Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Rabbis of My Youth: A Memoir, or Apologia, by a Jew Who Became One, Albeit Not Orthodox

            I grew up Orthodox; I consider myself a left-wing Conservative rabbi, but I always say to folks who ask me, “Don’t pigeonhole me. If you ask me a specific question, I will give you a specific answer.” I did not attend the Jewish Theological Seminary; I had the good fortune to attend the Academy for Jewish Religion, a non-denominational rabbinical school that has existed since the 1950s. I also attended Yeshiva University, which was a great place for soulsearching, even when the soul in question doesn’t know that it is searching, and where, in spite of myself, I got a wonderfully complete and complex Jewish education, one which is never going to end, for as long as I live. I have studied Zen, Buddhism, English and American Literature, history, Christianity, Kabbalah, Chasidism, and more; I lived in Israel for a year, and thought seriously about living there, but history and the events of my life dictated differently. I love Israel with all my heart, even when I look with dread down the road its leaders are going—and I am not alone in this fear.
Like William Butler Yeats, a mad, mystical Irishman (the Jews and the Irish have much in common; actually, the Jews have a lot in common with all of humanity, and with God), I view life as a series of “gyres,” circular staircases in space, like the twisted helix of DNA, only where you can stand on a higher rung, and see where you have been, from a higher level of existence.
I have now been a rabbi for thirty years, thank God. Whatever sort of rabbi I have been, am becoming, is a conscious affirmation of the rabbis I admired, and a rejection of the rabbis I disliked. There is a saying attributed to the Catholic clergy—“Give me a child for the first five years of his life, and he is mine forever." One could say the same of Orthodox rabbis. Sadly, I had few role models among the rabbis of my childhood and early youth; indeed, I spent much of my young life running away from them—those who acted as God’s Policemen. I recall the last few lines of the William Blake poem, “The Garden of Love”:

                        And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
                        And binding with briars my joys & desires.

