Washington Post columnist George Will had a touching piece this week coinciding with the 40th birthday of his son Jon, who has Down syndrome. He writes that when Jon was born, the life expectancy for people with Down syndrome was about 20 years and “they were still commonly called Mongoloids.” He continues:
Now they are called American citizens, about 400,000 of them, and their life expectancy is 60. Much has improved. There has, however, been moral regression as well … This era has coincided, not just coincidentally, with the full, garish flowering of the baby boomers’ vast sense of entitlement, which encompasses an entitlement to exemption from nature’s mishaps, and to a perfect baby. So today science enables what the ethos ratifies, the choice of [terminating such pregnancies] before birth. That is what happens to 90 percent of those whose parents receive a Down syndrome diagnosis through prenatal testing.
This, writes Will, “is unfortunate, and not just for them. Judging by Jon, the world would be improved by more people with Down syndrome, who are quite nice, as humans go.” They often bring out the best in others, too. “They have no choice but to be trusting because [they] always depend on the kindness of strangers. Judging by Jon’s experience, they almost always receive it.”
Papa Will writes that his son is an avid baseball fan and that the players he meets at the ballpark,
all of whom understand what it is to be gifted, have been uniformly and extraordinarily welcoming to Jon, who is not. Except he is, in a way. He has the gift of serenity, in this sense: The eldest of four siblings, he has seen two brothers and a sister surpass him in size, and acquire cars and college educations. He, however, with an underdeveloped entitlement mentality, has been equable about life’s sometimes careless allocation of equity.
This beautiful piece resonated with me even more strongly because I happened to read it just after the conclusion of a wonderful Shabbos we shared with dear friends visiting from Lakewood, and talk at the table Friday night had turned, as it often does, to recounting anecdotes about our niece Bracha, who was born with Down’s just a few years after Jon Will.
Like Jon, she’s part of an accomplished family, all the rest of whom are in academia or the professions. So I hope they all won’t be too upset with me if I admit to often finding her one-liners to be more on target than theirs, or if I reveal that she surpasses them in celebrity status. Her mother tells us she can’t walk down the street with Bracha without numerous people stopping them along the way, and not to speak with the mother….
Years ago, one of my daughters brought her cousin over from her Kesher program to Camp Sternberg for a Shabbos afternoon walk, but they couldn’t go more than a few steps without another girl coming over to say, “Hi, Bracha,” “Do you remember me, Bracha?” and so on. They needed her to know who they were. She confided to my daughter, “If you want to be popular, just stick with me.”
And like Jon, Bracha too has the precious commodity of an underdeveloped entitlement mentality. She once remarked that she didn’t want Mashiach to come because as she understood it, she’d then no longer be Down, and, frankly, she said, “I like my programs.” This passing remark reveals not just a surprising self-awareness, but also a simchah b’chelkah that most of us would love to achieve.
Mr. Will’s son and my niece do part ways, however, when it comes to their favorite activities. While he’s enthralled with baseball, Bracha’s interests tend toward reading and a good, hot kiddush. Although Bracha knows she needs to be concerned with what she eats, one can often see her struggling internally with the enticement of a mouthwatering dish, with the latter sometimes winning out. Once, at a family simchah, someone pointed to the elaborate spread, telling her this was her chance to indulge. “I really shouldn’t be having cake,” she acknowledged, just before popping a sizable slice of seven-layer into her mouth. “Oh, well,” she dead-panned.
George Will’s sense of good fortune at being Jon’s father comes through clearly in his column. We’ve certainly been enriched, not to mention entertained, by our Bracha over the years. The lessons we’ve learned from being around her, conveyed with a complete absence of guile, are ones that no one could possibly have taught us better: The way, when she comes to our shul on Shabbos morning and the rav begins his drashah with a “Good Shabbos” greeting, she automatically responds with her own audible “Good Shabbos” from the other side of the mechitzah. The way, when she sees someone, anyone, who’s ill, or even just has a leg cast, she approaches them with concern, letting them know she’ll be davening for them.
And finally, there’s the way that, when she finds out this column was about her and how special we think she is, her face will light up with such a broad, genuine smile that it’s as if her very neshamah has come out of its hiding place within her and become visible for all to see.
TRADING COSTUMES One can read all sorts of high-minded prose about the motivations of those on the left fringes of Orthodoxy who agitate for the ordination of women. These people are not attempting to subvert Orthodox tradition, we are assured; they sincerely believe this is the best thing that could happen to the Orthodox community since sliced challah. But then one reads an advertisement like the following one for an event in early June at the Jewish museum in Philadelphia:
Join the first ordained North American Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative [female] rabbis, and first open Orthodox rabba, as they share their unique experiences as “firsts” in their field. [The four ladies] will discuss how and why they decided to become Jewish spiritual leaders, and explore challenges facing the Jewish community today.
And then, one wonders: Who, precisely, are the authors of the above-mentioned rabba-rousing protestations trying to kid?
Then again, consider for a moment a recent article in the Jewish Week that juxtaposed quotes from various Jewish clergyfolk on the possibility of Judaism without G-d. First it quoted an Orthodox rabbi — who shares a blog with les Ms. Rabba — who isn’t “advocating for a Judaism without G-d. But he did think Judaism, even Orthodox Judaism, was getting along just fine without a strong emphasis on one.… He [believes] that all rabbinic commentary… should be able to explain everything in the Jewish religion without having G-d in the picture.”
But the same article quotes a Conservative clergyman as stating clearly that “without G-d playing a central role, Judaism will collapse,” and that “traditions are hard to maintain unless there’s an attempt to understand the traditions in a deep way, and that G-d is central to those traditions.”
It’s a strange time we live in, when v’nahafoch hu seems to apply not just on Purim, but year-round, with left-wing Orthodox and Conservative clergy switching rabbinic garb with each other, so to speak. Is it any wonder, then, that a rabba-ette would feel comfortable keeping the company of her fellow trailblazers in the heterodox movements?