Category Archives: Personal Reflections

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

Where’s the Slide?

I pass the large lady twice each workday, and no longer pay her much mind, unlike the tourists on the Staten Island ferry sailing with me, who have journeyed hundreds or thousands of miles to get a glimpse of – and, of course, a selfie with – the Statue of Liberty.

But when we moved to New York 24 years ago, we visited the statue with our children. The visit yielded one of those “kids say the funniest things” quotes, one we invoke to this day.

We marched up the 150 or so steps of the double spiral staircase from the statue’s base to its crown. It was an increasingly claustrophobic experience, as the passage grew narrower with our ascent, but with each step I marveled at the fact that I was actually walking inside the gift from France and symbol of freedom across the globe, seeing it from an entirely new perspective.

Impressively, even the youngest member of our family, a bright and energetic then-three-year-old, managed to scamper up the steps with his little feet.

His memorable comment, delivered with puzzlement, when we reached the top: “Where’s the slide?”

If he was distressed by our laughter and explanation that, unlike the culmination of other climbs he had made, there was no slide here, he didn’t show it. And while he may have wondered about the point of it all, good soldier that he was (and is – today as a member of Rav Shimon Alster’s kollel in Cliffwood, New Jersey), he dutifully marched with us back down.

So “Where’s the slide?” has become the Shafran family’s version of the saying, attributed to cartoonist Allen Saunders, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” Fixation on some end can obscure what one is experiencing now.

Yiddishkeit certainly focuses us on both the past and the future. As Jews we are enjoined to remember and try to emulate the Avos and Imahos, to recall Mattan Torah, the Beis Hamikdash and more. And we are ultimately enjoined to defer the impermanent indulgences of Olam Hazeh for the only meaningful and ultimate fulfillment of the future, Olam Haba. But none of that contradicts our need, at the same time, to recognize the import of the moment, the opportunity that the present alone provides.

We often find ourselves so focused on the slide that we don’t notice where we actually are, so absorbed in the later that we are oblivious to the now.

My wife and I try to get away for a day or two each summer in search of a waterfall we haven’t yet seen. Several years ago we hiked up a steep trail to experience Kaaterskill Falls, in upstate New York.

About 100 miles north of New York City, the falls have two tiers, with a combined height of 230 feet, higher than Niagara Falls. We didn’t know it at the time, but the falls have been the site of several fatalities, at least eight since 1992.

According to Rob Dawson, a state forest ranger, the last four people who died at Kaaterskill Falls were either taking or posing for pictures. They were focused, quite literally, on creating mementos of their having reached the falls – or, more likely of late, on transmitting images of themselves there to their friends and relatives on social media.

It’s understandable, of course, for a person to want a photograph of an achievement or event, and usually, baruch Hashem, the endeavor isn’t fatal. But reading of the tragedies reminded me of Saunders’ adage, and made me wonder if our obsession with documenting things hasn’t overly encroached on the wonder of actually experiencing them.

Think of all the time, effort and trouble that go into creating chasunah photos and videos. Leave aside how often most people really look at them after the first time. Just think of how much the recording of a simchah can deprive the principals and celebrants of enjoying the moment. (Please, professionals, no angry letters! I don’t mean to, chalilah, devalue your skill and work, only to spur thought.) And with the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, how much time people spend staring at little screens depicting joyous occasions rather than being parts of them.

There were no cellphone cameras when we navigated the Statue of Liberty’s innards; we hadn’t bothered bringing my Minolta. But even though we have no photos of the experience, and our little boy may have been disappointed by it, the trip to the crown, even sans slide, remains most memorable and vivid in my mind.

© 2018 Hamodia

Traffic Jams and the Yom Hadin

As a young teenager davening daily in the shul that my father, a”h, served as Rav, a congregation whose clientele ranged from totally non-observant Jews to fully observant ones, I considered myself something of an expert in Jewish sociology.

