Lost in translation

Consider the ABCs of Judaism

Back when I was growing up in Manhattan, the modern State of Israel was the center of the Jewish universe. Tucked inside the greater American-Jewish identity, it was the core of being Jewish. There were no contradictions. Jews were solid U.S. citizens, as proud of their American heritage as they were of Israel. But the brutal sting of the Holocaust, which had hit home more often than not, made the establishment and continuity of the Jewish state a prerequisite of daily life.

After recently completing a semester-long sabbatical in Maryland, I have witnessed a different state of American Jewry. Jews have never been so successful; the urge to integrate has seamlessly transitioned into assimilation. The result? Today, Israel is a blip on the Jewish-American radar screen and, for many, there’s a definite disconnect. When I brought this up to one rabbi, his response was more troubling than I expected.

“The disconnect you sense,” he explained, “is a byproduct of the general disconnect to Judaism.”

This rabbi, with a flourishing congregation, confessed that he felt more like an entertainment director than a rabbi. “I have to constantly think up new gimmicks to draw the crowd in,” he elaborated, while admitting that without the constant beat of bar and bat mitzvah celebrations bringing in hundreds of people at a time, weekly attendance would be down to a drizzle.

Certainly, similar worries existed when my generation was growing up in the 1960s and 70s. Still, back then, American Jews understood that – with or without Israel – they were part of a nation within a nation. Unfortunately, this fact seems to have been lost in translation during the past few decades. Not with the minority of Jews who send their children to Jewish day schools, but with the majority who shepherd their children to synagogue religious schools, if that. It’s not their fault alone – religious schools either fell asleep at the wheel or simply lack the resources to ignite a sense of pride in their students.

While the holiday curriculum is important, it’s become too humdrum and detached from the students’ lives. In this digital age, with kids seeking links, what better tie-in for educators than Judaism’s contributions to day-to-day living in the Western world?

Believe it or not, some techies do a great job at getting across this message. Take Tiffany Shlain – a filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards (the international awards that honor excellence on the Internet, including websites, interactive advertising and online film and video) – who was cited by “Newsweek” as “One of the Women Shaping the 21st Century.”

Declaring sundown Friday to sundown Saturday to be her personal “Technology Shabbat,” Shlain wrote on her blog, “The idea of taking one day a week off from responsibilities and work is a very, very, very old idea.”

What makes Shabbat so special? Shlain hits the nail on the head: “Unplugging for a day makes time slow down and makes me feel very present with my family. I not only appreciate this quality time with my family, but it has also made me appreciate technology in a whole new way.”

Succinctly said. A day of rest removes stress and provides time for a fresh and new perspective. That’s the kind of “disconnect” Jewish professionals should be promoting, precisely the type of “assimilation” rabbis and other spiritual leaders should be encouraging. It’s all about the ABCs of Jewish life and the gifts Judaism has given the world: the concept of a day of rest; the foundation for a socially just legal system; a commandment to respect one’s parents and an annual reminder every Yom Kippur not to cast us away in our old age; and an ecological love of the land coupled with humane treatment of animals. The list of ancient Jewish commandments and values that are part and parcel of modern day life is impressive indeed!

And the holidays? For those into meditation, nothing beats the soul-searching of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Organic produce lovers should be directed to the harvest-dedicated holidays of Sukkot and Shavu’ot. Creatively couple them with the biblical laws of s sh’mittah (letting the land lie fallow during every seventh year) and orlah (the commitment to leave fruit growing on a fruit-bearing tree during the tree’s first three years) and you have a showstopper of a lesson.

This is the kind of reverence Judaism deserves if it is to be properly translated into 21st century life. And then, once American Jews proudly reconnect with their religious-cultural heritage, bonding with the Jewish state and the greater Jewish nation will be a mere hop and skip away.

Tami Lehman-Wilzig, (tlwkidsbooks.com), an award- winning, Jewish-content children’s book author, has written 10 books and a children’s book app. Her newest book, “Stork’s Landing,” will be published in the fall of 2014.