Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yom Hazikaron

Today is Israel's Memorial Day, celebrated the day before Yom Ha'atzmaut. The sirens wail, drivers stop and leave their cars and everybody stands still for a minute to remember our fallen heroes. Here is a video from Arutz Sheva of part of the commemmoration service at the Kotel:


Memories come back today of my son's first two Yemai Zikaron, when I was a graduate student and his primary caregiver. I would open my Tikun, take him in my arms, hold him close and read Akedat Yitzhak with the trop for Rosh Hashanah, also of course known as Yom Hazikaron. I would start in a soft voice but, without planning it that way, finish in a voice so strong you could almost hear it down the block. Nearly two decades later, my "baby" found it in his heart to go to Israel and join Zahal (the Israeli Army) during the second intifada. He saw action in Ramallah and, barukh Hashem, came back safe and sound. I thank God for the privilege of raising such a boy, and know that, ad meah v'esrim (to 120 years) he will be in a place where his father will never be.
The timing of this bittersweet day is something we Americans can learn from. Back in the 1970s we moved almost all our national holidays from their historical dates to Mondays to have a long weekend and an excuse for a picnic or a shopping spree. As a result, today's children know next to nothing about what our holidays are all about. Memorial Day in particular was rooted in the Civil War Battle of Gettysberg. We had to memorize the Gettysberg Address in school (I did not go to a haredi yeshiva!). How many young Americans today even know about Gettysberg or have any inkling of the blood and sacrifice those who came before us put forth so that America would remain whole - and a beacon of freedom for all the world? How many of the spoiled kids we see at "peace" demonstrations take the time to reflect on the price better men than they paid so that those kids can publicly malign their country and not be clapped into jail or worse? I enjoy a day off with warm weather at least as much as the next person, but if Memorial Day had remained on its original date we would have to confront the fact that freedom is not, never was and (until Mashiach comes) never will be free, and we would be less able to take our freedom for granted.
Tonight iy"h we will gather together for Ma'ariv with the Yom Tov nigun, sound the shofar and rejoice in song and dance at the end of the hillul Hashem of Jewish weakness and the beginning of the ge'ula. Hag Sameah - lige'ula sheleima.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Glad, Sad, Mad

When I see an Arab smoking, I'm glad - I'd rather fight a weak enemy than a strong one.

When I see a "friendly" Gentile smoking, I'm sad. America is no stronger than Americans are, and in today's world Americans can't afford to be anything but strong.

When I see a Jew smoking, I'm mad. How can we be so irresponsible, so uncaring about our own health, the collective health of our people, and that of our chidren? Yes, I've seen rebbeim (I assume that's what they are) with groups of children in tow, chomping on cigarettes. Imagine the example such a teacher sets for his charges, and the toxins those children are inhaling. Many of those children have asthma and similar ailments that are aggravated by the smoke blown in their faces by teachers and parents who are thinking only of themselves. We like to call ourselves hakhamim sheba'umot - the wisest of nations. Nonsense. By tolerating smoking among ostensibly frum Jews we show ourselves to be stupid idiots. It is well known that a Jew is forbidden to harm his health. We have known since the 1960s that smoking is injurious to the smoker's health, and since the 1980s that it is poisonous to nonsmokers breathing the stuff, yet it took until 2006 for the Rabbinical Council of America to rule that smoking is assur.
For heaven's sake, Hitler killed enough of us. Stop piling hurt upon hurt.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Runs With the Sun

Several years ago I took an education course in Brooklyn College with the goal of impoving my teaching skills. The professor had each of us pick an "Indian name" on the model of "Dances with Wolves" and explain it to the class. The exercise made me "think outside the box": not all cultures make us prisoners of the names our parents pick for us. Not that I ever had a problem with my Hebrew name, but many of us, girls in particular, are saddled with Yiddish names we would just as soon be rid of. Many such girls, upon reaching adulthood, adopt a Hebrew name. They often encounter opprobrium from the community, and might even experience halakhic problems when documents such as a ketubah or, God forbid, a get, which require the person's name, need to be drawn up. Several Native American cultures require boys about the time of puberty to go off alone on a "vision quest" or journey of self-discovery, and return with the name by which he would thenceforth be known.

I picked as my Indian name, "Runs With the Sun." I explained to the class how I love the feel of the sun on my strong shoulders when I run in summertime, how John Denver's song "Sunshine on My Shoulders Makes Me Happy" resonates powerfully with me. Unlike most runners, I acclimatize to heat easily. The sunshine and the sweat it induces put me in touch with my physical self, a part of my being long neglected in our culture. I feel connected with an earlier time in our history, when we were strong and vital, when we were not ashamed of working in the fields (ve'asafta deganekha), when we were "normal." In these topsy-turvy times men are encouraged to "get in touch with their feminine side." Not me. We've been doing that for far too long. Running with the sun, I am in touch with my essential, robust maleness, and that is when I feel closest to God. And when I finish running and take a shower, well, ha-meivin yavin.

