Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Rabbi's Notebook

A midrash tells a story of a rabbi who carried a small book with him every day. If he went to the market, the rabbi carried his book. If he went to another village, his notebook went with him.  If he took a walk in the country… where ever he went, the rabbi carried his book. 

Some people in the rabbi’s village believed that the rabbi was carrying a Siddur, a book of prayers.  Others said, “No, it is book with verses of Torah.” 

But other people disagreed.  “The rabbi is carrying a part of the Talmud with him.”

The rabbi’s book was none of those things. The rabbi was carrying a notebook that had only blank pages, but every day he filled it with his writing.

“Ah, now we understand,” said the people of the village.  “The rabbi is writing notes for his sermons or important ideas to share with his students!” 

But again they were wrong.  Yes, the rabbi wrote in his notebook but not for students or sermons. 

Instead inside the rabbi’s notebook were long lists of names and beside the names were directions or drawings. For example, the rabbi wrote: “Shlomo -  big blue door…”  or “Miriam -  behind the marketplace near the banyan tree.”

For years the rabbi wrote in his notebook and carried it with him wherever he went. And for years the people of the village speculated about the great wisdom or wonderful teachings that surely filled the little book.

One day, near the town square, shortly after the rabbi had passed by, several people began to whisper. As usual, they were talking about the rabbi’s notebook.  It was always the same discussion. What does he write? What are the drawings? Why all the names? Why?

“I know why!”  The voice was an old woman selling vegetables from a small cart. “I know what the rabbi writes and I know why he writes it.”

One man from the synagogue looked up. “You? How could you know? Your family is not religious and your husband never comes to shul.”

“He’s right,” another man chimed in. “And your farm is far away. It is not possible that you know our rabbi. You are lying!”

The old woman smiled at the angry men. “I know your rabbi and I know what he writes,” she said. And then she told this story.

“One day, many years ago, I had an accident.  My vegetable cart was stuck in the mud.
 I tried to push it, then I tried to pull it.  But it would not move.

Finally I pushed with all my strength.  And the cart moved all right. It fell right on top of me, breaking both of my legs.”

“For days I lay in bed, in terrible pain.  Then one day there was a knock at my door.  It was your rabbi.  He had come to visit me.  He stayed with me for hours, talking, singing and praying.

“Finally I asked him, “Rabbi, you have spent so much time with me. I do not remember meeting you or talking to you. How do you know me?”

“Your rabbi smiled and took my hand. He said, “I know you well. We once stood side by side.”

“Where?  Now I am so embarrassed because I can’t remember ever meeting the rabbi. Oy vey, I must be losing my memory!”

The rabbi said, “My dear friend, we stood together, side by side at Mount Sinai.”

“Then your rabbi told me about his notebook. He said that when he learns about a person who is sick, he writes down the name. Beside the name he writes directions to the house.

And he visits everyone, even if the person is like me and does not come to the synagogue. The rabbi told me that it makes no difference because we were together one time long ago when we stood with Moses to receive the Ten Commandments.”

This midrash is important because our traditions tell us that the experience at Mount Sinai is common to every Jew. Our sages tell us that every Jew, those that were living at that moment, those who had died, and those, like us, who were yet to be born—every Jewish soul was present at Sinai for the giving of the Ten Commandments. 

This means that every Jew is connected to every other Jew. It does not matter how we look, or where we were born or what our names are. It does not matter if we are traditional or modern, or if we are religious or secular. Every Jew is connected to every other Jew.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to participate in memorial services to remember the Shoah and the liberation of the Concentration Camp at Auschwitz. In Italy, in Milan in 2005 my congregants and I stood in front of the prison where Jews from Milan waited to be taken to the train station for deportation to Auschwitz. With snow falling all around us we lit candles in their honor and memory.

Also in Italy, in Bergamo we remembered the courage of those who helped Jewish families. We placed a wreath against a monument and we cried for those who were lost. 

And again this year, on January 26, I have the honor to bring nine  Holocaust survivors to Tampa to participate in a beautiful memorial service hosted by the Italian consulate. Our survivors, all of them elderly, and all of the survivors of Nazi persecution, will light candles in memory of the six million who were murdered.

