Playing Favorites

When I was a kid, I was a very important person in shul. My dad was not at all prominent in the greater society — he merely worked for his brother, selling toys and stationery as a wholesaler in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, starting his workday at 7 a.m. and working through 7 p.m. every day, including Sunday. (Sabbath-observant, he got to leave midafternoon on Fridays.) But at shul, he was well liked, even loved, and was the vice president of the local Young Israel. He was very important there, and I got treated great.

Then he died — cut down by leukemia at age 45. At his funeral, everyone from shul attended and promised to love our family, to remain close. In time, though, the bonds loosened. There were fewer visits on Shabbat to our home; fewer invitations to others’ homes. And then it happened. One Shabbat, amid 20 talking boys, I was singled out to be chastised — to be quiet. That had never before happened to me.

Never when dad was alive. I suddenly learned that, if some kid had to be made an example, had to be chastised for the noise, it was best to sanction the orphans. Kids with living fathers were protected. Their dads paid dues.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we are warned so clearly to enact justice fairly: “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” — Pursue justice in heated pursuit. Do not pervert judgment. Do not play favorites in judgment by recognizing certain faces over others. Do not take bribes because bribes blind the eyes of even the wisest judges and pervert the integrity of the words of even the most righteous people. (Deuteronomy 16:19-20).

For many of us, these Torah mandates seem pretty easy to align with — forbidding bribery, requiring unperverted justice, commanding strict fairness in court. But howzabout us, in everyday life? Do we play by these rules?

When we meet someone wealthy, alongside someone of humble means, do we accord dignity to the modest as the rich guy pushes ahead of him? The modest man is telling of his daughter’s tragedy, her victimization at the hands of a man who has harassed her out of her Jewish religious faith and practice, but suddenly the rich guy pushes in to tell a joke. Who among us dares to say: “Excuse me, we were just speaking about this man’s — and his daughter’s — tragedy.”

Tevye sings it because we know it: “And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong. When you’re rich, they think you really know.”

That indeed is what they think.

It is easy to overlook the orphan, the widow — or, in today’s society, the divorced and the young single in her 40s — because, well, they don’t fit into the “model of success.” If we hang around them, we might catch whatever they are carrying. In time, if not immunized, we might be renting a condo instead of owning a house.

Do we hear them? When they ask our help to find a match for life? When they ask for Shabbat home hospitality? Do we approach the boy and girl whose father or mother has died, or whose father is not Jewish, or the married man who merely works for his brother? I don’t think so. Not in my experience.

Listen to someone of modest means at a Shabbat hotel program lament a theft of $500 cash from his room, and who among us thinks of taking up a collection to salvage that family’s oneg? Instead, we have grist for a new mill — table conversation at lunch.

“Did you hear about the family that was robbed?”

“Yeah, it was $500, I heard.”

“Should we help them out?”

“Naaaah. They were stupid. They should have put their cash in the safe.”

Maybe that is why the Torah commands us in a strange, double command: Tzedek, tzedek — justice, justice shall you pursue. Because, amid a smug sense that no one can bribe me, that I am above being perverted in justice, that I surely would exact only pure justice if I were a judge of the Superior Court, the reality is that I — and the vast majority of us — never become clothed in the black judicial robes of the bench. But we do indeed sit in judgment of people every day of our lives. At work. At play. At home.

We legitimately encourage our kids to play with — and later to marry — approved kids from approved families. We legitimately protect them from bad elements in society. Yet we also cast our net of judgment wider, writing off so many good people, little people, the financially less successful, the children of the unimportant, just on the fringe of society’s excellence, qualified to enter yet desperately trying to gain admittance. The singles. The divorced. The boys and girls without a parent, whether missing one due to death, divorce or simple parental apathy.

Do you take bribes? Think about it.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California, is rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine and an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School.


