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Modern Antisemitism – What would Max Jacob say – Kol Nidrei

For the past seven years, every Kol Nidrei night, I would stand up on the bima with Max Jacob. Dressed in his white kittel, truly looking like an angel, Max would open the Aron, the Ark, and then do what he did best; he would manage and direct. “This person should take this Torah, this person should take that Torah.” And if there were ever too many people and not enough Torahs, he would find the perfect comment to whisper to the individual who was Torah-less, making sure they did not feel bad.

We would stand together, and I would hear him hum along as the Chazzan sang the ancient melody. The haunting, stilted tune of Kol Nidrei, going back at least a thousand years is evocative for all of us, it arouses some of our deepest memories.

Standing with Max, I would wonder what memories would be going through his head. Was it memories of his father? Of his mother? Of his sister who were murdered by the Nazis? Was it memories of a Yom Kippur spent in the ghetto? In a concentration camp? Or would it be the more positive memories of life after death, of when he somehow managed to rebuild out of those ashes?

After Kol Nidrei, Max would ensure that each Torah was placed in its rightful spot. He would then pull the chord, the curtain would close, and then, as everyone made their way back to their seats, Max would turn to me with a big smile and say, “Rabbi, let’s do this again next year.” And he would walk off the bima.

Each year, though I hoped and prayed that we would indeed ‘do it again next year,’ but as I watched him slowly make his way down the stairs, I couldn’t help but wonder, would we really? Can this frail man who went through so much, who was still battling so much more, would he really be back again for Kol Nidrei the following year?

But of course, each year he would surprise me. Each year, he would stand here, sing along with the Chazzan, say the blessing of Shehechiyanu, close the Ark, turn to me and say, “Rabbi, let’s do this again next year.”

 

One of the last conversations I had with Max Jacob was at the Good Samaritan hospital in late October of 2018. It was days after the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. I asked Max what his thoughts were; did he think this was the beginning of a new era of antisemitism in America? Did he think what happened in Europe in the 30’s and 40’s could possibly happen here?

Now you have to understand – though Max and I spoke openly about everything, we both avoided talking about antisemitism with one another. I think we both realized early on that we had very different viewpoints on the matter. Max would want to commemorate the Holocaust at every opportunity, and I would try to avoid talking about the Holocaust as much as I could. Max’s attention would be drawn to an antisemitic incident anywhere in the world, and he would sound the alarm bells, and I would try to minimize these events as best as possible, reminding everyone that we are living in a very different world.

My ideology about anti-Semitism doesn’t come from optimism per se. It actually comes from a fear; a fear that for too many years, Jews have been bombarded with messages of the Holocaust, of martyrdom, and of being victims to antisemitism. For too many Jews, they’re identification with Judaism revolves around the Holocaust alone. According to a recent Pew report, 73% of American Jews consider the Holocaust to be essential to their Jewish identity – a higher percentage than anything else, higher than Israel, than G-d, than morality. Judaism to so many Jews is all about people trying to kill us and about suffering. And I find that to be a real shame and a threat to our self-identity. To define ourselves by our victimhood is a recipe for attrition. Who wants to be a victim? Who will be inspired by being the hated people? And aside from the negative impact on Jewish continuity, it’s just not true. This negative self-view eclipses so much of the beauty, the meaning, and the optimism that Judaism has to offer.

Max, a Holocaust survivor, having been born into a different world, with a different set of experiences, with gaping losses and nightmarish memories, obviously saw things a little differently. And so, we generally avoided the conversation.

Amazingly, in response to my question about Pittsburgh, Max said he was not worried about a new wave of antisemitism. He told me that things are different in America. That we were safe here.

Now, maybe he said it to make me feel good – I will never know. I will never know because that was the last real conversation I had with him. No more quick coffees with him in the morning where I could grill him on pre-Holocaust life in Romania, no more planning sessions in the shul office, where we would prepare for a Shabbos or Yom Tov at Ner Tamid where I would marvel at his quick wit and political astuteness. And no more Yom Kippur’s. With Max standing near me. Shaking my hand.

 

I have wondered since then, if Max would have changed his optimistic view that Pittsburgh was an exception. I have wondered if he would have changed his mind when just a few months later, on April 27th yet another shul in America was attacked by a gunman, this time in Poway, California. I have wondered if he would have changed his mind when politicians in Ocean County started encouraging their constituents to “rise up” against the Jews moving in. I have wondered if he would have changed his mind after an Orthodox Jew was beaten with a brick on the streets of Crown Heights, one of many such violent antisemitic incidents on the streets of New York these past few months. I have wondered if he would have been perturbed knowing that Jeremy Corbyn, an unabashed anti-Semite, is one seat way from ruling England’s parliament.

I don’t know if his opinion would have changed, but I know that mine has. For the first time I find myself worrying. For the first time I find myself uncertain about the future. And for the first time I find myself not being able to ignore antisemitism.

