Yiddishe Neshome: What Is a Jewish Soul?

Yiddishe Neshome: What Is a Jewish Soul?


Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

Almost two decades ago, I went to St. Louis to visit my Aunt Ilona (whom we always called Aunt Ili). Although she was only 13 years my senior, and I was old enough to attend her wedding to my father’s brother in 1931, I nonetheless considered her a part of my parent’s generation and not my own.

As a young bride of 18, she came from Hungary to live in our town of Munkacs, where my mother befriended her. Ilona came from a family noted for their piety and learning, and even

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when she relocated here to the United States, she continued to keep a strictly kosher home and chose to send her son – a boy nine years my junior and also a survivor – to attend one of the yeshivot in Chicago.

Over the years, I made a habit of traveling to see her in St. Louis so as to maintain my long-standing relationship with her. In the 1990s, my wife and I visited her in a senior dwelling complex; I came to congratulate on her youngest grandson’s upcoming wedding, but she was not very happy about the shidduch, as the bride was not Jewish.

“But Aunt Ili,” I said. “She is converting according to halacha and will become a righteous convert.”

But my aunt would not be placated. She questioned the convert’s motives, as many old country European Jews would have at the time. She felt that no matter how much the convert studied, no matter how sincere the convert seemed to appear, there always was a nagging chshash (a doubt) about the real reasons behind the conversion.

She wondered: Does the prospective bride seek conversion for intrinsic reasons or are her motives extrinsic? Does she seek conversion so as to make the necessary payment for being accepted and welcomed as a member of well-to-do family?

“I know that she is studying, and she may even keep a kosher home,” Aunt Ili said. “But will she have a Yiddishe neshome [a Jewish soul]?”

For European Jews of her generation, the question of whether a prospective convert can acquire a Jewish soul was a fundamental concern and had direct implications on the convert’s trustworthiness. How can one trust a person who does not have this mystical quality – a Jewish soul – that is considered to be the sine qua non for having empathy for other Jews?

How can a person who lacks a Jewish soul feel the pain of other Jews who are persecuted in other lands? And how can a convert acquire this ability for empathy, a condition necessary to be a true Jew?

Universal Soul

As human beings, every Jew – and every member of every religion and/or ethnic group, for that matter – shares a collective universal soul that ties them to the rest of humanity. But at the same time, Jews are also endowed with a distinct soul that ties them to other Jews and integrates them into a common collective that we refer to as klal Yisrael.

Of course, this unique quality being genetically transmitted, it is nigh-impossible for a convert descended from non-Jewish parents to acquire. And in a world in which Jews were almost constantly persecuted by the members of the dominant culture, Jews of Ilona’s generation were understandably reluctant to trust those who were born and socialized into the majority – why would these people wish to convert and thus be in the minority?

To Aunt Ili, it seemed illogical that a person who by birth was a member of the dominant culture (or religion, or ethnicity) would leave his or her “higher” status and its relative security so as to join a group that is persecuted and defined as outcasts and pariahs. And how, she asked, can people with a different history and experience ever develop a feeling of empathy for the Jews, especially when they may come from peoples who for centuries have been the enemy of the Jews?

The Jewish soul entails an historical unity of Jews, an unconscious force that has developed through millennia of persecution and torment. Jews feel for other Jews, regardless the country in which they reside. It is an internal force that compels Jews to support other Jews wherever they experience difficulties, and it is the foundation of Jewish morals.

Each year, we reinforce the idea that the departure from Egypt was a shared experience and that each person must consider himself freed from Pharaoh’s slavery. And all Jews – of the past, present and future – stood and experienced the Sinai event, and for that reason all Jews must consider themselves responsible for each other.

The destruction of the Temples, the suffering by the hands of the crusaders and the injustices of the Inquisition are not events that are unique only to those of the past who experienced these misfortunes. Similarly, the Holocaust is not solely a tragedy of those who were in the camps – it is a collective burden, shared even by those who were born long before or after the mid-20th century.

Thus, the Yiddishe neshome carries with it every Jews’ weltschmertzen (painful feelings brought on by a discordant and selfish world). I for one certainly know this burden: Each time that I see Jews clad in their large tallitot, standing and facing the holy ark and proclaiming Oy, Ribono shel Olam (“Oy! Master of the Universe”), I know that the simple utterance of oy is the manifestation of this historical pain.

It is our national expression, something that each generation at one time or another expresses: Dear G-d, how long must we and the world suffer?

Missing the Point

Aunt Ili’s beliefs having been detailed, I personally contend that being Jewish consists of two dimensions: first, the Jewish religion, and second, the Jewish culture and history. I also contend that the present overemphasis on Judaism as a religion is resulting in a major decline in the historical Jewish identity – that is, the integrative force inherent in the Jewish soul.

But it is the latter – not religion, but peoplehood – that is the core of the Jewish soul. I agree with Isaiah Berlin, former president of Wolfson College in Oxford, who proposed that “all Jews who are at all conscious of their identity as Jews are steeped in history.”

Unfortunately, we in the U.S. are those most egregiously guilty of said overemphasis. For example: I recently visited a Jewish day school, and, to my sorrow, I found a tremendous disregard of Jewish history.

Secularization is a modern force rising out of increased scientific information and which slowly erodes the influence that religion once exercised on its adherents. But we still have our culture and history, and those have always served as the infrastructure of our identity and moral development.

I think that the rabbis must become aware that the continuity of Jews as a people is less dependent on prayer and more on the knowledge of our history.

Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a Holocaust survivor.


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