Thanks to the efforts of our wonderful congregant Peter Gomori, a group of us will soon treat ourselves to a performance of Di Goldene Kale (The Golden Bride) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. It is being presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, and is one in a series of performances this week in Lower Manhattan celebrating Yiddish song, dance, theater, culture, history, food, neighborhood tours, and more, called YIDDUSH NEW YORK (click for schedule of events). For at least fifteen years, there was a huge gathering during this particular holiday week called “KlezKamp” at a hotel up in the Catskills. Of course, it was a play on the word “Klezmer,” the name for the type of music characteristic of the street musicians of Eastern Europe, and has become such a beloved medium, both within the Jewish community and out in general culture as well. (The word “Klezmer” is actually an amalgamated pronunciation of “Klei Zemer,” “instruments of song.”) But this year, the gathering upstate has moved its format and venue to Lower Manhattan, which of course has been the seething hub of Yiddish culture from the time it arrived here with the massive Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century.
During the Holocaust, some 80% of the Yiddish speaking population of Europe was brutally murdered by the Nazis. And, truth be told, the first generations American Jews made every effort to learn English, speak it with their children, and cast aside the Yiddish language and culture of their parents and grandparents, along with the baggage of ostracism and persecution in the Old World. In the years after the establishment of the State of Israel as well, the early generations of Israelis also rejected Yiddish as the language that was spoken on the way to the gas chambers. Nevertheless, history is like a pendulum in a number of respects, particularly as it has swung back and forth through successive generations of Jewish life. In the case of Yiddish, it has been the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Yiddish speakers, whether here, in Europe, or in Israel, who have virtually jumped onto the pendulum themselves and swung it with determination back to reclaim the treasures of an almost vanquished world. And, they have succeeded. The revival of the language, music, literature, politics, and cultural activity of this world, has been nothing less than miraculous.
As we know, Yiddish has a particular “ta’am” – a flavor, if you will, that is hard to duplicate exactly in translation. And we in New York particularly are fortunate that Yiddish language and culture still float in our air, if you will, to a much larger extent than elsewhere. Yiddish words and expressions have found their way into common parlance here in a way that most of us, whether Jewish or not, have come to take for granted.
In light of this, I must ask for a moment, my friends, to register my deep resentment at the crass remarks coming from Donald Trump this week, even though he is by no means the first in this regard. Politicians in past campaigns have also used such words through the years. I understand that Yiddish slang, particularly in its colorful array of words referring to male body parts, seems to punctuate certain conversations more satisfyingly than ordinary English vocabulary. Nevertheless, when this slang is used in public settings by those running for public office – President of the United States, no less – it takes on an even more offensive cast. Yes, Mr. Trump is from New York, and I’m sure he has come to think of Yiddish slang as nothing unusual. But in fact, there is a serious problem with it in my view. First, it is indeed crass language, and someone aspiring to hold the most powerful position on the world stage needs to figure out a more respectful and dignified way of expressing himself. But in addition, it smacks of an abuse of the richness and creativity of Yiddish language and culture itself; an abuse which portrays this culture with the vulgarity that has all too often been ascribed to Jewish people for over a thousand years now. (Not to mention the disrespect of these remarks to women AND to men.) In short, it is completely repulsive and unacceptable, and Mr. Trump, and anyone else who abuses their public notoriety in this way, should be roundly called into account.
With this said, I will now redirect our attention away from the crassness of Mr. Trump and others, to the more constructive and sophisticated activities going on in New York this week, and to the importance of kindling and rekindling our interest in the richness and vibrancy of Yiddish. Indeed, it is our rightful inheritance. And thus I say to one and all, Sholom Aleichem, and Aleichem Sholom!
On the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall this past Saturday evening, I joined a number of rabbinic colleagues and our various congregants, in addition to our friends and colleagues from the Christian and Muslim communities, for a demonstration of unity in light of the increasingly emboldened face of bigotry and hatred. One of the speakers who particularly impressed me was Linda Sarsour from the Arab American Association of New York. When she finished speaking she and I hugged, because we realized that we shared our name. But in addition, we share our desire to live in a country that embraces the core value of respect for the dignity of human beings, regardless of religion, gender, sexual preference, or ethnic background. As she stepped to the podium, some hecklers across the street raised their voices in agreement with Donald Trump’s expressed intention (IF he were given the chance to implement it) to exclude all members of the Muslim faith from entering America. When the heckling grew louder, a number of us – Jews, Muslims, Christians, women and men – drew closer and surrounded her in support, as she recounted the pressure and harassment that the Muslim community has had to endure, and continues to endure, here in America, where she was born.
