Sign In Forgot Password

My Spiritual Journey: Remarks by Effi Gold, Chatan Torah, 5777 / 2016

30/11/2016 02:52:56 PM

Nov30

Shabbat Shalom,

This is exciting. I just can’t wait to hear what I have to say.

It would be a stretch to say my spiritual journey began at the Orthodox Shul in my home town of Bournemouth. I would walk 3 miles to Shul every Shabbos with my brothers, I attended children’s service religiously, and I went three times a week to Heder until the age of 16. But this mostly involved learning by rote. I didn’t find it particularly engaging. I enjoyed the singing, I made good friends, but when I went off to university that was the end of my Shul going days.

I did have a strong Jewish connection, but it was for Israel and Hanoar Hatzioni –the equivalent of Canadian Young Judea. I spent all my free time at Hanoar camp and would run off to Israel at every opportunity.

My first job started in August of 1973. A few months later, on the 6th of October, which was Yom Kippur, while sharing a flat in London with some Hanoar friends, I remember lingering in bed and then hearing the news of the breakout of war in Israel. Pandemonium! Within a few days, my flat-mates and I set off for Israel, volunteering on Kibbutz Hasolelim to replace members who had been called up to the reserves. Our small group returned to London after the war, but some of us banded together to make Aliyah the following year. We attended Ulpan in Nazeret Illit. Although lvrit was a struggle for me, and took me a long time to pick up, it has stuck with me. I revel in the power and beauty of the language. In short order I was voted in as a member of Kibbutz Hasolelim and then I joined the army. I did my basic training in Pardes Hanna where one of my fellow soldiers was a certain Erez Anzel. I lost contact with Erez after the army, only to meet again here 35 years later. After basic training I joined the paratroops, but they kicked me out the next morning because of my eyesight. I can see through either eye, but not through both eyes at once, so I lack depth perception. Instead I became a gunner in an M60 tank, where your main job is to look through a telescopic gun sight – seeing with one eye at a time proved to be an advantage there.

After army service I went back to kibbutz. My main job there, at my own request, was as a shepherd. I took sheep out to pasture, I milked them, I fed them, I helped breed them and birth them and I even adopted two lambs, Tom and Jerry, who thought they were dogs. I helped to introduce two pieces of high tech to sheep farming in Israel – an ultrasound, to find out as early as possible which sheep were pregnant, and linear programming, which helped determine the optimal diet for sheep at each stage of life. It was a wonderful feeling to wander the rugged hills with a herd of 600 sheep – an experience I was sharing with a long line of Jews from Abraham to David. Of course I’m not sure they could listen to the BBC World Service while taking sheep out to graze, as I did. Now, when I follow the Siddur or the Torah portion in Shul, I am always struck by how many references there are to sheep and shepherds. I always feel a special connection when I hear these words. One more thing I learned which I must share with you: contrary to perceived wisdom, sheep do not go bahhh, they go mehhh.

OK. So no spiritual or religious awakening yet, but a very strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, and a complete and proud identification with socialist Zionism. Trained as a mathematician and economist, no one would suspect I had spiritual depths unless they were familiar with my passion for the arts, and especially music. I don’t play an instrument, but music is my passion. I don’t just enjoy music, I understand it. Music speaks directly to me, especially classical music. Friends remind me how with the aid of a diesel generator and a tape recorder, I led a Mahler Chug in the middle of a field at a Hanoar summer camp, or how I set my stereo up on the lawn in front of my kibbutz room every Saturday afternoon, to introduce and then play some great piece of music to large crowds of kibbutzniks. When I feel low, I can always find inspiration in a Bach Passion, or a Schubert Quartet. This is a great blessing to me, and also a constant reminder of my parents who instilled the love of music in me. A gift that keeps on giving. By the way, in addition to my day job, I have a second career as a reviewer of music and of stereo equipment. So I can indulge my passion, and I have something to look forward to when I give up my day job.

Never mind the spiritual journey for a few minutes. Let me take you through the physical journey that brought me to Toronto.

