Ten Days of Repentance: A plan to plan

I was pleased to see my erev Rosh Hashana caller’s name via the Caller ID on my cell, though I was somewhat embarrassed at the circumstances. It was my son’s shver (father-in-law) — the Brooklyn one mechutan (in-law) — calling as is customary to share erev yomtov greetings. Pleased, because he is such a fine person, and I so enjoy speaking to him. Embarrassed for two reasons: One, because it was 9:45 a.m. and I was still in shul, hurriedly unwinding my tefillin to join a group doing hataras nedarim (nullification of vows). And two, because, as usual, he’d gotten to me before I could get to him, as he always did.

The call, when I returned it, didn’t disappoint, and I couldn’t resist sharing with Shlomo my mixed feelings about the timing of his call. “Your call reminds me,” I said, “that every year, during [the month of] Elul as Rosh Hashana approaches, I am certain that this is the year I am going to have a calm, orderly erev Rosh Hashana, take care of getting everything set as it should be — and here I am, once again, at an embarrassingly late minyan because I was in the office at 3 AM, trying to get ahead of the next two days’ business that I won’t be around to do.”

I could hear him shaking his head across the ether. “Rav Brevda z”l said ‘Elul is dead, and it was killed in America,” said Shlomo. As usual, Rav Brevda had nailed it. It could be that once, perhaps even in our lifetimes, investing an appreciable amount of time over the course of four weeks in spiritual and psychological preparation for the Days of Awe was something a working stiff could relate to, and maybe even not that long ago. Maybe even in America. But looking around at my own life, it certainly hasn’t been a realistic ambition in a long time. And it seems reasonable to assume I haven’t been the only one who has felt that way since the dawning of the age of iPhones, yeshiva dinners, bar mitzvah-vort-wedding obligations and … the manifold other blessings, mixed and otherwise, of our contemporary existence.

“I’d be happy to even think of it,” I responded. “Maybe this call will give us a leg up on making some use of the aseres yimei teshuvah [Ten Days of Repentance]. It would be an a meaningful accomplishment for us these day if we would be sufficiently mindful that we could plan … to plan!”

He agreed, and told me of how is uncle had told him about his father — Shlomo’s grandfather — would, during the aseres yimei teshuvah, get up early — well before it was time for services — just so he could get to shul at 5 a.m., ahead of the sun’s ascent into the sky, and take time to sit in the still of dawn and… reflect. To hear himself think ahead of Yom Kippur.

And that was then. It sounded like a good idea. I can’t imagine pulling it off myself. But it sounds like a plan.

Planning isn’t everything, of course. I planned to write this post and then call my other son’s shver — the California one. But Yitzchok called me first, too. And talking to him was every bit as invigorating and elevating as talking to Shlomo. What good guys! What a brocha!

I don’t mind losing the Cell Phone Sweepstakes every erev yom tov. It’s not a race, who calls first. We’re all three of us fond of each other and no one’s keeping score of who calls first. There’s no need to because it’s never me, and that’s just fine. And if these moments with my fellow fathers-in-law are the only moments of reflection, besides finishing this post, I experience before I am lost in the pre-yomtov cyclone of preparatory activity, logistics and climate control duties, who’s to say I haven’t had at least a little bit of Elul by virtue of their warm thoughtfulness?

Can I plan a more ambitious plan than this for the next ten days? It won’t be easy. Outlook, that omniscient mussar sefer (self-improvement text) that is my constant companion, tells me that the next week and a half include filing deadlines; an address at a conference; two depositions in the Midwest and the preparation for them; and 2,409 “Unread” emails — oops, no; 2,410. They won’t be read before Yom Kippur, but my entry in the Book of Life will all the same.

On the other hand, starting tonight I have two days — no, three this year! — off the vicious grid. Three days to plan some kind of little spiritual plan, even if I can’t memorialize it digitally or dictate it to an assistant. So yes, I can do it, but it will have to be simple.

That’s already a plan, isn’t it?

The Ninth Night

One of the most persistent themes on Beyond BT is about retaining the enthusiasm and excitement of the initial stages of reconnecting with one’s heritage and spiritual source when real life kicks in… and kicks, and kicks! Another one is squeezing metaphors out of the Chanuka menorah. Here’s another one.

It’s for the ninth night, when the menorah is stored away and there are no more lamps to ignite. Wise Hillel! Shammai, for his own reasons and based on his own tradition, had us start out with eight lamps and reduce the number over each succeeding evening. Hillel, however, taught that over the course of each succeeding night of Chanuka we add another bit of brightness.

This works well for us.

Now, we know this is the darkest time of year. We do not, of course, accept the cynical view of historians, always ready to discredit religious tradition, who view the Festival of Lights as a mere adaptation of that logical reaction to the dark which is to strike to a light. But there is certainly something to be said for the idea that if a little bit of light raises our spirits when it is dark, a little more, as the dark remains, or even, perhaps, increases — along with the cold and, in the regions of the Holy Land, the wretched wet — perhaps a bit more light will help even a bit more, and so on.

And so on, and so on. Until eight. And we have many traditions about eight, the number at which we break past the natural, i.e., the days of creation. Once we are at eight, we have done all we can. There are no nine days of Chanuka; by the ninth day, the regular process of preparing oil had completed, and no miracle was needed. And so on the ninth night we do not light the Chanuka menorah in our homes.

That was well and good in the Bais HaMikdash, but what about for us, now, bereft of its light — and now, on the ninth night, lacking the light of the menorahs in our windows or on our doorsteps or tables as well? What do we do when the crystalline sparkle we thought would always warm us is now gone, and it is still dark, and, it seems, will be for some time — and it is only getting colder?

Well, we know, again, that it would not have done any good to just keep lighting and lighting. Some cultures try to blot out the dark, so to speak, by a riot of tinsel, light and color. Eight days of Chanuka? We’ll sing about twelve days! Ornaments of red, green, gold; color, lights, trinkets, trees, balls — color, light, light, light, light, light, strung up high on trees, projected from the highest buildings!

Does this make the dark go away? Or are we merely jaded by the artificial stimulation, the garish, madding photons vomiting up a “light” that is useless as true illumination — that is, to see where one is going; to avoid obstacles; to gain perspective?

It hurts when the eight days are over and it is still dark and, perhaps, we are not as inspired by the Maoz Tzur and the spinning of the dreydel as we had hoped to be. We miss the warm glow of the olive oil, almost as comforting as a human embrace on a chill night. Real life’s harshness intrudes. But as we hunker down for what is, in fact, the winter ahead, what do we see in the fading echo of the light?

Were we inspired, did we grow, during that period of special illumination? Did we inspire someone else, even a little, in some positive way? Did we do nothing more than spin the dreydel? Did we encourage the dreydel to spin a little less? Or are we spinning when we try to convince ourselves one way or the other?

Each night’s added candle matters until it doesn’t, just as each step a child’s parent takes matters as he runs alongside a wobbling bicycle until, finally, letting go. Once the child rides by himself, whether or not it works out the first time, he never needs the parent running alongside again. Those steps will never be forgotten, though.

What if the child, sadly, forgets them? The parent will not. There is absolute value in this world. We give because giving is good. Giving inspires.

So too the light given off by flame inspires long after the light is gone, even if all we can see now is cruel, thankless dark.

The only darkness that matters is the one inside ourselves, and each other, not the one outside the windowpane. The season is irrelevant; Daylight Savings Time does not have to rule our moods.

We do not need tinsel, or even menorahs, or physical light at all, to illuminate that void if we can, with God’s help, just recall something of what we saw by the light we lit, or that someone we care about lit for us, in the world of the spirit, until the florid blaze of spring.

Method to Our Mitzvos

When is it appropriate, in our spiritual journey as Jews, to manipulate our own emotions — to perform, before an audience composed only of our own hearts, as an actor on a stage does, to simulate joy or other emotions in order to create… an “effect”?

I was always troubled by the suggestion I once encountered that crying during the Rosh Hashana prayers is so desirable that one should go so far as to bring on weeping, even by making oneself think of something unrelated to the day’s theme of repentance but guaranteed to bring on tears. The commentators or rabbinic sources are not universally in agreement with this approach, I have since learned; there would probably, if we knew how to count, be a majority vote against it. I was not surprised, however, to learn that among those who did not favor tearing up during the prayers at all is Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, who evidently counseled an attitude of joy, not sadness.

The consensus among learned Internet commentators seems to be that sincere tears are even fine with the Gaon, whereas a lack of any emotional movement during this period may itself portend a troubling lack of spiritual movement. But the Gaon’s approach appealed to a younger version of myself, not only because of what I considered at the time to be my own distrust of emotion, but because of something I learned when I was a student in a major Brooklyn yeshiva, known as “Chaim Berlin.” I had noticed that in Chaim Berlin, when the Ark was opened in order to remove the Torah scroll for reading, everyone remained where he was standing. This was in contrast to what I had seen even growing up in a Conservative synagogue and in virtually every orthodox one, where members of the congregation moved toward the Ark and the Torah scroll from the time the curtain was opened until the scroll was placed on the reader’s desk; and so again in reverse when the reading was over.

I asked the late Moshgiach [spiritual dean], Rabbi Shimon Groner, why no one moved. He told me that the yeshiva followed a teaching of the Vilna Gaon that reflexive, automated manipulations of our bodies, or of space containing our bodies, held a danger of making our service to Hashem thoughtless. Counseling that we move, for example, toward the Torah and make a point of thinking about it would hardly help, because human nature being what it is, we would end up automatically doing the moving and forgetting the remembering. From the Gaon’s point of view, as I came to understand it, this was worse than not doing anything at all, because it is a lie to ourselves and to anyone observing us. It is worse, to borrow the aphorism concerning speech, to stand in place and be thought of as not devotional than to walk like a zombie and prove that you aren’t.

It did occur to me, however, that this practice appeared to represent a minority approach to the matter, and that there was probably some reason for that.

At this stage of my life, I don’t have to worry too much about whether to make myself cry on Rosh Hashana, at least a little bit. When you’re older and you’ve racked up enough mileage, you don’t need to force it on the one hand. And on the other, you have no choice about whether, “trustworthy” or not, you are going to permit it: emotion will come, and probably the damp, too. (I once read that the great Rabbi Elyah Lopian explained that he no longer wanted to lead the congregation in prayer this time of year because “tears come easily to old men,” and he didn’t want the congregation to believe he was “really” crying tears of repentance.)

