An American poet, Zev Steinberg, wrote a remarkably poignant poem after learning of the tragedy in Pittsburgh. When he heard of the killings at the Etz Chaim Shul, he thought of the little boy whose brit was to be that Shabbat morning and wrote his evocative piece in his honour. It imagines the names that the boy could be given and uses each name as a kind of hopeful prayer and call to counter the cruelty and callousness of the killings.
This poem got me thinking again about the power of names and the deep need we have to name people, things and events. To name is to define, to name is also to refine our appreciation. Naming is as old as humanity itself; when Adam wakes from his surgical slumber to discover Eve he is moved to name her. His naming is an act of discovery and wonderment; he had named all the animals but this time it was different for this time she was ‘bone of his bones, flesh of his flesh’, she was part of him but also magically different. To call someone by their name is to recognise their intrinsic uniqueness; to refer to someone by a number is to dehumanise them. That’s why we have a particular horror of those numbers etched out on the Holocaust victims.
On 9th November we recall the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht the Jews who were murdered on this night and the nightmare killings that were to follow. Kristallnacht is a misleading and euphemistic name; in English it’s referred to as the Night of Broken Glass. The German is more appropriate: “Pogramnacht” for it was a night of horror, fear and brutal antisemitism, (and it is this that also links it to Pittsburgh and its naked antisemitism). Notwithstanding this, there is something telling in the English name for it was a night of broken-ness reflecting a broken German culture, a shattered morality and the crushing of the Jewish spirit. Broken glass reminds us of the ruptured Tablets at Sinai, crushed glass under the Chupah with its own associations of the splintered shards of the Temple being catapulted into oblivion. It also reminds us of the shattered vessels of light that the Kabbalah asserts was the ‘big-bang’ moment of God’s creation. The vessels couldn’t contain the Divine energy and light and so they burst scattering pieces across the world and thus evil and darkness entered the earth and the human heart.
Kristallnacht initiated one of the darkest periods in human history… Of course there was evil and pain before the Shoah and this Sunday we recall the horror of the First World War and Armistice Day. Exactly 100 years ago on November 11, 1918, four years of brutal conflict came to an end. The name of the day, Armistice, comes from the Latin armistituim meaning arma (arms) + stitium (stoppage). It’s about a truce, an agreement to stop fighting and sounds quite innocuous. It doesn’t touch the harm of those arms, the sound of those rocket barrages, the staccato stutter of the guns, the invidious evil of a gas attack. It doesn’t touch the contours of agony and angst on the Western Front. Listen to the lines taken from First World War poet, Wilfred Owen’s fabled poem: Dulce et Decorum est:
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling…
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning….
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues…
There are names of places from Sodom to Auschwitz, that will always be remembered for their depravity. There are people who will always be remembered for their evil and nihilism from Cain to Hitler. But there are also people and places that will always stand out for their majesty and menschlichkeit.
We are all given names at our birth, names harbouring our parents’ hopes and dreams for us, names containing our potential and capacity to make a difference. That little boy of Pittsburgh may not have one of the names suggested by the poet Zev Steinberg, but he reminds us of Tagore’s words: “Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man”.
Let’s take that with us, let the defiance of our hope counter the culture of hatred, let the audacity of our courage quell the contempt of the cruel. Let’s wear our Jewish names with pride…