Life Tip #29 – “Grow Some Legs” – Ezekiel 22
[Adapted from my weekly podcast The Schrift, available on Spotify and Apple Podasts]
A few weeks ago, I was at a Shabbat dinner at a Chabad for students in Berlin. The rabbi is 30 years old and originally comes from Paris. Looking at him, it would be hard if not impossible to know he’s a Parisian. He dresses, in short, like a Chabad rabbi—black pants, black hat, black shoes, blackish beard. There are no copies of Madame Bovary or Three Musketeers on his bookshelf, rather heavy tomes of the Talmud and Rashi and the Rebbe. He does not listen to Debussy or Berlioz or even Chopin, but rather prefers the Rebbe’s joyous Nigunim. Although he grew up in Paris, he wasn’t very often sipping a glass of Bordeaux on the Champs d’Elysees while debating Sartre. He spent his youth, instead, in Jewish schools, in the Yeshiva, studying Torah not in French but in Hebrew and Aramaic.
Yet, the other evening, as he was saying goodbye to me and another guy, named A., at the front door, he made a fascinating comment. As it turned out, A. was also French.
“Look how French he looks,” the rabbi said. I looked at A. A. had on a plaid sport jacket, neatly pressed pants, shiny leather shoes, and a Fedora hat. I hadn’t really noticed his outfit up till now, to be honest. “Only a French guy would dress like that,” the rabbi continued. He then directed our attention to his own outfit. “I also dress like a French guy,” he said. He was right. His pants were also neatly pressed with a crease down the middle. His shoes were well-shined and even had pointy tips. “You see, my pants are neatly ironed, and look at my shoes!” I’m not that into fashion, so I had never really noticed these finer details of the rabbi’s outfit. “Other Chabad rabbis don’t dress like this,” he continued. “It’s just because I’m French that I do.” I then asked him about me. I was wearing brown Clarks boots, black Levis jeans, and a tucked-in black denim shirt. What about me? I asked. Where do I look like I’m from?
“You dress like an American,” he answered. I don’t think it was a compliment.
What the rabbi’s example shows is that we are inevitable sponges. If you grow up in France, you’re going to end up to some extent very French—even if you try to live a purely Orthodox Jewish lifestyle without secular influences. But humans are not merely sponges in their childhood environment. We are constantly adapting our behavior to our surroundings, at all ages, whether we intend to or not—and very quickly.
A couple of weeks ago, I flew to Israel from Germany. Like a sponge, I immediately absorbed the culture of my surroundings. I suddenly had the urge to listen to Israeli rock stars like Aviv Geffen and Eviatar Banai—singers whom I would not dream of listening to in Berlin. My taste in food changed. I began to wake up in the morning craving crisp Israeli salad instead of the mushroom and cheddar cheese omelette I tend to eat in Berlin. Most significantly, I noticed a change in myself on Shabbat. I try to keep Shabbat in Berlin, but I am constantly making exceptions—using my phone for Google Maps but not for Instagram; watching YouTube not for entertainment but to follow along to yoga videos; riding the U-Bahn but trying not to press the electronic button to open the door. But as Shabbat descended on Jerusalem, I knew that things would be different this week. It’s not that I kept Shabbat perfectly, but I felt myself less willing to make exceptions the way I do in Berlin. In Jerusalem, the entire city shuts down on Shabbat. It becomes a ghost town. Stores are shuttered up. The roads are empty. The cats come out to regain control of the city. Tumbleweeds seem to roll down Ben-Yehuda Street. And so, like any human, whether they want to or not, I succumbed to my surroundings and became the more Israeli, more Jewish, more Jerusalemite version of myself purely based on where I was physically located.
Still, I also noticed how much more German I had become as a result of spending the last couple of years in Berlin. At the Shuk, I found myself asking permission to taste one of the strawberries before buying a kilo whereas in the past I would have just opened my mouth and eaten one or two. When someone shoved me to the side on the escalator to pass me by, I was irritated at such uncivility. Even now, as I write this, I am at a restaurant and have my shoes propped up on the chair opposite me and I am expecting any moment for someone to come over and yell at me to put my feet down. So far, no one has.
