As Always – With Hope: For Elie Wiesel, z”l

Wiesel dedication I own a paperback copy of Elie Wiesel’s Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends. It sits on my library shelf next to many other books he authored. But this book is wrapped in order to protect the inscription on the first page; the cover is partly detached, and worn.

I first met Elie Wiesel when I was in my early twenties. I had just completed my M.A. on the American Jewish community’s post-war response to the Holocaust and started a new project: studying the work of Ferdinand Isserman, a Reform rabbi who had written about the condition of Jews in Eastern Europe during the 1930s.

Isserman published a number of detailed and passionate texts about the horrors Jews were facing in Germany and Poland. But when he was first presented with the reality of the Final Solution during the 1940s, Isserman did not write about the fate of Europe’s Jews. His sermons did not touch on what was happening; he published no pamphlets. Here was a rabbi who had publicly agitated about the persecution and oppression of Europe’s Jews; why had he found no words for the attempted genocide of his people? His silence was shocking.

That year, Wiesel was speaking in Chicago, the city of my youth, and my husband, Ralf, and I drove up from Missouri to hear his lecture. I do not know how it happened, but my father got an essay I’d written on Rabbi Isserman to Wiesel and arranged for us to meet.

Ralf and I went together and I discovered, to my surprise, that Wiesel had actually read my essay. We talked about the difference between faith and hope. At that point of his life, he told us, he could subscribe to the latter, but was not sure he possessed the former. We spoke about anger – even rage. Wiesel quietly admitted to both. After the Shoah, he said, he was only certain of hope. He signed my book: “For Ralf and Barbara, as always with hope – Elie Wiesel.”

Over the years, we corresponded a few times. But eventually, I stopped writing. I became a young mother. I left academe for a time, and began working as a journalist.

In 1997, when our young son, Erik, was five, Wiesel came to Charlotte. The Charlotte Observer asked me to cover his lecture and write an editorial piece for the Viewpoint page. After the lecture, the audience dispersed and Wiesel took questions from the press.

The lecture had been titled “Against Indifference.” As Wiesel has famously said: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

I do not remember the exact shape of my question. I self-consciously avoided recalling our one-time meeting – it had happened well over a decade earlier, after all, and it seemed artificial to bring it up. My question did use both the words “hope” and “faith.” I asked whether one could lay claim to either, given humanity’s capacity for indifference.

Elie Wiesel looked straight at me. He quietly stated that hope was essential despite the Shoah. Then he added firmly, “and I am still angry.”

I was stunned. I had not used the word “angry.” I had not referred to that part of our conversation.

When I had the opportunity to speak to him for a few moments alone after the press conference, I discovered that I wasn’t imagining it; he had remembered the Chicago meeting. It was as if we were merely continuing our conversation.

Toward the end of our few minutes, I mentioned that Ralf and I had had a son. He wanted to see a picture of Erik. He asked questions about him. (And later, Erik wrote to Wiesel himself – and was answered.)

In recent years, I have not always inhabited the same political space as Elie Wiesel. I could not support his every statement about Israel. I tried to hear him and listen as best I could. Sometimes, it was difficult.

Wiesel’s books line my shelves. There is a depth and richness in them that cannot be gainsaid. They reflect traditions that are a visceral part of my own existence. They ask essential questions. They nourish me, remind me, and console me.

And so, as always, I hope. In part, I thank Elie Wiesel for that.

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Adding Silence to the Seder

stageI longed for silence.

I had been sitting in a high school auditorium, complete with hard seats, the inevitable dusty black curtains drawn across the stage, and the aging podium. About a hundred people were present. Most were teenagers, some teachers, some were parents.

 

From left to right: Don Greenbaum and Ernie Gross

 

We had just seen a film depicting the liberation of Dachau. Two men were going to speak after the film, men whose stories had been part of the film’s subject matter. One was Don Greenbaum. Now in his early nineties, Greenbaum was a boy of 18 when he joined the army. He was part of the invasion of the Normandy coast during D-Day. He survived the Battle of the Bulge. He was one of Dachau’s liberators on April 29, 1945, a witness to the Final Solution.

