Columns - 1998

    Tradition sedition

    by Doug Brook
    Southern Shofar Columnist

    I am proud to be a card-carrying member of a people smart enough to address their Year 2000 problems over 3700 before computers were invented.

    Then again, what do you expect from a religion whose threefathers were wise enough to schedule the major Jewish holidays on days when most Jewish institutions would be closed?

    I think little things like this should make anyone proud to be Jewish. But am I the only one?

    Maybe it's just me, but I've found that, aside from whatever Hillary Rodham Bartholomew Ignatius Horn-blower Clinton meant about villagers razing children, it can take a village to promote interest in Judaism today. That village is called Anatevka.

    As is shamelessly advertised at the end of this column, yours truly is in a production of "Fiddler" this summer. While I only intended to gratuitously flaunt both the show and my latest theatrical endeavor, I thought of a legitimate yet related subject in which I can cleverly shroud my true commercial and self-serving agenda.

    I'm not going to talk about the Village People in Anatevka. I'm not even sure they ever toured Russia, but I doubt the concert would have been well received. Instead, I'm going to talk about some things I've noticed about the people playing the villagers in this production.

    In short, they're interested. Not the kind of blank-staring, glazed-over interest gleaming in the eye of most religious school students. I mean a genuine interest in gaining knowledge to add legitimacy to their acting, and sometimes much more.

    They've been curious about Jewish traditions, customs, accents, and jokes. I haven't heard so many desperate attempts at rolling an "r" since I spent two years demonstrating the futility of teaching me French. And after the first day of practicing the "ch" in "L'Chaim" our Tevye had to part the waters on the stage before the director could let his people go. They even knew to wait for the parting waters, and that walking across the water would have been inappropriate.

    But these people are interested in traditions. They're curious about them, about as much as many of us aren't. One guy who never had a bar mitzvah is talking to me in more Yiddish than I've heard since the last Mel Brooks marathon. One woman who never had a bris has asked a lot about turn-of-the-century Jewish history, particularly immigration to America (known at the time in the Yiddish press as the "Year 1900 problem").

    I've gotten various questions from people, such as "who was the first Jew?", "if Cain killed Abel, where did everyone come from?", and "did you hear the one about the rabbi, the priest, and the cocker spaniel?"

    And, when asked what "chutzpah" means, I offered three definitions. The classic definition: "the quality of a person who, after killing his parents, pleads for mercy because he's an orphan." The New Jersey definition: "the quality of a person who, after not paying rent for four months, complains bitterly to the landlord about the window that won't open." And, finally, the journalistic definition: "the quality of a person who, after repeatedly offending his readers on a monthly basis, shamelessly asks them both to buy tickets to his show."

    But chutzpah, like many other things, is a tradition. And, being a good Jew, I try to fit Jewish tradition into my life as often as possible, or once every three weeks. Whichever comes first.

    So maybe I leave services early some Saturday mornings. But to leave services, I first have to go to services just like, before ridiculing a terrible political candidate, I first have to go to the polls and vote for the other terrible candidate. Then I can lie about who I voted for and ridicule them both anyway. As long as I don't bring my big-mouthed 10-year-old son into the booth with me.

    Yes, mother, I know leaving early is tacky. That's why I sneak out, which is why I sit in the back row.

    Actually, that's just one reason. The other is that a rabbi I used to work with told me that the front row is reserved for the righteous and pure of heart.

    Yeah? Where do you sit?

    But how is my leaving early different than showing up an hour after services start? At least by showing up early, I get to say the Amidah once, hear the Torah service, say "Shema" (and the rest of the sentence), and spend the rest of Shacharit learning whatever aliyot I'm reading that morning (which is more helpful than learning them during Musaf).

    And if I consider watching a game at the Ballpark Formerly Known as Candlestick, soaking up a healthy California dose of skin cancer, more restful than sitting at home all afternoon with the divine blessing of not playing my piano, stereo, or Internet edition of Scrabble, at least I'm paying homage to the spirit of resting on the Sabbath. Ask anyone who conducts a service whether they have to work on our Day of Rest (r).

    Now I don't want to offend anyone or how they observe things. Nor do I want to endorse people reshaping The Big G in their own image (unless you got an "A" in pottery class).

    But I will tell you that if people can understand the spirit behind a tradition and fit it into their own lives, I think it's better than doing nothing at all.

    By the way, I just read in the Jewish monthly out here a letter to the rabbi saying this guy would be in Vicksburg, Miss. then Montgomery soon, and wanted to know if there were any Jews in the South. If you see him wandering around, offer him the patented, unparalleled-in-this-bleak-western-frontier Southern Hospitality (TM). And tell him to call for tickets to "Fiddler" when he flies home.

    Doug Brook will appear as Mendel, the rabbi's son, in the Foothill Music Theatre production of "Fiddler on the Roof" from July 24 through August 16, in Los Altos, Calif. For tickets, call (650) 948-4444. Tell them you read about it here. It won't get you better seats, but it will shamelessly promote my column.

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.