Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thanksgiving

I think I wrote on another blog that I'd have a post about Thanksgiving, but I got busy, so sorry it's late.
When I was growing up we all celebrated Thanksgiving and took it for granted. All of a sudden it's a subject of controversy, with many haredim saying it's not kosher. Not kosher to thank God for the blessings we enjoy in this country? Crazy. But we should be accustomed to haredi craziness by now. It comes down to whether or not we American Jews consider ourselves Americans. Jews in Poland, Lithuania, Russia and the other hellholes of Eastern Europe did not consider themselves Poles, Lithuanians, Russians and so forth, and neither did the Gentiles in those countries. Often they were not even literate in the languages of the countries they had been living in for centuries. Indeed, the Yeshiva of Volozhin closed down rather than teach students Russian, i.e. teach the Russian language, not teach Torah in Russian. That is the mindset that the detractors of Thanksgiving are acting upon. And it is not our mindset. We consider ourselves Americans in every sense. And so do our Gentile neighbors. We pay taxes, serve on juries, vote in American elections and so forth. American Jews served proudly in uniform in all of America's wars; the Holocaust museum in Battery Park in Manhattan contains an exhibit dedicated to American Jews who fought in World War II (one of them was my father a"h). In fact, when Asser Levy and his group of 23 first settled in New Amsterdam, the Dutch authorities proposed a special tax in lieu of guard duty. Asser Levy basically told them to take their tax and shove it; the Jews would do guard duty along with everybody else. And so they did. So yes, I do celebrate Thanksgiving, without apologies. And I eat turkey, in accordance with the majority opinion that it is kosher (al ha-rishonim anu mitzta'arim. . . .).
But we've been taking too much for granted. Recent events in Jewish life make me give some thought to what we have to be thankful for, so let me list a few:
1. No policeman will ever come to my door to search for banned books. I am free to read and study whatever I wish.
2. Short of indecent exposure, no "religious police" will ever arrest me for the way I am dressed. I am free to run in America's streets and parks in short pants and a sleeveless top (yup, Jews have muscles, get used to it). If my daughter chooses to go out wearing pants, that is her business and not that of the cops (yeshiva spies are another matter, but that's another tale).
3. Our women will not be pushed into a burning building because they are not sufficiently veiled, as was the case in Saudi Arabia a few years back.
4. Anybody can sit anywhere he or she pleases on a public bus.
5. Anybody who takes it on himself to set fire to a store or pour bleach on a woman's clothing can expect to be arrested, prosecuted and sent to prison.
6. We have the courage to stand up for our rights and freedoms, and even when we make aliya, we bring American values. Hence, we will not sit still for the shenanigans of those who would impose their medieval shtetl mentality on the rest of us.

I hope all of you had a happy Thanksgiving and I wish you a happy (and non-controversial?) Hanukkah.

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For one brief shining moment. . . .

