The spark of the pintele Yid

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For the purposes of this article, I have divided Jewish Americans into three groups.

The first group consists of people who clearly identify as Jews. Some attend synagogue services regularly and observe the mitzvot as much as they can, while trying to enjoy the benefits of American life. Others in this group are not religious but relish their Jewishness by enjoying much of its culture and traditions. They will often ask, “But is it good for the Jews?” Without much prompting, they will tell you that Sandy Koufax was the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball history.


Most people in the first group are strong supporters of Israel.

Skipping to the third group, there are Jewish-Americans who want nothing to do with Judaism or Jewish lifestyle and might be at the forefront of the opposition to the state of Israel. I have no interest in this group and will not address it further.

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But there is a second group of Jewish Americans that I would like to discuss.

They are likely to be well-educated and to be reasonably financially secure. They are a part of the fabric of American life. Their connection to Judaism is mostly during life milestones. They might attend synagogue services during the High Holidays, if at all. They might have some regard for Israel, but are typically not vocal supporters, nor do they attend pro-Israel rallies. They might connect to Judaism through its food, its humor and by occasionally reading a Jewish American novel or attending movies dealing with the Shoah. They might tell you that Judaism is not very important to them, but sometimes there are events that reveal that Judaism is important to them. Some of the people still have pintele Yid — the spark of a Jew. It just requires a special event to expose it.


Many years ago, I took a tour of religious Borough Park in Brooklyn during Sukkot. Our bus was delayed, so I had a chance to walk through the small streets of what I suspect resembled a European shtetl. In the background, I heard Yiddish music. I followed the sound until I found its source.

There was a Chasidic man playing remarkably joyful music on an organ. In the building, men were dancing around the table, while in the bleachers young men locked arms and swayed from side to side. Eventually, the men left the shul and danced in the nearby street, while the organist continued to play. I stood there with chills in what was the greatest pintele Yid moment of my life. Later, I was to learn that this was referred to as a Sukkot tisch (table). The only thing that would have made the event more joyful would have been if men and women enjoyed the tisch together.

I recall a story about Isaac Bashevis Singer. He had just finished giving a talk in Paris and was finding his way to a Shabbat dinner he had been invited to by strangers. When the door to the apartment opened, it all unfolded — the succulent aroma of the chicken soup, the beautiful glowing candles, the warmth of the challah, people from different parts of the world, previously unknown to each other, hugging lovingly.

Similar scenes occur at Chabads during Shabbat dinners throughout the world. Secular, hardened Israelis, who would never attend a service in their home country, come to a Shabbat dinner in Moscow, in the Far East, or in Latin America, embracing strangers, speaking different languages. They have something in common. It is pintele Yid.

Several years ago, I was walking through the streets of Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon with my friend, Eitan. Shabbat was approaching. Soon the buses would come to a halt and Chasidim would fill the streets. In the background were the Judean Hills and alongside us was Jerusalem stone. Neither Eitan nor I am religious. Yet, he turned to me and said he felt there was something special in the air of Jerusalem as Shabbat approached. I could feel the presence of my zeyda, after whom I was named. I never met him, but I could feel his company in Jerusalem — another instance of pintele Yid.

Golda Meir was the first woman in world history to be elected head of state who was not related to a former head of state. Her path from Kiev to Milwaukee to Palestine reflected a person who moved from the Orthodox religiosity of her grandparents to the secular Zionism that resulted in her being the elected leader of Israel. But an incident in Moscow in 1948 resulted in a pintele Yid moment.

As the first Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union, she addressed a Rosh Hashanah crowd of thousands outside the main synagogue of Moscow. The rally was organized by a local Chabad, and in front of her was a sea of dancing black-hatted Chasidim, joining in the raucous chorus of, “Golda, Golda!” Rejected by many 20th-century Jews, the Chasidim refused to reject one of their own. Meir was shaken by the incident and admitted that, for an instant, she considered
becoming observant.

Jerry Weintraub was a famous producer and talent agent. Although he was not a religious man, in his book “When I Stop Talking, You Will Know I Am Dead,” he reveals some major pintele Yid moments. When his father was ill, he brought him to Rebbe Schneerson, the Chabad leader of the time. Father and son were transfixed as the Rebbe held the elder Weintraub’s hand. The Rebbe was incapable of healing a sick man, but he was able to provide him with a great deal of comfort. Later in the book, Weintraub describes how he danced, uncontrollably, with the Rebbe at a televised fundraiser.
I was recently sitting in a Jewish deli with a friend of mine from childhood. His food order violated Jewish dietary laws in at least two ways. I had a half smile on my face as we made eye contact. He looked at me and said firmly, “I am a Jew through and through.” I know him very well, and his statement was believable. We both had a good chuckle — pintele Yid.

If you believe “My Yiddish Momme” was written for your mother; if you get tearful every time you sing “Hatikvah” or remember your grandmother swaying as she lit Shabbat candles; if you can hear a pained wail in the passionate prayer of a Chasid; if you feel, as Itzhak Pearlman does, as he tells Joel Grey, “klezmer means everything good,”or if you get chills every time the Israeli flag is raised, you are not 100 percent assimilated. You still have pintele Yid in your neshamah (soul).

In the beginning of the 20th century, many European Jews felt obligated to be loyal to either the Yiddish or Zionist political movements. This choice is no longer necessary. The Shoah, among other events, has reduced Yiddish adherents to a small number, and Israel is a strong state steeped in Zionist ideals and the Hebrew language.

So, instead of choosing one or the other, I say, “Choose both!” Ironically, Israel, no longer threatened by Yiddish dominance, is in the best position to save Yiddish culture. It would be a pintele Yid moment for the Jewish state.

Saul Axelrod is a professor emeritus in the Temple University College of Education.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Here’s a fourth type. We were raised Episcopalian. My mother was embarrassed to have a Jewish surname, which we three kids loved to tease her about. (“Happy Hanukkah Mrs. Wallerstein!”) Dad had a secular Jewish father and lots of Jewish cousins, but a British mum. He even toyed with becoming a priest. I wasn’t old enough to notice anything unusual about him until he saw on TV that Israel had won the Six Day War. He became so overwhelmed with bliss he began leaping through the house like an untrained ballet dancer, sh*t-eating grin on his face, squealing with joy and shouting, “Only the Jews can make the desert bloom!” He’s 92 now and I never saw him in such a state of radical euphoria again, though he worries constantly about the Jews. It’s personal for him. He blushes when anyone talks about the non-Christian people he’s descended from. I thought it was something mystical in the blood, but today I learned from a friend it’s called “a pintele Yid.“ There has been so much intermarriage in this country, I think Jewishness will always be a strong part of the American fabric.

  2. Why ignore the third grouping??
    Who knows what spark decides there.

    I think that is the point of the ‘feeling of Pintele yid’.
    You’ll never know where it will come from!!!!

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