My first encounter with a rabbi was with Rabbi N, who was both rabbi and principal of the Hebrew Day School-Synagogue amalgam that I attended in my neighborhood, the Lower East Side of New York City. He was no administrator or educator; he had no understanding whatsoever of Jewish Education or of young children; he had gotten his semicha/rabbinic ordination solely in order to prevent his being drafted to fight in Korea. His own unfulfilled dream had been to be a commercial illustrator, perhaps an artist; his temple bulletin, which he called “The Monthly Letter,” was full of little cartoony figures around the margin, as well as miniature bunches of grapes, menorahs, and Jewish stars. It was the only bit of whimsy he allowed himself, beyond an occasional joke among his balabatim/male congregants, whose punchline was invariably in Yiddish, which he would deliver with a hearty belly laugh.
Rabbi N loved being the center of attention, a common rabbinical character trait—I suffer from it myself—and was a tireless self-promoter. The climax of this came towards the end of his life, when he proclaimed the anniversary of his synagogue-school and commissioned a massive bronze plaque commemorating the event, complete with self-profile, which he had bolted to the side of the building. It was removed and disappeared soon after his passing. Sic transit Gloria mundi—so passes glory from the world, especially self-glorification.
To run the Hebrew Day School, Rabbi N hired a series of secretaries, and finally my mother, first as an English and Science teacher, and later as “Assistant Administrator,” though it was common knowledge that she was completely responsible for the school’s programming and academics. The school was finally driven under in the late 1970s by the tonier, midtown-Manhattan Hebrew day schools, which began running bus services down to our neighborhood and cherry-picking the school’s potential candidates. As these midtown dynamos were funded by deep-pocketed doctors, lawyers, and business executives, the old-fashioned local yeshivas could not compete, and closed.
Rabbi N’s heyday in the 1960s was the time of the Imperial Rabbinate, during which most rabbis’ word was law; they generally had more education, or, at least, more powers of persuasion, than their congregants. He himself stood over six feet tall, allowing him to tower over most of his congregants, and he cultivated a physically and mentally imposing style. His particular genius lay in fundraising, an area which many rabbis loathe, but in which he happened to excel. He smoked, despite its danger to his basso profundo singing voice and cantorial abilities: indeed, I learned most of my early prayer-singing from him. He formed a giant presence in my young life, both literally and religiously.
Additionally, Rabbi N was not a rabbi acting under contract to his congregation; as was not unusual in those days, he did not just work in the school-cum-synagogue; he owned the building—it had been part of the legacy, the yerusha/inheritance left him by Rabbi W, his father-in-law. He could not be fired, nor would the congregation even entertain the thought. Rabbi N and his shul were one and the same. If a congregant did not like Rabbi N’s style or get along with him—and he was a tyrant, but such was the tenor of the age—they could go elsewhere. The neighborhood abounded in shuls, each one with a different sort of rabbi, but all Orthodox.
An apocryphal, but altogether likely, story was that a group of neighborhood Jews, tiring of Orthodox strictures, tried to organize a Conservative temple. They approached a local landlord to rent a meeting place. When the Orthodox rabbis got wind of the idea, they contacted the landlord, and threatened to blackball him, professionally. The landlord returned the deposit to the Conservative group, and the idea died a-borning. It is true that the closest Conservative temple was a bus ride, or, at least, a very long walk, away, back in the days when most New York Jews did not own cars; it was close to Greenwich Village, or Gramercy Park, which we considered “practically uptown.”
As for my earliest Hebrew Day School experience, the era was the late 1950s, and common practice dictated that boys wear ties to school. It was the heyday of cowboys-and-Indians on TV, and so we usually got by by wearing either a bolo tie (two ends of a string, joined by a slide featuring an anchor or some other ornament), the ends of which we would suck on during class, or a length of satin cloth crossed over and fastened by a snap in the middle—it was called a “Maverick,” and was popularized on the eponymous TV show, featuring the cowboy actor Gene Barry. On this particular day, my mother had forgotten to hang a tie around my neck, and I wore neither.
            There was a little garden, almost a vest-pocket park, in the space between the two tenement buildings of the school. It was a lovely spring day; birds chirped in the big old trees, and clouds drifted by the friendly New York sun. I was undoubtedly on my way to the Men’s Room; I would not have left the classroom for any other reason; I loved school in those early days, but a five-year-old bladder is a fickle thing.
            Rabbi N looked down at me from his enormous height, and, in his deep, dark voice, rumbled—I can hear it to this day, though I am a grandfather myself, and the rabbi is dead these many years—“Dovid, where is your tie?” He always gave my name that Yiddish intonation, but it never sounded affectionate coming from his lips; it sounded frightening and officious.
            I don’t know what sort of answer he expected me to give; I was but a small boy, in the First Grade, and not responsible for dressing myself; my mother, an efficiency expert of the first order, was in charge of laying out my clothes, and had evidently forgotten a key component. I did the most expedient thing available to a small child, when confronted by Authority Asking an Unanswerable Question:
            I burst into tears, and stood there, weeping, amid the shining day, with squirrels climbing the trees, hardy New York sparrows chirping, buds blossoming, and Rabbi N asserting his principalship—though it does read like bullying and pettifoggery, which it was.
            He didn’t know what to do, when confronted with a crying child. He had two young daughters himself, but I believe that his wife, a gentle, quiet woman, raised them, mostly by herself.
In the end, he took me by the hand, calmed me the best he could—which wasn’t much—and took me to the school office. Perhaps his secretary, Ida, a lovely, patient woman who understood children well, found me a butterscotch candy to calm my rabbi-frazzled nerves, and she returned me, fully recovered, to my class.
            That was my first Private Encounter with a Rabbi. Things did not improve from that point on.
            Rabbi N, as I said, did not have sons. He was not only my elementary school principal—a job for which he was singularly unqualified—but also my synagogue rabbi. He took it upon himself to mold me, but I resisted being molded. I was not a bad boy; quite the contrary; I was chubby and bookish. Sports did not appeal to me: I was invariably the last one chosen in a choose-up game of Dodge Ball, Punch Ball, or Off-the-Wall, and usually one of the first to be struck Out. This did not bother me, especially; I learned early that, by memorizing books of jokes, I could make my friends laugh, and they would want me to stick around, the better to Laugh With, than Laugh At. I learned that children could be cruel, but that humor, in small doses, was a useful survival technique. It was among children that I learned the brand of dry humor bordering on sarcasm that has served me all of my life.
            As for Orthodoxy, there was the problem, the issue, of going to shul regularly for Shabbos services, which were long and boring. Since I had a good ear for music, and could sing, I loved to lead services—the only bright spot in an otherwise dull-as-dishwater all-Hebrew service, where laypeople took turns “leading the davening,” as was customary, and where the droning went on from 9 am to 11:30 am, including a sermon by the Rabbi. He always began with a standard sermonic approach: an observation on the week’s parsha, or Torah portion, using an insight garnered from Rashi—Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak (1040-1105), a standard, reliable commentator. But the meat of his sermons always seemed to be that, if the entire world were Orthodox Jewish, and everyone belonged to his synagogue, the world would be a much better place, all around. He always started off low and slowly, rolling his consonants, and eventually reached a pitch where he would be shouting. We knew he was done when he said, “Good Shabbos!” which was usually a relief.
I will grant that Rabbi N did try to let me lead services on Shabbos once in a while, but the unwritten policy in the shul was that people with yahrzeit—that is, observing the anniversary of the death of a close relative—had priority on leading services, regardless of singing ability—and there were some daveners/prayer leaders whose vocal abilities were lacking, to be blunt.
I used to remark, sarcastically and bitterly, to my parents, that if I shot one of them, it would be a tragedy and I would go to prison, but, at least, I would finally qualify to lead the davening. Still, there was nothing they could do about it: the Rabbi knew that those who led the davening could be counted upon to give even a piddling donation to the shul. My parents were strong supporters of the rabbi—for many years, my father was shul president, and my mother, Sisterhood president (in addition to my father’s leading a Science Club for us students, and my mother’s teaching in and administering the school), but it would make no sense for them to bribe the rabbi just for his letting me daven, especially when Messrs. Goldstein and Cohen both had yahrzeit: one had to daven Shacharis, the Morning Service, and the other had Musaf, the Additional Service. I often got to lead the concluding songs, but that was the tail end of the entire business, and a long wait for a young person.
There was nothing left for me to do but sit and read the Song of Songs surreptitiously in the Chumash/Pentateuch—true, it did mention “breasts,” which, at the age of thirteen, had begun to be an area of interest for me, but that was as sexy as it got. The 1611 King James translation did not exactly read like Playboy Magazine, nor were there any pictures. There certainly were no eligible girls in the congregation for me to have lustful thoughts about; all the women, safely ensconced behind the mechitzah/barrier of the Women’s Section were my mother’s age, or older. Services were dull, dull, boring, boring.
            Rabbi N disliked that my ennui during services led me to talk incessantly to Eli, a friend of mine, who shared our pew. To prevent our conversing, the rabbi began to take me out of my seat and make me sit against the eastern wall, just below his own seat on the bema, the podium. Naïve and young as I was, I thought at first that this was an honor, but it soon lost its luster: it made services even more boring—with the added agony of everyone’s looking at me—and took away my only form of shul entertainment, conversation, it being a truism that, in Orthodox shuls, schmoozing is a universal pastime, and increases incrementally, the farther one sits from the bema/podium. As I got older, I developed friends from outside the congregation, and began to go to their shul for services. It felt good to escape from my home shul.
            Besides Rabbi N, whose teachings were more role modeling than textbook, there were two rabbis from my days at the neighborhood yeshiva from whom I did learn significantly, and to whom I feel indebted: my sixth- and eighth-grade teachers, Rabbi Y and Rabbi R. Rabbi Y taught us a foundation-stone of Jewish philosophy: that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. “God has placed a limit on our minds,” he said, “otherwise, we would be like God.” I did not know at the time that this was Isaiah speaking and Rabbi Y quoting, but I have used that same line of theological argument innumerable times.
            As for Rabbi R, he was careful to drill us over and over again in Hebrew dikduk, or grammar; he made us memorize pages and pages of verbs and conjugations. He was a bit of a tyrant, but it did pay off. We did not, sadly, learn to speak in Hebrew, but this did make it easier for me to learn to speak when I spent my year abroad in Israel in 1971-2.
            I did have a bittersweet meeting with Rabbi R in the streets of the Old Neighborhood when B and I returned a few years ago; it was a chilly day, and our meeting was purely by chance, at the corner of Essex and Grand. I was happy to see him; I thanked him for all he had taught me, and told him what I was doing as a Conservative rabbi. When he, an Orthodox rabbi, heard that I had gone Conservative, his face changed, and he began to brag to me about all of his talmidim (former students) who had gotten Orthodox semicha (ordination), including one who had become a rosh yeshiva (head of school). We shook hands, but it was not a good parting, though I understand his feelings: the Orthodox have no love lost for Conservative rabbis.
            I had a conversation years ago with an older Conservative colleague (now deceased) who, like me, had attended Yeshiva University as an undergraduate, had made a decision common among many young men in the postwar era: to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary and be ordained a Conservative rabbi. He phoned a former Hebrew professor of his from YU, and innocently made the mistake of telling him of his plans. The teacher was suddenly quick to hang up, bidding him farewell with a terse, “Anachnu zor’im, v’hem kotz’rim—We sow and plant, and they harvest.”
Indeed, I learned, growing up in the 1960s, that Orthodox rabbis disliked the Conservative camp worse than the Reform, because, while the Reform were, in Orthodox judgment, beyond the pale (this was the heyday of Classical Reform, with bareheaded, un-tallited rabbis, organ music, and the majority of the prayers in English), the Conservative service was dangerously close to the Orthodox in style, with Hebrew prayers and lifecycle customs. Frequently, the only difference in those days between Conservative temples and Orthodox shuls was the mixed seating that Conservative Jews preferred and their rabbis “allowed.”
             When the time came for me to graduate from Hebrew Day School, I was enthusiastic about entering Stuyvesant High School, a competitive, specialized school, along with my school friends. My parents wanted me to go to Yeshiva University High School, and what thirteen-year-old can resist his parents’ wishes?
My conversation with my mother went this way:
“All right, I’ll go to Yeshiva High. In four years, will I have to go to Yeshiva College?”
My mother: “Oh, no. We’re not THAT Orthodox.”
Surprise: in four years, we were that Orthodox; the college was two blocks away from the high school, and so, I went.
At this point in my life, at the tender age of thirteen, off I went to Yeshiva University High School, a long bus-and-subway ride, back and forth, every morning and evening.
In my sophomore year, I encountered the young and zealous Rabbi M, who, himself a ba’al teshuva, or formerly-secular-Jew-turned-Orthodox, was determined to evangelize his new-found knowledge and enthusiasm among us cynical fourteen-year-olds. There is no one so fervid and fervent as a zealot. He was a pleasant enough young man, but tended to beat the drum far too often. When he required us to choose books from a Recommended Reading List, my friend Bob Cohen chose Herman Wouk’s magisterial This is My God. Had I chosen that work as well, I might still be Orthodox today. But my double schedule was killing, and I opted for a far slimmer book: Rabbi Isaac Grunfeld’s The Sabbath: Its Meaning & Observance.
The book was, indeed, slim in size, but weighty in meaning. Grunfeld, a British rabbi, took the thirty-nine Av Melachote/Acts of Labor Forbidden on Shabbos, listed them fully, and gave all the subdivisions and sub-subdivisions, showing how an object as innocent as a pocket comb became an instrument weighty with sin: combing one’s hair on Shabbos subjected one to the sins of Carrying, Winnowing, Plucking, Harvesting, Sorting, Plowing, and on and on. After reading the book, I concluded that the best place to keep the Sabbath according to Halacha/Jewish Law was in a closet, in the dark, with the door tightly shut. It was the Commencement of My Road to Rebellion—and me, an innocent sophomore in Yeshiva University High School. I was beginning, in Paul’s words, to kick against the pricks (Note: just because I quote from Acts 26:14 doesn’t mean I’m going Christian—it means I’m being ironic). Really, it’s too bad that I never read Herman Wouk: he stayed Orthodox all of his life, and still managed a successful career as a novelist, even collaborating with Jimmy Buffett, towards the end.
Rabbi M exhorted us boys during class, pounded us with the cudgels of Talmud, and met with us individually throughout the year to investigate the State of Our Adolescent Souls, all smarmy with unfulfilled sexual yearning, anxious with future professional uncertainties, and feverish over whether Dr. R, the dread Math teacher—more about him soon—would spring yet another Pop Quiz on us that afternoon. He always enjoyed those little tete-a-tetes far more than we; I doubt whether most of us enjoyed having our souls spiritually reamed out by an over-righteous Plumber of God.
 As the year’s end loomed, Rabbi M conferred with us yet again, to advise us about which department to choose the following year—the Hebrew or Talmud Departments. Hindsight is clearest, as they say, and I cannot, nor do I wish to tally, the vast amount of poor, but well-meant advice I have received from teachers both idealistic and burnt-out, but Rabbi M’s pointing me toward the Talmud Dept. of YU was, in retrospect, wrong-headed and devastating. He pointed me toward the Talmud Department, despite knowing how well I did in Hebrew and Bible—thinking back on it now, is it possible that Talmud had a quota? We will never know.
Talmud and I simply did not mesh; I ought to have entered the Hebrew Dept., where my superior ability to decipher Chumash (the Pentateuch) and do Hebrew grammar would have helped me to get better grades. Instead, I spent the next two years in bondage to the Talmud, with its esoteric arguments about dogs burrowing into walls in search of leavened food during Passover, handy tests for determining a girl’s virginity by placing her astraddle the bung-hole of a wine cask, and whether one could pen a Get/Writ of Divorce on the leaf of an elephant-ear plant. But wait; let’s see what Rashi and Tosefose (Medieval commentators) have to say about those….
            The nature of YU meant that we often had rabbis not only for religious subjects, but for secular, as well. I recall having a different rabbi, and a very good teacher he was, too, for a high school World History course, down to having to memorize the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church for the final exam. It was also the height of the Vietnam War, and many rabbis had to get teaching jobs, or face the very real possibility of being sent off to Southeast Asia, either as chaplains or cannon fodder. Our Art teacher was one Rabbi E, whose teaching of Art consisted of reading The New York Times while we doodled in our sketch books during class. (I am not casting aspersions on the many brave Jewish personnel who did serve in Vietnam in all branches of the service, including the chaplaincy.)
            Students who excel at English are often not adept at Math. For both Freshman Algebra and Sophomore Geometry, I found myself in the clutches of Dr. R, who was both a rabbi and Ph.D. He was a five-foot-tall tyrant who shrieked at us in class, imposed pop quizzes, and, while looking over our shoulders during exams, often swatted our heads, if he did not like the way we were working a problem.
            “Marrrk, you need ah too-tah!” he would yell, “Ah hoo-tah too-tah, Marrk!” meaning that I needed a math tutor, which was certainly true. I was running a straight 65, semester after semester. I had not yet read Dante’s Inferno, but Dr. R’s Math Class could have served as a model, with himself as King of Hell.
            Dr. R had a favorite charity, called P’eelim, whose particular purview was winning innocent Israeli Jews back from the clutches of Christian missionaries who were allegedly circulating among disgruntled Orthodox Jews in Israel. When I, smarting from a blow on the head during Math, considered this premise even slightly, it seemed ridiculous—were there not sufficient resources in Israel, of all places, to counteract the nefarious activities of such villains? I imagined legions of rabbis, all resembling Dr. R, swooping down on Roman-collared missionaries, and pummeling them smartly about the neck and head with Math textbooks, finishing up their torture with a nasty pop quiz, while they were made to donate to P’eelim. I wished, truly and with all my heart, that Dr. R would feel a yearning to make aliyah (move to Israel permanently); perhaps the Arabs, disgruntled by the Israeli victory, might kidnap him? No; they would give him back immediately, I was certain.
As for questions about P’eelim—one never questioned Dr. R, however; it simply wasn’t done. One never even had a civil conversation with Dr. R; he did not appear even slightly human. A short man with more than a passing likeness in style and manner to Menachem Begin, he ruled his classroom with an iron fist. During pop quizzes, he would take two sheets of the yellowed, crumbling foolscap paper they used to give out for free from the NYC Board of Education, fold it carefully into a pocket, insert a few pennies for their noisemaking quality, and roam the classroom, while we slaved feverishly over the problems he had listed on the board.
He would look over our shoulders and breathe garlic-and-herring rabbibreath noisily down our necks; he would shake the paper in our faces, and scream in a high-pitched voice, loud enough to shatter the tall, brass-and-copper-edged windows in our ancient, Moorish classroom, “Give P’eelim! Give P’eelim!”
If he did not like or agree with our progress, which was frequent, he would hit us on the head with the paper packet, and force us to insert some coins from the small stash we all carried to buy Drake’s Cakes at Mr. Zunder’s Grocery, across Amsterdam Ave., during the break. The class was Hell.
Not surprisingly, by midterm, I was running a 65, although not without Dr. R’s encouragement: “Marrrk,” he would croak, like Poe’s Raven, his eyes rolling madly beneath his dusty, oversized Borsalino, “I could haff flonked you, bot I gafe you seexty-fife. Seexty-FIFE, Marrk! Bee-CUZZ you are tryink. Heff your perents comm see me on Open School Day.”
That was a Sunday. Perhaps my time had come: I had told my parents about Dr. R’s tyranny; surely they would, at last, see and understand what this horrid, mathematical General Tom Thumb, this rabbinical Imp of the Perverse, was doing to their only son. It was payback time, for sure.
That Sunday, the three of us—Mom, Dad, and I—toiled uptown on the A train, but my heart was, at least a little, light: Dr. R would confront the Wrath of Saul Mark. I even hummed a little tune as we slogged up the hill to the Copper-tinged Fortress that was Yeshiva University High School, there, gleaming in the midday sun.
Dr. R was holding court in his corner classroom. The P’eelim packet lay on the desk before him. He shook hands with my parents. We sat down, and they began to speak—
And then, the world ended. It turned out that Dr. R’s Ph.D degree was in Chemistry, and, of course, my father was an industrial chemist. The two of them starting trading Chemistry stories, while my mother and I looked on. My heart sank: I was doomed.
In the end, I was sentenced to a make-up class, meeting, of course, on Fridays—my only day off. I saw the future, a long line of numbers and problems stretching off into Eternity, like a Black Hole in space. I was doomed to Mathematical Failure; I would never graduate; I would stay on in YUHS forever, to be the Eldred Gnome on the Second Floor—

