Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Nonetheless, "Next Year in Jerusalem"

Two weeks ago, I went to the Jewish cemetery in Vienna. Several of the tombstones I visited had important new information. The most important of the bunch is the stone of Meier Pickholz, whose parents had been unknown to me since I first heard of him in 1999. I knew that he had died in Vienna in 1916 and that his wife, Laura Spiegelglas, died in 1919.

They had a daughter Gusta about whom I wrote on Holocaust Memorial Day. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Gusta is a second cousin of my grandfather.

Meier Pickholz' grave in Vienna
Meir has a tombstone, but the photograph I received nearly twenty years ago made it look as though the inscription was worn away. (Laura has no stone.) On this visit, I was able to read most of the stone. As I wrote in my blog that evening,

A pure and honest man

R' Meir Pickholz

ben R' Asher Selig

from Tarnopol

Died [something about a hospital?] in Vienna

17th Kislev 5677 

So I finally had his father's name and his place in the family - a first cousin of my great-grandfather. But it was raining, we were rushed and I had trouble wth the bit in the brackets. A few days later I received an email from a reader named Itzik Popper, an accountant here in Israel. He read the missing line correctly:

נפטר בתוך הגולה פה וויען
 Died in the midst of the Exile here (in) Vienna

The phrase "in the midst of the Exile" is from the first verse of the prophet Ezekiel, which we will read next week on the Shavuot holiday. That is only one of several possible translations from the original Hebrew.

I found this very exciting. I had never seen anything of this sort on a Pikholz family grave. I wrote to David and Anna, great-grandchildren of Meir's brother. David did not understand - not the inscription and not my excitement. He wrote:
In 1916 both Vienna, Austria and Tarnopol, Galicia Region are part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.So was Meier an internal exile ? If so, in exile from what, or whom?
David was not raised with the Jewish traditions and the quotes which are second nature to many of us. Perhaps he also thought it odd that I had capitalized "Exile." When I wrote "Exile from the Land of Israel," he responded:
It is no excuse that I may too readily consider the ancestors, in certain respects of their lives, as ‘citizens’ of their respective nations of residence.
I replied:
We have been in exile for two thousand years and those of us brought up in the traditions sense that automatically..

The fact that this is stated on Meier's grave is to me a wonderful thing. Something has always pulled my attention to him. 
And he asked:
I am now wondering why you did use the present tense rather than the past tense thus: “... we HAD been in exile for two thousand years ...”
How does the existence of the State of Israel and the policy of Aliyot affect the historical fact of exile, objectively and, dare I ask for personal view, in the subjective sense ?
And I replied:
1. Half of us still are.
2. The fact that we have our own place does not mean the process is complete. We still say "Next year in Jerusalem" even if some of us are here now. This is a thing that happens in stages and we are still in process.
Indeed, we say - sing - "Next Year in Jerusalem" - "LeShanah HaBaa Birushalayim" - at the close of Yom Kippur; near the end of the Passover seder; and as we dance with the Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah. Even if we are in Israel and even if we are in Jerusalem.

I write this Tuesday the twenty-seventh of the month of Iyyar. This evening we celebrate the city of Jerusalem on the fiftieth anniversary of its miraculous liberation and reunification.
The wall of the Old City - from the Times of Israel
We celebrate in the synagogue and we celebrate in the public square. We celebrate with song and prayer and thanksgiving.

It is our destiny to be here and we are both fortunate and challenged, living as we are at a time when this is not some distant hope but a matter of personal choice. Many have taken to singing "Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem," which is more of a prayer because although Jerusalem is in our hands, rebuilt Jerusalem is decidedly not.

The translation of Ezekiel's line "in the midst of the Exile" is from the Koren Bible. Soncino prefers "among the captives," which is less literal. "In the midst" can mean time, the two thousand years that we have been living through, many of us accepting it as normal. "In the midst" can mean geography - being in one place rather than another. "In the midst" can speak to the mixed populations, as we are scattered among the nations. "Exile" indeed has all those dimensions - and it is a state of mind to boot.

But in any case, I don't believe that it means lower case, generic "exile" as David understood it. Like Napoleon in Elba or the Romanian King Michael. "Exile" (upper case) is the disaster that has overwhelmed and distorted Jewish life for two thousand years. In our day, it is slowly and suddenly coming to an end. As Isaiah says (chapter 60), hastened in its time.

I have always been drawn to this indeterminate cousin Meir and his wife Laura and I am very proud of them for that glorious bit of epitaph. They understood. They understood that Exile is an abnormal condition that must eventually come to an end. They understood that in quoting the prophet Ezekiel, they were locked into ancient hopes.

Had they lived into the 1920s, they might have been buried here.

Happy Jerusalem Day.

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