The first time I go to synagogue, I am swept away. I go to hear a speaker, invited by a friend. The speaker is the former ambassador to Morocco and—my friend tells me, in hushed tones—“He’s the first Jewish American ambassador.”
I don’t know if this is true but I want to hear what he has to say about the Middle East. He was born in New York, but grew up in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. He has held various appointments on Middle East Policy. Perhaps he has some words of wisdom for us—for this world.
But his flight is canceled so my friend takes my hand and leads me through those large wooden doors into the temple area. He shows me the Holy Ark, where they keep the torah scrolls. There is all this gold leaf and a panel of lights to honor the dead. My eyes are big but I feel small and he says it’s ok to take some pictures. He answers all my questions patiently, at times grappling for the right words. There is a sort of sweet sadness in his telling and I know he is gathering up all the lost years in his heart—scooping them into mine and trusting me to receive them tenderly. He tells me stories about his mother that kindle my heart and I see how much he misses her.
We take our time, walking through and then outside and around and he tells me about the stained glass, about the property. We meet a fellow who has driven a long way to see the speaker and my friend delivers the news: No speaker tonight. And they banter until they find a mutual acquaintance to settle on and each one smiles wide with new-found fondness for the other.
I kiss him on the cheek goodbye—not really wanting to go because I feel his longing to linger. But we are a practical lot and there’s no speaker tonight.
The first time I drive home from synagogue, I stumble upon an NPR interview with a Jewish man named Nathan Englander. He has written a book of short stories called What We Talk About When We Talk About Ann Frank. And he tells how the title story is based on a game his family used to play. A game called Who Will Hide Me or Righteous Gentile.
…it’s so deeply personal, he says. It’s not a game…I call it a game—it makes it easier to talk about…It’s something we play with dead seriousness in my family and that is…we would wonder who would hide us in the Holocaust…
I can’t even spell “Holocaust” without spell-check and I am horrified and heartbroken for a people all over again. Yet, Nathan Englander talks about how easily he gave up his faith…how easily…and yet, every word he speaks echoes the struggle.
…I spend my childhood in America feeling Jewish and not American. And it's only in Israel — it was those years there — where I got to be an American because everyone's a Jew…
When he was a young man he moved to Israel for a few years and it is in the first week of living there, he says, that he gave up organized religion. The irony is that he has spent the last three years translating a new version of the Haggadah—the story of the Exodus that is read aloud every year at the Passover to commemorate the Jews delivery from slavery.
When asked why he would do such a thing, Englander talks about his love of the text, saying that when one reads the Haggadah you should literally read it and weep. It’s just that beautiful, he says, and he is thankful for being given the opportunity to be faithful to the original Hebrew and Aramaic that he loves. He talks about wrestling with the translation of certain words and how, in the end, it’s the poetry and beauty and intention of the text he tried to be faithful to.
I wanted people to be thinking about what they are saying, he says…people are going to be praying from this…
And then he reads an excerpt from the New American Haggadah and I feel the burning bush—the fire that transforms but does not consume—the fire of holy ground. And I think about what he is reading. I think about the words, just as he intended. And I think about my friend and his synagogue and how a place can become a sacred text…how you can listen to the way your heart reads each nook and cranny…each memory.
And I go right home and order a copy of the New American Haggadah.
Because I need more burning bush in my life.
This week's memory verses:
with the amazing Jen:
and dear Michelle too: