Sometimes the Phoenix Burns
Sometimes the Phoenix Returns
by Robert M. Katzman, October 3, 2016
(in classical mythology) a unique bird that lived for five or six centuries in the Arabian desert, after this time burning itself on a funeral pyre and rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle.)
On a grey drizzly Rosh Hashanah morning, I was sitting on my squeaking old cedar swing in Racine, Wisconsin, where Jews seem to be an endangered species. Just sitting still, staring at this massive brick fireplace I built out of heavy reddish paving bricks during my long winter without Joyce. Her illness kept her away from our home for months. I wanted to build something permanent, something that would stay with me. I decided to build a fire.
I wanted to relieve my gloom, very aware that this was the last time I would celebrate the Jewish New Year in our temple in a now sold building which all of us must vacate by November first. I was thinking about the hundreds of former members from fifty years ago who once upon a time filled the entire auditorium facing the elevated bima. Maybe on these last days hundreds of them are lingering here, floating above us in this large empty space as ghosts, remembering ghosts. Ha-reh-pah-im, in Hebrew.
Now, an average Saturday morning service in Beth Israel Sinai barely makes a minion. So often, when moments in a person’s life end, when traditions in a certain time and space end, or when a synagogue closes, it happens in utter silence.
I saw that all my kindling was wet, all the interlaced branches were wet and the damp air itself was not receptive to a crackling fire. But I read that God gave us free will, rational logic notwithstanding, and I was determined to make a fire. I wanted to prove to myself that I could change something.
I am excellent at building fires after a lifetime of camping all over the United States. But evidently, not today. The twigs refused to catch fire. I crumpled old pages of the New York Times into tight balls of intelligent ignition, also pages from the Jewish Forward and all my collected junk mail sending a torrent of very dry paper into my indifferent brick fireplace.
Just because an ambition is very difficult to achieve, a person, or maybe even a congregation doesn’t have to give up and accept defeat. I kept at it, because I’m one stubborn old Jewish firestarter.
In the 1950’s and ’60’s on Rosh Hashanah, the newly built interstate highways on Chicago’s South Side were a river of American steel slowly creeping north so the grandchildren could celebrate the holiday with their aging immigrant grandparents. To hear stories from their lips about the Old Country ghettos they fled to escape Pogroms—a Yiddish word that means devastation– to escape slaughter from the Russian czar, from countries the younger children might have difficulty finding on a map.
Faraway places like Latvia, Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Russia, Byelorussia, Germany, Taskent, Uzbekistan, and even Shanghai, China.
On Yom Kipper, those same new interstates highways were as barren of cars as the Negev in southern Israel. We were so many, tens of thousands of us between the massive steel mills on the south to the University of Chicago on the north, an army of Jews colonizing the South Side of Chicago.
But things end. Terrified of integration and the waves of African Americans traveling north seeking work and homes to better their lives in a big city, those same thousands of Jews evacuated an area they had settled on fifty years before. The mass movement of that Jewish population was so complete, so total, that by 1968 there were virtually none of them left.
All the temples closed. All the once popular and crowded Jewish restaurants serving food remembered from Europe closed. On Rosh Hashanah in 1969, the interstates were uninterrupted by wagonloads of transient Jews afraid of sudden social change, and on Yom Kipper, traffic filled all the lanes.
We were gone.
But Buffalo Grove, the unlikely new Jerusalem, flourished as did Skokie, Evanston, Highland Park and many other northern suburbs. New temples sprang up everywhere like blue and white mushrooms after a heavy rain. New restaurants opened and all sorts of organizations took root. On Purim, Rosh Hashanah, Chanukkah and Passover, the new Jewish bakeries were mobbed.
Wandering Jews can rediscover each other, as they always have, and begin our unique civilization over and over again, just like we did when the Jews were freed from Babylonia thousands of years ago and immediately began to rebuild Jerusalem. Seemingly lost cherished places can return.
Meanwhile, my relentless determination to start my damn fire began with a spark, a gust of unexpected dry wind, a slight crackle that blossomed into hungry yellow flames bursting forth to begin consuming all my carefully arranged kindling, branches and steaming logs. The noise from the fire grew louder, the flames so bright, the heat so hot that I was forced to retreat back to my cedar swing. My face burning from all the flames, I smiled to myself.
Damn the drizzle!
Damn sad news on this Jewish New Year!!
It may be very hard. It may take longer than any of us expected. But we are one tough bunch of Chosen People. Though we may be few in number today, that has always been the case for us all over the world. Our own creative spark will again reignite and our hopes for a new home for our congregation will again burst into bright flames of ambition and rebirth.
Beth Israel Sinai will NOT be extinguished!
(If people who read this heartfelt plea to help our historic temple become rekindled and who desire to contribute to the purchase of a new and smaller building in Racine, Wisconsin, please contact:
Joyce Placzkowski at: (262) 945-7675
I’m not saying anyone’s choosing to do this will get you any points in heaven, but it can’t hurt, can it?)