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The Jewish story behind ‘Oppenheimer,’ explained



(JTA) — Friday is not just “Barbie” release day — moviegoers are also planning to fill theaters across the United States to see Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” biopic.

Many hope it will answer a question that has long divided Americans and the country’s understanding of its history: Who exactly was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb?

Oppenheimer’s name has become “a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud,” in the words of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, whose 2005 book “American Prometheus” was adapted into Nolan’s film. But to fully understand the physicist, biographers have looked for clues in his belief system — an ethical code grounded in science and rationality, a fiery sense of justice and a lifelong ambivalence toward his own Jewish heritage.

Here’s a primer on his Jewish story, the other Jewish characters he met while developing the Manhattan Project and how the movie portrays it all.

The German Jew who was “neither German nor Jewish”

Oppenheimer was born in 1904 to German Jewish parents rapidly rising into Manhattan’s upper class. His father, Julius Oppenheimer, came from the German town of Hanau and arrived in New York as a teenager — without money or a word of English — to help relatives run a small textile import business. He worked his way up to full partner, won a reputation as a cultured fabrics trader and fell in love with Ella Friedman, a painter whose German-Jewish family had settled in Baltimore in the 1840s.

Their secular household embraced American society. The Oppenheimers never went to a synagogue or had a bar mitzvah for their son; instead, they aligned themselves with the Ethical Culture Society, an offshoot of Reform Judaism that rejected religious creed in favor of secular humanism and rationalism. Oppenheimer was sent to the Ethical Culture School in New York’s Upper West Side, where he developed an interest in universal moral tenets and a firm distance from Jewish traditions.

Although his parents were first- and second-generation German immigrants, Oppenheimer always insisted that he didn’t speak German, according to Ray Monk, the author of “Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center.” He also maintained that the “J” in “J. Robert Oppenheimer” stood for nothing at all — even though his birth certificate read “Julius Robert Oppenheimer,” indicating his father had passed on the Jewish name.

“To the outside world, he was always known as a German Jew, and he always insisted that he was neither German nor Jewish,” Monk told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But it affected his relationship with the world that that is how he was perceived.”

The real Oppenheimer shown in an undated photo. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Oppenheimer’s academic brilliance became a flimsy shield against the antisemitism that orbited his life. He entered Harvard just as the university moved toward a quota system over concerns about the number of Jews being admitted. Nonetheless, he kept to his studies and stayed aloof from the campus controversy, according to Monk. He even tried to befriend non-Jewish students, but the prevailing antisemitism mostly doomed those efforts and left him with a predominantly Jewish friend group.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1925, he conducted research at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and completed his PhD at Göttingen University — in pre-Nazi Germany — under Max Born, a pioneer of quantum mechanics. Before he got to Cambridge, though, a Harvard professor wrote him a recommendation that captured the institutionalized prejudice in academia: “Oppenheimer is a Jew, but entirely without the usual qualifications.”

Oppenheimer returned from Europe to teach physics at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkeley. While at Berkeley, he tried to secure a position for his colleague Robert Serber and was rebuffed by his department head Raymond Birge, who said, “One Jew in the department is enough.” He did not push back on the decision, later hiring Serber to work on the Manhattan Project.

The Nazi effect

Until the 1930s, Oppenheimer was resolutely indifferent to politics. Though he studied Sanskrit along with science and read classics, novels and poetry, he took no interest in current affairs. He later explained this at his infamous 1954 hearing before the United States Atomic Energy Commission — which, at the height of the McCarthy era, would end with him losing his security clearance over past associations with communists and support for left-wing causes.

“I was almost wholly divorced from the contemporary scene in this country,” he said. “I never read a newspaper or a current magazine like Time or Harper’s; I had no radio, no telephone; I learned of the stock market crash in the fall of 1929 only long after the event; the first time I ever voted was in the presidential election of 1936.”

