The importance of things both great and small


I was born in the first year of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. “This generation has a rendezvous with destiny” he declared in one of his fireside chats. 

I was in kindergarten when the 1938 New England hurricane swept away my safe summertime beach world and left a trail of broken glass in its wake. All I recall is a smashed window and a fallen lamp in the vestibule of our home. 

I remember the campaign of 1940 and, of course, the 1941 announcement that we were at war. At the least, I understood that there was trouble and evil in the world beyond Rhode Island and that we were now committed to fighting for freedom.   

The declaration gave me a sense of security: my uncles and cousins joined up … to protect me? I wrote to them. They wrote to me.   

I traced the D-Day events on the blackboard at grammar school in 1944, and can summon up my distress at the news of the death of FDR in 1945, the ironies of the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee years, and the birth of Israel in 1948.

I certainly could not picture myself draining swamps. I was made for a world of words, not weapons. How, though, did these huge events affect a boy in Providence watching the newsreels at the Hope Theatre or taking home books from the Rochambeau Library to keep up with changing literary tastes, both popular and classical?   

They were all events I would return to again and again as the decades whirled by. New York and Paris, the dignified styles of the Ivy League ... and then, the first of my many journeys to Jerusalem.  

I first set foot in our Holy Land in the summer of 1961, the Bar Mitzvah year of the nation-state of Israel. I wrote a piece for the Rhode Island School of Design’s alumni magazine about my impressions. I was nervous about its reception … but I was rewarded with a continued contract at a major art college. 

I worked for a bit on a kibbutz, taught English for a while in Tel Aviv, and saw as much of Jerusalem as was possible at that time.

Why am I thinking about, reliving, the contrast between the great world experiencing enormous events and the private world of a small child safe and sound, if also worried and uncertain about that rendezvous with destiny? I guess this is a kind of reductive review of how big things affect little people. 

Jerusalem changed me from a Jewish American boy glad to be part of a fine college (Yale) and comfortable with a family that provided room and board and the company of an older brother with whom to share, for a while, hopes for happiness ahead. 

My brother was a likely lad who could fulfill the ambitions of our parents. I, on the other hand, had a long trail ahead of me. But after 1948, and then 1961, my Jewish identity changed from accepting the American dream of being a normal neighbor who agreed, mostly, with the values of the mid-20th century, into a haunted soul who could not stop dwelling on what was later labelled “the Holocaust.”   

I brooded about the triviality of my concerns versus the enormous challenges facing Jews everywhere!

What makes one “Jewish”?  Does that not include a very, very special interest in Israel’s welfare and the pursuit of justice for the survivors who had lost everything?

Well, that’s how I’m thinking of late about those of my generation, who may share my story.  Yes, we lived through the Great Depression, but you could survive and get beyond it. We had our loyalties to the comic strips and the Hollywood of our times. We learned the enormous impact of “small things”: children, grandchildren, friends, spouses. And we looked beyond our pursuit of wealth and personal comfort … to Jerusalem. We realize that whatever happens in Jerusalem also happens to us.  

Our families came here mostly for a safe haven and a chance to prosper and fit in. We have our own Jerusalem here in Rhode Island. But Jerusalem, Israel, gives our Judaism grandeur, courage, defiance, an existential philosophy par excellence, and an explosion of beauty and rebirth. Happy three score and 10!

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.