'My son, today is the date of your bar mitzvah.' (archive photo)
Speaking to an audience of American Jews, one is faced with a room filled with people who need to belong. I know this because I am one of them. But these are trying times: terror and fear; from the war in Iraq to the Iranian nuclear bomb threat, from the Larry Franklin scandal to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections. We all need a place where we feel safe, knowing beyond a doubt that we belong.
We Jews belong to each other, because at the end of the day what separates us just a fluke of history. If we move the biographies of our forefathers and our grandfathers a half-inch right or left, I could have been you and you could have been me.
Somewhere in the family history of every person sitting in this room is a relative who stood on a pier trying to decide in which direction to sail.
An entire generation of ‘old Jews’ is dying out. There are things we need to study that they knew instinctively. They had a pretty good idea of who they were and they had a pretty good idea what connects them to the other side of the ocean; that their Jewishness is much deeper than a menorah at Chanukah next to the Christmas tree. Does our generation know that about itself?
A special bar mitzvah
I could have been you and you could have been me because we share the same confusion. My father had his bar mitzvah in the ghetto in Budapest. He did not even know the date had come. They were sitting in a basement, 600 people in a small windowless room, freezing, surviving on meat from horses found dead in the streets.
His mother told him: “My son, today is the date of your bar mitzvah.” She pulled out a tiny bottle of perfume that she had succeeded in keeping throughout the war. “I can’t invite guests. The Gestapo took your father away. I cannot bake you a cake. At least let it smell nice on your bar mitzvah day.”
She then smashed the small bottle on the floor. In Israel and in the US, people spend tens of thousands of dollars on bar mitzvahs. Why do I have the feeling that my father’s bar mitzvah was more meaningful than that of my son?
We are here today because we have a sense of belonging, but it is not problem-free. That sense has to be rooted in the truth, and we have to acknowledge that the old truths have died.
Twenty or 30 years ago when Israelis met with American Jews, they would do so wearing two hats. The first hat was the military beret of the heroic Jewish soldier, the one who said “With our bodies we symbolize the end of the era of the frightened Jew. We have fought six wars and prevailed in them all. We are the strongest kids on the block.”
The second hat said, “I know that a minute ago I said I was tough but the truth is I’m broke. I am hungry and weak and you have to help me otherwise I am liable to starve to death.” Then up comes the music and pictures of the Western Wall, everyone cries and pulls out their checkbooks.
As an Israeli I refuse to wear either hat. Israel cannot market itself to you as a safe haven, because it is simply not true. New York is much safer for Jews than Israel (except maybe for the Bronx). On the other hand, I am too proud of where I live to play the idiot cousin of the family. So the dialogue between us must begin anew.
Aching to belong
I could have been you and you could have been me because we belong to something. All over the world, people spend their entire lives trying to be part of something. They join cults, they become political activists, they join street gangs; wear blue bandanas and kill those who wear red bandanas. They travel to India and worship gurus. They go to church, join country clubs, attend football games, and patronize the same bar for 30 years because the bartender knows their name.
We are born with this privilege and we need to honor it. Perhaps it’s a contraction but commitment is a privilege.
Drama doesn’t seem dramatic to those involved in it. When you see a guy sitting on his roof during a hurricane it may look dramatic to you but he’s cold and scared.
Maybe it doesn’t look that way, and doesn’t feel that way – here, between the porcelain coffee service and the excellent catering – but there is drama in this room. Drama, because we are a people that history has tried to annihilate and despite those efforts, we are still unified.
Look at us now
My grandfather died in the Mathausen concentration camp two weeks (two weeks!) before the Americans liberated the camp. He died stark naked in the snow and he was sure that the entire Jewish nation died with him.
How I wish he could see us here now.
Tyrants and grand inquisitors, cardinals and pashas, from Torquemada to Yasser Arafat, were convinced they could erase us from the earth.
Yet these strange Jews kept their traditions for reasons that seem mysterious to us. They clung to the abstract idea of their own country, in a land they never saw, speaking a language they did not understand and a holy book they could not read.
How I wish they could see us now.
I come from a very secular family, a family of Holocaust survivors who believe that if God existed, he would not have let it happen.
But if there is a God, I hope he sees us now.
I could have been you and you could have been me because we grew from the same root. And quite a distinguished root it is: Many years ago, an Irish Parliamentarian called Benjamin Disraeli, the Jewish prime minister, a "dirty Jew."
Disraeli replied: “When the forefathers of the honorable parliamentarian from Dublin were running stark naked and wild in the forests, our forefathers were princes in the palace of King Solomon.”