Thursday, April 29, 2004

Win Valuable Prizes! 

At a smashing Yom Ha'atzmaut party here in Kfar Saba on Monday night, the following quiz was distributed. You must match these futuristic newspaper headlines with the correct song title. Correct answers tomorrow.

Good luck - winners are invited to next year's party (all expenses paid from the Kfar Saba train station to the Out of Step apartment).


1. Corruption Ends! Politicians Claim New Era in Israeli Politics
2. Judy Nir Moses Shalom Seen in Dress!
3. Shahid Union Complains: Vests Too Tight
4. Ovadia Yosef, Yossi Beilin + Entire Knesset out of Country
5. Gilad Sharon sells Falther's Soul for Greek Island!
6. Difficulty Reading Arafat Peace Plan
7. Sheri Arison Divorces Again
8. Sheri Arison Marries Again
9. Ovadia Yosef Appointed Finance Minister
10. Limor Livnat Flutters to the Left
11. Arafat Elected PM of Mongolia
12. Lapid + Deri Form Party
13. Lapid + Deri's New Party Wins!
14. Sharon Boys Clean Up
15. Beilin Outed by Guy Pines
16. Partygoers Sick of Stupid Games

Song Titles:

a. Sealed With a Kiss (Bobby Vinton)
b. Mad About the Boy (Noel Coward)
c. Cry Me A River (Arthur Hamilton)
d. Love for Sale (Cole Porter)
e. Faust (Gounon)
f. Help! (Lennon& McCartney)
g. 'S Wonderful (George & Ira Gershwin)
h. That'll Be the Day (Buddy Holly)
i. Sounds of Silence (Paul Simon)
j. My Heart Belongs to Daddy (Cole Porter)
k. Fly Me to the Moon (Arthur Hamilton)
l. Sophisticated Lady (Duke Ellington)
m. Madame Butterfly (Puccini)
n. Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix)
o. Can't Always Get What you Want (Rolling Stones)
p. Dirty Man (Bobby Miller/Aretha Franklin)

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Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Yom Ha'atzmaut 56 

They say that there are only three days a year when olim from America don't think about going back to the old country: Yom Hashoah (Holocaust memorial Day), Yom Hazikaron (IDF Memorial Day) and Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day).

For obvious reasons not too many of us who came from Anglo countries are here for material reasons or because we are running away from anti-Semitism. We live our lives here like any other citizen except we often have to explain why it is that we left America.

For some, who came right out of high-school or college the reasons are a "disgust" with American society or with the Jewish community there, or for some other youthful negative ideal. For those of us who came later, with children, even for those of us raised as Zionists from the cradle we must answer that yes, we appreciate the wonders of America, its freedom, its material wealth, its dynamism.

However, our Zionism is a positive one, one based on throwing in our lot with the Jewish people. Yet, we don't really know if this fateful decision will be one that is good for our children or our grandchildren. A few years ago at our Shabbat table we had a young 16 year old girl from Portland, Oregon, one from Saratov in Russia and of course our own children.

We commented how the decisions of their respective great-grandparents determined their fate – which was essentially to survive the holocaust but end up with three different childhoods: One in Russia, one in the United States and my children in Israel. In hindsight, those European Jews who left for Israel and America in defiance of their rabbis or accountants were genius's whose grasp of Jewish history and the Jewish condition, of long term political and economic trends, outshone the intellectual and religious elite of the European continent.

What will our decedents say about us and our decision to leave the wondrous country that is America and to come to the stifling war zone that is Israel? Will they thank us or curse us?

With each passing Yom Ha'atzmaut I think more and more that they will thank us. With all our complaints that we have discussed and will continue to discuss, our short term pessimism can only be tempered by a long term optimism that each passing Yom Ha'atzmaut will help us to understand the nature of the Jewish condition - and by that understanding will help us to improve it.

Chag Sameach.

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Monday, April 26, 2004

Yom Hazikaron, 2004 

In 75 minutes the second siren will sound on this Yom Hazikaron – Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces.

Living just down the block from the military cemetery, I have the sad privilege of hearing the 21gun salutes of those boys and girls from Kfar Saba who gave their lives for our sake. Today too, I will walk to the cemetery for the Yom Hazikaron ceremony where every year parents gather and I guess, just wonder.

In the main synagogue in Kfar Saba, which I have written about in the past – there are stone plaques listing the names of all the Kfar Saba soldiers killed. Many died in the battle of Latrun in 1948 – the battle that broke the siege to Jerusalem. Many others were killed in the various other battles and skirmishes of 1948 in places you have heard of – and those you may not have: Ramat Hakovesh, Jenin, Lod, Beit Yitzchak and others. Two brothers were killed on the same day in 1948, two others, three days apart in the Six Day War.

This week in the local section of the Ma'ariv newspaper featured a story (Hebrew only) on an old photograph of four young boys from the Mosahv of Tel Mond just north of Kfar Saba, was featured.
The boys in the picture were aged 3-7.

Years later all were killed in separate incidents. Brothers Yonatan and Binyamin Nutman were killed in terror attacks in 1956 and 1953 respectively. Gabi Bakasht was killed while serving in the IDF in 1956. David Aloni was killed while serving in the IDF in the Six Day War of 1967. Two of them left a wife and young children.

The IDF has a list with biographies and pictures of all soldiers who gave their life defending the Jewish people. The site is in Hebrew.

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Saturday, April 24, 2004

Religious Leadership Demands Idealism 

Amongst the interesting articles in the current issue of the OU's Jewish Action is one article my brother referred me to by a Rabbi Reuven Spolter, the pulpit rabbi in the modern orthodox shul outside of Detroit. He looks to the problem of modern-Orthodox leadership outside the main metropolitan areas (specifically but not exclusively, NY) and all but lays the blame on aliya. He knows that he can't blame young Jews for making aliya so I see that the article was a hard one for him to write.

His solution though, to provide scholarships to those YU men and women who commit to entering education or the rabbinate outside of NY for a period of time, points to the real problem. (Adding women pulpit rabbis might also be part of the solution, but we won't go there now.)

My father was a pulpit rabbi for over 35 years. He spent most of his time outside of NY where we grew up the only religious Jews in whatever town or community we happened to be in. It wasn't easy – the drive to the closest Jewish Day School in one of his communities was nearly an hour each way – but it was something my father and his generation of rabbis – and their wives, by the way - committed themselves to do.

YU graduates all, they took up pulpits in small towns and large cities all across America. They built up Day Schools and Hebrew Schools, taught children and adults alike, fought assimilation and intermarriage and held the fort for the current generation of rabbis.

But the next generation never came.

What happened? The "younger" generation refused to leave NY so as not to negatively effect their learning, or so they could eat at kosher restaurants, or they just wanted to be near their families. They would not go to shuls that were not orthodox enough or to communities where their children would have to befriend non-religious children. So they have left these congregations to choose either haredi, Habad or Conservative rabbis.

The solution Rabbi Spolter offers is the right one – but therein lays the problem. Where is the idealism in the YU semicha students? If we were a community in crisis in the 1950's when my father and his colleagues spread out across America – what are we now? Rabbi Spolter's call should shame those YU trained rabanim who feel it below them to leave NY because their limud torah will suffer or because they will have to leave their parents in order to serve their people.

But Rabbi Spolter please don't shame those who have made aliya into thinking that they have done a selfish thing. As people who have left their home and their birthplace, who will send their sons and daughters to the army – believe me, they have not.

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Thursday, April 22, 2004

Religion in the Public Interest 

The current issue of The Public Interest has three fascinating articles on religion in America: The Fire Next Time by Joseph Bottum, The Unraveling of Christianity on America by Clifford Orwin and The Soul of a Nation by Wilfred McClay. They touch on many of the frustrations we have spoken of here regarding Judaism in general and Judaism in Israel in particular.

Specifically, we find a religious country that has moved passed the secular values of modernism to the relativist moral mush of post-modernism. In other words, although most of the people are religious in the pre-modern sense of belief in God, revelation and miracles, their moral yardstick of the dominant culture is of post-modern relativism mixed in with new-age mystical spirituality.

The challenge of modernism with science and reason as its main rallying cries has been replaced by the accommodation of post-modernism with its intellectually lazy attempt to make everyone feel good. What we have is a fundamentalist vision on one side with an amoral behavioral outlook on the other, with a few secular and religious rationalists left somewhere in between. This is true of Judaism too, both in the US and in Israel.

There is a lot more in these articles and its worth talking a look at them. We could learn a thing or two about our own condition – and its good to know we have company.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2004

On Imre Amos 

After Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year - and after having read the two of his books that were translated into English, many of us naturally took a greater interest in the cultural life of Hungary's Jews.

Talya Halkin writes in the Jerusalem Post of another Hungarian-Jewish artist, Imre Amos who alas, did not make it through the Holocaust.

Halkin quotes the Hungarian-Jewish writer Janos Kabonyai about Imre Amos:

"Stronger than his extraordinary love for his wife was the feeling that he had to reach the final limit of his fate. He wanted to become familiar with the nature of the apocalypse, to gain insight into the question of who and what is Man? He was faced with the question of whether it was possible to go on living after such horrifying visions, and the answer he gave himself was 'no.'"

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Monday, April 19, 2004

Yom Hashoah, 2004 

This is dedicated to the memory of Emil Fackneheim zt"l, the philosopher and theologian who passed away this year and who commanded the Jewish people never to let Hitler gain a "posthumous victory".

We spend so much time trying to understand what it is that drove the actions of the Nazis. We look to the actions not only of the Himmlers, Eichmanns and Hitlers of the world, but of the junior officers and regular soldiers of the SS and other units without whom "Mein Kampf" would have been just another trashy book.

Hannah Arendt wrote of the "banality of evil" and she was attacked for it. There was a whiff of "blame the victim" in her writings although a closer reading of all her work, it seems to me, would pin the blame on those "regular soldiers". Blame the follower, so to speak.

Whatever the nature of evil, or whatever motivates leaders or followers to rip a child from the arms of its mother, it seems that ever since 1945 we have ignored the only people who, although also probably don't have an answer to those questions, can teach us about the Jewish condition in the 21st century: The survivors.

This is not to say that we haven’t read the works of survivors or listened to their stories. We have, many of us, read Eli Weisel and Primo Levi, the poems of Paul Celan the stories of Imre Kertsez, Henryk Grynberg and Aaron Applefeld. But have we really looked into the reality that is their lives after the Holocaust? Are they telling us about the Holocaust or about life afterwards?

The survivors faced dilemmas and choices then and now that are literally of "Biblical proportions". What was it like for Adam to walk alone in the Garden of Eden, with no family, friends or roots? What was going through Abraham's mind when God told him to leave his land, his birthplace and his father's home? What could Abraham have thought while binding Isaac, or Isaac upon choosing to bless Esau or Rebekah on preferring Jacob? What of Jacob loving a son more than the others? What of Sarah dying so young and hundreds of years later crying as her children were again sent from their homes?

The "Jewish condition" is that which was formed in our Biblical stories and midrashim, in the piyutim and Psalms of thousands of years – in our often tragic history. How could the Jewish people in the desert not recognize the hand of God? How could they have forgotten God so quickly after seeing His miracles?

The survivors are our living midrash. They may not know the nature of evil but they can help us understand the Jewish condition of today.

How did she feel as the liberators came and she realized that she walked alone? How did he feel when the serpents who were his torturers went back to their homes and carefully manicured lawns? What did they say to God when they went to the correct side of the line? What did they say to God when He commanded them to leave their homes and their families, when those no longer existed?

What Psalms, piyutim and prayers come to their minds today when seeing children praying with their mothers and fathers in the synagogue? What thoughts do they think when watching parents relaxing with their families? What do they say to themselves and to God when they realize, as they must in these times, that while God has kept his covenant with Noah, that which he made with Abraham is still unfulfilled?

We cannot answer these questions until we have examined our present day Abraham's, Isaac's, Rebekah's and Sarah's. And we cannot understand the Jewish condition until we have heard their views on it.

Eliezer Berkovits, towards the end of his introduction to "Faith After the Holocaust" writes:
"We are not Job and we dare not speak and respond as if we were. We are only Job's brother. We must believe, because our brother Job believed; and we must question, because our brother Job so often could not believe any longer. This is not a comfortable situation; but it is our condition in this era after the holocaust."

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Thursday, April 15, 2004

A non-observant Haredi? 

Anecdotal evidence is never something to base a scientific theory on, but I would like to relate to you the contents of a conversation that my 19 year old son had while in the army. He is now taking a medics course and the Nachal Hacheredi has a course on the same base. This unit was established to give haredi youth who didn't want to learn in yeshiva a chance to do their duty while minimizing the culture shock that the army can be to the most acculturated 18 year old.

My son met a rabbi at the base from Europe who works for the army by dealing with the kids in the Nahal Hacharedi. My son had already pointed out to me that many of the soldiers in that unit were not haredi at all but had knitted kipot (kippa seruga) which for good or for bad, identifies you as a religious-Zionist. This rabbi confirmed my son's suspicions and he told him that about a third of the unit are really religious-Zionist youth, a third are haredi proper and a third are haredim who although still go back to their haredi homes are no longer religious. (Apparently these kids left the faith before their army service).

He further told my son that a good proportion of the haredi public are not religious in the privacy of their homes and away from their neighborhoods. Now, there was an article on just that subject in the Ha'aretz magazine a few weeks ago. I purposely didn't write about it because of two reasons: The smug style with which the paper deals with religion was particularly disturbing in this article and the fact that I didn't believe it to be a real phenomenon. Now it seems that on the latter I could be mistaken.

Now, I know there are plenty of men in the religious-Zionist community who walk around with kippot, go to shul on Shabbat, etc – but who don't wear tephillin every day and are not quite careful about kashrut, etc outside the home. Could this phenomenon be common in the haredi community, too?

This is a very interesting topic since one of the main arguments for the haredi-zation of modern-Orthodox/religious-Zionist life is the allegedly greater retention rate amongst haredim. But how much do we really know about haredi life?

