Locusts, the Holocaust and Today

The 17-year locusts, as many call them, won’t be singing their deafening song this spring on the East Coast. The particular brood (there are several) that we easterners are familiar with, though, is expected to emerge again en

The fearsome-looking insects cause no harm, despite their large size, big red eyes and total disregard of anybody’s personal space. Nor are they locusts. They are cicadas, an entirely different species of bug.

What, though, is a locust, the insect that swarmed by the billions in East Africa earlier this year, devastating large swaths of the countryside? Glad you asked. The answer is very interesting.

Locusts, under normal climatic circumstances, are virtually indistinguishable from garden variety grasshoppers. In fact, they technically are grasshoppers, members of the family Acrididae.

But, when subjected to stress like drought, especially after a rainy season, and crowded together, they morph amazingly into what seem to be very different creatures.

The timid green or brownish bugs living solitary lives become boldly colored, with black markings on a bright yellow background; they become shorter-bodied and stronger. And they swarm in massive numbers. Voracious, they descend in huge dark clouds on fields of vegetation, leaving them bare.

The radical change from an insect version of Dr. Jekyll to one of Mr. Hyde is mediated by a phenomenon that has attracted scientific attention in recent decades: epigenetics.

The term is used to describe characteristics of organisms that come about through the “switching on” of certain genes that do not otherwise express themselves.

While most of us are familiar with the idea that genes are inherited and pass traits from one generation to the next, epigenetics describes how certain genes, due to experiences an organism has undergone, can be chemically marked in a way that activates them.

In 2015, researcher Rachel Yehuda tried to extend the idea to the realm of human psychology, publishing results of a study of a group of Holocaust survivors and making the claim that manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were evident not only in the survivors themselves but in their offspring, ostensibly, she contended, through epigenetic expression.

Others disagree strongly, and assert that any stress disorders that may seem disproportionate in children of survivors are likely the effects of the inadvertent “sharing” of survivors’ own stress, either by exhibiting symptoms of PTSD or repeated recounting of their traumas with their young.

That certainly has occurred. Several speakers at this past February’s Project Witness fourth annual Holocaust Educators’ Conference recounted how their survivor parents pushed them in extreme ways to excel in school, and subjected them to other stressors, sometimes explicitly invoking the Holocaust as the reason for their insistence.

Such parents, of course, can’t be blamed for the effects on them of the indescribable evils they endured, or for any resultant distress caused to their children. But such distress, it seems, has not been uncommon.

Several Shabbosos ago, my wife and I sponsored a Kiddush in a small shul (remember shuls?) in memory of my mother, a”h, whose yahrtzeit fell that week. The custom in that shul is for the Kiddush sponsor to say a few words. There are many, many words I could summon to describe my mother, who was legend in Baltimore for her empathy and kindness, who was an indispensable part of the life of my father, a”h, and of the shul they built together, and who was a kiruv professional decades before the phrase came into existence.

But I chose instead to just share how happy a childhood I had, and why.

My father spent the years of World War II fleeing the Nazis and then sent by the Soviets to Siberia to labor in the taiga, where the temperature in winter would fall to 40 degrees below zero. My mother came to Baltimore from Poland as a young girl before the war but soon suffered the death of her grandmother, the only grandparent who had been part of her life, and then, mere weeks later, her 20-year old brother, who had been studying in yeshivah in New York. Two years later, her father, a respected Rav, passed away at 48. She thought for a while that sitting shivah was just part of the Jewish year-cycle.

Growing up, I knew none of that. Neither of my parents spoke of, or showed any overt signs of, the traumas of their youth years. I only heard about my father’s wartime experiences when I was already married and a father myself, when a tape of a speech he delivered to a group on Yom HaShoah was sent to me by a member of the audience. My mother’s early life losses, likewise, were only revealed to me as an adult.

Some survivors of the Holocaust or other adversities, I know, speak freely of them. Others, like my parents, choose to compartmentalize them, at least up to a point, often as a conscious act, to spare their children the burden of knowing what their parents endured.

As I mentioned, my childhood was entirely happy. And I think I owe that fact, at least partly, to my parents’ reticence and wisdom.

Many parents today, with their children watching, are facing adversities of their own. While expressing deep feelings of pain or frustration openly may afford some immediate release, it’s important to keep in mind always that, whether or not stresses can be bequeathed epigenetically to children not yet born, giving vent to them can certainly have an effect on the young already here.

And all parents want their children to have happy childhoods.

© 2020 Hamodia

[This article didn’t appear in Hamodia, due to lack of space this week.]

Different Hopes For Different Folks

“Number one…” presidential hopeful Joe Biden Jr. said at his March 15 debate with equally hopeful (though less entitled to be so) Senator Bernie Sanders, “if I’m elected president and have an opportunity to appoint someone to the courts, I’ll appoint the first black woman of the courts. It’s required that they have representation now. It’s long overdue.”

He continued with his number two: “If I’m elected president, my cabinet, my administration will look like the country, and I commit that I will, in fact… pick a woman to be vice president. There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow.”

No doubt there are, as there are a number of qualified men. But am I alone in finding it puzzling that the choice of who should be the proverbial heartbeat away from the highest office in the land might be made on a basis of gender? Or that appointment to the highest court of the land be based on the same plus race?

What am I missing here?

Yes, I know, and lament, the bias against, and mistreatment of, women and blacks (and Native Americans, and Hispanics, and other groups) over our country’s history. And I even understand, if I don’t fully agree with, those who advocate for things like reparations for descendants of American slaves.

But how exactly do historic wrongs translate into some sort of right of precedence for public office? Apologies are owed to victims of discrimination and exploitation, perhaps compensation is even owed. But a desk in the White House or a seat on the High Court bench?

And, surely, the fact alone that there hasn’t yet been a black president or Supreme Court justice who was also a woman is hardly a compelling argument for choosing one. There hasn’t been a bald president since Eisenhower either. Or a president less than six feet tall since Grover Cleveland, and he was 5’11”. (Okay, Jimmy Carter was only 5’10; but look how he turned out.) Should we be tapping members of the short, bald demographic for leaders?

No less an example of an accomplished woman than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Politico in 2016, “I don’t think that any woman should be asked to vote for someone because she’s a woman.” Well, should any woman be asked to be a running mate or appointed a judge because she’s a woman? That would have been my next question, but, alas, I wasn’t the interviewer.

Yes, of course, I fully recognize the nature of politics and its close cousin horse-trading. I understand the practical wisdom of making choices that are likely to win the votes of particular segments of the electorate. But can’t a candidate just appoint the black woman (or short bald guy) without heralding it as some historically mandated act of high principle?

Please don’t get me wrong. I think that women can be excellent leaders. From Heleni Hamalkah to Golda Meir to Margaret Thatcher, women have done exemplary jobs in positions of power. It’s just that I think – call me crazy – that the best candidate for a position of power should be… the best candidate for the position of power, regardless of gender or race (or height).

Research has shown that female lawmakers tend to bring more federal money back to their districts than their male counterparts. And in their book Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office, political scientists Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt found that congresswomen are disproportionately likely to serve on committees for issues that are of most interest to their constituents, and more likely to co-sponsor legislation that helps those who elected them. So, women politicians? No problem.

But women chosen because they’re women? Problem.

Aside from the essential folly of it, choosing or appointing a woman to a high position mainly because of her womanhood disadvantages the woman. As Justice Clarence Thomas has written about affirmative action, the favoring of people based on their skin color – what he calls “racial engineering” – has “insidious consequences” – namely, the resultant assumption by others that the favored person isn’t really qualified. The same is true with gender engineering.

To me, though, even worse than choosing a woman for public office because she’s a woman is the message that doing so sends about the goals that should matter in life. Hint: Public office isn’t high on the list.

When former presidential hopeful (yes, a lot of hopes have come and gone) Senator Elizabeth Warren announced the end of her campaign on March 5, she showed some emotion as she lamented “one of the hardest parts” of her decision, that “all those little girls… are going to have to wait four more years.” For a bigger girl, that is, to become president.

High public office may indeed be an important goal, perhaps the ultimate one, of some little girls. It clearly is the consuming aim of some grown women. But, when they were little girls, the daughters my wife and I were privileged to raise would politely have declined to endorse such desiderata.

They had, as most of our community’s young women have, very different goals, hopes that are likely regarded as backward by many contemporary observers but are more beneficial to society than they may be capable of understanding. Hopes to, with Hashem’s help, become partners with husbands, to become mothers, grandmothers and beyond. Hopes to mold not legislation but hearts and minds.

Different folks, different hopes. Don’t cry for them, Senator Warren.

© 2020 Hamodia

Responding to Wrath With Calm

It’s strange but true: We sometimes fail to acknowledge the most important thing in the universe.

That would be bechirah, Hashem’s astonishing gift of free will to mankind. We humans are able to choose our actions and our attitudes.

We can certainly be stubborn creatures, and a mind is a hard thing to change. But change it can.

That truth was brought sharply home to me recently, in an e-mail interaction I had with a Jewish person who lives in a faraway state.

“You ARE ‘extreme and beyond normal and beyond mainstream’,” my correspondent wrote, “misogynistic and ultra-conservative. You exclude anyone you consider ‘other’.”

“You are,” the final line read, “not my tribe.”

What evoked the irate missive was an op-ed, or opinion column, I wrote that was published in the New York Times.

Therein lies a tale.

Several weeks ago, as a result of the efforts of respected lawyer Avi Schick and Chabad media relations director Rabbi Motti Seligson, a small group of Orthodox representatives met with members of the Times’ editorial board and staff. Joining the two organizers were Hamodia’s editor, Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein; United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg executive director Rabbi Dovid Niederman; Agudath Israel of America executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel; and me.

The meeting was intended to sensitize the other side of the table to the way some of their newspaper’s characterizations of the chareidi community were inaccurate, even dangerous.

Each of us visitors to the Times’ offices presented a bit of evidence or a particular perspective. And at one point, in passing, I noted that the very term used for us – “Ultra-Orthodox” – was subtly pejorative, since “ultra” connotes “excess” or “beyond what is normal.”

At that point, the op-ed page editor interjected, “Well, that would make an interesting op-ed.”

In my head, I responded, “You bet it would.”

And so, two days later, I submitted an essay I had written, which focused not only on the misuse of the prefix “ultra” but on other subtle “otherings” of the chareidi community, as well – like the characterizations of us effectively as invaders simply for having chosen to buy homes in new areas; and like calling the exercise of our democratic rights in local elections “voting as a bloc” – a term never used when focusing on, say, the black vote or Hispanic one.

I received an avalanche of responses, almost all positive – from non-Jews and Jews of all stripes alike.

One memorable missive read, in part: I’m a non-religious Catholic man… in the midst of a significant Jewish community. I’m the regular Shabbos goy for several of my friends and neighbors… I got so many good and new ways of seeing people from your editorial … [There is] so much bias I have that I never thought about. I will look at people differently from now on, or at least I will work on doing that as much as I am able.”

The negative one excerpted earlier above was one of a small handful of angry reactions.

I responded to all the communications, if only to thank the writers for writing. To the irate correspondent quoted above, I sent the following:

“I don’t know how many chassidic or non-chassidic haredi families you know, but your description of them as misogynistic is well beyond a mere exaggeration. There are traditional roles for men and for women in Orthodox communities, but both men and women are fully valued and well-treated by both men and women. ‘Conservative’? Well, yes. Is that a crime?

“Which brings me back to the tribe. We don’t exclude any Jew from the Jewish people. You seem to do that with your final sentence. But you are MY tribe.”

And, signing off with “best wishes,” I clicked “send.”

I didn’t expect any further communication, but the correspondent did respond, first, with: “Thank you. You are the first haredi Jew I have ever spoken with… Apologies for my preconceptions.”

And then, after I acknowledged the writer’s good will, a second response: “Although I’m [Jewish] through my mother, my parents took us to a Unitarian church and I have never embraced religion or Judaism. Its strongest influence on my life has been through food. Perhaps that will change now.”

Later, the person wrote again, to say, “Apologies for my preconceptions” and to request reading material about Yiddishkeit, a request I immediately honored.

