Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I always think of kneeling (the knees on the ground kind) as goyish -- something Dennis the Menace does next to his bed before going to sleep or Muslims do on rugs facing Mecca. Of course, it's perfectly Jewish, except for the fact that Jews almost never do it.

Keri'ah is kneeling (or at least bending the knees and bowing); kidah is bowing so that the forehead touches the ground; hishtachavayah is lying prostrate so that the forehead touches the ground and arms and legs are spread. As is clear from the gemara in Megillah 22b, the ordinary form of tachanun is with either kidah or hishtachavayah. The Rambam also rules (Hil. Nesias Kapayim 5:14) that this is how tachanun should be performed.

So why do we not do this? There is a Biblical prohibition against bowing (outside of the beis hamikdash) so that one's forehead is touching the ground, where that ground is hewn stone (even maskis). According to at least one view in the gemara in Megillah this prohibition is restricted to the case of hishtachavayah. One way to avoid this problem is to lean slightly to the side so that the forehead does not make contact with the ground.

One can speculate that as shul architecture evolved, kidah with a slight twist evolved into the pretty lame lean we do today. This is an area ripe for some kind of back-to-authenticity movement a la techeiles. And it doesn't even cost money.

One might wonder why we should fuss about the prohibition in places where there is no stone floor. And moreover, why we should be concerned about the prohibition if we don't do hishtachavayah (though, it is not clear that we shouldn't be doing hishtachavayah on Yom Kippur). The answer goes back to two chumrahs of the Rivash (Resp. 412). First, the Rivash holds that the prohibition holds even for kidah. Second, he holds that the prohibition holds even in a place where there was once a stone floor that has since been built over. This is why the Rema rules that (even on non-stone floors) one should put paper or some such in front of his head (not under his knees) when bowing on Yom Kippur (presumably, even the Rivash would agree that some material that is not attached to the ground would be sufficient interference).

Incidentally, the business about not even doing the lame lean in the absence of a sefer torah is a novel idea of the Roke'ach. The Divrei Yatziv, in a comprehensive responsum about customs of tachanun (OH 74), argues persuasively that the Roke'ach's rule should only apply for those actually doing hishtachavayah. In any case, he says, since tachanun is optional, it isn't worth getting into arguments about it.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Congratulations to Yisrael Aumann upon winning the Nobel (Memorial) Prize in economics. He is a heimishe yid originally from New York and a brother-in-law of Rav Shlesinger from Shaalvim. He is a talmid chakham who has written some very nice game-theory-related chiddushim on various sugyas.

(He disagrees with my theories on kavua, which just goes to show that even Nobel laureates make mistakes.)

Sunday, October 09, 2005

So, after waxing nostalgic, I swung into action and took the boys to see the Rebbe.

To set the scene, there are two batei midrash(im), one above the other, each the size of a football field. On the front right side of the upper one, there is an entrance to a small room from which there is an entrance to another small room, where there is a door to the room where the Rebbe sits.

In the inner small room people stand on line along the walls spilling out into the outer small room and often out into the beis midrash. Reb Chanina, who has been shammes to the last four Rebbes, sits next to the Rebbe's door and as far as I can tell doesn't do much else. Fleischer is the bouncer, directing traffic and keeping people out as necessary; his girth and authoritative manner would easily qualify him as a bouncer at any trendy club. People in the inner room spend their time on line writing kvitlech or saying tehillim or speaking in hushed tones about what time mincha'll be tomorrow.

Here is who was not there: a cigar-chomping gold-hunter with maps of the Australian outback seeking the Rebbe's advice; a cowboy-hatted magnate from Louisiana seeking a bracha to optimally scam insurance companies; an animal lover seeking a refuah for his parakeet. None of these people were there. And mostly there were no women in the inner small room, the outer small room, either beis midrash or within three blocks of the building. Not gonna happen.

What there was were thousands of big chassidim with big peyos in big bekeshes and big spodeks (but, who knows, maybe some of them write subversive blogs). I wore a suit, a hat and a gartel and my kids wore proste white shirts and kipot srugot; we might as well have shown up in paisley pajamas with Mickey Mouse ears. You want to see variety go to some small-time miracle-working Galitzianer or Hungarian. This is strictly Raccoon Lodge. Members only.

The only way to cut the line is to jump on an express train for shulem geben only -- which means you pass the Rebbe and mumble a git yur or some such without breaking stride. I hopped on to one such train but the door shut again before I made it in. Then the door stayed shut for a half hour. Stuff happens.

Eventually we did get in and here's what didn't happen. The Rebbe took both my hands, looked soulfully into my eyes, smiled broadly, pulled me close and whispered into my ear "Astros over the Sox in five. Bet the house." Then he quietly farhered my kids on the mesechtas they're learning, giving each a hug and some kind advice. He asked us to make very sure that we give his personal regards to my father and to wish him and my mother a git gezint yur. None of this happened. Nor, by the way, does it ever happen except in the fashionable new literary genre of fantastical shtetl stories (Rebecca Goldstein, Alan Hoffman, Mark Helprin, Nathan Englander et al).

What actually happened was that as I passed the Rebbe, I almost broke stride to breathlessly mention my kids names and I believe I saw the beginnings of a scowl. I kept moving. It was one of the most meaningful fractions of a second I've spent since nodding off on the couch after the chulent this afternoon. But it was worth it because at least my kids will know that the Rebbe they won't go to isn't some Hungarian or Galitzianer charlatan.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

I say this not to be clever but because it is profoundly true. Let me explain. During davening on Rosh Hashanah, I was overwhelmed with a very specific form of nostalgia.

When I was a kid in the West Side, there were three shtiebels that we would go to. One was right below our building in the home of a very respectable yekke rabbiner. We'd go there only on weekdays when they couldn't manage a minyan and would SOS my father to come down and bring me with him. I was often the tenth even though I was nine or ten years old. (I'd hold a sefer torah.) The only other memorable thing about this minyan was the Rov's son who was a bit of a character who'd spend all of davening pacing in the (empty) women's section. He later moved to San Francisco and word was he was acting strange. He sometimes sang.

On Shabbos, we'd walk to another shtiebel in a brownstone on 91st Street. While there was an interesting cast of characters there too, my most vivid memories are of walking with my father up Broadway. We'd guess the temperature which was posted on a big electronic sign on the corner of 86th right next to Golding's deli. Sometimes my father would let me flip over the Daily News on the stand in front of the candy store near 83rd Street to check what the Mets did. (Once it revealed that Dick Rusteck shut out Cincinnati 5-0 in his first major league start; my spine still tingles.)

Before I start sounding like Arnold Fine, let me get to the point (if I can still remember it). The shtiebel that evokes the strongest memories, and for which I inexplicably hankered on Rosh Hashanah, is the one that belonged to a Major Polish Chassidus (MPC) on 101st Street in the home of Leibel C. My grandfather davened there and we'd walk up for yontif and other occasions. I couldn't possibly understand the subtexts of all the goings on there at the time, but it's astonishing how much can be reconstructed in retrospect. Most of the people there had families before the war and began fresh after the war. They had been full-blown MPC chassidim -- beards and spodeks -- before the war, but now only Leibel C had a beard. The rest of the Leibels and Itche Maiers were left with only gartlech.

There was a dumbwaiter for lowering kiddush materials from the kitchen upstairs to the shul. If women ever bothered coming, they'd just hang in the kitchen. In general, the attitude of the women to the whole business was something like that of Alice and Trixie to Ralph and Norton's Raccoon Lodge. It had very little to do with them.

These were people with significantly fractured lives. They had to be loyal to the destroyed world but could certainly harbor no naive belief in the bashefer's benevolence. It was shver tzu zein a yid but unthinkable to be a goy. Elie Wiesel and AJ Heschel would sometimes come in to daven. Wiesel wasn't a big shot then and the kids used to give him a hard time. Wiesel's most affecting true camp story was about Shimon Z, who also davened there. (Shimon used to say, "I made Wiesel!")

It was the older kids, the ones born shortly after the war, that bore the brunt. They were the ones who were expected to replace those that were taken. So many of them just checked out and became total goyim. (My friend Avrum Mordche (what else) had an older brother who worked at a national magazine where a friend of mine got a job. I asked my friend if he knew Avrum Mordche's brother. He told me he knew him well but had no idea he was Jewish.) The younger kids, my friends, suffered less and they were the ones who eventually went back to spodeks and bekeshes.

I was a bit different because my father's family had left Poland for Belgium before the war and my parents were kids during the war. I was that rare lucky person with grandparents and with parents young enough to be a bit more Amerikanish than my friends' parents.

So why is nostalgia not what it used to be? Here I am, the first generation in my family in probably two millenia to be a free Jew in Eretz Yisrael, waxing nostalgic for a grimy little shtiebel tief in gulos, populated by the most tortured souls on earth. And what were these souls thinking about on Rosh Hashanah? You can bet they were waxing nostalgic for their lost families and lost communities in Zelev and Belchetev and Amshinov and hundreds of other extinct shtetlech outside Warsaw and Lodz.

Now that is nostalgia. May no more Jews know from it.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The yamim noraim are upon us, surely a time for honesty and candor. So let me start by stating truthfully that I find selichos mind-numbingly unbearable.

Selichos is as inspiring for me as a communal reading of Beowulf, which is approximately what it is. When I used to daven in yeshiva and most people were making imploring hand motions and screwing up their faces in a manner that suggested they knew something I didn't know, I was half bemused and half wondering if I had missed the class where the rebbi had explained what was actually up with those selichos. Now I daven in a nice balbatish minyan where selichos are read at a pace that would render the phone book incomprehensible, let alone medieval crossword puzzles. No time for imploring, there's barely time to inhale. I suppose I'm making progress.

Having studied the matter, I pretty much have come to grips with the basic selichos pattern which goes something like this: The Riboino Shel Oilam (RSO) is Great; we are bad; we are now going to spend the better part of an hour pushing the RSO around: forget our sins, remember the heilige avos, don't forget us when we're old, listen to our tefillos, don't nitpick or we're toast, do this, don't do that, vekhulei vekhulei.

Now, IF -- and I admit this is a big IF -- but IF I were the RSO, I'd find the flattery just a wee bit patronizing, and the "we are nothing" business more than a tad disingenuous (oikh mir a gornisht, I'd say) and all that weedling and nudging and demanding, well, I'd be tempted to treat such nudniks pretty much the way the RSO has treated us for the past few thousand years.

So, upon reflection, I guess it's a good thing for all of us that I'm not the RSO. But just in case I'm onto something, here is my solemn brachah for this year:

May this be a year in which we all have the luxury to set aside chayei sha'ah in favor of chayei olam. Shana tova.