Category Archives: Personal Reflections

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

Gripes and Grumbles

Like most people, I have all sorts of complaints about the world. That is to say, about some of the people in it.

Like those who don’t know how to disagree agreeably, and consider every holder of a different opinion to be a mortal enemy.

And drivers who don’t bother to signal before turning or changing lanes. Likewise, those who don’t know how to properly double-park. (You have to leave a car’s width plus a half-inch for others to pass.)

And, of course, phone marketers, “survey” takers and politicians who interrupt the dinnertime calm with chain-call messages. Ditto for worthy causes that do the same, and somehow think that shouting in Yiddish will make the recipients more receptive to their cause.

I also have a bimah-ful of gripes revolving around shul.

Talking during davening is wrong. Not just disturbing to others and not just impolite. Wrong. Ditto for literally throwing tzedakah literature in front of people trying to daven. Double-ditto for those who don’t bother to turn off their phones before entering a mikdash me’at, treating it more like a shuk me’at.

The Sdei Chemed (Maareches Beis Haknesses, 21) cites the Magen Avraham and Chasam Sofer to the effect that any behavior considered disrespectful in a society’s non-Jewish houses of worship becomes, as a result, forbidden in Jewish shuls.

Maybe there are churches or mosques where congregants “warm up” for services by discussing business or sports or the stock market.Or who take the opportunity of a pause to schmooze or share jokes. But I wonder.

I have never had aspirations to being a shul Rav. My esteemed and much-missed father, a”h, was one, and watching him over the half-century of his exemplary service to his kehillah disabused me of any desire to undertake the myriad responsibilities that he shouldered so well. Even were I qualified for such a role, I don’t think I would be able to live up to his example.

And it’s probably a brachah for the world that I chose a different path, first, as a mechanech; then, as an organizational representative and writer. Because were I responsible for a shul, I would be a terror.

Not only would davening be stopped at the slightest hint of a conversation, but I would disallow chazzanus at the amud. Spirited, heartfelt singing would be fine, even invited. But “performances” would be canceled mid-concert. The tefillos, sir, just the tefillos.

If a cellphone rang – or beeped or pinged or chirped or played a merry tune – in shul, its owner would be presented with a pre-printed notice advising him that a first offense had been noted and that a second one would result in the gabbai’s confiscation of the offending device and its smashing with the special hammer kept under the bimah for that purpose.

Oh, yes, I would be a fearsome clergyman.

What is more, I would lock the doors once davening began.

Yes, lock them, so that no one could enter.

Some people approach tefillah as something they are supposed to do, which, of course, they are. But without much thought to concentrating on the meaning of what they are saying. There’s a reason for the expression “to daven uhp” something – i.e. to just read it quickly and perfunctorily.

Others are determined to maintain kavanah for every word of tefillah. They are usually the ones who are still davening Shemoneh Esrei when chazaras hashatz is almost completed.

Then there are the rest of us, who are still working on trying to keep our minds focused on what we are saying. Unlike the accomplished group, we are all too easily disturbed in our efforts by latecomers who open and close doors, and plod around noisily.

And so, the doors would be locked. And mispallelim would learn that arriving on time is important.

And, finally, to offend anyone I haven’t yet alienated, I would abolish all candymen. I might be persuaded to permit them to quietly place a (preferably low-sugar) treat in front of a child who’s davening nicely. But to just play Pied Piper, attracting a crowd of kids with a bag of tooth-rotting, empty calorie-laden goodies… not on my watch!

I realize that my dream of a shul is someone else’s nightmare, that the world is probably best off for the fact that I didn’t try to become a shul Rav.

Probably…

Yes, I know the causes of my gripes aren’t likely to disappear.

But could people at least start signaling before changing lanes?

Polar Vort

“Not as cold as Siberia.”

That’s what my father, a”h, would say with a laugh if I complained over the phone about the frigid weather in Providence, where my family lived in the 1980s. And indeed it never was that cold. In the work camp east of Irkutsk where he and a small group of Novardok talmidim and their rebbe, Rav Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, had been exiled by the Soviets, winter temperatures could reach minus-40 Celsius.

When I was transcribing the memoir I convinced my father to write, some ten years ago, I asked my wife to check what that would be in Fahrenheit, the system we in the U.S. use. I imagined it was somewhere around zero, when, after a few minutes, my ears, and even gloved fingers, lose all feeling.

After some research, she reported back: “That’s where both scales converge. Minus forty Celsius is minus forty Fahrenheit.”