The other man was Ernie Gross, who was deported at the age of 15 to Auschwitz, where his parents and younger siblings died. He spent a year at various labor camps, became ill, and was sent to Dachau to die. On the day he was marched toward the gas chambers, the Americans liberated Dachau and saved his life.

The film was devastating.

Afterwards, there was a short intermission before the two men spoke. Refreshments were also served.

I sat in the school lobby wondering, as I always do, how it is that anyone can speak, much less reach for a cookie and soda after witnessing the kinds of scenes we’d just such films depict. But the question is stale and unhelpful. One might as well ask how any of us go about our lives given the trauma and horror occurring in our world in any given moment.

Still, it seemed to me that we could have taken a moment for silence. We could have asked those present to sit or stand quietly for just a few moments. We so rarely offer ourselves the silence we need.

When the two elderly men made their way to the stage, I wanted to stand. I wanted us all to stand, in silent recognition of the story they carry, the narrative they tell.

Don Greenbaum began by noting their age and acknowledging that they would not be able to tell their stories for very much longer.

Ernie Gross told us that when he first tried to speak about the Shoah, he was barely able to get the words out. So, he added, he learned that he would have to use humor now and again to get through everything.

Astonishingly, with delicacy and care, he did exactly that, interspersing a tale from his early childhood or his later adult life to make the years he spent in Auschwitz tellable. After he spoke, he gave students dollar coins for answering single questions. When a young man answered the first question correctly and came up to get a coin, Ernie said: “You can’t spend it; it’s for a memory.”

Don told the students that he was talking about what had happened for as long as he could so that they would tell the story after him.

Every survivor I’ve known wants to make “never again” a reality. They believe that explaining what they know must make it so. It seems so rational: If humanity only heard the cries these survivors are muffling inside, we would cease our crimes.

They are not wrong. It is just that humanity is hard of hearing. To listen to those cries, you would need to be silent.

Tomorrow night we will sit at our seder tables and we will recount a tale of slavery and human oppression. It is not the tale of the Shoah. But it is a tale of truth. We will celebrate our freedom and we will eat well. We will enjoy the company of friends and families and know security and safety denied our ancestors, denied our people, denied human beings each day.

Perhaps we could listen to our story and be silent for a little while. Silence, too, could be part of our seder.

To Ernie and Don: Thank you for speaking.

May we listen, and acquire some knowledge that does your courage justice.  May we honor it in deed in the year to come.  May our Pesach be a lesson in the freedom that is due to the earth itself and all who live upon her.

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Our Stories, Their Stories. Again and Again.

ruth and arthurs crownWe could see the soft, sad ending – the announcement of Moses’ death from where we stood. Across the room, inscribed in strong, black strokes against the white parchment, was a moment of joy and triumph – the Song of the Sea. Stories stretched out before us, reminding us of those we carried, connecting us with tales of another, ancient time.

Our Sefer Torah was almost wholly unrolled on a long line of tables set diagonally across the sanctuary.

I had brought blue, medically approved plastic gloves – the kind that would not shed any powders on our beloved scroll. I had sponges, given to me by the scribe we’d worked with since our inception, Sofer Neil Yerman. I had handouts that described unusually large or small letters we might find as we worked.

We were ready to clean our scroll, to prepare the parchment — and ourselves – for High Holy Days. We sang Shehechiyanu. I blessed our labor, demonstrated how to use the sponges, and we began.

As we brushed down the gorgeous, shining columns, the scroll brightened visibly. Our own stories came back.

“This is where your daughter read from the scroll,” I told two parents, pointing at the first columns in B’midbar.

As I brushed over the Song at the Sea, I looked at the crowns dancing across the scroll. When we received and dedicated our scroll, Neil had led us in decorating the passage.

Three crowns stood above the first two words of the Song. The first was drawn by Ruth Kingberg, together with Neil, just months before she died. At the time she could barely stand, but when we told her we would bring the scroll to her home, she dressed herself beautifully.

Ruth was, for a decade, the matriarch of our community. I have her ceramic child’s teapot and creamer in my china cabinet. They were the only toys Ruth could smuggle out of Germany when she escaped the Shoah on one of the last Children’s Transports (Kindertransport) to England.

Next to her crown, her husband’s. Arthur, too, survived the Shoah by getting out of Germany just in time. His path to America was a hard one, beginning in China, then ending up, during the war, as a slave laborer in the jungles of the Philippines. At ninety-one, he still has the leech marks on his legs.

A third crown was mine.  It joins Ruth’s and Arthur’s together.

One of our younger members, an artist in his own right, found the extra-large vav in Leviticus 11:42, in the middle of the Torah. That vav is found in the middle of the Hebrew worcleaning the Torah 1d for “belly” (gachon).

The belly of Torah, the center of our being, the core of our Selves. Here, the letter that says “and,” the letter that links all behind it and all before it together.

Just as our stories do.

I looked to either side. To my left, the story continued on through Vayikra, B’midbar, D’varim. To my left, Sh’mot and B’reishit. Stories in every column. Stories of past simchas, stories of Jewish lives lived together in our time, in past, ancient times of long ago.

The scroll binds them all together. It tell us all our stories. Again and again.

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Read Lament, Utter Praise: The Paradox of Mourning

Yom Hashoah candleThis Shabbat, at Yom Kippur, we will mark Yizkor, a service of remembrance, of honoring the dead.

Last Saturday night, I awoke around 2 am, remembering how we buried my sister, Suzie. That enormous mound of earth, the dark, deep hole.

Suzie died of cancer. Her youngest child was only three. I did not speak when we buried her. I did not know how.

In the immediate aftermath of death, life is undone. The world of the living persists but its existence is surreal. We long for our beloved; we are conscious only of our loss. Our mourning takes place in a ruin. No language suffices.

And yet, we must speak in order to heal. Centuries ago, when mourners appeared in synagogue, heads and faces covered, the service leader turned to congregants and insisted: “Demand the reason!” “Demand the reason!” Mourners were asked to speak, to explain.

It is easy to retreat from the face of pain. But this ritual made turning away an impossibility. We may not ignore those wrapped in grief.

Listening, we help a mourner open the heart. We honor longing and despair. We acknowledge denial and anguish. Demand the reason.

The rabbis knew that grief is many-faceted. All the behaviors of mourning are those, they say, of the ninth of Av. Mourners are directed to the Book of Lamentations, a book which records the horrific siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the First Temple, the exile. Are you grieving? The rabbis suggest reading a raw text of anguish.

Why? Encountering the pain Lamentations describes gives us permission to acknowledge our own. It is another way to demand the reason.

The rabbis added a text not of rage or defiance, nor of grief and sorrow to the rituals of mourning. Mourner’s Kaddish, inscribed into our practice in the Middle Ages, is a song, a musical text of pure, unmitigated praise for the Divine. At the time of loss, one says nothing about it. In the face of death, one praises the Source of Life.

Our texts do everything from indicting to praising the Holy One. Lamentations gives us longing and despair – but also resistance. Mourner’s Kaddish offers laudation. The central phrase y’hei sh’mei raba m’vorach l’alam ulal’mei almayya (may God’s great name be praised) is considered, so the rabbis, the very foundation of the world. Despite the ruin, affix and affirm the existence of the earth: y’hei sh’mei raba We remain in conversation with God, co-creating the world. We find our voices, we utter words.

“Weeping, she makes weep,” reads Lamentations Rabbah. She weeps and the Holy One weeps with her. The ministering angels, heaven and earth, mountains and hills weep with her. Everything in the created world joins together and laments. We communicate through tears. No one is alone.

