A Conversation With Ephraim Margolin

AY_MargolinInterviewOn Saturday afternoon, June 10, following a delicious community kiddush lunch, the Achshav Yisrael committee of CBS presented "Witness To The Birth Of Israel: An Interview With Ephraim Margolin." Although the special Shabbat afternoon program could not be photographed, we want to share some of the highlights.

Achshav Yisrael committee member Eileen Auerbach reports that about 75 people attended the program and the audience was rapt, listening intently to Ephraim's anecdotes and perspectives. More than one attendee remarked that Ephraim was so interesting that the interview could have lasted much longer than the two hours allowed. Indeed, Ephraim has led a remarkably full life and it was a treat for so many to learn more about it.

Ephraim was born in Poland in 1926. He fled with his mother to Tel Aviv in 1936, and wouldn't again see his father, Yuli (Yehuda) Margolin, for over a decade (after Yuli was able to make his way to Israel following extended exile in the Soviet Gulag). For better and worse, Ephraim's time and circumstances ensured that his own life would be uncommonly eventful. Writing of his youth in Tel Aviv, Ephraim shares:

"My mother hardly made a living. I still don’t know how she managed to put me through a private high school. She did physical work seven days a week. Our apartment was open to any new 'olim,' refugees arriving in Tel Aviv. We had dozens of people staying in our small apartment, or just show up for a dinner. We never knew who will come. It was just 'the thing to do.' One of the people who stayed in our apartment after arriving in Tel Aviv came in his Polish army uniform. His name was Menachem Begin. He became head of the Irgun, a major underground organization fighting for the establishment of a Jewish State. He would become prime minister of Israel a quarter of century later and win a Nobel Peace Prize for establishing a lasting peace with Egypt.

I, too, joined the Irgun. While serving, I became its clandestine radio announcer, a three-inch mortar gunner, and a commander of the base for illegally infiltrated children arriving in Palestine. [Years later,] in 1948, I became Menachem Begin’s private secretary."

Ephraim-Margolin-768x576Ephraim also highlighted his work as a lawyer in both Israel and the United States, itself dramatic: "While chairing the legal committee of ACLU, I took on 10 of their cases, pro bono, and won them all. I went into private practice in criminal defense and constitutional cases. For the rest of my career, I did one-third of my cases pro bono. I handled several of the race, gender, and free speech cases during the Civil Rights era. I handled and won the first televised argument in California Supreme Court (whether hypnosis of witnesses made their testimony admissible in court) and handled the appeal of John Gotti in New York."

In this, his 90th year, Ephraim shared his life experiences with the audience and talked about what he has learned as a result of them. His 2016 book, Philosophy of Early Zionism, is available on Amazon, and we highly recommend it. Ephraim is currently at work on another book...and his 49th Annual Yom Kippur Teaching at CBS!

ABOUT ACHSHAV YISRAEL: Achshav Yisrael’s mission is to provide quality programming about Israel to Congregation Beth Sholom and the broader community. Achshav Yisrael programs are open to all age groups and will occur on a regular basis. We intend to create a safe space at CBS for community exploration of Israel.

Achshav Yisrael Steering Committee Members: Eileen Auerbach, Becky Buckwald, Sandra Cohen, Betsy Eckstein, Ovid Jacob, Eva-Lynne Leibman, Ira Levy, Ephraim Margolin, Lucia Sommers

Dance The Pain Away

DancingHasidsIt's easy for us to shirk our Jewish responsibility to wrestle with the more challenging and anachronistic aspects of our tradition. In a few weeks, when we read Parashat Vayikra, we'll reconsider the ancient Israelites' sacrificial practices, which seem quite alien to us today. Yet the psychological distance imposed by time and social change doesn't relieve us of our duty to parse and digest the rituals.

Evan Wolkenstein, Director of Experiential Education for American Jewish World Service (and a teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay), writes,

"Nearly 2000 years have passed since the last turtledove’s blood was wrung against the altar walls, and we are still forced to acknowledge that, interesting as they may be, these verses are relevant almost exclusively through creative hermeneutics. We may look to Vayikra for inspiration. We may find its details somewhat disturbing. But no matter our potential discomfort, one thing is certain for all of us—we would never remove these passages from the Torah."

We would never remove the passages because, as Wolkenstein puts it, "none of us is better off by forgetting any part of the past." To the contrary, the past should inform and improve our present; earnest discourse about (and with) the past makes us better Jews and better human beings. Such soul-searching, though, is often uncomfortable, and few Jews outside of our clergy make a regular habit of it. Those who do and who elect to share their ruminations are too often criticized or ignored.

Case in point: every year, a handful of Jewish writers point out that the Purim story has a "a dark and dangerous underside." Invariably, these voices are lambasted and labelled "self-hating" or "naive." In fact, it is the reactionary critics, those who refuse to reside in the uneasy and uncertain space of Purim, who do a grave disservice to our tradition and, importantly, to our future. Lest this seem like a partisan broadside, however, the Jews at the other end of the spectrum – those who refuse to observe or celebrate Purim because they've written it off as a politically incorrect tale of "bloody revenge" (and even attempted genocide by Jews, not of Jews) – are no less misguided.

Two years ago, writing in The Forward, religious studies professor Shaul Magid, allowed as how "Purim is essentially about the celebration of violence." But he doesn't stop there. He doesn't suggest that Purim should wither on the vine or be reduced to a Disney-fied carnival, an intellectually impotent combo of Halloween and Mardi Gras. Instead, he suggests a way forward by sharing a story. How very Jewish of him.

"If you want to approach Purim with a spirit of open-mindedness this year, I’ve got an idea of how to do it. There is a story about blotting out Amalek told in the name of the Hasidic master Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov (1783-1841). I heard the story from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (z"l). During the Purim feast, Zvi Elimelekh suddenly stopped the festivities and said, 'Saddle the horses and get the carriages, it is time to blot out Amalek.' His Hasidim were petrified. 'What could the master mean?' Being obedient disciples, they got in their carriages and followed their rebbe. He rode into town to a local inn where the Polish peasants (the Amalekites of his day?) were engaged in their own drunken bash.

The rebbe and his disciples entered the inn. When the peasants saw them, they stopped dancing. The music stopped. Everyone circled around the rebbe and the Jews as they walked to the center of the dance floor. The room was silent. The rebbe looked at one of the peasants and put out his hand with his palm to the ceiling. Silence. The peasants looked at one another. Suddenly one of them stepped forward and took the rebbe’s hand. They slowly started dancing. The musicians began playing. In a matter of minutes, all the Hasidim and peasants were dancing furiously with one another.

You want to blot out Amalek? [...] Reach out your hand. And dance. That is how you blot out Amalek. Crazy? Ask Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov. That is what it means to take Purim seriously.
"

Put another way by David Bowie (z"l),

"Let's dance -- put on your red shoes and dance the blues
[...]
Let's sway -- you could look into my eyes
Let's sway under the moonlight,
this serious moonlight.
"

This year, maybe, we can dance with one another (and with our tradition), warts, disagreements, and all.