In 1912, Franz Kafka, aged twenty-nine, befriended a young man named Yitzhak Löwy. Löwy was working as an actor in a traveling Yiddish Theater troupe from Lviv. Löwy and his friends had come to Prague to put on their Yiddish Theater every night in the cafés of the Old Town. Löwy was from what we might call the “old country.” His native language was, of course, Yiddish. He did not read Goethe or Kant but rather Shalom Aleichem and the Baal Shem Tov. He was not clean-shaven with a top hat but rather sported a long-beard and wore a kippah. The plays he performed with his troupe were not dignified five-act tragedies in the ilk of Schiller but rather wild, raucous affairs in which actors smacked each other, ran out into the audience, and laughed boisterously. Though also Jewish, Franz was from quite a different milieu indeed. Franz did not speak Yiddish but rather high German. Franz knew little of Shalom Aleichem but could recite Goethe by heart. Franz parted his hair neatly in the center, wore a three-piece suit every day but Sunday, and would never dare to grow a beard—not that he could.
Today, we might picture Franz and Yitzhak as a cute couple, a pair of long lost twins. But Franz’s father Hermann didn’t find anything cute about his son’s new best friend. Hermann was born to a kosher butcher in a town of about one-thousand people in the Czech countryside. Hermann’s father, the kosher butcher, decided to marry his wife Franziska for the romantic reason that she lived across the street from him and, well, why not. But even though Hermann grew up in the Shtetl, he, and millions from his generation, wanted to escape the ghetto and assimilate into mainstream European culture. Hermann moved to Prague, started a small business on the Old Town Square, and left the ghetto and Jewish law long behind. And he raised his children to be even more secularized and assimilated than he was. He sent them to German-speaking schools and encouraged Franz to become a lawyer in private business. He did this out of love for them—he wanted them to be successful and not to be hindered by their Judaism. This was the pattern of millions of Jewish families in Central and Western Europe from the mid to late nineteenth century.
When Hermann saw his son hanging out with Yitzhak, he was aghast. The Jews had worked so hard, he thought, to remove the stench of the ghetto from their skin, and now his son was voluntarily spending all of his time with one of these dirty, backward, uncivilized Jews from the East. Hermann’s rage at his son over this relationship culminated when he spoke the following now-famous lines to Franz: “If you lie down with dogs, you’ll rise up with fleas.” If you lie down with dogs, you’ll rise up with fleas. In short, Hermann was making the same point that I’ve been trying to express all along: that people are sponges. The truth is that, literally, if you sleep on top of a bunch of dogs who all have fleas, you’ll probably wake up with fleas all over you. In this case, Yitzhak was the dirty dog, and the fleas was the culture of the Ostjuden threatening to infect his beloved son.
Hermann was on to more than he realized. Without knowing it, he was describing the fate of his son’s generation. But he reached the opposite conclusion as he should have. If we continue with Hermann’s metaphor, the dogs with which his son was lying down were not the Ostjuden but rather the Austrians and Germans. Yitzhak Löwy was a drop in the bucket within Kafka’s character formation. By the time Löwy got to Kafka, it was too late to effect any real change on his personality. By that point, Kafka, and all of the Western Jews of his generation, had been swimming in German culture, soaking up it all—the language, the traditions, the mentality, the values. For Franz to revert back to the ghetto Jew which had Hermann so panicked, a few hours a day for a few months with Löwy would not have sufficed. Franz would have needed to spend decades locked inside the walls of a Silesian Shtetl—and even then, he still would have not fully scrubbed off his Germanness.
One of the predominant anti-Semitic slanders of the Nazis was that assimilated German Jews could never really be “German”—that their ghetto past would always hover around their person, inconspicuous and yet simultaneously unmistakable—like the mark of Cain. The Nazis and their predecessors claimed, for example, that even when Jews spoke German, you could still hear the remnants of Yiddish in their voices—that they were incapable of speaking pure, high German. One of the forebearers of this idea was Richard Wagner. In his book Jewishness in Music, wrote that legendary German-Jewish composers like Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer could not really write German music because they weren’t really German—they were German-Jewish. The term anti-Semites used to describe the German spoke by Jews was mauscheln. In the verb mauscheln, one can hear the word Maus—as in the rodent. Etymologically, mauscheln seems to suggest that when Jews spoke German, the little, mice-like peeps of Yiddish would involuntarily spurt out. In 1870, an anti-Semitic pamphlet known as Der Mauscheljude was published which warned of an international Jewish conspiracy. In 1936, the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer put forth a warning to parents of innocent German girls. It instructed them to guard their children from the Jews who are the devil in disguise, even if they try to seduce them with their mauscheln.
