Thursday, November 25, 2010

How Fast Is Fast, or The Tale of Three Rowboats

Sometimes, it’s not a bad idea to be a little flexible…. every once in a while. A case in point: every Shabbat morning at our friendly shul, Musar Avicha, there is an on-going mishna shiur in English (mishna being the first attempt to write down the Jewish oral law about 1800 years ago) starting a half hour before the davening begins at 8AM. My initial reaction three years ago was ‘I can’t do that. It’s too early. I’ll never get there on time. Maybe we’ll be away sometime and I’ll miss something.’ Etc. In other words, if I couldn’t do it 100%, then I wouldn’t bother at all. Maybe I’m mellowing (like fine wine) or maybe I’m just getting to be more sensible, but I realized recently that I was being ridiculous. Why not try? Whenever I arrive, I arrive. If I miss a week, I miss a week. Whatever I am able to learn, that’s how much I learn. But if nothing else, at least I would be on time for the davening, instead of wandering in fashionably late, as is my wont.

So a few months ago, I started to put a proverbial toe in the water; I pushed myself out of bed a little earlier Shabbat morning and got to shul in time for the last ten or so minutes of the shiur. With a little more effort, I was able to make it in time for fifteen minutes. More recently, I’ve been showing up almost at the beginning; and once when the rabbi giving the class was late, I arrived before he did.

As you might expect, considering the earliness of the hours, the shul is not packed with men eager to learn, but there is a solid cadre of about eight guys who show up regularly. Mishna, without the extensive and often convoluted commentary of the gemarrah is relatively straightforward, perfect for learning at a time when the brain is not kicking in on all cylinders. Because the mishna is exceedingly concise, it is possible to complete the entirety of it, all the tractates, in the course of a manageable number of years, without the sense that you are drowning in a sea of arguments and conjectures. Nobody at the shiur is in a hurry, there’s plenty of time for questions and tangential discussions, and wherever we leave off, we pick up the following week. Shortly after I started showing up, we began going through the tractate Ta’anit, which deals mostly with how and when our holy rabbis during the time of the Beit Hamikdash would decree communal fasts, especially because of drought situations.

“The seventeenth of Marheshvan (that’s usually in October F.C.) arrived and the rains did not fall, individuals began fasting three fasts…..Rosh Hodesh Kislev arrived (about two weeks later F.C.) and the rains did not fall, the Court decrees three fast for the community…….[translations, for those who care, are from the English language Kehati]. And so on: who, what, when, where. As the rabbi giving the shiur, Gedalia Meyer, pointed out – although it should be obvious if one gave the matter a little thought – no rain in The Land, no water, no life. Two thousand years ago in parts of the world where there was a rainy season and a dry season, people used wells and dug cisterns to collect rain water. If the well went dry and the cistern emptied out, ooooow, were you in trouble. So you used your water sparingly and you worried a lot; hence, you prayed a lot.

Now, as Cole Porter used to say, times have changed. But the sporadic nature of rainfall in The Land has not. There are good years and bad years – not so good the last six or seven years. It has rained once or twice this season, even making it to our neck of the woods, but there is no good reason to believe, precipitation-wise, that things are looking up – as the Gershwins used to say. We’re supposedly in for a short, dry winter. Good for our heating bills; not so good, terrible in fact, for our water supply. It simply does not rain here when it’s warm.

OK. You’re sitting in a shiur about rainfall and fasting in The Land two thousand years ago. Even if your brain is working at half speed (remember, it’s 7:30Shabbat morning), there are a few questions begging, pleading, to be asked. Do these rules for fasting apply today? If not, why not? (Not that anybody is looking for an excuse not to eat, but a question is a question.)

Rabbi Meyer first response was, in a sense, sociological. We’re not as obsessed or stressed out as we used to be about water – at least here in The Land. Most of us can’t imagine there not being any water. We turn on the tap and there it is, hot and cold. We can even drink it. If I’m finicky, I can take my shopping cart down to the makolet three minutes away, pay twelve shekels for a six pack (two liters each) of spring water, and shlepp it back up the stairs to our apartment. If we had to, Israel could probably import large quantities of water in freighters from countries like Turkey which have more than they need. Thanks to the JNF, we have reservoirs aplenty. Israel has pioneered in the development in drip-farming and desalinization. What reason is there for us to go boo-hooing to G-d?

You know the old story about the three rowboats? A fervent believer is caught in a flood. He goes up to the second story of his house, whereupon a National guardsman in a rowboat spots him and offers to rescue him. The f.b. declines the offer, declaiming, “G-d will protect me!.” The water keep rising, and our man goes up to the attic. Another guardsman passes by. Same thing: “G-d will protect me!” The man is now on the roof, still refusing to get into the next craft because, “G-d will protect me!” Not surprisingly, he drowns and winds up meeting his Maker. Still sopping wet, he lodges his complaint. “I was certain you would protect me!” “What are you complaining about; I sent you three rowboats.”

