Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Harvest Has Passed.......

Our regular scheduled broadcast has been pre-empted to bring you this special Tishah B’Av message.
“The harvest has passed, the summer is over, and we have not been redeemed.”(from the Haftarah for Tishah B’Av morning, from Yermiyahu)
I was sitting on the floor last night, as is our custom, during the reading of Eichah, generally known as the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which is read, as is our custom, the evening of Tishah B’Av; and is my custom, I was listening and following with one ear and eye and thinking with both sides of my brain. Following Eichah, several Kinot are read (how to translate that, dirges?) as part of the davening (i.e.; everyone reads it to themselves), by which point, I don’t even make the attempt. This is a time to do my best thinking.
Eichah and the collected Kinot, most of which are read Tisha B’Av morning, are written in very difficult, perhaps problematic, Hebrew, well above my level of comprehension, and the English translations are, even on a good, day, of limited use. Here is a sample, which I selected by opening my ArtScroll “The Complete Tisha B’Av Service” entirely at random and running my finger down the page: He [God] remembered when [my sin withthe Golden Calf] putrefied my nard.Therefore He told the bride,“Descend from [your place of] honor!”
I remember one year, complaining to a friend who has impeccable Hebrew, expressing my total frustration at sitting there while people around me were whizzing through something which was completely incomprehensible – in any language. We went back to his house and spent a profitable afternoon wrestling with one kina, trying to understand it. Suitably impressed with my friend’s mastery of the material, I subsequently suggested to someone who was a decision maker that my friend be asked to give a series of talks on the Kinot before the following Tisha B’Av. The decision maker could not imagine why I thought these sessions were necessary; all you have to do is look at the ArtScroll.
As many of you know, I have been studying literature for most of my life, mostly in English, but at various times, doing a little bit in Latin, Ancient Greek, Anglo-Saxon, French, and Spanish, so I think I have a sense of the effort involved to understand what a great poem is about, how if you work at it, the layers of meaning begin to unfold, sometimes very slowly. I cannot imagine picking up a copy of Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury and zipping through it as fast as the Kinot are read. I never have and never will embarrass anyone by asking him to translate, let alone explain, what he has just read. My assumption is that spending two or three hours on the floor in shul on a Tisha B’Av morning going through the Kinot is an exercise in piety, part of the general suffering on this day when so much tragedy befell our people.
So if these abstruse liturgical poems are designed to ‘put me in the mood’ to understand how awful this day is, I’m afraid it doesn’t work. I would need better cues, better props. I would need to conceptualize a specific task I would have been prevented from doing in my capacity as a Cohen when the Temple was destroyed – a second time. The Holocaust I can dimly grasp, in part because of the testimony of so many people and the multiplicity of audio-video tools that are available. I figure that if I imagine the worst day I could ever have, intensify that by a hundred, and multiply that by how many days, weeks, months, that’s what it must have been like to be in Europe in 1940. I can imagine police coming to my door and taking my family away. And I realized long ago, that if it had been me that the Nazis came for, almost certainly I would not have survived.
But my time spent thinking about my lack of comprehension of the enormity of the Churban (destruction) has not been for naught. I have been focusing my powers of concentration, such as they are, on the concept of sinat (in Brooklyn, sinas) chinam. For it was this sin which, we are told over and over and over again, caused the destruction of the Second Temple. We are also told with the same regularity that these words mean ‘baseless hatred,’ causing some to suggest that the antidote is ahavat chinam ‘baseless love.’ The problem is, if we think about for longer than it takes to whiz through a kina, that everything a person does is for a reason, however stupid, irrational, or subconscious it may be. (Except possibly a four year old, who has no explanation for why he through his two year old brother’s pacifier down the toilet; he just felt like it. Of course you can say that ‘just feeling like it’ is in and of itself a reason.) So if you want to tell me that the generation of Jews living around 60-70 C.E. were Torah scholars, but that they just didn’t like each other for no reason at all, I would politely suggest that you reconsider. Do you mean ‘no good reason?’ That doesn’t help much, because generally we are convinced that when we do something, it is for a very good reason; at least we think so at the time. For example, when you bought the five pound bag of peanuts at the market, you were convinced that it would be eaten right away; of course, it’s still sitting there on your shelf three months later. No one, even the most deranged of us – even the Nazis – would say, “I hate him (them) because I feel like it.
Here in The Land, the word chinam has a slightly different connotation. You go to a museum during Chol Hamoed and you take out your money to pay to get in. The clerk will tell you that it’s chinam, free during the Holiday. Just walk right in; no one will stop you. The JPost is chinam today; just take one; no one will stop you. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the key to the puzzle. Chinam is being no longer restricted by what you would expect; you can be as outrageous as you want because nobody will stop you. Everyone may not agree with what you are doing, but the collective ability to maintain what used to be acceptable has been eroded. The ‘rules’ have been changed, not always for the better.
