Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Strangers Among Us

I met someone last night and...wow!

Have you ever come home after that first evening with someone new, overwhelmed by the feeling that all is right with the world, that it's open to all sorts of possibilities, that happiness will never leave your side again?

That was me last night.

The initial awkwardness of meeting a complete stranger dissipated quickly and the conversation flowed naturally from work to family to Judaism. Probing questions; profound answers. I have to admit that I rarely meet someone—particularly over 25—who is so open to new ideas. How refreshing.

As the evening ended, we put on our coats, walked outside, and said goodnight in the damp and cold New York air—agreeing to meet again next week and pick up where we left off. I walked home with an extra spring in my step.

And so begins another successful venture for Partners in Torah.

Ivan is an institutional equity trader, which means that, like me, he "works on Wall Street." Unlike me, his clients aren't millionaires—they're billion-dollar hedge funds. Nevertheless, we share a common bond for two stock jockeys.

Ivan is from Odessa, in the Ukraine. He arrived in this country fifteen years ago at the age of fifteen. When the first Jews began to trickle out of the former Soviet Union, in the late Seventies, Odessa's population was a majority Jewish. By the time Ivan left, he was the only Jew in his high school. Singled out as a zhid, he was hassled, harassed and hit. Although he is way north of six feet and broad, he never hit back. He simply learned to avoid trouble. Like every good player on the Street, Ivan knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

Upon arriving in this country, Ivan was not dumped into one of the Russian Jewish yeshivos that sprang up a quarter century ago. By the time he arrived in Brighton Beach, the neighborhood had become homogenized, no longer intimidated by the foreignness of America, eager to take advantage of their new democratic homeland. Attending a Jewish school was no longer a necessity and, consequently, Ivan never received even a rudimentary Jewish education.

When I mentioned the Book of Esther, Ivan didn't know what I was referring to.

What he did know is that he is a Jew. And he wanted to know what that meant. And God sent him to me.

Several years back I was called by my neighborhood’s local director of Torah Umesorah’s Partners in Torah program to give up one hour, one evening a week to study with a young man newly interested in Judaism. I agreed. We studied for a year and then he moved away and I got my Wednesday nights back.

Apparently, interest in the program waned because it wasn’t until last week that I got the call again. Would I be willing to study with Ivan?

Bear in mind: Ivan wasn’t looking for proofs; he wasn’t looking for an argument; he wasn’t looking to be convinced of anything. He simply wanted to know: What is a Jew?

Ivan is, quite literally, tabla rasa.

It is difficult to describe the privilege of being singled out by the Almighty to be the vehicle through which another one of His cherished, chosen children is introduced to the Torah. A great privilege and a grave responsibility.

So rather than open a book and start teaching from a text, I decided the best thing would be to give him a tour of the beis medrash—to show him the development of Jewish history and knowledge through the books on the bookshelves.

We began with the Five Books of Moses (Moses he had heard of—he had seen the Charlton Heston movie). I stated that the Chumash was written by God, that God had dictated every word to Moses, who wrote them down. I expected him to ask me how I knew this, but he didn’t. He simply nodded.

I then explained that there is another Torah—an oral transmission that was taught to Moses by God during the forty days he spent atop Mount Sinai. This Torah Shebaal Peh is the companion to the Torah Shebeksav, interpreting, explaining and expanding upon the words of the written text.

“But why,” he asked, “would God risk all the potential misinterpretations that come from not writing it all down? It’s like a game of telephone.”

“Because God doesn’t want the Torah to exist only on bookshelves,” I explained. “The point of the Oral Torah is that it should continually be analyzed and assessed, discussed and debated.

“It wasn’t written down,” I told Ivan, “in order that 3300 years after Sinai, you and I should be having this conversation.”

42 Comments:

Blogger Jeru Guru said...

Great post!

You are the Johnny Walker Blue label of bloggers :)

Thu Dec 15, 01:28:00 AM  
Blogger nobody28 said...

Wow.

I really wish I had more intelligent things to say about your posts, but you leave me speechless!

Thu Dec 15, 07:55:00 AM  
Blogger Eshet Chayil said...

When the post began I thought you meant a woman. I wonder if you were trying to make it seem that way to snap out after it was a study buddy. Really nice post. He's lucky to have found you.

Thu Dec 15, 08:39:00 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

I really have nothing to add, but I want to tell you how great this was. Keep it up!

Thu Dec 15, 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Masmida said...

One of the greatest feelings on earth isn't it?

and a really humbling responsiblity.

