Surviving beyond survival

Skokie, late 1970s. Sometime around the Nazi march in Skokie.

My father and uncle are talking.

Their frame of reference? Both came to the United States after spending World War II in concentration camps and enforced labor. Graduates of Auschwitz, Mauthausen, DP camps and the like. A frame of reference that gave, let’s say, an anxious perspective.

My uncle said it could not happen here. America has been so good for us, it is different. This country will not go bad like Europe did.

My father said it could and likely would; only a matter of when and where.

Well, now we’ll see who’s right. It looks like it’s beginning to happen here. It’s pretty much happening everywhere else. A tangible threat, which, in the Diaspora, makes you think twice before walking down the street in the wrong neighborhood. Which in Israel may be the wrong street in the most random way, with seconds to get out of the way.

And it’s happening from the left and from the right. It’s happening because of creed and greed, race and place. No excuse is too low to ignore, no lie too great to exploit. It feels almost biblical, a Bible reconfigured for today by Orwell and Kafka, a movie with Kubrick and Tarantino directing.

There is no computer program that can contain the absurdities, no Norton nor Trend. No body of people that can adequately guarantee security.

Now we’ll see what survives. Will it be American Jewish liberalism, its heart of compassion betrayed by its beneficiaries, condemned by them as a cynical lie? Will it be Zionism — and if so, which form? European secular old school, Mizrachi conservative familial, religious Zionism in its bewildering wild variety, ultra-Orthodoxy in its foxholes? Will the Holocaust mean much of anything?

Or will every ideology now have to evolve, change, and rethink to survive?

It is not only about who will live and who will die. It is about what will we live for, and for what will you die.

The lesson many learned from World War II was that we must survive, we must never again be so threatened. But that won’t do for the next generation. They need to know why they ought to survive as Jews, why it means something. Most don’t know.

Maybe this touching base with reality has been a long time coming, and is overdue. But we better start thinking more about why it is meaningful, or we will allow the other false ideologies which so fill history to take over. Or perhaps a new one, even worse.

Not just that we won’t know what to do with what will remain in Gaza. We won’t know what to do with ourselves as a people if we don’t know what unites us beyond survival.

Who knows but that the reason for our survival is the resolution of our destiny? In this, we differ from other nations that take themselves for granted, that are what they are because they happen to be where they are. French in France, Chinese in China. We need something that unites us wherever we are, Israel and Diaspora. Even when we disagree, inevitably. We must find the reason, or risk becoming history.

My father said it could and would, and, lo and behold, we even know when and where. Thank G-d, my father and uncle did not live to see this here and now. Although they might not have been surprised, it would have hurt deeply.

But my father was also aware of how many Jews have fallen away because they saw no point in being a Jew (and his was not a religious perspective; it was more intuitive). Without knowing why we exist as Jews, we fall without a battle, wherever we are.

This time around, Iran and Hamas may have gambled on our being so disunited and confused that we would fall. Unless we find a reason to survive beyond surviving itself, a purpose for our nation that serves wherever in the world it is, they may have the right strategy in an increasingly self-destructive world. Maybe not this time, maybe not 2023 — but in a time to come. It will be our fault if they are right.

To wait for the end of battle will be too late. Battles don’t seem to end conveniently. We have to adjust our sights not only see to what was and what is, but also we need to use all the good in the past and present to build towards what will be. We need to do it so that our children will find their meaning in it, and know that they are playing a vital role that makes survival worth it. Israel was freed from Egypt not just to be, but to become.

Being slaves to survival will not be enough, not for Israel nor for the Diaspora. Know what you will tell your children.

About the Author
Rabbi Moshe (Marvin) Simkovich is a professional development coordinator and consultant for the Associated Talmud Torahs, ICJA, and teaches at the Melton Institute in the Chicago area. He was the founding Head of School and Dean of Judaic Studies at Stern Hebrew High School in Philadelphia (now Kohelet YHS), and taught for many years at Maimonides School in Boston. He also served as the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Tefilla in Newton, MA, and was the Orthodox advisor at Brandeis University. A graduate of the University of Chicago, he received his semicha under the direction of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, and, among others, studied under Rabbi Yisrael Gustman zt"l.
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