COVID-19 Series: Watching “Unorthodox” during COVID-19

The Beginnings and the Endings: Watching Unorthodox during COVID-19

By Jessica Lang, Professor and Chair of English and Newman Director of the Wasserman Jewish Studies Center, Baruch College, CUNY

The Netflix four-part miniseries Unorthodox, loosely based on the 2012 memoir by Deborah Feldman by the same name, debuted on March 26, 2020, the same week that millions of Americans were impacted by stay-at-home orders for all but essential workers. Numerous media outlets reported that within the first weeks after its release, Unorthodox was among the platform’s most-viewed content. The word “quaranstreaming” was coined to capture viewer bingeing. Watching shows during a pandemic, especially newly released ones, emphasizes one of many practices that have become our new normal: a communal activity done in isolation from one another. We all watch together while we are apart.

Anika Molnar/Netflix

Unlike the book on which it is based, which unfolds in chronological order, the editing of Unorthodox holds viewers in a present, a recent past, and a more distant past, all of which are interwoven together, appearing and disappearing unexpectedly. Told this way, Unorthodox is a fractured story with multiple beginnings and endings, “befores” and “afters,” a feature that resonates even more when watching it in a COVID-19 landscape. Viewers move around not only in time but also in our relationship to the different representations of the main protagonist, Esty, with each beginning magnified because of its nonchronologic position.

We first see Esty as a married woman, who, childless, remains apart from other married women in her ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg. We see her next as a stranger in a strange city, Berlin. We then see her in an earlier period, as a girl who is, as she describes herself to the young man soon to become her husband, “different.” Raised by her grandparents with a mother who had, according to family lore, run away, and father who is a charpeh, a disgrace, Esty offers viewers glimpses of other beginnings that demarcate other pasts and fall outside the framing of the series.

The interplay between time, setting, and perspective is deliberately irregular and unpredictable, asking that viewers collect and connect the fragments they are given and create a narrative out of them. A delicate thread, created through music, holds these fragments together. In the first episode, as Esty seats herself on the steps outside her mother’s apartment building in Berlin, the opening strains of Schubert’s “An die Musik” are heard. The setting abruptly switches to an unmarried Esty setting the Shabbes table at her grandmother’s house, when a soprano’s voice starts singing what is perhaps Schubert’s best-known lied:

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden, Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,         Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb’ entzunden,    Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt,     In eine beßre Welt entrückt!       O blessed art, how often in dark hours, When the savage ring of life tightens round me, Have you kindled warm love in my heart,
Have transported me to a better world! Transported to a better world

The song reappears towards the end of the last episode, only this time the singer is Esty, who, having applied for a scholarship to a music school in Berlin, chooses to audition with the song she heard in her grandmother’s home, the one her great-grandfather, with his own fine voice, loved to listen to in Hungary, before the war when “so viel vorloren,” so many were lost. The melody of the song is simple and clear, as is the meaning of its words: music, the champion of art, ignites warmth and light in times that are wretched, offering an alternative, however fleeting, to the darker world around us.

After they hear “An die Musik,” the judging panel asks Esty to sing another song, one better suited to her tonal range—“something different,” as one judge frames it, recalling the sense of difference that has long set Esty apart. Esty squares her shoulders, closes her eyes, and, with no formal practice, launches into another song heard earlier in the series. A number of male wedding guests sing “Mi Bon Siach” as Esty walks towards the chuppah at her wedding. In a reversal of that scene, as Esty begins the song in her audition, her abandoned husband enters the auditorium and hears her voice.

The One who knows the speech of a rose among thorns The love of a bride and the joy of lovers He will bless the groom And the bride.Mi bon siach shoshan chochim, Ahavas kallah, misos dodim,        Hu yevarech es hechassan V’es hakallah.    מי בן שיח שושן חוחים אהבת כלה, משוש דודים הוא יברך את החתן ואת הכלה

It’s possible for us to understand Esty’s singing of these two songs in the final episode as sacrilegious—that music for her is salvational as faith never could be. Moreover, Esty’s two solos at the end of Unorthodox can—and maybe should—be understood as a declaration of selfhood. As she takes the stage to sing she makes a vocal public pronouncement, one that is declarative and deliberate, and one that by her community’s estimation violates strictly enforced standards of modesty for women.

