Monday, July 19, 2010

Nine Days of Ex-Jasper-ation

This was a strange complaint, but I guess it could happen. I ran into Lionel A. at the local library last week and he was frustrated because he has read all of the English language books they have – even though the library claims that they get new books (and ironically if you offer to donate books, they don’t want them). The funds for the Ma’ale Adumim library have been donated by the Bnei Zion Foundation; while it can’t compare in size and scope to the one in Teaneck with its link to forty other Bergen County libraries, the multi-lingual award does go our local effort. Here, in addition to the Hebrew language collection, there are sections for books in Russian, French, Spanish, and English (three rows). We have not been here since the dawn of time like Lionel, so there are still lots of offerings to supplement what I have at home. One of which is a novel I stumbled on quite by accident. I was doing what I don’t encourage others to do, talking on my cell phone in the library (two demerits!), answering our handyman’s question about something, walking back and forth, trying not to disturb anybody, when I spied a well-worn copy of a novel with an intriguing title, “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon” by Richard Zimler. Reading the back cover, I pegged it as an entry in a small, but significant genre, which, for wont of a better term, can be called historical mysteries, well-written works steeped in the ambience of a particular period. I had previously read most of Frank Tallis’ books, which recreate turn of the (20th) century life in Vienna, the home of coffee and pastry shops, Gustave Mahler, Sigmund Freud, and more than faint whiffs of the genteel anti-Semitism which, like a leaky gas stove, would explode several decades later.
Zimler’s novel, though, takes us to another time, another place, one to which the word ‘genteel’ would definitely not apply: “the universe of Jewish Kabbalah during the Lisbon massacre of April 1506.” [from the back cover] “Drenched in atmosphere and period detail….(Zimler) does succeed in conveying the surrealistic nightmare of being a Jew in the age of the Inquisition.” [The Wall Street Journal] As I started to read this account, I thought to myself, “What a perfect book to read during the Nine Days preceding Tisha B’Av, a terrifying reminder of what it is like to live in a World Without Redemption. I was particularly struck with the following poignant conversation, and if you read on you will see why I am including it. “The next evening, totally disheartened by Reza’s continued imprisonment, Uncle came to me in our cellar and mentioned for the first time the possibility of our leaving Portugal. “If I asked you to leave this country forever, would you go?” he asked. “Yes, if I had to,” I replied.“Good. But your mother…could she leave”“She’s frightened. An enemy one knows is often easier to bear than one who is unknown.”“True. And if your mother doesn’t leave, I doubt Esther would. Nor Reza, now that she’s married and trying to start a family. If we can just get her home.”(You don’t need to know who all these characters are or what this is all about. Suffice to say, that within a few pages, Uncle Abraham, a secret teacher of Kabbalah, is brutally murdered, his wife Esther is ignominiously attacked and violated on the street, and the narrator, Berekiah Zarco, must discover the whereabouts of most of his family members and uncover the murderer of his uncle – who may be among his disciples – in the midst of a on-going massacre.)
As I continued to read this frightening account, a series of thoughts entered my head, which, because you are a good audience, I will share with you. For whatever reason, I carry with me a very vivid memory of a dispute I had well over thirty years ago with a young man; I even remember his name, David. He was going on and on about the special nature of the Holocaust, and I felt the need to set him straight. A) The tragedy in Germany is relatively recent, a wound still open to those families that lived through it. B) It was carried out on a scale previously unimaginable. But that’s all. It could not have occurred to the Cossacks in the Ukraine or the Dominican Monks on the Iberian Peninsula that they could create a world order to kill every Jew everywhere. But those they could get their hands on……. The Germans methodically gassed and incinerated millions in camps away from the public eye (so that the neighbors could later deny any knowledge of what was going on. “We didn’t see or smell anything.”) Centuries before, when they were in the mood, drunken revelers and/or crazed Christians would round up a certain number of Jews, throw a party, and burn them alive in the public square, so everyone could see. I maintain that the events of previous two thousand years were a series of dress rehearsals for The Final Solution; and when we say, “Never to forgive; never to forget,” let us remember all those martyred souls who were burned or hacked to death over the centuries by the ancestors of those who condemn us now.
