Friday, June 30, 2006

A Kolel Guy Is A Sexy Guy

I am of the opinion that young unmarried frum women are the driving force behind the growth of the kolel movement. After all, the burden of keeping it all together falls on their shoulders. They are expected to go to work to help support the family, since kolel incomes are never sufficient to support large families. In addition the women put pressure on their own parents to help financially. If the girls didn’t want their potential husbands to sit and learn they are free to say so. Certainly in America most young women who want a husband who is going to school or a husband who holds down a regular job are not pressured into marrying someone who will not work for many years. And in fact there are many, many very Orthodox women who say upfront they don’t want a kolel guy, and that’s the end of it.

If the women said no, the men who wanted to learn Torah would find it very difficult to marry. The opposite is in fact true. A young yeshiva ‘bochor’ (single, unmarried) with a good reputation is much sought after. Frequently potential father in laws, egged on by their daughters promise the young scholar a certain number of years of financial help should he choose their daughter. Everyone wants the ‘best’ guys, and the competition is frequently fierce. It’s what traders would call a seller’s market. The bocherim(pl.) and their parents make the market, so to speak. Many poorer families get priced out of the competition for the guys with the best reputation and scholarly abilities. There are of course many other factors that go into deciding who marries whom, but there is no question that in most instances the upper tier of yeshiva students are in the driver’s seat. All this would not be happening unless the demand for these young men effectively outstrips the supply. The only segment of the market that is even tighter are Ultra Orthodox yeshiva people with graduate degrees from Ivy League Schools. Very Rare. As one astute observer once remarked to me, “You gotta find these guys before they take the M-CATS or GRE. Afterwards it’s pretty much impossible”’

So what is it about these guys who desire Torah study above all else that makes them so attractive? My answer will come as a bit of a shock to frum people, but should not be very surprising from a secular perspective. I feel that what is happening is a largely unconscious libidinal cathexis of intelligence. In English I am saying these young women unconsciously sublimate their desire for a sexually strong and virile man to a desire for a man who is intellectually strong and powerful. The larger the reputed intellect the sexier he becomes in their eyes. They desire, chalish, yearn for a young man who is adept in the intellectual combat involved in Talmudic study. (milchamtaw shel Torah). These men are not emaciated, unheroic weaklings, incapable of earning a living, dependent on their wives, in laws and parents for their daily bread. Not at all. Underneath their refined and modest exteriors are knights of Torah and princes of scholarship, engaged in the heroic undertaking of understanding the Talmud and its many commentaries. The language used to describe the combatants in Torah disputes is the language of chivalry: jousting, fighting, and vanquishing one’s intellectual opponent. Tell me which young woman doesn’t want a shining knight, devoted to her and to their children. These knights will never stray, will always be home for Shabbat, will sing of their love and devotion to their supportive wives, and mean it.

What a rare find is a capable wife?
Her value is far beyond that of rubies
Her husband puts his confidence in her,
And lacks no good thing.
She is good to him and never bad,
All the days of her life.

Her husband praises her.
Many women have done well,
But you surpass them all.

Sheker hachen v'hevel hayofi
ishah yir'at Hashem hi tit'halal

Charm is deceptive
Beauty is vain
It is for her fear of the Lord
That a woman is to be praised.

This chapter from Proverbs, sometimes referred to as “A Woman of Valor”, is recited in all traditional Jewish homes on Friday evenings, after returning from the synagogue and singing "Shalom Aleichem", and before sitting down to the Shabbat evening meal. In kolel homes this hymn acquires a special poignancy and significance. Kolel wives are truly women of valor! The husbands and their wives both know who is making this life materially possible. He might be her knight, but she is his CEO.

My blog has grown enormously in the last month. I believe I now might have four readers for which I am grateful. I would like to wish each and every one of you a wonderful 4th of July.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bench Pressing

An advanced student of Talmud who is married, and is supported by the yeshiva for his Torah studies is called a kolel person, and is said to be a member of a kolel. A kolel is roughly the equivalent of graduate school plus postdoc fellowships. They receive a stipend from the kolel, which generally is not sufficient to live on.

In my jargon from yesterday’s blog all serious kolel guys are geeks, as are all serious unmarried yeshiva students. The latter are young geeks, or geeks in training. The charming but dense hero of the sweet movie “Ushpizin” was not a geek, even though he learnt in a kolel. He wasn’t serious and constantly played hookey. In my book he was a thief. He accepted charity money from the yeshivah and spent his time swooning and davening. Yeshivas don’t pay anyone to daven (prey), and he knew that, even before the checks stopped coming.

Since I am sympathetic to geeks, everywhere and anywhere, I am a friend of the kolel movement. I bemoan the absence of kolelim (pl.) in liberal Judaism, especially community kolelim. More on this in the future.

The blogosphere as well as the Orthodox community as a whole are deeply divided in their attitudes to the kolel movement. There is an exponential growth in the number of people studying Torah full time. It is placing a very great burden on the families of the kolel members, their parents and on the community as a whole. The strain sometimes becomes almost unbearable, and yet the movement keeps on growing. In pre-War Europe, when there was never more than a maximum of 12,000 advanced Talmudic students, kolel people were called by its critics (Maskilim, Socialists, Bundists, Zionists,etc.) “benkel kvetchers”, (pressers of the bench), or “laydig geiers”, (ne’er-do-wells). Today there might very well be 12,000 advanced Talmud people just in Jerusalem.

Many believe the whole enterprise MUST end in disaster. Here is the blogger Orthoprax voicing a not untypical sentiment:
“Think about this - if the kollel guy who learns all day and is supported by daddy has ten kids and they all grow up to do what their father does - where does the money come from to support the ten grandkids? The system is economically untenable.”

One hears this argument everywhere. It’s similar to and has the same difficulty as the depletion of resources hysteria that was promoted by Paul Ehrlich and the Greens, President Carter and many others in the 1970’s. My objection to this line of thought can be summarized in one sentence: Don’t bet on it. Any speculator who bet that oil or grain would be depleted because of the exponential growth of population would now be bankrupt. Period. The thesis of the limits of growth was a total failure from the mid ‘70’s until this last recent spurt in 2006. It is illegitimate to start projecting exponential growth rates and compare them to an inelastic supply with no boost from technology.

Yes, if 2 begat 10 and if each of the 10 children produce 10 children then 2 begat 50 and then 250, and on and on. EVENTUALLY, maybe in 100 years, maybe less, the burden will be too great. It is impossible to predict when this will happen. The system, however, is not closed. There are welfare and transfer payments both here and in Israel. There is charity on the part of orthodox who have gone into business. Substantial amounts of money are being transferred to the learning community. The women work, and their income levels might and do vary as their skill sets develop.

And then there are the 2 obvious changes that will occur whatever the Rabbis say. Kolel communities are not third world countries where birth rates are inversely related to income levels. In those countries as income levels increase birthrates decline. Here the relationship will be the other way. If income levels decline the birth rate will decrease. Kolel people are middle class. Many are from bourgeois homes and 10% + are from haute-bourgeois homes. These aren’t rural peasants with no health care system, who have many children so as to guarantee that some will survive and care for them in their old age. These are people who are fully aware of the conveniences and benefits of the modern world, who voluntarily choose an ascetic, simpler life because of their love of Torah and scholarship.

The second change which is already happening is that young people who don’t have an aptitude for study are being pushed out into the labor force, thereby increasing the available surplus to support the kolel system. Orthodox Jews tithe. In short, the system does have some self correcting features. It is far from obvious that the whole system will come crashing down suddenly, without time for change. In this respect the gamble of the Ultra –Orthodox is similar in structure to the bet the entire industrial world is making on global warming.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Geek Jews

I think of Geek Judaism as the Judaism of people whose primary form of worship is the scholarly study of the books and ideas of historical Judaism, and the attempt to understand the philosophical and theological underpinnings associated with these books and ideas. I once heard Yehuda Liebes, the great Kabalah scholar say that in our time the way to find God is only inside the book, on the page. He said “God resides between the lines”.

On this definition an Orthodox student of Torah is a geek if his primary connection to religious life is the study of Torah. An observant Jew, whose primary connection to his religion is daily prayer 3 x a day, is not a geek. A Jew whose primary form of service (avodath hashem) is charity or organizational work is also not a geek.

A person can be a Geek Jew and not be Orthodox. A person can be a Geek Jew and not be observant. He can have a deep and abiding interest in the classic Jewish books and not keep Shabus. Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, Leoplod Zunz and Moritz Steinschnider are famous examples of Jews who certainly were geeky, Steinschneider was unbelievably geeky, but were neither Orthodox nor observant. Yehuda Liebes, Joseph Dan , Rachel Elior and Moshe Idel, may they be separated in life, are some of the stars (gedolim) of the Hebrew University branch of Geek Judaism, who are neither Orthodox nor observant.

Can you be an apikoiris (a heretic) and be a Geek Jew in good standing? For sure. One of the founding fathers of the movement was Baruch Spinoza. His heretical views shook the very foundation of traditional philosophical thinking about God. One hundred years after his death to be called a Spinozist still counted as a mark of shame in most people’s eyes. Yet Spinoza remains a model for all Jewish Geeks how to conduct an exemplary life of scholarship and philosophical contemplation. Harold Bloom recently described Spinoza as ‘greatly cold and coldly great”, a Geek ideal if there ever was one. The Amsterdam Rabbinate was justified in excommunicating Spinoza. He certainly was a heretic. Geek Jews might add Spinoza was also and at the same time justified in not recanting the ideas he worked so hard to develop.

Can a person whose primary form of service is the scholarly and philosophical contemplation of Torah be thought of as secular? I would say NO. He is religious, in some interesting and not peculiar use of the word, simply in virtue of being a Geek whose geekiness is expressed in the study of Torah. I am inclined to say all the 8 scholars mentioned two paragraphs back were/are religious, but not believers in the dogmas of Judaism. A Jew who devotes his life to the study of the Zohar is a religious Jew even if he eats treif, and never sets foot inside a shul. When the study of Torah is so important, when it is your primary interest, when it is an object of ultimate concern, then the study ceases to be a curiosity or a hobby and becomes a life dedicated to Torah, a life that was literally SPENT on behalf of Torah.The issue here is not the use of a particular word ‘religious’. If somebody would object, “You call THAT religious?” the word can be deleted. The thesis could then be reformulated using some other term, try ‘nazir’, or ‘porush (Pharisee)’, thereby indicating that this person has removed herself from the vanities of our world to dedicate her life to the transcendental object called Torah. What is important is to recognize that Geeks form a coherent type of Jewish group that is different from but still closely related to other traditional religious groups.

Can a Geek be an atheist? I am not sure. It depends if a religious form of service requires a recipient of the service. Is it like sacrifices? You can’t make a religious sacrifice without dedicating the sacrifice to someone, God, nature, the heavenly pantheon, the terrestrial sovereign. You can’t spend your life studying Torah unless it is somehow other directed, at least in part. The easiest way of dealing with this question is to run around it. Geeks as a class tend not to announce their atheism, and feel quite comfortable using religious language. Buber and Scholem, neither of whom ever saw the inside of a synagogue unless they were giving a lecture, used religious language creatively and profusely. Geeks usually leave it open for whose sake they are studying. Is it for God, the Jewish people, history, Torah itself?

Geeks express their religious impulses primarily through their sacrifices for Torah, their clinging, (devekuth) to Torah. Jewish machers and apparatchiks, community leaders, philanthropists, anti anti-semites, Zionists, members of the IDF approach God through their service on behalf of the Jewish people (klal yisroel). And Jews who form a doxological community, whose central focal point is their public prayer and corresponding rituals approach heaven in the most direct and holy way, through prayer and the performance of mitzvoth. There is a very famous Trinitarian aphorism attributed (incorrectly?) to the Zohar: God, Torah and Israel are one. If one can some how make sense of this idea, then one can say that whichever approach is emphasized, a person who clings fervently to one pillar will have some connection, in a deeply mystical way we do not fully understand, to the other two.

I’ll end with a Geek aphorism, this one from the beloved philosopher, raconteur and very special Jew, Sidney Morgenbesser. Sidney when he was old and ill was reported to have said “God, just because I don’t believe you exist is no reason to torture me like this”. The relationships Jews have to God, Torah and Israel are frequently intense and complex.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Reb Chaim versus Reb Ithmar

Rabbi Ithmar Schorsch, in what appears an increasingly desperate attempt to stop the Conservative movement from moving in the direction of Reform, has continued to argue in recent months that deep study and critical understanding should be viewed as key ways of deepening faith and the commitment to observance. Schorsch has stressed that, in his view, intellectual engagement with Judaism is meant to enrich spirituality and observance, and that it is the task of the rabbi to translate intellectual insight into religious meaning.

There are two separate theses involved in these remarks. The first is his demand that the Seminary continue the tradition of viewing rabbinical training as academic and intellectual vs. an emphasis on pastoral training and other more holistic and spiritual instruction. I have argued that the students are too weak to do the requisite serious critical and theological work, and in any case it might not be so clever to train a clergy committed to heresy, (apikorsus).

There is a second thesis that has nothing to do with the training of Conservative Rabbis. It is about how anyone, rabbis, lay persons, grown ups are to go about enriching and deepening their faith, spirituality and commitment to observance. He believes the KEY WAY, the main road as it were, is through deep study (of texts) and critical understanding. Just ‘lernin’(traditional Talmud study), even if it is done slowly, and in the analytical style that has become so popular in yeshivas in the last century, will be less efficacious than deep study and critical understanding.

I am wondering if this is true and if so why? The issue here is not deep vs. fast, as in the daf hayomi (the daily page) program. (The latter involves 2 pages a day for seven years, whereupon you will have finished the ENTIRE Babylonian Talmud. You then have the privilege to start again. I personally know Jews who have completed the daf hayomi program seven times. It has attracted an unbelievable number of participants, 100,000 + worldwide.) Many lomdim, (analytical Talmud scholars), are not convinced that the daf hayomi method is all that it is cracked up to be. They will tell you it is superficial. Many classes are 45 minutes and you are done, somewhat like Lacanian psychoanalysis, 8 minute sessions and you’re out. Schorsch seems to believe that even learning in depth, as it the custom in many yeshivas in the morning session, 40-50 pages an academic year , will not produce the same quality of faith and spirituality and observance that deep study conjoined with critical understanding will produce. The issue to put it bluntly is critical study versus yeshivish Reb Chaim Brisker style analysis. I don’t think Rabbi Schorsch would say the work being done in yeshivot is not deep.The flaw in the yeshiva method, if any, is that it doesn’t read the text in the light of scientific Wissenschaft & academic research. When you do, Rabbi Schorsch is saying you grow in faith, spirituality and observance. When you don’t, you don’t, at least not to the same degree. This idea is breathtaking in its audacity. It takes my breath away.

Is it true? It certainly doesn’t look that way. Orthodox Jews if anything ARE strictly observant. Most Conservatives are not. Schorsch might say that is because the Conservatives are not learning in depth. It seems a forced counterfactual. If they did learn the Schorsch way they would be observant, but they don’t. How would we ever going to find out? We are in a Catch 22. If they are not observant why would they undertake the heroic task of depth/critical learning? And round and round we go.

One more question. What is the causal mechanism that is supposed to make it work? I read a text in depth. I read it critically. Monday I do source criticism. Tuesday is Nietzsche/Foucault time. Wednesday is Derrida country. Thursday is devoted to psychoanalytic/anthropological readings. Friday, Erev Shabbus is comparative Semitics and philology. What will happen on Shabbus and why? How is critical understanding related to observance? How is it related to faith or spirituality? What are the causal mechanisms involved? The Chancellor has not, to the best of my knowledge addressed this little nagging problem

It is easy to be critical of the Chancellor’s theology. Nevertheless, he has articulated what so many Jews of a certain stripe believe. He has given expression to the GEEK conception of how to serve God and be a good Jew. You can’t help but admire such a person.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Faith Meets Truth

Jewish Week reported recently (6/02/06), that Rabbi Ithmar Schorsch in his farewell address as outgoing Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary delivered a scathing attack on his students. Rabbi Schorsch said "As opposed to the dense and demanding discourse of scholarship, students crave instant gratification. The primitiveness of rap and the consumerism of the mall threaten to trivialize the literary culture that is the pride of Judaism. Our addiction to instant gratification has stripped us of the patience to appreciate any discourse whose rhetoric is dense and demanding. Mindlessly, we grasp for the quick spiritual fix." The chancellor lamented the loss of “great scholarship,” which he said has “ceased to energize [the movement] as it had in the past.”“Once, the polarity of truth and faith at the Seminary had made it home for the acme of 20th-century Jewish scholarship, a venue of ferment and fertility,” he said. “Faith once moved us to study our heritage deeply, while truth asked of us that we do it critically, in light of all that we know. Willful ignorance was never an acceptable recourse. The interaction set us apart as the vital center of modern Judaism. But no longer.”Conservative Jews, he has argued, are primarily distinguished by an embrace of critical Torah scholarship coupled with a view of Halacha as a binding, albeit evolving, process. "The Orthodox surely have Emunah(faith)," Schorsch later told the Forward, "but they don't accept critical scholarship. And the Reform certainly has critical scholarship, but they don't accept the legitimacy of the halachic system. We're distinctive because we are trying to wed both.”

I know, as I am afraid Chancellor Schorsch knows the battle is lost. He was one of the last defenders of the tradition of serious Talmud and Bible scholarship at the Seminary. Once he’s gone, other ideals will dominate. Chancellor Schorsch appears to have acknowledged the battle is already over. In his address he said “Internally, we have already become Reform, and it will only be a matter of time before [externally] we appear like Reform." In this respect Rabbi Schorsch is similar to LouisXV. He too can say with some justification “"Apres moi le deluge”.

I am in sympathy with much of the values the Chancellor has espoused. At the same time, I feel what he said has some serious problems. Let us analyze this important address and see what he is demanding. He asks that the seminary train its students and promote to the entire Cnservative movement the ideals of:Serious historical inquiry and CRITICAL Torah scholarship designed to reveal the spiritual richness in our ancient texts. Deep but ‘critical’ study of our heritage in the light of ALL THAT WE KNOW.

What does this mean? In the case of the Bible it’s the study of Torah, the Prophets and the Writings in light of the different variants of the Documentary Hypothesis. Such a study would have to include the connections between the Bible and its predecessors, and in particular the Canaanite corpus found at Ugarit. And then it has to be spun one more time to reveal its spiritual richness. Anything less than this violates his second condition. Scholarship, though certainly not our faith, “knows” Torah is a reworking of Ugarithic material where the various characters of the Canaanite pantheon are merged and attributed to one God.

Such a wedding is doable, provided you are willing to accept the consequence that no Conservative Rabbi will believe that Moses as a prophet, or God at Mt. Sinai wrote the Pentateuch. It is not the best thing to set out an educational curriculum for your divinity students that guarantee heresy. It might happen in due time.Why push it ? Without divine revelation of the written Torah, forget the Oral Torah, you have to talk really fast, to generate a Halacha with any normative, deontic punch. So all the yada- yada about Halacha as binding, though evolving over time, is seriously weakened. We are left with a movement where everything is tradition and summary rules: “It is our tradition to keep the Sabbath”, and not “One MUST observe Shabus in accordance with halacha because God commanded us.” Halacha as a summary of our customs and traditions is not a very Schorschian value, or maybe not. I don’t know. Maybe he believes tradition alone can bind us…My father ate garlic every Friday night, so I must do the same. It is all left vague. It would be very helpful if Rabbi Schorsch would say something not just about the wedding of critical scholarship and halacha, but also about the marriage, and how to withstand the long term strains of commitment to contradictory ideals.

In the case of Talmud study, critical study would involve a continuation of the Saul Lieberman tradition of lower criticism, exact philological study of the semantics of the Talmud, plus source criticism in the tradition of Halivni and Friedman.I must say this double program for Talmudic study is REALLY, REALLY tough even for people with advanced Talmudic training. Think about it for a minute. Lieberman, after so many years at the Seminary, and so many students produced a handful of scholars that even attempted to follow in his footsteps. Most students were not interested and weren’t trained to even approach the paths laid out by the master. The source critical approach to Talmud while very promising is also very, very difficult. After many years of work there is Halivni’s work on the theory of the stamm, Jeffery Rubinstein’s books on aggadah, a chapter in tractate Yevomoth and a few other bits and pieces. There is so little, because source criticism is difficult work.

Is the Chancellor serious that some kid with a Solomon Schecter - Camp Ramah education, and a liberal arts BA is going to know Ugarithic, Akaadian, Aramaic,(eastern &western dialects) and Greek, (classical and eastern dialects),plus how to compare complex texts to all the parallels and deconstruct how they were layered? And then you have to teach these kids how to be a rabbi, how to marry ’em and bury ‘em, how to give a sermon and so much more…teach kids for their bat mitzvah, convert gentiles whose conversions will not be recognized in Israel, how to administer a Temple and a Sunday school, and on and on.

It is all an illusion. The Seminary never produced such rabbis. The lay people have no idea what this scholarship is about. It’s an ideal that was never realized. It is a myth that the typical Seminary graduate combined a full understanding of scholarship with strong commitment to halacha. I must say, however, the program laid out by the Chancellor was from its inception a grand and noble ideal. Sadly it was never realized. It was much too difficult and contained too many contradictions. Some rabbis had some faith, some rabbis had some truth. Some, but far from all, had lots of both.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Congregation Anshei Alone

JDate is an important social phenomenon because it points to three important features of American Jewish life. The first is that a large percentage of Jews at any given time, maybe 20%+, are seeking a mate. Second, it is difficult to find a mate no matter where you are in the life cycle. Third, much of the difficulty stems from the isolation that takes hold when you live essentially outside a community. I would say most non shul going Jews live outside a community.

Young people trying to date, and settle down, or just date and be with someone should have it the easiest. After all they are young, good looking, energetic and have their future ahead of them. Not so. The anxiety level is high in all communities, but especially in the Orthodox world. The Orthodox have gotten themselves into this pickle that a girl over 24-25 is an old maid, and is put into some sort of ‘rachmunis’ (poor girl what will be with her) category. A similar fate awaits a guy over 30. You can imagine what a 23 year old unmarried girl feels like. They act as if their biological clock is about to run out. Big pressure on the girl. Big pressure on the parents. And then they are all these yichus issues (pedigree and lineage), and kolel issues (post marriage Torah study), and dynasty issues. No fun. It would take a medium size book, Shiduchim (Matches) for Dummies, to explain all the nuances, do’s and don’ts of this dating space. All I can say is that I don’t envy a Tevye with 5 charedi, Ultra Orthodox daughters.

Much of this aggravation is of the community’s own making. Nobody, neither halacha nor common sense requires that marrying off a child should be a full time job requiring many years of preparation. The difficulty is that is impossible for just one family to get off the treadmill. It requires implicit cooperation of many, many other families. The temptation to cheat is so great it makes the system of cooperation permanently unstable, no matter how many times they play. Game theorists will see the analogies to what they call The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Divorced people also have it very difficult, especially when there are young children. There are money problems, custody issues, and most of all, the need to prove, especially to themselves, that the divorce was the spouse’s fault, and that one can be a good husband or wife.

Older people whether widowed, never married or divorced have other issues. The guys who never married are frequently thought of as creeps. The single never married women have the deep frustration of having waited so long, are now facing old age without children. There is the general problem that older people are definite; they have their distinctive way of life. It’s very difficult to fold into someone else’s life. Imagine having to decide at age sixty if you should leave your children and grandchildren and go off to a different state or country. Scary.

There is the Hobbes style joke….not only is life nasty and miserable, it’s too short. The clock keeps ticking and ticking.

Here are all these people seriously worried they will never meet anyone. Here are all these people who are seriously worried they will be alone. Alone when all their friends marry, alone while their children are growing up with a single parent, alone when their children leave the house, alone when the get old and sick. Alone. Half the people who are married will one day be single. Internet dating is much like the undertaker business. There is a guaranteed constant stream of new customers.

The crowning injustice of being alone is that it is virtually impossible to meet anyone without some marketplace for exchanging information. Enter JDate, and Match and Frumster and EHarmony and all the rest. Enter shadchunim and matchmakers. Enter Break the Fast Yom Kippur socials and single weekends. Enter Rebbetzin Jungreis and Dr. Phil. When all else fails, enter therapists and support groups.

Helping people cope with loneliness is big business. It is capitalism and markets at their best. First create the problem, in this instance isolation, destruction of community life, and then invent expensive solutions.

Congregation Anshei Alone is the largest Jewish congregation in the world. All the members are present morning, noon and night 365 days a year. You might say it has an unusually active membership, even if everyone is doing their very best to quit. At A"A each and every member is eager to say “I used to belong, but now b’’h I never go near the place.”

I have a lot more to say about dating and marriage. These topics are important, and few bloggers are addressing life cycle issues from an adult, male, Jewish point of view. (There appear to be no shortage of formerly frum permanent adolescents blogging about their sexual exploits. Infantile Sabbateans. I find those blogs gross and disgusting). I hope to return to these social topics in a while. Next week I want to start talking about rabbinical politics and theologies. These are serious and difficult subjects, definitely not for wusses, and I hope my nonexistent readers stay with me.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

One Life To Live

It seems to me that lives can be divided into large groups. The first are people who formulate a life plan early in life, stick to it, and by the time they reach their sixties, can look back at a life that was both coherent and what they intended. When these people become widowed or divorced, all they want is to carry on with the life plan they initially formulated, and that has now become a source of pride. Since they take pride in what they have accomplished they generally are accepting of their age. It is somewhat less terrifying to grow old. It is easier to see their future through their children and grandchildren.

Many have careers which are part of their core identity, not to speak of their livelihood. They tend to be somewhat rigid in the ability to adapt and fold into other lives. A psychotherapist who has an active practice that took years to develop, isn’t about to give it all up and move to Santa Fe. A businesswoman who has been a big cheese her whole life, isn’t about to become an assistant in somebody else’s life plan.

The other group also started with a life plan, earlier or later, but for some reason got derailed, leaving them nowhere. Here are some examples:
A man or woman thinks they will marry and have a family. They never found anyone, and it’s too late to have children.
A couple plan on having a large family, get divorced and there are no children.
A man or woman start a business, build it up, and then bust out mid-career.

One can go on and on in this morbid vein. Somewhere in life this group went down the wrong road, they ‘farblungit’, and they can’t find their way back. The point is there are a lot of people out there with broken life plans. Life didn’t turn out the way they thought. Some people get so depressed, they never come back. Some try to fight back and make up for lost time. Single people try to marry in their sixties, men and women try to adopt in their fifties, widows and divorcees try to recapture the time when life was fun. The problem is that they’re playing catch up. Catch- up people, place special burdens on their potential mates even when their counterpart is also playing catch up. Everyone has a different life trajectory, and matching catch-ups becomes quite difficult. One needs children, the other needs cruises. The problem with this group is not that their lives are too big to successfully find a companion or a spouse. Many of people in this group aren’t doing very much, and have plenty of the time. The problem here is they are trying to undo the first half of their life in ways that may not be age appropriate.

Young people have analogous problems. Adolescence these days, in non-religious circles, and maybe even religious circles, ends between 25 and 30 for men and around 22+ for women. Almost by definition an adolescent is someone who does not have a well-formed life plan. A big part of the difficulty in finding mates for people in their twenties is the mismatch between more mature girls and less mature guys. The guys don’t want to commit because they don’t know what they want to do, and in some instances they have no clear idea who they are, and the girls are clueless as to what is taking these guys so long to grow up. (There is a reason why the wedding announcements in the Sunday Times usually involve thirty somethings.) Here the problem is between people who have some sort of tentative life plan, and those who don’t.

All these four situations show up on the internet, people with fulfilled life plans, people with broken life plans, people with life plans yet to be fulfilled but in place, and people with no clue as to what their goals and ideals are going to be. Maybe they should have four separate dating sites for each category. Anyway, this is a major reason why these dating sites are not that successful.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

All Orthodox Look Alike

Exactly how successful are people in meeting someone on these dating sites? The big sites, Match and JDate, don’t issue any statistics, so it is impossible to know. My impression is that it makes a big difference how old you are. There is a ton of anecdotal evidence that young people, late and early 20’s & 30’s, find matches. Older people appear to be less successful.

I believe I once read, though I am not perfectly certain, that Frumster claimed it had 12000 members over 4 years and produced 120 matches. If true, it is a very depressing result. The members of Frumster are a homogenous group, no players or serial daters, and everyone is looking to get married. If they produced this pittance of a result, the other sites must be even worse. A single person would stand a better chance standing downtown with a sign saying, “PICK ME! PICK ME!”

It might be argued that Frumster and the other Orthodox sites, DosiDate and SawYouAtSinai are not really homogenous. True, the members are generally Orthodox, but then again Orthodox comes in many different shapes and styles. Frumster lists as possible varieties:

Modern Orthodox Liberal
Modern Orthodox Machmir
Yeshivish Modern
Yeshivish Black Hat
Chassidish Carlebachian
Shomer Mitzvot

Plus 4 backgrounds

from a religious family
from a traditional family
from a non-observant family
0rthodox convert (ger)

We all know, or should know there is modern and there is modern, there is stringent and there is stringent, there is yeshivish sorta and there is yeshivish. And there are as many forms of chasidish as there are chasidic groups. As an example I’ll construct 1 combo, not uncommon:

I am a black hat yeshivish guy from a chasidic (Bobov, Sanz) background. I learnt in a Litvish yeshiva, and I continue to learn in the Brisker way, but adhere to chasidic customs, e.g. wear a gartel, don’t eat gerbrochets, etc. I wouldn’t call myself chasidish, since I am clean shaven and b”h I am working downtown as a macher. I think of myself as heimish, but not chasidish. I do go to movies and plays, but would not want a TV in my house. I am undecided about a VCR. Looking for my female counterpart.

Such a profile straddles 4 varieties. These distinctions are not trivial and certainly significant for the participants. When you work through all the permutations and combinations the possible number is huge and the actual number of variations is large. And I haven’t even approached the proliferation of totally psychotic distinctions. Young women have been known to ask “Does he wear loafers or tie ups”. The tales I could tell…

These different stripes and sub stripes are a classic example of what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. As a group becomes more homogeneous, small differences between people become much more important, to a point where they can and do become VERY important. Go tell a black hat yeshiva guy it is equally cool to wear a yarmulke in shul. In fact, try telling a black hat guy it’s equally cool to wear a grey hat. Better yet, try telling a broad brim Borselino aficionado that a shorter brim Fedora is just fine. He will think, and rightly so, you are totally clueless.

My conclusion is that maybe it is difficult for everyone, even for members of a “homogeneous” group to find a match, and the Frumster success rate is not a definitive indication of how well people do on other sites. As Talmudists are accustomed to say, vtzawrich eyun, this question needs further study.


Ahkenazim are Jews whose origins are from Europe

B”h is an acronym for “baruch hashem”, the English equivalent being “Praise be the Lord.”

Gartel is a black rope-like belt worn in shul around the outer jacket, worn mostly by Chassidim. It is similar to the rope belts worn in some monastic orders. (Franciscan, maybe others)

Gebrochts is matzah that has been soaked in liquid. Chasidim don’t eat gebrochts on Passover, hence no kneidlach, matzah breis or fried matzahs. Somehow they survive. Everyone else, kneidels away.

Heimish comes from the German”heimisch” meaning “to be or feel at home in a place or with someone.” It is used here to refer to someone who maintains the sensibility and feeling tone of some area of Europe, frequently the small towns of Eastern European, the proverbial shtetl, thus enabling others who maintain the same style, to feel at home and therefore comfortable in their company. It is used both as an adjective and adverb. In general you have to be a ffb (frum from birth) from a European family to be considered heimish. Sefardim are not generally heimish, at least not to Ashkenazim.

Litvish is a Yiddish word for Lithuanian, in this case Lithuanian style yeshivas which are non chasidic in doctrine, though individual chasidim might attend. These Lithuanian academies brought about a revolution of sorts in how to think about Talmudic issues, somewhat analogous in methodology to analytic philosophy, the dominant school of philosophy in Anglo-Saxon countries. Of the many variants of yeshivish analytic thinking, the current flavor of our generation is called the Brisker derech (way), named after Rabbi Chaim Soleveitchik of Brisk, (the city the gentiles call Brest-Litovsk). The Brisker way of analysis is taught in many schools, but the holy of holies is the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem. An amusing and informative article on the Harvard of the Ultra Orthodox is found here:

Macher is almost an English word. If you don’t know what a macher is, you really should not be reading this blog. A female macher is you guessed it, a macherina. I’m joking. A machernista. Still joking. A female macher is a macherin. When a macher marries a macherin they become a power couple.

Machmir means accepting of the more severe and stringent interpretations of halacha or Jewish laws.

Sefardim are Jews from Arabic countries. Many originally came from Spain or Sefard.

Yeshivish, chasidish means acting like a yeshiva person or chasidic person generally acts or is expected to act.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Lookin' Good

I can’t begin to count how many times I read the line on Jdate ‘Must be (I am) equally comfortable in jeans and in a tux’. Then there is female counterpart, ‘Can dress up and dress down with ease’. (The image of a department store elevator comes to mind…4th floor, casual separates; 6th floor, gowns, evening wear).

I don’t know where I have been all these years, but somehow unbeknownst to me it has become extra important that a man and a woman look great together in formal attire, and also look great when they are both lounging in their jeans. It must be a together thing, since the woman who wants her companion to feel comfortable in a tux isn’t walking around the house in jeans. It would be like Mrs. Kissinger saying to Henry, "Henry, go put on your tux for dinner, and I would hope you feel comfortable wearing it. As for me, I’m not feeling up to my slinky little black dress tonight; you know the one with the spaghetti straps. I’ll stick with jeans."

This jeans- tux requirement points to a sort of serious delusion cum aspiration. Women who are by profession secretaries and nurses and dental assistants, and men who are teachers and salesmen and shopkeepers appear to be seriously worried their mates will not look good at the many crystal balls and debutante parties they are forced to attend. At the same time this companion who is, here’s another popular cliché, “as comfortable in the boardroom as in the bedroom”, must also be a regular Ralph Lauren, riding her horse on the range together with her friend, the man from the Marlboro ad, both wearing jeans, relaxing and being stylishly rugged and outdoorsy.

Whenever I read this nonsense I think of my father, a’’h. He was equally uncomfortable in a tux and in jeans. He referred to jeans as dungarees, which they were until they became jeans. I must admit to the same. I am never totally comfortable in bow tie and cummerbund, and I never wear jeans. Casual for me is pretty close to dress up, slacks and a shirt, no tie. I think of this outfit as the conservative (baalebatish) Ben Gurion look. Pants, no sandals, no shorts, but socialist, no tie. Sometimes I think of my outfit as an Irv Kupcinet look, (the late, much loved, Chicago Sun Times Jewish gossip columnist), sans jacket, tie and toupee.

I’ve noticed something interesting about this jeans- tux syndrome. The idiom is peculiarly American. European, and American children of ‘greener’, (the name recent immigrants were called in American Yiddish speaking circles) use the word ELEGANT .These women, usually but not always of a certain age, can remember parents who were young in the 30’s and 40’s of the last century. They have a deeply embedded ideal of European elegance. A woman, whose self representation involves this ideal of elegance, wants a “real gentleman with excellent manners, well dressed who knows how to treat a lady”. And vice versa. A man who thinks of himself as a gentleman, debonair, a bit of a dandy is looking for an elegant lady, not for a babe in Dolce & Gabbana rhinestone jeans. An elegant person, male or female, is careful how they dress to the grocery store and the post office. It’s is not occasion driven, but a way of presenting oneself in public. I would say the ideal of elegance is alive and flourishing in the Orthodox community, in all its variants. It is deeply intertwined with the ideals of modesty, (tznius in Hebrew).

The truth of the matter is that Jdate and all the others do not attract the very rich and the very poor. The very top strata of Jewish life would not think of showing their photos on the internet for anyone and everyone to see. One can be assured that Ron Perlman, even now that he is bereft of his latest wife, will not show up on Jdate or Frumster. It is also true that the very poor, the sick and disabled, the confused, the borderline psychotics, the many people who simply cannot pull themselves together to even dream of a relationship …all these sad people never show up on the internet. It is surprising to learn how difficult it is for so many people to simply digitize a photo and upload it to an internet site. Add to this poverty or sickness, and it becomes overwhelming.

There is some sort of cracked signaling going on here. The people who write these jeans –tux lines are trying to position themselves across social classes. On the one hand they want to suggest they have some real connection with upper tier wealth, while also indicating their ability to feel at ease at barbecues and softball games and the many other activities that make up middle class life. Here again I remember what my father used to say, “Men kenisht tantzen oif tzvei….”, “You can’t dance at two weddings at the same time”. Except on JDate, of course, where you can VIRTUALLY dance and dance anywhere and everywhere.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Bashert and It's Discontents

Many, many people on these internet dating sites never find a match. In looking at these sites one gets the impression that they are much like the sanitarium in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Easy to check in, very difficult to check out. Jdate exploits the already existent hope that most everyone can and will find someone.

There is this widely held idea of a bashert. Many who haven’t heard of a bashert talk of finding their soul mates. These notions are commonly understood as an ontological entitlement, the idea being that everyone already has a bashert, a soul mate somewhere out there, and it’s only a question of finding the person. Your counterpart is earmarked and reserved for you and vice versa. It’s a bit like finding your table at a big wedding. There is some jostling and confusion, but there is a seat set aside just for you, and there is a card establishing your rights to the seat. Substitute mate for seat. In the end, it will all sort itself out, and everyone will walk hand in hand with their mate. The rightful order will have returned, and every lid will have its pot.

It is so very odd. Here are people, generally not religious, who don’t believe in individual divine providence, and certainly don’t believe in the androgynous myth of Plato, thinking they are guaranteed, destined, maybe even predestined to meet their one and only counterpart. When someone peddles this thesis, and has been divorced and widowed and what not it becomes truly surreal. I think there is this idea that when the first marriage or second marriage or third marriage doesn’t work, it is because the divorcees have not found their real bashert. Since we are all entitled to one bashert, we must go on. It makes no difference that after three divorces, the chances of getting divorced a fourth time is north of 80%. Somehow life is incomplete until we find our true soul mate. What choice is there but to keep trying?

Some people can look like your bashert but really are not. It’s tricky, and extreme vigilance is always advisable. Sounds right. But we are also told that when you meet your bashert you just know it. You know its right. It feels right. You fall in love. You feel totally at ease. There is excitement and joy when you’re together. You can’t stand being apart. We also know 50% of marriages end in divorce. The inevitable conclusion must be either a lot of people married knowing they were not marrying their bashert, or these indicators could use some work.

It IS true, as the Talmud says, God matches matches, so to speak. God himself, kevayachol (the Hebrew technical term for ‘as it were’ or ‘so to speak’), works on this very difficult problem of creating matches. What people don’t remember is that after the Lord created heaven and earth, he regretted what he did, ooops as it were, and brought us the flood. Creating a relationship with someone you can live with, even after you have chosen them from all the other candidates takes practice even for you know who, kevayachol. (Numbers, Kings 1 & 2, Isaiah and many other places)

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Mars Meets Venus

I want to contrast profiles found on the Orthodox dating site with those more secular profiles found on JDATE. I have in the case of Frumster scrambled bits and pieces from different profiles. Frumster first:

“Involved in Chesed, (charity) warm, giving, energetic, family oriented, sense of humor, love to cook and entertain. Involved with, chevra kadisha, make shidduchim, (matchmaking, a BIG mitzvah), bikur cholim (visiting the sick). Willing to give it all up if it does not sit well with the person I will marry.”

“Very active in klal (community) work, am a doula/labor coach, on chevra kadisha, kallah teacher (teaches young and innocent brides- to- be, what they need to know halachically and otherwise), hachnosas orchim, (putting up guests, frequently strangers, for the Sabbath and holidays), very warm and caring, love to dance and listen to music, and have a good sense of humor.”

"I am very family oriented. I enjoy babysitting for my grandchildren. I am a good cook. I bake my own Challas every week. Shabbos is special to me. I like to go to Shiurim, (Torah lectures and classes) and go frequently. I am friendly and have many friends."

I’ll focus on the chevra kadisha. Remember we are dealing with an advertisement a woman placed on an internet dating site so as to attract a potential spouse. The chevra kadisha, or holy group is a voluntary association of men and women, men for men and women for women, who are called upon, frequently in the middle of the night when a member of the community dies, to cleanse and purify the body, both outer and inner, dress the body in the appropriate garments, and prepare it for burial.

Some women exhibit their love of art. Some take pride in flushing feces from a corpse. The latter correctly surmise that being a member of the cheva kadisha will not only be thought virtuous, which it most surely is, but also a feature that the men they want to meet find attractive.

Here are some answers to the question “What I am looking for in a mate?”

"Yeshivish, mensch, kovia itim, (puts aside time for Torah study), very confident and stable person, doesn't want a TV in the house after marriage, wants to build a Jewish home."

"A learned man who serves Hashem (the Lord) with love, joy commitment. Financially secure with a simchas hachayim(joy of/in living)
Must be stable, healthy, real midos tovos,(good character and personality traits)
Chasidish,(acts like a chasid is supposed to act), nonjudgmental, nurturing, real, who wants a wife he can be proud of and enjoy life with.
Sincerely frum. Has a daily Shiur (learning class). Kind and considerate to everyone and has no temper. Someone who is involved in Chesed (hands on charity/good deeds). Family oriented and friendly. Greets everyone with a smile. Always "Beseiver Ponim Yafos" (a warm and friendly face/disposition)."

Some day I’ll blog on the 4 horseman: chasidish, yeshivish, heimish and baalibatish, and the burning question can you be just 1. Until then, I hope the reader gets the general gist of what is being offered, and what is wanted, even if she does not understand the exact nuance of each term.

By way of dramatic contrast I’ll reprint excerpts from 2 secular profiles, the first a conscious parody but with obvious elements of truth, the second from a totally sincere Jewish woman, but impossible to read in any way other than a parody. The second woman, by the way, has a ‘killer body’, as they say, which in her instance may be true in more ways than one.

“What is a date? A date is when two people, who hardly know each other, go out to dinner, and push their food around their plates nervously, while trying to ask as many questions as possible in the shortest possible time. As in: Do you ski? Play tennis? Do you like dogs? Why do you think your marriage fell apart? Why do you think your ex-wife said you were controlling? Do you like chocolate? Cheesecake? Have you ever been convicted of a felony? How do you feel about drugs? How many alcoholics are there in your family? What kind of medication are you on? Did you have plastic surgery, or is that your real nose? Chin? Upper lip? Breasts? Behind? What kind of surgery have you had? Do you like kids? Have you ever dated any? What foreign languages do you speak? What’s your ideal honeymoon? Two weeks in the Himalayas? Really? Have you ever been on a safari? To Paris? To Des Moines? Are you religious? When did you last see your mother? How long have you been in therapy? Why not? How many DUIs have you had? How long have you been married? Divorced? Widowed? Unemployed? What’s your next career move? Have you been bulimic all your life? How many twelve-step groups are you a member of? When is later? How soon do you think you'll call?”

“I love to have fun, go dancing. I entertain a lot; go out every night to great parties and events. I travel all over the world. I live between New York and Los Angeles. I work hard and play hard. I love the beach, the sea. Always on a boat over 150 feet. San Tropez, Malibu,,St. Barts…I am always where the action is. My motto is never give up, never give in and never take no for an answer. I can be ready to go in 10 minutes I am always in a good mood. I want to share my life with someone that is fun and easy to be with. Easy going, well dressed, good sense of humor, and a gentleman. Must be able to keep up with me.”

I say some Jewish women are from Mars, some are from Venus.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Poo Poo Poo... It Happens

Why is it that women and men who are incapable of communicating the values of Jewish life to their children, and in particular the virtue of marrying someone Jewish, are on JDate seeking a Jewish mate? It’s a bit complicated. For one thing, the failure to transmit values is not absolute. Some values are transmitted, others not. The value of higher education, for example, outlives the prohibition against exogamous marriages, though even this almost sacred value eventually disappears. The iron law of intermarriage is: when you intermarry, eventually your offspring, whether children or grandchildren or great grandchildren will revert to the (statistical) mean.

Very few parents of children who intermarry actively encourage them to do so. There may be some unconscious signaling, but in general there is no overt encouragement. I think this is true even when you are talking of people who have already undergone assimilation to the point of total identification with non-Jewish culture, what the admissions people at Harvard in the 20’s used to call our kind of Jews. (There were 3 types: totally assimilated, obvious but not blatant and you can tell them a mile away).

Intermarriage, as the standard narrative goes, just happens. The kid comes home, presents their bashert and everyone goes ”Who knew? Who would have thought…?” and so on. “BUT we are so fortunate, thank God he/she is so very nice. We feel relieved our Seth/Alison found someone they want to be with. You know, we were getting a bit worried...”

So when I said in my last blog that the typical JDate woman is the mother of those 50% of Jews who intermarry, this must be understood in an ex-post way, it turns out that way in time, not ex-ante, that this was their plan all along. I hope this takes some of the sting out of the taunt, why are these men and women trying to marry someone Jewish, if they can’t get their kids to do the same.

There are some other explanations that are also relevant. Some women and men were married to non Jews got divorced, and blame the failure of the marriage on having married outside the fold. Second dating on line is a bit scary. How do you really know the cute podiatrist who wrote the witty email is not an axe murderer? In dating Jews one feels a little bit safer. We can call this the Jackie Mason defense:Have you ever been mugged by a Jewish accountant? Add the additional consideration that as we get older we regress some to our childhood. When we were twenty-something we were fearless and willingly moved far from home. In our middle age and later, our parents suddenly begin to look a lot smarter, and we become more fearful and conservative.

Finally, there is this commonly held belief, I have no idea if is true, that Jewish men make good husbands. This creates an incentive for Jewish women to stick around. What about the men? There is no corresponding story about Jewish women. In fact the mythology surrounding Jewish women is frequently negative, for example jokes about JAPS and overbearing mothers. My conjecture is that there is an asymmetry between the men and women on JDate, the men, on average, being slightly more traditional than the women. More traditional Jews find intermarriage less attractive than assimilated Jews for all sorts of reasons. I would like to think the main reason Jewish men prefer Jewish women is because they love Jewish women for being who they are, Jewish women.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Culture Vultures and Botox Queens

I have this dual interest in the Ultra Orthodox and its satellites, (Modern Orthodox, Conservadox,Traditional, Conservative, heretics and scholars), and their polar opposites, secular, assimilated, marginal Jews. My interest in the Reform movement is limited, because I am somehow incapable of imagining myself in their position. I do not really understand Reform, and I want to write about subjects where I can bring to bear some knowledge or at least empathy.

I have some thoughts about secular Jewish life, life at the end of the religious spectrum and it is to this topic I now turn. I thought it would be useful to look at liberal American Jewish life thru the prism of internet dating, and in particular JDate. JDate as everyone knows by now is an internet Jewish dating site. It has seen better days, but it’s still active. Hope springs eternal. The reason why JDate is a useful way of looking at American Jewry besides the photos, are the profiles. Everyone has an opportunity to put their best foot forward. What you get is a mixture of the truth, what the man or woman think the other sex wants to hear, and a version of their idealized selves, i.e. what the person wants to be. There is a lot of information to be mined from representations of idealized selves as any shrinkette will tell you.

I will confine my remarks to the women, half the Jewish population. I think the men are similar, but I have not really looked closely at the men. (The following estimates are accurate to three decimal places. Just kidding. These are eyeball, back of the envelope calculations at best, and the rest of my rant is me having fun.) There are roughly as many Jewish people dating on line as there are in all the Conservative synagogues in the world on a plain vanilla, non bar/bat mitzvah shabbus. And they are much more enthusiastic.

I’d say 95% of the women on JDate are not Orthodox., with maybe 5% Jews, I would guess has roughly 75% as many Jewish women as the estimated 25000 on JDate, and almost no one is Orthodox. Many of the women on Match do not acknowledge they are Jews. They answer ‘spiritual but not religious’ to the question about religion. Religious women are underrepresented on these dating sites for a few reasons: the existence of dedicated frum sites like Frumster & SawYouAtSinai, the greater popularity of matchmakers and fix-ups, and the lower divorce rate of the Orthodox. (10% and growing vs. approaching 50%, the national average.)

What can be said of the non-Orthodox women? Well, maybe 8% have some language connection. There are some women who speak Yiddish, mostly Russians. Some went to Yiddish school as a child. These are mostly women on the other side of 50. There are also a considerable number of yordim, Israelis who speak Hebrew.

Another 20% or so are Traditional, practicing Conservatives or active in the Reform & Reconstructionist temples. The remaining 60-70 % are pretty much cut off from Judaism as a serious religion, as well as Jewish traditions as a basis for culture and ethnicity. They know little, have no active temple connection, and are totally acculturated, except for one thing: You can always tell simply by reading their profiles they are Jews.

Here are 5 signs:

They are culture vultures. They don’t just like art, they LUV ART. Can’t live without it. Mostly painting and theatre, since music and serious literature require more work, and movies are too common. I did not read a single profile where a reference was made to Henry James, Proust, Dickens, etc.. Not one profile read "My life is books".

They exercise 8 + days a week, sometimes before they wake up. Anything less than glutes of steel is tragic. They ski. They play tennis. They golf. If they have the gelt they boat. And they are wild about nature. Hiking & camping & kayaking and more hiking & camping.

Some, but far from all, are JAPS, who need the best hotels, into shopping, clothes horse, etc. It’s not popular these days to admit one is a JAP except for LA women. They are a breed apart. So it is difficult to estimate scientifically exactly how much royalty there is in American Jewish life.

They travel. Impossible to find a Jewish woman without spilkes. Machu Pichu,Galapalagos,…been there. Trekking down the Amazon… must you ask? Safari… sooo great. Nobody admits going to the Catskills or Upper Michigan. Nobody admits to being lazy or living life less than the fullest.

Every single woman looks significantly younger than her age. A miracle. JDate in this respect is similar to Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average.

Most of these women make no mention of personal hands- on charity and kindness, even as an ideal. I did not read a single profile where a woman boasted of caring personally for the hungry and the poor. None of them care if they or their husband study anything. Lifelong learning is not a virtue. It might even be a vice in some instances. Nobody cares if the man has a personal spiritual/moral advisor. Nobody is thinking or even dreaming of moving to Israel.

These are the mothers of the 50% of Jewish children who intermarry.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The History Mogul

In an article about some 200 Sudanese seeking refuge in Israel, the New York Times ( 6/09/06 ) quotes the Noble Prize Laureate and human dirigible Elie Wiesel as saying, "History constantly chooses a capital of human suffering, and Darfur is today the capital of human suffering.” I wonder how Elie Wiesel knows this.

HISTORY CONSTANTLY CHOOSES….what’s with this reification of history? Isn’t heaven crowded enough with angels and seraphim and old souls and new souls and divine councils and chariots and cherubim …do we really need another hypostasis, HISTORY. And history chooses the capital of suffering…, how, when, where? Is there a sort of a Cleo award show, something like the Oscars but without Joan Rivers, where they say ‘And now to introduce the award for the sink hole of the planet, are Elie Wiesel and Oprah Winfrey. (Applause). ”The contenders are Darfur, Rwanda, the Congo, Iraq and North Korea…movie clips…drum roll. The winner is …THE SUFFERING CAPITAL OF THE PLANET…DARFUR”. They play Lipa’s nigun GELT, GELT, GELT.
Everyone writes a check and goes home.

History is not a goddess or an abstract entity, but an aggregation of what historians have said and will say in the future. So again, how does Elie Wiesel know what future historians will say? Maybe they will say "While humanitarians were busying themselves with Darfur, the polar ice cap was melting. Looking back, we see Darfur as the least of the world’s problems at the time."

I remember being shocked when I walked into Bnai Jeshurun, the liberal activist shul on the West Side. There, unfurled across the entire width of the space is a bold large banner with the words ‘REMEMBER DARFUR”. At least they have moved past “NEVER AGAIN”, a slogan that is a bit run down, considering that since 1945 genocide has happened again and again and again. Looking at the warm and gentle faces of the congregants, I thought “For all that this chevra (group) will accomplish in Darfur, they might as well have the banner REMEMBER ZABARS”.

There is a substantive issue involved. How does a liberal activist congregation choose a project that both inspires its members and is not pie in the sky dreaming? Here is the conundrum: If people are to seriously commit to a cause it has to be important to them and be perceived as threatening to their values and life. Consider civil rights for blacks? You couldn’t mobilize a minyan, not anymore. Labor unions, the rights of the working man, were a depression project. No one is going to lift a finger for the AFL-CIO. What about organizing textile workers in rural India, a really important issue today involving hundreds of thousands of the poorest of the poor? Most everyone would say "Count me out. Let the Indians deal with this. Mein gesheft? It’s no concern of mine."

There are 2 big issues that come to mind, there might be more but I can’t think of them: global warming and radical Islam’s jihad against the West. The problem is there is nothing an individual or community can do. What can a congregation do about global warming, schlep an air conditioner to Greenland? In the case of the jihadists there is even less to do. It’s not like we can start outreach (kiruv) programs with Osama’s Chasidim.

I don’t know a good solution to this dilemma. I’ll take another stab at this issue when I get around to ranting about the Reform movement’s idea of tikun haolam.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Struggling for Judaism

I want to expand my Wednesday comments on the significance of Rabbi Marshall Meyer‘s achievements in Argentina.

Wikipedia has this to say:“ Rabbi Meyer founded and led Comunidad Bet El, a congregation that became a model of many other Conservative synagogues both in Argentina and Latin America. The congregation established its own day-school. During the years of the military regime of 1976-1982, Rabbi Meyer became a strong critic of the military government and its violations of human rights. He worked to save the lives of hundreds of people that were being persecuted by the regime and he visited prisoners in jails, among them the renowned journalist, Jacobo Timerman, who dedicated his book, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number, to the rabbi, who "brought solace to Jewish, Christian and atheist prisoners".
When democracy returned to Argentina Rabbi Meyer returned to his native country in 1984 and accepted the position of rabbi at Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in New York City, with the mission of reviving the congregation.
Between 1984 and 1993, Bnai Jeshurun became a thriving liberal community that attracted thousands of Jewish people. The challenging theology espoused by Rabbi Meyer, the spiritually uplifting religious services, an agenda that emphasized social action as a central part of the synagogue’s principles, led to the rapid growth of the congregation, which became a model for many other synagogues in the United States. He died in 1993”

I find this story fascinating. In a time when every Jewish apparatchik cannot yada-yada enough on the importance of reviving Jewish life and slow the horrendous rate of intermarriage, Rabbi Meyer managed to do this not once, but 3 times, Argentina, other countries in Latin America, the upper West Side. Each time he used the SAME formula: a spiritually uplifting service in Hebrew (read Carlebachian) & social action (read political and humanitarian goals that required struggle, hard work, and in Argentina big- time courage and fearlessness). I think it was the combo that made the formula work; neither singing nor political action would have worked in isolation.

I want to focus on small part of this complex formula…the struggle. In general it can be argued that what makes a life meaningful is the struggle to achieve a goal, not the goal itself. The day you have your ton of money is the day money becomes uninteresting. In the same way a religious community flourishes when there is something to fight for and someone to fight against, an outside that is pushing the other way. It is one of the main reasons why Orthodoxy is so meaningful and successful. The difficulties involved in being religious are not in general a negative but a positive. Denominations that make it too easy, that have no difficulties and no struggles lose members. Witness the decline of the Episcopal Church. The struggle for chosen goals enables both the individual and the collective self to coalesce, and creates purpose and meaning .

What I admire about Rabbi Meyer is that he didn’t create an inside group by demonizing the outside, ‘der trefe velt’. The issues were always real: the struggle against fascism, injustice, poverty, war, states of affairs that somehow always exist in abundance. In a time when so many Jews have turned right politically, any branch of Jewish life that adopted the Meyer formula, including the requirement of knowing how to read Hebrew, (remember it’s supposed to be difficult), would have a substantive, differentiated and attractive answer to the question ‘Why be JEWISH?’

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Crooning for Hashem

There is a deluge of new Orthodox Jewish music. I think this music is important and is not getting much recognition. The market for Jewish “religious” music has obviously expanded to a point that it can support many artists. There must be 100 guys crooning away, plus a half dozen a cappella groups, and then there are all these Chasidic choirs yoi-yoi-yoiing their hearts out. There are over a thousand CD’s on the market and a non-stop stream of new releases. (I’m waiting for the blank CD, Briskers Sing. Bad joke, but couldn’t resist.)

There is a lot to be said on this topic. Here are 5 comments:

Most everyone has either never heard any of this music or takes it for granted as a marginal phenomena, with no serious import. By the way, we’re not talking Israeli secular music, different market, different listeners, but new tunes, mostly from the Orthodox Diaspora, many sung in a pseudo archaic shtetl style….(oy,oy,oy, discobeatbeatbeat ,yoiyoi.) If you ever heard a really old tune/nigun from Galicia or Yemen or even Chabad and compare it to say Mordechai ben David or Ofra Hazan the difference is obvious. The former are thin songs with minimal complexity. The latter, especially with all this Russian émigré talent, can sound like Rachmaninoff on steroids. After 65 years memories of the old country are not as vivid as they used to be.

Many people are convinced it’s all worthless. Hebrew words with rock syncopation, totally derivative, the best are second rate and it goes downhill from there. I strongly disagree. There is plenty of schlock & kitsch, to be sure, but there also are great, deep, spiritually uplifting songs. I can listen for an hour to one of the internet radio stations that play this music, the best is Radio Breslav, and nothing happens, and then suddenly there is a tune, 1 niggun out of 20, that is both moving and memorable.

The oeuvre of late R.Shlomo Carlebach is reason enough to take this music seriously.
(Perhaps when the play about R. Shlomo opens off-Broadway sometime in ’07 his artistic importance will be more fully appreciated. The news release said the first choice of the producers for the role of R.Shlomo is George Castanza/Jason Alexander. I don’t think so, but then again the producers aren't asking for suggestions.)
Two special places to experience the Carlebach Song in all its depth and beauty is Friday night at Bnei Jeshurin in NYC, Broadway & 88th (left-left Conservative) and Shira Chadashah (borderline Orthodox/Conservadox) on Rechov Emek Refaiim in Jerusalem. There is a cute video with an addictive Carlebach nigun at

I feel the new music is moving too far away from its roots. The essence of a niggun is that you should want and be able to remember the tune. It is meant to be sung in shul by the congregation, at Shabus meals by the entire family, in the car by individuals. Many of the new songs coming out cannot be remembered or repeated by ordinary voices. Who can duplicate the pyrotechnics of an Avraham Fried, the Celine Dion of this genre? When I was a boy, Orthodox Jewish music was mostly waltzes and marches. It looked back to the pre First World War Austrian Hungarian Empire, where the Strauss family was still dominant, tunes from operettas were widely recognized, and marching bands were everywhere. A great nigun should be like a virus or meme that we welcome into our consciousness and never ask to leave. I feel the tunes of fifty years ago will still be with us when the Miami Boys Choir CDs have long been forgotten.

The New York Times plays an important role in keeping this music permanently obscure. A bunch of whirling dervishes show up in Manhattan, and do whatever they do in a hall of 300 people, and it’s treated with great respect the next day. Yaakov Shwekey and Yossi Williger put on a concert in Brooklyn for 20000 and it will never be reported. The popular music pages of this great newspaper have been hijacked by critics deeply committed to alternative rock, hip hop, world music, electronic and so on. These guys can’t find a place on their radar screen for pop, country, easy listening, mainstream rock ‘n roll. When was the last time you saw a review of a pop star or a country and western Nashville musician? The music pages are too hip by half, and way ahead of the listening tastes of its readership. If Elton John and Faith Hill are invisible, Mordechai Ben David has no chance, even if he draws a crowd of 50000.

I also put part of the blame on classical Conservative and Reform rabbis. They are way too litvish,(analytical, intellectual, text oriented). They somehow feel that if they don’t educate the mind, if they appeal to the heart, it’s manipulative and worthless. The market could expand by 50% if this high church, narrow approach was modified.

Look at what Rabbi Meyer z”l did in Buenos Aires. ( He introduced the Carlebach nusach/style in his Conservative synagogue, with its emphasis on the use of only Hebrew in the liturgy. This style has spread to EVERY non- Orthodox shul in Argentina and to most non-Orthodox congregations in Latin America, enriching and strengthening the spiritual life of many, many people. The genius of the Rabbi Meyer move was to combine the soul enhancing qualities of the Carlebach service with serious left politics that stand for something, in his case the fight against the fascist Argentinean military junta. Suddenly you have services that are meaningful, and congregations with a purpose.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Lipa 24/7

This morning when I tumbled into Starbucks, half asleep, for my daily caffeine fix, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Staring at me from the counter, right next to Diana Ross and the Supremes, was a picture of Matisyahu with his hands raised like a bird of prey.
I thought either Mr. Schultz, the owner of Starbucks, has become a B”T (a baal teshuva, a repentant Jew) or the Messiah is coming, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe is his name. What possessed Starbucks to peddle this no-talent Lubav B”T? Do they really think America is in need of white Jewish reggaeniks? Does being a Jew with a black hat and suit turn him into a black for white kids?

This Matisyahu guy is something else. His kid is called Miniyahu ( Is his wife, a friend of mine quipped, a Native American called Minihaha?) The Iowa-raised zaftig girl behind the counter seeing that I was giggling, cooed “Ohhhh!!!! He’s soooo cool.” Not by me. He’s Al Jolsen in drag.

If I had my druthers, I would sell Lipa Schmeltzer at Starbucks. True he only sings in Yiddish, but he’s a GENUINE, ORIGINAL artist. Lipa is a Skverer chasid dressed in full chassidic attire, and immensely popular in the new world of Jewish music. Lipa began as a badchan. There’s a dance at the end of chassidic weddings where a select group of men have the honor to dance with the bride.They are introduced by a badchan, who creates on the spot witty and sometimes vicious ditties. Lipa pushed and pushed this badchan thing until he ended up to be something of a rapper, a Yiddish rapper. He is similar in a way to reggaeton, the Puerto-Rican version of hip-hop. Latinos do hip-hop, but not the way blacks do hip-hop. They have their own melodic take, in this case the dance tune reggaeton. Reggaeton artists rap a little, sing a little, and in general take the gangster edge off hip-hop. The same for Lipa. And he’s funny, joyous, and frequently deeply moving.

In fact, I tend to agree with the Satmar newspaper, (the other one, not DerYid), that said Lipa is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The paper moralized saying “Anyone who brings Lipa into their home is introducing hip-hop to their children, and only dire consequences will follow.”

So I sat down, had my coffee, and quieted down.