The Story of the Four Chaplains

Image: The Four Chaplains were honored with a commemorative 3¢ stamp issued in 1948, showing their four faces above the sinking Dorchester, with the words “These Immortal Chaplains… Interfaith in Action.”  Image is in the public domain.

This week in 1943, U.S. Army Transport ship Dorchester carried 902 troops, merchant marines and civilian workers from Newfoundland to an American base in Greenland. The icy waves were a prowling ground for German U-boats, and one of the Coast Guard cutters accompanying the Dorchester had picked up a shadow on its sonar. The men on the Dorchester were under orders to keep their life jackets on, but down in the bowels of the ship, many disregarded the order because of the heat of the ship and the difficulty of sleeping in a bulky life preserver.

On Feb 3, 1943, a German U-Boat silently surfaced at 12:55 a.m, hidden by the night. The officer in charge of U-223 took aim and fired three torpedoes at the troop ship. One torpedo hit the Dorchester below the water line amidships, opening the hull to the frigid Atlantic and knocking out the power and with it radio contact with the three Coast Guard escorts. A lookout aboard the CGC Comanche spotted the flash of the explosion, and radioed for help.

Aboard the Dorchester, men awakened by the explosion had to find their way topside in the dark. Many were killed in the initial explosion; many more were wounded. Many had undressed to sleep, and when they emerged on the tilting deck, they were without lifejackets. This was the Arctic; no one could survive long in those waters even with a lifejacket, but without one, he would be doomed.

According to survivors, there were four rays of light on that dark deck. Four chaplains: Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed moved quickly and quietly among the men, calming them and directing them to lifeboats. They prayed aloud for the dying and encouraged the living.

Petty Officer John J. Mahoney tried to go back to his cabin for gloves, but Rabbi Goode stopped him.  Goode answered. “Never mind, I have two pairs.” The rabbi pressed his own gloves into the young man’s hands. Later, in safety, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode didn’t have two pairs of gloves. The rabbi had already decided that he was unlikely to leave the Dorchester.

The chaplains opened a locker on deck and began distributing life jackets to those who had left theirs below. When all the jackets were given out, they removed their own and handed them out, too. The chaplains did not inquire whether the next man in line was a believer, much less was he someone of their own faith; rather, the chaplains simply gave the life-saving gear to the next person in need.

The Dorchester sank that night, with only 240 survivors out of the 902 souls aboard. Survivors report hearing the chaplains on the deck of the ship, singing together to the very end.

On Dec. 19, 1944, the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross were awarded posthumously to each of the four chaplains. Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on them, but could not do so because of the strict requirement that it be given for “courage under fire.” Instead, the Congress issued a special “Four Chaplains Medal” for them and them only.

The four chaplains served together and with a common purpose. Their story caught the imagination of the nation, since at that time the majority of Americans did not think of Jews and Catholics in the same way they thought about white Protestant ministers. Before this time, Jews in the United States were generally regarded as non-white foreigners, no matter their place of birth. This event was a crucial step on the road to change in U.S. interfaith relations.

As one of my teachers (I wish I could remember which!) pointed out to me, before the Four Chaplains one did not hear the phrase “Judeo-Christian” in American discourse. While I admit to mixed feelings about the ways to which that phrase is used (often ignoring real and important distinctions between Jewish and Christian belief) I can never forget that underneath it lies a conviction that we have essential ties.

I look forward to the day when the essential ties among all people of good will are appreciated and celebrated: when no religion is seen as lesser, when no one is “white” because everyone is truly equal. Then, and only then, will the legacy of the Four Chaplains bear its true fruit.

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Is the Bible History?

Image: a small section of the Merneptah Stele, translated: “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” Public domain.

The quick answer: no, and yes. The Creation stories are not history (and they are definitely not science.) They convey values: that all created beings are essentially good, that order is preferred to chaos, that human beings are responsible for the care of the world. They convey a religious world-view, not a scientific explanation of anything.

