The Installation of a Rabbi

It was somewhat of a surprise when my nephew decided to concentrate in Jewish Studies at Tufts and less of a surprise when, a year after graduation, he entered rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in New York.  We attended his ordination from HUC at Temple Emanu-El in New York five years ago.  We were happy to be there although the ceremony itself (lasting, as I recall, about three full days without a bathroom break) was excruciating.  (I am not exaggerating; it included the calling up of each rabbinic, cantorial and other graduate one-by-one for an off-mike discussion with the school leadership.  The audience just sat there for ever and ever.)

Eric found his first job as an assistant rabbi in Syosset, New York, where he remained for five years.  We never went to see him in action at the North Shore Synagogue.  I’m not sure why we didn’t, but Long Island (that is where I am told that Syosset is located) has always seemed to me somewhere on another planet, reachable only by air to JFK or LaGuardia.

But earlier this year, after a typically long and I am sure emotional search process, Eric was given the job a senior (and only) rabbi at Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield, CT.  I had never been to Ridgefield, but have always been impressed by the historic and contemporary beauty of western Connecticut, and we vowed that one day we would visit Eric at his new home.

When he and Marcella were in Washington last May and had dinner at our house, we learned of the November 14 formal installation (Eric was actually starting to work in July), and we decided to come.

Ridgefield is a beautiful town.  To the outsider, it seems to ooze wealth and serenity.  The Main Street stores are upper end, and the residential areas you see driving up from New York City on Route 35 are colonial palatial.  To be sure, there are areas of the town that appear to be only upper middle class, but they are limited.

Eric and Marcella have bought a nice condominium in one of those upper middle class enclaves, but the temple itself is housed in an expanded 19th century residence in a very nice, bucolic part of Ridgefield.  As to the event itself, we knew that there was to be a 6 p.m. dinner at the temple, followed by a Friday night service which would include the installation itself.  Other than this, we did not know what to expect.

It is not a large congregation; it has a few hundred families, but is clearly an active congregation with a very attractive and well maintained facility.  Close to 200 people showed up for the installation dinner.  This included not only congregants (including tens of 6th and 7th graders, who did everything from act as greeters, to serve the food, clear the tables, hand out programs and much more, all with good cheer, style and friendliness). but also representatives of several Christian churches in Ridgefield, at least two of the town’s Selectmen (one being a female Selectman), and his former senior rabbi and about a dozen others who drove to Ridgefield from Syosset.  And, his predecessor clergyman at TSI, who had served the Congregation for over twenty years was also there, with his wife, in seeming good cheer.

It was a buffet dinner (a very nice green salad, salmon, chicken, a pasta salad and green beans) and a variety of non-alcoholic drinks.  The president of the Congregation delivered some very nice remarks at the dinner, and introduced some of the non-members in attendance.  At 8 p.m., services began.  Unusual for a Friday night, and because of the special nature of this service, they were not over until after 10 p.m., when an informal Oneg Shabbat offered coffee (real and fake), tea, and deserts to the night owls of the congregation.

The service was organized to maximize participation by clergy (from all denominations) and congregants.  There were readings given by four or five ministers, by the selectmen, by the temple leadership, and even we were asked to lead a reading, which we gladly did.  The Saturday bat mitzvah girl and her family participated.  The 7th graders led part of the service.  The temple choir was joined by the choir of one of the local churches and sounded strong and vibrant.  The cantor was joined by the cantor from Syosset and certain others for part of the service.  The Syosset rabbi gave a very nice talk about Eric, and generally about the relationship between congregations and their leaders.  The now emeritus rabbi of Shearith Israel spoke very generously.  Eric gave nice remarks.  And it must be said that a good time was had by all.  And, even more importantly, every single speaker, without exception, spoke warm words of welcome.  Very warm words.

Clearly coming into the leadership of a congregation is a difficult and anxiety provoking task.  You don’t know your congregants; they don’t know you.  Everyone has different expectations.  You want to change things, but not too much.  You have the former clergy, with whom you want to maintain strong relationships as you change the temple they have led for so many years.  You want to build (and retain) membership.  You want to increase activities.  You want to get along with everyone.  You want to be respected.  You want to teach.  And you want to learn.  And, at this time of general financial crisis, you want to keep your temple’s coffers at least partially full.

We think that Eric and Marcella will love being in Ridgefield, although we know that every day will not be equally smooth.  We think that Eric and the congregation will grow together, and that he could not have found a better place to hang his kippah.  It appears that he will be surrounded by well meaning, friendly folks, in a very welcoming community.  We wish him the best.

Highrises in Tel Aviv

I was speaking to someone yesterday who was surprised when I said that there were high rises in Tel Aviv.

I found a website that documents high rises around the world, and it listed six buildings in Tel Aviv over 40 stories tall, another dozen between 30 and 40 stories and, of course, many more between 20 and 30 stories.  Israel’s tallest building (not included in these statistics) is in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.  It is 68 stories tall.  If you go to the wikipedia listing for Ramat Gan, you can see a nice picture of Ramat Gan’s high rise district.

Tel Aviv

This posting is about the city of Tel Aviv. It is not about politics or religion, so don’t worry, you can read on without raising your blood pressure.

I have just returned from my fifth visit to Tel Aviv in the last nine years. On two of those trips to Israel, I have skipped Jerusalem. But I have never skipped Tel Aviv.

It is clear to me that those of you who have not been to Tel Aviv (or who have only been there for a day or two) wonder why I have found (to my surprise) Tel Aviv to be one of the most appealing and comfortable cities I have visited. Those (and especially those who are not Jewish) who have not been to Israel have a distorted view of the country. Often I have been asked why I would want to vacation in a war zone, where I am liable to be blown up at any minute. Once, I was asked what I wear in Israel, do I wear more “traditional” clothes when I am there (an intriguing question, I thought)? But never have I been asked “How do you like Tel Aviv?” or “What is Tel Aviv like?” After visiting anywhere else, these are the two questions you are most likely to hear.

A few basic facts.

First, Tel Aviv (or more correctly, Tel Aviv/Jaffa) itself is not a big city (less than 400,000) but it is the center of a metropolitan area of more than 3,250,000, and it has the feel of a large metropolitan city.

Second, Tel Aviv is the economic and, in most regards, cultural capital of Israel. It is (for the most part) highly prosperous and looks it.

Third, Tel Aviv is a very cosmopolitan city. It is a city where you could say with regard to most residents: “Funny, you don’t look Jewish”. And of course, many of them are not, but those who are come from so many places (Israel, Europe, the USSR, Iraq, Yemen, North African, Iran, Ethiopia, America and Australia to name a few) that they cannot be typed physically.

Fourth, Tel Aviv is primarily a secular city, in that the vast majority of its residents are not Orthodox Jews. But that does not mean that men and women in traditional dress, or men with knitted kippot (yamakahs) of various kinds, are not to be seen on a regular basis.

Fifth, Tel Aviv is well known as a mecca for the young, and so it is. But there are plenty of older (and indeed old) people there as well.

So what’s so nice and accommodating about it?

Of course, it is on the beach. By that, I don’t mean that it touches the sea; I mean that it has a broad beachfront that is miles long, and is virtually all public. And it is right downtown. And there is a beach front with several miles of first class hotels and hotel facilities, along with the usual restaurants and fast food outlets, and a boardwalk (not bounded by shops) that stretches the entire beach. The beach is there for sunning, sitting, swimming, running, frisbee, volleyball and dog walking. And it is in constant use.

And of course, it has its share of museums and cultural venues. The Tel Aviv art museum is a quality museum. The museum of the Diaspora, located on the campus of Tel Aviv University, may not be worth repetitive visits (I am not sure how often exhibits change), but it is clearly worth one or two long and fascinating visits. The Eretz Israel (Land of Israel) museum has displays in several buildings about the long history, art forms and crafts of this part of the world. The Palmach Museum (which I have not visited, but have heard much about) is a world class military museum. And there are more. There is also the home of the symphony orchestra and the Susanne Dallel Center, which is a home for theater and dance. There is the famous Habima and Cameri Theaters, and a theater complex in Jaffa, the traditional Arab section of the city. There are many urban parks (including the large Ha-yarkon Park and many smaller ones). There are homes of famous Israelis, such as the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and poet H. N. Bialik.

But what I like best about Tel Aviv is its overall feel and personality. The large central portion of the city contains the world’s largest selection of Bauhaus and modernist residential buildings. Tel Aviv is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its 1920s-1930s architecture, and its urban layout, which provides for a series of long, undulating commercial streets, connected by smaller residential street, with four story white concrete apartment buildings of modernist architecture, with balconies, windows designed to keep out the sun and bring in the breezes, and trees and flowering plants all around. Strict architectural controls and incentives exist to preserve and protect these buildings and neighborhoods.

The commercial streets have their own charm. Generally, you find retail establishments on the ground floor with a variety of residential, hotel or commercial uses above. Some of these buildings are in perfect repair, while others show the ravages of time and some look abandoned above the first floor. But this abandonment does not affect the retail usage, and does not affect the street life.

And, outside the areas of the “white city”, Tel Aviv is a high rise city, with many buildings of 30 to 40 stories, most of which happen to be of exquisite architectural design, like the Azraeli Center, which includes three high rise buildings, one square, one round and one triangular, of otherwise identical design.

Tel Aviv is a cafe city. On virtually every block, you will find cafes flowing out into the streets, serving coffee and pastries and light meals and full meals. It is an ice cream city, and a snack bar city, and a falafel city. It is a restaurant (fancy and otherwise; kosher and non-kosher) city. And it is a club city, with a reputation as the “city that never sleeps” (but that IS for the young).

And it is a shopping city. Women’s designer clothing boutiques abound. Men’s stores, children’s stores, book stores, toy stores, souvenir shops, galleries, Judaica shops. In the hundreds (perhaps the thousands), and all looking like they do a good business.

It is a city of outdoor markets. The large flea market in Jaffa, the enormous Carmel market (daily, with both food and clothing), the Friday craft market. It is a city of districts (the unique historic Jaffa district with its Arab architecture; the restored district of Neve Tzedek, the city’s original Jewish district now about 100 years old; areas where every shop sells fabrics, areas where every shop sells household goods, areas where every shop sells inexpensive clothing and others where the clothing is ultra expensive.

It is a city where, if you speak English, you will not have a problem. Street signs are in English as well as Hebrew and because English is a required language in the schools, all young people and most older ones can converse to some level. It is only the recent emigrees who have had no English (like those from the Soviet Union).

I am not sure if it would be different if I were not Jewish. Perhaps so, not that I think there is anything particularly Jewish about the city itself, but maybe I would note the lack of something that I would miss. And, it may be that one short visit does not do it; that you need to return a few times. And of course, who knows what I will think after visit no. 6.

And I Quote……. (1 cent)

In 1942, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. published the first edition of its “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”, selected and edited by H.L. Mencken. The books has 1347 large pages. And the year is 1942 (that’s important to what follows).

I looked up “Jew”. I found four pages of quotes. They include the following:

“It lifts forty sins from the soul to kill a Jew.” (Ukrainian proverb)

“Cheat a Jew and he will kiss you; kiss a Jew and he will cheat you.” (Russian proverb)

“The peasant earns the money, the noble sends it and the Jew gets it in the end.” (Polish proverb)

“When a Jew smiles at a Moslem, it is a sign that he is preparing to cheat him.” (Moroccan proverb)

“It doesn’t matter; the Jew is burned.” (German proverb)

“When you baptize a Jew, hold him under water for five minutes.” (Bulgarian proverb)

“Anti-Semitism means hating the Jews more than is necessary.” (Anonymous)

“Anti-Semitism is the final consequence of Judaism” (Nietzsche)

Now, to be fair, these are not the only quotes, but I would say that at least 3/4 of the quotations in this section are pejorative. 1942. Heart of the holocaust. Year of the Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution.

The use of these quotations as examples of “Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources” is shocking. Perhaps you would expect this from Mencken, but from Knopf? For an interesting discussion on Mencken and anti-Semitism, see http://libertyunbound.com/archive/2003_02/bradford-mencken.html.

There are many fewer listings under “Christian”. Most of them are positive quotes, only a few being negative (such as quotations by Voltaire, as you would expect). But the most negative is probably this one: “Nothing is thicker than a Christian’s head.”. Its source? You guessed it: (Yiddish proverb)

One of the reasons why the shorter listing of quotations about Christians (which would seem to make no sense, for obvious reasons) is that there are a good number of items listed under “Christianity” [There is only one quotation under the “Judaism” category, and that by a not too friendly Christian bishop.] Again, although mixed, most are quite positive, and those which are negative have a humorous bent: “A shipwrecked sailor, landing on a lonely beach, observes a gallows. ‘Thank God’, he exclaimed, ‘I am in a Christian country’.” (author unidentified).

And what about the quotes under the term “Negroes”? I won’t even go there.

The Blood Libel (2 cents)

From medieval times, Jews have been accused of murdering Christian children to extract their blood to use as a necessary ingredient in Passover matzah. What could be more absurd, right?

Yet it has continued, not only in the past, but in the present. This year, posters were plastered around the Russian city of Novosibirsk, for example. And the Arab media continues a constant barrage of these accusations. As they say, “google it”.

1915 was a big year for blood libel accusations in Russia. Going once again to the American Jewish Yearbook for that year, the following instances are listed under the category “Events in 5675-Russia”:

Lublin – “discovery of body of a Christian gives rise to ritual murder accusations. Mob attempts to lynch a Jew, and as a result of alleged evidence of anti-Jewish agitator, a father and son are arrested.

Pabianitz – Loss of girl results in blood accusation, which subsides when girl is found.

