Category Archives: memory

The Car

It was a 1979 Peugeot 504 diesel.  A nondescript brown/grey color, stick shift, manual sunroof, four door.  It was slow as molasses, the diesel engine struggling to propel the car up any incline of even moderate degree.  The back of the car – bumper, rear window, heck even the side windows – entirely covered in Grateful Dead stickers.  I remember at one point counting them, and there were more than twenty.  I actually had a debate with my dad about whether there was still enough room to see safely with the rear view mirror because the stickers blocked your view.

I drove that car my senior year of high school and freshman year of college.  It was no frills.  No AC.  Hand crank windows.  No power steering or power brakes.  It got great mileage – I could make it from Boston to Binghamton NY on a half a tank of diesel fuel.  The trunk was not huge, but I could get everything I owned in that car – everything – including my Polk Audio speakers, always stacked in the back seat.  One time I even had a keg of beer in the trunk that made loud clunking noises every time I turned or accelerated.  I had installed an Alpine cassette deck/radio in the dash.  It played through the tinny speakers, and I kept a small wooden box filled with Maxell cassette tapes on the carpeted mound between the driver’s  and ‘shotgun’ seats.

That old Peugeot rarely started in the winter.  There was a heating element for the engine that you turned on before you tried to start it in the cold, but it didn’t work well.  In cold weather I always parked at the top of a hill, and would gather 3 or 4 hearty friends to push me out into the road.  If you kept your foot on the clutch, and the car managed to get to 10 or 15 miles an hour drifting down the slope, you could ‘pop’ the clutch (suddenly release it)  and the engine would cough its way into running.  Sometimes you had to do it a couple of times before it would start.  If you got to the bottom of the hill and it didn’t go, you were out of luck.  Wait until spring, I guess.

We had all kinds of adventures in that car.  There was the time in the snowstorm, when my friend reached from the back seat and released the sunroof, allowing 6 inches of snow to tumble into the front seats.  Yes this was while we were driving.  There was the drive back from Baltimore in 1982, having seen the Dead at the Civic downtown, when the windshield wiper fluid ran out.  It was early spring, the Pennsylvania roads were covered in brown slush and dirty, melting snow.  As I drove, my friend reached out the window with tissues and tried to wipe it clean every few minutes.  One New Year’s eve in a heavy snow storm the car slid 5o yards down a steep road, gently and softly settling into a mound of snow before sighing to a stop.  There were late nights and early mornings, full moons surrounded by bright stars, hazy sun rises, trips to the beach, long rides alone singing along to a favorite song or gazing out at the beautiful rocks and trees of western Massachusetts.  Dozens of Grateful Dead shows.  Stops in Buffalo and Saratoga, in Harrisburg and Hartford, in Portland and Syracuse.  Endless miles.  The road does indeed go ever on and on.

That car transported us.  Physically of course, taking us from place to place, that unimaginable sense of freedom, of knowing you can pretty much go anywhere at anytime.  But also metaphysically, transporting our minds and hearts, our souls and spirits, those shared moments of joy and laughter and struggle and adventure that would never happen again.  Eventually that old Peugeot gave up the ghost.  Some irreparable, fatal flaw developed – the engine block cracked, I think.  It was put to pasture in a junk yard somewhere, rusting in the summer rains and cold winter snows of upstate New York, Dead stickers slowly fading over time.  It wasn’t a great car – slow, difficult to drive, mechanically flawed.  But it was a classic.  And they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.  car

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The Window

The window was right there, just a couple of feet to my left.  I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Cronk’s class (yes that was actually her name!), Thomas Jefferson School.  My classmates and I sat and squirmed, stared at the chalk board, poked at one another when the teacher’s back was turned, sometimes sighed with boredom, sometimes learned something new and surprising, still remembered to this day.  We watched the clock at the front of the room, the minutes ticking by at a painfully slow pace, three o’clock our magic hour of release.

But my view from the window called to me.  In the late summer the leaves of the trees were still green.  Just beyond that blue house on the corner with the worn front step was a field where I often played football.  And at the end of the street, at the edge of my vision, was a yard where a friendly dog lived.  He would be sleeping just a about now, in the shade of that tree in their front yard.

In fall the leaves turned, and I watched this miraculous process unfold through my classroom window, day after day.  I knew as I sat at my desk that acorns were collecting at the base of an old oak tree, that the wind was blowing fallen leaves along the sidewalk, that a leaf pile I had jumped in just yesterday was waiting for another chance.  The air was crisper, and out in the school yard a gym class played kickball.

In the winter mounds of snow piled up in the school parking lot.  When I stole a glance out my window I could see the largest of those piles to my left.  We had played king of the hill on it that morning, reluctantly entering our classrooms wet and cold, with flushed cheeks, numb hands and feet.  There was unfinished business on that greying mound of snow, if only the clock would somehow find its way to ‘3.’

In early spring my window framed a view of melting ice and snow, of grey trees silently and inscrutably watching the length of the days, feeling the temperature, their tops bare and exposed to the still cold wind.  A fifty degree day was a revelation!  Looking out my window I knew what the walk home would be.  We would shed our jackets, kick stones down the street, poke at the melting snow with sticks fallen from the trees during the winter, stomp in a puddle or two just for good measure.

For school might hold us for a while, but outside the window was an adventure waiting to happen, each walk home a journey of exploration, with a sense of freedom and independence, of possibility, of becoming.  The window looked out on my small home town, the narrow streets, the neatly trimmed lawns, the cracked sidewalks and running rows of hedges.  But it also looked out on a big world, grand and open, mountains, rivers, hills, vast plains.  A day would come when I would go there, too.

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Three (unheralded!) Heroes of the Haggadah

This a text version of my sermon from the first day of Passover, 5777 – enjoy the holiday!!

It is an often remarked upon oddity that Moses’ name does not appear anywhere in the traditional text of the Haggadah.   I don’t know whether you realized it as you read the retelling of the exodus story last night.  Pharaoh is mentioned, great talmudic sages like Rabbi Akiva are mentioned, even Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, are referred to in the text.  But Moses, who worked harder than anyone to bring about the redemption of the Israelites, who bravely walked into Pharaoh’s throne room to demand that the Israelites be let go, who raised his staff and split the waters at the sea – Moses gets not one single mention.  It is strange to say the least, and clearly intentional.  The authors, the creators of the Haggadah, did not want Moses’ name to appear. (*see the note at the end of the text for a full explanation)

Over the years many reasons have been proposed as to why this is the case.  The most common explanation is that the sages who wrote the text of the Haggadah wanted to emphasize the Divine role in the redemption from Egypt, not a human’s role – not even Moses’.  It has also been said that Moses’ absence is yet another indication of his extreme sense of humility, and that he himself had a hand in making sure his name did not appear on the night of the seder.

But I would like to suggest another reason today.  I think the Haggadah authors may have left Moses out because his presence in the text would have overshadowed  – not God – but the other people in the Haggadah that we’ve come to know so well over the years.  If Moses appeared on every page – and he would be on virtually every page – we wouldn’t pay much attention to the story of the Sages in B’nei Barak, or Rabban Gamliel’s description’s of the Pesah, Matzah, and Marror.  I would even argue were Moses the focus of the Haggadah, even Elijah the prophet might get lost in the shuffle.  So by eliminating Moses, the Haggadah democratizes the events of the Exodus, showing us that this was something that came about – and in a way continues to come about – through the efforts of many, not just one man.   And as important as Moses was, we also needed all of the other contributors to make our way from slavery to freedom.

Moses’ absence on the seder nights also gives us an opportunity to search for other heroes in the Haggadah that we might not otherwise see.  And this morning I would like to tell you about three heroes of mine who appear in the pages of the Haggadah, on the surface perhaps minor characters in the great drama of the seder, often overlooked of dismissed, but characters who play crucial roles in our understanding the meaning of Passover.

The first is Ben Zoma.  Does that name sound familiar?  Do you remember where he appears?  Just after the story of the 5 Sages staying up all night and telling the Passover story, there is a short and also strange paragraph.  It is about Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, where he says – הרי אני כבן שבעים שנה –  ‘I am like a man of 70 years.’  And he is struggling to understand a verse from the Torah – anyone remember what it is?  It has to do with mentioning the Exodus from Egypt ALL the days of your life.  And Rabbi Elazar – one of the great talmudic sages of all time – says that he never understood that verse until it was explained to him by a lesser sage named Ben Zoma.  Anyone remember Ben Zoma’s answer?  He says ALL the days of your life includes not only the days, when it is actually daylight outside, but also the nights.  This is actually one of the reasons we say the third paragraph of the shema not only in the morning, but also at night, during evening services.

