Parents Cannot Be Their Childrens’ Friends

In the good old days children were expected to be seen and not heard. The rules of childhood were clearly defined. They were taught to have good manners, follow parental instructions, and to never give lip to adults. Blind obedience was demanded and, punishments were often swift, corporal, and harsh. When a child became old enough it was expected that he or she help out in the house, the shop, or the fields, whatever the case may be. Yeshiva boys were often exempt from such labour but, they had little idle time to neglect the rigors of Torah learning. Marriages were often arranged by parents while the children were still adolescents giving the prospective choson and kallah little choice over the matter. How times have changed!

Our ancestors of yesteryear would be quite shocked to see how we raise and educate our children nowadays. The modern day approach seems the complete opposite of what it once was. After several decades of expanding our knowledge of child psychology, modern society has developed a much more nuanced view of children. They are no longer seen in black and white terms as miniature adults that need to be tamed through discipline. Today parents are told that each child is a unique individual with their own personality traits, desires, moods, talents, and special potential that the parents and teachers must respect and cultivate. While child rearing trends seem to come and go every few years, our modern view of the child is that he or she is an independent person in their own right with needs and wants that we have to recognise. Therefore, children are often given the freedom to make their own choices and to express their own opinions, and often in many cases, even outright child rebellion is seen as healthy.

Torah teachings are eternal, hence these are never subject to any shift in psychological theories or new discoveries. The famous teaching of ‘Al pi darko’, was Shlomo HaMelech’s ingenious pedagogical teaching of “educate a child according to their ways.” Each child’s chinuch should be accommodated to meet their particular needs. Our ancestors surely knew of and followed ‘al pi darko’, but they did so within their view of the child resulting in much more rigid and more clearly delineated parameters. The issue that arises these days is one of going to extremes. How far do we go to teach a child according to their needs? How far do we go to cater to each child’s wants and to allow them their own choices and freedom of expression until we go too far and wind up with a child that is chutzpahdik, undisciplined, or off the rails completely?

It is surely harmless and might even be healthy for a little girl to choose whether or not she wears her pink skirt or her blue one for Shabbes. Nothing will go awry if a boy is asked what parts of Torah he enjoys learning the most and allowed to focus on that. Indeed children should not be treated like little robots without their own emotions and minds. The old way had its advantages in that it created much more obedient children and less rebelliousness. However, one can be safe to surmise there was also quite a bit of repression and, even covert abuse in their methodology, albeit unintentional, as the parents were products of their day, as we are also products of ours.

Yet, the question remains, how much choice and freedom is too much? Should a child also be given the freedom to decide if she wants to watch a video a little bit longer than allowed? Or should a child be given the freedom to eat that cake right before dinner? Most parents would say of course not, as they are reasonable people, and there must be rules. It is understood that children must be given structure, limits, and discipline. We won’t allow them to skip bruchas, refrain from washing negal vasser, or to eat treifes, chas v’shalom. There are limits.

However, life gets busy and stressful. After all, there are kitchens to clean, bills to pay, and errands to run. If little Mendy or Chani is whining, pestering, making demands, or miserable, maybe we can feel pressured and feel like we are being a bad parent. Aren’t they also individual human beings with their own wants and needs? Maybe it’s harsh or cruel to deny them their freedom of expression? Modern child psychology is there to justify just giving in to their will. We could tell ourselves we are not being too lax but, we are respecting our child’s personhood. Where to draw the line between being overly permissive and respecting the child’s individuality becomes muddled and unclear. When this happens we could run the risk of ceasing to function as our child’s parent. Now we have become our child’s friend and this is dangerous territory.

A child needs their parent to be their parent and not their friend. A parent who functions as a friend is denying that child a functioning parent. A parent who cowers, shows anxiety, and gives in to their child’s unreasonable demands when their child tells them “I hate you!” has reneged on their parental responsibility. A parent who allows their child to run wild and to be ill- mannered may convince themselves that they are being a good parent by giving their child freedom to express themselves, but is actually doing that child a great disservice. A parent who asks their child their opinions about important family matters, or about whether they should be punished, or allows their child to berate authority figures or other adults, has put their child on equal footing with them as an adult. When parents do all this, how can we expect children to be respectful?

Much good has come from the modern child psychology. Nevertheless, as with anything in life, the path of moderation is the wisest one. Moderation can be defined differently for each person. Thank G-d we have a Torah and wise Jews we can turn to for guidance.

