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Chance of a Lifetime

Eytan Kobre

I identify with the urge to shout, “No, don’t do it!”

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

I

 

T

he story is told of a shul in which the baal korei leined the parshah each Shabbos with such fervor and animation that the congregation felt as if they were present in the moment, experiencing the events as they happened. So palpably did he bring the words alive that each year without fail, when he began to read the dramatic story in parshas Vayeishev of how Yosef’s brothers were about to sell him, a lady’s voice could be heard shrieking from on high in the women’s balcony, “No, don’t do it!”

I can identify with the urge to shout in desperation, “No, don’t do it!” to avert impending disaster — especially when I read from time to time about famous and not-so-famous Jews who seemed in their youth to have had a chance at being shomrei Torah u’mitzvos but lost that opportunity due to the circumstances of their upbringing.

Many of us, of course, have had the experience of meeting secular Jews who talk about having been raised “religious” or “Orthodox,” yet from their own description of their childhood it becomes abundantly clear that their notion of what those terms connote is vastly different from ours. But sometimes it’s apparent that the person was indeed raised in an observant home, but one that lacked a knowledgeable Jewish base and a positive, proud atmosphere of observance.

There are also the unfortunate instances in which a youngster growing up secular somehow developed an interest in Yiddishkeit but was unable to maintain it in an environment devoid of support for his aspirations, or worse. In a recent article in Aeon on Albert Einstein and religion, Jim Baggott, a British writer on popular science, wrote

Despite his parents’ secularism, the nine-year-old Albert discovered and embraced Judaism with some considerable passion, and for a time he was a dutiful, observant Jew. Following Jewish custom, his parents would invite a poor scholar to share a meal with them each week, and from the impoverished medical student Max Talmud (later Talmey) the young and impressionable Einstein learned about mathematics and science. He consumed all 21 volumes of Aaron Bernstein’s joyful Popular Books on Natural Science (1880). Talmud then steered him in the direction of Immanuel Kant….

Eventually, Baggott writes, Einstein moved on to the works of Scottish philosopher David Hume and Austrian physicist Ernst Mach. By the ripe old age of 12, he had “developed a deep aversion to the dogma of organized religion that would last for his lifetime,” although it also “extended to all forms of authoritarianism, including any kind of dogmatic atheism.”

Deep aversion? Authoritarianism? I concede I’m not well-read on the great scientist’s life, but that almost makes it sound as if psychology played a role alongside intellectual inquiry. There’s also the tragedy of a kid, however precocious, making life-altering decisions he never again reopens for examination over the course of a lifetime, despite gaining access to sources of information and insight he didn’t have while still in short pants.

Such are the cases where a feeling of “No, don’t do it!” wells up within. My most recent such experience came last week, when I read about the awarding of the 2019 Genesis Prize, given annually since 2013 by something called, unsurprisingly, the Genesis Prize Foundation, to someone who is an inspiration to the next generation “through their outstanding professional achievement along with their commitment to Jewish values and the Jewish people.” 

This year’s winner of the $1 million prize is someone who doesn’t need the money: Boston billionaire Robert Kraft, a paper goods industry magnate and philanthropist who turned a $172 million purchase of the Patriots football team 25 years ago into a $3.7 billion asset. Knowing he has contributed generously to Jewish-related causes, I read up a bit about Kraft and came across this:

Robert’s relationship with his own father was warm, but strained. Harry Kraft, an Orthodox Jew who ran a modest dress-manufacturing business in Boston’s Chinatown, barred his athletic son from playing sports, seeing them as a distraction from religious studies. Today, Kraft and his children keep kosher, but they belong to Conservative synagogues, not Orthodox. Groomed by his father as a rabbi, Robert Kraft says he has tried to turn NFL ownership into a vehicle for good works.

Barring an “athletic son from playing sports, seeing them as a distraction from religious studies” might seem to risk turning Judaism into a roadblock to happiness in a boy’s eyes, and a reflexive inner voice wants to call urgently to the long-ago father, “No, don’t do it!” But who can know and who can judge? Delicate dilemmas like this one depend on the time and the place and the boy and the family and so many other factors.

I can’t begin to know what kinds of difficult challenges Robert Kraft’s father faced raising an observant family in 1940s Boston, nor should any of us ever even think of judging another. Especially in the difficult challenge of being a parent, we try to do the best we can with the tools we have, and daven for siyata d’Shmaya.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 744. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

 

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