Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Shiny Happy People Holding Hands

“Hello you!” I said when I saw her. “How’ve you been?”

She said she was on a new path in life and feeling very good about it. She had broken up with her boyfriend and was looking for someone new, someone real.

“You look terrific,” I commented.

“I feel great,” she told me. “I’ve been working out, getting in shape, and I lost fifteen pounds since I stopped keeping Shabbos. All I did on Shabbos was sit around and eat."

I was disappointed. And, in uncharacteristic fashion, I let her know I was disappointed. Because I believed she knew better. She was better. “How could you do a thing like that?” I asked. “How could you just give up Shabbos?”

“Well, you know,” she said cheerfully, “Shabbos just wasn’t doing it for me anymore.”

Aha. I see.

It seems that for the last several decades, the Jewish outreach establishment has been guilty of a certain amount of deception. They’ve been selling Torah and Judaism under a pretext—the doctrine of happiness. “Become religious and your problems will vanish,” they all but shout. “Living a life of Torah is true freedom, true happiness.”

Well, yes it is. But.

Here’s a hard fact to swallow: Judaism is not always pleasurable, not always convenient, not always spiritually uplifting. Sometimes even—brace yourselves!—Judaism is a real drag. It’s burdensome. It’s inconvenient. Sometimes Judaism just doesn’t “do it” for us.

G-d will always challenge our commitment to His Torah. Sometimes those tests will be small (a little loshon hara here, a little angry outburst there); sometimes they will loom large (Do the Rabbis really have the authority to tell me what to do? Does G-d really care about every little thing I do?)

If we are intellectually honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge the irrationality of questioning God when we are feeling down and out, but not when we are feeling positive and motivated. However, that’s not the way many of us operate. As long as Judaism is “working” for me, I’m in. I believe. But as soon as it gets to be “too much,” as soon as that emotional high departs, I’m done.

Our relationship with G-d is compared to a marriage, and in marriage, love begins where infatuation leaves off. Love is a result of commitment, and G-d challenges that commitment. That’s not to say that G-d wants Judaism to bore and burden us, but He does want us to run that gauntlet every so often.

The Torah identifies these two poles. On the one hand is the Living Torah, the Torah of good clean living, which gives us a structured lifestyle—the troika of Shabbos, kashrus and taharas hamishpachah—that is conducive to long-term happiness. At the other end is the Torah of Truth, the vision of G-d’s world that we subjugate ourselves to His word and will—whether we understand it or not, whether we feel like it or not.

There are many descriptions of the Torah given in Scripture. Yet the word “Toras—the Torah of,” which to my mind is a distillation of the essence of Torah, happens only rarely. Sometimes the Torah is called Toras Hashem, the Torah of G-d; sometimes it is called Toras Moshe, the Torah of Moses. But the only two descriptive (as opposed to possessive) terms for the Torah are Toras Chessed and Toras Emes. These are the two sides of Torah.

Many times in life, G-d blesses us with kindness, with charity, with His everpresent love, and we feel the radiance of His closeness. Toras Chessed—literally, the Torah of Kindness—stands for that facet of the Torah which makes life warm and wonderful. Our days feel shiny, bright, and full of hope. Our classes are inspirational, our friendships motivate us to be good and to do good.

Then there’s the rest of life.

Often we don’t feel a thing. We don’t feel moved we don’t feel motivated, and we certainly don’t feel spiritual. Instead, we feel drained, put upon, frustrated, even angry. Judaism “just doesn’t do it for us anymore.” That’s where Toras Emes comes in.

On Sinai we swore our allegiance: “Naaseh venishmah—We will do and we will hear.” Sometimes the doing has to come before the hearing. Sometimes we observe even when we don’t “hear” what it’s doing for us. Sometimes we do what the Torah asks us through clenched teeth because the truth is it is the Word of G-d. And even when we’re not fully convinced that we know exactly what the truth is, we do it because we believe in the essence of Judaism. We believe in the Torah.

To quote those nice Jewish boys from California, “Wouldn’t it be nice…” Wouldn’t it be nice if every mitzvah we did gave us instant spiritual gratification? Wouldn’t it be nice if every Shabbos was a 25-hour period of emotional bliss? Wouldn’t it be nice if every time we sat down to study Torah we were overwhelmed by intellectual stimulation? Wouldn’t it be nice if every time we prayed we felt instantly connected to G-d?


