In 1984, David and I moved to New York with our four little children and David’s grandmother, Mutti – our children’s great-grandmother, already in her late 80’s and wheelchair bound. It was probably because of Mutti that we ended up living in a castle in Riverdale. Our landlady, Hungarian Episcopalian Wally, had been raised by her grandmother – and any family, she figured, that would move out with their great- grandmother was a family she wanted to know. The castle (you can see it overlooking the Henry Hudson Parkway) was falling apart on the inside, but it didn’t matter. We had stone turrets and secret staircases, green floors, and gargoyles, and snakes carved into banisters.
But the real magic was Wally. She was our guardian angel the thirteen years we were blessed to share with her. The day she died, I had just come home from Kol Ami. I pulled into the driveway and saw her caregiver sitting on the front steps, her face cupped in her hands. She picked up her head and her tear-stained face said everything. Wally’s daughter had come to be with her in her last days. This daughter’s life was a mess – but no matter, Wally was crazy about her. I bounded up the stairs. Wally had just died; she was lying in the bed and her daughter, whom she loved so much, was leaning against the bedpost. I stood in awe and reverence and silence. And as I stood, I saw the spirit of Wally rise from her body and rush down into her daughter.
Clear as day.
This is one of the most intimate things I have ever witnessed in my life, and I have never spoken about it publicly. But I am now. I hope you will hear the urgency and love in my voice. I need to talk with you about the soul – and about the Jewish soul.
I believe we are all born with spiritual knowledge. These are the things we deeply and quietly know; they’re not subject to debate. This is knowledge that can’t be controlled or coerced; it can only be shared. One of the few things I have always deeply known, from the time that I remember anything, is that the soul is real. But I wondered – if the soul is real, is there such a thing as a Jewish soul? That question re-surfaced for me in my early years here at Kol Ami – and it was on my mind the day of a heart- breaking phone call. A man called our synagogue office. He was in his 90’s, wheel chair bound in a nursing home in Los Angeles. His son, in his 70’s, was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease and was in White Plains Hospital. The father looked in the phone book, found a temple in the White Plains area and called. Would I visit his son for him?
I went. He was not able to speak, connected to tubes of all kinds, but there was an air of sweetness about him. I introduced myself. He picked up a pen, which he used as a pointer, and pointed out individual letters on a crudely written alphabet chart. He spelled out to me: “There is a Jewish soul.”
Moving to New York with our kids had meant leaving a huge extended family behind in California. And so, there were frequent trips, back and forth. It was one of those cross-country trips and we were late getting started that morning. The white water rafting trip we had reserved was an hour and a hour off the main highway, so David thought he’d better call from the junction to make sure they wouldn’t leave without us.
“Sorry – you’re too late,” said the voice on the phone. David got back into the car, and my always upbeat husband said, so uncharacteristically, “I don’t know how I’m ever going to get over my disappointment.”
The mood in the car – not good!
We continued until Missoula, Montana, where we pulled into a gas station to fill up with gas – and our car died. Just died in the gas station. Liore, our youngest, ran in first – for the bathroom key. David followed. The attendant looked different from other Montana folk – who mostly looked like Robert Redford. He had got dark hair, a trimmed beard, blue eyes and fair skin. (Classic Sephardic coloring, David thinks to himself.) He says to David:
“Was that your daughter? Is she Semitic?”
“Yes. We’re Jewish.”
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“We live in New York,” David says. “My family’s from Germany.”
“You don’t look like you’re from Germany,” he says to David.
So David adds, knowing his family’s history, “Five hundred years ago my family lived in Spain.”
“My family is also from Spain,” he says, “Catholic. They left 450 years ago, but I’m not sure why they left.”
David says: “There were many Jewish families who converted to Catholicism – New Christians they were called – but left Spain. Many came to Mexico, then a Spanish territory, and from there to New Mexico.”
“My family moved to New Mexico,” he said – and paused. “How would I know if my family was one of those Jewish families?”
Many of them still practice some Jewish customs,” David said. “Some of them light candles on Friday night.”
The man said, “Every Friday my grandfather would buy two candles, and he would light his two candles every Friday. My parents didn’t want me to know.”
He didn’t want us to leave. And David understood why we had to miss our rafting trip. There is a Jewish soul.
“You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God, your leaders, the men, the children, the women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer, to enter the covenant of the Eternal your God. I make this covenant not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day and with those who are not here today.” I make this covenant with those who are not here today? Today’s magnificent Torah portion hints to the ancient mystery that all of us who are today part of the Jewish story – all of our souls – were once gathered together in a sacred covenant. All of us: whether or not we are Jewish – all of us who have chosen to participate in the unfolding Jewish story.
A Jewish soul.
