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.

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