“Stumble Stones” – Erev Yom Kippur 2014

The City of Berlin is a charming and vibrant place. The remnants of its past – from the Reichstag building of the Nazis to the Berlin Wall of the Cold War – live in harmony rather than juxtaposition with both the wide, elegant, alder-lined boulevards of earlier and more innocent times, and the ultra-modern, glass-and-steel apartment houses, public buildings and cultural centers of this generation. The arts scene is dynamic and the cost of living is manageable, by European standards. Along with young people from around the world, thousands of young Israelis have been drawn here in recent years, undeterred – and unconcerned – by the veil of memory that still hangs over this city.

The veil is often a mere wisp. The reminders are discreet. But they are unmistakable.

Rabbi Sally Priesand went looking for reminders in Berlin this summer. And she found much more than she bargained for.

Sally, who was the first-ever woman rabbi with seminary ordination, went on a remarkable journey to trace the history of one particular German Jew: Regina Jonas, the first woman ever ordained as a rabbi. Pretty much all most of us know about Regina Jonas was that received semicha at the hand of Leo Baeck, who left her in charge of the spiritual care of the community at a time when the male leadership of Berlin Jewry was being sent to the camps. She herself died in Auchwitz in 1944. One picture of her remains.

Accompanied by the other pioneering women rabbis of the other Jewish movements, Sally went searching for more. She found it in the Centrum Judaicum, the Jewish Center, which is now considered the heart of Jewish life in Berlin:

“Originally,” Sally wrote, “it was the site of the Neue Synagogue, a magnificent building of Moorish-Byzantine design with a golden dome similar to Plum Street Temple, which opened the same year, 1866. Men and women sat separately, and there were 3,000 seats. It was destroyed during the war, and the main sanctuary was never restored. Today the Centrum Judaicum is an information center housing, among other things, a German Jewish archives. This is where we saw the original papers of Regina Jonas, including her ordination certificate written in both German and Hebrew with the signature of Leo Baeck, who attested to the correctness of the wording. I was struck by the fact that all we know and have of Regina Jonas is the little box of papers. It reminded me all the more of how important it is to get my papers together!”

That’s it. One little box of papers belonging to one of the great pioneering women in Jewish history. That is all we have to remember Regina Jonas by.

But many Jews of Berlin were not so fortunate as to leave behind even that remnant. We would never have known about them, in that wisp of memory that hangs over Berlin. But Sally found their remembrance right at her feet.

“Today,” she wrote in her diary, “began with a visit to the old Jewish Quarter with Hartmuth, our guide, who was excellent! As we walked along, every now and then we would stumble and notice a small, square plaque in the midst of the cobblestones. On it, the name of a Nazi victim, the date of deportation, and the concentration camp where the person died. These stumble stones, as they are called, are found everywhere in Berlin and throughout Germany. They are placed in front of the house where the person lived before being taken away and murdered, a powerful reminder that the victims were human beings.”

The stolpersteine – the stumbling stones, which now number in the tens of thousands – were the creation of Berlin-born artist Gunter Demnig. Demnig was searching for a different way to commemorate the Holocaust – by remembering individual people where they lived, people whose very existence had been forgotten in the accumulated horror of the Shoah.

“I think the large Holocaust memorial here (in Berlin) will always remain abstract. You have to make the decision to visit it,” Demnig said. “But not with the stumbling blocks. Suddenly they are there, right outside your front door, at your feet, in front of you.”

Think of it. Individual memories right in front of you. Memories that almost try to trip you as you pass by, so that you must pay attention.

It seems to me that each of us has our own set of stolpersteine. And each individual stumbling stone represents a repressed memory, something we would rather forget. Here’s one for that time we didn’t think before we spoke and really hurt somebody’s feelings. Here’s another for a time we didn’t think before we acted, and put ourselves in hot water. Up ahead, one for the time we abandoned a project we’d promised to finish, and left other people to clean up our mess. And just there, out of the corner of our eye, one that represents when we neglected a friend at a time of loss, though we always meant to pick up the phone and call.

Around the corner, we stumble over one that reminds us of when we criticized our child for failing to live up to our expectations when what she needed was encouragement to work through her own doubts. And barely two steps later, for the time when we snapped at our spouse because we simply came home in a bad mood. And on our own doorstep, we trip once more, this time over a reminder of the time we blamed somebody else for failing us, when, all along, it was we who owed them the apology – because, let’s face it, pointing out other people’s faults is a whole lot easier than acknowledging our own.

