When Judaism Unravels


What do you do when your children turn their backs on the religious freedoms you fought so hard for?
by Risa Miller

Book Selection: Rememberings: The World of a Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Pauline Wengeroff (University Press of Maryland, 2000)
Sometimes I catch myself telling a family story, how a few years off the boat from Russia my grandmother and great-grandmothers tossed off their marriage wigs and cried. I’m not sure if I made the story up or if I heard my father tell it, but I do know that when it comes to losing religion, neat and defining moments feel better than sheer thematic heartbreak. It is the latter you find in Rememberings, a beautiful and revealing memoir by Pauline Wengeroff (1833-1916).

Married off young and “well” by her pious, prosperous, loving (and for the record, functional) parents, Wengeroff and her husband find themselves in the big city where they live the comfortable life of bank president and wife. But—how would a movie trailer call it?—the winds of modernization swept in; or, behind the scenes, life began to unravel. Or, in Jewish historical terms, full entrance in the secular world brought assimilation.

A taste of outside culture

In no time the Kiddush cup stood empty on the table, and the Shabbos songs turned into bawdlery. In real time, the small changes of priority, the little adjustments and left turns didn’t have the same decimating effect on Wengeroff and her husband, whose Jewish identities were embedded in the homes of their parents. But once their children tasted outside culture, the Jewishness didn’t carry forward. Apparently, if Wengeroff wanted Jewish children and grandchildren, it wasn’t enough to be a Jew in her heart. Her children had themselves baptized! They were apostates, Jews no more, generations gone, yes, with the wind.

Authoritative and analytical, Wengeroff’s prose ranks her close to the best of contemporary memoirists. But, unlike most contemporary narratives, her moral compass points a self-directed J’accuse. The book is a heartstopper for any Jew who has asked the million-dollar question of how to best pass on our beliefs to the next generation.

I’ve been on the reverse side of the assimilation process for more than 30 years, a hozeret b’tshuva (an orthodox returnee) settled in with like-minded community. Though I can’t say I was thinking about my progeny when I was 20 years old and putting aside my crab cakes and Friday night concerts, I cry for Pauline Wengeroff’s family, perhaps my family in the road not taken.

When my kids and grandkids abound for Shabbos and holidays, sometimes (like Pauline Wengeroff at the end of her life) I wonder: how did I get here? It’s with equal measures of pride and self-consciousness and gratitude and awe that I send out an invitation to yet another child’s wedding or to announce the birth, as I did recently, of another grandchild with a Jewish name that begs transliteration. I wish that making Jewish history, personal and public, were easier.

About the Author

Risa Miller
Risa Miller is the author of Welcome to Heavenly Heights (St. Martin’s Press). A recipient of the PEN Discovery Award, she teaches fiction writing at Emerson College in Boston and is currently putting the finishing touches on her second novel.

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