Tag Archives: Zvi Kolitz

Everything Is Holy Now

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 2 April 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)


Earlier in the service, we heard live performances of Peter Mayer’s song Holy Now and Susan Werner’s song May I Suggest. Here are YouTube videos of those songs:

Holy Now, performed by Peter Mayer:

May I Suggest, performed by Red Molly:


Endless trouble.

Endless trouble is what certain words can cause, especially in religious communities. The most famous example for modern-day Unitarian Universalists is the word God, but there are other contenders too, like prayer, and the holy.

Coincidentally, the worship theme at Throop Church for the month of April is “The Holy.” Let’s see how much trouble we can get into!

Part of the problem with all of these words is that they mean different things to different people. For example, some people might think of God as a God with whom one can have a personal relationship, a God who answers prayers, a God who forgives sins. Others might think of God more abstractly; they might think, for example, that God is the “absolute infinite.” Some might think of gods in the plural, with a lower-case g. And some might prefer Paul Tillich’s idea of God as the “ground of being.”

So it’s no wonder that it’s hard to have a conversation about God; people are literally using the same word to talk about different things.

There are similar problems with the word holy, and one of the reasons why I like Peter Mayer’s song Holy Now, which we heard earlier, is that it is about how his understanding of the word holy has changed over the course of his life.

One definition is that something is holy if it comes from God, or is approved by God, or has some divine quality. Of course, that leads us right back to the problem of agreeing on what God is! But there’s a second definition that I personally find much easier to handle:

Something is holy if we respond to it with veneration and reverence.

With this understanding of the word, it’s easy to tell if someone believes something to be holy: Do they treat it with respect, and with reverence?

And the beauty of thinking about holiness in this way is that more and more of your life can be holy; things become holy if you treat them with reverence. And this is Mayer’s song. When he was a boy, holiness was something that came from God, that came from the church: holy water to dip his fingers in, a morsel of consecrated bread, a sip of consecrated wine. But now, he sings, everything is holy: a child’s face, the new morning, a red-winged bird. He says that he walks through the world with a reverent air because everything is holy now, but I wonder… has he reversed cause and effect? Maybe everything is holy now, because he walks through the world with a reverent air.


This conception of holiness suggests a spiritual practice. Throughout the day, remind yourself to pause; to perceive where you are, and what is around you; and treat it with reverence.

For instance, right now — let’s pause.

See the light coming through our windows.

Listen. Sense the vast space of air above you. Can you hear how it affects sounds?

Feel the presence of all that is around you, the life in this room.

Remain present here and now, but at the same time, feel a sense of all the paths that have led people here today… how all of our lives have converged here, now… threads of consciousness, brought together at this moment, and this place…

Feel how this moment is holy.


This sense of holiness, these holy moments are what Susan Werner’s song May I Suggest is about.

There is a world
That’s been addressed to you
Addressed to you, intended only for your eyes
A secret world
Like a treasure chest to you
Of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerise
A lover’s trusting smile
A tiny baby’s hands
The million stars that fill the turning sky at night

All of the things that you have seen, all of the things that you have heard, all of the things that you have felt, all of the things that you have thought — they make up your own secret treasure chest of holy experiences, known only to you because you are the only one to have experienced them. By pausing and observing, by being present, you can add more to that treasure chest.


A few years ago, as part of a project for a world religions class, I attended Saturday services at the Zen Center of San Diego. I arrived at the Center much earlier than I had planned, because the Saturday morning traffic was much better than I had allowed for. The Zen Center is a large house in a residential neighborhood, and when I arrived, I walked around to the main entrance in the back yard. There was only one person there at that hour, and he was busy sweeping the back patio and the adjoining paths. I offered to help, and he handed me a broom.

As you may know, sweeping is an established form of Zen practice. So I thought to myself, “Huh! Here I am, at the Zen Center, with a broom. I guess I had better be mindful.” And so I was. As I swept, I paid attention to the walkway, to the leaves on the walkway, to the plants that brushed past me, to the trail of ants that I avoided sweeping up, to the whsshh! whsssh! of the broom as it brushed against the brick path. My mind did wander from time to time, but I returned my focus to my task and to all that was around me on that cool morning, all that was around me on the brick path through the garden.