Musings of a BT Baby Boomer Bubbie

Baby boomers were never supposed to get older. We see ourselves as eternally youthful. The boomers are the generation that came into its own along with rise of the youth culture. In fact, it could be said that we invented the youth culture. Ours is a generation in complete denial about aging. The declarative slogans “fifty is the new thirty” or “sixty is the new forty” are nothing but wishful thinking, and futile protestations against the reality of time marching on.

Frum women have a definite advantage in this struggle against the aging process because we wear lovely wigs that cover some of the signs of aging beneath. Thick, lustrous, shiny sheitel hair that is almost always in place can serve to camouflage the grey. No hair dyes that leave grey roots for us! None of that thinning or brittle hair that older women pay hairdressers vast sums to transform into their youthful vitality! The sheitel can almost always guarantee that a baby boomer bubbie can subtract at least one decade off her age, at least in public. No better compliment can be paid to a baby boomer bubbie than, “You look too young to be a grandmother!”

Becoming a grandparent is a unique life transition in that one need not be involved personally for it to happen. Unlike becoming a spouse or a parent becoming a grandparent is a passive process. It just happens to a person without any biological changes or life decisions on their part. When my first grandchild was born I was working in an office. There were about one hundred and fifty people on the floor and only two of them were Jewish. It was a typical work day when I got the call about her birth. I was so excited that I could not contain my joy, so I jumped up out of my seat and shouted, “I’m a grandmother!” It took only a couple of minutes for everyone in the entire office to hear the news, and one hundred and fifty people gave me a standing ovation! They were all truly happy for me and there was a festive feeling in the office for a couple of days with people offering me their congratulations.

It struck me how many people commented on how I was such a young grandmother. This highlighted for me the decline of family values in society at large. Many people these days are putting off reproducing until later in life. Most of my co-workers did not know anyone in their life who were becoming grandparents at my relatively young age. Some older people expressed their sadness that their grown children may not ever give them any grandchildren, or if they do it will be in many years to come. This all made me feel so much more grateful to Hashem, not only for the birth of my grandchild and the youthful camouflage of the sheitel, but also for helping me to be on the path that brought me to this point in life that so many in our society may never reach.

Becoming a grandparent for the first time is always an exhilarating experience filled with much joy, but for the BT baby boomer bubbie, it comes with some extra meaning and poignancy. I am one of the miraculous accomplishments of the Rebbe’s grand mission against assimilation. This is not due to any great accomplishments of my own, but rather it is due to the multigenerational trend towards assimilation that was reversed with me. Through the Rebbe’s message and the shluchim he sent out, an ordinary young Jewish woman, namely me, from a completely assimilated Jewish family, started to take on Torah and mitzvos over thirty years ago. This young woman was the fortunate and blessed beneficiary of the toil and dedication of a multitude of the Rebbe’s Chassidim who dedicate themselves to spreading Yiddishkite. I took it seriously enough to establish a Jewish home based on Torah, the first of such a home in my family tree in at least four generations. The tide of my family’s assimilationist trajectory turned. Nevertheless, once that occurs, there must be continuity into the future generations, lest, G-d forbid, it all reverts to the assimilationist trend.

As Chassidus teaches, we elevate the mundane of this world into holiness. A grandparent taking their grandchildren to the park or the supermarket may appear to be a very mundane activity. However, for this BT baby boomer bubbie these everyday activities are wrought with messages that remind me of the hand of G-d and of the blessings of the Rebbe. Seemingly simple ordinary things like my little granddaughter’s growing understanding that we only purchase kosher foods when we go to the store, or her utterance of the words ‘Baruch Hashem’, are reminders to me that this family tree almost never made it out of the trend of assimilation if not for the Rebbe and his shluchim.

Reversing the trend of assimilation is a long arduous struggle and we can never rest on our laurels, become complacent, or take anything for granted, as it could always G-d forbid reverse itself. Grandchildren being raised with Torah and mitzvos who come from a reversed assimilated family tree are a living sign of the Rebbe’s victory against assimilation and of the coming Redemption, may it be speedily in our days.

