“If you’re serious about getting rid of things, I’ll be happy to help.”
This was the common answer, given by myself and many relatives, to the frequent request for cleaning and organizational help from my grandmother and great aunt. Having lived together for many years, and having maintained a Depression-era mentality, two of my family’s matriarchs accumulated a large assortment of artifacts. Mismatched sets of crystal and small bottles of alcohol from now defunct airlines (when did Ozark Airlines fold, anyway?) were just a few of the knickknacks overtaking their small apartment.
A few weeks ago, my great aunt passed away having lived ninety-five fulfilling years, and having outlived my grandmother by more than a decade. It was at this point that the unenviable task of cleaning and emptying their apartment of more than three decades became a necessary endeavor. While this activity became a wonderful opportunity to share humorous stories and poignant memories, it also became an exercise in distribution.
“Who wants an antique butter churn or VCR from 1995 (an antique in its own right)?”
I received a text from my sister over the weekend asking if I wanted a few more items from the apartment, in addition to the other mementos I had previously taken to share with my daughters. Two of the items were beautiful Seder plates that had been part of the family for generations. I said yes to those. The other item in this proposed bundle was a small figurine depicting an aged Jewish man, looking haggard, holding a Torah scroll. It’s the type of piece that you’d expect to see in an elderly relative’s house, perhaps sitting on a bookcase or mantle, surrounded by other trinkets or pieces of Judaica.
I hesitated briefly, but quickly declined. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the Judaic items my grandmother and great aunt had saved, or that it didn’t quite fit our décor at home (whose main quality is imperviousness to Nerf products and rambunctious children). Rather, there was something deeper.
In looking at the figurine, with its tired face and slouched posture, I was reminded of a time in not too distant Jewish history when that appearance was commonplace, often resulting from the onerous nature of life in crowded European shtetls. While these individuals, some of whom may have been my ancestors, struggled to preserve the customs and rich heritage of Judaism, they did so in difficult environments often subject to the whims of various dictators and fearing the random waves of anti-Semitism and bloody pogroms that could destroy their lives. For too many Jews, separated from their ancestral homeland and considered outsiders in their host societies, this was a time of powerlessness and worry.
And it was exactly that period of time, marked by stress, insecurity and longing, that this figurine represents.
Luckily, following the rebirth of Israel, that type of existence for Jews has mostly disappeared. We’re fortunate to live in an era in which the stereotypical image of a Jew is not one with a beleaguered existence praying to stay safe from the czar’s mercenaries or other external enemies. Rather, it’s one of strength, success, pride and opportunity. It’s the image of the Israeli soldier liberating Jerusalem or providing disaster relief in the Philippines. It’s the image of a Nobel Prize winning scientist or an Olympic medalist watching the Israeli flag being raised in triumph. It’s the image of someone connecting with a higher power at the Kotel or faithfully leading a vibrant congregation. It’s precisely the image I want my children to see and appreciate.
In rejecting that little statue, I wasn’t turning my back on my family or our collective history. I was, however, turning away from a past that didn’t inspire hope or the possibility of a greater future. We need the younger generations not to fret or despair over periods in history in which we had little control, but to dream about the opportunities that exist because of the collective security the State of Israel provides.
I’ve come to cherish many great memories and captivating stories, and appreciate the struggles of the past. I hope my children do as well. However, I want them to spend more time thinking about the future that we have the power to shape and less about the times our ancestors simply struggled to survive.