Friday, May 21, 2010

Choosing Choseness

I haven’t been in a synagogue since Spud’s Bar Mitzvah back in January which is also the last occasion for which I contorted myself into stockings and high heels. There was a time when we were regular minyan-makers and I looked forward to the weekly 3+ hour Sabbath service, pantyhose and all. I was moved to become caught up in the Sisyphean task of working for the survival of a synagogue in a neighborhood gone largely Jew-free. After a couple years of wrestling with the complications of governance, administration and large personalities, the temple morphed from a refuge into another source of anxiety and aggravation. I resigned my office a number of years ago, but the peace I used to feel when I attended every Shabbat still eludes me although for reasons more complicated than mere board-of-directors burn out.

It is the holiday of Shavuot which commemorates the anniversary of Moses presenting the Torah to the Israelites at Sinai. An article in this week’s Forward quips that Shavuot is “The Zeppo Marx” of Jewish holidays. The holy day honoring the acceptance of a list of rules and regs getting a short shrift might have to do with our American enthusiasm for individualism. Shavuot is actually more of a big deal than most U.S. Jews give it credit for and the only holiday anticipated with a sort of nativity calendar. The counting of the Omer (days), in anticipation of the gift of the Torah, begins at Passover and culminates seven weeks later at Shavuot. Orthodox men do not shave during this period. Perhaps the holiday might gain increased popularity if instead of facial hair we marked the time to Shavuot with wee numbered cardboard doors that open onto candy. Usually the mantle of the Torah is accepted by 12 year old girls or 13 year old boys in Bat/Bar Mitzvah (genderless plural “B’nai Mitzvot”). The Shavuot commemoration of the Jews choosing choseness is an opportunity for many congregations to celebrate the rite with adult B’nai Mitzvot.

We are invited to the Shavuot Bat Mitzvah of an old friend at Wilshire Blvd. Temple, the oldest synagogue in L.A., in operation since 1862. The current building, with its enormous Byzantine style dome, was dedicated in 1929. The long reigning Rabbi Edgar Magnin “the Rabbi to the Stars,” served the temple for 69 years. Magnin was often compared by people my parents' age to Franklin D. Roosevelt, in office so long one just assumed he’d always be there. We never belonged to a temple and had a Christmas tree and ham but I don’t remember ever not knowing I Magnin, Joseph Magnin and Rabbi Magnin.

Bible themed murals by Hugo Ballin, who Himself identified correctly as also having created the paintings at the Griffith Observatory, grace the huge sanctuary at Wilshire Blvd. I will add that while my beloved, in a brief glance can recognize the hand of a pretty obscure 1920’s muralist, after over twenty years of my patient tutelage, he is still unable to distinguish a dessert plate from a saucer. The Wilshire Blvd, murals are revolutionary for their groundbreaking depiction of human figures in synagogue art. Ballin had worked as an art director on films and the temple’s mural, flaunting long held taboos regarding the representation of graven images, was commissioned by the Warner brothers. It is remarkable that the Polish émigré brothers Wonskolaser were able to accomplish this and reminds us of how powerful the Hollywood moguls really were, their influence certainly not limited to the sphere of popular culture.

The temple I regularly do not attend is of the Conservative persuasion although the first temple we joined was Reform. I speak no Hebrew but the translated portions in the Conservative prayer book often feel too “post-Holocaust,” sort of pugnacious, and superior and not so subtly exclusionary of non-Jews. The siddur at Reform Wilshire Blvd. feels perhaps too “post-post-Holocaust” , playing down the vengeful God and the choseness thing and instead addressing personal relationships with God. The “God’s my BFFL” approach to scripture and the guitar seem to have played well at many Christian mega-churches, which for the struggling Wilshire Blvd. Temple, a ginormous edifice in a part of town long bereft of Jews, might actually be a good economic model.

Nine adults stand on the bimah, having studied Hebrew and Torah, to read and chant. One of the adult B’nai mitzvot candidates is Betty Cohen, who at 89 is the same age as my mother. She addresses the congregation and begins by stating that she was born in Holland in 1920. Himself and I exchange a glance and we squirm. This is not going to go well.

Betty refers to notes a couple of times but she knows the story by heart and recites it dutifully and almost mechanically. She lives on the outskirts of Amsterdam and is engaged to be married in 1940 when the Nazis enter and occupy Holland. Things have already been problematic for Jews in Amsterdam but are less so outside of the big city. However, at the onset of the German occupation, all Jews are required to move to the Jewish sector of Amsterdam where they are subject to regular Nazi roundups.

Betty, her family and others, 19 in all, hide in two rooms until they are discovered by the Gestapo and deported to Auschwitz in a cattle car. Betty is tattooed and her head shaven. Separated from all of her relatives, she is selected for medical experimentation under the aegis of Dr. Mengele. She states that she at least had food and a bed, perhaps and ironically, her salvation. After the camp is liberated she makes her way, mainly via motor scooter, back to her hometown in the Netherlands and learns that except for her fiancé and a nephew, her family has perished.

After the war she ends up in Los Angeles with her finance, now husband. She has been a member of the Wilshire Blvd. congregation for over 50 years and states that the temple took her family in when they were unable to pay the dues required at other synagogues. While I find it hard to believe that any temple would refuse membership to a Holocaust survivor due to lack of funds, it is clear that Betty and her family were indeed warmly welcomed by the congregation. Betty survived the Holocaust but perhaps her Faustian bargain has been her mandate to recount this experience for the rest of her life. Despite the onus of living and then telling for the rest of her days, the story, Betty is called to the Torah.

