I had a lot of fun writing the article “Pass On Passover? Not On Your Life!” which appeared on on the Orthodox Union’s website, www.ou.org, shortly before Pesach this year. It was an opportunity for me to revel in nostalgia as I recalled what life was like back in fourth grade, when my friend Alan Schwartz and I were the only Jewish kids in our public school class in Levittown, PA. We were the only ones who came to school toting matzoh and boiled chicken in our paper bag lunches every year at Pesach time, the only ones who knew all the words to “If I Were A Rich Man” and just about every other song from the newly released “Fiddler On The Roof” record album. At the time, Alan’s family was Conservative and mine was affiliated with a Workman’s Circle group, and even though my family always exchanged matzoh for bread at Pesach time, I was pretty hazy about exactly what all this kosher business meant.
Writing the article made me wonder what happened to Alan Schwartz after my family moved away from Levittown a few years later. Did Alan intermarry like so many others of our background, or did he manage to retain his connection to Judaism, maybe even move forward with it? It’s been so many years since we shared those macaroons in the elementary school cafeteria (over thirty five, but who’s counting?), and quite a few miles too, as I moved around the country several times since fourth grade.
So you can imagine my surprise when, several days after my Pesach article hit the Web in the OU’s “Shabbat Shalom”, the editor of the page forwarded the following e-mail to me:
I was extremely excited to be featured so prominently in Barbara Bensoussan’s article, especially after losing contact for so many years. I would appreciate it if the editors could put us in touch with each other!
Sincerely, Alan Schwartz.
No way, I thought. Alan Schwartz? How could this person be sure he was the one I was talking about in the article? After all, I changed my name when I got married, and there are a lot of people out there named Alan Schwartz. Not only that, the e-mail address was from Israel. So I sent a cautious response.
Are you really the same Alan that went to Albert Schweitzer Elementary with me? — my name was Greenfield then. If, so, well, it’s wonderful to hear from you and I look forward to hearing what you’ve been up to since then! From your e-mail address it looks like you’re living in Israel.
Chag kasher v’sameyach,
A reply appeared in my in-box just a few days later. “When a friend of mine called me up on Friday at lunchtime,” Alan wrote, “asking me if I was the person in the article — describing Barbara, from elementary school, Jewish, smart — I knew right away who he was talking about. As you yourself demonstrated, one doesn’t forget friends, even when losing contact for years.”
“Eishet Chayil” artwork by Alan Schwartz
Reading on, it became quite plain that it really was him. (Boy, was this going to make a good story to tell the family at the Seder table!) And there, right at the bottom of the e-mail, lay the answer to my musings about whether or not Alan had gone forward or backward in his Jewish observance. Following his name was a line that read: “Rabbi Aharon Schwartz, Sofer Stam and Artist.” Turns out that not only did Alan/Aharon make aliyah, but in the years since Albert Schweitzer Elementary he had gone to Y.U., gotten semicha, and moved to Beit Shemesh! His e-mail continued:
You probably didn’t realize at the time what an enigma you were to me, but your article shows that subconsciously you’ve felt it for the last 38 years. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how someone could be smart and Jewish and not go to Beth El or be religiously involved. Why would someone go to Yiddish school, which was a language for foreign grandparents, when all good Jewish kids went to Hebrew school? . . . Why would someone who didn’t have any Jewish life, suddenly keep kosher on Pesach? And your article makes me wonder, did my innocent questions help guide you to where you are today?
Our family was always observant, which meant keeping a kosher home, going to shul on Shabbos (in the car), going to Hebrew school, and staying out of school on the Jewish holidays…By the time I was in high school, I was keeping kosher outside of the home, not riding on Shabbos, and even wearing a yarmulke to school…I came to Israel after my junior year of high school with the NCSY tour, and later enrolled in YU where I completed a BA and Semicha.
