Kol Nidre 2018 – Stories
President, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom
Selections from Kol Nidre Speech 2018
Let me tell you a story that took place around sixty years ago at an elderly couple’s home on Hutchison Street. Their five year old granddaughter had come for a visit and was excitedly playing with her new corn doll, a handmade gift from her grandmother and aunt. After a time, she noticed that the doll’s head was loose and beginning to fall off. Distressed, she asked her Bubby if she could please fix it. Her Orthodox grandmother replied to her in Yiddish, “I cannot do this for you child. It is the Sabbath.”; whereupon, she turned on her heel and went into her bedroom. Moments later, she emerged and cupped her hands around the forlorn little girl’s face. “I just had a talk with God and He said that it is more important for me to do this for you than to keep the Sabbath.” The message was not lost on the small child and, as an adult who entered a life of service, she never forgot that relationships are at the heart and core of every decision.
This was a story told at the beginning of a Temple Board meeting by one of the Trustees. Each month, we anticipate a new story which can not only send a powerful message but, may also evoke an equally powerful emotion. One by one, we have begun to share our stories as means of building a sacred community. Some of you may be familiar with another recent practice in which, prior to Kaddish, a member may share the story of a loved one they are remembering that particular Shabbat. Stories that by their very nature, remind us that the list of the departed are not just names that we say, but people who are loved and remembered. A granddaughter honouring her grandmother’s leadership at Temple and the profound impact she had on her growing up. A son proudly reflecting on his father’s life, the struggles he endured and the touching legacy he left to his family. A rabbi remembering the sudden loss of her colleague and dear friend, grateful that this service gave her the time to feel how deeply his loss affected her.
Philosophy professor, Stephen Asma, wrote, “Stories…don’t just describe the world, they inspire action in the world. They push our emotions in specific directions. They motivate us…”. Temple’s sponsorship of two Syrian families in response to the photo and story of three-year-old Alan Kurdi whose body had washed up on a Turkish shore clearly illustrates this. As do the stories in our own backyard. Last month, during Pride Shabbat, three of our members were invited to speak in an effort to draw on the richness and insight of our own congregation. Their stories were heartbreaking and heartwarming, and each one praised the inclusiveness of Temple. “The inclusion committee is important,” one speaker noted, “because in our actions at Temple, we continue to be a beacon to those looking for a safe place to land, all differences welcome. One of our greatest communal virtues.”
The late Ojibwe author, Richard Wagamese, believed that stories were meant to heal and were the pathway to acceptance. He wrote, “When you know your neighbours, when you can lean over the fence and hear each other’s stories, you foster understanding, harmony and community.” My last story is a personal one and takes me back to my childhood. First, though, I need to preface my story with an anecdote. Many of you will recall the Emmy Award winning comedian, Jackie Mason whose career peaked in the 1980’s and 90’s. Noted for his heavy Jewish accent, he loved to tell the story about how, after his performances, fellow Jews would invariably be overheard as saying, “He’s not for me…too Jewish!” But what exactly does it mean to be too Jewish or, conversely, not Jewish enough?
Now, my story. My parents met in England at the end of the war, fell in love and made plans to marry. My mother agreed to convert from Protestantism to Judaism and, one year later, she boarded the Queen Elizabeth to set sail for Canada and a new life. As fate would have it, her assigned roommate was a young Orthodox woman who, as part of her nightly routine, would remove her wig before retiring to bed. In spite of this eye-popping introduction to Jewish practices, my mother did not jump ship and several weeks later, newly converted, she wed her Canadian sweetheart here at Temple.
Growing up as a Reform Jew and, additionally, with a parent who was not born Jewish was not always easy. To my Conservative and Orthodox friends’ families, I learned not to divulge that my mother had converted in hopes of avoiding the typically raised eyebrows, slow nods of the head and a long drawn out, “Ohhhhhh”. And the reaction to my belonging to a Reform Temple was, sadly, not much different. For some, I was not Jewish enough while for others, I was not even really Jewish. Even my own grandmother harboured a discomfort that occasionally would slip out. Once, when helping her set the table for Friday night dinner, I expressed excitement at shortly receiving Christmas presents from my other grandparents. I remember her smiling and then gently suggesting that I not mention this when the guests arrived.
My first trip to England was at the age of two and, thereafter, every third year, I would spend entire summers living with my British grandparents. I adored those times living in the country, frequenting the seaside and visiting aunts, uncles and cousins. My grandparents were not overly religious but, on the odd Sunday, they would attend Church. Sometimes I would tag along and, although the service was somewhat foreign, I felt happy to be included. Being in Church, however, highlighted something I had begun to notice during these summer visits. There were no other Jews. My grandparents had no Jewish friends and there were no Jewish neighbours. It wasn’t intentional. It just was. I would remember my mother telling me that my father and another woman in her air force unit were the first Jews she had ever met.
My summers in England were filled with love and I was never made to feel different. We just didn’t talk about it. For me, it was the elephant in the room. And my elephant donned a yarmulke and a chunky gold necklace from which hung a larger- than-life Star of David. Too Jewish? Not Jewish enough? But there was one place where, like Goldilocks, it felt just right. And, for me, that place was Temple. At a time when there were few intermarriages, Temple was accepting and inclusive. My parents were active and I have fond memories of Torah school, Hebrew school, my confirmation and the youth group NEFTY. Temple played a strong role in the lives of its members and, although I was young, I felt that sense of community.
This is a place where, for well over a century, congregants have been able to share their stories and feel welcomed as themselves. And just as past generations created this sacred space for us, it is our honour and responsibility to keep these doors open for the people that keep coming.