Monday, March 9, 2009

No Touching


On the day of the Israeli election I found myself a poll-watcher in a National Religious school in Gilo, an Eastern suburb of Jerusalem, which was thrown up over the Green Line a couple of miles from Bethlehem. We don't call it a settlement simply because of its proximity and density. Anyway, on the wall outside of the classroom, which served as our polling station, was this poster, one of a half dozen depicting the spirit with which a good Jewish child obeys the Ten Commandments. 

This one, obviously enough, is about keeping the Sabbath. Little brother's panic (and--as with biblical younger brothers--spiritual triumph) is plain. Older brother is so carried away drawing pictures of the Rebbe, Jerusalem scenes, and Sabbath candles, that he has failed to notice Mother and little sister actually lighting the Sabbath candles, which is bringing him dangerously close to sin. A potential violation of the Sabbath is just seconds away. Thank God for younger brother.

THE VERY NEXT day, as it happens, I found myself flying off to Florence, a 60th. birthday present from Sidra; soon I was visiting the Convent of San Marco, whose murals by Fra Angelico--I now could not stop thinking!--seemed to me curiously like the posters in Gilo. Okay, the Fra Angelicos are masterpieces, though in truth some San Marco murals (apparently done by lesser artists) are ho-hum depictions of Gospel scenes, the blood of martyrs dripping in cartoony ways. Overall, however, the energies of indoctrination were pervasive in either place: not hard to imagine being novice. The real difference was that San Marco was a 15th. century tribute to Dominicans, supported by the Pope, feudal tithes, and Florentine merchants. The Gilo school was built a few years ago by a democratic state, with public tax dollars.

Columbia's legendary Sidney Morgenbesser, once quipped: "The philosopher's axiom is Ought implies Can, while the Jewish version is Can implies Don't." As the child of an orthodox family, I suppose he knew about the fear of touching crayons. Presumably, he also knew about San Marco, where the fear of touching was raised to a higher power. But then, he also knew about Columbia classrooms, where all such fears turned into punch-lines.