Monday, September 26, 2011
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Thursday, September 8, 2011
I made this connection easily enough because, as Mordecai Kaplan put it, I live in two civilizations, one Jewish and one American. An unaffiliated or purely secular Jew may not. A resident of Kiryas Joel in New York may not. As one who feels blessed to be Jewish and privileged to be American, I do.
And come July 4, 2012, I want to march in the great celebratory parade down Central Street in Evanston. And I want to do so with others from my Jewish community at Beth Emet.
Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable for Jews to march as Jews in the parade. Evanston abided, if not encouraged, restrictions against Jews. The neighborhood into which my family and I moved over forty years ago had very few Jews. And the land we purchased was, as I recall, encumbered by a restrictive covenant barring transfer to Jews. The restriction, by then, was unenforceable, but there it was.
Though Beth Emet has been an Evanston institution for over sixty-one years, it has never marched in the parade. Other faith based organizations have. Another Jewish congregation (JRC) has. But not Beth Emet, not the oldest, largest Jewish congregation in Evanston.
There are at least four reasons why Beth Emet should march.
1. Because we can. My grandparents could not move freely in the Old Country. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives us the freedom to do so here, in particular to assemble, to speak and to exercise our religion. We all know that if we fail to exercise our bodies, our muscles atrophy. The same is true of our political and religious freedoms. We must use them, and teach them diligently to our children, or they will wither.
2. Because we should. We are taught not to separate ourselves from the community and we are also taught to repair the world. Those two teachings conflate here because repairing the world begins with helping to make our home community a better place in which to live. But we cannot help repair Evanston if we have no credibility on the street, if we are not visible, if we do not, literally as well as figuratively, walk the walk. One way to get street cred is to walk as a community.
3. Because it is good for Beth Emet. Joining in this open celebration of freedom shows that the Free Synagogue really believes in its name. It is a community that honors freedom. And it also shows that we know how to have fun. What a great way to publicize the congregation and its values.
4. Because it is good for the Jews. The time has long passed when Jews had to, or thought they had to, change their names to survive or, perhaps, to succeed. And so has the time passed when Jewish life in America could sustain itself on the twin pillars of building Eretz Yisrael and remembering the Shoah, as important as those tasks are. By marching in this parade as Jews we enrich our lives as Jews and have a chance to present a positive image of a modern Jewish community, sufficiently self-confident to assert itself publicly. This is important for ourselves, for unaffiliated Jews, and for the general community who, when they see Jews in the public square, normally only see them in black hats and long coats.
As individuals we may not agree on how to resolve or even address the public issues of the day, but we all ought to be able to agree that on this day, at least this one day, we can all join together in public to express our gratitude for this country and the freedoms it affords us. If my grandparents could suffer in steerage to cross the Atlantic, I can walk a mile or so to honor the choice they made to come here and the country which received them and provides me and my family with unparalleled opportunities. I hope others can as well.
A long time ago, according to tradition, it took one brave man to take one courageous step to open a path for freedom for his people. Let us be like Nachson. Let’s take that first step, and then a few more. Let’s march together on July 4th.
Rabbi London, President Ephraim, members of the Board of Trustees, fellow congregants: let’s make it so!
Thursday, September 1, 2011
Like the old riddle about the man who is his own grandfather, I recently became the self-appointed guardian of my great-grandmother’s 7-year-old son.
Spurred by my new membership in Ancestry.com, I became curious about what happened to my grandfather’s younger brother, who died at age 7 after being hit by a wagon, according to the story my grandfather had always told me. Having assumed responsibility several years ago for the Waldheim Cemetery graves of my mother’s four grandparents, it bothered me that little Paul was not buried near his parents, and I started wondering where he was.
I had heard, and been disturbed by, Paul’s story all my life. He was skipping bottle caps in front of their home on the West Side one day in 1914 when a horse-drawn wagon jumped the curb and crushed his leg. After five weeks in the hospital, he was about to be released when the doctors told his parents that the leg had been badly set, and he would be crippled for life unless they reset it. Paul never came out of the anesthetic they used. He died in mid-December. The little coffin was set across two chairs in the living room of their home.
I once referred to “Uncle Paul” when speaking of him to my grandfather and he immediately corrected me. “Paul,” he said, as if the concept of Paul being an uncle didn’t compute.
So last time I was at Waldheim, I inquired about Paul, and discovered a record of his grave. The cemetery provided me a guide who drove me over and helped me locate the grave. The Hebrew and English engraving on young Paul’s grave stone is barely legible now, but even before we figured out for certain that it was his, I found myself planted in front of a worn monument in the shape of a tree trunk. It was, indeed, Paul’s.
I have known Paul’s story all my life. Now I’m part of it. I love the idea that Paul will have a visitor again after so many years, and that I can “care for” the son of the woman for whom I was named. If our spirits live on through our children’s children and our namesakes, and in the hearts of those who cherish our memory, then little Paul really does belong to me, in a way. And I’m more than happy to tell his story and carry his spirit into future generations.