In 1935, Solomon Perel was a 14 year-old Jewish teen, living with his parents and older brother in Germany. As Nazism swept across the country, the Perel family went east, seeking refuge in Poland. Solomon and his brother ended up separated from their parents, and in the ravages of war, the two brothers became separated from each other. Solomon found shelter in a Soviet communist orphanage, until the Germans moved into Soviet-controlled Poland. “When the Germans came,” Solomon said, “they forced us to stand in line. I heard talk that they would not take Jews alive. I buried my papers and Communist youth card in a hole in the ground I dug with my foot. When my turn came, I said I am Volksdeutsche– a German.” He was, of course, a native German speaker. He assumed a new identity as Joseph (Jupp for short). He became an interpreter in the Wehrmacht unit that adopted him, and soon after was sent to an elite Hitler youth training school back in Germany. “I believed I was Joseph–a German,” Solomon said, reflecting on his complicated life. “The Jew began to disappear…Solomon, the Jew, was almost forgotten. He became just a little part hidden away in me. I never hated Jews. But I, Jupp, accepted Nazi ideology. The Germans were superior and the Jews subhuman.”
Solomon’s story was made famous in the film, Europa Europa. You may recall the central panic of Solomon’s disguise as a non-Jewish German, the fear that he would be caught naked, circumcised. In an interview from his Givatayim apartment in Israel, as a 65-year old, following the release of the movie, Perel acknowledged that his circumcision almost cost him his life, but, he added, reflecting on the powerful and seductive pull of Nazism, “but it saved my soul.” For had he been able to become fully Nazi, he would have.
In 1990, David and I and our children traveled with 35 other Kol Ami members to Prague, Budapest and Israel. We went with prayer books and Torah commentaries to help fortify a fledgling Reform congregation in Budapest. Two young men met us to receive the books. “Tell us about yourselves,” we asked – and how is it that you are leaders of this small community?” As it turned out, both young men were raised as Communists; neither knew that he was Jewish. “So what happened?” we wanted to know. They each had a story, of course, but one in particular has stayed with me. “I came home from school one day,” he said, “I was a teenager. And I boasted to my parents that I had helped beat up a Jewish child.”
What do parents do in a moment like that? The mother and father had each lost their entire families to the Holocaust. They were the sole survivors. And they had made a pact that the suffering they had experienced would end; that they would not pass on their Jewishness. And so they had protected their boy from knowing that they – or he – was Jewish. Now what do they do? As the young man spoke, I imagined to myself in a flash of pain that the parents felt they had a stark choice to make: they would have to choose: either their son would be a victim, or an oppressor. And they chose: he will not become an oppressor.
We will be reading today from the Torah one of the most troubling stories in our sacred canon. “Take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” The Torah is unrelenting in its drumbeat: “Abraham built the altar – arranged the wood – bound Isaac his son – laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham reached out and took the knife to slay his son.”
What a terrible story. And of all the stories in the Torah, why choose this one for Rosh Hashanah, for the beginning of the year? Why this one? “I hate this story,” I said to David years ago. And David said, “What Abraham didn’t have to follow through with, (an angel stayed his hand), countless other Jewish parents did.” David reminded me that during the years of the Shoah, the overwhelming number of Jewish parents continued to circumcise their boys – for sure, a mark of vulnerability, putting them in the path of danger.
We do everything to protect our children – like that mother and father in Budapest. Why bring them up as Jews?
In preparing sermons for the High Holidays, I give a lot of thought to the music that becomes part of the sermon, or that concludes the sermon. What am I going to do for a sermon that features circumcision. Maybe this one. [Beatles – It won’t be long now.] I know it’s irreverent, but good religion needs to be a little irreverent – and these are dark times, and we need to laugh, and we need to laugh at ourselves.
We don’t have to go as far back as the Shoah – or as far away as Budapest – to remind ourselves of the risks we take marking ourselves as Jews. Some of us are non-Jewish members of Jewish families; some of us have chosen Judaism along the path of your life. And so this exercise may mean different things to different people. Please imagine for yourself a time that you were part of a conversation, part of a group of people, in which no one knew that you were Jewish or married to a Jew. And you decided that that was fine – that you would pass. And then someone says something that’s not okay – and you decide to come forward with your Jewishness. Can you remember a moment like that? What does it feel like? Does it feel that you, even for a moment, let in an edge of vulnerability, or risk? This is part of being Jewish. It’s not only what we believe, it’s not only what we stand for, it is who we are; being Jewish and part of a Jewish family is in our being. In its most perverse form, Hitler understood that it would not be enough to get rid of Jewish books or Jewish ideas. For him to accomplish the evil he intended for the world, he needed to get rid of Jews. We stand in the face of evil. We stand against bullies, against racism, against oppression and bigotry. In our very being.
The story is told about a Jewish merchant in America in the early 1800’s, peddling his wares in the South. “Triebwasser, a twine merchant from New York, was trying desperately to sell some of his goods in Louisiana. But wherever he went, he kept encountering anti-Semitism. In one particular department store, the buyer taunted him: ‘All right, Jake, I’ll buy some of your twine. As much as reaches from the top of your Jewish nose to the tip of your Jewish prick.’
