Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Welcome Back Farewell

Looking back, I'm amazed that after posting regularly for 5 years, I managed to drop off the face of the planet in such a hurry. Most Bloggers fade, with the spacing between posts expanding at an exponential fashion until they recognize that, intentional or not, they've hung up their keyboard. But it looks like I disappeared. Only fascinating because I'm very much here.

So for some explanation. In August 2007, I gave notice to my previous employer and joined a friend in the rollercoaster world of self employment. I moved from New Jersey to Washington Heights, New York, closer to my friends and new job. And I started dating the girl who is now my wife.

I don't know why I now chose to pop back and let you know where I've been. But I have read every comment posted along the way, even if my writing skills have gotten dusty. One thing I can assure you is I haven't changed much...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Brain Drain

Looking back at the many friends I have who've spent a year or so learning in Yeshiva, one of the phenomenon I've noted is that many of the most "successful" ones seem to have done so at the expense of their personalities. I prided myself on retaining my uniqueness even while gaining a new appreciation and committment to a full-dose religious lifestyle. But as with all attempts to write off everyone more extreme than yourself (because of course, I'm "centrist"), I think I overlooked my own flaws in a misguided attempt to pat myself on the back.

Some of the funniest guys in high school, with the craziest stories, are the ones sitting in Kollel today. We joke when we get together that since they've done Teshuva, we can't bring up their stories, no matter how much harder it may make the rest of us crack up. As proud as I was of their turnaround and choice to lead a positive lifestyle, I always felt like they had compromised in their attempt to retain their fervor, by letting their unique personality fall by the wayside as they progressed. Wasn't it a shame that they could no longer entertain the neighborhood youth, and with the entertainment went their influence? A shame that they couldn't find the happy medium, like myself, and had to run off the extreme.

But a conversation I had this week made me realize how much I've changed too, albeit in more subtler ways. The rediculous, often inappropriate side of me? Still intact and thriving. But in molding a lifestyle that fits with my evolved outlook on life, I've denied myself a lot of normal, fun things. I've framed a very rigid model for my life, my goals, and how I spend my time. I'm certain people look at me as an ascetic hermit, who gave up many normal lifecycle activities after spending time in a foreign fanatical seminary, not too unlike my hatted friends.

Do a couple of dirty jokes make me better than the tamed Beis Medrash guy? Should I re-evaluate my extra-Halachic lifestyle restrictions? Or is it time for me to give up my outrageous one-liners? Or perhaps I'm perfect just the way I am...

Monday, July 30, 2007

Warning: Spoiler Ahead

No, it's not a Potter post. You won't find me lining up at a bookstore to read a mediocre children's book. This post is even worse: back to dating. It's kind of a theme for a young, single, frum guy...

Normally, when you are in the world of Shidduchim, of third-party arranged dating, the process is rather dry (or at least it has been for me). You get a name, ask a few questions, make an awkward phone call, and spend an evening on small talk. Go out again until you find something incompatible, and then repeat the process. The cycle ends when you can't find anything disagreeable with a girl (or, of course, she with you). As subjective as the judging is, it gets handled pretty objectively, as if we were scientifically qualified to analyze a person't true self.

But who'd have thought, there is a little something called emotion that can actually play a part. Now, I never dated somebody outside of a formal setting. No high school sweethearts; no camp romances. So the practical level seemed pretty natural. But then you meet one girl that clicks, and the game changes. As I wrote about before, I went out with a girl for over a month, but it ended up not being the one. I've always known you can "click" with somebody who isn't your Bashert. In fact, that seemed to be the advantage of the Shidduch system - by focusing so much on a goal of marriage, you eliminated the risk of confusing emotional connection with long-term potential. I always figured the Shidduch world shielded you from this complexity, and let you rationally evaluate a relationship fully before you invested emotionally. But I learned that's not the case. It's a good thing, but it definitely reframes the Shidduch world. It definitely opens up a world where you realize you can open yourself to connecting with a person before you've wrung them through all the analytics.

