Rosh Hashanah 5781
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
After my mother took her last breath at the hospice 11 years ago, I remember returning to my parents’ house and noticing her reading glasses. There was something about those glasses, which only a short time ago she had carefully placed on the kitchen island. I wanted to leave them there forever exactly as they were. I wanted to freeze that moment, the moment when she was alive and going through her day, putting her glasses in their place until she needed them to read or knit. Of course, we cannot freeze a moment. The natural chaos of life got in the way and eventually I moved them, breaking the spell. But the uncanny power of those glasses continues to connect me to my mom.
Most of the time, our material things seem to be just part of the great clutter. But every once in a while, the most mundane of objects transport us to another world. In Kaunas, Lithuania, for example, is a telephone. It is from the late 1930’s and rests on a desk that belonged to Chiune Sugihara, who in 1939 became the Vice Counsel for the Japanese Empire in Kaunas. He sat at that desk with the phone in front of him and faced a choice. In 1940, Jewish refugees from Poland as well as some Jews in Lithuania were desperately seeking transit visas to escape the Nazis by way of the East. They could not meet the official criteria to obtain these visas, and Sugihara’s orders from above called in from that phone were clear—he was not to issue them. But faced with the desperate situation of fellow human beings on the other end of that line, he filled out those visas anyway, taking significant risk and saving thousands of lives. He was eventually ordered to close the embassy, and survivors report seeing him on the train, handwriting visas and throwing them out the train window, hoping to save as many people as possible. The visas were eventually called Sugihara Visas, or “visas for life.” These visas had far-reaching consequences. You can visit a Sugihara memorial at Temple Emeth in Brookline, established by a member who was rescued by one of Sugihara’s visas.
My sister-in-law, Yda Walt, is a textile artist and was in Kaunas, Lithuania in 2007 for the Biennial, a well-known international event for contemporary European art. The Walt family, like virtually all South African Jews, emigrated from Lithuania in the early 20th century. Before WWII, Lithuania had a population of over 200,000 Jews, and Kaunas itself, known to Jews as Kovno, was about 1/3 Jewish. Within 6 months from June to December, 1941, 95% of those Jews were murdered. It was a near complete genocide.
As Yda learned some of this history during her stay in Kaunas/Kovno, reading in her hotel room online what she could find, she became increasingly disturbed that there were so few signs of the Jewish past in Kovno itself. Her artist friends encouraged her to turn her dismay into art, and 2 years later, at the 2009 Kaunas Biennial, she and two other artists presented the interactive exhibition “Where is Kovno?”
I first saw the exhibition a year and a half ago in the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town. Along a wall there was a floor to ceiling projection of random pages of a 1939 telephone book from Kaunas with its Jewish names slightly bolded. A moment frozen in time. A telephone book showing the everyday presence of a thriving Jewish community—and the haunting absence of what was to be. It also showed the presence of so many others living at the time, witnesses, and the absence of collective action in the face of genocide. Names and telephone numbers…
Moving around the exhibition I found myself pausing in front of a linocut print of a quaint 1930’s rotary dial telephone. I felt the uncanniness of the image. A simple telephone, yet it was speaking to me. It could have been anyone’s telephone at the time. But it was drawn and cut from that telephone on Sugihara’s desk set up as it was in 1941 located now at the small Sugihara museum in Kovno. The phone was the phone on which he took calls from his superiors in Japan, listened to the desperation of Jews begging for help, made his choice to disobey orders and act. As the pages of 1939 phone book brought the population of Kovno to life, the linotypes of the telephone and the desk brought Sugihara’s choices to life, connecting me 80 years later to a reality of trauma, fear, uncertainly, evil, and courage. The names in the telephone book could be our names. The phone could be our phone.
I don’t for a moment want to compare our hardships and losses to those of Lithuanian Jews at that time. As hard as life has been, many of us live still live in relative comfort and safety and feel more or less free to speak out and shape our future. At the same time, however, we share with Jews in the 1930’s a deep sense of loss along with a creeping sense of potential catastrophe. A historic pandemic, a growing corruption and sense of threat to our basic democracy, the stoking of racial hatred and injustice, violence leading to fears of civil war, growing consequences of climate change. The catastrophe in Europe in the 1940’s was not sudden. The signs were there from the early 1930’s. The catastrophes we confront have also been long in the making. We share with many people in 1930’s Europe growing shock and fear. And we share with them choices of what we may do in the face of those catastrophes.
The shock at that time was expressed poetically by Yiddish writer Yankev Glatshteyn in his poem Do bin ich keynmol nisht geven, “Here I have never been before.” He wrote the poem in 1943.
