As a child, Jewishness to me was not the cantor's otherworldly voice reverberating off sanctuary walls or the feverous preparations for shabbes (the Sabbath). Rather it was the touching lullabies of bobe (grandma) as she clutched me tightly singing "Tumbalalaika," "Oyfn Pripetchik," and "Mandlin un Royshinkes." And through her songs, her life spoke to me, including her love for Yiddish and her burning desire to create a better world through her involvement in mentschlikhayt, social justice, as expressed through her annual pilgrimage to Union Square on Mayday.
I understood the value of Jewish history, custom and ritual at an early age, most of it suffused in the warm tapestry of Jewish culture, which I absorbed at the Saturday school I attended throughout my childhood. There I learned to appreciate Yiddish literature and the great Yiddish poets (my favorite being Dovid Edelshtat) cherished the songs of my parents and their parents' parents, and developed a fondness for Yiddish theater and film as a window into the legacy of Eastern European Jewry and American Jewish culture. And I learned that truly memorializing those who perished in the horror of the Holocaust was to celebrate their life and the vibrant culture they shared rather than focusing on how they died.
Yet, how to relate the significance of this to my fiancé, who shared my values, but not my religious and ethnic heritage? How to explain the portable homeland of Ashkenazi culture that my family carried from Poland to Russia to Argentina and finally to the goldene medina? And how to make her understand why a church wedding was not appropriate, even if religiosity was not central to my life?
The unrelenting chorus of my ancestors floating through my genetic memory ultimately would not be denied and so our wedding was officiated by a rabbi and a priest who, sharing the bible, demonstrated through example that, although our religions were chasms apart, the values my wife and I shared had lasting biblical roots.
As our love and marriage matured, we each brought unique and interesting aspects of ethnicity and religious training to the table, which made our lives richer, from ecumenical Passover seders that recounted the liberation struggles of the Jews and people of Irish ancestry, to Purim parties where we acknowledged the many Hamans who have troubled people throughout the ages, transcending ethnicity. But everything changed when my grandmother passed away. Suddenly the woman who stood as the embodiment of strength of character, the personification of perseverance in the face of constant threats to her survival in the old country and the new, the 4 foot 5 inch woman who wrapped us in the power of yiddishkayt (Jewishness) through her songs and through her delectable noshes, was gone. And with her, an entire cherished generation was disappearing. I understood my mission clearly.
A year later I co-founded a center dedicated to the continuance of Jewish culture through the arts, music, education, scholarly lectures and children's programming to help connect American Jews with their Eastern European roots that had been an important corridor of Jewish history and a dimension of Jewish life having no equivalent. I understood that if I did not take it upon myself, an important part of the Jewish cultural spectrum would be irrevocably lost.
After several years of acting as a hired gun in a personal injury law firm, my wife began her own personal journey for meaning. Knowing she was a competent administrator, I offered to hire her as the Center's program director. Almost immediately, she embraced Yiddish culture, picking up the Yiddish language through courses we ran, towering above me in her new-found grasp of the mame-loshn (mother tongue), coordinating Jewish cultural events locally and nationally, and helping to light the torch of Jewish culture for new generations. Over time, she began to see that Jewish culture and Jewish thought were powerful tools that could bring meaning to both of our lives. And she became an important spokesperson in our Jewish community, rivaling the enthusiasm and knowledge of others born into the Jewish faith, whose tenuous connection to Judaism ended after their Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
When our baby was born, it was my goyishe vayb (non-Jewish wife) who sang to Jonah "Tumbalaika," "Oyfn Pripetchik," and "Mandlin un Royshinkes" as my mother and grandmother had done before her. The irresistible chain of Jewish and Yiddish culture would continue for at least one more generation. And looking down upon us is my bobele, smiling that all is not lost.