The Judaism of Right Now
Shanah tovah tikoteivu, may you all be blessed with a wonderful year! 5777. It sounds lucky, doesn't it? This past year has really been a year with ups and downs. It has been a year of growing and a year of learning, but a year also of loss and sorrow. For some of us who suffered losses in the Jewish year 5776, we wish we could turn the clock back to Rosh Hashanah last year.
I miss Mother's. They had the best babka. When I visited my great aunt and uncle in Riverdale, they would always take me to Mother's for a black and white.
But there are other people who miss, not Mother's the bakery, but their actual mothers, who may have been alive this time last year, who may have shared wishes for a good year, who may have shared a Rosh Hashanah meal. And since big wishes are no more expensive than small ones, while we're at it, we might wish that we could turn the clock back further, when people who passed away 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago were still with us. I would love to be saving seats tonight for my grandparents and for my great aunt and uncle.
There are other reasons to reach back in time a bit. I would love to be standing here on this bimah in the days when we had 900 members. I have been told that the seats were full on the High Holidays and people had to sit on the third floor and look out into the ballroom. Many times people have told me they wish they could turn back the clock to when Riverdale Temple was bursting with congregants. I would love to have an assistant rabbi. I would love to have a big confirmation class and Junior Congregation meeting in the library.
And it was not just Riverdale Temple that was different in those days. The Bronx was full of Jews not long ago. In 1940, there were around 2000 kosher delis in New York City, many of them in the Bronx. Jerome Avenue, Grand Concourse-- These were Jewish neighborhoods. People spoke Yiddish, and shopped in Jewish stores. Department stores, jewelry stores, kosher butchers, place where they knew your name. Everyone had a synagogue to belong to, and at least one other that they would never set foot in.
Of course, people loved the Jewish baseball players and basketball players in those days, but the real stars were the Chazanim-- the great cantors, who were more famous than movie stars and commanded huge salaries. In the summer people would go to the Catskills and rent a bungalow, or stay in one of the great resort hotels there. Grossinger's, the Concord, Kutcher's... places to meet other Jews from New York, places to hear people like Myron Cohen, Burns and Allen, Eddie Cantor, and Al Jolson, and places to eat until you could eat no more.
In those days there were fewer questions about Judaism. Almost everyone belonged to a synagogue, which is why this synagogue had so many members. Even the apikorsim, the unbelievers, grudgingly went to synagogue with their parents, and sent their kids to religious school. Those were the golden days of Jewish New York. The golden days of the Jewish Bronx.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to go back in time to those days? When Jews were Jews? To meet your grandparents when they were young and drink a glass of tea in the coffee shop? Listen to "The Goldbergs" on the radio, catch Jack Benny's vaudeville act?
We may think of the old days, but physically it is not possible to go back in time. But why is today so different from those days? What happened to those golden days of Yiddishkeit? Where did all those Jews go? Is there some way we could bring those days back, and live in Jewish neighborhoods and share Jewish food and Jewish entertainment with our Jewish friends?
When we think of a 'Golden Age' of Judaism, we think of a thriving Jewish culture. We often think of great Jews, many of them our own ancestors. What feels strongly Jewish to me is the thought of my grandfather's great love of Judaism. My grandmother playing mah-jong and gin rummy with 'the girls,' and the wonderful food she would cook for us when we all went over to their place on Mosholu Parkway. I want to have that total Jewish experience again. But if I could go back in time to a Passover Seder at my great aunt and uncle's house on Fieldston road, would I fit in?
In our Lunch and Learn series last year we read stories from the Talmud. One of those stories was about Honi haMagel, Honi the circle-drawer. In the story, he falls asleep for seventy years. When he wakes up, he goes looking for his son, but finds that his son is dead. In search of his grandson, he goes to the synagogue, only to overhear someone saying "In the days of Honi the circle maker, there was never a piece of Torah that we didn't understand, for Honi would explain it to us." Honi goes over to them and tells them that he is Honi the Circle-drawer, but they don't believe him. They don't listen to his explanations of Torah, and they show him no honor. Honi leaves the synagogue, and prays for death, and he dies. He wants to die because he realizes that he does not belong in that time period. He does not fit in.
The people in that synagogue saw the days of Honi as a golden age, when there were no difficulties with Torah. Honi sees his 'time travel' as an opportunity to bring his Torah knowledge to a new generation. But they both find they are wrong. Honi's day may or may not have been a golden age. But in either case, Honi's knowledge and Judaism was for Honi's time, and it was meaningless in any other time.
Was New York in the 20's, 30's, 40's, and 50's really a golden age for Jews? Remember that the big hotels like Grossingers and the Concord were successful because Jews were not allowed to stay in other hotels. Remember that the Jews stuck together because no one else would have them. Many Jews worked with my grandfather in the shmatta business because it wasn't so easy for a Jew to become a lawyer or a doctor, or to get a job in a non-Jewish business.
