Friday, July 25, 2014

A Fallen Hero from the Diaspora

It started with a dream. A young Austrian with a full black beard was daring enough to set the wheels in motion for what would eventually become the Jewish State. His vision: Jewish sovereignty for the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple. He famously stated, “If you will it, it is no dream.” But his will wasn’t comparable to the will of others. In fact, I often question whether I’m worthy of applying such a statement to my own life. His will transcended all logical explanation. He refused to be deterred by rejection. He devoted his life to ensuring that there would one day be a place where no Jew felt ostracized or alien. 

Perhaps it would have been more fitting for Theodor Herzl, the father of Modern Zionism and my personal hero, to have stated, “If you’re as crazy and relentless as I am, it is no dream.” Such passion, the driving force in his unyielding efforts to achieve his life’s dream, comes along only once every several years. To draw from a religious phrase, he was a true Godolei Hador, only secular. 

Herzl sacrificed his personal sanity, his life’s savings, and his promising career as a journalist to set out on a far nobler, far more respectable mission. He left everything, all that he knew, in hopes that he’d find something better, something of greater meaning. 

A hero in his own way, Max Steinberg embodied many of the traits that allowed Herzl to change the world. All it took was a Taglit-Birthright trip to connect Max to his ancestral homeland. Previously uninvolved and relatively uninformed, Max discovered an ineffable connection to Israel upon his first visit there. Feeling he owed his life to the force that was tasked with protecting and perpetuating the Jewish State, Max enlisted in the IDF, accepting upon himself great responsibility, and similarly great risks. Much like Herzl, he left all that he’d known, all that he was comfortable with, for a far nobler life.

It seemed only fitting that Max, someone I’d never met nor heard of before his death, was buried just a short distance away from Herzl. Max was a pioneer in his own sense, and was well deserving of the distinct honor of being laid to rest in the same vicinity as the man who made his life so meaningful. 

As a Chayal Boded (Lone Soldier), it wasn’t expected that 15, let alone 30,000, people would attend Max’s funeral. His family spoke about how he had come to Israel with almost no family and friends in the country. But, with all due respect to the grieving, I can’t help but firmly disagree. Any soldier, any Jew, is a member of the extended family of Am Yisrael. 

As a Lone Soldier, however, Max assumed a role of, in my opinion, greater importance than that of a traditional soldier. Max, though perhaps unaware, inspired those around him, even the 30,000 who had never spoken a word to him, by leading by example in the process of the ingathering of the exiles. He left the diaspora to come home, where his family and friends were waiting. His sacrifice will forever be appreciated, and his death will certainly not be in vain. 

Though it’s difficult to imagine that there is any type of consolation that will ease the pain of Max’s friends and family, I find comfort in the fact that he died for the country he loved enough to leave his past life for. No peoples knows the importance of sacrifice like the Jewish people. As has been made clear by the outpouring of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments following the onset of Operation Protective Edge, the Jew will forever, even in the progressive world in which we currently live, need to sacrifice himself for the whole of the nation. Max made the ultimate sacrifice. 

One of the persistent and tragic themes in Jewish history is unity brought by pain. Jews of all religious factions, and surely all political beliefs, gathered to honor the dead at Har Herzl on Wednesday. It’s a shame, however, that such unity is elusive in times of relative calm. Such a relationship among the opposing sectors of Judaism is certainly not the most efficient and effective form of cohesiveness. 

We should not only mourn Max Steinberg’s death, but we should celebrate his life. We should celebrate the life of each and every chayal (soldier). We shouldn’t depend on tragedy to bring us together; we should be preemptively united, putting us in a better position to face those who wish to see our demise. 

To see my brother and sister Jews cry for a brave young man from California whom they’d never met was truly awe-inspiring. To track the steady stream of funeral goers entering the gates of Har Herzl was mind boggling, as they seemed to never stop pouring in. 

When people ask what it means to be a Jew, I’m unsure of if there’s a better response than to point them to an event like the funeral of Max Steinberg. To be a Jew is to be a member of a family in which each brother is accountable for each sister, and visa versa. 

