Sunday, October 03, 2004

Show me a man, past the age of thirty, who can read this poem without getting a lump in his throat and I'll show you a lump of clay.

All the Generations Before Me
-by Yehuda Amichai

All the generations before me
donated me, bit by bit, so that I‘d be
erected all at once
here in Jerusalem, like a house of prayer
or charitable institution.
It binds. My name’s
my donors’ name.
It binds.

I’m approaching the age
of my father’s death. My last
wills patched with many patches.
I have to change my life and death
daily to fulfill all the prophesies
prophesied for me.
So they’re not lies.
It binds.

I’ve passed forty.
There are jobs I cannot get
because of this. Were I in Auschwitz
they would not have sent me out to work,
but gassed me straight away.
It binds.

Note: In the original Hebrew "it binds" is zeh michayaiv which seems to me to carry the sense of "it creates obligations."

My great-grandfather, the first of my ancestors about whom stories are told, came to America in 1910. Slonim, a midium-sized city to the east of Warsaw and south of Vilnius, was his birthplace. My great-grandfather was a conscript who served the czar in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese war and was imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp. Many men in his position gave up the faith of their fathers, and dropped the burdon they had inherited from their fathers. My great-grandfather did not.

After the war, my great-grandfather married, had a son, then left wife and child behind to seek his fortune in America. They joined him almost 5 years later, when it was clear no fortune would be found. A second son was born, then a third, and my great-grandfather found a job as sexton in a small country shul.

This family was an exception. In that time, in that place, many men and women forgot Judaism. Many of their children intermarried. Many of their grandchildren declined to identify as Jews. Most of their great-grandchildren are not Jews. My great-grandfather's three sons died shomrei mitzvos, all of them fathers of large observant families.

The middle son, my grandfather, went to yeshiva, received ordination and took a pulpit. The Judaism he taught my father was the Judaism he taught his community, a Judaism I imagine he received from his father and learned from his illustrious teachers, men who could trace their intellectual heritage to Slobobka, Vlozhin and beyond. This was a Judaism of tolerance, of moderation. It didn't compromise, but it didn't flaunt itself. It was a modest Judasim, a temperate Judaism, a meticulously accurate Judaism with nothing showy or ostentatious about it. Influenced, as I suppose it was, by the great cities of Vilnius and Warsaw, this Judaism was firm, and solid, and it had nothing to prove. On matters of halacha, the Rema, the Mishna Brurah and Rav Moshe Fienstein were the great lights in our sky. When I grew up I saw some of its values, or hashkofa, in the teachings of Samson Rephael Hirsch. My father calls himself a misnaged, and he says it proudly.

In my time and place this style of Judaism has fallen out of favor. In the world of the Yeshiva torah im derech eretz is not their watchword. Brooklyn Judaism which, like Boro Park music, is not bounded by geography, is not modest nor temperate. I am raising my son in a sea of black, surrounded by chandeleirs and breakfronts filled with silver, among Jews whose parents and grandparents landed on these shores long after my great-grandfather was comfortably installed in the small country shul.

Their Judaism has a different taste, the taste of the backwoods. It's more ecstatic with a greater focus on the unthinking and the superstitious--miracles, acts of physical transport such as singing and dancing. Their sun is the Ari, their moon is any of the Hasidic masters. Samson Rephael Hirsch who wrote in German, and who was translated into English, and not Hebrew or Yiddish is ignored or unknown. Misnaged is a dirty word.

My son will reach adulthood in this time and place, in the vicinity of these Jews. I recognize he'll be influenced by this other style of Judaism, still I wonder: Am I bound to raise him in the traditions of my forfathers, to consecrate him to the memory of the exceptional man who withstood both czar and America, who clung to this tradition, to this Judaism in the POW camp and on the gold-paved streets? Or should I be satisfied (dayenu) that he will grow up Jewish and observant? Are taste and style essential to Judaism? Will something important, to my line if not to my faith, be lost if my son and I can't see eye-to-eye about religion when he is a man, raising his own children? Do I owe my son his history, his tradition? Do I owe my decendants the style of Judaism of my fathers?

It binds. It binds.


This hasn't the tiniest bit to do with sukkos so I don't know why it is in your head, but I am glad you wrote it. I understand a little bit more about what you are saying I think with Judaism being full of all these conflicting customs, and how the preasure is on to make a kid turn out exactly like the parent with all the same customs, and in the olden days such was not problem because all the kids in town did the same. Now today it is the biggest problem becaus eno two people in the same shul do the same things and to find a shul just like what you want is not happening in our age.

Maybe you should consider the possibility that maybe the customs don't matter so much, and that if the kids frum it is all good? Just some advice.  

You left out a fact: "the sea of black" doesn't think you or your son, or any one else in your family is 100 percent Jewish. If you don't look like them, and do like them, there's a deficiancy in your Jewishness. You know it. I know it. This is why we still have no moshiach.  

Litvaks and Yekkes - and people whose ancestors moved to the US from Slonim - 4ever! ;-) Although mine emigrated sometime in the 1880s or 1890s.

-Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)  

the only advice I can give you is to make sure you teach your kids the importance of thinking. Let them ask questions, but make sure you or someone you trust can give them good answers.
I've seen too many in the "sea of black" who were brought up as unthinking, unquestioning drones, only to drop it as soon as they get into the "real" world.  

There are all kinds of Jews in this world -- does it matter so much if your son becomes one like you? Perhaps it would be even better if he didn't, if he blazed his own path and found his own niche in this wide, wide Jewish world. Maybe he can teach you a thing or two.  

Golda, you are right. I guess that when I am in these dark moods, I wonder if it was worth it for my great-grandfather to struggle to teach us a sort of Judaism, if it is all going to be swept away. I suppose Jews of German extract feel the same way. Our customs are in danger. In the long run, does this matter? Probbaly not. Of course not. It doesn't matter one iota. I'm being sentimental. And along with being sentimental I suppose I'm quietly raging against the ideas that our customs, many of them very, very old customs, are taken as proof of our inauthenticity and our lack of commitment to "real" Judaism. Given the abuse MoChassid has, unfortunately, taken elsewhere, I'd love to hear his thoughts on all of this.

I'll tell you his "thoughts." It is very easy:

Hasid = good, if not better
Lubovitch = safek Hasid, but points for trying.
Litvak = cold, possibly bad, sometimes worse. Not to be trusted.
Misnagid = wrong + evil, eg: Datan + Aviram
Haimish = laid back, informal, comfortable, no rules, never on time, ie: gan aiden.
Yekkim = neat, organized and timely, ie: not haimish.
Carelbach = Jewish music
Yossela Rosenblatt = Safek church music.
Hasidic customs = what Moshe did.
Litvak customs = moderna
Kugel = the maana God served us in the desert.
Kugel, when eaten with fingers = Proof God chose us.

not DOPE  

Futility...all is futility... (or Vanity...all is vanity... or Ephemeral...all is ephemeral...)

It sounds like your mood is right in line with the reading of Kohelet that we did on shabbat chol hamoed Sukkot. What we practice today as Jews are just vapors and wisps to the Jews who will follow us 200 years or even, God willing, 2,000 years from now. The chain might remain unbroken for a few generations (I think you mentioned 3 or 4, Adam) but that amount of time is just a blink of an eye in the span of things.

I do understand your frustration at people using your time-honored practices as ammunition against your authenticity. Those of us who do not live a frum life come up against this even more often than you do. You, at least, can say, "It's halachic!" We can just shout "It IS Jewish," and then get shouted down.

I have no doubt that your children will both embrace and reject what you teach them -- it's the nature of things. I wasn't being flip or glib when I suggested that they might teach you something as well. If we all open ourselves up to learning from others, stretching ourselves a little, Tikkun Olam might just happen a little quicker.  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.  

Minhagim, traditions, are nice, but they shouldn't be mistaken for halacha. I think that's where all of this devisiveness comes from. People think if you don't wear the same style hat as they do, you're not as good as they are. I really think we as a people should be more concerned about Achdus, especially when you look at the grand scheme of things, we are still really really different from the 99.999% of the world around us. Maybe you guys in NY don't see it because you're so surrounded by Jews. But elsewhere, it's another ballgame.  

Here's a coupla comments on the tradition biz:

1. When I moved out here, I davened only nusach ashkenaz. All the minyanim here are sfard. I tried to keep ashkenaz for a coupla years, but finally just gave up. Yom kippur is really different. You know what? Big deal.

2. Over sukkos, we do the lulav in shul. I was taught to do it one way. The Rabbi here does it REALLY DIFFERENTLY. For a while I still did it my way. One year the Rabbi got up and said, basically, that it looks really bad to have a few guys swimming upstream, and really detracts from the beauty of the service. He's right; watching all the lulaving waving in unison is truly a sight to behold. Maybe it was like this in the Bais Hamikdash. I got over it. I still do it my way at home, an teach the kids the same.

3. I stand during the repetition of the shmone esrei. Most people at the shul sit. I insist that my kids stand as well.

4. I don't wear any special hat. My kid's school requires a hat (black or chasidish) at bar mitzvah, and a jacket. I've bought two Stetson's for the boys. They wear them to shul, but if they forget them, I don't make them go back for them, and when we're on the road, it's their choice. Does it look strange to see the two boys with hats walking with their father without a hat? Maybe. Do I care what people think? Not so far.  

You, PsychoToddle are a traitor. Plain and simple. A traitor to your traditions. How can you daven sefard? How can you change the lulav shaking? (and shame on that make-believe-rabbi for whining about it. Let him open the RAMA and see how Jews from Europe are SUPPOSED to do it. Their way is WRONG.)

We're very proud you stand for amidah, and we admire a healthy attitude about hats (but shame on that kids school for demanding it) We still think you are a traitor though. We also think you are a stooge because the idiot hasidic/sefard people who think Moshe Rabbaynu discovered their customs WOULD NEVER give them up the way you did. Show some pride, man.

We are not impressed. Psycho is right.  

It's MR. Toddler to you, Mr.....Anonymous. Or is it Ms. Anonymous?  


with n'vi'im like Not Dope able to read my mind, what's the point of commenting? That's EXACTLY what I was going to say. It's AMAZING!!!  

My real answer:

Move to Israel before it's too late.  

Israel? Why?  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.  

Attention all contributors:

You are cordially invited, and strongly encouraged to comment on my posts, or on topics that are directly related to them. On this post, the post about my son and great-grandfather, I'd specifically like to hear your thoughts on the customs. Are they essential to Judaism? Does the style of Judaism matter? How do we define authenticity in Judaism? Which customs matter?

You may argue vigorously if you wish. Two-fisted remarks are welcome. Don't beat around the bush. Speak your minds. But on topic, please, and nothing ad hominem.

Thank you.

Adam Ragil
Owner and Operator  


Yashar koach on the deletions.

Israel because from everything you write I sense your frustration raising your family (and yourself) in a 'fake' environment where chitzonius rules.

Go find a nice neighborhood in EY where you will feel comfortable. And do it while your kids are young.  

Many do not realise that the fact that Hungarian jews dominate ultra-orthodoxy today is not only because a larger number survived the holocaust than polish hasidm or Litvaks.
The Hungarian Hasidim are in fact descendants of polish Hasidim who migrated to Hungary for religious reasons during the 19th century.Firstly to avoid the influence of the haskalah and secondly to avoid certain legislation in poland forcing jews to send their children to state schools.
As Hungary was fairly westernised and many hungarian jews assimilated they gained experience in being extremists.
Likewise the Aleksander hasidim havent thrived after the war-not merely because they were largely wiped out(enough aleksander hasidim survived to have revived the Group). In poland it was not an extreme statement to be an Aleksanderer hasid nor did it seperate you from the rest of the jewish world-so the surviving Aleksanderer hasidim were less inclined to set themselves apart as religious extremists-and rather became your standard 'balabatish' frum yidden.  

Not sure I understand the relevance of the last comment...

This discussion about custom has parralels in sports. For example, I can't have a yankee fan in the house. My son can root for any team he likes except the yankees.

Also, he may not like the Jets, and he MUST love the Giants. Otherwise, I forsee deep difficulties.

Minhag is not too different. It is also meanigless, but essential. Golda, if your child became a Yankee fan, would you, as a fan, say: "All baseball fans are equal! I am just glad my kid likes baseball. Let's see what I can learn and how I can grow from his newfound allegiances to the dark side?"

Or would you freak?  

I was trying to give a historical perspective on why one Judaism is fashionable and another isnt. Precisely because people like your grandparents were modest in their judaism is why it doesnt perpetuate-they were orthodox because it was 'proper'-now it is strange. the judaisms of those with more separatist tradition are more likely succeed-although i suspect the shmoneh begadim hasidic society will soon implode-as younger people realise how absurd these societies are.  


I don't like baseball at all.
Now who do get on with better, me, or your Yankee-loving son?

I also think theres a distinction between the point that you make, namely preserving the specific traditions of your ancestors, so they don't get lost, vs. Anonymous's ('s ?) post about my treason, where he seems to imply your minhagim should be followed because they are correct, and everybody else must therefore be wrong. I don't care much for that attitude (what ever happened to elu ve elu divrei elokim chaim?). But I can see the value of wanting to preserve your family customs.  

PT, I'll be happy he likes baseball, I suppose. But won't watching games be less pleasent than they might have been if he and I are rooting for different outcomes? Similarly, if he embraces cutoms that are foreigh to me, or worse, if he embraces a style of Judasim that I don't recognize, our time together will be much less pleasent than it might have been, otherwise. Plus, there is still the question of what - if anything - is owed to my ancestors? Do I have an obligation to my great-grandparents to ensure that my line, for example, contineus eating gobruchts on Pesach?  

Adam: Why do you suppose that your family remained observant when so many others fell by the wayside? If you have any ideas about this, it would make for an interesting post.  

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