Friday, February 10, 2012

What's with you Jews?

Two of my best years of life were enjoyed in the yeshivah in Kfar Chabad, Israel. We would spend all day negotiating the unpredictable terrain of Talmud and Chassidic philosophy, our evenings philosophizing or "farbrenging" and our weekends absorbing the stories of the colourful Kfar Chabad personalities. 

Friday was our chance to "hit the town". A busload of us students would travel to Tel Aviv and then fan out to predetermined locations. We'd set up shop and spend the afternoon coaxing indifferent Israelis into rolling up their sleeves for Tefillin treatment. 

My friend Yossi and I would handle Dizenghoff Square. If you've been there, you'll recall the kaleidoscopic Agam fountain, the tourist buzz and the falafel stores. Most tourists didn't notice it, but in the 90's the area was also home to Goths, punks and druggies (I haven't been back since, so can't comment on the current state of the place). Dizengoff was not renowned as a religious area and we had it a little tougher reeling in the Jews than most.

One Friday I was manning the Tefillin station alone (Yossi had gone to "strap up" a few falafel proprietors) when a tall, silver-haired American strolled over. "I don't git what's with you Jews," he drawled in Texan. 

"You're certainly not the first," I thought, wondering what he thought of our street-side mitzvah stall. 

"Y'know," he continued, "You have such a rich religion, a beautiful tradition and a majestic history and you (he thumbed at a passing pair with nose-rings and pink hair) try to be like us!"

He made a really good point. What is with us Jews? 

More South Koreans than Israelis own a copy of the Talmud. They study it too, convinced it is the key to higher IQ. According to a string of news reports, the Koreans are convinced that the secret of Jewish ingenuity is our centuries-old tradition of Talmud-study. 

Oy, if they only knew how few of us learn it these days...

What is it with us Jews? Strangers see us for who we are, a special people (I'm sure you've been told you're "G-d's chosen" at some point) with a unique direct-line to G-d accessed through his Torah. Instinctively they pick up what G-d told us and us alone: "Anochi". That opening word of the Ten Commandments translates simply as "I", but is an acronym for "I have given My soul to you in these writings". That's probably why the world gets on our case so often (whether through overt antisemitism or oblique journalism). It's because they sense that we should be using our direct-line more effectively.

Next time a Southerner stops me to ask what's with us Jews and why we're so laissez-faire about our Judaism, I hope I can say he's out of touch, because all the Jews I know learn Torah regularly. 

The question is: What will you say to the same guy if he asks you?

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