Led Zeppelin & Frum Culture

As a BT, I’ve often felt the clash between the culture I grew up in and the “frum” culture I’ve been living in for so long. One of the areas the clash always made itself evident to me was music. I just never could get into “Jewish music.”

This clash took on new meaning for me years ago when I worked as a manager in a small business that employed Chassidic girls, who loved to listen to music as they did their tasks. One girl, in particular, was really into it. She sometimes asked my opinion of the latest song or album. I tried to feign interest, but Jewish music – especially the type these girls liked – really never did anything for me.

One day she excitedly brought in the newest album and played it. I had to admit, at first, that there was something I liked about one of the songs. It had… a certain….

I couldn’t put my finger on it. But it had a quality that resonated for me. And as I listened to it over the next few hours — she played the album again and again — all of a sudden it struck me:

It was “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin, regurgitated in instrumental form without lyrics.

I don’t have to tell most readers here that Led Zeppelin was a famous hard rock band in the ‘70s. Their concerts were drug and alcohol fests; their music hard-driving heavy metal, their lyrics raunchy. In other words, everything a red-blooded American teenager with a rebellious streak ever wanted.

And everything one would have thought a Chassid, in the real sense of the word, would recoil from. Yet, here were these Chassidic girls really into it.

Of course, they had no idea of the context or the words. Moreover, even if they did, there wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the denuded elevator music version of the song. Chassidic philosophy, in particular, emphasizes the idea that there are sparks of kedusha all around embedded in the tumah waiting for a Jew to come and extract it. Some of the most inspiring Shabbos niggunim were originally Czarist army marching songs. We are here to convert the matter of the lower world into the currency of the higher world.

Still… Led Zeppelin?

One of the lessons this drove home for me was that if I had any reason to feel inferior because of my cultural upbringing I was a fool. If sparks of kedusha could be had in Led Zeppelin, then the sound tracks of my memory banks were gold mines of potential kedusha no Chassid could hope to duplicate.

But the larger point was the place of culture clash in the evolution of a BT. There is, of course, a difference between real Torah and a culture in which this Torah is expressed. They are not necessarily the same thing. Moshe Rabbeinu did not speak Yiddish or wear a streimel (notwithstanding the Parasha sheets our kids bring home from yeshiva).

Yet, the reality is that when we become observant we not only join a religion but perforce join one of the cultures within it, be it Modern Orthodox, Chassidic or whatever. Judaism is a social religion; it demands we become part of a tzibbur, a kehilla, a community. Therefore, we must make our peace with a community, even if it is lacking or imperfect in our eyes.

And so, we BTs more than others, go about our lives in strange paradox, feeling alienated from the culture we left behind for a religion that makes sense but invariably comes with a culture we may not fit perfectly into.

Somehow we have to find a niche not necessarily made in our image without losing our selves. We have to navigate the choppy seas of a culture sometimes at odds with our memories, origins and expectations while remaining glued to the inner compass that led us to the timeless values underpinning that culture to begin with.

Some of the cultural dissonance is relatively easy to handle but some is not. Often there is no easy solution for the latter – other than recognizing that our task here is not always easy.

That’s a lesson we learned long before we came to Torah. You can’t buy a stairway to heaven.

Originally published March 15, 2006

The Hidden Hand – Day of Infamy

Beyond BT contributor, Yaakov Astor has just published his latest book, The Hidden Hand. Here is an excerpt.

1941, a week before Chanukah.

Hitler’s armies are only twenty miles from the Kremlin and German soldiers even joke about catching a bus to see Stalin. Stalin, no friend of the Jews, is nevertheless vital to the safety of Jewry, as well as the world. If the Soviet capital falls, then the two-front war the Germans feared becomes only a one-front war. If Germany has to fight on only one front… the implications are truly frightening to ponder.

Same date — almost dawn — thousands of miles to the east, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean: Six aircraft carriers have moved into position. On their decks and in their holds, some 350 modern fighter aircraft primed for action have received the go signal. Their target: Pearl Harbor.

7:40 A.M., Hawaii time. The Japanese achieve total surprise. In fact, surprise is so complete that even before the first bomb is dropped, Squadron Commander Mitsuo Fuchida radios back to the carriers the code words for victory: Tora! Tora! Tora! (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!) In less than three hours his pilots will wipe out much of the American Pacific Fleet. It will truly be a day of infamy.