I am RUNS WITH THE SUN - At the Staten Island Half Marathon in 2007

I am reminded of that classroom exercise today because we recited Birkat Ha-hama, the Blessing of the Sun, recited every 28 years. Once in a generation we have the opportunity to thank God for the wonderful gift He gave us in that yellow orb, that medium size star somewhere on the fringes of a mediocre galaxy. How it is just the right distance from earth for life, and ultimately humankind, to flourish. How its light is mostly in that middle portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to be captured by plants and transformed into energy that I can use to make me feel so powerful and energetic. The shorter wavelengths are so energetic that they destroy DNA; the longer ones lack sufficient energy to be used in photosynthesis. Of course, it works the other way around too; living things evolved to make use of the resources that are available. Those of a mystical bent will rhapsodize about the sun being in the exact position it was when God "hung it in the sky" at the beginning of time. There's nothing wrong with mysticism as long as it doesn't ask us to deny observable reality; Rav Kook was a mystic. But this dyed-in-the-wool scientist was always put off by mystical speculation. I prefer to find God in what I can explain, not in what I cannot.

A ritual performed once in a generation inevitably engenders stock taking. Where was I 28 years ago? What have I accomplished in the intervening time? Where do I hope to be 28 years from now? Has our community gotten stronger or weaker? What do the next 28 years hold in store? Last time we recited Birkat Ha-hama, in 1981, Ronald Reagan had just assumed the Presidency. We were experiencing hard times economically, but Reagan assured us that things will be better; he talked of Morning in America. There was no Internet, no personal computers, we typed everything from letters to doctoral theses on electric typewriters and either covered up our mistakes with unsightly white fluid or retyped the whole page. The Cold War was raging; half of Europe was held in slavery to the Soviet Union, and Soviet Jews were not allowed to leave the country (neither was anybody else). Nuclear holocaust topped our list of fears. Reagan called the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire. He was derided by the liberal press and the "intelligentsia," but calling a spade a spade was the first step in dealing with it. He dedicated his presidency to winning the Cold War, and when he left office the evil empire was teetering. A year later the Berlin Wall would come tumbling down and Eastern Europe would be free. Two years later the Soviet Union itself collapsed. I had gotten married two years prior, in 1979, my children had not been born yet, and I had yet to purchase the home where I now live. I was still working on my Ph.D. in biology. Giants like R. Moshe Feinstein, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook and the Lubavitcher Rebbe were still with us. R. Slifkin was a baby, but "his" ideas were so mainstream that no one bothered writing about them. We did not have all the craziness that plagues our community today. My running times were at their peak and the highlight of my year was the New York City Marathon, when I would tour the five boroughs in a singlet with the Israeli flag across the chest. 28 years and two knee surgeries later, my running times are nowhere near what they used to be. I have to be grateful that, to my doctors' surprise, I am able to run at all. In the community, all sorts of lawlessness run rampant; the thinking seems to be that it's okay to lie, cheat and steal as long as you don't get caught. Young men who work and earn an honest living are Grade B on the marriage market. Relative birth rates over a generation resulted in the haredi lunatic fringe taking over the community and pushing the rest of us to the fringe. An anti-intellectual and anti-scientific mindset became the norm. The community seems to be following senile "leaders" over a precipice, not knowing or caring that their present lifestyle is unsustainable.
What will the future be? Next time we gather for Birkat Ha-hama will be 5797, or 2037 on the civil calendar. Holocaust survivors will have all died out, as will World War II veterans. Germany and Eastern Europe will no longer have living perpetrators; will that change how we view those countries? What new inventions will transform the lives of our children and grandchildren, as computers and the Internet transformed ours? Will I be able to gather with others for the ritual at all? I will be 84 years old if I live that long. Will I be institutionalized, unable to care for myself, eating what others want me to eat, lying in my own filth until others decide to clean me? As a teenager, I saw my father caring for his father who had Alzheimer's disease, and I knew in the marrow of my bones that that kind of life is not for me. I long ago stopped asking for long life when we bentsch Rosh Hodesh, having seen long life turn into a curse. My peregrinations on the planet lead me to believe that many others share that view, though not as much in the frum community. Will science come up with replacements for cartilage and synovial fluid so that we don't lose mobility? Will it come up with a way to stop the loss of muscle mass so we can get old without getting weak? Will my children, now 23 and 26, be married with children of their own, or will they find their fulfillment elsewhere? Will we as a community pull back from the cliff in time, or dwindle into an Amish-like existence, irrelevant to the rest of society and with most of our young dropping out? Will there be a strong "normal" Orthodox or Conservative movement for them to drop into, or will they simply be lost to Judaism? Or will Mashiach have come and redeemed us and the world?

I wish all my readers a happy and kosher Pesah.

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We work and they work. . . .

This morning I attended the traditional siyum for firstborn males. We are supposed to fast the day before Pesah in commemmoration of God sparing us when he struck down all Egyptian human and animal firstborn males in the final plague. Attending a siyum, when a tractate of Talmud is finished, and partaking of the se'udat mitzva, the festive meal marking this happy occasion, absolves us of the obligation to fast.
The rabbinic intern at Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn expounded on the final paragraph in Masekhet Megilla, then read the traditional prayer that says in part: We work and they [those who do not study Torah] work; we work and receive a reward, they work and do not receive a reward. We run and they run; we run to eternal life and they run to the pit. . . .

A while ago I stumbled on a gay-oriented sport site featuring a photo they call "Leather Fighter." Brooklyn has its own favorite son, boxer Dmitry Salita, who happens to be an observant Jew. He davens in a Habad shul in the Midwood section. He refuses to fight on Shabbat, forfeiting paydays from popular Friday night fights. As he puts it, "Anyone who wants a whupping from me has to wait till after sundown [on Saturday]."

Dmitry may look like a wimpy Jewish kid, but don't mess with him. His right arm is naturally strong. His left is fortified with tefilin.

Salita pursues an opponent that he has
cornered up against the ropes

We wear black leather and they wear black leather. . . .


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