Monday, February 15, 2010

If I Could Tell You of My Devotion....

I remember our kitchen table, the one my parents had in our apartment – the top floor of a three family house – on E. 208 St. in the Bronx; I have never seen another table remotely like it, with its folding sides and its enamel top, yellowish and slightly chipped around the edges. which opened to the perfect size to fit into our kitchen. Not only did we eat our meals on it, but it served my brother and me as our ‘office.’ We are obviously talking before anybody had a computer in their home, but it was also before kids had desks of their own. Four nights a week, at least, after dinner, this was where we did our homework. Until we were in or early teens when my parents got their first TV, our main source of entertainment was a Bakelite radio (we went through a number of these because it was sometimes cheaper to replace than repair; any of them cleaned up would be worth a fortune today) which we listened to with one ear while we did all the tedious stuff required of us at P.S./J.H.S. 80: math problems, social studies reports replete with homemade graphics, spelling, etc.
(How Google aids and abets a reverie: Most people who will read this are too young to remember Radio – with a capital R. In those days, there were national networks and regularly scheduled programs on the air – usually half an hour or an hour – just as there are today on TV; except the radio shows were probably more literate. Many of these shows were broadcast for ten, twenty, or even thirty years. Besides the dramas (Mr. Keane, Tracer of Lost Persons) and comedy (Fibber McGee and Molly), there were soap operas, assorted variety shows, and musical programs of all kinds. Many people of a certain age remember the one hour show sponsored by the Firestone Rubber Company, whose theme music was written by a member of the Firestone family, Idabelle, with lyrics by Madeleine Marshall. There is at least one thread on the internet devoted to alter kackers like me reminiscing and trying to remember the exact lyrics to the song which goes:
"If I could tell you of my devotion, If I could pledge all my love so true, Then my confession would find expression In all the music my heart sings to you."
and trying to remember whose voice it was we heard singing this week after week.)
These skills of listening with one ear and doing something different with the remainder of my brain – not so easy for someone with A.D.D. – honed by many years of practice, served me well in recent years when I was doing data entry at the Jewish non-profit where I was working. Let’s not describe my work as ‘tedious;’ that has a certain negative connotation. Let’s just call it ‘repetitive,’ requiring one’s proper attention, but with room in one’s mental hard drive for some other activity. To the rescue came Internet radio, now not with studios either in New York or California, but anywhere in the world where one can access the world-wide web. I could listen with my headphones to music from real stations like the BBC, WFUV, WKCR or others that existed only on the Internet. For a change of pace, conservative talk radio or a host of shiurim from a number of providers. But a good deal of the time, especially after we had decided to make aliyah when I retired, was listening to Arutz-7, a station which you can’t find on a radio dial, but you can listen to anywhere in the world. If I had to sum up the station’s programming, I would describe it as “The English language voice of the Settlers,” i.e., those of us who live in Judea and Samaria – because one ‘resides’ in Tel Aviv, but one ‘settles’ in Beit-El, from whence the station broadcasts (from which we can derive that living in Tel Aviv is ‘unsettling’). More generally, it offers a nationalist Torah perspective, promoting aliyah and presenting Judaism as “A Light Unto the Nations.” Not coincidentally, that’s the title of one of one of their programs, featuring two olim, Ari Abromowitz and Jeremy Gimpel, who met while serving in a sniper division of the IDF, and have become best of friends.
The funny thing is that now that we have made The Big Move, I almost never listen to Arutz-7. For one thing, I no longer need to be told why I should make aliyah, or how to do it, or what’s happening here in The Land, because we ourselves are now part of what’s happening here in The Land. Also, I’m not sitting here doing data entry – except to keep track of our monthly expenses on a spreadsheet – forcing myself to seek out venues of entertainment while I tippy-tap the keyboard, which now contain the abc’s and the aleph-bet.
But Internet TV? Especially being in the audience when the show is being taped? That’s more interesting. These same two guys, Ari and Jeremy, now do a show part of the year: From the heart of Jerusalem, Tuesday Night Live! This can be seen on the Israel National News website and is syndicated back in The States on Time-Warner cable. We go to the tapings from time to time, and I remember writing about an earlier broadcast last year. Anyway, a week or so ago, we got a ride into town for their latest episodes. The two part program gave a lot of food for thought, which I will share with you – adding, as usual, my thoughtful condiments to spice things up.
The B’nei Menashe. Anybody out there know who or what that is? If not: we’re talking about a relatively small group, a thousand plus souls already in Israel and seven thousand plus in the northeast of India, who claim to be descendents of Menashe, one of the ten tribes that disappeared without a trace when the Northern Kingdom, Israel, was conquered by the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE. Michael Freund, a political commentator and head of an organization called Shavei Israel, has been working to identify groups like this one who claim Jewish descent and assist them in returning to The Land. Mr. Freund was the headliner in the first segment, and he appeared with a representative of this group, all of whom, if I have my information correct, have gone through a halachic conversion process and have been recognized as Jewish by one of the Sephardic chief rabbis. After the show, when we were walking back to their car with a different friend who was driving us home, we got into a discussion about the B’nei Menashe. How would we know if these people are really descendents of one of the Lost Tribes? No way to prove it either way. Do they remotely ‘look Jewish?’ One thing you figure out pretty quick, living here and looking at the assortment of faces you see any day on an Egged bus, there is no such thing as looking Jewish. Of course, ‘the elephant in the room’ is how come the Jewish people, starting out with a similar genetic identity, have wound up looking like the world’s population – even though we still retain a distinct DNA profile? And then relate that to the question: Who is a Jew?
But what is at least as intriguing: What is this all about, a small group of seven thousand people from a relatively remote part of the world wanting to live here as Jews? And how is it that literally all over the world, people are popping out of the woodwork and reclaiming their Jewish identity: children hidden from the Nazis in the 1940’s, families that functioned as conversos for five hundred years, or groups whose connection with the rest of us was severed over two thousand years ago? How you answer that depends upon whether you are a cynic or an idealist, or even how you view our history. There are any number of references in our prophetic writings that, just as the Jewish people would be dispersed among the Nations, so too, they – and that includes the Lost Tribes – will be gathered up and return to The Land. So, if you begin from a basic premise that the formation of The State of Israel is part of the process of Jewish redemption unfolding before our eyes, then it is perfectly reasonable to view the tens of thousands of descendents of Jews all over the world rediscovering their origins as part of that process. And if you don’t accept this redemptive premise, then you don’t. And then you come up with some other explanation. That is why, on the one hand, you can have an audience of people cheering on Freund in his efforts; and you can also have a bevy of government officials who could make things happen, doing everything possible to place obstacles in the way of seven thousand people from every getting on the plane. I keep thinking of how little it would take to bring them here, and how much effort is being spent on wooing five million Jews, most of whom emphatically do not want to come here. Michael Freund was especially diplomatic in describing the situation, expressing optimism that the current government would be more forthcoming than the previous one. My personal opinion is that the Netanyahu crowd, no matter how hard it tries, cannot match the level of cynicism of Ehud Olmert and friends; so there is hope.
The second half of the show – after a short interlude by some earnest youngsters playing essentially Jewish bluegrass music and then a break to let the camera men reload – was even more gut-wrenching, highlighting the official Israeli response to the recent disaster in Haiti (who will live, and who will die; who will be buried alive in the rubble of a building…). Featured were two American born members of the rescue team, a physician and a member of Zaka, the group that goes to extraordinary lengths in tragic situations to find severed body parts so that they can be properly buried as required by Jewish law. While the main Israeli team went to Haiti on a moment’s notice, the Zaka team was almost there to begin with, having just finished a rescue mission in Mexico. Ari and Jeremy were able to show a few clips from American TV of the devastation and the efforts at saving lives, in which the newscasters expressed the general sense of amazement at the quality, speed, and efficiency of the IDF rescue mission (which incredible effort apparently escaped the attention of the current U.S. commander in-chief, causing HUGE consternation among his Jewish supporters) which was able within hours of arriving to set up a field hospital capable of treating five hundred victims a day – at a time when every other country which even bothered to do anything – including the U.S. – had its emergency personnel wandering around helplessly without supplies or direction. It was the Zaka unit which helped pull all these men, women, and children trapped in the rubble.