And you know what? The time that I spent sweeping the walkway turned out to be the part of my visit that I remember best. I can still envision the walkway, the broom, the leaves, the grass. Because of the attention I paid, an ordinary task became part of the secret world of private scenes that Susan Werner sings of in her song.


It is not just Buddhism that encourages us to focus on the present. Other faiths have traditions of meditation as well, and researchers on human behavior have tried to make connections between paying attention and being happy.

In the sermon I delivered here in January, I mentioned how researchers at Harvard developed what must be the most annoying iPhone app ever. Their app interrupts you at random moments throughout your day and asks you a series of questions. The questions include:

How are you feeling right now?
What are you doing right now?
Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?

The researchers found that people’s minds wander a lot — nearly half the time, in fact. They also found that people are less happy if they are not focussing on what they are doing. Even if you are doing something unpleasant, and your mind is wandering to something nice — even then, you’ll be less happy, on average, than if you were paying attention to what you are doing.

So, does a wandering mind cause unhappiness? Or maybe it’s that when you are unhappy, your mind is more likely to wander. The researchers considered this question, and by comparing each person’s responses throughout the course of the day, they found strong statistical evidence that in fact it is the wandering mind that creates the unhappiness, and not the other way around.

If you pay attention to what you are doing, you will likely be more happy, and you may find more holiness around you than you expect.


The two songs we heard today — Peter Mayer’s Holy Now and Susan Werner’s May I Suggest — both bring out this idea of a holiness that is everywhere we look. It turns out there’s a connection between that conception of holiness and the ideas about God that were expressed by one of our Unitarian ancestors, William Ellery Channing.

In 1828, Channing delivered a sermon in which he discussed his conception of God. Channing argued that we humans discover the nature of God by looking within, by observing our own souls. Channing wrote that “the idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity.”

Channing knew that people might object to this; he knew that people might argue that we get our ideas of God not just from our own souls, but also from seeing God’s influence throughout everything we see and experience. Channing wrote:

The universe, I know, is full of God. […] [T]he effects and signs of [God’s] power, wisdom, and goodness, are apparent through the whole creation. But apparent to what? Not to the outward eye, […] but to a kindred mind, which interprets the universe by itself. […] We see God around us, because he dwells within us. It is by a kindred wisdom, that we discern his wisdom in his works.

So Channing acknowledges that there is evidence of God throughout all of creation, in the same way that Peter Mayer says that everything is holy; but Channing also says that we only comprehend this holiness because of God’s image within ourselves. This private comprehension of holiness connects with Susan Werner’s “secret world” addressed to us; just as we make things holy by treating them with reverence, Channing says that we only see the evidence of God around us because of the presence of the Divine within us.


When we are facing pain or oppression, or when we confront evil in the world, the belief that “everything is holy,” or that “everything can be made holy,” can seem hopelessly naïve. How can we reconcile this theology with the existence of pain, and oppression, and evil? Let’s think about this by looking at a situation where holiness seemed very far away.


In the late spring or early summer of 1945, just as World War II was ending in Europe, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s European Service broadcast some interviews with German soldiers who had been captured by the Allied forces.1 One of these German prisoners of war talked about his Christian faith and his unhappiness with what the National Socialists had done. He ends by telling a story which has since been repeated, and retold, and embellished over the years. The story, as he told it, is this:

In a shelter in Cologne, where young Catholics were keeping some Jews in hiding because their lives were threatened, American soldiers found the following inscription:

I believe in the sun — even when it is not shining.
I believe in God — even when He is silent.
I believe in love — even when it is not apparent.

How do these words, and the story told about them… how do they fit into the idea of holiness everywhere?

