Monday, September 20, 2010

Kol Nidre: A Postmortem

Confession: As a proud Ashkenazi and litvak to boot I take great pride in my heritage. However, over the years I have developed an appreciation for Sephardim for many reasons: They tend to have a healthier approach to religious practice with a keen sense of balance between ritual observance and modern living. For example, it isn’t unusual to see Sephardi young adults attending Shabbat services with their fathers, returning to their parent’s home for Kiddush and chamin, but extricating themselves in appropriate fashion so as to catch the soccer game. Sephardi rabbis who haven’t been brainwashed and programmed by Ashkenazi yeshivot are also much more tolerant and understanding of the secular community. In addition to the sublime of which I speak there is also the down and dirty reason for admiring Sephardim. They have a better genetic disposition: fantastic teeth, great hair, and much better physiques (men and women alike). It was for these reasons that we decided this year to attend Kol Nidre services at a local and well-established Sephardi congregation. And I couldn’t wait.

It was a lapse in judgment I told myself, as the service began. We arrived at the designated time, and fully prepared for a few preliminaries before beginning Kol Nidre. As the service progressed I realized that something was dreadfully wrong. It seemed as though it was Tisha B’Av. They chanted very, very, very slowly a four-page piyut lasting for a full forty-five minutes to a tune sounding like a funeral dirge with a Middle Eastern nasal affect, monotone with no variation in pitch or tune. It sounded like a broken record that never ended. By the time Kol Nidre was intoned (it was way past the traditional time of chanting Kol Nidre which is before sundown), it was night and I was exhausted. There was also mayhem regarding the removal of the Torah scrolls from the ark. All eight of their Torah’s were removed by men, tripping over themselves, who then stood around the Bima, as though they were getting ready for Hakafot of Simchat Torah. Traditionally, in Ashkenazi synagogues two scrolls are held at the Bima, on the left and right of the cantor. At this shul, while the eight scrolls were at the Bima in the center of the shul, the cantor was up at the Ark, praying into an empty, dark space. I wasn’t sure where to focus: on the Bima where the eight scrolls were assembled, or on the cantor at the Ark. It all seemed so incongruous.

To add insult to injury, prior to the chanting of the Kol Nidre, which was an identical tune to the dirge chanted previously, there was a public auction of all the honors (i.e. opening the Ark, removal of the scrolls etc), which took thirty minutes but was absolutely inappropriate for such a holy day. How can anyone get into the proper mindset of Yom Kippur when moments prior to the chanting of one of the most historically significant, remarkable prayers in our liturgy, Kol Nidre, the shul took on the disturbing atmosphere of a market place? I assumed that the purpose of the four-page piyut chanted earlier was purposeful, in that it’s intention was to set the right mood and mindfulness for Kol Nidre and all that followed. After all, Yom Kippur comes but once a year; it’s our one shot at approaching our history, and our lives with the humility that most of us lack all year long. And then the auction begins: it was like being drenched by a bucket of ice water in the midst of a fantastic dream? A total shock to the system.

There it was. After the auction, a procession of Torah scrolls wrapped in tawdry metal painted in cheesy gold and silver trim, reminding me of holiday popcorn packaged in kitschy tins that vendors ply to their customers around Christmas and New Years. There he was in all his glory, the chazzan, in an open collared shirt, no kitel, chanting Kol Nidre to a dark, empty cavernous Ark, prompting me to wonder if the attendees of the Yeshiva Shel Maalah were experiencing the same ennui of mortals such as myself in the Yeshiva Shel Matah?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ragen’s Rant

Naomi Ragen’s rantings, while extreme, is usually tolerable because there is typically some veracity to what she is screaming about. However this past week her rant over Time Magazine’s article about why Israel doesn’t want peace was way over the top and intellectually dishonest. I know because I too read the article. As a matter of fact I stopped reading Time Magazine thirty years ago when it became too critical of Israel’s policies, signaling their pro-Palestinian slant on the news. However, as I was rushing through the airport Time caught my eye and read it while waiting for my flight. When I began reading it I had an attitude, like Naomi Ragen. By the time I was half way through the wind was out of my sails; or to use an airport metaphor, the wind beneath my wings began to dissipate.

“Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace” (Time Magazine, September 13, 2010) by Karl Vick is a fairly accurate description of Israeli society in real time. His central thesis is that Israel for many years pursued peace but as a result of multiple disappointments has become disillusioned with the prospects of peace. Instead Israelis have a set of priorities typical of those in other Western cultures where quality of life, healthcare, education, economics and lifestyle trump the illusive peace. Peace for Israelis, according to Vick is very low on the list of priorities. This is all very true. So why is it that Naomi Ragen is so vituperative? Why can’t she get past her “galut mentality” which demands a knee jerk reaction every time someone says something that doesn’t place Israel in the shinning light of Isaiah’s vision?

Isaiah’s vision, was just that a vision. Most visions are rarely reflective of reality; in most cases prophetic visions were totally disconnected from reality. We happen to live in the here and now; most people, which includes Israeli are therefore concerned with the mundane things in life: economic growth, achieving the good life, leisure time, good healthcare and excellent education, not necessarily in that order. So what is Naomi Regan’s problem?

I admire Israel’s tenacity in seeking a national lifestyle where normalcy is the measure by which one ought to live. Why should Israelis obsess over peace, which has hitherto been illusive? They have learned to adjust their lifestyle to one where a state of war exists, the same way one with a crippling disease has learned to manage their pain and disability. One with a disability who obsesses over their misfortune is worse off by far from one with a disability who is focused on adjusting and enjoying life as much as humanly possible. Israel has learned to manage their disability, a perpetual state of war. Unlike in the past, they have seized obsessing over their misfortune, and lowered their expectations regarding this particular misfortune; setting their sights on things they can achieve, that is, things within their power. They have no control over the warped minds of the enemy, but they do have control over their economy, research and development, healthcare and education.

Karl Vick highlighted these points in his article. I have no issues with that. As far as I’m concerned, and based upon Vick’s assessment it would appear that the ball is in the Palestinian court. It’s up to them to prove to Israel that they are totally serious and committed to peace. As the Talmud says “hamotzee mechavero alev harayeh”!!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Berlin and Jerusalem: Two Capitals

Visiting Berlin affected me more than I had ever imagined. Most visits to foreign countries are enjoyable but rarely have they left a lasting effect on me. Since returning from Berlin I haven’t been able to free myself of its pull. Beyond that my Berlin visit has put me in the uncomfortable position of comparing it to Jerusalem: one capital to another. There are those who would considered it irreverent and perhaps borderline sacrilegious. How can one compare the once profaned Berlin to the eternal holy city of Jerusalem? Worse than that: how can one, such as myself, who lived in and loved Jerusalem compare it to a symbol of the mass annihilation of European Jewry. It isn’t easy and as much as I resist, I am compelled to consider Jerusalem on the backdrop of Berlin, precisely because Berlin is today a seamless and united city, while Jerusalem is still struggling with existential issues. (Obviously, it wasn’t enough for Menachem Begin to declare that united Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people. It might have been the ideal, but as reality has unfolded and revealed itself it is easier said than done).

Realizing of course that there is a fundamental flaw in trying to compare Berlin to Jerusalem for the same reason that it has been impossible for Jerusalem to realize a seamless unification: at the heart of the struggle are two people defined by polar religious beliefs. These beliefs are exclusionary and disallow for the space necessary for two peoples to live together. On the other hand, Berlin never had this problem. Their split was artificially constructed based upon geopolitics on the eve of the conclusion of World War Two by dividing of the spoils of war between the East and the West.

Having said that the question remains: are there any valid comparisons that can be made between the two? Both are capitals of great nations that were arbitrarily divided as a result of war. Both are currently unified. Both cities possess dazzling architectural and historical landmarks, and both are the seats of government. In both cities the populations tend to have an above average sophistication with an intellectual / cultural advantage over their countrymen. Because each is the seat of government lawyers, clerks and bureaucrats are over represented, while industrialists and entrepreneurs are underrepresented.

So much for the comparisons. Now for the differences: I can’t help escape the reality that Berlin happens to be a more beautiful city esthetically. It didn’t have to be this way. Berlin was devastated and in ruins after World war II compounded by decades of communist neglect. Jerusalem too was war torn and in shambles after the War of Independence and once again after the Six Day War. Jerusalem had the potential to be the most beautiful city in the world and was even referred to lovingly and poetically as the city of gold. But if one were to visit Jerusalem today one would find a city that is faded dreary and in desperate need of a facelift. This applies to west Jerusalem as well as to east Jerusalem. In west Jerusalem there are still pocket neighborhoods where the architecturally unique homes are well maintained with manicured gardens: those are in the isolated secular or modern orthodox, American textured neighborhoods. But the preponderance of west Jerusalem is haredi / ultra orthodox and the neglect in their neighborhoods is rampant. No pride of ownership. It sort of reminds me of the blue-collar neighborhood that I grew up in. You could always tell the frum homes from the gentile ones. The frum ones stood out due to their lackluster appearance, brown lawns, chipped paint on window and door frames and in general all the signs of neglect, while the modest gentile homes were well kept and manicured with much curb appeal. It’s pretty much the same thing when one tours the drab and depressing streets of haredi / ultra orthodox neighborhoods in west Jerusalem.

But the difference between east and west Jerusalem is much starker and palpable from architectural design to civil infrastructure of roads and sewerage; to the resentful eyes of the vanquished, still ever present. Berlin’s reunification was facilitated because of the will of west Berliners to divert the preponderance of taxes to develop the east at the expense of neglecting the continued development of the west. Had west Jerusalem had the same policy of diverting more money into east Jerusalem infrastructure one would have to wonder if that would have changed things on the ground and created the atmosphere for a truly united Jerusalem? If west Jerusalem had developed aggressive, strident programs in tolerance, embracing all its citizens as equals, as the west Berliners had, one has to wonder what impact if any, it would have made on the future of Jerusalem that is at the core of negotiating a peace with the Palestinians. As it is, the unification of Jerusalem is political fiction; waiting for an opportunity when perhaps wiser men can create an amicable peace where a shared Jerusalem might be the capital of two nations.