Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Friday, October 7, 2022
Yom Kippur Sermons: "A Bridge in Prague: A Doctrine of Non-Detachment" & "Do You Speak Jewish?"
In This Moment
Below are my Yom Kippur sermons, text and video. Enjoy!
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
A Bridge in Prague: A Doctrine of Non-Detachment
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Yom Kippur Day, 2022
Summary: In Judaism, attachment is the objective. Attachment to life, to our loved ones, to the ideals we cherish, and, yes, even to the material things that make those other attachments more real to us; things that are tangible, touchable, huggable, smellable, that pique our senses and make us feel completely alive and aware. Much of that awareness comes from loss. Life is a constant game of lost and found. There is not a moment of our lives when we are not losing something – and seeking to replace it.
A Bridge in Prague
For several nights Rabbi Eizikdreamed that he should go to Prague and begin digging under the royal bridge, for there he would find a great treasure. Eventually, he decided to make the long trek from Krakow where he lived. When he arrived there, he went directly to the royal bridge; but he noticed that soldiers were guarding the bridge day and night. So he circled it several times, but he was afraid to get close enough to dig underneath.
One of the soldiers saw him and asked what he was looking for near the bridge. When Rabbi Eizik told him the story of his dream, the soldier began to mock him and said, ‘I too, I also have an often-occurring dream. I dream that in the town of Krakow there’s a Jew named Rabbi Eizik, and that there’s a huge treasure buried under the stove in his home. But only a fool would have faith in the words of a dream.
Rabbi Eizik understood that Heaven had sent him to Prague so that the soldier could inform him that he had a great treasure in his house, buried beneath his stove. That in fact the treasure was his all along. He went back home, dug underneath it, and there he found a great fortune of gold coins. Rabbi Eizik thus became very wealthy and gave a large amount of tzedakah to the poor. He also gave a tremendous amount to his synagogue’s High Holidays appeal.
I love that story – it’s basically the Wizard of Oz, with payis. The hero journeys far and wide only to discover that the long-lost treasure was waiting at home all along. But Reb Eizik needed to take the journey to understand that.
The story has an interesting footnote. Five years ago, as our Beth El group was walking across the bridge to our hotel in Prague, perhaps the very same one from the story, Mara’s cell phone was stolen from her backpack.
Yes, it was just an object, but we felt violated. Helpless. We knew that phone would never be recovered. It was lost. We spent the next few hours doing all those things you do when your phone is stolen. We locked the phone remotely and recovered what photos we could. And then the customer service operator said one the kindest, most reassuring things I’ve ever heard from a representative of the phone company since Lilly Tomlin first proclaimed, “We’re the phone company. We don’t care.” This operator said, “Don’t worry. Your new phone will be waiting for you when you get home.”
And sure enough, when we got home a few weeks later, our treasure was awaiting us, on the kitchen counter, right next to the stove. Just like Rabbi Eizik. Only ours was in box marked T-Mobile.
I know, it was just a thing. But little did that customer service rep realize it, but she performed a big-time mitzvah in replacing that lost object. It has nothing to do with materialism or greed, for in Judaism, no-thing is ever simply a thing. Even inanimate objects are on a journey of sorts – toward being lost or being found.
Among the books I read this year was a beautifully written memoir by Kathryn Schultz, a writer for the New Yorker, entitled Lost and Found. It was also well-timed, because this Covid era has been a time of tremendous loss for people.
But even in normal times, we lose a lot of stuff. Schultz writes about how those seemingly insignificant losses help to prepare us for the more painful losses to come, which for her culminated in the loss of her father. On average, people misplace roughly nine objects per day – which means that I have lost approximately 213,671 things in my life. We’re talking cellphones, musical instruments, yarmulkes, dreidels, pens, flash drives, books, cameras, socks – lots of socks, and – ok, passwords, plus the page where I wrote down the passwords so I wouldn’t forget them.
Schultz says that while many of those losses can be regained, what can never be regained is the time spent looking for the missing objects. In the US, that amounts to some fifty-four million hours spent searching per day. Estimated cost, domestically, 30 billion dollars a year – on cellphones alone (I couldn't believe it either - see Lost and Found, p.13 - see below).
Some spiritual traditions believe that losing so many items helps us to develop skills of non-attachment, which helps to cultivate self-mastery, reduce stress and achieve inner peace. We have to learn to accept our losses graciously, and not to be overly committed to possessions in the first place.
But there’s something robotic about non-attachment. Something not natural. Scientists say that as far as Artificial Intelligence has come, robots can still not feel attachment. That’s good - though we can become attached to them. Like the robot at Stop and Shop. Marty. I have had conversations with Marty. And I can swear, I once saw a tear in Marty’s googly eye when there was yet another cleanup on aisle five. Always aisle five!
I must confess. I’ve never been able to attach myself to non-attachment. But I don’t think the Torah wants us to. In fact, the key to understanding loss in Judaism came to me a few months ago, when I lost the key - to my car. Now in truth I’ve lost far more important things over the past few years. No question about that. But the loss of this key was sort of a turning point. Because it just disappeared, as if into thin air. I put it in the same place every single night. And one morning I looked in that spot – and it was not there.
Gone. Vanished. And of course, I had recently misplaced the backup key and hadn’t gotten around to replacing that. And this was one of those special keys that needs to be programmed by a computer and half of NASA is involved. And to replace it would cost $600. So, I was stuck. I cannot estimate how many hours I wasted looking for that key. Not totally wasted, because I figured I could recoup some of the time if I used the story in a High Holidays sermon. Then I could write it off (just kidding). I mean, I looked everywhere. Under the seat. In the garage door. The bridge in Prague. I followed the dogs around the yard for three days, to see if one of them might have swallowed it. No key.
And by the way, Cobie, the youngest of the three Hammerpoodles, is a real maven at finding things. Sometimes when we let him out, he runs right over to the bushes in the backyard, sticks his long nose way in – and comes out with a tennis ball, like pulling a rabbit out of his hat. It’s like he had been scheming all night about getting that ball – obsessing over something lost, like we do. And like Rabbi Eizik, he always finds the treasure.
I don’t know if losing little things prepares us for bigger losses, but it definitely prepares us for Yom Kippur. Nothing says, “You are a flawed, incompetent, bungling ignoramus” more than losing a car key and having no spare. It really makes you feel limited. Every loss renders someone a loser. Schultz talks about how profoundly humbling it is. It forces us to confront our limitations and how powerless we are to protect our loved ones when it matters most and to prevent change from happening.
It makes us realize that no matter how much we try to control our environment, loss happens. We try so hard to manage our things – but no matter how much we try, we are prisoners of the law of entropy.
Schultz writes, “A lost wallet, a lost treasure, a lost father, a lost species: as different as these were, they and every other missing thing suddenly seemed fundamental to the problem of how to live – seemed, in being gone, to have something urgent to say about being here.”
She says we need to lose things, because, “Above all, it forces us to confront the limits of existence: the fact that, sooner or later, it is in the nature of almost everything to vanish or perish.”
“So many losses routinely precede the final one now: loss of memory, mobility, autonomy, physical strength, intellectual aptitude…and perhaps above all…the feeling that we are still becoming, that there are things left in this world we may yet do.”
They say we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff – to a degree that’s true. But we still do. And I think that’s important. Because it prepares us for a life of non-detachment. When we sweat the small stuff, in some way that is teaching us that nothing is truly small. The Talmud says it explicitly:
Do not underrate the importance of anything, for there is no person who does not have their hour, and there is no-thing without its place.
But I can state unequivocally that in Judaism, attachment is the objective. Attachment to life, to our loved ones, to the ideals we cherish, and, yes, even to the material things that make those other attachments more real to us, things that are tangible, touchable, huggable, smellable, that pique our senses and make us feel completely alive and aware. From a toddler’s first Pooh Bear to the tallis we choose to be buried with. Think of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, and that overpowering moment when her crown was removed from the top of her casket – there was actually something very Jewish about that moment, steeped in ritual, demonstrating how our lives are saturated in the sanctity of things.
Our Torah scrolls have crowns too. Think of how powerful it is to kiss the Torah, to remove that crown and open up the scroll to reveal the sacred word.
Assorted Torah Crowns
This sermon is my case for a doctrine of non-Detachment.
So a few days after I lost that car key, I gave up and went down to the car dealer with my tail between my legs. The guy laughed at me for losing the backup too, and $600 dollars later they made me a new key. And then, one month later, I lost my car.
What I mean is, I traded it in. It had nearly 200,000 miles on it and while Priuses can go forever, it was time. Inflation and interest rates were beginning to rise and I didn’t want to get stuck – so, new car. And I had to hand over that brand new $600 key that I’d just had made. And the car, the old car, that still had my kids’ college bumper stickers and a napkin from Dunkin Donuts from 2013 and a glove compartment filled with old yarmulkes and black shiva ribbons. I had to say goodbye to the car.
It was not easy. I do not non-attach very well.
Life is a constant game of lost and found. There is not a moment of our lives when we are not losing something – and seeking to replace it. Every breath is an exercise in losing and gaining. Every tick of the clock is a lost opportunity, and a reminder of our impermanence.
The rabbis understood this. One of the most important mitzvot is what is called “Hashavat Aveida” returning lost items. Pages and pages of the Talmud are devoted to it, in tractate Bava Metzia. It’s a beautiful mitzvah. If we find a lost object, not only are we obligated to return it to the rightful owner, but we are also forbidden from ignoring it. We have to consider the feelings of our neighbor, even if that neighbor is our enemy. In this sense, the “lost possession” is the friendship itself, and the commandment is to turn an enemy back into a friend.
It's a real chutzpah move - the rabbis say that the entire purpose of this mitzvah is to “subdue the evil inclination.” This mitzvah of returning lost objects becomes a vehicle to making us better people. It’s a twofer – we have to overcome both greed and enmity toward that neighbor. And that can only happen if those objects have value – if, in other words, there is attachment. This pillar of Jewish morality is based on the presumption that we love our cattle, our jewelry, our Pooh Bears and blankies – and we would be eternally grateful if they are returned.
When we look at a tragedy like last week’s hurricane, of course our focus is on the loss of life – but the Torah is telling us that there’s a real mitzvah to be had in helping those who have lost their possessions. That’s no small thing. State Rep. Spencer Roach, a Republican whose district represents a portion of Lee County told Politico, “I lost everything I own. I have two pairs of jeans, four shirts and a pair of shoes to my name. Everything is gone.” I wonder why Politico needed to mention his party in identifying him. The mitzvah is to help both your friend and your opponent. If Politico had been following the Torah, it shouldn’t have mattered.
Curiously, the Torah’s command to return items - "va-hasheivota lo" (Devarim 22;2), is repeated twice. Commentators infer from that the idea that the Torah sees this mitzvah of returning things, to include even saving lives. Maimonides, in his commentary to the Mishna (Nedarim 4:4), goes even further, taking from these rulings not only the obligation to save a life, but for a doctor to heal a patient. All of this comes from the single mitzvah of Hashavat Aveida – returning things. Reinstating a friendship, restoring life, returning someone to good health. All this from sweating the small stuff!
Being realists, the rabbis had to determine the point when an owner of a found object would just give up. When should one accept that something is lost? If someone finds my car key now, with no identifiable markings, can they just assume that the rightful owner has given up – or that I bought a new car? The rabbis called that ye’ush – despair. The general rule is that the original's owner’s ye’ush releases the object into the public domain, thereby allowing a finder to keep it.
You might recall from Rosh Hashanah thatNachman of Bratzlav also spoke about ye’ush. He said, Assur l’hityaesh!It is forbidden to despair! We should never fully give up hope on recovering what we’ve lost. He went even further, implying that what seems lost is never really lost at all.
Perhaps there is a bigger picture that we are not seeing, a future world where we will be reunited with our socks and keys. Or with our parents. Or perhaps there is a deeper reality in this world where the underlying bonds that connect us are indeed unbreakable. Beneath the surface, everything is linked.
For there is most definitely a spiritual side to material things.
In a film recently shown on PBS calledLove and Stuff, filmmaker Judith Helfand discusses the agonizing process of breaking up her departed mother’s apartment, a process so many of us can relate to. She’s a saver, much like me. “But would I ever use the pewter,” she asks, “Or my mom’s favorite pressed glass cereal bowls, or my mother’s mother’s meat grinder?” Or her baby teeth. What do you do with that? Does the tooth fairy give compound interest?
I could relate to Helfand’s dilemma. When I downsized my mother to a new apartment, we ended up stacking the new place with so many boxes of stuff that we just couldn’t bear to part with, that my 90-year-old mother had to climb over boxes to get to the couch. It was a little excessive, but like Helfand, I can’t throw anything out.
It’s really going to hit home now, as we prepare to move from a house where we’ve lived for over thirty years. I will have to revisit, one more time, those boxes of my mom’s stuff that now sit in my basement. I’ve barely touched them since her death four years ago this month. With each thing I toss, it will be the equivalent of an added Unetane Tokef – “Who shall live and who shall die?” but with cassette tapes and old Life Magazines – and the heart shaped cake pan she used every year for her son’s Valentine’s Day birthday. With each thing I discard a little bit of my mom will die once again.
Love and Stuff | Op-Docs | The New York Times
Helfand comments, “I couldn’t bring myself to go through my mom’s stuff when she was alive. It was only afterward that I realized how much fun we could have had if I’d just listened to her and gone through all her stuff with her! I found her wedding invite list, the packing list from her honeymoon, photos of her favorite tantes (Yiddish for aunts), her mother’s favorite cooking utensils. We actually could have had a great time. It would have generated stories—practical, spiritual, and grounded in family lore and my mother’s uncanny wisdom, wit, and language. We could have organized the stuff by theme, era, her side of the family, my dad’s side of the family, secrets, gifts from my father she loved or loathed but never told him, and all her unspoken cooking tricks that I never stopped to learn—using the pots and pans I would inevitably keep.”
The sanctity of things goes beyond objects, to the realm of the senses. At another point in the film, Helfand, much younger, is about to move out of her childhood home and on a video asks her mom to recreate the squeaking sound that she and her dad would make when they open the front door.
And it made me recall the sacred sounds of my youth. The crying screech of the rotisserie making a chicken on Friday afternoon. I never ate it. But I loved that sound. Or the slow clomp of my dad’s heavy steps climbing the stairs at night. And the unmistakable musty smell of my grandmother’s old couch.
Our emotions are so totally enmeshed in things, things that can be seen, heard, held, tasted and smelled. These are the lost treasures buried by the stove.
It is called the Proust effect, how objects, especially smells, trigger memories, and it is not all surprising that Marcel Proust had Jewish ancestry (though he never considered himself to be a Jew). He wrote, “The smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls...bearing resiliently on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.” Researchers have demonstrated how memories are triggered by our senses – and those senses are triggered by things. I see it all the time with people suffering from dementia, who may not remember what they did five minutes before; but show them their grandfather’s kiddush cup and start singing the blessings, and they’ll remember it by heart.
