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Yom Kippur Reflection by Scott and Rose Gelfand

Scott: Good morning everyone and happy New Year. I am deeply honored to be here, along with my daughter Rose, and also eternally grateful to Kehilla for creating a sanctuary and community for all of us. We were given the task to speak this morning about home and exile, and about our family journey. In our research and writing for today, we’d like to acknowledge Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, of my wife Batya’s home temple, Central Synagogue in New York, our very own Rabbi Dev Noily in Oakland, and Tevya the Milk Man, for some of our words and for some of our inspiration.

Rose: Every time my dad and I watch Fiddler on the Roof, he cries. To be fair, he cries at a lot of movies but with Fiddler it is every time, with complete predictability.

Scott: I also cry watching The Guns of Navarone, but that’s a story for another Jewish holiday! Well, yes. I cry because Fiddler represents not only the story of our family, but also of the journey of countless others, across many lands.

Rose:  Our high holiday themes of home and longing, of refugees and immigrants, are both a current international conversation, and an endlessly historical one. From Brexit to Syria, from Colombia to Africa, more people are being forced to leave their homes today than at any time since World War II.  According to the U.N. , 65.3 million people are displaced in the world today. 65.3 Million. Can you imagine? There are more displaced people than the populations of 213 countries, including France, Italy, Spain, Canada, South Africa, and Australia.

Where will these people go? How do we, as a world, hold those in such difficult transience?

Unfortunately, the answer of many countries is to shut their doors tight. To hold their xenophobia and ignorance close, and ignore the humanity of the lost and the stranger.

Scott: We know this feeling. This fear. Jews have always been strangers. Passover reminds us of this narrative every year – strangers in Egypt, captive, then freed.  The Torah reminds us; “The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt”.

Rabbi Buchdahl, in this years’ Rosh Hashana services at Lincoln Center in New York, said, quote;  “We have made our way as strangers everywhere from Babylon to Brooklyn, and have survived the crusades, the pogroms, and the concentration camps.

We are commanded never to forget what it feels like to be unwelcome. We know what it is like to feel powerless and vulnerable. We are mandated to recall being a stranger not just as ancient history, but as personal memory – in every generation. “To taste the tears” and “eat the bread of affliction ourselves” – to ingest the experience of being the Stranger in our very own bodies. So that we never forget that person behind the barbed wire, barricade or checkpoint. That family forced to hide or run, that couple carrying all their belongings on their backs, or more basically – those people of a different color, faith, sexuality or philosophy.” End quote.

Rose: “Exile and Return” are a part of our bloodline.  Migration and movement are in the blood of most people’s history, and the history of the planet. As Rabbi Dev said on Rosh Hashana, the great river divides into 4 headwaters, and goes out from there. Humans are no different. Our personal family veins can be traced to the mid-1800’s in Russia, but for today, we’ll talk about my great grandmother and great grandfather, both born in small villages near Minsk, Belarus.

My middle initial D. comes from my great grandmother – Dinka. Her mother and father had a small bakery in a small town, and Dinka and her sister Bella were often in danger when the Russian soldiers would come looking to abuse young Jewish girls. When the soldiers came to the village, her mother would hide them, by keeping one of their bread ovens off, and having both girls climb inside. This was her childhood.

Scott: My grandfather Simon’s childhood was just as scary. When the Germans invaded Russia in the first World War, my great grandparents and their 8 children, including twin boys, left Smilovitch, their village near Minsk and walked east – every day, away from the fighting.  They could only send 4 of them on a boat heading to Italy, and then eventually New York.  My 15 yr old grandfather, one of the twins, was the eldest who left on the boat with 3 young siblings. The other 4, and my great grandparents eventually returned to Minsk after the war, and had to start all over in their own land – the parents never seeing or even hearing again from their 4 kids who got on that boat.

The twins would only see each other one more time in the rest of their lives. They were never able to write, for fear of government backlash, but my parents were able to broker a deal for my grandfathers’ twin brother and wife to be given a 2 week pass out of Communist Russia in 1972, to come visit America and stay with our family.

It would be 55 years since they last saw each other. An entire adulthood had passed for these twin brothers. Children were raised. Businesses were created and tended to. Homes were built and paid for. Grandchildren were born. I was one of them. I was 13 years old.  Imagine this scene: John F Kennedy Airport in New York – 2 twin brothers who were 70 years old now, last having seen each other at 15 years old. When they stepped into the airport and we greeted them, both brothers broke down in tears. Their eyes could not believe what they were seeing.

