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  • Sacred Stories: History as Torah

    Posted on April 24th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    Septima Collis courtesy of National Museum American Jewish History

    The study of Jewish history  is the study of Torah.

    For decades I struggled with the theological and textual core of Judaism and so I took refuge in the study of Jewish history. I assumed that this form of Jewish study would allow me to engage while avoiding the pesky textual and theological questions that troubled me so. I was of course mistaken.

    In delving into the lives of women and men from the 19th century, I read their letters and diaries, wedding invitations, accounts of birthday celebrations. These were the stuff of daily life, sometimes seemingly inconsequential but more often poignant and powerful. Quite unexpectedly, I came to see in history a way to work my way back into the world of rabbinic text. These lives that I was studying, Jewish to the core, were their own form of commentary. As I began to read them as a dialogue with the theological and textual issues that concerned me, new avenues of understanding unfolded. Each Jewish life individually and also collectively gave me insight that helped me unpack complexities and renew a connection to Torah.


    Yet too often there is a chasm that divides the study of Jewish history and the study of Torah. The former is meant of course to be a study in fact while the latter one of spirit, a significant difference that does challenge us when bringing them together for the purpose of making meaning.


    But the Sacred Stories project, a joint collaboration between CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders program and the National Museum of American Jewish History, is showing how bridging that chasm enriches us all. Sacred Stories is a weekly Torah commentary that engages the core artifacts of the American Jewish historical experience. Each week a rabbi connects an element of the Torah portion with a particular artifact found in the museum. Working with the museum professionals to edit the pieces ahead of publication, I have been amazed at how drawing connections between items as mundane as report cards or muffin tins can shift the way I understand a familiar text. I have been equally astonished by the way a piece of biblical text can shift the way I see sometime as familiar as the Statue of Liberty or the Liberty Bell.


    In many ways the project is an experiment. I know of no other such historical Torah commentary. It is a collaboration that is pushing expectations and established norms by bringing together the history of the Jewish experience with the text of the Jewish experience. And yet anyone who has ever sat with someone in a dark moment and invoked the experiences of the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, or delivered a sermon that draws from the parsha to illuminate a contemporary struggle knows that the living experience of the Jews is never apart from Torah. And all that separates our studied attention to here and now from the study of history is the passage of time.


    Jumping from ancient textual past to the present bypasses and disregards the value and potential wisdom of thousands of years of lived Jewish experiences. The Sacred Stories historical Torah commentary shows us the value and potential of taking the opportunity to see the study of Jewish history as Torah.


    Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, the editor of this blog, is currently working with Clal and the National Museum of American Jewish History on the Sacred Stories Torah commentary.


  • Centropa: Old Stories New Meanings in Confronting Europe’s Past

    Posted on July 25th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 6 comments

    Memorial where the bima stood at the Heidelberger Synagoge in Heidelberg, Germany.

    Stories are an essential element of Jewish tradition, but they can also be an essential element of Jewish history and Jewish education. This week Melissa Cohavi shares her new take on stories we often struggle with passing on.

    I love stories.  I especially love stories about families, history, and people affected by history.  Centropa is all about stories too, and perhaps this is why their materials speak to me on such a personal level.  I am the Director of Education at Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut and learned of Centropa last winter.  Centropa, based in Vienna, uses technology to tell the stories of elderly Jews in Central Europe who survived the holocaust, and then made the decision to live their lives in Central Europe and not emigrate to Israel, Western Europe, or the USA.  Centropa has interviewed over 1250 Jews living in 15 countries between the Baltic and the Aegean.  Centropa has produced more than 25 short multi-media films and has cataloged thousands of personal photos from the interviewees.  Centropa’s goals include:  connecting us all to the lands of Jewish heritage by creating programs about the entire 20th century, not only about the period of the Third Reich; using these programs in innovative ways so that Holocaust education will have relevance everywhere; combating anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial by creating programs that students carry out themselves, and share with other students across borders, oceans and ethnic divides. I know what you’re thinking.  I have heard this before.  But Centropa is different.  Their films focus on the lives of Jews in Central Europe both pre-war and post-war.  For me, when we teach our students about the Holocaust it is important to focus on the stories, not only about the tragedies.  After all, stories are so much a part of Judaism and enhance learning in so many ways.  Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe prior to World War II was so vibrant, and now it is gone.  In fact, stories are what connect Jews around the world, and our students to their history.  I don’t know about you, but my students (both youth and adult) love to talk about themselves.  When we, as educators, can bring them stories of a previous generation that they can relate to in their own lives today, we have succeeded on so many levels.  I lived this myself when I was at the egalitarian minyan on Saturday morning, July 14th at the West End Synagogue in Frankfurt.  I attended services with five other Americans and one new friend from Stockholm.  We had so much in common with the approximately 20 or 25 others in attendance that morning.  We all knew the music and I was so happy when we sang Debbie Friedman’s Oseh Shalom.  I was even honored with an aliya to the Torah that morning.  The stories we shared with one another during the oneg brought us together on a very special level, and it was a morning I will never forget.

    Author, Melissa Cohavi

    The Centropa summer academy brought Jewish life and history alive for me.  I was able to visit places in Germany, such as Worms and Berlin that I had only had the opportunity to study about.  Today there are no Jews living in Worms, but there is a small Jewish community in Berlin made up mostly of former Soviet Jews.  It also allowed me to see that non-Jewish teachers in Vilnius, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest and Vienna are both learning about the Holocaust and teaching it to their students.  I learned that there is one synagogue in Vilnius today, where there were hundreds prior to World War II.  I saw how Germany is taking responsibility for its past and learned how teachers in former Soviet-bloc countries are learning about how we live our lives in the West and that the connections between us and our students are so important. This trip was personally important to me on so many levels.  I must admit that I was hesitant to visit Germany, given the history we all know so well.  But I learned that Germans are aware of their mistakes and are working hard to make things right.  There are memorials and museums remembering the holocaust everywhere.  It is taught in schools from an early age and there are numerous exchange programs between Germany and Israel, all supported and paid for by the German government.  There is even a memorial for homosexuals persecuted and murdered by the Nazi’s, located in Berlin.  The connections I was able to make with educators from 14 different countries was probably the most invaluable and tangible thing I came home with. I learned about the Jewish communities in Stockholm and Helsinki, Vienna and Budapest.  Centropa has allowed me to grow in so many ways, and I thank them for that.  Share your stories, we all have something important to tell.

    Centropa Summer Seminar 2012

  • A Modest Proposal for the Olympics

    Posted on July 17th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Israeli Olympic team 2012

    I’m a sucker for the Olympics. True, it is a whole lot of expense that might be better spent, but even as a die hard non-sports fan, I find the pomp and ceremony, the exertion and accomplishment exciting. And the part I love best, without question, is the is the parade of countries. The costumes, the flags and the excitement of each country draws me in as I think about how hard each of these people worked to get to this day. As a Canadian who lives in the US, I root for my two “home” teams (okay I will always be biased towards Canada) And as a Jew, I am always particularly proud of the Israeli team.

    But like many, I’m feeling more than a bit ambivalent about celebrating this year.

    This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympic games and the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre, which saw the cold blooded murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists. On the 5th of September 1972, Palestinian terrorist broke into the poorly guarded Olympic village immediately killing two and taking 9 hostages. Attempts to rescue the hostages failed and all those taken were all murdered.

    The Olympic games have come to represent the ability of the world to come together. They are a rare moment of peaceful competition rather than the wars that we are used to. The Munich Massacre is clearly the something that the International Olympic Committee would like us to forget. They have reject all appeals to remember the athletes and coaches who were murdered on their watch 40 years ago.  Each of the murdered Israeli men came to the Olympics with the highest hopes and with the ideals of the Olympic committee. Not only were they betrayed by the very organization for which they labored hard at the time, but their memories are being erased by the lack of memorial.

    Israeli Olympic Team 1972

    Each of these men did not live to see their Olympic dreams fulfilled, to embrace the message of peace and brotherhood. They died before Jodoka Yael Arad was able to win Israel’s first medal and surfer Gal Fridman won Israel’s first gold. On a personal level they did not live to see their families flourish, to know old age. They will not among those who are cheering as the Israeli delegation enter London’s Olympic stadium. And most who are there, marching, watching or watching at home will not even know the story of these men.

    So next week, as you watch the Olympics and all the pageantry of opening, (live or taped after Shabbat) I hope you will join me, in turning off your television for two minutes when the leaders of the International Olympic Committee and the London organizers take the stage, and instead turn your attention to the memory of those who died 40 years ago.


