This article appeared in the ” Florida Jewish Journal” July 23, 2018
A mother once asked her child “Why do you behave so poorly?” The child responded, “I am not sure if it is due to heredity or environment.” Mel Brooks, known more for his comedy than his social commentary, credited both of these factors, as well as Jewish values for the survival and great contributions of our people to the world.
Brooks notes that the smartest Jews became respected more than the strongest among us, and thus procreated and passed on their intelligent genes to the next generation, whereas the most intelligent people among other cultures were often Priests, outcasts, and celibate.
Brooks believed the persecution we often faced toughened us and made us survivors, learning to get by with our wits. He observed, “Feeling different, alienated, persecuted, and that the only way you can deal with the world is to laugh – because if you don’t laugh you’re going to cry and never stop crying – that’s probably what’s responsible for the Jews having developed such a great sense of humor. The people who had the greatest reason to weep, learned more than anyone else how to laugh.”
A keen sense of humor adds years to our life and joy to our years. Brooks also noted that the Jewish focus on education, which required all Jewish males to study the Torah, and all females to be literate, thus passing along education to their children, caused us to succeed in all fields of endeavor. While physical possessions could be taken away from us, what we accumulated in our minds would always remain the greatest “merchandise” a Jew possesses.
The eternal mission of the Jewish people to improve the world, links our lives with Jews of all time and place, and gives our lives purpose, another survival advantage.
I was fortunate to have been raised by parents who exemplified these and other wonderful qualities of our heritage. My father, Rabbi Sam Silver taught me that to be a Jew is to be jubilant and had a marvelous sense of humor. My mother Elaine says “If you cannot change the facts, change your attitude.” But their best parenting consisted in their deeds, not just their creeds. Thus, my son Ari and I were recently outside in the middle of the Ag Reserve accompanied by my mother at 93 years of age in 93 degree heat and recovering from a recent injury, rallying with others to protect open space, our fresh fruit and vegetable supply and our precious planet. When asked if it was too hot for her, my mother replied “We are here to make our politicians feel the heat if they continue to sell our precious farm land to developers.”
My parents gave me the greatest gift, a home where a rational, open-minded and joyous approach to Judaism was cherished, where we were never told to believe something because it was written, were never told to do something because “I said so,” were always encouraged to ask questions, and were supported in education, sports and our creative pursuits.
I never saw my father raise his hand or his voice regardless of the provocation. Instead when faced with anger, he taught us “Don’t let it annoy you, let it amuse you,” consistent with our sages who taught us to be slow to anger. As an attorney, activist and rabbi-rouser, this advice has been invaluable.
When one of my brothers or I would tattle on a sibling, and felt the urge to retaliate, my father would tell us “Don’t treat him the way he treats you, treat him the way he should treat you.” More importantly, he demonstrated this Jewish trait towards others. As a rabbi he was ostracized by peers for being among the first rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings, which he did at no charge, in order to save these couples for Judaism. My father taught us by his actions not to always do what is popular, but to do what is right. The only “in” crowd he wanted to be part of was to be among those of our people who seek intelligence, ingenuity, inspiration, inquisitiveness and an indomitable spirit.
You may ask if I really believe these qualities can make a difference in this world, to which I would of course reply, “Indubitably.”
Rabbi Barry Silver is the spiritual leader of Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor (from generation to generation) in Boynton Beach.