Why Are You Wearing That Camel Around Your Neck?
by Joanne Palmer
So wearing the tie that's an overall matzah print on Pesach makes perfect sense.
The tie with the big whale for the afternoon of Yom Kippur, when the haftarah is the story of Jonah, yeah, that's pretty obvious too, once you think about it. (Rosh Hashanah morning and Kol Nidrei, on the other hand, call for a simple white tie to match the kittel.)
These ties are a very basic introduction
to the very many ties of Frederic S. Goldstein,
gabbai and third-generation face of
Congregation B'nai Jeshurun on New York
City's Upper West Side, familiarly referred
to as BJ.
The one with hearts on it? That's for
Parashat Va-era, when Pharoah's heart was
hardened. (Va-era often is read in February,
but no, it's not for Valentine's Day.)
The game quickly gets harder. What about
the tie with the Cat in the Hat? There are
no cats mentioned in the Torah, and certainly
there is nothing about top hats. It's
because the Cat in the Hat is a creation of
Dr. Seuss, and in Parashat Beshallach, when
the people sing the Song of the Sea, we
are told that they are celebrating God's having
hurled horse and driver into the sea.
Horse and driver? Suess vrachvo.Oh! Got it!
Freddy, who is an Excel guru in civilian
life, started teaching about computers at
Baruch College in 1970, back when computers
and he both were young, and he
teaches there still. He is the grandson of the
Reverend Jacob Schwartz, who was BJ's cantor
from 1914 to 1953. (BJ was a founding
member of United Synagogue, which
was chartered in 1913, just a year earlier.)
He traces his interest in parashah neckwear
to his grandfather.
“My mom” – Bobbye S. Goldstein –
“would dress me in a suit when I was a little
boy when we'd go to shul,” he said. “It
was a time when everyone was dressed more
formally. I would sit up in the balcony.
My grandfather would sit on the bimah and
look up at me and he'd rub his tie, and I
would rub my tie. I would be sitting in
the middle of 1,000 people, but it was as
if I could hear him saying ‘Hello, Freddy,”
and I was yelling back to him ‘Hello,
Grandpa Jack.' I like to believe that's how
my tie thing started.”
Freddy has always worn a tie, even when
he was an undergraduate in the 1960s, when
they were not at all in vogue.
“I can't remember when I first started with
the parashah themes, but among the first
idiosyncratic ties I had was one with watermelons,”
he recalled. It's from Parashat
Beha'lotekha, where the Israelites, who for
a change are complaining, say that they used
to have melons back in Egypt. The word for
melons in biblical Hebrew, avatichem, is the
word modern Israelis use for watermelons.
Some of Freddy's ties are literal – animals
for Parashat Pinchas, which describes sacrifices
in what might be too much detail. At
least one day of Sukkot calls for a tie with
a citron on it, and Shemini Atzeret – the
eighth and last day of the festival – demands
a tie with pool balls, one of them sporting
a great big number 8. He has a rainbow
tie for Parashat Noach, and one with
stars for Lech Lecha, where God promises
Abram that he will have as many descendants
as there are stars in the sky.
Sometimes Freddy gets ties as gifts – like
the one showing Moshe coming down
Mount Sinai with the tablets in his hand,
which clearly appeals to a very niche market.
Others he buys himself. He went to the
M&M store in Times Square for its iconic
M&M tie. He wears it when two parshiyot,
Mattot and Massei, are read in the same
week. The habit might get expensive, but
there are ways to cope. “You can buy a regular
tie starting at $30 and going way up,
and you can get tourist ties for a few dollars,”
he said. The tourist ties, needless to
say, tend toward the garish.
Occasionally his ties have a more personal
meaning. His father, Gabriel F. Goldstein,
was a chemist, a pioneer in plastics,
and Freddy honors him at his yarzheit by
wearing a tie with some of the signs of his
discipline, chemical symbols or a balance
Freddy points out that as much fun as
his hobby is, and as creative as it allows
him to be, at its core it is serious. His life
has connected him to the rhythms and
assumptions of the Jewish world in profound
ways. Not only was his grandfather a cantor,
for many decades his grandmother, Lottie
G. Schwartz, was the president of the sisterhood
(yes, B'nai Jeshurun also had an early
connection to Women's League for Conservative
Judaism). Freddy's other grandfather,
Herbert S. Goldstein, was the rabbi
of the West Side Institutional Synagogue,
and his other grandmother, Rebecca Fischel
Goldstein, was the president of that kehilla's
sisterhood. “I've been in shuls all my life,”
Freddy said. So the game is a logical one
for him. To do it properly it is necessary
to study the parashah thoroughly. The idea
of such study, week after week, comes naturally.
Putting the tie together with the
parashah is a puzzle, far more art than science; the more you know about the
parashah's details, the more nuanced the
connection between the tie and the reading
It's educational for the rest of the kehilla
as well. People look at his tie and try to
figure the connection out. “In most shuls,
people ask what the rabbi said,” Freddy said.
“At BJ, they ask what the rabbi said, and
then they ask what tie the gabbai wore.”
Freddy still has one tie on his wish list.
He would like one with a big red letter C
– that's Beshallach again, for the crossing.
Camels, olives, pieces of silver, Mickey
Mouse – an entire world of Torah hangs
around one man's neck.