Becoming, not overcoming
The Power of Stories. A Series
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
Meir Zlotowitz grew up on the Lower East Side, a crowded, chaotic, poor immigrant neighborhood in the 1940s. There, he excelled in his yeshiva and rabbinic studies, although plagued by stuttering that made it difficult to communicate. So Meir used his natural artistic abilities to launch a high-end graphics studio specializing in illuminated scrolls, invitations, and ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts).
But the business struggled, financial worries were constant, and meeting payroll often meant borrowing funds. Nevertheless, when a close friend died, Meir turned his talents to crafting a single edition English translation and commentary on the Book of Esther in his memory.
It was such a success, Meir’s studio turned to publishing original translations and commentaries of traditional texts, siddurim (prayer books), popular works, and more, transforming English-speakers’ access to text and tradition.
Today his studio, ArtScroll Mesorah Publications, is the largest and most influential publisher of Jewish books in the United States.
Resilience, or hosen in Hebrew, is “the ability to withstand difficulties, bounce back after troubles, and continue on,” explain ISResilience authors Michael Dickson and Dr. Naomi Baum.
The term was borrowed from the science of metallurgy in the 1940s, where it measures the ability to withstand pressure or stress without breaking, suggesting elasticity or anti-fragility.
When applied to people, however, resilience might better be described as “bouncing forward,” since overcoming challenges or trauma changes the individual, resetting one’s starting point for moving on.
Others describe resilience not as a single event but as ongoing adaptation to adversity and stress. The most unexpected revelation about human resilience is that it is not an inborn trait but only the capacity to adapt; resilience is a choice.
You won’t find resilience on lists of Jewish beliefs, principles, or values, and yet it is woven into the very fabric of Judaism.
“Throughout our history, Jews have ultimately transcended catastrophe after catastrophe,” writes Rabbi Deborah Waxman. “We have had to recover and re-vision, regenerate and re-seed vital Jewish life… and we have survived — as a people and as a civilization.”
One source of this resilience is Judaism’s relentless focus on life. “Choose life, so that you and your offspring will live,” Moses urges.
“By prizing life and the living,” Rabbi Levi Brackman explains, “our main concern becomes how to best live life here and now.”
Another source of Jewish resilience is storytelling. “When we remember our personal and collective histories, we learn from the past in order to inform the present,” writes Israeli American author Sherri Mandell. “In fact, research has found that children who know their family stories are more resilient than other children. Our knowledge of the Jewish national story may in fact contribute to the national resilience of the Jewish people.”
Three stories of resilience from tradition, history, and family experience serve as illustrations.
Rabbi Akiva was walking along the road and came to a city where he sought lodging, but they refused to host him. Rabbi Akiva said: “Everything that God does, He does for the best.” He went and slept in a field. He had with him a rooster, a donkey, and a candle. A wind came and extinguished the candle, a wild cat came and devoured the rooster, and a lion attacked and consumed the donkey. Once again, Rabbi Akiva said: “Everything God does, He does for the best!” That night, an army came and took the city into captivity (but Rabbi Akiva, with nothing to give away his location, evaded capture). Rabbi Akiva said to them: “Didn’t I tell you? Everything that God does, He does for the best!”
In New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is an oil portrait titled Fuller Brush Man, a door-to-door salesman with an open, expectant face, sparkling eyes, and friendly smile. His name was Dewald Strauss, and though his job was tough, he was always upbeat since it helped him raise a family and pursue the American Dream. He had been a salesman in Germany where he lived the high life with a chauffeured Mercedes-Benz and parties at upscale resorts. Then came Kristallnacht, internment at Dachau, and forced labor. When Hitler briefly allowed Jews to leave Germany, Strauss escaped to America with just two trunks of belongings. He became a Fuller Brush man, and for the next 25 years, he knocked on doors in snow and rain and never complained.
When teenager Koby Mandell was brutally murdered by Palestinian terrorists in 2001, his mother, Sherri, was shattered. Weeks later, as Koby’s 14th birthday approached, Sherri’s friend encouraged her to do something meaningful to mark the occasion. That year, the family gave tzedakah to 14 beggars in Jerusalem, since that was something Koby loved to do. Every year thereafter, they would add another recipient to the list. Sherri and her husband, Seth, went on to establish the Koby Mandell Foundation to offer multi-faceted support, therapeutic and recreational programs for those who had lost a family member to terror.
“Judaism teaches us that we always need to become greater, bigger, better,” Sherri Mandell observes. After each challenge, each crisis, you can’t return to who you were. Instead you have to expand in order to contain the new you.
In Judaism, resilience isn’t about bouncing back, nor is it about overcoming. Resilience is about becoming.
Literature to share
ISResilience: What Israelis Can Teach the World by Michael Dickson and Naomi L. Baum. Despite the challenges of living with rockets, terrorism, and war just over the horizon as well as heightened vigilance, bomb shelters, and army service in times of peace, Israelis not only survive but thrive in their daily lives. In fact, they rank among the top 12 countries in the world in happiness. What is their secret? Resilience, as individuals and as a country. In this book, 15 Israelis from all walks of life share their stories of resilience, offering life lessons on how to recognize and strengthen one’s own powers of resilience. A fascinating read.
The Magical Imperfect by Chris Baron. This book for middle grade readers is magical from the very beginning. It’s a tale of an unexpected friendship, intertwined families, teen aspirations, immigration, and so much more. Part of its appeal is that it’s written in inviting verse divided into short chapters: Earthquake Drill, Speak, Dog Ears. Bits of wisdom are also woven into the storyline, such as the importance of listening in friendship. Fast paced, The Magical Imperfect gives voice to the quiet thoughts of the pre-teen set in an engaging, multi-faceted tale.