“The Jewish Indiana Jones”

Note: I originally wrote this essay for the blog “BLT Is Not Just a Sandwich“—a place to discuss the Bible, other Literature, and its Translation—but I thought some Dreamtime readers might appreciate it as well.

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Decorated initial The New York Jewish Week posted a remarkable story this week. I wish I had heard the story earlier—before the rabbi’s claims had been exposed. It’s nearly as much fun as Morton Smith’s discovery (or, as his debunkers would say, his creation) of a lost fragment from Mark’s gospel buried in a previously unknown letter from Clement of Alexandria. But what I find most thrilling is that I used to shop in the rabbi’s store in Wheaton, Maryland, and spoke with him frequently. He was a really nice guy.

Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the self-styled “Jewish Indiana Jones” who turned out to be a Jewish Walter Mitty, has pleaded guilty to fraud.

Youlus’ accounts of remarkable tales of rescuing Holocaust-era Torah scrolls were contradicted by historical evidence, witness accounts, and records showing that he simply passed off used Torahs sold by local dealers who made no claims as to the scrolls’ provenance.

“I know what I did was wrong, and I deeply regret my conduct,” said Youlus, who pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court on Thursday.

In court, the 50-year-old Baltimore resident admitted to having defrauded more than 50 victims, misappropriating some of the donations and secretly depositing them into the bank account of his Wheaton store, called the Jewish Bookstore. Youlus defrauded his charity, Save A Torah, Inc. and its donors of $862,000, according to prosecutors.

“Menachem Youlus concocted an elaborate tale of dramatic Torah rescues undertaken by a latter day movie hero that exploited the profound emotions attached to one of the most painful chapters in world history — the Holocaust — in order to make a profit. Today’s guilty plea is a fitting conclusion to his story and he will now be punished for his brazen fraud,” Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Thursday.

A January 31, 2010, Washington Post investigative report brought to light questions about Youlus’ claims.
Shortly after the Washington Post story ran, MenachemRosensaft wrote a fascinating commentary on the case. Rosensaft is adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He wrote:

Some years ago, there was Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of a purportedly autobiographical account of his years as a Jewish orphan during the Holocaust but who actually is a Swiss-born Christian clarinetist. Then there was the case of Herman Rosenblat whose heartwarming tale of a little girl tossing him an apple every day for seven months across the electrified barbed wire fence of a Nazi concentration camp turned out to be a hoax….

In 2007, on the website of Save a Torah, his 501(c)3 tax exempt organization, Youlus claimed to have found and restored “Torah scrolls hidden, lost or stolen during the Holocaust” which he then “resettled” in more than 50 Jewish communities throughout the world. On a promotional video featured on the same website, he said that “we’ve done over 500 today.” And in a recent Washington Post interview, Youlus boasted of having rescued not 50 or 500 but 1,100 such Torah scrolls.

Youlus also gave his Torah scrolls dramatic histories. Two were allegedly found buried in a “Gestapo body bag” in a Ukrainian mass-grave of murdered Jews. He supposedly discovered one under the floorboards of a barrack in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, a “rescue” that is described on his website’s video alongside photographs taken at the camp at the time of its liberation by British troops in April 1945. Youlus claims that he dug up yet another Torah scroll in what had been the cemetery of Oswiecim, the town adjacent to the Auschwitz death camp, and reunited it with four missing panels that Jews from Oswiecim had taken into the camp and had entrusted for safekeeping to a Jewish-born priest who eventually gave them to Youlus.

If even one of these stories seems fantastic, improbable, even incredible, the odds that any one person could have found all four of these Torah scrolls and brought them surreptitiously to the United States are, conservatively speaking, astronomical. As has been said repeatedly in connection with Bernard Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, if something sounds too good to be true, it most probably is….

It is bad enough when unscrupulous individuals rip off their marks, as it were, with variations of the proverbial Nigerian e-mail scam in which the recipient is promised part of a multi-million dollar fortune in exchange for a relatively minor up-front investment….A fake Holocaust memoir or a Torah scroll purportedly rescued from the ruins of World War II Europe is altogether different. Preying on the emotions of people overwhelmed by the memory of tragedy in order to make a buck is contemptible.

Rosensaft’s entire column is worth reading, but of note is his conclusion:

One of Youlus’s defenders argues that exposing his deception “may very well be in service of the truth but in disservice of a greater truth.” That is utter bunk.

Truth is absolute. The Holocaust was a tragedy of unfathomable proportions. Its victims, including the hundreds of thousands of destroyed and desecrated Torah scrolls and other Jewish religious artifacts, deserve nothing less than the dignity of authentic memory.

While I certainly don’t disagree, I wonder about the whole question of religious myths that are believed as being literal. While the mythic stories have great power and truth, they are rarely if ever true in an historic sense. Yet millions of believers of all faiths cling to them as if they were facts. It gives them comfort and meaning. Many times I’ve heard people say that if it were proven that Mary was not a literal virgin, or that Jesus did not literally rise from the dead corporeally, or that Moses did not receive the stone tablets and the Book of the Covenant from God on Sinai in the way Exodus recounts it, that their faith would not be able to stand.

Shmuel Herzfeld, a rabbi at Ohev Sholom in Washington, DC, was shopping at Youlus’s store when he saw a Torah scroll. Youlus told him that the Torah scroll had survived Auschwitz. Herzfeld asked Youlus if he could borrow the Torah scroll for use in his congregation one Shabbat, and Youlus agreed. When news of Youlus’s arrest broke, Herzfeld wrote, “That Shabbat in the presence of this Torah scroll I prayed with more intensity than ever before and I connected to the chanting of the Torah as I had never before connected. The very possibility that those emotional and intense feelings that I experienced can now be the result of manipulation and dishonesty overwhelms me with sadness.”

It was his faith, his emotional and spiritual attachment to a belief, that added such intensity to his prayers. Jesus frequently said, “It is your faith that has made you whole”—implying that the individual’s belief was the operative factor in the equation. So the question is, if what we believe is proven to be a lie, where does that leave whatever we have built on that faith?

A saying attributed to the Buddha may apply here: “All instruction is but a finger pointing at the moon. Those whose gaze is fixed upon the finger will never see beyond.” It doesn’t matter if the story is real or imagined; what matters is that we look not at the story, but at its meaning in our lives.

Unless, of course, you’re bilking people out of their money when you sell them the story!

Categories: Buddhism, Judaism, Psychology | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on ““The Jewish Indiana Jones”

  1. indigo bunting

    “It doesn’t matter if the story is real or imagined; what matters is that we look not at the story, but at its meaning in our lives.”

    Yes!

    A fascinating account.

  2. I am delighted you’re writing again. I also hadn’t heard the “finger pointing to the moon” saying. How very true.

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