Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving 5775

This year, in honor of Thanksgiving, I would like to write to you about a treasure I found buried in a box of old books someone rather unceremoniously dropped off after hours in the synagogue lobby a few months ago. The box was unlabeled, nor was there inside any indication whose books they were or why they had been left in our lobby.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t hard to guess at their story. For one thing, this happens all the time. And for another, the books in these abandoned boxes are almost always exactly the same ones, or versions of the same ones: volumes that no one can imagine “just” discarding but which no one in the family actually wants once they downsize to a smaller place or find themselves dealing with the possessions of a late relative who owned a lot of books. It doesn’t take long, apparently, for the obvious solution—to donate them to the synagogue library—quickly to come to mind. Nor does the possibility that the library might not actually have any need for a thousandth copy of the 1939 High Holiday Prayerbook edited by the late Morris Silverman stand in the way of progress. The books must go! And it doesn’t really seem possible that the library wouldn’t want another Hertz Chumash, despite the fact that we actually already have several hundred in storage that we ourselves aren’t sure what to do with. There must be some sense the books possibly won’t be wanted, of course…but that is solved by dropping them off after hours, secure in the knowledge that the synagogue will know what to do with them in that unlikely event.

Among the many ways I serve Shelter Rock is as the official sorter of such dropped-off boxes of books. And, indeed, these boxes almost invariably end up on my desk so that I can select the odd book we really might actually want for our library and decide what to do with the rest. Mostly, I end up with two piles: non-sacred books that should go to some thrift shop, and prayerbooks and other sacred texts that I ask one of our maintenance staff to box up and store until the arrival, not of the mashiach, but just of the genizah guy who comes periodically to Shelter Rock to retrieve our stash of unwanted or damaged holy books and things and respectfully to bury them in the earth. There are the occasional exceptions to the rule. Sometimes, for example, I find a set of books that I put in the chapel for my own or other people’s use. Occasionally, I even find something that might actually be a reasonable addition to our library. But it is extremely unusual for me to find a book in such a box that I don’t know of or that I haven’t ever seen before. (It does happen…but only very rarely.) If any reader would like one of those Israeli prayerbooks with faux silver covers tastefully adorned with greenish-blue Eilat stones, just let me know: I have a stack in my office just waiting for anyone who likes his or her prayerbook to have some serious heft and/or to be bound in shiny metal.

And now I get to the meat of my story: a few months ago, someone left off one of those boxes…and it actually had a book in it I didn’t know. At first, I didn’t understand what a treasure it actually was. In fact, it was, as books go, quite ordinary-looking. Bound in blue cloth, its title, The Jewish Home Beautiful (emblazoned in golden letters across the top of the front cover), suggested, or at least suggesting to me, that it was a cookbook or some sort of Emily-Post-ish guide to Jewish dinner parties. I set the book aside, dealt with the rest of the box’s contents, then forgot about it. But then I found it under a pile of papers just a few weeks ago and this time I did open it and read it…and decided on the spot that it would be the subject of my Thanksgiving letter to you all this year.

The book, written by Betty D. Greenberg and Althea O. Silverman, was published by the Women’s League of the United Synagogue of America (as it was then called) in 1941, then reprinted in 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, and 1950. Its authors were, in their day, well known: Betty Greenberg was the wife of Rabbi Simon Greenberg, one of the vice chancellors of the Jewish Theological Seminary for all the years of my residence there and a major figure in American Jewish life for scores of years. Althea Silverman was the wife of the aforementioned Rabbi Morris Silverman, the very long-time rabbi of The Emanuel Synagogue of West Hartford, Connecticut, and in his day the foremost translator and editor of prayer books in use in Conservative synagogues. The book itself is out of print, and has been for decades. But, this being the twenty-first century, that is no real issue: you can see the whole book for yourself just by clicking here. (What a world!)  Also, you can read about both women in detail in Shuly Schwartz’s extremely interesting book, The Rabbi’s Wife: the Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life, published by NYU Press in 2006, which work I also recommend warmly to you as insightful and intelligent.

