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Monday, October 27, 2008

Why We Can't Imagine Death

The End? [1]
By Jesse Bering
Scientific American


Why do we wonder where our mind goes when the body is dead? Shouldn’t it be obvious that the mind is dead, too?

And yet people in every culture believe in an afterlife of some kind or, at the very least, are unsure about what happens to the mind at death. My psychological research has led me to believe that these irrational beliefs, rather than resulting from religion or serving to protect us from the terror of inexistence, are an inevitable by-product of self-consciousness. Because we have never experienced a lack of consciousness, we cannot imagine what it will feel like to be dead. In fact, it won’t feel like anything—and therein lies the problem.

The common view of death as a great mystery usually is brushed aside as an emotionally fueled desire to believe that death isn’t the end of the road. And indeed, a prominent school of research in social psychology called terror management theory contends that afterlife beliefs, as well as less obvious beliefs, behaviors and attitudes, exist to assuage what would otherwise be crippling anxiety about the ego’s inexistence.

According to proponents, you possess a secret arsenal of psychological defenses designed to keep your death anxiety at bay (and to keep you from ending up in the fetal position listening to Nick Drake on your iPod). My writing this article, for example, would be interpreted as an exercise in “symbolic immortality”; terror management theorists would likely tell you that I wrote it for posterity, to enable a concrete set of my ephemeral ideas to outlive me, the biological organism. (I would tell you that I’d be happy enough if a year from now it still had a faint pulse.)

Yet a small number of researchers, including me, are increasingly arguing that the evolution of self-consciousness has posed a different kind of problem altogether. This position holds that our ancestors suffered the unshakable illusion that their minds were immortal, and it’s this hiccup of gross irrationality that we have unmistakably inherited from them. Individual human beings, by virtue of their evolved cognitive architecture, had trouble conceptualizing their own psychological inexistence from the start.

Curiously Immortal

The problem applies even to those who claim not to believe in an afterlife. As philosopher and Center for Naturalism founder Thomas W. Clark wrote in a 1994 article for the Humanist:

Here ... is the view at issue: When we die, what’s next is nothing; death is an abyss, a black hole, the end of experience; it is eternal nothingness, the permanent extinction of being. And here, in a nutshell, is the error contained in that view: It is to reify nothingness—make it a positive condition or quality (for example, of “blackness”)—and then to place the individual in it after death, so that we somehow fall into nothingness, to remain there eternally.

Consider the rather startling fact that you will never know you have died. You may feel yourself slipping away, but it isn’t as though there will be a “you” around who is capable of ascertaining that, once all is said and done, it has actually happened. Just to remind you, you need a working cerebral cortex to harbor propositional knowledge of any sort, including the fact that you’ve died—and once you’ve died your brain is about as phenomenally generative as a head of lettuce. In a 2007 article published in the journal Synthese, University of Arizona philosopher Shaun Nichols puts it this way: “When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there’s an obstacle!”

This observation may not sound like a major revelation to you, but I bet you’ve never considered what it actually means, which is that your own mortality is unfalsifiable from the first-person perspective. This obstacle is why writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe allegedly remarked that “everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.”

Even when we want to believe that our minds end at death, it is a real struggle to think in this way. A study I published in the Journal of Cognition and Culture in 2002 reveals the illusion of immortality operating in full swing in the minds of undergraduate students who were asked a series of questions about the psychological faculties of a dead man.

Richard, I told the students, had been killed instantaneously when his vehicle plunged into a utility pole. After the participants read a narrative about Richard’s state of mind just prior to the accident, I queried them as to whether the man, now that he was dead, retained the capacity to experience mental states. “Is Richard still thinking about his wife?” I asked them. “Can he still taste the flavor of the breath mint he ate just before he died? Does he want to be alive?”

You can imagine the looks I got, because apparently not many people pause to consider whether souls have taste buds, become randy or get headaches. Yet most gave answers indicative of “psychological continuity reasoning,” in which they envisioned Richard’s mind to continue functioning despite his death. This finding came as no surprise given that, on a separate scale, most respondents classified themselves as having a belief in some form of an afterlife.

What was surprising, however, was that many participants who had identified themselves as having “extinctivist” beliefs (they had ticked off the box that read: “What we think of as the ‘soul,’ or conscious personality of a person, ceases permanently when the body dies”) occasionally gave psychological-continuity responses, too. Thirty-two percent of the extinctivists’ answers betrayed their hidden reasoning that emotions and desires survive death; another 36 percent of their responses suggested the extinctivists reasoned this way for mental states related to knowledge (such as remembering, believing or knowing). One particularly vehement extinctivist thought the whole line of questioning silly and seemed to regard me as a numbskull for even asking. But just as well—he proceeded to point out that of course Richard knows he is dead, because there’s no afterlife and Richard sees that now.

So why is it so hard to conceptualize inexistence anyway? Part of my own account, which I call the “simulation constraint hypothesis,” is that in attempting to imagine what it’s like to be dead we appeal to our own background of conscious experiences—because that’s how we approach most thought experiments. Death isn’t “like” anything we’ve ever experienced, however. Because we have never consciously been without consciousness, even our best simulations of true nothingness just aren’t good enough.

For us extinctivists, it’s kind of like staring into a hallway of mirrors—but rather than confronting a visual trick, we’re dealing with cognitive reverberations of subjective experience. In Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s 1913 existential screed, The Tragic Sense of Life, one can almost see the author tearing out his hair contemplating this very fact. “Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness,” he writes, “and you will see the impossibility of it. The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness.”

Wait, you say, isn’t Unamuno forgetting something? We certainly do have experience with nothingness. Every night, in fact, when we’re in dreamless sleep. But you’d be mistaken in this assumption. Clark puts it this way (emphasis mine): “We may occasionally have the impression of having experienced or ‘undergone’ a period of unconsciousness, but, of course, this is impossible. The ‘nothingness’ of unconsciousness cannot be an experienced actuality.”

