Where tumah meets tahara
by Jonathan Rosenblum
London Jewish Tribune
May 7, 2004
Watching sculptor Yigal Tumarkin receive an Israel Prize this week, I was reminded of the description in Shelley’s Ozymandius of a massive monument now reduced to " two vast and trunkless legs of stone…Near them on the sand/ half sunk a shattered visage lies..."
"And on the pedestal these words appear: /My name is Ozymandius, king of kings: /Look on my words, ye Mighty and despair! /Nothing besides remains, Around the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare /The lone and level sands stretch far away."
Tumarkin’s sculptures, like Ozymandius ‘"sneer of cold command," will soon be forgotten. Meanwhile, the award to Tumarkin embarrasses the State of Israel, about which Tumarkin has opined, "Perhaps it would be better if the state did not exist", and the Jewish people, which according to him, completed its historical mission 2,000 years ago.
Israel’s would be Iron Lady, Education Minister Limor Livnat , should be embarrassed as well. Afraid of being jeered as a boor, she abdicated her responsibility to determine whether Tumarkin represents a model worthy of emulation. Instead she repeatedly punted the decision back to the prize committee of art professors, which repeatedly made clear that its judgment was based almost exclusively on the quality of his sculpture.
Perhaps an Israel Prize winner need not be a paragon of virtue in every aspect of his personal life. But neither should he be best known for his "vulgar tongue and rough manner . . . [and] tend[ency] to make use of coarse and harsh language . . . to slander entire sections of the population," as Justice Elyahu Mazza described Tumarkin.
Yigal Tumarkin represents the ugliest side of Israeli society: the total contempt for anyone who does not think exactly like him. He has described his religious Moroccan neighbors as "primitive parasites . . . brought to Israel out of caves," and once brought a pig wearing tefillin to Rabin Square. His best-known bon mot: "When I see a large chareidi family, I understand the Holocaust."
IF TUMARKIN REPRESENTS the worst in Israeli society, Rabbi Yitzchok David Grossman, this year’s Israel Prize winner for life achievement, represents the best. In 1967, as a newly married yeshiva student, he left the sheltered Meah Shearim neighbourhood, in which he was raised in two rooms, together with nine brothers, and moved to Migdal Haemek.
"After the spiritual awakening that followed the war, I asked myself, ‘Here G-d has performed such a miracle for us; what can I do for the Jewish nation," he explained to Maariv’s Naava Tzuriel. Migdal Haemek was then one of the toughest of Israel’s notoriously tough development towns, with high rates of juvenile delinquency and drug use.
Rabbi Grossman began by sitting in a corner of the pool halls and discos. When curious teenagers came over to find out what had brought the bearded yeshiva student, with peyos, to their town, he answered simply, "I came to be with you." In time, they found out that was true. "The disco rabbi," as he came to be known, began inviting the kids from the discos to a small shul where he taught them to read and write. The delinquency rate in Migdal Haemek plummeted.
The juvenile delinquents of Migdal Haemek led him to their older siblings and parents, many of whom were doing time in prison. He started visiting the prisoners, and thus began his work in prisoner rehabilitation, giving twice weekly Torah classes in four different prisons. In 1989, Rabbi Grossman convinced then Police Minister Chaim Bar Lev to build the first yeshiva for inmates. Among graduates of his yeshiva, the recidivism rate dropped to near zero.
As he thought about the prisoners with whom he was working, Rabbi Grossman concluded that they could have been saved if only someone had shown them some love and warmth when they were young. That insight was the genesis of the Migdal Or educational centre, which began with 18 children, and today is home to nearly 6,000.
These children come from some of the most dysfunctional families in Israel, as well as recent immigrants from Ethiopian and the FSU. Recently I visited Migdal Or. One could never guess from the faces of the children, and their spotless and neat rooms, the backgrounds from which they come.
Long after Tumarkin’s works have gone the way of Ozymandius’ monument, the effects of Rabbi Grossman’s efforts will still be bearing fruits in the lives he has transformed and all the generations to come from those he has saved. Most of the teachers and counsellors in Migdal Or today are themselves graduates of the youth village. The head of the kitchen, which produces 10,000 meals daily for students, local needy, and a soup kitchen run by Rabbi Grossman, is a former gang leader and convict, who says simply, "without Rabbi Grossman I’m nothing." Rabbi Grossman’s latest project is the construction of 200 subsidized housing units for couples who agree to serve as foster parents.
The most sustained applause of the Israel Prize awards ceremony was for Rabbi Grossman. Jews in Israel may doubt their ability to live in peace and harmony with one another. But in the deepest recesses of their hearts, no dream remains dearer than that of a united Jewish people. The applause for Rabbi Grossman almost redeemed the stench of Tumarkin’s prize.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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