Rosh HaShana 2015 Presentation by Rabbi Friedlander


Rosh HaShana 5776 * September 14, 2015

On this day that inaugurates the Ten Days of Repentance, I confess that it’s the little things that really set me off – drivers who jump their ‘next’ into the merge at the Midtown Tunnel, audience members who text during performances, and supermarket shoppers who pile twenty-five items or more on the belt of the ‘fifteen items or less’ line, and that ‘less’ is used instead of ‘fewer’ to mark those aisles except at Whole Foods.  I single out the airlines as the greatest source of my commercial frustrations.  Delta is never ready when I am, and though U S Air may begin with ‘U,’ it never seems to have any interest in me.  Many of my ‘at home’ triggers were eliminated when my girls left for college – a wet towel on an unmade bed, an unmade bed, cookie crumbs in a made bed.  But children can still be a rich source of aggravation long after they’ve flown the coop.  My older daughter, Sara, is always in a cab just five blocks away no matter when or where we are scheduled to meet. 

Then there’s my younger daughter’s voice message on her cell phone:  “You’ve reached Ruthie.  I’m not here now.  Leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”  Really?  Clearly if I get this message, I have not reached Ruthie.  I have prompted a recording of a disembodied, spiritless Ruthie, neither quality of which could ever be ascribed to the “real McCoy.”  Then I wonder if it’s this vocal doppelganger Ruthie who will return the call promised in the last third of her message, a creepy if not scary proposition, to be sure.  But it’s the second third of the message that catapults me into existential and epistemological crisis: “I’m not here now.”  But where is ‘here’ especially if ‘here’ is associated with a mobile device?  Only if I had reached living Ruthie could I know where her ‘here’ is, and then only for that moment.   I used to respond hostilely after the beep, speaking to the ambiguity of her message, which set Ruthie off thereby considerably delaying her ‘reach back’ to me.  But thanks to the 2013 Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project’s survey on Jewish life in America, I now understand Ruthie’s message to be a positive if challenging invitation into her world.

The Pew report, the most extensive exploration of American Jews since the controversial 2001 study of the now defunct Jewish Population Survey, indicated high rates of intermarriage, low rates of children in intermarried families being raised as Jews, and a significant rise in the number of Jews who see their Jewish identity apart from religion and organizational affiliations.  This fueled the pessimism of institutional and denominational Jewish communal leaders of the Oy Gevalt brigade that declared such evidence to be another final nail in the coffin of the eternally dying Jews of America.  At the same time, demographers challenged the methodology of the Pew study citing, for example, that intermarriage statistics were unchanged since the much acclaimed 1990 Jewish National Population Survey, thereby proving yet again that a statistic, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  Leaving that debate to the social scientists, and admitting that I am not a ‘glass half full’ guy, but rather a ‘cup runneth over’ fellow, I see the Pew findings as affirming a vital if changing American Jewish community.

Let’s start with the numbers: It seems that the American Jewish population is larger than last count and much greater than what had been predicted.  We are 6.8 million strong and growing, more than a million more than the oft-quoted 5.7 million.  Regarding intermarriage: Although intermarriage rates have remained steady since 1990, intermarriage today is rarely a marker of Jewish denial or abandonment, but much more a consequence of the successful integration of Jews into American society and the acceptance of individual Jews by Americans at large.  This is supported by the fact that sixty-one percent of Jews who intermarry now raise their children as “Jewish, or partly Jewish,” rather than in another religion.

