I presented this paper at the CUNY Graduate Center’s English Students Association annual conference on March 11, 2021. Pieces of this are drawn from my dissertation, which I’m in the process of finishing up now.
In Jewish thought, the era of the Messiah – Mashiach – has not yet arrived. The exact theology surrounding Mashiach differs across various Jewish denominations. Since my purpose today is not to focus on the specific theology, I won’t go into all of the minutiae of beliefs surrounding Mashiach – I’ll just focus on the ideas relevant to the connection between children and Mashiach in Haredi Jewish thought. So first, a brief background on the idea of Mashiach in Haredi theology, with a caveat that this theology is not unique to Haredi thought in all its details. Drawing on a tradition of textual commentary on the Torah and Talmud spanning millennia, Haredi Jews of the 20th and 21st centuries believe that the Jewish people have been in a state of waiting ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel. At least as far back as Maimonides, whose thirteen essential tenets of faith include belief in the arrival of Mashiach, Jews have clung to the hope that Mashiach could arrive at any moment to redeem the Jewish people from their exile and diaspora, bring them to Israel, rebuild the Temple, and usher in an eternity of peace and purity. Though there are many calculations predicting the time of the ultimate redemption, it is believed that Mashiach can arrive early if the Jewish people deserve it. And in Haredi thought, the most powerful and potent force in hastening the arrival of Mashiach is children.
Children are a powerful symbol across the world and across history, though what exactly they symbolize changes from culture to culture and from era to era, often with multiple and competing ideas: in Puritan thought, children represent original sin; in Romantic thought, children represent pre-sexual innocence; in Victorian thought, children are miniature adults who need to be trained in proper behavior. In contemporary America, white children are often viewed as inherently vulnerable and are invoked as the reason behind moral decisions, like preventing same-sex marriage or bathroom use consistent with one’s gender. In systemically-racist America, Black American children are portrayed by white media as already-adult and already-defiant and aggressive in an attempt to justify racism. Contemporary children are increasingly portrayed in adult thrillers as alien and evil, in a reflection of the fear of children as radically other, incomprehensible to adults. At the same time, contemporary culture also views children as developing, in need of policies which nurture them physically and psychologically into their full growth and potential. And the list goes on.
(1:57-2:27 ; 5:29-6:01+)
In the American Haredi community, children most often represent the survival and the future of the Jewish people. This view is captured in a popular Haredi song from the 1990s, “The Man from Vilna.” The song opens with a conversation between an elderly Holocaust survivor flying back from a Chicago wedding and a younger Haredi man who asks him why he’d undertake the journey when surely no one would judge him from staying home at his age. The survivor replies, “no simcha – no celebration – is a burden,” and he tells a story about the months after the war ended. He, along with about 400 others, made their way back to Vilna – Vilnius – after they were liberated from the concentration camps. One person realizes that it’s Simchas Torah, the final day of the Succos holiday, on which men traditionally take the Torah scrolls out of the synagogue ark and dance around the lectern in celebration of the joy of learning Torah and living life according to its laws. The survivors make their way into the synagogue, determined to dance and to find joy despite the horror they had just survived. They find the synagogue destroyed, littered with scraps of desecrated Torah scrolls. They also find two children huddled under a bench, and – realizing that among 400 survivors there are only two children – they hold the children in place of the Torah scrolls and dance, using them as symbols of defiant joy and survival in the face of those who had tried to destroy them.
The structure of the song, much like a country song which tells a story, requires that the refrain happen before we have all the details of the story. The instances of the refrain that occur after we have all the relevant details each change two lines to reflect the new information, which allows for a rhetorical connection between the lines across the refrains throughout the song. In this case, those lines – and thus the ideas being connected to each other – are “though we had no Sifrei Torah [Torah scroll] to clutch close to our hearts, in their place we held the future of a past so torn apart,” which appears in the second refrain as “though we had no Sifrei Torah to gather in our arms, in their place we held those children, the Jewish people would live on.” The final version of these lines is “though we had no Sifrei Torah to clutch and hold up high – am Yisrael chai” – a popular phrase meaning “the nation of Israel lives.” The children are thus clearly figured as the Jewish people’s hope for the future, the replacement of a “past so torn apart” and a symbol of Jewish endurance and continuity.
