Monday, May 30, 2011

Shame in Skver

Background: As I've spoken about before, my grandfather was a B'aal Teshuvah who became religious sometime in the mid-70s and spent time with several rebbes through the 1980s. This period coincided with his manic-depressive disorder becoming progressively worse, eventually resulting in full-on psychotic episodes. It also coincided with the disintegration of his relationships with nearly every member of his family, including his four children and several sisters. For a long time, my grandmother dutifully went along with his spiritual journey, tolerating one new "mitzvah" after another, including going to several rebbe's tisches with him. Eventually, however, they divorced and his estrangement from the family was complete. Or almost, anyway.

When I was born, this changed, a little. He and my father had always shared something of a bond despite themselves, and in some way I reflected this, too. I've been told that he and I "fell in love" the first time we met when I was an infant (I think). It was about this time that Zayde issued his ultimatum: the only "proper" way for this relationship to work (he was big on things being proper) was for my parents to move to New York and enroll me in a yeshiva.

Given my father's agnostic proclivities and the fact that neither of my parents had any particular interest in religion, this suggestion did not go over well. And, predictably enough, that was the end of any contact between Abbot Yid and Zayde for quite a while.

As a child I was fascinated by my mysterious absent grandfather. In 8th grade (a few years after Zayde's death), I read Potok's The Chosen and it was like a fire had been lit under me. I knew these people. My grandfather had been one of them. It sounds strange, but reading about that world in a book confirmed that it was real for me. I became interested in Orthodox, and especially Hasidic, culture, reading everything I could get my hands on. And I started leaning on the family for details about Zayde's Orthodox life. In particular I wanted to know which Hasidic community he had been a part of. No one seemed to know. Finally one great-aunt suggested it might have been Chabad, which made sense. So for a while Chabad was the target of a lot of my focus and ire. Looking back on it, some of that may have been unfair. While Chabad's got plenty of flaws as an organization, community, and belief system, I have to also acknowledge the contribution its individual members have made in reaching out to Jews across the world (the issue of what strings are attached is my big problem...)

Last year, however, I received a major revelation when I managed to make contact with one of Zayde's old Orthodox buddies, Dr. Jewman. It turns out that he hadn't been a Chabad fellow-traveler. Zayde had had a few rebbes, one of whom was the Rebbe of Skver.

All of which has made the big news coming from Skver over the past week particularly sickening.

Skver is interesting as it is one of the few American Hasidic communities to have created its own shtetl in the mid-50s (while the Satmar Kiryas Yoel sometimes gets more attention, New Square predates it by a good 25 years). So New Square is a kind of fascinating window into a Hasidic group not constrained by urban geography. And as the village is, AFAIK, entirely populated by Skver Hasidim it also provides a glimpse as to what the European shtetls might have looked like. Unfortunately part of that view, as recent events have shown, is the totalitarian nature that living in an enclosed Hasidic world can be. In a town that is controlled by one man, the rebbe, dissent can be a very dicey proposition, ranging from merely ostracism all the way up to, well, this.

Chaim Aron Rottenberg. Father of four. Plumber. Skver Hasid. A man who happened to be praying in the wrong minyan, as determined by the rebbe and the community. A man whose family had been targeted and harassed, their house and car vandalized, their daughter expelled from school.

This family, having committed no crime other than pissing someone off by having the temerity to pray in one building over another, was almost murdered in their sleep a week ago last Sunday. By the live-in butler of the rebbe, no less. The father confronted the thug outside his house and was lit alight. He has suffered burns over 50% of his body and is still in hospital. As he has been recuperating, his character has been slandered in New Square. It took the rebbe almost an entire week to even issue a statement condemning the violence, and even then he wouldn't refer to Rottenberg by name. What, were you talking about someone else who was almost killed for daring to pray somewhere else? How insecure are the great men of Skver that this is the response to someone who decides their services go too long?

It's absolutely crazy that this happened in America in 2011. This kind of insanity seems more appropriate to 19th century Ukraine, though maybe that isn't surprising since David Assaf's Untold Tales of the Hasidim has a whole chapter about the Chernoybler dynasty, of which Skver was an offshoot, vigorously persecuting Breslov Hasidim during the 1800s. One section, recounted by an (admittedly biased) Maskil and relative of Talner [another Chernoybler offshoot] Hasidim in Uman seems particularly instructive:

The Bratslavers had built themselves a separate prayer house in Uman... [A lone Breslov Hasid] was confined in this house of God. He was isolated there almost like a leper; if he ventured outside children would jeer and call out after him: 'Bratslaver dog!' and throw dirt at him. [During the Breslov pilgrimage at Rosh Hashanah] crowds of Uman residents used to surround the prayerhouse... we threw stones and broke windows per the hooligans' code... for so our teachers and parents instructed us. [When the old Hasid died the young men] did not follow his bier as was the custom; just the opposite: we remained standing where we were at the windows and our mouths were full of malicious laughter at his affliction. So great were the hatred and loathing that had been instilled in our hearts.