Its clear that the haredi man (or woman) on the street is much more Zionistic than their rabbis. Its also clear that the poverty level amongst the haredi community is appalling and the public policy decisions of their leadership just deepens the suffering. Is there a split between the leadership and the people on issues besides politics and even economics? Does this go even to the level of basic ritual observance?

Anecdotal evidence, but evidence nonetheless.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Common Judaism 

The new issue of Azure is out and it has a few interesting items. The editorial in this issue deals with the problem of Jewish unity – a much discussed item in spite of the gleeful wishes for a culture war amongst the fanatics on left and right. The article "Towards a Common Judaism" touches many of the topics we have discussed here – how to form a common language so that all Jews in all countries can literally and figuratively talk to one another.

The essay gives a good introduction as to why this appears nearly impossible but then goes on to suggest "ideas" on which we can base a "Common Judaism". They make a good try at it but to my opinion have fallen short of the mark. Its not that I don't agree with just about everything that is said (although I think they are a bit too optimisitic in assessing things like the Haredi army unit - the "Nachal Hacheredi" -more on that at a later date - and the wonderful but un-influential Kinneret Declaration.) but I think their solutions are too amorphous for the problem at hand.

We have suggested in these posts a plan to re-attach our people to our traditions and to form a common language for us all. These plans are centered on the teaching of Hebrew and the Tanach and to my mind are more solid and to use ed-speak "goal oriented" than conferences on the "ideas" we all share in common.

But maybe the Azure piece will touch a nerve in the minds and pocketbooks of those who say they care.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2004

A few Comments for Chol Hamoed 

While cleaning our car this past Sunday my kids found and put on an old Joni Mitchell tape (yes a cassette, not a CD). Someone passed by, saw their kippot and asked whose music it was. They answered "my father's" and the man insisted that I must be a chozer b'tshuva because that was music that "freaks" used to listen to.

Is there any educational text that is as well written and useful as the Hagadda? It has just about everything in it for everyone of every age. It can be taught and re-taught, read and re-read year after year without being repetitive. It has activities, songs and enough intellectual fodder to satisfy the most ivory tower-ish academic. That is why I have never understood the idea of adding texts to it. There is not only no prohibition from commenting on the text – we are commanded to do so!

Oh yes, and it has food!

This year we finally found an acceptable (although not exhaustive) answer to a question that has been plaguing our Seder (and most others, I presume) for well over twenty years – the "Dayenu" question – how can we possibly say that it is enough if only some of the events mentioned happened – if as my 11 year old son pointed out – each item without its succeeding one is (all but) worthless?

The Netziv (head of the Volozhin Yeshiva for over 40 years) claims that these are statements of faith. That each event taken by itself is enough to affirm our belief in God.

As for the four sons what of the "Tam"? Is the translation for "tam" really simple? The Out of Step Soldier Son feels that the proper translation is "whole" as in the Hebrew word "tamim" – as in the whole sheep (Seh Tamim) that is offered for a korban (sacrifice).

Well …. There still has to be some bit of simple-mindedness involved though – it can't be that everyone has mistranslated the word. In order to find a solution we looked at the answer given to this son instead of the question asked.

The answer is "B'Chozek Yad" - with a strong hand – we were taken out of Egypt. Could the Tam be a brilliant (hence 'whole') but naïve person? As in a university professor who is a pacifist and doesn't understand that without the "strong hand" of God (or man?) we can never be free?

Maybe yes, maybe no.

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Friday, April 02, 2004

In Spite of if All ... 

In spite of all the complaining, the whining, the lack of education. In spite of all the politicians, rabbis journalists and professors who know only how to inflame their constituencies to raging jealousy …. in spite of it all, this is a Jewish country.

The holiday time is the point where you realize that you live in a Jewish country. I am not talking about Boro-Park or Monsey or Meah She'arim or Bnei Brak or even Teaneck where all is fine except the diversity of life – but of Tel-Aviv – the "secular" Israeli city par excellence.

Walking the streets of Tel-Aviv yesterday I saw non-kosher cafes advertising cakes that are Kosher for Passover, young people pretending to be from SoHo carrying boxes of matzot, cleaning materials on sale. Good and cheap wine in all the store windows. Bakery workers counting down the hours until their one week vacation.

My soldier son getting an afternoon to clean his barracks. He and his buddies being threatened with courts-marshal if caught with chametz on the base.

Here in Kfar Saba you can't walk down Weizmann Street (the main drag) without tripping over cheap gifts or two kilo matza boxes for only 20 Shekel.

Herzl was only half right. We have become a normal people not when our vices but when our tradition is part of the normal flow of life.

Chag Kosher V'Sameach.

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