Category Archives: Religion

Inherit the Wind … Still Riveting


This scene from the 1960 film, “Inherit the Wind” (which is on the local NY PBS station tonight), is one of the most riveting cinematic statements of the power of the individual human mind in the debate between science and religion. Based on the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, it features two giants of the silver screen: Spencer Tracy and Frederic March. Breathtaking…

Holocaust Remembrance Day: The ‘White Coat’ in Art—and Resistance

Today is the internationally recognized date for “Holocaust Remembrance Day.” “Yom HaShoah” is observed in Israel as a day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews who died as a result of the Nazi’s “Final Solution.” What can be said about this horrifying episode in human history that has not already been said so many times before?

As it turns out there is always some new layer of understanding that emerges with each passing year. Two recent articles that appeared in the New York Times provide us with different portraits to contemplate—in the art of painting and in the act of resistance.

The first, published on 4 April 2021, by Bret Stephens, asks: “Can We Really Picture Auschwitz?” It is a portrait of Auschwitz survivor “Buba Weisz Sajovits and her sister Icu, who arrived in Veracruz in 1946, their eldest sister, Bella, … waiting for them by the dock.” Bella “insisted that they were not to speak of what had happened to them in the war. Life was meant to be lived facing the future, not the past.” Eventually Buba married and “started a beauty salon.” And the family looked forward, never backward. Stephens writes:

Only one reminder of the past could not be erased, because it was etched permanently in ink on the inside of her left forearm: A-11147. What went with that alphanumeric was, as she would title her memoir, Tattooed in My Memory. Decades later, when she was well into her 60s, she decided to take up painting, and soon the past became more vivid.

All the volumes that have been written about this subject throughout the decades, even trips to the sites of the death camps, are unable to bridge the chasm between “what we know and what we understand”… except through the recollections of “personal experience.” We are not talking simply about the thousands upon thousands of testimonials, the documentaries and photographic evidence, or even the diaries of the dead or the autobiographies of the survivors.

In Buba’s paintings, the unfathomable dimensions of this exercise in genocidal mass murder become all too vivid. Stephens writes:

On May 31, 1944, she and Icu (pronounced Itzu), their parents, Bernard and Lotte, and the rest of the Jewish population of Cluj were deported in cattle cars to Auschwitz, a journey of degradation and hunger that lasted five days. Buba, then 18, last saw her parents on the night of their arrival in the camp, when her father jumped out of line to hand his daughters their baccalaureate diplomas.

Buba was given a factory job. It came with extra rations, which she shared with her bunkmates. One day, she was called into a cubicle of the block elder, a female prisoner who was in charge of barracks discipline. The elder tore off Buba’s clothes and shoved her toward a man who had been waiting for her. “I gathered every last ounce of strength that I could muster,” she said, “and ran.”

How can we understand what it’s like to be a half-starved, naked Jewish girl running for her life from an Auschwitz rapist? We can’t. I can’t. But in 2002, Buba painted the scene, and through her painting I could catch a glimpse of what it means to be the most vulnerable person on earth.

“Needless to say,” she added dryly, “I lost my job and my ration.”


Stephens adds: “For all of its scale, the special evil of Auschwitz ultimately lay in the fact that the murder and torture was clinical, something I only really understood after seeing Buba’s painting.” Even animals depicted in some paintings wear white coats, like that of the man who attacked her.

Courtesy of The New York Times (4 April 2021)

Additional, shattering images painted by Buba can be viewed here. As Stephens puts it: “In this month of Holocaust remembrance, it’s worth pausing to consider how one brave woman’s memory, and art, help us to see what we must never forget.”

Another, very different, portrait of the Holocaust emerges from an article that first appeared on 18 March 2021 in the Times—and it was a revelation to me. Judy Batalion’s essay, “The Women of the Jewish Resistance” is a preface to her new book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos, which provides us with a history of uprisings by over 30,000 Jews led predominantly by women, who fought throughout European forests—and in at least nine cities, from Warsaw to Vilna. Batalion’s research began in London’s British Library, but extended across Poland, Israel, and North America. Batalion opens her essay with this story, which completely inverts the image of the “white coat” found in Buba’s art:

In 1943, Niuta Teitelbaum strolled into a Gestapo apartment on Chmielna Street in central Warsaw and faced three Nazis. A 24-year-old Jewish woman who had studied history at Warsaw University, Niuta was likely now dressed in her characteristic guise as a Polish farm girl with a kerchief tied around her braided blond hair.

