This weekend was my 25th college reunion. The big one.

Reunions at Princeton is a big, big deal. I use the singular because “Reunions,” which is also capitalized, is an event, a time, a place, an institution among the old Tigers, in a way that, I am told by alumni of comparable schools who also know Princeton Reunions, is not comparable to anything else.

As an undergraduate I dreamed of attending Reunions as an established alumnus of Old Nassau. Reunions gears up late Thursday the weekend before graduation, peaks on Friday night as everyone checks in from their week of work and gets local accommodations (on campus or off) and hobnobs under the orange-and-black tents spread throughout the residential areas of the campus, and is capped off by breakfasts and brunches and catching ups Saturday morning until it’s time for the P-Rade, a procession of alumni from oldest to youngest in their official Reunion togs (“beer jackets”) up and through the campus toward something vague that happens at the end somewhere.

I’m the kind of guy who really loves to “stay in touch” (perhaps to a fault). The idea of a structured, socially accepted way to keep acutely enjoying Princeton, which I enjoyed a lot, for the rest of my life appealed to me strongly. That only increased when I experienced it for the first time the weekend before graduation.

For all kinds of reasons, I decided at the last minute that, instead of cross-country drive with an old friend, to go to Aish HaTorah after graduation, before continuing with my law school plans the next fall. (If I haven’t already written that post, well, this isn’t that post.) And while my worldview changed, and continued to change, as did the place of Princeton in that worldview, I did go to Reunions twice after that.

The first time was our first Reunion — not a “major Reunion,” of course (i.e., not an increment of five), but it was major for me. I guess I felt I had to “go back,” I think I felt, in order to reassure myself — and my old Princeton friends — that I was still “me.” And I did, and I think, mainly I was. I threw in my lot with the orthodox Jewish students on campus, who had a very respectable presence on campus, and had a great Shabbos with a bunch of people whom I had gone to college with but who knew me little, and I them, and who all of a sudden had this “frum” classmate in their midst. It was great fun, and the people at what was then known as “Stevenson” (the name of the building where orthodox Jewish life resided in Princeton in those days) made me feel great. They were supportive, welcoming, warm. During Shabbos I had very little or nothing to do with Reunion events on campus, which I thought would not be appropriate. On the other hand, after havdalah [the Shabbos-ending ceremony] … I kind of left Stevenson behind.

I didn’t come back to Reunions again until my Tenth, and this I did only after saying havdalah in Passaic, a healthy hour north of Princeton. I was an alumnus now also of a famous “black hat” yeshiva in Brooklyn now; married, with children; and I wasn’t going to uproot my fundamental approach to Shabbos for Reunions. But I had made a commitment. I did not leave “Passaic” behind, as I had done at during that first Reunions after Shabbos, when I arrived at the Tower Club, where I used to “eat.” There, in the upstairs leather-and-paneling library, a claque of my old friends impatiently nursed beers and pretended to enjoy cigars as they awaited my arrival so that we could proceed as we had all solemnly arranged ten years earlier. We had business to do: The “Survey.”

The Survey was a series of questions we had distributed among ten or so of us Tower Club friends, all men, mostly Jewish, in the spring before graduation, in which we predicted all sorts of things about ourselves and each other ten years hence. It was kind of a dress-up version of the Game of Life, if you remember that Milton Bradley board game, but instead of proceeding through a formulaic “life” step by step and pursuant to the arbitrary spin of a dial, we predicted our respective way stations, circumstances and foibles for review at our Tenth.

It was a warm, fun time evening with a bunch of guys with whom my relationship had not advanced a whit since 1985, in which we determined that most of us had ended up more or less along the lines of where most of us thought most of us would be. No, no one had predicted Aish HaTorah, or what followed, for me, but my otherwise bourgeois existence in the ensuing decade had followed what was the predictable course of a kind of square, gregarious Jewish guy going to a good law school after college. Most of the other guys had taken similarly standard paths (a lot of them to medical school) and there wasn’t all that much “play” there, either. We didn’t quite talk about just how fantastically wealthy a couple of the fellows had become, which hadn’t even been a subject on the Survey, as I recall. And I didn’t exactly make a point of noting how far off my own expectations were that ten years after Princeton I would be, at least, financially comfortable. I was happy that the guys had waited for me, and were happy to see me, and we could share the whole thing together as we had planned. They even were at pains to use more refined language — well, certainly more refined than the way we expressed ourselves “in the day” — but even, as I recall, more family-friendly vocabulary than they might otherwise have employed even as thirty-somethings in the mid 1990’s.

We went through the Surveys and the answers in an informal but efficient manner, and agreed that we should distribute another set for our Twenty-Fifth, and that seemed like something right up my “staying in touch” alley, and I volunteered to do it, and all assented, and that was that. We broke up, and that was the last anyone heard of the idea.

And a month or two ago I got emails from all those guys talking about our Twenty-Fifth, and who’d be staying where, and who would be coming or not coming due to conflicts, and it was a warm moment of reflection of the Best Years of Our Lives, as it were, and the warm, friendly celebration of them we’d had a decade later, and then the radio chatter stopped.

And of course there’s no more Reunions for me. It’s not something I “can’t do.” It’s something I can’t do. Princeton and my Tower Club boys will always be a part of me, of course — a part I never stopped wanting to treasure and never felt I had to be ashamed of. Those four years made me who I am today, and I do not doubt that though I have a long way to go in my avodas Hashem [service of God], I am not entirely dissatisfied, at the admittedly superficial “Survey” level of inquiry, with who I am.

But due tribute having been paid to Auld Lang Syne at The Tenth, I’m finished with all that. What I discarded from Princeton is, I think, gone forever; what I still ought to jettison is still hanging on, a tiger-striped but not life-threatening plaque on my persona; and, as I said, what I took from the “Best Old Place of All” is just plain “Ron Coleman ’85,” which is to say, Ron Coleman.

And those friends are, despite a finger-wagging lecture to the contrary I received from a leading figure in kiruv [Jewish outreach] many years ago, always going to be regarded by me, if only viscerally, as friends.

Because they are.

Still, there will be no more paneled libraries, no more tents reeking of stale beer, no more comparative life surveying. The fifteen years that have passed in my life since the Tenth took me across a divide I can never traverse again. This year, like a more famous classmate, I didn’t “go back to Nassau Hall.”

It’s a bittersweet resolution. I’d love to see “everybody,” in theory. But keeping away certainly makes it easier for things, in my mind’s eye, to remain just as they were, too. I consider myself fortunate because I negotiated a balance among what was, what is, and what will never be that works for me and keeps one file folder full of conflict relatively at bay.

And with apologies to those baalei mussar [proponents of demanding Jewish disciplines of self-improvement] who may disagree with the approach, if I refuse to deny completely the old me, but instead use it as a platform on which to stand a hopefully better new one, is this such a terrible way to capture and preserve, tolerably harmless, that side of Paradise?

The Book of the People – The ArtScroll Siddur at 25

Assuming I must have missed something — something that would be hard to miss, but stranger things have happened — I did a Google search before I wrote this article:



For all practical purposes, at least as far as I can tell, the 25th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of the Artscroll Siddur has gone unremarked.

In a way, this is of a piece with the fundamentally restrained, dignified style of Mesorah Publications. It is also consistent with the central theme of their incredible endeavor, a perspective from which 25 years is, in the scheme of things, pretty small potatoes, and in which the publishers and authors of the Artscroll “series” (really an undertaking far greater than a “series”) see themselves as conduits of something far greater than themselves.

But we can do it for them, and not only because 25 years is, in our individual lives, a very significant amount of time, but because the publication of the Artscroll Siddur in 1984 literally turned a page in the history of the Jewish people.

In a time when more Jews were more ignorant of their heritage than ever before, and more in danger of disappearing from the nation of Israel as identifying Jews in no small part because of the inaccessibility, mystery and intimidation of the tradition, Artscroll fulfilled the dictum in Pirkei Avos, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” A man was needed; more than one, in fact; but fundamentally two — Rabbis Meir Zolotowitz and Nosson Scherman — stepped forward and took the responsibility to do the work.

For all the sweat, heart and brain that was poured into the Artscroll Siddur by these men and those who worked with them, I cannot believe that they could have had an inkling of just how phenomenal this work would be, and how much it would mean to people such as you and me.
Of course they must have realized that never before had the traditional Jewish liturgy — including the full range of responsibilities of a Jew besides “merely” understanding the words of prayer found in any bilingual siddur — become so completely accessible to so many seeking access. They knew that, even if it was not perfect, no more comprehensive, approachable siddur had ever been published in the vernacular for non-scholarly use in the home and synagogue. And they cannot have been unaware of at least the possible “political” impact this assertive broadside from the once-quiescent English-speaking community of strictly orthodox or “yeshiva” Jews would have on the course of Jewish communal and religious life for a generation.

But they could not have realized what it would mean to us to find out that, yes, there is one — there is a book — a siddur — there is one work you can buy that will tell you how to do it: How to go about being really Jewish in prayer and, in no small measure, throughout the day. When to stand in shul; when to sit; what to answer; when to bow, and in which direction — all those mysteries that, observed in our peripheral vision, kept so many of us, too self-conscious or proud to look like complete dorks in an orthodox shul or to require the embarrassing personal tutelage of an insider to even consider stepping through that door.

Now we could learn how to do it, and to some degree why we were doing it, and how much more we had to do, at our own pace; in private; and on an adult level.

This was a gift of freedom that I can hardly imagine Rabbis Zlotowitz and Scherman could have understood they were giving so many of us.

The Artscroll Siddur turned 25 last August, quietly. But the voices it enabled, empowered and amplified — hundreds, no, thousands of Jewish spirits — have not only filled the Heavens with a magnificent raash gadol [great noise] for 25 years, but have unleashed an eternity of song for which so many of us and our descendants will always be grateful.

Thank you, Artscroll.

Jump Starting The Teshuva Batteries

We are taught that although there were Seven Days of Genesis, still all of Creation is constantly being re-created. If at any moment, chas v’sholom [Heaven forfend], Hashem should so much as cease affirmatively desiring His ongoing Divine regeneration of the whole universe, all of it would immediately revert to tohu u’vohu — the primordial state of total entropy. All of it, all of us, and any thought, memory or mark of us, would simply vanish; the best metaphor is that the plug would be pulled on an entirely electric Universe. And yet in His ongoing kindness Hashem does will our ongoing existence and that of the world around it, because it matters to Him; because this world has purpose; because He loves it and he loves us. So for these reasons, which amount to no tangible benefit to Him (“benefit” as typically understood being, to the Omnipresent, axiomatically impossible), Hashem goes through the “trouble” of powering all existence, from the Leviathan to the tiniest mote, from the hidden saints to the most wretched vermin, from the crashing waves to the smallest, stillest voice, continually into being.

And we can barely sustain kavonah [concentration] for the first three brochos [benedictions] of Shemona Esrei [our daily prayers]!

But it is only human nature to forget gratitude and enthusiasm, isn’t it? Most of us are not able to imitate Hashem and constantly burn with spiritual energy. In the Tefillah Zakah [the prayer of forgiveness] we will all be saying in about a month, we confess: “My strength was insufficient to stand up [to the Evil Inclination]; the burden of earning a livelihood to support my household, and the weight of Time and its vicissitudes have befouled me…” Who thought when he began the journey toward religious observance that factors as mundane as punching the clock would blow a fuse on our zeal to go and to grow as new Jews? Yet who among us, who has felt the press of that weight extended over time for years and decades now since first turning that corner, doubts that these seeming trivialities can ground a potentially soaring spirit down low, and hard? As we get older and this pressure only increases, we begin to appreciate the magnitude of achievement of the spiritual giants of our people who lit of up the world of the spirit even as their own material existences flickered?

Still, shouldn’t “balei teshuva” be different? Shouldn’t we have something, somewhere, that we can draw upon to uncover that burning Jewish spark that fired our motors and got us on this road in the first place? Where can I go, then, to plug in, for a fresh infusion of energizing electrons from the spiritual grid?

The answer came for me this week. I followed my nose.

The time had come to freshen up my supply of tzitzis, and I bought three new pairs of round-neck cotton ones — two “regular,” and one with the heavy strings to wear “out” on Shabbos. I dutifully, which is to say rather thoughtlessly, removed the labels, and placed two of them in my drawer. Then I opened up one of the new ones and prepared to say the brocho which those of who wear a tallis godol usually do not say; but here I was putting on a new pair of tzitzis in the middle of the day. And then it hit me.

The smell of a new set of tzitzis, which for some reason I had not remembered though I had bought and buried scores of sets of them over the last 22 years, hit me right in the face. It was the smell of that moment when I crossed the line to becoming a Torah observant Jew. For a yarmulke is almost meaningless, or was for me — I used to wear them when I went to shul, and wearing one all day, though qualitatively different, was not a shock. But putting on tzitzis — now that was different. That was something that, simply, only orthodox Jewish men did. And once I put these on, I would be one. Forever — this I knew. It was frightening. Electric.

And the smell now, 22 years later, was the same. And I put them on again, not with a thumping heart and a cold, sweaty brow, no; but at least with a vivid and visceral recollection — a personal besomim whiff — of that moment, when I crossed that line, made the commitment, acknowledged the truth, and began creating my world and participating consciously in the spiritual sustenance of the Universe as a whole. It was the electrons that jumped off that cotton cloth, via the simple expedient of static charges, that plugged me in then to the direct current of Creation. And if in light of the burdens of worldly obligation and the taut pull of Time I have not spent the last two days in a spiritually electrified state, I think now at least I remember where the outlet is.

With God’s ongoing help, and with the reminder of the fringes I carry around like a battery pack, I hope I can increase the voltage over the coming weeks of introspection, and that I can do my part to break free of it all and that I can ask for God’s continuing generation of all Creation, and of blessing for us and all of Israel, as we approach the Birthday of Creation. I know I need a jump start, and I know I’m not alone.

Originally Published Aug 22, 2007

Heal thyself

How and what should orthodox Jews report and comment on events that affect our world? A few weeks ago I commented here on a post in which discussion turned to broad-gauged condemnation of the orthodox media, as follows:

[W]hat you really object to, and not without justification, is what often seems like simple-mindedness in the haredi press.

This returns me to my point that hashkafa [philosophical outlook] is not a mere abstraction. . . . [It is problematic for publishers] trying to sell (key word) a newspaper or magazine to a population that is very sensitive to issues of loshon hora, hasagas g’vul, mesira and kavod hatorah… and which recognizes, sometimes painfully, certain limitations. These are imposed by the fact that the English speaking haredi world is unfortunately a very intimate community made up of a surprisingly small number of interlocking family-, neighborhood- and yeshiva-based groups. Therefore, much of what we would recognize as good journalism even permissible under halacha may still not be good business, or good humanity, because the subject of such journalism may be the relative, teacher, child, prospective spouse or benefactor of someone else who is vulnerable to the effects of publication.

Unlike the almost abstract limitlessness of the universes covered by the New Yorker and the New York Times, our little world is a very real place. And very real, little places pretty much never have good “coverage,” for these very understandable reasons.

When the BBT Administrators asked me to expand on these comments for a post here, it made me think of another post I wrote a couple of years ago on another blog, called “Asymmetric cultural warfare.” In that article I discussed the profound damage Internet defamation causes because of our inclinations to both encourage free speech and to protect the anonymity of speakers. Although these two values are consistently linked together by free speech advocates, I argued that modern technology has rendered them in fact contradictory.

The asymmetry I wrote of, then, is this: On the one hand there is no longer neither cost nor accountability to publishing. On the other hand what is published is instantaneously accessible to untold millions, and the damage done by it essentially impossible to repair. This is the very realization of the classic “now go collect the feathers” metaphor we apply here to lashon hora.

As I said in that post:

During the entire previous history of humanity until just a few minutes ago, elites — who usually had the stability of society, for good or for bad, as a central goal, as elites will — controlled the medium and the message. And the result was indeed a high degree of stability. You could not easily ruin a man’s life by communicating something false or scurrilous, though if you did it could hardly be undone. And little saw the light of day in print — be it by the hand of a scribe painstaking scratching out sacred writ, as the product of the crudest printing presses or over the air of the oligopoly broadcasters — without being weighed and vetted — no, not always, maybe not even mostly, for truth or neutrality, but at least for cost and usually for effect.

This sense of accountability flowed from the fact of accountability, often in its literal sense. Your quills could be blunted, your press smashed, and in a more enlightened era and place, your assets and good name put at risk through legal process. There was a high cost of entry to the market of expression, and that cost was, especially in unfree societies (as is still the case), often far greater than any true economic assessment; but once borne, this cost provided a counterweight — not a perfect one, but a real one — to the inclination to take no consideration of what costs others might bear as a result of your expression. . . .

In the old days, cranks and complainers and scandalmongers of this ilk used to peddle such wares via stolen reams of photocopy paper or purple mimeograph printouts. Mailed anonymously or pinned up on storefronts they were easily enough recognized as the rantings of marginal people; once pulled down and crumpled up, they were gone forever, and usually rightfully so.

Now we know not to believe everything we read in a blog, of course. . . . But slander has a way of sticking, especially when it is directed to those whose stations or dignity do not make response appropriate or practical. And the virtual eternity of anonymous defamation makes it more insidious than anything that preceded it. Potential employers, spouses or in-laws, business partners — anyone who can work Google can forever gain access to and read the rankest falsehood on the Internet.

The cost to the anonymous hit-blogger, or commenter: Free. The effect on people, institutions, communities: Unfathomable.

The magnitude of this damage resonates with particular, and painful, power in the world of online Jewish opinionating, a cottage industry if ever there was one. I avoid reading most “Jewish blogging,” but almost nothing justifies perusing the so-called “skeptic” blogs, works that could hardly be more grossly and misleadingly labeled. These “skeptics” are skeptical of nothing in the nature of claims or reports that reflect negatively on orthodox Jews and orthodox Judaism. Any observer, lacking knowledge of the underlying topics, would readily infer from the heavy sarcasm, negative tone, transparent bitterness and predominance of ad hominem attacks that these publications are presumptively not trustworthy. On further inspection, he would discern the utter lack of accountability on the Jewish attack blogs — for blogger and commenter alike are almost universally anonymous — and, again having no axe to grind of his own, would not waste his time or credulity on this boiling sea of words without speakers.

There is irony here both small and great. The small irony is that the predominant theme flowing through this sewage system is outrage over the orthodox establishment’s supposed lack of “accountability,” demanded by verbal terrorists who refuse to be at all accountable for the blood they shed with their words. They cry out for complete transparency, but only with regard to the lives of those they deem guilty. For themselves, a glatt kosher wall of anonymity behind which to quiver while loosing their righteous missiles is perfectly yosher [straightforward, square].

And the great irony? It is that — anger, ugliness, agendas and the worst of motives aside — the bitter anonymous bloggers and the fungus that grows around them often enough are writing about real problems that really affect real people in the real world — the real frum world that some of them, shockingly, live and work in. But their polarizing, vicious vitriol does more than assures a lack of sincere engagement. By choosing to take the route of personal, adolescent-style attacks and the imputing of the worst possible motives to their targets, any good they could do by using their understanding and insight (which is often significant) to publish measured, humane and respectful criticism is pushed further and further away than ever. This self-perpetuating cycle almost guarantees the worst-case scenarios they are constantly threatening, because their voices lack all credibility and no respectable person has any business listening to them any longer than necessary than to realize they are not to be heard.

As in the case of the obnoxious and deadly behavior known today as “road rage,” the complete departure from social norms by the Jewish world’s very special attach bloggers is possible only in an anonymous order. Few of them would admit to the personal cowardice their anonymity plainly reveals; frequently they will say they dare not reveal their own names out of concern for innocent family members or others connected to them. But when passing loud, public and acute judgment on those they deem blameworthy, they not only abandon any pretense of presuming innocence — then there is no accounting whatsoever for the innocent ones destroyed by collateral damage from their self-righteous, obscene and scurrilous broadsides.

The result is that by the actions of a handful of people with little more than vengeance and lashing out on their agendas, certain Jewish family names have, on the Internet, entirely absorbed the color of the opprobrium slung at them. The mutual admiration society of anonymous hacks has utterly polluted the flow of online discourse. Thus a even a moderately attentive search engine user could only assume that certain individuals whose lives are in fact virtual models for communal and spiritual achievement are scoundrels at best and notorious unindicted felons at worst. Some of the most distinguished people and organizations in the frum world, including many who have sacrificed vast shares of their lives and personalities for the communal good, have become, by virtue of repeated usage at the hands of people whose names will never be known and whose lives are bound for the scrap-heap of history, bywords for the most venal and perverted behavior. They are made punchlines, premises for escalating attacks, stand-ins for entire categories of unproved, disproved or unprovable offenses, thanks to the efforts of nameless nothings whose comments (and, when in some instances they are uncloaked, whose biographies) demonstrate lives devoted not to righting wrongs, but rather to sad attempts to numb the pain of their own failures in the manner known best to the mediocre: Destroying their betters from a position of safety.

It need not be this way, and the fact that it is not demonstrates why such publications are unworthy of anyone’s attention. There are many who write under their own names and unhesitatingly criticize personalities, institutions and trends in our community without resort to the ugliness of the anonymous flamethrowers. We may not always agree with these bloggers — either as to form, substance or style — but at least when an offended party believes one of them has crossed the line that party knows exactly the address to which concerns, or other action, should be directed.

Our world is a small world, and the Internet has made it smaller than imaginable. It has also made it far more ugly than could ever have been anticipated even ten years ago, thanks to these cadres of craven, irresponsible and angry destroyers. They make those who achieve, those who risk and endeavor, and those who care feel the fury of their anonymous impotence. They rejoice at real news of moral failure in our midst, when their hearts should be breaking. Theirs is a real pathos behind the cover of virtual bravura. But they do help us understand three things when we debate the role of Jewish journalism, Jewish historiography, and Jewish publishing.

One is that even where the truth might in fact set us free, half-truths do not make us fractionally more free, and may to the contrary irreparably deprive many of far more freedom than they grant a few.

The second is that while disease may justify invasion, or even surgery, on the intimate, personal and interconnected corpus that is the frum world, not everyone who claims to be one is properly reckoned a healer.

And the third is that no one would license, much less submit himself, to an anonymous physician, and certainly not one whose therapeutic choices are revealed by any objective reckoning motivated by his own sickness, his own pain, and an unremitting anger at those he calls his patients.

For these reasons no Jewish journalism, electronic or otherwise, will ever be worthy of the name if its author is not accountable, his biases identifiable, his humanity confirmable. And while in our free country anyone is legally free to report on, comment on, dissect and even with his words try to kill the frum world, anyone who is not committed to both standing behind his words and openly living in the world he is building or destroying by his works may call himself many things…

But not any kind of man. And certainly not one of us.

Agudath Israel of America and me. And us.

I’m going to be an “honoree” at the Agudath Israel of America dinner a week from Sunday, May 17th in New York. I am among a handful of people receiving the Avodas Hakodesh award, which is for volunteers who contribute to the Agudah in some way by, well, avodah — work. If the Agudah calls what I do kodesh (holy) and asks me, as it has, to help promote the organization’s goals by agreeing to accept a plaque and to lean on my friends and associates to contribute, I’m happy to do it.

Someone asked me why. Part of it is that I am friendly with quite a few people who are very involved with the Agudah, and I like them, and what they do, and I like what they ask me to do, too. But on a less personal note, here is the letter I sent out, tweaked a little:

I have agreed to accept the Avodas Hakodesh Award at the upcoming 87th Anniversary Dinner of Agudath Israel of America at the New York Hilton Hotel on Sunday May 17th. And I am writing to persuade you to join me there.

The easy part is explaining why I have carried an Agudath Israel membership card for over 20 years and why this organization merits your support.

“The Agudah” is the largest grassroots Orthodox organization in the country, with chapters in over 30 states. In a time of dizzying political and social change, the Agudah is our community’s consistent voice in federal, state and local government. Its efforts on behalf of yeshivos and day schools, religious freedom, and advocating on behalf of the needy and disadvantaged are well known. Behind the scenes, I have been privileged to be exposed to Agudah’s efforts in coordinating private legal and allied resources where they are needed. And of course, the Agudah plays a leading role in spreading Torah throughout the world, in sponsoring social service and housing programs, job training, youth activities and summer camps, and providing overseas relief.

Agudath Israel takes on challenges that affect the whole Jewish world, with unusual clarity of mission. That clarity is a result of the fact that the Agudah operates under the direction and guidance of the Gedolei Yisroel. And that is why I am an Agudist.

As would be expected with an organization whose ambition and responsibility are almost boundless, the Agudah bestows great benefits… on countless beneficiaries… but is far short of benefactors. Please be one this year, when your support matters more than ever, by making a contribution via this link and, I hope, joining me at the Agudah dinner. Thank you for being at least a little open to persuasion!

You like? OK. Now, someone asked me why BT’s, in general, should want to be involved in this effort, and in particular why BBT-er’s would. To me, the foregoing is more than enough reason. The Agudah does important work on behalf of the Jewish people and it aspires to do its work by the principal of Daas Torah (Torah wisdom as enunciated by leading sages of our time).

It never occurred to me that BT’s might only be interested in supporting “kiruv” (outreach) projects, in the popular sense of the word. Supporting works that benefit the whole community and enhance kavod shomayim (the honor of Heaven) is for all of us. I can think of no better way to demonstrate a lack of need for social training wheels than for BT’s to demonstrate their commitment to the general welfare of our community.

Besides, it has been argued here often, and of course elsewhere, that the best kiruv of all is displaying to the “not yet frum” the “best” the frum world has to offer in terms of role models. Many of those role models are to be found in the ranks of the Agudah, both professionals and volunteers, and as I said, it was obvious to me almost as soon as I understood the “scene” that I must be an Agudist. The fact that I have, over the decades, had the chance to become friends with and work with so many of their number is one of those very happy bonuses in life for which I am very grateful to Hashem.

I like ’em. They’re my guys, and they’ve invited me to dinner. They even put me in a cool video. And now I’m inviting you!

(Don’t worry, glatt kosher. I asked. ;-))

What is Torah Judaism? (in 500 words or less) – Volume #3

The answer to the question “What Is Judaism?” would be different for a student of comparative religion, a Sephardic resident of an Israeli development town, or someone who grew up in an assimilated Jewish family in America, just to give a few disparate examples. I will address the last one of these, because of course I have the most familiarity with his mindset.

Ethics are of fundamental interest to anyone who cares about anything, but the idea that there are no ethics for the Jew other than those that emanate from the Torah distinguishes Judaism from all that came before and all that comes after.

Judaism is, of course, objectively identifiable as an essential source of guidelines for ethical living. Because of the richness of Judaism’s intellectual tradition, and because that richness has the quality of being both ancient and in constant scholarly and practical agitation, Judaism is probably the best developed system of ethics in the world in both its scope and its depth.

But while all that matters to every searching person, every person of conscience, it is not the heart of Judaism. It is necessary but not sufficient. Rather, the central concept is that while our ethics, as well as our laws regarding how people interact with each other even in non-ethical spheres, are completely open to intellectual probing, challenge and debate, they are absolute. They are based on the Torah given at Mt. Sinai, which we can only understand through the received tradition.

That is why between each chapter of Pirkei Avos we find the recitation, “Moshe received the Torah at Sinai, etc.”: It reminds us that although we are talking about ethics, regarding which everyone feels qualified to opine, ultimately all our hypotheses, speculations and gut feelings bow to the revealed truth of Torah.

One fundamental corollary of this double-barreled premise – that Truth only comes via Torah, which only comes via Mesorah [“received tradition“] – is that the Truth may conflict with our personal sensibilities, which non-Jewish culture teaches should be supreme.

But our idea of what is right and true and good is necessarily flawed. We are imperfect because of our distance from God, which is axiomatic in being creatures of flesh and blood. We cannot know and understand all, and our capacities for reasoning, empathy, objectivity and foresight are only human. Even at our best, we are tainted by a lifetime of interaction with other imperfect creatures and their ideas, most of whom do not acknowledge the Truth of Torah at all.

The bombshell corollary of this core concept is that not only ethics, but actions – all actions – are governed by the Truth of Torah. This not only separates Judaism from most world religions and moral systems, but presents a fundamental challenge to every possible concept of what my posited non-religious American Jew can have thought about his life, why it matters, and what he does with it. This Truth defines our relationship and responsibility to the rest of Creation. Now sit and learn!

Rabbi Noah Weinberg, of Blessed Memory

Rav Noach Weinberg

One of my best friends called me this morning at 6:30 AM to say the Hebrew words that translate: “Blessed is the True Judge”:

We write these words with great sadness and disbelief — our beloved Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Noach Yisrael Noach ben Yitzchak Mattisyahu Weinberg – passed away this morning, Feb 5/ Shevat 11.

“Reb Noach” changed my life more than any other person. We were not very close, but in many important respects he was like a father to me. He was the founder of the Aish HaTorah College of Jewish Studies, as it’s called officially, otherwise known simply as “Aish HaTorah” or “Aish.” Aish is a system of educational programs, including a full-blown yeshiva for students of all levels in Jerusalem as well as introductory and outreach programs throughout the world based on the premise of getting Jews back to Judaism.

I attended one such program, in Israel, after I emerged from college in 1985 as a puffy purposeless preppy who at least had the good sense to look for meaning, direction and truth. I was a little disappointed to realize, as I did, that Aish HaTorah was actually the vanguard of a whole “movement” — I didn’t want to be part of a movement; I just wanted to move. But I did move, and Aish helped move me, and what I learned and became and, in no small measure, what I left behind have made my life what it is today in virtually every positive aspect of it.

I was not young enough, or at least not in Aish early enough in my life, to be a close student, much less any kind of disciple, of R’ Noach. I don’t think I could have, anyway. I don’t believe we were simpatico that way. But still, personally, R’ Noach taught me plenty. He taught me how to live a life of resolute meaning, how to focus ambition on something greater than oneself, and how to give and give and give.

And though R’ Noach was sick, and I had been anticipating this day for years, and even had a premonition of his passing yesterday, I am very, very sad.

Ron and Rav Noach

And when I found the picture above I realized that I loved R’ Noach more than I perhaps understood until just now; and when I found the next picture in my scrapbook, of him warmly kissing my then-young children as if they were his own (for they were), I understood this even more, and even harder; and I let myself feel and admit that I miss him far more than I ever thought I would when I anticipated this moment, even already.

Originally posted here.

There will be a hesped for Rabbi Weinberg, delivered by Gedolei Yisroel, on Sunday Feb. 8th at 8pm

Yeshiva Ohr Yitzchok
1214 East 15th St. between L & M
Brooklyn, NY
A Woman’s seating section will be available

Panim Al Panim – The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Facebook

I have, it seems, made my mark on Facebook, which is poised to become the world’s leading online social networking medium. Without going in for the adolescent (and worse) “applications” that people are constantly cooking up, I’ve managed to combine the RSS feeds of my two blogs, and my sensibilities for nostalgia, multimedia, self-promotion and wisecracking, plus a semi-plausable rationale — I’m trying to raise the profile of my strongly Internet-oriented law practice — into a pretty sizable “following.” I’ve met a lot of people from all around the world, Jewish and gentile, reconnected with innumerable friends I was certain I would never hear from again, and unquestionably opened up a number of opportunities that could bear fruit in the medium run. As I said, I’ve made my mark on Facebook.

But what kind of mark has Facebook made on me?

There are so many issues that arise from the point of view of Jewish sensibility that almost any one of them is worthy of a separate essay. I hope these bullet points, however, will stimulate constructive discussion… and not merely more lookups of my Facebook profile.

* The forgotten past: BT’s are always struggling with the issue of whether to bury the past, and if so how deeply. Facebook certainly brings this concern into “real time.” My observation is that, on the whole, this aspect of the Facebook experience — people from my past reemerging — has been very positive for me. Many of our ideas of what we’ve left behind, and whom we left behind, are based on rose-colored projections that are themselves premised on inaccurate or wishful recollection of the real past. Without going too far into it or getting too personal, what I see of the lives of people with whom I haven’t been in touch for 20, 30 or sometimes even more years, via their Facebook profiles, is that I haven’t missed all that much, in any sense of the word.

* A world of respect: New friends I’ve made on Facebook, who quickly are able to ascertain from my profile and my ongoing contributions to it (via blog feeds, photographs, “status” updates and the like) that I am orthodox, express great respect for my way of life. Naturally those who are put off by it don’t become friends. I believe this does result in a Kiddush Hashem. I regret that I can’t magnify this effect by posting family pictures, which as a rule I will not do on an open Internet site. On the whole I believe this is an overall positive result.

* Drawing near of hearts: We Jews have a concept that we are supposed to beware of k’rivas hadaas — an inappropriate “drawing near” of emotions between men and women who should not have intimate relationships. It is well known, and has been discussed here often, how the Internet has, in many contexts, caused many people who otherwise would not have inappropriate relationships with members of the opposite sex in “real life” to drop their usual guard and to become ensnared in unfortunate situations. Oddly enough, there is something about Facebook, at least in my experience, that seems to militate against this. It may be that there is, as a rule, less anonymity on Facebook than in the old chat rooms or on instant messenger; people are mainly there to project their personalities on some level, not to hide them. There also ground rules and a person can be kicked off. At least as a middle-aged adult interacting entirely with other adults, I have found this not to be a problem.

* Whither dignity?: On the other hand, there is no question that, just as in the real world, there is a much lower standard of personal dignity, especially as it relates to “modesty,” on the Internet and on Facebook than there is in our frum communities. There is no particular reason I have any interest in interacting with people who are much younger than I am (who are typically the least dignified in this respect) or whose standards of behavior is not in line with what I would typically expect to experience in an environment in which I would ideally operate. But there is little question that if only by virtue of friends of friends or other incidental interactions, that on Facebook I am — just as I do in real life — interacting with people who hold themselves to a lower standard of dignity than is ideal.

* The other side: And that brings me back to a point related to my first one. The more I am exposed to what’s out there, whether it is among my former friends, associates and classmates who “look me up” or vice versa or among new people that I meet, the better I feel — by far — about the decision I have made about how to live my life. I cannot stress how much more valuable this is to me than the finger-pointing homilies in frum literature, periodicals and classrooms about the emptiness of gentile or non-frum Jewish lives. I see people whose lives are pathetic or sad, yes. I encounter a very distressing number of photographs of people of both sexes in their twenties, not life’s losers but professionals and prospective professionals, who are comfortable posing with alcoholic beverages hoisted in the air, as if life were just one drunken binge. This could go into the “dignity” point above, and it is a sad thing to see. But I also see people with rich, full, interesting and accomplished lives, professionally and, by all indications, personally, and nothing — not a thing — makes me want to switch places with them. The overall effect for me is one of chizuk, reinforcement.

The greatest reward from Facebook of all, for me, is the opportunity to connect, communicate and commune, on whatever level, with more and more people who are interested in ideas, in life, in each other just because of who we are. Ultimately I spend more time on Facebook than I should, and I have resolved to spend less, simply as a matter of prioritizing how time is spent in life by a Jewish person. In fact, if I had no career rationale for it at all, I may be hard pressed to justify it in any event. On the other hand, online social networking is probably one example of a mode of human social — and business — interaction that will get more, not less, important in the coming years. Face it.

Contributor Ron Coleman’s blogs are LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®, about trademark, copyright, Internet and free speech law, and Likelihood of Success, about everything else.

We Are Here

We talk about doing mitzvos lishmo and lo lishmo. But what do we say about mitzvos done out of spite?

In my mind I have seriously considered the possibility that even if there were no Discovery Seminar, no Jerusalem Fellowships, no Partners in Torah, no spoon-fed Judaism for restless quasi-intellectual Jewish Ivy Leaguers – that if I just knew how to be as Jewish as possible, as assertively unassimilated, talking- with- my- hands, black- hat- wearing, walking- across- your- town- with- my- talis- on Jewish, I would do it just to spit in the eye of the world that tried to liquidate us all.

That is the blackness that takes up part of my soul as a result of growing up in a Holocaust family — mine and yours. If I G-d forbid did not believe in Torah mi-Sinai (Revelation), in Torah she-ba’al peh and emunas chachomim (the Oral Law and faith in the sages) I just might go through all the motions anyway just to shtokh (poke) the rest of the world. Mir zaynen doh: Here we are. Gag on it!

The more I pore into the reality of what happened then, the darker the black gets. Yes, the spots of light, the edifying Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s Name) moments are compelling, and in relief against the nadir of human history they should shine as brightly as suns. But in the deep blackness of darkest space, and from so far away, they are but little light dots. What there is mostly is the dark, and the cold, and the death. There could be no inspiration for me in the Kiddush Hashem of the Holocaust. “We” were already yotzei Kiddush Hashem mehadrin min-hamehadrin (we had fulfilled it in its highest form).

Did this ebony anger make me “frum”? Did this jolt of bitterness rip me from the fast track in a promising legal career to two years in three yeshivos and a different path?

It may not have been. There were more mundane factors. But I am hard pressed to identify what among them made me any more conscious of my Jewishness, and more determined to resolve my own Jewish Question, than the myriads and thousands situated the same.

I was not the only one from a survivor family in my time and place – and my parents were not survivors, not in the direct sense (of course when the crime is genocide, any member of the targeted people who lives is a survivor). One small branch of our family had left Europe in the ’30’s. But the rest were made dust and ash, and the remnants carried this pain from Poland to Cuba to America. It was soldered to my soul for six years at a summer camp (Camp Hemshekh — “Camp Continuity”) run by remnants of the old anti-religious Jewish Labor Bund, who had incorporated as Survivors of Nazi Persecution — what a name for a group formed to operate a summer camp! — and rebuilt their fantasy of a Yiddish secular culture paradise, where we sang the songs, read the poetry, acted the plays of Gebirtig and Peretz and Gelbart, celebrating a culture and a conception of a people that were no more.

But unlike the murdered children on whose lives our summers were to be modeled, we had another chapter in our repertoire. We learned the songs sung by the orphaned children and the mourning parents of the Warsaw Ghetto whose names we bear, the poetry of the partisans of the Vilna forests who were the gedolim of my youth, the literature of the rebels of Sobibor and Treblinka who were our models of techias hameisim (revival of the dead).

I thank the Ribbono shel Olam that I didn’t know enough Yiddish at that age to understand more than a few words of what I was saying, or who knows how bent I would be today! But that intense exposure to this tragic slice of Jewish life obviously affected me deeply. I am astonished when people from the “outside world” tell me that I must see this or that Holocaust movie –- don’t they know what I know already, the children’s Holocaust I playacted as a child? Did you ever hear of anyone who went to a summer camp that had its own simulated Warsaw Ghetto Wall, complete with cemented-in broken glass and barbed wire? No, I did not survive the Pit; I lived a soft and easy suburban life and merely spent my languid Catskill summers in Holocaust Camp, where for some reason in August we marched by torchlight at night to the Wall, humming a song we knew was called Ani Maamin but whose words they had never taught us… thought its meaning, somehow, they had. And you want me to watch in Technicolor the hopeless martyrdom that I already “lived” in my formative years?

This was the yesod of my emunah and of my bitachon (this is the foundation of my belief and my trust).

I knew there must be a reason. When the complete possibilities of assimilation were presented to me, I knew I carried around something that must have meaning and which needed resolution. To ignore this was to live in a world devoid of meaning and infinitely harsh.

Yet I saw so much good around me — so much love, so many outlets for creativity, for intellection and expression, for humane achievement; so much capacity for greatness. Still none of these things could outweigh an existential pain. What did I feel in the world that told me there was more, beneath what I knew — some profound good to answer that ultimate evil? Could existence really just be a dark vacuum punctuated with distraction and temporal pleasure?

This did not add up.

Will you believe me when I say that I was not in any other respect a candidate for the Baal Teshuvah “movement,” as popularly perceived? I actually had a pretty good thing going. I didn’t know where it was going, but I was looking pretty good getting there.

But … where was there? Where is here? After the City spat us out with most of the rest of the middle class, I spent the second half of my childhood in a place called Twin Rivers in New Jersey. Ten years before it had been a potato farm. So you will excuse me for not feeling particularly deeply rooted in the “here” of there.

One of the songs they taught us was the Partisan’s Hymn. Its refrain was, mir zaynen doh – “We are here.” The last verse is this, the famous one:

So never say you now go on your last way,
Through darkened skies may now conceal the blue of day,
Because the hour for which we’ve hungered is so near,
Beneath our feet the earth shall thunder, “We are here!”

These Yiddish guys got almost everything wrong. But this they got right. We are here. They may not be, now, and regrettably their offspring may not be, either. But we, their people, are here. And there must be a reason we are here. Does God (of course there is a God, this is not a serious question) want me to charm my way through life, through fancy college and fancy law school, through ballgames and politics and dating and “entertainment” and pizza pies — is that why, after all that, we are here?

This is an absurd proposition. A life infused with such vacuity is little removed from the nihilism that makes holocausts possible. How anyone, any Jew, can argue on behalf of such an existence, given what we know now, is as cold as any existential night I have ever pondered.

If I am here, despite it all, that I had some sort of duty that followed from being here. This meaning must be real, must be achievable. It took little for me to realize that I am here, despite a world’s best efforts to prevent it, for a reason; that without we, I am not here at all; and that without Torah and mitzvos, we are not… quite… really here.

Considerations When Taking on New Chumras

Let’s say someone is considering whether or not to accept a given chumra (stringency). Let us use cholov yisroel as an example. He speaks to his rov, or rebbe, or mentor, and that person lays out the issues for him but ultimately says, as many rabbonim will in such a situation, “Those are the issues. You must make this choice for yourself.”

Now, the question: Is it appropriate for him to consider, when making the choice, that he enjoys the taste of cholov stam products? What if the rov did not include that among the factors to consider? Is it part of the question he should ask?

Note: We’re only using cholov yisroel as an example and we’re aware that segments of the Orthodox community consider this the halacha and not a chumra.

Inside and Out

Many of us struggle with the difference between our internal and external lives. Perhaps for baalei teshuva this struggle is harder; the “old us” is always running, somewhere, under the surface. But this is not a challenge unique to BT’s, our tradition assures us. The seder hatefilos (order of prayer) provides an example we may overlook every day.

After morning brochos (blessings) and the Akeidah (the recitation of the Torah section about the “sacrifice” of Isaac) and before korbonos (the recitation of the sacrifices) in the morning prayers, there’s a little tefilla or amira (something you say that is itself not a petition to Hashem) called Le’olam yehei odom — “A Person Should Always Be.” In the Artscroll Siddur, it is translated as follows:

Always let a person be God-fearing privately and publicly, acknowledge the truth, speak the truth within his heart, and arise early and proclaim: Master of all worlds and Lord of all lords! Not in the merit of our righteousness do we cast our supplications before You, but in the merit of Your abundant mercy…

This prayer continues until the recitation of the first verse of kerias shema (recitation of the Shema), and then the brocha (authorities differ as to whether or not to say it as a complete brocha, i.e., with Hashem’s name in it) and, as the siddur points out, someone davening in a situation where he might not get to kerias shema on time should say the whole thing at this juncture.

Now, most siddurim say Le’olam yehei odom yireh shomayim b’seiser u’vagaluy: A person should always fear Hashem in public or in private. But scholars such as my rebbe R’ Aharon Lopiansky (now Rosh Yeshiva in Silver Spring, Maryland, and formerly on the staff at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem), the author of the Aliyas Eliyahu siddur, point out that the old siddurim have the proper nusach (version) — they say only Le’olam yehei odom yireh shomayim b’seiser – a person should fear Hashem in private. In other words, he should fear Hashem in his heart of hearts, no matter what things seem to the outside world. The u’vagaluy obviously snuck in there (thanks to a local rav? a well-meaning printer?) because someone thought the ancient nusach sounded like “in secret” or something. But that misses the point: it is b’seiser that is really what this section of the siddur is about. This amirah is not about Kiddush Hashem b’farhesia (public sanctification of Hashem) or looking frum or looking not frum. It is about having yirah in your heart as you embark on the morning prayers in preparation go on to your day of living life with all its challenges.

This little thought satisfied me, and I conveyed it recently to a friend who enjoyed it, too, but this morning I saw another angle on this topic that seemed to complement it perfectly. It was in a tribute R’ Chanoch Henech HaCohen Leibowitz, zt’l, on his shloshim (the end of 30 days following his passing) written by Rabbi Yoel Adelman and Daniel Keren, printed in last Shabbos’s English HaModia, and it was an attempt to capture how R’ Henech embodied the ability of his rebbe, the great Alter of Slabodka zt’l, to be at once a grand spirit, a molder of men and the essence of humility:

The Navi Micha summarized the entire Torah in three basic principles: “Asos mishpat, ahavas chessed, v’hatze’a leches im Elokecha” — to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk modestly before Hashem. The Alter of Slabodka commented that to do justice requires one to be outspoken and resolute in the pursuit of justice.

Similarly, the chessed of Avraham was one where the entire world knew of him. His house was wide open in all four directions to all wayfarers. He was recognized [even] by the Hittites as “nesi Elokim — Prince of G-d.” How is it possible to be tzanua — to conceal oneself? Where is there even room for concealment?

The Alter explains that even when one performs the most visible of acts, the purity with which one does them is not visible. Two people can perform the very same chessed, but their intentions may be very different from each other. One might be doing the chessed purely for the sake of chessed, while his friend might be partially influenced by personal pleasure or personal gain. Therefore, one can conceal one’s greatness and purity even when performing great deeds.

The Rosh Yeshiva was always looking for ways to conceal his accomplishments and the purity which he brought to bear on all that he did.

The great man, the yorei shomayim b’seiser, is like the iceberg — called a berg or “mountain” of ice, so large does it tower on the frigid oceanic horizon; yet revealing only a fraction of its scale. He is seldom truly hidden, because a pure soul is typically perceived as such by those around him. But in fact he hides more than he shows. This takes Le’olam yehei odom yireh shomayim b’seiser beyond the mundane conception of “really, truly” holding Hashem in awe within yourself, regardless of what it looks like to others, and elevates it to the level of not only negating the need to include u’vagaluy, but to render it in fact redundant. And it reminds us of how reluctant we must be to believe we are capable of sounding the depths of another person — not only one who seems shallow, but one who seems to loom large as well.

Note: There will be a Community Wide Hesped to mark the Shloshim of HaGaon HaRav Alter Chanoch Henoch Leibowitz zt”l – Rosh HaYeshiva – Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim at the Yeshiva of Central Queens – 147-37 70th Road on Wednesday May 21, 2008 from 8:00pm – 9:30pm – Maariv to follow.

Nullified by the Majority

Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that on my birthday, there is widespread celebration, no tachanun is recited, and a lot of normally level-headed people get seriously intoxicated with joy — because my birthday is on Shushan Purim. But this year’s Shushan Purim will be more significant for me, because it is the birthday at which I feel confident saying I passed the “halfway mark.” At age 45, I will have spent more than half of my life as a self-described orthodox Jew.

I have anticipated this milestone for years, but now that I am upon it I am not quite sure what to do with it. I was wondering, however, if we can consider the principle we have in halacha called bittul b’rov, or nullification by the majority. Where one treif piece of meat is mixed with two kosher pieces of meat, we say that in theory at least you can eat any of them: Because the majority are kosher, it cannot be said any one of them is treif, and if none is treif, all are kosher, even though we “know” one is not kosher. (Married men: Do not try this at home.) The halacha of course is complex as applied to different situations, but that is the concept. We “round up” from 50% plus.

So do I get the benefit of bittul b’rov now that I have lived more than half of my life keeping Shabbos publicly, and holding myself out as an orthodox Jew? After all, I have been “frum” longer than I was not frum. Assuming we can compare a mixture of unlike objects to a mixture of unlike minutes, am I mostly frum, hence all frum?

Of course not. Even assuming a bona fide frum second half of my life — a big assumption — obviously the first 22 and a half years will never be undone. I will always be me. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter taught us that it is easier to learn the whole Talmud than to correct a single bad personal quality! And the mishna in Avos reminds us of the sad truth, that there is no comparison between writing on a smudged slate, and writing on a clean slate.

Smudged? I’m working toward smudged! Each time I bang out the erasers, though, I’m overcome by the rancid dust and have to get some fresh air.

In fact, the … problematic… aspects of the old me will never be buttel, null. Neither can I pretend that what was, or is, treif is actually kosher, merely because it’s hard to pick out of the mix, too. Indeed, the simple rule of bittul b’rov does not apply to a food mixture (as opposed to separate pieces of food) where the forbidden substance adds its flavor to the permissible.

On the other hand, wait. If there is any value in the term “baal teshuvah” (which as is well known is arguably a misnomer when applied to people who have never been frum, who become frum) — if I have ever done a touch of true teshuva, or if I give it to myself as a Shushan Purim birthday present, or if I do it on my deathbed — then we are taught that our transgressions become reckoned as mitzvos. Forgive a smudgy intellect the very mixed metaphor — but we are after all dealing with reckoning mixtures: Here, it seems, we are allowed,after the fact of course, to reckon as “kosher” something that we objectively know to be made of non-kosher ingredients!

Mixtures are one thing; this is beyond metaphor-mixing and verges on the scrambled; but I will serve up what I’ve put together and expect you to pretend to like it. Of course there’s no such thing as “mostly frum” on a time scale. After all, someone can be frum for his entire life and one day, as the old cliche goes, throw his teffilin in New York Harbor. As of that moment, and unless and until he repents, his 99:1 ratio of frum to non-frum life may not look so good if that boat doesn’t reach the dock.

A person can acquire, we are taught, his World to Come in one moment, for good and for bad. The real measure of a Jew’s life is not found on the scale of how many minutes he spent officially affiliated with this or the other religious affiliation, or even how many minutes were spent with a halo as opposed to those cartoon horns on his head. Rather, what matters is what he does with the whole cocktail right now… and tomorrow.

OK, I doubt I will hang up my briefcase and consider a carer in mixology — even though it is Shushan Purim! There is a certain satisfaction in getting past the “halfway point,” I suppose. Most days I get better because of the world I have built, and allowed to be built, around me in the last 22 and a half years. In the moments when I perhaps slip back, or seem at best to plateau, that bulwark holds me from rolling all the way down the hill to 1985. If there is any accomplishment in reaching this point, perhaps that, really, is the one that I can identify. With God’s help, he’ll keep me in the mix for more iterations of 22 and a half.

Back to Basics

It had been a somewhat emotionally, rhetorically exhausting couple of weeks for active BT bloggers. Or, at least, for this one. Let me explain it this way: I’m a member of a little chevra who email each other on a weekly basis talking about what they’re doing in terms of outreach. (Yeah, an Aish thing. I know.) Not usually having much to say, I finally cooked up a corker of an email talking about my Jewish blogging work of late. It ended with this paragraph:

This is time-consuming work, and I doubt that I will be able to keep up with all the mischief. It is also very depressing, and tremendously challenging; I am not a kiruv professional, after all. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have over 20 years of being frum and learning in my pocket and thank God a good bit of dialectical and analytical skill. It’s really important to balance this sort of swim in the muck with a healthy dose of Jewish family life, davening and learning — because it does not provide the kind of feel-good chizuk you get from a Partners in Torah chavrusa or the like. I sincerely welcome any sort of suggestions or support . . .

Well, how nice for me. In fact, I didn’t get any “suggestions or support” from the group. No one responded to my email. In fact, a few people on the email list whom I met within the next week told me I was probably wasting my time. They thought getting the email addresses of strangers on airplanes and secretaries’ Jewish boyfriends was a better use of effort. Maybe they’re right. It’s hard to tell if anyone’s listening, especially when people you think perhaps are listening the hardest — the intense, brilliant, conflicted friend who introduced me to this blog, for instance, and who recently announced a jump off the deep end of frumkeit — are not moved at all.

Thank God for Shabbos.

Shortly before Shabbos we got a call from the new Aish yeshiva that opened a few blocks from my house. Could I help shore up the minyan erev Shabbos? I have never davened there. I… don’t like BT davening, okay? I worked hard for years so that I could sit at the adults’ table. I now pass for a lifer wherever I go, and I traverse the Internet with my “brilliant,” purple-tinged encomia to and defense of frum life, a self-appointed dean of orthodox Internet polemics. But of course I couldn’t say no; there was a need and I was duty-bound to do what I could to meet it. (My eighth grade son begged off.)

I got there and my heart sank. It was exactly what I thought I’d left behind. Gosh, have kids forgotten how to put on a coat and tie since the mid-80’s? These haircuts! Where do you even get a hat like that?!

But little by little I melted. It just started to feel right. They asked me to daven kabbolos Shabbos, and — for Heaven’s sake, yes! — in no time at all there they were, dancing in a circle! Dancing in a circle! I would have run for the door if I were in their place — but they didn’t! They were so enthusiastic! No one was making them do it. It was spontaneous excitement, and dancing was something they knew how to do. They were young, they were full of, yes, spiritual energy. They had gotten here themselves, they could walk out any time they wanted, but they were spending Shabbos here, and I was at the front of the room leading them.

All the nasty remarks, the cynicism, the blackness of the Internet attacks and the angry emailing; all my coiled up responses, triangulations, rationalizations — this is what it really is: People who want joy in their lives, want to get closer to Hashem, want to be better people. They are not interested, not today, in the anger and bitterness of those who have left this behind and are aghast that others could find it satisfying… the politics of frum institutions, and not so frum ones… the battles of virtual egos in the ether… the hunger for scandal, hypocrisy and failure. And I am not merely pointing fingers at other people’s “bitter” blogs. I generate plenty of this myself. What percentage of my contributions here is angry, disappointed, cynical? How have I gone from enthusiastic beginner, to perfectly presentable professional BT, to scowling, tired old cynic? Is that progress?

These young guys were pounding the table with excitement and joy and love because with the help of Aish HaTorah they were getting the chance to reconnect with something good they knew was in them and that they wanted passionately to let out and to live. They may have had disappointments ahead, clashes with reality, dashed expectations, broken hearts. But that’s not about becoming frum. That’s about life. But a life with all these things, yet with meaning, and hope, and spirit, and a relationship with one’s Maker — that’s a life, with all its reversals, that is worth living.

In fact, the one thing I got right in my email was that it is all hopeless — all the blogging, all the crossed pens, all the melodrama — if you can’t or won’t log off and live a real brick-and-mortar Jewish life. Living it in the moment, turning off the hyperspace drive, taking in what Hashem has given to me, is in fact my hardest challenge.

And sometimes I try so hard to write something special, something by which I hope certain readers will be touched and affected. Yet from time to time the work and the strain and the artifice show through in the piece, all too readily. I want those people to cry when they read it, but that does not work.

It only works if you cry when you write it.

Teives of the Lonely Heart

What are we left with when that last of the nine lights on our dining room window ledge flickers out?

My life was transformed when I was offered admission to what seemed to be the greatest college in the world, well before U.S. News & World Report started saying year after year that, indeed, it was just that. For me it appeared to be not just the greatest college, but the greatest place. Indeed they sing there that it is “the best old place of all” — for it is so transformative to so many. Certainly to me it was more of a generalized place than a mere educational institution. I could not really imagine what it meant for a university to be a great college, because no one in my immediate family had ever graduated from college. Although we lived about ten miles from this one, it may as well have been ten light years.

And light did flood the world, it seemed, the day my parents brought me to the campus for the first day of Freshman Week. It was a bright day at the end of August, and perhaps it was the harsh sunlight that made my father, an orphan raised by his immigrant grandmother on the Lower East Side, cry as we walked around the country-club like setting where I would spend the next four years. I was not so emotional. I used blue sticky-gum to pin my Israeli flag to the plaster walls of the gothic dormitory, unpacked my bike and my six pairs of jeans and few other physical possessions, and got ready for the ride that would eventually lead to my present, very different, place in life.

But as summer faded and autumn settled on central New Jersey, the light, a little at a time, began to ebb.

This first semester did not go well. On the first day of school, bicycling across campus to the math building, I fell into a puddle of mud. I may as well have stayed there; I was soon on track to failing calculus even after a year of it in high school, and wisely bailed out during the add/drop period. Other classes were puttering along decently enough, with grades reflecting the considerably tougher standards and competition I was now encountering. But having no oral tradition of college, and having already been shot as from a slingshot across the universe far from the only world I knew, I was aimless. Most of the extracurricular things I probably should have done, given my talents and strengths such as they seem in retrospect, I did not do. All the things I wanted to do, the things I had been a high school star in, I resolutely failed at that fall. My high school girlfriend, off at another campus, abandoned me, too, in the process of what seemed at the time of abandoning herself in her new “place.”

And as September yielded to October, the sun, putting distance between itself and my place, grew dimmer. And I grew lonely. In my dormitory, I seemed to be entirely alone as November enveloped the campus. Everyone was at a … sport. I was not an athlete; but this time of year I should have been rehearsing a play or any number of other things that I was not doing, that they would not let me do, in this place. I looked out the drafty leaded glass dormitory window to the freezing quad below, illuminated by garish green lamps and a few other lit windows, and waited until it was respectably late enough to trudge of to the commons dining room to eat alone with hundreds of my classmates. After dinner, at least, the other guys would come back to the dorm, and I would have society, and life, and light.

But through those long, dark afternoons of late fall and early winter, loneliness — a feeling I had never experienced for even a moment in my life — overtook me. The onset of winter, and the draining of light from the world with the advent of December, has haunted me ever since. Now this is not about me. I won’t save for the end the fact that each and every failure that I experienced at the best old place of all that fall was, over the course of the next four years, reversed in spades. Indeed, all the things I wanted and could not grasp then, I had in embarrassing abundance by graduation, and thank God for that, because a baal teshuva who leaves behind what passes for “everything” for a life of Torah and mitzvos makes a much better “BT blog” contributor than the (mainly mythical) “loser at life” who “can’t hack it” in the “real world.” No, I had it all; yet every approach of the solstice still chilled me, and my soul. The emotional hurt of that fall still does not let me go, but this is not about me, right?

Zos chanukah. I always found it odd that people think Chanuka was fried up as a Christmas alternative in order to “brighten up your winter solstice.” What kind of present is that? When that last candle goes out on the last day of Chanuka, yes, any astronomer can tell you that you have more or less turned the corner along with the earth in its orbit, and that the days are imperceptibly beginning to wax long again. But in fact, if the descent into darkness chills your soul as it does some people’s, at the midway point all you have is a promise of another six weeks of the dark misery, and all that much colder, as well, for your money. And yet they say that “zos chanukah” — this last day of Chanukah — encapsulates the whole of the holiday before it. How is this?

We know that eight days — the days of Chanukah, the days before the bris — represent the transcendence of the supernatural over the natural. But while the eight days of the bris are essentially a waiting period, the eight days of Chanuka are each of them a day of yomtov, an improvement over the previous day, a brighter day than what preceded it, another day of miraculousness. To start them any later than the time of ultimate darkness over the world would be to ask too much of us in fighting despair. But to continue them beyond eight — that is not a favor. How will we ever glitter and irridesce by ourselves if we do not bring that light inside, and use it to kindle something of our own?

Some people hang colored strings of lights, keeping them up seemingly forever into the winter, hoping, it seems, to just outlast the cold night, to drive it away by luminous force. Artificial light never warms, however. It does not teach. It does not reach. The pure light of the menorah, however, at least gives us hope that we can weather the harshness of mortal life.

I have not assimilated all the lessons of the lights. Every year December still brings its dread to me. A Jew should never feel alone; he should not, but being human, and maybe wanting too much in this world, he may yet do so anyway. But every year I hope that, at least when I look out the window into the dark of night, the lights — and the clear glow they leave after they are gone — reflect, refract and reach into me just enough to keep the the light inside burning till spring.

Judaica Dreams

A trip into a Jewish bookstore is really a stunning experience these days. They’ve got everything! Things you’d wished they’d have written when you were first starting — in translation; in transliteration; in syncopation. Every topic, every major thinker — well, most of them; it’s quite interesting which ones remain shrouded in mystery despite the explosion in Judaica publishing. But it is an explosion.

Not every explosion is caused by a smart bomb, mind you. It’s not just that there’s more out there than you could ever read, or afford, or fit on your bookshelves. But there seems to be some engine that just gets books out there regardless of quality. Evidently, someone out there can read them, or afford them, or fit them. The economic justification of these books seems way out ahead of the editorial. Either that, or there are a lot of people out there dying to get their names in hardcover print and will knock out material for whatever little recompense they’re offered. (I contrast this with those who write for frum newspapers and use such adorable noms de plum as “Brocha Goykadosh” on their journalistic jottings. They, and the anonymous letter writers who gobble up the column inches in the frum papers, evidently fear putting their monickers where their mutterings are — but this is deserving of another article entirely.)

But a lot of these works are written by very sincere, very able people. Unfortunately, however, Judaica publishers seem to take their market for granted, for sincerity and even knowledge are not the same as quality. Writing a book is hard; I’ve written a few, none of them best sellers, but at each juncture my manuscript was only the beginning of the process between word processor and Barnes & Noble. There are editors, copy editors, in some cases agents in the mix. Stuff should not come out in book form until it’s worked over “but good.” It appears, however, that desktop publishing is taken quite seriously in the frum world, and as baalei teshuva whose are used to higher quality, perhaps we should be demanding it — or publishing it ourselves.

There are several strains of problems. One is the “almost perfect” author — one of the best known frum writers out there, and one of us (a BT). He is deservedly acknowledged for his fine work. Unfortunately, it is so good that it is quite clear that no attempt is made whatsoever at editing his sometimes purple prose or convoluted thoughts, which in Judaica publishing is taken for just plain profundity. (I am very sympathetic.) Perhaps there’s no one good enough to edit him? I doubt that. Many great editors freely acknowledge they are not great writers. It is a different skill. But there’s no money to be earned turning what is already the best into even better. That would require pride over what you put out into the market — a commodity, unlike logorrhea, which is unfortunately in disappointingly short supply in this environment.

Then there’s the passionate but hopeless author. One wrote a book about one of the greatest roshei yeshiva in our lifetimes, full of stories from his life that had never been published before. The writer is clearly a committed and accomplished ben Torah of the highest caliber — and an execrable writer. His book, thick enough to choke any kosher animal, is utterly unreadable, from page one. Sentence structure, style, punctuation, block letters, Yiddish, Yinglish — they’re all chucked into the word processing version of the old “Bass-O-Matic” and just poured out in a chunky, gucky mess between the covers. What shocked me about this book is that it is published under the imprint of one of the oldest and most respected Jewish publishers. I literally felt as if nearly $30 had just been stolen from me. Despite my guilty appetite for hagiographic biographies of gedolim, to this day I have not been able to finish the book.

I was doubly disappointed when that same publisher sent out preview pamphlets of a new “learn this at your Shabbos table book” that promised to solve an old problem — finding that broadly age-appropriate devar Torah for the Shabbos seudos. It was beautifully produced, and the promised bound version looked — as all these sets do now — just like an Artscroll Gemora, fake brown pleather and everything. My first hit was not unexpected, but the insult to my intelligence was still a disappointment: I noticed that all the drawn illustrations depicted only men. Men mopping floors; men buying groceries; men baking challos. I don’t know whose chumra this is, but I would say if you can’t make realistic pictures of Shabbos activities undertaken by the people who actually do them, skip the pictures. (The men, of course, also had very long beards, peyos and hasidic style clothing. All the major Jewish publishers pretend there are no clean-shaven orthodox men in illustrations today — otherwise the illustrations could not be used, I gather, in Israeli editions aimed at charedim.)

That was bad enough, but the substance broke my heart, too. As usual, the English text is surrounded by “rich” Hebrew footnotes which offer additional explanations, sources and other material. The text, in this case, referred to a pasuk about Shabbos observance I’d never seen before. I looked at the Hebrew footnote — and it referred me to a sefer that describes the principle involved, and, presumably, associates the pasuk with the principle. Very nice. But it never told me where the posuk was to be found! This is inexcusable — and in a free preview pamphlet! Think I’m going to drop $30 or $40 a volume on this gazillion-volume set?

I mostly return to my bookshelf full of 1980’s, and earlier, Judaica. They don’t make them like they used to, I guess. Not a terrible thought for our kind of religionists, I guess, but not much of a compliment for people in the Judaica publishing business.

What’s the moral of the story? Don’t judge a Judaica book, any more than any other book, by its cover. The growth of the Judaica book market bespeaks a great willingness, especially among English speakers desperate to get information and inspiration, to buy whatever comes out. But we are entitled to demand quality, intellectual honesty, and some degree of editorial effort. Not only BT’s demand this, by a long shot — but we, at least, should.

My Sacrifice

Everyone gives up something when he becomes frum. Some more than others, of course. Sometimes precious relationships are breached and, unfortunately, can never be repaired. Other times, people give up lucrative career opportunities or fame or one or another kind of social standing. These are the korbanos (sacrifices) that even the least learned baalei teshuva place on the mizbeach (altar) in their service to Hashem.

Now I, for instance, did not give up a particularly notable “party” lifestyle, including any of the elements you might associate with that; I was always on the square side. Is giving up three hours a day of TV considering giving up “something”? Hardly. As to food, I never liked shellfish. Okay, cheeseburgers, chicken parmigiana — but what serious person can reckon the loss of a particular kind of food, or even the convenience of being able to eat anywhere, serious sacrifices when offered the opportunity of personal and spiritual fulfillment in exchange?

Yes, more subtle sacrifices are the social things attendant to these physical pleasures — the inability to “go out” with friends and colleagues to restaurants, say on Friday nights. These return as momentary blips of the heart, but if a person merits the development of a decently normal frum life in a frum community and is blessed with a frum family, these are easily recognized as pleasures of dubious worth. You simply do not share the values of the people you are not going out with and as nice as all the restaurants and bars in the world look from the outside, they are — aside from the value of fellowship with any decent person, which I refuse to assign a zero value, as transient as it may be — easily recognized, also, as basically empty inside. (I do not even understand what married people are doing in restaurants at 9 PM — don’t they have families? My father was never in a restaurant on a weeknight, or in a bar, ever. Maybe that’s why I’m here with you today.) At least, I, for my part, have gotten past these, and do not struggle, even though there are pangs.

Now, I will tell you, if you agree not to tease me or make a big deal about it, that I used to be a very successful collegiate actor. You will, I hope, entertain me when I say that, back in the day, I could entertain you; that I reached a point in my college stage career that I could, and did, cause a thousand people to erupt in laughter by raising an eyebrow; that I shared the stage with a famous Hollywood star in those days and held my own, and then some. I held audiences in the palm of my hand. But do you think that is what I miss by virtue of becoming an observant Jew? It is not. In fact, even in my callow and “secular” state, I knew how preposterously unhealthy it would be to seek this dopamine rush regularly. This was so not only because the big bad world was not college, but also because I knew that almost no one makes it, or stays made, and that even those who come close get addicted to this sort of ego gratification. Most become — as we see on the gossip pages — horrid shells of people, attention and adulation junkies for whom happiness is always transient and who end up relying not just on greasepaint and hair dye but on the liquid, pill and powdered chemical substitutes for that rush. There’s no business like show business for a reason.

No, I do not miss the stage.

I miss the music.

I was not a successful singer the way I was a successful actor. Never solo quality, I also could not make it into the a cappella groups in college; my level of musicianship was simply not there. I was a lead singer in rock bands, yes, but this was more of a piece with the stage acting as was my decent enough “musical comedy”-type stage singing. But I was always good enough, despite my poor training — my voice strong enough, the pitch close enough, the lungs big enough, and the vocal range, by God’s grace, wide enough — that I was a welcome addition to any tenor section. In high school, in college; choir, advanced chorus, freshman choir; university choir — I loved to sing, to harmonize, to make my voice part of a totality of beautiful vocal sound. By the time I was singing in college, too, our choirs were frequently accompanied by the university orchestra. There we stood in a century-old Victorian hall, in white ties and tails, making classical music along with violins, oboes and, for Heaven’s sake, a harp. For someone of my relatively modest social background, this was as much “making it” (I felt at the time) as I could ever dream of.

To me, though, as nice as the setting was, it was the harmony that was a transcendent experience. Singing beautiful music so great it has withstood the ages, masterfully arranged, along with scores of talented singers, transported me. Forgive the clichés, but it is experiences such as these that create clichés. So, yes, I felt aloft in the soaring harmonies of the Mozart Requiem; suspended by the crescendos of Handel’s Israel in Egypt; levitated by Hindemeth’s Printemps . Even more, I truly lost myself in these experiences, and at certain moments became, I felt, part of the beauty of creation, of the brilliance of human creativity bestowed by God on His handiwork. I was not so spiritually numb that I could not fathom in these moments some opening into the Divine.

That some of these moments took place in locations such as the university’s neo-gothic chapel enhanced this spiritual elevation for me. If you have never heard the voices of a chorus echo off of the thick stone walls of a gothic cathedral, you have missed out on something very special in olam hazeh. (Not that there’s anything with that.) But to make that music? Transcendent.

And I do not have that any more.

And there is simply almost nothing like it in my present life that can give it to me. Besides the fact that there is no value placed on fine arts, including music, in the frum world, or perhaps because of it, there are no musically serious choirs for orthodox men that I know of. (Because of the prohibition to listening to a woman sing, I can never again sing in a mixed choir.) I once heard of one kehilla’s famous choir and was eager to hear them sing at a wedding. On hearing, I realized that this was not so much a choir as people who sing together. This can be beautiful, too, but it was not what I was missing.

Last year I thought I had finally found a choir that I could perhaps join. They rehearsed only once a week and performed at times other than Shabbos. Rehearsals were in a church basement on the Upper West Side, yes, but perhaps there was a way around this? It never got that far; the director, eager to speak to a tenor (as choir directors always are) started to tell me the repertoire, and I realized … these are all songs about the wrong deity.

Now I can tell that I am losing it. I used to “vocalize” (work out my voice) several times a week in choir rehearsal, and I had a broad range that enabled me to sing most baritone parts and in my best voice reach a high C over middle C as well. No longer; I do not have the musical ability to practice by myself, nor the time or discipline; nor, hardly, the purpose. Now when I am called to the amud to lead the prayers, as I am from time to time, my vocal chords gradually constrict as I sing and I barely make it through Lecha Dodi without feeling an intense need for moisture in my throat. This happens earlier and earlier in my davening, and so I must sing lest robustly in the beginning in the hopes that something will be left by Vayichulu.