I have this image that each of us hauled a big pile of stumbling stones on our backs, entering the sanctuary on this night of Kol Nidre. Our intention was to leave them here, thinking: “I’ll just rid myself of these memories and leave them for God to deal with.” And then we heard the words for which we were somehow, once again, unprepared: “For sins of man against God,” we were reminded, “the Day of Atonement atones. But for sins of one person against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone unless they have first made peace with one another.”

And then we realize: Our personal stolpersteine are still underfoot wherever we walk, still tripping us up, still reminding us of what we have left undone and what we have left to do before we can be free of them. And then we realize: that’s why God gives us Yom Kippur.

If, instead if constantly tripping over them, or avoiding them, or trying to dump the whole lot of them all at once, we stopped and took a good, long look at each of them, and answered the challenge of each of them, we might just be able to lighten our burden one stone at a time, one memory at a time.

And in order to do that, we must recognize that the stolpersteine, and the memories they hold, are meant – not to hurt, but to heal.

Throughout these past few months, I have spoken frequently of what I call “The art of remembering.” Back in March, I was struggling with the vicious onset of dementia in my Aunt Bobbi, who has always been my friend, my confidant, and my number-one fan. I had just spoken to her on the phone the previous weekend, and after few minutes, she stopped and asked me, “Who am I talking to again?” I realized we’d never again be able to share a laugh over sneaking rum-soaked birthday cake to her dog, or my awkward effort at being a flower-girl at her wedding, or celebrating together just two years ago at my nephew’s bar mitzvah.

I reflected on how sad it was that young people seem to care so little about remembering that they use apps like Snapchat and Hangouts and Instagram – which share conversations and images that are designed to disappear. At the time, we were beginning our reading of the book of Leviticus, and I remarked that all of Leviticus is really about the art of remembering. We don’t read it to prepare for the rebuilding of the temple and the reinstatement of the priesthood and sacrifices on the altar. We read it to understand how our ancestors used these institutions, and later the memory of them instilled in our prayers, to bind themselves to each other as a people.

Then in August, I reflected on the day trip that Don and I took to the Martin Guitar factory. We recognized how the displays in the museum reflected the history of the founders, maybe not as it really happened but as the heirs and successors wanted and needed to remember them. The trip coincided with the beginning of reading the Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses recounts the stories of Exodus and Numbers. His account differs from the originals in order to seal his legacy, because Moses needs God, and the generations of Israelites who followed him, to remember him as the most faithful and most zealous man of his time.
Tonight, I’m trying to harness and synthesize all these lessons about remembering. And here’s what I think:

First, I think that memory is a gift.
One of my colleagues posted in the rabbi chatroom last week that she was spending the holy days in her hometown and was being given the chance to get a tour of her old childhood home. She wondered if she should, or if it would just mess up the memories she had. Colleagues weighed in on both sides. Some said, no, you don’t want to see what other people have done to the home. Others said, go for it, because the memories there are happy ones. All of them, of course, were speaking from their own experiences of their own childhoods and how they would deal with those memories. Only she could make the choice.

In the end, she did go, and she was so glad that she let those memories just wash over her. The best part of it, she reported, was the backyard and thinking about all the crazy stuff they got into back there, she and the gang of close friends she had. It was better than any movie reel she’s watched of those days, she said, and something of a miracle that they’d all made it to adulthood.

The art of remembering is knowing when to take the chance that the memory will not be what you thought it would be.

Also, I think that memory is a gift even when the memories are painful.
My dad’s been gone for a dozen years now. I sometimes still expect to pick up a ringing phone and hear him say, (sighing), “Hi Aud, how are you?” I wish he was a Facebook friend so that I could overshare everything with him. I get a twinge when I think we won’t go fishing for bluegills or listen to our favorite songs or eat pizza together anymore. And his birthday is a particularly hard day, even now. But I have a lot more happy memories than sad ones. And I know I’m lucky that way, to have had someone in my life who supported me and encouraged me to be my own person, from the day I was born.

