Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5772




When I was growing up, my family made the two hour trip from Peekskill, New York to Brooklyn, New York once a month. It was not an especially pleasant drive from suburb to city.  Each trip had its share of potholes, crazy New Yorkers, and traffic jams.  Yet we made the trip every month, every season, every year.  The reason, quite simply:  Grandma and Grandpa.

One of the things I remember about my grandparent’s home was this:  It was small, but it was full of pictures. There were photographs everywhere.  In fact, I still marvel at how many photos could be displayed in such a small space.  My grandparents had one picture each of their own parents, a handful of themselves, and several of their two sons.  The lion’s share of photos, however, were of us, the grandchildren.

In one sweep of the eye I could see my great grandparents, grandparents, and parents all on their wedding days.  I could see my father in knickers, at his high school graduation, in his Navy uniform.  I could see myself as a baby, as a Bar Mitzvah.

The visits were timed to include major Jewish holidays.  So there were also pictures of us lighting Hannukah candles, and celebrating Pesach.

The memories of those visits are still vivid, some forty years later.  I can still see my grandparent’s home like it was yesterday.  Their faces and their embrace.  I can still smell the food, still hear the stories, still sing the songs, still speak the Yiddish (a bissel), still picture the neighborhood.

On the way home, we always stopped for fresh bagels.  I mean real Brooklyn bagels.  Are there good bagels on this side of the river?

Zicharon.  Memory.  This sermon is about memory.  And here is my thesis:  The secret of Jewish continuity is family, and the secret of family continuity is memory.  Put another way:  what keeps Judaism alive is the bequeathing of our heritage from generation to generation, and what motivates one generation to pass on its values and traditions to the next, is memory.

Without memory, we become orphans in history.  Without nostalgia, we lose touch with our past.  Nostalgia, from the Greek nostos, a return to home, and algia, pain.  A desire to return home so strong, it hurts.

In a positive sense, nostalgia is a yearning for feelings so dear that we are moved to perpetuate them.  If our Jewish memory is joyful, we receive it as a gift and want to share it with those who come after us.  If our Jewish memory is hostile, or simply indifferent, then it will come to an end, with us.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artzon recalls that when he was a child, he and his sister loved to look through their parent’s photo albums.  He writes, “we loved the pictures of their ski trip to Tahoe, of their wedding, of their first apartment, or moving into their first house.  We would gather time after time to see the albums.  Somehow, we never tired of looking at those pictures, reveling in memories and the love.”

Then Rabbi Artzon continues:  “Those albums brought us great joy until the day our parents got a divorce.  Once my parents separated, my sister and I stopped looking at those pictures.  They had become too painful for us to see.”

Rabbi Artzon concludes with a larger point:  “Divorced from the Jewish heritage, memory albums no longer inspire; they accuse.”

And so, permit me to ask you a personal question. Regarding your own Jewish memories: Do they inspire, or accuse? Are they nostalgic, or alienating? Do you summon them with enthusiasm or trepidation or indifference?

I began by sharing my visits as a youth with my grandparents. My paternal grandmother and grandfather were both immigrants. My maternal grandmother (I never knew my paternal grandfather) was native born, but in the totally Yiddish world of the turn of the century lower east side. They were joyfully and proudly Jewish and to this day it brings a smile to my face.

Take a moment, if you will, and summon a Jewish memory that brings a smile to your face…

Now, a follow up question, inspired by an old adage that I cherish so much that I use it at every baby naming I do.

 “Let us consider our world not so much as inherited from our ancestors but as borrowed from our children.”

What memories do we want to create for our families?

What legacy do we want to leave for the next generation?

What shall we do today that will bring a smile to our children tomorrow?

Judaism sanctifies time.

Are we celebrating Shabbat in ways that summon a smile?
Do we make time for a special Shabbat evening meal, complete with white tablecloth, candles, Kiddush, challah, blessing of the children, good food, good conversation, and everyone home?

Is our Seder a joyful and meaningful affirmation of peoplehood and history, or a rush to the food?

Judaism sanctifies space.

Are we celebrating our holy places in ways that summon a smile?

Do we make time for the joyful experience of synagogue, camp, retreats, heritage tours, israel?

Judaism sanctifies people and relationships.

Are we celebrating the milestones of life, and extending a helping hand to those in need, in ways that summon a smile?

If we seek greater rootedness in our dizzying world, have we deepened our ties to community and tradition?

If we seek greater family unity in a fractured society, have we taken a second look at venerable rituals that bind the generations ?

If we seek indelible memories in a disposable culture, have we done anything out of the ordinary?

What might we do, as a congregation, out of the ordinary? Innovative and compelling enough that in the end we will say: that was special? That was transformational? I will always remember that?

I welcome your ideas and your passion.

A Shabbaton at the synagogue?

A multi-generational weekend retreat in the Poconos?

A heritage tour to Eastern Europe?

A family trip to Israel?   

At this New Year, let us challenge ourselves:

Am I living a Jewish life worthy of memory?

Is there joy in my Judaism, or only obligation?

Am I secure enough in my identity that my children will be in theirs?

Am I willing to think big?

Experiences of Shabbat, holidays, social justice work, Israel are “mishpacha memories,” Jewish family experiences that lodge in the mind and are not forgotten. Memories that will bring that smile and sense of connection…  ten, twenty, thirty years from now.

The memory albums of our lives will inspire or accuse. For sure, they take years to assemble, and years more to penetrate to the very core of who we are. Only now, for example, do I fully appreciate the impact of those monthly shleps to Brooklyn, and of course, in the broader sense, the legacy of my immigrant grandparents. So, having begun this sermon in terms of personal memory, let me then conclude the same way.

As I was mulling over this theme some years ago, I experienced a powerful moment of family continuity, right in front of my computer. I had read about a then new website: ellisislandrecords.org. I learned that from 1890 to 1922, more than 20 million immigrants came to America via Ellis Island. Meticulously recorded ship manifests chronicle each and every arrival. An army of volunteers, largely from the Mormon Church, put all these manifests on disk. When the Ellis Island website went online, the response was overwhelming. Millions of Americans began searching for their roots.

I was one of them. I began my search with my maternal great grandfather, because I knew the specifics of his arrival. He had saved the ticket that brought him to America, and he so treasured it that he passed it on to his daughter, my grandmother, who framed it. My grandmother gave it to me shortly before her passing at 100 years of age. It is on my wall, next to the certificate proclaiming my great grandfather a United States citizen. He saved that paper too.

Logging on to the website when it was not overloaded proved formidable, but then I was in, and several clicks later—there it was. Just one entry: One of twenty million. Line 21. Leo Lorber. Age 20. Ship: The Pennsylvania.  Port: Hamburg, Germany. Date of arrival: Nov.18, 1899.  Funds upon arrival: $15. The handwriting on the manifest was identical to that on the ticket. The same clerk had issued my great grandfather’s ticket and recorded his journey. A century later his great grandson, who bears his name, would rediscover the entry.

Zicharon. Memory. The secret of Jewish continuity is family, and the secret of family continuity is memory.

At this New Year, we dedicate ourselves anew to securing the link that binds the generations.

At this New Year, we dedicate ourselves to singing the song of our people, the song that will never be lost.

At this New Year, we raise the cup of thanksgiving:

L’mishpacha–to family!

L’zicharon–to memory!

L’hayim–to life!

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