Tuesday, February 06, 2007

When Zaidie was young...and other fictional tales..


I have always held a fond spot for that near mythical locale in New York City where so many of our anscestors passed through, The Lower East Side. Stories I heard from my Grandparents, When Zaidie Was Young tapes and a whole library of books that cheerfully describer the innocent, but rough life in the teeming neighborhood.

Imagine my sense of shock and almost betrayal when my eyes opened to an entirely new Lower East Side. One I had never even contemplated but no less real. The Lower East Side at the turn of the century was teeming with Jewish crime.
Jewish criminals affectionately known as Melamdim would create gangs of local children, yes affectionately called Talmidim, to roam the streets pickpocketing unsuspecting passerbys.
There was even a Yiddish term for a pimp (a simcha).
The streets were full of Jewish prostitutes.
One Rosie Hertz was observed by a traveler at the time..”Dressed in the traditionally Orthodox garb with her hair covered and wide white apron..she would affectionately pinch your cheek when she greeted you. There isn’t a woman in America that has coached and mentored more prostitutes than she...”
Then there was such local aidele fellows like Lepke Buchalter who even mobsters like Lucky Luciano abbhored his tacticts and brutality.

Now I don’t exactly expect Shmuel Kunda to sing songs about Rosie Hertz and her Simchamobile nor do I think Papa Herman had much to do with that seedy underground but it raised an interesting point in my mind.

Frum Journalism, History and Literary works are very much removed from realism.

Another eye opening book for me was one entitled The Cap written by a survivor of the camps where he vividly and realistically portrayed what the camps were really like, including many cases of inter-prisoner abuse and sometimes sexual assault.
Did you know that in Auschwitz the Polish prisoners would not talk to the Hungarian prisoners??

Looking back, I can’t help but wonder, who knows what went on in the Shtetlech that they’re not telling us about.


120 years ago in France a young writer names Emile Zola started writing books which portrayed every day life in the slums of Paris in startling reality. The whole literary world rose up to criticize him. Up until then literary works were centered on an idyllic world of the the imaginations of those that frequented the salons of Paris. His philosophy eventually won out.

We suffer from the same mentality. We create an idealistic view of our community and hide everything that doesn’t fit that rosy world, when in reality there’s nothing more beautiful then the truth and nothing more idyllic then facing human flaws and struggles and correcting them.

Whitewashing reality doesn’t make anything go away not in the past and not in the present.

See the above painting...
One of the great art movements in the last century was the pointilist art movement of George Seurat and others. The basic premise was that instead of the artist mixing the paints on his palette and them applying them on the canvas, he would would use the 3 primary colors of red, blue and yellow in tiny dots and let the observer do the mixing in his mind, thus making the observer part of the creation process.
I say..historians should not be doing the mixing for us. Give us the primary facts let me do the mixing in my mind..I’m sure I can create something beautiful with the facts.

Perhaps we wouldn’t be so overcome with helplessness when confronted with our modern day “crisises”, if we’d only be armed with the knowledge that other generations have grappled with issues and problems before us.

34 Comments:

Blogger chana said...

Oh my goodness. I feel violated.

It’s almost funny. It’s a long time since the days of my naiveté, yet for some reason every time I get a reality check it feels as if another pillar of my world has come crashing down. It’s so shocking every time, as though I’d never known such a concept could exist. And “frum” people?!

…I still believe very strongly in the innocence of children. I think it’s essential for growing up healthy and well-balanced. There’s something about children having the image of the adults in their lives being perfect. Often if kids knew the whole truth their ability to trust would be damaged long-term.
I suppose that as children mature it’s up to their parents (and teachers?) to gently make them aware of reality. The same way there’s a healthy time and way to teach all the facts of life. It is so important to understand that people always have been human – and that that’s what Tshuvah is all about.

Thanks for another enlightening (!) ;) and thought-provoking article.

February 06, 2007 11:09 PM  
Blogger The Dreamer said...

It's interesting to note that the Torah doesn't "whitewash" the deeds of our forefathers. The good, the bad and the ugly are all written throughout Torah and Nach.
The only problem is that that these topics are often skipped, leading us to believe that past generations ld perfect lives.

I believe a great example of "whitewashing" deeds are the tzadikim novels of today. These great men are done a disservice through the portrayal that there was barely any work done to get to where they were. And when one book was published that stated some faults, it was banned. Said to shed a negative light.

If we can't face reality, then who are we battling with but ourselves?

February 06, 2007 11:12 PM  
Blogger knaidel maidel said...

David, I think I get your point, though I'm wondering why you would post all that ugly stuff on your beautiful blog.

The Torah doesn't whitewash the deeds of our forefathers, but it sure does come down hard on the misdeeds. The purpose is not to make our "modern day crises" seem less formidable. Chana's comment about teshuva kind of helped me bridge Dreamer's comment to the original post, and put things in order for me. The part about tzadikim novels (did you mean biographies?) was addressed by Rav Hutner, who says that there is great danger in the all-rosy portrayal of their lives. When "little people" read them, we think that we could never be great, because we're so far from perfect at present. Whereas if instead the books would tell about the tzadik's great battle against his yetzer, we would be able to relate to it and learn from their example. I remember having to do a book report about one of the Rishonim when I was in high school -- the first chapter was all about how he had a special holiness from birth, knew all of Tanach inside and out by age three, yada yada... I closed the book for good; it was so discouraging.

February 07, 2007 1:01 AM  
Blogger knaidel maidel said...

Oh, and the existence of additional things doesn't mean that "When Zaydie Was Young" is fictional. It was just a different side of the truth. I'm sure when Zaydie was young, he was pretty sheltered. :P

February 07, 2007 1:05 AM  
Blogger Jessica said...

It's so funny that you wrote about this, because when I read Oliver Twist in school we practically spent a week studying the Jewish underworld that was the basis for some of the characters. It was heartbreaking! But I agree with dreamer's point about how the Torah doesn't overlook the faults of even our greatest figures - and so it seems its always been, the righteous and the not-so-righteous, co-existing.

February 07, 2007 1:12 AM  
Blogger socialworker/frustrated mom said...

Interesting post, and cool pic.

February 07, 2007 9:09 AM  
Blogger socialworker/frustrated mom said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

February 07, 2007 9:09 AM  
Blogger Out Of Africa said...

If analyzing our own indiscretions, need we look further than 'kapos'?
If criticising jaundiced views of history, look to the the infinitely more dramatic issue of the recent holocaust denial conference and innumerable such...
Volumes of greatness, goodness and heroism were written with holocaust blood...

February 07, 2007 10:06 AM  
Blogger The Dreamer said...

Knaidel - I wrote "tzadikim novels" for a reason. They're not true biographies. They're novels for pleasure reading.

February 07, 2007 11:10 AM  
Blogger chana said...

Still think there's a difference between the common people of previous generations and the great people of any generation...

February 07, 2007 6:32 PM  
Blogger megapixel said...

david very interesting points. lately I have been losing all my illusions and have become very jaded.
however it is not strange that we focus on the good side for the kids. imagine shmuel kunda coming out witha new tape- rosie the pimp!
lol
actually, although our generation has sunk pretty low in some areas, in a way we are better than past generations. consider:
~~ shmiras haloshon awareness that never existed before (ask your grandmothers!)
~~we try to help save kids at risk.
~~tzedak organizations that do unbelievable things - from intertility to grave!!
~~unbelievable generosity.
~~daf yomi, english seforim and the fact that average people learn! in the old days only the elite learned and the average guys were basically ignorant
~~schools & yeshivas that have progams for LD and kids that need to learn on a lower level (ask your dads if they had this)

February 07, 2007 7:21 PM  
Blogger David_on_the_Lake said...

chana...
See...that reality check should never happen..because u shouldve known by now that we're human..and have always been human.

