BEING THERE

My shoes are grey with the ashes of the dead

it rains as we leave Auschwitz-Birkenau

A reflection of how I feel.

The hems of my trousers are splattered

with the mud of the bones, a sacrilege to wash.

The old folks always said don’t buy a Mercedes

now I feel why.

Every step is to walk not only over a grave, but

to walk the last meters that numberless thousands walked;

to view the last view they saw before they became ashes.

These roads are filled with the spirits of the unnumbered,

unnamed, uncounted, unknown.

Oh! Those Germans were meticulous record keepers

except in their haste to rid the world they neglected to count

and record…

more than we will ever know, rushed to the gas chamber

At the moment of arriving if they still lived.

The pollen falls like ashes as we stand

in the crematorium at Dachau

breaking my heart in ways for which I have no words.

Standing in these places of unimaginable horror

I can only touch the walls with the palm of my hand

and whisper”we remember” “we will not forget”.

I feel your spirits.

We can only remember, honor, teach;

somehow know what cannot be known.

My brain is full of history,

my eyes cannot hold any more horror.

With reverence and tears I spoke the Kaddish

in these holiest of places

and remembered…all the genocide, not just of these

but of our human history…ongoing still.

HOPE

It is almost impossible, now, to describe what it felt to be incalculably hopeful. Our idealism, in the sixties and seventies, was boundless. We believed absolutely and completely that we would change the world. And in some ways the world was indeed changed. The civil rights act, the voting rights act, ultimately Title IX, the rise of feminism and a tectonic shift in our culture; music, art, attitudes.

And idealism dies hard. All my life I have held fast to some idealistic notions of good and right. Not to mention my steadfast belief in constitutional democracy and the protections it should afford us.

Having said that, the hardest thing for me about where we are now is the erosion of hope, the loss of idealism. I find it damn near impossible to watch the news without becoming angry, or depressed, or just plain sad. I find it almost impossible to believe that we are where we are. That racism, fascism, anti-semitism and all forms of bigotry are on the rise. That we cannot agree that saving the planet and all the creatures on it should be a first and urgent priority. That the short view is always the prevailing view. That civil discussion and disagreement are no longer possible. These are the big things, the small things confront us daily. My town now only pretends to recycle, my social security is taxed, there are hungry homeless children in our schools; and on and on.

I was watching a fictional television show in which a leading character made an impassioned speech about the values we should all be holding dear. About the pure and fantastical notion of a government by and for the people. And geek that I am, it made me cry. Good,grief. And it reminded me of that hope, that beautiful boundless hope.

And all I can do, as I witness the destruction of decades of progress on the environment, the recission of regulations that protect our air, our water, our parks, our children, the poor, the disenfranchised, is try to see the good. I watch for those moments when the best in us is evident, when my neighbors help me with things I can’t do, when people band together to help the victims of some senseless tragedy, when a restaurant feeds those with no money. Just examples, but sparks of hope. As I said, hope does hard, so we have to fan those tiny sparks and pray, every day, that the flames can rise again and carry us forward. Maybe hope is contagious.

The Star ~

In the last weeks we have seen the face of the rise of overt antisemitism in this country. We have seen innocents murdered at prayer in their house of worship. We have seen homes spray painted with swastikas. We saw a man buy a ticket to Fiddler on the Roof so he could yell Heil Hitler! and Heil Trump! in the middle of the performance.

I am not so naive as to believe that antisemitism is really growing, it has been there all along. Just like racism and xenophobia of all kinds. I don’t think people’s feelings have really changed. What I think is that over the last decades, at least for a while, it became socially unacceptable to express those feelings in public, to act them out in overt and destructive ways. And so at the least overt expressions of hate, to some extent, went underground.

What I think is that the current leadership, or lack thereof, of our country has created or at least affirmed the “rightness”  of a culture of the expression of hate. It has become okay, or normal, to express racism, antisemitism, hate of Muslims, etc. in public and out loud.

