All of us must feel battered and harassed by the endless influx of “news” which overloads our lives.
Today, we take a break.
Jewish identity is a complex matter. I have one explanation for our identity and survival. It will come at the end of this column. First let me relate two incidents from real life which gave me the key.Buenos Aires, the mid-1980s
We are in a parlor of a prosperous Jewish activist in Argentina. The room is packed with people in their 20s, women and men, well-dressed, well-coiffed, university graduates. Life has been good to them in spite of the rise and fall of dictatorships, and the presence of armed police of different types and names and uniforms at key places.
The Iranian-planned bomb attack on the main center of Jewish organizations was a few years into the future. Like most young Jews in the West, these were the professional and business people of the future, assured and poised.
A bright young woman, in the question and answer period which followed my talk about Israel, threw me this question: “If we call ourselves the Chosen People, does that not mean we are claiming Jews are superior. Isn’t this racist?” I had some answers, many answers and they were either too long and convoluted theology or too weak apologetic modernity. My talk had been in Hebrew and translated, tone for tone and nuance by nuance in quick bursts of sentences by a young colleague and friend, fellow Jerusalemite Danny Segre.
I sought a short retort, a reasonably satisfying one, and in a way a “true” one. “I have thought about this a long time,” I said.
“Dijo que ha pensado mucho....” came the translation. I turned to the translator and said very quietly, “I hope you can translate this. It’s in English, a poem by Ogden Nash.
Ready?” “I’ll try.”
Slowly I recited:“How odd of God
To choose the Jews....
It’s not so odd,
The Jews chose God.”
They all laughed, nodded their heads in agreement.
However we use the term “Chosen People,” its meaning changes across the wide spectrum of religious belief, practice or worldview of the users. Some believe it literally, some don’t. Some don’t use it at all. Some say, “Who has chosen us together with all other peoples.”
It is odd, isn’t it?
***** A few thousand years of Jewish survival Paris, 2009.
“How is it possible that we have existed so long? In spite of everything? There must be something....”
The rhetorical question was being asked by a man about 60, a Parisian. He is my first cousin. Our mutual grandfather was a Polish Jew who had a bakery in a small town not far from Kielce. He was lucky. He died a few years before the Nazis came One of his sons, my cousin’s father, was also “lucky” in his way. Maybe! At any rate, he had gone from left-wing Zionism to Communism. He died (too young) before the Communist dream was revealed to be a nightmare.
My cousin is therefore the grandson of a Polish baker, the son of a French intellectual leftist who made sweaters for a living. This cousin – M. – had never been interested in Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, Zionism, Israel.
Now he tells me: “All I’ve read for the last 10 years – every book – is on Jewish history.”
I had come from Jerusalem to France for his daughter’s wedding. At the festive kosher dinner I sat with another first cousin – H. Our fathers were brothers. Mine went to Canada.
H.’s parents were aspiring bourgeois who had joined the other (Communist) brother in Paris a dozen years before the War. They all survived both the Nazi occupation, and the Vichy collaboration. They were non-observant Jewishly, though their fathers were bearded pious Jews, their mothers wore the traditional wig, the sheytel.
(As I write this, nonetheless I recall singing Zionist songs with my uncle, his father, and reciting Bialik’s poems together. He had a prodigious memory and a good voice. This uncle also told me that he often read the weekly Torah portion in Yiddish translation.
Non-observant, yes, but nostalgic for his Zionist past and his Jewish milieu. He even bought a seat in the main Paris synagogue for Yom Kippur. I never asked whether he also fasted.) H., their son, is married to a French woman. She is not Jewish, and does not practice any religion. My cousin is a retired surgeon. He has studied Yiddish intensively over the last 20 years, and now attends a weekly class in Bible, reading the great Yiddish translation by Yehoash, the one his father used.
“Imagine if we believed that our ancestors could peer down at us from Heaven, just imagine,” I said to cousin H., laughing. “Imagine our grandfather from Poland seeing this traditional Jewish wedding in an up-scale Orthodox synagogue, with choir, organ, rabbi and cantor – all in the Moroccan Sephardi rite. The bride, his great-granddaughter, in a billowing expensive long white gown, a bit low-cut, and the women in dress slacks, or short skirts and uncovered heads.
“Imagine our uncle the Communist, seeing a costly and tasteful wedding dinner in a posh hotel, after the fancy synagogue wedding. There is a klezmer band playing consisting of three white and one black non- Jews, and a disco-type dance floor, and then yet another band and D.J. – with singers of all hues and religions.
They belt out modern French and international hits as well as Zionist songs and dances and Jewish religious wedding songs from Israel.... And all the food kosher! Chabad-certified kosher, no less.
“Imagine what our shtetel zaydeh and our communist uncle would think....”
“I am imagining,” he said.
We both chuckle. I get up to dance the hora with the bride and groom...
P.S., summer 2015: The bride, groom and their two young children recently made aliya and live in Tel Aviv.The key to survival
Here is the key.
The Jewish people will survive wars and prosperity, adversity and challenge, as long as Jews ask questions.
As long as they long for their transmitted Jewishness however pale it may be. As long as they want to dance at a Jewish wedding. To ask, and to dance.
To remember, to ask, to dance.
And to keep on asking.
Avraham Avi-hai visited main centers of the Western Jewish world in his capacity as world chairman of Keren- Hayesod-UIA. He holds degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York and has lived in Jerusalem since 1952. firstname.lastname@example.org