Zhitomer – Discovery of lost boys causes collapse of blood accusations. Editor of The Den imprisoned for publishing article against the ritual murder accusation.

Moscow – Police forbid production of play condemning ritual murder libel.

Monastirchina – Temporary disappearance of Christian boy leads to arrest of two Jews.

Grayetz – Jew imprisoned on charge of ritual murder released; police continue to inquire into charges.

Ekaterinoslav – The Two Headed Eagle accuses Jewish Community of abducting Christian girl from asylum, and announces disappearance of Christian boy near brick yard owned by Jew

and on and on……..

And nothing has changed.

How do you deal with things like this? (I think that I have asked this question before.)

And Even More on the Mufti

The article in the Policy Review is by John Rosenthal, who writes on European politics. The books in question are Jihad and Jew-Hatred by Mattias Kuntzel, whose thesis is that the Mufti learned anti-Semitism from the Nazis, and The Mufti from Jerusalem and National Socialism by Klaus Gensicke, who says that, if anyone learned anything from anybody, it was the Nazis who learned from the Mufti.

The debate itself is probably not worth very much. I don’t think either had anything to teach the other about anti-Semitism; perhaps the Nazis had something to teach about practice and methodology.

But it is interesting to tie it into the reading I have been doing in the 1915 American Jewish Yearbook. Forgetting Nazis and Islamists, remember the Russians – the recapitulation of anti-Semitic incidences in Russia is equally as frightening, including a large number of blood libel accusations (!!!!).

What now with Hamas and Hezbollah, isn’t it all getting a little ridiculous?

My Message to the Jewish Publication Society (32 cents)

I demand accuracy on the part of publishers of reference material!

A few nights ago, I was reading through an important JPS publication, the 1915-1916 American Jewish Yearbook (OK, so I’m a little behind in my reading). For some reason, the substance of this 551 page book ends on page 413, with the remainder of the book being taken up with a presumably complete list of all of the members of the Jewish Publication Society. On page 458, the Missouri members are listed. There were more than 250 members living in Missouri, one of whom was my grandfather, Dr. A. A. Margulis, who would have then been about 28 years old. His name is listed next to the address, 1326 Shawnut. 1326 Shawnut? This is an error!!!! His address was 1326 Shawmut. M, not N. To whom do I report this misstatement of the facts? And what should I exect they will do about it?

And, on a related topic, why did my grandfather pay dues to the Jewish Publication Society?

The Passover Question 2008

Every year, new questions arise as you go through the Haggadah and think about the Passover story.  Here is this year’s question:

Background:  Pharaoh condemned all male Jewish children to death at the time of their birth and Moses was saved only by the rare and selfless act of his sister and the midwives.  Years later, persuaded by a now adult Moses (presumably only recently making his ethnicity known), with a little help from above, God permits the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

Question:  Who were all those men who accompanied the Jewish women when they fled?

Constantine’s Sword Redux

Our study group read James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword a year or so ago. It is an extraordinary book, detailing the institutional anti-semitism found in the doctrine and practice of the Catholic Church over the centuries. When I learned that a movie had been made from the book, also to be called “Constantine’s Sword”, I was both amazed that such a book could become a film, and hopeful that it would be a good film that might help (and be a counter to the Mel Gibson fiasco). The movie has not yet been released, but was shown (for the first time before an audience) Monday night at the National Cathedral.

The best thing about the movie is that there is nothing offensive about it. At least not offensive to me. If I were a Catholic or an Evangelical, perhaps I would feel differently.

James Carroll puts a lot of James Carroll into his writing. About 10%, I would say, of his book Constantine’s Sword is devoted to James Carroll, and the rest to the church and its Jewish policy. In the movie, the Carroll element increases to, perhaps, 20%. While this helps set the stage, I also think that in excess it detracts from the message. The movie larger theme becomes less central.

Secondly, the movie is framed at the start and the finish by footage dealing with Evangelicals trying to convert Air Force Cadets in Colorado Springs, a interesting story in and of itself, but again detracting from the main theme. (I don’t remember this being in the book; if I could locate our copy, I’d know for sure.)

The historic story is told, but not in great depth. Had I not been basically familiar with the history, I am not sure how much I would have observed. As a movie, therefore, I was not impressed, I guess. It seemed more like a made for TV vehicle, and not the best of that genre, either.

Again, I am glad I saw it and am glad that it didn’t offend me, but I don’t think it will change the course of the world. There was a lot made of this being shown in a church for its first showing. Well, it was shown to a large group of Episcopalians, who don’t share the history of the Catholic church or the ideology of the Evangelicals. So, I don’t think they were offended, either.