Thursday, September 9, 2021

Rosh Hashanah Sermons, 5782

Audio for Day 1 Sermon.  You can access it for downloading here.

Audio for Day 2 Sermon.  You can access it for downloading here.

  Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5782

The Two Jerusalems

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

YouTube video of Day 1 Sermon


         Welcome back!  To those who are here in person, it is wonderful to see you and hear you, and to those watching online – we can feel your presence.


        While the Covid ordeal seems far from over, we seem to be at a crossroads now.  On a personal level, this is the 35th Rosh Hashanah I am addressing you from this pulpit – longer than any other clergy in Beth El’s now-101-year history.  It’s been a blessing and an honor to sustain such a longstanding partnership with you.


        There’s another landmark anniversary we are commemorating this week.  Twenty Rosh Hashanahs ago, I spoke to you from here just a week after the 9/11 attacks.  Ground Zero was still smoldering.  We were grieving - it was literally the end of shiva - and the emotion in this room was palpable. 


        On that Rosh Hashanah I could not imagine that 20 years later, I would be up here feeling that our future is even more fraught now than it was then.  Then, we were grieving for 3,000 souls.  Today we are grieving the loss of around 650,000 Americans and about 5 million around the world.  We were worried 20 years ago – and for good reason.  But we are terrified now.  The threats we faced then were primarily external.  There was a playbook for defeating them; we just needed to gather our resolve to do that.  The threats we face now are more insidious and more existential.  Al Qaida was never going to destroy us. Now we face not simply a symbolic attack on landmarks, as we did then, but a real attack on the underpinnings of our democracy, and simultaneous threats to our public health, our planet, and to truth itself.  Everything seems out of control.


        Twenty years ago, as we inhaled the dust of Ground Zero, I called for a moment of affirmation.  Today, what we need most is to stabilize our lives and our world.


        We’ve all heard of the serenity prayer written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1920s and then later embraced by the 12 Step movement. 


God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

courage to change the things I can,

and wisdom to know the difference.


        That’s what we need right now.  It’s that perfect balance between idealism and realism, striving and acceptance.  What we need right now is a Jewish serenity prayer, one that can help us to recalibrate.  Well, guess what?  We have one.  We’ve got a whole bunch of them, in fact.  One might say that we invented the Serenity Prayer, long before Niebuhr.  


        In the weekday Amida, we beseech God, the grantor of wisdom, to bestow upon us knowledge, insight and understanding.  In the 11th-century, the great poet Solomon ibn Gabirol, (the author of Adon Olam), wrote: [Mibchar ha-Peninim (Choice of Pearls), Chapter 17 (Consciousness), verse 2]:


        At the head of all understanding is realizing what is and what cannot be - and consoling ourselves for what is not in our power to change. 


        And this year, Rabbi Joseph Meszler even incorporated the Serenity Prayer into the Unetane Tokef for the High Holidays:

For the things we can change, there is t’shuvah, realignment,

For the things we cannot change, there is t’filah, prayer,

For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.


        You might be wondering:  Shouldn’t I be aiming higher, sharing visions of a better world, a utopia, a city on the hill?  Hey, it’s Rosh Hashanah, after all! Why the focus on a goal that is so – pareve?  Why aim to simply “stabilize our lives and our world?”


        There’s a place for lofty visions, and I’ll try to help us get there.  So don’t touch that dial!


        But first and foremost, right now what we need to do right now get a grip. Literally.  We have no idea how to shake hands – how to get along in the physical presence of real people.  We have no idea how and when to show our faces. There are some young children who might not recognize a stranger’s smile.  We’ve lost the muscle memory of laughing together – of singing together.  When someone asked me a few months ago how I thought services would go this year, I said, “It’ll be humming.” I didn’t mean it literally!


        We’ve lost all sense of time.  People and places near and dear to us look totally different when we are seeing them in person after over a year.  I visited my hometown a few weeks ago I felt like Marty McFly.  Wait - wasn’t that restaurant over there?  The movie theater? 


        And our isolation has bred impatience.  And anger – madness, even.  And right now, we are dealing with six degrees of crazy.  On the highway, 80 is the new 55.  And in the air, the F.A.A says it received about 3,200 reports of unruly passenger behavior for the first half of this year; sales of duct tape soared. People are crazy everywhere: 1 if by land, 2 if by air, and 3 if by the register at Walmart.


        So, we gotta get a grip.  Then we can dream again.


        And there’s a lot at stake.  Sixty years ago, the most important trial of the past century took place; in 1961, Hannah Arendt was watching Eichmann behind the glass booth in Jerusalem, and she observed that what characterizes the person most likely to fall into the grip of totalitarianism is “not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”  This past year and a half of isolation has placed us at a perilous tipping point between reality and mass psychosis.  We gotta get a grip!


        And coming together, whether in person or virtually, needs to bring out what is most human.  As CS Lewis wrote amidst the postwar paranoia in 1948, “If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”


        We have to learn how to be human again.  And THEN we can set our sights on the stars.


        Mara and I were able to escape to Cape Cod this summer for a few days. Finally, a chance to get away! It felt awkward at first, to dine indoors, to be back in the old places, and understaffed restaurants and hotels were scrambling to meet pent up demand.  Cape Cod was completely overrun by desperate, crazy tourists brimming with frustration.  One farm-to-table restaurant in Brewster had to shut down for a "Day of Kindness" because customers were making the employees cry.


        So, we check into our B and B and the annoyances begin to add up.  For one thing, there is no second B. There’s a bed, but due to Covid restrictions and staff shortages, no breakfast.  OK.  Deep breaths.


        Then, I’m informed by the innkeeper that there is no HW either at this B minus B. Hot water.  And so I rationalize:  It’s 90 degrees. Who needs hot water anyway?  Hot water is overrated.  So I take a cold shower.  I’ve never taken a cold shower intentionally before, though I’ve taken a number of them metaphorically


        And what is a cold shower, metaphorically speaking?  I Googled it, so you don’t have to.

