Israel says ‘crisis’ with Poland is over as the countries agree to resume student trips to Holocaust sites
(JTA) — After a warm meeting with his Polish counterpart on Wednesday, Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen declared that the years-long “crisis” in relations between the two countries was over.
Meeting in Warsaw, Cohen and Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau signed an agreement stating that Israeli youth trips to Holocaust sites in Poland would resume — rebooting a longstanding program that was called off last year as part of a series of ongoing diplomatic spats. The Times of Israel reported that Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, will have to approve the agreement for it to go into effect.
Poland also agreed to return its ambassador to Israel in the near future. The Polish envoy was recalled in 2021.
“This is an important moment in the relations between our countries,” Cohen said at a press conference, the Associated Press reported.
In 2018, Poland’s right-wing government caused a rift between the two countries by passing a law that made it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of having committed crimes during the Holocaust, a move that critics called a whitewashing of history. Then, in 2021, Poland passed another law that effectively closed off restitution claims by descendants of families that had lost property during the war.
Israeli politicians, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, harshly condemned both moves and for a time Israel recalled its ambassador to Warsaw. Poland’s prime minister canceled a trip to Israel in 2019.
Before last year, Israeli students had for years visited the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp and historic Jewish sites throughout Poland, in cities such as Warsaw and Krakow.
Netanyahu expressed hope that Wednesday’s meeting “will lead to even closer cooperation between the two countries.”
Ryan Lavarnway, a Team Israel veteran and World Series champ, retires from MLB
(JTA) — Veteran catcher Ryan Lavarnway announced his retirement from baseball Wednesday, ending a journeyman career that featured 10 seasons in the MLB and multiple appearances with Team Israel.
“I have played on eight big league teams and worn the uniform of 18 other clubs, mostly in the minors, concluding with a stint on Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic this month,” Lavarnway, 35, wrote in an essay announcing the decision in The Athletic. “An outsider might say there were more downs than ups, but I wouldn’t give back a single day.”
Lavarnway was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2008 after an impressive baseball career at Yale University. The California native was a member of the 2013 World Series championship team in Boston, and would go on to play in the big leagues for Baltimore, Atlanta, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Miami and Cleveland.
Lavarnway’s last MLB appearance came in September 2021 with the Cleveland Guardians. He ended his career with 165 career games, just over one full season. He hit nine career home runs.
But Lavarnway is perhaps best known for his time as a player and leader on Team Israel.
Lavarnway joined Israel for the 2017 World Baseball Classic qualifier and would play for the team in the 2017 tournament, where he was named Pool A most valuable player. He also played for the team at the 2020 Summer Olympics and the 2023 WBC. He obtained Israeli citizenship in 2019 ahead of the Olympics.
Lavarnway has been vocal about how much it means to him to play for Israel.
“Playing for this team is super meaningful to me,” Lavarnway told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after Israel’s exhibition game against the Miami Marlins prior to the WBC. “It’s been really life changing. And I hope that this next generation of players that are new to this team takes the baton, and it means as much to them as it’s meant to us.”
To the team’s general manager Peter Kurz, Lavarnway is “part of Team Israel for life.”
“All that I can say is that Ryan was the ultimate professional, going about his work in a joyful and experienced manner,” Kurz told JTA. “He was and is dedicated to Team Israel and was our ultimate warrior. But he was also warm and funny and emotional, and those are wonderful traits.”
Kurz also said he would gladly welcome Lavarnway back to the team as a coach.
In his Athletic piece, Lavarnway reflected on his rollercoaster of a career — during which he was demoted, traded or released 26 times.
“You don’t have to be the biggest, strongest, or fastest to accomplish your dreams,” Lavarnway wrote. “You don’t have to see the whole path on your way to success either. You can be better than you ever imagined, you just need to believe it’s possible and figure out the first step to start moving in that direction.”
A fifth question this Passover: what makes Trader Joe’s matzah different from all other matzah?
(JTA) — For millennia, Jews have eaten matzah. And for years, Jewish patrons of Trader Joe’s have been able to purchase matzah off the shelves of the tiki-themed grocery chain — which has gained its own quasi-religious following.
Now, for the first time ever, Trader Joe’s will be selling matzah under its own famous private label.
The question, even among the store’s diehard Jewish fans, is what makes Trader Joe’s-branded matzah different from all other matzah.
The grocery chain with more than 500 stores nationwide, and known for characteristically friendly, Hawaiian shirt-clad employees and a limited selection and high turnover of products, has gained a cult-like following in its 56 years of operation. An Instagram fan account boasts nearly 2 million followers; the internet is abound with memes about falling in love with Trader Joe’s cashiers; and dozens of Facebook groups with thousands of members each exist to cater toward the specific dietary needs of loyal shoppers.
Those loyalists include no small number of Jews who keep kosher. The store stocks a number of Jewish, Israeli and Middle Eastern foods — from an “everything but the bagel” spice mix to spicy zhoug sauce to kosher-certified turkeys ahead of Thanksgiving, and frozen latkes. Trader Joe’s caused a small uproar in 2012 when it stopped stocking kosher pareve semi-sweet chocolate chips. After a campaign by Jewish customers, the chain brought the product back to its shelves in 2021.
But whether that loyalty will extend to the store’s matzah is unclear. Some shoppers said they were excited about the new offering, while others wondered whether it would be any different from the matzah Trader Joe’s has sold in previous years. Still others said that by putting its name on one of the most quintessential Jewish foods, Trader Joe’s “signals that Pesach products have gone mainstream,” in the words of Susan Robinson, a member of Kosher Trader Joe’s, a Facebook group with more than 63,000 members.
The decision also demonstrates that Trader Joe’s takes its kosher-observant customers seriously, said Rachel B. Gross, a professor at San Francisco State University who teaches a course on U.S. Jews and the history of food.
“My understanding is that they’ve never wanted to do everything,” Gross said. “But they have had a really strong kosher game because that worked really well with the way they approached the niche markets in general.”
For years, Trader Joe’s sold matzah made by a brand called Holyland, and it’s unclear whether the chain’s new boxes hold the same old product. The company — which is secretive about who produces its private-label foods — told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency only that the new private label matzah is made by “one of the largest and oldest matzo-making bakeries in Israel.”
Whether the Holyland once sold by Trader Joe’s is made by the same company as Holyland Shmura Matzo — a circular handmade variety — is similarly unclear. But there are hints, beyond the name, that they come from the same company, which is based in Israel. Both share the same distributor, and both include a logo on the front bearing the web address NaturallyBetterWithYouInMind.com, a site that boasts “high quality, all natural, kosher foods.”
A representative of the distributor of both Holyland products, a New Jersey company called Kayco, did not know whether the current Trader Joe’s product is the same as the Holyland matzah. The new Trader Joe’s matzah box says only that it is distributed and sold by Trader Joe’s, which is headquartered outside of Los Angeles.
That confusion has led to an ambivalent reaction among some members of Kosher Trader Joe’s. Multiple members of the group shared photos of the new boxes at their local stores, encouraging each other to buy the matzah in order to press the company to produce it again next year.
Some commented on the new box design, while others remarked on the price — $2.69 per box, a slight increase over the $2.49 Trader Joe’s charged for the Holyland boxes last year, according to an Instagram fan page. (Name-brand boxes of matzah at the same weight cost slightly more at other retailers, ranging from about $3.22 for a 16 ounce box of Yehuda Matzos to $4.49 for Manischewitz’s version of the unleavened bread.)