“Who is that Old Man there in the Corner Classroom, Rabbi?”
“Oh, don’t talk to him, Shimmy. He will never leave, poor fellow, never graduate.”
“Why, what has he done? What was his crime?”
“He had Dr. R for math.”
“Oh—poor, poor fellow—should we read Tehillim/Psalms for him?”
“It won’t help….”

I did better in Geometry, though, but it was still hard. And, in Junior Year, Calculus was hellish, but Dr. R was gone, off to afflict a new crop of freshmen and sophomores. Instead, we had “Fat Lonnie” Wegman, who barred the door and didn’t want to let me into his classroom one raw, rainy November day, because I, a commuting student, had put on jeans—jeans were forbidden; we called them “dungarees,” then—in the pouring rain, and came three-quarters-soaked-through to his class.
“Not in my class,” uttered the petty tyrant, fat, greasy, and curling his lip at me.
“Mr. Wegman—the rain—that’s why I wore them!” I protested.
He let me in. I was no troublemaker, just one of the faceless boys who tramped through his class.
In my senior year, I had Rabbi I—a thin-faced man with watery-blue eyes, who looked at—no, into—you, without really focusing. He may have been myopic, but the effect was startling, almost frightening. I placed myself deliberately in front of him, determined not to fall asleep—that had been my downfall the year before, resulting in my having to go to summer school. That had been a mixed blessing: I spent that summer schlepping up to YUHS every day in the morning, and learning the first six or so pages of the Talmud, so as to have an advantage in the fall. I also read through James Clavell’s magisterial, enormously-thick novel, Tai-Pan, and took a typing course.
But Rabbi I was an—unusual?—teacher. He seemed to be out of touch with us; not that it mattered, since we seniors had one foot out the door, and were more concerned with preparing for the necessary college entrance exams. There was also the mixed blessing of his irregular bladder, which required him to leave the classroom for minutes at a time. As good little yeshiva boys, we did not act up, but Shaye Grabstein in the back, a longhaired (we all were, letting our hair grow as long as the rabbis and our parents would let us) fan of The Doors, would start in:

When I was back there in seminary school
There was a person there who put forth the proposition
That you can petition the Lord with prayer
Petition the Lord with prayer
Petition the Lord with prayer

--which was, of course, the beginning of The Doors’ “The Soft Parade,” which we all loved—wasn’t Jim Morrison’s poetry speaking directly to us? And weren’t we in Seminary School? Omigod—yes, yes, we were, indeed.
            By the time Shaye was done, Rabbi I was back, and we would resume Talmud study. Somehow, we boys got one another through.
            Graduation day was a muddle: I really can’t remember the details, but I do recall that the Powers-that-Be grouped all four schools together—in those days of the Baby Boomers, there were two boys’ and two girls’ high schools, in both Manhattan and Brooklyn—but I believe that They only grouped us boys together; perhaps They feared we might assault the fair maidens of Central Girls’ Yeshiva, so full of testosterone were we, so eager to taste our Freedom.
We were together; we felt, like the Spartans at Thermopylae, that we had defended the Pass, whatever that was, and we were about to be free—at least, for a couple of months. I believe that the vast majority of us were, in September, to go no further than two blocks away from the Copper Castle, and into the slightly-more-modern-but-still-worn-out-looking halls of Yeshiva College.
            I have no friends from high school, though. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was the tenor of the times: the 1960s were dying; the ‘70s had yet to begin.
And there were more rabbis for me to meet.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Night Owl: Notes from the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, When I Ought to Be Abed

            There are Day People, and then, there are Night People. I am one of the latter. I can’t stand folks who brag, “Oh, I woke up at 5 am, and I just couldn’t get back to sleep, so I just began my day. And I got so much done, can you believe it?” There is this implied superiority, as if people who are insomniacs, or have guilty consciences, are better than folks like me, who would prefer to sleep just a little bit longer in the morning.
            Years ago, when I was younger—in my twenties, going to grad school for English Literature, attending rabbinical school, and B and I working as substitute teachers in the NYC Board of Education for money ($40 a day, a princely sum in the 1970s), and never having enough money—God! We were so busy, then!—we used our weekends for sleeping, religiously. Our all-time sleep record was 2 pm. One time, B and I slept so long, we went wandering into Waldbaum’s Supermarket in the late weekend afternoon in search of smoked fish and bagels for brunch. Most of the other folks there were buying dinner, but we were newlyweds, and our internal clocks ran differently.
            We don’t do that anymore. There comes a time when the human body has different sleep requirements. But I still do enjoy staying up late—which is foolish, especially tonight—it’s 1:35 am and counting—and I have to get up to do a morning service at 7:15 am. There is something about the late night, when it’s all quiet, and I can hear myself think.
I imagine that I can almost hear God thinking, which would be wonderful: does God do His planning late at night? Does He bounce His ideas off the angels—all the angels, including the Minor, Nameless Ones created for one mission only, or just the Archangels, the Superior Ones whose names end in –El, like Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel (“Who-is-Like-God,” “Healer-of-God,” and “Strength-of-God”)? Or does all that famous monologue in Genesis—“Come, and let Us make Man in Our image”—amount to nothing more than a conscious imitation of Queen Victoria’s royal “we,” as in, “We are not amused” when she didn’t understand the joke that Disraeli was telling her? (She wasn’t the sharpest bayonet on the  musket, was old Vicky.)
            Just letting You know, God: if you have any plans for the world, and need someone to run them by, I’m available. I’m no Moses, and therefore don’t qualify for daytime, face-to-Face prophecy, but You can couch the proposal in a dream sometime—that’s a fairly low level of divine communiqué, and I believe I could handle it.

            Keep me in mind; I try to keep You in mind, too. A lot.

At Sinai: Golden Calves, Orgiasts, and Moses as the Enactor of Punishment for Rebellion

Moses, joints aching from his climb up Sinai—Could you not have chosen a younger man for this mission, O’ Mysterious, Bellowing God?—had first taken the laughter and singing from the mountain’s foot as rejoicing, welcoming him back after he had been away from his people so long—but, as he came around the last curve in the mountain path and, his aged eyes clearing, saw what the sinful people were doing, he staggered, and the Tablets, which had at first felt so light, grew stoney and tumbled from his grasp. They shattered on the rocky path of Sinai, and shards tumbled into the ancient lava-pits, never to be found. As his shoulders sagged, he heard the voice of his God:
O My People—I took you out of Egypt; I saved you from Pharaoh; I freed you from slavery—but you have betrayed me—and Moses will punish you.
Me? I will punish them? The Prophet thought, as he lay, exhausted, on the mountain’s dusty path, tears leaking through the wrinkles of his face and gathering in his white-and-grey beard.
Can not You, God-Who-Is, You Who can fight your own battles, punish Your own children? Why must the disciplining always be left to me? They should love me, not fear me; I ought to be their father—Oof!
He felt Joshua’s strong, young arms lifting him, as his disciple and foster son had done many times before, and his elder brother Aaron—dear, sweet, patient Aaron—pulling him up from the other side. Moses felt his own, shepherd’s strength returning: No time for self-pity, he told himself, for they have sinned, sinned greatly; and they must pay the penalty—but what penalty?
He spoke as he was thinking: “Who are the ringleaders?” he asked Joshua and Aaron, “and are there any people—or, better, tribes—who remain loyal to us?”
Aaron thought, looked, and pointed. “See there, My Brother Moses? Those are the tents of the Levites, all drawn closed, and shut up tight.”
Moses nodded. “Gather them.”
Aaron frowned. “What do you have in mind, Brother?”
Moses looked—there was a huge bonfire. In its garish flames—now blue, now green, now blood-red—the Egyptian sorcerers, part of the “mixed multitude” Pharaoh had driven out of Egypt with the Israelite slaves and all of his assorted troublemakers, emptying his prisons, his asylums, as well as his private jail, where he placed his political prisoners—the mob, most of them half-dressed or totally naked, were dancing drunkenly around the Calf. His gorge rose as he saw men and women openly fornicating, there in the full light of the moon. Golden and silver cups, looted from the Egyptians, lay on the ground, with their spilled wine winking in the moonlight. Off to one side, a mixed group of men and women alternated between singing and choosing partners for their animal-like sexual acts.
Snatches of pagan poetry wafted up the mountainside; the men shuddered as they heard it:
O Israel see your god
He is great He is good
Broke Pharaoh’s rotten wood
Come and taste it is good
Young maiden do you dare
Come and let
Down your hair
Let me touch
You down there
Israel do you dare?
Drums, tambourines; skirling pipes, even a kinnor, a seven-stringed harp, which Moses had thought to include as part of the Sanctuary worship, when Betsalel completed the work—where was Betsalel? Now, the harp would have to be destroyed, having been used to sin, and encourage others to sin—
Moses shuddered, and turned away. He heard the Voice:
You must act, Moses: you must carry out My will.
“It is not my mind, Aaron—no; such is the will of the Living God. Assemble the Levites—blow the shofar!” he said.
Joshua took the shofar he wore always, slung from his girdle-belt, and blew a series of blasts—long-three shorts-nine shorter still-and a long: Tekiah-Shevarim-Teruah-Tekiah. As the three men watched the Levite camp, pitched on the side opposite the Calf, someone turned back the flap of each tent, and looked out—a man from some; from others, a woman. Tent-roofs began to ripple, as men emerged, looking around in curiosity; they saw the three, pointed, began to run in their direction, holding their keffiyehs up so as not to gaze at the orgiastic couples writhing on the ground; others covered their ears, not to hear the hellish music.
“Where is Chur?” asked Moses, “Where is our old comrade? Aaron, you and he held my arms aloft when Joshua led the armed men into battle against the Amalekites.”

