As I Travel to Germany: Elul Thoughts (III)

One of my most precious possessions is a copy of the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin printed in Munich in 1946 on presses once used for Nazi propaganda. A Talmud printed on an erstwhile Nazi printing press is a powerful symbol of our privilege to use our time, our talent and our material resources to help replant vibrant, progressive Jewish learning and living in the places where the Nazis tried to destroy them.

In this volume (page 40B) we find one of the most uplifting of rabbinic teachings whose message is particularly appropriate during the last month of the year, the month of Elul: Each of us should see ourselves as half innocent and half guilty, as though our good deeds and our bad deeds completely balance one another. If we then commit one good deed, we tip the scales in our favor!

What a marvelous metaphor! How wonderful a place would our world become if each of us went through life committed to making our next deed a good one.

My late and beloved Ulpan teacher in Israel, Sarah Rothbard, used to say, “It is not just a gift for Jews that we created a Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the forty-day period (starting at the beginning of the month of Elul) leading up to it. It is a gift for all humanity.

We each have talents and abilities, and our goal—particularly during the days of Elul–is to ask ourselves, “What particular talents and abilities do I posses? Am I using them only for my own enrichment or enjoyment? Or do I—and if not can I—find ways to use these gifts for the benefit of others.

As I head to Germany to spend time preceding and during the Days of Awe (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and for several weeks thereafter speaking and teaching in synagogues and churches as well as the University of Potsdam School of Theology, it is with the hope that I may use my modest talents to spread knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Jewish ideals and thought in a place that once tried to extirpate the gene pool and practices of our people.

Like my prized Talmud tractate I was born in 1946. My late father, Leo Fuchs, was arrested on Kristallnacht in the city of Leipzig where he was born and grew up. I look forward with both trepidation and joyful anticipation to delivering the sermon at Leipzig’s annual Holocaust commemoration this year.

My presence there I hope will represent the message that the Munich Talmud conveys. In a place which once was ravaged by hatred and destruction, the reaffirmation of the vitality and goodness of Jewish thought are once again encouraged to flourish.




A Remarkable Woman of Whom Most of You Have Never Heard

One of the main activities that came to be associated with the Festival of Shavuot is study. Another custom of the festival is to recite special prayers in memory of special people who have died.

As I prepare to participate in our congregation’s annual Shavuot study session in a few weeks, my thoughts turn to one of the most dedicated students I have ever had who died a little more than four years ago, Leah Lantz.

Each year on my birthday, Leah sent me a hand written card that had יום הולדת שמח

(Happy Birthday) written in Hebrew.

Leah was a regular at Beth Israel at every Shabbat Eve service and at Torah study every Shabbat morning.   During the class she asked probing questions and often shared anecdotes about when she was a young girl growing up in Poland.

The one I will always remember was about her father who owned a small shop—jewelry store – if I recall correctly. Her father would keep a volume of Talmud under the shelf in his shop, and in between waiting on customers he would devote every spare minute to study. That example inspired Leah to enjoy a lifelong love of learning.

For me, Leah Lantz was an absolute inspiration. In her last years she could hardly hear, and she could hardly walk, and yet into her 90’s her indomitable spirit and thirst for knowledge propelled her to continue to participate in every imaginable learning opportunity. And she always greeted everyone she met with the most wonderful smile on her face!

Just before I left on a mini sabbatical at the end of 2009 Leah took my arm and told me how much she would miss me. “I’ll be back in two months,” I replied.

“But who knows what can happen in two months?” She answered.

When I returned, it was clear-–to my shock-–that Leah’s condition had deteriorated markedly. She came on the first Friday night after my return to Beth Israel, but there was no sparkle in her eyes, and she was in some pain. She also came to Torah study the next morning. She took her accustomed seat right at my side, which gave her the best chance of hearing, but she was unable to really focus and was in real discomfort.  I looked at her, and my heart told me that this was Leah’s last class with me. I felt like she had waited for me to return and she had come to say, “Goodbye.”

Now I imagine her alive in another realm walking briskly – not shuffling along with her walker – and taking her well-earned seat in the very first row of the ישיבה של מעלה, the Academy on High. There with her mind alert and her ears unclogged she will hold her own in any discussion with such fine minds and great spirits as our sages, Rabbi Akiva or Hillel, Beruria or Ima Shalom.

On the Shabbat after Leah died, I asked our Torah class to please leave the seat next to me-–Leah’s seat– empty in tribute to her. Four years later the void in our class and in my own heart left by Leah’s passing remains. Her memory, though, and the shining example of תלמוד תורה—the diligent study of Torah-–that she personified will always be with me particularly as Shavuot, the holiday we celebrate by studying Torah, approaches each year.