Vayechi 5773: New York, Vayechi, Mayans, and Sylvester

on Friday, 28 December 2012. Posted in Sermons

An End-of-the-Year Miscellany ...

Shabbat Shalom, and an early "L'Shana Tova lachilonim!, a happy secular new year," or as Israelis say, "Happy Sylvester!" More about that later...

Wendy and I just returned from a short trip to New York City, the largest Jewish city in the world. As you may know, there are roughly 2 million Jews in the New York metropolitan area, a multiple of any other Jewish city in the world, and the sheer volume of Jewish life there remains astounding. There are more interesting synagogues in New York than you can possibly visit, and from your first bite of a hand-sliced thick cut pastrami sandwich you know you aren't in Tucson anymore—or even Chicago or Los Angeles. It's so Jewish that, as comedian Lenny Bruce once said, "If you're from New York and you're Catholic, you're still Jewish. If you're from Butte Montana and you're Jewish, you're still goyish." I wonder if Lenny Bruce would have applied that to Tucson. I suspect so.

Now I don't mean that in a bad way...

Look, I tell you these obvious facts not because I suspect you are unaware of the intense Jewishness of New York City, but because for those who live in other, less Jewish cities—like, say, Tel Aviv—the very unremarkability of the depth of Jewish life in Gotham is pretty stunning, especially on a short visit.

There are more really good Jewish museums in New York than in the rest of the country combined, I think, and of course there is better kosher and Jewish food than anywhere else in the United States. There is more going on culturally in New York than anywhere else in general, and so much of that is also Jewish that it can feel truly overwhelming. But mostly it's just fun, like a bar mitvzah buffet of excellent delicacies spread out before you to enjoy...

Now I'm not saying that New York is a purely Jewish city; of course, that's not true. The habits of this season of the year are certainly very much in evidence in New York, where everything is enshrouded in the same tinsel-and-carol overlay that envelopes the whole of America, only in New York, of course, it's bigger. But with all the craziness around Rockefeller Center and in the store windows of Bloomingdales and Macy's there are still lots of folks who clearly aren't focused on the Christian religious holiday season, since so many of them aren't celebrating Christmas.

Or at least not in the same way actual Christians do. Of course, there is the traditional Christmas Eve New York Jewish experience—go get great Chinese food and watch a movie, which we did, naturally—and on December 25th Jewish museums were open with special celebrations for kids and adults. It's also very easy to get a cab on December 24th and 25th since most of the cabbies seem to come from the Indian subcontinent these days, where Krishna and Allah are much more likely to be the subject of worship than the theoretical birthday of a Jewish boy from the Galilee...

While in New York we had the privilege of seeing a fabulous display at the Jewish Museum of manuscripts from Oxford University's famed Bodleian Library. These were mostly Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts from the Middle Ages up through the Renaissance, and they included a series of extraordinary treasures: not one but two manuscripts of Moses Maimonides' Mishnah Torah written in his own hand in the 12th century, with his own corrections; hand-written books by Ramban, Nachmanides, and by Rashi, two of the greatest Biblical commentators of all; gorgeous illuminated Hebrew Bibles, with fantastic illustrations in gold leaf and vermilion and purple; beautiful, miniature, microcalligraphy bibles and prayerbooks from the 13th century; the famed Kennicott illuminated Bible; and many other world textual treasures on display in a converted mansion of a museum on 5th Avenue. An incredible exhibit, and wonderful to see and experience.

And definitely proof that we were not in Kansas anymore...

There is also the permanent exhibit of the Jewish Museum, a smallish series of truly unique holdings that I believe may be unequalled anywhere, with the possible—possible—exception of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. I have been in many Jewish museums and collections all around the world, and somehow each section has at least one item or object that was special in a way that I had never seen before. A special Passover Seder marror holder, for example, in the shape of a wagon; a unique and intricate Omer calendar; the entire bimah, ark, ner Tamid, and wall from a famed modernist synagogue by Philip Johnson; a gorgeous and very unusual sanctuary from Italy; and Hanukkiot like I have never seen, this coming from a guy who owns something like 100 of them... Wonderful.

We also saw three of the most remarkable synagogue structures in the world, the restored 19th century Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side, and Temple Emanu-El and Central Synagogue, just a few blocks from each other on the East Side of Manhattan. Eldridge Street was built by new immigrants, some of whom had become rich quickly, in the Eastern European style. I had last seen it when there were still pigeons flying around inside of it, before the restoration. Originally built for $60,000, it recently completed a $28 million repair and renovation, and is now very lovely indeed, a reminder of a bygone era, in an area with few Jews today, although they still have services on Shabbat. By contrast, Temple Emanu-El is a cathedral-like building, seating a mere 4,500 people for services in a space very much reminiscent of Chartres or Notre Dame in France: huge, intimidating, beautiful, and austere. Central Synagogue is also huge, but in a much warmer, Moorish style, and it was restored and rebuilt not too long ago after a disastrous fire that actually catalyzed the whole congregation. Both have huge memberships—although few actual people were there to pray on a holiday season Saturday morning—and Central has capped its membership at 2500 families and now has a three-year waiting list to get in. Not the exact same problem that all temples in America are experiencing right now...