However, even more infamous and insidious events are occurring this day. In German occupied territory, hundreds of miles behind the front lines, in the tiny town of Chelmno, a diabolical experiment is taking place. The hierarchies of Nazidom have already ordered the “final solution” to the Jewish question. But, practically speaking, can it be done? Can you get masses of people to walk into a death camp? Can you then exterminate them using a minimum amount of ammunition and soldiers?

In Chelmno on December 7, 1941 the Nazis find out the answer to both questions: Yes. They transport scores of Jews under the guise that they are merely being relocated east. Then they gas them in specially made vans. Historian Martin Gilbert marks Chelmno as the beginning of the Final Solution. To be sure, the Wannsee Conference in early 1942 would set the bureaucratic wheels in motion, and the wheels of the cattles cars transporting Jews to the death camps would not be rolling for several months. Nevertheless, December 7, 1941 is a particular day of infamy of the infamy known as the Holocaust, because on that day the Nazis knew their plans for making Europe Judenrein could become reality and were within their grasp.

Of Historical Moments
We are helpless, hapless creatures in the absence of divine perspective. Our helplessness is even more pronounced during momentous events. Most people are impotent to realize what is happening. And the few who do realize are at a loss to understand. And the rare individual, who perhaps understands the historic moment as it occurs, nevertheless is almost sure to lack detailed comprehension of all the implications.

Caught up in the myopia of life, historic moments cannot be fully appreciated. Time, though, is a kind of divinity in that it affords us that superhuman perspective. Even the layman armed with “time” can perceive patterns and forces the most learned, perceptive person trapped in the myopia of the moment does not have the slightest inkling of.

When divergent threads of historical movement, dancing and bobbing without seeming rhyme or reason, converge into a single moment such as December 7, 1941 even the ardent secularist is hard-pressed to call it coincidence. Coincidence has been described as a letter from God delivered anonymously. Judaism employs a specific term for such coincidence: hashgachah — “Divine Providence”: the acknowledgment that everything that happens happens because there is a Master Weaver expertly spinning a perfectly patterned tapestry. Sometimes the pattern is not immediately apparent. But we who know the Weaver have faith that the final design will be awe-inspiringly evident.

The truth is, however, though people invoke “Divine Providence” for every good occurrence, we often shy from invoking the term when events work against us. Is that fair? If God is all-powerful enough to manipulate events for our good does He lose His omnipotence when events work against us? Perceiving Divine Providence in good events is valuable; however it is relatively easy when all the parts fall into place. Knowing that Divine Providence is in full effect during bad events, though, is a higher level. It requires faith. It requires believing that there is much more happening than what meets the eyes. Therefore, Judaism teaches that Divine Providence — the Almighty’s absolute power of manipulation over every little and big detail of our lives — is every bit in operation to bring about events such as the rise of a Hitler as it is in bringing about his fall.

It should come as little surprise, then, that although December 7, 1941 looked to be the bleakest of times, in reality the reverse is true. Though President Roosevelt himself called it “a date which lives in infamy,” nevertheless in the perfect 20-20 hindsight of history we can say that the dark historical moment that was December 7, 1941 was not completely dark. In fact, like the tiny flask of uncontaminated oil discovered by the Kohanim on Chanukah it contained within it the most sublime luminescence.

Divorce & BTs

In actuality, this article was started about twenty-five years ago.

I was a bachur in Ohr Somayach, Yerushalayim, at the time. Despite struggles with the realities of becoming observant, I still wore a nice pair of rose-colored glasses about the world I was entering. Yes, there were challenges and even real problems, but it was still a disinfected picture of life in the yeshiva lane I beheld.

Then, casually – it was during a walk in Meah Shearim on a bright, late summer Shabbos afternoon – someone in a group I was strolling about with remarked that he heard Rabbi Gottlieb say that the divorce rate of baalei teshuva was as high as those of the general, secular world.

First there was disbelief.

“Are you sure you heard that?” another person asked. Yes, he seemed to be sure. Furthermore, he said, he heard that in Rabbi Gottlieb’s opinion baalei teshuva should date for six months, not six weeks, before they get engaged.

Truth be told, I never had those claims confirmed: that the divorce rate of BTs was as high as in the secular world and that Rabbi Gottlieb had actually said it or that BT dating should last six months. Nevertheless, the conversation stuck with me.