Why? Because January 27 is a day of Holocaust remembrance that is observed throughout Europe. January 27 marks the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by the Russian Army in 1945. When I think of that day, I am reminded that during the Holocaust, all throughout Europe all Jews stood together.

The Nazis did not ask which Jews were religious and which were secular or which were Orthodox and which were Progressive.  In that horrible moment in history, we were united. To our persecutors we were all Jews.

The lesson of the Shoah and the lesson of Mount Sinai should never be lost. The old rabbi with the notebook understood this. He realized that all Jews are connected to one another.

This year during this day of remembrance we will stand together once again. We will stand in solidarity with those who were lost, those who suffered and those who were saved. We will not ask which Jew was religious, which one was cultural or which one was secular. We honor the memory of every Jew who died.

And then we do one thing more. We remember that Mt. Sinai connects us one to another and like the old rabbi in our midrash, we continue to learn from Sinai. Regardless of persuasion or background, it is our duty to honor and respect every Jew who lives.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Christmastime in Italy – a Jewish Perspective

Here in Italy, from late December through early January, it’s been headline news that public Christmas celebrations in the US have been under siege. But the cream in the cannoli (Italy’s version of “the icing on the cake”), was the report that a US military base has been forced to dismantle the entire nativity scene and unceremoniously boot it off government property.

“Che fa?” “What’s up with that?” ask my Italian friends who want to know how I, as an American Jew, and a rabbi no less, feel about a Christmas tradition that is ubiquitous in Italy but almost banned completely from the public square at home.   

I have been living and working in Italy for ten years, mostly in Serrastretta, a tiny village in Calabria near the “toe” of the Italian “boot.”  As the rabbi of a small liberal synagogue and the first and only woman rabbi in Italy, I’m a double whammy minority in a country where Christian traditions abound.

The main event in our village and in hundreds of others throughout Italy is the nativity scene. These dioramas are called “presepe” (pronounced “pray-seh-pay”) and during the month of December through January 6 they proliferate from north to south. There are competitions to see who can make the most creative manger scene. In fact, a first place contender stands in front of a local public high school where art students have created life-size mannequins of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the three kings and dressed them in historically accurate costumes.

Beginning Christmas week these scenes become even more elaborate when the “presepe vivente” are all the rage. They are nativity scenes with live actors and real animals and, if there’s been a birth in town, there’s a real “baby Jesus” in the manger.

As one of the few Jews in the area, I am often asked (mostly by American ex-pats) how I feel about this Christmas practice that has caused such a stir at home. “Does the Nativity offend you?” they ask. I respond, “No, not at all.” 

As a Jew I hold Jesus in esteem and I am grateful to him for sharing and living the Torah principles that he learned as child.

Most Jews I know do like Christmas. Even though Jews don’t observe the holiday, we are glad that Christians do. Throughout my growing up years in the US, and now as a Jew in Italy, I can say to my Christian friends that I truly enjoy being a guest at your party.

It’s a lesson I learned as a child when my parents taught me the difference between my own birthday party and someone else’s. It’s a simple lesson that I apply today to the deluge of Italian Christmas celebrations all around me. It’s someone else’s party, not mine.

The lights, the carols, the tree and the nativities indicate that I am a guest who is included in the celebration. I am a polite guest who does not whine, complain or demand that the celebrants take down the decorations, stop the singing and curtail the festivities because it’s not my day. Instead, like most children have learned to do, I share in the joy of someone else’s special celebration.

Here in southern Italy, “Christ” is still the Christmas headline and that’s fine with me. In fact, for many of my Calabrian neighbors, the baby Jesus’ message of peace, love and harmony is the focus of December 25. Not the presents.

Gifts arrive on January 6, brought by “The Befana,” a dear old lady who flies through the air on a broomstick and leaves surprises in the shoes that the children have placed outside the door the night before. Interestingly, “The Befana” represents an important physical separation between the spiritual message of Christmas and the material aspects of the season – a concept that, as a rabbi, I fully support.   

So each Christmas season I can wish all of my Christian friends the joys of their holiday, especially since Jesus’ message was one of peace, understanding and love – the very same things we Jews pray for in our synagogues and work toward in our communities. The songs, decorations, and especially the Italian nativity scenes emphasize this to a troubled world. As a Jew, I applaud the Christmas celebration and appreciate having had the opportunity to be a guest at the party.