For some theists, the answer might be that underneath everything, God is still present. God may be silent, and human evil may have temporarily obscured the Divine, but God is still there. The words in the shelter are words of faith that God is never entirely gone, and that the Divine will reappear eventually.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

There are other ways of finding holiness in these words and the story behind them. In 1946, a Lithuanian-born Jew named Zvi Kolitz published a short story in a Yiddish newspaper in Buenos Aires.2 The story uses the “I believe in the sun” quotation as its epigraph; but it complicates and transforms the image. Kolitz’s story is in the form of an imaginary note, hidden in a bottle and found in the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto. Kolitz’s imagined note is written by a Jew who fought fiercely with his comrades against the Nazis who were destroying the ghetto. Kolitz’s narrator tells of his friends and his family dying; he tells of the Germans he has killed; he tells of how he himself will soon be killed. And he does tell of his belief in God; but, more, he tells of his argument with God, of his complaint to a God who would permit such destruction.

In Kolitz’s story, belief in God is not the point. For Kolitz’s narrator, the holy lies in his identity as a Jew, in the traditions and history of his faith. “I love God,” he says, “but I love God’s Torah more.” So here we find another version of the holy: Being true to one’s self, being true to one’s community, being true to a tradition.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

As a humanist, I see another way of finding the holy in these stories. The German POW tells of words inscribed in a shelter. Zvi Kolitz’s narrator leaves his testament of faith in a bottle, for others to find. Both of these stories have this common thread: a message left for the future.

For a humanist faced with bleakness and oppression and the likelihood of death, the answer might be that while there is no holiness right now, I can have faith that one day I will see it again; and if I do not survive, then one day someone else will come who will see hope, and who will create holiness — and who will recognize that I had been here; someone in the future will empathize with the present me, will honor my struggle, and will create holiness in that way.

In this view, the holy lies in reaching out, in finding common humanity. This is the holiness that we all can feel, even when we are suffering, when a friend is there to be with us.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.


Whether you are a humanist, or a theist, or both, or neither…

Whether you believe the holy comes from God, or from reverent attention…

Whether you meditate, or pray, or find peace some other way…

I invite you to notice the holy around you — the holy amidst us all. Alone, or with others — The reverence with which you treat the world will enrich your life and may give hope where there had been none before.

Today, tomorrow, this week, this month… Remind yourself to pause.

Be present; find the holiness around you; and consider, that this moment, and this moment, can be the best part of your life.

Blessed be. Amen.


Cover image:
Public domain image from Pixabay.com, uploaded by user Patrick Neufelder. Original here.


  1. A partial transcript of the broadcast was published in the Quaker magazine The Friend in London. You can read about this here
  2. You can read more about the history of Kolitz’s story here

I Believe in the Sun, Part III: The Secrets of Tigers

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;
I believe in love even when feeling it not;
I believe in God even when he is silent.

— An inscription on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where a number of Jews hid themselves for the entire duration of the war.


Many people have found inspiration in this quotation and the story behind it, and have passed it along, sometimes with embellishments. In the first two posts in this series, I wrote about the embellishments, and tracked down what seems to be the earliest written source for the quotation — a source that gives the words in a different order, with a different meaning. If you have thought about using this quotation yourself, I hope you are considering now how best to be true to its history; and I hope that you might also share my discomfort about how often this story about Jews in the Holocaust has been used specifically by Christians to support their own faith — and not so much by Jews, to support theirs.

So when I tell you now that the quotation, exactly as given above,1 is given on page 81 of The Tiger Beneath the Skin, a collection of stories published in 1947 by a Jewish Zionist named Zvi Kolitz,2 perhaps you will feel some relief. There’s an early source, written by a Jew, with the words in the familiar order! We can lay aside our concerns, and go ahead and use the quotation as it is given above, with no qualms!

Or we can look more closely.


Zvi Kolitz was born in the little town of Alytus, Lithuania. In the 1930s he went to Italy for school, and by 1940 he had moved to Jerusalem.3 Kolitz was part of Zabotinsky’s Zionist Revisionist movement, as well as a member of the paramilitary Irgun, which was devoted to ejecting the British from Palestine. He was imprisoned by the British a couple of times, and yet he also joined the British Army in 1942 and served as the Chief Recruiting Officer for the British Army in Jerusalem, to help build up the forces fighting against Germany.

After the war, he traveled widely, representing the Zionist Revisionists (officially) and the Irgun (secretly). As an emissary of the Zionist World Congress, he traveled to Argentina in 1946, and later to Mexico and the United States.


