Saturday, December 23, 2006

Runnin' it up

My grade school principal was fond of telling us that "everything has a Jewish angle." How about last week's infamous brawl between the New York Knicks and the Denver Nuggets at Madison Square Garden? Denver had the Knicks totally outclassed and was blowing them out with a minute or so left in the fourth quarter. Their starters were still in the game piling up points and one of them was driving to the basket presumably to throw down an embarrassing dunk as he'd done a few minutes before to the cheers of Knicks fans (!), when Mardy Collins of the Knicks grabbed him by the neck from behind and threw him to the ground hard. A general melee ensued with all ten players on the court being ejected from the game, and fines and suspensions all around.

Collins slaps a headlock on J.R. Smith
and flings him to the floor

So where's the Jewish angle? Well, Denver's coach, who reportedly had a grudge against the Knicks for firing his friend from a coaching position, kept his starters in the game after it was sewn up just to show the Knicks up on their home court, apparently an unwritten no-no in the N.B.A. The Knicks' coach, Isiah Thomas, had warned one of the Nuggets' players to stay out of the paint, and criticized Denver's coach after the game for running up the score. Well, what's so terrible about that? The object is to score points, and if the Knicks played like a bunch of klutzes that's not Denver's fault. If I was coaching an Israeli team and we were playing against a team from Germany, or Ukraine, or Lithuania, you get the idea, on their ground, and I had a blowout going, would I have my lads run up the score? You bet I would, in spades. Then, after thoroughly humiliating the fellas, we'd "hoop it up" in the shower. Ha-meivin yavin. As Rabbi Kahane said, "Baby, there's a new Jew."

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The miracle of the first night

A classic Hannukah "kasha" goes like this: The oil that was sufficient for one day burned for eight. So the first night was no miracle; why then do we light for eight days and not seven? Many answers were given; I'll share one I heard from Rabbi Meir Kahane hy"d, which I am sure is not original with him. The miracle of the first night is that Jews came out to fight. It had been nearly 400 years since the Jews had last put an army in the field, and then they lost miserably. Since then they had been subservient first to Babylon, then Persia, then to the Greeks in their various incarnations. They no longer thought of themselves as fighters. Comes Antiochus IV with his determination to stamp out Judaism, and all of a sudden the Jews are prepared to take on the mightiest army ever assembled - never mind win! That - in and of itself - was a miracle! With God's help, in the end they did win, but not being nevi'im, they had no assurance of victory at the outset.
Bayamim ha-hem baz'man ha-zeh. We can hope for God's help, we can and should pray, but first we have to "come out fighting."
Happy Hannukah.

Monday, December 11, 2006

In Memoriam: Prof. George H. Fried

Today, 20 Kislev, is the sixteenth yahrzeit of my thesis adviser, Prof. George H. Fried of Brooklyn College, מורי יצחק בן אליהו הלוי.

Prof. George Fried was a valued thesis advisor to me and much more. In German the sponsor of a doctoral candidate is known as a “Doktor-Vater,” i.e. “doctor-father.” This close relationship between student and mentor mirrors the Jewish tradition which equates teachers with biological parents. Prof. Fried embodied this academic ideal. Our association was a long and fruitful one, and I benefited in many ways from his warmth and compassion as well as from his scholarship. He was generous with his advice on such seemingly trivial matters as how to dress for an interview, and I could always come to him with problems even of a non-academic nature, knowing that I could rely on him to be cool-headed and non-judgmental.

While Chairman of the biology department, Prof. Fried had the daunting task of allocating shrinking funds among growing needs. While it was impossible under such circumstances to please everybody, and his decisions often engendered bitter quarrels among faculty and graduate students, I can attest that they were made with his usual care and concern for the college, the department and the students for whom they exist.

Prof. Fried belonged to an endangered species of Renaissance man whose knowledge and interests range far beyond their academic specialties, and he nurtured the same inquiring spirit in me. He was particularly intrigued by the interactions of science and religion. We often discussed contemporary bioethical issues. He was a Reform Jew so we often disagreed, but I always came away a better and more understanding person. As a teacher he had the rare gift of making science genuinely exciting for students with little or no background in the subject, and his comments on my teaching were of immeasurable value in my own professional development.

