Sunday, May 6, 2018

Empty Chairs

At Touro Synagogue
April 28, 2018
Empty Chairs  

On  Friday morning, April 27, I received text messages from an unfamiliar phone number. It was Bernie Friedman, whose father Charles Friedman grew up in Newport. Bernie’s  grandfather was Dr. Bernard Friedman, a Newport dentist, and his great-grandfather was Rev. Nathan  Friedman was a Chazen at Touro Synagogue for many years.  

Bernie was on his way to Newport to attend the funeral of Dr. Anthony Caputi, a good friend of his father. Dr. Caputi served on the Touro Foundation board for many years. I went to services on Friday night to greet Bernie, who is very active in the Jewish Community in Hollywood, Florida.  

On Shabbat, our visitors included Bob and Hillary Zitter, from Stanford, Ct. Bob Zitter has been the President of a large Orthodox shul, and now leads the Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford. He is a retired superstar for HBO. For many years he was HBO’s CTO (chief technology officer). His job was to keep HBO ahead of the curve, and he did!

I had the honor of reciting the Haftarah, and then taking the Torah back to the aron. I went as fast as possible to cover any mistakes with the text and the trope. I doubt this fooled anyone. 

Rabbi Marc Mandel’s  brief sermon started with a newspaper story. A Jew in Germany told a gentile friend that it was dangerous to wear a kippah in Germany. The friend, an Israeli-Arab tried to prove that this was not true. The test ended badly and the friend was beaten up. The story could have ended there, but instead a perturbation of the force occurred.

According to the Jewish Chronicle, “Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told Berlin public radio that Jews should be careful in big cities, after two men wearing kippahs were assaulted.

‘Mr Schuster said: "Defiantly showing your colours would in principle be the right way to go [to tackle anti-Semitism].
"Nevertheless, I would advise individual people against openly wearing a kippah in big German cities.”

Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau countered,  German Jews should wear the kippah and, “be proud of their Jewishness.” But many Jews have stopped wearing kippot in public after many years of attacks.

According to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, 

“One who is prepared to die for his Jewishness sanctifies God's Name. Conversely, denying that one is Jewish is akin to idolatry, since it implies a denial of our fundamental beliefs. Therefore, in time of danger, it is forbidden to save one's life by denying that he is Jewish. It is permitted to make an ambiguous statement, to act like a non-Jew, or to disguise oneself as such. It is forbidden to disguise oneself as a priest, however, since this is the same as an outright denial of one's Jewishness.“

In the parsha, Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, the subject was addressed. What does it mean? It depends on the interpretation.

Vayikra 18:3 says we should not walk in the ways of the other nations (don’t go bareheaded). 
כְּמַעֲשֵׂ֧ה אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֛יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּ֖הּ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ וּכְמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה אֶֽרֶץ־כְּנַ֡עַן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲנִי֩ מֵבִ֨יא אֶתְכֶ֥ם שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵֽכוּ׃
You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.

Vayikra 18:5 might mean, “Don’t risk your life.”

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃ (ס)
You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the LORD.

Since I was about to embark on a trip to several countries in Europe, Greece, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus, I asked the Rabbi, “Are you suggesting I should wear a kippah during my trip.” He demurred, “That’s not necessary. The test has already been performed.”

During the last few days in Thessaloniki, Greece, the test has been going well. No one has called attention to me. However a visiting Israeli couple stopped me. During a brief conversation in Hebrew, they managed to explain that there were Shabbat services. 

The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki is very well organized. It operates schools, a youth group, an old age home, a cemetery, and a museum.

On Friday I visited the small Jewish museum. I paid the 5 euro admission to the indifferent clerk. The Jewish community is ancient, going back about 2000 years. The old community began to call  themselves, Romaniot , after the Byzantines, who considered themselves Romans, when many Sephardic Jews arrived in Thessaloniki after 1492 from Spain and parts of Italy after Judaism was banned. Each wave of immigrants created its own Jewish community, such as Lisbon, Aragon,Calabria and Puglia.  

At the Monastir Synagogue, built in 1927 by Jews from Monastir, Yugoslavia, I was welcomed with a smile by Lydia. Used by the Red Cross during WWII, it was the only shul, out of 60, to survive the holocaust. Recently restored after an earthquake, it is used for special occasions. The empty chairs are rarely filled.

Friday evening I attended services at the Yad Lezikaron Synagogue, which were followed by a dairy meal which included baklava for desert. I sat with a group of people on a Melton group tour of Greece. The Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning sponsors educational programs world wide. Next to me was a visitor from New Jersey, born in Belgium. “Europe is full of Jewish cemeteries,” she said. She thought it was futile to try to keep the almost vanished Jewish communities in Europe, such as Thessaloniki’s, that seem to be on life support, going.

Saturday morning services started at  8 am. One reminder of the past was a ladino [judeo-spanish] prayer after the Torah was taken from the ark. 

After services I was invited by Rabbi Aaron Israel to his home for lunch. There were many salads, and I was surprised when plates of yams, rice, and roasted meat appeared after over an hour. There were other guests including an Israeli family visiting from Bulgaria. Roasted eggs were served both Friday night and at shabbos lunch. 

Amidst the food we sang zmirot. Rabbi Israel asked, “What do they sing in Boston?” I stretched my brain and came up with Mi Pi El, Hine Matov, and Ele Chamda Libi (This is the desire of my heart; please have pity and please don't hide yourself.)