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!