And at this stage of the year, I juxtapose those thoughts about spiritual “method” acting — the better-known kind being something I actually trained in during college — to the coming holiday, which on the one hand seems emotionally less challenging but is actually the opposite: Succos. And in doing so, I come out in favor.

I find Succos a great challenge because it’s supposed to be a very joyous experience. And me, well, I’m not known for joy; and I’m not feeling so joyous inside either after Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I’ve missed all that work, and there’s even more to miss ahead with this big weeklong yomtov; I’m bleeding money on expenses relating to the holiday and its joyous celebration; my square old feet hurt from all that standing up and davening and there’s even more ahead, with those hakofos and the full Hallel too — I could go on, but I won’t. Let’s just stay that, it’s good for you if you just lap up the joyousness “by Succos,” but for this camper, I desperately lack what the method actors call, using a term that spawned a million show-biz one-liners, some “motivation.”

And the Torah gives it to me. Lulav bundle? Check. Hold it in your hand. Esrog? Check. Hold it in your other hand. Put ’em together. Sit in the succah. Wave ’em front. Wave ’em right. Wave ’em back, left, up, down. IT’S NOT OPTIONAL. DO IT!

Did you like that Mr. Sourpuss? Good! So now that you’ve put it all way… Take it all out again and walk around the shul in circles over and over while reciting stuff!! Are you having fun yet?

Well… yeah, I am.

I am. My body, directed by the Torah to have fun, makes me have fun… which we know there is no word for in the Holy Tongue. Which must mean I am having, or experiencing, something else.

Joy. Despite myself, my aching back, my twitching feet, I end up… how do you say? “Into it.”

We learn in method acting how to use the mind and the body to create an effect. The effect is not just for the audience. The novelty of the Stanislavsky Method, and what enabled its masters to leave mere play-acting behind, is that the effect is to create a stage-reality for the performer so that he is to some extent (not entirely, for he is still performing) living the moment on stage — emotionally, for real. He is not “emoting”; he is having a real emotional experience. The audience believes because he believes, and they are entitled to do so, because it is real.

The same thing happens when I make myself jump into the circle of dancers at a wedding. Oy, it goes on too long. Oy, the dance floor is too crowded. Oy, the kid in the middle doesn’t even know me. But it’s a mitzvah to celebrate a marriage, and the way we do it is to throw our body into it, no matter how intellectual of a creature we think we are. We do it, we let go — yes, even your crusty blogger lets go, and, what do you know? HAPPY FEET!!

It’s joy. It’s ok. And I know the Gaon would approve. I know it because on his deathbed he picked up his tallis katan and said, in tears, “For a few cents, in the world I am about to leave, I could buy this and by putting it on, earn a supernal award — and now I will have no more chances to earn merit that way!”

The Vilna Gaon earned virtually every merit a Jew could earn during his life, especially the kind you earn with assiduous application of the brain — and all the more so when that was coupled with determined denial of the body. But he knew — no, not “but”; rather, therefore he knew that there is a place in this world for the physical.

In stagecraft we called it a prop. And so too in mitzvos, wise use of props gets us where we need to be; not just where to go through the motions, pantomime or pretend, but to really be.

It may not be wise for most of us to use mental props such as emotions to simulate related emotions; that’s only for true masters. But when the Torah hands us a prop — a lulav, an esrog, a circuit ’round the shul; a succah to sit in; a massive mouthful of matzah; a daunting Hillel sandwich right afterward; a tallis; tefilin; a deep square of tiled “living water”; a gooey clump of challah; a pair of candlesticks — our job is to grab the prop, remember our lines and play it to the hilt — despite ourselves, to believe it and, as we say in the theater, “live in the moment.”

The applause in our souls is guaranteed to follow. And take it from a crusty old thespian: Applause is addictive. Plus when we take what we think are our final bows, we just might have reason to hope for another curtain call!

Ron Coleman writes a blog about intellectual property law called LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®.

The Irregular Growth Curves of the Baal Teshuva

My, how I have grown. I don’t mean “how much.” I mean, “how,” as in the manner or progress of a thing.

One of the cliches we hear, and learn to repeat, as baalei teshuva is the idea that you have to always be moving forward, growing, or else you’re doing something other than staying the same. “Growth,” improvement, development, are necessary components to an ongoing, meaningful life as an observant Jew. This is the mussar imperative, and perhaps also a concept also found in chasidus, though it is not obvious from a casual study study of Judaism. To some extent the implantation of this idea early on in our development as orthodox Jews is the placement of what may propel most of us to “the right.” But this description of movement is facile… one dimensional.

On a graph along the X and Y axes, one would think that — if there were some way to quantify it — one’s avodas Hashem would be represented by a nice, smooth curve of upward spiritual growth. But we have discussed here many times how seldom it is that the experience is an unadulterated parabolic delight — or perhaps more accurately how the experience can be perfectly parabolic, in the less felicitous sense of featuring both the up and the down side of the curve.

Really, we should use integral calculus when measuring our ups and downs. As we all know, integral calculus means measuring the area under a curve, defined by f(x), between two points (say a and b). The area under a curve does not care what the shape of the curve is; its value is absolute. This value we may hypothesize as actually being the true measure of a meaningful Jewish life. Any life. Your life. (Yes, I recognize this steps a little on the toes of my most recent post on a related topic. Let us call this a… refinement.)

My curve in the last few years has been… funny. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It wasn’t, perhaps, what I would have thought it ought to have been. The route it has traced along those famous axes has taken me places that I am sure if you had asked me ten or even five years ago I would not have volunteered to go. Life is full of surprises, though.

In my case, at a certain point I was in a holding pattern. I had not really continued growing. The pressures of family life, making a living, all those standard excuses, as well as laziness and, if I may use the term here, jadedness had probably kept me more or less meandering spiritually for a decade.

My curve dipped. It peaked; it valleyed. I needed to know, to feel, even to hurt more in order to be more, and God provided me with a number of extraordinary opportunities to learn more, some of which came at some risk to the safe and happy mental life in which I frolicked. For one, I got involved in new and different kinds of kiruv — don’t worry; all fully “sanctioned.” Also, through my professional life, I moved “up” in frum society, and thereby also gained behind the scenes looks at the sort of reality, sometimes squalid, sometimes glorious but necessarily anonymous, that does not get taught in beginners’ seminars. And, off a less beaten path, I chose to establish genuine friendships — not kiruv files — with people who had views about the Torah world and even the Torah itself with whom I previously would not have ever had anything to do, and I engaged them sincerely, as equals, and listened to what they had to say, and then some. In short, I exposed myself to the rough edges. Some pointy-rough edges, in fact, which were encroaching on me stealthily, anyway. But this engagement is what they tell us, as we leave BT school, we’re not supposed to do. And what I wrote in these very “pages” I would not do. But I did it.

The sort of engagement I took up, really, may not be for everyone. You have to have quite a bit of self-confidence, and ego, to follow the curves I have in this latest stage of my “growth.” I had to do it. I have to still. With my characteristic modesty I will remind those not already bored of hearing it that I was an early success, a quick learner, almost literally a poster boy for the movement. So I got “there” fast — and then what? After a period of stasis, I had to open the doors again (were they the same doors?) and walk through them and see who I really was, and who and what I could yet become. And I did.

And I am still here, never more sure of who I am, and the decisions I have made. I learned through these encounters to appreciate more than ever the world in which I have ensconced myself, — even if some of my new friends (and they will always be that, I hope) shake their heads more in wonder than ever about my choices, knowing me and my views and where we might agree about what they think are crucial things. They may not understand what they have done for me — how their passion, their honesty, the blood from their wounds they have bled on me and the gall of their own devices with which they have splashed me — have nourished who I am now, and what I can yet become as a Jew, if only because I opened my heart a crack … as a Jew really should do. I would never have dreamed, if you had told me about where I would “go” emotionally and psychologically in this process, how much stronger, deeper, wiser I would be at the end of it, how much more meaning there is in my choice, how much more love there is in my life.

Maybe my particular wrestling matches were not for everyone, but there is some juncture… some moment… some challenge… some “hard” or obnoxious question, from which each of us, depending on who we are, and where it is, and when, should not walk away. For our own good, our own eternity. That encounter is different for all of us, but at this time in history, in our place, each of us must, at some point, engage this world.

The formula that defines my curve is mine alone. The measure of it all is, I say, what is accumulated under the curve and, with God’s help, in its continued progress… yes, upward. Because of where my formula has taken me in the last few clicks along the x-axis, I will never be the same, after too long of being just that. Is there any other way to define growth? For me, there was not.

Originally Published April 2, 2008

Living in the future

When I had more time for posting and commenting on the Beyond BT, I was very busy with the topic of former BT’s, many of whom not only gave up Jewish observance but, for whatever reason you may want to posit, did it with a vengeance. Those days were a lot of fun, positively heady. I got to make very good and stimulating use of my God-given talent for polemics and usually found that critics and ankle-biters preferred to slink away than engage with me, though of course they might not agree with my characterization. To some extent, this post is dependent on some familiarity with the back-and-forth of those days.

Despite whatever points I may scored and whatever lurkers I may have encouraged in these debates, I have always had two nagging question about those days and those arguments: One is, was I right when it seemed that I was right, or was I just a better debater? And the other one is, how much of the vigor of my efforts was motivated not by a sincere belief in the truth at all, but rather an insistence on rationalizing my own choices — choices which are irreversible now, for all practical purposes?

The first question, I decided, shouldn’t nag me so much, because I’m good, but so are a lot of other people who disagree with me. And I didn’t, after all, “win” every point. As I remember it, in the course of the great battles we fought in those days I made concessions and admitted to problems or gaps with the overall worldview I argued for. I will say, thought, that my interlocutors (not only mine, but of the many who basically agreed with me) could or would not answer this question: Separate and apart from your point about Issue X or Issue Y, or the way kiruv professionals or amateurs do or don’t deal with it, what alternative, systematic and internally consistent approach to Judaism do you offer that could possibly be recognized as Judaism? For the premise of the discussion was and is that if your point of view is that this is all a fantastic fakeout, that nothing means anything, then we really have nothing to discuss. We share no common ground.

