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 na├»ve, 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.”

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