Perhaps no other object evokes more personal responses, especially for Jews, than books. The journalist Ari L. Goldman recently wrote of the legacy of Philip Birnbaum, the editor of an iconic siddur, who died in 1988. It turns out the name Philip – with one L - was misspelled on his gravestone in a Westchester cemetery but that no one had noticed for all these years.
Birnbaum had no heirs and while he was a well-known author, no one visited his grave – or at least no one thought to remove the extra L from his name. I used his siddur every morning while a teen when I would put on tefillin, so his book has a special place for me too. When I see that book, I think of my cat Venus, who used to sleep in her basket on the corner of my desk near the window, purring next to me when I prayed. Goldman wrote about how his later mother would regularly kiss her Birnbaum siddur, both before and after she prayed. He writes, “On its cover and many of its pages I can still see her lipstick.”
Perhaps that is why Jews never destroy holy books. We bury them, like people. It is through ritual practices like the burial and kissing of our holy books and mezuzahs and Torah scrolls that we demonstrate how God’s sacred presence extends to inanimate objects. Martin Buber wrote of how you can love a tree. Even more, a book.
I’m pleased to note that Philip Birnbaum’s gravestone has been fixed.
In the first word of the mitzvah Hashevat Aveda, you can find the root letters for Teshuvah, repentance.The act of Teshuvah is the ultimate return of a lost object. It restores a sense of priorities, a renewed integrity, a connection to one’s past. The 19th century Hasidic sage known as the Sefat Emet says that every day a heavenly voice announces that a valuable lost object — the Torah – has been found and is waiting to be claimed. We are all lost objects, lost in the woods, but we can find our way out with the help of teshuvah, tefilla and tzedakah, along with grandma’s hallah recipe. We can find ourselves, through the smells, the touch, the sight, and the memories, which provide the key to a deeper purpose for our lives.
EM Forster said, “Only connect.”To which Judaism adds, “Never detach in the first place. And if your neighbor has lost something precious, whether their health, their parent or life partner or their grandmother’s meat grinder – or their Jewish connection - return it to your neighbor.
With so many happy returns, the only thing we have to lose is loss itself! For those who advise us to leave things behind, to get over it, my response is, yes, we can leave behind the burdens of trauma, guilt and excessive regret, but we should keep close to our hearts, in some form, the things and people that we love.
I read this summer of a little girl in Boston named Havi, who was diagnosed at 15 months with Tay Sachs after a tragic mistake in her parents’ genetic screening. When her parents got this news they were devastated and knew she would die within a couple of years, but they refused to give in to loss.
People, including Havi’s mother Myra’s own rabbi, had warned the parents that they should begin to detach to protect themselves as their daughter was sliding from life. Otherwise, they would emotionally be unable to take it, and they would crash. But they did just the opposite.
They found new ways to intensify their bond to their daughter and her life experience. They actually compressed time. Every week became a year. Every Shabbat became a birthday.They called it a Shabbirthday. They stared down detachment. They kept blowing up the balloons, every week, daring them to burst.
And they had a lot of cake. They couldn’t miss a single Shabbat, even if one coincided with Yom Kippur. So, on Yom Kippur they had a picnic at the beach with blueberry smoothies, as Havi played among the autumn leaves and smelled the scent of ocean air. Havi had 57 Shabbirthdays before she finally succumbed to the disease. Her parents are still celebrating her Shabbirthdays, complete with smoothies and cake and today, I would guess, another walk on the beach for Yom Kippur.
Havi’s parents are the embodiment of what Nachman of Bratzlav was talking about. They never gave in to loss. As Myra put it, they decided to “celebrate the (blank) out of her …That’s how we live. From one Shabbirthday to the next. And that’s it.”
You know, all those so-called experts say we should all be constantly decluttering and shed the excess junk that is weighing us down. You know the 20/20 rule? “Anything we get rid of that we truly need, we can replace for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes from our current location.” Does that include my childhood prayer book? Or all the photo albums they had to leave behind in Fort Myers Beach last week? Letting go should never be easy. Each loss reminds of the ultimate truth of the human condition. We fight like heck – and loss always wins. It’s nice to be neat, but clutter is not the enemy. Mortality is. Time is. Unless, like Myra, we learn to embrace it. One Shabbirthday to the next.
Kathryn Schultz writes, “Over and over loss calls on us to reckon with this universal impermanence, with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, just gone.”
Our time together will soon run out as well. After Rosh Hashanah, some mentioned that they were blindsided by my discussion of leaving, as they hadn’t seen my announcement of my plans. Given that my announcement last month came out literally an hour before the announcement of the Queen’s passing, some confusion was inevitable. Ethan, my eldest, called me and asked whether he was now first in the line of succession to be the next rabbi.
When I leave my active service at Temple Beth El there will be a sense of loss. I’m feeling it already and sensing it from many of you. It came and went in a blink. But wherever I go, the holiness of this 36-year-and- counting relationship will continue to reverberate. We’ll grieve for what’s lost, but we’ll also celebrate what we still have. George Washington never actually said, “We’re gonna teach ‘em how to say goodbye.” That was Lin Manuel Miranda. But we’re not going to do that anyway. In Hebrew, there is no word that just means “goodbye.”
