Dear Temple Family,
One of the great strengths of Riverdale Temple is the participation of our congregants in conducting our sacred services. Rachel Radna, our president, has served as our cantor on more occasions than I can count. Especially during the summers, numerous members take part in leading the worship services, including offering “divrei Torah.” On several Shabbatot one of our congregants, Dr. Craig Katz, a psychiatrist by profession, has delivered an interpretation of the weekly Torah portion. He offered to do so on the Shabbat during Chanukah, and his words continue to echo in my mind. In fact, shortly after that Shabbat, I was packing up the dozen or so pairs of Shabbat candlesticks I have accumulated over the years in preparation for moving to Rochester. I found myself moved to tears as I reflected on the history of each pair and asked Craig if we could include his words in our monthly bulletin.
I did ask if we could delete the last paragraphs, but he gently insisted that I submit the entire sermon. I do not want us to spend the rest of our months together bemoaning our upcoming separation; I want Riverdale Temple to look forward, optimistically and enthusiastically, to an exciting future. Yet I also accept Dr. Katz’s observation that tears are a necessary part of the changes we go through in life, and so I thank him for his fascinating discussion of the Torah portion for Shabbat during Chanukah and express my gratitude for supplying me with a new memory that will add to the warmth and beauty (and, yes, tears) of my future Chanukah celebrations. (click on Continue Reading to see the Dvar Torah with Dr.Craig Katz’ moving observations)
—Rabbi Judith Lewis
YOM KIPPUR 5775
Forty one years ago today, I watched my rabbi walk off the bimah, in the middle of morning services, and return a few moments later to announce to the congregation that Israel had been attacked. I was 19 years old and had just returned from Israel. All my Israeli friends were on active duty. That is why, each Yom Kippur morning, I speak about Israel.
The threat of the Islamic State movement has now pushed news about Israel far under the radar for most Americans. A few beheadings were enough to make people forget about Gaza. No one knows how the current crises in the Middle East will be resolved or how long it will take. None of the possible developments looks very appealing especially when military experts mention Vietnam. (Did they forget how that one turned out?) The one little tidbit of positive news is that Israel was able to shoot down a Syrian fighter plane that wandered into Israeli airspace with apparently no negative reaction whatsoever.
For us, though, Israel must not fall beneath the radar no matter what else is going on in the world.
The hostilities between Hamas and Israel during the summer had a profound affect on even my own very liberal, left-leaning offspring. They recognized, somewhat painfully, how hypocritical — no — let’s call it what it was, anti-semitic much of the commentary about Israel was. How many Americans do you hear complaining about civilian casualties in the bombing of Islamic State targets these days? How many Americans are bemoaning the enormous loss of innocent life that we, ultimately, caused by going to war in Iraq in the first place? Why is it only Jews who must be reprimanded when they unintentionally kill civilians? It is awful, terrible, unacceptable when anyone kills innocent people — anywhere, anytime. But what are the alternatives?
I had this sickening sense of deja vu when I learned what former president Jimmy Carter had to say about Hamas this summer. Clearly he hasn’t changed in the seven years since he wrote his anti-Semitic tract “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Carter’s particular brand of anti-Semitism is a result of his particular brand of Christian faith, (and I truly believe it is only a tiny segment of Christians who suffer from it) but unfortunately it’s a disease that is easily spread even among those who come into only casual contact with it.
Some of us, I hope, gained a deeper perspective about early Christian attitudes toward Jews by reading the gospels at our “Lunch and Learn” sessions last year. In the Gospels, Jesus took the place of Israel as God’s most beloved, chosen one. That included all the suffering that goes along with being God’s chosen one — the yisurin shel ahava as the rabbis called it — the afflictions of love.
At the Passover Seder each year we eat the horseradish, and the matzah, and the salt water to help us experience the bitterness of slavery, the poverty, the tears as if we ourselves had been slaves in Egypt.
Christianity uses the same approach with the suffering of Jesus. It is supposed to inspire Christians to care for the poor, the needy, the downtrodden; to feel compassion for those less fortunate. No one would argue with those as religious goals. The problem is that for some Christians, the Jews are disqualified from receiving that compassion because we remain Jews, and because we persist in history. We lost God’s love, but not the afflictions that come with it.