How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love Yom Tov

Making Yom Tov requires a Jewish woman to be a frugal shopper, an adequate cook, an event planner, an astute student of Jewish law, and a gracious hostess. She needs to be all this while still being a wife, a mother, or often a career woman too. In short, making Yom Tov is an endeavor that requires a Project Manager. Being the balaboostah is not a simple task, as she must oversee all aspects of the project from start to finish. Over 20 odd years of running my own kosher kitchen in our Torah observant household, I have learned through repeated failures and successes how to stop complaining and love Yom Tov. Here are ten of my tips:

1. Always prepare well in advance.
Like any big project, making Yom Tov requires a schedule. Give yourself ample time, weeks or months if necessary, to do all the planning, shopping, cooking and freezing. Inviting guests is often best done at least a few weeks ahead of time, lest you find yourself disappointed that people have made other plans. It helps to know as soon as possible exactly how many people you are catering for. This way you know what quantities of food to buy, and you also have time to search for bargains. Then you can measure out your freezer, because unless you have a separate freezer for Yom Tov, (which some lucky women do) you will still be using it for everyday food storage. You need to know there will be room to store all the Yom Tov food, before and after it is cooked. I like to work out what to purchase and cook by dividing it into the number of servings for each meal. If I know that I will be serving 45 portions over the entire two days of a Yom Tov, then I know I need 45 portions of soup, 45 portions of fish, 45 portions of desert, and so on and so forth.

Then I cook in short cooking sessions over the course of days or weeks. To do a long cooking marathon into the wee hours of the morning leaves me too exhausted to go to work the next day. Instead, I grab an hour or two here and there, in the early evenings and on Sundays, to cook a tray of fish balls, or a tray of chicken, to bake a cake, or to make a kugel or two, etc. Then I pop them into the freezer with labels taped on the containers to keep track. Following this method ensures that by the time Yom Tov comes around I am relaxed and ready without panicking or having endured undue loss of sleep.

2. Never try to keep up with the big Rebbetzins or the Goldsteins.
Yom Tov became much more enjoyable for me when I stopped comparing mine to other women’s Yom Tov tables. I used to drive myself crazy by feeling inadequate when my table wasn’t as fancy or my food not as elaborate as the big Rebbetzins or the Goldsteins next door. It took me a while, but soon enough I realised that it was all so self-defeating. Just as no matter who you are, there is always going to be someone smarter, richer, or better looking than you, there will always be those women whose Yom Tov making is more efficient, more beautiful, and more tasty than yours too. Some women have more talent and an eye for aesthetics or cooking. Some women grew up with better Yom Tov making training than others, so they have an advantage. So what? At the end of the day, only Hashem knows your particular circumstances. And your circumstances includes things like your inborn talent, the amount of money you can spend, the amount of time you have, the amount of energy G-d gave you, your family situation (5 little kids under the age of ten is challenging for anyone), and the type of lifestyle you live. No one else can or should judge you. Remember, the only one you really need to impress is the Almighty. Only He really knows if you extended enough effort to honor the Yom Tov, and that is between you and G-d.

3. I make sure I cook what my family likes.
The most important people you have to satisfy is your own family. No sense of copying a great fancy recipe just because it looks great in the latest trendy kosher cookbook, or because your friends loved it, if your own family doesn’t like it. It’s your home, it’s your Yom Tov table, and your most special guests are your own family. Keep them happy first and foremost, and then your guests will also enjoy your meal all the more. If your husband likes plain instead of fancy, then make plain. You can prepare an extra dish or two just for the guests, but be sure the bulk of the meal satisfies your family. Remember, your guests will leave after the meal, but your family lives with you. Believe me, a family with happily filled tummies makes for more a much more pleasant Yom Tov and more shalom in the home.

4. Use paper goods.
Yes, I know you invested in fantastic crockery and cutlery, or maybe you have that special set handed down to your from your grandmother. So use them, for at least part of the Yom Tov if you must, but paper goods will save you so much extra cleaning time. After Yom Tov you will appreciate doing only two loads of dishes in the dishwasher instead of ten. And its less pile up in your sink and on your benches during Yom Tov too. Paper goods need not be expensive to be pretty and practical. I absolutely love popping them all in the rubbish bag after the meal, it’s a machayah!

5. Turn on Torah tapes or inspiring Jewish music while working.
Preparation time can be long, mundane, and mind numbing. You can utilize that time by making it inspiring. Not only are there heaps of Torah leaning tapes you can borrow or buy, but the internet has dozens of Torah websites that have unbelievably good Torah classes on audio. Listen while chopping, kneading, mixing, scrubbing, and polishing. Not only will you stimulate your mind, you’ll have some words of Torah to give over at the table, and the holy vibes of the Torah learning will get absorbed into your food making it all that more tasty.

