Joe Biden Recounts His Life of Purpose

This scan of the dust jacket of the hardcover edition of Joe Biden's 2017 memoir has the name of the author in blue letters and the title, "Promise Me, Dad" in red letters against a beige background

“Almost every day after that, I found myself acting on that advice – have a purpose. No matter what came at me, I held fast to my own sense of purpose.” Joe Biden recounted that terrible day the doctor gave the grim but honest news of his son Beau’s condition. “Promise me, Dad… you’re going to be all right.” Eventually, Joe found solace in comforting a Chinese immigrant in New York City who, himself, had just lost his son.

This is the Joe Biden we have come to know over recent months, who connected with a 13-year-old boy who was ashamed of his stutter. Joe empathized; he has the same speech disability. In his 2017 memoir, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, Joe recounts how through his faith, love of family, and sense of duty steered the course of his life. As the title suggests, Joe describes his work as Vice President. Perhaps, at times, he rambles. But Joe would be the first to admit it. Yet his stories, both in the White House and crossing the globe, hold considerable interest. “Nobody ever told me a life in politics and public service would be easy; like life, I never expected politics to be free of disappointment or heartache,” he says. “But I have always believed it was worth the effort.”

However, in Promise Me, Dad, we also get to know Joe the Dad. One moment in particular illustrates Biden’s sense of what is right. While riding in a limousine, one of his grandsons blurted out, “Hey driver….” Joe asked the chauffeur to pull the car over, at which point he told the child no never, ever address someone by their profession. All workers, all people are important in our lives.

“Joe, sometimes the man meets the moment,” Bill Bradley, the former New Jersey Senator says in the final chapter. “Tragedy has bonded you to the public, and you can build on that, Joe; this is your moment. You’ll take the entire country with you if you stand up.” The time may not have been right 2017. However, now, in 2020, Joe’s memoir bears revisiting.

Review of Joe Biden, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, New York: Flatiron Books, 2017.

Harnessing the Power of Storytelling to Remember the Holocaust

This scan of the cover of Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust shows three men wearing striped prison garb and yellow Jewish stars levitating above an undefined landscape that shows human bones at the base.

Often, when Jewish writers and thinkers speak of the Holocaust, the question of “Where is God” comes up. Herself a Holocaust survivor, Yaffa Eliach, interviewed others who lived through this terrible period. Many found the Holy revealed in the ordinary, in the unholiest of places. The theme throughout this diverse collection of stories of the Holocaust is faith. Another great Jewish thinker, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, spoke of the extraordinary faith of Jews in the worst of times, when hope seemed all but lost. Furthermore, Eliach set to give these people a voice, so they may tell their stories for future generations. The best people to tell their history are those who themselves experienced it, and to recount their past in their own way, on their own terms. 

Dr. Eliach quotes another Holocaust survivor, the late Rabbi of Bluzhov, who told his congregants, “There are events of such overbearing magnitude, that one ought not remember them all the time, but one must not forget them either. Such an event is the Holocaust.” The Hasidim have been telling stories that embody a combination of wit, humor, and miracle since the days of the founder of the movement, the great Baal Shem Tov, along with such writers as the Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Franz Kafka, I.L. Peretz, and S.Y. Agnon. And this practice continued through the Holocaust. This talent is evident in the interviews that make up the stories of this book.

The stories are divided among several themes.

Ancestors and Faith. For some imprisoned Jews, when the future seemed so uncertain, the memories of departed loved ones shared space with their grace. “I was holding on to my ancestral merit. I was holding onto the coattails of my father, and my grandfather, and my great-great grandfather of blessed memory,” said the Rebbe Spira. “Tel me, my friend, how did you reach the other side of the pit?” The great Rebbe appears in several stories of this section. He was present even at the first Chanukkah and the Seder night at Bergen-Belsen, where those present had yet to escape the darkness of the Narrow Place. Rabbi Israel Abraham Koczicki’s mother was present in spirit at Belzec. And at Bronia, “God is everywhere… but…” Yet, in a Lithuanian shtetl, “The Messiah is already here,” even if He could not be seen.

Friendship. These could occur in the most unlikely places at the least likely time. In my personal favorite, “The Mosaic Artist’s Apprentice,” the friend who saved thirteen-year-old Jacob’s life was none other than…. And who was that little girl Esterke?

