In an excerpt from a new book, the late Edgar Bronfman looks back on his life and considers why Judaism has survived for 4,000 years
One who teaches his son Torah, it is considered as if he taught his son, his son’s son, and so on to the end of generations.
~The Talmud, Kiddushin 30a
Honour your Father and Mother.
~Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16
One of the things I treasure most about Judaism is its emphatic insistence on the importance of family. In Judaism, we constantly find the message that life should be led within the community’s embrace, not in isolation, and that family is at the centre of the community. My own home growing up was quite formal – I mostly feared my father and my mother was often remote – but the Jewish emphasis on family was nonetheless a sacrosanct value.
This value resonated with me during one of the most moving moments in my life: when I received a last blessing from my maternal grandfather. Throughout my childhood Gramps and I had been very close. He was tall with a goatee and though religious, he was not overly serious; he had a carefree manner and was always advising everyone to “take it easy.” This attitude came through in everything about him. On the eve of my sister’s wedding, for example, an uncle died. As an educated, religious Jew, Gramps was asked to rule on whether or not the wedding should go forward. Consistent with his character, Gramps ruled in favour of the mitzvah that stated joy should overcome sadness.
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I also remember how Gramps would take me, my brother, and cousins to a tiny, hole-in-the-wall deli called Ben’s and on mountains walks. As we noshed on smoked meat sandwiches or strolled through the crisp air, Gramps would quietly share his experiences with us, easily moving from the personal to the philosophical. But whatever the topic, he never instructed.
He just talked and gave us the space to arrive at our own conclusions.
When I was in my early 20s, I went to see him. I somehow I sensed this would be the last time we would meet (and it was) so I asked him for a blessing. I can still see him wrapping himself up in his blue and white prayer shawl, striking up a match, and lighting a candle.
As he recited the ancient words, I felt moved to my marrow. I could almost physically feel an invisible thread joining us – first me to him, and then the two of us to our ancient forebears. With this, I stepped into a cycle of existence far greater than anything I could ever know or hope to understand, something I found immensely reassuring. To this day, whenever I recall the sensation of his hand gently resting on my head and hear the musical sound of his soft Hebrew in my memory, I am overwhelmed by an indescribable sense of loss and longing.
Sadly, the bond I felt then to my Jewish heritage did not further develop, and shortly thereafter I abandoned it all together. Part of this, I’m sure, is that despite my closeness to my grandfather, my connection to Judaism was weak. My parents, for whatever reason, failed to instill much-needed Jewish pride in their children. Though they gave us some Jewish education and contributed generously to Jewish causes during the war, my father seemed extremely conflicted about his Judaism; I would go so far as to say he harboured animosity. The contradictory ways in which the Judaism of my parents expressed itself created a deep ambivalence in me. One area in which this ambivalence played itself out was their choices for my education.
Because Father was a real Anglophile – he loved everything English – my brother, Charles, and I did not attend Jewish schools, but were sent to the Selwyn House School, a place that enrolled few Jewish boys. This arrangement resulted in us having two sets of friends: the Protestants at Selwyn House, and the Jewish kids from the synagogue, a place we viewed with less than enthusiasm.
I don’t think my parents ever understood how confusing this arrangement was for their children and how in my eyes, it automatically reduced our Jewish friends to the status of second-class companions. Even now, decades later, I am not clear on why I thought less of my Jewish friends than of my elite Protestant companions. I am afraid it’s because I was reflecting my parents’ feelings on the subject.
My parents’ ambivalence about their Jewishness also showed up when I procured a golf caddy job at the Alpine Inn. There was a man from New York, a Mr. Kenny, who insisted on an English-speaking caddy. Unless he got one, Mr. Kenny would take his business elsewhere. As English-speaking caddies were rare, I sensed a negotiating opportunity and in the end not only got the caddying job, but succeeded in getting to play golf for free in the afternoon.
When I got home, I proudly told Mother of my employment victory. When she heard my story, her face took on a worried expression, and she informed me that I wasn’t strong enough to caddy. Since my mother wasn’t a typical Jewish mother, this response struck me as unusual. But when I hotly contested her assessment of my abilities, she offered no explanation. Instead, she offered to pay me what I would make in the morning if I agreed not to caddy in the afternoon.
What I didn’t know at the time was the Alpine Inn was restricted – Jews were not welcome. Rather than tackle the topic of anti-Semitism head on, Mother avoided it. In fact, she bought me off.
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In the end, this was all very confusing to a 15-year-old boy.
The Judaism of my parents and the Judaism of my own generation was not a joyful Judaism. It was one forged in the fires of pogroms in Russia from which my grandparents fled, and deepened by the horror of the Holocaust. Although we were safe in Canada, the pain of the millions of Jews being murdered in Europe rested heavily on our shoulders.
There was a vague, haunting sadness to being a Jewish child in the 1940s, even in the relative safety of North America. The calamity happening overseas was never discussed in our home, but we all knew anyway. Anti-Semitism during my youth, albeit less dramatic than the evils in Europe, was nonetheless damaging to the Jewish psyche. It wasn’t just the physical manifestations of anti-Semitism: it was also an injury to the sense of self.
Despite their immense wealth, my parents did not escape this pain. On the one hand they were clearly Jews, but on the other, they were empire builders who longed to be bona fide members of the non-Jewish power elite, the majority of whom were not welcoming of Jews. Though they never said so, my guess is that if others had allowed them to do so, they may have cast off their Jewish identity at the first opportunity.
My lack of pride in my Jewishness might explain why I didn’t protest my first wife’s custom of celebrating Christmas, something not unusual for highly assimilated German Jews of that generation. I am sure that if I had voiced opposition Ann would have given up the holiday and would have also agreed to give the children as much Jewish education as I wanted. But I didn’t object because it wasn’t important to me. So for many years, we hung stockings by our fireplace and set up our fir tree, a grand and glittering affair that made no pretense at masquerading as that odd American invention, the Chanukah bush.
On Christmas morning the air would fill with the excited squeals of our five children as they emptied their stockings and tore open their presents. I was not completely comfortable with all of this, especially receiving gifts from my in-laws, Petey and John Loeb, but since I lacked any real connection to my Jewishness, I dismissed my feelings as unimportant.
Looking back, I believe that had my parents consciously instilled Jewish pride in me during my formative years I would not have been so woefully indifferent to my Judaism. But I can’t really blame them, because I followed in their footsteps, and failed to give my own children even the very basic Jewish education I’d received. If there is anything I regret, it is that as my children grew up, I gave them no Jewish tradition in our home. There was no Friday night meal to welcome the Shabbat, no observance of the holidays, and no Jewish learning.
This failing still haunts me. It is one of the reasons I spearheaded the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a training program for young leaders. It’s also why I have thrown myself and my resources into the revival of Hillel houses on campus and into the creation of MyJewishLearning.com, a website that offers information about Judaism from the most basic questions to advanced study and inquiry. And it’s why I am so thrilled when Bronfman Fellowships alumni, like Rabbi Daniel Smokler, who is now director of education at the Bronfman Center at New York University, commit to bringing Jewish learning and text study to other young people in a way that is joyful and personal. Still, while initiatives and programs are much-needed, love of Judaism begins with family, at home.
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After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, our sages determined that the home would become the new Temple, calling it a mikdash ma’at, or little sanctuary. As one midrash explains, “When the Temple stood, the altar offered atonement for Israel. Now, one’s table offers atonement” (Brachot 55a). The Jewish home – or any home – should be more than a shelter: it should act as the centre of meaning, beauty, and connection to forces larger than ourselves.
In Jewish tradition, it is in the home that many of life’s significant milestones, from the birth of a child to death and mourning, take place. As pointed out by Rabbi Andy Bachman, a well-known communal leader and dear friend, Judaism has rituals for all those aspects of life – birth, transition, marriage, death – in which people cry out for meaning. He believes, and I think I agree, that these life-sanctifying rituals, along with Shabbat, are one of the main reasons that Judaism has stayed alive for nearly 4,000 years.
Excerpted from Why Be Jewish? A Testament by Edgar M. Bronfman. Copyright 2016 Edgar Bronfman. Published by Signal, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.