Thursday, May 25, 2006

Heller's Barbershop

The neighborhood barbership had been in the family for 75 years. It had been founded by Grandpa Isaac, a Russian immigrant who had finally opened up his own shop after coming to the US with nothing. He had worked for 12 years as an apprentice, and by the time of his death employed two other haircutters. His two sons, George and Harris, had dutifully taken it over. George, the eldest, had been working alongside his father for a number of years, while Harris had joined on only following their father's passing. The small corner shop continued to flourish as a focal point of the neighborhood's men, and the shop grew to include 6 full time stylists.

George fathered only daughters, and Harris' lone son, Michael, showed little interest in the family business. As the two men aged, the shop's fortune waned. George's daughter eventually married a bright young man named Phil, who was eager to help out his father-in-law, and quickly gained a reputation as a talented barber. But it wasn't his styling ability that proved a boon to his new family. Phil proved adept at business, and successfully expanded the business. It quickly grew, first from 6 to 10 barbers, then 14, until finally the family opened up an additional location, which proved to flourish as well.

Phil had not only restored income back to the family coffers, but had brought a dying name back to life. The numerous cousins now belonged to highly recognized name that was associated with the social warmth and traditional roots of the community. There was one thing that bothered Phil. As a son-in-law, he was bitter that his wife's brother Michael never contributed to the business. Michael came into the store occasionally, but apparently only to collect his free haircut. Michael seemed disinterested in the store's success at best, but didn't seem to have any compunction about receiving his share of the store's proceeds that all the descendents of Grandpa Isaac received. Did Michael want to see the business fail? Michael was a Heller. Why didn't he care about preserving the Heller family name?

Michael had never really held any job of note. He didn't seem to be motivated enough to dedicate any serious time to his career. He had married Michelle, his high school sweetheart, two months after graduating college. Michael and Michelle seemed infatuated with each other, barely noticing the world around them. They had had 6 kids, and both appeared to dedicate more of their time to raising their children than any other cause in the world.

Phil was getting older, and the money wasn't motivating him to expand the family business like it had when he was younger. By this point, his only concern was keeping the family business alive. With no apparent successor in the family poised to take over from him, Phil's stress grew every year as he foresaw the future of the business he had invested his life in. The feelings he had for Michael grew to animosity, as he squarely placed blame for any difficulties the business was having on his brother-in-law.

Finally, exasperated with the thought of having to close the family business, Phil confronted Michael.

"I've put my entire life into continuing the dreams of our Grandfather. I've grown the little shop into a small empire. You seem interested in continuing to be supported by the barbershop, but you don't seem the least bit interested in helping continue to keep the Heller name alive!"

Michael humbly peered into Phil's eyes, and looked off towards a distant tree. He hesitated, as his gaze returned to his brother-in-law, and sighed. No matter how much he knew Phil had enabled him to succeed, Michael knew that Phil would never appreciate the mission their Grandfather had entrusted him with. It was he, Michael, who was now the proud grandfather of a baby Isaac.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Coming Back

Spending a day in Brooklyn can be a little overwhelming for an out of town Ba'al Teshuva (born-again Jew). There are Jews everywhere. Jewish stores, Jewish signs, even Jewish license plates. It's a bit much.

But it made me think about the religious lifestyle I lead, and how much it is different from my brethren who have always been frum. Can my own religious lifestyle ever be the same as theirs? Would I want my lifestyle to be the same as theirs?

I have a lot of freedom to objectively observe Jewish Law, independently of how it is commonly practiced. That is good and it is bad. For example, I had to choose my own prononciation of Hebrew words, which forced me to learn what the differences are, where they come from, and how they are viewed in Halacha. I think most Frum from birth (FFB) people just take their parents' prononciations for granted, not realizing how much depth there is to even such a simple issue. Even if in the end we come out at the same place, I've gained so much in my approach.

Of course, there are also the many phases of Baal Teshuvakeit, from testing the waters to utter zealousness. I've gone through them all. I remember when I skipped any prayer that seemed remotely optional, even if it just had a smaller font. I also remember when I thought it was frummer to add in every page, paragraph, and bracket into my prayers. But there is a certain maturity that eventually develops.

By its very nature, my approach to Orthodoxy is at the same time fundamentalist and open minded. But can my perspective ever be the same as that of an always been frum person? Could I marry an FFB? I know many BTs go that route, and many stay amongst people from similar backgrounds. A lot of it results from the natural attraction between people of similar experience. But beyond that, can the wide-eyed evaluation of the BT coexist with the cautious eyes of the FFB? Do they balance each other out?

It seems that so much of Orthodoxy is merely cultural norms, not Frumkeit. How do you raise your kids with that open-mindedness, that honest search?

Will I ever fit in? Do I want to fit in?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Hot Seat

The sweat soaks the hair at the base of my neck, gathering into beads and rolling in a cold and uneven line down my back. I blink, shoot my eyes to my right, glance at the screen, but quickly avert my gaze. I'm trying to focus, think of the possibilities. There are only two; why is this so hard? What do I want? I thought I knew already, but then I changed my mind. It feels like I've been sitting here, frozen, for hours. Well, it has been almost an hour. And yet I haven't come any closer to making a call. I thought it was a definite yes, then absolutely no. Every second I've known what I wanted, but every minute I had a different answer. But the light, why does it seem so bright? Somebody just tell me what to do!

Paralyzed. That is me. I can't order dinner without going back and forth for ten minutes, changing my mind right after the waiter writes it down, and immediately second guessing my choice. Small decisions, big decisions- it doesn't matter. I'm very analytical, and very idealistic. Every choice to me is Gdly; every choice means good or evil, bettering myself and the world or otherwise. I feel the pressure is unavoidable, even as I rationally realize that I'm handicapping myself.

Some people procrastinate out of laziness, I procrastinate out of fear of the consequences. If I miss an opportunity, that's not my fault. If I make the wrong decision, I have only myself to blame. In the world of theory, deep analysis helps me come up with clearer views on what I want from life. It even helps me guide others. But when it comes down to crunch time, I'm caught in the headlights. I envy the spontaneous people. Not those that act without thinking, but those that can think clearly and be comfortable with their best judgement.

Happiness is just on the other side of the wall. But is it door number one or door number two?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Looking for a Teacher...

One of the worlds that the J-blogosphere has enabled me to peak into is the isolated reaches of the Chassidic community. Fascinating unto itself, with its own set of successes and failures, it is also interesting to see how uniform it is. There are countless varieties of Chassidic groups, and of course each one is distinct from the others in a variety of ways. But as far as lifestyle, they are so remarkably similar. They all fall somewhere into the Ultra-Orthodox camp. Even between Lubavitch and Satmar, when compared to the rest of the world, they occupy almost the same niche.

I suppose from a historical perspective, this fundamentalist approach makes sense, as Chassidus developed as a reaction to a number of issues that challenged the integrity of the Jewish community. But aside from those historical issues, I find it amazing that this uniform approach still pervades today. Other than the possible exception ofAish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY (no, MOChossid doesn't count), I don't even think there are any examples of a modern Orthodox Chassidus. Why don't any Chassidic groups go to college, for example? Obviously there are some individuals that do, and I'm not saying that such an act is an advisable choice, but it just seems odd that college, as an example, is universally ignored in the Chassidic world.

You could think of the uniformity of dress as well. It just seems that there would be a similar demand in the Modern Orthodox world for the same philosophies, so it seems odd that while the Misnagdish world spans a grey continuum from Lakewood to Humanistic with almost no breaks, the Chassidic world appears to have very little plurality. With so many different Rebbes, you'd think there'd be more differentiation.

Another aspect of this black and white diversity question is why Chassidic communities end up being the only true outlet for their followers. Obviously, everyone sees only one truth for themselves, and that's why they pursue it. They might be in a Yeshiva in Brooklyn, or a frum doctor in Minneapolis, each thinking they live the most Gdly lifestyle, but I don't think either one would consider his son frei if he chose to lead the other's lifestyle. We may not think that derech is the emmes, but we understand that it is frum. (Yes, I realize that there are those in the non-Chassidic world who are closed minded about this issue as well. My point is that that diversity and ability to move between modern and chareidi exists within the Misnagdish world.)

But in the Chassidic world, if you leave the Rebbe, you leave the fold. You might as well put up an x-mas tree. It's either the Chassidus or you're not frum. But I always saw Chassidus as an elite approach to Yiddishkeit. You choose it to be closer to Gd if that works for you, and if not you live with the rest of the mortals. It's an emmes, a truth, if it works for you, but if not, you go back to being Shomer Shabbos and Rebbe-less like the rest of us. It's similar to joining a monastery. It might make you more frum as you completely dedicate your life to a singular journey, but certainly those in other realms are struggling to make the right choices as well.

I don't know if this post is supposed to question the rigidity of the Chassidic lifestlye, or to wish that it could be made available to a wider range of people. It's a world I've always been fond of, however imperfect it may be. I guess we all just want a Rebbe.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Old Dog, New Tricks

I don't hate teachers. I never have. I've been the model student, and have had plenty of teachers that I've looked up to. So I can't figure out why I am so biased against dating girls who are teachers.

First off, more than half the women I've dated have been teachers. And my mother and grandmother are/were both teachers. I know people who are great teachers. But when it comes to being offered to get set up with a girl who teaches, I can't help but roll my eyes.

I'm not sure where this bias comes from. Maybe it is because I perceive girls who go into teaching as being too "inside the box," people unwilling to pursue their own self-fulfillment at the risk of being perceived as too independent. Maybe it is because I don't want to marry somebody like my mother, whom I perceive as too one-dimensional (Ma, if you're reading this, no offense. You're great, just not my type. Happy Mother's Day!) Maybe it is because I see too many people go into teaching as a demonstration of their religious committment instead of their qualifications for the job.

I don't know why it is such a turn off, but I definitely like the sound of pre-med or business over education. Of course, the irony is that I will probably end up marrying some uber-teacher.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Home Sweet Home

I've written before about travelling to date. It's a complicated issue, but one that I've been on both sides of the fence. But as I look back on 18 months in Chicago, I'm actually considering taking the travelling for dating to a whole new level - moving.

I'd hardly be the first person to transplant myself for the sake of finding a bashert. But the question is, to what extreme does it make sense? Sure, if you're deciding between two job offers or colleges, you might factor in the social outlets afforded by each. But if you were firmly and securely established in one city, would you pack up and start again in another?

Now, I do have a request for a transfer in at my company to their New York offices. That wouldn't be such a leap, but that is hardly a guarantee. But would it be sane to quit my job, just to be able to move? Perhaps if I had another job lined up, but what about just quitting and moving? Marriage is important to me (and based on my last post, I am apparently thirsting for a deeper relationship), but is dating above making a living for me? Is it a matter of Bitachon, that all will fall into place, or on the other hand should I worry that not having a job will handicap my Shidduch resume?

Then of course, there is the other factor, what I'd be leaving behind. First, one girl here actually scolded me for focusing my dating efforts on New York, since that wasn't giving the local girls a fair chance (who are apparently having a hard time finding eligible guys). But I've only had two dates in Chicago since I moved here; I don't think I have to sacrifice myself to the theoretical altar of waiting Maidels. Second, obviously my family is here. Oh right, that was never a factor for me. I'm not interested in living in Chicago long-term. But I'm not interested in living in New York either. So it really is just playing the game, coming home with a trophy (yes, I realize that is an obscene metaphor. Just chuckle and move on...), and taking her far away. Where I don't know, but I would not consider New York the first city on my list for raising my children.

It's a lot of strain facing such difficult choices in life. Sometimes we know which path we have to march down to get to our goal, even if the path turns out of sight into a dark and foreboding barrier.

Dressed for Success

Sorry for the extraneous post, but the core of this blog has been ignored too long. So back to the basics...

I had some problems getting dressed this morning. I woke up all groggy, only to realize that I had no more clean shirts in my closet since I forgot to do my laundry last night. I staggered downstairs, hoping to find some miscellaneous reject hanging on the clothesline that would at least qualify as clothing. Happily, I saw two shirts, one light and one dark. Upon inspecting the light shirt (I'm a white shirt, dark pants kind of frummie), I saw it was my size (14 1/2) and a brand that I had, so I grabbed it and headed out. I got to shul only to realize I was wearing a pink shirt. Whoops.

But a funky shirt isn't enough to qualify for a blog post. Halfway through the day, my pant cuff came un-done. What do do? So I stapled it back up. Classy.

I am one put together gentleman.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


I've written before about my belief that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a guy and a girl being friends, even in the Frum world. And I still believe that. But right now, I'm confused. I'm in over my head. Not in the relationship sense, but in the rational sense. My comfortable boundaries have become so blurred, not because my ideals are bending, but because I'm encountering new scenarios that can't easily be classified into right and wrong, safe and unsafe.

