Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mezuzah at center of court fight

My stepmother, Cathy, is Jewish. If one were to visit the home in south suburban Homewood where she and my father live, they would see to the upper right of the front door a mezuzah.

The point of the mezuzah is that it is stuck to the doorframe of a residence where a Jewish person lives. It is a simple gesture that allows someone to let the world know that Jewish people live in that particular home, apartment or condominium.

YET THE THING about every single mezuzah I have ever seen is that they are small. They don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves. One literally has to walk up to within a couple feet of the front door of my parents’ house in order to notice the mezuzah off to the right.

Even then, I could picture some oblivious people not noticing it (on account of the big brass door knocker with the engraved slogan “Casa Tejeda” on the middle of the front door that tends to draw attention).

So when I learn that a mezuzah is at the center of a legal battle currently pending in the federal courts based in Chicago, I have to conclude that someone has way too much free time on their hands to be making an issue out of this.

Either that, or there is some sort of anti-semitism at stake. Although considering that we’re talking about a board that governs a condominium near the Lake Michigan shoreline (which means they think of themselves as an elite address), it’s probably more the former than the latter.

THESE ASSOCIATIONS HAVE developed a reputation (perhaps unfairly) for being willing to nit-pick every little detail of the physical appearance of someone’s property – out of the belief that every unit in the overall complex ought to live up to someone’s idea of pristine.

In the case of the Shoreline Towers on Sheridan Road (which means the city’s north lakefront, but not quite as elitist as the Gold Coast), one resident was told that her placing a mezuzah on her front door marred the overall appearance of the structure.

That particular condominium association had a rule ready – religious symbols are banned. In theory, someone wishing to erect a crucifix on their front door (or even just a cross symbol) would also be in violation of “the rules.”

So Lynne Bloch was forced to remove her mezuzah.

THIS HAPPENED FIVE years ago. She filed a lawsuit that has been working its way through the court system. On Wednesday, eight judges who sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals based in Chicago had to spend their day hearing “expert” testimony about the appropriateness of a mezuzah, or other symbols of religion.

Aside from the fact that five years after the original incident, this case has yet to be settled, I can’t help but be troubled by the events being heard in the courtroom.

I can’t envision a mezuzah that would seriously be large enough to attract significant attention, or detract from the physical appearance of the condominium unit in question.

Seriously, the mezuzah at my parents’ house is about three inches long and about a half-inch wide. It’s tiny. Like I wrote earlier in this commentary, one has to literally get up the steps right to the doorway in order to notice it.

IN ALL OTHER cases where I have seen Jewish people display mezuzahs, they are about the same size and displayed in the same low-key way.

So either someone on a condominium association is being overly anal retentive, or Bloch came up with some super-sized mezuzah that was designed in a way meant to draw attention to it.

I haven’t heard any evidence indicating that to be the case, and I have never met a Jewish person who would try to turn their religious faith into a tacky display (unlike a few Christians I have met throughout the years).

I don’t know this for a fact, but I sense someone in the past was so upset they couldn’t erect some huge crucifix so they got the condominium association to implement a rule banning all symbols that could be perceived as religious.

IF THEY CAN’T shove their faith in everyone’s face, than no one else can either. So would seem to be the “logic” involved in this case.

What gives me a hint that this might be the case is the portion of reports about Wednesday’s court hearing at the Dirksen Building where we learn the condominium association has filed its own counter-lawsuit against Bloch – challenging the degree of her religious faith.

They cite instances where Bloch used the condo’s hospitality room to hold Jewish-related celebrations, without following all the strict rules involved with Orthodox Judaism. Only I haven’t heard anyone indicate Bloch is Orthodox. She may very well be Reform. There is a significant difference.

When I was in college, I once took a religion course taught by a rabbi who described the difference between the two types of Judaism (there’s actually a third form called Conservative) as, “one group (Reform) welcomes the 20th Century, the other (Orthodox) isn’t too thrilled with it.”

IT ALMOST WOULD be like claiming someone isn’t Catholic enough because they ate something other than fish on a Friday (which once was a part of the religious faith, but has withered away to modern life – even though one can find a few Catholics who will angrily denounce the loss of the old ways).

I’m not comfortable with someone claiming someone else isn’t Jewish enough to be able to put up a mezuzah, particularly since the larger point they are trying to make is to eliminate the mezuzah altogether.

Bloch herself on Wednesday told the Chicago Tribune she thinks this particular case is “much ado about nothing.” She’s probably right, and there’s a sense in which I can respect her willingness to endure a court fight that has lasted for so many years for a principle.

But if this situation had involved me, I probably would have just moved. After all, I don’t think I’d want to live in a complex with neighbors petty and ridiculous enough to get worked up over something as tiny as a mezuzah.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Perhaps Wednesday’s court hearing related to mezuzahs provided some relief ( at the federal courts from the Blagojevich saga or any of the other white collar crime being pondered there.

A mezuzah is a specific object meant to show one’s religious faith ( without being obnoxiously flashy about it.

1 comment:

Mezuzah said...

Mezuzah is mizvah!