'We came. We cried. We left.'

When birthrights go wrong.

by David Holzel

In the Unetaneh Tokef, the High Holiday dirge with the mouthful of syllables that translates, roughly, as, "God is going to scare your pants off," the Almighty opens the Book of Life and Death and reads the deeds we have committed in the past year. The deeds tell their own story, the text says, for every man has written them in his own hand.

It gives me the shivers every time. That’s its intent. To crush the ego to a fine powder and discover humility and truth wherever the dust clears. The shofar blasts and even the angels tremble because in God’s judgment even they are not free from guilt. Then the Almighty causes each soul to pass before him like a shepherd inspecting his flock and, with our actions sealed in the Eternal Record, decrees our destiny.

This is the closest that Judaism gets to Protestant-style fire and brimstone: It really seems like we’re all going to hell.

But then comes the expiation: But sincere repentance, prayer and righteous acts can avert the severity of the decree. There is no such thing as fate. With our actions, we have the power to change, if only a little.

Hope returns at the end of the most profound moment on the most profound day of the year. Which is why it’s so tacky that these deep and genuinely communal times are shattered when some young person mounts the bimah and begins a first-hand report of his or her recent participation in a 10-day emotional workout such as March of the Living or Birthright Israel.

Somehow it’s already become an established tradition. A sacred rite. For what seems like the time takes for corn to grow, harvested, shucked and thrown into a pot of boiling water to cook, this earnest young man or woman stands before his or her captive audience and, in describing his or her particular experience, essentially repeats the last young Jew who stood there to report his or her particular experience. This experience can be summed up in six words: I went. I cried. I left.

March of the Living, to refresh your memory, takes a group of young Jews through the crucible of the Nazi death camps and then delivers them to the other side in Israel, to experience, Hatikvah-like, being Jews free in their own land. Then they go home.

Birthright Israel, through the largesse of the Jewish fundraising establishment and some particularly committed philanthropists, provides free, 10-day trips to Israel for young Jews who have never visited. The goal of both, and programs like them, is "a revitalized commitment to Judaism, Israel and the Jewish People," as the March of the Living website puts it.

There is a string attached. Birthright Israel returnees have to share "the energy, excitement and enthusiasm of their Birthright Israel experience with those around them." And that would be fine if the string were only long enough to reach college-age peers, the ones who could use a little energizing in the Israel and Jewish-identity departments.

The problem is the string is long enough to tie knots around a couple thousand High Holiday-goers, or those too polite or infirm to escape the sanctuary upon hearing the words, Last summer, I spent the 10 most amazing days of my life... Little did I know when I met the group of people just like myself at Gate 59D, that my life would be changed forever.

There is a string attached, long enough to tie knots around a couple thousand High Holiday-goers, or those too polite or infirm to escape the sanctuary.

I’ve sat through a number of these witnessings, in which the most prominent word in the story is the pronoun "I." The experience was not unlike that which Little Alex, the homicidal juvenile in "A Clockwork Orange," underwent as part of his treatment to cure him of his predilection to sexual ultra-violence.

I was bound up in a straight jacket and my guliver was strapped to a headrest with like wires running away from it. Then they clamped like
lidlocks on my eyes so that I could not shut them no matter how hard I tried…

…When it came to the sixth or seventh malchick leering and smecking and going into it, I began to feel really sick. But I could not shut my glassies and even if I tried to move my glassballs about, I still not get out of the line of fire of the picture.

Little Alex was forced to watch pornography to cure his predatorial urges. Facing yet another one of these "exemplary young people" (Birthright Israel) about to recount his or her trip to Poland and Israel is not as far from pornography as you might think—Listen now to the bland symbolism of how dark and gloomy it was the day we went to Auschwitz, as if God still shuns that place, and how the Poles working in the fields right next to the fence don’t seem to care that millions of Jews were murdered there, and I cried, and all those shoes, and all those eyeglasses, and then we landed at Ben-Gurion Airport and it was as if God was looking down at us, because there was not a cloud in the sky and I cried because I truly felt like I was at home and right then I had such pride in being a Jew and on Shabbat we prayed at the Wailing Wall and I cried to think that once again we have our homeland and that we can never let the Holocaust happen ever again and on our last night in Jerusalem we all hugged each other as the most amazing experience of our lives, an experience that I’ll never forget as long as I live, was coming to an end. And we cried.

And then I went home.

Have we arrived at the Oprah-zation of synagogue life, where emotion passes for insight and tears denote truth? Is this the congregation as voyeur, peering in as a callow personality performs an emotional striptease? Or the Israel experience reframed as reality TV, where it only appears that something is happening, yet no one has anything useful or original to say? But I could not shut my glassies and even if I tried to move my glassballs about, I still not get out of the line of fire of the picture.

I still believe it is a mistake by pairing Auschwitz and Jerusalem like two sides of a coin. Israel does not exist, does not need to exist, because of the Shoah, or because Jews need a geographic insurance policy in case life goes sour somewhere. We’ve already said, "Never Again," haven’t we?
Have we arrived at the Oprah-zation of synagogue life? Is this the congregation as voyeur?

Israel exists because it is the homeland of the Jewish people. Period. Putting aside the conflict with the Palestinians for a moment, this is the simple, straightforward reasoning behind Zionism. If there were no Israel today, we would have to create it. And by pairing Auschwitz with Jerusalem, one might draw another conclusion: both places are equally foreign to young diaspora Jews.

But all would be forgiven if someone had a truly good story to tell. Like how after visiting Auschwitz, we snuck away with some Polish teenagers and got stinking drunk in a Warsaw café. Or something about the toga party we had in our dorm after we stuck our prayers into the cracks of  the Wailing Wall.

I would like to hear, at least, the black humor that erupted after visiting those death camps. Then we'd be forced to think about genocide rather than wash it away.

But don’t put a young person up there and make he or she think he or she’s doing the rest of us a favor by telling us a story we’ve already heard. You don’t want me to get up there and start in about my last visit to the dentist, or regale you with the clever things my little boy says. Or the poignant things. Sometimes he’s so wise I can't help but choke up… No. Wait... When it came to the sixth or seventh malchick leering and smecking and going into it, I began to feel really sick.

"I've learned me lesson, sir," Little Alex cried to the doctor. "I've seen now what I've never seen before. I'm cured! Praise god!"

To which the doctor replied: "You're not cured yet, boy." 

Ó Copyright 2004 by David Holzel