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 44 years ago on November 22, 1963 (6 Kislev 5724). For those old enough to remember, and I was eleven years old at the time, the day conjures up powerful emotions. It was a loss of innocence; such things were supposed to happen in rinkydink banana republics but not in America. The grief was indescribable; grown men cried openly, in the street (to be sure, our Tanakh is chock full of men crying, but it violates a strong Anglo-Saxon taboo). We know exactly where we were and what we were doing when we got the news. I was in my sixth-grade classroom checking my Think-and-Do Book (the reading workbook just about every kid in America used in the 1950s and early ‘60s) when Rabbi Harry Halpern, headmaster of East Midwood Day School, walked into the classroom and announced that President Kennedy was in the hospital in critical condition following an assassination attempt. Dispensing with the loudspeaker system, he made the same announcement personally to every class in the school. Rabbi Halpern left the class in pandemonium. The teacher tried to get us back to the Think-and-Do Book but nobody was thinking; we were just doing by rote. I was crying so badly that the teacher had to send me out of the room. Soon the bell rang and we went downstairs to the art room. On the way we saw Rabbi Halpern again, and he said simply, “It’s all over.” It was Friday, so we came home and made a gloomy Shabbat. On Monday school was closed and we watched the state funeral on our black-and-white twelve-channel TV.
Somehow we and the country carried on, and perhaps it was inevitable that revisionist history would debunk the legend that had grown up around President Kennedy when he was still alive, but I remember him as a truly great President, the like of which is rarely seen. For one thing, he was young, in a country that had been led by old fuddy-duddies for decades. He had two little children, and we thrilled to little John-John toddling around in the oval office. The touch football games with his brother Robert on the White House lawn also struck a chord in us. He wanted every American child to have one period a day of physical activity in school; today kids are lucky to get one period a week. If we had followed his advice we would not have fat little kids with Type 2 diabetes today.
We were engaged at the time in the Cold War with Soviet Communism, and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev thought the young new President would be a pushover. He tested President Kennedy in Berlin, giving him an ultimatum to evacuate West Berlin, an island of freedom surrounded by Communist East Germany and a thorn in the Soviets’ side. Kennedy did not back down, and the Communists built the infamous Berlin Wall to keep their miserable people from escaping to freedom. The President would be tested again in the fall of 1962, when Khrushchev stationed offensive nuclear missiles in Communist Cuba, ninety miles from home. Kennedy faced the Russians down, guiding us to the brink of nuclear war and back. Khrushchev blinked and withdrew the missiles. Perhaps not surprisingly, Khrushchev acquired some respect for our young and vigorous leader, and the following summer he and Kennedy negotiated a limited nuclear test ban treaty, which banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere that up to then had been spewing carcinogenic strontium-90 and other radioactive poisons into the air.
The President was helped in his conduct of foreign policy by a patriotic spirit rarely seen nowadays. America was right and good, Communism was evil, and Communists were the enemy. Opinion leaders and the entertainment industry were not actively engaged in tearing America down like they are today, when we are similarly engaged in a titanic struggle with an implacable enemy totally committed to destroying us.
Before he became Presient, Kennedy wrote a book, Profiles in Courage, that should be required reading in any American history course. In it, he profiles several political figures who went against their constituents’ wishes to do what they believed was right, even though they stood to suffer politically for it. For instance, Texan patriot Sam Houston refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy when Texas seceded from the union. As President, he became a remarkable profile in courage himself. His greatest act of courage was on the domestic front. As difficult as it is (thanks to him) to believe these days, the American South at the time was essentially an apartheid country. American citizens with dark skin could not attend the same schools, be served in the same restaurants, even drink from the same water fountains as white Americans. President Kennedy ordered federal troops to carry out the court-ordered integration of the all-white Universities of Mississippi and Alabama. Following on that, he sent to Congress the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. He was taking the country where it was not yet ready to go, and the South reacted violently. The legislation in fact was not passed until after his death, but today it is hard to believe that Jim Crow, as apartheid in America was called, ever existed.
Due to his youth and vigor, President Kennedy was something of a father figure to Americans (pater patriae). And every year on November 22 I feel like I have yahrzeit.
Of course there is no halakhic significance to the day, but my mood is one of aveilut. I say extra Tehilim, avoid entertainment and listen only to appropriately themed music such as Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony (which was completed on the afternoon of November 22, 1963 as the news broke). Tears still come, but being a dyed-in-the-wool American male I suppress them. Devout Christians facing a difficult decision often ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” When I have to take a political position or perform a task requiring moral courage, I ask myself what JFK would do. I have little doubt that he would persevere and see our struggle to stay free through to victory.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

A Time for Courage

“In a place where there are no men, try to be a man.” – Avot 2:5

Recent events in our community have shown a total failure of leadership, especially among haredim but affecting others as well. People whom we have revered as gedolei Torah have proven to be either incompetent fools or truly evil men. The trickle of disturbing indicators of something amiss has become a torrent that we ignore at our peril and that of our children, who are increasingly alienated and giving up on being observant Jews.

The trouble began with an aversion to modernity. Secular education is frowned upon. Specific areas of knowledge that gedolim deem incompatible with our faith are shut out of our universe. For me as a biologist this is particularly galling, since the central unifying concept of my discipline, the theory of evolution, is on the verboten list, as is study of sexual reproduction. Books on the subject have been banned as heretical by old greybeards who often have not even read the books because they do not read or understand English. The late Rav Moshe Feinstein issued a psak (legal decision) in 1969 directing yeshiva administrators to tear pages dealing with evolution out of textbooks (Igrot Moshe Yoreh De’ah 73:3). This practice cheats students out of a quality education and makes it impossible for intellectually honest, ethical teachers to teach biology at those institutions. But if you were not a scientist or an academic insisting on your intellectual freedom, you were not affected – until now.

This aversion to education translates itself of late into a culture of parasitism and an allergy to work. Men are encouraged to spend a lifetime in full time Torah study, while women assume the burden of supporting the family. What was once a non-negotiable requirement and even a cliché – How do you propose to support my daughter? – is now a black mark in the marriage market. Older men who should be contemplating retirement are expected to work until they drop to support able-bodied but parasitic sons-in-law in full time learning. The result, predictably, is an epidemic of poverty and reliance on professional schnorrers. Not a thought is given to how that culture can be sustained once the older generation dies and the new generation of men who refuse to work for a living – and who cannot hold down a decent job because they don’t have a decent education – have to marry off their own children.

We have allowed the medievalists to impose their will on the rest of us in myriad ways, each being trivial but the totality stretching the limits of our tolerance. For instance, people are made to feel self-conscious if they go out dressed like Americans – nothing particularly risqué, just a T-shirt and jeans. Athletics for young women (and, increasingly, young men) are looked askance at, never mind that there is a positive mitzvah to take care of one’s health and you would be hard put to find a physician who would agree that sitting over books for most of the waking day is healthy. We are unable to sit next to our wives at a Bar Mitzvah, wedding or similar social function. We cannot sit next to our wives – or dates – at Jewish music concerts and similar performances. Indeed, our young men and women are deprived of any opportunity to meet one another in a wholesome environment and to date American style, without the permission of a matchmaker, and then we complain about a “shiddukh crisis.” All these things were common practice among American Orthodox Jews up until recently; only in the last generation have we allowed people to the right of us with a different world-view to make us feel inferior and adopt practices that are alien to our way of thinking.

We have accepted all this, however reluctantly, because it was seen as coming from men who forgot more Torah than most of us will ever know. But now the situation has gotten totally out of hand, and those same “Torah giants” allow the evil to infect us. When I was growing up there were embarrassing incidents when prominent Orthodox Jews were convicted, and sometimes sent to prison, for a gamut of white collar crimes. Violent crime was the province of “other people.” Not any more. A practice has developed in Israel where public buses are segregated by gender, with men in front and women in back. Israeli women have been beaten up by “religious” Jews (they only look religious) for refusing to move to the back of the bus. An American oleh who opened a pizza shop in Ramat Bet Shemesh was attacked violently because he allowed boys and girls to sit together. When he complained to a rabbi in the community, he was told that if he didn’t comply he “might end up dead.” Is this a rabbi or a mafia don? The beleaguered businessman closed his shop and reopened in a more normal part of town. There were instances where self-appointed “tznius patrols” set fire to stores selling clothing that did not meet with their approval, and poured bleach on the clothing of women when it did not meet their standards. Certain rabbis, with the apparent backing of their gedolim, try to enforce separate hours for men and women at doctors’ offices, and sometimes men and women are compelled to walk on opposite sides of the street. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that elements of the haredi community would be happy to see Israel transformed into a benighted theocratic hellhole like Iran.

Even so, normal people like us were not affected as long as we stayed out of haredi neighborhoods and did not ride Israeli public buses frequented by the hooligans. Now, however, a development is taking place that threatens our legitimacy as Jews in good standing. A conference was recently held in America, sponsored by an outfit calling itself “Eternal Jewish Family,” and attended by an assortment of haredi and modern Rabbinic leaders. Ostensibly, the conference was called to standardize procedures for Orthodox conversions in America and Israel, so that conversions performed in America would be recognized by the haredi-controlled Israeli Rabbanut. This, in itself, is a laudable goal. However, one of the speakers was a certain Rabbi Eisenstein, supposedly a right hand man for Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the revered Israeli Rosh Yeshiva and a man in his 90s. He stated from the podium, in the name of Rav Elyashiv, that anybody who believes the universe to be greater than 5768 years old is a kofer ba’iqqar, a major heretic, and therefore unqualified to serve as a dayyan (Rabbinic judge) and perform conversions. Nobody walked out, nobody raised an objection, there was no meha’ah (protest) of any kind, despite the fact that many attendees were members of the modern Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and their legitimacy as rabbis, and the legitimacy of their congregants as kosher Jews, was being called into question. For if a rabbi is unqualified to be a dayyan, he also cannot be a witness and cannot arrange a get, or Jewish divorce. According to Rabbi Eisenstein (and Rav Elyashiv?), conversions, and presumably gittin, performed by these “heretics” are retroactively invalid. The implications of such a statement, and of its going unchallenged by our “modern” rabbis, cannot be overstated. In a few generations we will all, according to Rabbi Eisenstein and his ilk, be mamzerim, illegitimate, and unable to marry within the Jewish fold.

We must not remain silent in the face of such an outrage. The RCA must stop looking over its right shoulder for validation (see my earlier post). They and we do not need validation from these crazies. But courage is not the RCA’s strong suit. For instance, while they issued a statement affirming that Torah and evolution are compatible, they did not protest the banning of Rabbi Slifkin’s books by a who’s who of haredi rabbinic authority in Israel. Such a failure by our authority figures to stand up for intellectual liberty emboldens the crazies who would march us back to the Dark Ages. Thus emboldened, the crazies, bullies that they are, commit further outrages. If the RCA is too timid to step up to the plate and assert our legitimacy and the viability of our hashkafot within Torah Judaism, then the amkha, we ordinary folk, must step up. So here goes. I never signed on to Agudat Yisrael so I am not bound in any way by their Moetzet Gedolei Torah, either here or in Israel. Their gedolim are not mine. I look elsewhere for guidance. And I will say what the RCA is afraid to say. The emperors have no clothes. They are either fools or knaves – tipshim or resha’im. If they do not know about the hooliganism, the economic parasitism, the out-of-control halakhic pronouncements, being carried out in their communities, where people hang on their every word, then they are tipshim (or senile, no fault of theirs). If they know and condone the shenanigans with their silence, then they are resha’im. In either case, they are unfit to lead. It has been said in their defense that many of them are old, weak and manipulated by others such as Rabbi Eisenstein, who sign their names to posters and who speak in their name without their knowledge or approval. If so, then we must challenge them to publish their pronouncements in their handwriting, and announce the same in their own voices, recorded on videotape and posted on You Tube or a similar medium, so that their authenticity is beyond question. If any of them are reading this, consider yourselves challenged. If the authority of gedolim is being usurped by their “handlers,” i.e. the Eisensteins, then the Israeli secular authorities should consider filing criminal charges against said handlers. If indeed Rav Elyashiv and his fellow gedolim are of the opinion that RCA-type rabbanim who live in the 21st century are pasul, then we must publicly repudiate their leadership. We must then set up, if we have not already done so, a computerized registry of all marriages, divorces and conversions acceptable to us performed anywhere in the world including Israel. If the crazies consider us mamzerim, so be it; we do not need their recognition except in Israel, where the Rabbanut controls marriage and divorce. Eventually Israeli secularists will be thoroughly fed up with the crazies, and we will join forces with them to take back control of the Rabbanut. Then the computerized registry will become an official government registry, and the crazies will be relegated to the fringe, living in their own comfy cozy Fantasyland, perhaps a tourist attraction, but otherwise as irrelevant to the rest of society as the Pennsylvania Dutch.

