Focused Inspiration

Esti recently commented on the Uninspired post. (Shout out to Shayna, we miss you.)

Just thought I’d comment on your great post. I watched the women’s Inspired video and was mesmerized. But I admit that I laughed all the way through as I knew most of the women interviewed. As such, I was interested to learn parts of their stories I didn’t know. But I also know that all of the women interviewed, like the rest of us, are real people. We saw one little 5 minute interview of their life. We didn’t see the 364 7/8ths of the rest of their days that year, or their life.

They have their challenges, I guarantee you they don’t all have polished floors (now that I think of it, NONE of the women I knew on that video have immaculate houses, but they do have happy kids) and their day probably resembles on a day to day basis more of what yours looks like, and they strive for the sparks of spirituality that led them to their life change towards traditional Judaism the same as you do.

The inspiration is where they choose to try to focus, when they get that 1 minute breath between mopping the floor – do we look up or back down at the floor? None of us are perfect, including all the women on that video. But its where we’re looking that’s important, and for that, if this encourages others to do kiruv to help others focus on the important things, its highly worthwhile, even to give ourselves the shot in the arm we need. Happy polishing!

When having non observant people over for Shabbos should we just be our normal imperfect selves or should we strive for Inspired-like perfection to showcase Judaism at it’s best?

My Elementary-Aged Kids are Smarter than Me!

The BT journey is a humbling one. On the one hand, you become convinced that Hashem did write the Torah, and he chose YOU and your family to carry out its mission. You come to feel that G-d does care what goes into your mouth, what is spoken by your tongue, and even, whether or not you fast on Yom Kippur. But just in case you start feeling too arrogant, there’s nothing like the embarrassment of not being able to help your kindergartner with homework to bring you right down to size.

Along the journey of the past ten years there have been thousands of moments when I have felt just plain stupid. When I didn’t know the words to pray, or that I should be standing up when I prayed them. When I sewed up all the slits on my long skirts in an inspired, momentary, desire to dress frum enough for my black-hat, wigged, shul, only to realize after the fact that those slits are put into these skirts for a reason! When I’ve asked a question of my Rav, only to reveal how little I really knew about the subject at hand, as he asked probing questions. Oh, the list goes on and on. But no list of embarrassing moments reads as long as the itemization of each and every time that my ineptitude in Hebrew made it impossible for me to assist my children in school, or the way I want to slink down into my seat when I attend “meet the teacher night” and I can’t really understand what the Hebrew teacher is giving over.

As we now school the children in Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion in Piscataway, NJ, half the student body is frum from birth with parents the same, and the other half are like my kids – their parents may be BT’s, but these kids are already fluent in Rashi and able to converse in Hebrew at the Shabbos table. We parents all look the part, as if we’ve been observant for generations, but some of us are trying to learn a few choice Hebrew words we can slide into the conversation so that our lack of learning isn’t plastered all over our foreheads like a billboard. A few Yiddish words, interspersed with a few of the more common Hebrew expressions bantered about, and hopefully, we’ll “pass.”

Until one of my children, maybe aged 11-years old, comes crying to me and says, “Mom, I don’t understand my homework!”. Or I go to shul on a Shabbos that has something different about it, and I’m lost in the service, flipping the pages of my siddur back and forth and trying to figure out where I am, and where the rest of the community is. And then, despite all of my learning, and commitment, and ongoing efforts to make up for my lack of yeshiva education, I am red-faced again, experiencing what I now call one of those “BT moments!”

I’ll share with you how deep this insecurity can run sometimes. I was a professional speaker for a Gateways seminar, and was both delighted and nervous to be receiving this honor. I had recently published my book, “What do you mean, you can’t eat in my home?” and I was there to help other BT’s deal with family issues that have arisen because of increased observance. It was candle lighting time, and perhaps fifty women were standing in front of a large table of tea lights, ready to light. I couldn’t get my tea light to light. No matter how hard I tried, the flame would not ignite the wick. Meanwhile, ladies were waiting behind me for their opportunity. In a flash, I experienced one of those “BT moments”. It went something like this in my head: “Here I am, such a stupid BT, I don’t even know how to light one of these stupid candles. I bet this never happens to FFB’s!”

Now of course, this kind of self-talk is crazy. My problem was with my candle, not my technique, or my lack of learning. It was just a bad habit, for me to sink into momentary despair at my stupidity.

I’d like to tell you that these moments don’t happen for me anymore. But that would be a lie. They still happen frequently, but when they do, I try to snap myself out of them quicker. If I sink into despair, I refocus my attention either, away completely from the topic, or, I make myself think of something I have accomplished, rather than what I have not, or, never will, accomplish.

I will never learn enough Hebrew to keep up with my kids. Thank G-d. We have sacrificed so much, my husband and I, so that our kids will far surpass us in their Jewish learning. My husband takes great pride in the fact that our 9-year old son is starting to give him a run for his money. My kids know that Mom can’t help them with their Hebrew homework, but they also know that she puts out a beautiful Shabbos table, that people in the community think of her as a woman who does chesed, and that she really lives by her firm commitment not to speak loshon hora. I know they are embarrassed by me sometimes. But really, what kid isn’t embarrassed by a parent from time to time? I should be rejoicing that their embarrassment is because of my lack of Hebrew background, rather than raising a household of kids who could care less.

When I cry, and I do, in those moments when I feel just too stupid to pull off this journey and do it well, this is what I believe I must think. How wonderful that I am in a place in my life where those tears arise, when I can cry about what I do not know, rather than being in a place where I have not a clue what it is that I am missing. There was a time I never shed a tear about what I’ve missed out in my Hebrew learning. That’s far sadder than all the times I now cry because for me, it really is too late to catch up. Yes, I know, Rabbi Akiva didn’t start till age 40. Yes, I know, theoretically, it’s never too late. But it is, for me, too late for some things. I’m too old to have another baby. I’m too fat to fit into sized-eight clothes. My bunions hurt too much now for me to walk ten miles. I’m not going to learn Rashi, and my kids have learned to ask their friends and teachers for help with homework. I can’t do it all, and some of it, I can’t do very well.

And so be it. Because I’m on the journey, and so are my kids, and maybe I’m bumbling along this road some times, but bottom line, I’m
ON THE ROAD. And really, I hope, that’s what matters.

Cry with me sometimes, and laugh with me. At least we are on this
journey together.

When Things Aren’t in Sync

Seems like I’m frequently sending in the “warning” story. While it’s not, G-d forbid, my intention to be negative on interactions between BT’s and the frum community, it seems I run across my share of people who have, well lets just say, misunderstood peoples intentions or perspectives, to their personal detriment. This story is one of those, from first hand knowledge, and happened in the last year. Names have been changed, loshon hara is not the objective…

— Leah’s Story —

Leah was a young woman in her early twenties when she first encountered a Jewish outreach organization. She spent some months with them and her soul was ignited. She burned to learn more. The organization encouraged her to attend their women’s yeshiva in New York, and she worked hard to arrange to be able to do so. With great joy she learned for about a year and half, and took an apartment with some of the other young women students in Boro Park (NY City very-frum community). As she learned, she looked around her neighborhood and idolized her neighbors. The women with 4 or 5 or 7 young children moving organized down the street in and out of the stores, walking regally with their husbands and children on Shabbat, this was her goal, and a worthy goal it was.

And her neighbors were warm, helpful, inviting. The children, as children almost always are, were engaging, and a large table covered with a white tablecloth, Shabbos finery and the warm smells of Shabbos food, oh, she ached for such beauty in the norm in her life.

One day, after she’d been there a year, a neighbor invited her in for a cup of tea. The neighbor asked, “what would you think of a shidduch offer (a marriage proposal)?” Well, she was thrilled! She could be the one regally walking on Shabbat, and preparing the fine Shabbos table, it was all within reach! The neighbor continued, “there’s a young man in Williamsburg, he’s a Michlov chossid (fictional chassidus name replacing the real one), who would make a nice match.”

Now we pause a moment for some explanation. There are some frum groups that are heavily involved in outreach, and their communities are full of BTs. There are some that are lightly involved, and their communities have some BTs. And there are those who are not involved at all and are, frankly, pretty darn insular. Among those, well I guess the word sects is appropriate, that are involved in outreach, some in those communities greatly appreciate the BT fervor and zest for Torah and Hashem, but there are those who don’t… because it’s different, because it shows a family problem, because it creates lots of relationship complications. Those that don’t would have concerns about their children marrying a BT (straight up, they would discourage it).

Most living in Williamsburg, a wonderful place full of Torah, are in the insular category. Let’s just say when it comes to having their children marry a BT, it wouldn’t normally be considered. And with that, back to our story…

So Leah consulted her Rosh Yeshiva. He expressed strong concerns and advised her against considering it. She spoke with her rav, same answer. But, this was her dream and she was chasing it…so she went on a date. He was a nice looking young man, had an income, and his family was extremely, extremely, welcoming. Another 2 dates and the match was agreed. But why? Why would a nice looking young man from an insular chassid group with a good family and parnosa be looking so far outside his community for a match? I mean, Leah is a nice young woman of average looks, no special job skills, and from an average family (no special wealth)?

The Rebbe of the chassidus gave a bracha, but also strangely went on about how he was there should she every have a problem, she shouldn’t hesitate to come right over and discuss it.

The wedding was nice, the kallah was beautiful, the music was good. The Get, the divorce, came 6 weeks later. See, he had dropped out of the community (so he no longer was considered an acceptable match for anyone in it) and, supposedly, returned. But in reality, Leah was headed up, he was headed down, she was burning for Torah and Hashem, he was burning with other, less savory, desires. To the shadchun, the matchmaker, it looked like they were in a similar place. But their ships were headed in opposite directions, and when they arrived in the same house, this became apparent very quickly.

— Zahava’s Story —

Zahava’s story starts similar. Her father passed away when she was young, and her mother was part of a marginal community but moderately religious. Full religious education was not available in her area, but in college she became interested and starting looking to learn more. She actually ended up in the same women’s yeshiva as Leah, at the same time. For Zahava, the whole family picture was the draw. Ah, look at the couples lovingly walking together and making their life together. She didn’t grow up with that, and she desired it.

The story from here is similar. A neighbor, a shadchan (matchmaker), a chossid of Memlachta from a Williamsburg family (though living in Flatbush, a bit odd right there). This one takes some interesting twists though… The chasan’s family (groom’s family) wanted to make sure it was properly kosher for their son. So, first, prove you’re Jewish. Well, the mother doesn’t have actual paperwork (do you?). So they push her to go through a geiurus safek (a conversion of doubt). Then, what kind of properly chassidic name is Zahava? So they make her take on an additional name, now she’s Fraida Zahava. They took her to the store and set her up with the right wardrobe (according to their Williamsburg chassidic standards), right down to the type of underwear.

The wedding just occurred, all proper. But again, the question of why an insular chassidic family is taking a BT for their son stands out. A few tidbits have leaked out, and indeed, there’s a reason he was living in Flatbush and not in his chassidic community. Perhaps, G-d willing, it will work out, yet it would seem that again, they are headed in opposite directions.

My dear friends, there are many who greatly appreciate the zeal and drive BTs bring. Yet others don’t appreciate the background BTs bring. Whether this is fair or not is not the point. If those that are known for not appreciating that zeal are suddenly involving themselves with you (as a “BT”), just keep your eyes open and try to recognize why.

Where Are You?

And it was as they took them out that one said, “Flee for your life! Do not look behind you or stop anywhere in all the plain Flee to the mountain lest you be swept away!”…….Now HASHEM had caused sulfur and fire to rain upon Sodom and Gomorrah, from HASHEM, out of heaven. He overturned these cities and the entire plain, with all the inhabitant of the cities and the vegetation of the soil. His (Lot’s) wife peered behind him and she became a pillar of salt. (Breishis 19:17- 26)

This is one of the most famous incidents of the Torah. Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Why? Why did she look there? Why was she punished so severely? What’s so bad about looking back to survey the destruction?

Fritz Schultz was a German industrialist who, seeing an opportunity to make great profit employing Jews as laborers, ran a large group of factories in the Ghetto that provided supplies to the German army. The work was considered essential to the war effort, so the lives of the workers were temporarily spared. Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapiro was assigned work in a shoe factory that Avraham Hendel had owned before the war and that Hendel now managed for Schultz.

Besides providing reprieve from deportation, the shoe factory enabled Rabbi Shapiro and the other scholars to continue their studies right under the noses of their taskmasters. The atmosphere in the factory has been described by an eye witness, Hillel Seidman, in his Warsaw Ghetto Diary:

“Now I am in Schultz factory; I have come at the time when people are both hammering in nails and reciting Hoshana prayers. Here are gathered, thanks to one of the directors, Mr. Avraham Hendel, the elite of the Orthodox community; Chassidic Masters, Rabbis, scholars, religious community organizers, well-known Chassidim.

Sitting behind the anvil for shoe repairing…is the Koziglover Rav, Yehuda Aryeh Frimer, once Dean of Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin. He is sitting here but his spirit is sailing in other worlds. He continues his studies from memory, without interruption his lips moving constantly. From time to time he addresses a word to the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapiro, the author of Chovos HaTalmidim, who is sitting opposite him, and a subdued discussion on a Torah topic ensues. Talmudic and Rabbinic quotations fly back and forth; soon there appear on the anvil, -or, to be precise, on the minds and lips of these brilliant scholars- the words of Maimonoides and Ravad, the author of the Tur, Rama, earlier and later authorities. The atmosphere in the factory is filled with the opinions of eminent scholars, so who cares about the S.S., the German overseers, the hunger, suffering, persecution and fear of death? They are really sailing in the upper worlds; they’re not sitting in a factory on Nowolopie 46, but rather in the Hall of the Sanhedrin…” (The Holy Fire by Polen)

The Baal Shem Tov had said, “Wherever a person’s mind is, that is where they are entirely.” The mind then is both an extremely useful and dangerous tool. This is perhaps where Lot’s wife went wrong. She seems to have left her “heart in San Francisco”, as the song goes. When she looked back she betrayed her longing for what was left behind which was in the process of being destroyed. Since this is where her mind was, that’s where she was entirely and so she too became a petrified piece of the historical landscape.

With this, maybe now we can try to comprehend what was meant by the words spoken to Adam and Chava after they nibbled on the fruit of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” and because of what entered their minds they hid. The Almighty approached and simply asked, “Where are you?”

Did You Do a Cheshbon HaNefesh Today?

I’ve been learning Bilvavi recently, and Rav Shwartz has a slightly different understanding of the path proscribed by Mesillas Yesharim then the conventional Yeshiva understanding. We’ll G-d willing discuss the differences in a later post, but today let’s take a look at a practical problem we hit early in the Mesillas Yesharim.

In Chapter 3, Concerning the divisions on watchfulness, the Ramchal tells us 1) We have to know what the right thing to do from a Torah perspective and 2) we have to review our actions (saying brochas, davening, wasting time, dealing with others, etc..) on a regular basis to determine whether we are actually doing the right thing. This regular/daily review is called Cheshbon HaNefesh. The Ramchal makes a very strong case that Cheshbon HaNefesh is an absolutely necessary early step for growth.

The problem is that when you ask your average mussar-oriented-yeshishvish-guy whether he regularly does a Cheshbon HaNefesh, he’ll invariably say no. I’ve asked many people and most of them admit that although this is an important part of the Ramchal’s prescription, they don’t do it. Rebbeim I’ve talked to about this, point out that the reason Cheshbon HaNefesh is not widely practiced is that our generation really can’t stand the regular self-criticism.

In the business world, Cheshbon HaNefesh is very popular in the forms of performance scorecards and other multi-faceted measurement and review techniques. The basic idea is that you define certain criteria of success from a financial, customer satisfaction, business process and learning perspective and then you give feedback in charts and graphs measuring the success, often using the colors red, yellow and green. A friend tells me that if the measures are reflecting too much red, they are often redefined since most employees can’t take too much negative feedback. Another indication that self-criticism is difficult for us to take.

So we are left with a problem, Cheshbon HaNefesh is an essential ingredient for spiritual success, but it is difficult to do. Here are some questions:

Has anybody been successful implementing a Cheshbon HaNefesh program?
Is the pain of the process the main problem?
Can you think of any successful self-reward programs?
Do we need to redefine the process for our generation?
Would a group of people working on this together help?
Would Quicken-like computer software help?

Below is Chapter 3, from R’ Shraga Silverstein’s translation and posted here through the generosity of Feldheim Publishers. Our learning is in memory of Sarah Bas Reb Eliezer Kops.

ONE WHO WISHES to watch over himself must take two things into consideration. First he must consider what constitutes the true good that a person should choose and the true evil that he should flee from; and second, he must consider his actions, to discover whether they appertain to the category of good or to that of evil. This applies both to times when there is a question of performing a specific action and to times when there is no such question. When there is a question of performing a specific action, he should do nothing before he weighs the action in the scale of the aforementioned understanding. And when there is no such question, the idea should take the form of his bringing before himself the remembrance of his deeds in general and weighing them, likewise, in the scales of this criterion to determine what they contain of evil, so that he may cast it aside, and what of good, so that he may be constant in it and strengthen himself in it. If he finds in them aught that is evil, he should consider and attempt to reason out what device he might use to turn aside from that evil and to cleanse himself of it. Our Sages of blessed memory taught us this in their statement (Eruvin 136), “It would have been better for a man not to have been created… but now that he has been created, let him examine his deeds. Others say, `Let him “feel” his deeds.’ ” It is to be seen that these two versions constitute two sound beneficial exhortations. For “examination” of one’s deeds refers to an investigation of one’s deeds in general and a consideration of them to determine whether they might not include certain actions which should not be performed, which are not in accordance with God’s mitzvoth and His statutes, any such actions to be completely eradicated. “Feeling,” however, implies the investigation even of the good actions themselves to determine whether they involve any leaning which is not good or any bad aspect which it is necessary to remove and to eradicate. This is analogous to a person’s feeling a garment to determine whether its material is good and sturdy or weak and rotted. In the same respect he must “feel” his actions by subjecting them to a most exhaustive examination to determine their nature, so that he might remain free of any impurities.