“Trader Joe’s has sold Holyland Matzah for at least a decade, if not longer,” wrote one member. “I’m surprised that it has taken them this long to put it under the Trader Joe’s private label.”
Others were just happy to have access to matzah at all. Another member recalled that supply chain delays and restrictions related to COVID-19 led to shortages of Passover products, and that in Manhattan’s East Village, where he lives, “TJ – and the Holyland Matzo – became a Pesach saver. That’s what the commotion is all about.”
(Members of the group who adhere to strict kosher laws may not have tried the new matzah yet due to a tradition of not eating matzah between Purim and Passover, although a few customers remarked that it feels thinner than Holyland matzah.)
In addition to matzah, Trader Joe’s will sell Teva Glatt kosher-for-Passover Angus beef brisket and a few kosher-for-Passover wines including Sara Bee Moscato and Baron Herzog chardonnay and cabernet. The company will publish a complete list of its kosher-for-Passover offerings closer to the holiday, which begins the night of April 5.
Gross said the conversation over Trader Joe’s matzah fits in with the way Americans celebrate Passover, which she said is intimately tied to brands. She cited the proliferation of well-known Passover products like the haggadah published by Maxwell House coffee, which was first printed more than 90 years ago, or Manischewitz’s many Passover foods. The way the holiday has been shaped by brands, she said, is “in some sense, a traditional American Jewish experience.”
“Jews have really learned over the last 110, 120 years how to trust brands, and trust brands around kashrut, especially around Passover,” Gross told JTA.
“We know that the people who keep kosher are such a small minority,” she added. “And we know that the number of people who look for heckshers are not primarily Jews, which makes me wonder how many non-Jews buy matzah, or [how many] they expect to buy matzah.”
But for at least one member of Kosher Trader Joe’s, brand loyalty was not enough to make the new matzahs stand out.
“Most articles written about this Matza as well as online comments make it out to be something earth-shattering and revolutionary, and fail to mention that Trader Joe’s has carried matza around this time, in every single store, for years and years under the Holyland Brand,” wrote Yoseph Goldstein. “Have folks easily forgotten this? Is it really the ‘coolness’ of the box?”
A Florida bill attacking ‘critical theory’ in higher education has the state’s Jewish academics worried
(JTA) — The University of Florida has more Jewish students than any other public college in the United States — and last week, one of them reached out to a professor, fearing that it would no longer be possible to study Jewish topics there.
Citing a graphic that had been making the rounds on social media, the student asked if it was true that a new bill working its way through the state legislature would remove all “Jewish Studies courses, majors and minors” in the state. The graphic was shared by several people with large online followings, including comedian D.L. Hughley, who has more than 750,000 followers on Twitter.
“I love my major and I can’t imagine switching to anything else,” the student wrote, according to Norman Goda, director of the university’s Center for Jewish Studies.
Goda wasn’t able to console the student. Like other Jewish academics in Florida who spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, he doesn’t know whether H.B. 999 would affect Jewish studies on the state’s college campuses. Though the bill’s author — a Republican state representative — says that won’t be the case, the bill’s language is much less clear.
That’s because the bill’s current wording would forbid the state’s public higher education institutions from teaching or offering any major or minor based in “methodology associated with Critical Theory.” That prohibition, say academics and other critics of the bill, would make teaching courses in Jewish studies impossible — and would also outlaw many other fields in higher education.
Exactly what the bill means by “critical theory” is unclear. To academics, the term refers to a tool for analyzing society and culture, created in the 1930s by German Jewish academics, that encourages people to view the world through power structures, and to consider why they fall short. To political conservatives, it’s a relative of “critical race theory,” a watchword for those who want to inhibit classroom instruction about racism. An earlier version of H.B. 999 mentioned only critical race theory, not the umbrella theory.
“These people don’t know what they’re talking about,” said a Jewish faculty member at a Florida university, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation from the state government, regarding the lawmakers behind H.B. 999. “You’re putting people who don’t know what critical theory is, but have heard the words — and now you’re putting them in charge of universities.”
A university that completely purged such ideas from its classrooms, the anonymous faculty member said, “would be non-existent.”
The bill in question is the latest example of conservative-led state efforts to snuff out culture-war modes of thought like critical race theory and gender studies, often referred to euphemistically by lawmakers as “divisive concepts” in education. Such efforts have occasionally ensnared efforts to teach Jewish history and the Holocaust.
Attempts to legislate the classroom are particularly potent in Florida, where Republican governor Ron DeSantis, a likely presidential candidate, has frequently stated his desire to ban “woke” concepts from being taught in the state. (DeSantis has stated he will wait to see H.B. 999’s final form before he decides whether to sign it, but in a discussion with college administrators last week he continued to rail against what he called the “ideological agenda” of campus diversity, equity and inclusion programs.)
The state recently rejected the curriculum for a new Advanced Placement African-American Studies course in high schools, forcing the College Board to rework the class. Florida is also home to several active conservative “parents’ rights” groups that have lobbied to remove objectionable books and clubs from public schools.
While most legislation in this realm to date has targeted what’s taught in K-12 public schools, this bill and other efforts in Florida have gone a step further by seeking to regulate the world of state-funded higher education — creating what critics say are new and dangerous threats to academic freedom, with broad and vague wording that leaves efforts to research and teach a variety of disciplines in doubt.
“This bill would cripple the long-standing freedom universities have to design and teach a curriculum based on the development of academic disciplines,” Cary Nelson, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois and past president of the American Association of University Professors ,who has taught multiple courses on Jewish issues, told JTA.
In a recent subcommittee hearing on the bill, Republican state Rep. Alex Andrade, who co-authored the legislation, said, “I believe that state universities should be focused on teaching students how to think, not what to think.” He said the bill’s banning of “radical” ideologies referred to “a system meant to direct and promote certain activism to achieve a specific viewpoint.”
Efforts to limit the material taught to children and college students are underway in several states. But Florida has an especially large population of Jewish students. The University of Florida stands atop Hillel International’s ranking of public colleges with the highest proportion of Jewish students, and the University of Central Florida has the third-largest. Florida State University, Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University and the University of South Florida also rank in the top 60.
H.B. 999 would affect education at those schools in other ways, too. The bill, which recently advanced to committee, would overhaul the state’s post-tenure review process, so that instead of checking on a faculty member’s research productivity every five years, as is currently the case in the state, tenured professors could face reviews “at any time for cause” including “violation of any applicable law or rule.”
The result, one academic in the state said, would be “open season on faculty,” who could be out of a job if their university’s board — which, in public schools, is beholden to the governor — disagrees with their syllabus.
Andrade rejected the idea that H.B. 999 would undercut Jewish studies in Florida.
“Outsiders are wrong. Ethnic studies are not affected by the bill either by the bill’s intent or the bill’s language,” Andrade wrote in an email to JTA, accusing the bill’s critics of “lying and claiming that Florida’s leaders have tried to ban teaching black history in schools.”
The state’s only Jewish Republican legislator, state Rep. Randy Fine, did not return a JTA request for comment on whether he supports the bill. Fine has promoted similar culture-war legislation in the past, including a bill he co-authored in February that would prohibit all K-12 schools in the state from referring to either students or employees by pronouns that do not correspond to the sex they were assigned at birth.
With a Republican-dominated House and Senate, some form of H.B. 999 seems likely to reach DeSantis’ desk. (A parallel bill in the state Senate does not contain wording on critical theory.) But there is strong opposition from the academic community. Groups including the American Historical Association, the American Association of University Professors and Florida’s statewide faculty union have harshly condemned the bill and urged lawmakers to oppose it.
