Thursday, July 29, 2010

Have You Seen My Alps?

Every day, as I walk into shul, I am confronted by a flyer hanging on the bulletin board, which greets me with, depending on my mood, varying degrees of annoyance. “SWITZERLAND”, the flyer declares. It then goes on to invite the synagogue membership (and, presumably, anyone else who happens to be interested) to join the Rabbi and his wife on a “Jewish heritage tour” of that European country.

Forgive my skepticism, but is there any—let alone any substantial—Jewish history to be found in…Switzerland?

The flyer promises “SCENIC AND FASCINATING SITES OF STUNNING NATURAL BEAUTY”; a stay at the “KOSHER HOTEL OF DAVOS”; “THREE DECLICIOUS GLATT KOSHER MEALS DAILY”; plus “SHIURIM AND MORE.” This all sounds like a wonderful, and wonderfully kosher, tour. But I’m still left scratching my head. How does all this qualify as “Jewish heritage”?

As it turns out, a google search of “Jewish Switzerland” gets 4 million hits. This compares to 13 million hits for “Jewish Jerusalem” and 37 million hits for “Jewish New York.”

Here’s what I came away with.

There are about 18,000 Jews in Switzerland, according to 2000 Census data. There are 38 synagogues. Ruth Dreifuss, a Jew, was president of Switzerland in 1999 (she served for one year, exactly). Albert Einstein spent his teenage years in Switzerland. Edmund Safra ran his banking empire from Switzerland. And…

Well, that seems to be about it. No baalei Tosafos, no famous acharonim, no major settlement after the Holocaust. Even among places with little Jewish history, Switzerland seems to have little Jewish history.

It used to be that Jews who wanted to travel in order to reconnect with their Judaism had one destination: Israel. Then, at some point, someone decided that it was not unreasonable to spend some time in Western Europe, walking the streets where the Rambam walked, looking at the house where Rashi lived. Jewish-themed tours of France, Spain and Italy became common.

More recently, the exotic locales of Eastern Europe have beckoned. In the past two decades, since the fall of Communism, Jews have made their way over to the Old Country to see what was there. The curtain had been lifted. Eastern Europe, which a few years ago was the stuff of stories and legends, something left completely to the imagination, was suddenly a plane ride away. Today, the pilgrimages to Uman during the Yamim Nora’im are legendary, but there are also smaller, lesser known destinations, such as the kever of the Noam Elimelech in Lizensk.

Personally, I am ambivalent. On the one hand I have friends who go to Uman for Rosh Hashanah every year. They tell me that it’s an unforgettable experience, something I must try at least once, a journey that will change my life. While still skeptical, the temptation is there, I admit.

In a not so similar vein, my former yeshiva takes their boys every year to Poland to visit the death camps. This, I am assured by the Mashgiach, has an undeniable impact upon them, inspiring many to recommit to a life of Torah and mitzvos. While I find it unfortunate that boys who come to Israel to learn Torah, must get back on a plane and visit Auschwitz in order to be inspired, I can't argue with the Mashgiach’s assessment. Apparently, there are some souls that are stirred to teshuvah by the dark horrors of the Nazi killing machine. Personally speaking, however, I’m fairly confident I’ll get through life without visiting Auschwitz and have no regrets about it.

Recently, another yeshiva I attended flew to Volozhin, to set up shop in the yeshiva "where it all began." They sat and learned, and heard shiurim from the rosh yeshiva on Reb Chaim's Torah. Their alumni newsletter and fundraising correspondence described the event in such rapturous language, you would have thought the Jewish people had returned to Sinai.

Again, I understand the nostalgia of such a trip, but let's not get carried away. The Torah of Volozhin is alive and well, thriving well beyond the borders of Belarus, in yeshivos from Brooklyn to Bnei Brak. There ought to be no need to hop on a plane in order to feel the thrill of Reb Chaim's Torah.