I must say...to you and some other commentors..I'm not talking about children...I agree children can live in fantasy land...no reason to open theyre eyes to the reslisms of the world when theyre young...

the_dreamer...
I was going to mention that..
and although there are mystical explanations...Ein mikro yotzei mipshuto...
and that book...I never read it..but from all the hoopla..it sounds like it should not have been banned..

knaidel....
If u can ask that..then I see u did not get the point of this post...
Beauty is not...a glossy flowery image...
Its truth...reality..honsety...and a good aesthetic doesnt hurt...
I never heard that frm Rav Hutner..very interesting...
And I know...I remember reading about the Vilna Gaon ..that he knew shas when he was 6 years old...and feeling that same feeling...

and yes..I know the title may not be correct..but i still like it...
:-)

jessica...
exactly..right

February 07, 2007 8:39 PM  
Blogger David_on_the_Lake said...

swfm...
Thanks

out of africa...
Yes..I know.
The point of this post was not a definitve thesis or anything of the sort..just how 2 books made me feel..

chana...
hmmm please explain

megapixel...
so true...There are so many postives...

February 07, 2007 8:42 PM  
Blogger The Dreamer said...

Yeah, David. You were going to. But I did.
:)

Obviously, when we study Torah, we know we're speaking of great people, but, as I wrote, the Torah does the hefech of whitewashing - it looks at their deeds through a magnifying glass.

This is for us, so that we can learn for ourselves what to do, how to react, and how to change.

February 07, 2007 9:25 PM  
Blogger The Dreamer said...

Oh, and I guess people were confused about the "for children" bit because you did mention the chidren's tape "When Zeidy Was Young." (though it may seem as thugh the tape is for adults...)

February 07, 2007 9:26 PM  
Blogger David_on_the_Lake said...

the_dreamer...
true...
The tape is for children..I was just using that as one of the sources that probably helped formulated my view of the lower east side...
dot dot dot
:-)

February 07, 2007 9:29 PM  
Blogger The Dreamer said...

I know the tape is for children. There are just some nuances in the jokes on the tape that only an adult would understand.

I remember one teacher of mine saying that most people don't change their views and actions from when they're children. That's a problem, because if we're still davening at that same first grae level, still doing chessed at that third grade level, still thinking on a fifth grade level, then what's the purpose of life?

Girsah Diyankusah is a part of us, but it's not the only part of us. It's our responsibility to learn, study, question and find out what we need to. One can't neglect to study hilchos Shabbos and then claim ignorance. That's responsibility. That's Torah. That's life.

Is it my imagination, or have the "..." increased since I mentioned your use of them?

February 07, 2007 10:15 PM  
Blogger David_on_the_Lake said...

Dreamer................
Now youre touching on a whole other topic...
Yes children for the most part retain alot of the childhood smallnesses throughout life.
Thats for another time...........
........................................................

February 07, 2007 10:33 PM  
Blogger chaverah said...

always reminising about people, life, how things were. thanks for taking me back to another place that was.

February 07, 2007 11:58 PM  
Blogger The Dreamer said...

:P
:P
:P
:P
:P
:P
..................................

February 08, 2007 12:32 AM  
Blogger chana said...

Your post speaks of society; life in the Shtetlach, the Lower East Side, Parisian slums. Every society encompasses a huge range of character, from utterly depraved to selflessly virtuous. I understood that what you were trying to bring out was our collective denial of the fact previous generations also had their low-end people. Acknowledging the fact that real problems existed throughout history can be very helpful and empowering when it comes to dealing with our own.
But if that’s all you know: that people were always corrupt – it’s extremely demoralizing. What about the good people? Are they not even good? Just because there were low-lives, the Tzaddik could not have been a Tzaddik?
I think that having high ideals and examples of those who lived by them is vital to ensure that we never settle for mediocrity in place of excellence. Because as soon as you think that 2nd best is now best, since you only need to be 2nd best – you are now 3rd! Do you follow? If we allow ourselves to believe that to be good you don’t really have to be that good, our values will sink to where?
Also, when people are on different levels, their struggles are different. The 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote Memoirs, a few books full of stories of Chassidim from the time of the Besht and the Baal HaTanya. They were stories of powerful internal stuggles and tremendous personal growth – but what these yidden struggled to with, I could only dream to attain. These books were so powerful for me because I got a glimpse of the lives of truly holy people, yet I could relate to the fact that they had to work on themselves.
So yes, maybe we don’t have to be so shocked to hear that immorality was rampant even before we were born, and in Jewish communities as well. But we don’t need to destroy the lofty images of our great leaders.

