Conceived in liberty

I thought I’d be moved by Rabbi Joseph Prouser’s reading of the Gettysburg Address, which he translated into Hebrew and set to a haftarah trope on Monday — Presidents’ Day — but I hadn’t imagined that it might make me cry.

First, there was the setting. Rabbi Prouser’s shul, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, is set back on a low hill in Franklin Lakes, way up in Bergen County’s outer limits, a warm old brick building, once a Dutch Reformed Church, overlooking a lake, partially frozen on that gray, blustery, nasty day. The sanctuary, a long, narrow, white-painted room with dark wood beams, showcased the ark, bimah, and furnishings that had come from the congregation’s earlier home in Paterson. It’s straight-lined and vertical, all dark wood, red velvet, and discreet brass; very urban, very  Deco, very early 20th century.

So look at that! Already there are potentially discordant notes — a shul in an old church, an urban interior in a nearly exurban setting. But it all works together harmoniously, and it escapes the curse that can entrap the unwary suburbanite — blandness.

The haftarah was part of Shacharit. Many local dignitaries were there. Rabbi Prouser welcomed them graciously and offered many of them parts in the service. The Jews were given aliyot, asked to raise the Torah, or open the ark; the non-Jews were given the few English-language readings, all prayers for the United States or Israel. But he did not cut the service short lest the guests be off-put by the Hebrew or bored by the length.

The visiting politicians represented both parties, and Rabbi Prouser made a point of the nonpartisan nature of the day and the service.

He prefaced the the Gettysburg Address with one of the morning blessings from the Conservative liturgy. Thank you, God, he sang in Hebrew, for having made me free. And then he moved on to the story of how, four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

It was impossible for me to sit there, listen to those great, clear, hard, real words roll over me in Hebrew, to read them in English, and not be moved to (yes, quiet, discrete) tears by them.

It also was impossible not to think of how far from them we have gone, and how wrong our recent direction seems to be.

Lincoln wrote the Address, according to mythology, on the back of an envelope, on a train taking him from Washington to Gettysburg. That might not be true, but his skill as a writer, as a politician, and as a human being are undeniable. He was a backwoodsman and a Victorian, a melancholic, a romantic, and a great, thunderous political thinker.

He was also a Republican.

It is hard to think of the candidates running for the Republican nomination for president at the same time that we think of Lincoln, who grew up in a log cabin but was not a vulgarian, who was self-educated but intellectually agile, who came from poverty but neither bullied nor allowed himself to be bullied as he rose, who endured great personal tragedy but did not let it define him. It is not fair to expect anyone to be another Lincoln, of course — but maybe they could try? Just a little?

Rabbi Prouser ended Shacharit that morning with a jaunty Adon Olam, set — but of course! — to Yankee Doodle.

If only we all could hold onto the spirit in that room that morning — reverence for the past, hope for the future, and a great deal of cleverness, resourcefulness, an understanding of what can be played with and what cannot be, and plain old hard work put into bridging what otherwise would have been a huge gap — maybe we could look forward to the coming election with something other than dread.

“That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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