So, some Christians still believe that Jews should be suffering. When we are not sufficiently victims, when we have too much power, too much money, do not seem to be in imminent danger, we are not fulfilling our role in history.When we use the power, money, influence, good fortune we have the same way any non-Jew would, we are betraying their faith.
I do not believe that the majority of Christians feel this way, but as I said, it’s a highly contagious disease — and there are many other sources of contagion. But this particular brand of anti-Semitism is, truly, a plague. I will never forget the interfaith panel in which I took part where a protestant minister actually said these words: “I have to work very hard every day at not being an anti-Semite.”
Interestingly, in some ways, the Muslim attitude toward the Jews is less offensive. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we discussed the troubling story of Hagar and Ishmael being banished to the wilderness. Someone asked how the Koran treated the story. I didn’t know the answer then, but I have since learned that the Koran begins with the same story of Hagar and Ishmael being sent out into the wilderness, but then continues with Abraham — Ibrahim’s terrible test. In the Koran’s version, though, it is Ishmael whom God asked Ibrahim to sacrifice. Today is Eid al Adha in the Muslim calendar — the feast of the sacrifice — the sacrifice of Ishmael. While we are gathered in somber reflection and repentance, Muslims are celebrating the feast commemorating Ishmael’s survival. The story is the same — except for one major difference. In the Koran, Ibrahim explicitly tells Ishmael what he’s about to do. “My son, I have had a vision that I am to offer you as a sacrifice. What is your view? He said, Father, do as you are commanded: you will find me, if Allah wills it, one of the steadfast. As soon as both Ishmael and Abraham agree to do the horrible deed, Ishmael is saved, and an animal substituted. The Muslim feast taking place today commemorates that substitution. It’s an interesting commentary on our version of the story. Ishmael submits knowingly to the will of Allah. While some midrash claims that Isaac understood what was going on, the Torah’s text certainly doesn’t make it explicit. I find it fascinating that the Quran clearly makes Ishmael a knowing participant in the terrifying deed.
Hamas knows very well that Israel doesn’t want to kill innocent civilians. They actually understand that Jews — even Israeli Jews — are ordinary people. They just believe that their ultimate goals justify the means, the sacrifice of their own innocent children. There is a religious precedent. I’m sure that Hamas mourns the loss of their loved ones as much as any other human being — Ibrahim was just as disturbed about the prospect of sacrificing his son as Abraham was. But there may be some comfort in believing that those loved ones knowingly submit themselves as sacrifices. If that is a religious theme that guides their military practices, then Hamas understands that Israel doesn’t intentionally target civilians. Hamas understands how to manipulate public sentiment. It is the people who believe that Israel intentionally targets civilians who are the anti-Semites.
The Yom Kippur war was the worst fighting Israel had experienced since 1948. The estimates are somewhere between 2500-2800 Israeli military deaths. Combined Egyptian and Syrian deaths numbered somewhere between 8000-18000. An accurate estimate is difficult to find, but look at those numbers. We’re talking about a country with a population at the time of somewhere between 3 and 4 million people compared to enemy countries of over 40 million people. If it were purely a matter of numbers, Israel would never have existed in the first place, let alone survived three major wars in 25 years. And Israelis feel every one of those losses personally. Israel cannot afford “cannon fodder.” But Israel also assumes that every Arab fighting Israel feels the pain of every loss just as personally. No matter how much evidence to the contrary, Israel will, and must believe that every Arab death is mourned as intensely by loved ones as every Israeli death. The minute Israel considers any human life less valuable than another, Israel will have lost her essential identity. We, as American Jews, have to remain vigilant as well. No matter how many innocent individuals Muslim radicals turn into martyrs, we have to regard each and every life as equally sacred.
The rise in power of the Islamic State is, in too many ways, reminiscent of the Crusades. Remember that the Jews were the collateral damage in those battles between Christian and Muslim. Most of our martyrdom literature comes from that brutal period in our history. The practice we continue to this day, of publishing a memorial book on Yom Kippur, goes back to the days when communities compiled books of those who were martyred in the Crusades.