“I have bad news—“ Aaron began, and, when Moses’ face fell, he was quick to add, “Our dear friend, Chur—”
Joshua continued, as Aaron, compassionate as he was, began to cry.
“When the people saw that you did not return and the Egyptian refugee mob told them to think of building the Golden Calf, Chur was the only man with the courage to oppose them. You had appointed Aaron here to monitor them while you were away, but they were shouting and picking up rocks—‘Build us a god, or at least, a Seat for this Mystery to sit his exalted Self on, or we will kill you, false prophet!’ Chur and I were the only ones who urged them to be patient, that you would return in due course of time.
“But Chur, Chur was brave, brave to the point of being reckless. He stood before them, shaking his fists, brandishing his staff, daring them to rebel: he shouted, ‘Any Egyptian or half-breed cur who opposes the One True God, him will I beat into the ground!’ And the mob growled at him, like so many wolves; they were already forming lines to give me—give me—“
“Not you, Joshua,” said Aaron, fresh tears gleaming on his cheeks, “the sin was mine, entirely mine. I had thought to delay them, by asking them to forfeit the fortune in gold and silver they had taken from the Egyptians—which of those foolish ex-slaves would willingly part with the treasure they had earned, during our four-hundred-year slavery? But I reckoned wrongly—they raced to their tents, seized their bags of loot, their women’s jewelry boxes, and flung the gold and silver into a sacred pot I took from the Altar. I had no choice—“
“Choice? It was magic—those two half-breed Egyptian sorcerers, Datan and Aviram, and that Levite rascal priestly wannabe, Korach himself, flung flash-powder into the air to fool the rabble, and caused that Golden Abomination to emerge. Aaron,” pleaded Joshua, “it was not your fault! Not his fault, Lord Moses—“ and here, Joshua fell to his knees, bowed his head, and grasped Moses’s robe, even as the Levites, swords and bucklers in hand—Where has this tribe of priests and Levites gotten such weapons, and so quickly? Moses asked himself, foolishly and bemusedly—gathered around them.
“What will you have us do, Lord Moses? We wait on your command,” said Elisamach, a burly, dark-bearded Levitical leader, of the Kedemite clan.
“Give us the word, and we will wreak bloody destruction on those rebel sinners!” cried Ben-Gevurah, a red-headed tyro, whom Aaron himself was teaching the slow, detailed, and proper way to do sacrifice.
“Brothers! Please—silence!” said Aaron, and the warriors grew quiet; they respected Aaron, whose leadership of the Levites was secondary only to Moses’s ability to lead the Israelites.
Moses could already hear the words of He-Who-Is in his head: Such is My will, Moses My Servant. Tell the Levites, the One True Tribe, loyal to Me only among Israel on this tragic day, to go through the camp.
“What would You have them do, O’ Lord?” asked Moses, trembling, for he had already guessed the answer.
Kill the sinners, the orgiastic mob; they have brought evil and destruction on My Holy People. Let every man kill his brother, his sister, even his child, if they have brought evil upon My people, for building that Desolation of Abomination. Heed Me, and obey, lest greater destruction follow….
The Divine whispers in Moses’s old ears faded; he strained to hear if there were more, but there was none; only a bit of hamseen-winds, lashing sand-pebbles against his ears; he pulled his keffiyeh closer. Moses turned; it was time for him to carry out God’s will. The aching in his shoulders was gone; he stood up, straight and tall. He felt younger, somehow, but sadder, as well. Was there to be no mercy for the sinners, whose crime had begun by a mistake? And what of Brother Aaron, whom he had assigned to watch the people, and prevent any sinning? Had not Aaron failed in his task? God did not respond to his mental query.
As he passed by Joshua, who was finishing buckling his short sword to his girdle, while a small boy, one of Aaron’s great-nephews, held his wooden shield with dented bronze plate surrounding the center targe, the young leader cocked his head, alert as a hawk to the needs and desires of his master.
Moses nodded, slowly and sadly: “The Holy One, our Lord God of Hosts, desires that we kill all the guilty. Let their blood flow throughout the camp, as a warning to others who may backslide in the future and disobey the words of the One True God. You may begin….”
Even before Moses had completed his last sentence, Joshua had raised his right arm, but leaving his sword at his belt.
“Israelites!” shouted Joshua, in a voice so loud that the raucous music coming from near the Calf faltered for a second. “We go to wreak vengeance on those who have sinned, in the Name of the One True God! Assemble your ranks!”
Before Moses, Aaron, and Joshua, the Levitical strike force, some armed with swords and small bucklers, others, behind them, with bows and arrows, and, in front, men with short spears with bronze tips, sharpened to razor-thinness, formed a ragged line.
“Attend me!” said Joshua, in a lower voice, and the men gripped their weapons; each archer took a fletch, pointed with a flinty tip, and strung it to the bow.
“Bow-benders, on my command,” said Joshua, and the orgiasts, finally realizing their fate, began to cry, scream, reach for their discarded clothing, and, in small groups, run back to what they thought was the safety of their tents.
“Fire arrows!” shouted Joshua! The bolts flew straight and true; all of Israel’s faithful, those who had not worshiped the Calf, heard the screaming of the sinners, as the flinty tips thudded home, in tent-cloth, ground, and human flesh.
The carnage and screaming began. Some Israelites from the remainder of the camp stood and watched; others herded both children and elderly relatives into their tents, where the leaders heard them chanting loudly a psalm of praise, both so that they would not hear the massacre, and that the Levitical warriors of vengeance would not strike at their peaceful, God-fearing homes:

The Lord is a Man of War;
The Lord is His Name.
The chariots of Pharaoh
He cast into the Reed Sea,
And the chosen of Pharoah’s cavalry
He drowned in the deep….

