Adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg’s sermon on the 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah 5765 (2004)
Travel back in time with me - back to the year 1905, when this congregation was founded. Travel with me to a community of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, such as Hoboken NJ. Follow me into one of hundreds of Jewish restaurants and cafes throughout the New York area.
We see a group of a number of men and women in their 20’s, dressed in fashionable clothing of the early 20th century in the United States. But they are surrounding one man of the same age, who looks like he just got off of the boat from Europe. He’s wearing an overcoat, and a hat, and he has an untrimmed beard. As you get closer, you overhear parts of the conversation: indeed, this man DID just get off the boat, and he is the cousin of one of the other, more American-looking men, who is introducing him to everyone else. All the others address the new immigrant in English, even though they know that he could not possibly understand any English. But from their accents, you can tell that these men and women are ALSO new Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Perhaps they arrived just a few months ago, or a year ago at most.
One of them picks up the hat from the head of the newest immigrant, says in English “what a nice hat!” - and passes it around to the others, who examine it, giggling. And now the waiter comes over, bringing a glass of tea, and sets it in front of the newest immigrant. You presume that his cousin must have ordered it for him.
The newest immigrant sits, apparently perplexed about something. The others say to him, “what are you waiting for? There’s your tea! Enjoy!”
And the newet immigrant says, in an uncomfortable voice, “Anschuldik. Mein kappel. Ich darf mein kappel.” And the others say, “Oh! Yes! His hat! He won’t eat his food unless he has his hat! Oh, yes! SO let’s give him back his hat!” And one of them presents his hat to him, and makes a broad gesture of placing it gently on his head - but a little over to one side.
And the newest immigrant then picks up his glass of tea, and says: “Baruch ato adenoy eloyheinu melech hoolam, she-hokol nih'yeh bidvaro.”
And then all the other young men and women begin to applaud - as if they have just seen a brilliant comedic performance.
I’ve just described a scene from the movie “Hester Street,” one of the classic films about the experience of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the last century. While, technically, the scene that I described is fictional, We know that similar scenes took place every day. Historians tell us that a disproportionate number of those Jews who came to the United States came in part because they were eager to leave the trappings of Jewish religion behind in Europe. They had such zeal to become Americans, that they sent an unambiguous message to the newest immigrants: such traditional Jewish practices as wearing a head covering when you eat, or saying a blessing before you eat, were “Old world” customs, that would mark one indelibly as a “Greenhorn” - as someone who didn’t truly belong in the “New World.”
But now let’s fast-forward to the early 21st century. Let’s look at the great-grandchildren of those who greeted the new immigrant’s spiritual practices with such derision. Perhaps one does transcendental meditation for a half hour every day. Perhaps one does yoga. Perhaps one one ties a red string around her wrist, and studies Kabbalah with Madonna. Of course I have no desire to disparage any of these spiritual paths; different paths may work for different people. (Then asgain, if you want to study Kabbalah, perhaps you shouldn’t do it with Madonna.) But who knows if these descendants know just how much spiritual depth their ancestors threw overboard into New York Harbor on their way to a new world!