But what I love about Ben Zoma, the reason he is one of my three unheralded Haggadah heroes, is that he reminds us that Judaism is something that has to be practiced every day in order to be truly meaningful.  It can’t just be about the seder night, it can’t just be abut Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.  Those are the big, dramatic moments.  But the real beauty of Judaism is in the quiet moments, even the mundane moments, the ebb and flow of everyday life.  It is easy to lose track of that, especially on a seder night when we put so much effort into telling the Passover story.  Ben Zoma reminds us that the true power of Judaism is not found in a single night, but instead in כל ימי חייך – in ALL the days of your life.  That is why he is my first Haggadah hero.

The next is a surprise choice, a character you probably would not expect to make my list – the Rasha.  Who is that?  Right, the wicked child (son), in the four sons section the one son who is considered to be excluded from the community.  You remember his question – מה העבודה הזה לכם – what does this ritual mean to YOU.  And we say since he said ‘you’ and not ‘us’ he implied that he wants nothing to do with Jewish life.  The Rasha is the great villain of the Haggadah.  Pharaoh is bad enough, but we’re used to dealing with outsiders who are after us.  But to be rejected by someone in our own community is painful.

But without the Rasha we might experience the seder night as a perfect narrative, almost a fairy tale.  The evil King is defeated in the person of Pharaoh.  The people are released from their slavery.  Those who subjected them – the Egyptians – are punished by the plagues.  Without the Rasha it would all be a nice, neat package.  And that is precisely why we need the Rasha in the Haggadah.  We don’t live in a fairy tale world, we live in the real world, a world that badly needs fixing, a world that sometimes seems it is filled with wicked people.  The Rasha reminds us that although we might step out of reality when we sit down at the seder table, when the seder ends, and Elijah leaves, and the last morsel of afikoman is eaten, we return to a world that badly needs fixing, and we have a role to play in that process.

My last Haggadah hero is the mystery man of the seder.  You remember the passage ‘my father was a wandering Aramean?’  It is never quite clear who exactly that person is.  Some commentators suggest it is Abraham, the first wandering Jew.  Others think it is Jacob, who did in his life wander to Egypt.  Some even say it is Laban, Jacob’s uncle.  The bottom line is the text is ambiguous, and the figure remains unidentified.

I’ve always imagined that figure as my Zaydie, my dad’s father.  He was a quiet, soft spoken, and largely reserved man, very mild mannered.  I think he had to be that way given my Bubbe’s strong personality.  But as mild mannered as he was, he was a wanderer.  He made a choice when he was about 16 or 17 years old to undertake a journey, to leave the small village he lived in in eastern Europe, and to come here to the United States with the hopes of creating a new life.  In that moment he joined in the age old Jewish story of diaspora, of the constant and restless search for freedom and dignity and tolerance.  And I remember many a seder from my childhood when I watched my Zaydie, quietly sitting at a table surrounded by his children and grandchildren, the generations of his family, and I think in those moments he was reflecting – with gratitude –  on how successful his search had been.

So there you have it.  My three unheralded Haggadah heroes.   Perhaps you have some of you own.  If you don’t, you might spend a few moments at your seder tonight considering who they might be.  Because each character in the text has a crucial role to play in the story of our freedom, in the journeys we undertake in our own lives.

 

  • Moses’ name and the Haggadah text – It is true that some contemporary haggadot will use Moses’ name, either in commentary, or in a new version of the main text.  Also, some traditional haggadot include the text of a midrash brought in the name of Rabbi Yosi HaGlili that includes Moses’ name.  Here is a note from my friend Dr. Josh Kulp’s ‘Historical Haggadah’ regarding that midrash:  “The section with the derash of Rabbi Yosi HaGlili is found in the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (an early midrasnhic collection on Exodus).  That this text is missing from many medieval Haggadot and from all early Israeli versions of the Haggadah indicates that this was a late edition to the Haggadah, and that the Rabbi Yosi HaGlili text (with its inclusion of Moses’ name) was certainly not originally composed as a liturgical piece to be recited at the seder.”  All of this is to say that the original authors of the Haggadah text intended that Moses’s name not appear.zaydiestone

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Voices of the Past

This a text version of my introductory remarks to Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret 5777 –

Just a few weeks ago I was looking through some old files hoping for High Holy Day sermon inspiration when I cam across a text I at first did not recognize.  It was 16 pages long, in a larger font, and when I began to read through it I realized what it was – a text of the last Yizkor sermon Rabbi Mark Loeb ever gave.  Some of you may remember the occasion – it was on YK afternoon, 9 years ago, and it was the first time we had combined our afternoon yizkor services.  We had advertised that Rabbi Loeb would be giving that afternoon’s sermon, hoping to draw a large crowd, and we were not disappointed.  The Berman Rubin Sanctuary was packed, standing room only, with more than 1500 people who had come not only to recite their yizkor prayers on our tradition’s most sacred day, but also to hear their beloved Rabbi give perhaps his last major sermon.

