On Jewish hubris and Jewish pride - opinion

intermarriage is a phenomenon that is one painful by-product of Jewish integration into the broader, multi-cultural society that has surrounded us.

 AN IDF officer salutes, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, in front of a statue of Mordechai Anielewicz, commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the kibbutz’s old, destroyed water tower, as the nationwide siren to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day sounds, in 2011.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
AN IDF officer salutes, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, in front of a statue of Mordechai Anielewicz, commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the kibbutz’s old, destroyed water tower, as the nationwide siren to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day sounds, in 2011.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Jews are often in the news. As members of the tribe, we hope that the stories will cast our brothers and sisters in a positive light for the news-consuming public.

Olivia Newton John’s Grandfather was a Nobel Prize Winning Physicist” was the headline of an article recently published on Aish.com. That article then detailed Ms. Newton-John’s Jewish roots. Her maternal grandfather, the physicist, Max Born, was a German Jew who married Hedwig Ehrenberg, a descendant of Rabbi Phillip Ehrenberg (who was influenced by the German Jewish Reform movement).

Hedwig, the maternal grandmother, had a non-Jewish mother; and hence her children were not Jewish, and therefore neither was her granddaughter, the famous Olivia Newton-John. The Aish.com article makes that last point clear.

Newton-John’s death was widely reported in the Anglo-Jewish press and evoked a lot of pride as a result of her Jewish ancestry. On August 8, an article in The Jerusalem Post written by the Post Staff related that, “Newton-John was Jewish on her mother’s side...” If she was Jewish on her mother’s side, that implies that she was indeed Jewish. But clearly, as the child of a non-Jewish mother, she was not Jewish. The Post staff was not careful in its formulation.

Newton-John was a popular, successful film star and singer who had a big fan following. Her passing evoked sadness amongst her many admirers. Many Jews like to play Jewish geography and any celebrity with Jewish roots is a source of pride. Hence, the death of Newton-John, the non-Jew, was widely covered in Jewish media.

 JOHN TRAVOLTA and Olivia Newton John in ‘Grease.’  (credit: PARAMOUNT) JOHN TRAVOLTA and Olivia Newton John in ‘Grease.’ (credit: PARAMOUNT)

There is a dark side to this story. Newton-John was the product of intermarriage, a phenomenon that is one painful by-product of Jewish acculturation and integration into the broader, multi-cultural society that has surrounded us. An October 1, 2013, Pew Survey of US Jewry, “...suggests that intermarriage is common among Jews; 44% of all currently married Jewish respondents and 58% of those who have been married since 2005 indicate they are married to a non-Jewish spouse.” These are devastating numbers for Jewish peoplehood in the USA. We cannot imagine that the numbers are better anywhere in the world except in Israel.

In the Jewish Canon, the Book of Ruth tells of the flight of Elimelech and Naomi to land of Moab during the famine in their time. The names of their two sons are Mahlon and Kilyon. Those names have ominous meanings: “Mahlon” could mean illness; “Kilyon” might imply destruction. Perhaps these were not their real names given to them by their parents at birth and the Bible gives them those names because of what follows in the narrative: “And they took wives of the women of Moab: the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth; and they dwelt there about ten years. And Mahlon and Kilyon died, both of them; and the woman (Naomi) was left bereaved of her two children and of her husband.” (Ruth 1:4,5).

Intermarriage in the Book of Ruth

MAHLON AND Kilyon destroyed the Jewish legacy of their family by intermarrying. Perhaps that is one of the messages that the author of Ruth was trying to convey. Once they had no hope for future Jewish generations, they died. Intermarriage terminates the continuity of the Jewish nation. Aish.com should have noted this in their report.

Recently, Aish.com and other Jewish news outlets also reported an inspiring story from Warsaw, Poland. In the Muranow District at 18 Mila Street, one finds a monument dedicated to the left-wing Zionist ZOB (Jewish Combat Organization) fighters, led by Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt.

Mila 18 is the address of the ZOB bunker that was discovered by the Germans on May 8, 1943. All of the fighters there committed suicide rather than surrendering to the Germans. If you visit Warsaw, you can see a large heap of stones which covers the bunker.

It is important to note that there was also a right-wing Revisionist group, the Jewish Military Union, that was actively involved in the revolt. The tragedy of the Warsaw Ghetto is compounded by the fact that political differences prevented the two groups to unite in their revolt, even under the horrific circumstances in the ghetto - but more on that in another article.

Interestingly, Polish archaeologists led by Jacek Konik succeeded in locating and excavating the exact site of the bunker of Mordechai Anielewicz, commander of the ZOB. Among the items found at the site were many personal religious items used by the leaders of the rebellion and its fighters, including tefillin, torn pages from the Talmud, hand washing cups and Shabbat candlesticks.

How inspirational is it that Jewish fighters not only bring weapons to the battlefield, but tefillin and other religious paraphernalia as constant companions, as well. The Israeli archeologist, Yigal Yadin, discovered tefillin in one of the Bar-Kochba caves in the Judean desert. The courage to fight, pray and practice Judaism links Jewish heroes separated by two thousand years in time!

In conclusion, what a contrast there is between the sad story of assimilation and intermarriage in Newton-John’s background on the one hand, and the uplifting, heroic accounts of taking tefillin to battle in the Bar-Kochba caves and the ZOB bunker in Warsaw on the other. May the members of the Jewish nation choose the path of cultural and religious continuity, and not the path that leads to our disappearance.

A recent oleh, Heshie Billet is rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere and a member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. A recent olah, Rookie Billet retired from a long career as a Jewish educator, principal, shul rebbetzin and yoetzet halacha in the US, and hopes to contribute to life in Israel.