Thursday, October 30, 2008

Elmer Among The Sheltering Palms

(chorus of “Down Among The Sheltering Palms,”
Music by Abe Olman, Lyrics by James Brockman, 1914)

One of the fun things I noticed right before Sukkot was an article in the Jerusalem Post in which the writer considered inviting his own ushpizin into his sukkah. Now the ushpizin, the “guests” we invite, one by one, into our sukkahs are in our tradition, seven biblical heroes from Avraham Avinu to King David (although I assume in today’s world, many people think to invite some biblical women as well). But suppose you could make up your own laundry list of characters to invite? The writer in question, cheating a bit by having ten people on his list, got a little creative. He “invited” Molly Picon, the Yiddish actress, Levi Strauss, who basically “invented” dungarees, and, most intriguingly, Lippman Pike, one of the first professional baseball players, who flourished in the 1880’s, long before Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax.
By the time the holiday came around, our sukkah was ready to host our guests. Our cotton panels, slightly shrunken from a trip through our clothes dryer, were fitted onto the plastic poles with only one small rip in the cotton; our bamboo mat was rolled out for schach (no need for branches from the sheltering palms); I had purchased a few more decorations (imitation fruit purchased on one of my excursions onto Malchei Yisrael). We even had a real light. Barbara had gone into our local Ace Hardware in search of the simple one bulb holders that we had always used in The States. All they had at Ace was a much more elaborate florescent fixture which came without any way of hanging it and without any wiring. Not to worry. Buy it and bring it over to the next counter to the young Russian woman who was spending her day wiring these lamps for use in sukkahs. Then it took us several hours more to figure out a method of attaching it to our sukkah, but we finally got it up. The table and chairs were set up, and we were indeed ready.
For our first guests, we invited a family who had made aliyah only a few months before. This family’s klita (absorption) has been a lot more complicated than ours, which was, in hindsight, a piece of cake. All of the 2008 olim faced one serious obstacle, a port strike which meant that all of the lifts were left to languish somewhere in Turkey until the Israeli dock workers agreed to resume their labors. This family also had a problem with their son’s education. The first school they enrolled him in, while perfect on paper, proved to be a disaster in practice, and it took a month of effort for the local officials to allow them to transfer him to another school (both of which are within walking distance of their apartment, by the way) where he is now doing fine. Then there was their preparation for Sukkot. Last year, when I went to the concession in front of Ace Hardware, they had everything I needed; my only problem was finding a monit with a roof rack so I could cart it home from the Mall. This year, when Michael ordered a sukkah, they didn’t have any bamboo mats on hand. Soon. Well, as does happen here with some frequency, “soon” morphed into “never.” Plus, Michael had tried to order a lulav and etrog from one of the local synagogues, but because of some snafu, he never got it. So there they were a day before the Yomtov, species-less and schach-less, putting out frantic e-mails to the community. Fortunately, they have a wonderful landlady, a veteran Maale Adumimer, who took it upon herself to drive around town and get them everything they needed. So they were a little frazzled from all of these difficulties. Hence I figured that Michael deserved to meet and greet my long-time acquaintance, Elmer.
Elmer T. Lee has been making a mighty tasty single barrel sour mash “for over fifty years” somewhere in Kentucky. I had discovered that Michael, like me, is ambidextrous: that is, he drinks both Scotch and bourbon (although I am also very fond of Irish whiskey, but I still only am allowed two hands). When Barbara went back to The States to visit her mom and to hang out for a week in Teaneck, we all gave her a shopping list. Mine was fairly short: a few items of clothing and a bottle of bourbon, listing a few possible brands. Sure enough, Barbara returned with a bottle of Elmer’s carefully wrapped with her socks in a suitcase. You may inquire: why do you have to go back to Teaneck to buy some booze? Fair question. One, the selection in New Jersey is more extensive than it is here. Two, it’s a matter of price, which is always a matter of some interest to me. While the cost of Israeli wine is a lot less here, the cost of most hard stuff is much, much more. I saw in an article a few months ago that the British government was protesting the unfair tax imposed here on Scotch whisky. (I should note that in Dublin or Louisville it’s “whiskey,” while in Glasgow it’s “whisky.” I have no idea why.) The response of the Israeli government, as is often the case, made us seem like a bunch of blithering idiots. They mumbled something about taxing whiskey based upon its alcohol content. Of course, you can get rot-gut vodka here basically for the same price as soft drinks. (That’s because there are a million Russians here, and no one is going to mess with their vodka. When we have a million Anglos here, we will have similar clout.) Towards the bottom of the article, I noticed the following amazing statistic. Three quarters of the whiskey purchased here comes from the duty-free shops at the airport. And that’s only what can be quantified. There’s no way to count the number of bottles of booze that enter our Ancestral Homeland legally and illegally from The States, or more likely, England(where it’s a lot cheaper than the duty-free shops). Can you find a better illustration of the haven’t-got-a-clue-ness of our government? They have an astronomical tax on a product, but they collect it on perhaps one fifth of the items purchased. So the only individuals they collect it from are those too poor to travel, too much of a freier to notice, or too drunk to care. I could swear that the l’chaims we made with Elmer’s fine brew tasted even better because of its tax-free status.
Anyway, we had the fine meal which Natania and I prepared, and we sat for quite a while, enjoying the rapidly cooling evening air. Our Shabbat and Yom Tov table is more likely to involve brilliant conversation rather than vocalizing; but on this night, our various neighbors more than made up for it. Our immediate neighbors, the ones who share the building with us, are Russians, and from them, sounds of the Volga enhanced by vodka wafted our way. On the other side of us lives a Moroccan family, long time residents of our town. The mother, Tzippi, is very friendly and often brings us samples of her excellent cooking and occasional leftovers (her family does not like to eat reheated meals; remember that there was a time when most people here in The Land did not have enough to eat). The following Thursday, a son would be a bar mitzvah, and so they were in a particularly festive mood, sitting in their sukkah and singing for hours on end. If we listened closely, we could hear our neighbors up and down the block singing as well, on into the night. But, as usual, I began to hear the sound of my pillow calling to me, and we called it an evening.
Over the next several days, I kept thinking about Lippman Pike and the other goofy guests whom our JPost reporter had virtually “invited” into his sukkah. I’m as “creative” as this guy; why don’t I compile my own list? I just ask for one easement: I want to invite them all at the same time, have a real sukkah party. Since I myself don’t sing in the sukkah, why not invite some of my favorite song writers? I figure that Irvin Berlin would be too busy writing “White Christmas” to come, but perhaps ask Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, George Gershwin, and Harold Arlen. Maybe lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Larry Hart, Otto Harbach, and Dorothy Fields? I could ask Al Jolsen, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor to sing. If that idea doesn’t pan out, how about a little comedy? Imagine a sukkah with the Marx Brothers inside. Of course, even including Zeppo, that’s only four, room for some more. Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and George Burns would liven up the evening. Of course, nobody else would get a word in edgewise.
I kept mulling this over and over in my mind. These lists were all well and good. But what it came down to was this: if I could actually invite, “virtually” or for real, anybody I wanted to into my sukkah, it would have to be the guys I grew up with on 208th Street in The Bronx. We are scattered. Some of them I am still in contact with; some are long gone. Some have quarreled and are not speaking to one another. But I can see them now, arriving at Hamitzadim, my street in Maale Adumim, a little bit east of Yerushalayim, coming down the steps to our front door. On chol hamoed, we could get out the cards and resume the poker game where we left off some fifty years ago. At a certain time of night we would put away the cards and go out to Schweller’s delicatessen for a bite to eat (a sandwich or a hot dog, depending on our evening’s fortunes); so perhaps we can order some really good and really kosher corned beef or pastrami and have it speed-sent from The States. And plenty of Dr. Brown’s soda! That you can get here. (For reasons I could never quite fathom, my friend Al was partial to their Cel-Ray. The rest of us would be content with cream soda or black cherry. Remember that we were too young for anything stronger.)
I will be continuing this series, describing real people whom we met and places which we saw over the holiday. But if Sukkot is zman simchateinu, you will forgive me a moment of reverie for a long gone time in my life, which, in its own innocent way, was a time of happiness for a special group of friends.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Time of Our Joy - Introduction

It seems inescapable that there are times when you must begin with a cliché before getting on with the business at hand. One example I can think offhand would be if you were writing an article about the latest selection of kosher wines, you would have to begin the article by reminding everyone for the twentieth time that twenty years ago the only kosher wines available were sweet Kiddush wines or poor quality red wines, etc. Then and only then, could you discuss the good quality of today’s wines. The same is true of Sukkot. I am planning to write a series of articles about the fun, interesting, and meaningful things we did over the Hag, but I have to begin with reminding everyone of two well-known and inescapable facts about Sukkot in Israel:
The best time of the year to be here is right now when the weather is perfect.
The best place in the world to be for Sukkot is here in The Land (although that’s true for any day of the year.) There, I have disposed of my obligatory clichés and I can proceed to write what’s on my mind.
It was Tuesday night, and the first phase of Sukkot was now officially over. My friend Steve S. had invited me to join him in his sukkah on the way back from Mussar Avicha, our shul. I didn’t want to stay too long; my family was waiting for me at home. But there was enough time to make a lashev b’sukkah (the blessing upon entering the sukkah) and then have a piece of cake and some melon. We started to reminisce about Sukkots of by-gone days in the Old Country, Steve and Ettie originally having hailed from the Albany area where it gets mighty cold this time of year. For them, if it didn’t rain – and the rain was frequent – that was considered sufficient motivation to sit in the sukkah, regardless of how cold it got and how many layers of clothing were required. Steve remembered sitting and waiting late in the morning for the sun to be high enough to penetrate the cold of the sukkah for an hour or two. And he remembered lining the sukkah with the local fruits of the fall harvest: various sizes, shapes, and colors of gourds and pumpkins. That reminded me of the first few years that we lived in New Jersey. Someone once suggested that we use corn stalks (readily available that time of year) for schach (what you put on top of the sukkah). It never occurred to us that what we considered as something spiritual and decorative would be seen by the local critters as food. The corn stalks we hung up one day would all be eaten by the next morning. We ultimately resorted to bland but absolutely inedible bamboo poles. But that vision of a sukkah festooned with the fall colors of the squashes and gourds led me back to something I thought about last year.