I write as the edges of the polar vortex have chilled the air outside to single digits (as I set out for Shacharis this morning, the thermometer read zero), and 27 below was what my friends and nieces and nephews in Chicago were enduring.

As you read this, the weather will have warmed. But unless you live in Australia (where it was recently 99 degrees Fahrenheit), you will recall last week’s deep freeze with a shiver.

Arctic blasts always recall to me not only my father’s droll comment but the experience that qualified him to make it.

The ten young men – boys would better have described them; my father was all of 16 – and Rav Nekritz, his wife and their two daughters reached the work camp at the end of July, 1941. They thought the Siberian summer was insufferable, with its hordes of stinging gnats and mosquitoes (though my father, always seeing the good, remembered beautiful butterflies too). And, as the exiles felled trees and harvested potatoes and onions, the brown bears in the forest were also on their minds.

But when the first winter arrived, well before Rosh Hashanah, the new arrivals discovered what “Siberia” conjures in most minds.

When I picture the Jews whom the Soviets forced to work outdoors in horrific cold, I can never avoid thinking about what I was doing at 16 years of age, when my biggest challenges were things like being unprepared, through every fault of my own, for a bechinah or math test. The contrast is always, pun intended, chilling.

In keeping with the Novardok derech, the yeshiva bachurim would try to find a few minutes to spend isolated in a far corner of a field, or among the trees of the forest, to think about who they were, who they should be, and how best to journey from the one to the other.

My esteemed friend Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, who has written about Novardok and the Siberian chaburah, has recounted how a non-Jewish resident of the work camp once asked Rav Nekritz why he thought that a respected rabbi and teacher of Torah like him had been reduced to the life of manual labor in the Siberian wastelands.

His response was: “So you and your friends would see that there is a G-d in the world.”

Novardoker that he was, he then added, perhaps to himself as well: “And so that we, too, would see that there is a G-d in the world.” And indeed, Hashem protected the group; all its members survived the war to rebuild their lives and establish families.

Rav Nekritz also once shared a thought with the young exiles.

“The Amora Rav Yitzchak Nafcha,” he pointed out, “was a blacksmith, a lowly job.”

“When we picture a blacksmith,” he continued, “we imagine someone with grossly muscular arms and an unrefined soul. Yet Rav Yitzchak Nafcha was an illustrious chacham, possessed of no less holiness and refinement than any sage whose good fortune was to spend his days in the beis medrash

“Yes, our situation here is very different from what it was in yeshivah. But we can strengthen ourselves so that our surroundings and labors do not negatively affect us. One can be a woodchopper and simultaneously develop an exalted, refined soul, as exalted and refined as that of anyone who spends his entire days in deep introspection. Hatchets and saws need not leave their marks on our neshamos.”

It’s a message not bound to any time and place. For those of us today who are no longer ensconced in yeshivah or seminary, it’s as important to hear as it was for the Novardokers in Siberia.

© 2019 Hamodia

Genetics and Mimetics

When my family lived in Providence, Rhode Island back in the 1980’s and early ‘90s, I heard rumors that some of the city’s residents of Cape Verdean ancestry had a strange custom. Friday afternoons, they would turn over the traditional Catholic religious paintings common to Cape Verdeans’ homes to face the wall, and then light candles.

Cape Verde is a group of islands off the west coast of Africa that were uninhabited until discovered by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. Among the immigrants to the islands from Europe, historians contend, were Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing the Catholic Inquisitions in those lands. One of the islands’ towns is called Sinagoga, Portuguese for “synagogue,” and surnames of Jewish origin can still be found in the area.

In the early 19th century, many Cape Verdeans found their way to the New World, and Providence is home to one of the oldest and largest Cape Verdean communities in the U.S.

I was reminded of my former neighbors’ purported practice when reading of a recent study published in the scientific journal Nature, examining the DNA of thousands of members of another population with roots in the Iberian Peninsula: Latin Americans.

The researchers sampled the DNA of 6,500 people across Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, which they compared to that of 2,300 people all over the world. Nearly a quarter of the Latin Americans shared 5 percent or more of their ancestry with people living in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, including self-identified Sephardi Jews.

That degree of Jewish ancestry is more pronounced than that of people in Spain and Portugal today, indicating that a significant segment of the immigrants who settled the New World were descended from Jews.

It is no great surprise that so large a portion of a population that emigrated from Spain centuries ago have Jewish ancestry. It is estimated that when the Spanish Inquisition began in 1478, approximately one-fifth of the Spanish population, between 300,000-800,000 people, were Jews. By 1492, when the Alhambra Decree gave the choice between expulsion and conversion, the number had dwindled to 80,000. Most of the “missing” Jews had undergone superficial conversions and retained their Jewish identity and practices in secret. They are called “crypto-Jews,” conversos or anusim. Many of them, though, along with many other Spanish and Portuguese Jews who refused conversion, sailed away from the Iberian Peninsula to seek refuge on new shores.