I can imagine the following dialogue: “Hashem, forgive our sins and send us rain, as you did in days of yore.” “No one knows better than I what knuckleheaded and out of control things you the children of Israel are guilty of. I am giving you a pass – not forever, but for now – because of your willingness to resettle the Land I gave you and thereby sanctify My Name. But water? I’ve given you water. If you haven’t used it well; if you haven’t even used the technology which you yourselves developed; if your Finance Ministry refused to fund the desalinization plants your Knesset approved…… I can forgive you your sins, but your stupidity, that’s another story.”

Right on cue, the week after this particular Shabbat morning shiur, some rabbis, perhaps from the Rabbinate, called for a fast, but in a very low-keyed way (meaning that many people didn’t know about it or heard about it second or third hand, and then generally ignored it). My Barbara, upon reading about it on the next-to-last page of the Jerusalem Post, responded in a not-so-low-keyed way: “The rabbinate, they should fast for their own sins!” (My wife, believe it or not, has a very low opinion of the Rabbinate here. My guess is that on a scale of 1-100, she would give them about a three. Perhaps she is being a little overly critical. Myself, I would rate them between 10-20. They are no more guilty of stupidity than our politicians and no more guilty of hatred than the leftist intellectuals who have hijacked our cultural institutions. At least that’s one man’s opinion.)

The following Shabbat morning, our little group of learners reconvened to continue discussing the absence of rain and the lack of participation in the fast (full disclosure: I was in for half a day, whereupon I lost interest.) Rabbi Meyer came in with an answer which he said up front wouldn’t be satisfying. There’s no individual rabbi or official group of rabbis around today who believe they have the authority to institute the kinds of fasts described in our mishna. Trying – unsuccessfully, thank G-d – to segregate the streets in their neighborhood; trying – with who knows what result – to annul retroactively huge numbers of conversions; trying – very successfully – to make the most outrageous statements which antagonize as many of us as possible and delight the secular press, itching for some juicy tidbit to print. All these remarkable activities various factions can do. But if group A called for a fast on Thursday, group B would insist on Monday, and group C would question the credentials of both A and B. So effectively, no communal fasts. Whatever rain falls, falls.

In my unofficial capacity as silver lining seeker, I am pleased by the rabbinic modesty in this regard. In a way, it’s like the headline we saw the other day, that the ‘Palestinian’ Authority had announced that Jews had no intrinsic right to pray at the Kotel. Why? The Western Wall had no connection to the Temple Mount. That’s good, I said. At least they’re on record as admitting that the Beit Hamikdash actually existed. Likewise, our official rabbis are forced to admit the limitations of their authority and – more importantly – their ability to organize and represent the body of Israel.

We here in The Land will have to muddle through another year, and we will. The desalinization plants that will contribute between 10-20% of the water we need are being built; members of the Knesset are stopping their bickering long enough to consider what stop-gap measures can be taken to conserve this elusive liquid. There may even be attempts to locate underground water (which has always been there, like the natural gas reserves offshore, just waiting to be tapped). Our citizenry is finally getting the message. Consumption is down a little bit – to be fair, more than a little bit; the supply of water to farmers and industrial users has been rationed. Our future is bright – if we don’t muck it up. It doesn’t take much to make a hole in the bottom of a rowboat.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Born in the USA

Had you seen me at about 9:30 that Shabbat morning, standing in front of our beit knesset, Mussar Avicha, chewing the fat with Ezra, you might have been inclined to wander over and inquire why the two of us were standing by our lonesome outside. Granted it was a beautiful morning: the last gasp of summer heat had seemed to dissipate. (It had rained in the early hours of the morning, although we hadn’t heard it. Someone’s car alarm had gone off, and as I lay awake in bed, I had fantasies of locating the offending vehicle, flattening its tire, and pouring fruit drink into its gas tank. Life is good, but not idyllic, here in Ma’ale Adumim.)

Still, why weren’t we inside with everybody else? Macrophobia, the fear of long waits, that’s the answer. Or at least one hitherto undiagnosed variety of it: the dread of hearing a rabbi announce that he has a “few words” to share and then prattle on for twenty minutes in the middle of the service to an essentially captive audience. I am usually willing, even eager, to hear a talk about the Torah reading or some aspect(s) of Jewish law. Just not when it’s without my consent – and especially when the davening is long enough anyway – even if the rabbi were speaking in English. I willingly concede that it’s not his fault that I cannot understand everything he’s saying in Hebrew. There are situations, though, when you need to understand mea ahuz (100%) or there’s no point. Imagine that you weren’t feeling well and you went to the doctor, who went on at great length and in greater detail about the status of your kidneys. And you left his office wondering, did he say I did or didn’t need an operation?