And yet the invocation of the elte zayde by Esty’s bubbe as the two listen to a soprano singing Schubert’s 1817 work, and Esty’s tribute to her grandmother—and moments later her husband—as she explains why she chose the song for her audition, connects generations, places, eras, and traditions. It weaves together the varied beginnings and endings, including Esty’s grandmother’s death and the birth of her child, and suggests that Esty’s rendition draws her in some ways closer to her past even as she launches herself into a new way of living.

Esty gives us a sense of what lies ahead—a mix of multiple pasts, presents, and possibilities, and the unequivocal need for the transformative capacity of art to create new understandings about ourselves in a world that in some ways will be permanently changed.


Jessica Lang is Professor and Chair of English and Newman Director of the Wasserman Jewish Studies Center, Baruch College, CUNY

COVID-19 Series: The Pandemic through Hasidic Women Artists’ Voices

by Jessica Roda, PhD, Georgetown University, Center for Jewish Civilization

Hasidic women are often portrayed in the mainstream media through a Western feminist framework, which assumes that women can only gain agency by leaving their faith. Two media events during  the COVID-19 crisis have reinforced this narrative:  The first is media coverage of the ultra-Orthodox response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its domination by male voices of rabbis, doctors, and male community leaders on various platforms, while women, such as journalist Efrat Finkel, are rendered invisible and unheard. The second event is the release of the Netflix drama Unorthodox, a miniseries based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir of the same name, which follows a hasidic woman named Esti, who can only end her suffering and shine as an artist by leaving her Brooklyn community for the secular, inclusive, multicultural, and artistic Berlin.

Dobby Baum, April 12, 2020, Concert-Talk on Zoom and Instagram 

Although the ultra-Orthodox are known for their opposition to the Internet, some hasidic business owners find it necessary to be connected. Other ultra-Orthodox Jews use technology by choice. Among them are Dobby Baum, Malky Media, Devorah Schwartz, Sarah Dukes, Bracha Jaffe, Devorah Leah, and Chany Rosengarten, each of whom I discovered online in the last two years. These women come from a mixed ultra-Orthodox background, representing Bobov, Chabad, Ger, Litvish, and Satmar communities. They are particularly active on Instagram, where they promote their businesses, music, films, lessons, performances, and albums. The application serves as a marketing tool and springboard to create a community of followers. Ultimately, their use of Instagram might lead to their broader recognition, and to a range of contracts for live private and community performances. Dobby, Malky, Chany, Sarah, Devorah S., , Bracha, and Devorah L. are each building a new image of Orthodox womanhood. Implicitly, they are creating a counterpublic space (Hirschkind 2006; Fader 2020) in response to a mainstream religious space.

My intention is never to diminish the suffering of OTDs (Off the Derech, people who left ultra-Orthodoxy) or to dismiss the lack of action from some religious leaders, yet I felt the need to give voice to the Hasidic women whom I had the privilege to meet in person during my fieldwork and whom I follow on Instagram every day. To demonstrate the oversimplification of hasidic women’s agency, I would like to call attention to contemporary ultra-Orthodox women artists’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis.

Because modesty is central to their way of being, the majority of their activities occur live among only women and girls. The artists were preparing to perform and screen their films during Passover, but found their income compromised by the coronavirus outbreak. Like many around the world during this challenging time, they must fulfill their raison d’être by boosting their online presence and creating new opportunities for artistic collaboration.

Dobby Baum, Live Concert on Zoom and Instagram, April 2020, Borough Park (NYC)

During the pandemic, viral videos have surfaced of neighbors singing from their balconies in Italy, Spain, and France; songs such as “The Coronavirus Rhapsody”; and diverse compositions urging us to stay home and wash our hands. Similarly, Orthodox female artists have provided creative responses to the crisis online. They continue their women-and-girls-only performances via live concerts on Instagram and Zoom, where hundreds of girls and women participate from around the world. Their notable releases include their first collaborative video, “A Song for Lori,” in honor of Lori Kaye, who was murdered in the Poway synagogue shooting. Dobby Baum’s “It Is Meant to Be,” a response to COVID-19, is also noteworthy. As evidenced by their concert-conferences on Zoom, they have used this moment to constantly engage with their online viewers about the pandemic and the importance (and challenges) of staying at home. With thousands of followers––and more to come––they are reinforcing a sense of community and sisterhood. Crucially, they are reinventing their religiosity by means of technology and media. In doing so, they challenge narratives that imagine them as silent members of their religious society.

Postcolonial feminist scholars, such as Saba Mahmood and Serene Khader, have argued that critiquing Western secular feminism is necessary to prevent the oversimplification of the concept and experience of agency. Their argument is certainly relevant when it comes to the realities of conservative groups and families. These aforementioned scholars impacted how I understood my observations during my fieldwork with hasidic women in Montreal and New York City, and how I understand the online activity of ultra-Orthodox women artists.

The girls and women of Unorthodox cannot openly pursue their artistic aspirations. Dobby, Malky, Chany, Sarah, Devorah S., Bracha, and Devorah L. present a challenge to the show’s characters, as they seek new avenues to reinforce their religious belonging while challenging it from the margins.  


Jessica Roda is an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. She is currently an assistant professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is working on her second book, Beyond the Shtetl: Hasidicness, Women’s Agency and Performances in the Digital Age, in which she investigates how artistic performances empower hasidic and former hasidic women to act as social, economic, and cultural agents. Jessica Roda was a fellow at Fordham in 2017.

COVID-19 Series: Archives on Lockdown

Archives on Lockdown: The Pius XII Papers at the Covid-19 Age by Maria Chiara Rioli

When he announced the opening of the Pius XII Archives on March 4, 2019, Pope Francis could not have known that the date scheduled for this event a full year later – March 2, 2020 – would coincide with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe.

The Vatican Apostolic Archives, formerly Vatican Secret Archives, Sala dei indici (Index Room)

Historians welcomed with great interest Francis’s speech about access to the Vatican archives related to the Eugenio Pacelli’s pontificate (1939–58), which have not been accessible until now. The opening of these archives inaugurates unprecedented possibilities of enquiry for scholars.[1] The full scope of what the archives reveal – both about Pius’s wartime role as well as much else – will only fully emerge after years of study. This documentation will open up new questions, reframe hypotheses, and challenge former interpretations.

At midnight sharp in the Vatican City – 6pm at my New York desk – on October 1st, 2019, I reserved my place in the reading room in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, as dozens of other scholars in the world did as well. In the following months I contacted other Vatican archives – in particular the Archives of the Secretariat of State and the Archives of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches – to ensure the possibility that I would get access to this newly released documentation, essential to my Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral project on the history of a community of Jewish converts to Catholicism within the Latin diocese of Jerusalem in the early 1950s.

In the weeks before the opening of the Pius archives, the spread of the Covid-19 in Europe, with its epicenter in Northern Italy, made many scholars doubtful about the possibility of opening the archives in those conditions. Some historians preemptively cancelled their research journeys. The archives opened as scheduled, immediately accompanied by some polemical jabs between Johan Ickx, the director of the historical archives relating to the Vatican’s Section for Relations with States, and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, about Pius’ role during the Shoah and the risks of an apologetic use of the documents.[2]

In the first week of March, the spread of Covid-19 accelerated. On Friday, March 6, the first case was registered in Vatican City. Around 10am that morning, scholars were informed that the reading room of the Secretariat of State archives was closing that day. The other Vatican archives shut down too. On Sunday March 8, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the lockdown of the whole country. The critical situation in Italy means that any provision for reopening for libraries and archives, including in the Vatican City, is still uncertain.

In those first days after the opening of the archives, historians had just confronted a small part of this new documentation: in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, scholars can request a maximum of 5 boxes per day, while in the Archives of the Secretariat of State, whose digitization could allow quicker and more efficient research, the access is limited by the closure of a part of the documentation, particularly from the years 1949–58. Now, much of their research is on hold or much delayed. The first conference, scheduled for June 2020 at the French School in Rome, that was aimed at revisiting the Pius pontificate in light of the newly-released documentation, has been postponed to Spring 2021.

For my research, however, these days have been indeed precious and fruitful. I am able to consult documents on the premises of the establishment of the Association of Saint James, the correspondence between the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Oriental Church, the Apostolic Delegation of Jerusalem and Palestine, and the Church of Jerusalem. These records allow the historian to reconstruct a much more complex narrative of the relations between the Rome, the Jerusalem Church, the State of Israel, and the Jewish world, often represented only in terms of “conflict,” “opposition,” and “absence of contacts.” I made use of this archives in my book Tribulationis Tempore: The Latin Church of Jerusalem in the Palestine War and Its Aftermath, 1946–56, forthcoming with Brill.

