Archive for November, 2013

Kindling the Lights of Memory (or Thanks for the Memories).

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            The confluence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving brings a flood of wonderful memories.  A lot of my favorite childhood memories come from different Chanukah experiences.  This year as we think about the things for which we are thankful, I realize how rich my childhood was and how important these memories are for my sense of self as an adult.  These are Chanukah lights that flicker in my soul, my inner being.

            Although we lived in West Virginia from the time I was 1 until I was 9, we often spent Chanukah in the Bronx with my Oma and Opa – my grandparents.  Each year the German Jewish community put on a Chanukah party for us kids and that party was highlighted by he appearance of the Chanukah man.  You have not heard of the Chanukah man?  Well he was a kind of pseudo Santa Clause, but dressed up in Tevya style clothes complete with peasant cap, carried a staff with a Jewish star on top and had a long white beard.  When I was 4 I attended one of the parties and was told the Chanukah man would be coming to speak with each of us.  Sure enough, he appeared after we had eaten out latkes to put each of us on his lap and ask if we had been good.  What I did not know was that the Chanukah man was my dad in disguise.  When it was my turn to sit on his lap, I glanced down at his shoes.  Now my dad had to wear special orthopedic shoes, so after looking at the Chanukah mensch’s shoes I said, “Gee Chanukah man, my dad has shoes just like those.”  To which the Chanukah man replied without missing a beat, “Well, we use the same shoemaker.  I see him there all of the time.” 

            Perhaps you think the whole idea of a Chanukah man is just silly – and in truth it is.  Yes it is a kind of cheesy rip off of Santa, but that never mattered to me.  I was 7 when I finally figured out that the Chanukah man did not really exist

            So it might be odd that my favorite Chanukah man story comes from when I was 11 and my mom was pregnant with my youngest brother.  That year my middle brother and I received a letter from the Chanukah man.  We were living in Allentown, PA by then, where my great Uncle Richard lived.  Uncle Richard was the man who raised my father, and was truly like my grandfather.  In Allentown, it was Uncle Richard who took on the role of the Chanukah man.  Here is the letter we received, complete with spelling and grammar mistakes:

“Dear Romberg brothers,

            Your Uncle Richard, may God bless him a other 25 years wrote a letter several weeks ago to me and was telling me about you two boys.  You both was during the last year fairly good, and I should make it my business this year and come to visit Allentown.  Sorry I can’t make it because this year I have to go to Russia and Siberia to bring the poor Yewish children some goodies.  Enclosed I send you some money and your Mami can buy something at Hesses Bargain Basement.  Also I heard the good news that your Daddy and Mamy ordered a custom built brand ne Baby girl, but your Daddy put in the order too late, and the delivery cannot be before the end of January, 1966.  Let’s be with Massel Tow, and we will later celebrate what ever comes out.  With best wishes to all of you and a good Chanukah yours,

Eliezer ben Morechai, Chief Chanukah man”

            I still have that letter.  Other than the framed picture and Silver Star that hangs in my study, it is the only physical reminder I have left of Uncle Richard, German Jewish immigrant and one of the few true heroes I have known.  But he lies rich in my memory and whenever I read that letter, I am comforted by the memories of the light that was his life.

            Chanukah also causes me to remember one of my dad’s closest friends while we were living in West Virginia, a Baptist minister – Dr. Edward Dreisinger.  Dad met Dr. Dreisinger when we first moved to West Virginia.  They became fast friends.  He was a liberal Baptist who had even studied Hebrew in seminary.  His experiences as a chaplain in World War II led him to feel that Jews needed to be affirmed, not evangelized.  Dad invited him to be a guest speaker at our small synagogue and Dr. Dreisinger had dad speak to his congregation about his experiences as a Jew growing up in Nazi Germany.  Dr. Dreisinger’s family would join us for certain Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah, Pesach, or Chanukah.  We would go over to their house each year to watch them light their Christmas tree.  Mrs. Dreisinger played piano and dad would sing the Christmas carols in German.  The Dreisingers really liked that.  He always shared some Chanukah songs as well.  Mrs. Dreisinger never touched alcohol  except some wine when celebrating a holiday at our house as she felt it honored our holiday.  Dad had an honest, easy relationship with Dr. Dreisinger, because Dr. Dreisinger accepted dad on my dad’s terms.  Their model of an interfaith friendship has been my lifelong model.  They were close and could joke with each other.

            For example, when I was in kindergarten I was cast as Joseph in the Christmas play.  I was cast because I knew how to sing a song in Hebrew and the teacher thought it would be more “authentic” if I sang the song to Mary on the way to Bethlehem.  I felt like a star, even if they gave top billing to a baby Jesus who was played by a plastic baby doll.  My dad felt like I was a star too and invited Dr. Dreisinger to watch me in the play.  When it was over Dr. Dreisinger told dad, “Jackie was so cute I could just adopt him.”  To which my dad replied, “and make a Baptist out of him, over my dead body!”

            I love these memories.  They remind me how lucky I was to have parents, grandparents, family and friends who provided me with a beautiful, secure childhood.  As I light my Chanukiah Wednesday and Thursday nights, these are the memories that will be kindled in my soul.  It is my hope and prayer that everyone lighting their Chanukiah this Thanksgivingkah can have the same experience.

