Improbable endings

The Power of Stories Series

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

After Velvel didn’t return home from school, his parents discovered that he had been forcibly conscripted into the czar’s army where, for 25 years, he would also be pressured to accept baptism.

Even if he survived, he would be lost to his family and to Judaism. His family fell into despair, an unbearable, hopeless vortex of agony and blackness.

Meanwhile, with a satchel of honey cake and a bottle of vodka, Velvel’s sister walked to the training camp. She curtsied to the sentry and asked if she could give a treat to her brother, a new recruit. When the guard hesitated, she offered him the vodka and honey cake.

She found her brother, hustled him into an empty latrine, and instructed him to put on the dress, hat, and shoes at the bottom of her satchel. “Just walk out past the sentry, carrying my bag as if you’re me,” she instructed him. “I’ll wait for you.”

Velvel’s sister snuck out of the camp, soon joined by her brother. The entire family promptly defied the czar’s laws and fled to the United States.

Dr. Iskra Fileva describes despair as “when the pain of the current situation—limited to a specific circumstance or encompassing one’s entire life—seems intolerable, the future appears to hold no hope, and the internal will to fight withdraws.”

For nearly a half century, despair has been viewed as an expression of malfunctioning biochemical processes in the brain, correctable through medical treatment.

However, mounting evidence suggests this medical model is incomplete, science writer Michael Begun notes. It doesn’t account for human agency: the power of human beings to think, make choices, act with intention, self-reflect, imagine, and especially to hope.

Human agency propels the Jewish story, an ongoing narrative filled with moments, lifetimes, even eras of great despair.

Yet, like the weekly Torah readings, the Jewish story never ends on a tragic note.

Consider Joseph, filled with despair as a hated brother, slave, and forgotten prisoner who rose to become viceroy of Egypt and reunited with his family.

And Jeremiah, who despaired when the people ignored his message and publicly humiliated him, but whose prophecies of a hopeful future sustained Israel in Babylonian exile where they forged the foundations of Torah-centered Judaism.

And the despairing Jews, devastated by Jerusalem’s destruction and scattered across the Iberian Peninsula, whose descendants became the scientists, mathematicians, physicians, and scholars of the Jewish Golden Age; the translators who helped spread Greco-Arabic knowledge; and the astronomers and mapmakers who guided Spanish and Portuguese explorers.

Comparable Jewish stories are endless. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that “To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair.” He likewise describes Judaism as “the refusal to give way to despair,” illustrated by the following stories.

The switch. Circumcision is outlawed, decreed Emperor Hadrian, upon pain of death. The Jews of Israel fell into despair. Nevertheless, the great sage Shimon ben Gamaliel secretly performed a circumcision on his new son, naming him Judah.

Upon discovery by the local Roman governor, Rabbi Shimon’s baby and wife were ordered to appear before Hadrian to be judged. On the way, Judah’s despairing mother shared her story with an innkeeper’s wife, the new mother of Antoninus.

“Take my uncircumcised son to Rome,” she offered, “and leave your child with me so his life might be spared.” When the infant was examined in the emperor’s court, no circumcision was evident.

Summarily dismissed, mother and infant returned homeward, stopping at the inn to exchange babies.

Eventually Antoninus, emperor of Rome, met Judah the Prince, editor of the Mishnah, and they became friends, a relationship that brought welcome protection to the Jewish community.

The concert. Faced with conversion or exile, many Jews during the Inquisition opted to remain in Spain and secretly practice their Judaism. As Rosh Hashanah approached, the secret Jews of Barcelona despaired. Unable to hear the shofar yet again, they resented a special concert scheduled for the holiday eve. Not attending would be tempting death.

To open the concert, Don Fernando Aguilar, conductor of the Royal Orchestra and a secret Jew, announced the performance would comprise his own compositions featuring the music and instruments of varied cultures. The audience was spellbound. And only the secret Jews recognized the soaring calls of the shofar within the crescendos of the final piece, 100 blasts in full keeping with Jewish tradition. For the first time in years, Spain’s secret Jews were able to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of hearing the shofar.

The Foundation. In May of 2001, teenage friends Koby Mandell and Yosef Ishran skipped school one day to go hiking in caves near their homes in Tekoa, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

The boys’ bodies were found the next day, brutally stoned to death. Awash in grief and despair, Koby’s parents, Sherri and Rabbi Seth Mandell, struggled to pull themselves out of the abyss.

Sherri penned a poignant memoir, The Blessing of a Broken Heart, that was later adapted into a stage play.

The couple established the Koby Mandell Foundation for bereaved children and adults, offering summer and year-round camps, retreats, support groups, and other programs to families affected by terror and other tragedies.

“Sometimes we’re given these horrible tragedies and we’re able to turn them into something tremendously generative. To rise from the ashes and grow. It’s possible to transform the worst things into light,” Sherri concludes.

To this day, there is a sign over the entrance to the Bratislava synagogue, Rabbi Edward Feinstein notes: “Jews may not despair.” It evokes words of advice from Rabbi Sacks: “Don’t think you understand the story of your life at halftime. Life is filled with improbable endings.”


Literature to share

A Persian Passover by Etan Basseri. This lively children’s tale of a mishap while preparing for Passover is a lovely introduction to the sights, smells, and traditions of a Seder in 1950s Iran. The preparation of matzah figures prominently in the story, as do the traditions of generosity and inviting guests to the Seder. At the end is a delicious Persian charoset recipe you’ll want to try.

People Love Dead Jews by Dara Horn. “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.” Based on the author’s research, travels, and personal experiences, this is a collection of essays in which Horn addresses the unbalanced portrayal of Jews through the lens of death while erasing living Judaism. In Horn’s own words, “I had mistaken the enormous public interest in past Jewish suffering for a sign of respect for living Jews. I was very wrong.”


To read the complete March 2023 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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