I read about a Torah being desecrated by an anti-Semite dumping laundry detergent all over it.
I thought, “Of all the stuff on earth to destroy a Torah…laundry detergent.”
What a despicable act.
The Torah, housed in the basement of a fraternity house at George Washington University (GWU), was used for initiation ceremonies of the frat’s Jewish members.
I pictured that poor desecrated Torah, housed in a cold, dank basement, next to a bunch of old, over-used washing machines being mutilated with laundry detergent.
This disturbing story led me to ask five questions:
Is it kosher to use a Torah to initiate a member of a fraternity?
I doubt it.
Are Torahs allowed to be housed in basements…near washing machines and laundry detergent?
I don’t think so.
Aren’t Torahs suppose to be stored in the holiest part of the synagogue—in the Ark?
What’s my relationship with torahs, GWU and fraternities?
Is there a nexus between these three disparate subjects and my life?
And while I thought, one word echoed across the walls of my skull until it shot out of my mouth.
And as if Tevya had invaded my body, I sang out “Rejection, rejection!”
So you may ask, Mort, how did you and Tevya tie these three totally disparate things together into one word?
Well of course in the tradition of Jewish short-story writers, I’m going to tell you the whole megillah.
Yes, this is going to be a long short story.”
So make yourself comfortable.
Place a cushion on the back of your chair.
If you gotta go to the toilet, do it before you start reading my tale.
Or maybe it’s time for a hot cup of Lipton’s mit a slice of lemon and a rugelach, so you can sip and nosh as you digest my words.
George Washington University
When I was 17, I applied for admission to 13 universities.
You may ask, “Mort, why so many?
Well, my parents were from the old country (Poland).
What did my loving parents know about the acceptance rates of American universities?
Well, almost nothing. (Remember there was a time when the internet did not exist.)
What did they know about the SATs?
Well, absolutely nothing except that my scores weren’t that great.
So they asked a couple of second-generation American Jews, “What colleges should our son apply to?”
Their friends replied, “Henia, Doctor Wolf, here’s a list of 10 excellent schools. If Mort goes to any of these schools, he’ll surely get into a good medical school and become a doctor.”
Those were the only words my parents wanted or needed to hear.
They handed me the list and ordered, “Son, apply to all of these colleges.”
You guessed it, GWU was on the list.
After I studied the whole list, I realized I was being set up for failure and rejection.
I knew my SAT scores.
“Mom, Dad, I’m going to apply to three safety schools just in case.”
“Sure son, that’s fine with us as long as those schools are your ticket to admission to a medical school.”
You guessed it again.
I was rejected by all 10 of the schools on the list and admitted to my three safety schools.
And again you figured out that each time I ripped open an envelope engraved with a university logo and read the enclosed letter, I tasted the bitter tears that only rejection can produce.
So now you think you’re pretty smart.
But hold on for a second, I owe a debt of gratitude to my parent’s friends, to my mom and dad and even George Washington University.
And you may ask, “Why?”
Because by the time I was 18, I had started to learn to live with rejection.
My self-doubt, anxiety, and the fear of rejection were contained.
Yes, my rejection tears tasted less bitter.
Even though I hated those 10 schools, they taught me a valuable life lesson:
Rejection helps mold us into who and what we are.
Which reminds me of another life-lesson I learned from a wise and famous rabbi form NYC (Don’t ask me his name. I’m bad with names.) who talked to his son, when his kid received a rejection letter from Harvard:
Boychick, we Jews have traditions. One of those traditions is knowing the feeling of rejection and how to handle it.
Our tribe has lived with rejection for millennia.
We’re the poster child of rejection.
Our people wrote the book, “The Trials and Tribulations of the Rejected.”
Israel has lived with almost total rejection for most of its existence.
Son, there was a time in America, when Jews were rejected from colleges, country clubs and hotels throughout the USA just because of their religion.
So today my boychick, I’m going to teach you how to handle the “R” word.
