Selfie with American Gothic

G’mar Chatimah Tovah and Shabbat shalom!

If you are like me, you love The Art Institute of Chicago, and for many reasons.
One reason I love the Art Institute is that it has Grant Wood’s well-known painting, American Gothic.
Created in 1930, it depicts a farmer standing beside a woman that has been interpreted to be his daughter or wife.

Actually the figures were modeled by Wood’s sister and his dentist. The woman is dressed in a colonial print apron evoking 19th-century Americana, and the man is holding a pitchfork.

Interesting story about this piece of art.
For the painting to happen, the artist had to “repurpose” his life.

Grant Wood grew up in Anamosa, Iowa.
Yet when this Iowa farm boy decided to become a painter, he imagined there was only one place for him to go: Paris. He joined the expat American art community there and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

But one day in 1926, Wood woke up with a chilling thought. Every thing he was painting was wrong. He confessed to a friend:

“All those landscapes of mine of the French countryside and the familiar places in Paris. There’s not a one that the French Impressionists didn’t do a hundred times better!

“… All these years wasted because I thought you couldn’t get started as a painter unless you went to Paris and studied and painted like a Frenchman. I used to go back to Iowa and think how ugly it all was. Nothing to paint. And all I could think of was getting back here so I could find something worth painting.”

He continued:
“I think … at last … I’ve learned something….I think you have to paint … what you know. And despite the years in Europe — all I really know is home. Iowa. The farm at Anamosa. Milking cows. Cedar Rapids. The typical small town….Everything commonplace…the quiet streets, the clapboard homes, the drab clothes, the dried-up lives, the hypocritical talk, the silly boosters, the poverty of culture.”

The artist then declared:
“I’m going home for good. And I’m going to paint those cows and barns and barnyards and cornfields and little red schoolhouses and all those pinched faces and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and the storefronts and the look of a field or a street in the heat of summer or when it’s 10 below and the snow is piled 6 feet high. I’m going to do it.”

And so he did. American Gothic is very possibly the most famous American painting of the 20th century. It’s one of the very few paintings that’s instantly recognizable the world over. It’s become a beloved icon of our culture.

There was a time when Grant Wood considered the rolling hills and dairy farms of eastern Iowa a wasteland, a place of artistic exile. It was only when he learned to re-vision, to repurpose, to seek the contentment that could be found there that he discovered his own distinctive style as a painter.

Here is a truth: most of will not be painting masterpieces to be hung in the Art Institute but all of us can learn a lesson from Grant Wood.

All that we see about us, all that we touch and feel that is real, serves as a stimulus for our creativity and for our development as human beings.

On this holy night of Kol Nidrei, we return to our roots, to that which is authentic in our lives. Tonight we come home. We return to what we know. To what is real.

The homecoming is not only for us as individuals.
As a congregation we are also coming home.

As you know, we are celebrating 150 years of Temple Sholom as a spiritual home.
I hope that for many of us our congregation feels like home or at least has the potential to feel that way. I hope our lives feel intertwined with the history of this sacred place.

Most of us have our own stories about this congregation, including yours truly.
I may have become a rabbi here less than five years ago but I actually first stepped foot in Temple Sholom back in 1971, when Rabbi Binstock officiated at the bar mitzvah of my cousin, Mark. I was impressed then too!
My personal connection is even stronger than that. As many of you also know, after coming here and speaking my first year about my mother’s rescue from Nazi Europe due to helpful Chicago families, I learned that the man who literally got my mother and her family a seat on the Pan Am airplane to freedom was Grant Pick, Sr. Grant Pick, Jr., his son, was an active member of Temple Sholom until his untimely death. Along with others he started the Monday Meal program. Grant’s wife, Kathy Pick, is still a cherished member.

Outside in Lake Shore Lobby there is a plaque, in memory of Grant and his establishment of the Monday Meal. When I first came, the light above the plaque rarely worked. I have made it a personal mission to always have this light on. I did so not only out of gratitude to Grant and his family, but because I also think that light is a symbol of the past, present, and potential greatness of Temple Sholom.

I imagine many years from now someone asking me what was my mission at Temple Sholom and I will answer, “To keep the light burning.” And they will think that’s a metaphor. But actually I will be quite literal.

Also maybe metaphorical.

Light and a flame, have long been symbols of Temple Sholom. Indeed, there is a flame of light on our Temple business cards. Also, as most of you know our 150th year has an official motto: Temple Sholom: Illuminating the Future Since 1867.