To summarize, a man should observe all of his actions and watch over all of his ways so as not to leave himself with a bad habit or a bad trait, let alone a sin or a crime. I see a need for a person to carefully examine his ways and to weigh them daily in the manner of the great merchants who constantly evaluate all of their undertakings so that they do not miscarry. He should set aside definite times and hours for this weighing so that it is not a fortuitous matter, but one which is conducted with the greatest regularity; for it yields rich returns.

Our Sages of blessed memory have explicitly taught us the need for such an evaluation. As they said (Bava Bathra 78b), “Therefore the rulers say, `Let us enter into an accounting’ (Numbers 21:27). Therefore the rulers over their evil inclinations say, ‘Let us come and compute the world’s account, the loss entailed by the performance of a mitzvah, against the gain that one secures through it, and the gain that one acquires through a transgression against the loss that it entails… ‘ ”

This true counsel could not have been given, nor its truth recognized by any except those who had already departed from beneath the hand of their evil inclination and come to dominate it. For if one is still imprisoned by his evil inclination, his eyes cannot see this truth and he cannot recognize it. For the evil inclination literally blinds his eyes and he becomes as one who walks in the darkness, where there are stumbling blocks before him which his eyes do not see. As our Sages of blessed memory said (Bava Metzia 83b), ” ` You laid down darkness and it was night’ (Psalms 104:20). This refers to this world which is similar to night.” How wondrous is this truthful commentary to him who concentrates upon understanding it. For the darkness of night can cause two types of errors in relation to a man’s eye: it may either cover his eye so that he does not see what is before him at all, or it may deceive him so that a pillar appears to him as a man, or a man as a pillar. In like manner, the earthiness and materialism of this world is the darkness of night to the mind’s eye and causes a man to err in two ways. First it does not permit him to see the stumbling blocks in the ways of the world, so that the fools walk securely, fall, and are lost without having experienced any prior fear. As Scripture states (Proverbs 4:19), “The path of the wicked is like pitch darkness; they do not know upon what they stumble,” and (Proverbs 22:3), “The wise man sees the evil and hides, and the fools pass on and are punished,” and (Proverbs 14:16), “And the fool becomes infuriated and is secure.” For their hearts are steadfast and they fall before having any knowledge whatsoever of the existence of the stumbling block. The second error, which is even worse than the first, stems from the distortion of their sight, so that they see evil as though it were goodness itself, and good as if it were evil, and, because of this, strengthen themselves in clinging to their evil ways. For it is not enough that they lack the ability to see the truth, the evil staring them in the face, but they also see fit to find powerful substantiations and empirical evidence supporting their evil theories and false ideas. This is the great evil which embraces them and brings them to the pit of destruction. As Scripture states (Isaiah 6:10), “The heart of this nation has become fatted, and its ears have become heavy, and its eyes have turned aside, lest…” All this because of their being under the influence of the darkness and subject to the rule of their evil inclination. But those who have already freed themselves from this bondage see the truth clearly and can advise others in relation to it.

To what is this analogous? To a garden-maze, a type of garden common among the ruling class, which is planted for the sake of amusement. The plants there are arranged in walls between which are found many confusing and interlacing paths, all similar to one another, the purpose of the whole being to challenge one to reach a portico in their midst. Some of the paths are straight ones which lead directly to the portico, but some cause one to stray, and to wander from it. The walker between the paths has no way of seeing or knowing whether he is on the true or the false path; for they are all similar, presenting no difference whatsoever to the observing eye. He will not reach his goal unless he has perfect familiarity and visual acquaintance with the paths through his having traversed them and reached the portico. He who occupies a commanding position in the portico, however, sees all of the paths before him and can discriminate between the true and the false ones. He is in a position to warn those who walk upon them and to tell them, “This is the path; take it!” He who is willing to believe him will reach the designated spot; but he who is not willing to believe him, but would rather trust to his eyes, will certainly remain lost and fail to reach it.

