died in 1952.

Part of the process of immigration was adopting an identity suitable for the New World. Thus, Shimon Zechariah Rubinowitz, son of Groness, became S. Rubin, as shown by the line of English on his tombstone, and Binyamin Zakheim’s surname became Zaken. One stone bears the name Robertson, surely a New World name.

Some of the letters on the tombstones are poorly formed and hard to decipher, suggesting that the stonemason did not know Hebrew. The last of the Hebrew tombstones is from 1953. Perhaps after that there were no longer any people who knew enough Hebrew.

Now that I have “met” some of Cape Breton’s former Jewish residents, I hope someday to visit those who are still alive and learn more about this distant community.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

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Words that made my jaw drop

May 17, 2011

How many fetuses is too many?
I phoned my gynecologist this morning to make an appointment for a routine checkup. When I told the secretary I wanted to make an appointment, she did not bother with any preliminaries but asked briskly, “How many fetuses?”

That’s a question she would do better to ask my daughter-in-law.

Star-gazers and zodiac-worshipers
In my search last week for a sufficiently kosher restaurant for the meeting of a group of colleagues in Jerusalem, I came across a site that warned about a particular restaurant that claimed to be strictly kosher. The site stated that acum start work there in the morning before the kashrut supervisor arrives.

Acum is a Hebrew acronym for ovdei cochavim umazalot (worshipers of stars and zodiac signs)—idolators, in short. I doubt that we have many such star-gazers in Jerusalem, though I have seen a young woman (probably a migrant worker) singing hymns to the rising sun.

The site was obviously referring to Palestinian workers, who are almost certainly Muslims. Israeli PR keeps referring to Jerusalem as sacred to the “three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” In terms of kashrut, then, it seems that the real objection is not to the possibility that the workers are idolators, but rather that they are non-Jews. Why not say so?

When the ball is in your court
Any English-language journalist in Israel can tell you that the lowest court in the country is the magistrates court. That must be a consequence of the 31-year British Mandate in Palestine.

Yet the Hebrew name for the lowest court is, literally, court of peace. And so it appears, in translation, on a directional sign in the Russian Compound in the city center. That name may be a holdover from the Ottoman period, which lasted until 1917, because Turkey, like some other countries, does have courts of peace.

It makes one wonder whether the higher courts are any less dedicated to seeking peace between litigants than the lowest court.

Israeli diva takes back seat to Azeri duo in song contest
Dana International—winner of the 1998 Eurovision pop song contest with her song “Diva”—made another pitch for the title this year in Düsseldorf, this time unsuccessfully. The flamboyant Israeli singer, whose sex reassignment surgery was the object of intense media interest after her 1998 win, has been involved with the contest since 1995, when she came in second in the Israeli pre-selection.

Israel has won the contest three times: in 1978 (“Abanibi”), 1979 “Hallelujah”), and 1998 (“Diva”). This information should be useful when you place your bet for the winner in next year’s contest. The final competition has some 125 million viewers each year.

Azerbaijan, represented by the duo Eldar and Nigar (also known as Eli and Nikki), was this year’s winner and this was the first win for a country in the Caucasus. Next year’s finals will probably be held in Baku.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Three strikes for the rabbis

May 12, 2011

If one bonfire generates 10 kilocalories an hour …
Jewish holidays are generally not movable feasts. That is, they must be celebrated on their appointed day, unless they conflict with the Sabbath, which is inviolable. The Jewish calendar ingeniously provides for all such potential conflicts, except for one that made front-page news this year.

Lag Ba’omer, the thirty-third day after the first day of Passover, is celebrated for a variety of reasons, including a temporary victory of Bar Kochba over the Romans. The eve of the holiday is traditionally marked by bonfires.

This year, the eve of Lag Ba’omer falls on May 21, which is a Saturday night. But in Israel, the Sabbath won’t be over until after 8 p.m., which means that there is a danger that it will be violated by the lighting of early bonfires. And because the holiday also commemorates the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and half a million people are expected to come to his gravesite in Meron, in the north of the country, the police would have to violate the Sabbath to set up security arrangements in time.

So the rabbis proposed postponing Lag Ba’omer celebrations by a day. The catch was that a national matriculation exam in math was scheduled for that day and it certainly could not be moved.