Today, the existence of a State of Israel, a recognized, modern, successful, and yes — noisily democratic — state means that Jews are not powerless. We are recognized as a nation in the world of national politics. But is that enough to keep Jews safe?
Israel is torn, internally, by its own religious and political turmoil. It is exactly the same battle that Muslims are now facing. One faction believes in modernity, equality, dignity of the individual. The other faction believes in Divine Law – as interpreted by its fanatical leaders.
And so, we have a double-edged dilemma. We support the right — the need — of Israel to exist and defend its security. But more and more of those who live in the land of Israel — especially that land conquered in 1967 — do not believe in modernity, equality, and the dignity of the individual. They would have women sit at the back of buses and never sing in public. They would deny a Jewish identity to half of the members of our own congregation.
How then do we, as American reform Jews, support the country that we love, and at the same time help it remain a country that is able to love us back?
We just read the passage from the Torah — Nitzavim — that describes everyone gathered together to accept the covenant with God — even those who were not there were included. And then there is that line that always haunts me:
“Perchance there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from the Eternal our God to go and worship the gods of those nations — perchance there is among you a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood. When such a one hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart” — to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.”
“Such a one” may think he or she is safe — until they meet their first anti-Semite. There is no way to wipe out anti-Semitism in the world. There is only one way to deal with it. To remember that we are one — no matter how much we may disagree with each other. The rabbis taught: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh. All Israel is responsible one for the other. We cannot turn our backs on each other. We are obligated to work for what is right or else we are responsible for what goes wrong.
I have always been very cautious about voicing criticism of Israel publicly, not because I’m afraid of the wrath of ardent Zionists in our congregation who might seek my metaphorical beheading in response. Frankly, I wish we had more ardent Zionists. I hesitate because it’s not my children who will be called to the front lines when Israel needs defending. If I’m not “putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak, then I tend to keep my mouth shut, at least publicly. But we all need to put a little more skin in the game, as they say — especially as Reform Jews whose primary commitment should be to the equality and dignity of every human being. We need to travel to Israel regularly, send our children, support the multitude of Israeli organizations that stand for our values and further our causes in Israel. We cannot afford to think that we will be safe, though we follow our own willful hearts, living in comfort and security thousands of miles away from the battlefront — that will lead to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.
It’s time for us to make a little more noise about what we believe lest the fanatics of the world wipe out all that we cherish. We have the obligation to go about leading Jewish lives that are proudly and publicly true to our ideals – ideals of human reason as the only secure route to truth, universal ethics as the standard of treatment for all humanity, and an absolute commitment to security, justice and peace – for all nations and all people. May we be granted the strength in this New Year to proclaim our values loudly and clearly, for our people’s sake, and for the sake of all humanity.
Rosh Hashanah Meditation
A member of our congregation recently gave me a gift of a slim volume called Sum: forty tales from the afterlives by a neuroscientist names David Eagleman. It consists of forty two or three page musings on the afterlife. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I first opened it up. I’ve read most of the 40 reflections numerous times now, and I’ve decided that one, in particular, might be especially helpful to our observance of the Jewish New Year.
It is at this time of year — and only this time of year — that we read that powerful section of the liturgy called “u’ne’taneh tokef” — “let us acknowledge the power of the sanctity of the day.” It’s the one that warns us that on Rosh Hashanah God writes down who shall live and who shall die and we have until Yom Kippur to appeal the decision.
The third “tale” in Sum is called “Circle of Friends.” In about four brief paragraphs, Eagleman describes the afterlife as almost exactly the same as our earthly life, except that it is populated only by those people we encountered and remembered during our lifetime. It takes a little while to realize what is missing — crowds, factories, trains — all the things with which you never had any experience in life. The final paragraph:
“The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathizes with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.” (p.9)
The High Holy Days are all about choice; choosing life and blessing rather than death and curses, good over evil, returning to the path of righteousness rather than following the stubborn ways of our own hearts. But it’s all so much more easily said than done — especially in a world that seems to be imploding and exploding all over the place.
