Standing over the desk where Sugihara sat signing his name, with the names of my own family members on the wall, I said in Hebrew: “Blessed are you, Lord, God of our ancestors, who performed a miracle for my grandfather in this very place.”
I repeated the prayer in Yiddish, feeling as if I had seen my own name on a tombstone. And yet, here I was, humbled and alive. I wrote in the sign-in book: “Because of his kindness, I live.”
My grandfather’s family included Socialists, Communists, Zionists and Bundists, and I often wonder what the conversation around their Sabbath table must have sounded like. Aside from Joseph and Avram, and a sister, Sara, the rest of the Mlotek family was murdered. Could my grandfather, now long dead, have dreamed that his grandson would become a rabbi and one day return to the city he had fled to officiate a wedding?
Some Jews in Lithuania persevere; among them are a young couple in Kovno. The groom’s father, the leader of the small Jewish community there, did not speak English; we conversed solely in Yiddish, the primary language of the more than six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, and the language my own father spoke to me before English. Overlooking the green hills, we stood under the huppah and blew the shofar, the ram’s horn, as is typical during the Hebrew month of Elul, though not commonly done at weddings.
In just a few days, the Jewish people will mark our new year, 5780. The Bible refers to this day as one of memory, a day of blasts. But what and who are we remembering? The shofar’s cry is supposed to wake us up. But for what purpose? These questions, along with the shofar’s wail, are my spiritual alarm clock. They, like my grandfather’s legacy and the language he spoke, accompany me wherever I go.
Rabbi Avram Mlotek is a founder of Base Hillel, a home-centered ministry for young Jews worldwide.
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