As you may expect, Rabbi Loeb did not disappoint.  I remember the powerful emotion in the room that afternoon, but to be honest I did not remember much of what Rabbi Loeb said, which simply proves my experience that most sermons are not remembered.  I knew he had approached the talk as a ‘last lecture’ – an idea that comes from the world of academia, where a retiring professor will give a final talk in which he hopes to summarize his life’s work.  And he had listed out a number of specific points about Judaism and Jewish life that he felt were the keys to finding meaning in our tradition.  And I also remember he had concluded the sermon with a classic Hasidic tale, the point of which is to be true to yourself.

I have a feeling the text of his sermon fell into my hands that very day, בעצם היום הזה the tradition would say, when he left it on the pulpit he had so powerfully graced for more than 30 years.  He was not one for saving sermons, and when he did take them he casually tossed them into the trash can in his office after services.  But that day I saw the text lying there, took it, and slipped it into my own files, thinking that one day it would be insightful, a historical artifact for the congregation, a testament to Rabbi Loeb’s thinking and teaching.

Since I have rediscovered it, I have read through the text a number of times during this holiday season.  It is almost as if Rabbi Loeb’s booming voice is coming back across the void, his be-robed figure swaying slightly as he leaned into the words of his message, his organized mind and elegant tongue laying out his sense of what it means to be Jew.  What was most striking to me about his remarks as I read and reread them was how often he spoke of love.  His love of Baltimore, his adopted home town, and most importantly his love of Beth El, our community and our congregants.  And of course his deep love of the tradition he had served and wrestled with for all those long years.

When things settle down after the holidays I will have the entire text of Rabbi Loeb’s sermon published on our FB page.  But today, as we come together near the conclusion of our holiday season, as we gather to recite our yizkor prayers, 9 years after Rabbi Loeb spoke those words from this pulpit, and just a few days after we marked his 7th yartzeit, there is one section of his text I would like to share with you.  This is the 7th of the 12 messages of Judaism that he spoke about that day, and I am quoting directly:

“I love Judaism because it has taught the world the idea of a covenantal love relationship between God and humankind, the ideal expression of a love that at times may falter but will never end.  Such a paradigm of love is meant to inform our view of the sanctity of human relationships, reminding us that it is our religious duty to try never to give up on one another, whether it be our children, our brothers, our sisters, our husbands, our wives, our parents or our friends.  We must never treat each other as objects, but, as Martin Buber taught, as sacred others.  Things are replaceable but people, even those we find difficult to abide at a given moment, are not.”

And it seems to me those few words capture the idea of what yizkor is all about.  First that we have not given up, that through the pain of loss, through grief, through guilt and sadness, and whatever other emotions we struggle with today, we have not given up.  And secondly, that the people we stand to say yizkor for today can never be replaced.  Their presence continues to be a part of our lives, their values and morals guideposts to our characters, to how we live and who we are.  It is a brave thing to stand to say yizkor – to once again stare into the face of loss, knowing that our grief will feel fresh and raw, but determined to fulfill our obligations and to do our very best to move forward, carrying our losses while at the very same time living our lives with a renewed sense of gratitude and faith.

Towards the end of Rabbi Loeb’s remarks on that day he said this, and again I quote directly:  “I would never have had the opportunities and experiences that have enriched my life so much if it hadn’t been for you… and as my service to Beth El comes to a close this spring, (I know) that a part of you will always live in me.  I hope the converse is true.”

As we rise together to say our yizkor prayers we acknowledge how very true that statement is, for our friends, our family members, for all those we call to mind today – may their memories always be for a blessing –

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Satchmo

If you are a lover of jazz you no doubt will recognize the nickname of Louis Armstrong, the great trumpeter, composer, and singer who left his mark on the music world during a groundbreaking 50 year career.  Satchmo would have celebrated his 115th birthday yesterday, on August 4th.  He grew up in New Orleans, the grandson of slaves, and the son of a delinquent father and a mother who turned to prostitution.  He quit school when he was 11 years old, worked odd jobs, and spent much of his time in the bars, hostels, and brothels of New Orleans.  Somehow he survived the turbulence of his youth.  Perhaps saved by his love for music, his genius, talent, and stage presence enabled him to become one of the most beloved performers of his time.  Today he is simply remembered as one of the all time great jazz artists.