Given the program’s orientation, it was no surprise that Jeremy and Ari honed in on the Torah values which were being demonstrated in the Israeli response, an example of truly being ‘A Light Unto the Nations.’ The highest form of benevolent activity is when you do something without the expectation, even the possibility, that your kindness will be reciprocated (like washing a dead body before it is buried). No country, even Haiti, will stop vilifying us because of the incredible kindness we performed in rescuing and healing their citizens. You do what you can anyway. But an entirely different train of thought from that of our hosts was occupying my attention, scattered though it may be at times.
You see, I was listening to the American TV commentators expressing their consternation at the initial feeble, even pathetic, efforts of the American relief mission, and I was trying to figure out why that was so and what implications it would be reasonable to draw from it. The first thing I thought of was “They can’t blame this one on ‘W’ like they did Katrina; although if he were still in office, the Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world would be holding inflammatory news conferences in front of the White House. So now that the U.S. has this new president who everyone (well, some people) thought was so wonderful, how come this magnificent country is performing like a third-world power when it comes to emergency disaster relief – especially since the real third-world country in need is a short hop by plane from the Gold Coast of Florida? And when a tiny country half way around the world can get there better and faster? (To be fair, the American government is providing an enormous amount of financial assistance to Haiti, bu that’s not I’m discussing here.)
Good questions. Of course, Israel has unfortunately had a great deal of experience with emergency relief: wars, terrorist attacks, and the like. Plus we are a nation that thrives on improvisation. As I was thinking this through, I remembered a conversation with my friend Jeff over lunch several weeks ago. He was relating his efforts to find a few brass screws (I don’t remember anymore why he needed them, but he did). He was getting a lot of “we don’t have what you’re asking for, but we do have something else which will work as well.” “But that’s not what I want; I want brass screws!” Several days after our conversation, it dawned on me: this salesman was 99.99% certain to have served in the IDF, and there was almost certainly a situation he was involved in when something, perhaps a transport vehicle, wasn’t working; and without the proper part somebody there had to find something, cannibalize something, create something to make the blasted thing would work. It wouldn’t matter if that something was made of brass or papier maché. That in a nutshell is how this country gets by day to day, and that explains a good part of the culture here.
In the States, one is much more likely to be able to get exactly what is asked for; more likely the question would be: do you want the name brand part or the generic? Do you want it shipped or will you take it with you? For The Land of the Free has developed the most sophisticated infrastructure found anywhere in the world: communication systems, highways, medical centers, everything which countries like Haiti don’t have, and why when calamity strikes, so many people die. But America is not so good at improvising solutions in unexpected emergencies. If the Obama administration didn’t send a field hospital it was because it didn’t have one to send. Whether it was an earthquake in Haiti, or something happening out of the blue – man-made or otherwise – in The States, like Katrina, it simply isn’t prepared. That’s kind of scary.
All kinds of stuff arrives in my e-mail inbox, more than I can handle or even evaluate. I did take note of something sent to me recently by several people which quoted some Israeli expert on terrorism. His prediction was that something would be happening in the U.S. in the next year or two. Let’s hope he is wrong; and if he’s not wrong, let’s hope that whatever is supposed to happen is thwarted in media res by some alert person – as happened in the recent incident on the plane. But consider how little it would take for anybody to wreak havoc in any one of so many ways in any one of so many places. One of my standard comments is that we here in The Land have security, and you back in The States have security. Here when you enter a mall, someone checks what you’re carrying on the way in to make certain you’re not going to blow up the building. There, they check you on the way out to make sure you didn’t steal a sweater. It can certainly be aggravating, constantly opening your backpack or purse, but you tell me who’s safer where?
Anyway, there it was, the film clips and the comments from the medical and rescue staff involved, and there was a standing ovation and not a dry eye in the auditorium. Personally, I’m proud to be part of a nation that, with all its faults and shortcomings, can practice such baseless love for other people; a country to which seven thousand people, considered the descendents of Jews, now living in the middle of nowhere, are longing to return to. Maybe the common thread to both of these stories is a kind of devotion: to a people, to a land, to a set of values, to the One G-d. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.

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