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A Shark that brought me closer to my Jewish Roots
By Aryeh Katz
We live lives filled with hidden meaning. Even the most insignificant
aspects of our lives may carry profound messages. Once in a while,
we are able to catch a glimpse of the deeper meaning behind some
seemingly mundane object or event. Suddenly, unexpectantly, an
entire area of our life can be transformed. A new dimension opens
up, revealing a hidden world of richness and depth we never suspected
One such incident occured recently in my life.
Starting at about the age of five, I had developed a curious facination
with a seemingly obscure aquatic creature known as the mako shark.
Why the mako shark, was always a mystery to me. True, to those
few who could appreciate it, the mako was a remarkable fish -
uniquely powerful, sleek and fast. Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey
wrote about the mako with abundant praise; but still, it was after
all just a shark, just a fish. From that time on, many other interests
came and went - airplanes, cars, rock music, and so on and so
forth, each interest rising up, peaking, then inevitably waning,
and disappearing, to be replaced by some new fancy. For some inexplicable
reason, the interest in the mako shark remained.
I should point out here that I was raised in an extremely assimilated
family, where there was virtually no acknowledgement of our Jewish
identity. We considered ourselves, outwardly at least, no different
than our gentile neighbors, none of whom seemed to have any real
connection with their heritage. It was a mobile and rootless culture,
typical of the South Florida suburbia where I grew up, with little
real connection to time or place. This lack of temporal depth
was perhaps somewhat normal for young children, whose lives anyways
are largely focused on the immediate. As time went by, however,
the rootlessness developed a more unhealthy tenor - expressed
as a superficiality and lack of stability in maturing adolescents
and young adults. Children with little sense of time or place
developed into adults with little sense of time or place; lacking
in depth, sense of responsibility or ability to make commitments.
Well into my twenties, I became introduced to Judaism, and for
the first time in my life felt a conscious connection to my hidden
roots. I gradually developed a strong connection to my roots,
and discovered a deep and real connection to time and place. Eventually
I even moved to Israel, closing a circle long-ago torn asunder.
Many of my pre-Jewish interests, some of them major interests
that I had invested greatly in as intended career paths, lost
their sparkle and became rather banal in my eyes. Still, the facination
in the mako shark, with no apparent connection to anything else
in my life, remained.
Recently, in a moment of reflection on this seemingly insignificant
and unexplainable, yet unshakeable interest, I had a flash of
insight. At last, it seemed clear to me why the mako shark was
so interesting - how it represented something very significant,
if once deeply hidden inside of me.
According to the secular-western belief system I grew up with,
the mako shark represented something both very ancient and very
advanced - something timeless. While going back to the age of
the dinosaurs, or perhaps even earlier, the mako shark is at the
top of the marine food chain, and is arguably the fastest, most
perfectly adapted, most functionally beautiful fish in the sea.
It will probably continue to occupy this exalted position as long
as there are fish in the sea. While countless other species of
marine animals have died out or evolved into new species, the
mako has stayed basically the same, and can still out-compete
the newcomers. In other words, the mako shark embodies such intrinsic
excellence in form and function that it is practically beyond
I relate this, on a metaphoric level, to the Jewish people. We've
been around, as a distinct people for 3500 years or so. We've
outlived almost every other civilization, and yet we're not relegated
to the background, functionally obsolete and only able to survive
in some insignificant niche. We're probably about as prominent
and successful today as we've ever been, and that's far from the
bottom of the heap. Countless other groups have sprung up, with
their own unique religions, cultures, values and beliefs, and
then disappeared - swallowed up into some other group with it's
new religion, culture, values and beliefs, and so on and so forth
throughout history. Through it all, even though exiled all over
the world, we have maintained our integrity; we've remained the
same people with the same basic religion, values and beliefs,
We've outlasted a lot of "advanced" civilizations. Virtually
every "progressive" society in western history, while
at the peak of their power and glory, had close association with
the "backward" Jews. Consider the ancient Egyptians,
Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans as starters. Some Jews "bet
on the wrong horse" and assimilated into the foreign cultures.
It is instructive to ask - where are the descendants of these
former Jews today? Perhaps they are farmers in Egypt, or grocers
in Iraq, Greek fishermen or Italian wine merchants - totally cut
off from the roots that continue to keep us alive as a special
people with a special mission, and with our most important work
still ahead of us.
Today, when reminded of the mako shark, I am reminded of the deeper
meanings hiding behind seemingly mundane interests and events.
I am reminded also of the hidden providence that guides our lives,
even at the times we are least aware of it.
from the August 1998 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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