My Father’s Legacy

Shelah Lekha By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jul 1, 1999 / 5759 | Torah Commentary | Israel

From the beginning, the culmination was to have been a land of their own. The progeny of Abraham, grown from a clan into a nation, would be freed from Egypt and returned to the land of Canaan, where once their ancestors briefly dwelled. But on the southern border at Kadesh, the people succumbed to a failure of nerve and decided to abort. The report of ten of the twelve spies sent by Moses to scout the land utterly demoralized them: “We looked liked grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them [the inhabitants of Canaan] (Numbers 14:33).” Fear overwhelmed their newly found faith, which rested largely on miracles rather than conviction. Clearly, in a single generation, God could take Israel out of slavery, but not the mindset of a slave out of Israel. A steady diet of miracles had merely perpetuated their state of dependency.

I am particularly struck by the fact that both the majority and minority reports begin the same way, creating a dynamic counterpoint. First the ten spies declaim: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers (Numbers 13:32).” Joshua and Caleb rise to thwart the acceptance of that critical report by retaining its language: “The land we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land (Numbers 14:7).” The overlap not only sharpens the conflict, but suggests that at issue was a divergence of opinion, not fact. Both groups looked at the same landscape, but saw what they wanted to see. Reality is always colored by the predisposition that we bring to it. Or in the incisive words of the Rabbis: “We are usually aided [by desires of which we are unaware] to get to where we want to go (B.T. Makkot 10b).”

In the summer of 1933, my father visited Palestine for the first time. On occasion, in our conversations many years later, he made mention of the trip. A 1928 graduate of the Breslau Seminary (Conservative) in Germany, he had accepted the year before an invitation to serve as assistant rabbi in Hanover with special responsibility to develop programming for the young. The summer following the Nazi seizure of power, my father was sent by the Jewish community to Palestine to determine what kind of training would best prepare young people for aliyah. In Germany, Zionists and non-Zionists had started to set up hakhshara [preparatory] centers to equip prospective olim with the agricultural skills to make the desert bloom.

During the past year while going through my father’s papers, I discovered a small dark notebook (3 1/2 x 6″) with a pencil attached that served as his diary for the trip. The first 26 pages are filled on both sides with his handwritten record of sights seen, conversations held and information garnered. On the inside of the front cover there appears a haunting sketch in black and white of a hilly landscape with two palm trees in the center, the silhouette of a fortress-liked structure off on the left and dark clouds in the upper right-hand corner. On the facing flyleaf, in bold, black, square Hebrew lettering is the brave assertion by Joshua and Caleb that “the land we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land,” with the word for “the land” in the first line and the two words for “exceedingly” in the fourth line accentuated by size and color.

In Hanover my father had a friend by the name of Fanny Dessau who was an artist hungry for Judaism. Whenever touched by one of his well-crafted and intensely Jewish sermons, she would transmute it into visual form, often capturing the essence of his message in a singular image of searing power. She especially appreciated the artistic expressiveness of the Hebrew alphabet and her work is laced with Hebrew calligraphy. My father possessed dozens of her somber and muted sketches. Dessau seems to have perished early in the Holocaust. But for the rest of his life, my father entertained the idea of honoring her memory and ability by publishing a sample of her oeuvre along with the sermons they had rendered. Hence, I suspect that when my father returned from Palestine, he asked his friend to adorn his cherished diary with an appropriate picture and text. The choice of verse was definitely his own. Recently, I have also come across some ten letters which my father wrote to my mother while abroad, and they are in fact much richer and more extensive than the diary. Together they enable me to recover at least partially how he experienced Palestine and the new yishuv 16 years after the Balfour Declaration. He arrived alone in Jaffa on July 3 and departed from Haifa on July 12. In those nine days, he resourcefully exerted himself to see the entire country, ever mindful of the story of the twelve tribes. He belonged squarely in the camp of Joshua and Caleb.

With his deep knowledge of the Bible and contemporary events, he made a keen observer. The bustle and modernity of Tel Aviv, already 100,000 strong, impressed him, as did the orchards and agriculture he saw on the way to Petah Tikva. He admired the traits of the new Jew being birthed by Zionist ideology and the conquest of the land, though few of them, he noted, frequented Tel Aviv’s large synagogues. He lamented the rock-strewn desolateness of the Judean hills on the way to Jerusalem. And wondered often if the land had sufficient water to effect broad change. Could the Jordan river be harnessed for electrical power? He seemed to share an aversion to industrialization with some of his interlocutors. His diary ends by quoting one on board the ship back to Trieste: “We have to settle farmers. The farmer is never politically radical, because he depends on his land. If a crisis were to come, the masses in Tel Aviv would flee abroad. Only the farmer would stay because he loves his land.”

Perhaps the most poetic passage I have found is the description of his ascent of Mount Carmel at twilight. At its base sits Haifa. The mountain is covered with trees, proof that reforestation is possible. My father is overtaken by the thought that this is the spot where the Prophet Elijah once summoned Israel to return to God. In the cool evening breeze, he watches a herd of cows, another of goats. An old carob tree draws his attention. “I stand beneath its branches to observed the heights and depth, the earth and its stones, many of which reveal a dark brown core. I recall the passage in the Torah which speaks of the mountains of Eretz Yisrael consisting of iron. The sun sets into the ocean and I recite the evening prayer.”

For all his love of the ancient homeland, my father was not sufficiently moved to try aliyah when we left Germany in December 1938. Why not is one of the many questions I shall ask him when we meet again in the world beyond. How different would my life have been! I suspect at age 39 he might have felt old. In his notations, he remarks often on the primacy of youth in the yishuv. Then too, what could a rabbi do in a society that privileged pioneers? Or perhaps it was the absence of relatives. Our extended family had gone west, to England and the United States. In those dark days, it wasn’t easy for Jews to get in anywhere, especially into British-occupied Palestine. With family on the ground, we stood at least a chance of getting a visa.

On my first visit to Israel immediately after the Six Day War (for research on my dissertation), I stayed in Jerusalem in a small pension named Greta Ascher on Abravanel Street. The proprietor, a short, stocky woman of vigor and good humor, greeted me personally. She could hardly restrain herself from asking me right out if I was the son of Rabbi Emil Schorsch of Hanover. When I acknowledged that I was, she proudly told me that she had once been an active member of the youth organization founded by him. He had played a large role in her maturation as a Jew. I would like to believe in retrospect that she was one of a number of young people that my father helped ready for aliyah through the preparatory program set up in Hanover on the basis of his trip to Palestine in 1933. “The deeds of parents entail a sign for their children.”

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Sh’lakh L’kha are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.