Jake, Hank, Sandy and Me

This essay was originally published in, Judith Zabarenko Abrams and Marc Lee Raphael, eds., What is Jewish about America’s Favorite Pastime? (The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA), 2006.

 For me, my consciousness of my special identity as a Jew as it relates to athletics began back in the 1950s, when, on a Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I heard the mellifluous voice of the great Red Barber say, “The old familiar number 31 of Brooklyn first base coach Jake Pitler will be missing today as he is observing the Jewish New Year and is not in the ball park.”

My consciousness of Jews in American sports developed further during Oneg Shabbat (reception following service) at Sabbath Eve services at my congregation, Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, New Jersey. My parents were regular Sabbath eve attendees, and as I look back on my childhood, I realize that one of the most precious gifts they gave me was to bring me with them. I wanted to be with them although I often counted ahead to see how many pages were left in the service. At the Oneg Shabbat, while they socialized with friends, I drifted into the Temple’s combination museum and library and browsed through the exhibits and the books.

Invariably, as a young boy who loved athletics, my hands picked out The Jew in American Sports, by Harold U. Ribalow. The book was published in 1952 and contained sketches of Jewish athletes most of whom I had never heard of. Their stories fascinated me. I became familiar with such names as Morrie Arnovich, Al Singer, Moe Berg, and, of course, Hank Greenberg. Sandy Koufax came of age as a baseball and Jewish icon as I moved through high school and college.

Greenberg and Koufax were not just Jews who happened to play sports. They were Jews who, through circumstances of time, location, and the game of baseball, became symbols of Jewish pride as our people searched for the elusive balance in their identities as Jews and Americans. They – perhaps unwittingly – helped us in our struggle to gain full acceptance in a gentile world while maintaining (to differing degrees) our identity as Jews.

Hank Greenberg

American antisemitism reached its peak in the 1930s. The Great Depression proved the well-known axiom that the comfort level of Jews is in a direct relationship with the health of the economy. With Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent still popular and his book, The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem, and the rantings of Father Charles Coughlin leading the way, the 30s were not a comfortable decade for American Jews especially in the Detroit area, where Greenberg played.

Hank Greenberg’s story is well-known to us. According to The Baseball Page.com, “Amid the rising antisemitism of the 1930s, Hank Greenberg’s baseball heroics took on symbolic meaning for many Jewish Americans. He was the first baseball star to enter the military in World War II, doing so voluntarily.”1

As a player, Greenberg ranks among the all-time greats. He is the first and only one of only three players in all of history to win Most Valuable Player awards at two different positions (he played first base and left field). He played in four World Series in his war-shortened career, and he led the Detroit Tigers to two world championships in 1935 and 1945.

In 1934, Hank batted .339 with 63 doubles, and he hit .328 with 170 RBIs in 1935. Injuries hampered him in 1936, but in 1937, he drove in 183 runs (one short of Lou Gehrig’s all-time record) with 103 extra-base hits and a batting average of .337.   In 1939, he hit 41 home runs and had 150 RBIs, with a batting average of .340.

His greatest year, though, was 1938, when he hit 58 home runs with 146 RBIs. His 119 walks might well have prevented him from eclipsing Babe Ruth’s home run record, and it was frequently heard that he received so many passes because of a reluctance of many in baseball to have a Jew equal or tie Babe Ruth’s record.

The reluctance of Tiger Manager Bucky Harris to play Greenberg regularly as a young player, and the Tiger’s curious sale of a still productive and very popular Greenberg after the 1946 season, suggests to many that antisemitism was still a factor in Major League Baseball decisions during the years of Greenberg’s career.

My interest in Greenberg, though, is as the role model he became for American Jews. He was by no means a religious man – although his parents were Orthodox-–but he did sit out on Yom Kippur and actually consulted a Reform rabbi who gave him (incredulously, to me) his okay to play on Rosh Hashanah during a tight 1934 pennant race. In that Rosh Hashanah contest, Greenberg hit two home runs in a 2-1 victory. When he sat out on Yom Kippur, though, he inspired the following poem by Edgar A. Guest, which appeared in The Detroit Free Press:2

The Irish didn’t like it when they heard of Greenberg’s fame

For they thought a good first baseman should possess an Irish name;

And the Murphy’s and Mulrooney’s said they never dreamed they’d see

A Jewish boy from Bronxville out where Casey used to be.

In the early days of April not a Dugan tipped his hat

Or prayed to see a “double” when Hank Greenberg came to bat.

In July the Irish wondered where he’d ever learned to play.

“He makes me think of Casey!” Old Man Murphy dared to say;

And with fifty-seven doubles and a score of homers made

The respect they had for Greenberg was being openly displayed.

But on the Jewish New Year when Hank Greenberg came to bat

And made two home runs off pitcher Rhodes they cheered like mad for that.

Came Yom Kippur holy fast day world wide over to the Jew

And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true

Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play.

Said Murphy to Mulrooney, “We shall lose the game today!

We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat,

But he’s true to his religion and I honor him for that!”

