The Mako and Me

    August 1998          
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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 change.

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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