2017 Second Day of Rosh Hashanah
We have a tradition at Agudas Achim that congregants offer words of wisdom on the second day of Rosh Hashanah in place of a the rabbi's sermon. The theme for 2017 was "journeys." Here are teachings from three of our congregants.
In August, my husband Tristan, my fifteen year old son Eli, and I flew to Portland, Oregon for a road trip through the northwestern United States. Over the next two weeks we travelled more than two thousand miles. We started east slowly, spending a couple of days zigzagging between the Washington and Oregon sides of the Columbia River Gorge before cutting southeast across eastern Oregon and making a large “U” down across southern Idaho then up it’s eastern side, just into southern Montana, to the western entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
After a few days touring Yellowstone, which takes up an area in the northwestern corner of Wyoming larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, we exited its northeastern gate zigzagging this time over the mountains between Montana and Wyoming. We sliced down the middle of Wyoming then east to Casper where we met up with an astronomy tour group to see the Great American Solar Eclipse in totality. And finally, we drove south to Colorado to fly home from Denver.
I love road trips – seeing the landscape change as the miles pass, meeting people from a variety of places, seeing the different towns and cities, and learning about the local history and what makes each place special. We traveled through the temperate rain forest of the western Columbia River Gorge and the high dessert of eastern Oregon, over the Cascade and Rocky Mountains, and across the interior plains east of the Rockies. We saw waterfalls hundreds of feet tall, colorful hot springs, geysers that shot water up higher than the trees, elk, mule deer, moose and bison. We met fellow travelers from all over the world and were touched by their hospitality – the couple from Kansas who shared their picnic table in Yellowstone, the biker from Colorado who took our photo at the top of the mountain pass in Montana, the young man in the Cody, Wyoming laundromat who offered to share his Tide with me, and especially the 210 inhabitants of Glendo, WY who graciously hosted 130,000 visitors to their town for the solar eclipse. We spent the night in Portland, Oregon population 670,000, and Cooke City, Montana, population 150, and in cities of every size in between. We visited Fort Vancouver and Fort Casper where we learned about the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest and the Pony Express. We visited the dams and fisheries of the Columbia River Gorge and read about the travels of Lewis and Clark. And the place names on the highway signs we had blithely sped past came to have new meaning as the formidable and sometimes deadly obstacles faced by the western emigrants once we walked along some of the wagon wheel ruts of the Oregon Trail.
My son Eli is not so enthusiastic about road trips. At the age of five when we were discussing our impending move from Missouri to Massachusetts he informed us that he was a plane trip kind of guy, not a car trip kind of guy. And he was not above some groaning about the lack of privacy and the poor Internet access on this trip. But when I asked him whether there were things that were special about our vacation for him, even he expressed appreciation for the new perspective he had on the United States and on his life. He reflected on how he could understand better why there might be a divide between urban and rural opinion as well as between interior and coastal states. He had more gratitude for the resources that he has in our large metropolitan area, especially ready access to the Internet and Wi-Fi. And he was more amazed than he expected to be by the natural beauty of our country and of the world - that eclipse, he said, was amazing! Dawn Dupriest, a middle school math teacher who also saw the eclipse in Glendo, WY wrote, “It was the most incredible event I’ve ever been a part of. I thought I knew what awe was…some people feel small when they look up at a night sky, but I feel big. I look out and notice all of that matter, the random atoms that are spewed out by stars and make up everything we can see. And I think about how I’m made of a lot of those random atoms, and yet I’m here and conscious and looking out at all of it and taking it all in. What a privilege to be alive here, on this planet, and looking out at all of the other stuff in the galaxy and beyond, being part of this living, breathing universe and wondering what else might be out there.” We too felt this connection, not just to the natural world, but to the large group of humanity throughout the country looking up and witnessing this same awesome, natural event at the same time we were.
The America we encountered was not all beautiful. I was surprised by the number of homeless people in Portland. We studied the devastating impact of western expansion on Native Americans. We visited exhibits about the prejudice faced by Asian immigrants to the west, including visiting Heart Mountain, a Japanese-American World War II internment camp in Wyoming. And as our travels coincided with the racial violence in Charlottesville, we reflected on how to honestly and appreciatively balance all aspects of this country and its people that we love – the prejudice with the graciousness, the cruelty with the ingenuity and courage. But we were also left with hope meeting people from different parts of the country over shared experiences rather than politics. And we were restored by the reminders of our country’s beauty, strength, and perseverance. We also found inspiration in the stories of individuals who courageously followed their hearts to travel to new lands or to do what they felt was right when most others believed something different.
Judith Fein, a travel journalist, wrote “And what is a trip that is good for your soul? A trip where you meet people, learn about other cultures and about yourself, expand, let go of your inhibitions…sleep in new beds, try new foods and bring to life the crystallized parts of yourself that have gone dead from routine, fear, stress and worry. It can be near, it can be far, but it must be a change from your daily routine and it must be something that whispers, calls or shouts to you. You must follow your heart and go where it pulls you. You are in the now - reacting to new stimuli - and not anchored in the past or future. You meet people who don't know you. You can be yourself. You can breathe in and out in a free way, unconstricted and restricted by habit.” And this trip in particular, came at a meaningful time and did all this for me. At the end of June I left my steady job of ten years taking a leap of faith that I could find per diem contract work. I wanted to have more time with family before Eli left for college in a few years and I wanted to continue to be able to do the activities that sustained my soul, rather than the work that I was increasingly bringing home from the office. Although that sounds easy to say on paper, I struggled with the decision for a couple of years; if only I tried harder, I should be able to make the juggling work. The trip allowed me to immerse myself in family, to enjoy the beautiful places I was visiting at the moment, and to let go of my previous job. Encompassing my birthday and the start of Elul, our vacation was a gateway between the past and the future, providing comfort, inspiration, and fortification for setting out on my own new path.
I have always felt a compelling need to stand on the ground where my grandparents had grown up: my mother’s parents in Galicia (now part of Poland) and my father’s parents in eastern Romania. I set out with my sister and my daughter, Rosanna, in July this year to visit each of my grandparents’ hometowns. Three vignettes will give you a sense of our experiences: chicken soup in Romania, a cemetery in Poland, and the renewal of Jewish life in Budapest.
The Jewish Community Center includes an office with old hand-written records, a museum, a synagogue in use, and one used as a social hall and a kosher restaurant. We learn that from a peak of 44,000 in 1900 only about 300 Jews remain, but they are determined to revive their community. We are the only patrons at the kosher restaurant and are served chicken soup. After one taste my sister exclaims, “This is Nana Rose’s soup!” We are both brought to tears.
We get lost looking for the cemetery and end up on a hilltop outside town. It’s just a hilltop, with fields rolling on all sides and the Carpathian Mountains, forested, about 10 miles to the south. Some of the fields are sunflowers in bloom, bright yellow and dazzling. The town is nestled to one side and seems small in proportion to the miles and miles of fields. The air is sweet; it is quintessential summer: green everywhere, crops reaching their peak, ripening under the warm sun. There is stillness, a gentle breeze, obvious growth, fertility, blue sky, wispy clouds. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I wonder what a shock Chicago must have been for my grandfather after living here.
Eventually, we find the cemetery. At last we are among the Jewish headstones, with a mystical light in a clearing. I focus on how lovingly the cemetery has been restored, but I can also feel the echoes of trauma from desecration and murders that occurred here. I hold these opposites as we create an improvised service and recite the Kaddish. I think of my grandfather’s mother, Zlota, who died in childbirth, her dead baby, and my grandfather’s two brothers who died young. I am grateful to stand on this ground.
