His is the story of the Jews who never had a chance
itting in the shade of the old children’s home, a bucket hat crowning his sun-scorched face, he was the picture of pastoral calm.
A pensioned kibbutznik alone with his memories, watching the comings and goings with a nod for each passerby.
“Shleyma,” his Polish-born parents had called him, and his is the story of the Jews who never had a chance.
It was a Friday morning when my wife and I found ourselves in the well-kept grounds of Kfar Menachem, a few kilometers east of Kiryat Malachi in southern Israel.
Built in the 1930s as one of the “Stockade and Tower” settlements that had to be fortified against Arab terror, the kibbutz is a wonderland for anyone interested in capturing the feel of that pioneering age.
Relics from the socialist past are everywhere. The communal dining hall still operates, complete with cheerful red-checkered cloths.
Next to the verdant village green is a statue of some laborers, their determined expressions urging the locals to redouble their Stakhanovite efforts.
Further on, the tiny cabins that housed the chalutzim showcase the spartan conditions of those early years.
Intrigued by the sense of history, we stopped someone coming out of the kibbutz secretariat, and asked where to find an old-timer.
“Speak to Shlomo,” said the man, pointing to the adjacent verandah. “He’s right there.”
Shlomo, it turned out, spoke good English, and was as eager to question us as we were to hear from him.
“You’re from England,” he asked, adjusting the drawstring bag around his neck, “from London?”
After the regular conversation about Golders Green, the Queen, and the Anglo population of Beit Shemesh, he got talking about the “webels,” as the founders’ huts were called.
“I grew up in one of those huts,” he said, gesturing to where the dusty monuments stood, “just a few square meters, with a kerosene burner, two cots for my parents, and a suitcase for our belongings.
“When I was a young child, my mother had to return to work, so I moved into the children’s house, right here.
“Was it hard for my mother that we had to move out?” he says reflectively. “There was so little back then that everyone had to work — there was no choice.”
There’s a pause as Shlomo thinks, rolling back the decades to that vanished time, when his parents were strong and the world was young.
“Shleyma,” he says softly, in a Polish-Yiddish accent, savoring the word as if it’s a rare treat. “My parents called me Shleyma.”
The Broides — who shared a name with an illustrious rabbinic dynasty connected to the mussar movement — had come from Grodno, now Belarus, once home to Rav Shimon Shkop and his famed yeshivah.
But Shlomo’s family were from a different universe; they’d been secular for generations.
“We had no rabbis in our family. The name comes from ‘broit,’ meaning bread — we were bakers. My parents weren’t religious. They both went to Tarbut, a secular Zionist school. Their parents were secular as well — maybe my great-grandparents lit candles.”
“Did you grow up with any Jewish symbols in your house?” I ask, hoping to find some signs of the traditionalism that has been preserved in so many Israeli homes.
“My father listened to chazzanut, although I don’t remember which singer,” Shlomo answers, “but we didn’t keep anything.”
Apologetic about his failure to play the host, he explains: “That’s why I can’t invite you in for something to eat — I don’t eat kosher.
“I want to wish you a good Yom Kippur,” he ends as we prepare to leave. “I won’t be keeping it — I hope you’re not upset.”
In Shlomo’s smiling acknowledgment of the gulf between his life and ours, in his unspoken assumption that that’s how the world ought to be, lies a great Jewish tragedy.
Little Shleyma never stood a chance. Born into generations of fierce secularism, raised on a kibbutz where Yom Kippur was a workday, he grew up in the land of the Torah utterly cut off from the knowledge of who he was.
And Shlomo-Shleyma’s story is really that of millions of Jews the world over.
Go beyond the vast bubbles of Orthodox life across the world, and you’ll find other Shleymas.
Like a giant polar ice sheet that breaks off and then is slowly engulfed by the waves, vast sections of the Jewish People were lopped off the mass of Klal Yisrael a century ago, in a maelstrom of secularism.
Their grandchildren are all Shleymas.
Entire communities and cities of Shleymas. Secular Israelis, Reform Jews, unaffiliated Jews. They drift slowly into the abyss of assimilation, with no malice toward religious people in their hearts, but no Jewish knowledge in their minds.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of broad horizons. We daven for a transformed world, one that recognizes Divine Kingship.
It’s a soaring, poetic vision, one that can seem divorced from reality.
This Yom Kippur, those words will mean something closer to home, more real.
Shleyma, I’m davening for you, and for the millions of Jews who never had a chance.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 930)
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