There Is Nothing Better

Laid out before me on Friday nights were my father’s photographs and other tsotchkes from his service in the Second World War. Black and white images, neatly scattered and arrayed, each bearing a story of some kind that my dad artfully recorded in his own brilliant mind as well as in his singular script on the backs of these snapshots. Dad served in the 980th Engineering Maintenance Corps, repairing jeeps and tanks, mostly, and provided support for the other men and women who landed in Europe before him. He fought with his company commanders because he was smart and tenacious and hell, for all I know, was already deeply traumatized about what he may have been hearing about Hitler’s plans to exterminate Jews. His mother (my grandma) had fled Kopyl, Minsk in 1903. When news began to emerge during the war that their entire village (and nearly 1 million Jews throughout Belarus) had been murdered by Nazis and their collaborators, the devastation was so great that neither my father nor grandmother ever mentioned it. Dad was seventeen when he was drafted; nineteen when he shipped overseas; and twenty-two when he returned back home on the GI Bill to finish his degree at the University of Wisconsin. I suppose what one might say is that time pushed him forward into the ever-evolving present. Few of his generation chose to look back.

But I do — for him and for me.

One particular picture stands out for me among the many — dad standing in an army camp in Italy with two friends, Samson Cassabo and Stipano LaRocca. They were Italian American, clearly first generation themselves, who were in the U.S. army fighting in Italy. Imagine that. Of course, they were anti-fascists as well, as were most Americans (Charles Lindbergh and his America Firsters notwithstanding.)

When I asked my dad about that, fighting alongside Italians against Italians he said simply, “We are all Americans, son.” And he didn’t need to say much more than that. Those were clearly delineated principles back then.

The war shattered my father’s faith. On a number of occasions during my childhood, I yearned for a Hebrew school education, for more Jewish rituals in the home, and he was having nothing of it. “If there is a Holocaust, then there is no God” was fairly axiomatic for him but I know now, as a student of history, how prevalent that view was for many American Jews of his generation. It was enough to become an American, to enjoy its freedoms and advantages, and to leave behind the kind of — in his mind — primitive expressions of belief that were either untrue, would get you in trouble, or both.

But now all these years later, with Dad being gone since 1983 of a heart attack and me, the age he was when he died, going through the pictures, still. I puzzle over their meaning. I share them. I am the keeper of the flame.

And tonight, at sundown, when Shabbat and Shemini Atzeret arrive to close out the Sukkot festival, I will light a Yizkor candle for Dad, as I have done each year for twenty-eight years. And for his parents, which he never did; and for my mother, a Jew-by-choice; and for my teacher George L. Mosse, who died without children so why shouldn’t his students say Kaddish in his name a few times a year?

But this year Yizkor feels different. With news yesterday of a Michigan militia being caught by the FBI in its kidnapping plot against Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the broader militia movement’s threats to American democracy and the electoral process, I can’t help but think of the lessons imparted to me from my father. A son of refugees. A son of immigrants. Who fought alongside other Americans from all walks of life in order to vanquish the most evil leader of the twentieth century.

This was a basic tenet of what it meant to be a citizen. You served your country because your country gave you freedom. Today, that “freedom” surely remains unrealized for an inexcusably large number of Americans. The point being that we who have inherited such freedom are obligated to ensure that all can share in the bounty of democracy and individual freedom.

There was a model in place for my father’s generation that we have lost as Americans and as Jews: we no longer expect something of each other for each other. Or, put differently, drafted into a unit of young men from all over the nation, from every imaginable background and faith tradition, and being asked to sacrifice a precious few years of your youth for something greater is one of the most noble ideas we have in our quivers for battling over the future of our own nation. A shared purpose, a shared narrative, a shared set of ideas, pointing in a direction.

Over the years, what I discovered in piecing together my father’s narrative was not only his story, but the generational narratives of American Jews who lived through one of the most mind-boggling centuries of Jewish history — mass migration; Holocaust; establishment of Israel; Six Day War — representing a sequence of events that historians and psychologists and sociologists are still grappling with. It will be a long time before we fully understand what has gone on these past hundred years.

As the sage Ben Bag Bag said of Torah study, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”

O’ America! You throw so much away. You discard. You waste! But what we inherit is precious, unique and uncommonly beautiful. Even the images, fading from black and white into sepia and grey, bear testimony to a life of values and meaning and despite differences, a unity of purpose.

But as Jews, it is vitally important to remember that just as Sukkot is a festival that reminds us of the fragility of freedom, of the ongoing pursuit of justice, of the need for shelter and bounty for all people, then our work is never done. Like learning, we need to keep turning the project of building a better world “over and over again.”

For our divided country; for our divided world; I pray for a Yizkor of love and recognition of the potential for good in all people. I pray for the strength to do battle with those who will limit the right for all people to be truly free. And I pray for a renewed sense of obligation to the other, to our neighbors, to the whole that derives its measure from the individuality of its many parts.

Please join Rabbi Deena and myself for Yizkor services tomorrow, Saturday, October 10 at 1:15 pm via Zoom here (Meeting ID: 893 7184 5794; Passcode: YIZKOR). To receive the digital prayer book in advance, please RSVP (you can still join without an RSVP).

In these trying times, may the lights of Shabbat and Shemini Atzeret radiate peace, from your homes, to the city, to the country and to the world around us.