Thanksgiving Oration Rotary November 22, 2022
It is 27 years ago to this day that I served on the board of the Rancho Mirage California Rotary club as its Club Secretary. It was customary for the executive board to select a nominating committee for the coming year which ran from January to December. It was just a few days before Thanksgiving, and it was a busy time. There was no computer to check in the members. And so, I left the meeting early, telling the President, Treasurer, and others, “Got to run, whomever you nominate for next year’s board is fine with me.” After the luncheon I said to the President in the spirit of the ensuing holiday of Thanksgiving, “So, which Turkey did you get to be the President next year?” to which he deadpanned this response, “Which Turkey? Yossi Liebowitz!” Astonished I humbly asserted that this was a fowl move!” Turns out, I was most fortunate to be the President for the international meeting that year was to be held in Sydney Australia. The poor fellow that followed me had to go to Cleveland Ohio. As I am retiring from serving Congregation B’nai Israel after two decades this spring, I tend to review my being a rabbi for forty four years, many of whom were enhanced by the same number of years as a Rotarian, for which I am most grateful.
Humble am I to follow many other Rotary speakers finer than I am as a Thanksgiving presenter! To give you a sense of my limits as an orator recently one member of my congregation said to me, “That sermon should have been published posthumously,” or another who said “each one of your sermons are better than the next!” If all that sounds self-effacing, please know that when it comes to being humble no one does it better than I. It was such humility that motivated Golda Meir the one-time Prime Minister of Israel to say to a Congressman who acted modestly in her presence, “You’re not great enough to be modest!” Nor am I!
Like many of you who gather with family at holiday time, I tend to remember those who can no longer be present in my home. To quote the musical Les Miserable “Empty chairs, empty tables!” Fathers, mothers – grandparents, and tragically daughters and sons along with some friends taken away too soon. With true humility, I note how my late father, the New York cab driver would not have imagined that his son, the grandson of immigrants who fled the Ukrainian border town of Peschanitza in the middle of the night would someday shake the hand of the current president, not once but twice, as well as two prime ministers of the state of Israel Yitzchak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, a few Senators and Congressmen, each of whom have achieved greatness in their lives. Knowing such men and women of stature has not made me great but has made me grateful.
My father would not exactly win any awards for modesty but he would have been granted a prize for being the greatest of teasers. He could artfully diminish the self-importance of anyone, especially his sons. When I became of draft age, he remarked “When they induct you into the army, I will buy Russian war
bonds!” Each night after a sweltering N.Y. day in his cab, a cab without air conditioning my father would regale us with the day’s excitement, muggings and more. Vincent Price, a star of several horror films entered his cab one day
followed some weeks later by Sean Connery, the actor and gentleman who signed an autograph which if I have had any foresight to save I could sell today on e-bay. Oh well! Five years ago, my son running a movie theater bonded with Sean Connery as he looked over the movie marquis for the schedule that day. “You were in my grandfather’s cab. Glad to meet ya,” my son Noah fondly remarked! “When was that?” Said the great Scottish actor. My son inheriting his grandfather’s teasing personality said: “Five decades ago, what took you so long to meet me?” But Dad’s most memorable customer was of one Joe DiMaggio, the baseball great for those of you under the age of thirty. As the Yankee Clipper settled in the back of the cab, dear old dad goaded him by talking about baseball, the pinstripe boys, the Yankees! In dad’s thick N.Y. accent, pop said “Oh you know the Yankees, they stink this year. They ain’t going nowhere!” to which Joe responded, “Ah they are just getting started. You watch and see!” “Really,” dad interrupted, “What the hell do you know about baseball?” “Well, said DiMaggio,” I used to play ball!” “Huh? Really!” Said pop, “who are you?” “I’m Joe DiMaggio!” “Not possible” dad retorted, “DiMaggio was a good-looking skinny kid, you’re a fat old man!” I asked my nervy father, “What did DiMaggio do?” Joe, who was making Mr. Coffee commercials at the time. Joltin’ Joe laughed!” he said. “What happened next dad?” “I made him autograph my baseball, the one I kept in the cab for such emergencies!”
A few years later, two kids from Queens wrote a song about Mrs. Robinson for a film called “The Graduate!” “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio; a nation leans its tired eyes towards you? What’s that you say Mrs. Robinson ‘Joltin Joe’ has left and gone away?” Having heard these lyrics Joe was not amused wrongly thinking Paul Simon was eulogizing him way before his demise. This annoyed him no end until Paul Simon informed him how the lyrics were meant to celebrate his stature as a folk idol, the kind of man that everyone no matter whom they rooted for was worthy of respect and admiration. He was the all American boy!
In our divided, tribal troubles times, it seems to me how little we have that cements us together. The glue that was baseball, or the respect for a baseball great has eluded our grasp as has our regard for institutions national and local. A book aptly named “Bowling alone!” seems to capture the common alienation from Churches to Synagogues to service clubs, the last one of which Rotary does provide a notable exception. With respect to personalities there are of course other hopeful exceptions. I think someone like Dolly Parton comes close for polls have shown her to be the most widely admired woman in America. And recently I applaud with great zeal Senator McConnell’s fine tribute to Nancy Pelosi as the outgoing speaker of the House. This he did by honestly noting their
differences. Perhaps it is a harbinger of the return of the statesmanship which has eluded our grasp in recent years on both sides of the aisle.
