Pen Ultimate / For the Grace of God and Gaydamak

Reflections on the somewhat paradoxical notion of the age-old issue of 'who is a Jew'.

The last week of the 5767th year of the Hebrew calendar left me in a doomsday mood. Not only did the Israel Electric Corporation decide to stop footing its employees' electricity bills (something that was considered to be God-given, not to be taken away), but the matrimonial bliss of Rami and Rita Kleinstein - the royal couple of the Israeli entertainment world - seems to be falling apart at the seams. I could (and most probably would) have written a whole column about each of these earth-shaking developments, had I not stumbled upon a minor news story in TheMarker about a compromise reached via small claims court between a customer who did not dine in a restaurant and the proprietor, who insisted on charging her for a meal.

According to the story, last New Year's Eve, the customer and her spouse showed up at a restaurant in Herzliya Pituah, where they had booked a table with a couple of friends. However, when entering the place, the customer discovered much to her chagrin that the food served was not kosher - there were seafood and other dishes that, for her, are "unacceptable and even make me sick," as she "basically eats kosher." She left the place immediately, but her husband was asked to pay NIS 430, since "the table was booked." Eventually a compromise was reached, and she was awarded NIS 100 as a consolation and gesture of good will, without the proprietor admitting to any offense.

I'm not going to voice any opinion on the merits of that case. Who knows, it may still become yet another bone of contention between the minister of justice and the president of the Supreme Court, and I'm not going to rush in where angels fear to tread. What I find worth dwelling on instead is the somewhat paradoxical notion of the age-old issue of "Who is a Jew."

The couple mentioned above wanted to celebrate what some people call the "Sylvester" (the anniversary of the death of Pope Sylvester I, on December 31, 355 the-year-of-their-Lord; that Lord, incidentally, was circumcised on that very day on the eve of the year 1) - and yet wanted to do it while observing the proper Jewish dietary laws. Very much like all those Israelis who will celebrate the Jewish New Year next Wednesday, but are flustered when asked "What is the date today according to the Hebrew calendar," on any day of the year. And we should not take such matters lightly: Since the Hebrew calendar marks the time that has passed, according to some commentators, since the creation of man on the sixth day of the first week, today is exactly 5,768 years from the day on which God said to himself: "Okay, tomorrow I'm going to create heaven and earth."

Another expert on Judaism is Arcadi Gaydamak. On the very day he was invited to participate in a meeting of the Knesset's State Control Committee (which convened to discuss the state comptroller's report on the management of the home front during the Second Lebanon War, which lauded some - Gaydamak included - and lambasted others, such as the government and the army), the billionaire published an open letter to the committee members in the local Hebrew and English press, in the form of an advertisement.

Among many other things (it is a long and winding letter), Gaydamak writes that Prime Minister Olmert "lacks a Jewish soul, for he is not even able to understand that from generation to generation our people has survived mainly thanks to tzedakah - solidarity." In the next paragraph Gaydamak makes the point that his "popularity" was obtained by "my hard-earned money that I made with my own two hands and through the use of my head and mind, throughout my life." But he also credits "the grace of God" for "rewarding me for my earnest efforts in the business sphere."

I wouldn't have dared to argue theology with a billionaire, and it very well may be that at home he is a strictly observant Jew, following the letter of halakha (traditional religious law) down to the tiniest detail. But in the matter of tzedakah - which as far as I know translates as "charity" - I have some modest business proposals re. the approaching New Hebrew Year's Eve, which happens to also be the beginning of a shmitta year.

For the uninitiated, shmitta is a year (every seventh one) in which the Land of Israel is to be left uncultivated, to be allowed to rest. Over the centuries some practical measures were found to work around this halakhic directive: namely, that a rabbinical court will administer the land as a proxy for its owners, hiring them to cultivate it, and then distribute the harvest to the public, which shares the costs incurred by the court. Another widely used practice is selling the land to a gentile for a period of one year, during which he cultivates it, thus preventing the rightful Jewish owners from violating the halakha's rulings. About such practices, my father used to ask: "Do they think God is an idiot?"

Anyway, this year, of all years, it turns out that the Chief Rabbinate is not approving those symbolic "sales" of land to non-Jews, thus creating a demand for vegetables and fruits that may spur serious price hikes in the coming Hebrew year. Whom should we expect to rush to the rescue? Gaydamak the savior, who else? I expect to hear an offer from him in the coming days, to buy the whole of the Land of Israel during the shmitta, thus allowing the owners to cultivate it.

You say Gaydamak is not a gentile? Even better: The Chief Rabbinate does not approve the practice of selling the land to a gentile. God, who for so many years did not object to the practice of selling the land he had promised the Jews to gentiles, will certainly be able to stomach selling it to someone with the soul of a Jew. If worst comes to worst, Gaydamak could graciously offer to bear the sin with his generous conscience.

There are those who claim that Gaydamak offers his money to Israelis en masse, as he wants to buy political clout with it. If indeed he does - what is wrong with that? If it is, after all, his hard-earned money, made "with his own two hands, head and mind," with some assistance from "God's grace" - then there is another tempting deal on the table here.

He could offer to foot the electricity bill of the IEC employees. They are known to belong to one of the strongest unions in the country, which translates directly into political support. I don't think he can contribute anything to the Rami-Rita crisis, however.

But seriously, why bother Gaydamak with small change: As it is going to be a year of shmitta, let him offer to buy the entire State of Israel, with all its debts, problems and obligations, and run it he as he sees fit - the way he repeatedly says he knows how. And those who don't like it can go and bark up another tree.

Happy New Year.