My mother is not Jewish, and for some in my community that means I am not. My father is Jewish and in my Reform community that means I am Jewish if I say I am. I was asked once how I determined that my identity was Jewish. I thought about my answer carefully and my answer is this. If I had lived in Germany in the early part of the 19th century, I would not have been asked if my mother was Jewish or not or what my identity was. I would have had a star sewn to my coat, I would have been herded into a ghetto and ultimately a cattle car and sent to my almost certain death. It has always seemed to me that if I would have died for being it, I should be willing to die to defend being it.

For a long time I stopped wearing my Star of David, or anything around my neck, for reasons related to vanity. But seeing these expression of anti-semitism becoming socially “acceptable” or at least part of some new normal made me re-think that. Now I need to wear it, every day and visible outside my clothing. Because I can.

Can You Still Believe In Magic?

I wrote on Vayeira, this past week’s Torah portion last year and what struck me was that it is full of magic and miracles. Although there was much punishment and destruction, there was still magic and miracles.

It is hard to write, today, about magic and miracles. Saturday, in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Jews were gunned down as they prayed their Sabbath prayers. They were not gunned down by Muslim extremists or other “imported” terrorists. They were gunned down by a homegrown anti-Semitic extremist who believed that Jews were somehow “alien” and a threat to his way of life. In Pittsburgh. He was known on extreme web sites as a virulent anti-Semite. He posted, essentially, what he planned to do, that he had had enough of us. And eleven innocent people are dead.

So it’s hard, today, to write about magic and miracles.  I taught religious school this morning and we talked about how you believe, how you have faith, in a world where bad things happen. We worked hard at this, at finding the path. These are 12 and 13 year olds, trying to find their path in so many ways. And then they have to think about and deal with things like this.

Why would they want to be Jews when Jews are targets? Why would they want to believe in a world where they can be shot down in school, in shul? I don’t think it is my place as a teacher to tell them what or how to believe. I can share what I believe, I can try to help them see a possible path, but everyone, teen or not, needs to find a way to faith on their own.

In the end I can’t promise them safety in their Jewish identity, we can only talk about the courage and self worth involved in being and standing up for who you are. We can only talk about living life not in fear. And that’s where faith comes in. We finally agreed that probably G-d does not create or cause bad things; life happens. Faith is what helps us through those things. The stories of the G-d of Genesis, testing and testing, are meant to instruct us but we need not take them literally. We work to find the lessons, everyone has to find their own path to belief. It would be wonderful if we could wave a magic wand and disappear the evil, the scary things, but alas we cannot. What I do know is that despite the evil in the world it is truly still full of magic and miracles – you just have to believe, and know where to look.

NASO ~ Nurturing Community

This portion, Numbers 4:21 – 7:89 is about the dedication of the Mishkan, the tent in which the people gathered not only to worship but to become community.  Our “tents of offering”, our communities, are a precious and fragile thing, requiring constant care and love.

Our communities can be many things, they can be our Temple family, they can be the greater Jewish community in which we live, they can be all Israel, they can be our classmates, our colleagues, our friends and/or our families.   And each of these, each network of relationships, requires a different kind of nourishing.  And from each we seek something different in return.  It is, in some cases, a bargaining or bartering relationship as is often the case with colleagues.  But in most cases, we nourish our relationships because they provide us with something just by their existence, not because they actively “give” us something.

in the world of Naso, the idea of “home” was ephemeral as the people were still nomadic in the desert.  And so that tent of meeting, that communal place of worship and community became the stabilizing home place.  Today we are emotional/cultural nomads, living in geographically fractured families, extraordinarily fractured politics, constantly fractured finances and careers.  So home matters crucially as it did for those desert nomads.  What is home?

There are a lot of sayings about home.  It is where you hang your hat, it is where your heart is, it is where your dog is, it is where they have to take you in (thank you Robert Frost).  It may be all of these things, but it is much more complicated than that; but that is for another blog.  Suffice it to say that the Mishkan, our Temple, our place of meeting and community, matters.  It, like all our relationships, requires love and care if it is to sustain us.it is as fragile as everything else and demands our selfless service.

a belated Shabbat shalom.