My experience was, in fact, is that few of the most vigorous debaters are the complete nihilists they perhaps think of themselves as being; after all, if they were, they shouldn’t care about anything at all anyway. Generally people will admit that they aren’t that — that they (a) want to be Jewish; that they (b) want being Jewish to matter; and even that (c) past attempts to redefine or dilute Judaism to the point of eviscerating it of any meaning with respect to how it governs our conduct or our identities have not met the criteria of (a) and (b).

I think I can say, being intellectually honest to myself, that the above “works.” I think I believe that this addresses the first question: We may not have it all figured out, but it seems that we — observant Jews, born that way or otherwise — are probably on the right track.

How about the second question — whether despite that conclusion, is it still all just rationalizing motivated by the fact that the implications of realizing you’re wrong are just too frightening? After all, the fact that no one has a better or answer or even a close tie doesn’t mean your answer is correct. That’s true no matter how “true” it feels emotionally, or what people call “spiritually” (I don’t really know what that means) or even intellectually. How can we separate rational from rationale?

And do we have to?

A very well-respected, very intellectual rosh yeshiva once told me: There comes a point where you can chase your own tail or, perhaps, disappear down your own navel in contemplating your own contemplation. And you’ve simply got to trust yourself to know when you think that’s happening. So let’s have no more of that here than necessary.

But I am going to ask that second question from a point of view that I can articulate today in a way I could not ten or even five years ago: If all this is true, if all this is good, how can so much in our community be so false? How can so much be so bad? How can so many questions be so unanswerable?

The disclaimers must be interjected here, not because it is protocol to do so but because they are appropriate and right. There are so many merits, so many marvelous and unique and extraordinary things to say about the Jewish people, and especially shomrei mitzvos, that my question should vanish before them. I promise you, I’m not just saying this: I could list them for six posts, not a paragraph in one post. They would make BT’s, especially newcomers, feel warm and fuzzy inside.

But my question does not vanish, because so much that is so painful refuses to recede from view and memory. I am thinking not of just individual outrages, but communal ones. Not just trends and phenomena in our community that are hard to understand, but ones which, instead, are all too easy to understand. And these I will not list here, because I am not going to act, even rhetorically, as a prosecutor against the Jewish people, G-d forbid — much less in Elul.

How do these things affect the second question, i.e., “Are you rationalizing?” After all, we all learn early on the aphorism that we “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” Fair enough; let’s don’t.

But these things we see, we hear, we experience sometimes cannot but bring us down if we’ve retained our critical faculties, and shouldn’t we?

I also have my own pet issue, which is the flip side of the coin: The role models and the idealized life of the haredi [strictly orthodox] subculture and indeed a great many of what are accepted as authoritative rabbinical sources of earlier times could not, based on their words, respect the way most of us live and indeed what most of us are — no matter how well we dish it out and take it on Beyond BT or host Shabbatons or whatever other super things we do.

I readily understand that view that to aim for compromise is to guarantee mediocrity, but I cannot figure out how it is better to pretend to aim for levels of scholarship, moral rectitude and detachment from physical pleasure that as an empirical matter can be achieved and are achieved by only a sliver of the population — and that are held out for us routinely as the ideal Jewish existence. Could all the cynicism and dysfunction we do encounter, all those unmentioned negatives alluded to above, be the fruit of this cognitive dissonance?

So how can we defend this without rationalizing, when we know we are falling so short of the ideals we espouse? Is it enough to say that it works because pretty much every other way of life can be shown (I posit) to implicate even more untenable compromises? Is it enough to have faith in greater and holier minds than mine that say “yes, do strive for this truth; the striving is the thing”? Is it that by almost any measure the good outweighs the bad? Is it the fact that part of growing up is living with paradox, and realizing that only God has a comprehensive understanding of the whole?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

And if I am, still, rationalizing?

Well, no one’s proved it to me yet. And every day, you see, I think today is going to be the day that it works a little better, and maybe it will. And if it doesn’t, I will know that I fought the good fight.

That works for me.

Financial support of kiruv – a categorical imperative. Right?

For years after I first became observant it was obvious to me that I should devote more than a token amount of my tzedakah money to kiruv organizations.

Live and learn.

I have lived a lot since that proposition was obvious to me, and I’ve learned a thing or two, too.

One reason for the shortfall is the fact that, sadly, my actual ability to give tzedakah turns out to be a lot more “token” than I had once thought it would be by now. That’s not only a matter of not having become a millionaire at age 30 (never one of my goals, actually — and there you have it!) but is also a product, of course, of the charming reality of how expensive it is to support a medium-sized frum family in the New York area, a topic that has been discussed at length on this blog.

Contrary to what I might also have thought, the size of the pot available for donation, in turn, affects the percentage.

The reason percentages of tzedakah allocated to kiruv are not necessarily “scalable” implicates the second factor that has affected my thinking about this: A lot of those donations are sort of stuck at what we might call hard numbers. For example, for each educational institution educating our children that requires a journal “donation,” there is a minimum size ad required in order to attend the dinner — and we are, of course, expected to attend. Then there are the dinners for the shul or shuls where we daven [attend services], the local yeshiva, the bais medrash where we learn or perhaps our kids do, the chesed organization we’re involved with — and then all those “honors” being bestowed on family members and friends, in turn.

Yes, we have to make decisions, establish priorities, draw the line somewhere. We must and we do. But as a young newcomer to observant Judaism, I would never have understood that as you go through life in the frum world you will accrete innumerable relationships to institutions and to people — and in turn, albeit indirectly, to the relationships those people have to other institutions — and that this geometry of relationships simply implicates a certain amount of charitable giving among those who can do so at all.

Indeed, to the extent that proportion does anything here, it probably works precisely the opposite from how you would think except perhaps for the very wealthy. The percentage of tzedakah money available for supporting kiruv institutions probably shrinks as one’s income increases, because steady economic progress is usually accompanied by steady growth of one’s social and, in the case of frum Jews, religious affiliations. In turn this results in more “obligatory” dinner appearances or eat least journal ad “greetings” — such favors, after all, being expected to be returned when one is himself the honoree at some event.

Moreover, which Jewish educational institution that is educating our children is not in dire financial straits almost all the time? The very fortunate few who can — and do — pay full tuition essentially flag themselves as not-literally-destitute by doing so. That means a warm visit from the hanhola [management], which will make a compelling case for some degree of additional assistance for the institution that is educating your children. Now. Today, and probably for years to come.

We have to make decisions, establish priorities, draw the line somewhere. We must and we do. But drawing these lines concerning the people, institutions and communal needs that directly implicate you and your family, now, is not easy.

What, after all, have the kiruv institutions that got me here done for me… lately?

One obvious problem for kiruv fundraising is that alumni who have moved on, so to speak, don’t “need” them any more — all the more so kiruv organizations seeking to raise funds in the frum community from non-alumni. Seeking donations from very well-off donors is one thing; but how do Aish HaTorah and the rest make the case to me to financially support their programming over the programming of institutions and organizations I am involved with, directly or through family members or direct communal involvement, right now?

Guilt? That will only take you so far; frequently, in fact, it will push the potential donor over the edge entirely.

There are other problems. One is the programming itself. Kiruv is a funny thing; it’s changed a lot in a lot of places over the last generation. I can’t say I understand how and why the money raised by kiruv organizations is being spent. I’m not even so sure I would be so happy if I did understand it. So can I conclude that prioritizing a given program as a recipient of what I can spare is the best use of my tzedakah money?

At the end of the day I give to kiruv organizations to the extent that I can based on very similar criteria to those I employ with respect to other tzedakahs: Mainly relationships and trust. Some kiruv professionals who meant a lot to me are still in my life, and not because I’m anything like a money tree nor because they’re still “working with” (much less “working on”) me; they just are still near and dear to me. That’s a relationship, and that’s an organization I am always going to find some way to help out.

Then there are others where there is no ongoing relationship, and after all I have not necessarily sought one. So be it.

And then there are ones I hear from when they need something from me.

And new ones — how about programs that may be brilliant and effective that I have no relationship with at all?

Chances are, it will stay that way.

Friends, just

Friendship is a funny thing. Or not so funny. They once had a funny TV show called “Friends.” It was about a group of attractive young men and women who were all “friends,” neighbors, roommates. To no one’s surprise, pretty much everyone ended being “more than friends” with everyone else of the opposite sex, at least briefly, by the time the show’s run was over.

But that was fiction. How do we know? Because despite their beyond-friendship interactions, why, they really were still all great friends again right through the end!

Yeah, right.

One of the changes BT’s have to adjust to is that frum men and women really can’t be friends. Like so many things, the extent of sensitivity, or compliance (depending how you look at it) with this principle may depend on your community’s standards. The terminology, too, is rife with vagueness. There’s friendship, and there’s friendship. It shouldn’t be too controversial to assert that an unmarried couple of opposite sexes who are not dating have no business socializing together outside the company of other people, even if they can do so without actually breaching the requirements of yichud, the prohibitions against seclusion with a member of the opposite sex. But if you’re a man, for example, and you’re on a first-name basis with a rebbetzin close to your age whom you’ve known for 25 years, aren’t you, after all, “friends,” even if you never go bowling together? If not, what are you — acquaintances?

Really, however, that case is not our concern; it’s not a change from the previous way of life that presents some people with a challenge, it’s merely a nomenclature problem. The change I originally referred to is that status of “just friends” between males and females. In observant Jewish life, it is not really an option.

The fact is, however, that by the time we hit adulthood, we recognize that mixed friendships are really, mainly, a myth, no matter your religious persuasion — which is just how halacha views it. Men are always men. Women are always women. Men vis-à-vis women is always something that is usually not limited to the non-romantic, non-physical relationship properly described as friendship.

In fact, last fall (October 2012), Scientific American published an article called “Men and Women Can’t be Just Friends.” Unsurprisingly, researchers concluded that it’s pretty much the men who can’t just be friends with women:

New research suggests that there may be some truth to this possibility—that we may think we’re capable of being “just friends” with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for “romance” is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment. . .

