In the aftermath of the now famous Pew Report, our community leaders are in a tizzy trying to figure out how to re-energize the American Jewish community. The report confirms many of our fears and some things we already knew about Jewish life here. There are less Jews marrying Jews. There are less Jewish children. There are less Jews who affiliate with our community institutions. At the core, we seem to be a less inspired and engaged community than we used to be.
Yet, there are certainly bright spots as well. One such bright spot is the many young adults who have gone on Birthright Israel trips and have come back much more passionate about Israel and inspired about their Judaism.
We can and still do prosper here in America, and we Jews are certainly survivors. We have always managed to find new, innovative ways to overcome whatever challenges we must face. And there are still millions of American Jews who want to be Jewish and want their children to be raised with a strong Jewish identity. Many of them still come to our synagogues each and every week.
But one thing I know for sure is that it we should never give up on any Jewish soul, no matter how disconnected they may be, and it is never too late for someone to re-discover and reclaim their Judaism.
“Testament of a Jew in Saragossa” is the title of the story in which Wiesel recounts an experience he had during his visit to Spain years ago. He went to a city called Saragossa. At one time, before 1942, of course, it was a thriving Jewish community, but there had not been a Jew there in 500 years until the new visits started happening.
When Wiesel was at the cathedral in Saragossa, a man approached him and started speaking to him in French, offering to be his guide for no fee. He was proud of his town and wanted to show Wiesel around. They started talking and the man asked Wiesel some personal questions. Finally, it came out that he was Jewish and that he knew Hebrew. “There have been no Jews here for almost 500 years, I've been waiting to meet one so I could ask you for some help. There’s something I want to show you at my home.”
The two of them walked off to the small apartment on the third floor. The man took out a fragment of a yellowed parchment and he asked, “Is it in Hebrew?” Wiesel took this document, this yellowed document, and he started trembling as he started reading it, because it was clear to him that these were not only Hebrew letters, but also that they had existed for 500 years. He started to read and translate for the man. These are the words that he translated: “I, Moses, the son of Abraham, forced to break all ties with my people and my faith, leave these lines to the children of my children, in order that on the day when Israel will be able to walk again, its head high under the sun without fear and without remorse, they will know where their roots lie. Written at Saragossa, this 9th day of the month of Av, in the year of punishment and exile.”
This man then explained to Wiesel that this yellowed document was cherished by his family and was passed from one generation to the next. It was considered as an amulet – and that if you lost it or destroyed it, a curse would come to your family. So here this man had finally completed a circle that was 500 years in making. He found out, after five centuries, from a message of Moses, the son of Abraham, that he in some distant way was a Jew.
“Read it again,” the man demanded of Wiesel. “I want to hear it again. I want to hear the words again.” So Wiesel translated it over and over and over again." They went to the cathedral and they sat. The man said, “I want to know more. Who are these people, these Jews? What has happened? Why were there Jews in Saragossa 500 years ago but none today?”
Wiesel began explaining. He took hours, in fact the whole day, to explain who we were, where we had been. He withheld nothing. He talked about Jewish history in Spain. He talked about Queen Isabella and Torquemada and how they had set up stakes, had hung and killed our people until they were decimated, how we were thrown out of Spain on the 9th of Av in 1492. The guide couldn't believe it.
Years later, Elie Wiesel traveled to Israel. He was accosted on the streets of Jerusalem by a man who said, “Hello, don’t you remember me? Saragossa. Saragossa.” There he was on the streets of Jerusalem, this same man, but he was speaking Hebrew, not French. He said to Wiesel, “I have something to show you.” He took Wiesel, who was trembling again, to his apartment. They walked up the three flights and there was that yellowed parchment in a picture frame on the wall. But this time he read it to Wiesel in Hebrew and he translated it. From Moses, the son of Abraham, 500 years, to him. He had come to Israel. He had learned Hebrew. He had learned who he was and he had redeemed his Jewish tradition.
Wiesel said to him, “You know, I’m ashamed I didn't recognize you.” As Wiesel was about to leave, he said, “You forgot to ask me my name. I want you to know my name. My name is Moshe ben Avraham, Moses son of Abraham. He is alive after 500 years.”
The lesson is clear. If this man from Saragossa could reclaim the forgotten Jewish heritage that lay dormant in his family for so many generations, then we too can certainly do the same. We have the capacity to reinvigorate our own Jewish lives, and in so doing re-energize our Jewish communities as well. All it take is a Jewish heart coupled with the spirit and desire to keep that Jewish spark alive.
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman