Recovering Ashkenaz

A death can have little meaning for us if we do not understand the life that preceded it.

yad vashem  311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yad vashem 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
I first met with Natan, 90, the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day last year. He was one of the first among many elderly Jews from Eastern Europe I’ve had the fortune to meet, as part of a fellowship with the National Yiddish Book Center of Amherst, Massachusetts. I record their stories, in Yiddish and in Hebrew, as they tell about their lives and the Jewish world in which they grew up.
The meeting with Natan was unique, both for its timing and because he was a close friend of my grandfather’s from childhood. And the interview itself was extraordinary. In the course of three hours, he told me about the beauty of Hassidic life in his hometown in northeast Poland, with its camaraderie and kindness, and the vibrant and boisterous culture he experienced in Vilna as a student. He recounted the unfathomable destruction of his community and family, stories of revenge and escape to Kazakhstan, fighting on German soil with the Red Army and then evading that army to smuggle Jewish refugees through Italy en route to Palestine.
With a trembling voice, he read a letter he wrote, published in the American Yiddish newspaper Forverts in 1944, describing the slaughter of his community and crying out for revenge against the Germans. In 1948, he fought for Israel’s independence.
When he told of the death and slaughter of people, individuals among the millions, he looked out at me, across the abyss, through trembling eyes. There was not a trace of meanness in him, only an inconsolable broken-heartedness.
At the end of the interview, he confided: “I have never told anyone as much as I have told you.” And, he exhorted me: “Be faithful to Judaism, to Jewish Judaism.”
THE TIMING of my meeting with Natan was uncanny. The day before, I attended a large memorial event for the destroyed Jewish communities in a region of southeast Poland. We heard many declarations to the past and the future, many gestures of reverence. Speakers proudly acclaimed the contributions of Jews from that region to Israeli society, politics and culture. And yet, there was virtually no mention of, and as far as I could tell, hardly any sensitivity to the tremendous Jewish culture that was annihilated.
The memory of the Holocaust is a tremendous force in the Israeli and wider Jewish collective consciousness. Remembrance tends to focus almost exclusively on the German-perpetrated destruction, and Jewish responses – but not on the unfathomable Jewish richness that was destroyed. Knowledge of pre-war life is scant; mention of that life is often instrumental and subservient to the narrative of destruction.
It is self-evident that a death can have little meaning for us if we do not understand the life that preceded it. Today, we are largely estranged from those we memorialize. Lacking an internal, empathetic knowledge of those people and their culture, we lose the sense for their realness and their preciousness.
There is so much spoken about preserving the stories of survivors and learning the lessons of the Holocaust and I firmly believe in that national mission. Yet, equally important for the present and future of Jewish life is the memory of the world that was destroyed. Each living person from Eastern Europe bears a wealth of knowledge about that culture. And beyond details and facts, these people communicate – in their stories, in the song of their speech, in their sighs and in their personalities – something ineffable: a profound and exquisite Jewishness (yiddishkeit) that is now so rare in the world.
Their stories of destruction and survival are indeed valuable. But this pales in comparison with the preciousness of the people themselves, these Jews, the last bearers of that exalted yiddishkeit which blossomed in the cities and shtetls of Poland, Lithuania and beyond. Their stories testify to the death of Ashkenaz; their personalities testify to its magnificent life. Now, before time runs out, we must be witness to them.
EASTERN EUROPEAN Jewry was a profound folk culture: Its cultural treasures came directly from its people; the treasures were its people.
It was a culture that – until and to a degree through the modern period – venerated learning, piety, devotion to God and to people. Jews were unimpressed by shows of strength. To them, kindness was the measure of strength. They manifested the rabbinic encapsulation of Jewish character: rahmanim, bayshanim, gomlei hasadim – “merciful, humble, doers of charity” (Yevamot 79a). They understood, in a very immediate way, that Jewish existence is both tragic and sublime.
How much wisdom they had, how much sweetness and strength, how much stubborn devotion to goodness and to yiddishkeit. They had poignancy without self-indulgence, humility without self-awareness. Their jokes, which were more David than Goliath, their songs that were full of longing, their dances and tales, their magnificent language Yiddish and its irrepressible wit – all bespoke a Jewishness that was at once refined and unpretentious. And in their eyes would shine occasionally a glimmer of brilliance – di shkhine fun ge’oynus: “the indwelling of genius” (to borrow the words of Kadya Moledvosky, the great female Yiddish poet).
Those Jews, distanced by time and space from the ancestral land, were deeply rooted in the soil of the Jewish soul.
Indeed, their focus on inwardness and spirituality was one-sided. Many of recent generations – beginning in Eastern Europe and in pre-independence Israel – reacted to this and moved to the opposite extremity. In a sudden reversal of values, gvurat yisrael – the strength of Israel – replaced tiferet yisrael – the beauty of Israel. Profundity was often exchanged for outwardness. The new values led us to mistake those Jews for weaklings. We equated them with frailty of body, and overlooked the immensity of their spirit. Along the way, we became calloused to Jewish soulfulness.
The idea of “negation of the Diaspora” remains deeply entrenched in Israeli consciousness. In recent years, leading Israeli social commentator Prof. Asa Kasher opined that the success of Zionism is to be measured by the degree to which Israeli society purges itself of galut (exile, or Diaspora). Sadly, so many of our people still scorn all things galuti – excommunicating the past, and by extension, the Jews who lived in the past.
The obliteration of the Holocaust, combined with self-rejection (the spur of much modern Jewish self-reinvention), has led to a rupture in the flow of memory. We now no longer know our own past. We are estranged from our roots, and thus from ourselves. The building of a Jewish state, Jewish culture and learning, the practice of Judaism – these continue to offer us meaning, inspiration and vision. But once cut off from the wells of our recent past, our present becomes desiccated. Estranged from our most immediate sources of life and Judaism, our actions and creations become hollow. We are like strings without a sound box.
Zionism seeks to be the flowering of our redemption. How will we produce flowers if we cut at our own roots?
There is undeniably so much good in our present Israeli society; yet saying so need not preclude recognizing and embracing the extraordinary and profoundly Jewish elements of Diaspora Jewish cultures. In our effort to justify the Zionist project, we thought it was necessary to reject our forebears – to articulate our strengths as the redemption of a broken past. Fortunately, some are beginning to realize that bold new projects need not negate the past that is a part of us, that acknowledging – as the first step to recovering – the treasures of the past need not threaten our brave new world.
One long-term test of Zionism may be whether it proves strong enough and true enough to stand without the ideological crutches of historical rejectionism, to draw on rather than denigrate prior Jewish cultures. It is by bringing the present into resonance with what transcends the present that our people rises to hayei olam – the everlasting life whose seeds lie implanted in us.
What we do today – living in and building a Jewish state, working Jewish land – we will realize, is not for us; it is for the Jewish people in its entirety. Opening ourselves to the eternally Jewish, we will behold this moment in our national life and cry with the tears of an eternal people.
WE NEED that culture today – we need its wisdom and its honesty, its song and its silence. I believe there is no better way to recovering our past than one-on-one meetings between old and young and the sharing of stories and wisdom. Digitally preserving their stories, and simply meeting them, could become a national project. Following the precedent of the Yad Vashem survivor interviews, these meetings could be directed toward last-minute cultural preservation. They may contribute to the reknowing of that culture and of other Diaspora communities, to a radical Jewish self-remembering.
This project is an urgent one. With the Holocaust, we have 10-20 yearsto preserve the experiences of people who witnessed an event ofsignificance for all of humanity. With Eastern Europe, we may have lesstime: Those old enough to remember are in their 80s and 90s. They bearwith them the last glimpses of Ashkenazi civilization – not onecatastrophic event but a millennium-old culture of holiness and humor,fire and sweetness. If we do not preserve these remnants, then thememory of that profound Jewish culture, and those profound Jews, willbe lost for all generations. These are the last Jews of Eastern Europe.
The first luhot, the tabletsgiven at Sinai, though shattered, were preserved and carried with theJewish people through the desert and into the Land of Israel. The luhotof Eastern European Jewry were reduced to dust and ashes and scatteredby the wind. All that remains are a few scintillating grains. Let usreach out and preserve what we can before they too vanish.
The writer graduated from Brandeis University in 2008. He is presently studying in a yeshiva in Bat Ayin.