August 5, 2013
Jewish Family Matters
I’ve always loved the description of Israel as “Start-Up Nation”. I like it for two reasons: 1) To “start up” with someone means to aggressively confront, and both Israelis and Israel are not afraid to start up with someone or some nation if they feel they’re being wronged (read: attacked), and 2) To “start up” also means to ignite, initiate (as in a new project or company). Both these meanings aptly describe major facets of the State of Israel and the people who make up the State of Israel. Actually, both these meanings define all the Jews in whatever land we find ourselves. We’re always a “Start-up Nation.”
Why is that?
I think it’s because for us Jewish Family Matters? Not just Jewish family mind you, but Jewish Family, the world wide Family of Jews. And not just matter, as in take up space, but Matter as in something of importance.
During my sixty plus years I’ve held many jobs. One of them was as a ghost writer for some major non-profit Jewish leaders. When I asked any of these leaders for the theme of their talk, I was amazed at the fact that many of these assimilated individuals invariably wanted me to focus on the importance of training our children to love and understand their Jewish heritage. Sometimes they would even ask me to put in a little dvar Torah, something that relates to the idea of inter-connectiveness between all Jews, something people in Israel call, Areyvut.
Areyvut is hard to define in English. It’s more than holding hands, more than “It’s a small world”, more even than, “Do unto others”. It’s really like a gene that lays dormant, waiting for the right time to click on, to “Start-Up” and energize a person to do something meaningful.
When someone says “Jewish family matters to me”, he usually means his Jewish family. He’s concerned that his children get a good education, that they have all those things parents want for their children, and that they grow up to be menschen (good people).
But Jewish Family Matters as part of areyvut also has a wider application. It means caring about another’s child, another’s well-being, another’s kavod (self-respect). It’s one of the most difficult traits to trigger because it requires the right timing, the right catalyst to ignite it.
I tried to raise my children to understand that Jewish Family Matters in the greater sense. But it’s nearly impossible to teach someone how to affect those outside your immediate family. We all like “our” stuff: our family, our toys, our food, our, our, our. The empathy required to reach “them” is massive. If harnessed correctly I have no doubt it could light up the world.
Which brings me to my story (Sorry for the long introduction). It happened about 30 years ago in Lawrence, Long Island. I came home one Sunday, after a hard day’s work (yes, I worked on Sundays) to find a disheveled, bearded Jew sitting in my kitchen eating the piece of cake I had reserved for myself for Monday’s breakfast, drinking my special brand of brewed tea, humming to himself, and smiling.
Sitting across from him was my number three child, Shlomo, ten years old, in animated conversation, explaining how he couldn’t understand why some of the kids in his class felt the need to curse. “Some say the S word and some say the D word and some even say the F word, although I’m not sure why such a strange sounding word means anything bad,” he told his willing listener.
“Ich fashteh ist nicht oched,” said our guest, in Yiddish. Seems he didn’t understand either, although I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the word or to anything my son was saying.
I decided not to ask Shlomo anything right then and instead started to speak to our guest in Yiddish. He complimented me on my fine son, and made sure to tell me he only ate the (last) piece of cake after checking on its “hechsher” (kashrut) which he was glad to see had the right “hashkacha” (certification). “Speaking of hashkacha,” he quickly added, “the boys in our yeshiva only come from the best homes in Israel and dedicate themselves to learning….”
Bottom line: Could I please make a (substantial) donation?
“By the looks of things,” I was tempted to respond, “I think I’ve already made a donation, unless you want to try on a pair of my pants as well,” but instead simply gave him a (substantial) check.
I couldn’t help but notice that Shlomo was a little surprised at my actions.
After swallowing what was left of my cake, the fellow brushed the crumbs out of his beard onto the plate, thanked us both profusely, and left.
“Why did you give him money?” Shlomo asked as I closed the door.
“Why did you let him in?” I countered.
“I just offered him some food. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”
“When you don’t know him?”
“Of course. What difference does it make if I know him? Aren’t we supposed to offer every Jew something to eat and drink? Isn’t that a mitzvah? Areyvut. Wouldn’t you offer him the same?”
I thought to myself: Would I offer a shaliach (shnorrer) to come into my house and have some food and drink? Probably not. After all, I’d have to open a Sunday brunch business to feed all the representatives of yeshivas that find their way to my house on Sunday. So? So I’ve been programmed not to invite people as guests in my house unless I know them.
Looking at my son’s expectant face, I suddenly realized that all he was asking is if I do what his teachers (and sometimes his parents) preach. Areyvut. Shlomo was asking, in his innocence, “Have you become so jaded you don’t recognize a mitzvah when you see it?"
I remember someone called to offer my daughter a “fine young man” for a possible shidduch (marriage match). Not being used to dealing with a shadchan (marriage broker) I said, “Why doesn’t he just call her?” Her answer was one I’ll never forget. “His parents need to know you’re one of unserer (our kind).” I’d rather not quote my response.
Sometimes it takes the innocent actions of a child to activate the dormant areyvut gene in a parent. Of course, we all learn as kids how important it is to help others, to try and listen to what others are saying, to empathize with others. But by the time we grow up and go out into the world, we lose that innocence and purity of spirit. We hear how Abraham, after undergoing a circumcision, ran out of his tent in the heat of the day to greet (idol worshipping) strangers who would probably have passed by his tent without a second glance. And yet we don’t greet an old Jew walking in the street for fear he’ll ask us for money. We would never think to stop and say a kind word to a stranger who looks down and out.
They say that the Vilna Gaon, a non-hasidic Rabbi, once saw a hasidic Jew downtrodden and clearly unhappy with his lot in life.
“What’s the problem, Reb yid?” he asked.
“I’m stuck in my life. I don’t feel any warmth in my soul,” answered the hasid.
“What Hasidic sect do you belong to?” the Gaon asked.
“I’m a Bobover hasid,” the hasid answered.
The Vilna Gaon started to sing one of the tunes that the hasid knew.
After a while, the hasid joined in.
“We can’t just sing. We need to dance as well,” offered the Gaon.
And so they danced and sang until the hasid reconnected with his soul.
That’s what areyvut is all about. Connecting. Helping others connect.
What makes us a Start-Up nation is that we’re a Start-Up people. We try to teach our children and each other that we’re all important, that we’re all connected. We’re successful as a people because we’ve found out how to activate our areyvut gene by telling and doing. I think we all have areyvut stories we could tell, stories that ignite the areyvut gene in the helix of our heart.
Jewish Family Matters. It does. Not just our family. But the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all the way down to you.
Yaacov Peterseil is the Founder of JewishStoryWriting.com and has been working for areyvut most of his adult life.