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Bring Back the Wonder

Yisroel Besser

Look around and say, “Ribbono shel Olam, wow!”

Wednesday, January 09, 2019




he frum world doesn’t define generations the way secular society does; with the exception of fundraising seminars, no one really differentiates between baby boomers, millennials, or Generation X-ers.

Without getting into exact dates, I am old enough that my children laugh when my yarmulke falls off and they see the top of my head, old enough that I have more children fasting than eating on taneisim, old enough that I went to the Twin Towers on dates with my wife.

If I were to name my generation, it’s “the generation that still remembers the wonder.”

I was recently talking with a friend about nostalgia, and we concluded that along with the natural longing for simpler times, we feel an acute wistfulness for the attitudes that shaped our youth.

There was something in the air: not just the simplicity of life itself, but the simplicity of frum life, back when nothing was taken for granted.

When I was a child, anyone with white hair was a survivor. Not just the old folks in the nursing homes, but the askanim and community leaders, the ones front and center. They had seen the unimaginable, the worst kind of pain and destruction.

And in their eyes, everything that came after was a miracle. They’d lost families and communities, seen all their world go up in flames, and at some point, they’d likely imagined that they were the last Jews on earth. And when the world fell silent, they climbed out of the graveyard and went to wherever they were invited — by a cousin, a landsman, a representative of HIAS or the Jewish Agency — and expected nothing.

Unbelievable as the horrors they’d witnessed was the rebirth sprouting up around them. There wasn’t much time to mourn, because there were shuls to build, and yeshivos and girls’ schools for the children (the children!).

You could see the incredulity in their eyes. Always.

The president of the shul of my youth was a tall, vibrant gentleman we called Uncle Max, energetic and perpetually red-faced, fiercely proud of all of us, even as he insisted we look inside the siddur and not make noise outside while the rav was speaking.

Reb Michoel Grunfeld died a few months ago. At his levayah, my father pointed out that Uncle Max was president of two Eretz Yisrael-based non-profits: Friends of Toldos Aharon Institutions and Ha’Vaad L’maan Hachayal.

He was a major supporter of the flourishing chassidus at the tip of Meah Shearim, and also of the organization that provides Israeli soldiers with blankets and warm coats to protect them against winter’s chill.

Back then, though, everything was part of the miracle — so who asked questions?

In the early months of spring — the season of the Hungarian deportations to the death camps — we knew that the older men in our shul would get aliyos and give Kiddush, the little bulbs next to the brass yahrtzeit plaques giving the back wall of the shul a neon glow.

Those survivors looked at those illuminated bulbs in private. In public, they were enraptured by the lichtige eyes of their grandchildren.


In Camp Munk, Rabbi Josh Silbermintz always seemed to be speaking about Jewish heroism, with two basic plots. The first was the tefillin, shofar, matzah in concentration camp stories; the second, the American Jew forced to look for work — again — on Monday morning after forfeiting the longed-for security of a paycheck in honor of Shabbos Kodesh. (For an occasional change, we would hear about Mike Tress and his band of feisty teens packing food parcels to send to the DP camps, pulling all-nighters at 616 Bedford Avenue.)

Everyone was a survivor of something.

The Holocaust was always in the background: in the songs, the cantatas, the plays — but mostly, in the sense of wonder.

Our parents were the catalysts for the rebirth, the ones who compelled their parents to keep going, but we kids were the endgame, the realization of the dream.

You could see the zeides and bubbes exchanging looks at simchahs, at graduations, at Chumash parties — it was one long astonished celebration, one long sweet nekamah on the yemach shemo.

They didn’t need speakers to tell them Hashem loved them and that they were amazing; they opened their eyes every morning and they knew it.

And then somehow, somewhere, we lost the wonder. The miracle became the new normal.


Of course our generation has yeshivos to choose from, of course we have yellow buses with cheder names emblazoned on the sides, and please remit your pledge for the new wing (if you’ve already done so, please ignore this notice).

In three generations, we’ve gone from passionate soldiers of generals like Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn knocking on doors up and down Main Street, saying, “Public school isn’t for your child, he deserves a yeshivah,” to, “Look, we’d love to help you, but I’m not sure this is the right school for your child” — delivered with equal passion and virtue. 

Our generation is the one that has witnessed the end of wonder.

Now, writing hashkafah or providing communal advice is the purview of those with more learning and life experience than I, people with frocks and long beards, people who don’t surreptitiously check the hockey scores after Maariv.

So just a half thought. The yeshivos in New York — but not just there, also in Europe and Eretz Yisrael — have walked into an ambush.

I’m not minimizing the threat. But even as askanim work with incredible diligence to make things right again, maybe we should seize the moment.

Maybe we can stop and pinch ourselves and say, “Wow.”

Maybe the warning — along with the moving conveyor belt of updates about spray-painted swastikas, the attacks on shechitah or milah we barely notice — is an opportunity to contemplate what’s going on around us, every single day.

Over 3,300 years since Har Sinai and still, despite the longest, hardest road trip in human history, we haven’t forgotten where we’re coming from and where we’re going. If Mashiach would come today and farher our sons on Yevamos or Bava Kamma, we would have nothing to be ashamed of. Unbelievable!

If he would ask our daughters about the difference between a keili sheini and a keili shlishi, they would answer confidently and clearly, the laws given back then as real and relevant as ever. (Please, please, don’t ask the boys about hilchos Shabbos, though.)

We have out-of-town kollelim with no open spots; successful, sophisticated businesspeople who happily admit that their filter doesn’t let them open the link you sent.

Go through dark, empty streets and walk into any shul, anywhere, while icy predawn winds keep the rest of the world under the covers, and look on as men wrap leather straps around their arms. Concentration lines their faces because they sense that no matter what they will doing during the rest of the day — as doctors, mortgage brokers, electricians — these are the most precious moments, the reason they live.

It’s mind-boggling. 

I’m sure the wonderful organizations that have made this latest threat their focus will tell you how to help the cause on a practical level, but from my humble vantage point, it’s this.

Look around and say, “Ribbono shel Olam, wow!”

Wise children know that showing appreciation for a gift is the surest way to receive more.

Let’s bring back the wonder.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 743. Yisroel Besser may be contacted directly at


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