We Are Here

We talk about doing mitzvos lishmo and lo lishmo. But what do we say about mitzvos done out of spite?

In my mind I have seriously considered the possibility that even if there were no Discovery Seminar, no Jerusalem Fellowships, no Partners in Torah, no spoon-fed Judaism for restless quasi-intellectual Jewish Ivy Leaguers – that if I just knew how to be as Jewish as possible, as assertively unassimilated, talking- with- my- hands, black- hat- wearing, walking- across- your- town- with- my- talis- on Jewish, I would do it just to spit in the eye of the world that tried to liquidate us all.

That is the blackness that takes up part of my soul as a result of growing up in a Holocaust family — mine and yours. If I G-d forbid did not believe in Torah mi-Sinai (Revelation), in Torah she-ba’al peh and emunas chachomim (the Oral Law and faith in the sages) I just might go through all the motions anyway just to shtokh (poke) the rest of the world. Mir zaynen doh: Here we are. Gag on it!

The more I pore into the reality of what happened then, the darker the black gets. Yes, the spots of light, the edifying Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s Name) moments are compelling, and in relief against the nadir of human history they should shine as brightly as suns. But in the deep blackness of darkest space, and from so far away, they are but little light dots. What there is mostly is the dark, and the cold, and the death. There could be no inspiration for me in the Kiddush Hashem of the Holocaust. “We” were already yotzei Kiddush Hashem mehadrin min-hamehadrin (we had fulfilled it in its highest form).

Did this ebony anger make me “frum”? Did this jolt of bitterness rip me from the fast track in a promising legal career to two years in three yeshivos and a different path?

It may not have been. There were more mundane factors. But I am hard pressed to identify what among them made me any more conscious of my Jewishness, and more determined to resolve my own Jewish Question, than the myriads and thousands situated the same.

I was not the only one from a survivor family in my time and place – and my parents were not survivors, not in the direct sense (of course when the crime is genocide, any member of the targeted people who lives is a survivor). One small branch of our family had left Europe in the ’30’s. But the rest were made dust and ash, and the remnants carried this pain from Poland to Cuba to America. It was soldered to my soul for six years at a summer camp (Camp Hemshekh — “Camp Continuity”) run by remnants of the old anti-religious Jewish Labor Bund, who had incorporated as Survivors of Nazi Persecution — what a name for a group formed to operate a summer camp! — and rebuilt their fantasy of a Yiddish secular culture paradise, where we sang the songs, read the poetry, acted the plays of Gebirtig and Peretz and Gelbart, celebrating a culture and a conception of a people that were no more.

But unlike the murdered children on whose lives our summers were to be modeled, we had another chapter in our repertoire. We learned the songs sung by the orphaned children and the mourning parents of the Warsaw Ghetto whose names we bear, the poetry of the partisans of the Vilna forests who were the gedolim of my youth, the literature of the rebels of Sobibor and Treblinka who were our models of techias hameisim (revival of the dead).

I thank the Ribbono shel Olam that I didn’t know enough Yiddish at that age to understand more than a few words of what I was saying, or who knows how bent I would be today! But that intense exposure to this tragic slice of Jewish life obviously affected me deeply. I am astonished when people from the “outside world” tell me that I must see this or that Holocaust movie –- don’t they know what I know already, the children’s Holocaust I playacted as a child? Did you ever hear of anyone who went to a summer camp that had its own simulated Warsaw Ghetto Wall, complete with cemented-in broken glass and barbed wire? No, I did not survive the Pit; I lived a soft and easy suburban life and merely spent my languid Catskill summers in Holocaust Camp, where for some reason in August we marched by torchlight at night to the Wall, humming a song we knew was called Ani Maamin but whose words they had never taught us… thought its meaning, somehow, they had. And you want me to watch in Technicolor the hopeless martyrdom that I already “lived” in my formative years?

This was the yesod of my emunah and of my bitachon (this is the foundation of my belief and my trust).

