By their families and their ancestral houses

June 5, 2011

Last week, I spoke briefly at Pardes’ closing lunch, and I have adapted what I remember of the remarks here:

Two years ago, when I first arrived at Pardes, I was struck by something our dean, David Bernstein said during one of the various orientation/convocation events. He said that each of us certainly had at least one relative or ancestor, whether we knew who they were or not, for whom it was a lifelons dream to sit and learn Torah in Jerusalem, just as we were doing. Though I’d never met him, I immediately knew that for me, that ancestor was my great grandfather, Israel Marin (z”l), who brought his family to New York from Riga, and who was the last traditionally observant Jew in our family until me.

Over the last two years, as I’ve learned at Pardes and deepened my own relationship with Judais, I have occasionally thought of my great grandfather and what he would have thought of my complicated journey towards greater observance. Much more often, though, I’ve thought about other family and friends, most of whom are not religious, many of them not Jewish, for whom it isn’t a dream to come and study in Jerusalem, who don’t relate to my enthusiasm for Judaism, and who regard my newfound observance with mistrust, fearing, perhaps rightfully, that it will create a rift between us. These are the people whose image has been in my mind most often as I have sat and learned in the Beit Midrash.

Lately, as I prepare to leave Pardes and return to the United States, I’ve been thinking more about my great granfather, who left behind the Jewish community that had nourished him in Riga, and had to figure out how to build a Jewish life in America. In some ways, he succeeded very well: he raised a family, moved to a Jewish neighborhood in Far Rockaway, volunteered at his synagogue and studied a lot of Torah. In other profound ways, though, he failed. The model of Judaism that he cherished didn’t work for his children, and all four of them became secular.

Like my great grandfather, I face the challenge of building a life that is deeply grounded in the Jewish tradition, while also nurturing my relationships with secular friends and family, and the broader, non-Jewish American community. This is a balancing act, and I don’t expect it to be an easy one.

The week before last, in Parashat Bemidmar and last week in Parashat Naso, we read about censuses of the Israelites and the Levites. In both censuses, the Torah states that individuals were to raise their heads למשפחותם ולבית אנבותם, by family and by ancestral house (e.g., Num. 1:2, 4:22). I would like to bless all of us who have developed relationships to Judaism that put us at odds with our families and friends, that we all find a way to raise our heads by our families and by our ancestral houses, that we may successfully rise up as members and leaders of the Jewish people in a manner that honors our living families as well as our ancient tradition.

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