We talk about doing mitzvos lishmo and lo lishmo. But what do we say about mitzvos done out of spite?
In my mind I have seriously considered the possibility that even if there were no Discovery Seminar, no Jerusalem Fellowships, no Partners in Torah, no spoon-fed Judaism for restless quasi-intellectual Jewish Ivy Leaguers – that if I just knew how to be as Jewish as possible, as assertively unassimilated, talking- with- my- hands, black- hat- wearing, walking- across- your- town- with- my- talis- on Jewish, I would do it just to spit in the eye of the world that tried to liquidate us all.
That is the blackness that takes up part of my soul as a result of growing up in a Holocaust family — mine and yours. If I G-d forbid did not believe in Torah mi-Sinai (Revelation), in Torah she-ba’al peh and emunas chachomim (the Oral Law and faith in the sages) I just might go through all the motions anyway just to shtokh (poke) the rest of the world. Mir zaynen doh: Here we are. Gag on it!
The more I pore into the reality of what happened then, the darker the black gets. Yes, the spots of light, the edifying Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s Name) moments are compelling, and in relief against the nadir of human history they should shine as brightly as suns. But in the deep blackness of darkest space, and from so far away, they are but little light dots. What there is mostly is the dark, and the cold, and the death. There could be no inspiration for me in the Kiddush Hashem of the Holocaust. “We” were already yotzei Kiddush Hashem mehadrin min-hamehadrin (we had fulfilled it in its highest form).
Did this ebony anger make me “frum”? Did this jolt of bitterness rip me from the fast track in a promising legal career to two years in three yeshivos and a different path?
It may not have been. There were more mundane factors. But I am hard pressed to identify what among them made me any more conscious of my Jewishness, and more determined to resolve my own Jewish Question, than the myriads and thousands situated the same.
I was not the only one from a survivor family in my time and place – and my parents were not survivors, not in the direct sense (of course when the crime is genocide, any member of the targeted people who lives is a survivor). One small branch of our family had left Europe in the ’30’s. But the rest were made dust and ash, and the remnants carried this pain from Poland to Cuba to America. It was soldered to my soul for six years at a summer camp (Camp Hemshekh — “Camp Continuity”) run by remnants of the old anti-religious Jewish Labor Bund, who had incorporated as Survivors of Nazi Persecution — what a name for a group formed to operate a summer camp! — and rebuilt their fantasy of a Yiddish secular culture paradise, where we sang the songs, read the poetry, acted the plays of Gebirtig and Peretz and Gelbart, celebrating a culture and a conception of a people that were no more.
But unlike the murdered children on whose lives our summers were to be modeled, we had another chapter in our repertoire. We learned the songs sung by the orphaned children and the mourning parents of the Warsaw Ghetto whose names we bear, the poetry of the partisans of the Vilna forests who were the gedolim of my youth, the literature of the rebels of Sobibor and Treblinka who were our models of techias hameisim (revival of the dead).
I thank the Ribbono shel Olam that I didn’t know enough Yiddish at that age to understand more than a few words of what I was saying, or who knows how bent I would be today! But that intense exposure to this tragic slice of Jewish life obviously affected me deeply. I am astonished when people from the “outside world” tell me that I must see this or that Holocaust movie –- don’t they know what I know already, the children’s Holocaust I playacted as a child? Did you ever hear of anyone who went to a summer camp that had its own simulated Warsaw Ghetto Wall, complete with cemented-in broken glass and barbed wire? No, I did not survive the Pit; I lived a soft and easy suburban life and merely spent my languid Catskill summers in Holocaust Camp, where for some reason in August we marched by torchlight at night to the Wall, humming a song we knew was called Ani Maamin but whose words they had never taught us… thought its meaning, somehow, they had. And you want me to watch in Technicolor the hopeless martyrdom that I already “lived” in my formative years?
This was the yesod of my emunah and of my bitachon (this is the foundation of my belief and my trust).
I knew there must be a reason. When the complete possibilities of assimilation were presented to me, I knew I carried around something that must have meaning and which needed resolution. To ignore this was to live in a world devoid of meaning and infinitely harsh.
Yet I saw so much good around me — so much love, so many outlets for creativity, for intellection and expression, for humane achievement; so much capacity for greatness. Still none of these things could outweigh an existential pain. What did I feel in the world that told me there was more, beneath what I knew — some profound good to answer that ultimate evil? Could existence really just be a dark vacuum punctuated with distraction and temporal pleasure?
This did not add up.
Will you believe me when I say that I was not in any other respect a candidate for the Baal Teshuvah “movement,” as popularly perceived? I actually had a pretty good thing going. I didn’t know where it was going, but I was looking pretty good getting there.
But … where was there? Where is here? After the City spat us out with most of the rest of the middle class, I spent the second half of my childhood in a place called Twin Rivers in New Jersey. Ten years before it had been a potato farm. So you will excuse me for not feeling particularly deeply rooted in the “here” of there.
One of the songs they taught us was the Partisan’s Hymn. Its refrain was, mir zaynen doh – “We are here.” The last verse is this, the famous one:
So never say you now go on your last way,
Through darkened skies may now conceal the blue of day,
Because the hour for which we’ve hungered is so near,
Beneath our feet the earth shall thunder, “We are here!”
These Yiddish guys got almost everything wrong. But this they got right. We are here. They may not be, now, and regrettably their offspring may not be, either. But we, their people, are here. And there must be a reason we are here. Does God (of course there is a God, this is not a serious question) want me to charm my way through life, through fancy college and fancy law school, through ballgames and politics and dating and “entertainment” and pizza pies — is that why, after all that, we are here?
This is an absurd proposition. A life infused with such vacuity is little removed from the nihilism that makes holocausts possible. How anyone, any Jew, can argue on behalf of such an existence, given what we know now, is as cold as any existential night I have ever pondered.
If I am here, despite it all, that I had some sort of duty that followed from being here. This meaning must be real, must be achievable. It took little for me to realize that I am here, despite a world’s best efforts to prevent it, for a reason; that without we, I am not here at all; and that without Torah and mitzvos, we are not… quite… really here.