December 21: The Solstice
The Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere — with the shortest amount of time between sunrise and sunset, thanks to the Earth’s relation to the Sun, as well as the angle of the Earth’s tilt — coincides on this date in 2014 with fifth day of Khanike. According to Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s classic Seasons of Our Joy, “in much of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, the winter solstice was a time for imploring the sunlight to return and celebrating its readiness to do so. In Rome, the 25th of December was the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. In Persia, at the winter solstice the common people set great bonfires and their rulers sent birds aloft bearing torches of dried grass…. It is a short leap to surmising that the Syrian Greeks may have chosen the 25th of Kislev as a time to desecrate the Temple by making their own sacrifices there precisely because it was… the time of the winter solstice and the waning of the moon. And it is a short leap to surmise that the Maccabees, when they took the anniversary of that day as the day of rededication, were rededicating not only the Temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism.” While Orthodox authorities insist that the Festival of Lights bears no relation to the solstice — since the Jewish calendar is both solar and lunar — Waskow notes that “this objection ignores the fact that the festivals that are most clearly solar — Sukkot and Pesakh, the festivals of fall and spring — are nevertheless tied to the full moon for their dates. The objection also ignores the fact that Judaism insists on keeping the sun and moon cycles in tension with each other in its entire calendar — never adopting either a purely lunar or a purely solar calendar, but insisting that each be corrected by the other.”
“When Adam saw the day gradually diminishing, he said, ‘Woe is me! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is growing darker and darker, and is about to return to chaos and confusion, and this is the death heaven has decreed for me. He then sat eight days in fast and prayer. But when the winter solstice arrived, and he saw the days getting gradually longer, he said, ‘Such is the way of the world,’ and proceeded to observe eight days of festivity.” —Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a
December 20: Goering’s Anti-Nazi Brother
Albert Goering, younger brother of Nazi Gestapo leader Hermann Goering and an anti-Nazi who used his family name to help Jews and dissidents survive in Germany, died at 71 on this date in 1966. The young Goerings lived in a castle with an aristocratic Jew, Ritter Hermann von Epenstein, a doctor who served as a surrogate father to the children (whose father was often absent) and had a love affair with their mother. Some claims have been made that Epenstein was Albert’s actual father, although records of his mother’s whereabouts show this to be unlikely. Albert Goering’s acts of compassion and resistance include: joining a group of Jewish women who had been forced to scrub the pavement; getting his Jewish former employer, Oskar Pilzer, freed after the Nazis had arrested him, then helping the Pilzers escape the country; encouraging small acts of sabotage at the Skoda Works in Czechoslovakia, where he was export director, and making contact with the Czech resistance; sending trucks to concentration camps with requisitions for laborers, who would then be allowed to escape. He was arrested by the Gestapo several times, but his relationship with Hermann Goering assured his release. He was also questioned during the Nuremberg Trials, but so many people testified to his good deeds that he was released. He was then imprisoned in Czechoslovakia — but there, too, his reputation prevailed. Goering was shunned in post-war Germany, however, because of his family name, and lived a very modest life; in 1966, he married his housekeeper, a week before his death, so that she could receive his government pension.
“Richard Sonnenfeldt, chief interpreter… at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, later recalled how [Hermann Goering] enjoyed displaying his power to Albert by freeing Jews from concentration camps…. And Hermann would say, ‘This is absolutely the last time I’m going to do this, don’t come back’… [but] a month later, Albert would be back…. We found a hundred people on Albert’s list that were freed. All because Goering had such a need to show off to his younger brother.” —The Holocaust
December 19: Hetty Goldman and Ancient Greece
Hetty Goldman, an archaeologist who was the first woman appointed as professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, was born in New York on this date in 1881. (One grandfather was Marcus Goldman, a founder of Goldman Sachs; another was the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El.) She studied archaeology at Bryn Mawr and Radcliffe before becoming the first woman to be awarded the Charles Eliot Norton Fellowship to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece. Goldman helped pioneer the investigation of pre-Greek and early Greek culture and did several excavations at Tarsus, in Turkey, which established links to the ancient Hittite kingdom. She also did a great deal of Jewish relief work, particularly in Thessalonika, which had been devastated by the great fire of 1917. In 1936, after spending some twenty-five years on excavation sites, Goldman joined the Institute for Advanced Studies, and used that as a base for saving many Jewish refugees from Nazism. She died in Princeton at the age of 90. The citation of her 1966 Gold Medal from the Archaeological Institute of America called her “a perceptive and witty student of human relations, a renowned Anatolian specialist and the dean of Classical and Near Eastern archaeology in this country.”
“Nobody can study the prehistory of Greece without becoming aware almost immediately that the fecund breezes which blow out of the east were largely responsible for its early growth and development. So it is perhaps natural that a prehistorian sooner or later turns his eyes to Asia Minor for the solution to the problem of cultural origins in Greece and also for the study of the repercussions of prehistoric Greek culture upon the country from which it derived.” —Hetty Goldman
December 18: Jewish Anti-Zionism, 1902
In a speech on this date in 1902, in Temple Emanu-El, New York’s showcase Reform synagogue on Fifth Avenue, Jacob de Haas of the Federation of American Zionists declared there to be 10,500,000 Jews in the world, of whom only 4,184,930 could be counted as “politically emancipated, leaving 7,057,725 enthralled,” according to the New York Times article, headlined “Lively Zionist Meeting.” “‘Anti-Zionism is as old as Abraham,’ de Haas continued, ‘but it has developed a new phase… there is no river to cross westwards.'” De Haas met with angry opposition within an overflow crowd that included many “prominent Jews of the city,” said the Times. “The first man who rose from his seat was dressed like a laborer, with a blue flannel shirt and unbrushed hair. ‘I would like to ask Mr. de Haas if he is convinced that there is not a Dead Sea in California and that Moses was not an Indian! That’s all!'” Next came “a tall foreigner with a red beard” who accused Zionism of “injur[ing] the Jews everywhere.” He was hissed down. But how, said a third questioner, “can we buy Palestine when Palestine is Turkey and Turkey is owned by the whole world because she owes money to every nation? … I’d like to know how Zionism can amount to anything.” For the complete New York Times account of the event, click here.
“We have no idea of trying to send to Palestine those who do not want to go there, but only those who desire to go from the bottom of their hearts.” —Dr. Gustav Gottheil (rabbi emeritus of Emanu-El)
December 17: The Youngest Victim at Sandy Hook
Six-year-old Noah Samuel Pozner, one of twenty young children and six staff members killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School rampage in Newtown, Connecticut (and the only Jew among the slain), was buried on this date in 2012. Noah was shot multiple times in his first-grade class by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who ultimately killed himself. Noah Pozner’s mother kept an open coffin at the funeral so that the American public would see the reality of the violence done to her boy. He was survived by a twin sister. “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” said President Obama after the Sandy Hook attack, but there has been no reform in gun laws in the two years since.
“Noah was an impish, larger-than-life little boy. Everything he did conveyed action and energy through love. He was the light of our family, a little soul devoid of spite and meanness.” —Newtown Bee obituary