One of the great haval’s (it’s a shame) of American Jewish life is the fading away of this holiday from the consciousness of most of our landsmen. For most American Jews, the experience (if they have it at all) of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (and the never-ending time in synagogue or temple) is sufficiently daunting enough to last them for quite a while, thank you very much. If you want to do the fall harvest thing in America, there’s Halloween and Thanksgiving, which are certainly more mainstream and a lot easier to get into, as everyone else is doing it too. Enough of this separateness thing. There’s no need to take off another four days from work for parochial concerns and experiences. We’ve made our point, and let’s get on with our lives.
So if you want to do Sukkot, you have to understand what it is that is being celebrated and why it is zman simchateinu (the time of our happiness). Yet even for those of us in most of The Exile who are “religious,” our joy over the Hag is somewhat diminished by the fickleness of the weather. But the biggest limitation in America, as I see it, is the blandness of Chol Hamoed, the intermediate days between Sukkot and Shmini Adzeret/Simchat Torah, essentially “down time” when you try to limit your everyday activities. Personally, I always went to work because there wasn’t much else to do – especially if the whole idea is to be in a place where you could eat in a sukkah. Kind of limiting. Very few museums, parks, zoos, or places anywhere in The States fill the bill. The run-of-the-mill places like Great Adventures you can visit any time of the year. You might as well save your days off for another day, another time.
Here in The Land, Sukkot is The Time: time to tour the country, time to visit with family and friends, time to chill out, whether you are haredi, daati, masoreti, hilloni. People here who do not consider themselves especially “religious” enjoy sitting in their sukkah on The (one day) Hag, which is a national holiday – as is the last day, on which the staid Shmini Adzeret is enveloped into the emotional Simchat Torah. During the intermediate days, all the schools are off, government offices are closed, and many people are either off from work or take a day or two. There are special events and things to do, places to go, and, if you are of the mind, it’s not too hard to find a sukkah, even in parks and certainly in kosher restaurants.
I am especially fond of those few days here between Yom Kippur and Sukkot when you can see sukkahs being built in an hour (as opposed to the snail’s pace for most construction!) and when an arcane industry flourishes, the urgent merchandising of a citrus fruit, a palm frond, and some otherwise insignificant vegetation. It was during this season that Barbara and I visited The Land in 1980 and 1988; that was when I first “got it,” when I first understood what The Hag was all about and what was so special about being Here. In 2008, having some time on my hands, I made it a point to walk, camera in hand, around some of the religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem, including places in Geulah where we had stayed two decades before. Sort of a walk down Rehov Hazichronot (Memory Lane). Some things have changed: I don’t remember that twenty years ago they were selling boxes of plainly marked “Christmas lights” for sukkah decorations to Haredim. And all the tables of lulavs and etrogs that stretched all the way down Rehov Mea Shearim have been moved into covered min-shuks along King George and on Jaffa opposite Mahane Yehuda. Twenty years ago, I returned from Israel with the latest innovation, a heavy-duty plastic container, with zipper and handle, to hold my lulav; this year, every single person in Mussar Avicha had the identical holder. A handful of years ago, somebody had the brilliant idea of marketing sealed packages of myrtle branches. This year, for the first time, I saw similarly sealed packages of those troublesome willow branches, which otherwise wilt if you look at them the wrong way. But some things have hardly changed: the ingenuity of people building sukkahs in the most unlikely, incongruous places; the general bustle, the way Haredi men will spend an hour or more meticulously examining every lulav and etrog that a vendor has to offer (the way some women shop for hats or some of us men taste wine or single malts). Everywhere in the Geulah area, people were buying and selling something. Where else in Israel would you find young men shopping for neckties? And so I sent two days just walking and photographing around Malchei Yisrael and the side streets nearby, down Rehov Yeheskel and the Bukharin market. Needless to say, there were other things to do: shopping, cooking, and erecting our sukkah (a pre-fab model with cotton panels, which because we’re stupid Americans, we washed and put in the dryer last year, so that the cotton shrunk and we had a deuce of a job getting it to fit). By the time that zman simchateinu arrived, I at least was ready. No time to think about Tzipi Livni (here in The Land, negotiations over a coalition government would be suspended until Acharei Hahagim) or Barack Obama; nightmares are not conducive to a festive mood. Barbara was off from work, Natania was on vacation from the nishkia (the weapons storeroom where she is assigned), and there would be ample time to enjoy The Land. In the next several posts, I will describe some of the things and events which brought us joy over the eight days of The Hag. I hope your holiday was as pleasant as ours.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Electing to Do Tshuvah

(I apologize for the length of this piece, but I could not find any convenient place to cut it in half. I also hope that no one is offended unduly by my political beliefs.)
Permit me to share with you an “exchange of ideas” I had recently with a (deservedly) very prominent rabbi here in The Land. In response to a question, the rabbi gave his opinion (and he stated clearly that it was only an opinion) that none of us expat Americans should vote in elections in the forthcoming Presidential election. He asked rhetorically, who or what gave us the right to do so, now that we are Here, his point being that when we left the States, we were effectively severing our connection to the land of our birth. I read this suggestion which came to me in one of the many parsha sheets available on the Web, was puzzled by it, and responded to a friend of mine who has a connection to this rabbi.
