Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Curious and Carefree

Thursday May 23, 2013

Curious and Carefree

These are two traits that have helped my writing. Curious and Carefree. However, it is also a trait that will lead me into trouble, or worse, into positions of authority and responsibility. Let this be a warning (or an inspiration) to those that would explore the world around them. I will explain a bit of the inner workings of my mind with an example from this morning.

I started the morning with my first chavruta (Torah study partnership) with Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, the Chabad Rav who has been a pillar of the Jewish community for over 28 years. After the thrilling study of Tanya (perhaps the most important text of Chabad Hasidism) I took a bus towards work.

It was a different line than the one I’ve typically taken and I got off close to the office but wasn’t sure if I needed to go a block south or north. I looked south towards the hazy sea in the distance. I looked north and noticed a park I’d never seen before. You guessed it – I went towards the park despite the sense that the office was towards the south.

The park was cute and I quickly realized I was going in the wrong direction, but continued anyway to explore the park. It took me to the main street of 18 de Julio. I then noticed a congregation of police motorcycles in the middle of the intersection with their lights flashing. I walked towards them, getting further and further away from my office.

As I approached the police I heard the constant blasting of a bus horn. I passed the police ensemble and proceeded west on 18 de Julio. Small flyers littered the empty main street. I saw large flags waving in the distance. I finally reached the source of the horn blasting. A line of buses was parked on 18 de Julio while another line of traffic was attempting to cross the main street with limited success and much frustration.

I passed the loud intersection and reached the crowd. I normally have an instinctive distaste for crowds. There are probably a host of reasons. I fear a mob mentality. I fear the danger of being trampled despite the trampeler’s best intentions. I fear that people chanting angry slogans can easily turn into people doing angry things. However, despite the black and red flags and the angry rhetoric shooting from the loudspeakers, my curiosity overcame my mob-phobia.

First of all, how dangerous can a mob be where a significant percentage of its members are carrying tea? Yes. Montevideo must be the biggest Tea-Totting Town in the world and I really want to elaborate on the custom of constant drinking of what they call Matte, to the point that people are regularly walking around with a thermos under their arm and in their hand carry a special mug with the Matte leaves and the special straw that looks like the stem of a smoking pipe.

There was something festive about this demonstration. I discovered afterwards that today was a teacher’s strike, which amounted to a day off. Most people were respectfully facing the speaker’s podium several blocks away, but the majority were talking with their friends, buying food from the many streets vendors that were having a field day and of course, sipping Matte.

I kept moving through the crowd, taking pictures of Matte drinkers (future post) until I came within sight of the podium. Impassioned speeches were delivered that were highlighted with small fireworks from time to time and the jeers, cheers, applause, disinterest and Matte-sipping of the crowd.

For a moment I felt like I was in a scene from Ferris Buller’s Day Off where he takes over the parade. I had a momentary thought of approaching the podium, introducing myself and offering to say a few words about teacher’s rights as the Chief Rabbi of the country. I decided that I didn’t know the political ramifications well enough, nor what they were protesting about and what might have been a fun publicity stunt, could have signaled the support of the Jewish community of the death penalty for truancy or something of the sort.

I turned back and started to make my way to the office, keeping an eye out for interesting pictures. Then I came face to face with a momentarily frightening, yet an exciting modern and poorly known representation of civil disobedience.

I stood in front of “V”. For the few sci-fi geeks out there, you may recall the movie (based on a comic book – all good things come from comic books…) “V” is for Vendetta. So there was “V” with his grinning and thereby scary mask, all in black garb. It’s well enough for strange things and costumes in the movies. I did not expect to see “V” live and so was taken by surprise, despite the thematic appropriateness of the venue. I got over the shock rather quickly, as “V” was about two feet shorter than the movie version and I think she was female, though hard to tell under the black loose garment.

My New York instincts kicked in and I quickly walked past “V”, fearful of the potentially contagious effects of any nutcase walking the streets. By the time I stopped to think what a great picture it would make, she was already out of camera sight.

I finally made it to my office to deal with more mundane issues of Jewish identity, divorce and mediation between Jewish litigants, which as I’ve stated before I will not discuss in any further detail. All in a days work.

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