Monday, April 27, 2009

Stirring it Up

The Wall Street Journal (which is, incidentally, one of two periodicals I read regularly; the other being The New Yorker) has made a habit the last few years of featuring a piece on its front page (bottom center) that is a bit whimsical, perhaps to take our minds off of the serious business of financial ruin and political chaos.

The other day it ran a piece on baseball stirrups, which are—or at least were, in the late Seventies, when I started following baseball—those thin lines of color atop the players' white socks that ran along the inside and outside of their lower legs. Today many players pull their uniform pants' legs all the way down to the tops of their shoes (Barry Bonds popularized this style); others wear their colored socks from the ankle all the way up, approaching the knee (see: Alex Rodriguez); still Major League Baseball retains a few players who strike a middle ground, showing some color around the shin and calf, with a little white peeking above the ankle and tongue of the cleat. That’s how the Phillies Jamie Moyer does it, a tradition that goes back to the days of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.

This topic is something, I admit, that I have given some thought to—perhaps two minutes worth over the past thirty years. Nevertheless, I was startled to discover from the Journal article how much time people have invested into discussing, debating and dissecting this, um, issue. Paul Lukas, of ESPN, has blogged about it, lamenting that those responsible for the disappearance of stirrups, "dishonor baseball's hosiery heritage."

Did I mention that we're in the middle of a financial crisis?

Reading about hosiery and heritage reminded me of a conversation I once had with the great sage, Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt”l, on the topic of tradition. How important, I asked him, is tradition in Jewish living. His response surprised and amused me. “My father,” he said, “wore socks with holes in them. Should I wear socks with holes in them because my father did? I buy new socks. So I don’t think tradition is very important at all.”

This is not to say that Rav Schwab, the great Yekke leader, was opposed to minhagei Yisrael. What I believe he was trying to impress upon me was the difference between minhagim and nostalgia. We tend to get all worked up about things Jewish that are not necessarily Jewish things.

For an example:

I live on Manhattan’s beloved Lower East Side. I am a fiercely proud resident and I’m in love with the place. I grew up in suburbia and when people confuse me for an “East Sider” I correct them. “You have to have been here for a century to be an East Sider,” I say. (In truth, my grandfather did spend a part of his childhood in a tenement on Houston Street. But I digress.)

Upon meeting someone new, the social niceties generally begin with “So, where do you live?” When I tell them, their eyes never fail to widen. “My grandmother [or uncle, or aunt, or cousin, or brother-in-law] lives there. I love going down there.” And then there’s talk of which relative was gabbai, or president, or rav of which shul or shteibel. And then comes the requisite mention of pickles and bialys, and how the Lower East Side is the only real place to buy such things. And then come the comments about Gertel’s and Ratner’s and Shmulke Bernstein’s.

I entertain all this gamely. I never get tired of it. Then they turn to the issue of living on the Lower East Side today. “I hear it’s making a comeback,” they say excitedly.

No, I tell them. The comeback came (toward the end of the Koch administration) and went (about the time Rudy Guliani turned the keys to the city over to Mike Bloomberg).

This brings on the inevitable sigh. The slow shaking of the head. What happened? What a shame.

But it’s not a shame. Not really. You want shame. Gush Katif. That was a shame. I’m no Zionist, yet I’m painfully aware that Jews losing their homes in the Holy Land is an unspeakable tragedy. But the Lower East Side? Brownsville? Canarsie?

I don’t think so.

Especially frustrating is the cult of shtetl-envy that pervades the Orthodox community. Poverty, plagues, persecution, pogroms—these are why Jews left for the Lower East Side in the first place. When we pray, “Hashivah shofteinu kevarishonah,” we are not referencing 19th century Poland. We can certainly celebrate all that our forebears achieved under the grueling conditions they faced in Eastern Europe without romanticizing what it wasn’t.

Often, Jews confuse the romantic with the historic. We mistake the holes in the socks of Jewish history for authentic Jewish tradition, longing for those days before Walmart replaced needle and thread. Instead, we ought to focus on our people’s relentless record of Torah study and mitzvah observance, an unbroken chain stretching back to Sinai, linking us to our past. At the same time we must be thankful for our current environment of material comfort, physical security, and political freedom, in which God allows us to continue to serve Him, to grow and evolve as individual Jews and as a nation.

Now don’t get me started on the Designated Hitter rule.