Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Bogus Bias

Secular society is becoming less and less tolerant of gender distinctions of any kind. So it is no wonder that Amanda Bennett, a columnist for the Washington Post, took offense that an Orthodox Jewish man refused to shake her hand at a business function. Rather than accepting this incident for what it wasa religious safeguardshe chose to frame it as gender bias.

In fact, she did see it as a religious choice but nonetheless viewed it as "toxic." Here's the quote: "Why are biased acts against womeneven religiously motivated onesconsidered so much less toxic than biased acts of any other kind?"

To be sure, Orthodox Jewish men aren't necessarily doing their part to smooth over the awkwardness of rebuffing a woman who puts out her hand for a polite handshake. While there are poskim who have ruled to accept a handshake from a woman, when offered, rather than embarrass her, there are perhaps a greater number of poskim who consider any physical male-female contact absolutely assur, some even mi'De'oraisa,

Nonetheless, headlines are rarely helpful.

When international flights are delayed by men who refuse to take their seats because they believe sitting next to a woman is Halachically problematic, it's hard to find sympathy. One must wonder (a) if these people spoke to legitimate poskim, being that this is a new problem that doesn't seem to have occurred in previous decades, and (b) why these issues were not worked out prior to walking onto the plane five minutes before takeoff.

So though I will admit that there is a measure of entitlement and irresponsibility behind the demands of these so-called "ultra-" Orthodox Jews, the reality remains that they are acting out of nothing more than religious principle. If a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Baha'i, citing religious principle, refused to take his seat on a flight, my guess is that most Jews would be more sympathetic. But when it comes to witnessing other Jews doing the same, their judgment is clouded by a differing view of Halachah. Rather than satisfy themselves with a simple rolling of the eyes, they cannot resist unleashing their vitriol on our offending brethren.

But even tolerance of the religious principles of others falls away when it butts up against sacrosanct gender issues. Ms Bennett wonders, "Would such blatant behavior be treated merely as a social choice, a courtesy issue or an awkward airline customer-service problem if the targets were anyone other than women?" What if someone refused to shake hands with blacks? she asks. Or Jews?

Here, she makes two errors. One, equating the separation of genders with the separation of races and religions. Two, that this separation is somehow equal to "targeting" women.

As to the first error, although society is quickly moving to dissolve any and all barriers between the sexes, this transformation is not, and may never be, complete. We still do have gender segregationbathrooms, changing rooms in department stores, even certain gyms and gym classes. Yet, we do not tolerate racially- or religiously-segregated bathrooms or gym classes. So the equation of race and religion to gender is inaccurate.

As for the second error, this is not about "targeting" women (I find that suggestion offensive). When it comes to maintaining space between the genders, women do it too. Many Orthodox women refuse to shake hands with men who offer them. When the female cashier at the kosher bakery puts my change on the counter rather than handing it to me directly is she "targeting" me? Am I supposed to feel shunned and inferior because she is avoiding incidental touch? No and no.

Liberals have trouble wrapping their heads around this. Gender separation of any kind is seen as patriarchal and offensive. Their orthodoxy revolves around the dictum that "separate but equal" is "inherently unequal." But that Supreme Court ruling discussed race, not gender, and was specific to "educational facilities." It says nothing about bathrooms and handshakes.

Though some may take gender segregation to an extreme that many do not condoneno one ought to condemn it either, certainly not for something that it isn't.

At the same time, while everyone is requiredand entitledto follow his or her own poseik when it comes to the sensitive and crucial topic of gender separation, the mitzvos of "Ve'ahavta lerei'acha kamocha" and Kiddush Hashem do not simply fall away. Being machmir means strictly adhering to the entire corpus of Halachah. Doing so may require advance planning and quick thinking on one's feet, but if that's what's required then we best get to it. Especially if there's a plane to catch.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Shabbos Treat

"Trick or treat!"

I looked at the boy. Under the ghoulish zombie get-upwhite and black facepaint, tattered clothes, ragged wigwas my sweet, polite seven-year-old neighbor. He is Jewish.

I was disappointed. Though I couldn't blame him for sharing in the morbid rituals of the day, I  wished more for him than this awful excuse for a holiday.

