Monday, November 02, 1998

A Murder in Buffalo: On the Assasination of Dr. Bart Slepian

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am,
Williamsville (Buffalo), New York

Dear Friends and Readers: This past Rosh Hashanah, here, in this column, and in remarks addressed to my congregation, I wrote the following words:

“What is the difference, what is the gap, between celebrities and famous people, betweeen a Rosa Parks or Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela, and you, and me? Is it real power? Is it the scale and stage on which their lives unfold?

It is neither. The gap is unreal, the difference illusion. It is only the accidental focusing of the lens of history. All that separates your daily routine from a history book of the future is chance, and opportunity. So be prepared. A moment may come. A building may burn. A phone may ring. A movement may start from a casual comment. For better or for worse, your time, your turn may come with no warning at all."

I wish I had not been so prophetic. For the lights that go with that lens can glare brightly indeed. And this past week, the lens of history has been focused with great intensity on my community, on my congregation, and, in particular, on a grieving family in my synagogue.

I open with excruciatingly painful irony: on the very day that would later see a good man shot dead, I received a phone call from another congregant. Her daughter is eighteen weeks pregnant. She is a diabetic, so it was a high risk pregnancy to boot. The fetus has now developed a very large tumor. Some treatments that might have been possible are precluded by her diabetes. The fetus stands little chance of surviving. The pregnancy may pose a danger to her life. Her Catholic ob/gyn, in personal agony, is advising her to terminate her pregnancy.

That was a week ago Friday, during the day. Then came Friday night.

Yes, Bart Slepian and his family were members of Temple Beth Am of Williamsville. But they were relatively recent members, having come over from Temple Beth El (Conservative) around two and a half years ago. (The synagogue they attended that night was Beth El... because his father's name was read for yahrtzeit this shabbat at that synagogue). In addition, I am fairly new in the Buffalo area, having come to Beth Am only in August of 1997. So, although I officiated at Brian's (the second oldest of the four boys) bar mitzvah last year, I did not know the family too well. The family remains personal friends of their former rabbi, Rabbi Robert Eisen. I officiated at the funeral along with our Cantor, Barbara Ostfeld; Bob did the eulogy. The most powerful words at the funeral came from Dr. Slepian's niece, Amanda Robb, who lost her own father when she was very young, who was cared for as a daughter by her uncle Bart Slepian, and who addressed herself to Dr. Slepian's four boys, ages 15, 13, 10 and 8. When she was done speaking, I was, simply, sobbing. I am glad I did not have to stand up to follow her; no sound would have come out of my mouth. She spoke of the boys' father as the last star they would see at night. But I can not -- and should not -- convey more of what she said.

What I do know about Bart Slepian is this: to portray him as an "abortionist" is an added obscenity on top of a nightmare. He was not "pro-abortion," he was pro-health care. I am told that he was troubled by a complex moral issue, that his greatest joy was bringing babies into the world -- he was a fertility specialist, for God's sake -- one of Rabbi Eisen's comments was that he cared for women, "he delivered their babies, and he saved their lives." My friends who were his patients tell me that he was caring in a rare and old fashioned kind of way -- showing up to be with them when they had unrelated procedures performed by other physicians, spending whatever time was needed and not making you feel part of a medical factory. Abortions were probably five percent of his work. Maybe less.

To say this has been a big story would be to call Niagara Falls large rapids. I have never before witnessed press harassment to this degree. There is no other word for it, except, perhaps, exploitation. When the media could not speak directly with the family, they went anywhere else they could. My wife Julie had to have received sixty calls at home, at all hours of day and night, and we received an equal or greater number at the congregation. Cameras and reporters showed up on Sunday morning, Religious School was disrupted, reporters walked into our offices and sat down to use our phones. That is minor, compared to the casing out of the family's home, the long distance lenses used at burial, and the gauntlet of satellite dishes and cameras the mourner's had to run in order to reach the funeral home.