If psychological immortality represents the intuitive, natural way of thinking about death, then we might expect young children to be particularly inclined to reason in this way. As an eight-year-old, I watched as the remains of our family’s golden retriever, Sam, were buried in the woods behind our house. Still, I thought Sam had a mind capable of knowing I loved her and I was sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye. That Sam’s spirit lived on was not something my parents or anyone else ever explicitly pointed out to me. Although she had been reduced to no more than a few ounces of dust, which was in turn sealed in a now waterlogged box, it never even occurred to me that it was a strange idea.

Yet if you were to have asked me what Sam was experiencing, I probably would have muttered something like the type of answers Gerald P. Koocher reported hearing in a 1973 study published in Developmental Psychology. Koocher, then a doctoral student at the University of Missouri–Columbia and later president of the American Psychological Association, asked six- to 15-year-olds what happens when you die. Consistent with the simulation-constraint hypothesis, many answers relied on everyday experience to describe death, “with references to sleeping, feeling ‘peaceful,’ or simply ‘being very dizzy.’ ”

A Mind-Body Disconnect

But Koocher’s study in itself doesn’t tell us where such ideas come from. The simulation-constraint hypothesis posits that this type of thinking is innate and unlearned. Fortunately, this hypothesis is falsifiable. If afterlife beliefs are a product of cultural indoctrination, with children picking up such ideas through religious teachings, through the media, or informally through family and friends, then one should rationally predict that psychological-continuity reasoning increases with age. Aside from becoming more aware of their own mortality, after all, older kids have had a longer period of exposure to the concept of an afterlife.

In fact, recent findings show the opposite developmental trend. In a 2004 study reported in Developmental Psychology, Florida Atlantic University psychologist David F. Bjorklund and I presented 200 three- to 12-year-olds with a puppet show. Every child saw the story of Baby Mouse, who was out strolling innocently in the woods. “Just then,” we told them, “he notices something very strange. The bushes are moving! An alligator jumps out of the bushes and gobbles him all up. Baby Mouse is not alive anymore.”

Just like the adults from the previously mentioned study, the children were asked about dead Baby Mouse’s psychological functioning. “Does Baby Mouse still want to go home?” we asked them. “Does he still feel sick?” “Can he still smell the flowers?” The youngest children in the study, the three- to five-year-olds, were significantly more likely to reason in terms of psychological continuity than children from the two older age groups were.

But here’s the really curious part. Even the preschoolers had a solid grasp on biological cessation; they knew, for example, that dead Baby Mouse didn’t need food or water anymore. They knew he wouldn’t grow up to be an adult mouse. Heck, 85 percent of the youngest kids even told us that his brain no longer worked. Yet most of these very young children then told us that dead Baby Mouse was hungry or thirsty, that he felt better or that he was still angry at his brother.

One couldn’t say that the preschoolers lacked a concept of death, therefore, because nearly all of the kids realized that biological imperatives no longer applied after death. Rather they seemed to have trouble using this knowledge to theorize about related mental functions.

From an evolutionary perspective, a coherent theory about psychological death is not necessarily vital. Anthropologist H. Clark Barrett of the University of California, Los Angeles, believes instead that understanding the cessation of “agency” (for example, that a dead creature isn’t going to suddenly leap up and bite you) is probably what saved lives (and thus genes). According to Barrett, comprehending the cessation of the mind, on the other hand, has no survival value and is, in an evolutionary sense, unnecessary.

In a 2005 study published in the journal Cognition, Barrett and psychologist Tanya Behne of the University of Manchester in England reported that city-dwelling four-year-olds from Berlin were just as good at distinguishing sleeping animals from dead ones as hunter-horticulturalist children from the Shuar region of Ecuador were. Even today’s urban children appear tuned in to perceptual cues signaling death. A “violation of the body envelope” (in other words, a mutilated carcass) is a pretty good sign that one needn’t worry about tiptoeing around.

The Culture Factor

On the one hand, then, from a very early age, children realize that dead bodies are not coming back to life. On the other hand, also from a very early age, kids endow the dead with ongoing psychological functions. So where do culture and religious teaching come into the mix, if at all?

In fact, exposure to the concept of an afterlife plays a crucial role in enriching and elaborating this natural cognitive stance; it’s sort of like an architectural scaffolding process, whereby culture develops and decorates the innate psychological building blocks of religious belief. The end product can be as ornate or austere as you like, from the headache-inducing reincarnation beliefs of Theravada Buddhists to the man on the street’s “I believe there’s something” brand of philosophy—but it’s made of the same brick and mortar just the same.

In support of the idea that culture influences our natural tendency to deny the death of the mind, Harvard University psychologist Paul Harris and researcher Marta Giménez of the National University of Distance Education in Spain showed that when the wording in interviews is tweaked to include medical or scientific terms, psychological-continuity reasoning decreases. In this 2005 study published in the Journal of Cognition and Culture, seven- to 11-year-old children in Madrid who heard a story about a priest telling a child that his grandmother “is with God” were more likely to attribute ongoing mental states to the decedent than were those who heard the identical story but instead about a doctor saying a grandfather was “dead and buried.”

And in a 2005 replication of the Baby Mouse experiment published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, psychologist David Bjorklund and I teamed with psychologist Carlos Hernández Blasi of Jaume I University in Spain to compare children in a Catholic school with those attending a public secular school in Castellón, Spain. As in the previous study, an overwhelming majority of the youngest children—five- to six-year-olds—from both educational backgrounds said that Baby Mouse’s mental states survived. The type of curriculum, secular or religious, made no difference. With increasing age, however, culture becomes a factor—the kids attending Catholic school were more likely to reason in terms of psychological continuity than were those at the secular school. There was even a smattering of young extinctivists in the latter camp.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Stumbling over the Holocaust

Stumbling over the Holocaust [1, 2]
By Jefferson Chase
The Boston Globe

On a brigth, cold afternoon in Berlin last month, some 100 people stood watching as sculptor Gunter Demnig dug up a bit of sidewalk in front of the elementary school at Admiralstrasse No. 14. Beside him was a 4-by-4-inch brass-plated cobblestone. Its inscription -- "Here lived Willi Hopp, born 1899, died Nov. 17, 1944 in Auschwitz" -- referred to an apartment house that once stood there.