For the first time in my life, I found myself researching anti-Semitism. Not the history of anti-Semitism, we are all too familiar with that. But a theology of anti-Semitism. What does Judaism have to say about this eternal hatred, dating back to even before we were a nation?

Of course, there is a well-known Medrash, a Sifrei, that “Eisav soneh et Yaakov” – that Eisav, who in this passage represents the nations of the world, hates Jacob, hates the Jewish People. To me, a statement like this one, understood superficially, as it usually is, only exasperates the issue. Aside from ignoring the vast majority of righteous gentiles, it does not explain why.

Another oft-quoted passage is found in the writing of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, otherwise known as the Ohr Samayach, one of the most respected rabbis of the early 20th century. He describes how every few hundred years, after Jews have settled into a new land, they start to assimilate with their host nation. And to prevent further assimilation, to prevent the Jews from completely losing their identity, G-d sends a terrible storm, in the form of pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions, and crusades to disrupt their lives. In an almost prophetic paragraph, he describes the state of Judaism in his time – he is writing in the 1920’s – he describes Jews who are so assimilated to their host country that they describe Berlin as the New Jerusalem. And he concludes with a warning of a new storm, a new disruption, even fiercer than any that came before. To Rabbi Meir Simcha, ironically, antisemitism is the great buffer against assimilation.

Diving deeper, into the esoteric sources of our tradition, Rav Tzadok HaKohen, a great mystic suggests that all of anti-Semitism comes from a Messianic impulse. In a future world which we pray for, the world will be unified and together, all as one. But today, now, in this pre-Messianic world, when we the Jewish People stand out more so than any other nation or faith, when we have different customs and different laws, when we have a nation state and not a full-fledged democracy, this is something that cannot be tolerated by the nations of the world. And so, in a premature and perverse way, they act on this Messianic impulse by forcing us to not be so different by fighting against our unique practices, and when that does not work, they go even further, eliminating us from this world. To Rav Tzadok, antisemitism is a premature impulse from a utopian world.

Fascinating ideas, but no direction. No action items. What do we do with these ideas? How are they to impact us? None of them provide a coherent and practical response to the hatred that we are experiencing.

I wish I would have asked Max Jacob what he could have done differently in Europe in the 40’s to prevent the onslaught. I wish I had that conversation with him, but I never did.

And so, I turned to my colleagues. I posted this question on a list-serve with hundreds of rabbis, hoping someone would enlighten me. But I was dismayed. Some suggested political action, which goes without saying. Of course, we must use every tool at our disposal to fight anti-Semitism on the local and national level. Others suggested that we must all move to Israel – as if there’s no anti-Semitism there. I am the biggest proponent of making Aliyah, but we have been around too long to naively think that Israel is immune to destruction. Heaven forbid that such a thing should ever happen. Others just threw their hands up and said, kach hi darko shel olam, this is the way of the world.

And I refuse to accept that. The only thing more supernatural than the survival of the Jewish People after all these years, is the incessant, undying, ever-morphing hatred of the Jewish People. How could we just ignore such an exceptional phenomenon? To be aware of such a logic-defying reality and not be moved by it any way is unacceptable.

But I missed my chance to ask Max, and my colleagues, though I love them and respect them, fell short. So to whom do we turn for direction when there is no one to turn to?

 

The Talmud in Pesachim, daf samekh-vav, describes the famous sage, Hillel, being questioned by the rabbis on a number of intricacies of Jewish law. For each question he has an answer. They ask him things that they had been grappling with for years and Hillel coolly quotes verse after verse, logical inference after logical inference and tradition after tradition, and leaves them all amazed.

But then they ask him a question which he has no answer for; he does not know. This was a question though, that needed to be answered. It was a question about Erev Pesach and it was just a few days before Pesach. The rabbis were worried, what will we do? What will we tell our congregants? Our followers? But Hillel was calm as can be.

He told them, and I quote, hanach lahem l’Yisrael, don’t worry about the Jewish People. Im ein nevi’im heim, even if they are not prophets, b’nei neviim heim, they are the children of prophets. G-d will somehow make sure they know what to do. He will drop the right idea in their collective minds. And sure enough, on Erev Pesach, the Jewish population on their own, without any direction from their elders or leaders, as if driven by some mystical intuition, knew exactly what they were supposed to be.

Our elders are no longer – we do not have a Max Jacob and those of his generation. We do not have clear guidance from our leading rabbis. We no longer have prophecy. But we do have a Jewish People. And even if they are not prophets, b’nei neviim heim, they are the children of prophets, and they will tell us what to do. So let me share with you what the Jewish People are doing in response to the most modern threat of anti-Semitism:

Listen to the words of Miranda Levy, a young non-observant, freelance journalist who normally writes about entertainment and family life, who now lives in the UK:

“Two weeks ago,” she writes, “I went to my local synagogue for the first time in 33 years. This was surprising because I haven’t set foot in a shul in all this time apart from a couple of weddings and the odd bar mitzvah. This is because over the past few months, both my political sensibilities and my sense of cultural identity have radically changed.

