Eating Cookies at the Kosel on the 17th of Tammuz

Before I became frum, I lit Channukah candles (I miss my purple and gold yarmulke), I didn’t eat bread on Pesach (I was stringent–it had to be bread davka) and I fasted on Yom Kippur. Even in college I fasted the whole day, and as soon as the sun finally went down (behind the administration building), the pepperoni pizza was mine. I deserved it after a day of affliction. Little did I know that other days of affliction dotted the Jewish calendar, too.

Just a few weeks after I joined my friend in his BT yeshiva, it was the 17th of Tammuz. I was given a briefing (very brief), and was told it was a fast day. Being natually respectful (and too shy to protest), I went along with it and during the early afternoon, I found myself sitting by my dirah window overlooking the Kosel while my friend was “praying Minkah” in the yeshiva. My stomach started to rumble. There was no one around, and I did have a stash of wafers under my blanket for emergencies. I glanced at the Wall, then at my cookies, then at the Wall. Do I miss what had been in the airspace above that wall? Ok, whatever, but mourning takes energy, doesn’t it? After all, when I used to go to a shiva in America, there was tons of food there. Wall vs. wafers [rumble!]…the wafers won.
I hid the evidence and dusted off the fingerprints…I still remember how amazed my friend was that I fasted so well.

Just three weeks later, another fast day. I didn’t eat, but I did manage to sneak into a chair every once in a while. I certainly didn’t greet anyone (my shyness came in handy again.) It was more than a little frustrating as it was so new, even though the very basics in yeshiva gave me a general idea. The fact is that as the first few years went by, I felt like I was lacking certain connections in all the holidays and fast days.

One year, I went to hear Rav Shlomo Brevda talk about the three weeks. Like so many others, he acknowledged that it’s very hard to mourn something that we never had. But unlike so many others, he spent much time going into great vivid detail (as he does so well) about what life was like when there was a Beis HaMikdash. (I heard that there are tapes for kids with this theme, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve learned quite a lot from children’s tapes in general!) Oh, really? So many miracles? This is what we lost? It was a step in the right direction, and another piece in the puzzle.

Nineteen years have gone by, and I’ve gained each year more pieces to the puzzle, about every holiday. As I look back, I see every holiday is a little different as I saw it before, (my impressions of Pesach are drastically different than even ten years ago!) and as every year more puzzle pieces are added, I get the sense of a whole picture coming together. Very slowly, but it’s coming. It takes a lifetime, but the satisfaction of looking back a few years and seeing some progress is tremendous chizuk. I’ve come a ways since munching on wafers in front of the Kosel on the 17th of Tammuz (really representative of the state of nonfrum Jewry as a whole). And believe it or not, the fasting even gets easier every year! I have never characterized myself as a spiritual fellow, but I see that the connections do come. What a great feeling!

So if you ever feel down about not growing, know it’s not true. It’s happening and it’s slow, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be–little steps, always little steps which are permanent. May we always continue to grow, and may your fast be even easier than last year.

Reposted from July 2009

Ode to a BT-FFB “Intermarriage”

Heaven sent my wife to be my soul mate here on earth,
Although we grew up differently, ‘cause she’s a frum-from-birth.

Her father works in chinuch at a choshuv institution,
On Saturdays, my dad just reads his books on evolution.

Her kollel brother has written many seforim through the years,
My brother went to “Temple” once, but he was bored to tears.

Her sister tends to seven kids and runs a clothes gamach,
My sister cashiers at McDonald’s just around the block.

The list goes on, I’m sad to say, it really gets much worse,
The point is that I feel I’m from a different universe.

We have no shalom bayis problems, a great thing that I wish you,
But privately I really see an underlying issue.

It’s all bershert I didn’t choose a BT for my wife,
But naturally she can’t relate to things from my past life.

It’s challenging to talk with her, of course she’s not to blame,
But I wish someone would understand the things I overcame.

This websites nice, don’t get me wrong, I do have what to say,
But it’s not a substitute for what’s on my mind each day.

I wish more often I could find perhaps some validation,
For the feelings I have deep inside from my life situation.

