My father was a Holocaust survivor, but his relationship to Israel was complicated. And so is mine.
The image above is of an affidavit my father had to sign attesting to the
fact that he had no nationality. He was a man with no passport, because the
Nazi state had stripped him of his nationality for the crime of being Jewish.
This is the ultimate meaning of the State of Israel: as a Jew, you will always
have a home.
So today, like many American Jews, I quietly celebrate the 75-year
anniversary of the birth of Israel, glad to see a Jewish homeland, while regretting
its deep imperfections.
As I discuss in my memoir, The Silk Factory: Finding Threads
of My Family’s True Holocaust Story, my father didn’t talk to me about escaping Nazi Germany and occupied France, or how those events shaped and reshaped his views about God, Judaism, or Israel.
One thing I knew: My father was not a Zionist. He was born in 1903, raised in a mostly secular German-Jewish family
(assimilated was the word they used), and learned at the feet of Rabbi Pinchas Kohn, a
highly respected Jewish leader.
At first, Rabbi Kohn taught him that Jews had to wait for the Messiah before
claiming Israel as their own. Somewhere along the way, though, Rabbi Kohn changed
his mind; perhaps it was accepting reality; throughout the 19th
century, Jews had begun resettling in Palestine to escape persecution in Europe
and Russia. Then the British government in 1917 issued the Balfour Declaration
expressing support for the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine.
Rabbi Kohn became one of the founders of Agudath Israel – the political arm
of the Hassidic movement in the early 20th century, and the precursor
of today’s right-wing settler movement.
If my father’s faith was shaken by his Rabbi’s apostasy, it was shattered by
the murder of his mother by the Nazis. Either God could not exist, or was not
worthy of worship, in the wake of that personal tragedy.
A Jew Grows in Queens
I was raised in the knowledge that I was a Jew, but I was not raised in a
house that kept kosher or kept the Sabbath or celebrated the holidays. Like
many of my friends and acquaintances, I was raised by secular Jews in Queens,
with an arms-length relationship to the Jewish religion – and a rooting
interest in Israel.
However, my parents wanted me to have some religious education, and wanted me
to receive my bar mitzvah at an Orthodox congregation, because that
was echt (real) Judaism. I was admitted to the Elmhurst Jewish Center
only because of my father’s connection to Rabbi Kohn.
I was also raised by a very angry man who tried to keep his rage in check
by never discussing his experiences as a Jew in Europe before and during WWII.
He never even told me about the existence of close members of the family who
were murdered by the Nazis. I had to find out about those things by myself — whence my memoir.
In the process, I unearthed a lot of family history that has taught me a lot
about the sources of my own anger – heretofore inexplicable to myself – and
helped me understand the roots of my parents’ often atrocious behavior towards
my much older siblings, and how those behaviors have echoed through generations
and into the present.
The Imperfect Jewish State
Israel has always been source of wonderment and confused attachment. To me,
and to many other American Jews. It has been a source of inspiration, when so many
Jews have been downtrodden, to see Jews thrive in the world.
I can still vividly remember how my parents reacted to news of the 1967 Six Days
War – my mother’s unabashed glee and my father’s quiet satisfaction. Finally, Jews
refused to be victimized, and brought the fight to those who would destroy
But it is a source of discomfort to see the Jewish State often behave as
poorly as other states – with callous disregard for the lives of Palestinians,
for example. One hopes for better, although it is perhaps arrogant to think
this way. But if being Jewish means anything, shouldn’t it mean having more
empathy for others because of our history of persecution?
If Jews are the Chosen People, it is not because of any kind of preference God would
have for us; if we are indeed the Chosen People, it’s that God chose us to
exemplify the proper way to worship God — by being beacons of justice and kindness.
Still, I prefer the existence of a Jewish State, flawed though it may be, to
the alternative. There’s a lot that needs to be changed for the better, but we
can say that about everywhere. So long as we’re stuck with the paradigm of the
Nation, thank you, Israel, for existing.
And thank you, father, for having had the courage to make it through the
Shoah, to lug your family and your broken heart across the ocean, and to have
another child who would carry on our family’s legacy.