On Presidents Day

On Presidents Day

Joanne Palmer

We have lost a great deal during the pandemic; not only time with family and friends, not only services and sedarim and classes and parties, but also the irreplaceable chance to be with family members as they died, and then the grim opportunity to go their funerals and shivas.

Some of those losses are terrible, and they all are diminishing.

And then there are the less quantifiable losses, including the cancelation of meetings and programs that are enriching but hard to explain, including unusual opportunities to bring together disparate ideas and learn from them.

All this is a way to start to say that I am saddened by the loss, for the second year in a row, of Rabbi Joseph Prouser’s Presidents Day shacharit service, which he has held, for years now, on the Monday when we honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Rabbi Prouser’s service, at the synagogue he leads, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, is thorough and straightforward; his traditional Conservative Shacharit skips very little and skimps on the niggunim that some others include, especially on holidays, when visitors are around. There are visitors, mainly local and state-level politicians, some Jewish, some not.

What Rabbi Prouser does do, though, after the Torah reading that is mandated on a Monday morning, is add a quasi-haftarah. It’s Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which he’s translated to Hebrew and set to a haftarah trope.

And the thing is that it is astounding and perhaps inexplicably powerful.

There’s something about melding these two traditions — of biblical prophecy and of Lincoln’s resonant, prescient, but hopeful words — that make the cords that connect them come clear. There’s something about hearing the words of the Address — mainly short, direct, not rhyming but rhythmic — in Hebrew as they somehow gallop, like horses to the rescue, through the room.

I’ve gone to that service for years now, and every year, although I swear that this year I will not cry, I do cry.

Every year, the message of the Address becomes more powerful. Our nation is seriously divided now, to the point where people in both blue and red states talk openly about civil war (although everyone is quick to say that even should such a calamity happen, it wouldn’t involve blue- and gray-uniformed soldiers marching across a field at each other, shooting as they go. Terrorism is more likely, they say, unreassuringly). We need leadership and decency and truth-telling and a dedication to democracy to get us out of the abyss into which we well might tumble.

And Abraham Lincoln’s words beckon us out.

Two years ago, Rabbi Prouser offered the Presidents Day service; we all were blissfully unaware of the pandemic that was coming, although by early February there were a few unnerving reports about an odd disease making its way from China and then from cruise ships off the West Coast.

Last year, the synagogue published a pamphlet with greetings from the invited guests who would have been at the service, some of the prayers Rabbi Prouser composed, including the one he says before he reads the Address, some of relevant quotes from politicians, diplomats, and political philosophers, and some photos from live Presidents Day services. This year, thanks to omicron, he’ll do the same thing.

Next year, we desperately hope, and perhaps imprudently anticipate, we’ll be together in person in Franklin Lakes as Rabbi Prouser implores, in Hebrew, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”