A distressed people builds again, praises again. Such is a fact of Jewish life. No devastation – not even the Shoah – silences the survivors utterly. Read Lamentations, the rabbis say. Recite y’hei shemay raba. It is a paradox that sustains us.

It is a paradox that permits voicing all we feel. We mourn as our hearts must, in whatever way they must. To speak from our grief; to act on what we know: Deep and profound remembrance of those we have lost will lead us to sanctify and honor life.

In this year, with hearts and eyes turned to the terrors and the horrors unfolding in our own time, we must ourselves demand the reason. Recognizing lament, responding to the imperative of praise, we must find inspiration to act. For a more peaceful world – for a more loving world. For a world in which we may speak – gently, with compassion and understanding, and, in so doing, heal.

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A Survivor Must Rest: The Temple Emanu-El Torah

Well over a century ago, a scribe in Macedonia rose early in the morning to pray. He went to the mikveh, prayed again, and immersed himself in living waters. He walked back to his workshop, mixed the ink, sharpened his quills, and began to write: Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz. When all began, God created the heavens and the earth.

Well over a century ago, a scribe in a Lithuanian town rose early in the morning to pray. He went to the mikveh, prayed again, and immersed himself in living waters. He walked back to his workshop, mixed the ink, sharpened his quills, and began to write: Vayomer Elohim el Moshe: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. And God said to Moses, “I Will Be Who I Will Be.”

A scribe in a little shtetl in Moravia. A scribe somewhere, perhaps, in Germany. One wrote in Vellish script. The other, in Ari. One had a strong right-handed tendency.

At some point, my congregation’s Torah was pieced together from remnants of many Torahs whose several parts date back as far as the late 1800’s. The people who heard this Torah read all over Europe were decimated by the Final Solution. Few of them survived the Shoah.

Somehow, parts of their Torah did.

Each time I read from the Torah, I pause between the time the blessing is chanted and I begin. I am remembering – invoking, really – the Jews from across Europe who knew and revered and loved this Torah for decades. Jews in Macedonia, Moravia, Germany, Lithuania: I imagine them around me, joining me at the Torah.

Our Torah has her name from a more recent past. She is the Temple Emanu-El Torah. She came to Temple Or Olam when that congregation of Weldon, North Carolina, had to close its doors. The first time we read from our Torah was at my son, Erik’s bar mitzvah. Many who knew the Torah came to Concord for the service and watched as the heart of their congregation was transplanted into ours.

For nine years our children have chanted from this Torah. Our people have raised this Torah high for us all to see. Some of our women first held a Torah scroll after I put this one into their arms.

Our Torah, which is mostly between 100 and perhaps 125 years old, has been pristinely restored for a second time. She came home just before the New Year. In her old age, she has the radiance Sarah must hadwhen she learned she was pregnant. Her letters sparkle, her parchment is clear.

Nine years ago, when our sofer, Neil Yerman, first restored our Torah, he told me she was not a healthy scroll. Who knows how she survived the conflagrations in Europe? Torahs, we now know, need to be kept in climate-controlled conditions, tightly wound, surrounded by cedar and humidity absorbing granules.

Still, we hoped she might have thirty more years of life to give.

Scrolls are organic things. They are made of the things of this world. They live, they die, and when the latter occurs and they absolutely can no longer be maintained, they are ritually buried.

Over the last century, our Torah has suffered irreparable damage. The parchment is unyielding to quill and ink. She is no longer able to hold the letters. Many that Neil has lovingly refinished will chip and flake off her surface within this very year. Her beauty cannot be sustained if we rely on her; she cannot be kept kosher for reading without ongoing and expensive attention.

We need to care for her now as we would an elder. We need to hold her tenderly and let her rest. At this point, we must face this fact: My little congregation must now fund her retirement by raising the money for a new Torah, and that means many, many thousands of dollars.

All these years I have chanted from this Torah conscious of all the people who loved her and knew her in her youth. Their communities were decimated and their people slaughtered. I have made my chanting into another way to say Kaddish for them, to mourn them and to honor them and – most importantly – to remember them.

