Posted on | September 6, 2011 | By Ron Coleman | 15 Comments
Oh, to be a squeaky-clean Ivy League “BT.”
Oh, you have your “wild” times — beer pong! woo-hoo! — find religion, clean up your act a little, snag a nice job in an investment bank or law firm after a couple of years in Israel learning Rashi script, and you can be very pleased with yourself and your perfect little route to repentance and, well, perfection, right? Special attention in yeshiva — quick acceptance, a better dorm room, special tutoring. You’re a poster boy for the “movement.” Eventually you end up in the video for your yeshiva’s college kiruv program, and they shoot your segment from your office overlooking Central Park, and you are proof to all the world of how a “normal,” “accomplished” person can become a religious Jew . . .
Meanwhile you still even send in cleverly-phrased updates to the alumni magazine. Still all those valuable contacts, after all — it’s a parnassah [earning a living] thing, believe me, you don’t hold of it at all . . .
You think I think there’s something wrong with that? It’s not a bad life. On the contrary, it’s a very fortunate life. E-Z teshuvah for the all-’round high achiever.
There are grittier stories, though. Harder climbs. Less celebrated ones. And while we all say we must never stop climbing, there are some whose uphill journey never reaches a suitable-for-framing plateau. You know, where you can just drop off your pack, take in the view, maybe even turn your BlackBerry around and take your own picture from up there to send to your friends when you get back to where the signal kicks in.
Many of the baalei teshuva who take these ascents aren’t the write-this-up-for-a-blog types. But being a poster boy means sometimes looking beyond your own marvelous reflection, right?
Doing so can be quite beneficial. Purifying, even. (Humbling? Well, now, let’s not push it. Still . . .)
So, there’s a powerfully touching story about the Satmar Rav. I have seen it written that it took place upon his taking leave of Eretz Yisroel, where he lived briefly after the War, or after one of his extended visits there, but the story essentially is this:
One of his devoted chasidim asked him, “Once you who leave, who can we take a kvitel to?” [A kvitel is a letter or note requesting that a tzaddik seek Divine intervention on behalf of a petitioner.] The Rav replied, “Anywhere you see a man with a number tattooed on his arm putting on tefillin — that is someone you can bring a kvitel to!”
This always compelled me, in many ways, but the beauty of this story is often lost in retellings of it.
What the Satmar Rav was saying was not that a person who survived the Holocaust takes on saintly status. Rather, it is that such a person who still puts on tefillin — which are nothing but an os, a symbolic affirmation, of faith — is a saint. For whose emunah [belief] has been proved more than that of such a person?
The Satmar Rav knew well that it’s easy to be a what in Yiddish they call “ah tzaddik in peltz.” The trick is to be devoted to Hashem and his Torah in a less luxurious skin than you’re comfortable in.
Whereas if you’re never really tested — E-Z teshuvah — what are your “religious” accomplishments, even if they are unconventional compared to the rest of your classmates?
And there are all sorts of tests.
Now, I have never been all that comfortable with the phrase “spiritual Holocaust” to describe the spiral of self-imposed national destruction Jews have imposed on themselves known as assimilation. But in light of the foregoing story, and an observation I made in the mikvah [ritual bath] a few years ago, I began to think that perhaps the term was more apt than I had thought.
The juxtaposition occurred to me after I went to the mikvah once on an erev Shabbos, as is customary among many men. And there I saw a young man who — you couldn’t avoid noticing it — was covered, chest to ankle, with tattoos.
Covered, big time. Purple. Green. Black. Monsters, whatever. Quite a sight.
He was the same young man I had seen in hasidic levush [garb] in shul. Quiet, unassuming, as earnest as you could ever like. Maybe to a fault.
I knew he was a baal teshuvah. I knew a little of his story, in fact.
But I didn’t know about . . . this.
I couldn’t get the picture that that tattooed torso out of my mind. And it occurred to me, eventually, that, well, you can wash off a lot in the mikvah, spiritually speaking. And I am certain there are people with tattoos who have less need for spiritual cleansing than many of the lilliest-toned among us.
But to go to the mikvah knowing that you look like that, and having a pretty good idea of what people will think, or being a meek person yet aware that they will notice, and . . .
How many of us poster boys would be up for that?
No, I have no rebbe. So except for what I send every couple of years to the Alumni Weekly, I don’t do kvitels.
But if I did — to that fellow, I would give my kvitel.
Ron Coleman blogs at Likelihood of Confusion.