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Apples, Honey, Caution | blog.deanland.com

Apples, Honey, Caution

Apples, Honey, Caution

The New Year in the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah, is upon us. 5765. It marks the beginning of the "days of awe," the period most commonly referred to as The High Holy days. A tradition among American and some European Jews is to dip apples into honey at this time, to signify a sweet and fruitful new year. For many Jews worldwide, this is a time of celebration and joy. Not so for me. In these times of uncertainty, with a worldwide jihad against America, and as ever against all Jews, it is no time for joy and celebration. It is time for caution, preparedness, alert, consideration and concern. This mood of caution and concern, and the accompanying lack of a sense of great joy over the holiday, is the culmination of a synthesis of factors. Perhaps among those factors is that on September 11th this year I spent a great deal of the day reading Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies. If you plan to vote in the Presidential election in November, read this book beforehand.

Jewish Self-perception

But chief among the factors that bring me to this sort of moody sense of the holiday season is my own sense of myself as a Jew. And also my perception of what it means to be a Jew, how Jews are perceived in the world, as well as an understanding of the history of the Jews, and that irritating truism that history has a way of repeating itself. I was born a Jew, I am a Jew, I will always be a Jew. I will die a Jew. A Jew is a Jew, this is a fact that never changes. This identity remains as long as one is alive. Be one observant, Orthodox, semi-observant, non-observant, even totally oblivious to the faith, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew.

A Jew Among The Jews

To some Jews, given my attitude and approach, I am considered a heathen, a near-pagan. To others I may seem a somewhat learned and educated Jew, especially in matters of Halacha, etc. For quite some time I studied with and among a number of the Orthodox. A black-hat Orthodox rabbi friend of mine tells me he loves me as a [fellow] Jew and yet he is filled with pain to witness the path I have chosen to pursue. "You know the consequences of your actions," he tells me, as he subscribes to strict Orthodox belief and interpretations, and fears that my soul will suffer from the choices I have made. Further, he knows, as both a friend and as a colleague with whom I have studied Talmud, that I am aware of what the religious interpretation or analysis would be of these actions. It pains him, actually, that I do not choose to practice Judaism in the same manner as he. But I just donít buy the dogma. And then to yet others, probably most other Jews, I am simply another one, a member of the tribe, one about whom they give no thought whatsoever regarding what type or sort of Jew I might be.

Many Different Types of Jews

The worldwide Diaspora of Jews includes all members of the tribe: Orthodox (Hasidic, Lubavitcher, Satmar, Traditional Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Recontructionist, and those who subscribe to none of the defined sects or subgroups. Hmm, it appears the Sephardim are being left out -- omission not by design. There are many different perceptions of Jews, held both by Jews and non-Jews. Some non-Jews are of the belief that the Hasidim (those bearded guys with the hair locks hanging around their ears, wearing dark suits that look like maybe just maybe they were fashionable over a hundred years ago in Poland ... where, yes, that look originated and is reflective of, even today, although thankfully few ñif any-- Poles still choose dress like that!) are the ìreal Jews.î Were that a correct and factual perception, it would render me as somehow a fake Jew. The fact of the matter, as I see it, is that the Hasidim are a bunch of kooks. They are the Jewish version of Fundamentalists. Most fundamentalists qualify as rigid and intolerant, short-sighted fanatics. Doesnít matter which religion, fundamentalists are certain that they are right, everyone else is wrong, that they have the one and only insight, all others are on a wrong, detrimental, dangerous path. There are all sorts of Jews. To a certain degree the Hasidim are the lunatic fringe, but there are a good many variations on Hasidim, some other Hasidic sects, as well as different strains of Orthodox belief. Nowadays there is a movement of recent vintage known as Modern Orthodox. This group tends to assimilate and interact with the general population without standing out so much as a sore thumb. Or so they like to think. While it is generally true that the Modern Orthodox do indeed choose and often succeed in their efforts to interact more easily and fluidly with the rest of society, their differences remain evident and stated. And it has been my experience that non-Jews find them more "everyday-like" (read: closer to what others might consider normal), but still consider them different, peculiar, maybe a little nuts, and still perceive them as members of an odd religious sect or group. They end up being characterized as weird, albeit weird in a way that enables them and others to interact. Their clothing, despite not being the drab get-up of the Hasidim, is the first peculiarity. The Yarmulkes on the men (and the not-so-hidden tzitzem) and the dowdy clothing of the women ñeven the fashion conscious get-ups- still identify and classify them as religious, cultish, a group with differences that they wear on their person. This tends to reinforce the xenophobia, which is somewhat counter to the spirit held by many of those practicing Modern Orthodoxy. Of course, it is also why many more traditional Orthodox hold Modern Orthodoxy to be a scornful and contemptible farce, or insult to their tradition.

