Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Small Time Boy Comes to the Big City

(originally appeared in CJN)

I just moved to New York City from Cote Saint Luc, a suburban village that is the closest thing to a shtetl anywhere in Canada. So everyone’s been asking me the same question: what's life like in the big city?

It’s a good question. When I grew up in Monsey, New York, it was a small town, a place where everyone looked out for each other. And like any small town boy, I still crave that unique sense of camaraderie. Rod Dreher features this small town spirit in his memoir “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming”. Dreher left his small town in Louisiana as a teenager. After years of city life, he returns when his younger sister is diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Dreher was so impressed by communal support given his sister that he decided to move back to Louisiana. There’s simply no community like small town community.

Big cities are very different. Ferdinand Tonnies, in his classic work “Community and Society”, describes the city as dramatically different than small towns: it is built around advancing individual ambition rather than building communal cohesiveness, and as a consequence, is rather cold and impersonal. And to the minds of many, big cities should be avoided. Thomas Jefferson once remarked that “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”

So what happens when a small town boy like me moves to the big city?

Actually, this question is relevant to every Jew, wherever we live, because Jews are fundamentally small town folk. The Book of Genesis offers an extended critique of big cities; the plans of the first city builders are frustrated by God, and there is marked contrast between the hospitable small town ways of Abraham and the big town coldness of Sodom and Egypt.

Yet despite the failures of cities and empires, the Torah does not demand that the Jews remain tent dwelling nomads; in fact, it encourages us to build a cosmopolitan state with well developed institutions.

So what happens when small town Jews build a big city? We bring the small town with us. Maimonides teaches that despite the Biblical obligation to love one’s neighbor, the Rabbis added additional obligations to visit the sick, bury the dead, comfort the bereaved, and marry off brides. The point of these additional obligations is that we must do more than love our neighbor; we are obliged to extend beyond our immediate social circle and build community. It is not enough to treat those we know with kindness; we must create an embracing community that cares for all of the sick, each mourner and every bride. And the magic of the Jewish tradition is that even when we build large cosmopolitan societies, we insure that within them beats the heart of a small town community.

Israel is an excellent example of this unique small town ethos. In 2014, Sean Carmeli, a lone soldier from Texas, fell in battle. There was virtually no one to attend the funeral. But after a worried friend posted a Facebook message about his funeral, news spread like wildfire, and in the end 20,000+ people attended Sean’s funeral. This outpouring of kindness could only happen in Israel, where a large country still carries the warmth of a small town.

Now that I’ve arrived in New York City, I’m learning that in this bustling metropolis there’s a small town hiding underneath. In my first Shabbat at my new synagogue, we honored the outgoing chair of the synagogue’s Bikur Cholim; this dedicated group visits patients at Sloan Kettering every Shabbat. Here in middle of Manhattan is a team of volunteers visiting the sick, making this community, like every Jewish community, one big small town.

So what’s it like living in the big city? To tell you truth, as a small town boy, I feel right at home.

Packing Up

(originally appeared in CJN)

Packing up a home when you're downsizing is an unnatural task; humans instinctively accumulate possessions and resist eliminating them. Despite consulting the bestselling advice of Marie Kondo, we find it a tough task to discard items that are theoretically essential but practically forgotten.

Yet decisions must be made, and possessions must be relinquished. And as I stand surrounded by boxes and packing tape, it's hard not to wax philosophical and wonder: what do we really need to pack?

This question is one Jews have asked themselves multiple times while wandering in exile: what can you pack at a moment's notice? The answer was simple: pack hearts and minds. Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer said the "guiding sentence" of the Jewish mission is: "omnia mea mecum porto" "All my things I carry with me", i.e., that character and wisdom are the only assets of enduring value, and all you ever need.  After packing up too many times to count, Jews have learned that it's not what's in your suitcases that really count; it's what you pack in your heart.

And what we pack (and unpack) in our hearts defines our lives. Zak Ebrahim, the son of El Sayid Nosair (the man who assassinated Meir Kahane), tells of his mother's reaction when he confided that he no longer accepted his family's radical views: "She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who had experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime, and said, "I'm tired of hating people." In that instant, I realized how much negative energy it takes to hold hatred inside of you." After a lifetime of packing their hearts with hate, Zak and his mother realized that it had weighed them down.

Zak is not unique; it's quite common for people to cling to beloved hatreds. Nelson Mandela, who was a genius at unpacking hatred, said that “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” We treat old hatreds as precious possessions and let them ruin our own lives instead.

