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For Your Shabbat Table

The Dray-del

When Mom and Dad have a really juicy tidbit to share that they don't want the kids to hear, they whisper it quietly.  If the kids come in the room they change the topic to something boring.  Kids pick up the trick.  When they are playing with the sensational and forbidden, they keep something innocuous around.  When an adult or a snitch is coming they quickly hide the contraband and make a big deal of playing with the boring, innocuous decoy.  Lookouts are great. 

Time was, when getting caught meant more than losing allowance, or a trip to the principal's office.  Stalin expropriated minors caught with a Jewish prayer book and threw them into state orphanages.  My father's cousin Hessel was among them.  (He survived.)  "Nadir, nadir, nadir, nisht zogen soidos fun cheder." (Never, Never, never, don't tell the secrets, they were drilled.  Their decoy was often a game of red-light-green-light.  Yellow light signaled caution; red light, full alert. 

In Hellenic Israel, accused children were forced to bow before Zeus and swallow bacon.  In one instance seven sons, beginning with the eldest, were each commanded to bow, each refused and each met death.  Except the youngest.  Their mother begged Antiochus Epiphanes to speak privately with the two-year-old.  Do not betray your brothers, she encouraged her baby, be worthy of them, and when you join them, tell Father Abraham that while he prepared one son for sacrifice, I prepared seven.  

The decoy of choice in Hellenic Israel was a simple spinning top, which archeology indicates was common then.  Dray, as in draydel, is Yiddish for spin, hence its popularity continues under this name.    

Whether in ancient Israel or recent Russia, the punishment revealed the bond between child and book in all its remarkable dimensions. In both cases, children's games braced the parents to rebel with the sword when feasible, to endure the gulag when not. 

I once helped a prison deputy warden process Chanukah gifts donated by a Jewish group. 

     What's this? he fingered a purple, plastic draydel.  
     It's part of the holiday celebration, I assured him. 
     It has a treasured significance, I added, but I don't think that is what you were asking.  
     He laughed appreciatively. 

Should I have told him the two-and-a-half -millennia saga of this unpretentious pressed plastic, imbued with the blood of the martyred, the tears of the pious, the endurance of the faithful? 

Oh draydel, draydel, draydel, I made you out of clay, and the Almighty Himself breathed into you a soul of fire and you in turn tempered in His people a will of steel.  And as you do your exuberant spin, your dance of contagious ecstasy, we dance along with you.  

Against your dance iron curtains fall.  So we will spin your dance and spin your tale until the Almighty has you and us land in the land.  And when this spin is over, whatever letter we land on we will know: A great miracle happened there.

Did the Maccabees Win?

Did the Maccabees win? Would we have rooted for them?  
Were they fighting the bad guys?  They were fighting the Greeks: Athens!  The best of Western culture has its roots in Greece.  Form graceful columns to Homer to Hippocrates, 
sound-in-mind-sound-in-body still rings beautiful and still entices two-thousand-plus years later.  Think of something more pleasant than a sound mind and body.  I defy you.

Even the the Maccabees have morphed into a warped Athenian tribute.  Maccabiah, the sports competition that draws Jewish athletes from around the globe, is utterly Greek. 
The Maccabean revolt began - in large measure - when a gymnasium went up in Jerusalem.  Irony of ironies, perhaps.  Overlooked, no doubt; but facts are stubborn things.

We identify with sound-mind-sound-body.  We long for it.  Then why are we celebrating Chanukah?  Why do Jews who insist they are "secular", who have no qualms about eating latkes together with the animal the Greeks demanded the Jews sacrifice in their Temple, why do such Jews celebrate Chanukah?  Why then, in homes no Seder is kept, no Yom Kippur fasted, no shofar blown, is the menorah lit? 

I know the pat Americanized-Jew-needed-a-
civil-religion-equivalent for-end-December.  But centuries before retail found December, the Good Books told of how Chanukah 
-- alone among the holidays - would never be forgotten. 