We have to make a choice every day. We have to choose to embrace life, to seek out the goodness in life, not to give up in the face of all the horror, violence, brutality, suffering we see from every direction.
Eagleman’s little chapter hit me with a compelling sense of urgency. This is it. This is our life. It may be that this is all there is. Judaism doesn’t tell us much about the afterlife. We are supposed to focus on the here and now. But the thought that what we make of our here and now could be what we are blessed — or condemned — to live forever after is a pretty effective motivator!
The thought of spending eternity with those we remember might make us a little nicer to them the next time we see them! And the thought of spending eternity only with those we remember might make us look a bit beyond our “Circle of Friends” — our own comfort zone — and season our circle of friends with the diversity and variety that make life fully meaningful.
Most of all, that notion of spending eternity only with those we have known and remember should push us to know and remember that every human being is a vessel of Divine Creative Energy. We can do without those who fail to recognize the sacred in every human life — in this world and the next. But it’s easier than we might think to become one of them.
May we choose wisely in this New Year, recognizing that all humanity is equally sacred and precious. Every soul we embrace is one more soul rescued from those exclude the “other” from their “Circle of Friends.
The Wondering Jew (title credit goes to Rita Pochter-Lowe — thank you!)
I am a Jew, my partner is not. Now what? Who is a Jew? Says who?
You might think those line were inspired by Senator Cruz. Or maybe the original author of catchy, rhyming children’s literature, Dr. Seuss, who would probably have been horrified at Cruz’s recent use of his work. Actually, it was neither. What motivated me to write this message was the recent spate of news items dealing with Jewish identity. So far, I haven’t seen anything new. No surprises. We’ve known very well, for some time now, that the majority of the American Jewish population is secular. It is logical, therefore, that Reform Judaism should enjoy the largest membership. Our interpretation of Judaism is, after all, the first religious response to the modern appearance of something that could be called secular society in the late 18th century. Reform Judaism offered modern Jews a way to participate in secular society as individuals while still remaining fully Jewish.
Some of the authors of recent articles and blogs blame Reform Judaism for opening the floodgates of intermarriage and thus threatening the future of our people. I wonder if they have also given any thought to the battles Reform Jews have fought to open the floodgates to Jews who want to practice their religion freely; or the institutions American Reform Jews helped found and establish to assist people in need — Jews among them of course. People are pointing their fingers at us as though we are responsible for the secularization of Jews in America, and bemoaning the lack of religious commitment in the Jewish population. I think they are asking the wrong questions.
We paved the paths that enabled the 10% of our population who identify as orthodox to do so freely — in fact, to be orthodox in America so successfully that they can raise millions of dollars for their own institutions (often from guilt-ridden non-orthodox Jews as well as their own wealthy members). Please don’t get me started! The conversations out there today make me sad, angry, frustrated, but more than ever convinced that the Judaism I have fought to pass on to the next generation is the only kind of Judaism that is worth preserving. What good are religious rituals if they transmit no positive human values?
I go back, again and again, to the conversation I had with our 4th and 5th graders about what it means to be a religious Jew. The bottom line was that every human being is equally sacred, and we are religious Jews because we think it’s important to defend the people who aren’t enjoying equal rights, equal respect, equal opportunity, and equal dignity. I’ll bet if you asked those Jews who told the poll-takers they were secular whether they believe that all people deserve that equality, a huge majority would agree. But who’s setting the standards of what it means to be a Jew? Is it the chief rabbinate in Israel who think it’s ok for a young immigrant to sacrifice his life to defend the state because he thinks of himself as Jewish, but isn’t Jewish enough to be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Is it the Reform rabbi who drives on Shabbat, and maybe even eats milk and meat together, but has decided to “draw the line” at officiating at a ceremony between a Jew and an “un-churched” gentile who would like nothing better than to create a Jewish family?
As you may be able to tell, all these recent articles and polls have gotten to me. Please, talk to me. We need to support each other, explore the real issues behind all the news chatter, and most of all, we need to do the work that’s going to provide a healthy, noble Judaism to pass on to the next generation.
