There are myriad blessings for foods and lifecycle events, but there also exists a lesser-known blessing to be said when seeing a multitude. There were close to 18,000 of us at last week’s charity game between Maccabi Tel Aviv and the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, and if ever a basketball game felt like a blessing, this was it. No, not the score (the Knicks defeated jet-lagged Maccabi 112-85), but if there was some scorecard to judge the fans — delighting in serendipitous sightings of summer camp friends and classmates, old and new; delighting in a chance to cheer Israel and Israeli athletes; delighting in a pre-game “Hatikvah” and a halftime Am Yisroel Chai — the night was a blessing, an enchantment all its own.
There have been other gatherings at the Garden, and rallies and parades that drew more, but it is the nature of rallies or parades that one can only see, at ground level for all practical purposes, one block at a time; those standing around you or those marching in front of you. It is another thing entirely to be sitting in the bowl of Madison Square Garden and seeing 18,000 in the sweep of one’s eye.
Fathers pointed up at the 613 banner hanging from the rafters commemorating the victories of Red Holzman (honored at halftime), or was that God’s number (of mitzvot) that was retired? There were secular Israelis in the crowd sitting next to Talmud scholars. A rabbi in a long white beard, and longer black coat, Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman (founder and leader of Migdal Ohr), was on the court, at one point, thanking the crowd for raising more than $1 million for Migdal Ohr, Israel’s largest youth village and the sponsor of the game.
Other charities might want to take note of the vast attention earned by Migdal Ohr, let alone the vast largesse of the crowd, in what was a soft sell, if ever there was one: people came together, casually and cheerfully, for a game, not testimonials; an event not limited to “major givers” but offering affordable seats accessible even to teenagers and the working class.
It was nice, if only for one night in October, to come together as a community without politics, piety or sanctimony but just for the sheer fun of it; to celebrate our peoplehood with a cold beer, not sacramental wine; to scream with a Whitman-esque yawp instead of a kvetch or a krecht.
To the people in New York, Tel Aviv and at Migdal Ohr who put the evening together, and to the joyous and energetic crowd, in the words of Grantland Rice, “when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,” it won’t matter that we won or lost, it was a blessing all the same.
We live in a culture that increasingly treats anger and outrage as a kind of lowest-common-denominator entertainment. That may be good business for publishers, networks and the celebrities who fill the airwaves with their artful venom, but ultimately it can only unravel the fabric of our pluralistic democracy.
Consider the latest rantings of conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who has made a fine career out of fanning always-smoldering fires of prejudice. Last week Coulter, appearing on the CNBC program “Big Idea,” said she longs for an America free of Jews. Not to worry, she told host Donny Deutsch, a Jew who appeared stunned by her statement; she wasn’t advocating anything Draconian, just that Jews be “perfected” by converting to Christianity.
Some Christians and even a few Jews defended Coulter, correctly pointing out that the view of salvation is a core tenet of Christian theology. It is not our place to challenge that theology, just as it is not their place to challenge ours.
Coulter’s sin was taking that notion and hurling it like a firebomb into a real world where anti-Semitism and other forms of religious bigotry are enduring realities, a nation where many believe the founders didn’t really mean it when they barred the establishment of a state religion.
She linked her vision to a Republican Party which has been working hard to attract Jewish voters — but which she sees as a bastion of Christian purity. In doing so, she drew an unacceptable line in the partisan firmament. If the Republicans are the party of God-fearing Christians, what does that make the Democrats?
Moreover, her comments were part of an alarming trend. In a recent First Amendment Center survey, 65 percent of respondents said the nation’s founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation — and 55 percent said that view was enshrined in the Constitution, a misperception endorsed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime friend of the Jewish community who apparently let politics get in the way of common sense and decency.
Maybe Ann Coulter really is just a tasteless entertainer pandering to our appetite for outrage. But as groups like the Anti-Defamation League point out, words have consequences. And Coulter’s words can only undermine the values of freedom and democracy she claims to cherish.