A summer of discovery

In lounges and dining rooms, at bedsides and on long walks beneath the glistening sun we soaked up the family stories this summer. We held service medals from the second world war and watched home movies. Gradually we pieced together a fragmented family tree that spanned the corners of the world. “This is where the kibbutz was when they arrived on the boat from Marseille”. “Here is the telegram of acceptance of a marriage proposal in the midst of war”. “This is the Iraqi dessert we reserve for only the most special occasions, a rich creamy delicacy”.

Let me take a moment to talk about food. I’m convinced that the ‘eat, you must try this, have you had some of that’ is the Jewish mother’s externalising of the Jewish story. And if you want to see that on a commercial scale you just have to go to an Israeli hotel for breakfast. In spite of there being plenty of food and the meal time going way past the announced finish time, you’d think the middle classes have never been fed before. I’m guilty I admit it.

I’ll just have cucumber, tomato and cheese for breakfast. Israeli Cottage. Hmm but there’s pickles, that won’t hurt. And an egg, but maybe an omelette freshly made. And there’s some croissant and chocolate pastries. And then it becomes ridiculous – the salad bar – seven, eight different salads, green beans, beetroot. And I’m walking back thinking I’ve just about got enough on my plate and realise there’s a hot counter with pasta and frittata plus the chocolate milk. Still the tea was terrible! And then having eaten at least seven different breakfasts, the guests realise they will have to buy lunch so the scramble to hide apples, oranges, rolls and cheese in napkins begins. Don’t tell me you’ve not done it yourself! This to me is what happens when the Jewish mother is allowed to become the norm for catering at Israeli hotels.

All of which meant on our first day in Israel I was forced to eat my own weight at breakfast, lunch with family and then at friends for a barbeque in the evening. We carry the story in our stomachs! But if all that sounds like I’m making light of the Jewish experience of recent history. I promise you I’m not.

It was a summer of discovery that was at its pinnacle in Israel during our family holiday. It was there we heard of the weapons stash in the Baghdad home of one great uncle who arrived in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah and the flight from Alexandria of another great aunt. And I kept coming back to the same thought over and over again. How do we make sense of this history for our children.

In 1963 Salo Baron inveighed against the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history” which overemphasised suffering in the telling of Jewish history. And, taking his lesson to heart, in the 1990s, as a Jewish educator, 25 years ago, I was part of a youth movement trying to help young Jews construct a Jewish identity built on positives, not just death and antisemitism. It was here that we discovered our Reform Judaism could articulate a vision of a world as it should be and that we could shoulder that work of social justice, of equality, of responsibility, of peace as young adults. It was in those days that we explored our sources in creative ways to discover a new language around repair and mitzvah. In working for feminism or against homophobia or for peace between Israelis and Palestinians we were gathering the primordial sparks of light in an effort to complete God’s work. It was not our duty to finish it, but neither were we free to desist from it. Being Jewish was hard work but the death and expulsion was partnered with a uniquely Jewish way of encountering universalist dreams.

So you see, it was because of that, I was cautious of the life-stories my children were hearing.

I was waiting for the question, “Why is it that my grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great grandparents were born in Egypt, Iraq, Germany, Poland and Russia but don’t live there now?”

Because in each country life for Jews (and of course not exclusively Jews) was made unbearable or their escape was from murder and genocide. And Jews have been displaced wanderers for centuries. Before Egypt it was Spain and before Germany it was Prague. We have the most experience at leaving everything behind and arriving with a bag and, if we’re lucky, an address. What do you take and what do you secretly smuggle out with you to rebuild life from nothing?

Now counterbalanced by this experience was the miracle of being part of building the new Jewish homeland or the pride in war service in a British tank regiment in one of the last battles by the Allies in Germany and experiencing the victory parade in Berlin. Or just the fact that we’re here. Still.

The price of trauma

A study a few years ago proclaimed loudly that a great-grandmother’s Holocaust experience would be transmitted not just in the psychology of being a survivor but in a complex biological concept called epigenetics. The study almost certainly over-egged the experiment and the press coverage which suggested our genes were changed by trauma overplayed the reliability of the experiment. But it made waves as a piece of research – trauma could be transmitted in your genes, or so it was argued. But we do not need genetics to know that the scar of expulsion and genocide is carried on generation to generation. Haim Gouri captures the sense in his poem ‘Yerusha’ (Inheritance) that, on the subject of the binding of Isaac, reads:

Isaac, as the story goes, was not

sacrificed.  He lived for many years, saw

what pleasure had to offer, until his

eyesight dimmed.

But he bequeathed that hour to his

offspring.  They are born with a knife in

their hearts.

Shimmering memories and ripples of existence

Against this and the backdrop of shimmering memories, that dance around the living rooms and kitchens of family life, I’ve been thinking about the funeral at which I officiated many years ago for a judge. He had been battling cancer and in one of my pastoral visits he said to me, “You know Neil, I’m not afraid to die. I can accept the world existed without me and it will exist after me, when I’m no longer here.” It reminded me of when a youngster said to me, “It’s weird. When you die, it’s like you never existed.”

