How Do We Pass on Our Jewishness?

All of us struggle with the problem of how to transmit our commitment to Judaism to the next generation. There are all sorts of suggestions — but no solutions. How do we reproduce ourselves Jewishly?

I have a passion for Jewishness, for every manifestation of it, from Workmen’s Circle to Chasidic shtibls. My passion came to me as mother’s milk, from wanting to emulate the Jews around me.

My father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, used to say, “I have a daughter. I love her dearly. And I would like her to obey the commandments of the Torah. I would like her to revere me as her father. And I ask myself the question again and again, what is there about me that would be worthy of her reverence? Unless I live a life that would deserve her reverence, I would make it impossible for her to live a life of Judaism.”

For both of my parents, childhood was not easy. My mother grew up during the Depression, and at the same time, her father lost his eyesight due to diabetes.

My grandfather died when my father was 9, and he and his mother and siblings were left in terrible poverty in Warsaw. Yet while my father was deprived of a father, he spoke of being surrounded by Jews who inspired his reverence and emulation. He often said that his greatest gift was to grow up around people of spiritual nobility.

He wrote, “In my childhood and in my youth, I was the recipient of many blessings. I lived in the presence of quite a number of extraordinary persons I could revere. And just as I lived as a child in their presence, their presence continues to live in me as an adult.”

I’ve often wondered how to explain the phrase “religious nobility.” What kind of person is worthy of that description? What inner sensibilities and values have to be cultivated to produce such a person?

Like my father, I feel I was privileged to have been exposed to people of religious nobility: my father, my uncle and a few other people, some of whom I met only very briefly. Each left me with a sense of awe that a human being is capable of such extraordinary spiritual refinement.

Jewish texts tell us that human beings are made in the image of God, and that it is our duty to imitate God in our lives. What is it to be created in the image of God?

To be a reminder of God, my father wrote, you should look at someone and think of God. And that, in turn, means that our imperative is to live our lives in such a way that if someone looks at us, they are reminded of God. Such are the people of spiritual nobility who surrounded my father.

Such was his life, too. The opposite of good is not evil, he wrote. The opposite of good is indifference.

When he looked at human beings, even the most dissolute, he saw the divine image. For him, it was impossible to be indifferent to the suffering in our society caused by social inequality and the civilian tragedies incurred by war. I saw him in pain, sleepless and agonizing over the miseries of human beings.

Simply to teach that human beings are made in the image of God is not a solution to the rising rates of intermarriage and assimilation. I don’t think there are any easy answers.

But I do believe that both of my parents taught me how I must transmit my Jewishness to my children: to lead a life worthy of their reverence and emulation. I want to expose them to people of religious nobility, of spiritual refinement and delicacy.

I want them to learn that the greatest gift is compassion, and that callousness and indifference are antithetical to the life of a Jew, who has commitments to society as well as family. Because I grew up in the presence of people who inspired me with awe, their presence continues in me, and one day, I hope, will become part of my children’s lives as well.

This essay originally appeared in Hadassah Magazine.

Susanna Heschel, Eli Black associate professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, will be scholar in residence at Pasadena Jewish Center and will speak on March 14, 2:30 p.m. at the center. For more information call (626) 798-1161.

UCI Forum MERITs Response

A UC Irvine forum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last month exposed a rare rift over academic freedom within the normally collaborative Orange County Jewish community.

The four selected panelists at the Oct. 9 program were critiqued as a “pro-violence platform” by the Fullerton-based Middle East Reporting in Truth (MERIT), a grass-roots group organized to counter media bias. MERIT urged its members to press public officials for an investigation of the forum’s sponsors and funding, describing the participants, who at that time had not yet been identified, as “Palestinians who justify suicide bombers” and calling the event “propaganda” for lacking mainstream speakers.

The accusations incensed Mark LeVine, an associate professor of Middle East history and Islamic studies, who convened the scholars for a separate three-day academic workshop and also asked some to speak at the public forum. “I don’t deal with people who support violence,” he said of the academics invited to participate. He called MERIT’s remedy “McCarthyesque.”

In a clarification posted online after LeVine complained, MERIT retracted the description but not its concern over the panelists, who “do not represent the current consensus of Israeli public opinion.”

An audience of more than 200 people listened intently to the two-hour UCI discussion by two Israelis and two Palestinians. At the outset, UCI’s director of international studies made a disclaimer about the panelists’ “alternative view.”

“These are the views you don’t hear,” LeVine told the audience.

Oren Yiftachel, chair of the geography department at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva, Israel, defined the conflict as an ethnic land grab and “creeping apartheid.” He said peace efforts are undermined by the spread of Israeli settlements, what he called “the Judaization of Palestine.” Expansion also means people live separately and unequally, he said.

Palestinian Rema Hammami, director of women’s studies at Bir Zeit University, located on the West Bank, said the conflict is bred by festering frustration over political agreements that fail to see fruition. She said both sides share blame for the second intifada, which she claims was ignited by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in 2000. Excessive military force to quell Temple Mount demonstrators led to inevitable escalation, she said. Her harshest words were for Palestinian leadership. Their lack of response to the intifada “borders on criminal responsibility,” she said.

Another panelist, Yoav Peled, a political science professor from Tel Aviv University, sees the conflict through an economic lens. The first intifada in 1987 resulted in a withdrawal of Palestinian resources that benefited Israel: cheap labor, a captive market and tax revenue. “That led Israel to Oslo,” Peled said. A foreign-investment boom during the 1990s, though, did not bring full employment as factories closed. “The people whose economic fortune deteriorated because of the peace process came to resent the idea,” he said.

Walid Shomaly, Palestinian Center of Public Opinion’s public relations director, reported results of a recent poll of Palestinians. About half now say they support the intifada and suicide bombing, which represents a decline compared to a year ago, when support stood at 72 and 80 percent, respectively, he said. Shomaly did not describe how the poll was conducted.

LeVine ended the panel with a plea. “All of the community needs to step back from inflammatory rhetoric,” he said, such as equating [Ariel] Sharon or Yasser Arafat to Hitler. “We need to stop making ludicrous analogies.”

The forum lacked balance, said Roz Rothstein, an organizer of StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based Israel advocacy group, who was one of a many audience members that had questions for the panelists. “I wanted an even playing field,” Rothstein said, adding that students lacked the sophistication to discern that the presentation had a pro-Palestinian bias. In a later statement, she called on the UCI administration “to stop allowing the university to be used as a forum to demonize Israel.”

Other Jewish organizations that have previously allied with MERIT over campus issues refrained, in this instance, from backing the group’s effort to derail the forum. “We think that it’s important the Jewish community support open dialogue,” said Gary Levin, assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Costa Mesa chapter.

Both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate are stalking college campuses this fall for different ends. The pro-Israel side seeks to delegitimize speakers antagonistic to Israel. The pro-Palestinian side seeks sympathizers in a student population willing to demonstrate for news cameras. Two of the UCI panelists are on campus tours for Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, a group circulating a petition calling on Israel to respect academic freedom in Palestinian universities. About 500 mostly U.S. professors have signed.

Paula Garb, associate director of international studies for UCI, who also served as a moderator, said five other Middle East forums of varying perspectives are planned in the fall quarter.

“We hope as the year proceeds, all perspectives will be presented,” Garb said. “It’s not possible at one event, but over time.”