Sunday, Oct 17, 2021

Of Polls, Pols and Pals

They are at it again. They are trying to figure us out. First it was the Pew Crew and now it's the HaMercaz L'Mechkar V'Tikshoret Yehudit (The Center for Jewish Research and Communication), who commissioned a study. I always wondered why the simple name Pew in America has to be so long in Israel, but I guess they get paid by the letter. The poll was done by Israeli pollster Dr. Mina Tzemach and it analyzed the attitudes of secular Israelis toward chareidim. What they found is something that I thought I had known for years. Just because we are paranoid does not mean everyone hates us.

I really do believe that the chareidi community has to be on guard, but there is a spark of holiness and a root yearning in each Jewish neshamah that inherently knows, no matter how hidden that spark is, that we all come from one source, that we are all one, and that we have and ultimately will all share the same destiny and fate. 

 

I know it because I learned it in yeshiva. I know it because the Rambam explained the fact that forcing one to bring an olah is not really forcing him. Something was drilled into my head that transcended the Chumash-Rashi. What was drilled into my head was that “Yisroel af al pi shechatah Yisroel hu.” A Jew, even though he sins, is a Yisroel, and, at times, one may succumb to powerful influences, perhaps influences that suckled him and bred him. Indeed, those influences and desires sway the person’s actions and speech and even lifestyle. But deep down, there is a will of a Yid to do good.

 

I lived in Israel for three years during the era of Menachem Begin. I subsequently returned at least four or five times. I lived in Bnei Brak, but I traveled alone through the slums of Tel Aviv, the backwoods of Be’er Yaakov, and the deserts of the Negev. Every difficult encounter that I had with a chiloni ended up with either a hug or an al hakefa. No, it did not start out that way, and maybe my throwing the secular Israeli guard with a reference to something I had stored in the back pocket of my mind pertaining to American culture threw them totally off guard, but somehow I survived, and so did they, and we parted friends.

 

I will never forget going to the beach in Netanya one bein hazemanim. They had staggered days back then. It seems that the city had appointed a well-built lifeguard to watch us scrawny chareidim dip our toes in the Mediterranean. Someone dropped some litter on the beach and the tirade came. I was not far from the lifeguard, who was mouthing off at the litterbug and all of the black bathing suits. (We were not wearing black hats, and sometimes it’s hard to be defined as chareidi in a bathing suit.) I was standing near him, and with something that I must have pulled out of a Rabbi Shmuel Kunda tape of the future, I spoke in the most American boyish way possible. “Oh! Mr. Israeli lifeguard man person people saver! Can I ask you something?” I began talking water safety, American Red Cross, International Red Cross, crosses and tzeilims, and Magen Dovids and crescents, and in minutes he was so wrapped up in telling me about his career and his vision that he forgot about the little piece of paper that demonized us all.

 

And then I asked him the kicker: “Did you ever save anyone?”

 

When he answered, not only by affirming one time but up to five, I stood and saluted him. “Do you know what the Torah says about saving a person?” And I told him. And then I told him about all the good he had done and what kind of merit he will have, and soon enough he wanted to know where in the Talmud it was. People who saw me talking to him thought I had found a long lost cousin. And I had.

 

And it did not happen once. On my last visit to Israel, I was in a taxi driven by a Yemenite who ditched his tefillin not long after they had shorn his peyos. He knew nothing anymore. He argued about being good with the Torah’s definition of good, and of course we agreed that all politicians were corrupt, but he had no patience for the frum ones either.

 

Then I asked him about the shekel I found on the floor of the passenger’s seat. “Is it yours? Do you want it?”

 

“It’s not mine,” he said. “I don’t have coins on me. Keep it.”

 

“Aren’t you honest?” I asked.

 

“It’s not mine!” he repeated.

 

Well, after I asked him how he was allowing me to steal a previous passenger’s coin, he was embarrassed, but a quick essay on yiush and aveidah lit his eyes up. He really knew nothing about how “finders keepers” worked, and when it does, and when it doesn’t, and that we have volumes and volumes that talk about shekels that fall in the back of Jewish taxis.

 

And it did not stop in Israel. When we first arrived in Woodmere after a few years learning in the Pittsburgh Kollel, our block had only a few elderly Jews and nobody shomer Shabbos. Our children hardly had anyone to play with (unless you want include Jamie and Tara Dowling, whose father owned an Irish bar in Far Rockaway, or the Duffys, another Irish family whose teenage boys kept us up all night with revving motors, and whose dog, which of course “didn’t bite,” kept us up all night with its yapping).

 

But one day, a moving truck arrived, and the comforting sight of trikes and toys mingled with the familiar sounds of Ivrit. A young Jewish family moved in, but my wife and I could not feel excited about their arrival. The couple, Ilan and Tova, were Jewish, but unfortunately they had no connection to Yiddishkeit. I was even a bit apprehensive about their arrival. Having learned in Israel, and knowing the divisive nature of Israeli society, I braced myself for potential conflict.

 

I thought I was equipped to deal with stereotypical Israelis – the tough Sabra with the coarse exterior – but these Israeli neighbors were an anomaly. Their extremely fine outward character, despite their total secular outlook on life, flew in the face of my indoctrination – central-casting’s portrayal of irreligious Israelis. They had not one negative word to say about our lifestyle and acted as friendly to us as if we belonged to the same country club for years. But as far as Yiddishkeit was concerned, they seemed not to have had a clue. They never revealed how much or how little they knew, and there was hardly a display of Jewish knowledge through their friendly banter, save a “Shabbat shalom” or “Chanukah sameiach.” They could have been from Timbuktu and excelled in a Hebrew language course for all we knew.

 

This new juxtaposition with our fellow Jews who lived so differently from us put my wife and me in a very uncomfortable position. We were not at all a confrontational couple, but even with our ever-friendly natures, we did not know how to react to someone greeting me with a smile and “Shabbat shalom” while mowing his lawn. These Israelis came from a neighborhood that had no chareidim, and they seemed as if they were too oblivious to even expect a reaction of shock from me. I think they had no idea about our sensitivity to the severity of chillul Shabbos. They clearly did not understand how integral a role Shabbos and all mitzvos played in the life of a Jew. I don’t even think that they thought we would feel uncomfortable seeing them gardening nonchalantly on that holy day.

 

They were wonderful neighbors. Ilan would always offer a helping hand for any household work and Tova would not go shopping without knocking on our door and asking my wife if she could get her anything from the supermarket. Surely these were not the antagonistic agnostics we were always warned about.

 

We were in a quandary. In shmoozing with Ilan, we learned how secular he was. His observance level seemed far weaker than the secular Israelis whom I had encountered in taxis and the like. In fact, he told us that he had never fasted on Yom Kippur, let alone gone to shul. He also confided that they left Israel because he feared what he read about the imposition of halachic rule over the general public.

 

We felt as if the Ribono Shel Olam delivered this family literally to our doorstep and we did not know what to do. I did not feel comfortable telling them to stop gardening on Shabbos. We thought it would appear preachy and thus sour a relationship that might otherwise bloom into a spiritual journey for all of us.

 

Fortunately, in nearby Far Rockaway, the esteemed Rav Shlomo Freifeld zt”l, led Yeshivas Sh’or Yoshuv. I had met him a number of times growing up in the Five Towns, and though I was not close to him at the time, I felt comfortable enough to present him with our dilemma.

 

I explained our situation to him and asked him, “Rebbe, what does one do in order to make someone frum?” He smiled and put his large hand on my shoulder. I expected him to lay out a plan of action detailing exactly which seforim I should entice Ilan to learn. Perhaps he would suggest that I ask my neighbor to come to his yeshiva and see the boys there learn.

 

He said nothing of the sort. Instead, he said, “Do absolutely nothing!”

 

I stood shocked and confused.

 

“Be a mentch,” he continued. “Never miss a ‘good morning’ or a ‘good afternoon.’ Make sure your lawn is neat and your children are well-behaved. Just be friendly.”

 

Then Rav Freifeld quoted the words of Chazal: “Sheyehei sheim Shomayim nisaheiv al yodecha – Make sure that the name of Hashem is cherished through you.” He paused, looked me in the eye, and proclaimed confidently, “Follow that advice and you will not have to do a thing. They will get closer to the Torah.”

 

He was the expert and we followed his advice. We did not speak about Yiddishkeit with our neighbors and inwardly grimaced while pleasantly returning the “Shabbat Shalom” that they always managed to say while doing one of the 39 melachos.

 

Rav Freifeld was right. In time, a stronger friendship developed. We invited Ilan and Tova to our home for Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. We explained what we were doing each step of the way, subtly infusing them with a feeling for Yiddishkeit. Our children often played together, and while I talked politics with Ilan, my wife and Tova often discussed gardening. We spoke about many things, but we never preached or told them what to do concerning Yiddishkeit.

 

We were shocked when, in October, Ilan asked us where the closest shul was and where I felt he would be most comfortable. They had decided to go to shul for Yom Kippur. I was even more surprised when, about two days before Sukkos, Ilan and his brother-in-law, Zamir, an ear-pierced, motorcycle-riding Israeli soldier, began hauling lumber and erecting a frame upon which they tacked bed sheets. They were building a sukkah! He did not ask for my help, neither for manual labor nor halachic guidance.

 

There is no hatred. There is only anger and ignorance. Unchecked, it manifests in hatred. Untempered, it grows into violence.

 

That’s why I was puzzled when I read in a chareidi publication that this poll contradicts Chazal according to that writer, who asks, “Isn’t it true that being indifferent is far worse?” He goes on to lambast polls that seem to try to dispel the unalterable adages of our sages, which according to the writer seem to openly contradict the findings of the poll. 

 

He is terribly upset at another writer in the chareidi media who shifts the blame of the great divide between the secular and the chareidi world on none other than the chareidi media, which, according to that writer, “has been fully complicit in perpetuating the myth of immutable hatred.”

 

Though I cannot comment on the veracity of the latter statement, I clearly question the former. I have not seen in Chazal that there must be inherent hatred of an am ha’aretz or a non-observant Jew by a chareidi Jew (who may also be an am ha’aretz) or even a talmid chochom.

 

Indeed, Rabi Akiva talks about the days when he was an am ha’aretz: “When I was an am ha’aretz, I would say, ‘Give me a talmid chochom and I will bite him like a donkey.’” His disciples asked: “Why not like a dog?” He answered them: “A dog bites but does not crush bones, while a donkey bites and crushes bones.”

 

The Gemara continues with a litany of invectives against the amei ha’aretz, including a discussion of their hatred toward chachomim. And yes, some colloquialists use those words to parody today’s Laborites and Lapidniks to the Rabi Akiva of yore. Others would like to have Rabi Akiva’s personal reflection be understood as if he was declaring that every simpleton must hate a talmid chochom with bone-crushing acrimony, as if it were of equal declaration to the famed adage, “Halachah hee beyodua she’Eisav sonei leYaakov.”

 

He continues saying that a poll mitigating this conjured ideology borders on heresy, after all. If Chazal say that the am ha’aretz hates a chareidi, then who is Dr. Mitzna to say otherwise?

 

Tosafos in Maseches Kesubos and other Rishonim put the Gemara and Rabi Akiva’s pre-Torah attitude toward talmidei chachomim in the context of the times. “It was not that he hated them. Rather, he thought that they were being haughty over him in disallowing him (or an am ha’aretz) to touch them or their clothing.” Indeed, this “rabbi-biter” was considered tzonuah and me’ulah by the daughter of the parneis hador.

 

Tell roshei yeshiva of yesteryear – and even some of us who have mosdos today – who still receive massive donations from philanthropists who know nothing about mitzvah observance yet want to be machzik Torah that these amei ha’aretz hate them! 

 

The Gemara teaches us both in Yerushalmi Chagigah and in Niddah that, suddenly, when the amei ha’aretz join with Klal Yisroel in Yerushalayim, they transform into the status of chaveirim for all laws of tumah. Will they still bite chareidi necks? What about Shabbos, regarding which an am ha’aretz is ne’eman on demai because of the fear he has for Shabbos?

 

I remember learning in Lev Eliyahu the maamar about the fear of Shabbos of the am ha’aretz and a comment he added that he only wishes that today’s talmidei chachomim would have the same fear of Shabbos as yesteryear’s amei ha’aretz.

 

I think it is quite difficult to become a Talmudic sociologist, a political commentator and a modern critic when trying to compare the post-Holocaust, post-Zionistic, quasi-am ha’aretz, quasi-apikores, quasi-ready-to-die-for-his-Land-of-Israel Jew, to the am ha’aretz of the Gemara.

 

And I don’t know if it is the fault of the chareidi media. And I don’t know if they still want to bite our necks off. And I don’t really know if they hate us or they are indifferent. 

 

What I do know is that every Jew has a holy neshomah and that you can do a lot more with honey than you can do with vinegar.

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