Friday, July 31, 1998

A People of Memory

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

It will be a "what I did on my summer vacation tale" I will probably never forget. Although I would like to. We were in San Diego in late June, for a week of vacation prior to a rabbinic convention in Anaheim. We were getting ready to leave San Diego, and we wanted to go to Tijuana for the day. We checked out of the hotel, and got ready to go to Mexico. We never made it. But we suspect that our rented mini-van might have made it there ahead of us.

As Julie was checking out of the hotel, I went to the hotel's parking lot to retrieve the van. I went to the spot where I knew I had parked it... and it was not there. My immediate thought, of course, was the same feeling that many of us have when standing in a parking lot wondering where on earth we had put our car a couple of hours before. My first instinct... was to question my memory. (My memory was fine, by the way. The van -- and our two car seats -- was indeed gone. Next time I'll think twice about that supplemental insurance they offer.)

Memory is a precious and so fluid thing, for individuals -- and for communities.

Sharing and shaping the stories of our lives, we seek to take the seeds of recollection inside of us, and plant them in a permanent way, to move from story to history. Just as it is important for people to share the stories of themselves with others, so, too, must a community from time to time seek to assure itself about the future by recalling a continuity with the past. To review the journey. To tell the tale. To share the story of yesterday with the community of today.

We Jews have been called a people of memory. We are blessed with a long tale to tell, with a journey that has lasted for almost four thousand years. We are burdened with moments of torture and pain, ennobled by visions of glory, and triumph, and the simple and sublime transmission of our heritage, from generation, to generation, to generation.

And yet, as I stood there in that parking lot in San Diego questioning memory and sanity, I learned another lesson as well. That we are shaped by our memory, but we are not fully defined by it. For there are times when the stories -- and answers -- of the past fail to soothe the soul. There are times when, in panic or consternation, they fail to come to mind. And there are times, as well, when doing things just because that is how they have always been done will not do at all.

Do you remember the story of the pot roast? (What? You don't? But, you must have heard it somewhere!) A mother, in cooking a meal (this story has only women cooking; it is in no way meant to imply that men can't cook), takes one end of a brisket, cuts it off, and throws it out. She does the same thing to the other end. Her daughter asks her what she is doing. Why she is throwing out the two ends of the meat. (If you are a vegetarian, substitute: tofu loaf. No actual animals were harmed in the writing of this column.) The mother replies: "I don't know. That is the way my mother always cooked the meat. You know, let's go ask her." The pair then go to grandma, who says the same exact thing. The three women now go to the great-grandmother, conveniently still alive and able to answer the troubling question.

"Great grandmother," the young girl asks, "why, when you were baking a brisket, did you cut off one end, throw it away, then cut off another end, and throw it away?" "Oh, that," the woman replied. "I remember doing that! It's because I only had a pot so big," and she gestures, making a size smaller than a whole brisket might have been expected to be.

We are, indeed, powerfully shaped by our past, in more ways than we will ever know (except for those of us with the patience, energy and insurance plans to spend multiple years in Freudian-style analysis). But when memory fails, old answers don't work, or something truly new arises, it is the way we adjust, the way we innovate, the way we change that serves as the guarantor of the future.

There is an old, traditional adage that "chadash, asur min haTorah." Anything new, anything innovative, anything not found in the vast data banks of experience of our people's past -- is forbidden by the Torah. But it is an adage of those afraid of change, afraid to stand on that perilous bridge between what was and what may yet come to be.

Memory is one tool which makes us who we are. But there is another. It is called adaptability. And blended, the one with the other, the knowledge of the past and the spontanaity of the moment, the way we react to the new... when the two work together well, that is called growth.

May we all be able to get from here to there in healthy growth... but, also... with all our future rental cars intact.

Monday, July 06, 1998

Tribute to a Lamed-Vavnik

Tribute to a Lamed Vavnik


Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am, Williamsville, New York

There is a figure in Jewish history known as the Baal Shem Tov The name is in fact a title, applied to the founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism The correct translation is that this person was the Master of the Good Name, meaning, G-d's name, that he was , in other words, a miracle worker. A common mistranslation, however, a misunderstanding of the title is that this figure is the Master of a Good Name, a reference not to specific deeds, but to character itself to reputation to the regard and affection and esteem in which a person is held by others.

This second translation may be technically wrong, but it is spiritually right.  Not only for figures who lived long ago.  But for people who make a difference in our lives, even now

I went back to my old home of Erie, Pennsylvania, the other day. I have been back twice. Both times were for funerals. This last one was for a truly special man, one whose story I want to share more widely than with just those who knew him.

His name was Hyman Casselman, "Casey," to most of us, “Chayim” to a few. And he was, truly, the Master of a Good Name. Held in as high a regard, and with as much affection, as anyone I have ever known.

He was a physician; he practiced medicine for over 65 years , retiring only in 1992, in his early nineties. As he spoke with others about   his field, he returned to one theme, indeed, to one word, again and again.  He spoke of health, and he spoke of healing, of balance and biology.  But most of all, as he spoke, I remember thinking that I was witness to a special event, in which a man and his message were one.  That word he kept using. It just seemed so right coming from him   "Compassion," he said is the primary tool of the physician a balm in any healing and more the inner compass of a human being “Compassion.”

He was, perhaps , the first Jewish physician to practice in Erie. He served a mixed community: rich and poor, Jew and gentile, white and black ... treating all the same way, and earning the respect and admiration of generations of patients in the same family. Just by being who he was, he blazed a path and paved the way and broke down the barriers of ignorance through the sheer goodness of his heart.
There are other things I remember.  The pride Casey took in his family his sons Tommy boy and Barry my boy.

That's what he called them.  I remember being surprised when I finally met Tom that he was, well, my father's age in his late 60s because I had been prepared to think of him as Tommy boy.

Casey married a woman he met in Erie in 1932. They lived above his office, on 26th and Parade. Times were tough, and sometimes Casey took a dollar an office visit... or even, occasionally, a chicken or a rabbit as payment in kind. Or nothing at all, from the patients for whom even that was too much.

Casey always had the courage of his convictions.  He practiced medicine the way he thought it should be practiced, called a spade a spade, stood up for what he believed was right... and stood up for his adopted country when duty called.  He volunteered for the service during World War Two, moving the family to Washington D.C. when Barry was very young. And he had the courage of his political beliefs and affiliation, a lifelong Democrat locked in eternal struggle and loving embrace with his oldest and dearest friend, an elected Republican, a man who would later become Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but still have to put up with arguments from an unrepentant liberal.

I remember conversations with Casey at the nursing home in which he resided for the last several years of his life, where he spoke of friendships that spanned multiple decades, where I sought his ad"1ce and his insight, and where I brought my son Benjamin to see him, the very first place I ever went taking my new baby out by myself.

I remember a video in which he and his wife discussed their life together, their own journeys. I remember his experiences in Montreal, his early desire to become a rabbi, his education at McGill.  I remember a special man, a personal friend, a giant of the spirit.

And I remember another legend from our Jewish tradition. It is said, that at any given time, the existence of the entire world depends on 36 righteous individuals, the lamed-vavniks . These people are known by their character, by how they affect the people around them. They do not necessarily know themselves to be particularly righteous; indeed, I have never heard of any one of the 36 who knew that he or she held such exalted status. Hidden, they are recognized only through hints, in single moments, or in the summation of a lifetime, when we can take the measure of a man. In my life I have been lucky. I believe I have met two of the 36. Casey was one. I was honored to have known him.

So many of us strive for the things we cannot take with us from this world into the World to Come.  But a good name, an honored reputation   Cynics say you can't take it to a bank    they are wrong.  For what they say applies only to the banks in this world to be the master of a good name.  That is the only account we can open now and draw on still after we are gone.