You may have heard that the UK has a problem with anti-Semitism … This moved sharply into the mainstream when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015. Now there is a realistic chance that Jeremy Corbyn could become prime minister.

Now, in response, me and so many others are reconnecting to our Judaism. I have a friend who said: “Jeremy Corbyn has made a lot of people who didn’t feel very Jewish, Jewish again.” MP Margaret Hodge agrees. “I remember my dad tried to make me Jewish and failed,” “The local rabbi tried to make me Jewish and failed. It took the leader of the Labour Party to do that.” On Twitter @Gilana25 wrote that “I had always felt Jewish, but British first,” “Now it’s Jewish first.” And for me, newly single, I am enjoying an online flirtation with a Jewish novelist from Chicago I met on Twitter. I am proud of my Jewish surname (which) I haven’t always been. As I am writing this, a message from a Jewish friend pops up on Twitter. “Will I see you in shul on Friday?” The answer, most emphatically, is yes.”

 

Like so many others, Miranda took part in the post-Pittsburgh campaign of solidarity to show up for Shabbos, to attend a synagogue even for those who normally do not. But for so many, it wasn’t just that weekend that they showed up, they keep on showing up for Shabbos.

 

And it’s not just in the UK. Listen to the words of Bari Weiss, a young, non-observant editor for the New York Times, and I quote: “The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us.

In these trying times, our best strategy is to build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming. A Judaism capable of lighting a fire in every Jewish soul — and in the souls of everyone who throws in his or her lot with ours.”

These are not the words of rabbis, of survivors, or of famous Jewish thinkers. There are just regular Jews, b’nei nevi’im, the children of prophets. These are Jews who otherwise wouldn’t always have been so proud of their Judaism but are now embracing it. And you know what they’re saying?

They’re saying, Show up for Shabbos. Come to shul! They’re saying, don’t be embarrassed to defend our historic connection to our homeland. They’re saying be proud of your heritage! They’re saying defy the anti-Semites not with less Jewish life, but with more of it.

And I realized as I read these messages, as I saw the pictures of thousands of otherwise disconnected Jews attend services after these terrible incidents, that this was Max Jacob’s message after all. I reaized I made a mistake. Max did not define himself by anti-Semitism. He was not one of those people who felt their entire Jewish identity was wrapped up with the Holocaust. It was the opposite! His entire identity was a rebellion against the Holocaust. His Jewish life was a protest against the anti-Semites of the world, telling them with his life, with his joy, with his Jewish pride, that they make have taken so much away, but they cannot rob him of his connection to his G-d and to His people.

And in retrospect, I realized that the most powerful memory I have of Max is not from Tisha B’av, or Yom Hashoah. The most powerful memory I have is at my dining room table on Purim. Max was smiling with his beautiful smile that lit up the room. He was smiling because we were sitting together, with maybe 30 or 40 of us, singing songs of joy, celebrating our Judaism with pride and with passion. He took in the scene and he asked if everyone could be silent for a moment and he stood up and said, “Hitler! Where are you?! You’re six feet under. Look where I am! Look where the Jewish People are!” and he sat back down and we continued to sing.

Max showed up for Shabbos. Max showed up for minyan. Max showed up for every Mitzvah. Max’s response to anti-Semitism like the youth of our generation was not one of sadness or cowardice, but one of pride of becoming even more Jewish.   

Ladies and gentlemen, as much as I’d love to, I cannot and we cannot ignore anti-Semitism anymore. It’s here and it’s ugly. Of course we must do everything in our power to fight it politically. But that’s not enough. The prophets of our generation are speaking. Young men and women who probably wouldn’t dream of stepping into an Orthodox shul like this one are telling us what we need to do, and they are right. They are telling us to be better Jews. To be prouder Jews. To show up.

We will be commemorating Max Jacob as a community in a month and a half from now, and I hope you will all be able to contribute to that event. But tonight, on this holy night I have a different appeal to make. How will you fight antisemitism? In what way will you show up? In what way you will connect to your heritage with even more fervor? Is there a particular Mitzvah you’ve been ignoring that perhaps it’s time to embrace? Maybe it’s showing up to shul just a little more often? Maybe it’s learning something new? Maybe it’s just being an amazing person, a proud and passionate Jew?

 

We pray to G-d on this holy day for an end to this senseless and age-old animosity. But if he dares rear his ugly head, let us never define ourselves by this hate. Instead, we will define ourselves in defiance of this hate, by being even more proud and even more passionate. May the fires of our bold Judaism extinguish the cowardly fires of antisemitism once and for all. And let us say, amen!

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