Dear Mr. Wiesel,
I’m writing you to invite you back to Omaha. I know you visited here many years ago, but I’m not sure you grasped what is here in your brief visit. Perhaps we asked you to speak too much, rather than letting you hear our perspective on the world. I’m not sure you grasped what is here, because, having read much of your work, had you truly realized what is here, I think you would have decided to stay.
Mr. Wiesel, you are the most passionate writer about the shtetl. And not just the shtetl in Romania where you grew up. You romanticize the concept of the shtetl.
We know that the shtetl was never a place of great wealth, and yet, you refer to the shtetl as the “small colorful Jewish KINGDOM so rich, [not in money], but in memories.” And then you lament the destruction of the European shtetl. You share that you have been invaded by the emotions of pity and sadness that this place no longer exists.
Well Mr. Wiesel, I am thrilled to tell you that the shtetl that you loved is alive and well. But from my experience, you aren’t going to find it in Boston where you teach or in New York where you live. As you know, the word shtetl means small town – and while we know that there were shtetls of 20k Jews and shtetles of just 120, there was never a shtetl that you could see from outer space.
No Mr. Wiesel, if you truly want to revisit that sense of community that you remember fondly. If you truly want to find a place where Jews of every flavor put their community first and their politics second, you are going to have to move to Omaha.
Yes, it is far from the Lower East Side and yes, it is equally as far from the California Coast. But if you haven’t noticed, Jews don’t really live in the Lower East Side anymore and no one in LA would consider the starch filled diet of our Eastern European past.
Here in Omaha, we have both. We have kosher bagels and Hungarian bakers. And when we say someone lives far away, that only means it will take them fifteen minutes to get to Shabbat dinner instead of five.
But it is not only that we have elements reminiscent of the European shtetl you love that should bring you here. We’ve done some updating!!
In your romanticizing about the shtetl life you write about the comraderie of the shtetl life because of our shared enemies. “The enemy would suddenly emerge . . . in a frenzy of violence and hatred, beheading men, women, and children in the streets, in their poorly barricaded homes, caves and attics. The murderers left only when they thought the last Jew was dead. Then, as if out of nowhere, a man, a woman, an adolescent appeared, haggard, all in mourning, orienting themselves among the ruins. They buried the dead, said Kaddish, and life again began flowing, binding the abandoned individual souls into a community.”
You have that beautiful way of finding the silver lining to those most tragic and destructive moments in Jewish history. You will find the same beauty here, in our shtetl in Nebraska, but they don’t stem from a shared enemy. Like I said, we’ve made some necessary changes.
We don’t have a shared enemy anymore. No Czar to hate or nazi to fear. But we certainly all rally around for the same team. And in this case, the natives are always happy to adopt a new Husker fan. But some of that fear you write about also exists here in Omaha just as it did in the shtetl. We may not be worried that someone is going to burn down our village. But we do worry all the time about whether our village will be there for the next generation.
By all measures, a Jewish community our size should not be able to sustain a Jewish Home, a Jewish Day School, a weekly Jewish paper, three synagogues and a thriving Jewish preschool. Add to this list countless Jewish organizations like the ADL, the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, NCJW and so on. We are appropriately worried and disproportionally strong because like the shtetl you remember, we don’t believe abandonment is a Jewish value we can accept. Nor do we want anyone in our community to feel that being Jewish, as it was in your day, is some sort of second class.
Not only are our buildings spacious and state of the art, but the programs this community promotes ensure that everyone, rich or poor, young or old, are included. We aren’t perfect. We have our faults. But we do share that sense of solidarity that I know is not always found in the Jewish communities of large metropolitan areas.
You described that solidarity when you wrote that “A Jew from the shtetl thought of other Jews even after they left the shtetl, and even when the shtetl ceased to exist.” Nowhere is that more true than here. People say you can take the person out of New York, but you can’t take the New York out of the person. Well, in Omaha, you actually can’t take the person out of Omaha. Once you are here, even if you leave physically, you are always here. I’ve sat at tables countless times as people spend an entire conversation just remembering people. They talk about Old South Omaha – the businesses their grandfather owned and the way your grandfather owned the shop across the street. And they talk about that family who moved here because they were enlisted at Ofutt Air Force base or brought here to work at the Nebraska Medical Center with the same sense of love. Every year we officiate at weddings and unfortunately at funerals of people who have left Omaha, sometimes decades earlier, but who always called it home. For tens of thousands of Jews, this is their home, whether their mailing address says Nebraska or not.
And finally, Mr. Wiesel, you write passionately about the greatest product to come from the shtetl world; Hasidism. “It could not have been born anywhere else” you write. For it was in isolated villages that great rabbis like the Baal Shem Tov thrived. The Baal Shem Tov was known to walk children to school and talk with women in the marketplace.” He did not live in an ivory tower. And in your words, “In big cities, people were too busy and perhaps too lethargic to go and hear a wandering preacher, a teller of tales, who came not to reprimand but to reassure.” You are right. Hasidism, the great spiritual path of Judaism that was open to everyone, whether learned or uneducated, rich or poor, of aristocracy or a convert, could only work in the great small town of the shtetl.
So it is in Omaha. My colleagues in other cities rarely collaborate with their religious partners. Heck, sometimes, they don’t even have time to collaborate with the rabbi in the office next to them. But here, in our shtetl, we are more Hasidic in nature, you might say. I’m not saying that we are all going to start dancing the hora, but here there truly is no boundary to Jewish learning and Jewish life. We don’t believe in High Holiday tickets and we don’t check someone’s bank account at the door. Here, in our updated shtetl, we probably have more families who belong to more than one synagogue than not belong to one at all. We don’t always agree, which won’t surprise you, but we take the time to be together and do our best to accept each other for who we are. When you wrote about the power of Hasidism, you taught that “in the shtetl . . . the illiterate shepherd with a warm heart was as important as the learned man whose knowledge is rooted in books.” Here in Omaha, the CEO and the charity case meet – not to exchange tzedakah – but to study a page of Torah. Because here, no matter how wealthy you are – and we have wealth – or how poor you are – and we have poverty – our Torah table is big enough for both.
So Mr. Wiesel, we know that Boston has the Celtics and New York has the Yankees. But having read much of your work, I doubt you are concerned with sports. Your concern, above all else, has always been for life and for us to live it to the greatest of our capacity. In the shtetl, you said, “people lived, well or badly, but people lived before dying.”
We have a new shtetl to show you. One whose walls are not deteriorating. One whose enemies are extinct. And one filled with life – with vibrant Jewish life – big enough for everyone to enjoy and small enough for everyone to be known. We hope you join us. Not for our sake, but for yours.
This honored member of a blessed community.
 Wiesel, Elie Wise Men and Their Tales: Portraits of Biblical, Talmudic and Hasidic Masters, Shocken 2003. p. 316
 Ibid, 316
 Ibid, 318
 Ibid, 320
 Ibid, 321