Community Explores Visage of Beauty, Ugliness Through a Jewish Lens

Rabbi Seth Bernstein teaches a class at the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s Global Day of Jewish Learning. (Photo by Eric McCormick)

The Jewish Federation of Howard County and the Howard County Board of Rabbis joined communities around the world to celebrate the Global Day of Jewish Learning Sunday, offering an array of classes and seminars that explored this year’s theme: beauty and ugliness.

Each year, the Aleph Society promotes the Global Day of Jewish Learning as a paean to Jewish scholarship. The society offers the theme, and ideas for implementing the events, to Jewish communities across the globe.

Howard County’s day of learning packed 14 classes into three hours on Sunday afternoon. The 120 attendees chose classes on topics such as “The Age of Narcissism, from Ovid to Tosefta to Today” and “Artistic Representations of King David.”

Ralph Grunewald, interim director of the Federation, said this was the third year they had held the event, and the topics the rabbis and scholars address each year are “always interesting.” Grunewald said these discussions provide an education that gives people “more room to interpret the world.”

Federation board president Beth Millstein said the group holds the event to help people become “more connected with their Jewish identity, more connected with the Howard County Jewish community and to meet friends and neighbors across synagogues.”

Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation said Rabbi Seth Bernstein of the Howard County Board of Rabbis recruited speakers and teachers for the day. Grossman learned of the event through her involvement with the board.

Grossman taught a seminar on “Beauty and the Beast” — and how to tell the difference between the two. She said she wanted to examine some of the surprising views of beauty found in the Torah and Talmud. Grossman challenged her class to consider their notions that equate beautiful with good, citing the story of Sarah and the double-edged sword of her beauty.

“I was thinking of the contemporary nature of this story,” Grossman said. “All the stories in the news of men — [such as Harvey] Weinstein — behaving badly, and with all the other predators coming out of the woodwork, how beauty can be a liability to women” in some situations. Grossman also discussed biblical ideas of vanity and explored with her class how some stories in the Torah don’t necessarily condemn caring about one’s appearance as vanity.

While some seminars delved into the philosophy behind Jewish ideas of beauty and ugliness, others discussed art, and still others focused on mind-body concepts.

Rabbi Ken Spiro, a rabbi, historian and lecturer from Israel, guides a group through an exhibit at the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s Global Day of Jewish Learning. (Photo by Eric McCormick)

Larry Gordon and his wife, Susan, attended every year. Susan attended a guided meditation for her first class, while Larry had just emerged from a seminar on “The 36 Tzadikim [righteous men or people] in Every Generation.” The two are congregants of Temple Isaiah and said they were drawn to the event each year because they enjoyed learning from a diverse group of teachers.

Author Hans-Hermann Seiffert flew in from Germany to read from his biography of Johanna Hammel, a woman whose life was taken in the ugliness of the Holocaust. Seiffert, a retired German businessman, joined “Stolpersteine for Konstanz — Against Intolerance and Forgetting Initiative.” According to Seiffert’s publisher, a Stolperstein is a “brass-plated, cobblestone memorial to a victim of Nazi Germany.”

This group fueled his interest in telling the stories of Holocaust victims, and he devoted his retirement to writing and researching Nazi victims. “Johanna Hammel: The Journey of a Jewish Woman from Konstanz via Gurs to Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1898-1942,” is Seiffert’s fourth book about the Holocaust and the second to be translated from German to English.

Madeleine Fagan’s mother, Rene Weiss, was Johanna Hammel’s niece. Fagan helped arrange Seiffert’s visit to Howard County and tried to help Seiffert merge this engagement with a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Seiffert and Fagan hope his book will be added to the Museum’s library collection soon.

Fagan said when Seiffert reached out to her mother, “it was a complete surprise. [Fagan’s mother] found letters, photos and other documents and shared them with him. It’s really amazing that someone in Germany would do this” and help her family in this way.

Fagan said: “We’re so grateful to [Steiffert], and to his translator, for everything they’ve done,” showing that even the ugliest of seeds — a long-neglected story of a murder — can, generations later, sprout a beautiful collaboration and friendship.

Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.

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