Without realizing it, the Nazis were actually being very ironic here when they accused Jews of not being able to really speak German—just as Hermann Kafka was unintentionally being ironic when he warned Franz not to hang out with Löwy or he might turn into an Ostjuden. In fact, it would have been a blessing if the Jews really were mauscheln-ing. The problem was the exact opposite; they weren’t mauscheln-ing at all, rather, they were speaking perfect high German. We shouldn’t expect anything otherwise; they had been so immersed in secular German culture that they became, well, German. They were not like the Chabad rabbi who grew up in Paris but hung dearly on to Jewish culture so as not to become fully secularized but for whom French culture inevitably seeped in. Instead, the German Jews did everything they possibly could to assimilate. They assimilated too much. In fact, they assimilated so much that they became indistinguishable from non-Jewish Germans. And that is precisely what damned them.
The haftarah from to the parsha of Acharei Mot comes from the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel delivered this prophecy in 590 B.C.E. We find Ezekiel, then, speaking four years before Babylon’s invasion of Jerusalem and Babylon’s destruction of the First Temple. Ezekiel is infuriated by the behavior of the Jerusalemites and he correctly foresees doom for the city. Ezekiel, then, wishes to denounce the Jews for their alleged sinfulness, but he also wishes to comfort them and give them hope for a future restoration.
In one particularly poignant moment, chapter twenty-two, verse six, Ezekiel remarks that the princes of Israel—that is, the leaders—only think in terms of military strength and the shedding of blood. This is a comment not so dissimilar from Bismarck’s quip that blood and iron will determine the great political questions of the day. Ezekiel’s point is a straightforward one. He is lamenting that even the princes, that is, the rulers of the society, those who should set an example for the people, are themselves corrupted. Their example inevitably trickles down to the lower rungs of the polis and prevent the citizens from even knowing that they can look upward.
What Ezekiel is getting at here, I think, is that, as humans, we are inevitably sponges, and this can be both blessing and curse. We have much less control as to how we’re going to turn out than we’d like to believe. Our environment seeps into our psyche whether we like it or not, whether we resist or not. This is why the rabbi irons his pants before going to synagogue, why I have more respect for rules after I spend enough time in Germany, why Kafka wrote prose like Goethe, and why Ezekiel feared that, if the Jewish princes did not change, the people themselves would be stuck imitating them.
As I discussed in last week’s episode, we always have choices. And one choice we may be overlooking is who and what we surround ourselves with. What kind of dogs are we getting down on the ground with? Do they have fleas or a freshly shampooed coat? Would Hermann Kafka approve? Would you want him to?
We may not look like sponges, but our skin and our psyches are just as porous as those sponges swaying back-and-forth deep in the seas like Hawaiian hula dancers. In order to survive, these sponges must have the water of the sea constantly flowing through their bodies. They have no nervous, digestive, or circulatory system. All they do is absorb, absorb, unthinkingly and unquestionably absorb. We, as humans, are not so different. Most sponges in the sea are stuck where they are for life. Whatever water comes their way, they soak up. In this case, they really do have no choice. For a long time, it was believed that all sponges were totally stuck where they were for life. Yet, in 2021, researchers discovered that deep in the Arctic Sea, there are sponges who do creep along the ocean floor. And they do so at the expense of their bodies. They crawl on to new horizons, leaving snaking trails of sponge skeleton in their wake. Scientists believe sponges have developed this behavior in order to find food or to spread their offspring more fruitfully.
God made us like the sponges, but He also gave us legs. If sponges are creeping around the floor of the Arctic Ocean with pieces of their skeletons breaking off all just to find a new milieu, we really have no excuse to also migrate on to better pastures.