At the reopening of the archives, an attentive examination of the documents contained in the section “Ebrei” at the archives of the Secretariat of State, the correspondence of the Berlin and Paris Apostolic Nunciatures deposited in the Vatican Apostolic Archive and other collections will certainly contribute to a more accurate appraisal of the role of the Holy See during the Shoah. At the eventual end of the lockdown, unlocking the archives will allow new narratives to be constructed and to circulate.

Maria Chiara Rioli is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow at the universities of Ca’ Foscari in Venice and Fordham in New York within the REL-NET project: “Entangled Interfaith Identities and Relations from the Mediterranean to the United States: The St James Association and Its Transnational Christian-Jewish Network in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”


[1] David I. Kertzer, “What the Vatican’s Secret Archives Are About to Reveal,” The Atlantic, March 2, 2020 https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/what-vaticans-secret-archives-are-about-reveal/607261/

[2] See Rossella Tercatin, “Is the Vatican trying to distort how Pius XII behaved towards Jews?”, Jerusalem Post, March 4, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/antisemitism/is-the-vatican-trying-to-distort-how-pius-xii-behaved-towards-jews-619644

Passover 2020 and The Iconography of the Plagues

The Golden Haggadah, second quarter of the 14th century, Spain, British Library MS Additional 27210, 12v. Four plagues: frogs, lice, “arov” (wild beasts), and murrain.

As we endure the pandemic of COVID-19, the plagues from the story of Exodus and the Haggadah acquire a different meaning. The iconographic representation of the plagues can already be found in medieval illuminated Haggadot, like the 14th-century Spanish haggadot: Golden Haggadah and the “Brother Haggadah,” now at the British Library. Both begin with a sequence of magnificent illuminations depicting the story of Exodus.

The “Brother Haggadah”, third quarter of the 14th century, Spain. British Library, MS Oriental 1404, fol. 5r. Plagues of boils (top) and hail (bottom)

The “Brother Haggadah” has depicts eight of the ten plagues, skipping the first (blood) and the last (the killing of the first born). Both the Golden Haggadah and the “Brother Haggadah” were were commissioned by affluent Spanish Jews. These are two of several surviving illuminated haggadot from Spain. Among the other known Spanish haggadot are the so-called Sarajevo haggadah and the Rylands haggadah from the the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

Histoire de la Bible et de l’Assomption de Notre-Dame, France, Paris, between 1390 and 1400
The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, MS M.526, fol. 14r

Christian illuminated bibles, especially the so called moralized bibles, also included illustrations of the plagues. Here is a late 14th century French bible, now at the Morgan Library, Histoire de la Bible et de l’Assomption de Notre-Dame, France, Paris, between 1390 and 1400 (MS M.526). Folios 12r-14v depict the scenes from Exodus relating the ten plagues. Here is the plague of locust. On top right Moses speaks with Pharaoh, depicted as a king, and at the bottom right Moses speaks to God, who is depicted as Christ.

The iconography found in many modern haggadot does not draw from these medieval examples, but rather from the iconography developed in the printed haggadot of the early modern era. This is the case for the 1946 Haggadah from Cairo. Below are images of the first five plagues: blood, frogs, lice, ‘arov (wild beasts/swarms), and murrain.

Below are images from a haggadah issued for the first Passover after the end of World War II. It was published in a Displaced Persons Camp in Fernwald in 1946. The Haggadah’s wine stains show it was used for a Passover seder (below). The pages below illustrate the dependence of modern haggadot on premodern iconography. The bottom image, marked by wine stains, shows the section shefokh ha-matkha (“Pour forth thy wrath”) section of the Passover Haggadah, which must have been particularly meaningful in 1946.

The break away from that “traditional” imagery came only from the more artistic modern haggadot, such as the 1969 El Al Haggadah.

Haggadah shel Pesah (Hagada for Passover) edited by Shaham Lewenson, Printed for El Al 1969. Fordham University, SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1969 1

To see more –though not all– examples of Haggadot from the Fordham collection, see the catalogue of the exhibition “Haggadah and History,” which was on view in 2019.

