For those of us who remember the warm relationship New York’s 52nd Governor, Mario Cuomo, had with the Jewish community during his term in the 1980’s, it is hard to believe that his son, Governor Andrew Cuomo, is anti-Semitic. But those are indeed the charges being made against him in the wake of his recent COVID-19 “Cluster Action Initiative” directed exclusively at “ultra-orthodox” Jewish neighborhoods, and promulgated on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Simchas Torah. The edict caught Jewish observers and community leaders off guard. And though the new rules have been widely denounced, by both those inside and outside the Jewish community, as rank religious persecution, I’m still perplexed that Governor Cuomo’s son is at odds with his father’s natural friends and allies.
It’s not enough to be “a Jew in your heart.” You have to actually commit to the Torah and live it. Without that commitment, studies show, we drift away, to our own existential peril.
Or is he?
This head-scratcher reminds me of a similar one I wrestled within my own life, decades ago. When I was growing up, like others in Reform Jewish households, I thought all Jews were Democrats. I didn’t know any who weren’t—until I went to college, where I encountered Orthodox Jewish students for the first time.
I was fascinated. Academically, we had a lot in common. Like most people in our school, my religious classmates were focused on their studies and had lofty professional goals. But on the Sabbath, while I was trudging off to the library, arms full of books, they were in the campus synagogue. I admired, even envied, their adherence to the Torah. Still, I puzzled over their politics. Many of them were conservatives and active members of the College Republicans. It seemed a paradox.
The Democratic party, I had long been taught, was the party of the essential Jewish trait of rachmonis, or compassion, for others. I felt fairly certain that, if you don’t vote Democrat, you’re not a true Jew.
But my religious classmates who put the Torah’s laws into actual practice made me realize that there was more to being Jewish than voting for the party that represents feelings. It’s not enough to be “a Jew in your heart.” You have to actually commit to the Torah and live it. Without that commitment, studies show, we drift away, to our own existential peril.
Over the past several months of the pandemic lockdown, our children showed us what that commitment looks like.
REMOTE LEARNING DURING COVID-19: WHAT PARENTS LEARNED
For parents who wondered what their children do all day in school, the remote learning sessions during the COVID-19 shutdowns have presented an opportunity to find out. This was especially true in my case, because, unlike my children, I never attended yeshiva, a quasi-monastic academy for intense Talmudic study by boys or men. Nor had my husband, for that matter, until he was an adult. But, by the time we met and married, each of us had answered the question of what it meant to us to be Jewish, and “returned to our roots.” Now our children, not unlike children of immigrants, are being educated in a school system foreign to the one we knew.
For Orthodox Jews, Torah learning is both “essential” and “life-sustaining.” We believe the world depends on it.
Under normal circumstances, as I’ve been told, my sons begin their day in yeshiva with religious services, followed by breakfast. Next the young men in their shiur (or class) team up in pairs to tackle the Talmudic topic being studied that day, in-depth, as well as the major medieval and preeminent modern commentaries and analyses on the topic—for at least four hours. The morning session includes a lecture by their Rosh Yeshiva, the senior scholar and head of the institution.
After a break for lunch and rest, the students pair up again—usually with a different partner—for broader, faster-paced study of the same Talmudic tractate (volume of the Talmud). This afternoon session, of like duration, typically involves reference only to the two most important commentators. These are esteemed Rabbi Shimon Yitchzchaki (known by the acronym of his name that spells “Rashi”) and his fellow 11th century Frenchmen (known as the Tosafists). Both are found on the printed page of virtually every folio of the Talmud, which is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism.
After a brief break for dinner, the study resumes with a review of the day’s earlier learning, until the evening service, typically around 10 p.m. Many students stay in the study hall after this service to continue their studies afterwards, however, until eventually, the need to rise early for religious services and do it again the next day counsels turning in for the night.
Back in March, when my youngest boys were abruptly sent home from their respective yeshivas (and, incidentally, probably got their parents sick), it was hard to see how they would replicate their daily routine over the telephone with the same intensity and excitement they were used to when learning together in person. (Zoom was not an option, given the Yeshiva world’s cultural mores.)
