Write and Record, Record and Recount By Rabbi Shoshanah Conover

Schraybt u’Farschraybt, v’Sofer u’Moneh
10 Tishrei 5779/ October 9, 2019

Gut Yontiv. Shanah Tovah. This afternoon I would like to tell you a story. Like most Jewish stories, it begins thousands of years ago—according to the rabbis 5,780 years ago… and ten days. But I’ll pick up the story about 160 years ago…

when Simon Dubnov was born in the Belarusian town of Hamishtishlow (Mstsilaw). He grew up in the 1860s beyond the pale—that is beyond the Pale of Settlement—the only areas that the Jews were allowed to settle– far from the interior in the Russian Empire. There he went to yeshiva where he learned the Biblical laws and stories of our Torah, and rabbinic thought through Talmud, Midrash, and Responsa. Yiddish was his native tongue. As a youth, he learned the stories of our people: from the Bible, Sarah and Abraham; Jacob and his ladder and from the Talmud, Honi the Circle Maker and Bruria’s wisdom. In his teens, he learned the stories of the Jewish Enlightenment and Russian literature. Just as his young mind began to integrate all these disparate influences, progroms broke out, harsh anti-Jewish laws were enacted, and he was unable to graduate high school. Like Biblical Abraham, Dubnov became a regional wanderer, sneaking into St. Petersburg moving back to Hamishtishlow then Odessa a few years later, finally wending his way west to Vilna then to Berlin in 1922 until he fled to Riga when Hitler came to power.

Crisis, curiosity, and courage drove him to expose the layered history of the Jewish people—one community and one family at a time. He dedicated his life to gathering the stories of our people that fortified families and strengthened our institutions. From the memory books of

the schtettls to the records of shuls, he took a mirror to Diaspora communities– and their reflections brought inspiration to our people.

In his ten-volume tome, he presented The World History of the Jewish People. He intuitively understood the power of writing down our stories—finding hope and wisdom in every circumstance that has befallen our people. So, when the Nazis came for him in the ghetto of Riga, he shouted this simple phrase in Yiddish to those who witnessed his murder: “Shraybt, Yidn, Shraybt ufarshraybt.” “Write, Jews, write and record.”

“Shraybt ufarshraybt.”

“Write and record.”

Dubnov’s plea echoes our High Holy Day Prayer the Unetaneh Tokef:

V’chotev v’chotem,

You write and inscribe.

v’sofer u’moneh,

You record and recount.

You remember all that we have forgotten…

The prayer continues:

And when you open the Book of Memories,

It speaks for itself—

For every human hand leaves its mark,

An imprint like no other.

In the Unetaneh Tokef, only God is active—writing and recording our past actions. But Dubnov demands human action now—it is not too late! Write and record, dream and build, inscribe yourselves in the Book of Life and inspire the Jewish future.

Shraybt, Yidn, shraybt ufarshraybt.

Write, Jews, write and record.

v’sofer u’moneh

Record and recount.

We hear Dubnov’s urging: Write your stories. Recount your tales. Fill the pages of Jewish memory. You and your actions will not be forgotten. Afterall, “forgetfulness leads to exile; remembering is the key to redemption,” said the first Chasid, the Baal Shem Tov centuries earlier.

In truth, we Jews obsess over remembering. In the Hebrew Bible, zachor—the Hebrew word for memory—is repeated 169 times. 1 Three times a day we pray that God remembers us for the sake of our ancestors. We memorialize moments of our history with many of our holidays. And on Pesach, we are commanded to re-enact episodes from our collective memory.

Yet, sometimes our obsession with remembering supplants memory itself. I, like many of you, grew up with Emil Fackenheim’s 614th Commandment as our central Jewish stance. Perpetuate Judaism lest Hitler be given a posthumous victory. 2 Sometimes I was left asking, “But what exactly are we supposed to perpetuate?” Some of us may be asking that still.

Growing up in the 80s in suburban St. Louis, I can tell you the most common conversation in Religious School carpool lines:

“Why do I have to go to Sunday School?”

“Because I had to go.”

“But I hate it.”

“I hated it, too. That’s part of being Jewish.”

Maybe that’s why this scene from Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name resonated with me. It’s between a Jewish father and his young adult daughter. She asked him:

“So if we don’t do Jewish things, and we don’t have Jewish friends, and we don’t eat Jewish food, and we don’t celebrate Jewish festivals, why must I go out with Jewish boys?”

“For the sake of continuity,” he told her.

“What do you want me to continue?”

“The thing you were born to be.”

“Jewish?”

“Continuous.”

Oh, what we miss by merely being continuous. In fact, you know the paradox here. We cannot be continuous by only focusing on continuity.

Schraybt, Yidn—Write, Jews.

The details of our lives—our yearnings, disappointments, and quiet celebrations—provide inspiration for future generations.

Schraybt ufarschaybt- write and record.

Going beyond the motions, getting to the essence of Judaism—our stories, our texts, and our values—provides guidance to our world-weary souls. They remind us that we are here for a reason. They lay the foundation from which we emerge as better people, ready to link arms and hearts with good people the world over. The events of our lives, the challenges and opportunities that we face as Jews differ from one another and from past generations. Yet, they combine to create a collective Jewish memory and our inspired future. We write and record, record and recount because we understand that each of us is a unique link in the chain of the Jewish people. For Jews, our carpe diem differs from that Latin aphorism: “Seize the day.” We Jews seize our yesterdays for the sake of tomorrow. Our individual prayers, our family stories, our communal responsibility of tikkun olam—repairing our broken world—connect us to our past to guide our future.

Schraybt, Yidn, Schaybt ufarshraybt.

Write, Jews, write and record.

V’sofer umoneh.

Record and recount.

You see, the Talmud teaches that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur God sits in judgment with the Books of Life and Death open. 3 We hear much about the Book of Life, but what is the Book of Death? Could it be a ledger that records the names of those who will die in the coming year? The Pachad Yitzchak4 explains that it is not. Instead, he portrays the Book of Death as a manuscript of all the Jews who have lived on this earth and have died. On the Days of Awe, God judges each one of the dead on the way in which their offspring—up to the thousandth generation—acts in this world. The dead are judged by the way in which they were able to inspire the actions of their descendants. For the dead, their ultimate fates are determined by our present-day action. God guides us, “You hold in your hands life and death, blessing and curse, choose life!”5 And we choose life not only because God is watching—but because our children are watching. Let us not forget, they will determine our fates as well. Their future depends on us and our fates depend on them.

I was reminded of this some months ago when I climbed the sloping hillside to visit graves in a small Jewish cemetery in Lublin, Poland. I gathered there with 30 Christian leaders and a handful of colleagues from Chicago’s Federation. We traveled to some of the darkest places of human history: Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Birkenau. Only on a trip like that would a post-breakfast trip to a Jewish cemetery seem like a light morning. Yet, it was beautiful—and surprising. Folded prayer notes, like the ones found in the Kotel, were densely scattered among the larger gravestones of famous rabbis like Solomon Luria and the Seer of Lublin. We were told that Yeshiva students leave these notes in this liminal place where they believe that heaven and earth converse. I imagined that in these personal prayers scribbled in handwritten notes were psalms, references to stories in the Talmud, pleadings of zchut avot “Remember me for the sake of my ancestors!”

While most yeshiva students visit those big graves, I was drawn to one off in the corner—one you would barely notice unless someone pointed it out. The grave of Yaakov ben Yosef Pollak—who founded the first yeshiva in Poland. Born there around 1460, Yaakov ben Yosef spent his formative years in Germany then Prague, where he rose to distinction. After being run out of town, he returned to his native Poland and set up the first yeshiva there. At that time, European Jewry had been wasted. In the north, it had yet to rebound from its decimation by the Black Plague. The Jewish population in the south was ravaged by the Spanish Inquisition and had yet to reestablish itself in Italy, Greece and Turkey. The Center of Kabbalah in Tzfat was still 50 years away. It is no exaggeration to say that the survival of Talmudic Study—the heart of the Jewish people—is due in large part to the efforts of this one man. There is no Judaism without the Talmud and rabbinic commentaries. We are not merely Biblical Jews; we are rabbinic Jews. By saving the study of Talmud, he saved the stories that perpetuate the values of our people. These stories that include:

Hillel the Elder’s urgent guidance to stand up for ourselves and stand for something larger than ourselves.6

Yochanan Ben Zakai’s ability to look in the face of destruction and comfort an entire people by teaching that what God wants most from us are righteous acts of loving-kindness. 7

Rabbi Hanina’s illustration that healing resides not solely in the realm of doctors and nurses but in the powerful presence of friends who visit the sick and reach out a hand. 8

Our stories matter—they ground us, they guide us. Every faith tradition has their own meaningful stories, but these are ours. We must write and record, record, recount—and live by them. Our actions determine not only the survival, but the thriving of future generations.

And, as Dubnov understood, it is not only in the sweeping moments of Jewish history for which we are remembered and judged but in the sweet and subtle moments transformed into memories within the family of Jews. The transmission of Judaism depends as much on our inner yearnings scrawled on paper, folded and scattered among the dead as on the Jewish places of learning that we build and maintain.

Schraybt, Yidn, Schraybt ufarshraybt.

Write, Jews, write and record.

V’sofer u’moneh.

Record and recount.

The current generation needs to hear these grounding stories—these stories of hope and perseverance—as much as any day that has come before. I don’t need to tell you that times are tough for the Jewish people. You have no doubt heard about the murder of two people

outside a synagogue in Germany this morning. In less than two weeks we will commemorate the massacre of Jews worshipping at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Later we will similarly mark those who were murdered in Poway. We have all witnessed the alarming rise in antisemitic acts around the world and in Chicago, not only that have happened to our neighbors in Evanston and at the synagogue on Melrose, but to our own children as well. In a stunning op-ed in the New York Times, Bari Weiss wrote,

The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight [antisemitism] is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. In these trying times, our best strategy is to build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming.9

So, I’ll share one more story. Like most Jewish stories, it begins thousands of years ago—according to the rabbis 5,780 years ago… and ten days. But I’ll pick up the story about six weeks ago…

On that trip in Poland, where I paged through the folios of a different Book of Death. At Auschwitz, as I stood on the ground floor of Block 27, the names of the 4 million memorialized victims seared my soul from the oversized pages of the Book of Names. My right arm grew tired as I turned and turned and turned these pages, pages that contained the murdered who shared my family name. From my eyes’ periphery, I noticed others having similar experiences. One of those people was Mordechai Ishakis and his two teenage grandsons…

Mordechai’s grandsons asked their grandfather to take them to visit Auschwitz. You see, they had grown up on stories of their great grandmother Miriam. They heard how she had been

raised in the city of Corfu in Greece with ancient practices and a language unique to the Romaniote Jews. Her life there revolved around the synagogue and sharing time with family—baking with her mother, playing with cousins, learning her mother’s crafts. She was a young woman when the Nazis occupied Greece in 1944. It was then that she was deported to Auschwitz. Not many stories were shared about the horrors she endured in that concentration camp. Yet, her great grandsons loved hearing the stories of their great grandmother Miriam meeting her future husband Yeshula, also a Romaniote Jews from a nearby town. Yeshula was on death’s bed in Auschwitz when the camp was liberated. While others left, Miriam stayed by his side and nursed him back to health. She and Yeshula became inseparable and he asked her to come back to Greece with him. She said, “Not unless you marry me.” And he did. Eventually, they made a life in Detroit, Michigan where she spoke the language and baked the recipes of her youth. And when her great grandson became Bar Mitzvah, he asked his grandfather Mordechai, to take him to the place where his great grandparents met… to see what the Nazis tried to do—and how his family prevailed, through love.

Schraybt, Yidn, Schraybt ufarshraybt.

Write, Jews, write and record.

V’sofer u’moneh.

Record and recount them to your children. They determine our future.

Miriam’s family continued to write and record, record and recount her story. And now her story becomes our story. As one character told another in a short story by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi: The story was meant for you, [even if] it is not about you.10 It becomes part of the fabric of our Jewish memory, our shared soul. And, you, each of you here has your own stories to sha

part of this sacred community at Temple Sholom. Each one of you has an entire storehouse of family tales, silly stories, sacred dramas, moments of decision…

Even at this moment. Today in this expanded sanctuary you write and record as you sit in your favorite spot (or complain that someone had the chutzpah to sit in your favorite spot), as you whisper in quiet conversations without getting shushed by your neighbors (or maybe while getting shushed by your neighbors), as you feel the rumbling of communal hunger at this hour, as you touch the shoulder of a loved one, as you are moved by a reading or prayerful melody or just feel a rush of gratitude to sit next to someone you love, together recounting and reenacting the 6,000 year collective memory of our people—in concert with Jews the world over… These all become part of the stories you now must recount to your children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, students and friends…. They will become part of our common experience as a Jewish people. The collective story that is meant for each one of us—that yesterday we have seized for the sake of tomorrow.

Like a page of Talmud, the stories we write and record, record and recount speak across generations—Hillel commanding us to be upstanders as Yochanan guides us toward acts of lovingkindness. Miriam Ishakis showing how love can save a world as Levi Ishakis teaches his grandfather—and us—that future generations need to hear our stories.

Schraybt ufarshraybt

Write and record.

V’sofer u’moneh

Record and recount

Schraybt—with the pages of your life, write the stories for which you want to be remembered—stories of gentle strength and upstanding courage.

Ufarschraybt—and record in your family’s book of memories the moments of our ancestors—Biblical, rabbinic, and familial—all whom provide continued inspiration.

V’sofer—record in your own hand the dreams you have for the world that you want your descendants to inherit.

U’moneh—and recount the individual and collective acts of tikkun olam that will not only help them to inherit a better world but will model for them a life of meaning—of pursuing righteousness.

By writing our stories in the Book of Memories, I pray that millenia from now our descendants will share them– with tears brimming, souls full–as they exclaim:

Am Yisrael Chai—the Jewish people… thrive.

G’mar Chatimah tovah—May the imprint of your human hand leave a mark of blessings in the Book of Memories and in the Book of the Lives of Our Children.

Amen.