Friday, September 15, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Living as a Yid

“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

“Nit mit sheltn un nit mit lakhn ken men di velt ibermakhn.”
Ignaz Bernstein
Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (1921)

“She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her,
and happy is every one that holdest her fast. 
Proverbs 3:18, JPS Bible (1917)

“Wherever Jews live, there is life.”
—S.Y. Agnon

When Jews get together, notably at a celebration or simcha, one of the common sayings or expressions of joy is l’chaim or l’chayam, “to life.” After all, in the long history of the Jews, life was precarious, its continuation not certain, and thus its importance never taken for granted. Be happy when you can.

There is a touch of pathos or sadness mingled with the joy, much in the same way klezmer music, although played at simchas, is written in the minor key. Such, I think, shows beautifully the complex life of the Jew. Life can change very quickly, through outside forces in which you have no control. So, I am reflecting here on existential questions—not uncommon for Jews to think about or raise— that what you can indeed control is how to live your life. That is, in what manner you choose to live your life.

Of course, it is easier as a Jew to assimilate into the larger non-Jewish world, the velt of the goyim, as it were. Or so it seems. In many places of the world, this might seem unavoidable; in many places of the world, it might seem necessary for advancement in society, as was the case in Christian Europe only a couple of hundred years ago. One might not have to go as far as Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) or Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), both of whom were born in Germany and both of whom became converts to Christianity.

Felix Mendelssohn is the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn [1729–1786], viewed as the father of the Jewish Reform movement in Germany, who, while living as an observant Jew, advocated for change (or reform) in the way that Jews lived, such as adopting the habits of the culture in which they resided. In his case, it was the adoption of German culture and language. He never thought, however, that Christianity was in any way the answer, and when approached by missionaries, rebuffed them.

Yet his writings and the tenor of the times in Germany inadvertently opened the door to Christianity, including for his own family. Other reformers, notably those that followed in America, took the ideas further than Moses Mendelssohn would have likely found reasonable or desirable. For example, kashrut, Jewish education, the prohibition against intermarriage or mixed marriages (Deut. 7:3-4), and mesorah, the transmission of Judaic tradition—long the fundamentals of Jewish life—were viewed as outdated and barriers to acceptance of and assimilation into the wider culture.

It is one thing to struggle with the requirements of Judaism, it’s another to discard them altogether. Without the moorings of traditional Judaism, without seeing it as important, there is little reason to remain a Jew. This is not an argument without merit. Perhaps it was then no surprise that Moses’ son, Abraham,  who had long broke away from Judaism, had his own son, Felix, and his siblings baptized in 1816; Felix was seven. There is no reliable record on what Felix later thought of it, but it is undeniable that Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat major, opus 12, has a Jewish feel to it.

Heine had himself baptized as an adult in 1825, doing so only for economic reasons, but was immediately disappointed in this decision, writing: “I am hated alike by Jew and Christian," he wrote, Jan. 9, 1826; “I regret very deeply that I had myself baptized. I do not see that I have been the better for it since. On the contrary, I have known nothing but misfortunes and mischances.”

A Jew hiding in a church didn’t work out, as anticipated, for Heine, a very unhappy situation. Yet, the unhappiest situation of the many that I have read so far is of the children of Theodor Hezl [1860–1904], born as Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl in Budapest, Hungary, into an assimilated German-Jewish family. Herzl died young, age 44, of heart failure, not seeing the fulfillment of his Zionist dream. He had three children, all of whom died tragically young, all of whom were raised without knowledge of Judaism or Judaic culture.

Margarethe Trude [1893–1943], died at a Nazi concentration camp, Theresienstadt at the age of 49. Her brother, Hans Herzl [1891–1930], who had himself baptized and converted to Christianity after the death of his father, had an unhappy life; it ended when he shot himself on the day, September 15, 1930, of the funeral of his sister, Paulina Herzl [1890–1930], who had died from a drug overdose at the age of 40.

Hans was 39; he left a suicide note:
If a ritual can really calm our spirits and give us the illusion of being in the company of our beloved dead once more I can’t think of anything better than a visit to the Temple: there I can pray for my parents, ask their forgiveness and repent my apostasy before God. I am destitute and sick, unhappy and bitter. I have no home. Nobody pays any attention to the words of a convert. I cannot suddenly turn my back on a community which offered me its friendship.
Without prejudice, even if all my physical and moral impulses urge me to: I have burned all my bridges… What good is the penance which the Church has ordained for my “spiritual healing”! I torture my body in vain: my conscience is torturing me far worse. My life is ruined… Nobody would regret it if I were to put a bullet through my head. Could I undo my errors that way? I realize how right my father had been when he once said: “Only the withered branches fall off a tree – the healthy ones flourish.”
A Jew remains a Jew, no matter how eagerly he may submit himself to the disciplines of his new religion, how humbly he may place the redeeming cross upon his shoulders for the sake of his former coreligionists, to save them from eternal damnation: a Jew remains a Jew….I can't go on living. I have lost all trust in God, All my life I've tried to strive for the truth, and must admit today at the end of the road that there is nothing but disappointment. Tonight I have said Kaddish for my parents – and for myself, the last descendent of the family. There is nobody who will say Kaddish for me, who went out to find peace – and who may find peace soon….. My instinct has latterly gone all wrong, and I have made one of those irreparable mistakes, which stamp a whole life with failure. Then it is best to scrap it.
Truly, a tragedy of a tortured mind. I sense that had Hans’ father lived longer, and had he taught him the importance and necessity of lebedik vi a Yid (“living as a Jew”), things might have turned out different. While there is no way to validate as true this speculative argument of mine, Albert Einstein lent credence to it in a letter (September 8, 1932 ): “Your article about Hans Herzl moved me greatly at the time. His wasted life constitutes a warning to all Jews against defection from their people.”

Defection is a strong word, but entirely appropriate in this case. If you are going to die as a Jew—Lebn zolstu biz hundert un tsvantsik yor (based on the length of years given to Moshe, often called Moshe Rabbenu, or Moses in the Bible)—it is better that you live as a Jew. Aoyb ir zent a Yid tsu shtarbn, es iz beser vi lebn a Yid. I wish you a good and long life. 

Peretz ben Ephraim, September 15, 2017


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    1. Mr. Barbetti,

      Thank you; was there anything in particular that you found interesting?


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