Some questions to ponder:
Just how have we been illuminating the future in the past?
Why is this image of light so essential to our story?
And what, exactly, is so special about light as a symbol?

Here is my answer: Earlier tonight, when we took out the Torah scrolls, we read this verse from Psalms:
Light is Sown for the Righteous, Joy for the Upright in Heart. Or zarua latzadik ul-yishrei lev simcha. (Ps 97 11).

Of all the texts in the Bible why do Jews traditionally sing these words when we take out our Torah scrolls for Kol Nidre, quite possibly the holiest moment of the year?
Why of all texts do we sing this?

Think about it: Light is sown, planted. Just like seeds. It is latent, like the crops on Grant Wood’s farm in winter.

It does not come out by itself. Light needs us to thrive. It needs righteous people.
Righteousness is the very essence of our Torah, of our faith.
“Light is sown for the righteous.”
Light is also sown by the righteous.
And it is the righteous who spread the light.

Why, exactly, is light a metaphor?
In Judaism “light” stands for all spiritual blessing for all our blessings are sown for us just as wheat-grains and flower-seeds are sown. We gather the harvest from this sowing—as we pluck flowers from garden or field, or reap the wheat from the fields.
You see, God gives us our blessings not fully-formed—but as seeds.

Temple Sholom over the decades had cultivated those seeds and produced beautiful light.

Just look at our history. Our early senior rabbis, Aaron Norden and Abraham Hirshberg, were known for the social justice work they performed for the City of Chicago. They cared about the poor and – in the language of their day – “the friendless”. After he left the pulpit and served in the Illinois legislature, Rabbi Norden sponsored a fair wage bill. Rabbi Hirshberg wanted everyone to have a place to pray in the city so he arranged for the temple to rent the Medinah Temple – you might know it these days as the Bloomingdale’s Home Store – to hold extra High Holy Day services. Rabbis Norden and Hirshberg most definitely brought the light.

Rabbi Louis Binstock arranged for Eleanor Roosevelt to speak from this very pulpit. The very same Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Rabbi Binstock brought Reverend Dr. King. Rabbi Binstock brought the light.

Rabbi Schwartz with education and Rabbi Petuchowski with pastoring brought the light. Elie Wiesel brought the light when he spoke from this very pulpit.

I don’t have to tell you how much light our current clergy – Klay Kodesh – brings to this community. As do our lay leaders, volunteers and staff. We work for social justice. We feed the hungry. We educate ourselves and our children. We pray to God for goodness and peace.

But what about the future?
How shall we proceed in our illumination?
In our righteous work?

It is obvious to say that, just as we have harvested the planting of those who toiled before us, it’s now our time to sow the seeds of light.

But these days something is different. It’s been a long time since this congregation, this community, this country has faced so much darkness and is in need of so much more light.

Do I have to spell out the darkness of these days? Charlottesville. Washington. Whitefish. The Internet.

Make no mistake: we are living in a scary time. And so sowing the seeds of light — at least in my lifetime — has never seemed so important and so challenging.

Just how do we shine the light outward in these difficult days?

Once there was a grandmother, struggling with a life-threatening illness, who had her little granddaughter with her one Chanukah. The granddaughter was watching her as she lit the menorah and placed it in the window. “Grandma,” the little girl asked, “why do we light candles on Chanukah ?”

“We light candles on Chanukah, my dear, to tell the darkness we beg to differ.”

Casting away darkness is our mission; like an old Chanukah song says: banu choshech legaresh, we have come to banish the darkness.

In the years ahead as individuals and as a sacred community we have an important choice to make: will we sow more seeds of light or will we allow the darkness to increase?

My fervent prayer is that you will join me and your congregation in saying loud and clear to the darkness,
“We beg to differ”.

How do we spread the light? How do we banish the darkness?
How do we tell the darkness, “We beg to differ?”

So many things to do:

There are the mitzvot of feeding the hungry and all the other charitable acts.

There are monetary donations we can make.

There are political acts and there is the need to educate ourselves, to get into the “great game” of politics. Only it’s not just a game. It’s our future. This country needs us active; no more spectator sports.

But also there is the need to support our spiritual home. During these dark times it may be tempting to put all our resources in the political arena. But I believe strengthening our spiritual home is also vital.

Now more than ever we need to confront racism, xenophobia and hate with a renewed effort to study and understand the wisdom of our Jewish heritage.

