Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Kol Nidre-Yom Kippur Evening-The Testament of the Jew of Saragossa

Yom Kippur Evening
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel Prize winner, was touring the old quarter of the town of Saragossa Spain when an exuberant young Spaniard approached him requesting to be his guide for free. The two men sat down to have an expresso.  In the course of their conversation the Spaniard asked Wiesel how many languages he spoke, and Wiesel replied “several including Hebrew.
“Hebreo?” The Spaniard asks, picking up his ears?
“It exists?”
“Are you a Jew?”
Wiesel nodded in the affirmative. The Spaniard asked in an urgent tone, “Would you do me a favor?” Please come to my home, just for a little while. So, Wiesel found himself sitting in an armchair in the Spaniard’s apartment when suddenly his host reappeared with a fragment of a testament written centuries ago. Examining it carefully and delicately, Wiesel confirmed it was Hebrew knowing full well this was something sacred and historic.
The young Spaniard became excited and practically demanded that he translate the document.   Wiesel opened the parchment and saw the fragment of a testament written centuries ago. The Spaniard said, “Read it now.” Examining the somewhat blurred letters of this text, Wiesel began to read and translate the parchment.
“I Moses son of Abraham, forced to break all ties with my people and my faith, leave these lines to the children of my children and to theirs, in order that on the day Israel will be able to walk again, its head high under the sun, without fear and without remorse they will know where their roots lie.  Written at Saragossa, Spain this ninth day of the month of Av in the year of punishment and exile.”
Wiesel offered to purchase the document from him explaining to him that the document had historic and religious value.
The Spaniard exclaimed, “For me too!” The Spaniard explained that the document had been transferred from generation to generation even though no one knew what it was or what it said. It was looked upon like an amulet.
Wiesel understood what the document meant even though the Spaniard did not. But the Spaniard knew Wiesel had the secret of the document‘s meaning.
Wiesel looked at the Spaniard and said, Sir, you are a Jew. Yes, you are a Jew. Judeo . You!”
 The Spaniard turned pale. In Spain to call someone that word was to insult him. His anger gave way and amazement overtook his face. The Spaniard, believe it or not, had no idea of the Jewish connection nor of the history of the Jews in Spain. And so for the next two hours Wiesel explained to him Jewish history from Biblical times including the exile of Jewish communities in Babylonian and Roman times leading up to the story of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.
Wiesel and the Spaniard concluded their unique encounter and the Spaniard walked him back to the Cathedral where the two had first met each other. From there they bid each other Adios.
Three years passed and in the City of Jerusalem Wiesel was headed over to the Knesset to report on a parliamentary debate going on about the Israeli government relationship with Germany. As he drew closer to the Knesset, a passerby accosted Wiesel.
“Don’t go. I must talk to you.” His Hebrew was halting and he would not let Wiesel out of his grip. I need to talk with you.”
“Do you remember me?” the man pushed Wiesel back a few steps and blurted out.
“You’re not ashamed?”  Wiesel resisted and turned around to walk away until the stranger whispered in his ear. “Saragossa. Saragossa. Saragossa.”
Once again, Wiesel followed the Spaniard to his home in the city of Jerusalem and again he sat down in an armchair inside the apartment. This time the Spaniard returned with a picture frame containing the fragment of yellow parchment.
“Look,” the Spaniard, proclaimed, “I speak Hebrew now!” The two men spent the rest of the day catching up on their lives and the story of what led the Spaniard to live in Israel.
“I feel ashamed that I did not remember you, “confessed Wiesel.
An indulgent smile broke out upon the Spaniard’s face.
“Perhaps you too need an amulet like mine. It will keep you from forgetting.”
Wiesel then quipped, “May I buy it from you now?”
“Impossible,” retorted the Spaniard, “since it was you who gave it to me.”
Wiesel got up to leave and the two men shook hands. “By the way, the Spaniard asked, “I never told you my name? My name is Moshe ben Avraham.”
I suspect this story teaches that above all other Jewish contributions to society the most enduring might very well be that we have taught the world to remember the importance of history and that memory itself is the key to embracing ourselves in the world we live in.
The testament of the Jew from Saragossa is the quintessential story about a Jew finding a deep seeded, if not dormant emotion or spark inside, that revives and resurrects the person to self discovery. This story strikes at the heart of the High Holy Days because it is  a powerful reminder that  there is no statuate of limitations on finding  our identity   or time period that would preclude  us from making something right no matter how many years have gone by. This is the story which proves the liturgical dictum that the “Gates of Repentance are always open to us.”

