Thursday, July 17, 2008

Back of the Book Essay in the Jewish Week

I wrote this article, an homage to Shalom Auslander and his trek to Madison Square Garden to watch the Rangers on the jumbotron during the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals.
A few months ago, I walked from my Upper West Side apartment to Madison
Square Garden carrying a sandwich, a bottle of water and two tickets to the
American Cup, an international gymnastics competition held annually. Round-trip,
it was a 140-block jaunt on a sunny winter day, not bad for a long one, though I
would’ve preferred to sleep in and arrive in a third of the time via subway. But
it was Shabbos morning and walking was the only way to see the world’s best
gymnasts in-person less than six months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Friday, July 11, 2008

At least someone in Israel is flexible...

When I was younger and used to receive monthly issues of International Gymnast magazine (which was also the first place I published any of my written work), I used to scan the long result lists from world championships and other competitions to see if I could find any athletes with ISR next to their names. Usually, I came up empty. But sometimes I'd find one and rejoice no matter how far down in the standings this gymnast was. I don't completely understand why I found this so exciting but it is likely one of the earliest points at which I fused my Jewish identity with gymnastics.

Anyway, it is not necessary to look so far down the rankings for an Israeli gymnast, at least on the rhythmic side of the sport. With the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union (the Cold War gymnastics superpower), many knowledgeable coaches and talented athletes have arrived in Israel and have begun to represent their adopted country internationally. One such gymnast is Irina Risenzon who trains in Netanya and will represent Israel at the Beijing Games. She is a native of Ukraine, a rhythmic powerhouse. (Many on the gymnastics message boards- the nerdiest places in cyberspace- would argue that a lot of these transplanted athletes like Risenzon would be second stringers if they remained in their native republics). Second stringer or not, Risenzon is ranked seventh in the world and this piece on JTA's website explains her training and the sport, known to most as "the one with the ribbon." It has also been popularized by Will Ferrell's compelling performance in Old School.

Though she loves her adopted country, Risenzon and her coach have this complaint.

"It's very popular, but we need more government investment and more sponsors," she says, echoing a common complaint of Israel's sporting community.

For those who grew up in the Soviet system, where cultivating sports and athletes was a top national priority, the contrast in Israel can be jarring.

As much as I love gymnastics, I can't ever convince myself that more of a country's resources should be directed towards the development of a sport and elite athletes though this fact is frequently bemoaned on gymnastics message boards. I'd much prefer to see money spent on programs that benefit the masses such as adequate housing, education and health care. It is not the job of a state to make possible the dreams of a genetically gifted few (and all elite athletes are amazing freaks of nature).

Also interesting in this article is the fact that Rachel Vigdorchik (Risenzon's coach) operates a gym in Jaffa for Arab girls. I wonder if they participate in local competitions with their Israeli counterparts. Or if among there are any elite level athletes? And if so, do they have the opportunity to compete internationally?

One more thing and just because it is awesome- here is a picture from the 2004 Olympics of Israeli rhythmic gymnast, Katya Pisezky. I still can't get my head around what she is doing.

(Photo credit- International Gymnast)

Which side the front? Which is the back?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Teaching Torah

I tutor a young Chabad boy three times a week at his home. He has multiple language based learning disabilities and though the family is very religious and observant, they send him to a private secular school that caters to his needs since Jewish days schools are not known for their special education programs.

I was brought in to help the boy (who I will call “Moishe”) with elementary Hebrew and prayers. His parents wish to give him some semblance of a Jewish education. In addition to reviewing the Aleph-Bet and vowel sounds, I discuss the weekly Torah portion with him and find myself discussing God or Hashem in ways that I don’t find to be true. Though I believe in God or some higher power and though I am a practicing Jew, I don’t believe in that the Torah was written by God or Moses as this blog post is written by me. I believe that the Pentateuch was composed over several centuries and parts of it are divinely inspired and written by individuals doing their best to understand the ways of God. I believe in the halachic process in that aids and abets Jewish continuity and that ritual helps me approach the divine. Though I believe rabbis are learned, I don’t think they have authority over me. Nor are they more inspired than the layperson.

But this is not what I teach Moishe. I talk about the Torah as though the events it describes are historical. We draw pictures of Mt. Sinai with Moses at the top hoisting the tablets above his head. The Egyptians were bad people who deserved their fate. I tell him about Hashem who loves him and wants him to observe all of the stringencies of kashrut, a God who intervened in the lives of the patriarchs because they were righteous men, tzaddikim. I teach him things I don’t personally believe and it sometimes makes me uncomfortable.

Of course at his age, I learned the same things. Back then, I saw Hashem (which is what I also called him) as a disembodied head with a beard and a black, tasseled graduation cap floating above the brick houses in Canarsie. Having taught young children for a few years, I recognize that Moishe is too young to understand the complexities of biblical criticism and the evolution of halachic reasoning. The bible stories will have to for now. But I worry that at some point in the future he’ll have to undo all of my lessons. Or worse still, that he won’t.

I have no doubt that his conception of God will evolve as he matures, but how far will it stray its present state? Twenty years from now, will he still read the Torah and insist that it represents historical and chronological truth? Will he insist that Jews possess the deed to Israel because Abraham was told by God to leave Ur and settle in Canaan? I hope not.

And then I feel selfish for wishing him to be different from his family and community. I’ve come to my conclusions for a variety of personal and intellectual reasons and though now I feel secure in them, it was not fun ripping apart the worldview I was taught and distancing myself from my community. Why would I wish a similar fate on Moishe if he can avoid it?

So I’m torn. I will continue to teach him as I had been taught, as his parents wish me to teach him, but unsure if I want my lessons to stick.