Sunday, January 28, 2018
(RNS) — I just returned from my first trip to India and Nepal, a soul-stretching pilgrimage that was as much mentally as physically demanding.
Along the way, I made my peace with the swastika. Not that swastika, that unrepentant symbol of hate seen most recently on the streets of Charlottesville. No, I’m talking about the original swastika, the ancient Asian swastika, the one you get when you peel away that nasty layer of red and black paint.
I made peace with the “Good Swastika.” There is no better time to explain how than on the days surrounding International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27).
Blame it on the incessant, smoky fog of Delhi or Agra’s dizzying smell of incense and dung. Perhaps it’s because I simply fell in love with a people who steadfastly have refused to abandon their sacred symbol to those who defiled it, people who, through their deep faith, have put the hate of the haters to shame. Perhaps it’s a product of enhanced #MeToo sensitivities that I came to appreciate how even a symbol can be abused.
I don’t know, but I did a complete U-turn on this issue, and my making peace with the Good Swastika has helped me on the path to viewing the Holocaust in a more life-enhancing way.
India overwhelms the senses and reminds of the fragility of life. Every billow of smoke from the funeral pyres on the Ganges reinforces the message that life is transitory, a message also driven home by any rickshaw joyride through the marketplace.
Symbols are transitory too, and their transformations can be disorienting.
Stars of David are plastered all over Muslim mausoleums such as Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi — except that they have nothing to do with Judaism. The Mughals adopted the hexagram as an architectural motif five centuries ago. So did Buddhists, particularly in meditative mandalas. Some versions of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” even feature hexagrams with swastikas inside. Take that, Adolf!
In India, swastikas are as ubiquitous as samosas. I first saw them at, of all places, Gandhi’s grave in Delhi, in a simple decorative pattern lining a security fence. From that point on, I became acutely sensitive to their presence, which initially caused me to seethe over why the Indian people were being so acutely insensitive to the millions throughout the world whose nightmares have been stoked by that symbol.
Had the Himalayas so shielded them from the impact of the Nazi scourge that they weren’t even aware of it? Gandhi was killed a few years after the Holocaust — so how could this dreaded symbol have been incorporated into a sanctuary for a murdered man of peace?
But then I recalled a time several years back when a bar mitzvah student came to my office with a Pokemon trading card containing a swastika. He asked if it was “kosher” for a Jew to own it. His grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, had been pained considerably at the sight of this card in the hand of his grandchild.
I pulled a book from the shelf and held up the Pokemon card to a photo of a uniformed Hitler “sieg heiling” the troops. My student looked at the two similar symbols and remarked, “the tentacles face the other way.”
It wasn’t a swastika at all next to the Pokeman figures, I told him. It was a “manji,” a Japanese sign of harmony, a symbol whose meaning evokes for the Japanese exactly the opposite of what a swastika connotes to those of us in the West. Doing some quick research on the Internet, I was intrigued by the claim that the Nazis deliberately corrupted this 3,000-year-old emblem, transforming an ancient Asian symbol of life into a European monogram of death.
I suggested to my student that as we become more crowded on this shrinking Earth, there still must be a place to respect the beliefs of the other. But at that time, I wasn’t willing to give the swastika a pass, noting that while we need to recognize the serenity it brings to the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain, so do our Eastern neighbors need to see the pain on the face of my student’s grandfather.
But my recent trip has helped me to accept the Good Swastika on its own terms.
I saw how, in India, this symbol brings a sense of warmth and protection to tiny village huts, similar to the role played by the mezuzah in Jewish homes. I also saw how it conveys a feeling of grace and order in public art, grand squares and vast temples. In Sanskrit, the word connotes well-being; the four arms symbolize sun, wind, water and soil, the basic elements of existence.
I also noted how the symbol appears in assorted colors and variations, but never in the spider-black of the Nazi flag. One could say, with some justification, that it really is not the same symbol that continues to terrify the other half of the planet. For Indians this symbol hasn’t been reclaimed, because they never let it go.
My last stop was the southern port city of Kochi (formerly Cochin), a place noted for the spirit of coexistence that has prevailed for centuries, and the site of an ancient, tiny, Jewish community. One of the synagogues I visited is situated on a hill that also houses a church, a mosque and a Hindu temple. But the most vivid demonstration of coexistence was reserved not for worship spaces, but for two interconnected apartments, side by side in the neighborhood that is called, without a hint of condescension or irony, “Jew Town.”
Right down the street from one of the oldest synagogues in all of Asia, the Hindu swastika and the Jewish Star of David coexist side by side, like the proverbial lion and lamb.
Making peace with the swastika does not mean making peace with Nazis past and present, nor with their hateful ideology — nor with their corrupted version of that symbol. Rather, it is a statement of defiance to those who so grotesquely distorted an emblem held sacred by half the world. We should treat it much like we treat the other cultural artifacts smeared and pilfered by the purveyors of the black spider — the priceless stolen artwork, the desecrated Torah scrolls, and the countless academic books the Nazis incinerated.
By reclaiming the Good Swastika, we can render this Nazi perversion as vaporous as those pyres of textbooks in Berlin or the corpses along the Ganges. Yes, everything is ephemeral, and the Nazi incarnation of evil must never be reincarnated. Perhaps our ability to make peace with the Asian swastika – the Good Swastika – can be our way of showing that there is one true way to escape the endless cycles of hatred and death: with coexistence and love. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, no message could be more appropriate.
(Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and the author of “thelordismyshepherd.com: Seeking God in Cyberspace.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
Thursday, January 25, 2018
From the photo exhibit "Faces of Prayer,"
which I took in at the Austrian Hospice, Jerusalem,
an oasis of serenity in the midst of the Old City.
The quote is perfect for Tu B'Shevat
It's good to be back. I know it has been an eventful few weeks here while I've been away, and I wish to join with everyone here in extending my condolences to Cantor Fishman, as well as all who have suffered loss over the past month. I also want to thank those who filled in for me in various ways, including those who led Torah study on Shabbat and helped with pastoral tasks. Our professional and lay leadership really stepped up on a number of levels. Thank you all. The first leg of my trip was Jerusalem, where we celebrated the bar mitzvah of Andrew Jaffe-Berkowitz. Here is his d'var Torah, and I must add that the service, along with a special dedication the next day at Yad Vashem, was among the most meaningful b'nai mitzvah I have had the privilege of attending.
We've got a dizzying array of events for all ages coming up. This Friday at 6, a family Kabbalat Shabbat, "Finding Judaism at the Movies" followed by our main Kabbalat Shabbat service at 7:30 (childcare will be provided), featuring our choir on Shabbat Shira (Shabbat of Song). And then on Shabbat morning, "Shabbat in the Round," which by popular demand will now be a monthly occurrence, begins with some breakfast at 9:30. On Sunday, we celebrate Tu B'Shevat with an Ice Cream Seder. On Tuesday and Wednesday, our iEngage series continues with a class on the impact of 1967 Six Day War and then on Thursday, Rep. Jim Himes will hold a town hall here.
Tu B'Shevat is Wednesday. Here are some resources from the archives:
- What Trees Can Teach Us - secrets from the "Wood Wide Web."
A reminder to go online and sign up now if you want to join us in Israel this summer.
Also, it's not to early to discuss Passover. We have four major Seder-related events coming up. All are important and it's easy to confuse them. So here they are, so you can save the dates:
- Women's Seder, Tuesday, March 13
- Interfaith Seder at Grace Farms, Thursday, March 22
- Chocolate Seder and Family Shabbat Dinner, Friday, March 23
- Congregational Second Seder, Saturday, March 31
The Congregational Seder is the only one that is actually on Pesach. It's a real Seder designed to meet the needs of all generations (with a few compromises here and there). Cantor Fishman and I will be leading it and we would love to have you join us. Last year's was a lot of fun. Since people often make their Passover plans very early, we are reaching out now to see who will be coming and who would like to help us plan. Please contact our office to let us know.