Did the antisemitic feelings of the times that were often magnified by slurs and comments from opposing players and fans bother Greenberg? Of course they did. He once noted candidly: “How the hell could you get up to home plate every day and have some son-of-a-bitch call you a Jew bastard and a kike and a sheenie and get on your ass without feeling the pressure? If the ballplayers weren’t doing it, the fans were. I used to get frustrated as hell. Sometimes I wanted to go into the stands and beat the shit out of them.”3

What Henry Benjamin Greenberg did, though, was much more effective and much more satisfying. He provided Jews across the land a symbol of strength, power, and success. He was a fine athlete, a war hero, and a mensch, with a marvelous work ethic that made him one of the greatest ballplayers ever. When he entered the synagogue on Yom Kippur in 1934, he received a standing ovation from the congregation. He made us proud to be Jews.

 Sandy Koufax

 In the five or so years before arm trouble ended his career at 31, Sandy Koufax may well have been the greatest pitcher who ever lived. Although he last pitched nearly 40 years ago, my memories of him are vivid. My most prominent one is the first inning of his perfect game — when he struck out the side in the first inning on nine pitches. I have never seen anyone do that before or since. I remember saying as he walked off the mound after those nine pitches, “I can’t imagine anyone getting a bat on his pitches today.”

In 1961, when Koufax was in his first outstanding season, the famed Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: “Sandy’s fastball was so fast some batters would start to swing as he was on his way to the mound. His curveball disappeared like a long putt going in a hole.”4

The web page of the National Baseball Hall of Fame sums up Koufax’s career succinctly: “After Sandy Koufax finally tamed his blazing fastball, he enjoyed a five-year stretch as perhaps the most dominating pitcher in the game’s history. He won 25 games three times, won five straight ERA titles, and set a new standard with 382 strikeouts in 1965. His fastball and devastating curve enabled him to pitch no-hitters in four consecutive seasons, culminating with a perfect game in 1965. He posted a 0.95 ERA in four career Word Series, helping the Dodgers to three championships.”5

In addition Koufax was an All-Star six times, the National League MVP in 1963 and the Cy Young Award three times as well. He was also World Series MVP in ’63 and ’65. One of his most memorable games was his three-hit shutout of the Minnesota Twins in Game Seven of the 1965 World Series. He also shut out the Twins in Game Five of that series, on four hits.

Of course, for all his feats on the field, his most memorable act as a Jew was refusing to pitch in the first game of the ’65 Series, on October 6, because that day was Yom Kippur. Like Greenberg, Sandy Koufax was not a religious man, but he demonstrated his pride in his heritage publicly. From that day to this, he has been an inspiration to me.

Me

In 1966 I won the Eastern College Athletic Conference College Division Draw II tennis tournament at Rider College in Trenton, New Jersey. I played five of the best matches of my life at that tournament. I still cherish that victory and seeing my name in the National Tennis Magazines and the New York Times. I was excited at the prospect of returning the next year–-my senior year-–to compete as Hamilton College’s number one player in the Draw I Division.

When I learned, however, that the dates of that tournament coincided with Yom Kippur, I made without hesitation-–but with much trepidation-–the longer-than-it-usually-seemed walk to the gym to tell my coach that I would not compete and why. From that day to this, I still love to play tennis.

On the local level, when I lived in Maryland and Tennessee, I won a number of tournaments of which I am proud and. I even managed to win the Hartford Tennis Club 60 and over Men’s Singles Championship in 2006. But my proudest moment as an athlete is the tournament in which I did not play. It allowed me to realize that compared with others over the centuries, I was paying a piddling price to express my pride in being a Jew. It also allowed me to feel that, in my own small way, I was following in the footsteps of men like Jake Pitler, Hank Greenberg, and Sandy Koufax. I am grateful to be in their company and grateful for the example they set for me and for so many others as Jews in American sports.

Endnotes:

  1. The BaseballPage.com, Hank Greenberg, web page.
  2. Edgar A. Guest, Detroit Free Press, 1934 (date uncertain).
  3. Barry Burston, The Diamond Trade: Baseball and Judaism, web page.
  4. Jim Murray, “Sandy Rare Specimen”, column, August 31, 1961, quoted in, The Great Ones, Los Angeles Times Books, 1999, 27.
  5. National Baseball Hall of Fame, web page, Sandy Koufax.

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My First Swastika

It was supposed to be just a pleasant walk through the woods by the picturesque River Trave in Bad Segeberg. The moss at river’s bottom gave the water a green hue I had never seen before. Tree branches with leaves still green despite the beginning of fall drooped over the bank. We rounded a bend and there it was: a crudely painted swastika scarring the trunk of a tree to our right.

I shuddered! I whirled around as for a fleeting second imagined Nazi soldiers hiding behind the trees waiting to drag me away. But the fear vanished as quickly as it came.

Our host, Pastor Martin Pommerening apologized profusely that we had to see this sight. “But Martin,” I responded, “You have nothing to apologize for! You are the antithesis of this swastika. We bask in the warmth and love of your hospitality.” “Moreover,“ I continued speaking silently to myself. “You and Ursula (his wife Pastorin Ursula Sieg) work tirelessly to learn about Judaism and to educate Germans about Jews. You both have spent countless hours over many months preparing every detail of our ten-week visit. We are partners in a sacred enterprise, and I will not let a random reminder that there are a few who wish to return to the past do anything but strengthen my resolve to work with you toward the goals we both cherish.”

