Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Terrible Way to Start

This is a terrible way to start. It’s Friday afternoon. I have almost completed my regular work, not quite getting to two important emails that will have to wait until after Shabbat. My sense of what I do and what I don’t do on Shabbat stems from a very clear set of standards that Dad, if not imposed, at least made very clear. I have long established that working on Shabbat is a “don’t do”. For some years in my youth, what I would do included going to the Nassau Community Temple in West Hempstead, Long Island, New York for the regular Friday night service. “Friday night is temple night.” “As Israel has kept the Sabbath, so the Sabbath has kept Israel.” These concepts are ingrained, and yet, even in my youth I had limits to which I observed Sabbath law.

As a mid-Twentieth Century, New York suburban, Reform Jewish teenager, there was as much I was ignorant about these laws as defiant of. At the same time I do have a sense that I attended many Friday night services—perhaps even willingly. In a way I might not have even been conscious of then, the temple was my home with a huge extended family. That is where I could be with and see my father in action. That is where I could connect with his voice in its sweet, intelligent, caring reverence. That is where I would sit sometimes in rapt attention, sometime in a fit of the “church giggles” with my mom in the middle of the fourth pew from the front on the right, week after week, year after year.

One of the things I ponder now is how much of my father’s words will seem familiar as I read them. I know I will hear his voice in every syllable, but will I be taken back to the time and place where I first heard those very words? The anticipation is building, the curiosity, the longing for that connection is palpable.

My Shabbat ethic is squaring off with my anticipation. Late Friday afternoon. Just back from a long bike ride. I could be picking up a few things for dinner, setting the Shabbes table. Preparing for, if not an evening at shul, at least a quiet night home with Debbie. But no. Anticipation—a need to roll into action overtakes Jewish law. I search for some rationalization. The one I usually use to justify all sorts of violations is the precept that saving a life takes precedence over the restrictions of Shabbat. Isn’t opening the blue bins, in a sense, a resurrection? Aren’t I preserving my father’s life by reviving his words, preserving them, sharing them for perhaps generations to come? Even I am not buying that specious argument. Another thing I am not doing is making Shabbes dinner and setting the table. I am overcome by the intense desire to go out to the garage, dust off the two remaining bins out there, and bring the whole lot of papers into the house to sort and inventory them before I start the long process of reading them.

Instead of putting candles in the shiny candleholders on the dining table, I pick them up and set them aside so I can use the broad surface to sort the musty paper-laden folders. If that isn’t a piece of ironic effrontery. Shameful. As I watch my hands set the candlesticks aside, and make way to do this work, I can sense what may have been a common occurrence for my father as he observed his youngest child—a wrestling match between pride and dismay.

I pry off the lid of the first bin. The files are tightly packed together. I look for one that I can easily grasp—“NCT ’55 – ‘56”. Many of the files are marked similarly, with the initials of the Nassau Community Temple and an academic year. I grab a fatter folder—“SERMONS – PRE-LEX”—prior to our move to Lexington, KY in 1948. That would cover the first ten years of his rabbinate. There are two such fat files. Maybe somewhere in all of these is his first sermon as a congregational rabbi. “HIGH HOLY DAYS 1952-1960” “PASSOVER SERMONS”  “LEXINGTON – 1949” “INVOCATIONS  - SPECIAL PRAYERS” “THANKSGIVING” “RADIO & TV – NY” Eventually I come to “SERMONS – BRUNSWICK ’74 – ‘75”. Dad did not live to fill this folder. He died on November 11, 1974. Somewhere in this file is his last sermon. He didn’t know it when he wrote it. The mystery of mortality stares me in the face—the spectrum of a man’s life. Later I find a draft of Dad’s seminary thesis—from student, to rabbi, to gone—all in within an arms reach. An indescribable sensation runs through the core of my body as I contemplate getting further acquainted with this material, with this man.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Three Blue Storage Bins

Three blue storage bins have been gathering dust in my garage for decades. They are among a total of twenty-four bins that cover most of the wall above my workbench. Several containers are regularly accessed. They have wrenches and drill bits, nuts, bolts, and nails; or paraphernalia associated with one Jewish holiday or another. Some of the boxes rarely get opened. These three bins haven’t been accessed since I filled them—that is, until last week.

Thirty-six and a half years ago, November 1974, I rescued the contents from incineration. My father had died suddenly and unexpectedly of heart disease. My mother was ridding herself of his accumulated possessions, including his files. Almost all of the papers ended up in flames in a rusty barrel in the Brunswick, Georgia dump. For some reason—mostly unknown to me then as now—I decided to hold onto his sermons, most of them dutifully typed on his Royal portable typewriter virtually every Thursday night for the better part of thirty-six years.

Dad received his ordination from The Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1938. I don’t think he had a pulpit that first year, but it’s possible he performed services somewhere.  It must have been in 1939 that he arrived as rabbi of the Reform Jewish Tree of Life congregation in Columbia, South Carolina where he began his weekly preaching.

The exact contents of these boxes are still unknown to me, but his words, his voice beckons. Anticipating the centennial of Dad’s birth a year and a few weeks from today I have decided to embark on a challenging marathon of perusing this collection and selecting significant samples of it to publish in his memory. I hesitated jumping right into the project until I heard back from the archivist of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. In response to my query he informed me that the CCAR would indeed be very interested in receiving the collection when I completed my task. There were few if any admonitions about how to handle the documents—mostly words of encouragement.

The little I have observed of the sermons so far makes the project very enticing. There are many manila folders with his familiar penciled handwriting with such topic headers as High Holy Days, Marriage, Family & Home, Sermons 1972-73, etc. It’s an adventure—like traveling to a distant land in search of a treasure, or better yet a lost loved one. I can’t anticipate what I will learn about my father or myself, what lessons in Judaism or ethics or social action will unfold. I don’t know how many I will be able to read or how much he will repeat his pet themes over the years. So much to discover!