Last year, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I was a volunteer usher at the start of services here at the Vilna Shul. I offered a machzor to a man—let’s call him Fred—who looked to be in his late forties and had with him two children who were both under the age of ten; that afternoon there had been a special pre-holiday tour of the building, which was, of course, an amazing way to get in the right mindset for the High Holiday season. Whether today is your first time celebrating with us or you have been attending holidays and events at the Vilna for years, you are certainly aware what a unique privilege it is to experience a traditional Eastern European synagogue within Downtown Boston. Of course, Fred wanted to share that with his children—or so I thought.
“No, thank you,” he said to me, and he snapped a photo of our beautiful stained glass Star of David in the mezzanine outside the sanctuary before calling his son and daughter to come downstairs with him. I was taken aback by his reaction. Where were they going? It’s Erev Rosh Hashanah. To Fred, however, my “Erev Rosh Hashanah” was just another school night (the chag began on a Sunday night last year) and he and his family would have to be up early the next morning just like any other Monday. Services had not yet begun, meaning that ten or fifteen minutes remained of 5776; predictably nothing else of note happened during this short time, so I entered 5777 with this one final occurrence to wrap up the entirety of the prior year: a man who brought his children to see the Vilna Shul immediately before the start of a holiday, and to leave before that holiday began.
Jewish law forbids us from judging another Jew—or, for that matter, anyone—unfavorably. We never know what causes people to behave as they do, and it isn’t always for us to understand who is in greater favor with God. But in my brief encounter with Fred, I could conclude that there was no emergency preventing them from staying with us; he had time to take a picture and he was not in a hurry such as he would have been if he had just received news of some emergency back home. He had time to bring his children for a tour, after all, and the tour was probably longer than services, which are always short on Erev Chag. So to my eyes, this was someone for whom the Vilna Shul was a museum no different than any other museum.
Fred taught his kids on that night that this building and all its precious artifacts had no place in the digitized and sophisticated second decade of the twenty-first century. No doubt some artifacts might have been in their own home—a dusty set of tefillin, a collection of kippot from bar mitzvahs and weddings of yore, a tarnished seder plate, maybe even some displayed framed black and white photos of someone stern and unsmiling captured in their best outfit either immediately before or after Ellis Island. But what relevance do any of these things hold for a modern family? Most American Jews today are aware and perhaps even proud of their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ Jewish observance, but for many of them, that level of observance has no place in the fast-paced and progressive lifestyle of a citizen of the 21st-century. Old customs are dismissed as archaic or non-inclusive or demeaning to women and no more time is taken to learn about them than the time it takes to read about them in a museum.
Unfortunately for them, the opinion that Judaism belongs in a museum is not new. Someone else much more famous and influential said the same thing before most of us were even born.
The Haftorah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah talks about the wives of the prophet Elkanah, Chana and Pnina, who each seem to be required to fulfill his needs—Chana is his true love, but Pnina has all the children. As if this highest status symbol was not enough, Pnina taunts Chana for years; eventually, Chana is blessed with a single son, Samuel, who will become another of our great prophets. When Samuel is old enough to be taken from her to begin his priestly training, Chana breaks into a prayer of thanksgiving that it is her son, the longed-for son of the forgotten and belittled Chana, who will serve his God and his people in this way. Only God, Chana says, can decide who is truly lowly and who is not, just as He decides who will live and who will die in the year to come (as seen again in the High Holiday prayer Unetaneh Tokef).
Chana is not alone among the Jewish people as an unlikely mother in a dysfunctional family. She shares the first day of Rosh Hashanah with Sara, who gives birth to Yitzchak, also her only son, at the age of ninety. Yitzchak is the only son of Sara but not his father Abraham; Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, was born to his wife’s Egyptian servant Hagar. Like Pnina, Hagar used her motherhood as a cruel weapon against the “other woman.” Ishmael is accepted as the founder of the Arab people and, as an ancestor of Mohammed, of Islam as well. Another of our Mothers who did not bear multitudes of children was Rachel, whose two sons to her sister Leah’s ten appeared ostensibly diminutive. Yet it is her son Joseph who is the first to bring Judaism into exile, setting the stage for the precarious future which includes all of us.
Indeed, of all the nations on earth, Jews have been “chosen” by God to keep His mitzvot and to be the very conscious of the world, making us by default the “Chana” of the nations. We are the smallest in number and our proportion to the global population has not changed since Roman times. Consistently “mocked” by our neighbors, whether with hook-nosed cartoons or an arbitrary pogrom or an eviction letter on the door at the NYU dorms, somehow in 5778 we are still breathing life into these sacred “museum” walls. It seems a shame to waste such a birthright by writing it all off as unnecessary or unimportant.
The “still, small voice” referenced in Unetaneh Tokef is the voice of Chana when she prays wordlessly for a son. It is the voice used to pray the silent Amidah. It is the one New York Times article that does not besmirch the State of Israel. It is the infinitesimal fraction of Righteous Gentiles (both those officially recognized and those whose names are lost) from the Shoah. It is maintaining even the most basic tenets of Kashrut or tzniut when modern progressive tastes demand only the most shocking and ridiculous creations and will acknowledge nothing else. The “still, small voice” that is meant to be us trembling before God in supplication is an accurate metaphor for simply being Jewish.
Compared to the rest of the world, Jews are small. There are maybe 15 million of us globally, and of these, per current demographic trends, only a small percentage is slated to have Jewish descendants. There is one Jewish nation and no more than three quarters of its inhabitants are Jews. Of them, all are somehow responsible for the problems of their neighbors, which makes sense seeing as most Jewish Israelis have a heritage in a diaspora country where Jews were routinely blamed for plagues and economic crises. Yet the Jewish people do not blame the world for their problems any more than Chana blamed Pnina for her infertility, and it is our still, small, quiet voice which has given the world its conscience. Sadly, nobody likes to listen to their conscience and they will take great pains to stifle it by any means necessary.
In a similar vein, I do not blame Fred for his behavior on Erev Rosh Hashanah last year. He is almost certainly a well-meaning man who loves his family and clearly wants his children to know that they are Jewish without having to demur to actually practicing Judaism. Our rituals can be tiresome and inconvenient and tend to be incongruent with whatever the contemporary culture is at any given time and place. While Chana prayed like a lunatic, Pnina kept getting pregnant. No one wants to be Chana—until Chana’s one child is a prophet. No one wants to be Jewish—until it appears to offer some tangible benefit (such as days off for holidays). It’s just that no society based around tangible benefits seems to last very long in comparison to our own, and we would do well to acknowledge that in the coming year.
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