The onlookers applauded as Demnig embedded the stone, its surface slightly raised from the pavement. Someone could come along and trip over it. And that's precisely the idea.

Part of an innovative, if quixotic, effort to map out Nazi genocide by marking the homes of its victims, the tiny brass memorial at Admiralstrasse 14 is the latest addition to the more than 3,000 "Stumbling Stones" that Demnig has laid in cities and towns throughout Germany over the past decade. Demnig, who looks more like an explorer in his broad-brimmed leather hat than an artist or a historian, calls it "a decentralized monument to the past."

Where the memorial stones are laid is determined not by governmental committees, but by history itself, as researched by Demnig, schoolchildren, or patrons. (The costs of the project, around $100 per installation, are paid by private sponsorship.) No distinctions are made between Jewish and other Holocaust victims: You can stumble equally well over the names of Sinti and Roma, Jehovah's witnesses, political undesirables, the mentally ill, and homosexuals.

The effect on the viewer is all the more striking and personal for being accidental. Approximately 140,000 of the 566,000 Jews who lived in Germany in 1933 were killed. Staring down at the modest testimonial to a single human destiny, one can't help but imagine a face to go with the name -- or picture neighbors peeping from behind curtains as someone was taken away.

If genius is simplicity, then Demnig's idea of unobtrusively fixing the Holocaust in Germany's urban geography qualifies as a kind of genius -- especially when one compares the Stumbling Stone project to the official, 27-million-euro Holocaust Memorial being built next to Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. That monument, composed of 2,700 concrete slabs, has been a bone of bitter contention since it was first proposed in 1988. Organizers and politicians have fought over everything from whether a monument was needed at all to what form it should take to whether firms that profited from the Holocaust under Hitler should be allowed to participate in its construction. Residents of the city scorn the project, for the most part, and many object to its being dedicated only to Jewish victims, excluding other groups.

"You'd think with a Holocaust memorial," noted the German-Jewish pundit Rafael Seligmann, with acid reference to the notorious sorting procedures at Auschwitz, "we'd at least try to avoid a selection."

Demnig's idea is free of identity politics. His own interest in Nazi crimes against humanity stems from the discovery that his father had fought as a Wehrmacht soldier for the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and the Stumbling Stones originated in an earlier documentation of the deportation of Sinti and Roma from his native Cologne. Nevertheless, Demnig's work has not been universally welcomed. While most cities now accept the project, Demnig has been sued by building owners, who claimed the miniature memorials lowered their property values, and resistance in small towns remains strong.

"In villages, everybody knows everybody," says Demnig. "Some people remember what happened and don't want it made public." His first stones were laid in guerrilla fashion after local authorities refused to grant him the relevant permits.

Others have objected that the cobblestones, because they are made to be walked on, are disrespectful of the dead. But Demnig rejects the association with gravestones, pointing out that the locations of the stones are not gravesites and the individuals they name have no remains. Plus, the friction from the soles of people's shoes actually polishes the brass, in effect honoring the dead.

Monolithic memorials often stumble over diverse public expectations -- as illustrated most recently by the controversy over the World Trade Center memorial in New York. Memorials are expected not only to honor the dead, but to offer survivors a site for enacting their grief and to teach society about the horrors of the past. The Stumbling Stones manage to address all these needs, albeit in piecemeal fashion.

Demnig knows he won't succeed in laying stones for all of the 6 million-plus victims of the Holocaust throughout Europe. Indeed, it would be a feat if he managed to commemorate even the German victims. Intentionally or not, Demnig has created the sort of "open" monument which postmodern theorists often posit and architects rarely achieve. The very nature of the project reminds us that history, like memory itself, is an ongoing process.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

How to Prove You're a Jew

Burden of Proof [1]
By Gershom Gorenberg
The American Prospect

Am I a Jew? This is a remarkably strange question for me to ask. No aspect of my identity is more obvious to me. I've been aware of being Jewish since before I can remember. We missed school on Rosh Hashanah; everyone else had Christmas trees. My grandparents' native language was Yiddish. This is besides the fact that I chose 30 years ago to move to the Jewish state.

Nonetheless, while writing "How to Prove You're a Jew" [2] for The New York Times Magazine, I ran the personal experiment of seeing whether I could come up with evidence of Jewishness that might satisfy the Israeli rabbinate. My detective work yielded meager results. No official U.S. document lists me as a Jew. No Jewish marriage contract, or ketuba, for my parents lay hidden in an attic. No Orthodox rabbi alive knew my late mother as a child. With a cousin's help, I found what's probably a record of my grandmother's arrival at Ellis Island in 1910, with her ethnicity listed as "Hebrew" -- but her name is spelled "Sure" rather than "Sarah." Maybe that document would convince a judge in Israel's state-run rabbinic courts. Maybe not.

All of which makes me a fairly typical American-born Jew -- not too different from Suzie, the woman I wrote about in the Times, whose daughter was nearly unable to marry in Israel. In the article, I explained that marriage in Israel is entirely the province of religious authorities, which for the Jewish majority means the state-run rabbinate. Rabbinate jobs are awarded as political patronage; secular parties have satisfied religious coalition partners by giving those jobs to ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Increasingly, the rabbis in the state bureaucracy demand proof that people registering to marry are really Jewish. The proof they seek -- government documents, testimony from a select group of Orthodox clergy -- is unavailable to most American-born Jews.
Judging by how quickly the article climbed the "most e-mailed" chart it disturbed many American Jewish readers. In writing that piece, I kept to the role of narrator, telling a story. But one can't tell a story like this without seeing implications. Here are a few.

