By CJ Srullowitz
My great-grandmother lived in a shtetl in a town called Rovno. One day, she was outside with her children when she heard shots being fired. A Cossack, drunk and on horseback, was galloping through town pulling the trigger aimlessly. My great-grandmother grabbed her girls and pushed them through the door to the house, but before she could get herself inside, the cossack shot her in the back. She died.
My uncle-through his marriage to the older of these two girls several years later-lived in a nearby shtetl. One day, there was a pogrom. A gentile thrust a gob of lard toward his face and told him to eat. He refused, and said “Shema Yisrael…” convinced that he was about to be killed. But the gentile let him go and instead went after an old man. The old man, too, refused to open his mouth to the lard, so the gentile lit his beard on fire. The old man died.
I live in New York City. My home is in Manhattan, a multicultural island comprising dozens of ethnicities, who live side-by-side in peace and tranquility. Jews in New York, even religious Jews, don’t stand out any more than do the Sikhs, the Koreans, or the West Indians.
But the other day I woke up, walked to shul, and was confronted with the horrible desecration of a swastika painted on the front door of my synagogue. For no reason, some gentile hated us enough to vandalize our property. Now I’m thinking I should be afraid to wear my yarmulka in the street.
It’s not fair.
My mother went to public school. Her Jewish education consisted of Talmud Torah at the local Orthodox synagogue. She never went to Bais Yaakov (though later she taught in one). Both my parents grew up out-of-town surrounded by gentiles and steeped in American culture. My mother met Elvis Presley and Eleanor Roosevelt. My father rooted for Ted Williams and the Red Sox.
My grandfathers, on both sides, were not Talmudic scholars. While they knew enough to pass on to their children the knowledge that knowledge-Torah knowledge-was important, they themselves never received a proper Torah education.
I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, in a very Jewish town, with a choice of kosher pizza shops and delis, a place where you rarely saw a car on the streets on Shabbos. I grew up in a house with a father who is a scholar, whose library is formidable. I can ask him almost anything Torah-related and he will have, or he will quickly find, the answer. My yeshiva education was K through 12, followed by seven years of beis medrash, two of them in Israel.
But yeshiva education today costs a fortune. As yeshivos have begun to pay their rabbeim a living wage and attempt to build decent secular studies departments and extra-curricular programs, tuition has increased dramatically. Who can afford to pay so much? My grandparents were never faced with these kinds of bills.
It’s just not fair.
None of my grandparents went to college. It wasn’t a “frum thing” for them; it simply wasn’t on their radar. In fact, my maternal grandfather had to drop out of high school in his senior year to help with the family business. As for my paternal grandfather, I’m still not quite sure what he did for a living, but those were the years of the Great Depression, and no one back then made much money.
Things were even worse where they had come from. The shtetl was a place of dire poverty. “If we didn’t fast every Monday and Thursday,” the old joke went, “we’d have starved to death.” Hunger drove them to leave for America’s golden shores.
I have never missed a meal in my life. My college-educated parents always provided for me and my siblings. We grew up in a big house, with a big backyard, and we each had our own bedroom. My parents didn’t give us everything we wanted but they gave us everything we needed, and then some.
But my cholesterol is too high. Even though I run four to five times a week, I still feel out of shape and I’m a few pounds overweight. I try to eat right, but there are so many temptations: frappuccinos, Ben & Jerry’s, French fries. I have to deal with temptations my grandparents never had.
It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.