Hatzlacha

Thu Dec 15, 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

"It is difficult to describe the privilege of being singled out by the Almighty to be the vehicle through which another one of His cherished, chosen children is introduced to the Torah."
How wonderful that you feel that way. And it's great that you knew exactly the right words to start with. I think a lot of people are afraid to take on this responsibility because they won't have the right answers and won't do a good job. kol hakavod.
MH

Thu Dec 15, 10:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your posts always leave me with chills. Amazing...

Thu Dec 15, 10:55:00 AM  
Blogger Elster said...

I'm not sure if being labeled Johnny Walker Blue is a compliment or an isult. Are you saying that Cloo is a mixed malt, not a single malt?

Thu Dec 15, 03:22:00 PM  
Blogger Mia said...

Beautiful post! Hope your next is gonna be as nice if not better. This feeling after a first date is the best ever.

Thu Dec 15, 05:28:00 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

Enthusiasm and sincerity go a long way.

Thu Dec 15, 09:53:00 PM  
Blogger Ayelet said...

Beautiful. Thank you. I came here for a "hit" of inspiration and I sure got it.

btw, lulei demistafina, I believe you meant tabula rasa.

Fri Dec 16, 01:02:00 AM  
Blogger FrumGirl said...

Wow! You are so lucky! This will fulfill you in such wonderful ways and in a way I envy that! This is the beauty of life... never knowing what is in store from one day to the next. And everything you ever went through till this day that you were meant to meet Ivan has been in preparation for you to be his teacher....

Fri Dec 16, 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

Ayelet,

Grrrr...

I could defend myself with this:
http://www.bartleby.com/81/16179.html

But after consultation with The Two Great Sources of All Knowledge (Google and The Dad), it does seem that "tabula" is "more" correct (Is "correcter" a word?).

Thanks for keeping me on my editorial toes!

Fri Dec 16, 12:50:00 PM  
Blogger Veev said...

"The point of the Oral Torah is that it should continually be analyzed and assessed, discussed and debated."

Also, I think that Hashem's purpose of not writing down "the rest of the story" was to challenge us to simply believe. Some of us over the years have failed the test.

Mon Dec 19, 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger turquoiseblue said...

Cloo Jew, I will echo what many commenters have said (or thought to themselves...) I envy you... and the opportunity... to have found such a perfect "fit", a way to give of yourself... it's great that you have the confidence to take upon yourself such a great responsiblity.

Mon Dec 19, 11:46:00 PM  
Blogger Tanisha said...

ClooJew you always amaze me. What a wonderful and sincere post. Hopefully Iw ill find a teacher as good as yourself. Take care and Chanukah Sameach!!
T

Wed Dec 21, 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger Lost said...

CJ- you inspire! Enjoy the Chag and may we all be lucky enough to experience something like that e/ Wednesday night!

Sun Dec 25, 03:39:00 AM  
Blogger Tova Shulamit said...

Hey Cloo Jew. This is my new Kosher site dedicated to Judaism and my journey. I will still have the other site whos name that shall not be mentioned but hopefully you will find joy at the new one.. Thanks for being you and Happy Hannukah

Tanisha aka Tovala

Sun Dec 25, 01:55:00 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

It's a shame that there aren't more people with a) an hour to spare every week, and b) the confidence that they are up to the challenge. A blank slate is one of the most difficult. One wrong move, and you've seemingly ruined the canvas. It takes a truly talented artist to approach everything as a possible work of art, to visualize the entire process, and to execute flawlessly. Too bad true art can't be taught!

Sun Dec 25, 09:06:00 PM  
Blogger HaJew said...

Very good post. You sound like a good guy that it must be great tolearn with and from.

Mon Dec 26, 12:54:00 AM  
Blogger my bald sheitel said...

great post. kiruv is so important. my husband and i are where we are in life (married, israel, expecting our first child) in a lot of ways because of a very patient and awesome kiruv rabbi and his wife. may they get a share in the schar for all of our mitzvos and you too for the work that you do.

Mon Dec 26, 03:49:00 AM  
Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...

CJ,

Allow me to be the one to ask the tough questions round here. WHY ARE YOU NOT DOING THAT FULL TIME? Won't be able to afford the beemer? To live in the nice big house?

Get out of Wall Street and make the most of your talents, your gifts that Hashem gave you, inspire people ALL DAY EVERY DAY, not just one hour a week.

Otherwise, good work and keep it up!

TRK (the prophet of truth)

Tue Dec 27, 06:12:00 PM  
Blogger JewishBiFem said...

Nice writing! Happy chanukah!