She blushed, smiled meekly and then pulled out a gun and shot each one. Two were killed, one wounded. Niuta, however, wasn’t satisfied. She found a physician’s coat, entered the hospital where the injured man was being treated, and killed both the Nazi and the police officer who had been guarding him.

“Little Wanda With the Braids,” as she was nicknamed on every Gestapo most-wanted list, was one of many young Jewish women who, with supreme cunning and daring, fought the Nazis in Poland. And yet, as I discovered over several years of research on these resisters, their stories have largely been overlooked in the broader history of Jewish resistance in World War II.

Batalion’s research has uncovered an interesting episode of such resistance that goes far beyond tales of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (see here as well). She writes:

Where I had expected mourning and gloom, I found guns, grenades and espionage. This was a Yiddish thriller, telling the stories of Polish-Jewish “ghetto girls” who paid off Gestapo guards, hid revolvers in teddy bears, flirted with Nazis and then killed them. They distributed underground bulletins, flung Molotov cocktails, bombed train lines, organized soup kitchens, and bore the truth about what was happening to the Jews. …

After Hitler’s conquest of Poland, … youth groups formed militias. … Those who were forced to labor in Nazi uniform factories slipped notes into the boots urging soldiers at the front to drop their weapons. They constructed workshops where they experimented with homemade explosives and designed elaborate underground bunkers. “Haganah!” was their rallying cry: Defense! Women who were selected for undercover missions were required to look “good,” or passably “Aryan” or Catholic, with light hair, blue or green eyes, good posture and an assured gait. …

As women, they were well positioned to do this work: Their brothers were circumcised and risked being found out in a “pants drop” test. Before the war, Jewish girls were more likely than Jewish boys to have studied at Polish public schools (many boys attended Jewish schools and yeshivas). They were, over all, more assimilated than Jewish boys and spoke Polish without the Yiddish accent, making them excellent spies.

The individual stories she tells are riveting—and worth your attention. In the end, both of these pieces teach us something profound about the reclamation of the human spirit from the depths of human depravity.

Happy Western Easter!

Here’s wishing a Happy Easter to all my Western Christian friends. My Eastern Orthodox family and friends will not be joining you in this celebration of life and rebirth until May 2nd!

Have a great day!

Epic Films for Holiday Weekend!

For the first time in memory, television networks are showing two epic Biblical films in prime time, on consecutive nights. First up, tonight, is TCM’s 8 PM (ET) showing of “Ben-Hur” (as part of their A to Z tribute to “31 Days of Oscar“). Second up is tomorrow night’s annual ABC showing of “The Ten Commandments” at 7 PM (ET).

Charlton Heston has the distinction of having starred in what many consider to be the last great “costume” epic of its time (“The Ten Commandments“) and in the first great “intimate” epic of its time (“Ben-Hur“). The former film remains a stunning Cecil B. DeMille achievement that has forever given new meaning to the phrase “A Red Sea Moment” to describe any remarkably monumental special effects sequence on the big screen. The latter film remains the all-time Oscar champ (11 Oscars, tied with “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King“), directed by William Wyler, which ushered in a new kind of epic for a new era, one heavy on intimate characterization that is never eclipsed by its action sequences, including an unforgettable real chariot race, that makes CGI look fake by comparison.

Of course, what would a post like this be without at least one Sciabarra footnote. Aside from Heston, one of the key things that connects these two films is that Martha Scott plays Heston’s mother in both of them!

I could just as easily throw on the Blu-Ray of either film, but there’s still something charming about the fact that they’ll be on this weekend back-to-back. They remain truly notable achievements in the history of the cinema, however you might view them, critically, symbolically, or from a religious standpoint. Of course, nothing beats seeing these films on the Big Screen; I was lucky enough to see “Ben-Hur” for the first time, in 1969, on its tenth anniversary re-release in glorious 70mm at New York’s great Palace Theatre and “The Ten Commandments” a couple of years later at the wonderful Ziegfeld Theatre. Lacking that, find yourself the biggest TV screen to appreciate their artistry.