The American Historical Association’s statement on the bill this month calls it a “blatant and frontal attack on principles of academic freedom and shared governance central to higher education in the United States.” More than 70 academic, historical and activist organizations co-signed the statement.
The executive committee of the Association for Jewish Studies signed a different statement authored by the American Council of Learned Societies, decrying the bill as an “effort to undermine academic freedom in Florida.”
“If it passes, it ends academic freedom in the state’s public colleges and universities, with dire consequences for their teaching, research, and financial well-being,” the statement said of the bill. “Academic freedom means freedom of thought, not the state-mandated production of histories edited to suit one party’s agenda in the current culture wars.”
Asked for comment on the bill, Warren Hoffman, the executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies, pointed to the statement.
Rachel Harris, director and endowed chair at Florida Atlantic University’s Jewish Studies program, is in her first semester at the university, having just arrived from the University of Illinois. “I’m now wondering if that was a terrible mistake,” she joked. (Harris is spending this term in Israel, researching on a Fulbright fellowship.)
Still, Harris said she was “confident” that legislators would “continue to support educational commitments in the state,” noting that Florida has a Holocaust education mandate for K-12 public schools. Her Boca Raton university is currently building an expanded center for Jewish and Holocaust studies, funded by private donors. H.B. 999 in its current form would prohibit universities from teaching critical theory concepts even when such programs are privately funded.
Despite what he described as a few students at the Jewish Studies center who are concerned about the new bill, Goda said he did not think the legislation would change the experience of Jewish students on his campus.
“Jewish kids these days are really choosing universities based on whether or not Jewish kids feel comfortable there,” he said. “And I would argue that [the University of Florida] is a very welcoming campus for Jewish kids overall. There are strong Jewish institutions associated with the campus.”
Instead, he feels the bill’s real effects would be felt in the state’s ability to recruit faculty and staff while its legislators jeopardize academic freedom, tenure and other lodestars of the humanities. He said, “The real question to me is how and in what way it’s going to be enforced.”
Unique Carnegie Hall concert to honor Japanese diplomat Sugihara, who saved 6,000 Jews
For most of his life, Chiune Sugihara received little recognition for the dramatic actions he undertook as Japanese vice-consul to Lithuania on the eve of World War II: the rescue of some 6,000 Jews from Poland and elsewhere from the Nazi death machine.
For decades, the Jewish world remained largely ignorant of his heroism. When, in 1985, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center located in Israel, honored the unassuming retired diplomat as a Righteous Among the Nations, Sugihara was too old and sick to travel to Jerusalem to accept the award. He died shortly after.
But his renown has grown in the years since his death, and now Sugihara is being celebrated in a new way with an extraordinary piece of music composed to commemorate his heroic actions.
On April 19 at Carnegie Hall, Japanese-American-Israeli cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper will perform this original piece of music — Lera Auerbach’s Symphony No. 6, “Vessels of Light” — accompanied by the New York City Opera Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian.
The gala concert, organized by Yad Vashem and the American Society for Yad Vashem, which commissioned the piece, will pay tribute to Sugihara’s legacy.
Along with the honorary Dutch consul in Lithuania, Jan Zwartendijk, Sugihara issued life-saving visas to the Jews trying to escape Europe through a complex, illegal scheme involving fake transit visas via Japan to the Dutch-speaking Caribbean island of Curaçao.
Not a single Jew actually traveled to that faraway island off the coast of Venezuela, home to the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas. But the operation — carried out under the noses of Lithuania’s Nazi occupiers — enabled thousands of Jews to resettle in Shanghai, leading to eventual freedom.
“Being half-Japanese myself, I understand the culture, and I know as a Japanese person that opposing authority goes against every fiber of our being,” Cooper, the cellist, said this month in an interview near her home in Tel Aviv. Born in New York to a mother of Japanese descent, Cooper later converted to Judaism and moved to Israel. She and her husband, Leonard Rosen, are
raising their three children as Orthodox Jews.
“Everybody’s heard of Schindler, who had a factory. But Sugihara had nothing to gain from this. In fact, he had everything to lose,” said Cooper, a visiting professor of music at Tel Aviv University. “He didn’t want recognition and never spoke to anybody about it. He didn’t even know that he had saved anybody until the very end of his life.”
Cooper, who studied at Julliard and comes from a long line of musicians — her father is a pianist and her mother a violinist and former concertmaster of the American Symphony — has a special personal connection to the Sugihara story.
Her husband’s father, Irving Rosen, was one of the Jews whose lives was saved by Sugihara’s actions. Armed with papers enabling Rosen’s family to leave Lithuania and emigrate to Curaçao via Japan, the entire family traveled via the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vilnius to Moscow to Vladivostok, then by sea to Japan — and eventually Shanghai.
“I became obsessed with this story and wanted people to know about it, especially given everything that’s going on in the world with the rise of authoritarian governments, mass dislocations, refugees, wars, rising antisemitism and anti-Asian hate,” Cooper said. “I’m not a writer, a filmmaker or an actress. I’m a musician. People had asked me, ‘Why not put together a nice concert in tribute to Sugihara?’ But I wanted to write something that could last forever.”
Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)
With the backing of Yad Vashem and the American Society for Yad Vashem, Cooper asked Auerbach to write the piece, a 40-minute composition for solo cello, choir and orchestra involving 130 performers, including Yiddish “whisperers,” allusions to Psalm 121 and an introductory piece by Japanese composer Karen Tanaka titled “Guardian Angel.”
At Carnegie Hall, Cooper, who plays on an Italian-made Guadagnini cello from 1743, will perform Auerbach’s moving, large-scale symphonic work as a soloist. She’ll also perform in Prague on March 27, Los Angeles on May 18, in California’s Napa Valley on July 18 and in Warsaw on October 8.
“Most people do not pay attention to history, because they’re so wedded to current events,” said the Carnegie Hall event’s co-chair, Peter Till, a board member of the American Society for Yad Vashem. “But this is even more relevant today because of the rise of extremist hate groups. They’ll forever deny that it exists, or ignore it, or say it couldn’t happen here, but hate continues
to repeat itself and people have to face up to it.”
The Sugihara story is especially compelling, Till said, because it’s the first event of its kind that links Holocaust survivors with Asia in general — and Japan in particular.
“This is as much about the music as it is an expression of humanity, of people from diverse cultural backgrounds coming together to save lives,” he said. “For Yad Vashem, this is a very important event because it shows the depth of understanding.”
Of the roughly 28,000 non-Jews who’ve been designated by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, only 40 were diplomats. Sugihara is the only Japanese citizen so honored.
“On the whole, the eligibility process for diplomats is slightly different than for ordinary rescuers, because they had immunity,” said Joel Zisenwein, director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department. “In most cases, they were not at physical risk. But many of them had defied the guidelines and official policies of their foreign offices. Sugihara is even more interesting because he represented an ally of Nazi Germany.”
Zisenwein said Sugihara provided between 2,100 and 3,500 transit visas, though the exact number is not known.
“Literally, all rescuers from the Holocaust era have passed away, so people accepting the award are generally descendants or even grandchildren of the recipients,” Zisenwein said. “It’s interesting that Sugihara received his award for actions prior to the German invasion of Lithuania. Most of the Jews he rescued were Polish refugees who had fled there in 1939. Many countries claim to have their own ‘Schindlers.’ But here indeed was an individual who saved thousands of Jewish lives.”
