A Rosh Hashana Sermon presented at the Vilna Shul – Boston’s Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture by Lou Cove
The cry of the shofar resounds.
As we listen to the sound of the shofar, we are told to listen to its “profound yet utterly simple cry, a note free of the nuances of rational music. An utterly simple cry that rouses the soul of creation to a renewed commitment to the endeavor of life.”
-- Rabbi Yanki Tauber, “The Waking of Creation”
It is this soul of creation and, by extension, creativity and culture and what it means for our sense of selves, our sense of purpose, that I would like to speak with you about today.
There is a Jewish cultural renaissance taking shape before our eyes. An entirely new generation of artists, authors, musicians, performers and designers are exploring and creating innovative ways to preserve and reimagine Judaism and Jewish identity, making them relevant and meaningful for the times we are living in.
And yet, the field of Jewish Arts and Culture remains significantly underfunded and underappreciated.
So, in the echo of the shofar, let us consider the value of our own creativity.
I am, among other things, a memoirist. My own creative pursuits tend toward the recounting of personal stories. But if I am doing my work well, those stories should make some kind of universal connection with my audience. So I hope you’ll indulge a d’var torah that draws on personal experiences.
My memoir MAN OF THE YEAR, involves my adventures with Howie Gordon: a nice Jewish boy from Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh who became a real-deal Berkeley, California, hippie… moved into my childhood home in Salem, Massachusetts, with his wife… and posed as Playgirl magazine’s Mr. November 1978.
He enlisted me to help in his campaign to become man of the year, 1979… hoping that HE would be the next Starsky and promising me I was going to be his Hutch.
And it worked, he won, and I got to skip my bar mitzvah… (I was thirteen years old at the time.)
It was a creative time… But, you know, this just isn’t a High Holidays story.
However, it’s a relevant story for today in this sense: if you have read my book, you know (well, I guess you know now anyway) that I grew up in an... unusual home. What the organized Jewish community would call a hyper-assimilated home. A home in which being Jewish was a given, but it wasn’t given much thought.
Although one generation removed from my grandfather’s Kosher butcher shop, my nuclear family didn’t go to Shul. Not even… on Rosh Hashana.
And in THAT way, my book and my personal story are not unusual at all.
What would seem WILDLY unusual to the people in my house back then, if we were able to go back to 1979 and tell them...
Is that I would be standing HERE, speaking to all of you.
But I am honored to be doing it, and I want to thank Lynne Krasker Schultz for inviting me and Rabbi Ben for sharing the Bima in this historic space.
This year is significant for this space: it marks the 100th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of this building - Vilna Shul – now Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture.
Why the emphasis on culture? There was a time when we would not have needed to emphasize the word. Culture – Jewish culture – just was. Part of the fabric of our being, certainly in this city among the immigrant community that built this shul.
What happened to our innate sense of culture?
My personal story begins almost precisely 100 years ago to this day, just a few months after the laying of this building’s cornerstone, and not far from this neighborhood. And while it recounts the experience of a single person – it represents a defining nail in the coffin of Jewish culture as we once knew it.
But before I share that personal tale, let me extend the metaphor and tell you about a funeral that took place 103 years ago…
This funeral was held for one of the greatest writers who ever lived. A writer whose work remains a staple of our culture today.
The writer was so beloved that his funeral procession drew 100,000 mourners.
The year was 1916.
1916. The year that Jack London passed away. The author of The Call of the Wild and White Fang left a lasting mark on the literary world.
But Jack London's funeral was attended by just a few close friends and relatives, at his ranch in Sonoma county.
No, the funeral that drew 100,000 mourners was for Solomon Rabinowitz.
Does anyone know who that was?
Here is the headline from the New York Times on May 16, 1916:
Funeral Cortege of Yiddish Author Greeted by Throngs in Three Boroughs.
VAST CROWDS HONOR SHOLEM ALEICHEM
A hundred thousand people of the east side, with sadness in their faces, lined the sidewalks yesterday when the funeral procession of Sholem Aleichem, the famous Yiddish humorist… passed down Second Avenue and through East Houston, Eldridge, and Canal Streets...
Can we just stop and picture this for a moment? (And there are pictures, by the way – just google it.) But picture in your mind’s eye 100,000 mourners… flooding the streets of New York City… for an author. A Yiddish author.
Sholem Aleichem, the author of beloved short stories and, most notably, Tevye the Dairyman, was known then as the “Jewish Mark Twain” - a fair comparison in that both Twain and Sholem Aleichem used vernacular to draw their characters in fine lines. And like Twain, Aleichem’s seemingly simple tales told in Yiddish betrayed a sophisticated and knowing sensibility for those willing to read between the lines.
