The Big Birthday!
September 20, 2015
My Birthday weekend has come to an end. It was a quiet day today after two wonderful events.
On Friday night, my actual Birthday, September 18, I decided to attend synagogue Sabbath services where I gave a brief talk appropriate for the day and the location.
On Satuday night, I had a typical birthay party with both old friends and new friends. We enjoyed a variety of Thai food dishes and two birthday cakes: fruit cake and mocha layer cake.
Of course, I gave a short speech and thanked my friends for celebrating with me. (Photos attached.)
And thank you all for your birthday wishes from around the world.
Below is the text of my remarks at Synagogue.
Temple Beth Elisheva
September 18, 2015
My Dear Family. My Dear Friends,
I am Jan Robert Polatschek. I live here in Bangkok. I am a member of the congregation Temple Beth Elisheva.
Today, September 18 is a special day for me.
On this very day in New Rochelle, New York, Ruth Rebeka Lifson Polatschek and Otto Siegfried Polatschek became the proud parents of a six pound eight ounce baby boy. The date on the Hebrew calendar was 15 Elul.
Jan’s parents named him Jan Robert. They chose Jan for Otto’s maternal late Grandfather, Jan Taussig and Robert for Rosalie Smerka Taussig, Otto’s late maternal grandmother.
Since Otto and his father Herman Polacek are descendants of the Hebrew tribe Levi, Jan’s Hebrew name is Moshe ben Chaim Ha Levi.
Along with my younger sister Paula, I grew up in the Bronx, New York City. `I went to Hebrew School, on occasion, and had a celebratory Bar Mitzvah. According to my mother, of the three boys who chanted their Haftorah (a Bible section from the Prophets) that fall morning at the Jewish Center of Highbridge, I gave the most enthusiastic performance. Since my mother was an entertainer, she “knew one when she heard one.”
We always celebrated the “Holidays” with our extended family. We had a Seder, usually conducted by my mother’s father, Harry Lifson. My mother prepared a huge dinner on Rosh Hashanah. My parents fasted on Yom Kippur. We lit Chanukah candles every year. My father and I went to High Holiday services, on occasion, and my mother went to shul with her sisters for Yiskor services in memory of their late mother, Pauline Lifson.
In those days, girls did not have a Bat Mitzvah yet my late sister, Paula Carol Wiesenfeld was the most religious and spiritual of all of us. She lit Chanukah candles in her college dorm. She would not tolerate intolerance. She always fought for justice.
Our household was certainly more secular than religious. (My mother and her rebellious sisters were of the opinion that “no one would tell them what to eat!”)
My parents would be proud that I am celebrating my birthday in synagogue tonight. But would they also be a bit surprised?
So, I ask myself, and perhaps you are thinking, “From such a secular background, why would I choose to celebrate a very special birthday here at synagogue?”
Well, it’s Shabbat. Can there be a better time or place for a celebration?
There’s yet another answer. The answer is, “Three Rabbis.”
Rabbi Samuel Chiel, of Boston, Massachusetts, of blessed memory. Rabbi Simcha Freedman of Miami, Florida. Rabbi Yosef Kantor, of Bangkok, Thailand.
Here’s a story: A month after my own Bar Mitzvah I attended the Bar Mitzvah of my friend and classmate Jerry Fasman. Jerry was a serious student. Unlike most of the rest of us who dropped out of Hebrew School after our Bar Mitzvah, Jerry decided to continue with his studies and graduate. I’ll never forget the sermon the Rabbi gave at Jerry’s Bar Mitzvah. In part he said,
“After their Bar Mitzvah,” the Rabbi said, “Many of the boys say ‘Good Bye’ to the Rabbi. They say ‘Good Bye’ to the Synagogue. They say ‘Good Bye’ to the Torah. They say ‘Good Bye’ to G-d. But not Jerry Fasman…. “
I was one of those boys who said ‘good bye’ and I never got over the feeling of guilt, until, thirty years later when I met Rabbi Chiel.
As it happened, I was invited to a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Emanuel of Newton, Massachusetts. The Bat Mitzvah girl read all eight of the Torah Portions with clarity and poise, chanted her Haftorah with energy and enthusiasm, and gave an intelligent and articulate speech.
Rabbi Chiel was obviously so pleased to have such a student. He himself delivered a masterful and moving sermon.
Despite my years of absence, I could follow the service that morning. The prayers and the tunes were familiar. The atmosphere in the synagogue was both encouraging and welcoming.
I was “struck!”
I was so affected that I promised myself to return at least once a month. I kept my promise and later became a “regular” at Saturday morning services. I became a member of the synagogue.
Thanks to that Shabbat service many years ago, and thanks to Rabbi Chiel, my hibernating Judaism reemerged and was reborn.
The years have passed since my life in Boston. Rabbi Chiel is gone. Yet I remember one of his sermons as if he gave it last week. He spoke about Kashrut – our ancient dietary laws.