        Taking a cold shower is a metaphor for “dealing with discomfort in the service of a valued life.” Two parts – 1) dealing with discomfort – and this year has given us discomfort by the bushel – but 2) … in the service of a valued life. Let's keep our eyes on that prize.


        Perfect.  So I had my literal and metaphoric cold shower, while the couple from New Jersey left the hotel in a huff, screaming that they are never coming back again.  And they probably wasted the better part of the day looking for another place, while we went to the beach, where there was plenty of warm water.


        The couple from New Jersey - and nothing against New Jersey, it could just have well been some other place… like Greenwich - whatever - they took out their frustration on the helpless hotel manager – a really nice guy who was just overwhelmed – when what they really wanted to do was scream at the Manager of Managers, the manager of life – which is what we are doing today.


        Yes, so here’s our chance – Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to get it out of our system.  Let me be your mouthpiece, your shofar.  “Dear God…. Please fix the showers on Cape Cod! Why did you do that to me???  Why did I have to take a cold shower?”


       And why did my Amazon package arrive four days late???  How could you do that God? And why are none of the restaurants on Cape Cod open on Mondays?  Why, God?”


        Let it out… Let it out….  It’s been a year and a half.


        Why, God?  And why are New York subways filling up with water while half of California is on fire?  Who by fire and who by flood?  You didn’t have to take that prayer literally!  It’s a METAPHOR.  And why are there 83 million refugees in the world right now, so many with nowhere to turn?  And why did You give us the Delta Variant, God?  And what’s with the Greek letters, anyway?  Why are we naming diseases after a fraternity?


        And why in the middle of this… did my mother-in-law have to die – like so many others this year.  So many avoidable deaths.  Innocent people let down by those empowered to protect them. Why?  And my little dog too?  Why did my sweet 17-year-old Chloe have to die this summer?  Why?  She never harmed a soul.  She was pure love.  And You let her die! 

        And I let her die.

         Time for another cold shower.


        So there I was, freshly showered and at the beach. Harwich Port has become our real happy place.  I sat close to the water to be comforted, like Hannah Senesh in Caesarea, that while everything else is becoming unhinged, these things never change: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, and the sky’s glitter.  Then I reflected that even the idea of an unchanging sea is an illusion, with Greenland melting enough ice in a single day to cover all of Florida with two inches of water.


        And then I thought, maybe that’s not so bad. And then I slapped myself on the wrist for thinking bad things about Florida being submerged.

        I watched some the kids on the beach constructing what looked like a fort - a little like the Pentagon in fact, with sturdy external walls to keep out the water.  More and more kids joined in this effort until they grew to a mini army corps of engineers - recruiting parents and grandparents along with them.  It was fascinating to watch – and so futile.  For the tide was coming in. And we saw 20 years ago just how vulnerable even the Pentagon can be.


        And just as they were completing this engineering marvel, the waters of Nantucket Sound began to seep in.  First a few outlier waves lapped at the exterior of the walls, leaving entrails of darkened, wet sand….


        And then, gradually, there was water in the middle - and then the panicked kids appeared with pails, and they began to scoop up the water and toss it out - like little sorcerer’s apprentices, they kept coming back for more water.  Until a big wave crashed in, and this engineering marvel seemed doomed to collapse, like so many grand designs have collapsed this year…. Like the packed grandstands on Mount Meron in Israel last Lag B’Omer, which killed forty five, or the high rise in Surfside, Florida, where a hundred lost their lives.  And like our futile, misguided attempts at nation building in parts of the world not primed for democracy – in Vietnam, in Iraq and now Afghanistan. Fool me once shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me three times, shame on us.  Grand designs crashing down. 


        It all seemed to be collapsing around these little kids at the beach. I felt so badly for them - and for all of us. I’ve never before grieved for a stupid sandcastle – and I began to cry. 


        You know – we’ve all had those moments this year when it all suddenly came to head.  It all welled up inside and burst out. 


        It all just started to pour out of me while these Mickey Mouse sorcerer’s apprentices kept doing their thing. 

        And then something amazing happened.  I looked up again and the kids had given up trying to get rid of the water, realizing the futility of that goal.


        And in a blink, they reversed course entirely.  It wasn’t futile at all. Disaster was not inevitable. The walls did not have to come tumbling down. 


        The kids started pouring water into the center of their formerly impenetrable fort.  And before you know it, their Pentagon had been transformed into the best darn swimming pool in Harwich Port.

        And with hot water!

        At a time when we are all trying to pick up the pieces of our lives, these kids taught me that it’s not so important what you build as long as you continue to build, to strive, and never accept defeat.  When the tide comes in, you gotta keep digging.  


        And what’s true for our physical and social infrastructure, as we are seeing now in Congress, is true for our spiritual and moral infrastructure too.  We need to dream – we need to dream big, to dream NEW dreams. We are desperate to dream. 


        We first we've got to get a grip.  But then, by all means, we’ve got to dream.  Told you we would get there!


        This summer, Major League Baseball built a ballpark in a corn field in Iowa, a field of dreams, and the Yanks and White Sox played what was the most-watched regular-season game on any network since 2005. That’s how much we want to dream again! We were willing to sit down and watch a whole baseball game!


        In a year like this one, where we’ve seen the lowest of the low, overflowing emergency rooms, New Orleans looking like Calcutta, Lake Tahoe like a barbecue pit and the walls of the Capitol like the sides of a toilet bowl, we need to lift our eyes and see the twinkling headlights of the cars headed to this field, and recall that this field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good, and it could be again.


        Jews have a special way to dream and at a time like this, it’s instructive.  Our dreams are bold and often audacious, but they must be anchored in reality.  We invented the idea of a messiah, but the rabbis, whenever given the choice, always took the pragmatic view.  “If you are planting a tree and the messiah comes to the gate of your city,” the Midrash says, “finish planting the tree – and then go out and greet the messiah.” 