Post-War Baby Boomer Jews in NYC

As a New York City boy growing up in the postwar 1950s and 60ís we learned certain beliefs, very basic truths and values. Some were taught at home, some in school, and some at religious instruction, or as we called it back then, Hebrew School. Primary among these, taught everywhere (home, school, Hebrew school) was respect for other religions. From that grew an understanding that this was a world of all sorts of people. Different faiths, value and belief systems, schools of thought, different nationalities, we lived in a polyglot world. And growing up in New York, the melting pot of all melting pots, we got to see these different types of people, We saw them in everyday life, and got further glimpses into various other ìdifferentî people during the simple leading of oneís life. Trips into Manhattan or the other boroughs of the city or around the metropolitan area would provide evidence of other little ìworldsî within the area.

Respect as a Basic Tenet

Respect for others was drilled into us. A basic tenet of life. Difference, variety, and the freedom to choose oneís set of beliefs or religious path, was a given, an essential element of living in the melting pot. And we knew nothing other in our lives than that melting pot. It was a standard aspect of our reality. Different skin colors, languages, neighborhoods that reflected an ethnicity or geographic culture ñ all of this was a part of our lives. Little did we know that in other places this was an oddity, that reflective hegemony was the norm in other parts of the country. Little did we know that New York was peculiar, almost uniquely so, as a place where Jews were so abundant, accepted and intimately threaded into the integral substance and structure of the city.

WWII - An Omnipresent Influence

As postwar kids we grew up with the hovering, looming specter of World War II woven into the fabric of our daily lives. Movies about the war were run constantly on Channels 9 and 11 in those years. Stories of war heroism were abundant. It had been a great, righteous and worthy war, we were taught; one in which the US had taken the moral high ground. We were the good guys, the Allies. The defeated Axis was comprised of the bad guys. Stories of liberation of the camps, of the underground resistance in various countries, of new bonds among nations and a new world of great opportunity and wonder were the standard realities of the day. Post-war 1950s and early 60ís was a time of promise, opportunity, and the economic boom of the times afforded growth and funding for school and school programs. Science was a growth industry. JFK promised a man on the moon; Jonas Salk and other scientists were discovering Penicillin and cures for various maladies. Vaccines and cures for dread diseases were more common by the year. Scientists and theoreticians who had worked on bombs and armament in the war were now on US college campuses, or working with our armed forces and/or in US-based think tanks for what we understood to be the greater good. As Jews we were particularly aware of the Holocaust. We knew of 6 million Jews killed by Hitlerís forces. We knew of the camps, of the ghettoes and shtetls throughout Europe that had been decimated. We knew that WWII was of greater impact and more momentous than the pogroms the Jews had suffered throughout history. In my home there was no shortage of books about the war, and about the Jewish experience of the war years. We had books all over the place, with bookshelves forming an archway into the living room of the house, and scattered everywhere else. Among those books were the classics, and Jewish literature and world and Jewish history. Plus, in the basement, what seemed like thousands of paperback pulp novels, page turners. My father devoured mystery and thriller novels, filling an old trunk in the basement with ones heíd finished. We were a family of readers. Back then it seemed that this was the norm, everyone was a reader. We read the daily papers, we read books, magazines, and anything else we could get in front of our eyes. Magazines often had stories of postwar rebuilding in Europe. There was also a steady stream of articles about victims of the war rebuilding their lives. This would be about Jews who had survived, as well as others whose lives had been devastated as a result of the ravages of war. It could be areas of Germany where Jews had been persecuted, or other countries which had endured the bombing, been taken over, partially destroyed, or pillaged by enemy forces. We learned about the countries in which the slaughter was not limited to the Jews, but also inflicted on those friendly to Jews, those of other religions or nationalities that The Third Reich had sought to eliminate. We were a generation being raised with The Diary of Anne Frank as a staple of education, a lesson as much as a statement of how it had been, the way of the world only a few years earlier. The generation that had brought us into the world had lived through those times, and we were immersed in it as the most recent history, the events that shaped our times and our lives.

Nazism - Recent and always a subtext to our lives

Riding the subway headed to a Yankee game as a child of perhaps seven or eight years old, I recall the first time I could identify concentration camp survivors. There they were, seated across from me, with numbers branded on their arms. I whispered to my father, "what are those numbers?" although I already knew what they were. "Identification numbers burned on their arms by the Nazis," he whispered back. "Don't stare at them," he added, "they've suffered enough." It was in later years that I learned that the tattoos meant the Nazi prisoner had been in the camps at Auschwitz. While these sightings of the tattoos were not a commonplace event, throughout my childhood I saw enough of them ñmostly on subway rides, but also at beaches or simply visible on the short-sleeved arms of pedestrians to receive a steady reminder of the horrible "branding" and torture they had suffered. As I got older I learned that the parents of some friends had been Holocaust survivors. The reality of the war, and of repeated incidents throughout history in which Jews were slaughtered or the subject of genocidal campaigns, became a reality one lived with, as a Jew.

Religious Education

In Hebrew School one of the teachers, an Orthodox man, a rabbi from Crown Heights in Brooklyn supplementing his income by teaching in our Conservative temple, would sometimes rant and rave to us that we needed to understand the seriousness of being a Jew. This man, Rotenberg, being Orthodox, taught us from his experience, which was that of being what I think of as a ìTorah Jew.î As an observant Jew practicing an Orthodox set of beliefs, this man followed the teachings of the Torah. To him this was the essential, definitive way to be a Jew. All the other teachers in this Hebrew School struck me as glorified baby-sitters, somewhat versed in Hebrew (the language) and biblical knowledge, but not particularly men or women from whom one learned anything of much substance about the religion. From Rotenberg we learned about the Torah, about the experience of being Jewish. If nothing else, it was perhaps the fervor and belief that emanated from him, that made him stand out from the other teachers. For many years I would have dreams in which Rotenberg would appear. He got through to me; his teaching of what the religion was all about rang true. He also let us know that Jews were still to this day being hunted, that legions of anti-Semites would not rest easily knowing that Jews were still walking the earth. He taught this not so much as a matter of paranoia as he did a matter of fact. He never explained their hatred or their reasoning. He just made it clear that they hated us, they wanted to eliminate us, and that as Jews we would always be plagued by these extremist bigots. ìNo Jew is ever safe from these people,î he would say. As fate would have it, some 30+ years after the last time I had seen this man, I was put back in touch with him by my Orthodox Talmud-study friend. When I told him that he and only he had gotten the message across, that through his teaching I understood the concept of being a "Torah Jew," he sighed and told me it was good to know heíd reached one of the students. He recalled the classes of the two years I'd had him as a teacher. We Conservative Jewish kids growing up in that part of Queens were a different sort than the Orthodox among whom he lived in Brooklyn. But somehow, he managed to impart his overview, while following the curriculum and teaching legions of kids to whom his way of life and thinking were, to say the least, a bit off the wall. His beliefs seemed to be the same as those of my grandparents. His passionate observance and devotion to the religion struck a chord in me. Not so much that I would choose to follow in that path, but enough that it provided insight and interest. It also stirred in me a desire to learn more, to become more knowledgeable, to pursue further learning. And thus, thirty-some years hence, I ended up in two Talmud Study classes. And via my friend the Orthodox rabbi with whom I studied, I reconnected with Rotenberg, since retired, living part of the time in Brooklyn, and some of the time with his daughter in a very religious enclave in a town in New Jersey.

That which stuck from Religious Education

For many years this sense of what it is to be a "Torah Jew," imparted to me by Rotenberg and also, to a different degree, somewhat by my paternal grandparents, stayed with me. It resonated somehow, somewhere within my psyche. Years later, when I commented to my Orthodox friend that the Orthodox services seemed somehow familiar to me, as though the proceedings were something I'd already experienced, he told me this was not an uncommon feeling. Further, he offered that many b'al tshuvah have this observation, this comment, this experience. B'al Tshuvah is a term describing non-observant Jews who embrace Orthodoxy, most usually in adult life, although it can apply to teens or those in later stages of life. It can also be used to describe those who are observant to some degree, but then choose to follow a more traditional manner of Orthodoxy. A good piece on some points of the Baal Tshuvah experience, can be found here, and some other interesting reading about it may be found here, here, here, here, and here. One of the two Talmud Study groups I attended was under the aegis of a school and shul devoted to working with B'al Tshuvah. The rabbi who ran this establishment was quite impressive. Part and parcel of nearly every sermon he offered or discussion in which he participated included the importance of all Jews accepting one another. This coming from the orthodox, many of whom consider themselves (and their specific sect) to be the only Jews who really get it, really have the key, really understand all the learning, blah, blah, blah . . .made the man somewhat of a radical, and yet also a visionary. No wonder he ended up running a temple and a school primarily for the B'al Tshuvah! My orthodox rabbi friend, telling me that my experience of comfort and familiarity was very much the bíal tshuvah experience, actually missed the point. This is understandable, as his worldview and total personal focus is on and of an orthodox mindset. But what he missed was that the familiarity and comfort I found was mixed with a nagging concern, a sense that despite the ease with which I could accept and participate within this world, it didnít seem like it was the place for me. And the more I learned, studied, went to Talmud class, and gained insight, the less comfortable I felt within the bigger picture. Despite my continued fascination, and my desire to do more Talmud Study, as I always say, it is as though doing calisthenics for the mindóif those who teach it perceive their task as bringing me into the fold, or those who offer the classes feel a sense of betrayal or suspicion that I can be there ("in attendance"), yet not be there in acceptance or spirit (me with the non-Jewish Significant Other, I who eat traife, who drive (et al) on Shabbos, and so forth) . . . then so be it. I will learn or study in other ways. Which brings us full circle to the original point. A roundabout way of getting there, yes, but here we are.

Jews Remain Under Attack, or the Threat of Attack

I know from the fervor of my teachers and older relatives, from reading, and from poring over websites as well as discussions with many people that there remains a simple fact: hordes of people exist who would like to see the extermination of the Jews. They'd like to see this soon, in their lifetime, maybe before their next birthday. Those who feel this way do not give a hoot as to distinction or sect, degree of observation or orthodoxy. No, quite simply, they hate all Jews, equally. To some it is just part of their overall hatred and xenophobia. To others it is a religious passion, a jihad, a fatwah. To yet others it is a specific and retaliatory hatred, taught or acquired via birthright or experience. As a Jew one need not, cannot be too concerned with the finer points of these variations on the differing factions, all united in their hatred of the Jews. Nuance is not a consideration when survival is the issue. Some of my non-hating friends and acquaintances engage in conversations, seeking to create a unity, a middle ground, a negotiation among the Jews and those who hate them and would choose to obliterate the full global diaspora of Jews. This is fine and virtuous. Most of these are not Jews, although a fellow I know, a member of the tribe, spends considerable energy attempting to bridge the gaps that exist between Muslims and Jews. Some other friends expend much effort on attempts to find middle ground or peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (those words, that characterization, is a meager and pitiful attempt to give a name to a much bigger problem and situation . . .but more on that, perhaps, another time) Ah, these well-intended friends and acquaintances. Their hearts are in the right place, but they know not of what they speak. It is all bullshit. They mean well, but they lack an understanding of the depth and penetration of the hatred. Children are taught in schools that the Jews would prevent them from practicing their religions, that the Jews will take their land and that of their fathers, they are taught that the Jews are their enemy from birth. And then there are the generations of Jews, aware from an early age that our ancestors have been chased, ousted, exiled, killed, subjected to pogroms, racism, xenophobia, inquisitions, and that those who have conspired and collaborated against us have had the assistance of other churches, religions, supposedly neutral or non-aligned countries and other entities.