In 1990, a group of us traveled to Prague, Budapest and Israel. In Budapest, we met with a small group of young Jewish parents who were forming a new, progressive Jewish congregation. We sat together in someone’s living room as the young men and women spoke about their own Jewish stories. Two of these new leaders had not known they were Jewish until late in their teens. Both of them were the children of survivors of the Holocaust. “So how did you find out you were Jewish?” we wanted to know. For one of them, it was tears. He began to pay attention, over the years, as his father watched the news on television – and he noticed that there were times that his father would quietly cry. And the young teenager began to connect the dots. For the other kid, it was different. He came home one day after school, threw his backpack to the ground and told his parents how he had joined with a bunch of other guys in beating up a Jewish kid. My heart stopped. I could understand the parents of the young men who were now speaking to us. They had done their best to protect their own children. For them, being Jewish had meant trauma and destruction. They themselves were the sole survivors of their large and extended families; they wanted to protect their children – and so they had quietly decided that the best way to protect them was to end the Jewish story. Better that their children not know. Then everything blew apart: their son became the oppressor. In that moment, they had a choice: tell their son he was Jewish – and he would become a potential victim. Deny him the knowledge, and he would become the oppressor. And they decided – even with the weight of their suffering on them – better not to become an oppressor. For them, owning their Jewish identity would help protect them against becoming the oppressor.
For so many of us, being Jewish is bound up in being vulnerable. In the most profound and wonderful ways, we have been nurtured on the Biblical teaching, “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having been slaves in the land of Egypt.” We remember our suffering – so that we feel with those who suffer. We remember our suffering – so that we will nurture the courage to speak out against injustice. There is a Jewish soul. The Jewish soul remembers pain.
But I am worried about our Jewish soul.
There is a dark side to remembering pain. Rachel Burstein has taught American and world history at CUNY’s Brooklyn College. In an article published last September in the Forward, she described her first day class activities. Alongside asking her students to list their names, email addresses, their majors and reasons for taking the course, she asked them to include several areas of history that were particularly interesting to them. She found a nearly infallible correspondence: the more steeped the students were in Jewish life, the more likely they were to be interested in two subjects: the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition. “Maybe this should not have been so surprising,” she writes. “It was common for my students’ historical interests to break down along ethnic, religious or cultural lines. African-American students wanted to learn about African liberation movements, slave resistance and the civil rights movement. Immigrants studying for citizenship exams wanted to learn more about the American Revolutionary War and the Constitution. And Muslim students took particular interest in the policies of the Ottoman Empire.
“But whereas other groups emphasized points of cultural pride in their historical selections, those educated in Jewish schools were concerned primarily with persecution… Absent was any sense that Jews could shape their own destiny, that they were active participants in history. If such was the case of the past, I worried for my students of the present.” [Rachel Burstein, “A Distorted View of History”, The Forward, September 23, 2011] I’m worried, too. I am worried about our Jewish soul.
Perhaps we have become our suffering. We have identified the Jewish soul with pain. But we have suffered, you tell me! Yes – we have. We have experienced great pain; but to continue to suffer is a choice. You know the story of the old man on a train car from Minsk to Pinsk. Minutes after the train rolls out of the station, he sighs and says, “Oy, am I thirsty.” This he repeats again and again, until one of his fellow travelers can take it no longer, gets up, walks to the next car and comes back with a cup of water. The old man drinks – and there is blessed quiet. A few minutes later, he sighs and says, “Oy, was I thirsty.”
Neuroscience has joined with the therapeutic professions to teach us that we participate in creating our reality. Our experiences and the way we think about them – our insight and reflection – change the neural connections that make up our brains.
“This revelation is based on one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the last twenty years: How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain.” [Daniel Siegel,
MD, Mindsight, pp xiv-xv] “In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us.” [Diane Ackerman, NY Times, March 24, 2012]
Dr. Daniel Siegel, author of Mindsight, The New Science of Personal Transformation, offers this useful model: “If you put your thumb in the middle of your palm [demonstrate] and then curl your fingers over the top, you’ll have a pretty handy model of the brain.” [p14] The limbic area lies deep within the brain, approximately where your thumb is. Encoded here are the primal emotional responses that help define us and shape our sense of how the world works.
As a Jewish people, we too have formed our ideas of the world and our place in it. Deep down – and it is deep down – many of us believe that the whole world wants the Jews dead. Our brains are constantly on high stress alert, vigilant against potential attack. Let me ask you, how would you rate present-day attitudes of Americans toward Jews? Is anti-Semitism in the United States on the rise, decline, or at the same problematic level it’s always been? Both the ADL and Gallup have released studies that anti-Semitism in the United States is at an all-time low – way below negative attitudes Muslims and Mormons, even below negative attitudes toward Christians. But we don’t believe it. We think the studies must be faulty – or they didn’t interview the right people. We see what we already believe. And what we believe is they’re all out to get us.
There is danger in the world. It’s good that Israel has a powerful and smart army. It’s good that the Anti-Defamation League keeps its eye on acts of bigotry and hatred. But if we have friends out there, we might not see them. We approach the world with profound mistrust. It affects our political views, our foreign policy and crushes our hopes for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. Our deep-down primal narrative tells us that “the other” can’t be trusted. Scratch a goy and you find an anti-Semite. I worry for the Jewish soul.
The Jewish soul.
