Sunday, April 18, 2010
In Good Company With No Basketball Courts in Heaven
Rabbi Dovid Landesman recently came out with a book, There Are No Basketball Courts in Heaven. It is a collection of essays on various topics relating to Judaism. Many of the essays come from various guest posts he has done on blogs such as Cross Currents and Emes-Ve-Emunah. (For some strange reason, despite the fact that he is my uncle, he has yet to consent to guest post on this blog.) Admittedly there is a weakness in this in that the book has the feel of a random collection of essays. I could easily imagine myself at some point in the future attempting to take a collection of connected posts, such as the ones on the historical method and the Whig narrative, and use them as the base for a book. The slap-dash feel of the book is not enhanced by a childish cover and the fact that Rabbi Landesman was not able to get a mainstream publisher, even a Jewish publishing company such as Artscroll or Feldheim to put out the book. All of this contributes to the sense that this is a vanity project of no consequence. This may be true, but it is all the more the pity. Rabbi Landesman is a talented writer with a self-deprecating sense of humor, who deserves a larger hearing then just the Orthodox-blogosphere. His perspective and life experiences span the Orthodox world; thus allowing him to speak to both Haredim and the Modern Orthodox. Furthermore I believe his is a voice that both of these worlds need to hear as he offers plenty of tough love for both sides. The fact that Rabbi Landesman could not get a major publisher tells us less about his talent as a writer and more about the sad state of affairs we are in today.
The essays in the book are connected by three themes. The first are Rabbi Landesman's observations about Jewish education and teaching high school students. Closely connected to this theme is the second, what is wrong with the Modern Orthodox world, particularly its educational system. Rabbi Landesman was the Hebrew principal at the Modern Orthodox Yula high school in Los Angeles for a number of years up until a few years ago so he is speaking from practical experience. The problems as he sees them are mainly, a casual attitude toward Jewish law, particularly when it interferes with the desired teenage lifestyle and an obsession with getting into elite secular colleges and the whole buying into of secular definitions of success. Perhaps Rabbi Landesman's strongest words are reserved for Haredim, the third theme. Rabbi Landesman is the product of an older Haredi generation that to put it simplistically I would say was more "moderate." I think it is more accurate to say that they were still part of American society, held in check by it, and were not actively engaged in waging a war against it. It is this sort of world that could produce such a story as the adolescent Rabbi Landesman going to a Pirates (back when they were still worth watching) double-header against the Dodgers at Forbes field with Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax pitching back to back and Rabbi Landesman praying that God not send the Messiah until after the second game. This sensibility was strongly enhanced by the fact that Rabbi Landesman grew up in McKeesport PA (where he literally married the girl next door, my father's older sister). His essays "Baruch Hashem, Nothing has Changed," "Yankel zt''l," and "The Day that Satmar Went Mainstream" are truly gut-wrenching. To top things off, Rabbi Landesman has plenty to denounce both sides with when it comes to crass materialism.
One thing that really struck me on a personal level when reading the book over Passover, (and it was certainly worth my while despite seeing the original posts and having read a rough draft a few months earlier) was the repeated theme that after all the years he spent teaching teenagers and having been one himself that he did not understand them. (See particularly "Get Plenty of Rest and a Daily Dose of Apathy.") Right before Passover I was informed by the administration of the Hebrew Academy that I was not going to be offered a job to come back to for the fall. They were impressed by my dedication and the high level and quality of the lectures I gave. That being said, they felt that I lacked the "right touch" for dealing with teenagers. I had walked into this school into a difficult if not impossible task that I, as a new teacher that students had no reason to respect, should teach a course that they had every reason to regard as a freebie to pass the time in their last year in school before going on to Israel and college and actually put together a meaningful course. I refused to take the easy way out and my reward was to be let go. I found reading No Basketball Courts to be a big comfort; rather than being someone fired from a job, I was being placed in good company, Rabbi Landesman's. Maybe in a few decades I will be as talented a writer and teacher as he is while still being let go by schools for not being the "proper fit."