Columbus Day and Simchat Torah: An instructive pairing

by | Oct 5, 2012 | Torah Thought

For many years, I enjoyed the Yiddish song, Di Grine Kuzine (The Greenhorn Cousin) without knowing more than the first stanza of the song, and so I misunderstood it completely. Here is the first stanza, in translation:

“A girl cousin arrived, a greenhorn, Beautiful as gold she was Cheeks red as oranges Tiny feet, just made for dancing.”

This is more or less the happy image conveyed in the American mainstream release of the song with Benny Goodman and vocalist Peggy Lee. Lately, I have learned the rest of the song, and it is much more somber:

“But, as the years passed by My cousin went downhill From working hard week after week Nothing remained but a wreck. “Today, as I meet her in the street And I ask: How’s everything, Greenhorn? She just sighs and I read in her eye: To hell with Columbus’ paradise!” (Translation: The Zemerl Archive)

American Jews are no longer the oppressed, urban proletariat of the greenhorn cousin. As a recent immigrant in New York, my mother’s father worked in a foundry, hammering out fire escapes. My mother’s mother was a proud, card-carrying member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (I still hear the jingle: “look for/ the union label/ when you are buying, a coat, dress, or blouse!”). Their 1921 honeymoon consisted of the boarder in Papa’s apartment checking out for one night! They made do on only a little, put an extra cup of water into the pot to extend the soup, and mended clothes until the new outfit could be afforded. Their children went to public school in the Bronx—those 1930s conveyer belts of excellence—and continued on in City College and Hunter College—where anti- Jewish quotas did not apply—ultimately becoming a nuclear engineer and a professor of English. All their grandchildren have had careers in the intellectual professions.

Yes, America was a land of opportunity, and Jews have taken advantage of that to reach a pinnacle of participation in the broader society unmatched in our millenial history of Diaspora life. It is also a land of religious opportunity. Except for a persistent voice from the far margin, calling for the Christianization of the public square, America has practiced a benevolent neutrality among faiths, allowing each one to grow as it might, in a free society, amongst the vigorous rivalry of competing systems.

And yet, there has been a down-side to Columbus’ great discovery, seen from a Jewish point of view. His “Paradise” is as free for non-religion as it is for religion. Non-religion is more and more popular. To some degree, the keepers of religious establishments make the mistake of reaching in exclusively, or of thinking in sectarian mind sets, rather than reaching out creatively and genuinely. But some of the problem is simply inherent in the nature of a posttraditional society. Many Jews assimilate because that is a path of least resistance.

Readers of this newspaper, by definition, are self-choosing. They—you—have opted to make Jewish identity an important part of who you are. Bless you for that choice!

The founding document of Judaism, and still the touchstone of all Jewish thought, is the Torah. Simchat Torah, the annual festival celebrating our completion of yet another cycle of reading through the Five Books of Moses, is a moment of relaxed joy for us, an up-beat “after-party” serving as an encore to the massive symphony of the High Holidays. Torah is not a burden, for one who knows her well. It is a privilege and a pleasure to be walking her ways, which are ways of pleasantness, and to linger in her paths, which are paths of peace.

This year, Simchat Torah and Columbus Day are coinciding. There is a lesson in that: Columbus Day, symbolizing American life, can coexist with Simchat Torah, symbolizing the Jewish way. In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech, of January 6, 1941, he highlighted religion:

“The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.”

How fitting, to celebrate our freedom to practice our religion—by actually practicing it!

Happy holidays (secular and Jewish), Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel