Rabbi Sarah H. Reines
Temple Emanu-El NYC | Yom Kippur 5784
Two of my earliest loves, Judaism and poetry, are deeply and inextricably linked. The Torah describes itself as a shir – a poem, or song. Much of our liturgy is poetry, and poetry can often be offered as prayer. Why? Because with few words, poems give voice to complex truths in ways that move us, rather than inform us.
Secular and sacred poetry helped anchor us as a people through our centuries of wanderings. Hebrew literature scholar, Robert Alter, suggested that a surge of poetry came out of the Holocaust, and Israel may have the highest per capita production of poetry in the world, as well as the highest number of poetry readers. Books of poetry written by Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s beloved national poet, are sized to fit in people’s back pockets and purses.
Many Jewish writings speak to our intellect; Jewish poetry speaks the language of the heart.
So today, exactly fifty years since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, I offer you this poem by Israeli poet, Avraham Balaban, titled “October 12, 1978”
At a Tel Aviv department store a stooped-over woman
Writes a date on a check, She writes, “12 of October, 1973.”
Seventy-eight, not seventy-three
Calls the cashier laughing,
Freezing in his seat,
Murmuring: what can be done, ma’am,
What can be done?
In this brief verse, Balaban captures the national trauma that was the 1973 war – a trauma reverberating to this day. Something within this woman stopped on that Yom Kippur. Did she lose a husband? A son? Both? Or was she left paralyzed by the injury the nation suffered as a whole? At first the cashier laughs, thinking it is a careless mistake, and then he, too, freezes along with her, realizing they are both – they are all – forever changed.
The Yom Kippur War was not Israel’s bloodiest, but it shattered the Israeli psyche. Israel had emerged from the Six Day war of 1967 with an air of invincibility. When leaders were informed by an Egyptian spy, by King Hussein of Jordan, and by their own Intelligence that war was imminent, they weren’t fearful enough, and disregarded these warnings. This failure of leadership, along with other factors, left Israeli troops as easy targets. The liturgical poem, “Who shall live and who shall die,” was a disastrous reality on that Day of Atonement.
Alongside the devastating loss of life, the David and Goliath myth crumbled, with Israeli bravado giving way to crushing vulnerability. Israel emerged from the war betrayed by its government, by its military leaders, and by its own vision of itself. On Yom Kippur, 1973, enemy attacks jolted the Jewish nation into a place of humility and self-reckoning.
I was curious how our congregation and clergy reacted to what was happening in Israel at that time, so I looked to Temple Emanu-El’s archives. I haven’t found much yet, but I did come across a short work by a young poet from the congregation that I would like to share with you.
I like to live in America
Because I am a Jew
I like to pray to God
And I’ll bet you do to.
– By Sarah Reines
Yes, I am that poet. This poem was published in Temple Emanu-El’s 1976 Religious School yearbook, known as the Ark. I was an earnest 7-year-old, and as you can tell from this short verse, I felt secure as an American Jew, and grateful for the religious freedom my country provided me.
My national and religious identities were fused. In fifth grade, Mr. Mark Willner – who is still teaching Temple Emanu-El fifth graders today – had my class memorize “The Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’ poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty. I was proud that the words of a Jewish woman poet were selected for this sacred purpose. I recited the Pledge of Allegiance as a prayer, and the Shema like a civic declaration. Both texts resonated within me as poems affirming my home.
Shortly after I wrote that poem, the religious school and clergy presented me with a gift that I treasure still today: My Shalom, My Peace, paintings and poems written by Israeli Jewish and Palestinian children in 1974.
This book changed my perception of Israel. Until then, Israel was an other-worldly place of legend, magically transforming from desert to forest, one tree at a time. But as I read these poems, Israel suddenly became real. I was intrigued by the unfamiliar names of the children and their hometowns. Mostly, I was stunned by the poems, which revealed childhoods vastly different from my own.
10-year-old Idan Brayer from Ashkelon
Give us strength to forget
The terrible nightmare of war
The strength to smile and happy be,
To live on in our home, our State and free.
