Hillel's Second Question: Rekindling Our Vision

Leonard Beerman, 6/17/2005

I am grateful to the New Jewish Agenda for inviting me to address this convention, and thus providing me with an opportunity to demonstrate my solidarity with all of you who have gathered here. What I have to say will be set in the framework of a personal memoir, for this is a strange reunion for me. This area of Michigan is the geography in which my Jewish consciousness was formed. From the age of six to seventeen, I lived in a small town 70 miles north of this room in a town called Owosso, population 14,000; Jewish population, seven families— approximately eighteen Jewish souls. My parents tried to bring in a melamed from Detroit for the three of four Jewish children of school age. It didn't work out. We had no Hebrew school, no Sunday school.

I learned about the real world from going to the movies every Saturday, and 1 also learned about the real world from the Owosso Argus Press, the daily local newspaper I used to deliver. In the Argus Press and in the movies I learned about the genius of Henry Ford, the generosity of John D. Rockefeller. I learned of the saviour of Europe from Communism, Benito Mussolini, who made the trains of Italy run on time. The Argus Press also taught me that our country was governed by a radical, an ogre, a dictator, who would ruin my father's business.

The Argus Press had comic strips like Orphan Annie, and it also taught me that "the colored," (Negroes, as we would later dare to call them) had to be watched. Chinamen, like Fu Manchu, were sly and crafty and smoked opium, and poor people. Poor people were poor because they didn't want to work.

My parents, of course, corrected this information. They admired the dangerous radical, Franklin D. Roosevelt. They were among the few in our town who voted for him. My father told me that Henry Ford hated Jews; that John D. Rockefeller was a robber baron; that the Communists were not all bad, and certainly in no way as bad as the fascists like Hitler and Mussolini. As for the poor, the depression had made us all poor.

At home, I learned something about Jews, about how they were always good, and always persecuted. My parents welcomed the Shabbos in our home. I knew all the brochos. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my father drove to Flint to attend a synagogue where men and women sat separately. When I was twelve, my parents decided it was time to have a Holyday service of our own in Owosso, a liberal service, that everyone could understand.

Eventually, I stopped delivering the Argus Press. I had already begun to understand that Little Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks, the munitions merchant. Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, Mussolini, Hitler - they were all frauds.

A certain fabric of ideals and feelings was beginning to take form in my developing mind. The strands of it were: poor people, the men in the factories working for low wages; the Negroes and Chinamen and the Jews, were victims of powerful forces that cut them down, cut us all down together. Yes, I had already learned that the central facet of being a Jew was to have compassion for all people in their vulnerability, and to be among those who would try to extend the domain of love and justice in the world. That was to become my song, my sermon.
When I began my work as a rabbi, I was full of the optimism of the time, convinced that an enlightened, humane society was just around the corner and that the wrongs and injustices of history would be corrected.

The defeat of the Nazis and Japanese did not usher in the messianic era. The prophet of the world of our time turned out to be a rather obscure Jew from Prague, named Franz Kafka. Kafka is the prophet of our time because, although he lived before the atomic age, he articulated the unreachable and the ungraspable, the unresolved. At the heart of all of his excruciating visions of defeat is the separation of our wishes from their fulfillment

Yes, I confess. I have surrendered my Utopian dreams. But I have also lived; I have walked up and down the face of the earth, and I have known men and women, perhaps the inost incon'uptib1^ i the most deeply human and courageous, who in life and death dared to submit themselves to ..he fire of selfhood. And I have seen in such courage the confirmation of my once young visions of the world. A reaffirmation of my belief that this world, for all of its barbarism and stupidity and anguish, for all of its cynicism and its suffering, is also a place where change is possible, and where one can take on a host of evils.

Of course, there is not guarantee of victory, but there is a choice: one either collaborates with the enemy - with whatever demeans the life of any of God's children - or one j i;;.i ihe resistance.

We Jews have been the great resisters, the great dissenters of history. If I am compelled to think anew about what it means to be a Jew, the answer comes back the same: it is to experience my life as a calling. It means that something is being asked of me beyond the desires that dominate so much of my life.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" We all need a sense of our own, individual, private integrity. That is surely the basis of our dignity. But we also need the other pole of human need and desire. "And being for myself alone, what am I?" We need to lose our sense of self, to be part of something larger than ourselves. Human existence is coexistence. We must undersiiind the importance of a sense of dependence. And if we fail to celebrate this sense of dependence, not matter how far we reach into outer space, there can be no significant human life on earth.

Nice words, Rabbi. Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet words "To be ourselves and the need to be something larger than ourselves" how shall we do that in a time when those two poles of human need and desire are almost daily being threatened and mutilated? We are Jews, and something there is in us - the thought, the sensitivity, the burning remembrance - which tells us always that there is beauty and there are the humiliated. There is love and there are the victims of injustice and every Jew must say, I should like never to be unfaithful either to the one or the other, whatever the difficulties the enterprise may represent.

Yes, we shall need more of one another than we have ever been able to give. But it is important for us to know that we are not alone. We have allies. There are others out there - Jews and non-Jews - ready to stand with us. Others who believe with us, that the way to give meaning to our life is to do what we can to abate its misery, to heal its wounds, to be comrades in the only war worth fighting: the battle to extend the domain of love and reconciliation and justice in the world.

These notions first came to me when I was a boy growing up in the geography of our meeting. I thought they would be appropriate for this occasion.

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