Soon the last of the living voices of the survivors will cease to be. Betty has told a story that has probably engendered more atheism than any event in modern history for over fifty years now, again and again, and she believes in God. At age 89 she has mastered Hebrew in order to read from the Torah and step onto the bimah and publicly accept the mixed blessing of choseness. Betty Cohen speaks and I realize that for all of my ambivalence and temple turn off, being Jewish is as salient an ingredient to my essence as being mother and wife is.

I have seldom heard women’s voices chanting Torah and hearing the feminine voices of the new B’nai Mitzvot at Wilshire Blvd. is particularly poignant. Women in Reform and Conservative congregations are usually welcome on the bimah but this is not the case in the preponderance of Orthodox temples and it is sad that this prohibition deprives worshippers of hearing Torah verses sung in the voice of wives and mothers and daughters and sisters.

I have marveled here a number of times at the radical changes in the status of women that have evolved over the last thirty years. Perhaps as society goes, so will go religion, albeit at a much more modest pace. Within the Orthodox community, notions regarding the status of women are gradually and in tiny increments, changing. There are several congregations in the U.S. and Israel that now encourage women to read Torah from the bimah. Also, there are several educational programs which confer on Orthodox woman a status not explicitly referred to as “rabbi” but at least a distinct role in ritual life that many believe will begin to enlarge toward full parity and eventually the title of rabbi. I suggest these changes to the Orthodox attitudes about the roles of women have roots in discourse emanating from outside of the religious community. This speaks for the need to try to keep the most observant among us engaged in secular dialogue.

Himself and I have been going round and round about French measures to ban the burqa and other “conspicuous” religious attire. He suggests that I am in favor of women being able to choose to don the burqa because it is an optimal garment for use on the occasions when one feels bloated. I won’t get into the big question of faith vs. feminism as I think that within fundamentalist denominations of all religions there are women who find adherence to doctrinaire religious practice liberating and others for whom it means a life of degrading subjugation. I do believe that encouraging the devout to partake of secular institutions and participate in secular life nurtures tolerance and diminishes the likelihood of isolation from and hostility for the world outside. The banning of religious garments will only further disenfranchise fundamentalists and cultivate volatile animosity.

My personal experience of Judaism has been encouraging with regard to the equal status of women and I even expect that Orthodox women will ultimately hold equal status as leaders and rabbis. What pushes me away from organized worship is the lack of focus on Tikkun Olam, the “healing of the world.” I believe it is possible for Jews to heed the lessons of the Holocaust and still be citizens of the world, although others think this philosophy is tantamount to suicide, as in a piece entitled “How Liberal Jews are Enabling the Second Holocaust” written by Phillip Klein, which appeared at

“…As sickening as it sounds, Jewish liberals see their fellow Jews as noble when they are victims being led helplessly into the gas chambers, but recoil at the thought of Jews who refuse to be victims, and actually take actions to defend themselves…”

I wonder what I’d call myself and how I’d see myself if there had been no Holocaust. To think that I would feel less connected to being a Jew if there had been no Shoah is utterly logical but it is a bitter pill to attribute my identification to the Nazis. The Holocaust is writ indelibly on every Jewish soul and I do not profess to know the right or wrong way to bear this onus. Does having been singled out for systematic extermination mitigate our obligation to work to heal the world? Do six million deaths mandate us to narrow our scope and live only to defend and protect the Jewish people? The obligation to strive for mercy and justice and the healing of the whole world is resonant for me and I think, perhaps naively, that nurturing respect and understanding among all the peoples of the world is the best insurance against future atrocities. But I grew up eating ham in the valley. I don’t know if Betty Cohen, whose daughter joins her in Bat Mitzvah and whose grandchildren embrace her this Shavuot, 65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, prays first for the Jews or for all mankind including those who pray themselves for the demise of the Jewish people. Do 65 years having elapsed, beg an amended response?

The siddur at the Reform Wilshire Blvd. Temple is supplemented with modern poetry, including free verse and even an ee cummings style poem with lots of lowercase “i”s. In the end pages, devoted to specific holidays, the Yom Hashoah portion, (Holocaust Remembrance Day) has passages written by children who perished in concentration camps. There is also a poem by Primo Levi.

You who live secure

In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house,
when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed,
when you rise.

Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.
Translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann

Levi, like Betty Cohen a survivor of Auschwitz, reworks the core prayer of the Jewish people into an admonishment to engrave the Holocaust onto our hearts and teach it to our children. His own memories of the Shoah drove him to take his own life. Sixty five years having passed does not minimize our obligation to respond but the dictates of appropriate reaction have blurred as we struggle to insure and define “never again.”

Shabbat Shalom


Fionnchú said...

Atheism triggered by the Shoah: indeed it's impossible to conceive it seems of God or his absence in its whirlwinded dark smoky wake. Thanks for being by my side all these lighter, brighter, sunnier years, in and out of shul. My own thoughts, considerably more rambling, on this service can be perused at: "Shake Your Earthquake Maker" Chag sameoch! xxx me

Fionnchú said...

P.S. Can women shave during the buildup to Shavuot? If not, that may explain why they're all discreetly absent from the tinted depiction gracing your entry. Or else they're busy in the tents making blintzes and baking cheesecake for the post-Mosaic-led oneg. Talk about a long service. 40 years worth, little did those seated congregants know...