Sermon for Yizkor – Yom Kippur (2023): Golda, Leah, and the Value of Borscht

By Rabbi Arnowitz

I hope you have had the opportunity to see the movie “Golda” starring Helen Mirren as the Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. At a time when you can hear all kinds of commentators say that we are living through “the worst crisis in the history of the State of Israel,” it is an important reminder of just how close the grand project of Zionism came to ending 50 years ago on Yom Kippur; a reminder of the loss of between 2500 and 3000 Israeli soldiers and of the additional 7500 or so that were wounded in battle; a reminder of how the Jewish way is to always move forward, but also to always remember. And Helen Mirren is absolutely amazing as Golda.

At this moment of Yizkor Memorial Prayers I want to highlight one scene from the movie. The scene at first seemed superfluous to me. When I thought about it a little more I said maybe it was there to show something about Golda’s personality and political tactics, but I finally realized the scene is absolutely essential for telling the story of the Yom Kippur War, the story of Golda Meir and, in fact, the story of the Jewish people. It has to do with the fluctuating value of a bowl of borscht.

At this point in the movie the war has been going on for many days and the tide has turned. It is clear that Israel will survive and it is on the verge of a decisive strike in Egypt that will not only end the war, but end it with such strength that Israel would be able to dictate its terms. It is then that Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State to President Richard Nixon, diverted a trip from Russia to come to Tel Aviv for a surprise visit. He is ostensibly coming to show support, but Golda knows that he is, in fact, coming to demand an immediate ceasefire. Golda, being advised of the visit with only hours to spare, decides to meet Kissinger in her home.

Upon his arrival, in a very “Yiddersher mama” sort of way, Golda offers the Secretary of State a bowl of borscht. “My housekeeper Leah made it herself, Henry,” Golda explains. Kissinger politely declines, “Golda, the Russians fed me a huge dinner and then took me to another one. To be honest, my stomach feels a bit delicate.” And like any good Jewish grandmother, Golda waves off his objections several times. Before you know it he is sitting at her kitchen table across from the Prime Minister with Golda’s housekeeper looking on. You can see that Kissinger, played beautifully by Lief Schreiber, is about to explode at her, frustrated by her insistence that he try the borscht and her ignoring his objections. Just then Golda leans over the table and whispers, “You have to eat it Henry, she’s a survivor.” Kissinger dutifully begins eating the soup.

I found myself gasping when she delivered the line and tearing up as Kissinger picked up his spoon. Because right there, that’s the truth of the Jewish people isn’t it? In that moment that borscht, that common, cold, pickled beet soup that probably wasn’t worth much, had become priceless. Why? Because it had been made by the hands of a survivor, made by the hands of a woman who had suffered the worst cruelties of humanity for no other reason than she was Jewish. It’s true by the way – Golda’s housekeeper Leah was, in real life, a survivor of Auschwitz.

And Kissinger ate! Why? Because he knew that the soup and the hands that had made it were of inestimable value. How did he know? Well, because he was also Jewish. He was also a refugee. Henry Kissinger was born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Bavaria. He and his family fled Germany in 1938 when he was fifteen years old. He knew how blessed he was to spend his teenage years in New York City. He knew that many were not so lucky, including Leah, whose borscht he ate dutifully.

After making sure he remembers all of that, Golda is positioned to get the time she needs to end the war on Israel’s terms. As she presses her advantage Kissinger says, and this is a famous tale told about Golda, “Madame Prime Minister, you would be wise to remember that I am first an American, second the Secretary of State, and only third, a Jew.” Golda replies, “That’s fine Henry, but remember, here we read right to left.” In other words, you can keep telling yourself that, but when push comes to shove, we are always Jewish first – and if not in our own eyes, in the eyes of everyone else.

It is not that as Jews we are connected only by our suffering. But it is true that as Jews we are connected and therefore we share our suffering. We hold each other up through our suffering. We feel and understand each others suffering. It’s similar to the way we collectively confess our sins on this day – we share our mistakes and hold each other up through them. That is what it means to be part of a people with a shared destiny, a people that doesn’t always suffer together, but always mourns together, licks our wounds together, and at our best, heals together.

And that is why we come together for these Yizkor Memorial prayers as well. We come to grieve together, to mourn together, to hold each other up as we think of those we love who we’ve lost. We come to grieve for all of those who have fallen in the name of their Judaism and ours, from the soldiers who fought and died fifty years ago to martyrs who fell in the Shoah 35 years before that. And we come to do it together because we understand that one of these losses is all of our losses. We understand the difference between a bowl of borscht and that bowl of borscht made by Leah, Golda’s housekeeper. And we pray that by coming together today, we can all find the nourishment to heal and move forward from our losses, whether shared and personal – today they are all shared.

We turn to the Yizkor prayers…

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