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Lifelines: Riding the Wave

C. Saphir

My Great-Grandfather Elyakim fought to hold onto his Yiddishkeit, but didn’t see Yiddishe nachas from his descendants. In his own lifetime, that is

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

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M y great-grandfather, a man named Elyakim, was a religious man who grew up in Czechoslovakia, served in the army during World War I, spent the years of World War II in a labor camp, and eventually moved to Israel.

His three children, a son and two daughters, grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia, where remaining frum was all but impossible.

When Elyakim died in 1970, not one of his children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren was religious. In a photo taken toward the end of his life, he is wearing a white shirt, black pants, and a black yarmulke, and is flanked by his daughter and son-in-law, who are dressed like secular Israelis. Elyakim fought to hold on to his Yiddishkeit, but he did not see Yiddishe nachas from his descendants. In his own lifetime, that is.

When I was 23 years old, my father told me that I should marry a Jewish boy. I had never heard such a thing before, and I was quite surprised. When I had attended a public school in upstate New York, my best friends had been a Chinese girl and a black boy. We celebrated my bat mitzvah with a swimming party at the local Marriott Hotel pool, and my diverse group of friends — boys and girls, Jews and non-Jews — were part of the celebration.

“Why is it important for me to marry a Jew, Dad?” I asked. “I want to understand.” “I don’t know, Beth,” he admitted. “I just know that it’s important.”

My father was an engineer, my mother a mathematician. Both had grown up in the Communist Bloc of Eastern Europe, in secular families. After their marriage, my parents moved to America in search of a more comfortable life, and they tried to groom me to be the fulfillment of their ultimate hopes and dreams: to be a successful and wealthy American.

After hearing that it was important that I marry a Jew, I decided to go on a backpacking trip to Israel to learn about my Jewish heritage. A friend of my mother’s who worked for the Jewish Agency gave me a book of programs in Israel, which I perused with great interest. In the end, I chose a learning and volunteer program in northern Israel for unaffiliated Jews from around the world.

I knew literally nothing about Torah Judaism. At the first class on Judaism I attended, the lecturer made reference to the Exodus, and I raised my hand and innocently asked, “What’s that?” I had never heard of it.

When the lecturer mentioned something about the Torah, I raised my hand again and asked, “What’s Torah?”

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