Nevertheless, Ovadia Yosef, the most revered Sephardic rabbi in Israel, ruled that the celebrations should be delayed, at least until daytime on Sunday. His decision was upheld by the country’s two chief rabbis but angered other rabbis, especially those who do not recognize the authority of the chief rabbis.

According to a report in Ha’aretz, the Boyaner Rebbe, a Hassidic rabbi who traditionally lights the first bonfire in Meron, said he would light it Saturday night, but not until 12:30 a.m. so the police would not have to violate the Sabbath.

As for the pupils who will be taking the exam, they can prepare by calculating how many kilocalories will be generated by bonfires of different sizes and how quickly the air will be polluted by the smoke.

When music comes to Jerusalem churches
The opera festival in June that is to include Jerusalem for the first time has come under fire from the city’s three ultra-Orthodox deputy mayors and one National-Religious deputy mayor. Their objection? Many of the thirty concerts that are to be part of the festival are scheduled to take place in churches.

According to a report in Ha’aretz, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat has agreed to consider removing the city’s logo from some of the promotional materials, though he refused to cancel the festival which he has been promoting so vigorously.

Israelis (and others) have been attending concerts in Jerusalem churches for decades, and they don’t seem to have changed their faith as a consequence. And, as Barkat pointed out, the city supported such concerts even under his predecessor Uri Lupoliansky, who was ultra-Orthodox.

When is a restaurant a place where you can eat?
Somehow I became the Project Manager for a lunch meeting of Jerusalem copy editors with an American colleague who will be visiting at the end of the month.

One of the locals informed me that for a variety of reasons he would not be eating at the meeting, but that he might have a drink. Another member, too, decided that she would not eat. Both, however, would enter an establishment only if it had a certain level of rabbinic supervision.

I thought the task couldn’t be too difficult, because even on Emek Refa’im, my neighborhood’s commercial street that we once thought of as a bastion of secular entertainment, nearly all the restaurants now claim to have strict rabbinic supervision. The catch is that each is under the supervision of a different rabbi or set of rabbis, most of whom are not acceptable to my colleagues.

After considerable searching, with the help of the first fellow who put in the request for the rabbinic supervision, and after ruling out restaurants in neighborhoods where I might not make it through the door because I don’t follow the local dress code, I found a bagels and salad place that I hope will be acceptable to everyone. This puts a whole new spin on the hole in the bagel.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Try counting creaks, noses, and sheep

May 9, 2011

Creaky door hinge nets gold medal for Israeli youngster
If a door hinge creaks and sometimes gets stuck because of friction, how fast must one push the door to make the hinge creak?

According to Israeli student Gal Dor, 16, who won the gold medal in the 12th Asian Physics Olympiad, this was the most challenging question in the competition, which was held in Israel, this past week, for the first time. The participants included 120 students from 17 countries. Israeli students also took silver and bronze medals and received honorary mentions.

Dor told Ha’aretz that he never studied physics formally and that he learned it by “thinking a lot … about all kinds of things.”

I’ve thought a lot about all kinds of things, but it didn’t get me even halfway to first base in physics. Yet I remain hopeful; knowing elementary physics would change my life.

Counting noses on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day
Israel’s population is almost 8 million, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. This number, which is 10 times the population in 1948, includes about 5.84 million Jews, some 1.59 million Arabs, about 320,000 immigrants and their offspring whom the Interior Ministry has not registered as Jews (no matter how they view themselves), and about 220,000 “foreigners” (migrant workers).

More than 70% of the Jewish population was born in Israel (compared with 35% in 1948).

Israel had only one city with more than 100,000 residents in 1948; now it has 14, and 6 of those have more than 200,000 residents.

A boa digesting an elephant, or a boaschlang vos fardayt a helfant
Zayt azoy gut … tseykhn mir a lemele.”

That’s what the pilot who has crashed in the Sahara hears when the Little Prince asks him to please draw him a sheep, in the first Yiddish translation of Saint-Exupéry’s classic. Der Kleyner Prints, translated from the original French by Shlomo (Shloyme) Lerman of Jerusalem, has the original illustrations and also a transliteration of the Yiddish text into Latin characters, published by M. Naumann.

