I spent the better part of the afternoon of Tisha B’Av reading a book recently published concerning the history of Chicago's Orthodox rabbinate from the late 1800s to the middle of the twentieth century. The book has special meaning to me since I knew many of the rabbis described in the book during my early years in Chicago a half-century ago.
Also the fact that my father and grandfather are memorialized in the book gave it very special meaning. The book evoked in me many different and even contradictory emotions. On one hand I was in admiration for all of the scholars, those of whom came from Eastern Europe and were great students of great scholars there, who were able somehow to transfer their lives to a very different and alien - even hostile community and environment.
The book records their struggles to try and maintain some semblance of a traditional Jewish life while everything in American culture and society opposed it. Sabbath observance, intensive Jewish education and traditional family bonds all were being eroded and destroyed before their very eyes. And yet somehow, almost in blind defiance of the facts and realities that surrounded them, they persevered to instill Jewish values, Totah knowledge, love for the land of Israel and a feeling of Jewish solidarity within their congregants and those who came in contact with them.
We have to realistically admit that, in the main, they were unable to stem the tide of assimilation and alienation from Judaism that has so engulfed American Jewry, till this very day. Yet, if there is a vibrant and functioning Jewish Orthodox community in Chicago today it is because these men somehow were able to pass on the torch of Judaism to select individuals and families. And it is those individuals and families that have created the strong Jewish Orthodox community which lives in Chicago today.
But I was overcome by another emotion, that of sadness and mourning, an emotion which befitted the mood of the somber day of Tisha B’Av. That emotion was one of enormous frustration for what happened to the families and descendants of many of these great-grandparents and scholars.
I made careful note regarding many of those whom I knew and I realized that most of them were unable to transmit their way of life and value system to their own children, grandchildren and certainly not to later generations. I make no judgment whatsoever regarding this fact. I also have relatives, descendants of great rabbis and scholars, who have completely assimilated and even intermarried.
The Torah teaches us that parents are not held liable for the behavior of their children nor are children held liable for the behavior of their parents. Leon Trotsky has descendants living in the land of Israel who are observant Jews. Great rabbis have descendants living all over the world who have deserted Judaism and have intermarried and are even anti-Jewish.
God's ways are inscrutable and freedom of individual choice as to what type of life one wishes to lead is a paramount rule in God's world. But I was saddened by the heavy casualty rate, spiritually and Jewishly speaking, that this book indirectly and probably inadvertently portrays.
To me this was a sobering dose of realism that needs to be injected into a mostly unrealistic and overconfident Orthodox Jewish world. The generations of Israel that experienced the destruction of both Temples felt that God would not allow it to happen. After all, the God of Israel was intimately associated with both structures and with the Jewish people. Somehow destruction and annihilation was not going to be the scenario that would occur.
We see this reflected in the word “eichah” that characterizes the sad day of fasting and morning. It basically means: how could this have happened? It reflects the terrible realism of history as opposed to wishful thinking and an overabundance of self-pride and smug assumptions as to Heaven’s will.
So we need to concentrate on the realities of the situation, to do all in our power to preserve our Jewish heritage, further family ties and our loyalty to Torah and Israel. We should not think that we can afford all of the divisions, poor educational methods, disputes and meanness that so often typifies our current Orthodox Jewish society.
We have much to be proud of. We have rebuilt ourselves over the past half-century in a manner that defies logic and expectation. The rabbis described in the book would stare in amazement at the vibrancy, strength and influence of today's Chicago Jewish Orthodox community – replacing the tens of Chicago synagogues that appear in the book, but which are no longer. Yet, they would also be familiar with the ills that ravaged, and still ravage today, the general Jewish community – intermarriage, ignorance and the abandonment of heritage and tradition to follow shallow ideas and false gods.
In retrospect, I think that this was a very good book for me to read and absorb on the afternoon of the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. It shows what happened, what can happen and yet it also shows the great resilience and commitment of portions of the Jewish people to the Temples of Jerusalem and to the study and perpetuation of Torah and its values within the Jewish soul and people. The book to me was sobering and inspiring at one and the same time.