The Hasidic community is clear about this idea in everyday life, as children are told that they are their parents’ and grandparents’ “revenge on Hitler.” Many Haredi matriarchs and patriarchs – both Hasidic and non-Hasidic – look at wedding photos of their large families, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren numbering the hundreds, and find satisfaction in the knowledge that the Jewish people is revitalized through the birth of new generations. I tried to find a photo I have from a cousin’s wedding, where we all lined up in rows like this first image I got off the internet – to have a personal tie-in here – but I couldn’t find it. So instead, here’s a couple of images of my grandparents – Holocaust survivors – with their grandchildren because my work is always personal and I like to include things like this…
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, a professor of Jewish History, characterizes Jewish historiography as concerned with “ruptures, breaches, breaks” and an attempt to “see how Jews endured them.” Haredi historiography asserts that there are no real ruptures and breaks despite the many tragedies and losses of life – that as long as children survive or as long as more children are created, there is an assurance of continuity not only of the Jewish people but of Jewish theology as perceived through the Haredi idea of continuity. Of course, the idea of “we must save the children” is not unique to Haredi thought – it’s the basis for foreign aid campaigns using images of children and at least part of the basis for the Kindertransport which allowed children from Nazi Germany to flee to Britain (incidentally, that’s how my paternal grandmother survived). While secular and academic Jewish historiography acknowledges the changes which Jewish theology has undergone in the millennia-long history of the religion, Haredi historiography draws a line of continuity from the Torah of Moses at Mt Sinai to the Judaism practiced in contemporary Haredi communities, claiming that despite the changes of the world around them, Jews have maintained the same practices and beliefs unchanged by time and technological advances. A major component of this belief is the symbolism of children.
In a collection of holiday stories for children, written by Shmuel Blitz and published by Artscroll-Mesorah in 1998, this theme of continuity is made clear by a story for Shavuos, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The young protagonist Betzalel tries to stay up all night to learn Torah, as is the custom, but he falls asleep and dreams that he joins figures of Jewish thought and Torah commentary in a study session, led by Moses himself.
He dreamed that he saw Moshe Rabbeinu sitting at the head of a long table. Seated around him were all the great leaders of the generations. Rabbi Akiva, Hillel, Rambam, and many others were all gathered around, learning together… Betzalel took a seat between Rashi and the Vilna Gaon. He sat and listened to Moshe teach the Torah.
These figures span millennia of Jewish thought and textual development – the Biblical Moses, Talmudic Rabbi Akiva and Hillel, medieval Maimonides and Rashi, one Sephardic and one Ashkenazic, the 17th-century Vilna Gaon who opposed Hasidism… The likelihood of all these figures being able to learn Torah together, with the same methods, philosophies, and interpretations, is very low. But the scene functions as a representation of the belief in the continuity of Torah thought and – through their invitation to Betzalel to join them – the child’s place in the line of Jewish continuity.
Esther van Handel’s A Children’s Treasury of Holiday Tales, another Haredi children’s collection of holiday stories, features the same theme of continuity. In the Rosh Hashanah story, “The Plot Against the Shofar,” Tzvi overhears “two rough-looking youths” plotting to do damage to the Rabbi’s shofar and laughing as they imagine “all those Jews in their old prayer shawls waiting for their old Rabbi to blow shofar, and then…!” Tzvi considers telling the police, the Rabbi, or his parents, but concludes that no one would believe him. Instead, when he goes to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, he brings along his own shofar, which he had been practicing on every day in the preceding month of Elul and lays it on the lectern. When the baal tokei’a [master of shofar-blowing] tries to blow the official shul’s shofar during the services, he discovers that it had been filled with glue. He then sees Tzvi’s shofar lying on the lecternand is able to blow shofar for the congregation.
Tzvi’s worry about the “rough-looking youths” plan results in a rumination that ties the Jewish past, present, and future together around this religious object and ritual:
He thought about the sounds of the shofar ... He thought about Akeidas Yitzchak [Binding of Isaac]. He thought about the shofar at Har Sinai [Mount Sinai] when Hashem gave the Jewish people the Torah. He thought about the shofar at Mashiach [Messiah].
After a list of the moments in the Jewish nation’s past and future marked by the blowing of the shofar, Tzvi thinks sadly, “I sure hope the shofar will be blown in our shul on Rosh Hashanah.” Tzvi’s contemporary American synagogue is thus rhetorically connected to the events in the Jewish past associated with the shofar as well as the future that the Jews are awaiting, situating Tzvi himself along the chain of tradition and history. The final words of the Rosh Hashanah story belong to the Rabbi, who ties Tzvi’s actions on this childhood Rosh Hashanah to his future: “Tzvi’s shofar saved the say…And I have a feeling that when Tzvi grows up, with Hashem’s help, he’ll be blowing his shofar himself – every Rosh Hashanah.” Tzvi’s earlier list of shofar-moments in Jewish history connected his shul and his childhood Rosh Hashanah to the span of Jewish history, and the Rabbi’s words promise Tzvi an individual place in that connection and the continued survival of the Jewish people.
(0:31-0:50 ; 1:16-1:50)
“Be a Friend,” a 1999 song from the Tzlil V’Zemer Boys Choir and the source for the title of my paper today, encapsulates the idea that not only do children have the ability to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people; they are “Klal Yisrael’s guarantee,” the Jewish people’s guarantee of futurity. In the context of a lesson about including everyone and not letting any of their fellow Jews fall by the wayside, the refrain features the teacher saying “Be a friend and understand. touch the heart of every man. Yeladim (Hebrew for children), you’re the key, Klal Yisrael’s guarantee.” The song goes on to say a prayer from the children’s perspective: “Hashem (God) help us grow, while we’re young and so, to become the new tomorrow.” Children who grow in friendship while they’re young, the song says, will carry the future, the “new tomorrow,” acting as a guarantee of the Jewish people’s futurity.
In van Handel’s book, the Yom Kippur story immediately following Tzvi’s shofar story continues the theme of children saving the day and emphasizes the idea that the salvation of the Jewish people depends upon the children. The story is in fact titled “Saved by the Children” and opens on the scene of the “heavenly court” where “[t]he Jewish people are in grave danger…Rosh Hashanah has passed, Yom Kippur is almost here, and the sins still outweigh the mitzvos.” The angels who argue on behalf of the Jewish people in the heavenly court set out to find more mitzvos to tip the scales. They decide to search among the Jewish children, because the scales carry “piles of tefillin, lulavim, and Shabbos candles,” all adult ritual items. The angels descend first to “an old neighborhood in Jerusalem,” where Menachem gives his coin to a beggar instead of buying a lollipop; they move on to “a sunny schoolyard in Australia,” where Shira and Rachel end a fight about whose turn it is to jump rope by giving in to each other; their next stop is “an ivy-covered red-brick house in England,” where Shaya asks his father to help him study the alef-bais; and they make a final stop in “a cozy New York kitchen,” where Miriam stops herself before speaking lashon hara [gossip]. Between each location, the angels fly back up to heaven to place the symbols of each mitzvah on the scale: a red lollipop, two jump ropes, and an alef-bais book. The final mitzvah, of avoiding lashon hara, is put on the scale as a “dazzling mitzvah.” This final mitzvah succeeds in tipping the scale, “and the Jewish people were inscribed and sealed for another year in the Book of Life.” The story thus puts the survival of the entire Jewish nation on the shoulders of children from all over the globe. The adults’ mitzvos were not enough to save the Jewish people from year-end destruction, but the small mitzvos of the small children were.
My final text for today is “It’s Gonna Be the Little Kinderlach” (whose tune you might recognize as the annoying Kars 4 Kids jingle), originally recorded by Country Yossi, aka Yossi Toiv, in 1983. It has since become an extremely popular song in Haredi culture, sung in many pre-school classrooms and musical productions, clearly asserting the idea of children as the ultimate salvation of the Jewish people. The song begins by asking “So you wanna know who’s gonna bring Mashiach,” and goes on to answer: “it’s gonna be the little kinderlach,” the little children. Just as “Be a Friend” pins the continuity of the Jewish people on young boys behaving with friendship, just as “Saved by the Children” pins the salvation of the Jewish people on children performing mitzvos, this song lists the actions that will directly “make him come” – learning Torah, saying Grace after Meals, wearing tzitzis, giving charity, visiting the sick and the elderly – these are the actions through which little girls and little boys will “make Mashiach come.”
Many other texts and songs in Haredi musical and textual culture reiterate this sentiment. Ultimately, the function of children in Haredi ideology is both a rebirth after tragedy and trauma and a promise of eternal salvation for the Jewish people.