There are certain small aspects of Jewish New York that reveal other differences. For one thing, the average synagogue musician, whether at B'nai Jeshurun where we attended services Friday night, or at Central or Emanu-El, the "average" Jewish working musician in New York would be the best musician in just about any other synagogue in the world. We heard a great cellist, a magnificent cantor, several outstanding keyboard players, a wonderful clarinet player, excellent percussionists, fabulous guitarists, and so on—all in just three not especially large musical ensembles. If music moves you to prayer, you should pray better in New York, because the music is just flat-out better...

A more general note about being in New York this week. First, as we checked into our hotel we met a couple of employees of FEMA, the federal emergency management agency, who have living and working in New York ever since Hurricane Sandy struck. And there are many parts of the metropolitan area that are still very much in recovery mode, and many people who continue to suffer from the depradations of the storm and the tidal surge. A fair number of synagogues are unsure of whether they will be able to rebuild, and many families are still suffering the effects of the storm. And of course the horrible events of Newtown, Connecticut dominated the news coverage there, perhaps even more than here in Tucson. It seemed as though the year was ending on a very somber note indeed. And yet people were out shopping, eating, attending the opera and symphony and ballet and musicals and museums, joining the huge throngs of people inundating the city at this season of the year. Life, as always, goes on...

I will also tell you that while you can experience a very rich Jewish life in New York almost by osmosis, after a few days there I always feel a kind of yearning for open spaces—any open spaces. And while there is something extraordinary about being in such a deep Jewish culture, it is also rather a mechaieh to be home, and to celebrate this final Shabbat of the non-Jewish calendar year.

The end of the year is always a good excuse to up lists. After all, what's the point of marking a secular new year unless you look back and highlight what happened of importance in the past 12 months? And on this particular Shabbat we have the nice combination of the end of the year and the end of the Book of Genesis with the Torah portion of Vayechi coinciding, wrapping up both B'reisheet and 2012 on the same Sabbath.

The Torah portion of Vayechi is filled with lists, by the way: as Jacob approaches the end of his life he gives a kind of blessing to each of his many sons, really listing their futures based on their past talents and behaviors. It is a very appropriate parshah to read at the end of a secular year, and particular this year, which has been in its latter stages filled with weird and troubling events, rather like the weird and troubling events in the lives of our biblical ancestors.

The more things change, the more they stay the same...

I'm not going to indulge in a top ten list of stories from 2012. But I do think it's worthwhile highlighting four important items from the past 12 secular months.

First and foremost, it's worth noting that in spite of the putative predictions of the Mayan calendar the world did not actually end this month. I know that is a great relief to all of you out there who were deeply concerned about that. Somehow these apocalyptic predictions never quite come to pass. Perhaps the Mayans were simply predicting the upcoming fiscal cliff, and not the actual end of the world. As we say in Hebrew, gam zeh ya'avor, this too shall pass...

Second, the horrible attack in Newtown, Connecticut, which I emailed you about and blogged about and which Rabbi Holtz spoke about last Friday, has focused attention on the American predisposition to gun violence, and developed at least an initial consensus around developing some controls on both firearms and our ability to treat and manage mental illness in our society. We can only hope and pray that the revulsion that this horrific act provoked will lead to a new consensus on creating an America in which no one will have to be terrified to send his or her child to school, in which supermarkets and shopping malls and movie theaters will actually be safe public spaces, in which the possibility of being shot has become as remote in this land of the free as it is in every other civilized country on the planet. Our future is in the safety of our children, a concept our patriarch Jacob understood very well indeed. We need to know it, and act on it, as well.

Third, while not enough people are focusing on it, I believe that our foundational responsibility to fulfill our Genesis-given charge to be stewards and shepherd of the earth is rising in importance and relevance. Whether through our growing awareness of the dangers of environmental destruction and global warming or simply the consciousness that our resources must be used renewably for good, we have a Jewish mandate to care for the world that God has given us. As our own Temple Emanu-El works to achieve environmental initiatives of meaning and purpose, may we work to do even more in our community and society.

And fourth, and finally, we need to continue to renew and deepen our connection to Israel as Reform Jews who care about Jewish safety, but also about Jewish practice and life experience in the holiest place for Jews—even holier than Manhattan... That means continuing to work to assure that our sisters and brothers in Israel can pray and practice as liberal Jews in the Jewish state, including wearing tallises somewhere around the Kotel whether men or women, and to also work to assure that all Israelis have security from terror and from nuclear blackmail. As the Middle East struggles with new regimes in Egypt and elsewhere, and civil war rages in Syria, Israel will continue to flourish in a truly unfortunate neighborhood, another great lesson in how to survive, and thrive, in challenging times. Like our school kids, Israelis kids and adults need freedom from fear as a fundamental human right.

You know in Israel they call New Year's Eve "Sylvester" after the Roman winter pagan festival that was ironically renamed for the anti-Semitic pope at the time of Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. They don't care much about this holiday in Israel, and perhaps neither should we... and yet the opportunity to learn from our past is never a wasted chance.

May we take these four lessons to heart in this coming January, and may our new, secular year bring us less violence, more wisdom, a cleaner world, and meaningful opportunities to celebrate our own Judaism.

Ken Yehi Ratson ...

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