If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save

“We weren’t rich, but we always had enough.  Thursday we baked bread and challah and rolls, and they lasted the whole week. …  Shabbat we always had a chicken, and soup with noodles. …We didn’t have refrigerators, but we had milk and cheese.  We didn’t have every kind of vegetable, but we had enough [and] we were happy. …

“Then it all changed.  During the war it was hell on earth, and I had nothing.  I left my family…  I was always running, day and night, because the Germans were always right behind me.  If you stopped, you died.  There was never enough food.  I became sicker and sicker from not eating.  I had sores all over my body. … If you helped yourself, you could survive.  I took whatever I could find. …

“Even at the worst times, there were good people, too.  Someone taught me to tie the ends of my pants so I could fill the legs with any potatoes I was able to steal.  I walked miles and miles like that, because you never knew when you would be lucky again. … You had to have luck and intuition.

“The worst it got was near the end.  A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day.  A farmer, a Russian, G-d bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”

“He saved your life.” / “I didn’t eat it.” / “You didn’t eat it?” / “It was pork.  I wouldn’t eat pork.” / “Why?” / “What do you mean why?” / “What, because it wasn’t kosher?” / “Of course.” / “But not even to save your life?” / “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.” – Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals.

*                      *                      *

I began fasting on Yom Kippur when I was twelve.  As I moved away from Jewish after my bar mitzvah, fasting on Yom Kippur was the only remnant of my observance.  I don’t remember exactly why, but regardless of where I was, I would find out when Yom Kippur was and I wouldn’t shower, eat, brush my teeth—nothing – and on occasion I would go to synagogue. I remember the men in top hats and tails at the Great Russell Street Synagogue in London; but most of the time I didn’t attend synagogue either. I ate sausage pizza, fried shrimp, loved bacon, ate cheeseburgers—but I would fast on Yom Kippur.  Maybe it was my way of making up for all the not-so-Jewish things I was doing the rest of the year, so I could start the new year with a clean slate.  Things began to change after I met Rav Meir.

But this year, oddly enough, another rabbi called to me in my study, and an unlikely friendship from years ago was rekindled.  I had gone to overnight camp to learn baseball, tennis, golf and swimming, and became quite good at them.  A few weeks ago I gave a sermon, and sitting in the audience was the camp-mate who caught the no-hitter I’d pitched at Camp Menomonee, Wisconsin when I was thirteen.  I had made lots of new friends at camp and was often invited to their bar mitzvahs, many of which were at North Shore Congregation Israel on Sheridan Road in Glencoe, Illinois.

For some reason, I took an immediate dislike to the rabbi, Edgar Siskin z”l.  At that time in my life, rabbis in general were not high on my list of favorite people.  My heroes back then were Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Arnold Palmer.  They were like gods.  Going to bar mitzvahs was worth it because of the extravagant parties.  The services were pretty boring.

Many years later, when I started spending more time in Israel, I would get together with a woman named Ruth Matar.  Her group, Women in Green, represented women who were helping to support the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.  One day while visiting Ruth, she asked, since I was from Chicago, if I had ever heard of a Chicago rabbi by the name of Edgar Siskin.  His wife, Lillian, was a member of Women in Green.  I told Ruth I knew of him from a long time ago, and all I remembered was that he was a Reform rabbi at a very wealthy temple near Chicago.  She told me he and his wife had made aliyah and they too lived in Yemin Moshe. She had plans to get together with them that afternoon and invited me to come along.  I had never thought of Rabbi Siskin as a Zionist; but if Ruth said he was a good guy, I took her word for it and decided to join them.

Over lunch, we began playing the Chicago version of Jewish geography. Unexpectedly, I enjoyed talking with Rabbi Siskin and his wife, and thereafter we would occasionally meet for dinner at a place called Norman’s on Emek Refaim.  I guess I had him all wrong.  He was frustrated by the synagogue’s lay leaders as well as his myriad unpleasant experiences with congregants (without using names).  “You’ve got to know your customers,” he said, sadly summing up his experience. One afternoon, he suggested I might be interested in reading a book he had recently written, called American Jews: What Next?  Published in 1998, the book is just as relevant today as it was back then. In many ways it was a sad commentary on the non-Orthodox future of American Jewry.  Although I have come to believe that for most Jews, reading a book is like kryptonite to Superman, Rabbi Siskin’s book is a must-read for every Jew who cares about the future of American Jewry, but especially for the non-Orthodox.  Then again, if you believe the Pew Report, I’m whistling in a graveyard. The preface begins…

“Today [1998] a growing number of Jews are expressing concern about the condition of Jewish life in America.  In particular, findings of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey have caused apprehension about the continued viability of the American Jewish community. … My own life began as the son of an Orthodox cantor and rabbi in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Not long after the family moved to the United States, I became a student at the Hebrew Union College, the Reform Jewish rabbinical seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. …

“A second perspective from which I have been able to view the American Jewish scene is that of an anthropologist.  My first rabbinical position in New Haven gave me the opportunity to pursue graduate study at Yale. … The distinguished anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber stressed the role of acculturation in the unfolding of history. ‘A large part of history the world over, … deals ultimately with the results of  intercultural influencing—that is, acculturation.’

“The tide of American modernity pulls [the Orthodox community] toward what Haym Soloveitchik calls the ‘embourgoisement of the religious community.’ … According to Soloveitchik, G-d is no longer felt as a daily, natural force and presence in the lives of contemporary Jews…. In an earlier age, Jewish exiles lamented, ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat [and] wept when we remembered Zion (Psalms 137,1).  Today most of their distant descendants in America rejoice, ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, and had the time of our lives.’…

“In those early years [since first becoming a rabbi], I was soon made aware of the impoverishment of Jews in the knowledge of their religious and historical tradition.  I vividly remember the first session with my Bible class when no single member of the more than fifty present could identify Joshua, Moses’ successor.  Soon enough I realized that most of my congregation were Jewishly illiterate. … It is ironic that having flourished in a free society, Jews may be threatened, not by anti-Semitism, but by the inertia and indifference which are the consequences of acculturation.

Rabbi Siskin recalled his first-hand experiences at North Shore Congregation Israel a large Reform temple of 2,000 families: “Jews at the social summit on the Chicago North Shore belonged to the Reform temple, which they rarely attended, and to the Jewish country club [Lake Shore Country Club], which they frequented faithfully, some would say religiously. … They played golf, symbol of affluent leisure, played poker for extravagant stakes, told dirty jokes in loud voices, and wrote bawdy doggerel to be recited at club parties.  They drank too much and generated so much erotic energy that Lake Shore became known for spouse swapping.  They were at once indulging their American day dreams and discarding the millennial moral baggage of the Jew. …  (p. 31)

“All four North Shore Jewish country clubs served food forbidden by Jewish dietary laws.  Some of the invitations to club events…are a documentary of acculturation,” such as an annual children’s Christmas party to which members were urged to bring the children and grandchildren to visit Santa Claus.  An Easter Dinner featured “Gulf Stream Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail” and “Breast of Chicken with Virginia Ham.”  Clam bakes occurred regularly.  “The acculturation of kashrut reached an apogee with a Luncheon Specialty, ‘Frank-Cheezie on a bun: American Cheese and Crisp Bacon inserted into Kosher Frank.’  A series of post cards informed us that Lake Shore will be closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the secular New Year.  It was open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. … Lake Shore Country Club was a microcosm of the assimilated Jew’s nirvana, the penultimate stage of the upwardly mobile Jew’s hegira.

“The first of the Jewish pioneers … had defied the threats of the Inquisition, braved the tortures of fanatical priests, suffered the fires of auto-da-fé, triumphed over tempestuous oceans, outfaced hostile bigots … all to end in the whimper of extinction.”  (p. 32)

Rabbi Siskin’s words are not easy on our flock.  But having talked with him over the years, his disappointment was evident as he describes a typical non-Orthodox Yom Kippur:

“Conservative Jews will pray less ardently, partly in English, with considerable emotional restraint.  Most will probably fast.  Reform Jews will pray decorously, almost wholly in English, going home during the noon prayer-break, often to watch the baseball playoffs, returning to the synagogue for the Memorial service.  Comparatively few will fast. …  (p. 41)

“In a long career of pastoral calling, I seldom saw a mezzuzah on the door of a member’s home.  The hundreds of doorposts through which I passed very rarely bore this sign of a Jewish presence within.  After World War II when people began migrating … to the suburbs, many Jews built homes in the suburban region served by our congregation.  When they became members, I would sometimes suggest that they hold a house dedication ceremony (hanukat ha’bayit) to which they might invite family, friends, and neighbors.  Nailing a mezzuzah to the doorpost would be the central rite.  I pointed out the appropriateness of asking G-d’s blessing, of sounding a Jewish note, when beginning to live in a new home.  Although I made the suggestion scores of times, only two such ceremonies were ever held.

“Like most Reform congregations, ours had stripped away most of the ritual integuments of Judaism. … I seldom saw a Jewish ritual object in the homes I visited.  Judaism is often called a home religion, for Jewish life is marked around the year by home observances. …  Rarely did I see a Jewish book. … A mezzuzah on your door is a mark of difference, and one of the reasons, subliminal or acknowledged, for moving to suburbia may have been the wish to distance yourself from the nagging stigma of Jewish difference.  Joining a congregation as an emblem of Jewish identification was desirable, even commendable.  But displaying a mezzuzah on your front doorpost might be overdoing it.  (pp. 45-46)

Whether Rabbi Siskin z”l was a prophet or just a keen observer of Jewish life, I was fortunate to have met him on my journey.  We are blessed by the people who G-d puts on our path called life.  Rabbi Edgar E. Siskin, Ph.D., 94, beloved husband for 55 years of Lillian, nee Margolin; devoted father of Jonathan Siskin and Sharon (Joseph) Rothenberg; loving grandfather of five, died on December 8, 2001.  Interment in Jerusalem, Israel.  His memory is for a blessing.

G’mar Tov, 09/29/2017   

Jack “Yehoshua” Berger and Wren “Zipporah” Berger

About the Author
Educated as an architect with a Masters in Architectural History, Jack Yehoshua Berger became a practicing architect and real estate developer. In his late 30's he met a Rabbi who turned him on to the miracle of Israel and he began learning how the amazing country, against all odds, came to be the miracle of the modern world.