Now read that terrible letter out loud as if it were your havtorah.
Tear it up, crumple the pieces into a small balls and then flush them down the toilet.
Son, did you feel the catharsis as the words on that letter disappear down the crapper.
Boychick, realize that we, the Hebrews, are not only good at handling rejection, we’re experts on moving on and moving forward.
How I wished my dad had done the toilet-flushing-rejection-letter ritual with me.
It would have found it therapeutic and funny, with a nice religious touch of throwing your failures into a body of swirling water.
But those 10 letters boosted my immunity to the pain of rejection.
So years later, when rejection letters came from law schools, I felt only a light sting.
Note to parents of high school juniors and seniors: I’m not recommending that you make your kids apply to colleges they wouldn’t get into.
Why? Because members of the opposite sex will normally give your children a vast amount of rejection.
Enough to last a lifetime.
As a freshman at the University of Miami, (Yes, one of my three safety schools) I observed some of my dorm mates pledging different fraternities.
I thought, “You can stick out your neck and try to get accepted into one of those fraternities.
But what if they don’t want me?
But what if they reject me?”
Well, you guessed it again.
My fear of rejection won out.
I rationalized, “You need to spend all of your time studying and getting good grades, if you what to be accepted into a medical school.”
But on this occasion, my fear of rejection paid off.
Not joining a frat allowed me to thrive as a hippie for the next three years.
And I loved every minute of it.
My dad owned a painting of an old, orthodox rabbi clutching a torah and running away from a burning temple.
The anguish expressed on his face was frightening.
You see it was Kristallnacht.
And across Germany and Austria the Nazis had spoken loudly and clearly, “Jews we reject your presence in our country, our cities, in our communities, on our parks benches and on our streets.
“Get out!—Juden raus.”
Hundreds, if not thousands, of rabbis were found in the same predicament.
Running with Torahs.
Trying to save the Torahs and their own lives.
Yet, thousand of torahs were set ablaze, mutilated and desecrated.
Assimilated German Jews started rethinking that they were immune from rejection, ejection and annihilation.
They had forgotten the bitter taste and now tears of fear burnt crevices across their cheeks.
That rabbi running and holding the Torah reminded me of my complicated relationship with the torah.
Yes, I have read from it, carried it and kissed it.
But following its mandates, not so much.
So on the day I became a man, I feared dropping it or flubbing the reading of my havtorah.
Because I knew that in my congregation such acts would lead to my rejection.
And to be a reject in the small town of Woodridge would have been hell.
So I prayed and negotiated with G-d:
Almighty, please give this skinny kid the physical strength to parade around the temple holding your heavy scrolls;
Please don’t let me trip or fall on my on my face.
Please give me the mental strength to sing my havtorah without making mistakes.
And G-d, if you grant me my prayers, this thirteen-year-old man shall believe in you until the day he dies.
It seemed like a fair trade to me.
And you guessed it.
But not all bar mitzvah trades were fair.
My parents had invited 10 of my male friends to a fancy bar mitzvah meal at Woodridge’s Vegetarian Hotel.
And one of those friends gifted me a Taiwanese-made plastic torah.
When I got home, I unraveled my plastic Torah, rolled it back up and placed it in the back of my dresser drawer.
I never touched it again.
At least I didn’t place it in my dark, dank basement.
And that’s where my Torah rested for years.
After my graduation from UM, I returned home and I pulled open my dresser drawer and found no Torah.
It had disappeared.
I wondered, “Whatever happened to my plastic Torah?”
I wanted to touch its beige plastic encasement, smell its aged parchment paper, unravel its scroll and read its text.
But it was not to be.
I realized that even the rejected are sometimes missed.
So my faithful readers, I hope I got you to think about the times in your life when you were rejected.
I hope it wasn’t too painful.
And I hope you handled the trials and tribulations of being rejected with dignity.
And that you never forget the taste of those bitter tears.