I wasn’t anything of the sort, of course, and my assumptions that none of the non-observant shul members would ever one day begin to keep Shabbos or undertake kashrus or study Torah were happily proven wrong. I underestimated the power of my father’s warmth and his standing on principle, and the respect that those things engendered in his congregants. And the ability of people to change.

But before I saw the power of an unabashed but warm presentation of Jewish right and wrong, I looked down at the shul members who expressed their Jewishness only on the “High Holidays” – “three day Jews,” some called them – and yahrtzeits, and I considered them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism, after all, can’t be “compartmentalized” and “practiced” only in shul. It’s an all-encompassing, non-stop way of life.

Around the same time I stopped looking down my young nose, I started looking into my young heart, and realized that I, too, compartmentalized Yiddishkeit, living it fully at times and places but… less fully at other ones.

The truth is that it’s a problem many of us, young or old or in-between, regularly need to confront. We may live observant Orthodox lives, doing all the things expected of a frum Jew – eating only foods graced with the best hechsherim and wearing whatever de rigeuer head-covering our communities expect of us, avoid things that must be avoided – but may still, at least to some degree, in other environments or areas of our lives… compartmentalize. It’s a challenge to keep foremost in our consciousnesses that the Creator is as manifest on a July Tuesday in a traffic jam as He is in shul on Yom Hadin.

Compartmentalization explains how it is that an otherwise committed Orthodox Jew can, in his workplace, engage in questionable business practices, or mistreat a child or a spouse. Or, more mundanely but no less significantly, how he can cut others off on the road, speak rudely to another person, or blog irresponsibly.

It’s not, chas v’shalom, that such people don’t acknowledge Hashem’s presence or their responsibilities. It’s just that, while going through the daily grind, they don’t always include Him in their activities.

Even many of us who think of our Jewish mindfulness as healthy are also prone at times to compartmentalize our avodas Hashem. It’s painful to ponder, but do we all maintain the Hashem-awareness we (hopefully) attain in shul on a Shabbos at all times, wherever we may be? Do we always, wherever we may be, think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or even take care to pronounce every word clearly)? Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety? Do our observances sometimes fade into mindless rote?

When it comes to compartmentalization, I suspect, there really isn’t any “us” and “them.” All of us occupy a point on a continuum here, some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-present reality of the Divine, some less so.

Rosh Hashanah and the rest of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah are suffused with the concept of Malchiyus, or Kingship. The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and we say Hamelech Hakadosh in our tefillos. We might well wonder: What has Kingship to do with teshuvah?

Consider: a king rules over his entire kingdom; little if anything escapes even a mortal monarch’s reach, and no subject dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case not of a king but a King.

And so, we might consider that kingship (or, at least, Kingship) is diametrical to compartmentalization, to the notion that the Monarch rules only here, not there; only then, not now. There are, ideally, no places and no times when Hakadosh Baruch Hu can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is a yearly opportunity to internalize that thought, and to try to bring our lives more in line with it.

And, no less than some of those once-“three day Jews” did, to change our lives.

Ksivah vachasimah tovah.

© 2018 Hamodia

Faisal, Mohammed and Hasnain

Arriving in Toronto for a family simchah last week, my wife and I found a city – at least the parts of it not involved in personal celebrations – still reeling from a gunman’s Motzoei Tisha B’Av shooting of random strangers, leaving a young woman and a 10-year-old girl dead, and 13 people injured.

The name of the culprit, Faisal Hussain, and his Pakistani parentage, along with the Islamic State’s claim that he was part of that murderous movement (“a soldier of the Islamic State,” the group crowed, “[who] carried out the attack in response to calls to target the citizens of the coalition countries”) obviously raised concerns that the terrorist, who killed himself after his rampage, had been motivated by Islamist sentiments.

Authorities in Toronto, a city of inordinate politeness, said that “at this stage,” there was no evidence connecting the shooter with radical Islam. What subsequent stages may reveal remains to be seen.

