Rabbi Isaak’s Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5784 Sermon – The Moral Sin of Book Banning

I am what is known as a Yekke, or at least the son of a Yekke. A Yekke is a disparaging term that Jews used for German Jews. Though the term’s origin is a matter of debate, being labeled as one, was no compliment. Though born here in the US, both of my parents and all four of my grandparents were native Germans.  My grandfather fought and was decorated in the First World War in the German army. As teenagers Hitler prevented both of my parents from graduating from high school. My father fled to Palestine at 17.  After Kristallnacht my mother 16 accompanied her younger brother on a Kindertransport to England where she was engaged as a companion to a handicapped girl.  When that family moved to Switzerland, they took her with them.  From there as a very shy teen she made her way alone through Spain to Portugal where she boarded a ship to America.

I like all my Yekke-age peers was raised as a prince, a symbol not only of our parents’ survival but of their victory over Hitler. Am Yisrael chai.  As with so many similar families we never bought anything made in Germany.  My parents never had any desire to return to the country of their birth, my father saying he never left anything good there.

They nevertheless accepted the group invitation from the government of Asschaffenburg, my father’s hometown in Northern Bavaria for a visit. I am grateful that I was able to join them on this never-to-be-repeated journey.  My father discovered that returning as a senior citizen to the town from which he fled as a teenager to be strange and we had some disturbing experiences there.  Where the synagogue once stood, there is now a park with a plaque claiming that the synagogue was destroyed by vandals, of course, no indication that these “vandals” were inspired, née encouraged by the Nazis.  Two former non-Jewish soccer friends of my uncle over lunch, recalled their fathers getting drunk one night before going out to slash Jewish businesses and set fire to the synagogue.  The building next store which had been the rabbi’s residence and religious school would be turned into a Jewish museum in a town that since the war to this day continues to be Judenrein. My grandfather died of natural causes in 1936.  He is buried there in a well-maintained Jewish cemetery.

Recently my sister, my cousins, and I arranged to have Stolpersteine, literally stumbling stones, small plagues placed in the sidewalk in front of the apartment building where my mother and her family lived in Berlin. We haven’t been there yet to see them, but hope to in the not-too-distant future.  My mother recalled seeing Hitler in 1936 as he passed by their apartment every day on his way to the Olympics.

Although my father was only 14 and my mother 11, perhaps not from personal memory, but one of the earliest acts of the Nazis they talked about was the burning of books in 1933.  My grandparents were certainly aware of how terrifying such events must have been.  My grandfather actually collected first additions, which before he fled the country he sold for a pittance to Goebbels’ girlfriend.

The target wasn’t just books written by Jewish authors.  It was books determined somehow to be “unGerman”, against the “German spirit”.  It was called a purge or cleansing (Sauberung). Perhaps most frightening of all this was that it was orchestrated by university students, presaging an era of state censorship and what was called control of culture.  These included books by socialists, by Karl Marx, by critical bourgeois writers, by corrupting foreign influences like Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and even Helen Keller. Jewish writers of course were among the corrupting influences. Also included were art books whose contents were considered to be degenerate.  In Berlin not far I imagine from my mother’s home 40,000 students took part in the blaze in the Obernplatz; similar events were orchestrated throughout the country. These book burnings were widely reported in Germany and did not go unnoticed in the rest of the world. Given my direct line to these events through my family, perhaps I am particularly sensitized to them.  But in truth, the burning of books, is something horrifying to all civilized society, perhaps most particularly to Jews.

Books carry a certain sanctity.  A Jewish home always has books.  I don’t mean that only Jews own books, but what makes a home Jewish among other things is that we treasure books: religious books, non-religious books, all kinds of books.  In Jewish tradition, the only objects that are considered holy are those in which God’s name is inscribed, namely a Torah, a mezuzah and tefillin.  Such items as well as books containing God’s name are not placed on the ground.  When their useful life is at an end, they are buried in a cemetery, similar to the respect that is paid to a human being.

We also take special pride in being literate and transmitting literacy.  The gorgeous art we find in European churches was commissioned by the church in order to transmit Bible stories to an illiterate public.  But through those Dark Ages when only the priesthood could read, literacy among Jews was always a top priority.  Though the Quran designates both Jews and Christians as People of the Book, our self-designation as Am HaSefer, people of the book for Jews alone may be even older

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis’ Reich Minister of Propaganda, spoke at that book burning in Berlin.  He praised those university students with the words, “No to decadence and moral corruption.  Yes to decency and morality in family and state.”  If he had just included the word “woke”, the same words could have been spoken by any number of contemporary American politicians. “No to decadence and moral corruption. Yes to decency in family and state.”

We are living in a time of not just book censorship, but the closing of school libraries, one I read recently repurposed as a detention room, from learning and exploration to a cell for misbehaving students. Book banning is not just fear of certain subjects, but an effort to close minds, to claim by often a small minority that certain ideas are dangerous and must be removed from public exposure.  Banning books is nothing short of an attempt at mind control, a Sauberung, a cleansing as the Nazis called it from that which is considered alien.

Lest we forget, whether school or public library, all materials acquired are pre-screened by trained librarians and usually a committee of parents or community members who have passed on appropriateness and value to the audience that may come to read it, young people who may search for descriptions of others like themselves or who have dealt with similar life’s challenges.

Book banning, that thoughts and ideas can be dangerous, and therefore should be kept away from the public view is nothing new.  But some aspects are.  The American Library Association documents that from 2021 to 2022 the number of books challenged has doubled.  2571 unique titles, the vast majority, books whose subject matter deals with either members of the LGBTQIA+ community and/or with people of color.

What is also new is that demands for removal rather than registered by individuals who come across something disturbing, are instead registered by organized groups who demand that long lists or even whole categories of books be removed, occasionally involving books that the group has not even read.  A report this past week claimed that one such group is employing ChatGPT using a simple word search of keywords to determine which books should be included on their lists.

Librarians in Florida and elsewhere are under threat.  Subject to often politically motivated rules, for immediate action when titles are challenged by what I might call book vigilantes, librarians are understandably fearful.  I can imagine librarians saying, They don’t pay me enough to take this.  No wonder some determine the best solution is to shut the library entirely. Polls show that 70% of the general public does not support the removal of books from our libraries.

I hoped that we in Oregon were fortunate in avoiding this issue since a map highlighting the states where book-banning efforts were greatest did not include us.  On further exploration, I found I was mistaken. A group known as the Oregon Mom’s Union is active in this arena.  85 titles have been challenged just this year.

Neither are we as Jews immune.  In a south Florida JCC Rachel Beauland, author of The House Is on Fire, a historical fiction concerning an early 1800s deadly Richmond, VA fire that the city tried to blame on its enslaved population, had been booked to highlight a $100 a plate luncheon in 2024. Due to the subject matter of her book and the current political climate, the invitation was cancelled.

I hope such embarrassment will not be repeated.

We Jews have been subject to societies engaged in thought control before.  We know how dangerous it can be.  Book banning by interest groups that have an ax to grind is not only bad for Jews and other minorities, but it is against everything we stand for as Americans.