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Kaddish for a Cardinal

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Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger's life and death were rich in symbolism. Born to Jewish parents, he converted to Catholicism and rose through the ranks of the church, never forgetting his roots.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

There used to be a joke in Paris. What's the difference between the chief rabbi of France and the cardinal of Paris? The cardinal speaks Yiddish.

Jean-Marie Aaron Cardinal Lustiger was buried yesterday. He died this week of cancer. He was born almost 81 years ago to Polish-Jewish parents who ran a dress shop in Paris. When the German Army marched in, his parents sent Aaron 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 the reading of the names in France's Day of Remembrance for those French Jews who were deported and murdered. He came to the name Giselle Lustiger, paused, teared, and said, my mama. The effect in France during a time of revived anti-Semitism was electric.

He was just 13 and in hiding when he converted to Catholicism, not to escape the Nazis, he always said, for no Jew could escape by conversion and not out of trauma. He said - and it was 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 goyim. That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.

There were a great number of rabbis who considered his conversion a betrayal, especially after European Jews had so closely escaped extinction. Cardinal Lustiger replied, To say that I'm no longer a Jew is like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers. I am as Jewish as all the other members of my family who were butchered in Auschwitz or in other camps.

He confessed to a biographer that he had a spiritual crisis in the 1970s, provoked by a persistent anti-Semitism in France. He studied Hebrew. He explored immigrating. I thought that I'd finish what I had to do here, he explained, and that I might find new meaning in Israel. Then Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop of Orleans. He found purpose, he said, in the plight of migrant workers. Then he was elevated to cardinal, the archbishop of Paris. Jean-Marie Lustiger was close to the pope. They shared a doctrinal conservatism and had also battled bigotry and totalitarianism.

For years, Cardinal Lustiger's name appeared among those who would be considered to succeed John Paul. Without putting himself forward, the cardinal joked that few things would bedevil bigots more than a Jewish pope. I 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.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small