Relatively Speaking, The Best Seder Memory Ever
During the first week of April, 1944, Stanley Levy, a pre-med student at Princeton University, received an invitation to attend an event on campus that Friday night with a few dozen other Jewish students.
The Jewish Welfare Board, the century-old organization that serves the needs of Jewish members of the armed forces overseas and in the States, was sponsoring a Passover seder at a Princeton dining hall for soldiers and sailors enrolled at Princeton and other members of the school’s small Jewish community.
Levy, a Pittsburgh native, newly enlisted in the Navy and enrolled in the V-12 Naval officers training program, accepted the invitation; he had attended seders his whole life.
He has never forgotten that 1944 evening – he sat next to Albert Einstein.
Dr. Levy, 92, now a semi-retired internist with a specialty in nuclear medicine who lives in the Detroit area, says Einstein, a German Jew who had worked at the university’s Institute for Advanced Study since fleeing the anti-Semitic Third Reich 11 years earlier, attended the seder as a sign of solidarity with the US military.
Einstein, already recognized as one of the century’s most prominent scientific geniuses, took part in the hour-long seder, conducted in English by a JWB chaplain, along with the other participants, most of them decades younger than he, reading from the Haggadah and requesting no special accommodations.
“No one made a fuss over him,” Dr. Levy says in a phone interview.
How did young Levy – then 17 years old – and his roommate get the honor of sitting on either side of the evening’s distinguished guest?
“I have no idea,” Dr. Levy says.
He says he and Einstein spoke a little. A little small talk., in English. Mostly they read from the Haggadah.
“He was nice,” friendly, says Dr. Levy, who calls his time with Einstein – including a chance meeting on campus the following year when the professor quizzed Levy and another student about their studies — “magical … almost a religious experience.”
Dr. Levy, who later served in World War II and the Korean War, received his B.A. degree from Princeton in 1945 and his medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1947.
In later years, Dr. Levy became a collector of Einstein memorabilia – such things as books, paintings and letters. And he helped spearhead, and was a generous contributor to – along with the Landau of Princeton clothing store — a fund-raising drive to put up a bust of Einstein on the Princeton campus.
The 300-pound sculpture, by Robert Berks, was unveiled in 2005 on a triangle-shaped space renamed the “EMC Square.”
Though Einstein’s ties with Judaism have been the subject of debate for a long time – he famously declared himself to not be an atheist, but also did not belive in a personal God – he was known to host infoimal “seders” (actually freedom-centered gatherings on seder night for neighborhood children and Princeton students) at his home several times, and attended traditional seders at other people’s homes. Sometimes he would play the violin afterwards and speak with all the students individually.
At Passover times, at the friends’ seders he attends, Dr. Levy says he often shares his memories of Einstein. “It’s not hard for me to tell the story.”
The Year Passover Saved A Family From Going On The Titanic
Last week’s 107th anniversary of the maiden voyage and subsequent sinking of the Titanic was a reminder of the time that keeping Passover saved my great-grandfather’s life.
Heschel Treiman had booked passage on Titanic to bring his wife and children to the United States. But being a pious Jew, he would not travel during Pesach; he traded in his tickets; the Treimans sailed in May. And they arrived safely in the United States.
I heard this family story in 1974, when I was four.
Heschel Treiman , from Suvalk, Poland, was the son, grandson, great-grandson, great-great grandson (and so on) of the town’s Rebbe. The black sheep of the family, Heschel chose not to enter the “family business,” instead becoming a master tailor. His father, a despotic tyrant, while a man of faith, was not above corporal punishments for minor crimes and more severe consequences for major ones.
Married to my great-grandmother, Fannie, Heschel decided he could best raise his family in America. They left for England in 1896, with little more than the clothes on their back and a hope for a better life.
In 1904 they settled near London, Heschel working as a tailor’s assistant; by 1912, he saved enough money to book passage aboard the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ship.
With steerage tickets in hand, they were prepared for the trip that was to depart Southampton on Wednesday, April 10.
But Passover began on Tuesday, April 2 and ended the following Tuesday, April 9. They would not travel to Southampton during this religious period — they did not have the money for eight days of lodging and food – and they would not be able to reach the port in time for the early morning April 10 departure.
The Treimans most certainly would have been among the 1,503 passengers who died in the icy North Atlantic, most of them in steerage.
With time to spare, Heschel cashed in the tickets and booked passage on the St. Paul, which was due to depart in May. The family stayed in their meager apartment near London and made Pesach for themselves.
Once making it to New York (famed Hester Street on the Lower East Side), Heschel worked as a tailor. Turn-of-the-century Jews didn’t have a lot of vocational options.
I never knew my grandfather’s family. Heschel died in 1932 at age 56. Fannie died in the 1960s.
Their son, my grandpa lived to 72, becoming a lawyer, and serving in World War II. He, like his father, lived life as a righteous Jew, a founding member of a synagogue on Long Island, administration president of another. He prepared countless boys (including me) for their bar-mitzvahs.
Every culture (until written story-telling and the invention of the printing press and moveable type) relied on oral history. Some yarns may have some nugget of truth that lost facts or details in the retelling. Be they bubba meises of questionable veracity or actual facts. Our culture survives only to have the story change with each telling. But no matter what, we tell the stories.
