The letters of our thoughts are the ideas present in our mind before they come to realization . . . Thoughts that are, yet not felt . . . The words of the subconscious . . . of the soul . . .


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Ballad of the Living Jew

Putting Tefillin on a Yid from Bialystok for the first time in his life.
Taken in Warsaw, winter 5766 -from the lost Warsaw Archives

I first noticed him about a week after I came to Poland. He would come Shabbos afternoon for the mincha prayers; sitting in the back of synagogue, he would pray silently, then leave. His dark almond eyes narrowed in concentration bespoke of an age far beyond his near thirty years of life. He sported a thin goatee and wore a hat that fell in somewhere between a French beret and a Russian Kasket - giving him the appearance of a beatnik, or perhaps a Soviet Refusenik. After the three stars came out, symbolizing the end of the bliss of the holy Sabbath day, and the start of a new week, he would listen to the Havdalah services, take a sip from the cup of wine, and then leave - prayerbook always in hand. Save a perfunctory nod or Shevua Tov, we never spoke.

One week, as I milled around the sanctuary after the prayers had ended, he approached me; his purple siddur clutched to his chest with a thumb held between the pages to keep his place. Looking me up and down, his eyes scanning the whole of my character, he opened the siddur and held it in front of me.
"Perhaps you could help me . . ."

The other congregants left the synagogue as we spoke, soon only the two of us remained.

His name was Jakob Wejnsztein, born in Warsaw, he spoke a flawless, if somewhat heavily accented English. He had never left Poland for more then a few weeks at a time.

"I don't like the West . . ." He told me, his almond eyes narrowing to slits, his nostrils flaring.
"Whatever for?" I asked him - after all what did Eastern Europe offer to a Jew in search of spiritual growth?
"I don't like it because of how people see me there . . . It's the same reason why I don't visit Auschwitz."

Seeing the look of shock on my face, he sighed.
"I am a living Jew. Not a dead one. To you Americans we are all dead. You come here to see the destruction of our people. You come to feel sorry for what happened, or even worse - to feel sorry for yourselves. But it doesn't change you, you go home to everything you left and resume life as before.
You can not understand us, you look at us as anachronisms. To all of you we should not be in Poland, we are an anomaly . . . To Western Jews, the only Jew in Poland is a dead Jew.
I, however, am a living Jew. I pray three times a day, I learn Torah - from books and online. I know that I am as alive as every other member of our nation. I know what happened sixty years ago - I live with it every day of my life. It surrounds me, every street cries of the blood soaked into its stones. But I didn't die like them. No . . . I live for them, and they live through me."

His words poured thick, their energy tangible in the still air of the now empty synagogue. He licked his lips in anticipation of my reply.
I realized that he was right. I too had seen him as an anomaly, a strange creature of the past.

Holocaust comes from the Greek to be burnt whole - a sacrifice consumed by fire.
Polish Jewry had been sacrificed on high; a thousand years of history had been uprooted and destroyed - whatever had survived had been replanted elsewhere. The Warsaw, Vilna, Lubavitch and Pressburg of the past had since been supplemented with Jerusalem, Brooklyn, Los Angeles and London. Jakob did not fit in that picture - he lived in a land that existed only in my mental image of times since gone. Surely there was no future for a Jew here.
Yet here I was, in a synagogue built over the ruble of the Ghetto . . . Praying over the place where the train tracks to Treblinka had once clattered a death knoll, and Jakob, a child of Jews who had remained in this land, who had grown up in the shadow of Communism, was here as well.
What right did I have to view him as anything else then the spiritual, living Jew that he was. No relic of some forgotten world -he was a living Jew. I, in my ignorance, had unknowingly judged him . . .

We wrapped up the conversation, and bid each other a Shevua Tov -though this time it was far from the perfunctory nod of the past.
In my mind perhaps only one living Jew had entered the shul, but now two had most definitely left. Not only was I alive, but he as well. Not only had he found a new breath of life in Judaism, but now, thanks to our conversation, so had I.

Too often when we speak about the joys of Judaism, we focus on the oy. A history of destruction - Crusades, Inquisitions, Pogroms, Holocausts and Intifadas loom in our minds.
But we must not let our Judaism die for the past, but rather live for it. We must bring what our fathers and mothers longed for into the here and know.

We must say Kaddish for the past, but we must also sing the song of the living Jew

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Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mottel said...

To Anon:
Making assumptions and accusations under a cloak of Anonymity is cowardice. How much more so when what you say is blatantly false.

therapydoc said...

Thanks for a beautiful story. It's true. We really do kind of wonder, what people are still doing in places like Poland. I fear for them that one day another bunch of hooligans will rise up and hurt a Yid like him because he happens to be a Yid. But that can happen anywhere, and he's home, and it's good that he's holding his ground. Would that we could all defend what we do in this way.

yudi said...

just wanted to say hello... you're posts are always appealing and interesting... (even though I don't end up checking them out to often...) עלה והצלח!!!

Mottel said...

Glad you enjoyed!