Mother’s Day 2016-5776 CONTINUED!

This past weekend, we converged on Cleveland and braved the snow (yes, you read that correctly!) to celebrate my sister Dena’s graduation from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University (TL:DR She’s a social worker). Friday night, as my father is wont to do when Estee and I come to Cleveland, invited a plethora of family friends over for Sha2016-05-15 16.09.21.jpgbbat dinner. As we transitioned from dinner into dessert, my father began speaking to the 20+ guests at our Shabbat table, something he doesn’t usually do. He thanked everyone there, and noted that while we were celebrating a truly joyous milestone, my mother’s absence was painfully obvious. He then told us how he had recently Googled “Sheila Radman Balk” and a picture came up on his screen, one he hadn’t seen before. This photo was from a gala for Lifebanc, an organization that promotes organ donation in Ohio. My mother was a volunteer for them, an organization that as a transplant recipient was near and dear to her heart (and her liver!). My father contacted the photographer and was able to get a high-resolution picture, and printed and framed it for me, my sister, and my aunt. We were shocked. I fought with every fiber of my being not to start bawling in front of everyone in the dining room. It was, and is, beautiful and absolutely perfect. As I was scared to bring it on the plane, it’s currently being housed in Cleveland for the time being. We’re not quite sure where the picture is going to be hung yet, but judging by how large it is, it will definitely be prominently featured in our home. Just to compare, on the left is my father’s iPad (NOT an iPad mini!). Thank you, Dad!


From Sadness to Joy, From Mourning to Celebration Yom Hazikaron/Yom Haatzmaut – 5776


For me, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut are two of the most emotional day on my calendar. I would say our calendar, but I understand that there are Jews who neither celebrate nor care about these two days. While I would assume that none from this camp will be reading this, or even care about what I have to say, I’ll still be respectful of their opinion. Nevertheless, I find that the juxtaposition of Yom Hazikaron to Yom Haatzmaut is indeed significant. How can we properly celebrate what we have without first taking time to remember what we’ve lost in order to have it? Additionally, this sequence is part-and-parcel to the Jewish experience. Regarding the Purim story, we retell the dastardly plot of Haman the Wicked before speaking of the great joy that washed over the Jewish people of Shushan and beyond. In the Haggadah, we expound upon the miracles that the God performed for Bnai Yisrael during their exodus from Egypt. This occurs only after we recount their disgrace both as slaves and as the descendants of idolaters. Only after reflection can we begin celebration.

Yom Hazikaron for me brings memories of when I was in yeshiva. Although I lived in the Old City and was there during the Yamim Tovim and other popular tourist times, I cannot remember a busier day than Yom Hazikaron. That morning, I went with a few friends from Yeshiva by cab to Har Herzl. When I say went to Har Herzl, I really mean the cab driver took us as close as he could get before the onslaught of bumper-to-bumper traffic. We exited the taxi and began the trek to the cemetery. After about two minutes of walking, we heard the wail of the siren, and suddenly I witnessed a scene straight out of the videos I had only been privy to before in my day schools’ classrooms. The cars stopped, the drivers and passengers got out. Most stood up straight, some wiped tears from their faces. I know it’s annual event that might not be overly special to some, but it’s one that I’ll remember that for the rest of my life. We made it to Har Herzl, along with the thousands of friends and relatives of fallen heroes, as well as the throngs of others who had never met these brave individuals. We couldn’t help but be enamored by the tombstones we’d pass. The ones who grew up not far from us, the ones who were younger than us when they were murdered We heard stories that made us laugh, and many that made us cry. The Israel that I had enjoyed on my previous trips, the Israel where I lived, had been maintained by the Almighty and the kedoshim interred on Mt. Herzl.

Another defining moment came on the heels of the massacre at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem. Three days after the ruthless attack, the entire yeshiva picked up and moved to Mercaz Harav for night seder. Between the talmidim, rabbis, and chevrutot, there were over 250 of us there. The library windows, doors, floors, and bookshelves were still riddled with bullet holes. An informal gathering took place there as our Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl (our senior Rosh Yeshiva and then Chief Rabbi of the Old City) started to offer words of encouragement. What started with a group of 10 students quickly grew to over 100. The Kaliver Rebbe was there speaking through his own tears to the students of 1934149_1006951697440_6029_n.jpgYeshivat Yerushalayim L’Tzeirim (Yashlatz), the adjacent institution which serves as a feeder to Mercaz HaRav. Five of the eight students killed were enrolled there. We sang, and then heard remarks from one of the rabbis of the yeshiva. The way we arrived at Mercaz HaRav, and they way we left could not have been more different.

Something happens when the sun sets on Yom Hazikaron. We take off our clothes of mourning and put on festive garments. The day is transformed. It’s almost instantaneous. We celebrate the land that those who fell in battle dreamed of being a part of. We live on for them, and for those who have been killed for simply being Jewish in the Jewish homeland. And although this is not the manner in which they would’ve wanted to affiliate with us, they are singing, dancing, and rejoicing at the same time from their perches in Shamayim.

There’s a story about Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Haohen Kook z”l being asked about his infatuation with the land of Israel. Rav Kook responded that he was a Jew who tried to model his way of life around the Torah. And if one looks inside the Torah, they will see that from Lech Lecha until Vezot Habracha, that the land of Israel is mentioned in every single Torah portion. That, explained Rav Kook, is the reason for his affinity toward Eretz Yisrael.

The connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel is getting stronger and stronger, and I pray every day that this trend continues.

Whether you are zocheh to live in Israel, or dwell “besof maarav”, whatever you find yourself doing on Yom Haatzmaut, take a moment and thank Hakadosh Baruch Hu for the amazing gift of the land of Israel.

אִם יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ


Mother’s Day 5776-2016

Today, the nation is celebrating Mother’s day. I grew up with the message imprinted into my mind that every day was mother’s day, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who was educated in this manner. True, while not an explicit “yuntif” as codified in Jewish Law, today is the time that the rest of the country reflects on the woman (or women) who raised them, and there’s never a bad day for that.

Today, I think of my “mothers”, the women who raised me and continue to have an impact on who I am as a person.

I think about my grandmothers. My Grandma Idee z”l was a sharp lady who made the greatest potato knishes and “kmish bread” you’ve ever tasted. My Savta, is one of the most regal women west of the Mississippi. May Hashem bless her with many healthy years.

I think about my aunts that I am blessed with, both blood-related and not, who have been there to support my family. Often times, traveling a great distance at the drop of a hat.

I think about my mother-in-law who makes sure that I am always taken care of, and treats me as she treats her own sons.

I think about my great-grandmothers who I only knew for a short period of time, yet shaped the lives of my parents and their other grandchildren.

I think about the “circle of mothers” I am blessed to have in Cleveland who looked after me, just as my own mother looked after their children. They know who they are, and our families are blessed for having been brought together.

Primarily, I think my mother z”l. I cannot, nor would like to imagine the person I would be today without having her as a guiding influence in my life.  She was a master educator, an even more talented mother, and one of the most resilient people I’ve ever come in contact with. I could write thick volumes about what I’ve learned from her, both directly and indirectly, but I fear I do not have enough time, paper, ink, or space on my devices.

Rabbi Soloveitchik z”l delivered  a powerful eulogy for the Rebbitzen of Talne, the mother of his son-in-law (Tradition, Spring 1978), where he delineates the role that the Jewish mother plays in the lives of her children.  He defines the role of a dual mesorah, one received from the father (mussar avicha) and one received from the mother (torat imecha). The Rav explains that mussar avicha touches upon basics of torah learning: how to read a text, how to analyze and conceptualize, etc. This also covers the basics of how what to do and what not to. But as for torat imecha? Rabbi Soloveitchik explains:

“What is torat imecha? What kind of a Torah does the mother pass on? I admit that I am not able to define precisely the masoretic role of the Jewish mother. Only by circumscription I hope to be able to explain it. Permit me to draw upon my own experiences. I used to have long conversations with my mother. In fact, it was a monologue rather than a dialogue. She talked and I “happened” to overhear. What did she talk about? I must use an halakhic term in order to answer this question: she talked meinyana deyoma. I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers; I used to watch her recite the sidra every Friday night and I still remember the nostalgic tune. I learned from her very much.

Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mÏfzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life – to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.

The laws of Shabbat, for instance, were passed on to me by my father; they are a part of mussar avicha. The Shabbat as a living entity, as a queen, was revealed to me by my mother; it is a part of torat imecha. The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mothers lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor.

The fathers taught generations how to observe the Shabbat; mothers taught generations how to greet the Shabbat and how to enjoy her twenty-four hour presence.”

My father has taught me much. Among other things, he prepared me for my bar mitzvah, taught me how to don tefillin, and much of the ritual knowledge I have today stems from years of hearing him practice, both eloquently and effortlessly. The torat imecha comes in the form of a story, one that I delivered at her funeral and will repeat here.

