“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” —Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha
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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he 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!
here is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” —Carl Gustav Jung
The Hindu god Shiva (who has nothing whatsoever to do with sitting shiva) is usually depicted as one of the members of the great Triad, one of the three projections of the Supreme Reality, each with a specific cosmic function. Brahmā is the Creator, Vishnu is the Maintainer or Preserver, and Shiva is the Destroyer or Transformer, the dissolution that precedes re-creation. In Shaivism, the oldest of the four sects of Hinduism, Shiva is the supreme Being: creator, preserver, destroyer, revealer, and concealer of everything that exists.
I first encountered Shiva in Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, the series of interviews with Bill Moyers on PBS in 1988. He did a marvelous job of explicating the iconic image of Shiva Nataraja (Shiva, Lord of the Dance), right. Shiva does the cosmic Dance of Bliss inside a ring of fire—the world of illusion—to destroy a weary universe and make preparations for Brahma to create everything anew.
He has four arms and two legs, and every aspect of his pose is a carefully constructed symbol. Dr. Richard Stromer explains it beautifully:
The contents of the upper two of Nataraja’s outstretched hands are meant to demonstrate the eternal balance between the forces of creation and those of destruction. In the upper right hand, Shiva holds the sacred damaru, a drum in the shape of an hourglass, with which Shiva beats out the rhythm of his dance and with it the ceaseless creation of the universe and all of its infinite forms. This drum, writes Joseph Campbell, “is the drum of time, the tick of time which shuts out the knowledge of eternity,” as a result of which “we are enclosed in time.” Moreover, it is said to signify the primordial sound from which all things emanate, connoting in Heinrich Zimmer’s words “Sound, the vehicle of speech, the conveyer of revelation, tradition, incantation, magic, and divine truth.” Opposed to this force of creation as represented by the drum is the flame of extinction held in Shiva’s upper right hand. That flame symbolizes all of Shiva’s awesome powers of destruction, the terrible but necessary burning away of all things existing in time and space, the fire which, Campbell writes, “burns away the veil of time and opens our minds to eternity.” Continue reading
Today, Judge Judy was eviscerating a teenager who was lying about breaking the window of a pizza shop. She called him a fool, and accused his mother of raising him without a shred of moral inclination. “You shouldn’t be standing up for him!” she told the mother. “You should be making him take responsibility for his actions!”
Suddenly I’m five, maybe six years old again, and I’m sitting on my bedroom floor in Takoma Park, Maryland. I had saved up my allowance and bought a Colorforms set.
I had loved the Howdy Doody Show, and was devastated when in 1960 it was canceled and replaced by a perky ventriloquist. I was fully prepared to hate this interloper, but the Shari Lewis Show stole my heart. After that, my Saturday mornings—and the days leading up to them—revolved around Shari and dear Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse. And my Shari Lewis Show Colorforms set was one of my prized possessions.
Alas, my allowance would only allow the purchase of the Basic set. It had most of the important characters and images, but the Deluxe set was twice as large.
The best toystore in the world, and conveniently within walking distance, was Juvenile Sales Co., rival of the burgeoning Toys “R” Us (which actually began a couple of towns over). Chockablock with fascinating toys, it wasn’t as vast and spacious and bright as Toys “R” Us, but it was much more fun. But even caves filled with gold must have a dragon hanging around somewhere, and Juvenile Sales’s dragon was a rather grumpy fellow, prematurely old and stooped, named Robert Roberts. Continue reading
This afternoon I received a call from the hospice bereavement counselor. She was lovely, and asked all the right questions: about mood changes, support from friends and family and a spiritual community, whether I was eating properly, how I was coping, whether I had any plans for the future. I told her I thought I was doing well, but that I felt rather directionless now.
For so long I’ve been tied to Mom—whether in support mode or as full caregiver—that now I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. I have so many options, so many things I want to do, a wide-open world, that I’m frankly a little overwhelmed.
I explained to her that taking care of Mom gave my days structure, even if it was often too restrictive. Continue reading
When you look back on your failed romantic relationships (and most of us have had one or two), was there a time when you knew, with absolute certainty, that it was over? I’m not thinking of the arguments or the betrayals, but those little revelations that tell you This person is not for me, no way, no how.
An acquaintance writes:
I was teasing this guy I’ve been dating this morning over the fact that he could not be bothered to pay any attention to the war in Georgia. This morning he said casually over coffee, “I don’t understand what they’re doing here.”
“Who?” I asked.
“The Russians,” he replied.
Yes, he thought the Russians had invaded the United States. And he still couldn’t be bothered to look into it.
I remember one fellow by the name of Tony who took an inexplicable shine to me a number of years ago. Gorgeous, but dense as a bag of rocks. We enjoyed one another’s company for a while. But the more we talked, the more his intellectual limitations became apparent. Continue reading
Actually, it’s not a test. It’s a program that looks at your browser history, then matches it to actual website usage patterns to make an estimate.
It’s wrong, of course, at least in my case. It says:
Likelihood of you being FEMALE is 66%
Likelihood of you being MALE is 34%
And I’m a guy. But a gay guy, so maybe the percentages are trying to estimate that as well, who knows?
So go here, and post your results!
I confess: I am an inveterate slob. The ADD experts say many ADDers are slobs, though of course they use fancier language; “organizationally challenged” is a favorite phrase.