Now more than ever our young people need exposure to the texts and practices of Judaism that will give them a strong identity and promote resilience and grit.

Now more than ever we need to have a place to gather in prayer and to find inspiration.

We should all heed the call to sow the seeds of light in Temple Sholom. Let your temple be part of the solution. Just as we have been for 150 years.

Now more than ever, we need each other and we need a strong Temple Sholom of Chicago. We need you to make our temple stronger, warmer, more learned, more spiritual, a place to come and be made resilient and refreshed, renewed and refocused.

I know some may see the rise of antisemitism in our country and conclude the best thing to do is avoid too much Jewish practice, to blend in, to assimilate even more. To hunker down.
This is exactly not the right thing to do.
This is the worst time to walk away from our Jewish identity and our resources of spiritual resilience.
Two thousand years ago this lesson was taught to us by the great Rabbi Akiva.
Once, the wicked government [of Rome] decreed that the Jewish people were forbidden to study Torah. Pappus ben Judah saw Rabbi Akiva convening gatherings in public and studying Torah [with them]. Said he to him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?”
Said [Rabbi Akiva] to him: “I’ll give you a parable.
“A fox was walking along a river and saw fish rushing to and fro. Said the fox to them: ‘What are you fleeing?’
“Said the fish to him: ‘The nets that the humans spread for us.’
“The fox said: ‘Why don’t you come out onto the dry land? We’ll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors.’
“Said the fish to the fox: ‘Are you the one of whom it is said that you are the wisest of animals? You’re not wise, but foolish! If, in our environment of life we have cause for fear, how much more so in the environment of our death!’
“The same applies to us,” taught Akiva. “If now, when we sit and study the Torah, our source of light and the core of our existence, how much more so will we be in danger if we neglect it . . . .”
Akiva was right then and he is right now.
In dark times more than ever we need the light of Torah, of Jewish wisdom, of identifying with the Jewish community.
And we need to support our spiritual home, the synagogue, the only institution whose single purpose is the cultivation of Jewish light.
Temple Sholom of Chicago:
We need to sow the seeds of light.
We need to continue to illuminate the future and say to the damned darkness: we beg to differ!

———————————————————————————————————————————

“Arise, shine for our time has come,” declares the prophet. The world is pleading to us: shine the light of righteousness in a world eclipsed by hate and fear.
Temple Sholom has a purpose.
Our business is illumination.
That’s what we do.
We shine the light and we never stop hoping for a better future.

Hugo Gryn, an exemplary Reform rabbi and a Holocaust survivor, was born in Czechoslovakia in a home filled with great warmth. He once related: When I was a young boy my family was sent to Auschwitz. For a while my father and I shared a barrack. In spite of the unspeakable horror, oppression and hardship, many Jews held onto what scraps of Jewish religious observance as they were able.

One midwinter evening one of the inmates reminded us that tonight was the first night of Chanukah, the festival of lights. My father constructed a little Chanukah menorah out of scrap metal. For a wick, he took some threads from his prison uniform.

For oil, he used some butter that he somehow obtained from a guard.

Such observances were strictly “verboten,” but we were used to taking risks.

Rabbi Gryn continued: I protested at the “waste” of precious calories. Would it not be better to share the butter on a crust of bread than burn it?

“Hugo,” said my father, “both you and I know that a person can live a very long time without food. But Hugo, I tell you, a person cannot live a single day without hope.

This Menorah is the fire of hope. Never let it go out. Not here. Not anywhere. Remember that Hugo.”

My friends, the darkness gathers.
The fear is real.
But so is the light. And it is ours to share.

This then is our task, as we illuminate the future: to release the light of goodness, of kindness, of justice and peace. The light of Torah.

And the best part is we don’t have to go anywhere. We don’t have to search for something. We already have it! It just needs to be released.

Temple Sholom has illuminated the darkness for 150 years.
We are just getting started!
What is our task? To keep the light burning, yes. But even more crucial, to sow the seeds of light.

An old Hebrew song says: “we all have little torches.” Yes indeed we all have little torches. They are not tikki torches of hate used on the march in Charlottesville. No, sir. They are beacons of light.
And just as the darkness is real so, too, is the light.

Light is sown for the righteous. Or Zarua Latzadik.

I call upon all righteous people to help us sow the seeds of light and hope, to welcome the New Year with the prayer that a starburst of righteousness will illuminate for us all a future of blessing and peace.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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