With an open mind

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


Sermons and Thoughts

Safe as houses?

16 April 2022
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein

“Safe as houses? War rips apart the idea of home.”

This is the title of Joy Lo Dico’s (Financial Times – 16 March 2022) article considering the nature of home. She introduces the German word, unheimlichkeit. It is usually Rabbi Lea who presents us with such expressive words but on this morning as a gift to her and our other German speakers, I give you time to ponder your definition to a word that apparently many European thinkers, including Freud, have chewed over.

For the rest of us let me continue.

Tammy and I bought a painting that is currently hung in the Osorio Hall otherwise known as the Etz Chayim (tree of life – our Synagogue’s Hebrew name) art gallery. It is by Yoav ben Dov, from his 2005 exhibition at the Engel Gallery in Tel Aviv. The collection was simply called Bayit – Home.

The painting divides opinion. It is a mainly white canvas where the home can barely be seen and the sun is uniformly missed. Ash who came to The Ark Synagogue recently was drawn to it – others laugh at it.

The ‘Bayit – Home’ exhibition was based around a simple rectangular structure, a cut out for a door and another for a window. There are canvases, mouldings, and a cast iron piece children can run into and through. There is a multimedia piece, sand on the floor with human affects and defects strewn upon it. Walking up the slight incline a silhouette of a person who enters the projected Bayit (home) and takes time at its singular door and window.

Asaf Guttesman, the Israeli, self-titled architect and developer, said the following of Yoav’s work:

“There are subtle differences between a house, a home and a bayit. It is not so
much the dictionary definitions that interest me, but rather the variety of
sensations and emotions that are the immediate response to each of these terms… Yoav’s art rests in the domain of associations…The images are reductive and iconic…
They may not resemble our house but they encapsulate within the fragility of their form a notion of a home, a collective memory of ‘Bayit – Home’.…a clue to what we desire, an illumination of our common consciousness, and a link to our primal instincts ‘Bayit – Home’.”

Pesach connects Jewish homes through time and space with “desire, an illumination of our common consciousness, and a link to our primal instincts, ‘Bayit – Home.’” It was a joy that so many Jewish homes were full last night of families and friends gathering in ways we had been unable to do in the last few years; and learning from recent experience, our new normal is also to connect Jewish homes, small sanctuaries as one, through The Ark Synagogue communal Sedarim. We do so again tonight for our hybrid communal Seder.

In her FT article, Joy Lo Dico contemplates terms representing permanence and protection, “safe as houses,” providing warmth and physical security; and the mantra of lockdowns “Stay at Home,” providing immunity from an airborne virus. She considers them in the context of the refugee. She writes, “In the past half-century, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Afghanistan (repeatedly), Syria and now Ukraine have seen millions lose their homes or face losing their lives to stay in them. It is more common than we like to admit. One day you are taking your child to music lessons, the next you are cast back into a primitive state of just trying to survive.”

The definition Lo Dico provides to the word unheimlichkeit, is ‘unsettling.’ She states, “It is a fundamental word in the English language, of civilisation itself. In places where settlement is taken for granted, the meaning of unsettling has softened into merely disquiet; but in Mariupol, its original meaning is revealed. Unsettling can be a literal and brutal act.”

Whilst we might connect with the plight of the refugee, always did so or more recently when experiencing the visceral imagery of millions of suffering Ukrainians on the move as huddled masses; the experience of forced transfer of status from citizen to refugee, from safety to peril, from freedom to enslavement, from home to homeless. It is still mercifully remote for the vast majority of those in this Sanctuary this morning. Yet our Seder, our Pesach would not be complete without our being somewhat unsettled.

The use of the word bayit in the Torah portion this morning, beit avadim – house of bondage is the reality for many. Contemporary globalism means that we are aware through the accounts of those close to us, of the fragility of home, even when we are in it. My cousin and his family in Hong Kong experiencing continued years of oppression. Oscar Fuchs, who grew up in the Synagogue wrote from his home in Shanghai this morning, “So far Denny and I have been locked into our compound – in 2 stints – for a total of 24 days…We’re getting a little taste of what it means to be under extra-judicial house arrest … [We] are still doing fine … None of us will starve. But on a daily basis we are all being forced to reflect on our primal needs for food, freedom, shelter and sanitation.” Our Seder, our Pesach would not be complete without our being somewhat unsettled.

Let us be unsettled by the mass forced unsettlement, we are merely witnessing or hearing about. Let us chew on it as Rabbi Lea and others might have chewed on a definition of unheimlichkeit and we will hear if she and others provide other English words or whether none quite capture the original intention. At the conclusion of Pesach, I will consider our response to being unsettled.

Yet it is our twin Ukrainian congregations in Lviv and Lutsk who yesterday were sending us greetings to have a Chag Pesach Sameach, a happy festival of Pesach. They are making every attempt possible to celebrate even under extreme pressure and anxiety to make it so for them and wish it for us. For them we pray for freedom and safety in their homes, as they provide sanctuary for fellow citizens from further East in Ukraine who have suffered the worst. We wish them all this morning, Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Sameach, and will do our best, as freedom allows, by celebrating this morning and evening.

Let us celebrate our freedom in our ‘Bayit – Home’.