By Eli Federman
Last night was the yartzeit of my father – Yitzchok Leib (Lyle) Federman, HY”D. I think about him at least once a day. He lived his life humbly searching for meaning – and helping others along the way. Never dogmatic and always intellectually honest. I strive to embody – even if a modicum – those virtues.
Here’s one little story of how his humanitarian work on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation reminded him of his own heritage.
My father grew up with little to no Jewish tradition. He celebrated the High Holidays. Was culturally Jewish and remembered going to Shul with his grandfather Binyomin. He spent much of his life searching for an identity. He eventually discovered and embraced his Jewish heritage at an Oglala tribal meeting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
He strived for a belief system that was all-inclusive, connected with nature with a social justice mission. Those values were reinforced by his exposure to the counter-cultural and environmental movements of the late ’60s.
He found those values in the Native American way of life. His began his journey by providing aid for food and clothing, and teaching computer skills on the poverty stricken Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He also volunteered at the sobriety meetings to fight the rampant alcohol and drug abuse.
Soon he started practicing Native American rituals like the sweat lodge (or ceremonial sauna) and learning the traditions and history.
Eventually, he was called to a tribal meeting where he would be formally inducted into the Oglala Lakota tribe. At the meeting, the tribal elders asked my father what he had observed on the reservation.
“I observe two kind of Indians,” my father explained. “One with short hair, head down, drunk and ashamed of who he is; and one with long hair, head up, sober and proud of his people.”
The elders nodded in approval.
They asked my father about his ancestry.
My father explained that he was Jewish.
The tribal leader paused, squinting in thought, and said: “There are two kinds of Jews. One with his head down, ashamed of who he is; and the other with his head up and proud of who he is.” He continued, “Be that Jew who is proud of who he is.”
My father said that was one of the most transcendental moments in his life.
I share this family story with the hope that it inspires others to embrace their heritage with humble pride and geon yakov.