They looked exactly the same – except the Russian brother wore John Lennon-like round glasses, while my Brooklyn grandfather wore square black-rimmed Florida reading glasses. Otherwise, the same face. They spent 2 weeks in America visiting their family they never got to know, and when I asked them about it 12 years later when I travelled to Minsk, my Great Aunt said in Russian, “it was only a dream.  It couldn’t have been real”

But for our family, it opened the door to reconnection with our long lost side of the Russian family, and we have been united ever since.

Rose: We are tribal at our core, from our families to our congregations, from our sports teams, to our lobbyists. Tribes offer us a sense of identity and belonging. They give us roots and community. How do we keep our cultural norms and honor our ancestors when we find ourselves in new lands, inside new cultures, and part of new tribes?

Of course the answer comes from my family’s favorite spiritual teacher, Tevya the Milk Man – Tradition! Tevya says, “because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many many years”. He walks the delicate line between holding onto the old school ways and being open to growth.

Tevya explains to us in the beginning of Fiddler, that because of our traditions, “everyone knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.” Everyone has a fixed expectation. But, as he comes to find out, that can get a little blurry with an ever changing and evolving world. The next generation brings new ways to connect, new ideals and their changes, their additions, to our traditions. The river divides, becoming more headwaters.. taking new turns, carving new paths, and enriching new directions, even with resistance.

Scott: Like Tevya, my father learned to love his children even though they did not follow the traditions of the past. My eldest sister fell in love – not with Mottel the poor tailor, but with Marcy the poor artist, her wife for now over 30 years. Tevya’s middle daughter fell in love with a penniless traveling poetry teacher, introducing her to new books, dances and ideas. She joins him in Siberia, 3000 miles away. My father’s middle son left home and hitchhiked across the country, falling in love with writing and poetry, and living 3000 miles away, in that “frozen wasteland” called Los Angeles. Tevya’s next child ran away with a Russian villager! My father’s next son ran away with a Guru. Almost the same thing. Both were rejected in anger and separation. Both were accepted back before the movie ends.

I am sure my Father felt like a stranger in a strange land, parenting kids whom he did not understand or accept. But his love for his children, that parental love that comes from a deeper well than we can imagine, that courses thru every estuary of our being, always leads us back to the River we call home. Like Tevya, the new world of our children, their migration and their new traditions, led my father to a new way of loving, that his father, my grandfather, that twin boy from Smilovitch, could not have done, nor his father before him.

Rose: Our family has found OUR home here at Kehilla. One of the biggest reasons we feel so at home here is the community’s incredible ability to hold onto our ancestry with love, respect and grace, while carving out new headwaters with the challenges of our current tribe and planet. For example, during my Bat Mitzvah, I was faced with giving a drash on the parasha Kedoshim, a collection of laws, some of which I do not agree with. One of these laws, says that a man who lies with another man shall be stoned to death. Now, at the time I was not aware of my queerness, and just thought of myself as a very passionate “ally”. But, nonetheless, I didn’t feel comfortable chanting, or condoning such actions. My wonderful teachers and service leaders, including Bracha, Sandra, and Julie, allowed me to get up on the Bima, profess myself as a young jewish adult, and yet publically share that I completely disagree with aspects of the very thing I was supposed to be teaching. Kehilla continues to enable me to feel safe and comfortable as a queer jew, by acknowledging the cultural norms and traditions of the past, while building new progressive traditions and a culture of not merely tolerance, but of inclusion and celebration in all senses.

This is what we must do as a nation, embrace the transient, the immigrant, the ger, not with closed doors, or begrudgingly open ones, but with a warm welcoming smile and cultural embrace. We must recognize the history and traditions of the past, and yet be malleable enough to know when change is right.

Scott:  Let us embrace our personal, and global challenges knowing that what we choose to do will be judged by future generations – and let us be proud of the choices we make. Strengthened by community, we have the ability to be greater than the issues we face. Humans have always been greater than our problems.

Rose: Like my great grandfather who left for a new world, let us trust our inner landscape of exile and return, and hold the stranger as WE would want to be held.

 Rose and Scott: Shana Tovah and may we all have a sweet new year.

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