Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 27 January 2007 / 8 Shevat 5767

Keeping it in the Family

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Josh in San Francisco

Dear Rabbi,

My family has not been religious for many generations. If maintaining tradition is important, I feel my most immediate family tradition is to be secular. The last person who was observant in my family was my great-grandfather, who I recently found out was a rabbi in a community in Europe. But that was such a long tome ago, and really has no relation to me now. In your opinion, does the fact that Jews were religious in the “old country” have any bearing on the way we choose to live our lives now?

Dear Josh,

Four generations ago, most Jews across the globe were observant. Many lived this traditional way of life because that’s how they were brought up. Because of persecution and economic hardship many Jews did not have an opportunity to bolster their childhood-ingrained belief with rigorous academic and intellectual study of Judaism. For this reason, when the winds of “isms” starting blowing through the world, many young Jews, lacking a strong basis in their Judaism, were led astray.

Still, the simple, heart-felt commitment of “alte-zaides and bubbies” – Jewish great-grandfathers and grandmothers – was passed on, albeit dormant, in the spiritual genes of their children. Now, four generation later, we are witnessing an unprecedented revival of interest among young Jews in Judaism. This dynamic of the return of the fourth generation is mentioned in traditional Jewish sources, and applies even more so in a case like yours where your religious forebears were rabbis.

This is evident from the following story:

About a hundred years ago, a rabbi from a family of rabbis immigrated to the Land of Israel and became the rabbi of one of the then nascent neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. One of his sons was swept up in the ardent fervor of the Zionist movement of those days, and eventually became a founding member of one of the most strongly communistic, anti-religious kibbutzim in Israel. He was one of the heads of the Zionist Movement, a signer of the Israel Declaration of Independence, head of the wing for indoctrinating Zionist youth, and a minister in the first government of Israel. His son and grandson were raised in this environment on the very same kibbutz that he founded.

After having grown up in this sheltered environment, the great-grandson came of age and entered the Israeli Army. There, his horizons were broadened and he met many different types of people that he never met before, including religious people. When they heard his last name, they revealed to him his lineage of illustrious rabbis. His curiosity sparked, he looked into the matter until he finally chose to renew his family’s original tradition and became a rabbi himself.

Many years later he “happened” to meet a newly religious young man from none other than the very same kibbutz that the rabbi grew up on. The youth described the surge of interest in Judaism among the kibbutz members and young people, and asked the rabbi if he would come teach them Torah. How surprised the rabbi was when it turned out that the first class he gave was given on the day of the yahrzeit of his great-grandfather, the rabbi from Tel Aviv. Who knows if the soul of that saintly Jew was not pulling at the strings behind the scene in order to re-establish the original family tradition?

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