Sometimes it’s the little things that help you bridge the gap between what you “know,” and what you appreciate. A recent example:
We were again in Tel Aviv the Sunday during Hannukah to visit with Tina, and for all of us to go see an exhibit at Beth Hatfusoth (The Diaspora Museum) about Soviet refuseniks and their struggle to escape the Iron Curtain. The exhibit began by documenting the role of Jewish Bolsheviks in creating a Communist government in Russia and the inevitable follow-up: the replacement of Czarist anti-Semitism with Stalinist anti-Semitism. From there, it traced the burgeoning of a Zionist movement, essentially from Israel’s Six Day War in 1967, until the demise of the Soviet Union. There were photographs and accompanying biographies of refuseniks, film clips, underground self-published books, posters, paintings, prisoners’ uniforms, religious articles, typewriters, and materials to learn Hebrew. All that was missing was the indescribable: the fear, the danger, the hunger, the cold, the isolation of a tiny minority defying one of the most terrifying totalitarian governments the world has ever known. Some of Tina’s relatives were real authentic refuseniks, and I thought it would be useful for her to see the history of the struggle before 1992 when she was born in Odessa. For Barbara and me, it was a trip down memory lane, at least the last part of the show, which dealt with the international support for Soviet Jewry, as the two of us marched in many of the Solidarity Sunday demonstrations in New York. (I still have a print of a large throng of people gathered at the UN, watching on a giant screen (then) Anatoly Scharansky when he was first released from the Soviet gulag. It seems like yesterday that we were there; and now I can see him, as Natan Scharansky, in person at demonstrations here in Israel.)
Our lunch at the museum was meager. (I think for the sake of authenticity they were using “The Refuseniks’ Cookbook for their menu planning: “place one potato in four liters of boiling water…”) So after Tina went back to await a shipment of furniture from Ikea for her new apartment, Barbara, Natania, and I went off in search of something more substantial to eat. Barbara had discovered a rather upscale mall about two blocks from the Tel Aviv University campus (I consider any mall which has a demo model of a Lexus hybrid on its first floor as qualifying for “upscale” status), and we trotted off in the hopes of finding some place, anyplace, that was kosher – this being Tel Aviv. Imagine our astonishment when the woman at the information booth told Barbara that all the eating establishments there were kosher (which probably meant that the entire mall was closed on Shabbat -- even more amazing for Tel Aviv.) We sent Natania up to check out the food court on the second floor, while Barbara and I went searching for a plastic spatula in a very fancy kitchenware store. Unlike the “meraglim” in The Bible, Natania came back with a favorable report. After much indecision, we wound up with some decent take-out level Chinese food. When we finished, we went back down to the ground level to leave – we simply wanted to get back to Maale Adumim to commence the sixth night of the holiday. As we were walking, we noticed a guy wheeling a portable, four foot high hanukkiah – just lit – to where it would be displayed. We could hear singing a little bit ahead of us, and we came upon a bunch of Chabadniks and a few “friends of Chabadniks,” all of whom had been involved in lighting the Hanukkah lights in this upscale mall in Tel Aviv (while I was obliviously snarfing some Szechuan chicken.)
I must have had one foot still on Memory Lane, because the sight of the Chabadniks and the hanukkiah brought me back some twenty years in time to when we were living in Caldwell, NJ and we had gone the Willowbrook Mall for the first ever candle lighting ceremony there, organized by Chabad in Morristown. (I remember photographing that as well, but none of my negatives looked promising and I tossed them.) I could picture that mall in my mind’s eye and I began to consider what a mall would look like this time of year – if we were back in New Jersey.
Now on a number of occasions, we had discussed the obvious fact that Xmas is hardly noticeable in Jerusalem (even though the municipality gives out FREE Xmas trees to anyone who wants one), but my point is that there is a vast difference between knowing something superficially and understanding its consequences. For the first time, I started to visualize what it would be like and how it would feel and how it would sound like on that December day if we were suddenly transported back to The States. What would it be like wading through the crowds at the Garden State Plaza? What music would I be hearing while maneuvering my cart down the aisles of the Shoprite in Englewood (where they have a Xmas tree and a big electric menorah in the parking lot all through December) or on “light FM” in my chiropractor’s waiting room in Bergenfield? And then the floodgates opened in my mind, and for the next several hours all the Xmas music I have ever heard since I was a boy – all the stuff about reindeers, and sleds, and snow, and winter wonderlands, that the gentile teachers at P.S. 80 felt obliged to teach us Jewish kids -- began racing and crashing through my brain until I was finally able to gain control and turn it off.
I was eating breakfast the following morning, idly flipping (in Hebrew, “ledafdef”) through The Jerusalem Post, when I came across an article entitled “The Three Reindeer Rule,” in which columnist Marilyn Henry described December in America as “the month of conflict and confusion over religious symbols in the public square and hurt feelings over holiday greetings.” I began to skim through the article, stopping abruptly in column four when I realized that Teaneck, my old home town, was mentioned: it seems that a divided town council there decided to add a crèche to their seasonal display, as opposed to removing the “menorah” (I imagine leaving only the Xmas Tree by itself.) The article describes the contortions that communities have gone through in dealing with visual symbols of “The Holidays” that would please their conflicted constituents and satisfy the often contradictory rulings of the American legal system. One town, Briarcliff Manor, wound up displaying a twenty five foot high Xmas tree and a six foot high dreidel! (Why not a plastic Santa Claus with a Kwanzaa symbol on his chest carrying a sack full of little dreidels? (Somebody please suggest this to Elie Katz [the mayor of Teaneck, himself a religious Jew.])
Please understand that one of America’s greatest contributions to Western Civilization – in addition to sliced bread and perhaps Al Gore’s invention of the internet – is the incredible concept of “secular” symbols of religion. The Supreme Court ruled twenty years ago that “both Christmas and Hanukka are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society.” In other words, if you add “three reindeer” to a Xmas display, then it is no longer a symbol of Christianity, but part of “The Holidays,” to which everyone is invited, and by which nobody should be offended. Join the party! You can even bring your own music! (Most of the seasonal music that you hear in December in America was written by Jews: not only the incomparable Irving Berlin, but lesser lights like Johnnie Marks, who fashioned an entire career out of writing tunes like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”)
You see, the Greeks had it all wrong. Forbidding a stiff-necked people to practice its religion will only get you something like a civil war. The American system, on the other hand, without even trying, has accomplished much more in destroying the religious fiber of the Jewish people – just by being nice (as in “Have a nice day!”)
I remember when Chabad began its campaign of placing hanukkah lights in public places – as much to reach out to their co-religionists as to publicize the miracle of this holiday to the gentiles of the world. And I remember the furor this campaign created. I will never forget a short speech delivered by a young woman who had just become a bat mitzvah who said that the modern day Maccabees were those Jews who were fighting the Chabadniks, so that there would be no hanukkiot allowed anywhere except in synagogues and private homes. Now you can think whatever you want about the legality and the efficacy of lighting hanukkah candles in malls, parks, and bridges. That’s not the point. The issue is, what would a modern day Maccabee do? Or better still, who might qualify as a modern day Maccabee? Who could be seen as being G-d’s agents in delivering “the strong into the power of the weak, the many into the power of the few, the impure into the power of the pure, the wicked into the power of the righteous, and the sacrilegious into the power of those immersed in Torah…” Or, in modern parlance, what few people did the most to bring down an Evil Empire? If you’re not sure of the answer, please return to the top and reread paragraph one. And what is the correct answer to the question: what would a modern day Maccabee do about the vexing issue of Hanukkah lights on public property in America? Would it be impertinent to suggest that most modern day Maccabees do not live in America?
For more about Hanukkah in Israel you will have to wait for part 2 of this article, coming soon to a computer near you.
(A brief postscript for all you cat-lovers: About a month ago, a friend of ours was walking back from our local MisterZol with her shopping bags of food. She stopped to rest along the way, and suddenly a forlorn, emaciated little kitten ran over to her and started meowing. The message was clear:”take me home or I will die of starvation.” Our friend put the kitten in her bag and proceeded home. Last week, our friend told us that she would have to return to The States on business for several weeks, and would we mind dropping into her apartment once a day to feed the cat and deal with the litter. Barbara, who is always getting into trouble over cats, decided that the now much bigger kitten would be lonely if left alone for several weeks. So she suggested that we keep him in our house. Our fourteen year old cat, Mimi, was not too happy with this idea, but we did it anyway. After a day or so, Mimi and Witty Kitty [don’t blame me; that’s what Yaffa named him] have come to some kind of understanding: Mimi is on our beds, and WK is in a shoe box under our beds. The only problem is that WK eats Mimi’s food, into which Barbara puts Mimi’s high blood pressure medication. The solution? Place the food where Mimi can get to it, but not WK. Now Mimi can no longer jump at all; she gets on our beds by climbing onto a plastic container which Barbara placed at the foot of her bed, and from there, she can climb up. WK is still too small to jump onto our bed, even using the container. So Barbara has been covering her bed during the day with newspaper and putting Mimi’s food bowl on top. I woke up this morning, and there was Mimi a few feet from me, snarfing down her morning meal. I called out to Barbara, “I’ve heard of breakfast in bed but this is ridiculous!”)