Most obvious, Israel needs to separate state and synagogue. As a matter of human rights, it is unacceptable that a couple seeking a civil marriage must go abroad. It is also absurd that to have a religious ceremony, one must be vetted by a clerical bureaucracy, then find a clergyman approved by that bureaucracy.

The point of separation is not only to protect nonbelievers but also to protect Judaism from the state. As Tulane University sociologist of religion Brenda Brasher once pointed out to me, the United States is the most religious country in the West precisely because of its unusual separation of church and state. America is a hothouse of religious innovation and variety, because religious institutions have to attract people to come through their doors. They can't depend on the state to pay their budgets. Judaism in Israel, tied to the state, alienates most Israeli Jews.

Over the years, I've talked to leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism who would like the Israeli government to subsidize their institutions as well. They are mistaken. For Israel to be a Jewish state does not mean that the government must support Judaism. Rather, it should mean that because the country has a Jewish majority, Jews enjoy more cultural autonomy than they do as a minority elsewhere -- creating space for a ferocious, delightful debate about what it means to be Jewish and what form Judaism should take. To the maximum extent possible, the state should stay out of that debate.

Which brings me to a second implication. I suspect the article upset many Jews because they would like to agree on what the word "Jew" means, on who belongs to the club. But there's no such consensus. Why should there be, really? We famously don't agree on anything else. Eliminating ultra-Orthodox control of Judaism in Israel will not lead Jews to agree on what constitutes conversion, or on whether the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is a Jew (Reform Judaism says yes; Conservative and Orthodox say no).

The ambiguities actually go further. American Jews tend to define "Jew" as a religious term but to treat it as an ethnic identity -- a tribal matter of shared ancestry, inflections, foods, and fears. Most Israeli Jews insist "Jew" is the name of a nationality, parallel to "French" or "Palestinian." Yet they generally assume that someone who converts to another religion ceases to be a Jew, and that someone who converts to Judaism has joined the ethnic group.

Because of the multiple meanings, two Jews can work together to raise money for a Jewish philanthropy, even when one is not sure the other is quite Jewish enough for his son to marry. This sociological reality could be softened by mutual respect. An Orthodox rabbi should be able to trust a Reform rabbi who says that someone's mother is Jewish. But the Reform rabbi will continue believing a Jewish father is sufficient to make someone a Jew, and her Orthodox colleague will disagree. Ultimately, the word "Jew" is postmodern, loaded with contradictory meanings. If I have made people uncomfortable by reporting this fact, there's nothing I can do about it.

Nonetheless, as a Jewish state, Israel can't entirely get out of the business of definitions. Regarding itself as the Jewish homeland, Israel grants Jews the right to immigrate. This isn't unique. Germany, Ireland, Finland, and other nation-states have laws granting preferential immigration rights to members of the dominant ethnic group. (The nation-state is an imperfect institution, but it is not going out of fashion, as Kosovars will testify.) To grant that right, you have to define who belongs to the group.

Israel could eliminate the problem by nullifying its Law of Return. Judging from the e-mails I received, very few of the American Jews who were perturbed by "How to Prove You're a Jew" would like this solution. Even if they never intend to move to Israel, they want to know they qualify.

Yet if Israel lets in anyone who says he or she is Jewish, it would lose control of immigration. It is now a developed country, attractive purely for economic reasons. There's no perfect solution to this quandary, but there may be ways to ameliorate it. Israel should use a wide definition of "Jew" for the legal purpose of defining who qualifies for immigration on that basis. It should also enact a consistent policy on how non-Jews can qualify for immigration, so that there's an alternative track. Israel is no more immune from this need than any other Western country. Instead of instant citizenship for Jews, all immigrants should go through the same process of naturalization, over the same amount of time, with the same requirements. And once people are citizens, their ethnic identity should not be the state's concern. The need to prove you are a Jew wouldn't vanish, but it would be both easier and less important.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jews are seeking right of return - to Germany

Jews Who Fled Germany Seek Citizenship [1, 2]
By Karen Matthews
Washington Post

When Helen Springut was growing up, her parents wouldn't vacation in Germany or buy a German car. The legacy of the Holocaust was too bitter. But Springut, 26, has been to Germany several times and doesn't think "all Germans are Nazis."

Now she is applying for German citizenship under a law that allows Jews who fled Hitler, and their children and grandchildren, to become naturalized Germans. For many people, that means receiving a European Union passport that can pave the way for living and working in Europe.

The German law, which has been on the books since the 1950s, applies to Jews who were stripped of German citizenship during the Nazi era and their descendants. It can also apply to communists and others driven from Hitler's Germany for political reasons.

The German consulate in New York handles up to 30 such applications a month, and one law firm here says it has 120 Jewish clients seeking German citizenship.

Most of those taking advantage of the law are from regions of the former Soviet Union, but there are also applicants from the United States, Canada and Australia. More than 4,000 Israelis also received German citizenship in 2006, a 50 percent increase over 2005.

According to the German government, there are now some 200,000 Jews living in Germany, up from 25,000 before the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Springut, a Harvard graduate who works in film production in Hollywood, has no immediate plans to move to Germany and will not lose her U.S. citizenship if her application is approved.

Springut learned she might be eligible from someone in the German consulate in Los Angeles. She then began gathering documents to prove that her paternal grandfather, who was born in Germany and left in the 1930s, was a German citizen.

It hasn't been easy. "As the Allies approached, the Nazis just burned everything," she said. "Documentation doesn't really exist."

In New York, the Fridman Law Group offers to help applicants through the process and advertises its services in local papers.

