Not Yet Hanukkah: A Story of Miracles

By BERNIE FARBER

November is Holocaust Education Month, a time we tell stories of survival. My father, the sole Jewish survivor of his small Polish village, used to say that it took 1,000 miracles to survive the Shoah because 999 were simply not enough.

The following is not only the story of 1,000 miracles, but at its conclusion we will understand what the circle of life is really all about.

In 1939, when Samuel Pisar was 10 years old, both the Nazi and Soviet armies invaded his native Poland. Interestingly, Samuel came from Bialystok, 50 kilometers from my father’s village of Bothki. When Adolf Hitler broke the Nazi/Soviet pact in 1941, Samuel was captured along with thousands of other Jews. He was young and strong and survived incarcerations at Majdanek, Auschwitz and other camps whose only purpose was to murder Jews.

His final camp, Dachau, became the concluding volume in this first chapter of his life. It was the spring of 1945. Young Samuel was out on a Nazi slave labour detail as Allied forces approached. Nazi SS guards gathered the work detail and marched them away from the advancing Americans. They marched for three days with little water or food. Many succumbed. Still young, Samuel stayed alive.

It was on the third day when a number of Allied fighter planes spotted both the Nazis and their slave labour detail. Thinking it was a column of Nazi soldiers, the planes’ pilots descended sharply and strafed the area. Taking advantage of the ensuing confusion, a number of prisoners made a break for the forest. The bombing and Nazi bullets mowed most of them down but young Samuel used up one of his thousand miracles and made it to the safety of the embracing forest.

Starving, emaciated, Samuel hid in an abandoned hayloft. A few mornings later, he was awakened by the sound of a rumbling motor. Cautiously looking out from his hiding place, sure that he would see the dreaded swastika, he saw instead an American insignia.

Washed over with relief, he stumbled from the hayloft in tears of joy. The hatch of the tank popped open and emerging was Corporal Bill Ellington, the son of a former slave and member of the storied 761st Tank Battalion, known for being comprised primarily of African-Americans. They were the original “Black Panthers.”

The son of a former slave and the young survivor of the Nazi death camps held each other while Samuel cried the only words he knew in English, “God Bless America.”

He was just 16, the sole Jewish survivor of his family in Poland when he emerged into what would become the second volume of his life.

Miracles followed Samuel. He was raised by the remnants of his French and Australian family, graduated from the University of Melbourne, and later earned doctorates of law from Harvard and the Sorbonne.

His rise was rapid. He worked for the United Nations and UNESCO and was appointed a special advisor to President John F. Kennedy. He counseled the State Department and worked as legal adviser to both the House of Representatives and Senate. He was one of the youngest, most respected government advisers – so much so that in 1961, through a special act of Congress, Pisar was awarded U.S. citizenship.

His legacy continued. He counselled governments and world- renowned personalities from pianist Arthur Rubenstein to tech whiz Steve Jobs. His passion became human rights and he took up the causes of the novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

He became a trustee of the Brookings Institute, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and has addressed international conferences and world leaders at Davos, the International Monetary Fund and the European Parliament.

Samuel was twice married upon his death in July 2015 and left two daughters, one from his first marriage, Leah and Norma, from his second wife, Judith.

Here’s the promised kicker: Samuel also left a step-son from his marriage to Judith: Antony Blinken who, on Nov. 23, was nominated to become U.S. Secretary of State in the administration of President-in-Waiting Joe Biden.

Samuel Pisar was a man of many miracles, maybe even 1,000. May his memory continue to be a blessing.


Bernie Farber
Bernie Farber

Bernie Farber is publisher and co-founder of the Canadian Jewish Record, Chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a writer and human rights advocate. 

With a Stethoscope and a Spatula

Oct. 6, 2020

By SHARON GELBACH

The festivals of Sukkot, Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret are the pinnacle of the High Holidays, celebrating the gathering in of the harvest. But does the more-than-weeklong feasting with family and friends mean that we must resign ourselves to excess weight?