“I always thought
I had been here before.
Each year of my patched-up life
I mended the fabrics
of my decrepit, tattered world.
In memory I recognized
faces and smiles,
even my father and mother reappeared
as longed-for frescoes of the past….
I have continually come across the wonder
of memory inscribing itself,
and the agitated past
quietly welling up in the present.
I had always been here…
Only these last ragged years…” he continues, he is seeing something he could not have imagined. “I have never seen them before. Here, I have never been before,” he writes. Do bin ich keynmol nisht geven.
I too, often look up from the newspaper with this sense of bewilderment. I too feel in these “last ragged years…here I have never been before.” But here we are, and in a strange way, we are connected to others in past generations who found themselves equally bewildered. David Roskies calls it the “repeatability of the unprecedented.” We are also connected to them in the choices they had to make. Would they remain in a kind of bewildered paralysis, swept by a false sense of inevitability and powerlessness? Would they join with others to make new choices and create a new “inevitability,” that of bending what Martin Luther King called the “moral arc.” Yankev Glatshteyn very early used his pen to rouse people to confront the unfolding reality. People who dealt with historical catastrophes, from Jeremiah and Ezekiel to Glatshteyn and Sugihara, and all the regular folks who lived at that time, they are no longer distant historical figures to me. They are us. They had choices to make. So do we.
The names in that 1939 Kaunas telephone book were very particular. There is no telephone book in the world just like it. But their story is universal. It is a human drama that repeats over and over again. The story of Pharaohs, the story of oppression, the story of corruption, violence and greed, the story of plagues both environmental and biological brought on by hubris. The story of the Exodus is powerful not because it is history but because it is the universal human drama. It is the same human drama that the Torah addresses when it tells us: “I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—that you and your children should live…”
Myself, I would prefer a little less drama right now. Nevertheless, this is the time we live in. And we are called to make choices that are of the utmost consequence. We find ourselves in the midst of a story that is unfolding with or without our acquiescence. A story of pharaohs, plagues, oppression, potential catastrophe and potential redemption. What is our role in that story?
Yda offered me 10 years ago, one of the prints of the exhibition. At that time, I knew immediately I wanted the telephone. I recently felt moved to put it up on our main wall where it is most visible. I love phones with cords. I remember my grandfather unwinding their long and twisted telephone cord periodically. James Joyce saw the cord of the telephone like an umbilical cord, a “network of navel-cords linking all of humanity together, back to Eve….” We are being called.
As I look on the wall at the linotype of Sugihara’s telephone today, I pause again. It is simple and quaint. A relic of the past. But Sugihara’s choices as he sits at his desk are to some degree our choices. As things around fall us apart, are we to respond to the human cry with kindness or absence? Are we going to resist or collaborate? Are we going to look within ourselves or blame others? Are we going to act half-heartedly or are we going to dial it in.
The phone is right in front of us. Who is on the other end of the line? Sugihara and his courage? The people of Kovno and their fear and hope? What do they have to say to us? What will we say back? What will we say to the next and future generations?
Today, with both my parents now gone, I take comfort in my mom’s reading glasses, bringing me back to her energy and attention, and I also take comfort in a writing desk on the stair landing of my family home. The desk is from the 1950’s and belonged to my parents. On it sits a now antique black rotary phone. It gives me comfort, connecting me to my parents and grandparents, to their generations and beyond: to Sugihara, to all who are crying out for justice and for help, to all who respond with courage, to all of humanity connected in seen and unseen ways stretching back through time.
Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Teruah—the day of the Truah—the blast of the shofar—a kind of ancient telephone calling us to consciousness and commitment. The shofar is a call in the midst of struggle. Min hametzar karati Yah; Anani vamerchav Yah. From the narrow place I call to God and from the wide expanses God answers me. The sound of the shofar is before us. Will we the hear the call?
We are not alone. We can take inspiration from the courage of past generations. We lost one of our greatest justices yesterday, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, may her memory be for a blessing. She was a justice, who stood for justice. And during her career as a lawyer she took on legal battles for women’s rights that no one had taken on before, that no one dared to take on, because they seemed impossible to win. Her loss is a devastating one, and it is hard for me not to feel a twinge of fear and despair. But then I remember her courage and the choices she made to persist against all odds.
May her memory be a shofar call to us to stand up for our values, as she did for hers. May we remember this Rosh Hashanah not as a day when another sad thing of 2020 happened but as a day when her great courage, like that of Sugihara’s, called to us from beyond make the choices that future generations will be inspired by, as they inevitability will have their own. We pray for a better year, and we pray for the courage to make it better.
 David Roskies, ed. The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1988).