THE NEW R&B

For the last several decades, we Jews have been privy to or heard about situations where Jewish youngsters raised in good Reform and Conservative homes, or those who were disenfranchised from our religion and heritage altogether, eschewed their upbringing and went “whole hog,” ending up in the ultra-Orthodox communities of Chabad, Breslov, or “no-name” long-beard and peyos (side locks) Judaism.

It was with a great deal of interest, therefore, that I read about how one young man from the “radical” Satmar sect of Chassidim – the grandson of the  Satmar Rebbe no less – abandoned Satmar, his family, his wife, and his infant daughter to become a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. How ironic! Satmar, a sect that totally rejects Israel, in that it believes that a Jewish State can only come into being with the arrival of the Messiah, has a descendant of its leading family prepared to give his life for the safety and well-being of that very same country.

Chaim Meisels grew up totally proficient in Yiddish, severely limited in English, and with Hebrew that revolved around  prayers such as “Ashrei,” “Barchu,” and the language and parlance of religious texts – all in perfectly intoned Eastern European Hebrew. In addition to the challenge of having to travel through time in order to update himself to accommodate present day Israeli culture, Chaim now had the task of learning to speak contemporary Hebrew. Nor is Chaim the only one ever to desert his past. There are hundreds if not more “Chaims” here in this country as well as elsewhere who have rejected and bolted. What does this tell us?

First and foremost, we can deduce that Satmar and other insular groups are not without their own internal problems. Children do not come into this world with warranties or guarantees that that, for better or worse, they will follow the footsteps of their families as well as the communities of their formative years, where they were raised and educated. Just as open communities have been known to produce children who totally reject the values of their parents, so too do secluded communities raise children, albeit in seemingly smaller numbers, who totally reject the values of their parents.

As much as some of us would like to believe otherwise, we can’t live our children’s lives for them. Yes, children lack experience, and therefore have been known to have judgement that is questionable at best. And yes, children make mistakes that can and sometimes will affect them for the rest of their lives. But as tragic as this may be, there might not always be an alternative. When Chaim Meisels displayed signs of rejection and bolting – he opened up to his rebbe and came clean, confessing that he had not observed Shabbat for years and that he no longer felt part of Satmar – the rebbe had a “brilliant” solution; all of Chaim’s problems could be solved through a wife. And so, at the age of 17, there was Chaim standing under the chuppah with a woman he had met with for 50 minutes (no need to worry, her parents questioned Chaim thoroughly – in the realm of Talmud). The only problem was that instead of bolting and rejecting parents, siblings and a community, Chaim bolted from and rejected a young wife and infant daughter as well.

Rejecting and bolting is far from a Jewish phenomenon. The Amish, along with similar sects (l’havdil or perish the comparison), face similar problems where children reject and bolt. Restraint, a basic human need, has to be implemented by parents and society with caution. Restraint is very individualistic, especially when it comes to religion. For some, the ability to restrain is synonymous with the ability to maintain. It is welcome, for it provides a framework for everyday life. Contrary to what many of us would like to believe, a healthy life is a life with a set of rules. The only questions are how many rules, and how pervasive are those rules. For others, restrain is synonymous with disdain. And that is exactly what happened with Chaim Meisels. Other than perhaps some “niggunim” (Satmar melodies) and perhaps some foods emblematic of his past, Satmar, along with its values, is quite possibly viewed with contempt and revulsion by Chaim as well as others who rejected and bolted.

For many of us, the Chaim Meisels story holds great interest; for others, particularly family and community, the Chaim Meisels story is a source of embarrassment and shame.

 

 

  • Typically, R&B is understood to mean Rhythm and Blues.
    For this article, R&B means rejecting and bolting

ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY

The first Yiddish language socialist newspaper in New York, Di Arbetter Tzeitung (the Workers Newspaper,) enjoyed a life span of a mere seven years. In the Spring of 1897, it was succeeded by a daily known as The Forverts (the name was borrowed from Vorwarts a publication of the German Social Democratic Party). The aim of the Forverts was to provide a daily newspaper to appeal to the newly arrived Jewish masses that had settled predominantly in New York, their politics, as well as their lifestyle.

One Hundred and Twenty years later, the Yiddish publication is still being published, albeit twice a month instead of daily. It has anglicized its name to Forward and the circulation is less than 6,000 and falling. It would be interesting to see how many Yiddish Forvertz are mailed to Dallas… (I know of only one.)

There’s a certain irony to the Yiddish Forvertz. To be sure there are still Jews in this country, in Israel, and elsewhere whose lingua franca is Yiddish. With all but a precious few exceptions, contemporary Yiddish speakers are found in the Orthodox communities of Borough Park (Brooklyn), Crown Heights (Brooklyn), and Monsey (Rockland County N.Y.), who, if they do read a Yiddish newspaper, it is highly doubtful if it would be the Yiddish Forvertz. The Yiddish Forvertz places great emphasis on Yiddish culture, Yiddish grammar, and Yiddish orthography; the Orthodox community places great emphasis on their vernacular – grammar, spelling, and syntax be damned. The Yiddish Forvertz is concerned lest a Yiddish word is too “Deitshmerish” (Germanic) and at times, goes to great lengths to replace it. The Yiddish speaking Orthodox are concerned that they preserve Hebrew from becoming the lingua franca.

From its very onset, the Yiddish Forverts labeled itself as “progressive” when it came to politics. To be fair, the Yiddish Forvertz was pro-Israel even before statehood was proclaimed, but it is no secret that over the decades, those who published the Yiddish Forvertz longed for an Israel that understandably reflected their view of society. The Yiddish speaking Orthodox communities of today are far from monolithic when it comes to politics in this country, as well as their attitude toward Israel. Unsurprisingly, Orthodox communities tend to vote in blocs and will quite often cast their vote following the recommendation of the Rebbe (if the group is Hassidic) or Rabbi (if the group is non-Hassidic). There are Orthodox groups that strongly support Israel and have branches in Israel where they live in their own communities. Then there are other Orthodox groups that are vehemently opposed to the mere existence of a Jewish government in power in Israel, in that only with the advent of Moshiach (the Messiah), should Jews be part of a government overseeing the Holy Land. Some fifteen years ago, I encountered a member from an Orthodox community who refrained from offering up a prayer for the State of Israel at Shabbat services, because that community felt that a Jewish State ought to be governed by observant “Torah true” Jews.

Last but not least, the Yiddish Forvertz will publish articles that no “self-respecting” Orthodox publication would ever go near. Some time ago, the Yiddish Forvertz did an article about a Jewish woman who was raised and educated in a highly observant Orthodox community. This woman had abandoned her past and was now entertaining men at a Gentleman’s Club (see Merriam Webster for the definition lest anyone misconstrue), where some of her clients were from similarly observant communities. Such Jewish women do not exist as far as the Orthodox communities, as well as the Yiddish publications their constituents read, are concerned, nor do such clubs. (If such women are acknowledged at all, it is in hushed tones, whispered into the ear of the listener.) As for the Orthodox men frequenting such clubs, that’s a smear tactic on the part of a malicious press.

Alas, the very Jews the 120-year-old Yiddish publication sought to appeal to –those who were native Yiddish speakers, with politically progressive views, who sought to Americanize themselves in so many ways are pretty much extinct. Many of the less than 6,000 who do read the Yiddish Forvertz, learned their Yiddish in college and as our people in this country were once known to have intoned: “On such Yiddish, you shouldn’t depend for a conversation.”

BACK TO THE WALL

Bibi’s (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayu) back is to the wall –in the most literal sense. Earlier this week, he had to renege on an agreement adopted 17 months ago with Jewish leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, along with a Jewish feminist group Women at the Wall that was supposed to restore harmony at the Kotel (Western Wall). Did Bibi really believe that he could bring the Orthodox around to permitting a section at the Kotel to be used for non-Orthodox davening? Or perhaps Bibi was just biding his time by wasting the time of the non-Orthodox leadership that negotiated. Perhaps those who negotiated knew what the outcome would be before going into negotiations, but they felt that they had nothing to lose and that they would be gaining momentum. Dream on!

Politics is politics and religion is religion and for the foreseeable future in Israel, the two will continue to meet and mash, as they have for decades now, blend nicely and yield power that their grandparents could never have fathomed. Like it or not, the Orthodox control the Kotel. That’s not to say that a Bar Mitzvah or Aufruff (the calling up to the Torah of a groom prior to his wedding, where HaShem’s blessings are invoked upon him and his bride) of non-Orthodox cannot take place at the Kotel. It can, it has, and it will continue to take place as long as the Bar Mitzvah or Auffruf along with any participation is acceptable to Orthodox guidelines and standards. Given the political reality of Israel, anyone who thinks that the status quo at the Kotel is likely to change any time soon is … off the wall.

Speaking of change, the non-Orthodox refuse to acknowledge (I’m sure they realize this – they cannot possibly be so stupid) that the only way that they can affect change at the Kotel is to pattern themselves after the Orthodox. The non-Orthodox  have to be prepared to make Aliyah (move to Israel) en mass, up their birthrate significantly, become politically involved  – that is to say start their own party, gain seats in the Knesset and… stop being so politically correct. Political prowess all too often requires resorting to “shtick” (questionable ethical behavior). Unfortunately, this seems to be to be especially the case in Israel. Until the non-Orthodox are prepared to reform themselves, any negotiations they enter into concerning the Kotel will be tantamount to talking to the wall.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism was quoted as saying: “We all care deeply about Israel…” Puhleese! Never has such a meaningless, vacuous statement been uttered. As a rabbi, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard grown children tell me how much they “care” about their frail and aged parent. For some children, caring for a parent  means visiting more often and becoming more involved in the parent’s well-being; for other children it means visiting the parent as little as possible, and letting others step in when it comes to the parent’s well-being. But let’s give Rabbi Jacob’s the benefit of the doubt. Let’s accept his “we all care about Israel” as being truly genuine. Let’s accept his fantasy as fact (even though no religious leader in his right mind would be careless and reckless enough to speak on behalf of the masses proclaiming “we all care”). Let us then suggest the following bumper sticker to Rabbi Jacobs: The Reform care about Israel; The Orthodox care about the Orthodox. To believe otherwise, to believe that an Israeli Prime Minister whose very political existence is dependent upon a coalition with the Orthodox parties, is about to offer concessions to non-Orthodox at the Kotel is utter nonsense. Why the non-Orthodox continue to beat their heads against the wall, is beyond me.