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For Your Shabbat Table

Did the Maccabees really win?

Did the Maccabees really win? Should they have? They were fighting the Greeks: Athens. Everything good and beautiful in Western culture (the world in any modern, real sense) has its roots in Greece. Art, poetry, Hippocrates, architecture, sound-in-mind-sound-in-body still rings beautiful and still entices two-thousand-plus years later. Can you think of anything more pleasant than a sound mind and body? I defy you.

Even the memory of the Maccabees is a tribute to Athens. Maccabiah, the sports competition that for decades has brought together Jewish athletes from around the globe, is utterly Greek; the construction of a gymnasium in Jerusalem led –in large measure- to the Maccabean revolt. Every Jewish basketball team named the Maccabees - a name synonymous with Jewish pride – is a vindication of Athens over Jerusalem of the Greeks over the Maccabees. Irony of ironies, perhaps. Overlooked, no doubt; but as stubborn a fact as a fact can be.
 
Do we not identify with sound-mind-sound-body? Is this not even a quest for most people? Then why are we celebrating Chanukah? Why then, do those who insist they are “secular” Jews, those who have no qualms about eating latkes together with the animal the Greeks demanded the Jews bring into their Temple, why do they celebrate Chanukah? Why then, in homes where every empirical vestige of Jewish identity and survival has been cleared from the home to a degree that would make a chametz-searching balabuste green with envy, why in these homes, where no Seder is kept, no Yom Kippur fasted, no shofar blown is the menorah lit?
 
Yes, I know the pat Americanized-Jew-needed-a-civil-religion-equivalent for-end-December. But centuries before that reality the Good Books spoke of how Chanukah -- alone among the holidays -- will never be forgotten.
 
Chanukah makes no sense; even the Sages of the Talmud remark that from a legal, halachic standpoint, the Jews could have used other oil to burn eight days etc. 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 too well the threat not only of the malicious Greeks, but also of the theoretically benign Hellenists. And this devotion to a cruse of oil was a devotion to a link to Sinai. That sound body/mind was a connection between one and the other but offered no ladder to the soul. That without the strife of the spirit, the entrance of the soul into daily conscience, the body and mind are more at peace, like the animals in pasture, but void the purpose of He who created heaven and earth.
 
Did the Maccabees vanquish their enemies? Not at all. Not then; as the menorah was being lit, cruse lasting eight days etc., (The fighting continued 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 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 there will be no glitz to diminish the flame, only to add to it luster. 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 waver.

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. 
 

Becoming Fathers to Our Children

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 few 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 ago?
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.

Made in America

Pulling out of the JFK parking lot was an arrow ‘To Manhattan’ with a silhouette graphic of the world’s most recognized skyline: over the two vertical blocks was painted the American flag. Several hours later having first stopped by the Ohel, (the Rebbe’s resting place) I had my first view of The City in over a year, the unbalanced skyline: the gaping wound of America.

Jewish Brooklyn was thriving and Governor Pataki wanted their votes, campaign posters there are printed in Yiddish and English “er hut unz geshtitz, mir shtitzen em” ; he supports us we support him. Simple, forceful and blunt. New York.

I was there for a conference of Chabad rabbis, shluchim – which serves a lot of us as part class reunion, part family reunion and part shopping trip. The highlight of the weekend is the Sunday Night Banquet. I had brought a friend from Rancho Mirage for the weekend. “What’s our plan, like what happens?” he asked. I wasn’t sure. You eat. Speeches. I don’t like over-promising.

The roll call began. The chairman had trouble with Azerbaijan, had an easier time with Congo, Bulgaria, Armenia, and another forty or so exotic names and gave oratorical flourish to England, Australia and Italy. You really do forget what’s happening outside your niche; you realize that the Rebbe made his niche wherever there were Jews.

Then came the time-line roll call: all the shluchim of the forties and fifties, the sixties, seventies and eighties – there were more in the nineties and 2K’s then all the decades combined!

Then came the children. Nine, ten and eleven year olds who had accompanied their fathers – all rabbis – from the far-off corners of the roll call as well as from a stone’s throw from the Downtown Brooklyn Marriott: Brooklyn Heights, the Financial District (now called Ground Zero) and Park Slope.

The kids made a presentation repeating an identical message in the languages of the countries they came from: Swedish (sounds remarkably like Hungarian), German (snooty-nasal Yiddish), Russian (a cute kid, my cousin’s son) and the run-of-the-mill French, Hebrew, Spanish, Farsi and English. The message of how they were proud of their parents etc. was undeniably rehearsed: hackneyed and stilted -- there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, or at least not on my face. 

Chaya, my wife, had just spoken last week to a classmate in Florida; her twelve-year-old son is perfectly capable of running every aspect their shul, and practically does. My cousin running a Boston university Chabad House claims his kids are the ones who make a difference in anyone’s life: he tries to stand out of the way and let them do it. Ditto Rancho Mirage.

These kids often leave home at painfully tender ages to go to the yeshiva nearest to them, often enough several hundred miles away. They always hate it and their parents are impossible to talk to the day after they drop their children off at the airport. They go to a Brooklyn, or a Jerusalem or some other place where everyone in the neighborhood goes to yeshiva and reads Yiddish campaign posters and don’t really relate to where these kids are coming from, what they are going through -- or where they are headed.

They go through the yeshiva system, the first few years they are miserable and homesick, crying into the phone, throwing tantrums on their visits home for Pesach and getting accustomed to this pit in their stomach. I admit, this is the worst-case scenario (I hope), some kids don’t have it so rough, but I speak from informed experience: I was one of them. 

But all through those years when the only ones more miserable than the kids are their parents, these boys and these girls keep in them, somewhere even deeper than that pit in the stomach, this burning . . .something: they are going to be shluchim, just like their parents. And amazingly they do.

So those hackneyed words fed them by whomever “we are so proud of you, dear parents and the wonderful work you do” the bothersomely flowery “our small hearts fill with pride” resonated with a truth they might themselves not realize that they possess. 

Seventy years ago the immigrant generation’s traditionally-minded looked with worry at the children born in modernity; how could they ever carry the torch? They looked with them with pity; how could they appreciate something they never saw? They looked with despair; who will say Kaddish for American Jewry? What will become of us?

The Rebbe looked with boastful pride: when Moshiach comes we will show off our kids to him, “Look! And they are Made in America!”

Are we pressuring our kids too much? Are they giving up too much? Will they (don’t even say it) resent an overdose of Yiddishkeit?

The parsha begins with comfort and assurance: not only did Abraham pride himself on Isaac but Isaac prided himself on Abraham. And they looked alike. 

America, you have a gaping wound. We Jews know something about gaping wounds. We know you must heal and make stronger, even, especially in unbearable pain. The greatest of the Greatest Generation, the ones who walked out of the ovens of Europe, heroically putting one Jewish foot in front of the other had kids (from where that optimism?) sent them to yeshiva (amidst the applause of virtually no one) and these survivors, now parents, grandparents and great-grandparents pride themselves on generations that looks like them, looks towards them -- even as the survivors themselves look towards their children, their rightfully boastful pride and nachas.  

The promise of a generation is written on the chubby faces and missing-tooth grins of the Rebbe’s little tikes. Keep up the good work kids. And (I know I don’t say it often enough) thank you.

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