But a profound shift occurred in Oppenheimer during the mid-1930s, as he watched family, friends and great scientific minds crushed under the tides of Nazism in Germany and the economic collapse at home.

“I had a continuing, smoldering fury about the treatment of Jews in Germany,” he said in his testimony. “I had relatives there, and was later to help in extricating them and bringing them to this country. I saw what the Depression was doing to my students… And through them, l began to understand how deeply political and economic events could affect men’s lives.”

In addition to rescuing family members, while teaching at Berkeley, he earmarked 3% of his salary to help Jewish scientists escape Nazi Germany. By World War II, his drive to defeat Germany would propel him to direct the Manhattan Project — the top-secret development of an American atomic bomb — at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico.

He was an unlikely candidate for the post. The FBI had already marked him as politically suspect for communist sympathies. He was a theoretical scientist, not an applied scientist with experience leading a laboratory. He wasn’t yet 40 years old. But Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Groves chose Oppenheimer as the Manhattan Project’s director in 1942 partly because he showed a burning sense of imperative.

“Oppenheimer said to Groves, ‘Look, the Nazis will have their own bomb project and it will be led by Heisenberg, who’s one of the leading nuclear physicists in the world. We need to move and we need to move quickly,’” said Monk.

Other prominent Jewish scientists felt compelled to join. Six of the project’s eight leaders were Jewish, along with a significant number of Jewish technicians, scientists and soldiers up and down the ranks, some of them refugees from Europe.

The Strauss feud

Although two atomic bombs ultimately dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not Germany — and Germany had already surrendered by then — Oppenheimer was hailed as a hero for his role in ending World War II.

But only nine years later, he was humiliated before the Atomic Energy Commission and stripped of his security clearance. Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the AEC, became suspicious of Oppenheimer for opposing the development of a hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer pressed for international control of nuclear weapons, believing the purpose of the atomic weapon was to end all war.

But Strauss had a different objective: U.S. supremacy over the Soviet Union.

Robert Downey Jr. portrays Lewis Strauss, who clashed with Oppenheimer. (Universal Pictures)

“Oppenheimer said you’d have to be crazy to use a weapon that was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. So his case was, ‘We can’t develop this thing,’” said Monk. “Lewis Strauss was inclined to think that the only person who would advocate the U.S. not developing a hydrogen bomb was somebody who had the interests of the Soviet Union at heart.”

Strauss also developed a personal hatred for Oppenheimer, who could be arrogant and supercilious. They came from very different Jewish backgrounds: Strauss was a committed Reform Jew with modest origins, who worked as a traveling shoe salesman instead of going to college. He identified closely with his faith and served as the president of New York’s Temple Emanu-El from 1938 to 1948.

“I think Strauss also had to navigate being Jewish in an American society that didn’t totally embrace Jews, and I think it was somewhat of a threat to him to have somebody like Oppenheimer whose approach to dealing with his Judaism was to hide it, basically,” physicist and rabbi Jack Shlachter told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

In the film, Strauss is portrayed as having secretly orchestrated Oppenheimer’s downfall at the hands of the Atomic Energy Commission, in part by collaborating with Hungarian-Jewish physicist Edward Teller, who agreed with Strauss on the necessity of the hydrogen bomb.

How Nolan’s film portrays the story’s several Jewish characters

Bird writes an account of Oppenheimer running into Albert Einstein, one of the most famous Jewish figures of the 20th century, shortly before the 1954 hearing. The two men were friends and colleagues at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study; Einstein joined the faculty after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, while Oppenheimer became the institute’s director in 1947.

Einstein had signed a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, written by physicist Leo Szilard, that urged the development of a fission bomb in 1939. Einstein later regretted signing it.

According to Bird, Einstein urged his friend not to go before the AEC. He said that Oppenheimer had already done his duty for America, and if the country repaid him with a witch hunt, he “should turn his back on her.”

