An Israeli stole $300 from me yesterday.
Said Israeli, whose name–I have since learned–is not Avi Levi, played me for the cash under the pretense of needing medicine money for his sick 10-year old daughter, who had flo4from Israel to Maryland for kidney surgery the day before. He needed the medicine before flying back, he said. He promised to wire the money to me today and gave me a name, address and phone number should I ever be in north Tel Aviv, the Park Avenue of the Jewish State.
The rest of the story is irrelevant: I was stupid; he was smooth. After Avi and I parted I phoned the number he gave me (not the Levi household, to say the least) and I have yet to receive money or a phone call from him today, as he promised me.
The $300 hurts like a punch to the gut, as does my newfound lack of generosity or trust of others, but the worst part of all of this is its timeliness. Part of the reason why I was willing to help this guy was that we’re now mired in the midst of the Three Weeks, the period starting on the 17th of Tammuz–when the Babylonians breached Jerusalem’s walls–and the 9th of Av–the day both temples were destroyed. It was also during this period when the baseless internecine conflict of the Second-Temple Era Jews was at an all-time high. Jews killed each other, ratted each other out and burned each other’s storehouses until Jerusalem collapsed under the Romans’ siege. Don’t believe me? Read the Talmud. Don’t believe the Talmud? Read Josephus.
The rabbis capitalized on this Jew vs. Jew saga, sermonizing that the temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred and will be rebuilt due to baseless love. Tradition has mandated us, in that spirit, to give our brethren the benefit of the doubt during these three weeks in the hope that it will, paraphrasing the words of some siddur’s translation, hasten the coming of the messiah speedily in our days.
So much for that.
What’s striking about my scam experience, besides my naivety, is its connection to monetary issues among Jews. This year has established itself as the Year of the Jewish Money Wars, with Madoff and the fall of Lehman Brothers all coming within the past twelve months, creating a scale on which my loss doesn’t register.
But this history of Byzantine monetary dealings among Jews goes back further, to that Second Temple Period itself, when the sectarian conflicts taking place were intertwined with the class divisions in first-century Jerusalem. On the one side were the Sadducees, the upper class that controlled the priesthood but that–according to the Talmud–flaunted mainstream ritual practice. Against them were the Pharisees, the poorer majority that survives today. Fringe groups like the ascetic, proto-socialist Essenes also played into the mix and when put togehter, helped spell doom for Jewish sovereignty in Judea.
So here we are as a community, much of our money gone into the oblivion of a Ponzi scheme, and here I am, my $300 lost to a fellow Jew. Here we are as a nation, plagued by monetary conflict 2000 years ago and by monetary stereotypes from time immemorial. And if those stereotypes are untrue, if we haven’t been following the money for all these years, then the money seems at least to have been following us, leaving a trail of baseless hatred in its wake and impeding baseless love.
If we’re to take the rabbis at their word, no wonder the temple hasn’t been rebuilt.