By Joshua Hammerman
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Can you say Kaddish for a shoe?
I found myself asking that question a few weeks ago when I heard the sad news that a fire had destroyed some shoes.
Now normally, losing a few shoes in a fire is not such big news, but these weren’t just any shoes. These were the shoes warehoused in a barracks at Majdanek, a thousand of them, destroyed by a flash fire believed to be accidental.
Majdanek, the infamous death camp on the outskirts of Lublin, called by a New York Times war reporter “the most terrible place on earth,” is the one camp that has remained virtually unchanged since the day of its liberation. The Nazis didn’t have time to destroy the evidence because the Soviet Army swooped in so quickly. And of all the exhibits there, the barracks filled with shoes leaves the most indelible impression. Now the shoes and their rightful owners have been reunited on high. Having been there last April, I felt a very personal, deep sense of loss when I heard about the fire last month.
Can you say Kaddish for a shoe?
I’m thinking of one shoe in particular, one that grabbed my attention. It was red, a child’s shoe - tiny. All the rest were dusty and grey, but this one retained its color, as if to call attention to the innocence of the children and the uniqueness of every victim.
Primo Levi has stated that in the Camps, death began with the shoes. As feet began to throb from infection from days and days of marching and the pain from the sores that became fatally infected, the shoes became instruments of torture. But now the shoes play a different role entirely.
The Yiddish poet Moshe Shulstein writes:
I saw a mountain
Higher than Mt. Blanc
And more Holy that the Mountain of Sinai
On this world this mountain stood.
such a mountain I saw—Jewish shoes in Majdanek….
Hear! Hear the march.
Hear the shuffle of shoes left behind—that which remained.
From small, from large, from each and every one.
Make ways for the rows—for the pairs—For the generations—for the years.
The shoe army—it moves and moves.
We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers,
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam,
And because we are only made of stuff and leather
And not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire. We shoes—that used to go strolling in the market
Or with the bride and groom to the chuppah
We shoes from simple Jews, from butchers and carpenters,
From crocheted booties of babies just beginning to walk …
Unceasingly we go. We tramp.
The hangman never had a chance to snatch us into his
Sack of loot—now we go to him.
Let everyone hear the steps which flow as tears.
The steps that measure out the judgment.
Columnist Michael Berenbaum adds, “The shoes of Majdanek are rotting. They smell. The rot and the smell tell us of the distance that stands between that time and our time. They bear witness to the erosion of time, which we do not want to couple with the erosion of memory.”
The shoes bear witness.
Well, a thousand of those shoes are now no more. But these shoes are not the last witnesses.
For now we must stand in their shoes.
When you look in a Torah scroll at the verse containing the Sh’ma, one thing becomes immediately clear, even to a person who does not read Hebrew. Two letters are larger than the rest, the final letters of the word Sh’ma and Echad – the ayin and the daled.
No one really knows why this is. One possibility is to make sure not to mispronounce those two words. The daled at the end of Echad, for instance, can easily be misread as a resh, which would change the word from echad to acher, from the word “one” to “another.” “Hear O Israel, Adonai Elohenu is another deity entirely,” sort of distorts the meaning.
But commentators have also speculated that the reason for the two enlarged letters has something to do with the word that you get when you put the ayin and daled together. And that is the word “ed,” “witness.” There is something about the Sh’ma that calls on each of us to bear witness.
But bear witness to what? And how? And why?
That’s what I’d like to talk about this evening, having recited the Sh’ma all together only a few moments ago. We said it all together, but each of us bore witness to it individually.
Notice that unlike a blessing, there is no place to say “AMEN” after the Sh’ma. Typically, it’s enough to hear the cantor say a blessing and all we have to do is acknowledge it by saying “Amen.” And in that way we have fulfilled the responsibility of saying that prayer. Not so with the Sh’ma. Each of us must actively recite it, usually in full voice, so that we can hear ourselves affirm divine unity, each of us bearing witness to it on our own.
There is a response to the Sh’ma. But it’s not AMEN. It’s that verse that was recited in the days of the temple when the people heard the High Priest pronounce that most sacred of names, on the holiest moment of the year, on Yom Kippur, in the most mysterious place, the Holy of Holies. “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed - Blessed be the Name of the One whose glorious sovereignty is forever and ever.” Traditionally this verse is recited silently after that first line of the Sh’ma.