Chanukah makes no sense.  The Talmud concedes that the Jews could have used other oil to burn eight days, according to the letter of the law.  But the Jews then were not being legalistic; they weren't looking for loopholes.  
They were in a fight for Jewish identity itself.  They recognized the threat of malicious Greeks, they recognized the threat of theoretically benign Hellenists.  Their devotion to a cruse of oil was a devotion to a link to Sinai.  

Sound-body-sound-mind connects body and mind.
It offers no ladder to the soul.  

The Macabees knew that without a conscience to bug you, 
the body and mind are at peace.  Like animals in pasture. 
But if G-d wanted us to be nothing more than content, 
He wouldn't need anything more than cows.

Did the Maccabees vanquish their enemies?  Not at all.  
Not then; while the menorah shone for eight days, battles waged within earshot of the Temple Mount.  Not now, Greece still lives well thank you, even in Jerusalem.  Is there a Jew alive today that is not intrigued or entranced by the theater or gymnasium?  However they react to its allure: acceptance, resistance or repugnance they are all dialectically related to it.  No, the Greeks are not vanquished. 

But the Maccabees were not either.  And that  is a miracle.  That in the shadows of gas chambers, in the cockpits of spacecraft and on the foremost boulevards of the greatest cities, the candle still burns.  

That in heimish neighborhoods of lakes, dreidels and Chanukah oy Chanukah, and also in homes that wouldn't have a Chagall or a little wooden camel from Israel because it's 'too Jewish', in these homes too, Chanukah has not been forgotten.  There is that pure flame that shines, unconquered and unwavering, and that is a miracle that is a victory.  

There is a future, foreseeable or not, when the glitz of Greece will not diminish the flame -- only add luster to it.  
Then Moshiach himself will be lighting the candle. A flame. 
A witness of a people who - at the end of the very long day - did not waiver

Old Age. Old Wine

Old Age. Old Wine

Antique sells. Even faux antique sells. "Antiqued" furniture is scuffed and dinged at the end of the assembly line. 
Brand-new pewter pitchers are being coated with green stuff called patina. Multi-million dollar homes are built to "have character". If you have no antique, buy some. The more old and worn-looking, the better: the elegance of aged has come of age. Old is good. 

Except for old people. No one boasts of having their own senior citizen. Or of being one.

And no one is guiltier of this than the old people themselves. They dress to look twentysomething. They (try to) carry a conversation like Generation X. They even operate on themselves to erase the signs of life they have lived. When it comes to people, the Fountain of Youth reigns: and - we add for good measure - can you make that fountain spring from an ancient-looking, rustic grotto? 

For good reason, for good reason is youth pursued. 
Youth is beautiful. Young means glamorous, vibrant, fun, exciting. Youth dissipates with age. 

The appeal of maturity is its subtlety: understated, dependable, grounded. Maturity, and a taste for maturity, must be acquired. 

Put wine in a jar and it turns to vinegar. Left in the casks, wine develops full flavor. In the cask it is still alive; it breathes, it grows. It acquires something it did not have the day before.

Old people can, if they so choose, turn to grouches. 
A grouch is the result of someone who stops growing, acquiring, developing. It can happen in a young person too: 
we call them brats.

"Ba bayamim" the parsha several weeks ago describes Abraham. Come of his days. Each day was full, was lived to its fullest. He took on the next day with new vigor. "Old, and with full days", this parsha describes his son, when he too was no longer young. 

Some people wait to die; some live a life that ends with death: they determine their day by their food, golf, shopping and social climbing. The Talmud calls them dead: "even in their lifetimes, call them dead". 

How sad to hear a son eulogize his mother for her brisket. How sad the daughter who holds onto her father's memory by holding onto the condo in Boca Raton because "he loved the water". This is what they have left? Recipes and beach balls? 
Is this what our grandchildren can know about their grandparents? Is this legacy?