Our memories, emotional responses and primal narratives become encoded deep within us, forming our sense of who we are. When we are not aware of the ways we frame the world, these primal responses can wreak havoc in our lives. A most painful example: who is most at risk for abusing their children? Right. People who were themselves abused as children. How is that possible, I wonder? How is it possible that people who suffered so would inflict that on others?
Our Jewish souls are also at risk. We have also suffered greatly. And we, too, are at risk. No, no. Not just at risk of persecution. We do not see the Hebrew graffiti all over the Old City of Jerusalem – and the Old City of Hebron – or on mosques in the Galilee targeted for arson: mavet la’aravim – reads the graffiti . Death to the Arabs. Do we not see it? We read only a few weeks ago about the near-lynching of Palestinian teenagers in Zion Square – in downtown Jerusalem, at the foot of the pedestrian mall of Ben Yehudah. The perpetrators were kids – Jewish teens, girls and boys ranging in age from 13-17, in front of a crowd of onlookers, bystanders. I’d rather not see it. I’d rather not talk about. But I fear for the Jewish soul. It is better for us in these days of honest introspection to hold our souls gently – to have compassion upon the violence we have endured – and the violence we in turn inflict on others – and repair ourselves. These are our primal narratives, wired into our Jewish mind and soul – but among the most exciting discoveries of modern neuroscience is that our brains never stop growing in response to experience. Who we can become is not determined by who we have been. How we choose to understand the world – what we think and what we believe and what we choose to remember – literally transform us. As individuals, and as a Jewish community.
What are the stories we tell our children? How do we understand our suffering?
Sadie and Max had lived a long life together. Sadie sat next to the hospital bed in which Max was resting, holding his hand, numbers and lights quietly flashing on the machines next to him. Max looked at Sadie as he said, “Sadie, you’ve been with me my whole life. When the Cossacks attacked our little village, in that terrible pogrom, you were there by my side, holding my hand. And we ran from that burning village, with nothing but the clothes on our backs, you were there with me, your hand in mine. When we hid in the barn – you remember that – and when we somehow got passage in the steerage of the ship – we nearly starved to death – you were there with me, by my side.
And then we came to the Lower East Side, and worked our fingers to the bone in those sweatshops, you were there by my side. And when my first business failed, you were there by my side. And when I had my heart attack, you were there with me. And now that I am dying, you are here, by my side.” Max thought for a moment as he looked again at Sadie. “Sadie,” he said. “You know what? You’re a goddamn jinx!”
Eric Kandel, nobel laureate and part of the extended Kol Ami family reminds us that “we are what we remember.” “In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us.” [Diane Ackerman, NY Times, March 24, 2012]
We can choose what to remember. We can choose how we tell the stories of our people. A decade after Israel’s independence in 1948, a group of Dutch and German Christians came to Israel in the hopes that working the land would provide a way for them do penance for the evils perpetrated by their countries. The state reluctantly gave them a parcel of land in the northern part of Israel, across the road from Kibbutz Lochamei HaGettaot, the kibbutz established by survivors and fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto. You can imagine how the kibbutz residents felt about their new neighbors across the road. There were six of them initially – these German and Dutch Christians. They lived in the shell of an old bus, barely eking out an existence on the land. By year’s end, they had run out of water. They would have to give up, give in or die trying. The kibbutz reconsidered: against their instincts, against their primal narrative, countering their understandable angers and fear, they chose to trust. They built a pipeline connecting the small group to them, the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters kibbutz and brought them life and water. Nes Amim, as they came to be called, created a flourishing flower industry, exporting flowers to Holland and the rest of Europe during the winter. All the income they earn goes directly to Israel. It is staffed mostly with young Germans, who can fulfill their mandatory military draft requirement for Germany by instead volunteering in Israel.
In ancient days, people used to walk in processions to both funerals and weddings. The rabbis of old asked: if a wedding and funeral procession meet at an intersection, who gives way to whom? Their answer: the funeral stops – and gives way to the wedding. Joy trumps. We must recover our soul. There is so much work for us to do – work we can only do together – to transform our pain into empathy, our fear into courage and our mourning into joy. And that is what we are doing here.
We are a community of courage and joy. Choose courage and joy with us.
Come here on Sunday, November 18th – the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Two phenomenal singers – Christian Palestinian Israeli and Jewish Israeli – Mira Awad and Shira Gabrielov – perform here at Kol Ami in a concert to benefit Seeds of Peace – inspiring a new generation of Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian and Israeli kids and young leaders to seek reconciliation and lasting peace.
Travel next summer to Israel with Tom – and connect to an Israel of courage and hope and spirit and fun.
Or come with me a year from now to Krakow and Berlin – to learn of a different courage – of reconciliation and hope.
We are nurturing the Jewish soul – with music, and poetry, learning and spirit, Shabbat joy and social justice.
The soul is real. It breathes Divine life into us – and through it our spirit is passed on those we love. There is a Jewish soul. And in an unfolding mystery that is both science and spirit, the soul remembers a story from generation to generation. It remembers that we were vulnerable and afraid – so that we will fill our world with healing and blessing, courage and joy.
Elohai Elohai, neshama shenata bi t’hora hi
My God, the soul that you have given me is real.