I know not the course others may take, but I will not sit idly by as the religion I was born into, raised in and love is hijacked by medieval crazies, just as Islam, once a great world civilization, was hijacked by its crazies.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

New York City Marathon

The first Sunday in November in New York - the City is focused on that expansive, extravagant celebration of fitness and athleticism that is the New York City Marathon. It was the first urban mass marathon, and the model for Chicago, London, Berlin and so many others to emulate. In years past I would be among those assembled at Fort Wadsworth, davening at the minyan organized every year in the staging area, and running 26.2 miles to wildly enthusiastic cheers all along the course. Finally I would cross the finish line in Central Park and experience a rush of joy like no other. Many runners from all over the world are doing this for the first time, and over 90% will finish, buoyed up by the contagious energy of the crowds lining the course. The experience will transform their lives forever.

Due to a bad knee I have not run the marathon since 2003 (I continue to run shorter races), or I would be too tired to write this now. In honor of the race and the hardy souls who run it, I wish to share a piece that I wrote 17 years ago for the Association of Orthodox Jewish Teachers: Click here.





Runner with Israeli flag on Bedford Avenue
in Williamsburg in Brooklyn in 2006 race


Danish runner in foreground. Denmark always
sends a large group of runners for a small country.
In years past, when I ran past one I would tell
him that his people are not forgotten. A Williams-
burg Hasid looks on in the background.


From the 1998 race - I am next to the
coach of the track team at Erasmus
Hall H.S. The team was manning a water
station seven miles in.



I am crossing the finish line at the
2003 race, which would be my last

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Halloween, then and now

Then - the '60s, '70s and early '80s -
Halloween provides an excuse for all sorts of anti-Semitic rowdies to make life miserable for us. Jews (and others to be sure) venturing outside after dark could expect to have eggs thrown at them, at a minimum. Jewish cemeteries were likely to be vandalized. The Jewish Defense League patrolled Brooklyn's Washington Cemetery every year to deter the hooligans, whom the police were unable or unwilling to stop. Volunteers, including myself, patrolled the perimeter of Kingsway Jewish Center in shifts all night long, with nary a cop to be seen. Public school classrooms had only a handful of students, the rest either playing hooky to make mischief or being kept at home by their parents, who feared violence. In fact, children were always safer in school than on the street, but we couldn't convince parents of that.

Now - Rowdyism is down to tolerable levels, and specifically anti-Semitic rowdyism is almost nonexistent in my part of Brooklyn. No more private patrols at cemeteries and shuls; the police are out in sufficient force to deter crime. Absenteeism in school is still higher than normal, but teachers can count on at least one-third to one-half of their students being in class.

Why the difference? Several reasons:
1. Demographic shifts - Gentiles fleeing to suburbia and Jews having lots of babies (bli ayin hara) cause Jews to make up a higher percentage of the population in our neighborhoods; there is safety in numbers.
2. What might be called the Giuliani effect - The former mayor showed us that New York was never ungovernable, as had been assumed until then. It was merely ungoverned. The mayor cleaned up the town, and New Yorkers no longer throw up their hands in despair and allow the criminal element to run rampant. Crime is at its lowest levels in living memory, not only on Halloween but all year.
3. The Second Vatican Council - Much of the trouble had come from Irish and Italian Catholic kids harboring traditional hatred of Jews. Two generations have passed since the sea change in official Catholic teaching in the mid-60s. Catholic kids today are likely to be third and fourth generation Americans. They are not taught anti-Semitism in their parochial schools any more, and neither were their parents. My next door neighbors are Italian-American. They have a son the same age as mine. To the best of my knowledge, there has been not one fistfight between my son and theirs. When I was growing up fights between Jewish and Italian kids were an almost daily occurrence.
4. The very presence of Jewish patrols, and a perceived willingness on the part of Jews to fight to protect themselves and their property, deters anti-Semitic hooliganism and keeps the police on the ball.

Whatever the reasons, we have to thank God that what was once a dangerous time to be a Jew in Brooklyn is now just another night.