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Made in America

Thursday, 8 November, 2018 - 6:24 pm

Pulling out of the JFK parking lot was an arrow ‘To Manhattan’ with a silhouette graphic of the world’s most recognized skyline: over the two vertical blocks was painted the American flag. Several hours later having first stopped by the Ohel, (the Rebbe’s resting place) I had my first view of The City in over a year, the unbalanced skyline: the gaping wound of America.

Jewish Brooklyn was thriving and Governor Pataki wanted their votes, campaign posters there are printed in Yiddish and English “er hut unz geshtitz, mir shtitzen em” ; he supports us we support him. Simple, forceful and blunt. New York.

I was there for a conference of Chabad rabbis, shluchim – which serves a lot of us as part class reunion, part family reunion and part shopping trip. The highlight of the weekend is the Sunday Night Banquet. I had brought a friend from Rancho Mirage for the weekend. “What’s our plan, like what happens?” he asked. I wasn’t sure. You eat. Speeches. I don’t like over-promising.

The roll call began. The chairman had trouble with Azerbaijan, had an easier time with Congo, Bulgaria, Armenia, and another forty or so exotic names and gave oratorical flourish to England, Australia and Italy. You really do forget what’s happening outside your niche; you realize that the Rebbe made his niche wherever there were Jews.

Then came the time-line roll call: all the shluchim of the forties and fifties, the sixties, seventies and eighties – there were more in the nineties and 2K’s then all the decades combined!

Then came the children. Nine, ten and eleven year olds who had accompanied their fathers – all rabbis – from the far-off corners of the roll call as well as from a stone’s throw from the Downtown Brooklyn Marriott: Brooklyn Heights, the Financial District (now called Ground Zero) and Park Slope.

The kids made a presentation repeating an identical message in the languages of the countries they came from: Swedish (sounds remarkably like Hungarian), German (snooty-nasal Yiddish), Russian (a cute kid, my cousin’s son) and the run-of-the-mill French, Hebrew, Spanish, Farsi and English. The message of how they were proud of their parents etc. was undeniably rehearsed: hackneyed and stilted -- there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, or at least not on my face. 

Chaya, my wife, had just spoken last week to a classmate in Florida; her twelve-year-old son is perfectly capable of running every aspect their shul, and practically does. My cousin running a Boston university Chabad House claims his kids are the ones who make a difference in anyone’s life: he tries to stand out of the way and let them do it. Ditto Rancho Mirage.

These kids often leave home at painfully tender ages to go to the yeshiva nearest to them, often enough several hundred miles away. They always hate it and their parents are impossible to talk to the day after they drop their children off at the airport. They go to a Brooklyn, or a Jerusalem or some other place where everyone in the neighborhood goes to yeshiva and reads Yiddish campaign posters and don’t really relate to where these kids are coming from, what they are going through -- or where they are headed.

They go through the yeshiva system, the first few years they are miserable and homesick, crying into the phone, throwing tantrums on their visits home for Pesach and getting accustomed to this pit in their stomach. I admit, this is the worst-case scenario (I hope), some kids don’t have it so rough, but I speak from informed experience: I was one of them. 

But all through those years when the only ones more miserable than the kids are their parents, these boys and these girls keep in them, somewhere even deeper than that pit in the stomach, this burning . . .something: they are going to be shluchim, just like their parents. And amazingly they do.

So those hackneyed words fed them by whomever “we are so proud of you, dear parents and the wonderful work you do” the bothersomely flowery “our small hearts fill with pride” resonated with a truth they might themselves not realize that they possess. 

Seventy years ago the immigrant generation’s traditionally-minded looked with worry at the children born in modernity; how could they ever carry the torch? They looked with them with pity; how could they appreciate something they never saw? They looked with despair; who will say Kaddish for American Jewry? What will become of us?

The Rebbe looked with boastful pride: when Moshiach comes we will show off our kids to him, “Look! And they are Made in America!”

Are we pressuring our kids too much? Are they giving up too much? Will they (don’t even say it) resent an overdose of Yiddishkeit?

The parsha begins with comfort and assurance: not only did Abraham pride himself on Isaac but Isaac prided himself on Abraham. And they looked alike. 

America, you have a gaping wound. We Jews know something about gaping wounds. We know you must heal and make stronger, even, especially in unbearable pain. The greatest of the Greatest Generation, the ones who walked out of the ovens of Europe, heroically putting one Jewish foot in front of the other had kids (from where that optimism?) sent them to yeshiva (amidst the applause of virtually no one) and these survivors, now parents, grandparents and great-grandparents pride themselves on generations that looks like them, looks towards them -- even as the survivors themselves look towards their children, their rightfully boastful pride and nachas.  

The promise of a generation is written on the chubby faces and missing-tooth grins of the Rebbe’s little tikes. Keep up the good work kids. And (I know I don’t say it often enough) thank you.

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