Author and activist Jonathan Wolfman has thoughtfully selected 60 essays from his approximately 1,500 on social justice with which to pass on a venerable tradition traceable to Parashat Shoftim in The Torah wherein we read Tzedik tzedik tirdof (justice justice shall you pursue), an ancient declaration the world heard at Sinai and to which Jewish tradition has steadfastly adhered through the generations.
Presented in memory of his parents Zelda and Bernard Wolfman who gave over to their six year old son the values that would eventually coalesce into his worldview not attributable, Jonathon maintains, to any “religious mandate” but to the lessons his parents had taught him by way of personal example, reflecting “their own commitments, interpersonal behavior and dinner table conversations.”
I do have one complaint, however, about Jonathan Wolfman’s new book Passionate Justice. There is simply too much great stuff about which to comment.
As is often said, timing is everything,
Appropriately, I write these lines on the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, the new month of Elul when Jews make a reckoning of their lives readying themselves for the Days of Awe, beginning with Rosh Hashanah (literally, the Head of the Year) and ending ten days later on Yom Kippur.
Also known as Yom Ha Din (Day of Judgement) Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the forthcoming Jewish New Year, 5774, is regarded as the anniversary of the “birthday of the world” when all of G-d’s creatures, great and small, are judged.
It is indeed a busy season: family, prayer, devotion, friends, G-d, fasting, eating,The Book of Life. Bundle them together and you have the word Yiddishist writer Sholem Aleichem put in the mouth of His most endearing character, Tevye The Milkman. Do you know what it is? Come on, come on “tra …di …tion”. That’s right, “tradition”.
I sensed it almost immediately. Author Jonathan Wolfman and I share a fundamental belief. I’d like to tell you something about Jewish fathers and sons, if you, dear readers, will indulge me for a few moments.
Now I have said this before. There is no one who speaks more lovingly of his father than a Jewish son. Yes, of course there are exceptions.There are and will always be. The corollary is, as I’m sure everyone knows, that the exceptions-however exceptional-do not alone invalidate the rule.
A veteran of the Second World War, Bernard Wolfman was all of twenty years old when he saw action in the “frozen German forests in December 1944, just prior to the Battle of the Bulge”. In what I believe to be a little known story, Jonathan’s dad, along with tens of thousands of other young American troops, received the wrong type of combat boots with which to be able to fight in the severe winter.
What was the result of this grievous shipping error? Trench foot, a medical condition caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, unsanitary, and cold conditions. It is one of many immersion foot syndromes. The use of the word “trench” in the name of this condition is a reference to “trench warfare”, mainly associated with but not limited to World War I.”
Evacuated with thousands of other troops, Bernard Wolfman was hospitalized temporarily in England where, as it happened, German POW(s) were assigned to carry the ailing American soldiers to ships bound for Boston where they would be treated.
Bernard’s carrier deduced that the man he was carrying was Jewish from his name tag, smacked his ailing feet and cursed him as a “Jew” but Jonathan’s dad stoically fought back the need to cry out in pain, thereby denying his tormentor any satisfaction.
If you’re anything like me, this is the great stuff of history, the oral tradition passed from one generation to the next.
Be the person you wish your child(ren) to become.
“My son is a black man.”
A simple but stunning remark. Profoundly honest. Revelatory of who Jonathan Wolfman is, a man who lives his most deeply held beliefs, he offers a poignant glance into the hate-filled and often violent world of America’s racism.
In a piece commemorating the fiftieth-year anniversary of the Freedom Riders, Jonathan hints at the inherent difficulties of raising a black son in a family that would afford “bigotry no sanction, persecution no assistance”.
By the end of this all too brief essay, it is clear just how well Jonathan and his wife Tamar raised their son Graham, free of the rancor that both animated and poisoned folks, such as Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus and Mississippi Haley Barbour.
His chapters on the significance of the 6,000,000 and “bullying” are demonstrative of the broad range of social justice issues about which Jonathan so ably writes.
Looking for a compelling mini-mystery with a “whodunit” ending? I recommend “Why I invited a Neo-Nazi to a Jewish Sleep-Away Camp”. Fooled me completely.
I was drawn almost magnetically to his discussion of Brit Milah, the Jewish rite of circumcision brought down in The Torah in Parashat Lech Lecha when G-d commands Abraham regarding the covenant of circumcision.
I have long sought a better understanding of what Rabbi Marc Angel calls the “essential rift” in our religious/spiritual lives.
In his column “The Pursuit of Righteousness:Thoughts for Parashat Shofetim, August 10, 2013”, Rabbi Angel writes: “The essential rift is not between the religious and the secular; it is between the righteous and the unrighteous. There are people who identify as “secular” but who live righteous, upstanding lives. There are people who identify as “religious” but who live unrighteous, immoral lives.”
Why do I conclude with this?
For much too long, there has been an “essential rift” within “Am Yisrael” that leaves many Jews with an emptiness when, in our own times, we hear so many calls for unity in our Jewish world, a world characterized NOT by “ahavat chinam” (boundless love of our fellow Jews) but acrimony, violence, hypocrisy, self-righteous arrogance, belittlement of the Jew who just may not see things as you do, the absurd presumptuousness of claiming to know what G-d wants from us better than what I believe is the best answer recorded to date in the history of the Jews and of all mankind …
“It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth requireth of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah: 6-8)
Seems so simple, right? Were it so, I don’t think we’d be at the low point we are today.
And don’t get this wrong because there are Jews on both sides of Rabbi Angel’s “essential rift” who “get it”-if I may borrow a phrase from the lexicon of today’s youth. Within this body of Jews who do (did) “get it” and related it to their child(ren) and grand child(ren) were Zelda and Bernard Wolfman (of blessed memory). Their son Jonathan and wife Tamar relayed it to their son Graham and so it goes.
I wish to thank author and friend Jonathan Wolfman for the opportunity to review his new release Passionate Justice: A Progressive Memoir in Essays. Please visit Jonathan’s Facebook page by the same title.
A Happy and Healthy New Year to one and all.