The year 5769 has not been an illustrious one for the Yidden. You all know about Bernard Madoff, and I offer him as an example of what I am trying to say. But there are other examples, more recent, closer to home, and, in a way, even more upsetting. But let’s take a step back for a moment. Many of us are old enough to remember way back when various minority groups in the States were rioting, burning down their own neighborhoods. There were, of course, the usual apologists: we don’t understand their problems; they’ve been victimized for so long; it’s not everybody; it’s only teenagers, etc. Most of us were not amused by these antics and by these apologies. So I must insist (I must, I must) that the worst aspect to the recent riots in Jerusalem (both the ones over the parking lot being open on Shabbat and the subsequent ones over the hospitalized child) by the lunatic fringe of hareidim was the pathetic attempts to justify this insanity and the cowardly silence by their rabbis. It so happened that Barbara managed to get herself in the middle of a fracas one recent Thursday morning when all this was going on. She was on her way into Jerusalem to assist in the weekly packing of comestibles provided for ‘Victims of Terror.’ The buses couldn’t go their normal way because of all the garbage being burned, so my wife got off the bus and tried to get where she was going on foot, winding up somehow (you’d have to ask her how) in Kikar Shabbat, ground zero for trouble-making in the Mea Shearim area. She was so incensed by the hooliganism around her that she lost her cool and started yelling at the men responsible. For her trouble, she got knocked to the ground. You see, a man shouldn’t sit in the same section of a bus as a woman, but it’s OK to knock her down. Just as it’s OK to destroy the traffic lights that are regulating traffic where you live to make sure no one gets run over by a car. If you ask these pathetic specimens why they are doing these things, they will certainly give you an answer because they know that they are right, and it’s only ‘the goyim,’ the ‘Nazis’ who don’t understand. So my wife and a number of other would-be volunteers from Maale Adumim never got to perform their mitzvah that day. Fortunately, Hashem provides, and a busload of teenagers was able to get to the packing place, so the needy people did have supplies for Shabbat. Sinat chinam? You bet your booties.
And then we have the photographs which, I imagine, were front page in every newspaper in the world, from Bridgeport to Borneo: rabbis being led off in handcuffs, along with the usual assortment of political riff-raff in New Jersey (the state I lived in for about twenty five years; but remember, I’m from The Bronx.) It would be inappropriate to comment on their level of culpability before they have been tried in a court of law. But they were arrested based on the testimony of another Orthodox Jew, a man who, we can assume, was himself in so much trouble with the Law, that he had no choice but to ‘cooperate’ with the authorities. All this happened during the nine days. DURING THE NINE DAYS!!!!! An Orthodox Jew accuses other Orthodox Jews of laundering money through tzedekah funds and making obscene profits on human organs at that very time when we are supposed to be eliminating sinat chinam. Or at least repeating the mantra: Bayit sheini was destroyed because of ……………..”
Perhaps you sense my feelings of frustration: the path to our ultimate salvation is relatively straightforward. We have to first and foremost convince the Jewish people of the pleasantness of the Torah and the integrity of our rabbinic leadership. Having done that, we can demonstration to the world that we are truly ‘a light unto the Nations.’ From there, it’s only a short drive to The Final Redemption, however that will come. None of the above will be easy; but consider the alternatives. I’m not just saying that. I want you to consider the alternatives. Some of them are mighty scary. And in the meanwhile, can we announce a moratorium on all platitudinous, feel-good expressions relating to Geula and our being in The Land when we’re not. Pretty please!

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Rhodes Show

“Peace in the world, let there be peace…May our eyes see the erection of the temple in Jerusalem. With G-d’s coming, salvation abounds. The house was completed, with these words, the house of the ‘Kahal Kadosh Shalom’, it is indeed the house of the Lord. The year (5411) 1651.” (excerpt from the entry plaque)
Let’s begin with a ‘pop’ quiz. If I were to ask you (actually I am asking you) to name the biggest structure with the shortest ‘life-span,’ most of you would take a millisecond and respond, “The World Trade Center.” That was easy. But if I were to ask you (actually I am asking you) to name a structure, not as tall but equally imposing, with the second shortest life-span………… tick, tick, tick…………… Give up? How about the Colossus at Rhodes.
For those of you whose ancient history is a little fuzzy, here’s an excerpt from Daniel Schwartz’ booklet which he prepared for our cruise (edited by yours truly): “The most famous event in Rhodes’ history (is) when it successfully withstood a year-long siege by ‘Demitrius the City-Besieger’ in 305 BCE. In memory of this event, the Rhodians built a monumental ‘Colossus’ of their sun-god, Helios – a statue more than 30 meters-high [on a pedestal half that size] that ancient writers listed [along with the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Great Pyramid, etc.] among the Seven Wonders of the World. It was toppled by an earthquake … less than sixty years after it was completed….” Win some, lose some. (By the way, that’s quite a monicker, ‘Demitrius the City-Besieger.’ Imagine this on a business card: ‘Cities besieged. By appointment only.’)
Twenty seven hours (and two of my articles with about five thousand words) after we left Haifa, we arrived at our first stop, Rhodes, a large island (540 square miles) about eleven miles southwest of Turkey. Our dinner over, we made our way down the gangplank, having our swipe cards processed by the ship’s crew. It took us about ten minutes to leave the port area, at which point we met Eva, our guide for a stroll through the Old City. As we approached the Navarhou gate, my initial reaction was that this looked very familiar, and after some thought, I realized why. Where else can you stand and see the ocean and Crusader walls at the same time? Of course. Acco. The same walls built by the Crusaders. In fact, the same water, the Mediterranean. But once you enter the Old City, it’s not the same. We began standing in a town square, with a church behind us, a posh jewelry store to our left, tastefully lit up, and in front of us the venerable Street of the Knights, with a large cream colored mixed-breed dog hanging out on the corner. Five hundred years ago when Rhodes was governed by Christian warriors, the Order of the Knights of St. John, this street, wide enough for five or six people to walk, was the main thoroughfare. It may have been imposing then, but it is not particularly wide by today’s standards; there are no commercial enterprises of any kind, although back then there were inns all along the street. (Rhodes was always a great spot for tourists.) We began walking up and the sun continued to set, until the only way we could see was with the help of the few street lights the town provided and the illumination from inside the apartments we passed. There are several thousand people currently living in The Old City, and some of them live on this street. I would have loved to go into someone’s apartment, just to see what it would be like to live in a structure that may date from the time of the Crusaders. We were not told how old any of these buildings were and how much restoration has been done, but everything about the street cries out, “I’m ancient. Look at me!” Or don’t look at me; I’ll be around long after you’re gone.