One Last Time" - Hamilton At The White House
We’re gonna teach them how to say Shalom – which is the most brilliant word ever invented. Shalom is the answer to Nachman of Bratzlav’s riddle. What does it mean when he says that there is no such thing as ye’ush? That nothing lost is really lost? That we should never give in to despair?
Shalom is the answer. Our word for goodbye has “a little hello in it,” as my father used to sing. That same word contains a little hello, a little goodbye, and a whole lot of wholeness and peace. Inner peace: that’s what NON-attachment was supposed to bring about. But Shalom is the ultimate attachment of all the puzzle parts. It makes everything whole and that’s where we will be. Complete.
I began these holidays with the assertion that some call this a “break glass moment” for the world. And it probably is. The losses have been beyond measure. But for Jews, every moment is also a break the glass moment. A time to celebrate all our attachments, to those dead and alive, lost and rediscovered, living and inanimate. And as we blow up another balloon and revel in another Shabbirthday, let’s take a good hard look under the stove. For surely there is buried treasure to be found there. And it’s something very sacred.
Could be a cake pan. Could be a prayer book. Could be a tennis ball. Could be a friendship.
And it could be ourselves – or to be more precise, the person we used to be, the person who was lost years and years ago, and then was found, wandering on a bridge in Prague.
The Charles Bridge in Prague
Photo taken on TBE trip in 2017
Linking the two sermons: Jewish sacred objects (above)
My well-worn and equally sacred bookshelves (below)
Do You Speak Jewish?
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Kol Nidre 2022
Summary: A call for Jewish literacy, for "speaking Jewish." We rightly bemoan the banning and burning of books. But how much better is it if we collectively forfeit our library cards? How much better is it if our books remain unopened, we allow our Jewishness to grow rusty and never pass it on to the next generation?
One of the highlights of our services every High Holidays has got to be Marc Schneider’s superb sounding of the shofar. Every time he reaches for the heavens with his tekiah gedola – like the cantor with her voice, there is such a buzz in the room.
Last week, the day after Rosh Hashanah, a congregant came by and she gave Marc the ultimate compliment. Some of the people watching in her house thought he was playing the trumpet! The sound was just too pure, too refined, to be the wild and uncontrollable bleat of the shofar. I assured her that indeed it was the real thing – he’s just that good.
But it reminded me of one of my favorite classic Hasidic tales, and since we’re not going to hear the shofar again for another 24 hours, this will have to tide us over.
It’s about an illiterate farm boy, who, for the first thirteen years of his life, he never once entered a shul. On Yom Kippur of his thirteenth year – it was time.
All around him the people at the Baal Shem Tov’ssynagogue davvenedwith great passion, but not knowing anything about what they were doing, the boy grew bored. Feeling his sheep-herder’s whistle in his pocket, he asked his father if he could blow on it. Naturally, his father refused. Another hour passed, and again the boy asked for permission to play his whistle. Again, his father refused, and he took the whistle from his son and placed it in his own pocket. As the Neilah service began, the boy noticed the whistle sticking out of his father’s pocket. He grabbed his whistle, took in a great gulp of air, and blew a long and loud blast.
Shocked and frightened by the sudden sound, the congregation fell silent. Only theBaal Shem Tov continued to davven, this time more joyously than before. When the service concluded, the man took his son to apologize to the Baal Shem Tov for disrupting the service.
“On the contrary,” the Baal Shem Tov said, “there was no disruption. The pure simplicity of the boy’s blowing enabled all our prayers to reach the gates of heaven.
I have always loved that story, and for a whole slew of reasons. For one, it spoke to the Hasidic focus on kavvanah, intensity, and focus in prayer, which is more important than liturgical correctness. For another, it spoke to the fact that we are all equal in the eyes of God. A simple illiterate child has just as much to contribute and indeed might save us all. And I loved the idea of that being especially true when speaking of those who are intellectually challenged, as I imagine this child to have been.
What a great story. If anyone has a shepherd’s whistle out there, let ‘r rip!
But you know what? The Baal Shem Tov was wrong. Well, not exactly wrong, but incomplete. And it took me ‘til now to understand that.
I should actually have known it the day I met Mara’s great aunt, Betty, of blessed memory. The matriarch of the family. She had no kids of her own, so everyone was her kid, so when her grandniece brought home a guy who was thinking of becoming a rabbi, well, it was very important that I impress Aunt Betty.
So, we walk into her home and that’s filled with beautiful old things – glassware, tea set, things from the old country. Lots of doilies. And before you know it, she says some expression in Yiddish.
Now I don’t speak Yiddish. Yiddish is what my parents spoke when they didn’t want me to understand. Like my whole generation. (By the way: How dumb was that? “Let’s kill part of our culture so we can kvetch to each other about our kids”).
But my parents’ generation thought Yiddish was a dying language, and they wanted their kids, and their Judaism, to be All-American. Anyway, it was pretty clear pretty quickly that I had no idea what Aunt Betty was saying.