Then there is the role of Kabbalism, then and now. We live in a world of alleged reason. The people I hang out with, the people I learn from are all rationalists. In my circle, we do not study the Zohar (and I could care less whether this work, prepared by Moses de Leon in 13th century [C.E.] Spain was written by him or was redacted from the work of Shimon bar Yochai a thousand years before). We are profoundly skeptical of the efficacy of wearing red strings; we are bemused by groups that include non-Jewish entertainers claiming to teach this esoteric stuff. There is a gulf between us and those legitimate Jewish groups that do incorporate mystical ideas into their belief system. But I think I understand. If you were a Jew living in Lisbon in 1500 C.E., why wouldn’t you be attracted to mystical ideas about things you otherwise could not comprehend? Consider the environment. Everyone you knew had been forcibly converted to another religion. Nothing was what it seemed, and nobody was who he seemed to be. Your former rabbi was now peddling Christian relics and was probably a spy for the Dominicans. But Brother Carlos was actually a secret Jew, as were some members of the nobility. In the cellar where you prayed on Shabbat and held your Pesach Seder, you were a Jew. On the street, in different clothes you were a ‘New Christian,’ a marrano to the ‘Old Christians,’ a target for their vengeance. Why not look for hidden realms and elusive meanings? Why not invoke transcendental forces to protect your people from an overwhelmingly oppressive enemy? The alternatives seemed to be apostasy or madness.
What I keep coming back to, though, is that conversation. It could have happened in Berlin in 1935; it could have happened in Brooklyn last week. Why can’t we leave? Everyone seems willing except for Mollie; and Sara won’t go without Mollie; and Sam won’t go without Sara; and Lisa won’t go without Sam. So nobody goes. There’s always a problem, always a reason. No matter how bad things are. Here is this family in the novel. They are, months, weeks, days, hours, from annihilation; and they are finding every excuse to stay put, frozen in place by custom and convenience. You want to jump onto the page and shake them. ARE YOU ALL NUTS? GET OUTTA THERE! BEFORE IT’S TOO LA-A-TE! How my grandparents managed to make it out of Europe in the 1880’s, I’ll never know.
These ruminations rumbling through my brain, I came upon an article on the Israel National News (Arutz 7) website entitled “How Badly Do We Want it?” by Go’el Jasper – a genuinely good guy who otherwise hosts a talk show, The Aliyah Revolution, on their internet radio site. Before we made The Great Leap Forward, I used to sit at my desk in New York and listen with earphones to this and other shows on the website while I did my work. Go’el always struck me as the right kind of guy for his job, patiently but earnestly urging an audience of Galut Jews to come home, all the while giving useful information on aliyah-related topics. In this article, however, I think he cranked the volume up a wee bit too high. I sent back a comment in which I surmised that he had been ‘Ex-Jasper-ated when he wrote it. He responded to me; I responded to him……
Speaking of ‘it,’ what does the pronoun in the article’s title refer to? The Redemption, of course, the ultimate ‘Good news for the Jews.’. That time in the future when we will be made whole; when the Jewish people will live freely and safely in The Land, teaching Torah to the nations. That’s a big order, and the question is a valid one: how much do we really want to escape from the clutches of those good folk who have two thousand years of blood – ours and their own – on their hands? And then, A) what do we need to do to bring it about, and B) in Go’el’s words, ‘how badly do we want the redemption?’ If you are a perceptive reader, you have already surmised that Go’el’s opinion on the second question is: not enough.
What got him going on this train of thought? Unless you cheated and read his article, you would never in a million years guess; so I’ll tell you. It was the publication by the Orthodox Union in New York and the Koren Publishers in Jerusalem of a new translation of the Kinot for Tisha B’Av with a commentary by Rav Soloveitchik – or at least the advertising for said publication. (for anyone who needs footnotes: Kinot are a series of elegiac poems written to express our collective sorrow over the destruction of the Second Temple as well as later tragedies which befell various communities during the Crusades and the various Inquisitions. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, known to many as THE Rav, was a towering figure in American non-Haredi Orthodoxy, the teacher, or the teacher of the teacher, of most American congregational rabbis.)
Go’el included the following excerpt from the OU press release: “The Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot is designed to enhance the experience of users by giving them a taste of those glorious days with the Rav…Tisha B’Av is doubly sad for these students. Not only is it the annual day of fasting and mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, it is also a day on which the absence of their venerated mentor is sorely felt.” Being in a charitable mood, I would ascribe this hyperbole to the copywriter’s overdose of coffee and the absence of a careful editor, because no one in his right mind would equate the grief over the passing of a loved one or a beloved teacher – at a ripe old age – with our collective sense of desperation over the two thousand years of history gone wrong that we feel on Tisha B’Av.. Go’el however saw fit to pounce: “And played the other way, if the Rav were still alive today, I guess that would mean that his students would only be half as sad as they are today. After all, only the Temple is gone, but The Rav is still here.” Ouch!
