Tunnel Vision

As if New Yorkers don’t face enough challenges – insane traffic, bumbling bureaucracies, surly servicepeople and parking spaces as rare as hairy-nosed wombats – some city residents felt forced to create elaborate transportation plans, and others even to relocate their residences, in the shadow of the looming L-pocalypse.

The looming what, you ask? Why, the planned fifteen-month closure of the L subway line, of course.

The line runs from Canarsie, Brooklyn to Eighth Avenue in Manhattan and is a commuter lifeline for thousands. The tunnels through which the trains run are in dire need of extensive repairs, due to both their age and damage to their corroded cables, part of the legacy of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently, and suddenly, announced that the shutdown plan has been scrapped, and that using new technology will necessitate the closure of only a single tube of the tunnel, and only over nights and weekends.

If there’s anything more irate than a New Yorker who felt compelled to move in order to be able to get to work, it’s a New Yorker who did so and then discovered that he didn’t have to. Some locals are, well, not happy.

I don’t ride the L train, and suspect that few Hamodia readers do. But thinking about the twice-sucker-punched commuters is worthwhile.

Change happens. Over the courses of their lives, people are pushed, one way or another, down paths they might not have otherwise chosen.

In 1941, when my father, z”l, and his Novardok colleagues were put on a freight train in Vilna headed east, he later recalled, the Jewish townsfolk wailed, bemoaning the lot of the Siberia-bound bachurim. How must those boys have felt? Yet they not only grew in unimaginable ways during their years-long Siberian ordeal, but, as a direct result of their exile, survived the war to marry and bear children, who had children of their own, who are now raising their own families.

More mundanely, when living “out of town,” I often declared that the last place on earth I would ever relocate to was New York. There was laughter in heaven.

And yet, while I (well, figuratively) kicked and screamed at my family’s move to Gotham, born of circumstances beyond my control, it, too, turned out to be a great brachah.

As is everything that happens to us. Understanding that Hashem knows better than we do what’s best for us, and accepting, even embracing, seeming adversity, is fundamental to Jewish living. It’s what lies at the root of what the first Mishnah in Perek Haro’eh teaches, that “A person should offer a brachah on the bad as he does on the good,” duly codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, 222).

So, while your first, visceral, reaction to unwanted change is understandable, we might tell the outraged L-trainers, it’s misguided. Even if you uprooted yourself to another neighborhood because of a commuter catastrophe that never came about, you are right where you are meant to be, and should welcome that fact.

Telling ourselves the same thing, though, is a bit harder. Especially when the blessing inherent in our adversities isn’t obvious, or even hidden from us forever.

A friend of one of our daughters once shared a great story with her, about a woman who was scheduled to fly to a distant city for an important job interview. She left plenty of time to get to the airport, but found herself stuck in unexpected traffic as the departure time approached. Arriving in barely enough time to park her car, she ran to the check-in counter, only to discover that she had just missed her flight, and that there were no others that would get her to her interview on time. Dejected, she headed home.

Several hours later, the plane on which she was to have flown began its descent to its destination, the woman’s reserved seat empty… As the plane began its descent, there was some unexpected turbulence, and the captain told the passengers to make sure their seat belts were securely fastened…

And then, the plane… touched down, safely and on time. The passengers disembarked, and the woman who had missed the flight never got the prospective job. End of story.

The lady never did discover any reason for her having lost the chance of snagging the more rewarding job and ended up taking a less lucrative one in her home city.

But there was a reason.

Whether or not we ever merit to perceive it, there always is.

© 2019 Hamodia

Minding Our A.Qs and M.Q.s

James D. Watson, the 90-year-old Nobel laureate co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, is recovering from a car accident and, at least in person, currently out of the public eye.

But he is very much in the media eye, due to the recent release of a documentary film about him. The scientist, interviewed last year, before the accident, told the documentarian that he has not renounced his controversial decades-old position that different racial populations possess, on average, different degrees of intelligence.