Instead of hatred, others choose to pack their heart with love. Seth Mandell runs camps for children who've lost a family member to terror (his own son Koby was murdered in a terror attack in 2001). Seth told me a story about a girl in his camp who was so grief-stricken that she had begun to cut herself on the wrist. The first day of camp, the girl’s counselor saw the girl's cut and remarked that “time heals all wounds”. The girl angrily reacted and said “it does not”, a reaction that was a reference to all wounds, both psychic and physical. But the counselor persevered in befriending the girl, and the girl had a wonderful time at camp. By the end of the camp, the girl had stopped cutting herself and the wound healed. Noticing this, the counselor lightheartedly remarked “I guess time does heal all wounds.” The girl responded: “no, it does not…. But love heals all wounds”. Love is magical, and packing even more love into your heart is always a good idea.

As we pack up our house to leave Montreal, we are also packing with us inspirational memories.  I'll pack the memory of the cancer patient who refused to let her disease take away her optimism. I'll pack the memory of the Holocaust survivor who was our synagogue's candyman, determined to make the world sweet for the next generation. I'll pack the memory of  the man who ran to greet every new person in the synagogue and made them feel at home. And I'll pack the memory of a Holocaust survivor, who each time there was a celebration, hoisted a l'chaim with a twinkle in his eye, in a moment of personal triumph and  joy.

These uplifting memories have changed me, and I will carry them with me forever.

Goodbye Montreal. I'm packing you up with me.

My Problem with Kol Nidrei

(originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News)

Kol Nidrei should have disappeared a long time ago. From its introduction in the 800's,  it was sharply opposed for the next 400 years by Rabbinic authorities who saw it as a meaningless gesture. In the 1100's, a debate emerged over which vows, future or past, Kol Nidrei refers to. And in the 19th century, because of anti-Semitic claims that it enabled Jews to violate oaths, many reformers (and even, for short time, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch) removed Kol Nidrei from the service. Kol Nidrei is a problematic prayer.

So why is Kol Nidrei still part of the service? Only because of the melody. There are moving tunes, both in the Ashkenazic and Sephardic tradition, for Kol Nidrei. No matter what, Kol Nidrei is here to stay because the tunes are majestic and awe-inspiring.

This was my problem with Kol Nidrei. I was trained in Lithuanian style Yeshivot to think about serious Jewish content, about Talmudic texts and theological sources;  Kol Nidrei is the opposite of that. Kol Nidrei is a ritual that hangs by less than a thread of hair, with an inferior Halachic pedigree, and is only preserved because of its tune. It bothered me that Kol Nidrei is religious fluff, all musical culture and minimal religious content. So why did it find a place of honor leading off the Yom Kippur liturgy?

Frankly, contemporary Judaism is overstocked with religious fluff.  There was an advertisement many years ago from a yeshiva in Jerusalem that had a picture of a bagel, lox, and cream cheese sandwich with the caption: "is this the culmination of 3,000 years of Jewish history?". This sadly is all too often the case, with Jewish identity reduced to the soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof, brisket, and satin kippahs.  This superficial cultural Judaism offers no rationale for continuity, and no true link to spirituality.

Because of this,  I saw content and culture as antagonists. To me, bagels, lox, and cream cheese Judaism was the opposite of  the Judaism that nurtured me in Yeshiva. And even the melodies like Kol Nidrei were just superficial enhancements, pleasant but ultimately unimportant.

But I was wrong. Culture is important too.  Melodies, foods, even jokes have a role in preserving Judaism.

In the language of Halacha, we call these elements a minhag, or a custom. Minhag is about the little distinctive cultural touches that make observance more fascinating. Rabbi Maimon (the father of the Rambam) wrote about the importance of respecting customs like eating donuts (sfinj) on Chanukah. Indeed, it is often the customs, with their distinctive tastes, aromas, colors and melodies that inspire us, in ways we are not fully aware of.

What my overly intellectual perspective had missed is this: that the little things, the aromas, tastes, colors, and melodies, are a powerful way of conveying the content, the great ideas I so love. Culture can create an emotional connection unavailable in the world of ideas.
And this is the power of Kol Nidrei, the power of singing the same song as our grandparents, even if the words are obscure.  And even the intellectually inclined among us should never overlook it.

In 1913, a young intellectual decided to convert to Christianity. As a final farewell to Judaism, he decided to go to Yom Kippur services. But after listening to Kol Nidrei, he left a transformed man.  In the years that followed, this man, Franz Rozensweig, became a prominent Jewish philosopher, and inspired many others to make their journey back to Judaism.

Ironically, a great intellectual was drawn back to Judaism by Kol Nidrei, a prayer that is more melody than meaning. And even today, otherwise alienated Jews show up for Kol Nidrei, drawn by in by the inspiring melody.

Now, if we could only teach these alienated Jews how to love the content, to engage the ideas of Judaism as well.....