Some of the Bible, especially Genesis, is prehistory. None of the folks in Genesis were writing those stories down, as far as we know. The stories have survived because they were oral traditions. Oral traditions are tricky: at their best, it’s amazing what checks out, but at their worst they are like a game of “telephone” in which every detail is changed as the story travels. However, again, what the book gives us is an account of our people’s understanding of who they are, and of the vision of a particular (very dysfunctional) family.

Exodus is a puzzle. There is no corroborating account in the Egyptian archives, and no archaeological evidence of a vast multitude of people crossing the Sinai wilderness. We are not even sure which pharaoh is the Pharaoh of the story. At the same time, there are some tantalizing connections. One of the pharaohs thought to be a possibility for the Yul Brynner role is Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE), who celebrated his victory over some Libyan immigrants by commissioning the Merneptah Victory Stele and placing it in a temple in Thebes. The 7.5 foot stone slab has an inscription which provides the first mention of Israel outside the Bible:

The princes are prostrate saying: “Shalom!” Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head: Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace, Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is laid waste, its seed is not, Khor is become a widow for Egypt. All who roamed have been subdued. By the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Banere-meramun, Son of Re, Merneptah, Content with Maat, Given life like Re every day.

This part of the inscription mentions places inside of Egypt, but also places in Canaan: Canaan, Ashkelon, and Gezer. Many (but not all) scholars agree that the Israel mentioned here is indeed connected to the Israel of the Bible. Of course, there’s the little problem that Israel’s “seed” [descendants] were hale and hearty – perhaps Merneptah was just engaging in some ancient Egyptian PR – or was he covering up a successful rebellion? We’ll never know.

Likewise, we have no corroborating evidence for the rest of the journey back to Canaan, but how likely is it that we would have much evidence? Egypt wasn’t writing about it, since it was an embarrassment to Egypt. No one else much cared. (“Escaping slaves? Big deal!”)The stories survived as oral history until the Jews wrote them down, probably during or immediately before the Babylonian Exile (586-538 BCE).

It’s only when we get to the period of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah that we get much outside evidence for the stories in the Bible, by now the stories in the Books of Kings, 930-586 BCE. For that era, we have a number of inscriptions and quite a bit of archaeological evidence, as the kings of Israel and Judea became involved in geopolitics, often against the advice of the prophets. As it is now, the Holy Land was at the fulcrum of world politics. The superpowers of Egypt in the south and Mesopotamia (Babylon and Assyria) in the east jockeyed for advantage, and little Israel and Judah were in the middle. As a result, we have inscriptions and depictions of kings, none of them very flattering but all very much there.

So in summary: No, the Bible isn’t a history book. It is more of a journal, an account a nation gives of itself. Many of the things in it actually happened, but whether an “objective viewer” would agree on exactly how things happened is another question. By the time we get into the later books, Kings and beyond, it is remarkable how much of it does bear out, which is why I also say: Yes, there’s history in there.

For me, the Bible’s worth does not depend on outside inscriptions, or its value as history. Its worth lies in the fact that for thousands of years and millions of people, this collection of books has been a source of inspiration, learning, and solace. Whether the Exodus included 600,000 refugees or 50, its message of freedom remains. Torah is divinely inspired, for me,  because in my struggles with its words, I encounter God.

 

 

Lehrhaus Judaica Online Courses, 2016

Lehrhaus Judaica offers eight online courses over the next several months. (Full disclosure: I teach two of the eight classes.) The classes are taught using Adobe Connect, a platform which allows a learner with a computer and a reliable Internet connection to participate in class without a lot of special software.

All times listed are Pacific (US) time.

Here are the offerings, with links. For more info, or to register for a class, click on the class link:

Prelude to Rabin with Riva Gambert – Thursdays, Jan 28 – Feb 25 7-8:30pm ($70) – In this 20th anniversary year of Rabin’s assassination, we will take a look at four milestones in the nation’s history. (1) Socio-political climate that led to modern political Zionism (2) The post WWI French and British mandate system ((3) Palestinian Jewry’s response to WWOO and (4) American political landscape following the war that shaped President Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel in May 1948.

