Growing Up Jewish

    August 2009            
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If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem…

By Richard Levenberg

“I don’t get this generation!” I remember those words. My parents, my aunts, my uncles and those of the “older” generation would regularly call them out when describing my cousins, my friends and me. It was 1967 and I figured they were just “old”. I was twelve.

In my family, my idol Mickey Mantle, was known as “Meyer Mandel”. The police, when riding by in their cars, were referred to by my father as “the shamash” like the tallest candle glowing on a hanukkiah. That was when police cars had a single red light on top rather than the rack of lights they use today. People dressed differently, talked differently, and of course the music was like nothing we had ever heard before. As a generation we were different, yet we didn’t know it then. In June of that year we would begin to find out. We were twenty-two years past the Holocaust. People didn’t discuss it much back then, certainly not like today. People didn’t discuss a lot back then. Yet in June of 1967, all of that changed for a twelve year old Jewish boy growing up in New Jersey. Mine was an insular Jewish world. In my home20Yiddish was spoken almost as often as20English. When Mr. Israeli, our Hebrew school principal, asked me one Sunday morning before Sunday School what my grandfather’s full name was, I gave him the only name I knew; Zayda!

I hated Hebrew School. Torture three days a week! We were conservative and the boredom of Hebrew School and Junior Congregation combined with the unvarnished fear of our sanctuary colored my Jewish world. Our seats were in the balcony of Temple B’nai Israel in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The angle at which I peeked down upon the main sanctuary was so steep it gave me vertigo. I witnessed my first death experience one Kol Nidre night when an elderly member standing in the “expensive” seats downstairs keeled over and died. Very quickly the rescue squad appeared and whisked our now former congregant away. Neither the Cantor nor the Rabbi missed a beat. I couldn’t figure out in which year, the one ending or the one just beginning, the newly deceased would go into the “book of death”, but I can tell you I was freaked out. Such was my early Jewish experience. I also experienced my share of overt anti-Semitism; like snowball fights between us “the Jews”(my brother and me) against the rough kids up the street “the Nazi’s” where we invariably got pummeled.

It was the winter of 1966 and the hot topic in Mrs. Bilowit’s Monday/Wednesday Hebrew school class was whether the Jewish kids should participate in the yearly Christmas pageant in public school. We were told to have our parents write notes to the school to absent ourselves.

The weather was perfect. The sky was so majestically blue, offset by just a few cotton ball clouds that you couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the Israeli flag. It was the end of the school year and not only was regular school set to end soon, but thankfully Hebrew school as well. Before class, the teachers were talking amongst themselves in hushed tones. Class was delayed and then we were told to assemble on the playground since the weather was so nice. The Temple leased space from the YMHA in Union in those days and the “Y” had a large space for kids to play. We were told we could play for a while but we should be prepared to have Mr. Israeli and Mrs. Bilowit address us as a group. The whole school was there and this delay was very unusual. Something was up! It was Monday, June 5, 1967. I had a clue earlier in the day when in the morning my parents had the television on and they were watching something about Israel on the news. The20TV on in the morning! Never! But there it was and Israel was involved in something. I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad, but I remember my mother, a real worrier, was really worried. Slowly word began to filter out during the day. Israel had initiated a pre-emptive strike against the Egyptian and the Syrian air forces and destroyed them entirely. The Israelis had gotten word that the Arabs were set to attack and did it to them first. It was the early hours of the war and no one knew what the outcome would be, but from the smile on Mr. Israeli’s face when he addressed the entire school on the playground that afternoon, it was clear things were going okay. We were asked to pray for all the Israelis, all the soldiers and all the pilots. Despite what was going on and the success the Israelis had achieved, there was still fear in the faces of the adults. I saw it in the teachers and when I got home that night I, saw it in my parents.

