Tag Archives: Judaism

During the Coronavirus crisis, the lives of Holocaust survivors can offer us some much needed perspective

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Make no mistake.  The Coronavirus is a serious problem and one that the larger percentage of people recognize as being something that needs to be taken seriously.  Everyone reacts to things differently and everyone is frightened by different things.  Some more than others.  Fear or lack thereof in a situation such as this one is not what distinguishes cowards from heroes. It is the actions in light of those fears that speaks more to a person’s character.  Part of my reason for saying that is because despite my relative lack of concern for my own well-being, my behaviors are more out of a communal sense of responsibility and decency towards others, I say without any degree of false modesty that I am no hero.  But my lack of panic or fear has made me ask why I feel this way.  Although there are many others who share my approach for different reasons, I believe mine comes from an education I received at home from a young age from my parents.

There is a difference between scaring people and giving them perspective.  I attempt to do the latter.  To consciously try to sensationalize and scare people at a time like this is not only destructive, it is unethical.  So the lessons I learned I pass on in the hope that it helps people deal better with this situation moving forward.

As someone who has studied and written about what my parents experienced in Holland between 1940-1945, I’ve learned to look at things more as they are than how I think they could be or how I would like them to be.  Yes, it is great to dream.  The best line from the movie Flashdance, in my opinion, was the line, “if you lose your dreams, you die”.  That being said, looking at things as they truly are and understanding the reality, is critical at a time like this.  So first I look at the aspect of isolation and the true extent of the discomfort or inconvenience that it causes.  Once when I was about 16 years old, I found myself depressed over the silly nonsense that is likely to depress someone of that age.  And back then, as someone who was living in London away from my parents who were in Holland, much of my communication with my parents was through written letters.  In one letter my father wrote to me one of the most poignant and helpful things he would ever share with me.  He told me that even though I may see my problems as not that large compared to “real” problems, since they were my problems they were the most serious to me.  I share that because that comfort and understanding given to me by my father, someone who had survived the Holocaust, needs to be understood by those who might say to you, relax, it could be worse.  Whatever it is you are going through today, and I hope and pray it stops short of health issues for you or your loved ones, it is your most serious problem.  But that still doesn’t have to stop any of us from using the experiences of previous generations as a perspective check, one that might just make it easier for us to handle during these difficult time.

I live alone.  I am not saying that out of self-pity or in search of attention.  I say that because I consider myself fortunate.  I have electricity, heat, running water, enough food, contact with the outside world, and as long as my actions do not put others in jeopardy,  freedom of movement.  I also say that because the isolation people are asked to apply to their lives, is, assuming people respect it and with God’s help, a relatively temporary measure.  So I look to a 16 month period of my mother’s life for perspective.  The last 16 months in Holland, at the end of World War II. During this time my mother slept every night in a small room underground and probably in a space no bigger than many  people’s bathrooms.  She had a candle and a bucket, and when the weather turned bad, rising water that she had to walk through and a damp unpleasant room that she slept in.  Every night, Lubertus te Kiefte, the righteous man who together with his wonderful and equally righteous wife Geeske, gave my mother a relatively safe environment and food to survive, would take my mother to the back of his workplace where he had built her this room.  Once she was in the underground, he would put sandbags on top of the entrance to hide the room’s existence.  This was necessary because on any given day the possibility existed that the Nazis would raid people’s homes.

We all would love to go to work, go to gatherings, eat at restaurants, go to school or pray in our houses of worship. I get it. But perspective helps.  And considering what my mother dealt with for 16 months in cold, dark and unhealthy conditions, conditions that when relieved were replaced with the constant fear of being caught by the Nazis, maybe those us who need a perspective check and are miserable over having to stay home in conditions that offer us most of our basic needs over a time period that has not even hit 16 days, need to consider what my mother experienced during that time.  But maybe most importantly we all need to know that, even with the losses she suffered and the pain she experienced, she went on to live to be 95, build a family, and other than missing her husband, my father, died a happy woman.

The uncertainty we feel, the feeling we feel is so devastating, I put into perspective by understanding, to the best of my limited abilities, my father’s 5 years in Nazi-occupied Holland.  Before the war my father was on track to live a life as a Judaic scholar. His knowledge of Judaism and his involvement in the community were the core of his upbringing. Then came the war, and a 5 year period in which he was an active member of the Dutch resistance and someone constantly on the move, living through that time with a false identity, and, for lack of any other way of saying it, putting his Jewish life on complete hold.  For 5 years. Let’s use that as a perspective check before we panic about having to put our lives on hold for 5 weeks or even 5 months.  Why? Because when the war was over, my father married my mother, became a Rabbi and went on to live a rich and fulfilling life.

