Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Galus and Gastronomy

Some people, like pollster James Zogby, see Israeli offerings of hummus and babaganoush as a form of  “cultural genocide.”  And cookbook author Reem Kassis says that the marketing of hummus as an Israeli food makes her feel that she doesn’t exist.

I can’t say whether hummus was originally an Arab or Israeli delicacy, only that I enjoy it with a bit of olive oil and paprika on a pita. But I have what to say about Jewish cuisine and what it teaches us.  You can read what here.

Yetzias Kaufering

Pesach Sheni is a special day in my family, because in 1945, on that day of the Jewish calendar, my father-in-law, who passed away earlier this year, was liberated from Dachau by American soldiers.

You can read about his last days in the concentration camp, and about his family’s marking of that day each year, here.

(Photo is of my father-in-law and one of his orphan charges in France.)

Thinking Out of the Box

Yaakov famously sequestered Dinah his daughter in a box as he prepared to meet Esav his brother.

That, according to the Midrash Rabbah brought by Rashi (Beraishis 32:23). His reason for hiding Dinah, the Midrash notes, was because he feared that Esav would, upon seeing her, wish to marry her. And he didn’t want to take that chance.

But there’s a phrase in the Midrash, though, that is easily overlooked. Not only did he put his daughter in a box, he “locked her in.”

What that seems to indicate is that Yaakov knew that, as Chazal explain at the very beginning of the saga of Dinah’s abduction and rape by Shechem, she was a yatzanis, an “outgoing personality.” She was a naturally curious person. And so, prudently, her father locked her in, since he feared she might emerge during his meeting with Esav to witness the goings-on.

And, according to the Midrash, Yaakov is faulted for that, since, had Dinah in fact been seen by Esav and ended up marrying him, she might have been able to turn his life around and alter the enmity he held in his heart for Yaakov.

But wasn’t Yaakov right to do what he did?  

Apparently not. The question is why.

What occurs is that children have natural proclivities and tendencies.  There are times, to be sure, indeed many times, when a child has to receive “no” as an answer.

But squelching a child’s nature is not a good idea. It can easily backfire.  Ideal child rearing is channeling the child’s nature, not seeking to squelch it. (See Malbim on Chanoch lina’ar al pi darko (Mishlei 22:6).

My wife and I know a couple whose little boy seemed obsessed with airplanes, beyond the normal interest in such things of all little boys. The parents didn’t try to dissuade him from his desire, as he grew, to fly or work with planes, to force him, so to speak, into a box. They allowed him to express it, and the little boy is grown today, a yeshiva (and flight school) graduate who is a certified air traffic controller, and he’s raising a beautiful, Torah-centered family with his wife, our daughter.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

De-Camping

At this point, no one knows if sleep-away or day camps, including Jewish ones, will be functioning this summer. And, if they will be, whether all children who want to attend them will be able to do so.

There are children, of course, who, because of home circumstances or other reasons, truly need a summer camp option, but here is a secret: Most kids don’t.

My intention is not, chalila, to dissuade any parents from sending their children to camp. Rather, it is to reassure those whose kids may not have camp options this summer that summer school-free weeks aren’t an obstacle but an opportunity.

It’s been a while – a very long one – since I was a child, and the world was very different in the 1960s from what it is today. But I never attended summer camp – by choice. I cherished my freedom and balked at regimentation, even of fun activities.

And yet, despite my spending childhood summers at home, they were wonderful times.

I studied Torah each day, both a little on my own and with an older chavrusa, a young talmid chochom who ended up becoming a stellar mesivta rebbe – a development I like to imagine was born of the considerable resources he was forced to summon to hold my attention.

But each day’s many hours also afforded me an abundance of other activities, unstructured and not always in a group setting, but no less enjoyable for their spontaneity or, at times, solitude.

One summer, on a lark, I taught myself (from a book) how to type, a skill that ended up coming in handy when I became a high school rebbe myself (and even more handy in my writing career). Yes, practice was tedious, but the daily progress was its own reward.

