The Shmooze

The Jewish Cardinal Who Spoke Yiddish

By Masha Leon

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“The Jewish Cardinal” (“Le Metis de Dieu”), the 2012 French film shown at the New York Film Festival, is a fascinating puzzler.

“To become a Christian I did not reject my Judaism” is the mantra of Jewish-born Aaron Lustiger — intelligently portrayed by Laurent Lucas — who converted at 14, and as Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, almost ascended to the Papacy. The film, by director Ilan Duran Cohen, is a post mortem for a son of an Orthodox father, a survivor of Auschwitz, who never came to terms with his son’s Catholic conversion.

Befriended by Polish-born Pope John Paul II, their ecclesiastical exchanges include a surrealistic vignette when the Pope invites him to open-air swim-a-deux in his private Vatican swimming pool as their aides look on. Nicknamed “the Bulldozer,” Lustiger —moving up in rank and position — challenges sclerotic Vatican obstinacy, seeks outreach and is constantly defending his religious duality, which rankles both the church and the Jewish community. His visit to Auschwitz — where his mother was murdered —coincides with the Carmelite Nuns’ Auschwitz Convent controversy — and galvanizes him to defend the world’s Jewish communities’ outrage.

Cardinal Lustiger and Masha Leon in 1998. // Karen Leon.

Invited to an October 20, 1998 reception at John Cardinal O’Connor’s residence, my first words to Cardinal Lustiger (nee Aaron, a Levi) were the Yiddish greeting Sholem Aleichem, vos makht a yid? followed in by the French: “Vous etes un Galizianer ou un Litvak?”

There was total silence as jaws dropped. Cardinal O’Connor was beaming as Cardinal Lustiger shrugged and replied in Yiddish that he was born in Bendin, near Sosnowitz.

Witnesses to the exchange included chief Rabbi of Paris, Renee-Samuel Sirat, Gilbert Levine, who in 1994 conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in “The Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust” at the Vatican, Rabbi ’Yitz’ Greenberg, and international attorney Samuel Pisar, who told Lustiger: “The Auschwitz numbers engraved on my arm are my theological credentials.”

Noting that his own mother died at Auschwitz — as did Lustiger’s — Pisar posited:” If Jewish Christ and his mother and the 12 Apostles had been with me in Auschwitz, their fate would have been the same.”

Lustiger just nodded.

The reception preceded Lustiger’s Nostra Aetate lecture at Sutton Place Synagogue. “I am always humbled when I am in a synagogue,” said Cardinal O’Connor who offered a whimsical warning to Cardinal Lustiger: “When I was supposed to speak at a church — the church burned down. This lecture was to have taken place at New York’s Central Synagogue — and that burned down. [It was rededicated on September 9, 2011, two days before 9/11!). I will never invite Cardinal Lustiger to speak at St. Patrick’s Cathedral!” The audience roared.

Following the lecture, Bendin-born Holocaust survivor Dasha Rittenberg was embraced by cousin Cardinal Lustiger. After seeing the film she told me: “God messed him up between a Jew and a Catholic. I say; Let God worry about him. God will be kind to him.”

Lustiger died in 2007. Wonder what he would have thought of the film? Be on the lookout for this riveting experience as a conversation catalyst on many levels.


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