Tue Dec 27, 11:03:00 PM  
Blogger callieischatty said...

hi hope you are well!

Wed Dec 28, 01:43:00 PM  
Blogger Lvnsm27 said...

Excellent piece.

Another thing that he should be aware of is national revelation.

happy chanuka

Thu Dec 29, 12:16:00 AM  
Blogger Elster said...

See below - congradulations on the nominations.

http://info.jpost.com/C005/BlogCentral/JIB.2005/listall.html

Thu Dec 29, 03:38:00 PM  
Blogger Shopaholic said...

Where are you? There's no one in blogsville who took over your job of correcting spelling and grammar! You are missed!

Wed Jan 04, 04:47:00 PM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

How's Ivan coming along? Keep us posted. Where are you?

Sun Jan 08, 08:28:00 PM  
Blogger Datingmaster, Jerusalem said...

this is moving stuff
but Jews never have the name Ivan-it is definitely not his real name
come and visit my site to discuss warmth in a relationship

Mon Jan 09, 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

Hey guys - vote for CJ - Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards

Mon Jan 09, 07:53:00 PM  
Blogger Dovid said...

That's an amazing story.

Wed Jan 18, 01:55:00 AM  
Blogger the source of all knowledge said...

Re; your wah wah wah post, and the subsequent dialogue over the point of gedolim being "warm,w/ever" let's be frank here. Whereas: I have nothing less than awe for Gedolim (as opposed to Michael Aryeah) and have first hand experienced that we need not "Artscroll their biographies" 'cause the reality is there, still let's be true. You say “anyone who....is by DEFINITION not a gedol" well...ummm... how you than categorize The Stiepler??...or for that matter stories in the Talmud of Amorim that KILLED people -PEERS!-W/ their sharpness of tongue? lemme first say that I think that you mean well in your blogs, but you have to read more. That being said let me say this: The key is NOT "ohhhhh g-d forbid anybody say anything sharp to anybody...ooooo...you might hurt a feeling" that's the P.C. attitude of our time. But you might wanna notice that G-D HIMSELF does not in the Torah talk soft or "warm" or any such nonsense. THE KEY TO BEING IN TRUE SUPPORT OF SOMEONE IS -NOT- IN BEING "NICE" TO THEM. IT'S IN BEING GOOD TO THEM, AND THE TWO ARE OFTEN NOT FRIENDS. Now granted "chanoach lenar..." and granted it's been said that old school mussar is no longer the way, none-the-less, if a gedol gives it to you between the eyes perhaps people should start focusing that uncomfortable feeling inwards rather than outwards. It’s easy to blame. It's much harder to TAKE blame.

Wed Jan 18, 06:33:00 PM  
Blogger brianna said...

Time for a new post. Pretty please?

Sun Jan 22, 06:59:00 PM  
Blogger Tova Shulamit said...

Uhh Cloo Jew when will you have a new post up? Did you get married? Move to Israel? What's up oh boy??

Mon Jan 23, 01:45:00 PM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

He's left blogging, has become an author, and is now doing signings at Barnes and Noble.

Mon Jan 23, 03:44:00 PM  
Blogger ~ Sarah ~ said...

great story, inspiring.

Tue Feb 07, 06:34:00 AM  
Anonymous yiddishe-kop said...

great piece, as usual. i never know what to say after your posts, just keep up the good work.

Tue Feb 07, 07:04:00 PM  
Blogger BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

Great post.

One of my literary heros, Isaac Babel was from Odessa.

Sounds as if you have hedged in (no pun intended) on a good match there.

Happy T'Shu B'av.

Mon Feb 13, 08:58:00 PM  
Anonymous mmmmmm said...

Its too bad you couldnt give Ivan a real answer...youre answer was a pack of bologna...cute but silly. Basically you were docheh him with kash as they say..... maybe one day he'll realize that a lot of the hashkafa we preach is feel- good BS....

Tue May 23, 04:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please check out the new blog.
independentfrumthinker.blogspot.com

Thu Nov 16, 12:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is very interesting site... »

Fri Mar 16, 11:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Teaching Torah is the most effective Kiruv. Discussing Judaism and telling not-yet-frum jews about their history and heritage may seem like a more effective way but experience has shown that opening a chumash and learning Bereishis or a Gemoroh and learning Elu Metzios does what nothing else can do. Seems like the Kedusha of the most important Mitzva can do something otherworldly that we can experience. My advice to you, therefore, is stick to a learning session with just learning. You may not see instant results, but when they do come, they wil be deeper and longer-lasting.

Tue Apr 17, 05:24:00 AM  

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