Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Fruit That Remembers: What Botanists Say About the Etrog


The Etrog is undoubtedly one of the most unusual Jewish ceremonial objects.

If you have spent some time with an Etrog, you know that it smells wonderful, it
doesn't taste so great, and it looks like a mutant lemon, (usually) with a distinctive protrusion on one end.  It is one of the Arba Minim, the four kinds of plants that Jews use ceremonially during prayers on the holiday of Sukkot (beginning this year on October 8 in the evening).
As I learn more about the Etrog, both Judaically and botanically, I realize what a powerful symbol it is for the Jewish people.

In English, an etrog is called a 'citron,' and it's a very early member of the citrus family.  According to many botanical scholars, it’s the very first citrus fruit to be cultivated.  In fact, almost all of the citrus fruits that we know of today - grapefruits, oranges, lemons, limes - are human creations, cultivated by crossing the four original citrus fruits (citron, mandarin, pomelo, and papeda) with each other.  This would indicate that not only is the etrog the relative of the lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit, but the etrog is actually their ancestor.

(And from a more somber perspective:  those who theorize what would happen to our planet in the absence of human beings suggest that various cultivated plants would quickly revert to their original states, reversing the process of thousands of years of cultivation. If so, then an earth without humans would again be full of etrog trees.)

Like botanical historians, the architects of rabbinic literature also describe the etrog as one of the very earliest fruits with which human beings had contact.  When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, and the snake tells them to eat from the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, what kind of fruit was it?  The torah doesn't say - it just refers to it as a ‘pri,’ a ‘fruit.’  Christian folklore says it was an apple.  But Midrash Rabbah says it was an etrog tree. Both science and rabbinic literature agree that the etrog belongs in our very deepest antiquity.  So don’t ever call an etrog a mutant lemon, because - literally, truthfully - it’s the other way around: from a historical and scientific point of view, a lemon is actually a mutant etrog.

Interacting with the etrog sends us back to deepest antiquity, to the earliest years of human civilization on this planet.  It is a powerful symbol of the beginning of the Jewish year, when we seek to rewind, to turn back the clock, to be what we used to be and what we know we can be again.

What is most distinctive about the etrog is its protrusion, which some refer to as a ‘stem’ though it is clearly not a stem.  The stem, or oketz, is on the other side.  This protrusion is analogous to the little dot or speck you sometimes find on the bottom of a peach or a nectarine or orange.  In Hebrew, it’s called a pitom - though if you look very closely, you see that it is made of two distinct parts.  Rabbinic literature calls them the pitom (which is the wooden-looking part) and the shoshana (the flower).  If you look closely at the tip of an etrog, you can see a little dried-up flower - and this is what makes the etrog truly unusual.  (Not every etrog grows with a pitom, but most do.)

Like most fruits, every etrog began its life inside a flower.  Usually, as a fruit grows, the flower dies, and it either separates from the fruit, or dries up and falls off.  What is distinctive about the etrog is that it keeps the dried remains of its flower with it - it keeps the flower with it.  This makes the etrog a palpable symbol of the Jewish people, which does not forget where it came from.  It keeps the memory of its origins present all the time.  It doesn't ever cut itself off from its past; its past influences its present.

But of course the pitom is the most fragile part of the etrog.  Just a little bit of rough handling  and the pitom will fall off, rendering the etrog unfit for use.  Truly, it doesn’t take a lot for us to be severed from our memories of where we came from -- our memories of ourselves as individuals, and, for the Jewish people, our collective memories of our experiences throughout Jewish history.

There is one more way that the etrog, together with the palm and willow and myrtle branches, send us back to the past and to our early communal memories.  There are some places in the world where etrogs are plentiful.  But for most of the last millennium, the largest Jewish communities were in places where etrog trees (and palm trees and myrtle trees) were rare.  