Don't misunderstand. Having been born, raised and living in the United States, I have few qualms about American holidays. I even, lulei demistafina, look forward to some of them: July Fourth, with its barbeques and fireworks; Thanksgiving, with its parades and turkeys.

But Halloween simply disgusts me.

A holiday ostensibly created to honor the dead has somehow morphed into a celebrationeven glorificationof all things macabre. And it seems as if no one can wait for the celebration to begin; the preparations come earlier each year. I had just taken down my sukkah when I began to see the makeshift graveyards popping up on my neighbors' lawns. Clouds of synthetic spiderwebs enveloped the shrubbery. Spooky cats and jack-o-lanterns sat by the doorsteps. I find these customs gruesome (though, in fairness, a tombstone that reads "R.I.P. Van Winkle" elicits a chuckle).

Years ago, when we moved to our current house, I instructed my children not to answer the door on Halloween. I did not want to create a potential chillul Hashem by turning down the neighborhood kids' requests for candy. At the same time, I'm not interested in participating in pagan rituals.

I was raised in a heavily Orthodox community, and I recall just one time that trick-or-treaters rang my parents' doorbell. But I expected that in my new community, which is more mixed, that there might be significantly more foot traffic up the steps to my front door.

I needn't have worried. Apparently the local kids are aware of, and perhaps even sensitive to, our religious differences. As a rule, they don't come. But this one time...

Which brings me back to my neighbor. It was Friday night, October 31. My family was sitting at the Shabbos table, about to make Kiddush. The doorbell rang. I froze. My kids froze, looking at me. "What do we do?" said one. "I think they can see us through the window," said another. So I went to the door and opened it.

"Trick or treat!" said the ghoulish Jewish kid.

I immediately had an idea. I smiled at him. "I will treat you to something very special," I said. "But you have to come inside." He followed me to the Shabbos table. My kids smiled at him. "Do you like grape juice?" I asked?

"Um, yeah," he said, though I suspect he liked Snickers and M&M's more, and would have even settled for that vile holiday staple: candy corn. But I would give him none of that.

"Okay here's the deal," I said. "I'm going to say a special prayer. You listen and say 'amen.' Then you can have all the grape juice you want." He sat between my two boys, heard kiddush, and got his grape juice, which he gulped down. He stood up to leave.

"Good Shabbos," my son said to him.

"Good Shabbos," said the zombie before heading out the door and returning to his rounds.

So this kid had come into my house and seen the lit candelabra. Close by were two loaves of strangely twisted bread. And by their side, a tall goblet of blood-red wine, over which I, wearing my ceremonial black hat, had just chanted an ancient invocation.

I hope he wasn't too spooked.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

How The Grinch Stole Chanukah—and How to Get It Back

We have this argument, er, discussion every year.

“Why can’t we get Chanukah presents?” my children want to know.

“Because,” I explain, “there’s no such thing as Chanukah presents.”

“But all our friends are getting Chanukah presents,” they protest.

“Maybe you need other friends,” I suggest. This suggestion, as usual, does not yield anything productive. The conversation devolves to the point at which I silence everyone by threatening to move the family to Lakewood.

“But so many people give Chanukah presents. Is there really no source for that?” my wife asks innocently.

“Sure there is,” I inform her. “It’s called Christmas.”

My son, burgeoning talmid chacham that he is, tries a different tack with me. There is a mitzvah, he insists, to buy your children presents for all holidays. True, I admit, there is such a mitzvah, but it only pertains to the shalosh regalim of Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos, where there is the command, “Vesamachta  bechagecha—And you shall be happy on your Festivals.” Those gifts usually come in the form of new shoes or a tie. Besides, I remind him, when was the last time he protested not getting a gift for one of the regalim? Furthermore, I chided, what about Purim? I have yet to be asked for a Purim present.

Giving gelt, on Chanukah, yes. That seems to be a long-standing practice, though how it initially came into being is subject to much conjecture. But gifts? Nuh-uh.

