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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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Do the Right Thing

The Association of Orthodox Jewish Teachers of New York City Public Schools (AOJT) sponsors an annual "Do the Right Thing" essay contest for students. Sometimes they write about moral dilemmas that they or someone they learned about faced and, in their opinion, resolved honorably. Sometimes they write about moral dilemmas where they think they chose wrongly, and what they learned from the experience.
I faced such a problem several years ago in the course of teaching in a public high school in Brooklyn. A Gentile colleague of mine complained that we Jews are clannish and care only about our own. In particular, Hatzalah, the Jewish volunteer ambulance corps that is active in every Jewish neighborhood in the metropolitan area, was "only for their own" and did not reach out to other residents of the neighborhoods where they operate. One day I was in the room that doubled as a general office and teachers' lounge; due to construction a large part of the building including the teachers' lounge was unavailable. A fellow teacher, Gentile but not the one complaining about clannish Jews, suddenly experienced trouble breathing. Her situation rapidly went from bad to worse, and somebody called out, "Call 911!" The new state of the art telephone system that had just been installed could not reach 911. Knowing that the system could reach seven-digit local numbers (at that time we didn't have to dial 1+ an area code for local numbers), I asked for the phone, dialed Hatzalah's number and explained the situation. As soon as I hung up the phone I literally ran outside to guide Hatzalah to the room where the emergency was unfolding. After several minutes of no response, I ran back to the room to find Hatzalah there; they had entered through another entrance. Their volunteers cared for my colleague with their usual consummate professionalism and did not utter a word about the patient not being Jewish. Thank God, my colleague made a full recovery. After they left and the situation calmed down, my principal and the assistant principal for security entered the room, gleaned the gist of what transpired, and asked me in front of my colleagues, "Who gave you authority to make the call?" I told them that I took moral authority since 911 was unreachable and medical help was urgently needed, watching a colleague die was not an option and I would do the same thing 100 times over if necessary. They hemmed and hawed, apparently pissed that I made the administration look bad, but no disciplinary action was brought aganst me for my "unauthorized call." During my next class, a student who heard about what happened told me that it was very nice of me to make the call. I made a dismissive gesture with my hand and said, "eh, what else could I have done?" I did not tell the students that the real heroes of this piece were the Hatzalah volunteers, who did not hesitate to march into a neighborhood that every Jewish mother tells her children not to set foot in, lest black bogeymen jump on them and eat them up.
The same day or perhaps several days later another colleague asked me for Hatzalah's number. I hesitated for a second, knowing that Hatzalah is supported by voluntary contributions raised within our community, does not have the resources to care for everybody in New York City and therefore does not normally advertise its number outside our community. Nevertheless, Hatzalah's reputation spread far and wide; they're there almost before you hang up the phone, often faster than the Fire Department's EMTs. I did give my colleague the number. Shortly thereafter, the colleague passed away at the age of 52 from complications of diabetes, a common cause of premature death among African Americans. I was profoundly relieved that I did not withhold the number as I was tempted to do; whether or not it would have made a difference, his death would have been on my conscience for as long as I lived.

With several years of hindsight, I have no doubt that I did the right thing both in calling Hatzalah and incurring the displeasure of my bosses and in giving out the telephone number, possibly making racists in our community unhappy.

Hat tip: Wolfish Musings

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Friday, July 04, 2008

A Parsha Thought - Hukkat

Tomorrow we will read my Bar Mitzva Parsha - Hukkat. From Korah's rebellion in last week's Parsha we skip some 38 years, and are now in the last year of wandering in the desert. We travel around Edom since they did not allow us to pass through their land and we were forbidden to wage war against them. Next we came to Sihon and Og, two powerful Amorite kings charged with barring our way from Canaan. Both were soundly defeated, their land conquered and made part of Eretz Yisrael. We know from last week's haftara that the inhabitants of Canaan, on the opposite (west) side of the Jordan, had heard of kri'at Yam Suf and of the destruction of Sihon and Og and had completely lost their confidence and will to fight. That the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds would frighten our enemies is understandable, but that happened 40 years ago. The victories over Sihon and Og were fresher, and seem to have made the panic in Canaan even stronger - for good reason. The splitting of the sea was a miracle, and perhaps the murmurings, rebellions and debauchery with the women of Moab made us unworthy of such miracles in the future. But the victories over Sihon and Og were, to all appearances, not miracles. No stretching forth of the rod, no raising hands to heaven, only a conventional war. Tremendous hiddush for the Canaanites - those Jew boys can fight! And that must have scared the pants off them! Ken tihyeh lanu; may the same come to pass for us.

The haftara that I read is one of the longest, and contains an important lesson for our own time. Yiftah, the judge of Israel, was faced with a warlike neighbor Ammon. He sent diplomats to Ammon, and they came back with a demand that Yiftah "return" some territory on the East Bank (yes, the East Bank) of the Jordan that Israel had taken some 300 years previously. Return the territory, and you can have peace. Yiftah replies that the land in question was not taken from Ammon (as with Edom, the Torah forbids us to start a war with Ammon or Moab) but from Sihon and Og. He goes on to tell the king of Ammon that what his idol Kemosh (actually the idol of the related Moabites) gives him he can keep, and what Hashem gives us we will keep. One can only surmise that Yiftah was using diplomatic language; surely he knew that Ammon's idol gives them nothing, and the same Hashem that gives us what is ours gives the Ammonites what is theirs. In any case, Yiftah lets the king of Ammon know that he will not "return" a square centimeter, and if the king is intent on war, bring it on, b'ezrat Hashem we're ready. Naturally, a war ensued which we won. No more trouble with the Ammonites for a long time. Show weakness to our enemies and they pounce on us, demanding more and more "concessions." Show strength, and with God's help we will overcome.

Hat tip: Rav Meir Kahane hy"d

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