In the meantime, in the midst of tragedy comes a bandwagon effect of another kind... of people feeling a need to express something, and being unsure how to do so, or what to do. Being with the family here, I see a fine line between the undeniable... I hate to use this word... but "opportunity" that this singular moment, this window in time offers those who believe in a cause -- and the fact that the family doesn't give a hoot about causes at the moment, and needs their space. Call it the prophetic versus the pastoral, if you will; I have never felt that conflict so keenly before.

And so, "events" are happening all around us, as different groups a) feel the need or b) seize the opportunity to express themselves. Many organizations in Buffalo have learned about the concept of shivah (the traditional seven day period of intense mourning) this week -- don't plan a community memorial service until the family can be involved, and leave them alone for right now. Of course, this flies in the face of everyone's desire to get something down on their calendars and move forward fast, while the emotion is high and the wound is fresh. I have heard about three different dates for events, scheduled by God knows whom for God knows what purpose.

On the communal front, can we come to some common understanding with other religious communities? Rabbinic colleagues of mine met late last week with a representative of the Buffalo Area Metropolitan Ministries. They clearly conveyed the balance between the needs of the family and the needs of the community to do... something. They have planned a Vigil Against Violence, as some kind of communal response that would not necessarily involve the family's input. But it will be a silent vigil. For what words could be said that someone would not disagree with? To be blunt: could other faith communities come forward and condemn this violence, without also attacking what they consider to be violence in a different form, the performance of abortions? Sadly, perhaps not. And would we stand for any statement that equated the murder of a real human being with a medical procedure? Of course not. We want to come together as a whole community. And so only silence stakes out our common ground.

I did make one mistake this past week -- at least, one that I am presently aware of. A woman called our congregation, and identified herself only be her first name. She said she was a member of a local Catholic church. She asked about the Jewish position on abortion. Foolishly, putting our own community at risk, I answered her. (And I will address this subject in an upcoming column as well. It is actually a complex question, but I will make two comments now. First, Judaism does not consider abortion to be the equivalent of murder. And secondly, there are times where all branches of Judaism would agree that an abortion is not a choice, but is required. But more on this later.) I am fairly certain that no harm will come of answering her questions; still, what I should have done was demand her last name, call her priest, and assure myself that she was, indeed, who she said she was. For we live in a world of madness. And you never know where danger lurks.

A family grieves. And everyone around them has an agenda.

It is hard not to walk a little taller, to stand a little straighter when the lens of history focuses on you. Exploitation meets temptation. But cursed be the one -- whoever it is, the friend, the neighbor, the activist, the politician, the colleague, the clergy person -- cursed be the one who forgets that the family comes first.

The question remains, and many have asked: what can we do? Well, a cause survives. The family has asked that donations be made to the Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, P.O. Box 461, Buffalo, New York, 14209.

There is so much more to say, and there are no words adequate to the moment. All I will add for now is this: may each one of us go home every day and say to those around us three simple words that cannot be said enough, nor heard enough. "I love you." For we never know what tomorrow may bring.

L'Shalom (in peace)

Rabbi Michael Feshbach

Sunday, November 01, 1998

Life is Beautiful: A Clown Goes to the Camps

Life is Beautiful:
A Clown Goes to the Camps

Rabbi Michael L Feshbach
Temple Beth Am, Williamsville, NY

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives... saying: ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth stool if it is a boy, kill him if it is a girl let her live."

The edict came down from on high. It wasn't meant as advice. It wasn't a suggestion, like, for instance, the city of Boston kindly suggests that you at least slow down and look before hurling through that red light. No, this was an order, a command, right from the mouth of the man whose word was law.

And yet, incredibly, in sparse words that speak volumes, we read: vatirena hamyaldot et haElohim, v'lo asu k'asher dibber aleiheim melech Mitzrayim, vat'chayenah et hay'ladim. The midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had told them They let the boys live."

Here we have, in a single sentence, the first recorded act of civil disobedience, the first time in world literature when someone stood up to a great leader and said, simply, no. These words have moved and inspired a Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky; they have been a source of hope and solace for victims of Apartheid and Prisoners of Conscience.

