Wandering and Staying Put

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 25 October 2018

As Britain gets closer by the week to being a country outside the European Union more Jewish families are readying themselves to have options.   Over the past weeks I have been asked to help members to know how to apply for citizenship of the European countries of their ancestors, those like Noah’s who came from Germany who can apply under the “Restoration of German Citizenship Law” if their ancestors were made to flee Germany due to persecution of the Jews.   Those who can be certain that their ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492 or Portugal in 1497 who can have their citizenship restored if they go through an inevitably more tortuous process of proof than those who know that a generation or two ago their ancestors left Germany.   So far around 6000 Jews have taken up the option in Spain.

My family is currently working out whether to add Portuguese Citizenship to our British Citizenship so that our children can have freedom of movement within the EU.   We have got so far as proving that we are descended from Gabriel Raphael Costa, who married Eshter Levy Manaseh in Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1768 – clearly a Portuguese family in their identity with daughters named Blanca and Rosa together the more typical Jewish names of Moses and Jacob for the boys.

It’s a basic Jewish instinct and motif through our history that starts with the very first Jews of our Torah portion Abraham and Sarah.  We need to be able to move and to journey.  At the same time we need a place to call our own.  Abraham will, as well as living as a nomad in the Land of Canaan, buy the first piece of property in the land, the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron in two Torah portions time.

So too Jews through the millennia have put down roots in most of the nations of the world, contributed to their societies, lived good lives participating and assimilating the cultures of their countries of residence and, where permitted, citizenship, but at the same time understood that in an uncertain world you have to be able to continue the journey if you need to.   This month’s edition of Jewish Renaissance Magazine is a case in point with a lengthy and fascinating section on the Jews of Mexico, including the news that the Mayor of Mexico City is a Jewish woman, but also a list of the more than fifty centres of Jewish population large and small worldwide that the magazine has so far covered in depth in its 17-year history.

It is a remarkable aspect of Judaism that our founding hero, Abraham, is a man on a journey.  Not a King, not a warrior, not a person whose life would conventionally be seen as successful in most cultural settings.  Rather he is a man who has to take his developing identity and Jewish religiosity with him wherever he goes.

Abraham cannot be absolutely completely certain that he is welcome wherever he settles because he does not own the place.  It could be rather unsettling for us to base our story on wandering nomads but then Judaism developed to make that way of life integral to our religion.  Our festivals can be celebrated anywhere, our recipes adapt to where we live, our teaching can be held in the heart as in a book and the book can come with us.   The Sifrei Torah in the ark behind me come as far as we have records of their history, from Germany, Syria, Poland and here in Golders Green.   Their own wanderings tell something of the Jewish story of the past 150 years.

Student Rabbi Igor Zinkov writes in his Leo Baeck College D’var Torah this week of an initiative of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism to recognize the power of our continuing journey.   It is called Israel-Diaspora Day which they are proposing to have recognized on the 7th of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan every year – that was last Tuesday.  The IMPJ has written a special Haggadah, storytelling, for the day and proposed a special food

“The 7th of Cheshvan is chosen because in the Mishnah, Ta’anit 1:3 it is written that Israel-based Rabbis two millennia ago didn’t recite prayers for the rain for fifteen days after the Festival of Sukkot to let Diaspora Jews come back home from their pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem safe and dry. This is an ancient example of the potential bond and care between Israel and the Diaspora. Our Torah portion ‘Lech Lecha’ has a key role in the special Haggadah made for this ‘start-up’ Jewish festival. It begins with the following commentary on the first verse of the Torah portion ‘Lech Lecha’: ‘The Hebrew people did not begin its life in the Land of Israel, but outside. From this first journey down to the present day, the Jews have maintained their character as a wandering people, to and from the Land of Israel.’ The connection between Israel and Diaspora is deeply rooted in our tradition. There is even a traditional food for the day – marzipan. It is sweet, it has been made and used in different cultural settings and it symbolizes the rich diversity of Jewish life.” Wherever Jews have wandered almonds have followed – what would Pesach be without ground almonds?

To be a Jew is to celebrate the journey on many levels.   We celebrate our individual life journey – from Brit Milah and Simchat Bat to Baby Naming in the Synagogue to  the two celebrations that we have participated in today, Noah’s Bar Mitzvah and Rabbi Hannah and Marc’s Aufruf for their Chuppah, to the maturing we all experience as we grow older to our final journey to our resting place where the mitzvah of Leviat HaMetim, known in Yiddish as Levoyah, means that accompanying the coffin of a person whom you have loved or even just known from the prayer hall to the grave is to join them in the last symbol of their life journey.

We take part in our people’s journey – learning our history, knowing where we came from, from country to country, basing our legendary history in the journey to Canaan and then to Egypt and then to the Promised Land and then to Exile in Babylonia as we hear Shabbat after Shabbat in our Haftarot.  Jewish culture remembers der heim – whether that be Germany, Poland, North Africa, Iberia, South Africa, America. We remember the steps that we made on the Jewish people’s journey and celebrate what those steps have given us culturally, musically, in our literature, our thought and our food.   And as Diaspora Jews now we are in that fortunate generation that can easily visit Israel and recharge our Judaism to bring back to the Diaspora from the Jewish homeland.

Our journeying and our experiences inform our values.  Because we know the heart of a stranger in a new land we are commanded to show empathy for the stranger today.  In a Synagogue like Alyth this is put into action all the time.  Whether it be the welcome for German, then Iranian then Bosnian Jewish refugees through Alyth’s history or the welcome extended today in our refugee drop in to today’s refugees from Somalia, Congo, Syria, Afghanistan and more, we know, like Abraham did, that the wandering person deserves our hospitality if this is to be a world worth living in.

And our community is always on a journey.   A Synagogue is not an institution that ever has a right to stand still.  We are not the players out of ossified tradition.  Rather we are driven by a vision of what we could be if we keep moving forwards.  We have to provide the security of a base camp where you know that if you come here to Alyth there will be familiarity and tradition that you can enjoy, but you also have to know that there will be a vision of how we are going to meet the challenges that the world brings us.   We need to journey on with confidence in our physical structures, the building itself, ways of learning, praying and looking after each other.   And if we are a healthy community we celebrate that vision is present and moving us forwards.

What Judaism cannot provide, ever since our earliest days, is a world at a standstill.   We can’t do grand cathedrals that feel like they have been there for eternity, elaborate Temples which feel like heaven on earth or anything like a Vatican City or Amritsar that say the world will not move on because we humans have tamed it with our religion.

That is because of the drives within Judaism to never accept the world as good enough, the drive within  the Jewish people to  find a place of safety and growth, the drive within each Jewish community to be a true Kehillah Kedoshah – holy in our time, the drive within the individual Jew to journey through life wholeheartedly, doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God, as the prophet Micah puts it (Micah 6:8).

Every Pesach we say “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean” as we begin the story of our people.  We say it proudly and we continue the journey.   So, talk about the journey of your family to your children, let them know the journey you have made to your current way of life and your values.   Talk about your Jewish journey and how you have learned what you have learned.  Be proud that our people does not stand still and keep worrying at that vision that will take us our next step forwards.  Be a true child of Abraham and Sarah.