6. Be inner directed.
Don’t look for compliments or appreciation from hubby, kids or guests. If you get it, then great, but don’t be needy of it. Get your head straight as to the purpose of making Yom Tov and, that is to strengthen your connection to G-d and to create holiness, to sanctify your home, and to do the mitzvah. Not everyone in your life will always understand how hard you worked, especially kids, and some guests, so get over it!

7. Go to shule only after I am rested.
I love going to shule, but not if I haven’t got the attention span or the energy. It’s better to get bit of rest or quiet time sometimes on Yom Tov mornings, even if it means missing a Kaddish or two. So what? We’re not men, we are not obligated to be there, we can daven just as well at home most of the time. It’s just nice if we can go and only if we enjoy it. And why drag your kids along if they won’t behave, or if you spend the whole time chasing them, or shushing them to be quiet?

8. Go to a Torah class or gathering if there are any.
No matter how tired I get on Yom tov afternoons, if there is a Torah class, or a frabrengen, or any type of speaker or gathering, I try with all my strength to drag myself to go. I find that once I am there I am always happy I went. After all that cooking serving, hostessing, etc., it’s great to have some social interaction with other women and it can charge your batteries up even better than a short sleep.

9. Indulge yourself and buy at least one nice new thing.
Get something nice for yourself for Yom Tov, whatever you can afford. If not an entire outfit, it may be a piece of costume jewelllery, or shoes, or get a facial, a manicure, or get the sheitel done. Whatever it is that makes you feel more feminine, more princess like, more pampered, do it, and do not feel guilty. The Torah agrees that we women need these little perks.

10. Endorse yourself for a job well done!
When it is finally all over and done with, when you have finally put that last dish away in its place in the cupboard, take a deep sigh and pat yourself on the back. You did it again!

Also posted on Shoshanna’s blog.
Originally Posted on 10/27/2010

Bob Dylan and Me

A True Story

St. Paul Minnesota is not a popular tourist attraction in winter, but there I was in December 1984, wandering around the lobby of Bais Chana. Perched atop a hill, in a monastic looking building situated amongst large sprawling suburban homes, would be the place where I would confront myself as a Jewess for the first time.

The Lubavitcher shluchim at StonyBrook University where I had been a student hadn’t told me too much about the place except, that there was a certain Rabbi Manis Friedman there who specialized in answering questions for girls like me, whatever that meant.

Feeling lost and aimless, I tentatively stood in the empty lobby. It seemed that I had been one of the first to arrive for that winter session, and the place was not yet as packed as if would get later on. Few people were around and all was silent.

Then suddenly I saw a figure appear at the front door and I gasped. It couldn’t be real, but it was. Right in front of my eyes stood none other than Bob Dylan. At the time I didn’t know that this was during Bob Dylan’s Torah ‘stage’, and that he had been studying privately with Rabbi Friedman and was a regular visitor to Bais Chana during those years.

There Bob Dylan stood, right in front of me, in all his glory, wearing his signature faded jeans and black motorcycle jacket. “Hi,” he said to me softly, ‘How are you doin’?”

This was all a bit too much for me to take in. Here I was going to a place that I thought would be trying to teach me to go back into time, to become like my grandmother, and here was the king of all things hip and cool, a 1960’s prophet, the master of rebellion against the establishment, right there in front of me, in the flesh.

Despite feeling as if I had been just struck by lightening, I mustered up a meek,’ I’m fine.” Then Bob Dylan came over to me and gave me a gentle pat on my back and said, ’It’s cool, don’t worry, everything is cool. It’s gonna be alright.” And he walked away, through the hallway and disappeared as fast as he had come.

I immediately found a payphone and called my friend David.

‘Bob Dylan is here! And he talked to me”

‘Then that must be a cool place,’ David said, and he later followed me to Crown Heights. After all, if Bob Dylan was there, then David was right, this was a cool place, and I felt better about being there. In fact, I felt like I was in the right place at the right time, and at that moment, I decided that if one of my teen idols was studying there, then I would stick it out too.

Bob Dylan never stayed the course as far as Yiddishkeit goes, he travelled a very zig zagged road, in and out of a number or religions. In a strange way though, one could say that Bob Dylan brought me back, with just a few kind words, when I was facing a fork in the road, he showed me the correct path.

Originally Posted on March 13, 2006

Postcards to My Younger Self

Dear 11 year old Shoshanna,

Hashem made a strange and wonderful miracle! It’s hard to believe it but I am writing to you from your future. I want to let you know that you’re not abnormal to be searching for meaning in life. I know you feel different. I assure you that you’re not alone. One day you’ll meet people who’ll know exactly what you are looking for. I could tell you what you’re missing but it wouldn’t be good for you to find out before you’re ready. You may not be able to grasp this yet but you actually come from a very long line of truth seekers. Do not despair!

