On Yom Kippur, Rabbi Naftali Citron urged his congregation at the Carlebach Shul of Manhattan, to consider the teaching of Rebbe Meir from Prenishlan, the protagonist of a well known Hasidic tale. Rebbe Meir was known for his ability to miraculously walk down a mountain covered with ice and somehow always avoid falling. Two skeptics, who doubted there was anything supernatural involved, decided to make the risky descent themselves. When they fell, they turned to Rebbe Meir to ask his secret. "Ven mer iz ungebunden tzu oyvin falt min nisht arunten." "If you're connected to above," he said, "you don't fall down below."
The tale reminds me of one of the teachings of my father, a survivor of Buchenwald, who, like the rebbe, grew up Hasidic in Poland. When asked if he still believed in G-d after losing his parents, two siblings, hundreds of relatives and enduring years of enslavement, my father's standard answer was always, "Yes." He believed in G-d before the war. And he believed after the war. Why should he let yimach shmo, "the one's whose name should be erased," take that away from him?
My father always says that besides going to school, the No. 1 most important thing among all the young survivors in Paris after the war was to learn to become a mensch again. When I would ask what he meant, he would simply repeat, "Be a mensch."
I understand now they were working to counter the animalistic instincts cultivated as a result of the Nazi brutality. Instead of anger, cruelty and injustice, my father and his friends were consciously flexing muscles of kindness, generosity and trust. In doing so, they were working to regain their humanity, their menschlichkeit, and to inhabit this world, instead of that one.
This question, in the larger sense of where you connect and how, is the underlying premise of my two pop culture humor books, "Cool Jew" and "Hot Mamalah." Both of them address issues of Jewish identity, though with a much lighter approach. "Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe" is a humorous lifestyle manual about being Jewish and loving it. A sticker on its cover reads, "Not just for Jews!" Similarly, its new companion book, "Hot Mamalah," has a cover tagline that states, "You don't have to be Jewish. But it wouldn't hurt."
All these examples show that knowing where you come from and celebrating who you are provides a spiritual anchor that steadies a person upright across icy mountains. Belief empowers a person to withstand even the most unfathomable losses. And a strong sense of identity lightens challenges large and small, whether monumental battles or everyday struggles of conscience.
As Rabbi David Aaron, another child of a Holocaust survivor, teaches, we all are responsible for our choices. What will they be? And will they be aligned with your higher self, your best self and with G-d? And that, one could say, is the essence of the essence of what this time of year is all about. The Jewish High Holidays are filled with the potential to amplify these life lessons. It is upon us to discover how they are relevant to our individual lives.
A woman who endured childhood sexual abuse recently asked me about the challenges of my own upbringing and how to overcome the trauma associated with being raised by a Holocaust survivor. My answer is you don't. You never fully get over it. You carry it with you. But you live with it best when you transform and uplift it into something meaningful.
And above all, "Be a mensch."