I will need to bring them with me to the new scroll that I will read from someday. I do not yet know how I will do that.

On Rosh Hashanah Shacharit, I broke a vow. I had never made any fundraising pitch during these Days of Awe. I never thought I would.

And yet, even the smallest community has two essential obligations. To be able to bury its dead with honor, and to keep and maintain a Torah scroll. Every community must be responsible for making sure that our heart beats. That heart is the Torah.

I do not fear to ask wherever I go. I do not fear to ask here, either. Please help us spread the word by letting others know our story. Perhaps they will reach out.

If you would like to help our community raise the funds we will need for a new Torah, please send your tax-deductible contribution to the following address:

Treasurer
Temple Or Olam, Treasurer
PO Box 362
Huntersville, NC 28070-0362

May you all be blessed with a healthy and happy New Year.

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A Tree of Life

Leaves are already beginning to fall outside my office window — even before they have turned.  They fall because we have had another dry summer, another series of parched months.

They are dying before their time.

Every summer, as the Jewish Year ends, I sew new leaves of many colors onto our congregational
chuppah.

I started making the chuppah many years ago. For months I did nothing more than pull threads to make fringes on both ends. My first designs did not satisfy. I discarded one based on the sefirot. I removed a second try at the same theme. Finally, I discovered an abstract tree-of-life menorah on the Internet and used that as my inspiration.

The chuppah features, at this point in time, twenty green-gold-orange-brown leaves. There are two for every one of the nine years we’ve existed. The year I was ordained as a rabbi, I sewed on one brown and gold leaf from the same material I used to make my tallit for the ordination ceremony. This past year, I sewed on an extra leaf for the smicha I received as a spiritual director.

All the others are meant to represent the children of Temple Or Olam. Every year, two new new leaves. One for the boys and one for the girls. Every year there were new children.

I sewed this year just after a baby naming for our newest member: Anderson Storch Everhart.

I sewed, thinking about Anderson’s heritage. One side of his family goes way back in North Carolina’s history. Jonas, Anderson’s father, was born and raised first Lutheran, then Methodist.

Shannon, Anderson’s mother, comes from Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Her grandmother, interned at Auschwitz Birkenau, managed to hold on to life with a fierce, lion-like determination. After the war, Shannon’s gentle grandfather spoke about the Shoah. At every opportunity, he asked people to love – not to hate.

Jonas and Shannon named their child Ariel, lion of God.

I chose the fabric for the boy’s leaf thinking about Ariel – about our people’s losses and our fragile gains. Our gains are – in my community – supported by many individuals who are not themselves Jewish but who are lovingly committed to our synagogue and our goals. I cut and appliqued the leaf for the girls and thought of Kalilah, who also joined us this past year.

Kalilah dances at every service. Her hands lift and fall with regal delicacy. She is carrying heritage of many kinds in her richly dark hair, in her almond eyes, in her slim, tall body.

Our children are the most eclectic mix I could have imagined for such a small congregation. Asian, African, European. Though they are being raised Jewishly, their parents include people who are Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists. The families I serve are as varied as the leaves on the trees in my backyard. Gold, orange, red, pale green, purple.

I sewed the leaves on our chuppah wondering what I would do when we suffer our first loss. Perhaps I would sew a leaf at the bottom of the design, a fallen leaf for us to remember a loved one by. 


Someday, our chuppah will feature a veritable explosion of leaves at the top of the tree for all our children, all our years together. Would I begin a soft, small pile of leaves at the bottom of the chuppah to remember our lost loved ones?

How could any one chuppah contain so much love and hope, so much sorrow and grief?

I prayed over the chuppah this year. I prayed that when we hold it above our Torah at High Holy Days and gather under and around it that we will be blessed with all that it represents: Our 
diverse people and open community. May we in turn, bless, and may our blessings rise like warm air to help hold our chuppah high above us.

In the face of all that has happened, after parched years and early death, we have grown back. We are, now, a tree of life.

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