In 1947, Kolitz published The Tiger Beneath the Skin, the collection of short stories mentioned above. The book is a powerful document of its time, a reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, filled with rage, and sorrow, and dreams of mystical vengeance.

In “The Curse of the Rabbi of Rytzk,”4 a blind rabbi curses the German soldier who is about to kill him as he sits at prayer in his home. “Know then that it has been decreed from Heaven that you will not fall like a soldier in battle, but as a hunted criminal after the war shall have ended in your defeat. Your death will be delayed by Heaven so that you may live to witness the vengeance of the God of Vengeance on the evildoers of the earth. […] Your comrades […] will not know that God is preserving you only in order to avenge Himself on you […]” The soldier succeeds in his future battles, but he is haunted by a vision of the blind rabbi’s eye, filled with blood. He risks his life unnecessarily while fighting, and even tries to kill himself, but he always survives, and is driven mad by the constant vision of the rabbi’s eye. He escapes from the asylum where he had been placed and flees into a deep Russian forest, where, for a long time afterwards, Russian peasants tell of seeing a man walking on all fours, screaming horribly day and night.

In “The Legend of the Dead Poppy,”5 a mother and daughter are imprisoned in Treblinka. The daughter, 14 years old, is caught trying to escape, and is thrown alive into the camp oven. The daughter’s ash and bone is crushed with the remains of others and used as fertilizer for the fields of poppies surrounding the camp, and the mother believes she will be able to find the flowers that contain the soul of her daughter. She creeps through a wide spot in the electrified fence one night and wanders the fields, until she finds two poppies on one stem that look to her like her daughter’s eyes. She lies down with the flowers until morning, when the guards find her and drag her back to the camp, still holding the double-stemmed poppy. She, and the flowers, are thrown together into the oven. A few days later, when the Nazis pick poppies from the fields to decorate the tables at a celebration of Hitler’s birthday, the water in the vases turns blood red.

There are more stories in the book, as simple and as intense as these two. They are not gentle. They are not resigned. They echo the epigraph that Kolitz chose for the book, the epigraph that gives the book its title:

… For we are tired of bearing our sadness alone
And the secrets of tigers under the skin of a lamb.
—Ury Zvi Greenberg


Most of the stories from The Tiger Beneath the Skin have been forgotten, but one of them has become a classic of Holocaust fiction and has taken on a life of its own: “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God.”6

“Yossel Rakover” begins with its own epigraph: the “I believe in the sun” quotation, as given at the top of this page. But in contrast to the quiet, patient, passive faith suggested by the epigraph, “Yossel Rakover” tells a story of violent struggle, armed resistance, and argumentative faith. The story uses a framing device: It begins,

In the ruins of the ghetto of Warsaw, among heaps of charred rubbish, there was found, packed tightly into a small bottle, the following testament, written during the ghetto’s last hours by a Jew name Yossel Rakover.

Yossel Rakover is leaving a note for the future, telling the story of the final hours of the ghetto before the Nazis completely destroy it, and telling of his own imagined argument with God. He begins by describing how his wife and six children have all died by violence or disease, as they fled the countryside, came to Warsaw, and struggled to survive in the ghetto. He and a band of compatriots are in one of the last houses standing, and they have been fighting the German forces for days, with guns and Molotov cocktails. The house is crumbling, most of his friends have been killed, and Yossel Rakover is preparing for his own death: He has three bottles of gasoline, two of which he will use to kill Germans, and one he will soak himself with, so that when the Germans finally attack he will die quickly. Yossel Rakover believes in God, there is no question about that — but he questions God’s silence, and he wonders at how great God’s patience must be to allow the destruction of His people without interfering. Yossel Rakover argues with God, questions Him, accuses Him, and does not excuse Him. Yossel Rakover writes,

I die peacefully, but not complacently; persecuted, but not enslaved; embittered, but not cynical; a believer, but not a supplicant; a lover of God, but not blind amen-sayer of His.

And he closes with the words of Psalm 31:5 — Into your hands, O Lord, I consign my soul — which were also, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’s last words on the cross.


