It’s me again. Times are tough right now for us Jews. I know You know that.
All day and every day, my lips are full of prayers. You hear them: Please keep my son safe on the battlefront. Please protect the captives in Gaza; keep them safe. Please give us all the strength we need to keep on going. And please, please, perform miracles, and deliver us from the hateful attacks of our enemies.
But today, I am writing to thank You. I always thank You for the birds chirping and the colorful fall leaves. I thank You for the health of each one of my beautiful children. Sometimes, I thank You for the delicious orange I ate for breakfast. But this time, I want to thank You for something much, much deeper.
Thank You for making me a Jew.
You see, there were times that I felt like it really could have gone either way. With just one Jewish-born grandfather, there was no clear reason that I had to end up this way. I could easily have been a Buddhist or an Episcopalian or an Atheist for that matter, living anywhere from Africa to Alaska. It was You who guided the many circumstances of my life to allow me to become what I am today: an Orthodox Jew living in Israel. I’m someone who deeply identifies with my faith and my people. And I’m grateful for that.
Over the years, there were so many times that I questioned the value of being Jewish. I’m sure many do. Back in New Orleans as a teenager, I often wished I could just give the whole thing up. Why should I be a Jew? What was the advantage to being part of a nation with such a difficult past? And with so many impossible-to-follow rules? Sometimes, I even felt like kind of an outcast. I could just as easily have lived a perfectly happy, regular old, non-Jewish life, or so I believed.
But I’ve come to realize that, amongst many other qualities, there is something uniquely special about the Jewish people and our value system, something I didn’t understand when I was young. Jews cherish life – more than any people that I’ve ever seen. We treasure future and perpetuity. We don’t view ourselves as victimized or oppressed– to the contrary, we count our many blessings and make the most of what we have no matter the challenges. And that’s what makes us strong.
Thank You for making me part of a people of life, light, and strength.
I think I first began to understand this aspect of Judaism when I met my husband’s grandfather, who we call Papa. As You of course know, he was a Holocaust survivor, one of a family of several children who escaped the death traps of Nazi Germany, leaving only with memories of his parents and younger siblings. Papa was liberated at 16 years old. Judging by the lessons of the modern “school of life”, someone who has gone through such trauma should basically get a free pass – all subsequent bad behavior should be excused. Papa endured starvation, torture, brutality, the loss of parents and siblings…and then finally escaped to safety only to face a new challenge: extreme poverty. Wouldn’t that make anyone want to give up? And wouldn’t they have a right to?
But as a people, Jews are different. Papa, like so many others of his generation, slowly built himself up, first peddling pieces of cloth at 16. Then he built his family, and ultimately, his community. It took faith, patience, perseverance, hard work, and optimism. He saw no purpose in allowing the events of the past to ruin his life. He envisioned a future filled with happiness and prosperity for his children and grandchildren, and then, with Your help, he formed that life for himself. This was the same path followed by so many survivors of the Holocaust, Jews who went on to build successful lives and beautiful families in the United States and around the world.
Over time, as I became more familiar with Jewish history, I learned that Jews have always acted this way, despite enduring horrible torment in the 2000 years since exile from their homeland. We were persecuted, pursued by murderous mobs, expelled from various lands… and then we went ahead and made ourselves great in the next one. Throughout history, Jews were the leading minds of society in every single land they wandered through, bestowing upon the world a disproportionate amount of wisdom and innovation. As a whole, we brought goodness into the lives of those around us.
Now, at home in Israel, the Jews are no different. Our nation cherishes life. Just like you taught us to in the Torah. We always look towards the future. When bad things happen – and they do happen – we pick up the pieces and move on, however we can. We channel our resources towards education and infrastructure, always striving to create a better and brighter future for our children.
Once I finally got the hang of enough Hebrew to understand popular folk tunes in Israel, I realized that this value is articulated in the words of our music. For example: Next year, we’ll sit upon our balcony and count the birds…Soon you’ll see, how good it will be…next year!” or, The people of Israel live. This the song that Grandfather sang to Father, and now I sing…the people of Israel live!
We are not obsessed with revenge, death, or destruction. We do not allow hatred or sadness to destroy us. Jews want goodness and life.
As an adult, I learned more about the intricacies of halachic practice and began to understand how this idea forms the basis for so many things we do. We are never supposed to violate the Sabbath…unless it’s to save a life. After the death of a loved one, we mourn for thirty days, but we never postpone a wedding due to this mourning – continued life is more important than the sadness of death. Jews are taught the precept of “tikkun olam,” making the world a better place. All bets are on a bright future.
Optimist that I am, I just wanted to thank You for allowing me to be a part of this special people, a people full of so much beauty and hope. A people who rises from the ashes again and again to form new life. A people who never allows hatred or hardship to destroy their own future.
Some might say that it’s difficult to be thankful at times like these, when we are mourning fresh losses and full of fear for our loved ones. News of support for our barbaric enemies from all over the world is hard to swallow. But looking around at the negativity and hate out there, I actually feel lucky to be a part of such a strong and upright people. Thank You for making me a part of the Jewish people.