Smile At The Crocodile – September 28, 2014
You remember Peter Pan. One of the most famous fairy tales of all time, the story written by J. M. Barrie, made popular in the last century by Walt Disney and Mary Martin, appeals to children in a poignant way. The ambivalence that children have about growing up (they want to grow up but they want to stay children) is a basic human conflict. The story occurs on the night before Wendy is going to have to leave the children’s bedroom, and so she goes to Never Neverland where people never have to grow up.
In Neverland, there is a crocodile that ate the villain Captain Hook’s hand and now it wants the rest. The crocodile has swallowed a clock. As he approaches, you hear the tick–tock of the clock.
Hook is terrified of what I like to call the clock-odile, not only because he has lost his hand but also because, since the theme here is Time, he thinks that time is his enemy.
So Wendy is scared of time because she doesn’t want to grow up,
and Hook is scared of time because he doesn’t want to grow old.
We’re all scared of the tick-tock.
There’s a song that was written for the Disney version that was left out of the movie but became famous on a record that I used to play over and over on my little phonograph:
Never smile at a crocodile
No, you can’t get friendly with a crocodile
Don’t be taken in
By his welcome grin
He’s imagining how well you’d fit within his skin
Never smile at a crocodile
Never tip your hat and stop to talk awhile
Never run, walk away,
say good-night, not good-day
Clear the aisle but never smile at Mister Crocodile
Again, the crocodile is Time
There is nothing scarier than tick-tock
When everybody else is singing “Happy Birthday” to us, we’re cringing. When they ask “how old are you now?” we prefer not to answer.
In the remake of Peter Pan called Hook, Captain Hook is so terrified of Time that he smashes and breaks every clock.
Like Wendy and Hook, we’re scared of time. I talked the other day about fear. Time is one of our worst fears. As we get older, the crocodile seems to get closer. Here we are on the High Holidays, and one way or another, we’re thinking about time.
I want to talk about time in our lives, and how we can deal with it. But before I talk about the tick-tock in our lives, I want to talk about the crocodile that some think is about to swallow Judaism in America. Some feel that time is catching up with the American Jewish community, that Judaism is in big trouble. Every so often, there will be a survey that seems to state that a crocodile is about to swallow our people.
Do you remember Look magazine? In 1964, Look magazine ran a cover story entitled, “The Vanishing American Jew.” Boldly, with the self-assurance of a national publication that had millions of readers, the article clearly explained why in all certainty there would no longer be any Jewish people left in the United States by the 21st century.
And guess what, lovers of the ironic?
Here we are, but guess what happened to Look magazine? That article was in 1964. The last issue of Look was in 1971, just seven years later. Go to the newsstand and take a Look. You can’t. It was the magazine that vanished, not our people.
In fact, people have been writing our obituary for thousands of years. The oldest recorded mention of the name Israel is in an Egyptian hymn of victory by Pharaoh Mer-nep-tah, about 1215 BCE. When I saw the inscription in the Cairo Museum, I just stared at it for an hour. The hieroglyphic inscription reads, “Israel is laid waste, his offspring is wiped out.” But it wasn’t true. History records a different ending to the story. Pharaoh and his people were defeated. The Egyptian empire is long gone, swallowed by the sands and crocodiles. And the descendants of the slaves of that once glorious Empire continue to write magnificent chapters in the story of humanity.
That’s why I’m never frightened by all these pessimistic predictions about our survival. And that includes the latest bad report. Last year, the Pew Report provided statistics about the religious observance and affiliation of Jewish people in America. And everyone I know got depressed. They thought we were hearing the tick-tock for American Judaism.
We need a different perspective. We are too pessimistic about the future of Judaism. We think that a temporary disappointment is a long-term setback.
Here is a recent example. Earlier this year, I read a moving article in the Boston Globe. The Globe writer Steve Rosenberg wrote about the demolition of his synagogue, Temple Israel in Swampscott, Massachusetts. The congregation merged with another synagogue. Fourteen new homes will be built on the site where the synagogue stood.
The temple building was once one of the grandest, most elegant Conservative sanctuaries in America. Built in 1953, that impressive building represented the dreams of a new Jewish working class. Temple Israel was part of a new era of the American Jewish experience: people who had grown up in cold-water flats could find a home in beautiful suburbia.
For a long time there was a nearby golf course and a beach club where Jewish people were not welcome. But now people could drive by this synagogue and see its Star of David and be proud that the Jewish people had a home and planned to stay.
The synagogue became a community, built on common social values: giving to charity, supporting Israel, and performing good deeds. There were generations of weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies and brotherhood breakfasts and Sisterhood meetings. Rosenberg writes, “In its heyday in the 1970s, when more than 2,000 people crowded into services on holidays such as Yom Kippur, or raised tens of thousands of dollars for Israel … the temple seemed like it would go on forever. But things were changing.”
And now it’s gone.
Rosenberg writes, “When I drive by the temple, my car slows to a crawl and I realize a little piece of me is somewhere in that wreckage. Was it the 13-year-old, surrounded by Old World relatives after my bar mitzvah? Or the college student who wiped away a tear alongside my sister’s wedding canopy?”
So that’s the article. Some of us who are here today have experienced being part of a synagogue that now does not exist, and it’s hard to deal with. It’s hard, and it’s sad. And I feel that.