Often people tell me, why don’t you just forget the past and look to a brighter future? There are two answers to that question.

First my walk in the woods proved once again as Dionne Warwick and others sang several years ago, “There Is Always Something There To Remind Me!” Even if I wanted to forget, I cannot.

More importantly, though, remembering the past is crucial if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Several people including George Santayana and Winston Churchill, have said, “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it!”

No, forgetting the past is not desirable! Forgiveness without remembering is meaningless. Creating a better future is impossible if we fail to recall the things about the past we are trying to improve.

After we saw the swastika in the woods of Bad Segeberg, Pastor Pommerening immediately called the mayor of the town to tell him what we saw. I am very confident the swastika has already been painted over or will be soon. But I would not the tree chopped down and its stump uprooted in order to pretend that it never happened.

Germany’s efforts to atone for the Holocaust and prevent its recurrence are more than admirable. They definitely deserve our forgiveness. But never, ever ever should we forget!

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A Day of Hope

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In the photo above I am proudly holding up the newspaper account  of the activities on World Peace Day in Bad Segeberg. I must admit I am unaccustomed to (but gratified by) a review of my sermon in the secular press

It would be hard for me to imagine a more meaningful way to spend the last weekend of 5774 than to participate with the synagogue, churches and the mosque here in Bad Segeberg in World Peace Day.

The Shabbat was very special as Vickie and I saw for the first time the splendor of Mishkan Hazafon (Tabernacle of the North), the synagogue dedicated in Bad Segeberg in 2012. The synagogue sits on a piece of land no one wanted and was built almost completely with volunteer labor. It is a structure of real beauty and spiritual depth. We enjoyed a lovely Shabbat dinner there Friday night and a lively Torah study on Shabbat morning.

Late on Shabbat afternoon we traveled to Kiel to participate in and speak at the Selichot service at the Juedische Gemeinde (Reform synagogue) there on Saturday night. I will also be delivering sermons and offering commentary on the worship in Kiel on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As in Bad Segeberg Kiel’s Reform synagogue was built almost completely by the volunteer labor of the community. In both cities the heart, soul, blood sweat and tears of the members who fashioned these structures adds greatly to the sense of sanctity one feels in each place.

The respective leaders of the Bad Segeberg and Kiel communities, Walter Blinder and Walter Joshua Pannbacker, are inspiring examples of commitment, enthusiasm and dedication to the task of rebuilding Progressive Jewish life in northern Germany. It is a privilege to know them.

After we returned to Bad Segeberg, our Sunday began with a service at the majestic Marien Lutheran Cathedral in the center of the city. It sent chills up my spine when the Dean of the Cathedral introduced my address to the congregation by saying, “This is the first time in the 800-year history of the church that a rabbi has delivered the sermon.” The response of the congregation to the thoughts I shared was most gratifying.

After the service a wonderful group of Christians, Jews and Muslims traveled in succession to the Roman Catholic church, the Muslim Mosque and the synagogue. We learned a bit about the history of each congregation and enjoyed wonderful informal conversations at the meals each community graciously provided. By the end of the day we were stuffed not only with delicious food, but with an inspiring sense of goodwill and mutual affirmation that Vickie and I will always cherish.

Over the years I have heard many people blame the ills of the world on “organized religion.” My response to that idea is and will remain: “It is not religion that causes problems. It is the inability of people to accept that others have religious views that are different from theirs and to affirm the validity of those beliefs.” Hopefully we can progress toward an era in which we accept, affirm and embrace religious differences! I see great value in learning about how our neighbors’ faiths are both similar to and different from my own.

World Peace Day helped participants in Bad Segeberg to take small steps toward harmony and understanding. May our New Jewish Year that begins tonight see events like World Peace Day multiply around the world, and may they prove small but effective steps in creating a more just, caring and compassionate society for all of  God’s children to enjoy!

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Why We Celebrate Rosh Hashanah

 Whether one is in Germany, as we are now, Jerusalem, Minsk, Hong Kong, or anywhere else in the world we Jews will welcome the New Year 5775 on Wednesday evening with feelings of joy and hope. Our New Year celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world. “This is the day of the world’s birth,” we proclaim each time we hear the Shofar’s (ram’s horn) blast on Rosh Hashanah!

Rosh Hashanah receives very little mention in the Torah, but it grew into the major celebration it is today because our people needed a day to celebrate the message and ideals of Genesis’ magnificent Story of Creation.

The Creation Story is not a scientific account of the world’s creation. It is a religious poem teaching us why we are here. The truths of the creation story are the religious ideas that it sets forth–ideas upon which all subsequent Jewish thought rest.

The first assumption of the story is that God is behind creation. However the world came to be, our story contends that a single, good caring God initiated the process. God acted with purpose and meaning. That leads to the story’s second assumption: Our lives have purpose and meaning.