The Spirit Alone. Some are “slain with the sword”; others, “slain with hunger.” In such dark places, even “Satan’s altar,” “even the transgressors in Israel are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.”

The Gates of Freedom. In this section and throughout this anthology, Jewish tradition is ever present. It and faith keep alive that even these places where “God does not live here anymore,” in the end, there comes redemption, when it was possible to rejoin the human race.

Where was God? It may have seemed to be nowhere; yet, He was everywhere.

Keeping Alive the Names of Children Who Perished in the Holocaust

This scan of the front cover of the book We Were Children Just Like You shows an ID card of a young Jewish boy issued by Nazi Germany. It is set against a white background with the title of the book.

Yaffa Eliach, born in Eishyshok, Lithuania, 1937, was an historian who made it her life’s work to document the Jewish people of Eastern Europe before World War II. Most important, she felt it was her duty to give these people a voice, to tell their history in their own way, on their own terms. The author of There Once Was a World and Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, many people know professor Eliach for “Tower of Faces,” a work made up of 1,500 photographs at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Of all the atrocities and cruelties the Nazis inflicted during the Holocaust, the campaigns targeting civilian children directly must rank the most savage and cowardly; such a deliberate policy was unprecedented in the course of human history. One of every four Jewish victims, a million and a half souls, was a child. The important exhibit this book documents brings together photographs of individual children, often with the name of the subject. The philosophy of Yad Vashem is that everybody had a name and that every individual must be remembered.

By nature, a photograph is complex. First, being a snapshot in time, a photograph tells what happened at precisely the moment it was taken. What was to happen in the future, be it a few moments or several years, might be entirely different. The photographs in the first section of this book, On the Eve of Destruction, are testimony to this fact; these are personal family photographs taken before the war and the deliberate campaigns of the Holocaust. The contrast of the everyday, normal life context of these photographs against what is to follow is stark indeed. Most heart-rending is a photograph of a beautiful little girl in a plaid dress and a large bow in her hair. She stands next to a prized doll, wide-eyed and smiling. She had a name: it was Mala Silberberg. What the photo does not convey is that little Mala would soon be deported to Auschwitz. When she arrived, Josef Mengele was informed of her angelic singing voice, so he asked her to sing. At the end of her song, Mengele smiled, took out his revolver, and shot her in the head at close range. Yet, little Mala’s story remains.

Second, a photograph represents something the photographer wanted to convey. Most of the time, the person behind the camera was a Nazi persecutor, on orders to document the accomplishments of his comrades as a form of propaganda, which also sought to portray the Jews as helpless victims, worthy of the name Untermenschen, or sub-humans. Such photographs form the core of the work, the section titled “Under the Heel of the Oppressor.” With perhaps some poetic justice, these same photographs have become an irrefutable indictment, evidence of the unspeakable crimes the Nazis committed. However, sometimes the person operating the shutter was a Jew, often a former professional photographer who, at the risk of death, sought to bear witness to the crimes of the Nazis. The photographs in this section are grouped by themes: “Seeking Refuge in a Hostile World,” “Children of the Ghetto,” “Open-Air Killings,” “Deportation,” “Concentration Camps.” “Partisans,” and “In Hiding.” Both types of photographs appear in this section; the caption identifies those taken by Jewish photographers and, in one case, a German who was sympathetic to the Jewish plight.

The final section, “Liberation,” comprises photographs taken as a means of identification, in a desperate effort to reunite children with their parents, in those rare cases that both survived. These were the photographs most likely to “survive” the war. All are of individual people. Says the curator and book’s editor, Yaffa Eliach, “It is when the shutter closes that the ages, mind, and heart of the viewer must open in an attempt to comprehend what is missing from the image. Only we can see beyond the shattered fragments of the Holocaust period to the larger whole. Thus, the final step on the journey of understanding must be ours.”

Review of: Yaffa Eliach, We Were Children Just Like You. Brooklyn, NY: Center for Holocaust Studies, 1990.
ISBN 978-0960997084

Imagining a Better World for Every Child

Outside our window, the world is suffering
Overcrowded hospitals awash with pain
Difference met with disdain
We hear the cries of Mother Earth.
We are her children you can’t silence
She will hear our poem for her forests,
Our song for her oceans,
Together, our call will be a thunderstorm.
We are never too young, Nor too small.
Racism, discrimination, inequality –
Let’s erase them all.
Masked, not muted, me and you.

