Sunday, July 18, 2010

Reminders of Jewish Morality

I encountered two incidents in the last week that drove home how many commandments in the Torah protect us from emulating the moral shortcomings of other nations.

First, I was walking down the Avenue, and kept finding myself in shops that a particular non-Jewish woman was also frequenting. I happened to notice her because aside from her loud attire, she was yelling into the phone. As we went up the street after exiting another shop, we passed a fruit stand. She was still on the phone, but grabbed fruit from the stand and kept on walking. One of the owners happened to be outside the shop and told her she had to pay for the fruit. To which she yelled, "So call the police then". Then she continued walking, and for a full 2 blocks kept muttering loudly, "Pay for one cherry. One cherry! Damn fool!". To be honest, I was astonished that she couldn't comprehend that yes, even for one cherry- which are currently $4+ a pound- you do need to pay. If you take anything, even a pea, without paying for it, it's called stealing.

Then today I was on the metro going uptown. I made my connection and was glad to see that there was one seat available if I squeezed my little butt in between the two guys who were sitting, legs wide open, on the given bench. I consequently put my foot between them, pivoted and dropped myself into the space. Because I had put in my foot before pivoting, the men moved their legs and I was able to sit just as the train yanked itself out of the station. I had barely rested my back against the seat when a man and his female companion started in. "She doesn't say 'Excuse me', she just puts her foot there and sits down. No excuse me! Just puts her foot.", etc. etc. For 5 minutes. To be honest, perhaps I should have said "Excuse me". But in my mind, they were the ones being rude by hogging the space! In other cities, saying "Excuse me" gets you somewhere. On the MTA, good luck. Yet the irony was that, like the Cherry woman, this guy had no clue that it is actually very rude to keep your legs wide open when people are entering the train looking for a spot. But even more importantly, he felt that it was acceptable to attempt to publicly humiliate/embarrass me. Not that he succeeded, but the difference between his mindset and the frum mindset (aka that embarrassing someone is tantamount to murder) was apparent.

Let's just say that I'm really glad that I'm a Jew right now.

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?