In the story, everything builds on what comes before. Note the rhythm and the repetition of certain key phrases: “And God said, “Let there be … and there was … And God saw … that it was good.” And there was evening and there was morning …” These recurring refrains convey a sense of order and intention.

Third, the story teaches that we human beings—not the rhinoceros, the crocodile or the Tiger–are created בצלם אלהים “in the image of God.” That does not mean that we look like God. It means that we humans are in charge of and responsible for the world.

The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 8:11) teaches that we human beings stand midway between God and the rest of the animals. Like the animals we eat, sleep, drink, procreate, eliminate our waste and die. But in a God-like way we have the power to think, analyze, create and shape the environment in a way that far surpasses any other creature.

We are the only creatures on earth that can go to the side of a mountain, mine ore from the mountain, and turn the ore into iron, the iron into steel and with that steel forge the most delicate of surgical instruments to heal and to save lives.

We are, also, the only creatures that can go to the same mountain, mine the same ore and from that ore fashion bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill and to maim.

The overriding message of the story is that God wants us to use our power to form a just, caring, and compassionate society on earth. But we–not God–must decide if we will.

The final religious teaching of the story concerns Shabbat. On the seventh day God rested, and God wants us to rest too, but not just in the sense of relaxation. God wants us to have a day each week to step back and ponder how we can do a better job of fashioning the type of society God wants.

Genesis’ magnificent creation story teaches that God entrusts the earth to our care. It is, though, as the Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) reminds us, the only earth we will get. May that knowledge inspire us to care for it lovingly and use the talents with which God has blessed us to hand over a safer, sweeter more ecologically sound world to our children and grandchildren! That is the hope we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah. May all who read this essay–wherever you may be in the world–revel in the potential of Creation, and may the blessings of health, joy and meaningful living await you in the New Year!

Rabbi Stephen L FuchsAn apple dipped in honey is traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah to symbolize our hope for a sweet New Year.

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O the Chimney

Chimney at Cafe Spindel, Bad Segeberg, Germany photo - Version 2

Der Spindel is a quaint café in the center of Bad Segeberg that used to house a wool-processing factory. Because it was an unseasonably warm and sunny late summer day, our host Pastor Martin Pommerening suggested we sit outside.

The setting was pleasant, the conversation was delightful, the food was delicious, and then I looked up and noticed the tall chimney attached to the old wool factory. I shuddered as Israel’s Nobel prize winning poet Nelly Sachs’ famous poem seeped into my brain:

O the chimneys

On the ingeniously devised habitations of death

When Israel’s body drifted as smoke

Through the air …

The impulse to run out of the courtyard was strong, but the atmosphere of friendship and the goal of reconciliation, which brought me to Germany, were stronger. I will never be free of evocative stimuli that will bring Holocaust reflections in their wake. But this is the era and this is the season of Teshuvah.

Germany as a nation has done so much to try to atone for the horrors of The Shoah. That does not mean—nor should it—that we shall ever be free of our memories. But can we be free of the anger and antipathy they evoke?

By coming to Germany to teach and speak in synagogues and churches for ten weeks Vickie and I testify that our answer is, “We will try!” It is not always easy, but the effort that has gone into preparing for our trip makes it easier. I can only imagine the hours of time and energy that Pastor Ursula Sieg has devoted to every detail of our visit. The hospitality of Ursula and her husband Martin is so kind and genuine that we shall win this struggle. We shall win it over and over again every time there is a reminder of the horrors of the past.

In just a few days a New Year begins and with it our people’s intense season of repentance forgiveness and reconciliation. We examine our actions of the past year with a close eye on our shortcomings and the things, which we have done that we regret.

A crucial part of the process is to go to the people we have wronged and ask for their forgiveness. Without these steps our prayers for forgiveness that we shall say on Yom Kippur are meaningless.

And, our tradition teaches, when we sincerely approach someone we have insulted or hurt and ask them to forgive us, they have an obligation to do so. If they refuse us more than twice, the burden of the sin transfers to them!

I cannot speak for other Jews, but I have made the decision to heed and apply this teaching to our people’s greatest horror. Germany has asked our forgiveness so many times and in so many ways! As I ask those I have wronged to forgive me, I feel the obligation—even in this case–to forgive as well!

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Book Excerpt: The Binding of Isaac–Scriptures Most Troubling Story

As I sit here in Germany, site of the horrific human sacrifices that forever changed the course of our people’s and all of human history during the Shoah, I think of the story of the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) that we read in a few days from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah. I feel many people completely misunderstand the story’s vital message.  I hope this excerpt from my just released book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives enables the story to speak directly to us.

 

Perhaps Scripture’s most puzzling and profound stories is the near sacrifice of Isaac. How, we wonder, could God ask such a thing? How could Abraham agree? Why does Abraham, who stood up to God and protested mightily on behalf of the strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah, not object when God instructs him: “Take your son…whom you love, Isaac, and offer him as a sacrifice on one of the heights that I will point out to you” (Genesis 22:3).

