At my shul back home, Young People’s Synagogue, members take turns giving the d’var Torah each Saturday morning. This is one I gave for Parashat Mikketz/Shabbat Chanukah on December 19, 2009 about the parsha, Chanukah, and the Holocaust. For what it’s worth, these themes repeated themselves again this year when we began learning about the Holocaust in Turning Points in Modern Jewish History today.
Shabbat Shalom. This week’s parsha, Mikketz, is the middle of three parishot comprising the saga of Joseph, making this sort of The Empire Strikes Back of Torah portions. And speaking of Empires striking back, today is, of course, also the last day of Hanukkah. The almost annual juxtaposition of Chanukah and Mikketz naturally got me to thinking for this dvar about what they have in common, what new things we could learn when we add these two Jewish stories together, and I discovered the answer comes in Psalm 30, mizmor shir chanukat haBayit, the one we’ve been reading twice every morning all week. One verse in particular stands out, verse 4: “O Lord, You have brought my soul from the grave; You have revived me from my decent into the Pit.” This almost feels like it could be a quote from Joseph after he is literally saved from the pit twice—once when he is sold into slavery and again when he is called out of jail by Pharaoh and named viceroy, and from the Maccabees after defeating the greatest empire on Earth and saving Judaism. With this in mind, it could also be the renascent shout of survivors and of the Jewish People after experiencing the horrors and then the triumphs of the mid-twentieth century. This extension of the theme forced itself on me in a big way Friday before last and has been on my mind ever since.
Dr. Bob Mendler was a survivor. He survived Auschwitz and nine other Concentration Camps during the Holocaust, and no one else in his family did. Since he had no one left in Europe, where a total of 89 of his family members were murdered, he moved to Latrobe, where a relative owned a shoe store he would eventually take over, Mendler’s Shoes, a local institution until he closed it upon retirement. Also in America, he took as a wife a woman he met on a blind date, Joan Pretter, my paternal Grandmother’s cousin, and he also became very close family friends with another prominent local Jewish business man, Morton Glick, my maternal grandfather, OBM and proprietor of Morty’s Men’s Wear.
Uncle Bob would suffer health complications his entire life. He had no family outside his nuclear one, Aunt Joanie died last April, MSRiP, and he once said he had aspirations for college and a great career in something I don’t remember before the war came when he was 13 and ruined his plans. Yet part of the reason his store became such an institution was his warm, bubbly personality. He was alive in the truest sense, living in America with a wife and 2 sons to carry on his name, plus he had community and great friends- what more could anybody want? Plus he was keeping the memory alive. He spent most of his later years speaking and lecturing all over the region, but especially at St. Vincent’s and Seton Hill Universities, where he received an honorary doctorate, and taught about his life story, relentlessly preached tolerance, diversity, and love for all people, and touched countless lives. Some would say he had every right to have been bitter, but he knew bitterness only creates problems and solves none.
Some of you may remember an article I wrote for the Chronicle last summer that featured our own Shulamit and another survivor, Julia Weingarten. When we met, Julia mentioned she was looking for someone to tell her story, and I said, if I had a minute like over Christmas break or something, I’d be glad to. When Christmas break first started beckoning right around the corner after Thanksgiving, I contacted Jewish Family & Children’s Services to see if Julia was still interested. I was supposed to receive a phone call from Therese, her caretaker whose work was the article’s main focus any day to let me know. Almost an entire week went by, and I heard nothing. Then, last Friday afternoon, as I was in the library watching the movie Aliens in preparation for writing a final paper about its subtle anti-Semitism for my pop culture class, I received a phone call from my mother. Uncle Bob, who always seemed so full of life, had had a freak heart-attack Thursday afternoon and died. While I was still coping with this, not ten minutes later, Therese called to say Julia was thrilled with the idea. That’s when I knew something big was definitely going on here.
One of the themes the Rabbis stress in the Joseph story is that of maintaining your identity in a foreign culture while still being an integral part of it, like Joseph was able to do in Egypt. The Hanukkah story, meanwhile, is our more extreme anti-assimilation story—oil doesn’t mix, after all. During the Holocaust, cheredim and heretics were targeted equally, yet, like Joseph was able to do in Egypt, what the Maccabees did in the Temple, and what many survivors of the Shoah were and are able to do,they each in their own way kept the flame of their Jewish heritage burning through the darkness that surrounded them, and ultimately, that’s what Jews do—keep the flame burning no matter what. The darkness increases each night of Chanukah this year, while simultaneously the chanukiah burns ever brighter in noble resistance. This flame that it burns is Torah, this flame is human dignity, this flame is knowledge that teaching and learning in order to do are holy acts. And these are flames the Egyptians, the Hellenists, the Nazis, and indeed all our oppressors refused to be warmed by. As Chief Rabbi Dr. Sir Lord Jonathan Sacks [exhale] (such nakhas!) said earlier this week in his maiden address to the House of Lords, “In ancient times the Egyptians built pyramids, the Greeks built temples, the Romans built amphitheaters. Jews built schools. And because of that, alone among ancient civilizations, Judaism survived.”
This all leads back to Jewish dreams, miracles. Joseph’s dreams became fulfilled, but at what cost to his family? Uncle Bob dreamed of a whole different path for his life before the War came, yet for all the difficult turns his life took, he never lost the air of a man living the American dream. Dreams, like the flames of a chanukiah, burn brightly in the dark for a while in some not-quite physical state before flickering out, only to live on in the tangible residue they leave behind. My favorite band, Rush, has a song about dreams called “Nocturne”, and two of its best lyrics are the refrain, “Did I have a dream, or did the dream have me?” and the verse “On the instant of waking another world of dreams appears.” And the cold, hard reality is that this is absolutely true. Why do we conflate dreams with utopianism; when was the last time anybody can remember having a dream that was wholly good? So we do live in a world of dreams… and nightmares are dreams too, don’t forget. Hitler dreamed of a world free of Jews every bit as much as Herzl dreamed of a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land. Thank God, Herzl’s was more prophetic.
Wednesday morning I met with Julia for our first session together. The night before, for the first time ever, I dreamt I was in the Holocaust. It wasn’t a very realistic dream—just before Mengele was about to cut all my toes off, my best friends from high school who I still hang out with, all gentiles, came and comforted me, and then my alarm went off and the dream went out like a candle-flame in the wind. But it was a dream nonetheless, and one that for many people would have been much preferable to reality.
So we are living dreams, miracles, for better or for worse, and the existence of breathing, praying, learning, loving Jews is the greatest miracle of them all. Thousands of years ago, we dreamt we would be an eternal people no matter what happened. It was so crazy, so nonsensical for a tiny tribe of the Ancient Near-East to think it would not only be an eternal people but a blessing for the world no less, that a dream is all it could possibly have been. And yet,through many tears and a few triumphs, it has come true, just like we knew it would, and it continues to come true each day Jews live and live like Jews. If the Mikketz/Chanukah/Holocaust connection that has forced itself on me these past 2 weeks teaches anything it is this: If it is true what the Rabbis say, that for every event that happens in this world there is its equivalent in Heaven, then perhaps since one of the most beautiful sights I know is seeing Hanukkah candles burning ever brighter in the cold night, year-in-year-out, perhaps one of God’s is seeing Jewish souls and dreams do the same, year-in and year-out. No matter what. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Chanukah Sameakh.