ARRIVING ON COLUMBUS DAY

Columbus Day ought to take on far greater significance this year. Coinciding with the first day of the festival of Sukkot, Columbus Day ought to bring with it the poignant message, that our celebration Sukkot this second Monday of October, marks more than the arrival of Columbus in America. When all is said and done, Sukkot 5780 has every right to serve as a reminder that when it comes to this country, we Jews have arrived as well.

I think that it is fair to say, that for the last two decades or so, there has been an increase in the building of sukkahs by Jews of all branches of Judaism. How ironic, that those very same coreligionists who feel no compulsion to participate in other aspects of Jewish life, find the time, expend the energy and come up with the necessary funds to construct a Sukkah. I extend a heartfelt Yasher Koach and look forward to seeing more and more sukkahs being put up with the passage of each year. Many of us can well remember that sukkahs were an anomaly in the vast majority of Jewish neighborhoods in this country. Now sukkahs are quite commonplace in American  cities with sizeable Jewish populations.

Back in the day, it was not at all unusual for Jews living in New York as well as in other cities and towns in the northeast, to go to the “mountains” for Pesach. Either because of family dynamics or time constraints, many a Jew would travel up to a kosher hotel in the Catskills for the duration of the festival. My mother’s aunt was typical. Upon reaching her golden years, it was quite evident that there would be neither a  seder nor a kosher for Passover kitchen in the Bronx homes of her three sons and their wives. She, therefore  made alternate arrangements at a nondescript kosher hotel in Sullivan  County, New York.  Nowadays, it’s not only Passover, when Jews uproot themselves. Nor is their destination the Catskills. Nowadays, observant Jews travel to Resort Hotels, located  both in this country as well as abroad (including Israel) for a Sukkot experience. Please know, that the mitzvah is dwelling in a Sukkah, not constructing one, or using one of the outside walls of your home to serve as part of the Sukkah. The mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah can be fulfilled anywhere, including Resort Hotels. And the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah at a Resort Hotel or similar is currently being fulfilled by many observant Jews who have “arrived.”

Be a Jew in your home and a man outside it”. So adjured Yehudah Leib Gordon, a poster child of the Jewish Enlightenment. While it is true that the vast majority of American Jews never knew or heard of Yehudah Leib Gordon, they lived their lives as though they were his illustrious students. For decades, Judaism in this country was practiced privately and quietly. For decades, it was unthinkable for any Jew to be seen on the streets wearing a yarmulke. Judaism was not to be advertised. Previous generations defined themselves as “Americans of the Jewish faith.”

All that has changed and the reasons for that change, can be debated and discussed. For the most part, it is fair to say that Jews are much more comfortable and much more open about their Judaism. As praiseworthy as it is to see the increase in number of sukkahs being put up throughout this country, it is at the same time noteworthy, that Jews have no qualms whatsoever of inviting non-Jewish friends and neighbors to join them in the sukkah for a festival meal. Half a century ago, such an invitation would have been unfathomable. Half a century ago, American Jews had not yet “arrived.”

As we dwell in our sukkah this coming Monday, let us be aware that is Columbus Day as well. Let us be sensitive to the fact that over five centuries since Columbus arrived and that over these last five decades, so too did a good many American Jews.

MURPHY’S SHUL

For Jews who attended the summer home of the Rabbi Chaim Berlin Yeshiva up in the Catskills, the name Patrick Henry (everyone called him Pat and few, if any knew his last name) took on a completely different meaning. Albeit a “Founding Father” in his own right, Patrick Henry was neither an orator nor a politician. Patrick Henry was the closest living thing to the cartoon character Popeye.  He had sailor tattoos on his arms and smoked a corncob pipe. His predilection for spinach however remained unknown, although a spinach diet would have surprised no one, given that he was missing most of his teeth, so much so that he bumped his gums every time he ate.

Patrick Henry was the janitor of the Rabbi Chaim Berlin Yeshiva. He was best known for “swabbing the deck” (washing the floors in the bathrooms and corridors) and ladling out green peas and mashed potatoes to the students standing in the lunch line. But, unknown to so many, Patrick Henry was much more than that. When the hundred year old wooden frame of the main building of Yeshiva which housed the synagogue caught fire and was reduced to rubble in a matter of minutes, Patrick Henry emptied his life savings and handed the funds to the Yeshiva for the construction of a new building.

Mr. Roetta (in Mr. Roetta’s case, few, if any knew his first name) was of Hispanic origin. He lived in a synagogue in Queen’s New York. And even though a goodly percentage of that shul was Holocaust survivors, Mr. Roetta owned a German shepherd that he kept chained up on the roof, where it barked ferociously. That was well over forty years ago and the dog has long died. But Mr. Roetta, now well into his nineties is still mopping the floors and setting up the Kiddush. Come snow, he is immediately outside with the snow blower regardless of the time of day. As far as Mr. Roetta is concerned, it’s his synagogue.

Not far from Lubavitch World Headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, one finds Congregation Chovevei Torah. To longtime residents, the synagogue located on 885 Eastern Parkway will always be known as Murphy’s Shul. Story has it, that at one time Murphy’s Bar stood at the location. Very much aware that the Jewish residents were desperately looking for a location to set up a synagogue in the neighborhood, the owner did something few would do. Rather than sell the business, Mr. Murphy deeded the property over to a group of Jews on the proviso that a synagogue be established where his bar once stood. In doing so, Mr. Murphy helped dispel the widely held notion that as far as the New York Irish were concerned we were all “sheenies” (a derogatory term for Jews). In gratitude, those from the neighborhood continued to refer to the synagogue as Murphy’s Shule.

More than a few rabbis are uncomfortable at the notion of including Christians in their prayers, unless of course those Christians are heads of state. One would do well to ask such rabbis to explain the phrase “and all who are involved faithfully in the needs of the community” which we offer up each Shabbat morning immediately following the chanting of the haftorah. Shouldn’t it apply to Mr. Murphy, Mr. Roetta, Mr. Henry and countless other non-Jewish “angels” throughout this country who give of themselves unconditionally, so that Jews are able to attend clean, presentable synagogues that are well lit and properly heated and air conditioned? May Hashem grant them the very best!