“Come, Brother,” said Aaron to Moses, “It is not right or fitting that you, as Rabbi and Leader of Israel, should hear or see this carnage.”
“No, Brother Aaron,” said Moses, setting his jaw firmly, “I will stand with you on yonder hill, and see how the Lord punishes the guilty. For I, as leader, and you, as High Priest, must share the blame. Could you not have held them back, back for at least one more day?”
Aaron’s mouth opened; he tried to protest his innocence. But the screams of the people being attacked—the low, persistent sound of blades slicing flesh, and the attendant screaming—overcame the brothers; they knelt slowly down on the lowest rocks of Sinai, put their heads together on its stoney floor, and wept for God to forgive them and their erring people.
And the blood of the Israelites flowed, an offering before God….

Sunday, December 22, 2013

God vs. Pharaoh: Clash of the Titans? A Tribal Deity Reaches Out of Heaven and Into Human History, Only to Encounter a Monomanical Monarch

            Judaism teaches that God is not only the creator of the universe, but is also involved in our daily lives, in the form of Hashgacha P’rateet/Divine Providence. God plans every event that occurs to us (with the exception, I believe, of great tragedies), even though we retain our free will. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) teaches that every blade of grass in the field, every leaf on the trees, has its own guardian angel standing behind it and urging it, “Grow! Flourish!” How much more so is God present in our own lives. It all goes back to God’s appearsances in the Exodus story, as a Power active in human history. Here, God utters the famous “four statements of liberation,” showing how God will go about freeing the Israelites from Egypt: “I will take you out of Egypt; I will save you from Pharaoh; I will redeem you from slavery, and I will take you to be My people.”
            Seen in this light, the struggle between God and Pharaoh (who was regarded by his people as divine) becomes an epic battle between gods—on the one hand, a cruel, self-centered, xenophobic tyrant; on the other, the God who not only created heaven and earth, but is deeply involved in their fate. It is no accident that Moses’s first meeting with Pharaoh is by the Nile, Egypt’s chief goddess, benefactor, and source of life—supposedly, the god-monarch was in the habit of visiting the river early in the morning to perform his physical needs, and had to do so long before any of his duped subjects arose to greet the day: a god never needs to go to the bathroom, you see.
When Pharaoh refuses to recognize the Israelite God as genuine, and demands that Moses display his credentials as a legitimate prophet, God commands Moses to start out small, in a way which the Egyptians can comprehend: He transforms Moses’s shepherd’s crook into a serpent, a trick easily matched by Pharaoh’s sorcerers, until Moses’s staff swallows theirs, a conjuror’s trick, but symbolic of the drama to follow—and, perhaps, a distant echo of a previous Pharaoh’s dream, of seven lean cows devouring seven fat ones.
The first seven plagues follow, all of which can be explained as ordinary natural events. What makes them miracles is their timing, designed to show how God controls all heaven and earth, with Moses as His prophet and catalyst. Plague follows plague in a ghastly procession, inflicting pain and suffering on the Egyptians, but Pharaoh will not yield. Thinking of himself as an immortal god-king, he is too entangled in his own pride and arrogance to set the Israelites free and restore the welfare of his subjects.
            Why does this parsha sound so much like Pesach/Passover in January? It is a promise which God makes to us in the dead of winter (obviously, the Torah was not written in Florida, with its mono-seasonality), telling us that spring will eventually come. In the meantime, God challenges us to find holiness and spirituality in our daily lives and activities: let nothing we do, no deed we perform in this world, be devoid of God’s spirit. There must be some spiritual element in every one of our activities, every one of our human interactions. Through serving God and carrying out God’s plans on earth, we become most human and humane.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

As Another American Literature Survey Class Ends-- Is there Something Ironic About Taking Literature and Giving a Final Essay Exam on It? One Wonders....

It must have been a hot, shining, sun-baked day, there on the beach, as the Spaniards stood there, chafing and sweating in their body armor, carrying their swords and shields, along with the white flag of Catholic Spain, with its red cross. Off to the side was a Dominican monk, holding a crucifix. The golden Saviour on top gleamed in the sun; the Indians blinked at it.
I see Christopher Columbus standing there, calculating, plotting, thinking, “How can I enslave these people?” as the Taino Indians, shy, smiling, friendly, bring forward baskets of fruit, bowing and leaving them before his sweating, half-starved soldiers and sailors, like offerings before gods.
The Admiral of the Ocean Sea turns and squints his sun-baked eyes at the three little caravels that lie at anchor in the harbor of—where? Cuba? Hispaniola? Jamaica? Or some island we will never know?
Columbus turns back to his men.
            “What think you, Bartolome?” he asks the short, one-eyed captain standing in front. “How many conquistadors would we need to conquer these sheep in human form?”
            Bartolome smiles; the teeth he has lost to scurvy have left empty black holes in his jaw. He tries to spit onto the sand, but is unable to do so.
            “Amiral,” he says in a husky voice, dry for lack of water, “I could do it all in one day, and with these men. Just give the word.”
            …And Columbus, a man who holds the destiny of the Western World in his hand, turns back, and smiles, as a taller Indian, wearing a feathered headdress and a leather string around his neck with some small gold chips flashing in the sun, approaches….
            Benjamin Franklin, eager to get readers for his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, hires small boys, paying them pennies a day to hawk his news. But this alone will not do; there are other newspapers and broadsides to read, and the news-hungry public may buy them, instead. He knows what to do: he buys a wheelbarrow from an out-of-work farmer, fills it to the brim with his newspapers, and walks the streets of Philadelphia City calling, “News, Fresh News! Buy it straight from me, Ben Franklin, writer, printer, and publisher! Get your news fresh!”
            And the eager Philadelphians buy, impressed by this handsome, muscular, tall young printer who does not shirk from selling his handiwork himself….
            Edgar Allan Poe, wishing only to head his own magazine, slaves through the night to write his masterpiece, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” He is not aware that he is creating a new art form, the psychological horror story; he knows only that he is continuing a Gothic literary tradition, and taking it into a new direction, penetrating the mind and soul of a madman. His editor shudders when he reads it through—Imagine, hiding a dead body that way!—but he prints it. Poe gets $10 for his work.
            He gets nothing more when every other American magazine steals his work, nor when European magazines steal it as well, translating it into other languages; nor again, when, long after his death, movie companies use it as a screenplay. All he ever gets for “The Tell-Tale Heart,” first of its kind, still a masterpiece, is $10.
            Nathaniel Hawthorne, aching from the family curse, knowing full well that his great-grandfather Wm. Hathorne, the “hanging judge” of the Salem Witch Trials, never repented the innocent lives he sent to the gallows, writes the story “Young Goodman Brown” as both a vengeance and a penance; he never fully accepts the Puritanical Christianity which haunts his family, becoming a freethinking Transcendentalist instead. The gloom he inherits from his ancestors haunts his life.
            During and prior to the Harlem Renaissance, talented young poets and writers like Paul Laurence Dunbar (who could have been a lawyer, business executive, banker, or anything he set his mind to, but is forced to be a bellhop and scrub spittoons in a hotel; he contracts tuberculosis, and dies at age 34), Countee Cullen (a gifted poet who writes in Shakespearean mode, he winds up a junior high teacher in NYC), Claude McKay (in desperation joining the Communist Party during the 1930s, he is blacklisted and dies young), Zora Neale Hurston (she lives the longest, refusing to let adversity defeat her bold and adventurous spirit), or Langston Hughes (who maddeningly never gets angry, either in real life or in his poetry), have left us a wealth of their work, a legacy to young African-Americans today, still trying to make sense of America’s promises.
            From World War I, when a generation of idealistic young men marches off to save the world for democracy and fight the war to end all wars, only to die in the trenches, to the end of World War II, where, if anything, the technology to kill human beings only improves, from the rape of Nanking to the bombing of London and Dresden, thro’ Auschwitz and Belsen, and culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—this is the Age of Modernism, where, strangely enough, writers still believe in high ideals like Truth, Integrity, and Honor. Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway live the high life and drink themselves to death, but each one lives by his own, oddly self-enacted code.
            We follow Fitzgerald thro’ Depression Paris in “Babylon Revisited”; Hemingway takes us to the jungle, both the real and of the human soul, in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”; and Faulkner shows us both Southern Renaissance and Southern Gothic in “A Rose for Emily,” where love continues beyond death, even as one lover hastens the other to the grave, in a manner Poe would have approved: Gothic and Southern Gothic are not so far apart.
            Finally, there is Post-Modernism, which allows us to play amid the forms of literature: here James Baldwin takes us into the mind of a bigoted Southern deputy sheriff in “Going to Meet the Man,” and Toni Morrison takes the supreme question of the 20th Century, the Color Bar, and, oddly, plays with it, showing us that the State is unable to raise motherless children, and that, perhaps, we tend to over-emphasize the entire Race Question in this country: in the end, aren’t human beings merely human, and isn’t dialogue and just getting along the only way we can hope to survive and rise above bestiality and killing one another?
            And so, I sit here, watching and waiting for my latest class of American Literature Survey students to complete their final, beginning at 6 pm—it is now 9:15 pm; three out of seven remain; they have until 10 pm.