Nathalie Tauchner, who runs the group's German Citizenship Project, said the firm has handled about 120 cases and has obtained German citizenship for more than two dozen clients since starting the service one year ago.

Heinrich Neumann, a spokesman for the German consulate in New York, said applicants don't need an attorney's help. "It's a matter of fact," he said. "You have to meet the conditions."

In general, the German government discourages dual citizenship, but it makes an exception for eligible Jews. If granted citizenship, they are entitled to the same government benefits guaranteed to other Germans.

"You are equal with every other German. We don't have first-class and second-class citizenship," Neumann said.

Tauchner acknowledged that using a lawyer is not necessary "but under certain circumstances it makes your life a lot easier."

She said the law can be complicated. For example, an American Jew might think his or her grandfather was a German citizen because he was born in Germany in 1925.

But if he was the son of Polish immigrants to Germany, he might not have been a German citizen under the laws in effect at the time.

"It's one thing to say 'My grandfather was a German citizen and therefore I'm eligible,'" she said. "It's another thing to have proof of that."

Tauchner said her clients seek German citizenship for different reasons. Some fled Nazi Germany themselves and are now in their 80s and 90s.

"Their motivation is, something was taken from them in an unjust manner and they want to get it back," she said.

The children and grandchildren of the Holocaust generation have different motivations.

"They are primarily interested because it does open Europe to them," Tauchner said.

Few of those clients have definite plans to move to Germany, she added. Rather, they are thinking: "Now I can broaden my job search. I don't have to work in the United States. I can also look in England."

Not all children of Holocaust survivors are ready to make their peace; the memory of 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis persists.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was born in Poland in 1940 and saved from the Holocaust by a nanny who had him baptized as a Catholic.

Foxman said he has seen ads in Israel encouraging Jews to seek Polish citizenship as well. "From one perspective it's nice that Poland or Germany or some of the Eastern European countries are looking for Jews," he said.

While he has traveled in Germany, he says his own children won't go there.

"Some of the younger generation are not willing to let go yet," he said.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Lehman Brothers from Rimpar, Bavaria

There are no Jews in Rimpar [1, 2]
By John L. Loeb Jr.
Jewish Post

The Lehmans founded the great international investment banking firm of Lehman Brothers and among many other philanthropic endeavors endowed the Lehman Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Family members - many without the surname "Lehman" - have for 150 years played major roles in America's business, cultural and political life.

It is just one month to the day since my mother, Frances "Peter" Lehman Loeb died, and I find myself participating in a most singular event. I am in the small village of Rimpar, Germany, from which her ancestors came, participating in a ceremony honoring the Lehman family.

I am sitting in one of the impressive chambers of the Town Hall of Rimpar, once a castle of the great prince- bishops of nearby Wurzburg. Surrounding me are citizens of Rimpar, officials from Wurzburg, representatives of the Federal Government in Bonn, The Bavarian State Government in Munich; Duke Max of Bavaria, a direct descendant of the Kings of Bavaria; schoolchildren from Wurzburg High School, sister school to the Edith Altschul Lehman High School in Dimona, Israel; and 14 of my relatives, all descendants of Abraham Lehman who lived in this picturesque Bavarian town two centuries ago.

We are there in June, 1996, at the invitation of the Rimpar Town Council and its mayor, Anton Kutt, who inspired by a proposal from a young Catholic journalist, Dr. Roland Flade, were paying tribute to the family that Abraham Lehman had fathered.

The mayor of Rimpar was reading a letter from Helmut Kohl, chancellor of the German Republic, extolling the Lehman family and commending the Rimpar Municipal Council for keeping up "the memory of Jewish life in Rimpar and the victims of the Holocaust." This was an act the chancellor said, that was "setting an example that will be recognized far beyond their village."

As the ceremonies proceeded, I felt a flood of emotions, I thought of my mother, how proud she had been of her family and their record of accomplishments to which she had added a most notable page. I remembered my grandfather, Arthur, the senior partner of Lehman Brothers. I remembered his brothers, my great uncles, Herbert and Irving Lehman, the former a Governor and Senator of New York; the latter, the Chief Justice of the State's highest court.

Echoes came back to me of the stories I had head as a child of how my great grandfather, Mayer Lehman and his two brothers, faced with a law that allowed only one member of each Jewish family to marry and to work, had been forced to leave their home in Rimpar early in the 19th century to seek their fortune in the new world, originally as peddlers.

There are no Jews in Rimpar today.

Earlier in the day, a plaque had been unveiled at my great great grandfather's house which still stands in what is today the main street of Rimpar. Today it is a pharmacy.

Christian Will, a former member of the Bavarian Parliament, had the idea for the plaque. As an 11-year-old, she witnessed Kristallnacht. "We are the last generation that actually witnessed Kristallnacht and the expulsion of the Jews...The synagogue was plundered. They had thrown everything all over the street."

Following the unveiling of the plaque, we walked to the Town Hall built on a gentle slope about 100 yards from the Lehman House. In a small, stone room, the mayor dedicated the permanent exhibition about the history of the Jews of Rimpar. It features Government Herbert H. Lehman and the Lehman family. The display of photos and text paid tribute to the nine Jewish residents of Rimpar who died in Nazi concentration camps. Members of the Lehman family also died during the Holocaust, although none was then living in Rimpar.

Of the nine children of Abraham Lehman, only the three younger brothers, Henry, Emanuel and Mayer, came to the United States before 1850. Their eldest brother, Seligman, received the one license to work and marry for each Jewish family in Rimpar. Six sisters moved to other villages where Jewish quotas allowed them to settle and marry.