There is no way, of course, to prove that those emigrants were the source of the apparent Jewish ancestry of so many Latin Americans today, but the genetic test results dovetail neatly with the historical record, indicating that a new population began to appear in Latin America around the time of the Inquisitions.

Bolstering the genetic connection is a 2011 study that found that several rare genetic diseases (including a cancer associated with the BRCA1 gene and a form of dwarfism) that appear in Jews also show up among Latin Americans. Albert Einstein College of Medicine geneticist Harry Ostrer, one of the study’s researchers, said, “It’s not just one disease… this isn’t a coincidence.”

The newer study’s results indicate that there may currently be over 150 million Latin Americans with a degree of Jewish ancestry.

Some Latinos who believe they have Jewish roots seek to reclaim a Jewish identity, even undergoing conversion ceremonies; some have even undergone halachic geirus. Others just take note, and pride, in their ostensible Jewish genealogical heritage. New Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose family comes from Puerto Rico, recently revealed that her family tradition includes some Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

Genetic studies, of course, have no halachic import. And not only because Jewishness depends on the maternal line. Even in analyses of mitochondrial DNA – which passes down only through females – genetic findings do not meet the halachic requirements for establishing Jewish identity.

Yet it’s intriguing to read stories of people across Latin America whose family tradition is to shun pork and light candles on Fridays and cover mirrors when mourning the deaths of relatives. And stories like the one I heard about some of Providence’s Cape Verdeans.

And depressing to think of all the Jewish families that were lost to Klal Yisrael over history to persecution and the resultant intermarriage and assimilation.

But the resurgence of interest – and pride – in even tenuous Jewish connections is heartening too.

For it recalls what the navi Zecharyah (8:23) predicts for the time of Moshiach: that “ten men from all the languages of the nations will take hold… of the tallis of a Jew, saying: ‘We will go with you, for we have heard that Hashem is with you’.”

© 2019 Hamodia

Where’s the Slide?

I pass the large lady twice each workday, and no longer pay her much mind, unlike the tourists on the Staten Island ferry sailing with me, who have journeyed hundreds or thousands of miles to get a glimpse of – and, of course, a selfie with – the Statue of Liberty.

But when we moved to New York 24 years ago, we visited the statue with our children. The visit yielded one of those “kids say the funniest things” quotes, one we invoke to this day.

We marched up the 150 or so steps of the double spiral staircase from the statue’s base to its crown. It was an increasingly claustrophobic experience, as the passage grew narrower with our ascent, but with each step I marveled at the fact that I was actually walking inside the gift from France and symbol of freedom across the globe, seeing it from an entirely new perspective.

Impressively, even the youngest member of our family, a bright and energetic then-three-year-old, managed to scamper up the steps with his little feet.

His memorable comment, delivered with puzzlement, when we reached the top: “Where’s the slide?”

If he was distressed by our laughter and explanation that, unlike the culmination of other climbs he had made, there was no slide here, he didn’t show it. And while he may have wondered about the point of it all, good soldier that he was (and is – today as a member of Rav Shimon Alster’s kollel in Cliffwood, New Jersey), he dutifully marched with us back down.

So “Where’s the slide?” has become the Shafran family’s version of the saying, attributed to cartoonist Allen Saunders, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” Fixation on some end can obscure what one is experiencing now.

Yiddishkeit certainly focuses us on both the past and the future. As Jews we are enjoined to remember and try to emulate the Avos and Imahos, to recall Mattan Torah, the Beis Hamikdash and more. And we are ultimately enjoined to defer the impermanent indulgences of Olam Hazeh for the only meaningful and ultimate fulfillment of the future, Olam Haba. But none of that contradicts our need, at the same time, to recognize the import of the moment, the opportunity that the present alone provides.

We often find ourselves so focused on the slide that we don’t notice where we actually are, so absorbed in the later that we are oblivious to the now.

My wife and I try to get away for a day or two each summer in search of a waterfall we haven’t yet seen. Several years ago we hiked up a steep trail to experience Kaaterskill Falls, in upstate New York.

About 100 miles north of New York City, the falls have two tiers, with a combined height of 230 feet, higher than Niagara Falls. We didn’t know it at the time, but the falls have been the site of several fatalities, at least eight since 1992.