Before Chanukah, I listened to a fascinating shiur by Rav Moshe Meiselman, shlit”a, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Jerusalem. He referenced the gemara in which Chazal asked Hashem to eliminate the yeitzer hara for avodah zarah, and Hashem acquiesced. The Medrash in Parshas Noach says that, with idolatry eliminated, the people of the world needed something through which their spiritual needs could be met. Ideally, the Torah should have filled that role. But because the Jews weren’t fully faithful to the dictates of Torah, they allowed Greek culture to be introduced throughout the world (via Alexander the Great’s conquests) and missed the opportunity to spread the “light” of Torah to the nations. Instead, “Christianity—a corruption of Torah—filled the void.”

Every year, the Chanukah lights are rekindled to remind us that we must see the world through the lens of Torah and not through the lens of foreign cultures. And yet, here we are, two thousand and some odd years later, and we wish to introduce into Chanukah a Christian minhag of gift-giving. The irony is too much to bear!

But perhaps we can turn the tables.

In researching the custom of Chanukah gelt on hebrewbooks.org, I came across a sefer, Leket Hachanukah (Jerusalem 2010) by R. Menashe Ben Zion Cohen, in which he tells the following story about Rebbe Mordechai of Lechovitch: “One time, after lighting the Chanukah lights, he turned to the chasidim who were around him and said, ‘Now is an eis ratzon and everyone can ask for whatever he wants for his avodas Hashem.’ The chasidim asked, each one his request.”

Here’s how I picture the scene: an elderly, saintly-looking man with a snowy, white beard, sitting by the Chanukah lights, as his chasidim line up and approach him, one by one, with an individual request for Chankah.

Hmm… Why does that sound familiar?

A little historical digging turns up the fact that Rav Mordechai died in 1810. More digging turns up the fact that although Santa Claus—or an ancestral precursor of him—may have existed prior to the eighteenth century, the popular shopping mall version of Santa, who takes gift requests, “has been credited to James Edgar, as he started doing this in 1890 in his Brockton, Massachusetts department store” (Wikipedia.org).

I don’t know if James Edgar knew of the Chassidim of Lechovitch. I don’t know if there were any Chassidim at all in Brockton, Mass. (20 miles south of Boston) in 1890. I don’t even know if there were Jews there at that time. However, it’s not impossible to imagine that somehow he took the idea from Rav Mordechai’s followers.

So for now the rule in my house remains, No Presents. However, if my kids want to go to the mall and ask the old man with the white beard for a present to help them achieve their avodas Hashem, perhaps there’s room to be meikil.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Nom de Plume: A User's Guide

When I was in my early twenties, I approached Rav Shimon Schwab zt"l, and told him I aspired to be a writer but worried over the possibility of being attacked for any controversial opinion I might have. His response was simple: Use a pen name. He told me that he had done so himself early in his career.

The recent controversy embroiling a certain respected rav and posek is saddening, but also instructive to anyone who hasas I haveused a pen name. Like many areas of life, there's good anonymity and bad anonymity. Good anonymity includes the desire to be left alone in shul, to avoid having your employer question your commitment to politically correct social beliefs, to keep your children from being thrown out of your yeshiva of choice. Bad anonymity is a tree to hide behind, so that no one can trace the mud you're slinging.

The following is a guide to writing under a name that (so far) no one knows is you. These simple rules should help you stay out of trouble.

1. The views expressed herein are your own. The anonymous author can remain anonymous as long as his views are a true reflection of his thinking and beliefs. Never write anything that you wouldn't own up to if (or, more likely, when) it catches up with you. There are many valid reasons for expressing views anonymously. Not truly holding those views is not one of them.

2. Nothing personal. The anonymous author cannot attack others. Ad hominem attacks must be sacrificed on the altar of the pen name. It's only fair. A man (or woman) has a right to be confronted by his (or her) accuser. In fact, I would argue, even to simply comment on someone else's behavior from behind the veil of anonymity is inappropriate. The best use of a pen name is to stick to issues and stay away from people. The only exceptions, perhaps, are public figures (the president, the prime minister, Donald Trump).

3. I.D., please. It should be made clear, as much as possible, that you are using a pen name. I originally began commenting and blogging under the name ClooJew. When I started publishing articlessome of which made their way into printa request was made for my handle to "grow up." So I abbreviated ClooJew to CJ and added a last name. I have never hidden the fact that I use a pen name. Only once has it been the subject of controversywhen I had a piece published on Cross-Currents, whose policy it is to not accept pieces from anonymous authors (which I didn't know at the time). I emailed the editor to "remind" him that I use a pen name, and he washow to put it delicatelynot happy. The piece was already set to run, and so it did. I apologized, but was still banned from further publishing on that site (though only as an author; I have commented many times on that site since then).

