Will The Children Understand

I recently finished reading Rabbi Daniel Gordis‘s most recent dispatch called Life Between the Sirens. Not unlike his other dispatches there is a ton of meat in this post. He discusses Israeli/Jewish politics, history and more.

And though he writes quite well I rather suspect that his dispatches are too long and in some respects too sophisticated for many people. That is an obnoxious statement on my part, but in the modern age I think that many people are searching for the quick and easy answer. But that is a topic for a different post.

Rather, I want to focus on a couple of things he said.

“Elisheva and I were watching the national broadcast of the Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) evening ceremony a few weeks ago. As each of the six large torches (the symbolism of the number being rather obvious) was lit, and, as is always the case, a particular survivor was invited to light the torch, the commentator mentioned, almost as a throwaway line, that “by the year such and such there will be no more survivors to light these torches.” And though I don’t remember what year he mentioned, it wasn’t far off.

No more survivors. It struck me at that moment, that our son, Micha, who was about to have his Bar Mitzvah only a few days later, would grow up as an adult in a world in which he wouldn’t hear survivors tell their stories. There will be videos, of course, but it won’t be the same. As an adult, he won’t see, as I often do when I ride a Jerusalem bus on a hot summer day, a woman in a sleeveless dress with a blue-ish number tattooed on her arm, a reminder of at least part of why most Israelis who’ve made aliyah from Western countries put up with the terrible driving, with people talking in the movies, with smaller houses and lower salaries and much more.

It’s not only that, of course. It has much more to do with the revival of a Jewish life and an intensity of that life that simply can’t exist anywhere else. But still, it’s not unrelated to an abiding historical awareness. Because, at the end of the day, knowing that the Jews need a place to call their own, to determine their own destiny, isn’t dark or paranoid. It’s actually the only realistic read of history that I know, the only way I can imagine to respond to the sickness that’s spreading across Europe again (witness, just for starters, France’s Muslims, Britain’s academics and Sweden’s foreign ministry), virtually unchecked.

Imagining Micha growing up in a world without survivors, I did a bit of math. And I realized that 1938 is approximately half as long ago as the end of the American Civil War. And the Civil War, as far as my kids are concerned, might just as well have happened right after the Ice Age. It’s ancient history, so far back as to be virtually irrelevant. Not a terribly sophisticated historical perspective, admittedly, but the Civil War evokes from them no emotional response. Is that where we’re headed with the Shoah? Is that where we’re headed with Israel’s War of Independence? Is that why there were fewer flags draped on the houses around ours this year before Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day) than in recent years? Is time simply slipping by? And if it is, what will keep fathers and sons here, as opposed to someplace else?”

This really struck me because although his children are older than my own I face the same challenge. They will grow to become adults in a world of no survivors. And to a certain extent that is ok because my fervent hope is that they will grow up in world in which tales of genocide are history and not the recent past. But I am not real hopeful.

Africa is burning and there are far too many other incidents that lead me to think that this is one little demon that humanity is always going to face. And to a certain extent the survivors are the best tool/resource we have for educating the children, for trying to build a future in which this never happens, to any people ever again.

There is one more section that I want to cite. He talks about having read Amos Oz biography and offers an edited version of a section that touched him.

“But my father said to me as we wandered there, on the night of November 29, 1947, me riding on his shoulders, among the rings of dancers and merry-makers, not as though he was asking me but as though he knew and was hammering in what he knew with nails: Just you look, my boy, take a very good look, son, take it all in, because you won’t forget this night to your dying day and you’ll tell your children, your grand-children and your great-grandchildren about this night when we’re long gone.

And very late, at a time when this child had never been allowed not to be fast asleep in bed, maybe at three or four o’clock, I crawled under my blanket in the dark fully dressed. And after a while Father’s hand lifted my blanket in the dark, not to be angry with me because I’d got into bed with my clothes on but to get in and lie down next to me, and he was in his clothes, too, which were drenched in sweat from the crush of the crowds. ….

Then he told me in a whisper … what some hooligans did to him … in Odessa and what some Gentile boys did to him at his Polish school in Vilna, and the girls joined in, too, and the next day, when his father … came to the school to register a complaint, the bullies refused to return the torn trousers but attacked his father, Grandpa …

And still in a voice of darkness … my father told me under my blanket in the early hours of November 30, 1947, “… from now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew…. Not that. Never again. From tonight that’s finished here. Forever.”

I grew up in a time in which there were thousands, no millions of people who remembered the Holocaust as a part of their lives, be it as a survivor, witness or just someone who was alive during the war. I grew up in a time in which millions of people Jews remembered a time in which there wasn’t a modern State of Israel and antisemitism was something that was far more real to many more people.

I heard stories from my great-grandparents about pogroms and cossacks. I heard stories about unbridled joy and happiness when Ben-Gurion announced the creation of the modern State of Israel.

The world in which my children live is so very different and so very similar. I wonder will the children understand what drives me. I wonder will they look at history and see it as something that happened to someone else. Will they be detached from it or will they key in and see how the past relates to the future.

I have to follow this up with a post about that, but not now. I need more time to consider it all.

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  1. StepIma June 5, 2006 at 2:52 pm

    great post. sorry it got corrupted by the comments.

  2. Jack's Shack June 5, 2006 at 2:21 pm

    well that is impressive and I know very little about conservatism

    That is obvious.

    but what percentage of your congregation is married to non-Jews?

    How many of yours have left the derech?

    How many of your siblings/immediate family are married to non-jews?


    how many weddings of Jews with non jews have you been in the last year?

    sorry for the truth.

    The truth is that you do not know what you are talking about. You don’t have any valid statistics, just a garbled and convoluted impression of what you think might be happening.

    I can poke a million holes in your theory. How many of your Orthodox friends eat treif, watch TV on Shabbos or commit any number of other aveiros when they think no one is watching.

    The reality is that there are many who do so. Sorry for the truth. See, it carries as much weight as your comment.

  3. Stacey June 5, 2006 at 12:57 pm

    most american non-orthodox Jews are lost.

    Ridiculous. I am not Orthodox and never will be and I am certainly NOT lost. I have a strong Jewish identity and so do my children (and they are only 2 and 4).

    The Reform movement and other liberal branches of Judaism account for (by far) the largest number of Jews in the U.S.

    Try stepping into one of shuls and you might be surprised.

  4. Datingmaster, Jerusalem June 5, 2006 at 9:27 am

    well that is impressive and I know very little about conservatism but what percentage of your congregation is married to non-Jews? How many of your siblings/immediate family are married to non-jews?
    how many weddings of Jews with non jews have you been in the last year? More than 10?
    sorry for the truth.

  5. Jack's Shack June 5, 2006 at 7:16 am


    I am the third generation here in America. I am active in my shul and have always been.

    My children know that they are Jewish. They know about the chagim. My son has spent the last couple of years in a class in which the instruction is solely in Hebrew.

    He is quite comfortable as a Jew and an American.

    His schooling has taken place at a Conservative shul.

    The words you speak are strong, heady words, but I wonder how much you know about non Orthodoxy.

    I cross over quite easily into your world because I am familiar with it, but I wonder how familiar you are with mine.

    The big question is did you bother to read the essay.

  6. Datingmaster, Jerusalem June 5, 2006 at 6:57 am

    Living in America, chances are that most of your grand-children will have no connection to Judaism or Israel. most american non-orthodox Jews are lost.
    by deciding to live in america, its over for your Jewsih future-sorry for the truth, boychik

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