In many ways that ‘weirdness’ was what led me up Chalton Street, Euston, where my paternal family lived and ran the grocers business. Who will know that Myer Janes existed, that he stood on this road and sought better prospects for his family leaving his home in Eastern Europe with his wife Ada? Did it matter that he existed? As I walked up the street preparing for the course that Searle Kochberg is teaching for the Lyons Learning Project on ‘My Jewish London’, the street looked in many ways like I imagine it probably did back then. On a warm Friday, a street market sold ethnically diverse foods and young lads asked if there was a mosque nearby – a question I don’t think I was well placed to answer! The Jewish community here was sizeable 100 years ago. The biggest difference between then and now was that the home and grocers which Myer moved to when his children had moved out, a few doors down from the family home, was now a massage parlour.

The ripples of our existence fade just a few decades after we are gone. There was nothing particularly remarkable about my family. Grocers, boot repairers, tailors, food manufacturers, glass eye makers. It’s not just ‘who do you think you are’ but the human story that led us all to be here – me, you, sitting in Upper Berkley Street. The untold stories of generations of Jews who have plotted a path through life who leave behind no great legacy and whose presence is felt just ever so faintly.

And I’ve discovered that like a pebble thrown into the still pool of existence, when we have sunk to the depths it may never be possible for anyone to say again some generations later – they were here, they existed. But they matter. They were remarkable and their struggle was why we are here.

What are we doing

And that I think is what Judaism offers us at this time, in this sacred hour of renewal. No matter who we are and where we come from. Judaism teaches us not to make a splash in fame and fortune but to leave traces of our own existence in the good we leave in the world. If you like it’s the ripples of memory that matter not the splash we make here and now. That’s always been the case from Abraham, the prophets, generation to generation. Judaism pushes us forwards in a passionate drive to leave the world a little better than when we entered it. Every one of us. Why else are Jews so engaged in the world. The vision of a messianic age demands that we do not sit back on our laurels and wait for delivery by some supernatural hand.

I am the rabbinic lead on education and social action here. I want you to be passionate learners – take advantage of the Lyons Learning Project courses in our booklet. And I want you to feel that this synagogue brings us together to make a difference to our world, to make the ripples of our existence endure a little bit longer. That happens when we work together to build bridges and change lives.

Allow me to give you an example. This time last year a young woman came to speak with me after the second day service. We stood beneath the banner that said ‘Refugees Welcome’ and, having not seen it, asked me if we did anything for refugees. Meredith had finished her Masters degree having been a specialist in refugee resettlement in the USA with the International Rescue Committee. She wanted to volunteer. Since then Meredith, a brilliant young Jew from the States has given practically a day a week of volunteer time to get our Community Sponsorship programme off the ground. She hasn’t done it alone. With her has been the equally brilliant Mary (not her real name – for reasons that will become clear) who has a similar professional background but is not Jewish, born in a different country in the Middle East and from America, whose uncle and aunt lie in mass graves somewhere in her birth country. They are friends and with them we have accomplished something quite incredible with Nic Schlagman our Head of Social Action – bringing Liberal Judaism and South London Liberal Synagogue with us to a point of asking the Home Office for acceptance on their community sponsorship programme for vulnerable refugees. This synagogue has become the place for our encounter – Nic, me, Meredith and Mary. And there are more of you working together whose memory will endure long after our great-great-grandchildren sit here in the pews for Rosh Hashanah. Through our community we make a difference.

The righteous need no memorials

And so I’m taken back to our sources and a particular weaving of sources tied to the traditional Haftarah for tomorrow morning.[1] The context is really about what one does with an excess of money raised for the burial of the dead. Rabbi Natan says that one builds a memorial on his grave – in other words you must spend the money on the cause it was raised for even if you have done what was necessary in paying for the burial. If there is an excess one must continue to use the money on the grave. And then Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says (Yerushalmi 2:5 47a):

רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומ’ אין עושין נפשות לצדיקים דבריהן הן זכרונן

“One does not build a mausoleum for the righteous, their words and their teachings are their memorials.”

We do not build grand memorials. Our memory is in our words and, since in Judaism learning leads to action, how much more so in our deeds. Let us strive for righteousness and leave a quivering presence of our existence in the shadows of the world we bequeath for the future. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.

[1] Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel taught: Tombstones are not erected for the righteous, as their words [teachings] are their memorials. We find Israel was called after Rachel, as it says, “Rachel weeping for her children” (Jeremiah 31:15). And not only after her name, but also her son’s name, as it says, “It may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph”  (Amos 5:15). And not only after her son’s name, but even after her grandson’s name, as it says “Is Ephraim a darling son unto Me “ (Jeremiah 31:20) (Bereishit Rabbah Soncino edition 82:10)