ARRIVING ON COLUMBUS DAY

Columbus Day ought to take on far greater significance this year. Coinciding with the first day of the festival of Sukkot, Columbus Day ought to bring with it the poignant message, that our celebration Sukkot this second Monday of October, marks more than the arrival of Columbus in America. When all is said and done, Sukkot 5780 has every right to serve as a reminder that when it comes to this country, we Jews have arrived as well.

I think that it is fair to say, that for the last two decades or so, there has been an increase in the building of sukkahs by Jews of all branches of Judaism. How ironic, that those very same coreligionists who feel no compulsion to participate in other aspects of Jewish life, find the time, expend the energy and come up with the necessary funds to construct a Sukkah. I extend a heartfelt Yasher Koach and look forward to seeing more and more sukkahs being put up with the passage of each year. Many of us can well remember that sukkahs were an anomaly in the vast majority of Jewish neighborhoods in this country. Now sukkahs are quite commonplace in American  cities with sizeable Jewish populations.

Back in the day, it was not at all unusual for Jews living in New York as well as in other cities and towns in the northeast, to go to the “mountains” for Pesach. Either because of family dynamics or time constraints, many a Jew would travel up to a kosher hotel in the Catskills for the duration of the festival. My mother’s aunt was typical. Upon reaching her golden years, it was quite evident that there would be neither a  seder nor a kosher for Passover kitchen in the Bronx homes of her three sons and their wives. She, therefore  made alternate arrangements at a nondescript kosher hotel in Sullivan  County, New York.  Nowadays, it’s not only Passover, when Jews uproot themselves. Nor is their destination the Catskills. Nowadays, observant Jews travel to Resort Hotels, located  both in this country as well as abroad (including Israel) for a Sukkot experience. Please know, that the mitzvah is dwelling in a Sukkah, not constructing one, or using one of the outside walls of your home to serve as part of the Sukkah. The mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah can be fulfilled anywhere, including Resort Hotels. And the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah at a Resort Hotel or similar is currently being fulfilled by many observant Jews who have “arrived.”

Be a Jew in your home and a man outside it”. So adjured Yehudah Leib Gordon, a poster child of the Jewish Enlightenment. While it is true that the vast majority of American Jews never knew or heard of Yehudah Leib Gordon, they lived their lives as though they were his illustrious students. For decades, Judaism in this country was practiced privately and quietly. For decades, it was unthinkable for any Jew to be seen on the streets wearing a yarmulke. Judaism was not to be advertised. Previous generations defined themselves as “Americans of the Jewish faith.”

All that has changed and the reasons for that change, can be debated and discussed. For the most part, it is fair to say that Jews are much more comfortable and much more open about their Judaism. As praiseworthy as it is to see the increase in number of sukkahs being put up throughout this country, it is at the same time noteworthy, that Jews have no qualms whatsoever of inviting non-Jewish friends and neighbors to join them in the sukkah for a festival meal. Half a century ago, such an invitation would have been unfathomable. Half a century ago, American Jews had not yet “arrived.”

As we dwell in our sukkah this coming Monday, let us be aware that is Columbus Day as well. Let us be sensitive to the fact that over five centuries since Columbus arrived and that over these last five decades, so too did a good many American Jews.

ROOT SOURCE

I attended a kosher breakfast earlier this week, where I, along with a handful of other Jews, were greatly outnumbered by church-going Christians. The group is known as Root Source. Via the internet, its members  are taught about Jewish concepts, ideas and thought, and especially Israel. Their teachers are Orthodox Jews who have no reservations whatsoever about those to whom they impart their wisdom. Unlike other messianic groups in these United States, these Christians  do not consider themselves Jews, nor do they aspire to be Jews. They do, however, feel that their Christianity is  incomplete without learning about the Jewish roots of their faith. Kosher breakfast notwithstanding, Root Source Christians and other similar groups have no desire to begin keeping kosher, nor do they intend to incorporate any Jewish practices into their lifestyle. Although salvation for them is an entirely different path, they are not consumed with getting Jews to follow their path. Apparently, they are secure enough in their own faith and require no reinforcing from Jews who have “suddenly seen the light.” Christian groups such as these don’t proselytize. They are far too busy in their quest of spiritually enriching their own lives. They are however firmly rooted in their unwavering support and love for Israel.

Root Source Christians are not in any way unknown to Israel. Thanks to Root Source Christians and other Christian groups, there now exists a Knesset Christian Allies Caucus. For the first time, the Knesset Christian Alliance bestowed the honor of “Christian of the Year” to a Root Source Member. Apparently, the government of Israel does not see Root Source Christians as a threat. I am able to come up with three reasons why:

The Israel pipeline leading to American Jews has dried out. Fervent Jewish  Zionists from this country are no longer filling up Israeli tour buses the way they once did. Some of these supporters have died, some of these supporters now own apartments in Israel and some of these supporters have simply had their fill. A septuagenarian American Jew who has visited Israel three times over the last three decades deserves a big hug and not a lecture as to the importance of visiting Israel. The children of that septuagenarian see Israel in a different light. For them, Israel does not possess the same magic and charm it did for their parents. This next generation tends to take Israel for granted and relates to Israel in much the same way it relates to any number of other countries.  An entirely new generation that feels firmly ensconced and accepted in the United States, no longer feels the need to be in Israel to escape the self-perception of a minority, however brief that respite might be. For Christian groups in this country, Israel is a novelty. Therefore, it is the Christian groups in this country and not the Jews who are now awestruck by Israel.

Given the choice between supporters and detractors, Israel opts for the former. Given the choice between those who are easy going and those who are demanding, Israel again opts for the former. Typically, it is the religious Christian groups who comprise the former. They tend to be totally supportive of Israel when it comes to any political issue concerning the Palestinians. Moreover, Christian groups tend to be more enthusiastic and eager and easy to please than a good many Jewish groups of the same age group. Just ask any Israeli tour guide.

Anna Bartlett Warner, I’m not. But if I were to pen a new version of the well-known “Jesus loves me – this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” written by Anna Bartlett Warner close to 160 years ago, I would choose “I love Israel – this I know, For the Bible tells me so.” Israel has suddenly begun to play a major role in the lives of Root Source Christians. Yes, Root Source Christians are interested in seeing the Knesset, but they are agape while visiting Golgotha. And why shouldn’t they be? As mystical as Tzfat is for Jews, it is Nazareth and not Netanya that leaves them with goosebumps. Jewish tourists may want to get in some snorkeling in Eilat, but that pales in comparison to a Christian being baptized in the Jordan.  Just as these groups take their bible seriously, so too do they now take Israel seriously.

These groups do not seek our imprimatur. These groups don’t necessarily seek our friendship although they hold us in high esteem. These groups thirst for Israel and provided they possess no hidden agenda, I cannot help but feel that they deserve a L’Chaim from us, as they seek to quench that thirst.

SEEKING THE SHTETL

I did something very atypical this past Sunday. I actually read the cover story of the Travel Section of the New York Times. How could I not? Once I glanced at the title, “Seeking the Shtetl,” wild horses couldn’t drag me away. Within seconds, however, the article confirmed my feelings toward the typical odyssey undertaken by so many of our people (my sister included) when they fly over to Europe in an attempt to search for their roots. I wish them Godspeed and I pray that they find what they are looking for. But I have another wish as well – actually three wishes:

I wish that in addition to spending time and energy,not to mention money, in an attempt to discover where their ancestors lived ((some are able to locate the house, and actually come across descendants of non-Jewish neighbors who can testify that a Jewish shoemaker — one’s great-grandfather, with his wife and five children — really lived in that house next door, and the shoemaker and his wife were on friendly terms with their great-grandparents), that the searchers of our generation spend equal amounts of time and energy in attempt to discover how their ancestors lived. Were they the pious individuals we were led to believe they were? Was great grandfather Shia as learned as they say he was? Maybe our ancestors were caught up in the Bolshevik revolution and replaced their Judaism with Communism. Perhaps the best question to be pondered is how those we hope to learn about would react if they were to learn about the lifestyle that is ours.

I wish that those who undertake the quest of ancestry discovery would compare the choices that are ours with the choices that were our Shtetl ancestors. There is a world of difference, to say the least. In the world of our great grandparents, the choice – if there was a choice  – was, do we uproot ourselves now and sail for the new world, or do we wait until our elderly parents, who are too frail to make the trip, live out their days here on earth? The world of our ancestors in the shtetl was not one of redecorating or remodeling, nor was it one of dilemmas of whether to buy or lease. In so many cases, our ancestors were much too preoccupied with whether there would be enough money to put food on the table, how they were going to afford clothes for their children, or would sufficient funds be found to pay the melamed (teacher) so that the boys would be raised as learned Jews.

I wish that those who undertake this quest realize that in reality they are searching not only for their past, but for their future as well. Can you imagine what would happen if someone searching for (non- Jewish) ancestry suddenly discovered that they are descendants of nobility? Should discovering that one is a descendant of a great rabbinic dynasty be any different? Shouldn’t searching for one’s past have implications for one’s future as well? If we find it important enough to go back in time to discover our roots, isn’t it possible that generations from now, our descendants will be undertaking similar projects to discover their roots, and in doing so will make every effort possible to learn about us? In all likelihood, they will be able to learn much more about us than we are able to learn of our ancestry.

As we beseech HaShem to seal us in the Book of Life this Shabbat, let us realize that there is another book we ought to be concerned about as well. Each day we are here on earth, we are de facto writing pages of our lives that will ultimately form the book that might very well be of great interest to future generations.