Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Gripes and Grumbles

Like most people, I have all sorts of complaints about the world. That is to say, about some of the people in it.

Like those who don’t know how to disagree agreeably, and consider every holder of a different opinion to be a mortal enemy.

And drivers who don’t bother to signal before turning or changing lanes. Likewise, those who don’t know how to properly double-park. (You have to leave a car’s width plus a half-inch for others to pass.)

And, of course, phone marketers, “survey” takers and politicians who interrupt the dinnertime calm with chain-call messages. Ditto for worthy causes that do the same, and somehow think that shouting in Yiddish will make the recipients more receptive to their cause.

I also have a bimah-ful of gripes revolving around shul.

Talking during davening is wrong. Not just disturbing to others and not just impolite. Wrong. Ditto for literally throwing tzedakah literature in front of people trying to daven. Double-ditto for those who don’t bother to turn off their phones before entering a mikdash me’at, treating it more like a shuk me’at.

The Sdei Chemed (Maareches Beis Haknesses, 21) cites the Magen Avraham and Chasam Sofer to the effect that any behavior considered disrespectful in a society’s non-Jewish houses of worship becomes, as a result, forbidden in Jewish shuls.

Maybe there are churches or mosques where congregants “warm up” for services by discussing business or sports or the stock market.Or who take the opportunity of a pause to schmooze or share jokes. But I wonder.

I have never had aspirations to being a shul Rav. My esteemed and much-missed father, a”h, was one, and watching him over the half-century of his exemplary service to his kehillah disabused me of any desire to undertake the myriad responsibilities that he shouldered so well. Even were I qualified for such a role, I don’t think I would be able to live up to his example.

And it’s probably a brachah for the world that I chose a different path, first, as a mechanech; then, as an organizational representative and writer. Because were I responsible for a shul, I would be a terror.

Not only would davening be stopped at the slightest hint of a conversation, but I would disallow chazzanus at the amud. Spirited, heartfelt singing would be fine, even invited. But “performances” would be canceled mid-concert. The tefillos, sir, just the tefillos.

If a cellphone rang – or beeped or pinged or chirped or played a merry tune – in shul, its owner would be presented with a pre-printed notice advising him that a first offense had been noted and that a second one would result in the gabbai’s confiscation of the offending device and its smashing with the special hammer kept under the bimah for that purpose.

Oh, yes, I would be a fearsome clergyman.

What is more, I would lock the doors once davening began.

Yes, lock them, so that no one could enter.

Some people approach tefillah as something they are supposed to do, which, of course, they are. But without much thought to concentrating on the meaning of what they are saying. There’s a reason for the expression “to daven uhp” something – i.e. to just read it quickly and perfunctorily.

Others are determined to maintain kavanah for every word of tefillah. They are usually the ones who are still davening Shemoneh Esrei when chazaras hashatz is almost completed.

Then there are the rest of us, who are still working on trying to keep our minds focused on what we are saying. Unlike the accomplished group, we are all too easily disturbed in our efforts by latecomers who open and close doors, and plod around noisily.

And so, the doors would be locked. And mispallelim would learn that arriving on time is important.

And, finally, to offend anyone I haven’t yet alienated, I would abolish all candymen. I might be persuaded to permit them to quietly place a (preferably low-sugar) treat in front of a child who’s davening nicely. But to just play Pied Piper, attracting a crowd of kids with a bag of tooth-rotting, empty calorie-laden goodies… not on my watch!

I realize that my dream of a shul is someone else’s nightmare, that the world is probably best off for the fact that I didn’t try to become a shul Rav.

Probably…

Yes, I know the causes of my gripes aren’t likely to disappear.

But could people at least start signaling before changing lanes?

The Emphasis on Empathy

I suppose it’s not so strange that I put the two experiences together. They happened a mere day apart and both involved buses.

The first incident astounded me. As I stood in a line of people waiting to board an end-of-the-day bus at the Staten Island Ferry terminal, a young woman just walked up to the front of the line and, with nary a glance at anyone behind her, boarded the bus. Had she joined the back of the line as is normative, the seat she graced with her occupancy would have gone to someone else, perhaps one of the senior citizens who ended up standing during the ride.

The lady had no obvious physical impairment. She just seemed oblivious to the fact that other people occupy the universe, some even in her immediate vicinity.

I think I know what the line-cutter would have answered if asked how she would like it if someone stepped in a line in front of her. She would explain that, yes, she would have been angry, but that isn’t what happened; it was she who was entering the line out of turn, not someone else.

Empathy-impairment is an impressive thing.

We don’t start life off empathetic. Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, once mused aloud to me that there’s nothing more self-centered than a baby, and that’s probably why Hashem makes them so endearing; otherwise we might not properly care for the selfish little people.

But who can – emphasis on “can” – grow into empathic adults.

I remember how, as a little boy, I tested a magnifying glass I had received by focusing sunlight with it onto pieces of paper, charring them. And how I then – ugh – “graduated” to weaponizing my educational tool by using it to incinerate ants. Some experts claim that killing insects as a child presages the eventual emergence of a serial killer. So far, though, baruch Hashem, I haven’t much felt the urge to murder; when I have, have managed to overcome it.

In fact, today, when an insect finds its way into my home, I capture the invader and escort him or her safely to the great outdoors. (All right, not mosquitos; but they are aggressors.)

After all, how would I like it if someone chose to squash or flush me away?

Being concerned with the wellbeing of an insect is a low rung on the empathy ladder. The ultimate and most powerful concern for “the other” is for other people.

Which brings me to the second bus incident. The next morning, I boarded a mass transit vehicle that takes a rather convoluted route. It was the first time, apparently, that the driver had driven the route and before any passenger could stop him, he turned into a one-way street. A dead end.

It was a narrow street, and the “three-way turn” that the driver of a car might execute wasn’t an option. Backing up would be tricky.

I waited for the expected New York reaction, passengers’ grumbling and shouting of insults at the hapless driver. A pleasant surprise, though, awaited me. Not only didn’t my fellow travelers vent their collective spleen, many of them rushed to reassure the mortified man at the wheel not to feel badly. One man offered to stand behind the bus and direct its delicate backing out of the cul de sac, which was successful.

Everyone knew we would miss the ferry we had hoped to catch that morning. But everyone just cheered the driver, who was clearly happy with his lot – of passengers. Who, instead of being self-centered, demonstrated empathy.

People gauge gadlus ha’adam by many things. But the most essential marker of human growth may well be how far one has progressed from the selfishness that defines us at birth toward true empathy. The severely empathy-impaired, like the young woman on the bus line (and psychopaths), are essentially infants.

For members of Klal Yisrael, the import of empathy is evident in Rabi Akiva’s statement (quoted by Rashi) that the passuk “Love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra, 19:18) is a “great principle of the Torah.” And in Hillel’s response to the man who insisted on learning the entire Torah on one foot: “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and study it” (Shabbos, 31a).

But dedication to an “other” is, in its most sublime form, expressed as selfless dedication to the Other. We are born selfish; and meant to strive toward concern for our fellows, but, ultimately, for the will of Hashem.

© 2019 Hamodia

Off-Color

Many of us pale-skinned Americans are puzzled by our darker-skinned fellow citizens’ strong negative reaction to the practice of “blackface” – Caucasians putting on black makeup to portray African-Americans.

The issue burst into the news cycle with the admission of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam that he had once applied such coloration in a contest where he was imitating a black entertainer. Mr. Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page also featured a photo, among several anodyne ones, of a blackfaced person standing next to someone wearing a makeshift costume meant to evoke a Ku Klux Klan robe. Although the governor initially apologized for that image, he later denied that either man was him.

Calls for Governor Northam’s’s resignation came fast, furious and loud, and from multiple directions, including from Mr. Northam’s fellow Democratic elected officials. Improbably, the second in line to succeed the governor should he step down (the first in line, the lieutenant governor, stands accused of assault), the state attorney general, also confessed to wearing blackface in the 1980s.

The vehemence of the reaction to the governor’s admission was striking. The yearbook photo seemed to be from a costume party and, while in bad taste, didn’t seem to be overtly racist or threatening; and he insists he is not even in it. As to the contest imitation admission, well, he was imitating a black performer. Was the smear of makeup really so terrible?

For those of us who don’t carry the weight of America’s racialist history and the undeniable challenges, and dangers, of black life today, there’s much to unpack here.

And Chazal provide instructions for the unpacking, in Avos (2:4), directing us to “not judge another until you have come to his place.” Whether or not that directive applies universally, it is a logically compelling admonition in any context, and no one who hasn’t experienced what blacks do daily can claim to fully understand their feelings.

As to blackface, while it has been used innocently in productions over many years – as recently as 2015, a white singer for the Metropolitan Opera used it to portray a Shakespearian character – it also has a sordid history of being used to demean and mock black people. Minstrel shows, where white performers wore blackface to depict African-Americans disparagingly, were once immensely popular, particularly in the south.

An imperfect comparison might be how we Jews might feel about an even innocuous use of a swastika at a party or contest. Swastikas, too, can be used innocently, and a Thai entertainer recently sported one, knowing it only as an ancient Asian symbol of good luck.

