I have often thought about how I’d react to a missionary knocking on our door. What would we say? How would we react? I thought I had it all worked out until the jehovah’s witness at my door turned out to be a little old Russian Jewish lady.
As she told me of her ancestors, with their long beards and black coats back in the shtetl, a big thick cloud came over all my planned responses. I sunk into a state of shock as I realised how this old woman and I came from the same place. We both had a strong connection to our history and both immigrated to the land of opportunity. Unfortunately, while I had my parents watchful eyes guarding me, it appears no one was guarding her. In fact quite the opposite. While I stood there trying to explain to her that Moshiach isn’t here yet and maybe she read something out of context, all I could feel is sympathy. This woman, who would have arrived on the shores of Australia hoping to redefine herself and her environment had a heavy history to deal with. Coming from a place of war, of serious loss and deprivation, the emotions and memories an immigrant faces can be devastating.
Yes, we all decide which way to turn and what to believe in, but our starting points are not the same. Coming from a place of vulnerability can make some strong and make others fall. That is not to say that this missionary had been fooled or forced to think something she didn’t want to. She probably does believe all that she espouses. But, where did this come from? As I ended our conversation and closed the door I realised I had so many questions for her. I could have sat there for hours listening to her story, trying to get a glimpse of why and how a little old Russian Jewish lady, knowing full well about her rich history, could so fervently turn her back on it all. Did she think she was so much wiser than the great Rabbis who knew these texts back to front? Did she think they ‘skipped over’ the one line that she had all her hopes hinged on?
All I could feel is sympathy. I wanted to give her a big hug and connect on the most basic of levels – one of family, heritage and continuity. This is something that drew me towards Yiddishkite and something that propels me ever since. Was she that angry at her family or the world that she would turn her back on it? And yet, I look in our own backyard, at the families that surround us, and it is true. There are so many holocaust survivors and their descendants that simply can’t face their history. History was too ugly to face, through war, through Stalin, through pogroms and communism. Once you’re free of the environment you want to leave all the other stuff too. The associations are already there, imbedded into your psyche: “I was persecuted for being a Jew. Now I am not persecuted, I don’t need to be a Jew.” I’ve heard many ‘survivors’ of those times say “why dwell on the past?”, “we have to look forward”, “what’s gone is gone”. And while this may be a good approach to let old fears and nightmares rest, this is the beginning of the end for Jewish life. Our history is who we are, and it stays with us whether we like it or not. As my one of my favourite quotes says: “everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us…on the inside, looking out. ” (Jonathan Safran Foer, in Everything is Illuminated).
In the small glimpse that I had I saw a passionate Jewish neshama lost in the jargon that can be religion. If only she could experience a yom tov, a Shabbos, maybe she could reconnect to her ancestors without the bitterness. Maybe she could express who she really is. Maybe she’ll come around again. Maybe seeing another Russian Jew following our heritage gave her as much food for thought as it did for me.