Dr. Watson has for years been excoriated for that stance, specifically its claim that blacks, on average, are not as intelligent as whites. And as late as last spring, when M.I.T. mathematician and geneticist Eric Lander praised Dr. Watson’s involvement in the early days of the Human Genome Project, the M.I.T. professor was swiftly condemned by a slew of scientists for doing so, and apologized, penitently calling Dr. Watson’s views “despicable.’

As news of the documentary emerged, Nathaniel Comfort, a science historian at Johns Hopkins University, called Dr. Watson “a semi-professional loose cannon.”

David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University, contends that Dr. Watson’s presumption that intelligence differences might “correspond to longstanding popular stereotypes’’ is “essentially guaranteed to be wrong.”

And Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, laments that “It is disappointing that someone who made such groundbreaking contributions to science is perpetuating such scientifically unsupported and hurtful beliefs.’’

There has always been something indecorous in the harsh reactions to Dr. Watson’s opinion, as so many of the objections seem to be about its simple unacceptability. His conclusion, though, is based on I.Q. – or “Intelligence Quotient” – testings of different populations, and, although some white supremacists have used his words for their own nefarious purposes, there is no evidence that the scientist harbors any animus for any group.

He is entitled to his scientific opinions and shouldn’t be excoriated for their political incorrectness

That said, though, his conclusion about race and intelligence is unwarranted.

Firstly, I.Q. tests measure only a specific type of abstract reasoning ability. And such aptitude is only part of what make up what most of us call intelligence. Creativity and industriousness, moreover, are not reflected at all in I.Q. scores.

And even if we could fine-tune a holistic definition of intelligence, its possible genetic underpinnings would provide only a partial portrait. Among other relevant variables would be things like family and communal environment, nutrition, stress and societal expectations.

And finally, of course – and Dr. Watson has never claimed otherwise – averages are only averages. They predict nothing at all about individuals. And so, a random member of a group scoring marginally lower on a test might easily be more capable – even in what the test measures – than a random person from a higher-scoring population.

Most important of all, though, intelligence, however defined, is not in the end what determines the true value, or true success, of a human being.

Some studies have shown that Eastern European-rooted Jews have higher I.Q.s than any other ethnic group. And we Jews certainly value intelligence. Those of us who remain faithful to the Jewish mesorah are mispallel daily for dei’ah, binah v’haskel, and consider the intellectually demanding study of Torah a high and holy calling. And even Jews who turn to other disciplines, more often than not, seek to exercise their gray matter rather than their biceps.

But neither logical reasoning nor creativity is what ultimately matters from a true Torah perspective.

Whatever our intellectual prowess, our crucial merit lies in our zechus avos, our forebears’ dedication to Hashem. Chazal did not generally stress inherent abilities – mental or otherwise – but rather the choice to utilize whatever abilities we have. Their honorifics customarily ran not to words like “genius” or brilliant” but to ones like tzaddik, chassid and kadosh, “righteous,” “meticulous” and “holy.”

Modern society’s world-view leaves little room for the idea of service to the Creator as the true measure of man. Goods – whether of the materialistic or cerebral sort – are what the larger world chooses to value and celebrate.

Shouldn’t we, though, who know better what life is really about, take pains to avoid, chas v’shalom, inadvertently adopting society’s illusion?

Let us teach our children, whether they are grappling with educational issues, with shidduchim or with children of their own, that it isn’t the natural iluy who is most worthy of praise, but the masmid; not the one who shows the sharpest wit, but the one who shows the greatest concern for others. Let us guide them to not let Intelligence Quotients go to their heads, when A.Q.s and M.Q.s, Avodas Hashem and Menschlichkeit Quotients, are so very much more important.

© 2019 Hamodia

Genetics and Mimetics

When my family lived in Providence, Rhode Island back in the 1980’s and early ‘90s, I heard rumors that some of the city’s residents of Cape Verdean ancestry had a strange custom. Friday afternoons, they would turn over the traditional Catholic religious paintings common to Cape Verdeans’ homes to face the wall, and then light candles.