I knew there must be a reason. When the complete possibilities of assimilation were presented to me, I knew I carried around something that must have meaning and which needed resolution. To ignore this was to live in a world devoid of meaning and infinitely harsh.

Yet I saw so much good around me — so much love, so many outlets for creativity, for intellection and expression, for humane achievement; so much capacity for greatness. Still none of these things could outweigh an existential pain. What did I feel in the world that told me there was more, beneath what I knew — some profound good to answer that ultimate evil? Could existence really just be a dark vacuum punctuated with distraction and temporal pleasure?

This did not add up.

Will you believe me when I say that I was not in any other respect a candidate for the Baal Teshuvah “movement,” as popularly perceived? I actually had a pretty good thing going. I didn’t know where it was going, but I was looking pretty good getting there.

But … where was there? Where is here? After the City spat us out with most of the rest of the middle class, I spent the second half of my childhood in a place called Twin Rivers in New Jersey. Ten years before it had been a potato farm. So you will excuse me for not feeling particularly deeply rooted in the “here” of there.

One of the songs they taught us was the Partisan’s Hymn. Its refrain was, mir zaynen doh – “We are here.” The last verse is this, the famous one:

So never say you now go on your last way,
Through darkened skies may now conceal the blue of day,
Because the hour for which we’ve hungered is so near,
Beneath our feet the earth shall thunder, “We are here!”

These Yiddish guys got almost everything wrong. But this they got right. We are here. They may not be, now, and regrettably their offspring may not be, either. But we, their people, are here. And there must be a reason we are here. Does God (of course there is a God, this is not a serious question) want me to charm my way through life, through fancy college and fancy law school, through ballgames and politics and dating and “entertainment” and pizza pies — is that why, after all that, we are here?

This is an absurd proposition. A life infused with such vacuity is little removed from the nihilism that makes holocausts possible. How anyone, any Jew, can argue on behalf of such an existence, given what we know now, is as cold as any existential night I have ever pondered.

If I am here, despite it all, that I had some sort of duty that followed from being here. This meaning must be real, must be achievable. It took little for me to realize that I am here, despite a world’s best efforts to prevent it, for a reason; that without we, I am not here at all; and that without Torah and mitzvos, we are not… quite… really here.

20 comments on “We Are Here

  1. Thank you all for your kind, in some cases very kind!, comments.

    David Schallheim:

    I can’t imagine myself being more Jewish when I was a happy-go-lucky college student because I wanted to “show the goyim.” If anything, thoughts of the Holocaust darkness made me more assimilationist, if anything at all.

    I would think this is indeed the more common response, and why Holocaust education and the proliferation of Holocaust memorials and related Holocaust force-feeding are mostly a terrible idea. For me, somehow, it worked out differently. I am not sure exactly why.

    On the other hand, the link and quote from Chaim G. suggests that perhaps this is not the case. I’ll pick up a little bit on this comment Chaim quoted:

    Doesn’t a secular Jew typically believe that being indistinguishable from the non-Jews is the solution to anti-Semitism?

    I think many do, even when you demonstrate to them that to a large extent the more assimilation, the more vicious the antisemitic backlash — see Spain and Germany (but not pre-20th-century, and especially pre-colonial, America). The only response to that is if indeed being Jewish does not matter to you, and it is merely a marker for victimhood, then — if you can pass — assimilate away, of course; what is the point? As it is I can’t pass anyway (my pareve name notwithstanding), but I am not sure I appreciated that point earlier in my life!

    Even without survivors, sectors of Judaism would have probably have radicalized regardless.

    DK: Chaim G. is not a professional polemicist as some of us are, and erred by ceding (implicitly) your “radicalization” premise, which you have not demonstrated and cannot. Besides this, DK, I find your comments insightful and original.

