We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.
George Bernard Shaw
We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.
George Bernard Shaw
As an openly Orthodox Jew teaching in a public high school, I have heard and seen many anti-semetic messages. Whether it is students expressing their belief that all Jews are money hungry and cheap or swastikas scribbled on desks and walls, there is a tremendous display of hate and ignorance. In my efforts to create an environment of learning and an exchange of ideas I have been pushed back by defiance, disrespect and rage. Besides the swastikas I believe there is more writing on the wall that people need to be reading and it is only readable if one is able to step back and read the signs.
One of the most famous and brilliant cosmologists has openly boycotted an international academic conference hosted by Shimon Peres, the president of Israel. Stephen Hawking made this decision, ““based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott.” In a statement, Hawking said “Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.” In response to his decision, news outlets and the blogosphere has commented both for and against the cosmologists actions. However, what caught my eye were the comments written by readers in response to these articles about the boycott and Hawkings decision. Time and time again are individuals that made comments such as:
“Some people compare this action to the boycotts that were used against the apartheid regime of South Africa. Actually Israel is much worse, South Africa never occupied someone else’s land for decades while oppressing the residents and continuously stealing their land.”
Another individual replied to this comment by saying:
“Are you actually THAT ignorant of history? South Africa never occupied anyone else’s land? Google “Bantustans” and see if that helps you expand your brain a bit. South Africa, of course, never allowed black people to vote, and that is much worse than Israel that grants all of its citizens the right to vote. Where there were zero black members of the South African Parliament, fully 20% of the Knesset are Arabs elected on Arab-based parties, roughly equal to their percentage of the population. Yes, Israel is much worse than South Africa, until you actually know the facts.”
Now here is the kicker, there were more “likes” for anti-Israel remark than the historically accurate reply.
The connection that I want to draw between Stephen Hawking and the behavior of the young people at the public school I teach in is that anti-Semitism is alive and well and on the rise, however, it is in the guise of politics, human rights and freedom.
If one were to study the political progress of the Nazi movement in Germany one will see the genius behind the “final solution.” Hitler was brilliant in how he weaved universally accepted concepts such as patriotism and freedom for the common man with scapegoating the small and defenseless Jewish population as the keystone in the bridge of their destruction and destitution. His message was repeated with the methodical patience and constant drilling of a man who knows that in order to convince the masses of murder you have to dress it in the clothes of righteousness.
Once again we can see where the slow and consistent erosion of logic and historical accuracy leads to the rationalization of crimes and travesty. The swastikas are appearing with more frequency and less understanding of its history. The gap between those who know and those who never learned is becoming wider. Internationally respected public figures are making anti-Israel choices and being supported by growing population that promotes hate.
Why should the Holocaust be any different than the antisemitism of the Middle Ages under the direction of Roman Catholic dogma?
Is our current society any more enlightened than the Islamic rule of the 11th and 12th century that resulted in the massacre of hundreds of thousand of Jews and the expulsion of millions?
Until 1870, Jews that lived in the Papal states were forced to live in ghettos and attend sermons aimed at conversion to Christianity, why can’t something similar occur again?
The writing is on the wall, it is in the graffitti of high school students who are raised on the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr., yet can easily spew hate and ignorance towards Israel and the Jewish people.
The writing is in the comment sections of blog sites and youtube videos, venues that promote freedom of speech. The exchange of ideas and self-expression are peeling back the sheeps wool and revealing the wolf that lies within
People say, “Never again”, to which I reply, “Never say never”.
When we think of commandments we think of things that we either should or should not do. “Thou shall not steal” requires us to not take things from others without permission. “Thou shall not murder” exhorts us to not take the life of another human being. The underlying theme with most commandments in the Torah is a prescription that dictates our physical actions with the hopes of changing our behaviors and perspectives.
However, there are few commandments that do not focus on physical actions and apply themselves solely on the emotional aspect of the human psyche. For example, God asks us to “not covet the possessions of our neighbor.” The obvious problem lies in the contrast between the majority of the Torah’s laws and laws such as “loving God” or “fearing God” or to “not covet” our neighbors possessions. In areas such as stealing and stealing, giving charity and observing the Sabbath, we see that we are asked to control our physical actions, not our emotions. On face value it seems that emotions are something that cannot be controlled. If I see a fancy sports car or an expensive watch, I cannot simply turn off my emotions and not desire those items.
An answer that is given by my rebbe, Rabbi Benzion Shafier, is that the Torah wants us to train our psychology so that such items or situations do not pose any threat to us. While we may born with certain inclinations and desires, through the proper nurturing and training an individual can re-train their psyche. Therefore, when the Torah appeals to those aspects that fall under the heading of emotions and feelings we must view those commandments as exhortations to take the proper steps towards mitigating those compulsory reactions and minimizing those sensations.
According to a 2007 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, girls are being objectified and are taught to be valued by their sex-appeal more than any other aspect.
“Whether it’s Tony the Tiger or the Pussycat Dolls, today’s children are bombarded with advertising and entertainment images that negatively affect their development-and in the name of social justice, psychologists need to help curtail those trends, said psychologists at APA’s Annual Convention,” said an APA representatives at their annual convention.
The following is an exerpt from the ACT website:
Media access and use is pervasive in our society. Even young children are heavily exposed to various media, including television, videos, movies, comic books, music lyrics, and computer games. Because of their color, excitement, and graphic images, media can have a strong influence on children. On the one hand, such media offer powerful tools for learning and entertainment; on the other hand, violence in the media can be damaging to young children.
Children’s exposure to media:
Source: Kaiser Family Foundation: The Media Family. May 2006
Extensive research has shown that higher levels of children’s exposure to media violence correlate with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior. Recent studies associate exposure to violence in the media with violent behaviors.
Parents can limit young children’s access to violent media, and teachers can encourage families to take such steps.
Is it such a stretch of logic to presume that if children are negatively effected by images of violence that they can also be negatively be effected by media that presents a higher degree of sexuality and promiscuity?
At the high school that I work at the 10th grade students, mostly boys, were shown a documentary about the importance of the organ known as skin. As an example to demonstrate the role of skin, the discovery channel decided to show girls in bikinis on a beach. They showed girls with beads of sweat wearing a bikini, girls in a bikini swimming in a pool etc. The aspect of this that bothered me was how anyone would think that using a girl in a bikini as an example for teaching about the epidermis was a good idea, especially for male high school students, for which the educational video was made for in the first place.
We wonder why so many teens are having sexual encounters, we blame diet and hormones, but neglect to see the negative effects that today’s music, movies and television have on the minds of young and impressionable people. In the nineteen sixties, parents were outraged by lyrics such as “I want to hold your hand” by the Beatles. Today, high school dances have the words “Let me see your booty work” blasted into the ears of hormone raging boys and girls.
The Torah’s eternal message is clear: You can change the visceral reactions of your psyche, but it isn’t going to be easy.
As the continuing trend for the content of popular music and other media becomes increasingly more and more sexualized there will be an effect on the young people who are exposed to it. This is one of the main reasons why many Orthodox Jewish homes do not own a television or cable. There is a clear understanding from the Torah’s directives that in order to grow and not be affected by the negative effects of mass produced media there needs to be the creation of an environment that is removed from those damaging messages.
I have been asked by my friends and assorted family members to share my personal experiences as a high school teacher in a school that can be classified as “in the hood”. I guess it is an inner city school being that most of the students come from project housing and fall into the category of being a part of a rough and sometimes dangerous neighborhood. I’m not sure what the novelty is exactly but one man’s reality is another man’s entertainment. I grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood myself and if it wasn’t for the rabbi’s and my older brother I probably would have lived through what my students face on a daily basis. Drugs, sex, STDs, gang violence and domestic abuse all seem to be the modus operandi for the day-to-day living of my young teenaged pupils. The fact that I am an orthodox Jew also adds an element of lunacy to the overall picture, seeing as how there is so little that they know about me and my religion. I wear my yarmulke and my tzitzit out as I normally would and for the most part I only receive polite questions for clarity. I do not view myself as any sort of writer, but I do hope to use this format as a sounding board for my thoughts as I make my way through teaching in an inner city public high school. Perhaps the perspective of a rabbinically trained educator can offer new insights into this area of education, or more likely, I will embarrass myself with my ramblings. Either way, your feed back is appreciated.
A tale of Two Matisyahus
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was two eras separated by the span of thousands of years, and yet the two stories were eerily similar.
The first Matisyahu was a deeply religious man, a product of a long line of deeply religious people. During his lifetime he saw the erosion of his culture, the defilement of his Torah and countless brethren succumbing to the fleeting nature of pop culture. In a moment that would be crystalized in history as the tipping point in a series of events, this first Matisyahu took a stand against the invasion to his traditions and started a revolution that would ultimately rekindle the light of Judaism and give a breath of hope to the generations to come.
The second Matisyahu in this story was also a deeply religious man, a product of an irreligious background this young man saw the beauty of this Jewish heritage and rekindled a light in his heart to follow the path once more. During his lifetime he also saw the erosion of his culture, the defilement of this Torah and countless brethren succumbing to the fleeting nature of pop culture. In a moment that would be crystalized in magazines and Internet blogs he made the choice to leave behind his religion, his observance and his heritage. His decision fueled the fire of those who left the path before him and strengthened those who believe not in tradition but in what they believe to be progress.
The story of Chanukah repeats itself in every generation. Granted not every battle against assimilation is as wondrous as the miracles that occurred during the Second Holy Temple, but a battle ensues nevertheless. Regardless of your upbringing there is a spark of holiness that exists in every Jewish persons soul and the ultimate question is whether or not that individual decides to follow the heritage of his ancestors or not. There is a question of tradition versus modernity, heritage versus trends.
In an NPR radio article I heard a few weeks ago the reporter Jacki Lyden discussed Lakota with Sunshine Archambault-Carlow of the Standing Rock Sioux, a reservation in North and South Dakota. Lakota is the native dialect for this Native American tribe and the radio piece described how it’s elders were creating new initiatives to teach their language and traditions to the next generation. Due to the rate of assimilation the tribes believed the language would all but be forgotten in a generation or so. What struck me was that all throughout the radio article not once was there a voice of dissention. There were no reform or conservative Sioux tribal members that bemoaned the pointlessness of the Lakota language. As a matter of fact it was quite clear from the person being interviewed that there is a real passion to reignite the usage of the dialect. I didn’t see any Sioux Indians going on the View to bash their more observant brothers and sisters under the guise of promoting a memoir. Nor did I read online blogs of Sioux Indians whose only purpose was to point out every flaw and bit of hypocrisy of their more observant brethren.
In a related experience I recall a doctor I once saw when I was in Rochester, NY. I had a copy of the Talmud on my lap and he asked me about it. When I explained that it was a collection of legal debates written in Aramaic he mentioned how he came from a very traditional Egyptian family and that Aramaic was a language he was very familiar with. When I clarified that this was not Arabic but Aramaic he confirmed what he has originally said. He and his family moved to the United States a few years ago and he was upset that his teenage children seemed to do everything in their power to be more “American”. As a result, he told me, they no longer participated in any of the cultural practices as they once did when they lived in Egypt. Before I left his office he told me to “stay strong in my ways”. I was 16 years old when I heard those words and they have stayed with me ever since.
We live in a society that is at war with religion. It seems that if an individual with side locks and a black hat commits a crime it raises the level of news worthiness and is the fodder for self-hating Jews to write articles condemning the more observant communities and the folly of their religious ways.
In an article written in the Huffington Post this past August a “rabbi” named Jason Miller writes about today’s Matisyahu, “He’s proving that being religious isn’t about a long beard, dangling tzitzit, and a black hat and suit. It’s what’s inside that matters most.” While I agree that there needs to be a strong inner foundation for the outer trappings to have any real significance I believe that the author overlooked a major aspect as to who this particular Matisyahu was. He was a symbol to the masses of what a Jew could be, a pious, charitable and fiercely dedicated Hassidic Jew who is both traditional and relatable to wider audiences. Many soul-searching Jews were inspired to further discover their roots with the message that if a Jew can be observant and rock out a reggae concert than why can’t I wear phylacteries and be an accountant. In her most recent youtube.com video the online blogger Alison Josephs dedicated an entire episode of her Jew-in-the-City program to observant Jews who were still able to maintain a high level of Orthodoxy, despite the challenges of modern culture. Throughout our history there have been many observant Jews who garnered the respect of Kings and Sultans regardless of their long coats and dangling tzitzit. Just look at Maimonides as an example. By shaving his traditional haircut and beard, by throwing away the tzitzit and yarmulke Matisyahu was showing that being religious is unnecessary, and that is exactly what the Matisyahu of Chanukah was fighting against.
The reason why we celebrate Chanukah with lighting candles is to recall the attempted destruction of the Jewish soul. The Greeks forbade practices that were solely between mankind and God, such as circumcision, Torah study and the Sabbath. They did not forbid giving charity or respecting your parents because such acts are based in the here and now and can be found logical according to physical terms. The Greeks understood what Matisyahu and “rabbi” Miller did not, that being religious can be identified by your choice of garb, food and Torah learning. The Sioux Indians could teach our assimilated brethren an important lesson, that in order to assure a future for your children you must teach them the ways of the past.
Tracy McMillan, TV writer and author of the most popular article ever written on The Huffington Post responded this way to the backlash her piece elicited: “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.”
In the past two weeks my own article (which is eerily similar to McMillan’s, actually) about why men are retreating from marriage, hit a nerve. In “The War on Men,” I said women are angry.And they are.
After the piece appeared, I was inundated with emails from women telling me I should be ashamed of myself for suggesting women have a role to play in the decline of marriage and battle of the sexes. One reader even told me to kill myself. No, really. Kill myself.
My crime, apparently, is twofold. First, I said men said women are no longer women. And in response, I suggested women get in touch with their feminine side. I didn’t, however, say what I meant by that statement. That’s because the article was supposed to be a teaser for my upcoming book, “How to Choose a Husband and Make Peace with Marriage.”
Men also take pride in caring for their families. They can’t carry babies or nurse them, but they can provide for them. So let them.
But since the backlash has been so severe – with feminists convinced I want to set women back 200 years – I feel compelled to offer a sampling of what I mean by “surrendering” to one’s femininity. As one woman named Lia asked, “What does it mean to surrender to our femininity in today’s world? How do we reclaim our rightful gender roles without giving up our careers and independence?”
It’s easier than you think.
You begin by accepting that men and women are different. Equal, but different. This means you’ll have to reject feminist dogma since feminism has taught you that equality means sameness. Fortunately, there’s been an explosion of brain research in the past several years to help explain male and female anatomy. The best books are Dr. Louann Brizendine’s “The Male Brain” and “The Female Brain.”
Here’s what we know – not just from the research but from experience and common sense. Females, in general, are nurturing and relational beings. They like to gather and nest and take care of people. They like to commiserate with other females – a lot. That’s why girls can talk for hours on end. It’s why more women stay home with their children than men. It’s why the teaching and caregiving professions are still heavily female. Not every single woman in the world falls into this category, but that doesn’t make the generalization any less true.
Males, on the other hand, are hunters: they like to build things and kill things. If you don’t have a son, this may sound strange. But again, that doesn’t make it untrue. Men also take pride in caring for their families. They can’t carry babies or nurse them, but they can provide for them. So let them.
That, of course, is the gray area. Gone are the days of the breadwinning husband and the homemaking wife, right? So if I’m not referring to Ward and June Cleaver, what on earth do I mean? As Lia asked, what does it mean for “today’s world”?
It means women shouldn’t let their success in the workplace become the biggest thing in their lives.
If the ultimate goal is lasting love – and let’s face it: for most people it is – women are going to have to become comfortable with sacrifice and capitulation. Because those are the underpinnings of a long-term marriage. If you don’t believe me, ask your grandmother. Or anyone else who’s been married for decades.
Love today is a power struggle. Women have been conditioned to keep their guard up, as if men and marriage will swallow them whole. As Sandra Bullock once said to Barbara Walters, “I’d always had this feeling that if you got married, it was like the end of who you were.” That attitude is commonplace, and it’s the direct result of a generation of feminists who told their daughters to never depend on a man.
We live in a new world. But that doesn’t mean it’s a better world. Women are struggling more than ever with how to rectify their desire for independence with their desire for love. These two things can be reconciled. But you must first be open to ideas that sound blasphemous.
Just because you make your own money doesn’t mean your guy can’t pay the bill. Just because you value independence doesn’t mean you can’t take your husband’s last name. Just because you can do the same a job a man can do doesn’t mean you need to let him know it.
Surrendering to your femininity means many things. It means letting your man be the man despite the fact that you’ve proven you’re his equal. It means recognizing the fact that you may very well want to stay home with your babies – and that that’s normal. Surrendering to your femininity means if you do work outside the home, you don’t use your work to play tit for tat in your marriage. It means tapping into that part of yourself that’s genuinely vulnerable and really does need a man – even though the culture says you don’t.
In other words, put down your sword. It’s okay if your guy’s in charge. It’s okay if you don’t drive the car.
In fact, it’s rather liberating.
Suzanne Venker has written extensively about politics, parenting, and the influence of feminism on American society. Her latest book, “How to Choose a Husband (And Make Peace with Marriage)” will be published in February 2013. Visit howtochooseahusband.com for more information
Thanksgiving and the Jews
In recent history many Jews have asked, “Do we celebrate Thanksgiving”?
The issue lies in the aforementioned accepted decree that Torah observant Jews do not act like their non-Jewish neighbors for fear of assimilation, which is the ultimate killer of Jewish generations. The past several years I have debated celebrating Thanksgiving. As an Orthodox Jew practicing both the Written and Oral law I was always wary of actions and celebrations that would seem too “Goyish”. Now, I know that such a term may be offensive to a lot of people, but the fact of the matter is that it really shouldn’t be. One of the greatest strategies that the Torah observant Jews have used to maintain an authentic representation of the Jewish religion is to remove and distance themselves from the actions, trends and “behaviors” of the non-Jewish nations. The term “goy” literally means nation. This is not to say that our practices are better or superior but different and such a distinction is imperative to maintain. As a nation that views itself as special there has been a general acceptance amongst the nations to dress, speak and act differently than the countries they have been exiled to. Ignore the fact that many Jews buy German cars and have participated in “reality” TV shows. Also, try to forget that an Orthodox Jew is a very popular Reggae artist.
Let me illustrate my point further. The religious high-school that I went to made it a point to serve hot dogs on Thanksgiving as a statement that we have our own times and practices for thanking God for our blessings. We eat unleavened bread and loaves made of different types of ground up fish, take that cranberry sauce!
This type of behavior is not exclusive to Jews but for some reason we are vilified for it. It is as if our non-Jewish neighbors are offended that we do not celebrate the same way that they do.
“How dare they…” they must mutter under their breaths.
The basic argument boils down to whether or not the holiday of Thanksgiving is viewed as a religious celebration like Christmas or a secular celebration like Independence day. If it is a religious holiday than the Jewish people have to avoid it like the plague due to the fear of incorporating non-Jewish religious practices into theirs. If it is secular than everything is cool as a cucumber.
A lot of Reform and Conservative Jews feel that since the message of Thanksgiving is a wholesome one and as such there is no reason not to partake in the accepted practices. Also, many people feel that Thanksgiving has become too secular, and it’s history in reference to the American government establishing it as a national holiday makes it acceptable to practice.
Well, here is an experience that occurred to yours truly. I was at the liquor store, buying wine for Shabbos. The clerk asked me “Do Jews celebrate Thanksgiving”?
Now, my response is unimportant, it really is. The fact that this person was asking such a question is, in my opinion, the most important thing to ponder upon. We, as Jews, have debated whether or not to act differently on the last Thursday of November. We have come up with excuses as to why having a day dedicated to thanking our deity with Turkey and stuffing is acceptable despite the fact that there is no commandment in our Torah to do so. Yet this non-Jewish person had the perception that the Jewish people do things differently. It was that perception that was so powerful to me. We should not be ashamed of the fact that we do things differently. Our modes of dress, the kippah, the hair coverings, the side-locks are all badges of honor. Do we question the feathered headdress of the American Indian or the Bindi that Indian women wear? Do we criticize the Sikhs for wearing turbans or the Catholics for wearing crosses?
In my incredibly humble opinion, no one should feel obligated to celebrate a holiday that is not a part of their heritage and for those that do they should acknowledge that they are not keeping in line with their ancestors. Are they breaking any laws, that is not my place to say, but it should at least be acknowledged that celebrating “Gobble Gobble Day” is not in line with our commandments as Torah Jews.
The following piece was written by a photographer named Brandon. He has created a project called Humans Of New York where he takes photographs of people on the street and then gets a little story behind that person. My wife showed me the article below and I was entranced by it.
Take a read and share your thoughts. To learn more about HONY go to:
A few weeks back, I received a Facebook message from a stranger named Alex: Love the site / my roomate went to UGA too / I’m also a photographer / would love to buy you a cup of coffee / I’ll be at Union Square later. Normally I would pass on such a proposal, but I was heading to Union Square anyway, so I thought what the hell, why not? I sent Alex a message, informing him that I would be at the Union Square Barnes and Noble at 6 PM. At 6:30, I was looking through a collection of old Harlem photographs when someone tapped me on the shoulder. “Are you Brandon by chance?”
“I am. You must be Alex.”
“Yep.” Alex reached out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you.” He was a bit on the short side and dark featured, either Jewish or Italian. I handed him the book of photographs. “Check out these old Harlem photos,” I said: “They’re pretty cool. I sometimes come here to look at all the photography books that I can’t afford to buy.”
“Awesome,” said Alex. “Listen, if you’re busy, we can meet another time. I don’t want to bother you.”
“No, no, no,” I assured him, “I was just killing time. Let’s grab some coffee.”
We went downstairs to the in-store Starbucks. We decided not to buy any coffee, but we took a seat as if we had. And for the next thirty minutes we talked about photography and blogging. Alex was starting a photography blog of his own, so I explained all my master photography tips: get a good camera, take a lot of photos, lay on the ground. We then talked a bit about the articles I wrote for the site. And it seems convenient, given what happened next, but I actually remember saying: “The cool thing about these stories is that they happen organically. They all result from a completely random meeting.” Soon the conversation began to die down. The pauses grew longer and longer, and we both began to grasp for a graceful conclusion: “Well, this was fun.” I said. “I’m glad we got a chance to talk. We should meet up again.”
“We’ll have to do it soon,” said Alex. “I’m leaving for Israel in a few weeks.”
“Oh yeah? How long are you staying?”
“Maybe forever.” The answer made me flinch:
“Forever? What are you doing there?”
“At first I’ll be working for an immigration center. I’ll be helping Ethiopian Jews assimilate into Israeli society.”
“So wait– is this the Jewish equivalent of the Peace Corps or something?”
“Nope, it’s just something I want to do. I’ve gone to Israel each of the last four summers. I love it there. I want to help build the country.”
“So wait. Are you a zionist?”
“Do you mind if we continue this talk outside?”
Zionism. It’s the “jean shorts” of philosophies. It just isn’t cool anymore. Even Obama hopped off that bandwagon. It was cool after World War II, when Jews were the underdogs. Everyone was a Zionist then. But now Israel has nukes, bulldozers, and Mossad death squads. The Palestinians are the new underdogs, and Americans seem to cheer them accordingly. The Jews are the Yankees, blasting grand slams and winning world championships, while the Palestinians throw rocks from the nosebleed section. I’m not saying that Zionism is wrong. I’m just saying it’s not cool. If you want to sit alone in the graduate student lunch room, write your thesis on the biblical underpinnings of Israeli land grabs.
Allex Willick isn’t your run-of-the-mill Zionist. He describes himself as “not very religous.” He is a T-shirt and jeans kind of guy. Clean shaven. Fan of the New York Giants, Knicks, and Yankees. He enjoys dance bands such as Cut Copy and LCD Soundsystem. He drinks. He smokes weed, occasionally. He’s a fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, the favored philosopher of Adolf Hitler. Zionism does run in the family however. During the 1940′s, Alex’s grandfather worked as an agent of the [future] Israeli government, smuggling Jewish political prisoners out of Egypt . His grandmother was a German Jew who barely escaped the Holocaust, fleeing to Shanghai and hiding there for ten years. “Of course there was no Israel back then,” explains Alex, “there was nowhere to go.” In two weeks, Alex will be moving to the northern Israeli city of Kamiel. Here he will be working to teach Hebrew and English to newly arrived Ethiopian Jews. “They are known as the Lost Tribe of Israel,” he tells me. ”You should look them up.”
According to Wikipedia, there are actually ten Lost Tribes of Israel. According to legend, these tribes were seperated from the Kingdom of Israel during the Assyrian invasion of 720 BC. Discovered by Protestant missionaries in 1859, the Beta Israel Jews inhabited more than 500 small villages in Northern Ethiopia. They lived in relative isolation, and shared many Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur and Passover. Because of this, the “Jewishness” of the tribe was sanctioned by many European rabbis. After the creation of Israel in 1948, Ethiopian Jews were permitted Israeli citzienship under Israel’s Law of Return, an act granting Jews all over the world permission to settle in Israel. Today nearly 120,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel. Interestingly, modern DNA tests suggest a very low probability that the Beta Israel tribe contains Jewish blood.
After our first talk, Alex and I agreed to meet again in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I thought Crown Heights would lend an interesting backdrop to our conversation because of its large Jewish population. It wasn’t my first visit to a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Last summer, I spent an afternoon photographing the Jewish section of South Williamsburg. It was a very uncomfotable experience– in many ways more intimidating than upper Harlem. The Williamsburg Jews are not very welcoming of outsiders. In fact, they made news last year when they successfully petitioned the City to remove the bike lanes from their neighborhood. They have their own language. Their own school buses. Their own police force. And they don’t like Gentiles with cameras. Many of the men glared at me with sharp eyes. The women avoided eye contact all together. And the children ran from me. Literally ran. The moment after this picture was taken, these girls were running and screaming in the other direction.
I expected Crown Heights to be a similar experience, but Alex assured me otherwise: “The Crown Heights Jews are different Jews,” he said. ”They look similar but they are much different.” This was news to me. For an outsider such as myself, there seemed to be two types of Jews walking around New York: Jewish and Really Jewish. Now I was learning that there were three types: Jewish, Really Jewish, and Really Jewish, But Different. The Williamsburg Jews were a different type of Really Jewish than the Crown Heights Jews. “The Crown Heights Jews are Chabad Jews,” explained Alex. “They speak English. They’re a much more open community. You’ll see.”
We met at my apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and walked into Crown Heights. Alex navigated, letting his Iphone GPS lead us to the Holy Land: “I’m going to take you to the synagogue at 770 Kingston Avenue,” he said. “It’s one of the holiest places for Chabad Jews.” As we got close to our destination, the people on the street grew steadily more Hasidic. I decided to try for a portrait, and approached a man standing on the steps of his house.
“Do you mind if I take your photograph?”
“What is this for?”
“I go around to all the neighborhoods of New York, and I take pictures of people who live and work in different areas.” The man went silent, but I’ve learned to be comfortable with silence. It normally means a “yes” is coming. Alex was less comfortable with silence.
“I’m Jewish,” Alex said. “I’m showing him around the neighborhood. We’re on our way to 770.”
“You’re Jewish?” the man asked.
“Have you put on tefilin?” The man was speaking Jewish code now, and Alex seemed nervous. His eyes darted around the street. He was about to tell a lie.
“I did this morning. I ran into my Rabbi and he put it on for me.”
“I see.” The man seemed satisfied with the alibi. Then he turned to me: “Well you can take my photograph. Just hurry because I am in a rush.”
After the man left, I turned to Alex: “What was he asking you?”
“He asked if I put on tefilin. You put on tefilin to pray. You’re supposed to do it everyday. He was going to help me put it on, but that’s not something I do.”
“Dude, I wished you had let him. That would be awesome to photograph.”
“Yeah, it’s just not me. That’s not who I am.”
“I understand,” I said, “And I’d explain that in the story. But it would still be an awesome demonstration of Jewish culture.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll get asked again.” But he didn’t seem too excited about the possibility. Apparently “putting on tefflin” required being a lot more Jewish than Alex was willing to be. “It’s a custom to help someone put on tefilin. It’s known as a mitzvah. Mitzvah means ‘good deed.’ You are supposed to do a certain amount of mitzvahs every day, and helping someone put on tefilin is a very common mitzvah. Trust me, I’ll get asked again.” While Alex was talking, I began taking his photograph.
