Archive for February, 2012

The Family Portrait

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

By Sam Glaser

I was mortified by the videos of Charedim taunting school-children in Beit Shemesh. I didn’t see them until I was asked to participate in the recording of a new song composed as a response of US Jewry. I immediately watched the plethora of YouTube versions of the incidents and had a visceral reaction of nausea. I had to ask myself: obviously this is horrible but why is this having such a profound impact on me?

This tragedy helped me realize that my dedication to bringing Jews together is more than skin deep. My parents made unity an essential part of my upbringing and clearly it has played a central role in my career choice. Situations that divide us as a people undo something fundamental within me. Also, becoming observant over the course of my life has given me deep respect for rabbinic authority and the realm of Charedim. I am sickened by news reports of corrupt Orthodox rabbis trafficking human organs or covering up child abuse. But that’s criminal greed and depravity behind the scenes, and depraved individuals infect every culture. There’s something uniquely damaging in blatant, public hatred for fellow Jews. Spitting on children? Throwing rocks? Disrupting school? This is my people? What can we do?

While discussing my feelings with my wise wife she directed my attention to our family portrait shot at a recent reunion. She recommended that I analyze our unique clan and expound on the differences that exist while we manage to remain a core unit of love and compassion. I have to give her credit for reminding me that if we can all get along in our microcosm, perhaps there is hope for our diverse people.

Allow me to take you on a tour of adults seated in this sweet portrait, from oldest to youngest. My dad, seated on the couch, is looking somewhat haggard thanks to the 15 grandchildren that invaded his peaceful Pacific Palisades home for the week of Sukkot.   He was raised in a WWII-era Bronx family that moved in LA while he was a teenager. He went to LA High, rebelled and joined the army instead of going to college and then took over a division of his dad’s garment company. He went from his Orthodox upbringing to eventually join one of the largest Conservative synagogues in LA, Sinai Temple, the congregation in which I grew up. Nowadays he regularly leins the Torah for his local Chabad and actively engages in the passion of his retirement years: studying and teaching Jewish history.

Next to him with a baby on her lap is my beloved mom who was able to cook for this whole crew and still keep a smile on her face. She grew up in a staunch left wing Reform household in Sacramento. Her dad, Bill Berman, blew the shofar in their temple on Rosh Hashana, led epic seders for all of us happy grandkids and her mom founded the local Hadassah chapter. Thanks to her love of Israeli folk dancing and handsome Israeli men, we had a continuous stream of sabras in our home. These contacts provided us with scores of Israeli friends to visit on our frequent trips to the Holy Land and a comfort level with folk dancing that would get us through many an Oneg Shabbat. Thanks to the influence of her sons, my mom became a founding member of her Chabad and her famously open home is one of the few in the area in which the kashrut is trusted.

Next comes me and my wife Shira. We both came from an observance-free singlehood knowing that eventually we wanted community in our lives. We fell in love with a neighborhood that came to life each Shabbat and where family life was the rule rather than the beachside exception. Our children are a spicy mix of my Romanian and Lithuanian background and her Italian and Argentine roots, worldly, Modern Orthodox and hip. My brother Aharon, seated on the far left, is a powerful rabbi influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. He and his wife Chava Dena excel in Jewish outreach to twenty-something singles near Toronto, where they live with their two young daughters. He is living proof that you can have s’micha and still wear jeans.

Next brother, on the far right, is Yom Tov. I guess it’s appropriate that he’s sitting on the far right. He’s the frumest person I have ever met, other than his wife Leah, and yet he insists to me that he’s not frum. He is raising his eight amazing kids near Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and has dedicated his life to loving the Jewish people with Torah and song. If Charedim ever needed a poster child it’s right now; and I elect my brother. Finally, my youngest brother Joey and his wife Jen are raising their two boys (and another on the way!) in San Diego. These rambunctious guys are a potent mix of Glaser/Berman genes and Jennifer’s Dutch and Indonesian beauty. Their kids attend a Reform Hebrew school and they belong to both Reform and Conservative synagogues. They have a beautiful Shabbat ceremony in their home every Friday night, have an epic Sukkah in their lush suburban backyard and serve as role models to their fortunate friends.

