Nathan Englander has a very strong story in the current issue of The New Yorker that deserves to be read by anyone curious to understand the fault lines of contemporary Jewish identity. The story’s conclusion reveals the gravitational pull the emotional drama of the Holocaust continues to exert on so many Jews, and how hard it remains for so many to find Jewish meaning in anything else.
The story focuses on a reunion of once estranged high school yeshiva classmates from Queens. One has married a secular Jew and lives a nonobservant life with their teenage son in Florida. The other went haredi along with her husband, who are now visiting from Jerusalem. Told from the point of view of the unnamed secular husband who, over alcohol and other things, slowly grows comfortable with the “strict, suffocatingly austere people visiting.” As the conversation turns more familiar, it inevitably folds into a consideration of the Holocaust, which seems to be the only point of strong Jewish connection they all share.
Even this they come at from different angles. For the haredi husband from Jerusalem it is in the intermarriage of American Jews, which he calls “the Holocaust that’s happening now.” The identity of American Jews, he says, is built on “nothing that binds” because its “only educational tool” is the Nazi Holocaust.
For the American secular Jew, the Holocaust is a strange, lurking fear that accompanies her consideration of her gentile neighbors and leads her to wonder, with utmost seriousness, whether or not they would hide and thus save her and her family if another Holocaust was to happen in the United States. It is a “game” she ultimately pulls all four people into, who find themselves at the end of the story closed in the Florida house’s large pantry, staring into each other’s eyes and wondering if they would have the moral strength to do the same if they were asked.
When confronting the challenges we face in advocating for Israel and thus in trying to protect the Jewish people from the physical threats it now faces, it is easy to say that too much attention is given to the Holocaust, and that we have based far too much of our claim both to the legitimacy of the state of Israel and the appeal to the non-Jewish world for friendship on the terrible history of World War II. It is what has made it easy for tyrants like Ahmadinejad to score points and soak up attention for both denying the Holocaust and saying even if it did happen, today’s Jewish state should be in Europe. The case we say that should be made instead is for the moral legitimacy of the exercise of the Jewish right to self-determination in the historic Jewish homeland.
It is far easier for people to understand this on a conceptual level than it is to live it on a practical one. And, as the Englander story illustrates so well, that may be because the story of the Holocaust is so gripping in its total terror that it serves to pull Jews otherwise thinly connected together so well and is therefore difficult to pull away from.
It’s a tough nut to crack. But the challenges Jews the world over face are daunting, and it does not appear they can be successfully met without finding a core of Jewish identity that is not based in the European tragedy. We have no choice then but to make it a never forgotten piece of our collective past, but a piece only. Only then will we find the courage to meet the future with confidence and success and stop hiding in closets from imagined terrors.