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April 24, 2014 | 24th Nisan 5774

The Next Best Thing to Being There

March 30, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

My father died just before Purim, in Philadelphia, at the age of 88. During the three years since his first heart attack, he told anyone who asked that he was “getting a little better every day,” even though we all knew -- and he probably did too -- that the opposite was true. I was fortunate to have been able, throughout his last years, to increase the frequency of my visits to the US from one or two per year, to five or six. Still, when he died I was half a world away and my mother was alone in a hospital waiting room.

My father's parents left home in the Ukraine in 1906 as young adults; he never knew his grandparents. He left home in Omaha at the age of 17 to attend the state university, over his parents’ objections, and later, after his discharge from the army and his marriage, found his first professional position in a small town 1500 miles from home. That was after inquiries about finding work as a chemist in Palestine -- in 1945 -- yielded no promising leads.

It was not easy for my parents to send me to Haifa on the Eisendrath-Israel-Exchange program for six months when I was 15, but they never hesitated. In those days, international phone calls were still a big deal; I don’t think we spoke by phone more than half a dozen times during the entire period. And in applying to colleges, geography was not a consideration for either my parents or for me; a thousand miles were as nothing compared to the quality (and probably the prestige) of my college choice.

I think there were perhaps two major factors in my parents’ encouragement of my Israel connection: a) a middle class American acceptance of mobility for the sake of personal fulfillment: as they packed their bags and set off to follow their star, it was natural that I would do likewise. As they left the supportive/constraining womb of the extended family for the wide open spaces of suburbia, career, upward mobility (and as their parents had done, in a way, before them), so too would I be expected some day to take flight. The model of the “old neighborhood,” home to generations of the clan, was not my family’s model. And if we felt no emotional rootedness in any of the stations in our wanderings, then why not consider Israel as a place that is qualitatively different, that promises unique personal authenticity and fulfillment and the possibility of historical significance as well?

b) vicarious fulfillment. They were, in some not clearly defined way, Zionists. Rooted (and rootless) in the Eastern European Jewish immigrant community, for them the romance of the Zionist endeavor both before and after 1948 was part of the environment and an important piece of their Jewish identity. They might have gone to Israel but did not. I could go on their behalf, in fulfillment of their dream.

It is a recurrent and perhaps important irony of Jewish history that our idealistic dreams often cast a nightmare shadow. The conflict between family, home, roots, stability -- and the open road, packed bags, national destiny -- has been a recurring theme, from Abraham’s leaving his father’s idol workshop; to the sages’ ruling that rescuing one’s teacher from captivity takes precedence over rescuing one’s father; to the Marranos who left their families in Spain to return to Judaism elsewhere; to the pioneers of the Second Aliyah plowing their fields on Yom Kippur and weeping as they remembered the date, the home and family and community they had left behind; to the Vilna ghetto rebels who took to the sewers as heroes, leaving their parents to their fate; to the middle class kids like me who took their parents’ Zionist education seriously.

Maybe this is what it means to know the heart of the stranger.

 

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