For those that don’t know, Tevye became Fiddler on the Roof. But Fiddler is not quite like Tevye. Tevye is Fiddler without the schmaltz.
Modern reinterpretations are starting to pay greater respect to the source material. Has anyone here seen the new production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish now playing at the 42nd Street Theater?
It’s about as schmaltzless as that musical can get. And it also has some subtle but specific changes to the lyrics that acknowledge the more sophisticated nature of the source material:
If I ask you to sing a Fiddler on the Roof song, which one immediately comes to mind?
In the Yiddish production, the lyric is Ven ikh bin Rothschild -- If I were a Rothschild, vs. if I were a rich man.
Why does this matter? Because Tevye the dairyman, that perseverating bumpkin from the shtetl isn’t a bumpkin at all. He may live in the shtetl, but he is keenly aware of the modern world. He knows who Rothschild is. He is OF the modern world.
He just has a foot in the past – which is why he begins the musical by singing that other song you can’t get out of your head: Tradition!
In the book, Tevye is a literary embodiment of the modern Jew, wrestling with the ideas and rituals of the past and trying to make sense of them in the here and now.
And he is the literary embodiment of his creator: Sholem Aleichem, a Jewish artist giving voice to Jews, speaking of a uniquely Jewish story, steeped in the particularism of the time and the culture and, most notably, the language… and yet, creating a story with universal appeal.
Did you know that Fiddler recently celebrated its 50th anniversary in Japan? As the longest running musical in Tokyo’s history?
My grandmother, who would be 103 today if she were with us, had all of Sholem Alechiem’s stories on her bookshelves. And so did all her friends.
Yet that funeral of 100,000 plus mourners took place three months before my grandmother was even born.
Our literary canon – just one cultural treasure of Jewish creativity -- was something that was passed down through generations. It was the one part of the old life that survived into the new. As the people of the book, we are also the people of books. And through our stories and reflections, through our expression and the sounding of our own horns – whether in the form of ballpoint pens, paint brushes, or clarinets – we define and redefine not just who we are, but who we hope to be.
My grandmother passed on to me the love of literature, but not so much the Jewish literacy. It wasn’t a priority for her. Nor was it a priority for anyone else in my family.
By the standards of the modern Jewish community, I was lost. The checklist had gone unchecked.
No Jewish education.
No bar mitzvah.
No trips to Israel.
No observances of any kind – not on Shabbos, not on the high holidays… bupkes.
More than the absence of “positive identification” with my Jewish identity, I felt a growing antipathy to the measurements by which I was told I was or was not a good Jew: attendance at services I could not understand, remembrance of a Holocaust I could neither forget nor conceive, and passion for a nation state I had never seen.
And yet… I felt undeniably Jewish. Was it the Zabar’s lox my parents fed me as a child? Was it the odd sprinkling of Yiddish that seasoned my childhood? My mother had a t-shirt made when I was young and she wore it all the time. It was red, and it had a single word on the chest: FEH.
My wife and I were married on Martha’s Vineyard in 1998 by a justice of the peace. He had a thick vineyard accent, most notable when he drew the wedding party’s attention to “The Huffa”.
It was a blustery October day and the audio on the video recording of our ceremony is badly muffled by the wind, but if you turn up the volume really loudly you can hear my mother in the background saying HUPPAH! HUPPAH!
My best friend, Pacey, and I had hiked into the woods to find the right branches from which to fashion the poles.
We had no direction or design. We followed no halakhic rules that I am aware of. For all I know, Rabbi Ben is plotzing over there at the terrible abuse of tradition.
But the fact was: we felt a sense of tradition. We felt an attraction to something we had inherited and a desire to pick the parts that seemed relevant: the parts that added beauty and meaning to a moment we valued.
Why are these things – the lox, the FEH and the pupik and schmutz (fragments of a language all but disappeared) the wedding rituals, Fiddler on the Roof, smoked white fish -- why are these the things that make us feel Jewish? Why are these the things that represent the bulk of modern Jewish “observance” today? They are like radio signals traveling across space and time.
They’re not listed on the checklist I mentioned earlier – the one I failed. But they are the ones that stuck.
Because the flavors and the sounds and the creative expressions unique to a people, our people – form a vivid, brilliant thread that actively binds us to our inheritance, and to one another. The thread that invites reflection, understanding, inspiration, and a sense of celebration of self – something we as American Jews have had trouble with for a long time.
Guilt? We’ve got that.
Neuroses? World champs.
But celebration? That’s been harder to come by.
Beautiful, powerful art that makes us proud of who we are? And the reverence for the artists who create it? Also in short supply today.
But in 1916 and in the 50 years that preceded it — Jewish creativity had flourished like never before: Plays, poems, music, visual arts, graphic design… a brilliant flowering of expression by a people facing radically changing times, innumerable existential threats, and greater opportunities than we had ever known before.
And the enthusiasm within the Jewish community and well beyond the Jewish community, for the soul of our creativity was displayed in myriad ways -- with no greater fanfare than at the funeral of Sholem Aleichem in 1916.
Now, I began with 1916, but I told you at the start that my story begins 100 years ago…
It’s a story I had never heard, until 2001 when, three life-altering events took place for me in the weeks following September 11.
The first was the birth of my first child.
The second was an unexpected request from Aaron Lansky, the founder of the Yiddish Book Center, that I join that organization as its vice president.
Has anyone here been to the Book Center? It’s one of the most beautiful Jewish buildings in America, and it is also one of the most culturally rich archives we have.
When I first walked in there I expected it would be the size of a closet with a few survivors putting dusty old books on shelves. But no… it was light and bright and HUGE and most of the people working there were young and eager to dig into the more than one million volumes that covered the range of modern Jewish experience, from religion to assimilation, from socialism to anarchy, from rationality to sexuality, and everything in between.
But again, I was the guy who really didn’t have the boxes checked, so this came completely out of left field.
Yet there was something in this opportunity that kept me from ruling it out of hand. More than that, there was something drawing me closer to this place that held the literary canon I referenced earlier. A million Yiddish books rescued from dumpsters and forgotten libraries and estate sales across the globe. A million books I couldn’t read!
What was it that drew me to them?
I sensed I could discover a piece of myself there, in that building, surrounded by creativity, and by those people who were digging through the past to find new answers about our present.
And our future.
That digging inspired me to do my own digging.
My son was born 24 days after 9/11. It was a scary time to bring a child into the world. How could I explain this place?
Afraid for the future, I looked to the past and named him Sam, after my grandfather.
I owned only one tangible relic left behind by Grandpa Sam: the “life story” Grandma Wini made him recite into their cassette recorder.
Gramps never talked about himself, and he didn’t put much stock in that project. Rather than spend $1.25 to buy a blank tape, he took an old foreign language instruction cassette and affixed a piece of tape to the hole at the top. That way he could record over the lesson. An autobiography in 30-minutes or less? And free? Now that’s a bargain.
Although I had that cassette for ten years, I could never bring myself to listen it.
Until this moment.
So this is the third life altering event. The story Grandpa Sam told in just the first few seconds.
“I was a young boy growing up in South Boston, and on my first day of school I was sent home with a piece of tape across my mouth and a note pinned to my sweater that said ‘Send him back when he can speak English’ because all I could speak was Jewish.”
And by Jewish, I knew he meant Yiddish.
What I didn’t know was that he was a native Yiddish speaker. What I didn’t know was that his first school lesson was to keep his mouth shut. What I didn’t know was how much I almost never knew.
Two little pieces of tape sealed his true story. One covered his mouth, and the other covered the little hole at the top of a re-used cassette – one piece of tape away from never being heard again.
Gramps’ anecdote was forty-two words. But it was enough to unlock an entirely new understanding of someone I thought I knew.
And of myself. Of where I came from, and where I was going. With Sam, and for Sam.
The future, and the past, are clearer with the tape peeled off. Imagine all the stories sealed by so slim a barrier.
So it was with that in mind that I came to deeply value ALL the stories contained in the books of the Yiddish Book Center. The authors – Peretz, Molodowsky, I.J. Singer, Sholem Aleichem – the Yiddish author who funeral drew 100,000 mourners!
As I came to know more about this world, I grew increasingly nostalgic for something I had never experienced myself.
There had been a Jewish cultural Renaissance and I had missed it.
I had missed it because millions of people – people just like my grandfather – were told they weren’t supposed to speak JEWISH. So they didn’t. And whatever stories they had to tell or share or create… they fell silent.
But in 2010, I came to believe that the beginnings of a new renaissance could be at hand.
I had left Book Center to run Reboot, a think tank and incubator for modern Jewish creativity.
2010 was the year we staged Sukkah City.
Sukkah City was an international design competition to re-imagine an ancient phenomenon – the practice on the holiday of Sukkot of building a temporary structure – a sukkah – designed to evoke the temporary dwellings the Israelites inhabited on their way out of Egypt.
The creatives at Reboot saw an opportunity in this tradition to develop new methods of material practice and parametric design, and propose radical possibilities for traditional design constraints in a contemporary urban site. Twelve finalists were selected by a panel of celebrated architects, designers, and critics – and were given the resources to construct a visionary village in Union Square Park.
One structure was chosen by New Yorkers to stand and delight throughout the week-long festival of Sukkot as the People's Choice Sukkah of New York City. The winning was announced at a ceremony by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The sukkah's rules seem simple: the structure must be temporary, have at least two and a half walls, be big enough to contain a table, and have a roof made of shade-providing organic materials through which one can see the stars.
With Sukkah City, we presented these rules to contemporary artists and architects as the design constraints.
We are given these rules, these laws. But it is our job to make poetry of them.
I encourage you to go online and see the designs — they will astonish you — but in the meantime, I will try to convey what I saw there…
The people I saw there…
All 170,000 of them – more than the number that filled the streets for Sholem Aleichem’s funeral procession!
Jews who had never seen their rituals and traditions expressed this way.
Jews who had no idea what these rituals and traditions were.
And all the non-Jews who saying to them:
“This is so cool. Why do you guys do it this way?”
And the Jews saying “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”
It was the surprise of it all that was most surprising. They were amazed by their own inheritance, by how it could look, and by the delight others were taking in it.
This was the moment I started to believe in a 21st century Jewish cultural renaissance.
And then I got involved with one of the more unexpected patrons of the renaissance:
Harold Grinspoon, the founder of PJ Library.
You might think: kids’ books and renaissance? Milk and meat.
But hear me out.
Harold saw kids come alive at a Passover Seder when they read books.
He had heard a story about Dolly Parton’s imagination library, a literacy project for poor communities, and he understood: We don’t really have a literacy problem in Jewish community, but we do have a cultural literacy problem.
My kids were 2 of the first 200 to receive a PJ Library book. That was a little more than a decade ago.
This month: more than 200,000 books will go out in N America
And when you add Russia, Australia, Israel, Latin America, and on and one: More than 630,000 book are in the mail. Right now.
And they will be again in October, and November, and on and on.
This is the most significant distribution platform for Jewish creativity that we’ve got in the 21stcentury.
It’s also a huge marketplace for artists.
Every time a PJ Library book is selected to go out to families, at least 20,000 copies will be printed. That’s a bestseller.
Suddenly: for great artists and authors and illustrators, the idea of new Jewish creativity isn’t just a passion project, it’s a career opportunity.
And with this new outpouring of creativity there is an opportunity for us all to reconnect with who we are, why we are here, and what the particularism of our Jewishness has to do with the universality of the world we live in.
The seeds of a renaissance begin with the act of ripping that tape off and saying: This is who I am.
This is my cry.
Author Jonathan Wittenberg draws a parallel to the story of Elijah… and the sound he heard on the mountain… to the sounding of the shofar.
He writes that Elijah, staying in “the very same cave where God was revealed to Moses… heard the terrifying sounds of earthquakes, fire, and thunder. But they left him unmoved; he remained in his cave. When, however, he heard the voice of fine silence, he was struck by awe and understood that this was a summons he had to answer. Covering his face with his mantle, he came out to confront the ultimate question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
That same sound of fine silence is likened in the liturgy to the voice of the shofar, as it says: “The great shofar will be blown, and the voice of fine silence will be heard.” So the question of the shofar is simply: What are we doing here, you and I? It is addressed to each of us and pursues us all our lives.”
Could it be that the sound we hear when the shofar blows – the sound that rouses the soul of creation – includes a mandate for us, who are granted the gift of creativity, to listen and look and experience the creative expression of our people? To encourage and to honor it?
For every time an artist creates something that has a uniquely Jewish quality or concern, it is, in its own way, an act of ripping off that tape, again and again. It is an act of issuing that utterly simple cry.
It is those acts that help us see who we are, in all our complexity and richness.
It is those acts that give us strengtsh to say who we are, and to help others understand us, and what we stand for.
Creative expression, art, culture, and the places that celebrate them – places like this -- constitute the glue that holds a community together.
In the face of social discord, technology overload, racism and antisemitism and division… Let us devote this new year to encouraging and supporting a new renaissance of creativity, a new era of ripping the tape off of our mouths and saying: this is who we are. This is where we come from. This is what we are doing here. This is where we might go.