4. Historical accuracy. If you don't want to share details of your life, don't. But if you do, then they ought to be details of your lifenot the "life" of your fictitious alter ego. For example, I am an actual Phillies fan; that's not simply my blog's favorite team while the "real me" roots for the Mets. Or, Heaven forfend, the Yankees. The above story about Rav Schwab is true. It happened to me. When I was in my early twenties.

Again, the simple rule of thumb is this: If someone were to flip a switch and suddenly everything you published would appear under your true name, viewed by friends and family, neighbors and colleagues, would you stand by every word as truthful and representative of your opinion? If the answer is yes, you're good to go.

If the answer is no, maybe you have a good novel in you. I'm sure the fiction section at your local library would love to have you.

Monday, January 16, 2012

It's a Sin!

The other Motzaei Shabbos, it happened again. An accomplished, articulate, and learned man—in a shul full of accomplished, articulate, and learned people—took the amud to daven. Maariv passed uneventfully. Until the end, that is, when, in the extra pesukim we read after the Shemoneh Esrei, the chazzan concluded: “Orech yamim ashbi’eihu ve’areihu bishu’asi.”

Ashbieihu”?

Arrgh. It’s a sin!

This was not the first time I’d heard this particular mistake, and I sincerely doubt it will be the last. Nor is this example the only mistake of its kind that my tender ears have been exposed to over the years. I hear it again in the concluding verse of the shir shel yom for Thursday: “…umitzur devash ashbi’eka”; or sometimes “asbi’echa”; or else the doubly wrong “ashbiecha.” For some People of the Book simply reading the Book correctly proves problematic.

Are people paying attention? Should someone say something?

The Tanach warns us of the problem. In the book of Shoftim, the people of Ephraim started up with Yiftach Hagiladi. War broke out and Yiftach’s side won. Subsequently, Yiftach’s men stood guard by the Jordan river and would not let the people of Ephraim cross back over to get to their homes. In order to determine who was from Ephraim, they seized upon a speech pattern unique to the Ephraimites—replacing a “sh” with “s.” When someone approached, “they said to him, please say shibboles, and he said sibboles for he could not pronounce it properly, and they took him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand from Ephraim fell at that time” (12:6).

While I’m not suggesting capital punishment for textual misreadings, it is clear that proper pronunciation does count for something.

And while we’re on the subject, am I the only one who cringes when the person saying Kaddish refers to G-d’s Name as "Shemei dekedushah Berich Hu," instead of "deKudsha." Here's another favorite from the birchas haminim in Shemoneh Esrei: "Vechol oh-vecha meheirah yikareisu." While I understand that there are people who are preternaturally incapable of pronouncing the sound,"oy” under any and all circumstances, there remains in the word a yud that demands to be recognized. Not to worry. As it is coupled with a sheva nah, it can be rendered, with a little effort, "oh-yehvecha, your enemies." Ovecha, on the other hand, simply means, "your necromancers." And while cutting off necromancers may not be a bad idea, it’s not the idea of this particular berachah.

Likewise, whenever I attend a siyum, I squirm in my seat, hoping it won’t come. But too often it does. Nearing the end, the mesayeim will declare, "Vehakitzosa hi teshichecha." Someone needs to give a shichah about this problem. It's wonderful to finish a mesechta in Shas or a seder of mishnayos, but would it hurt to first learn the pesukim?

I'm not even addressing the evils of slurring words or of alternating between muttering and mumbling while davening, or, worse, while leining from the Torah. Nor am I getting on anyone's case about the difference between the sheva na and the shva nach. Or the mapik hei. Not today anyway.

Today I simply want to point out that when a shin has a dot on the left end, it’s a sin.

Perhaps the best use of my perturbation (other than writing about it) is further introspection. For lest anyone think that I am Mr. High and Mighty, condescending upon the lowly, befuddled masses with their troubled tongues and marbly mouths, I have, on occasion, caught the malapropic bug myself. For instance, it was decades before I recognized that the phrase in the shir shel yom for Wedensday was "veyesomim yeratzeichu." For years, I had been saying (ahem) "yeracheitzu"—and while I’m quite sure that most orphans would far prefer to be washed than murdered, it was still incorrect.

Besides for watching out for my pronunciation and that of others I also should be careful with what I’m saying. I’m not talking about putting on “kavanah face”—but about increasing focus on pirush hamilos, or avoidance of daydreaming at the very least.

We all make mistakes—some more important than others. When it comes to tefillah, it behooves us to pronounce the words diligently, even if it slows us down. But when we catch someone else making an error, it also pays to be forgiving. After all, we are asking no less for ourselves from God.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11

What I remember most about September 11 is not what I saw.

Though I did see—I stood several miles from the Twin Towers, on the corner of East Broadway in the Lower East Side of Manhattan with a beeline view of the buildings as they burned. It felt like I was watching a scene from a movie. This couldn’t be happening, really. This wasn’t an actual event.

But it was.

My neighbors and I were as close to the event as one could be without feeling any imminent danger. They mostly stood there, gaping, dumbfounded, incredulous. I headed to shul to daven. Not because I’m such a tzaddik, but because I had woken up late and hadn’t prayed yet that morning. When I came out, the buildings were gone.

But what I saw is not what I remember most.

As the day continued forward, there was nothing to do. No work to go to. No school, though my kids were too young for school. So we stayed at home and watched the news. But what good was that? What could they tell us that would improve the situation? Why did we have to watch video of the plane flying into the south tower over and over again?

It was early afternoon, and I had to do something. I was so close to the event, but I wasn’t in Hatzolah, I wasn’t trained in any capacity to assist in an emergency. So I told my wife I was going to the hospital. Surely they’d be bringing the injured there and they would need blood donors at the very least, maybe even volunteers.

I hiked to the hospital on 14th Street. It was a beautiful day. And quiet. Perfectly quiet.

When I arrived at the hospital, I saw hundreds of people outside waiting. Not patients, volunteers. They all had the same thought I had. We all stood waiting for the sound of sirens to break the stillness, ambulances arriving. But it never happened. The quiet continued.

I approached a doctor and asked him what was going on inside the hospital. Not much, he replied. It went unsaid: whoever walked away from Ground Zero was more or less okay. Everyone else was killed. “Anything I can do to help?” I asked. He suggested I try to get people to sign up to donate blood at a future date. The city always needed blood donors.

The silence enveloped New York for the next several days. Transportation to, from, and even within Manhattan was curtailed and to some extent shut down completely. People walked, but they did so gently, as if the very earth they stood on could crumble at any minute.

But the silence is not what I remember most.

The odor from Ground Zero quickly carried to our corner of the city. It didn’t leave quickly. It was the same smell as burnt rubber, but you knew it was more. It was—literally—the smell of death, of terror, of murder. Sharp and pungent, it burned your nostrils, and knowing the source, burned deeper than that.

But the smell is not what I remember most.

What I remember most is the people, the sudden bond that seized all New Yorkers, the silent brotherhood that was created by collective mourning. It was as if the entire city was sitting shiva. You passed people in the street but you didn’t talk. A nod of the head was all.

But nod you did. You didn’t ignore. People wanted to reach out to each other in ways they never did before. New York—noisy, arrogant, impersonal—suddenly became quiet, humbled, a family.

People kept saying that nothing would ever be the same again, but I found that more-or-less, life gradually returned to normal, albeit with heightened security in office buildings and airports. But I do believe that New York City became a nicer, gentler place. The proof came the following year. A blackout enveloped the city, and with the power out, people found themselves—once again—walking long distances home.

I walked home, from the bank where I worked to my apartment. Along with some colleagues, I trekked over the Brooklyn Bridge into lower Manhattan. It was late evening and the sun was setting. The bridge was packed with people in both directions. You couldn’t actually walk, so much as shuffle your feet forward a few inches at a time. But no one complained. Everyone behaved. No pushing, no shoving, no yelling, no screaming.