Hashem took Prof. Fried from us suddenly and before his time. The passing of my biological father followed closely on that of his academic surrogate. Reflecting credit on both is a difficult task indeed.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Politically incorrect Torah jottings

Warning: If you are looking for the standard hagiographical accounts of Biblical figures, please seek elsewhere

We just got through reading the accounts of Ya'akov's early life, from his birth to his "stealing" of the b'rakhot to his sojourn with Lavan and return to what would become Eretz Yisrael. What stands out in my mind, and what nobody to my knowledge will say out loud, is the somewhat disturbing character of Rivka. Before her marriage she is portrayed as a ba'alat hesed extraordinaire, knowing that Eliezer's camels were thirsty and giving them water without being asked. Then, as so often happens, she becomes a different person once the children come. I see in her the prototype of the Jewish mother - domineering, over-involved, overprotective of Ya'akov. She would probably have done better to let the twins duke it out when they were little. No matter who came out on top they would have gotten along fine; boys always do (I can hear them telling Rivka, "Imma, it's a guy thing, you wouldn't understand."). But then we wouldn't have a story. And why the underhanded scheming when it comes to securing the b'rakhot for Ya'akov? What was stopping her from telling her husband, "Yitz, Eisav isn't what you think he is, and if it's too late to change him perhaps the b'rakhot should go to Ya'akov." Instead she makes a liar out of Ya'akov and sets the stage for a 20-year separation, keeps the sibling rivalry simmering and in the end never sees Ya'akov again. Indeed, her words to Ya'akov - alai kil'latkha b'ni (your curse should come to me) were tragically prophetic. According to the m'farshim, when Rivka died Ya'akov was away, Yitzhak was blind and unable to leave his house to bury her, and Eisav hated his mother so much he wouldn't bury her, hence her final needs were left to strangers. The resolution comes when Ya'akov wrestles with the angel (Do I hear, "Nice Jewish boys don't fight?"), emerges the victor and has his name changed to Yisrael, Champion of God. No more to get his way by trickery and deceit, the transformed Ya'akov will now face his fears and prevail with manly confidence and forthrightness (Yehoram Gaon wrote a song about Ya'akov's transformation: Listen here ).

Ma'asei avot siman l'banim. Ya'akov's solitary contest - with the angel and with his own fears and self-doubt - is emblematic of the dark, lonely struggle every Jewish mother's son undergoes in his journey into manhood, unless he is content to be, in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, "one of those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." For me the transformation came in my first subway ride alone, my first solitary run through a "bad neighborhood," and ultimately in training for and completing my first marathon. Was exorcising my inner demons easy? Not by a long shot. Would I go back to being the frightened little boy that I once was? Not for all the tea in China!

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Kolko arrested

Hot off the Associated Press:

Brooklyn School Rabbi Accused of Molesting Boy

NEW YORK (AP) -- A rabbi at an Orthodox school was arrested Thursday on charges he sexually abused a little boy, police said.

Joel Kolko, 60, taught at the private school for boys, Yeshiva-Mesivta Torah Temimah, and was arrested on four counts of sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a minor, police said. The 9-year-old boy reported he was abused during 2002 and 2003, police said.

A lawsuit was filed Wednesday against the school, claiming it protected the rabbi, also known as Yehuda Kolko, and accusing it of "failing to protect'' the boy "from sexual assault and lewd and lascivious acts'' despite knowing Kolko's "dangerous propensities,'' the Daily News reported on its Web Site. The suit was seeking $10 million in damages.

Another lawsuit, filed in federal court in May by two of Kolko's former students, claims the rabbi molested them nearly 20 years ago, according to published reports. The suit, which is seeking $20 million in damages, alleges Kolko victimized nearly 15 children.

One of the former students filing the suit appeared in a New York magazine article in May detailing the abuse claims. The magazine said Kolko had refused to comment.

On Thursday night, Kolko, who was handcuffed, bowed his head and didn't speak when he was led from a Brooklyn police station to a waiting car before his arraignment.

There was no answer at a telephone number for Kolko listed at the home address provided by police, and an after-hours message left at the school was not immediately returned.

Kolko was defended by one of his former students at the school, where about 1,000 boys are enrolled.

"As a person, he doesn't fit the criteria,'' Abraham Birnbaum told WNBC-TV. "I have known him for 10 years. My brother was his student, and he never had that view of him.''