Sitting on a Porch
Yom Kippur 5778
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman
I’m sitting on the porch in a comfy wicker chair taking in some fresh air. There’s a little stream below me and just enough woods where I can hear the cars passing on the road but I can’t see them. It’s a lovely day where it feels like summer in the sunshine but autumn in the shade and it’s very, very relaxing. I brought my shofar because my partner on the porch is too sick to come to Rosh Hashana so I thought she might enjoy hearing the sound one last time. She’s pretty sure she’ll be dead by next Rosh Hashana. She hopes so. Getting old is no picnic. Getting sick, I mean really sick, is terribly difficult. It’s time, she tells me, you know? It’s time. This declaration doesn’t throw me. I’ve learned you have to listen to people. If someone tells me they want to die and they aren’t in their geriatric years and they don’t have a serious life ending disease, there is a very specific response to that. When they are in their geriatric years and they do have a life ending illness, there is a very specific response to that as well. So I ask: “What do you mean?”
She loves her children, her children-in-law, her grandchildren. She has raised them well. She feels good about it how they turned out and she feels good about how she and her husband raised them. She’s not bragging. She’s assessing. She’s looking back and offering a pat on her own back. The kids are okay. And the children they had, oh my! Her grandchildren are terrific, she says. Each unique, each delightful, each getting ready to face the world. She’ll never make it to a wedding. That will not happen but she doesn’t worry for them. She’s confident in her grandchildren.
She tells me, as she sits there, that she is ready to go. The death of her beloved husband a few years back was so difficult but it’s even harder now as she’s less mobile. She’s ready to join him. And you know what else, she tells me? She’s done everything she could and she’s done it well. She was as good a child as she could have been, as good a wife as she could have been, as good a mother as she could have been, as good a grandmother as her health let her be. It’s not to brag, you know? It’s just sitting there in a wicker chair on a perfect wraparound porch on a perfect day she is satisfied, comfortable, at peace. Even with mistakes, moments of regret, instances of sorrow, the usual foibles, failings, and shortcomings that a normal human being experiences through the course of life, all in all, on balance, she’s done it. She has reached the finish line. How do you know when you’ve made it? I don’t know but she has made it. And she is satisfied and she is ready to die. It’s time.
How blessed, how fortunate, how lucky she is to be able to know that. How blessed, how fortunate, how lucky she is to have the presence of mind not to bemoan but to consider and appreciate. I hope I get to sit on a porch to reflect on how good life was to me and how well I used my life.
But I don’t get to sit on a porch, not for a long time. Deborah and I have a long life together, the boys are starting careers and then there is this thing where I have to deal with Nazis. I have to be the best man I can be, the best husband I can be, the best father I can, the best rabbi I can be and now deal with Nazis. Honestly, I cannot believe I have to do that. Nazis, these neo-Nazi and white supremacists are something the folks over at the Southern Poverty Law Center monitored. They are something the Anti-Defamation League tracked. Homeland Security and the FBI have always been up to speed on who these people are. I never thought that I had to figure out what my personal response should be because these groups were too small and too underground and already watched. And besides, nobody but the most hate filled of the hate filled wanted anything to do with them.
Now they are here and louder than ever with a wider reach than ever and I just don’t think I have the luxury of sitting on a porch and figuring they’ll go away on their own. The alt-right, for those who don’t know, is a loose term for various white supremacists groups. Some of them are your hate filled neo-Nazis, some are your suit and tie wearing spokesmen offering the reasonable sounding idea of identitarian politics. Richard Spencer coined the phrase. He swears he’s not into violence but he believes America is a white European style country founded by white Europeans for white European descendants. He believes that multiculturalism is set out to diminish white people, to steal from white people what is theirs and to ruin the white culture of this country and he is going to do something about that. If you’ve ever heard someone say that black people have some advantages over white people, he’s got their number. Just that little bit, that tiny moment where a person wonders if they need to stick up for white people, that’s all the opening he needs to seduce folks into a well dressed version of white supremacy. Can’t happen to you? Maybe not but the goal of these people isn’t to have 51% of the population join the Klan. The goal is to have just enough people be sympathetic to their cause. The goal is to have people say, “I’m not a white supremacist but I do think they are on to something…” The goal is to get you to say, “I’m no hater but there are an awful lot of brown people around here and I don’t like the changes.” The goal is to get you to say, “I’m no racist but I heard those Muslims don’t follow our laws.” That’s the goal. And then comes the legislation. Don’t think it can’t happen here? It is already happening. And now we have to figure out what to do about it.
And don’t think you are safe if you’re a Jew. Jews don’t count as white. Jews are the source of so many problems and alt-right members are not afraid to say that. We now have people chanting proudly that, “Jews will not replace us” and we have internet graphics that say, “Admit it; deep down you know Hitler was right.”
Can I go back to the porch? Can I just focus tightly on family and friends? I just want to reflect on a good life well lived. But I can’t because it’s not my time. And there are Nazis.
Am I an alarmist that I think we need to respond powerfully to this? We’ve seen fascist movements in the past. We know that the silence of good people allows it to blossom. This has been proven again and again. One day I’ll be in a wicker chair on a porch. I really hope I’ll be able to look back with confidence that I did all I could to stop it.
A friend in Pittsburgh sent me an article after the marches and riots in Charlottesville. The piece decried the violent antifa counter-protesters. I was surprised. There are Nazis and my Jewish friend could only see the anarchists.
I’m opposed to those violent anarchists. Anyone who smashes windows ought to be arrested, tried and sent to prison. I have no sympathy. Protest, yes. Vandalism, absolutely not. When I try to read their anarchist ideas, I find them juvenile. But you know what I don’t find when I read their ideas? I don’t find the idea that black people are inferior, that brown people are inferior and that Jews ought to be dead. I don’t find in their writings or their slogans or even in their smashing of windows a message of murdering Jews.
But the neo-Nazis would very much be quite happy if someone put a bullet in me. And you. And your children and grandchildren. In case you don’t know, the non-Jews who are part of our community would be considered race traitors so you are not out of danger, either.
That porch is so inviting. Just to sit and reflect and not have to worry anymore. I don’t want to worry about Nazis. I don’t want to worry about the fate of American democracy. I don’t want to. But I have to because it is not my turn to sit on the porch. I can’t look back with so much ahead of me.
Anarchists. Nazis. What year is this? I have to talk about idiots who break windows and idiots who don’t want us around? I guess I do. Mark my words: in just five years these alt-right people will either be shoved back underground or well on their way to political respectability winning local then state, then federal elections. There is nothing in between. Don’t think it can’t happen? It’s already happening. How do I not speak to this? How do you not speak to this?
One day I’ll be sitting on a porch looking back and I will wonder, did I do enough? I pray that I can give the right answer.
I’m sitting in my office with a grieving family. Most families I meet are there to discuss a funeral for someone elderly or sick. It’s sad but it often turns just a little bit, just a little bit joyful because the families get a chance to remember. I shouldn’t tell you too much about what goes on behind the scenes but it’s pretty common for people to think they’ll show up for a quick chat and then find themselves an hour or two later sniffling happy tears of memory.
People assume everyone says the same old clichés, that he was an amazing grandfather or that she was the best mom. That’s true 80% of the time. But that other 20%, my, oh my. Sometimes there is very little positivity to be found. I sit there with pen in hand writing down some notes when someone says, “maybe you should put the pen down” and all sorts of truths come out. Nothing too scandalous. Nothing felonious. It’s just that we live our lives ensconced in our own minds and we don’t really know for certain how we come across. We have an approach, an idea, a philosophy that makes sense to us and we express that in how we treat our friends or raise our children. We live our lives in a certain way and rarely reflect to ask the question, “How’m I doing?” When we die, when we cross the finish line, we leave it to others to comment on how we did. We leave it to others to describe how our lives were lived.
I wonder what my family will say about me? Each time I sit with a family I’m aware I sit before a tableau that will be recreated for me some day. It forces me to think about my life and how I’m doing. I wonder what Deborah will say or what the boys will say. A lifetime of sibling interaction and what will come out of it? What will my congregation say? And did I do enough for my community or my country?
This is a moment in time where we are watching the very serious beginnings of American fascism. It is slick and organized and popular and it is happening right now, and we don’t know which way it’s going to go. There is absolutely no reason to believe it will fade on its own. Only my children and grandchildren will be around to understand what happened in 2017, at this moment. They will know if it took over or if it was defeated. Will they be proud of me that I did something about it? That I tried? Will they regret the world they live in and wished I had done more when there was a chance?
I’m sitting in my office with a pen and pad at the ready while across from me sits a couple very much in love and planning on getting married. They’ve been together for a few years but something about getting married is inspiring them to look at each other anew. They sit apart, nervous in front of the rabbi. By the second meeting there is hand holding and long glances. There is pride as each listens to the other. There are dreams and dreams of dreams far into the future. There is hope and there is optimism and there is everything glorious about getting out into the world with a partner. There is a future. This is the start of their story as a couple and often it is the start of their story as proper adults. They realize that they get to figure out the Jewish life they want to create in their home. They get to figure out the values by which they will live as a couple. They get to figure out the way they want to raise their children. They have to figure out how to organize their finances and they have to figure out what is important to spend money on. The whole future is open to them. It is the very beginning of the story. Who knows how it will end? Someone will know how it will end. They have a lifetime to get it right.
You have the remainder of your lifetime to get it right before you sit on that porch. There’s a lot going on in your families. There’s a lot going on in the world. You still have time.
After the sermon, people asked me what they can do. First and foremost, I believe we have to return racism to be socially unacceptable. Whether in social media or in person, if someone makes a racist crack or some such hatred, tell them it's racist and you don't like it. Don't name call, don't insult, don't get distracted. Just state the facts and then don't take the bait when they call you names in return. Secondly, stay informed. Read about what is happening from a variety of sources. Third, there is so much more you can do but you have to do some research yourself. You might want to read about Life After Hate (lifeafterhate.org) and support it. It is a group of former white supremacists who help others leave that life (it can be very hard to get out).