My Day with the King

“I have one of these in my palace,” said the King as we walked through the Skirball, pointing to an ancient artifact. This was certainly no ordinary day at the office!
 I recently began working at the Jewish Federation for the Board of Rabbis. Last week, I received an email from a local doctor that a Nigerian Hebrew King Eze Eri will be visiting the LA area and would like to meet Jewish leaders and visit Jewish sites. The email offered a link to his website. So, I invited the Board of Rabbis executive committee to join me and the King for lunch at the Skirball.
At the entrance of the Skirball, I waited nervously, unsure what to expect. Was this guy for real? Was this a scam of some sort? Would he even come?
When the King arrived, he sure stood out from the crowd. He was dressed in a long white robe covered with gold embroidery designs of Jewish significance – shofars, lions, and crowns. Around his neck, he wore maroon necklaces. His large, red yarmulke featured a gold crown and a Jewish star. He carried himself with an air of dignity and authority that was unmistakably majestic.
When we sat down for lunch, the king’s attaché introduced him as King Eze Chukwuemeka Eri, the king of the Igbo people of Nigeria, which is comprised of people of many faiths, including Messianic, Christian, Muslim, and Jews. The King explained that in Genesis, Gad was the 7th son of Jacob [Genesis 35:26], and Eri was the 5th son of Gad [Gen. 46:16]. He asserted his people were the descendants of Eri, who after the Exodus and travelling through the desert for forty years did not enter into Israel along with the rest of the Tribes. He advised that his people are one of the lost tribes of Jacob. He described the Jewish practices that are kept by the Igbo community – such as circumcising male babies on the eighth day, not eating pork or shellfish, praying, etc.
The purpose of his trip to Los Angeles was to meet fellow Jews as sisters and brothers and to say that “we are one” people. He was not facing any crisis in the community; he did not need money or help. He only wanted to get to know the local Jewish community and reflect together on our connection of shared history and future.

Rabbi Uri Herscher, the founder of the Skirball Cultural Center greeted the King and noted that Abraham's first act as a Jew was to welcome strangers into his tent. “It is in that spirit of welcome that the Skirball was founded," he said.  "And in that same spirit, we welcome you here today.”

During our meeting, my colleagues, Rabbi Joshua Hoffman of Valley Beth Shalom and Rabbi Jon Hanish of Kol Tikvah asked the King thoughtful questions, such as:
What is your typical day like as a king in your community?
The King said that he sits all day and people come to him with their familial and business problems, and he judges their situations. Just like King Solomon.
How did you become king? How will the next king be chosen?
He explained that when his mother was pregnant, the king at the time had a prophecy that her unborn child (Eze Eri) would be the next king. Shortly after he was born, both his parents died. When King Ere came of age, he resisted becoming the king at first. Instead he tried to go into business, but all his endeavors failed. He realized that resisting his destiny was futile and accepted the kingship.
King Eri explained that the next king will be chosen from his family, and would not necessarily be his son. He would someday have a prophecy of who the next king would be or if not, the community would wait for God to make known the next king.
Rabbi Hoffman noted that the story of the tribe of Gad choosing not to enter the land of Israel is actually in this week’s Torah portion. Gad is only mentioned a few times in the Torah – when he is born and when he has children – but the main story of the tribe of Gad appears in this week’s Torah portion.
The king responded that this meeting was clearly meant to be and that God had certainly chosen this moment to bring us together.
There’s a prayer that traditionally is recited when one sees a king. Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam Shechalak michvodo l’basar vadam: Blessed Are You, God, Ruler of the Universe who gave a portion of God’s honor to flesh and blood. I had never before had the occasion to say this prayer, but now, I understand what it means. The king certainly had a certain charisma – a god-like glory – in the way he carried himself. Everyone we met throughout the day responded to that quality.
I took the King through the Skirball’s Noah’s Arc exhibit, which he loved. When he saw the story-time performance for the children in the outdoor amphitheater, the King asked if he could speak when the performance was over. The staff graciously agreed. He introduced himself to the group and offered a blessing to the children. As we walked back through the museum, children followed him, excited to see a king.
As I took him through the exhibit on Jewish history, the King enjoyed the synagogue and the artifacts. As we looked through the exhibit on the countries from which Jews have come – Spain, Morrocco, India, Eastern Europe, etc., he searched for Nigeria. His message was clear. The lost tribe no longer wants to be lost.
The King then asked to see the American Jewish University. As we walked to our cars, the moment felt surreal. He asked that I come to Nigeria in November for their annual celebration commemorating the time when the tribe settled in that area in biblical times. I promised to seriously consider it.
When we arrived at the American Jewish University, I introduced the king to Rabbi Patricia Fenton who gave us a tour of the library. “Today, I am meeting my sister rabbis,” he exclaimed.
Jackie Benefraim, the Special Collections Librarian, then provided the King a tour of AJU’s rare book room and collection of Bibles from throughout the world – including Africa. The king searched for a Bible in the language of his people – looking for his place on the shelf of Jewish history.
Then we talked with Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School. Rabbi Artson mentioned Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who both Rabbi Artson and I had the joy of teaching when he came from Uganda to study to be a rabbi. Rabbi Sizomu has since returned home and now serves in the Ugandan Parliament.
Artson said, “I tell my students that the future of the Jewish people is in Africa.”
When I returned home, I opened this week’s Torah portion and read the story of the tribe of Gad and reflected on this extraordinary experience.
It’s not every day you meet a king who is your brother.