But it’s the positive identity of Jews revealed by the Pew study that should excite us most.  The overwhelming proportion of Jews surveyed – ninety-four percent – said they are proud to be Jewish.   Talk about a different ‘here.’  In 1922, Harry Wolfson, a Harvard historian who was the first chairman of a Judaic Studies Center in the United States, characterized being Jewish as a form of disability.  He wrote: “Some are born blind, some deaf, some lame, and some are born Jews.”  Fifteen years later, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the ideological founder of Reconstructionism, iterated Wolfson’s observation in his description of the psychological burden that Jews bear.  “The average Jew today is conscious of his Judaism as one is conscious of a diseased organ that gives notice of its existence by causing pain,” Kaplan wrote.  That was the ‘here’ of my grandparents, both of my maternal immigrant bubbie and zaydie from Bialystok, as well as my paternal American born mom-mom and papa.  My father’s ‘here’ was not significantly different from that of his parents.  As a teenager, he was denied admission to
Girard College in Philadelphia, a privately funded technical high school for indigent fatherless white boys, because he was also Jewish.  He had alle myles, as they say.  A patriotic American, nonetheless, who was forever proud to have been born on Flag Day, he was the first Philadelphian to enlist in the Navy on December 8, 1941, the morning after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Though he served with distinction on the Pacific front, he had to sleep in his dress whites in a car when on leave in Virginia Beach because he was denied a hotel room given his religious persuasion.  My Jewish ‘here’ took root in the post-war soil of my yeshiva teachers’ Holocaust experiences, which fostered a strong sense of responsibility and an equal measure of paranoia in me.  The paranoia was fueled by the real and constant verbal abuses from every kid with a nickel who came into our family’s Jew candy store, and by the occasional physical attack on me when I neglected to tuck my tsitsis into my trousers.  But Israel’s victory in the Six Day War emboldened me Jewishly, enhancing my Jewish sense of responsibility with pride, pride in a Jewish ‘here’ that was 5700 miles east of my South Philly neighborhood.

I chose to raise my daughters in a different ‘here,’ here in the Golden Ghetto on the North Shore of Long Island where Judaism would never be a burden to them, where it might well be a source of celebration, even delight.  And so it has become for them, thank God.  I can’t think of another time in our People’s Diaspora history when so many have enthusiastically – joyfully – self-identified as Jews.  The Jewish male pop-paradigm of my thirty-something daughters’ generation is not my generation’s super-conscious, ever-doubting, and (some might say) self-hating Woody Allen who pictures himself as a streiml-wearing, hirsute Hasid at Grammy’s New England Thanksgiving Day table in “Annie Hall;” it is, rather, unselfconscious, no, aggressive Jewish Larry David who has no problem scalping High Holiday tickets in one episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  That Jews could feel so secure, so comfortable in their skins and in society for that to have aired would have been incomprehensible to my dad, who, in his time, would have turned off the TV to alert the Anti-Defamation League in response.

How quickly and radically the Jewish cultural ground has shifted in my lifetime was indicated less than two years ago at a Friday night discussion shortly after Pope Benedict (xvi) announced his retirement.  ‘So who’s the Pope of the Jews?’ was my question for the evening.  In the course of the conversation, I proposed Elie Wiesel for the position.  Trans-denominational and meta-institutional, respected for his Jewish and humanitarian advocacy both inside the Jewish community and throughout the world, with Holocaust ‘creds’ to boot, Wiesel seemed to me to be the obvious choice until the good cantor, a quarter century my junior, countered with Jon Stewart as his candidate.  “Of course Eric’s right,” my girls insisted several days later when I expressed my surprise to them in response to Eric’s suggestion.  That they should opt for a “Jewish enough” satirist for the never-to-be-filled position of Jewish Pope, is completely consistent with another finding of the Pew survey.  More than twice as many Jews of my daughters’ age said that having a sense of humor is more essential to their Jewish being than observing Jewish Law.  Still forty-two percent of Jews who declare themselves to be Jews of “no religion” attend seders, and many also attend High Holiday services.  Some of them are sitting next to you at this very moment.  These so-called assimilated Jews, these n-o-n-e-s, “nones,” as they have been termed by Jewish fatalists, still see themselves within the Jewish orbit.

