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Can a Rabbi beat a World Champion?

The World Chess Championship, held next month in London, pits together two of the modern greats of the game. The World Champion, 27-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, has been the top rated player since 2011 and the World Champion since 2013, and has a good claim to be the strongest chess player of all time. His challenger is 26-year-old Italian-American, Fabiano Caruana, the current World Number Two, who will provide a formidable test for the champion. 

Both Carlsen and Caruana are now in their mid-20s, already veterans at the very top level of the game. Both gained the title of Grandmasters as teenagers, Carlsen at the age of 13 and 4 months and Caruana at 14 and 11 months. While this seems a prodigious feat, the record for youngest GM has been held since 2002 by the Russian Sergei Karjakin, who earned the title at 12 years and 7 months. There have been a couple of talents coming close this past year, namely Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu of India (12 years and 10 months) in June 2018 and Uzbeki Nodirbek Abdusattorov (13 years and 1 month) in October 2017. They are not yet household names, but previous “youngest Grandmasters” include the better-known Bobby Fischer (z’l, 15 years and 6 months, 1958) and Judith Polgár (15 years and 4 months, 1991).

All this is to say that if you want to be a chess champion then you need to start young. And if you want to beat a chess champion, then you need to be quick, as they become fiendishly strong at a very early age. Once they have had their bar mitzvah, for example, it’s already far too late!

After finishing university I spent a year living in Budapest playing chess. Far less talented than all of the above, nonetheless I wanted to try my luck on the professional chess circuit, and pit my wits against the top players to see how good I could become. Hungary was well-known for its tournaments and chess culture, and I benefited from clashing swords with veteran masters and up-and-coming talents, many of whom went on to claim the Grandmaster title and play professionally today. I learnt a lot in this year, both about chess and myself, and became very involved in the Szim Salom Progressive community, where I acted as their chazan and youth leader. 

Although I was far from achieving the title of Grandmaster, I did become a Fide Master (the third level of chess mastery). Thankfully I had a Plan B: becoming a rabbi! But among my opponents in Hungary was a certain youngster called...Fabiano Caruana. I remember distinctly my coach’s instructions on the eve of the game: “This boy will be very special one day, he is very talented. But you can still beat him. Just do nothing! Then he will try something unusual, and then you will stop him. But do nothing yourself!”

It was a valuable lesson, that doing nothing can be an active and successful plan. I played the solid Torre Attack and just tried to put my pieces on normal squares, to wait and see what he would do. And lo and behold, he tried an unusual queen manoeuvre that led to my advantage. And happily I could finish the game with a knight sacrifice. The whole game can be replayed here: - suffice to say, I will be rooting for Fabiano next month, so that I can say that indeed, a rabbi can beat a World Champion! 


On Prague Spring Rolls...

“Smazeny Syr”, “Hranolky”, “Cesnekova Polevka”. These words have stayed etched upon my brain now for the best part of twenty years. I first visited the Czech Republic in 1999, a callow nineteen-year-old on his first independent trip abroad. My friend and I spent a few days in Prague on the way to playing a chess tournament in the smaller city of Pardubice. “Fried cheese”, “chips” and “garlic soup” – back then this was the essential vocabulary for my survival as a vegetarian amongst the pork knuckles, stews and dumplings of a doubtless delicious, but heavily meat-based, Czech cuisine. 

How things have changed. This time I landed at a modern, international airport; my Uber arrived within minutes to take me to my AirBnB accommodation. Twenty years earlier we had arrived at night at a youth hostel, exhausted from a 16-hour coach journey from London, and were surprised to wake up the next morning in a room full of 20 other travelers, of both sexes. Changing money was possible but you risked being ripped off by unscrupulous merchants in the Wenceslas square. Now, the ubiquity of contactless payments means that you scarcely touch the local currency at all. 

Prague – or at least its centre – seems to have reclaimed its place as a multi-cultural, international city. Its buildings have been spruced-up to recapture their former glories, the shops are full of global chains. The Charles Bridge throngs with tourists and well-dressed locals. Many languages are heard on its repaved streets. Shop staff speak English and speak it well. The expectations have changed; long gone are the days where surly and unsmiling “service” was the dour national character and norm. 

Yet the transformation of the last two decades, the progress from early post-Communist “Eastern Europe” to an outward-looking & optimistic Central European nation, is looking quite fragile. The re-election of a populist President early this year has sent jitters around half the country. January 2018 saw a narrow victory for Zeman, an open supporter of both Putin and Trump. His challenger, who lost by fewer than 150,000 votes, ran on a pro-EU platform, envisaging the Czech Republic alongside Germany and France at the heart of the European Project. 

There are fears that the Czech Republic will move closer to the governments of Hungary and Poland, pandering to a rising nationalism, and becoming more hostile to immigrants and foreigners. As in many countries, the Czechs are divided almost exactly 50-50 between globalists and nationalists. But, unlike in other places, this is true throughout the country. It is not a case of urban, liberal Prague against a backward, conservative countryside. A geographical analysis of voting patterns revealed surprising pockets of support for both worldviews in city and hamlet alike. 

I was visiting Prague to attend the biennial conference of the European Union of Progressive Judaism, alongside more than 350 other delegates from across the continent. Keynote speakers addressed current concerns such as anti-Semitism and immigration. It was striking how comfortable delegates felt to walk the streets of Prague wearing their kippot, something that has become unadvisable in Brussels and Paris, and for different reasons in Budapest and Warsaw. Here in Prague, the Jewish Quarter has become a key part of the city’s tourism. And the Jewish community, almost wiped out by the Shoah and heavily repressed under forty years of Communism, has crept out of wherever it had been hiding. As some hundreds of Czechs discover their Jewish roots and feel safe enough to explore them, Progressive Judaism has been central to the reemergence of a renascent Jewish life.

Europe feels like it is on a knife-edge, its future at a pivotal turning-point, and Prague reflects this fragility. Can the country maintain its openness, and reclaim its place as the international city of Kafka and Planck? In those days, the fighting of the Jewish community used to occur between the Czech-speaking Jews and the German-speaking Jews, and the coffee houses were full of people coming and going, hobnobbing and doing business across Central Europe. Or will the borders again come down, with each country, the Czech Republic included, narrowing its vision to its own national interest. Here, Brexit has not helped, nor do the bellicose tweets trumpeting from the White House serve to increase confidence. 

It would be a shame for the Jews – ever prominent in liberal, internationalist circles – should the European vision be lost in the Czech Republic. Indeed it would be more than a shame, it would be nothing short of a travesty for the Jewish community should the progress of the last twenty years be lost. 

On a lighter note, it would also be a shame for the vegetarians. The restaurant scene in Prague has exploded and I was amazed both by the proliferation of vegetarian and vegan options, and by how almost every restaurant prominently advertised its meat-free fare. Many even asked their customers to approach them about their allergies. In foodie terms, 1999 feels like another world, and while I am reliably told that “smazak” is still a popular delicacy amongst Czech teens, on this visit to Prague I felt absolutely no need to check it out for myself. Some things are best left in the past, and deep-fried cheese may be one of them!

From Rio to the Maccabiah...

The Olympic Games came to a close in Rio last week and left with us plenty of memories. The gold medals of Michael Phelps in the pool or Usain Bolt on the track helped all who watched them soar the shining peaks of sporting ambition alongside their heroes. Likewise Simone Biles in the gym and the champions and near-champions in every sporting discipline.

Jewish sportspeople also shined. Aly Raisman took a gold and two silvers for the US and now has a glittering array of six Olympic medals. There were two Israeli bronzes in judo – one won with much newspaper coverage as an Egyptian judoka was sent home for refusing to shake his Israeli opponent’s hand. Other Jewish athletes competed for several different countries including Canada, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, and hosts Brazil. And after 44 years, the 2016 Olympics finally marked the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 with a special ceremony.

Yet, unlike with Nobel Prizes for Science or Economics, the sum total of Jewish medals in Rio was probably in proportion with Jewish global demographics. That is to say, it was typically negligible (an historic list of Jewish Olympic medallists can be found here)! It was for this and other reasons (a fuller history is available) that the Maccabiah Games were created, and first held in 1932. A sporting occasion bringing together people from Jewish communities around the world to compete and celebrate together – and someone Jewish could win every medal!

The Maccabiah Games, like the Olympics, are held every four years. The 20th Maccabiah will be held next summer in Israel, and many sportsmen and women come together to our Jewish Olympic Village – Kfar Maccabiah.

I participated in 2001 in the Maccabiah Games. It was my first trip to Israel and what a great introduction to the country it proved. The Opening Ceremony contained no less razzmatazz than the Olympics and as I remember it was the famous swimmer Mark Spitz who lit the Maccabiah Olympic Torch. We marched across the Teddy Stadium, one country after the other, all of us wearing our national colours and waving our national flags.