Several people in our congregation lost a mom or dad in the past year. Some of you had complicated relationships with parents who could be, in turn, supportive or judgmental, appreciative or critical, independent or much less so. But with the passage of time often comes a softening of memories – not so you will forget who they were, but so you will accept them for what they were.

The art of remembering is knowing when to let a memory go when it holds on to you too tightly to help you move on.

And finally, I think that memory is a gift that we cannot refuse.
I mentioned all those young Israelis flocking to Berlin, about 15-thousand now, many attracted by the promise of German citizenship for descendants of German Jews killed by the Nazis. They make up a left-leaning, creative, artsy intelligentsia that crowds into theaters and coffee houses and nightclubs, and stakes out their own claim with falafel stands and Hebrew-language internet cafes.

They consider themselves more than Jews, more than Israelis. They want to be known as citizens of the world. And more than a few get irritated when Germans attach the memories of the Shoah to them – or as one young woman put it, they do not want to part of the “German-Jewish” story.

But they are. Berlin is, in fact, the one place where they cannot escape the memory of the Holocaust. What I remember about Berlin from a rabbinic mission there some years ago – at a time when there were very few Jews in Germany – were the subtle but ubiquitous reminders to Germans that all but spoke the words “Never again.” Memorials built into the middle of streets with eternal flames stoked from below marked the sites of Nazi book burnings.

Signposts above our heads pointed to long-destroyed sites in the old Jewish quarter along Oraienburg Strasse. Others enumerated the dates and the details of the countless laws from Hitler’s ascendancy in 1933 onwards, which gradually refused Jews their livelihoods, their education, their right to serve their country, their right to own a car, their right to live where the wished. And, eventually, their right to live at all.

It may frustrate or annoy or anger the young Israelis. But they’ve plunked themselves down into the one place from which they cannot ever escape memory. The veil is often a mere wisp. The reminders are discreet. But they are unmistakable.

The art of remembering is knowing when it is your responsibility, sometimes whether you like it or not.

And since I’ve been there, of course, Gunter Demnig has created the stolpersteine to force us to look down and remember each victim. I think it cannot be accidental that Demnig used a phrase with such Biblical resonance. It is, in fact, in tomorrow afternoon’s Torah reading from the so-called “Holiness Code” of the Book of Leviticus, that we read the Divine command, וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל – – “Before the blind do not place a stumbling block.”

The context in Leviticus, as you’ll hear tomorrow, is that God is enumerating the many ways in which we can infuse our lives with holiness, whether at home or at work or in a public place. Like all of the other mitzvot compiled in these verses, this one speaks to the respect with which we must treat other people. We do not lay traps for them, to tease them or laugh at their distress. We do not curse a deaf person, who cannot hear our hurtful words. We do not deliberately trip up a blind person, who cannot evade the obstacle.

But let’s suppose we are not talking about an actual blind person. Let’s suppose we’re talking about somebody who has lost sight of ethical behavior. Someone who is trying to evade responsibility for what he has said or what she has done to another person. To place a stolperstein in front of such a person is to make him stop, and look, and consider. To make sure he can no longer evade the consequences of his own behavior.

That’s exactly what Demnig has been trying to do with his stolpersteine, not only in Berlin but throughout Germany – in fact, throughout Europe, wherever Jews were driven from their homes and sent to their deaths. And that’s exactly what we need to do tonight.

The physical stolpersteine are antidotes to the ubiquitous collective monuments to Shoah victims, because they are so intensively, and even uncomfortably, personal. The emotional stolpersteine with which we are confronted on this Kol Nidre night take that bag of burdens with which we entered the sanctuary, and break them down into intensely, and even uncomfortably, personal transgressions. Like the physical stumbling stones, they force us to face the facts – the people, the events, the locations – that mark our transgressions.

The stumble-stone verse from tomorrow’s reading from Leviticus is immediately followed by the phrase, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה, “So shall you approach your God, with fear and reverence. I am Adonai.”

And that, after all, is the ultimate goal on Yom Kippur. To approach God, each and every one of us, knowing that we will be judged by our acts in the past year. Knowing that we are always given the choice to do better.

Tonight, let us be guided by the gift of memory, however difficult it might be. Let us face our individual stumble stones with confession, with remorse, and with repentance. And let us say together: Amen.
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©2014 Audrey R. Korotkin

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