I am conflicted about these trips for another reason, as well. Jews are clearly giving financial support to people who are not necessarily lovers of Jews, and not that far removed from the butchery of the Holocaust. Is this justified?

But at least these places are legitimate, if somewhat unpleasant, destinations for thoughtful, searching Jews. And there is no doubting their credentials vis-à-vis Jewish history. But for a shul to organize a trip to Switzerland on the pretense of Jewish heritage? That simply strikes me as disingenuous.

Maybe I’m just envious because I haven't been outside of the U.S. in many years. Maybe I'm just kicking myself for not finishing my semichah and entering the Rabbinate so I could be the one invited on some of these tours as a guest lecturer. Maybe I fail to appreciate Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s concern that God would take him to task for not seeing His Alps.

But maybe we should ease up on the "Jewish heritage" moniker and just call these trips what they really are: kosher vacations. I'm not opposed to vacations. Everyone ought to assess their station in life and determine how much leisure, how much downtime, how much relaxation they need in order to propel themselves further and deeper into God’s Divine Service.

As for me, camping in Lake George usually does the trick.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tri Again

What will you be doing on Sunday, August 7, 2011?

I'll tell you what I won't be doing; I won't be participating in the Eleventh Annual New York City Triathlon.

A triathlon, for those who don’t know, is a race that combines swimming, bicycling and running. A colleague of mine from work had begun training for a triathlon, and recently a good friend of mine did too. So I thought, as I often do: Why not me?

For several years now I have been trying to fend off middle age with various attempts at whipping myself into shape. Racing in a triathlon became the big carrot at the end of a long stick. So for the past few years, on and off, I have been in "training." What this means, for an overworked, under-disciplined person such as myself, is feeble, inconsistent attempts at running, biking and swimming.

While I have been running for years, I'm down to about twelve miles a week, not nearly enough to compete in anything but the shortest of road races. As for biking, once I got my Driver License, biking had become superfluous. Just the other week I got (by "got" I meant "pulled out of my parents' garage") my first bike in twenty years. And swimming? Don't ask.

I had heard about the NYC Tri and figured that was the one I should aim for because (a) I am a denizen of New York City; and (b) who could pass up the opportunity to swim in the Hudson River? But, sadly, I discovered that the NYC Tri was being held two days before Tisha B'av, and decided not to compete. Is there a heter to swim competitively during the Nine Days, particularly during shavua shechal bo? I wasn't interested in finding out. Halachic considerations aside, I just wasn't comfortable with the idea of jumping into the Hudson two days before Tisha B’av.

So I figured, as I often do: There’s always next year. I was certain that with Tisha B'av in August next year being a leap-year, there would be no conflict, as these public events are usually set around the same time every year.

I was wrong.

Tisha B'av next year is on a Tuesday. The NYC Tri is the Sunday prior. Again.

I checked the dates for previous triathlons, and to my surprise and dismay, in four of the past five years, the NYC Tri always fell out the Sunday before Tisha B'av. The English dates were in a broad range; but on the Hebrew Calendar the dates were eerily consistent. What could account for that? Even I, a red-white-and-blue blooded American Jew, was beginning to wonder: Was it actually possible that the organizers of this event were discouraging Orthodox Jews from participating? What else could it possibly be?

So I emailed one of the organizers of the event. Why were the dates of the Tri so varied?, I asked. Her answer surprised me. The currents, she wrote back, have to be favorable between 6 and 9 in the morning. And you know this so far in advance? I asked. Years in advance, she responded.

It turns out that calculating the currents has a lot to do with the lunar cycle, the same lunar cycle that sets the Jewish calendar. So the organizers can not create the event around a certain date on the Gregorian calendar—as they do for the New York City Marathon and the U.S. Open tennis tournament; they have to take into account the moon’s position. Nothing to do with Jews.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

There is a tendency among some Jews to suspect anti-Semitism at the first whiff of anything that remotely interferes with, or even inconveniences, the Jewish community, a feeling that anything that can be chalked up to anti-Semitism should be chalked up to anti-Semitism. This mistrust is misguided—and potentially dangerous.

It’s not that I don’t believe anti-Semitism exists; it does, even in America. But a knee-jerk reaction—particularly when so many other factors are at play—is uncalled for.

The recent reaction to the arrest, conviction, and sentencing of Shalom Rubashkin is a case in point. Even assuming that he was singled out and punished overly harshly, there is no reason to insist that anti-Semitism is the cause. Was anti-Semitism at play? No one can know for sure.

“But what else can it possibly be?” some have argued. Allow me to explain.

People—and by people I include goyim—have motivations that go beyond sticking it to the Jews. Those motivations include career advancement, money, and fame. Rudy Giuliani was renowned for arresting people in extravagant fashion. He did so in order to achieve notoriety and advance his political career (PS: it worked).

Some judges are simply harsh, and hand down long sentences, for reasons that have nothing to do with the Jewish nation.

But one fact is incontrovertible: America has demonstrated little tolerance for anti-Semitism and anti-Semites.

Helen Thomas, the first lady of American Journalism, a woman so highly respected that she had a personal front-and-center seat in the White House press room made a short, awful, clearly anti-Semitic comment. Inside of 24 hours, she was gone. There was no question she would be fired. There was no question she would be banned from the White House.

Mel Gibson, for all his fame and money, makes known his hateful feelings toward the Jews, and is dismissed as a crackpot.

It isn’t fair and it isn’t smart to call people anti-Semitic if they aren’t. We should make absolutely sure we know people’s motivations—usually impossible—before playing the anti-Semitism card. If we don’t know for sure, we should not assume. Our place in American society certainly calls for being dan lekaf zechus. We owe America, as a malchus shel chessed at least that much.

And another reason: If we’re wrong, we may just create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

George Steinbrenner and the Art of Teshuvah

The news this week that George Steinbrenner, principal owner of the New York Yankees, had died unleashed a spectrum of commentary, ranging from the begrudgingly positive to the excessively fawning. For the average baseball fan growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, familiar with the constant turmoil that surrounded the Boss and his beloved Bronx Bombers, the rehabilitation of Steinbrenner’s legacy is nothing short of miraculous.

It’s a miracle that he himself put together.

This is really the tale of two Steinbrenners. The first came along in 1973, when he led a group of investors to buy the Yankees for ten million dollars. The Steinbrenner of the early days was crass, callous, and cruel. The Yankees quickly improved and won two World Championships before the end of the decade. Whether they won because of or in spite of their owner’s behavior is debatable. It’s also beside the point.

George Steinbrenner excused his conduct as necessary in order to win. He put winning ahead of everything else. Winning was the ends that justified the means—and the meanness. “I sign the paychecks,” was his reasoning for treating employees as nothing more than disposable puppets in the grandiloquent theater that was Yankees Baseball. Sixteen games into the 1985 season, he fired the Yankees greatest living legend, Yogi Berra, after publicly promising him a full season to lead the team. And he didn’t even have the courtesy to tell him himself; the deed was done through another executive. Berra was humiliated and stayed away from the Yankees for over a decade.

He famously fired a stadium electrician for a malfunctioning loudspeaker, and a secretary for ordering the wrong sandwiches. “You live up to his impossibly perfect image of the New York Yankees or Steinbrenner would exact retribution,” wrote Joe Posnanski wrote in Sports Illustrated.

Harvey Greene, a former Yankees PR director, said, “The phone would ring in the middle of the night and you knew it was either Mr. Steinbrenner or a death in the family. After a while you started to root for a death in the family.”

Steinbrenner’s antics were tolerated for another decade until he finally crossed the line in 1990—paying $40,000 to a degenerate gambler to spy on his All-Star outfielder, Dave Winfield—and was banned from the game by then-commissioner, Fay Vincent.

But it turns out that there was another side to George Steinbrenner that was not as well known.

Just ask Ken Waldrep, who, in 1974, while playing football for TCU against Alabama, was hit on a play and became paralyzed. Steinbrenner was watching the game from the stands. He helped pay Waldrep’s medical bills and for a specially equipped van. He also kept up with him, lending moral, in addition to financial, support.

Ask Eddie Robinson, the famous football coach of Grambling University. When Robinson’s Urban League Classic football game, which raised funds for nearly 500 scholarships, was straining financially, Steinbrenner loaned them Yankee Stadium to host the event.

Ask Fay Vincent, the aforementioned baseball commissioner who banned Steinbrenner from the game. Vincent recalled the first conversation he ever had with Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner phoned Vincent, asking to “help him raise money for a former football coach at Williams College (which we both attended) who was ill in Florida with Alzheimer’s and needed full-time nursing. George and I shared enormous affection for this coach, and for years we and several others helped him and his wife in their old age.”

Ask Lorraine Blakely, who was almost killed, at age seven, in a freak accident that left her with a crushed skull. Steinbrenner wrote a check to cover the brain surgery of this young girl, after he learned from a newspaper that her father was between jobs and the doctor refused to operate until he was paid.

One former employee reminisced about the time his mother came to New York for a visit, and how Steinbrenner treated her like a queen during her stay. But his behavior toward the employee himself, remained cold. Lou Piniella, the former Yankees player and manager, summed it up: “George is a great guy, unless you have to work for him.”

But by the time Commissioner Bud Selig reinstated him in 1993, a new George Steinbrenner began to appear. By that point, the team (through general manager Gene Michael) had done much to rebuild its depleted minor league system—a system Steinbrenner had helped to deplete by trading away future talent for aging stars. As such, Steinbrenner became the greatest beneficiary of his own exile. Think Jeter, Posada, Pettite and Rivera.

Steinbrenner was still tough on his employees but the cruelty, for the most part, was gone.

Fast forward to 1999, a humbled Steinbrenner arrives at the Berra Museum and Learning Center in New Jersey to make amends. “You’re fifteen minutes late,” Yogi quipped, as Steinbrenner approached.

“Yogi, I’m afraid I’m fourteen years late,” Steinbrenner tearfully responded.

This split personality, which George Steinbrenner finally corrected late in life, is common to many of us. Too often, we can be very kind to guests, but not so nice to our own families. We can be the most charming people in shul, but too tough on our own children. We can smile at strangers but snap at our spouses.

On a national level, too, we are guilty of this dichotomy. Rav Berel Wein, shlit”a, often spoke of people who “love Judaism but hate Jews.” We criticize members of Klal Yisrael who don’t measure up to our standards. We may even belittle others for taking a different path toward Avodas Hashem.

And we tell ourselves that we do this for constructive purposes. It’s love of our families that make us so hard on them. It’s our love of Torah and Yiddishkeit that makes us so critical of others. The end justifies the means. Like George Steinbrenner, we just want to win.

Aharon Hakohein, whose yahrtzeit just passed on Rosh Chodesh Av, was known as the “oheiv shalom verodeif shalom—lover of peace and pursuer of peace.” Aharon pursued shalom relentlessly. As we get closer to Tisha B’av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash because of sinas chinam, we are reminded to take a page from Aharon Hakohein’s playbook and not simply look for opportunities of ahavas Yisrael, but to pursue them.

We, like Mr. Steinbrenner, already have it inside of us. We just have to shift a little bit, like a batter adjusting his hitting stance, and let it out.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

What, Me Worry?

The emails I receive daily commenting on the actions and attitudes of President Obama range from clever to cockamamie, but nearly all are disrespectful. These messages, conceived through a combustible combination of accessible technology, anonymity, and fear that often borders on paranoia, form a new and lethal poison in the domain of character assassination. Not since Jimmy Carter has the Jewish world—both Orthodox, and, increasingly, non-Orthodox—been so openly critical of a sitting U.S. President.

