Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It's Not Fair!

My great-grandmother lived in a shtetl in a town called Rovno. One day, she was outside with her children when she heard shots being fired. A Cossack, drunk and on horseback, was galloping through town pulling the trigger aimlessly. My great-grandmother grabbed her girls and pushed them through the door to the house, but before she could get herself inside, the cossack shot her in the back. She died.

My uncle—through his marriage to the older of these two girls several years later—lived in a nearby shtetl. One day, there was a pogrom. A gentile thrust a gob of lard toward his face and told him to eat. He refused, and said "Shema Yisrael..." convinced that he was about to be killed. But the gentile let him go and instead went after an old man. The old man, too, refused to open his mouth to the lard, so the gentile lit his beard on fire. The old man died.

I live in New York City. My home is in Manhattan, a multicultural island comprising dozens of ethnicities, who live side-by-side in peace and tranquility. Jews in New York, even religious Jews, don't stand out any more than do the Sikhs, the Koreans, or the West Indians.

But the other day I woke up, walked to shul, and was confronted with the horrible desecration of a swastika painted on the front door of my synagogue. For no reason, some gentile hated us enough to vandalize our property. Now I'm thinking I should be afraid to wear my yarmulka in the street.

It's not fair.

My mother went to public school. Her Jewish education consisted of Talmud Torah at the local Orthodox synagogue. She never went to Bais Yaakov (though later she taught in one). Both my parents grew up out-of-town surrounded by gentiles and steeped in American culture. My mother met Elvis Presley and Eleanor Roosevelt. My father rooted for Ted Williams and the Red Sox.

My grandfathers, on both sides, were not Talmudic scholars. While they knew enough to pass on to their children the knowledge that knowledge—Torah knowledge—was important, they themselves never received a proper Torah education.

I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, in a very Jewish town, with a choice of kosher pizza shops and delis, a place where you rarely saw a car on the streets on Shabbos. I grew up in a house with a father who is a scholar, whose library is formidable. I can ask him almost anything Torah-related and he will have, or he will quickly find, the answer. My yeshiva education was K through 12, followed by seven years of beis medrash, two of them in Israel.

But yeshiva education today costs a fortune. As yeshivos have begun to pay their rabbeim a living wage and attempt to build decent secular studies departments and extra-curricular programs, tuition has increased dramatically. Who can afford to pay so much? My grandparents were never faced with these kinds of bills.

It's just not fair.

None of my grandparents went to college. It wasn't a "frum thing" for them; it simply wasn't on their radar. In fact, my maternal grandfather had to drop out of high school in his senior year to help with the family business. As for my paternal grandfather, I’m still not quite sure what he did for a living, but those were the years of the Great Depression, and no one back then made much money.

Things were even worse where they had come from. The shtetl was a place of dire poverty. "If we didn't fast every Monday and Thursday," the old joke went, "we'd have starved to death." Hunger drove them to leave for America's golden shores.

I have never missed a meal in my life. My college-educated parents always provided for me and my siblings. We grew up in a big house, with a big backyard, and we each had our own bedroom. My parents didn't give us everything we wanted but they gave us everything we needed, and then some.

But my cholesterol is too high. Even though I run four to five times a week, I still feel out of shape and I'm a few pounds overweight. I try to eat right, but there are so many temptations: frappuccinos, Ben & Jerry's, French fries. I have to deal with temptations my grandparents never had.

It's not fair. It's just not fair.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Tale of Two Lakewoods

I recently had the distinct American pleasure of attending a minor league baseball game. Though New York City boasts two major league teams, the greater New York metropolitan area has several minor league ball clubs, teams filled with kids still in their teens, dreaming of one day playing in “The Show.” Often watching these developing players is more exciting than watching their more able, higher-paid counterparts. Not to mention, beer that night cost a dollar.

In the third inning, I turned to one of my friends and marveled at the determination of everyone involved with this game: not only the players, but the coaches, umpires, even the announcers—were all chasing the same, highly unreasonable dream: that someday they would make it to the major leagues.

My friend wasn’t so sure. He postulated that perhaps they were simply there to have fun. So we put the question to one of the trainers, whom we met during a seventh-inning stretch tour of the locker room. “How many of these players still believe they will make it to the majors and how many are just playing for the fun of it?” my friend asked asked.

“All of them,” he replied.

“All of them play for fun?” my friend repeated.

“No. All of them think they can get to the big leagues,” he said. “To a man.”

This genuinely surprised my friend, but not me. To date, fewer than 17,000 people have played in the bigs. That’s 17,000 players in the history of the American and National Leagues, going back well over a century. To put this in perspective, I heard a Yankees announcer say once, if you took every Major Leaguer, alive or dead, and put him in Yankee Stadium, the place would still be two-thirds empty.

Yet, despite those astounding odds, so many continue to push forward, holding on to the belief that somehow they will be among the chosen few. For their efforts, they are paid as little as $750 a month; they earn in one full season what Alex Rodriguez earns in the time it takes him to tie one shoe.

A few miles down the road from the legendary Lakewood yeshiva, resides a single-A ballclub, the lowest rung on the minor league ladder. The Lakewood Blue Claws are one of 246 minor league teams comprising in the neighborhood of five thousand players. Every one of these players was drafted by a major league team and signed to a professional baseball contract. These kids were stars of their college, high school and little league teams. They know how to play ball.

But there are still too many of them. The fact remains that only a few of these minor league players will ever get called up to the big club—even for a day. And of those that eventually do get called up, few will become regulars. And of those who become regulars, few will play for more than a handful of seasons. And of those who do play for several seasons, few will become All-Stars.

Yet, "to a man," every player, since he was a young boy, aspires to be that one All-Star. Every one holds on to that dream.

What should we say about such dreamers? Should we mock them? Should we sit in the stands, sipping on dollar beers, and cheer their efforts, all the while laughing at them in the backs of our heads? How should we respond to this ridiculous scene of an entire ballgame, whose foundation rests on cloud upon cloud of false hope?

To Torah Jews, their behavior should be inspirational. For their dream is a mechayev. Our Sages teach that Rebbi was mechayev—he obligated—the rich, because he was one of the richest men of his generation, and still, despite all of his financial obligations and business commitments, he found the time to become a great Torah scholar.

Likewise, Hillel was mechayev the poor. Despite his impoverishment and constant need to earn a living wage, he still managed to spend his days occupied in Torah.

Minor league ball players are mechayev all of us, regardless of what we do for a living. If they can live in this “field of dreams” so can we. If they can hold upend their lives in the single-minded pursuit of an unlikely result, we can certainly adjust our lives to pursue a result that is guaranteed.

This guarantee is what differentiates us from them. In the words of the Sages, “Anu ameilim veheim ameilim—We toil and they toil." We all work hard at what we do. But unlike baseball players, we are guaranteed results. Just for trying. Torah study does not require us to become great scholars. We succeed with every word we learn. Torah study is not a means to an end but an end in itself.

Torah study is not for the select few (even if only a select few will excel at it). Too often, we push off learning as the realm of the rabbis. Too often we push off studying until we are prepared to sit for an hour or longer. Too often we push off studying on a basic level because we are too tired, too busy, too unmotivated to study in-depth.

Too many of us remain faithful to a practical approach. Our reach does not even approach our grasp. When it comes to Judaism, we become very modest about our abilities. This is tragic because it leaves so much on the table. We ought to take a page from the book of these dreamers, they of the impractical and the unlikely. We ought to imagine that we can become great talmidei chachamim, that we can become great tzadikim, that we can learn more than we currently learn and do more than we currently do. In doing so, unlike the ballplayers, we all become All-Stars.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Nattering Nabobs of Negativism

A blogger whom I follow recently posted that, due to news coming out of Israel and certain events making headlines in America, he was "embarrassed to be a religious Jew." It was the second time in two days I had read such a statement, and it disturbed me greatly.

This awful sentiment is the result of the constant attention and amplification given to these scandals. Yes, these scandals are despicable. Their perpetrators are guilty of the worst sin possible, desecration of the Holy Name. Yes, these scandals are embarrassing. Those of us who are law-abiding citizens of Halachah pay the price, too, in public perception.

Nevertheless, the constant, sometimes exclusive, harping on these dirty deviants demonstrates the utter disaster that many Jewish blogs have become. Rather than being sources of inspiration and introspection, most of these blogs simply serve to depress and alienate. The unceasing barrage of bile and vindictiveness leads their readers, and their creators, away from Yiras Shamayim rather than toward it. People read and read and read this stuff until they throw away their yarmulkas in disgust.

But that's not how it should be. Mussar—particularly in our generation—should be about building up, not tearing down. Every time a religious-looking (notice I said "looking") Jew lands in the newspapers for evil behavior, I too am embarrassed. But rather than hide, I stand up. It makes me want to keep my yarmulka on, to mount a counteroffensive, to show the world—both Jewish and secular—how a Jew is really supposed to behave.

Unfortunately, however, any input on these blogs that's designed to bring insight, or even a bit of even-handedness (after all, not all scandals are created equal), to the conversation is met with dismissal at best and character assassination at worst. Essentially, these bloggers seem to be saying, "If you're not with us, you're against us." You are said to be sweeping the problems under the carpet, and deemed an apologist.

With that in mind, there are a few points that ought to be made.

One, there is absolutely no statistical evidence that the behavior of religious Jews as a group is worse than that of the general society, or, in fact, not significantly better. Empirical evidence, as demonstrated by newspaper headlines, says less about Orthodox Jewish behavior and more about how newspapers operate. Newspapers aren't interested in fair play. They are only interested in selling papers. To that end, "Man Cheats and Steals" isn't a headline. "Rabbi [or Priest, for that matter] Cheats and Steals" is.

To believe that media scrutiny is an accurate barometer of behavior patterns, is to believe that athletes, politicians and celebrities are more likely than the rest of society to beat their wives, cheat on their taxes, use illegal drugs, engage in illicit sexual behavior, and shoot people. It is also to believe that plane crashes, which are always reported in the paper, are far more common than automobile accidents, which are not—unless there is an athlete, politician or celebrity involved.

Second, the Jewish blogosphere is not consistent. Its righteous repulsion is reserved for a certain segment of Orthodox Jews, i.e., those who happen to be of the beard-and-black-hat variety. This only betrays the blinders of their bias.

The recent Bernard Madoff scandal involved a very prominent Modern Orthodox man, who was president of his Modern Orthodox shul, and head of the investment committee at the Modern Orthodox Yeshiva Universtiy. He has been charged with civil fraud by New York State, named in countless lawsuits, and has had his picture in the paper for months.

What sayeth the bloggers to this scandal? Barely a peep.

Third, there is a startling inconsistency in this group's trust of the media, which is vexing to the point that it can only be described as bipolar. The very same Jews who go apoplectic over the media's slanted coverage of Israel, trust completely that very same media when they are covering stories about Orthodox Jews. If certain people want to base their opinion of the frum world according to what's reported in the media, then, in fairness, they should base their opinion of Israel according to what's reported in the media as well.

Only they don't. Bloggers who throw fits, charging the media with bias and distortion, when news organizations refer to Israelis as a callous cabal of colonizers, stealing Arab land, violating Arab civil rights, and shooting Arab children—these same bloggers embrace whatever negativity the media reports when the subject is ultra-Orthodox Jews.

I'll say it again: Every time a frum-looking Jew creates a chillul Hashem it is a tragedy of great depth and proportion. But to think that such behavior is disproportionately occurring within the frum world because of the disproportionate number of media reports simply reflects a naive view of how the media work. The publication of stories, even a lot of stories, is not a condemnation of the whole community or an indictment of its values.

Which isn't to say that we should ignore these stories. We must face up to them and seek to restore our collective reputation. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is very good at doing this in a positive, productive way. But, in many quarters, the conversation long ago degenerated from constructive criticism to a scorched-earth policy. We can and must do better.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

“Who Really Runs Chareidi Israel?”

Writing on a blog that I read regularly, one commenter asked, “Who really runs Chareidi Israel?”

The topic that spawned this question was the recent demonstrations in Jerusalem, protesting the opening of a parking lot in the Holy City on the Sabbath day. The presence of parking lot would enable—and thus encourage—more people to drive on the Shabbat.