But that’s not life—not even most of the time. So when those moments do come, savor them. But when they don’t come, just do the best you can. And never give up.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

30 Tammuz

This is a post I have been working on in the hopes it never gets published...

Somewhere in the back of my mind I always felt it was a question of “when” not “if.”

Despite the fact that I had witnessed 9/11, despite the fact that I had ridden the New York City subway on the very day that her London counterpart exploded in three places, despite the fact that I often think of my cousin's narrow escape from a bus-bombing in Jerusalem—despite it all, I never allowed my imagination to wander too far down the "what if?" path of a cold, cruel reality.

That it could happen to us. Not just here in New York, but to us here. And now my imagination doesn't have to wander. It's focused. The pain is palpable. Wrath, grief, regret all swim around in a hodgepodge of confusion. It happened. It actually happened.

Now, alongside 9/11 in the United States, alongside 7/7 in England, we add 30/Tamuz, using the Hebrew date to signify the uniquely Jewish aspect of the tragedy.

The terrorists were obviously planning this for some time. How could they not be? Brooklyn is as multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-religious as it gets. People of all shapes and colors pass through her daily, people from all walks of life, in all modes of dress. No one would have ever noticed, let alone suspected, a young man riding the D-Train, reading intently from a dog-eared Koran that sat atop the bulging knapsack on his lap.

It all makes perfect sense.

Where else would Palestinian sympathists—furious over the treatment of their co-religionists overseas, furious at the Zionist-American government for supporting the oppressors of their bretheren, furious at their Jewish neighbors here in America who feel closer to the Jewish settler six thousand miles away than to the non-Jew living next door—find such a deserving target? Brooklyn. Plety of Jews, plenty of Jew-haters.

These kids watch the news. They see it every day on television; see how the martyrs are honored; see how their own families and communities react with hidden admiration. Did we really believe not one would step forward. They found twenty willing to climb on a plane, why not one to hop a subway?

One youth, valiant or disgruntled—take your pick. Someone not afraid to die and not afraid to kill. A kid like so many others in the world—except this one lives on our side of the Atlantic. How did we actually fool ourselves into thinking that not one such teenager existed? How did we fool ourselves into thinking that, with all their efforts in spreading radical Islam, they would fail to find one recruit to drop the bomb?

One young man (or woman) to climb on a subway with a knapsack full of explosives, promises of Paradise ringing in his ears. One young man to tuck the Koran in his pocket, sling the knapsack over one shoulder, get off the train, and walk leisurely toward a kosher deli in Boro Park. One young man, who looks like your average Middle Eastern Jew, to order his last meal: a burger, fries and coke, before taking a seat in the middle of the crowded restaurant and waiting. Waiting for the place to fill up.

What hurts the most is how easy it was.

Nearly one hundred people died in the explosion, most of them under the age of eighteen. The two shops adjacent were destroyed as well. So were the windows of many of the stores across the street. The cars on Thirteenth Avenue were ripped open like tuna fish cans.

Hatzalah trucks came wailing nearly immediately, their sirens pouring out the emotion of a whole community. The Post photographer captured the image of a fourteen-year Hatzoloh veteran, sitting on the sidewalk, weeping. Hatzoloh members, recently trained in Israel by Zaka, were spending more time picking body parts from the debris than administering CPR. There were so few left to save.

The helplessness that gripped me on September 12 rushed back full force as I entered shul that evening, Rosh Chodesh Av. What could we do? What could we have done? What could I have done?

And then I remembered.

I remembered how I had left the same shul that very morning in such a hurry. I had walked out before the shliach tzibbur was finished. Oh yes, he had finished the traditional prayers, but afterward he began to recite some Tehillim. Our shul had been doing that now for years. Ever since the Intifada erupted, many congregations had added the recitation of just two or three chapters of Psalms at the end of the service. An extra five minutes, tops.