Epic-scale films with epic-scale scores—Elmer Bernstein’s great soundtrack for the DeMille classic and Miklos Rozsa’s spectacular Oscar-winning soundtrack [YouTube links to their “Soundtrack Suites”]—still worthy of your attention after all these years.

Happy Passover to All My Jewish Friends!

A very Happy Passover to all my Jewish friends who celebrate this holiday.

While we’re on the subject of religious holidays, this year, the dates for Easter are sharply divergent. Every so often, the typical rule of the Eastern Orthodox Easter date is such that it comes much later than the Western Easter. So while Western Christians celebrate Palm Sunday today, the Eastern Orthodox churches won’t be carrying palms until April 25th. Orthodox Easter, which typically follows the Passover, doesn’t occur this year until May 2nd!

Don’t ask me to explain the ways in which these dates are decided upon; it’s not just a difference between the Julian and Gregorian Calendars (because the Greeks, unlike the Russians, follow the “Revised Julian Calendar“—the same as the Gregorian calendar, for every Christian holiday, including Christmas). But for Easter, it’s a Julian rule, with a quirky calculation based on full moons and the equinox! The next time that the Western and Eastern churches will celebrate Easter on the same date will be in 2025. (Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, they have coincided in 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2014, and 2017). Apparently, because of various cumulative changes in the calendars, by the year 2700, the Western and Eastern churches will never celebrate Easter on the same date again!

Either way, getting back to the topic of this post: A very Happy Passover to all those who celebrate!

Rand 116 … Still Challenging Traditions

Today is the 116th anniversary of the birth of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. Interestingly, on Sunday, the New York Times Book Review published an Alan Wolfe-penned essay on Benjamin M. Friedman’s book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Amazingly, Wolfe took aim at Friedman’s attempts to connect free markets to religion and the Protestant work ethic (something for which Max Weber is most famous).

This is from Wolfe’s review:


For one thing, this book is mistitled; its overwhelming concentration is on only one religion, the Protestant one. You will not find a discussion here of the two great papal encyclicals, “Rerum Novarum” and “Quadragesimo Anno,” that form the basis of Catholic social teaching. By confining himself mostly to the Protestant countries of England, Scotland and Holland, Friedman, for all his range, narrows his focus too much.

What is more, economics and theology may have intertwined in the past, but they rarely do now. If anything, someone could write a contemporary work, surely shorter than this one, on atheism and the resurgence of free-market economics. The 19th-century economic thinkers Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, both influenced more by Darwin than Calvin, were quite hostile to religion. The 20th century’s most widely read advocate for laissez-faire, Ayn Rand, was a militant nonbeliever. Milton Friedman, who needs no identification, was Jewish by birth but nonobservant. The story so brilliantly told by the author, it would seem, has reached its end.

A provocative observation that places Rand’s take on free markets (and the work of others in the classical liberal and contemporary libertarian movement) outside the religious context to which it has often been wedded by conservative thinkers especially.

To 2020 (1): Counting My Blessings — But Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out…

Clichés, by definition, are trite and lacking in originality. But you’ll find more than a few in the following post. This year didn’t lack for originality, but it helped to illustrate more than a few clichés.

This week, I’ll be featuring a few hilarious tidbits from my favorite comic strip, “Pearls Before Swine” (created by Stephan Pastis), all centered on a single theme: What a Miserable Year 2020 Was! Today, it’s best captured by yesterday’s featured strip in the New York Daily News:

Courtesy of The New York Daily News (27 December 2020)


So, before we start counting our blessings, let’s review our journey through the utter misery of 2020. I wrote 29 Notablog installments on the Coronavirus pandemic, not to mention umpteen entries on everything from racism and social injustice to civil unrest and a crazier-than-usual election year. (In-between, there were nearly 100 new songs added to my “Song of the Day” series—because music helped to ease the pain of a year like no other.)

Our social fabric has been drowned in so much sadness—in grief, in fear, in pain, in anger—but somehow, we seem to have made it through to the end of 2020. Then again, there are still a few days left to this miserable year, and if 2020 has taught us anything, it is the truth of that other cliché: “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch!” Or as that old poster for “Jaws 2” once declared: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water …” SLAM! The Great White Shark Shows Up Again!

