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March 08, 1996 - Image 27

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1996-03-08

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Community Views

Editor's Notebook

Detroit's Jewish Identity
In Its Myriad Forms

What I Am Learning
From Little Ellen



In August 1987,
my friend Saul's fu-
neral was held at
Chesed Shel Emes
in Oak Park. He
was 70 years old
when he died.
Saul had been a
conscientious, mid-
dle-level func-
tionary for the Jewish Welfare
Federation; not a Federation
"shaker and mover," not influen-
tial or intimately connected to the
wealthy and active advocates of
the organization, but loyal to his
employer — a Federation person.
Uncharacteristic of such em-
ployees in those years, however,
his origins were in Eastern-Eu-
ropean Orthodox Judaism. SauFs
father had been a cohane and an
intensely religiously observant
Orthodox Jew. Also un-
characteristic of both Fed-
eration and Orthodox Jews,
at an early age Saul had
severed all connections with
religion and become in-
volved in radical and liber-
al-secular Jewish groups
like the Workmen's Circle.
Concomitantly, he had
been among the founders
and subsequent leaders of
the secular-liberal Sholem
Aleichem Institute and the
Jewish Parents Institute.
Some of the mourners at
his funeral related candid and re-
vealing anecdotes about him: his
dogmatism; his quiet support of
the arts in Detroit; his political
resolution and passion; his vora-
cious reading that had continued
to his death.
As if to confound strangers, the
conductors of the funeral service
were young, bearded, Orthodox
Jews. Saul and his wife had
joined the newest congregation
in Detroit, Tchiyah, whose mem-
bers ran the gamut from Ortho-
dox Jews to secularists "by way
of the Reconstructionists."
From my perspective then, as
I struggled to find some themat-
ic order for the book Harmony
and Dissonance: Voices of Jewish
Identity in Detroit, 1914-1967,
Saul's funeral was a cross-section
of Jewish Detroit. Former lead-
ing officials of Federation, former
leaders and activists in the so-
cialist movement, young Ortho-
dox and Reform Jews all were
there. But most apparent, the
members of the generation that
had defined several aspects of
Jewish Detroit in the 1930s, '40s
and '50s had assembled, a reflec-
tion of the conglomerate person-
ality of one of its members who
himself seemed to personify the
Their integrity, commitment,
broad range of political and social
Sid Bolkosky is a professor of
history at U-M Dearborn.

and religious affiliations had
helped give Detroit its unusually
rich texture, its mixture of ide-
ologies, wit and humor.
They combined Old-World am-
bience with American style and
embodied an almost magical era
in Detroit Jewish history. That
generation, like the man for
whom some of them had come to
pay their respects, retained its vi-
tality even as it aged and became
less active. A significant portion
of the story of the Jews of Detroit
in the first half of the 20th cen-
tury is their story, fundamental-
ly different from what had
preceded it.
Some of their children attend-
ed the funeral, and most of them
differed fundamentally from their
parents. "Those who had grown
up in the 1930s remembered

Hitler and Father Coughlin,"
wrote Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg,
"but their children had much less
sense of themselves as being-im-
periled or embattled as Jews."
Supporters of Soviet Jewry or Is-
rael may have provided grounds
upon which to concentrate Jew-
ish identity, but many of them
recognized the nagging worry
that American Jews would even-
tually run out of causes and,
wrote Hertzberg in 1989, would
"have to face the question of what
it meant to be a Jew."
Saul's funeral silently seemed
to acknowledge that worry — an-
other one gone, whose 1930s-
shaped Jewish consciousness, be
it religious or secular, imbued
with some sort of Yiddishkeit, ap-
peared unlikely to be replaced in
subsequent generations.
Like other American Jews,
those in Detroit stepped into the
post-Six-Day-War world perhaps
uncertain of how to resolve deep-
rooted issues of Jewish con-
sciousness, without historical
anchors of the type manifested in
Saul and his peers. The next gen-
eration seemed less determined
to meet the challenges of newly
defined lives, burdened by inde-
terminate concepts of Jewish
identity and its sources.
American Jewish life has be-
come still more complicated since
1987. Religion, politics, values,
history, language, culture, char-

ity have fallen by the wayside as
certitudes. "I feel good watching
religious Jews walk by my house
on Shabbos," one Holocaust sur-
vivor told me years ago, "but at
the same time, I feel angry at
them for what some of them have
said about the Holocaust."
Now we must struggle with the
presence of religious Jews who
see their mission as bringing
God's vengeance upon other Jews.
Some historians consider Rabbi
Hillel's comment of compassion
and care — a distinctly "liberal"
creed — the subtext, the apoth-
eosis of much of the Torah — cit-
ing passages from Exodus and
Deuteronomy, for example. Now
we must deal with Jewish com-
mentators who see this as a po-
litical agenda that falsely
connects Jews to Democrats.
Some of us who spend
much of our lives trying to
make some sense out of the
essentially senseless mur-
der of Europe's Jews, eval-
uate that history as a
profoundly sad consequence
of Western civilized values
manifested as the essence
of Jewish and non-Jewish
culture in the 20th century.
Now some students of that
epoch conclude that the "les-
son" of the Holocaust (like a
mathematics course) is for
Jews to have guns — as-
sault weapons, no less — and,
therefore, support Pat Buchanan
for president.
My friend Saul, who once ad-
mitted to me that he began to at-
tend Jewish socialist meetings in
the 1920s to find Jewish girls, rec-
ognized the complexities both of
what he read and what he expe-
rienced. He would be distraught,
I think, at the reduction and sim-
plification of complicated issues
among Jews today.
He and many of his generation
would not turn and walk away
from the question of Jewish iden-
tity or ethics — how Jews ought
to comport themselves — in times
of psychological, social and spiri-
tual turmoil. "If an answer sound-
ed easy," he told me, "a Jew knew
it was wrong."
They personified a stubborn
and argumentative approach to
important ethical questions; and
they considered that approach, if
not their answers, imbued with
a fundamentally Jewish spirit.
If those who gathered at that
funeral could not agree on much,
they recognized and respected the
variety of positions assumed by
other Jews — in the midst of
sometimes bitter and irreconcil-
able dissonance. Yet there they
were, drawn together by differ-
ent aspects of the same person.
It seemed a hopeful moment,
but 1996 appears to be a millen-
nium away from that moment. ❑