And that is a little bit of a scary thing, because it means it can be tempting to form that short-term fling and drop some of that objectivity. But as great a release as it can be to bond with somebody, the ultimate goal hasn't changed. Balancing the compatibility of two people with the progression of a complex relationship can be even more draining. But adding the emotional component enables a more textured, intense, and, ultimately, a more realistic sampling of a relationship's long-term potential.

I guess even I learn new things...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

That was Nice

Tisha B'Av ended up being more meaningful than expected, despite having to work. I'm not sure if that was because I actually made it through all the Kinnos for a change, or because I showed up in our corporate office wearing only my socks, but I really felt penetrated by the mournful spirit. Maybe it's time for Prozac.

I picked up on two themes from the day's review of Jewish history, both complex questions that, if real, would have a relevant impact on the future of Jewry, as well as mankind. The first was the tendency of the persecuted Jews to passively accept their fate. While certainly not universal, it seems that the records are full of Jews moving along with their conquerors, from Temple times to the previous century. More noteworthy seems to be the fact that within the religious sources, this course of action seems to be the only praiseworthy choice. There are no vindictive heroes in our religious lore, only martyrs who chose death over dehumanification. Can our people's passive prodding through the painful path of persecution be traced to a religiously informed propensity? Or do our religious teachings merely reflect some sort of endowed cultural heritage, a meek, accepting characteristic shared by Isaac and his descendents? More importantly, is accepting our fate the secret to our survival as a minority, or is it the reason for our continued subservience?

The second theme is the tendency of people to return to their animalistic roots during times of immense suffering. Like the tales of the martyrs, our history is also rife with unedurable stories of desperation. The depths that human nature sinks when forced to fight for its most basic needs is frightening. But the reaction to this in the traditional texts is amazingly non-judgemental. And if our spiritual sources are meant to inform us of appropriate behavior, then while we can't determine whether the ideal is to fight for our lives or defend our dignity, we do see that, above all, we are asked not to judge others in situations we can't comprehend.

Driving home from work, I proceeded straight through an intersection after the light turned green, only to be deterred by a continuing line of people turning left in front of me, after their turn signal had expired. Not one to let an opportunity pass, I inched forward as much as possible, so as to make it apparent to the turning cars that their right of way had passed, and to make it increasingly difficult for them to even proceed. As the final turning car just made it past my bumper, the driver of the car behind her calmly told me through his open window the title phrase.

Having made an effort to curb my speech on Tisha B'Av, I gave no indication of my thoughts. But here I have the opportunity to explain why I think my intentional act was the proper decision. Those drivers cutting me off where performing an illegal act, failure to yield. Had I allowed them to pass unheeded, I would have been providing them positive reinforcement for their poor decision. In fact, taking the right of way when it's not yours may get you to your destination faster, but it causes countless others to arrive tardier, as traffic progression is blocked. If that behavior (which I've found very common in the area) is enabled, it only encourages the guilty drivers to repeat their actions, as they learn that their "me-first" attitude gets them to their destination earlier. But that attitude is nary the Jewish one, and I believe the firm, yet reasoned response is. Maintaining the expectation for orderly behavior and a non-vindictive, yet stubborn approach appear to trace through Jewish tradition.

So next time there is construction and a lane is closed, and everyone except you has merged in advance while you speed past on the ending lane, you can wave at me as you fly by, but don't be surprised when I don't let you merge at the end.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

First-Come, First-Served

I generally shy away from blogging about hot-button political issues. I'm not sure why, since I tend to enjoy writing about issues from a new perspective. Oh, right, because I cater to my readers, and generally stick to Jewish issues. Well, maybe it's time I pulled out the stops...

I made a trip to Ellis Island today, and as you might guess (actually, as you should expect) it forced me to think twice about immigration in this country. Basically, as a country of immigrants, I'm ashamed at those periods in our history where Americans have exhibited anti-immigration rhetoric, including now.

It's a complicated issue, and a number of policies in place today make any simple systematic change difficult. For starters, we have a two party system, entrenched in special interests on both sides. Unions or corporations, don't think either one has justice in mind.

