I met Harvey Pekar in 2005. On a whim, I gave him a copy of my book, and he really liked it. A series of awkward interactions at comic book signings led to a small collaboration for the foreword of a book about the history of Jews and comics. A few months later he asked me to work on an entire book with him about the history of Jews and Israel.
In 2008, we began what is now known as Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, a graphic novel published by Hill & Wang and available here. The graphic memoir interweaves his gradual disaffection with the modern state of Israel with a comprehensive visual history from Biblical times to the present. Told over the course of a single day in his hometown, the book follows Pekar and myself as we wrestle with the mythologies and realities surrounding the Jewish homeland.
Producing this book was a bittersweet project for me. When Harvey passed away two years ago, I went from being a hevruta to chevra kadisha. For the better part of four years I was one of a handful of artists working with Harvey on various projects. However, I suspect that the Judaic focus of our relationship was quite unique. I like to think he didn’t call everyone boychik.
Although Harvey cultivated a curmudgeon character on screen and in print, the man himself was quite kind and surprisingly encouraging. Harvey expressed complete faith in my creative vision and was always telling me to “do my thing.”
I got a kick out of Harvey’s sense of timing. He would call me at the most inopportune moments. First thing Monday morning as I sat down to my desk job. Saturday night while I was at a pub with friends, or my favorite, 8:30 AM on Thanksgiving morning.
Harvey had his own way of doing things. He didn’t use the computer. No email, just phone calls and photocopies of his hand written scripts. Decoding his prose, dividing it into digestible chunks, and offering my spin was part of the fun of working with Harvey. Even now, when I recall all those conversations about Judaism and its people, and talking about baseball, Harvey continues to make me smile.
However, finishing the book without Harvey over the last two years was heavy. I wish I could say it was fun. But I missed my collaborator and friend and I was drawing him everyday, so it was a particularly bizarre process of mourning and creativity. Which I guess is oddly appropriate for a graphic novel about Israel.
My Pekar years were full of crazy amounts of joy and sadness and taught me a lot about the type of person and artist that I am. I was lucky to be in the graces of a comix legend and be given the opportunity to be myself and represent another person through comix. I trust that Harvey would be proud of the way the book turned out.
If being Jewish were in the blood, then what better way to find the markers of Jewishness then by studying blood itself? In his 1977 book The Genetics of the Jews, Arthur Mourant, one of the foremost cataloguers of blood groups during the 20th century, explained the advantages to this approach, “In popular anthropology since time immemorial…the visible and physically measurable body characteristics preceded the hereditary blood characteristics as the principal human taxonomic markers. Because of the precisely known mode of inheritance of blood characters, the latter have now superseded them… The hereditary diseases are, in general, too rare to be of value in studies of limited population samples…” So measuring blood groups is more precise than measuring heads and easier than identifying rare genetic diseases.
Mourant’s journey to Jewish population genetics was long. As an Oxford-trained geologist, he joined the Geological Survey of Great Britain during the 1920s to catalog the coal deposits in Lancashire. Unable to obtain an academic post in geology in Depression-era Britain, he returned to his native island of Jersey and set up a laboratory offering
medical tests. But running that laboratory was not satisfying, so in 1939, he entered St. Bartholomew’s Medical College in London. Upon his graduation with a medical degree in 1943, he became a Medical Officer in the National Blood Transfusion Service. The demand for blood products was great during the war and Mourant became a leader in the field.
After the war, he directed the UK Medical Research Council’s newly established Blood Group Reference Laboratory, the international standard for the World Health Organization.
A blood group is determined by the presence or absence of certain sugars, proteins, or fats on the surfaces of blood cells and other types of cells. Differences in blood groups limit the possibilities for blood transfusions — blood can be transfused only for a compatible type. Transfusions among individuals of noncompatible types result in transfusion reactions in which antibodies in the recipient’s blood break down the transfused red cells.
The presence of these antibodies was recognized first in 1901 by Karl Landsteiner, a Viennese pathologist. As he noted later in his Nobel Prize lecture of 1930, “My experiment consisted of causing the blood serum and erythrocytes (red blood cells) of different human subjects to react with one another. The result was only to some extent as expected. With many samples there was no perceptible alteration, in other words the result was exactly the same as if the blood cells had been mixed with their own serum, but frequently a phenomenon known as agglutination - in which the serum causes the cells of the alien individual to group into clusters – occurred.” Following Landsteiner’s lead, serum banks were created that collected serum from individuals of known blood groups and used these sera to test new individuals to determine their types. It was just such a laboratory that Mourant headed after the Second World War.