Rabbi Chiel gave three reasons for following that tradition. (He always spoke in a series of three’s.) First, he spoke of the health benefits. Many animal products are easily contaminated. In the past, and even today, they can cause serious illness. (I call a friend. He says he is sick. I ask him what he ate recently. Invariably, here in Thailand, he answers that he ate seafood.)
The second reason for Kashrut is “restriction.” We have the Ten Commandments. We have the laws of Kashrut. We humans are restricted in our behavior. If we follow Kashrut, we are reminded that we cannot do just whatever we want.
The third reason we follow the laws of Kashrut is that they written down for us in our Hebrew Bible. The Laws are the word of G-d and part of our faith.
Rabbi Chiel told a story, as Rabbis are wont to do:
Mrs. S. came to his office. She was confused and upset. “My son avoids my gefilte fish. My son won’t eat my brisket. My son won’t touch my stuffed cabbage. What should I do, Rabbi? He says he is a vegetarian!”
Rabbi Chiel was a wise man. He responded, “Mrs. S. We Jews (some folks in India might disagree) are the very first vegetarians. Not a vegetable, not a fruit, not a berry, not a grain is prohibited. Your son is conscious of his health. By not eating meat, your son restricts his diet. Your son is a good Jew.”
To be honest, I don’t keep Kosher. But when I am buying food in a shop I read the labels and when I order food in a restaurant I scan the menu and eliminate many of the items. Every day and at every meal, I remind myself that I am a Jew. Thank you, Rabbi Chiel for your influence and your guidance.
When I moved from Boston to Miami, I joined the Young Israel of Aventura – a Modern Orthodox congregation. We were a small group. The leaders conducted the Shabbat services. On High Holidays, Rabbi Simcha Freedman lead the service. He spoke in an intelligent and forceful manner. So when my mother passed away, I invited Rabbi Freedman to conduct the funeral service.
From my own eulogy and from the remarks of my mother’s friends, Rabbi Freedman learned that my mother was an entertainer. In fact, she had written and directed musical shows her entire life. She wrote children’s shows when she was a young girl herself; she wrote shows for teenagers and young adults. When she was a senior citizen in Miami, she wrote, directed and even performed in musical shows that starred other senior citizens.
Rabbi Freedman told a story: Years and years ago, in a marketplace, a group of observant Jewish men were trying to decide who would be admitted to heaven. Naturally they could not agree. So they approached the wise old man in the village. The wise man pointed to the performers in the square and proclaimed, “They will be admitted to heaven.”
The men were astonished. The performers!? They don’t even go to synagogue. They don’t know the prayers. They don’t keep kosher. They are jugglers and fire-breathers and magicians! They are entertainers!! Why will they receive the honor to be admitted to heaven?
The Rabbi responded, “It’s exactly because they are performers and entertainers that they will be admitted to heaven. They make people smile. They make people laugh. They make people forget their troubles for a moment. They bring joy to the world. They will be rewarded.”
And so, thank you Rabbi Freedman. I am sure my mother is in heaven and is looking down on us tonight.
Finally, Rabbi Kantor. For the past nine years I have considered Rabbi Kantor as one of my good friends here in Bangkok. Whether we meet at a large public gathering at Hanukah or at a Seder or here on Shabbat or in a personal meeting, I can always count on you for your wisdom and your guidance and your friendship. Thank you.
On a birthday it’s a tradition of course to have a birthday cake with candles and to make a wish and to blow out the candles. There are no birthday candles tonight on Shabbat, but I do have a birthday wish.
But before I make a wish, I want to tell you a short story – oft repeated but always worth retelling.
It seems a Jewish man was shipwrecked and marooned on a desert island. He lived alone on that island for nine years. Finally a ship came to his little island and he was rescued.
But before he left the island, he insisted that he take the captain of the ship on a tour of the island.
“Here is a synagogue. Here is the home I built. Here is the place where I store my food. Here is the area where I exercise. And here is my synagogue.”
The captain was impressed with what our friend had accomplished. But he was curious. He said, “You are one man here on the island so why do you have two synagogues?
Our friend replied, “This one I go to. That one, I don’t go to!”
We have all heard these words before. Perhaps we have even uttered them. “This one I go to. That one I don’t go to.”
In his Shabbat email message this morning, Rabbi Kantor spoke of the times when in ancient Israel, all the Jews assembled to hear the words of their King. ALL the Jews assembled. ALL the Jews.
Now, around the world we find different Jewish sects and movements with different traditions and practices and liturgy.
Even here in Bangkok, at least one additional group has formed.
So here is my birthday wish:
Despite our different traditions, different practices, different attitudes and different feelings, I wish that for a moment or even for a few moments during the year, we seek to find common ground and come together as One.
Can we tolerate our differences and celebrate our similarities?
Together, may we All acknowledge our ancient congregation and our enduring Faith.