A fter reading the title of this piece, you’re probably thinking, “Did I miss something? Was there a terrorist attack or train wreck I didn’t hear about?” But no, I didn’t mean that sort of tragedy, although the one I’m talking about is no less a disaster.
And it’s happening even as you read these words. I’m talking about the 50,000 Israelis who’ve emigrated toLondonand lost all connection to the fact that they are Jews. Nothing is left of their tradition but the Ivrit they still sometimes use on social networking media. Their assimilation rate is close to 100 percent, and even Yom Kippur is just another ordinary weekday when they go to work and send their children to their non-Jewish schools as usual. In a group discussion on a social network, only one Israeli woman in the chat said that she does fast on Yom Kippur, although on other days of the year she freely eats davar acher — a sad fulfillment of the grim prediction made in the 1950s by Professor Yosef Klausner (himself a secular Israeli). Klausner warned the public that the State of Israel in its present form would produce “Hebrew-speaking goyim.”
You probably breathed a sigh of relief as you realized we weren’t talking about a terrorist attack that spilled the blood of many Jews, but only about the loss of 50,000 Jews in this silent Holocaust of assimilation. But I cannot share in that relief. Indeed, part of the tragedy is the prevalent apathy and inaction. Is anyone trying to reverse this scourge, or at least to stop its spread?
Yom Kippur has always been a sign, however tenuous, of holding on to one’s connection with the Jewish People and its tradition. There is a well-known story from the days of the Baal Shem Tov: An assimilated Jew was traveling in his carriage, and as he passed through a town, he noticed that many shops were closed. He asked why, and was told, “Don’t you know it’s Yom Kippur today?” The apostate opened his eyes wide in surprise and ordered the driver to stop and buy some fish. Why fish? Because on Christian fast days, the custom is to refrain from meat and eat fish instead. That is how estranged this Jew was from Jewish life. Yet when the Baal Shem Tov heard this story, he remarked that this Jew still retained a link to his people, for he responded to the news that it was Yom Kippur by purchasing fish for his dinner, his way of identifying with a fast. He felt the need to do something.
But what about a community of expats that has lost all sensitivity to Yom Kippur? I remember hearing that about 50 years ago, it was hard to get a taxi inLondonon Yom Kippur, because a large percentage of the drivers were Jewish. I’m sure that these Jewish taxi drivers weren’t Satmar or Bobover Chassidim, and they didn’t live in Stamford Hill. No, they were simple, unlearned Jews who probably didn’t keep Shabbos or lay tefillin. But Yom Kippur! I remember the days when I was living and teaching inSao Paulo,Brazil; on certain streets one could easily see it was Yom Kippur because so many stores were locked and barred. There was a non-religious Jewish school in the city, whose principal was married to a non-Jewish Brazilian woman (what they call a “local” today), and that school was open on Rosh Hashanah. But not on Yom Kippur. Some Jewish spark still flickered in the depths of those alienated souls.
Yom Kippur is so powerful that throughout the generations its holy energy has affected Jews who were estranged from their people, and even non-Jews. Upon hearing Jews reciting Kol Nidrei, the great Russian author Tolstoy was overcome with emotion. The French theologian Aimé Pallière, raised as a Catholic and considering priesthood, was so moved when he happened to pass by a synagogue inLyonsduring Ne’ilah that he was seized with desire to become a ger. He was persuaded by an Italian Reform clergyman to remain a ben Noach, but his ardent feelings for Torah Judaism changed his life completely. And the assimilated German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was on the verge of converting to Christianity when a chance encounter with Yom Kippur turned his life around, and he directed many young German Jews to seek their way back to their heritage.
These assimilated Israeli Jews grew up in a country where the holiness of Yom Kippur is a universal given. They might have even fasted on this day as long as they were inIsrael, even if only out of habit. Yet the moment they landed inLondonthey threw the last vestiges of their shallow Judaism to the winds, aspiring to blend into non-Jewish society, and the faster the better.
What’s the conclusion? That the spiritual coma they’re in actually began inIsrael. The Zionist education they received, including army service — even in those brave combat units — did not implant significant Jewish feeling in their hearts. It engendered no desire to hold on even to a trace of Judaism. The lack of Jewish education inIsraelis to blame, the deluded belief in raising children by the empty concept of secular Zionism.
Because Zionism is no more than scaffolding to a building. Once the building has been constructed, the scaffolding has served its purpose and can be dispensed with. And the scaffolding has nothing to say about the contents that will be brought into the building. Zionism says nothing about the content of the State it helped to build. Oh, there are plenty of clichés like “a light to the nations,” “a society with values,” and so on — empty phrases that have nothing of the soul of Judaism behind them. True, as long as people are living their lives here in Eretz Yisrael, some bits of Jewishness that remain caught in the state’s fraying hems are bound to stick to them. But as soon as they arrive in chutz l’Aaretz — and it doesn’t matter which country —Jews who were raised this way simply disappear among the nations. The bomb that killed their Jewishness may have exploded inLondon, but the wick was lit here in theHoly Land, in the state that has fought its own Jewishness so desperately over the years.
Those who have leftIsraelfor foreign lands tend to dislike being called yordim, although it is simply the antonym of olim. But how well the term describes so many of them! An illustrative example is one family of yordim who didn’t want to send their daughter to the local state-funded school because they were bothered by the fact that a majority of the pupils there were black. As an alternative, they sought to enroll her in a Catholic school. The Catholic school, however, required parents to furnish a statement that they were people of faith with a basic belief in G-d. In order to fulfill this requirement, the Jewish parents shamelessly asked aLondonrav to write them a letter testifying that they were religious.
Is there any hope for a Jewish future for these Jews? As the pasuk says, “Ki lo yidach mimenu nidach — He shall not cast away the far-flung one.” The Maharal points out that healthy wheat sprouts only after the kernels sowed in the ground disintegrate, and so it is with the life of nations, too, and the life of Am Yisrael in particular. We have reason to hope that this sharp decline into darkness will lead to fresh new growth, shooting upward toward the light…