  2. I don’t know, Chaim G. I am guessing on some level it may have been. People are affected by their collective history and narratives. Take a look at the German Jews in Washington Heights. They are not survivors in the strict sense, but they have become increasingly radicalized to some degree anyway. Part of this is the absolute failure of the West as a moral code in the eyes of Jews everywhere because of the Holocaust. Of course, this ignores that England fought the Nazis on principal to a large degree, but there is anger at the West generally. Ultimately, Judaism radicalizes as the Jews radicalize. Our experiences shape which ideas we emphasize and which we deemphasize. Even without survivors, sectors of Judaism would have probably have radicalized regardless.

  3. Had there not been a single European Holocaust survivor chas v’shalom, and USA and Isreali Jewry nevr benn “impacted” by charedim as we know them, would the religion still have been transmogrified ?

  4. “Had there been no Holocaust would there be an Israel? Without Israel would we still be enjoying endless benefits?”

    Who cares? I would trade Israel for the Jews who were killed. And anyway, Israel doesn’t look in a particularly great position in terms of viability. Chas v” Shalom, but..it just doesn’t.

    As for you claim that I was employing a “blame the victim,” well, it’s different. I don’t blame them for what happened to them! I recognize that sometimes damage…or at least a change…took place because of what they went through.

    That’s being a realist, not blaming the victim.

  5. >If there was no Holocuast, there is no end to the benefits we would enjoy as a people

    On this I whole-heartedly agree. Could anyone possibly disagree?

    Let’s play alternative history. Question: Had there been no Holocaust would there be an Israel? Without Isreal woudl we still be enjoying endless benefits?

    BTW I still find your previous comments ugly and informed with a blame-the-victim bias.

  6. Chaim G wrote,

    It’s hard to understand what youd’ve preferred, no Holocaust or a more efficient one with no survivors.

    Oh, Chaim G. I forgot that any criticism of Holocaustism is automatically intentionally misunderstood as pro-genocide or Holocuast denial. Very manipulative.

    This is eaxctly what I am talking about, Chaim G.

    Maybe then you’d still have your cherished old 50’s era USA-style Judaism in its pristine un-transmogrified incarnation?

    If there was no Holocuast, there is no end to the benefits we would enjoy as a people.

  7. Ron-

    Why, do you suppose, were the ex-Bundists able to transmit this message to you but not to so many of their own children? Why don’t we see more “in-your-face” Yiddish speaking anti-assimilationist cultural Jews?

  8. absolutely beautiful. thank you for sharing this. and it opens up an interesting topic – that of, how deep inside somewhere, even within the confines of a decidely un-orthodox frame of reference, attitudes can flourish which are the foundations of emunah and Torah. especially at this point in history, when it seems we are on the brink of loosing our connections to the historic, transformative experiences of those who came before us in dark times – your post reminds us that, even when it wasn’t what the transmitter thought they wanted to say, the message lives on. may all those who came before you have nachas along with Hashem!

  9. “Say what you will about the Arabs, but their political position was unanimous”

    For a short while on occasion. Their otherwise constant internecine warfare has only abetted the survival of the State of Israel.

  10. I would do it just to spit in the eye of the world that tried to liquidate us all.

    then:

    When the complete possibilities of assimilation were presented to me,

    and from comment 4 : “Doesn’t a secular Jew typically believe that being indistinguishable from the non-Jews is the solution to anti-Semitism?”

    I think it’s more than a (final) solution to anti-semitism. I think the fork in the road breaks as follows: Whom are you spiting? Who do you blame the Holocaust on? If the Nazis/Goyim are to blame then as their agenda was to erase me I will be as Jewish as I can be. If G-d (chas v’shalom) is to blame then as His agenda was to elect and choose me from among all nations me I will be as indistinguishable and unchosen from those nations as I can be.

  11. I have found the mindset of the descendants of Holocaust survivors to be disproportionately radical, both on the Left and the Right. .. we wouldn’t have the haredim like we do without the Holocaust…framing Judaism and the Jewish people according to their own broken and distrustful hearts…Judaism itself has become transmogrified.