For me, personally, I experienced more sorrow crunched into twelve months than I ever thought possible. I saw mass death and destruction in my hometown on a scale that, after living through 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, I never could have imagined. I lost neighbors, friends, beloved local proprietors, colleagues, and even a cousin to a virus that hit New York City like a nuclear blast, with the fallout going on for months on end. I saw the ugliness of racial injustice give way to the agony of civil unrest. I saw political actors and political pundits incapable of dissecting, analyzing or helping to resolve complex social problems with intellectual scalpels, as they approached every issue with a sledgehammer, giving expression to yet another old cliché: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

But there was another side to this tale that reveals how many blessings I truly have.

Professionally, I count my blessings to have been here to celebrate the twentieth anniversary volume of a scholarly periodical that I cofounded way back in 1999: The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. I also helped to organize and moderate an illuminating four-month Facebook symposium with over 100 members, including nearly all of the contributors to The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom (coedited with Roger E. Bissell and Edward W. Younkins; Lexington Books, 2019).

Personally, I count my blessings that I saw compassion manifest itself throughout 2020 as people came to each other’s assistance.

I count my blessings that I have family and even neighbors, who have become like an extended family, offering their love and support through it all.

I count my blessings that I have great doctors who were able to coordinate the squeezing of nearly six months of “elective” surgical procedures into a two-month period, completing (and recovering from) four surgeries by the first week of November.

I count my blessings that I was then able to summon the strength to face a dire medical crisis on November 13th, when I almost lost my sister (to a non-COVID-related illness). In the middle of this, we had to give up our cat Cali for adoption, but I count my blessings that she was adopted by a loving mommy—who had first given her to us!

I count my blessings that I have seen, for months on end, the heroism of first responders, saving the lives of countless people, including my own sister’s life, as EMS workers rushed her to the emergency room on that harrowing morning. After a month in the hospital, my sister returned home on December 12th, brought up the stairs in a wheelchair by a couple of other EMS workers who showed the same depth of care as those who first brought her down.

Through it all, we’ve never lost our sense of gallows humor. When my sister wondered how on earth she would get down the stairs to go for follow-up medical appointments, I told her: “If all else fails, there’s always the Richard Widmark Way!” (For those who haven’t seen the 1947 film, “Kiss of Death,” check it out [YouTube link]!) We have a tough road ahead, but we are here to talk—and to laugh—about it.

I count my blessings that when I wrote about my sister’s ordeal, I saw an outpouring of love and support on Facebook, on email, and elsewhere, attesting to how deeply she has affected the lives of so many people: her colleagues, her friends, and, most of all, those who were her former students.

I count my blessings that at the end of this challenging year, I am here, my sister is here, my brother and sister-in-law are here, my family and dear friends are still here. We are here to lift a glass to the promise of 2021, knowing full well that when we did so at the end of 2019, in the hopes that 2020 would bring greater health and happiness to all, we had no clue what we were getting ourselves into.

We don’t know what lies ahead, but we do know that this too shall pass. Or as my urologist’s office reminded me: “It may pass like a kidney stone. But it will pass.”

Count your blessings, folks. For there is no truer cliché than this one: Where there is life, there is hope. And where there is love, all things are possible.

Song of the Day #1830

Song of the Day: Have a Wonderful Christmas Day, words, music, and arrangement by my friend, Roger Bissell, is delivered in a sweet a cappella version, in which his immensely talented grandson, “Super Milesio” [YouTube channel], sings all nine parts! My best wishes to all my colleagues, friends, and family for a wonderful Christmas Day! Check out this wonderful song [YouTube link]!

Song of the Day #1829

Song of the Day: Happy Christmas (“War is Over”) features the words and music of Yoko Ono and John Lennon. Lennon was tragically killed forty years ago on 8 December 2020, but this 1971 Christmas song remains one of the artist’s signature post-Beatles tracks (with the Harlem Community Choir), a quintessential expression of his peace activism—and of this holiday’s message of peace on earth, goodwill toward all. Check out the song on YouTube. Tomorrow, I’ll post a new Christmas song. But today, it’s a Merry Christmas Eve … and don’t forget to check out Santa’s NORAD status across the globe!

Happy Hanukkah!

Happy Hanukkah to all my Jewish friends! Lord knows, we all need a Festival of Lights!

❤