So far, our writer is on reasonably firm ground, but…..he felt the need to extend his argument, and, as we all know, it is a matter of moments to go from safe ground to quicksand. So let’s go on v-e-r-y c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y. The Rav, our writer points out, “used a simple, flimsy paperback edition of the Kinot. He used the same simple edition every year.” Not only that, but there was a custom in eastern Europe and the pre-1948 yishuv to throw these booklets into the place where they kept holy writing prior to burying them; and then to retrieve the booklets the following year. Go’el’s premise is by doing so they demonstrated how badly they wanted redemption. Of course, these worthy Jews never actually buried them so that they couldn’t be retrieved. That might have shown a real commitment!
I was discussing this premise with a buddy who had been a congregational rabbi in a small shul back in The States. Did that ring a bell! Where he had been, the Kinot booklets were kept in an old shed, and every year they were brought out, reeking of mildew and mold. The print was so small that even he, the rabbi, could not read it properly. Plus the translation was in Yiddish; you can imagine the age and condition of these pamphlets! It didn’t take my friend, a reasonably astute guy, very long to figure out what the drill was: ‘It’s Tisha B’Av; you don’t eat; you sit on the floor; you spend an hour or two thumbing through an odiferous booklet which you can’t read, and even if you could, you wouldn’t understand; until it’s time for someone to help you get up because your legs have lost all sensation.’ In other words, reading these Kinot was part of the discomfort of the day. Plain and simple. Like many congregational rabbis today, he began making the effort to explain to his small minyan what they were reading – which is what I gather the Rav was doing – with a somewhat larger audience.
It’s fair to say that Rav Soloveitchik didn’t need a new edition of the Kinot for Tisha B’Av because he knew his material cold. He did invest a lot of time in teaching his students, who spent a lot of time taking notes, which notes on a multitude of topics are being edited and now compiled into book form. But Go’el, forgetting about the quicksand all around us, ventures the following opinion: “I would propose that he used the same flimsy edition every year because perhaps he couldn’t bring himself to buy a new version, at least not if he was a real Torah Jew, who prayed three times a day for the redemption.” Let’s parse that sentence again. Is our writer suggesting that if you buy a new version (especially this version) you’re not ‘a real Torah Jew?’ That’s what he seems to be saying. Is that what he means? Of course not! No more than the over-stimulated copywriter at the OU meant that the death of this Torah giant is equivalent to the destruction of The Temple and all that followed from it. You have to be careful with words. They’re like wayward children; if you don’t pay attention, they can get out and embarrass you. Words have a way of hanging out with other words and forming sentences that say something very different from what you want them to. And then you’re in trouble.
So where is Go’el Jasper going with all this? Consider the following: “I have an idea for how the day can be more meaningful and appropriate as well…“Perhaps we should behave like we want the redemption and not buy any new Kinot books. Or perhaps, at least, the publishers should include with every purchase of a new Kinot a coupon entitling the buyer to a full refund should the Mashiach arrive.“But that would be bad business, I suppose.”
Au contraire, Reb Go’el, that would be GREAT BUSINESS. What a marketing ploy!!!! But why stop there? It is generally assumed that when the Beit Hamikdash is rebuilt, many of our practices will become obsolete – including some of our prayers. What about the Rosh Hashana prayerbook? So we should ask for the same kind of coupon if we buy a new machzor? Of course, once my mind gets into overdrive, I come up with some really out-of-the-box ideas. Go’el mentioned the custom of leaving a little piece of wall in one’s house unpainted as a sign of our incompleteness. How about house painters offering coupons as well: if you leave that strip of wall unpainted, if Mashiach comes in his lifetime, he will come back and finish the job. Supposing this idea caught on? Clothing stores in religious areas offering discounts on black hats, streimels, children’s clothing – as soon as Mashiach arrives. Wigmakers, too. Pre-paid airline tickets for special charter flights to meet and greet The Mashiach. On and on. We’ll show them that we are serious about the redemption.

What else? “Everyday, three times a day, we pray to G-d that he should restore His Kingdom to his people. We raise our children on songs regarding our desire for Mashiach’s arrival. We say at our weddings that if we should forget the Temple-including Jerusalem, we should lose the use of our right hand……..” The sad reality is that those of us who daven three times a day often do it mechanically (perfunctorily, desultorily?). “Mashiach, Mashiach, Mashiach, Oy, Yoy, Yoy, Yoy, Yoy, Yoy” is nothing more than a line dance performed at over-fancy weddings where all thoughts of Jerusalem ‘are soon forgot.’ I would think that these are examples of where we desperately need to improve, not as paradigms for our behavior on the Ninth of Av; but that’s one man’s opinion.
