Published by The Freeman Center

The Maccabean Online

Political Analysis and Commentary
on Israeli and Jewish Affairs

"For Zion's sake I shall not hold my peace, And for Jerusalem's sake I shall not rest."

What’s a Yahrtzeit Candle

by Jack Berger


Almost 40 years ago as I was walking along the beach in Mykonos , I picked up a book titled The Magus. In it an old man tries to help a young man understand the wisdom of age as he reflected on the moral values of the day:

We lay on the ground and kissed. Perhaps you smile that we lay on the ground and kissed. You young people can lend your bodies now, play with them, and give them as we could not. But remember that you have paid a price: That of a world rich in mystery and delicate emotion. It is not only species of animal that die out, but whole species of feeling. And if you are wise, you will never pity the past for what it did not know, but pity yourself for what it did. (The Magus, John Fowles, p.134)

Not long ago, while at a kiddish after a bar mitzvah, I overheard a twenty-something ask someone nearby - “What’s a yahrtzeit candle?” and I was reminded of the words in The Magus. It’sa question both profound and sad. It’s a question that our grandparents could not even have imagined. It’s profound for it tells of where our American Jewish community is and how painfully we have failed the commandment in our Shema to teach our children diligently. Sad because our peoples rich heritage and miraculous history gave in to the gods of assimilation and indifference and our community’s Jewish and Zionist future is in serious trouble…

In 1950, America had a Jewish population of 5 million and of those 5 million; over 90% had an affiliation with a Jewish institution, whether it was Federation, Bonds, JNF, a synagogue or an organization.  By 2008 America had tripled in size yet in the 2008 demographic survey, there were still about 5 million Jews, but of those 5 million Jews less than 25% had a Jewish affiliation. In the survey the majority of Jews talked of being Jews by heritage or Jews by culture – Jews by observance and affiliation were a shrinking minority.  And, painfully, a more recent survey of American Jews responding to the Jewish Agency’s Education Department showed that only 26% of respondents said they were very emotionally attached to Israel . Support and pride in Israel has also been in serious decline.

As is written in the Torah, “Ask your father and he will tell you. Ask your grandfather and he will explain it.” – The overwhelming majority of today’s fathers have been too busy focusing on their golf handicaps rather than dealing with their Jewish handicaps and Jewish grandfathers are too busy watching the stock market not realizing the real stock losses they are taking is in their grandchildren. 

In contrast, Israel in 1950 had a Jewish population of fewer than 1 million, yet Israel ’s population today is approaching 6 million and is expected to be close to 8 million by 2040. From an America that in the 1950’s was the center of the Jewish world, it is undeniable that today the center of the Jewish world is Israel . Today the average age of American Jewry is 44.  The average age of Jewish Israel is 28. As the American Jewish population continues to get older with fewer marriages and fewer children, the Jewish population of Israel is growing to where in the last three years it has set records of Jewish baby births and it’s not only the ultra-Orthodox who are having babies. In a 2008 demographic survey in Israel over half the respondents described themselves as traditional and traditional families are having more babies. Today it is in Israel that centers of Jewish learning universities, yeshivas, colleges, hospitals and technical centers are growing… even in Tel Aviv. Mr. Liberal Jewish American, Alan Dershowitz wrote in his book The Vanishing American Jew…  “There may well be fewer than one million Jews in America by the year 2050.”

As Israel continues to become less secular and American Jewry becomes more indifferent, there are two very different Jewish communities evolving. Some believe that in ten years the Conservative Movement will no longer exist, while the Reform Movement hasn’t really existed Jewishly for a long time. Eric Yoffe, head of the Reform Movement, in watering down its Judaism and in its superficial support of Israel, has realized too late that if you don’t give Jews something of substance and value their congregations will lose interest. Distracting from the abject failure of his leadership, he has realized too late that the Reform Movement and its anything goes overt tolerance has little substance while the Masorti or Conservative Movement has become shriller in its condemnation of the Orthodox in Israel, becoming more irrelevant with each attack. Many Conservative leaders quietly now recognize that in focusing on the academic and too little on Zionism, they have created rabbis that may be scholars but have forgotten how to be Zionists. Famous Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua, in an article in the left-wing Ha’Aretz called American Jews “Luftmenchen, a people without substance… a people without a land…” One day I met an Israeli cab driver.

I walked out of the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem to a waiting cab. The cab driver looked like a typical secular Israeli with his shirt unbuttoned half way down his somewhat hairy chest, sun glasses perched on top of his head as he slouched over his shiny Mercedes with his head cradled on his cell phone. He interrupted his conversation to ask me where I wanted to go – I told him to take me to the Jerusalem bus station. No, he asked, where do you want to go – I told him, you’re not going to want to take me where I’m going and raising his voice he demanded, “Just tell me!” I told him I was going to Hevron. He stared at me for a moment, opened the cab door, said get in, and said good-bye to whomever he was talking to. I asked him if he was sure and, with an air of having been insulted, he said “What, don’t you think I know where Hevron is… you think I’m stupid… you think I’m afraid… you Americans don’t get it” –  Caught a bit off guard it was the beginning of another Israel realization, and as we traveled south passed Gilo, I noticed in the mirror he began to button his shirt, he lowered his sunglasses and then as we circled around Bethlehem, he opened his glove box, pulled out a kippah, slapped it on his head, and with a smile, a sparkle in his eyes and wagging his finger he said – “When you go to Hevron you must wear a kippah! It’s out of respect… Hevron is a very great place… You know Hevron? It’s the place where our forefather Avraham bought the cave of Machpelah from Efron the Hittite for the burial place for his wife Sarah…” and as we drove south he told me of how his family made their way to Palestine from Yemen in the 1920’s and we discussed how David began his reign as Melech Yisrael, King of Israel in Hevron. Secular perhaps, proud of his country and knowledgeable of our Torah – No doubt. “And I will gather you from the corners of the earth and I shall bring you back to the land I promised to your forefathers…” and future generations.

In the last several decades American Jews have become less intrigued with the true wonder and awe of the State of Israel, while Jews in Israel are becoming more traditional and more proud of their country. They have much to be proud of. Perhaps what today shows the greatest divergence between American Jews and Israelis is that 56% of American Jews still support president Obama regarding America ’s relationship with Israel , while only 4% of Israeli Jews support his actions. With only 4% support, even a lot of left leaning Israelis are no longer enamored with the President that 78% of American Jews voted for. Choices have been made and from these choices there will be consequences. The sad reality is that less than 1 in 7 non-Orthodox Jewish Americans have ever traveled to Israel . The vast majority know nothing of Israel except what they might read from the less than sympathetic liberal media, and the drivel they hear on that rare occasion they may wander into a synagogue from rabbis being driven by their personal agendas. In the latest Spertus Institute brochure for fall classes the word Israel doesn’t even appear!

Recently I bumped into a former Board member of Anshe Emet Synagogue. Years ago during the summer the rabbis took some time off and members of the synagogue were asked to give sermons on the parasha of the week. In those days Rabbi Michael Siegel often asked me to give asermon, and the board member told me that by Monday he would get angry voice mails and messages about my sermons from some of the more liberal congregants.  In those days of Oslo euphoria I often focused on the charade and lies of the peace process, the shallowness of American Jewry, or the culpability of American Jewish leadership in the Holocaust. Parasha Shoftim was a favorite with the words “Justice, justice you shall pursue…” and “if you find the body of a murdered Jew in a field…” who is responsible for that Jews death. The writings of Devarim, or Deuteronomy, are as relevant today as they were the day it was written. I always liked Devarim – still do. In those days this board member would call about congregant’s complaints and my reply was always that at least he knew that they were staying awake and they’ll probably forget about it before the High Holidays… but interestingly, he didn’t forget about it.

He made his way thru the crowd and said when he saw me it reminded him of the sermons I gave in the mid 90’s (almost 15 years ago) and he wanted to apologize for what he had said – “I just wanted to believe in Oslo…I wanted to believe the peace process was real and looking back I thought about it over and over and I finally realized that you were right.” When a senior partner at abig law firm does a mea culpa, it’s a bit like the parting of the sea, but over the years I’ve received dozens of private apologies and even several public apologies. There never was a peace process. There were only Kodak moments and meaningless words that led to 1600 dead Jews, obscenely called sacrifices for peace. My fellow Jews wanted to believe the lie… historically we have been apeople who have wanted to be lied to…but the truths of history have always stepped into the breech. The future of Diaspora Jewry, if there is a future, must be tied to our communal pride with eternal love of our homeland Israel .

I once was told by my Rav z’l – “you must believe in our Jewish people because our G-d believes in our Jewish people… and you must always love them as your Jewish brother!” and so even when I reflect on Moses’ words that “these people are too difficult for me” – I want our people who are with us today and those who are not here yet to appreciate with gratitude the special gift that we were given 3300 years ago at a place called Sinai and to profoundly understand the courage, strength, fortitude and love against adversity that our grandparents had to overcome over the centuries to keep our sacred relationship with the Land that was given to us as an inheritance by our G-d. During these days of awe and reflection, at the end of Yom Kippur our community will stand and make a commitment, “Next Year in Jerusalem .”  I certainly hope so.

It is time for our community here in the Diaspora to go back to appreciating with understanding our roots if we want our children and grandchildren to be the inheritors of our unique gift of being a Jew or we can look to a future where American Jewry will be left to be studied at institutions of learning perhaps in the anthropology or history departments of schools and universities.

If that is to come about then the question I overheard - “What’s a Yahrtzeit candle?” may one day be asked on a television game show. Three contestants with names that sound vaguely familiar will hesitate to press their button fearing that a wrong answer might lose some of their winnings… but perhaps one will then remember there was a time when our people knew how to respect, honor and remember our fathers and mothers.

“It is not only species of animal that die out, but whole species of feeling.  And if you are wise you will never pity the past for what it did not know, but pity yourself for what it did”.


Shabbat Shalom                                

Shana Tova

Jack Berger