30 June 2014

We Mourn Naftali, Gilad and Eyal

June 30, 2014

CBE Mourns the tragic and unjust deaths of Israeli youths Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrah, whose kidnapped and murdered bodies were discovered today, north of Hebron, by the Israel Defense Forces.  For more than 18 days the Jewish nation and the broader world hoped and prayed for their safety; but today we learned, with broken hearts, that terror and hatred have cut short young lives of blessing and faith.

There are so many difficult emotions to confront and process at this moment.  There are those of us who feel anger and sadness; there are those of us who feel confusion; and there are those of us who crave a desire for revenge.  

And there is among so many of us a gnawing exhaustion from a conflict which seems to have no end; a world which seems to hang in the balance; and ongoing questions about what it is that we might do ourselves to eradicate the perceived insoluble hatreds over land, history and God.

But if the memories of Naftali, Gilad and Eyal are to be a blessing, as our tradition demands, then we must honor their lives with a renewed commitment to the varied and eternal expressions of learning, spirit and deeds of lovingkindness that have sustained the Jewish people for generations.

As Jews we must mourn the loss of life with the promise to live life itself to its fullest expression; we must confront the deprivation of life with a generosity of spirit to those in need;  and we must remember, always, with this in mind, that to be a Jew in the world is a weighted privilege, which still, tragically, can come at the price of life itself.

On Tuesday evening July 1 at 7 pm, we mourn and remember together at a special service sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the UJA Federation of New York and the New York Board of Rabbis, to be held at the Jewish Center, 131 West 86th Street.

While we pray for a future peace with our Palestinian neighbors, tonight we mourn with the Fraenkels, the Shaars, the Yifrahs and all Israel.  United as one.

May the memory of Naftali, Gilad and Eyal be a blessing.

Rabbi Andy Bachman

23 June 2014

CBE Opposes PCUSA Vote on Divestment

Enclosed is a statement from CBE Clergy and Leadership regarding the recent divestment vote of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.


June 23, 2014

Dear Friends:

The Clergy and Leadership of Congregation Beth Elohim are disturbed and saddened by the recent vote of the Presbyterian Church USA to divest from certain companies doing business with Israel.

Rather than engage both sides in this difficult situation, the Presbyterian Church USA has chosen a path of isolation and divestment.  In addition, as has been publicized, the Church's website distributes an anti-Zionist tract called "Zionism Unsettled," understood generally to be a one-sided, ahistorical and biased document, unhelpful in the least to the cause of mutual understanding and peace.  While PCUSA has taken an objectionable position and is still publicizing "Zionism Unsettled" on its website, there are many friends and allies in the PCUSA. The vote was extraordinarily close--with a margin of 7 votes.  With continued dialogue with our friends in the PCUSA, we hope that on these local levels the understanding and joint work for peace can and should thrive.

This vote was part of a larger campaign, known as BDS (for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), which the broader American Jewish community has strongly opposed as unfairly singling out Israel.  We have long agreed that BDS is counter-productive to the efforts at reaching a just solution for Israelis and Palestinians.  

The Reform movement's president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, was present for the debate and vote and issued a condemnation of the action on behalf of the URJ.  You can see Rabbi Jacobs debating this vote on CNN.  In addition,  Rabbi Bachman shared some reflections on BDS in the Forward two years ago at the time of the proposed Park Slope Food Coop Boycott of Israel.  

CBE has a broad and diverse membership which, while recognizing disagreement over any number of issues, remains united in our support of one another's attachment to Judaism, Jewish identity and the State of Israel.  It is our understanding that no matter where one may reside on the political spectrum, the BDS movement is unequivocally a movement which de facto denies Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.  We therefore find the vote of the Presbyterian Church USA to be wrong and damaging to the two-state solution.  For many years now, the Reform movement has long supported the two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians as the only viable means for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Closer to home, CBE has historically worked with many faith-based organizations across Brooklyn that share a mission to bring greater kindness to the world through worship and action.  One such partnership is with Park Slope Resurrection, a Presbyterian congregation that uses our Sanctuary on Sunday mornings.  It is important for our membership to know that Park Slope Resurrection is not affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, but with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which is an entirely different Protestant movement, and played no role in the recent vote on divestment.

When asked to comment on this matter, Matthew Brown, the Senior Minister of Resurrection, expressed his regret at the message being sent by fellow Christians in the PCUSA.  "Christians and Jews are united in our desire to 'seek the peace of the city' in all times and places.  I believe the BDS movement not only undermines cooperative efforts by Jews and Christians to this end, it also fortifies barriers to peace between Israel and her neighbors.  And yet, given the shrinking influence of Protestant and mainline denominations in the United States, this vote will have little sway over the hearts and minds of American Christians."

Despite our deep disappointment in this vote, CBE as a community is united in maintaining and developing partnerships in Brooklyn and Israel which strengthen our people's connection to one another, to be a just and kind city for all its citizens, and to honor Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state at peace with its Palestinian neighbors.  

It is our fervent wish that with continued dialogue and trust, we can together reach these goals.  

Andy Bachman, Senior Rabbi  &  Jonathan Fried, President

08 June 2014

The Circuits of Time

Second Home Cemetery, Milwaukee (Google Earth)
In the shade beneath the cluster of trees at the top of this photograph are the stones marking the burial place of my ancestors, Chaim and Rebecca Siegel; Charles and Barbara Bachman.  Two of them I helped bury as a kid; two I never met.  The measure of their lives in words, when recounted in this hallowed ground, rolls along like crushed gravel beneath car tires that carry those who've come along to pay respects; like intermittent gusts of wind that shake and animate branches and leaves; and like the slow but certain transmutations of gravitational pull and decay which wears away granite in time.  Bones which once walked the earth rest softly beneath it.  And from a certain vantage point, this community of the dead is like a circuit board, a sim card, with a central artery of delivery (the path and roundabout) infusing energy and kinesis to static stones by reading names and dates, telling stories, shedding tears, planting new life.

Walking my kid to school the other day, I saw another youngster taking a photograph of her self (selfie) in front of a local running store.  The store is called "JackRabbit," a name evocative of fleet--the warm, fuzzy and adorable kind.  I love the logo.
The floppy ears and floppy feet of the rabbit, engined by determined fists, convey purpose and fun in a yellow bundle of victorious achievement.  In ancient Greece the gods all had yellow hair and like Mercury with his winged sandals and winged cap, the yellow hare reminded me, as I watched this young lady capture an image of herself, of the varieties of ways that Hermes (and Mercury in Roman myth) delivered messages back and forth, to and from, the underworld.

In the 19th and early 20th century, when cameras were invented and modern photography came into being, some traditionally observant Jews avoided having their pictures taken because they feared the technology might capture their soul.  In conveying an image, Hermes might steal them away to the underworld.   My great-grandfather's mother's name was Liba Gutzeit-Siegalowitz and in a photograph taken in Minsk in 1911, she looks concerned.

The earth floor beneath her feet; her grandchildren at her side; left behind to perhaps share the fate of Kopyl's Jewish community's liquidation by the Nazis in 1942 (I don't yet know--the evidence is bare); or maybe she sees her own soul vanishing, like magic, materially moving from her own body to the lens, the film, the studio, the blackroom, the mailroom, the ship, the rail, and into the hands of her son, Chaim, in Milwaukee, who cannot save her.

The girl in front of the mercury-rabbit shoe store sends a picture of herself somewhere, maybe to someone else down the street or halfway around the world; and in an instant I look up in the sky and imagine an infinite number of messages and images dashing, hopping, colliding in space, the instantaneous delivery of digitized materiality making each of gods of our own fate.

So much power.  So much faith in one little sim card.
One of my kids recently got her iPhone upgrade.  We met at the Apple Store on the Upper West Side and carried out the exchange effortlessly.  We transferred information to a cloud.  We wiped out memory.  And then when we asked the salesperson what to do with the old sim card she said, "Break it and throw it away."

And so with circuits humming heatedly all around me in that transparent commercial cube of happy entertainment, I floated above the burial ground of Milwaukee, looking down on the circuitry of my soul.  I told myself stories that were happy and sad; triumphant and tragic.  I took modest comfort in the reality that granite gravestone, as in a game of rock-paper-scissors, wears away silicon.

Grandpa died in 1973 and Grandma died in 1979 and they are buried next to one another, their flesh and bones in the earth beneath the trees; the shade, the leaves, the wind and sky above.  In this picture they smile freely, in America.  The camera captures only a playful image.  Their stories, their essences, hovering in the Circuits of Time.  Eternal.

05 June 2014

Your Mother's Is Better

Mourning, we sometimes forget, can be a heavy fog, dulling perception and the precise measure of things.

My father's date of death, for instance:  March 22, 1983.  I seem remember everything that happened that day, a cold spring afternoon, just this side of winter.  In the repetition of the telling, my pen drifts across a page in my favorite lecture; I get distracted and head home; my uncle has driven up to Madison from Milwaukee to break the news and I know the moment I see him.  I hastily pack and travel home to my family.  I remember the dull, beige brush at the side of the highway;  the cool condensation on the car window; a hug from my sisters; silence and confusion from my younger brother.

