Sharing Details About Our Past

After a discussion with my FFB in-laws about “Inspired” and some griping here, David suggested I write about that perennial BT question: Should we or shouldn’t we share details about our old lives?

For those who missed that post, my in-law objected to “Inspired” because in her words, “Al pi halacha, you are not supposed to mention your past aveiros.”

I checked that “halacha” out with my Rov and learned that although there is a prohibition against asking BTs about the past, BTs are permitted to share as much or as little they like. Just like anything else which involves information about a person which could possibly damage them, what you share depends on your purpose. A film like “Inspired” seems to be the highest purpose I can think of for mentioning the past; the further removed the people were from Yiddishkeit, the more remarkable their teshuva seemed.
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Yaakov Never Died: Memory vs. Mortality

What are we to make of the teaching of our sages that “Yaakov our Patriarch never died,” in light of his remains being embalmed and interred?

Yisrael is the name usually associated with this person’s most exalted state.  Why is  immortality attributed to Yaakov rather than Yisrael?

… and Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years … and the days grew near for Yisrael to die ….

— Bereishis 47:28,29

Yaakov completed his directives to his sons, he withdrew his feet onto the bed, breathed his last and was gathered in to his nation.

— Bereishis 49:33

… the physicians embalmed Yisrael … Egypt wept over him for seventy days

— Bereishis 50:2,3

They came to Goren Ha’Atad on the east bank of the Jordan. There they conducted a eulogy of exceeding vastness and gravitas and [Yoseph] observed a seven-day mourning for his father … His sons carried him to Canaan and buried him in the cave of Machpeilah field bordering Mamre …     

— Bereishis 50:10,13

“And you My slave Yaakov, do not fear” Says HaShem; “neither panic, O Yisrael; for, I will Redeem you from afar, and your offspring from the land of their captivity … “

— Yirmiyahui 30:10

 … Thus said Rav Yochanan, “Yaakov our patriarch never died.” Rav Nachman objected: “Did those who eulogized him, embalm him and inter him do so for naught?” — Rav Yochanan replied: “I derive this from a scriptural verse, as it is said, ‘And you My slave Yaakov, do not fear’ says HaShem; ‘neither panic, O Yisrael; for, I will Redeem you from afar, and your offspring from the land of their captivity.’ The verse connects him [Yaakov] to his offspring [Yisrael]; as his offspring will then be alive so he too will be alive.”
Rav Yitzchak said, “Whoever repeats [the name] Rachav, Rachav, immediately becomes a baal keri-one who is impure due to an emission.” Rav Nachman said to him: “I have repeated it and was not affected in any way.” Rav Yitzchak replied: “I speak only of one who knew her and was familiar with her likeness.”

— Taanis 5B

“Today” [the here-and-now world] is for doing them [the mitzvos] while tomorrow [the world to come] is for reaping the rewards [of their fulfillment.]

                       — Eruvin 22A

אָז יִבָּקַע -Then your light will burst forth as the Morningstar, and your cure will spring forth swiftly; and your righteousness will precede you, the glory of HaShem will gather you in.

— Yeshaya 58:8

Your dead will live, my remains will stand up. Awake and sing, you that dwell in the dust—for your dew is as the dew of light …  

— Yeshaya 26:19

The very name of our weekly sidra can be translated as “and Yaakov lived” and seems to echo the incredible contention of our sages that Yaakov never died. Another of the sages expressed his skepticism and incredulity over this, alluding to the various pesukim-verses; quoted in the gray oval above indicating that Yaakov was embalmed, bewailed, eulogized, mourned and interred; hardly the way to relate to a person still very much alive. Rashi ad locum explains that the embalmers et al merely imagined that Yaakov had died but he was in truth, still living. The Izhbitzer School offers several approaches to understand the non-death of Yaakov.

