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Celebrating 70 Years Since The Rebbe Arrived In America

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Call me a cultural bigot, but every aspect of the way I view reality is affected by my identification with the country in which I was born and raised. I am a Jew, but American ethnocentrism is embedded in my synapses.

That's why today (June 30) is "my holiday." The date coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Jewish calendric date of Sivan 28 on which the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (1902-1994), and his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka (1901-1988), arrived safely on American soil after barely escaping Nazi-occupied France.

Unlike any other day that I celebrate, the 28th of Sivan is about the shift from "over there" to "right here." And by "right here," I mean the center of my completely subjective universe -- America.

My peers and I are part of an historical anomaly. We grew up in a strange reality where half the world's Jews live on the opposite side of the planet as almost every single one of their ancestors.

In the nearly 4,000 years since our forefather Abraham was born a lot has happened, but as much as we wandering Jews have wandered, it has all basically been within a tight radius of our homeland. Consider that for the first several centuries of exile, most Jews lived in Babylonia, present-day Iraq. From Israel to Iraq is like from Los Angeles to Phoenix. Even as time went on and the Diaspora increased in size, most of us were still in the same basic part of the world. Whether you're a Jew whose family comes from Poland or Morocco, Yemen or Lithuania, your ancestors never resided anywhere other than what in modern terms can conveniently be described as a three-hour flight from Tel Aviv.

When we were kids, grown folks used to tell us that if we dug a hole deep enough, we'd come out the other end in China. You see, because China is supposed to be on the other side of the earth. If you're on the West Coast of the United States, however, China is nine time zones away while Israel is 10. There's actually a technical term for "the exact opposite side of the Earth." It's called an antipode. In Britain, they still sometimes refer to Australia and New Zealand as the Antipodes and to its inhabitants as Antipodeans.

If the Land of Israel is the epicenter of Jewishness, then what is the antipode of Jewishness? Imagine a globe that is tilted so that instead of the North and South Poles being at the top and the bottom, Jerusalem is on the "top" and its antipode on the "bottom." You'll get a whole new perspective of Earth. Africa, Europe and most of Asia become the "Upper Hemisphere," while North America becomes just as much "Down Under" as Australia.

So the mass migration of Jewish populations in the past century doesn't just constitute a geographical shift. In a way that is much more than just symbolic, we left what has historically been the "Jewish" side of the planet and settled on what is in so many ways the very opposite end of the Earth.

Earnest grown-ups tried to deal with our upside-down generation by building museums and sending us on summer trips to Israel, symbolic acts that, in the end, only seemed to lend grave finality to the message that authentic Jewish culture and heritage were indeed only to be found somewhere either eastward in space or backward in time. At times, that message faded into nothing but the nearly inaudible siren song of nostalgia whose magnetic pull we implicitly understood as a sort of reverse Manifest Destiny, retreating back away from the future and back away from the direction of the promise of the westward moving sun.

If I were to sum up the past 100 years of Jewish history in a nutshell, I'd say: To find an American Jew under 40 whose great-grandfather, or great-great-grandfather, was strictly observant back in the Old Country is no big deal. Most were. To find an American Jew under 40 whose grandfather was observant, now you're talking one out of 10. Whether it was Enlightenment, Communism, a Holocaust or the lure of assimilation, that's for the historians to analyze. But my peers weren't the ones who abandoned ship. By the time we were born, nobody was even drifting in lifeboats anymore.

My great-great-grandfather was a pious Jew in Russia. My great-grandfather moved to this side of the world and made a conscious choice to deprive my grandfather of a bar-mitzvah. According to the trajectory of things, I shouldn't have had a chance.

Yet -- and here's where this June 30 comes in -- I look like my great-great grandfather, not like my great-grandfather. My children will not only have bar and bat mitzvahs, they go to Jewish day schools and study Torah in fluent Hebrew.

But my story is not unique. Among my generation, many have managed not to fall off the earth. If I would ask any one of them to explain why the lapse lasted only a generation or two instead of turning the tide in their family forever, they would basically tell the same story.

There was a change. And we can point directly, at every step of the way, to the same cause, the same influence at work. The "rabbi of the Lubavitchers in Brooklyn," who arrived in America today was reaching out in places where people like me, my parents, my siblings, my cousins, aunts, uncles and friends all kept being shown a way back to our roots without having to cross the sea to find it.

My holiday is the 28th of Sivan, because that's the day 70 years ago we were not only given a chance for spiritual survival down here on the bottom half of the planet, but to actually get to feel like we are at the center of things! To be at the forefront of bringing Judaism's message to the whole world -- even the upper half of the world. It reminds me of what the Rebbe said at a gathering one year on the 28th of Sivan, "When you lift up a building, you've got to pry it up from the bottom."

Around the Web

Menachem Mendel Schneerson - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Rebbe: A brief biography - Life

Sivan 28: An American at Sinai - The Day the Rebbe and ... - Chabad