My response was: Who give us the right? That’s a slam dunk! The US government gives us the right. They want us to vote. Both political parties want us to vote. Everyone – except for this one rabbi – is encouraging us, imploring us, telling us it’s our responsibility to vote. Hundreds of thousands of Americans living abroad – not counting folks in the Armed Forces – do vote, and I suspect that people will be coming out of the woodwork to vote in this coming election. Part of the willingness, even eagerness, of the US to allow us expats the right to vote stems from the basic principal, “No taxation without representation.” American citizens are expected to file tax returns and account for their income no matter where they live (which is the exact opposite of Israel: here, if you leave the country, you don’t pay taxes and you cannot vote – unless you take a plane ride to the polling place). There is also an unusual sense of magnanimity: Americans don’t get upset if a citizen decides to reside in Bermuda. You can take out a second citizenship; you can wear the colors of a foreign government in the Olympics, no sweat.
Then there is the matter of finances. Take an old geezer like me; I’m receiving a pension from the City of New York as well as Social Security. All of our assets are tied up in banks and in other American financial institutions. Depending on the strength of the dollar and the value of our assets, I could either be rich or poor here in The Land. Wouldn’t it be prudent of me to be interested in who is minding the ship – especially now? My friend relayed my objections to the rabbi, who responded that he knew about the American law allowing us to vote (he is not from the States). Just that he thinks it’s a “bad law.” Oh.
To be fair, the point this rabbi was making was that by leaving your country of birth you are essentially granting yourself a divorce, and, just as you would have no right to meddle in the affairs of a former spouse, so you should disengage yourself from the affairs of your original country. No doubt that is how he felt, leaving the land of his birth many years ago.. But for most of us former Americans, we went away, but we didn’t go away mad. We were not kicked out; no one stole our property; no one stopped us from practicing our religion. We left of our own free will to help build a Jewish Future in our ancestral Homeland – something we felt we could not accomplish from the very real comforts of our suburban homes. We had to leave some belongings behind, we reluctantly left family and friends behind. But speaking for myself, I had to bring with me my memories, my associations, and my points of reference (not to mention my sense of gratitude to a country which gave refuge to my grandparents 125 years ago). The only way I could have left them behind would have been with a frontal lobotomy. I could no more be oblivious to the contest for the American presidency as I could fail to root for American athletes in the Olympics.
US presidential elections are probably the best show in town for its citizens, bigger than the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the Oscars put together. It is also a riveting example of participatory democracy, the best in the world. I think it is fair to say that the best thing about America is its political system. A cynic might suggest that the worst thing about Israel is its political system (which is still a lot better than folks in many other countries are offered). One reason for me to be interested in the November election in the US is that the national election we need to have here in Israel may not take place until who knows when. And so, I have returned from the post office where I dropped off our absentee ballots, making sure that we had put on enough postage for the envelopes to arrive in Hackensack in time to be counted.

That said, I began having feelings of trepidation and then alarm about the up-coming presidential election starting last spring when it started to seem likely that Barack Obama would be the Democratic nominee and that he could actually win the presidency. And while American politics is not the usual topic of conversation walking back from Mussar Avicha or at the Shabbat table, I soon realized that my sense of disquiet was shared by virtually everyone here I met who gave the matter any thought. While there is a healthy skepticism both of Israeli and American politicians of all stripes, religious Jews in America and especially here, tend to veer away from the Liberal viewpoint; and Senator Obama is understood to be on the extreme Left of the Democratic Party, someone whose positions, credentials and associations are looked on with suspicion. However, I have begun to wonder if this man is as radical as his voting record would indicate, or is he a total opportunist, the most cynical presidential candidate since Richard Milhous Nixon? Is he really the man who attended a church for whose pastor is a known crackpot, or a disingenuous and crafty politician who dismissed this same crackpot eight months ago when the going got tough, knowing full well that the American print and electronic media would give him a pass, put their collective heads in the sand, and not investigate the matter? (Talk about ignoring an elephant in a room; this is a glow-in-the-dark wooly mammoth.)
The question I put to myself was: Should I tune out, put my own head in the sand? I’m thousands of miles away, and there is little I can do to affect the outcome. If my former landsmen across the ocean want to elect someone so devoid of merit, that’s their problem. He can’t do us here in The Land any more harm than our own elected (?) government will let him. And regardless who will win, now and in the future, we will most likely see a stream of American and European politicians of all stripes tying up traffic in Jerusalem – if, Light Rail and all, there will be any traffic left to tie up – in their eagerness to tell us how we can make matters worse than they already are.
Or should I stand erect and come out swinging forcefully? After all, keeping one’s head in the sand, even figuratively, leaves a wide, unprotected area in which one can be kicked. And always, always, silence presumes assent.
Having paid him little mind until recently, I had to learn a lot more about Barack Obama. What better way than to go to his official website to find out what his campaign is saying about him and what he has accomplished. I started to read “About Barack Obama”, and I quickly realized exactly what his campaign was doing. For a number of years, Barbara was employed as an Out-Placement Counselor, working with executives who were being laid off, to help them find suitable employment. There were two things which my wife stressed over and over again: 1) networking and 2) explaining and highlighting accomplishments. Using “action words” her clients were made to focus on “increasing sales, decreasing turnaround time, improving, creating,” on and on. But supposing you hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary, you were just another cog in the wheel in the office, easily replaceable? The only thing you had increased was the consumption of coffee in the employees lounge. Well then, you’d better dazzle them with you-know-what. “Increased company’s liquidity by fifteen percent,” you trumpet. Your most memorable moment was when scored the tie-breaking run in the softball game at the company picnic, when the opposing pitcher threw a wild pitch. “Dramatically improved company morale by effectuating improvements to company social events,” you boast. Obama seems to have slid from position to position without ever doing anything to live up to his self-proclaimed promise. The work of a very creative (very!) team of writers cannot disguise the fact that their candidate for president has never run anything or done anything out of the ordinary – even if he sounds good. (I am resisting the temptation, because of space constraints, to copy his entire web bio and then, disingenuous word by word, gleefully tear it apart.)
Of course, Barack Obama doesn’t always sound good – to my ears. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I have been able to hear parts of some of his speeches. There was one thing he said that disturbed me profoundly – although it was nothing new or surprising. At the time when Sara Palin’s name first surfaced and the subsequent disclosure of her daughter’s pregnancy, and the teenager’s decision to have the baby, I heard with my own ears a recording of the senator saying that, if his still young daughters were later on to face that situation, he wouldn’t want to “punish them.” “Punish” them? I assume that he meant that having a child would be a “punishment” for a teen-age unwed mother. But who would be doing the “punishing”? Obama the family patriarch, by forcing her to have the baby? The community, by its response to the presence of an unwed mother (hearkening back to the days of Nathaniel Hawthorne)? The impregnator, for you know what? Or could he mean that a fetus is G-d’s punishment for immoral behavior? Personally, I have trouble with the notion that a human baby is a punishment, and I have some non-partisan advice for this would-be President: Be Careful. By now, everyone has heard of the warning: Be careful what you wish for……… For many years, I have taken this idea one step further: Be careful what you complain about.
Many years ago when I was a Supervisor II in the Child Welfare Department, one of the caseworkers in our area, a somewhat strange Chabadnik type, was complaining bitterly about a forthcoming three day Yom tov and how hard it was for everyone. He used the term “holocaust” to describe the degree of difficulty. Now, I knew he was exaggerating for effect, and I assumed that he knew that I knew he was exaggerating, and so forth. So I didn’t say to him, “Aren’t you being overwhelmingly overdramatic?” Instead I let the matter drop. Several years later, this same somewhat strange Chabadnik type – not the brightest crayon in the box, although a few hues more vivid than Joseph Biden – was performing bidekat chametz (the ceremony performed the night before Pesach in which you search for chametz by candlelight throughout your house). Well, this guy was certainly thorough; he was searching under a bed in an upstairs bedroom when he set a mattress on fire. On trying to drag the mattress out of the room, he set the whole house, an old wood frame building somewhere in Brooklyn, on fire. The entire house burned down, and even worse, one of his young sons was overcome with smoke asphyxiation and lay in a coma for many months. It was as if a heavenly voice were saying: “”You want a holocaust; I’ll give you a holocaust.” At least, that’s how I looked at it. Now you may think that I am demented, that I have been out in the desert heat, staring at the sand dunes out here for too long, and I need to take a rest. But I took this lesson to heart, and I have been mighty careful about what I complain about ever since.
My mother never complained – at least as far as I ever heard. She and my father were married in 1927, and she had my sister (long deceased) in 1929. Although they wanted more children, she did not seem to be able to get pregnant again. And years later, after having an ovary removed, it was obvious that there would never be any more diapers for them to change. But somewhere towards the end of 1940, she began experiencing stomach pains and, in general, to feel unwell. Her doctor’s diagnosis: Surprise, you are indeed pregnant! Using his stethoscope, (the only diagnostic tool at his disposal back then) he could detect a heartbeat in her womb. What his stethoscope could not detect was a second heartbeat of a second fetus tucked behind the first one. My mother had no idea she was delivering twins until she was in the delivery room on March 16, 1941. I’m the second heartbeat, and I can say with some pride that I am one of the most unexpected children ever born. Forty six years later, we returned the favor and gave my mother her first grandchild when she a youthful 84 years of age. I leave it to you to imagine how much she wanted to be a grandmother all those long years. Yet she never uttered a single syllable of reproach to me or Barbara (my brother Frank, may he live and be well, was not yet married at that time). I realize that the circumstances of my birth and that of the hypothetical unwed grandchildren of Barack and Michelle Obama would be vastly different, but I have to scratch my head in wonderment at the glibness with which a man can discuss the abortion of his own potential future generation.
There is an ideology here with which I cannot agree and I can only remotely understand. I’m sure that Senator Obama, being the former editor of the Harvard Law Review, can easily articulate dozens of legal and moral reasons against the death penalty, executing a prisoner convicted of a capital offense after having been found guilty by a jury of his peers. But what jury has convicted the unwanted fetus of being guilty of anything more serious than being inconvenient? We have an idea in Judaism that being merciful to the cruel will inevitably wind up in being cruel to the merciful. Somehow along the way, careening as far and as fast as we can away from the G-d who created us, we seem to have turned that idea on its head.

It should be obvious that we can only encourage families not to snuff out their progeny; we cannot stop them if they are truly determined to do so. As far as children and grandchildren are concerned, I am much more concerned about the young lives – and those of their parents and grandparents – residing here in The Land. And here again I run afoul of this Obama guy. Although it was asked about him, half in jest, what a community organizer does, I pretty much know the answer, having worked in social services for almost thirty years. One thing one would do, working in an inner-city neighborhood is to try to keep the peace. Suppose there are rival gangs and they are threatening to blow up the neighborhood, one would try to arrange a meeting with both sides and negotiate a truce. From a cosmic point of view, both of these gangs are simply nuisances. The neighborhoods were there long before the gangs were formed and will still be there, one way or another, when both gangs are long forgotten. The two gangs are simply purveyors of senseless violence and destruction, equally in the way of progress. But they take themselves seriously and must be treated as such, not letting one’s dismal opinion of their lack of importance stand in the way.
Could it be that most of the world considers the on-going dispute between us and “our cousins” in the same light? That our respective communities are simply two very much over-age groups of adolescents, each clinging to some nonsensical notions of religious honor and some irrelevant bits of “turf”? That if we would both “get a life” we could end the dispute and that would set the pattern for the rest of the region, leaving everyone else to become healthy, wealthy, and wise? Remember that most of the world is broken into two camps: one that sees all religion as either irrelevant or harmful, the second that particularly despises the G-d of Israel and the remnants of His People. What we here in Israel especially do not need are the naïve, the gullible, the hateful, or the cynical coming here to pressure us into a state of self-destruction – we have enough of these in our midst already. So would Barack Obama come here trying to broker a deal as a good but very naive social worker, completely out of his depth (as so many Republicans and Democrats have come before him), as if the Jewish people were bickering over a dozen decrepit blocks on the South Side of Chicago, instead of holding onto the Promised Land we have cherished for thousands of years? Or would he come as a true disciple of this lunatic Wright, truly our enemy? Either way, I suspect that he would consider our claims and our prayers to be less than crucial to his world view.
About two months, at the first annual Nefesh B’Nefesh Jewish Bloggers Conference, I managed to involve myself in a conversation that had started before I arrived. One man, who wrote a political blog, was explaining how when McCain had recently arrived at the Kotel with Lieberman, the candidate was wearing a knitted kippah. When several weeks later, Mike Huckabee, came to the Kotel, he too was wearing a knitted kippah. When Obama came to the Kotel (when somebody “stole” the piece of paper he stuck in a crack in the wall) he took one of the dorky paper yarmulkes for tourists that they keep at the entrance to the men’s section and stuck that on his head. Now I will admit that I have not been keeping tabs on the headgear that assorted male politicians of all stripes and all countries have worn over the years when they came to the Kotel (although I seem to recall that all American female politicians have recently been seen sporting head scarves when they visited Muslim countries). And I wouldn’t necessarily expect a gentile from Paraguay or Cambodia to have a yarmulke in his pocket. But here’s a guy running for the President of the United States, with dozens of liberal Jews as his advisors, and no one thought to give him a yarmulke before he got off the plane? Even David Dinkins (a fine gentleman who was a very ineffective mayor of NYC) had a kippah – with “Dave” embroidered on it. You may call me overly sensitive if you wish, but I sense that this Democratic nominee is not taking the concerns of my community very seriously. Please forgive me if I return the favor.
Let me conveniently throw in one more (very) sore point with me, something which I see as related and to which I have alluded: the negative world-wide role of the communication media, both culturally and politically. We recently had Friday night dinner with two friends who are devoted readers of my essays. The topic under discussion was: has the media in America gotten any worse in the last few years? My friends insisted that it’s the same old obviously and overtly biased bunch of Leftists that it always was. My claim is that there is a new sense of arrogance, a “we’re not even going to pretend we’re objective, or that we have any other purpose besides being cheerleaders for one side, because we’re smarter than you and know better” attitude that I had not detected before. Of course, it could be worse (and I suspect it will be sooner than you think). Ask the Jewish community in England about the BBC. What I hadn’t realized until we came to live in The Land is how unabashedly leftward-slanted the media is here. As most of you are aware, there was a recent Kadima primary to determine who would head up their party, and, they hope (and I hope not), the next government. The contest was really between two major candidates: Shaul Mofaz, representing the ‘we-occasionally-give-a-nod-and-pay-lip-service-to-reality’faction, and Tzipi Livni, representing the ‘reality-is-a-place-where-we-take-a-biannual-vacation’faction. Of course, the media here favored Livni, and, in the course of their coverage, reported bogus polling data showing Livni with a huge, insurmountable lead among Kadima voters. On Election Day itself – while the voting were still going on, no less – they were trumpeting exit polls showing Livni with the same impregnable lead. But when the ballots were actually counted, surprise! – Livni won by a scant few hundred votes, a result which may have been different if Mofaz supporters hadn’t been discouraged and demoralized by these patently false projections. And what was the response of the pollsters and the media to the fact that their data was wildly inaccurate? “The voters lied to us.” Can you even begin to fathom such chutzpah? No, everything is not perfect in The Land.
With all the very real pain our political leaders are causing us and our sometimes seeming inability to stop them, it would be very easy to see things spinning out of control, but the secret to my generally cheerful disposition is that I try to remember Who is actually in control. Hint: it’s not politicians of either Party in America, nor is in any of the myriad factions here in The Land, nor is it the vulgar, braying sycophants in the media who think they are so smart and/or we are so dumb. And when I reconsider whether I should bend over with my head in the sand or stand erect and hurl diatribes at my opponents, I remember the instruction for the Viduy (confession) on Yom Kippur: “ should stand with head and body slightly bowed, in submissive contrition.” Seeking tshuvah, it’s a very ennobling experience, something I recommend heartily to anyone who thinks that he/she is the smartest creature on G-d’s green earth. There, now I feel better.

Here are some of the things I prayed for this Yom Kippur:
A political leadership in The Land that functions based upon our very large needs, not upon our paltry merits.
A rabbinic leadership that sees its constituency as the entire nation of Israel, not just those who dress like them or go their synagogues, and who understand that freeing our captives is a greater Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) than who will be the next Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.
A growing nation of Jews who will each find the koach (strength) to perform at least one small act to increase the light of Torah in the world and the amount of Ahavat Yisrael (love of every Jew, whether they look like us, dress like us, or pray like us).
A growing body of Jews in the West who dream of living in the Land, and who find the wherewithal to make that happen.
And would someone, anyone, please say “Amen.”

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Musing on a Machzor

It’s not quite as easy for a Jewish person in America to know that Rosh Hashana is coming as a Christian (or anybody) to know that Christmas is coming – what with all the signs commencing in mid-September announcing the number of shopping days until – but it’s almost as easy – especially here in The Land. It’s especially easy for a shul goer anywhere, with the extra prayers, the blowing of the shofar every weekday morning for a month before. However, in general, I’m more likely to be stirred by more mundane signs and wonders.
For many years when I was employed in NYC’s child welfare department, I worked at 80 Lafayette St., a few blocks south of Canal Street. Every Thursday, I would spend my lunch hour heading over to the Lower East side for some food shopping (kosher food not being as easy to locate as now). My itinerary always included Bistritsky’s, which in addition to having a selection of kosher cheese which you could have sliced as you waited, a rare refinement in the 1970’s and 80’s, contained a bewildering, almost infinite assortment of kosher products crammed onto some very finite shelves. Then I would walk half a block down Essex St. and turn onto Hester St. to go to Gertel’s. There must have been a family called Gertel who opened this bakery in 1914, but during the time frame under discussion, the store was run a small man of indeterminable age whose concentration camp tattoo on his arm was unmistakable. During most of the year, the store functioned as a normal kosher bakery, stocking challas, rye breads, cakes, and pastries of all kinds. Twice a year, at Pesach and Rosh Hashana, the store turned into a shine of sorts. People from all over the tri-state area would descend on to the L.E.S., just as the swallows return to Capistrano every March. While on a normal Thursday, you would walk into Gertel’s, wait a few minutes for your number to be called, and negotiate your order, during the two weeks before Rosh Hashana, people would line up patiently, fifty or more people at a time, down the block to get their challas I assume that they took them home and froze them). In order to maintain order, the proprietor (if I ever knew his name, I have long forgotten it) would stand by the door and let in his customers ten at a time. As you passed him in the entrance, he would shake your hand and, with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of seriousness (which probably came from being where a shofar or a challah was only a fantasy), wish you a shana tova with as much warmth and emotion as any man could muster. Inside the store, the menu was pared down to a bare minimum: no rye bread, no black and white cookies, just sponge and honey cakes and challot for the holiday: with or without raisins, an eight inch size and a twelve inch size. Challot by the hundreds, filling every shelf in the store, racks and racks of more challot everywhere in the store, all out of the oven less than an hour, too warm to place immediately into plastic bags. And when I shook this man’s hand and saw with my own two eyes this array of challot, then and only then did I KNOW that Rosh Hashana was fast approaching.
There came a time when the proprietor sold the store to others, and the shop on Hester St. near Essex with its original faded sign survived until just before we made aliyah in 2007. Here in Jerusalem in 2008, I was on a different kind of line the Sunday before the holiday. I was trying to get into the Central Bus Station in the midst of a crush of people trying to maneuver past one security check point and then a conveyor belt to inspect your luggage. It was extremely crowded, perhaps with people traveling early before the holiday. The thing was, I wasn’t going anywhere – except maybe the WC! I just had to go up to the ticket booths on the third floor to buy monthly bus passes for me and for Barbara. I finally made it up to there, waited my turn on another line, and greeted a woman of indeterminable age behind the counter with my usual mantra: “hofshi hodshi, paamaim, m’Maale Adumim, b’pensia” (a monthly bus pass, two of them, from Maale Adumim, with the senior citizen discount.) So far so good. I gave her my credit card, she startd the transaction, and then asked for our telephone number (which serves as our account number into the computer system where she verifies that we are on record as being Alte Kockers and entitled to the discount). No problem: “efes, steim, hamesh, tesha, efes, echad, hamesh, shalosh, arba. As I began rattling off the numbers in Hebrew, I noticed the clerk’s lips begin to quiver, break into a grin, and then, although she tried to suppress it, start giggling. I said to her in mock dismay, “Don’t laugh at my Hebrew” (one gets used to having people laugh at your Hebrew here). She composed herself, and with a twinkle in her eye said to me helpfully in heavily accented English: “We have an expression here in Israel, shana tova.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I had heard that expression once or twice in America, so I just politely replied, “shana tova.” I took my passes, turned around, and retraced my steps out of the tachanah mercazit. Even with everything going on around me, then and only then did I KNOW that Rosh Hashana was on its way.
