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Stories of Kiddush Hashem

Today is Rosh Chodesh Adar 2 - the first day of the Hebrew month of Adar 2. This year is a leap year in the Hebrew calendar, and we therefore have two months of Adar. May we be blessed with a Chodesh Tov - A Good Month. The mailing for today includes three stories which describe how a Torah observant gem merchant, a progressive Jewish journalist, and a group of non-Jewish parents performed acts of kiddush Hashem:

1. Jakob deVries was a gem merchant who lived in Amsterdam in the 18th century.  He had good relations with all his customers and particularly with his main customer, the local Duke. Jakob was a Torah observant Jew, and it was well-known that he could never be induced to do business, or even to talk about business on the Sabbath.

One Sabbath morning Jakob was sitting with his family as he made the morning kiddush, when a ducal herald accompanied by two army sergeants appeared at the door. The herald cried out, "A message from his Grace the Duke for Mijnheer Jakob de Vries!" Jakob read the message and his face grew pale. It requested him politely, but firmly, to appear before the Duke within an hour with a selection of his choicest gems, since the Duke had urgent business to transact. A very large profit for the merchant would be forthcoming.

"My humblest respects to the Duke," said Jakob to the herald. "Tell him that there is nothing I would like more than to oblige him, but he knows that I never do business on the Jewish Sabbath. As soon as the Sabbath is out I shall be glad to do his bidding."

But the Duke would not take no for an answer. Within the hour another delegation arrived, more numerous than the first. "The Duke's business brooks no delay," they said. Jakob again politely refused.

Throughout the day additional messages came from the ducal palace, and they contained the following threat: "Jakob de Vries should know that if he disobeys this command, the Duke will break off all business relations with him and revoke his license to sell jewels in the whole province."
Beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead, but Jakob de Vries stood firm. "Tell the Duke, " he said, "that I am loyal to him, but I owe a higher loyalty to my God."

After the termination of the Sabbath - and Jakob did not curtail any of the ceremonies and songs with which Jews say farewell to the Holy Sabbath - he hastened to the palace, not knowing what to expect there. To his amazement, as soon as he entered the great hall, the Duke arose rose from his throne and clasped him in a warm embrace.

"Thank you, my friend, " said the Duke. "You were great! And what's more, you have added 10,000 guilders to my coffers. You see, I had a guest here today, the Duke of Brabant, and I told him about your loyalty to your Jewish laws. He laughed and said that no Jew could resist making a big profit, and he bet me 10,000 guilders that a combination of monetary incentives and threats would surely break your resolve. I had faith in you and bet 10,000 guilders that you would stand firm. Thank you for living up to my expectations!"

(The above story is cited in "Masterplan" by Rabbi Aryeh Carmell. "Masterplan" discusses how the mitzvos of the Torah form a dynamic and comprehensive system designed to elevate human beings and establish a just and caring society that can serve as a model for all humanity to emulate. It is published by Feldheim, and a review of this book appears on the Hazon website: )

2. The late Paul Cowan was a popular progressive journalist who wrote for the Village Voice. He came from an assimilated Jewish home, but during the 1970's he began to explore his Jewish roots, with the encouragement of his wife, Rachel. He began to learn about the mitzvos, and he also began to study Hebrew. In 1979, the Village Voice sent him to cover the story of the near nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in rural Pennsylvania. The story was big news, as people feared that the nuclear power plant would explode. His wife Rachel went with him, and she was the photographer for the story. They came to the area during the intermediate days of Passover, and in the following excerpt, Paul describes how he and Rachel tried to observe some aspects of Passover:
"In our own lives, Rachel and I had both decided to refrain from eating hametz (leavened food) during Passover. The act of giving up leavening enriched the story of the Exodus by incorporating a daily reminder of it into our lives. We brought our own matzos to rural Pennsylvania, and were careful about the food we ate... As we got to know the people in the area - devout Christians, who were extremely generous about inviting us into their homes - we found that they were glad to help us fulfill our dietary requirements. It turned out they couldn't understand Jews who weren't observant...We might be big-city journalists, employees of an avowedly left-wing newspaper, but we had roots in something that was real to them, the Bible."
(The above excerpt appears in "An Orphan In History" by Paul Cowan. It is published by Bantam Books. In this autobiographical work, Paul Cowan tells the story of his search for his Jewish roots.)

3. During the summer of 1967, when I was 21 years old, I worked in a Head Start program for pre-school children from poor families who lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My role was to assist the social worker in visiting the homes of the children enrolled in the program, and to socialize with their parents when they came to relax in the "parents room." The parents were not Jewish, and they represented most of the ethnic and racial groups who lived in the neighborhood, including Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and Chinese Americans. The administrator and the social worker were secular-oriented Jews, and when they saw my yarmulka, they were somewhat concerned whether I, a Torah observant college student, would be able to relate to the parents. They were pleasantly surprised to see that the parents gravitated towards me and liked to talk with me. They were even more surprised when the parents became more relaxed with me than with them! I knew that one of the reasons why I got along well with the parents was because I had grown up in poor, racially-mixed New York neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, and I therefore felt very much at home with the children and their parents. I soon discovered another reason why the parents gravitated towards me. Most of them were religious people, and they preferred to talk to me, a religious Jew, about their spiritual experiences and struggles than with the secular-oriented Jewish staff.

At the first staff meeting, I was told that I would also accompany the parents on special subsidized trips, which included visits to various restaurants. The staff knew I could not eat at these non-kosher restaurants, and they were worried whether this would interfere with my duties. I reassured them that although I could not eat with the parents, I would sit with them. I also made a mental note to wear a hat instead of my yarmulka when we went to the restaurants, as I did not want to give strangers the impression that an Orthodox Jew was eating in a non-kosher restaurant!

When the first parents' trip was scheduled, the parents met with the staff to decide where they would eat. During the meeting, one of the mothers asked, "What about Yosef? What will he eat when we go to the restaurant?" Other parents also began to express their concern that I would be deprived of a meal. Both I and the staff reassured them that there was no problem, and that I was perfectly happy sitting and talking with them, even if I couldn't eat the food. To the amazement of the other Jewish staff members, all the parents then decided to go to a kosher restaurant so that "Yosef would be able to have a good meal."

Throughout the summer, the parents demonstrated much respect for my religious beliefs and practices. I now realize that their respectful attitude was actually a kiddush Hashem - one which made a positive impression on the other Jewish staff members and caused them to become more aware of their Jewish heritage.

Good Chodesh!

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