I remember being four and five years old, walking down the hill with my grandfather on a Saturday morning from our Bronx apartment building to the little shtibl (one-room storefront synagogue) where he prayed regularly with a group of retired men. Many of them would fuss over me, and I knew there’d be sweet treats (honey cake and grape juice) waiting for me if I could only hold out and not fidget too much until the end of the seemingly interminable service. It was such a relief when I would hear the sweet strains of Adon Olam and Ein Keloheinu that meant that we were nearly done.
Around the middle of the service, one of the men would solemnly take the Torah out of its ark, raise it up while everyone sang, and then set it down on the podium. The cloth covering would be removed, the string would be untied, and the Torah would be unrolled to the proper place for reading that week’s portion of the Pentateuch.
What everyone knew is that there’d be no Torah reading unless a minyan, a quorum of ten men, was present. Being under bar mitzvah age, I didn’t count. Neither did the few old ladies who would show up and sit behind the mekhitzah (curtain) in the back. It seemed we always had enough in attendance to do a proper Torah reading.
But that was in New York City, half a century ago. Today, in northern California, there is no guarantee of a minyan. In the synagogue that my elderly parents attended for about 20 years (they stopped going about a year ago), whether there would be a minyan or not on Shabbat (or, sad to say, even on a holiday) was a decidedly hit-or-miss affair. My father, who has a marked antipathy to religion of any type, would chauffeur my mother to synagogue with the intent of heading to the public library for a few hours. Inevitably, the rabbi’s son would come running out of the sanctuary, tzitzit (prayer fringes) flying, to implore my father to stay and make the tenth man needed for the minyan.
Orthodox Jews tend to take the rule of ten very seriously. I believe the origin of the tradition is that ten men are considered representative of the community as a whole. The Jewish jokes about this are legendary.
Of course, it’s not just any ten men who must be present to read from the Torah. They must be ten Jewish men. (My personal preference tends toward the modern egalitarian practices of many Conservative congregations, where both women and men count toward the minyan.) And just what constitutes a Jewish man? Well, traditionally the answer to this question involves far more than faith and practice. A man is considered Jewish if his mother was Jewish. I suppose fathers don’t count because the child develops and comes forth from the womb of the mother. But what if your mother had a Jewish dad and a non-Jewish mom? Then you’re not Jewish, at least according to Orthodox tradition. So determining whether a minyan is or is not present may involve inquiries into the provenance of the tenth man’s grandparents.
I suppose the emphasis on pedigree arises from our heritage as the “children of Israel.” Either you’re descended from the tribe or you’re not. This has caused a lot of trouble for those of us who were born into other faiths, or into no faith, and later convert to Judaism. It seems to me that those who wholeheartedly embrace our traditions should be counted as full members of our religious community. In some places they do (many Reformed congregations, for instance), while in others, they don’t. The disputes about converts that go on in some of the Conservative movement synagogues that I’ve attended remind me of the way many Christian churches tear themselves apart over whether to accept gays as full members of the congregation.
I started thinking about this topic earlier in the week when President Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would (eventually) move our embassy there. My first reaction was “it’s about time.” But I had to laugh, as Jerusalem has been the capital off Israel for millennia. Trump deciding that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel is a bit like me declaring that Cheerios is a cereal. It really doesn’t matter what we think. Some things are just facts.
I’m sorry to see on the news that violence has broken out in Israel over the United States’ recognition of what has always been true. Perhaps it is just another excuse to demonstrate ancient animosities among religious groups that are neighbors in the Middle East. Yet I don’t see such garrulousness as an excuse to perpetuate a lie. Tel-Aviv has never been the capital of Israel. I heard a comment on TV that Tel-Aviv is “a lot more fun” than Jerusalem. Perhaps Tel-Aviv is the industrial and technological hub of Israel, and perhaps its nightlife is better than Jerusalem’s. But that doesn’t make Tel-Aviv any more the capital of Israel than it makes Portland the capital of Oregon or of Maine.
Hanukkah, the Jewish eight-day festival of lights, begins this week. Just as recognizing the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel has touched off partisan bickering in the Holy Land, so has it been in our own capital of Washington. President Trump was in attendance at the annual White House Hanukkah party this week, to which Democrats and others opposing his policies were not invited. Latkes (traditional fried potato pancakes) were served, of course, along with kosher lamb chops (apparently an annual White House tradition since 1996). The party was held the day after Trump’s proclamation regarding Jerusalem. There was an after-party at the Trump International Hotel (more latkes, more Republicans, salmon, caviar), at which the president received even more congratulations.
I had a good smirk when the New York Times article about Trump’s Hanukkah celebrations mentioned that the president’s grandchildren are Jewish. Oh, really? Not by Orthodox standards, certainly. True, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is Jewish. But Trump himself is Christian, and his daughter was raised as a Presbyterian. Although Ivanka has converted to Orthodox Judaism and is far more observant than I, that won’t be enough for many congregations to recognize her kids as genuine members of the clan.
When it comes time to read the Torah, either son of Jared and Ivanka shouldn’t be too surprised if name dropping “my grandpa, the president” isn’t enough to make him the tenth man. And that sort of clannish, non-inclusiveness seems rather sad to me.
We need to find more reasons to bring us together, not more reasons to drive artificial wedges between us. I pray at this Hanukkah season that the people of Israel, and those who profess to be Jewish around the world, will find it in their hearts to renounce the evils of divisiveness and embrace the spirit of acceptance and love.