Initially, we all pronounced these additional words with great deliberation and feeling, imploring the Good L-rd to watch over and protect us and "Acheinu, kol Beis Yisrael—Our brothers, the entire Congregation of Israel." But the fervor didn't last. As the advent of homicide bombers abated, so did our concentration, and then our interest. After a while it was rote. The chazzan would rush through those Psalms while the congregation began to discuss the upcoming day: How did the market look? Was rain in the forecast? Were the Yankees at home or in Boston?

By evening the bloody boom from the bowels of Brooklyn cleared those thoughts. The market is down, the weather is dreary, and the Yankees do not exist.

But the Good L-rd still does.

And while those poor families are mourning, making arrangements for funerals and shiva; while the pundits are pontificating, second-guessing homeland security and analyzing religious divides; while the terrorists are celebrating, toasting their latest martyr and seeking their next one; I will be back in the synagogue, saying those Psalms. Only this time I will recite them as I should have in the past, slowly, with feeling, trying to grasp their meaning and depth. I will listen to the words leaving my mouth.

I pray He does too.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Big Tipper

I had one of my more memorable "Costanza" moments the other day when I bought a computer at Circuit City. Along with the computer came a monitor and a printer. All in all, a great package, $300 for the whole deal.

So I pull out my credit card, sign on the dotted line, collect my receipt and no less than four rebate coupons, and wait for my computer to arrive at the customer service counter. In no time a goliath of a man appears with three large boxes stacked on his dolly.

“Where to?” he asks.

I led him to my car, which was parked right outside, and he loads the boxes into the back. While he’s doing this, I open my wallet. Four twenties and a single.

What to do? Must tip the man—but a dollar? Should I just give him a twenty? Ask if he can break a twenty? Give him a handful of quarters from the change compartment under the dash?


So I gave him the single with a nod that said, “Good job, ol’ mate!” pretending to be completely oblivious to the social contract I had just broken. I became, and will forever remain, in that man’s eyes: A Bad Tipper.

I have several vices but none of them so irksome—especially to people who land in the unenviable position of dining out with me—as my penchant for overtipping. Curiously, this habit was borne not out of magnanimity but out of fear—the fear of appearing cheap. Welcome to the wonderful world of Yarmulke Boy (a moniker given me by a Merrill Lynch stockbroker, who for no apparent reason felt the need to call out to me one morning, “Hey, Yarmulke Boy!”). Yarmulke Boy goes through life with the knowledge that every one of his actions—good, bad, or ugly—is a reflection, fairly or unfairly, on the Orthodox Jewish community.

And I want that community to look good. I want me to look good. So I overtip.

Some have argued that overtipping is as crude as undertipping, but I disagree. Having been a waiter myself, I know that the urge to say, “Look at that fat, lazy zhlub with all the money, throwing it around like it has no value,” is completely submerged by the more polite and heartfelt, “Thank you ever so much, sir. Please, do come again!”

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this practice is when it comes to taxicabs. Sometimes, usually late at night, I’ll take a cab rather than wait for the subway or bus, rationalizing that it’s worth a few extra bucks to get home a bit earlier and grab a few more minutes of sleep. But then I realize that the five-dollars-and-change cab fare swells to eight or nine based on my generosity. Suddenly we’re talking real money.

Just do the math: A $5.40 fare generates a 20% tip, which comes to $1.08, for a total of $6.48. But you can’t (you simply can’t) ask for change at that point so you round it up to seven dollars. Then Mr. Generous, Yarmulke Boy, comes along and says, “Hey, he’s a poor hack, out here late at night on a twelve-hour shift, with gas costing nearly three dollars a gallon. He’s trying to support a family. Probably has a dozen mouths to feed and an elderly mother who needs her medicine but has no health insurance. Give the guy a break. An extra buck won’t kill you, but it will make his evening.”

So you hand the man eight bucks. And there you have it: a 48% tip.

Bob Hope was a great comedian but a hopeless tipper. Not the way you want to go down in history. People explain away his behavior as a consequence of his going through the Depression.

Frank Sinatra, on the other hand, was, by all accounts, a monster of a man, but as great a tipper as they come. The story is told that Frank once walked into a hotel and asked the bellhop what was the largest tip he ever got. “One hundred dollars,” he replied. Frank promptly took out three hundred-dollar bills from his wallet and handed them to the young man. As he turned to leave, Frank stopped him. “Hey kid,” he asked, “who was it that gave you the hundred?”

