Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Michael Jackson I knew and admired

Names give the illusion of identity; in the Torah, to know someone's name is to know his characteristics, his basic nature.

Think of the angel asking, "Why do you need to know my name?"
Think of Gd changing a person's name to signify a change in her basic nature.
Think of the sanctity, as well as multiplicity, of the Divine Names.
And think of the mishnah in Pirkei Avos that says the "name of Mashiach" was created before the universe.

But names, certainly in our world, are not the same as identities. Names can be changed, and names can be shared. And so it is that as the world remembers one man named Michael Jackson, I am reminded of another - Michael Jakubowics Jackson, a man who endured the horrors of the Holocaust, then came to the US and settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania until his death in January of 2004.

Beyond eyes, nose and a mouth, there wasn't much in common between the two Michael Jacksons, at least in terms of their public personas. My Michael Jackson was tall, dignified, a curious and deep thinker, a man of complex faith, a man who knew both suffering and survival, a loving family man.

Michael wrote extensively, from notes on books he read to letters to Yiddish and English-language newspapers, to his autobiography, Head of the Line. I'm glad he wrote so much, so that he will be able to inspire others posthumously; he was and remains a role model for me.

For whatever it's worth, here are excerpts from the הספד (eulogy) I delivered at my Michael Jackson's funeral. Perhaps it will inspire someone to learn more about him, through his book.

“ויבא אל הר האלקים חרבה, ” And Moshe came to the mountain of Gd, to Chorev, also known as Sinai. “וירא מלאך ה' אליו בלבת אש מתוך הסנה,” “And an angel of Gd appeared to Moshe from the flames of the fire, from the middle of the bush.” “וירא והנה הסנה בוער באש והסנה איננו אוכל.” “And he saw, behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed.”

Michael ben Avraham Zalman, you were that burning bush. You were surrounded by fire!
Mr. Jackson was daily and nightly beset by visions of the Holocaust, memories of family and friends; it made its way into all of his conversations.

Last night _____ told me about Mr. Jackson’s Pesach Seder. At the Seder we all sit with our families at our tables and laugh and reminisce and talk blithely about the way Jews were once, so long ago, slaves in Egypt, and now we are free - but Mr. Jackson knew all too well what it meant to be a slave, he suffered the torture and did the hard labor, he knew exactly what Avadim Hayyinu meant, and he never escaped it, he never got to be free. It was in his mind always.

Mr. Jackson was the סנה בוער באש, the burning bush.

But at the same time, והסנה איננו אוכל – Mr. Jackson was not consumed by that fire, he never let it destroy him. Try for a moment to imagine what it’s like to lose one’s entire family, to suffer brutal beatings, illness and degradation, fear that one may lose his life at any moment - and then realize that Mr. Jackson, together with _____ who he loved so much, made a life here in Allentown, raised two children _____ and ____, and saw grandchildren, and even started their own company, Nina Sportswear. We shouldn’t only remember Mr. Jackson for his survival of the Holocaust – we should also remember the way he and ____, against all odds, built a life for themselves afterward.

Mr. Jackson, you never let the fire consume you.

How was it that you survived? Moshe asked that same question, regarding the Burning Bush which was not consumed. Moshe saw this burning bush, and he said, “אסורה נא ואראה את המראה הגדול הזה, מדוע לא יבער הסנה.” “I will go see this giant sight” – like Mr. Jackson, a large, physically imposing sight – “I will go see it.” And Moshe asked, “Why won’t this bush burn? Why isn’t this bush consumed by the flames all around it?”

I asked myself the same question, regarding Mr. Jackson, Michael ben Avraham Zalman. Why wouldn’t you burn?

I came up with a three-fold answer, all from your own writings and expressions: The answer lies in your Gevurah (might), your Emunah (faith), and your sense of Klal Yisrael, of the Jewish people as a single unit.

Gevurah – this is a Hebrew word referring to strength, specifically strength of will, the ability to overcome and conquer not merely one’s environment but to overcome and conquer one’s self.

On page 223 of his Holocaust memoir, Head of the Line, Mr. Jackson wrote, “A mensch ist schvacher vun a flieg, en shtarker vun eisen.” “A human being is weaker than a fly and stronger than steel.” This is the essence of a Gibor, a powerful person – the ability to persevere, and to find unearthly resources of strength on which to draw.

You were a Gibor in overcoming your pain, both physical and psychological. You and ____, both Giborim, both powerful people, shook off the ashes and built a Jewish home here in Allentown. והסנה איננו אוכל, the bush was not consumed.

Second, your Emunah, your faith. How many times did you say to me, “גם זה יעבור,” “This, too, shall pass?” You had a powerful Emunah, a powerful faith that whatever happened, there was a Gd watching over the world.

Certainly, you challenged and you questioned. You couldn’t bring yourself to come to Shul on Simchas Torah each year, because of the memory of your brother Tzvi, who was shot and killed on Simchas Torah 1944. You had your קושיות. You understood well those who could not accept the existence of a Gd who could tolerate the Holocaust. But for yourself, you maintained your Judaism. You went to Shul whenever you could, you learned through the Parshah with Rashi every week, you loved to quote Mishnah, Midrash and Gemara. Somehow – I can’t understand it – you managed to continue a Jewish life, a life of Emunah. והסנה איננו אוכל, the bush was not consumed.

Third, your belief in the Jewish people as a single unit. In the beginning of “Head of the Line” you wrote of your fears for the future of the Jewish people, and you wrote that the only hope for the Jewish community would be in unity, would be in hanging together. You always stuck with other Jews – during the war, and after. You continually expressed frustration at the rifts between different parts of the Jewish community.

The Sneh, the burning bush, survives because it is not a lone branch – it is a Sneh, a bush, a group of branches united together.

Mr. Jackson, you survived the worst the world could throw at you, and you came through. You were like the burning bush, which was located at Mt. Sinai. This morning, the Daf Yomi group learned a Gemara which reminded me powerfully of you – the Gemara says, “When a pauper brings a simple, inexpensive grain offering to Gd, it is considered before Gd as though he had brought his very soul to Gd,” “כאילו הקריב נפשו לפני.” You were מקריב נפשך לפניו, you actually did bring your soul as a Korban, in that fire. You were the Sneh, the Burning Bush.

But there was another fire on Mt. Sinai, a year after that first one of the Burning Bush – this was the fire that burned when the Jews received the Torah. We are told, “וההר בוער באש עד לב השמים,” “The mountain was aflame, up to the heart of the heavens.” Out of that flame came Torah to the Jewish people – and out of the flames of the Holocaust came two powerful people, two Giborim, ___ and Michael Jakubowics, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Jackson.

“A mensch ist schvacher vun a flieg, en shtarker vun eisen.” “A human being is weaker than a fly and stronger than steel.” You were stronger than steel, Mr. Jackson. What remains is for us to emulate you, and carry your lesson with us.

יהי זכרו ברוך.


  1. Beautiful.

    I think that's the best mention of the name Michale Jackson I've yet heard.

    Very different personalities.