This was in the 1860s. Different time, different place, same absolute intolerance for anything the rebbes deemed out-of-bounds. If former Skverer Hasid (and blogger formerly known as Hasidic Rebel) Shulem Deen's op-ed in the Forward is any indication, neither my nor Mr. Rottenberg's examples are isolated ones, either. It's mind-boggling, and the fact that my grandfather was associated with this rebbe, that, in some bizarre alternate universe, I could have grown up in this same village, a Hasid of his like my Zayde... well it certainly puts the whole "idealized Hasidic fantasy" I envisioned as a teenager to rest.

There is a silver lining in all this, though. The more I read about Mr. Rottenberg and the more I see of his family, the more I admire him. Looking at TV reports, it looks like his son is a Hasid but his son-in-law appears to be Modern Orthodox. He has friends who are ex-Hasidic bikers. He personally seems to be a nice guy who isn't letting the frumer-than-thou crowds affect who he considers family or a friend. The sense I get of him is that he was a man living a Hasidic lifestyle who, though he may not have agreed 100% with all the beliefs or practices of his community, also wasn't going to leave or let the crazy zealots within it drive him out. For that he should be applauded.

I don't want to project too much onto Mr. Rottenberg here, but in a way I think this incident in New Square is a contemporary example of the tension many American Jews' ancestors went through, either in the US or back in their respective Old Countries. You had really modern folks, you had the really traditional folks, and you had everyone else who were somewhere in the middle. Sometimes they left and sometimes they stayed. While us descendants of grandparents or great-grandparents who went off the derech get flack from the frum world for our ancestors' choices, this incident makes me wonder: How much of that was really about people chasing materialism or assimilating into the American dream, and how much was about needing to get away from a medieval mindset that denied people the basic freedoms to choose their own lives? I'm thinking of books like Yoshe Kalb by I.J. Singer, himself the product of a Hasidic childhood and family, which is certainly none too kind to the frum world. (Sidenote: the narrative as presented is always that secular or non-Orthodox Jews' ancestors chose to leave. I wonder if that was always the case, either. Couldn't there have been cases where people were pushed, or perhaps even thrown out, of their communities or families for not being frum enough?)

I realize I beat up on the Haredi world a lot. And part of me really regrets that, because at the end of the day, I do believe in unity, and I do believe in brotherhood, and I do believe that most people, Jewish or otherwise, have more in common than we have that's different. Part of what turns me off about the Orthodox world I see today, particularly its Haredi wing, is how ridiculously reactionary it has become, and how much of its time is spent guarding its fences. I don't particularly want or need Haredim to become secular, or even to stop being Orthodox. What I would love, however, is to see more members of that world put the superficial stuff aside and reach out to their fellow Jews. (Yes, easy for me to say, but I'm also the last person who will accuse someone of not being Jewish.) What the Jewish people need are not more secular Jews, but more open-minded Jews, Orthodox and Haredim included. We need more Chaim Aron Rottenbergs.

Many, many hat-tips to Failed Messiah, who is keeping the story going.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Facial Hair is not an Accomplishment

Those who know me will be surprised at the title of this post, as I am fairly hirsute. In fact, of the eight men who work at my school (eight out of fifty, yay diversity!), only two of us have beards. So it's not that I'm anti-beard by any means.

However: I don't get this.

Ephrata Middle School teacher Gary Weddle vowed on September 11, 2001 to stop shaving until Osama bin Laden was caught. 
On Monday, after almost ten years, he finally shaved off his lengthy beard.

Hooray for, uh, local news?

The school’s principal, Jill Palmquist, honored him on Monday and gave the following speech to the students: 
Ephrata Middle School would like to take a few moments today to honor and recognize a very unique individual who is among us on a daily basis.

On September 11th 2001, Gary Weddle came to school and told his science students that in support of the United States Military and for the freedoms that America stands for, he would not shave until Osama Bin Laden was captured or killed.

...For 3,454 days Mr. Weddle kept his word, faithful and true.  He endured ridicule, jokes and no doubt people telling him that his was a lost cause.  On top of that he watched daily news reports that cast doubt whether Osama Bin Laden was even still alive, or if dead his body would never be recovered.  In which case, to be true to his word Mr. Weddle would have to never shave again for the rest of his life.  
Mr. Weddle has taught us all an important lesson in faith, patriotism and endurance.  Would any of us have put ourselves on the line in such a way?  It is likely no one else in the entire world had taken such a vow. 

Yesterday, May 1st, it was announced that Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan.

Mr. Weddle, we are truly honored and humbled by your example and extremely privileged to know you.  The life lasting impact the commitment to your vow has had on over 2,000 students in the last ten years is more than a teacher could even begin imagine.  As of yesterday Facebook has come alive as your former students excitedly rejoice in the fact that you can now shave!  It might be added that our current population of students was aged two and three when you made your vow.   They are the ones to see what so many of them wanted to witness.

Thank you for your dedication, steadfastness and determination to follow through.  You are among the most dedicated, faithful and patriotic Americans we will ever have the privilege of saying that we knew.

Although you did not do this for personal glory, you can not escape the fact that we admire your dedication to our country and greatly respect you.

You are our HERO and we salute you!

Wait, wait, how could he have come to school on September 11 and said he wasn't going to shave until they caught Osama? The guy lives in Washington. School doesn't start until around 8 am Pacific time. Only a few news correspondents had even started speculating bin Laden was behind it at that point. Oh wait, that's apparently not what actually happened.

Weddle was a substitute teacher in Wenatchee when the infamous al-Qaeda terrorist attack occurred on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 3,000 Americans. Weddle was so caught up in the news that he neglected to shave. A week or so later, he vowed not to shave until bin Laden was captured or proven dead. He figured it would just be a month or two.
So not only did he not make the vow until a week later, he made it assuming that it would be a minimal commitment. Oh well, no one ever accused principals of paying too much attention to their teachers. Or letting details get in the way of making a good speech. Keep on educating those kids, ma'am.

I'm sorry, but not shaving is not "putting yourself on the line." Ask any Sikh, Amish or Haredi man. Actually, come to think of it, if Weddle had decided to grow his beard AND put on a turban, that might have been a much better example of "putting himself on the line."At the very least it would have been a more interesting story.

Is this story an interesting example of ways the body can serve as a constant reminder of awareness of a particular event? Sure. Is it an "inspiring" demonstration of keeping your word? I guess. But I don't see how you go from "huh, that's a little weird" to calling this a case that's particularly patriotic or heroic. The guy just sort of fell into it. If anything this incident just shows how many people feel the need to look for "heroes" or create supposedly meaningful or inspirational narratives from cases that honestly just aren't that impressive. When did growing a beard become so noteworthy? Is it only important if you do it for ideological reasons? If so, why is patriotism or "keeping a promise" the only ideology worth paying attention to? People have been growing hair for religious and cultural reasons for thousands of years, from Jews to Rastafarians to hippies. What makes Weddle's beard so amazing?

Here's the irony: if Mr. Weddle had spent the last ten years doing something, that could have been heroic. He could have started a charity, incorporated 9/11 into his curriculum, joined the military, etc. Even working to raise awareness for victims of terror or support for the troops, etc, would have been something. I'm not saying this man isn't a good guy. He probably is. But growing a beard, even a long beard, isn't something you should get a standing ovation for. As far as an example of sacrifice or dedication, it's actually pretty uninteresting (unless you hang out with alopecia sufferers). Another irony is that in many parts of the country, having facial hair is actually a big cultural no-no and something people get flak for, especially teachers (not always without cause-- sorry, man, but between the beard and the glasses you've got a pretty loud creepy factor going on). Yet this guy did it "because of terrorism" and people are calling him a patriot and a fantastic role model. While I agree that beards are totally awesome the reality is that growing one is simply not that big a deal. And I don't get the desire of the media and Weddle's local community to turn a random promise into a heroic act.

Hat-tip to Rafi G at Life in Israel.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Don't be so not hard on yourself

In the last few days since the news that the U.S. got bin Laden, reactions have been interesting to watch. Personally, I see it as another small "personal history" moment. As a young person who came of age in the 90s and aughts, there weren't too many events that seemed to make it onto the national consciousness that I was aware of (the time I found out about the collapse of the USSR three years late is a story for another time).

