Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lustiger and Yoselle: Most Unusual Men

A couple of days ago I posted a piece which was made available through NPR. Usually I find little exciting coming out of NPR, however this piece on Cardinal Lustiger was intriguing. Intriguing, because it’s been several days since I read the piece and I still can’t free myself from thinking about this wonderfully spiritual but tormented man. This isn’t the first time I have run across this phenomenon, a time bomb set during and as a result the holocaust, but not “going off” till decades later. Saul Friedlander, writes of his personal odyssey being raised as a Catholic in order to avoid the Nazis and dealing with his belief system after learning who he really was and his conflicted life in Israel as a Jew. And there were others prominent in the media who while born Jewish, as a result of the WWII circumstances, were raised as Christians only to find out decades later, like Madeleine Albrite.

However, reading this story of Cardinal Lustiger triggered a recollection of a story told by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach thirty five years ago. The story was about a man called Yoselle who was raised as a Catholic and later became a priest. His given name however, was Joe. His mother, a holocaust survivor, met and married her liberator, an American GI who was a devout Catholic and who wanted her to adopt his faith. Their child Joe was never to know of his Jewish roots and so he was raised. On her death bed she told her son the truth. The information that Joe received from his dying mother was the worst news he could have received, because it so complicated his life. Thinking of himself as a devout man in the service of God he felt complete, a whole person. Now however, he was living a life of doubt, questioning who he was, and exploring his sense of responsibility and destiny. Pressing questions like who was he really, who are his people, what is his true history, and what is his destiny were questions that plagued him to the point where he could no longer see himself as the whole person whom he thought he was. After much soul searching, Joe, as the story goes, decided to abandon the life he led. He left America without any possessions, leaving “Joe” behind and assuming the identity of Yoselle in Israel where he would live his life as a devout Jew as his ancestors from Cracow did.

When I first heard the story I was moved by it, perhaps because of my own youthful gullability or perhaps it was because of the seductive and charismatic personality of the story teller, Rabbi Carlebach. And that’s what he was – a first rate story teller who was able to move people, thousands of people who would hear him in concert. Fast forward thirty five years. I am no longer the gullible young man, nor is Reb Shlomo alive. But his story is! It’s alive, because it wasn’t a fictitious story; it was a story of real human drama. I sat back and listened to the story again and again over the past couple of days and I understand now for the first time how true the story was. Yes, the Saul Friedlanders and Madeleine Albrights of this very cruel and twisted world exist, but so do the Yoselles and the Lustigers.

Cardinal Lustiger was a terribly tormented man spiritually—the very thought of him considering a move to Israel as Joe did is evidence of that. I weep for him and for all the others who by no choice of their own became the long term victims of a world too soon forgotten. No one can judge Cardinal Lustiger’s choices and spiritual values that he lived by. He must have been a very lonely man, very pained, tormented and troubled knowing that his own flesh and blood was martyrs of the Shoah while he lived as a church father. This is why the Kaddish was so appropriately said over him. “Yehi Zichro Mevurach”