But even those of us who would not recoil at the casual use of that horrific symbol and regard blackface as similarly unobjectionable would do well to consider another statement of Chazal, in Chagigah 5a, where Rav and Shmuel both consider it a sin to do even something that is inoffensive to many people – like squashing a bug or spitting on the ground – in front of someone who finds the act repulsive. It makes no difference, in other words, that the doer considers an action unobjectionable; if others who witness it will be offended, that’s reason enough to not act.

Mr. Northam isn’t likely familiar with Chazal. Perhaps he should have, on his own, recognized that blackface, even in a lighthearted singing contest, causes many blacks to feel pained and insulted. But that fact wasn’t as widely recognized decades ago as it is today.

People who attended medical school with Mr. Northam have asserted that he was not a prejudiced person. One of them, Dr. Giac Chan Nguyen-Tan, said that his former fellow student was “the furthest thing… from someone who is a racist or bigot.” Moreover, the governor’s record as an elected official on civil rights issues has been spotless.

Which has led a few commentators to take issue with all those calling for the Virginia governor’s resignation.

Former Senator Joe Lieberman, for example, suggested that, despite Mr. Northam’s blackface admission, “really, he ought to be judged in the context of his whole life” and not “rush[ed]… out of office…”

That strikes me as a most reasonable stance. Whether Mr. Lieberman’s approach, though, or that of those calling for Mr. Northam’s political head will ultimately prevail isn’t known at the time of this writing.

But regardless of whether Mr. Northam continues as Virginia’s governor, his travails have brought some healthful attention to the broader truth that people have sensitivities that others may not always be able to relate to personally. And the fact that we need to take care in our interactions, with fellow citizens, and with friends and family members, to accommodate them as best we can.

© 2019 Hamodia

Polar Vort

“Not as cold as Siberia.”

That’s what my father, a”h, would say with a laugh if I complained over the phone about the frigid weather in Providence, where my family lived in the 1980s. And indeed it never was that cold. In the work camp east of Irkutsk where he and a small group of Novardok talmidim and their rebbe, Rav Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, had been exiled by the Soviets, winter temperatures could reach minus-40 Celsius.

When I was transcribing the memoir I convinced my father to write, some ten years ago, I asked my wife to check what that would be in Fahrenheit, the system we in the U.S. use. I imagined it was somewhere around zero, when, after a few minutes, my ears, and even gloved fingers, lose all feeling.

After some research, she reported back: “That’s where both scales converge. Minus forty Celsius is minus forty Fahrenheit.”

I write as the edges of the polar vortex have chilled the air outside to single digits (as I set out for Shacharis this morning, the thermometer read zero), and 27 below was what my friends and nieces and nephews in Chicago were enduring.

As you read this, the weather will have warmed. But unless you live in Australia (where it was recently 99 degrees Fahrenheit), you will recall last week’s deep freeze with a shiver.

Arctic blasts always recall to me not only my father’s droll comment but the experience that qualified him to make it.

The ten young men – boys would better have described them; my father was all of 16 – and Rav Nekritz, his wife and their two daughters reached the work camp at the end of July, 1941. They thought the Siberian summer was insufferable, with its hordes of stinging gnats and mosquitoes (though my father, always seeing the good, remembered beautiful butterflies too). And, as the exiles felled trees and harvested potatoes and onions, the brown bears in the forest were also on their minds.

But when the first winter arrived, well before Rosh Hashanah, the new arrivals discovered what “Siberia” conjures in most minds.

When I picture the Jews whom the Soviets forced to work outdoors in horrific cold, I can never avoid thinking about what I was doing at 16 years of age, when my biggest challenges were things like being unprepared, through every fault of my own, for a bechinah or math test. The contrast is always, pun intended, chilling.

In keeping with the Novardok derech, the yeshiva bachurim would try to find a few minutes to spend isolated in a far corner of a field, or among the trees of the forest, to think about who they were, who they should be, and how best to journey from the one to the other.

My esteemed friend Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, who has written about Novardok and the Siberian chaburah, has recounted how a non-Jewish resident of the work camp once asked Rav Nekritz why he thought that a respected rabbi and teacher of Torah like him had been reduced to the life of manual labor in the Siberian wastelands.

His response was: “So you and your friends would see that there is a G-d in the world.”

Novardoker that he was, he then added, perhaps to himself as well: “And so that we, too, would see that there is a G-d in the world.” And indeed, Hashem protected the group; all its members survived the war to rebuild their lives and establish families.

Rav Nekritz also once shared a thought with the young exiles.