Together, we will reimagine the world,
Because this is our way.
This is our planet.
This is our day.
A kid is just a kid, they say
But when the world opens its eyes,
It will see us for who we are.
Masked, not muted, you and I.

Today is #WorldChildrensDay. This is UNICEF’s “day of action for children, by children.” In this, the year of COVID-19, “The costs of the pandemic for children are immediate and, if unaddressed, may last a lifetime.”

Yet, we can, we must, together reimagine a better world for every child. 

Janusz Korczak imagined a world where the children ruled over their present and their future, both in his children’s home and in his classic, King Matt. In that spirit, on World Children’s Day, children will assume important roles in all walks of life, “to shine a spotlight on issues that matter to them.”

UNICEF has a six-point vision:

  • Ensure all children learn, including by closing the digital divide. 
  • Guarantee access to health and nutrition services and make vaccines affordable and available to every child.
  • Support and protect the mental health of children and young people and bring an end to abuse, gender-based violence, and neglect in childhood. 
  • Increase access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene and address environmental degradation and climate change.  
  • Reverse the rise in child poverty and ensure an inclusive recovery for all. 
  • Redouble efforts to protect and support children and their families living through conflict, disaster and displacement.

It’s part of the new U.N. Core Commitments for Children, which is based on the Conventions on the Rights of the Child, long envisioned by Korczak.

For this special day, UNICEF recorded five interviews with very talented children:

  • David Beckham discusses science with 14-year-old Sebabatso
  • Liam Payne speaks with 13-year-old Areej in Yemen
  • Ishmael Beah in conversation with Lunjok, 14, in South Sudan
  • Orlando Bloom discusses sustainability with 11-year-old Maria of Barbados
  •  Priyanka Chopra Jonas talks ‘sustainability’ with Aditya in India.

In addition, Millie Bobby Brown speaks to three inspiring young activists – Gitanjali, Emmanuel, and Aibanu; and Henrietta H. Fore speaks with 14-year-old Anika Chebrolu.

Children all around the world ask, “Kids are reimagining a better world. What will you do?”

Kristallnacht Shattered the World and the Lives of Children

In a black-and-white group portrait, a balding man with a beard plays a kazoo. Next to him is a young man with an accordion. Surrounding him are children with violins and a lute.
Though the business of caring for children was something Korczak took seriously, he was known and loved for his playful side.

The early crisp fall hours of November 1938 everywhere was shattered with the smashing of broken windows. The gentle darkness exploded with flashes of flames, as they devoured Jewish businesses and immolated synagogues. Roused from their sleep, Jews everywhere were taken out of their homes and beaten up, their possessions looted and books burned. This took place in large cities like Berlin and thousands of towns and villages across Germany. In the space of the 24 hours that followed, 91 Jews had been killed; more than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. There, more than a thousand of them would perish.

Glass shattered everywhere, from hammers smashing storefront windows and flames devouring once magnificent synagogues. These scenes gave the tragedy an enduring name: Kristallnacht.

The world was not at war. At least not yet. After all, five weeks earlier, Britain and France had negotiated a pact with Hitler, which was allowed to annex the Sudetenland. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke of having inaugurated “peace in our time.”

Now, people were waking up to the fact that when confronted by evil, one cannot be silent. “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim,” said Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 10, 1986. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”

Or, as my Rabbi says, when one hears, “Are you there?” one must not answer with ani (“I am”). The moral response, as we learn several times in the Torah, is hineni, “Here I am.”

The Holocaust would ultimately take some 6,000,000 Jewish lives and millions more of others. One-quarter of these souls, 1,500,000 were children. Unlike any previous genocide, Nazism specifically target children. It is them I think of them on this day of observance—Michel Neumann and all the others. With that, I offer the remarkable words of Janusz Korczak, who more than anyone else at the time knew how a child feels.

Excerpts from Janusz Korczak, When I Am Little Again (Translation by E.P. Kulawiec)

    I’m lying in bed. I’m not sleeping. Only I’m recalling that when I was little, I often thought about what I would do when I grew up.