    Those who died:



    Moshe Weinberg

    Yossef Ramano

    Ze’ev Friedman

    David Berger

    Yakov Springer

    Eliezer Halfin

    Yossef Gutfreund

    Kehat Shorr

    Mark Slavin

    Andre Spitzer

    Amitzur Shapira


    May their memories be for a blessing.


  • Singing the Praises of our Mothers: A Tribute to Women Cantors

    Posted on August 10th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment


    Cantor Barbara Ostfeld

    Hebrew Union College has been in the forefront of  educating and empowering women to take leadership roles in Jewish life. 36 years ago, the HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music invested its first female cantor. Their voices have changed prayer for all of us, women and men alike. This week’s guest post by Cantor Erik Contzius describes a tribute to the voices of Jewish women throughout the ages.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Cantor Erik Contzius

    36 years ago, HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music  invested its first female cantor, Barbara Ostfeld. Since that time, women have greatly influenced the modern cantorate as well as the musical liturgy of the synagogue. Cantor Ostfeld was a true pioneer, becoming a role model to those women who immediately followed her through the halls of Hebrew Union College to today, where over half of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) is comprised of women.

    In honor of this double-khai anniversary, the American Conference of Cantors honored those female cantors in the ACC who joined from 1975-1985 at the American Conference of Cantors-Guild of Temple Musician’s annual convention in Boston in June, 2011. All of these women, each pioneers in her own right, were acknowledged for their contributions as well as their trailblazing at the convention. Presentations were made, a special service was performed, and I was fortunate enough to be included in honoring these well-deserving women.

    I was initially approached by my friend and colleague, Cantor Claire Franco, who asked if I would compose a choral work in honor of the ACC’s “Imahot,” marking the occasion most appropriately with a new song. I was very flattered and honored, but initially felt uncomfortable—as a man, was it right for me to attempt to give musical voice describing the path these women traveled? Upon further reflection, in an age of post-modernism and perhaps post-feminism, I was able to reconcile being asked to write such a work, but under one condition: In lieu of selecting a text from our rabbinic heritage, which would undoubtedly be written by men, I sought to find a text in the female voice, by a female voice.

    Dina Elenbogen

    With the help of another friend and colleague, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, I was introduced to a very talented writer and poet, Dina Elenbogen. I explained to Dina the need for a text which would give acknowledgement to women claiming their own voice and place in the role of a Cantor. I described it as a journey towards empowerment, acceptance, and leadership. Despite having a limited deadline, Dina’s talent came through, and a poem was born which painted a very powerful image, one of female strength and artistry, equal but distinct from men, and as Dina was inspired by my ideas, I was in turn inspired by her words.

    The result of this combined effort was the work, “A Woman’s Voice” (to listen see below) The choral work, written for Soprano and Alto choir and piano, was premiered in Boston by the very women whom were to be honored. They gave life to Dina’s words and my music, and the congregation of cantors and synagogue musicians was very moved by the gesture.

    I’m only 42. It doesn’t seem that young, but in regard to the modern cantorate, it is. But what it means to me is that for most of my life, the cantorate has not been biased towards one gender or the other. In fact, having grown up with a rabbi who filled both the role of rabbi and cantor, I was unaware of the cantor as a profession until I met my first one at a regional NFTY convention: Cantor Pamela Siskin. I recalled this strong memory to the cantors I was conducting for the premiere performance and how that memory paved the way towards my entering the profession myself.

    I anticipate that the influence and uniqueness that women have brought to the modern cantorate, and therefore to Judaism entirely, will only be magnified in the next 36 years to come. And that special voice, a woman’s voice, melded with the men’s voice which already is here, will continue to make beautiful music for the Jewish people. As it is written: “Sing a New Song unto God.” The song has become new and will continually do so as long as we see both men and women for the equals they are.

    To listen to a recording of click on this link: A Woman’s Voice

    A Woman’s Voice

    In the beginning      a whimper

    Pounding of heart-steps

    Whispers of open fists

    Prayer notes in stone

    Pounding of heart-steps

    Chirps of morning songs

    Prayer notes in stone

    The language of angels


    Chirps of morning songs

    A girl stands at the threshold

    Hears the language of angels

    Her own music breaking


    A girl-woman stands at the threshold

    Chants the first words of Torah

    Her own voice breaking

    Into stones with burning names


    When a woman chants the first words

    She finds inside her own voice

    Stones with burning names

    A cry becomes a scream


    She finds inside her own voice

    A silence   a sigh   an exaltation

    A cry becomes a scream

    A song of abundance


    A silence   a sigh   an exaltation

    When a woman reaches the highest note

    In her abundant song

    Even the stones begin to tremble.


