Monday, May 27, 2024

Of Basketball and Bubby Shoes

Years ago, when I was a camper in a sleep-away camp, an issue with certain aspects of the basketball playing came to the fore. There were boys who, in their desire to come across as mean, lean, virtually professional basketball players, fell into a fad where playing without their tzitzis on was seen as some sort of macho display of just how hot a basketball player they were. Needless to say, when their yarmulkas fell off while playing, the poor head-covering lay neglected on the ground until the end of that particular play as well. The boys somehow felt that this showed how “cool” they were and how their identity was more tied up with basketball than any old frumkeit rules.

This article is neither the place nor the forum for a discussion about the halachic propriety or impropriety of their actions. Suffice it to say that the difference between those who wore their tzitzis during the games and those who didn’t had nothing to do with a difference in any p’sak halacha received. Nobody even bothered asking. Playing sans tzitzis was more of a symbolic act – in certain circles – of how macho one was with regard to the game. Of course, once a fad gets started, it is hard to stop it, and needless to say, many individuals who felt uncomfortable playing without tzitzis did so anyway for fear of being looked upon as some sort of “frummie” or “greaseball.”


To stop mid lay-up to retrieve one’s fallen yarmulka risked being jeered at by sneering onlookers.


Then came the big game. Our camp was to play another camp known throughout the Catskill Mountains for having the meanest basketball team around. More specifically, the other team boasted Moe the Man as their center. Moe the Man, or Mordechai Manheit (not his real name), was the uncontested basketball champ north of the Palisades Parkway. His plays and moves were the stuff of legend. Though our camp had never played against him before, we’d all heard of his wizardry on the court. Moe could shoot, pass, block, rebound and jam, and just do about anything to score for his team and prevent the opposing team from doing the same.


We were at once petrified of even trying to win against any team on which Moe the Man played and, at the same time, in a fever pitch of excitement at the opportunity to finally see Moe’s moves live, in the flesh, before our very own marveling eyes.


The big day came and the bleachers around the court were mobbed with cheering campers. Our camp’s team was introduced over the loudspeaker with great fanfare and the players walked onto the court accompanied by near-hysterical yelling and cheering. The other team was introduced, and their players walked onto the court to a slightly more muted greeting.


Everyonewas looking around for his first glimpse of the legendary man. One second, though. It couldn’t be. Was that Moe? Was that towering guy with peyos flying out from behind his ears and tzitzis strings clearly visible over his pants the legendary Moe the Man? How could he be? How could that greased-out looking yeshiva bochur be the basketball player whose name evoked awe, hero-worship and no small amount of fear throughout the Catskills?


There was no time to dwell on it, because the game had begun!


It didn’t take longer than five minutes for it to become painfully obvious that the six-foot tower with tzitzis was indeed Moe the Man. Our camp’s “mean, lean, virtually professional” players seemed to have been struck dumb as Moe stole ball after ball from them, lobbed ‘em down the court for a fast break, disarmed their defenses by rebounding, passed cross court and scored on a fade-away jump shot. We weren’t getting beaten. We were getting humiliated. And our team boasted some pretty good players of our own. We’d beaten many camps over the summer. Clearly, though, we were not in the same league as Moe the Man.


Two minutes before the end of the game, when Moe stopped mid-dribble to pick up his fallen yarmulke,effectively losing the ball to our team which then scored, not oneperson jeered. In fact, the silence surrounding the court was louder than the deafening cheering that had preceded it the entire evening. There was awe in that silence that was impossible to ignore.


Moe the Man had proven himself king – not only over the game, but over himself.


Later on in the week, when our team gathered for another game, more than one player was wearing his tzitzis.


Moe hadn’t given anyone a mussar shmuess. He hadn’t uttered a word about priorities and living a principled life. In fact, he had done nothing other than play basketball. The lesson he taught, though, was powerful and lasting.


– – – – –


Often, we feel a need to teach or instruct others. We see areas that have, sadly, become seriously neglected and overlooked. We want so badly to inspire, to lift up, to bring ourselves and our community back to the kind of life we know is right andmeaningful. We consider ourselves from the lucky few who haven’t fallen into the deepening pit of quicksand in which so many of our well-intentioned friends and acquaintances seem mired. Whether in areas of halachah, hashkafah, entertainment, parenting, tznius, shidduchim or spending, we – rightfully – see how badly so many good people seem to have lost their way and we yearn, with the purest of intentions, to help set them right again.


In our frustration, though, we sometimes forget that not all mussar – regardless of how well-intentioned – is equally well-received. Worse is that if we are not wise – and only true daas Torah is always wise – we may even bring about more harm than good.


