Another World

Many years ago I sought the attention of an obgyn doc in Manhattan, Dr. Kevin Jovonovic, for a tricky problem I was having that another doctor was recommending surgery to fix. Dr. Kevin specializes in this problem and although it took me an hour train ride, and then an hour’s walk to his office by Central Park (I’ll walk two miles in the city before I’ll get into a taxicab there!), I was glad I made the visit. He correctly diagnosed the problem, gave me a non surgical fix, and I’ve been coming back to him for annual physicals twice a year ever since; once you’ve found a doctor who is smart, compassionate, and responsive, you don’t let them go over something like a less-than-ideal distance away. I joke with Dr. Kevin that I must be his patient with the longest commute to his office!

I am writing this column on the train back from my visit to Dr. Kevin this morning. When a writer is struck with the writer’s muse, unless it’s Shabbos, she has to write while the inspiration flows in!

Last night I set the alarm for 5 AM, so that I could catch the 6 AM train to New York from my Highland Park, NJ home, and then walk to his office for my 8 AM appointment. I bundled up in layers, earmuffs, gloves, and winter tights for the cold long walk, and donned my best sneakers for the mileage. As I emerged from the train, I was immediately accosted by the sights, sounds and smells of the bustling New York city streets, as every nationality, size, and cultural group whisked by me, rushing somewhere. It struck me how weird it is that I leave my suburban home in NJ, take a one hour train ride, and I emerge on a different planet, an environment so different and unfamiliar to me, with no gradual transition. Off the train, walk a few minutes, and NY City is all around me.

I search for familiar landmarks to anchor me, and to reassure me that I have not lost my way. The kosher pizza store on Broadway.The three-story high Macys.The glittering billboards of Times Square.The 5-dollar pashimi scarves selling on the corner, and the carts on every corner selling trafe food not for me. The recognizable sights remind me that I am on track to my destination, but all around me, the New York City pandemonium overwhelm my senses. I marvel: How can a trainride transport someone to such a different world in under an hour?

This feeling I had in New York City this morning is as close as I can describe to what I feel like when I spend time visiting my secular family. The landmarks are familiar – old childhood photos on the wall, familiar people, the smells and sounds and language of my childhood. I try to orient myself, so I am not lost, but I am now on an alien planet. I left my home and entered another, but it’s not just another home – it is the home of family who do not observe Torah and mitzvot the way that we do. After over two decades of keeping Shabbos and raising a frum family, I am becoming as disoriented when I visit my family of origin as I feel when I emerge from the train to New York City.

Shomer Shabbos used to be the alien world and I was a visitor from another planet. Now the secular world is strange to me.

I can’t wait to get off this train, and to be back home where I belong.

Azriela Jaffe, and of 32 books, holocaust memoir writer, novelist, and freelance writer for Mishpacha magazine and Ami magazine. Contact email:

Declaration of Dependence

by Chaim G.

Today is Independence Day. Guess this is one of those quirky years when it coincides with July the 4th. It is a day when we grill the flesh of bovines in our backyards and our own epidermis’ on beaches. Somewhere, deep in the hidden strata of our collective societal subconscious, we also exult in breaking the shackles of tyrannical monarchy to enjoy the diverse blessings of liberty and democracy.

The eternal question though is; is it good for the Jews?

Hobbes wrote that “the sovereign ruler is by definition above the law” and Jean Bethke Elshtain’s added, “laws take the form of his untrammeled will.” Without a doubt this puts all of his/her subject as at a vulnerable disadvantage. Yet the absence of sovereign monarchs from the world stage puts us at a distinct disadvantage in terms of our relationships with HaShem. Lacking kings claiming “the Divine Right (to rule)” we are short of living breathing metaphors for the right of the Divine King. Every brakha containing the phrase Melekh HaOlam= King of the Universe, every Avinu Malkenu, rings hollow without any sense of the majesty, sovereignty and POWER of Princes.

All brakhos are phenomenological. While saying “Blessed are you HaShem, King of the Cosmos, who created the fruit of the vine” is always a true statement it’s a brakha l’vatala= a brakha in vain unless one is about to imbibe wine/ grape juice. Still, by and large, brakhos are opportunistic. We seldom find a halakha of striving to come in contact with a phenomenon that forces a brakha. The brakha pronounced over kings is a notable exception. The Gemara in Brakhos states that one should exert themselves to see kings, even gentile kings. Also IIRC this is the only brakha in which hearing the phenomenon is sufficient and seeing is not required. IMO the brakha over Kings is exceptional because it is so essential for us to forge an authentic relationship with HaShem.

It is striking that King James I claimed for himself the right “to exalt low things, and abase high things, and make of their subjects like men at the Chesse.” It resonates with our liturgy in describing HaShem as a “mashpil geyim and maggbihah shefalim”. It is also extremely apt because it implies that although, in theory, the absolute Monarch could make up the rules as he goes along, there is, in fact, a game with certain immutable rules that cannot be flouted. Try as he might a sovereign monarch playing chess cannot move his Rooks as he would his Bishops. This speaks to HaShem’s “willingness” to abide by the “limitations” of “midah k’neged midah”= quid pro quo, in dealing with His chess pieces. Re HaShem although “He make-uh da game, He play-uh by da rules”

And while Adam Kirsch wrote in a recent NY Sun Review of Ms. Bethke Elshtain’s book Sovereignty: God, State, and Self that “natural law, history shows, has an unsettling malleability: It tends to become an honorific for prejudice and custom” the current era of the sovereign self, the logical conclusion of the French revolution and July 4th 1776, has culminated in “a self conceived in terms of total autonomy and absolute will — … a monster of egotism.”, in Ms. Elshtain’s view and the expressions of this egotism include radical feminism, sexual license, abortion rights, eugenics, stem cell research, and cloning.

So here’s my dilemma: While a Merciful Providence micromanaging history replaced monarchies with parliamentary democracies and directed a large chunk of His nearly shattered people to these shores in the years following the Holocaust, shores where we breathe free and enjoy religious liberty unprecedented in our long and bitter Galus=Diaspora, did He do so at the expense of His own “prestige” and, concomitantly, at the expense of our own ability to relate to Him in a real and authentic way? To wax metaphoric, did He “raise us on the wings of eagles” and take the hunters arrows for us yet again? And in so doing are the eaglets and chicks now orphans with warped views of their own Parent?

The article that inspired this post is here. Click on the link and read this provocative review. It alone is worth the price of admission!

First Published 7/2008