Everyone has their stories.  Some worse than others, some better.  This is not a competition.  This post is not designed to belittle anyone’s pain or fear.  What it is meant to do is offer some added perspective. Not just as to how much worse things can get in life, but more importantly as to how we can not only move on, but if we are fortunate enough and resilient enough, maybe even restart the lives that we have.

I have often said that the basis for my personal happiness is the teaching from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, about who is a happy person.  It is someone who is happy with their portion.  That lesson has never been a more important one than it is today.  When things are going the way you would like them to go it is easy to be happy with what you have.  But during times of struggle and hardship, that teaching becomes even more important.  Look to what you have in life and be grateful for it.  Let it make you happy.  If that doesn’t work, than hopefully some of these lessons on perspective will.  The reality is what the reality is.  Your way of looking at it is entirely up to you.

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Open Letter to Shia Labeouf from a Proud Jew

shiaDear Shia,

Thank you.  You helped crystallize an opinion I’ve had for quite some time. In leaving, or I should say believing you’ve left the Jewish faith, you made the statement that you just couldn’t cut it.  It’s important that I make something very clear.  If someone’s faith makes them a better person I respect them for the religion they are following.  However, as a Jew, and  I know I am not alone in this sentiment, someone who says they are leaving the faith I feel is at least to some degree a bit of a traitor.  Proud Jews believe we have something special going here, and when you Shia Labeouf choose to take your manifestation of faith elsewhere, you are, in the eyes of many, saying it’s not good enough of for you.  But I see it differently. I believe you are saying it is too difficult for you.

It is somewhat ironic that I write this letter.  You see, I am not such a great Jew.   Of course when I say this I am referring to my level of observance.  How good or bad I am is something left for God to judge, but there is no debating that my religious practice leaves a lot to be desired.  So when I seemingly go after someone for running from Judaism’s challenges, the irony is that I do that every day.  There’s one difference.  I don’t go elsewhere because I think it is easier.

You might say that I am out of line.  I’m sure I will even hear that from some fellow Jews who read this letter.  After all how can I make the assumption that you left the religion of your birth because it was too tough for you.  I make this assumption because I know that to many of those lost souls wandering around aimlessly,  it is a lot easier to choose a system where they believe that all they need to do is declare their faith. Being a Christian by your perception in what you so spiritually referred to as a not in a  F-ing Bulls*t type of way, doesn’t involve all the restrictions and daily commitment being a Jew in a not F-ing Bulls*t type of way does.  I’ll even go along with your premise and admit that I often behave in ways that makes it seem like I believe in Judaism in a F-ing Bulls*t type of way.  I rather admit my flaws and practice poorly than run to something else where I can appear religious without really doing anything.

I have Christian friends.  I respect them and admire them.  I don’t believe in all the same concepts that they do, but since they respect what I believe in as well our differences don’t matter.  And to be very honest, I have no issue with anyone who chooses Christianity over the faith of their birth unless it was Judaism.  You see Shia, I have a great fondness and pride for what I am.  I know it is tough being Jewish.  There are lots of restrictions, many responsibilities, what sometimes feels like unfair expectations, and with the amount of people who have wanted to kill us over the years and still do to this day, what often feels like a big target on our backs.

There are some who believe that Judaism makes it too hard for people to join the faith.  They believe that conversion should be made easier.  The opinion you helped crystallize by your declaration of conversion is that one of the reasons for anti-Semitism is the way we Jews who are even marginally traditional Jews feel we’re an exclusive group which people have to show real dedication to if they wish to join.  I think it causes many to subconsciously feel, if you can’t join em, beat em.  I myself have struggled with this very question, Does Judaism make it too difficult for converts?  Maybe so.  But I guess it’s because we rather not have someone claim to be Jewish and then be a Jew in a F-ing Bullsh*t kind of way.  It’s usually required that they believe in it in the kind of way that goes beyond just saying in an interview to a magazine that they’ve been saved.