In the ABO system, there are four genetically encoded blood groups: A, B, AB, and O — O represents the absence of A or B. People with the O group are also known as “universal donors,” because they can give blood to anyone. The study of ABO blood groups made it immediately clear that there are different frequencies among different peoples. In Europe, the average frequency is 40 percent O, 40 percent A, 15 percent B, and 5 percent AB. In other populations, the balance changes.
Mourant was among the first to appreciate the utility of using blood groups as population genetic markers and the first to apply these to Jews. His catalog had varying data for the different blood groups and for other genetic marker systems (including G6PD). He concluded that the blood group data correlated with the known facts of Jewish history – although population geneticists at the time and today would agree that it is hard to draw major conclusions from a single genetic marker system.
The major Jewish communities were relatively homogeneous, yet distinct from one another. Each of the communities bore some resemblance to the local, non-Jewish population. In Mourant’s words, “Each major Jewish community as a whole bears some
resemblance to indigenous peoples of the region where it first developed.” Recent studies in Jewish population genetics have drawn upon analysis of the whole genome and have tended to confirm what Mourant observed – relative homogeneity within Jewish groups, distinctiveness between Jewish groups and some resemblance with local, non-Jewish populations. But Mourant was the first to study what was in the blood.
In Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, Harry Ostrer wrote about a series of scientists who contributed to our contemporary understanding of Jewishness. This week, he provides a series of short vignettes that describe their contributions about what it means to be a Jew.
Chaim Sheba, a surgeon general of the Israeli army and later the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Health, was also a colorful, pioneering Israeli geneticist. Early in his career, Sheba stumbled into human genetics in the process of preparing to practice medicine in his adopted country. Born in Austria, he left for Palestine with a “still wet” medical school diploma from the University of Vienna expecting to “dry the uninhabited swamps.” Drying the swamps was a way to eliminate malaria, a disease common not only in Palestine, but throughout the coastal Mediterranean basin. While on the boat to Palestine, Sheba read a book about tropical diseases and learned that one of the major complications of malaria was blackwater fever. Typically, the “black water” urine of individuals with red blood cells disrupted by malarial parasites contained the dark-colored breakdown products of the oxygen-carrying protein, hemoglobin.
When Sheba arrived in Palestine, he learned about an unexpected springtime occurrence of blackwater fever caused by eating fava beans, a popular Mediterranean delicacy. Favism had been known in ancient Greek times with Pythagoras, Diogenes and Plutarch all warning about the dangers of eating fava beans. Eating the beans or even smelling the pollen caused a sudden illness of abdominal pains and vomiting, followed by pallor, jaundice and brown-colored urine – all resulting from the rapid breakdown of red blood cells. During the 1930s, all of the patients that Sheba observed with favism were Jewish males of Iraqi, Yemenite, or Kurdish origin. During World War II, while serving as a surgeon in the British Army, Sheba observed men who experienced severe breakdown of red blood cells resulting from ingestion of the newly developed antibiotic and anti-malarial drugs. These reactions occurred primarily among Iraqi, Turkish, Greek, Yemenite, and Kurdish Jewish soldiers, and were also common among non-Jewish Greek and Cypriot soldiers, and Italian prisoners of war. To Sheba, it was striking that Ashkenazi Jews did not share these sensitivities that were prevalent among their co-religionists.
The reason for this difference between the Ashkenazi and other Jews became apparent after the war — an inability to repair damage to red blood cells that resulted from exposure to agents that were non-toxic to the majority of the population. This inability occurred in individuals who are deficient for the enzyme, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD). As its name would suggest, G6PD normally breaks down the sugar, glucose, and, in the process, generates an antioxidant that repairs red blood cells. Although G6PD is produced and used by all of the cells of the body, only red blood cells are sensitive to the effects of oxidizing agents. The enzyme is encoded by a gene on the X chromosome and men who carry a mutant gene on their single X chromosome are susceptible to these exposures. Women who have two copies of the X chromosome are relatively resistant to this condition when one of their X chromosomes carries a mutant G6PD gene.
Over time, Sheba recognized that other genetic diseases (Tay-Sachs, Gaucher, familial Mediterranean fever) were found almost exclusively within certain Jewish groups, reflecting the unique history of those groups. He assumed that these diseases were caused by transmission of a mutant gene that occurred sometime in the distant past, and then transmitted by a group of “founders” who migrated to that site of the Jewish Diaspora. This phenomenon has come to be known as a “founder effect.” Sheba was fond of using Biblical genealogies and spoke of conditions being transmitted by the descendents of the sons of Noah or other, later Biblical characters. Thus, Sheba established the notion that these diseases serve as genetic markers for the populations in which they occurred. Although not all of the members of the population carried these mutant genes, enough do to recognize a shared genetic legacy.
In Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, Harry Ostrer wrote about a series of scientists who contributed to our contemporary understanding of Jewishness. This week, he provides a series of short vignettes that describe their contributions about what it means to be a Jew.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Australian-English polymath Joseph Jacobs laid the framework for modern scholarship about all things Jewish, including Jewish population genetics. Born in Sydney, Australia, Jacobs went to England in 1872, intent on studying law at Cambridge University. Instead, he became interested in literature and anthropology, as well as mathematics, history and philosophy.
Upon graduating in 1876, he went to London to become a writer. While there, his professional development was transformed by two books. The first was George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda. Following publication, Eliot was derided by the English critics for turning an English gentleman into a Jew. She knew of the risk that she ran writing this novel, because she told Harriet Beecher Stowe that she wanted, “to rouse the imagination of [English] men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow men who differ from them in customs and beliefs.” Daniel’s self-discovery was life-changing not only for the character in the novel, but also for Jacobs. He wrote, “It is difficult for those who have not lived through it to understand the influence that George Elliot had upon those of us who came to our intellectual majority in the Seventies. George Elliot’s novels were regarded by us not so much as novels, but rather as applications of Darwinism to life
The second transformative book was Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius, a treatise in which the formulator of the concept of Nature versus Nurture observed that superior intelligence tended to be transmitted within families. Francis Galton, himself a famous polymath, was Charles Darwin’s cousin and Joseph Jacobs’ Darwinian mentor. Galton taught Jacobs that all human attributes could be measured – heads, heights, intelligence. Following this lead, Jacobs assessed Jewish accomplishment and wrote Jewish Genius. He applied Galton’s methods to measuring Jews and wrote Jewish Statistics: Social, Vital and
Anthropometric. Jacobs concluded that the low historical rates of intermarriage and proselytism and the physical resemblance among Jews favored the idea of a Jewish race. In his article in the Jewish Encyclopedia on ‘Anthropology’, he wrote, “The remarkable unity of resemblance among Jews, even in different climes, seems to imply a common descent.” When Mendel’s laws were rediscovered in 1901, Jacobs suggested that there was a genetic basis to Jewishness.
In 1906, Jacobs came to New York to edit the Jewish Encyclopedia, the major source of Jewish information at the turn of the last century. Jacobs felt that a study of Jewish history, when combined with an analysis of Jewish racial characteristics, would provide a powerful arsenal in the battle against anti-Semitism. He regarded it as his duty to fight anti-Semites of his day by pointing out Jewish contributions to civilization.
When my son Noah was about 3 or 4, he came home from school one day and asked me, “Abba, who are the Jewish people?” Thrilled by this opportunity to really begin in earnest my son’s Jewish education, and by the depth of this question coming at such a young age, I replied, “Why, Noah – we are the Jewish people!” Whereupon he burst into tears, inconsolable. When I finally calmed him down, I asked him why he was so upset. “Because I don’t want Pharaoh to hurt me!”
I was conflicted about how to answer him. My parenting instincts inclined me to disabuse him of the myth altogether: to tell him that it was just a story from a long time ago, that he was safe, that maybe the story wasn’t even true. Goodness knows a toddler does not need to be terrified by Judaism in general, much less as a catalyst for his sense of belonging to a story he is just learning about for the first time.
At the same time, I was proud to see that he had unwittingly internalized the mandate of the Passover Haggadah: that in every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as though they left Egypt. Pharaoh was alive for him, a source of genuine terror. The non-parental, Jewish educator side of me wanted to shrug my shoulders and tell him, “Shver tsu zayn a yid.”
This is a defining question in Jewish education, as it goes to the heart of what it means to create, cultivate and transmit memory. Not facts, not history, and not just values and ideas that are critically important as part of the texture of an intellectually credible Jewish education, but memory – that sense of belonging to a narrative that precedes you and will outlast you, and a set of stories and visceral experiences in which you may not have physically participated but are part of defining the identity to which you belong. But is there a workable way to transmit the power of traumatic memory, without creating post-traumatic stress?
