Sometime in the late 1970s, I was in a serious anti-religion phase. As an exploring college sophomore, I knew everything, and wondered what was the point of my Jewish upbringing, philosophy, and ritual. Turns out, my Grandfather, Rabbi Leo Jung, who by that time had brought modern Orthodoxy in the USA to rip-roaring life – sensed what I was going through.
I know this, because one day late afternoon sitting with Grandma in their New York City apartment, the doorbell rang. I knew it was Grandpa, and rose to receive him. But there would be no friendly greeting.
Instead, I opened the door, Grandpa looked me straight in the eye, and said “ARE YOU PROUD OF BEING JEWISH, OR ANNOYED BY IT?” Well, boxing fans reading this might think this was a jab to the gut, but really it was more like an uppercut straight at the glottis. I couldn’t speak. Grandpa, with his infinite wisdom and in-your-face finesse, had my number.
Fast forward to 2017, and this Rosh Hashana. I want to tell you, dear Grandpa, that I am intensely proud of being Jewish. In this divisive time, with a country depressed by rancor and bigotry caused in no small measure by a divisive leader in the White House, I rejoice in the Torah that tells us to “welcome the stranger that sojourneth among us.” When Rabbi Roly Matalon in his Rosh sermon quoted James Baldwin, I was challenged to empathize, to consider pledging allegiance to the flag from a different perspective.
When it wasn’t fashionable (was it ever?) you led the International Council of Christians and Jews, and indeed scrutinized Jewish history texts for signs of false narrative. I’ve taken the baton from you, Grandpa, and have worked closely with my Christian brethren in fighting media bias against Israel.
And on a personal note, you were way ahead of your time in understanding the importance of the mind/body/spirit connection. You inspired others by your rain or shine daily walks – no excuses! – and your de-stressing naps. I teach senior strength training, Grandpa, and I know you’d think that was cool.
Now more than ever, the world needs what you coined the “3 Rs”: reverence, righteousness, and rachmanut. Your positive message of heart still reverberates, and generations of proud Jews and their fellow humans are heeding the call.