Category Archives: General

From Despair to Celebration

The origin of a major celebration was from the darkest time and the utmost of despair.

Hakafot Shniyot celebration in Tel Aviv (YouTube)

In Israel the Jewish holidays are celebrated slightly different than in other countries. The three pilgrimage holidays in which Jews would historically travel to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the temple – Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Tabernacles) – are celebrated for two days outside of Israel (for Pesach and Sukkot, two days at the beginning and two days at the end), and only one day within Israel. The reason for this is a historical inability to be sure that the lunar months on which the Jewish calendar are based was accurate outside of Israel. While in today’s modern world this is not a problem, the keeping of two days for each holiday outside of Israel (in the diaspora) has remained. In fact, many Jewish tourists who visit Israel during the holidays still keep the second day while in Israel. There are various reasons for this, but it’s worth pointing out the disparity of some Jews keeping a holiday where they cannot drive a car or take a bus, where they are generally dressed in their fanciest clothes, and the rest of the country going about its business as normal.

The end of the week of the Sukkot holiday is actually a pair of different holidays called Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. In the diaspora these holidays take place on two sequential days at the end of the Sukkot holiday. On the eve of Simchat Torah, there is a celebration that includes dancing in a large circle holding Torahs and singing. This is called Hakafot.

In Israel, however, the two holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are merged into a single day. This means that while Jews in other countries celebrate Hakafot on the second night, in Israel the holiday is already over.

This has led to one of the most interesting celebrations in Israel, that of Hakafot Shniyot (Second Hakafot). There is amazingly little written online about this celebration, so let me explain. The holiday is over so there are no restrictions on things like playing musical instruments or using a loudspeaker. In cities across Israel celebrations are held that have the traditional Hakafot dancing with Torahs, and take advantage of the fact that music and lights not available on the holiday can be used. These celebrations are attended by politicians and other dignitaries, but are open to everyone. The largest celebrations are in the major cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but celebrations occur in many cities and small towns. These are very popular celebrations which bring in many groups of people, from religious to secular, Ashkenazi to Sephardi, etc.

In looking up what was written online, I found various explanations for the holiday. One person wrote it originated with the Arizal, a 16th-century rabbi who lived in Safed as a way of showing solidarity with the Jewish communities in the diaspora. Others wrote it is an attempt to offer Hakafot to non-religious Jews, who would be more willing to come celebrate with real music in a public square than in the traditional Hakafot carried out in synagogues and without music. There may be some truth to these statements. The Arizal may have celebrated a second night of Hakafot (although I have no evidence of this), and the current celebrations may be a way to bring religious and non-religious Jews together, but neither of these explain where the modern celebration in Israel originated, nor why.

Which brings me to the main point of this article. I recently finished reading an amazing memoir by the former (1993-2003) Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. The book is called Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last and it is one of the most moving books I have ever read. I do not think it possible to read this book and not cry repeatedly. Rabbi Lau was only 2 years old when the second world war broke out. His parents were deported to death camps and murdered, and he was deported to two different concentration camps as a young child. Protected by his older brother who was enjoined by their father to protect the younger Lau and preserve the family’s 37-generation rabbinic dynasty, the young Lau ended up surviving Buchenwald, where he was liberated by American forces just short of his eighth birthday. Making their way to France with other young Buchenwald survivors (including a young Elie Wiesel who would remain in France), the two brothers insisted on going to the one place Jews could call their own, Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). They received visas to then British-Mandate Palestine, and were among the first Holocaust survivors to arrive in what would become the State of Israel a few short years later (they were among the first because the British severely restricted Jewish immigration at that time – perhaps 150 Jewish children who survived Buchenwald were too hard even for the British to turn down).