Picture a Jewish village in Poland 200 years ago.  Somehow, that Jewish community would figure out how to acquire these semi-tropical palm branches and Mediterranean etrogs and myrtles, and bring them to Poland and Russia.  Often, at great expense, entire villages would buy an etrog together that they would all share, taking turns using it, saying the blessings and marching with it.  (Jewish folklore is full of stories of mishaps involving the purchase, sharing and care of etrogs; the contemporary film Ushpizin pays homage to this folklore motif.)  The etrog and the other plants of the Four Species served as a reminder to these communities:  We may live here in Poland or Russia, but we are not from here.  We are from the place where these plants grow.  It served as yet another reminder to Jewish communities in the Diaspora of their ties to the land of Israel, and it is yet another way in which the etrog connects us to our deepest past.

When we hold the etrog on this Sukkot holiday, may it help us to contemplate and connect with our most distant past, and remind us to carry that past with us into the future.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Yom Kippur thought on the origin of a Jewish toast: "L'chaim" - "to life!"

I shared this reflection with my community a few years ago on a Yom Kippur evening.
 
Each Shabbat morning in our synagogue, before we say the Kiddush, the prayer over wine, it is traditional for the leader to say 'savri meranan,' or 'savri haverei,’ which basically means, “Your attention please!”.  This is traditionally followed by everyone saying, with great enthusiasm, “L’chaim!"  If you know Hebrew, or if you ever saw Fiddler on the Roof, you know that L’chaim! means "To Life!"  Then we say the blessing over wine.

You may have wondered where this peculiar Jewish toast comes from.  In fact, it is almost a thousand years old.  The Midrash Tanhuma, a collection of ancient midrashim, describes this practice, in a way that has a lot to teach us about wine, about community, and about each other. 

The Midrash says: When there's a death-penalty trial, and the verdict is about to be announced, one of the judges announces: savri meranan?  “Your attention - what is your verdict?”

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Finding hope in Israel: Rosh HaShanah sermon 5775 / 2014

This sermon was delivered on the first day of Rosh haShanah, 5775 (2014), at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, New Jersey.


When Naftali Hertz Imber opened up the newspaper, he could not believe what he was reading.

As he sat there that day in 1878, in the city of Iasi, in Romania, he saw a small item in a Jewish newspaper that said that for the first time in hundreds of years, there were to be Jewish farmers farming the land of Israel.


Imber, a Jewish poet in his early 20’s, had many reasons to be surprised by this news.  The Jewish communities that he knew, in Eastern Europe, were mostly poor - some were urban, some were rural, but virtually none of the Jews were farming the land, as Jews were generally not permitted to own land.  No matter how many years or decades or centuries their families had dwelled in an Eastern European village or region, they were still regarded as foreigners, people who really belonged somewhere else, living on land that belonged to others.  Sometimes they got along well with their neighbors, and sometimes not.  They often had to cope with anti-Jewish attitudes and even anti-Jewish violence.  Even in the best of times, they often felt like they were walking a tightrope.  Even many of those who tried to shed their Jewish identities and to blend in to the surrounding society were unable to do so.  In that era, the Jewish holiday that best summed up the existential state of the Jewish people around the world was the fast day of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the day that commemorates the exile of Jews from the land of Israel -- their transformation from a people living in its own land, to a people living as a beleaguered minority everywhere.


Imber also knew something about the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, in Palestine of that time.  It was a mostly urban community, in Jerusalem and a handful of other cities, and mostly impoverished, living at the mercy of the Ottoman Empire.   It was quite a religious community, with a disproportionate number of elderly Jews from around the world who had migrated to the land of Israel at an advanced age so that they could at least return to die there.  And the community would not have been able to sustain itself financially were it not for the charity they received from Jews around the world.  It was no less precarious an existence as Jews had in Eastern Europe.  The city gates of Jerusalem were locked up each night, and woe to any Jew who missed the curfew and was locked out of the city and at risk of bandits or worse.

And yet, as Imber read in his newspaper, a group of  young Jews from Jerusalem in the mid-1870’s developed this crazy idea:  we should move outside of Jerusalem.  We should purchase some land, we should start farming the land, the way our ancestors did thousands of years ago.  And this will be our first step towards economic self-sufficiency, and a first step towards regaining our people’s dignity.  Despised and powerless throughout most of the world, regarded as foreigners almost everywhere -- this land, the land of Israel, should be one place where we are not regarded as foreigners, and where we can re-establish our bond with the land that is our heritage.


And Naftali Hertz Imber read that they had purchased some land not far from the Mediterranean sea, to establish an agricultural community to be called “Petach Tikvah” -- which could be translated as ‘An Opening to Hope,’ or ‘The Door to Hope.’ And Naftali Hertz Imber was transfixed - by the idea of the Jewish community’s commitment to transform and revive itself, and by the name of this community: Petach Tikvah, the Door to Hope.

And he responded the way you would expect a young poet to respond to an event that moved him deeply.  he wrote a poem, called “Tikvateinu," meaning ‘our hope.’   It was a long poem with 9 stanzas and a refrain.  Decades later, it would be set to music.  And I invite you now to listen, as the choir sings one of its less familiar stanzas:
'For as long as tears continue to flow from our eyes like generous rain,
and for as long as countless of our fellow men and women visit the graves of our ancestors,
Then our hope is not yet lost - the ancient hope -
that we will return to the land of our ancestors, to the city where David encamped.’


Each stanza of the poem ‘Tikvateinu’ pointed out some way that the Jewish people had maintained their connection to the land of Israel throughout 2000 years of exile.  Facing Jerusalem in prayer. Reciting mournful midnight prayers for Jerusalem’s welfare. Mourning on the fast day of the 9th of Av.  Recalling the exile and praying for redemption.  For as long as we do all these things, then עוד לא אבדה תקוותינו - od lo avdah tikvateinu, our hope is not yet lost.


By now you realize that I’ve been sharing with you the history of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah -the Hope.  But this was still long long before anyone thought it would ever be the anthem of anything.  (Or that there would ever be anything that it could be the anthem of.)   It was just a poem expressing a yearning for a land, for a home -- and noting the persistence of a tikvah, a hope, that the Jewish people’s

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day thoughts, 2014


Tonight begins Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

For the last several years, I have sent a note to the congregation noting the survivors from our community who have died since last yom HaShoah.   As we know, those who survived the Holocaust as adults are now in their 90’s or older, and the youngest of the survivors -- those too young to remember anything about the experience -- are nearly 70.  Each year, we note the losses of survivors in our community, who were our links to a world destroyed.

This year, I think especially of Gerda Stuiver z”l, mother of USH member Jake Stuiver, who died last April in her 80’s, and Lee Berendt z”l, father of USH member Chuck Berendt, who died just a month ago at age 90.

Gerda Stuiver was originally from Vienna.  When she was 8 years old, in 1938, she was one of the approximately 10,000 Jewish children from Europe who were brought to England as part of the Kindertransport rescue mission.  She was fortunate to be reunited with her mother during the war, as her mother managed to become a chaperone or escort for the children on the Kindertransport mission, but she lost many other relatives and childhood friends.  She married her husband Elko, who also survived the Holocaust in the Netherlands, and they lived in Israel and then in Philadelphia until she died almost one year ago, immediately after Yom HaShoah 2013.

Lee Berendt was from a town in Poland called Sompolno.  As a teenager, he was taken by the Nazis from Sompolno as a slave laborer to Germany. He would later learn that his slave labor helped to build the German Autobahn.  Meanwhile, most of his entire family was murdered at the Chelmno death camp.  Lee was fortunate to be one of the very few survivors from Sompolno.  He came to the United States, where he married and raised his  family.

One particular incident in Lee’s life seems especially relevant on this day of Yom Hashoah.  Around the year 2000, still relatively early in the history of genealogical research on the internet, Lee Berendt came upon a photo taken in 1941, a group photo of over 100 Jewish men from Sompolno.  Apparently this photo was taken immediately before a deportation.  Lee recognized himself in the photo, and with his prodigious memory, he realized that he remembered the names of many of them.   His son Chuck told me about how he assisted his father in painstakingly labeled each person in the photo with a number, and then listing the personal information that he remembered for 98 of them.  This labeled photo and Lee Berendt’s list are now online on the Internet (see http://www.zchor.org/sompolno/somplist2.htm) , and I presume they have been used by many people seeking to gather information about their relatives.  Of those in the photo, fewer than 20 survived the war.  For many of the men in this photo, it may be the only surviving photo of them, anywhere in the world.   Thanks to Lee Berendt’s commitment to bearing witness, their relatives are able to locate their image on this photo - and in a small way, the memory of those who died in the Shoah is being perpetuated.