The results suggest large gender differences in how men and women experience opposite-sex friendships. Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa. Men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them — a clearly misguided belief. In fact, men’s estimates of how attractive they were to their female friends had virtually nothing to do with how these women actually felt, and almost everything to do with how the men themselves felt — basically, males assumed that any romantic attraction they experienced was mutual, and were blind to the actual level of romantic interest felt by their female friends. Women, too, were blind to the mindset of their opposite-sex friends; because females generally were not attracted to their male friends, they assumed that this lack of attraction was mutual. As a result, men consistently overestimated the level of attraction felt by their female friends and women consistently underestimated the level of attraction felt by their male friends.

Men were also more willing to act on this mistakenly perceived mutual attraction.

Some comments on the website question the methodology, but most people — and here, I suppose, I really mean most men, who are the ones who know about the “problematic” side of this equation — will admit that, yes, this is about right.

You can interact with a member of the opposite sex and be helpful, compassionate and even… friendly. But most contexts in can do so inevitably result in what halacha calls k’rivas ha-daas — literally, “convergence of the mind,” or what we would call an emotional bond.

That process, that attraction, is there for a reason, a good one: So that men and women, in the right context, can grow close. Which they will, given half a chance. Given half a chance, too, other things will happen. Interestingly, it appears that “just friends” could work if men and women thought the same way where — as you’d like to think — at least the man was attached to another woman, and she knew this. Women see a man’s “taken” status as meaning, well, “taken.” Men, however, not so much:

Although men were equally as likely to desire “romantic dates” with “taken” friends as with single ones, women were sensitive to their male friends’ relationship status and uninterested in pursuing those who were already involved with someone else.

These results suggest that men, relative to women, have a particularly hard time being “just friends.” . . . This is not just a bit of confirmation for stereotypes about sex-hungry males and naïve females; it is direct proof that two people can experience the exact same relationship in radically different ways. Men seem to see myriad opportunities for romance in their supposedly platonic opposite-sex friendships. The women in these friendships, however, seem to have a completely different orientation — one that is actually platonic.

That’s what I meant by “half a chance” — the male half, mainly.

Orthodox Jewish life, in fact, is pretty much set up to recognize this reality. Some people have trouble understanding levels of sensitivity to the separation of the sexes than they are used to — either before they became religious, or in communities that are more vigilant on this issue than they are. Can’t people just control themselves?, they ask.

People can. They do, mostly. But traditional Judaism says, given the values, and at some point the lives, at stake, why make it harder for people to do so?

“Just friends,” in fact, is a phrase that most of us remember from our dating days as what the girl you like says she wants to be when she doesn’t “like you” in “that way.” And we guys remember what “just friends” meant, and felt like, when we heard those words, don’t we? Did we really want to or expect to be “just friends” with that girl after that?

Did we ever?

It Was a Very Good Year

Mishpacha magazine has caught up with BeyondBT. I found the Baal Teshuva Symposium interesting.

I have my own little point that I have made before in comments here, but never as a self-standing post. And if I had been asked to participate, this is what I would have written in response to the question, “How should we respond to a baal teshuvah who speaks of ‘buyer’s remorse’ some years after his return to Torah, due to the sheer difficulty and expense of the frum lifestyle? Due to disenchantment with the frum world? Due to loss of faith or still unanswered questions?”:

It would be wise to recall that many of the roadblocks, much less bumps in the road, that we face as BT’s are merely specialized versions of the rough-and-tumble experience of growing into adulthood… parenthood… middle age… and beyond.

It is easy to assume that the road not taken would have been smooth, well lit and bedecked with clear, accurate signage.

But life really isn’t like that. Many, if not most, BT’s who look back on “before” and “after” are in an “after” that includes marriage, children, a mortgage, a career or two, tens of extra pounds around the middle, in-laws, ageing or dying parents, and general economic stress.

That, by the way, is pretty much, notwithstanding a few of us who have hit it big and seem to have it “easy,” the best-case scenario.

And “before”? My goodness! I will just speak for myself. I was 22; a recent Ivy League graduate en route to a top law school; I had all of my hair and all the color in it; I could not only touch my toes but I could palm the ground!

These seem like trivial things, but they contributed significantly to my emotional well-being. I had a lot to look forward to and every reason to believe it would be a great future, even if I had no credible concept of what that meant.

And it was an all-me future! I could go where I wanted to when I wanted to. No one needed to be driven anywhere or picked up. No one needed me to go shopping. No one else’s physical, emotional, financial or other needs were a daily concern. More: What I did and how I did it concerned and affected me alone.

It was easy to be idealistic, enthusiastic, flexible, relaxed, as well as self-centered, imprudent and rash. It was being 22, not 44 or the 50 I am now approaching.

Of course I feel the weight of life now. Disenchanted? It could happen even under the best of circumstances, or the worst; within the framework of a Torah way of life or the amorphous existence of being “secular.” On some level, for the vast majority of people, it does. We have to come to terms with that.

Ah, yes. When I was 22 and becoming frum, it was exciting! I thought I had found many things that eluded me for my previous life. I thought I could have both this and that. And be 22 forever.

The reality was, of course, different — as it is for everyone who remembers what he thought life would look like at 22 and is fortunate enough to live to be 50. That’s almost three decades of change. Life becomes complicated; or, if you like, life becomes richer. We experience joys we could not image as well as pain both predictable and otherwise. Yes, we learn to appreciate and treasure moments and achievements we had no concept of as overgrown adolescents. But it cannot be denied that the fantasies about the future many of us have surrender to the reality of life in this world. Gravity and time grind us down.

We are, one hopes, better for it — choose your metaphor. Let’s speak of coal that becomes a diamond. It’s still a crushing experience.

Disenchanted? Of course. Unanswered questions? More than ever.

I can say without a moment’s hesitation, however, that if I had made it to this point without having made the choice I did when I was 22, and suffered the same disappointments, struggles and changes — all of which I believe I would have experienced, and maybe even worse — if I had lived even this long but without ch’v Torah and mitzvos to give live meaning and direction… and, frankly, distraction from the pain and the stress, and to give structure to the process by which, as adults, we must become less self-centered …

I don’t even want to think about it.

Buyer’s remorse? When I think I might have that, I pull out the “receipt.” I may be indeed be regretting something, or ruing it — but not necessarily what I “bought” by becoming frum. It’s just growing old. And as my late father always used to say, it beats the alternative.

I, Rabbi (Part Three – Conclusion)

Part One of this three-post series is here.

Part Two is here.

It was a nice wedding. Not a heimishe wedding, despite my best efforts in that direction, but nice all the same, and kosher, too.

Well, the food wasn’t kosher. Oh, mine was, as was that of the other “special kosher” diners, but it was kind of the “airplane food” scene. I was a little disappointed. Not over the food, but over the clear (and accurate) appearance that we were eating “the kosher food” and everyone else was not. No, it was not lobsters or over-the-top treif, but I think my groom was in a bit of denial over what the contrast would look like.

But by then I was mostly done. The ceremony went off without a hitch, though I was glad to have my “real rabbi” backup and witness whispering in my ear when I got nervous (and I was nervous!) and stammered over the pronunciation of a word in one of the Sheva Brochos. (For all my glibness, I had stammered considerably at my own wedding over 20 years earlier!) The chupa [“canopy,” i.e., the ceremony conducted under the canopy] wasn’t conventional by orthodox wedding standards, but it was as kosher as what I put in my mouth later at the meal. Evidently my cantorial skills held up respectably as well (always a touchy topic with me!), but no one rushed up to me at dinner with a recording contract or a request to preside over Yom Kippur services on an ocean liner either.

I did decide that I’d have to wear my “Rabbi Suit” (dark suit, straight tie and fedora) and give them their money’s worth, so I lost the rare opportunity to wear black tie, in which I look so dashing, as the invitation indicated. It was more than compensated for, of course, including by the pleasant comments I got from attendees as the evening went on. Many were very grateful for how I had described the respective stages of the ceremony as we went through them, noting that they had been to many traditionally-structured weddings but never understood what was going on. I also answered questions that people had, which tended to be very basic. Also the staff at the hall and with the caterer called me “rabbi” all night, which was kind of fun and pretty harmless. No serious halachic inquiries were broached.

One very pleasant encounter was from a cousin of the groom’s father who had, along with her husband, flown all the way from England for this wedding. They were frum, in fact, and were steeling themselves for who-knows-what of a wedding ceremony. They were surprised and delighted that the wedding had been conducted, per the words used by the groom, k’das Moshe v’Yisroel [in the tradition of Moshe and the Jewish nation].

Another nice moment came from the groom’s father. He was a Sephardi, but like many families who had left the world of Oriental Jewry one or two generations ago the old ways were only a memory for him. They were, however, a vivid, warm memory, and he told me gratefully and emotionally how the wedding, as well as the Friday night Shabbos meal the couple had arranged the Shabbos before, had brought him back with bittersweet memories of his youth. He seemed to feel some regret for what he had left behind.

My work here was done. I am back in rabbinic retirement, and not seeking additional engagements (so to speak). Marrying twice — marrying my wife, and marrying this couple — is plenty of marrying for me! I’ll stick with the low-pressure environment of federal court, thank you.

I, Rabbi (Part Two)

Part One of this three-post series is here.

I found another rabbi to speak to about this question. Two, in fact. The first, very engaged in outreach, told me how he had wrestled with the issue of conducting wedding ceremonies for non-observant Jews. He acknowledged the serious halachic challenges, and responsibilities, implicated by doing so. But his mentor and rebbe had, when asked this question by him, all but laughed at him for asking it: “Two Jews want to get married in our day and age — you shouldn’t do everything possible to make this happen?” Well, that is how I had seen it. He gave me some tips.

The kashrus, he said, isn’t likely to be under your control, but you can’t agree to do this if they’re going to be serving “conspicuously treif” food; that just debases your involvement and could eventually come back to haunt you, rabbi, as well. You can say that the bride must go to the mikveh first. You can make sure the kesuvah is halachically competent. And because you have a relationship with the couple, you can sort of at least hope to “own” the “get issue” if it comes to that, which is a chief concern of those who are reluctant to get involved in such marriages. His words encouraged me.

The second rabbi was helpful in a completely complimentary fashion. He was in fact almost never referred to as a rabbi, and though people know he is learned, not too many people know that he was ordained by a major yeshiva as a young man decades ago. But not only is he ordained: He told me, when I recounted all this to him, that he could help with two of the missing pieces: Being witness number two at the chupa [“canopy,” i.e., the ceremony] (an easy one), and being recognized as ordained by the clerk of the City of New York — thus the official “officiant” for purposes of the law. He had one question — well, two. The first one was, “They’re getting proper glatt meals for people who want them?” Yes, I said. The second one was, “So they’ll give me dinner for this?” I laughed — of course dinner! (“Only half price!”)

Rabbi #2 also was very familiar with the precise halachic issues we’d have to nail down, and helped guide me through them. One of them involved the kesuvah. Assuming, correctly, that the couple would want to have an “art” kesuvah, he explained to me what the halachic issues, and controversies, were, and what wording I had to look for and look out for. Let’s just say that at the end of the day I prevailed on the couple to use whatever they wanted for their living room wall, but to privately allow me to use a standard, halachically valid kesuvah that they could keep in their filing cabinet “so your kids will always know it was done according to all opinions.” That was a formulation the first rabbi had suggested to me, and, used sparingly, it came in quite handy.

So I had my rabbinical advice, across the board. I had, eventually, cooperation from the couple, who agreed to the form of kesuvah, the mikveh (huge, right?) and pretty much everything that mattered. I, in turn, had to agree to come early; to be called “rabbi” by the staff; and, I decided, to forego dusting off my tuxedo in order to achieve the proper clerical decorum on that night. And I had to commit, of course, to actually take a hard look at the seder kedushin [the wedding ceremony], learn it, and be prepared to execute it! At my age, I don’t do new things every day. This turned out to be a simple matter, but, even for me, a little scary.

The happy ending, along with the nerves, the detours and the airline food, I will tell you about in Part 3, IY”H.

Ron Coleman is married to his everyday blog about intellectual property law. It’s called LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®.

I, Rabbi (Part One)

I’m no rabbi. Except, in too many cases, compared to everyone else on the guest list.

So in addition to “fielding questions,” as we all do, I’ve “done” or “presided over” or “conducted” too many unveilings, burials — pedestrian stuff, of course, but you have to be willing to stick your neck out and be, well, rabbinic, when friends and family call and are counting on you for this stuff, or where it’s the only way to avoid having things done horribly wrong by a “rental.”

But a wedding?

A co-worker, a good friend, was engaged. Jewish guy to a Jewish girl. Both in their mid-30’s. A big simcha in this day and age! One a lawyer, one a doctor. Very nice, sincere people. And I suppose it’s no surprise that in what has been described as a “post-denominational era” in Jewish life that, as far as Danny (not his real name) was concerned, the only “rabbi” he could have “perform” the wedding was his boss. Me.

I tried to squirm out of it, but halfheartedly; I knew this was going to happen. You don’t have to be a rabbi to be mesader kidushin — get two kosher Jews eligible to wed married. You need two kosher witnesses and a some wine and a ring and … a few things. I realized that this could be an opportunity to influence the couple and perhaps elicit some halachic observances that might otherwise be lacking.

But I also knew I needed guidance. So I called my Local Orthodox Rabbi. Well, one of them.

I was surprised at his reaction. “Don’t do it,” he said, emphatically. “Today’s non-frum Jews are completely hefker [libertine]. You’ll make this girl an eishes ish [halachically married woman] and then who knows what? It’s no mitzvah.”

I explained that I thought this case was different — the couple’s age, professional status, my personal relationship.

He was unmoved. “You don’t need it,” he insisted. “Run in the other direction.”

Well, I explained, I felt some responsibility to help them out, however. I was his only orthodox Jewish friend — really, his only “Jewish Jewish” friend — and he’d turned to me for help here, and moreover for something personal, meaningful, and beautiful. What should I tell him?

“Use your imagination,” he said.

I thanked him.

Then I closed my eyes and imagined I’d never had that conversation.

To be continued.

Ron Coleman’s “outside world” blog about intellectual property law is LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®.

Before “Beyond”: Home for the Holidays

This essay was originally published before blogging existed or almost anyone had ever heard of the Internet. It was the first installment in what was a regular column called “On the Road… Back” in what turned out to be a short-lived weekly newspaper called the New Jersey Jewish Post. This column was entitled, “Home For The Holidays.”

And, please be kind. I was… very young, even for me: The date of this column is September 5, 1988.

As summer ebbs and the nights turn cool and crisp, Jewish families share many of the same concerns as other families. Children return to school, or, in the case of older children, head off — maybe for that first exciting time — to college. Jewish families, though, also think of this time of year as heralding the approach of “the Holidays,” which usually entails a pause in the back-to-school routine and, in the case of young people going out-of-town, an all-too-brief (for the parents, anyway!) return home to celebrate the High Holidays together.

It was around this time of year that my parents had sent me, their oldest, off to college, and the excitement was palpable for all of us. Though the school was only perhaps 15 miles from my parents’ home, it could have been a thousand. I was living on my own for the first time, and thrown into an environment — an entire world — for which nothing in my previous eighteen years could have prepared me.

My college was not the kind of place you send your child if broadening his Jewish horizons is foremost in your mind. The school’s reputation for academic distinction was second only to its renown as a bastion of “WASP elitism,” and much of the allure of it was the stamp of approval it provided for upward mobility in non-Jewish society — a guarantee of future “success.” Nonetheless, my parents, who had always endeavored to provide my brother and me with a strong “Jewish identity,” were concerned that we should have Jewish friends at college and hoped especially for a Jewish roommate. Imagine my surprise — and their wary amazement — upon learning that my roommate in this Ivy League citadel was an orthodox boy, also from New Jersey, who kept Shabbat and Kashrut and attended the on-campus minyan hours before I would even begin to stir from my bed.

I had never really known an orthodox person before, and it would be a mistake to say we hit it right off. He was somewhat aloof — maybe a little “yeshivish” I thought— and I was something of a rock-and-roller. (We would later become good friends and lived together for two more years.) In a matter of weeks, though, my eyes were opened to how a person — let’s call him Moshe — lived a distinctive and proud Jewish life in the very heart of assimilation. My growing respect for him wasn’t hurt by the fact that he was extraordinarily bright, from the top of his yeshiva high school class, with a very strong science background and near-perfect board scores. Surely this was not a throwback to the Dark Ages as I had expected!

As the Yomim Tovim rolled around, I asked my roommate if he was going to go home for the “High Holidays,” as I was. He answered me with a remark which never left me, but which took me years and years to begin to understand. “High Holidays?” he asked. In a patient, earnest way, he said, “Actually, there isn’t really any day that’s ‘holier’ than Shabbat.”

I was completely taken aback. I had just never thought of Shabbat that way. Shabbat was not part of my life. Saturday was the day we went down to the stadium and watched the Big Game against Yale. But planted in my head throughout that Yom Tov season was this idea of having a “holy day” every week.

Years later, when I was studying in yeshiva myself — partly as a result of the “consciousness-raising” I experienced from three years with Moshe — I would finally taste Shabbat and learn what it meant for a day to be “holy.” Once a week I put on my best clothes, shine my shoes, dine festively, sing my heart out, pray and hear the Torah read in synagogue. Even more than the way I left college behind when I came “home for holidays,” I leave the material world behind without even “going” anywhere.

And yet paradoxically, the Yomim Tovim did not lose significance when I made Shabbat part of my life. Rosh Hashana was not diminished by losing its status as the prime “Jewish time of the year,” even though it now had to share its status as “the holidays,” not only with my old friend Yom Kippur, but also with Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. On the contrary, consciousness of the Jewish year — of the cycles starting with daily prayers, to the Shabbat-centered week, to the celebration of Rosh Chodesh every month, and even beyond years to shmitta years and the like — enhanced my appreciation of the festivals. And by hooking up with my heritage, I learned that “time” is not only in the future but has preceded me as well.

Now, rather than a short detour back on the trip away from my Jewish home, on the way to the seductive world of assimilation, the Yomim Tovim are an annual celebration that take place among the constant affirmations of what it means to be a Jew. Celebrating the festivals is no longer an incongruity for me but the logical culmination of day-to-day Jewish life. Only a couple of months into college, I’d learned more than many of us would take away even after four years, though it would take me that much time to realize what Moshe had been saying on that bright autumn day.

Bright Line

I think one of the fundamental challenges or complaints of baalei teshuva is that there is no bright line that defines what is “enough.” And there isn’t.

When we stumble, or as the case may be when we stride purposefully, through the Teshuva Portal, we are encouraged every step of the way to the effect that “any” increase in our interest, knowledge, commitment and observance is good. Not just good — great.

Then when we’re solidly inside we come to understand the difference between being a dilettante about this business and making a real, whole commitment to it. And those of us who are still reading this “got” that, too.

But little by little it dawns on us that there’s no “enough.” And herein lies the criticism of kiruv from the Modern Orthodox point of view. It may not be a very powerful criticism, but there is some resonance to it. Yes, it is a point of view about compromise, but — don’t most of us, all of us, ultimately compromise at some point? Do we have to be all in knots about the fact that we do?

On the other hand compromise is not much of a goal. And it has its own internal wicked logic: You never know when compromise is “enough,” either.

I have written often here about how fascinated I am by the lives of the great men of Judaism of the last century. The more I read — again, especially in the newer, denser biographies that have come out in the last five or so years — the more amazed I am at just how great a person can make himself.

I am inspired. And yes, I am also somewhat discouraged each time I put these books down. Yes, we’re all very special in our special way. But the distance between me and these special, special people is approximately infinity.

No, they can’t tell you at the Teshuva Portal that there’s really no end to how much the Torah eventually asks you to ask of yourself. If they did, a lot of us would never walk through, and we would be cheating ourselves of that challenge. It is a good challenge, a proper one, a wholesome one.

It is a hard one. No one told me how hard it would be. And how it would, contrary to everything I expected early on, actually get harder, not easier.

That’s a hard truth. I’m living it, because it is the truth. But, hard it is.

Over My Head

I don’t “wear” at work.

A yarmulke, that is.