So yes, it is true: One can find the “I believe in the sun” quotation in Zvi Kolitz’s book. But to think that they summarize “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God” is to misread the story. “Yossel Rakover” undermines those words, and tells of a different kind of faith. “Yossel Rakover” is the tiger’s secret; “I believe in the sun” is the skin of the lamb.7


Before closing this installment, I should briefly say something about the amazing history8 of the story “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God.” Zvi Kolitz wrote the piece in Yiddish, and it first appeared (as “Yosl Rakovers vendung tsu got”) in the September 25, 1946 issue of Di Yiddishe Tsaytung, a newspaper serving the large Jewish community in Buenos Aires. Kolitz wrote the story when he was in Argentina in 1946; the editor of the newspaper invited him to contribute something to the paper to help commemorate the upcoming Yom Kippur observances.

The English version of the story that appeared in The Tiger Beneath the Skin was translated from the Yiddish original by Shmuel Katz9, who edited out some short passages whose theology he may not have agreed with. This 1947 translation apparently did not have much influence in literary society. However, in 1953 an anonymous Argentinian Jew sent a typewritten transcription of “Yosl Rakovers vendung tsu got” — without Zvi Kolitz’s name attached, and without any indication that the work was fictional — to the editor of a European Yiddish quarterly publication called Di Goldene Keyt. The story was published, but now it was taken to be fact, not fiction. It was widely spread, read over the radio in Germany, and discussed by public scholars, including Thomas Mann.

It took nearly 40 years for it to be firmly established once again that the piece was not an accounting of actual events, and was in fact written by Zvi Kolitz.

At present there are at least two English translations of the complete original text from Di Yiddishe Tsaytung. One, by Jeffry V. Mallow and Frans Jozef van Beeck, appears in the CrossCurrents paper listed in the bibliography below. The other, by Carol Brown Janeway, appears in the short book Yosl Rakover Talks to God10, and can also be found online here.

I highly recommend reading one of these translations. The story is compelling, and it will change your perception of the “I believe in the sun” quotation that this series of posts is devoted to.


The posts in this series:
1. Look away
2. The Friend
3. The secrets of tigers
4. Conclusion


Cover image:
Public domain image from Pixabay.com, uploaded by user Marcel Langthim. Original here.


Bibliography:

Kolitz, Zvi. The Tiger Beneath the Skin: Stories and Parables of the Years of Death. New York: Creative Age Press, 1947.

Kolitz, Zvi. Yosl Rakover Talks to God. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway; from the edition established by Paul Badde; with afterwords by Emmanuel Levinas and Leon Wieseltier. New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.

Kolitz, Zvi, Jeffry V. Mallow, and Frans Jozef van Beeck. “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God: A Story Written Especially for Di Yiddishe Tsaytung.CrossCurrents 44, no. 3 (1994): 362–377.


  1. Except that where I have put semicolons, the original had commas. 
  2. Zvi Kolitz, The Tiger Beneath the Skin: Stories and Parables of the Years of Death (New York: Creative Age Press, 1947). 
  3. My source for this bibliographic information is the essay by Paul Badde in the 1999 edition of Yosl Rakover Talks to God, listed in the bibliography. I am not sure how accurate Paul Badde is. He gives Kolitz’s birth year as 1919, while the Library of Congress information at the front of the book gives Kolitz’s birth year as 1913, and Kolitz’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times says that he was 89 years old when he died in 2002. This all seems in line with the confusion that surrounds the history of “Yosl Rakover.” 
  4. Kolitz, The Tiger Beneath the Skin, 1–14. 
  5. Kolitz, The Tiger Beneath the Skin, 61–68. 
  6. Kolitz, The Tiger Beneath the Skin, 81–95. 
  7. Thank you, Bella. 
  8. This history is gleaned from the 1994 CrossCurrents paper listed in the bibliography. It’s also outlined in Paul Badde’s essay, but the CrossCurrents accounting is easier to follow. 
  9. Zvi Kolitz, Jeffry V. Mallow, and Frans Jozef van Beeck, “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God: A Story Written Especially for Di Yiddishe Tsaytung,” CrossCurrents 44, no. 3: 374. 
  10. Zvi Kolitz, Yosl Rakover Talks to God, translated by Carol Brown Janeway (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 3–25.