Japanese-American-Israeli cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper has a special personal connection to the Sugihara story. (Vardi Kahana)
The evening’s master of ceremonies will be Zalman Mlotek, who is also artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. Tickets and sponsorships are still available for the event.
“It’s not just the people Sugihara saved. It’s the worlds of those thousands of people,” said Mlotek, whose father, Joseph Mlotek, was a 21-year-old Yiddish poet working at a newspaper in Warsaw when World War II broke out. After fleeing to Lithuania, the family heard about Sugihara and was able to obtain transit visas to Shanghai, where the elder Mlotek and his brother Abram spent the war years.
“My father became a Yiddish activist here in New York and set up a network of 200 Yiddish schools all over the country. He published books with my mother and did concert tours for Yiddish musicians,” said Mlotek, 71. “I look at myself today, as artistic director of the Yiddish theater for 20 years, carrying on this same legacy that would have been decimated had it not been for the heroism of Sugihara.”
Auerbach’s composition had its world premiere last November in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas (known in Yiddish as Kovno), where Sugihara’s story took place. Additional performances are scheduled for cities around the world through 2024.
Michigan GOP tweet compares gun control to the Holocaust
(JTA) — The official Twitter account of Michigan’s Republican Party posted an image comparing gun control to the Holocaust on Wednesday. Then, following condemnations of the post by Jewish groups, the party doubled down on its message.
It’s the latest example of Holocaust imagery being utilized to deliver a partisan political message.
The image in question shows a trough filled with wedding rings seized by the Nazis from Jews entering the Buchenwald concentration camp. The photo was taken by the U.S. Army in May 1945, when the camp was liberated, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum archives.
In the Michigan Republicans’ post, text pasted over the image of the rings reads, “Before they collected all these wedding rings… they collected all the guns.” The party appended a caption to the image: “#History has shown us that the first thing a government does when it wants total control over its people is to disarm them.” It included the hashtags #2A, referring to the Second Amendment, and #GOP.
A Google search reveals that the image has been circulating as a meme for at least a year. The Michigan Republicans shared it in response to Michigan’s Democratic-led Senate advancing new gun safety measures last week in the wake of a February mass shooting at Michigan State University.
Although the Nazis did have restrictive gun laws, and specifically forbade Jews from owning weapons, historians largely agree such laws were not what led to the Holocaust. Comparing contemporary events to the Holocaust has become a regular political tactic in recent years.
Several prominent Republicans argued that mask and vaccine mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic were analogous to Nazi actions. In 2019, progressive Democrats created an uproar by referring to immigrant detention centers as “concentration camps,” and a 2020 video by the Jewish Democratic Council of America drew parallels between the rise of Nazism and the Trump presidency.
Wednesday’s post drew condemnation from local and national Jewish groups and elected officials, including the aforementioned Jewish Democratic Council of America. Those criticizing the post online ranged from pro-Israel influencers and the watchdog group StopAntisemitism to Jewish Democrats in the state legislature and Republican Jewish activists.
“This tweet by @MIGOP is absolutely inappropriate and offensive and should be taken down immediately,” tweeted Matt Brooks, the CEO of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Adar Rubin, a Jewish former staffer for the Michigan Republican Party, wrote, “I’m so disgusted and furious beyond words that this horrible trivialization of the Holocaust is being normalized by my state party.”
Jeremy Moss, the president pro tempore of the Michigan Senate and a Jewish Democrat, tweeted, “Haven’t the victims of the Holocaust suffered enough than to be shamefully exploited in death by this vile post? Anti-semitism thrives when these grotesque distortions of history diminish it.”
The Michigan GOP did not immediately respond to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency request for comment, but has defended the post in the face of mounting backlash. The party’s new chair, Kristina Karamo, posted her own statement to Twitter three hours after the initial post, seemingly defending the Holocaust comparison.
“Our 2nd Amendment was put in place to protect us from aspiring tyrants. MIGOP stands by our statement,” wrote Karamo, a far-right former candidate for secretary of state who denies the outcome of the 2020 election. In her statement, she also referenced the United States’ history of racism, referred to “government abuse of citizens” and added, “We will not be silent as the Democratic Party, the party who fought to enslave Black Americans, and currently fights to murder unborn children, attempt to disarm us.”
Her state party, in turn, endorsed her remarks, calling the criticism of the initial post a “bogus authoritarian frenzy over the legitimate comparison to the troubling history of governments that have disarmed their citizens.”
Karamo was elected in February to replace outgoing chair Ron Weiser, who is Jewish, following a disappointing election for the state’s Republican Party, as they lost control of both state chambers and all major elected statewide positions. One of the other candidates for chair was former Congressional candidate Lena Epstein, who was raised Jewish but announced during her campaign that she had been “baptized” as “a Jewish Messianic believer of Christ.” Epstein dropped out of the race prior to the state Republican convention.
Attempts to reach Weiser, who continues to serve on the University of Michigan Board of Regents, were unsuccessful.
‘The gun is on the table’: Both sides of Israel’s debate say that a constitutional crisis is coming
(JTA) — In a country that is deeply divided, where attending anti-government protests has become a weekly ritual for many, at least one idea still unites the right and left: Israel appears to be hurtling toward a constitutional crisis.
The crisis — which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu termed a “governmental breakdown” during a recent visit to Germany — would flow from legislation Netanyahu is pushing that would overhaul Israel’s judiciary. The proposal — which critics say threatens Israel’s democratic character — would increase the coalition’s control over the appointment of Supreme Court judges, and would enable Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to override court decisions with a simple majority.
A constitutional crisis occurs when a country faces an unsolvable dispute between competing branches of government. Countries have recovered from constitutional crises in the past — the United States has had several over the centuries, including multiple ones related to the leadup to the Civil War and its aftermath — but the process can be difficult, and mistrust long-lasting.
In Israel’s case, what happens if the Knesset passes the judicial legislation, the Supreme Court strikes it down, and the Knesset doesn’t abide by that decision? Does the court or Knesset hold final authority?
However that question is answered, just getting to that point would represent a dramatic breakdown in a 75-year-old democracy. “The very idea that the government might not comply, might ignore the Supreme Court’s decision, would be an unprecedented crisis,” said Michal Saliternik, a law professor at Netanya Academic College.
In that dangerous moment, some Israelis see opportunity. In a perhaps ironic twist, Israel is on the precipice of a constitutional crisis but doesn’t actually have a constitution. It’s a risky bet, but a battle between the court and the coalition, said international law scholar Tamar Megiddo, might just force Israel into the long and arduous process of writing a governing document and figuring out how to balance the country’s competing authorities.
“The entire constitutional system here is held together by duct tape,” said Megiddo, who teaches at the College of Law and Business outside Tel Aviv. “It’s ridiculous. We have no protection of our constitutional regime, no protection of our separation of powers, no protection of checks and balances and no protection of human rights. The only reason this functioned for the past 75 years is because there was good faith.”
She added, “I think a lot of people view the current constitutional moment, or the realistically likely constitutional crisis, as also an opportunity for fixing everything that’s broken in the system.”
When asked how a clash between the government and courts could come to a head, those scholars and others all individually sketched out versions of the same scenario: The government passes a law giving itself control over judicial appointments, the court strikes down the law — and the government appoints new judges anyway. When those judges arrive for their first day of work, should the security guards let them in? Who should the guards obey — the government that appointed the judges, or the courts that declared their appointment illegal?
While that question is being debated, the courts may not be able to hear cases at all.
“At the end of the day, the state needs to function,” Saliternik said. “The courts have work to do. If the judges can’t enter their chambers, it will definitely impact everyone. It’ll be like a third world country in which institutions don’t function.”