A strange and little known fact about Louis Armstrong:  he wore a Magen David – a Star of David – wherever he was and whatever he was doing.  What an odd symbol to be chosen by a young black man from New Orleans!  But behind that Star of David is a story.  When Armstrong was as lost as a boy could, when his own parents had deserted him and he literally didn’t have two pennies to rub together, he found work in a junk hauling business.  That business was owned by the Karnofskys, a Jewish family from Lithuania only recently arrived on US shores.  The family saw how lost Armstrong was, and how lonely he was as well.  They took him in, fed him dinner, sat him at their table, talked with him, treated him with dignity and respect.  As he got to know them he realized the Karnofsky family was subject to prejudice and hatred in much the same way that he was as a black man.  And yet they didn’t give in.  They worked hard.  They lived with purpose and determination.  They had almost nothing, but what they did have they were willing to share.

In later years Armstrong wrote a short book about the influence the Karnofsky family had on his life.  At just the right moment his path crossed theirs.  For a time they walked together, sensing a shared fate and intuitively understanding the deep need we all have to be accepted and to belong, to have people in our lives who care about us and believe in us.  The Star of David reminded Armstrong of where he had come from, and how far he had come.  But it also reminded him of the lost young boy he had been, and the kind family he met along the way that helped him become a man.

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Father and Son

IMG_3497 (1)It just happened to catch my eye. I was there to watch the synagogue’s Hebrew school choir. The children were performing at a nursing home (elderly care facility? supported living environment?). The residents gathered in the common room, eager for a change in their daily routine, happy to see the faces of children and to feel the energy and optimism of youth.

The children sang, so strikingly un-selfconcious. I stood at the back, leaning against the wall. Just in front of me was an old man sitting with his son. The ‘boy’ was probably in his mid 50s, gruff, tense, uncomfortable in his duty. He sat by his father’s side and his eyes darted around the room. I imagined he performs this task often, forces himself to walk through the doors, to find his father, to once again be confronted by the long years and inevitable wearing down of life, and perhaps even by his own future.

As the children sang the man reached over to take his father’s hand. There they sat, hand in hand, father and son. I was surprised by the tender gesture. What a powerful statement and striking promise! You are not alone. I am here with you, I care about you, I love you. I hope I can give you even a little bit of what you’ve given me all these long years.

Then another surprise. The children began to sing Oseh Shalom and I saw the man’s face soften. He held tighter to his father’s hand and his eyes moistened, just that welling up of some deep feeling made of memory and mystery. I turned away, not wanting him to suddenly realize a stranger was intruding on his private moment. The singing ended, the children said their goodbyes, giggling and smiling and shuffling their feet back and forth. As I turned to go I glanced one last time at the man. Still he held his father’s hand, and a sad smile rested on his lips. What the visit meant to his father. What the visit meant to him.

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Missing Mentors

A double entendre.  Missing as in they are gone, and also missing as in missing them, feeling their absence in our hearts.  There is something about the holiday season that deepens both meanings.  Maybe because it is a family oriented time, a time we shared with them.  Maybe it is because of the memories of holidays gone by, of sitting with a loved one at the table, or in shul.  Maybe it is because so many of the holiday’s themes are tied to loss, mortality, the fragility of life.  But that sense of absence is keenly experienced when the nights become cool and the leaves begin to fall.

I have a private ritual I enact every year a week or two before the holidays.  I make sure to get to our synagogue’s cemetery to visit the graves of the clergy who served Beth El over the years.  I visit the grave of Rabbi Jacob Agus, whom I never met, but whose presence is felt in the halls of the synagogue every day as a source of guidance and wisdom.  I linger at the tombstone of Cantor Saul Hammerman, a golden voiced Hazzan with an old world sense of humor and a deep love of the Jewish people, with whom I was lucky to share many a conversation.  And always last I visit the grave of  Rabbi Mark Loeb, my senior rabbi for more than a decade, and a true mentor and friend to me and to many others.

It is at the last grave where I crouch down, where I brush my hands over the metal letters, where I again read the words that I’ve read hundreds of times.  What I wish I could share!  What I wish I could ask!  The void can be sensed, almost palpably, but it cannot be breached.  And yet.  There is meaning in the visit.  A sacred sense, an honoring of presence, an affirmation that the connection still exists in some mysterious and inexplicable way.  And in that there is comfort and strength.  And purpose.  What  I do I do not do alone.  Where I go, others go with me.  And in that sense of permanent presence I find blessing and grace, courage and hope, laughter and longing, sadness and celebration.  I find life.  And a new year begins.

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