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Thank You For Remaining Jewish

Thursday, 23 May, 2019 - 8:11 pm

"He could ask for anything!"
He could have any tyna he wanted!"
He could storm the heavens with the injustices he faces every day!"

It was the early sixties and the Hassidim sat with the Rebbe in New York as other Hasidim sat in Russia. It was before American Jewry had discovered the Iron Curtain (Let my people go!), before Scoop Jackson presented legislation on their behalf. It was a Shabbos and the Rebbe was telling of a letter that had been sent to him by a teenager in Leningrad.

"He could have demanded anything from heaven! He could have lodged any protest! Instead. . . " the Rebbe's voice choked on tears. His voice broke. Finally the words came. "Instead what does he ask? He complains that in the middle of his davening his mind wanders! And he is asking what he can do about it!"

I wasn't there that Shabbos. I would have been a baby if I had been. The story was told to me by someone who was there and remembered it over thirty five years later like it happened yesterday. I haven't verified the details.

But this I know. No one who was there davened by rote the next day. And if they did, they felt empty inside -- and were fuller for it.

Golda Meir was born in Russia and came back as Israel's first ambassador. The Commy mantra then was that Russian Jews saw themselves as communists first and their past superstitions were faded, senseless memories, etc. etc. Word got out that Golda Meir would be in shul Rosh Hashanah.

The women in the ladies' section came to touch the collar of her dress. They crowded around her. Goldenyu!, an old man shouted on her way out of shul, leben zolst du! -- a wish with a near imperative ring -- you shall live! Golda didn't know what to say until finally she blurted out in Yiddish, adank aich far bleiben yidden. Her words spread through the throng like wildfire, and she felt her limp words were a poor mockery of prophetic incantation. Thank you, she had told them, for remaining Jews.

So it was. Eastern Europe and America had changed roles, now America was der heim, the home, where Yiddishkeit thrived (relatively) unmitigated by surrounding circumstance. In the early eighties my mother met a man in Moscow who had been a younger boy in the yeshiva in Lubavitch when her father, my grandfather, was there. Her father had gone to America and in this old man's eyes, it was my grandfather, not he, who was living the full Jewish life. They were looking to America for much more than money and mezuzahs , they needed to know that while they were breaking their necks to get a piece of matzah on Pesach, Seders were extravagant family affairs across the sea -- and Yiddishkeit flourished. Otherwise the Jews of Silence would just have been a few lost souls abstaining from yeast in mid-March.

And so it is. Israel is in a time that tries big men. The iron curtain has been beaten into rockets and is falling on them. (Ceasefires mean a time to reload.) Israel needs our money. Because their finances have been interrupted. But that is only a small, small part of what they need. They need our political clout, but that is a small, small amount of what they need. They need our cries of support, but that too is a small, small part of what they need.

They know they are hated like no one else in a region where hate is the biggest cash crop and biggest export. They know they are hated because they are Jews. They know too that we are hated because we are Jews but they need to know that we know that too. That the hate is bearable for us because we know we have something beautiful and in the words of Anne Frank we would never want to give it up.

We look upon Israel with pride and sorrow, like we did a few decades ago, peering through that iron curtain. They need to know that we celebrate Yiddishkeit, not bear it. They need to know we don't hide it and we don't only remember it when somebody hates us. Any burden is bearable if it is meaningful. If we have meaning then they can bear it. If we don't have meaning, then what are they safeguarding?

In the spring of 1967, when the world spoke of an impending second holocaust confronting Israel, the Rebbe spoke of wearing tefillin. He quoted the Talmud that when we wear tefillin it invokes awe among all who see us and it protects us. I know there is much kabalistic exegesis developing the theme, but to me it remains esoterica.

This I know. When Israelis come to America, putting on tefillin often gains meaning for them. They tell me so. They tell me so in words and they tell me so in tefillin. When Americans see soldiers in Lebanon and at the Kotel putting on tefillin, it fills them with something inexplicable. I don't know why; the why I leave to the Rebbe. I just know that it does.

On your ramparts oh Jerusalem I have placed watchmen, assure the prophets. We see them and something shifts inside our chest cavity. They see us and the prophet's assurance echoes. In our wonderment something precious is guarded, nurtured and ready to be served when the kids laughing in the courtyard finish their game and come inside. Free. Safe. Home.

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