India and Nepal: Some New Friends
I'd like to introduce you to some wonderful new friends I made these past few weeks - about a billion of them.
We live on a swiftly shrinking planet, so I was glad to see how the other half lives, half a world away. When my flight to India veered over Tehran and Kabul, I knew I was going to a place unlike any I'd ever experienced. That turned out to be absolutely true.
I'll be unpacking this journey for a long time - honestly, for the rest of my life - but I wanted to begin this debriefing by sharing with you some of the faces I encountered and the new friends I made. Most are not Jewish, though I visited a number of synagogues and met some extraordinary people among India's tiny Jewish communities in Mumbai and Kochi. But the new friends I made were people (and other living things) of vastly diverse backgrounds. As soon as you hit the tarmac in India, you are overwhelmed by the country's intensity. The colors, the traffic, the smells, the crowds, the scenes of life and death that become commonplace but never routine - and the pure fervor of their religious life. I experienced sacred places and ceremonies of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and the Jain faith. I saw magnificent temples and temples so small they literally fit on a person's head.
Add to all of this the fact that I was coming off of five days spent in Jerusalem during Christmas (which is purely noncommercial there), along with a bar mitzvah and Yad Vashem, and I can't imagine how anyone in this world could have spent a month with so much sacred intensity. Oh yes, and throw in the Himalayas, which enabled this trip to take me from looking at the world's lowest place (the Dead Sea, which can be seen from Jerusalem) to its highest. It was truly mind-blowing. The lowest, the highest, and everything in between - everywhere, it seems, that heaven and earth meet.
There is so much that I will be sharing, but let me begin with some photos of my new friends. Allow me to make some introductions:
And keep in mind I'll be giving a full slide presentation here on Sunday, Feb 11 at 7:30 PM.
Immediately below is the video I took of Sarah Cohen, 95, reciting her morning prayers from her home (and shop) in the part of Kochi (Cochin) known affectionately - and not condescendingly - as "Jew Town."
And here are some other friends we made along the way...
This Israeli botanist showed us his childhood synagogue that has been lovingly restored, on a hillside that also houses a Hindu temple, Syrian church and a mosque - perhaps the only place on earth where such coexistence happens.
Inside the Chendamangalam synagogue. the Kochi area has about three dozen Jews, coming from two different groups, both of whom have been there for many centuries. Of course, the two Jewish groups don't get along.
A Hindu shrine in Nepal
A ghat along the Ganges in Varanasi
Gulls on "Mother" Ganges
Funeral on the Ganges, Varanasi
Preparing the body
School outing in Mumbai...
...and the principal
Narlai, a small village in Rajastan, India
Dhulikhel, Nepal, just after sunrise, with the Himalayas in the background
Breathtaking Jain temple in Rankapur
Some wear their religion on their sleeve. And yes, these two in the marketplace of Mumbai are wearing their temples on their heads.
A village near Agra
The view from a rooftop in that village
A young lama in Kathmandu
A Buddhist festival in Kathmandu
A family strolling in Mumbai - the colors of India bombard the senses
Cow in traffic
Cow catching a train, near Rothambore
A "quiet" street in Varanasi
Our new friend Lakshmi (don't tell our dog Chloe).
Lakshmi showing off
The view from atop another elephant named Lakshmi
We were charmed by this snake
We made a number of furry friends
This one in Kathmandu
This dog in the Spice Market of Old Delhi seems to be barking out commands, but dogs are third class in the Indian animal caste system, definitely taking a back seat to the cows and elephants, who can do no wrong (and are also gods).
Amorous Parakeets, Jaipur
This rabbit was for some reason brought to Humayan's Tomb in Delhi
Elephants at a Hindu festival in the Kerala...
...imagine St Leo's Fair, but with half naked men and elephants
The farmer's market in Udaipur - the country is a vegetarian's Nirvana
Amandola scores the winning t...Wait, how'd that one get in there?
The Super Bowl prediction comes NEXT week!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman