This is the first part of a two-part essay on hope. Read Part 2 in the March 6 issue of the Atlanta Jewish Times.
Some years ago I was searching the Internet for information on my hometown, Munkacs. I found many articles, and even more heartwarming were the news films depicting events in which I had a presence.
The first was about what in Yiddish is referred to as the begleitung. In 1933 the Munkacser rebbe’s only child, Frima, was to marry a young Hassidic rabbi, Yehoshua Rabinowitz, who would be the next in line to assume the title of the Munkacser rebbe. I was 8 years old when I, with all the students in my cheyder class, stood on the sidewalk on Rakoci Street and waited for our noted rabbi, Chaim Leyzer Spiro, who, with many of the leading members of his Hassidic group, was escorting young Rabbi Rabinowiz to Rabbi Spiro’s home for the wedding.
Not only was I on the street, cheering as did the other boys, but I was also at the home of my uncle, the rebbe’s physician, who lived next door to the rabbi, and looking behind the safety of the windows at the throngs of black-hatted and straymel-bearing Hassidim watching the wedding in the rebbe’s courtyard.
I had a personal encounter with the famous rebbe May 15, 1934. The rebbe and his Hassidim were in my uncle’s home celebrating my cousin’s brit miloh, his circumcision. The rebbe, sitting at the head of the table and eating lunch, invited me to eat from his place. It was an honor bestowed on few, but it did not last long.
When I told the rebbe that in addition to attending the cheyder, where I began to study the Talmud, I was attending the Hebrew gymnasium, he severed any relationship with me. The rabbi not only disagreed with Zionist ideals, but he also hated all Zionists.
A year earlier when the rebbe’s daughter was married and the news film captured that event, it also carried a brief film about the Hebrew gymnasium’s first graduating class. The film included a few hundred third- and fourth-graders, and I was among them, singing “Hatikvah,” a poem written by Naftali Zvi Imberg that in 1948 became the national anthem of Israel.
I was born into a bifurcated Jewish world. I went to cheyder and yeshiva, the traditional Jewish world represented by the followers of the Munkacser rebbe, while I was also a student in the Hebrew gymnasium, representing the new world of Zionism.
Both groups were Jews and fervently hoped for a national redemption — the hope of returning to our own land. In the morning, as my father and I went to the synagogue for Shachrit prayers and as the men gathered the four tzitzit of their talitot, I took the tzitzit of my talit katan, and we all recited loudly and fervently, “Oh, bring us home in peace from the four corners of the world and lead us upright to our land.”
But by 8 in the morning I changed. I assumed a different persona as I crossed the threshold of the parochial Hebrew grade and high school. As I entered its portals, the language of discourse changed from Yiddish to Hebrew, and we wore kippot instead of caps while studying Tanach instead of Talmud. But we expressed the same yearning and hope as the traditional Hassidic and Orthodox Jews: to return to our land.
My classroom was filled with images of chalutzim creating a new Israel. Across the door on the wall was a large picture of Theodor Herzl looking over the new Israel with the following comment: “If you wish, it will not be a mere legend.” From the age of 6 I was subject to two distinct Jewish cultures and hence to two distinct views of how to actualize the historical Jewish hope.
The hope of redemption from the diaspora (Galut) was the common yearning of all Jews. For over two millennia this hope was an intrinsic part of the Jewish spirit. To traditional Jews, the root of the hope resided in the Havtachah: G-d’s promise to Abraham that “you shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in someone else’s land, where they will be enslaved and tortured for 400 years, but in the end they will be redeemed and will depart with great wealth.”
We still read that promise at our seder table on Pesach.
The hope was intrinsic in the mental-emotional state of the Jews beginning perhaps in 740 B.C.E. when Tiglathpileser the Assyrian king destroyed Israel, the northern Jewish kingdom, and took its people captive and dispersed them.
That tragedy was intensified in 587 B.C.E. when the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple and the population was led into exile. Psalm 137 describes the Jewish mood of that time: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept as we thought of Zion.”
The yearning to return and rebuild the nation and the Temple was a constant, and the poet of that time cried out, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand whither.” Yehudah Halevi, a medieval Jewish poet, philosopher and physician, repeated that sentiment in Spain.
The Babylonian exile was the beginning of the historical “Jewish Tragedy.” The Jews were not only expelled from their own land, but also driven from other lands in which they settled for the next 2,000 years. After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., we became the wandering Jews and a people with a dream: to return to our land. Because of G-d’s promise and assurance, we were not hopeless; we carried our Torah and our dream wherever we settled.