Jan 21, 2010
No other nation has experienced a past quite like ours. In the 4,000 years from Abraham to the present day (three quarters of the entire history of civilised humanity!), we have wandered the world, seeking our fortunes. And with only a few happy hours intervening amidst long periods of suffering –powerless, despised and persecuted – the Jewish people have nevertheless enriched the nations of the world morally, religiously and economically. Even Christianity itself is inconceivable without Judaism.
But how? How did we rise from the expulsions, the pogroms, the exiles and, more recently, from the Holocaust?
We must conclude that it is not due to any peculiar characteristic, location or language, since none of these have been a constant. The Jews in Yemen, Germany and Spain shared neither dress nor geography and certainly not language.
Our answer really starts with the past, which sadly, we know perilously little of. Ironically we learn of the Crusades in school and cheer the victories of Richard the Lion heart, though as Jews, our hopes and survival actually lay with Saladin. 1We are unaware of our own history: how Jews up held their dignity both as human beings and as Jews, of the great lives that were lived by ordinary Jewish people. Our ignorance about our own history obscures the miracle of our survival. More’s the pity, for in that survival lies a message for us today: the message of memory.
Only through memory do we have a clue as to who we are and what we are here for. We need to live with an eye on the past.
Yet at the same time, keeping the memories alive does not suffice. Our generation has read, seen and heard about the Holocaust, and our exposure to it is comprehensive, yet in this generation we are experiencing the highest assimilation and dropout rate in our collective history. Because the secret of survival is to maintain memory in a Jewish way, which requires looking not just with one eye but with two, not only backward but forward – we need both memory and vision.
The proven formula to maintain both memory and vision was shown 2,000 years ago. In 70 CE, with the Second Temple about to be destroyed, the Jews faced the loss of their autonomy and independence, and it was left to the sage Rabbi Yochanan to resurrect the Jewish people. The Talmud records how, having smuggled himself out of Jerusalem and obtained an audience with the Emperor Vespasian, he made one crucial request: “Spare our houses of learning,” they are our link both to our past and to our future, they are our Memory and they are our Vision.
Alan Dershowitz – a renowned American lawyer and author, sums it up thus: “We are the people of the book. Our collective library is unparalleled. In every nation in which we have lived, we have taught, written, created, invented, and left an intellectual legacy. Ahad Ha’am, one of the greatest non-religious Jewish thinkers in modern history, declared in 1910 that ‘the secret of Jewish survival is learning, learning, learning.’”
Dershowitz adds that in light of this long commitment to learning, it is sadly remarkable that: “ …no group in America is less knowledgeable about its traditions, less familiar with its language than the Jews. We are the most ignorant and illiterate of Americans when it comes to knowledge of the Bible, the history of our people and religious traditions. More Jews can tell you the name of Jesus’ mother than Abraham’s father. More Christians than Jews can recite the Ten Commandments. We get our history from Fiddler on the Roof, our traditions from canned gefilte fish, our Bible stories from television, our culture from Jackie Mason, and our Jewish morality from the once-a-year synagogue sermon most of us sleep through.”2
Study allows us as Jews to look at the past and see ourselves,not as victims but as survivors. The danger otherwise as one historian put it, is that our children will learn about the Greeks and how they lived, the Romans and how they lived, and the Jews and how they died.
The current British Chief Rabbi has said: “The fate of the Jews was, is and predictably will be, determined by their approach to education… Over time, other alternatives were tried and failed, this proposition however, has been tested at critical moments in Jewish history… The Jewish people has never allowed its academies to fail and that is the secret of its immortality.”3
Admittedly this is not a quick fix solution, but neither is the survival of the Jewish people. The historian Rabbi Wein told me of the time he was giving a talk in the States and was to be picked up from the airport. After his driver spent a frustrating 40 minutes searching for the car, they looked at the parking ticket again, only to find they had been searching in the short-stay park, for a vehicle parked in the long-term bay! Rabbi Wein subsequently commented that their predicament actually mirrored that of the Jewish nation. Too many of us are trying to find fulfillment in the short-term section, forgetting that as Jews we are firmly positioned in the long-term parking lot, a fact which the ruins of the Acropolis, Babylonia and Ancient Rome are a mute testimony to. Jewish survival isn’t easy, or predictable but neither is it short term.
In 1944 the Nazis marched into Elie Wiesel’s hometown. He was baking matzot for Passover with his Rebbe. The Rebbe sighed, lowered his head for a moment, then turned to him and said: “The Germans are here you say? Well, let me ask you this. Have you forgotten the meaning of Passover? Our enemies are swallowed up; the People of Israel survive.” And with that, they continued baking matzot. 4 The nation’s survival may not have seemed even remotely possible in March 1944, but 60 years on we live, renewed, and with a vision for our future. The Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote in 1908: “The Jew is as everlasting as Eternity itself... He was the first to produce the Oracles of God and he has been for so long its Guardian, transmitting it to the rest of the world. Such a nation cannot be destroyed.”
This article was first published in 60 Days for 60 Years.

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