“You should photograph me with this,” he said laughing. He pulled a Star of David pendant from beneath his shirt.
As soon as I finished taking the photograph, Alex put the Star of David back beneath his shirt.
We stood outside the temple for awhile, watching the crowd. As promised, the vibes here were much different than in Williamsburg. There were warm faces and back slapping. Less solemnity. Gentiles were passing by on the street, and nobody seemed to notice. At one point, an African American marching band came marching down the road. Drums blaring. Horns blazing. Girls dancing way-too-provocatively for their age. And the Jews were loving it. They were laughing, gathering on their front steps to watch, filiming with their Iphones. If that band had marched through South Williamsburg, there would have been a government petition. No more marching bands. In Crown Heights, the band was a welcome and appreciated diversion. Alex was right, the Crown Heights Jewish community was a very different type of Really Jewish.
We soon left the synagogue and began to explore the rest of the neighborhood. We hadn’t been walking long when we came across a giant RV parked on the side of the road. The outside was covered over with depictions of Jewish imagery. “Oh my God,” said Alex, “It’s the Mitzvah Tank.”
“The Mitvah Tank?”
“Yeah, it drives around all day doing Mitvahs. Helping people put on tefilin, things like that. During Hannukah it hands out Mennorahs. It belongs to a man named Rabbi Levi. He’s a good friend of mine. I’d love to see him before I go to Israel.” We were still examining the Mitzvah Tank when a man came walking toward us on the sidewalk. Alex called to him: “Excuse me!” he said. “Do you know Rabbi Levi by chance?”
“Actually,” said the man, “He is my uncle. On my wife’s side.” The man shook our hands. He introduced himself as Leibel.
“Rabbi Levi a good friend of mine,” said Alex, “do you know where he is right now?”
“Let me send him a text.” As Leibel began typing away at his phone, he looked up at Alex: “Have you put on tefilin today?” No, he hasn’t, I thought, gripping my camera, This is a man in dire need of some tefilin.
“I haven’t,” said Alex, uncomfortably. He motioned toward me. “And I think he wanted to photograph me doing it.”
“We can do it in the synagogue,” said the man. Tefilin! Inside the synagogue! Mazel Tov!
“I’m so glad we ran into you.” I said. “I really wanted to photograph Alex putting on tefilin.”
“Everything happens for a reason” said Leibel.
“You don’t understand,” said Alex, to me. “This was going to happen again. It’s not a big deal.”
“Everything happens for a reason,” I said, looking at Leibel. “Most definitely.”
With Leibel leading the way, we made our way back to the synagogue. “You sure I can go in like this?” I asked. I was wearing shorts and a tight T-shirt — very form fitting and Gentile-looking. ”You’ll be fine,” said Leibel. “We’ll get you a yarmulke.” We descended the steps and entered the building. The first room we entered doubled as a lobby and a coat room. Long black coats were hanging from hooks on the wall. Leibel went into a back room and came back with my yarmulke: “Just keep this on,” he said. I quickly put it on. This small circle of cloth was my only chance of blending in. Nobody here was wearing a muscle shirt, or looked like they had been wearing one recently. So I wore my yarmulke like a coat of armor. Like a giant sign that said I’m With Moses.
“Can I take photographs?” I asked.
“I’m sure it will be fine,” said Leibel. “Just don’t stick it in anyone’s face while they are praying.”
We walked into the synagogue’s main room. It was well lit and filled with books. There were maybe fifty Jewish men– long bearded, wizened, and wizardly looking. Most were sitting at desks, reading. The others were standing in place, either talking to each other or praying. There were no women. It felt very surreal. These were a magical, timeless people. They live in a bastion of continuity, surrounded by a change-obsessed Gentile world. Look at an old photograph of a Gentile, and the first thing you notice are the differences. Haircuts change. Styles change. Everything changes in the Gentile world. But look at an old photographs of a Jew– a Really Jewish Jew, and you notice the sameness. The continuity. These people don’t reinvent themselves every decade. They may change phones. Or minivans. But mainly they cling to what is old and unchanging. The oldness is what holds them together.
That’s why the Williamsburg Jews seemed so cold to me. Because they hate newness. They glare at it, and run from it, and intimidate it. They cut off its bike paths. They hate newness because oldness is fragile, and when it’s broken by newness, it can’t be put back together. And the oldness is what holds the Jews together. It’s held them together through the Exodus, the wars, the Holocaust. The Jews are spread all over the world. They live in different countries, and speak different languages, and wear different clothes. There’s much that separates them. But they know that what separates them is very new. And what brings them together is very old.
Liebel began to help Alex put on tefilin. It was not at all what I was imagining. Not at all. Leibel was fastening some sort of contraption to Alex’s head. It looked like something from Starship Troopers. Alex still seemed uncomfortable. He was moving fast, as if trying to set a new speed record for putting on tefilin. Leibel was wrapping a long cord around Alex’s arm, then his shoulder, then his head. The whole process was foreign and fascinating. Always the scholar, I went ahead and asked the obvious question: “What is the box on your forehead?”
“It’s full of prayers,” he said.
After our visit to the synagogue, Alex and I said goodbye to Leibel and went across the street to a Jewish deli. I ordered an egg salad sandwich. Alex ordered a whitefish sandwhich.
“I’m going to be honest,” I said. I’m still confused by you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I just don’t get why you are moving to Israel. You just don’t seem connected to these people. You hid your Star of David. I had to force you to put on tefilin. You seemed very uncomfortable in the synagogue.”
“Well you have to understand. I’m not really religous. I just don’t want to represent myself as something I’m not.”
“So why are you moving to Israel? That is such a drastic move. That seems like a religous-type move to me.” Alex hesistated.
“Do you mind if I take a minute to form my thoughts?”
“Go ahead.” He only needed about ten seconds.