Except on Yom Kippur.
This is the day when we can feel the awe, this is the one day when we are close enough to the source of all life and meaning, that we can sense, even if only for an instant, the clarity of our mission – our place in the scheme of things. So we can say OMG! to what we have seen.
It’s more than an AMEN. Amen is what bystanders say. Amen is the polite applause after a chamber concert. Amen is the nod of agreement after a sermon or the broad smile after a bar mitzvah speech. Amen is a letter to the editor, or clicking “likes this” on Facebook. Amen is what spectators do.
The Sh’ma is for witnesses.
In saying the Sh’ma, we are walking in the steps of all those who said it before us or who will after us. Our kids or grandkids at bedtime. Jacob’s children at their father’s bedside – assuring their dad, whose name was Israel, “Sh’ma Yisra’el - Listen, Dad, Israel, your God and our God, they’re one and the same. We’ll carry on.”
And when we say the Sh’ma we are bearing witness to martyrs, who from Roman times onward, had these sacred words on their lips while meeting their demise. Rabbi Akiva and the others in the first century, to the martyrs of the first Crusade in 1096, the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, the massacres of Polish Jewry in 1648, the Czarist pogroms and the Holocaust.
Rabbi Akiva was sentenced to death for studying Torah. The Romans tortured him by scraping off his flesh with a giant comb. As he was being tortured, Akiva recited the Sh’ma , and his students asked how he could praise God while in such pain?" Rabbi Akiva replied: "All my life, I strived to love God with all my soul. Now that I have the opportunity to fulfill it, I do so with joy!" With his dying breath, he sanctified God's name by crying out the words of Sh’ma.
So when we say the Sh’ma we aren’t just remembering them. We’re bearing witness to their suffering and their triumphs. We’re saying, for all to hear, that their story has become our story.
I know that it’s a downer to talk about martyrdom and such. I mentioned last week how important it is to place less emphasis on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in conveying a more positive sense of being Jewish to the next generation. I have always been a true believer in “Jewish and Joyish.”
But having gone to Poland for the first time this year, I came to a greater understanding of what it means to be a witness.
I documented the trip with thousands of photographs and nightly blogs, because I wanted, the greatest degree possible, to bring all of you along with me, so that you could get a sampling of what we were experiencing. A few of them, including one featuring the shoes, are scrolling right now on our TV screen in the lobby. The confluence of events that took place that week, the death of the Polish president, placed an added significance on this journey – as our group wasn’t simply learning history, we were making history. Instead of simply visiting the graveyards of our people, we were making a shiva call to a nation – a nation that had to a great extent sat silently while we were butchered (though with notable exceptions). And we were representing all of the Jewish people, and certainly American Jewry, since the March of the Living is big news over there, and in Israel.
But this sermon actually germinated last fall, on a much shorter journey, when about 70 of us went to the 92nd St Y to hear Elie Wiesel. He met with our group separately before the presentation, and in particular, spent time with Andrew Schwartz, who had chosen Wiesel’s foundation as his bar mitzvah project. During a special question and answer session for our group, I asked Wiesel what I should say to Andrew in my charge to him at his Bar Mitzvah. Wiesel responded immediately: Tell him that anyone who hears the story of a witness himself becomes a witness.
In a stirring speech given at the White House in 1999, Wiesel said, “Fifty-four years ago to the day, a young Jewish boy from a small town in the Carpathian Mountains woke up, not far from Goethe's beloved Weimar, in a place of eternal infamy called Buchenwald. He was finally free, but there was no joy in his heart. He thought there never would be again.
Liberated a day earlier by American soldiers, he remembers their rage at what they saw. And even if he lives to be a very old man, he will always be grateful to them for that rage, and also for their compassion. Though he did not understand their language, their eyes told him what he needed to know -- that they, too, would remember, and bear witness.”
We bear witness with our eyes.
