Much of my father’s wisdom comes in the form of a story, but sometimes he shares a joke. What was considered a joke in our family was nuanced in humor and overt in a life lesson. Here is an example of a joke:
There were two brothers. One was always sad and negative, while the other was perpetually happy and positive. The parents brought these boys to a doctor to try to uncover the mystery of their personalities.
The therapist put the sad son in a room filled with every toy imaginable and the happy son in a room filled with horse manure. The boys were left in these rooms for the day, and when they came back many hours later, things were unchanged.
When asked, “Why are you so sad when you have so many toys to play with and enjoy?” the sad son’s response between sniffs and sobs was “I know these toys are not mine to keep and I am not here to stay, so why should I even begin to play?”
When they opened the door to the room filled with manure, they were caught by surprise with a slop of manure hurled toward them and the happy son laughing and running about in the midst of this filth and stink. “What are you so happy about here, son?”
“Mom! Dad! With this much manure, there has got to be a horse around here somewhere!”
This was my father’s humorous way of teaching us the essential life lesson about pessimism and optimism.
I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Better to be an optimist who is sometimes wrong than a pessimist who is always right.”
Recently, Time magazine had Bill Gates take over as the issue editor, and the feature piece was about why you should feel optimism right now, for our country and for the state of our world. There were many contributing writers, including Warren Buffett, Malala Yousafzai and Bono, sharing their positivity about the future of our planet.
This series was unusual in that so much in the recent media offers doom and gloom, and the current Zeitgeist for our country seems to be at best “good-ish.” I absolutely adored almost all the articles and commentary, and I want to be on record as an optimist for our collective Jewish future.
I mean, really, what do I have to lose? Remember, my father taught me well.
So why positivity when the latest research about the Jewish community shows that 53 percent of Jews under age 30 identify as Jews of no religion, synagogue membership is at an all-time low, and we are slowly losing the mainstream Jewish community, as our tribe congeals at different ends of the simcha dance floor, to the far right and far left? Why optimism?
I’ll tell you why with another story.
We were in Florida for winter break late in December when my cousin called my father to pass along regards to him from a certain Moshe she met at a bakery in Brooklyn. He saw my cousin’s credit card with our shared last name and asked whether she was related to my dad. “Send him my regards and tell him that my life today is credit to him.”
This was “the rest of the story” to one we often heard growing up that began over 40 years ago in San Francisco.
My father was the Chabad rabbi in Northern California in the ’70s, and one day a distraught man entered his office. He explained to my father that he and his family had recently emigrated from Russia.
The man said that the entire time they lived in the Soviet Union, his son was an observant Jew, even particular about making it to the morning minyan under the watchful eyes of the KGB. It was on the level of self-sacrifice, with the threat of a jail sentence very real.
But upon arrival to the “goldene Medina,” America, land of the free, he was unyoked from his Jewish practice. No more Shabbat. No more minyan. No more observance. What to do?
My father was instrumental in arranging for this young man to attend a yeshiva and receive an integrated Jewish education in a supportive environment, which today he is grateful for. When his life was on the line and being a Jew was brave, he was a heroic fighter. As soon as it became easy, well, easy come, easy go.
This was how my father always told us the story. And now over winter break we heard the sweet regards.
If 40 years ago Jewish life in the United States was hard to maintain, then today, in a more enlightened and more inclusive society, it is even harder. There are no barriers to our acceptance into American culture.
Join the JCC because it’s beautiful, but not because your local fitness center won’t have you as a member. Join a synagogue because you feel connected there, but not because there is any communal pressure to do so. Our social circles do not rely solely on fellow Jews anymore because we are so well integrated into our neighborhoods, and a diverse group of friends, across cultural spectrums, is where it is at.
Sometimes we don’t even know who the Jewish children are in our child’s class. And some of those kids call themselves half-Jewish, not knowing they are actually entirely Jewish.
It is against this backdrop that I am positive and optimistic. It does look bleak — one can say like a room full of stinking manure — if that is the way you choose to look at the Jewish landscape.
The reality is not depressing to me because it is to be expected. Any Jewish practice in our liberty-loving, happiness-pursuing country is optimistic. Every single act of Jewish engagement, every mitzvah done, every minute of Shabbat celebrated, every Jewish child born is reason to celebrate.
We have never been freer, but we have also never been challenged thus as a people; to stand proud as Jews without any adversity compelling us to do so and without any vicious enemy forcing us to do so. We have little experience with functioning Jewishly as we do in 2018. Today, when we choose Jewish, it is our own truth that speaks, from deep inside.
To me, this is remarkable. Throughout Atlanta, and especially in my own intown Jewish community, I see parents committing to studying Kabbalah and coffee while their children attend Hebrew school. I see parents inquiring about Jewish preschool and enrolling. I see young adults engaging in Torah study and creating a social group with fellow Jews.
But most of all, I see individuals who choose to have a relationship with G-d. In whatever small way they know how to. Or feel compelled to. On their own volition.
This kind of Judaism is deep. And profound. I am optimistic for our future.
Dena Schusterman is a founder of Chabad Intown, a Jewish educator, and a founding director of both the Intown Jewish Preschool and the Intown Hebrew School. She and her husband, Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman, are native Californians living in Atlanta for 20 years with their eight children.