Drop me a note, please. Note the comment section where you can respond below my commentary.. Or post a response in our Virtual Water Cooler in the community section of the website and lets have people discuss this issue. We need to keep this conversation going (and I need to know that there are Jews out there who care about the Judaism that keeps me going).
Rosh Hashanah Eve 5773
When I told my husband I was planning to speak about “unetaneh tokef” this evening he asked, “Why do you want to talk about the shtetl Tevye had to leave in Fiddler on the Roof?”
What I was referring to, of course, is the passage in the High Holy Day services we read tomorrow morning; a passage that probably is familiar and even beloved to most of you. It’s called the “unetaneh tokef” because those are the first words: “let us proclaim the power of this sacred day.” It has those haunting images of God opening the books of our lives and judging our merit. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die.
Our prayer book introduces the passage with a legend about a Rabbi Amnon composed the words because he was distraught with himself for showing a lack of faith. But we know he can’t be the author because manuscripts have been found from hundreds of years before Amnon lived.
Passages like “unetaneh tokef” were often written to focus the service – which remains pretty much the same no matter what holiday or festival it is – on the themes of the particular day being celebrated. The poet usually wove together different Biblical verses that referred to the holiday. But there’s a problem here. There is no mention of Rosh Hashanah in the Bible. The only thing the Torah tells us about the first day of the month of Tishrei (which began this evening) is that it is a day of no working, proclaimed by the blast of the shofar, a day of remembrance. In fact, the month of Passover was explicitly named as the first month of the year. So why did Rosh Hashanah become such a big deal?
As sometimes happens in Judaism, a poem or a song can transform a sacred day. Think of Kol Nidre – the haunting melody we will hear ten days from now. Even though the rabbis for centuries tried to get rid of the passage, they could not defy popular demand. And now we don’t even call that night Erev Yom Kippur, we call it Erev Kol Nidre.
Unetaneh tokef might very well have had that same effect. But where did its author get those powerful images since the Bible doesn’t mention Rosh Hashanah?
There is a sentence in the poem that comes not from the Bible but from the Mishnah, the law code complied after the
There’s a problem here, but it just may be the key to how Rosh Hashanah became such a big deal.
At the beginning of the chapter in the Mishnah called Rosh Hashanah it says:
ארבעה ראשי שנים הם
There are four new years: the first of Nisan is the New Year for kings and festivals. The first of Elul is the New Year for tithing cattle… The first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for sabbaticals and for jubilees, and also for planting and vegetables. The first of Shevat is the New Year for trees.
Okay, so the first of Tishrei was the new year for counting sabbaticals and jubilees, and you owe last year’s taxes on any vegetables that were planted before this day In other words, even if you are still canning tomatoes in October, if they were planted before the first of Tishrei you have to contribute a tenth of them to the Temple. But this still doesn’t explain to me the fuss we make over Rosh Hashanah.
You may recall from the Passover Haggadah that the rabbis loved groups of four, and so the next passage goes on to say:
In four sections the world is judged: On Pesach; by produce of the field. (In other words, if you were really good, then you’ll have a great harvest in the spring.) On Shavuot, by fruits of the tree – similarly. But then…On Rosh Hashanah, all the world passes before Him “kiv’nei maron”, as it says in the Psalms:
“The one that fashions as one their thoughts understands all their deeds.” And then it goes back to nature: on Sukkot, they are judged for by water – (and as some of you know, it is during Sukkot that we begin praying for rain.)
Something is very strange here. First of all, “Rosh Hashanah” is used, not Tishri, or the seventh month. So all a sudden, the Mishnah takes for granted some holiday that is simply called Rosh Hashanah. But what is even stranger is that phrase, iurn hbcf uhbpk ihrcug okugv htc kf that finds its way into “unetaneh tokef.”
Kiv’nei maron is usually translated as sheep – possibly because “amar” was the Aramaic word for wool (think of “tzemer,” if you know Hebrew). But it makes no sense because nowhere in the Bible or the Talmud are sheep ever referred to as b’nei maron –the children of wool. It just isn’t used. And the Talmud realized this was a problem. In fact, among three different suggestions the Talmud offers to try to make sense of kivnei maron is one from Rabbi
Does this explain how Rosh Hashanah became such a big deal?
It could indeed hint at what the first day of the seventh month was originally all about. Remember that today is called “yom t’rua” the day of the blast of the horn. Where else in the Torah does it mention “t’rua” or the blast of horns? Would you be completely surprised to learn that it’s almost always in the context of being called to battle?
Last Tuesday, at the beginning of
Perhaps our Rosh Hashanah originally goes back to a time of remembering physical battles, a time when every individual knew that he or she might be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for the survival of our people, and a time of remembering those who had already made that sacrifice. Once the
This evening begins a period of intense personal self-examination; a time to weigh our deeds in the balance of righteousness and pray that we have lived a way that merits an extension of our days on earth. Perhaps, though, our reflections should not be so personal, so individual. Maybe it’s time to get the sheep out of our imagery. Instead, consider that this is the day of the year on which the ultimate “Commander in Chief” calls us to stand in formation to be reviewed, not passively like gentle animals who have no moral struggles, but actively – with courage and dignity. This is the day on which we muster the troops – when it is determined whether we are secure enough, proud enough, and knowledgeable enough to serve.
This day calls upon us to take our place in the ranks, to be counted and judged as members of a community.
I know that a great many of you are enlisted in the congregation’s “reserves” as it were – not necessarily on active duty, but ready and willing to be called up for a few days each year. I am also encouraged to note that we have increased our total “troops” at
But these are tense and frightening days on the global scene. That you have chosen to “muster” here, in this synagogue, on one of the holiest days of the year, is a signal that you have answered the call to stand for what is most precious and sacred in our heritage. Our world is beset by hatred, prejudice, injustice and violence. This is not a time to be sheep. This is a time to march forward with confidence and courage to bring to our world understanding, respect, justice, and peace. Kein Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.
I spend hours every day on a computer – writing, researching, scheduling, ordering books and materials, and all the other things most people do on computers these days. Yet I have clearly achieved the digital status of dinosaur in my own mind even if I’m sometimes able to pass in the eyes of others. I realize I’m more comfortable with computers and the internet than some people my age, but I also realize that what I struggle to accomplish on the internet, my children and their generation achieve intuitively. The internet, smart phones, Facebook, Twitter– these are extensions of the next generation’s minds and fingers, while I can’t remember my password from one login to the next! I keep thinking of my 90 year old father’s comments about things like what’s happened to the price of a cup of coffee – and since he also uses a computer regularly, and checks our website now and then, I might as well thank him here for giving me the idea for this article. Thanks Dad.
When Yvette Marrin initiated the renovation of our new website she suggested that I write a blog. I was happy to comply, but I didn’t know exactly what a blog was. I have, of course, read many of them, but mostly when I came across them as the result of some specific search. I’m well aware that many, many rabbis – some even older than I – have blogs, but somehow, I just couldn’t figure out what that was supposed to mean. I asked my son and daughter (ages 24 and 26) and they said, “no way, Mom, no one will read it!”
I’m pretty sure they won’t be reading this article, but please let’s be clear, it’s not a blog. It’s just an occasional article I will write whenever I get the chance, or whenever someone inspires me to talk about a particular issue. So, what’s the difference between this part of our new website and a blog? Well, as many of you may know (I had forgotten, so I had to look it up!) blog is short for web log (and if you already knew that, it’s very likely that you are not reading this article – according to my kids at least). The descriptions I’ve found imply a sort of on-line journal that’s meant to be shared with the world; a series of pithy statements about the blogger’s point of view. Gosh, that’s why I became a rabbi – so I could make pithy statements about my point of view every week in a sermon! But even though my sermons rarely exceed 8 minutes of delivery time, they are far too long for a blog. So I’m not going to blog.
If someone tells me they think a particular sermon is worth posting, I may put it up here – though I’m reluctant to do that because the spoken word is so different from the written. I can’t control my tone of voice through a keyboard. You may not know when I’m joking, or trying to be ironic, or deadly serious. But I’m willing to give it a try. If you have something about which you would like me to sermonize, by all means please let me know. That’s much easier than trying to come up with something pithy on my own!
