Rabbi James Rosenberg

Rabbi James Rosenberg“In 1971, I met a boy who changed my life forever. I was ten and he was twelve, when for a few indelible months, we roomed together in a British-style boarding school perched on an alpine meadow high above Geneva.”

So begins a personal history, “Whipping Boy,” in the Nov. 17, 2014, issue of The New Yorker. The author, Allen Kurzweil, a novelist and lecturer, is publishing this very month a full-length memoir, “Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully.”  Kurzweil tells us that he was “a middle-class Jewish kid from New York,” whose father died of cancer when he was only 5.

Rabbi James RosenbergIsrael’s new president, Reuven Rivlin, is certainly not a leftist; nor is he a liberal or a centrist. By most accounts, he is a reliably right-wing politician. He is not in favor of the “two-state solution;” he prefers some form of confederation between Palestinians and Israelis.

Nevertheless, Rivlin has taken a strong position against a bill promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and approved by his cabinet this past Nov. 23 – calling for a Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” According to a front page article in the Dec. 9 issue of The New York Times, in addition to this central provision, “[d]rafts of the so-called nationality bills would remove Arabic as an official language alongside Hebrew, increase the influence of Jewish law, reduce the power of the Supreme Court, and entrench the automatic citizenship of Jews worldwide and Jewish symbols of the state.”

Rabbi James Rosenberg“The morning that Mendel Muskatev awoke to find his desk was gone, his room was gone and the sun was gone, he assumed he had died.  This worried him, so he said the prayer for the dead, keeping himself in mind. Then he wondered if one was allowed to do such a thing, and worried instead that the first thing he had done upon being dead was sin.”

 

Rabbi James RosenbergThey came from Jamaica, Namibia, Brazil, England, Peru, Ecuador, Germany, Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Thailand, India, The Philippines and Korea; and they are all proud and accomplished Rhode Islanders. Once they were struggling immigrants and refugees facing the multiple challenges of adjusting to a new language, a new climate, a new culture.

On Dec. 5, these 13 men and women were honored at a reception at the Smith Center for the Arts at Providence College.  They were honored for their achievements, for what they have given back through their hard work and their vibrant families to the country and the state that has given so much to them.  As one of the honorees put it, “This is a country where everything is possible!”

The program at PC, “My Story, Our Community,” was the culmination of an oral history project that grew out of the combined efforts of Welcoming Rhode Island, one of the 20 affiliates of Welcoming America, and PC’s Global Studies program. On Dec. 5, Providence College students in groups of two or three – primarily freshmen and sophomores – stood with the honorees whom they had visited and interviewed and told their stories, after which many of the honorees themselves offered brief but poignant comments. What was striking to all in attendance was how far these immigrants have traveled from their humble beginnings to become such successful citizens in the worlds of business, health care, community service and the arts.

Rabbi James RosenbergPsalm 137 – at least its first six verses – is one of the best known and best loved of our 150 psalms: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion. /There on the willows we hung up our lyres, /for our captors asked us there for songs/our tormentors, for amusement. /How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil? /If I forget you. O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning; /let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I cease to think of you, /if I do not elevate Jerusalem above my highest joy.”

Few words capture more completely the millennial-long love affair between Jerusalem and the Jewish people. To this very day Jerusalem continues to tug at our heartstrings. The contemporary Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), writes: “Jerusalem stone is the only stone that feels pain; there is in it a network of nerves.” This is the very same stone that turns Jerusalem at sunrise and sunset into that magical city of gold and copper and light.

Until my years as a rabbinical student, I never read past the first six verses of Psalm 137. Indeed, during my youthful folk-singing days, I would frequently perform a mournful version of Al Naharot Bavel (By the Rivers of Babylon), which takes as its Hebrew text the opening verses of the psalm; I sang the song for years without realizing that the psalm had a most disturbing “Part II:”