These are the remarks I shared during Yom Kippur services 5778 at Kolot Chayeinu at the request of the dear Rabbi Ellen Lippmann. This was part of the Unetaneh Tokef, the prayer that talks about the Book of Life and the sacred power of the day. The Rabbi and I discussed sharing my experience (with my wife Dana who is Jewish at my side) that we don’t control who lives or who dies, just how we respond and the need to do it in community.
There are many ways I could introduce myself (one of my favorite ways to introduce myself is as Dana Schneider’s wife), but I have an assignment from the Rabbi I take very seriously. So I’m going to tell you that she asked me to talk about my broken heart.
I was born and raised in Queens, with a fairly ordinary life as a child in NYC in the 70s and 80s. Which is to say: I grew up eating the trio of the best NYC foods: American Chinese food, pizza and bagels. And I was taught to be wary of strangers and empty streets at night. And to be afraid of the Soviets, since this was during the Cold War.
I was also taught to be afraid of change. My parents told me that people were trying to re-arrange things that were just fine they way they were: the way that we all talked about race, gender and religious differences. They said that everyone would have to just learn to get used to the way things had always been, and stop trying to mess with the order of things.
My big brother and big sister and I were raised by our mom and our grandparents. Sometimes there wasn’t enough money or food or heat and hot water. But we were going to make it, together. We fought and proved our toughness within the family as well as outside of it. My brother, five years older than me, used to sit on me and make me punch my own face with my hands. But the point of this was to make me tough, to ready me for what the world was going to dish out. Which came in handy when I started riding the subways to school alone when I was 13.
I had to learn that I could take care of myself, that I could hold my own against whatever came along. It was important that you not be a burden to others, and that you could protect what was yours. I mean, the Soviets could be coming any minute to destroy our families and our way of life.
We grew up hearing stories of how our family had defended our country in the past, and I personally was proud of my brother when he enlisted in the US Army on his 18th birthday. He finished almost a year of training and got stationed in Germany. He wrote to me about German beer and visiting Paris.
About two years into his service, on a very ordinary summer day when I was 15 years old and visiting with family in Texas, two kind people in uniform came to our apartment and knocked on the door. They told my mother that they couldn’t talk to her until she had someone there with her, and they would wait as long as it took. She called my grandparents to be with her, then called me that evening to tell me my brother was dead. It was decided that when I got home, we would bury him.
It took a little time for us to learn what had happened. My big brother was executed by a leftist political group in Germany as part of a plot to plant a bomb on a US Airbase, to kill whoever was near it. The deaths of my brother and two other people were meant to send a message about the evils of US imperialism, about our systems that reduce people down to less than human for our craven purposes.
Eddie had just turned 20 years old a couple months before he was killed. He was a Specialist in the US Army, close to the bottom of the chain of command. His body came home in a coffin draped in a US flag and we buried him in our neighborhood cemetery.
This seemed to confirm that everything I had ever heard about the evils of communism were true. These Germans were monsters and I prayed for them to be caught and punished, and no punishment would be enough. Someone explained to me that there was no death penalty in Germany, and I thought that was insane. I wanted them to die over and over again.
I would lay awake at night instead of sleeping, thinking about how much I missed him and how I would never speak to him again. And I didn’t know what to do without my big brother there to tell me how to be tough enough for this. There seemed to be no end to the anger I felt towards the people that killed him, but it left me cold and exhausted and empty inside.
I was determined to show my toughness by not talking about how upset I was. My friends would let me bring it up at random times, or maybe not talk about it at all. One time late at night I shocked myself by crying with one of my friends over the phone. It turned out that I wasn’t just angry, I was sad.
I wound up seeing a high school counselor listened to me, then explained to me that I wouldn’t be able to handle this on my own, and that it wasn’t any good to try to. He insisted I would have to talk about my feelings with people. That’s how I would figure out what was going on inside, and what I wanted to do about it.
My brother and sister and I had been through a lot when we were young, so I thought I knew how harsh the world was. But there was nothing to prepare me for someone killing him as an afterthought, and just leaving his body like he was nothing. And this had broken my heart.
But all the listening, all the ways people figured out being there for me in the years after his death, they let me transform my broken heart. I came to accept that I don’t write the story of the world and all of us in it, and neither did the people who killed my brother. Someone else bigger than us writes the scene, and then we make our choices in it. I decided that I wanted to not be like these people, and that would only happen if I learned to care more than they did.
When Rabbi Ellen first talked to me about the reading, all I could think of to say is yes, I get the message here. Some days are great and some days are good and some days we see injustice or cruelty up close. But as long as we’re alive, these days are still gifts.
We can’t know what the year will bring us, but we get to decide who we are inside, what parts of ourselves that we feed and tend to, and how we show up for each other. We decide who we think about, who we care about, who we pray for. We don’t have to accept the limits anyone tells us about whose stories we listen to or who we care about.
When your heart gets broken — and all our hearts do — at least it’s still beating. And that broken heart can guide us as we decide who we want to be. We can decide what to do about the things that break our heart: cruelty, injustice, and it turns out, sometimes there are things you can do. We can decide what needs to be changed and see what sort of better world we can make with all our wiser broken hearts listening, caring and working together.
It turns out that my broken heart works better than the “tough” one I had before. My broken heart means that I listen to people, and as much as I can, people with different stories than mine. I lost my sense of toughness, the one my brother tried so hard to impart to me, and I thank God that I did.
I feel awful for the price of this change, and it means I don’t get to share this experience with my brother. Years later, I learned about the horrible things that did happen to the people most likely responsible for his murder, and I was sad for them. I knew they were real live human beings, as connected to family and community as my brother. They were not monsters, and they weren’t innocent, and the main thing I had anything in common with them was Eddie’s murder. But I could see them as human, and I did not wish them harm. It was not who I could bear to be.
When I was young, my tough heart told me it was okay to shield myself from caring about other people’s problems too much. I had all sorts of ideas about how my brother and I would just sail over all sorts of problems together. We would never let bad things happen to us.
But we never had a adult life together. We got this story that was unimaginable to me, in which I’ve become a middle-aged woman who puts my time and energy to helping people change how we talk about race, gender and religious differences. I have built up my muscles for listening to people I disagree with, or who are different than me. I remind people that the political conflicts we think are intractable may have endings we didn’t expect, much as the Cold War did.
I would explain to my young brother that things generally are going to change, and we get to decide which direction we want to point it in. I point my desire for change towards a world where we listen to each other, tend to each others’ broken hearts and use these hearts for a world where we care about people not because they are like us, but because they are human beings.
With whatever the new year brings you, I hope mostly for you to stay connected to people throughout it. I hope for you to remember that we were put here to be here for each other so that none of us faces conflict or adversity alone. We aren’t burdens to each other when we need each other. And to remember that however your heart may be broken, when it’s connected with other hearts that have decided to listen and care — like so many people in this congregation have — it’s much more useful than a toughened heart.
Our broken hearts are hearts worth having.
It’s an honor to be part of the Kolot Chayeinu community, which maintains an active social justice commitment here in New York City. As a non-Jewish partner of a Jew, I’ve been included in a welcoming community where the need to take action for justice is such a central value.