I mentioned airline tickets a little bit above. It’s not surprising that the host of the ‘Aliyah Revolution’ would bring up that topic as well. Addressing the millions of Jewish souls still hanging out outside The Borders, Go’el opines, “I know that moving to Israel is too difficult for you because you need to have two or three cars, a nice, big house and your New York Yankees season tickets.” Let me say straight out that, in my own view, there is very little that anyone can do to bring about the Ingathering of the Exiles by remaining in the out-gathering; your money might buy some needed equipment for Hadassah Hospital, a room in a yeshivah, or any number of other worthwhile projects, but it won’t be of any use in rebuilding The Temple. (How about: the priestly garment changing room, endowed in memory of Morris and Bessie Cohen, who would have come if they could have, by their children and grandchildren, who didn’t come when they could have.) But there are ways of saying things, and ways of saying things.
My former-congregational-rabbi friend had some thoughts about this as well, which I will paraphrase: when he and his wife were planning their aliyah, he was very rah-rah, very critical of people who were staying behind. They had friends who were just about ready to get on the plane, when the female friend’s mother begged them not to go. She was dealing with a very sick husband, as well as several other family members with physical ailments and serious emotional problems. She could not handle these multiple responsibilities all by herself. The couple reluctantly agreed to postpone their aliyah, and my friend was convinced that they would still be in The States fifty years later with dim memories of what might have been. But the woman’s husband died, things sorted themselves out, and the family is now living here in one of the Anglo enclaves; and guess what? The mother herself just recently made aliyah. “Hooray,” I yelled, right in the middle of the mall. So, my friend said, he has stopped judging people for where they live their lives.
My feeling is, hey, we’re leading by example, which is all we can do. We’re here; things are pretty good. You wanna join us; great. I’m not going to examine the very complicated motives for how you live your lives, although I’m pretty sure that season tickets to the ballpark or the opera house aren’t the deciding factor in where you pitch your tent. I’m certainly not going to pass judgment on millions of Jews I don’t know. That’s the beginning of a very slippery and nasty slope. It would be easy to wind up like the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who are trying to annul the conversions of twenty thousand people, almost none of whom they have ever met. Leave the sliding ponds for the small fry. And one more bit of advice: sarcasm, like roach spray, has to be applied with great care, and in small doses.
We are still left with some nagging questions. Go’el Jasper enjoins us to make Tisha B’Av not just ‘meaningful’ or ‘relevant,’ but ‘appropriate’ as well. So what am I supposed to be doing? What am I supposed to be thinking? Our practice is to observe some of the No’s of Yom Kippur: no eating or drinking, no bathing, no leather shoes…. Then what? Should I be making any effort to improve my understanding of the literature and the liturgy of the day – without purchasing the offending OU-Koren version, of course. Should I attend any of the lectures and classes that are given before and on the fast day?
“How badly do we really want the redemption?” Maybe we should start with a more fundamental question, do we really, honestly, have any idea what we lost when the second Temple was destroyed and we were thrust among the Nations? Can we conceptualize how much better it would be for the entire Jewish Nation if the Redemption would come in our lifetime? How can you want something if you don’t know what it is?
How to somehow encapsulate even a fraction of what has happened? I keep coming back to one exceptionally chilling scene in “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon,” when a slave girl is publicly humiliated to the cheers and laughter of the multitude, the narrator wonders, “Do the Old Christians hate us so violently because we gave them Jesus, the savior they never really wanted?” We had a belief that there would come a time when all the troubles of the world would come to an end and we would come to understand human history. The Nations took our idea, turned it upside down, dragged it through the mud, and then used it with devastating consequences against us to prevent our vision from ever coming true. But it will. That is the promise of the Prophets. And prophets don’t tell bubbe meises.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Three Cheers for Rabbeinu Yona

It’s funny how a casual remark can spur you on to consider something you had up until then been avoiding like the plague. You want an example?: Two friends who were visiting us from The Exile needed to speak with some contacts in Efrat on a recent Friday morning. Being firm believers in combining work and pleasure, they arranged to have an early lunch at the Gush Etzion winery before their meetings. You can well believe that the time it took for us to accept an invitation to join them could have been measured in micro-seconds – if that long. And so we all drove down to ‘The Gush’ (which is the region directly south of Jerusalem as far south as Hevron), stopping long enough to pick up a friend of theirs (whom they had known from a different ‘west bank’ – of the Passaic River) who showed us the way to our destination.