Oppenheimer’s secretary Verna Hobson, who witnessed the conversation, said he could not be dissuaded. “He loved America,” she said, “and this love was as deep as his love of science.”

Einstein responded by calling Oppenheimer a “narr,” or “fool” in Yiddish.

The movie makes considerable hay out of Oppenheimer’s relationship with Einstein, played by Scottish actor Tom Conti. The two men have frequent run-ins both during and after the development of the bomb.

Another Jewish physicist friend and colleague, Isidor Rabi, attributed Oppenheimer’s lifelong loneliness and bouts of depression to the distance he created from other Jews — a community that might have given him some solace from his own government’s rejection.

“Isidor Rabi said that his problem was that he couldn’t identify fully as Jewish,” said Monk. “Although Rabi wasn’t religious, when he saw a group of Jews, he said, ‘These are my people.’ And Oppenheimer could never do that.”

In the film, characters repeat Oppenheimer’s insistence that the “J” stands for “nothing,” rarely interrogating him on his Judaism. He never encounters any overt antisemitism directed at him. Yet the movie’s version of Oppenheimer, played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, does not seem as tortured by his Jewish identity as Rabi said he was in real life. At several points in the film, Oppenheimer bonds with other characters in his orbit over their Judaism and expresses anger at Hitler’s treatment of German Jews.

A group of physicists at Los Alamos in an undated photo, from left to right: Sir William Penney, Bea Langer, Emil Konopinski and Lawrence Langer. (Corbis via Getty Images)

The film’s Oppenheimer also claims to read German well, including the ability to read Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” in its original language. It’s part of the character’s lifelong fascination with languages, which also informs his famous utterance of the Bhagavad Gita quote, “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

The only language the film’s Oppenheimer seems to have no interest in learning is Yiddish — a fact that Rabi (played by Jewish actor David Krumholtz) ribs him about at their first meeting in prewar Germany, when Rabi tries to bond with Oppenheimer over feeling like their kind isn’t welcome.

In the movie, Oppenheimer is also shown welcoming multiple Jewish refugee physicists to the Manhattan Project facility. Teller, played by Jewish actor Benny Safdie, is one of them, even though he becomes a key adversary.

As for Strauss’ character, played by Robert Downey Jr., he proudly mentions his key Jewish resume point early on in the film.

“I’m the president of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan,” he exclaims.

The post The Jewish story behind ‘Oppenheimer,’ explained appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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25 years after opening, Yiddish Book Center overhauls its core exhibit for a wider audience




AMHERST, Massachusetts (JTA) — Since its opening in 1997, the Yiddish Book Center has wowed visitors with its architecture. A Jewish village resurrected on a college campus in sylvan Amherst, Massachusetts, the building conveys the Center’s mission: to rescue and revive a language spoken for over 1,000 years by Ashkenazi Jews in German-speaking lands, Eastern Europe and wherever they migrated. 

On Oct. 15, the Center is unveiling a new core exhibit, meant to flesh out and deepen the story told by its building and the treasures stored inside. Arriving at a moment when Yiddish is experiencing one of its periodic revivals, “Yiddish: A Global Culture” is a major Yiddish institution’s answer to a question without easy answers: How do you tell the story of a language without a country, and of a culture that lost a majority of its purveyors in a little over a decade of madness?

In response, the new exhibit depicts the “secular” Yiddish culture that arose in the mid-19th century as a distinctly transglobal, modern movement that includes theater, the press, mass market publishing and intellectual ferment in big cities from Warsaw to New York to Shanghai.

The exhibit is “foregrounding a story of creativity, tremendous accomplishment and tremendous diversity of a culture that has migration built into its DNA,” David Mazower, the Center’s research bibliographer and the exhibition’s chief curator, told me when I visited Amherst last month.

The displays in the exhibit will surround and weave in and out of the Center’s book stacks, another striking architectural feature of the building. The stacks offer duplicates of the Center’s collection of 1.5 million Yiddish books and periodicals, for sale and browsing. I couldn’t be the first visitor to be reminded of the closing scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which reveals a colossal government warehouse filled with, in the words of the screenplay, “crates and crates. All looking alike. All gathering dust.” 

What a casual visitor might not see is all that is happening at the Center to blow the dust off those books, including translator workshops, summer fellowships, conferences, an oral history project, a busy publishing program and a riotous summer music festival.

Interest in all of those activities has been helped along by young Jews interested in the language and culture and a pandemic that created a demand for online Yiddish classes. The Yiddish Book Center has been drawing 10,000 visitors a year since its pandemic shutdown. The New York Times made the latest revival official (to non-readers of the Jewish media, anyway) in an essay last month by the Jewish polymath Ilan Stavans, declaring that “Yiddish Is Having a Moment.” Stavans notes a flurry of new translations of obscure and classic Yiddish writers, the all-Yiddish staging of “Fiddler on the Roof” and the Yiddish dialogue in three recent Netflix series: “Shtisel,” “Unorthodox” and “Rough Diamonds.”

A mural featuring key moments in the global history of Yiddish is a central feature of a new core exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. (JTA photo)

(More controversially, Stavans also reports that Yiddish is appealing to those — presumably young anti-Zionist Jews — for whom Hebrew “symbolizes far-right Israeli militarism.”)

Such a revival also challenges keepers of the flame — not just the Yiddish Book Center, but the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, The Workers Circle, publications like In geveb and the Yiddish Forward, academic departments plus a host of regional Yiddish organizations — to define a language and culture that means many different things to many different people.

Is it a language of a decimated past? A progenitor of the Jewish left? A tongue, still spoken daily by haredi Orthodox Jews, that continues to grow and evolve? Is it an attitude — a Jewish way of being and thinking — that survives in humor and cooking and music even if those who appreciate it can’t speak the language? For European Jews of the Enlightenment, the Yiddish scholar Jeffrey Shandler reminded me a few years ago, “Yiddish represented the resistance and inability of Jews to enter the cultural mainstream. It represented something atavistic, a way of holding Jews back.” For Zionists, meanwhile, it represented a weak Diaspora and everything associated with it (a clash explored in a current YIVO exhibit, “Palestinian Yiddish:  A Look at Yiddish in the Land of Israel Before 1948”).

Goldie Morgenthaler, herself the daughter of the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb, has written that she teaches Yiddish literature to mostly non-Jewish university students in Alberta, Canada because “studying what is specific to one culture is often the first step to understanding many cultures.”

At YIVO, an institution founded by scholars in Vilna in 1925 and transplanted to New York in 1940, Yiddish is regarded as an expression of and vehicle for “Jewish pride,” according to its executive director and CEO, Jonathan Brent.

“For Jewish people in the Diaspora to understand that they have in fact a future as Jews,” he said last week, “they have to take pride in their heritage. For all kinds of historical reasons, many Jews felt that [Yiddish] was somehow a shameful or devalued heritage. It was ‘zhargon’ [jargon], and it had been basically eliminated from public discourse in the land of Israel. YIVO from the very beginning wanted to study Yiddish as a language among languages, the same way you studied Russian or Spanish or French. It was a language with a history.

David Mazower, the Yiddish Book Center’s research bibliographer and the exhibition’s chief curator, shows off a samovar to be used in a recreation of the Warsaw literary salon of writer I.L. Peretz. (JTA photo)

“What Yiddish does,” he continued, “is help anchor us in the language in which our grandparents and great grandparents communicated their deepest thoughts and feelings. And that has real implications for the survival of the Jewish people.”

Aaron Lansky, the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center, said the story he wants to tell goes back to his days as a graduate student in Yiddish at McGill University in the 1970s, when he first started saving the discarded books that would become the core of the Center’s collection.