A Ladino version, El Princhipiko, translated by Avner Perez and Gladys Pimienta, is available from Tintenfass.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Four things to do with your spare change

May 5, 2011

A port of your own: Now it’s possible
If you’ve ever thought of using your spare cash to buy a port, now’s your chance. The port of Eilat is up for grabs, according to the daily Ha’aretz. But you’ll have to act quickly. APM Terminals, an international container-terminal operating company based in The Hague, Netherlands, has shown interest. APM already operates the port in neighboring Aqaba, which is a major conduit between Asia, Africa, and Europe, and also the port in Port Said.

But you’ll have to get used to free lunches for the stevedores
Three years ago the port of Ashdod introduced free meals (for two) as a reward for stevedores who unloaded more than 250 containers per shift. The incentive turned out to be increasingly popular, and last year it cost the port more than $1 million, according to Ha’aretz.

But now the Treasury has refused to authorize this expenditure, which is not part of the labor agreement, and the free lunches are on hold. In response, the stevedores have slowed their unloading to 80 to 100 containers per shift.

At the Old City walls they’ll be kicking and tossing
In his zeal to make Jerusalem a center of culture and sports, Mayor Nir Barkat is bringing the beach to the mountains. Today and tomorrow city is hosting the 2011 Corona FootVolley World Cup—on a beach-style playing field in front of the Old City walls, near the Tower of David. FootVolley, first played in Brazil, combines beach volleyball and soccer. Place your bets now.

On March 25 the city hosted its first marathon and in June it will host its first outdoor opera performance.

And they’ll be skinny-dipping to save the Dead Sea
American artist Spencer Tunick hopes to reveal the bare facts about the environmental degradation of the Dead Sea by photographing a large number of nude people floating on its waters, Karin Kloosterman reports in Green Prophet, the online magazine covering environment new in the Middle East. Tunick is known for his installations that involve large numbers of nude people.

The idea of nudes in the Dead Sea is not entirely novel. In 2004 Israeli installation artist Sigalit Landau created a video of herself floating nude in the Dead Sea with 500 watermelons, coiled in a tight spiral that unwinds slowly. The video is exhibited at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Tunick, working with his Israeli partner Ari Fruchter, is trying to raise $60,000 so he can carry out his project at the end of the year. According to Fruchter, thousands have already volunteered to strip to save the Dead Sea.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Two about travel and one about money

May 4, 2011

Don’t visit a place; shop it
My younger son, Omer, has just completed his master’s thesis at a New England university. In that thesis he traces American consumerism back to Edward Bernays (the father of public relations) and Bernays’s uncle, Sigmund Freud, and argues that “consumptionism” makes society an empty cultural shell that is defined only by its consumption of goods.

This brings to mind a conversation overheard last fall at a visitor center just south of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Do you care to see any museums?” the elderly volunteer at the visitor center asked the man with the blond dog.

“No,” the man replied. “My wife just wants to shop.”

With what sounded like a sigh, the volunteer responded, “Well, you have 200 shops to choose from.”

It seems a long way to go just to shop, but at least some of those shops have museum-quality art and crafts and beautifully designed windows.

Poets to become the face of Israeli money
The Bank of Israel has announced its first public competition for the design of new banknotes. The notes, which will bear the current denominations of 20, 50, 100, and 200 new Israeli shekels, will be graced, respectively, by the faces of four major Hebrew poets: Rachel Bluwstein (better known simply as Rachel), Shaul Tchernichovsky, Leah Goldberg, and Natan Alterman.

Would these four would have considered it an honor to have their portraits on lucre?

What a difference a trip can make
Just a few days in Israel can change a young person’s life in dramatic ways, researchers at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies have discovered. They have been studying the impact of the Taglit-Birthright program, which young adults to Israel for a brief visit, and their recent report summarizes long-term effects, five to nine years after participation in the program.

When compared to young adults who applied for the program but did not go, participants were 46% more likely to feel connected to Israel, 51% more likely to marry a Jewish person, and 28% more likely to rate marrying a Jew as somewhat or very important. In the event that participants married someone who was not raised by Jews, the spouse was more than four times as likely to convert than were spouses of nonparticipants.

Finally, participants with no children were 35% more likely to view raising their children Jewish as very important, though no differences in actual practice were found between participants and nonparticipants who already have children.

The researchers conclude that “the scale of Taglit suggests that it has the potential to transform, not just individuals, but the community at large.”

Full disclosure: My daughter, Shahar Hecht, is one of the authors of the report, but neither she nor I has any connection to the Taglit-Birthright program.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.