A makeshift menorah was put together for the occasion by Eddie Ehrlich, whose brother Danny is the VP of Keshet Tours, and is organizing our trip to Israel this July. Eddie spoke eloquently about his father who had been expelled from Vienna by the Nazis, and found refuge here in America. Then he lit the menorah, which shone as a bright light of freedom against the darkness of bigotry and exclusion. Each one of us is a descendant of immigrants. Some of our ancestors, and perhaps even some of us, came to these shores seeking refuge from persecution, and in some cases, almost certain death. Some came seeking the possibility of a better life for themselves and their children – a life of economic, educational, social and professional opportunities that were closed to them in their countries of origin.
In our Torah portion this week, Joseph’s brothers have made the long journey down to Egypt to escape the famine that was blanketing the land of Israel, and most of the Ancient Near East. They were new to this place and unfamiliar with their surroundings. They had to plead their case before the Viceroy himself, who appeared as a threatening figure to them. Only after proving themselves worthy did the Viceroy reveal himself as their long-lost brother Joseph, whom they did not recognize, as his appearance was that of Egyptian royalty. This is the Torah’s etiology for how the Children of Israel came to be in Egypt. As we will read beginning in January, the sojourn there didn’t turn out so well.
This is a different time and place. But hopefully we have learned the lessons of history. As American Jews we continue to stand up and raise our voices against the scourge of bigotry, ostracism and persecution that threaten our values at this time.
Our Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah is taken from the prophet Zechariah, Chapter 4. It envisions the lampstand once again in the Temple in the Jerusalem, as the angel explains its meaning. Verse 6 proclaims: “Then he explained to me as follows: ‘This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel. Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit – said the LORD of Hosts.’’ We in the Reform Movement particularly know this verse as it was popularized in the beloved song by Debbie Friedman, ז”ל, “Not By Might, Not By Power,” with which (hopefully) all our Religious School and Youth Group kids are quite familiar. The primary verse of Debbie’s song goes: “Not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone shall we all live in peace!”
Debbie plays beautifully upon this verse from Zechariah, particularly since the Rabbis of the Talmudic period fixed this section as the Haftarah for this Shabbat. But, my friends, let’s be real. In actuality, the celebration of Chanukah is rooted in a major military victory by Judah the Maccabee and his foot soldiers, as they defeated the army of the Syrian despot Antiochus IV, who had defiled the Temple as he tried to prohibit the practice of Judaism in the land of Israel. “Chanukah,” as we remember, means “dedication.” When the Jews defeated the Syrians, Judah and his army held an eight-day festival to “rededicate” the Temple to the God of Israel on 25 Kislev, 165 BCE. That is history.
Not by might, nor by power? Not according to Judah the Maccabee! But as the Talmudic period progressed, Jewish observance had to become more insulated and systematized as it coped with the realities of Roman rule. As a result, the Rabbis became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating a military victory, as it might stimulate militaristic impulses among the Jews, which ultimately would be deleterious to their well-being as a community until something could realistically bring them out from under Roman rule. Extremism had no place in the community for the Rabbis. So the Rabbis looked at the rededication ceremony, which of course required pure olive oil for the lamps that flanked the altar of the Temple, and wrote into the Talmud the story of how, when Judah’s soldiers expelled the Syrians from the Temple, they only found one jar of pure olive oil, only enough for one night. But the Festival of Rededication would be an eight-day festival (most probably modeled upon the Festival of Sukkot). And then, THE MIRACLE! That single jar of oil lasted for eight days and nights to keep the lamps on the altar burning!