My first, visceral reaction to attacks on Torah Jews or Torah life is a desire to respond in kind, with ire, or, at least with wry repartee.

But what I’ve learned over the years is that – why I ever doubted it, I don’t know – Shlomo Hamelech was correct when he taught that a maaneh rach – “a gentle reply” – yashiv cheimah – “turns away wrath.”

That’s something true not only in interactions like the one I had with the angry correspondent, but in all our interpersonal dealings – within our families, in our workplaces, with our friends and acquaintances. It’s also something I wish I had fully recognized at a much earlier age than I did.

Not every mind’s owner will choose to change it. But every one of them – there is bechirah, after all – can.

And sometimes we can help make that change a little easier.

© 2020 Hamodia

Two Thoughts About You-Know-What

Surprisingly (he said with sarcasm), I’ve been giving some thought to the current pandemic.

Specifically, to the unprecedented closures of shuls and yeshivos.  In the absence of a prophet, no one can claim to know “why” any challenge or adversity happens. But it is a Jewish mandate to introspect at such times, as per the Talmud’s exhortation about personal adversity (Berachos 5a).

Might there be some grounds for introspection about why the particular challenge we face today has resulted in the first-ever-in-modern-history closing down of Jewish places of worship and study, and the resultant confinement of many to their homes?

What occurs to me are two things, discrete but in no way incongruous.

The first is that we may not have been treating our places of religious gathering, particularly shuls, with the respect and gravity they deserve.  While there are many shuls where services are conducted properly and there is no unnecessary conversing during davening, some shuls, unfortunately, are treated less like mini-Temples and more like men’s clubs, places to gather and schmooze before and after davening rather than holy places for communing with the Divine.  Might our banishment from shul be a reminder to us all of what shul is supposed to be?

My second thought’s focus is not on where we have been exiled from but rather where we have been confined to: our homes.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer, in his book of essays B’shtei Einayim, brings a thought from the Reisher Rov, Rav Aharon Lewin, on the verse that states: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Yeshayahu, 56:7.)  Reading the word “for” as “to,” Rabbi Lewin remarked that a Jewish house, or home, will be seen by others as what they experience only as a house of prayer.  In other words, the ideal Jewish home should be a place permeated with Jewish ideals and practices, a place, no less than shul, of worship.

There may be people who are “shul Yidden” in the sense of never missing a shul service, but whose behavior at home is less exemplary, something that is particularly deleterious to any children living at home.  Such people, if they exist, might rightly reflect on their “home confinement” as a spur to self-improvement. And, of course, all of us do well to contemplate how we might make our homes not just places to, well, go home to, but holy spaces.

May our introspection lead to yeshuas Hashem kiheref ayin, the “salvation of Hashem” coming “in the blink of an eye.’

Plagues Past and Present

It’s been some 700 years since the bubonic plague ravaged central Asia, killing millions of people. A decade or two later, in October, 1347, a ship from the Crimea docked in Messina, Sicily. Rats in its hold were infested with fleas that harbored the bacterium that causes the sickness.

That marked the beginning of the era known as the Black Death. Over the next 50 years, it is estimated that at least 25 million people died, between 25% and 60% of the continent’s population.

Yes, that disaster is recalled here because of the coronavirus, or Covid-19, currently spreading around the world. Not, though, in order to raise great alarm, because, at least at this point, it is not warranted. Rather to note, firstly, the stark contrasts between the bubonic plague and the current viral outbreak; secondly, to remind readers of the Jewish angle of the Black Death years; and, thirdly, to convey a lesson from that plague to the current medical challenge.

The contrast lies in several things. For starters, no one at the time of the Black Plague had any idea of what was causing it. At a time of deep ignorance, fueled by Christian lore and superstition, all sorts of theories abounded, none of which did anything to slow the disease. Today, we know what is causing the current pandemic, and, hopefully, modern science can develop the means of protecting the vulnerable from the Covid19 virus’ worst effects.

And, unlike the bubonic plague, baruch Hashem, Covid-19 does not harm the vast majority of those who contract it. It is particularly dangerous to the elderly and infirm, and to smokers and others with less than optimum lung function. But to most people not in any of those categories, the infection results in either no symptoms at all or in flu-like experiences – fever, cough and headache.