Oh I wear it. Everyone who works in my office has seen me in my yarmulke. I wear it when I make a brocha [blessing] on my coffee and when I wash for lunch. You might see me in the corridor muttering something when I come back from the men’s room. My office is full of family pictures with me and my male family members all neatly capped on top. I’m not hiding anything, really. But the “modality” of my everyday interaction with colleagues and support staff and the rest of the professional world I inhabit is secular.

There is a little irony here. On my own blog, I used to describe myself as an “‘award winning’ ‘journalist.'” Lots of quotes, lots of irony, but the journalism I won an award for was an article I wrote for a magazine called Student Lawyer in 1988 called “A Lawyer and His Sabbath.” It traced my experience of becoming more religious during the time I was in law school and starting out in a big law firm. Despite its title the piece uses not Shabbos but the wearing of a yarmulke as a unifying theme. I describe how I concluded, way back then, that the right thing for me to do was to “wear” back when pretty much nobody “wore.”

I don’t think it was really journalism, being entirely first-person, but the award was from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. It’s called a Stick-O-Type Award and they make you a little stick o’ type describing what you won, your category, and your name, of course. I still have the award. I don’t still have the yarmulke.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. But it wasn’t. It was an awful idea, for a number of reasons, though they only became really clear much later. Each reason could justify its own Beyond BT essay. I will spare you that, however. In brief, here’s what happened:

First of all, while I was very cognizant of the moral responsibility I bore as an assertive, strongly identified orthodox Jew in the workplace, and I think I acquitted myself decently well on that score, I failed to appreciate an aspect of “representing” that was no less important: Competence. And while given half a chance I will try to demonstrate to anyone interested that I am a decent city lawyer at age 48, at age 27 I was a pretty mediocre big-firm associate. In an environment where you are the only one “wearing,” beware: You have to be more or less the best at what you do, and pretty much have to be the best at it to everyone who beholds you. That was a burden I failed adequately to bear.

Secondly, even at one’s best moments, in 1990 if you wore a yarmulke in a Park Avenue law firm, the message was, “I’m a rabbi who doesn’t really want to be here. But, you know — parnassah [the need to support myself]” It’s even worse when it’s almost true.

Third, internally, in the “Jewish” law firm where I worked, this yarmulka idealism went over like a lead balloon. I mean with the orthodox lawyers. They didn’t wear a yarmulke. Now this young guy living in Brooklyn who deferred his starting date by two years for yeshiva even comes in and he’s turning the firm into a bais medrash [talmudical study hall] with his black-velvet yarmulke?

And finally, there was the question I really should have thought through first: I do litigation. I go to court. I appear before judges, juries, court personnel. I interact with adversaries, witnesses. And I do so on behalf of a client — not myself. Not even, if I may be permitted, HaKadosh Boruch Hu [the Holy One, Blessed be He].

That’s not what I’m paid to do.

And if clients, especially, as it was at the time, clients of my employer, wanted “a rabbi” to represent them, that’s who they would have hired.

I tried. It didn’t work. That was then, that was there, that was me. I’m not telling anyone else what to do. But sometimes people who know me “wearing” are stunned to see me bareheaded. Others, even orthodox clients, have been utterly unable to recognize me when they meet me at a wedding, not only “wearing” but wearing a hat, too. And it all came, um, to a head when a frum magazine carrying my column accidently ran my law firm head shot — bareheaded. The calls I got from my kids when that hit the streets!

So now I’ve written it all down in one place. I don’t “wear” any more.

Ron Coleman blogs at Likelihood of Confusion.

Written All Over Him

Oh, to be a squeaky-clean Ivy League “BT.”

Oh, you have your “wild” times — beer pong! woo-hoo! — find religion, clean up your act a little, snag a nice job in an investment bank or law firm after a couple of years in Israel learning Rashi script, and you can be very pleased with yourself and your perfect little route to repentance and, well, perfection, right? Special attention in yeshiva — quick acceptance, a better dorm room, special tutoring. You’re a poster boy for the “movement.” Eventually you end up in the video for your yeshiva’s college kiruv program, and they shoot your segment from your office overlooking Central Park, and you are proof to all the world of how a “normal,” “accomplished” person can become a religious Jew . . .

Meanwhile you still even send in cleverly-phrased updates to the alumni magazine. Still all those valuable contacts, after all — it’s a parnassah [earning a living] thing, believe me, you don’t hold of it at all . . .

You think I think there’s something wrong with that? It’s not a bad life. On the contrary, it’s a very fortunate life. E-Z teshuvah for the all-’round high achiever.

There are grittier stories, though. Harder climbs. Less celebrated ones. And while we all say we must never stop climbing, there are some whose uphill journey never reaches a suitable-for-framing plateau. You know, where you can just drop off your pack, take in the view, maybe even turn your BlackBerry around and take your own picture from up there to send to your friends when you get back to where the signal kicks in.

Many of the baalei teshuva who take these ascents aren’t the write-this-up-for-a-blog types. But being a poster boy means sometimes looking beyond your own marvelous reflection, right?

Doing so can be quite beneficial. Purifying, even. (Humbling? Well, now, let’s not push it. Still . . .)

So, there’s a powerfully touching story about the Satmar Rav. I have seen it written that it took place upon his taking leave of Eretz Yisroel, where he lived briefly after the War, or after one of his extended visits there, but the story essentially is this:

One of his devoted chasidim asked him, “Once you who leave, who can we take a kvitel to?” [A kvitel is a letter or note requesting that a tzaddik seek Divine intervention on behalf of a petitioner.] The Rav replied, “Anywhere you see a man with a number tattooed on his arm putting on tefillin — that is someone you can bring a kvitel to!”

This always compelled me, in many ways, but the beauty of this story is often lost in retellings of it.

What the Satmar Rav was saying was not that a person who survived the Holocaust takes on saintly status. Rather, it is that such a person who still puts on tefillin — which are nothing but an os, a symbolic affirmation, of faith — is a saint. For whose emunah [belief] has been proved more than that of such a person?

The Satmar Rav knew well that it’s easy to be a what in Yiddish they call “ah tzaddik in peltz.” The trick is to be devoted to Hashem and his Torah in a less luxurious skin than you’re comfortable in.

Whereas if you’re never really tested — E-Z teshuvah — what are your “religious” accomplishments, even if they are unconventional compared to the rest of your classmates?

Mere trophies.

And there are all sorts of tests.

Now, I have never been all that comfortable with the phrase “spiritual Holocaust” to describe the spiral of self-imposed national destruction Jews have imposed on themselves known as assimilation. But in light of the foregoing story, and an observation I made in the mikvah [ritual bath] a few years ago, I began to think that perhaps the term was more apt than I had thought.

The juxtaposition occurred to me after I went to the mikvah once on an erev Shabbos, as is customary among many men. And there I saw a young man who — you couldn’t avoid noticing it — was covered, chest to ankle, with tattoos.

Covered, big time. Purple. Green. Black. Monsters, whatever. Quite a sight.

He was the same young man I had seen in hasidic levush [garb] in shul. Quiet, unassuming, as earnest as you could ever like. Maybe to a fault.

I knew he was a baal teshuvah. I knew a little of his story, in fact.

But I didn’t know about . . . this.

I couldn’t get the picture that that tattooed torso out of my mind. And it occurred to me, eventually, that, well, you can wash off a lot in the mikvah, spiritually speaking. And I am certain there are people with tattoos who have less need for spiritual cleansing than many of the lilliest-toned among us.

But to go to the mikvah knowing that you look like that, and having a pretty good idea of what people will think, or being a meek person yet aware that they will notice, and . . .

How many of us poster boys would be up for that?

No, I have no rebbe. So except for what I send every couple of years to the Alumni Weekly, I don’t do kvitels.

But if I did — to that fellow, I would give my kvitel.

Ron Coleman blogs at Likelihood of Confusion.

Looking in

I recently wrote about the feeling of sadness I get when I pass up an opportunity to do something I either can’t do any more because now I am observant, or never even did but always wanted to and now that I can… I can’t. Here I want to, by focusing on one particular, persistent example of that in my life, come at the issue at a slightly different angle but, again, within the theme of understanding the difference between the sacrifices of becoming religious and just growing up.

When as a young person I imagined the successful future me I always had a vision of dining in a “fancy” restaurant, after the hours when regular people and families eat, with clients or colleagues or, I suppose, dukes and earls and magnates.

This fantasy was not entirely realistic for several reasons, most of them having to do with my own decidedly blue-collar bent at the trough. There is a fine euphemism for this – “meat and potatoes man” – but I had already experienced considerable class anxiety when out and about in groups where by virtue of some occasion we were eating in some sort of place where I wasn’t going to like anything on the menu. I don’t think it was a proletarian upbringing that was entirely to blame; others in my household had no problem with many of the things that I not only did not like, but the thought of which I found thoroughly nauseating. Then there was the whole wine thing… but ultimately I did not let this intrude on my fantasy.

Well, of course, by the time we got to what might have been just that fantasy scenario, considering the fortunate circumstances that sometimes attended my professional experiences, we had made the Change.

Notwithstanding a couple of attempts at going along for the ride – the fruit salad thing, the special order thing, etc. – it didn’t take long for all concerned to realize that this really was not going to work. Even when on the friendliest of turf, back home in New York City where there are plenty of perfectly fine “business restaurants,” it was never going to be that fantasy.

Of all the things one gives up based on a reasonable belief that it is what God wants one to do, this one is not too compelling, is it? I know it isn’t.

But I never really shook it. When I leave my office and walk to the bus station or the train station, I pass innumerable restaurants, be it 8, 9 or 10 in the evening, full of nattily-attired people glamorously quaffing their vintage je ne sais quois and elegantly appreciating their braised fillets of savoir faire. No, I don’t gawk at them in the windows as I walk by. But even peripherally I cannot avoid perceiving their suave enjoyment of the good life.

I was reminded of this as I attended a week-long conference far from home for lawyers who work in one of my areas of specialty. Each time, at the end of the day’s professional development activities, I head back to my hotel with a shopping bag full of generic groceries so I can make yummy sandwiches in my perfectly nice hotel room, passing on my way into the hotel all my colleagues attired in their fine-dining togs and waiting in line for cabs to whisk them to the most renounced and exotic temples of gustatory and social Nirvana the city of that year’s conference is known for.

Yes, when this happens, I feel a little sad.

