Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The ghost of summers past

So here we are in my favorite time of year - summer! Long days to enjoy the outdoors. No need to bundle up. Just bask in God's own heat, brought to you free of charge courtesy of the sun. Wherever you go children are playing. On the courts at West 4 Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan you always see teenagers engaged in spirited games of basketball. They haven't learned yet to pamper themselves and stay inside with the air conditioner going full blast. Being in my fifties, I sometimes think back on the summers we enjoyed a generation ago. And the key word was "enjoyed." There was a lot less uptightness then than now. Summer was a time to let our hair down. We would walk around and play ball in short pants, and listen to baseball games on "transistor radios" that operated on boxy nine-volt batteries. Air conditioning was still a luxury that only the wealthy could afford, and few of us were wealthy, so we boys stripped down at home to short pants and sleeveless undershirts. We had fans going (a whole lot cheaper to run than air conditioners, and more comfortable too) and windows wide open to let in the breezes. We'd sprinkle ourselves with baby powder (it absorbs sweat), and above all we drank like fish. The women (and I'm writing about Orthodox people here) actually wore sleeveless dresses; they called them "shifts." We boys went to shul and to Bnei Akiva meetings without jackets or ties. To be sure, there was a minority dressed in heavy black clothing, but they were few in number. We called them khnyocks (can anybody tell me the origin of that Yiddish word?) and they didn't dare tell us what to do. And - imagine this - we went mixed swimming at public beaches! My father a"h would close his store Sundays in July and August and, weather permitting, we packed a picnic lunch and went as a family to Manhattan Beach. Other Orthodox families were also there, without a trace of guilt or self-consciousness. I don't know what the books say, but I do remember the praxis. As we got older, Bnei Akiva boys and girls would go on outings to the beach. We met one another. We talked. Physical attraction led to deeper attraction, and no one ever heard of a "shidduch crisis." The incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and venereal disease in our community was as close to zero as such things ever get, which is a good indication that there was little if any illicit (i.e. premarital) sex going on.

And now, some 40 years later? I'm a fit, strong, lean athlete barukh Hashem, and I tolerate the heat just fine, thank you. I have no need for artificial cooling, other than what fans provide. Fat is an insulator; it traps heat. Fat people shipwrecked in cold water are more likely to survive than similarly situated lean people, because they are less likely to become hypothermic. I go to shul without a jacket, except when I know that the air conditioner will be set too high. And if I get cold, I get up and leave. Bad enough I'm cold in winter; I refuse to be cold in summer (see my previous post). I sprinkle myself with baby powder on hot mornings, I drink like a fish and I run around in short pants and a sleeveless top. Once in a while a khnyock will give me the hairy eyeball; I couldn't care less. And I hear people complaining. Mostly fat people; what do they expect? I bring a thermometer to shul on Shabbat, and sometimes the temperature hovers around 70 degrees. What with electricity so expensive, all the guidebooks are telling us to set the thermostat no lower than 78, but our buildings still run the air conditioner as if electricity was free. On Shavu'ot my shul made a Yizkor appeal for the summer upkeep of the shul, i.e. for running the air conditioner. My Yizkor contribution went elsewhere.
Ah, summer. The heat, the sun, the fun. I only wish that it could last forever.

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3 Comments:

Blogger cipher said...

Whenever I tell my Chabadnik nephew that this is the way Orthodoxy used to be, before the Hareidim took over the franchise, he tells me that doesn't mean it was right; it just means that people were lax! He also claims that Chabad is the only real "Modern Orthodoxy"; that traditional MO doesn't work, you have to make too many compromises. And that's the attitude in Chabad, the most "liberal" among the Hareidim/Hasidim.

The Hareidim are now largely running the show. I'm afraid Modern Orthodoxy is on its way out, and there seems to be a fair amount of denial about it in MO circles - and, even when there isn't, there's an unwillingness to criticize, to call them out. I can't think this will end well.

Sun Aug 10, 10:23:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Neandershort said...

I don't think it will end well either, simply because we're losing the baby war. They are outbreeding us by a huge margin. Unless we provide a safety net for their disaffected youth - the ones who'd rather live in conformity with nature (boy meets girl) and don't want to join the Flat Earth Society.

Fri Aug 15, 11:55:00 AM EDT  
Blogger cipher said...

You're right; it's a numbers game at this point, and their youth face tremendous obstacles to defection - they're poorly educated, barely socialized and run the risk of permanent separation from the only support systems they've ever known or can even conceptualize.

Honestly, Zev, I think the long-predicted schism has occurred; we just don't want to acknowledge it. We now have two Judaisms, neither of which recognizes the other as legitimate - "Orthodoxy" (i.e. Hareidism) on the one hand, and nearly everyone else on the other. The Modern Orthodox are caught in the middle, in the unenviable position of having to define themselves in opposition to those on either side.

And by Modern Orthodox, I mean, largely, the Left Wing, or Progressive Modern Orthodox. As I see it, the Centrists are really Right Wingers without so much attitude, and the Right Wing Modern Orthodox are Hareidim who don't want to be told they have to wear black woolen suits in the summer (although I understand that many of them do anyway!). LWMO seems largely to be a New York phenomenon, its only visible leaders are the Greenbergs and Avi Weiss - and they aren't getting any younger. By contrast, you can find a Hareidi rov with a big mouth and an opinion on every street corner in Boro Park and B'nei Brak. It represents the triumph of mediocrity.

Fri Aug 15, 12:46:00 PM EDT  

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