Finally, as the eminent and wonderfully readable late historian Barbara Tuchman recounted in her book A Distant Mirror, the Middle Ages plague brought people to turn on one another rather than work together to deal with the challenge.

Christian religious leaders abandoned their flocks, parents deserted children; and children, their parents. “Charity,” she wrote, “was dead.”

Today, nations and scientists and health workers are working hard to educate people about the current virus, to create a vaccine against it and to find the most effective therapies for the stricken, if not an actual cure. People might be quarantined, for their or others’ benefit, but no one is being deserted.

The Jewish angle to the Black Death was the pointing (as usual) of fingers of blame at our forebears.

The plague, it was widely declared, was punishment for Christian society’s allowing Jews to live in their midst as Jews. Although Jews, too, perished in the plague, only in much smaller numbers, it was said. The resulting “logic” had it that ending the epidemic lay in converting, exiling or murdering Jews. Despite the declarations of several popes that the Jews were not at fault for the plague, people on the street were sure they knew better.

Then the populace came up with a better reason to blame Jews – the stubborn rejecters of Christianity were poisoning the drinking wells of communities, the better to harm Christians. Some Jews even confessed to such crimes – after being forced to do so in order to end their horrific torture.

On February 14, 1349, a day on which Christians venerate a third-century clergyman named Valentine, a contemporary observer of events recorded, some 2000 Jews were forced onto a wooden platform in the Holy Roman Empire city of Strasbourg’s Jewish cemetery and burned to death. Parents held tightly to their children when citizens tried to take them away for baptism.

The Jewish communities in Antwerp and Brussels were entirely exterminated in 1350. From 1349 until about 1390, the Jewish communities of France and Germany were decimated by angry mobs. In 1350, Frankfurt had over 19,000 Jews. By 1400, not a minyan was left.

Historians tend to take seriously the contention that Jewish communities were less affected by the plague itself, if not from the hatred it unleashed. And that brings us to the lesson to be learned from events seven centuries in the past.

The ostensible reason that the Black Death may have affected Jews to a lesser degree than Christians lies, the historical consensus has it, in the fact that Jews frequently wash their hands.

Upon arising in the morning, before tefillos, before saying Asher Yatzar, before bread meals (which were most, if not all, meals over most of history), Jews poured water over their hands. And, what’s more, they bathed – a luxury back in the Middle Ages – every week in honor of Shabbos.

We Jews still wash our hands a lot. But today most of us live in environments where every doorknob, subway pole and bus passenger is a vector for the transmission of germs.

Although it is likely that the spread of Covid-19 will intensify before it, b’ezras Hashem, soon, abates, we would do well, especially the elderly and health-compromised among us, to do the equivalent of netilas yadayim through the day, ideally, thoroughly and with soap.

That will not only help protect us from the current and other infections, but be a worthy reminder of the mesirus nefesh of, and kiddush Hashem created by, our ancestors in Europe.

© 2020 Hamodia

My Purim’s Highlight

My Purim’s highlight was an interaction I had with two little boys, no older than 8 or 9.  The shul I attend is often visited by a number of “collectors” asking for small donations, usually for the poor or needy institutions. Usually they are adults, with documentation backing the legitimacy of their quest for donations.

Sometimes, children approach people on behalf of their yeshivos or other charitable causes. On Purim, such undersized collectors abound.  I must have been approached by little people 20 or 25 times.  When my stash of dollar bills was down to one, wouldn’t you know, two youngsters approached me at the same time.

I smiled and showed them my last bill, identifying it as such.  One boy, whose hand held more revenue that the other boy’s, unhesitatingly pointed to the other and said “Please give him.”

Which I did.

But the boy who directed me to the other one gave me something priceless, the story I just shared.

Stop And Think

Politicians would serve themselves well to always keep in mind Rabi Yehudah Hanasi’s admonition: “An eye sees, an ear hears, and all your deeds are written in a book” (Avos 2:1).

Most public servants may not care that the Tanna was referring to a Divine “eye” and “ear,” and to an ethereal “book,” or that the advice was offered as means of avoiding sin. But it’s good practical counsel, too, for aspirants to governmental positions.

Many a candidate for public office has come to be haunted by some statement or comment made years earlier of which human eyes and ears took note and of which there is a record, if not in a book, at least in a recording or internet posting.

Like presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg, who has been confronted of late with comments he made about the “stop-and-frisk” police policy he advanced as mayor of New York.

The New York City Police Department began increasing its emphasis on stop-and-frisk – the accosting, questioning and superficial searching of people even without probable cause for arrest – in the mid-1990s, when Rudy Giuliani was mayor. But the stops of citizens soared during Mr. Bloomberg’s mayoral tenure – rising from about 97,000 in 2002 to about 685,000 in 2011.

And, reportedly, more than 80% of those stopped and frisked were black or Latino.

The resurrected comments, which Mr. Bloomberg made in 2015, after he left office, were a defense of the stop-and-frisk policy as a deterrent to gun violence. The ex-mayor contended that “ninety-five percent of murders” were the work of “male minorities, 16 to 25.”

“You can just take [that] description,” he said, “Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops.”

Whether one sees those comments as on-target (forgive me) or wide off the mark (ditto) might depend on your race.

Certainly, those who have been circulating the blunt words – mostly others vying, as is Mr. Bloomberg, for the Democratic presidential nomination – are hoping that many blacks and Hispanics will refuse the former New York mayor their support.

For his part, Mr. Bloomberg has, in no uncertain terms, disowned his words. “I was wrong,” he declared. “And I am sorry.”

In a refreshingly contrite confession, rather unusual these days, he said: “I got something important really wrong. I didn’t understand back then the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities. I was totally focused on saving lives, but as we know, good intentions aren’t good enough.”

Not every black leader or pundit was buying it. Charles M. Blow, a New York Times columnist, indignantly asked: “How many people rightly complaining about kids in cages at the border are simply willing to overlook all the kids Michael Bloomberg put in cages as a result of stop-and-frisk?”

“These minority boys,” he went on, “were being hunted.”

The columnist, though, doth protest too much. No subject of stop-and-frisk was arrested, much less jailed, unless he was illegally carrying a weapon or enough illegal drugs to be felt over his clothing. And looking for suspicious behavior in crime-ridden areas isn’t exactly like hiding in a blind watching for deer.

On the other hand, Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the think tank “Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle” in Baltimore, says that some people living in high-crime neighborhoods would see some form of the stop-and-frisk strategy “as the best option available to them to meet their immediate needs.”

And Mr. Bloomberg, despite – perhaps because of – his efforts as New York mayor to fight crime, has been endorsed by four members of the Congressional Black Caucus and a number of black mayors across the country.

Aside from political concerns, also likely playing a role in Mr. Bloomberg’s change of heart and biting the bullet (sorry!) was the fact that, while crime fell precipitously during his mayoral tenure, when stop-and-frisks were phased out toward the end of his administration (after a federal judge ruled that the practice as implemented had violated civil and constitutional rights) and then were sharply curtailed under his successor, current Mayor Bill de Blasio, crime rates continued to plunge to new lows unseen since the 1950s.

So, many contend, stop-and-frisk was an ineffective means of fighting crime.

What occurs to me, though, is that there may be other explanations for the continued drop in crime in New York. In the now-infamous recording of his candid comments, Mr. Bloomberg also said: “The way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them. And then they start, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get caught,’ so they don’t bring the gun.”

Might it be possible that, after years of aggressive accosting of young men in areas plagued with drug dealing and violence, a residual effect persisted, and persists, with fear of stops continuing to cause fewer people to carry guns? And in fact, while the rules for stop-and-frisk have changed, the tactic still exists; where there is reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or is being planned, a police officer can detain and even do a pat-down of a citizen.

So, Mr. Bloomberg’s mea culpa might not be as necessary as he (or his advisors) may think. And his clear intention for the erstwhile intense stop-and-frisk policy – to “get the guns out of the kids’ hands” – may even now resonate with black voters, an important Democratic constituency.

We will see.

© 2020 Hamodia