The final irony of Post-Modernism is taking these literary works—works designed to stretch the spirit and imagination of Americans, to answer the questions we have about this country, and, in the end, Explain Ourselves to Ourselves—and reducing them to essay questions on an English Final Exam. But that is what I do. 

A Rabbi Looks at Christmas; or, Remembering a New York December Boyhood

I am not a Christian; but, with Chanukah safely away and Christmas about to come, can share whatever feelings a Jewish person may allow himself to have about this supreme Christian festival. Let us put aside any pagan, mythological, or Greco-Roman precedents to Christianity; it is called syncretism—the ability of a new religion to gain adherents by appropriating old customs and beliefs from preexistent folkways, altering them slightly, and saying, “See, this is something new!” Judaism did it, as well—witness the sandek, the person honored by holding the boy-baby’s legs apart at the brit milah, or ritual circumcision (Are non-Orthodox Jews still circumcising babies? I do hope so.). His name derives from the synteknos, the godfather at a Christian baptism.

Growing up in NYC, I always looked forward to the December holidays, when people seemed to act more kindly, or at least, less cruelly, toward one another. I would race home in the gathering darkness, and, before I was allowed to wolf down my dinner, and settle down to an evening of homework, my father would gruffly urge me to “David! Light your Chanukah candles!”—there was always less ritual than rush about it, and we never did it as a family—perhaps on Erev Shabbat—since my sister and parents and I always came home at different times of the day; no one thought to suggest that, perhaps, we might do it as a unit. I did not feel deprived; it was just the way things were.

Uptown was a different story. The department store windows were ablaze with light, and full of mechanical toys, puppets, and marionettes; little trains whirred in circles; huge jack-in-the-boxes wobbled and leered as they went up-and-down; Santas, both mechanical and live (appearing on a schedule, of course; one time, I spoke to one, via microphone through a window, and asked him for “an electric train and accessories”—I don’t believe he heard me properly, but he smiled, waved, and nodded), appeared, amid their elves, along with Mrs. Claus, who always brandished a tray of fake cookies. We wondered at the marvels of the season.

There was also the great, gigantic Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, and the Holiday Show at Radio City Music Hall, where the Rockettes, bedecked all in red, gold, and green, kicked their trim, well-coordinated legs ‘way up high (My poor, short mother would note, “But their faces—so ugly!—who can bear to look at them?”), and we gawked at the “Living Nativity,” where Joseph and a shepherd would lead a donkey and goat onto the stage--on leashes, of all things!--so that the animals would not bolt and fall into the orchestra pit while on their way to see Mary and the Christ-child-doll.

Later, the Rockettes would re-enact the line of Toy Soldiers, all falling down neatly and in line before the onslaught of a toy cannon. As the climax of the show, a monstrously-large Cross, made all of artificial pink, red, and white flowers would descend from the stage rafters. I remember thinking, “What a magnificent religion! Is this what goes on in church, every Sunday?” The only church I knew about was St. Mary’s Roman Catholic of Trinity Parish on Grand St., and I had been warned not to approach it—the rumors were that Whoever inhabited the staid, old red-brick building would kidnap little Jewish yeshiva boys, who were never seen again.

Once, daring my own courage, I stood long enough in front of St. Mary’s to see a sliver within, as two elderly lady-worshipers emerged. I saw a tiny bit down what must have been the main aisle of the sanctuary, to a statue of the church’s namesake, Mother Mary herself, carved out of white marble, but could not then make out Who or What it was, all spooky-looking and white. I skittered down the steps of the church, and made my getaway: so much for interfaith research. Ah, the ignorance of youth! I have since done penance for my bigotry, and have learned to know and appreciate the religious faith of my neighbors.

But Christmas Uptown was all spectacle, decoration, and music piped into the city streets. Such, such were the joys of a New York Christmas, in the eyes of a young yeshiva boy.

Here is a poem by T.S. Eliot, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.” It is a favorite of mine; I do not share its theology, but I love what crusty old Eliot, a High Anglican and High Modernist, has to say about the festival and its importance for young children:

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees by TS Eliot.

There are several attitudes towards Christmas, 
Some of which we may disregard: 
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial, 
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight), 
And the childish – which is not that of the child 
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel 
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree 
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree: 
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder 
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext; 
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement 
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree, 
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions 
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell), 
The expectation of the goose or turkey 
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety 
May not be forgotten in later experience, 
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium, 
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure, 
Or in the piety of the convert 
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit 
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children 
(And here I remember also with gratitude 
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas 
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last) 
The accumulated memories of annual emotion 
May be concentrated into a great joy 
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion 
When fear came upon every soul: 
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end 
And the first coming of the second coming. (1954)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Meeting Moses: Stammerer & Seer, Worshiper & Workaholic, Poet & Peacemaker, and Only Too Human

