English people are strange

English people are strange. My English friends, perhaps from the lack un-obscured sunlight, seasons that aren’t rainy, or vitamin D deficiencies, take every opportunity to go outside and sit in the sun. One of my good friends here balks at running more than fifty feet at one time because he’ll get all “shvitzy”… Yet he’ll stroll leisurely, sit for hours, and eat three course meals in 90 degree heat without a complaint...

But it’s not just the sun that keeps me in the cool embrace of AC, central heating, and carpeting; Nature has had a vendetta against me since my birth. Each spring “mother” nature decides to turn me into a puffy eyed, sneezing, hoarse voiced version of myself… “For what?” you ask… in the name of pollenization. I might be tempted to let it go, but nature kills me with mold and fungus in the fall and winter; and assaults my senses with flies and bees all summer.

So every time someone suggests brightly, “why don’t we eat outside?” or suggests ruining my Shabbos afternoons with a walk I feel like I’m being mugged. “Stick up your hands and give me mucus!” nature growls… And as my eyes begin to water and the bees dive-bomb my head my chipper friend opines, “Isn’t getting mugged fun!” It’s like the last scene in Sound of Music, sure they’d just escaped from becoming part of the Nazi war effort, but if you think that they were singing about how much fun it was to be hiking through the Alps you’re crazy. The real version probably went more like:

Maria: “The hills are alive, with the sound of music…”
Captain Van Trapp: Maria dear, could you shut up we’re trying to sneak away, emphasis on sneak… And keep swinging that machete, there’s a lot of brush we have to get through.
Maria: Sob

But it wasn’t supposed to be this way, for most of my adolescence I took allergy shots, ostensibly with the goal of “curing” my allergies. 6 years, thousands of pricks and a gallon of allergy serum later I still wake up with congestion from February till May… But I can give blood like a champ, so maybe something good came out if it. Each week my brother mother and I would travel to the hospital and sit in a waiting room with all the other unfortunate souls to be born with an intolerance to life. The prosecutor of my weekly castigation was a kind enough woman. I’d sit in the waiting room rereading the same Highlights for Kids that had been in the waiting room since I started coming to the hospital and she’d poke her head out: “Come on in Jones-Quarteys!” In her little office my mother and the nurse would make small talk as she prepared our injections, and when it was each of our turns to get dosed she’d usually interject some non-sequitur: “What do you think about the Redskins this year?” My fear of going outside also extended to participating and watching football at that age so I just answered based on her melancholy tone, “I’m not sure that this is gonna be a good year.” I intoned, “Maybe next year?” I never knew if I answered correctly, but it didn’t matter because by the time I had the words out of my mouth she’d moved on to my brother.

We got allergy shots so long that we saw many generations of allergy nurses. Each one with roughly the same technique and manner as the last… To the point that In my mind they all blend into one person. The first day a new nurse started was usually going to be a traumatic experience; without the expertise in exactly were the best spot for the injection was, that first day usually ended with a small lump on my arms that felt funny for a few hours. But the sympathy lollipop that I got on those days made it all worth it.

It’s strange but now, years after finally pulling myself out of the weekly woundings I sort of miss them. It was the one time that I was locked in that life or death struggle that man has always faced against elements much larger and much stronger than himself… We can fence out bears, ford streams and flatten mountains…but when it comes to my allergies, nature is winning.

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גשר המיתרים

Tonight Jerusalem welcomed it's newest landmark the גשר המיתרים or "Chords Bridge". It's the only Calatrava design that I've had a chance to see and while it's beautiful, I really wonder if this is a bridge that was originally designed for some other city... It's twice the height of anything else in Jerusalem and is the polar opposite of the ancient sand stone aesthetic of the rest of the built environment of the city. Anyway, it's still cool looking, even during the day.


Like breakdancing

In a land far far away (Silver Spring, MD), in a long long time ago (like 4 years ago) I had a conversation with two frum Jews about their experiences in college. Like my Mir buddies interacting full time with goyishe society was a bit of a culture shock. While there were a few things and people that they admired, for the most part the world "outside" the bubble was just as horrible as they'd heard. Sex and drug obsessed boys and girls whose feelings of self-worth were totally negative abounded despite clear consequences to living a life without a stronger moral structure.

As an aside: A Mormon friend of mine echoed the same feelings, and I imagine those who ascribe themselves to any system of moral belief might have similar feelings.

But what they missed was that western society is very two faced about the messages regarding sexual behavior, drug taking, and mental health. On one hand there Is MAAD, Just Say No, abstinence campaigns and failing that exhortations to be discriminating about ones partners; yet when a character on a TV show breaks up with a significant other they are often encouraged to "go out, meet someone new" (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) and men that choose to be a little more chaste or not drown their problems in beer are denigrated... And I won't even go into women's issues (sadly the western ideas about women's value are leeching into the frum world). So while my friends had "positive" outlets for their frustrations and consistent messages about how they should deal with stress, their compatriots in school alongside them didn't have a similar structure. So rather than thinking that the people were acting like behemahs because they were behemahs, I told them to be dan l'chaf schus that if many of their classmates would have been less deviant in their behavior if given the right structure.

So in dealing with my life at the moment I feel a pull back to the "outside"... I want to go and get an ego boost by hitting on people and getting a positive response, go dancing at nightclubs and get drunk at parties... but I don't. I read "The Garden of Emuna" and try to improve myself because I know that the idea is to tunnel my frustrations into productive "self-improvement"... But my yetzer hara is strong, constantly screaming in my ears, "leave the yeshiva, find someone to snuggle up with forget everything!"

Don't get me wrong, what I'm doing here will make me happier in the long run (and short run honestly, Rabbi Akiva Eiger is geshmach), and one's ability to make decisions based upon long-term planning is one of the things that separates us from monkeys, but I don't think I've ever been so conscious of the taivos that the world or my "animal nature" gave me. Manifesting the full human capability to bend ones' nature based upon a more sophisticated understanding of how to interact with the world and Gd is like breakdancing with a broken arm.

I've been wondering why I'd admit to the world that I have a yetzer hara and it screams into my ear, especially seeing as I plan on trying to get a date one day... The only rational that I can think of is that by writing it out I cement my own resolve and perhaps reading my little post will give someone else a bit of encouragement. Or as Michelle says "Would you rather bury your head in the sand and pretend these issues don't exist?"



Being a convert and Shabbos songs #6

There's a controversy a brewin'!
As most people in Israel have heard; the Supreme Rabbinical Court ruled that all of the “conversions performed since 1999 by Rabbi Chaim Avior and Rabbi Chaim Drukman, who heads the Israeli Conversion Court, must be disqualified.” Besides the upsetting implications for me, something that I hope I won't have to grapple with but realize is a possibility, I am upset at how the issue has been framed as a "chareidi vs dati" struggle. I've been reading some of the writings of Rav. Samson Rafael Hirsch lately, and while the various parts of religious society here in Israel don't see exactly eye to eye I hope and pray that we won't inflame these "small" issues till they seem as wide as the gulf separating the haskala from Torah Judaism. What is lacking in the argument between the two groups however is a metargeim, someone who can explain the issues in a manner that will allow understanding between the national religious and the plain religious.

One of the facts missing from much of the discussion is that the whistleblower on the special conversion court is Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, head of Machon Tzomet a tzioni institution. His concerns about Rabbi Drukman's testifying that he sat on beis dins that he wasn't present for was ruled inconsequential by a secular court, but the issue was never decided religiously.

The other thing that frustrates me is that few of the people that are up in arms about the annulling of the conversions have read the psak, so I'll do my part:

In English In Hebrew

Anyway, I'm frustrated that there aren't objective standards for conversion that will allow converts in one place to be sure that they will be recognized everywhere they go. My other frustration is that this squabble will only increase the calls for having conversion taken out of the hands of the rabbinate, which will only add to the question: "Who is a Jew?"

This erev Shabbos Song is by Eef Barzelay, a Israeli born alt-country singer and my current fave.