Each Thursday I
skip lunch and do
dance instead.
My 4-year-old
daughter, Arline,
takes a ballet-
class. One of the
highlights of my
week is watching

her perform.
Of course, Adina's dancing is
riveting, so it's difficult to take
my eyes off her. But I do from
time to time.
The entire performance is de-
lightful. All the girls are so sweet
in their black tights and ballet
shoes. They try with such con-
centrated effort to do the requi-
site turns and bends and twirls.
There's tiny Erica who some-
times says, "I'm not being Eri-
ca today; I'm Sarah," and the
well-coordinated MacKenzie
with her beautiful, glowing
cheeks, and the quiet, graceful
Christina. They are like little
birds, fresh and delicate, learn-
ing to fly.
I have to confess, though, that
outside of my perfect daughter,
I have a favorite. Her name is
Ellen is probably the most
talkative girl I have ever known.
She chatters away nonstop: to
the teacher, to her classmates,
to herself. Her comments are
charming and dear, and-I see
that other mothers enjoy them,
Although some of what Ellen
says is typical little-girl talk —
she'll suddenly call out, "Did you
know I saw The Lion King last
week?" — she often compliments
her fellow dancers.
Psychologists speak of the in-
nate selfishness of children, but
Ellen is more than generous with
her remarks.
"Good job, Adina!" she will
say, in all sincerity, as my daugh-
ter tumbles every which way
across the mat.
The other day I watched as
Ellen sat beside my daughter
and suddenly, inexplicably,
hugged her. I was spellbound.
No wonder Adina tells me she
likes Ellen, even though the two
know each other only casually
through dance.
I'm certain a lot of this has to
do with good parenting. I don't
even know Ellen's mother's
name (so many adults I have
come to know through my
daughter are simply "David's
mother" or "Rachel's father"), but
I have enjoyed my brief conver-
sations with her. She is friend-
ly, callineHello, Adina!" when
we pass in the halls. I am im-
pressed that she remembers my
child's name, impressed that she
greets Adina directly, unlike so
many adults who speak to oth-

er parents but bypass anyone
under 18.
I also like the way Ellen's
mother talks about her children.
Once I was near a bookstore
and I heard a woman call to her
son, "Come on you little pain in
the neck." The child was just
walking along, he wasn't misbe-
having (not that inappropriate
behavior calls for such language).
I hear a lot of parents talk like
this, and I can hardly bear it.
Ellen's mother, though, al-
ways speaks kindly to her
daughter and about her older
child, a boy.
Aside from her parents' loving
care, Ellen has, all on her own,
a kind of passion for living that's
rare. She's always enthusiastic
and seems constantly delighted
by life. Everything is new, every-
thing is fun, everything is good.
And even when it is tough (when
she can't quite master that tum-
ble), the world is still A-OK two
seconds later.
When I was in college, a friend
introduced me to the writings of
Delmore Schwartz, and I fell in
love with his short story, "In
Dreams Begin Responsibilities."
It's the sad tale of an immigrant
family, written when Schwartz
was 21.
Delmore Schwartz did not
lead a happy life. He was brood-
ing, lonely and suffered a career
that peaked with "In Dreams Be-
gin Responsibilities," and spi-
raled down from there. He died
a young man, his body undis-
covered for days.
I don't think Schwartz's po-
ems were as good as his prose,
but I've always been drawn to
one, "I Am Cherry Alive,' The
Little Girl Sang." Grown-ups, the
girl in the poem says, no longer
remember what they once knew
— that anything is possible.
..."They are sure I will forget
it some day too.
They are wrong. They are
wrong. When I sang my song, I
knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold, I am
green, I am blue,
I will always be me, I will al-
ways be new!"
Ellen is like this.
I see it on greeting cards, read
it in books, hear it from men and
women whose days are coming
to an end: Life is too short not to
enjoy every moment. But I get
tired and I forget it, or sometimes
the words become a cliche and
so I turn my back.
That's why I'm glad I'm re-
minded, each week, that there's
no time for brooding and com-
plaining, and when I fall down
the best thing to do is simply to
get up and get going again. Each
week I watch, and learn, a great
deal about life from a little girl
named Ellen.

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