Walking the Walk — Thoughts From the NYC Israel Day Parade

There we were, thousands of Jews striding across the streets of New York in a prideful display. No, I’m not talking about lunchtime in midtown on a Tuesday. The New York City Israel Day Parade was on Sunday June 3, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

It had been too long since we gathered in such force with the attention of the media. The event on the National Mall in DC was months ago. The Chabad teen event in Times Square was months ago. We were long overdue for a very large and very strong showing of solidarity to counter the energy and visibility of the protestors.

New Yorkers especially needed something big to help us get over the hangover from the Columbia encampments, and of course, the daily depression of the hostages still not being home.

While reports vary, it was safe to say that tens of thousands of people marched up Fifth Avenue. Whatever the numbers, we were at our best, united, peaceful, respectful of the law, expressing gratitude to the police as often as possible, and quietly showing who we are and who we’ve always been, a small but mighty people.

What made attending this year’s parade so special was something beside the incredible spirit reflecting our wartime passion. It’s that I went with my kids. I was demonstrating that Jews will not be silent to an audience much more important than the entire world. I was demonstrating it to my children.

When I was a teen in the early 80s, while my father was pulling into the garage, entirely out of the blue, I asked him, “Do we still hate the Germans?” I’m sure answers would’ve varied. But my father was born in 1917. By the time of the war, he was old enough to know exactly what was happening, so to him, there was only one answer. He stopped the car immediately, his face grew as grave as I had ever seen it, and in a stern, raised voice, he said, “Those bastards?”

One look and just two words was all it took for me to understand for the rest of my life that I was a Jew, that I needed to be proud, and to always remember who we are, and who they are, and that who they are isn’t always so kind.

More than Hebrew School, more than the Steven Scott orchestra playing at my Bar Mitzvah, or my having joined a Jewish fraternity at the University of Maryland, it was that moment in the driveway which permanently seared my Jewishness onto my consciousness. It took no more than ten seconds.

We keep singing and writing, “Am Yisrael Chai.” Yes, the Jewish people live, but we only keep living by clinging to traditions that create and preserve a lifelong Jewish identity.

We live because we communicate to our children in no uncertain terms, both in words and the Jewish home we keep, that we as parents care about being Jewish, so that they grow up caring as well. When a Jewish child grows up without a firm sense of who they are, they marry out, and the Jewish people live a little less.

I love the idea of the October 8 Jew. Better late than never to the party. But the fact that it took such a horrific attack on Israel, a silent world in the face of terror and rape, and the most vicious antisemitism in decades, to get people to feel a greater sense of who they are, suggests something isn’t right in the Jewish world.

The majority of Jews no longer are knowledgeable or engaged, appreciate their spiritual heritage, have Shabbat dinners or celebrate holidays other than Passover, Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, if that.

One of the biggest reasons for how people feel about being Jewish and Jewish tradition is that so many parents never did at home what their kids were learning about in Hebrew School. If it isn’t real to them, how important can it be?

We’re again at a time in history when the world isn’t so kind. A lot of kids right now need their own driveway moment, where their parents make crystal clear to them who they are, that it’s for real, that it’s worth it, and it’s for life.

That’s the thing about Am Yisrael Chai. It isn’t just about keeping the good Jewish feels going after the war, because being Jewish is never just about the individual, or the present. We must all be lateral in terms of community, and vertical in terms of dor v’dor, generation to generation. Many today have wonderfully chosen to dust off their Jewish star, but the challenge, if not the mission, is to make sure their kids want to wear one as well. And theirs.

Like after 10.7, the world has a funny way of reminding us of who we are. Though it’s much more powerful when it’s we who keep reinforcing it to ourselves. In a strange way, part of preparing for the next war, is making sure there are strong, passionate Jews who are willing to fight and advocate for the one Jewish state, the only safe space in the world for the Jewish people.

The turnout for the parade was extraordinary. Consequently, so was the turnout afterward at Saba’s Pizza and all the other kosher restaurants and ice cream places nearby. But then again, given the times we’re living in and that this was New York, under fifty thousand seems rather small.

It’s a long time until the next parade. The one thing we know will be then is that Jewish life will go on. That’s why it’s time for a lot of us to walk the walk far more frequently. Through action, tradition, and powerful transmitting moments, we need to continue to show our children and the world who we are. For only through what we show our children, will Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Steven Berkowitz lives in New York City, writing advertising by day, and by night, sharing thoughts he hopes connect with the broader Jewish world. He hopes his next piece will be a lot funnier, and says, "Sorry about that!"
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