I usually write my sermon on a Friday. But BT informed us that we wouldn’t be connected to the internet in our new home until midnight on Thursday – ten days after our move – and I knew that I would need to catch up on a back-log of emails on Friday that during my stints in my shul office I had not managed to reduce significantly. Consequently, I decided to write my sermon on Wednesday – my non-congregational work day.
So there I was on Wednesday sitting at the desk in Jess’ study – mine isn’t ready yet – looking out on the view outside the window, trying to think about what it means to be a Jew and to live a Jewish life. We haven’t moved to the middle of the country-side – were just off the A259 passed Newhaven on the way to Seaford by Bishopstone. But the front of our house faces the plain that leads to the sea – which we can see to the right – and the Downs that stretch out ahead and to the left. Apart from clusters of houses on the hillside across the plain, to the right-side of the house, the rest of the vista is simply the plain, a slice of the sea, and the sloping Downs – and 360 degrees worth of sky that is not obscured by the homes on either side of us.
It’s a bit different from staring out at a row of identical Victorian terraced houses… It’s a bit different from living in crowded Brighton. And it’s exactly twelve miles along the coast west-wards from any signs of Jewish life… So what does it mean to be a Jew in all that space, and natural East Sussex beauty – and all that sky? My booba, my maternal grandmother, who grew up on the outskirts of the small town of Siemiatycze not far from Bialystok in the Russian Pale, would have wondered what all the fuss was about. When Rosa Mindel Tuchmacher, as she was called then, arrived in the East End around 1902, and went to live with a cousin, who had made the move a few years earlier, her cousin remarked that Rosa’s rosy country-flushed cheeks were ‘like two red apples’. The pogroms aside, which had forced booba’s departure, and which she described to me in blood-curdling detail, I also remember her talking to me longingly about spending her childhood days playing in the woods and swimming in the bubbling stream… That’s a dimension of shtetl life that we don’t tend to think about… And then, there were the animals – not just the wild creatures in the woods: the chickens and the cow that lived in the backyard, providing the family with fresh eggs and milk.
Even the urban Jews of that generation, like the man my booba met and married in the East End, Solomon Waltzer, who grew up in the city of Czernowitz, which was in the far east of the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time – even his family had come to live there from a village. Indeed, even my father and his parents, Julius and Paula Klempner, who lived in the centre of Vienna until the Nazis marched in, in 1938; for all their urban sophistication, they were part of families that had originally come there from very small towns in the midst of rural Rumania.
Yes, we tend to think that Jews live in urban clusters, but it wasn’t always the case, and in recent years, after a century of city-dwelling, Jewish people have been moving out to the wilds, even beyond surburbia, in increasing numbers. We only have to consider the local Jewish community of Brighton and Hove: in addition to the successive waves of 18+ year olds, who have moved to cities, like London, Leeds and Manchester, there are all those people who now choose to live in various parts of East and West Sussex.
So how does a Jew live outside an urban centre, at some distance from a synagogue and Jewish community? How does a Jewish couple or a Jewish family live Jewishly in a context that does not mirror and reflect Jewish life? The simple answer to these questions is that Jews have always carried our Jewish life with us in portable parcels wherever we have roamed – in our m’zuzot, which we fixed to the door-posts of our homes, in our candle-sticks, and challah cloths and kiddush cups, in our saucepans and chopping boards, in our books and, for the more musical, in our violins. And even without these external ‘signs’, generation after generation, as we journeyed from place to place, we have carried our Jewish life within us – in our hearts and in our mouths: in the songs we sang and the stories we told and the recipes our hands conjured up from memory.
This week’s Torah portion, T’tzavveh, opens at Exodus chapter 27, verse 20, with the instructions to the priests concerning the lighting of the m’norah, the seven-branched lamp-stand, in the Temple. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans 2000 years ago, and the huge golden m’norah was taken in booty. Since that time, it has been left to ordinary Jews, to kindle the light of Jewish life in our homes every Shabbat, and during the annual eight-day festival of Chanukkah. For the Temple was replaced not only by the synagogue, but, just as importantly, by the home. Indeed, apart from the reading of the Torah, which is a communal responsibility, the majority of the most important Jewish rites and practices – lighting Shabbat and festival candles, the dietary laws of kashrut, the Pesach seder, the building of the sukkah and the waving of the lulav at Sukkot – were designated by the rabbis for home observance. Where will you find the altar that was at the heart of Temple-worship? Not in the synagogue: at home, transformed into the dining table.