My underlying philosophy is that both parties stand to gain a lot from a friendship, and those benefits shouldn't be negated just because of the sex of the two parties. But at what point does it become cheating on your spouse, even if that spouse is only a theoretical future partner? And at what rate do we compare the benefits to the risks?

I've learned that I have raw emotions. I've learned that I can expose myself to emotional risk. But sometimes I forget that I'm not Superman.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Sweet Nothings and Train Wrecks

Some people enjoy a quiet Shabbos to catch up on much needed rest. Others like to take the occasional vacation to an exotic locale or arrange social opportunities to reconnect with various friends. My parents were out this weekend, forcing me to find an alternative source of food. My first reaction was to starve. But then I decided why not drive numerous hours and let random bloggers take care of me?

And so I spent Shabbos at the BlogBlond household. The food was delicious, the kids were entertaining, and the weather was perfect. Duriung various parts of Shabbos I met PhotoChick, Rebel W/O a Clue, and Kaenahora. Gas was expensive, but you can't put a price on a spiritual retreat. And what better blog material than to see how random an offer I will take from my blog. Obviously, I follow through with things. So my only question is, who's next?

I am BlogBlond and I approve this message....Blogblond

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Wave Your Flag

Why I'm not celebrating Yom Ha'atzmaut:

1) Israel is a false prophet of the Jewish people.
2) Israel is a false idol to many Jews.
3) Israel is a false Messiah to many Jews.

Why I'm not celebrating Naqba Day:

1) Israel is the only country that exempts for military service if you dedicate your life to learning Torah.
2) Israel has made it safe for anyone to live or visit in the Holy Land.
3) Israel has kept Judaism relevant for so many.

I have to run to work, but I hope to add some more later. Feel free to contribute your own. Hat tip to Ayala for reminding me of the day.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Back to Life?

This past Shabbos, I went on a small NCSY Shabbaton. It was my first volunteer/organizational work in quite awhile. And it felt really nice to be back in a "people" role. All NCSY politics aside for now, it was fun having a purpose to a Shabbos beyond my own growth. It was a relaxed atmosphere, the kids were fun, and I'll even admit to socially appreciating the opportunity just to meet a few new peers in my age bracket.

But a wanted to share an additional part of the story, a piece that only one of the other kids shared in.

This past week, Yom Hashoah was commemorated. It's a time to remember the barbarism of the Holocaust, but also all travesties of human behavior, past and present. Soviet Russia was just another sad moment in the course of human history. Jews, among many other peoples, were persecuted for their differences. The Soviet government flexed its very powerful muscles against any group that was capable of fragmenting communist unity, and the Jewish religion suffered deeply as a result. Teaching Judaism become intolerable and practicing it became stifling. The Soviets were nearly successful in their attempts to snuff out all remnants of Jewish life, using the heavy hand of the totalitarian regime to deadly result.

There was one Jewish man, in his mid 50's, who was no different than the rest. His traditions and religion had been ripped away from him, and by this point in his life, he knew almost nothing of his spiritual inheritance. He didn't practice any aspects of the religion, and barely identified as Jewish. But one Rabbi, a forgotten profession in those parts, wouldn't let him slide into oblivion. One day, this Rabbi slipped him a piece of paper, a small sheet that had been ripped out of a worn book. It was the Kaddish, the prayer for the deceased, and the Rabbi beseeched this man that he do his best to find a Minyan to pray with once a year to commemorate the Yahrtzeits of his ancestors.

Fast forward twenty years. The man has made his way to America, to quiet suburbia, where he need not choose between his freedom and his principles. But communist Russia has taken its toll, and he still remains largely ignorant of his Jewish heritage. However, every year he has made it to a synagogue, where he pulls out a yellowed piece of paper, carefully creased and placed in his wallet, and recites the Kaddish prayer.

But this year, he shows up at the synagogue, but its doors are locked. This shul doesn't have a Minyan on Shabbos afternoon, the day his Yahrtzeit fell out this year. But before he leaves, he is admitted to the shul, by a child of 15 years. His luck has won once again- a group of students is holding a prayer service in the sanctuary and he is invited to join and say his Kaddish. He opens his wallet, and pulls out a crumbling piece of paper, with the words of the Kaddish carefully typed out in Russian, without any Hebrew. He gently unfolds the fraying prayer, and utters the timeless prayer, "Yisgadel V'Yisgadesh..."

That was the story of the elder gentleman davening behind me at the Shabbaton this weekend.

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