Open Heart

     Last week, having heard that Elie Wiesel passed away, I picked one of his books off my office bookshelf.  What better way to honor Wiesel's memory than to read his words.  Of course, I've read Night and others of Wiesel's writings, but this book was different.  Open Heart is a memoir of Wiesel's experience of emergency heart surgery when he was eighty two.
     Because of my father's work on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Wiesel was a family friend.  I remember vividly how during his speech at the opening of the museum in 1993, Wiesel turned to then President, Bill Clinton and called him to action about the former Yugoslavia saying, "we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country!"  Wiesel embodied the Jewish conscience - that "Never Again" means not merely Never Again to us - but never again to anyone.
     In reading Open Heart, I feel that I got to know Wiesel personally in a way that I hadn't before - as he lets us into his operating room and into his heart.  There, I came across a passage that stopped me in my tracks.  It was Wiesel's mission statement - the purpose by which he lived his life.  I read and reread the piece, savoring each phrase, unpacking it as one would a Talmudic text.
     I was struck by the juxtaposition of events - that Wiesel's death was immediately followed by the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, as well as of the five police officers in Dallas - Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Sergeant Michael Smith, and Sr. Cpl. Lorne Ahrens.  In this turbulent time in our country and our world, Wiesel's words seem to be the exact message that we need to hear right now. Wiesel wrote:
A credo that defines my path:
     I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind. And yet, I believe that we must not give up on either.
     Was it yesterday-or long ago- that we learned how human beings have been able to attain perfection in cruelty.  That for the killers, the torturers, it is normal, thus human to act inhumanely?  Should one therefore turn away from humanity?

The answer of course, is up to each of us.  We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children, between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it.  Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves.  Or not.
     I know-I speak from experience-that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion.  That it is possible to feel free inside a prison.  That even in exile, friendship exists and can become an anchor.  That one instant before dying, man is still immoral.
     There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man.  I believe in language even though it has been wounded, deformed, and perverted by the enemies of mankind.  And I continue to cling to words because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension rather than contempt.  It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal, to wound or to console.
     As a Jew, I believe in the coming of the Messiah.  But of course this does not mean that the world will become Jewish; just that it will become more welcoming, more human.  I belong, after all, to a generation that has learned that whatever the question, indifference and resignation are not the answer.

Illness may diminish me, but it will not destroy me.  The body is not eternal, but the idea of the soul is.  The brain will be buried, but memory will survive it.

Such is the miracle: A tale about despair becomes a tale against despair. 
     In this excruciating time in our country and our world, may our story about despair become a story against despair.

The 11th Commandment

            Wearing the new dress that my husband bought me for my birthday, I walked to synagogue, excited to hear my son read the Torah, on the first day of Shavuot. How fitting that on the holiday which celebrates the giving of the Torah, my son was about to read the Ten Commandments for the first time, as a trial run for his bar mitzvah this coming February. What better birthday present could there be than to hear him chant those words?!
            On the way to synagogue, we ran into my step-mother. “Did you hear about the news this morning?” she said. “No, I replied,” and then she told me what happened in Orlando.
            A short while later, my son read the Ten Commandments, standing between his two grandfathers. As he chanted, those two simple words, “Lo Tirsach” – “Do not Murder,” rang in my ears. More than three thousand years since those words were first spoken, and they have yet to be heard. How different our world would be if everyone followed that simple commandment!
            When the holiday concluded and I tuned back into technology, the week was filled with images and stories – from the doctors in Orlando recounting how their teams had responded to the flood of injured patients to the parents and friends who lost loved ones.
Last week was awash with these heartbreaking stories until Friday night, at Open Temple when the pictures of the 49 killed in Orlando were shown on the screen before the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. As the Kaddish was recited, I thought of three other simple words. The words were from a handwritten sign which was placed at the Dolphinarium, a disco in Tel Aviv, after a terrorist bombing that killed 21 and wounded 120 people, fifteen years ago, this month. The sign read:
Lo nafsik lirkod. Lo nafsik lashir.
Lo nafsik lichlom. Lo nafsik likavot.
We won’t stop dancing. We won’t stop singing.
We won’t stop dreaming. We won’t stop hoping.
            The terrorists kill many; they wound many; they blast giant holes through the hearts of bereaved family members. They make people even thousands of miles away from the shooting feel unsafe and bereft.
            However, the murderers cannot achieve their ultimate goal – the destruction of our free society. That’s because we will not stop – we won’t stop treating people with dignity and respect. We won’t stop struggling for greater liberty, acceptance, and love. We won’t stop following the ancient 10 Commandments – and the contemporary 11th:
            Lo Nafsik Lirkod: We won’t stop dancing.