Only the Last One
Almost always, Nachum’s shiur (between mincha and maariv on Shabbat afternoon) is just that, an opportunity for him to present the material he has prepared, with only an occasional question or comment from the Peanut Gallery. The previous Shabbat – when the Torah portion read in The Land was Kedoshim – was different. It was the first Shabbat when we weren’t required to wear masks in shul, and the somewhat larger group in attendance was feeling somewhat frisky, perhaps thanks to our newfound ability to breathe. Plus, Nachum began his talk with a question, inviting us to put in our own two cents (although there’s no coin of the realm that small in Israel).
The Torah portion opens with the injunction that the Israelites should be holy ‘for I am holy; I, the Lord your God.’ The question that follows is, how does that work? What is any of us or all of us supposed to do in pursuit of that aim? There is, of course, a laundry list of more-than-suggestions that follows the Biblical injunction, but Nachum was trying to elicit from us, his audience, our own ideas – as in, how should we be living our lives? As you can imagine, what followed was, shall we say, a lively discussion.
What prompted Nachum to go in this direction was an article he had seen in the Wall Street Journal (which you can access here) entitled ‘Does Religion Make People More Ethical?’(Research shows that when it comes to moral behavior, engaging in rituals and practices matters more than identifying with a faith.) Then there is the volume by the late R. Jonathan Sacks, which Nachum referred to, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Troubled Times, which is ‘a plea for a renewed commitment to a communal moral code.’
There is a certain amount of comfort in the notion that leading a ‘religious’ lifestyle prompts one towards behaving ethically towards others and perhaps being appropriately grateful for what we have. But…….? Once the floor has been opened for discussion, there will usually be someone with a different point of view. Pincus was quick to point out the obvious. We all know people who exhibit all the trappings of ‘frumkeit,’ but who give ‘religion’ a bad name. I’m not always inclined to join the Pincus bandwagon, but, in this case, I felt obliged to second the motion.
Pincus was thinking about certain individuals he has come across in his life. I was too, but I have always had bigger fish to fry – especially if the topic being discussed is religion in general, not any specific brand or flavor. I hate to say it, but it’s true: Think of all the mayhem committed over the centuries by individuals or groups of people with ‘God on Their Side.’ At some point, Nachum realized where I was taking the discussion.
Fred’s looking at it from the macro level. Remember, he’s the only one here old enough to have experienced the Crusades. To which I responded, Only the last one; the others were before my time. The audience chuckled, and the discussion went on…
Aren’t You going to Card Me?
That morning over kiddush, Ezra, a White Russian in hand, told me the following less-than-harrowing story. The day before, Jordana had turned eighteen, and Ezra had promised to take his daughter to our local spirits emporium. She selected something and brought it up to the counter. The person at the cash register started to ring up the purchase. Wait a minute, said Jordana, (I’m assuming this conversation was in Hebrew) aren’t you going to card me?
You’re here with your father; I don’t need to do that.
But I want you to check my ID, insisted Jordana. She had been waiting for this moment, preparing for it, imagining it, longing for it, for the longest time. She was now of legal drinking age, and she wanted to whip out her ID and prove it. What other point is there to turning eighteen? (Well, there is the matter of military service, but we’ll ignore that for the moment.) Alright, said the clerk, let’s see your teudat zehut. And then all the employees, soon joined by anyone else in earshot, began singing, Yom, Yom, Holedet. Sometimes you have to be persistent.
My experience purchasing whiskey as a young lad back in the day (remember, we’re talking shortly after the Crusades) was radically different – in fact, just the opposite. A bunch of us had graduated high school and joined the freshman class at City College in NYC. This was supposedly our entrance to the world of adults, meaning we could do stuff. But we had not quite reached our eighteenth birthdays, and thus ‘doing stuff’ was not supposed to include imbibing adult beverages.
Were we going to tolerate this infringement on our right to act like idiots? Nosirreebob, we were not. We would have to find a way to buy booze without being carded. Some of the group looked like they were fourteen – on a good day. Don’t send them. Others could pass for eighteen but didn’t have the cojones for the part. They were no better. Who then could the group call upon if they wanted to wet their collective whistle? There’s only one man up for the job: Fred the Provider. I would walk into a random liquor store, place my order, pay for it, and walk out with nary a question asked, handing the brown bag to the others waiting outside. No one ever asked me for any ID. Of course, as my friends, one by one, reached the legal age, my services were of less and less value. But for those few precious months, I was THE MAN. Where are they now; does anyone else remember my brief moment of glory? I haven’t time to ponder the matter. There’s a special on Singleton 12 whisky at Terminal 3 in the shuk and I’ve got a bus to catch. Maybe I’ll run into Ezra and Jordana along the way; you never know.