Lost Goddess: The Life and Death of the Divine Feminine in the Biblical World with Jehon Grist, PhD – Thursdays, March 17-April 21, 7-8:30pm, ($50). Like it or not, most of us consciously or unconsciously think of God as “He.” But scanning through the ancient religious lives of Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Hittites, Canaanites and also Israelites, we see a generous number of goddesses. Who were they and what can we learn about them?

Israel and Texts with Rabbi Ruth Adar – Sundays, Jan. 10 – Mar 6, 3:30-5pm, ($90) The land of Israel has been central to Jewish history, both ancient and modern. This class will examine the history ancient Israel, the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism, and the modern return to the land. With that history as a backdrop, we will learn about the great texts of Judaism, including the synagogue service. This class may be taken by itself, or as part of the Introduction to the Jewish Experience series.

Traditions of Judaism with Rabbi Ruth Adar – Sundays, April 3 – June 5, 3:30-5pm, ($90) There have been many different expressions of Judaism since the days of the Second Temple. In this class we will study the varieties of Judaism: Ashkenazi Judaism, Sephardic Judaism, and the modern streams of Judaism. We will also look at some of the elements that make American Judaism distinctive. The class will also explore the phenomenon of antisemitism from ancient times to today. This class may be taken by itself, or as part of the Introduction to the Jewish Experience series.

Prayerbook/Biblical Hebrew with Jehon Grist, PhD – Sundays January 24 – March 20, ($95, $90 seniors and students)

Bible Circle: The Text in its World with Jehon Grist, PhD – Tuesdays, Feb 23 – Mar 15, 7-8:30pm ($35)  Since childhood, we’ve all visited some of the great Bible stories, but we’ve also sometimes scratched our heads, not really understanding everything they have to say.

To fully explore the story, you need to go full circle and discover the Biblical world from which it came. That’s what this course will do. We’ll study selected texts, covering everything from the basic story line, to the meaning of obscure words and phrases (all in English translation), to the fascinating differences found in other ancient versions of the Bible.

But we’ll also visit the places and cultures that thrived when these stories were composed, from Biblical villages and the Jerusalem temple to Egyptian palaces and more. Richly illustrated with hundreds of images and numerous video clips, we will time-travel through four selected Bible texts, bringing them and their world to life.

 

What is Tzom Tammuz?

I am watching the sun sink towards the horizon ending the day of Tzom Tammuz, the Fast of Tammuz, so this post will reach most of my readers too late for the actual day this year.

The 17th of Tammuz is a “minor” fast day in the Jewish year. It commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Roman army, shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple. It begins a three week period of increasingly deep mourning in Jewish life, running from Tzom Tammuz until Tisha B’Av, the day on which we remember the destruction.

A minor fast is one that is kept only from sunrise to sunset. It applies only to eating and drinking, unlike the major fasts of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which we refrain not only from eating and drinking, but also from washing and anointing our bodies, wearing leather, and having sex. Major fasts last 25 hours, from sunset one day until three stars appear in the sky on the next.

Tzom Tammuz is the beginning of a three week period of mourning that leads up to Tisha B’Av, when we remember the Destruction of the Temple. I’m going to write a good bit more about that in coming days, but for now, just now that we have entered a time of mourning in Jewish life.

These minor fasts mark significant events in our life as a people. When you thinking about milestones in your own personal history, are there days you remember because they led up to major events? Do you do anything to mark them?

The Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam is located in the midst of the Jewish Cultural Quarter, near the Portuguese Synagogue. This is the historical Jewish quarter; I gather that most of Amsterdam’s Jews live in other parts of the city today.

Here's the wheelchair entrance. Yes, the woman on the scooter is me.
Here’s the wheelchair entrance. 

Getting there: The museum itself is in a complex of buildings at 1 Nieuwe Amstelstraat, and the closest tram stop is Waterlooplein. The entrance for visitors on wheels is a door to the right of the main entrance; ring the bell and a guide will come to assist you in navigating to the ticket counter. They were happy to let me take my scooter everywhere I wanted to go.

The museum seems like a huge disjointed puzzle, but there’s a reason for that. It is actually a complex of four historic synagogues, the New Synagogue (1752), the Great Synagogue (1671), the Obbene Shul (1685), and the Dritt Shul (1778). All four were Ashkenazi synagogues and they were active until the 1940’s, when the Nazis closed, looted, and gutted them. Today Amsterdam is still home to many Ashkenazi Jews, some of whom pray in new synagogues built since the war, and some of whom are completely secular.

The permanent exhibits are impressive: one can get a good feel for the history of the Jews of Amsterdam from them. I thought I understood how important these people were to American Jewish history but half way through the exhibits realized that there are connections I never imagined. (More about this in a future post!)

The museum’s planners took advantage of the layout of the Great Synagogue to assemble the best exhibit on Jewish religion I’ve seen anywhere. The bimah has been restored, so that visitors can stand on the bimah and see an open Torah scroll (under glass.) Exhibits around the periphery explain Jewish holidays, the Jewish life cycle, the calendar, and home observance. All is brought to life with various artifacts and objects, some on loan from families and some on loan from the Portuguese Synagogue.

There is also an impressive exhibit on the secular lives of Amsterdam’s Jews, from the first arrivals in the early 17th century until the present day. I got a sense of a vibrant community that was merely tolerated when it first arrived, but which would have had few choices without that tolerance. The city fathers of Amsterdam were adamant from day one that the Jews must take care of their own and contribute to the prosperity of the city. This stricture was tested when the Ashkenazim arrived later in the century, fresh from the pogroms of the Ukraine and nearly all penniless. With the help of their Sephardic cousins, they eventually did well and built the four synagogues which make up the museum today.

What I did not realize before I visited the museum was that not all Jews in Amsterdam were prosperous. Some were almost unimaginably wealthy, but others were desperately poor. I followed the exhibits with interest and am still very curious about the economic disparity and how it played out in their communal life. I look forward to learning more about this in future, even if I have to learn to read Dutch to do it.

It’s a great museum. One sad thing: we visited on two separate weekdays, and both times had the museum largely to ourselves. Tourists, even Jewish tourists, seem to visit the Anne Frank House and the Portuguese Synagogue and then feel that they have “done” Jewish Amsterdam. For me, this museum and the Holocaust memorial at the Hollandishe Shouwburg were the highlights of my visit. I look forward to writing about the H.S. in a future post.

I could write for a very long time and not tell you everything about the Jewish Historical Museum. I recommend the website very highly for a “virtual tour” of the facility.

A Visit to the Anne Frank House

Whenever Linda or I told anyone we were going to Amsterdam, the first question was usually, “Are you going to get stoned?” (No.) The second question was, “Are you going to the Anne Frank House?”

The Anne Frank Huis (its Dutch name) is the third largest tourist attraction in the city, after the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. It is the building where eight Jews hid from the Nazis for two years during WWII, only to be ratted out by an unknown person near the end of the war. Only one of the eight survived, Otto Frank. After the Nazi raid on the house, a friend found a collection of books and papers that she recognized to be the diary of Anne Frank, Otto’s teenaged daughter. The Diary of a Young Girl became a bestseller, a play, and has been made into a movie as well.

To get a sense of the popularity of this museum, look at the photo above. This is the line of people waiting to buy a ticket early on a weekday morning. We’d been told it was best to get tickets online before we even left home, but there were already no tickets available for the dates when we’d be there. At our hotel, we were assured that the best thing to do was get over there and wait in line before the doors opened.

I had visited the “Secret Annexe” in the summer of 1973, and I knew that it was not accessible for a person on wheels. A quick check of the website told me that that was still the case. So that day we split up: Linda went to visit the Anne Frank House and I had other adventures. She arrived at 8 a.m. to find the line in the photograph above. I don’t know how long those people had been waiting, but it was a long line even so early.