Flash forward about a year later. I am now a fully committed BT learning full-time in yeshiva. I am at a weekend retreat with my fellow bachurim. The previous year, a slightly older peer – I’ll call him Michoel – had made Kiddush for us. I envied Michoel: he was intelligent, deeply committed, funny, personable, creative. And he had a wife who was as intelligent and spiritual as she was attractive. They were the picture of perfection in my mind.

Now, a year later, I sat at Michoel’s table, and he was making Kiddush again… but his wife was not there. They had since divorced. (They had been married long enough to have a child.)

This sent me for a loop. I never asked him what happened, but his divorce stuck in my gut. Michoel was someone I could relate to; someone who had achieved, externally at least (internally, too, it seemed), many of the things I dreamed of. Yet, his picture perfect life was shattered. And with it my own picture of perfection about becoming a baal teshuva. If one wasn’t careful, one could stumble and fall like Michoel, like his wife, like the 50% or more secular and/or non-Jewish Americans who divorce.

Anyway, to this day I still do not know if, in fact, the divorce rate of baalei teshuva is comparable to that in the secular world, but I have witnessed or heard of enough divorce, to say nothing of difficult marriages, among baalei teshuva to ask the following question: What are the pressures and circumstances that might put more strain on a marriage of baalei teshuva than others?

I suspect that the answer is: strains that are no different than those of becoming a BT in the first place.

For instance, if it can be said that a baal teshuva tends to have less familial support than an FFB, then the baal teshuva couple has more strain on them because they tend to not have parents to give them the same degree of physical, emotional and/or financial support one might typically get from FFB parents.

(Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. My own parents, baruch Hashem, took the hour-and-a-half ride to visit us three or four times a month for over a decade. This had an enormously positive impact on my children. Often, I thought to myself how the kids would have fared without them.)

There are greater financial stresses and requirements needed to live the observant life. In theory, and often in practice, they are offset by positive communal attitudes and a healthy Torah outlook. However, is that always enough? And what about baalei teshuva who do not have the deepest roots in a community or perhaps even the same depth of Torah wisdom to apply this knowledge?

The strains of raising and being mechanech children: It can put a strain on any marriage when children have difficulties in school. Many BT parents lack the learning skills to teach their children beyond the elementary school years. This is another extra strain.

I am sure there are other things, but I want to leave this article more open-ended. What are examples of other strains, in your opinion? What are the worst ones? What are your strains and what do you do and/or what can anyone do about them?

Do you even accept the premise of this article: that BT divorce rates are as high as (higher than?) secular divorce rates? Do you think they are higher than FFB divorce rates?

I look forward to the usual spirited and articulate responses.

The Jews Are Taking Over

I had an interesting experience this morning.

I drove my son to a town about 20 minutes away to take his road test. When we arrived I had to get out of the car and wait outside. I decided to walk into the nearby Mobile station to use the Men’s room. The room was situated inside the building, but down a short hall off to the side of a food kiosk. When I came out of the bathroom I said a blessing under my breath and then headed the ten feet down the hall to the kiosk. And there, just before I turned the bend, was a man telling the Indian lady behind the counter taking his order, “The Jews are taking over.”

He was a 50ish, graying, well-dressed man and as he said the words “taking over” I emerged from the hall. He obviously didn’t realize I was there until that moment and looked a bit mortified for a moment when he saw me.

I didn’t have time to react. In that flash of a second I think I considered all the alternatives between just walking past him silently to cursing him out. What I ended up doing was saying very cooly the following: “Well, thanks for telling me that. I didn’t know.”

And I walked past.

Later, when I saw my son return, I walked out of the kiosk and saw this guy getting into his car. It was a very nice luxury car. Mine is a beat-up economy car. But I’m taking over the world.

In any event, I’m not naive. Believe me, I’m well aware of anti-Semitism. However, this is the first time I’ve experienced it directly in more than ten years, as best as I can remember.

I don’t necessarily have anything more the say now other than relating that.

On the other hand, it is interesting that just yesterday I heard Rabbi Orlowek on a tape talk about how he reacted to a couple of incidents of anti-Semitism directed at him: “As long as it doesn’t touch me it’s his problem, not mine… I know I have something inside. A Jew who does not have any connection to Judaism [gets terribly upset, on the other hand]…. It’s like a person who walks into a store to buy something, puts money down on the counter and walks out. It’s a terrible feeling: to pay money and walk out without the merchandise. [Being Jewish but having no connection to Judaism] is analogous to putting money down and not walking out with the product. I have the product. I know I have to ‘pay.’ I’m not crushed over the fact that they don’t like me. Because I know I have something. It’s true I’m paying a price. But I have something. I have the product.”

