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Julia Gorin: Confessions of a Refusenik Gone Secular

Ellen Small: Fireflies Light Up The Sky At Night

Dr. Jacob Mermelstein: Depressed Kids, Good Lives

Josh Pollack: A Divided Cyprus Mounts the World Stage

Nehama C. Nahmoud: The Jews of Yemen

Susan Rubin Weintrob: The Greening of American Jewry

Reader Response

December 10, 1997 / 11 Kislev, 5758

The Greening of American Jewry

Susan Rubin Weintrob encourages us to take a closer look at a hardy perennial.

A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO, when I was still reading stories aloud to my children, we read The Secret Garden together. It is the story of Mary Lennox, an orphan sent to the lonely moors of Yorkshire to live with an embittered uncle. Wandering around by herself on his estate one day, she is befriended by Dicken, a poor but wise Yorkshire youth. On one of her forays, she discovers an abandoned walled garden which she claims as her own. Unfortunately, she doesn't know how to cultivate it because she has never had a garden. Discouraged by all the dead wood and leaves, she announces to Dicken that the garden is dead. Dicken, more attuned to the land than she, asks her to "take a real close look." He tells her that if the soil is rich enough, anything can survive.

Mary is not convinced that the garden is alive. But Dicken reassures her: "Oh, I can tell if a thing is wick," he says, using the Yorkshire Gaelic for "alive." I remember my children asking me the same thing as Mary did. Putting our coats on, we went out to our snow-covered yard. I took a branch and peeled back a small portion of the bark. There, beneath the bark, the stem was green. My children were amazed that what appeared to be dead, was quite "wick" inside.

IN A SENSE, this story parallels what we know to be true about the Jewish people. When we cultivate Judaism in our lives, we too will see what we thought was dead come to life. Despite appearances of Judaism wilting or dying, a long-hidden Yiddishkeit can emerge from those who were to all appearances totally assimilated or non-observant. Even those who rail against observance and tradition manage to keep a tradition or two. I compare the green inside a wintering stem to Jewish tenacity, which has survived mighty conquerors, persecuting majorities and self-deprecation.

How do we know which Jews have this life inside them, when outside appearances are often deceiving? In the musical version of The Secret Garden, Dicken tells the would-be gardener:

When a thing is wick
it has a light around it
maybe not a light that you can see
but hiding down below a spark's asleep inside it
waiting for the right time to be seen.

In my own family, it was the right time this year to take a big step and send our son to the Jewish day school in Indianapolis, where he boards with a wonderful family during the week. Each weekend when he comes home, he is filled with new knowledge about holidays, history or daily observance. The other day, my daughter looking a bit enviously at my son, told him, "You will know so much more than me by the time you are done with school."

The famous French philosopher, Voltaire, once wrote. "Il faut cultiver son jardin" (One must cultivate one's own garden). Without realizing it, my son has already enriched our family garden. And he has been helped especially by the observant teachers, staff and family he lives with, who allow him to model his behavior on them.

The key for us, as it was for the book's main character, was that at the right time, there were several Dickens waiting for us. When Mary has doubts, Dicken assures her of success, providing her with the encouragement that she needs.

"Will it grow?" she asks.

"It will."

When I first moved to Muncie, Indiana almost 18 years ago, I had neighbors who brought cuttings and small plants to contribute to my yard. Some took root, and some did not. But many of those that did are still thriving. In this same manner, we can bring much to our friends and neighbors who are searching for a stronger connection to Judaism. Sharing a challah, or asking a young man to help raise a sukkah are like a package of seeds. Not all will grow, but many will take root.

WE ARE OFTEN HELPED by looking at successful models. I learned by looking at other people's gardens and talking to them about the methods that they use. When I saw how others could create wonderful gardens in the same soil that I had, I was encouraged.

Our own efforts and successes will encourage other Jews to find the bit of life inside them that is waiting to appear. A few weeks ago, during the High Holiday season, one of the rabbis in my congregation declared that we were in the midst of a Jewish Renaissance in America. In one way, I was astounded by his remark. After all, the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey shocked the organized American Jewish community by its indisputable evidence that Jews, en masse, have abandoned Jewish ways. The open-door acceptance of America had worked too well, it appeared. Jews walked through the door and left behind Jewish affiliation, family life, marriage and observance.

American Jewry heaved a collective sigh and began to write its own obituary. Articles and books appeared, predicting the extinction of American Jewry. But this rabbi was right. The news, instead of pushing American Jews into their graves, brought about a remarkable series of Jewish outreach programs across the United States. American Jews find themselves in the ironic position of Mark Twain, who had once come across his own newspaper obituary. He wrote a letter to the editor, it began: "The news of my death is greatly exaggerated."

Many thought that Judaism in America was like a dead garden. But our Jewish Renaissance is bringing forth that which is alive within our community. While we may mourn what has not survived, we must be heartened by what is growing.

New studies show that there are more Jewish day schools than ever, more university Jewish Studies programs, an explosion of interest on the World Wide Web and Internet, and within all branches of affiliated Jews, a turning towards tradition. Jews who have never done anything Jewish began to ask themselves, "Why not?" Jews already observing some traditions asked: "Why not more?"

SOME ARE DISHEARTENED by the intermarriage or assimilation of their children or by their own Jewish illiteracy. My own experiences have taught me that the Jewish soil is rich; its cultivation techniques have succeeded for more than 3,300 years. There have been times when trampled and neglected, our garden has died back. But the time is now to attend to the greening of the American Jewish garden.

Will it grow?

It will.


Susan Rubin Weintrob, a JWR contributor, is based at the National Jewish Post and Opinion.

©1997, Jewish World Review