Joy to the Jewish world

Joseph Aaron

I’m feeling a little giddy.

Yes, Trump is still president and is likely to be for two more years for almost sure, and I have this gnawing feeling it might be for another six. And yes, Bibi is still prime minister and is likely to be until the end of time, even if his wife, Israel’s first lady, was recently indicted. And the fact that those two are running my two favorite countries in the world, the two most important countries in the world, one because of its military, economic, cultural might; and the other because of its moral and ethical might, has caused me many a depressing day, Trump doing his all to destroy our strong economy, our nature resources and our social safety net, not to mention our decency; and Bibi doing his all to desecrate Jewish values and strip away Israel’s democracy.

But let’s not dwell on all that, shall we. As I say, we’ll probably have Trump for another six years and Bibi for another sixty years, so better not to get ourselves too agitated.

I’m giddy because it’s so great to be a Jew these days. I know almost no Jews would agree with that statement, almost no Jews feel that way, almost all Jews see only bad and scary and threatening and nasty, but the truth is that it is a great time to be a Jew.

As proof, look no further than the Russian city of Arkhangelsk, which recently saw the opening of a synagogue inside what may be the world’s northernmost Jewish community center.

Arkhangelsk, where currently the sun shines 21 hours a day, is located approximately 750 miles north of Moscow at a latitude that is more than three degrees to the north of Anchorage, Alaska.

And now there’s a shul in Arkhangelsk. But that’s far from all that’s going on in Mother Russia. Construction of what will be Russia’s westernmost synagogue continues in Kaliningrad, an enclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. It is a replica of the Konigsberg Synagogue, a domed mammoth building that was one of Europe’s most impressive Jewish monuments before it was destroyed in the 1938 Kristallnacht pogroms. It will reopen on the pogrom’s 80th anniversary in November.

Meanwhile, authorities in the Siberian city of Tomsk handed over to the local Jewish community a unique wooden synagogue. The community is preparing to open a large community center next to the synagogue.

I’m giddy because all that good news is coming out of Russia. When you look back at Jewish life in Russia over the last 100 years or so, full of pogroms, of canonists, of refuseniks, of murders of Jewish intellectuals, to see such things going on can’t but make you feel giddy.

And that’s only the beginning of all the reasons for Jews to feel giddy right now. We just saw an official visit to Israel by the future king of England. You may recall that the British were not very nice to the Jews in the Jewish homeland in the first half of the last century, indeed were pretty nasty to us. And yet now we had Prince William make the first official visit to the Jewish state by a British royal. No small thing, big cause for major giddiness.

William visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and called it “a profoundly moving experience.” The prince wore a black kippah as he laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance.

And so the giddiness goes, all over the world.  The mayor of Rome blocked the naming of a street after Giorgio Almirante, one of the country’s most notorious post-war neo-fascist leaders. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi blocked a city council motion to name a piazza for Almirante. The motion had been put forward by the far-right Brothers of Italy party.

Here’s the thing about Jews today. What we almost always do is focus on the motion that was put forward, and some of us then jump to the conclusion that a second Holocaust is around the corner. What we do not do is focus on the fact that the mayor of Rome, acting as a friend of the Jews, blocked the motion.

And then we have the mayor of Rio. Thousands paid to watch the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second largest city, sing at a concert where the box office was entirely donated to the construction of a Holocaust memorial.

Some 4,000 people listened to several gospel songs sung by Mayor Marcelo Crivella, who is a longtime friend of the Jewish community. Last year, he laid the cornerstone for the memorial. Crivella reportedly has visited Israel 40 times.

And speaking of Brazil, in April the words “Holocaust Never Again” in Portuguese were projected on Brazil’s National Congress buildings in Brasilia, an unprecedented honor to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day in the country’s capital city.

Ask most Jews and they’ll tell you we have no friends in the world, will obsess about the UN Human Rights Council, will quote verbatim from Louis Farrakhan’s latest speech. Meanwhile, we just ignore or fail to notice all the giddy stuff going on all around us.