During the 1930's, with the rise of Hitler, their descendants heard they had a cousin in America, Governor Lehman, and they appealed to him for help. A family charitable fund, run by Dorothy Bernhard, my mother's sister, was organized. Under Dorothy's aegis, over 100 affidavits were issued. In the 1930's, if you had an affidavit, you could enter the United States. However, only 65 members of the Lehman family emigrated. It is unclear what happened to the other family members but we have to assume that they all perished in the Holocaust.

We also know about a first cousin of Governor Lehman: Eva Lehman. At the time that the Lehman family records were unearthed by Dr. Flade, he also discovered one of the largest files of Gestapo records existing in Germany. The originals had been destroyed but he found microfilms in the Bavarian State Archives in Wurzburg and matched them up with Lehman descendants.

In those files he found that Mrs. Thalheimer had been murdered at Treblinka. She had been able to get one of her children and grandchildren to America, but we had not been able to trace them. Through a series of amazing coincidences, her granddaughter, Ruth Nelkin of Great Neck, Long Island, New York, read about the event and contacted me. She had left Wurzburg when she was two- years-old. With her daughter, Amy, she arrived in Rimpar at the last minute.

How moving, how ironic, how strange this whole occasion.

The citizens of Rimpar were honoring a Jewish family that was unknown to them until today. Members of the Rimpar Municipal Council had voted unanimously to fund this project. The Chancellor of Germany was writing us; our relatives buried in the lovely Jewish cemetery of Heidingsfeld, now part of Wurzburg, rest in immaculately tended grounds.

As I listen to the words of praise, of regret, of warning, I thought how much fate and circumstances played in our lives and how lucky I was that my great grandfather had the good sense and the ambition to emigrate to the United States.

Russian Jews in Germany

Russian Immigrants Struggle in Small German Towns [1]
By Nathaniel Popper

HAMELN, Germany — Sounds of hammering and sawing came from the back of the six-year-old Jewish community center in this Lower Saxony town. Three older men, all volunteers, were at work on a stage for the new prayer room.

Surrounded by sawdust and pine planks, the men took a break to debate, in Russian, the proper way to affix a mezuza to the door frame. After about 20 minutes of discussion the men admitted that none had ever seen a mezuza on a door before, and they decided to wait on any decision until the next of the infrequent visits to their town by a rabbi.

The energy and commitment of these men gives reason for the high hopes that have been pinned to Germany’s burgeoning Jewish community — the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, thanks to the steady flow of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. But hopeful discussions about a Jewish renaissance in Germany often overlook the difficulties many of these new immigrants have had both integrating into German society and reconnecting with a Jewish faith that was lost to them in the atheistic Soviet Union.

“We can’t say now that Judaism is seeing a rebirth,” said Paul Harris, an expert on Russian Jewish immigrants at Georgia’s Augusta State University. “It’s far from being there.”

Since 1991, when Germany opened its borders to Jews from the former Soviet Union, more than 170,000 Jewish immigrants have arrived. Last year, for the first time ever, more Jews fleeing the ravaged economies of the former Soviet Union came to Germany than either Israel or the United States.

As part of the policy of accepting Jewish immigrants, which is seen in Germany as an act of repentance for the Holocaust, each new family is assigned to one of Germany’s 16 states by a strict formula. As a result, Jewish communities have sprung up almost overnight in cities and towns such as Hameln, population 59,000, that had no Jewish community before.

The distribution program was designed to spread the financial burden of the immigrants among the German states as well as to avoid creating Jewish ghettos in the large cities such as Berlin and Frankfurt, toward which immigrants would otherwise be drawn.

But in cities and towns such as Hameln, with its 450 Russian Jewish immigrants, the effort to disperse immigrant settlement has created isolated pockets of immigrants with few social or religious resources at their disposal.

A majority of the Jewish immigrants are living in places that until recently did not have Jewish communities, experts say. A full 72 of the 85 Jewish congregations officially recognized by the Central Council of German Jews were founded since 1991. Most are composed exclusively of immigrants in areas with no previously established Jewish community.

One of the three volunteers working on the community center’s prayer room, 65-year-old Vilen Kogan arrived in Germany six years ago and spends all his days at the synagogue speaking Russian. Discussing his work at the synagogue in broken German, Kogan, who has a cross tattooed on his bicep, makes no mention of any particular devotion to Judaism. Unemployed, he simply has nowhere else to go during the day.

Kogan’s 28-year-old son, Boris, came to Germany at the same time as his father. He spends all his time with the other young Russians in town. Like his father, he has not found steady work since arriving in Germany, with its rigid labor market.

In Israel and America, where Russian immigrants have been settled in places with already established Jewish communities, the unemployment rates for the newcomers have dropped close to that of the larger population after three years. In Germany, the unemployment rate for Russian Jewish immigrants has remained at 40%, and it is even higher in small and midsized cities such as Hameln.

But Boris Kogan is not resigned to volunteering his time at the synagogue. While his father helps build the prayer room, he and a friend are across town setting up a beer garden they plan to open during the fall.

This leaves him little time for Jewish activities. He has never been to the community center and said, “Only the old people have time for that.”

“I know I am Jewish — it said so on my passport in the Ukraine — but it is not important to me,” Boris said.

This is a typical attitude among younger and middle-aged immigrants, said Olaf Gloeckner, who researches Russian Jewish immigrants at the Moses Mendelssohn Center in Potsdam, Germany.

“Among the middle generations coming to Germany, there has been almost no inclination to turn to Jewish religion,” Gloeckner said.

The energetic leader of the Hameln community, Jakov Bondar, recognizes the lack of engagement among the younger immigrants with exasperation.

“It’s so important for us to have Judaism here. It’s what sets us apart,” Bondar said. “I’m glad that I was discriminated against in Russia for being a Jew. Otherwise I would have forgotten I was Jewish.”

But without any established Jewish community nearby, he has struggled to transmit his enthusiasm for Judaism to the younger generation. He has set up a Sunday school to get the youngest generation involved, but he has not found anyone who knows Hebrew, and as a result, the lessons consist mostly of efforts to transmit the Russian language, along with a few biblical stories from a Russian book of Jewish tales.