The law on judicial appointments may be passed next week, and for rank-and-file Israelis, both Saliternik and Megiddo said, this question would hardly be theoretical. If Israel’s system of government descends into crisis, it could lead to a downgrade in the country’s credit rating and an economic downturn that ordinary citizens feel in their pockets. And given how invested Israelis have become in the face of the judicial reform — protesting in the streets by the hundreds of thousands — it’s unlikely they’ll ignore what ensues if and when it passes. Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who has a reputation for congeniality, gave a pained speech last week warning of the potential for civil war.
“If the court issues a ruling and the government does not comply, then the Israeli public will say, ‘This is the ultimate proof that this is not a democracy anymore,’” Saliternik said. “I say this with trepidation, but if there’s an open battle between the Supreme Court and the Knesset, it could result in street violence.”
Megiddo said that even the possibility of such a crisis has normalized tactics that were once on the fringe, such as refusal to perform military service, a duty seen as sacrosanct across much of Jewish Israeli society. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant reportedly warned that the possibility of mass refusal to serve could cause him to leave his post. On Tuesday, a group of military reservists said they plan to recruit tens of thousands more who will pledge to shirk reserve duty if the legislation goes through.
“People who refuse service were considered, in the Israeli public, to be a very extreme minority, and now it’s mainstream to say that people won’t serve the military for a dictatorship,” Megiddo said. “It’s unbelievable how mainstream saying that at the moment is, and that has long-term impact.”
Both supporters and opponents of the legislation in the Knesset are treating a constitutional crisis as a real possibility. The only thing they disagree about is who will be to blame — and both sides appear to be raising the stakes, vowing either to disobey government decisions, or disregard the court.
“The security situation is troubling,” said former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, an opponent of Netanyahu, in a speech last week referencing escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and urging Netanyahu to pause the court legislation. “Don’t drag us into an irresponsible constitutional crisis during a security crisis.”
Netanyahu’s allies, unsurprisingly, say it is the opponents of the reform — and the justices of the court themselves — who would be responsible for a constitutional crisis, should the court strike down the law.
Striking down the reform legislation would be a “doomsday weapon,” wrote Dror Eydar, a columnist for the pro-Netanyahu tabloid Israel Hayom, in a piece titled “Inviting a constitutional crisis.” “This striking down would constitute a coup d’etat.”
(Another column four days later in the same publication, however, urged a compromise on the judicial reform in order to avert a constitutional crisis. That piece was written by Miriam Adelson, whose husband Sheldon — the late billionaire philanthropist — founded and funded the paper.)
Netanyahu’s coalition members are still worried enough about the prospect of a constitutional crisis that they’ve agreed to what they refer to as a “softening” of one piece of the legislation. Instead of giving the coalition total control over Supreme Court appointments, the new text of the bill would let the coalition control its first two judicial appointments.
“There’s no doubt that the change we made prevents any real claim that can create a constitutional crisis,” said Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who is spearheading the legislation, on an Israeli news show on Monday.
A view of the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem. (Eddie Gerald via Getty Images)
But then he threw down the gauntlet: If the court still overturns the law, Levin said, “That would cross every red line. We definitely wouldn’t accept it.”
Responding to that claim, Yair Lapid, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, said that if the government disobeys the court, citizens should disobey the government.
“That’s it, the masks are off. The gun is on the table,” Lapid tweeted. “The real prime minister, Yariv Levin, is drawing us into total chaos and a constitutional crisis we won’t be able to come back from. If the justice minister is calling on the government not to obey the law, why should the citizens of Israel obey the government?”
Another Likud lawmaker, Economy Minister Nir Barkat, said he would respect the court’s ruling if it struck the law down. But in any case, the Likud bill doesn’t appear to be a promising avenue toward compromise. “This isn’t softening and compromise, this is Hungary and Poland on steroids,” Labor Party Chair Merav Michaeli said on a radio program on Monday, referring to countries where the government has increased its control over the court system. “From the start, I said we can’t negotiate with them.”
A predecessor of Michaeli’s in the Labor Party has also taken a hard line and — unlike the many voices who worry about a clash of government authorities — has suggested that he would prefer a constitutional crisis to compromise. Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister, said that a constitutional crisis would force senior Israeli military commanders to take sides — and expressed confidence that they would choose to obey the courts.
“It would be a severe constitutional crisis,” Barak said in a speech last month. “That’s when the test of the gatekeepers and defenders of sovereignty would arrive: The head of the Shin Bet, the police commissioner, the chief of staff and the head of the Mossad. I’m convinced that they understand that in a democracy, the only choice is to recognize the supremacy of law and the Supreme Court.”
The mounting threats by military reservists, and comments by former military commanders opposing the court reform, may indicate that the military will opt to follow the court. But Saliternik hopes that’s a choice Israeli forces won’t have to confront.
“This is something that has never happened in Israel,” she said. “It’s so very hard to think about. I very much hope that that government will get a hold of itself and act responsibly.”
For Orthodox Israeli teens, battling climate change can be a lonely fight
This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.
(JTA) — Abigail Lerer, a Modern Orthodox vegan teen from Ra’anana, Israel, is working on changing throwaway culture in her family. ‘’It makes me feel frustrated, there is just no need,’’ Lerer says about using single-use dishes at meals. To win over reluctant family members who worried about the inconvenience, she took on responsibility for washing the dishes and taking out the recycling.
Eventually, after years of slideshows and lectures, Lerer’s family came to understand her point of view. They don’t have single-use utensils in their home anymore and her mother even brings reusable containers to stores when she buys nuts and grains.
Now, Lerer just wants the rest of the county to catch up. There are few environmentalists in the haredi or “ultra-Orthodox” community, where religious leaders do not put a high priority on protecting the environment and where large families often rely on single-use plastic cutlery for the sake of convenience.
A study by Kantar Ministry of Environmental Protection found that 73% of the general population use single-use plastic regularly compared to 96% of the haredi population who do so. This year, Israel’s new finance minister rolled back high taxes on disposables after haredi Orthodox leaders complained that they unfairly targeted their lifestyle. Community activists argued that they compensate for the big environmental impact of single-use plastic by flying and driving far less than the general population.
Even among Modern or Religious Zionist Orthodox communities, who tend to be less insular and have fewer children than the haredim, environmental action still lags.
Lerer, who subscribes to a vegan, minimal-waste lifestyle, says the solution lies in leadership. If religious figures endorsed eco-conscious living as a Jewish obligation, then this would galvanize the necessary action, she said.
“You need to make it halachic and then people will care,” she says, meaning legal according to religious law. But, she is skeptical that this will occur due to the highly complex nature of the Jewish legal system.
Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, who founded the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Israel, explores how traditional Judaism relates to science. He said the haredi Orthodox community doesn’t have the same level of concern for environmentalism because of insularity. ‘’They lack thinking about any issues that extend beyond their community,” he said. Because they are poorer than many other sectors of the population, economic considerations always come first, Slifkin said.
Bar Kaima was founded in early 2020 and aims to connect young Israelis to environmental causes. (Courtesy of Esther Hamou)
Nevertheless, environmental groups in religious circles do exist. Esther Hamou, 18, who dresses exclusively in second-hand clothes, volunteers in a religious environmental organization, Bar Kayma. The group uses arguments in the Torah such as tikkun olam — fixing the world — and baal tashchit — the prohibition against wanton destruction — to combat skeptics and to persuade religious Jews to be more sustainable.
