Richard Marcus | Jewish Long Beach Board of Directors – VP Planning and Grants
My paternal great-grandparents escaped Russia with the fall of the czar. My maternal grandmother was the one member of her family they could collectively afford to help escape Hungary in 1938. Both families became part of the interwoven fabric of Jewish New York in the post-war era.
My family was small, but I grew up with an outsized number of stories. The three cousins of my maternal grandmother who survived the camps all were like additional grandparents, and they never shied from sharing the most intimate details of their experiences. My grandmother avoided this fate, but had her own trials. She endured: an 18-month odyssey through Europe to make it the U.S.; unbelievable challenges in the insular Hungarian Jewish community in New York; and a newlywed husband who had fought for America only to return and endure mental health issues so significant he never left the halfway house. She and the grandfather I knew, also from Hungary, kept a kosher home and became pillars in the Astoria (Queens) Jewish community.
My paternal grandmother, grandfather, and their shared best friend grew up together as a trio in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum. My grandfather died at 33-years old and my father, then nine, decided to start going to shul every morning – an unusual response in his secular family. My grandmother remarried to their shared best friend when my father was eleven. She was the matriarch and, all these years after her passing, in many ways still is.
The grandfather I knew was a foreman and organizer in Bagel Bakers Local 338 and not to be trifled with. In the 1950s, Brownsville’s (Brooklyn) Jewish community was shrinking and violence was growing. My father and his brother struggled with gangs and beatings for being Jewish. As he tells it, one day when he was 11 years old, a limo rolled up to their decrepit apartment and a Lubavitcher Rebbe got out. He asked my grandmother’s permission to pick him up from school every day, protect him, feed him, and lead him in his Torah and Kabbalah studies. He did this until he was 15, when he left studies to work in order to help his family, crediting the Rebbe with not just an education but saving his life.
I was a California kid, but the influence of these stories shaped my life. We held tight to Jewish values and history if not tenets of faith. I rebelled against what I saw as the dogmatic views of the conservative synagogue where I trained for my bar mitzvah, but it was my first important lesson. My father openly challenged the rabbi and the education director on the notion that I was engaging in critical debate and this was a central part of what it means to be Jewish. They did not agree that it was good that I should challenge, but the experience gave me the opportunity to learn from my father. Later, as a Jewish teen in a decidedly not Jewish Orange County town anti-Semitism often ran high. My father’s lessons about meaningful, intellectual engagement served me well.
No one in my family ever asked me whether it was important to me to marry someone Jewish. I had never dated someone Jewish. I didn’t really think about it. What I remember most about the moment I met my (Israeli) wife Yael was some embarrassment that I was brushing my then very long hair. I was in love with her before I even put down the brush. So began a decades-long journey of exploring the differences between American and Israeli Jewish thought – about what it means to be Jewish in the world.
I credit my teenage son with being my third teacher. How to describe his thinking? Uh, let’s say less Rabbi Akiva, more Moses Mendelssohn. This is a kid who concluded in his Bar Mitzvah D’var Torah that G-d got it wrong because G-d couldn’t understand Moses’ relationship with Miriam and Aaron. While my son is often exasperating, he, like my father, doesn’t rebel but rather channels his discontent into the intensely Jewish values of engagement and questioning. It has made me proud as a parent, but I have also learned a lot about the role of reason in Judaism.
So, why do I engage? Why do I commit my time to our Long Beach Jewish Community?
In part it is identity. I consider myself a person who acts with Jewish values.
In part it is history. My family’s stories are my stories, and it my job to pass them down and try to understand them.
In part it is collective family debt. The contribution Jewish organizations, and, particularly, Federations have made to my family is a debt that can never be repaid.
In part it is fear. We live in a world where antiSemitism ebbs and flows but never goes away.
In part it is about my nuclear family. It is simple to be passive and remain a Jew in Israel. In California it is a choice, and one I have wanted to help my kids understand.
Most importantly, it is about community. The Long Beach Jewish Community is magical. It is passionate and compassionate, it is full of people with strong opinions but open minds, and it is both diverse and plural. It is a community that earns our respect and support every day by what it is and the people that make it who it is.
Sadly, after we received this story we learned of the passing of Richard’s father, Howard Tzvi Marcus. Richard shared with us that his father was a true mensch with an unyielding moral compass. The significance of sharing our stories is magnified when we lose the links to our past. May Howard’s memory be for a blessing and may we all be blessed as we continue to dedicate ourselves to ensuring our future as a community