Remember that there were lots of kosher restaurants because we didn't go to the non-kosher restaurants, or if we did, we had to do it on the sly, when we hoped no one would see us. We went to Goldstein's Deli, but we didn't go to Delmonico's, or the Plaza.
Remember too that Jews pulled together to shelter from the cold winds of anti-semitism both at home and in Europe, winds that would turn into a storm that would sweep away two-thirds of Europe's Jews. And we had no power, in those days, to shelter those Jews.
There was no Jewish country, no Jewish army to fight the murderers. There was no movement here strong enough to demand that the United States take more Jews as refugees, or even take as many as were allowed in. many of the Jews here in the 30's, 40's and 50's were refugees, people who had lost their families, people who had lost their homes. Of course they spent all their time with other Jews.
If we were to go back in time, would we fit in to the Jewish world? Would we laugh at the radio shows, or really wish for a TV, or the internet? We would wonder where our black friends were, our gay friends. We would wonder where the female rabbis were. I would guess that if we went back in time and came to Riverdale Temple, many of us would feel that we didn't belong.
The style of service was different then. Clothes were different. Rabbis spoke in a grand way that might seem a little too stylized for us. We wouldn't know the people. We wouldn't belong.
Since the time of Honi, Judaism has always been a religion of its own time and place. We experience Judaism through its culture, which is local, and specific to that time. For us, Judaism may be connected to eating nova and reading the New York Times. For my grandfather, it may have been belly lox and the Forverts. Times change. We can't go back. I would love to see my grandparents again. But I wouldn't trade my existence in the present for an existence in the past. I wouldn't trade my daughter for for my grandparents, much as I love them.
So we give up the idealized vision of the Judaism of the past. We give up outdated ideas about what it means to be Jewish, So the question before us is this: What kind of Judaism are we going to have now? What kind of Judaism will there be in the year 5777? It won't be too different from the Judaism of 5776, but it will be different. It is fun to look back. But if we want to go someplace we have to look forward.
We should think about what kind of Judaism there will be fifty years from now. What will the Bronx look like? What will Riverdale Temple look like? But while looking at the future may help us make changes now, we don't want to live in the future any more than we want to live in the past. We need the Judaism of right now, and we have to make it, because it will not happen by itself. So what does the Judaism of right now look like?
The first thing I can tell you about it is that I can't tell you everything about it. Because the Judaism of right now does not come from the rabbi. The rabbi is a resource, the rabbi is a connection to the Torah and tradition, but the Judaism of right now must come from each and every one of you. Today we define ourselves, we do not need to fit into categories. The same will be true of your Judaism.
The second thing I can tell you is that the synagogue will not be the only place you practice Judaism. We love the synagogue, we want to support the synagogue, but the Judaism of right now will overflow its walls. It must. Synagogues are wonderful places, this synagogue is an important center of our community, but if this is the only place that you get your Judaism, there will be no Judaism of the future.
Find your Judaism, and live it fully. Bring your Judaism with you, online, to your home, to your work or school. Invite friends from the synagogue home, invite them to a concert, invite people from work to your synagogue. Whether they are Jewish or not. And then talk to them about what they liked and didn't like about it.
Talk to your family about what Judaism means, about what life means, about what Gd means. Talk to your friends about it. Don't be ashamed to say you are religious. Don't be afraid to say you are not religious. Don't be ashamed to say you are not sure what it means to be religious.
Each person here should ask herself what her Judaism is. And when you find that part of yourself, live it. Strengthen it. Build it up. If Judaism means to you being a good person, then be a better person. Get involved with some of the things we do here, food donation, mitzvah day. Bring more social action and social justice to the synagogue. We are hungry for it. If Judaism means to support world Judaism, there are many ways you can do that. If it means supporting Israel, do that. If it means working for a more ideal Israel, then that is what you should be doing. If it means honoring your parents or grandparents by taking on a traditional Jewish practice, or giving up a traditional Jewish practice, do that. Live your Judaism through study, through social action, through prayer, through art or through community, but live it now.
And if Judaism means something to you that I have not mentioned-- and it may very well-- do not hesitate to pursue it. Do not fail to bring it to the synagogue. because we need the Judaism that is appropriate for today. We need the Judaism that works in 2016, in 5777. We cannot survive on the Judaism of the past. We don't need the Judaism of the future. We need the Judaism of right now.
Walt Whitman said "The strongest and sweetest songs are yet to be sung." He should have said "The strongest and sweetest songs are now being sung." Because they are the songs we are singing right now. We can't hear the songs of the future. They are yet to be sung. We can't hear the songs of the past. Those songs were for their own time, and now they are done. This is our Judaism. The Judaism of right now.