A BT might come on Shabbos, we would schmooze way past the meal,
He would nod his head and say, “I know exactly how you feel…

My siblings all have married out, their words I’m always dreading,
‘Just because she’s not a Jew, you won’t come to my wedding?!’”

We’d laugh about the treif old songs, the kind that make you hiss,
But when I hear them in the mall, I like to reminisce.

It’s fun to exchange stories how we found our Yiddishkeit,
“Well, first I tried out India, but said, ‘This just ain’t right!’”

And silly comments come to mind, (I’ve made quite a few),
“Aharon’s name is Cohen, but his brother is Rabbeinu??”

And to this day I still goof up: “Kag Samayack!” I exclaimed,
But when my kids corrected me, I really felt ashamed.

I really feel quite fortunate, don’t mean to moan and groan,
But even with a family, sometimes I feel alone.

Perhaps I need to make more friends, to be a bit outgoing,
This is all just part of life, as long as I keep growing.

Originally posted in October 2010

The Shy Student: An Adventure in Shidduchim

by Ross Kryger

Every character trait has its benefits and detriments. On my very first day in Israel, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, I decided to visit a popular tourist site called “The Wailing Wall” (whatever that was). Glancing around, I was intrigued by so many people praying outdoors, and although I wondered could be on the other side of this impressive structure, my eye was on the ramp. What could be up there? I thought, totally unaware that my “invisible impurities” presented any type of barrier from my finding out. I slowly ascended the ramp, and when I almost reached the top, I was suddenly halted by an exceedingly tall man holding a large brown robe. “In order to come up here,” he whispered in a rather demanding tone, “you must put this on.” I was confused, but I was also a bit shy by nature. I did not ask the reason, and I did not want to put on his robe, which anyway was about three sizes too large. I looked downward and subtly shook my head, then turned away and quickly returned to ground level. I remember that months later in yeshiva, upon hearing an Eliahu HaNavi story, I thought about this strange man.

My best friend landed in a BT yeshiva two years before I arrived in Israel, and although I now accepted his invitation after graduating college to visit him, I had no desire to meet his other orthodox comrades. Being a shy stranger in a strange land, I stuck closely with him, and eventually started paying attention to some of the ideas I was learning. I extended my stay (from two months to just over four years) and for the first eight months, we spent every Shabbos together. I was friendly to everyone in the yeshiva and made a few acquaintances, but after my best friend transferred to another yeshiva in a different town, I felt lost. While it didn’t affect my learning all that much, I wasn’t able, on my own, to gain the emotional support I sorely needed. My family at home was understandably hostile over my absence at my brother’s church wedding, and my decision to remain in Israel during the Gulf War sent matters spiraling downward.

I was never one to make conversation easily. I was the Haggadah son who didn’t know what to ask, so I rarely had any occasion to approach a rabbi about anything. The rabbaim were always friendly and polite, but I was missing that necessary deeper connection. Many times I would notice another student sitting at a table and talking with a rabbi for an hour or more, wondering what they could possibly be talking about, and feeling a twinge of jealousy over not having the same attention. Even learning with a chavrusa was somewhat difficult. Although much of the time I understood the basic meaning in the Gemorrah, I never offered an argument or a different perspective, but rather found myself nodding my head to any type of logic presented (perhaps to some guys, I would be a dream chavrusa!) Hillel says in Pirchei Avos that a student who is too shy will never learn, and I certainly have no doubt that I missed out on countless opportunities.

By far, the parsha of shidduchim was the most difficult. After noticing for a while that guys who have been in the yeshiva as long as me were either getting engaged or actively dating, I approached a rebbe who knew somewhat of my family circumstances, and sheepishly asked him when I should consider starting. He stared at me incredulously and said, “You’re not dating yet?!” The words, “I was waiting for you to tell me when and how to begin” luckily didn’t escape from my mouth, as the last thing I needed was a rebbe who thought I was full of chutzpah. He then gave me the name of a few shadchanim and their addresses, and told me I could later give him a name to check out. I was a little curious that he didn’t discuss with me about the process in general, or even if I was ready.

Most shadchanim smiled when I informed them that in my “former” life, I never had a girlfriend (it seems my shyness turned out to be an asset after all.). Although they offered me names of girls from all types of families, I was most excited to hear the names of BT girls. I really wanted someone who could understand me, and where I was coming from in life. She would have a spiritual side, and we could grow together. (I’ll give away the ending—I married a wonderful FFB, but the contrast in our married life is for a different article, perhaps.) The first name I received was of a BT girl, and I passed it on to my rebbe, who told me to go out for now, and he would check her out. The shadchan set up the date, and I just needed to take a bus and meet the girl at a hotel. What a great system for a guy like me! On the designated night, I was a little nervous, and arrived at the hotel. There were four girls standing outside. They all looked at me, waiting for me to do something. Since I couldn’t pick out the girl myself from the lineup, I was at a loss for the proper protocol. Luckily, one of them finally decided with a grimace that I just couldn’t be her date, and walked away (well, excuse me!) With great embarrassment, I chose one of the remaining three at random, and stammered, “Are-are-y-you Sh-sh-shoshana?” “No, I’m not,” she replied firmly. I was somewhat relieved, as she was about five inches taller than me. The real Shoshana slightly smiled and introduced herself. She seemed to be knowledgeable in this system, as she explained that this happens quite often. We left the final contestant outside (presumably brokenhearted) and found a quiet table in the lobby.

I sat down, and she sat down. I nodded, and she nodded. I smiled, and so did she. How long was this date supposed to be? I really don’t know what I had expected a date to be like, but pathetically, guys like me need a manual. Was there one under the table? Little did I know that I was expected to…talk. And talk. Certainly not my area of expertise. The date was on the short side (I know it was, because when we left the hotel, contestant number three was still waiting for her date). The next morning, I was more than a little surprised when my rebbe quietly remarked, “The date was how long?” But I must have done something right, because she agreed to go out again. Then the floor completely fell through. My rebbe informed me of certain information which might effect this shidduch, and advised me not to continue. I had no problem with that, but then I stupidly (!) passed this on to the shadchan, and somehow it got back to the girl who traced the information to its original source. I still remember the dreadful conversation with that rebbe, who was understandably livid, to say the least, and hinted that I should find someone else to consult with. I was devastated. (Not to mention disgusted over the pain I must have caused the girl.) And now I was totally alone. This was my introduction to the world of shidduchim.

After a break, I did start dating again, but every date was so exhausting, and keeping the conversation going was worse than heavy manual labor. Things would inevitable fizzle out. I also had nobody to talk to in the yeshiva. In addition, it was very hard for me to say the word “No” to a shadchan. It was all quite confusing. Soon after, I made a decision to return to America, and entered a yeshiva in Brooklyn, far from my hometown. My issues with shidduchim followed me there, and to make matters worse, I actually had to call the girl before we went out! There were guys who told me that they spent four or five hours on the phone with a girl, and I couldn’t imagine how this was possible. (I once spent two hours on the phone, but that was when my insurance company put me on hold.) And then, after an actual date, I had to make the decision, of course, by myself.

Another problem which came up is that I began to develop stereotypes. Even though looking back, I feel that every girl that I dated, without exception, was a special person, I really did not feel that a Brooklyn FFB girl would be able to understand me at all. For whatever unfortunate reason this came about, I really did not want to pursue such a shidduch, but again, I found it too hard to say “No”. (It would be a great punch line to say that my wife is from Brooklyn. She’s not. Sorry.) Overall, my career in shiddichum lasted for six long years. Luckily, I never became depressed or despaired, although I couldn’t figure out how guys became engaged. It was like a huge mountain. When I did finally become engaged, I saw that the whole process entailed enormous siyata d’shmaya, and I guessed that up in Heaven, they were tired of watching me go through this.) The first few dates were quite a lot of work for me, but I just kept plowing through. On my last date, we were driving through my hometown, and she casually remarked, “If you’re waiting for me, I’m ready.” I grasped the steering wheel. It was the closest I ever came in my driving career to hitting a tree. We’re now married with six children.

