Is Socialism Looming?

Back in 1947, a public relations firm called Whitaker and Baxter, hired by the American Medical Association, created a term to disparage President Harry Truman’s proposal for a national health-care system.

It was a stroke of PR genius, at the dawn of the cold war between the U.S. and the communist Soviet Union, when many Americans feared communist infiltration of the republic, to label Truman’s plan for universal health care “socialized medicine.” Nearly thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the phrase endures, along with at least some of the accompanying disdain it was designed to evoke.

The A.M.A. ran with the medicine ball and distributed posters to doctors with slogans like “Socialized medicine … will undermine the democratic form of government.”

Fast-forward seven decades. Universal health care is shaping up to be one of, if not the, defining issues of the 2020 presidential campaign, and in some circles is being labeled “socialist.” And indeed it is, at least in the word’s more benign definition.

Some words or phrases, of course, don’t always mean what they might seem to on the surface. Like “Important!” in the subject box of an e-mail, which almost always means the opposite. Or “a service representative will be with you shortly” on a phone call, which usually turns out to be a bald lie. “Socialist,” too, doesn’t necessarily mean what it once did.

Back in the day, a socialist was a close ideological cousin of a communist. Socialism as a governmental system may have lacked the communist element of totalitarianism and total control of people’s lives; but it still placed ownership of all means of production in the hands of the populace, with members of society receiving what they need but having no incentive to work hard to achieve anything more.

But socialism as an all-encompassing, coercive system of government is something distinct from governmental programs aimed at providing safety nets to citizens. Like Social Security, for example, or Medicare or, for that matter, the public school system. All are “socialist” creatures, at least in the sense that they are government-run and aimed at ensuring certain benefits for the entire citizenry.

Universal health care, which has been endorsed as a desideratum by a number of Democratic candidates for the nation’s highest office, is “socialist” too, for sharing the same aim – here, to ensure that all Americans have access to doctors, hospitals and medications.

As it happens, though, even “universal health care” – reflected in the increasingly popular mantra “Medicare for all,” which is becoming the Democratic counterpart to Republicans’ “Build the wall!” – has different meanings. Or, at least, there are very different vehicles for achieving that goal.

The idea of providing health care to all Americans is simple enough. But there is a den of devils in the details.

For some, like Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, the way to go is a national, “single-payer” health system, in which private insurance is abolished. (As you might imagine, insurance companies are not fans of such a plan.) All sorts of costs born of the way insurance interests operate would presumably be eliminated, and medical care streamlined.

That’s the upside. The downside is that the insurance companies’ replacement would be the federal government. Frightening as that may be to some, and imperfect as such systems are in places like Great Britain and Canada, most Americans feel that the feds have done a decent job running Medicare. Back on the other hand, though, a “single payer” approach would likely mean higher taxes.

Other plans are mixtures of government and private insurers. In Switzerland, for instance, citizens buy insurance for themselves and pay deductibles, but the government subsidizes health care on an income-based graduated basis,

Then there is the approach of offering citizens discounts on government-sponsored health insurance plans, and expanding the Medicaid assistance program to include more people who can’t afford health care. That is the essential feature of something called Obamacare, the current system in place.

As in all large governmental efforts, achieving universal health care in the U.S. is a stupendously complex undertaking. But six out of ten Americans say it is the federal government’s responsibility to make it happen. The U.S., in fact, is the only wealthy industrial country in the world lacking such a system.

I’m not sufficiently proficient in assessing the necessary calculi to offer any opinion about which health-care path is the best way forward. What I do know, though, is that whatever approach ends up being chosen by the electorate, it won’t be the sort of socialism Americans once feared was lurking under the bed.

© 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

Numbers, Not Narratives

Every civilized human being is rightly outraged by things like the vicious murders committed by members of the international Salvadoran gang MS-13, the fatal beating of the 76-year-old Georgia resident Robert Page by undocumented Mexican immigrant Christian Ponce-Martinez and other appalling acts committed in the U.S. by people who were born elsewhere.

But anecdotes, even the most horrific, don’t necessarily lead to correct conclusions. Samuel Little, after all, who last year confessed to killing 90 women in multiple states over nearly four decades, was a born and bred American, as was John Lee Cowell, who stabbed two sisters, one fatally, in an Oakland, California train station. And Robert D. Bowers, the killer of 11 people last October at a Pittsburgh Jewish congregation, was another “all-American.”

Immigration issues, including the question of whether immigrants are disproportionately responsible for crimes, have been on the front burners of Americans’ consciousness for several years.

As Jews, we have good reason to favor, at least within reasonable limits, the welcoming of new Americans. Most of us ourselves descend from fairly recent immigrants, many of whom said Kaddish for other would-be Americans who were prevented by quotas and prejudices from finding refuge on these shores. But Jewish immigrants to the U.S. have overwhelmingly been law-abiding and contributors to the economic growth and well-being of American society.

What, though, about the current wave of immigration from points south? Are those Central Americans and Mexicans who aspire to living and working in our country of similar bent, and potential? Or do they endanger Americans’ safety and security?

Ascertaining if there is a significant relationship between crossers of the U.S.-Mexican border and criminal acts committed on American soil requires looking not at narratives but at numbers.

When comparing different populations’ crime rates, controlling for the size of the population is essential. And so, researchers plumbing that data look at the numbers of convictions per 100,000 members of a particular group. And the resultant numbers are striking.

Most law enforcement agencies’ crime data don’t include violators’ immigration status. But Texas, a border and law-and-order state, does; its police cooperate with federal immigration enforcement authorities at the Department of Homeland Security who check the biometrics of all arrestees in the state.

The individual liberty, limited government and free markets-promoting CATO Institute, formerly the Charles Koch Foundation (yes, that Charles Koch), has analyzed Texas crime data over the year 2015 – the most recent year for which all the relevant figures are available. It found that the criminal conviction and arrest rates for legal immigrants in most criminal categories were markedly… below those of native-born Americans. Even the conviction and arrest rates for people who immigrated illegally were lower than those for those who were born and raised in the U.S.

During that year, reports CATO, as a percentage of their respective populations, the criminal conviction rate for legal immigrants in Texas was about 66 percent below the native-born rate, and 50 percent lower than native-born Americans for illegal immigrants.

Limiting the findings to homicide cases alone, the conviction rate per 100,000 people for native-born Americans was 3.1; for illegal immigrants, 2.6; and for legal immigrants, 1.

There were also fewer larceny convictions of immigrants than of natives that year. (Interestingly, though, there were more such convictions for legal immigrants than for people who are here illegally: 74 per 100,000 for the former, 62 for the latter. For born Americans, the number is 267.)

All of those facts might seem counterintuitive, or at least counter-assumptive, but, surprising as they may be, they are borne out as well from the documented lack of any positive effect on crime rates in localities that enacted enforcement programs focused on deporting illegal immigrants.

There are many matters attendant to the issue of immigration that need to be carefully considered: What should be done about the more than three million “Dreamers,” undocumented young people who have been in our country since childhood; what should qualify as grounds for asylum; the economic impact of increased immigration (though it’s generally positive, low-wage workers may suffer if immigration numbers grow); how to most effectively and sensibly secure our borders; how to deal with those seeking to enter the U.S. as families; what kin should be permitted to join their legal immigrant relatives already here; and more.

All are legitimate matters for discussion, and none have obvious, straightforward answers. But in those conversations, one thing is, or should be, absent: the notion that immigrants, even those who have crossed our borders illegally, are more likely than good ol’ Americans to be criminals.

© 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

Minding Our A.Qs and M.Q.s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Hamodia

Genetics and Mimetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Hamodia