Heschel’s story has always captured my imagination. If it weren’t for Passover, my great-grandparents would have sailed on Titanic and I would never have been born.
Both of my children have grown up with this story, using it as the basis for school projects.
Family gatherings were an important part of my life growing up. Whether Passover or Rosh HaShanah or Thanksgiving, we would have 30 people around a long table. Throughout the year we discuss Heschel’s Titanic story.
At our seders this week, the time that Pesach saved his life is certain to pop up again.
Jordan Silver, an account executive at the Jewish Week, lives in Plainview, L.I.
‘Never give up, never give up’
While most seders end with the words HaShana HaBa B’Yerushalayim (“Next Year in Jerusalem”), one guest at a prominent seder in Moscow in 1987 parted with an atypical message – next year in the United States.
That was what George Shultz, U.S. Secretary of State, told Vladimir Feltsman, a world-class pianist — a Jewish dissident who had unsuccessfully applied for an exit visa from the Soviet Union nearly a decade earlier — at a seder that they and several dozen refuseniks attended at Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. ambassador.
Feltsman, son of composer Oscar Feltsman, had made clear that he wished to make his musical career in the U.S.
The evening’s host was John Matlock, who had become ambassador the month before. He sponsored the symbolic seder, a strong statement about freedom in the waning days of the communist USSR that had put restraints on the open practice of religion, to continue the precedent set by his predecessor, Arthur Hartman.
Usually several refuseniks, Jews like Feltsman who were denied permission to leave their homeland, attended the Spaso House seders.
This year, Shultz, who was in town for arms control talks with Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, was invited.
An Episcopalian, he readily accepted. He brought kosher food and wine for the seder on his government plane.
Feltsman, now 67, who had attended two previous seders at Spano House, also accepted the invitation to come again. “Why not? I’m a Jew.”
Besides, he says, well-known connections with high-ranking U.S. diplomats were likely protection against future KGB harassment.
The seder setting was formal; “Spaso House one of the most elegant mansions in Mpscow,” Feltsman says in a telephone interview from Naples, Flor., where he spends his winters.
Other prominent refuseniks at that 1987 seder, some of whom had spent time in prison or Siberia for their immigration activism, included Aleksandr Lerner, Vladimir Slepak, Viktor Brailovsky, Ida Nudel, and Iosif Begun.
These names were familiar to people who supported the Soviet Jewry movement.
Feltsman sought to leave the USSR, he says, not because of anti-Semitism, which he had tangentially experienced, but for wider personal and artistic freedom. “I didn’t want to be told how to live my life.”
”From a very early age I did not like the system,” he told The New York Times in 1987. ”I never played the party game. There were those who would flatter the authorities or send them gifts or try to sit at their feet. I could not do that. One morning I woke up and said I cannot be part of this any longer.”
In 1979 he requested an exit visa.
And his career tanked. Banned from playing in Moscow and big cities, he was limited to small towns and villages. Some old friends shunned him.
He became a non-person.
As a noted musician, he had befriended Hartman, and was invited to give several concerts – on a piano sent by industrialist Armand Hammer – at the Czarist-era Spaso House. “It was the only [Moscow] venue in which I could play,” Feltsman says.
At the 1987 seder, the celebration of freedom, Shultz told him, “Your cause is known” at the highest levels of the U.S, government. The Secretary of State predicted a “positive” outcome.
Bouyed by the good news, Feltsman did “a lot of drinking” that evening, he says.
The standard four cups of wine?
Shultz, who arrived an hour before the seder, walked around the ballroom, greeting all the refuseniks individually. He wore a white kipa for the occasion, stayed until Kiddush at the start of the seder, then returned to his round of negotiations.
He told the refuseniks of the Reagan administration’s interest in their plight. “We never stop, we think about you, we pray for you, and we are with you,” he said. “We never give up, we never stop trying, never give up, never give up.”
“He had done his homework. He knew almost everyone, by name, by case,” says Michael Einik, the retired New York-born career diplomat who, working then as an economic officer in the Moscow embassy, conducted the seder. His remarks brought tears to the eyes of the refuseniks, Einik said. “You had a sense that he genuinely cared.”
The seder, in a combination of Hebrew and Russian and English, lasted two hours.
In the subsequent months, most of the refuseniks at the seder – including Feltsman, who left at 35 – received their long-awaited exit visas.
Shultz’s highly publicized presence at the seder, which he designated as an “official” State Department event, signaled that “they [the Reagan administration] were very serious” about Jewish immigration rights, says Einik, who now lives in Paris, where he teaches graduate courses on international relations. Soviet officials, he says, understood who were the refuseniks in the U.S. eye.
Feltsman, who lives in upstate New Paltz and teaches at SUNY New Paltz and The New School’s Mannes School of Music, still performs around the country and has issued some five dozen albums.
He frequently attends seders these days at friends’ homes.
Before Shultz left the Spaso House seder to resume his negotiations with Shevardnadze he told Feltsman, “I hope we will see you soon” – in the U.S.
As Shultz predicted, Feltsman was in the U.S. by that summer.
In September, he performed at the White House. Feltsman saw Shultz’s face in the audience.
“He was there,” Feltsman says. He told the Secretary of State, “you were right.”