From The Other Side Of The Bench
By David J. Seidemann, Esq.
Services at our synagogue begin at nine on Shabbos mornings. I arrive about an hour earlier and learn some of the classic works on the Torah as well as some of the more out-of-the-box commentaries and thoughts on various themes in the weekly parashah.
About three years ago, a friend of mine also began to arrive about twenty minutes before nine, and we spent those twenty minutes discussing those various themes. We would ask each other questions and share interesting thoughts we heard over the years from our teachers, as well as some novel thoughts of our own.
At the same time, from 8:40-9:00, another rabbi was giving a class to a group of worshippers on the Torah portion of the week. My friend and I sat in the back and continued our learning in hushed tones so as not to disturb the class being given in the front of the shul.
One Shabbos, that rabbi, a member of our shul, was away on vacation. One of the members of his class noticed that my friend and I were learning, and he pulled up a chair next to us. To make a long story short, the teacher of that class never returned, due to other commitments, and since last summer I have been fortunate to deliver that twenty-minute class to the entire group.
It takes me a good 15-20 hours to prepare that 20-minute class. I begin on Sunday, looking through various sources to locate what I believe are obscure answers to obscure questions on topics that appear in the weekly Torah portion. From Monday to Wednesday, I continue to pull source material, and on Thursday I try to weave all of the sources together in a common theme. The goal is to ask a series of connected questions and then to find one principle that answers all of the questions.
Fridays are spent practicing the delivery of the material and writing down an outline, underlining key words or phrases that I think will grab the attention of those in attendance. Every free moment is spent reviewing the tens of sheets that I photocopied from various sources and putting the thoughts together in my head.
This week I will reference the verses in the parashah that discuss the prohibition of rounding the corners of one’s hair on the forehead and the prohibition of shaving with a razor. I will reference those verses, but the class will center on the origins of Jews growing beards and peyos, and their Kabbalistic meaning and import.
In a nutshell, the growing hair on one’s head relates to the growth of the human conscience, and the growth of the beard, which extends downwards to the heart, correlates to the growth of the heart, or man’s deeds. The two areas of hair-growth—the head (conscience) and the beard (heart)—are connected through the peyos, which emanate from the scalp and project downward to the chin where the beard begins.
The hair follicles themselves are hollow, representing a pipeline, a conduit for the conscience to influence the deeds of the heart. If you are not getting all of this, come join us Shabbos morning. We will save a seat for you.
I am sitting in court on Tuesday, reading some of my source material on this subject, and a middle-aged man sits down next to me. He peers at my papers and states, “That’s Hebrew, right?”
I answer in the affirmative and ask him how he knows. He tells me that he is Jewish. I ask him if he wants to know what the papers teach us, but he responds, “Not really; I am an atheist.”
He was born in Shanghai and raised as Russian Orthodox, as his parents were born in the former Soviet Union. But growing up away from the land of the Czar, he embraced other religions, starting with Buddhism, followed by Hinduism, and, when he came to America, embracing different denominations of Christianity, albeit for short periods of time.
Approximately 20 years ago, as an adult, he returned to Russia for 10 years for business. His last name, which could easily be found among those living in Flatbush or Boro Park, is also a common surname among non-Jews in Russia.
Many of his co-workers in Russia and others he encountered on a daily basis would ask him if he was Jewish. His response was always, “no, I am Russian Orthodox.” And he did not mean Russian Orthodox Judaism.
One morning he awoke to the news that his best friend who was Jewish was found dead. He believes it was an act of murder, and that his friend was murdered because she was Jewish. From that moment on, every time he was asked if he was Jewish, his new answer was, “If you are an anti-Semite, then I am Jewish.” He estimates that he said that every day at least ten times for seven years or so.
After a while it has an effect and penetrates the hair follicles.
Approaching his sixth decade of life, he noticed that he was losing his hair, while his Russian friends were still presenting with full heads of hair. For some reason, he was under the impression that male baldness in one’s fifties is a Jewish trait. And so his quest to uncover his true identity began. Imagine baldness leading one to uncover his identity!
He questioned his parents extensively and did research into his grandparents’ families on both sides. Faced with undeniable evidence, his parents revealed to him that he is Jewish, as are they and their parents, going back generations and generations.
He told me that while he is still an atheist, he is a proud Jewish atheist. I am not exactly sure how one reconciles that, but there is no doubt in my mind that somehow he has.
I shared with him the uncanny coincidence that the very papers I was reviewing, photocopied from some ancient Biblical sources, dealt with the topic of hair, beards, and peyos.
For some, the journey to connect is with a beard or religious side-curls. For others, it might be a mistaken perception of baldness in middle-aged Jewish men.
Class begins at 8:40 a.m. I doubt he will be there. There are no atheists that I know of in attendance. But maybe the coincidence of it all, even for an atheist, will be too much to ignore. v
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.