But I do have an internal dialogue that is credible, and it helps, and it is to a large extent a function of adulthood as much as anything I might ever have seen in a mussar [ethics] book.

First, the low-hanging fruit: I always had a certain ambivalence about this fantasy, and in order to get past the many sources of anxiety that accompanied it, I had to deny them. That’s what makes fantasy work. But in reality, the person I saw in the restaurant window was never, and could never, be me. My dad never had cocktails at seven followed by dinner at 11, surrounded by charming, witty and arch colleagues. That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t, no, but wasn’t there something very right about where my dad had dinner every single night of my childhood: At our kitchen table, and finished by seven?

And yes, I don’t like fancy comestibles, though granted you can really gussy up a piece of beef if you are motivated enough. But why eat in a place where I’m going to be embarrassed not to try the special, which tonight is a poached something which is really just a large tick, or a flying thing that looks entirely too much as if it just landed on the plate, or part of an animal you thought they stopped serving some time after the Industrial Revolution?

Ok, so I am charming and erudite myself, don’t you know? But in reality, when I look in that restaurant window, do I think the swells enjoying each other’s swell company are talking about the things I would want to be charming and erudite about? Yes, sometimes they are; if I am in the company of lawyers, for example, I can count on a certain percentage of war stories, judge stories, money stories. But the conversation does not stay there; and I have heard the chatter. What do they talk about? Skiing. The latest movie. “Relationships.” Their children’s progress in prep school; on the varsity crew; in rehab. Kids today!

There was never a version of me that would have considered such prattle worth even a good steak dinner.

My conclusion is that I am not fantasizing about myself in that restaurant. I am fantasizing about someone else, just as when I read Dick and Jane in first grade I really though I would grow up to be a father like their father. Whom they called, unlike anyone I knew on East 12th Street, “Father.”

I mostly got past that, too.

Part of the issue is class insecurity, I admit it, but far more, to the extent it can be separated, is being a Jew and acting like a Jew, religious or otherwise. Jews can teach themselves to have these conversations, and certainly to eat these foods, but what they are doing is teaching themselves to be something other than, our tradition teaches, they really are.

He wasn’t religious, but my dad never wanted to do that.

So why would I?

Hemmed In

We train ourselves to respond to limitations on our actions — especially those of us who had once been accustomed to not having such limitations — by intoning that these limitations are what help us grow. This sense of loss over participating in something, eating something or being somewhere you might otherwise been if not for that seminar, that bit of challah, or whatever it was that got you here is, we say, the very fertilizer of spiritual growth.

I’m fine with that. It works for me. I’ve said it many times, written about it many times here, and I believe it.

Does that mean I have to like it?

I don’t think so. Even if I know it’s “good for me,” it’s okay to admit that I feel the loss. Not just okay because, yes, it is the realization of that pain that makes the teshuvah happen, if you must. But also it’s okay to admit, hey, I feel badly about this. I feel left out. I used to like doing that. I always wanted to do that.

Denying this feeling, or forcing it into some construct that fits one’s “revised” worldview without acknowledging what it really is, is a bad idea.

Now, there are parts of my inner workings that have completely transformed over a quarter century of mitzvah observance. In certain areas, my preferences, sensibilities and desires have actually changed. You would hope so, wouldn’t you?

But some things you never stop missing. I am not referring to sensual experiences, but things I have written about in the past here: dining out, college reunions, singing in a choir. Have I beaten the corpse of this horse enough already?

Maybe, but I am trying to focus here just on this point: I decided, and not so long ago, not to feel guilty about missing these experiences. And not to feel guilty for not exulting in the pain of missing them either. Well, okay, I probably should feel guilty for the occasional bout of self-righteousness over the whole thing, but that’s a post for another day. (Mussar [ethical considerations] complicates everything.)

I am who I am. I don’t mean that in the excuse sense of the cliche, which some of us employ to avoid doing something we know we ought to do to improve ourselves. Rather, I mean that whatever I am today, for better or for worse, is the sum total of 48 years (who’s counting?) of being me, in a number of modes.

At this point, I don’t see any benefit in trying to fool myself about what I feel and think, or to regret not having the appropriate “growth” response to feelings of loss and pain. Denying a voice to my interior life had been a source of stress and conflict, which did not make the challenge of doing the right thing despite what I feel easier or healthier. It’s there, it’s me, and I’m still going to do the right thing. That’s just the way things go when you make choices that have meaning. This isn’t necessarily a BT thing.

It’s an adulthood thing.

Lives My Father Told Me

I just said my last kaddish for my father A”H until his yortzeit. So this is as good a moment as ever finally to commit to writing the post I had meant for so long to write, and said last year I was not writing then, and that so many of us have in us. It is the post about how a non-religious parent earns so much merit for so many religious descendants. And while I alluded to these issues almost a year ago, when I first wrote about my father’s passing, naturally over the course of the year of avelus [mourning] I have come to understand so much more.

I could write a book about this topic — and certainly about my father. But here I will offer little more than bullet points. The purpose of doing so is not merely to remember him a little more, and a little more publicly, at this juncture. Rather it is to offer other BT’s hints, reminders and appreciations of how their parents, knowingly or otherwise, have helped them get to where they are today — whether or not they would like to admit that, or even if they wish it were not so. Or even if the influence was a negative one, as in, “I don’t want to be like my parent.”

It’s best of course if one is fortunate enough not to have that last case in one’s life. In my case, I am glad to say the influence of my father (and there was influence from my mother too, and plenty, but that is not this article) to value being Jewish and to act on that feeling was a positive one.

Some of the things my father did that added up later were subtle; some overt. The quality they shared the most was the sincerity and, well, what seems on reflection to have been a sort of simple faith, really, though my father was neither simple nor, in his mind, particularly “faithful.”

But these, sincerity and faith, are the stuff souls are made of. This sincerity was the quality of my father that was most admired by those who knew him. Today we call this quality what our grandparents called it — ehrlichkeit. And my father, well, was also known for underestimating himself. In the area of faith, in fact, he gave himself far too little credit, as you will see.

Now, my father’s Jewish education was poor. He attended a Talmud Torah or “Hebrew School” in the Lower East Side and “graduated from [organized] Judaism” at his bar mitzvah. But he took no pride in this non-achievement. Indeed it was precisely his lack of Jewish learning that motivated him to ensure that we had a more thorough Jewish education than he did. “I’m not religious,” he would say — not just to us, but to some of our more ideologically anti-religious relatives when defending his choice to send us to Hebrew school. “But that’s out of ignorance, not choice. I want my kids to make their choices based on understanding.” And so we did.

Thus being poorly educated in Jewish matters did not stop my father from making what he understood to be the best effort he could at doing the right by us and God as he understood it.

Now, again, my father was not a “simple man.” He was pretty sharp, in fact. He was great with numbers, a talented investor and money manager, quite well spoken, and read a lot. Of course he enjoyed Star Trek and the Yankees and the Knicks, but back in the day he also found time for fairly serious science fiction and what in retrospect seems pretty esoteric material for a payroll clerk and benefits administrator who described himself as a “dropout” (he meant college, though). I even remember him telling me as a young child that he had just read — where?, I wonder now — that while we certainly don’t have to believe this, Sigmund Freud theorized (he liked “theories”) that Moses was an Egyptian! Even I knew this was ridiculous; the movie explained quite clearly how silly that idea was.

Yes, my high-school-educated dad read books and articles that raised ponderous issues, even existential ones, though he would not have used that word or likely even read works that did use it. But my father was engaged with cosmological issues, in his way, and he engaged us about the things he read. And from this we learned that questions such as why and how were questions worth asking and whose answers were worth seeking.

And we knew that he valued being Jewish, and the Jewish answers to these questions were, in his view, presumptively entitled to a very serious hearing. But he knew very, very little Torah. My father was more than a sincere man, however; he was a humble man, as I said, and readily admitted what he did not know, and never considered ignorance either a point of pride or a positive heritable trait. So when we were very little but still too young for Hebrew school he bought a book called The Children’s Bible.

It had pictures, and he knew this would interest us, and that’s why he chose this particular Bible. And my dad would read it to us at night, as he sometimes read us entries from Tell Me Why, which we loved.

And when he read us this Bible on the yellow living room couch, our tan little legs sticking to the plastic slipcovers in the sweaty Brooklyn heat, I remember how my father would pronounce the name Avrom, which was spelled “Abram” in this Bible, as “A-brum” — a logical pronunciation deduction from “A-braham,” after all.

As I think of this now, I remember that I used to get Abram, whose name was changed to Abraham, tangled up in my mind with the company Dad worked for. It had the name “Abramowitz” in it, and even though that was pronounced “Uh-brahm-uh-wits,” it was spelled like “Abram.” Somehow this association bound up our Father Abraham, born as Abram, with my father who worked for Abramowitz in my little head.

Which was hardly inappropriate, in its way.

I also remember the picture of Noah’s Ark in that Bible. The tevah looked to me like a giant brownish autumn-time leaf fallen from an impossibly giant tree (yes, trees grew in Brooklyn), shaped as it was in the illustration and with its keel looking life a leafy “spine” running its length and the beams radiating outward from it to form the Ark’s hull. This sure didn’t look like anything I’d seen afloat at Sheepshead Bay! I found this more remarkable than the fact that God, my father read to me, told Noah to get all those animals into the thing. Well, if my father says God could do that, and that God in fact could do anything, I had no problem with that. But that leafy ark?

Now, one thing. If you clicked that link, you’ll see that the Children’s Bible had, um, “both” “testaments” in it. So Dad told us not to look at the back part. “We don’t believe in that.” And we believed Dad, because every word he told us was believable. So we didn’t look. Except, well, I did kind of peek but didn’t read anything. And I saw “theirs” was much smaller than ours. So, “heh,” I thought. Nothing going on there, obviously.

Well. When I started this piece I was going to lay out bullet points, I said. I intended to mention how he kissed the mezuzah when he came in the door — well, we thought it was a mezuzah; it looked like one from outside. I was thinking about how he insisted on having us eat matzah instead of bread during Pesach. There are lots of little things like that.

