FROM PONTIAC TO JERUSALEM

Ze'ev Chefetz

When I was a kid, Judaism was an extra-curricular activity, a part of my weekly schedule like music lessons, basketball practice, or Wednesday night dances at school. I went to Sunday school but didn't learn much, and I knew that I wasn't expected to learn much. I knew the difference between Sunday school and "real school." The first was more or less a social activity, the second, the one my parents took seriously, was my real business.

 

Eventually I joined the temple youth group, became president of the state federation, MSTY, and later was elected president of NFTY. I had a great time in youth group, made some lifelong friends, and attended countless conclaves, workshops, creative services, Saturday night socials, and teary friendship circles. I learned the words (but not the meaning) of a dozen Hebrew prayers and folk songs, heard innumerable lectures on the Jewish social responsibility to solve most of the world's problems, and, on one memorable occasion at NFTY camp in Warwik, I even took part in a workshop to re-write the Pirke Avot, the Talmudic "Sayings of the Fathers, without, unfortunately, knowing anything about the Talmud or the people who wrote the original sayings. Judaism, my Judaism was a good thing to do on the weekends or during summer vacation.

 

No Jewish Obligation

Best of all, it wasn't too Jewish. For every Hebrew song we sang there were three by Buddy Holly. For every workshop on Israel there were a dozen on nuclear disarmament or civil rights. Because we had no Jewish obligations and no Jewish skills were required of us, I thought of Judaism as just another facet of liberal America. Our only responsibility was to be moral, to practice the golden rule, to be in short, good people.

 

I liked MSTY so much I thought about becoming a Rabbi. Not, as a college friend later put it, a "Jewish" Rabbi, more like a community leader. I would march for civil rights, eat shrimp cocktails at brotherhood-week banquets, and play softball with teenagers at idyllic summer camps.

 

A Jewish Disneyland

To get a head start on Hebrew, which I knew the Hebrew Union College required, I took a year off from the University of Michigan and enrolled as a junior year abroad student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

 

That year was the most humiliating and astonishing one of my life. I arrived in Jerusalem considering myself almost abnormally Jewish - NFTY, Hebrew classes, and even rabbinical ambition - but within three days I realized I was hardly Jewish at all. I met Arabs who spoke Hebrew better than I did. When I visited a yeshiva for the first time I had to ask about the difference between the Talmud and the Torah. I was shown famous biblical sites that I had never heard of, listened to debates about Jewish issues I hadn't known existed. I went to a synagogue - the kind my grandparents had prayed in before they came to American - and I didn't know how to act or what to do. And perhaps most humiliating of all, I met Jewish boys my age who were giving years of their lives to defend the country that I, in an off-hand way, had come to visit as if it were a Jewish Disneyland.

 

During that year, I realized that I did not know how to act and live Jewishly. I knew Christmas and Easter songs and would have felt perfectly at home in a Baptist church; read Shakespeare and Hemingway; knew the dates of American history. But in a Jewish context - Jewish language, geography, history, literature - I was wholly lost, as ignorant as a tourist in some exotic land.

 

Luckily there was an antidote for my ignorance. Hebrew could be learned, and so could Jewish history. I spent hundreds of hours exploring Jerusalem, and I read like a madman the Bible, folk tales, Jewish history, Sholem Aleichem, anything with clues about what being Jewish was all about.

 

Gradually I began to live a Jewish lifestyle. I became conscious of the rules of Kashrut since most restaurants served either dairy or meat. I had Saturday off instead of Sunday, and Tisha B'Av and Tu B'Shvat, which I could never keep straight, were real holidays in Israel. So were Sukkot and Shavuot, Simchat Torah and Purim.

 

Uncool Jewish Kids

Before that year I would have divided Jewish history into three parts: the bible, two thousand years of kvetching, and the golden age of NFTY. I thought of anything too Jewish as uncool, even wimpy, like the little kids in yarmulkes and thick glasses I used to see peering out the window of the United Hebrew school bus. In Israel I found that there was nothing embarrassing about being Jewish and that there had been more than a little self-hatred in my attitude toward those ''uncool'' Jewish kids.

 

As the year went along, I began to wonder what strange process had taken some Hebrews from Palestine, buffeted them around the world for two millennia, washed them up on the shores of the U.S. in 1915, and brought them to Pontiac, Michigan, where I had been born one year before the foundation of the new Jewish State. I realized that Israel offered me not only a chance to recapture my roots and to live a Jewish life, but an opportunity to be a part of one of the most dramatic events of modem history. Despite logic, despite Hitler, a new Jewish State had arisen. It was still an infant, still in need of protection, still new enough so that every person counted. The idea of recreating a Hebrew culture, wringing justice and meaning out of the bitter history of a hundred generations was overpowering. It made the Judaism I had been taught seem one dimensional and irrelevant and the issues on my liberal American agenda - free school lunches, demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, letters to the editor about world disarmament - seem fleeting and unreal. The idea of being born a Jew in the most exciting generation in two thousand years made the idea of going back to the great American Jewish middle class seem unimaginative and dull.

 

That was seventeen years ago, seventeen years since I became a full-time Jew. I rarely think of myself as Jewish anymore, anymore than an Englishman thinks of himself as English; I simply am a Jew. I speak a Jewish language, live a Jewish lifestyle, have Jerusalem-born children who regard Christianity in about the same way I used to think about Buddhism. I have discarded some religious customs - regular synagogue attendance and Kashrut, for instance - and have kept others. In either case, I make my choices knowing that regardless of what I do or don't do, my Jewish identity is assured by the context in which I live. Being Jewish is no longer a burden, a duty, or a puzzling appendix to my life. Everything I do is, in a sense "Jewish."

 

A Holding Pattern

There was a time when I believed that every American Jew ought to come to Israel. I still believe it, but I don't think it will happen. Judaism is not a supplement to America; it is a competitor, a total civilization, with its own land, customs, language, and destiny. The effort to turn it into one of the ''three great Western religions" trivializes it. The American Jewish community is in a holding pattern trying desperately to keep in the fold young people who have only a marginal Jewish identity so that they in turn can keep their not-so-Jewish children in the fold twenty years from now.

 

The Jewish experience has to mean more than that. The Bible and the prophets, the Diaspora and Hitler, the rebirth of the State of Israel have to mean more than friendship circles and universal ethics and temple softball leagues.

 

It is a startling fact for an American kid to realize that he is the inheritor of an ancient tradition. The Zionist experience has always been for the few, imaginative, the romantic - those who, for some peculiar reason have been born with Jewish hearts. Those are the ones who respond to the great adventure of Israel and they are the ones whose lives can be transformed by the chance to recapture the Jewish past, live in the Jewish present, and build the Jewish future.

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