Monday, November 10, 2003

Walking Up the Down Escalator

I hear these stories while standing at the bar. I’m at a simcha, sharing a l’chaim with the grandparents of the bride/groom/Bar/Bat Mitzvah, who are chatting and smiling, as proud grandparents should. And then, I’ll notice they have an unusual glint in their eye, the look of pure glee mixed with pure defiance. And they’ll whisper to me: “you know I shouldn’t be alive...they should have got me, but what happened was...”. They then tell me their stories, about how a remarkable convergence of persistence and luck allowed them to survive, rebuild and celebrate simchas.

Nowadays, the generation of survivors is once again battling the angel of death, and I often hear these stories while preparing a eulogy. Each time a survivor passes away, I am reminded that without them the Jewish world would be smaller, weaker and duller. Their families, their communal involvements, and the fact that they are a living link to Eastern European Judaism have contributed immeasurably in reconstructing the Jewish world after the Holocaust.

But to me, the survivors teach more than history; they teach character. Many survived due to incredible, impossible adventures. In each of these adventures, the survivor’s character is critical. They did the impossible because they had chutzpah, tenacity and optimism. Their stories have taught me the importance of determination, a lesson that’s significant for anyone who’s ever faced failure and disappointment.

It’s easy to give up. Our society, with it’s wonderful overabundance of comforts, has an unfortunate side effect: it has made people soft. We’ve become so used to success that we are unable to cope with adversity. Personal, relationship and business difficulties often end with people giving up, because we are easily discouraged.

For survivors, quitting wasn’t an option. I remember a survivor telling me “you know, I just wanted to live”. It may seem like a pointless comment; everyone wants to live! But when a survivor makes this remark, it speaks volumes about personal determination. This man refused to give up when facing overwhelming odds. Many others simply surrendered; some even walked into electrified fence as a way of ending the suffering. However, the survivors persevered, clinging to life even when it seemed absurd. To me, endless determination is the survivors’ greatest legacy.

I once heard a speaker remark “life is like walking up the down escalator”. Despite our wealth and success, this is true of all of us at one time or another. We all have disappointments that pull us down. The survivors climbed up an impossible escalator, and somehow made it to the top. Because of their accomplishments, they remain an inspiration to all of us struggling our way up the escalator of life.
Just a little something they asked me to do for In Montreal magazine

Miracles, Shmiracles

Miracles, shmiracles. Did you really think a magic menorah is reason enough for an entire holiday? Or that because of an enchanted jar of oil, we’ve inflicted generations of Jews with greasy latkes and donuts? If you did, you’re not alone; for a lot of us, the last time we thought seriously about Hanukkah was in fifth grade, when we wondered (and nagged) about what we’d get as a Hanukkah present. And even as we become adults, (and start to buy the gifts!), all we’re left with is an elementary school vision of Hanukkah, with lots of emphasis on presents, driedels and oil, oil, oil.

Hanukkah is an atypical holiday, and it certainly isn’t about oil. Other holidays commemorate God’s salvation of man; their story line is “they wanted to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat”. Hanukkah, however, is not about a monster who wanted to kill the Jews, nor is it about a singlehanded divine salvation. Rather, it’s a story about a culture that insists (and forces) the Jews to fit in and be like everyone else. (Unfortunately, many Jews did find it easy to drop their Judaism in order to advance). We celebrate Hanukkah because there were a determined few who insisted on living Jewish lives, no matter what the consequences. They are the heros of this story. Rather than being passive patsies, like the hogtied damsel on the train tracks waiting for Dudley Do Right, in this story we have Jewish heros proudly proclaiming their Jewish identity.

What Hanukkah is really about is Jews being proud of their Jewish identity. It’s about every Jew who’s stood up publicly and said “I am a Jew” despite enormous pressure to hide their heritage. Hanukkah celebrates the heros of Jewish identity, whether it be in the Seleucid empire, the former Soviet Union, or on the Concordia campus.

So what’s all the oil about? Well, if you risk your life and fight long battles to remain a Jew, and you finally get home and don’t have the oil you need to run the Temple, it’s nice to have a miracle to make things run smoothly. But even more importantly, it nice to get a pat on the back from God for a job well done, and know that God is rooting for us as we struggle to resist the enchantments of assimilation.

Happy Hanukkah!!