Have you ever passed a house, it could be all alone on top of a mountain overlooking a lake, or on a particular corner in the most charming neighborhood somewhere, or with a façade covered with gargoyles, and perhaps you thought to yourself, “Who gets to live here? Out of all the places in the world, out of all the people in the world, how does someone get to live here? Five hundred years ago, this exact spot was the last bastion of Christianity holding off the Ottoman Turks. Not exactly a spot for a restful, tranquil vacation. Now a group of Anglo-Israeli (Jewish) tourists are being led up this street, and there’s a light on in a kitchen; someone’s motorcycle is stored in an entrance way behind a gate. Who are these residents and how did they get to be here? It’s not that I necessarily want to live here, or in any of the real or imagined places mentioned above, there being little to offer for a Jewish person, but still the question remains.
We continued our way in the night air, under the arches that connect both sides of the street, up to the top. Somewhere in our wanderings we had to have come upon the very imposing Castle of the Grand Master, but I really have no recollection of it. Perhaps if we had been able to go inside…
What I do remember is hanging a couple of lefts and suddenly leaving the meditative medieval atmosphere of the Street of the Knights and environs and entering the very well-lit commercial district of the Old City, replete with stores and places to eat. Well, not for us to eat. For some of us, seeing so many people being well-fed and enjoying themselves revived old memories of cuisines gone by………… So we ignored the restaurants for now, and window-shopped in the stores that offered jewelry or tchatchkeles to tourists. No vulgar t-shirts; no ‘adult’ entertainment anywhere in sight – although we were told that the public beaches in Rhodes are ‘topless.’ Wouldn’t know: when we passed the beaches the next morning at about 8:30, they were not only topless, but people-less. Too early for a tan.
When we had done enough gawking, we were free to walk back to the port area and on to the Golden Iris. Barbara and I chose to walk back part of the way with Eva, a Greek woman, I’m guessing about fifty, old enough to have been around the proverbial block – in her case, around the ramparts – more than a few times. Old enough to have lived through the military coup, old enough to have heard about life in the forties, the Italian occupation, then the German occupation, when there were no more Jews on the island. Savvy enough to know about the inadequacies of the Greek government today: how long it takes to get anything done as far as restoring or preserving their antiquities – the main reason why people come to visit. We said good night to our guide and walked back to our gangplank, going through security, handing our swipe cards to the attendants who are able to verify that we have not changed places with some random Greeks while we were ashore, and return to our cabins for some well-earned zzzzzzzzzz’s.
Next morning we were rarin’ to go. But first things first. Activity number one (besides getting dressed and personal hygiene) would the minyan for shacharit. (Actually, it was shacharit and mussaf, because it was still Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the Jewish month. I would have to recite the cohanic blessing twice; no rest for the weary.) On land, I am just as happy to daven privately in my living room; but our cabin was a little small to designate any part of as a living room, there being sufficient space to sleep and to breathe. My usual excuse that it would be forty minutes travel time back and forth was taken away. I could get up the stairs and across the ship in three minutes. Plus, I was the only cohen in the group. So I went to the morning minyan every day, which, like Nathan Detroit’s ‘oldest established, permanent floating crap game in New York’ (that’s from Guys and Dolls, but you knew that), moved around until we found a permanent spot in the Paamon Ballroom, a.k.a., the Green Room, one of the several lounges on board, where of an evening, one could, glass in hand, watch the sea and the stars. There was also no permanent time for the minyan to begin; it changed day by day, according to our itinerary. What I will never forget is the expression on the face of the Filippino bar man who was getting his station ready for the early imbibers, when three strange looking dudes (the leviim) came over the bar, took a wine glass, filled it with water, and proceeded to pour the water over the hands of an even stranger looking dude (me).
Next, it was time for breakfast. Unlike lunch and dinner which were fairly orderly, breakfast involved a shipload of sleepy people arriving when they arose, trying to decide which combination of hot cereal, cold cereal, eggs (scrambled, omelets, or hard boiled), salads, fish, cheeses, bourekas, and pancakes to put on their oversized plates to go along with their tea, coffee, and a strange liquid that was meant to resemble orange juice. And to get all of the above into one’s mouth before it was time to disembark, which involved everyone trying to get off the boat at the same time, past the helpful crew who would be swiping your card to make certain that you hadn’t snuck on the boat at night and now wanted to leave.
Our little group, which would be touring separately from the rest of the passengers, assembled on shore and boarded our bus, along with Eva the tour guide for our morning tiyul. (To avoid confusion, let me mention that we would be confining our activities to the area around the city of Rhodes, which is the largest of some forty communities on the island.) We drove out of the Old City, past the topless, bottomless, people-less beaches and the hotels where the tourists, we assume properly attired, were staying, past the homes of the Rhodians, around the outskirts of the city, past the remains of the Temple of Apollo (like most of its counterparts, a series of columns reaching skyward, as if frozen in place in the midst of doing a ‘wave’) until we stopped at an archaeological park, whose main attraction was its ancient athletic stadium. Because of their modest design; i.e., a level field and stone benches, many of these stadia have survived. The one here is relatively small, seating about 8,000 people. This was the home base for a local lad, Diagoras, a boxer, the victor in the 79th Olympiad in 464 BCE. How do we know that? Pindar, one of the great poets of antiquity, tells us so in one of his Olympian odes: (And now, with the music of flute and lyre alike I have come to land with Diagoras, singing the sea-child of Aphrodite and bride of Helios, Rhodes, so that I may praise this straight-fighting, tremendous man who had himself crowned beside the Alpheus and near Castalia, as a recompense for his boxing... Pindar, Olympian 7, lines 13-17.) I’m sure that our guide had much to tell us, but I was off photographing the remains of ancient monuments that were strewn about the site.
Back on the bus. We had to be at the Kahal Shalom synagogue, or to give it it’s proper name, the Kahal Kadosh Shalom synagogue, at 11AM for a talk about the Jewish community in Rhodes. The bus would leave us off at the edge of what was the Jewish quarter, and we would walk through the picturesque narrow streets where – as is often the case – other people now live. The building we arrived at was built sometime around 1577 C.E., when official buildings in general were constructed with a sense of architectural integrity which is, how shall we put it, not as evident in synagogues in today’s New Jersey. For example, the floor was made of black and white round stones placed in an elaborate mosaic pattern. Someone, on hands and knees, had laid each piece in place one by one , intending them to remain there through the ages until the Jews of Greece would be summoned back to the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem. If it’s any consolation, the stone floor is holding up remarkably well.
There are a number of literary references to Jews living in Rhodes: the book of Maccabis in the second century B.C.E.; the writings of Josephus at the beginning of the Common Era; and a detailed account by the world-traveling Benjamin of Tudela, on his way to The Holy Land in the twelfth century, C.E, when there were four hundred Jews living in Rhodes. In the year 1500, the Greek-speaking Romaniote Jews were expelled by the Christians. Twenty two years later, the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent, whom we have met in earlier articles, (Hey, Suli……..!) decided to re-populate the ‘Jewish section’ of the island and brought in Sephardic Jews who had wound up in the Ottoman Empire after having been expelled from Spain in 1492. (Are you detecting a pattern here?) Things were relatively stable, even after the Italians took control in 1912; the Jewish population reached its maximum of 4,500 in the 1920’s. The unfortunate denouement we all know: in 1944, 1673 Jews were deported to Auschwitz; 151 survived. (The brochure I picked up mentioned that, “Today there are only a handful of Jews living in Rhodes.”)
In addition to the synagogue (which according to the brochure, “…is used for prayer services when visitors or former residents and their families visit the island for Sabbath and High Holiday services and for special occasions.” Sort of like having High Holiday davening in Brownsville.), there is in the adjacent rooms, which used to be the women’s section, a small museum which was established in 1997, “in order to preserve the special heritage of the Jews of Rhodes.”
The museum is filled with local versions of torah scrolls and decorative objects, photographs of Jews long-dead and Jewish life, clothing distinctive to the island, all with appropriate captions. Someone reading this may feel compelled to comment that this sort of describes dozens of Jewish museums which commemorate Jewish life in places where the only Jews today are tourists. That’s because there are lots of communities which fit that description, but every place doesn’t have a museum. Four thousand five hundred Jews? They would have fit into ten blocks along the Grand Concourse in The Bronx.
Back on the bus for our next-to-last stop, the Jewish cemetery. If you want/need to see where every Jew on this island was buried (except the ones murdered by the Nazis), here’s the place to go. They synagogue/museum’s web site has a photograph of the tombs of all the community’s former rabbis, buried in a neat row. This photograph was as close as I was going to get to the real thing. Frankly, I’m more than happy not to have to do cemeteries. I waited by the bus while everyone else went inside to inspect the graves.
Back on the bus for our last stop, the Holocaust memorial, which is located in the Square of the Martyred Jews in the former Jewish quarter, now part of the main tourist area in the center of the Old City. The memorial itself is a six sided column of black granite, with an inscription on each side in Greek, French, Hebrew, English, Italian, or Judeo-Spanish (Ladino). There is no question that for the survivors of Rhodes and the neighboring island of Cos and the families of the survivors, the dedication of this memorial in 2003 was extraordinarily meaningful (check out the Jewish community of Rhodes website, which unfortunately is written in a quasi-English that needn’t be. Please help me with the following: “Friday evening, we will attend the office of Kabbalat Shabbat at the Shalom synagogue which fills the tank.” Any guesses what this could possibly mean?). But after reading the brief inscription in (real) English and then working my way around each side and each language, when I had gone around several times, I wondered what I was supposed to do or supposed to feel? Was I supposed to now have an increased awareness of this tragedy than I had before? Time does not heal all wounds, but it does make us complaisant.
To prove my point, what was the next thing most of us did? Wander through the shops or seek out a café. Barbara and I found a little place where she could get some Greek coffee – which I shared – and I could get a local beer, served in a weird boot-shaped stein. As we were relaxing, we heard a commotion up the street in the direction of a neighboring establishment, which had three parrots perched outside. Barbara, being nosier than I am, went to check it out. It seems that one of the local pigeons had flown onto the parrots’ perch uninvited, and it was definitely not welcome there! If you are wondering whether Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton was dispatched to broker negotiations between these feathered enemies (perhaps the pigeons could get one-quarter of the perch…….) the answer is no; these busy bodies were too busy screwing up elsewhere.
We’re done. Goodbye and thanks to Eva, our guide. Once again back to the port area, past security (emptying out our water bottles because you can take water off the boat, but you can’t bring any liquids back onto the boat). Just in time for lunch. Soon we will be off again. Next stop………Athens.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Plenty of Time to Think

During the twenty six hours it took for the Golden Iris to sail the blue waters of the Mediterranean from Haifa to Rhodes, we had “plenty of time,” to eat, get some rays on the upper decks, take a nap or two, start reading a new book, of course daven (We received an halachic ruling that insofar as we were on an Israeli ship, we were considered to be in Israel, and, therefore, I [the only cohen in the group] was needed to recite the birkat cohanim every morning; no rest for the weary), and for our scholar-in-residence to begin his series of lectures. Dr. Daniel Schwartz is a professor of ancient Jewish history at Hebrew University, his area of specialty being the intersection of Jewish and Greek culture around the beginning of the Common Era. His first lecture served as an orientation, giving us a timeline for Greek civilization and some background information about the four places in which our ship was going to dock: Rhodes, Athens, Lavrion, and Santorini, the first two of which have a definite Jewish connection, the others – that’s where the ship was going! That out of the way, he began a series of lectures about the relevance of Hellenism to Judaism, a topic of obvious controversy, but definitely related to where we would be going and doing.