I spent a total of four years on kibbutz, including a brief spell as a rather unsuccessful teacher of mathematics at the regional high school in Yefat. This job fell to me by default when the regular teacher, who was really quite good, was exposed as a complete imposter. No qualifications, fake resume, made up references. I also taught myself computer programming in my spare time – shepherds get quite a break between milkings. Then I decided to apply to the Technion in Haifa to study for a Ph.D. in Cheker Bitsuim – Operational Research. I managed to pass the interview and I went back to the UK for a few months to earn some cash to help fund the four year program. While living with my parents in Bournemouth I took a temporary clerical job in an insurance company. One day I received a phone call from the Technion. Yes I was welcome to study for my degree, but they felt I should know that when I graduated, there would be no work for me in Israel. Why? Because the only organization large enough to hire an Operational Researcher in those days was the army, and the army sent its own people through the Technion course and would not look at me. So my temporary job turned into a permanent job and I started taking the actuarial exams.

It was at this time that my two of my worlds – music and Israel - intersected for a brief moment. The great Israeli violinist Pinchas Zuckerman came to Bournemouth and gave a wonderful concert where he displayed his prowess as conductor and as virtuoso soloist on violin and on viola. I lined up backstage after the concert to meet Mr. Zuckerman. After a long wait he came out and when my turn came I greeted him in Hebrew “Shalom Mar Zuckerman, kol ha’kavod”. Recognizing a fellow Hebrew speaker he turned to me like an old friend and uttered these immortal words “Adoni, Ulay yesh lecha gafrur?” – translation - “Hey man, have you got a light?”

Two years later, 1980, I took a vacation in North America – a week each in Boston, New York, Detroit and Toronto – the four cities where I knew people I could stay with. Within 3 days of arriving in Toronto I had found myself a job at Manulife on Bloor Street. I worked with a guy there who introduced me to a Chavurah that met every Shabbat in Forest Hill. Shalom and Marcie were members of that Chavurah, as was Randy “Raisel” Robinson, who later became a Reconstructionist Rabbi. We each had to bring potluck – I remember one guy bringing tuna chocolate chip casserole.  This Chavurah was an eye opener for me – a different kind of Judaism – scholarly, down to earth, egalitarian and non-judgmental. It was fortuitously through the kosher coop on Strathearn that was home to some of the members of this Chavurah that I met my wonderful wife Molly, although I should point out that she wasn’t married to me at the time.

I drifted away from this Chavura and settled down into married life and my actuarial career. Molly and I had two children – all right – she had the children - and we looked around for a synagogue where we could all feel comfortable. We tried several shuls, including one just around the corner from our home, which would have been quite convenient. But it never felt quite right. Then some friends introduced us to Darchei Noam and we felt immediately at home. At that time, Darchei Noam services were held in a school off Bathurst. Shortly after, DN made the big move to the basement on Hove. We joined a Mishpacha group, which really drew us in and we quickly made a lot of new friends. I remember an outing to watch the Blue Jays, where Morton Paul sat knitting a chicken – sorry - crocheting a kippa. Later, he made this tallith for me.

Shortly after joining Darchei Noam, I was asked to help run the children’s services. What a great way to become a part of the fabric of the community! I had no special skills in this area, but it was my first volunteer roll in this or any Synagogue, and I enjoyed the chance to get to know the children, their parents, and the other volunteer leaders.

Another related opportunity arose many years later when Molly and I were invited to join other DN members to help with the Kabbalat Shabbat services held weekly at Baycrest. Sometimes I would lead the service, but mostly we were there to bring the residents down to the service, make sure they were comfortable and could follow or participate as best they could, then to see them safely back to their rooms. One woman asked me every week “Do I like you?” This chance to meet and work with the elderly we both found very enriching, and it prepared us in a way for the time that our own parents would lose their independence.

When we were still in the basement on Hove, a small group of us worked on finding a new home for the congregation. It was many years before we came across this building, or rather the two story building that sat on this site. It was very interesting and rewarding to be a part of the move into this fine building.  I also sat on the Ritual committee. Now that was an eye opener!

Another involvement is probably the one with which you are most familiar. Despite being kicked out of the shul choir when I was a kid, here was a place I could sing and nobody would stop me. So you’ve heard me chant Haftarah in my very English trop, sometimes together with my daughter, always a special thrill for me. You may also have heard me singing funny songs on Purim. And I may have written some of those songs, especially if they were set to the music of Hey Big Spender. One year Alan Levine was going to be away for Purim, so they asked me to step into the role of Tex. I’m not sure anyone could fill those particular shoes, so instead I bought myself some very large ears and impersonated Prince Charles in turn playing the role of Tex. I’ve played a number of other Purim Spiel roles. I hope none of you will forget the annual PBS – Persian Broadcasting Service – interviews and news updates. I have no idea if you enjoyed them, but I did.

I also served on the Board and the Exec around the same time as our Kallah B’reishit, Paula. I wouldn’t see that work as being of the spiritual variety, but again working with great people, many of whom I was getting to know for the first time, was a real privilege. One of the highlights was being involved in the selection of our most capable Executive Director, Stephanie Krasman. How cool is that?

So there you have it. For me Darchei Noam has been total immersion. This is my community. This is where I feel at home. You make me feel at home. Where else do I experience teaching children, caring for the elderly, fundraising, hiring executives, composing songs, singing, singing with Lenka no less, writing and performing spiels, hamming up the Board Announcements, making interfaith connections, learning Torah, reviewing budgets, meeting kindred spirits, setting up computer networks, ushering - you name it – you can do that here. There’s a whole world here, and my life would be so much the poorer without it.

Now a little story from about ten years ago. Molly and I wanted to stay at the Morgan Samuels Inn in the Finger Lakes. “We are very sorry, but we have no availability on those dates” said the lady on the phone. “But the owner does sometimes accept guests in his own home in Geneva on the Lake. Would we be interested?” Sure – why not. We stayed four nights, and for breakfast each day we were in the company not just of the owner, but also a young clergyman from Africa, who was in Geneva for training. I told him I had been a shepherd in Nazareth, which he found particularly interesting. He must have thought about this a lot, for a few days later as we were leaving he turned to me and inquired – “And are you still preaching?” Look at me now. I guess I’m still preaching!

Let me tell you about three of the most spiritually enriching moments of my life. They are all about beginnings.

We start on the 21st of August, 1969, when I was 18 years old. That was the day someone tried to set fire to the Mosque of Al-Aqsa on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This is the third holiest site in the Muslim world. Rumors spread like wildfire that this was an act of ultra-nationalist Jewish terrorism and the city was set for major unrest. The Israeli government took immediate measures to prevent violence, and for the first time since the Old City was liberated in the Six Day War, the Kotel was sealed off and Jews were not allowed to pray there. The gates of the Old City were also closed and no Jews who didn’t already live there were permitted inside. It so happened I was arriving in Jerusalem that day just as the news came onto the car radio. I was in a car with three guys from the kibbutz named Philip, which is also my English name. Where was I to stay? I had made a reservation at the Lutheran Hospice inside the Old City. The soldiers at the Jaffa Gate turned me away at first but eventually they let me through. And so I stayed inside the Old City for four or five days, with the Shuk pretty much all to myself!

During that week I attended a concert at Binyanei Hauma, along with David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and other luminaries, where I saw the incomparable Pablo Casals, then 93 years old, conduct his own peace oratorio “El Pesebre”.

After a few days it became clear that the instigator of the fire, Denis Michael Rohan was not Jewish but a member of an evangelical Christian sect known as the Worldwide Church of God. By this act, he hoped to hasten the Second Coming of Jesus. This new information defused the situation in the Moslem community to a degree. By the Friday it was announced the city gates would reopen before Shabbat. Services would be held again at the Kotel that evening to welcome Shabbat. From my prime location in the old city, I was amongst the first to reach the Wall, and this was my first ever visit to the Wall. The atmosphere at that moment, with all of Jerusalem’s Jews seemingly on their way by foot, was overwhelming. That’s my first spiritual highlight.

