Rosh Hashana 5775
September 25, 2014
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
Boker tov. I am Brian Braun—my wife is Terre. I feel the need to introduce myself because there are many of you I don’t know and therefore, I trust, you don’t know me. In the days when we had kids in Sunday and Hebrew school we knew everyone (or at least Terre did), but it’s been a while since Max, and it will be a while ’til Samantha.
You know how rabbis like to incorporate current events into their drashes? I have a bonanza available to me. I considered the opportunities: Gaza, Salaita, Isis, domestic violence — but then I thought about the myriad competing viewpoints in this room and the possibility that I would irritate or offend some of you- so I decided speaking about any of those things—all of which I feel strongly about- was a mistake. But while a controversial drash was still in play, I had occasion to wonder about Teshuvah for intended offenses. I did a lot of reading— Suppose I choose harsh words to effect important social change? Suppose I offend Albert Speer or Orville Faubus? Never mind (except for academic contemplation), I concluded in the end that it was the wrong time and place.
Actually, Terre suggested the lead for the drash the morning after Garth called asking me to speak. And my topic is much less controversial. Or maybe not.
When our middle son, Aaron, received his Semicha from YCT rabbinical school a few years ago, we attended a reception for the graduating rabbis and their families. The parents of the graduates were invited to speak. In general, it was the moms who volunteered. Apparently, several of them had been warned in advance that this was the tradition, but last minute Aaron, gave us no warning bark (this is yours Lee), so Terre was on the spot. The first Mom to speak had prepared a five page, single spaced tome that she read as if it were an academic symposium presentation on some archane scientific subject.
The moms that followed were really, really competitive—as in: “We come from five generations of rabbis, beginning with the Great Pooba of Minsk” or “My husband, who laid the first brick for the synagogue here and lived in Riverdale when Moses crossed the Hudson. . .”, but Terre won the speech prize that day by me. She told our story without any preparation (which is better than I’m doing)– and we come from nowhere. Not from Westchester County, or even from Brooklyn and certainly not from Tsvat.
I come from pushcart folks who were, figuratively, in the shmati business. There were no rabbis or doctors or shop owners (unless your shop is pulled by a horse) in my Eastern European past. Nobody went to cheder.
Nobody cut diamonds or leant money. They had no money to lend. My ancestors were poorer than Tevya– until my parents— even in this country.
But, they were smart enough to get out of Europe before Hitler, survived because although they lacked economic or educational advantage, they had street smarts.
My children are David, a successful lawyer with whom I have the pleasure of working; Aaron, an orthodox rabbi with a congregation in Northbrook and Max, an undergraduate senior. My daughters-in- law have successful professional careers- Sadie has her doctorate in audiology and Marina is a hospital administrator. If you read that Terre and I are proud of them, you’re right. But that’s not my purpose in telling you- as I hope you’ll realize as I continue.
It’s become the tradition that the drash in this minyan is often an historical narrative about the speaker’s family. And there have been some great drashes. I remember particularly Ray Spooner’s a few years ago. I hope I am half as engaging.
Today’s parsha contains the story of Isaac’s birth and of Ishmael’s expulsion. G-d telling Abraham, “your progeny will be called (only) after Isaac.” It is fitting, I think, that the tradition here has been to tell the stories of our Judaism—after Isaac. In my family as probably in yours, there are Isaacs and there are Ishmaels. Ishmaels who have been driven away and Ishmaels who have wandered away. I’ll focus on the Isaacs.
My father’s father was from a shtetl which was then called Lysobiki— 15 miles NW of Lublin, in what is today Poland, but was then Russia. As a young man he was conscripted into the Czar’s army– was involved in a mutiny that resulted in the death of an officer, and had to leave Russia or risk arrest. He crossed the border to Krakow.
My paternal grandmother was from Lahyshyn, 10 miles NW of Pinsk in what is now Belarus, but was then Russia. They spoke several languages each at various times in their lives, but were most comfortable- even in old age- in their first– Yiddish. They were married in Krakow on January 15, 1911, and wandered in Europe, eventually settling in Nancy in the NE corner of France where they had their first two children over the next four years.
When World War I got too close, my father’s parents determined to move again, this time to the United States as a couple in their late 20s with two surviving children. Three others, from two sets of twins, had died as infants in Europe. When they arrived in this country they had lived in five different countries during the first four years of their marriage.
The family settled in Chicago in 1915 on the west side, where my father was born three years later. My grandfather made a living peddling shmatis (literally) and later had a clothing store on the near west side on Madison St. where they lived hand to mouth in the 1920s. To understand from whence I come, you need to know that my maternal grandmother never learned to read or write in any language. She could not add or subtract. But it would not have taken you long in a conversation with her—even in her 93rd year, to conclude she was easily your intellectual equal.
My mother’s parents came here as children. Both of them spoke English easily and their Yiddish was mostly forgotten. My mother’s father then 10, arrived on the lower east side in 1906 from Kovno, Lithuania and my grandmother then 7, also in 1906, settled with her family in Chicago from Odessa. Both very quickly assimilated.
My grandparents, all of them, were secular Jews. They had strong Jewish identity, married Jews and they always lived among Jews—but they did not have Jewish households. No one recognized Shabbat. My maternal grandfather, Pop, never owned a talis, never joined a shul, and couldn’t read a word of Hebrew, nor could he recite a single prayer. He had no education of any kind, much less Jewish education, was not bar mitzvah and there were no Jewish objects in their married home. No menorah, no seder plate. Pop held a series of menial jobs his whole life, never owned a car or learned to drive and never owned a home.
But he was a wonderful grandfather— he spent his time with us– which is why when my children asked me what I wanted to be called by their children, I had no hesitation—I’m Pop, too, in honor of him.
My paternal grandparents were reportedly observant when they first arrived here, but by the time I was old enough to see for myself in the early 1950s, nothing was going on. Kosher allegedly ended when my grandmother saw the butcher shopping in a Jewel store. Who knows if that story is accurate or excuse. They did not belong to a shul and went maybe twice a year, but probably only when their children dragged them.
So, it’s not surprising that my parents had no Jewish education or knowledge whatsoever. My mother had no contact with Judaism at home as a child, except that she was surrounded by it in her all-Jewish Chicago north side neighborhood and at school. She probably saw Judaism in her grandparents– but they were from the old country and those of you with children understand my meaning. In her parents’ household there was no ritual, only Jewish culture and strong Jewish identity, perhaps born of depression-era anti-Semitism.
My father had a shot-gun bar mitzvah when somebody noticed he was 13, but no other Jewish education. Now almost 97 (he still drives and goes to work four days a week), my father is Jewish– but he is a college educated engineer who cannot recite kaddish for his parents or my mother, and cannot read a word of Hebrew. So far as I know, my mother never even had a Hebrew name until the rabbi gave her one at the time of her eulogy in 1979.
I owe my parents a debt of gratitude. They wanted for their children what their parents were unable to provide them. They joined a conservative shul in the 1940s when I was born- I am sure, completely unable to understand anything that was going on. When my parents and their young family moved to Glencoe from Chicago in 1953, they joined another conservative shul where they must have felt very isolated. They sent their oldest son- me- to Hebrew school. But there was no Jewish practice in our household save for Pesach and the high holidays- and that same fiercely Jewish identity that had existed in my grandparents’ households.
A mildly amusing story to illustrate my point. When I was 12 and preparing for my bar mitzvah, my father’s father visited from California- where they had moved for the weather. My proud mother wanted me to perform for him at the kitchen table. And I did. I began to chant my haftorah. I still remember from memory the opening lines of Beshallach (mostly because of this story) You’ll be tolerant, I hope of my limited musical ability—I can’t carry a tune in a Champaign Surplus backpack: (sing)
My grandfather was horrified. I had it all wrong. He immediately launched into a Yiddish dialogue with my mother—the language they used to talk around us when we weren’t supposed to understand. At least my grandfather spoke the language. My mother mostly nodded her head. My parents’ Yiddish vocabulary was so limited, my brothers and I generally understood what was going on when they thought they were speaking Klingon.
My mother was puzzled by my grandfather’s objections—because she didn’t know any Hebrew. But she raised the issue at my next lesson with our cantor, Jordan Cohen. Turns out I had been taught Sephardi- New Math for Ashkenazi Hebrew speakers. Israelis spoke Sephardi—it was fashionable in the 1950s to teach children the language and dialect of Israel. My Russian-Polish grandfather thought I might as well be speaking Ladino.
Heneni? Yeah, I know, that’s tomorrow and in the text it’s not a question. Call it Drash driver’s license. I ponder our origins and our Jewish lives– in wonder. I am here in shul. And here– and in Aaron’s congregation– so are my three children, two daughters-in-law and three, soon to be four, grandchildren.
So what did my parents model for me that was important to my Jewish identity and what did I model for my children that being Jewish is critically important to all of them? Model, not tell. What did Abraham and Sarah teach Isaac? What did Elkanah and Hannah provide for Samuel that Judaism might survive?
I leave you to ponder that important question at this important time. I have no answers for you, but I give thanks for all that I have been given and I have no regrets about what I have and will give back in Jewish identity, sense of community and tradition to my children and grandchildren.
An Orthodox man was traveling on El Al, when his seat mate, trying to make conversation, asked what the man did for a living.
“I’m a rabbi,” he answered.
“Well,” said the man condescendingly, “I was born Jewish– but work, family. . . there are more important things. But, I remember what I was taught as a kid in Sunday school and I think I can sum up everything that’s important in one sentence: ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.'”
The rabbi smiled. And he asked, “And what is it you do for a living?”
“Why, I’m an astrophysicist—Oberlin undergrad, MIT doctorate” his seat mate replied smugly.
Well,” said the rabbi, “I don’t know much astrophysics, but think I can sum up everything that’s important in one sentence: ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star — how I wonder what you are.'”
Shana Tovah, chag sameach