WHATEVER our slice of Jewish culture, we all live within certain boundaries. As religious or secular or Democrat or Republican or young or old or skilled or unskilled, few can live and speak without any thought as to the consequences.
The same may be said about just about anyone, Jewish or not. And this is in a free society!
Dovid Landesman never heard of this rule. He tells it like it is — that is, like he sees it, the devil may care. His new book is Food for Thought: No Hechsher Required: More Essays on Jewish Themes.
Landesman writes not to be provocative per se, not to stir the pot, but to strive for truth. More than anything — more than what his boss thinks, or his friends, or people who might have a say in recommending his children for marriage — Landesman believes in truth as redemptive.
Now, whether he actually states the truth is up to his readers to decide. But he is not hiding behind any mask, pose or hidden agenda.
What bothers Landesman, in particular, are issues that rend the Orthodox community. For example, Zionism and secular studies. It may be absurd to think of oneself as religious and not a Zionist, but, at the least, tens of thousands of religious Jews reject Zionist ideology.
It may be absurd to think of oneself as religious and involved in any intellectual endeavor besides Torah study, but, at the least, tens of thousands of religious Jews embrace secular studies.
And the advocates of each position, not to mention the shadings of opinion within each broad commitment, rarely speak openly to each other.
In his chapter, “Where Have You Gone, Joe Dimaggio,” Landesman writes about an incident after the dedication of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, at which Rabbi Abraham I. Kuk spoke, describing his hope for the school as exemplified in the verse, “And Torah shall go forth from Zion.” This is the incident:
“An elderly resident of Jerusalem told me that he had occasion that day to walk with R. Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, the religious leader of the old yishuv [settlement], through the streets of the city. R. Zonnenfeld stopped to see what was written [on the broadsides plastered randomly on buildings, condemning Rabbi Kuk] and began to cry. ‘Do they have any idea who they are criticizing?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘It is no secret that I have my differences with his ideas, but who gave them license to attack him publicly?’ R. Zonnenfeld then proceeded to rip the signs off the walls.’”
And the reverse.
“Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the late Satmar Rebbe, is well known to have been the most implacable foe of Zionism. . . . [many] rejected his stance; however, it goes against my very grain to be satisfied by a robotic acceptance of their opposition without a minimal attempt to understand the basis on which their varied positions are staked. . . .
“One of the prime motivations of Zionism was to create a safe haven for Jews, a task that they undertook at great personal sacrifice. But that sacrifice, as much as I might be inspired by it, cannot obfuscate the clear intent of the Zionists to establish a Torahless Judaism. . . . honesty forces me to remove the rose colored glasses that would hide all of [Zionism’s] imperfections. . . . ”
I have attenuated the context of both of these quotations; I have not presented Landesman’s full position. But I present enough to convey the point: Landesman is not satisfied with simplistic points of view from any side.
INTERWOVEN in Landesman’s take on Jewish life is a pedagogic angle. He is a longtime teacher and principal, and a major part of his interest is how one-sided analyses of Jewish life infect Jewish education and stunt students.
For example, how sheltered should one’s children be? The violence, the crudity, the immodesty “out there,” dictate that one should build the walls high to protect one’s children. But if parents and teachers build the walls too high, how can one’s children ever hope to survive in this world, not to mention contribute to it? Landesman’s humor — to the rescue.
“Shortly after we moved to Los Angeles, my wife took our kids shopping at a local mall. It was a day or two before Sukkot and as she stood by the cashier, a young man approached, pointed to the kippah on my son’s head and asked: ‘Can you tell me what time candle lighting is for Rosh Hashanah?’
“Gently she pointed out that he had missed the boat. . . . to make a long story short, he accepted an invitation to our home for the first night of Sukkot. . . .
“During the course of our conversation in the sukkah, he told us he was an actor. My kids were extremely impressed and asked him if he had been in any famous movies; he replied that he had a supporting role in ‘Grease.’ My twelve-year-old daughter turned to her fifteen-year-old sister and in Hebrew, so as not to offend our guest, whispered: ‘What’s Grease?’
“Her sister pinched her under the table: ‘The country next to Turkey, silly!’”
So goes the food for thought, not vouched for as kosher-certified by the author, in “Preppies and Rednecks,” “The Day the Music Died,” “Shtark Trek” and, well, in the likes of “In Your Face . . . book.”
“Sadly, take a look at Facebook and you’ll discover Delta Airlines’ original slogan, when you’ve got it, flaunt it.
“However, our Sages praised the Jewish people as baishanim — literally, shy — but connoting much more than simply lacking self-confidence or being wary. Bushah, as a character trait rather than as a reaction to being caught in a compromising act, is seen as inherently positive, for it reveals that the person has a strongly developed sense of anavah — humility, a reluctance to be in the limelight and the focus of other people’s attention. As such, bushah can be a powerful preventative to sinning . . . Imagine what Moses’ page might look like if he had been on Facebook . . . ”
Food for thought, indeed.
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News, July 2011 – reprinted with permission.