According to Rob Dawson, a state forest ranger, the last four people who died at Kaaterskill Falls were either taking or posing for pictures. They were focused, quite literally, on creating mementos of their having reached the falls – or, more likely of late, on transmitting images of themselves there to their friends and relatives on social media.

It’s understandable, of course, for a person to want a photograph of an achievement or event, and usually, baruch Hashem, the endeavor isn’t fatal. But reading of the tragedies reminded me of Saunders’ adage, and made me wonder if our obsession with documenting things hasn’t overly encroached on the wonder of actually experiencing them.

Think of all the time, effort and trouble that go into creating chasunah photos and videos. Leave aside how often most people really look at them after the first time. Just think of how much the recording of a simchah can deprive the principals and celebrants of enjoying the moment. (Please, professionals, no angry letters! I don’t mean to, chalilah, devalue your skill and work, only to spur thought.) And with the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, how much time people spend staring at little screens depicting joyous occasions rather than being parts of them.

There were no cellphone cameras when we navigated the Statue of Liberty’s innards; we hadn’t bothered bringing my Minolta. But even though we have no photos of the experience, and our little boy may have been disappointed by it, the trip to the crown, even sans slide, remains most memorable and vivid in my mind.

© 2018 Hamodia

Traffic Jams and the Yom Hadin

As a young teenager davening daily in the shul that my father, a”h, served as Rav, a congregation whose clientele ranged from totally non-observant Jews to fully observant ones, I considered myself something of an expert in Jewish sociology.

I wasn’t anything of the sort, of course, and my assumptions that none of the non-observant shul members would ever one day begin to keep Shabbos or undertake kashrus or study Torah were happily proven wrong. I underestimated the power of my father’s warmth and his standing on principle, and the respect that those things engendered in his congregants. And the ability of people to change.

But before I saw the power of an unabashed but warm presentation of Jewish right and wrong, I looked down at the shul members who expressed their Jewishness only on the “High Holidays” – “three day Jews,” some called them – and yahrtzeits, and I considered them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism, after all, can’t be “compartmentalized” and “practiced” only in shul. It’s an all-encompassing, non-stop way of life.

Around the same time I stopped looking down my young nose, I started looking into my young heart, and realized that I, too, compartmentalized Yiddishkeit, living it fully at times and places but… less fully at other ones.

The truth is that it’s a problem many of us, young or old or in-between, regularly need to confront. We may live observant Orthodox lives, doing all the things expected of a frum Jew – eating only foods graced with the best hechsherim and wearing whatever de rigeuer head-covering our communities expect of us, avoid things that must be avoided – but may still, at least to some degree, in other environments or areas of our lives… compartmentalize. It’s a challenge to keep foremost in our consciousnesses that the Creator is as manifest on a July Tuesday in a traffic jam as He is in shul on Yom Hadin.

Compartmentalization explains how it is that an otherwise committed Orthodox Jew can, in his workplace, engage in questionable business practices, or mistreat a child or a spouse. Or, more mundanely but no less significantly, how he can cut others off on the road, speak rudely to another person, or blog irresponsibly.

It’s not, chas v’shalom, that such people don’t acknowledge Hashem’s presence or their responsibilities. It’s just that, while going through the daily grind, they don’t always include Him in their activities.

Even many of us who think of our Jewish mindfulness as healthy are also prone at times to compartmentalize our avodas Hashem. It’s painful to ponder, but do we all maintain the Hashem-awareness we (hopefully) attain in shul on a Shabbos at all times, wherever we may be? Do we always, wherever we may be, think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or even take care to pronounce every word clearly)? Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety? Do our observances sometimes fade into mindless rote?

When it comes to compartmentalization, I suspect, there really isn’t any “us” and “them.” All of us occupy a point on a continuum here, some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-present reality of the Divine, some less so.

Rosh Hashanah and the rest of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah are suffused with the concept of Malchiyus, or Kingship. The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and we say Hamelech Hakadosh in our tefillos. We might well wonder: What has Kingship to do with teshuvah?

Consider: a king rules over his entire kingdom; little if anything escapes even a mortal monarch’s reach, and no subject dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case not of a king but a King.

And so, we might consider that kingship (or, at least, Kingship) is diametrical to compartmentalization, to the notion that the Monarch rules only here, not there; only then, not now. There are, ideally, no places and no times when Hakadosh Baruch Hu can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is a yearly opportunity to internalize that thought, and to try to bring our lives more in line with it.

And, no less than some of those once-“three day Jews” did, to change our lives.

Ksivah vachasimah tovah.

© 2018 Hamodia