Monday, June 16, 2008

A Most Unusual Man

NPR radio, Saturday morning 15 March 2008:

"There used to be a joke in Paris, what is the difference between the chief
rabbi in France and the Cardinal of Paris? The Cardinal speaks Yiddish!

Jean Marie Cardinal Lustiger was buried yesterday; he died this week of
cancer. He was born almost 81 years ago to Polish parents who ran a dress
shop in Paris. When the German army marched in his parents sent him and his
sister into hiding with a Catholic family in Orleans. Their mother was
captured and sent to Auschwitz.

In 1999 as Cardinal of Paris, Jean Marie Lustiger took part in reading of
the names of France's day of remembrance of Jews who had been deported and
murdered. He came to the name Gesele Lustiger, paused, teared and said, my
mama. The effect in France during a time of revived anti-Semitism was

He was just 13 and in hiding when he converted to Catholicism, not to escape
the Nazis he always said, because no Jew could escape by conversion, and not
of trauma, he said.. Among his most controversial observations, I was born
Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me the
vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyem. That is my hope and I
believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.

There were a great number of rabbis who consider his conversion a betrayal.
Especially after so many European Jews had so narrowly escaped extinction.
Cardinal Lustiger replied, to say that I am no longer a Jew is like denying
my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers. I am as Jewish as
all other members of my family that were butchered in Auschwitz and other

He confessed to a biographer that he had a spiritual crisis in the 1970's
provoked by persistent anti-Semitism in France. He studied Hebrew, and
considered emigrating. He said I thought that I had finished what I had to
do here, he explained and I might find new meaning in Israel. But just at
that time the pope appointed him bishop of Orleans. He found purpose he said
in the plight of immigrant workers. Then he was elevated to Cardinal.
The Archbishop of Paris. Jean Marie Lustiger was close to the Pope. They
shared a doctrinal conservatism. He also battled bigotry and
totalitarianism. For years Cardinal Lustiger's name was among those who was
considered to succeed John Paul. Without putting himself forth, the Cardinal
joked that few things would bedevil bigots more than a Jewish Pope. They
don't like to admit it he said, but what Christians believe, they got -
through Jews.

The funeral for Cardinal Lustiger began at Notre Dame Cathedral yesterday,
with the chanting of Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead."