The Holocaust Survivor Who Wanted His Jewish Line To Die Out

She was pleasant enough as she got her luggage in place and we found our seats. There was no way I could anticipate what would come next.  Gum cracking. One. Straight. Hour. Of gum cracking, as I helplessly sat there – a prisoner of noise (popping) pollution – tethered to a seat 30,000 feet in the sky. I kept having the conversation in my head, “Pardon me, but I’m allergic to grating noises, would you mind spitting that stuff out?!!” But there simply was no tactful way to say what needed to be said, so I bit my tongue as she cracked her gum.

I tried listening to music, but there was nothing coming out of the earphone port. “How has it not lost its flavor yet?” I groaned to myself. But then, thank God, the snack cart arrived, and she traded the gum for a bag of pretzels. I thought it would be smooth sailing flying from there, but when she finished the pretzels she took out a sucking candy. A chorus of “suck, suck, slurp; suck, suck, slurp” repeated itself until the candy was finished. (Note to self: pack earplugs next time!)

I’ve been traveling more and more often for speaking engagements, and although there are some less pleasant parts to the trips, I love meeting new people and spreading inspiration to new places. But my talks don’t always begin or end at the destination I’m flying to. Sometimes they also happen on the way there and back.

Like on a recent trip, the driver who took me to the airport was wearing a yarmulke, but as I soon found out, he had been moving away from observance for years. His faith had been shaken by tragedies he had experienced both personally and ones he had seen others endure. I explained to him how I approach suffering. I can either assume the world is random and pointless and that tragedy strikes with no warning and no meaning. This is a world that I refuse to believe in.

Instead I believe that there is a plan and a purpose behind everything in life, including the hard times, even though they don’t seem to make sense and often strike without warning. “For instance, I don’t believe that my sitting here, talking to you about faith right before Rosh Hashana happened by accident.” I could tell the driver was listening. His grandfather had held onto his observance even through the Holocaust. Perhaps it wasn’t too late for him to return to his roots too.

On the flight back home, I sat next to a man who thankfully didn’t make any sounds except for the pleasant conversation we were having. I never know who I’ll be seated next to on a plane, but I figure it’s a great opportunity to break down stereotypes about religious Jews. More often than not I get seated next to less observant Jews (even though, statistically speaking that shouldn’t happen in a place like America) who I try to leave with a more positive impression about Orthodox Judaism.

As the man and I spoke about why we were away from home, the conversation naturally led to what I do, which led to the story of my childhood existential crisis and my search for meaning. Apparently, I was the first observant Jew this man had ever spoken to. He seemed to believe in God, and noted that although neither he nor his wife were religious, they wanted to pass some sort of meaning and values onto their sons and let them know where they came from.

He was raised Catholic, but his wife was raised with nothing he explained. I wondered why that was. Most people have religion at some point in the family. Turns out his wife’s mother’s parents were both Jewish. “Aha,” I thought to myself, “so there is a Jewish connection after all.” Did my plane neighbor know that his wife and two adorable sons (he showed me a picture) were actually Jewish by Jewish law? He knew.

So why did the Judaism get lost then, I wanted to know. Well, apparently the wife’s grandfather was a Holocaust survivor and he had only one dying wish for his daughter (this guy’s mother-in-law) – the Judaism should die with him. It was because he was Jewish that Hitler had gone after him. But if they stamped the Jewishness out, then his children and his children’s children would be safe, the grandfather reasoned.

My eyes filled up with tears as heard his explanation. I could feel a weight in my chest, so I took a deep breath. “I understand why your wife’s grandfather had that reaction,” I began, “he went through unimaginable atrocities and was targeted because he was a Jew. But by ending the Jewishness in the family – well, Hitler winds up winning, now doesn’t he?” The man listened, but didn’t have much to say.

And then we both started reading. The conversation seemed like it had more or less run its course. But as we got up to grab our bags, I pulled out my business card and handed it to him. “If your wife or sons are ever curious to know more about their Jewish side, they can check out this website.” He thanked me and we parted ways.

I don’t know if that card got crumpled up and tossed into a garbage can or if it will one day make its way into his wife’s hands. I don’t know if the driver in the yarmulke took my words to heart and decided to chart a new course in the new year or simply ignored me. But since I believe in a world where everything happens for a reason and nothing occurs by chance, I try to never miss an opportunity to say the words that need to be said when I meet someone new. (Unless, of course, the person is making obnoxious noises.)

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  • Avatar photo Gail Ann Thompson says on September 28, 2012

    You have no idea how tightly I’m hanging on the the belief that everything happens for a reason. That G-d has woven our lives and the world into a beautiful tapesty, He can see it from his point of view, even if it looks like a tangle of woolie knots, from where I stand.

  • Avatar photo Dee says on September 28, 2012

    Thank you for sharing this story. I myself am a Sabbath-keeping Christian (many find that strange I know.). And even as a youth I was interested in learning more about Judaism. In college a fellow intern, who was Jewish, and new I kept the Sabbath, told me that I was a “wanna-be-Jew”. I didn’t know quite how to take that comment, but I often wondered why she was not really observant. She mentioned that from time-to-time she would keep Sabbath, but was not really religious by any means. And I always wondered why my Jewish friends and coworkers were non-observant as well, because from my point of view, they were blessed to be Jewish and have such a beautiful culture and religion. But as I’ve gotten older, and learned more about the atrocities of the Holocaust, I could see how a person could lose their faith. Perhaps they felt abandoned by God? I don’t know. I just know that seeing people turn away from God and their faith makes me feel very sad.

  • Avatar photo Moshe says on September 30, 2012

    i was walking home from shul this past friday afternoon with two recently bought lulavim/ esrogim bundles. on around 97th and broadway, a man walking behind me with wavy blonde hair and a leather jacket said, “excuse me,” cleared his throat, and asked me, “What are those?”
    We talked for a solid ten minutes.
    Apparently, he had found out in 74′, when his father passed away, that his family was from Minsk and that he was Jewish. He was interested in his religion, although he said he knew very little. He said that he never seen anything like the branches I was carrying before, but recently he had seen lots of people carrying them. He thought they were some sort of herb. I told him they were a palm branch, willow leaves, a citron, and in Hebrew, hadassim (I couldn’t remember myrtle!). Either way I told him about the holiday Sukkot. We wave them around during prayer as part of a ritual of the holiday. We also leave our permanent homes and live in temporary dwellings. This gives us time to reflect on the mortality of man and about how little of what we have we actually own. Although, I added, now that you mention them being an herb, some people do make jam out of the etrog after the holiday is over.
    When I got home and told my sister about it, she asked me if I invited him for a meal. I regret not having done so. Either way, at least I did what I did, and hopefully God will help him with the next step. Chag Sameach!

  • Avatar photo Devora says on October 1, 2012

    Although I respect & admire your spreading an emunah so strong that you live doubt free, I must say that as a Jew who has lost her religion slowly, over the years, I truly wish your words could bring me comfort. You have a loving husband, children, stability that has eluded me my entire life so far. I am approaching 40 and not even a normal date so far in the 4+ yrs Ive live among my bretheran in Brooklyn. Surrounded by so many Jews who seem unable to help me help myself resolve these challenges. I also have struggled financially for many yrs as well. My pain & suffering isn’t solved by cutsey dialogue about my Jewishness. If you are right & there is a reason for everything, it matters not. I need the suffering to end. I don’t care for the reasons. I care even less about Olam Haba. I want the reward here where I can have some enjoyment from this life. Judaism gets lost when there is no end to the suffering. Some cling tighter to the teachings, seeking solace & comfort, other like myself just want the suffering to end & are willing to walk away or intermarry to do so. Ive often been asked what I will teach my children if I marry a Goy but they don’t seem to see that if I don’t marry because I can’t find a Jew then I won’t have children and then there isn’t anything to pass on anyway so their point is moot at best. I have lived with this internal struggle for so long. Perhaps you should attempt to teach Jewish men NOT to intermarry and then Jewish women will have more options than to stay single & die alone or give up, marry among the Goyim and have a family. Jewish life isn’t conducive to singles and the communities just really don’t know how to deal with the issue or what to do with single Jews as the Jewish life is tailor made for family life. Perhaps you should focus more energy on this pressing issue rather than focus on people like Mayim Bialik who has all these things and doesn’t need as much focus as those of us in urgent need. She is a lovely woman & I’ve enjoyed hearing her but she happiness & content doesn’t solve my issues and many women like myself. We need focus on our struggle or Judaism will loose more Jews than it gains. In 1 generation we will be lost to you forever.

    • Avatar photo Allison says on October 3, 2012

      Thanks for your comment, Devora. I’m sorry for your seemingly endless suffering. But no one’s life is perfect – neither mine, nor Mayim’s (the article wasn’t even about her, btw), nor anyone’s. And having health, family, livelihood, etc. today does not guarantee any of those things for tomorrow.

      It’s not that I live without doubt – there are reasons to doubt – it’s that I *choose* to live with emunah. I *choose* to believe that whatever comes to me is what I’m meant to have. I have been blessed with many wonderful things in life, but I live everyday with the awareness that none of them are mine to hold on to and could God forbid be gone at any moment. That’s not a “rose colored glasses” existence!

      My stories are not meant to be “cutesy” – they’re meant to illustrate that happiness, according to Jewish thought, is ultimately in the hands of the individual. As our sages teach in “Ethics of the Fathers,” “Who is truly rich? He who is happy with his portion.” It’s not “he who has the biggest, best portion.” It’s “he who can find contentment in what he already has.

      Of course we should try with all our effort to make the best lives for ourselves that we can make, but if a person can get to the point, to feel blessed no matter what he has or doesn’t has – then in a sense – he has everything.

  • Avatar photo Nicole says on October 5, 2012

    Hey Allison, that was a great great reply to Devora. Your articles and videos have brought me closer to my Jewish faith. In turn, I’m teaching my children more as I learn more. You and the partnerships with other Jews within the community has a positive ripple effect and I’m very grateful for it.

    I am in an interfaith marriage and I have to say that it’s difficult and I have many struggles. When children come, it can become very complicated. I also tend to push others to marry within their own faith.

    Being “Grateful” struck a cord with me and reminded me of some recent Jewish shorts that I’ve discovered through Aish.com (On youtube they can be found under Jewishfoodforthought)My favorite is titled “You Can Dance” and it’s about being grateful. However, there are also some about forgiveness & repair.

    Have a good Shabbos!


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