Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Don't Press Your Luck

I keep coming back to the Mahane Yehuda shuk – both in person with my shopping bags as well as in my writing. A few weeks ago, I was doing business (half in English, half in Hebrew) with a fellow in a store that sells olive oil. They have some connection with the spice store a few stands away, and they sell some Pereg products. I had agreed to buy a container of Sumsumia (‘a healthy spread with the taste of halvah’) just to try it out (we haven’t so far), but the salesman was trying to get me to buy a second jar. I looked at him and said, “There’s an expression in English, ‘Don’t press your luck.’” He thought that was the most wonderful thing he had ever heard, and he began translating that into Hebrew for his assistant. He put my olive oil and Sumsumia into a bag, and I paid him his fifty something shekels. In other words, he got the message, quit while you’re ahead. You just made a sale, don’t louse it up. Good advice anywhere, anytime. How does this vignette relate to the rest of my story? As usual, you’ll need a little Israeli savlanut (patience), and all will be revealed.
Rosh Hashana was a ‘three day yuntif’ here in The Land. No surprise; that’s what it was everywhere else in the world, Thursday and Friday followed by Shabbat; although the way people here over-shop the days before, one might think it was going to last a week or more. Look who’s talking: Natania and I made enough food to feed everyone in the building. While I was slaving over a hot stove in the kitchen that Wednesday, I though back to what it would be like if we were still living in Teaneck. For one thing, I would have had to stop everything that afternoon and run over to the high school down the block to help set up. The synagogue we went to, Congregation Beth Aaron, had nowhere enough seats for everyone for the ‘High Holidays,’ so the auditorium at Teaneck High got rented every year for the overflow minyan (the shul is spending two or three million on a renovation, and there still won’t be enough seats; but that’s no longer my concern). We would put together a divider between the men’s and women’s section which would take forever and do all manner of other things to make the place user-friendly and halachically acceptable. It involved at least a dozen people and a multitude of vehicles to transport all the equipment, the prayer books (and the supplements to the prayer books because there was something which the ArtScroll people left out which we just had to say), and the extremely heavy aron (the closet to hold the Torah scroll), then to carry everything up the back steps into the auditorium. In a good year, we could start assembling everything on time; in a bad year, we would have to wait until the rehearsal for some student performance was finished. All this time, the cooking I needed to do wasn’t getting done.
Here in The Land, my responsibilities to the shul are greatly reduced. Like everyone else at Musar Avicha, I get in line to buy our seats; this year I gave Steven, the financial person, a check for a thousand shekels, half of which covered my year’s dues and four seats, the rest of the money being a contribution to the building fund. That would pretty much be all from my wallet for the entire year. When I would arrive the evening of Rosh Hashana, there would be a seating chart in the lobby as well as a name tag on the seats we had reserved. Life can be simple.
Of course, there are drawbacks. The mis-matched seats here are not very comfortable, to say the least; they look as if they were filched from some shteibel in south Tel Aviv. A few of us have individual shtenders (I inherited the one I use from someone who no longer goes to the shul); but most people have no place to put their stuff. Nobody gets paid to lead the service, and the quality depends on who is doing it. This year, so far, things have gone very well. In Teaneck, on the other hand, I always knew what to expect. Larry Y. was the sheliach tzibbur in the overflow minyan every year, and for my money you couldn’t ask for anybody better. I only wished that he didn’t have to ‘perform’ in a high school auditorium, an enormous hall which our congregation couldn’t possibly fill. There is something about leading the service in a small, cozy shul, the intimacy of which improves the nature of the davening. And there is something about having services in the local high school, essentially foreign turf, to remind you where you are – on foreign turf.
Back in New Jersey, I always felt that, no matter how holy a day was for me, ‘life’ for the rest of the 98% of the population was going on as usual. Every morning, the newspapers would arrive; later on, the mail. Other people were going to work; from where we were, we could see the traffic flowing on route 4. Just looking at the cars passing by, you would never know that there was something special about the day. I always seem to focus on the negatives of life in The Exile. But there is one positive aspect which shouldn’t be overlooked. For a Jew in New Jersey, observing The Holidays in any way, shape, or form means having made a conscious decision to be a two percenter rather than a ninety-eight percenter. And there is something wonderfully ennobling about something you do because you choose to, in spite of the world around you ignoring you.
That’s an experience you will never have here in The Land where Rosh Hashana envelops you whether you like it or not. Everything comes to a grinding halt. Schools are closed; stores are closed, offices and factories are closed; there’s no mail, no newspapers. Decisions both small and monumental are put off until ‘after the hagim,’ which means until after Sukkot. Cut off for three days from any sources of information unrelated to the holiday, I was oblivious to the vagaries of the financial markets, to the winners and losers at the U.S. Open tennis matches or Yankee Stadium, to any and all foreign intrigues and the fulminations of foreign leaders. Only on Sunday did I realize that the holy Shabbat which had just passed was indeed 9/11, the importance of which was magnified this year, I understand, because of the brouhaha over plans to build a mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero.