A survivor in our community of a different kind was William Jurman z”l, father of USH member Karen Jurman, whose funeral took place this morning; he died on Thursday evening at age 90.   William Jurman grew up in the United States, and as a teenager he was drafted into the US Armed Forces.  He fought against the forces of Nazi Germany, showing significant heroism and bravery in combat even after being wounded, for which he was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart medals.   At his funeral today, his nephew described how William Jurman returned from the war with significant physical pain and mental torment; it took him four years to truly re-enter society.  But he quickly recaptured his courage, pursuing a successful career as an ironworker who walked fearlessly on the girders of structures like the Verezzano Bridge and the World Trade Center while they were being built.  (Our dear friends and USH members Bernard Kammer z”l and Joe Israel z”l, who also died this year, were also World War II veterans and also played a role in bringing the Holocaust to its conclusion.)

May the memories of Gerda Stuiver and Lee Berendt be for a blessing, together with the memories of all those who died in the Holocaust, and all those who endured it and survived until more recent years, and all those who played a role in bringing the Nazi death machine to its conclusion.  As the responsibility to transmit their stories is gradually shifting to us, may we fulfill this sacred obligation, in tribute to their memories.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Iron Chef Passover Edition at USH! -- results

On March 30, we had an amazing Pre-Passover program for the USH community - Iron Chef Passover Edition!

Two teams of chefs from our community competed to make delicious Passover food using some secret ingredients they were told about only immediately before they began to cook.  (Secret ingredients were:  dates; fennel; mint.)

Simultaneously, we had workshops on Matzah baking and Haroset making and a seder trivia game.  Then we ate some amazing food and voted!  (Of course it's too late to vote now, but you can see the ballot at bit.ly/ironchefpassover.


And the winners were:

Best appetizer:    Team Emiril L'Chaim - BAM! -- Deep Fried Matzo Balls w/ dipping sauces!
Best side dish:   Team MGSRR - Symon - Same Kukhers -- Vegetable Saag w/ Fennel & Mint!
Best dessert:    Team MGSRR - Symon - Same Kukhers -- Matzah Bark!

Most creative use of secret ingredients:   Team Emiril L'Chaim - BAM! 

Grand prize winners: 
Team MGSRR - Symon - Same Kukhers:  Monica Plotka, Shamira Malekar, Ruby Kurulkar, Gene Steinhart!
Second place finishers:   Team Emiril L'Chaim - BAM!:  David Swirnoff, Mike Blumenfeld, Elissa Aaronson, Samantha Myers, Susan Klein-Cohen!
Special thanks to

Grace Gurman-Chan for conceiving of the project and directing every aspect of it;

Alessa Kreger for logistical coordination of each aspect of this project;

The Losos/Weaver, Plotka and Myers families for opening your homes;

Marilyn Freiser and Louise Kurtz for coordinating matzah baking, and Max Ohring / Anya Steinhart / Hannah Plotka / Joshua Myers for assisting and helping to transport kids from place to place;

All our chefs for your extraordinary food and your culinary creativity!  (and wishing full recovery to Rhonda Strosberg who was unable to cook with us on Sunday)

We are delighted that USH Learning Center teacher Eytan Stern-Weber took video of the event and will be editing it into a brief highlights video, so we can share with others what we learned, what we ate, and how much fun we had.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"Dayyeinu"? "Enough"? -- For Passover 2014 / 5774


 
One of the best-known parts of the Seder is certainly one of the most unusual:  the song or prayer called “Dayyeinu.”  It is perhaps the best known of all Passover melodies.  
This is the song that expresses thanks to God for each of the various steps of the process of the Exodus from Egypt.  After each step, we say “Dayyeinu - It would have been enough for us.”  “If God had taken us out of Egypt, but not imposed justice upon the Egyptians - It would have been enough for us.  If God had given us the Mannah in the desert, but not given us the gift of Shabbat, it would have been enough for us.”  Etc.
The problem is that some of the lines of Dayyeinu just seem completely illogical.
For example, I think of the line, “If God had split the Red Sea for us, but not led us through on dry land, Dayyeinu.  It would have been enough for us.”  Really now!  I’m not sure that would have been quite enough for me.  To have the opportunity to see this dramatic miracle - the splitting of the Red Sea -  but not to actually cross the sea. I imagine that would have been somewhat disappointing.  Somewhat insufficient.
Then again, perhaps a line such as this highlights the very counter-intuitive nature of the attitude expressed in Dayyeinu.  It may seem like one of the simplest of all Passover songs – and it is a perennial hit with the toddlers and pre-schoolers in our community! - but like most of Jewish liturgy, it packs a sophisticated message.
The Dayyeinu mentality is a counter-intuitive mentality.  It’s hard to say ‘it would have been enough.’  I get the sense that most people have a hard time saying that anything that they have is really enough for them.  Whether we’re talking about money, or possessions, or honor or prestige, or love and affection, or happiness or good fortune, couldn’t we always use more?  And as long as we could use more, it’s not really enough yet.
A prayer like Dayyeinu reminds us to do as honest an assessment as possible of what we truly need, and of what we merely desire.  If we have what we truly NEED, then we can say Dayyeinu, it would have been enough.  And we can express honest appreciation for everything we have that is in excess of that bottom-line need.
It takes some degree of effort to train ourselves to see the world as a collection of blessings for which we are grateful rather than as a collection of disappointments and unfulfilled expectations.  This is one of the most important concepts in Jewish prayer.
You may know that I love to quote from the Talmud:  “hayyav adam levarech me’ah brachot be-chol yom.”  “Each person ought to say 100 blessings each day.” (Menahot 43b)     The talmud asserts that we can discipline ourselves to identify 100 miracles in our lives each day, and even on a difficult day we can find moments of happiness and satisfaction, wondrous moments that surpass our expectations.
A problem with this Dayyeinu perspective is that when we reduce our expectations of what we are going to get from the world, we have the potential to inhibit our reaching and striving.  We have the potential to become complacent, merely taking whatever life circumstances are thrown to us.  I have certainly met some people who take the Dayyeinu ideal to an extreme.  Their attitude is always, “God will provide.  And whatever God will provide will be enough.”
I would say, however, that Dayyeinu is not about reducing our desires or inhibiting our dreams.  Rather, it reminds us that we ought to express gratitude whenever our dreams ARE fulfilled, just as it reminds us that in our lifetimes, a good portion of our dreams may NOT be fulfilled.  For example, we each probably set out to achieve far more  than we will actually be able to achieve in our lifetimes. But when this happens, we ought to still express gratitude even for our partial blessings.
You may know that one of the traditional Jewish names for God is “Shaddai.” In the Talmud (Hagigah 12a), one rabbi, Resh Lakish, explains that the name Shaddai is related to the Hebrew word “dai,” which means ‘enough.’   (This is the word that “Dayyeinu” is based upon.)   Resh Lakish explains, God says, “Ani hu she-amarti le-olam dai.”  God says, “I’m the one who said ‘dai’ to the world.   I’m the one who said ‘enough’ to the world.”
God could have continued the process of creation, making a bigger world, or a more elaborate world.  But I imagine that on that first Friday afternoon, as Shabbat approached, God said “dai.”  Enough for now.  Perhaps not everything is exactly as I might have preferred.  Perhaps there is still much work to be done.  But it is still a world full of blessing.  Despite its lack of perfection, it will suffice.  It is enough.
Perhaps when we sing “Dayeinu” at the seder, we are emulating God’s capacity to look at something incomplete or imperfect, and to see it as incomplete or imperfect, but also to see it as saturated with blessing. 
Perhaps this is part of what we mean when we refer to looking at the world with Jewish eyes.