This past January, Hamou organized an environmentally themed event for Tu Bishvat, the Jewish new year for trees. As part of her anti-plastic activism, Hamou requested that all attendees bring their own cup for refreshments. Despite her efforts in linking eco-friendly living to Judaism, Hamou finds that ‘’people just don’t want to hear it.’’
Penina Schorr is attempting to change this. The 14-year-old lives in a Modern Orthodox community in Jerusalem and tries to encourage her peers to avoid using throwaway plastic. They ‘’sometimes’’ listen. Schorr has been raised in a plastic-conscious home; they only use throwaway plastic in exceptional circumstances such as the day before Pesach, when strict rules require only kosher-for-Passover utensils for the holiday. However, her family’s attitude is not widespread, and most people in her community are far less vigilant.
She said that in Orthodox religious schools like hers there is a sense of ambivalence towards environmental issues. Her geography teacher, she said, justifies inaction, claiming that God would never destroy the world and that the claims of climate activists and scientists can’t be legitimate.
Practicality is also an obstacle. According to Ariel Shay, a volunteer at Plastic Free Israel, one of the main reasons Israelis with large families use single-use plastic is a fast cleanup after a meal.
Hadas Shlomi, 17, an activist from the north of Israel, feels alienated in her secular school because of her commitment to the environment: Peers mocked and teachers misunderstood her climate anxiety. Her parents are not on her wavelength either. She attributes the indifference of the older generation to the fact that they won’t be alive when the climate crisis peaks.
Shlomi appreciates the dedication of teens who are trying to convince their Orthodox friends and families to use fewer single-use plastics. As a leader of Strike for Future Israel, she knows the teens’ hearts are in the right place but sees the focus on individual actions as ineffective. Instead Shlomi lobbies the government to ban oil and gas drilling and pass a bill that sets a target of reducing emissions by 50% by 2030.
While these endeavors have not been successful yet, compounded by the transition to a new, more right-wing government in 2022 that is even more accommodating to haredi voters, Shlomi has the attention of some elected officials. In January 2022, the government required 30 hours of climate change education to the school year.
The changes apply to Israel’s secular and Religious Zionist school tracks. The government has sway in far fewer haredi Orthodox schools.
My grandmother was a ‘Sherlock Holmes of Yiddish song,’ but she couldn’t solve the mystery of antisemitism
(JTA) — When I was younger, my family sang Yiddish songs at almost every holiday and gathering.
Funny songs, sad songs, songs about love, about the Holocaust, about hunger, about labor and resistance — the usual Yiddish fare. My Bubby, Chana Mlotek, a Yiddish archivist and ethnomusicologist, collected hundreds of them with my Zeyde, Yosl Mlotek, who became known as the address for Yiddish in America. Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer called them “the Sherlock Holmeses of Yiddish folk songs” for their investigations of Jewish music.
We would gather by the piano in my grandparents’ living room in the Bronx, with the piano being helmed by my Bubby, sometimes my great-aunt Malke Gottlieb (with whom my Bubby compiled a collection of songs from the Jewish ghettos), then my father, then my uncle. Eventually each of the eyniklekh — the grandkids — would have to sing in Yiddish.
Of course, I didn’t recognize until I got older that Yiddish songs are an incredible porthole into history, while also testifying to the vivaciousness of a people nearly destroyed and a culture almost erased. It’s through these lyrics and other stories from my grandparents that I learned the history of our people and the faith we had in America, “Dos Goldene Land,” where immigrants came to escape religious persecution. One famous song, in particular, was about the tragic letdown of this promise.
“The Ballad of Leo Frank” was about the Jewish factory manager from Atlanta. In 1913, a 14-year-old employee at his pencil factory named Mary Phagan was found dead. Frank was accused of her murder on flimsy evidence.
After a trumped-up trial, a biased jury found Frank guilty after four hours of deliberation. The case was retried, and appealed before the United States Supreme Court, without success. Hundreds of thousands of petitions were sent to Gov. John Slaton of Georgia, who eventually commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment. But months later, a bloodthirsty gang, who were later to inspire the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, kidnapped Frank from jail and lynched him.
Thanks to Yiddish music, we knew all these facts. The painful details of the Frank case were heard in melancholic Yiddish songs like “The Ballad of Leo Frank” and “Lebn zol Columbus” (“Long Live Columbus”), which we as children crooned around the piano in the living room of my Bubby’s apartment.
“A bilbl hot men oysgetrakht / Oyf undzern a yidl” — they made up a blood libel about one of our Jews — goes the lyrics from one of these songs.
We sing these songs to learn about our history, hoping never to repeat it. But just a couple weeks ago, antisemitic mobs weren’t just part of a songbook. They were here, right in the heart of New York City.
Frank’s story is the subject of a new revival of a Broadway musical, “Parade,” starring Ben Platt, which opened this month at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre. During previews, members of a neo-Nazi group called The National Socialist Movement rallied outside the theater, handing out leaflets and accusing Frank of being a pedophile and a murderer. Mostly, they were there to stoke fear and rekindle the same Jew hatred that cost Frank his life more than a century ago.
This is only the latest example of what has been an alarming growth of antisemitism in the United States. Jews who grew up learning (or singing) about blood libels in Russia have always slept with one eye open, haunted by the fear that antisemitism would rear its ugly head here, too.
Just last week as I entered the subway in midtown Manhattan, I was verbally accosted by a man who lowered his shirt collar to show me his swastika tattoo. And so the story goes.
As Passover approaches, the words of the Haggadah come to mind: “b’khol dor vador” — in every generation. In every generation, enemies emerge and the responsibility to rekindle learning and reclaim identity falls upon us, each in our own unique way.
It feels fitting then that my grandparents’ anthology is now accessible to a whole new audience.
The Yosl and Chana Mlotek Yiddish Song Collection at the Workers Circle went live this week. It is a searchable, comprehensive database of Yiddish music and song, spanning centuries, genres, artists and more, bringing my grandparents’ anthologies online. Hundreds of Yiddish songs, including the Leo Frank ballad, can be freely accessed thanks to a thorough digitization process overseen by my brother, Elisha Mlotek, who served as creative director for the website.
Sponsored by the Mlotek family, this new website is a loving collaboration between the Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) and the Mlotek family and will ensure Yiddish song and in turn Jewish history never cower in the face of prejudice. As Elisha describes the music collected on the website, “It is an essential record of our people — the richness and resilience of our culture.”
My grandfather died in 2000. Chana died in 2013, at age 91. Bubby’s piano now lives in my father’s office at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, but we still come together around song. (In fact, it was my cousin Lee who recently reminded us of the Leo Frank song he learned from my uncle in an Arbeter Ring shule, or school.)
This Thursday my Bubby’s sons, her grandchildren and even some of her great-grandchildren will participate in a tribute concert to her at the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research, where Chana served as the music archivist for decades. The in-person free concert, presented in collaboration with Carnegie Hall and which can be streamed digitally, will include family friends who also happen to be some of the most special Yiddish singers of the day, including Joanne Borts, Sarah Gordon, Elmore James, Daniella Rabbani, Eleanor Reissa, Lorin Sklamberg and Steven Skybell, who played Tevye in “Fidler Afn Dakh,” the Yiddish production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Now is as welcome a time as any to celebrate Jewish life, learn a Yiddish song and discover the lessons of history along the way.
Inside the auction house driving the rare-book craze in the Orthodox world
(JTA) – Israel Mizrahi joined dozens of fellow connoisseurs of rare Jewish books last December to watch the livestream of Genazym, the hottest auction house in the market. A bookdealer by trade, Mizrahi was also on the phone being paid to advise a wealthy client who had signed up to make bids.