Cape Verde is a group of islands off the west coast of Africa that were uninhabited until discovered by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. Among the immigrants to the islands from Europe, historians contend, were Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing the Catholic Inquisitions in those lands. One of the islands’ towns is called Sinagoga, Portuguese for “synagogue,” and surnames of Jewish origin can still be found in the area.

In the early 19th century, many Cape Verdeans found their way to the New World, and Providence is home to one of the oldest and largest Cape Verdean communities in the U.S.

I was reminded of my former neighbors’ purported practice when reading of a recent study published in the scientific journal Nature, examining the DNA of thousands of members of another population with roots in the Iberian Peninsula: Latin Americans.

The researchers sampled the DNA of 6,500 people across Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, which they compared to that of 2,300 people all over the world. Nearly a quarter of the Latin Americans shared 5 percent or more of their ancestry with people living in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, including self-identified Sephardi Jews.

That degree of Jewish ancestry is more pronounced than that of people in Spain and Portugal today, indicating that a significant segment of the immigrants who settled the New World were descended from Jews.

It is no great surprise that so large a portion of a population that emigrated from Spain centuries ago have Jewish ancestry. It is estimated that when the Spanish Inquisition began in 1478, approximately one-fifth of the Spanish population, between 300,000-800,000 people, were Jews. By 1492, when the Alhambra Decree gave the choice between expulsion and conversion, the number had dwindled to 80,000. Most of the “missing” Jews had undergone superficial conversions and retained their Jewish identity and practices in secret. They are called “crypto-Jews,” conversos or anusim. Many of them, though, along with many other Spanish and Portuguese Jews who refused conversion, sailed away from the Iberian Peninsula to seek refuge on new shores.

There is no way, of course, to prove that those emigrants were the source of the apparent Jewish ancestry of so many Latin Americans today, but the genetic test results dovetail neatly with the historical record, indicating that a new population began to appear in Latin America around the time of the Inquisitions.

Bolstering the genetic connection is a 2011 study that found that several rare genetic diseases (including a cancer associated with the BRCA1 gene and a form of dwarfism) that appear in Jews also show up among Latin Americans. Albert Einstein College of Medicine geneticist Harry Ostrer, one of the study’s researchers, said, “It’s not just one disease… this isn’t a coincidence.”

The newer study’s results indicate that there may currently be over 150 million Latin Americans with a degree of Jewish ancestry.

Some Latinos who believe they have Jewish roots seek to reclaim a Jewish identity, even undergoing conversion ceremonies; some have even undergone halachic geirus. Others just take note, and pride, in their ostensible Jewish genealogical heritage. New Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose family comes from Puerto Rico, recently revealed that her family tradition includes some Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

Genetic studies, of course, have no halachic import. And not only because Jewishness depends on the maternal line. Even in analyses of mitochondrial DNA – which passes down only through females – genetic findings do not meet the halachic requirements for establishing Jewish identity.

Yet it’s intriguing to read stories of people across Latin America whose family tradition is to shun pork and light candles on Fridays and cover mirrors when mourning the deaths of relatives. And stories like the one I heard about some of Providence’s Cape Verdeans.

And depressing to think of all the Jewish families that were lost to Klal Yisrael over history to persecution and the resultant intermarriage and assimilation.

But the resurgence of interest – and pride – in even tenuous Jewish connections is heartening too.

For it recalls what the navi Zecharyah (8:23) predicts for the time of Moshiach: that “ten men from all the languages of the nations will take hold… of the tallis of a Jew, saying: ‘We will go with you, for we have heard that Hashem is with you’.”

© 2019 Hamodia

We’re Happy to Disinform You

The weathered ex-soldier’s face on the screen was accompanied by the message: “At least 50,000 homeless veterans are starving, dying in the streets, but liberals want to invite 620,000 refugees and settle them among us.” The numbers were fabrications.

The Facebook page, titled “Being Patriotic,” garnered 6.3 million “likes” from trusting citizens who didn’t bother to research the claim. And who had no idea that the posting was the work of a Russian entity specializing in misleading credulous Americans.

The Russian firm, the “Internet Research Agency,” is owned by businessman Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Prigozhin and some his employees were indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller last February as part of his investigation of Russian interference in American affairs.

“Being Patriotic”, and other Facebook pages of a similar nature, were cited by one or both of two recent reports about the extent of Russian misuse of the internet to influence Americans’ attitudes. The reports – one from the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University; the other, from New Knowledge, a firm specializing in disinformation protection – were commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee, to which they were delivered last week. They were eye-opening, and deeply disturbing.

Among the examples cited in the reports is an Instagram image that used religious imagery to try to attract Christians. Which it did. Droves of the naïve faithful were easily harvested, and they were eventually guided to associate the object of Christian veneration with then-candidate Donald Trump, and “Satan” with Hillary Clinton. One post, according to the Oxford report, offered a bald falsehood: “HILLARY RECEIVED $20,000 DONATION FROM KKK TOWARDS HER CAMPAIGN.”

Yet another creative ruse, this one aimed at African-Americans, used as a lure authentic video footage of a black man being held down by three white police officers and punched repeatedly in the head. The page, one of 30 aimed at building up large African-American audiences, was titled “Blacktivist.” (On YouTube, the Russians leveraged outrage over police shootings of unarmed black men with channels bearing names like “Don’t Shoot” and “BlackToLive.”)

While “other distinct ethnic and religious groups” were the focus of Facebook pages and Instagram accounts as well, the New Knowledge report notes that “the black community was targeted extensively with dozens.”

Facebook ads targeted users who had shown interest in black history, and after cultivating and gaining the trust of its catch, the Russian-engineered pages eventually “informed” all the visitors who were enticed to visit the page that Mrs. Clinton was hostile to African-American interests, and that blacks would be best off by boycotting the then-upcoming election.

But just as the Russian effort took advantage of the Black Lives Matter movement at the height of its prominence, when a pro-police “Blue Lives Matter” backlash emerged, it, too, became fodder for the agitprop plotters, who then targeted law-and-order proponents.

Then, in an act of cynical, almost comical chutzpah, when it became clear that Russian election interference had in fact taken place on a large scale, Internet Research Agency trolls posing as fed-up Americans characterized the resultant outrage as some “weird conspiracy,” a myth pushed by “liberal crybabies.”

There is no way to either support or refute the notion that the results of the 2016 presidential election would have been different had the Russian firm not misled untold numbers of impressionable Americans. What the reports do clearly confirm, though, is that the Russian campaign aimed not only to manipulate voters but to exacerbate divisions in American society – to plant weeds of discord and antagonism across the fruited plain. And in that, at least judging from the tenor of American political discourse over the past two years, it achieved resounding success.

The key to that success is the fact that disinformation tends to achieve what internet marketers call “virality.” A vulnerable few targets contract an initial “infection” of false notions that then spreads exponentially through the broader population, ultimately jumping even into populations that do not use the internet. Conversations outside the shul or at a kiddush or in the supermarket line, even assertions in some Jewish media, have well evidenced the power and scope of such misinformation “epidemics.”

Susceptibility to being manipulated by disinformation isn’t limited to any particular racial, ethnic or religious group. When it comes to politics and social issues these days, critical thinking and research are indispensable. Without them, even otherwise thoughtful people can become prey for distortions, propaganda and deceptions perpetrated by unscrupulous actors with their own agendas.

Unfastened purses in public places invite pickpockets. Unguarded minds, we need to realize, can be infiltrated too.

© 2018 Hamodia

(in a slightly altered version)

Hatred, Hatred Everywhere

Even before the Pittsburgh Massacre, Damon Joseph, 21, who lives in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, hoped to go on a “virtual jihad.” The murders of 11 Jews at the end of October in Pennsylvania, however, helped energize him, motivating him to make some real-world, concrete plans.

According to an F.B.I. affidavit, “Joseph stated that it would be ideal to attack two synagogues… and that he wanted to kill a rabbi.”

Joseph solicited a pair of AR-15 rifles, the weapon of choice among American mass murderers, and decided to commit his own slaughters, ideally on a Saturday, “so that more people would be present at the synagogue.” “Go big,” he allegedly wrote to an F.B.I. agent posing as an accomplice, “or go home.”

Although the Pittsburgh shooter attributed his anger to what he considered an overrunning of the U.S. by immigrants, and Mr. Joseph, a convert to Islam, posted photos of himself wearing a ring inscribed with an Islamic State screed in Arabic, the would-be jihadist was inspired to try to kill Jews by the right-wing nativist. Go figure.

In an unrelated but, oddly, also Toledo-centered case, city resident Elizabeth Lecron, 23, hoped to commit “upscale mass murder” at a Toledo bar and to plant bombs on a pipeline and a farm “that raises pigs or cows.”

Unholy Toledo.

Lecron, according to the F.B.I., “bought black powder and hundreds of screws that she expected would be used to make a bomb [and] through her words and actions, she demonstrated that she was committed to seeing death and destruction in order to advance hate.”

The latter would-be mass murderer’s heroes included Columbine School killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and Charleston, South Carolina church mass murderer Dylann Roof, a white supremacist. She wrote the imprisoned South Carolinian a letter encouraging him to “Stay strong” since “You have a lot of people that care for you beyond those walls.”

The progressive environmentalist/animal rights radical looked up to the neo-Nazi. Go figure some more.

What a strange snapshot of murderous hatred the revelations of the Toledoan terrorists’ plans present: An Islamist inspired by a right-wing bigot, and a leftist radical enamored of neo-Nazis? What gives?

The answer, if you haven’t already guessed, is that evil harbors no static political allegiances. It just festers in underdeveloped or warped minds and gloms onto whatever convenient causes or role models happen to be available. Often there is some consistency to the hater’s convictions. But, as in the cases of the Ohio terrorists (both of whom are under arrest), sometimes there is none at all.

Our community, understandably, was particularly outraged and has been focused on recent attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, including the beating of a 9-year-old boy.

But much other hatred was unleashed last week across the country too, and not just in Toledo. Pittsburgh officials reported, for instance, that anti-Semitic pamphlets were being spread throughout the city, including in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, the site of the October mass shooting. The next day, as it happened, Nazi-themed posters were placed in various locations around the State University of New York’s Purchase College.

And in Lynnwood, Washington, seven men and one woman beat and stomped on a black man working in a dining establishment for no apparent reason, shouting racial slurs all the while. The assailants also injured an Asian man who came to the victim’s defense.

One of those accused attackers, Travis David Condor, is a former soldier who, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “runs a hate-music record label.” (No, I didn’t know there was such a thing either.)

Condor, it was reported, was photographed at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last year. He was not, apparently, one of the very fine people there.

And speaking of Charlottesville, where “Jews will not replace us” was a chant of choice, last week also saw a jury recommend that James Fields Jr., who was found guilty of first degree murder for driving into a crowd of protesters at the right-wing rally in Virginia and killing a woman, spend the rest of his life in prison. (A second trial on federal hate crime charges could result in the death penalty.

This litany of lowlife activity of late is presented just as a reminder that murderous ill will remains a tragic fact of contemporary life. And that hatred, rat-like, can come crawling out of all sorts of cracks in the edifice of contemporary society. And that, like those creatures, it carries germs.

© 2018 Hamodia

Don’t cry for me, Eric Yoffie

Enough decades have passed to allow some of us to recall biologist Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller “The Population Bomb,” in which the author, soberly analyzing relevant data, predicted worldwide famine within twenty years as a result of rising birth rates and limited resources. Hundreds of thousands, he prophesied, would starve to death by 1988. He compared the “population explosion” to the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells,

That blessedly inaccurate prediction was embraced by legions of other scientists. In 1970, Harvard biologist George Wald went further, predicting that, without immediate action to reverse trends, “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years.”

The renowned physicist Lord Kelvin stated in 1895 that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” And Albert Einstein, in 1932, contended that “There is not the slightest indication” that nuclear energy “will ever be obtainable.”

We do well to remember pronouncements like those when trying to extrapolate the future from present knowledge, or present assumptions. Unfortunately, some people, especially when trying to promote agendas, don’t, or won’t.

The same some of us with those decades in their rear-view mirrors may also remember the days when the Reform movement just went about its business of jettisoning the Jewish mesorah for the “benefit” of its congregants, and was so sure of its future prospects that it essentially ignored Jews who remained faithful to the Jewish mission as handed down since Mattan Torah. It certainly didn’t see a need to attack those “old fashioned” fanatics. They wouldn’t be around much longer.

Ah, times have changed.

Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of the Union for Reform Judaism and now a writer for Haaretz, has taken up the cause of castigating Jews who have the audacity to maintain Judaism.

In a recent opinion piece in that paper, he accuses “the ultra-Orthodox political leadership” in Israel of “destroying the State of Israel.” In case the reader might assume he is waxing metaphorical, he adds, “Literally.”

The destruction, in his telling, is being wrought by the determined prevention of “Haredi Jews from becoming productive citizens in a modern, developed economy.”

“Lovers of Torah,” like himself, he bemoans, “can only weep.”

The objects of his ire might well respond, “Don’t cry for me, Eric Yoffie.”

The Haaretz writer seems to be under the impression that Israeli Jews are forced to eat kosher and keep Shabbos (may they all come on their own to do both, and more). What else could he mean by the chareidi “massive machinery of religious coercion”? Respect for halachah at the Kosel Maaravi? Oversight of geirus, kiddushin and geirushin to prevent personal tragedies down the line? Coercion? Uh, no.

The Reform leader’s real bugaboo, though, is the growth of the chareidi community and the concomitant growth of limud Torah in Israel.

He quotes a Tel Aviv professor who is “worried that in 40 years, Israel will be more crowded than any country in the world, except for Bangladesh.” Shades of Paul Ehrlich.

And, the writer contends, “Israel’s rate of poverty is exceedingly high…; its labor productivity is disturbingly low, and continuing to fall.”

“To say that this picture is a grim one,” Yoffie writes grimly, “is an understatement.”

He admits that “the problem is not the employment rate of women.”  Men, though, he explains, “are directed by their rabbis to forsake the labor market for full-time Torah study.” In the 1980s, he continues, “the employment rate for Haredi men was 64%. In 2015, slightly less than 54% of Haredi men were employed. Two years later, that number had dropped to 51%.”

When the sky is falling, there just isn’t time to do any digging. What Yoffie doesn’t note is that, as Israel Democracy Institute researchers report, “Since 2003, there has been a consistent rise in the employment rate of [chareidi] women and men.”

But, of course, Yoffie’s issue isn’t really employment. If it were, he would be advocating to provide those who, as a matter of religious principle, are unable to enter the army with the same access to gainful employment as ex-soldiers. His issue is the intolerable willingness of so many Jewish men to dedicate themselves to full-time Torah study for as long as they can, and their readiness to live modestly, resisting the societal shitah that determines “success” by the size of bank accounts.

Yoffie’s “solution” to the crisis he perceives consists of changing the nature of chinuch in Israel and offering a full complement of “core curriculum” studies “of course… alongside traditional Torah study.”

And accomplishing that, he contends, can only happen through “compulsion.”

Fittingly, his piece appeared just as Chanukah was about to begin.

© 2018 Hamodia

Still, Small, Defiant Lights

I’m always struck by the contrast this time of year between, on the one hand, the garish multicolored and blinking lights that scream for attention from so many American homes and, on the other, the quiet, tiny ones that softly grace the windows of Jewish ones. I think there may be cosmic meaning in Chanukah’s tendency to roughly coincide with a major non-Jewish holiday season.

For, while Chanukah is often portrayed by some Jewish clergy on radio programs and in newspapers as nothing but a celebration of religious freedom (or even, bizarrely, as some sort of salute to religious pluralism), the true meaning of the neiros Chanukah is clear from the many classical Jewish sources about the holiday – from the Gemara to the sifrei Kabbalah to the works of Chassidus. The celebration is entirely about the struggle to maintain Jewish integrity and observance within a non-Jewish milieu, to resist assimilation into a dominant non-Jewish culture.

The real enemy at the time of the Maccabim was less the Seleucid empire as a military power than what Seleucid society represented: a cultural colonialism that sought to erode the beliefs and observances of our mesorah, and to replace them with the glorification of the physical and the embrace of much that the Torah considers unacceptable. The Seleucids sought to acculturate the Jewish people, to force them to adopt a “superior,” “sophisticated,” overbearing secular philosophy. And so, the Jewish victory, when it came, was a triumph not over an army but over assimilation. The Maccabim succeeded in preserving the mesorah, and protecting it from dilution.

The overwhelming gloss and glitter of the non-Jewish celebration of the season are thus a fitting contrast to the still, small, defiant lights of the Chanukah menorah.

And in times like our own, when the larger Jewish world, l’daavoneinu, is so assimilated, and intermarriage so rampant, nothing could be more important for American Jews than Chanukah’s message.

Some try to make lemonade out of the bitter fruit of contemporary Jewish demographics, choosing to celebrate the incorporation of the larger society’s perspectives and mores into “new forms of Judaism,” and to view intermarriage as a wonderful opportunity for creating “converts” – or, at least, willing accomplices to the raising of Jewish, or Jewish-style, children. But they are dancing on the deck of a Jewish Titanic.

Lowering the bar for what constitutes Jewish belief and practice does not make stronger Jews, only weaker “Judaism.” And intermarriage is a bane, not a boon, to the Jewish future.

Over so very much of history, our ancestors were threatened with social sanctions and violence by people who wanted them to adopt foreign cultures or beliefs. Today, ironically, what threats and violence and murder couldn’t accomplish – the decimation of Jewish identity – seems to be happening on its own. Where tyranny failed, freedom is threatening to succeed.

Poignant meaning shines forth from the Bais Hamikdash’s menorah’s supernatural eight-day burning on a one-day supply of oil. For light, of course, is Torah, the preserver of Klal Yisrael.

Even the custom of playing dreidel is a reminder of that symbol of Jewish continuity. The Seleucids, it is related, had forbidden not only various fundamental mitzvos and hanhagos, they also outlawed the study of Torah, which they understood, consciously or otherwise, is the engine of Jewish identity and continuity. The spinning toy was a subterfuge adopted by Jews when they were studying Torah; if they sensed enemy inspectors nearby, they would suddenly take out their dreidels and spin them, masking their study session with an innocuous game of chance.

The candles we light each night of Chanukah recalling that menorah miracle reflect a greater miracle still: the survival of Klal Yisrael over the millennia. All the alien winds of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flames of Jewish commitment. “Chanukah” means “dedication.” It doesn’t just recall the Bais Hamikdash that was rededicated bayamim hahem, but calls on us to rededicate ourselves baz’man hazeh.

We do that by keeping ourselves from melting into our surroundings, and resisting the blandishments of those who insist that there is no other way. We know how to put the dreidels away and open the sefarim.

And with our determination, our mitzvos and our limud haTorah, we can prove worthy descendants of those who came before us, and continue as a people to persevere.

The great and powerful empires of history flared mightily but then disappeared without a trace. Their lights were bright but artificial.

Ours, small as they may be, are eternal.

No, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Did Not Sin Against The Memory Of The Holocaust

We do no favors to the memory of the Holocaust when, for political  purposes, we unfairly accuse people of dishonoring it.

Whatever one may think of incoming Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she did not compare the victims of the Holocaust with the migrants at the southern border.  A piece I wrote on the issue is at the Forward, here.