But I have a different way of looking at things. And while you could think about the demolished synagogue as a symbol for American Jewry, I reject the analogy. I think the places we live in and the structures we build are all temporary by nature. We Jewish people have learned this lesson the hard way.
Let me explain in my typical Right Brain manner by saying that I grew up idolizing Steve McQueen. And he starred in a movie that no one besides me ever liked called Baby, The Rain Must Fall. At the very end of the film, the mother says to her daughter: “From Lovelady to Tyler, from Tyler to Harrison, from Harrison to the Valley. Margaret Rose, we sure do get around.”
Traveling, moving from town to town, is a metaphor for the search for a happy life. And the people who survive are the people who keep hoping that the next town will be better. Non-survivors don’t have this kind of hope. We Jewish people are the survivors of history.
Now that I know more about my own roots, about my genealogy and my family’s history, I’m thinking, “From Israel to North Africa to Spain to Turkey to Russia to America, my family sure did get around.”
And my family’s experience is typical of all Jewish families. We Jewish people have left many Anatevkas where things were bad and many Swampscotts where things were good. And we are still here, but “here” is not a geographical term. The towns that we live in and the synagogues that we build and the towns that we leave and the shuls that are demolished are all temporary structures.
In their day, they were all important. They all served their purpose in their time and place. But they were temporary.
Our people, our religion, give us permanence. And just for the record, if you know anything at all about Jewish history, you know that this is a Golden Age, an incredibly wonderful and fantastic time for Jewish people and Judaism. We are free to be ourselves and we have thriving institutions and Jewish people are part of every positive aspect of this society. Don’t get so depressed; things are great.
So I’m not so sad about Temple Israel in Swampscott. I feel a pang, but then I hear a voice stating:
“Don’t mourn over Temple Israel! Wrong attitude! Remember those wonderful events at Temple Israel with joy and pleasure. Remember how we displayed a Star of David in the face of bigots! Remember all the education and simchas and community joys!”
Remember, Margaret Rose, that we get around. We’re the survivors, We Jewish people do what people say can’t be done, we hope when there isn’t any hope. Whatever odds we face, we prevail.
I’m talking about synagogues, but I’m also talking about us.
A lot of us, on these High Holidays, are hearing the tick-tock.
And we need to have a different sense of time and how we think about it.
How do you think about your life? Do you see it like the writer saw that synagogue, as something on the way to demolition? Do you cry over what was and is no longer? You have to remember that just like every synagogue building and every Jewish community is a temporary structure that embodies and furthers Jewish life and cultivates the souls of Jewish people, your body is the temporary home for your soul.
You can think of time as your enemy.
Or you can think Jewish.
Let me tell you what it means to think Jewish about time. Last June, my grandson Alexander, at the end of 1st Grade at Ezra Academy, was in a Siddur presentation; he received his first prayer book. And he and his class sang a song about Le-Dor Va-Dor, from generation to generation. We were all crying our eyes out. But it wasn’t sad; it was a joy, and for me, it was a transcendent moment.
And here are a few words of the song. Imagine it being sung by the sweet voices of first-graders:
We are gifts, and we are blessings,
We are history in song,
We are hope and we are healing
We are learning to be strong
We are words and we are stories
We are pictures of the past
We are carriers of wisdom
Not the first and not the last
L’dor va-dor nagid gadlecha
L’dor va-dor we protect this chain
From generation to generation
These lips will speak Your name.
For all the Look Magazines and Pew reports, how can I worry about myself and tick-tocks when my gorgeous Alexander is singing that song? I am forever, because we are. I’m not getting swallowed by a crocodile. Time’s got nothing on me: I never felt so young.
“Not the first and not the last.”
That’s the line in the song that gave me the perspective to stop worrying about the clock-odile. Because I’m not the first and I’m not the last. I am not the Alpha and I am not the Omega. Just as we Jewish people have moved from one place to another, and built one synagogue after another, I am part of something much bigger than me. I am just a temporary structure who has to do my part.
In fact, I can smile at that crocodile, because he can’t get me. I’m not only saying, “In a while, crocodile.”
I’m Jewish, and we Jewish people have our ways of coping with time.
And one of those ways is Jewish genealogy. I have talked before about the importance of knowing your family tree. If you look at your name on that family tree, you see yourself in context. You think about your life compared to the lives of your family members on that chart and you realize how great your life is. You think about what they did so that you could have this life. When you look at your roots, you see that you are just one branch or one twig on that tree. And the tree is going to keep growing long after you.
That’s why we Jewish people are always young, always moving into the future.
We don’t have to go off to the fantasy world of Never Neverland.
We live in Forever Land.
We can deal with the realities of leaving the nursery or whatever the next stage of life is.
We don’t have to pretend that time doesn’t exist. We don’t have to listen to that crocodile song.
We can smile at the crocodile because we can listen to a different song, the song our children are singing.
And if you’re Jewish, whether you have the blessing of Jewish children or grandchildren or not, if you are here today as a part of this Jewish community, you are part of the dor va-dor, of the generations; you are part of the chain. You are not the first and you are not the last, but you’re an important link.
You are a part of the Jewish people.
So don’t be so scared of the tick and the tock
because from generation to generation, we will always be young.