Words, words, words – First day Rosh Hashanah 5780, 2019

And every day we are assailed by words from the moment we wake till we lie down at night. We all use about 20,000 words a day and despite the myth, women don’t actually use more words then men.

I love watching my grandson, Ezzy, roll words around in his mouth discovering their beauty and power, their capacity to connect, to impress, to capture the essence of a moment, to amuse and bemuse.

And how I love words, delving into them, playing with them, crafting them, honing them, sharpening them and punning them. Words have always carried me through life’s ups and downs and I have tried to carry them with care and respect. But I have often failed, been careless and used them unthinkingly and cruelly. It’s been said the tongue has no bones but it’s strong enough to break a heart…

My grandson may only know a few hundred words, but they are good and useful ones. Sadly, I know that as he grows he will be exposed to weasel words and wounding words, Lashon hara and diba ra’ah, cutting words and F bombs, words worth forgetting and words that he will wish he had never said or never heard… I worry about him growing up in a world where there is no civility, no respect in our online and public discourse, where politicians and leaders use words as crudely as a jack-hammer. From the USA to Israel opponents and minority groups are singled out in shameless belittling adjectives and nouns. Even the most civilised of houses, the British Parliament in its Brexit angst has descended into dangerously unnerving language.

I worry about Ezra hearing the wounding words of Jew and Israel hatred; words like filthy Jew, money-grabbers, arrogant monopolists, elitists, manipulators, BDS and globalists. I ache that he will have to learn words like ghetto, inquisition, genocide, pogroms, gas chambers and holocaust.

Dara Horn has suggested that all antisemitism be divided into Purim antisemitism and Chanukah antisemitism. The first is about murdering and wiping out all Jews; the second is about erasing Jewish memory, culture and civilisation.

It’s a tough place for Jews today. As a child I thought the word Jewish martyr was consigned to history. Now I know better and that the insults I had thrown at me as a child in South Africa or the innuendo and insults as a Jew in the S.A Defence Force, at a park in NZ weren’t just incidental, but indicative of a dark undercurrent of Jew-hatred, a virus mutating and waiting, anticipating the right moment, the perfect environment when it could explode and spread its toxicity. Antisemitism is a pendulum that swings and sways so menacingly. It’s the world oldest hatred, its darkest shadow -and it’s back with a vengeance with its shades of the 1930’s Berlin or Shauli, Lithuania where my mother had acid thrown at her because she was a pretty Jewish girl…

It’s entered from the dark shallows and puddles on the extreme left and right into the mainstream waters like the Labor Party of the UK, it’s been legitimised and enabled by careless and thoughtless world leaders; the unacceptable made acceptable. So Chareidim can be attacked on a Shabbat in Stanmore, Chassidim in Crown Heights and of course Jews shot dead in Paris, Pittsburg and Poway California. Unsafe on the streets of Europe’s most civilised cities. Not to mention swastikas in Melbourne and the disgraceful attack on our Finance Minister Josh Frydenberg and his mother Erica Frydenberg. The same dreary toxic effluent of antisemitism from the right to the left and now stagnating smugly in the middle.

So how do we react?

Firstly, I would say by not overreacting – sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a negative comment about Jews or Israel isn’t a fundamental attack on our very being. Just as in personal relationships you need to choose when and how to react, so when it comes to anti-Israel or anti-Semitic slurs or comments, know there is a time to be silent and a time to speak out. If we react to every ignoramus, we lose our power and effectiveness when there’s a real sinister or dangerous situation of antisemitism. This applies equally to the spokespeople of our community as it does to the Jew in the street. And we and our leaders need to take great care when cavorting with anti-Semitic leaders or the alternate right in the name of realpolitik.

Secondly maintain perspective, be as factual as you’re fierce. Check out the facts. While there’s a global increase in antisemitism, not everybody is our enemy and we have many friends across the world. Some of the best stories of initiative and inventiveness, caring and compassion come out of Israel every day. If there are devilish Purim demons and cunning Chanukah schemers, there are also Purim party supporters and Chanukah admirers.

