Monday, October 31, 2016

After decades of Holocaust legends, ultra-Orthodox community confronts the dark facts 

I meet Esther Farbstein early one morning in Borough Park's Avenue Plaza Hotel, located on 13th Avenue – a thoroughfare strewn with houses of study, and children with sidelocks and still-sleepy eyes getting on buses.

Farbstein is flying home to Israel in a few hours, and our interview is peppered with phone calls from friends calling to say goodbye, dropping off gifts. During her short stay in ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) Brooklyn, she is treated like an academic superstar. Her lectures in private homes are packed with schoolteachers. Young women flock to her. She is the Haredi woman who "has it all": An elite pedigree, as the great-granddaughter of the Ger Rebbe, Avraham Mordechai Alter, and as a rebbetzin, the wife of Hebron Yeshiva head Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Farbstein; a brood of seven children, 50 grandchildren and over 20 great-grandchildren; and an illustrious career in academia.

She is also considered the Haredi community's leading scholar on the Holocaust, being best known for her monumental two-volume work, "Out of the Depths" – a study of rabbinic responsa that emerged from the Holocaust, shedding light on the struggles of observant Jews at the time.

Open Farbstein's work and you'll find harrowing stories lurking between the lines of earnest questions and rabbis' weary answers: Does one say Kaddish for a family member if his death is uncertain? If one survived a raid, can one say the blessing of thanksgiving ("hagomel"), or is it too premature if the "ax" of the Nazis is still hanging over one's head? Does a home in a ghetto need a mezuzah if it is difficult to obtain? May one eat treyf food in the ghetto? Must an able-bodied man fast on Yom Kippur? Young couples in the Lodz ghetto plan to marry, though rumors say deportations are growing more frequent – should weddings be performed though the future is so unclear? May one give up one's child to hide in a convent, knowing full well she will be baptized and may live the rest of her life as a Catholic?

I first met Farbstein during her visiting lecture at Yeshiva University's Revel School, where she spoke to a crowded hall on the Holocaust in Hungary. Dressed in a striped jacket and short, dark blonde wig, glasses perched on her nose, she described the mass deportations of Hasidic Jews with almost alarming poise. She projects a photo of bearded Hungarian Hasidic rabbis behind her: "We can see that the rabbis arrived in the camp in their rabbinic garb, directly from their beis medrash, from a relatively routine daily life. … Hungarian Jewry had no interim period like Polish Jewry," who came to the camps from ghettos.

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