“Two weeks later, the buyer was startled to receive a shipment containing eight hundred cartons of Grade A twine. Attached was a note: ‘Many thanks for your generous offer. Invoice to follow. [signed] Jacob Triebwasser – residing in New York, circumcised in Kiev.’” [Novak and Waldoks, The Big Book of Jewish Humor, p.83]
God to Abraham about Isaac: Take this child, whom you love, and bring him up to make a difference. Tell him that the world is filled with injustice. Tell him that it’s hard to be a human being, and that it will be hard for him as well. That he will fail in his work, and stumble as a human being, and disappoint in his relationships. That growing up takes courage and fighting for a better world will mean taking risks.
Parents invoke this covenantal moment between God, Abraham and Isaac at each birth ceremony – each brit. Brit – or bris – is the Hebrew word for ‘covenant.’ It does not mean ‘circumcision.’ We bring our children into the covenant when they are born and named – boys and girls alike. So many parents, in speaking to their little one, have expressed the hope that “more than anything, we hope for you that you will be happy.” We imagine that we will create a world in which we can shelter our children from pain, or suffering, or illness, or death, or disappointment. Not only is this unrealistic, but it also renders our children helpless and powerless in the face of life’s challenges. Keeping them away from sorrow and pain will rob them of their humanity and of their power to comfort and to heal.
I have been privileged to stand with so many of you – parents, grandparents and great grandparents – as you welcome children into the world. And I have learned from you. Zachary Mazin, a young Kol Ami father, knew that in speaking to his children, he would not be able to wish them a life of uninterrupted happiness and success. He said to them:
“I hope you never have to experience heartache. But when you do, I hope you have dear friends to comfort you.
“I hope you’re never mean or vindictive. But when you are, I hope you have the capacity for remorse.
“I hope you never fail to accomplish something you set your mind to. But when you do, I hope you have the persistence to try again.
“I hope you never betray someone’s trust. But when you do, I hope you have the integrity to admit it and make it right.
“I hope you never shirk responsibility. But when you do, I hope you work extra hard to become someone who can be relied upon.
“I hope you never fail to consider the effects of your actions on others. But when you do, I hope you find the capacity for empathy and humility.
“I hope you never forget to engage in the work of repairing the world. But when you do, I hope your relationship with God steers you back toward helping to improve the lives of those around you.
“I hope you never have to go through loss, or behave poorly or finish second in a race or are unhappy for any reason whatsoever. But when all these things happen, and they inevitably will, I hope you find strength from within and solace from without.”
Beyond being happy, there is something else we need. We need to know that we matter. We need to know that we are alive for a reason. Now, more than in a long time, our lives as Jews and as members of a Jewish community matter.
God to Abraham about Isaac: Put down the knife. Do not lay a hand upon the boy. Life is way too precious. And there will be never be another child like this one. Each one is unique. But do not leave this place relieved. Whew! We escaped danger. It is not enough just to be alive. You must be alive for a reason. Do not squander the gift.
We have been given the gift of life. We have been bequeathed a covenant as Jews and as members of this Jewish community. It is a covenant of vulnerability and courage. We will stand up wherever there is hate – and we now know that there is more hatred in our country than we ever imagined.
From the moment our people was called into being, we have been asked to stand in the face of injustice, by virtue of our differentness to witness to the deepest religious truth that each of us, in our very difference and diversity, is created in the image of God. During World War II, in ways both told and forgotten, Jews resisted the hatreds of Nazism. Among the ways not well-known is the physical resistance against the Nazis. You will find an exhibit in the Petschek Gallery of 60 photographs from World War II, documenting Jewish resistance against the Nazis. The exhibit is called: “Resistance is the Lesson.”
“Amos Oz” – Israeli author – “said that there are a number of ways to respond to calamity. Take the example of a fire. What can you do? You can run away. You can write an angry letter. Or you can bring a bucket of water to throw on the fire. ‘If you don’t have a bucket,’ he adds, ‘bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, bring a teaspoon. Everyone has a teaspoon. I know a teaspoon is little, and the fire is huge, but there are millions of us and each one of us has a teaspoon.’
“Bring your teaspoon and pour water on hate and fanaticism.”
[Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, January 21, 2017]
On your way out of the sanctuary today, as we begin a new year, you will find boxes of beautiful signs you can post on your lawn. What makes them beautiful is what’s written on them: “Hate has no home here.” The signs are not in democrat or republican. The signs are in English, Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. We have 200 of them. If we run out today, we will buy more for Yom Kippur. You are invited to leave a contribution to help defray the costs of these yard signs. You are one person, or one family, one home. We are one congregation. But each of us matters. And it will take each of us – and a sea of signs on the streets of Westchester – and Putnam and Dutchess counties and across our country – to turn the tide of hatred.
We are Jews. We know about hatred and bigotry – and we cannot let it happen to anyone. We have been given the gifts of vulnerability and of courage. “Listen to Me,” God said to Isaiah, “you who pursue justice. You who seek the
Lord. Look to the rock you were hewn from. To the quarry you were dug from. Look back to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth.
For he was only one when I called him. But I blessed him and made him many.” [Isaiah 51:1-2]
I made him many – I made him you. We stand together for Avinu Malkeinu.