Everyone knows that the biggest rule in shidduchim (besides serious davening) is that one must have someone with whom to consult. In BT yeshivas, a guy is fortunate if he makes that vital connection with a rebbe with whom he feels comfortable. If the guy feels the rebbe understands him, then he’ll take the leap of trust in the rebbe’s judgment, even if it seems that he personally would do the opposite of what the rebbe says. People do make mistakes, but a guy must trust someone, and as my Rosh HaYeshiva once said, one has siyata d’shmaya when he listens to his rebbe. But not everyone is so lucky, especially guys like me. Sometimes it’s not easy for us too search out the help we need. We find the same occurs in school age kids. Many times, a rebbe might not concern himself with a student because it seems like he’s doing just fine…he never complains, he does everything right, and he sits so quietly in class. How many students have fallen through the cracks because in reality, they were not doing just fine, and could’ve have really used some attention? Many are just ashamed to ask. Guys in a BT yeshiva are like school age kids. They’re in a somewhat new environment, and are learning just like the school age kids. And they all need attention, especially when it comes to shidduchim.

The yeshiva must make sure every guy has appointed to him a mentor or a rebbe when he begins to date. Every guy must be accounted for, everyday of his yeshiva years. (There must also be a service provided through an organization for single guys who are not in yeshiva, or living on their own). Sometimes you have one rebbe whose job is too deal with shidduchim, and guys need to make appointments to speak with him. But that’s very hard, because after a date, a guy needs someone to speak with NOW. Having hanging indecision for a lengthy period can also be detrimental.

The fact is that practically, there aren’t too many solutions to this problem. But I think that everyone who is employed a BT yeshiva should, before he goes to work, sit on the floor with his legs crossed and eyes closed (like the Jews in India before they discover Jerusalem and yiddishkeit) and repeat over and over, “He has no family, he has no support, he is alone.” Or can they can just repeat this mantra in their heads while surveying the beis midrash and finding at random a guy to shmooze with about his life. Even if the guy seems he’s doing just fine. BT yeshivas are filled with rabbeim who understand human nature and can guide others according to the Torah, and everyone should have strong connection with one.

As we watch our families grow, may we always merit the proper guidance and may we only share simchas together.

Originally Posted July 2009

Back to School: Rosh Hoshana’s Coming!

There’s a famous segulah from the sefer Nefesh HaChaim that one who is in danger should intensely concentrate on the pusuk “Ein Od Milvado”. If he does this and thereby thinks, without interruption, how Ha-Shem controls every situation, he will merit help from above. (There’s an equally famous story with the Brisker Rav about this.) Similarly, says Rav Mattisyahu Solomon, there is a segulah of having a favorable judgement for the year if we intensely concentrate on the psukim of Malchius (Kingship) in the Rosh HaShana mussaf tefillah. This is our way of expressing our belief that Ha-Shem is King and everything happens only because of Him. But we really need to concentrate, without our worries interrupting us, and Ha-Shem judges us that day to what extent we can do this.

It’s quite hard. How do you concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds? Even in the middle of learning and davening, thoughts pop in and out of our heads about this worry and that situation, and we try to catch ourselves, sometimes without success.

Our job in Elul, says the Lakewood Mashgiach, is to practice. The studying is now, and the exam is on Rosh HaShana. Whenever we have the opportunity (which is really most of the day), stop and think about how Ha-Shem is running everything. When we bentch, when we are writing out checks, while at the doctor. And, of course, when interacting with others.

The school year has begun, and the load of stress which comes with it. Children wake up late, don’t do their homework, perhaps they don’t know what their assignment is. They are exhausted at the end of the long day, and throw their bags somewhere, and just want something to eat, or maybe just run out to play. Sometimes we lack patience with them, and raise our voices. Perhaps the teacher seems unfair, or loads them up with homework (which means YOUR homework), and why didn’t she tell me before that my kid was having problems? And we lose whatever patience remained.

But Ha-Shem runs the world. It’s time to practice, and this is the function of Elul. Let’s try, for at least two seconds a day, to be more patient, not raise our voices, judge favorably (all in two seconds?) and think that Ha-Shem is the King. If we do this often enough, when we get to the test on Rosh Hashana, we can merit a good judgement for ourselves and our families.

Originally Published on Sept 26, 2011

Can’t You See the Truth?!

In order to fulfull undergrad credit requirements, I once took a course in classical music, and was bored out of my mind. As announced in the beginning, our final exam would be to identify the composer from records which had been played throughout the term. In the end, I was still bored, but at least I aced the exam. (I cheated. As the class progressed, I noticed the color of each record label and and wrote down the corresponding artist.) To this day, I still moan about 18th century Top 40. However, there are certain Mozart violin concertos and Bach piano pieces which touch me in a way that I won’t leave my car until they’re over. Go figure.

I also refuse to step foot in an art museum. What is everyone “Oooh”ing and “Aahhh”ing about? Yet, a Monet scenery painting in a dentists office will make me pause. Quite nice. Would others of different tastes say to me, “How can you not like Beethoven’s Fourth” or “Modern art is so cool, don’t you see it?” It’s never happened so far, because we understand that each person is hard-wired differently.

Even though some “proofs” of Torah are presented on an intellectual level, we’re still partly emotional beings, and to a nonreligious person, not everything will click, no matter how logical it sounds. I once heard Rabbi Orlofsky discuss evolution, and he mentioned that even if you present the odds of a Big Bang making an orderly universe (say, one in megaquadgoogolmillion), a listener might still shrug his shoulders and remark, “So, it happened.” End of “proof”. Ok, so this didn’t go. If you continue to argue the point, maybe something will happen, or maybe not. This isn’t what hits the person. Just move on.

Some aren’t swayed much by the mesorah arguement, for example. My great(x100) grandpop was at Har Sinai? And there’s an unbroken chain? I didn’t find it in the archives (yawn). G-d revealed His rules to everyone and not just one person? Do the other religions know this? Why aren’t they converting? There’s something strange here, thinks the red-faced kiruv rabbi, it’s just not clicking with this guy. Because you haven’t found the spark inside. But there is one.

My personal “proof” of Torah is that in my mind, it is impossible for a set of man-made laws which could produce a Chofetz Chaim, or a Moshe Feinstein. It would never make demands which are detailed in the laws of loshon hara, or say that we need forgiveness from the lowest person in society if we accidentally step on him. Now, if I present this to someone else, he might shrug his shoulders and say, “Yes, it could.” End of “proof”. Howver for me, this “proof” hit me like a Mozart concerto, or a Monet painting. My spark was hit, and all of the other proofs would later be strong supports to what originally got me on track. The idea that I could point to someone and say, I truly believe that G-d wanted us to live life like that (and how did he get there?) really got me rolling.

Organizations such a Partners in Torah are so successful, because when you are learning with someone, the nonfrum person can digress and ask questions about what’s really bothering his neshama. In that way, they find the spark which begins the growth process.

If the intellectual proofs don’t always do it, try to get to know a person first…see what makes him tick. So…what worked for you?

BT Martyrdom: There’s Really A Name For It!

My personal life calendar operates around the great upheaval through my discovery of Yiddishkeit. If that is “year 1”, then 10BC (Before Change) was my Bar Mitzvah, and 5AD (After Discovery) was when I got married. This being the case, there were other notable events which had far reaching consequences as well. And, like they say, timing is everything.

In 2BC, my father was remarried, this time to a non-Jewish woman. I secretly would have preferred that he marry the Jewish woman he had been dating a few years back, but, alas, he decided this wasn’t to be. (She was quite upset, I happen to know.) Nevertheless, he’s my dad, so I celebrated with him in the Hall on the lake, and I wondered what was going through my grandmother’s mind as her siblings paraded around her. Perhaps it made no difference, since her husband, my grandfather, had done the same thing.

In 1BC, my brother, faithful to the ways of his avos, became engaged to a non-Jewish woman as well. A very nice lady, she was, and I congratulated him on his choice and wished him the best. However, as he was making his plans, my life went on, and the wedding wouldn’t be until 2AD.

In 1AD, my brother announced he was to be wed in a church (they liked the stained-glass windows, they said). Already I had a bad feeling about this, since in 8BC, I attended a cousin’s wedding in a church, and felt quite nauseous while sitting in there. (Perhaps it was that statue on the wall accusingly staring at me.) But now, more than ever, I was quite troubled. When I asked our local posuk about going into a church, he answered that he would think that if an Arab is chasing me with a knife it might be permissible, but probably not. The strong language was so I would get the picture.

In 2AD, life was so confusing. Despite knowing the direction I wanted to go, I still had so much to sort out. Did I really care if my brother married someone not Jewish? Really really? None of the terutzim regarding intermarriage sat well with me at that early stage, but I had to chose a derech…and stick with it. I understood what the rabbis say, and felt they were right, but what about my family?

I told my brother I wasn’t going. He thought I was joking…I wouldn’t be best man at his wedding?? I’ll skip the blood and gore…it was awful. Devastation doesn’t even come close. My father’s blood pressure became a steady 400/200. It was actually a relief when he stopped talking to me (although perhaps five years was overdoing it a bit.) My mother did understand to some extent, but cried anyway. And now, in 20AD, my brother still hasn’t said a word to me, despite numerous attempts to reach out.

My extended family was horrified. I could not help but think that this was some sort of chillul H-Shem, despite the rabbis telling me it was the opposite. But how could that be? What does my family think about orthodox Jews now? They’re not exactly running to their local kiruv center. How could I have answered my father’s main objection: “You danced at my wedding, didn’t you?! What happened since then?” See? Timing is everything.

I was alone. I just threw my family over a bridge. Goodbye family. And did the rabbis understand? I wondered. So there I was at 2AD, thousands of miles away and nothing to say. Looking back, I know that not going was the right thing. I bet, though, that it could’ve and should’ve been handled much differently, but that’s in the past. But what I didn’t know is that my whole experience had a name!

Just Another Link in the Chain: Genealogy Anyone?

“If we’re lost, then this is a strange place to be asking for directions,” remarked my date nervously, as we drove up the long entrance of Mt. Judah Memorial Park.

“Well, no, we’re not lost. We’re actually here,” I slowly answered. Long pause.

“Here? Here where?” she whispered. I just stared ahead. “You’re taking me on a date to a cemetery?

“I…er…thought you would want to meet some of my family. Don’t worry,” I added with a grin, “it’s not a commitment.” I saw the joke was going flat.

I tried to explain to her how I was interested in knowing about my roots, and how I had finally discovered where my great grandfather was buried. “And since we’re in the neighborhood anyway (I really hope there’s a mini-golf course around here somewhere), I thought I could just pop in and get more information.” My words trailed off, as I saw the adventure of it was lost on her.

“Well,” she finally said,” At least you could’ve warned me.”

All of my grandparents were born in America, and none of my immigrant great grandparents were religious at all. In fact, I don’t even know where religious observance ended on any sides of my family. When I was younger, it certainly never occurred to me to ask questions, and when I became older, it was too late. Even though my grandmother lived into her 90s, she didn’t recall much, and remarked about her own parents, “They just never spoke about their families.” After I became frum, I decided to learn more about my elusive background, especially about my father’s side. But it wasn’t easy. Information came slowly, and crossing the ocean to know what happened in the old country was almost impossible.

As the years went by, I picked up names like Shloims, and Beinish and Feivel, and I learned we came from a chassidish town in Galicia. I learned to utilize online sources like and, and I discovered you could even use completely for free if your local library has its own subscription. For a few bucks I was able to obtain my great grandfather’s naturalization records from a certain county court, which told me how he came to America (finally). On the ships manifests, you can see who they left behind, which sometimes adds more names. But included in this is much time and frustration.

To me personally, it makes a difference. I know I’m a link in some unbroken chain, but it means something to me to actually be able to trace back to anyone who was shomer Torah u’mitzvos like myself. Not everyone feels this way, and I myself go through stages when I just drop the idea of finding ancestors, and think, I’ll meet them all after I’m 120 anyway.” And I have my own children with whom the chain will continue, and I hear the side to say that the chain will continue with them, and don’t worry about the past. But deep down, I would like to know. Are there baalei tschuva who have just more than simple curiosity of knowing also? It’s a feeling that so many can’t really relate to. Little by little I still hope to chip away at it, and one day pass down to my own sons information about their illustrious background.

“Tell me it’s not true,” begged the shadchan over the phone the next day. “Please.”

“I figured she was bored with hotels,” I said. “The scenery was nice.”

She sighed. “Let me suggest something. The next time you wish to take a girl somewhere…uh…different, try maybe an amusement park, or a boat ride. Much less morbid, you see?” Click. I never heard from her again.