   When I’ll be big, I’ll build my parents a house. And I’ll have a garden&msash:and I’ll plant flowers too, in such a way that when one would fade, others would bloom.

   I’ll buy some books too, with pictures in them or, better, without pictures, just so they’re interesting. I’ll buy paints, colored pencils, and I’ll draw and paint. I’ll draw whatever I happen to see.

   I’ll take care of the garden, and I’ll build a summer house in it. And in the summer house, I’ll but a bench and an armchair. The summer house will be overgrown with wild grape, and when Papa returns home from work, he can sit comfortably there in the shade. He’ll put on his eyeglasses and read the newspaper.

   And Mama will keep chickens. And there will be a pigeon roost high up on a pole to keep the cat and any other harmful animal from breaking in. And I’ll have rabbits and a magpie too, and I’ll teach it to talk. I’ll also have a pony and three dogs…. Mama will also have a little house dog. But if she prefers a cat, then she can have a cat as well. The animals will get used to one another. They’ll eat out of the same dish. The dog will wear a red ribbon and the cat, a blue one. Once I even asked Mama: “Mama, is a red ribbon better for a dog or a cat?” And Mama answered, “You tore your pants again today.”

“What would I do if I were little again?” Not so small, but big enough to go to school again, to be playing with my friends again. If only to wake up suddenly and discover: “What’s happened? Am I only dreaming, or is it real.”

If I were a boy again, I’d want to remember and know everything that I know now. Only I wouldn’t want anyone to find out that I was already a grownup once.

And so, I’m lying in bed—I’m not sleeping. I’m day-dreaming. “If I knew then, I’d never want to grow up. It’s a hundred times better to be little. Grownups are unhappy. It isn’t at all so that grownups can do whatever they want to. We have even less freedom than do children. And our cares and responsibilities are heavier. And we have more sorrows, too. And we have happy thoughts less frequently than do children. We don’t cry anymore, that’s true, but probably because it isn’t worth crying.

And when I sighed, it suddenly became very dark in my room. I can’t see anything…. And all at once, a tiny light appeared in my room, like a little star…. I look, and it’s a little lantern. And on my pillow, there is standing a tiny, little man. He has a white beard, and on his head there is a high red hat. Sooo, it’s an elf.

“You called me,” he says, “and now you don’t believe.”

“Tell me what your wish is. What is it you want from me?”

“I want to be little again.”

The First Day (Mostly in School)

“A child is like spring. Either it’s nice and sunny and gay and pretty or else, suddenly, there’s a storm, lightning flashes, and even thunder. But a grownup is like a fog. A sad, grey fog surrounds him.”

The Second Day (Mostly in School, Like the First Day)

At night, it snowed. It’s so white outside—so very white. I haven’t seen snow in many years. After so many, many years, I’m glad that it snowed, that it’s white all over again…. When I was a grownup and I saw snow, I already anticipated the slush that would follow. I felt the damp overshoes and wondered whether there would be enough coal for the winter. And joy—it was there too, but sprinkled somehow with ashes, dusty and grey. But now, I feel only that white, transparent and blinding joy. Why? For no reason at all: because it snowed!

 I walk slowly, carefully; it’s a pity to trample on it. All about it sparkles and shines and glitters; it changes and plays and is alive. And there are thousands of little sparks inside me. It’s as if someone sprinkled diamond dust in my soul and along  the ground. The dust was sown, and now diamond tress will spring up, and a wondrous fairy tale will be born.

A tiny, white star falls on my hand, a beautiful, precious little star. It’s a pity that it will disappear.

Instead, it’s only school now.

“Sit straight; don’t slouch!”

Grey Days

It isn’t too bad when a person feels sad. Sadness—that’s a gentle and pleasant thing. Good thoughts come into your head then.…  You want to help everybody, and you want to improve yourself.

Isn’t it true that we like sad tales? That must mean that we need sadness, too, sometimes. Sadness is like an angel who stands nearby and watches over you and who places his hand on your head and signs with his wings.”

And the sensitive child takes fright and lives in constant fear. Like a rabbit. Even when he sleeps, the rabbit’s afraid. And we, too, have disturbing dreams. And we awake in fright. Something creaks in the middle of the night, and we imagine that a ghost is walking…. You cover your head with the blanket….

