Saturday, August 29, 2009

Living Strong: The Best Revenge

Two weeks ago I ran the New York City Half Marathon, consisting of one loop around Central Park, then south on Seventh Avenue to the storied 42nd Street, west to the West Side Highway and south to a festive finish at Battery Park, in the shadow of New York's Holocaust Museum. Since we assemble at the start when it is still dark, I packed my tallit and tefilin in the bag that was transported to the finish by the volunteers of United Parcel Service, to be used after I finish. I ran the race in a shirt that I custom made for the purpose, not as difficult a task as it sounds.

The picture, which I first saw in the movie Night and Fog, shows bodies bulldozed into a mass grave at Bergen-Belsen.

Below the picture is the verse from Yehezkel, read on Shabbat

Hol Ha-Moed Pesah: SHALL THESE BONES LIVE? The answer, God's answer to our generation, was on the back of the shirt - the flag of Israel. This nevuah (prophecy) became the basis of a Negro spiritual that, sadly, too few of us ever heard of. Praise God we live in a country where cross-fertlization of cultures is possible, but it can only happen if we don't shut ourselves off from the world. As I heard from somebody long ago, if you build walls instead of bridges don't complain when you find yourself alone on the other side.

After finishing the race and claiming my bag, I left the festivities and made my way to the museum. I davened in a secluded alcove with benches, and then entered the museum itself. Ever since the museum opened, I would make a running pilgrimage in summer wearing a shirt with the Israeli flag on it. When I run the NYC Half (you have to be picked in a lottery to get in) I combine my visit with the race, visiting the museum in the sweaty glow of Jewish strength, with my race number still attached to my shirt, the irony not lost on me or, I hope, on other visitors who knew survivors with numbers tattooed on their arms. The museum consists of a permanent core and, since an additional wing was built, special temporary exhibits. One time I learned about the agricultural colony at Sosua in the Dominican Republic, the only country in the Western Hemisphere that welcomed Jewish refugees from Hitler. This time I had the privilege of viewing an exhibit on Jewish university professors who escaped from Germany and found positions in historically black colleges in the southern United States. Having known what it is to be a pariah and to experience persecution, those scholars formed a unique bond with their black students in the Jim Crow South. I then visited the core exhibit, making my usual stops at the Sifrei Torah that sit open in glass cases. The scrolls, as I learned from a museum educator who spoke at my shul several years ago, are pasul, damaged beyond repair and unfit for public reading, and therefore it is halakhically permissible to leave them open in that manner. Just the same, I am bothered by the idea of leaving an open Sefer Torah in a glass case to be gawked at. The Nazis intended to do just that and exhibit those scrolls in a "museum of an extinct race" in Prague. I therefore make a point of stopping at each one and reading a few verses with the traditional tune, dressed not for shul in a jacket and long pants, but davka as a Jewish athlete in the glory of summer, in short pants and a sleeveless top, my strong Jewish muscles out there for all the world to see. Extinct race, huh? That is my answer, and my own personal thumb in Hitler's eye. I am 57 years old and my running times are nowhere near what they used to be. I don't know for how long I will be able to run this race or make this pilgrimage, but I don't plan on going gently into the good night.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

The Man in the Arena - The Strenuous Life

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Some might recognize this quote as coming from President Roosevelt. No, not FDR. The "other" President Roosevelt, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, 26th President. The quote, which I use to decorate my classroom, is from a speech delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris a year after he left office in 1909. I am not ashamed to say that among my heroes are several Gentiles, and Teddy Roosevelt is one of them. I mentioned him at least once before in this blog. The President's life was an inspiration for my own. In particular, he had been a sickly boy like me, with a keen intellect and wide-ranging interests. His father told him in substance that he had the mind to be whatever he wanted to be, but to make the most of it he would have to make the body. He set up a gym in the back of his house (this was the late 19th century, before health clubs became ubiquitous) and the young Teddy Roosevelt made the body. He transformed himself into a robust young man, and at the age of 39, during the Spanish American War, resigned as Secretary of the Navy to personally lead the Rough Riders in the charge up San Juan Hill.

The Rough Riders

I did not learn until recently that Teddy Roosevelt lived most of his adult life not far from here, on a large estate that he named Sagamore Hill near Oyster Bay in Nassau County, that his estate is now administered by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site and that he is buried not far from his estate. As a child I visited FDR's estate in Hyde Park with my parents, and last week I visited Sagamore Hill by myself. Thanks to Google Maps I was able to ascertain that the trip was possible without a car, and to plan out my route in advance. I took the Long Island Railroad to Oyster Bay and ran about a mile and a half to the gravesite. I could have taken a taxi from the train station, but that would have been cheating, like riding the cable car to the top of Masada. To truly experience the meaning of Sagamore Hill or Masada, you have to challenge yourself physically with a demanding run, bike ride, hike or climb.

Citizens of Oyster Bay are justly proud of Teddy Roosevelt having called their town home. A bust of the President stands beside a war memorial at the town hall.

On the way to the cemetery, you pass Oyster Bay High School, beautifully landscaped like a college campus. Oyster Bay is a wealthy community, and students there cannot help but see that the community takes their education seriously. It is all a matter of values.