        Finish turning that castle into a swimming pool.  Get your fingers dirty.  Plant that tree.  Tend to that garden.


        Before the Field of Dreams could be built, the first cryptic instruction to Ray Kinsella was, “Ease his pain.” Fix the world as it is, care about real suffering here and now, the mess we’ve created, and then dream again of how to forge a better world. 

        First get a grip - then grasp the vision.


        Without dreams, our lives are meaningless.  Without dreams we are nothing. Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote, “Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life (only) as it is, and not as it should be!”


        But when dreams are allowed to lose touch with reality, we know what happens next.  Heaven’s Gate.  Jonestown.  January 6.  Indian journalist Akash Kapur writes in the new book, “Better to Have Gone,” “Utopia’s finest hour, is the very beginning, when the dream remains unsullied.” Reviewer Amy Waldman adds, “From the heights of a vision, there is nowhere to go but down.” 


        We’ve learned all too often that the day after we proclaim, “Mission Accomplished,” that’s precisely when the mission unravels, and utopia begins to turn sour.


        The rabbis said there are two Jerusalems, the Jerusalem on high and the earthly Jerusalem.  Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah and Yerusalaylim shel Mata.  We live in between, in constant tension between the dream and the reality.  The idealized, heavenly Jerusalem is based on a midrash dating from the third century.  Rabbi Yochanan looked at Psalms 122:3, “Jerusalem built up, a city knit together” and asserted that in the future the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalem will be reunited as one.  Our goal is to bring that day to pass – for heaven and earth to meet.


        Jerusalem is where that can happen, and the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah takes Abraham to that very spot, to Mount Moriah, a spot considered the navel of the universe, as he prepares to sacrifice Isaac, when his hand is stayed.  You would think that Abraham would have been relieved.  On the contrary, according to one Midrash – Abraham is quite upset.  After all, he had been offered the chance of a lifetime, to demonstrate a faith unparalleled in human history, a faith so pure: the ultimate sacrifice – to sacrifice his own future, his legacy, his son. 


        And, according to a Hasidic commentary, God says no.  God says, I don’t want that sacrificeI want you to sacrifice that urge to make the supreme sacrifice.  I want you to sacrifice the sacrifice.  I want you to give up any notion of any kind of faith that would call for such a sacrifice, any type of faith so pure that would require such zealotry.  Get real, Abraham!  Get a grip!  Yes, keep your eyes on the prize of a heavenly Jerusalem.  But a pure faith can be a dangerous faith if it is not tempered by reality. Don’t be a zealot! 


        To be a Jew, this biblical story teaches us, is not to be a zealot – To be a Jew is to be a radical centrist.


        It is so hard to pull back from pure faith.  There is a sense of bliss inherent in thinking one is bathing in the light of divine will. But God is telling Abraham.  “I don’t want your dead children.  I don’t want your purity.  I don’t want your suicide bombs and your dreams of heavenly bliss. 


        I want you to ask questions.  I want you to challenge me, Abraham!  For, in the words of Elie Wiesel, “Questions bring people together.  Fanatics have no questions; they give you the answer before they hear your question.”


        Once it becomes clear to Abraham that the purity of faith would lead to madness - he then spots the solution, the ram, in a thicket.  The word for thicket, svach, also means entwine – like a vine, or a winding tree, or a Havdalah candle.  The branches that ensnare the ram are impossibly intertwined, but always reaching up.


        The two Jerusalems, in the end, are also intertwined. The heavenly and the earthly, the dream and the reality, the promise and pragmatic, can never be totally distinct.  When Abraham’s eyes are opened to the sight of that ram caught in the thicket, Isaac’s life is spared. It is that entwined nature of Jewish hope and pragmatism that preserves us. It keeps us from floating into a state of unhinged madness.  It is the circuit breaker that keeps us from going over the edge.  It is our cosmic cold shower.


        A few years ago, I was driving through the plains of central Spain.  No, it didn’t rain there on the plain, but another Broadway musical came to mind as we passed through the region of La Mancha.  Naturally, I looked for the windmills made famous by Cervantes’ 16th century novel - and there they were, high up, on a ridge.  I was surprised at how high they were, but like Jerusalem on High, Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah, that’s where they needed to be.


         I tried to imagine what was going through the mind of Cervantes when he conjured up Don Quixote's signature moment of chivalry and valor. How pointless it seems to fight windmills. Yet how courageous it was for Cervantes to flail away at the windmills of oppression and the scourge of the Inquisition.


        Don Quixote loses his grip on reality, but his madness is channeled into a moral and noble pursuit.  Yes, we need the courage to march into hell for a heavenly cause; but that vision must be anchored in wisdom.  If all we have is the pure oxygen of untempered faith, you are susceptible to fall into hands of a demagogue.


        American democracy is also based on an idealistic vision of a city on a hill, but like Judaism, it has a foundation of pragmatism.  A City on a Hill, yes, but the hill is more of an archeological tel, composed of the accumulated layers of wisdom and striving – and uncountable graves of soldiers and activists and enslaved people and victims of terror and hate and disease - and the mistakes and lessons learned by scores of generations that came before us.  All compose that hill that the idealized city stands upon.


        This year, some people breathing the pure oxygen of unhinged dreams did not maintain their balance. They thought their messiah was walking among them – to the Capitol.  They confused self-evident truths for a Big Lie.  And the American dream was sullied in an orgy of madness. But no crazy Q shaman can bring about that heavenly Jerusalem. No soiling of our most sacred precinct with Confederate flags can forge our Field of Dreams.  No lies and conspiracies. No microchips in the needles.  No injected bleach or horse de-wormer. Think of how many people - millions of people – innocent, trusting people, good people on all sides, were led off a cliff by fabricated dreams, just this year. 


