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Habitual Ritual

A haftorah of rules and revelry

Liel Leibovitz
November 20, 2009
(Bemelman's Bar at the Carlyle by rocketlass / Stacey Shintani; some rights reserved.)
(Bemelman's Bar at the Carlyle by rocketlass / Stacey Shintani; some rights reserved.)

Whenever I’m asked why I left Israel—the country where I and eight preceding generations of my family were born, in whose army I served as an officer and in whose streets I learned to fight and love and reason—I blame it on Bemelmans.

For those of you unacquainted with this tiny, gilded temple to alcohol, Bemelmans is a bar located on the ground floor of the Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It got its name and its whimsical wall paintings from Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the beloved children book icon Madeline. It’s a low-ceiling, high-energy kind of place, where a pianist is always on hand to croon a few Gershwin tunes and some elderly gentleman at the bar could always be heard whispering to a lively woman many decades his junior that he could only meet on Wednesday afternoons, which is when the witch plays bridge. Tommy, the bartender, once told me he served his first drink to Harry S. Truman; even if that’s not true, he still mixes his drinks like it was 1952.

That, I think, is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Other bars may have allowed their menus to be polluted by the popular demands of the hoi polloi—at Paris’s George V hotel, once the gold standard for a certain sort of unhurried European elegance, they now serve, mon dieu!, Jell-O shots—and others may have fallen at the feet of this trend or another, but not Bemelmans. Bemelmans is meant for those who take living seriously, and are unafraid of the dress codes and punishing price tags that so often accompany life’s finer pleasures. A good night at a good bar, after all, is a matter of ritual, and rituals involve both sacrifice and a close attention to the rules.

And here’s the rub: you could never find a place like Bemelmans in Israel. Transplant the charming boîte to Tel Aviv, and chances are someone would show up in jeans and a t-shirt and make a fuss if refused entry. Besides, that slacker’s cousin probably completed her basic training with the bartender’s niece, which means that the two of them are practically brothers and that all demands for decorum would soon be dropped.

I exaggerate, of course, but not by much. Israel doesn’t believe in decorum, which is perfectly understandable for a nation that owes its survival to its improvisational prowess and that is much too small to sustain anything resembling a real hierarchy of any sort. That goes for the army as well, an organization usually heavily dependant on rigid rules; just this week, Stars & Stripes, the U.S. Army’s official newspaper, published an account of a joint American-Israeli military drill, and was awed and amused to discover that most Israeli soldiers call their superior officer by his or her first name. With very few exceptions, Israelis are not big on ritual.

Which, most likely, would have driven Malachi mad. One of the Bible’s more obscure prophets—we know little of the man except that he lived around the time of the Second Temple and was perpetually displeased with his compatriots’ lack of piety—he is the one delivering this week’s haftorah. From the very first lines, you can tell that Malachi isn’t kidding around: he preempts his harsh words by grimly labeling his prophecy as “The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel in the hand of Malachi.”

A burden it indeed is. The majority of the haftorah has Malachi lamenting the sorry state of ritual, bemoaning the fact that the priests sacrifice not unblemished animals, as they are commanded, but opt instead for the lame, the blind, and the sick. Such corner cutting, Malachi says, makes God very angry.

“When you offer a blind [animal] for a sacrifice, is there nothing wrong?” he booms. “And when you offer a lame or a sick one, is there nothing wrong? Were you to offer it to your governor, would he accept you or would he favor you?”

The answer, of course, is no. And, to make matters worse, the prophet points out that while Israel is insolent, the gentiles, who are not bound by the Torah, praise God and sing his glories.

“From the rising of the sun until its setting,” Malachi says on God’s behalf, “My Name is great among the nations, and everywhere offerings are burnt and offered up to My Name; yea, a pure oblation, for My Name is great among the nations.”

The comparison is a bit baffling. While the gentiles are praised for praying with pure hearts and good intentions, the Israelites are admonished for not following the script of the ritual. Paul couldn’t have said it better himself: for them a religion of love, for us a religion of laws.

What, then, does Malachi want? Does he seriously believe that it’s adherence to the minute mechanics of ritual that matter more than the passion in one’s heart? Does he really think that the physical condition of the sacrificial lamb counts for more than the spiritual condition of the man conducting the sacrifice?

He does. And habitués of Bemelmans would sympathize. We know that there are other bars that charge more reasonable prices and are less sartorially demanding, but we also know that once we go through the motions, once we put on that tie and pull out that sore credit card, we’re in for an experience like no other New York joint could ever offer. We don’t need Malachi to tell us that strict adherence to the rules, far from being a remnant of a stodgy, bygone world, is what sets apart the Sidecar from the swill and the sacred from the profane; we learned all that the first time we asked Tommy to pour us something strong.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.