“The Amora Rav Yitzchak Nafcha,” he pointed out, “was a blacksmith, a lowly job.”

“When we picture a blacksmith,” he continued, “we imagine someone with grossly muscular arms and an unrefined soul. Yet Rav Yitzchak Nafcha was an illustrious chacham, possessed of no less holiness and refinement than any sage whose good fortune was to spend his days in the beis medrash

“Yes, our situation here is very different from what it was in yeshivah. But we can strengthen ourselves so that our surroundings and labors do not negatively affect us. One can be a woodchopper and simultaneously develop an exalted, refined soul, as exalted and refined as that of anyone who spends his entire days in deep introspection. Hatchets and saws need not leave their marks on our neshamos.”

It’s a message not bound to any time and place. For those of us today who are no longer ensconced in yeshivah or seminary, it’s as important to hear as it was for the Novardokers in Siberia.

© 2019 Hamodia

Vanishing Truth

Whiplash was a distinct risk for anyone trying to follow the story – or, perhaps, non-story – of the faceoff the week before last between Kentuckian high schooler Nick Sandmann and a 64-year old Native American, Nathan Phillips, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Each was in town for a rally, Mr. Sandmann, a “Pro-Life” gathering; Mr. Phillips, an “Indigenous Peoples March.”

A short video of the younger man silently smiling at the older one as the Native American chanted and banged on a drum was offered to the public, with the smile characterized, and harshly criticized, as a disrespectful smirk.

Then a longer video emerged, indicating that the smile was benign, and that the two principals were not in conflict.

Or that they were even principals at all, as it became evident that both of the men were reacting to, and at least one of them being crudely insulted by, a group of “Hebrew Israelites.”

Those are black racists dressed in colorful caps and robes adorned with Jewish symbols who try to achieve a sense of self-worth by pretending that they are the “real Jews,” and white people “Edom.” They often appear with display boards inscribed with the English renditions of the names of the shevatim; they imagine that each of various African or Caribbean populations stem from a particular shevet.

Native Americans are assigned the designation of “Dan” by the befuddled members of the racist group, and members of the group, the later video showed, were rudely berating the high school boys, perhaps because some were wearing “Make American Great Again” caps. The “Hebrew Israelites” also tried to enlist Mr. Phillips, a member in their fantasy of the “tribe of Dan,” in their verbal attack on the boys and, at one point, berated him too.

Even after longer depictions of the interaction were available, the debate among partisan players continued, with some trying to sully the boys’ and their religious school’s reputations, and others gleefully attacking the many media that fell hard for the first, incomplete, narrative.

What emerges from the fracas is something that has been increasingly evident in recent years: truth is elusive.

The kernel of the problem is that facts are mediated by people, and people are subject to biases.

Reports tinged (or, at times, saturated) with writers’ prejudices have been colorfully labeled “fake news” by the president; for their part, fact-checkers have catalogued literally thousands of his own contentions that aren’t true over the past two years. It’s hard to know what can be believed and what cannot.

That’s always been the case, of course, but it’s getting worse. Much worse. Incomplete videos are one thing. Deepfakes, quite another.

If you don’t recognize that word, you’re not alone. It’s been around for a while but only entered the larger populace’s lexicon in the past year or two. Deepfakes are videos made with the use of special software that makes it seem that an identifiable person is saying or doing something he has not said or done. Sort of Photoshop for video on steroids.

The software, which is readily available and being constantly refined, superimposes existing recordings and images onto others, creating a realistic, but entirely unreal, action, speech or expression. The technology can be used to alter the words or gestures of a politician or other public figure, yielding the very fakest of fake news.

Last year, a doctored image circulated by gun rights activists and Russian discord-sowers purported to show a Parkland high school shooting survivor and gun control advocate ripping up a copy of the Constitution. What she had actually torn up was a bulls-eye poster from a gun range.

And Myanmar’s military is believed to have used deepfakes to ignite a wave of killings in that country.

Legislators have taken note. Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that “America’s enemies are already using fake images to sow discontent and divide us. Now imagine the power of a video that appears to show stolen ballots, salacious comments from a political leader, or innocent civilians killed in conflict abroad.”

Technology expert Peter Singer predicted that deepfakes will “definitely be weaponized” whether it is for “poisoning domestic politics” or by hostile nation-state actors to gain an edge on the battlefield.

The 24-hour news cycle and expansion of social media platforms only compound the problem. “A lie,” as the saying goes, “can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

Chazal teach that, when the “footsteps” of Moshiach are close, ha’emes tehei ne’ederes, “truth will go missing” (Sotah 49b).

Seems there’s cause for optimism.

© 2019 Hamodia

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

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

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.

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