The month in which Tefillin held the spotlight
The month in which Tefillin held the spotlight

As a bar mitzvah, I learned to don tefillin each morning (except for Shabbat and YomTov festival days).  I never really gave it much thought until I began college five years later.  When I started as a freshman at Columbia University, the forms I completed in applying for a dorm room asked about my ideal roommate. I expressed a preference for someone Jewish, preferably Orthodox, so that I could have maximal ease in maintaining kashrut in the room and even to avoid any hassle in my preferring to affix a mezuzah to the room’s doorpost.  For my dream roommate, I added that I hoped he would be a baseball fan. 

That is all I asked for: a Jew, preferably Orthodox, and a baseball fan — even if he liked the Red Sox (though, as a Yankees and Mets fan, we shouldn’t know from such things.)

I arrived my first weekend of the term, and I met my new roommate.  His last name was Christianson.  He loved opera and sang in choir.  He did not know what a shortstop is. In later years, I learned that he had gone on to become a faculty member at another major Ivy League univesity, where he was advisor to the Gay Students’ club. Thus, my introduction to Columbia University and life outside the yeshiva.

On my first morning in the dorm, I got up at an early morning time and began davening (praying). The roommate still was sleeping.  He apparently opened an eye long enough to see that the Jew with whom he had been paired for the school year had just bound himself with black leather straps.  He had never before seen tefillin — he did not hail from America’s northeastern corridor nor any other big city — and he apparently inferred that his new rooommate had decided to kill himself.  That is, he thought I was trying to cut off my circulation, sort of like when the prisoners hang themselves by their shoelaces in jail.  So he emitted quite a loud sound of horror.  Kind of like a shofar sound. 

I turned to him, asked whether he was OK.  Did he need me to get a doctor?  He looked at me:  “Do need a doctor?  Do I need a doctor?  I’m not the one strangling myself with leather straps.”  So I realized that this was his introduction to tefillin.  And I now realized that I would have to proceed even more gingerly when it would come time for putting up the mezuzah.  In the end, he agreed to the mezuzah on our dorm doorpost, as long as the mezuzah case was aesthetically color-compatible with the room’s décor (which, as I recall, he wanted in teal and magenta) .

It has been quite some time since then, but I think back to those halcyon days as this month has emerged as Israel’s Month of Tefillin.

Earlier in the month, Israel won the international Eurovision song contest.  Truth to tell, as happy as I am that Israel won and as much as I love anything that gives Israel positive publicity, this year’s winning song was, shall we say, “not my favorite.”  It was not A-Ba-Ni-Bi.  It was not Halleluya. Nor that third one that Israel won. But it did win. And, unlike the endless trope of echo-chamber leftism that ruins anything in America that comes from the entertainment community, there was something deeply beautiful in the way that this year’s Israeli Eurovision winner, Netta Barzilai, respectfully met afterwards with the Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu. And watching Bibi do those three seconds of chicken wings?  Priceless.

Israel celebrated Netta’s victory. Indeed, Ms. Barzilai’s Eurovision win came just as bad news was breaking on the Hamas Gaza border, and it diverted many from the aggravation that comes whenever Israel faces world opprobrium for something that the world does not begin to understand and never would tolerate if it happened on their border.  So all was well. 

And then some Israel secularists at the TV show “Eretz Nehederet” just had to ruin everything by doing a detestable parody on Israel Channel 12 in which they mocked tefillin by having a fellow playing Bennett don two “shel rosh” (tefillin of the head) cubicles to imitate the hairstyle of Ms. Barzilai.  The mockery was palpably disgusting.  Had it been done by anyone outside of Israel, it would have become a cause celebre demonstrating that anti-Semitism had descended to a new all-time nadir.  The outcry within Israeli society became so loud that, finally, the Keshet television network had to apologize publicly to the people of Israel.

Tefillin are not merely a religious appurtenance for Jews. Jewish men don them daily while reciting their morning prayers.  The cubicle attached to the arm straps, and the cubicle attached to the head straps each contains within four small parchments, each with holy text from the Torah handwritten by a trained scribe according to requirements dating back thousands of years.  The leather must be done a certain way. The black ink.  If they accidentally are dropped, they not only must be kissed when picked up, but charity should be given.  Moreover, interestingly, tefillin are worn by many more Jewish men than the public knows.  As a rabbi of more than thirty years, I cannot begin to relate how many times a Jewish man has surprised me — an attorney in a courtroom,  a student in law school, a visitor to my community, a public figure — by telling me, off-hand and quietly out of anyone else’s earshot: “You know, Rabbi, I put on tefllin every day.”

The holiness of tefillin is something that Jews understand, and it is something that Jew-haters understand.  This photograph is one of the two or three most tragically well known photographs that emerged from the Nazi Holocaust:

And on a happier note, even if he got several factors technically wrong in his painting of a man wearing tefillin, this portrait by artist Marc Chagall is legend:

Which brings us to the strange incident at Ben Gurion Airport last week.

Chabad-Lubavitch hassidim are known for several of their “outreach” projects, including their program in regions with very high Jewish demographics where they ask men passing by: “Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish?”  If the answer is yes, the Chabad emissary will ask: “Have you had a chance to put on tefillin today?  If not, I have a pair with me and would be glad to help you put them on for a moment.”

There is no proselytizing.  If the person is not Jewish, or if he is Jewish but does not want to be bothered, he just responds negatively (“Nope, not Jewish”) — or he disregards his questioner altogether and walks past him — and all is well and peaceful.  The Chabad emissary does not follow him. Rather, he looks for his next potential arm to wrap in tefillin.

This is a commonplace. We see it all the time.  At the New York Public Library.  At major public places in the town square.  It is part of the modern multi-cultural panoply.  Indeed, a few years ago, the American television mini-series “Fargo,” based on the eponymous hit movie, featured a character who had a Chabad “Mitzvah Truck” parked outside his home.  It just is part of Western society.

But this was a different month, the Month of Tefillin.  And in Israel, well . . .  what can you say?  A Chabad emissary was at Ben Gurion Airport quietly, softly asking fellows whether they would like to put on tefillin — lots of men at Israel’s main airport are Jewish — and he found someone welcoming the offer and agreeing to put on the tefillin. And then, from the proverbial “outta nowhere,” a woman who initally seemed like - maybe - a crazy person started screaming and yelling and hollering.  She yelled in Hebrew, and the essence of her words were: Get away from here.  This is a public airport.  Go somewhere else. Go to a corner.  And then began a truly weird kind-of forced, loud, sarcastic, wild, unstable, extended  “laughter” of heckling and mocking that you just have to hear to grasp. When others described the screwy “laughter” to me, I had one reaction. Then, when I actually played and listened to the video, I understood why the clip had gone viral with more than 300,0000 views.  That “laughter” was not normal.

It emerges that the the heckler with the “unstable laughing” who tried to drive away the Chabad emissary was not just some nut but a professor of multi-culturalism at both the University of Maryland and at American University.  It is ironic, in an age of campus emphasis on respect for diversity, that a faculty professor can reflect such an anger-management question and manifest contempt for diversity.  Indeed, the notion that she is a professor of multi-culturalism tells less about her than it tells about the University of Maryland and the American University.  Like, do they hire math professors who do not add? (It is confusing enough trying to figure out how it is that amoeba multiply by dividing.) Do they hire misogynists as professors of Womens Studies?

As when Roseanne Barr recently destroyed her own career — and simultaenously cost the jobs of hundreds of people working on her television show — by tweeting a despicable “joke” that went beyond all bounds of accepted public discourse, so did this viral video exceed all limits of proper comportment.  And, thereafter, how did Roseanne Barr try to salvage the mess?  Roseanne meekly claimed that she had been under the influence of Ambien, a sleep aid.  Yet there are very few reported cases in the medical literature — like none — of Ambien’s side effects including making a tolerant person racist.   And, similarly, how did this professor of multi-culturalism try to explain away her disgracful hectoring and shameful comportment?  She replied that it came from her being the child of a Holocaust survivor. 

Yeah, right.  Ambien. The Holocaust.

Any child of a Holocaust survivor should take a look again at that photograph above, where a band of German Nazis mock and laugh as they persecute a Jewish man donning tefillin.  If the Holocaust experience contributes to any person’s narrative, it would be that she or he would want to correct the historical tragedy of the 1940s by helpig assure that more Jewish men than ever own and don tefillin.

In the meantime, some anger-management skills and diversity-and-tolerance training could help go a long way toeards curing that crazy “laugh.”