The Road to Spirituality: Keep That Head Bowed

Although most of my fellow students in high school were in fact Jewish,only a handful attended the local synagogue, and almost always for social reasons. Some learned the art of feeling guilty from at least one of their parents, and donned the yarmulke inside the solemn sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Really, they couldn’t wait until it was over, but at least they were yotzei. I wasn’t one of them…my parents never went either.

The word “spirituality” was a corny word, and either conjured up images of shaved heads, flowers and tamborines, or gurus on mountaintops (like the ones in Ziggy cartoons, if you’ve ever seen.) Sometimes it evoked pictures of insanely angry preachers who seemed to be attempting to create their own violent thunderstorms at the pulpit, despite the weather being quite nice outside. And once I even thought about the dalai lahma, and wondered if he ever felt he was too old for this stuff.

After I became frum, I realized that spirituality doesn’t just turn on like a switch. There’s no program, and “dveikus” seemed to be a bit subjective. Would I ever experience it? What was it? One day, I came to the realization of what spirituality means to me.

I was at a bris, and I was listening to the new father trying to tie a complicated vort about the parsha into the subject of bris milah. He had his work cut out for him. In the end, it seemed a bit forced, but after, he concluded by showing how we always need to thank the A-Mighty for what we have. I was thinking about his speech, and realized something amazing: Almost every shmooze, vort, speech, words of chizuk etc. which I have ever heard, no matter what the subject, no matter how lumdish or simple, has always included something about thanking H-Shem for something, in some form or another! It’s interesting that even after listening to so many Rav Miller tapes that it took so long to really click. Spirituality and dveikus is about sincerely coming to the realization that every single thing that we possess is a chesed from Above.

It sounds corny until you start feeling it. (Yeah, count your blessings, blah blah….) This is why sprituality is so, so hard to achieve…because by nature, humans don’t like to thank or feel indebted to others. We hate to admit that it wasn’t me who landed the million dollar deal, or dunked the full court shot, or made a friend out of someone I admired. And we take everything for granted, of course. We are warned about this in the Torah a few times, because it’s something we’re meant to work on our whole lifetime. So I decided to work on this everyday.

The best advice I ever heard which changed my life significantly, was to thank H-Shem in the bracha of Modim for two very specific things for which I should thankful, and try to make it different every day. It’s really hard, but with practice, and by forcing myself to think of two, it gets easier, and it changed me. It could be from any aspect of life: Thanks for making my son’s doctor appt. end up well, thanks for the new suit, thanks for not letting me trip on the ice on the way to shul, thanks for the cop pulling me over at 11PM when it was dark so that nobody could see me, thanks for letting me be inspired by the divrei Torah at the speech last night. (Here’s where Rav Miller’s tapes come in, for every idea including working toilets to steps,to level pavements etc.etc(!) And thanks for letting me be part of Am Yisroel, a nation full of special people, including a shopkeeper who enters his competitor’s empty store, answers his phone and takes an order so that “my brother shouldn’t lose out.”, and a fifth grader who won’t announce where he went on Chol HaMoed so that his classmate, who couldn’t afford to go anywhere, doesn’t feel bad, and a Bar Mitzvah bachur who lains in a terrible voice on purpose so not to embarrass his friend who really does have a bad voice. So spirituality is subjective, especially when it comes to thanking for the extremely challenging stuff, each person on his own level and time frame, because it does take time.

The greatest expression of thanks is completely bowing down, but we can’t do that today, at least on a regualr basis. But there’s twice a year that we can, and this is personally when I feel my most intense deveikus. During mussaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we get to fall on a paper towel (or a real towel if you remember it from home). I don’t say the correct nusach, though. Instead, I budget my very short time and think about the biggest things for which I can thank. I wait for this the whole year.After the final bowing, I’m almost sad, but I try to remember the experience when I bow my head at Modim during the rest of the year. It’s humbling, as it should be, but it’s wonderful. It helps me in ahavas H-Shem, it drives me to do mitzvas, to work on my pathetic middos, and to sweat over a difficult gemorrah or contradictory Rambam (but not for long, so I still have a ways to go.)

This is what spirituality means to me, and no matter how many setbacks I have, at least I truly believe I’m heading in the right direction.