My Father Was a Wandering European©

My Father Was a Wandering European©

Parashat Bo – 2017/5777
 Rabbi David Baum

My uncle Harry is the keeper of our history.  He was old enough when they left to remember what life was like in the old country, especially the challenges they faced on a daily basis, and he was old enough to remember the journey - and he’s alive to tell the story.  My uncle was taught by his father, my grandfather, to be a tailor, and so, he’s our family’s resident tailor, and when he’s working on hemming my pants, he tells me these stories.

I wanted to share one of these stories: the story of how they came here, to American in the 1960’s from Poland.  After my grandparents were liberated from Auschwitz, they went back to the familiar - the only language they knew, the only country they knew, the only people they knew - Poland.  They moved to a different city together, Włocławek and rebuilt their lives.  Following the war, Poland became a Communist country as it was.  My grandfather was a factory foreman in a coat factory where they made one type of coat for everyone.   He made money on the side by tailoring these coats for customers in his apartment, which was illegal.  He was almost put in jail on several occasions for this crime.  Finally, in 1960, they had their chance to leave Communist Poland and come to America.  And they came - but there were some strict conditions - each person was only allowed to bring the equivalent of $5 in currency, and they had to place all their belongings in one wicker basket.

This wicker basket became their ‘teiva’ - their ark.  Like Noah and Moses before them - it was not only items that were placed in this basket - but the hopes and dreams for a brighter future for their family.

He told me what it was like to finally make it here after that long boat ride,  welcomed by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in this new land, with food, some more money in their pockets, and a train ticket to their final destination.

My grandmother on my father's side had a similar story - she was able to leave Communist Czechoslovakia and come to America because an American Jew saw her name on a roster of survivors, and thought it was his cousin.  She came to America without her husband, but with her three year old son.  She apologized to the man when she came to America - your cousin is dead, and I used her name.  His response:  "I am very happy to have rescued a surviving Jewish family from the destruction of the Jewish people in Europe."  The man gave that boy a birthday gift every year on his birthday.  My grandmother managed a hotel in Budapest, hiding as a Christian, and after the war, she was an interpreter for the Red Army and ran a successful restaurant.  But in America, she was a lowly maid, who slept on a down blanket in a basement with her son - my father.

That’s my story - it’s a story I was reminded of on a weekly if not daily basis as a child.  I can see the wicker basket in my mind - I actually saw some of the items that went in the basket; I can see the down blanket - I can feel what it must have been like to curl up with my grandmother on that cement floor in a cold and dark basement.

We all our sacred myths - the stories we tell about how we came to be - some facts might be changed, but the story is true.

My father and mother were wandering Europeans - and they came here, to America, to be free.

Each one of you has a story – maybe it's not as fresh in your mind as it is in mine, because it has been a couple of generations since you were wanderers.

Our people have a sacred myth also - Avadim Hayinu v’atah bnai chorin; we were slaves and now we are free people.

Or, maybe, it is, once, we were strangers in a strange land...

But what do we do once the time passes – once we forget what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land?  What am I going to tell my children about their grandparents and great-grandparents?  How will I get them to see the wicker basket, the down blanket, the basement floor?

In our parashah this week, Moses tells the people what they already know in

Chapter 13.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶל־הָעָ֗ם זָכ֞וֹר אֶת־הַיּ֤וֹם הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצָאתֶ֤ם מִמִּצְרַ֙יִם֙ מִבֵּ֣ית עֲבָדִ֔ים כִּ֚י בְּחֹ֣זֶק יָ֔ד הוֹצִ֧יא יְקוָ֛ק אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּ֑ה וְלֹ֥א יֵאָכֵ֖ל חָמֵֽץ׃
And Moses said to the people, “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the LORD freed you from it with a mighty hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten.

And the rest of the chapter gives reminders in the form of ritual – the holiday of Pesach, the introduction of the mitzvah of tefillin on your arm, so that you know that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt.

Why Does God need to remind the people of what they are going through at that moment?  How can they forget?  Moses is not just talking to those people, but he is talking to us, their children.  We are reminded of this journey from slavery to freedom literally everyday, when we put on tefillin, when we pray in Shacharit and repeat the story of our redemption.

It is moments like these, in our time, when we must be reminded of our story.

What I didn't know about my family was the fear that people here in America had about them.  It began in the 1930's – Jewish refugees from Europe were looked at as spies for the Nazis.  There was truth to this:  a Nazi spy was caught disguised as a Jewish refugee, although the story was exaggerated and possibly inaccurate.  In the 1950's and 60's, the Jews who stayed behind, my family, were looked at as Communists.  And there is some truth to this – remember, there was only one party allowed in these countries. He was, for all intents and purposes, a member of the Communist party, and I'm sure if the same vetting for refugees and immigrants that is done today was done back then, this would have come up.  Many Jews were the primary leaders in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and some were in charge in the Soviet block countries.  We weren't perfect – and there might have been some bad apples in the bunch.

Those who left Egypt during the Exodus were certainly not perfect or pure.  The Torah tells us that others came with them – the Erev Rav, a mixed multitude of non-Israelite laborers.  The rabbis do not look kindly upon this mixed multitude, the rabbis claim it was this group that started all of the trouble in those wilderness years.

But, truthfully, we do not know if the Erev Rav were the reason we got into trouble; and we really do not know if any of the European Jews who came as refugees were dangerous.  But perception is reality.

I do not want to quote you facts about this current refugee ban – you can find that information out for yourself, but I am here to give you teachings from the Torah on how to look at the other – the people who look differently than we do – the strangers from a strange land.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, wrote the following:  “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Then I realised that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”

Eventually, people in this country, were able to see beyond the label, and see the individual human being – to love the stranger.

During the ninth plague, the Egyptians were struck with a darkness that was palpable.  The Torah states:

לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וּֽלְכָל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם׃
People could not see their brother and sister, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.

It was not just a physical darkness, but a spiritual darkness.  The Egyptians could not see the plight of the human beings that they ruled over – the strangers in their midst.  But the Israelites had light in their dwellings – sometimes strangers can see what other cannot – the human behind the label.

Eventually, the strangers were able to put their wicker baskets in their own home and put some more money in their pockets; they were able to move out of the basements, off the cold floors with just their blankets, and into beds and homes of their own.  Eventually, the stranger because less strange.  And here we are – at this moment, where we are reminded once again of where we came from.

And God compels us once again to remember our story, to remember how strange we once were – our story is summoning us now, let us be ready to listen.

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