A rabbi — there are only 34 in Germany, according to the Central Council — visits the congregation every few months, and emissaries from the chasidic Chabad outreach organization make occasional stops, but for the most part, the congregation’s Russian immigrants are on their own when it comes to building a Jewish community.

Consequently, the congregation is not particularly observant. A yarmulke is not required in the prayer room, and breakfast with Bondar and Kogan is fried shrimp. Nevertheless, when Bondar is asked the denomination of his congregation, he quickly answers: “Orthodox.”

The answer is less a statement of doctrinal belief than a response to the complex religious politics of Germany.

The Central Council for German Jews, which oversees the government funding for local congregations, has frequently voiced its preference for congregations that observe matrilineal descent and its reluctance to fund Reform Judaism, which was founded in Germany.

Soon after Bondar founded his congregation, an American-German Jew set up a Reform congregation for Russian immigrants in Hameln with support from the Appleseed Foundation, an American philanthropy. In order to differentiate his congregation, and retain the support of the Central Council, Bondar is forthright in declaring his commitment to traditional Judaism.

While Bondar’s congregation is funded by the Central Council, he complains that even the approximately $30,000 it receives each year is not enough to purchase the prayer books and kosher food needed to establish a functioning congregation.

The Central Council’s executive director, Stephan Kramer, said that he commiserates with Bondar.

“The financial support for the existing communities is by far not enough for the quick establishment of the necessary infrastructure for the still-growing economic, social and religious demands of the communities and their members,” Kramer said.

But Bondar insists that the larger problem is that Russian immigrants have little pull in Central Council debates over questions such as where the available money goes and how quickly it flows to the Russian communities.

While new immigrants make up 70% of the registered Jews in Germany, they are not represented on the executive board of the Central Council, and only two of the 16 chairmen of the individual Jewish state federations are Russian immigrants.

Without a grasp of the German language and removed from the established urban centers of Jewish power in Berlin and Frankfurt, the immigrants have struggled to get a foothold in the Jewish establishment.

The distance between the new and old communities has been accentuated by a skepticism toward the new immigrants among the existing Jewish community.

“The Jews who were in Germany were already very concerned with being accepted,” said Andrei Markovits, a professor of German politics at the University of Michigan, “and then in come these new guys from the East — the Ostjueden — who the Western Jews have always looked down on, long before World War II.”

Bondar said that this attitude comes across very clearly. When he has asked for more help from the existing Jewish community, he said he frequently receives the same answer: “You Russians come and expect everything. Have patience. We were patient when we returned after the war.”

But Bondar warns that without more resources to build a Jewish community in Hameln, the younger generation will be lost to Judaism.

“We have no teacher for Hebrew and no rabbi,” Bondar said. “Slowly the congregation will turn into a hobby club or a social help center. Instead of integration, this is the way to assimilation.”

Friday, October 10, 2008

German Jewish renaissance

Six Weeks in the New Jewish Berlin [1,2]
by Brauna Doidge
PresenTense nr. 4

Berlin was once host to Nazi rallies; now it is home to what has been termed the “German Jewish renaissance” by everyone from the Boston Globe to the German embassy in Washington. Indeed, for each Jewish cultural event that occurs in Germany—the ordination of rabbis, the renovation of synagogues or a new Jewish museum—there is nothing short of a media frenzy. Many have a stake in this “renaissance”: Germans want to show their country has normalized, Jews want to celebrate growing Jewish communities, and the community itself is eager to prove it has recreated life in this formerly thriving center of Jewish activity. But for all the exciting news my Google results offered me, I found an all-too typical Jewish community: racked by in-fighting and pettiness and a mere shadow of its former glory.

One evening this past July, I was strolling down Oranienburger Street, a hot spot of Jewish Berlin, with a list of kosher restaurants I had found online. Of the four places listed, both the Israeli places were out of business, one kosher place had listed the wrong hours and long since closed, and the “kosher-style” restaurant was just plain traif (unkosher). Before despairing entirely, I noticed one Middle Eastern restaurant with a bulletin board out front reading “Kosher.” The place wasn't on my list, but maybe this was the Jewish Berlin I kept hearing about in the news, in books and on “Jewish Berlin” tours…beneath the official radar, contributing to the Jewish presence in Berlin! I asked the man behind the counter if the food was kosher; he looked confused, shook his head and said: “No, no; Halal!” The bulletin board was to lure tourists seeking an “authentic” Jewish experience. It was not an expression of Jewish life in Berlin; it was a way to make a buck from gullible tourists. So far, no “Jewish renaissance” to be found.

Jewish life in Berlin does exist, but if you're looking for functioning synagogues, a Jewish bookstore or kosher shops, you generally have to go West. In what once was East Berlin and the center of Jewish life before the Holocaust, only a handful of Jewish institutions still exist, such as the Fraekelufer Synagogue. Attending Friday night services at the shul, Paul Egan, a master's student studying German, was struck by how difficult it was to get through security (one woman yelled “don't let them in!” when his friend approached) and how old the congregants were. Said Paul: “Saddest was a sweet old man, who kept saying with a smile `Gutte Shabbes' to me, perhaps thinking I would be back again.” Although services are held in a beautiful sanctuary, the appearance is misleading. This room once held the youth service; there is no need to rebuild the much larger sanctuary, destroyed on Kristallnacht.

The older members of the community are not a part of the proud long-standing German-Jewish heritage, which traces itself back 1,700 years (German Jews of this cut were the type to move to Israel and insist upon speaking their much-hated mother tongue). About one half of these Jews had fled Germany before the war; present-day “German Jews,” therefore, are relative newcomers. Most newly liberated Eastern European Holocaust survivors had to pass through Berlin—the Nazi-capital-turned-Allied-occupied city. A small minority stayed in Berlin (and other major German cities) and very slowly rebuilt their lives. In the 1990s, the city experienced an immigration of Jewish Russian speakers with numbers on par with Israel. Now, the Jewish population of Germany is purported to be 200,000 strong.