“People think of [Yiddish] as this nostalgic creation,” he said. “But the truth is, it was a profound, multifaceted and really global literature that emerged in the late 19th century, and then just took off throughout the 20th century…. It wasn’t long before writers were using every form of literary expression — expressionism, impressionism, surrealism, eroticism. It all found expression in this very short period of time, and even the Holocaust didn’t destroy it. “

Lansky admits his own vision is more literary than the core exhibit’s, and thanked Mazower for creating a broader view of Yiddish as a global culture.

That view is represented in a 60-foot mural that serves as an introduction to the exhibit. Cartoons by the German illustrator Martin Haake depict key historical vignettes in Yiddish history, from nearly every continent. Glikl of Hameln, a German-Jewish businesswoman, writes her diaries at the turn of the 18th century. Women call for a strike at “Yanovsky’s Cigarette Factory” in Bialystok, Poland, in 1901. A nursery scene honors the leading Yiddish activists who were born in Displaced Persons camps after World War II. And tubercular Yiddish writers are seen recovering at the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society in Denver, Colorado, which operated from 1904 to 1940. 

The mural lines the ramp that leads to the bookshelves, where displays (some of which Mazower calls “wedges”) use artifacts and wall-mounted photos to talk about the breadth of Yiddish culture. There’s a display about Yiddish celebrities, including writers, such as Sholom Aleichem and Chaim Zhitlowsky, who would draw tens of thousands of mourners to their funerals. Another display honors those who preserved and studied Yiddish culture, from YIVO (described here as “The Mothership”) to the monumental “Language and Cultural Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry” undertaken between 1959 and 1972 by the linguist Uriel Weinreich. A Yiddish linotype machine, rescued by Lansky, anchors an exhibit about the Jewish press.

Michal Michalesko (center) and chorus appear in a publicity photo from an unidentified production, ca. 1930. Michalesko (1884–1957) made his name in the 1910s as a star of the Warsaw Yiddish operetta stage. (Yiddish Book Center)

A centerpiece of the core exhibit is a recreation of the Warsaw literary salon of the writer and playwright I.L. Peretz, a leading figure of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. While few actual artifacts belonging to Peretz survive, the room will include contemporaneous objects and photographs to immerse visitors in the literary scene of the day. 

“You’ll step through his doorway the way that so many young writers did, clutching their first manuscripts to show them either in Hebrew or in Yiddish,” Mazower explained. “His name, his address was known throughout the Russian Empire at that time. People would come thousands of miles in some cases to Warsaw to try and get entry into this alchemy-like space where extraordinary things happen.”

One of those pilgrims was Mazower’s great-grandfather, the famed playwright Sholem Asch. When Asch showed Peretz a draft of his notorious play “God of Vengeance,” whose lesbian subplot would shock audiences and rile religious leaders, Peretz reportedly told him to burn it. 

“My hope is that through the exhibition as a whole you see Jewish history through a Yiddish lens and in a different way from the Holocaust-defined story that so many of us have been educated with and that popular culture feeds us,” said Mazower. 

A Yiddish book features a stamp for a bookseller in Cairo, demonstrating the global reach of the language. (JTA photo)

The exhibit treats the Holocaust as one part of the Yiddish story, not its culmination. The original Yiddish edition of Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” published as part of a memorial project in Argentina shortly after the war, rests in a wedge about individuals who rescued Yiddish culture under the Nazis. The same section features a tribute to Rokhl Brokhes, a writer murdered in the Minsk Ghetto in 1945. A still from a recent animated adaptation of one of her stories by Alona Bach, currently a PhD student at MIT focusing on the “intersections of electricity and Yiddish,” affirms one of the Center’s aims: to bring young Yiddishists into conversation with the past.

The story of Yiddish theater will wrap around the auditorium, starting with a large photo of the audience at the opening of the Grand Street Theatre in New York in 1905. A memorial section remembers the probably thousands of actors, playwrights and musicians who were killed in the Holocaust.