I’m sharing this gory detail to point out that in spite of our many differences we find common ground and celebrate our love for one another. Yes, there are frustrating moments like dealing with degrees of kashrut on Pesach and accepted sleeve length. Certain cousins hug the opposite sex, others can’t be touched. We have to negotiate how to attend extended family simchas when they fall on Shabbat but we ALWAYS go. The cousins may come from three countries and dress differently but perceive they are one family. Jennifer told me that her kids went into mourning when their Chassidic cousins returned to Israel. We know that together we are strong and we need desperately each other and we have far more in common than those details that divide us. Sound familiar? This is the story of the Jewish people. We are like five fingers on one hand.

My dad has had a recurring mantra throughout his life. He wants his four boys to get along. Any time we are bickering or if any of us is in need, my dad gets on the phone and prods us to call and check in with the relevant brother. He is a fan of intervention and has taught us the value of facing issues and not sweeping our pain under the rug. I intuit that God feels the same way with God’s own children. Our internal strife as a people creates disunity in the heavens. Want to make God happy? Get God’s chosen people on the same page, not just tolerating each other but looking out for and loving one another.

Back to Beit Shemesh, the answer, I believe has to come from responding to radical hatred with radical love for all Jews. We have to redouble our efforts to find common ground, to expose our unity in YouTube videos highlighting our cooperation. The overwhelming majority of Charedim are peace loving and tolerant and they must be first in line to fill the airwaves with their outrage and protest in the streets. More than ever, they need to leave their cocoons and hit the streets looking for relationships with those less religious. My family thrives even amidst our myriad theological conflicts. Spending time together forces biases and stereotypes on the table, requiring that we find solutions to survive. The problems start when we are only functioning in isolation from one another. Imagine the kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s Name) if the response to this current media-fueled debacle becomes a worldwide campaign for reconciliation between our various movements.

Clearly, healing for the Beit Shemesh community must begin

with the punishment of the perpetrators of this desecration. They cannot continue to abuse the system and avoid the consequences of the ripple effect of their insensitivity. One of the basic seven laws of humanity is to set up a system of courts and uphold justice. Israeli police cannot tiptoe around the offenders for fear of Charedi riots. There must be teeth in the punishment of hate crimes for us to hold up our heads up as a Light unto Nations. As the Midrash says, “Whoever is kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind.” Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet of the UK stated, “We must be intolerant in order to defend tolerance, or unkind in order to defend kindness, or hateful in order to defend what we love. Such ‘acts of terror’ have no place in any democratic society, let alone a Jewish State, whose “ways are kind ways, and all her paths are peace.”

Mirroring the diversity of Jewish people, the Glaser family is a diverse tapestry of colorful personalities. The backside of any tapestry is a chaotic series of clashing threads and knots. The media, in its effort to be newsworthy and controversial, directs our gaze at the knots of life. Our job as a people is to focus our attention on the heavenly view of the tapestry, on the smoothly presented work of art that is our national destiny. There must be recrimination for those who choose to destroy our work of art.   But at the same time we can make it our personal responsibility to tie more knots, weave more patterns and repair the rent masterpiece.

It is not by coincidence that the code of Jewish law that guides Jewish lives is called the Shulchan Aruch, the set table. Our golden path, halacha, can resemble a sumptuous banquet that would make anyone salivate, whetting their appetite for more. A true tzadik has magnetism and warmth, a harmonious, peaceful neshama where the inside is at parity with the outside. Righteousness is not determined by wearing long black coats, beards and peyot. Let our generation be known as master chefs, those who create a heaven on earth, a feast of life grounded in tradition and filled with love and compassion. This is the Judaism that is in our grasp. This is the Judaism that is beyond denominations. Let us become the role models that will inspire our children and children’s children. God can handle affronts to God. Our job on earth is to look out for each other.