A Shabbat table with 220 empty chairs, representing the 220 Israeli hostages of Hamas, is seen during a solidarity action with Shabbat prayers of the Berlin congregation on Fasanenstrasse in Berlin’s Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district, Oct. 27, 2023

Lola Schnaider; inset photo: Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images

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Coming Together in the Bronx

A lesson I learned as a child still resonates in the aftermath of the Hamas attack: In the wake of tragedy, Jews often return to our faith and our community.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
February 02, 2024
A Shabbat table with 220 empty chairs, representing the 220 Israeli hostages of Hamas, is seen during a solidarity action with Shabbat prayers of the Berlin congregation on Fasanenstrasse in Berlin's Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district, Oct. 27, 2023

Lola Schnaider; inset photo: Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images

The heinous attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 seems to have made Jews more aware of our Jewishness. Some will go to shul. Some will give money to help Israel. Some will think of their immigrant parents or their grandparents. Some will shout out the Shema, others will participate in a challah-bake. In short, they want to be close to their own.

People hope this trend will last—a shared and sacred bond for a family that has grown apart over the years and has somehow found a way back together.

This reminds me of experiences I had when I was young: On many a Sunday when I was a child, I accompanied my father not to baseball games but to funerals. A rabbi, he officiated at all deathly occasions near and far, but mostly they were in the Bronx for Jews who seemed like they were on the way out. This was the 1970s, and the Bronx—specifically the Jewish Bronx—was in its final hours.

Those who remained in the West Bronx off the Grand Concourse had seen their children flee to the suburbs, where they made grand bargains to become “Americans” by giving up the collective identity they once shared through religious observance. They were artists and long-haired musicians, sculptors and playwrights, often with blond women at their sides. Even as a boy, I understood that these folks had much more mischief under their belts than the law allowed.

It was at these grief occasions—funerals, shivas, pre-funeral visits—that I learned about a different kind of Judaism: This was the land of bagels and smoked whitefish, a box of Entenmann’sor Levy’s doughnuts. There were men named Sid, Harry, and Jack and women named Fay, Fanny, and Shirley. The men wore gold chains; they looked prosperous in their green Buicks and maroon Oldsmobiles. The women wore pantsuits. A few had frosted hair and smoked Salem Lights.

These Jews had Yiddishkeit, but little fear of God as I was taught to know Him—although they cried out to Him in moments of grief. And cry they did, often in the Yiddish of their youth. It was as if a whole group had regressed to beloved baby talk. Someone might say something like, “[the deceased] iz giveyn nor a guteh mensch”—and it would set off a tidal wave of tears and a babble of mameloshn in the chapel.

These funerals were multilayered, funerals within funerals. Not only were they a swan song for the deceased and the bereaved, they were a final goodbye to the Old World ritual and religious observance—or so it seemed.

Yet a question hung over the grief that exceeded the moment: Their Yiddish and their tone seemed to ask what residue of Jewishness would remain even as they retained the rhetoric and the lifestyle of assimilation?

I remember one funeral—I think it was 1974 or 1975. There were three brothers, highly successful. One was a renowned artist out West, another a Washington lawyer; I don’t know what the third one did. They stood in a row, with matching receding hairlines. The funeral began with a great deal of decorum, but at graveside, the three brothers broke into an explosion of sobs. One of them, the shortest and least successful, was held up by his brothers.

As they were about to end the service, the brothers said, “Let’s go back to the grave one more time.” They shored each other up in between sobs, walked back to the grave with the freshly dug earth and turned around. When they got to the line of cars they said, “one more time” and the brothers walked once more to the freshly filled grave. There, they broke down in healthy but rare, life-giving, blubbering of grown men’s tears. Three times they did this. Then they clutched each other when they said the Kaddish, and they ended in a tight embrace, but their Jewishness, intense as it was, had no religious coherence or even national content. But Jewish they were—to the core.

A sentiment seemed to break through the veneer of comfort and cosmopolitanism. What would become of this feeling? Would it, too, be buried here at the cemetery or would it appear somewhere else—perhaps in a new form—in a new generation?

Indeed, what would become of everyone’s feelings? The question, of course, went unanswered, as it was unspoken and perhaps deeply unconscious. It was beyond any mortal’s capacity to know.

Yet looking back at all those funerals, there were, planted like breadcrumbs, hints that foretold the future. Sometimes, at the evening of the day of death, the evening before the funeral, I would, as a boy of only 7 or 8, go with my father to the bereaved. Up the steps we would go to tenements in the Bronx. And there would be women sitting outside on lawn chairs, their conversations still dotted with childhood Yiddish. “Nu, Rebbe,” they would say upon seeing my father, “Gott gebt un Gott nemt,” God gives and God takes, famously quoting the biblical Job. My father would somberly tilt his head back at them: a rabbinic nod. I would see his black-hatted reflection in the evening glare of their eyeglass lenses.

Some see funerals as the end, but it slowly began to occur to me through these experiences, that the opposite might be true. Funerals, in some sense, were the beginning—sometimes the beginning of a question, other times the release of a pent-up longing that could shoot up tall in one’s life.

One of the brothers from that funeral of so long ago—his name was Sherman—was so overcome that in the days following the funeral, he showed up unannounced to our Queens home. When I brought my father to the door, Sherman clutched him with two hands as though my father were a floppy cloth doll. “How can I not come to you on a day like this,” he said by way of explanation. It was the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and he pointed to the heavens. He had driven to my father, with his disheveled mourner’s hair and middle-aged misshapen teeth. “Chaim, Chaim,” he called out to my father in between short sobs. (He had known my father in his youth.)

I was only 11 and could not have realized the full weight of what was happening, but looking at my father and him in the diffuse light of the vestibule, I thought to myself: There is nothing more beautiful in the world right now than this broken man.

Whether it was at the funeral chapel or later at the cemetery and shiva, people, in their words and their tears, seemed to succumb to a tidal wave of nostalgia not so much for religious life per se, but for the inner decorum of religious life.

For me, a young boy sitting among the mourners, my father’s sincerity of belief, his capacity for teaching, his balletlike sermon, his rabbinic presence in the face of their grief and disintegration, lent to the mourners a temporary coherence.

After a funeral, there was yet another visit—the shiva call. This was not in the Bronx, of course. It was at the homes of the bereaved, the children, most often in early middle age, ensconced in their homes in Old Westbury, Great Neck, or Mamaroneck.

The Jewish people are like a chulent on the stove. Something’s cooking—nobody knows what.

There, Yiddish was not spoken at all; if there was a scent of Yiddishkeit that remained, my nose could not pick it up. Unlike in my parents’ home, there were no seforim or holy books, no leichter (Shabbes candelabra). A large television set was often in the living room. A pool table in the basement.

If they had children my age, they looked vastly different from me. They were stronger, more American, virile, athletic. The girls, with their jeans and shorts did not look like my sisters did, with their hemmed skirts and stockings. These suburban, affluent children seemed freer, unencumbered.

If the walls of these Westchester homes could speak, they seemed to say: Our pact with America has finally paid off. Judaism was something quaint that belonged to the earlier part of the 20th century. We have been accepted and we are galloping into a glorious future of success and material gain.

It’s understandable then, that these visits prompted different questions for me. My life seemed like a lot of work and struggle by comparison to the kids in these families—grandchildren of the deceased. I was already immersed in the toils of Talmud: the minutiae of an egg that was laid on a holiday, or the rulings on two people who grasped a lost object at the same time.

Even as I knew it was a privilege in some sense to study Talmud, I had an eye on the “other” side. After all, these kids were going to the beach and playing baseball. I wondered what my life would be like if I had been like them: simply Jewish. What’s more, if they were “good enough” in their Jewishness, what was I?

A resentment grew in me: My future seemed spoken for. As a rabbi’s son, it was presumed that I, like my father, would work in the fields of the Lord. It was hard to feel my self.

Of course, my father was unaware of this. He was only a few years removed from the tenements and immigrant neighborhood of the West Bronx before he embraced a more rigorous understanding of the Torah. He eschewed the upwardly mobile tracks of his brothers and fell deeply and irrevocably in love with an elusive and demanding Jewish God.

What would become of me? I envied these other families even as I understood that I possessed something they did not. In fact, these experiences with my father strangely ignited in me a storm of desire for an American life of baseball, prom meetings, and muscle cars.

Nevertheless, even as I more or less stayed in my lane, I wondered, was it an accident of geography and family that separated Jews from observance and study, from Chumash and Rashi, from Tosfos and the Rishonim? Or was it an unbridgeable chasm born by an act of will? And if so, was it “our” job to change them, to “convert” them? And, I wondered, who exactly would end up converting whom?

Of course, I could not know this then, but set against the backdrop of a crumbling Yiddish culture, this was the one place many could become Jews again, through grief. Surely, this was a moment—as intense as it was—that would be forgotten: Another day, a significant day perhaps, but it would fade into the thousands of other days that make up a life.

Over the bridges and through the tunnels, we wended our way back to Queens. We drove back mostly in silence, my father and me. Gently moving the black steering wheel of our 1970 Chevy as though he were piloting a Mississippi steamboat, he would tune into the old Yiddish radio station, WEVD, with Zvee Scooler or Rabbi JJ Hecht speaking in Yiddish.

Then, as if sensing my thoughts, my father turned down the radio. “Ver vays,” he said, “ver vays vos vet zayn.” Who knows, who knows what will be.

Gliding off the Whitestone Bridge, as we got closer to home, he explained, “There is something that you don’t learn in yeshiva. It is called Yiddishkeit. Nebach, too bad, some maybe even most, will intermarry, but the Jewish people,” he said, quoting his own rebbe, Rav Hutner, “are like a chulent on the stove. Something’s cooking—nobody knows what.”

My father was not what you would call today, a “kiruv” rabbi, an evangelist or a proselytizer. He did not see these people as “they.” Instead, he communicated to his flock through their Yiddishkeit and his—a radio frequency I did not know at the time. He was able to just be with them in a way that I did not appreciate until much later in life.

That is, until now, until Oct. 7—a day that will live in infamy, when a rabid, hate-mad tribe pounced on us when we were unguarded and unawares, slaughtering man, woman, and child in an open field like in my grandfather’s day in the Ukraine.

When I found out, the first person I wanted to call was my father. Even though he is already in the next world for the better part of a decade, he and I are in continuous, though imagined, conversation.

In my fantasy, I rouse him from the kever, the crypt: “Dad, you know what just happened?”

I speak, haltingly, as if I must still protect him from bad news as I did in his dotage. “We have been attacked. Our women have been violated, raped. It is biblical and it is bad. Our children, our old, and our young …”

He seems to have awoken from a slumber and is slow to understand.

Then I use pesukim, verses from Deuteronomy as shorthand: A nation will swoop down on you like a vulture. It is a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation that shows no compassion for the old and no pity for the young.

My father looks at me, still, without comprehension.

“There was a massacre, a massacre, Dad. They were slaughtered k’domen al pnei hasadeh in Eretz Yisrael,” I say, quoting Jeremiah: The dead bodies of people will lie in the open field like dung. They will lie like grain a farmer has cut, but there will be no one to gather them.

Now I see tears on my father’s face. He gets it now. Oy.

A few weeks later, a second conversation:

“But our chevra, your chevra—from the Bronx—they are back. I have met them—they want in. People who have Yiddishkeit but no faith in God, and for me who had God but no faith in Yiddishkeit, we all want in! This is not to say that Moshiach is here. It’s not that people en masse have turned to observance, but ’siz shmekt fun moshiach—it smells of Moshiach. The smell of the Messiah is in our nostrils, Dad. Ruach apeinu moshiach hashem. It could take many more years, decades, who knows, but ruach apenu moshiach Hashem, in the very breath of our nostrils, is the Messiah.”

A short time before my father’s passing, I reviewed with him our life together. At some point I recalled his friend Sherman—from the funeral in 1975. My father sat up and said, “Yes, would you believe it? Sherman’s daughter called me recently. She became a baalas teshuva and I think her children are observant as well.”

And my father would agree that it was not he who brought this about at all: “I never spoke to Sherman again after that day, but something must have happened in that long-ago moment.”

It’s understandable that people want these moments of Yiddishkeit to last, but it’s not so linear or simple and it may be completely beside the point. They seem to float in upper levels of atmosphere and travel under a star of their own. Ver vays? m’kennit vissn! Who knows where they go?

As the Soviet Yiddish poet Osip Mandelstam once wrote, “As a little bit of musk fills an entire house, so the least influence of Judaism overflows all of one’s life.”

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.