I Remember the Rabbi

By: Joe Pettit

I remember the Rabbi grilling the hot dogs.  It had to be the Rabbi, because the hot dogs and their preparation had to be kosher.  Cool reason, I thought, to be the Grill-Master.  “Why do you always get to grill?” I could see someone complaining to the Rabbi.  “Ask God,” I imagined him answering.

We ate the hot dogs at a picnic next to Lake Michigan.  It was a beginning of the year picnic for the Jewish school that my non-Jewish son attended from pre-school through kindergarten.  Present at the picnic were Jews of all kinds (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and just “cultural”), as well as non-Jews like my family.  I remember feeling so welcomed and so impressed by the willingness of many to wear their religious identity for all to see.  They were both completely normal and completely beautiful people.

Some time after his Hebrew lessons in kindergarten had begun, I remember my son sitting in a bubbly bathtub correcting my pronunciation of Pesach, the Hebrew term for Passover.  “No, no, Daddy.  It’s PesaCH.”  Five-year-old vs. recent PhD graduate in religious studies, and the five-year-old had clearly won.

My son loved singing “Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehecheyanu…” I could never remember what comes next, but he could.  Ever since, I have had a soft spot for Jewish singing.  If God sang at creation, I think it would have been in Hebrew.

I remember Rabbi E. who worked with me on faith-based social activism in Chicago.  Rabbi E. and I were the same age, and we both had two sons.  He had a third son.  Soon, I did, too.  Rabbi E. had a plan to make me Jewish.  We would go out drinking with two other guys who, unbeknownst to me, were also rabbis.  That makes three rabbis.  Once I was sufficiently drunk, Rabbi E. would get me into a mikvah, a ritual Jewish bath.  Three times he would tell me to stick my head underwater.  After the third time, I would have immersed myself three times in a mikvah in front of three rabbis.  At the end of it all, apparently, I would come out Jewish.  I think he was kidding.  We never got to try it.

I remember attending the bris, or circumcision, of Rabbi E.’s third son. It is the only bris I have attended.  No one, it seemed, payed any attention to the actual event.  Later, when I pointed this out to Rabbi E. he replied, “Can you blame them?”

I remember first reading Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  I have never been the same since.  In all of my years of reading theological texts, I have never enjoyed reading anything about God and humanity more than anything Heschel wrote.

Heschel produced one of the most enduring images for the reality of God that I have found.  Imagine approaching a house at night, lights shining through the windows.  The lights tell you someone is home, even if you do not know who it is.  In my own life, I am rather certain I see the lights, even I could tell you next to nothing about who lives in the house (and I am very suspicious of those who think they can).

I remember reading that rabbinic interpretations of the story of Noah conclude that Noah was a bad guy, or rather, a righteous man in a fur coat; someone who keeps only himself warm.  Abraham, in contrast, was a righteous man who builds a fire.  Such a man keeps himself and others warm.  Noah’s error, according the rabbis, was failing to advocate for humanity when God announced the flood.  Instead, Noah just did what he was told.  Abraham, on the other hand, repeatedly advocated for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  We know that the story of Noah is ultimately a judgement against him because of how the story ends.  Noah lies passed out drunk and naked.  The story ends by shaming Noah for his failure to defend humanity.

No one I then concluded, knew how to read scripture like Jews.  I also decided that the story of Noah (emphasis on the word story) is in the Bible precisely to warn people how not to save the world.  Always have your neighbor’s back.  I hope the rabbis would approve of this interpretation.

I remember all of this because memory enables us to cherish now what was then.  I cherish what was then here and now as I try to internalize what happened at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.  I realize that all human life is beautiful and precious, and I realize that there have been other mass killings at houses of worship in the last few years (how horrible is it that I must note this qualification?!), but I felt something especially painful when I learned that eleven people had been killed in the synagogue, at least one of whom had survived the Holocaust.

The hate and anger has always been there, and it seems to be especially drawn to the light of faith.  Literally, for thousands of years Jews have been victims of this hate.  Once again, here and now, the hate is growing, and I wonder what should be done.

Many of the Jews I have known live with what one might call a humble intensity.  I am not particularly humble, and my intensity is waning with every passing year.  Maybe I need to return to the depth of inspiration I find in Jewish writing and living.  I certainly find myself cherishing that writing and that living in recent days.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I do not think Jews are religious superheroes.  I know many Jews who are tired of being Jewish and some who are more than just a little embarrassed by their heritage.  For me, this just reinforces the humanity of Jews.  Being religious is not easy, especially when you are skeptical of anything approaching religious confidence, or when people abuse you or kill you just because of an identity you sometimes have done nothing to cultivate.

Nonetheless, the Jews I have known – the Jews whom I try now to hold a little closer to my heart – inspire me because, even in their skepticism, they inhabit their religion and their religion inhabits them.  By this I mean Judaism (and there are many different Judaisms!) is for them something akin to breathing.  It is not a question of whether or not they will be Jewish, but only a question of how they will be Jewish.  In this, I both admire and envy them.

I end by noting that I complete this short essay on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

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