No matter where on earth I may journey, Israel accompanies me. I can’t lose it, I cannot shake it, I cannot forget about it or leave it behind.
This past week’s travels to New York was certainly no exception to that rule.
The political scandal of the moment was reports that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had allegedly ordered an attack on the city of Fort Lee – in the form of a massive, week-long traffic jam in September – as political retribution for its Democratic mayor not endorsing the governor during his re-election bid.
Christie is angling for the 2016 presidential nomination and the resultant firestorm may very well cost him the nomination, if not his governorship.
I then thought to myself: Politicians engaging in less-than-kosher shenanigans? Out-of-control control freaks getting even with their rivals? Behind-thewheel battles over merging lanes, and huge traffic delays? Thanks, guys – I was already feeling right at home! After a day or two in the ’burbs, we moved downtown into the city that never sleeps. When in New York, I always try to start the day by praying at the Garment Center Synagogue, a Midtown congregation that mainly serves the army of businessmen pouring into New York and looking for a quick, convenient minyan before starting work.
The long-standing synagogue rabbi, witty and welcoming, is as entertaining as he is erudite. He reminds me of Jackie Mason, another joke-cracking (ex-) clergyman who often tells audiences that he decided to embark on a comedic career when his weekly sermons turned into hilarious monologues that played to standing-room-only crowds.
But on this occasion, the normally jovial atmosphere hit a decidedly sour note. An elderly, diminutive man, fur hat on head, had come to the synagogue – apparently his first time there – to recite Kaddish for a loved one on their yahrzeit. He asked to lead the services and ascended the bima. He put on his tallit, but quickly whipped it off. The rabbi was perplexed. “I will not pray in a place,” said the Satmar Hassid defiantly, “where an Israeli flag is displayed.” And he walked off the stage into the adjacent hall, refusing to enter the sanctuary.
The rabbi – who is almost never at a loss for words – looked at me, and I felt his pain. “It’s better this way,” I consoled him, “I could never answer ‘Amen’ to the prayers of such a person, anyway.”
And I thought bitterly to myself, “Hamas is alive and well, a long way from Gaza.”
But there are many bright sparks of Zionism in the Empire State, as well.
Our trip coincided with Tu Bishvat, a holiday infinitely more minor outside the boundaries of Israel, where it takes on its fullest significance. While eating at a local kosher restaurant, a lovely hassidic man approached our table holding a dish of fruits indigenous to the Holy Land. He asked us to choose one and bless God while keeping in mind the amazing agricultural bounty of Israel. Among the dates and figs and pomegranates on the platter, there were also several pieces of star fruit.
“What do these have to with Israel?!” I asked. The man smiled. “The brightest star of all is the Star of David, our national symbol,” he said proudly, and I made the blessing with overwhelming kavana, concentration and meaning.
These days, all the buzz in the New York-New Jersey area is about The Game, the upcoming Super Bowl LXVIII, which will be played next week at New Jersey’s Meadowlands Stadium.
The annual championship game of the National Football League, the Super Bowl is one of the most-watched sporting events in the world, second only to the UEFA Champions League soccer final. Well over 100 million viewers worldwide will tune into the game, and the day it is played – “Super Bowl Sunday” – is considered a de facto American national holiday. The multitude of Super Bowl parties contribute to it being the second-largest day for US food consumption, after Thanksgiving Day, and the game’s halftime show is the pinnacle of American entertainment.
This year’s game is unique in that it is the first Super Bowl that will be played in an outdoor, cold-weather climate venue. It is also the first Super Bowl to be co-hosted by two states rather than one. Excitement is stratospheric in the NY-NJ region for the game; as we entered the US, the immigration officer at passport control asked us who we liked to win, and tickets are being sold for as high as $50,000 a pair. For one, possibly freezing, 60-minute game.
What I find so impressive about the Super Bowl is its power to unite the entire country. If sports is the religion of America, the Super Bowl is its holy grail. Young and old, men and women, veteran citizen and new immigrant are all caught up in its sparkle. Because every geographic quadrant of the country fields a team in the NFL, everyone has a favorite team, a favorite player, a vested interest in who wins the contest. Just about everyone connects to the game; many of my ultra- Orthodox cousins – who don’t own a TV, perish the thought – will watch the game at a friend’s house or tune in – discreetly, of course – via the Internet.
And, I muse to myself, what can we in Israel do to create our own “Super Bowl?” What day or device, what event or enterprise can we create to bring our own little nation together? We might have hoped it could be the Torah and Judaism, but we know there are many of our compatriots who steadfastly cling to secularism. We put our hopes on the outstanding army we created, but, alas, we are all too aware of those – on both sides of the political divide – who wince at the very thought of national service.
Even our national anthem is unheard of – literally – in many quarters.
All too often, it takes a national crisis or tragedy to bring us together. Natan Sharansky, witnessing the many acts of courage and camaraderie that occurred during the first Gulf War – just a few short years after his release from Soviet imprisonment – famously remarked, “Now this is the Israel I dreamed about while languishing in the Gulag!” But wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some positive phenomenon that we shared, something that made us drop all of our petty divisions and join hearts and hands in national unity? That would be a truly “Super Bowl,” where we all would be winners.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rabbistewartweiss.com