I approach this topic from a perspective very different from most peoples’. Long before I ever heard of the Mishna or the Gemarra, or gave any thought to Jewish traditions, oral or otherwise, I was sitting in Mott Hall at C.C.N.Y., studying British and American literature and attempting to master Latin and Greek. So while traditional Jewish thought casts the Greeks in the most negative light, the course of study in the Classics department (as taught by Professor Ehrlich) focused on their accomplishments. I have long wondered at the usefulness of describing the villains in the Hannukah story as ‘wicked,’ because if you say A is wicked, you are implying that there must be a B and a C who are not wicked, because if everyone is wicked then telling me A is wicked isn’t saying much. In other words, were the Hellenic Greeks any more evil than the other nations of the world?
Now Professor Schwartz did not set out to answer that question, although, in a way, he provided me with some answers. (I will try to summarize one part of his presentation here, rather than present it in a chronological sequence sandwiched in between our tours.) He began by examining, for reasons we will get to shortly, a fundamental question, who is a Jew (of course, today the question has become, who is a rabbi). We know that Judaism from its inception was not understood to be a Religion; in fact, there is no word for ‘religion’ in Hebrew. In today’s lingo, there is a word dati, (knowledgeable) which is used to describe a person or an institution that is ‘religious,’ but no one would say that ‘knowledge’ is the same as ‘religion’. If you think about it, not having a word for ‘religion’ in Hebrew makes perfect sense: ‘religion’ would have to be a category, meaning that there is more than one religion (just as there is more than one kind of book, or tree, or automobile). Judaism was meant to be distinct and apart from the myriad forms of idol worship festering throughout the mid-east and the rest of the world; there was to be no other ‘religion’ like it. According to Schwartz, a Jew was originally a bnei Yisrael, a descendent of Avraham and Sarah (or married to a descendent) and, later, dwellers in The Land (or, I guess, descendents of dwellers in The Land living in Babylon or elsewhere). But, while we had the Torah, with its list of do’s and don’ts and a knowledge of Hashem, there was not a formal standard of who was a Jew or how one would become one (the rules about formal conversion, I believe, came later). We know that a Jewish soldier would ultimately be allowed to marry a woman he captured in battle and that luminaries from Yosef to Shlomo took foreign wives. And even as our Prophets lamented the pervasive idol worshipping of the people, no one considered or questioned the identity of Bnei Yisrael, dwellers in The Land.
In one of his last lectures, our scholar-in-residence mentioned an essay, “Hebraism and Hellenism,” by Matthew Arnold. Click. Having read a fair amount of Arnold’s critical writing forty or so years ago, I thought I detected the basis for a lot of what I was hearing. When we returned to Maale Adumim, I pulled down my copy of “The Portable Matthew Arnold,” which has a fair selection of the author’s poetry and criticism, and found therein the essay in question as part of a larger work, “Culture and Anarchy.” Here’s a small selection:The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience. Nothing can do away with this ineffaceable difference. The Greek quarrel with the body and its desires is, that they hinder right thinking; the Hebrew quarrel with them is, that they hinder right acting. “He that keepeth the law, happy is he”; “Blessed is the man that feareth the Eternal, that delighteth greatly in His commandments;” – that is the Hebrew notion of felicity; and pursued with passion and tenacity, this notion would not let the Hebrew rest till, as is well known, he had at last got out of the law a network of prescriptions to enwrap his whole life, to govern every moment of it, every impulse, every action. The Greek notion of felicity, on the other hand, is perfectly conveyed in these words of a great French moralist: ‘C’est le Bonheur des hommes,’ – when? When they abhor that which is evil? – no; when they exercise themselves in the law of the Lord day and night? – no; …..but when they think aright, when their thought hits: ‘quand ils pensent juste.’” I say, if the shoe fits, wear it.
If I may lapse into Yeshivish, ‘comes along the Greeks’ (that would be in normative English ‘the Greek civilization arose’) with this very different world view, a set of ideas which could be codified into a curriculum, which anyone could learn. According to our scholar, anyone could become a Greek; you could be born in Pakistan or Puerto Rico, but you could become a Greek by virtue of your education. You could even be a bnei Ysrael and become a Greek; no problem! (Of course, there was a slight problem as far as we were concerned because our Hellenistic counterparts worshipped idols; and it really became a problem when they wanted to put their statues in our Temple.) What the Greeks forced us to do (among other things) by their willingness, even their insistence that we assimilate like everybody else, was make us define who we are and who among us is important. For the first time, there appeared factions or sects within the Jewish community: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and, if you want to include them, the early Christians. Each of them had different ideas of what it meant to be a Jew. As we know, the Sadducees were primarily of priestly descent and strove to maintain the dominance of the Cohanim and the centrality of the sacrifices in the Beit Hamikdash. Once the Second Temple was destroyed, their base of power collapsed and they were doomed to failure. Their rivals, the Pharisees, represented the emerging rabbinic leadership; for them, anybody could become a leader regardless of one’s lineage – if one were learned enough. In addition, their Oral Law could, at least in part, be practiced – had to be maintained – anywhere, even without the existence of a Beit Hamikdash, even apart from The Land. Now Professor Schwartz maintains, and here is where he is controversial, that, while the Pharisees were fighting the paganism of Greek culture and its assimilation by large segments of the Jewish population, they were adapting its democratic and universalistic aspects to survive in what would become a two millennia Diaspora in which we would pray in synagogues and eat the afikomen every Pesach (I trust you get the linguistic point I am making). I know that I have simplified, perhaps oversimplified, our scholar’s presentation, but I think that’s the gist of it.