So too in relation to the idea under discussion. He who has not yet achieved dominion over his evil inclination is in the midst of the paths and cannot distinguish between them. But those who rule their evil inclination, those who have reached the portico, who have already left the paths and who clearly see all of the ways before their eyes – they can advise him who is willing to listen, and it is to them that we must trust.

And what is the advice that they give us’? – ‘Let us enter into an accounting.’ Let us come and compute the world’s account.” For they have already experienced, and seen, and learned that this alone is the true path by which a man may reach the good that he seeks, and that there is none beside this.

What emerges from all this is that a man must constantly – at all times, and particularly during a regularly appointed time of solitude – reflect upon the true path (according to the ordinance of the Torah) that a man must walk upon. After engaging in such reflection he will come to consider whether or not his deeds travel along this path. For in doing so it will certainly be easy for him to cleanse himself of all evil and to correct all of his ways. As Scripture states (Proverbs 4:26), “Consider the path of your feet and all of your paths will be established,” and (Lamentations 3:40), ll return to God.”

Judaica Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do I Attend my College Reunion?

Recently, I received a letter in the mail from the alumna association of my college for the 10 year reunion. It will be held over a summer weekend, which means that I will not be able to go to any events on Friday night. As for Saturday night, I would most likely be late to the class dinner because I couldn’t leave for the event until 9:30. One might think if I won’t be able to go to most of the events, why bother going?

Well, I disagree with that reasoning. I have many fond memories of college, some of my longest standing friendships are with people I met during that time of my life. Even though my Jewish observance didn’t grow until several years after college, I have great memories of the dinners and events I went to at Hillel and Chabad. I also have not seen some of my college friends in many years so it would be a wonderful opportunity to catch up and talk about how much our lives have changed.

Besides getting to see the college campus again and schmoozing with old and new friends, there is one other reason why I want to go. When I first started learning at Aish, I remember reading an article that stated that we are meant to fully embrace the pleasures of this world but with deliberation. This is why we say a blessing before everything we eat, and say the bircas hamazon after we eat. There are blessings we say when we see lightning, when we see a rainbow, when we see the ocean, etc. We are not supposed to run from the world and live in isolation, we are supposed to be part of the world. That includes high school and college reunions. If only my next high school reunion would fall on a Saturday night instead of a Friday night…

Readjusting the Scales

Readjusting the scales.

The other day my wife and I were sorting through our “mailbox.” This literally is a box we keep all the “non-immediate” mail that we need or want to look at, but not necessarily “must do now!” mail. I noticed that I have a lot of motorcycle magazines in the box that I still have not read. I used to read them all, cover to cover, within a few days of getting a new issue. Now I see several issues from the past few months that I never even cracked open. What’s been going on??

Hmmm, well, I started getting Art Scroll’s “A Daily Dose of Torah,” and have been trying to keep up in that. I also have “The Mishna Says” series, which I also try to read on a regular basis. Last week I started a Hebrew class. CConversational Hebrew, not necessarily what I’ll see in the Torah/siddur, but hopefully will help my pronunciation, and help me to learn more about the language anyway, plus I have family in Israel that I hope to visit again within a few years.)

After thinking about all that, an analogy suddenly flashed in my mind. During the 10 days of Repentance, we say that Hashem is looking through His book of names, deciding who will live and who will die, etc. I’m going to have to go through my reading list (magazines, books, different study material, etc.) and decide what will stay and what will be removed. Not that I’d cancel all of the motorcycle magazines and fun reading material. But instead of 4 magazines, maybe 2 will be enough. I need to set more realistic expectations.

When I relayed this to my wife, she felt bad as she thought I was sacrificing something I enjoyed reading. But as I thought about it more, I realized there’s no one holding a gun to my head, saying I must read about the next parsha, and forget reading about the flashy new motorcycle that Kawasaki is developing right now. Rather, I WANT to study the next parsha. When the bike comes out, I can still give it a spin and see if it’s what I want as well. :-)

Adults at Risk

This recent Jewish Observer article was posted at Rabbi Horowitz’s site. We thought it was an important article for the BT community, so Rabbi Horowitz cleared the way for us to post it here.

By Rabbi Mordechai Becher and Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon

For those of us that have been involved in outreach and fighting assimilation, whether as a full-time senior lecturer (as is the case with Rabbi Mordechai Becher) or as a lay activist leader (as is the case with Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon), various acronyms have become an accepted part of our mainstream “working lexicon” e.g. B.T. (Baal Teshuva), F.F.B (Frum From Birth) and F.F.H (Frum From Habit) … It is for the last mentioned category that we have coined the phrase “Adults at Risk.”

Our analyses of this phenomenon will emphasize some primary causes of the Adult at Risk crisis and more importantly, some proposed solutions. At the outset, however, a clarification of the topic at hand is essential …
Read more Adults at Risk

A “Nifty” Chag

On the first day of Succot we accumulated quite an eclectic group of individuals.

It started when my “yeshivish” daughter and son-in-law decided to come for the chag. We’re always thrilled when our married children come for Shabbos or a holiday.

Next, I received an email from an old high school friend. Her son is here in Israel on a one-semester program run by NIFTY for high school students. She wanted to know if he and a friend could join us for the holiday. (NIFTY is the reform movement’s youth organization.) We used to live down the street from them and I haven’t seen this boy in many years, but knowing his parents, I was confident that he grew up to be a fine young man.
Read more A “Nifty” Chag

Between Beauties

Reb Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaim

One of the profoundest tensions that newcomers to Judaism experience occurs within their perceptions of beauty. So many of us were initially attracted to Torah due to some sort of beauty which it promised to infuse within our lives. But before we know it, this selfsame beauty is being challenged, sometimes quite harshly, by “insiders!” If we’re lucky, we’ll pick up the dissonance purely from within our own, religiously maturing hearts. But the resistance nevertheless remains.

It’s like breaking ties with a best friend.

Personally I’ve been going through such withdrawals for quite some time and have comforted myself with the belief that “one day” I’ll be able to uplift that frustration via a little expose` on how the phenomenon works. The following is my first attempt to officially do so, based on this week’s Parsha.
Read more Between Beauties

Answers About Questions – A Primer on Seeking Rabbinical Guidance

We’ve run this article by Rabbi Horowitz a few times previously, but we all know the importance of review, so it seemed like this might be a good time to run it again. Rabbi Horowitz strikes a nice balance between developing your own Torah wisdom and asking for advice.

Dear Readers:

As so many posts and comments on this site relate to the importance of finding a rebbi/rebbitzen/mentor who can offer direction (and one who understands Ba’al Teshuva issues), I would like to share with our readers an article that I wrote on this complex subject which was recently published in the Jewish Observer.

A few points, please:

1) The article was written for the general Torah Observant community, not particularly for Ba’alei Teshuvah.

2) I find that getting poor advice – or not having a clear understanding of the mechanics and hashkafa (Torah philosophy) of seeking such guidance – is often worse than getting no advice at all.

3) In the article, I did not touch upon the issue of halacha vs. chumrah (what is halachically mandated as opposed to what would be considered to be ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ as far as halacha is concerned). I think that this is an important issue that probably deserves an entire article. These distinctions are especially critical for ‘newer’ Ba’alei Teshuva who may not yet be attuned to the nuances between halacha and chumrah.
Read more Answers About Questions – A Primer on Seeking Rabbinical Guidance

Do You Have a Rav?

We all know how important it is to have a Rav for halacha (Jewish Law questions) and hadracha (general life direction questions). The question is how many of us have a Rav? Here are some of the issues we face:

1) BTs usually don’t have a family Rav from their parents.

2) Good Rebbeim who know BT issues are busy

3) We often feel uncomfortable introducing ourselves and asking them our basic questions.

4) It’s hard to cultivate that personal relationship, and for women it’s extremely difficult since they don’t have the repeated contact at davening.

What other problems have you faced?
How did you overcome the obstacles to find your Rav?

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match…

By “MG”

While on some level, my mom probably still has the idea in the back of her head that I am going about my daily business with an inner monologue singing for someone slender and pale and waiting for a telephone call from The Matchmaker with “The One”, she acknowledges that she doesn’t _actually_ think that’s _actually_ how things work… Anymore.

As it turns out, Baruch HaShem, shidduchim was one of the first topics that I explained to my mom that she thought was a good idea. Goal-oriented dating with marriage in mind was something she approved of. It sounded like a good approach. She didn’t seem to be caught up in an idea that it was outdated, and she understood it for its practical relevance.

So, thank G-d, my mom is supportive of my approach in dating. And she’s interested in being helpful. “Mom, I’ve been thinking about the characteristics that I need in a husband. What do you think?” is a beginning of a conversation with her. She is also thoughtful and insightful in her responses to questions on some of my best characteristics. I’m grateful for the relationship that we have.

While this is good, I don’t think that it is enough to get me, as a BT, through the phase of shidduchim.

As a BT ‘in the parsha’, I find that my experience is vastly different from the experiences of others in the parsha in my community. Of the families who I am reasonably close with who have been blessed to be involved in recent wedding celebrations, it seems that the majority of matches have been made through family members, chevrusas, or other friends of the family. In other words, it’s a small enough Jewish world that the natural Jewish networking (likely combined with a fair dose of parental advocacy—‘Do you know anyone for my Rivkele?’) is sufficient, baruch HaShem, to create many happily married couples.

This network is also something extremely helpful for checking references. A parent checking out a potential match for a child may already know the potential match’s rebbi or the staff at the camp where the potential match was a counselor. With a personal connection established, maybe directly, maybe through a close intermediary, more information can flow more freely about the appropriateness of the suggested match.

As a BT, I have not had a lifetime full of connections in the frum world, and my network seems to be relatively small.

Practically speaking, when it comes to shidduchim, I need to outsource a few different things that would otherwise be done ‘in house’—in the family.

I have to actively think about how to expand my network or access the networks of others, and I need to solicit and make myself available to shidduch suggestions.

I need mentorship in the shidduch process in general and in investigating individual matches.

I need someone who will check references of the men suggested to me.

I need a personal advocate who will be on my side throughout the trials of the process.

Some of these roles can be played by friends and mentors that I have in the community. And the last one can be played in part by my family (frum or not) and select friends. But in some senses, the all-too-easy default option, is to take on myself, as many of these roles as possible.

While that may be convenient for a while and have the advantage of minimizing my obligation to others, I worry that it is not a sustainable model. When I put my energies into shidduchim and fill these various roles, I sometimes feel like I am working four jobs. Personally, professionally, physically, socially, and spiritually, I sustain myself and try to grow. I serve as my own network advocate. I call references, ask questions, and get more phone numbers in order to track down the connection through which the information will best flow. And I encourage and advocate for myself, saying, ‘You’re one phone call closer! Aren’t you excited to find out all the great things about this guy?!’

I’m not sure that it’s possible to do things this way, and if it is, I don’t think that it’s the best idea. I think that many other BTs are facing similar challenges. These BTs would benefit from a lot of different types of assistance in navigating shidduchim. If you want to help someone you know, there is more than one way to do it. If you think you know someone who is appropriate, you could certainly make a suggestion, but if you don’t, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be helpful. Serve as an entry point into ‘The Jewish Network’. Maybe you know someone who knows someone who is an appropriate match. Offer to call references. Suggest that if there are any references from your yeshivah or seminary, you would be happy to make the connection. Be a mentor for the shidduch process in general. Be a more general source of support, or suggest someone who could play that role.

Jewish marriages involving BTs happen between people who are living in distant states and between people who may have grown up in different countries from where they were when they developed into who they are today. As such, it takes more than just one matchmaker/person to bring together the zivugim that HaShem calls out. You can choose any of several ways to partner with HaShem to help bring these matches together.

Matchmaking: Not just for Yenta anymore.

At the End of the Holidays

We are winding up z’man simchateinu, the season of our joy. For me as a BT, being joyous at this time of the year can be a special challenge.

We’ve just gotten through with Yom Kippur and repenting for our sins – including bad character traits. My particular challenge is envy – not of material things, but of other people’s having observant close relatives of their own age (mainly spouses, but also brothers and sisters). Other people’s families come to visit them for the holidays, while I am essentially alone. My husband is not observant, and my only brother has not spoken to me in years though I have tried and tried to make up with him. I have no parents or parents-in-law – so I’m sort of an island. In this community, my friends are like family; but then, when their real families come to visit, I’m on the outside looking in. Well, it isn’t even fair to say that, because I’m invited for Shemini Atzeret to someone whose family is visiting, and I had plenty of other invitations. I guess it’s just a feeling of being on the outside looking in.

And as a woman, it’s not like I’m going to get to dance with the Torah. I can watch the guys doing that (everyone is there but my husband) but I have to say, I feel left out that way, too. It isn’t that I myself want to dance with the Torah; it’s that I want to see someone who belongs to me doing that.

My own children are all observant (thank G-d!) and all have their own households, but all of them live far away. I hesitate to go to them for the holidays; they are dutiful kids, but I feel like a fifth wheel, and there’s no place like home.

So am I right to say that I’ll be glad when the holidays are over and things get back to normal? Am I even allowed to say that? It’s hard not to think it.

I’ve heard many times that a Jew is obligated to serve G-d with joy. But I don’t know how to really get into that frame of mind at this time.

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.