What, then, do the Rabbis encourage us to celebrate? Not raw military might, but the story of the miracle of the oil for rededication. As the letters on the draydl would indicate, NES GADOL HAYAH SHAM – A GREAT MIRACLE HAPPENED THERE. (By the way, the letters on Israeli draydls stand for NES GADOL HAYAH PO – A GREAT MIRACLE HAPPENED HERE!) It is a powerful message: the pursuit of peace is a more desirable aspiration for us as Jews.
Modern secular Zionists have rejected this pacifistic miracle-driven portrayal of this festival. This controversy continues among our people. Most of us are willing to acknowledge both the militarism of the history, and the more fantasy-driven miracle of the oil. Either way, the Festival of Chanukah is one of our most beloved as Jews, and brings its message of light into the darkness of the season, and of the times. And indeed, we are living in rather dark and dangerous times at this very moment. Thus we all hope that the lights of Chanukah will help to illumine our community and our world, particularly at this time of trouble.
A Chag Urim Sameach to all – a joyous Festival of Lights!
This week we begin the Joseph cycle within the Genesis narrative. Since his younger brother Benjamin has not been born as yet, Joseph is still the youngest of the sons of Jacob, the son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, and, as the text tells us, “the son of his old age.” And, he was his father’s favorite. In defiance of convention, Jacob designates Joseph as the one who will inherit his estate and the leadership of his people. Joseph’s brothers are understandably infuriated. When the opportunity presents itself, they throw Joseph into a pit, and then sell him to the Midianites, who take him off to Egypt. Once there, he is thrown into the dungeon as a slave.
We at Union Temple Planned share with you, and join in sentiments expressed in the Parenthood Clergy Advocacy Board statement and interfaith prayer in response to the violence at the Colorado Springs health center:
In the wake of the violent assault on the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We pray healing for the injured, comfort for those who mourn and give thanks for the devoted staff of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountain and first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to protect and defend their fellow citizens. We stand with Planned Parenthood and their continued commitment to provide care in the safe, supportive environment that millions of people rely on and trust for quality healthcare. We also pray for an end to the climate of violence and polarization that grips our nation — asking for the will and wisdom to overcome hatred with hope, fear with trust and violence with compassion.
And so we pray with heart and mind that God of many names, Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that all nations and peoples may make known your values of love, hope and justice. Amen.
On the weekend of November 14-15 almost thirty of us ventured on a bus trip to the Hudson Valley for a weekend excursion. I should acknowledge and thank Bob Newhouser and Mike Glikin for their impeccable organization of this trip. Our first stop was the FDR Home in Hyde Park, NY. One of the newsreels I have seen of President Roosevelt that stands out for me most vividly is that of him and his wife Eleanor seated at the head of a Thanksgiving Day table, as he carved a turkey with great skill and characteristically great good humor. The dinner took place in Warm Springs, GA, the site of Roosevelt’s home, known to many as “The Little White House.” Roosevelt built the house there because the water ostensibly had a salubrious effect during his rehabilitation from polio. Roosevelt used a sizable portion of his own personal fortune to build the Warm Springs Infantile Paralysis Foundation, and this Thanksgiving was also Founders’ Day of the institute. Roosevelt felt particularly comfortable at Warm Springs in the company of children and adults of all colors and creeds who were bound together by their affliction. They were all dealing with polio or similar conditions that caused levels of paralysis and disability. Roosevelt felt a special kinship to his friends in Warm Springs and much more free-spirited with the people with whom he shared this special bond. It is, of course, a bond that every single one of them would have wished they didn’t have to have. But they found support, help, love and acceptance in each other’s embrace, and that included the President of the United States.
We at Union Temple have been focusing on making our congregational home, and the programming within it, more accessible to people in our community who live with various kinds of disabilities, whatever they may be, and some are more readily apparent than others. As many of you are aware, we are being helped in this venture by the people at RespectAbilityUSA and UJA-Federation, who have awarded our congregation a sizable “Inclusion Grant,” which comes not only with a financial award but also with expert advice from professionals in this field, many of whom have gathered their expertise through personal experience.
As we gather this Thursday to celebrate Thanksgiving, it might be in order for us to give thanks not only for the food in front of us (we should of course do that), but also for our health and strength, and if need be, for those who extend a helping hand when we need them, to bring us fully into the life of the synagogue.