Returning to the news of the days that followed, I found three items, two from Haaretz, that made me stop and wonder what was going on. The first, from a columnist whose name I didn’t recognize, extolled the virtues of Yom Kippur – if not as a Divine commandment, at least as an ecological boon. Here in The Land, there really is very little vehicular traffic on this one day of the year; you could stand in the middle of major thoroughfares without worrying about being run over. Usually in an article in Haaretz, they would somehow find a way to chalk this up to some kind of plot by ‘the religious.’ Somebody had sabotaged all the pumps at the gas stations, or the like. But no, our writer opined that the holiday from the roads was by common consent of the populace, and it was a wonderful thing for the environment. She sort of mentioned that Shabbat served the same purpose, as a day of rest, although she stopped short of actually endorsing that we all take advantage of it.
One such article……., a blip on the radar screen. But a second one? I think it’s safe to say that Haaretz has less than fond feelings for those of us who live over ‘The Green Line,’ and a hearty antipathy for those of us ‘settlers’ who are motivated, even in part, by ideological and/or religious reasons. But they really have it in for the collection of rabbis who form the National Religious leadership. One of their favorite whipping boys is Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who heads a yeshiva in Jerusalem and is the chief rabbi of the small community of Beit El; him they love to malign as often as they can find an excuse to do so. So imagine my surprise when they made him their hero of the day: “Leading rabbi joins animal rights group’s campaign against kaparot” trumpeted the headline on in the lower right columns of page 1 the day after Rosh Hashana. At the request of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Israel, Rav Aviner “issued a religious ruling that, rather than slaughtering an animal, giving money to the poor is a better method of absolving oneself of transgressions.”
My mentor, Nachum, firmly believes that avoda za’ara (pagan practices) is alive and well in the Jewish community. If you asked him for specific examples to demonstrate his point, I’m certain that he wouldn’t get very far into the conversation before he would mention this curious custom which a lot of otherwise normal Jewish folk do, taking a live chicken and swinging it over your head. Somehow, this is supposed to transfer your sins, at least ceremonially, to the chicken. A lot of people who do this then give the chicken to a poor person to eat or eat the chicken themselves, leaving one to wonder if you’re not re-digesting the sins you were so eager to get rid of. Of course, Nachum would modestly tell you that it’s not him making this negative judgment, it’s a huge number of medieval commentators calling this practice darchei emori (the ways of the pagans). Personally, I have never read any of the commentators, and until recently I didn’t focus on its pagan connections, but it always seemed obvious to me that there was a difference between correcting the things I have done wrong and scaring the living daylights out of a hapless fowl. It has also been obvious to me that donating money to worthy causes would be good for me as well as the recipient. So hooray for Rav Aviner, and hooray for the left-wing in Israel (the SPCA and Haaretz) for giving credit where credit is due, in a universal campaign against absurdity, obscurantism, and the promulgation of customs that were better off forgotten.
Now if these two articles, in which Haaretz for a brief moment called off its campaign of religious vilification, moved my socks downward slightly to my ankles, you can understand that the third thing I read virtually ‘knocked my socks off.’ That was the comments, widely reported, by Fidel Castro (THE Fidel Castro) in which he took the Iranian dictator Ahmadinejad to task for his denial of the Holocaust. In an amazing article which appeared in the American periodical, Atlantic, Castro stated in part, “Over 2,000 years they were subject to terrible persecution and then to pogroms. One might have assumed that they would have disappeared; I think their culture and religion kept them together as a nation. The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.” Kind of stops you in your tracks. Who would expect aid and comfort from a source like this? Certainly not me. Not in a world in which self-proclaimed lesbians march in support of regimes which would stone them to death, and atheists support radical Islam and yell Allahu Akbar.
It can’t last. This apparent cease fire from the minions of the left can’t last. It’s like the sun for the briefest moment shining through when the sky is filled with ominous rainclouds. Short of Moshiach’s imminent arrival, things have to get worse. Sooner or later, everything will go back to ‘normal:’ boycotts, bombardments, bombast, belligerence. The in-fighting amongst ourselves and the out-fighting between us and our neighbors. But who says we shouldn’t savor this respite, brief as it may be? Here’s an idea that is definitely out of the box, but it might just work. As soon as the hagim are over, announce that the year 5771 is officially over and done with, signed, sealed, and delivered, and in the record books for anyone to see. And it was definitely a shanah tova for all of us. 5772? We’ll worry about that later. Maybe, we shouldn’t press our luck. Maybe, we should quit while we’re ahead. What do you think?