Saturday, July 21, 2007

Posthumous Victory?

Rav Lazer, who I usually never agree with, had a thought-provoking post a few days ago. Lazer visited his family's home in the Ukraine and shared some of his thoughts about the Holocaust, his family, and his task as a Jew that was saved. As a family genealogist who has documented dozens of relatives that died in the Holocaust, I could relate to the emotion, but not the conclusions.

Lazer shows us a number of touching pictures, including a memorial plaque paid for by him and his family. But it's the commentary on the last picture, showing him standing in the countryside, that I couldn't agree with.

Lazer writes,
We won! My Chabad friends say, "Didan Notzach." In other words, evil did not succeed in finishing us off. On the contrary, North American assimilation murdered many of my relatives' souls even after they escaped from the Cossacks and from Hitler. Yet, despite it all, here we are back in Yanov, wiping away the break of two generations that slid away from Yiddishkeit, looking, dressing, and acting just like my great grandfather Chatzkel, a Breslover chossid and descendant of Rebbe Itzikel Drovitcher zatza'l. We are certainly the winners, and we shall continue to overcome, by clinging to our unwavering emuna, amen.

Now, I'm sorry, but I just can't get behind this. In my mind, every Jew that survived, every child and grandchild and great-grandchild, regardless of frumkeit, is a victory against that evil, a slap in Hitler's face. Lazer claims assimilation murdered his family's souls, suggesting that this was just as bad, or possibly worse, than the physical tortures of his European cousins? Really? That's honestly the way you think about them? What about the relatives living in Europe before the war? Were they all really frum, to a man? Does it matter? Is the death of the frum ones any more a tragedy than their frier cousins?

I'm happy Lazer feels that in choosing the life he chose, he is making a tikkun for his family. I'm happy that he has the confidence and faith to live the way he wants, and that it helps him make a special connection to his ancestors. Despite my skeptical status, I understand, and agree, that roots and traditions are indeed very important. But unlike Lazer, I don't see the copying of everything my old country ancestors did as the ideal. For that matter, I don't see the "break" of generations between old country Orthodox and the many varieties of thought and life exhibited in my family today as necessarily a bad thing, or something that needs to be reversed or atoned for.

True, I wouldn't choose to not have any Jewish interaction, like my father, nor would I choose to baptize my children, as one of my aunts did. But my family's Yiddishkeit, and Jewish identity, has been in flux for many, many generations before me, and it would be, in my mind, not only impossible, but also foolish, to pretend that the uber-Orthodox generations back in Poland were my family's ideal-- and therefore, should be mine. On what basis, other than a preference for beards and a nostalgic affection for Fiddler on the Roof, should I determine that alter-alter-zeide was right, and not his son, who came to America, or his grandson, who went to college and made something of himself?

My family always had its differences and varieties. We had very Orthodox relatives who kept their traditions and beards in America. Others achieved various forms of compromise- shaving beards, sneaking treif. We had Capitalists, Communists, Socialists, and Zionists. Some were poor, some were rich, some knew the value of family, and others didn't. Some broke the law when they thought they could get away with it, others were impeccably honest.

But they were all Jews in their own way. Heck, my g.g.grandmother was Orthodox and SHE was the one that started our tradition of having stockings on Christmas morning!

I have BT cousins, sure. I wish them the best. I find their lives fascinating, and despite my desire to be more observant, I know there will always be a number of fundamental obstacles to my becoming frum. Which is just as well, because I don't want to be frum, and don't think I have to be. On the same note, I wish Lazer the best in his life as a Hasid. But I can't look at my family's history of the past 100-plus years and see it as a mistake. They were people. They were human. They weren't perfect. But I can't erase it. I can't "wipe it away." And what's more, I don't think they would want me to. That's part of my history and identity, too.

I don't know who the "old Orthodox" members of my family were back in the Old Country. We have names and dates but no details. We don't know how religious they were. If I've inherited anything from them, I'd be willing to bet a few of them might have just been going along with the crowd to avoid problems. But even if they mourned the loss of their children when they shaved their beards and went off to university or America, I'd like to think, if they could talk to me, that they wouldn't say they wanted me to be "just like them." Even my BT grandfather wouldn't want me to be "just like him." They--he--would want me to be myself. To be the best Jew, and the best person, that I can be, according to my own intellect and conscience.

That I am here is already a victory against evil. The goodness I accomplish in my life will testify to that. And it won't be determined by how long my beard is or if I wear the right hat. I will be a Jew in my own way. Not as religious as some ancestors, more religious than others. But it will be what is right for me.

I will be a good Jew. I will do my family proud. But it won't be by pretending to be something I'm not.

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