Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Becca's Wooden Box

A Story of Sicily’s Lost Jews

She arrived on Sunday morning, having received an announcement of our meeting several days before. At first she was not certain that the gathering would be appropriate for her, but curiosity overcame her fear and she found herself at the door of an apartment in Palermo, Sicily ready to begin what she hoped would be a positive Jewish journey.

Becca (not her real name) brought her enthusiasm and questions to Chavurah Ner Tamid Palermo. “Chavurah” is a Hebrew word that means “group of friends,” and Ner Tamid is the Hebrew phrase for “eternal light.”  Founded in 2005, this group of friends comprises a small but strong liberal Jewish congregation, dedicated to helping people like Becca establish and embrace their Jewish heritage. Ner Tamid Palermo represents a tiny but strong Jewish flame, that, although the persecutions of the Inquisiton tried to extinguish it, the light of Judaism never died. Dedicated to the “B’nai Anousim” of Sicily – those who were forced into Christian conversion nearly 500 years ago, Ner Tamid Palermo offers a unique opportunity for men and women like Becca to share their stories and make a personal Jewish connection.

We gathered around the table and began our meeting with a discussion of liberal Jewish traditions and concluded with Havdalah, the Saturday evening service that marks the end of the Jewish Sabbath, called Shabbat. But it was on Sunday morning, at our Torah study when Becca arrived with a remarkable story to tell.

“I always knew we were Jewish,” she began, but then added, “I should say I always knew we were different. Later I came to believe that our difference was that we were not Christian but Jewish.”  Becca’s expression, animated now, told the story of First Communion.  “My father, who has since passed away, would not permit me to make the First Communion. I was a little girl and I was very confused. And then there was the wooden box.”

As Becca’s story unfolded, our little group fell silent. Some of us were on the edge of our chairs as we listened to Becca describe the locked wooden box that her father said held their family’s treasures.  Over the years Becca asked her father to open the box and share these wonderful items that she was certain were locked inside. But father never would.  After he died, Becca found the box and assumed that the treasures were personal mementos. Love letters, perhaps and nothing more.

The day came, however when Becca’s sadness subsided and her curiosity about the box returned.  With screwdriver in hand, she broke the lock on the wooden box. Slowly she opened it to find “This!” she exclaimed, extending her hand for us to see. It was a bracelet and etched on it in silver was a delicate “Magen David,” Star of David. 

Becca went on to explain that the box also contained a silver pointer that she later leaned was calld by the Hebrew word, “yad.” A yad is used by the Torah reader to touch each word of the scroll as it is read.. Finally a Hebrew book, an ancient text, also came to light in Becca’s hands.

While we sat in silence, absorbed in Becca’s family story, Vincenzo, our “colla,” the “glue” of our Chavurah noted, “This is the reason we are here today. We are here to give voice to our hidden Jewish experiences, to unlock them as Becca has unlocked her father’s box.”

The pluralistic Jewish movement, of which Ner Tamid Palermo is a part, is a modern, liberal approach to Judaism, that observes “halakah” (Jewish law) as it was intended by our rabbinic sages. Because the word “halakah” derives from the Hebrew word, “holech” which means “to walk,” pluralistic Judaism moves forward, advances and adapts, just as the ancient concept implies.

Ner Tamid Palermo, along with its parent congregation in Calabria, Ner Tamid del Sud, extends the hand of Jewish welcome to Jews of all backgrounds, most especially to the “b’nai anousim” of southern Italy who so desperately want to claim their Jewish traditions that were stolen from them centuries ago. ‘

“Who knows,” said Vincenzo. “All throughout Sicily there may be hundreds of stories locked in wooden boxes.”  Ner Tamid Palermo continues its commitment to symbolically find those boxes unlock the family stories,  and extend the hand of friendship and love to our anousim brothers and sisters as we say to them, “Welcome Home.”

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Kipah Minded

It is springtime now and summer is coming. Vacations are on our minds and these are the days for dreaming big and making plans. Where to go? What to take? That’s what I was thinking about when a congregant asked, “But rabbi, when you are on your vacation will you wear your kipah?”

This question made me think,  “Hmmmm, does a *kipah need a vacation?  Does a rabbi need a vacation from her kipah?” Is there ever a time when I should put my kipah in my purse and just be a “regular” person?

In Parasha Shelach Lekha we find a passage that refers to Jewish clothing.  In Numbers, Chapter 15 verses 37-40 we read:

“The Lord said to Moses:  Instruct the people Israel that in every generation they shall put fringes on the corners of their garments and bind a thread of blue to the fringe of each corner.  Looking up it you will be reminded of all the mitzvot of the Lord and fulfill them and not be seduced by your heart or led astray by your eyes.  Then you will remember and observe all my mitzvot and be holy before your G-d…”

Apparently God is telling us that we can choose items of clothing that will help us to remember who we are as Jews and how we should to behave.

In ancient times the “tzitzit” or the fringes were worn at the hem of a long gown.  Later on they appeared on a undershirt that many traditional Jews continue to wear today.  In the Middle Ages, it was a custom for Sephardic Jewish men to give beautiful fringed jewelry to their wives so that they could also wear fringes.  But the tzitzit are most often associated with the tallit, the prayer shawl worn by many Jewish men and women when they come to the synagogue for Shabbat and festivals. 

For each garment, whether it is gown, shirt or shawl, wearing it is a way to remind ourselves that as Jews we live by the commandments. Like the fringes, the commandments are as close to us as our own skin. Although the kipah is not mentioned in the Torah, wearing one offers the same reminder.  Let me give you an example:

Several years ago I made a visit to Sicily.  I wanted to see the island where my some of my family settled after being expelled from Toledo, Spain five hundred years before. 

When I finally arrived, after about 20 hours of traveling I waited patiently for my luggage to appear at “Baggage Claim.” I waited and waited and waited.  “No problema,” said the woman at the “Lost Luggage” desk.  She said my suitcase would no doubt arrive on the next flight.

Three hours later, after two more flights from Milan had arrived, there was still no luggage.  But there were documents to complete and long lines of passengers who were waiting for their luggage, too.  I felt myself becoming angry and agitated. I wanted to give these clerks a piece of my mind. It was at that moment that I remembered that on my head was my kipah. I was wearing a sign of my Jewishness. I remembered that my kipah is a symbol that serves to remind me of who I am and how I should behave.

My kipah gave me the opportunity to remember that I must treat everyone with dignity and respect. The words I choose and the tone of voice that I use are very important. I know myself.  I can be sarcastic and critical in three different languages or I can say something pleasant. I can choose to speak words that help rather than words that hurt. 

I must be honest. I did not want to speak kindly. I was angry and I wanted to let the Yetzer Hara (bad side of myself)  have dominion over the Yetzer Tov (good side). When I wear my kipah or my Magen David, or any other Jewish symbol, I identify myself to the world as a person of God's covenant.

In the airport at Catania, my hand moved to my head and I touched my kipah. I asked myself, “When annoyances come, how would a good Jew behave?” Yes, I had a good reason to be upset, but my kipah helped to stay calm. My kipah reminded to speak to everyone, including the baggage staff of Al Italia, with kindness and respect.

This is the month when many of us anticipate our vacations. We are making our plans and packing our suitcases.  It is not necessary to pack a kipah or a tallit or for that matter, any pieces of our Jewish jewelry, but it is necessary for us to remember our Jewish heritage, our traditions and our mitzvot and pack them in our hearts.

The answer is, “Yes.” I will wear my kipah on vacation, to mountains, to the sea and to the United States. Wearing it is my way of remembering that no matter how complicated or difficult life can become, my Jewish traditions will help me show dignity and respect to all people. My kipah will remind me of the words of Torah and give me the opportunity to be a “Light unto the nations.” My kipah will help me to behave as a Jew. 

*For more on the history of the kipah, visit an earlier blog post here.