“Sarasohn vs. The Workingmen’s Publishing Association”: Socialism, Capitalism, and American-Jewish entrepreneurs in the Yiddish Press in 1890’s New York

By Yael Levi, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On August 22nd, 1898, the Jewish-Russian journalist Phillip Kranz, pseudonym of Jacob Rombro, received a subpoena from the Supreme Court of New York City. Kranz and other writers and editors of the “Workingmen Publishing Association” learned that “the action is brought to recover damages for libel, for a willful, reckless and atrocious libel.” The plaintiff was Kasriel Hirsch Sarasohn, the most important Yiddish and Hebrew press publisher in New York at the time. Sarasohn was represented by his son Abraham, a young and successful lawyer.

The trial revealed some of the most fundamental tensions in the Yiddish press in 1890s New York: orthodox versus secular; capitalism versus socialism; a family business versus a workers‟ organization, popular journalism versus cultural elite journalism, etc. All of these tensions presented themselves openly.

Dos Abendblatt, 1898, NYPL-Dorot Jewish Division

The cause for Sarasohn‟s complaint was an article from the socialist Yiddish daily “Dos Abendblatt” (The Evening Paper; founded in New York on 1894). The socialist daily had been attacking Sarasohn for months, publishing one investigation after another about his misuse of charities, as well as misrepresenting himself as a friend of the workers‟ class supporter, a supporter of the Zionist cause, a charity organizer – thus gaining support, good reputation and capital – while using them eventually for his own profit. Sarasohn demanded 20,000 dollars for the damage to his reputation within the Yiddish speaking community in New York.

Sarasohn was born in 1835 in Paiser, Suwalki County in North-Eastern Europe. His brother in law, the typesetter and editor Mordechay Yahlomstein, escaped to America in 1861, and on 1865 he wrote back to Sarasohn, recommending him to immigrate to America and to found a printing business. Sarasohn settled in New-York in the early 1870s and opened a small printing house. The business grew successful, and the Sarasohn family would later become a prominent force in the Yiddish and Hebrew press in America.

The defendants in the trial, Phillip Krantz and Bernard Feigenbaum, were also Jews from an East-European origin. They came to America in the early 1890s with a solid socialist ideology. After arriving to New York they were involved in writing and editing the socialist weekly “Arbeter Tsaytung”, and later the socialist daily “Dos Abendblatt”, both of which funded by the Socialist Labor Party.

The articles against Sarasohn were originally published in Yiddish; the plaintiff provided a transcript and an English translation to the court. Soon enough the trial shifted from Sarasohn‟s misdeeds to the political affiliation of the defendants. In an article which was published in “Dos Abendblatt” during the trial under the title “Sarasohn informs the court on us as anarchists”, the paper claimed: “Sarasohn writes in his prosecution that we are heretic socialists, „anarchists‟, „demons‟, hoping thus to convince the American jury”. According to the journalist, Sarasohn aimed to put “socialism on trial.”

On his final address to the jury, Sarasohn‟s lawyer – his son Abraham – accused the defendants of being “socialists, anarchists, nihilists […] He told the jury that we are coming from a country (Russia) when every written line must be signed by a policeman, and because of that when we came to this free land – where there is freedom of the press, we misuse this freedom”. The verdict of the trial, given on March 1901, was in favor of Sarasohn; the jury accepted his claim and decided that the “Workingmen‟s Public Association” will pay him 3,500 dollars plus trial expenses.

The fact that Sarasohn was accusing the socialist journalists of being Russian is counterintuitive: after all, he came from a not so far region three decades earlier; he surely didn‟t think any of his newspapers were misusing the very same freedom of the press. However, by using this argument, Sarasohn was able to differentiate between himself, the “good” immigrant, and the socialists, the “bad” immigrants – a very useful differentiation in Fin-de-Siècle America.

This legal case can serve as a key for understanding the ideological and political trends of Jewish immigrants from Eastern-Europe in the first two decades of mass migration. It can also shed light on two major types of economic immigration and Americanization. These types represent different aspects of American capitalism in the 19th century: the worker(s) and the entrepreneur(s).

Sarasohn was different from his opponents in the type of the project each of them ran: “Dos Abendblatt” was an ideological and political project, rather than a profit-oriented business. Sarasohn on the other hand had a family business, not very different from other immigrant entrepreneurs in the late 19th century: it was a small scale project, ran and operated from his home at 175 East Broadway during the first years; his children were his typesetters and later became his business partners; and he didn‟t have any local background both financially and administratively. Put it this way – Sarasohn was an immigrant and an entrepreneur.