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The journey that makes Jacob into Jacob comes to a full circle in this week’s parashah.  It starts at the beginning of last week’s portion, when Jacob, while sleeping, has a vision of angels and of God.  God assures Jacob of God’s continuing presence, no matter where Jacob travels.  Jacob, equal parts believer and skeptic, gives the schizophrenic response: “How awesome is this place,” along with striking a bargain with God – food and clothing in exchange for Jacob’s fealty.  He builds a matzeivah to mark that spot and renames the place Beit-El – “house of God.”

His return to Beit-El this week to get confirmation of the new name received while wrestling with God/divine being/self can be seen as a profound moment of self-assessment.  Look at what he has experienced: being tricked by Laban, years of chafing under Laban, the intricacies of balancing the personal dynamics of his two wives, the fear of facing his past through his reunification with Esau, his daughter taken forcibly and then the violent revenge exacted by his sons Simeon and Levi.  In a few short decades Jacob has acquired quite a history – a history befitting the trials of an entire people, really.  Indeed, his new name will become just that – the moniker of a people.

As God declares that Jacob will become Yisra’el, the one who struggles with God, what is he thinking?  What pieces of his past, his experience does he see as the formational parts of his identity?  What does Jacob feel is his very essence?  Is he Jacob the successful sheep breeder?  Is he Jacob the one who confronts God and holds his own?  Is he Jacob the onetime trickster restored finally to his brother?  Is he victim or is he hero?  Is he father or still a struggling child?  We do not know.  The response that Torah records is that Jacob, upon officially receiving the name Yisra’el builds another matzeivah.

We, Jacob’s descendants known as Yisra’el, have been pushed to a moment of self-assessment.  The Pew report titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” is causing a lot of angst over the data it contains.  We Jews are being forced to answer Jacob’s question – who are we?  Everyone who reads the report focuses on a different aspect of all this data that seems to define who American Jews are right now.  For most, probably the most eyebrow raising statistics have to do with the results of interfaith marriage.  Putting aside the question of what the actual inter-marriage rate is, only 20% of all interfaith couples are raising their children “fully Jewish.”  A companion statistic shows only 14% of interfaith couples join a synagogue.  Understandably many Jewish professionals see these figures as disastrous.  For them it is the most telling statistic in the entire Pew report.  But not for me.

No, I am far more disturbed by a different statistic.  In response to the question, “What is essential to being Jewish?” the number one answer, with 73%, was “Remembering the Holocaust.”  Wow!  This placed ahead of “leading an ethical life,” and “working for justice/equality.”  Far, far down the list were “Being part of a Jewish community” and “observing Jewish law,” with 28% and 19% respectively.

Allow me to state the obvious interpretations of these figures.  For the overwhelming majority of American Jews, remembering the Jewish victimhood of the Holocaust is more essential to their Jewish identity than any lesson on morality, justice, ethics, God or obligations to the community.  In other words, being a living memorial to Jewish tragedy strikes a deeper chord with American Jews than any Jewish call for positive living, than the call for a relationship with God, or for positive action through our mitzvoth – be they ritual or ethical.  How ironic that a religion that focuses so much on life, on our obligation to build better lives; to live full meaningful lives, has most of its adherents focused on an identity through the tragedy of death.

I understand how important the Holocaust is in Jewish history.  I am the child of a survivor.  I am in the process of researching a book that will give the account of my family’s journey through the war years and the Holocaust.  But for me the real lesson I have come to appreciate in meeting and interviewing my family’s survivors is the rich, meaningful JEWISH lives so many have built in the aftermath of tragedy.  How have we Jewish professionals allowed the richness and beauty of Judaism to be overshadowed by an obsession with Jewish victimhood?

The answer, of course, is multi layered.  It contains the use of the Holocaust to spur Jewish fundraising.  It includes the use of victimhood to justify the existence Israel (which needs no such justification).  It includes religious school teachers who were moved to teach nothing but the Holocaust. (I recall that when I arrived in Tallahassee the Holocaust was being taught in 4 separate religious school grades.  Why? Because the teachers wanted to).  And of course it includes the depth of the tragedy.

So now we wrestle.  Those of us who work in places we wish to refer to as a “Beit El,” “house of God,” have to wrestle with this.  How do we offer/teach/lead a Judaism that is spiritually rich, intellectually honest, emotionally inspiring and uplifting – to offer an essence to Jewishness that builds pillars for a rich Jewish future instead of simply monuments to the tragedy of death?  And yes, this really is wrestling with God and humans.  In what way will we prevail?

Remember that Jacob builds a matzeivah at Beit El, once when he leaves and again when he returns.  What is a matzeivah?  It can be either a pillar or a monument.  Each is a very different thing.  A pillar is an active part of a living structure.  A monument is a memorial to that which is gone, that which is past.  Each Jewish congregation, indeed each individual Jew is a matzeivah.  We just have to make the choice as to which definition we will be.

