Monday, January 23, 2012


The summer of 1956 was a watershed summer in that I was presented with the first of my nisionot (nisionos for yeshivisha pronunciation) in how deep my commitment to Jewish observance ran. Not that I want to compare myself to Abraham’s 10 nisionos, which he passed with flying colors, nevertheless and unlike father Abraham I was truly challenged with this first one because of the sheer will power demanded of me. It was expected of me by generations of Jews who came before me who martyred their lives “leshem shamayim” (for the sake of heaven), to withstand the temptation to eat a Twinkie knowing that it was my god given right and that of every American kid to snack on them. Some other products at the time, which hadn’t had hechsherim, you could get away with, because everyone knew that the products were kosher, like Hershey’s Chocolate. Even the name sounded Jewish. Twinkies, on the other hand sounded American, looked treif and in fact was glatt treif. There was no away around this, no rationalization, no excuse. It was universally accepted that they were treif. There was no dissension on this, not even from the most modern of the rabbanim in Albany Park. Animal fat listed in the ingredients, which undoubtedly made them irresistible hardly came from a kosher slaughtered bovine creation.

I was only nine years old and like any other cosmopolitan kid living in Albany Park I had been to the local soda stores, news stands and groceries where Twinkies were readily available. They were always positioned next to the other iconic Hostess product: Hostess Cupcakes. But it was always the Twinkies that winked at me as I stood a foot away staring at the packaging, wondering what that first bite would taste like. To tell the truth, the Hostess Cupcakes never tempted me. They always looked plastic, too perfect, too smooth, evenly lined up with their paper lining, never, ever spilling over, like the sumptuous cupcakes that were home baked -- uneven, textured and too voluminous for the paper lining. Every time I saw a Twinkie, my mouth started watering, wondering why it had to be treif. As difficult as it was to turn away from the food stand where they were so prominently displayed, it wasn’t impossible. Avraham Avenu would have been proud – although I often wandered which of his ten tests would have been comparable. Perhaps it would have been number 5 according to Rashi or number 3 according to the Rambam. Either way I felt my commitment was up there.

To my horror the real test didn’t come till I went to the Eugene Field day camp the summer of 1956 with my secular Jewish neighbor Jerry, who lived a few doors down. We used to bike around the neighborhood, but this would be our first excursion across Lawrence Ave down Ridgeway in the direction of Foster where the field house was located. Lunchtime on that first day at camp was the nisayon of my life, which I would rank up there with Avraham’s number 10 according to both Rashi and Rambam. On a park bench, my friend scarfed down his salami sandwich with a carton of milk, which seemed infinitely more appealing than my tuna fish sandwich. The shock came however when Jerry pulled out from his brown bag a package of Twinkies. I looked down at my dessert, which was a measly couple of home made chocolate chip cookies wrapped in left over creased aluminum foil that looked like it had been recycled for the past month. Then I looked over to Jerry’s Twinkies and my mouth began to water. He offered me one of his Twinkies and for a moment that seemed like an eternity I was tempted to reach out as Adam reached out and bit into the forbidden fruit. It was a painful moment, but in my youthful naïveté I understood that if I wouldn’t be able to withstand this major test I’d never be able to withstand any future temptation.

The summer of 1956 was indeed a watershed, an apt introduction into the world where choices are presented and decisions made. I never ate a Twinkie, but the irony of it all is that I was disturbed by the news last week that Hostess Company has filed for bankruptcy and the future of the Twinkies product is uncertain. My entire conscious life has been hitherto accompanied by certain guideposts that have provided me with comfort zones as I move through life. These iconic images and products that have accompanied me through my journey are slowly disappearing which incidentally casts a shadow on my own mortality. From the time I was nine years old till today I could enter any super market anywhere in America and eyeball a package of Twinkies. It makes me feel good, comfortable and safe even though I never ate one. Its something like the Israeli meat product “loof” (equivalent to American spam), a staple of the army field rations that has been around since before the establishment of the State, giving it an iconic status. That, too, has disappeared to my great consternation. Perhaps it could be said what Israelis feel about the loss of loof I feel about the imminent disappearance of Twinkies from the American culinary landscape. America without Twinkies is like Israel without loof. It just can’t be!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Get It Right