My heart is heavy with sorrow as my family members continue to die on the front lines of war. But to know that they passed while giving the ultimate sacrifice is somewhat consoling. To know that their deaths have contributed to the eternalization of the Jewish nation elicits both comfort and respect. 

Max Steinberg deserves to rest for eternity beside the man who made his sacrifice possible. He deserves to be regarded as as much of a hero. He, along with anyone who defends the State of Israel from its enemies, holds a special place in olam haba (heaven). 

Like Herzl, Max was crazy enough to pursue his dreams. For that, we should forever admire him. 

Baruch Dayan Ha’emet. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Lonely Jew

My heart broke upon hearing the story of a survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto. Starving and on the brink of death, he snuck into a courtyard and sifted through the garbage. In it, he found a piece of moldy bread. To us, such a discovery would mean little. To this man, it meant he had a chance to prolong, even briefly, the life of his emaciated, dying father. Mustering up all of the energy left in his skeletal body, he rushed home with bread in hand, and hope in mind. When he opened the door, he called out "Father, I have food!" But no one answered. Eventually, to his dismay, he found his father dead and swollen, lying naked on the living room floor.

As the still bereaved man recollected the moment in which he found his father dead, tears began to well in his eyes. Naturally, the profundity of his story touched me in a way that I'll never be able to fully express. This man and his family were no longer perceived as humans. His father died in a way akin to the death of a stray dog.

I continued my journey through Yad Vashem.

At the next screen, I heard a man describe the way the ghetto desensitized its inhabitants toward death. The starving and homeless walked by carcasses at every street corner. Soon, they no longer felt inclined to mourn. Wherever they walked, death was with them, and there came a point when living with such a harsh reality was all that was possible.

Just before the end of the impressive and powerful exhibit, I read about the conclusion of WW2 and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel. An audio tape of David Ben-Gurion reading the Israeli Declaration of Independence, his voice noticeably bursting with emotion, played as photos of May 15th celebrations in the new state flashed across the screen.

Never again would we be subjected to such torture. Now, there was a place of refuge where we would no longer be considered subhuman.

At that moment, more than any other, I understood the necessity to defend the Jewish people from those who wish our demise at any and all costs.

Hours later, I heard news of Israel's recently launched ground operation in Gaza. Of course, such news came with the quick realization that my brother had been dispatched into hostile territory, thrust into the center of a frightening and dangerous conflict. An array of worries began to cloud my mind, but then something surprising happened. I realized that this operation served as an opportunity for my brother, as well as the rest of the conscripts of the Israeli army, to defend the Jewish State from those who wish again to wipe us off the face of the earth. Such a realization served as consolation.

The Jew, by his very birth, inherits a a paradox. He is predisposed to being hated, and such hatred would seemingly be reason to feel a sense of embarrassment. Yet, the Jew simultaneously inherits a sense of pride that transcends all external opinions and baseless hatred. The latter inheritance leads many to refer to us as the "Chosen Ones" with a tone of bitterness rather than praise.

Where the Jew will fail, has failed, is when they mold themselves to meet the expectations of others, and to avoid the condemnation of those who feel condescended upon.

The German Jews became Jewish Germans. Six million perished. When push came to shove, the Jew was helpless.

The American Jews are becoming the Jewish Americans. In a different, but arguably equally effective way, millions of Jews are vanishing. When push comes to shove, the Jew is running from their identity.

It's imperative that such a trend does not continue. We are no longer the helpless, wandering Jews. We are no longer the subject of discussion regarding the "Jewish Question." We should be proud, and we must stop at nothing to ensure the perpetuation of our people.

With anti-Semitism filling the streets of Europe and even America, now, more than ever, is the time to wake up and realize that the Jew will always be alone. The Jew will always be responsible for ensuring its own future. The media is waging a fierce propaganda battle against not only Israel, but global Jewry. The people are listening. Jews, yet again, are being isolated and singled out.

So, I write to express my belief in Israel's right to defend itself. I write to express my belief that, regardless of external pressure and opinion, Israel must place its best interest before anything else. The media will propagate lies and incite violence and bitter hatred. But what has the Jew not faced before? What challenges has he not overcome?

We have the power to determine our fate. We mustn't use it foolishly.