Advice to the Reader. As we slowly retrace the first steps along the path of my rediscovery of the Jewish Tradition, it cannot be overemphasized that the reader should not jump to any conclusions about my final views on Judaism based on these essays.
Rather, I am taking the reader through the uncharted territories I traversed during my voyage of discovery. Only after I have taken the reader through the many mountains and valleys will I be able to reflect on my journey as a whole and attempt to articulate my holistic re-visioning of Judaism.
In the meantime, I am taking the reader on a tour of the various stations along the way. As I continue on my spiritual expedition, sometimes I will accept certain ideas; other times, I will reject them entirely and make an “about-face” and go elsewhere instead.
I am guided by the Talmudic method of argumentation where ideas are raised and discussed; sometimes these ideas are accepted, while other times, they are rejected. Regardless of the conclusion, however, most of the time these ideas are the source of razor-sharp debates. Any Talmud student knows that s/he cannot draw any conclusion until the very end of the discussion. There are even instances where a final determination is never reached and the student is left with “Teku,” which means that the dilemma is currently unsolvable and can only be resolved in the messianic age.
At other times, the debate might suddenly continue many pages later or may even resume unexpectedly in a different Talmudic tractate altogether, thus shocking the student in ways s/he did not expect because of its unforeseen outcome.
This can be frustrating and annoying. The only way to enjoy it is to “let go” and enjoy the ride. It makes the Talmudic debate exciting, but only for those who are not seeking quick fixes or conclusive answers.
“Patience is the art of hoping” said Vauvenargues. It may be tiring, but it will bear fruit that cannot be plucked before its time. Yet, the act of watching how the fruit develops and holds the still unknown future is a most exciting adventure. Without passionately watching its growth, the flavor of the ripened fruit cannot be fully relished.
It is in this spirit that this contemplative Autobiography is written. Just like a Talmudic debate, it may be worthwhile to read every essay several times to comprehend and savor the journey in all its dimensions.
My Mother and Her Parents
To return to my non-Jewish grandparents: The most important reason why I have no feelings for my maternal grandparents is probably because my mother never mentioned them. There were no photos of them displayed in my parental home. We never went to their graves, nor mentioned their birthdays or the anniversary of their deaths.
Looking back, I can say that my grandparents had almost completely vanished in my mother’s life (once she had met my father). Only later when Alzheimer’s disease began to afflict her did she hang up a small photo of them in her room in the Amsterdam Jewish nursing home called “Beth Shalom!”.
I realized that there was a reason for this. My mother’s parents did not approve of her marriage to a Jewish boy, my father. In fact, they—especially my grandfather—strongly opposed it. They were believing Christians, for whom the idea of their daughter marrying a Jewish boy was outrageous and a disgrace. My mother refused to listen to them and, as far as I know, this was the reason why my mother left her parents’ home (or was asked by her parents to leave?) and moved in with my father’s parents about whom she always spoke with the highest respect.
She kept telling my brother and me that although my father’s parents were not religious in the slightest, they celebrated “Friday night” in a most joyful way, as was done by nearly all of Amsterdam’s secular Jews. This made a deep impression on her. Every Friday night, all the members of the extended Lopes Cardozo family, including brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts (most of them later murdered in the Holocaust) would have a special festive meal prepared by my father’s mother. Thus, this evening was transformed into a real family simcha and became the highlight of the week. Since my grandparents were extremely poor, my grandfather, who was a tailor by profession, used to sit behind the sewing machine while the meal took place. He had to provide for his large family and did not have the opportunity to take time off.
My mother, the first non-Jew ever to enter into our family, was very well accepted in the Cardozo clan and became like a new daughter to my father’s parents and somehow became a “nominal Cardozo.” I think that as a result of this, in her mind, my mother ceased to be the daughter of her biological parents. I get the impression that she was so well integrated into the Cardozo family that she was considered Jewish by all of its members. Her eventual halachic conversion to Judaism when she was in her fifties, preceded by the many years that she ran a kosher kitchen for my sake, was a natural and almost inevitable outcome of her Jewish sense of belonging. More about this later.
I am not sure whether my mother ever saw her parents again. However, I believe that this is the reason why I never really thought about my maternal grandparents and why, to this day, they are not part of my life.
The Rosenzweig Challenge
Now that I was reevaluating my Judaism, however, I realized that Rosenzweig was telling me that I needed to do teshuva about this matter. Not as rectification for something I had done wrong in ignoring my grandparents, but as part of my lifelong Jewish journey, in which I needed to take the maximum of what is alien and bring it back to my Judaism. Not as a stage in my life but as a program for my life!
How might I do this? How could I relate to my antagonistic grandparents in a way that would enhance my Jewish life? And if I was not able to accomplish this, would this mean that by Rosenzweig’s standards, I could never live an authentic religious life because a necessary component was missing?
The truth is that I have absolutely no intention of drawing my maternal grandparents into my life. In fact, I consider it unbeneficial, unhealthy and counterproductive, despite Rosenzweig’s demand.
All this would have been different had my grandparents not objected to my mother’s marrying my father because he was Jewish. If they could have accepted my father with open arms, I would probably have had an interest in them and found a way to connect to them. But since my mother had basically (and I think, justifiably) rejected them, I feel, to this day, a slight animosity toward them, which makes it entirely impossible for me to give them any attention.
Thinking about this, I recall an incident during my childhood when I once met my mother’s brother. He was made from the same stock as my grandparents, I still remember his unfriendly attitude toward my parents, my dear brother (more about him later!) and myself.
I was, however, named after a younger brother of my mother who, as far as I know, died at a young age and was a nice person. This is the reason why my second non-Jewish name is Tom. (My first name is Nico and was given to me in memory of my father’s youngest brother who perished in the Holocaust. His Jewish name was Nathan.).
It is rather ironic that I am named after Thomas, the apostle in the New Testament, because he seems to have been a skeptic. He was also called “doubting Thomas” for doubting the resurrection of Jesus. (See John 20:24-29). The name seems to come from the Hebrew word “teom” (twin).
God definitely has a sense of humor!
But how do we bring this all back to Rosenzweig? That is a story for another day!
To be continued.
With thanks to Yehudah DovBer Zirkind and Yael Shahar for their editorial comments.