So, Betty turned to me, tilted her head a bit and asked, “Do you speak Jewish?”
Of course, when she said “Jewish” she meant “Yiddish,” but I had to say to her, “No, I do not speak Jewish.” I wasn’t actually in rabbinical school yet, but still she was dumbfounded, and I got off on the wrong foot with Aunt Betty. “A rabbi who doesn’t speak Jewish?”
Spoiler alert, I married her grandniece anyway and Betty, of blessed memory, grew to kind of like me.
And so, the question I have for everyone in this room is the one that shook me when Betty asked it. Do you speak Jewish? It’s not enough to hum a few bars – or to take out your shepherd’s whistle and blow. You gotta speak the language. The language of Jewish.
But of course, that’s what Kol Nidre is all about: the power of words. Words matter. Vows matter. Once words are said or written, you can’t take them back. They are released out there to the world. Sticks and stones may break our bones – But sometimes words can hurt even more!
Words are destructive, but they are also magical and creative. How magical? The expression Abra Kadabra is a translation of the Aramaic for “I create as I speak.” The first key prayer of the preliminary service every morning is ברוך שאמר והיה העולם, “Blessed is the One who spoke, and the world came to be.” Words beget worlds. We create through speech, just as God does. Words have infinite power. Words matter.
Words give us our marching orders, they establish order. Words are the key to everything. The word for wilderness is “Midbar,” which is spelled exactly like the word “medaber,” to speak. It is through speech that we make our way from aimless wandering to a purposeful procession.
And the key to being Jewish is to be able to speak Jewish words. For the Jewish people to grow and thrive, and for each individual Jew to flourish Jewishly, we need a common language, a basic literacy. We all need to speak Jewish better.
[The American Hebraists] may have been wrong about Hebrew being the measure of all things…—but they were surely correct in seeing Hebrew as the deep structure of Jewish civilization, its DNA, as it were.
Hebrew (is) a bridge that spans many cleavages: between classical Judaism and the present, between religious and secular Jews, and between Israel and the Diaspora. …Any Jewish society that takes place largely in translation runs the risk of floating free of its tether to Jewish authenticity.
“What a pity,” Cynthia Ozick writes, “that there is an absence of Jewish literacy in a population renowned for its enduring reverence for learning.”
I am a firm believer that we need to be re-tethered to Hebrew. That’s why our services are still almost entirely in Hebrew. It’s not easy to follow, but it’s authentic and praying in Hebrew enables a Jew to feel at home in any synagogue anywhere in the world. Modern Hebrew connects us to other Jews too. You may have noticed that I almost always include Hebrew in my weekly email, oftentimes highlighting the front-page headlines of an Israeli newspaper. And you’ll see a lot of Hebrew in the texts of my sermons, with extensive links leading to the original sources. I’ve always seen it as my mission to reconnect you a to our heritage.
Unless we start taking Hebrew literacy seriously again, we will lose that authenticity, and our kids will be untethered to a precious treasure that they never knew was theirs.
Hebrew traces its roots way back to the beginnings of language. When people ask me whether Jews believe the world is really just 5,783 years old, my response is that, for me, that number doesn’t go back to the Creation but to the beginnings of civilization as we know it, and that means language. Experts believe Sumerian to be the oldest known language, dating back to about 3,500 BCE. That was just about 57 centuries ago. Sumarian came from the same place as the ancient Hebrews – southern Mesopotamia. One of its key city states was Ur – where Abraham grew up.
Our language is holy precisely because it forms that link to all languages. Kids are blown away when I explain to them how old Hebrew is. We can barely get through a sentence of Shakespeare without a dictionary, and those passages were written just four centuries ago. But any Israeli 10-year-old can pick up a 3,000-year-old psalm and understand every single word. Every Jewish child here - and adult - needs to be able to tap into that power – or we haven’t done our job.
But Aunt Betty was right: speaking Jewish goes way beyond Hebrew, and it reflects not only the entirety of the history of civilization, but also spans the entire scope of human experience today, everywhere in the world. If you want to truly speak Jewish, you need to know that at last count, there are at least 61 Jewish languages. And amazingly, Yiddish is making a comeback. Just last week, the Washington Post reported that during the pandemic, more than 300,000 people registered to learn Yiddish on Duolingo, a language learning app.
That list of Jewish languages list does not include English. But it could. Here is a partial list of Yiddish words that are now found in various English dictionaries: chutzpah; dreck; gonif; gelt; kibitz; klutz; kosher; kvetch; kvell; maven; megillah; mensch; nebbish; nosh; schlep; schlock; schmatte; schmuck; schnoz; shammis; shtick; spiel; tchothke; tsuris; yenta; zaftig.
Most of these words are untranslatable. They reflect how Jewish ideas and values have seeped into the prevailing culture. For example, I’ve talked a lot of how the word mensch has replaced the Germanic ideal of male dominance with a softer, kinder, more – menschy model for masculinity. I even wrote a bookabout it.
So, let’s focus on these Yiddishisms, and how some of these words can help us to “speak Jewish.”
Let’s start with kvetch and kvell. They sound so alike, and yet they are opposite. Most Jewish parents have developed the unique skill about being able to kvetch and kvell about their children at the same time!
One writer wrote about how the “Kvetch or Kvell Conundrum”has become a key factor in synagogue life, especially after Yom Kippur, writing, “After 25 hours of Yom Kippur dedicated to exploring how we could improve our relationships with others, why do so many make kvetching their first order of business?”
So, this year, the author suggests that we buck the trend:
Make the first order of business… to kvell to the people who guided you into the new year… Wait three days before sending along the kvetches. If, after three days, the kvetches still seem to be important and relevant, then send them along; but only if you first sent along a message of kvelling and then only if sandwiched between a bunch of praises, and only with the compassion worthy of a newly minted sin–free Jew.
Now kvetching does have its advantages, but only if done correctly. Kvetching is enjoyable and cathartic, when it is properly theatrical and done from a place of self-awareness, and never with malice. There is an art to a good kvetch.
Next word: Do you really want to speak Jewish? You gotta have Sechel.
It was one of my dad’s favorite words, primarily because he bemoaned the fact that no one seemed to have it. He kvetched about it.
But you know who had it? Of all people, Marlon Brando had it. He wrote in his autobiography…about the transformative role Jews played in his personal development in the 1940s. He said, “There’s a Yiddish word, sechel, that provides a key explaining the most profound aspects of Jewish culture. It means to pursue knowledge and to leave the world a better place than when you entered it… It must be this cultural tradition that accounts for their amazing success… the one constant that survived while the Jews were dispersed around the world.”
If only Brando had admiration his love of Judaism to the next level! If only he had been Jewish! Just imagine the possibilities for some of his biggest scenes:
Brando did have some tense moments with the Jewish community, but he did real teshuvah. He was a mensch. Like a sandek at a bris. Anyone who’s been through our 7th grade lifecycle curriculum knows what a sandek is. I’ll give you a hint. Better yet, I’ll give you an offer – that you can’t refuse. It’s fascinating how the Hebrew title for the film “The Godfather” is HaSandek. And I’m imagining Israelis in 1972 lining up to see the movie and wondering who the mohel was going to be.
"Hopefully, he’ll do a clean job. Not too bloody!"
Some translate sechel as common sense, but it’s more than that. It’s the ability to think for oneself. Sechel is derived from the word meaning to be bright or see clearly. Haskalah is enlightenment. In the Bible the wise or enlightened are known as maskilim, from the same root. The maskilim are said to shine like the sky (Daniel 12:3), and King David was described as maskil, for his poetry combined with political and military acumen. Sechel first appears in the third chapter of Genesis, when Eve comments that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is “desirable as a means to wisdom l’haskil.” Here the Bible introduces the moral lesson that wisdom can be used for good or for evil, a theme found in later Jewish texts as well.
A maskil is the complete package. And most often, a maskil is also --- a mensch.
There’s a Yiddish saying: “With a horse you look at the teeth; with a person, you look at their sechel.”
But if you see a horse while watching The Godfather, you’re not really looking at the teeth.
Another saying: “Ask advice from everyone, but act with your own sechel.”
Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past. It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. …not only between left and right, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families. Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people.
It's a fascinating essay, about how we’ve been dummied down by social media, one click at a time, one “like” at a time.
If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.
I agree with Heidt that we have lost much of the capacity to think for ourselves. We lost the capacity to assess success or failure except through the transactional world of algorithms that are determined for us. We became cogs in a much bigger machine. We gave up our privacy, too. But that’s incidental, because we had already given up our capacity to make wise, considered, reasoned decisions.
In short, my dad was right. We’ve lost sechel.
We lost derech eretz too. And that’s our next word. Derech eretz, which literally means the “way of the land,” is sechel plus tact times empathy. All that equals common decency. It’s what tells us not to dispose our chewing gum under the desk-cover at school, or to prank order twenty pizzas. Derech eretz tells us to park within the lines at the supermarket and return the shopping cart to the bay. Or in Pirke Avot, the call to greet others before they can greet you and not to enter someone’s home without knocking. There’s a whole category of lawregarding Derech eretz.
Our society has lost sechel and derech eretz and we’ve also lost hesed. Lovingkindness. Judith Shklar, a Latvian Jewish philosopher and the first woman tenured in Harvard’s Government Department, wrote extensively about freedom – her family having escaped both Stalin and Hitler. In her most famous work,Ordinary Vices, she argues that cruelty, not pride or envy or any of the other so called seven deadly sins, is actually the worst human vice. Those other transgressions are primarily directed against God, but, she says, “cruelty – the willful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anguish and fear - is a wrong done entirely to another creature.” Writer Adam Serwer has popularized the expression, “The Cruelty is the Point.”
But for Jews, the hesed is the point. It is more than an emotion, like love, and more than an action, like kindness. It’s both. If you look up loving-kindness, in fact, an expression sort of awkward and rarely found in English, the definition will refer you back to hesed. It’s a word that is a key theme in the book of Ruth.
A quick word about my final Yiddish expression, Tzuris. Tzuris is noteworthy in that it is in the plural, from the Hebrew tzarot. For Jews, it’s never enough to complain about just one trouble. If you’ve only got one trouble, we don’t want to hear about it. You’re ahead of the game. You won the lottery. River City just had trouble, in the singular. They never had tzuris! Sorry, Professor Hill. Nobody knows the tzuris we've seen!
“Guay de mi” - The equivalent of the universally applicable “oy.”
“Haberes buenos” - “Good news,” for those rare optimistic moments.
“Bavajadas” - “Nonsense
“Las anyadas non azen sezudos, eyas non azen ke viejos”
“The years don’t make people wise, they just make them old.”
And “Kuando se eskurese es para amaneser”
“When it’s dark out, that’s because dawn is coming.” I like that one.
OK. How about some Amharic, the language of Ethiopian Jews.
This term is used to express extreme satisfaction that something good or bad has happened. If someone who was lunging to hurt you trips and falls, you emphatically say: issey! cheering on the instant karma that has struck them down and further dissuading them to never try or do that again. But be careful when you use issey! to celebrate others’ misfortune.
Balagan – often the first word people learn after moving to Israel, balagan means “mess” or “disorder”. “It was a balagan in the supermarket”.
Yesh! –in official Hebrew, yesh simply means “there is”. However, its colloquial use is akin to saying “yes!” or “wohoo!” such as when your team scores a goal.
And there are some Arabic words that are now part of the Hebrew vernacular, like Achla – an adjective meaning “great” or “superb,” and Yala, which means, yala. Let’s get on with it.
And finally, there is the ubiquitous Nu. Another Yiddish based word, nucan be heard in almost every conversation in Israel. It’s used to mean ‘come on’, e.g. ‘Nu, what are we waiting for?’ It’s also used to mean ‘spit it out’ when someone is taking a while to get to the point.
Nu has so many nu-ances that it’s a language unto itself. Here’s a conversation that could take place with just that word:
"Nu?” says Farber
"Nu," says Lipshitz
"Nu!" says Farber
"Nu??" says Lipshitz
"Nu?!!" says Farber
"Alright, already!” says Lipshitz. “Monday I'll send the check!"
Here's the translation:
"Nu?” says Farber “I want the gelt you owe me already. So when?”
"Nu," says Lipshitz “I need a reminder?”
"Nu!" says Farber “Obviously, as I haven’t seen a nickel!”
"Nu??" says Lipshitz “So you’re calling me a thief??”
"Nu?!!" says Farber “Well what would you call it if I owed you for six months?!!”
"Alright, already!” says Lipshitz. Monday I'll send the check!"
Jews in the Kurdish region of Iran spoke Jewish Neo-Aramaic. Here's a Rosh Hashanah greeting in the Sanandaj dialect, also known as Hulaulá.
Shatakhún brikhtá hawyá
שתוכון בריכתא הויא
Your year blessed be
Romaniote Jews, centered in Ioannina but found in several locations throughout Greece, spoke Jewish varieties of Greek. Here's a modern Judeo-Greek new year’s greeting:
Chronia polla, kai kali chronia
Many years and good years
Bukharian, also known as Judeo-Tajik or Bukhori, is a language in the Persian family originally spoken by the Jewish communities of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. A Bukharian Rosh Hashanah greeting:
Soli nav mo(bo)rak boshad
סאָלי נוו מבּאָרךּ בּאָשד
Соли нав муборак бошад
Have a blessed new year.
Jews in Iran spoke various regional languages from the Median language family, such as Judeo-Yazdi, Judeo-Kashani, and Judeo-Isfahani. In the 20th century, most acquired standard Persian, but they continued to use influences from their previous languages, especially Hebrew words. Here's a Rosh Hashanah greeting sequence from the Tehran Jewish community in the late 20th century.
Moadim shālom; [Response:] sad sāl be sālhāye khoob
Times of peace; 100 years of good years
Sounds good to me!
As Cynthia Ozick put it, “History is linked to heritage, and heritage—preeminently its expression in language—is what most particularly defines a civilization.”
Or, in the immortal words of Aunt Betty, “Do you speak Jewish?”
Now you do. And with all due respect to the Baal Shem Tov, it’s not enough just to take out your shepherd’s whistle. Authentic prayer can take all forms. But Judaism is a highly literate faith. We are the people of the book. To water that down and to lose our literacy would be – to use another Jewish term, a great Shanda.
We rightly bemoan the banning and burning of books. But how much better is it if we collectively forfeit our library cards? How much better is it if our books remain unopened, we allow our Jewishness to grow rusty and never pass it on to the next generation?
“Vshinantam lvanecha, vdibarta bam” These words shall be in your heart, and You shall repeat them to your children and speak of them.”
That’s from the Sh’ma, the very first prayer we learn and the last one we say before we die.
Baruch Sheemar V’haya ha-olam. Blessed is the one who speaks, and worlds come into being.
So, nu, let’s resolve to speak more Jewish this year – and that means to speak more Jewish. Let’s make our Aunt Bettys burst with pride. Let’s make them Verklempt. And through that, let’s discover our common language, shared throughout the annals of civilization.
There is no time to waste. Yala – let’s get on with it.