So, Jews have carried our Jewish lives with us on all our journeys, and have created sanctuaries of Jewish life in our homes – especially, perhaps, during times of persecution. This evening we will celebrate the festival of Purim in time-honoured fashion by reading the Book of Esther, which may be found in K’tuvim, the ‘Writings’, which form the last of the three sections of the Tanach – the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally, Esther is one of the ‘Five Scrolls’, connected with five significant moments of the Jewish year. The most famous of these scrolls – m’gillot in Hebrew – it is known as the m’gillah, the scroll. The story related in the Scroll of Esther has a larger-than-life ‘fairy-tale’ character – but like all fairy-tales, it speaks truths that are deeper than mere ‘facts’. One of these truths is articulated clearly and chillingly by the villain of the piece, Haman, whom the King, Achashveirosh, appoints as his chief courtier. Addressing the King, Haman says (3:8-9):
There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. / If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction…
‘Scattered and dispersed among the other peoples’ – that’s the diaspora in a nut-shell. And as a ‘scattered and dispersed’ people, ‘whose laws are different from any other people’, we have suffered persecution at the hands of our inhospitable ‘hosts’ for millennia. What is more, although the type of pre-modern autocratic society the Book of Esther conjures up is long gone in most parts of the world, the Sho’ah reminded us that we can still be singled out for ‘destruction’ – and that the liberating impulse of modernity could not prevent Jew-haters using modern technologies to devise modern methods of mass-murder.
Against this hideous backdrop the decision of some Jews in the post-Sho’ah era to leave cities and Jewish urban and suburban centres to live in the country-side could look more like flight. And in the context of the stubborn persistence of anti-Semitism in modern guises, on the one hand, and the openness of modern society, on the other, the traditional view of the home as a centre of Jewish life becomes open to question: Jewish life maybe portable, but that doesn’t mean that we can assume that those Jews who choose to live in the country-side are also choosing to create Jewish home-lives; the opposite may be true. Of course, it’s not possible to generalise, and anyway, people make their life choices for complex reasons, and live in ways that are rarely, either/or. But when we consider how contingent our choices about how to live our lives can be, we realise that however important the home may be, for Jewish life to flourish, Jewish communal existence is vital. Look at us here this Shabbat morning: we all have homes to go to, but we draw nourishment from engaging together and we re-connect with the well-springs of our existence as a people by participating in the weekly reading of the Torah, which provides the framework of meaning for all our Jewish endeavours.
And so, back to Wednesday – and writing this sermon facing that broad, open vista: Yes, Jess and I have transported our portable Jewish lives into our new abode, and are gradually unpacking all the special Jewish ‘signs’ that will mark our house as a Jewish home on the East Sussex landscape. But however Jewish we make our home, the Jewish meaning of our lives remains inextricably connected with the wider Jewish world that we inhabit, which encompasses, the synagogue, and the Jewish community of Brighton and Hove, and Liberal Judaism – and, indeed, Israel. Ultimately, living Jewishly is about, as the Sh’ma puts it (Deuteronomy 6:4ff.), the ‘words’ we hold in our ‘hearts’, when we are ‘at home’, and when we are ‘along the way’, when we ‘lie down’ and when we ‘rise up’ – and how we act and conduct our relationships in every place. The second Torah portion today, from Deuteronomy chapter 25 (:17-19), which begins, Zachor – ‘Remember’ – and gives the Shabbat before Purim its special name: Shabbat Zachor; reminds us of Haman’s ancestor, Amalek, ‘who attacked the stragglers in the rear’ as they were leaving Egypt (25:17). But there is another kind of remembering; the kind that is about repeatedly making connections and re-membering: re-constituting Jewish life. Let us all commit ourselves to this task – not only when we dismantle our homes for a move, and put the pieces back together again, but also, as we go about our daily lives. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
27th February 2010 – 13th Adar 5770