The main thrust of Arnold’s essay is that there needs to be a synthesis between Hebraism, the search for G-d, and Hellenism, the search for earthly knowledge. However, he was not the first person to consider this. Fifteen hundred years after the Maccabis, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, the Rambam), one of the greatest thinkers in human history and an unimpeachable Jewish source, was busy synthesizing Aristotelian thought and Jewish law. For him, the highest aspiration for a Jew, in addition to ‘imitating G-d,’ was acquiring knowledge of the world; and it was that ability which separated Man from the lower animals (thank you, Nachum, for that insight).
If I may add a thought of my own (and hearing no dissent, I will), it occurred to me that Hellenism was indeed the absolute pinnacle of pagan thought, vastly superior to anything produced by its idol worshipping neighbors. But for ‘civilization’ to advance, they (whoever ‘they’ is) would have to scrap their pagan deities and adopt some form of monotheism. Put it this way, there is a limit intellectually to how far you can go with Zeus. Apollo, Athena, and their buddies. How can you investigate the properties of the sun and still worship a sun god? At some point, the whole thing breaks down. What the Europeans seem to have done is create a hybrid, merging their pagan gods with a monotheism (Judaism) which they could not accept in its pure form. Voila! Christianity. And even so, it took the Europeans a millennium and a half to reach the intellectual level of the Hellenic Greeks.
Strange as it may seem, my sense of who the Greeks were and who we, the Jews, were, and how we interacted, was important to me in how I would look at what we were about to see: were we visiting modern Greece to do a quasi-March of the Living (where, for some unfathomable reason, you take impressionable Jewish teenagers to visit the former concentration camps in Poland, scaring the wits out of them, and then take them to Israel), or was there some other purpose to our journey in addition to the R and R? Were we going to view ancient ruins so that we could feel good about ourselves: “See, their temples to their pagan gods are now piles of rubble, whereas we are still alive.” (One might remark that our beit hamikdash is currently less than a pile of rubble, and the current status of buildings constructed before the Common Era is hardly the defining point for the vitality of a culture. One might also remark, however, that some of us are anticipating the rebuilding and re-use of a third beit hamikdash on the Temple Mount for our very much alive religion. The same cannot be said about the Parthenon.) While I needed to work out how I would feel about visiting the home of the Athenians, it would not be as if I were visiting Oswiecim or Birkenau, where there isn’t one chance in a million that I would ever go. Nor anywhere in Egypt, where I will also never go because they still don’t like us there. The same for Minsk or Riga, where my grandfathers fled in the dead of night, and even, if I were to go, I would have no idea what to look for. Perhaps more like Spain, where Barbara and I visited in the 1980’s, when the Iberian peninsula was beginning to shake off centuries of decline and dictatorship.
Which reminds me of a conversation which I got myself in the middle of recently, and which I’m mentioning now for a reason. Barbara and I were sitting in a little place in Tel Aviv – which we had wandered into because the Tel Aviv Museum and its cafeteria are closed on Sunday, which we didn’t know until we arrived there – and we managed to join a conversation at the next table between a young man who obviously shares my conservative political views and a young woman who doesn’t. Her point was that the new American president, while he was bad for Israel and the Jews (most of whom voted for him), he would be good for America. My response to her was that she was describing an impossibility; if the American government turned against Israel, it would certainly come back to haunt the country of my birth, in ways that are beyond the scope of these articles. Many of the countries which have treated Jews poorly have suffered a rapid decline in the aftermath, Spain being an obvious example, having never really recovered from 1492.
The fate of the Greeks is remarkably similar. After their rapid rise to a position of dominance throughout the Mediterranean, they went into an equally precipitous decline and were under foreign domination from 146 BCE to 1829 CE when they achieved independence from the Ottomans. The population of Athens at the beginning of the nineteenth century was under 10,000 (does that remind you of another ancient city which suffered a similar fate?) More recently, Greece has survived the Nazi occupation (during which, the government and Church did not cooperate in the extermination of the Jewish communities in Athens and Salonika), a civil war after W.W. II, and a military coup from 1967-1974. The small Jewish communities which remain are protected by the government and there seems to be very little anti-Semitism and a lot of anti-Nazism. So you can say that they have suffered mightily for their sins, and while we should be wary of any of the Nations, today’s Greece would be low on the list of countries to worry about. So that’s what I came up with: we would be visiting one of the most picturesque places in the world, with lots to see. Try to look at the many ruins we would visit with a sense of their place in history, with all the positives and negatives implied therein. (Not like a hareidi-by-choice fellow I see once a month, who, upon hearing about our adventures, asked me if we had seen any of the Temple vessels that were hidden away? It took me a moment; then I realized he was talking about the objects that are allegedly in the Vatican. “You’re thinking of Rome. We went to Greece. Not the same place.” I know, from his profession, that before he became hareidi, he had actually gone to school, and despite his best efforts to hide it, he must have learned something – once upon a time. “It’s all the same,” he replied, “Avoda Zara (idol worshipping).” To paraphrase something which Dr. Schwartz said, there is a time to find commonality, and there is a time to look for distinctions. Maybe knowing when to do which is a goal of education. Or, to invoke one of my iron principles of life, “No one is required to act stupider than they actually are.”)
