Let’s be honest; Maoz Tzur Doesn’t Sound Jewish

Maoz Tsur as sung in its most widespread traditional tune is unlike anything else in the modern liturgy of Orthodox Judaism. 

A quick Google search will teach you that it carries a piece of a religious call to (Christian) prayer by the great Bach. And perhaps an old military march as well.  

But let’s be fully honest. It is as close to a Christmas carol as they come. And yet it got a foot in the door and is here to stay. 

Is it scandalous? Maybe not. 

The holiday of Chanukah commemorates a historic battle and a  miracle menorah.  

But it has a religious message to our community. The ancient Hellenistic Greeks and their culture are long gone, but there remains a continued struggle for the Jew to retain his faith in the face of cultural pressures. In the free world, we are beckoned to melt into the host society and leave our religion at the door. Chanukah reminds us that we have Divine wisdom and the Divine spark. It reminds us to celebrate the soul in the face of the Greek worship of the human form. 

But after we have rejected the ills of society, we have been told by the Torah itself that beauty is the endowment of Yefeth, the father of all that is Greek.  

In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud, who lived at a time when Greek culture was still dominant, taught that a Sefer Torah may be written in Greek letters. That is the only language that we may transliterate the Torah with. 

“The beauty of Yefeth shall dwell in the tents of Shem” is the rabbinic term that they derive from Noch’a prophecy. 

It seems that Yefeth was given the gift of the arts. And not in a passing way, I would suggest, but that their take on art and design would endure. So that today we still celebrate their architecture (every federal building in this country is designed after the Greek-inspired Roman edifices), as well as their literature, language, philosophy, and theatre. I would even suggest that modes of art and architecture that are not Greek may only be offshoots of their grandiose ideas in designing. Meaning to say, that perhaps the beautification of a structure may not have become a “thing” if not for their elaborate edifices.  

The rabbis saw that beauty- even of Greek origin- has value, and can even be employed in the service of Hashem.  

To this day many shuls have pillars as part of the aron hakodesh. (Lately, it has become a shtick to make the Aron resemble the art on the shaar blatt of the Vilna Shas- which itself was drawn by a non-Jew.) 

So let’s be honest. Maoz Tzur is a churchy song that we have adopted, and it makes Chanukah beautiful and meaningful. Perhaps it takes away the pining we all have to hum the jingles we hear each year in the department stores. And, at the same time, it is a welcome break from all the rest of the standard nigunim of today that are Chasidic in inspiration.   

Big Doc Dump

Okay, I have gone through many papers sitting on a shelf, gathered through the years by my father z’l, all pertaining to our community and its history and personalities. Added to this is a collection that Mr. Joseph Katzenstein z’l had collected over many years- consisting of koleinus, newspaper clippings and some KAJ Newsletters (the “Kach”). Some of this is nostalgic, and some of this is of historical significance. For this reason I will be posting this on both my website and this blog. I want to give credit to my teacher and reliable friend, our beloved Rabbi Gevirtz who was the author of some of the more important material below (specifically, the booklets given out by the Yeshivah).

Here follows:

Several booklets distributed by the Kehilla itself on special occasions :

  • A book of short bios on important kehilla figures on the 50th anniversary of the shul


Then several Newspaper and magazine articles from various publications over the years:

Several mitteilungen articles including:

Two leinin tidbits in the parhsa

From the archived material of Mr. Benno Weis z’l. I was told by a bar mitzvah boy who studied under Mr. Weis that the famous Karnei Parah (and Yerach ben Yomo) which appears once in the Torah (and once in the Megilas Esther) was leined in the summer when the regular Baal Korei was away in Frankfurt. And, therefore, his tune for it was not necessarily accurate. It clearly mirrors the corresponding trup in megillas Esther available here. Karnei Parah in Esther HERE.

I bounced this off of a current KAJ baal koreh and he thought the idea that his karnei parah is improvised sounds false. Mr. Weis’s daughter confirmed this – that he didn’t learn it from the regular baal korei, and had to “make it up”- but won’t swear on its accuracy.

Anyhow….here is his rendition off of his archived recordings (available on the website of Dartmouth University and currently in the process of being shared more widely)-

Here is a sampling of the reading of the Masa’os in the parsha.

I am working on confirming the above further, and might elicit the above in the style of one of the current baalei keriah at KAJ. I will add their contribution then.

Tidbits of our Memories: The Auxiliary

For my father’s upcoming first Yahrzeit I have begun to record all the family memories and history. I will post tidbits here that relate specifically to his Kehilla and community interactions.