You cannot live towards legacy any more than you can live towards happiness: they will evade you. 

You can live with a today that is giving, building: ensuring something precious is made in this world. A girl with leukemia is cured. A boy with Hodgkin's is comforted. You baby-sit for his mother so she can go out for a few hours. You learn some Torah. You teach some Torah. 

You help others learn and live and celebrate and have something to give to their children. You sweep the floor of the shul, you straighten up the chairs, you order more books, you update the shul website. 

By themselves, none of these things are worth writing home about; together, accumulated over a lifetime, they leave a legacy. 

The soul breathes much as wine does: 
The body turns to vinegar if the soul does not breathe. Capturing youth is canning wine, at best. 
Living life, letting the soul breathe, is creating a precious antique the grandchildren will showcase.

Quit the career, start working!

My son the doctor had a son: 
he is now a neurosurgeon. 
His son is a forest-ranger in Yosemite: 
the girl he is not yet married to is not Jewish. 
My son the lawyer had a daughter: 
she is a senior analyst with Morgan Stanley: 
she's forty-three and just met Mr. Right. 

A survey of Jewish America was unveiled a number of years ago: 
containing little we didn't already know anecdotally. 
Still, some of the numbers were shocking. 
Three hundred thousand less Jews 
than there were only ten years before? 
Forget Zero Population Growth: 
we're eating away at our capital. And for what?
Because, as the survey reported, we earn $8,000 per year more than the average American family! 
We're not having kids 
so we can go out and earn an extra minimum wage. 
My kingdom for a horse; 
My birthright for $8,000 worth of lentils.

The problem is not that Jewish women don't want to be Jewish mothers: 
it's that Jewish men don't want to be Jewish fathers. 
Manis Freidman sees feminism as a cry, 
piercing through the upshot of the Industrial Revolution:
"Give us back the husbands that you stole from us!" 
Until that revolt, men grew into fathers: 
fathers needed to provide, so men worked. 
Gradually men stopped working to provide, 
they went off to pursue a career, 
self- fulfillment, a more meaningful life(style). 
Who would want to be the mother of their children?

Perhaps more than any parsha, ours is laden with domesticity: it is painful to hear, from our perspective, 
women pining for children and for their husband's attention 
that childbearing would earn them. 
More easily overlooked is the husband 
who watched sheep all day in order to raise a family. 
Bucolic as it may sound, this was not a sign of the times; 
his twin brother led a high-pressured, adventurous, corporate-mogul lifestyle. 

'Will our children say kaddish for us?' 
was the worry of a generation gone by. 
'We have no children.' 
is the silent scream of the most comfort-conscious generation. Worry and concern of a Jewish future is misused, 
overplayed and gauche. 
Charged-up activism is annoying.  Neither work.
Go get a job! Become successful! is the cry. 
And the kids listen, in droves. 

One of the positive aspects of the Sixties-Seventies is idealism: a greasy-haired, pot-induced, thoroughly-off-base idealism, but idealism. When the surviving hippies (the ones who didn't OD in Marrakech) took a bath and trimmed their hair they were also cleansed of selflessness and had their strife of the spirit cut short. The lucky ones had someone to help them channel their idealism. 

Parents want to provide children with whatever the parents grew up missing. 
A greater accomplishment is to provide children with whatever the parent grew up taking for granted. 

It is not enough to want grandchildren. 
You must want sons who are fathers more than you want sons who are doctors, want daughters who are mothers more than daughters who are market analysts. 
You must want sons-in-law who are fathers 
more than sons-in-law who are neurosurgeons. 

My mother taught me 
that you can never choose to have a child: 
you can only choose not to have a child. 

"For these are the children of Jacob" conveys a faith that the chain is worth more than what a link lacks. We have nachas that our children are part of this chain, and we say a little prayer that they earn (for how else will they pay day-school tuition?) a whole lot more than $8,000 a year.

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