“Not at all,” pronounced Dr. Rani Polak, founding director of both the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard University’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and of the Center of Lifestyle Medicine at Sheba Medical Center in Israel.

Dr. Rani Polak
Dr. Rani Polak

From his work teaching the little-known science of culinary medicine in Israel and the United States, Polak and his team have observed that once people learn not only what constitutes a healthy diet and how to acquire sustainable skills and techniques, “they can enjoy all the traditional foods while staying within the rubric of a healthy lifestyle and optimal weight.”

Polak is not your run-of-the-mill doctor. In the middle of his medical training, frustrated by the lack of direct connection with patients, he took a year off and traveled to Australia. There, he was able to pursue his passion for gourmet cooking, and completed a professional chef’s course at the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school.

In a seminal “aha” moment, it occurred to him that he could integrate his love of cooking with his medical knowledge to help promote good health – an understanding that led him back to medical school to complete his training, and subsequently, to a fellowship at Harvard.

Polak described what his Culinary Healthcare Education Fundamentals (CHEF) coaching program offers beyond information provided by a dietitian.

“Until very recently, the medical profession was focused mainly on knowledge – what constitutes healthy foods,” he explained. “A dietitian will tell you what your plate must look like, but not how to apply that knowledge.

“Look,” he continued, “Western civilization has access to the greatest abundance of food in the history of mankind, not to mention information and technology. And yet, obesity and diabetes have reached epidemic proportions, and we’re also seeing a steady rise in cancers and heart disease, conditions which can be prevented with lifestyle modifications, including proper nutrition. Clearly, there is a gap between what we know and what we do.”

Polak’s work addresses that gap through coaching that takes into account individual needs, habits and preferences. Obstacles are identified and skills are taught to reinforce constructive behaviour.

He and his team are currently in the midst of a four-year study researching the effects of home cooking on weight loss — all the more relevant these days given the newly aroused interest in cooking spurred by COVID lockdowns and restaurant closures.

Even more presciently, the team employed telemedicine (“We used Zoom long before anyone heard of the coronavirus,” Polak said) for cooking classes.

“When we started with telemedicine, I was skeptical. I’m not only a physician; I’m also a chef. I like to touch food, to taste it. Initially, we thought of it as a way of reducing costs and improving accessibility for people who lived far away. With time, however, we made an amazing discovery that was born out scientifically: enabling participants to learn and practice the skills in their home environment, using their own utensils and appliances, proved far more effective.

“Of course, it doesn’t have to be ‘either or.’ With our hybrid programs, we bring participants to a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen for the opening session. That way, we get to know one another and have a chance to socialize. Then, we continue with Zoom meetings, where we all cook together.”

Polak noted that the Mediterranean diet has been proven to have the highest adherence rate over time, and it’s the one used in his team’s study.

Still, he’s wary of a one-size-fits-all approach.

“I work together with other departments at Sheba, and sometimes patients are sent to me with doctors’ recommendations for a different diet, such as one low in carbs.

“Overall, though, I’ve found that when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle in the long term, behavioral techniques are what will make it or break it.”

He believes that one of the most important behavioral skills to acquire is time management.

“Home cooking is by definition more time-consuming than buying ready-made or processed food, and of course, time is a rare commodity in our society. One important tip I teach is to cook in bulk, as simple as it sounds. Sometimes, that can mean just one ingredient; for example, instead of cooking a cup of legumes, cook the whole package, and freeze the rest as a shortcut for the next time. Your freezer is an important asset.”

Polak won’t discourage those who insist on their favourite traditional foods, even those that are high in fat and sugar.

“It really depends on the individual and how strict he decides to be. But there is no evidence-based study indicating that eating those foods very occasionally is harmful to health. Even the Mediterranean diet allows for some wiggle room. So, I’d say moderation is key.”


Sharon Gelbach grew up in Toronto, studied journalism at Carleton University, and moved to Israel in 1982. She lives in the Jerusalem area with her family. A writer, editor and translator, among her many projects are writing PR content for the Sheba Medical Center.