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.

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