The 20th-century secular Jewish world was characterized by a literature of nostalgia about the origins of these now secular personages in the previous religious life and the society of the shtetl. Having turned their backs on Jewish observance and traditional Torah values in favor of a new world of socialism, communism, secular Zionism and other then avant garde philosophies and ideals, many of these Jews in later life were swept by waves of nostalgia and some even by a sense of remorse over what was lost in the headlong, almost unthinking, plunge into the utopian promises of the future and the "new Jew."
Chaim Weizmann's bedroom in Rehovot, where he passed away, shows an open prayer book as his last intellectual exercise. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi became a regular synagogue attendee. Zalman Shazar was much more of a Chabad hassid at the end of his life than an idealistic socialist. Nathan Birnbaum, who was a compatriot of Herzl and who gave Zionism its name, ended up as the basic theoretician of Agudat Yisrael. Dr. Bernard Revel gave up his revolutionary ideas and instead devoted his life and great talents to building a Torah community in America as the innovative and dynamic head of what today is Yeshiva University. Lev Kamenev, the ruthless Bolshevik comrade of Lenin, was executed by Stalin's NKVD while reciting the Shema. There are numerous other instances of such displays of nostalgia and remorse that dot the landscape of 20th-century Jewry.
A common feature in the lives of all of those mentioned above, as well as of the Jewish world generally, was a familiarity with Jewish observance and practice, even if the people were themselves completely non-observant. They had something to be nostalgic about if they wished to. However, the secular Jewish world today does not possess that resource that could engender a change toward a more traditional lifestyle and value system. There is nothing to be nostalgic about because, in the main, its past is completely devoid of Jewish knowledge and appreciation of the wonder of Judaism and the comforting solidity of traditional Jewish life.
The socialist Zionist leader Ber Borochov ruefully remarked that "we had hoped to raise a generation of apikorsim - knowledgeable Jews who rebelled against tradition and Torah - but instead we have raised a generation of ignoramuses as far as Judaism is concerned." The typical ba'al teshuva today - both here and in the Diaspora - does not come from a sense of nostalgia and remorse. Rather, he or she comes from a world of Jewish ignorance, assimilation and confusion as to identity and ultimate purpose. Today's ba'al teshuva movement, strong and vital as it is, carries no nostalgic memories with it. Since there is no connection to any spiritual Jewish roots involved, the task of creating the "old Jew" out of this new Jew is infinitesimally more difficult. I have found that remorse is present in this search for self, but tragically there is no nostalgia involved.
In the Orthodox world, there is a great sense of nostalgia. But since we now live 65 years after the demise of European Jewry, much of this nostalgia is contrived, unreal, even fanciful. The nostalgia is built about legends of perfect people, idyllic social life and fantastic communities. This type of contrived nostalgia often leads to excessive demands and skewed opinions in our world. The historic truth is often bent to accommodate current political correctness. True appraisals of current problems and situations are often rendered impossible because of this adherence to legends and fables.
So the problem of nostalgia, its absence and its sometimes overly contrived existence, plagues our generation. The educational systems in the Jewish secular and religious worlds combine to make this problem an acute one. One section of the Jewish world is unaware of the legends that give flavor to Jewish life, while another section blindly believes every fantasy and story advanced about our past. The Jewish world is therefore divided into the camp that possesses no nostalgia at all, for it has no knowledge of what to be nostalgic about, while another group creates and invents a society, behavior and personalities to be nostalgic about.
Maybe exaggerated nostalgia is better than no nostalgia at all. But I am convinced that truth and accuracy about our past will serve the Jewish people best as we face our current problems and inscrutable future. It will help spare us from future remorse.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator. www.rabbiwein.com