What happens when the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, the Ninth of Av, which memorializes the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, coincides with you learning about the U.S. women’s victory at the 1996 Olympics, arguably the happiest gymnastics moment in my twenty-year relationship with the sport? Should I cry for the Temple? Or flip for the Magnificent Seven?
Unfortunately, the rabbis never bothered with these (and other) questions in their responsa. I was forced to answer them on my own (I flipped and then felt guilty about it, thus covering both my Jewish and gymnastics bases).
The text above is a snippet from the introduction to Heresy on the High Beam. In it, I allude to a story that I never ended up writing out (though I did tell it at my Leotard Optional book launch party, which was just like a “black tie” event except with a lot more spandex). Since I didn’t include the anecdote in any of the essays, I’m giving it away for free here.
During the summer of 1996, I was at sleepaway camp in upstate New York. This camp, a place I attended for nine summers, had strict rules about correspondence — letters only. You weren’t allowed to receive care packages nor were you allowed to make or take phone calls from your parents. This was only feasible in a pre-cellphone, pre-internet age. I know that I’m dating myself here but I don’t mind. I’ll even do the math for you — I’m 29. (Can someone tell me how it works at camps nowadays? Do kids check in on Foursquare when they arrive at the dining hall? And what does the mayor of the mess get? An extra cup of bug juice?)
Anyway, back then I was 13 and was quite sad to be missing the broadcast of theSummer Olympics from Atlanta. The 1996 Olympic Team was my Dream Team, comprised of athletes I had followed ever since I started doing gymnastics at age 8, including Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes and Kerri Strug. I demanded regular letter updates from my mother back in Brooklyn to know what was going on in the gymnastics competition. She also sent me information about the platform diving since it was similar enough to gymnastics to merit my attention.
During the waning hours of the Ninth of Av, which for Jews is the saddest day on the calendar because it is when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, I was summoned to the camp office. Weak from fasting, I trudged over. “You’ve got a phone call,” I was told. “It’s your mother. She said she needs to talk to you about your scoliosis.”
I took the phone, utterly confused. Though my scoliosis had already been diagnosed, my mother and I were both under the impression that it was minor. (In a few months, however, we’d discover that it was severe and would require spinal fusion surgery. But I digress.) Why would she be calling me about that, I wondered.
“Mom?” I said.
“They won!” my mother practically shouted into the phone.
“The Americans! They won the gold medal!” she yelled.
In the background, I could hear my older sister add her two cents. “Tell her about Kerri Strug on the vault!”
This, as many of you probably recall, was the famous vault on a sprained ankle that the squeaky-voiced (and Jewish) Strug did to the bellowing chants of “You can do it!” from her Romanian coach, Bela Karolyi. She vaulted, stuck it and then had to be carried off the podium, helping clinch the first ever team gold medal for the U.S. (Actually, it turned out that they didn’t need her score after all of the numbers were crunched. They would’ve defeated the Russians even if they needed to count a fall from Dominique Moceanu. But forget I mentioned that. Math ruins stories.)
“I wanted to tell you myself,” my mom said, explaining her deception in gettingme to the phone, which I obviously couldn’t openly signal in any way since a campadministrator was watching me carefully. I thanked her tonelessly and hung up.
There was still an hour left to the fast and I had been taught at camp that I should feel sad because the Temple was still burning, at least in a historical sense, and would be for several hours, even after we’d been given the OK to eat.
But as I walked along the path back to my bunk, I wasn’t remotely sad. I was happy, jubilant even. My earlier lethargy had been replaced by joy. I started to skip. Then I stopped. Then I started again. I couldn’t help it. My gymnastics idols had won the gold!
I tried a few more times to rein my feelings in and feel sad for something that happened over two thousand years prior but I couldn’t, not when something so wonderful happened less than 24 hours earlier. And I was so touched that my mother, who used to complain endlessly about driving me to and from gymnastics practice, had gone so far as to lie to tell me about the gold medal as soon as possible.That, I thought, is what family is all about.
And, two days later, the entire newspaper arrived in the mail.
When you tell someone that you used to do gymnastics, she frequently answers that she, too, did it. When she was seven. And hadn’t thought about it in years. The implication is clear — gymnastics is the sort of sport you’re supposed to outgrow. In most instances, you start doing it before you know how to sign your own name and it’s over by your first adolescent growth spurt, joining the childhood hobby trash heap, which in my case includes rollerblading and playing with Barbie dolls.