“Had Yiddish theater not suffered a rupture, which it did, it would have continued to evolve and borrow and expand,” said Lisa Newman, the Center’s director of publishing and public programs. “What’s so important about this exhibition is that it places Yiddish in this context of language no less than any other country’s, except it’s not a country.” 

I asked Mazower what kind of stories he did not want to tell about Yiddish culture.

“It’s not a story about Yiddish humor,” he said. “It’s not a story about the Holocaust. It’s not a story about the state of Israel. It’s not a lachrymose story about Jewish persecution through the ages.”

Other Yiddishists told me much the same thing (Brent said that the story of Yiddish “shouldn’t be told as a collection of jokes, or Yiddish curses, or as a cute language that connects you to Bubbe’s gefilte fish”). 

And yet, said Lansky, “We’re not feinschmeckers, we’re not elitist when it comes to Yiddish. Yiddish was a vernacular language, and I am happy to embrace that. I love the humor and social criticism that’s embedded in it. It’s the aggregate that’s so impressive. To see all of this literature and culture in a lively and accessible way can be quite transformative.”

The post 25 years after opening, Yiddish Book Center overhauls its core exhibit for a wider audience appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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San Francisco Giants fire Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after disappointing season




(JTA) — The San Francisco Giants have fired Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after four seasons.

Kapler joined the Giants in November 2019 and led the Giants to a 295-248 record during the 2020-2023 seasons, highlighted by a 107-win 2021 campaign that earned Kapler the National League Manager of the Year award. The team rewarded Kapler with a two-year contract extension that was set to run through 2024.

The Giants were eliminated from postseason contention this week, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

In addition to his 2021 accolade, Kapler’s tenure in San Francisco was punctuated by his unorthodox style both on and off the field. The 48-year-old Hollywood, California, native is a fitness geek with an active social media presence and his own blog. ESPN deemed him “the most interesting man in baseball” in May 2022. Kapler also has a Jewish tattoo on each leg: a Jewish star on his left leg and “Never Again” — a reference to the Holocaust — on his right leg.

On the field, Kapler in 2020 became the first MLB manager to kneel during the national anthem amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. In 2022, in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Kapler announced that he would begin skipping the pregame national anthem to protest the “state of this country.” He frequently used his platform in the sport to share his political beliefs.

Kapler played for six teams during his 12-year major league career, largely as a role player and backup outfielder. After retiring in 2010, Kapler played and coached for Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He previously managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 2018-2019 and worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

With Kapler’s firing, San Diego Padres manager Bob Melvin becomes the league’s lone Jewish skipper.

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Flash floods put a dangerous damper on the first night of Sukkot in NYC




(New York Jewish Week) — Mark Vogel, who lives in Riverdale and runs a website about Jewish and kosher travel, spoke for many of his neighbors when he posted a video on Instagram of his sukkah being pounded by rain, standing forlornly in the middle of his flooded backyard.

“I built a Sukkah,” he wrote in a caption. “I should have built an ark.”

Vogel, and many of the other millions of Jews in the tristate area, have been coping with the reality that Sukkot, the most outdoor holiday on the Jewish calendar, has coincided with heavy rains that have flooded highways, shut down subway lines and triggered a state of emergency in New York City. More than 8 inches of rain had fallen at John F. Kennedy airport by Friday afternoon, and more is expected into Saturday.

New Yorkers should expect heavy rain and flooding to continue throughout the night tonight,” Gov. Kathy Hochul posted on social media on Friday afternoon. “To our Jewish neighbors celebrating the beginning of Sukkot, please take steps to stay safe during this severe weather event.”

Sukkot begins Friday night, and on the weeklong holiday, Jews traditionally eat their meals and even sleep in the sukkah, an outdoor hut with a roof generally made from tree branches that recalls the Israelites’ biblical sojourn in the desert and emphasizes the need for divine protection.

