Sunday, March 27, 2005

Purim pashkevil here. (The quality is a bit poor; I'll try to put up a pdf shortly.)

I'll report the facts without trying to make them pretty. Here's what happened.

On Purim night, some time well after midnight (Israel time), when there were thirty or so drunken fellows at a tish in my home, I called Rabbis Uren Reich, Malkiel Kutler, Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Matis Salomon. My recollection of the conversations is somewhat vague. Perhaps Treppenwitz or others who were present can help (I used a speakerphone). I recall telling each of them that I (or a friend) needed to fly from China to the U.S. and was considering flying due East, but was concerned about flying off the edge of the earth. Since the gemara implies that the earth is flat (see Resp. Shvus Yakov 3:20) and each of them is on record as supporting the veracity of rabbinic science, I wanted to know what advice they could offer.

Most of the conversations were spent trying to persuade admirably protective Rebbetzins to pass the phone on to their "resting" husbands. Wachtfogel's wife suggested I fly West. Salomon's wife told me not to worry and he chimed in that his wife gave good advice. The rest is a blur. When asked point blank, none was willing to say that the earth really is flat but neither were they willing to say that it's not (Salomon came close and when I called him a kofer, he hung up -- wouldn't you.)

Yes, this is all very childish but it was Purim and I was quite drunk. And I did have some vague point to make about what they say they believe (chazal's science is correct) and what they really believe (it's not). But you already knew that.

Monday, March 21, 2005

I look forward to Purim. It's all about subversiveness. The megillah is a farce about a foolish king who is a slave of his own caprice. And costumes are not so much role-playing as calling attention to our role-playing the rest of the year.

People are endowed with intellect and self-awareness (vetachserehu me'at me-ha-elokim) but are bound by the same physical limitations -- most notably, mortality -- as animals (mosar ha-adam min ha-behema ayin). Facing up to this contradiction is an unbearable burden and we invent elaborate facades precisely to shield ourselves from it. Purim is the one day on the Jewish calendar that is devoted to to facing the truth. But we need to get drunk to do it. Our drunkenness allows us to face the truth even as it mocks the pretense of our usual sobriety. Religion cleverly co-opts even subversiveness.

A few days before Purim last year, a fundamentalist preacher in Denver, named Brother Gordon, hung a huge sign over the highway near his church. The sign read, "The Jews killed the Lord Jesus". On Purim, thirty drunken Jews in the "Holy City of Bethlehem" phoned Brother Gordon and serenaded him with "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". He assured us that he "lo-o-o-o-oves the Jews". Lo-o-o-o-ove? Wrong holiday, wrong religion. The sign was more like it.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Westerners tend to imagine that non-Westerners are just like them only less so. For example, they imagine that Muslims couldn't possibly take their own religion so seriously that they wouldn't give up some of its rough edges on behalf of the promise of prosperity and freedom. Another example, even closer to home, is the inability of American Jews -- including many American olim -- to appreciate the many ways that Israeli politics is more similar to Soviet politics than to American politics.

One example should suffice. Both the media and the law enforcement agencies in Israeli are highly centralized. Both remain in the control of an old guard with a very specific agenda and are used to promote that agenda. And most importantly, the two are completely in cahoots -- none of that "watchdog of democracy" crap around here. Let me give a few examples.

From time to time, the old guard wishes to weaken mitnachalim and strengthen Palestinians. Here is how it is done. Law enforcement agencies create minor events that portray mitnachalim as dangerous and subversive. This is done, for example, by having provocateurs say or do weird stuff. For instance, they have GSS-agent Avishai Raviv take responsibility for murders of Arabs or perform some bizarre swearing-in rite in a cemetery. Or they get some kids to shout some inanity at a politician (most recently, Bibi Netanyahu and Limor Livnat). Or they take crank letters that have been systematically sent to politicians for many years and announce a major right-wing threat to the safety of our intrepid leaders. Or they issue reports detailing how mitnachalim pillage the treasury by receiving funding for fully-authorized "unauthorized" construction (beats me). The non-story is then fed to cronies in the press and gets pumped up into a major event. The morning headlines blare, the late morning talk shows follow up and the nightly news drives it home. In response, politicians pass laws targeting opponents of the agenda, the law enforcement agencies harrass "suspects", more provocateurs are planted, and the cycle begins anew.

At the same time, Palestinian terrorist activity is downplayed, if not concealed entirely. Tactical lulls in terrorist activity or the failure of terrorists to reach their targets are deliberately and falsely portrayed as strategic shifts. (I remember one classic incident at the height of Oslo, when a terrorist plowed a car into a crowded bus stop near French Hill killing several people. Aryeh Amit, a Jew-baiting polemicist then masquerading as a police commissioner, took to the airwaves to announce that it was a traffic accident at the very same time that his uninformed detectives on the scene were describing it as an obvious terror attack.)

I know, I know. If you're American, you're probably thinking that this sounds paranoid and that in fact all that is happening is that like-minded people with no agenda and no coordination are acting according to their own independently-arrived-at understanding of events. Just like everywhere. If that's what you think, you are wrong on two counts. That's not what is happening here and it's not what happens everywhere. That's how it works in the U.S. with its decentralized media and law enforcement. Here it is coordinated and utterly predictable. Any oleh from Russia can vouch for the familiarity of it all.

Here is a prediction (written with a trembling hand). If and when the withdrawal is about to happen and resistance to it needs to be quashed, the shooting of an Israeli soldier by a mitnachel will be arranged. I pray that I'm wrong and you get the chance to say I-told-you-so.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Even in my younger days, I wasn't one of those nimble-footed inner circle dancers. I was never the type to attempt a kazatzka or, God forbid, a bull dance. Strictly yeshiva shuffle. Even a hora would cause me a bit of anxiety about losing the rhythm and throwing the whole circle out of whack. Fortunately, now I'm old enough that nobody even expects me to do any better than dutiful outer circle trudging.

A recent wedding has dredged up memories of the days when, in the midst of the familiar circle dances, the band would suddenly shift into some slow Miserlou-type niggun, and the guys' circle would just sort of break up. I would watch the women do these highly stylized dances, thinking that there was something fake about the exaggerated exhibition of benignness in those oh-so-delicate steps and gestures. I owe those women an apology.

This week I attended a cousin's wedding. A truly wonderful event it was. The friends of the bride were dressed in the mitnachelet layered schmatteh look and the married ones had layered schmattehs on their heads too. It's some kind of simple back-to-nature natural-fabric granola thing wrapped up with spiritual-authenticity-seeking tznius-frumkeit something or other. Whatever. But here's the thing. Some of these schmatteh ladies shrieked and boogied with a level of vulgarity that made me hanker for the Miserlou.

Now, I'm not the world's vulgarity nanny and I ordinarily would take no notice of it if I didn't have the distinct impression that these people are actually being tzulost in the name of frumkeit. Somehow a frum rebellion against the artifices of middle-class posturing has transmogrified into a rebellion against civilization itself. The lack of gracefulness is bad enough, but I fear that something even greater is being lost.

My Eishes Chaver has directed some movies and has on occasion pointed out to me how people who are (or have been) frum actually move differently than most other people. They tend to move less spontaneously, as if they bear some burden, as if each step and each gesture needs to be sub-consciously weighed even if only for a few milliseconds.

If there is such a thing as yiras shamayim on this earth, it lies in those few milliseconds.