Another spiritually enriching moment happened just three years ago in Rome, where Molly and I were on vacation. Our hotel was just outside the walls of the Vatican City. We had just come back from a tour of the Vatican Museums, an incredible experience, but sadly the entrance to the Sistine Chapel had been closed that day. It was full of Cardinals tasked with selecting the next Pontiff. We considered this very inconsiderate of them. After all we had come all this way to see it. So there we were unwinding in our room, watching TV, when the chimney cam, ever present in the top right corner of the news channel, started to show white smoke. We knew immediately what this meant – a new Pope had been elected.

We grabbed our rain jackets and ran for St. Peter’s Square, along with tens of thousands of others. We took up position fairly close to the front of the swelling crowd and braved the light rain for a long wait. We were surrounded by nuns with iPhones, ready to Google the background of the new Pope, whoever he might be, and to film the great event. When the new Pope’s name was finally announced, in Latin, “Franciscus”, enormous applause broke out. For this was the first Pope to choose the name of the very humble St. Francis of Assisi, portending a very different type of man than his predecessor. After another long wait in the rain, during which the nuns completed their Googling and shared the results of their research with us, Pope Francis emerged on the balcony of the Vatican palace and spoke to us all in a clear gentle voice. Before blessing the crowd, he asked each of us present to bless him. Before sending us home he told us all to go eat and drink and enjoy ourselves that night, since we had all earned it. The atmosphere was electric, all present elevated by the events of the day. This special evening transcended the confines of the Catholic Church. We felt the warmth of his embrace of all mankind. It even stopped raining when he appeared!  Unforgettable. That’s my second spiritual highlight.

Now let me tell you about Rabbi Grimberg’s address on Rosh Hashana in her very first year here. This talk, adapted from the Senior Sermon she wrote for her graduation from rabbinical school, was entitled “The Art of the Rabbinate”. She told us about a vision inspired by Jacob’s dream of the angels going up and down a ladder. The Rabbi saw three messengers going up and down a ladder in her dream. One was the poet Abraham Sutzkever, whose poetry tells of the lead plates used to print the Talmud, which were melted down in the Vilna Ghetto uprising to make bullets for the resistance. The letters of the Talmud on the printing plates were melted and destroyed by the heat. Sutzkever tells her that her role is to do the opposite – not to destroy letters but to create them in order to educate Jews. The second messenger is the sculptor Auguste Rodin, who having lavished all his skill making sculptures of beautiful young women, was now at great pains to create a sculpture of a very elderly woman. Rodin’s message to her – to love all aspects of human life – to love the beauty of youth and the infirmity of extreme old age equally. The third messenger is Marc Chagall, who is creating a work of art, a stained glass window from shards of broken glass. His message is to repair the broken. This then is her life’s work, to educate Jews, to love all aspects of life, and to put back together that which is broken. This address really spoke to me, perhaps because for me spirituality is so closely associated with the arts. I remember the very special feeling in the room of the birth of something enduring, a very close bond between Rabbi and community. That’s my third spiritual highlight.

Along with the new Pope’s first words and my first view of the Kotel, our Rabbi’s first Rosh Hashana address make up the triumvirate of spiritual peaks that have crowned my life. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with Rabbi Grimberg in many different capacities, most recently on our special Maftir Yonah on Yom Kippur. I have never been disappointed.

Now, there would still be a Darchei Noam without our Rabbi, but we are so much the richer for her presence, for her gentleness and intense involvement. I see so many parallels between what Rabbi Grimberg means to this community, and what Pope Francis means to his community. Rabbi Grimberg, thank you for your inspiring leadership within these walls, and for the example you show beyond our doors.

To our splendid new President, Ryan Friedman, who wasn’t on the Board or the Executive at the time Paula and I were there, let me just say that however mistaken you may have been in selecting me as Chatan Torah, you’ve more than made up for it by selecting Paula as Kalla B’reishit – she’s wonderful, and all of her contributions so well considered and right to the point. Thank you Ryan and all of Darchei Noam for selecting us both for these special honors. I’m delighted to be celebrating with someone I so much admire.

Molly helped me refine this talk today, and should take full credit if it has gone over well. They say married couples grow to look like one another. That hasn’t happened in our case, fortunately for her, but I hope some of her wit, intelligence and generosity has rubbed off on me. Thank you for everything, Molly.

Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach and L’shana Tovah.

Tue, 3 August 2021 25 Av 5781