February 08, 2007 1:11 AM  
Blogger The Dreamer said...

Chana - we didn't say that a tzadik couldn't have been a tzadik. What was said was that in order for us to have in OUR minds that we can become tzadikim ourselves one day, or at least strive for a better life, it has to seem attainable. And through writing that someone was a tzadik by the time he was three and didn't have to work towards it is not being truthful, nor complimentary of the tzadik, nor praiseworthy of the person reciting the story. For the most part, these stories are just that - STORIES.
Let's start being real, ok?

February 08, 2007 1:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So true, reading classic Jewish works are frustrating.
All fathers are wise and patient, all mothers are devoted to their husband and children and make fresh cookies everyday.
It's a lovely picture but so frustrating.

February 08, 2007 3:31 AM  
Blogger chana said...

I'm sorry. I think we are talking about two different definitions of a Tzaddik. There is a "Tzaddik" of perfect deed, and the Tanya's Tzaddik of a special soul.
True, everyone has the potential to be perfect in thought, speech & deed, so when telling the story of such a "Tzaddik" it would be worthwhile to speak of how they got there. From the days of their many imperfections.
To define Tzaddik according to Tanya - you have to learn it.

February 08, 2007 3:02 PM  
Blogger anonym00kie said...

i dont agree david..
what youre advocating can lead to such despair and hopelessness.. i would never advocate lying, but i dont think everything needs to be told, and what is told - evne the bare facts - come in a context and cant be told out of it.
she can be a dirty prositute.. or she can be strugling for survival, maybe a single mother.. who knows..
it seems naive to beleive that in the holocaust there were no crimes, in the lower east side there were no crimes.. did you think we invented crime?
but we can choose what to focus on.
the yetser hara feeds on this "truth" argument... then we start to feel helpless, despair, we have no leaders to turn to, no one to trust.. by "telling it all" we are just inviting a a state of existence where we view everything with suspicion and expected disapointment. we give up before even trying. but if we focus - again without lying - on all the great things our ancestors have done, on all the positive that is accompished, we will have a different perception which can encourage us instead of discouraging us..

you know how much i love your stuff.. but this i just disagree with :)

February 08, 2007 6:16 PM  
Blogger anonym00kie said...

this post only deserves one comment (ok 2 now :)!

February 08, 2007 6:16 PM  
Blogger David_on_the_Lake said...

chana...
Of course we must put our focus and make it very clear that the ideal to strive for is the Tzaddik..

prag...
true...

chana...
The Tanyas definition is very different than other definitions..but thats only in regards to the term Tzaddik as mention in the gemara...Here its more of a loose definition of a good and righteous man..worthy of emulation

February 08, 2007 8:44 PM  
Blogger David_on_the_Lake said...

Mookie...
I welcome dissent...As I said..These are thoughts..Not anything definitive.

However I think your comment bolsters my argument. Wouldn't you rather hear and read about the ills of our past from our positive perspective? Rather than deleting it and then coming across it in more hostile books...as was the case with me..

February 08, 2007 8:49 PM  
Blogger David_on_the_Lake said...

Chaverah...
glad u enjoyed...did u read?

dreamer...
.
.
.
.
.
one for each mouth

February 08, 2007 8:49 PM  
Blogger It's All Good Now said...

David, history is exactly that - HIS STORY. it's someone's version of what happened when we weren't around to verify or repudiate his version of the "facts", as portrayed by his (selective) memory.

February 11, 2007 10:52 AM  
Blogger It's All Good Now said...

Forgot to conclude with, "just another reason for me to get to the Oylam Ha;emes"

February 11, 2007 10:53 AM  
Blogger The Dreamer said...

:P

February 11, 2007 4:37 PM  
Blogger David_on_the_Lake said...

itsallgood...
please...theres no rush...lol

the dreamer
.

February 11, 2007 6:59 PM  
Blogger The Dreamer said...

david -
:P

February 11, 2007 8:29 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home