    I’m not 100% sure of what your saying but it strikes the ear as viscious and ugly. It’s hard to understand what youd’ve preferred, no Holocaust or a more efficient one with no survivors. Maybe then you’d still have your cherished old 50’s era USA-style Judaism in its pristine un-transmogrified incarnation?

  12. See also this article:

    http://www.ou.org/index.php/jewish_action/article/41103/

    It’s a shame that Ron was not interviewed for it. Spot on Money quote:

    “The overwhelming sense that I get from learning with 2Gs is that their parents were generally silent about their experiences. Once they conducted their own Holocaust research and realized the enormity of the murder rate and how miniscule the chance of survival was, they felt a sense of mission, as if to say: ‘If my parents survived and they were incapable of regaining their frumkeit, I’ll be darned if I’m not going to.’ It brings them to a tremendous sense of purpose.”

  13. I have found the mindset of the descendants of Holocaust survivors to be disproportionately radical, both on the Left and the Right.

    On the Left, we owe the insane proliferation to the Holocaustism of the Left, as well as some rather…speculative policies in terms of both America policing the world, and the supposed benefits of diversity.

    And of course, we wouldn’t have the haredim like we do without the Holocaust. They didn’t come to the “treife medinah” beforehand.

    I realize that it is unreasonable to expect a people to go through what the Jews went through during WWII and come out the same.

    Never the less, these survivor descendants are–like their parents and grandparents– often a very strong and indomitable people who survived so many others…and who are increasingly successful in framing Judaism and the Jewish people according to their own broken and distrustful hearts.

    Judaism itself has become transmogrified.

  14. Very eloquent and moving. It’s a very appropriate post for the nine days.

    I think your feelings are a common response. However, I can’t imagine myself being more Jewish when I was a happy-go-lucky college student because I wanted to “show the goyim.” If anything, thoughts of the Holocaust darkness made me more assimilationist, if anything at all. You know, a true believer in ‘Lennonism’: “Imagine…” …if we only eliminated cultural and religious differences the world would be a perfect place.

    I mean, without emunah, isn’t the reasonable response to the Holocaust to simply assimilate beyond recognition? Doesn’t a secular Jew typically believe that being indistinguishable from the non-Jews is the solution to anti-Semitism?

  15. So never say you now go on your last way,
    Through darkened skies may now conceal the blue of day,
    Because the hour for which we’ve hungered is so near,
    Beneath our feet the earth shall thunder, “We are here!”

    Sorry, I don’t entirely disagree with these sentiments, and slightly do disagree with the sentiments posted above. We do the world a favor when we preserve our own heritage, despite the forces arrayed against us.

    And we do the world a favor when we elevate the desire to preserve one’s own heritage against all odds, into a political and cultural force. The current forms of multiculturalism and ethnic plurity may owe more to Jewish solidarity and cultural self-defense than they may realize.

    By the way, the defense of Israel in the face of opposition of every one of Israel’s neighbors amounts to a form of political defiance, in the face of hostility. Say what you will about the Arabs, but their political position was unanimous. the reason we have Israel is because Jews were ready to defy public opinion.

    I do, however, appreciate the extremely eloquent, very moral and appropriate, and inspiring thoughts in your post. thanks.

  16. The world, whatever “it” might think, is not autonomous. It was created as the necessary backdrop to our lives. The cold represents our apparent separation from HaShem, and the warmth we generate to come closer to Him is what dispels that cold. If there is an element of holy defiance in this, it’s defiance of that separation.

  17. I found this very moving. My first impulse towards observance was not based on belief or a warm fuzzy feeling inside; it was a sense of loyalty. Loyalty to the dead. Loyalty to an unbroken chain. What could be more natural than to be an observant Jew? Belief followed on the heals of observance. However, history, and particularly the Holocaust, can be a positive force in one’s spiritual development.

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