This is not to say that mussar is always bad simply because some people don’t like hearing it. There will always be naysayers, leitzanim and those who will ridicule a message or a messenger usually because they recognize, deep down, that the message applies to them perhaps most of all. At the same time, there are situations and instances where less is more, where teaching by example without even opening one’s mouth – the way Moe the Man did – can affect others in a way that the greatest ad blitz could not.


Whether it is something in the air, a sale on advertising or mailings, or whether some other cause is at play, of late we’ve been seeing an unusual amount of private and quasi-official missives claiming to support, defend or wish to improve the kedushah ofKlal Yisroel. Such a goal is surely an honorable one. The kedushah of Klal Yisroel is paramount. It is clearly spelled out in the Torah and by Chazal as an area that brought about salvation for our entire nation and, conversely, led to exile and tragedy r”l.


At the same time, many aspects of kedushah, by their very nature, are sullied when discussed publicly. Kedushah calls for sensitivity – no, it demands sensitivity – and not every Tanchum, Dina or Henny who fancies him or herself a ba’al de’ah, rebbetzin or religious defender has the requisite sensitivity. Nor are good intentions always accompanied by wisdom. We’ve seen messages purporting to preach kedushah whose crass or explicit natures fly in the face of everything aidel, tzonuah and kadosh. Many of them are no less offensive than the shmutz they claim to be combating and those who circulate them are no less peddlers of smut.


Should we seek to spread kedushah? Surely. Is there a dire need for improvement in this crucial area of our lives? One can no longer even debate that there is.


The question, though, is how one goes about it. As desperate as the situation may be, losing ourselves will help no one, least of all the cause in whose glow we aim to encircle our friends, neighbors and fellow Jews. There are areas where sensitivity and kedushah simply do not allow us the luxury of writing or publicizing everything we wish we can on the subject. In those instances, the best way to go might be to emulate Moe the Man.


Moe taught without ever opening his mouth. If we find ourselves incapable of doing the same, perhaps it’s because we need some convincing as to the wonderful attributes of kedushah and modesty.


Rav Dovid Orlofsky famously tells how more than once he was told by not-yet-observant Jews, “Rabbi, no kiruv guy ever challenged my entire way of thinking the way you did.”


“How is that?” asks Rav Orlofsky. “I don’t think I ever even spoke to you.”


“That’s not the point,” is the invariable response. “You’re religious, but you’re having so much fun and enjoying yourself at the same time. You challenge everything I had ever told myself about religion and religious Jews.”


Moe the Man demonstrated not only that one can be proud of his Yiddishkeit and still be king of the court, but he proved further that, all too often, we, who put on the biggest show of being “with-it,” are doing so simply as a cover-up for how inept we reallyare. Similarly, the best way to spread kedushah would be to show, by example, how one who is comfortable with him or herself has little need to compromise on his or her kedushah.


A true teacher shows by his or her very contented and opportunity-filled life how much happier he is than we who spend our every wakeful moment trying to gain the fleeting and meaningless approval of imaginary “others.” How great a player on the world court are we if we can’t even wear clothes we like and do things we enjoy for fear that somebody, somewhere, will, Heaven-forbid, think that we are maybe, slightly, somewhat yunchy? A kadosh exhibits self-control, which allows him to then luxuriate in his freedom from enslavement to the world of unknown, unholy, others. He enjoys life and makes us want to live like that without ever even opening his mouth.


Did someone say something about enjoying a life of kedushah? Can that be? Doesn’t kedushah demand that one always act wretched, depressed and piteous?


Not on your life! In Jewish thought dealing with kedushah,there is something known asazus d’kedushah. Giving up a ball to pick up one’s yarmulka without batting an eyelash or acting apologetic is azus d’kedushah.Azus d’kedushah is being proud of one’s liberation from the depressing, tension-filled world where the need-to-please is master and we the slaves.


It is said of one of the gedolim of the last generation that he was traveling on a train and overheard a goy telling his son, “Look at that Jew there. Those Jews are the devil in disguise.”


Smiling disarmingly, the gadol turned to the man and said, “I couldn’t help overhearing you describing me to your son. Here, let me help you out. Would you like to show him my horns?”


So saying, he whipped off his hat and bent his head low for the speechless duo’s inspection.


Similarly, a local girl once overheard a group of classmates discussing her “nerdy” choice of accessories, which the girl happened to have felt was more in tune with her refined taste. The girl turned to her classmates and grinned. “Oh, you think these are nerdy? You should see the bubby shoes I wear on Shabbos!”


Perhaps that’s how we should be spreading kedushah. With a smile, a pleasant word, some humor thrown in – and enjoying every minute of it.



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