The grave is located at the top of a hill, and you reach it by climbing 26 steps, Roosevelt having been the 26th President. The grave itself is enclosed by a fence to prevent the stone from being damaged by repeated touching; you might have noticed that the massive Herodian stones of the kotel are worn smooth up to the height of a tall man by centuries of rubbing and kissing.

I found a couple of people visiting; it is gratifying to know that 90 years after his death people still revere his memory enough to visit the simple grave. After they left I recited a couple of Psalms and wrote a small kvittel (note), which I inserted through the fence into the grass on the other side. Then I left the cemetery and ran another mile and a half, mostly uphill, to Sagamore Hill itself.

The day was hot and muggy. I had prepared for the run by drinking a 20-ounce bottle of Powerade, which I purchased at the beachfront park near the train station. The concession stand was staffed by high school or college aged kids. Could it be that they have responsible parents, who teach them the difference between "I need" and "I want?" What they need, their parents provide. What they merely want, they have to work for. When I reached the entrance to the estate, I was drenched with sweat. I didn't mind. The hard effort was part of my communion with Teddy Roosevelt, who extolled The Strenuous Life and did not seek ease and comfort.

At the visitors' center I was amused by a sign warning that Teddy Roosevelt's house was not air conditioned and the indoor temperature was in the 80s. The house had fans whirring and providing all the cooling I needed; I would have felt cold if it had been air conditioned. Alas, the furnishings dating from the President's lifetime disagree. They are deteriorating due to summer heat and humidity, and next year the house will be air conditioned, with a new technology that will not detract from the architecture. Teddy Roosevelt was an avid hunter and conservationist; the two often go together. The house is decorated throughout with rugs made out of skins of animals he hunted, with the heads still attached in the style of the time (warning to the squeamish). Indoor plumbing was a rarity when the house was built, and you can see the pull-chain toilet.

I visited the museum, housed in another building that was air conditioned. Here are some photos of the exhibits:

The Man in the Arena

Political considerations delayed Teddy
Roosevelt's Medal of Honor for nearly a
century after the action for which he
earned it.

Teddy Roosevelt assumed the Presidency in 1901, following the assassination of President William McKinley. Sixty-two years later, Lyndon B. Johnson would become President in the same way. May we be spared such tragedies in the future.

"We love all the seasons. . . ."
I am decidedly partial to summer.

A sign posted on the grounds by the National Park Service warns visitors of the dangers of heat exhaustion. I made sure to drink plenty of water before the three-mile run back to the railroad station. Then I filled up again with a bottle of Powerade. If you're in shape, acclimatized and pace yourself appropriately, you can stay out of danger. San Juan Hill was not air conditioned.

Sagamore Hill is an inexpensive and enjoyable destination. I got a lot out of the trip, and I recommend it to any athlete who admires Teddy Roosevelt as I do, and who is not afraid to challenge himself and to embrace the strenuous life.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

A Tale of Two Levi Yitzhaks

Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev - The famous "defense attorney for Israel" who lived in the 18th century and might have been an ancestor of the Lubavitcher Rebbe זצ''ל , whose father bore the same name. One of many stories about him is set on Erev Pesah. He is said to have disguised himself as a merchant, visited a diamond smuggler in the morning and negotiated a deal for the purchase of diamonds. In the afternoon he disguised himself as a beggar and knocked on the door of one Jewish house after another. When the door opened the rabbi would stick his hand out and ask for a piece of bread. The response was always the same: Bread? Have you gone mad? It's afternoon on Erev Pesah and I'm supposed to have bread? After a while, Levi Yitzhak exclaimed: God, look at your children! The Tsar has an army. The Tsar has police. The Tsar has a border patrol. The Tsar says you can't bring diamonds into the country. I can get all the diamonds I want. You have no army, no police, no border patrol. All you have is a few words in your Torah: No hametz in the house after noon on Erev Pesah. Comes the appointed time - and not a crumb can be found in any Jewish home. Does a people like that not deserve to be redeemed?

Levi Yitzhak Rosenbaum - Early 21st century America. Arrested for trafficking in human kidneys, buying them from desperately poor Israelis for $10,000 apiece and flipping them to desperately sick Americans for $160,000. Allegedly caught on tape boasting that he had been doing this for ten years. Causes unparalleled shame and embarrassment to observant Jews and massive hillul Hashem.

The first Levi Yitzhak lived in a culture of poverty and anti-Semitic persecution. The second lives in the wealthiest Jewish community ever, where the law protects our religious practice and we are equal to anyone else in the country. Could it be that for all the material success and religious freedom we have here, our values and priorities are all screwed up?

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

I hope it wasn't. . . .

Breaking news from MSNBC (also reported on WINS radio):

A gunman apparently shot up a support group for gay teenagers in Tel Aviv, killing three and injuring eleven. Details are very sketchy. The police are convinced it was a criminal attack, not a terror attack. An eyewitness says it was a premeditated hate crime, but how would he know the attacker's motives and whether or not it was premeditated? The gunman escaped and is being sought. Other witnesses said the gunman was dressed all in black.

As soon as I heard the report on the radio, which did not mention how the alleged gunman was dressed, I thought to myself, "I hope this wasn't a religious nut." It wouldn't be the first time a religious nut attacked gays in Israel; several years ago there was a stabbing at a gay parade in Jerusalem. Now, who else would be dressed all in black? Please, no, don't let it be. We have enough troubles already.

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