Growing up in the Yeshivish world, it seemed that Europe, the alte heim remembered warmly in stories, the land where the pious Judaism of our forefathers once flourished, was an area that extended from Russia in the East to Lithuania in the North, Hungary in the South, and Poland to the West. (Not that I had a great grasp of geography as kid. Far from it.) The stories that were told, from those about the great tzadikim we were to emulate to those about the simple folk we were to identify with, all took place in small patch of Central and Eastern Europe. The names of the towns, the Yiddish the characters spoke, the social structure, all had their roots in the shtetl.
I identified with none of it. I heard no stories at home about Poland or Russia. No family tales of the poretz, the czar, the bitter winters and rapacious peasants. Nor was there any reason I should. My family was from farther west, from a place that, when it came up at all, was the source of the smart-aleky Maskil in older stories and of unspeakable horror in those from the mid-20th century.
All four of my grandparents grew up in Germany, in places like Berlin and Frankfurt-am-Main. I have photographs of my great-grandfathers in their uniforms, circa 1914. I know very little about their service, and it’s likely they were drafted rather than volunteers, but they fought for Germany. More than one of my great-great-uncles died in France in the Kaiser’s service, fighting for a country he thought of as his own. One, a doctor living in California, voluntarily returned to Germany to serve his country.
When WWI ended and Germany was forced to cede its eastern lands to the newly reconstituted Poland, one of my great grandfathers, who had been living just across the new Polish border, moved west to Berlin rather than trade his German citizenship for a Polish one. Unlike the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe (and Poland, Hungary, etc. which I’ll throw in with Eastern countries for simplicities sake), German Jews saw themselves as full members of the German nation.
The Jews of Eastern Europe were, for the most part, poor, oppressed, and not very patriotic – often because they weren’t allowed the privileges of citizens. Western Europe was a very different place.
These differences expressed themselves in ways other than just patriotism. Jews in the West tended to be wealthier and better-educated than their Eastern brethren, a difference which accounts for the popularity of cholent in Eastern Europe and its absence from the West. This dish, which many frum people today consider their Shabbos incomplete without, was unknown in Germany. While cholent today may be expensive, it was originally a relatively cheap stew made with potatoes, beans, and a bit of meat and bones for flavor. Tasty and filling, it was the perfect Shabbos dish for people without a lot to spend. The richer Jews of the West had chickens and meat for Shabbos. My father first tasted cholent when he went away to yeshiva for bais medrash.
There are also differences in hashkafa and minhagim. In general, most of the kaballah-inspired minhagim prevalent among Eastern European Jews are not part of the German experience. My family doesn’t make upsherins, we don’t wave a chicken over our heads before Yom Kippur, and we don’t wear a kittel at the seder. At my wedding (and my parents’ and my siblings’) I didn’t wear a kittel, I didn’t wear a torn coat, and I didn’t untie my shoes or take off my gold cufflinks. My wife and I stood under the chuppah wearing a tallis over our heads and facing away from the audience.
Most of my classmates were descendants of the Eastern Europeans who have come to dominate American Orthodoxy. (So much so, that one is either a chassid or a litvak. In common usage in the yeshivish and chassidsh worlds, there are no other categories.) I was different from them. Not very different – we were all from middle-to-right-wing Orthodox homes. But I was different in that I didn’t personally identify with stories of Eastern European figures. To my classmates, these characters were their alter zaides. I didn’t even have a zaidy. I called my grandfather “Opa,” German for Grandpa. Underscoring the difference even more, my family did things differently than my friends did, differently than I was taught in school.
Like all yeshivish kids, I learned the Yiddish sing-song about the Seder. “Tatty comes home from shul and puts on his kittel…” Mine didn’t.
I learned to say the Ma Nishtana in Yiddish. My mother’s parents, at whose home we spent Pesach when I was little, spoke fluent German and could understand Yiddish, but no one in my family spoke Yiddish.
Before Yom Kippur I learned in school how we shlug kaporos. At home, I heard how we didn’t shlug kaporos, and could you imagine actually taking a chicken and swinging it over your head?!
Then there’s the best one of all. You must wait six hours between milchig and fleishig (always said that way, even though no one waits between milk and meat, only between meat and milk). This minhag is taught as part of hilchos kashrus. Except my family only waits three.
For me, the illusion of a monolithic mesorah promulgated by the Yeshivish world never had a chance to take hold. Sure, everyone knows that there are people out there who only wait three hours, or who wear taleisim before they’re married. But for most it’s not something they notice. It’s one thing if one or two of your friends do things a little differently than you do. It’s another when nearly everyone does things differently than you do.
I think this may be another small ingredient in my path to religious skepticism. Seeing what I was taught as normative in school disregarded by my family in practice – disregarded because no one in the family had ever done these things - taught me that not everything I learned was a tradition stretching back to God at Har Sinai.