The Talmud suggests that a person is defined by what he carries in his pockets (Eruvin 65b). Every Thanksgiving I look into my pockets and I am reminded of what is great and wonderful about this country.
My grandparents immigrated to America nearly 100 years ago. They came with empty pockets. But by the time Bill Monashkin held a grandson in his arms, his pockets were no longer empty. Out of his pocket my grandfather would pluck a $20 bill – sometimes even $100. I am not sure who derived more pleasure in that moment: me, for finding untold riches, or my grandfather, who had the bills to give me.
Here in the United States a man could escape anti-Semitism, persecution, hunger and poverty – and within his lifetime earn enough to share and bring joy to a young boy. In a single movement, he could transform a frown into a smile. I wonder what Papa Bill was thinking when I ran around the house screaming, “I am rich!” I imagine he was remembering his difficult days of empty pockets.
Thanks in large part to my grandparents, my pockets are full. I have not known their hardships. I have known more laughter than tragedy. According to another opinion in the Talmud, "A person is defined by his laughter.”
Thus, my defining memory of my grandfather is his radiant smile. For my grandfather, America meant that he would be measured by his work and his efforts, not by his religion. For him, this ethos is what made his new country great and wonderful.
For me, American represents something different: the freedom to practice my religion wherever I sit.
Like my grandfather, I am a proud Jew and a proud American, but there is something else in my pocket that defines who I am.
Though I am a rabbi of a congregation, I don’t carry the keys to a synagogue in my pocket. Instead, I carry the keys to a church – the Brookville Reformed Church on the North of Long Island, founded more than 270 years ago. For more than 10 years Reverend Allan Ramirez and his congregation have allowed my community to meet there for Shabbat and holidays.
I doubt the original founders of this church could have imagined that one day a rabbi would lead a Jewish congregation in song and prayer, that the Hebrew words of the Jewish tradition and the melodies of my grandfather’s past would fill the church sanctuary. This, too, is what is good and noble about this country. Here in the United States, a church can help sustain a synagogue. Christians can say to Jews, “Come, fill our home with your melodies.”
Some days I look out of the window of my study and I see my son, Ari, and his best friend, Hugh O’Connor, sitting on the curb talking. Ari tells me that they are talking about religion. I suspect they are talking about girls and sports. As I watch them, I reach into my pocket and finger the church keys. They are a reminder that in the United States it is natural and normal that a Jew and a Christian are best friends.
One day soon, my synagogue will have its own building. Still, I hope Reverend Ramirez will let me to keep the church keys so that they might forever remain in my pocket and forever remind me of what I love about this country to which my grandparents brought my family.