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Maggid David Arfa to perform ‘A Jar of Tears’ at Temple Israel

  • Sermons by the Rebbe of Piaseczna in the Warsaw ghetto dedication of a collection of sermons, “Ash Kodesh,” written by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalamish Shapira. COURTESY YAD VASHEM 

  • Rabbi Kalonymus Kalamish Shapira COURTESY YAD VASHEM 

  • David Arfa of Shelburne Falls, in the Jewish tradition of  “maggid,” or storyteller, will present a performance of “A Jar of Tears,” drawn from the life and writings of Shapira, on Nov. 11 at Temple Israel in Greenfield. FILE PHOTO



Recorder Staff
Friday, November 02, 2018

GREENFIELD – Call them “teachings from the time of wrath.”

That’s what Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro’s sermons have been called. 

Buried deep, deep beneath the streets of Warsaw, a 1950s construction worker discovered a milk jug containing letters and texts of Shapiro — also known as Shapira — the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto. 

Shapiro founded and led a progressive yeshiva outside Warsaw before being forced into the Jewish ghetto, preparing weekly sermons to the imprisoned population there through 1942. Collected as “Aish Kodesh” or “Holy Fire,” the writings express Shapiro’s striving to remain human as he watched his life, his family and community shattered.

David Arfa of Shelburne Falls, in the Jewish tradition of maggid, or storyteller, will present a performance of “A Jar of Tears,” drawn from the life and writings of Shapira, on Nov. 11 at Temple Israel in Greenfield as part of an 80th  anniversary observance of Kristallnacht, the 1938 “night of broken glass,” which marked a turning point in the Holocaust from stigmatization and taunts to outright violence by the Nazis.

The 3:30 performance, followed by audience reflections, will be preceded at 2 p.m. by an introduction and exploration of Shapiro’s work by Arfa and Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, and will be followed at 6 p.m. by a premiere screening of a new documentary, “Who Will Write Our History,” about the secret archives collected in the Warsaw Ghetto that provide eyewitness accounts of diaries, essays, jokes, poems and songs meant to survive the Nazis and defeat their propaganda.

Temple Israel’s “Night of Shattered Glass: Remembrance & Resilience” observance, which is open to the community, provides a timely reflection on the teachings of Shapiro, says Cohen-Kiener, who has translated a book of his writings. (Shapiro was killed in 1943 in the Trawniki work camp, after being forced to dig a mass grave.) 

“Whether in hard times or not, his writings are very, very uplifting,” she says, “but possibly, regrettably, his message of hope in difficult times might be more relevant. He had such faith in the human spirit and the importance of life, and such clear idea of what human beings are here to do. He really stayed with his people until the last minute so he could bring light to them until his very, very end.”

 Arfa — who took on the traditional role of maggid 18 years ago and first performed “The Jar of Tears” in Warsaw in 2009 at an international storytelling festival, was awarded by Keene State College’s Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, where he performed it the same year — has also presented his 50-minute work in Brattleboro, Vt. and in North Adams.

This will be the first time his work has been presented at Temple Israel, says Arfa, who works as an environmental educator, as well as a full-time chaplain.

 As he confronted the stark realities of the Warsaw Ghetto, surrounded by a barbed-wire-topped wall and ravaged by disease, mass hunger and routine executions, Shapiro gradually “developed a theology of weeping” in cryptic sermons as the Nazis tightened their grip on daily life. His only son was killed. Gone were the rabbi’s earlier teachings that God would make things better if Jews followed their ritual practice. 

“I was drawn to Rabbi Shapiro’s writings, to create this, because his process brought him to this place: ‘As a Hasidic Jew, how do I stay connected to the source of life in such tragedy?’ He really grappled with that. He had the sense that God was hiding in an inner chamber of protection because of all the destruction and grief that was happening.” 

Meditating on how we stay connected, Shapiro realized it is through our tears. “Our tears are tears of God; We join with God with our tears,” Arfa says. “That was very, very hard for him: ‘We would be weeping all the time. But, when I allow myself to weep, I’m able to connect with people to teach acts of loving kindness.’”

He adds, “That sense of grappling with the seeming distance of God, realizing that God is interconnected with our tears, I find very inspiring. I feel there’s wisdom for our time, as well, when we’re living in a society where public grief is not honored.”

That sense may especially ring true following last week’s Pittsburgh synagogue shootings — the most violent anti-Semitism this country has experienced.

“The Holocaust  is part of my Jewish identity, with the fear it brings up,” says Arfa. “That’s always been a separate part ... compared to current events. I find now these identities are coming together.”

Shapirp’s teachings run even deeper, says Arfa, whose graduate study at Audubon Expeditions Institute included workshops with environmental scholar Joanna Macy in 1991.

Macy’s taught that we need to allow grief over environmental degradation to move us beyond the numbness to act, he says. 


“We’re in the midst of incredible changes in the atmosphere, in biodiversity, in the toxicity of water, the destruction of habitat, of forests and oceans. … The power of weeping to move us, to access our activism, on a path that includes gratefulness and emotional truth and then moving forward — that was very inspiring to me, that deeper of including our emotions,” he said.

It was only after that educational piece that he connected it with Shapiro’s Jewish teaching, says Arfa, who’s looking forward to the Temple Israel discussion.

“It’s a chance to bring those conversations together,” he says. “How do we stay resilient and open? How do we have our eyes wide open, and think together about how to respond as effectively as we can during this time.”

Visit: www.maggiddavid.net