Monday, November 10, 2008

A Tooth for a Tooth!

A tooth for a tooth

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein is a famous orthodox rabbi who has made a philanthropic allegiance with famous evangelist Christian leaders, who are also orthodox in their own way (the way of the church, that is). He is founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. With their support, Rabbi Eckstein has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for worthy causes here in the holy land, and has become a celebrated figure. Have a look at this excerpt from the New York Times Magazine:

… Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein has traveled to China to liberate persecuted pastors, hiked through Ethiopia and Siberia in search of vulnerable Jews, advised prime ministers in Jerusalem and met with evangelical Republicans at the White House. His immediate plans include transporting an entire biblical lost tribe from northeastern India to the Holy Land and starting a Spanish-language ministry for the Pentecostals of Latin America. He has even talked about recording some sacred hymns with Debby Boone. And, as Eckstein himself might say, God only knows what he'll do after that…

But when I see pictures of the illustrious Rabbi Eckstein, my mind wanders back to first grade at the Hebrew School (Hillel Academy) in Ottawa, Canada, in 1957, where Yechiel and I were great friends.

Grade one was a frightening experience: one half day learning English subjects with the battleship Mrs. Martin who wandered around class, rapping our knuckles collectively for any single annoyance. The other half day was spent studying our demanding Jewish religion by the benevolent Mr. Werner Bauer (who was kind enough to let this hyperactive kid wander around his classroom all year). I still remember Mr. Bauer's description of the Garden of Eden, as a place where one might dream of fried chicken, and a plate (kosher of course) would suddenly appear. But I didn't like chicken. And I was always afraid the Lord was going to get me for some transgression or other. As an impressionable and neurotic six year-old, I once stood for hours on my bed late at night, with my hand on my head (instead of a kipa), because I couldn't help thinking about what I thought was a solemn prayer (it was actually the Israeli national anthem!).

Alas, I digress. Very often on Saturday, after synagogue, I would head over to Yechiel's house for lunch. His father, Rabbi Simon L. Eckstein, our Rabbi, who was quite stern during Sabbath services, was more lightheaded at home. He would ask me to greet the man under the table before partaking the Sabbath meal. I never saw anyone under the table, but why argue with the Rabbi? I would obediently wish the man who wasn't there "Shabbat shalom", and the Kiddush and meal would commence.

After the Sabbath dinner, the Rabbi and Rebbitzen went upstairs, leaving us juniors in control of the ground floor. Two hyperactive kids on Saturday afternoon. Yechiel and I liked to play soccer in the long hall, where he would invariably win (he was tall, athletic, and imposing, even at the age of six). But the hall was too dark to see the ball, and it was the Sabbath.

No problem. We had our own interpretation of the laws prohibiting manual labor on the Sabbath. We understood the teaching in its most literal sense. Thus, while turning on the lights with one's hands was strictly prohibited (and probably punishable by death), nothing in the Bible said anything about turning on the lights using one's teeth. So we perfected the art of balancing on a chair and turning lights off and on with our fledgling dentition.

After trouncing me soundly (actually quietly, so as not to wake the adults) in the hall, it was time to retire to the den, where we could watch the Ottawa Roughriders (they would go on to win the Grey Cup in 1960) play Canadian football. Turning on and off the tv with our teeth was a cinch. The problem was changing the channels. In those days channels were controlled by a large mechanical knob, one click at a time, and in Ottawa the only two television stations were channels 4 and 13. Changing all these channels with his teeth was an art which Yechiel perfected. I seem to recall that the Rabbi did eventually catch us red-handed (or toothed, in this case).

Over the years, we continued to worship football, alongside religion. After all, Dave Thelen, subsequently became our sports teacher, and I would later shake the hand of the greatest CFL quarterback of them all, Russ Jackson. But that's another story.

Yechiel as a pupil, was good at everything. He was handsome, charming, smart and a great voice (I understood he has five CDs of hassidic music to his credit). During the winter, we would play football during recess. On one occasion, Yechiel had caught the ball and was on his way to a decisive touchdown. I was the lone defender. I lunged at his feet has he confidently ran around me and managed to trip him up in the snow. Tackling Yechiel was such a rare and exceptional incident, that I remember this brief moment of childhood glory to this day.

After elementary school we parted ways for several decades. About ten years ago, early Sunday morning, I was watching tv (again), this time in a hotel in the US while attending a scientific meeting (dental research, as it so happened). Pat Robertson (I am always mesmerized by evangelical shows every Sunday morning in the States) said "Now I bring you live our dear friend at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein." There he was, Yechiel, tv videoconferencing with his buddy the Reverend in front of millions of American viewers.

More recently, I was playing jazz at a local reception of some 500 people honoring the orthodox volunteers ("Zaka") who identify bodies (sometimes body parts) following terrorist attacks. It was a surrealistic experience. Most of the people there were ultraorthodox, and here we were playing jazz standards (including "All of Me", which I joked, might be an appropriate anthem for what they do).

Suddenly I heard a voice from the distant past talking in anglicized Hebrew. Stupefied, I left the band and entered the gigantic adjacent hall. There, addressing the reception, was none other than Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein (his organization is one of their major donors). After Yechiel's introduction, I managed to say hello briefly, and then he went back to his table, where he rejoined Shimon Peres and Bibi Netanyahu.

What can I tell you? I'm looking at this famous international figure, who raises hundreds of millions of dollars and chums it up with famous evangelists and heads of state, and all I can think of is how well his teeth are still functioning fifty years on. Shame on me!

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