Passover Yizkor-personal stories

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Passover Yizkor 2019

As we prepare for Yizkor, I like to integrate the texts of our tradition with the texts of our lives. We are living, human, documents. Our histories are the stories of our tradition. Together we can create a space to remember those no longer with us, those who still touch our hearts. Through sharing memories, we deeply integrate the holiness of our sacred brit, our covenant into our souls. Yizkor is recited four times a year, reminding us that our lives would not be complete without those that came before us. Through Yizkor, we see the holiness that they taught us, the holiness which we strive to teach those who come after us, those born and those not yet born.

With no Shabbat falling on Chol Ha-moed, the intermediate days, we read excerpts from Shir Hashirim this morning. The Song of Songs is a beautiful book, albeit one that seems hard to read publicly in a mixed audience!

The second verse is:
יִשָּׁקֵ֙נִי֙ מִנְּשִׁיק֣וֹת פִּ֔יהוּ כִּֽי־טוֹבִ֥ים דֹּדֶ֖יךָ מִיָּֽיִן׃
Oh, give me of the kisses of your mouth, For your love is more delightful than wine.

Of course, if you read it from the Artscroll translation, you will not find such sensuous imagery. Instead you will discover that words like שני שדיך (lit., “your two breasts”) are translated as “your two sustainers, your nourishing synagogues.” or “Your two tablets” or “Your Moses and Aaron.” In the rabbinic allegory, the lovers are instead Gd and the People Israel, with Israel as the weaker feminine voice. Yet, if we take it a little more literally, we can discover new Jewish meanings. Prof Wendy Zierler of HUC-JIR writes that we can see “the feminine voice of the Song not so much as symbol of Israel’s (feminine) degraded incapacity in exile or in law, but of our wholeness with God, our built-up, fortified, sense of peace in God’s all-encompassing presence.” We can read it as a partnership, between ourselves and Gd, building the future together.

Ultimately, Shir hashirim is a passionate book. Connected with spring and new life, it speaks of a young couple coming together. Lust and love intertwine in a song of hope and stolen moments. Complimenting these themes is our haftarah for today, the last day of Passover, which also looks to the future. It acknowledges the challenges of the past, recognizing that our world is not perfect. Instead it dreams of a more certain future, when redemption will not just be at hand, but will be here. It ends with these powerful verses from Isaiah:

Isaiah chapter 12 יְשַׁעְיָהוּ
א וְאָמַרְתָּ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, אוֹדְךָ Hashem, כִּי אָנַפְתָּ בִּי; יָשֹׁב אַפְּךָ, וּתְנַחֲמֵנִי. 
1 And in that day thou shalt say: 'I will give thanks unto Thee, O LORD; for though Thou was angry with me, Thine anger is turned away, and Thou comfortest me.
ב הִנֵּה אֵל יְשׁוּעָתִי אֶבְטַח, וְלֹא אֶפְחָד: כִּי-עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ Hashem, וַיְהִי-לִי לִישׁוּעָה. 
2 Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for GOD the LORD is my strength and song; and He is become my salvation.'
ג וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם-מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה. 
3 Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.
ד וַאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, הוֹדוּ לַhashem קִרְאוּ בִשְׁמוֹ, הוֹדִיעוּ בָעַמִּים, עֲלִילֹתָיו; הַזְכִּירוּ, כִּי נִשְׂגָּב שְׁמוֹ. 
4 And in that day shall ye say: 'Give thanks unto the LORD, proclaim His name, declare His doings among the peoples, make mention that His name is exalted.
ה זַמְּרוּ Hashem, כִּי גֵאוּת עָשָׂה; מידעת (מוּדַעַת) זֹאת, בְּכָל-הָאָרֶץ. 
5 Sing unto the LORD; for He hath done gloriously; this is made known in all the earth.
ו צַהֲלִי וָרֹנִּי, יוֹשֶׁבֶת צִיּוֹן: כִּי-גָדוֹל בְּקִרְבֵּךְ, קְדוֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. {ס} 
6 Cry aloud and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee.'{S}

[Note: I sang some of these verses.]

Our answer to a glorious future is praise, joy, gratitude. Which, in truth, is how we should feel about our past, as well. Even in our imperfect world, do we offer gratitude to our Creator? Do we truly appreciate the gifts that we have? I don’t just mean new gadgets, but the fact that we have food, clothing, shelter, loved ones in our lives and our very lives!

Before we go into the Yizkor service, I want to talk about my own past, my grandfathers, Arthur Weintraub and Benjamin Paulin. While they had very different careers and backgrounds, my grandfathers had a lot in common. They were both kind to a fault. They were both sweet and gentle. Neither of them were particularly religious, but Judaism was very important to both of them. While prayer might not have been their normal way of thanking Gd, they shared an attitude of gratitude. Growing up with little, they were appreciative for every step “forward”, yet recognized that stuff, that things was not the ticket to success.

