Sunday, February 24, 2008

Haveil Havalim #155

is up and running at to Jack of the Random Thoughts blog site (formerly known as Jack Be Nimble, Jack’s Shack, Talk To Jack Now); Jack has been very busy and has done an exemplary job of organizing and running this Jewish blog carnival. Jack gets help - others do host Haveil Havalim (Hebrew for ‘Vanity of Vanities’ of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes fame), but Jack is primary. So chaptzem read!

What’s in a Name?
by: Schvach Yid

Catholic Israel? Huh? I’ve searched for the paper in which this bit of Conservative Movement philosophy was first introduced and espoused in 1896(?) by one of the founding machers of the Conservative Movement, Solomon Schechter, but alas, my effort has been fruitless, except for a brief (I assume) excerpt found in Marshall Sklare’s An American Religious Movement, Conservative Judaism (1985, University Press of America, Inc.). So if anyone who reads this can provide me with a link to the on-line text, thanks in advance.

The concept of Catholic Israel has subsequently been re-defined by Robert Gordis, but here’s the bit from Schechter, via Sklare:
It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history, in other words, as it is interpreted by Tradition…Since then the interpretation of Scripture or the Secondary Meaning is mainly a product of changing historical influences, it follows that the center of authority is actually removed from the Bible and placed in some living body, which, by reason of its being in touch with the ideal aspirations and the religious needs of the age, is best able to determine the nature of the Secondary Meaning. This living body, however, is not represented by any section of the nation, or any corporate priesthood…but by the collective conscience of Catholic Israel as embodied in the Universal Synagogue

Schechter continues: Another consequence of this conception of Tradition is that it is neither Scripture nor primitive Judaism, but general custom which forms the real rule of practice…Liberty was always given to the great teachers of every generation to make modifications and innovations in harmony with the spirit of existing institutions…The norm as well as the sanction of Judaism is the practice actually in vogue. Its consecration is the consecration of general use – or, in other words, of Catholic Israel.

Voguish Judaism? Do as you please Judaism? What’s catholic about that? Remember, the etymology of catholic derives from the Greek katholikos, meaning universal or general, but those who conceived this contentious title had to have had something else in mind, I assume, especially given that the founding raison d’être of the Conservative Movement was in response to another free-minded version of Judaism, Reform Judaism, while simultaneously striving to remain distinct from Jewish Orthodoxy. It comes across as an attempt at niche cutting.

I have to assume that this piece of nouveau Jewish philosophy was an in-your-face challenge to the Roman Catholic Church, but what on earth for? And so I continue to shrug my shoulders at the Conservative Movement. I still think it’s a bad idea in search of a very elusive justification. It’s not that the Movement needs one, but its leadership evidently thinks one is required.

The recruitment of the term ‘catholic’ is probably more a function of the ‘philosopher’s’ opinion of the Roman Catholic Church and his attempt to analogize the masses of Jews with the mass of followers of the Roman Catholic Church, not to mention an attempt at emulation. This, too, is my biased assumption.

Judaism is Judaism, and those who attempt innovations to the ‘original’ are bound to screw up. That’s another of my highly biased opinions. Here’s another one: I think philosophy makes a poor profession.

Let’s not forget that the Conservative Movement, like the Reform Movement, was invented by immigrants who undoubtedly wanted to fit into their new home (my parents and grandparents, all immigrants, certainly did), not to mention their descendants, some of whom found/find the sights and sounds of traditional Judaism to only serve as sources of embarrassment.

In an opinion piece published in the January 4th edition of The New York Jewish Week (I have to write about this paper; after all, I subscribe to it), Rabbi Barry Gelman has espoused his own bit of philosophy – that the Orthodox community, in light of its successes in recruiting Jews back into the Orthodox fold, can “reshape the way it is perceived if it becomes more engaged and relevant by broadening its conversation”. He wants Modern Orthodoxy to speak to all Jews “by speaking out on the major cultural and ethical issues of the day”; you know, Darfur, global warming, immigration.

Sound familiar? It’s the Conservative Movement all over again; Conservative Judaism, The Sequel. By extension, the MOs should go ‘catholic’ according to Gelman (no, he doesn't use that term). In other words, he wants to emulate the emulators. Isn’t he informed about the demographics of the Conservative and Reform Movements, and he want to hop onto their sinking ship?

I think he’s right about leniency verses stringency in the everyday adherence to Halacha, but different shows attract different audiences. I doubt that those who eschew Jewish religious observance will go MO if these changes are implemented, while the current MOs will likely find other Orthodox ‘venues’ to join if Rabbi Gelman’s suggestions are adopted.

Worst of all, organizational fealty is raising its ugly head in this construct of a new Orthodox Judaism, and this really recapitulates the error of the Conservative Movement. It is organizational allegiance which, I think, most overtly identifies the Roman Catholic Church. I believe Schechter’s use of the term ‘catholic’ was employed to stress the intended organizational nature of the Conservative Movement that, like the Roman Catholic Church, would demand fealty from its members. I hope the MOs don’t follow this same path.

Hot Off the Press – A Year Ago
By: Schvach Yid

So I’m slow. I admit it, but thanks to Chavi Jo of the Just Call Me Chaviva blog site (not to mention of the Jews By Choice blog site), I’ve learned about the World Jewish Digest website where I found this little ditty by Jessica Steinberg:

Located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, this bedroom community has energized Israel’s outsourcing movement with its population of young, ultra-Orthodox families. Since most of the men there learn in a kollel—a yeshiva for adult men—it’s the women who both work and care for their growing families. Given the employment needs in Modi’in Illit, then, and the industry’s demand for inexpensive, skilled labor, community members conceived the idea for an outsourced computer-programming company that specifically employed Haredi women.