But I want to focus on the book itself today, not its authors. Like the M’sillat Y’sharim in its day, The Jewish Home Beautiful comes in two iterations: a narrative version, written by Betty Greenberg, intended to be read as an extended essay on the Jewish home and a dramatic version, written by Althea Silverman, that not only could be produced as a pageant but that actually was produced at the Joint Sisterhood Assembly in the Temple of Religion at the New York World’s Fair in September 1940. But the year of publication is key here too: knowing what was happening to European Jewry as this book was printed and reprinted lends the experience of encountering it a certain eeriness. Yet the introduction to the third edition, published just two months before V-E Day and thus after the liberation of Treblinka and Auschwitz, too makes no reference to the Shoah and only nods in passing to the World War itself by expressing satisfaction that the book by then had been read and enjoyed by “hundreds of men and women” in the Armed Forces of our nation.

It would be easy to write off the Women’s League’s willingness to publish and republish a book about the Jewish home while unimaginable catastrophe was striking the Jews of Europe as, to speak kindly, naïve. Nor would it be difficult to imagine the whole undertaking function as a kind of defense against reality, a way of staving off a reality too horrible actually to contemplate and thus best dealt with by looking as far away as possible. Or, it strikes me, perhaps there is a different way to put the pieces of this puzzle together.

The world was still burning in March 1945 as The Jewish Home Beautiful went into its third printing. The war was raging on. The fiend was still alive, still at the helm of his sinking ship, still bringing death and misery to countless millions caught in the crossfire…and that is specifically not to mention the war against the Jews that continued to be fought by the foe’s minions until the final capitulation. But our authors were possessed of a different vision, I think, one that seems almost impossible to fathom given how far down the pike we have come from the spot they occupied as they wrote. For these women, the great bulwark against barbarism and savagery was the intact home and, for them personally, the intact Jewish home. The stronger the home, the more safe the world. The more beautiful the Shabbat table, the more secure the universe. The more satisfying the Purim feast, the more strong the community. And so indeed are the women instructed to sing aloud in the dramatic version: “The Jewish Home Beautiful may be mansion of hovel, / On Boulevard, Avenue, or slum-crowded street. / With woman as priestess to tend to its altars, / Each home is a Temple, each hearth is a shrine. / While men build our houses and men fill our houses, / Women make these houses—homes.”

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since those words were sung aloud in the Temple of Religion in Flushing Meadows. The notion that the greatest thing any of us could ever to combat the forces of darkness in the world is to marry, to become parents…and to create Jewish homes that themselves serve collectively as the sea wall that holds back the swirling, devastating waters of intolerance, indecency, injustice, and inequality—that is an idea that will strike most today as, at best, quaint. But what if Betty Greenberg and Althea Silverman were right? What if the dike that holds back the darkness best is not an army or an inventory of nuclear warheads but the family itself…and the home that family inhabits? For outsiders looking in, I suppose that the notion that the way to combat evil is to make shabbos will seem, to say the least, peculiar. It will seem that way to many members of the House of Israel as well. But for those of us who know the Jewish home from the inside—not the bastardized, mostly unfunny parody-version featured on late-night television shows or promulgated by comedians, including particularly Jewish comedians, who themselves have no interest in living in such families or such homes—for those of us who know Jewish home life at its very finest and whose courage to face the world derives directly from the strength that inheres in the such homes, that notion will seem almost obvious.

When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was my favorite non-Jewish holiday, the one infused by my parents—who took it as a celebration of the immigrant experience—with the most patriotic emotion.  I took our family life, our home, for granted back then. But now, after all these years—and I just had my mother’s thirty-fifth yahrtzeit last week, so this goes back a long, long time—after all these many years I think I can identify as the source of my courage to grow up and go out on my own the home life my parents provided for me. I’ve done the same, I hope, for my own children. As, I’m sure, have all of you also done to the best of your ability.

For me personally, Thanksgiving is the American version of the ideas set forward in The Jewish Home Beautiful, a book published when the world couldn’t have been darker that simply recommends that Jewish people respond to the horror by making stronger, richer, and more beautiful their homes, by transforming those homes into their personal bulwarks against whatever the world can serve up. In the end, the walls of Jericho didn’t protect the people of Jericho any more than the walls of Rome protected the Romans. But I believe, as did Betty and Althea in their day, that the walls of the Jewish home can indeed protect us and make us safe. And that is the gift from the past that I offer up as my Thanksgiving gift to you all. I wish you all a satisfying, happy Thanksgiving. And I hope that the strength of the home that we all feel at peak moments like Thanksgiving inspires us to create that kind of experience not annually on other people’s holidays, or not solely on other people’s holidays, but on our own as well…and particularly on Shabbat.

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