Long ago when I was in the 4th grade, one day during birkat hamazon I happened to have been talking or misbehaving rather than reciting the brachot with the rest of my class. After my insubordination, my teacher took it upon herself to punish me by having me stay back from recess and copy down birkat hamazon verbatim. I returned home that afternoon dejected, probably less about my assignment and more about missing prime four-square or “wall ball” time outside with my peers. After doing her best Sherlock Holmes impression to uncover the reason as to why I was upset, when I told her what transpired, she was appalled. She immediately called the principal, who was a family friend. She told him that this punishment was unacceptable. If I was misbehaving, by all means was I to be punished, but not in a manner such as this. I remember her saying distinctly “We want Willie to love the torah, not to be burdened by it.”

That was that

The details of what followed are a bit fuzzy, but my mother’s message was succinct and poignant. 

To the mothers out there, thank you for all that you do.

To those with a mother who is no longer with us, cherish the moments you had together.

To those who are yearning to be mothers, may the Almighty bless you with many healthy, beautiful children.  



“Not Since I Left Dagda…”

For most of my life, I was ignorant. I had no idea. Oblivious. It wasn’t hidden outright, talked about in hushed tones, or swept under the rug.

I discovered that I had family in that perished in the Holocaust while still in high-school when I encountered a plain red, three-pronged folder. Originally thinking it was a long forgotten graduate school assignment of my mother’s, I didn’t think much of the find. Only when my father told me what this actually was, did I begin to show any curiosity whatsoever. The decades-old document that I had unearthed from the bookcase in my living room was the autobiography of my great-grandfather, Harry (Israel) Chanen z”l, one that he wrote along with my great-aunt. I never had the privilege of meeting Grandpa Harry, as my father and his siblings called him, but I am lucky enough to be one his great-grandchildren who bear his name (William Israel). At the beginning of the book, when writing about the members of his extended family, he lists his father’s family and their whereabouts next to their names. X settled in America, Y moved to Israel, etc. But as I looked at the name of a cousin, my heart sank. Uriah Chanen: murdered by the Nazis. I sat transfixed as I read that statement over and over again. I did not possess a naive assumption that somehow my entire extended family had escaped the Nazi death machine, yet this revelation hit me like a freight train. Every time I visited to Yad Vashem or perused the online database they maintain, I searched for family members and found nothing. This time, I had a name: Uriyah, and I was determined to find him. After searching through a litany of interesting and unusual variations of spelling, I did just that.

Uriyah Hanin was born in Dagda, Latvia in 1875 to Leib. He was a merchant and married to Hinda (nee Lev). Prior to WWII he lived in Dagda, Latvia. During the war he was in Dagda, Latvia.

Uriyah was murdered in the Shoah.

This testimony was added to the Yad Vashem archives in 1957 by his daughter, Ahuva Brandwein, a resident of Kfar Saba. Uriyah wasn’t the only Hanin in the database. His children listed there are Michel (Misa), Sara Riva, and Leah. Michel was married to Leah, and they lived in Dagda where he too worked as a merchant. The couple had a son named Chaim. Sara Riva was married to Yisrael (Zilu) Erenstein, and they had one daughter, Hinda. They lived in Tukum, 40 miles east of Riga and  205 miles from Dagda. Leah, Uriyah’s youngest child listed, was a student. There was also Yankel Hanin, a different first cousin of Grandpa Harry’s, and his wife Genda and children Mere and Bar. And then there was Avraham Hanin; Reina Hanin; Samuel Hanin; and Tzila Hanin. They, along with the remnant of Jews in Dagda and surrounding towns in Southwest Latvia, were expelled to the Dvinsk Ghetto in July 1941. They were murdered by the Nazis in the Pogulianka forest in Lithuania one month later.

I set out to uncover information about one of my great-grandfather’s cousins who died al kiddush Hashem. Instead, I found fifteen more relatives who earned that same moniker. And there may be others. The database listed more Hanins, some who I know ultimately escaped Dagda, and others whose fate I still do not know, and most likely, never will.

תהא נשמתם צרורם בצרור החיים

Clockwise from the top: (1) Michel (Misa), Leah, and Chaim Hanin Hy”d (2) One of the three synagogues in Dagda (3) Dagda sign today (4) Monument in memory of the Dagda and Vishki (Latvia) Jewish communities Hy”d (5) Pre-war Dagda (6) Pre-war Dagda