The answer is that after his argument with God over Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham knew God was just and knew that he could trust the Almighty even when God asked him to do something seemingly unthinkable: Sacrifice his own son. Some interpreters assert that by taking Isaac to Mount Moriah, Abraham failed God’s test. Others opine that while he might have been a great religious leader, he was a failure as a father to Isaac and a husband to Sarah. How else, they ask, could a good man be willing to sacrifice his own son? I contend, respectfully, they miss the point.

Human sacrifice was the principal scourge of the pagan world to which the new covenantal religion objected. The new religion that evolved into Judaism completely rejected human sacrifice. It is that horrific practice, which, I submit, the story of the Binding of Isaac decries. In beckoning Abraham to Mount Moriah to slay his son, but staying his hand, God sends a message that humanity still struggles with today. No civilized religion can accept human sacrifice in its name. From the ancient world out of which the covenant emerged, to the Spartans of ancient Greece, the Incas, Aztecs, Mayan, and Hawaiian civilizations of other hemispheres, pagan religion has always involved human sacrifice.

Indeed, a serious student of the Bible understands that the perceived efficacy of this horrific form of human behavior was difficult to uproot from the mindset of the ancient Hebrews as well. No fewer than fifteen times does the Hebrew Bible protest human sacrifice or cast it in a shameful light. Does a parent ever tell a child not to do something fifteen times when the parent has no worry whatsoever that the child will do that thing in the first place? Of course, not!

No biblical story illustrates how difficult it was to convince our ancestors that human sacrifice was an abomination better than the story of Mesha, King of Moab (ca. 850 BCE). Mesha had paid tribute to King Ahab of Israel, but rebelled after Ahab’s death. In the ensuing battle, the Israelites were routing the Moabite forces until (in the words of the Israelite biblical author), “Seeing that the battle was going against him, the King of Moab…took his firstborn son and offered him up on the wall as a burnt offering. A great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and went back to their own land” (2 Kings 3:25-27). The point of this amazing story is that the biblical author clearly believed that Mesha’s act of human sacrifice is what turned the tide of battle in his favor.

When we evaluate the revolution in human thought that the God of the Hebrew Bible represents, I contend that the absolute rejection of human sacrifice is even more significant than the insistence on one God as opposed to many gods and the rejection of idol worship!

Critics of Abraham’s behavior in the story of the Binding of Isaac point out that God never again addressed Abraham directly after the incident. So what? This does not change the reality that Abraham remained God’s active covenantal partner until the end of his days. His acts of covenantal responsibility at the end of hislife were every bit as significant as those earlier in his covenantal career.

Why did God ask such a thing of Abraham? And why was Abraham willing to do it? God and Abraham had a unique relationship, which illustrated a brand new way of experiencing God to the world. Unlike the pagan gods, God in the Torah is not simply a force to appease. Rather, God is the source of moral and ethical values that brought a much higher level of civil thinking to the world. One of the vilest aspects of the pagan world was human sacrifice. It is befitting, then, that God and God’s unique covenantal partner, Abraham, should present a dramatic demonstration to the world that human sacrifice should never occur. That is why God could ask Abraham to do the unthinkable. That is why Abraham, who protested so forcefully for the sake of strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah, so willingly complied with God’s request.

Suppose for a moment a parent called me and said, “Rabbi, you will not be seeing Petunia in religious school anymore because this morning, God told me to take her to the mountains and offer her as a sacrifice.” Naturally, I would do everything possible to convince the parent that the voice he or she heard was not that of God. Moreover, I would do everything, including notifying the police, to stop him or her from doing this.

Of course, the scenario I just proposed is absurd. Nevertheless, we have yet to learn not to sacrifice our children. It happens all the time. It happens each time we send our children to fight wars over conflicts that could better be settled by negotiation. It happens each time we force our children into pursuits or professions to satisfy our own ego’s needs. It happens every time we overwhelm our children with pressure to succeed, never letting them feel that they are good enough.

The great British entertainer Lena Zavaroni (1963-1999) is a case in point. Born on the tiny Scottish Isle of Bute, Lena Zavaroni was an amazing musical talent with a magnificent voice and boundless charisma and charm. As a little girl, her aunt whisked her off to London to pursue fame and fortune. She achieved both in spades. By the time she was ten years old, she had appeared on The Johnny Carson Show, toured Japan, and sung for Queen Elizabeth and President Gerald Ford. By the end of her teenage years, she had starred in three successful British TV variety series. She was the highest-paid entertainer in the United Kingdom. View her YouTube video clips. She was amazing.

Ah, but when she was still a young girl, people began to tell her that she looked a bit pudgy. To make a long, sad story short, Lena Zavaroni⎯once the richest teenager in the world, adored by millions⎯died broke and penniless from complications of anorexia at age thirty-five.

Beautiful, precious Lena Zavaroni was every bit as much a human sacrifice as Jephtha’s daughter (and the rabbis of the Midrash condemn Jephtha as a fool) in Chapter 11 of the book of Judges. Every time I watch her sing, I want to reach into the computer screen, hug her and promise, “I won’t let anyone hurt you!” But it is a promise I could never make, let alone keep. And Lena Zavaroni, who appeared thinner and thinner with each passing year of her young life, is just one of millions of examples of horrific human sacrifice we have offered throughout the centuries and continue to offer today.