Nowadays it is PC to damn Israel, Israelis, and thus, the Jews

It has also become quite PC to consider Israel "the Jewish state," an outlaw or evil and murderous country. A good many assimilated and PC Jews profess this belief, as well. While certain claims are valid, and Israel under the leadership of a man who spent most of his professional life as a Minister of War is indeed a more combative and openly engaged in battle, it is also a state that has been at war, under attack, subjected to and victimized by terror for over 50 years. I recognize that opposition to the current state of affairs and action of the Israeli government does not necessarily or by definition indicate anti-Semitic feelings. But I also recognize that many anti-Semites embrace the anti-Israel movement as an opportunity to manifest and/or express their views. Further, it provides a new breeding ground or recruiting opportunity to expand the roster of anti-Semites. In the case of Israel and its enemies, the bottom line is this: it takes two or more to engage in a battle. And when the combatants are forever and mercilessly under attack and living in fear ñwith pronouncements of attacks and threats from both the political leaders and rebels and renegade groupsóit is not realistic to imagine that some discourse will bring about peace. These mind you, words typed by yours truly, a lifelong pacifist. And also a pragmatist, a realist. And not one who chooses to lie to himself.

The More Things Change . . . and The Dangers of Assimilation

There is more to worry about, in terms of unsettling present-day facts and realities. Repeatedly throughout history is the fact that the Jews, whenever they become comfortable or assimilated into a society, end up as targets or scapegoats for that societyís problems. And then comes a program to eliminate them, either by expulsion or attempts at extinction. This does not make for a comfortable feeling. Not even in the US, where so many of us live, and are comfortable in many ways. Even in this country where everyoneís family came from somewhere else (except, of course, the aboriginal natives, who somehow ended up on reservations and with treaties that are violated, as well as histories that are questioned and subject to whether or not a US law accepts history as fact or even chooses to consider the history worthy of acceptance) (perhaps some other time I will write about the various Ramapough Indian tribes, on whose original land sits my office, who had a rich and interesting history, who have lore and proof of their being, and yet whose existence is denied by the US government) the Jews have reason for concern. These are dangerous times. And with the current US President and his family all buddy-buddy and economically ensconced with the Saudis, Jews in the US have even more cause for being on the alert. So it matters not what brand or kind or degree of observance a Jew may be. In the year 5765, or 2004, or whatever year it may be in whatever calendar one may follow. It is a dangerous moment for the Jews. That jihad of Al Qaeda's, that anger on the part of the Palestinians (or, better put, the generations of so-called Palestinians who no longer have a welcome home in Jordan or Egypt, and who feel that after losing a war with the Israelis that they are somehow entitled to not only the return of that land, but also to govern and seize control of that which they lost in armed battle two-plus generations ago, as well as in some more recent armed engagements), and those in many countries who are taught that the Jews are their enemy . . . do not make it a time for Jews to relax and feel comfy in the world. There is an interesting discussion by Dr. Asher Eder with regard to the possibility Mid-East peace, Peace is Possible Between Ishmael and Israel According to the Qur'an and the Tanach (Bible). Although many of the arguments are well made and presented, it seems to lack a true understanding of or empathy with the Muslim experience. And thus in the long view, it seems well-intended and non-realistic argument.

Being a Cultural -non-religious- Jew

As a Jew, born to this identity and with a sense of being a cultural but not religious Jews, it is a particularly odd moment. One can reject religious dogma while pursuing a moral and ethical way of life. And yet there are many who feel that those who do not embrace religious dogma (particularly the one they espouse) are lesser people. Some go so far as to consider them not just lesser, but also incapable of truly pursuing any sort of ethical path. While I reject this as a narrow-minded and limiting perception, it never ceases to amaze me how many of my friends, acquaintances, associates, et al, see this as a hard and fast truism. Have religion, will be (can be) ethical. Reject religion, wonít be (cannot be) a moral and ethical being. This compounds the issues of assimilation and a false sense of security. The more the Jews seems to fit in and not be different, the greater the sense of insecurity I perceive, given the history of the Jews. And yet the less I feel a part of any sort of religious Jewish identity or group, the more distant the religion seems and the bigger an issue it seems, that of so assimilating as to further the historic danger. Better, perhaps, not to spend much time thinking in the bigger picture.

Books and The Big Picture

As stated above, as the holidays began I read the Richard Clarke book, Against All Enemies. As the holidays ended I began reading Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, the book about former US Treasury Secretary Paul OíNeill. Over the holiday period I also read Robert Parker's Double Play, and an old Carl Hiaason book, Tourist Season. I remain in the middle of The Log From The Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. I have slowly begun to reread or newly discover a good many John Steinbeck works. In rereading the Steinbeck books, it seems I read them very slowly, to savor the writing, the use of language, the pace and emotion. Much of this was lost on me when I plowed through Steinbeck books back a zillion years ago in Junior High and High School. Last week I began reading Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. And, concurrent with all this other reading, I am also midway into David Bornstein's How To Change The World. The subtitle of the Bornstein book is Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. You may notice a trend here. I am reading books about the current administration, books for levity and entertainment, and also books that shine some light on doing things that would be beneficial, for whatever it is that might be characterized as the greater good.

Being a Non-Theistic Jew

The Jewish holiday season always finds me feeling melancholy. I feel detached from the religious angle, no particular desire to celebrate some ìnew yearî and much as I like what much of the reading offers in the services for The Day of Atonement, a single day to get a free pass strikes me as too simple and too pat. Add to this my refusal to accept the concept of a deity as described and believed - be it that of the Jews, the Catholics, other Christian paths, or those who follow Allah; a God who punishes, a god who doles out sentences or misfortune on non-believers or non-followers - this is no god for me. The very concept of being "god fearing" strikes me as creating an adversarial, confrontational relationship. My idea of a god, a greater power, some sort of omniscient being, is that of a loving, caring entity. In my book (thatís the as yet unpublished Book of Dean) a god that makes rules and would only be of benefit to a certain few followers is not worthy of the god title. If not a god that would be equal and accepting to one and all, and if mankind would not have free will, then it is not for me. Just doesnít ring true. And all the lore, allegory, tradition, parables and stories --no matter how entertaining or reassuring-- seem like bunk, there to support the concept, as opposed to being a truthful retelling of fact. And all the various rules, laws, and manners of obeying or serving the gods of various religious sects . . . seem more like arbitrary judgments for mankind to quantify and relegate, as opposed to a truthful and god-like, much less god-given, method of practice. Sure, religion is a comfort to many. And so be it. If it works for the believers, well, excellent. My bigger picture view is that any real and true god would be the god of all religions. Different routes and paths to a common destination. But I know of no organized religion that is accepting of such a tenet . . . and any religion that claims exclusivity or a private line to the Big Kahuna thus fails my criteria for belief. Jews are taught early on not to proselytize. We do not seek to convert or attract others to our beliefs. To convert to Judaism one must first make the case for conversion before undergoing the process. Many rabbis attempt to talk would-be converts out of the process. The idea is that this is not a light issue, and it is only recommended (advisable?) for those fully cognizant of their actions, committed to the conversion and meaning to make so major a life change.

Distance, Separation, the absence of a group -- but the presence of Ethics

The blue mood that comes over me each year during the holidays is more the net effect of my having no real sense of belonging to this group of celebrants, and no desire to act in some hypocritical or blatantly crass and disingenuous manner. So I wish happy holidays to my coreligionists, hope that those who fast on Yom Kippur manage well, and wonder how I could be so schooled as to have various people ask me if I attended Yeshiva, yet be so devoid of belief -- and so detached from the dogma as to experience a sense of aversion, bordering on revulsion? Surely, I am certain, there is a manner of being ethical, moral, what some choose to describe as ìspiritual,î while not being associated with any organized religious group. Ethics are not the sole province of any or all organized religious groups. The lack of a religious or faith-based purview does not preclude the practice or belief in living an ethical or moral existence. And, of course, during the Jewish holidays it is once again more apparent than ever that these are dangerous times to be a Jew. And now the holidays are rounding the bend. Some Jews are not even aware of the extended holidays and observances that carry through the coming week or two. I will get back to some more regular blogging (hey! A Jewish New Year resolution! ), more reading, and attempts at determining a clearer path for my endeavors and energies toward the big picture, the greater good, betterment as a goal of sorts.

And Good Tidings to All

Happy Holidays, should you be among those enjoying them at the moment. Enjoy the apples dipped in honey. But keep the necessary caution in mind, so as to be able to enjoy with awareness and clarity of mind . . .that which might be fruitful and sweet.