Linda tells me that the museum and the hiding place itself were very educational and very moving. Certainly the hiding place had made a huge impression on me when I visited there at age 18. Anne’s diary comes to life there, when the reader can feel how cramped the rooms are, and how careful one must be to be utterly quiet when anyone else in on the premises. As an American kid used to moving about at will, I remember marveling that the eight people hiding there for over two years managed to hang onto their sanity. It is unbearably sad to know that they went to the camps, after all they’d been through, so near to the liberation of Holland.

If you wish to get a sense of the Anne Frank House, the museum website has an excellent online exhibit complete with a virtual tour.  I know that Linda’s glad she went; I’m glad I saw it when I could climb all those stairs.

The Jews of Amsterdam

So, as you may have gathered from the First Ever Coffee Shop Rabbi Identification Contest, I just got home from Amsterdam. Linda and I promised each other 10 years ago that we’d return to the city “someday” and I am so glad that we did. The previous visit was rushed and we knew we’d missed a lot.

I have been about to burst with the new ideas and posts the trip inspired, because I’d promised (1) I would not sit at the computer on the trip and (2) I didn’t want social media to advertise that we were away from home. All the posts you’ve seen lately were prepared ahead of time and scheduled using the WordPress software, and I’d pre-scheduled my Twitter presence using Buffer.

So, the broad strokes: Amsterdam is a city that Linda and I had visited before and loved. Since that time I had learned a lot more about its Jewish history, and had that much more reason to love it, so I went armed with better information for a Jewish traveler. The only disappointment was that we were not able to attend services with the Liberal Jewish Congregation of Amsterdam. That was poor planning on my part: I misjudged my energy and ability (aka my Green Stamps) and had to spend most of Shabbat quietly resting. Still, there was lots to do and see.

First of all there is the city itself. Amsterdam is fairly young by European standards, founded in the 12th c. when someone had the bright idea of damming the Amstel River. Its Jewish history began at the end of the 15th c. with the arrival of the Jews fleeing oppression in Spain and Portugal. The Dutch were newly independent then and took a very dim view of anything Spanish or Catholic. If “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” then they were willing to see the exiled Jews of Spain as possible friends. The ruling House of Orange welcomed them cautiously and put the Jews under its protection. This was a profitable move, since these Jews were skilled in finance and trade and would play a significant role in the Dutch Golden Age of trade and commerce.

Ashkenazi Jews arrived in great numbers fleeing the pogroms of the Chmielnicki Uprising that began in 1648 in Ukraine. These Jews were distinct from the Sephardic population not only in ethnicity but also economically: they were nearly all quite poor upon arrival. By 1700 there were enough Jews in Amsterdam that there was a Jewish Quarter with an entire complex of synagogues appealing to various flavors of Jews. These communities flourished first as guests of the House of Orange and then later, with Emancipation, as citizens of the Netherlands.

At the time the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, there were 75,000 Jews in the city of Amsterdam. About 10,000 of those were Jews who followed the time-honored custom of seeking refuge in the city, including the German family of Anne Frank. Sadly, this was one time when the city offered no real protection to Jews. By the end of the war, 80% of the prewar Dutch Jewish population had been murdered.

Today Amsterdam is again home to vibrant communities of Jews, although they are much changed by the war and developments since. The Progressive Synagogue has 1700 Jewish households, the Portuguese Synagogue 270 families, and the Reconstructionist/Renewal synagogue (Beit HaChidush) 200 member families. Largest of all is the Ashkenazi Orthodox community, an aggregation of several Ashkenazi synagogues ranging from Modern Orthodox to Haredi under the name Nederlands-Israëlietische Hoofdsynagoge or NIHS, which boasts 1,700 affiliate households.

That’s an outline of the rich history of Jews in the city. Check back here over the next few weeks, when I’ll have more posts inspired by the Jews of Amsterdam.