        In his classic work, “When Prophecy Fails,” the social psychologist Leon Festinger infiltrates a doomsday cult to see what would happen when the group’s apocalyptic beliefs are disconfirmed.  Rather than dissolving the cult and dispersing, the group doubles down on their diet of crazy and find ways to continue to believe.  This cognitive dissonance is exactly what is happening to many in our country.


        Historian Anne Applebaum said on the morning after January 6: “People are trying to say that this is not who we are. I’m afraid this is who we are now. This (event) was built above all on creating an illusion. On an illusion that there is no such thing as loss; that there are no hard decisions…. And we are going to be living with that problem and with that assault on reality for a long time.”


        And we are.  For the doomsday cult of January 6 has birthed conspiracy theories and Jim Crow legislation and the Big Lie and the weakening of democratic norms, the belittling of science and the degradation of truth.  This is who we are now. In California, a businessman who had refused to take steps to prevent the spread of Covid, had watched his mother die of the disease. “In that moment,” says an article in Bloomberg, “a political opinion was challenged by a fact; one of them needed to be altered. The man called the coroner and demanded that the county change the cause of death.”


        To their credit, some are seeing the light.  The Q Shaman, for instance, now simply wants to be called a Shaman – and he pled guilty last week.  He also has a human name: Jacob Chansley. His lawyer stated that “The path charted by Mr. Chansley since Jan. 6 has been a process, one which has involved pain, depression, solitary confinement, introspection, recognition of mental health vulnerabilities and a coming to grips with the need for more self-work.” That statement is a great sign of hope that this fever just might – or at least could – finally break. Don't bet on it. But at least one person is getting a grip.


        I love the idea of a messiah.  I want to taste salvation. I want that yearning to drive us to superhuman efforts to bring about a repaired world.  I want never to lose hope in that vision of perfection.  Ani Ma’amin B’Emuna Shlayma.  I believe with a complete faith in the coming of the Messiah – even if they may tarry, despite that, I believe.  That’s what they sang as they walked to the gas chambers – and I will never stop saying it.


        But when prophecy fails, when the tide comes in and the beach is covered with water, we’ve got to be able to turn our back on dreamland and get down to the hard, tedious work of restoration. We’ve got to plant that tree.


        Cognitive dissonance is infecting our democracy in a dangerous way.  But as Cervantes wrote, “The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.” We all need to look into the mirror and see where these illusions are leading us.  We all need to – not just those who fell for the ruse.  All of us have fallen for a false dream at some point or another. All of us have bought those extra lottery tickets from time to time.


        “All you need is a dollar and a dream”??? Sometimes we just need to pocket the dollar!


        Yes, all of us are falling now.  We all fall for the false hopes – the quick fix.  The illusion that defeat is not defeat, that death is not really death. Rosh Hashanah is that mirror that we hold up to remind ourselves that we fail, we get sick, we age and we die. In the end, the final score will be tallied, and we will lose. No recount will save us.  No tampered voting machines.  And once we understand that, once we truly understand, with no illusions, we can summon our accumulated wisdom to build a better world for the next generation, because that’s what was done for us by our cherished ancestors and that is what will bring salvation, and the ultimate victory.


        But first we have to look in the mirror.  For the love of God, look in the mirror!  “Look in the mirror of reality and behold things as they truly are. Look! What dost thou see, Don Quixote?” 

        This year is a biblical Sabbatical year, a seventh year, Shmita, when dreams are put to a trial run.  It is a dress rehearsal for utopia, a world where even your gardens get to rest, where debts can go unpaid and indentured workers get to go free.  In her recent New York Times article, “How to Think Like a Utopian” - Malia Wollan points out that Utopian does not mean optimist. In order to be properly utopian, from the Shmita point of view as well, we need to strive to be both idealistic enough to envision a new world and pragmatic enough to steadily build it.


        Shmita is a sample of paradise and a reminder that none of this belongs to us.  It’s a revolutionary idea.  But then, after a year, it’s over.  We put it back in the box and bring it out again in seven years.  We can only take that pure oxygen of utopia in small doses.  With the light of dawn, the dreamer must awaken from the trance.


        And so must we.  Psalm 126 presents it perfectly.  Shir hama’alot beshuv adonai et shivat tziyon, hayinu k’holmim.  "When the Lord returned us to Zion from captivity, we were LIKE dreamers.”


        We were LIKE dreamers.  Our faces glistened like dreamers.  We beamed with hope, like dreamers.  We lifted our eyes to the mountains like dreamers. 




        Our eyes were wide open to the challenges we face.  WE WERE NOT ASLEEP. 


        In the Amida, the blessing of wisdom comes right near the beginning. The blessing for vision comes near the end.  But the final blessing, for shalom, which connotes both Jerusalem and completeness, embodies the hope that someday, heaven and earth will meet.

        We will build that Field of Dreams, not in heaven, but in Iowa. We will take that cold shower - metaphorically; we’ll get a grip once again, roll up our sleeves and start building those Castilian castles in the sand.


        O grantor of wisdom, grant to us the idealism to imagine what we can change and the pragmatism to realize what we cannot – and the wisdom to know the difference – and let that imperfect vision remind us of all that once was good and could be – no, will be – again.  Amen.

Blessing of vision from the Amida, found in secret synagogue in Terezin. 
Click here and here for video narrative of the meaning of that sacred place. 

Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5782

Lost and Found

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

YouTube video of Day 2 Sermon

         A few weeks ago, the Jewish people lost its funniest rabbi.  Love him or not-so-much, Jackie Mason was a true institution.  As a tribute to him, here are a few of his one liners:

 -          I was so self-conscious, every time football players went into a huddle, I thought they were talking about me.

 -          My grandfather always said, "Don't watch your money; watch your health." So, one day while I was watching my health, someone stole my money. It was my grandfather.

