As I am of this generation of Jewish Americans, heavily marked by the persecution suffered by parents and grandparents who fled the oppression of the Czar in Eastern Europe and, in my case, a stepmother who was a German Holocaust survivor, the promise and the pledge of these words have been easily embraced. After all, in our homes we grew up with the stain of these tragedies affecting those closest to us. Thus we too were heavily impacted. As a result social justice and activism come naturally to us as an essential part of daily life. In fact social justice is an intrinsic facet of our heritage, especially that of Eastern Europe.
However, not having heard too much, directly, of the ordeals lived through by my grandparents or my stepmother who I called Mom, those in my family to immigrate to the United States, most of what I know of these trials came to me through the accounts of others more distant; most often from oral and written accounts of people outside my family. In retrospect I see now that the members of my family, rather than telling authentic stories of the difficulties of their lives in the “old country” generally masked their personal experiences of a negative vein with cover stories offered of a more palatable fare, before life in the United States.
Seldom did they reveal their personal or even collective difficulties. An outward focus on present day life in the United States was the norm. Although on occasion my Mom would share a tale or two from her life in Shanghai, China after fleeing Hitler. Among these was that she and her first husband had fled there in 1939 where they remained until the Liberation in 1946. By then she had divorced him, justifying her decision on his being unwilling to work in Shanghai where they lived in a refugee camp and knew even doctors to hire themselves out as bicycle messengers.
Even with limited knowledge of what our family members endured, many of us grew up with sensitivity to our elders and the personal wounds they harbored. As young adults, especially in the era of the sixties and seventies up against civil rights, women’s rights and Viet Nam, this understanding could easily find expression in social and political activism.
No doubt it is this inborn activism that prompts my writing of this book. An equal, if not stronger influence on me, also shaping the intent of this book, is that from my biological mother I inherited a natural affinity for shtetl life; its customs and philosophies. The traditional shtetl, long gone from modern life, was originally a small Jewish town or village which existed in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Shtetl life was typically communal in spirit and carried its own culture in terms of having a language, Yiddish, and traditions, based primarily on the teachings of the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism.
Tsdokeh, a word often used to imply charity, but more accurately denoting social justice, was one of the most important tenets of the cultural values of the Jewish shtetl; the benevolence of good deeds being the “central mechanism by which (the) community” functioned. So supremely important was this value that “good deeds” were seen as basic to being a good Jew.
The Broadway musical, Fiddler On The Roof, depicts a slice of this way of life; a vivid picture of communal life, fraught with interpersonal complexities, yet filled, too, with loyalties, love and laughter, song and celebration. Tsdokeh underlies all of this.
Yet these distinctive cultures were, not only distinct from other mainstream Eastern Europeans, but were sometimes also poles apart from one another. One example of this is that there were both Chasidic and non-Chasidic shtetls that often disparaged one another based on their differences. The shtetl of my heritage was definitively Orthodox but non-Chasidic with the Chasids often arousing superstition, even seen as harbingers of evil.
Translated into my more modern Jewish American ways these traditions of the shtetl were set, deeply rooted in me, in a value system that carried its way into what I considered to be a life well lived, personally, and as a part of the greater whole of humanity; a manner of living that makes “thinking globally and acting locally” simply a broadened perspective and an imperative born of shtetl life.
To be continued.