Anyone who wants to follow the daily flow of news and commentary -- light and serious -- about Jewish life knows that they need to be signed up for the daily newsletters from The Forward. I mean where else are you going to turn for key questions linked to the music of Pink Floyd?
Seriously, readers looking for the fine details on the lives of those lost in this week's bloody slaughter in the West Jerusalem synagogue (click here for the earlier Jim Davis post on the coverage) knew what they would find in the wave of coverage at The Forward. Whose blood was shed with those guns and knives and that ax? What made this attack so unique and disturbing? This is what specialty publications do -- offer depth.
In this case, that meant grasping the symbolic details at the heart of trends in modern Orthodox Judaism.
It was all about the names "Twersky" and "Soloveitchik." This was, as is so often the case in Jewish news, about the past, the present and the future.
Rabbi Moshe Twersky, murdered in a bloody Jerusalem terror attack on November 18, bore the last name of one of the most illustrious families in Hasidic Europe. But he also was the “truest disciple” of his grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy in America, Twersky’s brother-in-law told the Forward.
Twersky, the scion of two famed Ashkenazic rabbinic dynasties, was slain in a West Jerusalem synagogue during morning prayers.
Friends mourned Twersky’s loss, and the loss of the connection Twersky represented to Soloveitchik, known in Modern Orthodox circles as the Rav. “Moshe was the apple of the Rav’s eye,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division and a lifelong friend of Twersky’s. “I would have to say the most special relationship the Rav had, in terms of this sense of continuity … was with Moshe as he was growing up.”
But here was the passage that, for me, made this story -- using a symbolic detail from religious life to stand for an era of change affecting millions of practicing Jews, in Israel as well as in Europe and North America.
Twersky had a gold-plated Orthodox pedigree, the product of an unusual union between the Hasidic Twersky dynasty and the Lithuanian Soloveitchik dynasty. His parents’ marriage, which united the two lines, was analogous, perhaps, to a theoretical union of a Bush and a Clinton.
“It was a bridge between the Hasidic world and the non-Hasidic world,” said Yitz Twersky, a distant cousin and a family historian. “It was a big deal.”
A photo of the wedding between Moshe’s parents, Rabbi Isadore Twersky and Dr. Atarah Twersky, shows Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in a modern-style top hat and Isadore’s father, Meshulam Zulia Twersky, in a Hasidic-style fur hat. The distinction might seem marginal to secular eyes, but to the Orthodox it signified vast differences in ideology and tradition.
By all means, read it all. This is what specialty reporting does, of course. It's like turning to Christianity Today for the fine details of mainstream and progressive evangelical Protestantism, with added criticism from World critiquing the details of the fine details.
So it is not a surprise that the team at The Forward jumped into action at the first mention of the name "Twersky."
However, let me note the outstanding job done -- early on, in a crucial sidebar -- by the foreign desk at The Washington Post on this same subject. This piece did a fine job of explaining the blood ties and symbolic details that made this event so powerful for English-speaking Jews in Jerusalem and in global networks linked to that city. The lede:
Rabbi Mosheh Twersky, scion of two of Orthodox Judaism’s most storied families and a well-known teacher himself, lived a life of Torah and prayers. He died while worshiping Tuesday in a Jerusalem synagogue, wrapped in a prayer shawl and with a black box holding scripture affixed to his forehead, part of the morning ritual of the Orthodox Jew.
The following passage is long, but crucial. This is fine, fine writing on deadline in the midst of chaos.
Might I also add that this is the kind of detail and experiential depth missing in so much of modern journalism on religion and a host of other complicated topics, in an era when red ink in the news business has led to the closing of so many foreign bureaus staffed with veteran scribes.
He came “from a family of princes,” said Rabbi Marc Penner, dean of Yeshiva University in New York, the flagship school of Modern Orthodoxy in the United States. Twersky’s brother, Mayer, is one of the “heads” of the university, where a prayer meeting was held Tuesday.
“We talk about six degrees of separation, but the Jewish people are more like a family. It’s more like one or two degrees of separation,” Penner said. “I think that when one of the victims hits so close to home, it reminds us that whenever there’s a tragedy on either side, it’s an entire world that’s snuffed out.”
Judaism calls for the dead to be buried as quickly as possible, and the narrow streets of Har Nof were a sea of black streaming to funerals for the victims.
“Wrapped in a prayer shawl and phylacteries, the four victims were massacred, and numerous more suffered injuries,” Rabbi Yitzchak Mordechai Rubin, chief rabbi of the Bnei Torah synagogue in Har Nof, said at the joint funeral, according to the Times of Israel. “We have passed from a private state of mourning to a public one.”
Phylacteries is another way of describing tefillin, which are spiritual devices, made of leather and a small black box, containing prayers. They are worn on a man’s forehead, connecting hands, head and heart.
For journalists, it is sad that some of this material needed to be drawn -- attributed, second-hand -- from newspapers close to the story. Does the Post still have a bureau in Jerusalem? Whatever. This was amazing work on the foreign desk, under great pressure and constraints of all kinds.