But like most of what I read about the “German Jewish renaissance,” this statistic turned out to be misleading. Between 90-95% of the German-Jewish population is the result of immigration, not natural increase. Of an estimated 200,000 German-Jews, only half are registered with the Gemeinde, the official Jewish community, which operates similarly to the official “churches” of the country, providing member benefits through government-allocated tax dollars. The missing 100,000 Jews are by-and-large Russian-speakers, many of whom are justifiably embittered with the community. First persecuted for being Jewish in their home countries, they came to Germany only to find out that the Gemeinde, deciding “who is a Jew” based on halakhah (Jewish law) using matrilineal descent, did not consider them Jewish.

The Gemeinde's membership criterion, stringent even though a small percentage of the community is Orthodox, is but one manifestation of a deep rift between those who proudly call themselves “German Jews” and the Jewish immigrants of the FSU. The irony is stark: while at the turn of the last century assimilated Jews in Germany looked down upon the Ostjuden (traditional Eastern European Jewish immigrants), many of today's established “German Jews” are Eastern European displaced persons from the War. Ignoring the sad history of intra-Jewish conflict, they now turn their noses up at Jews from the Far East.

Even within the community fold, Jews are in-fighting. After meeting with Stephan Kramer, the secretary-general of the Zentralrat (the organizing body of Jewish communities in Germany), a Berlin-based PhD student, was shocked by what she heard: “After defaming Jewish immigrants of the former Soviet Union for using the Jewish community for its social services and better economic prospects, Kramer spoke about the importance of making community life “sexy” for Jews living in Germany—as long, I guess, as those Jews fit his conception of `proper' community members.”

She had higher hopes when she met with the head of the liberal Abraham Geiger Rabbinical College, Walter Homolka. “Unlike Kramer, he spoke more favorably about the influx of former Soviet Jews,” she recalled. But “unfortunately, there were enough other rhetorical similarities. Homolka spent much time praising the liberal community in opposition to the alleged corruption of the Orthodox establishment.”

And on and on it goes. My six weeks in Germany provided me with other stories of ugly public battles between Orthodox and Masorti rabbis and German Jewish leaders laundering money from the community. But I call attention to the community's problems with a purpose: to talk of a “German Jewish renaissance” obscures the very real and very dangerous social rifts within the Jewish community. The community must stop being compared and comparing itself to what it was once was and instead focus on how it has become all too similar to other Jewish communities steeped in petty politics. Until this can be achieved, a Jewish renaissance in Berlin will remain the stuff of Google searches.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

German Jews are Germans

In her book “Jews in Germany after the Holocaust” (1997) [1], Lynn Rapaport indifferently uses the words “Germans” or “Non-Jews” to refer to German gentiles. Next to them are the “Jews in Germany”.

According to her: “the central theme around which community life is organized can be summarized as an edict like 'one shall keep one’s distance from the Germans'.” (p.4)

50 years after the holocaust , it seems that Mrs. Rapaport still ignores that Jewish is not a nationality in modern Germany. Jews holding the German nationality are equally “German”, aren’t they? Claiming the opposite would simply be anti-Semitic.

I would be interested to know whether Mrs. Rapaport would refer to Jewish Nobel laureate Fritz Haber [2], a very patriotic German indeed, as “German” or as “Jew”. He was simply both.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Richard Feynman on Judaism

Richard P. Feynman to Tina Levitan, February 7, 1967

Dear Miss Levitan:

In your letter you express the theory that people of Jewish origin have inherited their valuable hereditary elements from their people. It is quite certain that many things are inherited but it is evil and dangerous to maintain, in these days of little knowledge of these matters, that there is a true Jewish race or specific Jewish hereditary character. Many races as well as cultural influences of men of all kinds have mixed into any man. To select, for approbation the peculiar elements that come from some supposedly Jewish heredity is to open the door to all kinds of nonsense on racial theory.

Such theoretical views were used by Hitler. Surely you cannot maintain on the one hand that certain valuable elements can be inherited from the "Jewish people," and deny that other elements which other people may find annoying or worse are not inherited by these same "people." Nor could you then deny that elements that others would consider valuable could be the main virtue of an "Aryan" inheritance.

It is the lesson of the last war not to think of people as having special inherited attributes simply because they are born from particular parents, but to try to teach these "valuable" elements to all men because all men can learn, no matter what their race.

It is the combination of characteristics of the culture of any father and his father plus the learning and ideas and influences of people of all races and backgrounds which make me what I am, good or bad. I appreciate the valuable (and the negative) elements of my background but I feel it to be bad taste and an insult to other peoples to call attention in any direct way to that one element in my composition.

At almost thirteen I dropped out of Sunday school just before confirmation because of differences in religious views but mainly because I suddenly saw that the picture of Jewish history that we were learning, of a marvelous and talented people surrounded by dull and evil strangers was far from the truth. The error of anti-Semitism is not that the Jews are not really bad after all, but that evil, stupidity and grossness is not a monopoly of the Jewish people but a universal characteristic of mankind in general. Most non-Jewish people in America today have understood that. The error of pro-Semitism is not that the Jewish people or Jewish heritage is not really good, but rather the error is that intelligence, good will, and kindness is not, thank God, a monopoly of the Jewish people but a universal characteristic of mankind in general.

Therefore you see at thirteen I was not only converted to other religious views but I also stopped believing that the Jewish people are in any way "the chosen people." This is my other reason for requesting not to be included in your work.

I am expecting that you will respect my wishes.

Sincerely yours,

Richard Feynman [1,2,3,4]