Prager’s Tactics Are Lacking

Dennis Prager uses half of what I said to the L.A. Times and gives the impression that I am one of those awful leftists who are “either morally confused, immoral or lack courage.” Here is the complete quote, which shows that I was describing a dilemma, not my political position: “Liberals are on the side of the underdog. The people who’ve had their cities turned into rubble look like the underdog. There’s embarrassment about being a Jew and a feeling of alienation from the Jewish community, a fear that it’s been taken over by the right wing.” It’s the last phrase that Prager couldn’t repeat without revealing his hidden reason for the attack, so he lies about the real subject of the Times article — that a group of Hollywood Jews are trying to find a way to reach the community, which can only happen in a language the community speaks. The problem for Prager is that artists speak a language he refuses to learn.

Using Wagner’s politics to forever “disassociate artists from their art” allows him to neatly hide from the moral sympathies of the mass of artists, who are not the progenitors of the death camps. Prager declares himself intellectually dead by his own hand, since he reduces art to nothing more than diversion or decoration, and artists to nothing more than mindless children.

But he has to do this, otherwise he would have to live with contradictions, a balance impossible for most conservatives who split the world into good and evil, and especially deny their own contribution to the evil one is fighting. Artists teach nothing if not connection, and connection breeds sympathy, and sympathy sometimes exceeds itself, chesed (lovingkindness) without gavurah (restriction).

But the impulse to unlimited compassion is better than the impulse toward unlimited judgment, else we would not pray every day for God’s mercy. The liberal fantasy is the dream of what might be, like the bounty of a Botticelli spring, and the conservative fantasy is kitsch, cowboy art, nostalgia for a world that never was, with punishment for those who tell the truth about that self-deception.

Prager’s politics may even be Jewish heresy. The Torah is brave enough to recognize our own role in the creation of Amalek while still calling for Amalek’s destruction, but the Torah is braver than Dennis Prager, who has yet to move to Israel with his family, so his children can ride the buses until they’re old enough to join the army, rather like the son of that terrible leftist Michael Lerner.

The right-wingers here who call for the harshest treatment of the Arabs, while keeping their children out of the Israel Defense Forces, are cousins of those rich leaders of Hamas who strap the bombs on the children of the poor, never on their own. Prager gets his courage by proxy, the courage that gives him the right to call me a coward.

While some of us are working carefully and, by necessity, quietly to bring more Jews into the community, Prager’s sermon to the choir, his mocking castigations, his arrogant assumption of moral clarity, contributes nothing — and makes things worse. He drives Jews away.

Michael Tolkin is the co-writer of “Changing Lanes,” named the best picture of the year by Catholics In Media Associates. His most recent novel, “Under Radar,” is published by Atlantic Books.

It’s Not Easy Backing Simon

When Dr. Joel L. Strom was attending services recently at Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica, a lady walked up, fixed him with a stern eye and spit out, "You are a traitor to your people."

Strom, a 48-year-old dentist, incurred the lady’s wrath because he is an ardent Republican who serves as statewide volunteer chair in the gubernatorial campaign of Bill Simon Jr.

"I guess for some people it’s still an anomaly to be a Jewish Republican," Strom said during an interview in his Beverly Hills office. "What I mostly get, though, is, ‘How can you possibly be a Republican?’ I think, though, that attitude is changing."

It’s still not easy to be a Republican activist in California, where the Jewish vote in presidential elections generally hovers around 80 percent for the Democratic candidate, but the youthful-looking Strom seems to be holding up well.

On the day of the interview, Strom finally had some cause for cheer in a campaign dogged by charges of financial improprieties, a flap over gay rights, lackluster campaigning and frequent staff changes.

Simon has had to loan his campaign vast sums from his personal fortune to remain competitive in TV ads, but he can’t approach the megamillions raised by Gov. Gray Davis in his reelection bid.

The good news of the day was that a judge had just thrown out a $78 million fraud judgment against Simon’s family investment firm. At the same time, a poll showed that, for the first time, Simon had pulled ahead of Davis among respondents most likely to vote on Nov. 5, which could prove a distinct advantage for the Republican if the voter turnout is low.

