Friday, June 25, 2010

The Antidote to Anti-Semitism

A quick note on Parshah Balak, in honour of the bar mitzvah of my friend's eldest son (Mazal Tov!).

In Parshah Balak, we read how the King of Moav (Balak) summons the national prophet Bilaam to curse Bnai Yisroel. The Parshah then ends with the recounting of the episode involving Zimri and Cozbi.

The question that comes immediately to mind is why Balak summoned Bilaam at all. The Moavim knew that Hashem had commanded to refrain from attacking Moav (Devarim 2:19,19). Logically then, there should have been no fear of attack. Instead, Balak is so unnerved sheer magnitude of the approaching nation that he forms an allegiance with Moav's sworn enemies, the Midyanites, in an attempt to take down Bnai Yisroel (Rashi).

Morevoer, who was Bilaam? Bilaam was a relative of Lavan, from whom he learned black magic (Midrash/Zohar). It was, in fact, from Lavan that Bilaam learned how to discern the precise time of day when Hashem sits in judgement. By issuing a curse at that moment, Bilaam was able to obtain an unfavourable ruling from the Heavenly Court upon the cursed individual(s). That Bilaam is eager to curse the Jews indicates how he, like Lavan, enjoyed inflicting misery upon Hashem's people.

So what is really going on here? From the incident of Bilaam and Balak we learn how anti-semitism operates: an irrational fear/hatred of yiddin incites a rationalisation for one's hatred, and in turn, serves to justify in the anti-semite's mind any anti-semitic action s/he takes.

Yet, as always, Hashem provides the antidote to the problem with problem. Thus, we see that due to the piety of the Bnai Yisroel, Hashem was unable to find fault with them, and in turn cause Bilaam to bless instead of curse three times. As we know, the number 3 is a number with positive spiritual ramifications: Three Patriarchs, Three Matriarchs, Three Annual Festivals, etc. In Parshah Balak, with each attempt to curse, the given blessing that Balak utters proves greater than the previous blessing.

To underscore this point, the parshah ends by recounting the story of Zimri and Cozbi. Because of his supreme hatred of Bnai Yisroel (not to mention a blatant display of self-interest that is consistent with the legacy of Lavan), before leaving after issuing the curses, Bilaam attempts to curry favour (and monetary compensation) from Balak by telling the latter how to cause Bnai Yisroel's downfall. That Pinchas stops the plague by killing Zimri and Cozbi underscores that zealous adherence to Hashem's moral code (versus falling prey to moral squalor, i.e. consorting with the Midiyanite and Moavite women), we can continue to merit Divine Protection as individuals and as a nation.

Good Shabbos.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Long Time Coming

Since I have become more lenient recently in my frumkeit, I felt it was high time to write a post on the circumstances that lead to my frying out.

As I have highlighted in previous posts ad nauseum, I grew up extremely modern. We kept everything, but I wore t-shirts and jeans, and attended Hebrew school several times a week in tandem to going through public school. We belonged to a Modern Orthodox shul, and whenever I went there (aka Shabbos and Yom Tovim), I felt the glory and splendour of Hashem in both the services and in the respect that people showed to being in shul (read: no kids running amok and total silence during davening). The net result was that while I felt free to be me, I also possessed a profoundly strong, warm, and emotional connection to Hashem.

I first went to a Litvish shteibel as a teenager. The experience was startling; everything struck me as severe and rather cold, from how people dressed to the matter-of-fact drone of the davening. It basically looked like people were simply going through the motions in order to do what was right, what was expected. Granted, when I went to the Rebbetzin during the week wearing pants, she never said a word. And when I helped her in the kitchen preparing the shteibel’s Kiddush every week, she would occasionally smile a broad smile that shocked me with its warmth. Yiddishkeit was suddenly a complex thing.

As a Yekki, I am never going to be the profoundly spiritual, hippie-dippie type. But that lack of *joy* that I felt when keeping Shabbos as per the Litivish shul created a lack, a void within me. In stark contrast to my personal connection to Hashem, which had hereto been a source of wonder and strength for me, the definition of what was proper as per the rebbeim left me cold and unfulfilled.

So by the time I got to university, you could describe my mindset as being that of "frumkeit is the right thing to do". I did not obtain greater fulfillment by attending the Modern Orthodox Machmir shul in my speck of Small Town Canada. Indeed, the general atmosphere at MOMS was of civil tolerance for deviance from their norm. I recall spending one seder where the hostess took me aside after the meal and gave me stockings (from Israel! It’s a mitzvah to support Eretz Yisroel!) so that I could wear a skirt next time. While well-intentioned and certainly understandable given my having worn dress pants to her house, let's be honest: frumkeit began to feel a bit oppressive. Too many negatives, not enough positives. All these machmir stuff was getting in the way of my love of Hashem.

And so, gradually, unexpectedly, I began to find my personal relationship with Hashem, in jeopardy. I consequently took the course of action that I felt would best preserve my relationship with Him- I ditched being frum. A most misguided decision it was.

Yet at least I remained consistent. When did I begin to return to frumkeit? After spending a good week or so truly doubting whether Hashem existed. That scared me straight, as they say, and I began actively seeking out ways to become more anchored community (I attended shul during my frydom, but sporadically). The rest is, of course, history.

So why am I sharing this with you now? Because of late, I have been feeling the same degree of discomfort against all the chumrahs and so forth that disillusioned me to the point of jumping overboard. So you will excuse me if, both now and in future posts, I dwell more on cultivating my relationship with Hashem in a way that is personally meaningful to me. Because I can guarantee you that saying Tehillim and all the other frummie frumstein avenues posited around these parts will fail to net the desired effect for yours truly.

And the alternative is not a road I wish to travel down a second time!

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Note on My Local Library

So yes, the BPL is planning on closing several branches and reducing hours across the board. Perhaps my experience with my local branch yesterday demonstrates why. It's called lack of customer service.

First, for some unfathomable reason, my new branch does call my home phone, as specified under my account preferences to indicate that my holds are ready. However, their automated system fails to leave a message. I have subsequently become familiar with all of their numbers in order to note when my holds become available.

Next, upon entering the branch to pick up my hold yesterday, I decided that I would only take one of my two holds. I proceeded to the Customer Service Desk to check out the one book and return the one I would be relinquishing.

As I arrived at the Desk, one of the volunteers took a patron's card and checked out all of her holds. Such was not my luck. No, instead I was served by Mr. Lazy, who attempts at all costs to avoid working by turning your attention to any and every automated gizmo available. Since the scanners at the Self-Checkout at my branch tend to fail when reading my card, you can imagine some of my previous dealings with him.

I gave him my card and indicated which book I would be checking out and which I would be returning. He proceeded to waste 3 minutes on why I should use the Self-Checkout and that he would help me this time only because the library wasn't busy. I then told him that I had heard his sermon in the past, he needn't bother showing me how to use the Self-Checkout as I had tried and failed in the past, and he should simply check out my book in order to save time. To his repeated grumbling I let out an audible: This is why branches are closing. Lack of customer service! He said it was due to people not paying their taxes.

Of course, he proceeded to check out both of my books, to which I told him the precise reason why I came to him was because I only wanted the one book. His response? To have me go put it in the Return bin.

Listen, if people found friendly, helpful staff (ah, the librarians of my youth!), perhaps they would want to frequent the library more often. Maybe not, but certainly, getting attitude and having to service everything yourself is annoying. I pay my taxes. Now give me some service!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

To Tell or Not To Tell

As could be expected from residing in Brooklyn, my "new" place poses its share of neighbourly challenges. There is the schizo cat collector downstairs, the dysfunctional Israelis behind, and my upstairs neighbour. It is the last party who inspired this post.

The stated woman is the epitome of petite: she stands perhaps 5 ft tall, possesses a tiny frame, and has delicate features. What accentuates her diminutive size beyond anything, however, is the fact that I see her flitting up and down the stairs with her huge black lab. The dog, if rendered vertical, stands taller than and weighs significantly more than his owner.

Now why might I care, you are asking yourselves? Because the said dog, one Jose, is left leash less during these ventures in and out of the building. My neighbour is delusional enough to believe that she can control Jose with a simple call of "NO". You will note that I say call, as Jose scampers ahead of his owner, glad to be free of his two bedroom pen. Indeed, whenever I have met Jose and his matron, it is because Jose has come within an inch of me before his owner tells him to stay and what not. She actually got offended after one early run-in when I told him "No". I mean really- how much longer was she going to wait to issue the command? Yet whenever I have seen her after the stated incident, she gives me the lemon eye!

Since I am invariably clothed in either work or Shabbos attire during such encounters, I am getting rather annoyed. I run into them at least a few times a month, and her iciness towards me on top of friendly Jose practically jumping on me each time is wearing rather thin.

So I am contemplating asking the super to post a sign in the lobby advising owners to please leash their dogs. Thoughts? Suggestions?

Monday, June 14, 2010

What's a Girl to Do?

I once informed someone who was contemplating divorce: "You have no idea what divorce does to you spiritually". In short, contemplate staying married, because the spiritual ramifications of divorce are quite dire.

What I was referring to in that long-ago conversation is how,post-divorce, you typically get to a point within the first year where your tayvahs come to the fore. Indeed, it happens in such a linear fashion that you unconsciously start questioning where you have been holding and start adopting all types of koolahs. To wit- my current trading in of stockings and long skirts in favour of ankle socks and knee-length skirts, not to mention my wearing pyjamas instead of a nightgown if my laundry situation permits.

Granted, according to many poskim, my wardrobe choices are 100%permissible. Still, I cannot help but heave a sigh of relief that my shenanigans seem to have stopped there, because I know plenty of divorcees who became full-on pleasure seekers. I have even known a handful that frequent clubs of the "exclusive, adult-only" ilk. (Shudder.) Still, I wonder/worry about just how much further down the road I might wind up going.

Motzei Shabbos, during a bout of insomnia (and fueled by my neighbours' audible argument concerning a particular shidduch), I read online that it is an aveirah if you do not wish to marry. Now, while I assume there is some leeway for persons such as myself that are recently divorced, I had to question my present mindset. After all, do I want to remarry? Do I rush to fulfill that unspoken expectation from the frum community? No. Instead, if my mind happens to even go there (which is basically never these days), I see such a situation transpiring only many, many, many, many (you get the idea) years from now. In short, I can hardly state that my objective is to get married anytime in the foreseeable future. Heck, given my apathy towards dating, the venues left for "finding my basheret" basically include the sidewalk, street corner, metro or shop. Mind you, given my track record, maybe that's not a terrible thing...

To be honest, the most troubling aspect of my single status is that I have zero interest in dating because I have zero interest in dealing with men. Sometimes even my male friends manage to peeve me off due to their male mindset/behaviour. Moreover, since spent my 30s navigating the gender divide, I am ready for an extended break from it. Additionally, the dating pool that I dove into twice before is not exactly offering me anything new and enticing. That renders the prospect of dating and remarrying even more unappealing.

Thus, while I am thoroughly enjoying 1. being single, and 2. devoting my limited energy and resources to yours truly (for the first time in my life), should I be worried? Is the impetus for my behaviour simply self-nurturing or does it stem from a more insidious, evil source?

I suppose only time will tell. In the meantime, I am attempting to straddle the divide between spiritual vigilance and a life that I enjoy living. Since the universal enemy of yiddin is the yetzer hara, and in turn every yid faces the same challenge, that approach is pretty much all I can expect to do, for now.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"I'm a Mommy First"

On my way to work today, I witnessed a familiar scene: two mommies on their porch steps, adorned in tichel and tights and their favourite accessory- their children. As I walked by, their conversation was utterly predictable, namely what time little Shmueli went to bed last night and what time he woke up this morning. I was mentally thankful that I had missed the required discussion of his bowel movements.

Now I believe that it is only natural that a woman's primary focus be her children, except perhaps when her spouse is present. And I also understand that mothers need to discuss what is happening with their children with other mothers. There seems to be an inherent need to benchmark what is normal and to seek out advice with parenting issues or concerns. More to the point, due to the fact that parenting is the world's most difficult occupation, like any worker, a mommy needs support. She needs to gripe to someone in a similar position. Fair enough.