“At least it wasn’t a terrorist attack,” I heard more than one person remark. It’s what we were all thinking, as we crawled home, happy to be here, securely surrounded by family.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The New Normal

Once, when I was in the eighth grade, the boys in my class were discussing what to do with their bar mitzvah money. One of the boys mentioned something called a money market, which he explained was just like a savings account, and paid around ten percent interest. To my young, impressionable, pre-teen mind, that number became the benchmark against which all other rates of return were judged; for years, I considered ten percent to be a normal passive rate of return on money.

Fast forward many years. I became a financial advisor. I had already learned that ten percent money market returns were an aberration. In fact, no relatively safe investment could be counted on to deliver a return approaching that number. One would have to take on the full measure of volatility in the stock market to potentially average ten percent over time.

Fast forward to today.

Bill Gross is the co-Chief Investment Officer of PIMCO, a Newport Beach, California money management firm. PIMCO’s flagship Total Return Fund, under the stewardship of Gross, has grown to become the largest mutual fund in the world. Last summer, Gross and company described the economic circumstances and market conditions that they believe will face us over the coming years. They called it “the new normal.”

What is the new normal? Among other things it means slower economic growth, high unemployment, low interest rates, and tepid, “half-sized” – that is to say, four to five percent – stock market returns. In other words, you know the financial crisis we’ve been trying to shake? Well, get used to it. “All investors should expect considerably lower rates of return than what they grew accustomed to only a few years ago,” Gross insists.

The new normal will naturally have ramifications in the Jewish world, and in particular, the frum world. Consider:

• Yeshivos today, most of which were never—even at the height of the economic bubble—flush with funds, are under enormous financial strain. Some are being starved out of existence.

• While Information Technology is poised to be one of the growth areas of the new economy (along with Healthcare and Biotech), many frum people who are “in computers” do not currently possess the knowledge and skills for these jobs. According to a friend of mine who works for a cutting-edge IT firm, many are only trained for obsolete systems and have not kept up with the rapid changes in this field.

• For awhile it seemed like every former yeshiva guy and his brother-in-law were mortgage brokers, working very long days and weeks financing and refinancing properties for anyone and everyone who came along—making terrific commissions along the way. No longer. Fewer people are buying houses, fewer people are qualifying for mortgages, and those who are and do are finding that some banks (Chase, for example) are not taking mortgage loan applications from independent brokers.

• The frum world will always have its share of entrepreneurs, but with the severe tightening of credit, many are not getting the chance to borrow the money required to build, or even expand, businesses. Established real estate investors are finding deals, and many have cash on hand to finance them. But many younger people who are trying to get started in that business have it tough.

• One of the biggest supporters of kollelim in Eretz Yisrael saw his fortune—in the hundreds of millions—evaporate in a matter of weeks. I happened to meet him briefly by chance when he was borrowing office space from a client of mine, and watched as he sat hunched over on his cell phone trying to keep his kollelim from going under. He will survive, but many of his beneficiaries are already leaving kollel and returning to America.

And the setbacks did not begin in the last two years.

In 2003, The Wall Street Journal reported how Indians were quickly replacing Jews as the premier diamond dealers in Antwerp, Belgium. The Jews, who had at one point controlled 70% of the trade, saw their influence dwindle to just 25% in a few years. That number is even smaller today. At the time, Henri Rubens, one of the community’s leaders, declared the end of the glory days noting, “We were too complacent. Now that we realize it, it's too late.” Mr. Rubens went into real estate.

These past few decades have been remarkable for the Jewish nation, and for the Orthodox in particular. We have grown both materially and spiritually, and the two often worked hand-in-hand. Much of our largesse was committed to building a strong infrastructure of homes, shuls, yeshivos and mosdos.

But the last couple of years have been challenging; the infrastructure is showing strain and even some cracks. Many feel that we simply have to get through this rough period before going back to “normal.” But what if we’re in for a new normal? What if we need to adjust our thinking and our budgets accordingly—not just for a few years but permanently?

God will surely provide us with what we need; but our definition of “need” may have to be adjusted. Should a more moderate financial future face us, we must not allow it to slow down our spiritual growth. Our commitment to Torah and mitzvos, to educating our children and feeding our poor, to learning diligently and working honestly, must not waver.

But what we spend on our homes, our cars, our vacations, and even our simchas may need to be reigned in considerably.