Crazy Attention

“The sheerest form of corporate anti-Semitism in recent memory” is how popular political commentator Ben Shapiro characterized the recent decision of Airbnb, the San Francisco-based company that matches travelers with private home lodging around the world, to no longer list homes in Yehudah and Shomron’s Jewish communities.

Others echoed that judgment, like columnist Jonathan Tobin, who wrote a piece in Haaretz under the title “Boycott Airbnb, Unless You’re Good With Anti-Semitism.”

Whatever one might think about Airbnb’s decision – I’ll share my own feelings below – to label it “anti-Semitism” is something of an overreaction. And using the epithet only lessens its import when invoked where it is truly deserved.

There are facts in this world that we don’t like, but our dislike doesn’t change them. There are facts, in fact, that are unfortunate, even ugly. But, again, they remain, despite their ugliness.

One such fact is that, while Yehudah and Shomron are, as they always have been, essential parts of Eretz Yisrael, Israel’s sovereignty over the areas is not recognized by most of the world. Some of that world, to be sure, hates Jews. But some of it simply sees the territories captured from other countries in 1967 as something less than parts of Israel proper.

Gilad Erdan, the Israeli government’s point person for fighting the boycott movement, may contend that, as he recently told an interviewer, “there is no distinction between this part or that part of the state of Israel.”

But Israel herself, we might remind ourselves, has chosen not to officially annex the areas captured in 1967, other than East Jerusalem. So whether they are “occupied” (as the Arab world calls them) or “disputed,” as less invested parties label them, they are not officially parts of Israel like Tel Aviv, Haifa or Yerushalayim. (And Airbnb, it should be noted, pointedly did not include East Jerusalem in its decision.)

Even the U.S. State Department, which, under President Trump, no longer refers to those territories as “occupied,” still does not consider them parts of Israel. Its most recent Report on Human Rights Practices has a section on “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza.” The diyuk is obvious: the Heights, Yehudah and Shomron and Gaza – all of them parts of Eretz Yisrael – are not, in the eyes of the U.S., parts of Israel.

So Airbnb, although it clearly lacks backbone and succumbed to pressure from Palestinian activists, can offer a defense of its action, which it did.

“We are most certainly not the experts when it comes to the historical disputes in this region,” it admitted in its statement announcing its new policy. “Our team has wrestled with this issue and we have struggled to come up with the right approach.” Which, it goes on to explain, is, in part, to “consult with a range of experts…” Leading, here, to the conclusion that “the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank… are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians” and thus should not be part of the company’s offerings.”

The statement ends with an expression of “deep respect” for the strong views on both sides of the issue; and the “hope… that someday sooner rather than later, a framework is put in place where the entire global community is aligned so there will be a resolution to this historic conflict and a clear path forward for everybody to follow.”

Anti-Semitic? Not to my lights.

Illogical, though? Oh, yes.

In fact, ludicrously inconsistent? Ditto.

There are disputed, and occupied, territories throughout the world. Iraq-occupied Kurdistan, for one. And Iran-occupied Kurdistan, for another. Turkey-occupied Cyprus for yet another. China-occupied Tibet. Russia-occupied Crimea. Want a place to stay in any of those places? Airbnb will be happy to help.

So the company’s focus on Israel alone is telling. Of what, though? Anti-Semitism? It’s possible, of course. But focus on Jews doesn’t necessarily bespeak hatred of them.

Klal Yisrael, although less that two tenths of one percent of the world’s population, captures the attention of the other 99.8% to a strikingly disproportionate degree. Likewise, Israel, one of 193 countries in a large, variegated and unruly world.

Hen am levadad yishkon uvagoyim lo yis’chashav. “Behold it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations” (Bamidbar 23:9). Bilam’s words have rung all too true throughout our history, and resound no less loudly today.

The crazy attention the world gives Jews and the country established for them should inspire us, confirming as it does the truth of the Torah, which includes what Bilam may have meant as a curse but which stands as a silent yet deafening testimony to the specialness of Klal Yisrael.

© Hamodia 2018