According to media reports, the demonstration of several hundred Jeruselamites chanting, “Shabbos, Shabbos” turned violent, with some throwing stones, and a female reporter for ABC News claiming she had been cursed and spat upon.

This naturally, and deservedly, set off a firestorm of criticism in America, with pundits to the left and to the right decrying the massive desecration of God’s Name that this behavior brought about. Though many defended the Chareidi community in general and were careful to single out the scofflaws, others were less charitable, indicting the entire Chareidi community—their members, their leaders, and even their beliefs.

It was in this light that the question was posed: “Who really runs Chareidi Israel?”

I found the question naive, because it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how societies function, and troubling, because it was asked by an educated person who ought to know better.

To presume that Chareidim are “run” reflects an ignorance of how they live, attributing to Chariedi society a monolithic structure that simply doesn’t exist. The perception of the Modern Orthodox world appears to be that the Chareidim all think and act alike, and that they are “handled” by someone, be it a Gadol or a kano’i.


None of those responsible for the actions being reported are doing so so under the advisement of their Gedolim. Think about it: If a pulpit rabbi can’t get his own congregant to stop talking during Chazoras Hashatz, how do we expect a rav, Godol or otherwise, to stop someone from acting like an idiot? The fact that the idiot dresses his violent behavior in Chareidi “levush” is not a reason to assume that he is doing so with the blessing of his rebbe. In his mind, he might even believe he knows better than the rebbe (If Parshas Korach didn’t teach us anything else, at least it should have taught us that much).

Many of the critics are saying that the numbers don’t matter—and that’s true. Even one boy throwing one rock is enough to create one front-page photo in the New York Times, and initiate a massive Chillul Hashem.

However, one person's behavior does not impeach all of Chareidi society. That some would indict all Chareidim based on the actions of a few says more about their personal prejudices than about the education of Chareidi youth, which they rush to impugn. Destructive behavior has nothing to do with Chareidi Judaism and everything to do with human nature. A thug is a thug.

It is good and necessary for the rest of us—Chareidi, Yeshivish, Chasidish, Modern Orthodox—to react against this behavior with a loud and unequivocal voice, by protesting against the protesters through blogs, emails, and letters to the editor, insisting that this behavior is not representative of Torah or its leaders.

However it is also important for us to recognize that the media do blow this out of proportion. It’s not necessarily anti-religious sentiment (though I believe that plays a role); it's simply what the media is trained to do. A journalist taught me long ago the mantra of journalism: Dog Bites Man isn’t news; Man Bites Dog is. So journalists are often, if not always, willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of melodrama.

I'm not here to defend the despicable behavior of certain Jews in Jerusalem. However, it behooves one to recognize that the number of such people is limited.

The Jerusalem Post reported that "several hundred haredim" protested this past Shabbos. That was in contradistinction to the "largely peaceful Friday night prayer vigil attended by tens of thousands of participants" last week. Notice the difference in numbers? Something like 20-to-1.

And what of those hundreds? When I heard the story of the reporter from ABC news, I went to its website to read it for myself. The account is reprehensible, a disgrace to anyone who is Torah observant. I was mortified, and scared to hit "play" on the accompanying video. But I did, and was relieved to see that the video painted a different picture. The Chareidim involved are not pushing, but being pushed. They seem to be chanting more than screaming, "Shabbos, Shabbos." No one looks violent, and no one is throwing anything.

None of which is to say that screaming, cursing, spitting and throwing rocks did not occur. Someone was hospitalized last week by a falling rock, so clearly the rock was thrown. But: if that video is representative of what occurred, it's quite tame.

Similarly, I saw another photo, a picture of a photographer walking past a crowd of Chareidim. The caption insisted he was being pushed. I studied the picture carefully and my eyes insisted otherwise.

Bottom line: Chareidim are “run” by God’s Holy Torah. When they have questions about the Torah they seek the counsel of scholars and leaders. Those who violate the law and spirit of the Torah, and in so doing shame the Chosen People are the exception and not the rule. The media would like to believe, and would like everyone to believe, that these exceptions are the rule. I hope the media will listen to the voices of Torah Jews who speak clearly, emphatically and proudly about what the Torah really demands from its adherents.

Will you?

(The ABC video can be accessed at: