I don’t know what to do.
Should I copy author Dovid Landesman’s joke at the beginning of the chapter entitled, “The Cowboy and the Beemer”? You’d laugh your heads off (I know, I’ve already read it out loud to a number of people). But then I’d lose great material for the next speech I give.
Conflict of interest.
Should I give away the uproarious mistake an eighth grader made during the admissions interview to a Jewish high school that Landesman was conducting? I really couldn’t do so out of context, and that context — Landesman’s critique of sexual morality among teenagers — would occupy a whole column. Then I couldn’t tell you about the rest of the book — like, why it’s named There are No Basketball Courts in Heaven.
Put it this way: If you lived your professional life among teenagers for 30 years, you might also be thinking about Heaven, and how to get there, and what’s not there — basketball courts, for example.
So, says Landesman, “we were sitting in class one morning, digressing from the topic at hand. One boy raised his hand (a rare occurrence, but it really does happen at times).
“Rebbi, what happens when you violate a mitzvah? Do you actually go to gehinnom or do you just get less reward in gan eden (Garden of Eden, i.e., the afterlife, the ‘world to come’)?”
Landesman deadpans to the reader:
“I’m not sure why students expect their rebbes to have immediate answers to these kinds of questions, but it was too good of an opportunity to ignore.”
Landesman proceeds to introduce his students to the outsized personality of the late Shalom Shwadron, the so-called maggid or storyteller of Jerusalem. The man with the booming voice, endless stories and a very pointed way of penetrating the listeners’ defenses. Like, who really knows about Heaven and Hell, so why listen? But the way Shalom Shwadron put it, you listened:
He took as his text the Talmudic statement that the righteous, the tzaddikim, sit in Heaven with crowns adorning their heads, enjoying the splendor of the Divine presence.
“Imagine,” Rabbi Shwadron continued with the dramatic flourishes that only he could provide, “all of the great tzaddikim of every era are seated together in one vast room. . . . Moses . . . Maimonides . . . the Vilna Gaon . . . they’re all in absolute ecstasy. There’s not a drop of food on the tables, nothing to drink, no buffet on the side, not even a coffee machine in the back room.
“And you know what?” Rabbi Shwadron continued. “The evildoers are in the same hall, sitting at the very same tables. But, my friends” — and here Rav Shalom let out one of his trademark krechtzes — “not only are they not enjoying the scene . . . they’re bored to death! It’s just dawned on them that they will spend eternity like this and they are absolutely miserable and terrified . . . I tell you my friends, that is the real gehinnom!!”
Landesman’s students laughed quietly, waiting for him to sum it all up, when suddenly a lonely voice broke through, “Rebbi, you mean that are no basketball courts in Heaven?”
If you actually pick up this book, you’ll say I misrepresented it. It is a serious take on major issues that animate — and divide — the religious communities of the Diaspora and of Israel today. It is written from the gut. It has not one false note. Landesman says what many think, yet will not say. He is fearless.
The thing is, all this serious reflection is couched in an educational frame. Landesman has taught teenagers. That’s his life, his metaphor, his prism. The reader gets an analysis of the strengths and the failures of religious Jewry, often reflected through the classroom.
Under Landesman’s dispensation, it is not politicians or religious leaders who do, or do not, do the right thing. Rather, as an implied statement on where politicians and religious leaders succeed or fail, Jewish teenagers act the way they do.
So you really have a multi-level book. It is for parents who are frustrated with the education their emerging Jewish adults get, and for policy analysts in the Jewish community — and for anyone who likes a good story and great jokes.
Plus, Landesman jumbles the chapters and intermixes the perspectives. But the book is not a mish-mash. It’s very refreshing. High issues of the day take on the flesh and blood dilemmas of Jewish youth.
EXAMPLE: Is the State of Israel part of the Divine plan, as religious Zionism would have it? Or is the State of Israel part of the “Other Side,” the evil forces in the universe, as the Satmar Rebbe would have it?
Does Israel occupy some midpoint?