My mom’s father, Ben, grew up on a farm in Yonkers. Born in 1913, his childhood home did not have indoor plumbing. With several unmarried sisters, he remained a bachelor until he was in his early forties, when he met my grandmother. Supporting not only his four daughters, he also contributed greatly to his sisters’ wellbeing. For him, family was the top priority. Stuff, things, were unimportant, and he would regularly purge my grandparents modest apartment, tossing books, papers or anything else he saw as junk! While he was not a regular shul-goer, Jewish values filled his life. The way he treated other people demonstrated the values of gemilut hasadim, doing deeds of loving kindness, and he saw EVERY person as created B’tzelem Elokim, in the image of GD.

Grandpa Ben loved his grandchildren, he spent much time talking and walking with us, making up games, and playing with us. He taught me to enjoy crossword puzzles and the fundamentals of chess. A strong, tall man (not sure where that height went!), he did not have much education, never made much money, yet everyone that knew him knew his humor and affection. His love for his family was daughters was so great, that at his funeral a decade and a half ago, every daughter said he treated her as if she was his favorite. 

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people sitting, people standing and indoor
Grandpa Ben and Grandma Alice
My father’s father, Arthur, Artie Weintraub, I had the privilege of knowing longer. He passed away not long before I was ordained. Throughout rabbinical school, I would schlep to Maspeth, to the same apartment my father was raised in. With my aunt and my grandmother, we would go out to a kosher deli, have a sandwich, talk for a little while and then he would send me back on the 7 train into the city.
Grandpa Artie in WWII US Army uniform

Grandpa Artie had a complicated relationship with Judaism. Growing up in a kosher home in the Bronx, he went to Hebrew School/Cheder for awhile. His older brother, Nate, would protect him from the Polish boys who would throw rocks and try to beat them up on their way. He knew how to protect himself there, but the story he told me (but not my father) is that when the teacher smacked his hand with a ruler, he smacked back, left and never went again!

When he joined the army in WWII, he was sent to artillery school outside of Savannah, GA. His unit was so anti-Semitic, that he successfully transferred and served as a dental assistant through most of the war. No longer keeping kosher, he marched through Europe, saw terrible things, yet changed the subject when asked about them. After the war, the US army kept him in Germany, Germanizing his Yiddish, so that he could translate for them. 

Returning to the US, he went to school at night, worked for the government, and raised two children in a co-op in Maspeth. Also a family man, he worked multiple side jobs to ensure the best education for his children. He joined the local orthodox shul, argued regularly with the rabbi, and sent my father to Hebrew School and ensured he had a Bar Mitzvah. Over the years, he went to shul whenever they needed a minyan, on the holidays, and ended up on the board. For years he was the treasurer of the shul, signing the paycheck of the rabbis he never liked. He drove the “old men” to minyan. There is an old joke about two Jewish men, Abe and Hymie. Abe is not observant, he is not even sure if he believes in Gd, yet he regularly goes to shul. He is asked why he goes. His response, “Hymie goes to shul to talk to Gd; I go to shul to talk to Hymie.” For many years, my grandfather was Abe.

When I first told him, I was going to be a rabbi, he said, jokingly, “What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy?” Yet at the same time, he was kvelling. He was so proud of the work that I was doing, the work that I do, working with Jews of all backgrounds, helping them to discover the holiness that is already in their lives.

Why am I telling you about my grandfathers? I am telling you about my grandfathers because they are two very important people for congregational life. They were just like many of us. Not everyone needs to sit on the board--but some people do. Not everyone is involved in everything--but some people need to be. They found the aspects of Jewish life that were meaningful to them and they lived those values. They paid their dues, showed up occasionally, and treated every person with love and respect. This does not mean they didn’t have disagreements, but even when they were angry, they showed respect for others. These are traits I hope to emulate. These are traits I celebrate and hope to teach my daughters. Of course, I would like my girls to participate in shul, to have ownership in her community, to lead and to teach, but whether they are on the bimah or not, I want them to treat people well.

Shir Hashirm speaks of youth, our haftarah speaks of celebrating the future; Yizkor, commemorates the past. To live meaningful lives, we must sanctify the present. To me, being a Jew is being aware of each moment. Through prayer, through sacred eating practices, through community, we continually remind ourselves to “Da lifnei mi atah omed, know before whom we stand”. My grandfathers worried about their families. They took care of them, worked hard for them, and showed how much they cared in the words they chose. I pray that I emulate them in their kindness and their love. In their actions, I see our commandments, our Jewish values. As we begin Yizkor, let us think about the values of our parents, grandparents, loved ones. How did they reflect our traditions? How do they help give us hope for the future? How do we live meaningful lives, walking in their footsteps, yet taking our own paths? How do we live authentically as Jews, using our texts and our traditions as guideposts for our lives?