And so too, on this Festival of Thanksgiving, would it be completely in order, as we begin our meals, along with our Motzi as we break bread, to remember our gift of life and rejoicing:
ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם המוציא לחם מן הארץ
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Hamotzi Lechem Min Ha’aretz
Blessed are You, Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.
ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם שהחינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Shehecheyanu, V’kiy’manu, V’higiyanu Laz’man Hazeh
Blessed are You, Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, for giving us life, and sustaining us, and bringing us together to celebrate this wonderful occasion.
This past Friday night and Saturday, the peace of our Shabbat was pierced by the unspeakable violence and brutality of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. Our hearts go out to those who are mourning loved ones, and our prayers for healing go out to those who were wounded. It is as though this wanton attack on the City of Lights has driven a dagger into the heart of the world. And, as many world leaders and local police chiefs have observed, it is, in many ways, a game changer for all of us.
In light of the vicious attacks upon the people of Paris, we need to acknowledge as well that which has been all too conspicuously absent from the headlines. That is the spate of terrorist attacks that have killed innocent people elsewhere as well. And to this I say “mea culpa.” My attention as well has been focused on Paris, far more than anywhere else in recent days. But here are the facts that we dare not forget as compassionate members of the human race. The following is just a sampling of terrorist attacks that have taken place just in this calendar year of 2015, not including those in Israel:
January 3-7: Boko Haram militants attacked in Baga, Nigeria. Death toll ranged from 150 to 2,000 people. It was the worst death toll for an attack carried out by Boko Haram, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks with deaths ranging from just a few to hundreds of people over several years.
January 7: Two al-Qaeda-linked gunmen killed 11 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris and killed a police officer outside. A total of 17 people and three gunmen died in bloodshed, including an attack on a kosher market.
April 3: 147 people, mostly students, at Garissa University in Kenya are killed in an attack; al-Shabaab claims responsibility.
October 10: Suicide bombers detonated devices in Ankara and killed about 100 people in the Turkish capital. Investigators suspected Islamic State-linked perpetrators.
November 12: A pair of suicide bombings struck southern Beirut on Thursday, killing 43 people and leaving shattered glass and blood on the streets, Lebanese authorities said. At least 239 others were wounded, according to the state-run National News Agency.
These and similar attacks remind us that it is almost as though we take for granted the atmosphere of violence and brutality in Asia and Africa, and the Middle East, to the point where we and our media take scant notice of it. It is not my intent to point fingers, or speak with a “holier than thou” attitude. I have no business doing that, and admittedly my own more immediate attention has indeed been focused on Israel and Paris, even as I worry as well about our safety here in New York and elsewhere in the United States. Yet, if we are going to engage in a war on terrorism that has any hope of succeeding, we can’t afford to insulate ourselves from terrorism that targets innocent people, no matter where they live.
In our Torah portion we read: Jacob awoke from his slumber and exclaimed: Surely God is in this place and I – I did not know it!
As a society, and as peace-loving people, we cannot afford to forget about our fellow human beings who are suffering. The following is an excerpt from a posting last Saturday night by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism:
Fighting evil, and that which is done supposedly in the name of God, is a great moral and religious duty. It must take place harshly and without compromise. At the same time, it is imperative that in every location, we work toward a better social, economic, cultural and political world order, which promotes hope and partnership between all of humanity. It is crucial that we fight not only the murderers and their senders, but also despair, hatred, and idol worship.
We pray that a Sukkat Shalom – a shelter of peace – be spread speedily upon the City of Lights and that it soon see again love, freedom, equality and fraternity.
“And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land.” (Leviticus 26.6)
Isaac, son of Abraham, is one of the most tragic figures in the Genesis narratives. When he was just a boy, he suffered the loss of his older brother Ishmael, when Ishmael and his mother Hagar were expelled from the household into the wilderness by Isaac’s mother Sarah. Then, sometime after this, Isaac walked for three days with Abraham his father up to Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, only to be set upon the sacrificial altar. There he lay, as his father took the knife in his hand and raised it up, until at the last second, an angel shouted from the heavens, “Abraham, Abraham, do not lay your hand upon the lad; do nothing to him; for now I know that you are one who fears God, as you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me!” (Genesis 22.11-12)