Rather than analyze this abstractly, Landesman recalls his student days in 1968 on the first anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. He was studying under the eminent Rabbi Dov Schwartzman, once the son-in-law of the late Rabbi Aharon Kotler, in Rabbi Schwartzman’s yeshiva in Jerusalem.
He held a se’udas hoda’ah, a public meal of gratitude, for all of the students in the yeshiva to mark the first anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification. Hallel was recited (without a blessing).
“The Master of the World has shown us incredible chesed and you want to ignore it because He chose Jews of whom you do not approve as his vehicle!” Rabbi Schwartzman told a student who questioned the propriety of the meal.
“Have you any idea how this war has changed and will continue to change the face of klal Yisrael. Open your eyes and see what Hashem has done.”
Indeed, in the aftermath of the Six Day War, the first yeshivas for penitents (ba’al tesuhva yeshivot) opened; the first mass exodus of Soviet Jews began; and “hundreds of thousands of American Jews lost their embarrassment and emerged from their caves,” as Landesman puts it.
Yet, the next year, in the yeshiva, there was no meal of gratitude. And on the third anniversary, tachanun was reinstated.
“What happened? What changed?” Landesman asks.
HE offers no answer. This is not a book of answers. It is a book of perspectives.
“Yankel, of blessed memory,” is the simple title of another chapter. Yankel engaged in some very unusual and clever ways to get his contemporaries to see the wisdom of the Torah.
He was a creative outreach worker, unpaid, who brought many people “under the wings of the Divine presence.”
As a Torah student, he was exempt from Army service. But he was never confident that his personal level of dedication to Torah study was high enough to merit the exemption. So he found a way to sign up for the IDF and also to remain in his yeshiva. Officially, he became part of a hesder yeshiva, but he joined its students only for Army service.
As Landesman tells the tale, at the beginning of the Yom Kippur in 1973, Yankel heard the sirens and made his way to the Old City to meet up with his unit from Yeshivat ha-Kotel. On the day before Simchat Torah, his tank was hit as it began to cross the Suez Canal under the command of Ariel Sharon.
Yankel’s tank was the second to cross. As it drove onto the pontoon bridge, an Egyptian shell hit the tread, disabling the tank. Another shell hit the closed turret, jamming it so that it could not be opened.
The stalled tank held up the tanks behind, which became sitting ducks for the intense Egyptian artillery fire. Standard IDF operating procedure in these circumstances is for the tank behind to push the disabled tank out of the way. Yankel’s tank was pushed off the bridge into the Suez Canal where he and three fellow soldiers drowned.
The burden of Landesman’s tale is to wonder, although he doesn’t say it: Why can’t the religious Zionists appreciate the contributions of the non-Zionists? And why can’t the non-Zionists join in prayers for the ascent of Yankel’s soul?
LANDESMAN writes as an “oreo cookie” (as his children call him), black on the outside, white on the inside. In religious circles, this is a metaphor for deeply observant and pious on the outside, while appreciative of truths on all sides of the traditional religious spectrum.
Nuggets fill this book:
• Memories of how Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky responded to news of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War.
• Reasoned defense of da’at Torah (higher rabbinic authority), alongside Landesman’s protestations of his own inadequacy, which do not come off as false modesty.
• A penetrating analysis of the question, “Would it have been better for the preeminent rabbinic scholar, the Hazon Ish, to have devoted his incredible mind to curing cancer?” (Short answer: no.)
• Artful confrontation with parents who disavow standards of modesty in their female children’s dress.
If you are settled in your religious viewpoint, whatever it is, this book is not for you. Part of it you will salute, other parts you might well condemn. But if you appreciate a passionate, grounded — and very colorful — presentation of different perspectives — of non-PC takes on major Jewish political, theological and educational issues — Landesman is a guide you can love.
Or disagree with.
He won’t mind.
Just so you disagree honestly.
(This article first appeared in the Intermountain Jewish News, of which Rabbi Goldberg is the Editor. It is republished here with permission.)