Kind Regards,
Future Shoshanna

Dear Future Shoshanna,

I don’t believe in miracles. This is like some science fiction story only it’s really happening, right?

It sure is a relief to hear I’m not the only one who asks these kinds of questions. I have no one to share my inner thoughts with. I sit up at night and think about how mommy died when I was only five years old. I wonder what happens to a person after they die, but there’s no one to talk to about this. Whenever I bring up the subject they say they don’t want to talk about it and tell me not to be so gloomy. Everyone tells me that I should concentrate on the things that girls my age should care about like clothes, parties, and passing my exams. I do care about those things too, but isn’t there something more to life? No one seems to know. Mommy comes to me in my dreams. Sometimes I feel like I may be going crazy because it is as if she is really in the room with me while I’m wide awake. It’s scary yet comforting at the same time. Why do people die young?

11 year old Shoshanna

Dear 14 year old Shoshanna,

This year you’re not going to complete the eighth grade of Temple Beth El’s religious school, nor will you go through with the confirmation ceremony. You’re going to quit before the end of the term. I’m giving you a warning that our stepmother and daddy will not be happy about this. They’re going to give you a very hard time. Then they’ll try to entice you to go ahead with it by promising you a new dress and a confirmation party. Nevertheless, you’ll stubbornly refuse to give in. You’ll stand on principle, displaying a trait that will persist into your adulthood. The entire family will protest but, in the end, you’re going to get your way. My advice to you is to be glad they’re going to give in to you so don’t rub their noses in it and just live and let live, please!

Kind Regards,
Future Shoshanna
Read more Postcards to My Younger Self

A Letter to My Brother – Explaining Some Lifestyle Choices

This is the email I sent to my secular brother because he keeps asking me questions about my 21 year old son’s future. We live in Australia and he lives in America where I am from originally. It can be very challenging for BT’s to explain their lifestyle choices to the secular relatives. Even after 27 years of my being frum my relatives find my choices hard to understand. The Beyond BT readers may find this email of interest:

Dear ( ),

I have been thinking about your email in which you asked me some questions about Shmuli’s future, will he marry an American, if so will he live there, and so on and so forth.

I am sure you would agree that in life one can never anticipate all the myriad of possibilities of what could happen. Almost any given situation has an almost incalculable number of outcomes that could occur. It is logical then to assume that it would be futile to think that one is in total control or can avoid an outcome that one cannot anticipate. Simply put, we mortal finite beings cannot predict the future.

When one lives a life of Torah and mitzvos one gets used to living with a certain outlook. Basic to this outlook is the idea of having full trust in Hashem who runs the world. We have to do our part in this material world. We cannot sit around waiting for money to pour in from heaven like manna and everyone would agree that would be ridiculous. On the other hand, we also show a lack of trust in Hashem if we panic over the future, If we get worried and lose sleep over an unpaid bill or start to worry about what could happen in 2, 3, or 5 years from now. A Jew with trust and faith in Gd knows that at the end of the day we are not in control. If we did what we had to do, we worked at a job or a business for instance, we did the physical things necessary for something to happen, then we step back and let G-d do His job. Nothing can be granted us without Hashem’s bruchas. Our Torah learning and mitzvos make a vessel for Hashem’s bruchas.

So I cannot tell you the answer to your questions except for the following:
Shmuli is a young Lubavitcher scholar who is going to follow the Rebbe’s directives in all things in his llfe. The Rebbe wanted the young scholars to sit and learn Torah full time (after they receive their Rabbinic ordination) and look for a match at the same time. So that is what Shmuli is going to do in NY at 770 where he will learn Torah full time and G-d wiling prepare himself and work to finding his match. Then after marriage, as the Rebbe instructed, he will spend the first year learning Torah full time in Colel (yeshiva for married young men). After that he will start worrying about making a living. At that point all options are open to him: business, Rabbinics, shlichas (outreach), getting professional training, he wil decide after completing Colel.

We pray that with G-d’s help he will be successful, and if G-d forbid Moshiach should tarry, that he will find his match easily and quickly.

Shoshana was one of our original Beyond BT contributors and we want to thank her for thinking about the Beyond BT readership and sending us this email to post.

What’s Kosher, Mate?