Yet many contemporary rabbis and others bemoan the fact that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. They just don’t get it! They just don’t get that God and Abraham tried to teach the world a vital lesson⎯a lesson we still have not learned.

 

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The Days of Awe

One of the questions readers of What’s in It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives have asked concerns references to the Jewish High Holy Days in the chapter “What If I Don’t Believe in God.” In response to that question, this essay explains the meaning of that sacred season to Jews.

 

Behold, it is the Day of Judgment. As a shepherd musters his sheep, causing them to pass under his staff, so do You cause every living soul to pass before You . . .
On Rosh Hashanah it is written
On Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many shall be born
Who shall live and who shall die
Who shall complete his years . . .
And who shall not complete his years
Who shall be serene and who shall be disturbed
Who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted
Who shall be poor and who shall be rich . . .
But repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness and compassion avert the severity of the decree!

The prayer excerpt above, written by Kalonymous ben Meshullam in the eleventh century, starkly expresses the High Holy Day mood of impending judgment. During the Days of Awe (the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), serious Jews strip away the veneer of our righteousness and prepare for God’s scrutiny. It is the culmination of an intense period of introspection and self-reflection in which we examine who we have been with an eye toward who we want to be. During the Days of Awe, we humbly acknowledge our shortcomings and resolve to improve in the year ahead.

Although the language of the prayers clearly addresses our relationship with God, the significance of this period does not diminish for those Jews who find themselves unable to relate to God in a personal sense. The process of self-examination, contrition, and resolve can be as therapeutically valid for the atheist as for the Orthodox Jew and everyone whose religious beliefs fall somewhere in between.

When Jews seek forgiveness for the shortcomings and wrongful acts, we do not ask for supernatural absolution for shortcoming inherent in our nature. The Hebrew word for “sin,” חטא, (chet) connotes an action that we regret, but which is within our power to correct. The Days of Awe provide us with a special opportunity—although certainly we should try to be aware of the impact of our actions all the time—to ponder, reconsider, and adjust our behavior in a positive direction.

The most distinctive part of the Rosh Hashanah ritual is the blowing of the shofar or ram’s horn. According to the thirteenth-century philosopher/physician/commentator Moses Maimonides, the piercing sounds of the shofar cry out to us like a spiritual alarm clock with the following message: “Awake from your slumber, you who are asleep. Wake up . . . search your deeds and repent . . . amend your ways and deeds!”

The sound of the shofar, noted Saadia Gaon in the tenth century, reminds us of the way just and merciful monarchs operate: First, they warn the people of their decrees; but if they do not heed the warning, violators are held accountable. The shofar is a spiritual warning to remind us of the way God wishes us to live our lives.

Yom Kippur arrives ten days after Rosh Hashanah. On it, we observe a complete fast and spend the entire day in prayer and meditation.

More than two thousand years ago, the philosopher Philo endorsed the Yom Kippur fast “because of the self-restraint which it entails.” The fast reminds Jews that true repentance (which leads to improved conduct) requires much self-control. Abstaining from all food and drink from sunset on the eve of the holy day until after dark the next day gives all of us an inkling of what it means to be really hungry. The experience reminds us of our obligation to alleviate hunger in whatever way we can wherever it exists. It also reminds us to cause no one to suffer privation through our actions. One of the wonderful innovations of modern Jewish life is that many synagogues conduct massive food drives. We bring the food from which we abstain—and them some—to the synagogue to distribute to local food banks. It was a great source of pride to me in my congregation in West Hartford to have two moving vans parked outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur and see them filled up with food.
I hasten to note that no one should fast if doing so would cause a medical hardship. Such people are not only permitted to eat; they are commanded to do so.

The most striking portion of the Day of Atonement liturgy is the chanting of the Kol Nidre prayer at the beginning of the service on Yom Kippur Eve. The haunting melody, to which the cantor sings an ancient Aramaic legal formula, symbolizes for many both the anguish and the hope of the Jewish experience. Leo Tolstoy once remarked, “The Kol Nidre is of all melodies the saddest, and yet the most uplifting.” The text of the prayer, which some consider nearly 1,500 years old, ask God to absolve us of rash vows we might have made or might make but be unable to fulfill. Many times in history, tyrants forced us to disavow our religion to save our lives. The Kol Nidre brought comfort and a feeling of absolution from those vows we made under duress.

Anti-Semites jump on the prayer as an escape clause for Jews to get out of obligations we do not wish to meet. In a disputation before King Louis IX of France in 1240, Rabbi Yechiel of Paris successfully defended the Kol Nidre prayer against that charge by pointing out that Jewish law explicitly states that Yom Kippur rituals and prayers only cover transgressions against God. “For sins between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not affect atonement until the offender appeases the one that he or she wronged” (Mishnah Yoma 8:9).

The same Mishnah dispels the notion that Yom Kippur absolves the individual who sins capriciously. The text states, “If one says, ‘I will sin and repent continuously,’ he will not be given an opportunity to repent. If one says, ‘I will sin and the Day of Atonement will affect Atonement,’ then the Day of Atonement does not affect atonement.”