That’s a lot to cogitate about. No wonder my “plenty of time” as we sailed the blue Mediterranean included a second nap. I wonder if the several hundreds of passengers on board appreciated the heavy thinking I was doing for them; somehow I doubt it. The Golden Iris has finally arrived in Rhodes, and we will all be disembarking. Don’t forget to take your swipe cards with you when you leave the boat.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Time and Space in the Mediterranean

We were standing around in the downstairs ‘social hall’ at Musar Avicha, our synagogue in Maale Adumim, several weeks ago; it was one of those rare Shabbat mornings when there was a Kiddush after the service. One family was having both a bat mitzvah and a wedding that week, and another of the congregants had thoughtfully provided a bottle of single malt scotch for the occasion to go along with the usual refreshments. (It goes without saying that I was doing my share to finish the bottle.) As I walked around the room, greeting people I knew, I made it a point to let everyone know that Barbara and I would be away: we were leaving on a cruise to Greece the next day. A number of people asked if the trip was my idea or my wife’s? When Bernice asked me, and I replied that it was definitely Barbara’s, Bernice’s comment was, “Of course. If it would be up to the men, no family would ever go anywhere.”
To be fair – and we always try to be fair in these articles – I’m told that there are any number of men who make vacations a priority. However, more often than not, their lodging of choice is a pup tent rather than a cabin on an ocean liner. People who know me would understand in a flash that I don’t ‘do’ pup tents. People who know me also are aware that I have justly earned my sobriquet “Frugal Fred,” and that I am leery of spending large sums of money to go somewhere when I can sleep for no additional charge in my own comfortable bed (although it is probably worth something, perhaps a lot, not to share the bed with a geriatric feline who is convinced that feeding time is 4AM).
So one can imagine my noticeable lack of enthusiasm when the spouse first broached the subject of this eight day cruise to Greece which the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel – still her employer – was offering. The tour would focus on Jewish themes, and there would be a scholar-in-residence, Daniel Schwartz, a professor of ancient Jewish history at Hebrew U.
There is a fundamental economic principle, which individuals and governments often ignore and suffer the consequences, that money spent for A cannot also be spent for B. We have recently bought an apartment, and I maintained, we could better use the money for shiputzim (renovation). Our older daughter, Tina, is planning her wedding for next May (thank you for your mazal tov’s), and the money could as well go for that. Furthermore, I insisted, if I am going to go anywhere, I would rather visit Barbara’s eighty seven year old mother in Florida, whom I love dearly. There is no need to beleaguer the point: you already know who ‘won.’ Barbara even spoke with her mother, who gave me her ‘permission’ to go to Greece instead of Florida. And so, after being prodded no more than ten times, I threw in the towel and agreed to go.
Any time you go on a trip, or a tour, or a cruise, it’s a crap shoot. The weather can be awful, likewise the food and the accommodations. And if you are on a boat and the water is turbulent, you are in big trouble, or at least I am. (Forty five years after the fact, I still remember one ill-fated fishing trip off Montauk [the tip of Long Island], leaning over the side of the boat, with everything I had eaten for several days being upchucked into the Atlantic Ocean, and hearing the captain – most unsympathetic – telling me to “chum it over the other side; the fish need the food.” It is no wonder that I remain a confirmed land-lubber.) However, the most important ingredient in the success of any group activity like this are the people you are going with. Even a two or three hour walking tour around Jerusalem can be ruined by a few kvetches. Eight days with the same crowd? That’s a lot, so you had better enjoy their company! There were to be fifty seven of us from AACI out of about 500 passengers aboard The Golden Iris, a ship which could carry as many as twice that number. (Not to keep you in suspense, it was a really good group of people, as I will discuss later.)
Anyway, it was time to get the show on the road. For once, we were ready early and got up to the mall where our bus was parked with time to spare. Because there were nine of us going from Maale Adumim, and because we have ‘connections,’ (the tour leaders, the Kremers, live in the next neighborhood) the bus taking us to Haifa started from here. We picked up most of the others in Jerusalem (including one very sweet older woman who had not realized that she needed to take her ticket with her, requiring some very frantic phone calls by Carole to sort things out), and from there to Modi’in to pick up another couple, and from there on to the port in Haifa. I am certain that most of you know the routine at any airport: you have to arrive hours before so you can sit around and twiddle your thumbs, or whatever else you care to twiddle. You might think that it would be different at a port, but the twiddle time is about the same at the Haifa port as it would be at Ben-Gurion airport. The one difference is that there is a lot less to see or do in Haifa. The waiting area at Ben-Gurion is replete with kosher foods and duty free shops. There are a lot of things your average Israeli has not figured out yet, but ‘duty free’ is not one of them. One might go as far as saying that Israelis have taken the art of duty free shopping to a new and higher level. I believe I have reported the amazing statistic that three quarters of all Scotch whisky purchased by Israelis is purchased duty free. But why stop there? All nationalities, races, and creeds buy spirits, perfumes, perhaps small electronics at places where there is no tax. Only an Israeli would buy a stove or a refrigerator at Ben-Gurion, hop on a plane, and when he returns to The Land, asks to have his new kitchen delivered to him in Petach Tikva.
There are no such extravagances at the Haifa port. Duty free sneakers, yes; dishwashers, no. Not to worry: I am single minded and resolute of purpose. Where’s the single malt? That they had (for the record and for those of you who care, I purchased a bottle of twelve year old Balvenie, a 10 year old single barrel Bushmill (Irish), and a bottle of Jack Daniel Silver Select, a single barrel Tennessee whiskey which I didn’t know existed and which is really good). No matter what happened on the cruise, I now had something to look forward to.
