Monday, December 19, 2011

"Cool it!"

Yom sheni, 23 Kislev 5772.

I am an Orthodox Jewess.

I use the word "Jewess" purposefully, because it is under-used and accurate.  As princess is to prince, it speaks of my unique role, which I find beautiful.  I don't want to be marginalized by being lumped in with Jews as a group.

I don't believe that I have the right, nor do I gain anything, by telling other Jews how to dress and where to sit.  (This excludes my own children, and certain young guests, who actually come to my table to hear me say "One more button, Shimon."  I kid you not.)

While I am not part of the Israeli Hareidi scene, I have respect for their culture.  I tend to dress just a little more modestly when I go into their neighborhoods, out of respect for their sensibilites.  I do not see a need to upset them.  While theirs is not my personal way of expressing my Orthodoxy, I do not find any value in offending them on their turf.

I find it offensive when I see a caption under a photo of shoppers willingly separated by a mechitza in a Hareidi store that intimates that they are extremists.  Men and women have chosen this way to express their interpretation of G-d's demand for modesty within their own community.  Having lived and visited in both the American and Israeli Hareidi communities, I know that most Hareidi women value this version of modesty as much as do the men.  And these are not oppressed women.  They are very strong proponents of their view of Orthodoxy.

That said, I am hurt and offended when non-adherents of these views are harassed, threatened, or even merely embarrassed.

Years ago, before I made aliyah, I experienced some of this maltreatment.

I boarded a bus for a neighborhood unfamiliar to me, on my way to request a blessing from a great Torah luminary.  A man in his thirties began to berate me loudly in Yiddish.  I had no clue what I had done wrong.  Eager to end this embarrassing situation, I explained to him that I could not understand what he was saying.  I tried in my meager Hebrew, and then resorted to English.  Finally, a woman a seat or two behind me explained that I was sitting too far toward the front of the bus.  As I looked around me, I acknowledged the separate nature of the bus.  I got up and sat behind the woman.  But before I left my seat, I explained to the man, in English, that his approach was terrible, and was surely more offensive to Torah than where I unintentionally sat.

I am not a woman who needs to make a point of sitting in the front of the bus to prove a point.  I have lived among normal, healthy Hareidim long enough to know that most Hareidi men don't think of woman as second-class citizens.  (You have only to be inside their homes to know this first-hand.)  So there is no reason to go all Rosa Parks.  She did have something to prove, as blacks in those days in America were indeed relegated to using separate facilities due to discrimination.

But I am highly offended when someone teaches through intimidation, rather than through patiently explaining.  Whether the young man was correct or not -- and since the bus was a public rather than private bus, and therefore he was not correct -- is beside the point.  The Torah forbids embarrassing a fellow Jew.  Had he given me the benefit of the doubt and assumed that I did not know this cultural convention, he could have said his words gently.  Or, better yet, he could have rolled his eyes to his male seatmate and endured my presence.

There is an old Japanese kōan about a couple of monks walking through the village, talking of philosophical concepts.  They approach a giant puddle in the road, before which is standing a geisha, who cannot cross without soiling her beautiful garments.  Without pausing in his dialogue, one of the monks breaks tradition, and picks up the geisha, carrying her across the puddle.  He sets her down, and continues speaking with his fellow monk.  After some time, he realizes that his companion has been silent since the puddle.  "What is going on in your mind, my friend?" he asks.

"I cannot believe that my friend and colleague broke our tradition by touching the woman," the second monk responded.

His friend looked at him, astonished.  "Oh -- are you still carrying her?"

For all of the avowed modesty of these loud, rude and sometimes violent Hareidi individuals, methinks they protest too much to be truly following the laws of modesty.

If Orthodox Jews feel a mission to bring our fellow Jews closer to our interpretation of a Torah life, we certainly do not bring them closer by berating them, by putting up offensive signs, by threatening those who do not keep whatever level of religiosity we deem appropriate.  (And, in fact, my friends in the Hareidi community also disagree with the intimidation approach.)

We are enjoined by most normal, healthy rabbis to set an example by how we live our lives.  And we still have a lot to do in the realm of exhibiting acceptable Torah behavior with our own bodies, minds and actions.  We should display the highest standards of ahavat Yisrael, honesty in business, politeness and purity of speech, among other character traits demanded by the Torah, rather than wasting our time and G-d's time by demanding that others live as we see fit.

Professor Alan Dershowitz and I have virtually nothing in common politically.  But I have to agree with a statement he made in a recent interview.  "The debates in Israel have become so extreme, with Israelis calling each other facists, and predicting that Israel will become a facist country, and will eliminate all democracy... My suggestion to Israelis is: cool it.  Calm down.  Stop calling each other names."

We will most successfully bring the harmony we seek by respecting rather than condemning each other.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"...where everybody knows your name..." #5 -- A Plea for Small-Town Israel

Yom rishon, 15 Kislev 5772.

Moshe with satisfied customer, famous all-night cyclist,  Mr. Stella Frankl.
For Mishpachat Mizrachi, one of the great benefits of moving to Israel has been the ability to live a Jewish life and to live in a small town.

That means most people know us, and are to one degree or another personally invested in our success and happiness.

It means that we know what's up with each other's kids, and can help each other to raise them.  "It takes a village" only works when people in that village know each other.  Small towns allow for that familiarity, more than do big cities.

It also means small-town service, where we can walk to the library and the post office, to the bakery and the hardware store and the local market, and where the people who run these places care about giving us the best service possible.  Not just because they want to beat their competitors -- but because they are able to form a relationship with us, to learn what we like, and to try their best to provide it.

But like any relationship, it's a two-way street.

Moshe, always ready to listen to his customers.
Gilo resident Moshe Torjman returned to Israel 30 years ago with his Chicago-born bride.  He brought with him from America a wonderful command of the English language, and a knowledge of some of the products and service concepts that matter to American olim.  He and his brother Avi have had other successful stores, in  Kiryat Yovel for three years, and in Bayit Vegan for twenty-one years.  Now they have decided to put all of their effort into the makolet in Neve Daniel.

Avi stops his usual hyperactivity for a quick photo.
We were apprehensive about the change in store ownership.  We were used to the makolet the way it was.  It was the nicest small-town market we had seen in our travels around Israel.  And we loved Shulamit.  How would we manage with change?

As it happens -- though how could we not still miss our dear Shulamit? -- the store is even better than before.  The service is excellent, as Moshe and Avi and their long-time employee Sasha, as well as the familiar face of Yoram, work very hard at keepin' the customer satisfied.

Yoram gives a lesson in chicken hechsherim and Hebrew.  No extra charge.
Sasha always has a kind word, and an eye out for that special product I was seeking.

They have enlarged the produce department, and have added a meat counter.  The store is always adapting and growing within its confines.  New displays are always popping up, giving a feeling of order and abundance, with an almost American feel.  Ask for a product, and they will do their very best to acquire it.  (And if there is something you don't care for -- such as the short-lived cigarette display -- the Torjmans are equally prepared to be responsive to comments.)

Who says you can't have it all?

They are trying very hard to keep their prices competitive, not an easy task when the competition is against big markets just a few kilometers down the road.

Rav Auerbach chicken, and Beit Yosef chalak beef.  Both excellent!

"We have good people who are anxious to serve the residents of Neve Daniel," Moshe says.  Implicit in that statement is that those good people and that good service can only remain in Neve Daniel if we support it.  If we just come in once in a while to buy a carton of milk, the store will not survive.

So this is a personal plea to my automobile-endowed neighbors.  I certainly don't mind you helping to support that other worthy gentleman in his huge store down the road.  But think about breaking up your shopping and doing a third or a half of it locally.  The Dearly Beloved and I are among your neighbors who will probably never have a car; so we do almost a hundred per cent of our shopping at our local "mom-and-pop" store.  As much as I know you would be willing to do the mitzvah of shlepping me to the store once or twice a week -- it would mean so much more to me if you could help to maintain my local makolet, just a short walk and lots of independence and warm, friendly service from my door.

"Aich at margisha hayom, Rabanit?"   A spiritual promotion, and genuine concern.

"Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came..."  
-- from the "Cheers" theme, by Judy Hart Angelo and Gary Portnoy