‘Lulek’ Lau, the future Chief Rabbi, upon his arrival in Israel with a rifle provided by a US soldier (that was later confiscated by the British). (Yad Vashem)

One of the very interesting stories told by Lau, is that of his father-in-law Rabbi Yedidya Frenkel. During the war, Lau’s future-father-in-law was the rabbi of the Florentin neighborhood in Tel Aviv. After services ended concluding the Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah holiday in October 1942, Rabbi Frenkel asked his congregants to remain in the synagogue for a few minutes. I’ll quote from the book for the rest of the story:

The congregants wondered at his strange request, but they respected the rabbi’s wishes. He removed a Torah scroll from the ark, and in a voice quivering with emotion, announced to the congregation, “In Poland and elsewhere throughout war-torn Europe, the telephones aren’t working, the telegraph stations are closed, the mail no longer runs. Entire communities are cut off, and we do not know what has happened to their Jews. At this exact hour, in Warsaw, Kraków, and every other city in Poland, they should be beginning their Simchat Torah celebrations. But we do not know whether they are performing the traditional processions [Hakafot] holding the Torah scrolls. We are completely cut off from them, and despite our attempts to make contact, the communities do not answer. But all Jews are responsible for one another. Let us act in their stead and perform processions on their behalf, at least symbolically.”

Thus started the tradition of Hakafot Shniyot celebrations in Israel, from a place of darkness and despair. Rabbi Lau relates that in the years following the foundation of the State of Israel, as long as his father-in-law was alive, the Hafakot Shniyot celebration in the Florentin neighborhood were visited by the current Prime Minister and IDF Chief of Staff (as well as many other dignitaries). The celebrations spread, first to cities like Jerusalem and to the main square in Tel Aviv, to towns like Kfar Chabad, to army bases, and eventually across the entire country.

As we begin the commemoration of Yom HaShoa tonight here in Israel, it is worth remembering that one of Israel’s most popular and happiest celebrations, came from a time when Jews across the globe did not know the fate of their family members in Europe. When his future-father-in-law was starting this tradition, the young Lau was likely hiding in an attic with his soon-to-be murdered mother, being fed cookies to keep him quiet in case Gestapo soldiers might hear him when searching the building. It’s hard to conceive such events, not having experienced them, but we must remember, and I hope everyone will remember tonight that even out of despair can come celebration, and with the State of Israel hopefully no such event will ever be able to happen again.

Some celebrations of Hakafot Shniyot from this past year:

Tel Aviv:

Kfar Chabad:

Ponevitch Yeshiva:

Tying together my last two posts

Two posts earlier, I launched into a discussion on the future of eBooks based on my interest in reading the book Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community by Eviatar Zerubavel, and if it made sense at this stage to get it as an eBook, or whether I should order it by mail.

My last post was about how we are connected to our relatives, both physically (objectively) and how we perceive ourselves to be related. How close is a first cousin once removed compared to a second cousin? Can we come up with an objective measure of such relatedness, or are such measures inherently subjective?

Now an article published yesterday contains an excerpt of the book mentioned in the first post that goes into detail on the topic I brought up in my second post. The article, published in Salon, is called Why do we care about our ancestors? and discusses how our perception of our ancestry in many ways helps define our perception of ourselves. An interesting read, it makes me look forward to reading the full book when it arrives.

The Fate of the Sabbatarians

I don’t often link to other articles online, but I read an article today that struck me as fascinating, well-researched, well-written, and which has many implications for those interested in Jewish genealogy.

The article, by Shay Fogelman in Haaretz, is titled Discovering Europe’s non-Jews who kept the faith and it discusses the fascinating history of the Sabbatarian community of Transylvania (Szekler Sabbatarians). The Sabbatarians were a community founded in the late 1500s by a Christian nobleman who, fascinated by the Bible and other Jewish writings, adopted many customs of Jews such as keeping the Sabbath (thus the name Sabbatarians) and keeping kosher, etc. He spread his beliefs to his court, which slowly adopted his beliefs, but it was his adopted son and successor who really spread this new belief-system by translating Jewish prayerbooks into Hungarian for the use of his followers. They were not Jews, they were not Christians, and that created no shortage of problems for them.

Bozodujfalu, center of the Sabbatarian community

In many ways they were persecuted even more than the Jewish community in the same region, because the Christian churches which dominated the region viewed Sabbatarians not as Jews, but as Christian heretics. By 1635 when they were forced to convert to one of the four major Christian sects in the region by the government, they counted their members at 20,000 people. Driven underground the religion persisted in hiding for hundreds of years, pretending to be Christian but intermarrying either amongst themselves or occasionally with the local Jewish community. In the mid-1800s with the emancipation of the Jews, the Sabbatarian community came out of hiding (although they were still persecuted as heretics) and half of the community converted en-masse to Judaism. The community, now half Jewish, continued to pray together in the same Synagogue as before.

When WWII started and the Nuremberg laws came into force, the Hungarians who controlled the region, and the Germans who eventually took over, were not sure what to do with the Sabbatarians. At first they considered them Jews, but after protests (including by local Christian clergy) some were exempted from the racial laws that sent the Jews into ghettos and eventually to the death camps. Some who were given the opportunity to leave the ghetto remained there as they decided they would rather share the fate of the Jews (if that was what God willed). Very little of the community seems to have survived the war, although some descendants of the community still live in the area, and even in Israel.

The story is interesting from a genealogical point of view because of the history of the community. While the mass-conversion of half the community occurred within a time-period that is well documented, the previous two centuries of the community is not well-documented, and the interaction between the Sabbatarians and the Jewish community is not well known. If members of the community intermarried into the Jewish community (presumably converting to Judaism beforehand), then that is in many ways reverse intermarriage compared to the much-more-common-at-the-time marrying out of the community. It would be extremely rare at that time to find large numbers of a non-Jewish community marrying into the Jewish community.

How is this influx of the local population into the Jewish population reflected the DNA of the Jewish population? If intermarriage really started in the 16th century, the number of descendants could in fact make up a large minority segment of the Jewish population from that area. What are the predominant haplogroups of Sabbatarians? Do those haplogroups exist in any large percentage in the Ashkenazi Jewish community? Some haplogroups such as Q1b1, which is a minority among Ashkenazi Jews (5%), but which is almost all Jewish, have been theorized by some to be a remnant of the Khazarian mass-conversion (the only other large-scale conversion since biblical times that I can think of), but perhaps the Q1b1 haplogroup derives from the Sabbatarian community? or another mass-conversion which we don’t know about?

It would also be interesting to document the connections between the two halves of the Sabbatarian community after the mass conversion in the 19th century – presumably there was intermingling between the two halves after the conversion (they still prayed together after all).

From the article in Haaretz it seems those Jewish descendants of the Sabbatarians identified by the author may not be interested in researching this history. We may therefore never know the full story of the Sabbatarians, and what their influence on the make-up of the Jewish people today is (perhaps significant, perhaps inconsequential).

In any case, I recommend reading Shay Fogelman’s excellent article and learning about this little-known non-Jewish sect which followed many Jewish laws (although not circumcision among others).

Out of curiosity, how many of you had heard of these Sabbatarians (Szekler Sabbatarians) before this post? If so, where did you hear about them?

Volunteer Opportunity at the JDC

Back in May, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as the JDC, or simply the “Joint”) launched an online archive web site called Our Shared Legacy which contained scanned documents from the JDC archives with over 500,000 names. Those documents included lists and cards that showed how the JDC helped Jewish refugees during and after the Holocaust to immigrate to various countries around the world (in addition to other relief efforts, including before WWII). See my article from the launch in May for more information on the online archive itself.

Since May the JDC has continued to scan and index more files from their physical archives and add them to the archive web site. In order to assist in getting these records up quicker, the JDC is looking for volunteer indexers who can contribute a day or half-day per week in time, in the JDC offices in either New York City or Jerusalem, to help with the indexing effort.

This is a really great opportunity if you’d like to help make these genealogically significant records available online. The JDC has really created a unique resource, going far beyond what most similar organizations have provided online. It is particularly impressive that they have made all of the high-resolution images available to download on their web site. If you live in or near New York City or Jerusalem and you’d like to help make these records available to people online, this is a great way to give back to the genealogical community and the Jewish community as a whole.

The full request for volunteers follows. Contact Naomi Barth at the e-mail address below if you’re interested in volunteering. Let her know you heard about it here.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is seeking Indexing Project Volunteers for an exciting opportunity to help with a forward- thinking archive endeavor to index historic lists. The volunteer will have the opportunity to engage with primary source material regarding The Joint’s work since 1914.

This project is perfect for those with an interest in genealogy, Jewish or general history, transnational migration, the non-profit sector, library science or archival work.

Position Requires:
• Interest in history and the treasures of the JDC archives
• Working as a reliable team player
• General computer skills
• Foreign language skills helpful but not necessary

A full day or half day per-week time commitment is required. Volunteer work must be completed on site at JDC’s NY or Jerusalem offices. All training and supervision will be provided.

Please send inquiries to:
[email protected]
Indexing Project Coordinator

Please enter “JDC Archives Indexing Project Volunteer” in the subject line.