It was a late Friday morning in the summer, a propitious time to be sitting in the combination restaurant/gift shop/visitors center, right next to the winery’s small bottling facility. Seated around a very long table in the back were at least a dozen English-speaking women enjoying a ‘girls’ morning out.’ Plenty of time for them to enjoy a leisurely meal and the company of friends before returning to their kids and the preparations for Shabbat – which wouldn’t begin for another eight hours. Likewise for the young couples and the smaller groups sitting at the other tables. I was in no hurry; I had a secret weapon: Natania was in our kitchen, cooking up a storm while daddy was out playing.
We settled into our seats and then headed for the buffet tables, all you can eat for forty five shekels. It turns out that our friends’ friend knew the proprietor, and so, as we ate, they treated us to copious samples of winemaker Shraga Rosenberg’s wares. So what do you think happened? As we were waiting for our coffee and dessert to arrive, I ambled over the short distance to the wine racks on the wall, behind the diners seated at the few tables there, and started checking out the different selections for sale. Aided and abetted by the proprietor, my brain mellowed by what I had already sampled, I selected two really nice bottles: a 2009 Gewurtztraminer (“fruity and elegant, with fragrances of lychee, rose and tropical fruit.”) and a 2005 Nahal Hapirim (66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot grapes), for which I spent more than I generally do, but…………
We were headed back to Efrat, the plan being that Barbara and I would hang out while our friends went to their meetings, and then we would head on back to Ma’ale Adumim. But first our friends’ friend took us on a little detour, and I’m certainly glad she did because otherwise I would never have had the opportunity to stop at Pinat Hama. A certain number of years ago, there was a Doctor Gillis (I’m pretty sure but not positive that was his name) who, true to his calling, treated patients because they were ill, not because he necessarily liked them; the proof of the pudding being that one of his patients was a relative of Yasser Arafat, may his name be blotted out. For his troubles, the good physician was murdered by Arab terrorists; although later Arafat claimed that it was a mistake – they meant to murder someone else instead. (That’s a relief!) In these parts, when there is a tragedy, people try to do something useful: set up a tzedekah fund, build a beit knesset, something. Here, someone decided to open a place where soldiers could come to relax when they were off duty. First it was a simple shack and now it is more elaborate structure, strategically located on the main north-south road at a junction with another road which goes west to Beit Shemesh. Lots of traffic; lots of soldiers. Dozens of people from the entire Gush staff this little place (the first shift of the day and Fridays by men, otherwise by women), and people take turns providing home-made baked goods to go with the drinks and snacks. Sure enough, there were a bunch of soldiers, some coming, some going, when we arrived.
An article or two ago, I presented a fanciful idea, storing the good will inherent at a wedding celebration in an aerosol container, so that on dark and gloomy days, there would be a way to create instant “wedding cheer.” So why not “Pinat Hama”? When you are literally up to your neck in stupidity, narrow-mindedness, bureaucracy, corruption, and ‘I-can’t-be-bothered-doing-it right-itis,’ a little spritz is all you need to create a sense of being A Light Unto The Nations, to remind you of who we are supposed to be, how we are supposed to behave, (See below) and why we are living in The Land. A Land with an army to protect us, an army of young people who can use some TLC; and people who treasure the Land and the army because it’s their own children who are in that army. At least that’s the jolt I felt when we left this place, or other similar places where good old fashioned chesed is performed, the kind of activity which keeps us going, but is hardly ever mentioned in the media.
Now comes the ‘casual comment’ part. Our friends were here when the ruckus with the schools in the town of Immanuel was front page news, and, as we were getting ready to return back to Ma’ale Adumim, M. casually asked her friend, a Chabadnik, if she thought what was going on in Immanuel was ‘racist.’ Certainly not, was the reply, because if she thought it was racist, she would be against it. (But she’s not, and ipso facto, it is not racist.) Jewish schools do have the right to select their students; in fact, back in New Jersey, a haredi day school had refused to accept her children because of the family’s connection to Chabad. She didn’t like it, but the school had the right to do so. Finally, none of us had gotten the full story because we only read newspapers like the Jerusalem Post.
One thing I am getting better at over the years – far from perfect, but better at – is not arguing with everybody over everything. You don’t think that X is Y? Leave it alone. My personal estimate is that there is at best a two percent chance of changing someone’s mind about anything. And even if I did change someone else’s mind, so what? But this woman was absolutely right about one thing; I didn’t really know what was going on in this situation. In fact, up until that moment, I hadn’t followed the story in any depth because I didn’t want to know what was going on, just as I hadn’t made it a point to follow the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the sex abuse scandals plaguing the Vatican. If people want to create their own interpersonal train wrecks, don’t expect me to be interested. But as I did have an opinion on the Immanuel situation, it behooved me to have a better sense of what was going on. I know that this is atypical behavior for most people, but I’m funny that way.
Without overwhelming anyone with the dreary details – and believe me they are dreary – , the story seems to be something like this, as best as I understand it: there is this town here in The Land called Immanuel (which means in English, ‘G-d With Us’; perhaps it should be renamed to ‘G-d help us’) and a lot of haredim live there including members of the Slonim Hassidim. More recently, a growing number of Sephardic families have moved into town, and many were desirous of sending their daughters to the local Beit Ya’akov School. However, it was felt by the Slonimers that most of these Sephardic girls come from families whose level of observance does not meet their standards: they may have subversive devices like the Internet in their homes; they may have an uncle who has a TV; possibly they daven with the standard Sephardic pronunciation which most of us use, not the way the Slonimers daven; things like that. To make a long story short, as I understand it, all of the local girls were put into a new facility, divided in half: separate classes with a wall in between, separate staircases, separate entrances, separate areas in the school yard. We are talking S-E-P-A-R-A-T-E with a vengeance. No way the girls in part A were going to mingle with those in part B! The rigorous school has a population of three quarters Ashkenazim and one quarter Sephardim; the not as rigorous school is comprised almost entirely of Sephardic girls with a couple hands-ful of Ashkenazim (clearly the local ‘riff-raff.’)
After a series of unsuccessful attempts to change the situation, a group representing some of the Sephardic parents petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court for redress. Led by its only Sephardic member, the Court insisted, and we’re talking about with less than a month to go in the school year, that the status quo was illegal and that the schools must be integrated immediately – like that day. When the Slonimers refused to accept this decision, the Court ordered the affected parents to begin serving a jail sentence for contempt. This did not sit well, to say the least, with the Haredi population, and, amidst fiery speeches by some of the rabbis, tens of thousands of Haredi men attended rallies to protest the court’s decision. The chief rabbi of the Slonimers is on records as having said that this was the worst tragedy to have befallen them since the Second World War (I have no idea what that was supposed to mean) and that he and his followers would rather face a firing squad than give in and change the situation in the Haredi school.
There is a lot to consider here, assuming one is in the frame of mind to consider, i.e., actually think – not regurgitate somebody’s party line or assume a defensive crouch and yell. For one thing, there is the way Israeli schools are funded; like many ‘private schools,’ the Beit Ya’akov schools receive some government funding. To what extent should the government be involved in matters of curriculum and policy when they are paying part of the cost? What interests me even more is the on-going relationship between the Haredi community and the government. Do they – yes or no – consider this to be a Jewish state; and if not, what is it? (more than I can consider here.) If there is a conflict between rabbinic authorities and a duly elected government, who gets to decide? However……….., let’s take a couple of steps back and consider the matter in a broader context. To set the stage, let me begin with a personal anecdote and a short history lesson, courtesy of my teacher, Nachum.
There came a time when we were growing up, when our mother (may her memory be a blessing) saw fit to begin leaving my brother and me alone in the house. And what did the two of us do with our new found freedom? We fought bitterly. Often. Why? You can posit any number of reasons, but ….bottom line….because there was no one to stop us, no mom, no big sister, no baby-sitter. It took us quite a while to figure out some way of getting along, but in the end we did. Now, consider the Jewish people in a similar vein. From the time our nation was split into two kingdoms following the death of Shlomo Hamelech until the time of the second expulsion – when we couldn’t agree on whether to fight the Romans or seek an accommodation with them – we have been at each other’s throats. In the process, we lost most of our twelve tribes, who simply vanished without a trace. Why were we fighting amongst ourselves? Because there was no earthly force to stop us. (You can say that it was vastly more complicated than that; but, the same bottom line, was it really?) For the last two thousand years, what’s left of us have been scattered among the Nations, and they have taken turns being our (not-so-nice) baby-sitters, and most of the time we have been too busy hiding from them to bother with each other. But not always. Several weeks ago when it was the Shabbat when the section of the Torah called Chukkot was read, Nachum reminded us about the public burning of thousands of volumes of the Talmud in Paris in the year 1242 C.E. It seems that there was a student who didn’t get along with his rabbi and wound up going to the Church authorities to ‘rat’ on the Talmud; they needed little convincing to burn every copy they could get their hands on. Watching this catastrophe was Rabbeinu Yona (this was the time of the rabbeinus [our rabbi]; not my rabbi, or his rabbi, or their rabbi, but our rabbi. What a concept!), which caused him to have an amazing insight: Only forty days ago, we, and I was one of the chief instigators, burned copies of the writings of the Rambam, because we considered them heretical, right here where the Christians are burning our Talmud. Can there be a connection between these two events; is this a Divine punishment for our sins? Rabbeinu Yona reconsidered his position on The Rambam and ultimately wrote his ethical masterpiece, The Gates of Repentance. There are to this day Jews who fast on the Friday before Shabbat Chukkot in remembrance of what the Catholic Church did to us. Is anyone fasting to atone for what we did to each other, burning the Rambam’s work?
There were plenty of scuffles during the time of our dispersion: for example, the Chassidim versus their opponents versus the secularists, but our infighting was limited by geography. It would have been hard to work up a good tussle between the locals in Slonim and Algiers. But then, all of a sudden, we were miraculously able to return to The Land and the fun began. I’m sure that there were idealists around sixty two years ago who thought that with the in-gathering of the exiles we would all work together to build our Nation in Our Land: dance the Hora together, things like that. It hasn’t worked out all that smoothly – as you may have noticed, assuming you were paying attention.
Several weeks ago, I came upon an article, together with a photograph, in Haaretz. Apparently, a number of Chabadniks moved into Ramat Aviv, a very pricey, secular neighborhood north of Tel Aviv proper. Being Chabadniks, a couple of the guys went down to a street corner and looked for customers to put on tefillin. Did that get the neighbors upset! There was a demonstration with people carrying signs saying “Ramat Aviv is not B’nei Brak.” While the demonstration was bad enough, the article was even worse. Haaretz has a collection of leftist loonies whom they let out of their padded cells from time to time to write vitriolic articles. The journalist the paper chose to write the article used it to attach anything which is important in Judaism, and that Ramat Aviv must, must, be kept free from any taint of our ancestral religion. Imagine what would happen if all of a sudden people wanted to pray anywhere near Tel Aviv University and the Diaspora Museum? Why, everyone might start to sprout a long, white beard overnight – even the women! Personally, I think the Chabad movement is somewhat weird; but if there can be a Chabad House in Katmandu, why not in Ramat Aviv? I understand that whatever activities these folks are up to, it started with the absolute love their rebbe had for each and every Jew; and as far as they are concerned, the most worthy thing a Jew could do is to reach out to his fellow – no matter how estranged from the tradition the latter might. It’s just that the Chabadniks don’t have to be so annoying about it. Likewise, the secularists writing for Haaretz don’t have to be quite so hostile; I guess it comes with the territory.
So where does that leave us with the Slonimers in Immanuel (G-d help us), who are seeking a separate education for their children? If you ask someone, like the spokesman for a large American Haredi organization who is paid the big bucks to sit in Washington D.C. and pontificate, it’s perfectly acceptable for Haredi parents to educate their children how and with whom they want. (In a recent article I read, he even compared the Sephardic families who petitioned the Supreme Court to Bull Connor, the segregationist who physically opposed school integration in America. Yes, you read it right. That’s what he wrote. You’ll have to ask the good rabbi by what convoluted logic he arrived at that remarkable conclusion.) One can debate endlessly whether the Slonimers were acting within the framework of the law or not, or whether the law should allow them to do what they were doing. Can I tell you something? That’s not my issue. I don’t care either way. I’m much more interested in what the Slonimers are trying to accomplish and why. AND what effect their actions will have on others.