“This is a town that has been severely affected by the government budget cuts to yeshiva students,” explains Libby Affen, a mother of six with 30 grandchildren and a long career as an information-technology specialist. “Most of the men here are learning, and their wives are young with kids.” Thus, the extra income is a necessity.

In 2004, community members approached Mordechai Gutman, C.E.O. of Matrix IT, an information-technology company in Herzliya that has 2,500 employees and is traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. He jumped at the idea, and within two years, he opened two centers in Israel, one in Modi’in Illit and the other in Beit Shemesh, another town with a large Haredi population. The centers, called Talpiot, now employ 300 ultra- Orthodox women.

“The average age is 24,” says Affen, Talpiot’s chief operating officer. “They work from 8 [a.m.] to 4 [p.m.], and they work here because they can zip home.”

What a fabulous idea. And I never married – schmuck! But of course, it’s the ingenuity of this program that intrigues me. It’s very smart, and that, perhaps, is what we Jews like the most about ourselves, isn’t it?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Chump
by: Schvach YId

Please forgive the filthy photo.

Oh, how ‘they’ love to chump me. Maybe it’s my ponim. Maybe it’s my obvious lack of savvy. Perhaps it’s my obnoxious swagger. Maybe it’s me.

So there I was, ten years ago, working on a new job as a technician in a university-based academic biomedical research lab (NIH funded) and the post-doctoral fellow with whom I was assigned to work - a young (?) woman from Slovakia (my maternal grandmother’s birthplace; in fact, this youngish woman’s mother and my oma came from the same town) – had reached the end of her stay and was scheduled to leave for a faculty appointment (mazel tov!) in another city. A going away party had been planned, to be hosted in the home of one of my boss’ faculty colleagues, and I was invited. Little did I suspect.

Party day. There I was, and there they were, in the home of the professor whose lab adjoined my boss’ lab. The hosting professor was married to an age peer German woman. They had met when he was a graduate student and she was a lab technician in the same lab, at that same university where I was then employed. As it turned out, the wife’s aunt was visiting from abroad.

There she sat on the couch in their home located along a canal that emptied into a bay in this piece of America’s Bible Belt. She was an elderly woman; she spoke German exclusively to her nice - the wife of the hosting professor - and to the several Germans from the campus who were invited.

As she spoke I was reminded of my paternal grandmother, who had also been German, and who had died just two years before. As I looked at this old German woman she returned my gaze, bolted in her place, and exclaimed that old familiar German ditty, ‘Gott is viel’. I was then informed of the relationship between her and the host’s wife. She was referred to as Traudl! Perhaps the host assumed that I had made the connection, but no, I was too oblivious.

I should be well informed about the cast of characters of the Holocaust, especially of those who dolled it out to us, but regrettably at that point in my life, I wasn’t. Everyone in the lab knew about my Jewish German/Austrian background. On a few occasions I had been asked about it, so given the identity of this German relative and her intended presence at the party, why had I been invited? The joke, if it could be considered a joke, was on me. The egg on my face is still dripping.

Traudl Junger was one of Hitler’s five personal secretaries. She, according to historians, had been present in Hitler’s bunker when he and Eva Braun are reputed to have committed suicide, and according to what I’ve read about her on the web, Traudl Junger had applied to work as a secretary in Hitler’s chancellery rather than having been conscripted. This photo suggests she also knew how to get around the neighborhood.

I didn’t learn of Traudl Junger until years later, but upon viewing her photo, the match of faces and names were unmistakable.

This had been chump escapade #2. Number one had occurred ten years before, when I was employed as a nurse in a large hospital in the neighboring large city.

There, an elderly man had been admitted to the hospital, had undergone a coronary artery bypass, and had been transferred to the surgical telemetry floor where I was employed as a staff RN. His patient chart stated he was 72 years old and that he resided in Nicaragua. The name was overtly German.

When I was assigned to this patient I was told that I was not to touch his food tray except to collect it once his meal was completed. The patient refused to speak to me or to anyone else in my presence, but freely spoke to all other staff members and to his visiting daughter (who said she lived in Switzerland where she worked as a psychiatrist, and who refused to identify herself by name), as long as I wasn’t present. I was informed that I was required to prepare all of his medications in his presence; no other care giver was given the same instructions.

On the second day of this charade, I asked him if he wanted to walk to the toilet – in German (willst du zu klo gehen?). He gave me a look..., and not a word in response.

Working on this same nursing unit was a nurse’s aide, a woman, who spoke with a pronounced German accent. Blond and blue eyed, I never learned her country of origin, but on that same day of theater, she walked up to me and said ‘don’t you think there’s something peculiar going on with that patient?’ Some more was said by her about ‘the war’. The next day the patient was gone from that nursing unit, and so was the nurse’s aide.

To this day I have no idea who he was, but I'm certain of what he was. I cringe at the thought. I'm also certain that the hospital and everyone concerned was fully informed, except me.

The assistant head nurse of that unit made a hobby of provoking and ridiculing me. The head nurse was impotent in her role as manager; I was isolated as a Jew without access to a support network, and as I was then in the process of learning, the local Jewish community was very well kept in its place. It wasn’t New York – unfortunately (years later, during a visit to the same head nurse, she freely admitted that the then assistant head nurse was a class A Jew hater; appropriately, neither one was then working in nursing).

Such lugubrious 'honors' are conferred upon me. There’s more, but not now. I feel a need to wash my face.