My Confession – Judah


Okay, I’ll begin with a confession. My wife was in Berlin for a week last year, but I’ll get back to that later.

Almost a decade ago, at the end of his tenth grade, the subject first arose when my son’s class was planning the “Poland” trip. As you may know, in recent years this trip has become part of the Israeli rite of passage, together with the bar mitzvah, post high-school trip, post army trip to the East etc.

I was appalled at the idea, but was assured immediately by almost everybody that these trips are absolutely marvelous in strengthening young people’s Jewish identity and Zionism. While apparently no empirical proof existed to substantiate this conclusion there appeared to be a wealth of anecdotal evidence. Everyone had a child who bore witness to the value of the trip.

My suspicion was then, and is today, that studies have been carried out regarding this question and when they failed to produce the desired results, they were forgotten. With so many educators involved, it’s inconceivable that nobody has checked the question, so where are the results?

As a teacher, who has worked with this age-group for three decades, my gut feeling is that these trips have no long-term “positive” effect.  I say this for several reasons:

  1. I see no long-term difference in the behavior of those who made the trip.
  2. I see no difference between the levels Zionism and Jewish identity between those who make these trip and their friends who don’t.
  3. I see no difference in levels of Zionism and Jewish identity between my children’s generation, who made the trip, and mine who didn’t.

I know that none of this is very scientific and is all based on gut feeling, but I’m not the one who has to prove anything. In the Talmud we learn the principle that “He who wants to take something from another person, he should bring the proof.” It is up to all those who are involved in these Poland trips to show us what good they’ve done.

Let them show us three similar groups of young people; one that made the trip, one that studied the Holocaust in Israel and one that did nothing. Then measure how many later volunteered for elite army units, stayed in Israel, maintained a quantifiable interest in the subject. These tests all seem superficial, but they are usually the way Jewish identity and Zionism are measured here.

Back to my son I didn’t feel like fighting against windmills or being accused of being mean, so I agreed. I was, however, able to inadvertently throw a spanner in the works by suggesting that the boys might choose the adult who would accompany them. At this point their lazy and unpopular form teacher (rabbi), who realized there was no longer a free (or subsidized) trip in it for him, dropped the idea. I was gratified to discover that I was not the only parent with such radical views too.

A year later Amichai was offered the trip with a 90% subsidy. Now I could finally put my foot down. The whole thing would have cost $150 so nobody could question my motives anymore.

Since then we’ve established a principle that our family does not “visit” Germany, Austria or Poland. The only exception being if there is something important they must do in one of these countries that can be done nowhere else. We compensate our children with trips to other countries. When they are adults they decide for themselves.

I am aware that my reasons are not wholly rational, but again I’m not the one who has to explain why not. Germany, Austria and Poland may have beautiful forests and fields but they are drenched with too much blood. There may be other peoples no less anti-Semitic, but they were the murderers. I had a distant relative who had left Germany before the Holocaust and I once heard someone trying to persuade him to make a trip there, “Wild horses couldn’t drag me back there!” he replied. He was an old man, weakened by his advancing years, but at that moment I saw him and I saw the horses too – I knew that the beasts would be no match for him.

Because my thought process here is perhaps more emotive than rational I pass no judgment on those who feel differently. To some people the trip is important, to me it is not. I have no roots in Germany, Austria or Poland. I don’t wish to look into the eyes of old men and guess who they were. I don’t wish to visit empty synagogues and say kaddish. I do not wish to wear a baseball hat to cover my kippah, just in case there are a few Nazis left. I want to feel strong not weak. I do not wish to learn about being a Jew in Berlin or Auschwitz; I will learn that on my beloved Judean Hills. I do not wish my children to hate the wicked gentiles; I’d prefer them to love the good ones.

Last year my wife had to take a course of studies for her work, and by inconceivable irony the only place she could do so without desecrating the Sabbath was in Germany. What could I say? That was  the precise situation that we had agreed would justify the trip. Roxana asked me to accompany her, my mind was divided, but as I tried to be rational I heard G-d’s admonition of Cain:

“What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

I stayed in Israel. I told Roxana to go where she had to go, do what she had to do, but no more. I didn’t want to see holiday snaps and there would be no souvenirs of Berlin to defile our home.