Sarasohn’s enterprise – a weekly and later a daily newspaper in Yiddish – was indeed an early form of American Jewish entrepreneurship. He had to count on family labor, communal support and home-based production. But Sarasohn‟s sweatshop was different: his product was a “Jewish” product. Unlike a pair of pants, a tie or a box of cigars – it couldn‟t have been produced and couldn‟t have been bought by non-Jews. Sarasohn needed typesetters who could read the Hebrew Alphabet, and he counted on Yiddish readers to buy his newspapers. The type of the project can also explain why Sarasohn was so worried about his reputation in the Yiddish speaking world: it was his clientele.

The 1890s New York Yiddish press represented vividly the Yiddish worlds of the city, and the main ideological debates were represented in its papers both as a subject and as an object. As the Sarasohn case shows us, understanding the role of the Yiddish press in the Jewish community of the East Side is crucial for portraying the historical and political context of the era.

Yael Levi was a Fordham-NYPL Research Fellow in Jewish Studies in the spring of 2019. Below is the lecture she delivered at Fordham University in April 2018.

“But We Survived”: The Unsettled Memory of Polish-Jewish Survivors in the Soviet Union by Lidia Zessin-Jurek

Many unhappy returns

The majority of Polish Jews who survived World War II did so in the Soviet Union, some in the gulags of Siberia, experiencing forced labor, hunger, and illnesses. When they returned to Poland at the end of the war, they often encountered hostile Christian Poles. The hostility of their former neighbors brought about  feelings of betrayal and loss, which are ubiquitously described in the accounts of returning Jewish refugees. Very few of the survivors stayed where they had previously lived. Confronted with postwar antisemitism, most of them chose to leave not only Poland, but Europe altogether, the continent that inflicted upon them wounds that could never heal.

These survivors have been easy to find. Among them are acclaimed authors, directors, economists, philosophers, linguists, scholars, estate managers, doormen, family members, and neighbors. However, few were interested in hearing about their past. Now the moment has come to hear their stories.

Rita Blattberg Blumstein, Like Leaves in the Wind (London ; Portland, OR : Vallentine Mitchell, 2003). Call number: DS135.P63 B5863 2003

Dancing on the Titanic

Rita Blattberg Blumstein compares the last weeks her family spent in Krakow before it all started – the war, the Holocaust, the Gulag – to dancing on the Titanic. Her beautiful, cozy life, sheltered by her parents’ love, was interrupted abruptly and irreparably. Yet, until her father died, Rita Blattberg Blumstein said in 2002, “I never thought of myself as a Holocaust victim.”

Jack Pomerantz, Run East (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997) DS135.P63 P664 1997

Jack Pomerantz had never been outside his little town of Radzyń when his odyssey began: “I didn’t know how to go east. I followed people. And I walked. I kept walking many days. In a kind of stupor.” His long trip led him to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Siberia, Kazakhstan, and then back to Poland.

Joachim Schoenfeld from Lwów (Lviv) recalled how in the wake of WWII for the first time in the long history of Jewish persecution, refugees had found all the gates to the lands of the ‘free world’ closed: “The 3.5 million Polish Jews found themselves trapped. Not knowing where to go, they moved about aimlessly on the roads and highways like ants to avoid being trampled by a giant’s foot.”[i]

Life-saving deportation to Siberia

Hundreds of thousands of such lives were thus interrupted and thousands of people set on a move. Their eastward exodus began after the German attack on Poland. From the east of Poland, simultaneously occupied by the Soviet Union, the Jewish refugees were sent further to the Soviet interior and forced to hard labor, exposed to hunger and bitter cold.  Returning to Poland at the end of WWII they learned about the tragic fate of relatives they left behind under the German occupation. Torn between feelings of shock, grief, guilt, and relief, they considered their experience of minor importance and kept silent. Only recently have some of the Poland-born Jewish exiles to the USSR begun to convey the stories of their survival.

https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:3293915 Soviet Gulags, 1947 from https://persuasivemaps.library.cornell.edu/

Survivors

They were now both Holocaust survivors and survivors of the Stalinist terror. They were often the only members of their families to remain alive and by far the most numerous group of the few Polish Jews who survived the war. This difficult Soviet chapter of the Holocaust survival, largely overlooked, has recently been the core of research projects conducted by international scholars.[ii]  In the course of their work, they may achieve more inclusive re-definition of Jewish survival, normally associated with the horror of having gone through the death camps or with a difficult hideout among Christians.


