In the words of an old honky-tonk song, nothing is sadder than a two-story house, when the husband tells one story and the wife tells a story all her own.
Are New York Jews living in a two-story house? According to the recent 2012 UJA-Federation of New York population study, Orthodox Jews tell one story, the unaffiliated and assimilated tell another. But is a two-story house the end of the story?
In our communal attic there is a newspaper clipping from 1934. The National Conference of Jewish Social Service presented a report that declared, “The writs of Orthodox Judaism no longer run for most of us,” according to coverage in The New York Times. The article was headlined, “Religion Among Jews Found To Be Waning, “ and “Federation Here Is Not A Unifying Influence.”
“The Talmud, the prophets, and the law,” the report continued, “have lost much of their strength as spiritual inner bulwarks. Yet German experience has proved the falsity of any assumption that the Jew can solve his problems by trying to cease to be a Jew.”
According to the report: the “Federation of Jewish Charities… depends on the comparatively small number of contributors,” with only 10 percent of Manhattan’s Jews contributing. The leadership “is too far removed from the Jewish masses, the community whose needs it is designed to serve.”
If you thought the future looked bleak in 1934, you should have seen 1904, according to Times letter writer Sidney J. Simon. At least in 1934, wrote Simon, young people “are attaching themselves to the synagogue” in ways that “far exceed that of the young men and women who attended the synagogue 30 years ago,” in the early 1900s.
With the Depression raging, the Young Israel employment bureau “received more than 10,000 applications,” wrote Simon, “from young men and women who, in spite of the present economic situation, will not accept work unless the employer will allow them to keep the Sabbath. Does this indicate a waning of religious feeling?”
If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, perhaps the roots of the 2012 Orthodox population surge was planted in the hard times of the Depression. Surely, many of those 10,000 defiant and determined young Jews became the Orthodox grandparents at the dawn of our era, when three out of four Jewish children in New York City are Orthodox, albeit more easily than in 1934.
It is summer, and 250,000 Orthodox Jews (about the size of St. Petersburg, Fla.) are now summering in Sullivan County. Many Russian Jews are now summering in the Catskills, as well. The visitors are spending “millions,” says the Times Herald-Record, pumping up the Sullivan County economy.
According to one Times Herald-Record reporter, “I drove through Woodbourne one night last week and … wow. Life. Bright lights were shining in shops … that had been dark and empty all fall, winter and spring. Streets … were bustling with shoppers.”
The Catskills Scoop, an online newsletter, urged the summer folk to sanctify God’s name by their behavior: “We are guests, and those whose reside upstate all year are our hosts. The least we can do is show our gracious hosts some courtesy. It may not seem like such a big deal, but greeting a store keeper, thanking a cashier, letting someone who is a year-round resident go ahead of you in line can have a tremendous positive impact and display of Hakoras Hatov [gratitude].”
The volunteer Hatzolah rescue society, which usually has two ambulances in Sullivan County, now has a fleet of 13.
In Woodbourne, a 94-year-old wooden shul that years ago was Orthodox and then not, and then abandoned, is Orthodox again, with dozens of daily minyans almost non-stop—as soon as one minyan ends, another forms.
It is the Three Weeks, the annual period of semi-mourning culminating with the Fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of the Temple. We are under siege. Everywhere, it seems, Israel is subject to allegations and threats. If boycotts and scorn are meant to bring the settlers to an epiphany about the occupation’s futility, it hasn’t worked.
But “right-wing” (as Der Spiegel describes them) parliamentarians and populists from Europe have been more successful, convening a major grass-roots peace meeting the other week in Hebron, a place thought of by the more usual peacemakers as the most flammable, confounding, infuriating place on the West Bank. Yet, in Hebron, Judaism’s second-holiest city, settlers and Palestinian clansmen were brought together by the art of respecting each other’s story and journey. Among the settler leaders were Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat; Noam Arnon, a Hebron settler spokesman; and Gershon Mesika, of the Shomron Regional Council, comprising 30 Samarian villages.
The “two-story house” became an open-sided tent belonging to Sheikh Farid al-Jabari, in which the group discussed the possibility and desirability of a one-state solution, said reports. Toward that end, Jabari has for several years been getting to know and establishing a trust with settlers. The New York Times credits Jabari with leading 35,000 Arabs in Hebron and one million loyalists over all.
Neither settler nor sheikh “came to the table.” They sat on the floor. They removed their shoes.
It is good at a peace conference to sit on the floor. Rabbi Yoel Glick, the author of “Daat Elyon,” recently taught that on Tisha B’Av “we sit on the ground as an expression of humility,” mortal creatures “formed out of the dust of the earth.” A peace conference should have that dusty humility.
It is good at a peace conference to take off one’s shoes. According to the mystics, “feet symbolize understanding,” writes Rabbi Glick, “and shoes symbolize the vessel that receives this understanding.” Removing our shoes, as on Tisha B’Av, is a way of “proclaiming that we do not possess a suitable vessel to comprehend what is happening to us. We admit that the only way forward is through faith.”