Remember “Fernando,” Billy Crystal’s Saturday Night Live character whose mantra was, “I don’t feel mahvelous, but I look mahvelous, which is okey dokey with me ‘cause you know my credo, it is better to look good than to feel good?” Satirical? Sure. But a true word is often said in jest and in this case, it highlights secular society’s obsession with looking good. Of course, since most people recognize that much of what we see is merely a facade, who cares if the popular culture indulges?
Putting aside the propriety of engaging in behavior merely to portray a certain image, permit me to pose the following question: is it better to act your way into a new way of thinking or think your way into a new way of acting? In other words, if a person dresses and behaves as a frum yid, that person may eventually be constrained to live as such. Indeed, we see this in the performance of mitzvos. Chazal tell us that it is better to perform a mitzvah without the proper intention since it will hopefully lead to its performance with the proper intention.
I guess what I’m really asking is that since we grow and develop al ha derech (on the path) of Torah in our own manner and at our own pace, when it is the appropriate time to wear tzitzis and a kippah, give away the jeans and shorts, limit the wardrobe to white shirts or long skirts (whichever the case may be) and put the television in the closet? Is there some rite of passage we must achieve before “playing the part” or are we being disingenuous or intellectually dishonest for creating an image which makes us appear to be something we’re not?
I hope this is not the case and I don’t believe it is. If it were, I’d be in trouble. Having become observant while attending law school, I had no time to attend shiurim and certainly didn’t possess even basic skills to learn on my own. Aside from reading a few books on yiddishkeit in the spare time that I didn’t have, any learning I accomplished was done through accretion. Growing up, I attended public school and after nearly twenty years of observance, have not yet attended a yeshiva. My lovely wife used to continually remind since Rebbe Akiva didn’t start until he was forty, I had a head start. Of course, since turning forty a few years ago, she doesn’t tell me that anymore. Now, we talk about a time when I will be able to sit and learn. It may not be until we retire or win lotto, but we certainly hope it will come.
So, after having been observant for about two years, I began wearing a hat on Shabbos. During the week, I wore jeans. When I was dating, I wore a kippah srugah (knitted) and my big, ostentatious college ring. For about a year after getting married, I wore a wedding band and my tzitzis out. Actually, that’s how I ended up getting my first chavrusa (learning partner) – he was curious about that combination and after striking up a conversation, we began a seder (regular learning time). Please don’t misunderstand me. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wearing a knitted kippah, a school ring or a wedding band. Plenty of my friends do – and most are far more learned and have better middos (character) than I. The point is, I recognized that I was a work in progress (my wife tells me that I still am, but she isn’t referring to my yiddishkeit). I also recognized that wearing a black velvet kippah, a black hat or my tzitzis in or out (I actually wear them out but wrap them around my belt) would inevitably “label” me. I was certainly no yeshiva bochur, but often looked like one. Indeed, dressing that way was, and is, a statement. I looked like an affiliated Jew. I may not have felt as such, but nevertheless, I knew that I was. I may not have felt mahvelous about my lack of Torah knowledge and ignorance of halacha, but it didn’t really matter because I looked mahvelous.
Make no mistake. My desire to “look” frum was in no way out of arrogance or contempt for others. Clearly, learning Torah and developing middos tovos (good character) are indispensable to life’s Torah marathon. And although I generally wouldn’t advocate that it is better to look frum than to be frum, it certainly beats waiting for the right time. Who knows whether that time will ever come? Hmm, perhaps Fernando was really onto something. Or maybe now his name is Feivel.
This blast from the past was first posted on August 14, 2006.