Another summer, I undertook origami, or Japanese paper-folding. Not so handy in the end – I don’t think I’ve ever been asked as an adult to fashion a paper swan or rabbit – but fun all the same. I collected and observed bees, and fired off model rockets I built from balsa-wood kits and painted. I took long bike rides and, in my teens, occasional part-time jobs. I mowed our lawn and hiked local trails. I played ball with other camp-shy or camp-deprived friends, read a lot, and then read some more. Some kids like science; some, history; some fiction. But all kids like something, and there are books on everything.

And unlike in my youth, today there is a wealth of reading material that meets every religious standard.

Did I learn as much Torah as I might have in a camp? Probably not. I didn’t visit any amusement parks or waterworks either, or attend any campfire kumsitzes. But somehow I survived those deprivations and emerged from each summer happy, refreshed, and, I think, grown a little as a person.

Although several of our children attended overnight summer camps one or two years here and there, my wife and I never considered the experience de rigeuer, or even necessarily in our kids’ best interest. That we generally couldn’t afford anything but, at most, neighborhood day camps made it easier to not feel a need to “keep up with the Katzenellenbogens.” We taught our children that expensive things are seldom important ones, and they accepted that truth – baruch Hashem, perpetuating it in their own families.

Not all parents can take the time in the summer to go on day trips with their children. But those who can should not discount how enjoyable and memorable even trips to local parks or scenic view spots can be. Nor do children lack for creative quarries to mine in their own figurative backyards (or literal ones). There are musical instruments to be mastered, artwork to be created, bugs to be unearthed, recipes to be tried (and created), clothing patterns to be cut and sewn, model cars and airplanes kits to be assembled and painted.

The complaint “I have nothing to do!” lovingly ignored, can yield all sorts of creative ideas, inventions mothered by necessity, on the part of the tragically bored. And, of course, chaburos, chavrusos and shiurim can, with a bit of effort, be arranged.

Yes, I know, today’s world is a very different one from the one I inhabited as a boy, even from the one in which our children, now adults with their own families, grew up. Children today confront unprecedented educational expectations, social norms, challenges, and dangers. I understand that the sort of long bike rides I took through unfamiliar neighborhoods in the 1960s would not be recommended for even a suburban ten-year-old today; and that a public library is no longer the generally healthy environment it once seemed to be.

And I know, too, that many ex-campers positively glow when reminiscing about their summer experiences. So the benefits of well-run camps can’t be overstated.

Still and all, and particularly if summer camp, for whatever reason, isn’t a viable option, we do ourselves and our young a favor by recognizing that camps are among the many once-luxuries that have somehow come to be seen as necessities.

For all their benefits, though, they aren’t. Summer, even without the “c” word following it, can be a time of wonder, fun and growth for a child.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Pathologized Problems

It seems that a good part of my youth was spent in a mental asylum without walls.

At least that’s how some mental health professionals might characterize it.

Among the boys in my neighborhood more than a half century ago was one who would today be called obsessive-compulsive, and another was firmly on the autism spectrum. Yet another seemed chronically depressed, and anxiety plagued another. Yet another would have been diagnosed as ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disordered, for anyone unfamiliar with the acronym) – had the diagnosis existed at the time.

I’m not exaggerating. The boys displayed classic symptoms of their respective “disorders.” But the rest of us kids somehow didn’t see the actions or moods or attitudes as emotional disorders, certainly not as mental illnesses, but only as quirks.

And the quirky kids were not medicated; they were integrated.

In fact, appreciated.

Yes, we were kids, occasionally mocking one another, and the quirky ones were occasional targets for joking. But so were the math prodigies, clumsy kids, sloppy kids or sports-obsessed ones. We all had our idiosyncrasies. But no one was treated meanly and everyone was accepted by everyone.

The memory of the “different” boys – all of whom, I suspect (and in some cases know), went on to live productive lives – came back to me when I read of the recent death of Dr. Bonnie Burstow, a Jewish psychotherapist and University of Toronto professor who was known as a major proponent of “anti-psychiatry.”

Conventional psychiatry holds that things like chemical imbalances, sometimes paired with social factors or traumas, are what lead to mental illnesses. Professor Burstow was famous for her claim that “There is not a single proof of a single chemical imbalance of a single so-called mental illness.”

“Do I believe people have anxiety?” she once challenged listeners. “Do I believe that people feel compulsions? Of course. But I believe these feelings are a normal human way of experiencing reality.”

Now, she targeted not only minor emotional or behavioral peculiarities but things like schizophrenia as well. That would seem to be an overreach. Anyone walking on a Manhattan sidewalk knows that there are people who are well beyond quirky, who are seriously mentally impaired and in need of treatment or, at least, supervision.

That said, though, Dr. Burstow’s view on the over-medicalization of emotional illness is a worthy spur to further thought.

Not every oddity of behavior is a sickness. Should our first reaction to a child with a facial tic be to create a “persistent minor spasm malady” and seek drug treatment? Should a kid who is disobedient and rebellious be labeled with a diagnosis of – oh, I don’t know – “oppositional defiant disorder”?

Oh, scratch that. The disorder actually exists, at least in the view of the ever-changing and usually expanding “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” or DSM.

That American Psychiatric Association publication is considered authoritative and is used by clinicians, researchers, psychiatric drug regulation agencies, health insurance companies, drug companies and lawyers. (And it’s not delusional to wonder whether those last two categories might have some less-than-humanistic stake in the over-medicalization of emotional challenges.)

Too often missing, as well, from our conception of mental or emotional illness, I think, is the fact that, when it comes to attitudes and behaviors, there are spectra.

There is, for instance, a paranoia spectrum, at one end of which sits a person who is convinced that the CIA has tapped his phones, bugged his home and implanted a computer chip in his brain. At the other, though, is a person with a nagging suspicion that a particular other person or people are ill-disposed toward him. The suspicion may be wrong and unreasonable, but that doesn’t render the uneasy fellow a mental invalid. What’s more, he may be right. As a character in a work of fiction once observed, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

And aren’t many, if not most, of us somewhat obsessive or compulsive, at least in certain areas? We may not wash our hands fifty times a day, but we might regularly, just as we’ve closed the door to our homes behind us, turn back and go in to make sure we hadn’t left the oven on. And even the regular hand-washer isn’t necessarily in need of treatment. (In fact, he likely doesn’t often catch colds.)

And between the poles on each spectrum are many gradations. As the Rambam at the beginning of Hilchos Dei’os explains, people are born with certain sets of “default” middos at or between two extremes: Constantly angry, or never moved to anger; excessively prideful or exceptionally humble; ruled by physical appetites or undesirous of even legitimate needs; very greedy or reluctant to pursue even what he lacks; miserly or very generous; jocular or depressed; cruel or softhearted, cowardly or rash… And there is an entire scale of notches between each set of extremes.

While the Rambam, famously, does employ a medical mashal to characterize “off-balance” middos, he considers them normative human states treatable by contemplation, consultation with wise people and willpower.

Again, to be sure, there are mental disorders that require intervention, perhaps even including the use of chemicals.

But we do no one a service by ignoring some realities: “Normal” encompasses much more than some may think; psychological states exist on spectra; and people’s natural middos can, sans drugs, be changed.

© 2020 Hamodia

Through Jewish Eyes

Maybe you know the old Yiddish joke? Back in pre-war Minsk, Shmerel and Berel are having a conversation. During a pause, Shmerel suddenly remembers a bit of bad news he has to relate.

“Did you hear about Yankel the barber in Pinsk?”

“No,” Berel says haltingly, having picked up an ominous signal from the way the question had been asked.

“He’s not here anymore,” Shmerel says, using a Yiddish euphemism for someone recently deceased.

“Oy!” exclaims Berel, “You mean Yankel, with the huge round nose?”

Shmerel nods a sad yes.

“Yankel who has only one eye?” Again, a confirmation.

“Yankel with that big scar across his cheek and the pimples?!” Another sad nod.

Ay, yai, yai,” moans Berel. “Azah sheineh Yid!” (“What a beautiful Jew!”)

The story came back to me at the Siyum HaShas. Let me explain.

When people, as so many did, came over to me in various places to congratulate me, a veteran Agudath Israel staff member for a quarter of a century, for the amazing event, I responded, entirely honestly, that my main role was standing out of the way of the many unbelievably dedicated and talented people who did the real work, like the Agudah’s executive staff, the young women who spent days and late nights taking orders and processing tickets, the devoted community askanim and technical facilitators.

(Actually, I do take credit for offering the idea, a year or so before the Siyum, of including chemical hand warmers in the swag bags. You’re welcome.)

I wasn’t even really at the Siyum, at least not as part of the crowd. My perch was in the press box, high above the gathering, a floor dedicated to members of the media, with whom I was charged to interact.

I answered many questions but mostly just steered representatives of the Fourth Estate to members of the tzibbur whom they could interview about Daf Yomi and the Siyum.

One of my few on-camera moments, as it happened, was responding to a German television crew’s question, born of recent events, about what the Siyum means in the context of all the recent anti-Semitic violence. I straightforwardly pointed out that Jews are long accustomed to hatred and adversaries, and are long trained in perseverance. I wonder how that played in Munich.

It was, though, when I watched several reporters intone into their microphones about how so many Jews “read a page of Talmud” daily that Shmerel and Berel appeared before my mind’s eye.

Because the joke about them, of course, is a pointed one. And its point is that we Jews see things differently from other people. To us, beauty is truly anything but skin deep.

And so, when we look at a true Daf Yomi talmid, we don’t see someone “reading a page” of a text. We see someone who, for 2711 days straight, has engaged not only with very complex material, but with holiness itself.

Where a reporter saw “reading,” we saw reverence.

Many journalists wanted to tie their stories about the Siyum into a narrative about the aforementioned violence against Jews we’ve endured of late. They saw “a flare up of anti-Semitism.”

Jewish eyes, though, saw the latest manifestation of “Esav sonei l’Yaakov,” the wages of galus and a message that we need to improve our avodas Hashem.

During a particularly poignant part of the Siyum program, tribute was paid to a man named Mendy Rosenberg, who, despite being severely limited by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), successfully undertook to complete a full Daf Yomi cycle despite a prognosis that didn’t allow him anywhere near the time needed, and, despite eventually having to communicate with his chavrusa through eye movements alone. Reporters saw a broken man doing the best he could. Jewish eyes saw an amazing hero, a gibor chayil and powerful role model for mesirus nefesh.

And when a group of Holocaust survivors were introduced to the approximately 90,000 people at MetLife Stadium and to countless others in myriad venues linked to the proceedings, the media saw the last human vestiges of a world that once was. Jewish eyes, though, saw superhuman connections to our mesorah, which they carried out with them to us from the furnace of Churban Europa.

When the camera was aimed at the Masmidei HaSiyum youngsters, who had participated in the Siyum by undertaking limudim of Gemara, Mishnayos or Chumash, the reporters saw lovable little boys. We saw nothing less than the Jewish future, a, be”H, bright one.

And, finally, when the observers from the outside saw, and dutifully reported on, the “record crowd” in the stadium – not only were the stands fairly full, but the playing field held many more people, including the Rabbanim on the dais, Daf Yomi Maggidei Shiur and many others – Jewish eyes saw, well, Klal Yisrael.

No, not all of it, but enough of it to perceive something else invisible to many observers: the vibrancy, dedication and passion of the collective Jewish neshamah.

Berel would understand.

© 2020 Hamodia