With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

07 September 2021
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
Sermon Rosh Hashanah Morning

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

There is something about the United States that I romanticise. Perhaps it was the six-month sabbatical that Dad had in 1977, that saw Ruth and I, wide-eyed with wonder experiencing the length and breadth of the States. Then four months in school in San Jose, school great for me, less so for Ruth; but then Shabbat with the promise of a Chinese food in San Francisco, after a Temple beyond compare to our Hallowell Road synagogue/church; and the music of Debbie Friedman. Dad famously brought that and so much more to the UK, enriching Kadimah and revolutionising Anglo Jewry.

No surprise that I am so taken by the words of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, “The New Colossus,” that is inscribed on a bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island, New York City. The final words were set to music by Irving Berlin as the song, “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.” Although I will admit, as a musical heathen, Lou Reed’s ‘Dirty Blvd,’ that railed – as the antithesis of ‘The New Colossus,’ – at the filth and degradation of a corrupt 1980’s NYC, was what first drew me to these words.

Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 into a large Sephardi family. Some of her ancestors date back to the Inquisition in Brazil, fleeing as a one of the “homeless, tempest-tost,” to New Amsterdam in 1654. Privately educated, from an early age she demonstrated an interest in writing and poetry. Her secular learning is evident throughout her earlier works and this opening stanza is reflective: The Statue of Liberty compared to the Greek Colossus of third century BCE, Rhodes harbour, the pride in her femininity and her country’s choice of welcome to every ship, plainly evident:

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand; A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.”

Although part of the Sephardi Jewish community there is little evidence of Judaism influencing her work. Her focus seems to have been on American society and its ills. This changed when she learnt of the pogroms in Russia, in response to the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, in 1881. She became an advocate for those Ashkenazi Jewish refugees, “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” who consequently arrived, impoverished, in New York. Whilst Emma Lazarus sought their welfare, they brought her Judaism. In the 1880’s, she studied Torah, the Hebrew language, and Jewish culture and history.

In ‘A Book of Jewish Thoughts,’ provided to the British forces, a copy of which always reminds me of my grandfather, Harold Stone, is found the following, written by Emma Lazarus in 1882, and placed by the editor under the title, ‘The Jew as a Patriot:’

“Every student of the Hebrew language is aware that we have in the conjugation of its verbs a mode known as the Intensive (Piel) Voice, which by means of an almost imperceptible modification of vowel points intensifies the meaning of the primitive root. A similar significance seems to attach to the Jews themselves in connection with the people among whom they dwell. They are the intensive form of any nationality whose language and customs they adopt.”

I do not pretend to know everything about Emma Lazarus. Yet, she strikes me as quite the Liberal Jew, one who would have complimented the founders of Liberal Judaism in the UK. From a well-to-do family with heritage, she was a confident, well-educated woman, proudly Jewish and patriotic to her home country that had provided her ancestors sanctuary. The echoes of her ancestry determined her role as a social activist.

The life of Emma Lazarus remined me of a reading that you can find in High and Holydays: A Book of Jewish Wisdom edited by Rabbis Andrew Goldstein and Charles Middleburgh, and attributed to Martin Buber.

“We Jews are a community based on memory. A common memory has kept us together and enabled us to survive. This does not mean that we based our lives on any one particular past, even on the loftiest of pasts; it simply means that one generation passed on to the next a memory which gained in scope – for new destiny and new emotional life were constantly accruing it – and which realised itself in a way we can call organic. This expanding memory was more than a spiritual motif; it was a power which sustained, fed, and quickened Jewish existence itself.”

The Ark Synagogue and all of us as congregants and members is so a super community, one that over the last year has learnt to be so in many guises and through multiple media. If you have not yet experienced being back in the sanctuary itself, please take soundings from those who have been. It is safe and it is meaningful, perhaps even more so as absence made our hearts fonder. If you prefer a very quiet service with few around you, let me know as I will add you to my ‘quiet list,’ to contact when I know we will have a small congregation.

And still, our community also thrives online. The palpable care, support and love that is evident over zoom for kiddush, Havdalah, various midweek activities and Project Postcode groups prove that for those unable to be physically present, the synagogue and its community is always open. The reputation of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue as a beacon of a caring community, shines brightly in The Ark Synagogue.

We are community that is bonded by memory. That is common memory: the shared Sacred Text, the language, the experience of tragedy and the “loftiest of pasts.” We are a super Jewish community, very much a part of the story of Judaism; and that of each individual who receives what is passed on, either generation to generation, perhaps skipping one or a few, or being an originator of a new line. As our congregation diversifies, we celebrate the range of traditions and heritage.

We are also very much a British Jewish community. Whilst delighting in the increasingly international congregation, our nature is still quite British! We are characteristically understated though quite pioneering. We are generally polite, courteous and civic – and we are proud that the new Mayor Hillingdon will be at our Sukkot Morning Service as one of his first engagements, and I will be opening the next Hillingdon Council Meeting. We are always open, staunchly supporting the opening of doors that allowed us to be here today; And open to learning, understanding that imperfection means we welcome doing better.

If this is organic growth, then in Buber’s words, “This expanding memory was more than a spiritual motif; it was a power which sustained, fed, and quickened Jewish existence itself.” “Organic growth,” and this year has seen us be a ‘superorganism.’

I hope that I do not sound glib. We can always do better but, as Rabbi Lea stated last night, it is difficult to be overly optimistic about our world. Yet, we always hope; And the Ark Synagogue is a beacon of that hope. A very Liberal Jewish beacon, slightly reserved as are the British, yet providing a warm home. May we be to all who seek sanctuary in the Ark, even a glimmer of Emma Lazarus’s vision of the Statue of Liberty.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”