    —Dina Elenbogen, March 2011

  • George Washington and Hanukka

    Posted on November 23rd, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
    The Battle of Valley Forge

    The Battle of Valley Forge

    Jews are particularly gifted in negotiating between the realms of historical fact and mythic narratives. We need only look at the vast chasm that separates the story of the Hannuka as told by the Macabees and that of rabbis of the Talmudic era to see our ability to hold both truths together. The former is a tale of power politics, armies and alliances, the latter one of divine intervention and miracles. Both play powerful roles in informing our understanding of the holiday.

    Interestingly, there is modern Hannuka tale, about George Washington, that plays with not only the national and divine themes, but also with the boundary of history and midrash.

    While I no longer remember where exactly I found it originally, the version of the tale was similar to that found in Isador Margolis and Sidney L. Markowitz’s collection Jewish Holidays and Festivals: A Young Person’s Guide to the Stories, Practices and Prayers of Jewish Festivals, originally published in 1962.

    HTR063As told in this volume, there was one Jewish soldier among Washington’s troops at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777. One cold evening, General Washington out for a walk among the troops came across the young man lighting a menorah. Noting the man’s tears Washington engaged in a fatherly conversation, learning that the man had come to the new world in the hopes of living a life devoid of the anti-semitism and humiliation he had experienced in Poland. Lighting the menorah, he recalled not only his father who had given this treasure, but also the ancient battle for freedom and drew a parallel with Washington’s own fight. Washington commented that if the Jew, the descendant of the prophetic people, predicted that Revolutionary Army would win, so it would. Years later on Hannuka, the same Jew now living in New York placed the same menorah in his window at the start of the holiday. As it happened, President Washington passed by and noticing the candles knocked on the door. Recalling the night they had spent in Valley Forge, the Jew gave the President the menorah as a gift.

    There is a lack of evidence to suggest that these events are founded in historical reality. So, if we were to stick to a vision of Judaism that relies on history alone, this story would be of questionable value.

    To consider this story as midrash raises other questions. After all, it does not follow the traditional methods for uncovering textual meaning. It also takes as its starting text a modern historical event that post-dates not only the biblical but also the era of the traditional rabbinic commentaries.

    Additionally, this story melds together the nationalism of the historical Hannuka story with the divine intervention of the rabbinic Hannuka narrative further complicating our ability to easily identify this story with established categories of narrative traditionally associated with the holiday.

    Yet, despite this, or perhaps because of this, the story has much to offer us when we acknowledge it for what it is and is not. It is an excellent example of modern midrash; an attempt to read Jews into the silences of American history. It speaks of the desire of Jews to see their own story as inseparable from that of the broader American narrative. But it also speaks to the flexibility of the American narrative that allows for such weaving of particularisms into communal fabric. Our understanding of America is built as much on myth as it is history and individual groups in the United States find, or do not find, their place not only in the events of the past but in the telling and remembering of those events.

    valley forgeMoreover, this story speaks to some of the truths about George Washington and provides some challenges to the alignments of nationalism with history and myth with Godly intervention as portrayed in the rabbinic/Maccabean tellings of Hannuka story. George Washington is well known for supporting religious groups of all types –his letter to the Jews of Newport being a shining example of such support. This support stemmed not from secularism, but from a deep belief in an omnipotent God. That deity belonged to no particular faith group but to the cause of goodness. Indeed, as Steve Waldman recounts in the Founding Faith, Washington often attributed success in battle to God’s direct intervention. And while there is no specific evidence of the recitation of prayers over Hannuka candles at Valley Forge, it seems likely that had they been said, Washington would have endorsed them.

    Recently the tale has reentered the popular Jewish consciousness in the form of a children’s book by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Greg Harlin. And it deserves a second look. The Valley Forge tale is a uniquely American Jewish blend, combining midrashic myth creation with historic events. It not only presents us with an opportunity to explore some of the major themes of the Hannuka story from a new perspective but also opens up the possibility for conversations about midrash and meaning making more broadly.

  • What is Jewish Food?

    Posted on November 10th, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments


    When I’m not working on Alumni Education, I write, teach and study Jewish food. I often get asked if there is such thing as Jewish food. After all, Jews are not the only ones to smoke meat, eat couscous or make fish into little balls. So when I was asked to put together a short description of Jewish food to sit on the tables at the upcoming HAZON conference I was excited to try and answer the question. The topic is a big one but here on one foot is a succinct overview.