But the defiance in what these women did is even more powerful than a political statement.  It’s a lesson for all of us, at every juncture in our lives.  It is a reminder that we don't have to live by the rules that other people set for us. Even laws -but not only laws, rather, each and every situation in which we find ourselves requires our consent to move forward, to affirm its hold over our lives. And have it in our hands to withhold that consent.  Ultimately, existentially, we make, we shape our own reality.  In the end we are, indeed, the authors of ourselves.

This pretty serious idea is the central premise of Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, a recently released Italian comedy about the Holocaust.

The film was a surprise, coming from Benigni who, at 45, is probably Europe’s best known comic actor, a modem­ day disciple of Charlie Chaplin. But the film is all his: he is the inspiration, co-author, and star, and he pulls off an almost miraculous cinematic balancing act.

The movie opens in the Tuscan town of Arezzo, in Fascist Italy, in the 1930s. Daniel Kotzin, in The Jerusalem Report, describes the main character, Guido, as a ''happy go lucky fellow apparently oblivious to the major events unfolding around him," who arrives from the country, works as a waiter in his Uncle's restaurant, and dreams of opening a book store. He meets, enchants and finally wins the heart of Dora, a non-Jewish school teacher played by Benigni's wife, Nicolleta Braschi The first section of the movie is... truly funny. Just on this side of slapstick, evoking laughter but stopping short of scorn, the events in the night following Guido's "rescuing" of Dora from her own engagement party are amongst the fumiest five minutes I have ever seen in on the screen.

Time turns, and so, we would have expected, would the mood. Years later, and Guido and Dora prepare for their son, Giosue (Joshua)'s, fifth birthday party. The celebration is inte1rnpted by the deportation of rather and son. Dora, told to go back home and forget about her family, demands to climb on the same train, and willingly travels to the unnamed death camp that is their destination.

And it is here, on the train ride that the film travels to brilliant but dangerous ground. For Guido had always tried to make his son happy, and he seems to believe it his mission in life to continue to do so Joshua asks what is going on. The bewildered son looks to a rather with those eyes that say, "Papa, I know you know everything in the world. Make sense of this for me..."

Guido, rather than succumbing to his own despair, rather than racing that moment that every parent must, of letting their children know that they are not, after all, omnipotent and omniscient, Guido improvises ...and tells Joshua that it was all planned part of his birthday celebration. He builds on the charade as he goes, describing the entire experience as a game and, when a Nazi officer bursts into a barracks and asks for a translator, Guido, knowing absolutely no German, volunteers, imitating the soldier's style but making up the content as he goes along -- outlining the rules of this very elaborate game to a wide-eyed and incredulous five year old boy... and a bemused but exhausted barracks full of other adult men. The prize at the end is a tank. You need so many points. You gain points by staying quiet and hidden. You lose points for crying. And so on.

Now, even with a bare bones summary, I know what you are thinking: a comedy about the Holocaust! How... tacky is the mildest word I can think of It brings to mind visions of The Great Dictator, Jack Benny's To Be or Not To Be, even Mel Brook's :film about a comedy about the Holocaust, The Producers. (Who can forget "Springtime for Hitler in Germany?'  It even, God help us, calls to mind Hogan's Heroes.
As offensive as all of these previous efforts were to some, however, even they were about the Nazis... as Germans among Germans. They were comedies, they were often inappropriate, but even they were not about the death camps! How could anyone make such a film? How dare touch hell with humor?

And the objections have been loud, indeed. Pressure mounted on Benigni in Europe not to make the :film at all; at the Jerusalem premiere, one member of the audience ''bitterly accused Benigni of being more dangerous than the Holocaust denier -- for daring to bring laughter into a death camp, prompting modem audiences to ridicule Jews and downplay Nazi genocide."(Kotzin)

In addition: Roberto Benigni? Tackling a serious subject? Here is a man who jumped into the arms of and kissed the presenter as Life is Beautiful won the runner-up Grand Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival who told his Jerusalem audience that he wanted to make love to each and every one of them, but that, sadly, time constraints prevented it (Kotzin).