But now, when I look down at the only artifact left over from those grim first few days, a small yellowed document that had been taped to the bottom of the urn which held my dad's cremated remains, I'm surprised to see that we didn't do the nasty deed until a full six days after he died.  It's not that we cremated him that alters my perception of the past--but that I have virtually no memory of the days that followed his death but one:  the trip to the funeral home with my siblings and uncle; the shopping for a casket; my sister's moral objection to burying dad against his wishes (he had wanted to be cremated); and the spontaneous, unanimous agreement that his wish would be fulfilled.
Six whole days of what?  Where did they go?  Hung, like an invisible tapestry with a one word message:  Loss.

After the funeral, at my uncle's house, my dad's brother made a special request to hold on to the remains for a while, keep them up on the mantel.  It bothered me on one hand; on the other, they were brothers, after all, sons of the same mother, my beloved grandmother, whose own heavy, depressive nature was counterbalanced by her soft skin, her beautiful smile, her ample breast, and her delicious cooking.

Grandma fed me sour kugel and sweet blintzes in a wasted effort to fatten me up.  As a kid my dad and I would go pick up my grandparents for meals at our house (followed by bridge) on most Saturdays and Sundays and while Dad and Grandpa sat in the front of his Olds Cutlass, I snuggled in the back with Grandma, being fed warm kugel, by hand.  "You're a Jew," she'd say.  And I'd nod obediently.
At Grandpa's funeral their apartment was loaded with people--family, friends, neighbors, patients and colleagues from Grandpa's medical practice--and food.  All kinds.  My grandma, who was devastated, depressed and nearly suicidal from the loss, poked her head into the kitchen at one point to explain to my mother and aunt as they scrambled to bake another kugel, that it required large curd cottage cheese.  What do shiksas know?

It's amazing what one remembers.

Anyway, within six years grandma was gone and four years later we lost Dad to his heart attack.  When my uncle asked to hold the ashes, it seemed like the right thing to do.  Until he lost them.  Each spring I'd roll into town for a family gathering, call him up, pay a visit, and ask for the ashes back.  I had become more serious about Jewish observance and felt a deep need to inter them, to get them into the ground beside his ancestors.  (Shortly after 2000, when he retired to the south, my uncle found the urn, delivered them to my sister, and we were finally able to bury Dad's ashes.)   I had come to believe, as I still do, that the dislocation his mother knew--a refugee from Kopyl, Minsk in 1903, a town ultimately obliterated by the Nazis in 1942, all 2500 of its inhabitants killed--was the tapestry of Loss that hung over her life.  And that America, as wonderful as it was, represented not what could be but what was.  Then.  Over there.  The hallowed ground of the cemeteries in Milwaukee, where those immigrants from Minsk and Pinsk are buried, meant the world to her.  It meant she came from somewhere.  Had roots.  Had a story to tell.

As a kid I'd follow her there with Dad.  We'd plant flowers.  Sit in the car under a tree.  Get lineages right.  But mostly Grandma would remain silent.  Present in her loss.

Without a doubt this was a burden that was too much for my dad or uncle to bear.  They took themselves seriously as Jews but never paid too much mind to the rules.  And for them, first generation, the call of America was the music that animated their souls.  And luckily for me, food was the fuel that made their engines run.

When Dad and Mom split up, I'd spend weekends with Dad and each Friday we'd go to Benji's Deli, the East Side Eden of Milwaukee's Jews.  We'd order blintzes, or hoppel poppel, watch a game on the tv, and talk to Dad's cousins who we'd often see eating there as well.  There parents were either dead or aging, too, and so the restaurant became a kind of mysterious memory salon, where souls and recipes hovered, benevolently, on those who had come to eat and remember.

About the blintzes, of course, Dad always said what you'd expect a good son to say:  "It's not as good as my mother's."

We buried dad's ashes on a hill overlooking Miller Park, where the Brewers now play.  And nearly thirty years later, and forty since their divorce, we laid Mom to rest nearby.

Through the fog of mourning and memory I recall this well:  At Dad's funeral my brother-in-law told a story about how Dad, who lived in regret of his own behavior and wished he could take Mom back, used to go to their house for Sunday dinner and that my sister would make my dad's favorite meal that Mom made--meat loaf.  "It's good," he'd say to my sister, "but your mother's is better."

Last night, inspired by Tablet's recipe page and my recent trip to Russ & Daughter's Cafe, I made a chopped salad and homemade blintzes for Shavuot.
Rachel and the girls seemed to genuinely like it and I have to say it turned out well.  Grandma would have been proud.  "What did you learn today, son?" she may have asked.  With blintzes, trout, beets, eggs and red onions in the air, and yahrzeit candles scattering with ease the fog of mourning, I might have said, "We Jews mourn and remember and observe and eat better than anybody."

Good boy.