Despite the perceived tone of this letter, I do wish you spiritual peace.  I also want you to know I still consider you Jewish whether you do or not.  You see, I was raised to believe it’s a lifetime membership whether you feel you can handle it or not.  And if I am right you’ll have to answer to God big time.  Then again so will I.  But at least I accepted what he gave me from birth.  You felt you knew better, or found an easier answer.  Good luck with that.

Sincerely,

David Groen

 

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It’s all Fun and Games until someone loses a Head

isis-videoLet me start by making something very clear.  I am by no means making light of the horrific and graphic murder of journalist James Foley.  I am however asking two very important questions.  My first question is why did it take till now for everyone to take the threat of ISIS as seriously it should have?  And my second question is, as the United States debates bombing a second country after the beheading of one journalist, why has it been so hard for the world to accept Israel’s reaction to the murder of three teenage boys?

The questions seem very different but the answer may be the same.  Regarding the subject of terrorism, Muslim extremism and the threat it poses to the entire civilized world, the Israeli government and its supporters, in Israel and throughout the world, are ahead of the curve.  As much as I dislike them on a personal level, the celebrities who proudly display their anti-Semitic sentiments through opposition of Israel’s actions don’t understand how much they are hurting themselves in the process.  I dare say that to some this is a new Muslim Chic.  Captivated by the culture, the music, the hum of the call to prayer, the smooth talking Palestinian leaders have them taken in by what they see as the Palestinian’s plight.  I am not going to berate Liam Neeson for expressing his attraction to Islam because he did so in a positive context, but I may also want to say to him, come take a look at Judaism.  We don’t have large factions within our ranks looking to take over the planet through brutal violence.

Criticizing the realities that exist within Islam is not racist, its realistic and practical.  Celebrities and politicians who have bent over backward to ignore those realities until now are partially to blame for James Foley’s death and for those who will be murdered by these factions in the future.  When the two young stars, Rihanna and Selena Gomez tweeted messages along the lines of “Free Gaza” or “Free Palestine”, did they ever stop to consider how young women like them are treated by the Hamas government and the society they are defending?  In contrast are they aware of the equality and opportunities provided to young women in Israel, even going as far as being important contributors in the military?  I am sure they didn’t.  They posted it on Twitter because it seemed like a fun, neo-humanitarian thing to do at the time.  Not so much fun anymore when there’s a video of an American journalist being beheaded on YouTube is it?

If the rest of the western world had put the same value on the lives of  Naftali Frenkel,   Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar as Israel did, and supported the operation in Gaza as it should have and understood its importance, it would have sent a message to groups like ISIS and Hamas, and even the oft ignored ringleader Iran, that it understood what is at stake.  But not only did they not do it then, some continue to not do it today.  But to those who needed to see it in front of them to make it real, the beheading of James Foley was a wake up call.  Not so Chic anymore is it?

 

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Why Holland’s Heroes?

9781468573909_COVER.inddSome of you already know the background, but for those of you that have only started reading my work recently I wanted to give you a brief explanation of why my blog is called “Holland’s Heroes”.  In short, I am here today because of Dutch heroes.  My parents, Rabbi Nardus Groen of blessed memory and my mother Sipora Groen, were both Holocaust survivors from Holland.  As I cover in the book “Jew Face: A story of Love and Heroism in Nazi-Occupied Holland”, their actions during the Nazi-occupation of Holland were nothing short of heroic.  Originally set up to promote the book, Holland’s Heroes has developed into something far more important, an avenue from which to promote the truth, defend Israel and the Jewish people, and a platform from which to join forces with all those of all faiths that want a safe and decent future.

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My mother showed incredible courage in some of the most dire situations including sleeping in an underground room for 16 months knowing at any time she could be discovered and killed.  My father was instrumental in saving the lives of many, including my mother.  He escaped the grasp of the Nazis four times including one remarkable escape from the Hollandse Schouwberg, Amsterdam’s equivalent at the time to Carnegie Hall in New York City.   The people who provided my mother a home for 16 months, Lubertus & Geeske te Kiefte, did so knowing that if they were to be caught, their entire family would be killed.  Despite the grave dangers, they not only gave my mother shelter, they gave her a warm and friendly home.  It hardly gets more heroic than that. And there were so many others, Jew and non-Jew alike that showed such bravery in such difficult times it is almost impossible to comprehend.