By Alan Schwartz
While there were occasional classes with only two Jews in them, Levittown in fact had a strong Jewish community, made up of many people who fought hard to keep Jewish tradition alive. They were practically all young couples whose parents had immigrated at the turn of the century, who attended public schools in the large cities, who had grown up in the depression and served in WWII. Though many had assimilated, there were still many who were raised honoring their Jewish heritage and were committed to passing it on to their children.Even though the new suburbanites assumed that there would be no place for strict halachic orthodoxy in modern America, my parents and people like them built a synagogue – with a Hebrew school of 600 students and daily minyanim morning and evening – by going door-to-door to recruit members before the streets were even paved. Sure, it was a Conservative synagogue, because in the world they grew up in, they believed that was best suited for preserving Judaism and reaching out to the unaffiliated. Our friends kept kosher, davened, stayed out of school on all the Jewish holidays, kashered the house for Pesach, reveled in Purim carnivals and hopped between sukkahs, and learned to leyn (read from the Torah) – at least the haftarah – for our bar mitzvahs. Thanks to talented and dedicated educators, many of us continued our Jewish education in frameworks that could offer more than the local afternoon Hebrew school and became active in youth groups. Quite a few of us have become fully halachically observant, and quite a few have settled in Israel.
As Barbara put it, for many of us (and I’m sure not just in Levittown), the progression was linear. Becoming frum was not a rejection of our parents attitudes to Judaism, but an embracement. In Torah, as with everything else in life, they gave us the basics and the tools to grow and thrive.
My own Jewish path, I realized when I sat down to respond to Alan, was not quite so linear. My parents, who avoided synagogues for years but nevertheless instilled in us a tremendous pride in our Jewish identity, joined a Reform synagogue when my brothers got close to bar mitzvah age; there I joined the youth group. I went to a public high school that was completely secular but almost half Jewish, and consequently when I went to a big Midwestern college full of tall blond people and had never met a Jew, I was thrown into a crisis of alienation. It made me think a lot about anti-Semitism, but not so much about religion.
But I was always interested in religion, always drawn to spiritual matters even though my personality was too skeptical and conservative to ever venture into cults or other people’s religions. I often felt a sort of free-floating ache for a higher connection, but had no idea what to do with it and would simply find myself frustrated. I was, I wrote to Alan, “a ba’alat teshuva waiting to happen.”
Eventually one of my close friends, whose brother had become religious, became religious herself and got me into learning with an Orthodox rabbi once a week. This was a revelation for me. The Orthodoxy I had always thought so backwards and narrow-mined turned out to be a lot more intelligent than an awful lot of what was passing for knowledge in my doctoral program. At the urging of the rabbi and my friend, I agreed to try a summer at Neve Yerushalayim. The rest — a husband, six kids, and twenty years later– is history.
Alan got married and had four children (one of whom recently made him a grandfather). He worked in rabbanut and social work specializing in gerontology for many years before making aliyah, where he first continued social work and then began working as a sofer and artist.
“When I was working in gerontology,” he wrote, “I would often meet people who complained about the elderly ‘living in the past.’ I like to tell them that every human being is a combination of past, present and future, but at each stage of life one facet is dominant…I’ve had several occasions in recent years to meet up with friends from my youth. It is an opportunity to go beyond the here and now, to combine myself with the person I was twenty or forty years ago.”
When we were nine years old, Alan and I bonded because we were Jewish, despite the differences in our families’ level of observance. I imagine that, even at that tender age, we reinforced each other’s appreciation for our shared background, and gave each other as much chizuk (strength) as was possible for two secular fourth graders. How moving to find that after all those years, all those miles and life passages, we have since ended up in very much the same place.
Perhaps this is what it means when we say Hashem will gather in all the exiles at the time of Mashiach. All those lost souls who are thirsting for Torah, consciously or unconsciously, will eventually end up together in the same place; first it happens at the level of heart and soul, and one day IY”H it will happen physically when we will all be gathered in Eretz Yisrael to greet Mashiach.
So next year in Jerusalem — for me and my family, for Alan and his, and for all of am Yisrael!
Barbara Bensoussan has worked as a college instructor and social worker and written for many Jewish magazines, newspapers and websites. She just celebrated the release of her first novel, A New Song, from Targum Press and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and six children.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.