 -          It is easy to tell the difference between Jews and Gentiles. After the show, all the gentiles are saying 'Have a drink? Want a drink? Let's have a drink!' While all the Jews are saying 'Have you eaten yet? Want a piece of cake? Let's have some cake!'

          And he loved to poke fun at his own.  So he’s at a performance in Israel, where he turns his fire on American Jews desperately seeking to assimilate.

 -          Jews in the United States move into neighborhoods where there are no Jews allowed.  There’s nothing but Jews there. But each one thinks he’s the only one.

         Yes, we Jews turn up in the most surprising of places.  And sometimes, we don’t even look Jewish.  And that joke isn’t even a joke anymore.

         This summer, fifty Igbo Jews in Nigeria officially converted to Judaism.  Who knew?  Nigerian Jews.   And the rabbi who converted them was from Uganda – from the unique tribe of Abudaya Jews from Uganda.  Who knew?  Ugandan Jews!  And that rabbi who converted them was trained at the Conservative Movement’s seminary in L.A.  Who knew?  Conservatives in L.A!  You can’t make this up!

         This year we also celebrated the 30th anniversary of Operation Solomon, which in 1991 airlifted 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours.

         There are Jews everywhere, and many of them are beneath the radar.  In New Mexico, conversos exiled from 15th century Spain by way of Mexico and Texas, live outwardly Catholic lives but now celebrate their rediscovered Jewish roots. 

         We may or may not still be the people of the book, but we are definitely the people of the lost and found. What other tradition would have an entire Talmudic tractate dedicated to the mitzvah of returning lost objects? We keep losing Jews – and then finding them again.  At first there were twelve tribes of Israel, and after the Assyrian conquest of 721 BCE, ten of them were lost.  That’s 83 percent of our tribes…lost. 

        But sometimes they are found.  Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah (including today's haftarah) speak of the return to Zion of those scattered northern tribes.

        The Book of Esdras, in the Apocrypha, is the first ancient source to speak of the fate of the lost tribes of Israel. Esdras states that the ten tribes were carried off to exile, across a legendary river called Sambatyon, where they pledged to maintain their practices in secret, while in strange lands.

        Beginning in the Middle Ages, explorers set out to find them.  Benjamin of Tudela, a 12th century Jewish traveler from Spain, claimed that the Jews of Persia descended from the lost tribes Asher, Dan, Naphtali, and Zebulon. Obadiah of Bertinoro claimed to have located a small Jewish community near Aden, in Yemen.   

        Here’s a partial list of other places where people have claimed to have found these missing tribes: In Asia – Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Burma (Myanmar), Kurdistan, Kashmir, China, Japan; in West Africa – Mali, Ghana, Nigeria; in Southern Africa – Zimbabwe, Lesotho, South Africa, Mozambique; in East Africa – Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea; in Europe – the Celts of the British Isles; in Oceania – the Maori of New Zealand; in South America – Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela; and in North America, various native American nations as well as the Mormons have been linked to the Ten Lost Tribes.  

        Everyone who’s not Jewish just might be – but they may not know it.  Even Alexander Hamilton was born Jewishand he went to Hebrew School!  Who lives who dies who tells OUR story?

        Everybody’s from the mishpacha.  That’s our story.

        Incidentally, after last month’s Taliban takeover, there remains one Jew left in Afghanistan. His name is Zabulon Simantov, (his father’s name was “Mazaltov”) he is 61, and although he had a chance to leave for Israel, he has decided to stay.  And why is he staying?  (UPDATE: He's not)

         “If I had left, there would have been no one to maintain the synagogue," he said. You can’t make this up!  It reminds me of my first student pulpit.  There were times when the rabbi outnumbered the congregation! Their board meetings must be very quick.

         This was a big year for finding lost Jews.  I mentioned the Nigerian Jews.  This past June, more than 100 Jews from the 6,000-member B’nei Menashe community in India's northeastern Manipur state were set to make Aliyah en-masse to Israel, only to have their plans delayed when one of the group fell ill with Covid. 

         Oxford just announced the establishment of a new School of Rare Jewish Languages.  They will offer a range of free online language classes on eleven vernacular languages, spoken and/or written by Jews from the Middle Ages until today.  The languages include some I’ve never heard of.  They are Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-French, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Tat, Judeo-Turkish, Karaim, Ladino and of course Yiddish.  I’m actually shocked, shocked that the list does not include some other popular Jewish languages; like “Guilt,” “Answering every question with a question?” and my favorite, “Kvetch.” I am fluent at “Kvetch.” Like the guy on the subway who cries out, “Oy am I hungry! Oy am I hungry.” Finally another passenger gives him a cookie.  And he goes… “Oy was I hungry!”

         But clearly, Jewish diversity is very much in vogue.  The lost tribes are being found.

         One of the most compelling books I’ve read during the Covid period is called “The Lost Shtetl,” a provocative first novel by Max Gross. It’s the story of a Jewish village in Poland that was completely passed over by Nazis. It missed the Holocaust entirely. It also missed the creation of Israel, the Berlin Wall and the invention of the iPhone.  How was this possible? How was it lost? 

         Well, in part, because people stopped looking for it.

         At one point the Christian community of the town was led by an anti-Semitic priest, who made no secret about the fact that he despised Jews from the very depths of his soul. He compared the Jews to a vampire cult with a consuming desire to kidnap Christian children… “The devil walks among you,” he was known to say at services…. “he is in the soul of every single Jew in Kreskol (the name of the town).”

         But suddenly one Sunday, while he was preaching, the priest dropped dead on the spot.  And then the Christians of Kreskol began to fear the Jews, who, they assumed, must have used their demonic talents to engineer the murder.  And so, slowly at first, they began to move away. Until only the Jews were left.  And the Jews preferred it that way.

         The fear was mutual.  What caused this shtetl to be lost was the Jews’ fear of the outside world. The fear of change and mistrust of strangers – even Jewish ones – was so great that it overwhelmed any sense of connection they had to the Jewish world beyond them.  They grew self-sufficient, no longer relying on trade for food.  Before long, only the occasional gypsy caravan stopped by.  The roads become overgrown and, in some places, blocked.  And the town was forgotten.  Another lost tribe. 

          “The Lost Shtetl” is a cautionary tale, because ultimately, all tribes can become lost tribes.  And in fact, in Jewish history, all tribes have.  There is not a single Jewish community that can claim continuous existence since biblical times. Even Jerusalem has been without a single Jew at various times, thanks to the ruthless Roman emperor Hadrian and later, the equally brutal Crusades. But each time a Jewish community was on the verge of disappearing, the torch has been passed to another community, often in another part of the world, and the Jewish story somehow has continued unabated.  Even as the fire goes out in Spain or Babylonia or Germany, an ember catches flame in Nigeria and New Mexico and here in Stamford - and even back in Poland.

         Jewish history is less a story about endurance then about adaptability.  We keep finding ways to change.   And so, Ethiopian Jews knew nothing about the Talmud or even that the Second Temple had been destroyed – for two thousand years they were separated from the mainstream – but now Ethiopian Jews have returned to teach us all about so many other important things – like how to be Jewish and colorblind – they thought all Jews look like them – and never again to use the expression, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”  And that tribe has taught us what true yearning for Jerusalem is all about.  They waited with a fervent faith for thousands of years and that faith was rewarded.

         “The Lost Shtetl” is a perfect book for this year, a time when we’ve had to withdraw into our homes and shelter in place.  The loneliness of isolation has severed so many ties that bind us – and our mission now is to identify and retrieve our own lost tribes, including the tribes that have been lost inside our souls.  Our task now, is to reconnect. 

         We talk a lot about people choosing their pronouns based on their biology and gender fluidity.  But for Jews as a group there is only one pronoun that is authentic – and that is the pronoun “we.”  We must never allow one branch, one tribe, to be isolated from others.

         We are the tribes of Israel and we need to be proud of who we are and where we come from –The operative pronoun is “we.” 

         This year, a museum reopened in Tel Aviv.  It used to be called the Museum of the Diaspora, and its not so subtle message was that the diaspora was past tense – a glorious but dying 2,000 year interlude in Jewish history, ending with the return to Zion.  Now it is called “Anu: Museum of the Jewish People. The word “Anu” means “us.” “The Museum highlights the creative works and cultural riches of a variety of communities in different periods of history. This story is about all of us and each and every one of us is part of it.”

         This summer, Israel’s presidency changed hands.  A few years ago, Reuven Rivlin, the outgoing president, spoke about the need to unify what he called the Tribes of Israel, meaning the four main sectors of the Israeli population, including haredim, modern Orthodox, secular Jews and Arabs. 

         On the day of the presidential transition, Rivlin left a letter on his desk for the new president Isaac Herzog. It said this: “Among the tribes, in the shadow of the controversies and rifts, you will find brave people who do not just talk about the ‘together’, they live it. Day to day and hour by hour. In their homes, those on the right and the left, Jews and Arabs, veteran [citizens] and new immigrants, religious and traditional, young and old. People of all faiths, sectors and ethnicities. All of them, Israelis. Beautiful, enlightening, and generous. And what a heart they have, beyond words.” 

         It is that kind of unity that we need to forge, among all our diverse tribes.  Like Jacob’s ladder, some are climbing, and others are descending, some are reentering history while others descending into oblivion – for now – only to be rediscovered again at some point in the future.  It has happened to all Jewish communities, without exception. They live, they die, we tell their story.  And then they live again.  Mark my words, there will be a Temple Beth El in Kabul some day, and then they’ll build another synagogue for everyone to not join.

         Where on this ladder, are we, the American Jewish tribe?  In the context of Jewish history, this is a very humbling question.  Some of the statistics indicate great health, an increase in our population and ethnic diversity.  We are culturally as relevant as ever – and at the same time as insecure as we’ve been since the 1930s, with anti-Semitism on all sides.  Our connection to the Jewish state is declining as is our Jewish literacy.  Forget the 11 lost vernacular languages, how about the one that is supposed to unite us all?  What about Hebrew?

         Where on Jacob’s ladder is the American Jewish tribe?  Are we a tribe whose flame is reaching its apex – or one that is trending toward becoming lost, secretive and hidden – in danger of falling off the map – like the Jews of Nigeria, India, Spain, and the fictitious Lost Shtetl of Kreskol? 

         Which brings me to what is happening today.

         It’s Rosh Hashanah, a time for turning over a new leaf.  And I want to do that by congratulating a member of the New York Yankees, Derek Jeter, who is being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today.  Even a Red Sox fan has to admire Jeter, who has embodied everything that is good about sports:  Honesty, integrity, quiet confidence and a whole lot of talent.  When Jeter was at the plate, I often closed my eyes.  This is a proud day for the New York Yankees and for baseball.

         And for the Jews.  Because today, Marvin Miller, the longtime Major League Baseball Players Association chief, who  changed the game by transforming the players’ union into a powerhouse, will finally be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame.  He was the Moses of the major leagues, freeing players from the shackles of the reserve clause and enabling them to become free agents.  And he was Jewish. In fact, today, for only the fifth time, a Jew will be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

         Now Miller won’t be there, for one thing because he died in 2012.  And because he was snubbed for years, which is why his family won’t be there.  He made them swear not to attend on the off chance that he actually was voted in.

         But you know who else won’t be there?  Sandy Koufax.  Why?  Because it’s Rosh Hashanah – and he’s Sandy Koufax.

         Back in late June, I was contacted by Bruce Heller, who grew up here at TBE – Anyway, Bruce was really troubled by the fact that the Hall of Fame has scheduled this most sacred event for Rosh Hashanah – and he wondered what we might be able to do about it.  Bruce and I agreed that it was an unforced error – so unnecessary.  Doubly insulting, because a Jew is being honored.  And, I should add, a Jew who fought for justice over greed – defending workers, which is a very Jewish thing to do; it is very insulting. And why are there only five Jews in the Hall of Fame, anyway?  

         We also agreed about something else:

         That no one seems to care!

         And I mean no one.  The decision was announced three weeks before Bruce contacted me, and not a word in the Jewish media, blogosphere, rabbinic chat groups, Yankee fan clubs, New York sports pages, Temple Beth El bulletin, nothing. Not that I considered this a scandal on the level of other things going on at the time. But it was troublesome for me.  And it sure was to Bruce.

         For generations, American Jews have been weaned on the stories of Sandy Koufax missing a World Series game in 1965 because it coincided with Yom Kippur. That gesture, more than the lefty’s four no-hitters, three Cy Young Awards, 2,396 strikeouts and multiple World Series heroics (including a Game Seven win that same year), cemented his spot in the American Jewish sports pantheon.

         It was and remains a huge deal.

        After all, if young Koufax could place fidelity to tradition ahead of pitching in the World Series without fear of a backlash, then clearly America was a place where Jews could assert their identity more securely than previously thought.

         In an interview, Jane Leavy, Koufax’ biographer, said that “Sandy’s decision not to pitch had a tremendous impact …on countless Jews – practicing and cultural – who saw in Koufax an exemplar of Jewishness, refuting negative stereotypes in his actions and his being.”  For American Jews that gesture remains his “Sermon on the Mound.”

         Historian Beryl Wein told the New York Jewish Week, “When Sandy Koufax stated that he would not pitch on Yom Kippur, many Jews in America stood a little taller and had a better sense of self-worth and Jewish pride.” Koufax’s decision, he continued, “influenced that generation of American Jews to become more publicly assertive and to be less ashamed of their Jewishness.

         So why the silence about today?  Inspired by Bruce Heller, I wrote a column about this, which was picked up by the Washington Post and discussed widely in the Jewish media.

         And it’s not as if Rosh Hashanah is a weak sibling to Yom Kippur. The 1959 World Series, which also included the Dodgers, coincided with Rosh Hashanah, and because of that, Koufax did not pitch in Game 4.  Also, in 1961 and 1963, Koufax skipped regular season starts that coincided with Rosh Hashanah. 

         So what would Sandy do about this Hall of Fame predicament? What should Jews do? Are there any Jewish Derek Jeter fans out there who are disturbed by this? Does anybody care?

         And the second day is every bit as important as the first day. I can recall several times when parents have asked me to intervene with middle school soccer coaches who scheduled practices on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  In one case the kid told her coach, “you better change this or my rabbi is going to beat you up.” 

         Not a good idea, but what would lead a kid to saying this when her family was not especially observant?  It’s because she comes from the tribe of Sandy Koufax – who taught us all to be proud of who we are and where we come from.  Once upon a time, American Jews could stand up to the outside world and proclaim, “I am a Jew,” even when it is uncomfortable.  That tribe was once the prevailing variant of American Jews.  Now, I’m not so sure it is. 

         When Hank Greenberg chose not to play on Yom Kippur, staring down anti-Semitic Detroiters like Henry Ford and Father Coughlin – I mean a big time anti-Semites – the great poet Edgar Guest wrote this in appreciation.

Come Yom Kippur -- holy fast day world-wide over to the Jew

And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true

Spent the day among his people and he didn't come to play.

Said Murphy to Mulrooney "We shall lose the game today!

We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him at the bat,

But he's true to his religion -- and I honor him for that!"

         American Jews felt so proud of Greenberg and so proud of Koufax.  Two of the four other Jews in the hall of fame.  This year, today, for the fifth, not so much.  We’re taking the fifth.  Where have you gone, Sandy Koufax? Our Jewish nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

         Sociologist Jack Wertheimer wrote in his book, “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People?” “In the end, the decline of Jewish Peoplehood is symptomatic of a decline of morale, of national self-respect.  A people no longer proud of who or what it is, no longer dedicated to caring for its own, cannot long expect to be held in high regard by others, or to move the world by its message.”

         Wertheimer is an eternal pessimist regarding the future of American Jewry.  I’m actually bullish on the things he most abhors, like blended families, diversity and inclusiveness.  So I do not think assimilation is our greatest challenge. 

         It comes down to this.  We, the Jewish people have nothing to fear…but fear itself.  More than half of American Jews said they encountered antisemitism following the start of May’s violence in Israel and Gaza, according to a survey released by the Anti-Defamation League. Its findings suggest a dramatic increase in the number of Jews who have witnessed anti-Semitic behavior, or heard or read an anti-Semitic comment.  We are afraid.  And even if some of the fear is justified, we can’t let it define us.

         Despite all our accomplishments.  Despite all our contributions to American society and the way we’ve been embraced by this country, we are still deathly afraid of shadows that should no longer scare us – and this year, we confronted it again, that inner shame, that lack of at-homeness.  That nagging feeling that we might never be completely at home – here or anywhere – and we might fall from Jacob’s ladder.

         When a large group of establishment American Jewish organizations got together this summer to plan a mass rally in Washington to marshal forces to fight anti-Semitism, no one came.  Back in 1987, a quarter million American Jews came to Washington to save Soviet Jewry.  I was there.  And almost as many returned to the Capitol to defend Israel during the second intifada in 2002.  I was there too, with many of you.  But this time?  It was more like 2,000 people.  I admit, I wasn’t one of them. I watched it online and I felt shame.  I think more organizations sponsored it than people showed up.  And we have to wonder why.

         A midrash on the Ten Lost Tribes suggests that it is not by measure of geography that they became lost, but because of identity.  The Midrash projects otherness onto our own exile.  It’s not because of being cut off from the Jewish world, but from being cut off from our inner selves, from our sense of who we really are.

        No wonder a group in Boston put up billboards last week, including one stating, "I promise to love being Jewish 10X more than anyone hates me for it."

         Still, I have a deep faith in American Jewry.  For in fact, we are not disappearing.   The Sandy Koufax tribe is just morphing into something else.  That something else also has to do with baseball. Look at Israeli Olympic baseball team, which consisted of mostly American Jews, ready and willing to wear their Jewish pride literally on their sleeve, and with their mascot, the mensch on the bench, they confounded the experts and made it to the final grouping. Only four of them have lived any portion of their lives in Israel.

         “Religion was not a part of my upbringing,” said catcher Ryan Lavarnway, “We celebrated holidays for the Hallmark purposes, for presents and just to have a good time as a family. But I felt like once I dove into the deep end of embracing my Judaism — my wife is Jewish, we had a Jewish wedding — I feel like the purpose and the meaning behind things, it means so much more to me now and just understanding the why behind the what has become really important.”  We can be proud of found Jews like Lavarnway – and Israel’s second gold medal winner ever, a Ukrainian-born gymnast named Artem Dolgopyat, who had no idea what Israel was when his family emigrated there when he was 12. Didn’t speak a word of Hebrew – and now he’s a national hero.

         During the pandemic, I managed to binge watch, back-to-back, two of the most Jewy shows of recent memory, “Shtisel” and “Transparent.” They represent two distinct, opposite sides of the contemporary Jewish tribal spectrum.  One, the Haredim of Jerusalem, and the other, the Libs of L.A. From black hat to woke is a long stretch, but you don’t have to dig down deep to see that these two Jewish tribes have so much in common.

         I imagined a conversation between the main protagonists of the shows, Shalom Shtisel, the educator, parent and grandparent looking for love, and Maura Pfefferman, the educator, parent and grandparent looking for love. 

         One of them just happens to be trans. And the other one wears a fur hat.  

        In the middle of their conversation, in walks Tevye, from “Fiddler on the Roof.” He says:

         “You think you have problems… I have five daughters, and one of them married a Cossack!”

         Shalom - “A Cossack? You think that’s bad, one of my kids married his cousin.”

         Maura – “Cossacks, cousins, that’s nothing.  My kids don’t know what to call me.  They used to call me “Dad” and now I’m ‘Ma-Pa.’”

         Shalom – “So my son used to call my meshugena brother “Uncle” and now, he’s his father-in-law.”

         Tevye – “My daughter Hodel turned down the rabbi’s son for a socialist!”

         Maura – “Well my son voted for Bernie – and he dated the rabbi – who’s a woman!”

        And they go on and on like this for a whole afternoon, munching on pastrami sandwiches from Canter’s Deli on Fairfax along with some bagels with a pareve Tofu shmear – a Pfefferman favorite, and three hours later, Sholom brings in some cheesecake from Brizel in Jerusalem.  Then Jackie Mason walks in and asks who wants cake.

         As they schmooze, they gradually come to realize that both Shalom and Maura are Tevye’s great grandchildren - Shtisel by way of Tzeitel and Motel, who moved to Odessa then caught a boat to Palestine and ended up in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem, and Pfefferman by way of Hodel and Perchick, who moved from Siberia to Berlin, where they got caught up in the bohemian gender bending of the Weimar republic before heading to the States.  But they are all ultimately related – and from the same tribe.  And they are united in the fact that because their ancestors left Europe in the first place, they all escaped the Holocaust.  They are part of the remnant.

Shtisel, penultimate scene of the third season, quoting I.B Singer:
"The dead don’t go anywhere. They’re all here. Each man is a cemetery. 
An actual cemetery, in which lie all our grandmothers and grandfathers, 
the father and mother, the wife, the child. 
Everyone is here all the time."

         So Sandy Koufax, fear not!  Our contemporary Jewish tribes are not going anywhere.  We’re not falling off the ladder.  We’re just, um, transitioning.

         At the end of “The Lost Shtetl,” Yankel, the hero of the story who had grown up in Kreskol and reconnected it to the world, tries to return, but his shtetl is nowhere to be found.  The people are once again lost; the shuls, the bakeries.  Here’s how it ends.  (Close your ears if you intend to read the book):

         “As he gives up his search and begins to walk away, he reaches into his backpack for his tefillin, which he had packed, though he rarely wore them anymore. …And now, alone in the wilderness with his fate uncertain, he felt an uncontrollable urge to repeat the ancient words that had been chanted through the generations...

         Yankel might never have known his father, but his father no doubt spoke these words.  As had his father’s father. And on.

         They were, he realized, his inheritance. This profound truth brought Yankel to his knees.  He bowed his head and his voice rang out:

         “Hear O Israel – the Lord is God, the Lord is One.”

         That’s how the book ends.  The shtetl may be lost, but its words still ring out.  The parchments may be burning, said the students of Hanina ben Tradyon as he was burned at the stake by Hadrian, wrapped in a Torah scroll, “But the letters are flying free.” 

         Lost tribes; found words.  We are the people of the Lost and Found.

         And these words are what all the tribes of Israel have shared from time immemorial.  The words are what links us one to another.  Right now, today, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the words of the Sh’ma are being recited in Uganda and Ecuador, Nigeria and Peru, Minsk and Moscow and Mumbai, at Hebrew Union College and the Belz Yeshiva. At the Kotel’s Orthodox section and the Kotel’s egalitarian section. At Shtisel’s shul and Pfefferman’s temple. And Temple Beth El in Oneonta, NY.  Just 23 miles from Cooperstown.

        The words are what unites us – and the words are unity itself.  The word Echad.  One.  Expressing the Ultimate unity; the Ultimate One. When these words are on our hearts and minds, there are no lost tribes.  And THAT’s why it’s so important that Jews pray together on Rosh Hashanah.

        The lost tribes are right here.  The lost tribes ARE us. 

        And as long as we remember who we are – the lost tribes will never be lost again.

No comments: