The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, July 24, 2015

Remembering Theodore Bikel, the "Universal Jew"

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
for Tisha B’Av 5775

July 24, 2015

Remembering Theo Bikel

Theodore Bikel died this week at the age of 91. He was a legendary talent, creating the role of Baron von Trapp in the original Broadway production of “Sound of Music” and playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” for decades. At an award ceremony in 1999, Bikel said: “One applauds logevity but that alone is not an accomplishment. A taxi driver recently told me, ‘You look like Theodore Bikel, he should rest in peace.’” Now we pray he does rest in peace, עליו השלום / peace be upon his soul.

Several months ago, Leon Wieseltier spoke at a YIVO event at the Center for Jewish History in NYC, honoring Bikel with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In tribute to Bikel’s memory and legacy, I want to share with you tonight that speech, entitled “A Universal Jewishness.”

In America, Jewish heritage is a lively and noisy affair. We have correctly understood that we live in a country that does not require anyone to inhibit themselves in the assertion of identity, and we have tossed aside our inhibitions. We celebrate our origins, our characteristics, incessantly. It is a rich era for Jewish expression, for Jewish identification. All the realms of our existence, all our values, all our interests, all our pleasures, all our pains, are given a Jewish gloss or a Jewish source. American Jewish culture, high and low, is a plenitude, a cacophony, of Jewishnesses.
By the standards of Jewish history, then, we are almost unimaginably blessed. Or more precisely, by certain standards of Jewish history. We are free, we are respected, we may formulate our universality in the terms of our particularity without embarrassment and without opprobrium—but there are qualities of Jewish identity, parcels of the Jewish tradition, that are being lost or renounced amid all our good fortune. There are many disappearances and many abandonments, and they are drowned out in the festive din. More of the Jewish tradition is vanishing in present conditions of security and prosperity than ever vanished in past conditions of oppression and poverty. Speaking strictly, what we are celebrating in America is not Judaism and the Jewish tradition and the Jewish difference, but what is left of Judaism and the Jewish tradition and the Jewish difference.
We in this room are among the saving remnants, gathered to honor one of the greatest saving remnants of all. The joy on our lush island of Jewishness is real, but we must soberly recall that it is indeed on an island that we are toiling and flourishing and reveling. We are surrounded by a vast sea of Jews who are not Jewish except ethnically and biologically. Many of them take pride in a tradition that they know almost not at all. Not long ago Theo Bikel came to Washington and performed his magical one-man show about Sholom Aleichem. The theater at the JCC was full, and the men and women in the audience glowed with enchantment, and when he spoke or sang in Yiddish they understood little or nothing. The less they grasped, in fact, the more they glowed. They were enjoying a warm experience of contentless authenticity.
The diversity of Jewishnesses in America today is no doubt some sort of cultural strength; but I want to suggest, as a way of expressing what I admire about my brother Theo, that it is also some sort of cultural weakness. The Jewish tradition in our community has been splintered and customized. Even when we go deep, we do not go wide. We live in a golden age of partial Jewishnesses. The American Jew is, to borrow a term from a scholar of Jewish law, a yehudi l’hatza’in—a partial Jew. Religious Jews know almost nothing of our secular traditions and secular Jews know almost nothing of our religious traditions. Jews who live in Hebrew know almost no Yiddish and Jews who live in Yiddish—now there is a saving remnant!—know almost no Hebrew, and the overwhelming majority of American Jews anyway live, arrogantly and ignorantly, in no Jewish language at all. Jews who are fluent in the siddur are strangers to Bialik and Amichai. Jews who still sing the old Zionist songs are dead to klezmer, and Jews who are devout about klezmer sometimes act as if their music is all that is required for Jewish continuity. How many students of Jewish film are also students of Talmud, and how many students of Talmud have a shred of an acquaintance with the history of Jewish art? An alarming number of poor souls among our brethren seem to feel that all they require for a genuine Jewishness is Woody Allen and Philip Roth and Jerry Seinfeld.
Everybody, in sum, appropriates only what suits them, what tickles them, what affirms them, without any sense of obligation toward the totality of our resources, without any appetite for the work that would be required by a more comprehensive fidelity, without any sensation of responsibility for the legacies of Jews who are not like themselves. These ardent but truncated commitments amount to a new manner of sectarianism. The only Jewish thing that every American Jew knows about is politics.
I am not against any of these parts and pieces of our culture. I am for all of them—but all of them is precisely what almost none of us any longer commands. There are currents and strains, movements and organizations, but almost nowhere is there a general Jewish cultivation. As we edit and shrink our patrimony to suit our tastes and our moods and our ideologies, we become masters of subtraction; but we must teach ourselves to add. Not Maimonides or Mendele, but Maimonides and Mendele: a universal Jewishness. Philosophically, of course, all the Jewish figures and the Jewish ideas do not go together—indeed, they are sometimes bitterly at odds with each other. Feuding is also one of the great Jewish traditions. But there is an important way in which they emphatically do cohere, and that is as the elements of a civilization.
What is missing from American Jewishness now is a sense of the whole—a robust and natural awareness of our inherited abundance. We lack the consciousness that we are nothing less than a civilization. A great Jewish historian, adapting an ancient Latin adage, famously remarked that “nothing Jewish is alien to me.” Who can say this now? Who has, or aspires to have, an appreciation and a knowledge and a love of this scope? Who any longer remembers how to be an heir to it all?
I have at least one answer to that question. The answer is, Theo Bikel remembers. He is a man of the whole. The range of his Jewishness is as exhilarating as it is rare: He is immersed in the entirety of Jewish expression. He possesses the languages and he possesses the literatures. He knows all the songs, and the meanings of all the songs. He knows how we daven and he knows how we demonstrate. He is a son of Vienna and a son of Tel Aviv and a son of New York and Los Angeles—of the center and the peripheries, the homeland and the dispersion. He does not choose among them; he represents, and cherishes, and refines, them all. His Jewish cultivation is breathtaking. His many agitations on behalf of human rights and social justice have always been conducted in a Jewish vocabulary—he has been an ambassador of our ethics to the world.
Theo is one of the greatest of our culture’s guardians, and of its connoisseurs. His company is an intense—and almost giddily delightful—experience of Jewish cultivation. His laughter is itself a high form of yiddishkeit. A culture’s best shorthand, after all, is its humor; and if one of the measures of the decline of a grander and more synoptic Jewishness is that there are fewer and fewer people to whom one can tell our jokes, then I wish to proclaim, as a summary of Theo’s reach as a Jew, that he is the man who gets all the jokes and tells all the jokes. He relieves a certain Jewish loneliness. So here at YIVO you have chosen brilliantly: I can think of nobody who more richly deserves an award that extols Jewish heritage than this man, this universal Jew. It has been one of the privileges of my own life as a Jew to have been a Jew together with him on this cruel and beautiful earth.

I hope that Bikel’s memory will be a blessing. On this eve of Tisha B’Av, I challenge us to get better at being universal Jews, heirs to it all. 

Of course, none of us is going to be an expert in everything Jewish. But we can all be experts in Jewish curiosity. We can cultivate more openness toward all things Jewish — ideas that differ from our own, Jews who are not like ourselves.

Sometimes as a rabbi I’m asked, “How much does one have to know to be a good Jew?”

My answer: “Always more than you do now.”

Let me add to that a question that presses us with great urgency as we sit on the threshold of Tisha B’Av and look out at a world of great Jewish blessing and uncertainty: How much do we have to care for Jews who differ from ourselves?

The answer: “Always more than you do now.”

Then will Theodore Bikel’s memory be a life-affirming blessing.

Friday, July 10, 2015

What to Look for in a Leader

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Friday, July 10, 2015
Shabbat Pinchas

“May God appoint someone over the community” (Num 27:16). As Moses nears the end of his term in this week’s parshah, he starts worrying about succession, as any good leader should. He asks God to appoint someone, and they bring Joshua before the priest and the whole community to install him as next in line.

Perfect timing. Tonight we recognize our outgoing board members and welcome new ones. I will call them all up in a moment, but first, a word about leadership, and a charge.

God singles out Joshua as the next leader of the Israelites. Why? Because Joshua is an איש אשר רוח בו / a person in whom there is ruach, spirit. An inspired man, skillful and insightful. 

There’s more to it. Our rabbis have much to say about what it means to have ruach within you, and why that qualifies you for leadership.

A midrash:
When Moses asked God to appoint someone over the community, he said: Master of the universe, the disposition of every one of them is revealed to You — the disposition of one is not at all like the disposition of another. After I depart from them, when You will be setting another leader over them, I beg you, set over them a leader who will put up with each and every [one] according to his disposition… Moses asked: Will the man You set over the congregation have within himself the spirits of sixty myriads, so that he will be able to converse with each man according to his particular disposition? 
In other words, will our leaders have the kind of constitution that allows them to put up with everyone? (It’s a lot of Jews, after all.) Or, better: Will our leaders have the breadth of spirit to meet people where they are, respect them for who they are, appreciate the unique personality, talents, and interests they each bring?