The murderer’s family expressed its “deepest condolences” to the victims and their families for what they called “our son’s horrific actions,” and said that the killer had been mentally ill. As if emotional ailments somehow lead non-evil people to kill and maim random innocents.

Wednesday night saw a vigil in the Toronto neighborhood where the rampage occurred. Thousands of Canadians held lit candles in memory of those killed. Thursday morning saw my wife and me bidding goodbye to my parents-in-law as we waited for an electronically summoned car service taxi to pick us up for the trip to the airport.

Our driver’s name, we were informed, was Hasnain.

The conversation between us and my sister-in-law, perhaps predictably, veered into terrorist territory, so to speak, as we considered whether car service drivers should be subject to suspicion based on their ethnicities or countries of origin. Not an unreasonable proposition, of course; most Islamic terrorists have Muslim names and roots in Muslim lands.

Then again, as my wife interjected, no less reasonable is the contention that the vast majority of Muslim-named immigrants from Muslim lands are neither terrorists nor their sympathizers.

I recalled a long cab ride I took a year or so ago with Mohammed (not the original one). As it turned out, he had worked for years in a kosher meat store in Brooklyn, spoke some Yiddish and had only the kindest words for his observant Orthodox erstwhile employer. (The driver had freely chosen his change of career, preferring steering wheels to meat slicers.)

The car was one minute away and so we bid our final goodbyes and went outside. Hasnain had a 4.9 (out of 5) rating as a driver but I had to wonder if he might have any rating in some unrelated field. I pushed the thought out of my head.

He was friendly, of course; a 4.9 rating isn’t earned by surliness. And most of the trip, he was silent.

After having to dodge some double-parked cars on both sides of Bathurst St. (Southern Brooklyn isn’t unique, I learned), Hasnain apologized for the swervings. His English was excellent, British-tinged.

I decided to ask him where he was from. Pakistan. How long he’d been here. Six years.

“You learned English so well in so short a time?”

“Oh, I had an excellent education in Pakistan, including in English. As a matter of fact, when we moved here, my children were well ahead of their Canadian classmates in their studies.”

I was intrigued. “What did you do for a living in Pakistan?” I asked.

“I owned a successful leatherworking factory, with high-end fashion companies across Europe as clients.” Here he dropped a list of names, one or two of which I had heard of.

“So why did you leave?”

“Well, I was kidnapped.”

“You were kidnapped?” my wife and I queried, in comic unison.

“Yes,” he replied. “By the Taliban.”

We asked for details but at that point we were at the airport. He just smiled and said, “I escaped.” He got out of the car and unloaded our suitcases. As we thanked him, I thought of the conversation at my in-laws’ home, not an hour earlier.

Yes, terrorists these days tend, like last week’s rampager, to have Muslim names and Muslim-majority country connections. And, yes, most Muslim-named immigrants from Muslim lands are not terrorists. Two uncontestable truths.

And, while caution is always in order, especially these days, our heads have to be sufficiently large to hold both those thoughts simultaneously.

© 2018 Hamodia

Original, unedited version of previous article

The piece as it appears in Moment was edited, shortened for space.  Below is the original, longer version:

 

A Haredi Rabbi’s Rumination on Racism

Mr. Paskow*, now long gone, was a transplant to these shores, an Eastern-European-born Holocaust survivor, and, over the 1970s, he attended services at the small shul where my late father served as rabbi.  And, like many of his generation, Mr. Paskow harbored some deep, overt racial prejudices.

Shvartzes,” Yiddish for “blacks,” is a term that – not unlike “Jews” in English – can be used as a simple descriptive identifier or as a pejorative, depending on context and how the word is spoken.  Likewise with the synonym tunkel, meaning “dark-skinned.” In my parents’ home, the terms were used only the way one might use any other noun or adjective to describe someone.

Someone like Lucille, our once-a-week African-American maid. I was taught to be respectful and appreciative of her; her blackness was a simple matter of fact.

I wish I had been old and savvy enough to ask Lucille about her own childhood and life. What did she know about her ancestry? Did she resent being a domestic? What were her aspirations for her children?

I’ll never know the answers, but what I do know is that she seemed content with her life, and became, at least on Sundays, part of our family. The most vivid memories I have of Lucille are of her greeting me warmly when I came home from yeshiva and of her sitting at the kitchen table being served lunch by my mother, who would then sit down across from her and schmooze (about what, unfortunately, memory fails).

When Lucille grew older and infirm, my parents “employed” her all the same for several years to do very light work. Mama would, as always, serve her lunch and pay her wages, as compensation, not charity. That lesson in kavod habriot, “honoring all people,” remains with me to this day.

Mr. Paskow, though, was of a different mind about blacks. He employed “shvartzes” often, and not as a term of endearment. It was 1969, and race riots in a number of cities the previous year provided the elderly shulgoer with ample fodder for his racial railings.

Waiting each day for Mincha services to begin, Mr. Paskow, often as not, would pontificate about political and social issues.

I was just a teenager, and held my peace.  I had experienced black anti-Semitism.  Like the boy who liked to yell “Heil Hitler!” at my father and me when we walked to the synagogue on the Sabbath, or the public school students who, having been invited by a group of us Jewboys to play a game of softball, lost interest in the ball when they were up to bat, and wielded the wood against us.

But I had also grown fond of my yeshiva’s black gym teacher, a consummate mensch and sportsmanship role model.  And I had also experienced the close friendship of a black neighbor a bit older than I.  I tried to see people as just people.  So I ignored Mr. Paskow’s ravings.

Until, one day, entirely en passant, he mentioned Lenny, a boy he had employed years earlier in his haberdashery, and whom the elderly man had effectively adopted, even paying, he said, for the kid’s college education. One of the other congregants asked Mr. Paskow whether Lenny was Jewish.  “No,” said the elderly man.  “He was a shvartze.”

Old bigoted Mr. Paskow’s protégé was black?  And he had given him a job for the asking?  And paid his college tuition? Who could have guessed?

I filed that oddity away in my head.

When my wife and I married and had children, we raised them to respect all people of whatever ethnicity. When we lived in Providence, Rhode Island, our daughters befriended a black neighborhood girl, Desiree, who was often a guest at our home.

Our children were also particularly fond of Dhanna, the caring black librarian, who was so nice and helpful to them.  Their artwork graced her desk.

And, in the early 1990s, I was privileged to write a biography of a local man of African and Native American ancestry whose determination to become a Jew inspired me.

None of that erased the hatred for Jews I had experienced from blacks. But I knew there’s no dearth of white haters either.

And there’s racism, moreover, among Jews as well. But Farrakhan and followers aside, I think that blacks and Jews have grown less wary of each other, and learned that “the other” isn’t really quite so “other.”  Blacks and haredim have increasingly interacted in politics, businesses and many professions.

In late April, the leading haredi newspaper Hamodia editorialized about the new “lynching museum” in Montgomery, Alabama, and asserted “the need for all Americans, even those of us whose forebears were far from American shores when African-Americans were killed and seen as subhuman, to ensure that the tragic history of American racial violence, too, is not forgotten.”

My thoughts cycle back to Mr. Paskow.  The co-existence of his apparent racism and real-life colorblindness, I suspect, meant that, although his attitude toward blacks was influenced by radicals and rioters, deep in his Jewish soul, he could see, beyond a nebulous group, an individual.

Racism, I fear, may be a fact of life, and its eradication an unattainable goal.

“Curing” racism would be a perfect thing, but, as so often, the perfect is the enemy of the good.  The good here to pursue is, rather than trying to disabuse people of the biases they may coddle, charging them to focus on individuals.

Let people joke and grouse as they wish about whites, blacks, Jews, Muslims or Mexicans, specious though some of the stereotypes may be.  It shouldn’t matter what people think about any group.

