HISTORY IS BUNK

A scholar, he wasn’t. Nevertheless, Henry Ford may have been onto something, when 101 years ago, he proclaimed, “History is bunk.” Mr. Ford’s imbecilic proclamation immediately came to mind, as a result of an early Monday morning phone call that I received. Joel Glassman, a former congregant and a forever friend, called me at 8 a.m., to tell me that he had made the front cover of the Metro West Jewish News. The reason for Joel’s moment in fame is that he had come across menorahs, mezuzahs, plaques, as well as the very sign itself, of an Orthodox Congregation in Plainfield, New Jersey that had long closed its doors and was now in the process of being dismantled and demolished. Joel immediately contacted the local Jewish Historical Society, correctly thinking that the director of the museum would be only too happy to receive these artifacts.

History is bunk, if those who read the article about Joel Glassman’s article fail to consider that behind those plaques and menorahs, there was a congregation with its problems, challenges, and even crises. Even in its heyday, the leadership of United Orthodox Congregation of Plainfield, New Jersey, no different than most other congregations, went through times when the future looked bleak. Last Thursday evening, Rebbetzin Zell and her husband went across the street to a neighbor’s home, where the two couples watched the movie Norman. Part of the plot showed that unless a flagship synagogue in Manhattan could immediately come up with an infusion of 14 million dollars, it would have to close its doors. This movie aside, the plaques serve as a reminder that a congregation can only exist when there are those who refuse to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to deal with problems, challenges, and even crises. In most cases, a plaque goes up in return for their stepping up.

History is bunk, if those who read the article about Joel Glassman’s discovery fail to realize that plaques tell only part of the story, a small part. More often than not, plaques tell us about generous financial contributions and endowments that are indispensable to the existence and well-being of the congregations. But the existence and well-being of a congregation are very much dependent on the time, effort, and energy of everyday people making everyday sacrifices that the overwhelming majority of congregants typically give little, if any, thought to. Daily minyan does not happen by itself, just as the Kiddush that people wait in line for every Shabbat does not prepare itself. The very same holds true as far as the vast variety of programs and dinners offered by synagogues. Chances are that no different than the vast majority of congregations, the Plainfield synagogue was more in the habit of affixing plaques than in presenting them.

History is bunk, if those who read the article about Joel Glassman’s discovery fail to learn that as important and necessary as preserving the past is, it’s even more important to plan for the future. Up until the decade of the ‘60’s, Plainfield, New Jersey boasted an active and thriving Jewish community. But active and thriving Jewish communities have life-spans all their own. There are precious few cities in this country that can lay claim to a Jewish neighborhood that has been vibrant for half a century. No different than those who constitute them, Jewish communities grow and decline. Ashrei ha-Ish; fortunate is he who is aware of this reality. Joel Glassman was concerned about plaques from the past and rightfully so. Shouldn’t we be concerned about plaques for the future?

Joel Glassman received well-deserved front page coverage in the Metro West Jewish News. The United Orthodox Congregation of Plainfield, New Jersey, received its place in perpetuity. Let us all hope we will learn that a congregation without problems, challenges, and crises belongs in Fantasyland. Plaques were invented in no small part as a response to people who refuse to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear and step up to those problems, challenges, and crises. Let us all hope we will learn that there is a core of congregants deserving of plaques for dedicating their time, effort, and energy. Let us  hope we will all learn this: as meaningful and necessary as plaques are to serve as reminders of the past, we should all be concerned about plaques of the future. If we fail to learn these lessons, then we will have proven Henry Ford right after all: history is bunk.

IRRESPONSIBLE RESPONSES

The same Talmud that tells us that it was baseless hatred among Jews that brought ruin to the second Beit HaMikdash or second Temple in Jerusalem, also provides over a dozen other reasons that contributed toward the destruction that ultimately led to 2000 years of homelessness of our people. Despite remarkable and praiseworthy prescriptions and soundbites on the part of individual rabbis (HaRav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, was known to have said: If baseless hatred brought about destruction, then baseless love will bring about construction), it’s most unfortunate that the Talmud never addressed the topic of bringing an end to this two-thousand-year-old national wound that refuses to heal. However pompous and self-aggrandizing this may appear to be, I should like to do just that. Unless we as Jews are prepared to rectify the following conditions, the advent of Moshiach will remain as elusive as ever.

The other week at Se’udat Shlisheet, the third meal of the Shabbat, we took a look at five calamities that occurred on the 17th of Tammuz, a date seminal to the Tisha B’Av destruction. Among those catastrophes was that Apostomus burned a Torah scroll, and that an idol was placed in the Temple. I maintained that it was highly doubtful that this was the first time in our history, and neither was it the last time in our history, for such reprehensible acts to have occurred. What brought these calamities to the fore, I believe, was our response to these calamities – no one gave a damn. Not one of the five calamities seemed to faze us. That was the true calamity that led up to the destruction of the Temple. When Jews are blasé about events that ought to be of major concern, destructive forces that will quite likely decimate cannot be far behind. As of late, we have spent a great amount of time and a great amount of energy on Pew reports and other studies that raised red flags about our future as American Jews, only to wave those flags aside, lest they get in the way of our daily doings.

Earlier this month, a most controversial rabbinic figure met a most unusual death, as he immersed himself in a lake in Mexico in preparation for Shabbat. This controversial yet charismatic figure spent time in jail for kidnapping (he spirited a pre-Bar Mitzvah age child away from his insufficiently observant parents and brought him to Israel where he would be raised in a proper atmosphere under the tutelage of a G-d fearing family). He was a cult figure, where his followers living in a commune of sorts were following his dictates that governed dress code (facial features aside, the women could be easily mistaken for Muslims), behavior and lifestyle. His followers were being regularly visited and cited by Child Protective Services and he was in arrears of tax payments and other monetary obligations. Yet not only did the article reporting his death omit all these ugly details, it concluded with three Hebrew words: Yehi zichro baruch, May his memory be a blessing! When Jews choose to compartmentalize, where they focus solely on the ritual but overlook obligations toward civil law as is unfortunately the case in all too many cases, then the lessons of Tisha B’Av become misunderstood and totally irrelevant. To paraphrase the essayist and philosopher George Santyana: Those who fail to understand Tisha B’Av are condemned to repeat it.

In his book “Changing the Immutable,” Professor Marc B. Shapiro points out that there are Orthodox communities for whom history must be altered for it to be palatable. Put differently, they (certain Orthodox) can’t handle historical truth. That’s why there are coloring books for children that depict our forefather Abraham as though he belongs on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1940s. G-d forbid Abraham should be seen as a four thousand year old Iraqi! Perish the thought that we should realize that when Tisha B’Av did occur, there is a great likelihood that our ancestors physically resembled modern day Palestinians.

History happens. So too do events. At times, those events are a great source of shame. When we as a people react nonchalantly or gloss over them and pretend they didn’t happen, or rewrite history because we can’t deal with reality, we only serve to inhibit the advent of Moshiach, who will once and for all put Tisha B’Av behind us.