Think Again: Connecting to the Jewish story 352415

What is this Jewishness that we share and all our ancestors shared?

JEWISH IMMIGRANTS from the former Soviet Union 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
JEWISH IMMIGRANTS from the former Soviet Union 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
I first experienced the juxtaposition of Remembrance Day and Independence Day as a volunteer at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael in 1977. The Ma’agan Michael cemetery has more than its share of graves of those killed in Israel’s wars. Taking a bus to Jerusalem for the Independence Day celebrations, after having stood the night before at the cemetery along with the families and friends of the fallen, was disconcerting for a sheltered, recent law school graduate.
Last week, listening on Radio Kol Chai to mothers and wives speak about their fallen sons and husbands, I think I finally grasped the full power of the juxtaposition of the two days. The magnitude of the losses suffered in order to bring the State of Israel into being and secure it from never-ending threats, reminds us how precious is the object of that sacrifice.
That sense of what Israel represents in the sweep of Jewish history was absent from the dreary Independence Day events on US college campuses – “[Just] a bunch of kids eating cake” – described by columnist Caroline Glick last week.
The rabbi who married my wife and me once described to me how his father left the radio on that Shabbat night of November 29, 1947, to listen to the UN vote on Partition of Palestine. When he woke up his young son the next morning, there were tears in his eyes as he told him, “Yossi, we have a state.” Even the fiercely anti-Zionist Brisker Rav described that vote as a “smile from Heaven.”
Those kids eating cake – and they are the most identified of their peers – have never witnessed such tears, and might not relate to them if they did. Few of them have much knowledge, if any, of Jewish history, and of all that Jews endured in the two millennia of exile leading up to 1948.
The Jewish story is largely a closed book to them, and it is becoming ever more so. Two generations ago, before intermarriage became the norm, almost all Jewish children were raised by two Jewish parents. Being Jewish was one of the elements that bound their parents together, and Jewish pride was part of their cultural DNA. It was natural, then, that some at least would be interested in delving a little deeper into the story of our people.
Today, by contrast, Jewishness is more likely than not to be a source of division between the parents, and it is no longer natural for a Jewish child who asks himself, “Who am I? What is my history?” to start plowing through the pages of Jewish history.
Even in Israel, home to the majority, or close to it, of the world’s Jews, no great knowledge of Jewish history or even of modern Israeli history can be assumed. Certainly not such knowledge that leaves a young Israeli Jew feeling firmly rooted in the history of a particular and unique people.
Prof. Shlomo Avineri, a man of the Left but a Zionist of the old school, felt compelled to remind readers of Haaretz last week of some historical truths lost in one of the paper’s editorials keening about the Palestinian Nakba. To Haaretz’s neutral call for leaving matters of the Palestinian “emigration, expulsion and displacement,” whatever you want to call it, to the historians, Avineri responded that just as the question of whether Germany attacked Poland or Poland attacked Germany in September 1939, or whether Japan attacked the US at Pearl Harbor or vice versa, is not a matter of historical dispute, so is the fact that the “Nakba” was the result of a deliberate decision of the Palestinian leadership and Arab states to reject the UN partition plan not in dispute.
The so-called Nakba was not some sort of natural disaster that befell the Arabs living in Palestine, but the consequence of an Arab political decision, and to mourn it today is like mourning the “disaster” of millions of ethnic Germans expelled from their homes in Eastern Europe in the wake of the Nazi aggression and subsequent defeat.
More than a decade ago, the Education Ministry approved a ninth-grade history text on the 20th century that omitted any photographs of the horror of the Holocaust; replaced maps of invading Arab armies in 1948 with those of fleeing Arabs; attributed the proximate cause of the Six Day War to Israel’s downing of Syrian MiGs, while not mentioning Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s closure of the Straits of Tiran; contained no pictures of jubilation upon the reunification of Jerusalem; and ignored prominent examples of Jewish heroism – the Warsaw Ghetto, Entebbe, Operation Solomon.
Hillel Halkin summed up this primary text: “Nowhere is the ninth-grader reminded that he belongs to the people that he is reading about, that he is flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood; nowhere that their story is his.” To do so, the Israeli academic authors feared, might have led those students to dangerous feelings of pride in being Jewish. Only due to the hue and cry raised by Dr. Yoram Hazony about the textbook did it not take its place on the shelves of Israeli schools.
I write as one whose life was dramatically changed by my identification with the Jewish story. I still remember being struck in college by the fact that I was a link in a very long chain, and that chain depended upon me for its continuation. Such as described by Paul Goodman’s epigram to Growing Up Absurd from Rabbi Tarfon: “The task is not yours to complete; neither are you free to leave it off.”
The experience on an Israeli bus the morning of the Entebbe raid left me wondering as never before: “Why do I feel bonded to my fellow Jews on this bus in a way that I never feel to my fellow subway riders in America?” “What is this Jewishness that we share and all our ancestors shared, no matter how far removed from one another geographically or culturally?” The search for the answers to those questions was the turning point in my life.
Passover was spent reading an account of the ba’al teshuva movement in the former Soviet Union, The Underground: The Untold Story of How a Handful of Jews Helped Spark a Spiritual Revolution in the Soviet Union (Judaica Press). Most of the heroes described are still alive.
Author Yaakov Astor powerfully evokes the pervasive, constant fear in which Soviet citizens lived. Stalin had monthly quotas of citizens to be exiled to Siberia or shot. The victims might be randomly selected, since the whole purpose was to terrorize. Every private social gathering began with a precautionary toast to “our dear Comrade Stalin.”
The movement described began with Eliyahu Essas, a young mathematician who began teaching groups of students in Moscow in 1977, only a few years after he had first opened a Jewish book and begun studying Hebrew with Prisoner of Zion Yosef Begun. Others followed, many of whom had their start under Essas – Grisha Wasserman and his circle in Leningrad; Zev and Carmela Raiz in Vilna. When Rabbi Essas emigrated to Israel in 1986, those he had taught carried on.
Every participant in the clandestine study sessions knew that the KGB was watching and that any moment could bring a knock on the door followed by detention and exile in Siberia. The hundreds of emissaries sent from abroad to teach the eager Russian beginners by the Vaad L’Hatzolas Nidchei Yisrael were followed everywhere they went, subjected to lengthy searches at the airport, had their hotel rooms bugged, and occasionally – as in the case of Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, head of Chicago’s Telshe Yeshiva – were arrested and sent packing unceremoniously.
For the black-market price of one good camera smuggled in by the emissaries from America, a summer dacha (cottage) could be rented where dozens of families could get their first exposure to Judaism – putting on tefillin, a Shabbat meal, brit mila for adults – a little further from the ever-watchful eyes of the KGB and prying neighbors.
What lengths these Jews did go to keep the mitzvot.
Sasha Kogan and his wife, who led the religious revival in Kishinev, shared a bathroom and kitchen with 18 other families. To keep kosher, they had to rise at 3 a.m. to scrape and burn out the oven every day. Carmela Raiz and the other women from Vilna traveled 14 hours each way by train from Vilna to Moscow every month to immerse in the mikve. Later, they refurbished a long-abandoned ritual bath in Vilna and filled it with half-meter-thick ice blocks to immerse in the below-freezing water.
Yet, according to their sacrifice was their growth. Rabbi Mattisiyahu Solomon, mashgiah of the Lakewood Yeshiva, was amazed on one visit to find students starting from nothing and without readily available texts or regular teachers, reaching in three years the level of students in celebrated yeshivot such as Ponevezh or Mir.
Anyone wishing to gain a taste of the preciousness of Torah life and learning or to convey it to others could do no better than to start with this amazing contemporary chapter of the ongoing saga of the Jewish people.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.