While I do feel like a dinosaur, I am not going to be one of those dinosaurs who complain about what technology is doing to our way of life. I may not be able to keep up, but I recognize that the world must keep moving forward – and I support that. I thank Rachel Radna, our President Extraordinaire, who got Riverdale Temple on the web in the first place, and now Yvette Marrin who has taken on that challenge (and puts me to shame with her computer skills), for pushing us to keep up with the future. Yes, there was a time that a cup of coffee cost a nickel. And there was a time that people communicated either in person or by sending pieces of paper back and forth. Time passes. Things change.
Especially at this time of the year, I often reflect on the Hebrew letters “shin,” “nun” and “hey.” They are the root (shanah) of two different, unrelated words: to repeat and to change. Though etymologically they may have nothing to do with each other, they are rich in midrashic potential. I plan on spending the rest of this summer contemplating how I can help
I may not have a chance to post my conclusions on this website, but I do look forward to sharing them with you in person at the end of the summer as we gather together to greet the New Year (Rosh Ha”Shanah”). L’Shanah Tova T’kateivu – May you be inscribed (digitized?) for a good year!
When I was young child, I picked up a paperback book that was sitting open – face down, so that you could tell it was being actively read — on a bottom shelf in my grandparents’ apartment. I distinctly remembered the title as Red Pomegranates but of course it turned out to be Royte Pomerantsen: Jewish Folk Humor in Transliterated Yiddish. I remember opening the book and discovering, to my surprise, that I couldn’t understand a word in it. It was my first exposure to transliteration. I tried to ask my grandmother about it but she kept changing the subject. It was not until many years later that I put two and two together and understood what had so embarrassed her. First of all, I was not supposed to know that she understood Yiddish. Hebrew was respectable. She used to tell me how her mother had hired a Hebrew tutor for her when she was a child – since cheder was not an option for her. Second, even if she did understand Yiddish, she did not allow it to be spoken in her presence for fear that my grandfather would participate in the conversation and outsiders would realize that he was Polish (I have no idea how to transliterate the pronunciations she feared – Pylish is a sound that resonates in my memory – and I’m sure my transliteration is not YIVO clal). Grandma Belle (nee Rivka) fancied herself an English lady (I believe the family was in residence in Whitechapel for the time it took my great-grandmother to give birth). Third, if she was going to read Yiddish, she certainly should have been reading it in the original alphabet. But finally, I think the most embarrassing part of it all for her, was that she thought humor – especially Jewish humor – was undignified. That was my grandfather’s department. Her role was to ridicule his humor. It was not, in fact, until the “knaidel” controversy arose this week that I discovered that Royte Pomerantsen was a book of humor! I let my grandmother go to her grave having me believe that she read theology in Yiddish because I was certain that the book must have been about the Torah being like a pomegranate (I was a recently ordained rabbi when she died). Such are the blessings of early memory.
This all came back to me, of course, early one morning last week when I heard young Arvind Mahankali on the news being asked to spell the word “knaidel” and said indignantly to my husband, “they can’t say there’s one correct spelling for that in English!” Of course, knaidel or kneydl, or kneydel or however you spell it doesn’t exactly have pristine Yiddish roots either. Go to any good Czech restaurant with no Jewish roots whatsoever and ask for knaydlach. They won’t be made out of matzah meal but you’ll recognize them (though according to Google the proper pronunciation and spelling would be knedlíky).
Something resonated deep in my emotions when Arvind Mahankali won the spelling bee on a word that embarrassed my grandmother. Grandma Belle succeeded in raising two thoroughly assimilated children. I don’t know how she would have reacted to me finding my way back to Yiddish. She was proud and delighted that I became a rabbi – a good, American-style rabbi. But I could never get her to open up about her Yiddish connections. I wasn’t trying to get back at her for keeping Yiddish from our family. I was just trying to get back to my grandfather who never saw me become a rabbi – the grandfather with the living Jewish Folk Humor. Was Royte Pomerantsen my grandmother’s Fifty Shades of Grey?