Lidia Zessin Jures was a 2018 Research Fellow in Jewish Studies at Fordham University and the New York Public Library. She is currently in the Department of Modern Social and Cultural History at the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Science in Prague

[i] Rita Blattberg Blumstein, Like Leaves in the Wind, London: Valentine Mitchell 2003; Jack Pomerantz, Run East: Flight from the Holocaust, Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press 1997; Joachim Schoenfeld, Holocaust memoirs: Jews in the Lwów Ghetto, the Janowski Concentration Camp, and as deportees in Siberia, Hoboken, N.J : Ktav Pub. House 1985.

[ii] See the work by, inter alia, Atina Grossmann, Laura Jockusch/ Tamar Lewinsky, Katharina Friedla, John Goldlust, Markus Nesselrodt.

In Honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s Day 2020

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day we wanted to highlight The Freedom Seder: A New Haggadah from in our Judaica collection. The Freedom Seder was held at the Lincoln Temple, a black church in Washington, DC, in 1969 and was attended by hundreds of participants, Jews and Christians, black and white.

Passover of 1968 came on Aprl 12, just eight days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and three days after his funeral. Days after the “Holy Week Uprising” was quelled. That year, Arthur Waskow, one of Jewish peace activists at the time and a future founder of the Shalom Center, felt that the Passover holiday spoke to the struggles of the time. As he told NPR’s Code Switch, for that Passover, “I wove the story of the liberation of ancient Hebrews from Pharaoh with the liberation struggles of black America, of the Vietnamese people, passages from Dr. King, from Gandhi.”

Saul Raskin, Haggadah shel Pesah (New York, 1941). Fordham University, + SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1941 2
Saul Raskin Haggadah for Passover (New York, 1941), Fordham O’Hare Special Collections: + SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1941 2

In 1969, the anniversary of Dr. King’s death fell on one of the days of Passover, and Arthur Waskow along with other activists organized the Freedom Seder. For that occasion, Waskow created a “new Haggadah,” one that combined traditional elements with those relevant to the times, using the Saul Raskin Haggadah, which he had been given in 1946 for his bar mitzvah, and adapting it by adding new voices, among them Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner, Emanuel Ringelblum, and of course Martin Luther King Jr.:

No, the moments of resistance have not been bloodless. The blood of tyrants and the blood of freemen has watered history. But we may not rest easy in that knowledge. The freedom we seek is a freedom from blood as well as a freedom from tyrants. It is incumbent upon us not only to remember in tears the blood of the tyrants and the blood of the prophets and martyrs, but to end the letting of blood. To end it, to end it! For as one of the greatest of our prophets, whose own death by violence at a time near the Passover were member in tears tonight—as the prophet Martin Luther King called us to know: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites-acquiescence and violence. The nonviolent resister rises to the noble height of opposing the unjust system while loving the perpetrators of the system. Nonviolence can reach men where the law can not touch them. So—we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.”

The Freedom Seder Haggadah was first published in the Ramparts magazine, and, according Waskow, this was “the first Haggadah, certainly the first widely circulated, that celebrated the liberation of other peoples as well as the liberation of the Jewish people.”

The Shalom Center, founded by Rabbi Waskow, has posted a 10 minute video of the 1969 seder:

A New Exhibit at O’Hare Special Collections: Media Technology and the Dissemination of Hate

by Magda Teter, The Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies

Technological advances can lead to positive social change. Technological innovations have helped create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge. In medieval Europe, the introduction of paper lowered the costs of manuscript production and record keeping. The invention of movable type and the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century made books more easily accessible. The innovations in the production of paper in the nineteenth century, and in printing methods made newspapers, postcards, and color books possible. Photography, radio, and films facilitated new forms communication of news and entertainment. In our lives the Internet has provided new ways to communicate and learn. But along positive change, technological advances have often also been harnessed to less laudable goals, allowing for access to and dissemination of not only “useful” or “respectable” knowledge, but also of hateful stories, derogatory images and stereotypes.

In June 2019, the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that “Violence attributed to online hate speech has increased worldwide.” Twenty-first century media technology has been shown to facilitate dissemination of hate–bullying on social media; chat groups that allow for racist and antisemitic individuals to find like-minded communities; bots amplifying hateful messages. But while the media technology we live with is new, the phenomenon of harnessing new technology for hateful purposes is not. Anytime communications technology advanced, hatred spread as well. The exhibition explores how different technological breakthroughs facilitated the propagation of hate: in Europe—anti-Jewish and antisemitic images and tales, in America—antisemitism and racism.

Bible moralisée/Bible de Saint Louis (Facsimile edition, M. Moleiro, 2000-2004; original, 13th century, between 1226 and 1234, now at Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada, in Toledo)+ SPEC COLL LEACH 2000 2 V.1

Derogatory anti-Jewish iconography emerged at the end of the 12th century not to channel anti-Jewish sentiments but rather to amplify Christian piety. With time this anti-Jewish imagery gained more explicit hateful meaning. Still in the Middle Ages its reach was relatively limited— church art seen only locally, or precious manuscripts seen by few, such as here the splendidly illuminated Bible moralisée—the medieval picture bible—made for King Louis IX of France between 1226 and 1234, on display here. 

The breakthrough came with the invention of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century, which resulted in the first mass produced commodity—the printed book. Along came also cheaper pamphlets and broadsides. While the printing press allowed for the diffusion of knowledge, laws, and devotional texts, the new technology was also employed to disseminate anti-Jewish images and texts. These previously localized, or obscure, images or tales now had a broader reach. Books, even those that only tangentially discussed Jews, helped spread ideas and images—often false and spurious—about Jews and Judaism to a much wider audience. On display is the lavishly illustrated Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493, which included, among thousands of other stories, some eleven stories about post-biblical Jews, all of them spurious and derogatory. While there were books specifically focused on anti-Jewish content, sometimes books not meant to convey explicitly derogatory ideas captured the state of current knowledge, effectively replicating biased epistemological models, the works of Johannes Buxtorf or Bernard Picart in Fordham’s collection can serve as examples.

Hartmann Schedel, Weltchronik, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, originally published in Nuremberg in 1493 in both Latin and German, republished in German in a full size facsimile edition in 1933.
19th-century technology made publishing daily newspapers, postcards, posters, leaflets, songbooks, joke books, and other ephemera, possible. These too were harnessed to propagate hateful stereotypes.

But until the nineteenth century book production was still quite expensive: paper was made through a protracted process from rags, text had to be set from individual types, and any illustrations had to be either carved in wood to make woodcuts, or engraved on copper plates. But in the nineteenth century, wood pulp paper, lithography, rotary press, and offset printing made printing cheaper and more widely available. This facilitated the development of daily newspapers, with front-page color images, as well as postcards, posters, songbooks, joke books, and other ephemera. These too were harnessed to propagate hateful stereotypes much more widely through news and entertainment.

Irene Harand, Azoy? Oder Azoy? Der Emes vegen anti-Semitism [This? Or That? The Truth concerning anti-Semitism.] (Vienna: Karl Popelka, 1933). First published in German as “So? oder so? Wahrheit über den Antisemitismus” (This? or that? The Truth about Antisemitism). The title of the publication “This? Or That?” is tied to the cover design, presenting a choice between “this,” represented as a swastika or “that,” represented by the scales of justice. It was also issued in Yiddish (on display) and in Polish. A recent acquisition.

But these hateful challenges did not go unanswered. Jews, as well as non-Jews, often became allies in the fight against hatred, turning to religious values for moral support, celebrating festivals together, and organizing for a better future.

The Common Road to Freedom Passover Haggadah (Prepared for the Religious Action Center of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1985). First edition, prepared the Shabbat Hagadol Social Action Sabbath in 1985. In English with some Hebrew. It is an example of a joint response to racism and antisemitism. A recent acquisition.

The exhibition “Media Technology and the Dissemination of Hate” is on view until May 31st, 2020 at the O’Hare Special Collections at the Walsh Family Library at Fordham University, Rose Hill Campus.

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The exhibition was co-curated by Sally Brander FCRH ‘20, Clare McCabe FCRH ‘20, and Magda Teter, the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies, with contributions from students in Professor Teter’s seminar on antisemitism (HIST 4308) from Fall 2018 and 2019, and assistance and support from Linda Loschiavo, the Director of the Walsh Family Library and Vivian (Wei) Shen of the O’Hare Special Collections.

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The exhibition would not have been possible without the generosity of Mr. Eugene Shvidler, whose gift to Fordham’s Jewish Studies program helped start Fordham’s Judaica collection.