Writer Barri Weiss who is a member of the Etz Chaim shule writes about October 27, 2018 an otherwise quiet Shabbat morning during which 11 of her neighbours in Pittsburgh were slaughtered by a white supremacist as they prayed.

“What I found was a divide – the same divide that has run through our people since the Exodus from Egypt. In the Charlton Heston version of the story, all the Jews follow Moses out of bondage. But in the Jewish tradition, facing the terrifying unknown of life as a free people, a majority of the Israelite slave chose to remain in Egypt.”

The stakes are different, but the choice remains the same: Does safety come from being like everyone else or does it come from drilling down into what made us special to begin with?

Does safety for Jews come by accommodating ourselves to the demands of our surrounding society. If we can just show we are perfect Greeks, patriotic Germans, cracker Aussies, then they’d love us (or at least not kill us). Think here of the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish section of the Bolshevik Party, who did Lenin’s bidding with particular zeal to prove they were loyal Communists. Until, of course, the regime rounded them up, too.

Jewish history teaches that we can only win by being true to ourselves, From Moshe Rabeinu to Mordechai Anielewicz from Judah Maccabee to Ben Gurion history has urged us to be our fullest, freest selves – even if doing so made us deeply unpopular or despised.

‘There hasn’t been a single moment in Jewish history in which there weren’t anti-Semites determined to eradicate Judaism and the Jews. When the Pittsburgh killer shouted “all Jews must die,” he was merely echoing a slogan uttered in a different tongue by Amelek, the villain who stalked the weakest of the ancient Israelites in the desert on their way to the Promised Land.’

But as Weiss reminds us the Jews did not sustain their magnificent civilization because they were anti-anti-Semites. Our tradition was always renewed by people who made the choice in the face of tragedy, that theirs would not be the end of the Jewish story, but the catalyst for writing a new chapter.

Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By standing up for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us. We need to lean into Judaism rather than catastrophise our situation.

Our best strategy is to build, without shame, a Judaism, a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but also compassionate, joyful and life-affirming. ‘A Judaism capable of lighting a fire in every Jewish soul – and in the souls of everyone who throws in his or her lot with ours.’

Let’s reach out beyond our community to those who can and will stand together with us, who will march arm in arm with us be they world leaders walking together in Paris be they the many Muslim and many Christian leaders, the many politicians who stand with us in Australia, or be they Wasi Mohamed head of the Islamic Centre of Pittsburgh who pointed out that negative rhetoric against the Jewish community is poison… Poison for our country, for our democracy and is negative for everybody not just that community. As Jonathan Sacks says ‘A society that tolerates antisemitism that tolerates any hate has forfeited all moral credibility’.

Let’s support Courage to Care Victoria and its brilliant Secondary school program which informs and educates Victorian Secondary students about the dangers of prejudice, racism and discrimination and empowers them to challenge and speak out, to be upstanders not bystanders.

And every one of us in our work places and at our Shabbat dinner tables, but especially those who have the capacity, need to identify how we can be proud ambassadors and upstanders. Be Nachshon Jews. Don’t let people get away with sly innuendo and Jewish put-down jokes (while not overreacting). Nachshon stood up and waded into the Red Sea before it split, simply because he believed it’s us- as much as God -who part the waters of animosity and hostility.

“These are the words”, אלה הדברים, said Moses before he died, in his final, triumphant and breathtaking message to his people. These are the words you shall remember and these are the words you shall forget. What are the words you want to be remembered for? What are the words you want to be eulogised with?

These are the words said Moses! And these are the very words he used time and time again in the book of דברים:

Listen – שמע ישראל – be attentive, listen with your heart;

Love – ואהבת – love yourself, your neighbour, love the stranger and love your God. Practise kindness for as Joe Biden said: “Be kind because we are all fighting a big battle;

Remember – זכור – for memory is the key to the future;

ושמחת and celebrate – don’t give me oy, give me joy. Join together with others, your family and community to celebrate this beautiful delicate gift of life and togetherness.

Listen – Love – Remember – Celebrate

These are the words that have set us on fire as Jews, that let us burn with passion and justice and the belief that even if they hate we can love, even if they put us down we can pull them up.

These are the words worth remembering. These are the words I will pass on and teach well to my grandchildren…

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.