Grumpy old man: One out of three ain't bad

The ultra-Orthodox should not expect the rest of us to do their military duty, pay their taxes.

Soldiers and haredim 370 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Soldiers and haredim 370
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It’s 3 a.m. I have an 8 a.m. deadline and there are so many things happening in the news right now that I can write about.
At home there’s a peace process that seems to be going nowhere, a ship that was caught smuggling long-range rockets from Iran to Gaza, a Jordanian judge shot and killed by IDF soldiers at the Allenby Bridge, and a court-ordered mayoral revote scheduled to start within hours in a city long roiled by sectoral turmoil.
Abroad there’s Ukraine and the stand-off over Crimea, an airliner that’s been missing for over two days (with tantalizing talk of passengers who used stolen passports and tickets purchased via Iran) and, of course, the never-ending carnage in Syria. (Oh yes, there’s also the pervasive patter – even in the serious, mainstream media – about the final episode of True Detective, which, because it’s still awaiting me on VOD, I have been studiously avoiding.) So much going on, so much stuff to write about – and all I have in my head is last week’s mega-pray-in by the ultra-Orthodox for the defeat of the pending conscription bill. I can’t help it. It’s something I took, and continue to take, very personally.
IT WAS Sunday and I was already having a lousy day. My new hip was acting up and it was painful to walk. I was even using my grandmother’s old cane, which had pretty much remained in the closet since the end of last summer, by which point I had recuperated enough to put it away.
For reasons that have yet to be explained, the Jerusalem police and municipality made a decision to allow the haredim to assemble by the hundreds of thousands along a major boulevard and numerous connecting thoroughfares near a critical traffic artery leading into and out of town – and all this exactly at the start of afternoon rush hour. Even with broadcast warnings for people to stay off the roads, to leave work early and avoid all travel to the capital (and we all know how people around here follow directives), it was clear that the ultra-Orthodox would in effect be shutting down the entire western part of the city.
The Jerusalem Post
is located in a building on Jaffa Road that’s barely a tefillin-strap away from where the main stage had been set up for the rally. I had to be there for the night shift, so I planned to arrive a few hours early to avoid the chaos. I knew that even at the earlier hour I’d never be able to use my car, so, having heard that Citi- Pass was going to end its regular service at 1:30 p.m. owing to the crowds expected to gather over a large stretch of its tracks by 3, I hobbled the short distance from my home to the light rail.
Apparently, though, I had heard wrong, and by 1:15 there were no more trains. So I decided to hail a taxi. The taxis, of course, were all full and it took 20 minutes of waving Grandma’s cane before an off-duty cab happened by. But after an additional 25 minutes bouncing back and forth between police roadblocks (in what should have been at the most a seven-minute ride straight to the office), I got out between the Knesset and the Supreme Court. The rest of the way – a brisk 20-minute walk for anyone unencumbered by a recalcitrant titanium- ceramic hip – would entail for me one long, painful limp.
The closer I got to the office, the harder it became to make my way through the masses of ultra-Orthodox men milling in the streets and on the sidewalks, killing time before the rally. (Because it had been billed as a mass prayer session, the women, as is traditional with all Orthodox worship, had been given a separate place of their own a couple of hundred meters down Jaffa Road.) At what you might call Ground Zero, where there was literally a buzz of electricity in the air, some of the younger males – let’s just say they seemed to be of draft age – strolled in phalanxes, talking boisterously, smoking cigarettes, snickering and sneering. One group, walking shoulder to shoulder straight at me, looked me in the eye and – I’m not making this up – refused to make way, not even for an old man with a cane. They seemed for all the world like they were out for nothing more spiritual than an afternoon of pumping political iron and piling on all the suckers stupid enough to bear their social burden.
On one hand, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that one of the punks ended up on his ass. On the other hand, I was in a very black mood, so I’m not embarrassed at all. Where I was two days later might better explain it.
ON TUESDAY evening, at a military base on the Sharon Plain, my wife and I watched as our youngest received the pin of a combat-ready soldier, signifying an end to 12 months of arduous, hazardous training. The pin was placed beneath his jump wings – which alone had been reason for several of my more sleepless nights.
Naturally, we were brimming with pride along with our trepidation. Our sweet little boy had grown into a tough young man, ready to defend the rest of us back home, willing to spend his days eating dust, his nights lying awake in the mud, all out of a sense of duty and responsibility toward the greater good, a sense instilled as much in the community as at home.
Looking around, I saw that many of his fellow soldiers wore knitted kippot beneath their berets, signifying a life of piety and religious conviction not much less rigorous than that pursued by the young men who had converged on Jerusalem two days before. The difference, of course, was their realization that prayer and study are simply not enough in light of the physical and existential dangers we face, and in light of society’s ever-deepening need for all of us to pitch in.
Looking around, I understood that a lot separated me from these religious soldiers and their families, whether it was the fact that, unlike me, they observe kashrut and do not drive on Shabbat, or the probability that some of our political views might as well come from different planets. What counted was that their boys would be protecting me and my family the way my boy would be doing the same for them. No less important, all of our boys would now be relying on each other to get themselves home safe and sound, wherever it’s from.
That’s real social cohesiveness.
I’m not so dense as to think that all of the young ultra-Orthodox men at the Jerusalem rally were combat material or even soldier material. What’s more, I don’t feel that way even about the punks who hang out on street corners while they’re supposed to be in yeshiva study halls (and God knows there are enough of them). Yet haredi rabbis have got to admit that even the most gifted of their students should be allotted time to give something back to the community that goes beyond mere knowledge and piety, even if it’s just a few hours a month to change bedpans or shop for the widow next door or tutor a neighborhood kid. This is, after all, the very essence of community no matter how near to God you are.
In the past I was actually willing to forgo this. My feeling, as I once laid out in these pages, was that the ultra-Orthodox should not expect the rest of us to do their military duty, pay their taxes (not to mention their many benefits) and live our lives according to their diktats. They should look at it this way, I reasoned: Two out of three ain’t bad.
But after the past few days, I’m no longer willing to be so large.