It hardly matters. Singing by myself is fun, and those who hear it do not seem to object; but it is not that thing I miss. Some special Shabboses, a good chazan who knows what to do in a shul with the patience to let him do it will return me, briefly, to that place during kedusha, and I am, for a few minutes, lost again. I improvise harmonies or latch on to ones being sung by others… thirds, fifths, sometimes maybe even sevenths over the melody note; perhaps a staggered syncopation in a complementary line and on those good Shabbos mornings I taste it, with what’s left of a tongue and a throat that feel older than they should, assisted by the remnant of technique that bides me “push from the diaphragm” and “keep the tone out of the throat and into the nasal cavities” … and then, just as it is getting good, it is over. My face is flush, my palate almost aches and, until a brief reprise at musaf, it is done.

I muse that people who leave things they love in their lives in order to serve God can bank on some amount of credit for having done so, and that perhaps this sacrifice remains as principal for them not only in the next world but even allows them to draw from that account in this one. Some of those things can be dear indeed, and when they seemed, prior to their loss, to actually enhance one’s spiritual existence, it can be hard to appreciate the sacrifice. Perhaps merely the knowledge that, despite the spiritual challenges and setbacks of life in general, one has made a stand and walked away from one or another sort of love to prove his commitment, however, can give one strength. And perhaps that is exactly the this-worldly benefit that is bestowed by such a deposit.

As for me, the harmony is my sacrifice, and while it is a trifle compared to what others have left, it is my personal bit of flour and oil. Just as we understand that the senses, in supernal realms, combine and intersect in ways we cannot understand in this world, I pray that my silence in this one translates into a pleasing aroma Above.

Pesach Sheini

Last week was Pesach Sheini, the “raindate” for bringing the Korban Pesach for those who were ritually unclean when the first date came around. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this, more than two decades after accepting the yoke of the mitzvos on myself as a young adult with a secular background, that I realized what a profound metaphor this is for baalei teshuva. But every year Pesach is, for me, a watershed of realization of just how much has changed — and how much more there is to do.

That there’s always more to do I understood even before I understood what it meant to be a Jew. I had cut out the quote from Pirkei Avos 2:21, “It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it,” and posted it on my dormitory door even before I knew where it came from. (No, I am not suggesting the Sages were talking about Pesach cleaning!) The fundamental truth of it spoke to me, as did the implicit insistence that life has meaning, purpose, a goal behind personal achievement and fleeting pleasures. Ironically, Pesach Sheini seems to contradict that message by its apparent focus on a ritual whose moral meaning we don’t readily comprehend. But Pesach has a unique way of reminding me of a very accessible lesson about keeping the Torah. Perhaps we can say it is about bitul — nullification. No, I don’t mean nullifying one’s pride, or one’s ego; I am not the one to preach on that topic. But do let me explain what I mean.

Let me first ask you: Did Pesach just seem to whiz by this year? It did for us. When it comes out the way it did this year, with “no chol hamoed” as we say — there’s an erev Shabbos in it, and an erev yomtov, and another day stuck in there, but by and large they don’t even bother promoting special chol hamoed fairs and concerts — it’s just over as soon as it starts, isn’t it?

Well, when I was a kid we kept a kind of Pesach. Besides our fast-motion sedarim out of the Workman’s Circle Haggadah, there was also the chometz issue. In our family, we didn’t eat bread or bread-like products. As far as we knew, that was observing something. So right until my first visit to yeshiva I was meticulous about eating matzah on Pesach, right up to and including eating a matza-borne cheese steak in college, in which I took great pride of a sort and saw no fatal contradiction.

But my, how long these Pesachs were!

Eight. Endless. Days. Of. Negation.

No bread. No pizza. I’m a carbohydrates guy, see? I felt this negation of desire. Perhaps it buoyed me in a way for my future as an orthodox Jew. The discipline of it, after all, was fairly unique in my life. And I mentioned the pride inherent in eating this traife matzah thing in the middle of a Princeton eating club; that’s a good thing too, right? You can build on that; orthodox Jews have to get used to being oddballs in galus (exile). On the other hand, I remember not enjoying this time. Eight. Endless. Days. Of. Negation.
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Hard Time in a Hard Holy Land

One of the most troubling threads of discussion to emerge from this blog is the firm, virtually unanimous line of warning from Americans, particularly BT’s, who have chosen to make Israel their home — or those who, having made that decision once, concluded it was the wrong one for them, and have returned to their countries of origin. Having just come back from a trip to Israel, where I stayed in the largely North American enclave of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, I found this discussion particularly compelling. It is clear, based on my observations, discussions with American olim, and the majority of commentators here on this topic, that the cultural environment for North American BT’s who wish to find a place in Haredi life in Israel is brutally harsh. I can understand many reasons why this may be so. Some of them suggest rather harsh observations as well, and ones that we should learn from for our own sakes.

Fundamentally, American haredism and Israeli haredism bear largely superficial relations to each other. The differences are more fundamental than the similarities. You might object to this and insist that it is an overstatement; both kind of haredim, after all, are committed to scrupulous observance of halacha, including the cultural pressure points of tzenius and limud hatorah. But there are substantial populations withing the dati leumi camp, including those who consider themselves a sort of cross between haredim and datiim — chardal, they call themselves (Haredi Leumi — Nationalist Haredim) — who fit this description as well. Datiim also observe Shabbos and kashrus, all with varying degrees of stringency. Yes, non-hasidic haredim consider themselves in the same camp as hasidim; but probably not as many hasidim as they’d like to think agree.

But haredi society in Israel is so profoundly different from that of the group that uses the same name here (including hasidim to a large extent) that American olim have found it necessary to build their own camps. It is widely understood among Americans, and according to many it is daas torah, that Americans should live and learn mainly separately from Israelis, even in Israel. There are a number of very significant differences, and they don’t all have to do with hashkofah (outlook or philosophy).

One does: In Israeli haredi society (non-hasidic), men are simply not supposed to work for a living. Men learn. The “elite” includes everyone, except those who wish never to be regarded as fully frum. In America, by contrast, while there is a large and culturally very significant cadre of full-time learners, there is a place of honor at the table for the learned baalebos (“householder” or layman). This does not solve all our economic and social problems — witness the threads here about yeshiva tuition, for example — but it does mean we have a society in which the expectation of a man who is the head of a household being supported by others is not the default position. It is not an understatement to say that this is a profound difference between American and Israeli haredi society, and evidently men who learned in yeshiva for years, BT or otherwise, who get to Israel after having already left the beis medrash and begun to take personal and direct responsibility for their families’ sustenance, discover that they are at best second-class citizens in the eyes of Israeli haredim. This is regardless of their level of Torah knowledge, frumkeit and observance, and it is, from what I gather and from what I can project in my own case — because who does not visit Israel and muse of staying there? — demoralizing to say the least.

That is the easy one. The second main thrust of criticism that I have gleaned is far less amenable to interpretation as an artifact of idealism, and it is this: Haredi life in Israel is brutal. Some of this is the result of the first issue; where an entire social group lives on handouts, and insists that it is entitled to them by virtue of the spiritual benefit if bestows on those from whom it makes this demands, let us just say there will be… resistance. And gnawing, growing need. Corruption is almost inevitable. Every sort of tribal and clannish behavior is found and, unfortunately, rewarded by the system. Schools and seminaries become personal fiefdoms. The Israeli political system — recognized as one of the free world’s most corrupt — being largely the benefactor of an entire ethnic and cultural sector, inevitably leeches its crooked ethos into the soil from which even the most idealistic blooms grow. To an American, this is inevitable: Earthly sustenance disconnected from effort is contrary to the Protestant work ethic that every American, including orthodox Jews, believes in, even as we acknowledge abstractly that our work is only hishtadlus (a contribution of external effort) and that parnosah itself is awarded only by the grace of God. Here we say it; there, they live it. In fact they live it so profoundly there that they have political parties whose sole job is to press forward with enforcing the grace of God in the Knesset. It is inconceivable that American olim do not view this cynically, and that it chips away at their idealism.

(In a similar vein, Americans raised on concepts — however much observed more in the breach — of fair play and communal responsibility, the idea of living in a place and not contributing to its physical security, regardless of the spiritual station you assign yourself, is itself seen in largely unflattering terms — especially by many BTs. I cannot say, however, that I have observed this particular point to be one which has resulted in a large amount of American aliyah disfunction among haredim. Perhaps this is because of the widespread and reasonable observation that the Israeli political and philosophical hashkofah and utterly un-tzenius lifestyle that are part and parcel of military service are really so offensive to Torah values.)

Americans are told, or find out the hard way, that the system is “different” in Israel, and some of it is because of these profound structural differences. There are more. There is no question that despite the existence of chesed and tzedaka on phenomenal levels in Israeli society, there is a harshness in personal interrelations that simply does not comport with conception of Jewish middos that we learn about and try to inculcate in our children and ourselves. This Old World harshness, almost a certain brutality, is far more commonplace in Israel than in America.

This is not entirely surprising. In America, we go out of our way to avoid giving offense; making friends, being socially accepted by broad categories of persons, and even obsequiousness are considered ways to get ahead. One of our all-time biggest sellers is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. A recent article discussed how this book is being used in haredi communities here, such as hasidim, where such concepts are utterly foreign; but to Israelis, the promulgation of such ideas seems preposterous. Israelis joke about their style, but to fresh-scrubbed Americans, driving (it seems) to kill, assertive and widespread tobacco use, physical violence — all known phenomena in the Israel haredi world that cannot be blamed on exposure to the krum (gross) host culture — frankly seem abominable to North American eyes. To strangers, often lacking roots and native skills, such as language, the coldness and lack of outer warmth is more than off-putting. It can be a genuine challenge to religious inspiration, to say the least.

And finally, there is that issue of roots. I mentioned clannishness briefly. The English-language journalism, and the “reports” from the field in Israel, are clear: There is tremendous polarization along ethnic and “racial” lines among Jews in Israel, and these prejudices are very much alive among haredim. One recent article described an ehrliche (sincere) haredi parent’s attempt to enroll his child in a cheder, which was unsuccesful in cheder after cheder until he was given the advice to just plain lie about his children’s Sefardi grandparents on his mother’s side. We have Ashkenazi and Sefardi camps here, too, but I cannot fathom such a story in any but the most obscure communities, if then, in chutz l’aretz.

Undoubtedly, Israeli haredim are on the front lines of a very profound kulturkampf, a fight for the soul of the Jewish people that is being played out in very stark terms. But where there is war, there are uniforms — rigidly enforced; there are casualties — however regrettably; and there are atrocities — so to speak. Yes, I remain more than impressed — positively inspired — by the wellspring of enthusiasm and, yes, idealism by olim who have grown and blossomed and flourished in our eretz hakadosh. The growth of Torah to historically phenomenal levels can only be a sign of Heavenly approval. When I was in Israel, especially as I walked the streets of Jerusalem, I felt truly at home. Perhaps it is because I am a native New Yorker, but to me it is Jerusalem that I picture when I imagine, fantasize really, about living in Israel. But as my youthful enthusiasm gives way to reality and the acceptance of who and where I am, I have realized and learned that, unfortunately, there is almost no conceivable way I can be there, short of the miraculous Redemption, in the foreseeable future. What pains me most, though, is the realization that this fantasy, like so many others, can perhaps only be nurtured in the abstract, and that from what I have read, seen and heard, this love may well be unrequited.

We are, after all, in galus.

The Temptation of the Bekeshe

How do American black-hat “Lithuanian”-style haredim — such as myself, and especially the BTs among us — answer the implied philosophical challenge from the hasidim?

