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Our Living Legacy

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08/05/2009

In a recent article for Triblocal, I interviewed Riverwoods resident and professional videographer Dan Gelfond about his experiences as an interviewer for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

The foundation, now housed at the University of Southern California, is called the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.

Gelfond interviewed Holocaust survivors in the Chicago area from 1994 to 1998.

When Gelfond went into the video-making business, he got to thinking about living legacies. Now, as part of his service, he interviews everyday individuals and has them tell the story of their life on video—thereby leaving a legacy for the individual’s children and grandchildren.

Spielberg sought to capture Holocaust stories before the dwindling survivors are no longer around. Similarly, Gelfond uses these Living Legacy DVDs to hold on to the stories that also will be lost to future generations.

I got to thinking about the story of the Jewish people in America before and after the Holocaust, and what American Judaism looks like today, particularly for the young, and often secularized population of 20- and 30-somethings.

What legacy do we, young Jews in America, want to leave for our future generations?

To generalize, we’ve had it pretty easy, as compared to our grandparents or great grandparents who endured boats and long lines at Ellis Island.

And even when they got here, it wasn’t a cakewalk.

Our grandparents and even parents faced barriers to suburbs, colleges and country clubs.

Today, it would be unheard of for a university to deny admission based on religious affiliation.

I say we have it easy because I think many Jews, who at least live in or near large urban settings don’t have to think about their Jewishness as a barrier to opportunity.

At the same time, when we don’t have to think about our Jewishness, we don’t think about our Jewishness.

So much of the Jewish tradition entails the telling of our collective story, over and over again. On Passover, for instance, we recall the Jew’s exile from slavery.

In the 21st century it is less likely that multiple generations within a family will live within one household—a way in which we lose our story and sense of tradition.

Also, intermarriage is commonplace.

Those factors matched with a generation that has not had to struggle in the same manner that those before it had, we are at risk of losing our story.

I am by no means bashing secularism, and in fact, think it’s inevitable in an increasingly globalized society.

However, the global threats against Jews did not end in 1948, nor have they disappeared in 2009. Evidence of anti-semitism is rampant all over the world today.

America, too, is not insulated from anti-semetic sentiments, particularly as the country is entrenched in an unpopular war.

Iran looms as a threat to Israel abroad and America at home.

And finally, when the Illinois Holocaust Museum, in Skokie, opened its doors, former President Bill Clinton gave a speech at the opening, warning that an unstable economy fuels hatred and scapegoats, much as it did in pre-Nazi Germany.

What can young Jewish people do on a micro level?

They must remember their story. However, they must also think about what world they would like their Jewish children and grandchildren to inherit.

I think it’s a balance between becoming so integrated that we don’t know who we are anymore, versus holding on to old notions of how to live Jewishly.

I don’t think living Jewishly necessarily means one is religious. I think it means we take into account who we are and we try to preserve that, in whatever capacity is comfortable—whether you’re a cultural Jew or an orthodox Jew.

Our collective identity is what binds us, no matter what your Jewishness means to you. If we hold on to that collective identity, our grandchildren will still have a story to tell.

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