So very simply put, I am here today and able to write for you because of heroes from the small nation of Holland.  I’m aware of the problems facing the Jewish community of Holland today and knowing the rich history of Judaism in the country and my own personal connection it is even more heartbreaking for me than what is happening in other parts of Europe.  None of that negates the fact that Holland’s Heroes are the reason I am here today, and for that I will always be grateful and proudly call my blog Holland’s Heroes.

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They are Sanctified through Our Unity

img65649Sanctification is an important word in the Jewish religion.  The Sabbath is celebrated and made holy, partially through the blessing of the wine, known as Kiddush or sanctification.  To behave in a decent and good way and represent Judaism in a strong manner is referred to as a Kiddush Hashem, or Sanctification of God’s name.  And the prayer uttered in mourning is know as the Kaddish, because it sanctifies the memory of the lost soul and lifts them to a higher level before God.

Not everyone has the same reaction to the murder of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel, but what strikes me is the similarity with which we have all been devastated.  Regardless of one’s political leanings, opinions on a response to the murders, or connections to Jewish faith and practice, the horrible events brought to light have united not only Jews, but decent people everywhere in a way that truly sanctifies these boys’ memories.  They should never have been taken so young, but the way in which they have brought us together their souls are truly raised to the highest level.


The Last Seder?

mealDespite my own personal ideological struggles, I am a Jew who believes in the philosophies of Judaism before I believe in those of any other religion.  However, I do feel that now maybe more than any time in history the alliance between Christians and Jews has never been more important.  The rise of Islam, a rise that in many places preaches only Islam, has put the concept of freedom of religion in more danger than any time in modern history.  With that in mind I am making a short post to discuss, and hopefully create a discussion regarding the connection between Passover and Easter.

I often say, only partially tongue in cheek, that there are 2 major differences between Christianity and Judaism.  One is that while Christians are awaiting the 2nd coming, us Jews are still awaiting the 1st.  Either way we are still awaiting the supposed Messiah or Messianic era.  The second difference would be the disagreement over who is the best Jew of all time.  There would be some discussion on the matter, but as a Jew I would put in my vote for Moses, and I would be surprised if I didn’t end up backing the winner.  Christians however, even if they have a fondness for Moses, clearly would pick Jesus.

It is widely believed that “The last supper” was actually a Passover Seder.  Seeing the apparent time of year and the fact that a group got together around the table for discussion, there is much credence to this belief.  Ultimately, those who believe in the Messiah coming in a mystical, ultra spiritual way would see the events celebrated by Christians as a realistic method for the savior to be revealed.  Us Jews however do not believe that has actually taken place.  However, if either belief causes people to behave in ways of peace, love and tolerance, they help the world far more than hurt the world.

What are your thoughts?


Remembering My Father

dadc193 years ago today in Rotterdam, Holland, my father Nardus Groen was born.  His life was one filled with substance, meaning, and love.  I remember him fondly and miss him often.  Despite what one might take from the book “Jew Face”, I was aware of my father’s faults.  Every human being is flawed and my father was no exception.  However, one of the things I witnessed from the time I was a child, was that he never spoke one bad word of his parents who were murdered in Auschwitz.

My father was a great man.  I say that with certainty and pride.  He was principled, strong, ethical, and loving.  I often wonder if he would have liked the book “Jew Face” and my portrayal of his life.  I have often said that the greatest joy for me in writing the book was that in writing it I felt as though I got to know my parents as young adults.  My father never was able to confirm if that feeling of mine was justified, but it is one that I keep with me and cherish.

To use more modern vernacular, when looking at my father in the most difficult of times, my father was a bad ass.  He claimed in later years that he often felt fear, but his actions during the worst of times showed a behavior that showed otherwise.  The hardest thing for me as his son has always been the feeling that I have never been close to being the man that he was.  But then again, many never will be.

He was proud of who he was, and as a Rabbi he tried to use his understanding and extensive knowledge of Judaism to help and teach others, Jew and non-Jew alike.  The debate on what makes one truly religious is an endless one, but in my eyes and the eyes of many others, my father was indeed very religious, even if somewhat unconventional in practice.

He loved my mother, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren very much. No one has ever perfected the art of showing that love, my father being no exception, but to this day his love is never questioned.  Together with my mother, who God willing turns 91 in 2 weeks, a new world sprung forth of decent and loving people who do them both proud.

So today, on what would have been my father’s 93rd birthday, I remember my father, Rabbi Nardus Groen, with love and respect, and hope that some of what I have done this past year has helped part of the world know why.