April 19, 2024 -

Jews Don’t Believe in Unbelievable

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Kol Nidre, 2018.  We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

It was early November, 2016. I’d just finished leading a congregational trip to the State of Israel. I was standing at the shores of the Mediterranean and decided to call my Grandma Esther to say that I would be visiting her soon. We kibbitzed together in the way you do with your grandma, even when you are oceans apart, she in Florida and me in Tel Aviv. A lot of my conversations with Grandma are playful and easy. But near the end of our call, I got serious for a moment. I asked Esther if the situation in Florida was as intense as it had been here in Cleveland, during what I called an “unbelievable” presidential election.

You have to understand. My grandma was not a political person nor rooted in a philosophy of governance. This was an independent woman who arrived in the U.S in the 30’s. More than eight decades later, she didn’t care for either candidate seeking her swing state vote for President. I don’t remember what she said about the nominees of the major parties. But I do remember this: Grandma told me something she had said before. She said, “stop calling the election unbelievable.” She said: “Jews don’t believe in unbelievable.”

Jews don’t believe in unbelievable. It’s been close to two years since that call. But I realize now why a non-political and non-religious person would want to school her grandson the rabbi on what Jews should or shouldn’t believe. Born in 1917 in a Polish village named Kovel, Esther’s family, against the odds, survived tremendous poverty and anti-Semitism. After leaving Poland, her immigration journey took her to three different continents until arriving in the U.S. a refugee. After living here for a short time, Esther learned the terrifying news that her entire family in Poland was murdered. When her only surviving brother was turned away because America was only accepting a certain quota of Jews, she stopped believing America was governed by the ideals it professes. So you’ll forgive her if she became skeptical about what was to be believed or not believed. A horribly divided electorate? Believable. Predictions of dire consequences if the other candidate is elected? Believable. Even campaign ads showing Jews prominent in the world of finance and saying “these people don’t have your good in mind.” Believable.

Despite her skepticism, my grandma voted in probably 15 national elections. She was no historian. But she winced at hearing remarks that oversimplified or obfuscated history. Having grown up Poland, a place where Jewish life once flourished, she knew how quickly such a place could turn into a furnace of hate where people could and would be abused and killed. When she died this June at the age of 101, it occurred to me that her life was a kind of testimony to Jews not being in denial about what is happening in the nations where we dwell.

Jews don’t believe in unbelievable. I think that was Grandma’s way of saying that our history doesn’t permit us to be naive about what we see. If we feel disturbed, frightened and insecure, it’s probably because we are in harm’s way. Unbelievable is a term for something you can do nothing about. It is what you call an event that is an outlier, a freak occurrence. The use of the term reinforces staying in place and not taking shelter, precaution or responsibility. As Jews have learned in our history, staying locked in place has often been a fatal error.

I can’t point to the exact time when it happened, but long before 2016, my kishkes began telling me that Grandma was right. The cultural and political storms that once seemed unbelievably far ahead on the horizon now seem to be squarely over our heads. It’s too convenient to suggest that the most dangerous winds are only blowing in from the White House or from Columbus or from any seat of government.  It’s just not that simple. For a storm to take hold, the conditions in the atmosphere must be right. The key factor is instability. As long as there’s instability, the gusting winds and thunder of a punishing storm can endure and inflict meaningful damage. That is as true of the storms tracked by weather centers as it is for the cultural and political storms spilling toxicity, rage, and provocation into our public dialogue. No matter what kind of storm you are tracking, just about every one in its path comes to ask that most spiritual of questions: why is this happening?

A story. This story took place in my grandma’s native country. But it isn’t about her little village in Kovel. No. This is a cautionary tale about a dangerous storm that hit a once-major city in Poland where our people thought their future was secure. Nearly a quarter-million Jews called this place home. I’ve never told its story on a bimah before. But this Kol Nidre, I want to tell you what happened to our people in a city called Lodz.

If you think you recognize the name Lodz, you are probably right. It is less than 80 miles from Warsaw. Around the time Grandma was born, it was a key industrial multicultural center. Thousands of Jews were among its manufacturers, businessmen and craftsmen. But in September 1939, the Germans captured Lodz. They arrested and conscripted Jews into forced labor and enacted many abusive ordinances. Weeks later, they torched the synagogues and renamed Lodz, calling it Litzmannstadt in honor of one of their WWI generals.

You have to realize that from the outset, the Germans approached Lodz guided by the idea that Jews are abhorrent, immoral criminals. They warned the residents to fear the Jewish population and in early 1940 built large walls separating them from us. Sealed within ghetto walls, our conditions included food shortages and starvation. Our currency lost its value. There was intense overcrowding, and fears easily spread of what awaited those deported from Lodz.

The only thing that kept the Lodz Jews alive was that they could still work and make the Nazis money. Think for a moment what our labor force must’ve meant to the Nazis. There would have been 170,000 people in a space less than 4 square kilometers. Think of the desperation to be somewhere other than cramped in your home, where 8-10 people might sleep in a single room. To force the population to work, the Nazis appointed a leader for each Jewish community in Poland to mediate between them and the Nazi officials. Make no mistake. The Nazis were not shy about personally treating us with cruelty. But their first step was to divide us from one another. So, in numerous cities they’d pick a Jew to help them enforce new and oppressive conditions on the population. The Nazis understood that when you are being destroyed from within, you become far more acquiescent victims to the savagery of those who hate you.

In Lodz, they identified a Jew who’d pounce on a position of status. His name was Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski. He was 62 years old, a twice-widowed patron to a Lodz orphanage and owner of a velvet factory. It is his story that should bring us the greatest caution. For Rumkowski’s name may mean nothing to you. But had you lived in Lodz, you would have feared the authority he wielded. In an atmosphere of instability, our people accepted this one man to negotiate with the Nazis. Soon they discovered he had no check against his most base authoritarian impulses. He saw himself as the one man who would be a save the Jews. The Nazis saw him as a tool for getting everything they wanted before dispensing with us for good.

I’ve been studying Lodz since I was an undergrad. When I have time in a library or museum, this is very often what I’m researching. One of the things I’ve learned are the range of theories of how such a man could have been in a position to gain power. Some say the Nazis asked to see the Eldest of the Jews, and Rumkowski volunteered that he was the “oldest,” when they meant the “eldest” as in the highest-ranking leader. In other words, he was an accident.

I don’t buy it. I side with those who believe the Nazis knew exactly who they were getting in Rumkowski, a man for whom they already held the key to a closet full of his skeletons. Yad Vashem historian Michal Unger in The Last Ghetto: Life in Lodz 1940-1944, refers to him as a “marionette” puppet for whom “the Germans held his strings.” Whatever theory you believe, the power he attained in a place where we once felt safe is frightening. But we can learn from it. The story of Rumkowski and Lodz can teach us about both the frailty of the human condition and the cause for deep concern when society dismisses as  “unbelievable” the dangerous narcissism of a singular leader claiming that only he can negotiate with evil forces.

The story is told in his book, Moments of Reprieve, that when author Primo Levi was freed from Auschwitz, he found in his pocket a coin from the Lodz ghetto. It had a Jewish star on one side, and the name of its leader on the flip side. The coin made Levi want to know more about what happened in Lodz that was different than the ghetto in Warsaw or elsewhere.

What he discovered will make you cringe. Amidst all of the suffering around him, Rumkowski used his negotiations with the Nazis to ask their permission to mint coins with his name emblazoned on them and print stamps featuring his own embellished portrait. He bolstered the police force to maintain “law and order” when people rebelled against the constant demands for them to produce more goods. Imagine in your mind a picture of an impoverished population cramped within ghetto walls and fearful that conditions will worsen. Now imagine their leader traveling through their streets in a horse-drawn carriage, commissioning their poets to create hymns celebrating him and requiring schoolchildren to write essays tributing his providence.

I know it seems I am describing the most grotesque human being, a villain to easily revile. But it’s not that simple. Widely-respected Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, in his book Rethinking the Holocaust, is among those who say Rumkowski was striving, in his own way, to resist Hitler. While sacrificing some Jews, he was saving others or at least prolonging their lives. Others say he betrayed us in the worst way. They suggest his megalomania is the exact cautionary tale we need to hear on a day like Yom Kippur. For this man substituted his own judgement for God. It was Rumkowski himself who “mustered and numbered and considered” who lived and who died, and it it is his type of vainglory and craving for adulation we must rid from our souls.

I‘d be disingenuous if I portrayed him as having an even number of supporters and detractors. Though they cooperated with Rumkowski, most Jews resented the broad influence this one man had over their lives. I recently looked back at my notes from the college course where I first learned about Lodz. There in my 19-year-old handwriting, I saw the key moment in Lodz was a bleak night in September 1942, just after Rumkowski issued a request to the ghetto inhabitants demanding they accept a policy of separation from their own children. Our professor told us this was more than Jews could bear. I agree: nothing in Judaism justifies a policy cruelly separating parents from children. The people of Lodz knew that when their leadership demanded such inhumanity, the enemy had already won. The only one left to wake to that fact was Rumkowski himself. For he imagined that at least he personally would escape deportation to the camps to die at the hands of his negotiating partners. He was wrong.

I know I have told you quite a lot, and none of it with a smile. But I did not tell you that story as an end in itself. I told you that story so I could ask you the following question: did you find it… believable? If you did, why? If not, why? I’d be fascinated to know what each of you believe about the abuse of power that can arise the way it did in Poland. Is the story of Rumkowski an outlier, a freak occurrence for which we can neither predict nor prepare? Or has it happened over and again? I know you have an opinion. I am genuinely interested in your view and how you have come to it. Please do approach me and tell me what you believe.

But let me also tell you what I believe. It is this: I am ashamed. I am ashamed in 2018 to see how little we’ve learned about the crude abuse of power. I am ashamed at myself for not speaking out as public leaders, throughout my lifetime, have only grown in their craving for adulation. I regret not getting involved when individuals in power have shut down or stifled protests with policies they enact or treaties they sign. I wish going back some time that I would have opened my eyes wide enough to see that ultimately our status as a nation where people can find refuge would be threatened. Because of my regret and shame, I can no longer stay silent when the leader of our republic has warned of a violent backlash if the upcoming election doesn’t favor his policy. Such conduct should not be excused away as some kind of “unbelievable” aberration that will pass from our midst as quickly as it seemed to arise!

This is not unbelievable! Scapegoating minorities and threatening disastrous consequences of opening doors to immigrants is happening because it has historically been effective. When my grandma arrived here, she lived with her Uncle Eddie in Detroit. It was the 30’s and an influential pastor in Detroit, a man known as Father Coughlin, used his microphone on a widely-acclaimed radio program to demonize Jews. He’d question Jewish loyalty. He’d give it the church’s sanction, and many Jews were advised to let it blow over. They said he was an outlier, they said. You’ll be safe.

At the very same time in the village where she grew up, my grandma’s family members were being murdered, and in cities like Lodz her people, our people were being ghettoized. Leaders like Rumkowski were drawing personal favors from the Nazis while acquiescing to Hitler’s demands for greater labor. If the Jews of Lodz were to ask us why it happened, could the answer be in doubt?  The walls to the ghetto were built because walls accrue power. Walls make it easier to not see the “other.” You become suspicious of those outside the walls. Walls build loyalty. They win elections. Believe it.

I imagine there are many of you who would strenuously disagree with my read of history. To this I say, good! Since when is unanimity something Jews strive for. Is it even possible? Is it even a laudable goal? What we need most now is unity. We need people of goodwill who disagree to speak to one another. For only in dialogue will we figure out the extent to which we trust the institutions that have shaped our democracy. Only together can we decide whether to engage in negotiation with our enemies, or instead send them the message explaining our willingness to utterly obliterate them.

It’s probably a fools errand to ask for God’s help. But I will try because praying and questioning and fighting for a better world is how Jews have survived the wreckage of our history. We held on. We tried. We continued to believe that Judaism had something to say in each historical moment. Kol Nidre, the words with which we began our worship tonight, remind us of all the times vows were made to our people and then broken. But we have also made promises we’ve failed to fulfill. Tonight we say we could’ve done better. Tonight we promise we will do better.

In that spirit, it seems fair to say that the upcoming election will not be unbelievable. It won’t even be unprecedented. It most certainly will be divisive. But I believe that Jews can promise to do better, to speak better, and to listen better. We can be a force of healing. In this endeavor, we will not be alone. In the words of Torah we’ll read tomorrow morning from Deuteronomy 30, we are taught that when God affirmed a covenant with our people, even then we were not alone. At our backs were those who could no longer be present. In the Bible, that meant remembering the generation redeemed from oppression. For us, it also means remembering those who were ghettoized behind walls and taken advantage of by leaders claiming to represent their interests but mostly serving power to themselves. This happened. They lived. They were betrayed. Their story is ours and it is believable.

I probably should’ve known all along that Grandma was right. For do you remember where my phone call with her in November 2016 took place? I was standing at the Mediterranean, having just made pilgrimage to a free and self-determined State of Israel. I was listening to the laughter and the wisdom of a woman born a 100 years earlier. If that is believable, anything is!  Even simply that she survived the storm-ridden world of her youth to arrive in this nation a refugee is a source of hope. All her legacy asks is that we believe what we see and respond to what we hear. For Jews don’t believe in unbelievable. It doesn’t serve us. It isn’t true, and when the atmosphere is unstable, it isn’t safe for anyone.

Keyn Y’hi ratzon, let us walk forward determined and unafraid to walk the bridge from where we are to where we must yet be. Amen.