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February 22, 2011 12:06 pm

The Zaidy Syndrome

avatar by Menucha Levy

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When I was a little girl I heard a Donovan album in my fathers car on the way to school one morning. Aside from grooving to Mellow Yellow and the Hurdy Gurdy Man, I found myself rather fond of a certain snake-killing mongoose who took to the high road. Strangely, as a 10 year old girl I was able to relate to an artist from the ’60’s and the revelation that I’ve got to take care of my own battles. That I’ve got to fight my own wars; and blame only myself if I fail to win them.

A country-pop musician by the name of Moshe Yess passed away recently. He was most famous and influential for his song “My Zaidy”. The well-known disc jockey of the WEVD radio station in New York, Art Raymond, claimed that it was the most requested song he had in eighteen years of broadcasting. The song was written as a shout-out to Yess’s fellow baby boomers; to their post-war American-dream lifestyles, given to them by the good graces of their parents – sans authentic Judaism. It was a calling to a generation of folk who were brought up viewing their Jewish heritage solely through the diligent (yet waxing with the old age) practices of their old-country-style grandfather: their Zaidy. He sang of Zaidy imbuing his childhood home with the basics of Jewish life: the Kiddush on Shabbos, the importance of Torah study, the recalling of the Exodus on Passover etc. He sang of his love for this man; the man, who with all the traditional rites, brought such honest joy to their new and emotionless American lives. The song goes on to tell of a time after Zaidy… a time in which Judaism was stored-up in boxes, put to rest in the attic.

I often find myself thinking about that generation of Jews… I suppose the faith and the Judaism in general slowly ebbed it’s way further and further from what was deemed currently important. I guess they gave way to the fact that their children will get the essential benefits of Jewish tradition and customs from their Zaidy. I think they gave in to the American dream because they knew the past would not truly be lost – it would be passed down in the form of a memory. A beloved one, at that. The memory of Zaidy; of his stories and his actions. I think they believed this memory would never come to fade. And they were right…

I vividly remember one day in high school when my teacher brought in an article with a statistic study that every Jew living a secular life in America will be able to find either a great grandparent or a great-great grandparent who lived a religious lifestyle. 3 generations! That’s all that stood between the Jews that used to be and the Jews that now are. When Moshe Yess sings of many years later, sitting in front of his children, he comes to the shocking and vital realization that these kids have no “Zaidy” like that of his own youth. They will never learn of Shabbos and Kosher from a beloved, pious, and learned grandfather, nor will they ever hear the stories of Exodus and Creation! This culturally iconic song ends with a spine-tingling call for action, “Who will be the Zaidy of my children? Who will be their Zaidy if not me? Who will be the Zaidy of our children? Who will be their Zaidy if not we?”

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The reality of the matter is that we all live with the “Zaidy” concept. It’s the innate feeling  that our schools are responsible to give our children a solid education. That our government is to blame should our youth grow up without a healthy sense of responsibility and good citizenship. It’s the illegitimate understanding that our neighborhoods are bolstering our kid’s civility, our synagogues; their morals and values. It’s the unfortunate fact that we, as a people, are stricken with the likes of Donovan’s Riki Tiki Tavi syndrome.

Today we live in a world open to and thriving with Jewish tradition. Thank God, there are Jewish day schools springing up at mach speed across the country, Jewish synagogues and communities are being built and resurrected as we speak. Jewish publications, websites, outreach programs, singles events, preschools, Sunday schools – the growth is ever expanding! Today, we live in a time where thankfully we don’t seem to need the “Zaidy” of yesteryear to provide us with bits and drops, glimpses and glances at our Jewish roots; they are constantly and irrevocably set before us – thanks to the intense effort of decades of emissaries who tirelessly made it their life’s mission to place Judaism up there on the table – for all to pleasantly (and easily!) partake in. Today, while the need for that “Zaidy” may have been eliminated, I feel like there is something I am frightened our children will miss out on: the influence of our own grandparents; their generation of uprightness.

Granted, my own Zaidy may not have been as religious or as learned – but damn, was he righteous! Today it’s not the traditions of our Torah that are in danger of extinction – it’s the honesty, the integrity, the morality. Today, it’s the authenticity we are missing! It’s the people who would encourage us to “leave a note with a contact” after slightly denting a parked car. The people who “shook on it” and  respectfully upheld their agreements. The ones who sent a handwritten “thank you” card, and made the “happy New Year” phone call. Those who mean what they say, and say what they mean. Who are sincere and upright – regarding business or otherwise. The people who had the time to hear a response to “how are you?” (contrary to popular belief – that has not always been a rhetorical question).

To me, the song “My Zaidy” proves to be as timeless a lesson as any! It may have become a classic because of it’s iconic Jewish references, but I think this song is an epic call to action; to whatever the issue may be – to whatever it is we believe our kids ought to be getting from somewhere else – we must take responsibility! If only we could call on ourselves the way Yess called upon his contemporaries – with a deeply ingrained sense of urgency and interdependency. It’s up to us to take control of whatever situation may be lost to the school systems, the communities… This song has taught me to think, who will if not me? Who will if not we?

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