Grownups don’t want to understand that child answers gentleness with gentleness, and that anger immediately awakens in him something like revenge or spite. As if he were to say, “This is what I’m like and I won’t be any different.”

The three biggest reasons why we don’t like little children are: first, grownups tell us to make way for them whether they’re right or not. Second, grownups tell us to set them a good example. And third, they tell us to play with them, even though they bother us.

My greatest personal worry is that it’s not going well for me in school. I’m forgetting what I knew when I was a grownup…. It’s difficult for me to answer. I’m not sure I know. And I’m afraid that it won’t come out right…. Well, it’s too bad: I don’t know. I don’t understand and I can’t Why do I have to understand? Is there no place at all in the world for a less gifted child?

The teacher was calling me to the blackboard. It was to be a correction. But it got all mixed up inside my head….

“You’ll get another zero!”

I’m not thinking of anything anymore…. And suddenly, a little man appears… swaying a lantern. He’s stroking his white beard.

With a hopeless whisper—through tears: “I want to be big again. I long to be a grownup again.”

I’m sitting behind my desk now. On it there’s a huge pile of notebooks to be corrected. In front of my bed lies a faded rug. The windows are dusty. I reach for the first notebook. There’s a mistake on the very first page. The word ‘Table’ is misspelled. It was written ‘t-a-b-u-l.’ But the letter U is crossed out, and over it is written an E, while on the very top, over the crossed out E appears the letter U again. I take out my marking pencil and in the margin of the paper write ‘t-a-b-u-l,’ tabul.

It’s too bad. But I don’t want to return.

“Where Is Man?” Rabbi Sacks Sought to Restore the Common Good and Heal the World

The cover illustration of Not in God's Name shows a dark circle inside bright orange light. The scan of the first page reads "To Daniel Berek, Blessings, Jonathan Sacks."
I will never forget meeting the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in 2015. His life has been a blessing!

“When I first stood at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the question that haunted me was not, ‘Where was God?’ God was in the command, ‘You shall not murder.’ God was in the command, ‘You shall not oppress the stranger.’ God was saying to humanity, ‘Your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.’ God did not stop the first humans eating forbidden fruit. He did not stop Cain committing murder. God did not stop the Egyptians enslaving the Israelites. God does not save us from ourselves. That, according to the Talmud, is why creating man was such a risk that the angels advised against it. The question that haunts me after the Holocaust, as it does today in this new age of chaos, is ‘Where is man?'”

“It with the deepest sadness that we regret to inform you that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (HaRav Ya’akov Zvi ben David Arieh z’’l) passed away early this morning, Saturday 7th November 2020 (Shabbat Kodesh 20th MarCheshvan 5781).”

“Love the stranger, because that stranger could be us,” urges Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Though Rabbi Sacks was intensely proud of his Jewish heritage, he spoke for all humanity. “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims. God is the god of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity.” He got into “good trouble” when he said that the many languages of the world reflect on the many ways people see God – the same God. He reflected on this in a 2015 interview on NPR.

As he pointed out so beautifully in Not in God’s Name, God created the world in the first two chapters of Genesis, but the rest of the first book of the Torah is devoted to building relationships. What are we to make of the conflicts of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and so many others? The Rabbi reminds us that, in the end, these rifts were healed in acts of redemption. “To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity, but sacrilege,” he said. “The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry.”

Rabbi Sacks often spoke Tikkun Olam, to heal the world. After all, “The good we do lives on in others, and it is one of the most important things that does.”

In his most recent book, Morality: Restoring the Good in Divided Times, Rabbi Sacks warned us that we are living through “cultural climate change,” and it poses a great threat to humanity. “It’s happened because we have relied on two institutions alone: the market and the state. And we have forgotten about the third one, which is a shared sense of moral commitment to one another.” The first two, he argued, are about competition; the third is about cooperation.

Rabbi Sacks was a wonderful, wonderful man. A man of great wisdom. And great compassion. He signed my copy of “Not in God’s Name,” with the word “blessings.” It has been Rabbi Sacks who has truly been a blessing in my life – and in the lives of so many he touched.