Is there a tie between us and Moshe ben Avraham? I think so because he is a symbol for many who have been distant from and sometimes even unaware of what memory means to us. We live in a here and now world view. Do we define ourselves in the present without regard to how the past shapes us and our identity? Sadly the answer to this question is, often times, yes. Moshe ben Avraham, on the other hand, embraced his long forgotten history. For us we too are making choices about what we are bequeathing to the future including our children and grandchildren about Judaism. Think about how what we hand down to the next generation will impact our progeny in the future.
We might be surprised about how many people there are who have discovered that they were Jewish and had no inkling about it. It is not only people like Madeline Albright, the former Secretary of State whose Czech-Jewish  parents hid her with Roman Catholics and who kept the secret of her Jewish identity from her as she grew up during World War Two. Not only refugees from Europe  but there are many more who grew up here in America with families where one parent was Jewish and simply didn’t care to make that choice to raise them Jewish. Some grew up in other faiths and others without a religion. Over the years and particularly here at Beth Yam I have worked with these people, born of a Jewish parent, but who received no Jewish training or identity. As a matter of fact these Jews aren’t that different from Moshe ben Avraham because they weren’t necessarily searching to be Jewish until a moment or event occurred that triggered the question. They all say that the decision to return to Judaism was not obviously one in which they left it years before. It is a return because it reflects that they have been separated from it and wanted to experience Judaism even though they never had the chance to grow up Jewish. It is an ironic feeling of returning home to a place they have never visited before.

There is another story that has received some media attention recently about how someone who became an ardent anti-Semite found out he was a Jew. One of the leaders of Hungary’s Jobbik Party which the Anti-Defamation League has identified as one of the few European political parties that has used overtly anti-Semitic symbols discovered -that he himself was a Jew. According to the Associate Press Czanad Szegedi, a man who was in the Hungarian parliament and a rising star in right wing political circles was  quoted as railing against the Jewishness of the political class in Hungary and referred to Israeli Jews as lice-infested, dirty murderers.” A Hungarian former political prisoner confronted him with the fact that he, Szegedi, was a Jew. News reports say Szededi tried to bribe the man to conceal his Jewish roots. Finally, after news reports in Hungary broke, it turned out that his mother was a Jew which, of course, makes him a Jew. Furthermore, research proved that his grandmother was a survivor of Auschwitz and his grandfather survived labor camps. Even though his grandparents had an Orthodox Jewish wedding after the war they decided to keep that and their religion a secret from their children and grandchildren. Szededi met with the Hungarian Rabbi Sholmo Koves who reported he apologized for his comments.

Soon afterward, the chief of the Jobbik party forced Szegdi to resign from the political party though he still is fighting to keep his seat in the European Parliament. He said he plans to visit Auschwitz concentration camp.  He has apologized for his comments. Who knows what will happen to this man and whether he will return to Judaism and renounce his past?

 From a completely different experience there is a story recently reported in Poland about Jerzy a 32 year old that heard about vandalism to the old Jewish cemetery in Gdansk, Poland and decided to visit it. He met a member of the Jewish community who invited him to Shabbat services and dinner.  He said, “I like Jews all my life.” Jerzy wore a Star of David even though he was not raised Jewish.  Jerzy then started to research his own family history in Lublin and, to his surprise, discovered that, on his father’s birth certificate, both his father and his maternal grandfather were Jews. Jerzy is now in the process of converting to Judaism. In addition he just completed a trip with other Poles to Israel who discovered that they were Jewish too with an organization called Shave which directs trips to Israel for people who are discovering their Jewish roots for the first time.

On that trip, another Polish student Gosia, 35, learned three years ago that her maternal great grandmother was Jewish and, therefore, she and her mother were also Jewish according to Jewish law. While the statistics say that there are 4000 Jews in Poland, estimates say that there are tens of thousands of Jews living either in secret or who do not know that they are Jewish at this time.
These stories all point to the same emotional tie that awakened Moshe ben Abraham to make a change and eventually move to Israel to find himself. Do these stories not impact us who have the freedom to be Jewish in America? I hope so. They also relate very much to the theme of change which is integral to the Day of Yom Kippur.
I say this in light of the Kol Nidrei which is all about disconnecting from the past and moving forward into the future.  We declare, “ Kol Nidre ve’esarei… vekonamei  vekinusei  vekhinuye…” all the ties, designations, affiliations, labels and definitions that I took and perhaps will take, upon myself, kulhon yehon sharan, beteilin umevutalin,” should all be dissolved, null and void.  Henceforth I release myself from all these, those of the past and those of the future, from this Yom Kippur to the next.
It is difficult to let go of Kol nidre not just because it is convenient to do so and it is difficult to live up habitual desires and old habits, but because, according to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz “holding on to these things constitutes our whole grip on reality.” Rabbi Steinsaltz says that for all these roots of the past to become null and void one must loosen one’s grip on reality. He adds, “One must give oneself up, as in, “To You, O God, I lift up my soul.”
I am guessing that all the people in these stories have gone through this kind of gut wrenching process of letting go of their previous identities before they adopted a new one. It must be difficult but nevertheless rewarding at the end of the day. The fact is, all of these people released themselves from the past, and starting from scratch, they began a journey toward inner truth, which involved finding their roots, and in the process finding a future too. These people released the past and the future when they recited Kol Nidrei. They started from scratch and began the journey toward truth which means finding their roots and, therefore, their future too.
Most of us do not have this experience of completely starting over and rediscovering ourselves as Jews. But that is the missed opportunity that Kol Nidre represents. It is an oath that says, “I begin again.”  Like Moshe ben Avraham it is a message that could resonate for us as well. For this Day of Yom Kippur is also about releasing the shackles of the past and moving into the future with  a new start and a new sense of history from Moses ben Avraham to the youth of Poland who seek their past in the future.  It is a lesson that we too would be well served to learn for ourselves.

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