But rain makes those observances close to impossible — leading most would-be sukkah-dwellers in New York to accept that they’ll be eating indoors on the holiday’s first night, and sparking a wide variety of theological and practical responses from rabbis and rank-and-file Jews alike. For others, it has complicated travel plans hours before the holiday’s start, backing up traffic and making the subway especially hard to navigate.

“I once heard that if it rains on [the] first night of sukkoth, it’s some sort of sign that God is displeased with us,” Linda Gisselle Roth, who splits her time between New York City and Connecticut, wrote on Facebook on Friday. “And it’s been raining for days. And I’ve never felt like this before.”

She added, “I want to spend [the] first night of sukkoth, in my sukkah. So for right now, I’m asking, please let the rain stop.”

While the rainy season in Israel traditionally begins right after Sukkot, rain is a common occurrence on the holiday in the United States and even inspired the title of a children’s book from the 1990s, “Why Does It Always Rain on Sukkot?”

Mark Vogel, a Riverdale resident, posted a picture of his sukkah in a flooded yard to Instagram on Friday. (Screenshot)

Observant Jews have varying customs when it comes to dealing with rain on the holiday. Many avoid their sukkah entirely, while others will quickly recite blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then eat the rest of the meal indoors. Adherents of Chabad, the Hasidic movement based in Crown Heights, try to eat in the sukkah under nearly all circumstances.

One resident of Teaneck, New Jersey, a heavily Jewish suburb, posted a single-spaced, two-page guide from his local rabbi on what to do if it rains on the holiday. (The rabbi, who is not named in the document, recommends saying blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then continuing the meal inside.)

Rabbis on social media, meanwhile, explored the theological dimensions of the weather. Some cited a passage from the Mishnah, the ancient code of rabbinic law, that compares rain on Sukkot, following the effort of building a sukkah, to a servant bringing his master a jug of wine, only for the master to throw water back in the servant’s face.

“Nasty weather on sukkot is a sign of God’s displeasure with us,” Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who teaches at the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah seminary, wrote on Facebook. Then, referencing the recent High Holidays and addressing God, he wrote, “If all we did the last few weeks is not good enough for You, what’s left for us to say?! We did the best we can. If You want more, You will have to let us know what that more is.”

Rabbi Ethan Tucker, the president of the Hadar Institute, an egalitarian center of Jewish study based in Manhattan, also cited the passage and encouraged people to focus on the experience of the servant in the parable. He added that because the first day of the holiday falls on Shabbat, the other central commandment associated with Sukkot, praying with four species of plants, is also deferred a day. (Sunday is expected to be sunny.)

“What does it *feel like* when you have prepared for something and then you cannot execute it as planned?” he wrote on Facebook. “It feels like rejection, as in the parable. The weather may in fact just be the weather, but it doesn’t necessarily make the feeling of loss less palpable. Is there a way to make this Sukkah rainout an opportunity to sit with rejection? To empathize with other such experiences, even if they are not our own?”

Some New Yorkers tried to stay positive. “It might be flooding and we might consume a lot of rain water with our food lol but Sukkot Dinner under the Stars is still on even if we might end up eating indoors under a roof instead!” a Facebook user from Queens posted on Friday, advertising a meal that night.

Nina Jochnowitz, a State Senate candidate in New Jersey, cited the rabbinic idea that Sukkot is considered a time of joy, and referenced a Hasidic saying that “‘joy breaks all boundaries,’ transforming even the most negative occurrences into blessings!”

And others reached for seasonal parallels: “If only sukkot came with rain dates like baseball,” one person posted.

For Vogel, the travel writer and Riverdale resident, the rain was especially unfortunate, as he has built a smaller sukkah in recent years to limit capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first year he had gone back to building a larger one.

“Well, I was looking forward to eating in a large sukkah this year with friends and family,” he told the New York Jewish Week. “But we can’t control the weather, so we will make the best of it.”

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