The political bias of the poll has been questioned, but in general, Davis seems to run only six or seven points ahead of Simon among all voters, testifying to the widespread unpopularity of the incumbent governor among independents, and even among Democrats.

Strom’s first taste of political activism came as a junior high school student when he volunteered as an envelope stuffer in the 1968 presidential campaign of liberal Democrat Eugene McCarthy. Four years later, he performed the same task for the losing Democratic presidential contender George McGovern.

As an 11th-grader at Hamilton High, Strom ran for class president. The previous incumbent had depleted the class treasury, leaving it with a shocking $100 deficit, and Strom, running on a balanced budget platform, won handily.

In the early 1980s, as a volunteer lobbyist for his dental society, Strom also attended a kaffeeklatsch for a rising young assemblyman, named Gray Davis.

However, around the same time, Strom became disillusioned with the Democratic Party on two issues he cared for passionately — health care and race relations — and he switched his registration to Republican.

During the following six years, Strom concentrated on his dental practice and held various offices in his professional associations, but returned to active politics as a volunteer in the 1992 George H. W. Bush/Dan Quayle presidential campaign.

He took on increasingly responsible volunteer positions in Pete Wilson’s 1994 gubernatorial bid and George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential bid, and was elected vice president of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Los Angeles chapter.

By the spring of last year, Strom considered retiring from the political battlefields, when he was introduced to Simon, at that time a political unknown and given practically no chance in the Republican primary against popular Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and Bill Jones, California’s secretary of state, a veteran politician.

"I liked Bill Simon right away," Strom recalled. "He is very personable and optimistic, has integrity and a great heart, is devoutly religious and eschews negative politics."

These days, Strom said, he is putting in four to five hours a day on his volunteer position and even more on weekends. He has the backing of his family, with his wife, Holly, a consultant pharmacist, serving on Simon’s health care task force, and daughter, Natalie, 10, writing letters to the editor on behalf of her favorite candidate.

As Simon’s state volunteer chair, Strom coordinates the grass-roots efforts of between 2,000 to 3,000 volunteers in California, who stuff envelopes, walk precincts, organize and attend support rallies and, like Strom’s daughter, write letters to editors.

Together with such active local Jewish Republicans as Dr. Reed Wilson, Dr. Phil Kurzner and Bruce Bialosky, Strom has been instrumental in drafting Simon’s policy positions and ads on "Jewish" issues, which include sharp criticism of anti-Semitic disturbances on university campuses and solid support for Israel.

"We took Bill and [former New York Mayor] Rudy Giuliani to Congregation Bais Naftoli on La Brea six months ago and then had lunch at Canter’s," Strom said. "On the last Yom Kippur, Bill spoke at the services for the Iranian Senior Center."

In what Strom considers a measure of Simon’s character, the gubernatorial candidate confided at one point that he, as a devout Catholic, had been deeply moved when he visited the memorial site at the Dachau concentration camp while bicycling through Europe as a young man.

"We urged Bill to mention this experience when talking to Jewish audiences, but he objected because it would seem like pandering," Strom said. "We finally convinced him to talk about it."

Strom also said that Simon has pledged to visit Israel during his first year in office.

Looking at the political demographics in the state’s Jewish community, Strom estimated that one of every four Jewish voters is Republican, with the proportion rising sharply among Jews under 40.

Historically, in the 1998 gubernatorial election, Democrat Davis received 83 percent of the Jewish vote, against 13 percent for Republican Dan Lungren.

However, in 1994, Democrat Kathleen Brown drew only 61 percent of the Jewish vote, against 33 percent for Republican Wilson, according to statistics in "Jews in American Politics." Ira Forman, the book’s co-editor, warns, however, that because of the small number of Jews in the sample polling, the figures should be viewed with caution.

"The profile of the Jewish community is changing," Strom said. "It’s moving beyond such issues as abortion and gay rights and turning to bread-and-butter issues, such as health care, education, the huge budget deficit and taxes." On all these points, Davis is vulnerable, Strom said, although he grants that his candidate is fighting an uphill battle, in which, he added, "the media has not been helpful."