The bellhop replied, “Why that would have been you, sir.”

So the next time I’m faced with a crisis like the one outside Circuit City, all I need to do is ask myself, “What would Frank do?” and the answer becomes obvious: give him the twenty.

Especially if I’m wearing a yarmulke.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Dependence and Independence

Next to April 15, when I have the annual privilege of furthering the financial fortunes of this great country of ours, the Fourth of July is my favorite national holiday. Independence Day, the day on which our Founding Fathers signed away their allegiance to Mother England and went off on their own merry way, is an uncommon day of celebration.

American Jews live in a great country, arguably the greatest man-made society in human history. For Jews, exiled, since the destruction of the Temple, for nearly two millennia, America has been an historical anomaly, a haven of hospitality for a people to whom persecution and pogroms were the normative way of life.

It is incumbent upon every American Jew, therefore, to reflect annually, on this great day, and appreciate what this great country has given us—Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: The right to build synagogues and schools, the ability to pray and study Torah unobstructed, the simple freedom to walk down the street wearing a yarmulka without any fear whatsoever.

Of course, I speak of today’s America. These freedoms were hard to come by in the America of yesteryear. Men of my father’s generation did not wear yarmulkas at work or in the street as many of my generation do. The world—even the American world—was not so kind to Jews. Firms would not hire us. Neighborhoods would not welcome us. As recently as seventy years ago, a radio personality named Father Coughlin, the Rush Limbaugh of his day, publicly preached for the expulsion of the Jews—and much of America agreed with him.

Granted, this sort of discrimination was not strictly anti-Semitism. It was across the board. "No Irish Need Apply" signs littered corporate America. And we certainly don’t need to revisit the terrible treatment of non-whites in our national history.

Nevertheless, even with all the obstacles, the American Dream persisted. Jews persisted. The sheer quantity of opportunities inherent in our country’s composition allowed our people to rise above discrimination and take advantage of American liberty. Our nation was able to live, work, study, and lay the groundwork for the demographic upsurge—numerically, religiously, influentially—that took place in the second half of the twentieth century.

But this upsurge had one negative side-effect. It got us thinking more like Americans and less like Jews. We began taking our liberty for granted. We began to speak the language of Freedom and Rights. Our tone became emboldened, even obstinate. We no longer feel lucky to live here. We no longer thank G-d every day for sparing us the horrors experienced by so many of our ancestors. We forget that we are dependent every day upon G-d’s good graces.

Instead, we feel entitled.

And this sense of entitlement causes us to forget who we are and the duties we are charged with. Last month, a certain rabbi won a lawsuit against a restaurant that made the grave, anti-Semitic gesture of refusing to serve him coffee in a paper cup. The restaurant insisted that he drink his coffee in a ceramic cup like everyone else. But the rabbi, who had studied Jewish law for many years and knew that drinking coffee in a non-kosher ceramic cup was a sin of the highest order, was petulant. Upon refusal, he held high the banner of discrimination—and its concomitant suffering and mental anguish—and called his attorney.

Were this man’s actions improper? Should he have been more forgiving? Even if the waitress was clearly discriminating against him, was hitting her employers with a severe fine unreasonable? Does the image of the victim’s smiling face in the morning newspaper seem smug?

As an American, one might answer No to all those questions. And rightly so—he certainly was well within his rights. One might argue that his actions were, in fact, noble, another cobblestone laid on the road to freedom, an act worthy of Rosa Parks.

But as a Jew, was his behavior correct?

Judaism preaches qualities that are often at loggerheads with the conventional American approach. Instead of freedom and rights, the Torah demands restraint, discipline, courtesy, compassion, and most important, fealty to G-d Above. As Jews, we need to be more concerned with Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s Name, impressing people—Jews and Gentiles alike—with our ethics.

As independent as we may feel here, we can not forget that we are forever dependent on G-d to sustain us and the country in which we live. G-d has given us America to provide for us opportunities and freedoms. It is now up to us to utilize those opportunities and freedoms to become great Jews, to develop ourselves within the framework of Torah and mitzvos.

May G-d bless our great nation, and may G-d bless the United States of America.