Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Strangers Among Us

I met someone last night!

Have you ever come home after that first evening with someone new, overwhelmed by the feeling that all is right with the world, that it's open to all sorts of possibilities, that happiness will never leave your side again?

That was me last night.

The initial awkwardness of meeting a complete stranger dissipated quickly and the conversation flowed naturally from work to family to Judaism. Probing questions; profound answers. I have to admit that I rarely meet someone—particularly over 25—who is so open to new ideas. How refreshing.

As the evening ended, we put on our coats, walked outside, and said goodnight in the damp and cold New York air—agreeing to meet again next week and pick up where we left off. I walked home with an extra spring in my step.

And so begins another successful venture for Partners in Torah.

Ivan is an institutional equity trader, which means that, like me, he "works on Wall Street." Unlike me, his clients aren't millionaires—they're billion-dollar hedge funds. Nevertheless, we share a common bond for two stock jockeys.

Ivan is from Odessa, in the Ukraine. He arrived in this country fifteen years ago at the age of fifteen. When the first Jews began to trickle out of the former Soviet Union, in the late Seventies, Odessa's population was a majority Jewish. By the time Ivan left, he was the only Jew in his high school. Singled out as a zhid, he was hassled, harassed and hit. Although he is way north of six feet and broad, he never hit back. He simply learned to avoid trouble. Like every good player on the Street, Ivan knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

Upon arriving in this country, Ivan was not dumped into one of the Russian Jewish yeshivos that sprang up a quarter century ago. By the time he arrived in Brighton Beach, the neighborhood had become homogenized, no longer intimidated by the foreignness of America, eager to take advantage of their new democratic homeland. Attending a Jewish school was no longer a necessity and, consequently, Ivan never received even a rudimentary Jewish education.

When I mentioned the Book of Esther, Ivan didn't know what I was referring to.

What he did know is that he is a Jew. And he wanted to know what that meant. And God sent him to me.

Several years back I was called by my neighborhood’s local director of Torah Umesorah’s Partners in Torah program to give up one hour, one evening a week to study with a young man newly interested in Judaism. I agreed. We studied for a year and then he moved away and I got my Wednesday nights back.

Apparently, interest in the program waned because it wasn’t until last week that I got the call again. Would I be willing to study with Ivan?

Bear in mind: Ivan wasn’t looking for proofs; he wasn’t looking for an argument; he wasn’t looking to be convinced of anything. He simply wanted to know: What is a Jew?

Ivan is, quite literally, tabla rasa.

It is difficult to describe the privilege of being singled out by the Almighty to be the vehicle through which another one of His cherished, chosen children is introduced to the Torah. A great privilege and a grave responsibility.

So rather than open a book and start teaching from a text, I decided the best thing would be to give him a tour of the beis medrash—to show him the development of Jewish history and knowledge through the books on the bookshelves.

We began with the Five Books of Moses (Moses he had heard of—he had seen the Charlton Heston movie). I stated that the Chumash was written by God, that God had dictated every word to Moses, who wrote them down. I expected him to ask me how I knew this, but he didn’t. He simply nodded.

I then explained that there is another Torah—an oral transmission that was taught to Moses by God during the forty days he spent atop Mount Sinai. This Torah Shebaal Peh is the companion to the Torah Shebeksav, interpreting, explaining and expanding upon the words of the written text.

“But why,” he asked, “would God risk all the potential misinterpretations that come from not writing it all down? It’s like a game of telephone.”

“Because God doesn’t want the Torah to exist only on bookshelves,” I explained. “The point of the Oral Torah is that it should continually be analyzed and assessed, discussed and debated.

“It wasn’t written down,” I told Ivan, “in order that 3300 years after Sinai, you and I should be having this conversation.”

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Strange Days Indeed

I'm not sure what the point of this post is exactly—unless, of course, that is the point.

I went to a bat mitzvah the other night. In preparation for what promised to be a heckuva soiree, I didn't eat anything after breakfast that day and went to the gym for good measure. I arrived hungry, thirsty, and ready to socialize.

A glass of champagne, a shot of single malt, and a plate of sushi later, I was chatting and laughing at the shmorg with some close friends, generally enjoying life. I know that there are those out there who despise the conspicuous consumption—even for simchos—of the wealthier classes within the Jewish community. But I am not one of those people. And while I do have mixed feelings on the subject, the bottom line with me is: feel free to spend your money any way you want; just be careful how you spend your time.

We moved along to the dining room, where after an appetizer of duck crepe, I was served a bowl of asparagus soup. I had never had asparagus soup before, but I'm happy to report that it has vaulted past the newly-kosher Campbell's Vegetarian Vegetable soup to the number one position on my list of favorite soups.

Then came the requisite dancing, followed by speeches. In keeping with the spirit of the bat mitzvah, no men spoke. Instead, the bat mitzvah girl spoke, the rebbetzin of the shul spoke, and finally the mother of the bat mitzvah spoke.

Our host talked about her own mother and how much she loves and admires her. In a world where you hear a lot about the strife between parents and children, it is heartwarming to hear a daughter describe her mother in such glowing terms—as a role model and a best friend. I was moved close to tears, and went over to her afterward to tell her how beautifully she spoke.

The main course was served, followed by desert and more dancing. I had another shot of scotch. My table-mates and I were in deep discussion, when I sensed something odd. The music had quieted suddenly and there was some shuffling going on. Then I heard crying.

The grandmother of the bat mitzvah girl was lying on the floor. She’d had a heart attack.

I asked someone if he had the number for Hatzolah, and he told me that they’d already been called. A few people were administering CPR. Someone said that a cardiologist was with her. A woman was asking, to nobody in particular, “Why doesn’t anyone have an aspirin?” One of the other granddaughters was sitting, weeping, saying Tehillim.

Slowly, people filed out.

Twelve hours later, the funeral began.

It was hard to ignore the circumstances under which this woman, whose tzidkus in the neighborhood was legendary, left this world, and indeed the eulogists all made reference to her dying among family and friends, surrounded by Yiddishe nachas.

Yet that didn't take away from the weirdness of it all, nor did it deflate the notion that there had to be a message in it for all of us. I was eerily reminded of the words of my Rosh Yeshiva after a bochur died on Purim—that his death was a signal for the whole yeshiva to do teshuvah.

Thus, I was left with two conflicting thoughts.

The first was severe: Was this a message from Above cautioning us to be more careful? A warning that too much whiskey, too much dancing, too much socializing was not the reason we were put on this planet? What ever became of the verse, “Az yimalei sechok pinu—Then [when the Temple is rebuilt and not before] our mouths will be filled with laughter”?

The other consideration was more serene: Perhaps she was given extra time on this world (yes, it turned out she had had a heart condition but kept it quiet) to attend her granddaughter's simchah. She died surrounded by family and friends, the culmination of a lifetime of achievement as a builder of a bayit ne’eman beYisrael. If one must go—as we all surely must someday—isn’t this a glorious way to do it? Weren’t the sweet words of her daughter still ringing in her ears as she moved on to the Next World?

Was what happened a manifestation of G-d’s displeasure? Or was it a manifestation of his kindness?

Or was it both?