A New Read on Jewish Life
Updated: 4 weeks 5 days ago
As a rule, every racehorse in America had a birthday last Friday, New Year’s Day. The best in the land, American Pharoah, turned four, but his racing career is finished. It was short and spectacular, over in fewer than 15 months. We got to see him in 11 races. He lost twice. In 2015, the bay colt earned $8,288,800, a single-season record as he became the first horse to win the Triple Crown since 1978. Ahmed Zayat, his Egyptian-American Orthodox-Jewish owner, finished the year as the leading owner ranked by earnings. And he’s about to become richer during Pharoah’s second career—as a stud.
American Pharoah’s remarkable run—in particular those seven triumphant months between his Kentucky Derby victory and runaway romp in the Breeders’ Cup Classic—set him up for a longer calling beyond the track. In a few weeks, American Pharoah’s stallion duties will begin where he was born and raised, in the Kentucky bluegrass between Churchill Downs, the Derby home, and Keeneland Racecourse, where he won the $5 million Classic.
In Address to Boston Mosque, Jewish Chief Justice of Massachusetts Supreme Court Vows to Protect Muslim Rights
Last month, a remarkable moment took place in Boston that was largely lost in the holiday hiatus. In the wake of presidential contender Donald Trump’s incendiary call to halt Muslim immigration to the United States, Ralph Gants, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, was asked to address the largest mosque in New England, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. In his speech, which took place on December 18, Gants drew on his legal expertise and Jewish heritage to assure the Muslim audience that the state would protect their rights during this trying time.
“This may surprise you, but this is not where I usually spend my Friday afternoons,” the Jewish justice opened. “I asked to speak with you today because I know that this is a difficult time for persons who practice the Islamic faith in this country. And I am here to assure you that you do not stand alone: you have a Constitution and laws to protect your right to practice your religion, to protect you from discrimination and the denial of your equal rights, and to protect you from acts of violence that might be committed because of your religion or your nation of origin.”
To kvetch is as Jewish as guilt-tripping, gefilte fish, and gloom. But the ne plus ultra of Jewish is angst—that sense of dread and foreboding that keeps whispering: “The universe is out to get you.”
Given the Jewish experience of the last 5776 years, this take reflects realism rather than paranoia. Start with the eviction from Eden and the Deluge, which left only Noah’s clan alive. Continue with the Pharaonic slavery and God’s vow in the Desert (Numbers 14) to strike the Children of Israel “with pestilence and disown them.” And so it goes: the Babylonian captivity, Haman, Masada, the destruction of two temples, the dispersal. It is an unending epic of persecution, expulsion and slaughter culminating in the Shoah.
Many are the tender moments that shape a young person’s life: that first sweet kiss, that first bitter heartbreak, one’s first time in a small, airless classroom answering silly questions about Sophocles’ Antigone, wishing ill on just about everyone in Thebes.
Even though it’s been more than two decades, it’s the last of these milestones that I remember most clearly. I can’t for the life of me recall the name of the girl with whom I first locked lips, but trying to opine on Creon’s relationship with his rebellious daughter in the midst of a merciless Israeli summer is a torment I won’t soon forget. This, perhaps, is why Israelis call their high school matriculation exams the Bagrut, the Hebrew word for maturity; put up with long, compulsory stretches of literary analysis in 103 degree weather, and you, friend, may call yourself an adult.
On Tuesday French President Francois Hollande and other dignitaries honored the victims of the Hyper Cacher terrorist attacks by unveiling commemorative plaques at the kosher supermarket and at the old offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine. It has been nearly one year since 17 people were killed by Islamic extremists over a three-day rampage, including four people inside the kosher supermarket, 12 Charlie Hebdo staffers at the magazine’s headquarters, and Ahmed Merabet, a 40-year-old Muslim police officer who was shot point-blank while trying to stop two of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen. Reported the AP:
The French president briefly met with some of the survivors of the attack inside the supermarket, including Lassana Bathily, a Mali-born employee of market who hid a group of hostages in the store’s underground stockroom. Bathily then sneaked out to speak to police and help the operation to free the 15 hostages and kill the attacker. Bathily has been hailed as a hero and granted French citizenship.
California Assemblyman Travis Allen Introduces Anti-BDS Bill and the California Israel Commerce Protection Act
On Monday California Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) introduced a bill (AB-1552) that, if adopted, would prohibit state-run government entities from doing business with companies that engage in boycotts with a “person or entity…based on the race, color, religion, gender, or nationality.” The BDS movement, said Allen, “use(s) false, demonizing, and delegitimizing propaganda against the State of Israel.”
“[It] has become a pretext for the expression of anti-Jewish bigotry,” he said. “I look forward to ensuring California continues to stand with Israel as a vital ally and economic partner.” Allen posted an image on Facebook of the Israeli flag next to California’s flag.
When I was a grungy teenager, music was fantastic. We’re talking Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam, Backstreet Boys, Busta Rhymes and Dru Hill. Then, in 1999, the metal band Disturbed dropped “Down With the Sickness.” Not 30 seconds into the song, lead singer David Draiman screams “ooh-wah-ah-ah-ah”—heavy metal’s version of a beat drop—and blows the roof off of everything. To a teenager, Draiman’s staccato vocals at the outset of the song provided a vicarious outlet for angst and, in my opinion, is one of the most memorable bits of vocal originality I’ve ever heard.
“I used to have, and I still do have, really bad acid reflux,” Draiman, who was raised Jewish, told MTV in 2012. “I had a surgical procedure done…that repaired a valve at the top of my stomach that had completely burned away.” This, said Draiman, increased his range and strengthened his vocals. “That noise,” he said, just kinda came one day. [The] beat is so tribal it made me feel like an animal.”
The New York Times ran a very New York Times style feature today in which journalist John Ortved interviewed rich people who lunched at the Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan, which will close in July. Among those in attendance over time were “domestic Goddess” Martha Stewart, and Tablet contributor Leon Wieseltier, who lunched with Henry Kissinger. The men both had the white truffle risotto. Wieseltier wore a Zegna jacket with Levi’s, and boots from Ft. Worth, Texas. Kissinger? He had no clue thank you very much:
May I ask you where your suit is from?
In the weeks since my last column, Daf Yomi readers began a new tractate, Gittin. As its name suggests, Gittin deals primarily with the get, the document that effects a divorce under Jewish law. In focusing on this particular legal document, rather than on divorce in the abstract, the Talmud follows the same pattern as it does in Tractate Ketubot, which deals with the marriage contract. In both cases, the Talmud’s very long and detailed legal code is founded on a brief and seemingly straightforward biblical text. The nine chapters of Gittin are rooted in just one verse from Deuteronomy 24:
“Would you like to meet my grandmother?” Jon asked above the loud chatter of the North London gastro-pub.
I put down my forkful of fish and chips tartare and stared at him with excitement. “Your grandmother?”
This fall and winter have seen many of us here in Israel consuming a miserable kind of reality TV: blurry clips of young Palestinian Muslims with knives seeking release in murder and martyrdom, lunging, stabbing, falling stricken to the ground, the action captured by cellphones or security cameras; an imam in Gaza waving a knife and calling on the faithful to render us into “body parts”; a fighter from the Islamic State, our new neighbor, warning us of the violence he and his comrades will inflict when they arrive. The effect was so disturbing that it triggered psychological stress akin to that of a real war, though the fatalities barely added up to a skirmish. No land was conquered or lost, no concessions demanded. With our computers and cellphones, as the director of military intelligence put it, “We’re all brainwashing ourselves.” The battlefield had moved almost entirely inside our own minds.
In the past month or two it has been more apparent than ever that the confluence of unfiltered information, dramatic images of bloodshed, and fanatical interpretations of Islam have converged to become one of the key forces shaping our lives. That makes it worth looking for the moment this force began to make itself felt in earnest. My selection, a subjective one based on my personal experience, can be found on the front page of the Israeli daily Maariv of Oct. 31, 1994.
In the week since I last wrote about Marc Gafni—the ex-rabbi who, despite charges of unethical sexual behavior, as well as plagiarism, has become a New Age impresario and a spiritual advisor to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey—there have been numerous further developments. Here is a brief roundup:
— A petition at change.org, calling on Whole Foods and the conference center Esalen to dissociate from Gafni, has garnered nearly 2,500 signatories from across the spectrum of Jewish observance, including Orthodox rabbinic luminary Saul Berman; author Joseph Telushkin; Jill Jacobs, head of T’ruah, The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights; Sharon Kleinbaum, rabbi of the LGBT-oriented Congregation Beit Simchat Torah; and leaders of Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, transdenominational Hebrew College, and Renewal association ALEPH. The comments section of the petition includes numerous statements from men and woman who said they’d had personal experiences with Gafni.
As the adage goes: Make loads of money giving people beautiful clear skin, then retire to study Talmud. At least that’s the plan for Dr. Jonathan Zizmor—a long-time dermatologist in New York who became famous because of his tacky ads on the subway—according to a report from the New York Daily News.
Years ago, when I first moved to New York, a friend called her local bodega—one with good bagels, she averred—and ordered us a couple of them with cream cheese.
“Do you want yours toasted?” she asked, turning the cell’s receiver away from her face.
It’s time we started looking for omens of what 2016 is going to be like. Traditionally, I cast runes, read tea leaves, and most importantly, consult various social media feeds, which have augured a very promising new year indeed: Bar Refaeli is pregnant! The mother-to-be recently announced her good news by posting a picture of her positive pregnancy test on Instagram, along a brief series of infant-themed emojis. You know, just like they used to back in the shtetl.
I’m old enough (sadly) to remember when it might have been considered in poor taste to transmit a photograph of an object recently soaked in one’s own urine to millions of people worldwide, but such things are de rigueur for celebrities and lay people alike these days. And, I have to say, I’m delighted by Bar’s news (despite the fact that she’s reportedly under investigation for tax evasion).
When I became a senior citizen a few years ago, someone asked what public personalities had spanned my entire life. After giving it some thought, the only two names I could come up with were Queen Elizabeth and Yankee announcer Bob Sheppard (who has since gone to that great broadcasting booth in the sky).
I had forgotten the third: Herman Wouk.
On a typically glorious California day, a new friend and I sat in the sunshine in the not-so-typical Peoples’ Republic of Berkeley discussing our respective libraries. Annette was a collector of the late-Victorian Kelmscott Press, and I had recently begun to acquire early novels written by women. Blame the anti-rarified air (isn’t Berkeley known for being anti-everything?), Annette and I quickly left the comfortable ideas attendant upon the joys of book collecting and moved on to an unexpected topic: the English language—the intelligent matter within the corporeal objects of our books.
Like many of our age cohorts, Annette and I had attended public schools where a dearth of resources reserved the advanced mathematics and science classes for the boys who “would need these skills to support their families.” We girls, apparently guaranteed sustenance, would be better equipped for our future lives of dependence by acquiring excellent communications (as opposed to analytic) skills, which, in the heady, bra-burning, ERA-producing days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, meant four years of high-school English classes. After all, even the MRS degree would be benefited by good spelling, not to mention excellent typing skills.
When I was a young man and my family suddenly could no longer afford the life we had been living or our house or to send me off to Boston for college, I decided more school would have been a fool’s errand anyway—I’d put in my time. But if I wasn’t going to college I still felt the need to go somewhere. With inflated pride, I left that small New Jersey town and what would become increasingly distant memories of privileged comforts, the summer swim clubs, the crisp new shoes for each school year, the hot chocolate vendor and his $3 paper cups steaming from mittened hands along the Christmas parade on Main Street. Goodbye to all that, I said with shaky conviction. I was freewheelin’ and unencumbered, a young man with a badly drawn map of the world in his head, ready to go wherever the compass took me, and God help those I’d encounter on the way.
I would eventually swallow some of that pride, or rather exchange some at favorable rates for the grants I realized I could earn if I set my sights on lesser-known liberal arts institutions with generous financial aid packages. Up and down the eastern seaboard I enrolled and occasionally finished a semester or two, accommodating my peculiar need to never be beholden while finding some solace in directly deposited university funds and the occasional thrill of putting my nose up to the glass of the academic communities that resembled homes for those who thought ambitiously and shared ideas as if such undertakings were of any actual value to society. Technically part of eight separate undergraduate classes, I maintained a stubborn and steadfast ambivalence toward the normative American path I had for so long assumed to be the only way forward, that well-worn path of college followed by career followed by retirement, leisure, and light travel. I told myself I was lucky to have seen it for what it had been, a prefabricated existence, designed for those who departed from towns like the one in which I had grown up and requiring no more than adequate speech, good cheer, a firm handshake, and reciprocal behavior. I boasted and grimaced at how sure I was I didn’t want it, at how sure I was I wanted to go about it in such an ad hoc and scrambled way, with moving boxes, sets of keys, the succession of student ID cards, a cyclical process of accumulation and disposal. Propelled forward by an aversion to stability, my movements were dictated by fear and impulse as much as reason.
I traveled to Israel for the first time in the late 1970s, when I was 11 years old. I was so amazed by the magnificent topography and the biblical sites we encountered that I decided to photograph my feet at each stop. It was a gathering of evidence to prove I hadn’t dreamt being there that summer, that I had actually borne witness to the country’s splendor.
The magic I experienced still grips me, yet my emotions were conflicted before my trip there last month, my most recent in a decade. I longed to be in Israel and to feel its beating pulse, even as the recent escalation of violence is draping itself over everything, like a film of dust covering the good furniture in the attic. I was particularly anxious to see my son who is learning in a Yeshiva outside Jerusalem.