It is essential to remember that the soul is eternal … that it never dies.  The Mei HaShiloach explains that as such, what we refer to as “death” is not so much a termination of life as it is a radical, jarring — even harrowing — transition. In death, man must emigrate from olam hazeh-the temporal world of “this;” to olam haba-the world to come or the world that is continually “coming.” Even when one can transfer all of their assets, relocating to a faraway country can be a very intimidating change.  With a foreign language, new currency, radically dissimilar climate, a different form of government and unfamiliar art, social mores and architecture the new country may require years, if not decades or generations, of assimilation and acclimation before the new immigrant achieves a true sense of comfort, integration and belonging.  If most of the assets must be left behind in a forced expulsion or in fleeing from war or persecution the challenges of emigration become even more daunting.

These scenarios of emigration are poor allegories for the unimaginable yisurei kelitah– agonies of acclimation; that the soul must undergo when emigrating from olam hazeh to olam haba. A large portion of the first perek-chapter; of Mesilas Yesharim is preoccupied with the numerous metaphors of Chazal that describe the qualitative differences between the two worlds and their respective organizations of reality.

The Mei HaShiloach teaches that death, far from being the end of life, is instead the souls “transoceanic” voyage. Dying becomes the Ellis Island, the quarantining, the issuing-of-the-green-card, the ulpan, the immigrant absorption center, the blue-collar-to-Ivy-League-educated-professional and the tenement-to-suburbia upward social mobility; all rolled into one. Add to that the element that unlike immigrants, the soul, once adjusted to olam haba, has not one wit of nostalgia for the “old Country” and it is no wonder that we associate the emigration that is death with the idea of the past being dead, buried and forgotten.

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The Deluge of Youth

What do mankinds greatest and worst generations have to do with one another?
“The Fountain of Youth” … why has mankind been searching for it from time immemorial?

And HaShem said: “My Spirit shall not keep on judging man forever, for he is nothing but flesh.  His days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

— Bereshis 6:3

I will be slow to anger for 120 years. If they do not repent I will bring the Flood upon them.

— Rashi ibid

Where is Moshe alluded to in the Torah? — In the verse: “For he is nothing but flesh” [the gimatriya-numerical value; of the Hebrew words משה –“Moshe” and בשגם  – “For (he) is nothing but” are equivalent. Moshe lived exactly 120 years]

— Chulin 139BR

Go [My prophet] and call into the ears of Jerusalem, declaring: HaShem says as follows: For you[r sake] I will remember the affection of your youth, the love of your nuptials; how you followed Me into the wilderness, into an uncultivated land.

— Yirmiyahu 2:2

Remember, HaShem, Your compassion and Your loving-kindnesses; for they began before time. Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions …

— Tehillim 25:6,7

Who Satiates your old age with good; so that your youth will be renewed like the eagle.

— Tehillim 103:5


Youth is an uncanny time in our lives.  While imprisoned within it we want nothing more than to escape it. Once we have escaped it we spend the balance of our lives yearning wistfully and futilely to return to it. By turns we long for the carefree times, irresponsibility, limitless possibilities, direction-changing impressions, dependence
on-others, physical attractiveness, good health, idealism and the simplicity of time when we were young.  From ancient and 16th century legends of Ponce de León searching for the Fountain of Youth to the contemporary multibillion dollar cosmetics and cosmetic surgery industries; vast swaths of mankind have never ceased looking for ways and means of recapturing youth.

Most of all we long for the sheer vitality, power and strength that marks our early lives.  When we were young we had the speed, strength, stamina, mental acuity, inquisitiveness, reckless courage and optimism to accomplish great and meaningful things.  Many used their youthful, robust powers for good. However, lacking the skill and wisdom of age and experience; youth is also characterized by catastrophic mistakes, crimes and misdemeanors. Accelerating at youthful takeoff velocity, the young often take forks in life’s road that make U-turns impossible. The lion’s share of crimes is committed by the young.  Maturity and old-age are marked not only by longing for the restoration of youthful energy, but by remorse and regret over youthful indiscretions and catastrophic misdeeds.

Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, teaches that this is not merely true of individuals but for mankind as a whole. In its youth mankind was capable of great virtue and good — chessed neurim-the lovingkindness of youth; and of incredible transgression and evil — chatas neurim-the sins of youth.

