Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Mother’s Day, “If Not Now,” and Bernie

As a latter-day baby boomer, I grew up at a time when it was de rigueur to spurn our parents. We were, after all, the ones who coined the term “Generation Gap” (though some claim the term dates back to the 1920s differences between mothers and daughters over the use of lipstick). The idea of parents and their kids being at odds goes back much further, of course, to the first time Cain asked Adam if he could borrow the family Kalashnikov. But whatever prior generations did, we children of the ‘60s perfected the art of dissing the folks, mocking all that they represented and railing against the dreaded Establishment.

Well, whatever we did to our parents, we are getting it back from our own kids ten-fold. Once again the Establishment has become a dirty word and once again father does not know best. In America, we’ve seen this pent up youthful anger manifested especially in the Bernie Sanders campaign.

A full-fledged revolt is also taking place against the American Jewish Establishment, especially in regard to Israel advocacy. The grassroots movement, “If Not Now,” has gone way beyond J-Street in their defiance of “out-of-touch” elders. They state boldly on their website, “We will be the generation that ends our community’s support for the occupation” and they punctuate that declaration by refusing even to talk with mainstream leaders who may sympathize with their goals.
Some claim that these protesters play into the hands of those who seek real harm to Israel, beyond the matter of settlements. But the kids don’t care, so great is their anger.

“If Not Now” gained notoriety when one of its leaders, Simone Zimmerman, was hired and subsequently let go as Bernie Sanders’ national Jewish outreach coordinator. Sanders’ desire for a 60’s style revolution has fueled a maelstrom that even he now can’t control, as Democratic leaders implore him to reel it in now that the nomination process is all but over. And it makes me wonder whether, in luring youth to spurn their parents, Sanders neglected to tell them that the prior revolution did not end well. The ’68 riots in Chicago begat no nirvana; instead, we got five more years of Vietnam, a paranoid President who compromised American democracy and a generation that quickly bartered their political idealism for sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

So I have a message for the kids: Let’s work together. There’s a lot that we can learn from each other. I admire your idealism; it reminds me that I’ve got a smidgen of it left in me. I love your passion. I share many of your goals. I even share your impatience.

But there’s a lot you can learn from us too. I’m not asking you to love us – just to bring us back into your lives.

In rabbinic literature, we read about Dama, the son of Netima, a respected member of the Roman upper class, a jeweler, a serious one-percenter who wore a gold-embroidered cloak and kowtowed with the glitterati. Despite all this, the rabbis held him up as a paragon of piety in one respect – how he honored his parents.

In one story, a precious stone has disappeared from the High Priest’s breastplate in Jerusalem. So a Jew comes to Dama seeking a replacement. Dama goes in the back room, but his father is sleeping right on top of the key that would open the safe, so he tells the man that he can’t sell him any jewelry today. When his father wakes up and hears what has happened, he gets angry at his son for not making a profit. His son responds, “I am not prepared to disobey the command to honor one’s parents for any money in the world.” A week later, the price of gems rises, and Dama sells the needed jewel at a greater profit than he would have made the week before – a happy ending for everyone.

In another midrash, Dama’s mother, evidently peeved that her son didn’t go to medical school, rips off his gaudy garment and spits in his face. Despite this, Dama does not shame her, instead referring back to the Torah’s command to honor one’s parents.

The Hebrew word for “honor” “kabed” is nearly identical to the word “kaved,” which connotes a heavy burden. It’s not always easy to honor our parents.

As Mother’s Day approaches, my mom, 93, is in a nursing home, struggling to live a life of dignity, despite the ravages of Parkinsons and related afflictions that have robbed her of much of her ability to communicate. Although her memory remains relatively sharp – or maybe because of that fact — there is very little that brings her joy at this stage. It’s frankly burdensome for me to visit her. I employ different tactics to make her smile, sometimes Skyping with family members or stalking distant cousins’ photos together on Facebook, or playing recordings of her piano recitals that I’ve uploaded online. All she can say is “that was then,” her tremors having forced her to give up piano a few years ago. The burden only increases for both of us, and I now can say that I completely understand what the fourth commandment meant to convey. To honor my mother really is to bear her, just as she once bore me, somehow smiling despite a piercing pain.

So kids, I’m not asking you to love us. You don’t even have to honor us, strictly speaking. The Torah makes it clear — all you need to do is bear the burden of us. Hold us up when we stumble, as we invariably do. Our lectures may be onerous, our use of technology embarrassing and our ideas archaic. But though we may fumble with Facebook from time to time, we do have some wisdom to share.

There are real dangers out there and enormous challenges that we need to face together.  Time to reel ‘em in, Bernie and Simone. And it’s time for us elders to swallow some of our pride and let our kids show us the way.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307
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