We finally boarded the ship, the aforementioned Golden Iris, recently acquired by Mano, the Israeli cruise line. Now the fun would begin. Our first activity? – after a light lunch, that is. The equivalent of a fire drill, where everyone puts on a life preserver, walks to a prearranged place, whereupon the assembled group of people walks to a life boat, which would be lowered if there were a for-real emergency. When Barbara and I were on a three day cruise to the Bahamas some ten years ago, indeed everyone participated in the simulated drill. No exceptions. But remember I said that the Golden Iris is now an Israeli ship, so you already know that the word ‘everyone’ is at least implausible, if not impossible. The majority, yes. Others came to the life boats without their life preservers. Still others considered this procedure a spectator sport and never moved from wherever they were sitting. Those who know me realize that I would never be able to figure out the intricacies of wrapping a life preserver around my torso without assistance. But even I, the doofus that I am, figured out pretty quickly that most of the staff assisting us had their own life preservers on wrong. Not too comforting!!!
Our next activity was obtaining and validating our swipe cards. The ship’s crew takes your passport and gives you a card which is used to verify your identity when you leave the ship at a port of call and again when you return. However, this card has another function; it serves as a credit card on board for some things. If you want to get a second room key or a remote for the TV, you have to give them cash. But for the bar, you use the swipe card. What they don’t tell you is that you have to go to the bursar’s office to put money on your card.
Before I go any further, some of you might be wondering why I was running off to the bar within hours of going on board. People know that I enjoy my single malt as well as the next guy, but did I need a drink that badly? Let it be known that there is no way that I would spend five dollars for an eyedropper full of Johnny Walker Red (cheap stuff). I was in fact in search of some camellia sinensis, otherwise known as a cup of tea. While this commodity is available, along with its darker caffeinated sidekick, at breakfast, it is not served with the other meals, meaning you have to go to the bar and spend several dollars for a small dose of the drug. So off we went to the bursar’s booth – along with several hundred Israelis, all of whom were intent on establishing credit with American dollars, some with frighteningly large bills. Usually I don’t get upset with the native inability to form a line; you have to put up with the bad as well as the good if you are going to live in The Land. If someone needs to get on the bus ahead of me, OK; but we were dealing here with caffeine deprivation, which is an entirely different matter. There was one Israeli man with a protruding midriff who was trying to get a staff person’s attention, even though I was before him. I told him pointedly in English that if he tried to get ahead of me, I was going to hit him. I finally used a credit card to put some funds on my swipe card so I could go back and obtain a penny’s worth of cheap tea for $2.24. You will be happy to know that by the next day we had figured out how to beat the system. While the wait staff could not give you a cup of tea, they could give you a cup of hot water. So all we had to do was to walk off with a sufficient number of tea bags at breakfast and dunk the contraband in the hot water the staff provided. It came down to swiping the tea from the ship or using your swipe card to pay for the same item. That was easy!
We had plenty time to sort things out and figure out what was on which deck. At meal times, the fifty seven of us in the AACI contingent sat at designated tables, but with no assigned seating; this way we got to sit with different people and get to know one another. Aside from the hot beverage issue, the food was quite good, with an abnormal selection of different items – all buffet – from which to choose. We had gotten a suggestion to go easy on the calories the week before we sailed, and as a result, I had lost about four pounds. The Friday before we left, I had a conversation with myself. Looking myself right in the eye, I said, “I worked had to lose those four pounds; I’ll be damned if I get on the boat and go berserk in the dining room. Discipline must be maintained.” My strategy was simple: it’s called the one plate plan. You take a dinner plate and fill it – one time. No second trips allowed, except to get fruit for dessert. No fake ice cream or the like. Otherwise, with the bewildering array of choices, they would have had to roll me off the gangplank when we reached port. I had a double reward: not only did I gain only one pound while we were away but even more important, I got to feel virtuous (priceless), while my table mates were filling their plates with second or third helpings.
I wrote above that we had “plenty of time.” That’s because the Golden Iris left Haifa at about 5PM on Sunday and arrived at the island of Rhodes at 7PM the following day. A number of us made a quick calculation that if we had left Ben-Gurion airport at the same 5PM, we would have been whizzing over Greece, in, what, an hour or so? We had plenty of time to sit on the upper decks and ponder over the relationship of time and distance. It occurred to me that I had just read about this topic as considered by Proust in volume four of his “In Search of Lost Time,” but from the opposite perspective. The narrator and his amie Albertine are vacationing in the French countryside. They have been accustomed to spending a day in going to particular villages, and now, when instead of going by carriage, they were able to go by automobile, they realized,“… from Quetteholme to La Raspeliere…would not take more than thirty five minutes. We realized this the moment the car leaped forward and in a single bound covered twenty paces of an excellent horse. Distances are simply the ratio of space to time and vary with it. We express the difficulty that we have in getting to a place in a system of leagues and kilometers, which become false the moment that difficulty decreases. The art of distance, too, is modified, since a village that had seemed to be in a different world from some other village, becomes its neighbor in a landscape whose dimensions have altered. At all events, learning that there perhaps exists a universe in which 2 and 2 make 5, and where a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points, would have surprised Albertine much less than hearing the mechanic tell her that it was easy to in one afternoon to Saint-Jean and to La Raspeliere, Douville and Quetteholme……, prisoners hitherto as hermetically locked away in the cells of separate days as Meseglise and Guermantes of old…..” (This is from the recent Penguin translation by Christopher Prendergast, unavailable in The States, which I had someone smuggle back to Teaneck from England.) Of course, our situation here was just the reverse. Whereas one would expect to get from Ben-Gurion to anywhere in Greece before a flight attendant could offer you a soft drink, we were able to pack away four full meals (plus a midnight snack, which for some of us interfered with our pillow time) from port to port. We had the services of an excellent tour guide (more about this later) in Athens. When she announced that she would be with us the next day in Lavrion, I thought to myself, “how is that possible.” According to our schedule, we were leaving the first place at 7PM and arriving at the next port at 7AM. Very simple. She boarded the tour bus in Athens and arrived in Lavrion an hour later.