But as the auction proceeded, Mizrahi’s advice had little use. His trigger-happy client didn’t seem to care about established valuations: He ended up paying about $50,000 for a book estimated at half that price. “He just pressed the button and kept on bidding until the bidding was over,” Mizrahi said. “There was no convincing him out of it. He spent nearly $600,000 that day and there was no sense to it.”
Behavior that confounds veterans of the rare Jewish book market has become routine at auctions organized by Genazym.
Mizrahi recalled the sale in 2021 of a Passover Haggadah printed in the 1920s in Vienna. With attractive illustrations of a prominent 19th-century rabbi named Moses Sofer and his family, the book makes for a nice addition to a collection. It also happens to be very common.
“I sell copies for $100, and I have probably sold 150 copies in my life,” said Mizrahi, whose shop in Brooklyn is a mecca for Jewish book lovers. “It sold for about $5,500 at Genazym’s auction. I currently have it on sale still for $100.”
At the highest end of sale prices, a 16th-century first-edition Shulchan Aruch, a book of Jewish law, commanded $620,000 at a Genazym auction last September, while a copy of Noam Elimelech, a classic rabbinic treatise, printed in 1788, fetched $1.4 million four months later — in both cases at least doubling or tripling what experts thought the items were worth based on past sales of the same texts.
“Genazym has come on like a freight train into the world of Jewish auctions. Some of the prices realized are far beyond what this market has seen before,” said David Wachtel, the former Judaica consultant for Sotheby’s auction house.
Since Genazym’s first auction in 2017, it has sold some 1,900 books, manuscripts and other collectible documents for about $26 million plus commission, roughly $12 million above total starting prices, according to an analysis by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency of auction records on Genazym’s website. Genazym has increasingly outperformed the longest-standing Judaica auction firms in New York and Jerusalem.
A page from an illustrated Passover haggadah printed in Vienna in the 1920s. (Courtesy of Genazym)
It’s hard to tell exactly what’s driving the boom because the identity of Genazym’s customers is confidential and few flaunt their collections widely. One of the auction house’s owners, in a rare public comment, ventured that Jewish buyers are craving a connection with their heritage. What’s clear is that at a time when traditional libraries are cutting back on buying Jewish texts, Genazym is tapping into an emerging luxury market among Orthodox Jews — and fueling the rise of religious texts as both a status symbol and investment vehicle in some communities.
“I know the sellers, the customers and everybody involved and there is a new wealthy class of Orthodox Jews that have a limited range of things they can splurge on,” Mizrahi said. “They don’t go to Vegas, they don’t do crazy vacations. They keep kosher. So this is a way that they can splurge and show off.”
Rabbi Pini Dunner, who collects rare Jewish books, said investing in Judaica is likely attractive for some in the Hasidic community, whose religious observance is stricter than that of congregants at his Modern Orthodox synagogue in the Los Angeles area.
“There are people I know here in Beverly Hills who’ve got car collections worth tens of millions of dollars,” Dunner said. “In the Hasidic world that has no currency, just as the wow factor of a Picasso has no currency. An original manuscript or first-edition of the Noam Elimelech has a real wow factor, particularly if you can tell people the book sold for more than a million dollars at a Genazym auction.”
The impression that the Hasidic world has grown wealthier over the last decade or two is widespread and based, at least in part, on the proliferation of luxury products and services tailored for the community in places like Lakewood, New Jersey, and Kiryas Joel, New York. Weddings have become increasingly expensive and elaborate, fine dining options are common, and high-end kosher wine and liquor are more readily available.
“It wasn’t that long ago that sit-down dining was looked down upon or not even available. Now there are a plethora of options,” said Chaim Saiman, a law professor at Villanova University who studies the intersection of commerce and Jewish law. “It’s no secret that $200 bottles of Scotch appear at kiddush clubs all the time. $50 used to be a big deal, then $100 was a big deal, now we are at $200.”
Where the new wealth is coming from is not totally clear. Limited survey and U.S. Census data suggests that Orthodox Jews feel crunched by costs associated with practicing religion and that there are large pockets of poverty among them, particularly in Hasidic communities, according to Mark Trencher, the founder of Nishma Research, a nonprofit dedicated to studying the Orthodox Jewish community. The prevalence of large families also means that generational wealth can be harder to accrue for Orthodox Jews.
But there have always been high earners whose philanthropy has buttressed their communities, Trencher noted. “There are a lot of people in that community that are very successful in their businesses and they have large amounts of wealth,” he said. “Those people generally are huge donors to charities. From a financial perspective, those communities are probably doing much better than you would expect them to.”
Many of those high earners make their money through entrepreneurship rather than professional success in the white-collar world. Many nursing home chains — an industry valued at an estimated $171 billion and where growth is expected — have Orthodox owners. Amazon has also created new opportunities for Orthodox businessmen. Orthodox landlords, meanwhile, have benefited from skyrocketing real estate prices in places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
A page from a 16th-century first-edition Shulchan Aruch, a book of Jewish law, which fetched $620,000 at a Genazym auction. (Courtesy of Genazym).
Recent reporting in The New York Times about the Hasidic education system has provided a window into another stream of revenue for private businesses in the community. Entrepreneurs in the community have responded to the increased availability of government funding for special education in New York in recent years by establishing companies to service Hasidic schools, with the government footing the bill. In one example highlighted by the Times, a married Hasidic couple opened such a business in 2014 when they were 21 and 19 years old; in 2022, their company received more than $38 million in government funding.
The owners of another set of companies providing services to Hasidic schools appear to have used their windfall to purchase rare books through Genazym. The owners were indicted in January for allegedly billing the government for more than $1 million in childcare services that they never provided and otherwise defrauding the government out of more than $2.8 million.
Prosecutors are seeking to have the alleged fraudsters forfeit seven books and other documents as listed in a federal indictment. They include manuscripts with a rabbinic signature and rare books of blessing and Jewish law, all of which match items listed on Genazym auctions, where they sold for a total of about $274,000.
Buying Jewish texts at auction can seem like a savvy investment for buyers seeking to safeguard or grow their wealth. Before Genazym launched, a typical Genazym buyer might have invested in U.S. Treasury bills or the stock market, according to Wachtel, the former Sotheby’s consultant.
“I think Genazym has been able to convince people that this is a good vehicle for establishing and growing wealth,” he said. “That also dovetails with your ability to, let’s face it, show off. Somebody comes to your house, you can show them a first-edition Shulchan Aruch. But you’re not going to say, hey, come look at my T-bills.”
The auction house’s tactics appear tailor-made for this growing market. Its motto is “Own your heritage,” and it’s printed on the catalogs the company distributes through popular Orthodox magazines like Ami or Mishpacha or podcasts, places where people with no prior interest in books might encounter the hype. The catalogs also appear in synagogues in heavily Hasidic areas like Brooklyn or Lakewood, but without the prices printed on them so as not to violate a Jewish prohibition against discussing financial matters on Shabbat.
The descriptions in the catalogs emphasize links between the items for sale and notable rabbis from history, especially figures who established rabbinic dynasties that continue to exist today and who are revered by yeshiva-educated Orthodox Jews. The link might be a signature of a rabbi in a ledger from an old fundraising tour that took place 200 years ago. Or it might be that an important rabbi owned the book in question or even prayed out of it. Like a pair of pants of a prominent Israeli rabbi that drew widespread attention when they briefly went up for auction last month, these texts are seen by some as conferring holiness onto those who possess them. By virtue of their pedigree, these artifacts might even be seen as a segula, or Jewish protective charm.
In its promotional materials and live auctions, Genazym also uses more colloquial and hyperbolic language to describe its items than traditional auction houses, which tend to stick to the kind of terminology used by academic scholars.
“Genazym found a formula to make books and manuscripts really exciting for the layperson, especially in the Orthodox community,” said Yoel Finkelman, a former curator of the Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel. “They are not using the vocabulary of experts, they’re using plain ordinary language, like ‘very old’ or ‘very rare.’ No one at Sotheby’s would ever refer even to a thousand-year-old book that way.”
Genazym’s unique approach extends to the delivery of items to buyers. A traditional buyer in the rare Jewish book market, like Michelle Margolis, Columbia University’s Jewish studies librarian, might only care that the book they bought is safely delivered. But with Genazym, the books come wrapped in a proper clamshell and velvet bag. “I rolled my eyes when my delivery arrived, but at the same time that’s a lot of investment,” Margolis said, adding that many other auction houses have been cutting costs, for example, by doing away with their customary printed catalogs.
Jacob Djmal, who lives in Brooklyn, has dabbled in Judaica collecting for many years, an interest he picked up from his grandfather. He remembers suddenly seeing Genazym’s advertising everywhere. “They started reaching out to you in every way possible, finding a demographic that wasn’t aware before. Every Genazym auction I have people texting me — ‘Did you hear about this? Did you hear about that?’ — as if something is happening that had never happened before.”
Sometimes, that is true. A breakout moment came during the December auction, when Genazym cleared $4.4 million in sales, about $2.6 million above total starting prices.
“If there was any doubt that Genazym were now the most commercially remarkable rare book auction house on Earth, the results of their latest Judaica auction this week put paid to that: essentially almost every lot sold for at least twice [the estimated amount],” a major British book collector living in France said on his anonymous Twitter account, which has around 110,000 followers, in December.
It remains to be seen whether Genazym can challenge Sotheby’s Judaica division as the destination for sellers with the rarest and most valuable books. Last year, a medieval prayer book sold for $8.3 million at Sotheby’s and this year, the New York auction house is accepting bids for the oldest known copy of the Hebrew Bible, which is expected to fetch as much as $50 million.
But Djmal considers especially remarkable about Genazym is not just the high prices but also the way in which rare books have caught on among Orthodox youth as something cool. “My son and his friends in yeshiva are talking about these items,” Djmal said. “These books represent rabbis they have heard about from a young age.”
The team behind Genazym’s success is led by three brothers from the Stefansky family who live in Jerusalem and New York. Before starting an auction house they worked for many years as private dealers in the rare book market. Their names, Chaim, Moshe and Bezalel, rarely appear anywhere and they almost never grant interviews. Chaim Stefansky made an exception for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and requested that this article not put him in the spotlight nor portray Genazym’s success as a product of his business acumen.
Stefansky said Genazym has tapped into a universal and deep-seated desire of people to strengthen their identities by connecting with the past. The Jewish community, he said, has been poorly served by an emphasis on historical and even current persecution.
“Always, we are victimized and we cry,” Stefansky said. “What we have in common maybe is that your grandmother and my grandmother were sharing the same bed in Auschwitz. Give me something positive of my past to be proud of. Your heritage has not only sorrow but also a happy, rich, and huge intellectual tradition. So Genazym comes and tells people about their heritage. It’s yours. It belongs to you.”
He said the same thing can be done with any ethnic or religious group.
“If you go to the Irish community and press the right buttons in terms of what you know that every Irish person is extremely proud of, I think you’ll be very successful,” Stefansky said.
He rejected the impression that Genazym’s buyers come primarily from the ranks of the nouveau riche in the Hasidic world.
“It’s coming from all sections,” Stefansky said. “People will say that there’s a lot of fresh money in the market. But we also have very good old money. We have institutions. And, also, the regular man. Mostly, the regular man, who never knew he could have access to any of this.”
One of the only customers who agreed to be identified and interviewed for this article is Rick Probstein, who says he’s spent more than $100,000 at the company’s auctions. He can’t remember when he started seeing Genazym catalogs but he had never collected Judaica before, which is perhaps surprising given that he’s an Orthodox Jew who’s been working in the collectibles business since he was a child trading baseball cards.
Today, at 53, Probstein is one of the largest sellers of sports collectibles in the world, operating through a dedicated account on eBay. “I run a humongous business — I am doing something like $160 million a year,” he said of his sales volume.
Probstein, who lives in Passaic, New Jersey, had long felt a pang of guilt about the lack of Jewish content in his collection. “I collect things but what do I have of my own heritage?” he recalled thinking to himself. “So when I started getting the catalogs, I said, ‘I gotta be a good Jew.’ I started bidding on things and I got really into it.”
Once Probstein got started, the Stefansky brothers began checking in on him, providing concierge service and cultivating him as a client.
“This is a boutique run by a Jewish family with a personal touch,” Probstein said “They call me on the phone, saying, ‘Rick, did you get the catalog? What did you think? Here are some items that you could really like.’”
Bidding on Genayzm items is not purely sentimental for Probstein. “I’m putting real money into it because I think that from an investment standpoint, it has a lot of upside,” he said.
Still, the items he buys tend to have personal significance.
“I am partial to items relating to the Chofetz Chaim,” Probstein said, referring to the rabbi and Jewish scholar Yisrael Meir Kagan, who died in 1933. Probstein’s oldest son is named Yisrael Meir in his honor. The Chofetz Chaim also appeals to Probstein because of his writings about lashon hara, the prohibition in Jewish law against speaking evil of people. “I think that speech is important and he’s sort of the embodiment of that,” Probstein said.
Genazym has sold six letters and a handwritten blessing signed or written by the Chofetz Chaim at prices ranging from about $16,000 to $68,000.
Ever since Probstein started collecting Judaica, these items have served as a draw for family and friends visiting his home.
“People in my community that come over for kiddush [refreshments after Shabbat service] know that I have this stuff and they always want to see it,” Probstein said. “Nobody ever looks at my sports memorabilia collection because it’s in my office but my Judaica stuff is in my house. They look at the letters and talk about the historical context. People love it.”
The revelation that so many Jews appear fascinated with their own history and want to engage with scholarly tradition comes at a time when many Jewish libraries have been struggling.
The library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, which has the most comprehensive and significant collection of Jewish books outside of Israel, has seen its footprint downsized amid budget cuts at the Conservative movement seminary. Also under financial pressure, American Jewish University was forced to sell its Bel Air campus in Los Angeles, which housed a library. Hebrew Union College, meanwhile, opted to end its Reform rabbinical training program in Cincinnati and even though the campus library has survived the cuts, financial uncertainty remains.
Genazym’s populist approach might hold lessons for Jewish institutions and university libraries with significant Judaica collections that hope to engage the public around books.
“The lesson is to lay off the snobbery a little bit,” said Finkelman, the former Judaica curator at the National Library of Israel, which is slated to reopen in a new and more accessible space later this year. “The goal of public institutions is to enable preservation but also to enable public access and public education. There are great stories in books and archives.”
Finkleman said he has encountered sneering reactions to the way Genazym promotes books, and they are similar to the response in the United States when the pop star Lizzo played a crystal flute that belonged to James Madison on stage at the Library of Congress.
“There are echoes of the same thing here,” he said. “Get out of the snobby ivory tower and realize you are preserving history for people.”