Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783, at the Free Synagogue of Flushing, Queens NY
Good evening everyone and Shana tova!
It’s wonderful to be here tonight and to start the new year together.
If you’re a member of FSF please put in your hands in the air – good yontof to you all!
And if you’re here for the first time, please put your hands in the air – shana tova!
And if you fit in neither of those categories – hands up - happy new year to you as well!
I hope you are all enjoying Mishkan Hanefesh – our new machzor. It’s great to have a book with modern English translation that we can all understand, as well as full transliteration of the Hebrew if you need it. And what’s more - it’s not too heavy to hold in your hands!
Talking of heavy books, did any of you see the latest “world’s heaviest book” which was published recently? It’s 21,450 pages long and weighs 16.5 kilos, which is about the weight of my three-year-old son! No, it’s not a commentary on the Bible or the Talmud, but rather it’s a limited edition single volume of the long-running manga comic, One Piece. Serialised in the Japanse magazine Shonen Jump every week since 1997, it’s been designed in this format by the Greek-Belgian Jewish artist, Ilan Manouach. And so perhaps really it’s more a work of art than a book – and physically impossible to read.
Manouach is an interesting artist whose work often touches on the themes of copyright. I am sure many of you are familiar with Art Spiegelman, a New Yorker, and in particular his comic-book, Maus. M-A-U-S – in the German spelling. Serialised in the 1980s, Maus depicts Spiegelman’s interviews with his father, Vladek, describing his experiences as a Polish Jew in the Holocaust. The book represents different nationalities as different animals. For example Jews as mice – hence the title – MAUS, and the Germans are cats. Americans are dogs, British are fish, Poles are pigs, French are frogs and the Swedish are represented as reindeer.
I know some of you here in our community are comic-book fans, including our cantor, my dear colleague, and so I don’t need to tell you that comic-books are not just for children. But back in the 80s, Spiegelman and Maus were major pioneers in focusing new attention on comics as a serious genre. And even this year, Maus returned to popularity and became number one on the Amazon best sellers list. Back in January it was banned by a board of county school trustees in east Tennessee – who – just before Holocaust Remembrance Day - removed it from the school curriculum over concerns about its content. Thankfully there was a backlash – all publicity being good publicity – as I think it’s a really important work of Holocaust literature.
One of the criticisms that dogged Maus since it was published, was the depiction of humans as animals. And this brings us back to the copycat artist, Ilan Manouach. A decade ago in 2012, Manouach produced a book entitled Katz – K-A-T-Z – again the German spelling. It was an exact remake of Spiegelman’s Maus, but with each and every character replaced by cats. It wasn’t such a hit with the original publishers or their legal team – and they made Manouach’s Belgian publishers destroy every single copy that he had produced – all 8000 of them – and they ended up pulped.
It's an understandable response, but of course the artist Manouach was making a critical point too. While the “funny animal” in comics helps us approach difficult topics, it can also reinforce ethnic stereotypes and lead to simplistic and fatalistic readings of history. Cats eat mice – that we know. But in the Shoah it was cats against cats – or rather it wasn’t, it was people destroying other people.
I speak of this at this Erev Rosh Hashanah, as the old year draws to a close, and we have a chance for a new year with new beginnings and a fresh start. I stand here in this synagogue, accompanied not just by the flags of the United States and of the State of Israel, but also next to the now familiar yellow and blue flag of Ukraine. The war that ravages and rages in that country is also people destroying other people.
When I left Israel on Thursday night, at Ben Gurion airport there was a group of young men singing at their check-in desk as they received their boarding cards to fly to Kishinev. It didn’t take me long to figure out that they must be a bunch of “Breslavers” or “Nachnas”, followers of Nachman of Breslav, and on their way via the Moldovan capital to Uman, in neighbouring Ukriane. They were heading there despite pleas and warnings by both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments that this year their piligrimage would not be appropriate. Uman is half-way between Kiev and Odessa, and not a safe place to be.
Their nonchalant joy of these young men at the airport was in stark contrast to what I’d read that day about the Russians who were being mobilized, following Putin’s order last week to call up another 300,000 men to add to his army. In villages and towns across Russia there was much weeping as families were being torn apart, with young men being ordered to report to duty and being sent to the front line. And many more were doing what they could to run away from the situation, to flee their country or to hide or to break their own arms in order to escape being called up.
It's an irony of history. Back in 1827, Czar Nicholas had ordered the conscription of all Jewish males into the Imperial Russian army from the age of 12. They were forced to the front lines and treated as cannon-fodder. Jewish boys and young men were often kidnapped and made to fight. Nowadays – although there are Jews in both Russia and Ukraine who are fighting – and of course there’s conscription for Israelis in the IDF – the Israeli army - too – this group of religious youths at Ben Gurion were singing and dancing their way to Rosh Hashanah in Ukraine, whilst other families were weeping.
As Rosh Hashanah begins – my message to you at the start of this new year is a simple one. We need to make sure that we always see other people as people. It sounds easy enough, but if we are honest with ourselves, getting on with our families, let alone loving our neighbours, can sometimes be quite complicated. We have ten days now until Yom Kippur – the period of the Days of Awe – to take some time to say sorry, and to improve our relationships. Seeing other people as people – whether they are Jewish or not, whether they speak your language or not, whether they share your politics or not, or your colour or humour or whatever else we use to divide us and lose sight of each other’s humanity.
In Flushing in this community we have the opportunity to come together to build a better world. We’ve made some small steps – from celebrating Shabbat together to raising money for the Jews of Ukraine or for poverty and food insecurity here at home, and several of you have volunteered alongside our Director of Community Affairs, Souks, every Thursday for the Flushing Food Collective. It’s a wonderful start – but we must do better together in 5783 this coming year.
To all the new faces gathered here tonight – we very much want you to join us and be part of this important work and our community. As the new rabbi of this Free Synagogue, I would love to meet you all individually once the holiday is over. To see what your Jewish needs and interests are, and to see how we can make this synagogue the home for your Jewish stories too. We have many plans and ideas in the coming months, education initiatives for both adults and children, cultural and religious programming, as well as a lot of Jewish fun!
The world is emerging from a difficult few years – it’s wonderful to be able to celebrate High Holydays together in this beautiful sanctuary for the first time since 2019. But it’s important to think back a year to where we were in the pandemic a year ago, and to acknowledge the scars that we carry with us from this difficult period as well. There is much to do – as it says in Pirkei Avot in the words of Rabbi Tarfon – the day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great – and the Master of the House presses. But as we also know – in the words of the 11th century rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda – Days are scrolls – write on them what you want to be remembered. We want to make each day of the new year 5783 a memorable one – with new achievements and a better world.
Let me once again wish shana tova to you all – please do stay for kiddish at the end of the service – wine, challah and apples and honey at the back of the sanctuary. And may we all enjoy a happy and healthy 5783!