Her trip was extremely successful and Roxana has only good things to say about Germany and the German people that she met.

That is my confession.

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10 Responses to My Confession – Judah

  1. Silke says:

    if ever there should be another “must” within easy distance from me I’d like to know and as a minimum be granted the privilege to take you or your wife or your sons or all of you out to dinner or lunch or breakfast or afternoon coffee or wherever you can enjoy your food most.

  2. Joe says:

    I strongly identify with your feelings regarding Germany, but I never really considered Austria and Poland to be off-limits.

    On the other hand, my grandparents – who emigrated from the Soviet Union – pleaded with me to never visit Russia. We Jews really hold grudges.

  3. Zv says:

    You have, of course, an absolute right to refuse to visit Germany, Poland or Austria.

    As a Jew who has visited Germany during recent years (on business), these are some of the thoughts that occur to me.

    1. Jews have as much a right to visit these countries as anyone else, and I refuse to allow myself to be confined and driven out, even by the horrible crimes that have been committed there.

    2. While there remain many anti-Semites in these countries, no society stands still; every society evolves over time. Sometimes the evolution is positive, sometimes negative. Israeli society, for example, has evolved since 1948, and the thought processes, opinions, politics and social networks of modern Israel differ in many respects from those that existed during the founding of the state 62 years ago. Just as Israeli society has evolved over time, German and Polish society have inevitably evolved over time. Not every German has changed his views, but from the flag to the government to the foreign policy, from the churches to the social settings, the Nazis would have despised modern German society and would have sought to destroy it.

    Poland is one of Israel’s closest friends in Europe today, at a time when many of the countries of Europe have relationships with Israel that are officially chilly. It’s not a perfect society, but is it the same society that existed in 1939? The ground in Poland was soaked with blood, mostly by the Nazis, but there have also been Judeophiles in Poland, some of whom have made remarkable efforts.

    Austria – not so much.

    3. It is a good idea for people in Poland, in Germany and in Austria to have contact with living Jews, including the descendants of survivors, rather than having contact only with the abstract memories of dead Jews and the often strange caricatures of Jews that appear in the media.

    A very imperfect analogy: during the middle part of the Iraqi insurgency, US forces spent a lot of time protecting “secure” areas. That didn’t work; that approach just emboldened the enemy, who operated everywhere else. Even the secure areas became less and less secure. Eventually, the Americans adopted a COIN strategy that included basing troops in unsafe areas and patrolling those areas regularly; after all, that was where the enemy was active, where some worried friends needed support and where the enemy could ultimately be defeated.

    This analogy is a bit of a stretch because the effort against anti-Semitism is not a military COIN effort but rather a process of ensuring that most ordinary people see Jews as human beings, as people with whom they can relate. But the point is that this can only be done if we travel outside of our safe zones.

    And for what it’s worth, although I have made no secret of my Jewishness in Germany, I have never personally experienced any overt anti-Semitism in that country. I cannot say the same thing about the UK or the US.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

  4. Judah says:

    Hi Zv,

    I intentionally avoided the question as to whether the German people of today are the same nation that perpetrated the Holocaust. Frankly, I’m not sure. On the one hand almost all the Germans I meet today are polite, cultured people, on the other hand I suspect that many of the Germans who perpetrated the Holocaust were polite cultured people too. I certainly agree with you say about the Antisemitism of the UK and the US.

    You’re right that seven decades have passed, but it’s still to early for me. It took (most of) the Christian church 2,000 years to get over their anger that we let the Romans kill Jesus, and they’re the religion that believes in loving their enemies and “turning the other cheek”, so give me time.

    As I said, I pass no judgement regarding Jews who feel differently, and your purpose is business, not pleasure I say, “Go in peace and return in peace.”

  5. Silke says:

    Zv
    Germany was so dear to Jews that my grandfather*) insisted till his death long after WW2 that in the trenches of WW1 no better buddy next to you was imaginable than a Jew.
    Somewhere I read that Jews were so patriotic that they died in disproportionate numbers during the Great War.
    Did that make any difference when the monstrous bloodthirst overcame my ancestors? What makes you trust that their offspring will be more resilient?
    Needless to say that my grandfather was a “knew nothing” – afterwards they had all just had a long bout of the 3 monkeys.

    Oh and to add to complicating things:
    Having been raised in a North German mindset I have to call my knee-jerking to order, if I see any public display of religion except for the church itself and that starts with a tiny cross being worn on a chain around the neck by somebody. So if Judah whom I admire for lots of reasons would were his Kipa when meeting me no matter how forewarned I am I would have to swallow first and then smile my heartfelt welcome.

    … and I’ve been invited to visit in Switzerland and use her apartment in London by a Jew I worked with after I had asked her whether we could switch to English because I WANTED to practice my talking skills. If that was the reason for her being so generous with me, I don’t know, but I know that she never tried German on me again. Her mother in law btw never “after” spoke another word of German.

    There is the world of business where one glosses over lots of things to make a living, but there also is the private world where it becomes a lot more convoluted. During my last bus tour at night in the bar I was acqainted with an onslaught of stuff none of them hopefully will ever let off to you in the daytime.
    During a course “how to write your memoir” I was nearly kicked out because I suggested that one should maybe insert a little qualifyer when writing that Roma steal children, my own age group, believe it or not, insisted in the year 2005 that stealing children was a well established Roma-habit. We have all been told that we are not allowed to say things about Jews (there are laws to that effect and there is still a public outcry every time somebody does) but I am convinced that the veneer is very very thin and the chafing against the chains gets more audible with every day.

    *) my grandfather’s favourite foe was Austrian and more generally Catholics,
    his admiration for Jews didn’t keep him though from thinking it hilarious that his adult sister had thrown chestnuts into the leaf hut her neighbours had built themselves in the courtyard in Hamburg – anti-semitism or just an attempt of asserting the North-German “no public religion” here? – it doesn’t matter what may have been just an ill-mannered prank at the time was turned into such deadly use that there is no turning back to mocking eachother robustly as others may do to eachother – on a lesser scale the Brits may call us Krauts and Huns but for us to retaliate in kind would be, I think, very bad behaviour – Germans are very thorough people and my ancestors did a thorough job. (as to Poles – we did such terrible things to Polish Poles that I understand Jewish feelings but have myself at the same time quite different ones and the only openly spouting Anti-Semitism man I ever met was a Polish Pole who had suffered through forced labour in Germany as a kid while his father was fighting with the Brits – he also spoke or rather bellowed German only for work purposes)

  6. Silke says:

    the one German journalist who has probably done more than everybody else combined to teach Germans how to behave has visited the “Dancing Auschwitz” grandfather (hold the Kleenex at the ready)

    Also it seems to me (actually I know from other pieces he wrote) that he shares a lot of Judah’s views

    The former Nazi extermination camp, which is now called the “Muzeum Auschwitz,” receives a few hundred thousand visitors a year. For the region surrounding the nearby Polish city of Krakow, Auschwitz is about as significant a tourist attraction as the site of Hitler’s mountain retreat at Obersalzberg is for the Berchtesgaden area in Bavaria.

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,711247,00.html

  7. Judah says:

    “Having been raised in a North German mindset I have to call my knee-jerking to order, if I see any public display of religion except for the church….so if Judah wears his Kipa when meeting me no matter how forewarned I am I would have to swallow first and then smile my heartfelt welcome..”

    To me smiling a “heartfelt welcome” is as much a “public display of religion” as wearing a kippah.

    Our Sages teach us that if there is no flour, there is no Torah. I paraphrase the midrash which relates that when Moses went up to heaven to receive the Torah, the angels wanted to banish him because he was only a man.

    Moses argued, “When you (three angels) came to earth we (Abraham and Sara) received you with flour (bread, cakes etc). Why will you not extend the same courtesy to me?” He was invited to stay and received the Torah.

    The story is, of course, not meant to be taken literally.

  8. Silke says:

    Judah

    I hope I understand you correctly and welcome you to interpret my heartfelt smile any way you want as long as it makes you feel capable of returning it at least cautiously and/or tentatively.

  9. Judah says:

    Hey, I’m a friendly guy!

    I’ll smile and it will be neither cautious nor tentative.

  10. Silke says:

    Judah
    I love you youngsters
    every time I realize how much ballast of the past you have discarded

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