            I like Moses a lot. I commiserate with him: how can one be “the humblest of men” but at the same time, lead a people so fractious, argumentative, and independent-minded as us Jews? Was he the best person for the job, rather than his independent-minded sister Miriam, or his diplomatic brother, Aaron? Self-destructively workaholic, misogynistic, and not much of a husband or father (his two sons are mere names, and they quickly vanish into history), yet known to all of us as Moshe Rabeinu, Moses, our Rabbi, our teacher. Over a lifetime of reading and chanting Torah, constantly seeking a chidush, something new to say about him, I have grown very close to Moses, warts and all. We rabbis need to stick together.
            In this parsha/Torah reading, we find Moses during his salad days, when his world was young and fair. Cast adrift by his loving but fearful mother, Yocheved, during the Jewish-boy-baby-drowning campaign of a xenophobic Pharaoh, his devoted elder sister, Miriam, follows his wicker basket downstream on the Nile, and boldly speaks right up to the Royal Princess of Egypt when Her Majesty discovers and wishes to adopt the baby, offering Yocheved as a wetnurse.
We can only speculate about Moses’s upbringing in the Pharaoh’s palace, and the tension there must have been between the ministrations of the princess, his adoptive mother, and those of Yocheved, his natural mother: for the rest of his life, he was to have conflicting issues about women, certainly with powerful women. These certainly influenced his feelings about the role of females in Judaism and in the world, until he met the Daughters of Tselofechad (Num. 27:6-8), whose right of inheritance he championed. As for fathers, his own strained relationships with natural, absentee father Amram and adoptive grandpa Pharaoh must have been distant, if they existed at all. We know this from the true meaning of his name: in the Egyptian world where leaders were known as Ramses (son of Ra, the sun-god) or Thutmose (son of Thut, god of writing and wisdom), Moses’s name translates as “Son of whom?” since his natural father was unknown to the Egyptians (The linguistic wordplay in Ex. 2:10 suggesting that his name means “drawn out of the water” is a later Hebraic invention.). Did this affect his dealings with an all-powerful Deity who insisted on being regarded as Father of All?
            So were formed all the elements of Moses’s later career as chief of the prophets, who spoke with God on a higher level than Isaiah or Jeremiah ever could aspire: his killing the Egyptian taskmaster as the first blow in the battle for Israelite freedom; his deed being disparaged by his later detractors, Datan and Aviram; his flight to Midian, there to become son-in-law to Yitro/Jethro, whom Jewish tradition acclaims as one of the first Jews-by-choice, and his Vision of the Burning Bush—a prophecy both magnificent (the Sovereign of the Universe contained within a mere bush) and humble (it was only a thorn bush, after all). When God calls out to him, ordering him to free the Jews, he initially refuses, setting the standard for many reluctant prophets to come, such as Gideon, Elisha, and Jonah. Shepherd and seer, stammerer and spokesman, a man outwardly Egyptian but nascently Jewish—Moses remains the beau ideal for Jewish leaders in all times and all places, as he yearns to understand the Mysterious Deity whose commands will change his life and alter the arc of human history.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Torah Portion Vayechi: Farewell to Genesis, Alas: Learning How to Be a Mensch

            Sadly, the time has arrived: once again, we are concluding Beraysheet/Genesis. For all the years that I have studied Torah, it remains my favorite book of the five—from the very first time I studied it, in first grade in Hebrew Day School, from a Chumash-primer with big black block Hebrew letters. Of all the books in the Torah, it has the most appeal for readers who love stories about people, with all of their peccadilloes. Here is the proof that dysfunctional relatives are a primary characteristic of us Jews, and the human family in general: they are right there in Genesis, whether examining Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, or Joseph and his Brothers. There are no perfect human beings in this book, just ordinary folks going about their lives, much as we do today. The significant difference is that God appears outright in these stories, as a speaking and acting character. Most of us cannot discern God’s role in our lives as directly as our ancestors did, but that doesn’t mean that He is not there. As the great humanistic theologian and philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) stated, “Vocatus non vocatus, Deus aderit—Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”
            And now, we come, regrettably, to the end of Genesis, with Jacob living far from his beloved land of Israel (although it does not yet bear that name), as a pensioner in Egypt, benefiting from his son Joseph’s lightning ascent to the top of the Egyptian civil service, although Jacob is not terribly happy about it. Give some credit to Poppa Jacob: he gathers his wayward sons (and, we may presume, his daughter, Dena) around his deathbed to deliver his final patriarchal blessing, and proceeds in no uncertain terms to tell them what he thinks of the boys, warts and all: no compliments, but matter-of-fact evaluations, of their present (and future) personalities and interactions (For a fun contrast, compare Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died”).
We can judge Jacob’s speech in one of two ways: either he’s a prophet, or, the blessing/poem was written during the amphictyonic, or tribal, period, when the tribes were just as likely to go to war against one another(!) as against outside nations who threatened them. They were not unified into the “Nation of Israel” until David’s reign in around 1,000 BCE, and didn’t mesh well, even afterwards. Old Jacob criticizes them harshly, and I believe that his frank assessments point up a major fact of our faith: Jews are expected to behave properly in both their families and society, and woe betide the occasional miscreant who falls short of the mark. When we read of scandals in the media, whether financial, political, or personal, we invariably scan the list of wrongdoers for Jewish-sounding names. When the occasional Madoff or Rothstein comes along, we ought to add “May their names and memories be erased” following their names, for blackening, not only their own reputations, but those of their community—not least, because they began by stealing from their own people, and continued their virus-like activity against others. Why? Because, as our parents and rabbis taught us while growing up, “Jews don’t behave that way.”

            It is called menschlichkeit—that elusive quality which is so hard to develop: the ability to comport oneself as a capable, compassionate human being, in a world where so many are eager to lie, cheat, and steal in the quest for the easy buck. We live in this world, with all of its temptations and opportunities to backstab, but are supposed to set the highest standard of character for ourselves. As a Buddhist phrase has it, “We should live like the lotus blossom. It grows out of the water, but its petals are not wet.” Genesis represents the absolute triumph of the human spirit over adversity, and, as a Jew, I am very proud to be part of the faith produced it.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Joseph, His Brothers, and the Rest of Us Jews: Our Mission to the World: Torah Portion Vayigash

            In this Torah portion, Joseph continues his cat-and-mouse game with his puzzled brothers, who cannot connect this austere, distant, kohl-eyed stranger with their frightened, seventeen-year-old stripling brother whom they sold into slavery so many years ago. He accuses them of spying, theft, and other capital crimes against the Imperial Kingdom of Egypt; he warns them that Benjamin, their aged father Israel’s favorite, must remain with him as an eternal hostage, for the crime of stealing his “divining cup.”
            The brothers are abashed, shocked, and confused by this string of charges; they are simple country folk, and out of their depth before this wily, sharp-tongued bureaucrat. Their heads are spinning, but they desperately recall their promise to their aged father: no harm must come to his favorite, to Benjamin. Joseph finishes his harangue, folds his arms, and waits for the brothers’ reply. A deadly silence falls.
            Into the breach steps Judah—it is clear that we are seeing a foreshadowing of that tribe’s leadership position in the future, and why we are, today, called “Jews” (originally “Judeans”), and not “Benjaminites” or “Josephites.” His speech is fifteen verses in length, and it is both simple and eloquent, reminding the Pharaoh’s viceroy why, if he imprisons their baby brother, Father Jacob will die of a broken heart, having lost both of his favorites, Joseph and Benjamin.
            These words penetrate Joseph’s heart of stone, and break the psychological barrier he has erected between himself and his family; he can no longer maintain his cool, polished, cosmopolitan façade. In a choked voice, he orders his guards to clear the room of all Egyptians save himself, and, switching to Hebrew, he confesses to his shocked brothers, “I am Joseph; does my father yet live?”
            Of which “father” is Joseph speaking? Hasn’t Israel, his beloved parent, been the subject of the entire discussion up to this point? I believe that this, his first, self-revealingly honest query to his brothers, his first confession on their mutual road to reconciliation, points to something deeper than the physical father to whom they all owe their beginnings. No: we are speaking here of Israel’s ideals—the life-lessons which the young Jacob learned during his experiences with Esav, with Lavan; his years of infertility-struggle with Rachel; his finally learning to love Leah, who rose above her demeaned status to become a proud mother of tribes; and not to forget Bilhah and Zilpah, whose voices also yearned to rise beyond their scorned concubine-status. All the brothers who, symbolically, become our own fathers, are eternally bequeathing to us our destiny, in this confusing, competitive, modern world of economics and politics, where we struggle daily to find our place.
Where, indeed, do we Jews belong, in a world which continues to need our fabled morality, our ideals, our refusal to follow a crowd to do evil? It will never be an easy world in which to be a Jew, not if being a Jew means to cry out, “What you are doing is wrong, and I must help you to change”—be it social conditions, poverty, ignorance, or the Abyss which threatens to cut off human beings from understanding that we are all, all of us!—made in the Image of God.