I don’t know if I lived up to this madrega this morning that Rabbi Orlowek talks about. I think I was a little incensed. Maybe a little more than a little. And certainly it reminds one of countless mussar shmeussim about how insecure the Jew is in the world; how Esav hates Yaakov, even as he dresses in a nice suit and acts politely toward you; how thin is the membrane separating us from real anti-Semitism; how we have to remember we only have our Father in Heaven to rely upon. And so forth.

But it was unnerving. At least for a moment. Baruch Hashem I have Rabbi Orlowek to listen to. Baruch Hashem I have him to remind me that I have the product. And that even though it comes with a price it’s better to have the product than not.

Baruch Hashem we lived blessed lives, much more secure than our great grandparents. May we never forget that and may Hashem continue to protect us and consider us having paid for and earned that protection.

Advice For a BT Returning From Israel

OK, here’s the situation. How would you advise?

A young man 24-25 just returned to the US from two years study in a BT yeshiva. He’s flying spiritually. But it’s time to get serious about the next stage in life. He wants to get married –- his yetzer hara won’t leave him alone — and raise a frum family.
However, he:

a) is going to law school and has at least three years of schooling ahead of him before even thinking about making a penny.

b) is going to be a psychologist (5 years schooling) or doctor (5+ years).

c) he isn’t exactly sure what he wants to do, but is bright and has good grades and a degree from a good school to prove it.

How do you advise in each case? Does he go out? If not, how does he deal with Mr. Yetzer? How much information about the realities of frum living – e.g. like those on the Financial Realities thread – do you tell him about?

How does your advice change, if at all, if his circumstances change – if he is 27-28? 30-32? 32+?

How does your advice change, if at all, if we replace “him” with “her,” i.e. it’s a young woman just returning from Israel?

Identity and Aircraft Carriers

From a recent comment by Yaakov Astor:

A wise man once told me identity is like being a jet on an aircraft carrier. You need the aircraft carrier to get you to a launching point but then need to be able to take off yourself. Too many get on the aircraft carrier and never take off (never realize they are jets with the ability to take off). They remain limited/grounded. Others never get on the aircraft carrier to begin with and are left stranded, never getting to complete their mission.

Of course, for some people their true identity and the purpose they are here is to service the aircraft carrier; they were never meant to be jets or helicopters that take off; and they’re happy to be part of the ground crew, as it were. That’s fine. If that’s what one is. And one realizes it.

The quesiton is: what if that is not what one is? Or what if one doesn’t know what one is? Or what if life has tossed one about, broken one’s moorings and turned one into a refugee from their identity?

I don’t think there are easy answers. You’ve got to be real, but you may have to concede and conform a bit in order to realize a perhaps higher form of self.

Denial & Balance in Dating & Beyond

I remember laughing at a cartoon (New Yorker magazine?) years ago of a yuppie-looking man and woman meeting at a party, both with expressions of obvious excitement on their faces. The thought-bubble above the man read: “Sex object.” The thought-bubble above the woman read: “Meal ticket.”

Obviously, a match made in heaven.

While that image was intended to poke fun at modern romance and mores, I want to use it here in just the opposite way.
Read more Denial & Balance in Dating & Beyond

Plateauing & Leaving the Cave

There’s a story in the Gemara which I think describes the phenomenon of plateauing in two of our greatest spiritual giants.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar were forced to live in a cave for 12 years, hiding from the Roman authorities, who had an execution order out for them. After the decree was rescinded they came out of the cave, but whenever they encountered people they “burned them with their eyes” (euphemism for “ayin ra,” according to the commentaries). Their fire for emes prevented them from accepting people as limited human beings, not always filled with the same fire of Torah and avodas Hashem they possessed.
Read more Plateauing & Leaving the Cave

Who I Am

Several years after taking the plunge into the observant lifestyle, including years of full-time study, I had an experience that capsulated for me this week’s issue: the conformity/non-conformity paradox.

I was interviewing for a job in a “modern orthodox yeshiva” teaching fifth graders.

“Well,” the elderly Rabbi interviewing me asked, “I think we have enough information to make a final decision. Do you have anything else you want to add about yourself?”
Read more Who I Am