Why Are You Wearing That Camel Around Your Neck?

There are many ways to introduce the weekly Torah reading. JOANNE PALMER describes one of them

by Joanne Palmer

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Tie Montage

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. Et voila!

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 scale.

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 can be.

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.