I have always been messy. When I was a child, my mother says she’d tell me to pick up the trash on the floor that was sitting next to the empty trash can. She says I’d look up in the air, and search all around me, apparently unable to see the mess right next to me.
My beloved acupuncture physician says there’s a syndrome—and now of course I have forgotten what it’s called, but I think it’s neurological—where some people when overwhelmed or startled will drop whatever they’re holding, their hands suddenly flying up. That’s what I do. When my sensory inputs become overloaded, as they do rather frequently, whatever I’m holding at the time is put down or dropped, and my hands fly involuntarily to the sides of my head. It is actually rather comical (he said, morosely). Continue reading
From an online forum:
Many of my friends in their 30s are starting to play around with psychedelics again. Mushrooms & LSD.
I guess we all got bored with reality.
As much as I would like to say I’m a thoroughgoing pagan, albeit one with synchretist tendencies, there are certain times of the year when one religion wins out over another. For me, Yule, the winter solstice (at least in the northern hemisphere), is inextricably linked with Christmas. Not surprising, since the early Church deliberately chose the date of December 25 because many gods and goddesses of other religions in the region had their birthdays celebrated on that date, including Ishtar (the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, and war), Sol Invictus, and Mithras. No sense wasting a holiday that was already well established.
One reason I love Christmas/Yule so much is the music. Not the gooey sweet Christmas songs that you hear on the radio, but the cold, strange carols from the Middle Ages, or centuries-old folk songs. Each year I seem to get a new favorite. Last year it was the fifteenth-century carol “Adam Lay Ybounden” (sorry, Adamus!): Continue reading
My childhood home was not particularly large. A few years ago I happened to see it up for sale (by its fifth or sixth owner, I think), and I toured it during an Open House. It was much, much smaller than it was in my memory, just as your elementary school seems shockingly misproportioned when you revisit it years after you graduate.
Small as it was, it was large enough that our living room could be used, as my mother put it, only “for polite company.” This meant Fuller Brush Men and Avon Ladies, visits from pastors, the occasional neighbor paying a courtesy call, and strangers. These were the Good Old Days, when strangers were still allowed to cross one’s threshold without fear of theft, rape, torture, and murder.
The living room was decorated in shades of blue. Calming, pleasant, slightly formal. A proper sitting room. No plastic on the furniture, of course; that would have been tacky. (The plastic flower arrangements, however, were not. Go figure.) Continue reading
One of my recurring nightmares involves a scenario in which there are several dogs in my care, usually one large and several smaller ones, which are kept in my basement. I suddenly realize with horror that I have forgotten to feed or let them out for days and days. (My house doesn’t have a basement in real life, and I currently don’t have any dogs.)
They have never barked or done anything to remind me they’re there; the realization just dawns on me suddenly, and I rush down to find them in various states of neglect. Sometimes they’re just really hungry and anxious (and messy); sometimes they’re doing rather poorly and need medical help; once, I remember, I found a skeleton wearing a dog collar.
Now, I am not a neglectful pet owner. The dogs I’ve had have been very well cared for, very much a part of my daily life. All would have liked go on longer and more frequent walks, but otherwise they were healthy, happy, and loved very much.
I suspect I have these dreams when I’m behind in my client work, or am feeling there are things I’m not paying proper attention to in my life; the basement symbolizes the unconscious. Continue reading
A substitute teacher in the town of Land-O-Lakes, Florida (just east of Tampa on the west coast, and one of the shooting locations for Edward Scissorhands), is out of a job this week. He’s accused of teaching his students . . . wizardry.
According to the Tampa Tribune, teacher Jim Piculas made a toothpick disappear and then re-appear in front of a classroom full of rapt fifth-graders.
About a week after that bit of legerdemain, Piculas was summoned to the phone. The call was from Pat Sinclair, who oversees substitute teachers in the Pasco County School District. She told Piculas there had been a complaint about his performance at Rushe Middle School.
“I get a call the middle of the day. ‘Jim, we have a huge issue,’ she said. ‘You can’t take any more assignments. You need to come in right away.’
“I said, ‘Well, Pat, can you explain this to me?’
“‘I really don’t know how to put this, Jim, except to say that you’ve been accused of wizardry.’
“‘Wizardry?’ I said. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.'” He thought the statement seemed bizarre, “like something out of Harry Potter.” When she clarified that it was the sleight-of-hand demonstration, he told her, “It’s not black magic. It’s a toothpick.” Continue reading
My parents were bowlers. I grew up in bowling alleys, both duckpin and tenpin lanes. League play, always. And they were good, too. Lots and lots of trophies. Mom counted some of the biggest names in the sport as her friends. Dad even managed a lane for a year or so, between “real” jobs, and put me to work spraying and sorting bowling shoes.
I myself bowled in a couple of kids’ leagues, and won two trophies of my own.
For a number of years in my youth, Dad had a troubled relationship with money. I suspect it came from growing up lower-middle class, in a tiny bungalow in the poor part of Takoma Park, Maryland, with an insular, intemperate, racist, dry alky of a father, and a sweet, longsuffering, and ineffectual mother.
Dad was an accountant, and a brilliant tax consultant. But for several years, he had trouble keeping a job, and we fell into debt. I remember lying to debt collectors on the phone for him, and all of us hiding from people who would come to our door and demand payment. Continue reading