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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

>I’m no Zionist<

What does that mean?

Sun Jun 28, 12:41:00 AM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

You will have to wait for my post on Zionism to find out.

Essentially, I am not a flag-waiving, parade-going, I-live-in-New York-but-my-heart-is-in-Jerusalem Zionist. I might be considered an old school Chovevei Zion sort of Zionist.

See my post from several years back for more.

Sun Jun 28, 07:14:00 PM  
Blogger evanstonjew said...

I agree totally with your point how nostalgia is not much, certainly when it comes to the Lower East Side.

I have a great interest in the LES so there are two small points I want to take issue with you. To be a Lower East Sider is not determined by length of time lived, but by having had some connection through living there with the LES of old. Thus any resident who attended Yeshivah Shlomo Kluger or davened in the Agudah or was a member of the old naan-un- naantziger on Houston St. is a Lower East Sider and will be the first to tell you. (Check out the yahrzeit get together for Rav Steinwurzel z'l). The echt LES disappeared after the war , but there were enough people left over that the ethos lasted at least into the seventies.

As for making a comeback...I think it is, but as part of a larger renaissance of life below 14th street. Alphabet City, even the entire area south of Houston going towards the Village have enough happening that entire states in America would be envious.

Mon Jun 29, 03:16:00 PM  
Blogger nmf #7 said...

Just found your blog- and if this piece is what is typical- excellent!
Loved the mashal, and the interpretation.

Wed Jul 01, 06:20:00 AM  
Anonymous schneur said...

You indicate that Jews leaving and losing neighborhoods in the exile is no tragedy.
Perhaps you are correct on an individual basis, but certainly not on a communal basis.
Think of the number of shuls and yeshivos, mikves etc that were shut down and closed because of changing neighborhoods. Few of these reopened in the new neighborhoods.The number of shuls closed just in the Bronx was probaly larger than the number of shuls in pre war Vilna ! The wholesale destruction of the American inner city in which culminated in the mid 1960's cost orthodoxy dearly and it took them at least 15 years to recover their losses.
The Lubavitcher rebbe spoke about this at length.
In addition there is another tragedy and that is the violence against elderly Jews that often accompanied the decline of inner city Jewish neighborhoods. That accounted for the popularity of Meir Kahane and the JDL among many of the residents of poorer jewish neighborhoods.
When speaking of Jewish population centers and the need for their protection both in physical terms and monetary loss, the Rambam and am certain other codifiers do not distinguish between Israel and the Golah.

Thu Jul 02, 02:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Rix said...

LMAO about the way you described how the comeback came and went!

As long as we have Shalom Chai, I think we're ok.

Mon Jul 06, 01:08:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home