One of the main topics on Jewish blogs concerned at all with religion is the question of “haredism” — a term with very different meanings in Flatbush and in Bnei Brak, but it will do for now — versus “modern orthodox” — also tremendously plastic but, again, let us use what we have. In any event, in the context of baalei teshuva, (talk about troubling terminology!) the question often arises: Why is “haredi” kiruv so dominant? Why can’t there be more kiruv oriented to bringing people to Torah and mitzvos, yes, but without the subcultural accoutrement of the black-hat way of life?

Now because many of those asking the questions are not themselves committed to Torah and mitzvos, I find it a rather disingenuous inquiry, at least from them. But it is not, per se, an unreasonable question. Yet it has been hashed and rehashed in the Jewish blogosphere, and I have no intention of opening yet another thread on it here, but rather to suggest it as a context for the following question: Why aren’t we all hasidim? I think that question is a legitimate one.

I have several answers to the question of why BTs such as myself end up (some faster, some slower) on the “right” of the orthodox spectrum. One of them is that having grown up on a steady and tasteless diet of compromise, we are suspicious of half measures once we decide to make, and understanding the meaning of making, a commitment to being an observant Jew. We also believe that to the extent that modern orthodoxy stands for more engagement with the non-Jewish world, we acknowledge the high likelihood of slippage in our own commitments, considering our previous modes of life. I am asking commenters here not to reopen these issues in the thread that may develop here — my point is a different one, namely: If we claim to eschew compromise, where do we draw the line? Or is the “line’ itself illusory, and are we indeed engaged in perhaps exactly what critics accuse us of — a thoughtless thrust to the right, to the rejection of the old self, to the comfort of the chumra (strict practice) without regard to the merits?

Considering this question, I reflected on what the “Lithuanian” style does for American haredi BTs: It provides us with something of an out. One reason, as petty as it seems, is that the American version of “litvish” or “yeshivish” orthodoxy” tolerates clean-shaven faces. True, this toleration is marginal at best. We beardless ones may not be depicted as Abbas or Tattys in Artscroll or other haredi publications (zeydies are allowed to be clean shaven; still, a R’Moshe-Sherer-style moustache is preferred to complete whiskerlessness). But you will see us getting awards at yeshiva dinners and acting as mohels and presidents of haredi shuls. Combine this assimilation-friendly outcome, now, with the Lithuanian mode of dress — a dark suit and a white shirt — and guess what: Except in those offices where adult dress has been outlawed, an orthodox yeshiva man looks pretty much like a lawyer or an accountant (abstracting from the yarmulke issue, which we will not even touch here), which he is, after all, fairly likely to be. The acceptability of sheitels among haredim in the US extends this flexibility to women as well.

I don’t mean to rewrite my earlier post or the ensuing discussion, on “dress codes” for Jews. Rather, my point is this: Non-hasidic, clean-shaven haredi men and custom-sheitel wearing women can move through the world without that harsh separation from it that hasidim (most of them — and the issue of how Lubavitchers dice and slice these issues is also too complex for this post), with their beards, peyos and usually long coats, effect. Given that the haredi BT has gone from complete assimilation to a philosophical commitment to a distinctly Jewish manner of appearance and a level of separation from the gentile culture, how exactly does he rationalize this rollback of separation, given that to some extent it appears (appears — I am open to suggestion that it is not) to be an accident of history?

This is not merely a matter of clothes, of course, though as I did argue before, the way we present ourselves to the world is always a choice fraught with meaning. I believe that many non-hasidic haredim feel, in their hearts of hearts, that — notwithstanding the difference between what we call hasidim today and the idealized hasidus of the time of the Baal Shem Tov — today’s hasidim demonstrate an undeniably high level of commitment to Yiddishkeit that not all of us can claim we would be prepared to make. Some hasidim say, indeed, they measure the mantel (cover) to the sefer Torah, while others seek to cut down the scroll to their own size Well, we can debate whether their way of life and appearance are more or less relevant today as a matter of service to Hashem than they were in Eastern Europe 250 years ago. But the relative lack of compromise with the host culture and the level of faith in Hashem over one’s life that the hasidic way of life implies cannot be denied. I cannot myself deny that I often feel an implicit rebuke when I am in the presence of hasidim: Why aren’t I at least trying to be “that frum”?

There are two possible answers, each supplied by a different though related haredi philosophy, and neither one entirely satisfactory. One is from the classic Lithuanian — and here I will use the term “misnagdic” — perspective: There’s nothing more orthodox, young man, about hasidim. Truly frum Litvaks, facial hair aside, are virtually indistinguishable from hasidim in religious practice (look at Lakewood), and frankly the outside world can’t tell the difference between us, notwithstanding our short suit coats. A black hat is a black hat, and the hasidim, far from being a “purer” or “truer” form of orthodox Judaism, are merely focused on, some would insist they are even obsessed with, a peculiar mode of lifestyle. It is one that obtained in a certain time and place and which by and large is, for its focus on a central leader in the person of the rebbe or admor, would in the view of a true Misnagid a cop-out, not an improvement, in terms of an individual’s personal obligation to labor on his own in finding the path to service of Hashem.

Another answer comes from Rav Hirsch, whom we discussed here last week. It starts with the Lithuanian answer but takes it a step further: The cultural disengagement by hasidim, which is so extreme that most of them have a great deal of difficulty according what we believe is proper respect to our gentile neighbors as men made in God’s image, is worse than the mere stunting of growth or misguidedness emphasized by the Litvak. It is not at all what Hashem wants from us — as much as we admire the d’veykus, the commitment, the pride, it is nonetheless represents a positive failure to engage the world that God has put us into. It is a guarantee of a permanent level of unsophistication about worldly affairs as well as useful wisdom, and a lifestyle that has many elements that far from raising our status in the eyes of the world, does the opposite.

Two good answers. There are more; it is a mistake to idealize the hasidic way of life. A clean, ebony bekeshe (frock), curly peyos and a shtreimel make a stunning fashion statement, but you still have to wash neigel vasser in the morning.

And yet I am not a Lithuanian, save by intellectual bent; I am a scion, two generations removed, of Gerrer hasidim. And I cannot escape that silent, silken black rebuke.

The Dilemma of the Talented ex-BT’s

My friend struggles with Judaism. He grew up in a very frum — let’s say, stifling — environment in a major frum metropolitan community. He had a learning disability, never diagnosed when he was in school. This not only preventing him from succeeding in yeshiva, despite receiving a generous endowment of creativity and intelligence, but the offbeat view of the world it provided to him caused him to focus on the flaws in contemporary orthodox society… maybe in his family and school too… and he was, and is, Off the Derech. Way off.

It’s painful to see. I really love the guy. He reads this blog — the Derech remains stubbornly stuck in his head, though he swears contempt for it. It comes through in the oddest of ways, though. Twice a year he tells me he’s working his way back.

But Hashem gave him some other gifts of which he has made dubious value. He is charming. Too charming. Women flock to him. He’s handsome, yes, if not perhaps for the cover of GQ (too Jewish?); but he has a magnetism that enables him to talk women into almost anything; talk employers into giving him jobs; talk the world into giving him an infinite number of chances. I’m not that charismatic, myself, but I cannot but see an aspect of my own underachieving life in his adventures — I’ve probably talked my way in and out of more trouble than the average bear.

But I have a wall full of degrees hanging on a wall that I pay the rent for, and my disappointment is relative to my ambition. His underachievement is pretty absolute. He must live on that charm, and oxygen and light, perhaps; he’s resolutely going nowhere. Frankly he lives a non-frum lifestyle, largely nocturnal, that is far beyond the pretty square existence I experienced in the first 22 years of my life. Maybe some BT who’s been there and done that can explain to me how bright people don’t get tired of endless “parties” and hanging around in clubs? Or maybe he couldn’t. To my way of thinking, as informed by Jewish sensibility, and my own limited exposure to that lifestyle during my high school and college years, it’s mostly about crowding out the the thoughts in your head that are hurting your mind.

In any event, that’s not my topic.

In any event, he’s not the person in the title of this essay.

The persons in the title are the ones — it could be any number of them — who write the Bitter Ex-BT Blogs.

See, I think my friend has a chance. A chance at life in a black-hat community, a wife with a sheitel, a two-hour-a-day learning seder? Well, we are taught not to ever give up hope, but not to rely on miracles. That would require a miracle. But could he have a healthy, positive, open-minded relationship with the Ribbono shel Olam, with Klal Yisroel, with the Torah, even? I think he could. I think he wants to. He’ll stamp up and down and insist I’m wrong, but the Nile’s big enough for both of us to be monarchs over it — I’m going to stick stubbornly to this belief.

But there’s something in his life now that may be worse for him than everything else that came before. Because he can’t pull himself away from the talented, glib, well-written, sometimes right Bitter Ex-BT Blogs, nor the virtual and real social world they promise him. He absorbs their complaints, their bitterness, their gall, and they put into words for him what he cannot quite express himself. No, more than that. They give him words to express complaints he didn’t even know he had. They feed his pain at the losing hand he feels — this talented, attractive, and thank God healthy person — God has dealt him.

Before, my friend ignored his Jewish side while living this dissolute lifestyle of his. He knew the contradiction. There was “being good,” and being not so good. But now he has a new “support group” who tell him what he’s doing is really a kind of “mitzvah” that has its own blog community, its alternative media, its Christmas parties and club dates. And this is something I have no idea how to counter.

We know that the Torah reserves harsh punishment, and even withdraws some of the usual judicial protections, for a meisis — someone who is not satisfied to worship avodah zarah, but who induces others to do so as well. Writing a blog is not avodah zarah, but then, we don’t have avodah zarah any more. In fact R’ Moshe Feinstein, in a responsum, says that anyone who encourages people to move away from doing the will of Hashem is comparable to a meisis ; the Chofetz Chaim compared the anti-religious Jews of his time to such people as well. In the Chofetz Chaim’s time, such people offered an alternative ideology — socialism, the brotherhood of man, an escape from the ghetto — that resonated with thoughtful, idealistic Jews on whom the weight of galus had become unbearable. What today’s anti-frum ideology offers is nihilism and hedonism, but in a time and place dominated by cynicism and narcissism it is enough to demonstrate that these can be found in ample supply on both sides of the frum / non-frum line, so why not enjoy the ride in the handbasket? And what can be more enjoyable than mocking those who don’t get the joke?

But it’s time for that car-and-driver metaphor again. Because ultimately my rather mundane point, of course, is that it is a special bitterness — I cannot say wickedness; we all are tinokos shenishbu (compared to “captured children”) — that makes a talented former BT, man or woman, do this. They do not just walk away from what they think is a car wreck of a spiritual journey but flag everyone else tooling happily along the road and swear that the bridge is out, there are monsters waiting on the next exit and that it was actually much better where they were coming from and you can’t U-turn fast enough to get back there.

What motivates them? My armchair psychology tells me that they would rather believe the journey is an eight-lane disaster than consider whether they themselves forgot to check the oil under their own hoods before setting out. But, you know, “who am I to say”?

A talented rabbinic friend came to me once and told me that after half a century or so of trying, he resolved that there are some cases — and far more of them come across his desk than mine — that he has come to realize he cannot solve, some lives that he cannot make the investment in trying to fix. His words haunt me regarding my friend. He is not asking me to solve anything; far from it. He tolerates my company because, well, maybe I am a little bit of fun myself. But whereas I once thought I offered enough gravity, mixed in with the comedy, to contribute to keeping him in orbit, I can’t compete with the Bitter Ex-BT Blogs. Well, I could; but I can’t. I’m as good an Internet polemicist as anyone; I know enough about frum life, about the Torah, and about life in the BT yeshivas to make quite a good debate of it.

But there’s no natural place for that debate — it won’t be on their blogs, and it won’t be here; and frankly, my anger and hurt cloud my judgment when I make some attempt at it. I fought in the early Internet wars for orthodoxy (largely in the ancient and venerable “Moment Magazine message board debates”) and, frankly, I’m not sure anyone’s listening.

Okay, I know one person.