Live on through Yom Kippur days
Hear the shofar blow and not the sirens scream,
Year after year remember those who fell in the strife
It is they who entrusted us with life.
14-year-old Gassoub Serhan from Kfar Yafia:
In my dream, O mother mine,
I saw an angel with wings pure white
Lifting Moses and Mohammed up to the skies
And demanding they shake hands and be wise.
I returned to the pages of this book again and again. Troubled by the dangers these children faced, I wondered who the enemy was, when everyone was a victim. I felt connected to them, but couldn’t explain why.
But that tangle still felt far from me, living comfortably in America. It was easy for me to turn away. That changed when I moved to Israel for my first year of rabbinic school in 1992. By the way, that was the year when Israel passed the Basic Law protecting human rights, now under threat.
Shortly after arriving, I met Bassam, a Christian Palestinian living in East Jerusalem. He was taking the same intensive Hebrew course as my husband, and we quickly became friends. Bassam’s parents often hosted us for lunch in their garden, shaded by olive trees planted by his great, great grandfather. The evening of his brother’s wedding, the branches sparkled with lights as we joined other guests in feasting and dancing.
After returning to the states we kept up, which in the early 90’s meant writing aerograms and sending cassette tapes with recorded messages and music. But after a few years, and a couple of moves, we misplaced Bassam’s address and lost touch. Every so often we tried to track him down, but were never successful.
This spring, I spent three weeks in Israel, concluding with a tour of the West Bank. Our final dinner was at a family-owned restaurant in East Jerusalem. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I said to the owner, “This may sound ridiculous, but do you know someone in his mid-50’s named Bassam? He has a brother, Ibraham.”
She responded, “Bassam? He’s Christian, right? He lives a few blocks away.” A customer overheard and hit Bassam on his speed dial. Fifteen minutes and thirty years later, my friend was again by my side. Muslim customers applauded watching their Christian neighbor embracing this American woman rabbi.
The wonder of this land! Israel/Palestine – a shared home.
Bassam and I only had a short time to catch up. And what he said saddened me. His family is among the last of their Christian community to live in the neighborhood. Tensions within the Palestinian community, along with military and political threats coming from Israeli authorities, makes life there difficult to manage. Most of his closest friends and family are scattered around the globe.
Bassam, though, is not interested in moving. He wants to remain in the house where his family has lived under Ottoman rule, then British Rule. In 1950, they found themselves living in Jordan. In 1967, East Jerusalem was occupied by Israel, and then in 1980 it was declared annexed. “Jordan, Israel, Palestine,” Bassam said, “I honestly don’t care what it is. I just want my family to be able to go to school, make a living, enjoy our lives. I just want us to be regarded as full human beings, as people who belong here, people who have always had our home here.”
Contrast this with a new friend I made during that recent trip. Avi is a security guard in his late 20’s – slightly older than Bassam and I were when we first met. Avi lives in Ein Kerem, a tranquil neighborhood on the outskirts of West Jerusalem, home to Christian holy sites and artsy cafes.
Avi explained that he lives there instead of Tel Aviv for its quiet. But he is realizing he craves a quiet he may never find in Israel. He wants refuge from the chaos and tumult and hostilities and shame. Avi is close to putting a down payment on property he found in a bucolic, forested area. “Where, I asked?” His answer: Ukraine.
When I reacted, he said, “It’s what I can afford. And if I can open my door and hear birds and see trees, what does it matter if I’m in Ukraine, or Italy, or America? Quiet and green. That’s all I need.”
The irony deepens. Avi’s great grandparents came from Ukraine and fled during the war to create a new beginning in Israel, this patch of land alive with the promise of a safe, productive future for themselves and their children. Now, only a few generations later, their Hebrew-speaking, army-trained, sabra descendant is planning to leave his ancestral homeland for the country they fled, a country where Jews have suffered some of its bloodiest massacres, a country which is a war zone.
One man is compelled to stay, one is pulled to leave this land they both call home.
We read in Leviticus of a bizarre plague that will infect some homes in the Land of Israel. If we see reddish or greenish streaks lining the walls of our house, we must immediately tell the Priest, who will begin a process of examination and purification. The house is cleared while walls are scraped, deeply affected stones and timber are removed and replaced, the house is replastered and ultimately purified.
The idea that a house could be so diseased that dwellers have to temporarily leave for the sake of their well-being, upends the notion of home. Home is meant to be a refuge, a place of safety and ideally, a place of sanctity. But that is potential, not promise. Our Torah recognizes that no place – even the sacred Land of Israel – is protected from threatening contagions. It’s up to us to recognize their presence and then to work to eradicate them. With time and effort, the home can be healed and made whole.
I learned here, at Temple Emanu-El, that Israel is my homeland, a place of safety for Jews in a world that has time and again proven dangerous for us; a place where I belonged, before ever being there.
I learned here, at Temple Emanu-El, that Israel is a place of epic beauty and bloody conflict, a place that somehow provokes the best and worst of who we can be as Jews and human beings, and that we must strive to be our best.
I learned here, at Temple Emanu-El, a lesson clearly embedded in our feelings about Israel, but relevant to so many areas of our lives: every moment holds many contradictory truths. It’s a lesson laid out in the poetry of our prayerbook: the great shofar is sounded and the still small voice is heard; God is both Avinu and Malkeinu, close and familiar, distant and mysterious. It’s a lesson powerfully expressed by Yehuda Amichai, who writes:
A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
was wrong about that.
A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
takes years and years to do.
Temple Emanu-El helped this child embrace the complexity of Israel in the 1970’s, a time of crisis. Fifty years later we find ourselves at a similarly critical juncture. I will do for this generation’s children what my rabbis and teachers did for me.
We will continue to expose our children to the many truths of Israel, a country of poetry and art, medical miracles and innovation, progressive values and diversity. They will know Israel is a place of generosity and hope, where Jews and Palestinians work towards coexistence through education, medicine, environmentalism, social welfare, peace projects, the arts.
And our children will know that as Reform Jews they will always be welcomed in Israel as tourists but disregarded there as Jews, that Israel is the only country in the world where it is illegal for their rabbis to officiate at weddings. They will know Israel is a country where hundreds and thousands are protesting for Democracy, but where occupation has impeded Democracy for more than half a century.
We will encourage our children to learn, to love, to visit; we are encouraging them now! Rabbi Davidson and Mike Witman, our new Director of Lifelong Learning, are leading a family trip to Israel this spring. Keep your eyes open for information. We would love for you to come.
We encourage everyone to visit. If you’ve never been, or have been many times, each visit is a new opportunity for points of connection. When you’re there, give yourself the gift of engaging with the magnificent diversity of those who call it home. Speak with everyone! They are a talkative bunch! We learn most about a place by knowing the stories of its people.
Like Avi, more and more non-Orthodox Israeli Jews are increasingly finding themselves unable or unwilling to remain at home. And yet, these same people, frantically applying for European citizenship, are pouring out into their streets – hundreds and thousands of them – fighting for their home.
The Israeli folk song, “Ein Li Eretz Acheret,” has become the anthem for today’s pro-Democracy movement. Written decades ago, by poet Ehud Manor, it expresses love for one’s country even while speaking out in fury and pain against what that country is doing. Its words have been spoken or sung by every segment of Israeli society, including by Palestinians. They have even been spoken on the floor of our own Capital Building in the days following the insurrection of January 2021, and after the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.
The cantor and I offer this poem now, as a prayer for the lands we call home.
I have no other homeland,
though my land is aflame.
A word in Hebrew alone
pierces through my veins to my soul.
With aching body, with hungry heart,
here is my home.
I will not stay silent
that the face of my land has changed.
I will not give up, but keep reminding her –
singing in her ears –
until she opens her eyes.
I have no other homeland.