Melbourne, Australia is not New York City. This may seem to be stating the obvious, but, shortly after moving here from Brooklyn I would discover in a myriad of ways just how this was so. For instance, say the words ‘shlep’ or ‘shmatte’ or ‘shlamiel’ in mixed company in New York and everyone, even the Chinese, the Latinos, and the Afghanis, all know what you mean, more or less. Say those same words here in Melbourne, Australia and, they are met with curious raised eyebrows. “Is that Swedish?” they might say.

Not that Australians are not worldly, indeed they are. Most of the young people travel around the world before settling down, and Australians love being exposed to other cultures of all kinds. Diversity holds much charm here, being tucked away so far off in this remote corner of the planet. Australians often crave and seek out multicultural education and experiences. Mention a foreign food of any kind, a tradition, a religious practice, or an exotic art form, and most Australians show immediate interest, almost like curious children encountering something new and magical that sparks their imagination. There is a certain endearing naïveté that Australians have managed to maintain in their society that allows them to welcome foreign cultures with friendly ease. While there are narrow minded individuals here, as is so in any place, for the most part, this is an extremely tolerant and non-judgmentally accepting country.

Being a jaded somewhat hardened New Yorker when I arrived, I often misunderstood my new countrymen because I perceived them through my own cultural lenses. During my early days here thirteen years ago, I often misinterpreted the strange reactions I would get from Australians when I mentioned anything related to my Jewish practice. The curious glances I misinterpreted as intolerance. I wondered why they looked at me so funnily, as if maybe they thought I was a freak for being Jewish. It took me sometime to realize that their reaction to meeting me was not out of prejudice, but for many of these people, I was the first openly Jewish person they had ever encountered before. The simple direct questions they asked me I initially misinterpreted as ignorance. I wondered if they were mocking me. It took me quite some time to shake off my defensive New York style Jewish paranoia and pseudo-sophistication. What I discovered was that these Australians were actually wanting to know what my life was all about and what I represented.

Australia is a fantastic modern lovely country, but one cannot exactly describe Australian culture as very spiritual. This is a land where nature, sport, and the good easy life is treasured and enjoyed. This is called ‘The lucky country’, as most of us who live here cannot help but feel fortunate to be living in such a beautiful, bountiful, friendly, easy going, and laid back place. People work only hard enough here but, not too hard, and most are able to enjoy some of life’s frills without too much struggle. Melbourne is one of the friendliest cities in the world. In Melbourne, not only will people stop and give you directions with a nice smile when you ask them, but often they may even take you there. I often tell people I moved from the rudest and coldest city in the world to the friendliest. Nevertheless, Australians as a whole are not particularly religious or spiritual, and certainly not as religious as Americans. Australian culture is a bit like ancient Hellenism in which sport and the pleasures of the body and the material are paramount.

Working in the business world here is also very different from New York as it is extremely social. Australians expect everyone in the workplace to be good friends, or ‘mates’, as they call it, and that means going out together to restaurants and pubs. The emphasis put on the value of Australian ‘mateship’ cannot be overestimated. For Australians, often when they call you a ‘mate’, it is not just a word, they actually mean you are their friend. This mateship bond is sealed with a meal, or better yet, a drink of alcohol, specifically beer, their national drink of choice. After all, it’s the Aussie way, mate!

One can only imagine the difficulty in navigating one’s Torah observance in such a culture as compared to New York. I found myself having to turn down many invitations to many social occasions, and this did not go a long way to give me my mateship points. Frequently I was asked what I could eat, and why I couldn’t eat this, or that, or the other. At first I would give these questions short shrift. I just thought it would be too complicated to explain the intricacies of keeping kosher to these Aussie work mates of mine. I knew they often felt snubbed by me, but I was stuck in my brazen defensive New York posture and, it took some time to break that down and try a different approach.

After a while, because I can be a slow learner when it comes to social situations, it dawned on me that I had been approaching this all the wrong way. Instead of making myself aloof from my fellow countrymen, I would find ways to answer all their questions clearly and in a way that would satisfy their curiosity. So a typical conversation would often go something like this:

“What’s ‘ kosher ‘, mate?”

‘Did you ever read the Bible?” (typical Jew, answering a question with a question).

“Yeah, I went to church and Sunday school.”

‘Well, you heard of the Five Book of Moses?”

Now sometimes here they would tell me they either went to Catholic school, or they never read it, or they saw the movie with Charlton Heston, and that latter one usually got a good laugh. Whatever their answer, we now had some basis upon which we could define where I was coming from as a Jewish person.

“Moses gave the Jewish people a set of Laws from G-d to live by. These laws cover every aspect of a Jewish person’s life, how to sleep, how to pray, how to dress, and even how to eat.”

By this point in the conversation I have grabbed their interest. What really amazes me is that before when I would just say, ‘It’s my religion and it’s too complicated to explain it” they would look a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t tell them anything about it. But after I began to explain it clearly, every single time I would see their faces light up with real delight that I was actually taking the time to let them in on what we mysterious Jewish people were all about. And they appreciated it. Now is when I go into the short but comprehensive explanation of what keeping kosher means:

“ The laws of keeping kosher means that Jewish people are not allowed to eat meat with milk together, not allowed to eat any creepy crawlies, not allowed to eat any animal unless it has cloved hoofs and chews its cud and has been ritually slaughtered according to the law. Jews can also only eat fish that has fins and scales so that means no shell fish at all. Now, all of this becomes quite complicated in today’s modern world with food technology being the way it is, so we rely on a whole structure of chemists and Rabbis to help us and we can only eat the food that they certify for us. This means all things touching the foods, all utensils and vessels also have to be entirely dedicated to kosher.”

That entire explanation takes under half a minute. Sometimes they may ask me a bit more, but they don’t go into it too deeply because I gave them just enough information to satisfy their curiosity and to make them realize that is is so super complicated that they prefer not to delve any further. Often I get replies like this:

“No shrimp on the Barbie! That’s rough, mate”. A barbie is a bar-b-que and barbequed shrimp is an intrinsic part of the national cuisine. Not being able to partake in such an indulgence is enough to make most Australians pity me greatly. Or else they say something like, “ Oh, thanks so much for telling me all that. Now I understand why you can’t come out with us. It must be so hard…..does the Rabbi bless the food?…..etc” I see that they feel so glad that I had enough regard for them as a person to take the time and make the effort to actually demystify a small part of our elusive Jewish way of life.

Once I started to come up with short non-threatening, clear, and thorough answers to the questions my fellow Australians asked me, without being condescending or making them feel foolish, I felt I gained their respect, not only for me, but for all Jews.

Originally posted on the Repenting Jewess.

The Invisible Curtain

“I just can’t understand it!’ my father said as he shook his handsome round face back and forth in bewilderment. He was in his mid 50’s and his luxurious full head of hair had been transformed from jet lack to distinguished salt and pepper. “We sent you to Temple Emanuel Hebrew school every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday for years. ” He pointed his finger in the air to punctuate, ‘and you grew up to become religious!’ Dad sneered and shook his head in incredulity. ‘We tried to raise you right. I just don’t understand how this happened,’ he muttered as if defeated.

Even though I was sitting on in the living room couch of the large comfortable suburban family home I grew up in, I suddenly felt like an alien. Milling about were a dozen or so curious relatives peering at me as if I had grown horns.

‘I like the Lubavitchers,’ one of my aunts chimed in to defend me; ‘they gave us Chanukah candles last year with chocolate coins. That was sweet of them.”

‘I never dreamed that you of all people would become religious. Are you really religious? Come on! I remember you in high school!’ my younger sister could hardly contain her laughter.

‘Well, I think it’s wonderful that she found something that is meaningful for her.’ She spoke as if I weren’t in the room but at least I thought this cousin understood, until she added,’ after all, she was so mixed up and unhappy before, at least now she will do something with her life. I’m glad she found something that’s good for her.”

It was true that I had misspent my early 20’s drifting and wandering in and out of universities without direction, but why did she have to show me pity as if I were a hopeless nebach? None of them understood me.

How could I describe my spiritual epiphany? Could they ever imagine how it felt to discover the joys of Yiddishkite? Would I ever be able to explain that even though I missed the long lazy days at the beach club, my faded jeans, dancing in night clubs, and eating moo goo gai pan, that none of it could hold a candle to what if feels like when my neshoma soars. Suddenly I felt as if I spoke a different language from my family, was living in a different dimension in time and space than them.

“Uh, um….you should see the Rebbe, I mean he’s amazing, a genius…and keeping Shabbos is not a burden at all, in fact it is so relaxing…and I don’t really mind living in a dorm with only girls and not dating right now…..,” my voice sounded as if it was coming from someone else and as I looked at their blank faces I realized they were listening politely, almost condescendingly, without the slightest comprehension of what I had experienced.