Kana-us, the corrupted Hebrew word for kana-ut or zealotry has taken Israel and the Jewish community worldwide by a storm creating unprecedented blowback. The proverbial straw that broke the camels back causing a robust and muscular backlash was the incident in Beit Shemesh the last week of December 2011 where an eleven year old modern orthodox girl was spat upon and derided with opprobrious behavior and language due to her lack of acceptable deportment as per the standards of a deviant haredi community, traumatizing her to the point where she became apoplectic. This misogynistic attitude is nothing new in the haredi community. Hitherto it has been camouflaged with a lot of double speak seeking ways by which they can eat their cake and leave it whole. Praying for centuries the morning prayer “...shelo asani isha,” a sure recipe for subliminal brainwashing, tucking women away behind an almost impervious wall for services, dictating the nature of their clothing, and their head covering is the potent ingredients for applied kanaus. The majority of haredim who were offended by the actions of the zealots over the past few weeks were surprisingly offended to see the fruit of their labor. It isn’t clear that their rejection of kana-us was principled or that they wished to distance themselves from a politically unpopular position. Once they saw and felt the swift, sharp backlash they may have realized that their time hadn’t yet arrived. Perhaps these putative moderate haredim will have to wait another generation when their demographic numbers have swollen to the point of critical mass in Israeli politics and public opinion to effectuate putting women in their rightful places (in the back of the bus and designated sidewalks).

Kanaus is firmly entrenched in the psyche of the haredi community and the question, which begs to be asked, is when did kana-us become a mainstay in the haredi mindset? In a recent article written by a haredi journalist troubled with the recent outbreak of kana-us J. Rosenblum references Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz that “only one filled with Aaron’s quality of pursuing peace and overwhelming love of every Jew can fill the role of kanai. Anyone who does not act out of that closeness to Hashem or lacks the quality of being a rodef shalom is a murderer pure and simple.” The difficulty with this is that kana-us becomes laudable if it is applied and executed by a person with the right qualifications. That’s why, according to this warped reasoning Pinchas was able to run a javelin through the genital area of Zimri and Kozbi; considered a hero by some and used as a standard for kana-us. The xenophobia demonstrated in biblical text as well as the misogyny are two key ingredients which molded some within the haredi community into some of the worst human beings within the collective Jewish community.

Another ingredient that goes into the making of kanaus is the concept of daas torah. Several years ago I wrote an essay on the damage daas torah has inadvertently wrought on the haredi community:
“The concept of Daas Torah is firmly rooted in the recognition that Hashem ‘looked into the torah and created the universe’ (Breishis Rabbah 1:1). The torah provides history’s agenda, past, present and future, and encompass the world’s every secret. Those who have merited to acquire Torah thus possess the best credentials for effectively addressing the world’s problems, and those who doubt the Torah leader’s ability to ‘understand politics’ thereby redefine the meaning of Judaism.”

This comment presumably self-explanatory wouldn’t have been so stunningly audacious, had it been said by a naïve yeshiva bachur or a disillusioned kollelnick. Unfortunately, this was written years ago by the late Rabbi Sherer of Agudas Israel as part of an article entitled Torah in the Proper Place, which I stumbled over while researching the theme of authority and dissent in Jewish tradition.

Daas Torah, a term of fairly recent origin, is understood to mean that through intense Torah study and the rigorous practice of the mitzvoth, one will have a greater understanding of God’s will. Daas Torah can be a compelling ethos for people in search of guidance, when they voluntarily seek it out. However, when dissenting opinions aren’t tolerated as in Rabbi Sherer’s vision and description of Judaism and the stature of the gedolim, than we have the makings of a cult, controlling people through peer pressure and charismatic leadership. Sherer says in the same article that “it is the responsibility to remind ourselves and others of the fact that our gedolim are the foremost experts not only in matters of Jewish law, but in social and political issues as well.”

So the question then becomes, which gadol is the one who sets the gold standard. Why ought it not be a gadol who believes literally that “shelo asani isha” means precisely what it says without parsing words? Why can’t it be the gadol who believes that misogyny is the express intention of our sacred text as understood by that gadol without the need for further elaboration? As odious as it may feel or sound daas torah is determined by a gadol who has a following and is recognized as one steeped in Torah, regardless of whether one agrees with him. Why should these zealots give any credence to the daas torah of more moderate and perhaps less intellectually honest gedolim? Certainly the moderate gedolim have been compromised as Jonathan Rosenblum writes in Mishpacha Magazine, December 21, 2011:
“A few years ago, I asked a gadol whether he had addressed certain socio-economic problems …on contemporary issues. He told me that he could not do so because if he did the kanaim would say he was not really a gadol. In other words, he could not address pressing issues because if he did he would become so discredited that no one would listen to him anyway.”

It would appear that this gadol was more concerned about being undermined and preserving his own status than shouting out the truth from the rooftop of his kloiz. Unfortunately the kanaim have it up on the moderates because they have no need to spin or parse words. They call it as they understand, and this, for them is daas torah.

Kana-us will continue to plague the Jewish people and pose a threat to the fabric of democracy in Israel unless the moderate haredi community stops spinning when kana-us is a good thing, and rejects it in toto. It is never good. Kana-us leads to blood shed. Pinchas, in his kana-us murdered two people and was responsible for a blood bath that made St. Valentine’s massacre child’s play. Furthermore, the mainstream haredi community must stop any social/religious practice that smacks of misogyny (and re-examine the appropriateness of "shelo asani isha as did R’ Abraham Farissol, a 15th century Italian rabbi who wrote a siddur replacing shelo asani isha with “she-asatani isha ve-lo ish) or xenophobia (spitting on Greek Orthodox priests). For the moderate haredi community to prevail they will have to get it right.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Zealots Gone Wild

Growing up as part of a minority has its advantages – sometimes. There is a certain convenience in being able to point the finger at “them;” blaming them for everything that’s wrong--after all they are the majority and majority rules. Being educated in a parochial Jewish day school reinforces those feelings and more: that we are “the chosen;” that we aren’t capable of perpetrating the evils that Christians have done to us and to others. We were raised to believe that it is “them versus us,” we naturally being the good guys and could do no wrong. Even the Jewish history texts that we studied carried that theme as the thread running through our history; the common denominator uniting Jews throughout the world, Ashkenazi and Sepharadi against them. Heinrich Graetz the preferred orthodox historian of choice in those years reinforced the idea that we Jews suffered prodigiously by the gentile hand, which was true; but never suggested the proposition that perhaps we too could be responsible for the suffering of “others” if only we had the opportunity, motive and power, if only we would one day become the majority.

There were enough classical texts that should have clued me in to the possibility that we Jews could be as dangerous, venomous and vindictive as the Christians. Apparently and coincidental of this Chanukah season we seem to have a tendency for zealotry, causing the suffering of others for the greater glory of God. The earliest examples of that is the carnage perpetrated by Dina’s brothers Simeon and Levi following her rape by a Canaanite prince. Another incident was that of Pineas murdering Zimri and Cozbi during our 40 year sojourn in the desert trying to develop a spirituality that would draw us closer to God. We experienced our first Jihad when Joshua conquered the “Promised Land,” which God showed him and commanded him to liberate from the infidels. Centuries later when King Saul didn’t liquidate the Amalakites as commanded Samuel denied him the continued kingship.

The eons that we were in the proverbial desert, exile, we were powerless and to be sure victimized. That didn’t mean that we didn’t have the potential to bring harm and suffering to others; we may have had the motive but not the opportunity; Purim, the exception to the rule, is the annual joyful, almost ecstatic retelling in detail of our first pogrom with the ‘other” being on the receiving end. And while we celebrate the Chanukah story let us not forget that the Maccabees were zealots and in the commission of their vision they slaughtered Jews that were comfortable with and adapted well to Hellenistic culture. One wonders whether zealotry is in our DNA.

Where we didn’t have the opportunity to bring harm to “others” we unfortunately exploited opportunities where we intentionally turned on our own and brought immeasurable and irreversible harm to them. While not wishing to drudge up the sordid details of our remarkable history a few examples will suffice. Hassidic courts over the centuries in Europe sought means by which they could exercise greater power. Power in a hassidic court was measured in numbers of followers as leverage, a means to influence governments. The larger the court: the greater the power. Most hassidim weren’t attracted to a court because of the rebbe’s spirituality but because he had the potential of providing work for them. A powerful court was a court that could win royal charters, such as selling liquor, making candles, operating inns, etc. Lords were inclined to grant these royal charters to hassidic leaders who demonstrated control over large communities of Jews. When hassidic courts were threatened by others rebbes encroaching on their territory, turf warfare wasn’t uncommon and sometimes it was brutal. An example was the turf war between the Belzer and Satmar hassidim during the interwar period when due to the outcome of the war the boarders were rearranged. Followers of court became problematic as the new borders redefined the influence a rebbe could have. If half his community now lived under communism and unable to cross over to his rebbe a 5th column was created in the other rebbe’s “backyard. This precipitated warfare among the competing hassidic groups which invariably led to violence, acrimony and jail sentences for members of a court found guilty of trumped up charges made by, suborned and perjured by the competing hassidim. As a footnote, the Belzer Rebbe, Aharon Rokeach, so obsessed with the possibility of loosing power if his hassidim left Europe in flight from the Nazis implored them to stay put, not to leave for the godless America or Palestine, while he escaped later on.

The Misnagdim, too had their wars as well. Many of theirs was fought in an attempt to contain the spread of hassidut, which was believed to have contributed heavily to the deterioration of the Kehilla and the breakdown of the family unit. The Vilna Gaon went so far as to put them into Herem. One of the more toxic examples of zealotry gone wild was that between Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz and Rabbi Jacob Emden. Neither of them were small time rabbis; each was notable in their own right. Eybeshutz was a child prodigy in Talmud who settled in Prague was the head of a well-known yeshiva and was considered second only to their dayan, avid Oppenheim. Because of his quick rise to fame in Prague many of the rabbis there accused him of being a Sabbatean. Because of these vicious rumors he only was appointed a dayan, but not the chief rabbi of Prague. In 1750 he was elected rabbi of the “three communities”, Altona, Hamburg & Wandsbek. He was considered a genius but had the rare quality as well of being charismatic. At about this time Rabbi Jacob Emden, known as the “Yavetz” was a leading German rabbi who made his career on fighting the Sabbateans. He published 31 books and Moses Mendelssohn had an intellectual affinity to Emden. He held no official post, lived in Altona and made his livelihood by publishing books. Emden accused Eybeschutz of being a secret Sabbatean basing his accusation on the interpretation of amulets that Eybeschutz crafted. At the time that he was appointed chief rabbi of the “three communities” the controversy reached its peak. Emden, a zealot accused Eybeschutz not only of being a Sabbatean but also having an incestuous relationship with his own daughter. Most condemned Emden and even after the council labeled him a slanderer he continued his philippics against Eybeschutz. Refusing to leave Altona as ordered to do by the council relying on the king’s charter. Ultimately he left for Amsterdam where he continued his fight at the court of Frederick V of Denmark which found in Emden’s favor, and fining the council. Emden moves back to Alton where the fight continued for another 5 years, in the process destroying reputations and livelihoods.

These are mere examples of zealotry when we weren’t in positions of power, when we were for the most part minorities in host countries or a minority in our own. Imagine what our track record would look like had we been in power for the past two thousand years. Well we are now, and zealotry, judging from current events (Price Tag, haredi intimidation of women, etc.) is alive and well. Ironically, these zealots are once again a minority in a democratic Israel. Dare to imagine if they were the majority?