    Jewish Food

    Brisket, barches, blintzes, burekas, kugel, jachnun and shalet. The list of Jewish foods is endless. Since biblical times food has been a central part of Jewish life playing a role in Jewish life, culture and tradition. It would, for example, be impossible to separate out food from the story and observance of Passover. But in many ways Jewish foods have counterparts in other cultures. What for example is the real difference between a kreplach and a wonton? What distinguishes challah from brioche? While it is difficult to define specific foods as Jewish, it is easy to pinpoint some of the forces that have shaped Jewish cuisine. The triumvirate of Jewish food law, food based rituals, and Jewish history have worked together to shape Jewish foodways.

    Many Jewish rituals require foods. Bread is blessed on Friday night. Maztah is eaten on Passover. Feasts and gifts of food are mandated to make the carnival festival of Purim truly festive. To celebrate the New Year, the Rosh Hashana table is set with edible omens for the year to come. Jews evolved recipes, such as hamantaschen and honey cake, to meet these ritual needs and enhance the festive nature of celebrations.

    Additionally, there are many religious Jewish laws that deal directly with or strongly impact cooking and eating. The dietary laws, kashrut, are perhaps the strongest force in shaping Jewish eating patterns. Based on biblical verses, the rabbinic laws of kashrut prohibit the mixing of milk and meat not only within a given dish but within the same meal. Meat, fish and fowl were further divided into permitted and forbidden. No shellfish, no birds of prey, no pork. Prohibition against cooking on the Sabbath, meant that slow cook dishes became essential elements of the Jewish culinary repertoire.

    j0433970Working in these parameters, Jews throughout history adapted to the historic and geographic circumstances in which they found themselves. Jews worked with the foods and flavors of the regions in which they lived. Moroccan Jews roasted vegetables and meats with spices and fruits. Hungarian Jews made goulash –but without the cream. In places like Poland, poverty meant that potato dishes became a mainstay of the diet. Expulsions and migrations meant that Jews brought new foods and modes of preparations from one country to another. Artichokes for example arrived in Italy with Jews from Spain.

    In America, most of what is known as Jewish food is the Americanized version of Eastern European Jewish cuisine. Some historically Jewish American foods such as bagels and “deli” have crossed over into the mainstream while others such as chopped liver have fallen out of favor. As we sit here today, eating together and talking food seriously in a Jewish context, we are playing a part in a long and evolving conversation about what it means to be Jewish.

    42-17245472Questions for reflection:

    Is a blueberry bagel Jewish? why or why not? what about a bacon bagel?

    What is more Jewish? kosher sushi or ham and cheese on matzah?

    Is the fact that a food is made by or eaten by Jews enough to make it Jewish?

    This post was cross posted at

  • Jews and the Original World Wide Web

    Posted on May 13th, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    Martin Kace

    Martin Kace recently spoke on “The Jewish World Wide Web from Antiquity to Today,” and proposed the idea that the Jews originated the concept of the World Wide Web; I was intrigued. Kace’s background is in psychology and visual arts and his company Empax is a non-profit that advises non-profits about branding and web use. He has worked with politicians like Al Gore and Shimon Peres as they developed their virtual presence to further their agendas as well as with organizations such as Matan to create logos and brands.

    His thesis, derived from the work of Gidi Grinstein, the founder of Reut, posits that the Jews are the original world wide network. According to Kace, the ancient dispersions of the Jews created a web of connections and interconnection across communities and replicated practice across regions. In Jewish communities across the world, similar practises and beliefs, calendars and modalities could be found and one could move from region to region with some familiarity. Moreover, the shift from Temple worship to Yavneh and kallot meant a shift in power from a top down model location specific model to a knowledge based system independent of location or status. People still came together to share knowledge, inevitable given the technological limitations, but the currency of power had shifted from a few limited individuals to a more diverse and spread out group.

    Jews in the Russain Pale of Settlement circa 1800

    Jews in the Russain Pale of Settlement circa 1800

    By the 1800s, Jews are living in all parts of the inhabitable world (his words not mine and here I would quibble). Living in many distinct types of communities they share visual motifs and models of worship. According to Kace, Jews made synagogues their centers because they became assimilated, once again adopting the non-Jewish model of place being the key element in organizing community. Read the rest of this entry »