Friday, August 27, 2004

We have a few chasidim in our neighborhood. For the most part, they are good people -as good as any of us, anyway - and I enjoy talking to them.

Last night, S, a hard-core hasid of some kind or another, told me that he allows no variation of his weekly shabbos meals. Friday night is always chicken soup, roasted chicken, tzimmes, kugel and compote. Saturday afternoon is always liver, egg salad, chicken, kugel and cholent.

Is this gastronomic rigidity typical of all Hasidim? S swears it is. He says all Hasidim eat the same food on shabbos. Moreover, he swears that both the meal and that rigidity in general are authentically Jewish. But how can that be so?

First, many of these dishes could not have been prepared in ancient Israel or Babylon. Potatoes, for example, are a New World vegetable. Does this mean that before Columbus returned to Europe with his boatload of potatoes, Jews, deprived of cholent and kugel, were unable to enjoy an authentic shabbos meal?

Second, if Judaism was as rigid as S imagines, Hasidut itself could not exist. The prayer nusach of Europe was ashkenaz. The dominant halachic authority of Europe was the RAMA. Both were thrown overboard by the original Hasidim.

If minhagim were really as binding, if they were truly as powerful, as modern Hasidim imagine, wouldn't their own movement have died in its cradle? I wonder if Hasidim have pondered this irony?

When I next speak to S, I'll be sure to ask.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

That was fast ... stupid Google.

Pleased (snort) to announce the second Baynonim Challenge goes to Urijah. If he can admit to using Google, I suppose I can admit to stealing the question (but I really thought changing the city name would render Google useless. Oh well.) The priceless emoluments and fabulous parting gifts are in the mail.

Today's (Jew hating, anti-Israel, leftist) New York Times carried two long and gushing stories about the Israeli medalist. They even put his picture on the front page, and, in the sports section, the story was above the fold. In other words, the Times judged this little windsurfing event to be the day's top sports story, putting it ahead of Rulan Gardner's retirement, and the volleyball team's gold medal.

I'm a little torn here. What bothers me more? The way this American paper fawns over an Israeli athlete? Or the way American Jews will ignore it, and continue to judge the Times their enemy?

Or, to reshape the question: What did I find more pleasing? The extensive attention the paper of record gave to a Jew's achievement? Or, the fact that the old, (and not very well-thought out) Jewish complaint against the Times was, in some small way, weakened?

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Olympic Interlude

Israel won a gold medal at the Olympics this week.

I heard about it here, thanks to Sarah. The full story is here. The really embaressing overreaction can be found here at Only Simchas.

Per Ha'aretz, the medalist's father said: "It's very, very hard to believe that he succeeded in doing this,"

Now there's a Jewish father, who sounds like a Jewish mother!

Mischievous Thought Interlude

Perhaps the Jewish blogosphere could raise the funds necessary to name a building on the campus of Dominican University in honor of Nachmanides, the Ramban.

As students of Jewish history will recall, the Ramban demolished a panel of Dominican friars at a disputation (1) held in Barcelona before the court of King James I of Aragon. The Ramban's own account of the encounter is recorded in Sefer Havikvach, which was translated by Dr. Charles Chavel. Another translation appears here.

The debate ended when, in the Ramban's account, the king said "Let the dispute be suspended. For I have never seen a man whose case is wrong (2) argue it as well as you have done."

I thought the grounds of Dominican University, a school committed to upholding the ideals of those same friars, might be an appropriate place to remember the Ramban's superb achievement.

Who agrees?

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(1) There were hundreds of these diputations in the middle ages.. Usually, the friars would force Jewish congregations to listen to hours of preaching before permitting a Rabbi to respond. Often, the Rabbi was warned that he must not insult Catholisim, which made a proper response all but impossible. The Ramban's disputation is noteworthy because the king himself granted the Ramban freedom to speak his mind.

(2) According to Chavel "whose case is wrong", might also mean "who is not a lawyer"

Here we go with another Baynonim challenge

For those keeping track, this is the second challenge. As usual, the winner will be chosen on a completely arbitrary basis, and will be given a reward commensurate with the achievement.

In Des Moines it is: 8 2 2 1 9
In Haifa it is: 7 1 2 1 8

What are we talking about here?

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Don't call me zaydee!

There's an old guy in our shul, who's a little crotchety. Ok, he's a world-class grump. Never smiles. Mutters complaints. You know the type. But sometimes, the grump makes an interesting point.

We, old-timers of the neighborhood, have learned to steer clear of the old man. Yesterday, at maariv, a newcomer went on the fool's errand of trying to cheer him up.

"How are you?" asked the newbie.


"How are your grandchildren?"

"They'll be here next week."

"Oh, how nice." said the newbie, "I'm sure they're looking forward to spending time with their zaydee."

"What did you call me?" snarled the old man.

"Um... zaydee?" the puzzled newbie replied.

Why would you call me that?! Every day, you pray three times for the zaydees to be destroyed!"

"um... I do? Wha?," said the newbie, wondering if, perhaps, he'd been speaking with a mental patient.

"Don't you daven? V'lamalshinim al tehi tikva," recited the old man as he stood up, and went towards the door,"... v'ha'ZAYDIM mehara sekar u'sishaber, u'simager v'sachniah b'mihayra v'yomenu!" (1)

Lesson learned. I doubt the well meaning newcomer will bother the grump again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

(1) The old man is punning the word Zayd. In yiddish, Zaydee is a grandfather. In Hebrew, Zaydim are wanton sinners. As he ended the conversation, the old man recited a passage from the Amidah, or Shmoneh Esray, the prayer recited (with some variations) morning, afternoon and evening every day. This passage asks God to destroy the enemies of the Jewish people, and to humble wanton sinners.

Monday, August 23, 2004

I don't usually enjoy weddings. As the families march to the chupah, I always think Look at them: a new beginning. A clean slate. How sweet before my thoughts spiral into sour areas. I begin to remember that my own life is no clean slate, with a beginning that belongs to the ever-fading past.

No misunderstandings, please: I'm happily married, and in my early thirties. I do not want a do-over, not at all. All the major decisions were, bh, the right call. Still, it's hard to look at people about to begin their lives, without some jealousy. It's normal to envy people about to begin something new and exciting and wonderful. So much opportunity in front of them...

In Hebrew, a new couple is the zug hatori, the fresh pair. Doesn't that say it all?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I had some other thoughts last night, aside from these self-pitying reflections. I may not have chosen to share them, but so many other bloggers have recently registered complaints about weddings, so I feel almost compelled to to pile on. Here, then, is the baynonim list of wedding picques.

Candles: Why do the parents of the bride and groom carry them down the aisle at many weddings? The ceremony is usually conducted indoors, and, anyway, electricity has been invented. Is there a religious reason for this practice? MoChassid, says yes, but I am waiting for the details. So far as I know, there is none. The caterer uses modern methods to prepare the food. The band certainly uses electricity. Too much of it, in fact. So why is the quaint custom of carrying candles kept alive?

Overcoats look very strange on a groom when the weather gets warm. Were shtetle weddings always held in the dead of winter? What is the source for this unusual practice?

Kittels My grandfather, zl, said little, but when he opened his mouth he was always right. He insisted that the custom of wearing a kittel, goes hand-in-hand with ashes: a groom who chooses to wear a kittel (and not all of them do; it isn't required) must put ashes on his forehead. Otherwise, he's just showing off. I've never checked the sources, but I trust Grandpa. We see the kittels. Where are the ashes?

Incompetent caterers: At one wedding, the bride set off the burglar alarm when she ventured near the aron kadosh during her 7 circuits; at another a phone in the next room rang ceaselessly during the ceremony; at a third, accumulated snow caved-in the skylight above the chupa. The zug hatori got soaked. Details, people.

Singers who won't coordinate: A friend of the couple, usually, is chosen to sing the two boruch habas and, perhaps, an im eshkochach too Does the singer/friend ever meet with the band beforehand to discuss pacing and keys? Does he even let the band know the tune he'll use? No. Of course not. He just gets up and starts to sing; after a few chords the band picks it up and fills in a few weak background notes. How hard would it be to do it right? How hard could it be to make it look as if this wedding element was given some thought?

Mindnumbing conformity Every wedding looks the same. Same music. Same flowers. Same flourishes. Same shtick. It doesn't have to be this way. A wedding is one religious forum - perhaps the only religious forum - where your own creativity is welcome. No dictate requires you to make a wedding that looks, smells, sounds and tastes like every other wedding. You could, for example, ask friends to hold the chupa. You could have a toast, or play klezmer music. Nothing forces you to enter to, "Introducing for the very first time..." It's your wedding; there's no obligation to throw a copycat bash.The non-Jews know this. Their weddings are personalized with themes, and favors and so on. They choose the music with care and precision. Why can't we do the same? If this suggestion horrifies you, please recall that the white dress and the procession down the aisle aren't inherently Jewish; both ideas were borrowed. Other elements, like the circuits and the glass-breaking, not to mention the candle and the overcoat, were invented. So why has the borrowing stopped? Why has the inventing ended? Note: Fried salami and hotdogs at the shmorg do not count, though I do get a chuckle at Jews in formal wear (be it beckesha or tux) snorting franks.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

At the wedding I attended last night, I carried these dispiriting thoughts for only a few minutes. Then the band began to play, and we rose to welcome two more who had been wed k'daas moshe v'yisroel. The bad thoughts vanished, and I lost myself in the vertiginous mass of celebrating Jews.

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