But in my case, I couldn’t seem to shake the sport unlike the rest of my practice peers, who ended their involvement with gymnastics by the end of high school. There I was, about to start grad school in Creative Nonfiction at twenty-three, still checking the online message boards devoted to the sport daily in order to learn which Romanian gymnast had a new vault or who was injured and or who quit and so on. (The gymnastics community, both online and in real life, is especially tight knit for the same reasons that Jews tend to cluster together — there are so few of us who give a damn.)
As I was trying to figure out the topic for the first essay I wanted to write for my workshop, my mind drifted to the sport, which I hadn’t really written about much (even if I talked about it ad nauseum and watched YouTube videos of competitions from two decades prior merely to admire the way a particular Soviet pointed her toes). Hey, I said to myself, I’m still as obsessed with gymnastics in my 20s as I was at seven. In a very Seinfeldian way, I wondered — What’s that about?
So I wrote my first essay exploring the role of the sport in my life. Like Genesis, I started at the beginning, or at least what I thought was the beginning — my seemingly coming-out-of-nowhere obsession with gymnastics. In those earliest examinations, it seemed like I had woken up one day and decided that I must learn how to flip over my hands. It was a pretty unsophisticated piece, both in writing and insight, and thankfully none of it made its way into any formally published work.
But even in those early efforts, what was becoming very clear was the role that my family’s strict observance of Orthodox Jewish rules was playing in my participation in the sport and how it added fuel to the fire of my obsession. There was the fact that I couldn’t go to a real competitive gym because their afterschool classes started too early for someone with the longer hours of a yeshiva student. Or that leotards posed a religious problem to someone who wore only skirts and longer sleeved skirts outside of the gym. And nearly all competitions took place on Shabbos. When it came to the lower level ones, I simply wasn’t allowed to compete. As for the elite, televised ones—I had to learn how to program the VCR so I could eventually watch them after the stars came out on Saturday night. All of these limitations imposed by Judaism simply made me want to do and think about the sport even more. I like to imagine that if I had been totally unfettered by religious doctrine, I probably would’ve left the sport behind when it became apparent that I simply wasn’t any
good at it.
During one after class drinking sessions at a local bar, my workshop professor, who had been subjected to a semester-long barrage of gymnastics, tipsily looked me in the eye and said, “You’ve got this whole Potok thing going on. Except with a weird thing about gymnastics.”
While my personal essay collection, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, bears little resemblance to Potok’s novels—fiction vs. nonfiction, male vs. female protagonists, different eras—I’d like to think that perhaps had Potok been enamored with gymnastics instead of the national pastime then maybe Reuven Malter, the main character in The Chosen, would’ve hit his head on the balance beam instead of getting nailed in the eye by a baseball. That would’ve been cool.
Matthew Shaer is the author of Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
I did not set out to write a book about Jews.
In fact, I was warned repeatedly against it—by friends, acquaintances, publishing professionals. I remember an early phone call with a well-known editor at a publishing house in Manhattan, who told me, in no uncertain terms, that “people don’t buy Jewish-themed books.” He must have heard me collecting me breath on the other end of the line, because he quickly added: “Even Jews don’t buy books about Jews. And definitely not books about Hasidic Jews. Sorry.” Still, I considered what I stumbled across to be a good story, and I was loathe to take his advice.
In the spring of 2008, I had been dispatched by New York magazine to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, to interview the members of a Hasidic anti-crime patrol called the Shmira (“Watchers,” roughly, in Hebrew). For the most part, the Shmira were considered a relatively benign community presence––responsible for ferrying elderly women to the bus stop, or fixing flat tires, and so on––but that spring, a couple members of the group had allegedly set upon a black college student named Andrew Charles, and beat him around the back and arms with a night stick.
Fewer locales are more sensitive to the specter of racial violence than Crown Heights, the site of three days of deadly rioting in 1991—local Jews continue to call the event a “pogrom”—and within a week of the incident, the neighborhoods had taken on the appearance of what the Times termed a military camp. Police riot vans mobile command posts were stationed on Kingston Avenue, the high street of the Jewish community; packs of uniformed cops worked west to east on Carroll and Empire, flashlights in hand. Local politicians, fearing the worst, issued public pleas for calm.
Accusations were thrown back and forth with increasing alacrity. The large African-American and Caribbean population blamed the Shmira for targeting black men. The leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, meanwhile, which had been headquartered in Crown Heights for decades, pointed to an uptick in violent crime, and claimed that the police had abdicated their duty. In that vacuum, the argument went, the Shmira were bound to act. In late April, I reached out to Yossi Stern, a Lubavitcher Hasid, and the spokesman for the Crown Heights Shmira. Stern was wary of the media attention, but when I asked if I could pay him a visit, he agreed, and invited me to his home on Union Street.
That evening, I walked from my apartment in Park Slope, down Eastern Parkway, and into Crown Heights. My only previous experience with the neighborhood consisted of momentary glimpses out of the window of a cab, as I hurtled out to the airport, in Jamaica, Queens—I remembered packs of black-hatted men, grand old apartment buildings, the sun-dappled and tree-lined footpath which runs down the southern lip of the Parkway. What I found was something very different; something deeply jarring.
I should say here that although I consider myself in many ways to be culturally Jewish, I am not observant nor particularly religious, and I spent much of my childhood attending Unitarian services with my mother, who was born into an old Unitarian family. And yet some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the floor of my great-grandmother’s apartment building in Newton, and listening to the circuitous clucking of Yiddish. My paternal grandmother spoke Yiddish sometimes, too, usually when she wanted to say something to my grandfather that the kids wouldn’t understand; even now, when reporting on Orthodox communities in New York, I am shocked at how much of the language I must have internalized.
I knew, vaguely, the story of my great-grandmother, Edith Rosenthal, whose father had been murdered by Cossacks before World War I. I knew that she fled Eastern Europe with her mother and brothers, and passed through Ellis Island, before settling outside of Boston, where my grandmother was raised. But I had never been able to visualize the world from which she had come––a Jewish shtetl––until I began the process of reporting the New York magazine article, and then the book.
Here in the midst of bustling Brooklyn was a small enclave––no more than six blocks by ten––that seemed to operate by the codes and customs of a bygone era. Here was a world where Yiddish was the common language, where Hebrew adorned the storefront signage, where one could walk three steps from the haberdasher to the bagel maker and then on to the fishmonger, whose wares––wet, pink, scaly––were displayed on large beds of ice, behind densely-fogged glass. Initially, I found it all to be quite thrilling, and after my interview with Yossi Stern, I returned frequently to Crown Heights, although I had no new assignment in the area.
I read every book on Jewish Brooklyn I could get my hands on––I started with Henry Goldschmidt’s expert Race and Religion Among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heights, and worked outward from there. Later, I read Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel, Gershom Scholem. I muddled through long religious services, staring at walls of complicated theological text no more discernible to me than kangi; when I grew weary, I’d peek up at the upper reaches of the shul, where the Lubavitch women, separated from the men by a heavy sheet of Plexiglas, davened in a room of their own.
I have lifted the following excerpt from a journal I kept during that time, when I was first beginning my research. I think the date was February of 2010––I had been invited by a Lubavitcher rabbi friend to attend services at his shul. At the end of services, the congregants, all young men, began to dance. I watched them for a moment, doing my best to make it clear that I did not particularly want to join, but eventually, I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder, and I was quite forcibly dragged into the midst of the melee:
Outward we whirled, in faster in faster circles, my yarmulke at one point slipping off my head. It was the closest I have been to pure joy in Crown Heights—the closest I got to understanding the neighborhood. It was also the closest I came to understanding the faith of the Hasidim. For if I had remained outside the circle, taciturn and grudging, I would never have allowed myself the emotional space to become involved. I would have shrugged it off. Inside the circle, though, pressed elbow to elbow with these grinning, happy men, I understood finally the importance of comradery—us against the outside world. It was a warm place to be.
A few weeks later, I walked out of a private residence and into the purple twilight, and caught a glimpse of a trio of Yeshiva students, skipping down Kingston, hand-in-hand. In the windows of the nearby apartment buildings, candles glowed. A line of men filtered through the front door of 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of the Lubavitch movement, their heads hung, their eyes on the leather-bound books which they held out in front of them like beacons.
Not for the last time, I felt that some part of Crown Heights belonged to me. It was my history, the history that I shared with my grandmother, and my great-grandmother, and her father, who had died without ever setting foot in America. Or perhaps it is more accurate, in the end, to say that some part of that place was me, in a profound way that I did not yet understand.
Every Saturday morning, I ask my son Ezra the same question. As our family prepares to head out for the walk to synagogue, I stop Ezra with five words before he gets to the door:
“Do you have your books?”
This sends him to his bedroom to fill his red backpack with a handful of volumes: the Pixarpedia, a detailed taxonomy of Pixar’s animated movies; a 600-plus page animal encyclopedia; and sometimes a canine almanac called The Dog Breed Bible.
It’s an unusual selection, but Ezra, who is 15, is a singular kid. High-functioning autism makes it difficult for him to sit in one place, whether that place is his math classroom, a restaurant booth, or the pews of our neighborhood shul. Since he was young, the one thing that could get Ezra to sit still was a book.
He’d take The Cat in the Hat on the school bus to ease the transition from school to home. He’d sit at the local pizza parlor, poring over Richard Scarry picture books. And in synagogue he always had his red backpack.
His teachers say that reading is among his significant deficits. At his special-needs school, Ezra takes a remedial reading class designed to improve comprehension and fluency. But that would surprise the people who know him from synagogue, the ones who would hardly recognize my son without his head buried in a book.
The truth is that he does struggle with long passages of writing—dry science textbooks, say, or young adult novels. But for what specialists call his “topics of interest”—principally animals and animated movies—Ezra has endless focus, and an uncanny ability to absorb and remember facts.
That’s what he’s often doing in shul while the rest of the minyan is paying attention to the Torah reading or that week’s sermon (or, occasionally, dozing).
Like many people with autism, Ezra tends to isolate himself, but in synagogue, the books connect him. People sitting nearby take notice, and he’ll show them what he’s reading. Or he’ll make his way to the lobby, where my wife and I sometimes find him sitting on the floor, sharing a book with a young child.
Transitions can be difficult for kids like Ezra, but having a book is a way to bring his world with him and make almost any place comfortable and secure. Having his books with him has helped make synagogue a second home for Ezra, and a happier place for the rest of the family.
Occasionally, we’re running late on a Saturday morning and rush out the door. Then, halfway to the synagogue, I realize we’ve forgotten the red backpack. That used to mean certain disaster. One of the delights of watching Ezra enter the teen years has been his increasing self awareness, his growing ability to handle the unexpected.
“You want me to go back and get your books?” I ask.
“No, that’s okay,” he says with a smile. “I’ll just think about them.”
This was a post that previous appeared on the MyJewishLearning/Jewish Book Council blog.
As I write this blog post, I am preparing to teach at Occupy Wall Street on Monday. Following a successful Kol Nidrei service, a Jewish contingent there has constructed a sukkah — the temporary hut in which Jews traditionally eat — and even sleep — during Sukkot.
Since I don’t use the subway during the holidays or Shabbat, I won’t get to see the sukkah in person until tomorrow. But sitting in my own sukkah these past few days, I have been thinking a lot about the paradox of protection and vulnerability that characterizes Sukkot.
The sukkah represents both of these poles—on the one hand, the fragile skhakh (covering of leaves, branches, and other natural materials) that constitutes the roof of the sukkah leaves us almost entirely exposed to the elements. Over the past few days, we’ve endured quite a few drizzles and gusts of wind, as well as bugs and the general banging and clanging of the Manhattan streets. (When the rain gets serious, though, there’s no obligation to remain in the sukkah—the holiday is supposed to be enjoyable.) On the other hand, the skhakh also reminds us of the anenei hakavod (clouds of glory)—the Divine Presence said to have accompanied the ancient Israelites during their trek to freedom. Sukkot doesn’t try to resolve this paradox—rather, the sukkah forces us simultaneously to experience both fragility and divine protection. Through this experience, we learn that the seemingly-strongest structures can sometimes fail to protect us, while the most fragile structures can help us feel protected.
The movement to Occupy Wall Street (and many other places around the world) has also played with these two axes of fragility and strength. In placing themselves physically in the centers of financial power, these protests force us to question our assumptions about what is strong and what is weak. We often assume that those with wealth and power will always have wealth and power, that corporations will always be able to call the shots, and that those with less access to wealth will never have power.
But the occupiers, who make themselves vulnerable by camping outside and by exposing themselves to arrest, have developed more strength than many of us might have expected.
I will teach tomorrow from a tiny, fragile sukkah. It will be cool and windy. It may rain. And yet, even within this vulnerability, I will feel myself protected by the strength all around me.