By Wednesday when we returned for the last day of Hebrew school, it was mass hysteria. June 7, 1967! The city of Jerusalem had been reunited. We felt a pride in being Jewish we had never experienced. It was something so new, so different that it couldn’t be described. As much as we felt it, it was our parents who were really magically transformed Having lived through the Holocaust, witnessed the creation of the state of Israel, experiencing now the reunification of Jerusalem and the recapture of the Wall, they walked with heads held high like never before. Israel as the defender of all Jews! Strong and tough! Never weak! Never having to back down! All of America was talking about it. Even on talk shows, the mighty Israelis were extolled! After much reflection, years later it would dawn on me that my generation was the first never to live not knowing the existence of the state of Israel. Mose s wandered in the desert for forty years. As the generation of slaves died off, they were re placed by a generation of free men, women and children. We too were the first generation never to know the yearning for the Promised Land. It was a transformative moment! Our parents and their generation were the last in a long line to dream and hope. And now the city of Jerusalem had been united. The Wall had come back to us. Generations to come would never know a world without the Jewish state of Israel.

The Holocaust was something I really never learned about growing up. It was never discussed (and that’s saying a lot) because my parents, particularly my mother, talked about everything having to do with being Jewish and celebrating Shabbat. Some how I knew. It was as though the knowledge of what had happ ened existed in the air, and all we needed to do was to breath and the knowledge was ours. It was never discussed but it enveloped us like a spirit. It had become a forbidden subject. It was something so foreign and frightening that it was impossible to imagine and I was a child who saw everything in my mind’s eye. But I knew. I heard about it in dribs and drabs over the years. Yes I knew.

Learning for me was a visual experience. I imagined the State of Israel as my mother described it; lush and fertile with endless fields of fruits and vegetables and trees, filled with magic places where the stories from the Bible came to life in my mind’s eye. It was a happy place where being Jewish was much more palatable then in the balcony of my Temple. Every Shabbat she would describe what was happening in Israel and how wonderful it was. Those Shabbat stories included her experience in 1948 when Israel was recreated. “Unimagin able! Like being brought back to life! It was a place we could go to and never have to worry.” Fortunately for her, after experiencing the Great Depression, living through the Second World War, theHolocaust and the rebirth of the state of Israel, she lived to see the June 1967 war and the reunification of Jerusalem. Within two years she was dead. Somehow in the short time we had together, much of which was spent by her in a struggle to stay alive, she was able to impart to me a great love of being Jewish and a great love for the state of Israel. This didn’t become evident to me for several years. But somewhere along the way, I recognized the emotional and psychological differences of living as a Jew in a world without the state of Israel and living as a Jew knowing nothing but a strong and vibrant second home.

It was by complete coincidence that he taught at th e University of Vermont, my choice of college. He came to UVM in the mid 1950’s thinking he would stay no more than a few years. It was the only school that offered him employment when he needed to find it. He retired from teaching in 1991 having spent his entire academic career in the Green Mountains. Raul Hilberg, considered by many to be the preeminent scholar of the Holocaust was a huge academic presence on campus, but I didn’t know it. All I knew was that he was a professor in the political science department who taught courses having to do with the Holocaust. I was at a stage in life where it was important to me to understand what it meant to be a Jew. It was ironic, I thought, that I chose a school in the hinterlands of Vermont where I believed there was no Jewish presence (wrong) and decided to find out what it meant for me to be a Jew. It was the perfect place.

Hilberg was a quiet unassuming man with a keen eye for minutia and a really great sense of humor. I suppose if you de cide to make your life’s work something as dreadful as the Holocaust, you need something to make you feel human in the hours spent away from the research. In the first course I took with him, he had written a book named Documents of Destruction and in it he examined the documents used by the Nazi’s administratively to make the process of annihilation almost routine. It was the only text we used, but it was all we needed. Between the text and his lectures, often telling of his discovery of all sorts of obscure documents kept by the Nazis, it was chilling. They recorded everything and kept the records organized and readily accessible as if to proudly show the world what they had done. One of Hilberg’s great contributions was to show how evil could become so routine! To be born a Jew into this environment was to be born a subhuman. As if hypnotized, the German people followed along. The Jews of Europe were subjected to actions so base and vile that it was as if G-d were dead, which after Auschwitz, many people believed. This is why the Holocaust was never discussed! It was too painful, too much to bear; the world had turned its back on the Jewish people and let them die. And by the end of 1942, the world knew.

It was during this class that I discovered who he was. It was a summer class and it was being attended by regular undergrads along with about 15 retirees from the New York area that came up to the University for the summer for the express purpose of studying with him. They told me who he was. Suddenly it became an honor to study with him. I had gone from knowing nothing to knowing almost everything. The details were horrifying and so painful to think about that I could never forget. The most horrifying thing of all though, was the realization that an entire culture could accept murder as normal. They had become so dead emotionally, so willing to believe the lies, that they allowed themselves to believe there was a worldwide conspiracy mounted by International Jewry that had to be eradicated. It was International Jewry that was responsible for the ruin that had befallen Germany a fter the First World War. That was Hitler’s horrific message. And they bought it! It is a picture that is even more horrifying to me 32 years later, as a husband and a father, then I could have ever imagined back then. Sadly it could happen again.

And this is why I don’t understand this generation! Why have so many young American Jewish kids chosen not to become involved in vigorously supporting the state of Israel? Why isn’t every young Jewish adult under the age of 26 taking advantage of the “Birthright” program and visiting Israel? I cannot understand why any young Jewish adult in this country is not closely following events in the Middle East and supporting Israel. You don’t have to agree with everything they are doing politically: however, learn the history and follow the events every day. There is so much misinformation out there that unless the younger generation equips itself20with the facts and combats the lies with the truth, it could get away from us. Our world is a place now where there is an agenda of hate directed at Israel and the Jewish people and it is easy to disseminate the message and create a new reality based on misinformation. All one needs to do is research the history of Holocaust denial to understand how it is possible to change the reality with lies and falsehoods and create a new reality in its place.

My daughter Jessica is 25 years old. Her Bat Mitzvah was one of the happiest days of my life. I felt so proud of her. She did a flawless job. The Rabbi and Cantor prepared her perfectly. She chanted from the Torah wonderfully and I couldn’t help feel that somewhere my mother was crying tears of joy for having seen the beauty of our tradition being passed to the next generation. But that was just the beginning. My wife and I worked hard to instill in her this message: 8 0Never forget who you are and what you are.” I know she heard the message. Fortunately she is one of many who went to Israel on “Birthright” and saw and forged a relationship with the land. I believe she knows the gift she’s been given.

And now my son is preparing to become a bar-mitzvah. It is a day we look forward to with great anticipation. His name is Zachary. It is a name chosen specifically for him because it means “G-d has remembered.”. You see, we waited a long time for him. Just as I did at my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, I will give a speech during the Shabbat morning service along with my wife. As I contemplate what to say, I know my message will be the same one that I gave to his sister, only with more trepidation and urgency. The world has changed in so many ways since 1997 and the need for the younger generation to adopt a close identification with being Jewish and to urgently support the state of Israel is even more important. Two years ago Zachary announced to my wife Debbie and me that when he became an adult, he intended to become a Buddhist. He was ten. When I was ten the only thing on my mind was baseball! I’d never even heard of Buddhism until I went to college. Since he recently announced to us his thoughts about becoming a stand-up comedian, I’ve always seen his remarks regarding his future religious aspirations as a part of his stand-up routine. He is that kind of kid. But recently we’ve seen some things that have given us hope. He seems to be taking well to his Bar Mitzvah lessons. And most notably after a recent stint as ushers for a Shabbat service, which every family in our community is required to do, he told Debbie that if the Temple ever needed ushers in the future, he would be willing to do it again. He had fun. Wow!

This younger generation cannot become complacent. Like my f riends and me, they are fortunate to have lived their entire lives in the presence of the state of Israel. Someday the time will come when every Jew in every place on earth will have the privilege of only knowing a life in the presence of the state of Israel. To consider the alternative is too painful. Here in America where we have thrived as a people like never before in our existence, it is easy to forget how strange and unforgiving the world is. In the freedom of America unencumbered by the horrors of the past, we are becoming the people G-d meant us to be; “A light unto the nations”. The youngest among us must always remember where we have been and what we have seen.. They must also be reminded of the beauty of our tradition so they can acknowledge the gifts that they have been given.


from the August 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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