This year, both Natania and Tina would be home, as well as one of Tina’s friends. I had already purchased seats for everyone (a hundred shekels a pop, plus 240 shekels for membership, and a portion of the 3000 shekel building fund – cheap by American standards). The problem was that I had only four Rosh Hashana machzors for the five of us.(Mussar Avicha being a not so heavily endowed establishment, one is better off bringing a prayer book of one’s own, unless you want one of the ones in Russian that nobody wants.) The simple solution would be (gasp) to buy another one, but that would run contrary to my fervently frugal nature. It happens that we do have an extra machzor, one that is never used. It is part of a set of prayer books that Barbara bought when she was in Israel in 1967-8, inscribed and given as a bar mitzvah gift to her brother Phillip. Seven years later, when her brother was killed driving a car across country, these machzorim returned to Barbara’s possession, and we still have them. So the simplest solution would be for me to take this one and leave the newer, more user-friendly ones for everyone else.
There I was, the first day of Rosh Hashana, sitting in Mussar Avicha, trying to use this machzor. I began to remember why this machzor was never used. I had the sense that this machzor was printed by an old man who could not see as well as he used to in his half-lit basement in Tel Aviv on an ancient printing press, a holdover from his great grandfather. The print was uneven with some Hebrew letters unidentifiable; the ‘vav’ was particularly problematic, often looking like a ‘yud’ so that ‘Torah’ became ‘Tira.’ Sometimes, the letters weren’t even on a straight line. Everything was smushed together, one line running into another, as if the davening was one long, continuous prayer, particularly problematic if you had to find your way in the middle. The few instructions on the Hebrew pages were in Yiddish. And most problematic was the nusach (the arrangement of the prayers). There was stuff that I had never seen before, even in the “many congregations omit the following prayers” section of the seemingly all-inclusive ArtScroll version. After a little intensive research, I found out that the nusach used was one found only in three small villages in the East Carpathian Mountains, where in a fit of piety they would begin davening at 2AM and continue without interruption for twelve hours. The English translation was particularly interesting, with novel interpretations throughout, including an explanation of the Jewish fascination with Chinese food which began early in our history: “The memorial of the good woks of the ancient patriarch (/Abraham) whom thou didst raise up from the east…………” I had the sense that this translation was done by someone whose native tongue was Kurdish, but who had memorized the King James Version, who handed his work to someone who knew no English at all for typesetting. All around me, Mussar Avicha being a shul with lots of Anglos, sensible people were using ArtScroll or similar machzorim (You can make the argument that theArtScroll series represents the strengths of American Jewry: logically and clearly laid out, easy to read, easy to follow – even for someone with limited Hebrew. But I am always wondering what value the series will have in 100 years. My parents inherited a German-Hebrew Bible from my mother’s cousin Ludwig, one of many relatives who made it out of Germany in the 1930’s. It was beautifully done, and I know it was very useful in the nineteenth century when it was printed. But now? How many Jews today read that language? Even Samson Raphael Hirsch’s work survives only in translation. We can only guess how many Jews will speak English as their first language in another 100 years.)
At Mussar Avicha, we have no professional help with the High Holiday davening. (Larry Yudkowitz, where are you?) Selected members lead the davening. The first day, a new oleh, a guy a little bit younger than me, with an American pronunciation and melodies, was the sheliach tzibbor for mussaf . The second day, a younger Israeli was sent up to bat. His voice was not as good as the first guy, but the tunes he chose were more familiar to the congregation, so there was more singing from the congregation. But in the middle of mussaf, my attention was distracted and I looked out the window.
I am one of these strange people who notices cats wherever they are. If I were at the Grand Canyon and there were a cat at the bottom, I would first see the cat. So when I looked out the window at our shul, I saw a cat. The cat, in this case, was not alone. He or she came with a person and three large dogs tied to a gate. The person was a woman of indeterminate age who was sitting on a stone railing outside the shul. She was wearing dungarees and had a large sky-blue shawl wrapped around her head. She was not sitting there idly; she had a machzor and was praying with much fervor. Occasionally, she would lift her eyes from her machzor and cast them towards the heaven, a look of rapture on her face, with the feline arching its back around her legs. For these holidays, I am assigned a seat in a different section from where I normally sit. My temporary neighbor is a young fellow Anglo named Binyamin who makes his living repairing appliances. I nudged him and pointed to this unusual sight. He looked and responded to me: “Only in Israel.” When it is time for shofar blowing, a few of the men open the windows, so that anyone outside can hear (there are always a few moms davening while rocking strollers), although our shofar blower, Mordechai B. blows with such force that you could probably hear him outside even with the windows closed. The indeterminable aged woman arose and sprang to attention, a member of G-d’s army. Perhaps someday, I will begin to approach this woman’s intensity, her level of kavanah. As for now, I can walk, if I had to, from our home a little bit east of Yerushalayim past the canion, out the entrance to Maale Adumim, onto the main road, past the checkpoint, past Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, and from there to the Old City and the Temple Mount, believed to be the site of Mount Moriah, where it all began with a ram caught in a bush. It is amazing where your feet, mind, and spirit can lead you if you follow their instructions.