I have always thought that curiosity about oneself is self-indulgent. Nothing bored me more than people that wanted to tell me what they had discovered about themselves in psychotherapy. Just get on with it, was my motto. I don’t care about your childhood, and you shouldn’t either.
The same went for Jews who are always picking at the Holocaust. I didn’t want to hear about it. They tried to kill us, they only partially succeeded, let’s eat. I never visited Yad Vashem; I skipped the trip provided by the absorption center in 1979. I don’t go to Holocaust movies, and the last book I read about it was André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, which I read in the early 1960s. Who needs this stuff, I thought? I had contempt for those who were seeking emotional titillation at a safe distance from the horrors of 75 years ago, while ignoring the Arabs and Iranians that want to murder us today.
I thought I was a “new Jew” that had dumped all of that baggage.
But there seems to be something about the aging process that compels reflection. There are things that you did that you wish you had done differently, and things that you wish you hadn’t done at all. And I think I’m beginning to understand why people investigate their genealogy, or take trips to the places their grandparents lived. What was it like to live under the Czar? My grandfather could have told me, but it’s almost 50 years too late to ask him. I didn’t care then, but today I want to know.
I was born in 1942 and I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My parents were born in America and were invested in being Americans. They weren’t interested in religion, in speaking the Yiddish they understood from their childhoods, or in joining Jewish or Zionist organizations. None of that had anything for them. They understood that they were Jewish, almost all of their friends were Jewish too, but when they looked for a house in the suburbs in 1950, they chose a non-Jewish neighborhood. They never talked about the Holocaust, at least not that I heard. In 1948 I asked my father about disturbing things I was hearing on the radio. He explained that there was a war going on “between the Jews and the Arabs.” But they were different Jews, far away and not connected to us.
My maternal grandparents, with whom we lived, were another story. They had emigrated (from here) in what is now Ukraine, before the revolution. They had relatives who had stayed behind in Europe, whom they kept in touch with until the war. Toward the end of it, they somehow found out that none of them had survived. I overheard conversations that I only partly understood, but I was aware that something terrible had happened.
My grandmother was one of the toughest and hardest-working women I’ve known, although she had a soft spot in her heart for her (then) only grandchild. She came to America at the age of 17 not knowing how to read or write, but already a dressmaker by profession. My grandparents both worked as sewing machine operators in the Manhattan garment district; someone told me that my grandfather, who was blind in one eye, had a job because they had to hire him to get her. I inherited my cynical, even slightly paranoid, attitude from her.
Their approach to life, far different from my “American” parents, was that of Jews who were always looking over their shoulders. The Holocaust was always present, as well as the pogroms of pre-revolutionary Russia. They were the kind of Jews that, at least figuratively, always had their suitcases packed. At one point when I was in college in the 1960s, I told my grandfather that I was thinking about making aliyah. He smiled and patted me on the back, and said “to help the Jewish people.” I was surprised. I doubt that my parents would have used the expression “the Jewish people” in any context.
I didn’t make aliyah until much later, but there’s no doubt that my connection to the Jewish people goes through my grandparents (but probably not my Judaism: the constitution of the Landsmannschaft to which he belonged contains a note that “the question of affiliation with a synagogue is never to be raised.” Not my conservatism either: he was a regular reader of the Yiddish Daily Forward and once even elected Secretary of his ILGWU local).
The Holocaust, the pogroms of Europe, and the anti-Jewish riots and massacres in the Middle East and North Africa are unfortunately part of the Jewish people’s collective soul. So are the thousands of years of discrimination and ghettoization. There’s no escaping them, even if we pretend to be “new Jews” for whom history started in the 19th century here in Israel with the arrival of the first Zionists.
And that’s not bad. My grandmother could spot a con a mile away. She was suspicious, but in her world, you had to be. She wouldn’t trust Mahmoud Abbas or Tzipi Livni as far as she could throw them. She understood that the world was a dangerous place for Jews, and you had to always watch your back. I completely understand her. I still look over my shoulder. It’s in my DNA. But there are some ways in which things have finally changed.
In Israel today, we face some very serious threats. We need to look over our shoulders, to Tehran, Gaza, Damascus, Beirut and Ramallah. But after several thousand years, our suitcases are finally unpacked.