Arriving from the US on a Friday, we hurry to the Aurora Community Center to attend a kabbalat shabbat service. We know from Rabbi Leora’s visit a year ago that this is a progressive community of young people. They own some property and have set up a beer garden and charitable offices in the building. Profits from the beer garden make it possible to give free rent to the groups helping refuges and working on gay rights issues. Just two days before our arrival, the Hungarian government has closed down the beer garden.
Two musicians, who are always late, finally arrive and the service begins. It is basically a long sequence of prayer-songs, all printed out in a loose-leaf binder in Hebrew and Hungarian transliteration. We, like the others present, know almost all the prayers and tunes. Singing is with gusto and ruach!
We go around the circle, saying our names and where we are from. More than half the people are Hungarian, but there are some from many countries in Europe, Israel, and the US. I sit next to a young woman from Budapest who speaks English and tells me that the young people are finding a renewed interest in the Jewish traditions. Their grandparents either perished or barely survived the Holocaust; their parents didn’t want to have anything to do with being Jewish. But now this new generation is curious, and when they ask questions and explore the Jewish heritage, they are drawn to take part. In this particular community, they want to continue the traditions, but to make them more egalitarian.
How has this journey changed me?
I know now in my bones that anti-Semitism and Nazis could not wipe out the Jews or their culture. No matter how cruel, and how many millions they killed, just enough people survived and carried the seeds for the future. Those seeds are sprouting.
I know also that our improvised ceremonies at the cemeteries have at least the possibility to heal backward and forward in time, to heal ourselves, our honored ancestors and our descendents, too.
Tamara spoke from her heart. The following piece about the journey is taken from her travel blog.
Stepping away from the lunch counter, my heads were shaking and tears were welling up in my eyes. I glanced over at Hannah, who at thirteen was just old enough to participate in this interactive exhibit at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. As our eyes met I knew that the experience was just as powerful for her as it was for me.
You would think that after ten days of learning about the Civil Rights Movement, we would have become desensitized. But as you sit down, clamp the headphones over your ears, put your palms flat on the countertop, close your eyes and listen to the voices shouting in your ears you can almost feel the angry mob breathing down your back. As the countertop shakes, you flinch, waiting for the blow to come for you. It only takes a minute and a half of stepping into the shoes of a lunch counter sit-in protester to check your privilege and get a glimmer of understanding for the bravery it took to stand your ground in the face of violence and the threat of death.
It isn’t easy. It may not be what you think of as a “fun” family vacation. But I can’t think of a better time to teach our kids about bigotry, discrimination, the legacy of slavery and the struggle for civil rights. As we left for our trip, the NAACP had issued a travel warning to advise people of color that their civil rights may be violated if they visit Missouri. We flew home to the appalling news of white supremacists taking to the streets of Charlottesville, a town we loved visiting, spreading their vile disease of hate. We were heartbroken by the tragic loss of life and violence at the hands of a homegrown racist terrorist.
You can’t ignore the fact that the struggle for the words of the Constitution to really apply to everyone equally is ongoing. Next April it will be 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on that sad day in Memphis. Over 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and we are still dealing with gerrymandering, profiling, and those whose hatred stems from a deep-rooted belief that one race is superior to another.
This is a topic that touches my heart, but it was actually Hannah who picked to do a Civil Rights trip for our annual mother-daughter trip. After studying Civil Rights in school, reading books like The Watsons go to Birmingham, and watching movies like Selma, she wanted to understand more. And as a side benefit, we were able to check off a few more states on my quest to get to all 50 by 50.
I believe strongly that it is incumbent on us as parents to make sure our kids understand where racism comes from, why it is rooted so deeply into our society, the struggle and bravery it took to secure equal civil rights, and the ongoing fight for civil and human rights in the United States and around the globe. You can get a sense for this by reading books, watching movies, and studying it in school. But it doesn’t sink all the way in until you walk in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Diane Nash, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, and other leaders of the U.S. Civil Rights movement.