So, while I am not myself a parent, I can empathize with the impetus for the witnessed scene. That said, it would seem that mothers fall into one of two camps:
  1. Those who identify themselves solely as a mommy, i.e. being a mother becomes their sole reference point for who they are.
  2. Those who remain individuals despite having children.
In other words, some mothers retain a self-image of themselves that goes beyond being a mother; others do not. Where the frum world is concerned, at least in Brooklyn, you do tend to encounter the "I'm a Mommy" group frequently. In a way, how could you not? After all, this self-image is an extension of the Torah concept that a woman's primary role is as teacher and caregiver of her children.

Still, when you read someone's online dating profile and the first sentence is "I'm a mommy first", doesn't that make you feel just a tad sorry for any guy she may date? Maybe she is capable of making room in her life for a man, but the sentence does not create that impression. To be fair, my view on relationships-any relationship, be it with your spouse or with your children- is that you remain separate entities who come together and form a common ground called The Relationship. By definition, a relationship is the connection between one part or entity to another.

Growing up, I never once heard my mother discussing my bowel movements or other features of my development with guests, friends, or family. Rather, topics discussed included the arts and culture, with the men veering off on occasion to discuss the economy or politics in a light-hearted fashion. So when I witnessed that the majority of conversation on the women's side of the mechitzah revolved around their children (or outfits for their children's simchas, if they were already grandparents), I was dismayed. I recall distinctly telling my first husband that I *hated* the kiddush at our shul, because there was only so much patience I could muster for sheitel and baby talk.

Recently I went to a family for Shabbos. The hostess had been in a high-powered position prior to getting married and having children. On the one hand, she seemed to be very proud of her previous career, yet on the other, she was now compensating by making her entire life about her children. As she had been involved in arts and culture, I tried to converse with her on those topics. She responded by ignoring my attempts and instead telling me what age each of her children had been potty-trained. Indeed, she spent 99% of the time I was in her house ignoring me and instead playing with her children or otherwise occupying their space. By the end of the evening, my impression was of a woman who had made her children her top priority, to the detriment of herself, her children, and her marriage.

Thus, while parenting is an all-consuming job, one where a mother can feel overwhelmed and require support, I worry about the women who seem incapable of remaining a self-contained person after having children. Because it strikes me as unhealthy to not have any concept of yourself beyond someone else, even your children (the ten-cent psychological term for that phenomenon, by the way, is co-dependency). So, while a child is naturally co-dependent to a degree on their parent, I cannot say that the reverse is necessarily productive, for either the child or the parent.

But then again, I am not a mommy, right? What do I know?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

I'm Becoming Dumb

Between my mind-numbing new job and my lack of time to read, my spelling has deterioriated. Lately I actually have to pause and contemplate the potential spelling of certain words. Sure, I inevitably remember, but still.

I would qualify this as an intellectual emergency, no? Time to start refreshing the old noggin' with some of those library books, methinks!

Bring on the Ts!

Yesterday I had the pleasure of eating Shabbos lunch with a family whose acquaintance I made recently. They are a fave of mine already due to their refreshing take on Brooklyn frumkeit, i.e. we concur on the topic. :)

After lunch, the hostess and I retired to the couch in order to talk away the afternoon, as has become our custom. She then reminded me of a tznius point that I had long forgotten, due to my current surroundings.

Next year her daughter is entering a modern high school out-of-town. Her daughter is thrilled that she can now wear shirts to the elbow and show her collar bone. I then recalled how, when I was returning to frumkeit after my time off the derech, I had a conversation with a fellow shul-goer who was "notorious" in the community; she was an FFB, had been raised ultra-chassidish, and became modern as a result. She would, in fact, turn up at shul in short sleeves, and despite the shul being full of fry yiddin (who everyone knew wore shorts the rest of the week- men and women alike), people went tsk-tsk.

In short, yesterday's conversation triggered my recall that she once gave me a beautiful short-sleeve shirt and told me that there are different definitions of tznius. I had worn the short-sleeve shirt on a few occasions (it had a very conservative line and fell halfway to the elbow), but sensing the community's disapproval, I stopped wearing the offensive item. My biggest concern at that period in my life was the concept of tznius that one should blend in with the rest of the community, i.e. the point of tznius is to not stick out, whatever your surroundings. That is actually the same reason why, while I initially worn hats post-Marriage #1, I started wearing a sheitel when attending a Chabad shul.

Anyhow, my new friend reminded me that the minimum standards of tznius are as follows:
  • Armpits must be fully covered at all times
  • The top of knees must be covered when sitting down
  • Closed shoes can be worn without stockings/socks
  • Open toe shoes should be worn with at least an ankle sock, if not more.

I gave a very hearty mental cheer, let me tell you. Especially given the current heat wave.

To be fair, I was wearing stockings over Shabbos, because I had expected to visit an ultra-Yeshivish friend of mine, and I wanted to respect her standards. In short, I am not advocating rocking the boat and wearing something deliberately to rebel and make others uncomfortable. I would not, for example, go stocking-less to a Yeshivish school or Yeshivish host/hostess. That would be disrespectful and, in turn, completely inappropriate behaviour.

But having been reminded of a minimum that I can live with, I do not see why I need to hold to a more stringent standard when I go about my business. Shopping, visiting modern/open-minded friends, lounging at home, etc.- under such circumstances, I should be allowed to wear the minimum.

To put it differently, I will respect your standards when I am in your home. Therefore, please respect my standards when you encounter me on the street/in my realm.

Now, who wants to go with my to Conway to check out their collection of killer graphic Ts?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Look

Yesterday during my train ride home from Manhattan, a guy stared at me for a good part of the trip. He was, naturally, a goy and I was, to be fair, all dolled up in a suit and makeup. Still, it got me thinking...

When I first moved to Brooklyn, I noticed two related, yet equally perplexing inter-gender phenomena/rituals: As a woman walking down the street, if I
  • Wished a male "Good Shabbos", he didn't respond.
  • Approached a male on the sidewalk ,the man would look up at the sky or otherwise make a grand display of not looking at me.
(Granted, some of them probably weren't looking, if my getting pushed over on the sidewalk/into the gutter when they passed is any indication).

My ex-husband used to say to me, "Don't worry. They look! All men look". :) But I will admit that these encounters continue to disturb me. Perhaps my reaction is due to my never having had such an experience before moving to Brooklyn. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am mildly insulted by the experience.


When you begin to live in the hermetically-sealed environment that is ultra-frum Brooklyn, you begin to notice that there is, like it or not, an "Old Boys" mentality to the men. It permeates everything, from when you're doing your shopping to when you are at work to when you attempt to park your car at the end of the day. Men rule here.

Now, I go on record as saying that I like men to be men and women to be women; I am most comfortable when in a traditional feminine role. Indeed, I have zero interest in the "freedoms" of feminism, because I find feminism to be a flawed ideology that has actually worsened women's lot. Instead, I want to be equal with a man but remain a woman. Hopefully you can grasp the distinction without labelling me "oppressed". :) But despite yiddishkeit's innate equality between genders, gender inequality does exist around these parts.

As a result, when the men do their song and dance pretending that I am invisible, I feel that inequality. And when they don't move out of the way, but rather expect me to step aside! Well,that actually upsets me. I may be a woman, but there's no excuse for chivalry to be dead.

You can consequently imagine that now, almost 5 years into living in Brooklyn, it comes as a surprise when non-Jewish men look at me on the street (or cat call, depending on their culture, lol). And while yes, I am being acknowledged in a way that is sexual and therefore not empowering, I *am* being acknowledged. In short, is the act of frum men ignoring me any more respectful than the non-Jewish men staring/making comments?The answer is no.

I guess it would be fair to say then that if I were choose how I prefer to be disrespected, it would be in the goyishe style. Because I just don't buy the claim that pretending I am invisible is actually about tznius. Jewish men may sing the praises of the righteous woman layl Shabbos, but you will note that in order to sing her praises, they are acknowledging she exists.

So stop pretending you don't see/hear me, guys. Because the nicest take on it is that you're being rude. And the last thing we yiddin need is more fodder to be twisted into "evidence" of the misconception that Judaism is misogynist. At least, that's my humble opinion.