As the “Jewish Olympics”, the Maccabiah is not shy about including Jewish “sports” such as chess and bridge. There are also categories for kids and for adults, as well as for “masters” – older age-groups e.g. over 35s, over 45s, over 55s – in many sports. It makes for an interesting social mix but does not mean the competition is any less competitive.

I was competing in the chess competition and was proud to bring home a bronze medal for the GB team. It even made the Jewish Chronicle! It was funny that in the chess section, everyone of my opponents spoke Russian – be they representing Israel, the US, Germany or Russia!

It would be wonderful if we could put together a Singapore delegation for the 20th Maccabiah Games next July. With 43 different sports on offer (see this for the full list) – there really is something for everyone. As a small Jewish community we might not be able to manage a full rugby squad, but surely we could put together some swimmers and golfers and tennis players, a fencer, a judoka and someone for the half marathon. And any success we made would be historic and up there to be celebrated in Singapore alongside Joseph Schooling!

This Shabbat let’s start to dream – it’s not just for kids, it’s for every age group - and if you are interested, please get in touch with me for more details.

"Give ear, O heavens, Let me Speak..."

As a rabbi, certain Torah portions become associated with certain students. For me reading Ha’azinu each year conjures up memories from 2005, when I spent a long summer in Poland as a rabbinic student serving the Beit Warszawa progressive community, culminating in the High Holydays. One of their members, a young Pole in her early 20s, Ludmila, was a leading member of their emerging minyan and wanted to celebrate her bat mitzvah. This was quite possibly the first bat mitzvah in Poland since the Second World War, and perhaps even the first adult bat mitzvah in Poland!

We chose Ha’azinu, Moses’ swansong, both for the beauty of its poetry and because it would give the maximum number of weeks for learning the cantillation.  The portion sees Moses giving his final words of advice to the Israelites, looking ahead to their future misdemeanours, their neglect and abandonment of the God who had rescued from Egypt, and predicting their eventual demise and dispersal from the land of Israel. The poetic form aids the heightened sense of an ending, the bad news seeping in surreptitiously songful. Here, Moses’ speech “drips like dew, drops like rain, droplets falling on the grass” (Deut. 32.2) The Israelites are soaked to the bone, damned and drenched before they know it in their own stubborn unreliability. God’s perfection is contrasted with their foolish treachery, and all the time the language rises and tumbles. Predicted backsliding is depicted beautifully, as the relentless rhythm of the poem seals their ignominious fate.

The text had added poignancy for me as I knew that shortly after I would be leaving Poland to move to Jerusalem for the third year of my studies. Although this meant I was able to make the journey that Moses could not and live in the Promised Land, for me the poignancy lay in what I was leaving behind. For three months I had been immersed in Beit Warszawa, playing a small part in the rebirth of Polish Jewish life, sixty years after all had been destroyed. This was nothing short of miraculous, even if it has been a delivery not without considerable and traumatic labour pains. It is no exaggeration to say that almost every Polish Jew today has a story to tell from their family history, be it from the Shoah or its aftermath, growing up in post-war Poland with its pogroms and periods of state-sponsored anti-Semitism until the brighter times of today.

With Ludmila I remember discussing some of the theology inherent in Ha’azinu, and the way that it related to the Holocaust and modern history. I would seek to excuse the people from blame, and refuse to link bad behaviour with tragedy, either then or now. I argued that Moses’ prediction was written later than the rest of the Torah and enjoyed the benefit of hindsight, but for all my proofs from my freshly-studied Biblical Criticism classes, this is not the most satisfying of arguments. Rather I wanted to find support for the Israelites in the text itself, and defend them against the bitter words of Moses.

Reading Ha’azinu each year renews the challenge, and ten years later I am still searching. Perhaps the vindication of the Israelites lies in the last verse of the Torah portion. Moses “may view the land from afar but may not enter” (Deut. 32.52), rather it is “a gift to the children of Israel” (ibid.). They may be about to mess it all up, but they must have their chance and their free will to do so. On a Shabbat that so often follows Yom Kippur, it’s a timely reminder that we are not and have rarely been angels, that we accept that there are plenty of mistakes to come, and yet we can remain cheerful about our prospects for the future. Even our sins are “priced in” to this future, yet hope remains that we can do better. This is true of both progressive Jewish life in Poland, and on this side of the world in Asia and Australasia. Let’s remain positive throughout 5776!

Thu, 27 June 2019 24 Sivan 5779