It doesn’t matter to me, a visibly Jewish Jew, if someone assumes I possess traits that anti-Semites attribute to my tribe.  I am, indeed, rather cliquish, preferring the company of my own people.  No apologies there.  But I’m neither wealthy, nor do I have business acumen.  And I can’t control my weight, much less the world.  All I ask is that others see me, whatever their beliefs about Jews, as an individual. Judge me as me.

It might seem radical to abandon the traditional assumption that fighting racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism requires hitting some reset button.  But what if there is no button, if looking for it is a fool’s errand?

Most Americans are not true bigots; they don’t hate anyone.  But we all have prejudices. Maybe the best we can, and should, do is accept that fact, but remind ourselves constantly that whatever we may think about a group of people, each of its members, in the end, is an individual.

Even Mr. Paskow was able to do that.

*Not his real name

A Fish’s Smile

I was accosted recently on the Staten Island Ferry by a large fish.

Well, not exactly. It was actually a large photograph of a fish, on a poster carrying the legend: “I’m ME, not MEAT. See the individual. Go vegan.”

Yes, “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” or PETA, has taken its efforts to the high seas. And, although some of the other animals featured on similar posters in the “I’m ME” campaign elsewhere are not particularly charming – it’s hard to make a cow or chicken (much less a lobster) look friendly – the fish whose gaze met mine as I took a seat on the boat and looked to my right was decidedly endearing.

Because he (she?) was smiling.

Or appeared to be. That’s because the sea creatures Hashem created include not just astoundingly colorful and morphologically remarkable species but some that have what strike humans as expressive, almost human, faces. Some look angry, others perplexed – others, like the one on the poster, happy, friendly.

None of those faces, though, in fact reflects any of those human traits, any more than a smiley-face sticker means the sticker is happy. We might be able to tell when a dog is pleased, but when we imagine animals expressing truly human emotions, we are unconsciously anthropomorphizing them – attributing quintessentially human traits to creatures lacking them. There are photographs of “smiling” sharks too.

Of course, trying to convince people that, as PETA’s founder and president Ingrid Newkirk once famously put it, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” is the group’s raison d’être.

It even went so far, in 2003, to promote what it called its “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, comparing the meat processing industry to Churban Europa. The traveling exhibit juxtaposed World War II death camp photographs with scenes in animal slaughter facilities.

Emaciated men were shown next to a gaggle of chickens; pigs behind bars, beside starving children behind barbed wire; mounds of human remains beside mounds of cow carcasses. In one panel, above the legend “Baby Butchers,” mothers and children in striped garb were shown staring through the barbed wire of a concentration camp; alongside them, a similar shot of caged… piglets.

Ms. Newkirk once commented that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.” Try wrapping a normal brain around that comparison.

A half-hearted “apology” eventually came, but only for the “pain” the exhibit may have caused. Ms. Newkirk expressed her surprise at the negative reaction. She had “truly believed,” she wrote, “that a large segment of the Jewish community would support” the exhibit, and was “bowled over by the negative reception.” Disturbingly, she laid responsibility for the ill-advised campaign on “PETA staff [who] were Jewish.” Ah, the Jews.

A longtime and still employed slogan of the group, in fact, is “Meat is Murder.” But it’s not. Meat is food. At least since the Mabul, the Torah not only permits meat-eating, it encourages it on Shabbos and Yamim Tovim as a means of enjoying and hence showing honor to holy times.

Few if any religious cultures are as concerned with animals as our mesorah. Not only were two of the three Avos, not to mention Moshe Rabbeinu, caring shepherds, but there is a halachic prohibition of tzaar baalei chaim.

And in actual practice, observant Jews are exquisitely sensitive to animal well-being. I recall as a young boy how my father scooped two injured birds from a street and brought them home to care for them. In my own home, even insects are captured and released rather than killed. (I won’t subject readers again to the menagerie of pets – the goat, iguana, tarantula and assortment of rodents – the Shafran family has hosted. Sorry, guess I just did.) I am careful, as per the Talmud’s exhortation regarding animals, to feed my own tropical fish before I sit down myself to dinner.

But the Torah is clear that animals are for human use. We can hold them captive, we can work them and we can eat them. We can, indeed must, when there is a Beis Hamikdash, bring them as korbanos.

The “PETA Principle,” paralleling animals with humans, subtly lies at the root of much that is wrong with our world. But humans alone make moral choices; animals do not. And conflating the two worlds shows disdain for the specialness of the human being.

A rat may be, in a way, a pig, and a pig a dog.

None of them, though, is a boy.

And fishes don’t smile.

© 2018 Hamodia

 

 

Us, Them and the Deep State

Hamodia opted to not publish my column submission for this week, so I post it here instead.

The two thirds of the American populace that objected to the policy of removing children from their illegal immigrant parents at the southern border emitted a collective sigh of relief last week. President Trump, in a stunning turnabout, signed an executive order intended to stop the practice.

Although there are logistical and legal issues still to be resolved and subsequent presidential tweets to try to reconcile with the executive order, the president demonstrated the courage to publicly jettison his repeated claim that he was powerless to act, that only a larger action by Democrats in Congress could end the separation policy. He deserves credit for that move.

Before his reversal, though, the administration’s policy was to treat people who entered the country illegally as felons rather than civil violation offenders (first-time illegal entry is a misdemeanor). Children, even very young ones, were taken from their parents against their will, and the policy was broadly decried. Among the decriers was Agudath Israel of America, which expressed its “deep concern and disappointment” over the resultant “profound suffering and pain to both parents and children.”

The Agudah statement acknowledged that the “problem of illegal immigration is a serious one, and we support reasonable efforts by the administration and legislature to effectively stem the flow of would-be immigrants who have not been accepted through the legal immigration system.” But it contended that “seeking to enforce our statutes does not relieve us of [our] moral obligation” to prevent “the extreme anguish, fear and trauma born of separating undocumented immigrant family members, which is particularly harmful to children.”

The reaction to Agudath Israel’s statement was broad and diverse. There were many expressions of gratitude for its issuance, from both members of our community and others. But there were a number of negative reactions too. I serve as the Agudah’s liaison with the media and public, and so those reactions landed in my inbox, some with quite a thud.

They confirmed something that (as regular readers of this space well know) has pained me for years: the prevalence of gross, fervent and unthinking partisanship.

A legitimate question asked by several people was why the Agudah felt the need to comment on the situation at all. The organization does not, of course, regularly comment on events that lack direct impact on the Jewish community.

The knowledge, though, that wailing children were being taken from their parents was wrenching not only to a broad swath of the larger American public but to a wide swath, too, of Klal Yisraelrachmanim, after all, bnei rachmanim. So, it was not inappropriate for us to register our pain. And, with scores of religious groups registering their own protests of the policy, some of them quite harshly, it was felt that, should the Agudah say nothing, it would be assumed to approve of the policy.

Striking, though, was the lack of information that underlay some other (often vociferous) complaints. Several people, “informed” presumably by news sources that richly deserve the adjective “fake,” insisted that “the law” requires family breakups, and that the policy of considering unlawful entrants to be criminals had been in place under previous administrations.

When I explained that there was and is no such law, and that the policy of automatically considering illegal entrants to our country deserving of incarceration and the seizing of their children was mere weeks old, they seemed taken aback.

Others apprised us that a “deep state” plot, or Democratic Party conspiracy, was clearly at play; others were upset that we dared “attack” a sitting president, although we took care in our statement to not even mention the president or attorney general, and lamented only the upshot of an unfortunate policy. When, in past years, the Agudah issued statements critical of the Obama administration for joining the U.N. Human Rights Council or fostering the Iran Deal, no complaints, to the best of my memory, were registered.

Some correspondents, seemingly having read only part of the statement, interpreted the Agudah’s expression of humanitarian concern as advocacy for “open borders.” As if there are only two options: wrenching kids from their parents’ arms or having the country overrun by a horde of Aztec invaders.

The acutely politicized, black-and-white, “us-and-them” and often woefully misinformed mentality in parts of our world is lamentable. Intelligent, informed opinions on current events cannot be gleaned from talk radio hosts or blatantly partisan news organizations. Astuteness requires middos tovos, the consideration of different points of view and the application of that most important of skills: critical thinking.

And their lack poorly serves the mission of Klal Yisrael.

© 2018 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Human Uniqueness

In the course of a public roundtable discussion about immigration and crime, a few days before Shavuos, President Trump made a comment that provoked some outrage.

“You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are,” he said, about certain illegal immigrants. “These aren’t people, these are animals.”

The president was immediately assailed for what critics assumed was a crass dehumanization of foreigners. Stress on “immediately” and “assumed.”

Because had the critics taken the time to examine Mr. Trump’s comment in its context, they could have based what comments they had on facts, not assumptions.

But, no doubt recollecting some of presidential candidate Trump’s harsher campaign declarations about Mexicans, Muslims and others, some of those who see him as a danger to democracy didn’t look at what he actually said but, rather, chose to suppose.

“We are all G-d’s children,” scolded House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum declared that “Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot all called their opponents ‘parasites’ or ‘vermin’ or ‘animals’.  Dehumanization is what you do to unwanted social groups before killing them.”

The Trump-Hitler comparison became a meme of the moment in certain parts of the social media planet.

The president took delight in exposing the overreaction, since his “animals” comment was clearly made with reference to violent criminal elements, some of whom have committed unspeakable acts of murderous, cruel violence. Earlier at the event, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims had referred to the violent criminal gang MS-13. While the gang started in Los Angeles and includes many American citizens, its members are ethnic Central Americans, and the need to prevent suspected members from coming across our border illegally is a no-brainer.

But I still have an objection to the president’s characterization of violent criminals.

It’s unfair to animals.

My family has played host at various times to a goat, an iguana, assorted rodents and a tarantula.  (Witnessing the large spider’s shedding of its skin to emerge with a new, radiant one is an unforgettable experience.) I exult at watching the inhabitants of my aquarium (we recently welcomed new brood of baby guppies and mollies – mazel tov!), and the birds, squirrels and deer that pass our way are always appreciated.

I recently watched a carpenter bee excavate a perfect circle on the underside of the wooden maakeh on our deck, knowing that she will abruptly turn at a right angle to continue her tunnel horizontally, and create a tunneled-out bedroom for her progeny.

The wonders of the world Hashem created are ceaseless, and the amazing behaviors of the countless creatures He placed on earth, if viewed with honest eyes, must astound.

And each of those behaviors is ingrained in the species. To be sure, some are violent; Tennyson’s observation of nature’s being “red in tooth and claw” holds true. But animals who kill do so for food or survival, and act out of instinct, not as a result of choice.

Unlike humans, who can never be deemed innocent of horrific crimes on the claim that they were compelled by their nature. The specialness of the human lies in his ability to resist base inclinations, to use the astonishing gift we have been given: free will.

Calling a human who has made a choice to act cruelly or to wantonly maim or kill others an animal does an immense disservice to the animal kingdom, whose members do what they do because it is their immutable nature. And, worse, it subtly muddles the meaning of the outrage we should feel at human acts of violence or cruelty.

We live in times when some contend that there is no qualitative difference between an animal and a human being, that we are as hard-wired and predictable in our behavior as any lion, tarantula or carpenter bee. The upshot of that view is a world where there is no more meaning to right and wrong than there is to right and left.

That amoral philosophy stands in the starkest contrast to what the Torah teaches us: We are not animals but choosers, owners of our actions.

President Trump was riffing, of course, not philosophizing, at the recent public roundtable. And his point, no matter how one may feel about immigration policy, wasn’t to sow hatred for foreigners, much less to dehumanize any “unwanted social groups before killing them.”

He was just trying to express the depth of his contempt for people who have made the choice to profit from the torture and murder of others. The truest description of such people, though, isn’t “animals” but “choosers of evil,” something more heinous by far.

© 2018 Hamodia

A Tale of Two Speeches

I had the honor of making two public presentations in recent days, one to second grade students at the impressive Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Southfield, Michigan; and the other, to students and members of the public at the University of Maryland.

The first gig was dearer to me, since the members of my audience were people not set in their ways and thus open to my message, which was about what makes kids kids and grownups grownups. (The boys shared various ideas and I, mine: Awareness of Consequences – hey, it’s never too early to learn a new word.) But the class has a wonderful Rebbi and really didn’t need my own input.

By contrast, the audience at the second presentation, which was sponsored by the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, included many middle-aged and older members, less open to changing their attitudes, which are largely and unfortunately detached from the Jewish mesorah. They were proud Jews, to be sure, but with an assortment of misguided notions of just what living Jewish really means.

And yet, from the sentiments conveyed by attendees who approached me after my participation in a panel discussion of whether there is a divide between American Jews and Israel, the presence of an unabashedly Orthodox participant in the day-long program was appreciated. And I am grateful to Professor Paul L. Scham, the institute’s executive director, for inviting my participation. Especially since other parts of the day included a strident speech by the president of the New Israel Fund and what struck me as an attempt to upholster the deck chairs on a theological Titanic by the head of the American Reform movement.

On the panel, I attempted some humor to convince the audience that underneath my black suit (and sefirah-overgrown beard) was a normal human being. Then I made a serious case, that a connection to authentic Judaism empowers dedication to the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael – and that the demographics of the American Jewish community, which indicate a clear waning of non-Orthodox movements and a waxing of Orthodoxy, heralds a stronger pro-Israel future American Jewry.

And I took the opportunity to assert that the true preserver of the Jewish people, and the true ensurer of its integrity and unity is our mutual religious heritage.

In that context, I highlighted groups like Partners in Torah, and the way they non-judgmentally bond Jews through the study of traditional Jewish texts. I cited the example of my wife, who has for years studied weekly by phone with an intermarried Jewish woman in Arizona whom she has not yet met.

I knew I wouldn’t likely convince those present who were long invested in Reform or secular Jewish culture. But planting seeds, I learned from my years in chinuch, is always a worthy thing. Sometimes seedlings sprout down the line.

The best part of such conferences, though, is the opportunity they present to speak with Jews whom I would otherwise not likely ever meet. I cherish those chances to engage fellow Jews very different from me in friendly conversation. (And there’s always the amusement afforded by the reaction of the inevitable question about my college alma mater; when informed that I just managed to graduate high school and thereafter studied only in yeshivah, the questioner seems shocked that I speak English competently.)

The most memorable conversation I had at this particular conference was with a lady somewhat older than I and with a very serious demeanor who recounted an experience she had had over Pesach, on the street of a Florida city where she had spent the holiday.

She described how she went for a walk on the first day of Pesach, in clothing suited to the climate, and saw a man, whom she described as “a Satmar Chassid in a big fur hat,” coming toward her from the opposite direction.

“And I said to him,” she told me, “‘Gut yontiff.’”

My “justification mode” kicked right in and I prepared to explain to her how there are different norms in different communities, and that some Jewish men, out of tzenius concerns, don’t address women directly, and how, in other circumstances, surely, the gentleman would have acted differently…

But as my head was churning out the hasbarah, she continued her story, describing how the man stopped, smiled at her and – here she imitated the man’s motions – bowed to her three times, and heartily said “Gut Yom Tov! Gut Yom Tov! Gut Yom Tov!”

It was worth all the time and shlep and speeches just to hear that account.

© 2018 Hamodia