Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Some conferences have taken me to the U.S., including a rare (for me) foray below the Mason-Dixon line. After shabbos, I needed to get from City A to City B, a drive of about two hours. The most sensible means of transport seemed to be Greyhound bus. Oh my, what an experience that terminal is. Anything I say will sound snobbish at best, racist at worst, so I'll stick to the modest observation that the few people unqualified to work in airport security get jobs for Greyhound. Ultimately, my valiant attempt to once again integrate buses in the South failed (overbooking) and I ended up negotiating a deal with a taxi driver, a dead ringer for James Earl Jones but with a Nigerian accent, to drive all the way to my destination.

We set out at about 12:30 AM and as soon as we did, he set the music volume on infinity. Let's just say the lyrics revolved around a fellow named Jeeeeeeeeeezuuuusss. If this had taken place in Guantanamo, the Times would be all over the story by now. About an hour in, the inevitable began:
JEJ: May I ahsk you a puhsonal question? Have you accepted the spirit of God into yaw haht?
Me: Um, yeah, I guess.
JEJ: Have you accepted Jeeeezuuusss as the Messiah?
Me: No.
JEJ: Do you find that he lacks the qualifications of a Messiah?

And so on and so forth. I tried the "he abrogated mitzvos" approach. I tried the "where's the wolf and sheep living together?" approach. He had answers for everything, most of which were somewhat forced, but (if I may speak candidly among friends) not much worse than your average Toisfos. I was out of my element here. An honest answer probably would have been something like: I set the bar pretty high for people achieving divinity, so as far as I'm concerned the burden of proof sits pretty squarely on your shoulders (BTW, a not dissimilar argument works for Lubavich too, lehavdil etc). I resisted this path since I suspect he would have gladly accepted this burden and I'd have heard all about it, which might have turned even more tedious than a gemara shiur in Chofetz Chaim.

The upshot is that I'm hopelessly unprepared for religious disputations. May they be few and far between.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

If you're American and around my age, you probably remember a TV show called Andy of Mayberry (or its gilgul, The Andy Griffith Show). Andy ran the little town of Mayberry with calm assurance, always had wise advice and a kind word for little Opie and Aunt Bea, and patiently suffered his bug-eyed deputy, Barney Fife.

The town of Mayberry was no more and no less real to me than The Land of Oz. Patriotism, marching bands, girlfriends, that sense of belonging that all the denizens of Mayberry exuded, well, it didn't have much to do with the life of a frum Jew in New York. I was alienated by their lack of alienation.

Why do I mention this? Because every Yom HaAtzmaut I awaken to the startling realization that I now live in Mayberry. Or, if I might phrase it a bit less delicately, in Israel we are the goyim. Yes, in My Little Town people actually gather in the main drag for a display of schoolkids doing funny waving stuff with flags, the mayor bashfully reads all the right cliches, youthful entrepeneurs sell cotton candy, and it's all topped off with, you guessed it, a dazzling display of fireworks. (In past years, myobiterdicta even patrolled in uniform, dutifully diverting traffic a la Barney Fife.) Given the fact that I pretty much learned everything I know about goyim from TV, to me it just doesn't get more goyish than that.

I am completely agnostic on the question of whether Medinat Yisrael is indeed reishis tzmichas geulosainu. I can be persuaded to read the gemara in Kesubos like Rav Kalisher or like the Satmarer Rov. Yishuv Eretz Yisrael might be a mitzvah de'oraisa or not. I'll either say hallel or I won't. Those arguments don't resonate with me at all. I don't think they really resonate that deeply with anybody (though, I'm sure if you're a counterexample, you'll let me know).

I think all the ideological arguments are post facto rationalizations for a decision that is made at the gut level about one fundamental question: are we prepared to be the goyim? I grew up in chutz la'aretz on a steady diet of alienation and so am very ambivalent about that. My Israeli children far less so.

Those who glibly answer that they wish to continue to play the role of the passive, persecuted and alienated Jew even in Israel would do well to remember that they are casting their fellow Jews in a role they may neither want nor (always) deserve. And those who glibly answer that life as a full-fledged comfortable-in-my-own-skin citizen of Mayberry suits them just fine would do well to consider that they might be sacrificing more qualities of character that follow from outsidership than they can anticipate or afford.

Finally, know that -- whatever you think about it -- life in Mayberry also means this: when you drive home on Yom HaZikaron with the radio on, every word will tear at your heart until tears fog your vision. This too is yours.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Today is Yom HaShoah. Actually, every day should be Yom HaShoah, including Shabbos and yomtov and chodesh Nissan. But today is the day that the electric sign on the highway that usually says "Congestion on the Ayalon" simply says "Nizkor. Lo Nishkach". So today will do.

The holocaust is a topic about which ordinary folks generally get it right and intellectuals always get it wrong.

Millions of our relatives were humiliated, tortured and murdered. We are sad. That's all that can and should be said.

This is really not the occasion for flogging our favorite ideology. It's ok not to try to make sense of the holocaust by squeezing it into that little slot in our theory of the universe. It won't fit.

It's enough to just be sad.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

I've just returned from spending Pesach in Canada. Although the trip was made necessary due to unfortunate circumstances, I do want to say a few words in praise of chutz la'aretz.

We davened there in a very special minyan that serves as a shining example of what I sorely miss here in My Little Town (and, for that matter, in My Little Country).

This minyan includes aging Holocaust survivors, students in dreadlocks, very accomplished professionals of various sorts, chassidishers and yeshivishers, BTs and FFBs. There is no sign of hierarchy and all seem to genuinely love and respect each other. The davening itself, while too long for my taste, includes moments of authentically spontaneous singing and dancing of a Carlebachian sort.

The Rav (may he have a refuah sheleimah) darshens brilliantly about broad issues of equal interest to the most and least knowledgable members of the kehillah. These are not the platitudes of am ha'aratzim, nor the vertlich or halachic tidbits of small-minded so-called rabbanim. These are sweeping drashos informed by complete mastery of all relevant halachah and aggadah and animated by a sense of humor and purpose.

We could use some of that good stuff around these parts.