It did not take long for them to kick into gear, however. Yeshiva boys are resourceful, and, in short time and on their own initiative, they transformed our smallish house into an alt-bais medrash (study hall). Each boy set himself up in his own room with a folding table on which to spread out gemarahs (Talmud volumes) and piles of other books. They called in to teleconference with the Rosh Yeshiva in the morning, and later, with their chavrusas (study partners) morning, afternoon, and late at night.
Learning with a chavrusah is not a quiet, contemplative exercise. There’s a lot of yelling back and forth over how to interpret the text, in an intense verbal battle to get to the truth. In our family, this also means a lot of pacing around the room. With the two of them going at it, one in the basement, the other overhead on the top floor, I often had to shut the door to my office and turn on the white-noise machine so I could hear myself think. But, if their mother can admit just this much in an academic voice, I did so happily.
It was encouraging that, notwithstanding the chaos (and fear, in those early days) the boys had so quickly resumed their studies, albeit remotely. For Orthodox Jews, Torah learning is both “essential” and “life-sustaining.” We believe the world depends on it. Our children’s return to it during the displacement of the lockdowns was the one bright light in the otherwise dismal days of COVID-19.
THE GOVERNOR’S “CLUSTER ACTION INITIATIVE”
For the most part, my sons’ remote learning didn’t seem like anti-Semitic persecution. After all, public schools were also shut down. Department stores, restaurants, movie theaters—all but “essential” businesses were closed, across the country. To my mind, this upheaval in their lives was of a piece with the overall disruption of the entire social order, merely one more rattling link in a modern-day Great Chain of Being. But it was nothing personal.
These blatantly hostile references to Jews as disease spreaders echo the Jew-hatred of the Dark Ages and its plagues.
By the fall, the boys were finally back in yeshiva and settled into a normal routine. Their yeshivas were eager to do what was necessary to keep the students safe and avoid another shutdown. They complied with local protocols, including having the boys test for both COVID-19 and its antibodies. Many if not most of the boys were positive for antibodies and presented a relatively low risk. And although we heard of actual cases in each of their communities, these cases seemed, overall, to be milder. In any event, we were no longer getting the daily reports of serious illness and deaths that saddened our email boxes in the spring. All had calmed down, or so it seemed.
Then, only weeks into the new term, New York’s Governor promulgated another shutdown. And it was hard not to take this one personally.
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “Cluster Action Initiative,” announced on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Simchas Torah, sent New York synagogues and yeshivas scrambling. As described in one of several lawsuits challenging it, the targeted executive order established color-coded COVID-19 “hot-spot” zoning areas subject to gathering limits and restrictions that singled out known enclaves of the Hasidic and other strictly observant Jewish Orthodox communities.
As a practical matter, it meant a total lockdown of synagogues and yeshivas, with no end in sight. Moreover, this lockdown order, unlike the initial COVID-19 responses, was expressly directed at “ultra-Orthodox” Jews. The Governor said so himself, referring to the cluster as “a predominantly ultra-orthodox cluster.” In defense of the new shutdowns, he pointed to “issues in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, where because of their religious practices, etc., we’re seeing a spread.”
These blatantly hostile references to Jews as disease spreaders echo the Jew-hatred of the Dark Ages and its plagues. And, in the absence of concrete metrics to back them up, they make it hard to understand the Governor’s latest orders as anything other than anti-Semitic.
Still, the question remains, why would the Governor deliberately drain the reservoir of goodwill that has existed for so long between his family and the Jewish community?
Perhaps the answer is that it is not Governor Cuomo, but his base, that has changed. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Democrat party is not his father’s Democrat party. Nor is it my father’s. It has moved to the far progressive left, where it embraces a disturbingly virulent strain of anti-Semitism, the likes of which our immigrant parents never dreamed would come back to haunt them in this country. Then again, they never dreamed their American descendants would be enthusiastic Talmud scholars either.
The Democrat party base should revisit its roots. The whole world may depend on it.