“It’s like this– there’s only two safe places for Jews to live. Israel and America. And you can even take Israel off the list, because it’s not safe. Israel is a target. It’s surrounded by nations that want to destroy it. Sixty years ago, Jews needed a place to go. And there was no place to go. They couldn’t even go to America. America let some in, but they had quotas. And what if something happens like that again? What if it happens in America? All those people you just saw would have no place to go. And that’s what Israel is. That’s why it’s important. It’s a place to go.”
Have you ever been asked a question that just SCREAMS a sub context or ulterior purpose? Those sneaky introductory questions that challenge you, peg you and place you in a corner?
Well, having been a Youtube.com vlogger for over 2 years now has introduced me to such tactics. Take the following question that I got in my inbox just today from a user whose youtube.com avatar is a Volkswagen symbol.
“What do you think of the Jewish genetic diseases?”
This is what I replied, tell me what you think:
What do I think about the Jewish genetic diseases?
I think they are horrible and I pray for all of those unfortunate individuals that suffer from them.
I also feel bad for Asians who suffer from a genetic disorder known as Thalassemia.
Thalassemias are blood disorders that can cause death or a lifetime of chronic illness.
And I feel bad for the genetic disorder prominently found in Europeans of the liver. Researchers discover the origin of hereditary hemochromatosis, a common iron overload disorder, is a genetic defect in the liver.
And I am sure that you agree with me that it is horrible that Africans have the genetic propensity for sickle cell anemia. Some genetic diseases, especially sickle cell anemia, occur at a higher frequency in African Americans when compared to other populations.
So, I am not sure why you are asking me specifically about Jewish genetic diseases.Every nation and race has their own lot of genetic disorders and diseases. There are almost 1 billion Caucasians, a broad category of individuals with European or Western Asian ancestry. Some genetic diseases, like cystic fibrosis and spinal muscular atrophy, are common among all Caucasians. Other diseases strike specific subgroups. For example, Italians are at higher risk for beta thalassemia, while the Irish are disproportionately affected by PKU.
Is there any reason why you are concerned specifically with those people who come from Europe and are also practitioners of Judaism?
A clarification of the purpose behind such a query would be appreciated.
Did I jump the gun on this one? Let me know!
And I will see you next time…b”ezras Hashem.
“Our incapacity to comprehend other cultures stems from our insistence on measuring things in our own terms. “
It is unfortunate that I am such a sensitive soul when it comes to my personal religious and cultural beliefs. When it comes to the whole “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” adage I have a hard time applying it when it comes to others misrepresenting my cultural beliefs. As a practicing Orthodox Jew I always keep an ear to the train tracks to hear the rumblings of intolerance and hate. When I read about how the Shiite Muslims celebrate a day called Ashura where they display their mourning for the death of one of their patriarchs by beating their chests with broken pieces of razor blades causing themselves to bleed I was shocked. However, I did not call the act barbaric and understood that for these few Shiite Muslims their observance of the tenth day of Ashura was significant and important for them. Being within my own cultural circle has led me to have a greater appreciation for the cultural beliefs and practices of others, regardless of the fact that such beliefs are very different from my own.
Sharon Otterman of the New York Times is apparently not of the same frame of mind. In her article published on August 1, 2012 she gives what is supposed to be an objective news report in a very biased and subjective manner. When I began reading her piece I was under the impression that she was going to comment on the significance and beauty of this unprecedented cultural event. Instead her words and observations became a surreptitious diatribe against Orthodox Judaism in their cultural beliefs about the societal differences between the sexes. Almost every paragraph mentioned aspects of Jewish Orthodox culture as having its female members segregated, uneducated and repressed.
Here is the first paragraph of her article:
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Nearly 90,000 Orthodox Jews bowed their heads in communal prayer at MetLife Stadium on Wednesday night to open what rabbis hailed as the largest celebration of Jewish learning since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Yet for the estimated 20,000 women praying in the stadium’s top tier, the moment felt private, as well as public.
Does she know the opinion of all 20’000 women?
Let’s pretend that Ms. Otterman was asked to write an article for Oreo cookies and the celebration of the cookie’s anniversary.
After so many years of producing one of the most famous and most recognized cookies in bakery history, Oreo celebrates a significant anniversary. The cookie also contains a very high amount of saturated fat and sugar that has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
If you are celebrating a significant milestone in your life DON’T ask Ms. Otterman to write an article for you. It is obvious that her reporting style is a little off. Allow me to elaborate.
At the Siyum HaShas several of our most revered and beloved Jewish leaders declared the greatness and importance of our wives in the integral role they played in that event. The message was that for every husband that gets up at 5 in the morning to learn there is a wife that supports him and makes the learning happen. In one of the video presentations the wives and women of Klal Yisroel were praised for their sacrifice and that the eternal reward of learning Torah is as much theirs as it is their husbands who actually did the learning. Did Ms. Otterman mention this in her New York Times article?
In our people’s history there is a story of one our most famous Tanaaic Sage, Rabbi Akiva. After twenty-four years of learning he became one of the nations greatest Torah leaders. At a gathering of tens of thousands of Jews who came to greet him he declared that the Torah that he possessed and the Torah that he had disseminated to his 24’000 students was also in possession of his wife who pushed him to learn and to become the great man that he became. As the old saying goes, “behind every great man is a great woman”.
Within Orthodox Judaism woman are held high on a pedestal, they are holy, special and something we treasure greatly. The separation of men and women during the Siyum HaShas allowed the male participants to focus primarily on the spiritual holiness of the day and not be distracted by a tight fitting shirt or skirt. And the women that attended did not have to feel like they had to impress male attendants by dressing in a way that would catch the eye.
Why is it wrong for a culture to greatly value both the physicality and spirituality of the women in a way that is different than the views of today’s modern and secular society? Our practices show how special women are and that they are holy in a way that reminds us of to conduct ourselves in a civil and respectful manner towards them.
The separation of men and women according to what I understand to be Orthodox Jewry is not repressive but incredibly beautiful.
Within our own American modern society the differences of men and women are also recognized to be significant. When Yen Shiwen swam the final leg in the 400-meter individual medley she was quicker than the winning men’s time by U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte. This caused a tremendous amount of suspicion and many accused the young female Olympian of doping. Why? Why is it so hard to believe that a woman can do the same thing as a man? Doesn’t our modern and progressive society believe that we are all equal? Didn’t the Broadway show say, “Anything you can do, I can do better”?
However, despite all of the arguments that one can make about the differences between men and women the entire venture is really missing the point. The aspect of Ms. Otterman’s article that must be observed is her inability to understand cultural diversity and respect the decisions of those people who choose to live that way.
When studying to take my certification tests to become a public school teacher in New York City I was faced with the following question:
Several girls in your class are complaining about a boy who just immigrated from a certain part of the African continent. They say that he speaks to them disrespectfully and in a sexist manner. What is the first thing that you as a teacher should keep in mind when speaking to this boy?
I forgot the other choices but the correct answer was to be aware that the cultural expectations of his birth country might not be the same as the one he lives in now. The NYSTCE study guide went on to explain that because so many students come from different cultural backgrounds that do not share the same view of male and female roles in society as Americans do it must be remembered to treat the presenting behaviors with cultural sensitivity. This is not to say that the boy in question should not be educated as to the societal expectations of being in a New York public school, but to not treat the boy as though he did something wrong.
If Ms. Otterman wanted to write an editorial about the Siyum HaShas and her myopic view of how the Orthodox Jewish culture views male and female designations in society then the title of her article should have been something to that effect. Instead she initially presented her report as being objective and then went on to present what was a significant and beautiful event as ugly and barbaric in its treatment of women. Is this how one of the most respected newspapers in the world reports on the cultural events of others? Is this an example of objective reporting or is it an attempt to misrepresent our culture in a way that causes animosity, hate and misunderstanding?
By the way, I got permission from my wife to write this article.
Recently I was approached by a man of Hispanic origin at a park in my neighborhood who wanted to ask me a question about Judaism. I don’t know what it is about me, I guess I have that face that says “Hey, I’m a religious Jew, ask me anything you want, I have all the time in the world”. I have had experiences in the past when non-Jewish individuals would approach me and ask me all sorts of questions about Judaism. I have been asked if I had horns under my kippah and was once the subject of an attempted conversion to “true Judaism” which apparently involves believing that all European Jews are false. Needless to say I was a little apprehensive in participating in whatever conversation this man wanted to have, but as I am always trying to be as amicable as possible I paused my walking and asked how I could help.
He read a news story (I’m not sure where) that spoke of certain retail stores in Borough Park who were ejecting women from their stores that were not complying with the Orthodox Jewish laws of modesty. He wanted to know, as an Orthodox Jew, what my explanation was for such actions. As one guy to another I told him that in the summer time women dress rather provocatively with their choices in apparel. The logic that I used to defend the choices of the Borough Park storeowners was “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. If you are walking into an obviously very Hasidic community you have to be aware of their cultural beliefs. The young man, named Alex by the way, gave his own example to support my logic. He told me that if someone were to come into his church wearing jeans he would ask that person to leave and come back wearing something more respectful. We shook hands and went on our merry way.
Later that evening I was sent to a supermarket to buy a baby appropriate nail file for my 1 month old. As usual I was bombarded by the choices of clothing that women seem to choose during the summer months. The tight this and the short that and the revealing those. I am not going to pretend to be some saint and say that I am oblivious to what is around me. However, there were two girls that caught my eye and totally amazed me. As they were shopping with their father two Jewish Orthodox girls displayed something that almost made me tear up, they displayed royalty.
Allow me to explain. These teenaged girls were not wearing golden circlets on their heads or holding scepters in their hands, they were dressed very modestly. Their skirts were not form fitting, their shirts revealed nothing and they held their heads like princesses. Now, you are probably wondering why a grown married man with children is making such observations. The reason is because in my personal opinion I believe that the idea that the more you show of your body the freer you are is a lie. My personal interpretation of the modern female psychology is that by showing more skin, by flaunting and showing off, you are some how more liberated.
I can’t recall the number of comedians that have commented on how they can’t stand women that dress provocatively and then expect the average male to NOT stare at their lady bits. I am not sure what women have thought has evolved (can I use that word?) in the genetic makeup of men. Is it logical to presume that by putting almost everything on display and leaving nothing to the imagination that the average Joe is NOT going to have thoughts that would make you blush if you could read their minds?
The two young women that I saw at the supermarket showed that their bodies are not public property. That what they have is holy, special and for no man’s eyes to abuse. I think that a lot of people have made the error about the idea of modesty, that somehow it is a repressive custom that forces women into a cage of male domination. I say just the opposite, women are taking more control by dressing modestly. If anything, modesty shows the male world that they can’t have everything they lay their eyes on and that the person who keeps their skin private magnifies the inner beauty and significance of the female form.
Additionally and probably almost as important is the idea that modesty puts the opposite sex into a position where they are communicating not for “eye candy” but for an exchange of ideas and respecting the person for what they say and think and not for what they are wearing. And this is not only referring to women but to men as well. When we “flaunt” what we have physically we minimize the mutual respect for the person and give more focus to the physical aspects that are being revealed. I am sure you have heard the line “Hey, eyes up here buddy”! I recently saw a cartoon that shows a man wearing a t-shirt with a Hershey’s candy bar on it and the man says to a lady he is talking to, “Hey, eyes up here lady”!
It was refreshing to see that there are some young people today who display the royal beauty that is modesty, young people who put their minds before their skin. It makes me wonder how many more things that we hold holy and special are going to disappear due to the cultural pressures of a secular world.