Driving into the city, I passed a man hawking cold water bottles in the middle of traffic in the Holland Tunnel approach. Teetering between insanity and entrepreunership, I couldn't help but reflect on the impressive choice of a person who chose to earn a couple of honest dollars over a number of other easier possibilities. Still not a simple case, but just remember, that if somebody hadn't given your ancestor the opportunity to push around a cart of goods, we wouldn't be voicing any opinion on immigration.

But in addition to opportunity, those who came to this country lived with purpose and sacrifice. As our ferry floated past the Statue of Liberty, a sortie of fighter jets flew overhead in formation, and a granfatherly veteran seated behind me rose from his seat in contemplative respect. It became instantly clear to me why the language of immigration has become bitter to so many tongues. Purpose and sacrifice are two ideals that have been fading in our increasingly selfish culture.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Livin' Large

Nothing like a shabbos in the Five Towns to make a guy reflect on the role of materialism in a frum lifestyle. For the uninitiated, the Five Towns are a group of exclusive (or so they'd like to think) suburbs right under the landing pattern of JFK airport in Long Island, NY. They're also the aspiration and dream of the Brooklyn bourgeoisie looking to "move on up," ultimately hauling their street-tough one-upsmanship with them. With a zipcode more aesthetically pleasing than the 1950's architecture, it's no wonder that too much exposure to the culture out there can make you wonder how much of a frum family's cost of living is the added expenses of living a Torah lifestyle and how much of the budget is the added expenses of living up to your neighbors' lifestyle. Notice how the two don't necessarily correlate, a wider theme than what I really want to focus on here.

The role of costly consumer goods is an ambiguous one in the Jewish tradition. On the one hand, we are not an abstinence driven ascetic movement, but on the other, we are certainly intended to be living on a spiritual plane. How do we enjoy the pleasures of this world, without finding ourselves having drifted far from our religious priorities? Very simple - are we using these luxuries (and they all truly are unnecessary luxuries - wants, not needs) to further our purpose, or to take us away from it? Are we appreciating the Swiss Alps as one of the many stunning vistas reminding us of the many smaller miracles of creation, or we excited about boasting about the trip to our friends?

Curiously, Jewish law requires that a rich man who loses his fortune be supported by charity to a level that restores his lifestyle to its prior high standard. Similarly, a new husband is required to support his bride in a manner consistent with her upbringing. Both scenarios seem to imply a level of need in these luxuries, beyond questioning the reason for their material pursuit. We know that once luxury is acquired it quickly becomes a need. Is life then an endless upward pursuit of greater consumption? Will our children need to struggle even harder to achieve the level we have gained, before they even begin to explore their own world of luxuries? And how does this endless escalation of need ever enable us to restore our spiritual focus on our lives?

I believe that this is another example of halacha working with human nature in allowing everyone to achieve their potential. Halacha recognizes that we cannot legislate peoples' material happiness. While it may appreciate people choosing to reevaluate their needs, it recognizes the hardship that is caused when this change comes about not as the result of a explicit choice, such as through marriage or bankruptcy.

Materialism is something that we can benefit from, when we are in control. If somebody is blessed with money, then it provides them with an abundance of ways to appreciate the beauty of creation. And if somebody is not blessed with money, they also have the opportunity to appreciate the intricacies of the world according to their ability. And that can bring a heightened level of happiness if they can appreciate the finer items available within their means. But when somebody's need for the acquisition of material goods precedes the availability of the funds to acquire them with, then this seems to present a challenge to the individual. Are they going to reorient the energy in their life to gain more money to buy these items? Or are they going to continue pursuing their own passions, and budgeting their income based on spiritual priorities?

There are some beautiful houses in the Five Towns. But they aren't necessarily those with the wrought iron gates.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

I guess I'll go it alone

Circling around the block for the 4th time looking for a parking spot, I notice the low fuel light calling my attention. I've been looking for a spot for 20 minutes for a quick drop-in at a friends engagement party, and things just aren't going my way. After waiting for an 18-wheeler to complete his wide turn down a residential block, I pull forward in time to see the light turn red in front of me. I finally pull around another corner, when I recognize a faint smell wafting down the block. Rustic and natural on one hand, but completely urban on the other. It takes a moment to place it - it was definitely horse manure. And that is where I caught a car withdrawing from its parking spot. I had finally found a resting spot for my car outside a stable.