And of course there were big things, values things. There was his understanding of how he was responsible to help out other Jews, and how he acted on that as if it were simply an axiom of human decency to get a few dollars into the hands of a needy fellow Jewish person, even if he didn’t have so many spare ones himself. And I could never forget how ashen-faced he was when he told us on Yom Kippur in 1973, as we woke up in the convertible bed in our grandparents’ living room overlooking Brighton Beach, that the Arabs had attacked, and how bad it looked. He was so upset — so scared. That, I had never seen.

These events in that far-off place that he had never really talked about with us must, it turns out, matter a lot.

As I said, I could write a book.

But my father wrote the book, really, that is the lives of all his many offspring k”eh who learn Torah and do Torah and mitzvos with the understanding and utilizing the choice he wanted us to have and which he made sure we had.

He wrote it, really, when he read that Book to us, in his humble way, because he knew as a father — he knew, somehow — that it was his duty to ponder these things in his house, and on his way, and to write them on the lintels of our door, that he was bound too to teach these things in that Book to his children as best he could.

As best as he could.

So when indeed will my merits approach those of my father?

Who to read

In the last few years there has been a very welcome addition to the unique genre of literature called the gedolim biography. I’m referring to translations of unusually intimate and detailed biographies, previously only available in Hebrew, of modern gedolim such as the Brisker Rav, HaRav Menachem Man Shach zt”l, and biographical sketches of other 20th century giants. The enthusiasm, and controversy, about these books once again raises the challenging issue, however, of how we are to interact with this sort of work — intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

I have mentioned here before (links below), gedolim biographies are, axiomatically, not comparable to the literary genre known as biography in the “outside world.” They are, in fact, more akin to the genre known as hagiography, defined as “the study of saints.”

This choice of terminology is not meant as a criticism, as it is often used when describing insufficiently critical biographical works. Rather the premise of the gedolim biography is entirely the same as that of hagiography: The subject is a person entitled to, and granted by the presumptive readership, elevated reverence due to his spiritual accomplishments. The purpose of the work is to celebrate these and to inspire readers and teach by explaining how a person who walked so closely with God did so, so that we can emulate or otherwise learn from those ways. While it is true that a journalistic or “objective” biography can, by virtue of showing a “warts and all” portrait of its subject, sometimes be even more inspiring than a hagiography — especially because of its arguably more practical application — our sensibililty, as observant Jews, does not admit of that option.

For people such as myself who come from a secular background, and who may have honed their intellectual or analytical skills through one or more courses of university study, this last assertion requires some serious analysis and thought. We always must satisfy ourselves as to whether we are, after all, in a “comfort zone” intellectually, based on the hard-wired person we are today, or whether we are entering the realm of “believe this,” as opposed to “know this.” All of us have passed into the latter territory on this journey, but it is not granted to just anything, or anyone, and should not be.

To some extent I have wrestled with this issue before here, in this article, where we all discussed anti-religious blogging by Jews and in this essay-length comment to this fine Steve Brizel post. And I also wrote a while back about the challenges of Judaica publishing, and purchasing. It is not because I consider myself so citable, but rather because I don’t want to be accused of needless repetition, that I keep linking to these earlier musings; more importantly, these are all related: How we reach a point where following the instructions in the “how to” books and the halacha works and the Artscroll Siddur only get us so far. We want to know what’s next, how do we do more, what does it look like? And we don’t, most of us, have either parents or ancestors or even access to a personal oral tradition about what it might look like, for us, at “more” in this particular manner. So because we are, as has been said by many more scholarly than I, in the post-oral-tradition era and rely instead on written works, we turn to books about acclaimed people because we want to populate our internal personal galleries of personal exemplars of avodas Hashem [service to G-d] the highest order.

It is worth examining the premise of the modern-day concept of the “tell-all” biography in the first place. We start with the axiom that not everything ought to be said, much less written, much less published. More specifically, there is no question that we learn “more” from a “warts and all” biography, but it is far from clear that we learn better. It is said, or was said before it became so utterly anachronistic, that no man is a hero to his valet. Yet it is not the person who has the most “intimate” knowledge of a person’s least dignified, least elevated functions who has the most to tell us about who that person is — for in fact the most prosaic aspects of a person’s life are the ones that are the least distinguishing. We all know why Pharoah went down to the Nile in the morning, and notwithstanding the official story, surely his courtiers did as well. The pretense “worked” for all involved. And while in contrast halacha does not promote falsehood about the natural order of life and living, we still forbid a disciple from beholding his master in an undignified state, and so too a child his parent, and a subject his king. We don’t learn about a person by reading his entrails or his fingernail clippings or his laundry list — fine.

On the other side of the issue, fawning, starry-eyed treatment that turns a life of high achieviement and complexity into a facile fairy tale is of limited value. Not no value at all: For BT’s, at least, they still provide a basic narrative outline of stuff we didn’t learn growing up — names, dates, places — that is no less useful, and is probably more so, than the other accepted narratives (say, l’havdil [pardon the comparison] about the Pilgrims, Abe Lincoln, Babe Ruth) we learned about the world growing up. There are worse things to keep on your nightstand.

What is hard to excuse, though — and often hard to perceive, especially for neophytes — are distortions such as hidden agendas, material omissions and, of course, outright falsehoods. I am sure this phenomenon exists within the gedolim bio genre: more of the first kind, less of the second, and probably an unfortunate amount of the third. (But then this is true of ever kind of literature — especially blogs, of course; especially anonymous blogs; and, I’m comfortable saying, most especially, since you mention it, anonymous blogs that trash gedolim. Perhaps I’m biased that way, but at least I put my name on what I say.)

The more recent books, including some originally written in English, are better than many of the early entries, in part because people, perhaps people such as ourselves, demand more from our literature. They are increasingly well sourced, and while they respect considerations of dignity and reverence, they acknowledge the existence of the world around their subjects, as well as the fact that not all the gedolim being biographed agreed with each other about every little thing. Indeed, if you line all these narratives up in a mental spreadsheet, you can, reading between the lines, figure out a thing or two about what’s “really” being said. Then you have a starting point, and can seek information and guidance about from people who might be able to elucidate the issues and personalities more candidly, or from a different perspective.

There are still some serious flaws in virtually all such biographies. One important one is the lack of acknowledgment of the biographical importance of a gadol’s spouse and other non-talmud-chacham family members. Notwithstanding understandable concerns of privacy and tzenius [modesty and dignity], this consistent omission presents an incomplete picture of the life of such great men and indeed of Jewish life and human life in general. Not surprisingly, from what I am told, these omissions leave some female readers cold too. But there is hope. In particular, the first half (the only half translated so far) of Rav Asher Bergman’s biography on Rav Shach represents a very substantial step in the right direction on this score. It will be interesting to see if the second volume addresses some important and meaningful issues (some of which even BT’s know enough about to be looking for) in the life of this great man.

And at the end of the day, that is the thing: By these books, I have a sense of a kind of greatness I would not otherwise know. It helps me to appreciate how these gedolim have shaped communal values, made our present-day leaders who they are and, to some extent, how we’ve gotten into some of the pickles we’re in. You can’t believe anything you read, if it’s not the Torah — even if it’s about the men who lived and taught Torah. But a mature appreciation of gedolim biographies can lead to a mature appreciation of who we are today and what a person can achieve in this world and the next. That’s why I read them.

What mourning taught me

My father A”H passed away in early June. It wasn’t sudden-sudden, but it was sudden enough. He wasn’t young, but he was certainly not old enough. We loved him and we let him know it, and that we were going to be okay, and he shouldn’t worry about us as he approached his end . . . but that probably wasn’t enough either, for he cared and worried about us so much. Yes, it was tough. It is tough. I miss him so much. I wrote a little bit about this, for a general audience, here, but it’s a sliver of the crust of the matter.

I’m not posting this to eulogize my father here, or even to write at length about how he, who was not religious, and never became religious, did so much good in raising his children as Jews that he has left behind so many frum descendants K”EH. Part of the reason for that is that it is too painful, though I do think it would be a good topic down the road here. So many of our parents need to know how it is that, contrary to how some of them feel, frequently BT’s are not rejecting their values: Many of us have made the choice we did because we were acting on those values in ways they did not have the opportunity to do, given their time, place and situations.

For now, though, I wanted to share a few thoughts about something really kind of neat — yeah — that I learned over the course of shloshim — the thirty day period of intense mourning following a close relative’s passing. Mainly, it’s this: The Torah is amazing.


The Torah is amazing in many ways, but if chas v’sholom [Heaven forfend] it gave us nothing but instruction in how to mourn (which are by and large rabbinical enactments), it would still be phenomenally brilliant.

Here are some of the things I didn’t know that I know now, because of how Chazal [the Sages] arranged the Jewish way in mourning:

  • People who extend themselves to comfort a mourner by traveling long distances or taking time off from work or otherwise inconveniencing themselves to attend the funeral or to make a shiva call are seen by the mourners as having expressed a statement of love and caring that is so exquisite, so precious, that … I can’t really describe it. But it is very, very great.
  • Observing shiva in as close to the halachically prescribed way as possible, under the circumstances, does not make the hurt go away, but it is a phenomenally powerful tool that actually “makes” mourners focus, not on “cheering up” or distraction from their pain, but on a full, complete and evolving appreciation of the person they loved and lost.
  • Shiva is utterly exhausting. And there will be repetition. But the “story” we each told on the last day of shiva, while entirely consistent with what we said in the hespedim [eulogies] and on the early days afterward, was so much richer, deeper and logical than when it started. It was stunning to me to be part of, and yet to observe, this process as we listened to each other and embroidered each others’ respective narrative threads into our own thematic focuses. We came to understand, in a week’s time, so much we didn’t know that we knew about who our father was, why his life mattered so much and how his death teaches so much. We came to understand our responsibility as his survivors.
  • The way in which our community coalesces across “political” religious lines and springs into action to support a mourner’s needs during this period is a wondrous and Godly sociological phenomenon. For BT’s, who feel so “left out” so often while others in our communities enjoy the support of large extended families and lifetimes networks developed through school and other experiences we don’t have, this experience can be very uplifting indeed.
  • The main thing I kept wanting to say — and, being me, I finally did say it — was that, “This is so amazing… it would just be so perfect if Dad could be here with us to experience it.”

    And yes, we truly believe he was. And he is.

    Thank you.