The 1970s and 1980s were a very dark time for New York City. Crime was ever-present. Whole swaths of the city (particularly the Bronx) were filled with abandoned and burnt-out buildings. The subways cars were covered with graffiti inside and out. Drugs, particularly “crack-cocaine”, infested the inner-city. Muggings abounded as well as push-in burglaries. Gangs of teenagers roamed the city at night in a frenzy they called “wilding”. And, most ubiquitous of all, cars were routinely burglarized as they sat parked overnight. People removed their car radios and purchased removable radios called “Benzi Boxes”. Then the car owners would hang a sign in their window stating, “No Radio on Board”. This didn’t always help. One particularly bad month had Grampa’s car robbed three times! The third time the guy was still in the car when Grampa approached it.
In the height of all this crime, Grandma saw an ad for enrolment in the Auxiliary volunteer corps of the NYPD. She and Grandpa both signed up. She felt that they could help the community improve and that Breuer’s in particular would gain from having a liaison right in the shul. They took their training but not until Grandma was able to secure permission to wear a skirt. Since policewomen had originally only worn skirts, someone in headquarters gave the okay.
From the time they joined, Grampa went out on a twice weekly patrol and Grandma only patrolled at “crowd control” events such as parades and street fairs. The rest of the time she accumulated her hours by volunteering as a typist in the reports room. This was a particularly fun job for Grandma because she had knowledge of what crimes were occurring and in which part of the neighborhood.
Grampa and Grandma’s building was once a very popular Jewish building with a mix of German Jews, YU students and couples, and families affiliated with shuls east of Broadway. By the late 80s it lost much of its Jewish community as crime in the city increased. By the early nineties it was probably time to move out. Grandma wouldn’t move because she was too proud to move down to Bennett Avenue, where she thought the people were too sheltered (perhaps). She felt that if she were to move it would be to Boro Park to start over in a neighborhood that had “all the conveniences”. Grampa, of course, would quicker live in his car than move to Boro Park. So they remained.
Living on the “wrong side of the tracks” had its pitfalls. Loud music from neighbors, including on Shabbos afternoon. Drug deals immediately in front of the apartment windows. People sitting outside at night congregating. Actually, the people congregating was a plus. Muggings in the city often take place on a quiet block in a peaceful neighborhood. Congregating at night is part of Latin American culture where villagers meet in the town square for dominoes and eating after working a full day. These people in front of their buildings were not the criminals but the citizens.
Sometimes, someone from the Breuer’s part of the neighborhood, of the type that lack scruples, would ask my mother why she does not move out of her building. The best way to handle such a blunt question would be a short and humble reply like, “It’s not perfect, but it’s home!” or “We have certain things that you don’t have on Bennett, and we don’t want to give that up!” But Grandma was a proud woman, and she was from the Bronx where the girls had some sass. She would quickly answer with her knowledge of the police reports. “Well, your building isn’t so safe. There were two muggings there and a burglary!” In truth she was right for shutting down intrusive questions and she was right that, ironically, crime was lower in our area- if you didn’t count petty drug peddling.
During their time as auxiliary police officers Grandma and Grampa received several citations (in police and military lingo that is a good thing, it doesn’t mean a traffic ticket) for helping apprehend criminals. Not for chasing them- but by calling or radioing in suspicious activity and license plate numbers or calling for assistance. That is all the auxiliary police is supposed to do. If they would chase criminals, they would need full training and a gun.
On one occasion they got a community member out of trouble. There was someone from Europe living in the community. One day he gets a traffic ticket and explodes at the officer, calling her by the color of her skin. Grampa received a phone call that this person was in a holding cell at the precinct waiting to be booked. Grampa came down and talked to the captain explaining that people in Europe speak that way and are not used to normal race relations. His calm manner and logical way of talking sent this guy home.
Grampa also received recognition for his service on 9/11. He was called that afternoon to help direct traffic off of the West Side Highway, away from ground zero.
As he remained in the auxiliary police Grandma complained to him that he rarely received a promotion. She was probably right that they were avoiding his promotion because there were one or two anti-Semites above him. For instance, occasionally if Yom Tov fell out on his night, he would sign the troupe in, but not close the books until after the Yom Tov. One time that he did this his commanding officer called the house at 2 a.m. and left a message on the machine asking when he will sign out. Haters can’t hide things for long.
As time passed it became inevitable that he receive a promotion. He became auxiliary sergeant, lieutenant, and eventually became the captain. As captain he taught the young troops how to salute and stand for roll call, as well as other formalities good for their discipline. He became a respected figure at the end of his time there.