Anyway, there we were standing on the steps, when a fellow I thought maybe I had seen Friday night walked up and asked us (in English, of course) what time did davening start? I pointed out that the official starting time for shacharit was 8AM, but…..I shared with him my philosophy: whatever part of the service you have missed is less important than what is left; and if you do it right, you’ll finish at the same time as everyone else. By way of explaining his tardy arrival, the man – of indeterminate middle age – told us that he was still jet lagged; he had arrived back in The Land two days before after an absence of – what did he say? – thirty years.

Sure enough, the rabbi did f-i-n-a-l-l-y finish up, and we went back inside. When the service was over, I did my usual round of shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with the usual cast of characters, starting inside the sanctuary and then out to the crowded lobby. I noticed the jet-lagged newcomer standing by himself, and there was absolutely no question in my mind that he was angling for a lunch invitation. And where was Jeff when we needed him? – alluding to our friend Jeff in Jerusalem, who has made it a good part of his life’s work to locate stragglers in shul and invite them back for whatever hospitality they might need. To my dismay, Jeff was home in Jerusalem and wasn’t available to come out of the dugout to pinch-hit. The previous Shabbat, the Torah reading was about the extraordinary hospitality of our patriarch Avraham; and we had just finished reading/hearing about how Avraham had sent his servant back to his old home town to find a wife for his son Yitzchok, finding Rivka, who offered water to the servant and his camels. Lessons there. It is not like me to start talking to perfect strangers – let alone imperfect ones – but…..There was nothing else for me to do but step up to the plate and swing the big bat. Being essentially by himself, the newcomer was delighted to join us for lunch. (‘Us’ being Barbara and me and our friends Richard and Barbara[2], who had come down from their hilltop in the western Galil, bringing with them a bag full of fine wine. Let me further digress by indicating that this ‘bag’ is one of the most important design innovations of recent times – a canvas shopping bag, about a foot high, with six compartments, each one designed to hold securely one bottle of wine. Amazing!)

Lunch. To go with our first cholent of the season, Barbara[2] had dipped into her wine bag and pulled out a 2005 ‘EverRed’ from the Ella Valley Vineyards, essentially a mixture of Cabernet, Merlot, and Petite Syrah grapes (We had enjoyed a similar, but lighter 2007 blend from the Kitron Winery the previous evening, to go with the chicken based ‘orange’ soup and the roasted chicken stuffed with lemons. Both bottles indicated that the grapes were harvested at night, picked by hand, and the wine was stored in oak caskets for fourteen months before being bottled. If either of these choices surfaces at a wine merchant near you, grab a bottle or two.)

We ate, we had something to drink, and we talked, which is what we do at our Shabbat table. We learned a little about what our guest had done during his first aliyah, and what he had done in The States after he left. I make it a point never to ask someone who has lived here and left, why he did so; and amazingly Barbara[1] didn’t ask either. Our guest did volunteer why he came back. When it came time to vote in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and he was unable to vote for either candidate, he figured that he should consider that as an omen that it was time to leave. (Editor’s comment: at least everyone was spared having to hear what madness impelled him to vote for Obama.) Interesting reason; but then any reason to come to live in The Land for the first or second time is a good one as far as I am concerned. And so, without a permanent place to stay or any specific plans, he divested himself of thirty years worth of possessions, donating thousands of books to a local Jewish library, got on a plane, and arrived back in The Land – following some prearranged migratory pattern that he was unaware of, or perhaps succumbing to some inner need that could no longer be contained.

As we approached dessert (we still had half a bottle of Muscato to go with this course), I decided to share some Torah thoughts which I had downloaded and printed on Friday and perused during the morning’s davening. One of the writers I especially enjoy reading is Chief Rabbi (U.K) Lord Jonathan Sacks because his education has been extensive and he will bring in references to thinkers that most rabbis never heard of. His “Covenant and Conversation” article for this week, though, focused on a topic which I’m certain was talked about from pulpits the length and breadth of the Exile: Avraham’s efforts to bury his wife Sarah. Seven times in the Torah, G-d communicated with the patriarch, repeating the promise to give the land of Canaan – as far as he can walk – to him and his descendents. Great. Now it was tachlis time: he needed a small clump of earth, maybe three feet by six feet, and he didn’t even have that – just a Divine promise of what would be. I’m reminded of scenes in several films I’ve seen in which someone has something of enormous wealth, a check for one million dollars, a sack of gold, which, because of his situation, he cannot use, with tragic consequences. Our hero was made of sterner stuff; he would go out and deal with the locals, who were in essence willing to let him bury is wife on their land. It would be traumatic enough having to deal with the loss of a loved one who has suddenly died, and now you have to arrange the details of the funeral service and the burial on a moment’s notice. But how would you feel if, G-d forbid, you had to buy a cemetery plot for a loved one, and the management offered you instead only a ten year lease on the plot with an option to renew. That’s how Avraham felt. He insisted on buying the property, finally paying Ephron the Hittite a ‘pittance’ for it – what I understand would be the equivalent of a million dollars in today’s coins of the realm.

Rabbis go nuts with this story: why is it mentioned in such great detail?; what does it say about Avraham and his situation?; what is its significance for the Jewish people today?; on and on. At this point, Barbara[2] remembered that she had heard a similar casting of the story from a Chabad rabbi in New Jersey. I thought about what she said for a moment, and I responded something to this effect: I understand relating to this incident from the perspective of those of us living in The Land (and as we were sitting and gabbing, twenty five thousand Jews were gathering in Hebron, where this incident took place, as happens every year on the Shabbat when Chaya Sarah is read). But what does it mean to a rabbi in Cherry Hill – or London, for that matter? What is resonating in the mind of someone in the places where those of us sitting at the table had lived? How does one interpret this cautionary tale about living among strangers when one is living, willingly or unwillingly, among gentiles? Or perhaps one hasn’t internalized that, in the final analysis, those nice neighbors are not really part of one’s extended family?

After some heavy discussion and my share of a bottle of wine, it was definitely time for a Shabbat nap. I headed upstairs at about 1:30. Minchah, the afternoon service, wouldn’t start until 4:20. Plenty of time! When I woke up, it was 4PM; I must have been more tired than I thought……or maybe it was the wine. I could hear voices coming from the living room. Usually when I head downstairs after my Shabbat nap, I find Natania stretched out on the couch and Barbara[1] curled up in a chair. But there was Richard and our guest, still heavy at it; now joined by two other friends of ours. Party time!!!!! Except the three men needed to head back to Musar Avicha for mincha and Nachum’s weekly exercise in brilliance.

Shabbat was over and there was a division of the house; the newcomer was heading into Jerusalem to hear a concert by disciples of Shlomo Carlebach. The rest of an amorphous group were of two minds: 1)stay home and chill out (some people, like Richard and Barbara[2] having to get up at the crack of dawn to get to work); 2) head down to the ‘religious’ neighborhood, Mitzpe Nevo, and hear a concert, which was supposed to be outdoors but turned out to be indoors, by Lenny Solomon and Shlock Rock – their first ever in Ma’ale Adumim. Exercising option 2, several of us did in fact take a cab down the big hill to the concert to join a throng of mostly middle aged folks who first heard Shlock Rock twenty or thirty years ago..

Given the fact that a) I never voluntarily listen to contemporary pop music of any persuasion, and b) I am less than enthused by most of what is termed ‘Jewish music,’ you might come to the altogether reasonable conclusion that I would have no interest in a group that has spent all this time creating and performing Jewish parodies of pop songs, reggae, rap, etc. I have no explanation for why I have enjoyed Lennie, except that perhaps his enthusiasm is infectious and as other entertainers, for example Jimmy Durante, have done, he maximizes his talent with sheer personality. Maybe also, I like the idea that you can be serious about something, but not so serious that you take all the joy out of it. In the course of two or three benefit concerts for the Yavneh Academy I bought a bunch of tapes (that’s how far back we are talking) which I used to take with me into my darkroom and bop around during the long and tedious process of printing photographs. It is just as well that many of the songs he is parodying I have never heard, or I finally heard inadvertently well after I heard the Shlock Rock imitations. Even the original performers may be unknown to me. I have heard of Bruce Springsteen, but I don’t think I have ever heard him sing any of his songs. If I did, I wouldn’t recognize his voice.

Why am I mentioning Springsteen? Towards the end of the concert – a mixture of Lennie’s ‘oldies’ and some new stuff (he just recorded a collection of Shabbat songs played to the melodies of the Beatles’ – from Shalom Aleichem [With a Little Help from My Friends] to Havdalah [Imagine]) the group began playing their version of what I understand is a Springsteen classic, ‘Born in the USA,’ turned into “Born in the USA, Making aliyah today.”

If I had to have a theme song, that might be in the running. Born in the USA, went to The Bronx to stay (although in truth we were born in Manhattan and arrived in the northern borough when we were about six months old; there not being enough room in the apartment in the east 50’s for our parents, older sister, grandparents, and my brother and me). Born in the USA, raised on Mosholu Parkway (although anyone talks about this area, they mean the park, not the road; nobody hung out or walked their dog on the road). Born in the USA, crossed the Hudson to NJ (that’s ‘En-Jay’). Born in the USA, making aliyah today. Except that I’ve already done that. Except that on any morning when I rise and attempt to shine, and I look out through the doors that lead out to the little balcony off our bedroom, looking out to the hills this side of Jerusalem, I am once again making aliyah today. A few thousand years after Avraham Avinu, but that’s OK.