I stumbled on an article in the Jerusalem Post which I think sheds light on the subject. Peggy Cidor’s beat is the Jerusalem City Hall, and she described a City Council meeting which had taken place almost a decade ago. It was 10:30 at night, and council member Shmuel Yitzhaki (Shas), known for being politically incorrect (my kinda guy!) rose to speak: “My dear colleagues, forgive me for keeping you up so late, but my conscience will not allow me to remain silent any longer.” What was on his mind? There were twenty three Sephardic girls whose mothers kept calling him to do something for their daughters, who were being kept out of Beit Ya’akov schools in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, this was not a one-shot affair; he got these calls every year. Cidor related that one day Benny Cohen who was then head of Jerusalem’s Haredi Education Department gave her the following explanation of what was happening and why it should not be considered ‘racism.’ “In Ashkenazi haredi families, when a member leaves the religion, the rest of the family ostracizes him. In some extreme cases, they will even sit shiva for him or her because they fear an eventual impact on the other children. They would rather sacrifice one child than jeopardize the rest. But in Sephardi families you can find a haredi son, a religious Zionist, a traditionalist and a totally secular child. They all respect their parents, share the same holiday or Shabbat meal and remain a rather close-knit family. It may look warm and beautiful, but Haredi Ashkenazi families look upon it differently. They are afraid of a girl who might visit an aunt who has a TV at home and perhaps dresses in a way that is too provocative in their eyes. So they will never accept a girl whose family has a ‘problem.’” In Jerusalem, where there are many schools, every girl ultimately gets into some school, even if it is not her choice; there is much less of an option in a small community like Immanuel (G-d help us). In either community, the process does little for these girls self-esteem, but that does not seem to be part of the equation..
Reading Benny Cohen’s explanation I thought to myself, that is an absolutely dead-on description of our Sephardic neighbors across the hall. They must have four or five grown children, and they are beginning to collect an impressive number of grandchildren. There’s almost always a carload or two of family members arriving just before Shabbat. You can stand in the hallway and listen to them singing Friday night and the children playing all through Shabbat. If you are invited into their apartment during the week, you can see the family pictures hanging together n the salon and the dining room. You would also notice the huge TV, tuned to a qualifying round of the World Cup (what we call soccer in The States, if you haven’t been following). If you want to judge people by their clothing, then it would seem obvious that each of our neighbors’ children has chosen a slightly different religious path. I guess none of their children would qualify for a Beit Ya’akov school – assuming that the parents would want to send them there.
Why am I writing about this? Please take my assurance that this is not meant as another bash-the-haredim article, which are as common these days as the local cats at our garbage bins. I admire this group (the Haredim, not the cats!) for the strength of its convictions, their eagerness to repopulate the decimated world Jewish community, their interest in learning Torah, their commitment to chesed for themselves and others. It’s just that…….if you think Israel gets bad P.R., these folks get much worse – which is sort of where I’m coming from – although I’m sneaking up on it from behind. I never pretend to be a Torah Scholar, or even a Torah scholar, and I try to confine my comments to those areas in which I have some understanding. One of them is the concept of G-d judging us with rachamim (mercifully, overlooking our faults and focusing on our good deeds) versus din (strict justice, just the facts), and of course we are always beseeching G-d to show us mercy, for we are what we are, even though our ancestors were virtuous. (At least mine were; I don’t know about yours!)
So what about us? If we are asking for mercy for ourselves, shouldn’t we try to show a little rachmones for the next guy. And if we insist on employing the strictest standards for our fellows (your grandmother’s sister has a second cousin-by-marriage who wears pants; you’re not getting into my school) or making up standards for criteria which don’t even exist – like the kind of shoes a prospective son-in-law wears to shul on Shabbos – well, what should we expect from the Supreme Judge? Then there’s the concept of midah k’neged midah, which means, more or less, than what you do to the next guy might come back to bite you if you’re not careful. Rabbeinu Yona figured that one out pretty darn quickly: You wanna burn the works of the smartest guy of your generation, I’ll show you some REAL book burning. Wait ‘til the Bishop of Paris gets through with you First learn to behave towards one another, and then we’ll worry about a blatt (one side of a page) of Gemarrah.
Now I don’t claim to have any inside information on these matters; so this is just a wild guess on my part. Maybe, just maybe, our frenzied zeal to be critical of one another, he did that, she didn’t do that, is mirrored in the insane lengths to which the nations of the world are going these days to judge us (we don’t care what your reasons are for blockading Gaza, you killed nine people on that flotilla; doesn’t matter if they were armed and would have killed your soldiers….) You want din, I’ll give you din in spades. You want to be contemptuous of a duly constituted court, I’ll show you what a court can do (and Sholem Rubashkin is given what is essentially a life sentence, way out of proportion to his offence. Funny, there were no riots anywhere in Haredi America over that.)
Time for a spritz of Pinat Hama. Time to remember all of the good deeds by so many people here in The Land (and you guys stuck in Exile). Wiser heads prevailed as regards to Immanuel, and for the last several days of the school year, all the girls (those with and without a blemish) were able to sit together and participate in some kind of a program without any recourse to a firing squad. Perhaps I might give some advice to the esteemed Rabbi of the Slonim Hassidim: be careful what you say; somebody out there might latch on to your rhetorical excesses and think it’s a good idea.