Columns - 2011

    Survival of the Yiddest

    by Doug Brook
    Southern Jewish Life columnist

    The Jews have survived for thousands of years while all the surrounding nations in biblical times long ago disappeared.

    Many have tried to figure out how the Jews have persevered, some of them so they can figure out how to end the streak.

    One thing that's definitely not the reason is the gym.

    Why not? It's not like Jews today don't go to the gym. Well, not today. But definitely tomorrow. Here, we're writing it down.

    But the Jews thrived for centuries without gymanasia, until they were first introduced by the Greeks early in the Chanukah story. We've been trying ever since to figure out how to cancel our memberships, though back then it was even harder to get someone on the phone.

    Thanks to Chanukah coming so early this year, Jews everywhere got to do their annual post-holiday restart of going to the gym, and restop two weeks later, all before Christmas, thus completely avoiding the January rush when everyone else does it.

    But as the late January re-enactment of The Exodus plays out at gyms nationwide, it is worthwhile to look at the Jewish origins and symbolism in many of the things we (briefly) do there. It could even inspire you to return a couple more times before mid-February, and your special date for that most romantic of Jewish holidays, Wallenstein's Day.

    Stairmasters, exercise bikes, and their kin, are all reminiscent of the Jews in the desert for forty years, but the treadmill is the most reminiscent of trudging along and getting nowhere fast, through various inclinations, inevitably leading to overall disinclination.

    Cardio exercises were named by Sephardic Jews. "Car" means "automobile" and "dio" means "to the Big G." Thus cardio means "driving me to the Big G," which Talmudic scholars accurately interpret as, "it'll kill you."

    Lifting weights recalls our forefathers who trudged up, and down, ten flights of stairs carrying blocks of ice, firewood, and every other heavy object in the Lower East Side.

    While we don't carry the burdens that they did -- just ask them -- lifting weights prepares us for carrying the weight of the world, when our mothers are ready to pass the torture on to us.

    The leg press, chest press, and the grace-after-meals -- or bench -- press, all, after too much effort and too little progress, tend to depress. People recovering from just one attempt at Yoga quickly decide that it must have been named after the Jewdie Master.

    But as most congregants show in their attendance habits, anything is better than nothing. It's never too early to start building your stamina for next Yom Kippur. It can help you muster the energy to finally take down the remnants of your sukkah come spring, and to build up your metabolism in time for Passover.

    Your doctor tells you that it's good for you all the time, though the number of Jewish doctors telling their patients to exercise more far exceeds the number of Jews with the patience to exercise.

    But the religious benefits can come far sooner than the High Holy Days, too. You could be ready for lifting the Torah year-round, not just when it's rolled to the middle but all the way to the right or left. Nobody wants to be the guy at the bar mitzvah who lifts the Torah and induces gasps as everyone sees it waver overhead. And don't forget how a little exercise helps you lift those ever-growing prayerbooks and chumashes.

    So, how did the Jews survive these thousands of years? Mark Twain didn't know, neither did Samuel Clemens. But they both felt it worth asking.

    It hasn't been a case of "only the shtreimeled will survive." It's not all or nothing. Those who think it's all see their numbers nearing nothing. Those who think it's nothing eventually find that's exactly what they have.

    The Jews survive because of adapting their culture and tradition as needed and reasonable, while preserving it as well. Not too much, not too little. So use summer camp, youth groups, and religious school.

    They'll get to do things they don't normally, with no hassle to them or you. At camp they'll experience kosher -- as the Torah said "let them eat kosher" -- and so many other aspects of Jewish life, with no effort from you. It doesn't mean you have to do it, or that they will for life, but it'll be less alien to them. And give your kids a real, substantive experience when learning for their bar mitzvahs, don't make it just the price for a party.

    Sometimes occasional Jews are more awkward at bar mitzvahs than non-Jews. What makes you uncomfortable there? Lack of familiarity or connection. What can you do to spare your children that discomfort? Increase their familiarity and connection. They'll thank you, at your grandchildren's bar mitzvahs.

    Doug Brook is a Southern writer in Silicon Valley, who counted on you knowing that a shtreimel is that big, dark fur hat worn by ultra-Orthodox men. For more information (not about shtreimels), past columns, other writings, and more, visit For exclusive online content, become a fan at

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.