The Americans, by and large, saw the take-down, dubbed "Operation Geronimo" (an insult to the real Geronimo, IMO) as a pretty solid victory. The operation was potentially a risky move that could have blown up in Obama's face, but as it happened to fortunately unfold, a well-executed victory.

But after every victory, some people like to reflect. As we say in second grade, "What could we do better?"

According to Pakistani officials, not a damn thing:

The ISI official told the BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones in Islamabad that the compound in Abbottabad, just 100km (62 miles) from the capital, was raided when under construction in 2003. 
It was believed an al-Qaeda operative, Abu Faraj al-Libi, was there. 
But since then, "the compound was not on our radar, it is an embarrassment for the ISI", the official said. "We're good, but we're not God."

Thanks for clearing that up. Incidentally, I'm not sure you're all that "good," either. That's not to say you aren't doing some things well, but talk about letting yourself off the hook. "Don't feel bad, guys. We just got word- we're not God. Consider this one a freebie."
He added: "This one failure should not make us look totally incompetent. Look at our track record. For the last 10 years, we have captured Taliban and al-Qaeda in their hundreds - more than any other countries put together."
Defensive much? I know Pakistan has to walk a thin line when it comes to helping the US without alienating its native population, but come on, guys. Incidentally, I'm not sure you get to give yourself such a giant pat on the back for "catching more Taliban & Al Qaeda than anyone else" when your country is used-- and perceived-- as ground zero/safe haven for Taliban and Al Qaeda training. That's like bragging that your town has the highest pedophile conviction rate in the state. It's not a bad thing, but it may also mean that your town has too many damn pedophiles.

President Asif Ali Zardari admitted Bin Laden "was not anywhere we had anticipated he would be". 
But he denied the killing suggested Pakistan was failing in its efforts to tackle terrorism. 
Mr Zardari said Pakistan had "never been and never will be the hotbed of fanaticism that is often described by the media".

Red herring, Mr. President. Pakistan isn't a hotbed of fanaticism, but it isn't full of gumdrops and teddy bears, either. While neither Al Qaeda nor the Taliban have Pakistani approval levels anywhere near 2008 levels (25% and 27%) these days, (18% and 15% in 2010), those numbers are up from 2009. So clearly there is a segment of the population that needs to be paid attention to, especially if they're the ones with the guns, bombs, what have you.
"Pakistan had as much reason to despise al-Qaeda as any nation. The war on terrorism is as much Pakistan's war as it is America's."
I agree. You might want to talk to that 18% of Pakistanis that don't.
Mr Brennan had said it was "inconceivable that Bin Laden did not have a support system" in Pakistan.
Come on, Mr. Brennan! Didn't you just listen to the President? All Pakistanis hate Al Qaeda. There must be another explanation. Maybe the house was built by magical Al Qaeda elves, using magical elf concrete. Or, you know, those evil Jihadist day laborers from El Salvador. There's nothing they won't do for a quick rupee.
Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir tried to draw a line under the matter, saying: "Who did what is beside the point... This issue of Osama Bin Laden is history."
Nice attempt at a brush-off. "Don't mind our screw-up, the important thing is that he's gone. Why are we even talking about this guy? He hasn't been relevant in like, sixteen hours. Osama who?"

After reading this quote for the eighth-hundredth time and making sure I hadn't suffered some sort of aneurysm from the cognitive dissonance, I must confess to some protracted writer's block. What would be the best comparison to make here? It was truly an epic struggle. (Not quite as big a struggle as Pakistan's rhetorical back-flips, but pretty close.)

I considered going historical (Allies sticking Napoleon on Elba, where he promptly ran away, or the US funding mujehadin in Afghanistan who later shot them in the ass), or even look to ancient myth (Pandora and her dumb-ass box, Eve and her apple/pomegranate/what-have-you).

But no. I decided that in order to show just how absolutely ridiculous the Pakistanis are being, I had to go big.

So here we go: Pakistan, you're like the bozo engineer in Atomic Train or Unstoppable who accidentally unleashes a runaway death train carrying killer chemicals which could kill everybody but magically avoid so at the last minute. AND THEN BRAGS ABOUT IT.

"Look, the important thing is the train got there, ok? Who cares who forgot to make sure they were at the controls of what?"

Seriously, Pakistan. If you can't think of anything particularly face-saving to say, then just stay quiet on this one. Right now, you're not doing yourself any favors.