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Looking in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mostly got past that, too.

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

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

So why would I?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because they are.

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

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

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

Memories to Truly Cherish

Seth Clyman

I will never forget it. As I was driving that early Jerusalem morning I noticed the roads were empty. Where was everyone at eight thirty in the morning? The air was clean and crisp and it was strangely quiet. No one was on the streets, no buses, trucks or taxis. What a breeze. If only it was like this all the time. Then it hit me that this must be what it feels like for someone driving their car early in the morning on Shabbat.

But it wasn’t Shabbat. It was Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, the 5th of Iyar. Everyone was sleeping. They were all up till the wee hours of the night celebrating. That’s why the roads were empty.

I remember those “all night” bonfires we would have on Yom Ha’atzma’ut thirty some odd years ago. Those great teen years, the good old ’70’s. I can still taste the potatoes and onions that we dug out from under the coals before the sun came up.

One day after all those years I finally went back to that field with the cave where we would spend those nights. I was met with disappointment. I found instead that someone had built a housing complex and a parking lot. No more field, no more cave. Just left with the memories.

I did three years in the army. I was in Lebanon before these precious kids who are in the army today were born. Buried my best friend. Gave them “the best years” of my life. Three good years, the best of friends, and truly many unforgettable moments. I wouldn’t give them back for anything.

The only things I have left from those years are the memories, a country to live in and my cracked army boots.

Traveled through Europe way back when, but didn’t make it to South America, New Zealand or India like they do today. Got married, have children and grandchildren. Can’t get enough of them.

I’ve changed over the years…we all do. Life sort of does it to you.

My father told me that before going off to World War II he proudly stated to his parents, “we are going to straighten out the mess your generation made”. Yes, he fought for four years. His theatre of war makes Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan all together look like a playground. Now look at the mess his generation left us!

Who is going to straighten things up now? Who is going to fix up our mess? One thing I know for sure is that I don’t think we can do it alone. Humanity hasn’t been able till now and I think we all may need the assistance of a Higher Authority.

Let me leave you with a thought.

The next time it is Shabbat/Saturday morning and you happen to notice how peaceful it all seems, consider this. I am home with my family and guests making kiddush over a cup of wine proclaiming an eternal deal that we the Jewish people made with God.

We will watch over Your Shabbat ….and You and Your Shabbat will watch over us.
That is definitely a memory worth cherishing.

Escaping the Past

This post is for baal teshuvahs and/or those who had a colorful past before discovering the Torah way of life, or even other spiritual paths for my non-Jewish friends.

It’s pretty wild how news regarding our “past lives” (meaning how we used to live our current lives) can affect us in the present.
More importantly, when one sees (especially in bold newspaper print) how choices made by old friends & acquaintances have completely ruined their lives, it just solidifies & strengthens 1000-fold the choice I made to live a Torah-observant life.

I used to hang out with these guys. I might have been privy to some of their activities in the 80s & 90s.
I easily could have taken a different path and went along with that lifestyle.
Then you would have also seen MY name in the paper today, with the 60+ indicted alleged Gambino family members & associates.

Baruch Hashem that of those of us who were tested, many have made the correct choice regarding which road to choose.

The FBI on Thursday, 2/7/08 claimed to have brought down the heirarchy of the Gambino crime family, by indicting 60-something alleged members & leaders.

We didn’t learn about “mafia life” by just watching movies like “Goodfellas”, “Donnie Brasco” and “The Godfather”.

We lived amongst it. I personally am on first name basis with many of these guys from back in the day, and did (legit) business with some of them.

So sad how so many of my former fellow club-attendees, Flatlands Avenue hanger-outers, Fort Lauderdale Spring Breakers, friends, acquaintances & neighbors have wound up being indicted, in prison, rehabbed or dead.

To my fellow Canarsians, if you haven’t yet seen the indictment, your jaw will remain open as you recognize about 1/3 the names from Old Canarsie.

Posted by Jeff Neckonoff
aka the Studio 54 Rebbe