Such as the fact that the leader of a Saudi-based Muslim group decried those who would blame Jews for the Holocaust. Mohammad Al Issa, the secretary general of the Muslim World League, said that blaming the Jews for the Holocaust was akin to denying the Holocaust, a phenomenon he denounced earlier this year.

“To reduce the importance of this disaster by saying excuses that would make us look away from this disaster, is a continuation of the denial of the criminality of this incident, this crime against humanity,” Al Issa said. During a recent visit to Washington, Al Issa toured the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Such as the fact that the Giro d’Italia was recently held in Israel, the first non-European country to host large segments of the bicycle race in its 101 years in existence. The first. Along with the Tour de France and Spain’s Vuelta, the Giro is one of the world’s three major cycling tournaments.

Such as the fact that one of Germany’s top music prizes is being discontinued after it was awarded to two rappers with a song containing anti-Semitic lyrics. The executive board of Germany’s Music Industry Association, announced that it had decided to discontinue the Echo Awards, as a result of the rappers who won it and the song they sang.

I could go on listing things countries and people around the world are doing each and every day to show their love for, their support of, their defense of, their concern for Jews and the Jewish state, which is reason for much giddiness. And yet anyone at all involved in the Jewish world knows how little giddiness we show or feel, how few lectures and sermons and organizations emphasize giddiness and all the reasons Jewish should  be feeling it.

But I want to end with something that made me most giddy of all, even though I know it is likely to upset a good number of you for all kinds of reasons.

But I find it a reason for joy and optimism, a reminder of what Judaism should be, can be and far too often is not, but surely can be more of.

Just as a warning to you queasy self-righteous and all-knowing readers out there, it involves gays. A subject that makes lot of Jews, especially those claiming to be the most pious among us, crazy.

I need to admit that I myself have trouble with the issue of gays. The Torah does call male homosexuality an “abomination,” and while I have read all kinds of explanations of that, it does give me pause. Beyond which I must admit I am uncomfortable at the sight of two men or two women acting like a couple, holding hands, kissing, getting married.

Still, I absolutely applaud all the moves toward equal treatment that have been granted gays the last several years and believe no one has the right to judge anyone else, and that we need to focus much more on being compassionate to and accepting of all Jews, rather than singling out and condemning some Jews.

And I think a very powerful message that that is the true essence of Judaism, is coming from an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. His name is Mike Moskowitz . He wears a black suit and black hat. He sports a thick, curly beard beneath a closely shaved head. He peppers his speech with liturgical Hebrew and Yiddish words. He quotes from Jewish legal texts.  He spent years studying at traditional haredi yeshivas. Today he lives in Lakewood, a New Jersey shore town of some 100,000 residents well known for its largely haredi population.

And he’s just taken a job as scholar in residence at New York’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which serves New York’s Jewish LGBT community. Four rainbow flags hang in its lobby.

Moskowitz, 38, told the Jewish news service JTA that serving gay Jews is a fulfillment of his duty as an Orthodox rabbi, not a contradiction. “The religious community has a unique responsibility to provide sanctuary, a literal sanctuary for people who are searching,” he says. “How can we broaden the tent to allow people to feel communally engaged in and taking responsibility for their unique relationship with G-d?”

This from someone who spent four years each studying at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and Beis Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, two prestigious haredi institutions.

“There are absolutely ways that religion can be a system for oppression like all others,” he says. “When it comes to the theoretical, they’re quick to say ‘of course we should be inclusive.’ When it comes to the practical, there’s a huge gap between the ideal and the way in which it actually manifests.

“There’s no prohibition to acknowledge the reality of something when it comes to one’s identity. If a person says about themselves ‘this is who I am,’ it’s not a space of choice.”

Look, like what he’s doing, don’t like it, agree with his viewpoint or don’t. But I find it absolutely giddy inducing that there is someone who is deeply observant, dresses and identifies as Orthodox, but whose focus is not on what divides us, not on condemning other Jews but embracing other Jews, embracing all Jews, remembering what is really important, what the heart and soul of Judaism is.

That there is a rabbi in the world like Mike Moskowitz, along with all the other great stuff going on from Prince William to the mayor of Rio to that shul in Arkhangelsk, makes me feel giddy, oh so very giddy.

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