On the March of the Living, our group not only heard the story of Judy Altmann, a survivor, returning to the camps for the first time, we lived her story. We were with her as she discovered for the first time where her sister most likely perished, and she brought a group of our teens to the barracks where she was imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau. One teen, Kayla Berman, “adopted” Judy’s story, to carry that story with her once she is no longer with us. Kayla’s promise epitomizes what it means to be a Jewish witness, merging the ayin of Sh’ma and the daled of Echad. An ayin comes from the Hebrew word “eye,” and daled from the word delet, door. That teen will become Judy’s eyes and will open the door for a new generation to bear witness to her story.
For Jews, that’s a true witness protection program – but we need to bear witness to more than just the horrors of the Holocaust.
I had the honor of hearing Representative John Lewis speak this year. Ethan invited me up to hear him on campus and I jumped at the opportunity. He was very powerful, talking to a group of college students about the need to be involved, to bear witness. Lewis was one of ten speakers at Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. He is the last surviving speaker. There was urgency in his voice that mirrored Wiesel’s. We have now become witnesses, I thought, as he described vividly the bridge in Selma, the barking dogs and the police, Sherriff Clarke keeping them from crossing the bridge, fending them off with them with a gun in one hand and a cattle prod in the other, and the deaths of the three in Mississippi, among them two Jews. The shared suffering of the Civil Rights era rang out to me when Lewis concluded his lecture by saying, “We may have come over in different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat.”
And so, the Sh’ma reminds us that we are all now edim witnesses, and not merely to tragedy, but also to the majesty of the cosmos, to the miracle of life, to the eternal lessons of our Jewish experience and to the unity of all humanity.
Theologian Art Green asks, why does the Sh’ma say “Adonai Eloheynu,” Adonai OUR God?
Adonai, he states, was what was there before each of us came into existence. Adonai becomes Eloheynu - OUR God - for the brief instant that our lives flash across the screen. But then we let it go, and it is Adonai, once again, endless being. Our individual existences are merely the blink of an eye – but we are linked to an eternal life force, and we are eternal witnesses to its power, and to the role that our people have played in the unfolding of the divine drama.
Just think about that – Sh’ma Yisrael….Adonai-Eloheynu-Adonai…echad. Each of us is living in that one narrow window of time, that brief, fleeting moment of Eloheynu, shoehorned in between the two Adonais – the eternities that preceded our birth and that will follow. For this brief moment, we inherit the mantle of being a witness to all that has come before, all of that becomes ours, all that sanctity becomes Eloheynu, Our God. What are we going to do with that gift.
Yes, much of our Jewish experience has been painful but that has given us the unique ability to feel others’ pain because we ourselves have felt it. We have the responsibility to love the stranger, as the Torah instructs us more than 30 times, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We have that certain instinct, radar to detect prejudice, an instinct that few others have.
We can bear witness to all suffering. Because we have felt that pain.
A perfect example of that was last summer, when the Supreme Court welcomed its third sitting Jewish justice, Elena Kagan. Nice Jewish girl. Earned her street cred as a 12 year old in the Upper West Side by having a run-in with her rabbi and as result became Lincoln Square Synagogue’s first bat mitzvah. For many, the most revealing moment in the confirmation hearings came when Senator Lindsey Graham asked where Kagan had been on Christmas Day of 2009. His purpose was simply to find out her views on the failed terror attack on an airliner that occurred that day. But in asking that question, he unknowingly pushed that button that we all know so well, the button of the witness, and that radar kicked in, and she responded in the perfect Jewish manner – not to up the ante with defensiveness, but to diffuse a volatile situation with humor.
She said, "Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant”
I have no way of knowing what the senator was thinking, but I know exactly what Elena Kagan was thinking, which is exactly what I would have thought, and many of you, and exactly what Woody Allen thought in Annie Hall when he got upset every time someone asked him “D’Jew want to go out to eat?” She poked fun at a question that was insensitive, though probably not deliberately so, and her joke pointed to a coping mechanism that has been employed by Jews and other non Christians to deal with feelings of being outsiders on December 25. Brilliant.
Neurotic, but brilliant!
Being a witness has its burdens, and one is, I suppose, neurosis. Kagan had no reason to be defensive in that hearing. She had just been nominated to the Supreme Court! As a Jew and as a woman, that is truly remarkable.
But still, she is a witness. And her response to that question, along with many others, indicated that she takes that role seriously. Even when we are at the pinnacle of power, we must remember that WE were slaves. Not our ancestors. US. For a Jew there is no such thing as history. There is only an ever evolving present, a story that we are writing even as it unfolds before us.
We are the authors, we are the main characters and we are the storytellers. That is what it means to bear witness.
In Israel you really can sense the timelessness of the Jewish story and what it means to be witnesses to it. That’s what I love about being there; every moment connects you to history. We are living witnesses.
Last summer our group was headed north and the bus driver decided to veer from the straight and narrow and take an alternative route to our destination. (The bus driver was a pain in the neck, but that’s another story). So we were meandering through the Jezreel valley and passed right alongside Mount Tabor, a steep hill that sticks out of the otherwise flat farmland. You might recall that this is the place where in the book of Judges, Deborah defeated the Canaanite King Sisera when, after a sudden downpour, all his chariots slid down the mountain in the mud.
So just as we were passing this sacred, storied site, a sign on the road stated plainly and without a hint of irony, “Slippery when wet.”
I’m sure it is slippery when wet. It was for Sisera, 3,000 years ago. We know! We read the book! And that sign, in the same language as the original story, bears witness to that fact, and links all of us something that happened long before we were born. But the past doesn’t come alive through the sign itself. It comes alive through our reading the sign. We are the eyes and the doorway, the ayin and the daled, the AYD, making the story of Deborah spring to life.
Bearing witness goes beyond being part of key moments in world history. It means to take those experiences and channel them into wisdom. If you take the word AYD and reverse the ayin and the daled, you get “DA,” to understand.
Israel is the only place on earth where McDonalds, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken are kosher. So whose secret recipe is it? Colonel Sanders meets Tante Sarah. Suddenly our act of eating a piece of chicken raises awareness of the sanctity of life and the moral obligation to limit the pain of living creatures, reminding us of our kinship with all of God’s creations. Not bad for a bucket of chicken. With each crunch of Kosher KFC we are bearing witness to a deeper understanding of what it means to live a holy life.
Sorry for mentioning food.
Lifting a filled goblet of wine was a form of giving testimony in the ancient world. In saying Kiddush, we’re doing just that, testifying to God’s role in nature and history.
Or the child who brings matzah to school during Passover, bearing witness and sharing wisdom (and usually most of the matzah).
How fitting that on this, the holiest night of the year, the Kol Nidre is a legal formula that literally bears witness to our human frailty. It is recited in the setting of a trial, which is why we remove the Torahs from the ark. But the words are by far the least significant ingredient here. It is all about the haunting melody.
A famous Hasidic story tells of an illiterate young farm boy who attends services for the first time one Kol Nidre eve. He was so moved by the chant that he took out his shepherd’s whistle and began to blow, to pray in the only manner that he knew. The congregation was furious and began to remove him from the room, when the Baal Shem Tov informed them that it is only because of that primal call of the shepherd’s earnest prayer that all the congregation’s prayers had been received in heaven.
Our task is to discern the call of our age, to respond, to dig beneath what Art Green calls the “complex, civilizing masks of language,” to lead ourselves to that primal scream that goes beyond words, the kind of unfiltered, pure message that one heard in the shofar’s call or in a wordless niggun, something that can penetrate deeper, a place more ancient, deeper within us than words can reach.
We need to respond to that call of the Sh’ma: Listen – Listen to that call; listen to that primal whistle. Listen to the Oneness that hides beneath all apparent divisions. Listen to heart beat – to the heart beating next to you – to a thousand heart beats, a cacophony of hearts beating, voices raised and souls reaching upward, yearning for the Oneness.
It is our responsibility to bear witness to the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. And it is our responsibility, as a people who stands in Covenant, to open ourselves up to the flow of divine love and to bring light and blessing to the lives of others. That is what it means to bear witness.
In our day, we also must bear witness to the dangers that surround us. Having seen firsthand in Poland the product of unconstrained hatred, it is our responsibility as Jews to alert the world to the similar dangers percolating in Iran. The world’s resolve has stiffened of late, but it too soon to know if sanctions will be enough. If not, we will need to make lots of noise. All of us will. In fact, all of us need to make noise now.