The Image of the Idiot

The third and fourth son in the Haggadah, the simple one and the one who doesn’t know to ask, are Pesach characters.  But in my father’s youth, they were used by kids to chide each other year round. 

The One who deosn’t know to ask is depicted by Roedelheim as having his two arms out before him one higher and one lower. Perhaps he is grappling with things, or so young that he is learning by touch? 

Among my father’s friends, the gesture of extending the arms this way when joking around meant, “not too bright, ‘eh?” 

In  this   cute article, the author, Touro’s Avenue J campus dean Dr. Henry Abrahamson, explains that early editions of the Maxwell House Haggadah borrowed 17th century woodcuts from an heroic convert from Christianity. Among the artwork is that imbecilic child with his hands asunder.  

So, we have located the source and according to that article, the little son appears in the Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695, with the art engravings of Abraham bar Jacob, the convert. it is actually a borrowed image of King Saul as he appeared in Christian literature. Now, I don’t believe Saul was depicted by the Christians as an imbecile. Perhaps they were showing him as a child per a literal reading of (Samuel 1 13;1) “At age one Saul was king”. <Now this might be unlikely as modern day Christian Bibles have the text “At age thirty Saul was king”. I do not know which version 17th century Christian scholars followed….but some scholar out there might know?> 

(I removed a paragraph about a Hagadah that I thought preceded the Amsterdam Haggadah)  

Back to the Maxwell House Haggadah, I would venture that they didn’t borrow the illustrations straight from antiquity, but that their Haggados in the early years were copied from the Roedelheim. I always noted the one or two differences in the text that we are used to – were to be found in the Maxwell House as well. The post 1900 Roedelheim went with the Hebrew facing the translation on two columns of the same page, something Maxwell adopted too- and had these old woodcuts with the “Little Saul” character. A favorite of little boys in pre-war Basel. 

Good Yom Tov! 

Rav Hirsch’s Yahrzeit # 132?

I received two emails for the 132nd Yahrzeit of Rav Hirsch z’l. Now simple math would tell you that from 1888 until 2021 is 133 years. I almost was going to email both parties (Agudas Yisroel and Rabbi Eiseman in Passaic) about this miscalculation. 

Luckily, I reached out to Reb Sidney Yisroel S. about this first. His response: 

” The KAJN letter of which I am one of the proofreaders also said 132. 132 is correct. He was niftar on the 2nd 27 of Teves of 1888 (the one in 5649 not 5648).  Note that 1889 had no 27th of Teves.  5781 minus 5649 = 132.” 

I.e. The year 1888 had two 27th of Teveth in it. The first in January 1888. The second in December. It was a very early year that year- with part of Chanukah in November. Looking on Hebcal, I find that Rav Hirsch passed away on December 31st of 1888.  

This corroborates a well-known story (I found it in Professor Leo Levi’s article in Jewish Action magazine. It does not appear in E.M. Klugmann’s book as far as I can see) quoted below from that article: 

“He had many opponents, some of them quite virulent; but no one ever challenged his absolute integrity. On the first day of each quarter, his congregation paid his salary for that quarter. When he started feeling weak in his old age, he instructed his family that when he died they should return the overpayment for the remainder of the quarter. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that Rabbi Hirsch passed away on December 31, 1888, the last day of the quarter.” 

Below is a description of Rav Hirsch’s levaya from  of Hermann Schwab’s “History of Orthodox Jewry in Germany” pg. 90: 

“On the 27th of Teveth 5649(December 31st, 1888) Samson Raphael Hirsch passed away. On the following day the present writer and his classmates were standing in a vast crowd before Hirsch’s house. They, the preparatory class at the grammar school of the Religiongesellschaft, were to take their places immediately behind the sons and the relatives. Before the carriage were to walk the senior pupils, carrying Hirsch’s works in their hands- “Thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the L-rd shall be thy reward”.  

The writer goes on to frame Rav Hirsch as a lover of peace, one who longed for peace, were it not for the need to save his people. He writes further: 

“And if the community which he founded in Frankfort and all the others built on its model have disappeared, and his literary legacy too is in danger of being lost to the world (published in 1950 ed.) the interpretation of Judaism which he gave to 19th century Germany is still a spiritualising force. Like a ray of light it travels over the earth and no one can detect it or divine its goal. But whoever crosses its path is shown the greatness of Judaism- “even one is enough, Israel’s cause is not lost.” 

A Blessing Upon Your Head

Among German Jews the custom of fathers blessing their children is taken very seriously. We do it Friday evening at home- or in shul as fathers bentsch their married sons who may not be joining them for the meal. Motzaei Shabbosos this is repeated.

When visiting my father z’l, on any given day of the week, we would ask to be bentched in case we would not see each other again before Shabbos.

My father would often say that when he bentches us he is giving us something which he received from his father- and his father received from his father- and on, through all the generations.

It really was his legacy. Because my grandfather died at age 57 from a wound he sustained in the first World War. He suddenly felt he couldn’t breathe one evening and summoned all the children into the living room. He then proceeded to bentsch them with his last breaths and expired.

This is a scene no less significant than the one depicted in this week’s sedrah. Yaakov departed from this world and gave of his last minutes to blessing his children. Blessing them and setting them straight. Perhaps this is why, from all the forefathers it is specifically Yaakov who bears the distinction of ” Our father Yaakov did not die” and as the Talmud goes on to explain, ” as long as his children live, he lives!”

He put his last hopes and efforts into seeing to their success and to the continuation of the family legacy.

As a child we would walk into each room of the apartment while singing “Sholom Aleichem”. As a guest of Rav Eliezer Dinner of Bnei Brak, we walked around the table as we sang this. The idea being that we are escorting the Sabbath “angels” in a proactive way. Anyone else have this (or a similar) minhag?

A few years ago a reader asked why we say the words “Sholom aleichem Malachei Hashareis” in the first stanza, but refer to the angels as “malachei Hashalom” in the subsequent verses. I had seen someone reference a sefer called “Tiferes Hashabos” (Rabbi Dovid Y. Rosenwald, Haifa 1969) for an answer. I picked up a copy of this book and the answer was a bit vague- but I believe his answer is as follows. The term “malachei hashareis” is a direct quote of the Talmud (Shabbos 119) that describes the angels as “malachei hashareis”. When these two angels find the home in order with candles lit, table set and beds made, the “good” angel blesses the family that it may be so the next week. At that point the “bad” angel must answer “Amein” to this bracha. Now, the two angels have a common cause in blessing the family and are therefore called “angels of peace.”

Sukkos Blogging

1) We just hit the hoshanos against the floor this morning.  My father always said that you can determine a person’s lack of intelligence by  the amount of force he uses in smacking the aravos. The harder they hit it, the less refined they are. This really bothered him. He saw the anger during the hoshanah strike as ignorance.  

The early protagonists of Refrom- or Liberal Judaism- were utterly embarrased by the banging at the mention of Haman in the Orthodox synagogues. They juxtaposed this wild revelry with the decorum held sacrosant at the Christian houses of worship and Judaism seemed primitive and folksy in comparison. Of course, history has mostly proven them wrong in their search for a sanitized religion. But there was a general need to improve our worship in the places where a lack of a good Jewish education left the masses to revel in pettiness. The answer, as it turned out, wasn’t to Christianize Judaism, but to Judaize it. It would take a century or two for that to really happen.  

Nevertheless, it is through my father’s disdain for wild engagement in ritual- WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING- that I see some of what bothered the discerning eyes of  those who left the shul for the “House of the Organ, and eventually for the Church itself. 

2) I cancelled my almost-annual trip to KAJ for Hoshanos this morning because I live in a hotspot, and, although I have been davening almost exclusively outdoors since Yom Kippur, my wife felt that my presence might make others uncomfortable. You’re welcome. 

3) Mr. Marc Breuer s’l (that is z’l in German vernacular and not my usual way of writing it except when I want to feel heimish) was a Jewish educator while fleeing the Nazi’s through Vichy France. His lectures from that period were published in his “La Tohrah Commentee” (I have a copy of my own!) and are available online in English. In this week’s sedrah (Vezos Haberachah) he has an explanation for the unusual order in which Moses blesses the tribes at his death. See here:  http://www.cojo.net/VezosHabracha.pdf 

The bulk of his thoughts are in the epilogue with a tidbit beforehand explaining why Shimon is not mentioned. An alternate – slightly similar idea is found on OU Torah, here:  https://outorah.org/p/37748

My father z’l as a young single entering a sukkah on a rooftop on Bennett Avenue. Possibly the Sukkah of Mr. Carl Stern z’l.

