He Mocked A Yeshiva Boy Talking About Hebron, but Became a Zionist

As an assimilated Jew, Max Nordau was inspired by a story involving Hebron, and became a Zionist.

10.4.16, 16:22
The words "V'Shavu Banim l'Gvulam" come from Jeremiah 31:17 meaning "And the children shall return to their own borders." These words were quoted at the First Zionist Congress by Dr. Max Nordau (1849 -1923), an assimilated Jew who once wrote, "when I reached the age of fifteen, I left the Jewish way of life and the study of Torah. Judaism remained a mere memory and since then I have always felt as a German and a German only." 
However a chance encounter with a yeshiva boy who referenced the Cave of Machpela in Hebron brought Nordau to tears and prompted his return to Jewish roots. 
The story is told by Nordau's friend, the eminent scholar Abraham Shalom Yahuda (1877–1951). In his autobiographical book Ever Va-Arav, translated as "When I Studied Rashi", Yahuda wrote:
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On the second night of First Zionist Congress in Basel, Nordau spoke in German, giving a long speech. He mentioned several times, as a motto, three words from Jeremiah, in Hebrew, "V'Shavu Banim l'Gvulam," - "Our Children Have Returned to their Borders."
When asked by a young representative at the congress how he found this verse, and especially in Hebrew,  for this did not fit Nordau's educational background, Nordau replied: "I know these words from the person to whom I am obliged all my Judaism and Zionism. A person whose name I don't even know. A person who was, in essence, only a little boy of eight or ten. And this is what happened:
"I have a children's clinic in Paris. A woman, an immigrant from Poland, her hair covered with a scarf, came in with a pale boy, eight or ten, sick for three weeks. Someone recommended that she bring him to me. I took out a form for a new patient and tried to speak to him in our local language, but he could hardly understand French. I asked his mother, who was also very poor at French, and she said, 'no he doesn't go to a regular school, he goes to a "Heder," a Jewish religious school.'
I scolded her harshly. 'This only causes anti-Semitism. We have opened the door for you, the gates to the country, to refugees from Poland. Why doesn't your child learn the national language here?'
She apologized and said that he is still young and that her husband is from the 'old generation,' but that he will grow and study in the 'gymnasium' (modern school), and will learn the language.
In anger I asked the child, 'in Heder, what did you learn?' His eyes lit up, and in Yiddish, which I understood because of my German, told me what he had last studied in Heder.
"Jacob," he said, "was dying and he invited Joseph and commanded him, swearing him, pleaded before him, please, don't bury me in Egypt. There is the Cave of Machpela -- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca -- and there I buried Leah. Take me from Egypt and bury me with them. And when I came from Padan, Rachel died in the land of Canaan, on the way to Efrat, and I buried her there, on the way, in Bethlehem.
"Why, in the middle of Jacob's request, does he tell the story of the Tomb of Rachel?" "Rashi says," – and this is all the child talks about, eight or ten years old, speaking about the 'Sages' – that Jacob felt a necessity to apologize to Joseph and say, I bother you like this, to take me from Egypt to Hebron, and I, myself, didn’t bother to take your mother Rachel. And despite that I was very close. Next to Bethlehem. Even into the city I didn't take her, I buried her on the way.
But I am not guilty and didn't act wrongly. God wanted it this way. He knew: the murderer Nebuchadnezzar would, in the future, exile the sons of Rachel, her sons, during the first destruction, and then she would leave her grave and weep and wail and her voice would be heard: Rachel weeps for her children.
But the Lord responds to her: "Stop your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, because there is a reward for you actions, and a hope for the future, and the children will return to their borders – V'Shavu Banim l'Gvulam."
"And I," says Dr. Max Nordau, "I didn't know what to do with myself. I turned to the window so that the mother and child wouldn't see the tears rolling down my cheeks, and I said to myself, 'Max, aren't you ashamed of yourself? You are an educated man, known as an intellectual, with a doctor's degree, but you don't know anything about the history of your people. From all of the holy scriptures, nothing? And here, this sick child, weak, an immigrant, a refugee. And he speaks of Jacob and Joseph and Jeremiah, and Rachel, as if it was yesterday, it all lives in front of his eyes?'"
"I wiped the tears from my cheeks and turned to them and said, in my heart, 'a people, with children like this, that actually live their past, they will have a sparkling future."
"In the weekend newspaper I saw an advertisement, "Whoever believes that the fate of the Jewish people is important to them, please call to help find an answer. Dr. Theodor Herzl." I called immediately.
When we founded the Zionist Congress, at the first one, when I was honored to speak and give a speech, the figure of that little boy, whose name I don't even remember, stood in front of my eyes. But those words I will never forget, because they are the foundation of Zionism, they are the pillars of Judaism, V'Shavu Banim l'Gvulam – and the children will return to their borders."
* A. S. Yahuda, Ever Va-Arav , New York 1946, p. 257
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