That moment I experienced another realization. At that instant I knew an invisible curtain had fallen between me and the rest of my family. It was not an iron curtain of oppression, but impenetrable nonetheless, a result of my choosing to live a life on a different spiritual plane. We didn’t share any common language that could bridge the gap between their modernity and my traditionalism, between their values which were the ones I was raised with, and my new found values, as timeless as they may be. For my family, Torah values were new, foreign, strange and represented an unattractive lifestyle.

Knowing I would have to embark on my new journey without my family was made less daunting by my obsession with running after kedusha. For almost three years I pursued my singular goal of shedding the old and taking on the new. No sacrifice was too great, the materialism of this world become subsumed by my focus on Torah and mitzvos. Throw away my pants? No problem! Give up eating in non-kosher restaurants or my parents’ house! Easy! No more dating, TV, movies, theatre, secular novels, magazines, rock and roll, and even cigarettes. All of it was left behind on the heap of my past personal secular history, shed like a caterpillar sheds its skin to become a butterfly.

Admin’s note. Shoshanna from Melbourne, Austrailia was one of our earliest Beyond BT contributors and we want to wish her a big WELCOME BACK. You can read her earlier posts here.

Suppression of Jewish Women – a Matter of Perspective

Does traditional Judaism prevent women from being free human beings? Do the laws and customs suppress women, thus rendering them as inferior in status to men, thereby making them unable to enhance their Jewish identity, spirituality, and connection to Hashem? Is traditional halachic theology dogmatic and sexist?

The answer to all these questions is that it depends on one’s perspective. While traditional Judaism seemingly discriminates against women by excluding them from the Rabbinate, from making aliyahs, dancing with the sefer Torah, and from serving as judges in Batei Din, men are no more spiritually powerful than women by virtue of engaging in these public activities.
Read more Suppression of Jewish Women – a Matter of Perspective

Soul Sisters

Sociologically speaking in general terms, the life cycles of women who are born into traditional Orthodox society vary greatly from those women who became newly observant as adults. Women who are frum from birth were hardly touched by the feminist trends and changing mores of our modern world, as they are socialized in a clearly defined traditional female role reminiscent of an earlier era.

The newly observant women can be coming from almost any socioeconomic background and, she could have had any of a myriad number of life experiences. Most likely, if she is of university age or older by the time she entered the fold, she had had a semblance of independence that most frum from birth women could only imagine. Not that this is necessarily good or bad, as I am not making any value judgments—only observations.
Read more Soul Sisters

Living A Moral Life in an Immoral World

From a Torah viewpoint, contemporary secular society often adheres to immoral values and mores. Some common scenarios for today’s BT’s are the following:

A BT’s sibling gets engaged to a non-Jew. The entire family expects the BT to be happy for their sibling. The BT can either go along while their family members are rejoicing while keeping their disapproval silent, or run the risk of creating alienation and conflict with family members by stating their real feelings about intermarriage. Some of the non-observant relatives may accuse the BT of being intolerant or racist for being against intermarriage. They may even argue that the BT is standing in the way of their sibling’s happiness.
Read more Living A Moral Life in an Immoral World

The Unsung Victories of the Baal Teshuva

How would you describe colors to a blind person, or a piece of music to a deaf person? Close your eyes for a moment and ponder how you would convey the images and sounds. At the very least it would be a daunting, perhaps even an impossible task.

Similarly, how difficult is it for a BT to describe the sublime pleasure of discovering Torah’s emes to their non observant loved ones? How does a BT convey their deep satisfaction at having learned how to keep a kosher kitchen, or to put on tefillin? Surely for the BT there are many mitzvoth they needed to put a great deal of effort into in order to master. And yet, how can we share these accomplishments with those closest to us, with those who knew us all of our lives?
Read more The Unsung Victories of the Baal Teshuva

Whom to Thank

“Rabbi, is there a blessing to thank G-d for saving your life?” Rabbi Goodman absentmindedly muttered that this was an unusual question no one had ever asked him before. Peering at me from over his wire rimmed glasses he asked,” Are you a member of my congregation?”

It was five in the afternoon and the Reform temple was closing with most of the lights turned off for the night. The Rabbi haltingly reached for his overcoat while glancing at his watch and hesitated for a moment. Placing his briefcase on the floor he eyed me curiously as I answered, “No Rabbi, I am not.” My heart sank as I suspected my question would remain unanswered and imagined the Rabbi rushing home to his family. Instead Rabbi Goodman said, “Come with me,” as I followed him into his office.
Read more Whom to Thank