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            Last week was framed by two events unconnected on the surface, but rather connected in my mind.  First was my presentation at a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Krystallnact.  I shared stories learned this summer from interviewing my surviving family – in Germany and across the US.  Krystallnact was the tipping point for many German Jews regarding their fate in Germany.  Since 1933 there had been a steady worsening of the oppression of Jews in Germany, the passing of more anti-Semitic laws, more arrests, more Jews sent to concentration camps.  On November 9,10 1938 it all exploded with thousands of Jews arrested, Jewish businesses destroyed, Jewish homes invaded.  This night of terror forced many Jews to finally concede that the Nazis were not just some passing phase, but a persistent reality that would not soon fade away.

The Nazi party excelled in demonizing those it determined to be the “other.”  Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, people with physical handicaps were all singled out as not fully “Aryan,” meaning not worthy of citizenship in the Reich.  Those not conforming to Nazi party ideology were labeled disloyal Germans.  Anyone daring to voice political opposition to the Nazi party was arrested or worse.  Indeed, one of my great uncles was beaten to death in 1937 because of his leadership in the Social Democratic party.

The Nazis inculcated a culture in which German businesses stopped dealing with those deemed “undesirable” – blaming the victims for the reason they no longer deserved access to goods and services.  A great example is a letter sent to my great uncle Karl Romberg dated December 29, 1938, from LAB, a health insurance provider to small businesses.  The opening paragraph of the letter says:

“We have cause to point out to you, a Jewish member of the LAB, that your membership is most unwelcome due to your racial affiliation.  On the one hand, our Aryan members cannot be expected to be in a risk-bearing community with Jews and perhaps give up their own assets whenever the latter fall ill.  On the other hand, our employees cannot be induced after the events of November 9th and 10th  (italics added by me) to deal with the affairs of Jewish members”

The hypocrisy of the letter is obvious but still worth emphasizing.  Jewish members paid into the LAB the same as non-Jews.  So the risks are proportionately distributed.  This is a simple casting out of the “other” from a business relationship, and using the Nazi spurred oppression of Krystallnacht as an excuse – in effect blaming the victim.

But what framed all of these lessons from Krystallnact in a new light was participating in a panel discussion through our ongoing “Faith, Food, and Friday” series on racism in America in a post Trayvon Martin atmosphere.  Joining me were 3 other clergy as well as Ahmad Abuznaid, a founder and leader of the Dream Defenders – the political action group that occupied the Florida state capital after the verdict in the Martin case came down.  We discussed many aspects of race  issues in America – the changing demographics of the country, the persistence of prejudice, the need to form relationships across ethnic and ideological barriers – but there was one aspect of the discussion that has haunted me, that just refuses to go away.

Our justice system has a serious problem.  As a percentage of our population, we have the largest prison population among all modern industrialized nations.  Along with this, one in 3 African American males has spent, is spending or will spend time in prison.  We have created a system in which imprisoning people is a cottage industry.  Instead of working to rehabilitate, we simply incarcerate.  I do not deny that there are some crimes for which incarceration is very appropriate, but there exists a pipeline in our schools that identifies and categorizes children from very early ages and steers them into the prison system.  The details of this business, how and why it must be drastically reformed are a subject for future discussion.  For now I want to contemplate why America allows a system in which prison is the default remedy for so many infractions of the law.

On the practical level the answer is simple – an industry needs customers to thrive.  The 2008 “kids for cash” scandal illustrates how this system can run amok.  Two judges were convicted of sentencing children to private institutions in exchange for payoffs.  While this is a strong argument against the privatization of prisons, one cannot escape the fact that state run prisons also become self justifying entities that demand a flow of prisoners.

But I think there is an ideological reason for the American obsession with incarceration.  Too many of us judge people as “evil” or “undesirable” as opposed to understanding that it is behavior that is most times evil or undesirable.  Incarceration presumes the person is unredeemable and must be isolated from society.  There are certainly cases where that is likely true, but the huge numbers of minorities placed in the prison system, especially for lesser crimes, indicates a different motive.  In this dominantly Christian country we too often dived people into good and evil camps.  Indeed there is a Christian theology that confines people to an eternity in prison – separating them as unredeemable from those who will enter heaven.

This is not the Jewish way.  We begin from a point that sees evil as in an action, not inherent in an individual.  Ergo, most people have the potential for redemption.  There is a wonderful story in the Talmud illustrating this tension.

“There were certain boors in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood causing him considerable distress.  He prayed for mercy for them that they would die (by killing them before they committed too many sins, their place in the next world would at least be assured).  His wife, Beruriah said to him, ‘Why are you praying thus?’ He answered, ‘Because it is written, Let sinners cease fro the earth(Psalms 104:35).  To which Beruriah answered, ‘It is not written as sinners but sins.  Further, go to the end of the verse which reads that wicked will be no more.  Rather you should pray that these boors repent of their wickedness then wicked will be no more.’” (Berachot 10a)

Dividing people into groups of good and evil justifies removal and separation.  Far harder, but more powerful is to look for the redeemable and to work to bring those who do wrong back into the mainstream of our society.  Racism/prejudice is the surface evaluation of someone as “evil” and a refusal to search for the good.

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