Jimmy Breslin: My Word Is My Bond

Binyamin L. Jolkovsky: Passing (it) On

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich: Questions Most Can't Answer

Julia Gorin: Confessions of a Refusenik Gone Secular

Ellen Small: Fireflies Light Up The Sky At Night

Dr. Jacob Mermelstein: Depressed Kids, Good Lives

Josh Pollack: A Divided Cyprus Mounts the World Stage

Nehama C. Nahmoud: The Jews of Yemen

Susan Rubin Weintrob: The Greening of American Jewry

Reader Response

First Person
December 10, 1997 / 11 Kislev, 5758

Passing (it) On

JWR's Binyamin L. Jolkovsky reflects on a transformative moment -- and the relative worth of a keepsake.

FOR MOST JEWISH YOUTH, Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, is remembered as a time of harmless gambling, limitless presents and feasting on potato pancakes, known as latkes. While this was, in fact, true in my case, there was one Chanukah that changed my life, an experience that affects me deeply to this day.

As a teenager, I would often frequent the small European-style synagogue (shtiebl) of the late Bluzhever Rebbe, Grand Rabbi Israel Spira, whose remarkable wartime experiences are chronicled in the runaway bestseller Chassidic Tales of the Holocaust, and who died in 1991, a few days shy of his 100th birthday.

One Chanukah eve, after the Rebbe's communal candle lighting ceremony, a number of the sage's admirers queued up to receive his blessing. As my turn approached, I handed a friend a camera and asked him to capture the moment for posterity. But when I approached the Rebbe, he motioned to my friend to put the camera away. The Rebbe then grasped my young hand and placed it into his white, cold palm. Peering directly into my eyes, he said affectionately in Yiddish: "Bochurel [young man], your wanting a picture with me likely stems from a desire to have a photo of a remnant from a vanished world. While it is indeed important to remember what Jewish life was like before the Holocaust, it is far more important to realize that within you and your generation lies the ability to guarantee its survival."

INDEED, it wasn't until recently that I began to fully appreciate the depth of the Rebbe's statement -- and his concerns. As a teen, I was disappointed that the picture of the two of us was never taken; that my descendants will never share, even minimally, what I had experienced. But today, I realize that on that winter night the rebbe enabled me to acquire a far more valuable heirloom --- one that I will do my best to pass on to my progeny.

While browsing in a book shop recently, I noticed a family -- grandparents, mother, father, and their children -- huddled around photographer Roman Vishniac's posthumously published book To Give Them Light. Gazing wide-eyed at the stunning pictures of pre-Holocaust European Jewish life, the younger generations were being instructed by the bubbe (grandmother) and zayde (grandfather) about the daily trials and travails of the Old Country.

I stood back a few feet and observed.

In front of the grandfather was a portrait of two yeshiva students in Uzhgrod, Hungary, studying Talmud. The fact the two boys shared the same volume and wore unblocked hats testified to the depths of their poverty, as did their frail bodies.

"That could have been me," the grandfather said, with a noticeable touch of nostalgia. Then one of the grandchildren caught his zayde off-guard. "What's that book they're studying all about?" he asked earnestly. Embarrassed, the grandfather mumbled something about Jewish traditions and quickly changed the subject.

A few pages later, the family patriarch came across a picture of the altar in the Lask, Poland synagogue, with a mystical chart placed behind the candelabra.

Now it was the father's turn to pose a question. "Why is that poster above the altar there?" The zayde obliged with a laconic response: "That's how they did it there, I suppose." And so it went until the picture book was eventually closed -- and with it, the multi-generational family's glimpse into their shared past.

"That was then," the family seemed to be saying of the quaint world they had just visited, as they returned the tome to the shelf. "Now is now. It's time to move on."

IT WAS this loose connection with the past implied by such attitudes, I believe, that alarmed the Rebbe. Pictures may be worth 1,000 words or more, lending a glimpse of the past and a perspective on the present and future, but they should not become ends in and of themselves.

Nor should the Holocaust.

The phrase "the glory of pre-Holocaust Europe" has become all but a cliche for Generation X Jews like myself. Without belittling the tragedy of the Six Million, it must be noted that for all too many, the Holocaust has almost as tragically become an ersatz religion through whose lens Jewish identity is now viewed. Indeed, on college campuses nationwide, Holocaust Memorial Day remains the one event -- besides Yom Kippur and anti-anti-Semitism rallies -- that mobilizes otherwise apathetic Jews. And in the common culture, the requisite television fare before Jewish holidays has also gotten into the act. But the storyline of Jews confronting their Jewishness -- nearly the only circumstance in which Jewish characters are identified as such -- almost always seems to deal with anti-Semitism as its theme. Instead of pride or joy, Jews and Gentiles alike see Jews encountering frustration and baseless hatred because of their ethnicity.

What is more, a favorite of the Jewish establishment these days is the propagation of the Holocaust museum culture. All that seems to be missing from these multi-million-dollar monuments to tragedy that seem to be popping up all across the fruited plain are carnival barkers, shouting: "Come one, come all! See the dead Jews and their vanished culture under glass."

WHEREAS the celebration of the warmth and vitality of Judaism once nurtured one's Jewishness, today these vibrant experiences are increasingly being replaced with a somber substitute: the horrors of World War II. Post-Holocaust American Jewry has been taught to define itself in terms of being a nation of victims rather than a nation entrusted with the transmission of the Divine Word.

Jewish life did not end with the near-destruction of European Jewry. Nor did it begin in Europe. For thousands of years, Jews contributed heavily to the well-being of their host-nations in every field of endeavor. But Jewish life, in which the Torah is the focal point, is not limited to any specific time or place. Communities should not let nostalgia -- or tragedy -- blur their sense of direction or priority. "Within you and your generation lies the ability to guarantee Judaism's survival," the Rebbe observed.

Photographs and other forms of nostalgia, like anything else that is essentially neutral, can be used productively or can be abused. A snapshot can capture the fascination of a bygone moment, but we must take care not to allow images of the past to become the sole objects and endpoints of our sense of meaning. Our own lives are here today to be lived and imbued with wonder.


Binyamin L. Jolkovsky is the editor-in-chief and publisher of JWR.

©1997, Jewish World Review