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Bound by stories

Elan Barnehama (Boston, MA)

I am the progeny of refugees with thick accents who passed on a heritage of the gloom of war and the promise of peace. They had the self-assurance that came from having survived and the mistrust of having had to.

My mother’s family fled Berlin for Jerusalem when Hitler came to power. My father’s family escaped Vienna for Haifa in the days following its Kristallnacht. Soon after Israel’s War of Independence, my father contracted polio and was shipped off to New York for medical care. That’s where my mother met him, as she was in New York City visiting friends and relatives. And there they stayed.

And there I grew up, in a place where no one could pronounce my name and no one considered me American. To them, I was Israeli even though I was more focused on why they killed Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I wanted to know why Newark was burning. I was worried that the war in Vietnam would still be going on when I reached draft age.

When it was time for me to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah, I had little interest. Why would I want to celebrate a God who allowed the Holocaust, a God who looked away as my father got polio and became confined to a wheelchair?

The thing is, while we were not remotely observant, my parents were proudly Jewish, and we marked the holidays at home. About our table were family and friends, most of whom also had their own stories of survival and persistence, who came to discuss and debate the meaning of those holy days, and not just recite pages in order to get to the food.

From an early age, Biblical stories drew me in. The writers offered different points of view, were comfortable with contradictions and highlighted that most of life resided in uncertainty. The opening chapters had two very different tellings of creation. It only took a few pages to encounter the first lie, quickly followed by the first murder. Brothers did not fare well. The stories were not simplistic or dogmatic. Context mattered.

The more I read, the more these texts resonated with me and helped me make sense of a senseless world. Increasingly, I felt connected to the Jewish story, if not the Jewish God. And that was how I knew I was going to follow through with my Bar Mitzvah. The Tribe had survived for thousands of years and countless attempts to get rid of it. Who was I to mess with a streak?

I remain strengthened by listening to and retelling these stories, even when they are not easy to hear or easy to repeat. And I am proud to add my story to our shared history.

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Elan Barnehama’s new novel, Escape Route, is set in NYC during the 1960s and is told by teenager, Zach, a first-generation son of Holocaust survivors, and NY Mets fan, who becomes obsessed with the Vietnam War and with finding an escape route for his family for when he believes the US will round up and incarcerate its Jews. Elan is a New Yorker by geography. A Mets fan by default. More info at elanbarnehama.comEscape Route, available now

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Difficult

by David J. Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

“It’s difficult being a Jew.”

Children of the many Jewish immigrants who came to America at the turn of the 20th century continually heard that lament from their parents.

The complaint certainly was not baseless. “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t come in on Monday” was the usual reply from their bosses if they requested to be off on Shabbos. And the constant struggle to put food – kosher or otherwise – on the table did not make Jewish practice or learning very easy, either.

Now, after the turn of the 21st century, it’s still difficult being a Jew – but for an entirely different reason.

We no longer are confronted with a Saturday/Monday ultimatum, but we do have to face something that’s more insidious simply because it’s ever-present – the constant beckoning to “stop being primitive,” to “be enlightened.”

This is all the more challenging for a ba’al teshuva – a returning Jew – like myself.

Let me give you an example. I recently went to a friend’s house in my Brooklyn neighborhood. He has remained a staunchly secular Jew, once even remarking to my wife in a conversation about the Torah that probably would have been best not to have: “You swallow all that stuff?” All his grown children are on track to having non-Jewish spouses, and my friend, rather than lamenting the consequent severing of  Jewish heritage, is very happy about it and looking forward to having many grandchildren.

Just walking into his house was an instant flashback to the world I’m still struggling to tear away from. His shelves were filled with an extensive array of books – but not a single one even remotely connected to Jewish thought. He had a large, flat-screen TV with a full range of cable programming. And he offered to lend me a book which he just knew I would enjoy because of my keen interest in science: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

The book – which, sure enough, seemed very interesting and well-written – began with a synopsis of the “Big Bang” of creation arising from the infinitesimally small “singularity” leading to protons and electrons leading to atoms and molecules leading to different substances leading to different life forms leading to us – all, of course, totally by accident.

This, I’m beginning to realize more each day, is the basic premise of modern secular society – we’re all simply walking piles of atoms whose only goal is to do essentially whatever we want to do as long as it doesn’t physically hurt anyone else (and that single restriction is only due to an evolutionary mandate to preserve the species, the secularists will say).

It’s a mindset so pervasive in everything from textbooks to bestsellers to TV, iPods and the Internet, it has to be fought daily – hourly.

Compounding the difficulty – at least for me – is the literal account of Creation in Genesis. I still find it hard to fully embrace the concept of a universe only 6,000 years old and all of mankind descending from one couple created as adults in an idyllic garden.

But I have more difficulty accepting Darwinian evolution literally, either–despite Carl Sagan’s insistence that it’s “a fact.” The legendary late Rabbi Avigdor Miller, for one, has shot huge holes into evolutionary theory with scientific logic, showing very clear self-contradictions and scientific impossibilities in the theory.

Perhaps if I reach the level of Torah study that my 19-year-old son, Mathew (he prefers “Matisyahu”) has already attained in yeshiva, I wouldn’t have any struggle. He’s shown me examples of rabbis and scholars discerning from the written and oral Torah concepts of pi, a heliocentric universe, and even genetics centuries before the later civilizations proffered these ideas. Modern science seems to be merely catching up to some concepts already in the Torah, and computers are just now beginning to reveal some of the secrets of the gematria, the numerology, of the words and letters of the Torah.

Yes, it is difficult being a Jew.

But it’s also challenging, stimulating, and fulfilling – as anyone can experience after just one visit to the Shabbos table of a frum family.

My friend may have it easier – but he certainly doesn’t have it better

David Glenn is founder and publisher of Bay Currents, a community newspaper in Brooklyn. He also teaches math at Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Ohr Eliezer, which motivated his son, and then the family, to embrace Orthodox Judaism.

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