Rev. Diane K. Hooge
As a child I clearly recall the contents of the bottom drawer of my mother’s dresser. It held the cloth covered box with ribbons wrapped around it. Inside the box were the letters she received from my Dad during the war, bundled together with more ribbons. I always knew how important and sacred those letters were to her. She would tell me about receiving them and how there would be holes in the letters where an official had reviewed the letters before they were allowed to be mailed. The fear was that my Dad would reveal where he was stationed on his Navy ship.
Upon the death of my Dad, I found a slip of paper in my Mother’s handwriting that had a whole list of baby booties: yellow, pink, white, red. At first I was baffled…and then I got it… next to each boottie was the name of a site like Okinowa, Guadalcanal, Philippines, Iwo Jima…I suddenly realized that my parents had set up a code so she would know where he was. Those letters in a sense were the witness box of an 18 year old Navy-man who kept his 19 year old newly married bride informed of his day to day life on his ship. The box of letters told the story of surviving the war.
The last time I read this text from Deuteronomy was in a joint service in Minneapolis with Judson Church, and Temple Beth Israel. The two communities came together at an extended table to offer an opportunity for their two faith communities along with the greater Twin Cities community to remember….to remember the holocaust. The vehicle was the “Holocaust Cantata”. The first presentation took place Sunday morning in the church that I served, and the following Friday night the Cantata was presented at Temple Beth Israel.
The music Director and I had had several meetings and endless phone calls with the Temple’s cantor and the Rabbi. The rehearsals had taken place, and the Sunday morning had arrived for the first presentation. Things felt tense. Both faith communities were feeling stretched and stressed. This was clearly unfamiliar territory. As leadership we felt the pressure of the risks that we had taken.
Our opening scripture began with the Cantor from the Temple blowing the Ram’s horn, then came my words in English, followed by his chanting the Sh’ma in Hebrew. “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and you are away; when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand; fix them as an emblem on your forehead; and write them on the door posts of your house and on your gates.”
This is the prayer that was and has been and is offered generation after generation. It calls the community together. It holds the highest values. Yes, the call is to love God, but it demands more. It demands a passing on of our faith.
I clearly remember the striking emotional shift that took place during that service. It was about a third of the way into the powerful music when a uniting Spirit entered the sanctuary. We experienced a thin place…a place of mystery. Somehow, in the mystery of that morning as the stories of the camps were being told by various members within the Jewish community, followed by the haunting music we became a new generation of witnesses.
In the congregation was Mary Neuman, the last surviving Holocaust survivor of Temple Beth Israel. We had agreed that Rabbi Zimmerman would interview Mary at our education hour following worship. We made our way downstairs for the reception to welcome our guests, and to listen to the interview.
I sat at the table with 85 year old Mary. She leaned over to me and let me know that the morning had shaken her. The music had brought back memories…painful memories and she told me that she felt jittery.
The interview began and Rabbi Zimmerman commented on the new information that she was receiving from Mary, pieces of the story that she had never heard before in spite of countless previous interviews. It had been the music. Fellowship hall was packed. The walls were lined with people standing. Both congregations attentive to every vulnerable memory that Mary sought to convey to us. I watched as she pulled back her sleeve to uncover her imprisonment number tattooed on her arm. The pain of her journey was wrapped in her warm, gracious, and humorous personality. Our hearts were broken open, and her truth telling words had been received
Mark’s Gospel tells the story of one of the religious officials who asks Jesus what he believes is the most important commandment. Clearly, it was a test. Jesus quotes the Sh’ma (which means hear) which is the first word of the Deuteronomy text, which a devout Jew would have repeated twice a day. Over and over Jesus has pointed out where he differs with the Temple leadership. He has overturned tables and driven people out of the temple. There has been an ongoing divide between the chief priests, scribes and elders who have consistently questioned Jesus’ authority. Jesus has been critical of those who have been guardians of the religious traditions. His point is that the love of God motivates people to shift their values—their priorities. And, action is demanded. In addition to loving God with all our heart and strength and soul, Jesus teaches, that we are to love our neighbor even when our neighbor doesn’t reciprocate.