Almost an hour late at this point to the party, I dashed from the car down the three short blocks to the hall. I knew nobody there but the band, and the groom was already flooded with well-wishers. After accidentally taking a swig of seltzer - which was kept in bottles identical to the uncarbonated spring water, I retreated back to a post by the band. Clearing a plate of hor d'eurves, I finally pushed my way to the groom, gave him a hug and wished him mazel tov and good night. I was already a minute late to evening services, so I took the opportunity to bolt. I open the door, and am greeted by a torrential downpour. In my haste to finally arrive at the simcha, I had left my umbrella in the car, despite an overcast day. It was coming down too hard to make a break for it, especially since the "break" would have been for 7 blocks. I paced a few minutes, picturing the services beginning without me, as I impatiently awaited a lull in the rain. Finally a chance came, and I bolted in my suit, off towards the synagogue. I made great time, and felt as if I was drifting between the raindrops. A block away and only 4 minutes late, I was still relatively dry. But two stores before I was to pass under a scaffolding that would carry me to the shul's front steps, the heavens opened, and my jacket soaked through. I ran the last hundred feet, too late to turn back as I faced an open sky in all directions.

I finally ran down the stairs, nearly sliding into the wall in my haste to descend the spiral steps. I made my way in only 6 minutes late - to see no minyan taking place. It was summer hours, and they had prayed forty minutes prior. I was safe under the steepled roof, but had now completed a 7 block journey that took me the opposite direction from my car, and had a musty jacket and no Maariv to show for my efforts.

Despite being halfway home, I knew there was another service about 15 minutes away in the opposite direction in 20 minutes. I could make it if all went well. I don't know why I thought that was possible for me. Already soaked, I resigned myself to a full encounter with the downpour, not waiting for any let up. There was no walking between drops on the open streets of the route I took, though, and soon my pants were soaked through as well.

I finally relented and flattened myself against a building wall, hoping the eaves 10 floors up would have some mercy. Emboldened by the seeming protection I was receiving and the ticking clock, I was motivated to hop across the street, where the close protection of a scaffolding beckoned. Gd saw his chance, and loosened the rest of the heavenly faucet as I crossed the street. Finally making it to the covered scaffolding, I noticed that my refuge was actually a direct conduit for the wind to blow the rain through, and between the blowing wet and the leaky tin roof, I was receiving no respite. So without hesitation I made the final push to my car. With my head down to avoid the rain falling into my eyes and to pick out any obstacles, I crossed the last intersection, as I felt the wet sensation around my ankle of my foot descending into some secret puddle buried amongst the squares of the sidewalk. I reached my car, pulled off my sopping sport coat, and sat down for a breath that was interupted by the rain blowing into my covered car door. I quickly closed up, pulled out, and waited for passing traffic to let me join.

Finally, I started to move, when I noticed my window fogging up. I'm not an enemy of the defogger, but I had no budget in my empty gas tank for any further sharing. With no choice, I hoped that I'd make it the 30 miles until I could fill up next. Turning up the cool air, I looked up to see my windshield begin to clear and the last stoplight before the highway turn red. I'd have to lose another 2 minutes on my dash to actually make a minyan. I pull out at the green, and follow the turn up to the onramp, and find myself greeted by a sea of brake lights. With 10 minutes and 5 miles to go, I'm sitting in bumper to bumper traffic.

Somehow, I manage to make it in 11 minutes, and am only 1 minute tardy as I poll off the highway exit. If I can only find a parking spot, I can actually make the crux of this prayer. This time, though, I only circle once before finding a new opening, and I take my umbrella out with me as I run to the shul only 5 minutes late. I dash inside, and find them half-way through. Following the service, I give up my parking spot and head for home, one hour later and 15 minutes farther from my bed than planned. This was the end of a day where nothing went my way. Driving home alone, I couldn't wait for it all to end.

I couldn't have imagined a better script as a metaphor for how I feel now.

I woke up at 5 AM the next day, and found my tire flat.

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