As an American, who believes in freedom of speech, I have no problem with these criticisms, ugly as they are. As a registered Republican, I find some of them humorous, and even find myself in agreement their efforts. But as a Jew I am deeply troubled.

Let’s be clear: I’m no fan of Barack Obama. No, I don’t believe government intervention in the financial markets will fix more than it will disrupt. Yes, I do believe that U.S. interests lie in a strong and stable Israel. No, I don’t think government-managed health care will lead to better and cheaper health care for me and my children. Yes, I am eagerly awaiting the November 2010 elections, not to mention those in 2012.


These sorts of taunts, particularly those launched by purported Orthodox Jews, are wrong because they display a lack of conviction as to Who is really running the world.

Never mind the minefield of chillul Hashem, which is rarely considered by those launching attacks. Never mind the potential backlash against the Jewish community for protesting against a popular president. Let’s leave those concerns alone for a moment, and focus on another challenge: recognizing our true beliefs.

From the simple perspective of intellectual honesty, is it fair to leave G-d out of the equation? If we call ourselves believers, what or Whom do we actually believe in? Have we, too, been swept up in Obamania to the extent that we believe that its magical powers supersede those of our own—Torah, tefillah and tzedakah?

Question: To what extent does our belief that G-d is running the show prevent us from fretting over the current political landscape? Young children sing every morning “Adon olam…veHu haya veHu hoveh veHu yihiyeh—Master of the universe…He was, He is, and He will be.” Always. God is here, with us, every day. What, me worry?

We all know that we are charged with hishtadlus, that we must make “practical” efforts in this world. G-d makes this demand of us. And, no doubt, if we see our efforts in that light, they are holy actions. But it is also possible to cross the line. If our hishtadlus has us behaving in a way that breaches polite discourse, that goes beyond loyal opposition, that creates chillul Hashem, then it is not hishtadlus.

It is incumbent upon us to vote. But once the vote is tallied and the “wrong” candidate has won, isn’t it equally incumbent upon us to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that the Almighty is still ultimately in charge?

“But,” the argument goes, “haven’t we learned from Jewish history that we are under constant threat? Wouldn’t it be naïve not to worry?”

Simply, my answer is, no. Because “worry” is the wrong action plan. The correct action plan is “concern.” Concern means we understand the problem and will take an intellectual course to try and solve it. Worry, however, is an emotion, which may or may not lead us to proper behavior.

Let’s look at Megillas Esther and follow the actions of Mordechai, who was dealing with nothing less than the survival of the Jewish nation. While the rest of the Jewish world partied at Achashveirosh’s palace, Mordechai stayed home. While everyone else bowed down to Haman, Mordechai resisted. Then, when Haman received Achashveirosh’s permission to destroy the Jews, Mordechai ripped his clothing and dressed in sackcloth. He stood before the palace, waiting for any news from inside. Reading the Megillah to this point, one would surmise that Mordechai is a very worried person. Worried about the Jewish people, worried about Esther, worried about his children’s future.

The verses, however, tell a different story. At the key moment, when Esther shows some reluctance to move forward and approach Achashveirosh to plead for her people, Mordechai tells her, essentially, “No worries.” “Revach vehatzalah yaamod layehudim mimakom acher— Rescue and salvation will stand for the Jews from another place.” That’s a pretty confident statement from someone who, moments ago, had been pacing outside the king’s palace.

The critical difference is this: Mordechai was concerned, but he was never worried. Mordechai wasn’t being naïve. He understood that everyone had to do their hishtadlus. He even suggested that Esther’s entire climb to the top of the political ladder was for this very moment.

But he was never worried.

It is incumbent upon every believing Jew say, at some point, “Enough.” I have worried enough. I have voiced my opinion enough. I have blogged and emailed enough. I have voted enough.

It’s time to hear what G-d has to say.