In her keynote address to the 2003 plenum of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, feminist theologian, Rachel Adler, identified several categories of Jews who exist outside traditional Jewish circles among which were LGBTQ Jews, Jews of color, young unmarried adult Jews, the intermarried, self-identified Jews not recognized by the letter of Jewish law, and Jews by association.  She spoke of the need to include what she termed these ‘Borderland’ Jews into the mainstream of our communities.  Though it sounded like ‘Mom’ and ‘apple pie’ to me, her remarks angered many of my younger colleagues who objected to her subjectification of such Jews as marginalized.  “We are all Borderland Jews,” they argued.  “For liberal Jews in the twenty-first century, there will be no mainstream,” which was quite a prediction only three years into the new millennium.  But the decade since has proven them right, especially for the generation of my children.  It is a generation of Jews who reject denominational labels, ritual practice, synagogue affiliation, organizational involvement, and belief in God, but it is still a generation who see themselves as Jews, and proudly so, albeit in a different place, at a different ‘here.’

What I learned from the Pew study is that my ‘here’ is not my children’s ‘here,’ that ‘here’ is as relative today as it was for my parents before me and for all the generations before them.  It doesn’t mean that my children and grandchildren-to-be (God willing) won’t be Jewish; it means that they will have a Jewish address that is different from mine.  That’s the meaning and promise of Ruthie’s voice message refracted through the lens of Pew.  “You’ve reached Ruthie, not now, but in the past.  You reached me by bringing the light of Shabbat into our home, and the tastes and the aromas of the holidays, too.  You reached me by being passionate about your own Judaism, by weaving me into a self-conscious, inclusive, diverse community-centered synagogue, by taking me to Israel and exposing me to the ‘all’ of it, by entertaining my probing questions and my nudnadik questions, and by giving me the space to doubt.  Yes, you have reached me, and I have banked those experiences with appreciation.  But I’m not here now.   Frankly I’m not yet sure of my Jewish locus, but you have given me the confidence to find my own ‘here,’ which at present is fluid, mobile.  Yet though we are products of different times and are in different places, please leave a message and I’ll get back to you, because I want to continue this conversation not only with you, but with anyone who is willing to engage me ‘here’; for I am delighted to be Jewish, and proud to be part of a People that has contributed so much to the world.”

It is told:

            When the great rebbe Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews,

it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate.  There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

            Later, when his disciple, the Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.”  And again the miracle would be accomplished.

            Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.”  It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

            Then it fell to Rabbi Yisroyel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune.  Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest.  All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”  And it was sufficient.

Only sixty years elapsed from the time of the Baal Shem Tov to that of Rabbi Yisroyel of Rezhyn, the generational bookends of this parable.  Yet though they lived in a closed, ritually bound society, the sacred place of redemption and practice of the Baal Shem was soon forgotten.  Still Reb Yisroyel was able to bring salvation to the Jews of his time from his place, from his ‘here’ just by telling the story of his generation.  So marks the eternal journey of the Jewish People, our ability to move forward from place to place in time into the yet-to-be-known future. 

‘Here’ indeed is as relative today as it was for my parents before me and for all the generations before them, as it will be for all the generations to come. Mordecai Kaplan was right when he wrote a century ago that Judaism can be defined as the evolving civilization of the Jewish People.  This understanding of the ever-dynamic nature of Judaism was first expressed by God at the Burning Bush  After God called to Moses to commission him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses, reluctant to accept the commission, asks: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, that I should bring the Children of Israel out of Egypt?”  to which God responded, “I will be there with you.”  Still unsure, Moses pressed, “I will come to the Children of Israel and I will say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they will ask: ‘What is his name?’  What shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh / I will be-there howsoever I will be-there.  Tell them, ‘Ehyeh / I will be-there sends me to you.’”

What God promised Moses at their first encounter in preparation for the liberation of the Israelites is what we must promise our children regarding their yet-to-be-determined ‘here.’  We must say: We know not how Judaism will evolve in your generation, what new forms it will take, or how you will express yourselves ritually; but know that wherever you are, wherever you land, no matter your ‘here,’ nehiyeh  / we will be ‘there’ to meet you.  May we have the insight, the flexibility, the courage, the creativity, and the faith to fuel that journey forward.