This sermon has a sort of prologue:
"In America today, Judaism exists in a culture of choice... and, for better or for worse, we are not interested in a reactive Judaism that expects our participation for reasons of survival. We need to shift the communal narrative away from one of crisis and reaction, which doesn't resonate with young Jews, to one of celebration and transformation - no less present in Judaism but seemingly given less importance by many of our institutions over the last 50 years."
The totality of Bisman's claim is that JDub is where it's at. We can find more meaning in groovy music than in synagogues.
For many Jewish young people, and even for some who have stood at this podium and delivered lovely divrei Torah on the day of their BM, he is spot on. But I also give credence to the idea of a Jewish future, something which JDub records cannot give us, at least not as conceived by its creators.
It is true that for much of the latter half of the 20th c., American Conservative and Reform rabbis relied heavily on two subjects for their sermons: the Holocaust and Israel. These two themes were sufficient for galvanizing their congregants. They spoke less about community, or our personal relationship with Judaism, or God, or spirituality. Much of our identity as Jews was heavily tied to the principle of not giving Hitler a posthumous victory. In fact, that very slogan was my mother's oft-repeated justification for why I had to marry a Jewish woman.
No more. While we still mark our remembrance of the Shoah at the appropriate times, it is no longer a subject that brings Jews into the sanctuary, or staves off intermarriage. We have reached a point where we are either inured to the message of victory over evil, or perhaps so bored by it that we are constantly changing the channel, just like we do in our living rooms.
A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to have officiated at my wife Judy’s brother’s wedding in Vienna. It happened to be the same night as the Journal Dinner Dance honoring the Puttermans, and although I’m sorry that we missed that event, you can rest assured that we had a very good time that evening anyway. My brother-in-law’s wife is from Vienna, and the vast majority of wedding attendees were Austrians.
I was actually the co-officiant at this wedding with the Chief Rabbi of Austria, a jolly fellow by the name of Rabbi Pauli Eisenberg. As is the case with “chief rabbis” throughout the world (although we do not have them in North America, they are ubiquitous elsewhere), he is orthodox, although known to be liberal.
The Jewish community of Vienna is absolutely fascinating for many reasons, and primarily because of the legacy of WWII. Steeped in history, the city’s stock-in-trade is indeed its many legacies: the Romans and later the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, the artistic and intellectual traditions, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Klimt, Schrodinger, Wittgenstein, and also Freud, Herzl, Buber, Mahler, and on and on. The imperial palaces and the ancient churches that dominate the landscape and are regular stops of the local tourist route are testaments to the glorious history of this city of cafes and composers.
And yet, the tale that is not explicitly told through old buildings or art museums is that of the Jews. The only synagogue that survived the Nazi takeover in 1938 is the Stadttempel, the City Temple that was spared destruction only because of its proximity to other buildings. Even so, that synagogue was only built in 1826, hinting at the fact that throughout the Middle Ages Jews were alternatively tolerated in and then expelled from Austria. Of course, the latest chapter in this cycle of alternating welcome and destruction concluded about 65 years ago, a mere blink of an eye in Vienna's history.
In the Judenplatz, the “Jew Square” in the center of Vienna, there is a memorial to the Austrian Jews that were killed by the Nazis. It is an unremarkable, low slung grey box surrounded by the names of all the camps to which they were deported, and is overshadowed by the grand traditional architecture of the buildings around the Judenplatz.
The dedication plaque at the front of the monument tells a subtle story in three languages. It reads, in German and English, “In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945."
And yet, you might say that the Jewish community in Austria is thriving. After WWII, about 500 Jews remained in Vienna, and although estimates vary, there are somewhere between 10-20,000 Jews in Austria today.
Viennese Jews represent a microcosm of world Jewry. The bride, Nicole, grew up strongly identified with Orthodoxy, even though her family was not particularly “religious” in the way that Orthodoxy has redefined itself today. She and her friends were regular participants in Benei Aqiva, the Zionist Orthodox youth group, and although respectful of tradition, they were not shomer shabbat or shomer kashrut. In America, Nicole feels most comfortable in the Conservative movement.
But what was most striking about this wedding and our entire Viennese trip was a toast that Nicole’s younger brother Marcel gave her during the course of the evening, during which among other things, he captured the stark differences between Austrian and American Jewry. Austrian Jews, he said, are stifled by the constant reminder of the Holocaust; it is their imperative to live and thrive in this historically anti-Semitic environment, to prove to the gentiles that they are not going away. But America, where his sister now lives, is a land of freedom, a land where Jewish people can choose from a variety of options. American Jews are free of historical obligations, said Marcel, but don't forget where you came from.
While he was speaking, we felt in the room this electric moment of absolute truth, a brave attempt in the city of Freud to make the subconscious conscious. I remember thinking that here was a Jewish Malcolm X, who shouted into a microphone all of the things that African Americans could only think, for fear of upsetting white society.
I hope you'll join me for Part II in 4 weeks. Shabbat shalom.