By Saul Axelrod
For the purposes of this article, I have divided Jewish Americans into three groups.
The first group consists of people who clearly identify as Jews. Some attend synagogue services regularly and observe the mitzvot as much as they can, while trying to enjoy the benefits of American life. Others in this group are not religious but relish their Jewishness by enjoying much of its culture and traditions. They will often ask, “But is it good for the Jews?” Most people in the first group are strong supporters of Israel.
Skipping to the third group, there are Jewish-Americans who want nothing to do with Judaism or Jewish lifestyle and might be at the forefront of the opposition to the state of Israel. I have no interest in this group and will not address it further.
But there is a second group of Jewish Americans that I would like to discuss.
They are likely to be well-educated and to be reasonably financially secure. They are a part of the fabric of American life. Their connection to Judaism is mostly during life milestones. They might attend synagogue services during the High Holidays, if at all. They might have some regard for Israel, but are typically not vocal supporters, nor do they attend pro-Israel rallies. They might connect to Judaism through its food, its humor and by occasionally reading a Jewish American novel or attending movies dealing with the Shoah. They might tell you that Judaism is not very important to them, but sometimes there are events that reveal that Judaism is important to them. Some of the people still have a pintele yid — the spark of a Jew. It just requires a special event to expose it.
Many years ago, I took a tour of a religious enclave in Borough Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., during Sukkot. Our bus was delayed, so I had a chance to walk through the small streets of what I suspect resembled a European shtetl. In the background, I heard Yiddish music. I followed the sound until I found its source.
There was a Chasidic man playing remarkably joyful music on an organ. In the building, men were dancing around the table, while in the bleachers young men locked arms and swayed from side to side. Eventually, the men left the shul and danced in the nearby street. I stood there with chills in what was the greatest pintele yid moment of my life. Later, I was to learn that this was referred to as a Sukkot tisch (table).
I recall a story about Isaac Bashevis Singer. He had just finished giving a talk in Paris and was finding his way to a Shabbat dinner he had been invited to by strangers. When the door to the apartment opened, it all unfolded — the succulent aroma of the chicken soup, the beautiful glowing candles, the warmth of the challah, people from different parts of the world, previously unknown to each other, hugging lovingly.
Similar scenes occur at Chabad Houses during Shabbat dinners throughout the world. They have something in common. It is the pintele yid.
Several years ago, I was walking through the streets of Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon with my friend, Eitan. Shabbat was approaching. Soon the buses would come to a halt and Chasidim would fill the streets. Neither Eitan nor I am religious. Yet, he turned to me and said he felt there was something special in the air of Jerusalem as Shabbat approached. I could feel the presence of my zeyda, after whom I was named — another instance of pintele yid.
Golda Meir’s path from Kiev to Milwaukee to Palestine reflected a person who moved from the Orthodox religiosity of her grandparents to the secular Zionism that resulted in her being the elected leader of Israel. But an incident in Moscow in 1948 resulted in a pintele yid moment.
As the first Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union, she addressed a Rosh Hashanah crowd of thousands outside the main synagogue of Moscow. The rally was organized by a local Chabad organization, and in front of her was a sea of dancing black-hatted Chasidim, joining in the raucous chorus of, “Golda, Golda!” Rejected by many 20th-century Jews, the Chasidim refused to reject one of their own. Meir was shaken by the incident and admitted that, for an instant, she considered becoming observant.
Jerry Weintraub was a famous producer and talent agent. Although he was not a religious man, in his book When I Stop Talking, You Will Know I Am Dead, he reveals some major pintele yid moments. When his father was ill, he brought him to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Father and son were transfixed as the Rebbe held the elder Weintraub’s hand. The Rebbe was incapable of healing a sick man, but he was able to provide him with comfort.
I was recently sitting in a Jewish deli with a friend. His food order violated Jewish dietary laws in at least two ways. I had a half smile as we made eye contact. He looked at me and said firmly, “I am a Jew through and through.” I know him very well, and his statement was believable. We both had a good chuckle — the pintele yid.
If you believe “My Yiddishe Momme” was written for your mother; if you get tearful every time you sing “Hatikvah” or remember your grandmother swaying as she lit Shabbat candles; if you can hear a pained wail in the prayer of a Chasid; if you feel, as Itzhak Pearlman does, as he tells Joel Grey, “klezmer means everything good;” or if you get chills when the Israeli flag is raised, you are not 100 percent assimilated.
In the beginning of the 20th century, many European Jews felt obligated to be loyal to either the Yiddish or Zionist political movements. But the Shoah, among other events, has reduced Yiddish adherents to a small number, and Israel is a strong state steeped in Zionist ideals and the Hebrew language.
So, instead of choosing one or the other, I say, “Choose both!” Ironically, Israel is in the best position to save Yiddish culture. It would be a pintele yid moment for the Jewish state.
Saul Axelrod is a professor emeritus in Temple University’s College of Education.