Jewish tradition acknowledges that attaining the humility, contrition, and resolve necessary for sincere repentance is no easy task. The Talmud accords the highest praise to one who successfully turns from his or her misdeeds, stating, “Where repentant sinners stand, even the thoroughly righteous cannot stand.” Maimonides commented that the reward for penitents is so great because they must exert even greater effort than the thoroughly righteous to avoid going astray.

Though the theme of the Days of Awe is judgment, the rabbis of old viewed God more as a compassionate parent than as a stern, impartial magistrate. In the eyes of the sages, God is well aware of the difficulties of repentance and is eager to do everything possible to help us return to the right path. In one parable, the rabbis liken God to a parent whose son was a distance of one hundred days from home. His friends advise him to return to his parents. He answered, “I cannot; I do not have the strength.”

His father sent him a message, saying, “Come as far as you are able, and I will come the rest of the way to you.” (Midrash Pesikta Rabati, Shuvah Yisrael) The story suggests that atonement during the Days of Awe is neither an act of God’s unearned grace nor the result of humanity’s unilateral struggle. It is rather the wonderful product of a covenantal partnership that allows those who take the process seriously to enter the New Year feeling cleansed and renewed.

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Judith

One of my constant High Holy Day companions over the years has been a wonderful book, Days of Awe, by Israel’s Nobel Prize-winning author, Shmuel Yosef Agnon. In my last web essay, I listed it among the ten books that have influenced me most in my life.

As much as the book means to me, the person who gave it to me means even more. It was a gift from my father’s first cousin Dr. Judith Kaplan, whom I met when I came to Israel for the first time as a rabbinical student in July 1970.

Another of my father’s cousins was to meet me at the airport, but there was a mix-up, and she was not there. I shall never forget the sinking feeling in my stomach as the crowded reception hall at Lod airport slowly emptied out leaving me just about the only one there. This was, of course, way before computers and cell phones revolutionized the way we communicate.

All I could think of was that my father had told me, “Judith is an angel.” Well, we would soon find out how this angel would react to a cousin she had never seen waking her up at three o’clock in the morning. I found the number and figured out how to use the strange Israeli public phones. My heart pounded as the phone rang.

“Judith,” I began when she picked up the phone. “My name is Stephen. I am Leo’s son from America. I am here to study in Israel. His cousin Hedwig was supposed to be at the airport, but no one was here.”

Judith said, “Come immediately.”

Those were the most comforting words I could imagine. I got into a taxi, gave the driver the address in Tel Aviv, and before long I was at her door. She and her husband Lazer greeted me with hugs, kisses and genuine joy.

Lazer owned a thriving hardware store in the heart of Tel Aviv. Judith was a successful and busy dermatologist. They lived in what was, by U.S. standards, a modest apartment.   Yet, they seemed very content.

Though Judith was a busy professional, she was also a Jewish mother, and her first reaction after greeting me was, “You must be hungry; you have to eat.”   She went and fixed me a cheese sandwich. I had never eaten cheese before.  But I did not have the heart to tell Judith that what she had made at four o’clock in the morning something I did not eat, so I did eat it. And it was delicious.

Judith was eager to know about the family. She was excited that I was going to be a rabbi, but she herself was a secular Jew. Yet, I knew from what I had heard about her, and I knew from what I saw that she lived her life infused with the Jewish values of caring and compassion. And, she lived in the Jewish homeland.

The next day, Judith and Lazer sent me on my way to Jerusalem. I visited often, and I loved her very much.

A few months later, my father died, and I, heartbroken, went home for the funeral. I stayed home a month to be with my family. When I returned to Israel, Judith’s house was once again my first stop. She was there with love and comfort. She had been very close to my father when they were children in Germany, and she told me wonderful stories about him.

I still remember walking with her along the beach in Tel Aviv. She had taken a day out of her busy schedule to be with me. The months passed, and when it was time for me to return to my studies in the United States, Judith gave me a present I shall always treasure. It is the book I mentioned earlier, Days of Awe, by S.Y. Agnon.

I have read the book many times. I try to read it in the summer as part of my preparations for the High Holy Days. I am reading it again now as Rosh Hashanah approaches. This year, though, I am reading it in Germany. The Germany that Judith wisely fled in 1935 is the Germany to which I have returned with hope and optimism nearly 80 years later. Days of Awe is the only hard copy book I carried with me.

Oh, it was a soft copy when Judith gave it to me,with a cover price of $2.95 back in 1971, but it fell apart from continual re-readings. The $65 I paid to have it custom rebound with my name embossed on the cover is the most meaningful present I have ever given myself.

The introduction by Yale professor, Judah Goldin, refers to the book as a classic, and he defines a classic this way: “A work becomes a classic the minute I discover that my many moods, my perceptions … are startlingly anticipated … in that work.” By that definition, Days of Awe is certainly a classic, and so was my cousin Judith.

I shall never forget her insight or her caring. Her life was a shining example of service. Although she was well into her seventies, she rose early in the morning to go to the clinic where she worked. She came home in the afternoon to care for her ailing husband. Then she saw private patients in her office at home.

She was ever grateful that she left Germany in 1935, and that she was able to live happily with her husband, raise her daughter Devorah, who is also a physician, and bring healing and hope to many in the Promised Land.

Judith has been gone for several years now, but I think of her every time I pick up Days of Awe. I think of her love and dedication, I think of how she was there for me not once but twice when I needed her most, I think of her smile, and I try to be worthy of her example.

When I was last in Israel, I had a wonderful visit with Devorah, who  is now a grandmother herself.   When I shared with her my memories of her mother, tears came to her eyes, and in a very real way, Judith was there with us as we talked.

I pray that during my stay in Germany, I will feel Judith’s presence once again and that my efforts here will be worthy of her blessing

 

 

 

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My Ten Most Influential Books

Michael Amram Rinast has invited me to list the ten books that have influenced me the most. I will gladly name ten books that have had great impact on my life, but I can’t swear there are not others that have had equal significance to me. These are the ten that come to mind now:

1. What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives — Forgive me if this seems egotistical, but this book has been percolating in my mind and heart for forty years.

2. The Book of Genesis–The first book of the Torah–more than any others has influenced  the way I think and try to act. Other biblical books could easily make this list, but one biblical bookstands out for me, and I want to make note of that.

3.The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon–Within the next few days I will post another essay that will make clear why this book means so much to me.

4. The Rabbi by Noah Gordon–It is no exaggeration for me to say that reading this book for the first of many times when I was 18, shaped the direction of my life. It was an honor to mer Mr. Gordon in 2001and share this with him in person

5. Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss–To me this is by far the greatest of many great Dr. Seuss books. It is a marvelous lesson in loyalty and honor that first touched my heart when my teacher, Mrs. Naomi Asher, read it to us in second grade. It still touches my heart today.

6. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth–The gritty story of Davy Pearl’s coming of age inspires me for its lack of sentimentality and the amazing insight it offers into childhood emotions. As an adult I continue to resonate to those emotions.

7. The Jews of Silence by Elie Wiesel–This ground breaking expose of the plight of Soviet Jews in the sixties alerted the world to the issue which galvanized the Jewish world for nearly two decades

8. Night by Elie Wiesel–It is hard to imagine that the Holocaust would hold nearly the place it does in the minds of people of all backgrounds today were it not for Wiesel’s haunting memoir.

9. Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon–Unsurpassed for it realism and sensitivity to the issues of people with disabilities

10. (TIE) Basic Judaism and As A Driven Leaf both by Milton Steinberg. Basic Judaism opened my eyes as a high school student to the necessity of distilling the essence f Judaism in such a way that encourages people to build on their learning. As A Driven Leaf, which weaves a magnificent historical novel from a few small fragments of Talmudic and Midrashic evidence, opened my eyes to the beauty and possibilities inherent in creative Biblical interpretation.

I hope you like my choices and invite interested readers to share yours.

 

 

 

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The Afterlife as I See It

What follows is my fourth and final essay that appears in the recently published (CCAR Press) symposium edited by Rabbi Paul J. Citrin, entitled, Lights in the Forest.

 

In recent decades we Jews – Reform Jews in particular — have submerged mention of the afterlife to the degree that many Jews frame the question to me as an assumption: “We don’t believe in life after death. Do we, rabbi?”

I would respond, “Yes, we do!”

For Jews attaining the reward in Olam ha Ba, the world to come does not depend on what we believe. It depends on how we live our lives.

My belief in life after death has two parts: What I hope and what I know.

I hope, and in my heart I believe, that good people receive in some way rewards from God in a world beyond the grave. I hope that they are reunited with loved ones and live on with them in a realm free of the pain and debilitation that might have marked the latter stages of their earthly life.

Speaking personally, my father died at age 57 and my mother, who never remarried died at age 88. She was a widow for more years than she was married. My fondest hope since her death is that they are together again enjoying the things they enjoyed on earth and as much in love with each other as the day they stood beneath the chuppah to unite their lives.

I hope, pray, and even trust that they are young, strong and vigorous not weak and frail as they both were before they died. I hope and pray also that in some indescribable way they are able to feel and share the joy of the happy events that our family has shared since they left us.

I cannot, of course, prove that any of this is true. Yet I cling tenaciously to my hope.

There is also an aspect of after life of which I am absolutely sure. Our loved ones live on in our memories, and those memories can surely inspire us to lead better lives.

At the beginning of Noah Gordon’s marvelous novel, The Rabbi the protagonist, Rabbi Michael Kind thinks of his beloved grandfather who died when he was a teenager, and recalls a Jewish legend that teaches: “When the living think of the dead, the dead who are in paradise, know they are loved, and they rejoice.”

Each time we do something worthy because of their teaching or example, they live on. If we listen we can hear them call to us as God called to Abraham in establishing the sacred Covenant of our faith:

Be a blessing! (Genesis 12:2)

Study, try to understand and follow God’s instruction! (Genesis 17:1)

Practice–and teach those you love to practice–righteousness and justice! (Genesis (18:19)

And then, when we turn their words into our actions, we know–we absolutely know–that our loved ones are immortal, and they live on in a very real and special way.

 

 

 

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