As I write this, we are packed for another weekend up in the Catskills, a place where it’s still considered pretty safe for small kids to roam unattended within the confines of bungalow colonies. This is why The Mountains continie to draw tens of thousands of New York area, mostly Orthodox families, to leave their comfortable homes for broken-down shacks that list to starboard like a sinking ship, have broken appliances, leaky roofs, bad ventillation and are shared with all manner of crawling things.
It was at bungalow colonies in the 70s and 80s that I got my own first taste of independence, roaming into the surrounding woods, down the road to farms and hotels and abandoned camps and occasionally into Monticello, Liberty and Loch Sheldrake (by taxi, and with my brother and other kids) without the watchful gaze and buzzkill of stuffy grownups. At 16, I spent my first full summer away from home as a bungalow day camp counselor in an environment that — looking back with the unimaginably different worldview of a parent — I now think should have been far better supervised.
My oldest son, Zack, is now spending his first full summer on his own upstate, with some major differences; one-year older, with a driver’s license (but no car), working as a lifeguard instead of counselor and, from what we have verified, a very appropriately supervised environment. When notified that his family would be nearby for Shabbat, he expressed his preference to stay where he is and visit with us before and after. What felt like surprise to me was probably more disappointment, masked. The Catskills is for roaming free, spreading wings and taking off and, for just as long as the temperature stays high and the pool stays full and school is out, casting off the ties of home.
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It recently came to my attention that Orthodox shuls, no matter how much they expand, never destroy their original building. Since this has been pointed out to me I’ve noticed or thought of numerous shuls that consist of large modern buildings with adjacent, smaller buildings, including my own shul which began in a small house with a large backyard that is now the current building. The reason for this is that once a building is consecrated as a shul it is believed to then be inviolable.
That was on my mind Monday night as I heard the news of the devastation of a venerable 110-year-old congregation on the Upper East Side by fire. To any Jew alive today Kehillat Jeshurun has always been there, as permanent as Central Park, and until this week assumed to always be there. Years ago I visited a Long Island congregation where the shul was under extensive renovations caused by expansion, not fire, and it struck me how disoriented, even emotional the membership were about their spiritual home being in disarray.
A shul is much more than a building, but for many almost a member of the community, often an aged one that is treated with deference and glory. So I can undestand why Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, who grew up in the congregation his father before him led, broke into tears during exiled services after the fire, and why others gathered in stunned silence as the center of their religious life went up in a seemingly ungodly inferno.
It’s sobering to think, though, that at the same time the shul was burning family members and perhaps thousands of volunteers were out searching for a missing boy in Brooklyn, who was experiencing his last, terror-filled hours. A family’s nightmare was becoming reality.
The shul building will either be repaired or rebuilt. What isn’t covered by insurance will be raised by generous benefactors. One day, people will rarely talk about or think about the fire as it fades into the past. And some may note the sense of perspective gained by a concurrent, unimaginable tragedy.
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A peculiar observation about the extensive news coverage of the Kletzky murder:
The story broke late Monday night and Tuesday morning, with The Post featuring a story on its website that first appeared around 3 a.m. The News began reporting the story at 11 on Tuesday and both ran regular updates online, although it was too late for that day’s paper. Newsday appears to have posted AP stories on the situation online. News radio stations and major networks had live coverage and also updated their websites.
The city’s "newspaper of record," for some reason, had no coverage that I can find online during the entire 36-hours or so between Leibby’s disappearance and his death. At 8 a.m. on Wednesday, when the tabloids and broadcast media were already reporting the grim news, there were no search results for Kletzky on the New York Times’ website. The paper, which prides itself on civic responsibility, could have used its extensive reach to get the boy’s description and the hotline for tips to the public. Around 9 a.m., 29 hours after the Post picked up the story, the Times finally posted a story on its City blog about the murder. On Thursday, there were three stories leading the Metro Section about the crime that was making news around te nation.
It’s not that the paper was ignoring Jews on Tuesday. The lead story in the Metro Section was about the KJ fire. I emailed the paper’s public editor, Arthur Brisbane, about this and was referred to its corporate communications office. I will keep you posted about why a missing child in Brooklyn for a day and a half was not considered news fit to print.
Switching to a lighter note, I was amused, but not surprised, by the foray into Yiddish vernacular by Minnesota congresswoman and presidential contender Michele Bachmann. The place of Yiddish in politics is as well established as Jews in Minnesota politics, of which Bachmann is not one. But that didn’t stop her from accusing President Obama of using "chew-tzpah" in his debt limit negotiations, creating a word that sounds like some kind of dog toy. To be fair to Bachmann, the soft sound of the c-h combination, which sounds like you are clearing your throat, is very common in Hebrew and Yiddish but extremely rare in English. In fact, I can’t think of an exemplary word. So it’s a natural error for someone who has read it, but may not have heard it uttered much in her circles.
Anyway, go ahead, Congresswoman Bachmann, and by all means infuse the Tea Party with the mamaloshen in an attempt at a bigger tent, but one word of caution: Be extremely careful, especially on live TV, with the word "fakachta."