The well-known actor's answer to the critics is poignant. ''I received a lot of letters from children," he said. ''I am really Benigni in the film, and children identified with me. They ask their parents: 'Why did they take Benigni? The parents can only answer by saying that he is Jewish [the character, that is]. So, the children ask, 'What does it mean to be Jewish?"'

I agree. This is one of the most powerful films about the Holocaust I have ever seen. It was, perhaps, one of the most powerful :films I have ever seen. I hesitate to say that, because I know that when you build something up too much, it's often a disappointment. But, hey, I haven't gotten to see too many movies at all since my children were born this one and, of course, the new Star Trek movie, so you can put my comments in perspective. But that was my reaction on leaving the theater.

Throughout, Life is Beautiful walks a tightrope, risking falling into farce. My wife thought the translation scene with the Nazi officer crossed the line, but we later learned this was a tribute to a scene from The Great Dictator (which, by the way, Chaplin later said he would never have made had he known what he knew after the war).

To use a colloquial expression, Life is Beautiful blew me away, and on several levels.  First, as a father of two boys. You know, we say that we don't have to be in a situation to understand it, to "relate." People can help each other even through things they have not themselves experienced. I have met Catholic priests who are pretty good marriage counselors.

I really believe that. But I still don't think I would have reacted the same way before my boys were born This is a story about a father and a son. And when I shook with silent sobs, it was not this fictional Joshua, but a real-Life Benjamin and Daniel in my heart.

Second, as a Jew I was amazed at how sensitively a non-Jewish author portrayed a Jewish experience (thus proving my initial inclination above). Benigni said he was inspired to make this movie because of his own father’s time in a Nazi labor camp -- but then went on to make it clear that he absolutely understood the distinction between a concentration camp where death was accidental and a death camp, where it was the main product.

Too few non-Jews know that distinction; too few really understand the difference between what Jews went through and, for example, Polish prisoners of war or other political prisoners. As a Jew, I was moved by how Guido, outwardly assimilated, who thought of himself as Italian, was seen as a Jew first by his Italian neighbors... a chilling and entirely accurate reminder that we are bound together in past, present and future in ways we often seek to evade but, well cannot. And as a Jew, I was touched by the portrayal of one man who rocked the fascists and Nazis, but who was swept up in their hatred... a reminder that ridicule may be a right response ... since those who are puffed up with themselves really are ridiculous... this ridicule of our enemies may be true, but it is not always that effective.

And finally, as a human being The most bone-chilling encounter in the entire film, for me, was when Guido recognizes a German doctor in the camp, with whom he had so recently spent time sharing and solving mind-teaser puzzles.  I can't tell you what happens here without spoiling it, but I thought Benigni had a lot to say about human nature, about... compartmentalizing Life... and about the way we want what we want when we want it... in his portrayal of this relationship.

What is art?  It is the act of holding a part of the human experience up to a lens, or beneath a microscope.  It is examination, and exposure.  Of looking at something in a new way Life is Beautiful is a powerful, indeed, a profolll1d piece of art.  It says, most of all, that even hell is a choice that there can be laughter, even there.

It is a fable.  It was not meant to be literal but it tells a tale both worth it and well go see it, before it's gone.

In this week's Torah portion, Pharaoh speaks to the 'm'yaldot ha'ivriyot,' to ''the Hebrew midwives." Who are they?  Are these Egyptian women, who work amongst the Jews?  Or are they Hebrews themselves, as our later tradition claim;, who Pharaoh somehow thought would have obeyed such an order?  The Hebrew is ambiguous.  And the effect is incredible.

For who are you? And who are we? With whom do we identify -- and why? And how?

During the High Holy Days a year ago, I quoted Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's observations about a computer game called Myst. The players are dropped in the middle of a world, with no explanations, no guidance, and no rules. You have to figure out what is going on.

We are dropped into the middle of a game. There is plenty of guidance, and plenty of explanations and plenty of rules.  They all come from other people.

No one tells you that you have a choice No one tells you that the goal of the game is to decide much rules to embrace, and call your own and that in doing so, you will define...who you are.

Do that in a movie theater. And you mu remember... that the choice is yours.  And that that is what you can do... through Jewish life as -well.