In my heritage the sages muse about such a future time when such decency will prevail and our holidays will be no longer needed to keep us in line. For Jews, no longer would there be a need for Yom Kippur, a Day of Atonement to bid us to be moral, for no one would sin anymore. And for Christians every day would be a Christmas as Christ would be ever present upon his return. In response to that lofty inquiry, the sages name one Jewish holiday a Mardi gras holiday called
Purim reviewing the evil intentions of Haman against Esther’s people, the children of Israel. They reasoned that this indispensable holiday always reminds us of the threat of prejudice and division, and that those threats never go away. We must always be reminded of them. The poor victims of the Colorado Night club understand that all too well!
So, what holiday could we as Americans not dispense with if the world was perfected? July the 4th? Certainly, its theme of freedom is so very important but, in its observance, it is largely a picnic time and a night of fireworks frivolity. Labor Day? How many on that holiday give voice to the wonders of the struggles of the common worker? Few! But as many of you may have already surmised it is the holiday of Thanksgiving that is ultimately indispensable. We cannot do without it! It is in my judgement the holiday that few would disagree with. True enough, some with accurate concerns about Native American history decry the celebration of the holiday. Recent revelations about schools that maltreated Indian youth years ago have come to light, so much so that Pope Francis went to Canada to offer regrets and apologies on behalf of his Church. Though my grandparents came to these shores well after those assaults I feel a kinship as an American who cherishes our history, the good and the regretful. For that reason I give hundreds of dollars each years personally to a Catholic orphanage out west St. Joseph’s. To address some of the ugliness that followed between the Pilgrimsettlers and Native Americans. But in the meantime, we truly need to rejoice in the five decades of peace that prevailed after that first dinner. A happy reminder it was and a hopeful harbinger of what could be for all of us – a time of cooperation and caring.
We live in a hyphenated time. No one need remind me of that being a Jewish American. But at this holiday time, the hyphen looms smaller. Not Jewish Americans, Not African Americans, Not European Americans, Not Asian Americans but Americans one and all – Out of many came one! E pluribus Unum. When I was seven years old, my grandmother, that refugee from the Ukraine presented me with a skull cap what we call a yarmulke. It is to remind us that God is above us. It was made of three kinds of leather patches, red, white, and blue. “This skull cap,” she said to me “are your two great heritages – American and Jewish.”
How divided we are in these difficult times! And yet in spite of all prognostications of violence, even civil war America last Tuesday triumphed in its pursuit of democracy. No matter your political preferences we were largely united with few exceptions trying to thwart our nation as the home of the brave and the land of the free.
In my tradition was one sage called Im gam zo! Roughly translated as “Also this!” because whenever he encountered anyone or any circumstance he would say “gam zo l’tova” also this is for the best finding in everyone a worthy aspect and in every circumstance a blessing. Our cancel culture gives in the language of my people not a kosher stamp of approval, but a disapproving grade to so much and so many. In a podcast conducted by an ex- police chief I was recently asked would you meet with Kylie Irving or Kanye West each of whom has spouted
some awful anti-Jewish tropes and stereotypes. I said to Kevin, “Of course I would!” As painful as that might be!
I once heard a Methodist Minister giving a speech and as he spoke he was interrupted by a heckler who vigorously disagreed with him on a point of social action. Screaming at him actually! Without missing a beat, the minister said; “you know I once held that opinion that is now so very different from mine, but at the time I didn’t express it nearly as well as you just did! Isn’t it great that all of ushere can be present to hear both views? Thank you!”
According to a Hindu legend it happened once that a man went to pray at his Temple for relief from his sad and difficult life. He heard a divine voice tell him, “I will grant you one wish and one wish only! Come back tomorrow with your request.” He went home and talked to his malnourished wife and to his mother, a mother who was blind. Arguing back and forth, the mother said, “Your devoted mother is blind, you must wish for my eyesight to be restored!” “Nothing doing,” said the wife. “We are starving, you must ask for food to be given to us!” Confused, the man returned to the Temple to commune with the Divine and then in his heart and mind emerged this request!” Divine one on high I wish that my mother will see an enormous banquet in our home!”
It has become cliché advice at your Thanksgiving tables; “Don’t talk politics!” I would instead invite us all to talk about politics, religion and more but to find a way that is inviting, that is affirming of other points of view; that to hear those views is not to necessarily agree but to honor another person made in the image of God. The Eastern expression Namaste is understood to mean, the divine in me recognizes the divine in you! The prophet Malachi put it this way: 10Don’t you know that we all have God as our Father? Didn’t the one God create each of us? Then why do you betray each other by breaking the agreement God made with your ancestors? E pluribus Unum – one out of many, and in a large sense all children of Adam.
I began with a tale of my father the cab driver, the teaser the former veteran of WWII who fervently believed in my country right or wrong much to confusion of his sons. His oratorical advice was Speak up to be heard, stand up to be seen and for God’s sake shut up to be appreciated. And so, I should rapidly conclude with another remembrance of dear old dad. President Elect JFK was in amotorcade coming down the opposite side of the Brooklyn bride where father’s cab was situated. The cop motioned to my father to move on. They exchanged glances and somehow one of New York’s finest intuited that Dad wanted to wait just long enough to peek into the limousine and take a glance at the new president passing by a few feet to his left as his motorcade passed by. The cop smiled and let dad delay his proceeding down the road. He got to see the face of JFK. It was a big deal for him. I think about that from time to time and how I wish I could tell my dad at our Thanksgiving table how I not only looked into the face of a future president of these united states, but that his son the grandson of Ukrainian refugees got to shake that president’s hand. I guess I will have to tell my late dad ever so gratefully in my prayers on the day of thanksgiving.
Rabbi Yossi J. Liebowitz