Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Sometimes the Phoenix Burns…Sometimes the Phoenix Returns…by Robert M. Katzman

Sometimes the Phoenix Burns

Sometimes the Phoenix Returns

by Robert M. Katzman, October 3, 2016  (and updated a year later)

(In classical mythology, the Phoenix was 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, Tashkent, 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 from the Southern states 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 the 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!

Shana Tovah!

 

A note on what happened next:

A year later, a smaller Beth Israel Sinai flourishes on a main street between the Interstate and Lake Michigan. There is still difficulty gathering a minion on Saturday mornings, but a week ago several dozen people came for New Year services.  There are some new faces that periodically. Some, like my wife who died in May but continued to come for services in her wheelchair until one week before her death, are remembered if not still present in the flesh.

A few days ago,n with several other people and the rabbi, I helped to build the first Sukkah for the Jewish Harvest Festival in our new temple. I am 67 now, still trying to sort things out. In a few days, I’ll fly to Israel with Joy’s ashes intending to disperse them from the top of Masada, the two thousand year old famed symbol of resistance in the Israeli desert against the armies of Rome.

The Romans are gone.

We are still here, small in numbers but persisitant nevertheless, to continue our traveling through time.

I will watch Joy’s ashes float through the dry air over a biblical land my stubborn ancestors left long ago, watch her essence float toward the Dead Sea.

She always wanted to come here, but never made it while living. Well Joy, you not only made it here, but you have become part of the beginning, part of the story and gradually you have become part of the land of Israel. What more could I do for you than make you a part of what is so central to me?

L’Shana Tovah, Happy New Year, to Israel, to the Jewish people wherever they may be all over this planet today, to all of my children and grandchildren, and to Joy, soon to be part of the sands of the Promised Land.

Shalom.

Love, Bob

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