Friday, November 26, 1999

We Need Aleph Jews (Jewish Week)


We Need Aleph Jews

by Joshua Hammerman
Originally Appeared in The Jewish Week, 11/26/99

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the so-called Alpha Male, the meat-and-potatoes tough guy capable of garnering hundreds of votes with every primal grunt. This is because Vice President Gore, at the behest of hired consultant Naomi Wolf, has apparently decided to beef up his image pumping political iron, and in his battle against the athletic but cerebral Bill Bradley he’s looked at the electoral map and opted to take the Ventura highway.

According to the Web site, the Alpha "puts the man back in manhood." It’s been rather funny seeing Al try to be something he’s not, sort of like watching Hillary Clinton stick a note into the Western Wall.

Or watching Jacob try to be Esau. For we all know that Esau was the first Alpha Jew, or Aleph Jew, I suppose -- even though we weren’t officially called Jews yet. Here was a guy for whom nature came naturally, a hairy ruddy hunter with a passion for hot soup. Passion is the operative word here, for Esau was passion incarnate, with all its negative baggage (no foresight, impulsive judgment), but all the positives too. Here was a guy who knew how to live for the moment. Esau was a great politician, so great that he was able to win over the toughest audience imaginable: his own father.

Jacob, on the other hand, was Bill Bradley without the jump shot. While Esau was out-there and intense, Jacob was literally in tents, introspective and aloof.

For two thousand years, Torah commentators almost uniformly endorsed Jacob’s way. Rebecca’s little skirt-hanger became the poster boy for the ideal Jewish male among the pasty Yeshiva set. Now, for many, this image has become a mark of shame. Now when we think "male Jew," the word nebbish usually comes to mind, a negative self-image that the ad campaign for Birthright Israel correctly identified. In its college phase, Birthright has marketed itself as the antidote to Jacoban Jew, much as the images of Ari Ben Canaan and other "tough Jews" inspired the previous generation of non-muscular males. Sandy Koufax was a hero not only because of the Yom Kippur thing, but because although he looked like the rest of us; beneath the Clark Kent appearance he was incredibly powerful. His voice was the voice of Jacob, but his left arm, man, THAT was the arm of Esau. Now Shawn Green, who even looks a little like Koufax, has picked up Esau’s big Dodger stick and hairy (and potentially even Mickey) mantle. He’s the next Jewish superstar and, thankfully, he knows it.

And so, fellow males, it is time to reclaim Esau as our own. Yes, Naomi, we all need to be Aleph Jews.

No, I’m not advocating that everyone drop their tefillin straps, pick up a gun with one hand and a Maccabee Beer in the other and go out and hunt venison in the backyard. We can’t go overboard on this one; something Gore has done. What we need to do is to find the synthesis that has eluded us since the first body-slam took place in Rebecca’s womb, that melding together of the hands of Esau and the voice of Jacob. Ironically, these two fraternal grapplers actually achieved that synthesis. By the time Jake and Esau were reunited, Jacob had learned how to wrestle at the ford of the Jabbok, and his name had been changed to Jacob "Hands of Esau" Israel. And then the next morning, Esau greeted his long-lost brother with a tag team of four hundred menacing honchos, but with gestures of sweetness that could only have been articulated by the voice of Jacob.

I’ve also tried to achieve that synthesis; not easy, since I’m not exactly athletic, although last week I did manage to reach the Bar Mitzvah boy when I threw the candy (OK, I was standing next to him). I saw long ago that all my rabbinical training had taken place in the tents of Jacob, while real life was being lived out in the fields of Esau; but I was fortunate to have a father who could take me there.

Cantor Michal Hammerman, my dad, died suddenly of a heart attack on New Years Day, 1979, one hour after the close of Hanukkah. This Aleph Jew had also been born on Hanukkah only 60 years earlier, and in between he brought to life the essence of that festival, a combination of oily miracle and Maccabean might that allowed him to amend the words of Zachariah: "Yes, by might, yes by power and yes by My spirit, says the Lord of hosts." And now, this Hanukkah, the Jews of Boston will gather at the shul that he served for 30 years, for a concert dedicated to his memory. We’ll remember, most of all, the passion.

For my father was not a man of words. He was a man of lyrics, but only if there was music behind them to sweep them aloft. He was primarily self-educated, although brilliant in his art; he avoided the ivory tower and disdained intellectualism. When I stumble to articulate, or scribble in my indecipherable handwriting, those are my father’s scrawls. But his hands of Esau went far beyond anything I’ll ever accomplish. He was a virtuoso with tools, a master builder. He even built a community residence for my brother and other adults with disabilities. And he did it all with passion.

Esau had the passion to live for the moment. Jacob, from his heel-grabbing birth, always arrived a minute too late (except when he wore the furry hands of Esau), ever detached from the experience at hand. Jewish males have been catching up to the moment ever since.

So thank you Naomi, Jesse V. and Al, for reminding us that we need Aleph Jews. And to make Aleph Jews, we need more Aleph rabbis.

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