When I led services in the synagogues of Poland, it was almost as if the dead were calling out to me. Europe is filled with dead synagogues. Beautiful, restored but still dead. Back in the 1930s, the chief rabbi of Krakow, who preached precisely where I was standing, was firmly convinced that Polish Jewry was ascendant. “There… the Jewish people came into its own,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel of the Poland of that era. “It did not live like a guest in somebody else’s home, who must constantly keep in mind the ways and customs of the host. There Jews lived without reservation and without disguise, outside their homes no less than within them.”
The Jews of Palestine were small in number, American Jews were too assimilated and Soviet Jewry was being crushed by the Communists. But Poland is where the best and brightest studied Torah in glittering yeshivot, where three million Jews lived a vibrant life, separate from but unbothered by their neighbors. Poland was the great meeting place of Hasidic fervor of Galicia, the Talmudic expertise of Lithuania and the western scholarship of German Jewry. It all came together in Poland, arguably the most vibrant Jewish community in all of history.
The Jews of Poland must have thought it would last forever.
So as I stood there in front of our group at the Tempel Synagogue, a large ornate structure tucked between the narrow little alleyways of the Kaszimierz, the Jewish quarter with no Jews, I speculated out loud with the teens what it meant to be a witness. I asked them to realize that, just as in their synagogues back home, the pews they were sitting in once belonged to someone sat in that same place, every Shabbat, every Rosh Hashanah and every Yom Kippur. In the fall of 1942, the place was full on Yom Kippur. And the next year, they were all gone, following the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in March of 1943, a scene emblazoned in our consciousness by Steven Spielberg in the movie “Schindler’s List.” That horrible scene witnessed by Schindler on horseback from the top of the hill, when amidst the tumult the camera focuses our attention on a single victim, a little girl.
And what we remember most about the girl is her shoe. Her red shoe.
And I asked the teens to think of that one individual while we said the mourner’s kaddish. The person who sat in that pew. And then we danced. We danced to the melody created by Shlomo Carlebach in memory of those victims. The Krakower Niggun. And at that moment we became living witnesses. Witnesses don’t sit on their butts and listen passively while succumbing to a spiritual numbness. Spectators do that. Witnesses pray with intensity. Witnesses sing with fervor. Witnesses perform acts of selflessness and courage. Witnesses stand arm in arm with those who marched at the bridge in Selma and with those who suffered Egyptian slavery.
Witnesses side in the mud on Mount Tavor and lift a Torah at the Western Wall. Witnesses cry with the parents of Gilad Schalit and scream to Congress about the nukes in Iran.
But most of all, witnesses dance.
So we danced, and the walls of the Tempel Synagogue came alive. Then days later, we danced again at the synagogue in Lancot, also dead and lovingly restored, and our voices echoed so loud that a Polish woman came in off the street asking how we could be singing so loud when her whole country was in morning. “We’re not singing,” she was told by Judy Altmann. “We are praying.” To be a witness is not to recall history. It is to live history. On that day, we made history.
Shlomo Carlebach’s Krakower niggun begins with a vision, one that Reb Shlomo had as he sat in the pews of Krakow synagogue, of the Jews of the city boarding the trains, their belongings and loved ones snatched from them. The darkness of the ovens – suddenly gave way in his vision to a bright light. And the victims: instead of being limp corpses, they were dancing in joy.
I have that same vision now, about the 1,000 shoes of Maidanek. The victims are no longer barefoot. Their sores have healed. The infections have gone away. The shoes don’t even smell anymore. They fit perfectly. And somewhere, a little girl, like Cinderella, tries on her long lost red slipper and smiles and jumps for joy.
Now we must be their eyes. Their aynayim. And we must stand in their shoes, their ragged, dusty shoes, the shoes of Maidanek, and dance their dance. We stand in the shoes of Akiva too, and Mordechai Anilevitch and Yitzchak Rabin. And we stand in their place – all who came before us! We are their eyes and we stand in their shoes – we are their witnesses – and we will open the door, the delet, to their future, and our own.
The shoes of Majdanek will lie dormant no more.