I suspect that the scribe was like most of us, he knew it was truth, but it was such a hard truth that none of the other scribes could deny it, and no one wanted to extend the conversation. This isn’t easy stuff. And, as always, we’re invited into the story. We’re called to continue to deepen our love for God, and in so doing, the relationship demands that we make shifts in our lives that allow us to love in ways that push us to step out in faith. And this is where we need God and each other. It demands us to extend the table. It demands us to hear and see in new ways.
The most common symbol of Christianity is the cross…however, if I could find a silver loaf of bread on a chain, I would wear it. The extended table with its bread of belonging and cup of blessing is what I cling to. I love the words of Brian Wren’s song, “Break the bread of belonging” “…make a space for the stranger; give them the right to belong.”
When that Holocaust Cantata morning began breaking up. I joined Mary and some other Temple women. Mary reached into her purse and pulled out a sheaf of photos and handed them to me. They had been taken by a British photo journalist. He had given them to her on the day of her release. They had been offered in the name of “truth telling”—they were to be shown to others as proof of what she and countless others had endured. The pictures had been placed in her hands to tell the world. Were they familiar from others I have seen…yes. But on that day, standing in Fellowship Hall, I stood with the only Holocaust survivor I have personally met. I looked at horrendous photos taken of her prison, her bunk, her fellow prisoners…skeleton like people three and four deep on bunks stacked three bunks high. I looked at hollowed eyed corpse like people that appeared far more dead than many that I have helped to bury. I knew that I was now a witness. In those moments, I experienced the powerful mandate to never stop telling Mary Neuman’s story.
In 1945 Rabbi Eliezer Silver took charge of a search for the thousands of displaced Jewish children who had been sent into hiding on farms, convents and monasteries to keep them safe. His goal was to return them to their families. The rabbi learned of a monastery in southern France that had taken in Jewish children. However, the priest in charge declared that he believed that all the children were Christians. The priest wanted the rabbi to produce records to prove that the monastery held Jewish children. And, of course, the rabbi had no records. Many of the children had lived there since they were toddlers.
The rabbi asked to visit the wards. In front of the children, he began chanting in Hebrew the Sh’ma…”Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
The energy in the ward changed as little voices began joining in. The Rabbi had tapped into the memories of bedtime prayers from their earliest family rituals. Some of the little ones cried out for their mothers.
It has been five years since the Holocaust Cantata. I just discovered that Mary Neuman has published a book, titled Pockets in My Soul, which I just order from Bloomsbury. Next Sunday, the Cantata will be offered again in Minneapolis. On this All Saints Sunday, I am grateful to honor her life. Her calling has been to tell her story….which she confessed to me took years before she was able to have the courage to speak of her experience.
I believe that part of loving one another is carrying one another’s stories. It is the power of our faith journey stories that often bind us together. When we have been privileged to hear the difficult places in another’s life as well as those times of graced celebrations we gain a sense of connection. And that experience deepens our relationship with others and with God. It’s been a month since we added Kay, Sally, Wendy and Robin to our church membership. We keep adding leaves to our table as we welcome those who come seeking a place of belonging.
When I offer my pledge each month to the church, I am aware that I am offering my gift not only as part of my own faith journey, but, like the words of our text, I’m seeking to support the children of this congregation who someday will look back and reflect on memories of their time in this community—what will they remember—perhaps memories of walking forward each Sunday morning to light the candles and have their prayer before heading for downstairs church—memories of being brought up early on Communion Sunday to be guided down the aisle to receive the bread and the cup, memories of the stories that they have heard and the craft projects that they have made.
Extending the table has been a part of this congregation’s gift to the larger community and the world.
Hear O Israel, Hear O World, Hear O First Congregational United Church of Christ—Hear O Peace Church, You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” Amen.