The Siyum: Where Was The Press?
One concern disturbed my reverie at the Los Angeles celebration of the siyum. Where had all the press gone? By the time I was on my way home, however, I realized that the press’ cold shoulder was cause for celebration, not disappointment.
From what we heard from Angelinos who made the trip to MetLife Stadium, nothing could duplicate the heady feeling of joining 90,000 people in a lovefest for Torah. Yet, the 2500 people who converged on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the heart of downtown Los Angeles certainly felt that they were participants in spirit with the main event. We had the benefit of a direct link to New Jersey , and availed ourselves of parts of the program (including LA favorite son Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, the emcee), substituting our own mesayem and maschil.
Months of preparation had gone into the local event. We were prepared for the press. We sent multiple releases to all media outlets within range, prepared press packets, and set up a press table.
No one covered the event. No one at all, other than the local Jewish (i.e. generally dismissive or worse of the Orthodox world) newspaper. Seven years ago, as well as the siyum before that, and the siyum before that, they had shown much interest. The LA Times had devoted journalists and column inches each time; radio and television provided coverage and conducted interviews. What had we done wrong?
I kept pondering this, even as I took in the spirit, the joy, the enthusiasm, and watched as guests from outside our community got a rare glimpse into the inner life of the Orthodox world. One of my responsibilities was to help make those guests comfortable; I was seated with the politicians and other community VIPs. Next to me was Israel’s Consul-General in LA, who is not Orthodox, but has traditional leanings. I took pride in his appreciation of Chananya Kramer’s moving video of the history of the Daf. He took in the spectrum of Orthodoxy assembled in the hall, mirroring that of the East Coast event. As he left, he remarked that he could appreciate that he should devote more time and energy in this community. (Agudah, I believe, did an excellent job in courting as many different communities as possible, including YU, and refusing to back down on the major role given to Rabbi Lau. Quite fairly, it provided opportunities for Yiddish presentations, in recognition not only of the large chassidishe entourage, but of the seminal role played by chassidim in the success of the daf. Would the project ever have picked up momentum had not the Gerer Rebbe zt”l picked up a gemara Berachos after maariv on Rosh Hashanah in 1923, and thereby created a tidal wave of interest in the new project? In Los Angeles, we followed suit – although we did without the Yiddish. We invited and enjoyed broad participation. The mesayem was a physician, not a rov, who marked the completion of his fourth cycle as a magid shiur. He is also a mainstay of the LA branch of the Religious Zionists of America. Rabbi Lau was introduced by a YU musmach – Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City.)
Later that evening, a major entertainment figure arrived. Non-observant but deeply prideful of his Jewishness, he told me how he was taken in by the event, as well as by considering what it means to complete the study of all of the Talmud. He confessed that a colleague of his made the trip to New Jersey to take in the program at the larger venue!
This was such an important happening for the Orthodox community, and such a hugely successful event! How could the press snub us entirely? (OK, the LA Times is excused. They published my op-ed about the siyum a few days before.) To be sure, there were some glitches, but the press could not have known about them, nor would they provide an excuse to stay away. Truth be told, those glitches in the timing of the NJ event told us more about speakers completely out of touch with the needs of the audience they were addressing than about the organizers. One of my sons asked a NJ State Trooper what he thought, and he deliciously replied, “I learned that rabbis like to speak.” Agudah had specified how long speakers were supposed to go, and had light signals prepared to remind presenters to wind down. They did everything short of killing the mic, like they do at the Oscars. (Next time, ask us!) I am constantly perplexed by knowledgeable people ignoring a maamar Chazal on the pasuk ויהי ביוןם כלות משה It states that if a person’s words are as pleasing to his audience as a kallah to her choson he should speak; if not, he should remain silent. Thousands of people had to leave the stadium to catch the last NJ train and miss the united maariv that was one of the main reasons they came. I cannot believe that those people found the speakers who ignored the rules pleasing like a kallah. Maybe those speakers had bad memories of their chasunas. On the other hand, not unexpectedly, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlit”a got it right, and spoke for five minutes.
Readers probably took less time figuring out the explanation for the press’ absence than I did that evening. The press ignored us – at least outside of the Big Event – because there was nothing newsworthy in the event anymore. In the past, the Orthodox community was seen as somewhat exotic, one of those Strangers In Our Midst communities. And who knew about the Talmud? Journalists like the exotic, and yawn at the pedestrian and ordinary.
Now, in 2012, we frum Jews are no longer exotic. The rest of the world knows plenty about us. We are visible, and no longer entirely peripheral. Yarmulkes are everywhere, and people know of our criminals and our problem with protecting abusers. They know about our large families and our relatively low divorce rate. They know that “Jewish Republican” is not an oxymoron. They know of the Talmud, too. They know that its study is important enough to a large group in Israel that a coalition recently fell apart because of a conflict about what to do about the Talmud and its tens of thousands of students.
Without anything fascinating or forbidden to offer, we were competing with too much in a fast-moving world to expect coverage. (I must agree in part with Dr Schick. While the women’s issue was fair game for journalists – and those of us handling press anticipated it well in advance – it should not have drowned out the enormity of what happened at MetLife. The gemara (Berachos 17A) has sharp condemnation for the non-Jews of Masa Mechasya who twice-yearly witnessed the majesty of Torah in the large conclaves before Yom Tov, and nonetheless were not moved to convert! It is hard to understand how any journalist, no matter what he or she planned to write about before coming to the siyum, could not have been moved by what transpired inside, and been moved to change the submission.)
We should not be saddened by the fact that our smaller gatherings were passé to the press. We should be happy that we are so well situated within the greater cultural surround that we can move forward on the real significance of the siyum. That significance was given full-throated voice by Rabbi Lau, in what to me was the most memorable one liner of the evening. Rabbi Lau related to the pasuk (Tehilim 83:5) “Come, let us cut them off from nationhood, so Israel’s name will not be remembered any longer.” Many have hated us so thoroughly, that they sought to not only annihilate us, but to erase the name Yisrael. The siyum made that impossible. In the first time in the history of humanity, a group of close to 100,000 people came together to celebrate their love for a law book!
This was kiddush Hashem, plain and simple. And kiddush Hashem becomes easier – not harder – the more mainstream and accepted we are. The press turned down one event, hinting to us that we have many more kiddush Hashem opportunities every other day, in our interaction with more and more of our fellow citizens.
One organization – about which I know nothing – got is seriously right. It left cards on seats. One side read, “Tonight a momentous kiddush Hashem. Tomorrow it continues with You!” The flip side made it short, easy and practical. It urged people to consider whether their behavior constituted kiddush Hashem in the way they drive, in greeting people warmly, and in dealing honestly in business.
It ended with the perfect epilogue to the siyum. “As you go about your day, you will encounter and influence many people (wife, kids, work, friends, etc.) Your facial expressions, the way you handle money, the way you drive, your ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’ are watched by all. Let those interactions be sweet, leaving a trail of true kiddush Hashem.”
With all those opportunities for kiddush Hashem, who needs the media?