It’s a tall order. And it gets taller. Another midrash says something different about Joshua having spirit within him, defining him as a person “who will have the capacity to stand up to the spirit of each and every one” (Sif Zuta Pinchas, 16; Book of Legends 727:45). While a leader has to meet people where they are, a leader shouldn’t simply see which way the wind is blowing and run there. A leader must also have strength of conviction. A leader must sometimes do what’s unpopular. 

Another translation of the same midrash seeks a person with the capacity to face up to the spirit of everyone. Here, it’s a call for accountability. A true leader is responsible to the community, not above it.

It is a tall order indeed, to balance those kinds of spirit. The spirit of including, listening, welcoming; the spirit of leading, pushing, risk-taking; the spirit of answering to those you lead. It is a high and worthy aspiration.

So it seems Moses has asked for a leader who can be all things to all people. We do that, too — we set up unrealistic expectations. The midrash continues with God’s response to that kind of thinking:
The Holy One replied: Moses, you have made a proper request… He showed him that Joshua would rise up in his stead, and Joshua would turn over his authority to Othniel, as will all subsequent leaders to their successors. Then the Holy One said to Moses: Each of these I showed you has one disposition and one spirit. But as to what you asked for earlier, at the end of time there will be a person within whom…there will be but one spirit, but it will have the capacity to bear the weight of the spirits of all men — that person is the Messiah. (Book of Legends 101:134; Yalkut Pinchas, 776; Sif Zuta Pinchas, 16; Yelammedenu)
We ask our leaders to aspire to the highest standard, as we should. But we acknowledge that we are only human. We will all fall short in some way — until we can convince the Messiah to join our board. And we all know when that will happen.

Even as we in leadership set the bar high for ourselves, we should keep our feet planted firmly on the ground, among our community. In one final midrash, God explains His pick of Joshua like this:
You know how long Joshua has served you, how much honor he accorded you, how he came early and stayed late in your meeting place, arranging the benches and spreading the mats. (Ibid.)
Leaders should not be spotlight-seekers. Indeed, much of the work of leadership is not glamorous. Setting up chairs, putting tables away, passing out books — these tasks are not glitzy. But they are holy. Serving is part of leading. And as someone said to me recently: You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up.

Together these voices of midrash invite us to be confident and humble, strong and inclusive, entrepreneurial and accountable, visionary and aware of our limitations. They call us to be self-reflective leaders invested in self-improvement, dedicated to the building up of a community that will outlive us. They ask us to remember that we are all interims, preparing to pass on our sacred purpose l’dor vador, to the next person of spirit who steps up to lead.

Now I’d like to invite up our outgoing board members; in thanks for your years of service, we’ve made a donation to a cause in honor of each of you:
Lee Rittvo - Aspen Film
Esther Navias -
Michelle Stiller - AEF
Julie Wagner - Hope Center
Stuart Fine - Children's Hospital Denver

And now our new board members, please come to the bima:
Craig Navias
Chuck Shenk
Judy Craig
Alan Levey
Goldie Knurr

Mi Shebeirach for Aliyah

Friday, July 3, 2015

People Like You

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
July 3, 2015

The world lost a quiet hero this week. Sir Nicholas Winton, of England, was 106 years old when he died on Wednesday. Before WWII, Winton organized the escape of nearly 700 children, almost all of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia.

His story is riveting, and it only came to light years later when his wife found old records in the attic. (I recommend reading more about him.)
In December 1938…, on an impulse, he canceled a Swiss skiing vacation and flew to Prague at the behest of a friend who was aiding refugees in the Sudetenland, the western region of Czechoslovakia that had just been annexed by Germany. “Don’t bother to bring your skis,” the friend…advised in a phone call.
England’s Kindertransport program was already underway. It rescued 10,000 German and Austrian children before the war, but there was no such plan for Czechoslovakia. 

At great cost and risk to himself, Winton organized one. He bribed the Gestapo, hired trains and boats, did mountains of paperwork, and fundraised and recruited foster families in England to get 900 children registered and ready to get out. In the end, 669 children escaped because only 7 of 8 trains made it out. The eighth train was scheduled to depart on September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. When the borders closed that train, with its precious cargo of 250 children, disappeared.

Winton was a hero because he risked his own life to save others. I was moved near to tears reading his story, as I remember feeling similarly moved in the Righteous Gentiles room at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. His story, and others like his, move us because he stuck his neck out for Jews, for the marginalized Other. He could have sat comfortably behind his privilege, telling himself it wasn’t his problem, convincing himself it wasn’t his fight.

*   *   *

Our times are not as dark as Europe under Nazi occupation. But consider: seven churches in two weeks. Nine black Americans murdered at Bible study, and then seven black churches burned to the ground. The media seems hard pressed to find time in their 24-hr news cycle for this horrifying story. It’s nothing less than racial terrorism in our midst. This is not the first time black churches have burned in this country. During the Civil Rights Movement, infamously, a church bombing killed four young girls. When a place of sanctuary becomes a place of devastation, it’s an especially cruel kind of terror.

Try this thought experiment. Imagine a week in which seven synagogues were burned down, on the heels of the massacre of a minyan of Jews during Torah study. Imagine the outrage, the fear, the criticism of the media for not reporting on it enough, the calls for decent people of all faiths and races to stand in solidarity with us Jews and speak out against hate.

Now consider: if we want others to stand up for us in our moments of crisis, don’t we need to stand up for them? If we want to honor and emulate Sir Winton’s example, shouldn’t we reach beyond our own group to be in solidarity with the marginalized other, even at risk to ourselves? Or should we hide behind our privilege, easing our conscience with the tragic misconception that it isn’t our fight?

So then, why don’t we speak up? Are we afraid of ruffling feathers? Of making our friends feel awkward?

Why don’t I speak up? Am I afraid of job security? Am I too concerned with being liked to say anything provocative?

Maybe we’re confused or ashamed about white privilege. We Jews today comprise a strange duality of identities and histories. All of us have immigrant ancestors, most of whom fled some kind of persecution, some of whom even survived the Holocaust. So of course we feel like persecuted victims. At the same time, and without diminishing that narrative, we benefit from white privilege. We don’t face the barriers or stigma of so many other minority groups in America. But it can be difficult to confront these questions. As Talia Cooper writes, “Do I really want to dive deep into my family history and investigate that the fact that we have money comes from this weird stew of running from anti-Semitism and also gaining white privilege?”

The caveat here is that there are Jews who aren’t white — they are black, Arab, Asian, Hispanic — just to name a few. The sad irony is that our collective unwillingness to confront white privilege among Jews also blinds us to them, who are marginalized in multiple communities.

We’re not all going to be Sir Wintons, or Oskar Schindlers, or Raoul Wallenbergs. But let’s at least demand of ourselves and our leaders honesty about race relations and our role in improving them. Let’s not be afraid of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Let’s not be so quick to call protesters thugs. Let’s not be defensive about naming and negotiating our own privilege. Let’s not be threatened by calls for solidarity with those seeking equality, justice, peace. And for God’s sake, let’s not be scared of empathy. 

Liberation doesn’t come a la carte. It’s all of us, or none.

*   *   *

I’ll close with a story I heard from Ruth Messinger, director of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which does anti-poverty work throughout the developing world. She often speaks about AJWS at synagogues. One such evening, during the Q&A, a man approached the mic and asked, “Why do you devote so many resources to helping non-Jews, when there are so many Jews in need? Why don’t you just focus on helping our own?” That kind of question being a common occurrence for her, Messinger had an answer ready — something along the lines of, “Fair enough, so what are you doing to help Jews in need?” 

But that night, before she could answer, a diminutive older woman marched up the aisle to the questioner. She addressed him directly, shaking her fist in his face: “I survived the Holocaust. But my entire family was murdered because of people who only cared to look after their own kind, people who told themselves it wasn’t their fight — people like you.”

Get Involved - for Charleston
  • Donate to the fund to help the victims' families and church of Mother Emanuel AME Church: click here
  • Donate to efforts to rebuild the churches that have been burned down: click here, or send a check to Aspen Jewish Congregation (memo: "Rebuild the Churches"), 77 Meadowood Drive, Aspen, CO, 81611
Get Involved - Nationally

Get Involved - in the Roaring Fork Valley
  • Join the Industrial Areas Foundation and Manaus Valley Project's effort to create a broad-based interfaith coalition in the Roaring Fork Valley that can act powerfully for justice: contact Rabbi Segal at 970-925-8245 x.1 or