Refusing the Amud

I am in the year of mourning for my father – (H’KM). I daven in a shul where the various mourners are very respectful towards each other’s “chiyuv” to lead the davening. That said, I had the opportunity several times- so far- to refuse the amud- even as it was offered to me:

For instance, on a day that tachanun is not said- including the mincha just before Shabbos -is not a time that an aveil is an appropriate candidate for the amud according to our tradition. When offered the amud on the morning of Erev Rosh Hashanah for part of the davening I declined for this reason- as well as the reason that the selichos chazan is meant to daven that day. The gabai was surprised that someone would refuse for these reasons.

I often tell people that “where I come from” at the beginning of one’s aveilus – bar minon- the “gabbaim” (read ‘ Synagogue committee member; vorstandt?) infrom the aveil that they might come to shul on some occassions and receive neither the amud nor the chance to say kaddish- if there are others with priority. Once one has come to accept that this is a possibility- they are less likely to “look for” an amud in circumstances that are not perfect.

By having limits and rules about when we daven, we come to appreciate the importance of our service. It is a service- and it is the generosity of the communtiy- that bring us to the amud. It is not a privilege.

A friend of mine who was raised in another community once complained to me that a gabai didn’t give him the amud (in a Brooklyn shtieble) on Chol Hamo’ed! I explained to him how inappropriate it is to send an aveil up at that time. He replied, “But what does he care if I go to the amud? ” I could not answer this misguided approach to the “chiyuv” of the amud.

In Devarim 18;14 וְאַתָּ֕ה לֹ֣א כֵ֔ן נָ֥תַן לְךָ ְד אֱלֹקֶֽיךָ

“The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your G-d has not permitted you to do so”. The Chasidic reading of this is (Rabi Bunim MePeshischa brought in Lekutei b. lekutei):

“Hashem your G-d “lo kein nasan lecha” He has given you prohibitions! Do not engage in sorcery or idol worship in which the religion was created to the whim of the followers. We were given “לא” -things that we can’t do. It is these things that give importance and meaning to that which we “can do” .

Shana Tova and Good Tidings to all!

The Rav and the Rebbe?

(If someone here doesn’t know me personally- I lost my father, Mr. Manny Meyer, hareini kaporas mishkavo.)

As I sat shiva  many old family friends filed in (outdoors) – a close friend, a former supervisor in the kehilla’s shechita operation- visited. 

He told the following story about the kehilla hiring him despite his being a Lubavitcher chosid.

When the subject of his hiring was brought up, and Rav Breuer was told that the candidate belonged to Lubavitch, the supposed reply came, “I am okay with Lubavitch.”

The explanation dials back to a certain Mr. Phillip Wolf (father of Bella Caro) who was a host for the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Europe. (The Caro family say that it might have been for some 10 months!) (I am told Mr. Wolf may have been from Frankfurt.) According to my visitor it seems that Mr. Wolf might have acted together with the rebbe in building mikvaoth.

Anyhow, when the Rav came to America it is known that he set out to build a mikvah, a yeshiva, and a shul; in that order. He consulted Mr. Wolf for assistance because he had some experience (per this story). As they went along there was a budget shortfall of 8,000$. Mr. Wolf approached the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and he assisted in closing the gap. 

This is the story as told to me. I have a great amount of skepticism for stories by chassidim about their rebbes. But I wanted to document the story as I heard it.

That said, quite the opposite story is told in the “”Rav Breuer; His Life and His Legacy” book. There it says that Rav Breuer indeed took a bus to Lakewood, New Jersey to visit the penultimate Lubavitcher rebbe, who had funds available for building mikvaoth. (The rebbe was vacationing there.) The rebbe told him to approach the wealthy German Jews in Manhattan, but gave him a donation of 25 dollars to kick-it-off. The meeting was arranged by Rabbi Mordechai Chodakov per the footnote (p. 141) and no mention of Mr. Phillip Wolf. (Mrs.Meta B. corroborates this as written.)

The Caro family are unaware of this. They did confirm their grandfather’s connection to the rebbe, though. They further added that Mr. and Mrs. Wolf were childless. Before the rebbe left from his stay they asked him for advice. He told them they need to move from their city and they will incur a loss of their wealth, but they would have children. They had six children.

For the sake of history, the plaque that hung in that original mikvah on Audubon Avenue is pictured below. (Screenshot from a vid on my channel.) Several benefactors are listed for having paid for the property: Messers. Jaques and Leon Schwalbe (the Rav’s son-in-law= Jacques), Mr. Ivan Salomon, Mr. Nathan Miller, and a once well-known philathropist Mr. Joseph Rosenzweig. Some more senior members have told me that it was common practice for men in the community to sit in the pizza shops of Amsterdam Avenue while their wives used the mikvah. Was there a special on the menu for husbands?Screenshot (17)