Jose Gonzales - Teardrop

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Maybe Gd doesn't want me going to Tel Aviv

Hashem is the king, the world is his court, and sometimes I feel like I'm the jester.
Yesterday I decided to eschew the programmed yeshiva tiyul for an escape from J-lem tiyul to Tel Aviv. Jerusalem and I have always had a love/hate relationship... Jerusalem is a beautiful city but it's also a very intense city, every small daily struggle transformed into a life or death battle for supremacy. So every once in a while I like to travel to Tel Aviv and bask in the lazy calm of the most westernized city in Israel. But every time I go there I can't remember which bus takes me to the center of the city and end up taking a bus that drops passengers off in Jordan with a map and a compass. This time I tried to be smart about it; I went to the information booth, asked which bus went to the central bus station and bought the correct ticket...
Unfortunately my jester-like qualities revealed themselves, I dropped the ticket while walking to the bus stop and watched as the wind picked it up and forced me to chase the ticket for about 10 feet. I ran, stomped on the ticket and bent over to pick it up; but just as my hand closed on the piece of paper I felt an unfamiliar "airy" feeling in the seat of my pants and heard something tear... I jerked upright and twisted to see that my pants, an old pair of khakis that predate my adventure with yiddishkeit, had split from between my legs to mid-tuchus. I moved my man-bag to try and cover the hole and tried to think of a plan. Golf, the Israeli version of Banana Republic, was probably my best bet for new pants, but it was three floors below me... I waddled and tried to keep the hole in my pants as inconspicuous as possible, but by the time I was downstairs the hole had grown and I was frantically trying to find new pants before the ones I was wearing lost structural integrity. Luckily one of the sales people was uncharacteristically Israeli and actually helped me.
New fact:
In Israel often pants are made in only one length (33 in.) because the market is too small to support having multiple lengths. And since most Israelis are only a little taller than me I actually fit into most of the stuff here.

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Shabbos "songs" #5

I love the way erev shabbos smells here in J-lem, a mix of chicken, bread and brisket. I volunteer at a soup kitchen every friday, so I get the "shabbos smell" early. If you aren't volunteering you should be, I've been riding the wave of appreciation that I get from the people who come to the kitchen all day. On the way back I decided to start "shabbos songs" a little early too... but this time with a couple of the "famous" street performers of J-lem. Enjoy

The other thing that I love is Massive Attack, their song "teardrop" displays a sensuality that I think is rarely done without being overtly sexual. So when Jose Gonzales produced this cover on guitar I thought it would stink, without the strong back beat of the human heart the song might have lost its emotive power. But the new version sounds great Good shabbos!

Jose Gonzales - Teardrop

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thoughts before bed

How many mitzvos are "simply" mitzvos of machshava?
Anochi H' elokecha
Ahavas H'
Yiras H'
Yichud H'
Have no other gods

Is that it? There is a gemara in the second perek of brachos (daf 13b) that sparked this question:
אמר ליה רב נחמן לדרו עבדיה בפסקא קמא צערן טפי לא תצערן

The idea that it would be "enough" to simply say the first pasuk of krias shema is unbelievable, and rightly so; the meaning of this story is that the rabbis were makpid to accept עול מלכות שמימ during the correct zman, not that the first pasuk is the fulfillment of the obligation for krias shema. But why did Rav Nachman have to say the words of Shema in order to accept H's malchus? After all, the verbal acceptance (perhaps) stems from a mental assertion.

I think the answer can be found in a concept from Kiddushin (daf 50a) that states:
דברים שבלב אינו דברים
When creating an agreement for marriage, the parties create the aggreement by openly stating what conditions they wish to place on the agreement. Conditions that are not testified to at the time of the agreement and left in the mind (or "in the heart") cannot be used to break the agreement later. Where this concept intersects with the suggiya in brachos is that the acceptance of the Jewish people's "agreement" to accept G-d's personal rule over the Jewish people is the acceptance without any stipulations, but the main facet of the agreement must be stated out loud because an agreement that is left in the mind and the heart doesn't have the strength of law.

So the acceptance of Hashem's monarchy is not a mitzva that I'd add to the list of mitzvos that are accomplished through thought alone.

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Mad Hatter

A quick story before I go do my part of the work to prepare the yeshiva for shavuos:
I finally walk into the store that I'd spent over 5 years of religious fervor preparing to enter and sidle up to the counter to be greeted by a peyos wearing Dean Martin. As unusual of a sight as this should be, I'm neither stunned nor confused as everyone in this store is some version of Dean Martin. To my right, an older Dean Martin... Left, 13 year-old Dean Martin... Behind me, Dean Martin in a long coat arguing with, confusingly... younger Dean Martin in a shorter coat over how much money to spend. Maybe it was the sea of fedoras, or the fact that I'd hiked from my yeshiva in heat that one would assume He'd spare His Chosen People, but I've forgotten about Ol' Blue Eyes so my rat pack allusions begin and end with Dean Martin... Which works out better anyway because Dean and Sammy did the best duets and I'm here to assemble the last bits of the token rat packer's costume. I ask the first Dean Martin for his best hat in my best Ivrit b'vacashah, and with a smirk he asks me for my hat size in yiddish accented English. I do not know my hat size, I do know my head is big so I just say gadol and hope that he comes back with something big enough, sparing me the indignity that kept me out of the toy hats they used to pass out at Burger King when I was a slightly less than kosher kid. The third one fits. But it's not what I was looking for. It's a little more "man in poncho dances around it while mariachi band plays in the background" than I'd like so I ask for something smaller and tells me that what I'm holding is a "good hat... the best hat" and is super reluctant to show me anything else. I've been in Israel more than 2 years and I'll never understand this facet of Israeli society; shopkeepers regularly tell the customer what is good for him, and will disagree to the point of fighting. I don't want to fight with Dean so I just feign walking out, and he returns with a smaller model... But it's still not what I want, so I walk out for real.
Two days later I'm back, but it's a different store, a different Dean Martin and I'm armed with one of my gurus in my quest for spiritual enlightenment. The first time I went hat shopping I'd violated one of the rules of yeshivish life, ask your rebbe about everything; which is obviously why I was rewarded with gornisht. This time I ended up with a hat that is a little less sombrero and a little more jazz and my Rav and I had a long conversation on the various fashions of hats through the ages (I want to bring back Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim's style of white suits and straw hats in the summer).
I won't admit that being the proud owner of a fedora makes me feel more religious, but I will admit that I did my best "soft shoeing it while singing jazz" impression when I got home.

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Out of the mouths of babes

I rarely agree with anything posted by the Yeshiva World News, most of the time I find their coverage amateurish and sensationalist. But aside from questions of malice, to which I won't pretend to be able to ascertain, this article spells out exactly what I was thinking when I read about Pastor Hagee's remarks the first time. I'd slap his wrist for chutzpah (look tatie, the man thinks he's a navi!), but I can't completely disagree with the sentiment. After all, I've heard some of my own rabbis say that for every tragedy there is a degree of tochacha.

“Tonight I humbly ask forgiveness of the Jewish people for every act of anti-Semitism and the deafening silence of Christianity in your greatest hour of need during the Holocaust.”

Those words were spoken before a crowd of several thousand Jews attending an AIPAC Policy Conference in March, 2007. The speaker was Pastor John Hagee, the evangelist who heads the group Christians United for Israel – the very same Pastor Hagee whom Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie now accuses of “insult[ing] the survivors” of the Holocaust.

Reform Rabbi Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was referring to a speech Pastor Hagee made about a decade ago, about Yirmiyohu HaNovi’s nevu’ah that Hashem would one day “bring the Jewish people again unto their land that I gave unto their fathers” (16:15). In the next posuk Hashem proclaims that He will send “many fishers” and then “hunters.” The latter word was interpreted by Mr. Hagee as referring to Hitler, ym”sh, leading the pastor to regard the Holocaust as part of a Divine strategy to move Jews to Eretz Yisroel.

One needn’t agree with the pastor’s take on history; or accept his assumption that simple people can identify events with prophecies; or even consider him to be in command of the facts (in his speech, he has Theodore Herzl, a resolutely secular Jew, invoking Divine command as the reason Jews should move to Eretz Yisroel). But nothing in fact could be more Jewish than to accept that, no matter how inscrutable, Hashem is just; and that as we look into the maw of tragedy we are to look inward as well.

And so, while the Reform rabbi may have seen the Christian minister’s words as “an affront” to those who perished in the Holocaust, I saw only an attempt, imperfect but without malice, to discern the fulfillment of a Jewish prophet’s words in recent history. Continued...

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